Friday, 18 July 2014

Essential Man-Thing volume 1

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

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

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

[Lengthy pause.]

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

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

Now down to business.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Essential Man-Thing volume 1 - creator labels

Yet again we have a volume with a lot of creators, so here's a separate post to carry the labels for some of them.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Essential Marvel Two-in-One volume 3

Essential Marvel Two-in-One volume 3 carries issues #53-77 and annuals #4-5. Most of the issues are written jointly by Mark Gruenwald and Ralph Macchio with a few by one or the other solo; the last few are by Tom DeFalco with one of his plots scripted by David Michelinie. One annual is plotted by Allyn Brodsky and scripted by Michelinie, the other is both written and drawn by Alan Kupperberg. The other annual is drawn by Jim Craig and Bob Budiansky whilst the regular series art is mainly by a mixture of John Byrne, George Pérez, Chic Stone, Jerry Bingham and Ron Wilson, with individual issues by Mike Nasser, Frank Springer and Alan Kupperberg. And yes, a separate post is needed to carry some of the labels. Bonus material consists of a diagram of the Project Pegasus complex that originally appeared in issue #53 but is placed at the very end of the volume here.

Per the usual for team-up titles, here's the rundown on the titled guest stars in each issue:

53. Quasar
54. Deathlok
55. Giant-Man [formerly Black Goliath]
56. Thundra
57. Wundarr
58. Aquarian
Annual 4. Black Bolt
59. The Human Torch
60. Impossible Man
61. Starhawk
62. Moondragon
63. Warlock
64. Stingray
65. Triton
66. Scarlet Witch
67. Hyperion
68. Angel
69. Guardians of the Galaxy
70. ?
71. Mr. Fantastic
72. The Inhumans
73. Quasar
74. Puppet Master
Annual 5. Hulk
75. Avengers
76. Iceman
77. Man-Thing

This is very much a list drawn from the obscure end of the Marvel universe, even if there are some big name exceptions including Marvel's then biggest TV star on a tour of guest appearances. But ever more so the series is a Thing solo title with guest stars rather than a genuine series with two heroes in one book. Indeed such is the dominance that issue #70 doesn't actually have a guest star, with a question mark on the cover and the nearest to fulfilling the role being the Yancy Street Gang who only show up for a few pages at the end.

Storywise we have a mixture of one-off issues with a guest star of the month and longer multi-part sagas that bring together a variety of heroes and even villains in rotation. One such example comes in the first six issues which comprise "The Pegasus Project" saga. This story sees Ben going to join the security service at the energy research facility and getting caught up in a multi-facetted plot undertaken by Dr Thomas Lightner, the younger half of Blacksun. Also working at the centre are Quasar and Black Goliath, the latter of whom is persuaded to change his name to "Giant-Man". (It takes Ben to point out that "Goliath" was a bad man and, more obviously, that it's clear he's black so there's no need to say it, in a subtle mini-backlash at the 1970s trend for giving numerous black heroes and villains the prefix "Black" in their name to the point that even the pre-existing Aquaman foe Black Manta was revealed as black.) The storyline manages to juggle in extra co-stars through a combination of occasionally giving the villain second billing and by building up the character of Wundarr to the point where he's transformed into the powerful, but about a decade out of date, hippie Aquarian. In general the individual chapters in the saga manage to bring enough diversity to keep them interesting but overall the story seems a little loose because Wundarr/Aquarian is rather detached from the rest of the events until the climax whilst the overall plot to sabotage and destroy the facility is somewhat pedestrian in its execution, even though it's at the behest of Roxxon, the regular Dastardly Evil Corporation, who want to maintain an energy monopoly. At the time the story was originally published the oil crisis was at its height so the story may have had more impact at the time, but nowadays the public focus in energy research is more on cutting emissions than replacing oil and so some of the impact is lost.

Another mini-epic sees the Thing and Starhawk first fight and then ally with "Her", formerly Paragon, and Moondragon as Her is on a quest to find the body of Adam Warlock. The story even resurrects Warlock's body, though not his soul, and also wraps up several loose ends from Warlock's adventures such as the real reason why he had expanded in size to the point where the Earth was smaller than his fingernail, how he soon shrank down, why the Soul Gem only began stealing souls when it did (and, implicitly, just why only one of the six Soul Gems had been seen to work on souls; however in the 1990s the point was solved by renaming them the Infinity Gems), the fate of Counter-Earth and the final encounter between Warlock and the High Evolutionary which was only predicted and never previously shown. The story also introduces an alien race headed by Sphinxor who are moving planets on behalf of the unseen powerful entities known as "the Beyonders" - that name being used four years before Secret Wars. Fortunately all the revelations are confined to a single issue but I wonder what Marvel Two-in-One readers who had never followed Warlock's adventures made of such a continuity heavy issue. The earlier issues are, fortunately, structured in such a way that readers less familiar with Her or Starhawk or Moondragon can share Ben's discovery whilst those who had read their past adventures can enjoy the story on a different level as it tidies up continuity. This tale was left out of Essential Warlock volume 1 and earlier reprintings of Warlock's saga, perhaps because of space, perhaps because only the third issue is directly relevant, but it doesn't feel a great loss and in any case the original publication was about three or four years after that series had ended.

Lurking in the story is Starhawk of the Guardians of the Galaxy, alongside his wife Aleta who has been merged with him, but there isn't too much more revealed about them. The whole team of Guardians appears in a later issue as Major Vance Astro tracks down his younger self, in the hope of convincing him to not become an astronaut and thus get trapped in space for a millennium. As we saw in the last volume, Ben is all too aware of how futile this can be, but the Major wants to at least spare one incarnation and succeeds, albeit at the cost of triggering his younger counterpart's mutant telekinetic powers. In later years the younger Vance would go on to be variously the Thing's sidekick, a founder member of the New Warriors and an Avenger but there's only a slight hint of all at that here.

The other epic in the volume is "The Serpent Crown Affair" in which the president of Roxxon seeks to acquire two parallel universe versions of the Serpent Crown and take over the country. It's a relatively tame story that only comes together in the third and final part and is also interrupted by other plot threads such featuring the likes of Thundra and Hyperion or the plight of the Hydro-Men, humans mutated into amphibians. Consequently this team-up with Stingray, Triton and, later on, the Scarlet Witch, feels rather slight and inconsequential even though it once more plays a role in tying up past continuity. Sub-plots in these issues later blossom out as Thundra finds herself teamed with Hyperion (of the Squadron Sinister) and steals an "Nth-Projector" in the hope of travelling to an alternate version of her world which has survived. Meanwhile the plight of the Hydro-Men is followed up in a later two-parter where Mr. Fantastic undertakes the research to produce a cure whilst Ben, some of the Inhumans and Stingray play games and get caught in a plot by the mysterious Maelstrom to steal the chemical that will reverse the effects of the Inhumans' Terrigan Mists that grant them their powers. Another issue follows up on the "Nth-Projector" and Roxxon as the Thing and Quasar travel to a world where dinosaurs and cavemen exist side by side and where the corporation is tapping a new supply of oil.

This attention to detail with plots and ideas flowing from one issue to another helps to make the bulk of these issues a strong coherent whole and it's easy to see why many consider this to be the golden age of the series. However there are still low points, particularly with the two annuals that are equally forgettable. One of them is a mundane team-up with Black Bolt of the Inhumans to take on a power enhanced Graviton. The other sees the Stranger bring together the Thing and the Hulk, the latter at the height of his fame due to the television series, in order to save the universe from the Greek god Pluto. (Surely he should be called "Hades"? All the other Greek gods are depicted with their Greek not Roman names.) Neither are good examples of the series as a whole, just random team-ups.

The regular issues have a mixture of returning and new foes, with first appearances by a number of them starting with the Grapplers, a group of female wrestlers. Consisting of Titania (a name used by a number of different characters over the years), Letha, Poundcakes and Screaming Mimi, now best known as Songbird. Then there are the Serpent Squad, initially consisting of Sidewinder, Anaconda, Black Mamba and Death Adder. Or there's  Maelstrom's and his minions Gronk, Helio, Phobius and, seemingly more powerful than any of the others, Deathurge. Making their first appearances here after featuring in other series are a number of foes. Naturally a good number were originally seen in Fantastic Four, such as Klaw, the Terrible Trio, consisting of Bull Brogin, "Handsome" Harry Phillips and Yogi Dakor, or the ex-minions of the Pyscho-Man Shellshock and Live Wire. A trip into the Negative Zone brings the first encounter between Blastaar and Annihilus. Coming from other series are Nuklo, previously seen in Avengers, Solarr, who first appeared in Captain America, the Toad, hailing from X-Men, and the Super-Adaptoid who debuted in Captain America's strip in Tales to Astonish. And it seems no Marvel series would be complete without the Circus of Crime, first seen in this incarnation in the early days of the Incredible Hulk but they've since been retconned as the successors to a group first seen in the 1940s Captain America Comics. Indeed it may be their appearance here that first makes that connection. Not all issues have a clear foe with some instead presenting a problem, such as the one where the Thing and the Human Torch have to mop up after a man determined to live out all his childhood goals before he turns 30. Elsewhere a test flight goes wrong and Ben crashes in the Man-Thing's swamp where he dreams of working with Sergeant Fury and his Howling Commandos during the Second World War - a surprising reference for 1981 as it would make Ben considerably older than he's normally portrayed as.

Also developed well is Ben's relationship with Alicia as he gets more concerned about the danger to her, resulting in a temporary break-up and then after reconciliation she agrees to move into the safer confines of the Baxter Building. Issue #74 is a Christmas special in which her stepfather the Puppet Master is released from prison and manipulates Ben and Alicia into taking him to a new supply of radioactive clay to make his puppets from; however after an encounter with Modred, whose mind has regressed to childhood, the Puppet Master sees the error of his ways and seeks to reform.

By now this series is firing on all pistons though at times the guest stars are either interchangeable or simply superfluous, leaving the book as very much the Thing's show. There are no issues where he's temporarily replaced by another big name hero, which is more than can be said for Spider-Man in Marvel Team-Up, and instead we get a strong string of adventures that flow well from one to the next. There's a clear desire to tidy continuity in some of Mark Gruenwald's co-authored stories but apart from the Warlock issue it never feels as though the series has been hijacked just to address obscure points. Instead we get a solid run of one good Thing after another.

Essential Marvel Two-in-One volume 3 - creator labels

Once again we have a volume with a lot of creators, so here's a separate post to carry the labels for some of them.

Friday, 4 July 2014

Essential Defenders volume 2

This month will see the release of the Guardians of the Galaxy film. In the absence of any dedicated Essentials for any version of the team, let alone the modern one, I'm going to take a look at a volume containing one of the original's earliest storylines.

Essential Defenders volume 2 reprints Defenders #15-30 and Giant-Size Defenders #1-4 plus Marvel Two-in-One #6-7, Marvel Team-Up #33-35 and Marvel Treasury Edition #12. The regular Defenders issues are written first by Len Wein and then by Steve Gerber, with one by Bill Mantlo. Wein and Gerber write most of the Giant-Sizes with Tony Isabella writing a framing sequence in the first that carries reprints of past stories by Stan Lee, Bill Everett and Denny O'Neil from the likes of Incredible Hulk #3, Sub-Mariner Comics #41 and Strange Tales #145, representing solo tales from each of the three founders. The Marvel Two-in-One issues and the Marvel Treasury Edition are by Gerber whilst the Marvel Team-Up issues are by Gerry Conway. The regular issues are all drawn by Sal Buscema, as is the Marvel Treasury Edition, all of the Marvel Team-Ups and one of the Marvel Two-in-Ones, whilst the Giant-Sizes are by Jim Starlin, Gil Kane and Don Heck with the reprints carrying the art of Jack Kirby, Everett and Steve Ditko. The other Marvel Two-in-One issue is drawn by George Tuska. Inevitably the creator labels are in a separate post.

This volume suffers badly from the momentum being interrupted by various extra issues being included. Whilst the Marvel Two-in-One issues are part of a crossover with Defenders, and the Giant-Sizes invariably get collected with the regular series (though only the last one's storyline flows directly into the regular series), the Marvel Team-Up issues are utterly inconsequential to the ongoing series and feel as though they've been included solely to make up the numbers with guest appearances. And the Marvel Treasury Edition is a Howard the Duck special in which he teams up with the Defenders, but the entire tone of the piece is very much that of Howard's series rather than the Defenders, in spite of the two sharing the same writer, and once again it feels rather out of place here. Wouldn't it have been better to advance the regular title a few more issues rather then including these diversions that drag things out? But in spite of them the series has now got a clear sense of its purpose and cast.

By now there's a clear core membership consisting of Doctor Strange, the Hulk, Valkyrie and Nighthawk, but with a good number of other heroes passing through the pages. It isn't always clear in issues themselves with other heroes as to who is a temporary member and who is merely a guest star, but in Giant-Size #4 captions mention the wider heroes Doctor Strange could perhaps call upon and lists the Sub-Mariner, the Silver Surfer and "...perhaps even Power Man ... Daredevil ... Daimon Hellstrom ... Hawkeye" in what is effectively the first canonical list of all the team's "members". But the nature of the beast is such that only the core regulars can be clearly identified. Still it's the heroes on this list who are turned to when most of the regulars plus Yellowjacket are captured by the Sons of the Serpent. Notably steps are taken such that contact methods are cut before the Sub-Mariner, Silver Surfer or Hawkeye can be reached. It would also seem from these lists that Professor X, the Thing and, in the previous volume, Namorita all fall firmly on the guest star side of things, as do the Guardians of the Galaxy and Howard the Duck who pop up later on in the volume. On a different level Valkyrie's sort of ex-husband Jack Norriss winds up aiding the team more than once, even getting transported to the future, but his presence, though useful, isn't really desired either.

Instead we have a clear core membership, and even ex-membership, though the team hasn't taken on the hassle of constitutions, approval processes and formal initiations. The four core members are clearly happy to work together in spite of their disparate origins, powers and personalities. Namor the Sub-Mariner and the Silver Surfer have both left the team and in spite of the volume's cover, reproducing that of Giant-Size Defenders #1, they don't actually show up in the present. Their sole appearances are confined to reprints of past solo adventures in Giant-Size #1, though curiously whilst Namor's is incorporated into the issue's narrative, and thus represented here, the Silver Surfer's reprint was separate and is thus left out. Oddly the introductory blurb that appears on each issue until #25 continues to list Namor as a part of "the greatest NON-TEAM in history", suggesting someone failed to notice that he had left in issue #14 or that his motivation was precisely because the Defenders were now clearly becoming a coherent team.

Of the regulars, it's inevitable the two without their own titles who get the most character development. Valkyrie is steadily coming to terms with being an artificial construct with no past of her own, placed in the body of a mortal woman, and trying to discover more about Barbara Noriss's life of which she has no memory. This leads to a trek to Barbara's home town and encounters with first old friends and then her father, all the time being unable to return their feelings for her. The worst comes with Barbara's husband Jack, who just cannot comprehend that it's not actually his wife in her body and he often acts the devoted, defending husband to a woman who neither asks for it nor needs it. Despite the problems of her past, Valkyrie makes the best of her situation and more than proves herself in battle. Her only weakness is one that feels rather out of place for a Marvel hero and especially a Bronze Age hero - she is unable to fight another female, whether human, alien or robotic, without succumbing to crippling pains. It feels more at home with a vulnerability to fire or crumbling at the sight of a green rock or the inability to use a power against the colour yellow rather than the personality flaws, power limitations or physiological factors that usually restrain Marvel heroes. But in spite of this Valkyrie serves well as an equal member of the team. There are hints early on that she and Nightcrawler might become an item but it never comes off. However at one point he buys an ex-riding school to serve as a stable for Valkyrie's horse Aragorn. Otherwise Nightcrawler is steadily building himself up in his heroic role but also finding that things in his company aren't always in line with his orders. He may be a rich socialite but he also has his vulnerable side, especially when he and girlfriend Trish Starr are caught in a car explosion that costs her her left arm and then he declines to offer sufficient commitment and she leaves him. Meanwhile the Hulk is in one of his best periods, having finally found the permanent friends he has been looking for for so long and seems calmer than usual. He's also getting better at remembering things and realising other points such that his own skin makes him a target of the Sons of the Serpent. Doctor Strange is very much in his traditional form, though at times his powers are used a little too easily to resolve a situation. However this is rare and otherwise he serves well as the team's leading hand.

The various additional issues offer a variety of adventures, ranging from the needless such as the Marvel Team-Up fights with the Meteorite Man, formerly the Looter, or Jeremiah, a religious fanatic mutant, to the team building such as the Giant-Sizes. The first fills out details on the founding Defenders and then subsequent issues introduce the team to a range of guest stars including Daimon Hellstrom the Son of Satan, Daredevil, Yellowjacket and then the Guardians of the Galaxy. The foes in these issues are just as diverse, including individual Defenders' old foes such as the demon Asmodeus from Doctor Strange, Nighthawk's former villainous team the Squadron Sinister or Yellowjacket's old foe Egghead. There's also more general Marvel foes such as the Badoon, the Grandmaster or the Prime Mover, as well as new ones of whom the most significant is Korvac. Over in the Treasury Edition the Defenders and Howard tackle the Band of the Bland, a group of deliberately unoriginal villains made up of Dr. Angst, Sitting Bullseye, Black Hole, Spanker and Tillie the Hun.

Over in the regular issues there's a succession of epics against a mixture of established and new foes, with quite a few ramifications for the wider Marvel universe. We kick off with one of the last X-Men appearances from their wilderness years as Professor X sides with the Defenders against Magneto and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants; Magneto's hubris leads him to create Alpha the Ultimate Mutant who judges the Brotherhood unworthy and deages them to babies. (Now there's at least an interim solution to the problem of Magneto being tied to real world history without noticeably ageing.) Then a team-up with Luke Cage, Power Man brings the first ever appearance of the Wrecking Crew as the Wrecker acquires a team around him. Notably the team's black member, Thunderball, is the most intelligent of them, being a nuclear physicist. Valkyrie's quest for her past brings both a crossover with the Thing's title Marvel Two-in-One and also a battle with the Enchantress and the Executioner then with the Nameless One. Then there's an extended clash with the Sons of the Serpent, Marvel's stock group of racists with elements of the Ku Klux Klan about them. This adventure brings the return of several heroes including Yellowjacket, Daredevil, Power Man and the Son of Satan, but also the revelation that the Sons are led by a black man trying to "escape 'my own people'" and to enhance Nighthawk's company's profits. There are also some one-off issues including the introduction of the Headmen, a weird group of villains with distinctly odd heads whether Gorilla Man, a human one grafted onto an ape, Shrunken Bones, whose skeleton has reduced leaving the flesh loose, or Chondu, a mystic whose head has been grafted onto other bodies. And there's Tapping Tommy, who wants revenge for a succession of failures including the musical genre and takes it out on Nighthawk for buying an old studio to turn into housing, using robots in the process.

One of the biggest epics comes near the end as the Defenders meet the Guardians of the Galaxy and travel with them into a dark future where mankind has overcome self-inflicted disasters and invasion to build an empire with bio-engineering diversifying the human form, but the human race has now been conquered by the Brotherhood of the Badoon. It's a tale that incorporates time travel, including Major Vance Astro meeting his younger self, multiple worlds, the fierce gender divide amongst the Badoon, various alien worlds, the mysterious Starhawk and a showdown that begins a revolution. The story shows real epic and ambition, helping to expand the original Guardians mythology and roster no end without feeling like an intrusion on the Defenders. Nor does it end neatly, with Doctor Strange transporting his team back in time upon realising that Starhawk embodies the human race and its hope.

Steve Gerber's writing takes on both a distinctly odd turn and a degree of social commentary, though it's not as pronounced as his work on Howard the Duck. In the Sons of the Serpent story there's also a look at the horrors of the slums and signs of hope when Jack Norriss's surge of courage to save "his wife" spurs a watching crowd of whites to attack the Sons. Later there's an extended history of the Earth from the present day until the 31st century, taking in not only the continuity of Killraven but also ecological collapse, the dangers of unfettered capitalism destroying the environment, colonialism from both ends and much more. Elsewhere we get the odd situations and characters, with the first appearance of the mysterious Elf with a Gun who pops up to shoot a random person for seemingly no reason at all. However one thing I don't like about Gerber's work is the resort to a page of mainly text with a single drawn panel and the story advanced in narration, a device he resorts to more than once. It feels like the issue in question was poorly paced and this was an effort to rectify it.

When the regular series is in full flow then this volume is generally quite good and fun to read, with a wonderful diversity of scope and characterisation, not to mention the weirder elements. However when the series gets interrupted by numerous specials, crossovers and guest appearances then it the momentum frequently fails and the volume grinds to a halt. It would have been much better to leave out all the Marvel Team-Ups and the Marvel Treasury Edition and just concentrate on the core Defenders a bit more.

Essential Defenders volume 2 - creator labels

Yet again we have a volume with a lot of creators, so here's a separate post to carry the labels for some of them.

Friday, 27 June 2014

Essential Wolverine volume 2

Essential Wolverine volume 2 consists of issues #24-47. The writing sees the end of Peter David's run plus a later fill-in issue, a brief run by (Mary) Jo Duffy and the start of Larry Hama's long run. The art includes a long stretch by Marc Silvestri, plus individual issues by Gene Colan, John Buscema, Klaus Janson, Barry Kitson, Bill Jaaska, Larry Stroman and Gerald DeCaire.

Coming from the early years of the Essentials, it's unsurprising that this volume restricts itself solely to Wolverine's main series and does not include his strips from Marvel Comics Presents, with the most notable storyline, "Weapon X", running during the same period. Understandably there's too much Marvel Comics Presents material for later editions to even try to correct the omission, but nor has the series been touched by the Essentials and given its own volume, so once again key Wolverine material has to be sought elsewhere, including a major part of his origin. Fortunately there are no overt references to the Marvel Comics Presents strip, and Wolverine's mysterious past often allows for introductions out of the blue so return appearances by characters introduced in the strip don't stick out, so on a raw reading it's possible to not even realise there were other adventures published that are not included here. But once that awareness is there the lost opportunity stands out all too well.

For those reading just the issues collected here, Wolverine's background remains mysterious to the readers and, at times, to the man himself, not helped by different writers seemingly taking separate approaches to just how much he appears to remember about it. In issue #25 we get offered a possible glimpse at part of his origin. Whilst guarding and babysitting the son of a crimelord, he tells a bedtime story about a Canadian boy who was cast out into the wilderness for being small and weak, but grew up with wolverines and learned to fight when trappers came. It's clear from the pictures just who the boy is intended to be, but is the story meant to be imaginary or is it in fact a true account of Wolverine's past? Later in issue #34 Wolverine thinks to himself that he can't remember a lot of his past and doesn't know how he came to be wandering around the Canadian wilderness. However an old Mountie slowly realises that Wolverine is both a ferocious corporal he served under in the parachute divisions during the D-Day landings and also a stranger he long ago shot at in the wilderness, mistaking him for the beast known as the "Hunter in the Darkness". Subsequently we discover Wolverine is familiar to some participants in the Spanish Civil War but he can't quite remember it until he and Puck get thrown back in time to it (with the complication that Wolverine starts partaking in events and photographs that Puck can't recall him being originally there for). Then Sabretooth claims to be Wolverine's father though a blood test soon disproves it, yet according to Nick Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D. the claim is based upon a genuine belief, though he won't elaborate on this. Elsewhere issue #26 sees him relive part of his days in Japan and track down the murderer of an old friend. The whole result is a character who remains an enigma but it's not too clear if there's an actual overall plan that the writers are working to, or if they're just tossing out random ideas that will ultimately not all match up.

Peter David's two issues both have the aura of fillers, rather than any substantial conclusion to his run or latter-day revisitation. The first is a piece of macabre humour as an assassin called the "Snow Queen" finds her plans disrupted when a child steals her briefcase, leading to a chase through the back streets of Madripoor and a grim discovery at the end. The second is at the far end of the volume and sees Logan tackling a drug crazed mad man in suburbia who needs to be neutralised, whilst remembering how he and Silver Fox had a dog which caught rabies and had to be put down but he couldn't bring himself to pull the trigger. Jo Duffy's work also starts in filler mode, even though it drops in pieces about Wolverine's past in both Japan and the Canadian wilderness, but then switches into another feature common to the era - the multi-part "biweekly" saga when a book's frequency was briefly increased to twice a month (perhaps that's why there's no annual here). "The Lazarus Project" winds up serving as the winding down of the title's "Madripoor era", throwing in a guest appearance by Karma of the New Mutants and the writing out of Jessica Drew and Lindsay McCabe. The story sees Wolverine briefly lose his memory though in the process he experiences the atrocity of a village being wiped out for an utterly insignificant McGuffin.

The arrival of Larry Hama for what would be quite a long run sees a bold shift in the title's focus, with the Madripoor setting and the various supporting characters rapidly abandoned, albeit with a final brief storyline that also takes in a trip to Japan. Taking their place are adventures set mainly back in North America with an increased use of guest stars. Fortunately there aren't any crossovers within this volume, but it feels like the series is being dragged into being a mere offshoot of the main X-Men titles (the last issue in the volume is from about the time when a second X-Men series was launched) rather than continuing to carve out its own distinctive niche. It's a pity, but perhaps Hama didn't have enough confidence in the Madripoor set-up to make it continue to work. Or maybe reader demand wanted Wolverine on more traditional territory. Equally Hama may have been wary of repeating himself. By this time he had about eight years of the G.I. Joe books under his belt and he may have been conscious of having already depicted a man with ninja connections and a mysterious past so there was a risk of turning Wolverine into another Snake-Eyes. Instead Hama's run, or at least the early part reproduced here, takes the series back into the superhero mainstream.

That's not to say there aren't some occasional detours, such as "Blood and Claws" which sees Wolverine, Lady Deathstrike and Puck (from Alpha Flight) temporarily thrown back in time to the Spanish Civil War, with the complications that they are reliving at least Puck's past. Lady Deathstrike remains a constant theme back in the present day, with her Reavers preparing a trap with two robots, one a duplicate of Wolverine dubbed "Albert" and the other a five year old girl called "Elsie Dee" who is largely comprised of explosives. This leads into a lengthy story as the two robots gain increasing intelligence and start to think for themselves, with Elsie Dee coming to admire Wolverine even though she is programmed to get close to him and then automatically detonate the explosives within her. Both Albert and Elsie survive seeming destruction to keep coming back. Just to add to the complications are the return of Sabretooth and the appearance of Cable which is not at all a sales chaser at a time when he was one of the hottest X-Men characters and giving Wolverine a run for his money as the pre-eminent man with a mysterious past. The whole thing is interspersed with encounters with the Morlocks as well as with various one off killers. There's a mad man who enjoys torturing animals until Logan sets a real wolverine on him, and another who murders several pregnant women having discovered one of them will give birth to a baby who will grow up to be something special. On a different level is Molly Doolin, the vengeance seeking daughter of the Canadian Mountie who died pursuing the "Hunter in the Darkness".

Puck, Storm, Forge and Jubilee all make recurring appearances throughout these issues, but there's no real indigenous supporting cast introduced and developed to replace those from the Madripoor days. We're left with just Wolverine himself, a man with a limited past that generates some interest but which can also limit the opportunity for actual development since the past isn't being properly explored here (or the origin of his adamantium being explored elsewhere referenced here). Instead the main focus is on multi-part adventures with lots of action rather than a great deal of development. It was an early sign of the decompression movement that would see comics drawn out without a great deal actually happening in them. This volume also comes from an era when artists were becoming ever more prominent and at times comics slowed stories down just to emphasise the art. It's hard to resist feeling this was the forerunner of the Image style when Marc Silvestri would be one of that company's seven founders.

These issues were originally published in the early 1990s, which was the time when I first discovered Marvel superhero comics - perhaps a slightly later arrival than many but I plead the mitigating circumstances that Marvel UK had largely dropped out of superheroes for four years, focusing instead on licensed toy and TV tie-ins and that Marvel US titles had no distribution that I knew of in my home town (my local newsagent didn't stock any comics at all). I should in theory take to this volume with all the instinctive loyalty that most people have to their personal "Golden Age" in just about anything, with it being the time when they first got drawn in. But instead I find this volume rather washes me over. Perhaps it was because the comics market was simply so large at the time and Wolverine is a distinct niche appeal that didn't draw me in then and so these issues evoke no nostalgia whatsoever now.

It's a pity because whilst there are some good moments and issues within this volume - my favourite is issue #34 with the hunt in the Canadian wilderness - the overall volume sees the series dump its unique setting and tone in favour of a rather generic style. The result is a rather generic and less than spectacular run. Still it does get bonus points for being a series from the era that doesn't get sucked in to endless crossovers.

Friday, 20 June 2014

Essential Avengers volume 2

Essential Avengers volume 2 contains issues #25-46 plus King-Size Special #1 (the annual by another name) and also, in early editions, the story from Tales to Astonish #27 that introduce Henry Pym, later Ant-Man. The first half of the volume and the Tales to Astonish story are written by Stan Lee and the second half and the special are by Roy Thomas. Most of the issues and the special are drawn by Don Heck, with the last few by John Buscema and one by George Bell. The Tales to Astonish story is drawn by Jack Kirby.

This volume sees a continuation of the general problem that the Avengers are a club of heroes assembled for no particular reason, though as time passes they accumulate more and more ties that keep them together. Within these pages are the first examples of several longstanding themes that recur time and again throughout the history of the team's membership. There's the first return of former members when the Wasp and Giant-Man come back, albeit with the latter now using the name "Goliath". There's the first cases of heroes hanging around with the Avengers without actually holding formal membership, with Hercules eventually granted it after several issues but the Black Widow instead choosing to retire. There are extended absences for individual members as first the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver go to sort out their powers and then later Captain America spends some time sorting out matters in his own strip. There's the first great reunion in the annual as "the Original Avengers join Today's Avengers", although with the Hulk absent it boils down to just Iron Man and Thor being drawn into a single great adventure with the regular team. And we see further confirmation of Captain America's central role in the team when he is unanimously chosen as the chairman for this reunion, being the link between the original and current team.

By this point the team's pretensions to being the Marvel version of the Justice League of America have been abandoned. With Marvel already having prominent teams of superheroes in the form of the Fantastic Four and the X-Men, plus big name heroes like the Hulk and Spider-Man whose set-up made it impossible to slot them into this sort of team, it was simply impossible to assemble all the company's big name heroes into a single team. So instead the focus was shifted to mainly featuring characters who lacked their own strip and develop them in their own way. Captain America is still around as the lynch pin of the team but at times he's absent because of events over in Tales of Suspense. Notably by the time Giant-Man/Goliath and the Wasp return, their own strip in Tales to Astonish had ended, thus freeing them up to be developed here. Goliath gets some good material at first as he discovers he's trapped in a ten foot tall form, unable to change size without killing himself. This leads him to search for a cure, eventually enlisting the aid of scientist Bill Foster to strengthen blood cells.

Not all the tales show such advancement, and at times it seems as though the series is wading through leftover ideas from elsewhere. The very first issue sees the team's first encounter with Doctor Doom (at least until the retroactive one-shot Avengers #1&1/2 was published over thirty years later), but his primary motivation is just to impress the Fantastic Four and use the Avengers as hostages to lure in his most regular foes. The issue does once more raise the idea that Doom and Rang/Rama-Tut could somehow be the same person at different points in time, but it's an idea that has never worked for me and I think this is the last time it was raised. The next two issues see the team defeat an attempt by Attuma to flood the world and so once again it feels like the Avengers are mopping up leftovers from Fantastic Four, and this is just reinforced by an interlude involving the Human Torch's old foe, the Beetle.

The series does pick up a bit and start developing some of its own creations and introducing a few more foes, beginning with the introduction of the Collector. As is often the case with big name villains introduced in this era, his appearance and motivations are much tamer than he would go on to be. Here he could be a human for all that's revealed about him and the difference that it makes. This is followed by the first regular Avengers appearance of the Black Widow, brainwashed into once more serving the Soviet Union and now recruiting both the Swordsman and Power Man to battle the Avengers and try to recruit Hawkeye. Then we get a slight reversion to old Fantastic Four ideas in the form of a rather dull tale of a power struggle within a lost civilisation in South America, but it's hard to care for either the Keeper of the Flame or Prince Rey as they struggle over a cobalt flame.

We then get what is probably the best remembered tale in this volume as the Avengers battle against the Sons of the Serpent, a thinly disguised parody of the Ku Klux Klan. It's a story that puts the Avengers through some hard choices when the Sons take Captain America hostage and try to recruit the Avengers to their side. It's also one of the most overt examples of the series reflecting turbulence in the wider world, and it's to the credit of Lee and Heck that we are never left in any doubt whose side the Avengers are on even when Goliath has them pretend to support the Sons or when Captain America is impersonated. However the story ducks out on an uncomfortable truth by revealing the Supreme Serpent to be foreign Communist General Chen, rather than showing how such hatred can be home grown. And under a new writer the series is more casual when it comes to apartheid South Africa which is briefly visited in the annual, although it's not explicitly named as such but the presence of diamonds and what appear to be a sea of white faces are telling. Though the country primarily serves as a backdrop to Thor and Hawkeye's battle with the Living Laser, it feels rather casual to pass through a country with such practices and fail to even say anything. Equality is not something that only matters in a single country.

The story also sees a major step forward as the Black Widow comes to the Avengers' aid, having finally turned against the Soviets. From this point onwards she is on the path to becoming one of the most prominent of Marvel's female heroes, though it's a complex path with S.H.I.E.L.D. intervening to send her on a mission to China where it appears she has defected once more. The Avengers are mixed in their reaction to their new ally, with Goliath reluctant to see the Avengers turn into a "rest home for retired villains", but eventually they get to the point of considering her membership though her China mission and injuries prevent it from happening at this stage.

As with a number of other Silver Age Essential volumes, this one shows the end of Stan Lee's run on the title, with Roy Thomas succeeding him here, and once again Lee bows out on a cliffhanger in a rather underwhelming adventure. Although the Living Laser would go on to be a significant recurring foe, coming back even here in the annual, his first story sees him motivated by a romantic crush and feels rather tame. Had Lee left just one issue earlier he would have departed with the climax of the first Sons of the Serpent storyline, a much more impressive note to go out on. The Living Laser story also appears to have been extended at short notice as issue #33 ends with the caption "Next: Goliath changes!" but this doesn't happen until #35.

Roy Thomas's run begins by concluding the Living Laser story with the added twist of him seeking fame by aiming to help a revolution in Costa Verde, a Latin American military dictatorship. The story ends with both sides defeated and the remnants of the army declaring a democracy, but more notable is Captain America's declaration to the army "We wish in no way to interfere in your country's private matters!" Coming in late 1966 it's a surprisingly early declaration of non-interventionism, even if delivered at a point when the country's immediate problems are being seemingly solved. The subject of intervention in other countries is not something that can be easily debated in a few panels, but such declarations can at times feel like an over casual dismissal of problems and suffering around the world. On a lighter note the story sees Goliath regain the power to change size, having sufficiently healed his body. And there's a fun moment for continuity buffs as Captain America's shield gets destroyed by lasers and he has to resort to a new one - try matching that with the later position that his shield is indestructible and he's had it more or less since 1941.

The run continues with another forgettable set of foes in the form of the alien Ixar and his robotic Ultroids, though the resolution when the Black Widow exploits her non-Avengers status to threaten Ixar's life is a telling sign of how far she still has to travel. Then we get the arrival of Hercules, initially under the spell of the Enchantress, and he seems to be a substitute for Thor. There follows a brief encounter with the Mad Thinker, a further foe from Fantastic Four, and his brie team of henchmen the " Triumvirate of Terror", consisting of Hammerhead, Piledriver and Thunderboot but none are any relations to any others who may have used those names. In an epilogue to a storyline in Tales of Suspense, the team clash with the Sub-Mariner as they search for the Cosmic Cube, which ends up thrown away by the Mole Man. Yet another pair of Fantastic Four foes appear in the form of Diablo and Dragon Man, with the latter seemingly destroyed, and one is wondering if the team will get any big battles with more personalised foes.

It's not a long wait. Issue #43 introduces the Red Guardian, a Communist conscious counterpart to Captain America in every way, though curiously he's developed by the Chinese rather than the Soviets. In a fierce battle he nearly defeats Captain America but the latter is more experienced and only subdued by outside intervention, a point that annoys the Red Guardian's honour. In a twist he's revealed to be the previously assumed dead husband of the Black Widow and he meets his end nobly, sacrificing himself to save her. Still the story gives them both a degree of redemption, even though the Black Widow ends up injured and briefly retires from the costume instead of accepting Avengers membership. The final couple of regular issues see old foes from individual member's strips, with the Super-Adaptoid from Captain America's strip in Tales of Suspense now finally clashing with the whole Avengers, then Goliath's old foe the Human Top returns with the new name of Whirlwind.

The annual also features some old foes as the Mandarin assembles the Enchantress, the Executioner, the Living Laser, the Swordsman and Power Man as part of a plan to conquer the world. This story is the one most like the standard format for the contemporary Justice League of America as the threat comes in three less forms, resulting in the heroes splitting into separate teams to go to different locations to tackle each part before reuniting for the showdown conclusion. The addition of Iron Man and Thor just adds to the JLA influence as it results in something resembling Earth's Mightiest Heroes (a phrase not yet in use). As a one-off celebratory piece it works, but it's a good thing the regular series didn't get caught up in such a formula.

Throughout the volume there are various signs that the Avengers are all developing in different ways, though some more than others. Most notably Hawkeye is fast maturing and coming to respect Captain America even more, getting beyond the angry hot head he can be at times. However Quicksilver is increasingly concerned about attitudes to mutants and his thoughts are getting steadily more angry. The Wasp who returns to the team is more mature than before, contributing more in action as an equal member and rarely commenting on her male colleagues, though there is a lapse to her older habits when Iron Man and Thor briefly return. This is a team that feels ever more coherent and strong, showing why they stay together even if why they're there remains a bit of a mystery.

Overall this volume is okay, but not particularly exciting. It's critical in showing the development of the team and the on-off nature of its membership but beyond that it doesn't really excite that much or contain any issues that particularly stand out. Too often it seems to draw on the entrails from Fantastic Four rather than continuing to develop its own strong set of recurring foes and situations.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Essential Ghost Rider volume 2

Essential Ghost Rider volume 2 contains issues #21 to #50 of the series. Bonus material includes Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entries for Ghost Rider, Doctor Druid, Doctor Strange and the Night Rider. The writing sees a succession of runs of steadily increasing lengths from Gerry Conway, Jim Shooter, Roger McKenzie and Michael Fleisher, with Don Glut contributing one script. Most of the art is by Don Perlin, with an early run by Don Heck and issues by Gil Kane, Tom Sutton, Steve Leialoha and Carmine Infantino.

The same year that this volume was released also saw the launch of the first Ghost Rider movie, in my opinion the best one (not that there's a great deal of competition for that distinction). Although some of the details of both the origin and the Ghost Rider mythology were altered, it remained faithful to the basic concepts and gave some memorable moments, including a teaming of Johnny Blaze and Carter Slade, the original Ghost Rider. So too does this volume. Indeed there's much here that informs the basic backdrop of the film.

The early issues wrap up Johnny's career as a Hollywood stuntman and then he goes out on his own, riding across the West like some latter-day wandering cowboy, moving from situation to situation without ever setting down roots or growing a new supporting cast. Most of the existing characters are left in Hollywood to carry on as before. Also fading from his life with the end of their series are the Champions, though they've generally only made cameos here. Although he can still make all manner of stunt jumps when he needs to, the stunt performances are largely ignored to the point that people wonder what's happened to him. At about the same time that in the real world Evel Knievel was appearing in his final stunt show (although he didn't actually jump in it), Johnny is challenged by Flagg Fargo for his title of stunt champion of the United States and narrowly loses. It's a steady but strong shift in the character, reinforcing his tragic loneliness.

With just four Essential volumes and a total of eighty-eight issues (excluding crossovers, post series appearances and standby fill-ins only used later on but including the initial seven issues run in Marvel Spotlight), it's tempting to see Ghost Rider as a closed saga, with a definite beginning, middle and end. On the face of it this volume may be the longest section but also the least involved, with few of the big moments in his life. However at a more subtle level there's steady development throughout the volume as the relationship between the human Johnny and his demonic side evolves, first as Johnny discovers he can now transform at will and then as the demon increasingly takes over when in skeletal form. On more than one occasion the two are detached, whether because Johnny's spirit is briefly transferred to another human's body or because a magician separates the two or because Johnny has temporary amnesia and consequently is unaware of his demonic form, who in turn finds Johnny's mind is closed to it. More and more Johnny finds he cannot control his demonic side, who often resorts to ever more vicious methods, and wishes to escape it altogether but keeps finding he cannot.

Of course it's doubtful that any sense of a closed novel was considered at the time, with the continued turnover of writers and a drift into a formula as the wandering Johnny Blaze comes across trouble in one settlement after another. However the series is successful in taking the format and offering numerous twists and turns whilst also taking a big step away from conventional superheroics. This is a saga of a man searching for peace and trying to escape the torment he carries with him but all too often finding that he can't. Often he finds people and an environment where he might settle down and find real happiness, but time and again the curse of the Ghost Rider is there. Whether it's Johnny or his new found friends, especially the succession of women he meets, there is always a realisation that the demon is just too great a barrier to happiness and so he must continue his roaming.

Before that roaming begins, we have the last few issues of Johnny's days in Hollywood and a romantic triangle with Karen Page and Roxanne as he struggles to decide between them even though neither seems to actually want a serious committed relationship. Eventually Johnny realises that it's Roxanne who he wants but by then she has accepted the advances of special effects artist Roger Cross. Meanwhile Karen only wants to be friends. Karen's presence in the early issues may have inspired the use of the Gladiator, also from Daredevil, who is now after a device held by the old Human Torch foe the Eel. When the Eel is murdered, Ghost Rider is accused and Johnny has to clear his name, eventually resorting to using hellfire to arrange a simultaneous appearance to cover up his identity. The mastermind behind the Gladiator and new foe the Water Wizard is the Enforcer, whose identity is one of the weakest intentional mysteries of all time as, apart from a brief red herring suggesting he's movie producer Charles Delazny, it becomes all too easy to spot that he's actually Delazny's son. The remaining Hollywood issues are generally inconsequential with new foe Malice being just a guy in a funny suit with laser and vibration guns, and primarily seeking attention rather than offering a substantial origin. Then there's a fight with Doctor Druid over a misunderstanding about the Ghost Rider's nature. Add in anger and frustration about what he thinks is a serious relationship between Roxanne and Cross, and Johnny now hits the road. Roxanne does try to track him down but in the process she encounters the Orb who inflicts amnesia upon her. Johnny never finds out about this and she is last seen #28 as she accepts the claims of local cowboy Brahma Bill that they are sweethearts and goes off with him. Despite occurring in Roger McKenzie's first issue, Roxanne's situation is never touched upon again in this volume and now truly all the connections have been severed, leaving Johnny as just a man on the road with his demonic side, his clothes and, depending on the issue, a metal bike.

Out on the road Johnny encounters a handful of other heroes, starting with Hawkeye and the time-displaced Two-Gun Kid, followed by an encounter with Doctor Strange in which the magician's old foe Dormammu tries to use Ghost Rider to kill Strange. In the process Johnny finds his mind transferred to Strange's whilst Dormammu controls the Ghost Rider's body. Then at the end of the volume Johnny is thrown back in time and teams up with the Wild West hero the Night Rider against his traditional foe, the Tarantula (no relation to the Spider-Man foes by that name). Neither issue #50 nor the Handbook entry explicitly mention that the Night Rider is the first character to use the name "Ghost Rider", renamed in order to distinguish him from the more famous motorcyclist. (However this new name would prove to be a rather unfortunate choice for a man dressed all in white as it's also name used for members of the Ku Klux Klan.) But there are enough indications that Carter Slade and Johnny Blaze are sufficiently similar to justify the team-up in the double-sized issue.

The limited number of guest stars in this volume may have resulted in a very limited number of options for Handbook entries to fill up the page count, though there were still the alternative options of Hawkeye and the Two-Gun Kid (although the latter didn't have an entry in the original Handbook, from which the four entries are taken, and would have had to have been lifted from the Deluxe Edition where the pro forma is slightly different). But the result is that two of the entries contain major spoilers for later volumes. The Night Rider entry is focused not upon the Wild West hero seen here but on his great great nephew seen in a later issue. (It also doesn't seem to know what an "ancestor" is, using the term to describe the later one.) But the Ghost Rider entry is worse, introducing names such as "Zarathos" and "Mephisto" some time before they turn up in the series (the back cover of the volume also uses "Zarathos" earlier than it should), as well as detailing the backstory of the demonic side of Ghost Rider and giving away what will happen in the issues that reveal much of this information.

The series continues to add a variety of new foes, but few last. There's the Manticore, an agent of the Brand corporation, rivals to Roxxon for corporate plots. Or there's "the boy who lived forever", a long-lived boy called Nathan with advanced mental powers that has enabled him to develop technology but the body and outlook of a boy, flying around in a spaceship with his own robots. The foes closest to the Western tradition come at the end, first as a company is building a dam that will destroy land sacred to Native Americans whilst some of the workers plan to loot a town and flood it. In reaction a traditional Indian spirit called the Manitou is summoned and then Johnny is flung back in time to the 19th century where he proves his true nature.

And then there are the more horror based foes. There are a pair of vampires with many bats at their command. The Bounty Hunter is another agent of the Devil, the ghost of a vicious 19th century bounty hunter who has been tasked to bring in fifty souls in exchange for his freedom. Darker still is "Death", manifest in the form of another skeleton on a motorcycle albeit without the flames. This "Death Ryder" challenges Ghost Rider to a racing and stunt duel across the desert, ultimately for Johnny's life. At another level are the various thugs and bullies Johnny meets in his travels, whether biker gangs or construction worker bullies or mobsters. Or there's a cult of death worshippers, which turns out to be a money making scam. Then there's the "Nuclear Man", an armoured and embittered scientist who has turned against nuclear power after his son-in-law was killed by an accident and his grandson was born deformed.

But as the series moves ever further from superheroics and back into horror, it often seems the real threat is the Ghost Rider, slowly asserting its own control and becoming ever more fierce, torturing foes almost for pleasure. Issue #37 is a partial homage to the origin of Robin, featuring a family of circus performers who get killed by the local mobster after the owner reneges on a debt; the sole survivor is a son who wants vengeance. But rather than taking in the boy as a sidekick, Johnny instead scares him away from summoning the Devil and, as the Ghost Rider, pursues the mobster to his death. It's a harsh reminder that Johnny is no great hero but a man burdened with a real curse. The reaction of those around him, especially the various women he meets, is mixed, with some scared off by him. Others are prepared to stay with him but Johnny is not prepared to put them at risk. There's one time when it seems he has found peace when he loses his memory and winds up as a mechanic for a female racing driver, but incurs the wrath of her foreman. Neither the amnesiac Johnny nor the Ghost Rider is able to access the other and it seems as though Johnny is at peace. However the rival foreman attacks him, restoring his true memory and forgetting his alternative life altogether. Another chance at escape comes when the magician Azaziah splits Johnny and the Ghost Rider; however the two prove unable to survive without each other, finding their energy levels much drained, and so Johnny has to perform the spell to reunify them. Later, after losing his title in the competition with Flagg Fargo, he briefly turns to drink in the hope of "keeping the demon at bay" but it doesn't have the desired effect.

Overall this volume offers more than it seems at first. Most of it may lack a supporting cast or recurring foes, but it shows a good way to handle the wandering hero who brings help to those he meets on his travels whilst at the same time balancing his curse. And the whole relationship between Johnny and the demon is steadily built up over these adventures as he steadily loses control and finds the biggest monster around is within him. The backdrop works well, making for a good latter-day western. It's easy to see where the first movie found much of its inspiration. It's just a pity the Handbook entries and back cover give away spoilers.

Friday, 6 June 2014

Essential Marvel Two-in-One volume 2

Essential Marvel Two-in-One volume 2 contains issues #26-52 and annuals #2-3. Many of the regular issues are written by Marv Wolfman; others are by Roger Slifer, Tom DeFalco, David Anthony Kraft, Ralph Macchio, Peter Gillis, Alan Kupperberg, Bill Mantlo, Mary Jo Duffy, John Byrne and Steven Grant. The art is by a mixture of Ron Wilson, John Buscema, Ernie Chan, John Byrne, Bob Hall, Alan Kupperberg, Chic Stone, Frank Miller and Jim Craig, with both Kupperberg and Byrne each writing & drawing a single issue. One annual is written by Wolfman and drawn by Sal Buscema whilst the other is written and drawn by Jim Starlin. With so many creators a separate post is invariably needed to carry some of the labels.

As is standard for team-up titles, here is the list of the guest stars in each issue.

26. Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.
27. Deathlok
28. Sub-Mariner
29. Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu
30. Spider-Woman
31. Mystery Menace
32. Invisible Girl
33. Modred the Mystic
34. Nighthawk
35. Skull the Slayer
36. Mr Fantastic
Annual 2. Spider-Man
37. Matt Murdock
38. Daredevil
39. The Vision
40. Black Panther
41. Brother Voodoo
42. Captain America
43. Man-Thing
Annual 3. Nova
44. Hercules
45. Captain Marvel
46. Hulk
47. The Yancy Street Gang
48. Jack of Hearts
49. Doctor Strange
50. The Thing
51. Beast, Ms. Marvel, Nick Fury & Wonder Man
52. Moon Knight

Once again we have a mixture of big names who've been around since the early Silver Age and some of Marvel's newer 1970s heroes but also some imaginative steps have been taken to provide co-stars, whether they're a one-off monster in issue #31, Daredevil's alter ego in his day job as a lawyer in #37 or long-time supporting characters the Yancy Street Gang. Part of this is driven by a great use of ongoing storylines, with the first two-thirds of the volume taken up by a succession of multi-parters that flow well from one issue to another, handling the guest cast in a variety of ways. But also the Thing's character seems to have been slightly refined, and so Ben Grimm now much more likeable, making it easier to enjoy his adventures. Whereas Marvel Team-Up has tended to be a reasonably equal pairing of Spider-Man (or occasionally the Human Torch or the Hulk), Marvel Two-in-One is now working much more as a Thing series with guest stars coming in an out. There are, however, some exceptions to this.

Annual #2 begins with a caption that states: "Wait!! Don't read this story until you check out Avengers Annual #7, now on sale." Yet in all the many reprinting of the issue that I'm aware of (and that's quite a lot), this is the only one to appear without the Avengers annual by its side. There was a five year gap between this volume's publication and that of either Essential Avengers volume 8 or Essential Warlock volume 1, both of which carry the Avengers annual. Consequently we have here just the very last part of not only the story of Thanos's assault on the stars but also of Jim Starlin's whole Warlock saga and one of the most memorable of Spider-Man stories in which he is the catalyst for saving the Earth. But amidst all this the Thing is somewhat lost, despite being the regular star of the series. Here he's reduced to a virtual sidekick for first Spider-Man and then Thor, and doesn't directly contribute to the final outcome. It's as though he was only used so as to provide a spaceship to bring Spider-Man to the battle and then to be a piece of cannon fodder to drive home how powerful Thanos is when Spider-Man briefly chickens out. Perhaps this is an inevitable consequence of the annual not being handled by the regular creative team, or of being the conclusion to a wider saga. Either can be a perfectly workable approach on their own, but when combined they produce an issue that feels heavily like an intruder upon the series.

A rather smoother use of the series to end storylines from elsewhere without just taking over the book comes in issues #35 & #36, which see the wrapping up of the saga of Skull the Slayer, the star of a very brief 1970s Marvel series that I've never come across before. Skull the Slayer told the story of an ex-soldier and three somewhat reluctant companions who flew into the Bermuda Triangle and found themselves in a land of dinosaurs, aliens and cavemen. The wrap-up here feels quite natural, with Ben drawn into the events as he test pilots a plane on his way back from the UK and flies into the warp in the triangle. At least it feels natural from reading Marvel Two-in-One - I'd be interested to hear the perspective of Skull the Slayer fans as to how smooth a flow they found the resolution in another series.

As well as wrapping up some characters, the series also gave a heightened profile to some others in advance of their own titles. Both Moon Knight and Spider-Woman started out as villains but became heroes by the time of their own titles. Moon Knight had already made the shift by the time of his appearance here but is still an unknown quantity resulting in some tense dealings with Ben. Meanwhile Spider-Woman breaks off the shackles of Hydra by turning on them and siding with the Thing, and in the process she discovers that what she thought was her origin is in fact false, setting her up for her own ongoing title. And her appearance here slots into ongoing events quite well - reading a number of these issues multiple times from the differing perspectives of following both the host and guest stars, it's often the case that one is served rather better than the other and depending on which character has led one to the issue can wildly change the perspective on it. Here the storyline sees Ben combine a mission to get critical surgery for Deathlok (following earlier issues when Mentallo and the Fixer brought the cyborg back in time and controlled him with the aim of assassinating the US President) with a holiday with Alicia in the United Kingdom. Or at least what Americans think is the United Kingdom - the geography of London is reasonable if a little condensed but a lot of the locals speak as though they went to the Dick Van Dyke School of Accents and there's a slightly absurd subplot in which a former Nazi collaborator tries to recover wartime currency printing plates, as though the resultant notes would resemble those still in circulation. The scene subsequently shifts to leftover magic from Arthurian legends, but in fairness this was the time when Captain Britain was unleashed upon newsagents. All in all the saga puts Ben through the ringer, especially when Alicia is briefly transformed into a monstrous spider-like being and attacks him. Fortunately she is soon restored but in the meantime it's heartbreaking to see Ben attacked by her and unable to fully respond for fear of making it impossible to restore her.

Ben also encounters tragedy in issue #50 which sees the Thing on a quest to regain his human form by taking a solution back in time to when he was at an earlier stage of development. However his younger self doesn't quite realise what's going on at first, leading to the conflict, which provides the cover to the whole volume. The issue serves to tidy up some visual continuity related to Ben's developing form in the early years, but also brings up a great confusion about how time travel works in the Marvel universe. Here it's stated by Reed Richards that Ben's past is "immutable" and any attempt to alter history merely creates an alternative universe which has no effect on him. It's not entirely clear if this rule only applies to an individual messing with their own timeline or if it's a more general statement that time travel cannot effect history at all. Either way it's an interesting approach to explaining how fictional time travel works and the theory would be used to great effect in a very memorable Transformers storyline some years later (Target: 2006). The problem is that this is a rule that hasn't been consistently applied over the years, with many Marvel time travel stories either seeing a change to established history or else the time travellers wind up causing historical events to happen, examples of both of which can be seen in the first volume. Consequently a lot of Marvel fiction that uses time travel as anything other than a plot device to bring characters together has been highly confused because different stories have followed different rules and not all of them have stopped to spell out precisely which rules apply. As a result issue #50's importance has been diminished but it was nevertheless a brave attempt to bring order to chaos.

The other stories are a mixture, ranging from the fun such as issue #51's poker evening with the Beast, Ms. Marvel, Nick Fury & Wonder Man that gets interrupted by renegade army officer General Pollock's attack on S.H.I.E.L.D., to the rather forgettable such as annual #3 in which the Thing and Nova tackle the Monitors, an alien race who wiped out planets that do not meet up to their standards of perfection. It came out in the later stages of Nova's own title and is clearly a late attempt to boost the character's profile but it just sinks into the mire of overlong and forgettable annuals. Issue #44 is a team-up with Hercules in which he and the Thing tackle the monsters Y'Androgg, Krokarr and Manduu to free Zeus on Mount Olympus. Hercules is one of the more difficult characters to guest star because of the fantastic nature of his foes and exploits which can lead to rather outlandish tales, but here the problem is solved by having the adventure retold by Ben to children around a campfire, thus allowing for embellishments. Another fun tale comes in issue #46 as the Thing gets jealous of the Hulk's TV series and heads to Hollywood to get one of his own, only to wind up fighting a furious Hulk who has shown up to complain.

Other stories continue to offer a variety of threats and foes. In addition to those already mentioned, this volume sees foes from other series such as the Piranha from Sub-Mariner, the Jaguar Priest from Skull the Slayer, the Mad Thinker originally from Fantastic Four, Kinji Obatu who has now shed his identity of Dr Spectrum of the Squadron Sinister, first seen in the Avengers, the Cult of Entropy from Man-Thing now led by Victorious from Ka-Zar's strip in Astonishing Tales or Boss Baker the Skrull who lives as though he's a human 1930s gangster, originally seen in Fantastic Four. The series also creates some new enemies such as the elemental demons Fire, Aero, Hydro and Mud, or evolving the former leader of the Cult of Entropy into the Entropic Man. There's sorcerer Ennis Tremellyn and his slave Kemo, and ex-CIA mercenary Crossfire. The biggest foe introduced here is Machinesmith, although he would later be retconned into a pre-existing character. And there's even a daring move with a less than flattering portrayal of Idi Amin, the then dictator of Uganda, though others are the primary villains in that story. Then there's issue #34 when an ugly alien hatches from a rock and is confused. It tries to greet and help the humans, even rescuing children from a burning hospital. But then frightened parents shoot it dead. As Nighthawk says "Yeah, there's a monster here -- but who's the monster? Mister, who's the monster?" As well as various new foes, the series also introduces what would go on to be a significant new setting when issue #42 sees the first appearance of Project Pegasus, the advanced energy research facility that will go to play a big part in his life in later issues.

Overall this volume shows a series that has now found a distinctive niche. Although still not the primary series featuring the Thing, it has nevertheless managed to give the character a good range of adventures that stand on their own merits, making him more likeable than before whilst also giving an enhanced showing to many other characters. The clever ways by which storylines are allowed to run over multiple issues whilst bringing in new characters. The series is now functioning smoothly.
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