Friday, 12 September 2014

Essential Thor volume 2

Essential Thor volume 1 reprints issues #113-136 plus Annuals #1 & #2. Issue #113-125 & annual #1 still have the formal title of "Journey into Mystery" but the logo and the contents mean that issue #126 is rather less of a change than a listing would imply. (Indeed references to earlier issues even call the series "Thor" not "Journey into Mystery" and there is no acknowledgement on the covers or strip pages that the series title has changed. This is already an-all Thor series.) Everything is by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, initially usually credited as writer and penciller respectively but from a back-up strip on #133 onwards they're always just credited together as producing the story and at this point the volume's contents page starts giving Kirby a co-plotting credit.

That credit may be lifted from the files or represent a latter-day effort to try to rebalance things given the lengthy debates about Lee and Kirby. But this volume brings up the other great controversy about Kirby and another name on the credits. For everything bar the first three lead stories is inked by Vince Colletta.

Colletta's inking has been the subject of much discussion over the years with a lot of pencillers doing their best to avoid their work going to him at the time and saying so since. Subsequently many fans have piled in to the point that Colletta has become the poster child for slapdash inking that destroys the penciller's intentions. But Colletta has his fans as well and in recent years they have become louder. There are two lines of quite reasonable defence for some of the problems. Firstly Colletta was so fast and reliable that he often did emergency fill-in issues where a rush job was essential to getting the book out on time. On such an issue it was natural to cut corners. Secondly Colletta's work suffered particularly badly in the 20th century reprints which often had crude reproduction that undermined his fine lines. Now the first defence has a lot of validity but it should not apply to a regular assignment with a reliable artist who delivered the pencils on time. The second rebuttal is mixed here because the reproduction quality is variable. Some of the pages appear to reuse remastered versions prepared for the Masterworks or other reprints. But other pages apparently either missing or not yet remastered - this volume came out midway through the Masterworks covering the same period - and they seem to have been sourced from elsewhere, possibly including some of the 1970s reprints that went one copy generation down rather than going back to the source.

Looking at the results in this volume I begin to think that Colletta's defenders have a point. When the reproduction works well it shows some quite charming imagery that gives the artwork a mythic quality - I'm not sure I'd go as far as to say it looks like woodcuttings, but certainly it feels appropriately old worldly - but when the reproduction is poor then the ink can get fused together and it really drags the art down. But then foresight is something many in the comics industry have lacked and so one can hardly blame Colletta for working for the original printing and not taking later reprints, of which he had no control over the methods, into account. It's hard to judge the impact of his habit of erasing lines, figures and objects in order to simplify the task as this volume only offers the finished work, but this may explain why so many pencillers were critical yet editors and art directors did not see the impact and so continued to assign him. But what is clear is that Colletta's inking is an acquired taste. Leaving aside his numerous fill-ins as necessarily requiring a short cut approach, on some regular assignments it can really drag the art down but here when allowed to breathe it can really enhance it.

The use of Norse mythology continues to be expanded in this run but increasingly the task is taken on by the "Tales of Asgard" back-up strips. Some are set during Thor's childhood, showing the deviousness of Loki beginning at a very early age, but others are set at an indeterminate point during his adulthood in Asgard. (By now Thor is treated as having always been the Norse deity and this volume doesn't touch on just what he was doing as Donald Blake before he rediscovered the hammer.) There are one parters and epics, showing the warriors of Asgard in training at home and on far away quests. Amongst the characters introduced are the Warriors Three - Fandrall, Hogun, and Volstagg - and the Vizier, all of whom subsequently appear in the present day adventures. There are also debuts by other races such as the Storm Giants and the Flying Trolls or individual foes like the dragon Fafnir. We also meet some of the great objects for the first time such as the enormous Odinsword that wields great destruction. There's even the first use of the name "Mjolnir" for Thor's hammer. And we get a glimpse of the future as Odin recounts how Ragnarok will come and destroy Asgard and all the gods, but from the ashes will rise new life. (It seems that as early as the start of 1966 Kirby was thinking about the ideas that would eventually manifest themselves at DC as the New Gods.) My knowledge of Norse mythology is quite limited so I don't know how well these adventures match the tales the Vikings told, or if they had any greater research done for them than looking at a children's story book.

Although not explicitly billed as "Tales of Asgard", perhaps because it ventures outside Norse mythology, the new story in annual #1 is also set in the past to set things up for the present. For here Thor stumbles across Olympus, home of the Greek gods, and meets Hercules for the first time. There's no attempt made to explore the simultaneous existence of two different sets of gods or to show which ones have greater powers, but instead we get a source of enemies and sometimes allies starting with a rivalry with Hercules. Later on in the present day adventures Hercules returns for further fights and briefly wins over Jane Foster but subsequently he's captured by the Greek god of death Pluto (I have never understood why Marvel calls him by his Roman name instead of his Greek name "Hades") and Thor serves as his champion to save him from being trapped as the new ruler of the underworld. Hercules's father Zeus also appears, but isn't developed too much beyond a traditional ruler sending warriors on missions and passing judgement on contracts so it's hard to judge how his parenting skills compared to Odin's. In the background of the glimpses of Olympus we also meet other Greek gods such as Hera, Ares, Pan, Dionysus, Hermes, Artemis and Hephaestus whilst Pluto's underworld is guarded by Cerberus. The god of death is also aided by Hippolyta, the Queen of the Amazons and one of Hercules's past conquests.

The back-up strips may do a lot to enhance the mythology of the series but the lead stories don't skimp on this task either. We're now into a period when a lot of Marvel series were run as ongoing sagas with subplots dragging over multiple issues rather than the earlier set of standalone adventures. This allows a whole series of themes to run together. Early on we get the debut of one of the most powerful foes Thor has yet encountered, the Absorbing Man. With the power to duplicate the properties of any substance he touches, this ex-criminal becomes a pawn of Loki and battles Thor multiple times, often duplicating the properties of the hammer to become even stronger. Amazingly Thor never actually manages to defeat him directly, although at one point Loki extracts his pawn out of fear defeat is coming, and it takes Odin's trickery to finally exile him to space. The other significant sort of Asgardian foe to appear is the Destroyer but this is a lifeless suit of armour that can be animated by the spirits of others. Elsewhere Thor fights a mixture of recurring foes - Loki continues to be especially persistent - but also has an adventure in Vietnam where in the most overt propaganda in the volume he encounters a man twisted by Communism to the point where he guns down most of his family, only to then repent and destroy a weapons stockpile. This is probably the most generic of all the adventures and could have featured almost any hero.

On a grander scale we get some cosmic adventures with the introduction of the Rigellian colonisers including Tana Nile. It's almost comical to see Nile wandering the streets of New York trying to establish her position as the ruler of the world and dealing with police officers who think they're on Candid Camera, a prank TV show similar to Beadle's About. It leads to Thor flying off into space to tackle the Rigellian homeworld but then agreeing to Earth's release in exchange for serving them on a mission into the mysterious Black Galaxy. Accompanied by a Recorder unit, a robotic anthropologist, Thor heads there and encounters the wonder of Ego the Living Planet. Coming back to Earth Thor encounters a new Camelot in Mount Wundagore in the Balkans as he meets the High Evolutionary and his Knight of Wundagore, New Men created by a accelerated "evolution" ray carried out on animals. Lee and Kirby seem unaware that evolution isn't just about growth over generations but also about adaptation to the circumstances. Nevertheless Thor's intervention causes a distraction that leads to the over-evolution of a wolf into the uncontrollable Man Beast.

The heavy pace of the series means that Thor rarely gets a chance to relax and sometimes he finds events moving rapidly without him. He goes away for a while and comes back to discover Jane Foster has been kidnapped, leading to a mystery with few suspects and so it's no surprise to discover it's journalist Harris Hobbs in search of a story. Hobbs briefly discovers Thor's identity and blackmails his way to Asgard but is returned to Earth with amnesia. Meanwhile Donald Blake finds his practice has fallen away in his absence with his patients leaving for other doctors, whilst Thor discovers the Avengers' line-up changed while he was in Asgard for an extended period. His main remaining tie to the mortal world is his nurse Jane, with this volume bookended by major developments between them. In the first issue Thor reveals his identity to her and she retains the knowledge despite Odin's disapproval. Over subsequent issues Thor finally wins his father's approval to marry Jane, though this is delayed by first her being drawn to Hercules and then by Tana Nile using her powers to make Jane go a long way away, eventually winding up as a teacher/nurse for the New Men on Wundagore. In the very last issue Thor takes Jane to Asgard but she is forced to endure a series of tests that scare her off. Jane demands to be sent back to Earth and Odin willingly complies, dropping her at a hospital with amnesia where she is immediately drawn to doctor Keith Kincaird, who resembles Donald Blake. Odin had manipulated things all along and Thor is let angry but soon calms after a battle against trolls in which he is aided by Sif. The two reunite and walk away together.

More so than the first volume, the issues in this one represents the key foundations for the series in the long run. Thor is no longer just a hero with a name and some other cast members lifted from mythology but a well developed modern day interpretation of a key individual, existing in a universe that combines his own mythology with that of other well know pantheons and modern day creations. His life as a mortal is downplayed to the point that by the end of the volume he has no ties at all to the lives of mortal men and can instead thrive unfettered. With incredible artwork, give or take some problems with reproduction, and a strong degree of imagination there's real excitement in these tales that make them truly a classic.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Essential Fantastic Four volume 3

Essential Fantastic Four volume 3 contains issues #41 to #63 and Annuals #3 & #4. All the issues are credited to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, though it's noticeable that approximately the earlier half has credits that split the tasks between Lee on writing/scripting/"story" and Kirby on art/pencils, but the latter issues just jointly credit them as co-producing before listing the inkers and letterers. Was this an attempt at the time to acknowledge that Kirby was contributing far more than just the pencils?

Whoever is responsible for which idea, this volume continues to show a stream of creativity. In here we have the first appearances of the Inhumans - specifically Gorgon, Crystal, Karnak, Triton, Black Bolt, Lockjaw, Maximus, the Seeker and the already existing Medusa - Galactus, the Silver Surfer, the Punisher (not that one), Wyatt Wingfoot, the Black Panther, Klaw the Master of Sound, Prester John, a version of the legendary mediaeval explorer, Quasimodo the sentient computer and Blastaar. There are new places as well, such as the Great Refuge, the home of the Inhumans hidden in a mountain range (which seems to move between the Andes, the Alps and the Himalayas depending upon which caption you read), Wakanda, the little known African country that has developed advanced technology to rival Reed Richards's, or the Negative Zone, a strange sub-space environment containing hidden threats and fears. There are also return appearances by the Frightful Four, with the Sandman increasingly used solo and getting a new costume with extra abilities, Dragon Man, the Watcher, Doctor Doom in his most audacious scheme yet, and the Mad Thinker.

The art also shows some growth and experiments with an increased use of full page spreads and even double-paged spreads but the latter can be a pain to reproduce. In the first edition at least, there's a spread in issue #62 as Johnny, Crystal, Sue and Ben watch Reed drifting away in the Negative Zone - but the spread is split between the front and back of a single page. I don't know how it appears either in the original issue or in later Essential editions (or for that matter in other reprints over the years). The series also continues to use some real photographs and collages to represent space and weirder dimensions but these continue to suffer from 1960s printing just not being up to the task asked of it (and without the original photographic images there's only so much that latter day remastering can do).

The series is also more experimental in story structure with some stories taking place first over three issues then four and others start to seed themselves with subplots that run over many issues before being resolved. This is a series that is increasingly confident about itself and committed to being here for the long run now that the "Marvel Age of Comics" has proved to be more than just another few years long fad. Unfortunately some of the story structures feel less like bold experiments and more like bad planning and pacing. This is most prominent with the Galactus story that doesn't even begin until a third of the way into issue #48 (with the Inhumans saga wrapping up in the meantime) and then resolves itself midway through issue #50, leaving the rest of the issue to show Johnny going off to college. This must have caused problems for later reprints, especially dedicated collected editions, and even here in a long sequential run it feels as if either a decision to do something big for issue #50 crept up on Lee and/or Kirby and suddenly they had to rush to get it in, or else the Inhumans storyline was plotted on the hoof and ran out of things to do.

That story also shows vague signs of at least one of the creators starting to tire of the series, even though this volume only covers the middle part of their amazing 102 issue run. But with the Inhumans it often feels as though the Fantastic Four are largely observer on the sidelines with much of the action driven and resolved by the Inhumans themselves. Reed may save Triton's life and Johnny may have fallen for Crystal, but a lot of the story including the later escape from the dome imprisoning the Great Refuge could have been told in a dedicated Inhumans series without the Four's presence at all. Were the Inhumans originally planned to be stars in their own series? The leading characters in the Royal Family are far more individually developed than the members of the average lost or alien civilisation and each comes with a distinct costume. And this was the period when both The Addams Family and The Munsters were running on television so it wouldn't be surprising for Marvel to have its own weird family that lives detached from the rest of the world and generating a lot of comedy based on the culture clash. But this was the period when Marvel's distribution arrangements still restricted the number of titles it could publish and there simply would not have been room for a new title or anthology strip. So instead what looks like a planned debut storyline has been dropped into Fantastic Four without stopping to better integrate the regular characters into the strip. One consequence is that later on Johnny and Wyatt spend many issues trying to get Lockjaw to teleport through the barrier that seals of the Great Refuge, only for it to eventually be shattered by Black Bolt and Johnny only learns of this when Crystal reaches him. As subplots go, this one rather fizzles out. Also left unaddressed is the fate of the Frightful Four with Medusa abandoning the group to return to her family, leaving a team whose name doesn't allow much flexibility in membership size.

The Black Panther also feels like he may have been planned for his own strip from the outset, but his introduction makes a much better use of the existing characters as he invites the Four to Wakanda first to fight them as a test and then they help him against an invasion by Klaw and his mercenaries. The Black Panther's name slightly predates the political group but it's not hard to see his creation as a response to developments in race relations at the time. And rather than presenting a stereotyped noble savage or an angry man from the American streets, the fantastical series gives us a strong ruler of his own country, the hero king archetype. In the 1960s there was great hope and optimism about Africa as most of it was decolonised and the newly independent countries set about making a mark. There's no indication of Wakanda having been a colony itself but otherwise it represents this confident optimism with a paradise that has utilised its resources to produce advanced technology which the Panther is willing to lend or give to the Fantastic Four for the greater good.

Also reflecting developments of the era is Wyatt Wingfoot, Johnny's roommate at university. A Native American with a proud heritage he does not fall into the stereotypes at all, instead showing intelligence, talent and articulation. He may lack powers of his own but he proves a loyal friend to first Johnny and then the rest of the Four, helping them in several of their adventures without concern for the risk to himself. In a number of ways the series was reflecting progressive developments of the time well.

Unfortunately this wasn't always the case. When it comes to the series' portrayal of women the pattern isn't so fantastic. Medusa is a strong character able to hold her own whether amongst the Frightful Four or the Inhumans but Crystal isn't developed too well and comes across a bit too much as a weak younger sister rather than as a being with strong powers in her own right. But it's Sue who gets it the worst. She and Reed get married in Annual #3 but her husband doesn't seem keen to spend some time on his married life, instead forever rushing back to the laboratory and getting annoyed with Sue. She in turn continues to often be portrayed as a weak defenceless thing, often cowering and needing rescued even though her powers are growing to the point that on some occasions she deploys both her forcefields and the ability to make other objects invisible with bold effect. She's also willing to risk her life but overall she still feels like she's being treated as a weak and fragile thing.

The wedding annual is one of the first big event moments in Marvel history and there are no end of guest stars and foes as Doctor Doom uses a mind control device to get almost every known villain in the Marvel universe to attack. Fortunately a lot of heroes are around, either as guests or they happen to be in the neighbourhood, and the villains are picked off one by one. The guest appearances aren't limited to superheroes either, with Patsy Walker and Hedy Wolfe showing up on panel in search of Millie the Model, whilst Jack Kirby and Stan Lee get turned away from the church by S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. Even the Two Gun Kid makes it onto the cover. The issue is a snapshot of the wider Marvel universe after several years of intense development but as a story in its own right it feels a little too close to a checklist hiding under a weak plot with a whole succession of incidents as one or more foes show up to get taken out by a group of heroes until the Watcher gives Reed access to a device to dispatch all the foes and give them amnesia. All in all it's a rather poor celebration of the then-present Marvel universe.

Annual #4 contains a celebration of past Marvel glories with the first Silver Age appearance of the original Human Torch. But he gets revived only long enough to fight the modern Human Torch before being killed, seemingly forever (if that can happen to an android), by the Mad Thinker. On the face of it seems to have been produced to answer enquiries by the early generation of comic fans - within the story itself Ben and Reed discuss one such letter. But give that it was almost 28 years since the character's creation, was this Marvel's way of reasserting ownership? (The one thing I understand clearly about the old US copyright laws is that not much was clear, so I don't know if actual recent publication was needed for renewal at the 28 year mark.) But whatever the reason, the result is an all too inconsequential story that doesn't really give the old hero one last great adventure to go out in spectacular glory and certainly doesn't compare to the revivals of the Sub-Mariner or Captain America.

More spectacular is the Galactus storyline as the Four try to save Earth from being consumed by an all powerful being. However, as noted above, it has some problems with pacing due to being squeezed by the overrunning Inhumans storyline and also by taking Johnny off to university. But it also offers both great spectacles and close, human moments as the Silver Surfer discovers the nobility of humanity through his encounter with Alicia and opts to turn on his master. This confines him to Earth but within this volume that turns out to be more of a problem for Doctor Doom whose attempt at world domination by stealing the Surfer's powers comes to an end when he's lured into the barrier around Earth. This latter story shows the series growing in confidence as it continues to mix and match elements to create an evermore ongoing saga.

But it also maintains the smaller, personal human moments. Issue #51's "This Man... This Monster" has long been applauded for its personalised tale as an embittered scientist steals the Ben's monstrous form as part of a plan to dispose of the Four and prove himself superior, but he subsequently comes to respect Reed's selflessness and sacrifices his life to save him. After a run of dramatic big idea storylines it's good to get some smaller, more character based moments and this one works as both that and also to show the series can pace well when it needs to.

In general this volume seems a mix. It has some spectacular creations and stories, but it's let down by both the pacing and an excessive focus on the Inhumans without really integrating the Four into their adventures. The book is still experimenting with artforms and story structures but doesn't always get these right, and this is the main problem with an otherwise solid book.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Stan Goldberg 1932-2014



Artist and colourist Stan Goldberg has passed away. He was 82.

His art was prolific and mainly on the various soap opera, comedy and teen titles such as Millie the Model & spin-offs, Kathy the Teen-Age Tornado and Patsy Walker & spin-offs for Marvel and similar work for both DC and Archie Comics. His last Marvel work was co-pencilling one of the least predicted team-ups of all - The Punisher Meets Archie in 1994.

In addition he coloured many, many comics, often uncredited, and drew many covers.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Essential Moon Knight volume 2

Essential Moon Knight volume 2 carries issues #11-30 of his first series. Most of the issues are written by Doug Moench with some back-ups and/or fill-ins by Jack C. Harris, Alan Zelenetz, Denny O'Neil and Steven Grant. The art is mainly by Bill Sienkiewicz with other contributions, mainly on back-ups, by Denys Cowan, Jimmy James, Vicente Alcazar, Greg LaRocque, Keith Pollard, Joe Brozowski and Kevin Nolan.

Issue #15 represents a minor landmark in US comics history as it saw the series shifted to become a direct market only title, also receiving an increase in both pages and price. Together with Ka-Zar and Micronauts, the title had experienced strong sales in comic shops but poor returns on the newsstands and this move allowed each series to survive and even specialise without the restrictions of the newsstands - for one thing the Comics Code Authority stamp disappears after issue #15. However it also made the title inaccessible to those without easy access to a comic shop (and there were several reasons why subscriptions weren't a viable solution for all) and it effectively marked the beginning of a slow market retreat to the ghettos of the comic shops. In cases where a book appealed primarily to the niche of buyers that had already moved over to the direct market it doubtlessly made more sense to do this than try to raise newsstand sales but in the long term it contributed to much of the industry deserting a broader market and making it harder to recruit new readers to keep up overall interest.

However the direct market switch brings with it a much more experimental approach. Story lengths now vary considerably, ranging from lengthy multi-part epics to stories that only take up part of a single issue. The rear of the issues are sometimes enhanced by features such as editorials, commentary by creators, guides to equipment, galleries of images and so forth. Even the covers experiment a bit including a striking black and white cover on issue #24, reproduced as the volume's cover. Only two guest stars appear in the direct market only issues and one is the Werewolf, appropriately returning after the conclusion of his own series to now encounter its breakout character. The character's intervening time is explained by having been on the run from a cult. The other is Brother Voodoo, stepping out of a similar limbo to appear in a story set in Haiti complete with zombies. Daredevil and his foe the Jester appear in one of the last issues also available on newsstands, and the Thing makes a two-page cameo billed on the cover of one of the first direct market only issues (an appearance probably planned when the series was still on general release) but otherwise the series keeps very much to itself. Again this makes sense given the direct market only format as it could needlessly annoy newsstand fans of other characters to deny them the chance to see a guest appearance. And the Micronauts and Ka-Zar, the only other characters for whom this would not be an issue, are not exactly naturals to appear in the grim and gritty world Moon Knight inhabits.

In contrast to the turmoil of the first volume, this one shows a remarkable degree of stability with a firm focus of the character's crime fighting side, with occasional dipping into his mercenary past but with the Egyptian deity elements largely confined to statues that may have powers or it may just be the beliefs of those around them. The supporting cast is primarily that already established albeit with the addition of Detective Flint, a police officer who regularly supplies Moon Knight with information. For the most part the supporting characters remain on the sidelines though the very first issue here deals with Frenchie's revenge when an ex-girlfriend reappears only to be murdered for failing to deliver a supply of cocaine.

Marlene is the main exception, with some prominent roles throughout the run and her continuing displeasure with the way Moon Knights various identities are becoming personas in their own right, feeling that she has helped create a monster. One storyline sees her brother Peter, a doctor, suffering at the hands of his patients who has been twisted by drugs into Morpheus, a being who cannot voluntarily sleep and who can project nightmares into others via a mental link with Peter. At first it seems that Morpheus could be a recurring foe but his powers are neutralised in his return appearance when Peter exploits the link to feedback psionic energy, dying in the process. Marlene's grief is wisely not dwelt on but it adds to her growing dissatisfaction with Moon Knight's approach and identities to the point where she decides to leave him. When new foe the Black Spectre turns out to be an outside candidate for Mayor, Marlene agrees to go under cover but comes to believe in Carson Knowles and sees Moon Knight's public accusations as persecution. She subsequently discovers the truth and returns to him but it's a reminder of how strong and independent she can be. In another storyline she winds up taking the job of bodyguard for a terrorist and the series all but shows her sleeping with him as part of her mission. The character is a far cry from the average superhero girlfriend.

And Moon Knight is not the average superhero. His identity crisis continues to bubble away, with ever increasing - and sometimes contradictory - insistence that he is any particular persona at a precise moment, to the confusion of those around him. During his second encounter with Morpheus he experiences a nightmare in which Steven Grant, Jake Lockley and Marc Spector all attack him, showing up his worst nightmare. Later on Grant is sitting at home when he witnesses a vision of Marc Spector angrily lashing out at others but unable to finish himself off, with Grant commenting that through Moon Knight they are all paying for Spector's sins. Of all his identities it's Marc Spector that he tries to avoid the most, yet Spector is his original persona. For the most part Moon Knight seems able to keep on top of the confusion but there are indications that he may eventually break down into a mess of contradictory and warring selves. Otherwise the character continues in what appears to be a Batman mould but coming out some years before Frank Miller reached Gotham City it seems the flow of inspiration was not all one way. Moon Knight continues to be put through a variety of problems both at home and abroad, including facing the loss of everything he has, but he manages to come through thanks to his guile and gadgets.

His Marc Spector persona is not completely sidelined as a number of issues carry back-up stories highlighting aspects of his career, including some set during his days as a mercenary - there's a particularly dark story where he's commissioned to steal a box from one sculptor for another and it turns out to contain the head of the Gorgon Medusa. In a reversal of the traditional myth Spector uses a mirror to turn the head's back on itself and upon its wielder. Other back-up stories range from present day tales by alternate creators, some of them perhaps auditioning to take over the series if needs be, to tales of the statue of Khonshu and how the statue scared a crook in a museum into locking himself in a sarcophagus or how it seemingly used its power to clear a minefield and help a bunch of stereotypical British soldiers in American uniforms to win the battle of El Alamein. Such tales wouldn't appear in most Marvel series but here they help to enhance the background to the series and were doubtlessly a welcome change from adverts when the series's price increased.

Although a lot of the issues have single part stories mainly dealing with one-off urban villains, there are some that take the series in different directions and introduce potential recurring adversaries, though not all survive. As noted above the threat of Morpheus is neutralised early on, but in the opposite direction the character of Stained Glass Scarlet seemingly starts out as a one-off, a sorrowful nun turned mother turned recluse living in an abandoned church who finds herself shooting her gangster son dead. But subsequently she becomes a crossbow-wielding vigilante, declaring war on mobsters in general and Moon Knight finds himself ultimate missing on purpose and letting her escape. The difference between Moon Knight, operating outside the police but usually with their tacit approval and individual support as he generally seeks to bring crooks to justice, and Scarlet, operating completely on her own as she seeks to execute them, may seem a hair split at first but it's a core dividing line as to how vigilantes are usually portrayed in comics and the source of much philosophical debate. Elsewhere the Black Spectre explicitly models himself on Moon Knight but his failed venture into politics somewhat restrains his potential for reuse. Elsewhere the foes are one-offs - various mobster types and terrorists but also corrupt police officers and those who seek to purge the force of them as well as a man driven mad by childhood abuse seeking vengeance on his just deceased father.

The longest story in the volume is an epic adventure that pits Moon Knight, Marlene and Frenchie against a group of terrorists hell-bent on the destruction of the west. The Third World Army is a coalition of terrorist groups from across the political spectrum, headed by the anarchist Nimrod Strange. Privately disavowing their public political goals, they are fanatics who will take aid from right and left wing dictatorships only to play them off against one another to bring the world to its knees. Few take them seriously but the Mossad has realised their true threat. When Benjamin Abramov, Marc's oldest friend, is gunned down in the mansion by the organisations top assassin the Master Sniper, it begins a journey that takes Moon Knight to Switzerland, Israel, Lebanon, the Indian Ocean and finally back to New York. Along the way Moon Knight, Marlene and Frenchie have to infiltrate the organisation, with Marlene becoming one of Strange's elite female bodyguards and harem. Strange himself adopts armour to become Arsenal and almost kills Moon Knight before departing to hijack multiple oil tankers and use them to destroy Manhattan, in a plan lifted directly from US anti-terrorism planning. The pace of the story is relentless and it doesn't pull its punches either with a number of atrocities depicted including the gunning down of a congregation at a synagogue. Arsenal becomes another foe whose long term potential is sacrificed on the altar of a dramatic resolution to the story but it works. It's a tough storyline that combines the global threat with the personal element as Moon Knight seeks to complete Ben's work as well as repay Arsenal for his slights. At a guess this storyline (in issues #17 to #20) was the first to be prepared for the direct market and it shows a willingness to stretch beyond the confines of the Comics Code authority without being gratuitous simply for its own sake. It's a good example of how the series adapts to changed conditions and sets out to offer something truly unique.

In general this is a series that does well to rise to the challenges set, continuing to offer a hero with a very unusual identity situation whilst also adapting well to its changed market position and experimenting within the format and outlet. There are some themes handled here that are more adult than those found in the Comics Code Authority books on the newsstand, but never once does it feel like its being puerile or gratuitous just to show off its freedom. Instead it continues to build a solid and distinctive series, using the expanded page count to explore multiple stories and features and allow other creators onto the characters without feeling like quick fill-ins. Sienkiewicz's art looks amazing in black and white and Moench's scripts remain strong, producing quite a solid volume.

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 story...so 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.
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