Friday, 22 August 2014

Essential X-Factor volume 2

Essential X-Factor volume 1 reprints issues #17-35 & Annual #2 plus Thor #378 in which Ice-Man teamed up with Thor with consequences in the main series. Bonus material includes the original character design for Archangel, the cover of the relevant issue of The Official Marvel Index to the X-Men and Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entries for Apocalypse, his Horsemen, Archangel, Rusty Collins, Infectia, and Ship. The regular issues are all written by Louise Simonson, with Tom DeFalco plotting one, and the annual is by Mary Jo Duffy. Most of the art is by Walter Simonson with individual issues by June Brigman, Sal Buscema, Steve Lightle and Terry Shoemaker, whilst the annual is drawn by Tom Grindberg. The Thor issue is written by Walter Simonson and drawn by Sal Buscema.

This volume has a cover design unique amongst the main Essentials; only the Handbooks and Marvel Saga have anything similar. The covers from issues #24 to #26 combine to form a continuous image which is wrapped around the whole cover, albeit with a transparent dark band on the spine. One consequence is that the word "Essential" is missing from the cover, perhaps a reason why the non-reference Essentials reverted to the earlier design for another year. It's a pity as I feel this layout is especially good at showcasing the artwork whilst displaying the credits on the cover.

The non-regular issues show a few varied problems of inclusion and placing. The Thor issue contains a guest appearance by Ice-Man that sees his powers increased out of control and this is followed up directly in X-Factor. However the Thor appearance is a two-part story and only the second part is included. It would have probably been better to have either both parts or none. The annual demonstrates a problem from 1987 as the regular series has some quite tight continuity between issues since the story flows from one to the next, thus making it hard to place the annual at a clear point where the team's day out in the park and trip to the Moon can take place between issues. The fact that it's by a different creative team from the regular series doesn't help and it feels as though the only character to have any lasting changes is Quicksilver, who otherwise is completely absent from both this volume and its predecessor. Otherwise this tale of X-Factor, Franklin Richards and Quicksilver both being caught up in Maximus's latest bid for power over the Inhumans, complete with a guest cameo by Power Pack, just feels inconsequential and easy to ignore despite efforts to delve into Jean's feelings about Scott and Phoenix. Here the annual gets placed between issues #23 & #24, which doesn't reflect the original publication dates either (that would be between #20 & #21), but this is the point where X-Factor gets teleported off to Apocalypse's Ship and not exactly a time for them to all go for a walk in the park. Still I'm not sure where the best alternative place to put it actually is.

Notably absent from the volume are any of the other issues involved with "The Fall of the Mutants". This was an unusual crossover as none of the three main titles - X-Factor, Uncanny X-Men and New Mutants - crossover in terms of storyline but instead in terms of the theme of big status quo changes. However a number of other Marvel titles did tie in, mainly with the events shown in X-Factor and there are references here to what happens in Captain America and Power Pack. The former's absence doesn't seem to impact on the story at all and is easily explained away by dialogue and captions but the latter might have helped to show how the kids got involved and the full fate of Pestilence, both of which are a little confusing when presented on their own. Also absent is annual #3, which is the opening part of the "Evolutionary War" crossover and which clearly takes place during this volume, not just because of the time of publication and the status quo depicted but also because the crossover's final part, in Avengers #17, takes place at the same time as issue #34 and is responsible for the Beast's absence from the latter issue. With the regular series seeing storylines flow from issue to issue and numerous cliffhangers, including at the very end of the volume, it would have been quite doable to push issues #34 & #35 back to volume 3 and run the annual here, with its precise placing no more awkward than that for annual #2. This would also have the advantage of putting more of the build-up to the "Inferno" storyline into the same volume as the main events (and is the reason why volume 3 is the place to consider the X-Terminators limited series). If the Essentials are ever revived this volume and its successor would be amongst the top contenders to have the contents reshuffled, providing of course that both new editions are out at the same time and it's always possible to get all the material in just a single set of volumes (which was a problem for a while when the new editions of Essential X-Men were staggered).

As for the regular issues, this volume charts the team facing great despair, destruction and death yet rising to the challenge to the point that "The Fall of the Mutants" really should be entitled "The Rise of the Mutants", ending with the team having achieved an amazing public relations success. Their victory over Apocalypse and saving of New York is lauded by the public, with their earlier deception explained away, and not only do the team become popular heroes but so do mutants in general. Individual members face redemption and restoration, but also some very dark moments affecting not only them but those around them. The series flows well with strong developments that enhance all the main characters. A recurrent theme is friends heading over to the other side, though in one case they had been secretly plotting there all along. The smallest scale Caliban, who becomes the first rescued mutant to be promoted to the full team, but he repeatedly feels inadequate as his powers can only track mutants and cannot contribute to fights. This weakness, and the team's failure to address it in time, leads to his accepting Apocalypse's offer of power when all the others reject it. It's a very brief rise and fall, and it's surprising how little its dwelt on by the others, suggesting that perhaps Caliban may have been right.

What is heavily dwelt on is the Angel's return. Having been rescued at the last minute by Apocalypse, Warren is now transformed into Death, the fourth Horseman of Apocalypse, despite not actually riding a horse. Warren is full of hatred from the circumstances of his downfall and so now armed with his new metal wings and leading War, Famine and Pestilence he is a force to be reckoned with, upping the tension no end. However he sees the consequences of his actions when it appears that Ice-Man has been killed and so Death turns on Apocalypse then flies off, staying his distance because he still feels abandoned by X-Factor and instead seeking his revenge upon the true author of his downfall, Cameron Hodge.

X-Factor's publicity director has already been causing the team problems with his campaign stirring up anti-mutant hatred, but it soon becomes clear he has an ulterior agenda. In the course of his aims he forced through the court order that amputated Warren's original wings then persuaded his old university roommate to leave all his money to X-Factor - with Hodge in control. It all goes on "the Right", an organisation Hodge has set up to destroy mutants, complete with some silly looking but deadly battlesuits. Hodge's motivations are rooted in class based superiority, believing himself to be part of the real homo superior, but there's also a hint in his conversation with the demon N'Astirh that his attitude to Warren is more complex. He talks of his private contempt for Warren even before the latter grew his wings, with a product of old money being scorned by that of even older money, but it's hinted that Hodge's feelings towards Warren are more complex and began in admiration, and also that his kidnapping and killing of Candy Southern may be to prevent anyone else being happy with Warren. Whilst the general idea of the team's business support having his own agenda works, some of the detail is offensive. Today it would be impossible to present a bigoted organisation under such a blunt name as "the Right" and rightly so but I don't know if anyone made a public fuss at the time about such a gratuitous swipe. The spurned homosexual theme is far more subtle but it does drift into a rather cliched theme that really should be avoided. Fortunately issue #34 ends with Warren decapitating Hodge, bringing closure.

The previous issue brings another form of closure as the Beast comes full circle. During the battle with Apocalypse's Horsemen, a touch by Pestilence causes Hank's mind to deteriorate whenever he uses his strength and over subsequent issues he steadily regresses. However new foe Infectia, who has the ability to rearrange people's bodies into monsters known as "Anti-Bodies", accidentally kisses the Beast and causes a chain reaction which restores Hank's mind but in his furry form. It has been less than three years since he lost the fur and next issue captions suggest this was not a popular move, so we see one further step in undoing some of the early set-up.

Not all the developments are reversionary, with Ice-Man suffering from his powers being so enhanced that he has difficulty controlling them and eventually has to resort to using one of the Right's restraining devices. Before then his main source o help has been the young mutant Leech, who now joins the other rescued mutants full time. Also added to the line-up is Rictor, a young mutant with the power to cause earthquakes. Ice-Man oscillates between being light-hearted around the children to showing a much more serious side when circumstances dictate it, slowly growing up. The younger mutants are at times sidelined but they're shown steadily developing control of their powers and proving their worth on the occasions they go into battle, especially when fighting the Xartans, aliens from the early days of Thor now impersonating the Avengers or, on a lesser level, dealing with gangs. Otherwise they settle into life aboard Ship, their new living headquarters, though show independence when they opt to take the Christmas gifts that have been showered on the team and donate them to children in hospital. Towards of the volume another status quo shift is foreshadowed with the announcement that the young mutants will be sent to regular schools to get mainstream education, not something they are looking forward to.

Meanwhile Cyclops and Marvel Girl are rekindling their relationship, with Jean coming to terms with the fact she has to compete with the memory of not one but two women who were identical to her, whilst Scott has accepted that his wife and son are dead when he gets the shock news that Madelyn had been alive all the time only to die with the X-Men, but Christopher is still alive. This leads into the big storyline at the end of the volume as Scott tries to find Christopher, eventually succeeding at the orphanage he grew up in only to clash with both demons and Nanny, a walking, talking metal egg who kidnaps children and has their parents murdered. The storyline isn't fully resolved in the volume but there's clearly a lot more building up. Unfortunately Nanny herself is too comical a foe to take seriously, even if her Orphan Maker sidekick has the horror of being one of the kidnapped children.

Although "the Fall of the Mutants" propels X-Factor and mutants in general to great public acclaim, there are dark clouds on the horizon with the passage of a Mutant Registration Act requiring all mutants to register their powers, but the response by team members is nuanced. Elsewhere it leads to increased tensions and fears. Meanwhile something almost magical is happening with everyday things coming to life in New York whilst the demon N'Astirh is plotting and seeking multiple allies. It all serves as a strong cliffhanger to carry things forward.

There are some individual elements in this volume that are silly or offensive, but in general it shows the series at full force, never resting but instead building things up and continuing to make this a very different series from the other X-Men books. The main cast are put through a tough set of situations but rise to the challenge and come out triumphant.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Sampling Millie the Model 100

Some long running series are unrepresented in the Essentials. From time to time I'll take a look at another modern reprint of some of the series.

In recent decades Millie the Model has largely languished in obscurity. There's been the odd appearance in various other titles and a couple of short series that have updated her in one way or another, but nothing's really lasted. At the same time her original stories have been almost completely untouched by reprints.

Despite the Millie the Model series lasting 207 issues plus a dozen annuals over twenty-eight years and spawning multiple spin-offs, I was only able to find one issue that's had any modern reprints. And it's appeared no less than four times in the last decade. Issue #100 was reprinted in issue #16 of the Marvel Milestones series back in 2006. That in turn was then reprinted in the Models, Inc. collected edition in 2010. Meanwhile the original issue was also reprinted in the Women of Marvel Omnibus edition in 2011 and it also seems to be the only issue available digitally. It's a pity that the same issue has been used so often but that may indicate the rest of Millie's tales need remastering before they can be reprinted.

So it's to issue #100 we turn, which is cover-dated January 1961. Nearly all the stories are signed by Stan Lee but artist Stan Goldberg is uncredited. There are six stories, a reminder of an earlier era of comics when there were many more stories in an issue. Also there was less concern about continuity. This is seen with the first tale "How Millie And Chili Met..." which also retells how Millie came to work for the Hanover modelling agency. Over the years this story would be told several times - and the details could vary. So here Millie was a typist until she was sent to the agency and Howard Hanover talked her into modelling. In contrast there's another version where she was a country girl who dreamed of being a model and came to the city to pursue that goal. Just as DC readers didn't stop to ask about the different versions of Superman's childhood or how Aquaman got his powers, I doubt Marvel readers were yet taking note and comparing.

"You, Too, Can Be a Model!" sees Millie visit a modelling school to give a talk and get caught in a comedy of mistaken identity. "Movie Madness!" is a two-page gag about none of the agency's models being suitable to appear in a movie - of the life of Millie the Model! "Girl Talk!" is another quickie as Millie and Toni discuss Chili. "A Kiss for a Miss!" sees Millie and boyfriend Clicker on a park bench and kissing. "Who'll Go On the Show??" is a tale with a moral as the girls await a  producer coming to pick a model to go on TV, with the discovery the young man also visiting is the producer's son.

With no story lasting more than five pages this is really just a collection of extended gags and the characters are frequently caricatures - Chili is especially bitchy whilst Millie is written as rather a ditz wandering through success by accident instead of the confident young career woman she has been on other occasions. In general the comedy is just too telegraphed and lightweight. The cartoony style does not help either.

This issue includes a text story entitled "Summer Vacation". This features completely one-off characters and here tells of a schoolgirl working a summer job and finding a new boyfriend. As also seen with Rawhide Kid, these text stories seem to have been included purely to qualify a comic as a particular status of periodical for one reason or another, and although usually fitting the series's genre they don't seem to have gone further. Maybe they were reprints or written for a general pile to be shoved in wherever.

One of the notable features of the Millie titles was the way readers could send in designs for fashions and/or hairdos and these would either be redrawn for standalone features or even used in the stories in a sign of reader interaction beyond just sending in letters. (This practice would also be used on the Patsy Walker titles.) The stories in this issues include contributions from readers as follows:
  • "How Millie And Chili Met..." by Anita Marie Carter, Catherine Studer, Karen Stevenson, Shirley McClain and Linda Zacharias.
  • "You, Too, Can Be a Model!" by Molly Slocum, Susan Harrison, Donna Elam, Marlene Baron and Glenda Butcher.
  • "Movie Madness!" by Jean Montgomery, Pedi Duggan and Piper Ann Pickrell.
  • "Girl Talk!" by Shelley Simpson, Pat Gibbs, Oliva Maniguez, Linda Silver, Marcia Allen and Judy Sorter.
  • "A Kiss for a Miss!" by Melvin Stewart.
  • "Who'll Go On the Show??" by Rita Rys, Ellen Gutknecht, Willma Slone, Jenny Currie, Pat Henderson, Linda Franklin and Pia Westerberg.
The feature pages include:
  • "When Millie gets Married" featuring a wedding dress designed by readers Cynthia & Mary Davis.
  • "Millie's Fun Page" featuring designs by readers Lucille Caso and Barbara Trock.
  • "Millie's Fashion Pin-Up" featuring designs by readers Sue Paulk, Diane Spyinkowski, Bonnie Gail Seymour, Nancy Balerud and Gay Goodenough.
  • "Millie's Cartoon Cut-Out" featuring designs by reader Kathy Foreman.
It's a sign of how even before the Fantastic Four Marvel was going out of its way to make readers feel more involved than even just the letters page would allow. The prospect of seeing one's own designs in print must have spurred some creativity and I wonder if there are any fashion designers or hair stylists who started out in the pages of Millie the Model?

In general this issue is a real disappointment. It's just a collection of jokes, some of them distinctly unfunny, with the lead characters poorly portrayed. Unfortunately if cover galleries are anything to go by it's probably representative of the majority of Millie's history but I strongly wish one of the "soap opera" issues from the mid 1960s was also available that could show the characters in a much better light.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Essential Silver Surfer volume 2

Essential Silver Surfer volume 2 contains the character's 1982 one-shot (volume 2), the first eighteen issues and first annual of his 1987 series (volume 3) plus Marvel Fanfare #51, a story from Epic Illustrated #1 and a promotional article from the promotional magazine Marvel Age #52. Epic Illustrated was an anthology magazine that allowed creators to retain ownership. The Marvel Fanfare issue contains what would have been the first issue of a limited series set on Earth rather than the ongoing cosmic series we got when plans changed. The only thing I can spot missing is the chapter of the history of the High Evolutionary in the annual.

The one-shot is plotted and drawn by John Byrne and scripted by Stan Lee. All issues of the 1987 series, including the annual, are written by Steve Englehart and drawn by Marshall Rogers, Joe Staton and Ron Lim. Englehart also writes the Marvel Fanfare issue which is drawn by John Buscema, with an introduction editorial written & drawn by Al Milgrom. Lee writes and Buscema draws the Epic Illustrated story.

It's that last story which the volume kicks off with and it just demonstrates all the problems with the character until 1987 as he explores the edge of the universe. It's a vague, philosophical peace set retroactively during the years when the Surfer worked for Galactus. Along with the late 1970s graphic novel it just reinforces the view that it was impossible to find anything solo to do with the Surfer other than retreads of his debut story. As a short one-off piece reuniting the original series's creative team it's a nice touch but there's nothing to suggest that the Surfer needed a new series in the early 1980s.

Nor does the 1982 volume 2 one-shot. Drawn by John Byrne at the height of his powers, it's a visually impressive spectacle but a lot of the storyline is retreading old ground as once again Mephisto uses Shalla Bal to torment the Surfer and once again an attempt to escape the barrier imprisoning the Surfer on Earth ultimately fails. There are some new ideas such as Galactus returning to Zenn-La to take further retribution for the Surfer's betrayal, but this feels somewhat at odds with the portrayal of Galactus that was developing at the time which made him less a being of emotions like revenge and more a cosmic force of nature. In light of these developments it seems strange that Galactus would bother himself with such a petty indirect revenge, or for that matter give the inhabitants of Zenn-La a day to evacuate the planet before he consumed its energy and left a husk of a world behind. Oddly the state of Zenn-La, and the power the Surfer gives to Shalla Ball to heal it, will go on to be significant elements driving the ongoing series but the one-shot itself falls firmly into the category of endless retreads. It's amazing that anyone thought there was any mileage in an ongoing series at all.

Indeed the original plan was for a twelve issue limited series set on Earth, with the completed issue #1 eventually showing up in Marvel Fanfare a few years later. It's a nice bonus to have in this volume as it allows glimpses of the original plans for the series but it also shows that Marvel still didn't quite get it. It's clear that subsequently a great deal of thought was put into working out what had gone wrong with the Surfer's earlier series and avoiding the same mistakes. Steve Englehart wrote a multi-part essay on the character's history that appeared on the letterspages of the first three actual issues and which is reproduced here; in this essay he identified the too expensive format, slow paced stories that devoted more attention to art than plot advancement and the general aura of failure surrounding the lead character. The Marvel Fanfare issue falls into some of these traps - the mid 1980s comics market may have been a little more favourable to higher priced series but double-sized books were still less attractive and seen as overpriced. Keeping the Surfer trapped on Earth restrains his appeal by denying him the chance to soar the spacewaves and instead it leaves him looking an ultimate loser. It also makes a mess of his getting caught up in conflict with the Kree. And lurking in subplots for future issues is Mephisto, who had been vastly overused and needed a rest. There's some new ideas with an alternate start to the latter-day Mantis storyline - here she's living in Connecticut under an assumed name and raising the child she had with the Cotati - but in general the issue feels too much like a 1960s throwback, with John Buscema's artwork unfortunately reinforcing this effect. It shows some signs of ideas but it's still clear the Surfer needed to break free of the barrier and the baggage that had accumulated, and soar the spacewaves again. And that is exactly what we got in the end.

By whatever means the decision was taken to instead launch an ongoing regular sized series in which the Surfer was put back into his natural environment and really allowed to soar. The series opens with the statement "Space is infinite!" and this sums up the approach taken. In the space of just one issue the Surfer escapes Earth - the method itself proves to be ludicrously simple - and gets a pardon from Galactus, permanently ending the exile. The second then addresses life on Zenn-La and shows that life has finally moved on with Shalla Bal now the world's Empress and slowly leading a restoration of the planet's life force - a role that leaves no opportunity to marry the Surfer. Thus the Surfer is released from ties to both worlds, although he still maintains contact with them and seeks their safety as the series progresses. The stage is now set for a truly cosmic adventure.

I must confess a bias as this series was the first Marvel US title that I ever collected, although I didn't come on board until a few years later and had to catch up via the back issue boxes. As a result this is one of the few Essential volumes where everything (bar the Epic Illustrated story) is familiar to me from the original issues, though I lack experience of the original pace. Collected together it's easy to see how the whole thing was planned as an ongoing saga, building up a variety of different concepts and ideas into one overall coherent whole.

Two main themes dominate these issues. One is the second Kree-Skrull war as the two galactic empires conflict once more. This time round there is the complication that the Skrulls have all lost the ability to change shape due to genetic bomb. Though it occurred in a couple of other series' annuals not included here, I've found the mechanism behind this plot device to be rather silly, even if the results are highly effective. At the same time the Skrull homeworld has been destroyed and the Empress killed, with five warlords claiming the throne. The result is a paranoid race desperate to survive that gets sucked into war, in part due to external manipulation. The Kree aren't in the strongest position either, with racial tensions undermining their efficiency and driving the Supreme Intelligence to insanity, leaving the empire in the hands of Nenora, a Skrull spy trapped in the form of a Kree. The Surfer at this stage is trying to keep Zenn-La and Earth out of the conflict yet finds himself drawn into local conflicts with representatives of both sides, not least due to a Skrull impersonating him. As a result the war drags on throughout most of the volume, making for a tense backdrop to the universe and feeling suitably epic by not being over in a mere six issues.

A more direct threat comes in the form of the Elders of the Universe, gathered together for what I think is the very first time. A mixture of pre-existing characters such as the Grandmaster, the Collector, the Gardener, the Contemplator, the Possessor, Champion, the Runner and Ego the Living Planet, and new ones such as the Astronomer, the Obliterator and the Trader, they are seeking to remake the very universe. It's an audacious plan but it seems credible given the way it's laid out in multiple steps to defeat first Death then Galactus and finally Eternity. It's also set out over a long time, building on the Contest of Champions limited series and also a storyline in the 1987 Avengers and West Coast Avengers annuals (neither of which is included here). Their conflict with Galactus comes in two phases, first in an assault using the six Soul Gems (later renamed the Infinity Gems) and then the consequences of Galactus consuming five of the Elders and the others being scattered across the universe and beyond. This leads to a trip into the magic realm of Lord Chaos and Master Order, with a chilling sequence as the guest starring Sue and Reed Richards are mentally pulled in very different directions. The result is a conflict with the In-Betweener, and the final issue is a grand battle with Galactus. Elsewhere the search for another Elder, the Contemplator, leads to the first appearance of the space pirate Reptyl and his sidekick, the walrus-like Clumsy Foul-Up.

The Surfer also develops his relationships, slowly opening up but he soon responds to the more relaxed approach of some of the women he encounters. As discussed above, early on he cuts his ties with Shalla Bal, and subsequently he encounters Mantis, now occupying a living plant body with the ability to replace itself and transfer from planet to planet, and the source of the information that sets him against the Elders. She and the Surfer soon become enamoured with one another as they set out to stop the Elders, but it doesn't last long as the Gardener blows her up just to distract the Surfer when securing the final Soul Gem. However a back-up story in the annual shows Mantis resurrected on Earth albeit with amnesia of all her adventures in space and sending her on the way to following things up in the pages of West Coast Avengers. Meanwhile the Surfer is spending ever more time with Nova as they undertake missions together and getting ever closer to her. The Surfer's relationship with Galactus in their post exile encounters is also much easier than could be expected.

The first annual came in a year when Marvel opted to do a crossover between all of its special issues, and the result was a sprawling 11-part saga. Now I've written a bit about "The Evolutionary War" before so I won't rehash my thoughts about the pricing strategy, but the crossover as a whole is fundamentally flawed by the need to find reasons for each title's hero(es) to get caught up in the High Evolutionary's schemes. This annual is the third part of the story and goes for the approach of the Evolutionary trying to expand his knowledge of genetics by trying to map the DNA of the Silver Surfer. The Surfer at this stage has left Earth - this is in fact his first return to the planet since escaping - and it's not clear if the Evolutionary is trying to direct human evolution towards the form of an alien humanoid transformed by a cosmic entity, or if he's just trying to fill in a gap in his library. Nor does he bother to undertake the task himself but instead asks the Eternals, one of the more confusing races in Marvel continuity (they were originally created to be outside it and provide an alternate explanation for the heroes and deities of ancient history; however they were since added to a universe that already had the Greek Gods running around), and the whole thing occurs because the Surfer just happens to be looking in on Earth again. The entire plot just doesn't work and it's little surprise how easily the Eternals just give up on the Surfer or how (in one of the back-up strips) the Surfer rapidly ditches his resolve to investigate the Evolutionary's scheme in favour of responding to a distress call from Nova and Galactus. However the story does seek to advance one of the series's own plotlines by resurrecting the Super Skrull with the implication that he alone holds the key to restoring the Skrulls' shape-changing abilities and in turn offers hope of ending the war. There are two back-ups in the annual that introduce Ron Lim as the new penciller for the series; one focuses on Nova as it sets up plotlines for the next few issues and the other resurrects Mantis but that storyline is carried over into West Coast Avengers. In general this annual is a sign of the mess that the giant crossovers create and it's to its credit that it does its best to advance its own series's plotlines amidst having to contrive a nonsensical encounter to tie in with a wider storyline.

Overall this volume shows the second ongoing series taking a very positive approach to the Surfer's character, ditching the exile set-up and the aura of negativity that had surrounded him. It also avoids well-worn scenarios, particularly Mephisto using Shalla Bal to torment the Surfer in pursuit of his soul. Instead it puts the Surfer into his natural environment and runs him through a high intense space saga. The additional material included here works as an indication of how easy it would have been to get things wrong, but the main series shows how to get it right.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Essential Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe volume 1

It's eighteen years to this day since Mark Gruenwald passed away. As a special tribute here's a look at one of his most personal of projects.

After avoiding it for a while, it's time to take a full look at the original Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe from 1983 to 1984. Originally intended as a twelve issue limited series looking at the-then active characters, it was extended during its run to include an additional three issues comprising the "Book of the Dead and Inactive" and the "Book of Weapons, Hardware, and Paraphernalia". All fifteen issues are gathered in Essential Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe volume 1 which, like all of the reference Essentials, forgoes the standard cover design of the day in favour of a recoloured version of one of the original covers. The editor and head writer was Mark Gruenwald, with the lead writers being Peter Sanderson and Eliot R. Brown though others also contributed, along with so many different artists that it won't be practical to do a standard set of creator labels beyond the trio themselves. Nor would it be wise to run a full list of every single character, team, place and piece of equipment covered.

The format is straightforward with an alphabetical roll of characters. Most get a full page, a few have two pages and several others share pages. There are also pages devoted to teams, albeit mainly just listing all the members, bases, locations and other critical points. Each issue has an appendix of brief text entries that list inactive, deceased and minor characters and races. Most character entries come in a pro forma with the following details:
  • NAME
  • Real Name
  • Occupation
  • Legal status
  • Former aliases
  • Identity [secret or not]
  • Place of birth
  • Marital status
  • Known relatives
  • Group affiliation
  • Base of operations
  • First appearance
  • Origin
  • Height
  • Weight
  • Eyes
  • Hair
  • Unusual features
  • Powers
  • Weapons
Additionally there's a full frontal shot of the character.

Not all entries carry every one of these details. It's notable that at first the entries are brief and the "origin" just does what it says on the tin. Later on the entries get longer and longer, with the pictures shrinking and the "origin" getting closer to a full "biography" entry. Notable deviations from the pro forma come with a number of artificial beings such as Ultron or the Supreme Intelligence, who instead get short essays. A similar approach is taken with locations. Teams are just described briefly before a table showing the faces of all members. At the end of each issue is a section devoted to alien races. There are four entries on each page with the following pro forma:
  • NAME
  • Origin Galaxy
  • Star System
  • Planet
  • Habitat
  • Gravity
  • Atmosphere
  • Population
  • Physical Characteristics
  • Type
  • Eyes
  • Fingers
  • Toes
  • Skin color
  • Average height
  • Special adaptations
  • Type of government
  • Level of technology
  • Cultural traits
  • Names of representatives
  • First appearance

There's no standard format for the "Book of Weapons, Hardware, and Paraphernalia", with some entries in text descriptive form accompanied by a picture whilst others have detailed diagrams, sometimes with cutaways.

Initially I thought this series had only been released in the direct market as it seems the perfect example of something that would appeal to the hardcore comics fan and survive in the print-to-order environment but would not have sufficiently wide appeal to make it viable in the sale-or-return format. However it's a revelation to discover that most of the covers have the telltale "CC" on them and the newsstand format cover box, though the cover art sometimes lacks the barcode box. I guess either it had broader appeal and/or Marvel was unwilling to shut out fans who didn't have a comic shop near them. (One of the first ever actual US comics I read, albeit a DC, was from around this time and included an editorial response to heavy complaints about the inaccessibility of direct market-only material.) Curiously the covers to #13 & #14 use the direct market versions even though it seems these issues were distributed on the newsstand as well.

Although the main sources for each entry are the original comics, there's also an attempt to tidy things up, particularly in the approach to describing powers with a degree of real science creeping in. I'm in two minds about this approach - on the one hand it does help to ground the characters in a greater deal of realism than hitherto, but on the other it's ultimately impossible to explain some of the most famous origins and powers in anything but fantastical terms, and so attempts to impose scientific common sense onto Silver Age and Bronze Age fantasy just feels like an attempt doomed to fail. It gets particularly silly when trying to impose rational scientific explanations upon vampires, treating them as a disease and trying to rationalise how the stake through the heart and sunlight bring grief to them. Fortunately the powers of more overt magical characters such as Doctor Strange are left as magic.

Given that some characters have appeared in a variety of stories from either different creators or the same forgetful creator, there are often contradictory depictions of origins and powers. The Handbook entries try to cut through the mess with comments such as "contrary to some accounts" to tidy up powers and occasionally rationalise the origins by adding explanations to cover multiple versions and differing details. However the entries don't always match one another - there are three separate entries for Rama-Tut, Kang and Immortus but the details don't always match up, most obviously in relation to just how long Rama-Tut's first reign lasted or whether or not they have any known relatives. Elsewhere the entries can't agree on the correct term for the relationship between the Sub-Mariner and Namorita (they are first cousins once removed). But some entries do their best to seek to explain continuity errors and a failure to learn from past mistakes such as the Kang et al ones noting that repeated time travel has resulted in numerous temporal divergents. It's one way to sort out differences in characterisation and more imaginative than the Kingpin's entry which just declares his personally taking part in a theft to have been out of character. There are some omissions in the tidying up - in particular there's a lot of confusion stemming from the Eternals being originally conceived as standalone characters in their own universe but then dropped into the Marvel universe where they heavily overlap with a lot of characters taken directly from Greek mythology. Oddly it's only the entries for Thena and Zeus that really tries to explain the relationship between the two.

The Handbook generally sticks to the position that the Marvel universe began with Fantastic Four #1, even giving this issue as the first appearance of "Earthlings" aka humans. Most of the Golden Age, Atlas Age and western heroes are given a "First modern appearance" entry, side-stepping whether or not their adventures happened. However I note that the Rawhide Kid's first appearance is given as Rawhide Kid #17, which came out over a year earlier than Fantastic Four #1. So this would make the Rawhide Kid the founding member of the Marvel universe. That'll make for a fun rewriting of the history books.

Some of the location pages are eye-openers such as the entry for Europe that shows most of the real world borders of the time, although someone forgot the UK-Ireland border, as well as where the various fictional countries such as Latveria slot in. Curiously Transylvania is shown as separate from Romania - had a Transylvanian separatist been using Marvel as a propaganda tool? Sometimes the diagrams show influences that have been less obvious on the comics themselves. For instance it was only when looking at its depiction here that I spotted just how blatantly the Guardians of the Galaxy's spaceship Freedom's Lady has the shape of an upside down USS Enterprise from Star Trek. Black and white only rarely makes things hard to follow but it's amusing to see panels showing the uniforms for all eight levels of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents and they're all identical uniforms; presumably colour is used to distinguish between them.

The changing plans for the series result in a handful of characters such as Dracula and Banshee receiving entries both in the main run and also in the Book of the Dead and Inactive. Usually the former entries are just a few lines in the appendixes, but Dracula has full page entries in both sections as the last few issues rapidly caught up with a major change in the status quo of not just Dracula himself but of all vampires on Earth.

Who gets an entry can be surprising at times - it's particularly odd to find the one-off Spider-Man foe Belladonna with a half page entry but I guess at the time there were plans to reuse her, especially as Spider-Man had so few recurring female foes. And the reprint offers its own surprise by including the entries for Rom, his armour and weapons - either nobody spotted them or someone at Marvel cut through the uncertain ownership & costs and shelled out for a licence just for those pages or else they found a good enough legal explanation to include the pages without it.

The "Book of Weapons, Hardware, and Paraphernalia" contains a wide variety of pieces of equipment, ranging from Spider-Man's Belt Camera to the Ultimate Nullifier. It's an odd addition for the final issue of the series and seems to have come from the fan enthusiasm of the likes of Mark Gruenwald. I can't imagine an equivalent appearing in most comic companies' or franchises' character guides but its presence here is a nice final touch for fandom. In general this whole volume serves hardcore fans best, offering a chance to get to know all the obscure details about so many different characters.

Back in 1983 to 1984 this series must have been amazing for Marvel fans. Today I'm less convinced about its usefulness, since there have been several subsequent editions and the rise of both computer databases and the internet has provided far more detailed information than paper encyclopaedia style books can ever hope to carry. Since this volume came out in early 2006 at the start of what turned out to be the most intense year for releases of the Essentials, it's doubtful that this one's release denied a story volume a slot so it can't be blamed for the failure to produce final volumes for some of the series. This is also not a volume that's best read continuously but rather one to dip in and out of as and when is needed which just increases the questions about its usefulness. There is an argument that this is a snapshot of the Marvel universe at the very end of the Bronze Age. But that's not the most necessary thing needed and so this still feels rather excess to requirements.

Friday, 8 August 2014

Essential Rampaging Hulk volume 1

Essential Rampaging Hulk volume 1 reprints the Hulk stories from the first fifteen issues of the Hulk's late 1970s black & white magazine series, entitled The Rampaging Hulk on the first nine issues and then The Hulk! from issue #10 onwards. A bonus is a short story from Incredible Hulk #269 which addresses the continuity of the magazines. All but one of the magazines' strip stories are written by Doug Moench; the exception is by John Warner. The art is mainly by Walter Simonson, Keith Pollard and Ron Wilson with other contributions by Jim Starlin, Herb Trimpe, Sal Buscema and Bill Sienkiewicz. Also included is a text story from issue #10 that is written by David Anthony Kraft & D[wight] Jon Zimmerman and drawn by Ernie Chan plus the Moon Knight back-up story from issue #15 that crosses over with the Hulk story, written by Moench and drawn by Sienkiewicz. The Incredible Hulk story is written by Bill Mantlo and drawn by Sal Buscema.

Looking back at the period before the mid 1980s it's amazing just how restrained Marvel used to be about giving popular characters additional titles. Even when they did succumb to producing a second book it was significantly different in some way - a quarterly, a magazine or a team-up title instead of just a second ongoing solo book. The main exceptions that I can think of were Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man and A Date with Millie/Life with Millie/Modelling with Millie but otherwise everything was sufficiently different so as to not be interchangeable. It's unsurprising that the Hulk wound up getting an additional book at around the time when his TV series was gearing up to launch. Agents of SHIELD may now be challenging for the crown but up to now the Incredible Hulk is Marvel's only real success with live action television. But boldly this was a series that stood on its own, not only in a different format from the existing monthly but also taking place in a different era.

Adventures retroactively set earlier in the careers of established characters were still rare at this stage in Marvel's history. Some of the Second World War heroes had had a variety of wartime stories, most notably the Invaders, but otherwise Marvel's history was largely confined to reprints, What If?s and the occasional substantial flashback to prepare a modern story. And of course Marvel continuity has long had an ambiguous relationship with material printed before Fantastic Four #1, so even the Invaders and the wartime adventures of Captain America could be excused as replacement material. But now the Hulk was given his own retroactive series set during an obvious part of his career but using the setting in a less than obvious way.

Maybe it's because of the brevity of the original series but the Hulk's earliest adventures have attracted many latter day creators to them. Perhaps it's because the Hulk still had his secret identity and so the stories felt the most superheroey. It could be down to the various early cartoons also basing themselves on this period. Or it could just be the sense of a truly classic era, helped by brevity cutting it off at a clear point instead of fizzling out after several years. Whatever the reason creators have often returned to those days to add more tales. Unfortunately some have been more successful at reaching them than others and this is one of the less successful versions.

The first problem is that the series rapidly ditches the status quo of the Hulk circa 1963 in favour of a global epic that could frankly have been placed at almost any period in the character's history up to this point - and in fact, as I'll come to below, would be a better fit elsewhere. So there's very little of Bruce maintaining his secret around the Gamma Base or the classic dynamic with Betty and Thunderbolt Ross. Later on in the run there's an encounter with the Sub-Mariner who has just lost his people once more but again the character's history and personality is such that it doesn't take much to generate a fight with him at just about any point in his history. The last couple of issues in the sequence try to add something to the history of the Avengers by bringing the five founders together for the first time. Now it's probably true that there is no dialogue in the Avengers' history that explicitly says "And we had never come together before the battle with Loki" but this encounter still feels like a very awkward addition to the team's history, undermining the dynamics seen in the first issue because there was little reason to have discovered they could form a team on the second meeting if they hadn't done so the first time round. Also the series is nominally set in 1963, being one of the last times I'm aware of when Marvel time explicitly matched publication time. However this series doesn't feel like a nostalgia piece, if that's possible at a gap of only fourteen years (which seems a rather small gap but a lot of classic literature was set about as many years before publication) and instead it just feels like an alternate modern take on the Hulk. Indeed at times the series actually forgets it's set in the past, such as when Namor is searching Rome for the "Main Command" and gets told the war ended "thirty years ago" - approximately accurate for 1977 but not 1963. And although the main ongoing plotline about the alien Krylorians trying to invade Earth, including using shapeshifting to disguise themselves amongst us, may reflect some of the paranoid "they walk amongst us" science fiction of the original era, the execution feels much more late 1970s than early 1960s. The same is true of Bereet, a renegade female Krylorian who befriends the Hulk and Rick and helps them fight her race, complete with her many special gadgets. The character is quite well depicted as an advanced, liberated woman but again doesn't feel like someone who would have appeared in such a story in 1963, even if the author was making an effort to have a strong female role like Marvel Girl in the contemporary X-Men or Wonder Woman.

But the biggest problem is the Hulk himself. The "Savage Hulk" is the main personality written in the first nine issues, although the art varies between the classic "Savage" look and the original short haired neater look. Furthermore at this stage of the Hulk's history the transformation to and from Bruce Banner was controlled by exposure to gamma rays, albeit with some bodily resistance creeping in. But here we get a Bruce who changes into the Hulk when stressed and whose only control over the process is to deliberately work himself up into a tense state. Now only a very small handful of the original Hulk stories were reprinted in the 1970s so it's possible Doug Moench assumed he could just depict the more familiar version of the character with nobody noticing. However when reprinted the original stories were also back in print, courtesy of both the Essentials and the Omnibuses, and so the discontinuity stands out the more. The whole thing feels like a bad exercise in nostalgia. And it seems these problems were noticed at the time, leading to a shift in direction from issue #10 onwards and then a later story set out to tidy up the mess.

"Not a hoax, not a dream, not an imaginary what IS it?" proclaims the volume's back cover. It turns out the first nine issues were a metafiction, a film made by Bereet for the inhabitants of Krylor, who are rather more tame and isolationist than their depiction suggests. In the space of five pages Bill Mantlo writes off the entire of the first nine issues, possibly in response to years of questions in the letter columns about how the adventures could have taken place. It's a blunt solution to the problem, though not unprecedented (Marvel had already used metafiction to write off the adventures of the original Two-Gun Kid). Maybe another writer could have produced a multi-part tale that managed to preserve the issues within continuity whilst explaining away the fundamental anachronisms but it would probably have taken too long after so many years. Instead, we get a simple five-page hand wave and that is it.

With issue #10 the magazine undergoes a transformation. The stories are now in full colour, though that doesn't make much difference here as it seems in both the 1970s and the 2000s the respective black and white pages were produced with colour "burned in" to create an greyscale effect. But the series has also shifted to the present, though there's none of the Hulk's status quo from his regular comic and these tales could in fact take place at almost any point in the history of the Savage Hulk. The series has taken its cue from the television series but doesn't want to contradict the comic. So we still have Bruce Banner with his classic look (instead of "David Banner" drawn like Bill Bixby) transforming into a talking Hulk, but rather than interacting with his usual supporting cast, fighting monsters and being pursued by the military we instead have Banner travelling the world alone, seeking both peace and a cure and getting involved with a succession of localised problems. There's the occasional discreet acknowledgement of the television series, most notably in issue #14 when Bruce uses the alias "David Bixby".

The foes are generally one-off non-powered ones of the type who could have easily stepped out of the television series. We get a mixture of unscrupulous businessmen of one kind or another, carnival thugs, terrorists, immoral scientists and fanatical military types. A scientist's experiments with gamma radiation accidentally turn him into a monster who fights the Hulk whilst the military are developing "Cybortrons" - robots mentally controlled from afar by soldiers - but that's the extent of the more fantastic. But in general this feels like an attempt to draw television viewers into the comic character without all the wider elements that would be unfamiliar to those who'd only seen the screen version.

The stories themselves don't pull their punches with some quite brutal deaths, including the casual gunning down of first a reporter infiltrating a mine and later an ill woman who tries to get help when a hijacked aeroplane crashes. Issue #11 focuses on an unfortunate boy who is being routinely beaten by his father. Elsewhere there's racism on the streets of Chicago, paranoia amongst scientists and the military and thugs attacking the isolated. Once again the magazine format shows how to tell strong stories free from the constraints of the Comics Code Authority but without getting gratuitous for the sake of it.

The artwork throughout the volume is generally good but the showcase nature of the assignments can undermine visual continuity. And occasionally there are some unfortunate results - Walt Simonson's pencils on issue #2 are inked by Alfredo Alcala but the printed result feels like a pencil and crayon effect. Perhaps they were aiming for something stylish but it just doesn't come off. But on a better note are the painted covers. They don't always reproduce so well in black and white, and I'm not persuaded the best choices of issues #1 & #9 were made for the volume's front and back covers, but they are an impressive set of mainly standalone images. A decade later several of these were used for the early issues of the Marvel UK series The Incredible Hulk Presents and they proved highly striking on the newsstands as they must have been on the original magazines a decade earlier.

As can often happen with the Essentials, this is a volume of two halves and it's more obvious than most. The first stage is a retro-based epic that totally fails to evoke nostalgia for the original era or exploit its setting and it's easily forgotten, with the retcon to hand wave it away proving surprisingly effective. After that we get a stand alone series of present day tales that could almost have come from the television series and which prove surprisingly effective. There's a real determination to offer something more than just standard Hulk stories in a different format publication, and on the second attempt the series achieves this. It's not the most essential of Essentials but it gives the old magazine series a good revisiting.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Omitted material: Power Man and Iron Fist 73

Missing from Essential Power Man and Iron Fist volume 1 is issue #73, which features an encounter with the licensed character Rom. It is written by Mary Jo Duffy and drawn by Greg LaRocque.

Rom is a toy that I only vaguely remember seeing in the Action Man catalogue. He was released as a standalone toy in the States; an action figure with light up features and weapons. He was imported to the United Kigdom by Palitoy to be part of their spaceman line of Action Man figures in the early 1980s but in general the toy wasn't a success. However there was a tie-in Marvel series that lasted seventy-five issues and several annuals, and the character made many appearances in other Marvel titles.

As I previously suspected this issue is the missing link in the subplot about the relationship between Colleen Wing and Bob Diamond, showing how the two get together for the first time. But it's also the first part of a crossover with Rom's own title. Here we get a glimpse of just how terrifying the alien Spaceknight can seem to humans as he lands on the streets of New York and then starts pointing weird lights at them before shooting a select few with a ray gun, leaving just ashes on the street. Power Man and Iron Fist get called in by first the pimp of a victim and then by the Fantastic Four and take on Rom only to discover the truth - he is destroying alien invaders called Dire Wraiths who have infiltrated human society. Such is their level of influence that they're able to suppress many reports about Rom, preventing most humans from discovering the truth. There's an inevitable battle owing to the initial misunderstanding before all three heroes join forces against a group of Wraiths and then agree to work together further over in Rom's own title.

As is often the case with small crossovers, the opening part is largely a set-up to get the various players working together before the main action elsewhere and so this issue can seem a little light on plot. But instead we get some quite good horror as we experience Rom from the perspective of the unfamiliar, and it's a chilling sight. There are some intriguing moments such as when Rom's Analyser can't scan Power Man and later the Neutraliser cancels Danny's iron fist, showing the Spaceknight to be a truly formidable force. By this stage Rom had come a long way beyond his humble toy origins and works well here. Unfortunately this does slightly sideline the actual stars of the series but overall the issue keeps true to the book's general direction and makes the most of the unfamiliar.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Essential Power Man and Iron Fist volume 1

Essential Power Man and Iron Fist volume 1 contains issues #50 to 72 & 74 to 75, comprising the first third of the merged series. Issue #73 is absent, due to it featuring a guest appearance by Rom whom Marvel no longer holds the rights for. Bonus material consists of a couple of in-house adverts for the series but it's clear from the advertised prices that these come from later on. The writing sees the end of Chris Claremont's run on the characters, a brief stint by Ed Hannigan and then an extended run by Mary Jo Duffy with the odd plot contribution by Bob Layton or Steven Grant. The art takes a while to settle down with a brief run by Trevor Von Eeden before an extended one by Kerry Gammil; other issues are drawn by a mixture of John Byrne, Sal Buscema, Mike Zeck, Lee Elias, Marie Severin and Alan Weiss.

The idea of merging one weak selling title into another series has been common place throughout the history of publications, not just comics. However, often "absorption" would be a better term because one title would make little contribution beyond a small addition to the cover logo and maybe the odd feature that wouldn't last long. But occasionally the fusion would be on equal terms, with both halves at the forefront throughout the rest of the series's life. Power Man and Iron Fist was one such series.

Taking a streetwise product of the blaxploitation genre and pairing him with the rich but other worldly product of the martial arts craze was not the most obvious of moves. Indeed I'm not certain who came up with it, though as the merger coincided with a run on Power Man by the Iron Fist creative team of Chris Claremont and John Byrne there's an obvious place to start looking. But whoever had the idea, there was little to lose as both characters were slumping in sales as their respective crazes were dying and the alternative was most likely cancellation. Instead an odd couple teaming up permanently was tried. It wasn't without precedent at Marvel - there were some similar themes and half of the locations in the teaming of Captain America and the Falcon, whilst Iron Fist's solo title had already teamed up a practitioner of oriental fighting methods with a streetwise black in the form of Colleen Wing and Misty Knight, the Daughters of the Dragon. But it was still an awkward pairing. What makes it credible is that it takes a number of issues before the two are in permanent partnership and even then the differences between them are brought up from time to time. But wisely the series isn't played for laughs even though odd couples from very different backgrounds with all the problems and conflicts that arise from them are staple fare for sitcoms. We get the odd lighter moment, such as Power Man having to crash at Iron Fist's place whilst his own home is rebuilt, only to find his partner's place just makes him uncomfortable. Or when we see how Iron Fist's upbringing as first a pampered rich child and then a member of a hidden civilisation have left him lacking some basic knowledge about and skills for life such as the value of money or how to control a vehicle. But these are individual aside moments and instead the focus is invariably serious. Indeed this is a book that doesn't shy away from pain, with some especially brutal maimings and deaths shown with all their consequences. The Heroes for Hire have noble motives but they inhabit an increasingly gritty world.

The early issues in the volume are surprising in that it takes a while, and several writers, before a permanent partnership is established between the two. I'm informed that the legally registered name of the series did not switch from Power Man to Power Man and Iron Fist until issue #56 (although the legal info on the inside front cover of this collected edition draws no such distinction; either I'm misinformed or whoever prepared the Essential's information made a mistake), which almost matches the fictional solidification of the partnership. Were Marvel's editors nervous about the combination even after the launch and so hedged their bets so that they could quickly return to a solo Power Man series if needs be? That's more plausible than it being a deliberately planned story arc running over seven bimonthly issues and a variety of creative teams. But once Mary Jo Duffy arrives the series quickly finds a firm footing for the rest of the volume, cementing the series as her defining title.

If there's one particularly awkward aspect to the series, it's the whole "Heroes for Hire" concept. It made sense for Power Man on his own to be working as a mercenary as he was a man of limited means and whose criminal status meant it was impossible for him to find a sufficient paying day job that would supply the funds needed to be a hero - in particular to keep up a constant supply of shirts. But Iron Fist is independently wealthy and the co-owner of a business even if he hands over the day to day running to his co-owner Joy Meachum once they've resolved some personal matters. He has so much money he never wants for anything and indeed at times just doesn't know the meaning of it. So why does he need to earn money through super heroics, a vocation traditionally provided for free, and where the jobs can wind up as being little more than glorified security guards? It's an aspect to the series not really cleared up - perhaps this is why Power Man is initially placed working instead for Colleen and Misty's agency, Nightwing Restorations - but as the series progresses there's a steady diminution of focus on big corporate hiring, although as Power Man maintains his old office above the cinema there is still an outreach to the ordinary person on the street. They also make a point of going off duty at 5pm each day to maintain their principles.

The series maintains many elements from both characters' solo titles, starting with the supporting casts. Because Power Man maintains his office above the cinema, we still get to see D.W. Griffith and Toby, and even the occasional appearance by the notorious soft drinks machine or its replacement. Iron Fist is still seeing Misty Knight and in turn her partner Colleen Wing is also around a lot. Misty was a police officer before losing her arm to a bomb and the impact of having a cybernetic arm is explored several times, including when she chillingly relives the moment. Her former police partner Rafael Scarfe is the series's most regular cop, and he often works in conjunction with Assistant District Attorney Bill Hao under DA Blake Tower. Elsewhere Iron Fist often works out with Bob Diamond, formerly of the Sons of the Tiger. He and Colleen eventually become an item but they seem to rapidly going from tensions hiding attraction to dating that I wonder if the missing issue #73 has a key scene that resolves this. Colleen also gets a memorable reunion with her father as he recovers his memory. Meanwhile the Heroes for Hire business is managed by lawyer Jeryn Hogarth, creating tensions over some of the contracts he accepts, with the office itself managed by executive secretary Jennie Royce. The most notable character to disappear is Power Man's girlfriend Dr Claire Temple who has been kidnapped one time too many and decides that she can no longer handle Luke Cage's life and he cannot give it up so they go their separate ways. Luke subsequently settles with fashion model Harmony Young. Also dropping away is Dr Noah Burstein who no longer has to give Luke support but he returns when his honeymoon is interrupted by an old foe. Then there's the return of Power Man's lawyer Big Ben Donovan, but now trying to steal drugs for himself. Another Power Man ally to reappear is Thunderbolt, only to die from accelerated growth. Also dying is Tony, the projectionist at the cinema. This is a much darker world than that inhabited by the average Marvel series from this time.

The enemies are drawn from a mix of each characters' solo titles, other Marvel universe books and some new creations. Old Power Man foes who reappear include Stiletto and Discus, plus some new incarnations of foes such as Senor Suerte. Coming from Iron Fist's side are Princess Azir, caught up in intrigues related to her home country of Halwan, Sabretooth, now allied with the Constrictor from the Incredible Hulk and many other titles, the Golden Tigers under the leadership of a new Chaka, and then a variety of longstanding foes in the return to K'un-Lun storyline. And the two jointly contribute Bushmaster, who seeks a cure for his condition only to turn to metal and crumble away in a chilling sequence. Meanwhile from other titles we see Boss Morgan, Nightshade, the mobster Bull, all from Captain America and the Falcon or the earlier Tales of Suspense stories, the Living Monolith from the pages of X-Men, complete with much of the team as well, or Maggia boss Caesar Cicero and his henchman Man Mountain Marko, both from Amazing Spider-Man. New foes include the Incinerator, a bank robber in a flame suit, Senor Suerte, the vengeance seeking younger brother of Power Man's old foe, El Aguila, a vigilante who later allies with the Heroes for Hire, Colonel Eschat, a mercenary wiping out his old colleagues, Supremo, a would be military dictator of a Latin American country who actually hires the heroes to locate the existing regime's money supply via the drugs trade, and Montenegro, a mountain climbing crime boss pursuing a piece of technology hidden on a coin.

The final couple of issues feature probably the most obvious Iron Fist storyline not yet done - a return to the lost civilisation of K'un-Lun with a number of old foes returning. Rather than waiting ten years in real time, he and Power Man get there when transported in battle with the wizard Master Khan, who is also the deity of K'un-Lun. In the mystical city Iron Fist discovers and relearns a number of key points about his life and family, clarifying for certainty that his father was originally from outside the city but found his way there, and that Miranda was his half-sister. In conflict with variously the plant race the H'ylthri, the mysterious Ninja, Iron Fist's uncle Nu-An and Master Khan, Iron Fist proves himself worthy of his legacy, and Power Man as a worthy ally. But it also leads to Iron Fist standing up to all the strange customs and practices of K'un-Lun and taking the opportunity to return to the outside world. It's a journey of self-discovery that reinforces the character and the partnership, boding well for the future.

On paper this is a series that shouldn't work. Taking two heroes who had been created to jump on the bandwagon of passing fads and sticking them together should have resulted in a mess that either got demerged or cancelled within a handful of issues. But instead something happens to make it work. The two characters with their very different resources and background prove to be a highly effective odd couple, with the partnership being one of true equals and both heroes getting their fair share of focus. The differences between the two make for some fun asides and occasional disagreements but don't prove insurmountable and so the pairing is fully dynamic, helped by a gradual build-up before the two formalise their partnership. Add in a strong supporting cast that makes use of the best of both books and the series is rapidly firing on all pistons. But what's also a surprise is just how gritty and dark the series is, with some quite brutal deaths and dark psychological moments. It is a much more gritty and down to earth series than many of its contemporaries and a surprisingly strong read even today.

Friday, 25 July 2014

Essential Werewolf by Night volume 1

Essential Werewolf by Night volume 1 contains Marvel Spotlight #2-4, Werewolf by Night #1-21, Marvel Team-Up #12, Giant-Size Creatures #1 and Tomb of Dracula #18. Bonus material includes the Werewolf's entry from the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe and an alternate cover to Marvel Spotlight #4. The character's debut is plotted by Roy and Jeanie Thomas and scripted by Gerry Conway. Conway writes the rest of the Marvel Spotlight issues and some of the Werewolf by Night issues; others are written by Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, Mike Friedrich and Doug Moench. Conway plots and Wein scripts the Marvel Team-Up whilst Wolfman writes the Tomb of Dracula issue and Tony Isabella the Giant-Size Creatures. The art on Marvel Spotlight and Werewolf by Night is mainly by Mike Ploog with Don Perlin taking over at the end of the run; other issues are drawn by Werner Roth, Tom Sutton and Gil Kane. Perlin also draws the Giant-Size Creatures story, whilst the Tomb of Dracula issue is by Gene Colan and the Marvel Team-Up by Ross Andru. Yet again this results in a lot of labels, so some have been placed in a separate post.

The Werewolf is often bracketed together with Dracula and the Monster of Frankenstein to form a trinity of Gothic era monsters, and some of these traditional links are respected within these pages, most obviously the crossover with Tomb of Dracula. But whereas both the Frankenstein Monster and Dracula are drawn primarily from famous novels, the Werewolf lacks a direct literary base and is instead drawn from legends that go back to at least the Middle Ages. Literature and film may have added elements to the mythology, but there's no single story to follow and no single werewolf who strides through popular culture with a distinct character. As a result creators have much greater scope here than with the other horror imports.

Here we get the story of Jack Russell, a young American man who upon turning eighteen discovers he has inherited the curse of transforming into a werewolf every night during a full moon. Although he usually retains sentience about what his wolf form gets up to, there is no control and he can only be a passive narrator to the actions of the animal man. Towards the end of the volume he does gain some temporary control, whether through the magical intervention of Topaz or thanks to a ring that transforms him at any time and leaves Jack in control, but neither method lasts very long. Jack comes with a well developed background with his father having been an eastern European noble who also succumbed to the curse and was killed in wolf form. Jack's mother has remarried and she gets killed in the first issue. Jack suspects his step-father, Philip Russell, of being responsible and in addition tensions about inheritances from both his natural parents create a wedge between the two but due to a promise he made to his mother on her deathbed, Jack is unable to take action against Philip and even his werewolf form feels restrained. Jack's closest friend is his younger sister Lissa, who has not yet reached eighteen by the end of the volume, and there's a long running question about whether she too will succumb to the curse. With some additional good supporting cast members the result is a strong set-up as Jack struggles to control his lycanthropic side and fend off a succession of interventions by those after one part of his magical legacy or another.

"Jack Russell" is one of those names that makes for a good pun but doesn't withstand close scrutiny when one realises that "Russell" is his stepfather's name yet his lycanthropic heritage comes from his natural father. Nor for that matter does it describe the breed of dog that Jack turns into. A later writer establishes that the step-father is the natural father's brother, as part of a general wrap-up of the issues within the Russell family, but, as is often the case with such revelations under later writers (and this comes under the third regular writer), it just doesn't feel like this was part of the original plan. I'm not too certain if "Russell" really is an Anglicisation if "Russoff" though as there's never been a regulator of converting names it's easy to see how some immigration official could produce that one. The other inevitable bad pun comes straightaway on the credits of issue #11 as they announce the arrival of writer Marv Wolfman.

This is another series that largely keeps to itself, with the encounters with other Marvel characters restricted to a single crossovers, one Giant-Size issue and a solitary Marvel Team-Up. Such restraint is quite remarkable given that the character is based Los Angeles at a time when so too were the Black Widow and Daredevil, whilst the Ghost Rider was also roaming the west. But instead of some of these obvious meetings we just get three guest appearances, one from Marvel's biggest horror character, one by Marvel's biggest superhero overall and one by an obscure hero being reinvented as a kind of were-woman who offers a contrast with Jack's situation plus conflict with the established terrorist group Hydra. Since the Marvel Team-Up issue is the very last one to appear in this volume I can't tell if it's a vital set-up for storylines to come in volume 2 or has just been included either to fill up pages or perhaps to get Spider-Man completists to buy it. But it does feel highly inconsequential as Jack and Spider-Man clash with a magician working undercover on the stage. The Giant-Size Creatures issue feels rather more justified, with the Werewolf taking the cover billing and the encounter being referenced in the regular series, even though it's not entirely clear just where in the tight ongoing continuity Jack found time for a holiday in Mexico. Still it allows for a team-up with Tigra, the new form of the hero previously known as the Cat but who is transformed here. However Jack's presence in the issue is a reminder of just how popular he was at the time - before Marvel rolled out a wide range of Giant-Size versions of many of their titles, they first released just a few with more generic overall titles to test the format. It's amazing to find that the Werewolf headed one of the last of these tests, putting him on an equal footing with the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man and Dracula. Not bad for such a new character with no individual roots in either literature or film.

The crossover with Tomb of Dracula may be trying to strengthen the connection between the two monsters, but it just feels awkward and forced. Members of both titles' supporting casts appear but with the exception of Frank Drake from Tomb of Dracula, neither set is properly introduced for the other book's readers. The crossover fleshes out the origin of the Russoff/Russell family curse and appropriately it is dated to the Gothic era of the late eighteenth century. Unfortunately it's also tied to the history of Dracula for no particular reason. Maybe the intention was to show a long history of the Russoffs/Russells fighting against Dracula but there's no such revelation here. Instead we just learn how Jack's ancestor had killed Dracula and freed a young girl prisoner, only to discover she was a werewolf who promptly bit and infected him. Nothing in this part of the origin necessitates either the presence of Dracula or a second ancestral home to go alongside the already established Baltic castle (which is relocated brick by brick to the United States). There's also evidence of a terrible grasp of geography as Transylvania gets presented as a single village deep in the interior of Romania yet it also has a sailor with his boat moored locally. It seems the village is located on the Danube, with Castle Dracula located on the very bank of the river, again something that would not get good marks in a geography exam. All in all the crossover just feels like a rush job to capitalise on both titles' popularity and shared writer.

By contrast the bulk of the regular series generally feels as though it has been carefully constructed. All the standard werewolf traditions are in place, whether the full moon or the aversion to silver. I'm not so familiar with details such as the curse being passed by a bite or by inheritance, or whether the curse can be broken if the werewolf finds and kills another of its kind, but both aspects feel entirely in place with the rest of this neo-Gothic series. Early on the threats are predominantly one-offs, primarily pursuing the Werewolf for one mystical purpose or another, but later on there are some more recurring foes established, most notably the mysterious and, at this stage, unseen organisation known only as "the Committee" who turn out to have been behind the death of Jack's mother and the blackmail of his step-father. Another recurring foe is the sorcerer Taboo. Elsewhere, following up on a Marvel tradition, there's a villainous circus but for once it's a different outfit from the Ringmaster's lot. Then there's a latter-day hunchback who inhabits Notre Dame. Many other one-off foes fit into various archetypes of sorcerers, non-magical criminals, or even big game hunters. A few foes are introduced who would go on to memorable appearances in other Marvel series including Tatterdemalion the vengeful derelict, or the self-appointed executing vigilante the Hangman, whose name seems a bit of a misnomer as he appears to do most of his killing with a scythe. There are also a couple of vampires imported from the pages of Dracula Lives, but that and the appearances of Dracula and Hydra already mentioned are it for foes from elsewhere.

But Jack's real foe is his own altered self. Wisely he's not written as the Hulk with fur, although there are a few similarities such as the endless torn trousers and the brief attempt to get his monstrous side confined for the night under the guard of his closest male friend. Instead the Werewolf is presented as an actual animal albeit in anthropomorphic form and this makes for a total sense of helplessness as neither Jack can control it nor can anyone else reason with it. Every month he transforms without fail and the series does its best to note which particular day in the cycle it is - with the Marvel Team-Up issue managing to work in an out of cycle transformation so as to not disturb this pattern.

Jack's main supporting cast are initially his loyal sister Lissa, who is herself targeted at times by those seeking the mystical powers of the werewolf curse, and writer Buck Cowan who befriends Jack and often serves to protect him when the curse takes hold. When Jack takes up a room in a singles' building he soon befriends some of the other residents, including the actress Clary Winter who is not the only woman in the building to make moves on him. His immediate neighbour is the mysterious Raymond Coker, who turns out to also be a werewolf and desperately using whatever magic he can to keep his lycanthropic side under control. Another who turns werewolf is Lou Hackett, a police lieutenant who investigates the sightings but subsequently receives one of the werewolf rings and is himself transformed. Then there's the young witch Topaz who forms a bond with Jack and for a time is able to give him control of his wolf form but over time her powers drain and she is forced to go away and seek to revitalise them.

Overall this series is quite a surprise. Right from the outset it manages to blend elements from traditional legends with common themes developed by the superhero comics to produce a series with a strong sympathetic lead character caught in a troublesome situation and supported by a good wider cast of characters. This is not a tale of superheroics and so there's little need to establish a recurring set of foes. Instead this is a tale of one man struggling with a curse and with the trouble it brings with it. The result is a good solid read.

Essential Werewolf by Night volume 1 - creator labels

Once more we come across a volume with many creators, so here is the usual separate post to carry the labels for some of them.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Essential Man-Thing volume 1

Hoh boy. This is the one that brings out all the sniggering.

So let's take this slowly. Essential Man-Thing volume 1 contains material from multiple titles including issues of Giant-Size Man-Thing.

Let's just pause for a moment to let everyone get the sniggering out of their system.

[Lengthy pause.]

All done? Because there won't be another break.

(But on an aside, did the term "man-thing" actually have such connotations in early 1970s America, or are the sniggers all down to latter-day use of the term or even transatlantic differences? A quick Google search is unhelpful, being dominated by the comic character, but then the term is far from the most common name for the... well you know.)

Now down to business.

Essential Man-Thing volume 1 contains the eponymous creature's earliest appearances and issues, consisting of material from Savage Tales #1, Ka-Zar's feature in Astonishing Tales #12-13, Adventure into Fear #10-19, Man-Thing #1-14, Giant-Size Man-Thing #1-2 and Monsters Unleashed #5 & #8-9. Most of these series were anthologies in either comic or magazine format, the latter not falling under the Comics Code Authority and allowing for less censored material. Adventures into Fear was previously a reprint series and then became another long-run try-out title before successful characters received a title in their own right. Bonus material includes Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entries for both the Man-Thing and Jennifer Kale. One notable omission is the cover to Savage Tales #1 but on investigation it seems that this is because the cover spotlights Conan the Barbarian and so presumably having lost the Conan licence Marvel are unable to reprint it even when accompanying a non-Conan story.

The Man-Thing's debut in the magazine Savage Tales is written by Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway and drawn by Gray Morrow. All contribute to subsequent tales which are written mainly by Steve Gerber, with contributions by Len Wein and Tony Isabella. The art is mostly by Val Mayerik and Mike Ploog with contributions by John Buscema, Neal Adams, Rich Buckler, Howard Chaykin, Jim Starlin, Alfredo Alcala, Vincente Alcazar and Pat Broderick. As this produces many labels, some have been placed in a separate post.

Reading through this volume I've felt as though I was stuck in a swamp myself. It has been a very long and slow read and, although a variety of real world events have intervened to contribute to that, the series itself has not proved very inspiring at times. At the heart of it the series suffers two major problems. One is the complete mindlessness of the title creature, resulting in no dialogue or character development at all and making it hard to get interested in what happens to him. The other is the swamp environment not lending itself to many obvious story types and the ones that are do get used fall into a mixture of stiltedness or just plain weirdness.

There's a long tradition of swamp monsters and it's now unknown just whether the inspiration for the Man-Thing or the Swamp Thing came first. But it takes more than just a walking mound of slime to create excitement. For the Man-Thing there's an attempt to create some tragedy through his origin as we see scientist Ted Sallis betrayed to spies by his assistant/girlfriend and having to take a serum to survive, only for it to interact with the swamp and turn him into a shambling monster. As origins go it's nice and self-contained but with openings that could be used to spin off multiple further adventures. Unfortunately not too much is done in this volume with that. The monster seemingly has no coherent thoughts or memories so can neither embark on a quest for vengeance nor try to find a cure for his condition. Ellen appears again only in a special story from Monsters Unleashed as she recovers from her burns and returns to the swamp to deal with the memories. In doing so she comes face to face with what Ted has become, leading to a memorable moment as she demonstrates no fear, but in the regular series she is forgotten. The organisation Ellen works for, later revealed as AIM, don't catch on to what has really happened to Ted and come after the monster again and again. And so all we're left with is the stumbling monster wandering the swamps and influenced by the emotions of those around it.

That said the Man-Thing does demonstrate some interesting ideas such as the ability to literally ooze through any small opening and a touch that burns whenever the recipient demonstrates fear. Visually he's also a good design, even in black and white, and so makes for a series of strong images though I generally prefer Val Mayerik's depiction to Mike Ploog's. However I'm not sure how he displayed in colour - the front cover shows some very similar shades of green being used for both the monster himself and the background swamp. Fortunately the back cover has found some more distinguishing variations of green.

The character took a while to take off, not helped by Savage Tales only publishing one issue for some years. But the following year, after an appearance in Ka-Zar's strip in Astonishing Tales, which isn't particularly memorable in its own right but which does serve to thrash out some of the details of the character, the Man-Thing soon got an ongoing title in the pre-existing Fear, albeit with the title expanded to Adventure into Fear. This series had previously reprinted many monster stories from Marvel's pre-superheroes era, and the choice of this title helped to place the Man-Thing within the sense of a restoration of the non-superhero monsters. This is also reflected in the guest stars that appear or rather don't.

Once we get past the guest appearance in Ka-Zar's strip, there are no further substantial guest appearances included in this volume (although there are some cameos). This is despite the period covering guest appearances in Avengers, Daredevil and Marvel Two-in-One which show that the Man-Thing wasn't completely isolated from the wider Marvel universe. Such a limited interaction as presented here can allow a character to strive and thrive on their own two feet without interruptions, but it can also leave their deficiencies heavily exposed with precious little to fall back on. It's very much the latter effect here and I feel the series could have seriously benefited from either some appearances by familiar faces or else a fully developed supporting cast who actually hang around long enough to make a big enough impact.

The swamp is located in the Everglades in Florida and comes with all the traditional contents of a swamp from fierce crocodiles to hillbillies, as well as being the site for a proposed airport. But it also contains some decidedly fantastical elements. There is a hidden civilisation based around a Fountain of Youth. And the swamp is the site of the Nexus of All Realities, a gateway that links it to many dimensions containing all manner of weird oddities. The Man-Thing has become the guardian of the Nexus, offering the ironic spectacle of such a great responsibility falling upon such a mindless beast.

There's a tendency for the supporting cast to only appear briefly before disappearing. The first notable case is Jennifer Kale, a young amateur witch who develops a psychic link with the Man-Thing but it is subsequently broken. Her brother Andy and their grandfather Joshua, the head of a cult that seek to defend the Earth from the demons found in the Nexus, also appear, as does Jennifer's boyfriend Jaxon, offering some broader mythology but it's not really developed here. However the Kale family would go on to be tied into the continuity of another of Marvel's horror heroes but when I last tried to read a summary of the family history all I could grasp was just how much my head hurt. Elsewhere are two distinctly strange beings who come through the Nexus - Korrek, a barbarian who arrives through a jar of peanut butter, and Howard the Duck. To my surprise Howard is killed off early on and doesn't come back within this volume but his popularity would take him to great heights elsewhere. Later on we meet Richard Rory, a perpetual loser who repeatedly finds himself in the swamp. More than once he seems to hit it off with a woman who is also lost there, only for things to go wrong. However he does land a spot as a night-time radio DJ. The first such woman is Ruth Hart, on the run from a gang, and it at first seems as though she may have staying power but it comes to nothing.

Villains range from the earthly to the fantastic. At the grounded level the Man-Thing's most persistent nemesis is F. A. Schist, an industrialist intent on building an airport in the swamp, which brings him into recurrent conflict with the Man-Thing, including bringing in the scientist Professor Slaughter. Eventually Schist's greed consumes him when he finds the Fountain of Youth and is destroyed by the Man-Thing, but his vengeance seeking widow later comes after the monster. Elsewhere is the first appearance of the serial killer called the Foolkiller, who is seemingly killed off in his first appearance but would later come back. There are also a string of one-off criminals who pass through the swamp and usually come to grief at the hands of the Man-Thing, though things aren't always great for the victims. There's an especially nasty case of this in a two-part text story from Monsters Unleashed where an unsuccessful writer flees after his girlfriend was killed by a mugger only to get caught between a mad father trying to kill his daughter. But things are not always as they seem, as shown early on when the Man-Thing encounters a black man on the run from a racist and jealous sheriff, only to discover disputing claims between them. The more fantastical foes include various magical beings from the Nexus such as Thog the Nether-Spawn, Dakimh the Enchanter and various one-off named and unnamed demons. Or there's the first appearance of the alien Wundarr, a parody of Superman and his origin. A rare trip away from the swamp bring an encounter with ghost pirates led by Captain Fate, doomed to never reach port due to a curse inflicted by a crewmember they abandoned.

Giant-Size Man-Thing may have a title that everyone laughs at, but the first two issues are straightforward serious content, with the only change from the regular series being an increased use of characters from the wider Marvel universe. The first issue sees the Man-Thing battle the Glob, previously seen in the Incredible Hulk, due to the influence of the Cult of Entropy. The second sees a bunch of cameos, most notably from Mister Fantastic, as the Man-Thing gets briefly transported to New York in a partial parody of King Kong. But otherwise these bigger issues are just expanded versions of the normal sort of story for the series, which has now settled into a pattern of some edginess and social commentary wrapped up around monster and magic tales.

Overall this volume may have some imagination to it but it's the execution that is the problem. Ultimately the central character just isn't sufficiently exciting and there's not enough going on around him to make this compelling stuff. Steve Gerber's issues do include a degree of commentary and satire, but this approach can either date all too easily or else sink if the reader does not have the cultural background to spot the targets. What we're left with is a title that begins as a latter-day monster story in the vein of an earlier generation of Marvel that gets crossed with fantasy and absurdity in the hope that something in this mix will congeal. But the result just doesn't work for me.
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