Friday, 2 October 2015

Essential Fantastic Four volume 9

Essential Fantastic Four volume 9 consists of issues #184 to #207 (#189 is a reprint with only the cover included here) plus Annuals #12 & #13. The writing sees the end of Len Wein's run and the start of Marv Wolfman's with other contributions by Roger Slifer and Bill Mantlo and the annuals are by Wolfman and Mantlo. The art sees the end of George Pérez's run and the start of Keith Pollard's with other issues by Sal Buscema and John Buscema and the annuals by Bob Hall and Sal Buscema.

This is a volume with quite epic ambitions but also one which seeks to explore just what the four's purpose is in sticking together and doing all that they do. It's a lofty approach that only grows once Marv Wolfman takes over from Len Wein but it reflects the problem this series has traditionally had in that too many creators can't find much to do and so retreat to the safety of rehashing things from the Lee-Kirby run. But a series has to look forwards not back and this one well and truly succeeds.

It's not always smooth sailing though. The series is hit by some especially bad schedule problems such that issue #188 ends on a dramatic moment and isn't properly continued until issue #191. In the meantime we get first a reprint (not actually included here) and then an "Album Issue" as Ben recalls some key moments in the four's history, including several past break-ups. Given the situation the four is currently in this retrospective feels more appropriate than the average recap fill-in issue but it's still treading water at a critical moment. Moreover, a two issue delay would have been extremely unhelpful when these were originally released but even here they contribute to a slowing of critical momentum. However once this problem is passed the series experiences an extremely smooth changeover of writers with Wolfman almost effortlessly carrying on from Wein and taking the four from a difficult break-up to an eventual reunion that feels natural and not at all forced.

The annuals are a sea of calm amidst the changes all around them though their placing does create a few small problems. Both are put between issues #201 and #202 but the first annual is presumably set earlier on during calmer times for the four - but there isn't an obvious place to put it despite it being written by the series's regular writer. The second annual is by another writer and so can be more forgiven for not quite fitting into the regular events - it does its best to explicitly set itself directly after the four reforms in issue #200 but issue #201 starts out in Latveria before bringing the four home and there isn't an obvious moment to detour into the events of the annual. It's an early example of the problems of a policy that tries to rigidly place all issues in publication order clashing with the aim of ongoing storylines in the regular titles. The annuals themselves are an interesting mix. The first one sees an adventure with the Inhumans where astonishingly the villain of the piece isn't Maximus for once. Instead the Inhuman antagonist is Thraxon, who has been given temporary powers by the Sphinx. What seems like a typical piece of annual inconsequentialness, although reasonably well written, will turn out to be more significant later on in the volume. The second annual is a more typical piece that almost could have come from file but for scenes showing the four getting themselves back into business. Otherwise we get a tame tale of the Mole Man kidnapping blind and ugly people and giving them an alternative life underground where they are accepted, a life that some actually accept. It's a reminder of how not everyone finds it easy in life but the option of just dropping out and setting up an alternate civilisation isn't a terribly enviable alternative.

Over in the regular series much of the first half of the volume is driven by events stemming from Reed's loss of his stretching powers and Franklin's & Agatha Harkness's kidnapping, both at the end of the last volume. It's quite a character arc for Reed as he faces up to situations in which he feels helpless but still has to find a solution, starting with an attack by the Eliminator, an armoured being who shows up at Agatha Harkness's mansion with the task of eliminating all traces of her time in the outside world. The search takes the four to New Salem, a settlement hidden in the mountains ruled by witches led by the fearsome Nicholas Scratch. Scratch has assembled a team of warriors known as Salem's Seven, made up of Brutacus, Gazelle, Hydron, Reptilla, Thornn, Vakume and Vertigo. Upon returning to New York we get another invasion of the Baxter Building, this time by Klaw and the Molecule Man, the latter trying to obtain a body of his own. In the process he possesses Reed's, to terrifying effect. Reed fights for control but afterwards feels that without his powers he has become a weak and inefficient member of the four who is vulnerable to being used by villains so opts to resign. Sue declares she will go with him and with no obvious replacements the four are dissolved.

As the album issue reminds us, this is not the first time one or more of the four have quit. But rather than someone storming off in a moment of anger or a misunderstanding driving people apart, this fracture has been steadily built upon. For all the apparent weaknesses of other team members, Reed's stretching powers have often seemed the least important part of the four with his intelligence being a much more significant role. Having him drop aside immediately upon being depowered would have felt odd and he does initially try to use science to compensate, reactivating his old metallic extensions from a previous time when he lost his powers. But overall he finds himself weakened in mind as well as body and ultimately chooses to not be a burden to the others. And critically the four don't formally reassemble as a group for many issues to come. A reunion is teased in what was clearly intended to be the next issue when Ka-Zar's old foe the Plunderer tries to steal the four's equipment when the Baxter Building is shut down, but despite everyone responding to Reed's flare it's only a temporary respite.

We then get a series of solo~ish tales of individual members of the team who gradually find themselves drawn back together. So Johnny goes car racing in the desert and catches up with Wyatt Wingfoot again, only to face off against the Texas Twister who has been hired to kidnap him by an unnamed person. Ben returns to space piloting, taking up a job with Nasa where the space shuttle programme suffers sabotage and interference by Diablo, who is using Darkoth, an old friend of Ben's who was framed and then mutated by Doctor Doom. Sue goes back to acting, getting a role in a Hollywood picture but finds the studio is still owned by Namor the Sub-Mariner, who has left Atlantis in horror at the way his people have virtually deified him but his kingdom deploys a group of robots called the Retrievers of Atlantis to take him home and the incident makes him reconsider his position. Reed takes up scientific work for the government without realising which one and that he's helping a foe with a plan to take over the world.

These tales allow each member of the four to shine some more without having to share too much space with the others, a particular useful period as the main focus of the storyline falls upon Reed. The others find themselves getting ever strong and more powerful, particularly Sue who is now really using her forcefields to maximum effect. It's all good character building in the run up to the anniversary issue. There are various humorous asides throughout the run, with the Impossible Man prominent at first as he pops up (sometimes literally) in a succession of issues as he tries to understand the world around him, most notably movies. Most of the time these are comical asides but they do reach a more serious point when confronting Klaw as the Impossible Man duplicates the villain's sonic horn and the use of the two weapons causes a sonic feedback boom. Otherwise the Impossible Man is generally an irritation and eventually he takes the hint, only to reappear in Hollywood and pester everyone until Sue reads him the Riot Act.

Reunion eventually comes but surprisingly it's staggered and facilitated by Doctor Doom. Capturing first Reed and then the others, he proceeds to demonstrate his perceived superiority by finding a way to restore Reed's stretching powers, but the inadvertent resurrection of the Red Ghost puts a spanner in the works. However the process allows for a minor modification to the four's origin to explain why only they and the Red Ghost have gained powers from cosmic rays and not the countless others who have now flown into space. Meanwhile Doom is planning a master plan to simultaneously gain Latveria greater diplomatic acceptance, take control of the United Nations and seemingly step away from ruling Latveria, leaving it to his previously unseen son whom he plans to transfer the four's powers to. With the other three captured, Reed embarks on a bold solo mission into Latveria where he joins with rebels following Zorba, the legitimist pretender to the throne, where they attack and discover the truth about Doom's son.

This all builds up to issue #200, one of the first anniversary issues to be double-sized. And appropriately it has a showdown between Reed and Doctor Doom, with the former demonstrating that stretching is no silly throwaway power that can't make a difference. It's a strong battle, augmented by the other three rushing to stop the rest of Doom's plan, and really gets into the heart of the hatred between the two men, showing Reed in all his glory. This issue set a marker for double-sized anniversary specials that contain big moments and by having the formal reunification of the four, a triumph over their arch enemy and the conclusion of a long-running storyline it certainly sets a high standard for everything that was to follow.

The remaining issues in the volume start off as something of an anti-climax, beginning with another attack in the Baxter Building almost as soon as they've reoccupied it, followed by a team-up with Iron Man as they confront the cause of the attack, Quasimodo. Then there's an encounter with a young mutant whose powers create twisted doppelgangers of the four but also showing how they help with the small problems as well as the galactic ones. Then the final few issues see an interesting split in the team as Reed, Sue and Ben go off into space but Johnny stays on Earth. Given the timing it's tempting to wonder if this was a reaction to the late 1970s cartoon that used the first three but replaced Johnny with a robot called Herbie as the rights to Johnny had been sold elsewhere. Herbie doesn't appear in these issues but otherwise it seems the most likely reason for the split. The first three go off into space to help Adora, ruler of Xander, to see off an attack by the Skrulls. It's a different angle to the same storyline from the last issues of Nova and once again an Essential volume ends partway through the storyline, with the three's spacecraft suddenly meeting that containing Nova, the Sphinx and other characters. Meanwhile on Earth Johnny feels he should complete his education but finds he no longer impresses women around him and is too much of a celebrity. Soon he is invited to study at Security College, apparently an institution for the children of the famous and important. However Johnny and a guest-starring Spider-Man soon discover sinister operations are being undertaken by the Monocle, using the students as tools.

This volume is slightly weakened by being open-ended at both ends, especially as it is now the final Essential Fantastic Four volume, but it shows both respect for what has come before and imagination to build upon the foundations for strong new tales. The build-up to issue #200 is carefully handled and allows the series to delve into the four both as individuals and as a group, reaffirming what holds them together. This is a generally good volume but let down by ending midway through a big storyline with seemingly no resolution.

The months ahead

Those of you keeping tally (and I know there are some) will have observed that we are coming to the last handful of Essential volumes and may be wondering what now.

I won't be looking in-depth at DC's Showcase Presents volumes (although I might do another special one) or any other lines but instead will aim to bring the site to a neat conclusion in the New Year. But before I reach that I'd like to salute a few more significant titles that were never covered in the Essentials but I'll be doing it in a different way from before.

This time I'm going to look at some hypothetical Essentials, imagining the contents of a prospective first volume for a title based upon various other collected editions so as to get a good first chunk of the series. These reviews will appear in the regular slot and approximately alternate with the actual Essentials over the next few months. Watch out for the first one next week.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Essential Marvel Saga volume 2

Continuing the proper in-depth look at each volume of The Official History of the Marvel Universe. These posts rewrite and expand a previous brief effort.

Essential Marvel Saga volume 2 contains issues #13 to #25, continuing to retell old stories by copying & pasting panels and adding some additional text and the occasional pieces of new artwork to tell a coherent history. The order and new material is written by Peter Sanderson apart from one issue by Peter David, and drawn by Keith Pollard, Ron Frenz, James Fry, Al Milgrom, Tom Morgan, Steve Buccellatto, Bruce Solotoff, Phil Lord, Steve Geiger, José Marzan Jr, Hector Collazo and Keith Williams.

This volume continues the practice of summarising key storylines from Marvel's Silver Age, aided by reproducing many panels and using text captions and the occasional piece of new art to accelerate the retellings. Once again the origins are enhanced by later additions to the mythology such as Daredevil's debut including his history with Elektra and Stick as well as the original story. There's also some good tying together of stories to show their impact, such as the Crime-Master launching his attempt to take over the New York underworld at a time when the Fantastic Four are powerless and in hiding, Thor has departed for Asgard for the Trial of the Gods and Captain America is still making his way home through the South American jungle following his final showdown with Baron Zemo. Such a placing goes well beyond a mere wish to have a reading order and helps to show the Marvel Universe as a more integrated whole than it was realised at the time.

The choice of which characters to devote space to retelling their first adventures is a surprise, such as the many pages given over to the debut of Diablo compared to single panels each for the likes of the Grey Gargoyle, Kraven and the Owl's first outings. The cliffhangers to each issue aim to end on a dramatic point midway through a key story but occasionally the story in question is underwhelming or the foe has rather declined in stature since the 1960s. Issue #20 ends with the Frightful Four invading the Baxter Building and the final panel is the Wizard holding the Human Torch hostage. It's a reminder that the Wizard has rather plummeted off the A-List of foes since the Silver Age, his participation in the Prime Movers of the "Acts of Vengeance" crossover not withstanding, making the ending rather underwhelming.

Issue #22 sees a change of approach to the series (and a new editor - Adam S. Balustein succeeding Danny Fingeroth) and is devoted to Peter Parker and Mary Jane's relationship, as the Spider-Man wedding was close. So we see the whole course of it from Aunt May's first matchmaking through other girlfriends and the failed first proposal up to the wedding day, all in one issue. It's a different pace from before and also notable for being about the first place to suggest Mary Jane knew Peter was Spider-Man right from the outset. But there's also an odd moment at the end as a page from the Spider-Man vs. Wolverine one shot is reproduced to try to support the two being made for each other, yet it shows Peter crossing the lines of friendship before realising his mistake - almost as though it was intended to support the two not being together. Whilst it's nice to see an entire issue devoted to the background to one of the biggest events in Spider-Man's life, it would have been much better off as a stand-alone special rather than slotted into the regular series.

The remaining few issues see the saga focus in on specific events for the Fantastic Four and Silver Surfer, rather than the broad approach of showing all the key events across the whole universe. Did the new approach kill the series or was it an unsuccessful attempt to save it? Either way it's a rather unsatisfactory change of course and all the momentum of the first twenty-one issues is lost as we get a narrow focus on the wedding of Reed and Sue, the discovery of the Inhumans and then the coming of Galactus and the Silver Surfer with their origins retold from later issues, showing in particular how the Surfer's past influenced the feelings Alicia reawakened within him. It's unfortunate as the wedding annual was the first significant time almost the entire Marvel universe was caught up in the same story and where it fits into the various series's continuities is something that isn't particularly well explained. We get the origins of Galactus and the Silver Surfer but surprisingly not the Inhumans.

The defeat of Galactus is presented as "a turning point in the history of the cosmos... [the] day humanity's representatives first proved themselves more than equal to the task of mastering the great challenges set them by the cosmos", and thus the point on which to end the series with a three page coda describing some significant events to come, ranging from Spider-Man's famous triumph in the remains of Doctor Octopus's headquarters to the battle between Dormammu and Eternity through to the Dark Phoenix Saga. There's a bit of a "and they triumphed and lived happily ever after" to some of the summaries such as Thor facing off against a witch doctor with the last of the Norn Stones or Namor rescuing Dorma and recovering his throne. Finally the Watcher reveals himself as the narrator of the whole series

Overall this volume shows the misfortune of the change of direction, abandoning the integrated tapestry of the Marvel universe in favour of retelling individual stories with additional backstories added in. That said, the latter approach could be a way to bring new readers up to speed on key characters, without having to subject them to expensive trade paperbacks (in the days before the Essentials but even with them it can take a lot of time and money to build up a complete run and the Epic series's habit of jumping about isn't conducive to chronology) or lengthy and controversial retellings. In the early 1990s this approach was followed with a couple of mini-series including Spider-Man Saga and Wolverine Saga, and there have been some more recent one shots in a similar format.

But that would be individual histories and not really worthy of the title "The Official History of the Marvel Universe" which should have been restricted to a total history across the line rather than segmented sections. The original broad concept of the series is a good one though in an era when so many of the original comics are easily available in reprint form it can now feel a little overlong in its retellings. But even with the issues available the big picture is lacking and this series set out to provide it. It's a pity that got abandoned when it did but the first two thirds of this volume maintain the original aims and good standards.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Omitted material: Wolverine '99 Annual

Absent from Essential Wolverine volume 7 is Wolverine '99 annual. The reason for this one's absence is even less clear, though the lead story has since been reprinted in Deadpool Classic Companion, for which it supplies the cover. Both stories are written by Marc Andreyko with the lead drawn by Walter McDaniel whilst the back-up is drawn by Massimliano Frezzato.

Once again we have an omission of an annual with two stories, one of which features Deadpool and has been since reprinted in Deadpool Classic Companion (which also uses the cover on the book as a whole) whilst the whole issue is available digitally. Again it's a mystery as to why this was left out when there doesn't seem to be a rights barrier to publication.

The first story sees Wolverine investigating an author of were-wolf fiction who seems more acquainted with the subject material than he should be. But Deadpool has been hired to kill the author and to complicate matters further a live were-wolf attacks. The back-up tale sees Wolverine in the middle of a poker game with other heroes when the beer runs out and he has to get some more, only to run into street thieves, ninjas from the Hand and a Dragon in quick succession, all while Nick Fury's flying car is vulnerable.

This annual feels like it was thrown together from inventory material in spite of a reference to an encounter between Kitty Pryde and Deadpool in the latter's series. The first story is standard team-up fare as the leads meet, fight and then find themselves forced to team up against a bigger threat, though throughout there remains a tension as Deadpool may still carry out his contract killing. But otherwise this is a fairly mundane encounter with a forgettable foe and even Deadpool's dialogue is on less than sparkling form. The back-up strip is in a curious grey tone style and it appears to have been prepared for an abandoned black and white special. It's a strange little tale that runs the gauntlet through all the traditional types of Wolverine stories but doesn't get much further than some comedic jokes. As a piece of back-up fluff it's okay for what it is, nothing more.

Friday, 25 September 2015

Essential Wolverine volume 7

Essential Wolverine volume 7 contains issues #129 to #148 plus the crossover issue Hulk #8. Surprisingly absent is the 1999 annual. Most of the volume, including the Hulk issue, is written by Erik Larsen, at times collaborating with Eric Stephenson or Fabian Nicieza. Early issues are by Todd Dezago with one script by Brian K. Vaughan. The artwork is mainly by Leinil Francis Yu and Jeff Matsuda, with contributions by Cary Nord, Ron Jensen, Mike Miller and Roger Cruz, with the Hulk issue by Ron Garney.

This is the Essential volume with the most recent material of all, covering the series from the late 1990s. But it also covers Wolverine's twenty-fifth anniversary and contains a good number of hat-tips to his previous adventures in a suitably nostalgic mode. Unfortunately, the best-laid plans for Wolverine can clash with wider plans for the X-Men family of titles, as we will come to see.

The first few issues show a series in the traditional problem as it looks for an ongoing writer and marks time with a series of rather forgettable fill-in issues. The main theme here is of monsters in one form or another, with Wolverine facing off against the latest incarnation of the Wendigo, an alien spider in the Himalayas and a wife beater. There's a brief nod to the recent marriage to the Viper when she persuades Wolverine to go the Himalayas after a Hydra expedition failed but otherwise this is a plot point that will soon be forgotten. Issue #131 originally had a notorious error when "killer" was accidentally lettered as "kike" but this edition use the corrected version rapidly put out instead. Issue #132 shows that not all monsters are creatures with the return of the Higgins family who live near the X-Men's mansion; when the mother is found dead and the daughter badly injured Wolverine goes in pursuit of the father who has fled, taking the son with him. It's a good focus as Wolverine contemplates how his prior demonstration of his humanity by not killing the father has led to this, but there's a twist at the end. But overall the book has been floundering for ages with no clear permanent writer and that has to change.

That change and more comes with the arrival of Erik Larsen. Right from the outset there's a real sense of a determination to do things differently from the traditional style, with ninjas and the Far East both notably absent during the run. Instead there's a move towards more traditional elements of the Marvel universe, including an issue when it seems just about every second tier hero available in New York goes after Wolverine in quick succession. The idea of Wolverine confronting Galactus seems absurd but it manages to work in its own way. That's not to say there aren't appearances by various X-Men or Alpha Flight in the process but overall we get a different and strong take on the series that seeks to put the hero through different situations from before.

The run kicks off with the six-part saga "The Great Escape" although notably only the first issue carries the banner on the cover. It sees a steadily expanding scope, beginning in a bar with Wolverine and Warbird (formerly Ms. Marvel and Binary and have I left any identities out?) and then steadily expanding through "Too many guest stars to count!" before taking Wolverine out into space to a prison planet run by the Collector and containing both the Starjammers and Torgo, a rarely seen robot from the pages of Fantastic Four. He's aided in all this by Aria, an alien who can possess others' bodies and makes the classic mistake of acting first to grab help rather than seeking to persuade it first but despite this Wolverine comes anyway. However, there's a twist as Wolverine discovers the purpose of Prison World only after he destroys its defences and reveals its location, leading to the oncoming destruction. There's a strong theme of failing to consider and explain throughout the arc with the Collector, Aria and Wolverine all arrogantly thinking they know best and not discussing it with others, resulting in tragic consequences. The battle with Galactus is as one-sided as you'd expect but Wolverine isn't under any illusion that he can do anything beyond buying a little time. His bone claws prove ineffective at a critical moment, reinforcing the need to regain his adamantium and overall it's a much humbler Wolverine who returns to Earth after realising his blundering and weaknesses have had major consequences. This is a very different type of tale from the normal Wolverine saga but it never loses sight of the character regardless of the situation he's in. It bodes well for the rest of the run.

Unfortunately there's not too much space available to do a great deal before the series has to cover two big events that will take in the last third or so of the volume. So in the three issues before that we get a team-up with Cable against the geneticist Arnim Zola, then a team-up with Nightcrawler to battle first some androids and then Cardiac and Solo, two less well remembered mercenaries, and finally a team-up with Jubilee to battle Donald Pierce, with some help from the mysterious Khyber. Spot the pattern? It's as though the title is turning into a Wolverine team-up series without explicitly acknowledging this is where it's going, though at least most of the guest stars and villains so far have a history with Wolverine. But team-up titles are rarely the place to really develop the lead character due to the ever-changing supporting case and demands from other series. And Khyber is poorly explained, appearing to be a cyborg version of Wolverine without any acknowledgement at all of the similar Albert but this isn't explicitly stated; nor does he appear to be a foreshadow of what is to come. As a whole these stories are mixed and not really offering too much excitement or a sense of the way forward for the series. But first it's going to look back a bit.

With Wolverine's twenty-fifth anniversary falling in 1999 it was inevitable that there'd be some revisiting although to its credit the series doesn't explicitly ram home the point until the main anniversary issue itself. In the meantime the series starts with a two part team-up with Alpha Flight, which primarily serves to undo all manner of changes made over the years, resurrecting characters, killing off duplications, ending relationships and demoting members such that by the end the story has re-established the line-up of the original team plus Puck. Given Wolverine's early history with Alpha Flight it's understandable that such big changes could take place here but a lot of these changes are implemented in a very sweeping manner with a number of the lesser characters written out in a flashback that explains their demotion to Beta Flight, leaving the main story to focus on Wolverine and the restored original team invading an AIM base to rescue Guardian where they battle with Modok and also Kane from the Weapon X programme. It falls to a back-up story in the second issue to sort out some of the detail though not every aspect of latter day Alpha Flight continuity is addressed, leaving this as one of the more blundering retcons ever carried out.

Wolverine's first appearance in the pages of Incredible Hulk gets a latter-day revisit in a two-part crossover with that series in its renumbered and (temporarily) renamed form. We get a flashback story set immediately before the first appearance as the Leader kidnapped Wolverine, Hercules and Karkas of the Eternals as part of a plan to use them against the Hulk. It's a suitably nostalgic piece that shows us Wolverine in his first days in the original costume without simply retelling his debut story. This helps set the scene for a modern day rematch as Wolverine once again gets sent by a government agency to tackle the Hulk in the Canadian wilderness, leading to a fierce fight in which both combatants seem somewhat out of character even before Tyrannus takes over the Hulk's mind. Wolverine is especially brutal, temporarily blinding the Hulk with his claws in order to level the odds, as though the battle is a rejoinder to the many past clashes between the two.

And then comes the big anniversary issue but the whole thing is deflected by being caught up in the lead in to the next big X-Men crossover "Apocalypse: The Twelve". Worse still issue #145 opens as though it's flashing back to events in other titles that contain one of the most significant revelations going. Once again this series sees a major event in the lead character's life take place elsewhere. And we get a mind-numbing retcon that can be summed up as "Skrulls? Yeeesh!"

It's revealed that for a number of issues (but just how many of this series is unclear as the revelations are anchored to recent events in X-Men) that Wolverine has been a prisoner of Apocalypse who has transformed him into his new Horseman Death, including restoring the adamantium skeleton and claws by taking the metal from Sabretooth. Wolverine's long-time nemesis is seemingly dispatched in a quick flashback, in order to demonstrate the ruthlessness of Logan's conditioned form. Meanwhile Wolverine has in the interim been impersonated by a Skrull who has been conditioned to subconsciously act and think like Wolverine in every way. The whole thing feels nonsensical and unplanned. It seems to be a way to reinforce Apocalypse as a longer term planner with enough time to carry out the changes but Apocalypse has captured and conditioned Horsemen quickly before so it's more likely a way to paper over any perceived out of character behaviour and negate recent stories. It's a pity as whatever their weaknesses the Skrull retcon just doesn't add anything or even allow the series to side-step a particular status quo. The conditioned Wolverine battles first the Hulk and then the X-Men before steadily overcoming his conditioning; however Archangel in turn seems to be undergoing a relapse and this leads to further conflict. Overall "Apocalypse: The Twelve" this is a convoluted crossover to understand from just the Wolverine issues alone and it feels like a messy intruder on the series despite leaving restoring Wolverine to his traditional form.

But the final issue is even worse for understanding what's going on. "Ages of Apocalypse" seems to be a glimpse of either a horrid alternate future or an alternate reality that has arisen out of the previous crossover but it's not too clear. Nevertheless we get a good little tale of the New Fantastic Four, comprising Wolverine, Spider-Man, the Hulk and Ghost Rider as they battle against Doctor Doom, Annihilus, Blastaar, the Harpy and Arnim Zola in this dark world. It's a good take on a particular team who have usually been more popular in theory than in practice. But in the bigger scale of things this is a confusing issue to understand because of the way the crossovers have stomped all over the regular series at the end of the volume.

This is a volume that tries to find a new direction for the series rather than endlessly rehashing all the traditional elements of Wolverine and shows some imagination in throwing him into unusual environments. It also does its best to honour the character's history for his anniversary. However at times the series seems to be overdoing the restoration of older status quos and the whole thing is rather blown off course by the X-Men crossovers at the end along with the silly Skrull revelation. As a result this is a volume that all but explicitly says that large chunks of it don't matter which is a pity as it showed the series starting to get its act back together when left to its own devices.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Essential Marvel Saga volume 1

It's time a proper in-depth look at each volume of The Official History of the Marvel Universe. These posts rewrite and expand a previous brief effort.

Essential Marvel Saga volume 1 contains issues #1 to #12 of The Marvel Saga: The Official History of the Marvel Universe, a special series launched in 1985. It retells many old stories by copying & pasting panels and adding some additional text and the occasional pieces of new artwork to tell a coherent history. The order and new material is written by Peter Sanderson and drawn by Ron Frenz, Tom Morgan, Al Milgrom, Walter Simonson, Bill Sienkiewicz, Steve Geiger, Keith Pollard and John Buscema. Additionally each introductory page and rear "Classic Cover Gallery" are included.

Marvel and DC seem to have spent a lot of the 1980s either copying one another's projects or experiencing simultaneous ideas. Both did their first major company wide events in that decade (Secret Wars and Crisis on Infinite Earths). Both produced special encyclopaedic series devoted to detailing their characters (The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe and Who's Who). Beyond the comics themselves, both licensed their characters for a series of action figures. And both produced their first "official histories", limited series which sought to bring order to the turbulent chaos of the continuity of their early years. DC's effort was the History of the DC Universe. Marvel's was The Marvel Saga. Who had the idea first in each of these cases isn't always clear as sometimes one company would learn of the other's plans and rush a project through to reach the market first. And I'm sure many of these ideas had originally been suggested by fans – "A story bringing all the heroes together" or "A guide to the heroes and villains" or "A history of the universe" are all pretty straightforward ideas and probably featured in fanzines long before the publishers took them up (but then fanzines didn't have to wait for the direct market that would make most of these projects viable).

The Marvel Saga sets out to summarise the key events in the history of the Marvel universe, showing how they fit together and illustrating them with panels from the original stories. After a few pages of introduction the series pretty much begins with the origin of the Fantastic Four and works from there through the early years of the Silver Age up until the revival of Captain America, explaining characters' back stories when they become relevant. This prevents the series from being bogged down in all the legends of Greece and Scandinavia and other material only relevant to a few, and instead allows a broad range of heroes from the outset. Unfortunately the habit of introducing the backstory only when significant characters debut can disrupt the flow of retelling an individual adventure, such as when the history of Odin is given in one go midway through the story of Thor's first battle with Zarrko the Tomorrow Man. It also means that the Golden Age of the 1940s isn't presented in a narrative order. It's always been somewhat ambiguous just how canonical the Timely and Atlas comics are in the Marvel universe and no answer is given.

What is clearer is the placement of events relative to each other. Thus Spider-Man's origin, which includes weeks of fame, is spread out and other adventures such as the origin and early battles of the Hulk and the Fantastic Four's first encounters with both Namor the Sub-Mariner and Doctor Doom take place between the radioactive spider's bite and the final showdown in the warehouse. A lot of fans have long taken to trying to work out the exact order in which stories take place, and even what order they should read and perhaps their entire collections in, and this is surely the ultimate realisation of such a chronology. But this doesn't just include the earliest issues themselves but also later revelations and retcons such as including much of Professor Xavier's history and the origins of the individual X-Men or including with Iron Man's origin his escape from the Vietnamese jungle and first meeting with James "Rhodey" Rhodes or showing Thor's youth and punishment by Odin at the point when Donald Blake is introduced into the history. This means the series doesn't leave latter-day readers in confusion as they try to reconcile the current state of affairs with the somewhat different status quo in the earliest days. Sometimes later retellings of origins are used as the source of panels and this is particular useful over cliffhangers as it allows alternate art to depict the reprises.

Early on the run it seemingly tries to summarise almost all of the adventures but it soon settled down and relegated many a lesser tale to a small text section entitled "The Continuity Corner" which puts issues in chronological order relative to one another. This most notably cuts down on a lot of adventures with obscure forgotten foes such as the Scarlet Beetle or the Acrobat and seems to hit the Ant-Man and Human Torch stories more than any other series.

Read all at once rather than over some two and a half years this series shows several common themes running rampant in the early Marvels. There seem to have been no end of obscure alien races visiting Earth in the early days of Marvel with most of the heroes encountering at least one. There was also no end of Communist enemies. When this series was first published in 1985-1987 the Cold War was still going on and it was just about credible (by the standards of the Silver Age) for there to have been so many Communist foes in then-recent history. But nowadays the Cold War finished over two decades ago and Marvel is more open about its floating timeline with the modern era of heroes starting anything from a decade to fifteen years ago. It's also surprising just how often the Fantastic Four fell out or how frequently the Thing regained his human form.

The saga is clearly aware of later stories as well which may have impacted the choices for inclusion such as showing the first battles with obscure foes like the Vanisher and Thug Thatcher. It also does its best to reconcile the early Silver Age adventures of Namor the Sub-Mariner and Captain America with what was revealed or restored to continuity later on, such as explaining why neither really recognises their old comrade in arms at first. The introduction of Captain America in issue #12 goes to some length to flesh out all his history prior to his release from the iceberg, with the various additions to the origin, the Invaders retcons and the immediate post war replacements all included in the details when the Avengers finally find him. Given his prominence on the cover of issue #1, reproduce as the volume's cover, it's interesting to speculate just how Wolverine's patchwork past would be handled.

Overall this first volume of The Marvel Saga is surprisingly fun and easy to read. The concept could risk excessive boredom whilst the widespread reprinting of even the more obscure parts of the Silver Age might have made it redundant for an audience who can easily access the original tales. But instead it offers its own distinct take on the events and makes an excellent effort to weave the tales together into a greater whole. The shared universe and overlapping characters was always a big part of Marvel's appeal and it's good to see this taken to the logical extent.

Friday, 18 September 2015

Essential X-Men volume 9

Essential X-Men volume 9 comprises Uncanny X-Men #244 to #264 & Annual #13 (excluding the Saga of the Serpent Crown chapter that has nothing to do with the X-Men). Bonus material includes Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe entries for Jubilee, Master Mold and Zaladane. All the regular issues are written by Chris Claremont though the annual lead story is by Terry Austin and a back-up by Sally Pashkow (or not - see below). The art is mainly by Marc Silvestri and Jim Lee with individual issues by Rob Liefeld, Rick Leonardi, Kieron Dwyer, Bill Jaaska and Mike Collins. The annual is drawn by Mike Vosburg and Jim Fern.

This volume covers one of the bleakest periods in the series so far. The early issues see the continuation of the "Outback era" as the team continued to operate out of an abandoned Australian desert town and teleport around the world. The most notable long term impact of these early adventures comes in the very first issue where the female members of the team go on a trip to a shopping centre where they battle the M-Squad, a rather lame set of mutant hunters who are a blatant parody of the Ghostbusters, before returning home with an unknown follower, the rich girl turned orphaned "mall rat" Jubilee. At first it seems she will be taking on the innocent youngster role that's been absent ever since Kitty Pryde was injured out of the series but initially she instead operates in secret without the other X-Men knowing and subsequent events mean that we don't get to see her in the traditional little sister role just yet. Meanwhile the male members go out on the town only to run into a rather ineffective bunch of alien invaders called the Conquest. It seems as though this will be a period of light-hearted tales but things will soon change.

The annual is unusual as the only X-Men issue during his entire run that doesn't have Chris Claremont's name on it. But is he completely absent? The back-up story is credited to Sally Pashkow, a name that hasn't appeared anywhere else in comics. Opinion on the net says that this is a pseudonym for Chris Claremont though everything seems to be pointing to each other, and its inclusion in the X-Men by Chris Claremont and Jim Lee Volume 1 Omnibus may be more down to a sequential run than anything else. (As a result I've included a separate label to cover all possibilities.) But regardless of whether this is Claremont or a one-off writer in his style the result is a character piece as Jubilee finds herself in the outback town and hides herself away with the aid of Gateway, then starts observing the X-Men from afar and borrowing some clothes. It mainly serves to build up the new character. The lead story is part of the "Atlantis Attacks" crossover that ran through all the Marvel annuals in 1989 and it resorts very much to formula as a villain, in this case Mr. Jip from Terry Austin's work on Cloak and Dagger, recruits the heroes to find an object of power of unclear importance. The team is split in three and sent to different locations to tackle the problem, here complicated by the Serpent Society. And it's an effective failure as at the end the main villains from the crossover get their hands on the powerful objects. Overall this annual is rather peripheral to the whole "Atlantis Attacks" saga, achieving nothing that couldn't have happened without the X-Men's presence. It's a surprise that Claremont doesn't write the story, perhaps deciding to opt out of taking part in the mess, but the result is the one X-Men story in a very long time by another writer. And it almost seems to be saying that anyone who thinks Claremont has outstayed his welcome should think again as it's very dire in its handling of the characters, with some especial silliness when Dazzler and the Serpent Society's Diamondback temporarily switch bodies. This is easily forgettable.

The tension ups when Nimrod and the remains of Master Mold merge, creating one of the deadliest anti-mutant machines yet. The battle is fierce, with Senator Kelly's wife killed thus increasing the senator's hatred of mutants. Victory only comes when Dazzle deploys the Siege Perilous crystal to send Master Mold to either happiness or recreation, but Rogue is also lost in the process. Rogue has recently been portrayed with a split personality as Carol Danvers comes to the fore more frequently, generating some tensions as each takes control of the body in succession, but the battle terminates any resolution to this dilemma. This starts a steady break-up of the team with Longshot soon dropping aside to go and seek his own identity and history. It's a sign of both his insignificance to the run and the bigger events around him that this departure is almost shoehorned into wider events but he isn't really missed. Then the remains of the team, with Wolverine temporarily away, face the first of two fierce attacks on their doorstep in rapid succession. Nanny, the robotic "egg with a voice", attacks and in battle Havok's energy blast destroys Nanny's vessel with Storm onboard. And unlike most such comic explosions, the body is seen and confirmed afterwards. An interlude comes as the dwindling team respond to a distress call from the Savage Land where they face Zaladane and the Mutates, with the return of Polaris who now seems to have been freed from the control of Malice. Zaladane claims to be Polaris's sister but this plot element isn't really cleared up in time before the last of the X-Men are teleported home to Australia where Donald Pierce and the Reavers are waiting for them.

The series has been building up to this moment with a number of hints and visions that this will be the last stand of the X-Men with no way out. Instead the four - Psylocke, Dazzler, Colossus and Havok - take the one escape route to hand, by going through the Siege Perilous to begin new lives elsewhere. As they admit it is running away from the situation and to add to the indignity this ending is revealed in a flashback shown to the returning Wolverine by Gateway. Wolverine is left as the last of the X-Men and put up for crucifixion by the Reavers but escapes with the help of both Jubilee and Lady Deathstrike's sense of nobility. And so a whole era of the X-Men comes to an end not in glory but in defeat and running away.

But this isn't the end of the series at all. The X-Men have generated many ex-members, allies and influences over the years and the next dozen issues focus on a number of these characters but without assembling a new team. Issue #253 sets up the situation, with its cover reused for the volume as a whole. Initially the main focuses are on Wolverine and Jubilee as they head off into the Far East, the mutants based around Muir Island, with Banshee and Forge really coming to the fore, and a mysterious young girl found in Illinois who resembles a young Storm. Elsewhere various of the X-Men who went through the Siege Perilous come to terms with their new lives, suffering amnesia of their past lives but finding their past can't completely escape them. Unfortunately there is limited unification between the various story strands with the result that the focus jumps around between them and plots can take an age to conclude.

During this phase comes the second big crossover on this volume's watch, "Acts of Vengeance", which, for a change, comes out of the Avengers titles after three years of X-Men derived events. But were it not for the triangles in the top right hand corner of issues #256 through to #258 then one could be forgiven for not realising this is even part of the storyline. It may feature foes the X-Men haven't faced before in the form of the Mandarin and the Hand but there's no co-ordinated attack on our heroes or any reference to the Mandarin's role as one of the Prime Movers supposedly co-ordinating the entire thing - indeed the Mandarin portrayed here is the more sophisticated crime lord that had been developed over the years rather than the traditional ranting supervillain shown in the main portion of the event. This detachment may be of necessity as current events mean the X-Men are presumed dead, impossible to detect with electronic equipment and now lost and scattered by the Siege Perilous, which doesn't really lend itself to enemies launching attacks upon them. Instead we get the basic crossover theme of a villain from another series tied into some very traditional themes for the series of strong women being twisted into ever more powerful agents of enemies and ninjas, plus Wolverine's connections in the Far East from his own solo title.

The most notable event here by far is the transformation of Psylocke from a Caucasian telepath in armour worried about her physical weakness into an east Asian ninja woman. Exactly how her ethnicity is changed is rather brushed over but the whole thing now feels extremely uncomfortable. If an east Asian ninja woman X-Man was needed, it would have been easy to create a new character who could easily be added to the team. But instead an existing character has such a fundamental part of her altered to fulfil the role, as though the genuine article wouldn't do. The story touches upon aspects of culture conflict between the Far East and the West, most notably showcasing the clash with Jubilee, the daughter of Chinese immigrants to the United States, who proves a highly Americanised tourist who dislikes what she sees. Then she is captured and forced into a traditional serving girl role as a small part of the Mandarin's goal of revitalising the traditional Chinese kingdom. Overall his portrayal is a strong step away from the traditional Fu Manchu role he's sometimes given and Psylocke's transformation does fit into some of the themes but that doesn't redeem the effect even if her new look as a replacement Elektra is wildly popular. The sequence in which her mind is steadily twisted by a quest through distorted memories in order to obtain the Mandarin's ten rings is also a good idea in theory but let down by much of her background not having been previously explored outside the Captain Britain comics in the UK and so the whole things can be confusing at times. All in all the transformation was a mistake that chased a trend and it's amazing that it was allowed to stay permanently, no doubt because of the popularity of the new look.

Whilst Wolverine, Psylocke and Jubilee make their way onwards to Madripoor with the complication of Wolverine being haunted by images of Nick Fury and Carol Danvers that he thinks are real, other X-Men are coming to terms with their new lives. Dazzler finds herself a singer in Hollywood and her movie is finally released, but former producer Eric Beale stalks her. Colossus becomes an artist and a maintenance man in an apartment block but soon gets entangled with both the Genoshan Magistrates and then the survivors of the Morlocks. The child Storm is being pursued by the Shadow King who frames her for murder, resulting in her going on the run.

Forge and Banshee are built up in a way that suggests they will be the next members to join or return to the team, but it's unfortunate that Banshee's recovery of his powers goes unexplained at first and it's only after a further injury that we see the Morlock healer restore him. Meanwhile Polaris finds her magnetic powers gone but in place of them her body is growing in size and she now has super strength but this goes unexplained. The three of them become part of an ad hoc grouping based on Muir Island along with Moira MacTaggart, Legion, Amanda Sefton, Sunder and other hangers on not seen in a long while, facing off a brutal attack by the Reavers that sees them bailed out by Freedom Force with casualties all around including Destiny. The ad hoc team also wears a uniform, hinting that it could become a new new X-Men but it doesn't take off as such, not least because of one of Legion's dark personas taking over. Magneto is given the image on the volume's spine, taken from the cover, but only appears briefly as he resigns as headmaster of the school and drifts off to his old ways. It's a slightly awkward scene that appears to be trying to rationalise the increased use of the character as a more traditional villain elsewhere, most notably in the "Acts of Vengeance" crossover.

The only convergence of the various plotlines comes at the end of the volume as Forge and Banshee encounter the amnesiac Colossus under the name of "Peter Nicholas" and battle first the Morlocks and then the Genosha Magistrates with the help of Marvel Girl from X-Factor. Along with some individual comments over the issues it seems as though the various mutant teams are being drawn together to be treated as parts of a single whole once more but there's a central element missing. Wolverine is at least stepping up to a Professor Xavier role when he utilises Harry Malone's Harriers to test Psylocke and Jubilee in the absence of a Danger Room. But overall the series is still in scattered pieces.

The art is often strong and it's easy to see how Marc Silvestri and Jim Lee gained such a following. However the writing on the series is in heavy decline. The series has shifted from a long-term careful build-up of plots to an almost random chucking anything against the wall to see what sticks and letting storylines drag on for much longer than they can sustain. The idea of splitting up the team and exploring individual members and the supporting cast is not a bad idea per se but it's very poorly executed and the resulting issues just don't work well. The worst idea to get through is the race transformation of Psylocke but overall this is an exceptionally poor volume for the series.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Spider-Man: Parallel Lives

Spider-Man: Parallel Lives is a graphic novel originally published in 1989. Written by Gerry Conway and drawn by Alex Saviuk, it retells and enhances the story of Peter and Mary Jane's lives before their famous first meeting, and then shows them coming under attack from Doctor Octopus in the (then) present day.

The first two-thirds focuses upon retelling their lives, drawing on material both from the original Stan Lee/Steve Ditko and Lee/John Romita tales and also from Tom DeFalco & Ron Frenz's fleshing out of Mary Jane's childhood in Amazing Spider-Man #259. The two future spouses are compared and contrasted through their teen years - it's especially interesting to see that just as Peter was resisting Aunt May's attempts at matchmaking, Mary Jane was equally resisting her Aunt Anna's. However this story takes a number of liberties with previously established continuity. It's easy to overlook the retelling of Spider-Man's origin working solely from Amazing Fantasy #15 and ignoring the additions of later years. More problematic is the presentation of Peter's dating in high school - the implication is that he didn't start dating Betty until after Amazing Spider-Man #15, by which time May and Anna were trying to set him up with Mary Jane. It may avoid the original awkwardness that May was trying to find Peter a woman when he already had one, but changing the original stories is rarely a satisfactory way to solve problems. We also get a repeat of the claim first made in Conway's 1970s run that Peter dated Liz Allan in high school until they broke up at graduation, rather than her just having an unrequited crush as shown at the time. Also left out is the infamous meeting of Mary Jane, Betty and Liz, long before Peter first saw MJ.

But the biggest change is the revelation that Mary Jane knew Peter's secret from the start. Until her return in the #240s of Amazing Spider-Man there had never been any hint of her actually knowing, and indeed on a number of occasions her reaction to Peter's disappearances suggested quite the reverse. Then when she finally confronted Peter with the knowledge, it seemed more like she had deduced it rather than seen it - her reaction to the Black Cat swinging into Peter's flat was "It's true!", like someone who has deduced their spouse is having an affair but not yet actually caught them with the other person before confronting them. Yet here we are expected to believe Mary Jane had known all along. Nor can this be dismissed as an out of continuity story, as this point was subsequently absorbed into the regular titles.

Otherwise we have the contrast between Peter's happy home life, albeit with the shadow of his absent parents, but unpopular and lonely beyond there, with Mary Jane's ever popularity on the party scene but coming from a broken home and seeing a succession of failed marriages and angry exchanges. She finds herself drawn to Spider-Man for also enjoying life and wearing a mask, and then discovers he is actually Peter Parker, making her both curious and afraid. Eventually she succumbs to finding out and the famous meeting finally happens.

Interspersed throughout this are glimpses at Doctor Octopus, another shy introvert. One of Conway's most notorious storylines from the 1970s involved Aunt May nearly marrying Doctor Octopus. Here he represents the time the scientist rented a room at May's and found himself drawn to her, making the connection a little more plausible, until Peter intervened and destroyed the chances of a true bond. This anger continues to the present day when the sight of Peter and Mary Jane's wedding drives Doctor Octopus into threatening the Parker family to lure out Spider-Man, only to be defeated and seemingly destroyed in battle. This strand of the story is the least satisfactory, though it allows for a conclusion in which Peter and Mary Jane address head on the dangers they could face and that they've chosen life over fear.

Overall this tale is an interesting character study and a response to those who argued that the coupling and marriage was inconceivable. (Which makes it curious that Marvel reprinted it as a stand alone release in 2012, some years after undoing the marriage and when that year's film featured a different woman in Peter's life.) By skipping some twenty years (real time) of continuity it doesn't cover either how Mary Jane's knowledge of Peter's secret altered her perspective during their on and off years, or the speed with which they got engaged so soon after Spider-Man broke up with the Black Cat. So it doesn't answer all the questions already floating about nor the ones it raises with its own revelations.

Saviuk's art does a good job of recapturing the Silver Age but doesn't do so well in distinguishing the modern era - it takes more than altering Mary Jane's hairstyle and giving Doctor Octopus a suit of armour (one that looks like it was left over from the early years) to generate a modern feel. Conway certainly tries to bring the various strands together, but DeFalco and Frenz had already done the job of showing Mary Jane's party girl persona to be a facade and the placing of her discovering Peter's secret creates more problems than are needed. Overall this graphic novel looks good and does partially reinforce the case for the two being an item, but it isn't the most convincing case for them that has ever been made.

Friday, 11 September 2015

Essential Wolverine volume 6

Essential Wolverine volume 5 consists of issues #111 to #128 including the oddly numbered #-1 issue from "Flashback Month" and also "Wolverine '97", that year's annual. The writing sees the end of Larry Hama's run, including #-1, followed by stints by Warren Ellis, Tom DeFalco and Chris Claremont with the annual by John Ostrander and Joe Edkin. The artwork is mainly by Leinil Francis Yu, with contributions by Anthony Winn, Cary Nord, Denys Cowan, Stephen Platt and Angel Unzueta plus issue #127 by, get ready for it, Leinil Francis Yu, Carlos Pacheo, Cary Nord, Jeff Matsuda, Melvin Rubi and Mike Miller. The annual is by Leonardo Manco. With lots of creators, naturally there's a separate labels post.

This volume contains a five issue run consisting of issues from one event and then one crossover, coming at an unfortunate moment for the title. "Flashback Month" was a curious event run by Marvel in May 1997 whereby nearly every title had a special issue set way back in the pre-super-hero days before Fantastic Four #1, with the logo, art, lettering and colouring all adopting a simpler form reminiscent of those days, Stan Lee introducing each story in person and the regular numbering being set aside in favour of "Minus 1". The odd numbering alone has made these issues rather a pain to find at times and it wouldn't have been to surprising if this one had been left out of this volume by mistake. But the event is also remembered for the way it backfired heavily on Marvel with sales actually dropping and many retailers finding even their caution was insufficient with some regular buyers rejecting the Flashback issues as out of continuity and out of sequence and thus easy to ignore. The event seems to have put off special odd numbering for a good while but otherwise carries a reputation for retro set issues that rudely interrupted series mid-story, random continuity based adventures featuring characters with no powers interacting with odd combinations of guest stars, dodgey continuity by newer writers not yet up to speed on the rather random histories of certain characters, and the seeding of big plans by writers who would be off the title before they could get round to following them up. It was further hampered by most of the Marvel titles at the time not actually featuring characters who had been around in the Silver Age - a big chunk was temporarily absent due to the Heroes Reborn experiment - and so the stories would be even more strained.

The Wolverine #-1 issue is a mixed offender. It actually came out between storylines, with "Operation: Zero Tolerance" starting the following month, and is written by the series's long term writer who by now was very familiar with the character and what had been revealed of his background. It also has the advantage of being set after Wolverine acquired the adamantium and claws and so provides a suitable dose of nostalgia as we see an amnesiac Wolverine on an early adventure encountering Sabretooth and not knowing him, then facing off against Hydra agents amidst a backdrop of various agencies of various governments all having their own agendas for Wolverine. There are cameos by James and Heather Hudson, Ben Grimm, Nick Fury, Carol Danvers and the Black Widow, all trying for false nostalgia but not really generating the spark. Ultimately tales of sinister government agencies are a more recent phenomenon and rather undermine the attempts to create a pseudo-1961 style whilst most of the cameos have been thrown in for the sake of it. There's no real revelations in this story beyond showing how Wolverine came to like cigars - hardly the most pressing thing needing an origin - and nothing set up for the future. It doesn't even serve as a good introduction to the series for any readers drawn to the special issue. All in all this is one of the worst examples of event comics.

After such a long run, it's a pity that the last five months of Larry Hama's time on the title are taken up with one event or another. "Operation: Zero Tolerance" was the big X-Men crossover in the summer of 1997, seeing the mysterious Bastion utilising a new type of Sentinel/human hybrid to bring mutants under control with government backing. A number of the X-Men get captured and taken to the old Hulkbuster base where they seek to escape, rescue other captives including Jubilee and fend off another round of Sentinel hybrids. It's rather dragged out over four issues that at times feel like they belong more in the pages of X-Men or Uncanny X-Men than in Wolverine, though at least this part of the storyline doesn't weave in and out of different titles and thus slow down this collection. What makes the story hard to follow here is that it starts with the X-Men already captured and arriving at the Hulkbuster base and then after four issues it ends on a cliffhanger involving Cyclops that is resolved in another title and thus not in this volume. It's a pity as this series has normally managed to stand pretty well on its own without needing lots of additional comics just to understand what's going on but here it rather slips up and the result is four inconsequential issues that make for a very disappointing end to Larry Hama's run.

It appears this wasn't planned, as Hama's last non-event issues seem to be building up both a new status quo and long-term threads. After coming back to the X-Men's mansion Wolverine decides he is better heading out on his own elsewhere and settles in a suburb of New York, taking a job at a construction site and developing a friendship with his female foreman. At the same time, Zoe Culloden of Landau, Luckman and Lake entrusts Wolverine with protecting a mysterious cube. The spirit of Wolverine's old mentor Ogun attacks, possessing a succession of Wolverine's friends and the affair also attracts the interest of Daimon Hellstrom, the Son of Satan. All in all it's a very so-so take that is clearly meant as the foundation for something bigger, but as is so often the case with a change of writers, and particularly with fill-ins between them, both the new status quo and the grand plans are abandoned amidst the changeover. As a result even Hama's last non-event storyline is a disappointment and so he leaves the title with his best days clearly behind him.

Hama's departure is followed by a variety of fill-in writers, none of whom lasts any distance of time. The most common feature is a resort to Wolverine's past to pull out a previously unmentioned character to drive the story, starting with the annual in which he revisits the time he was on a mission to aid a scientist defecting from the Soviet Union only for the Soviet agent "Wolf" to intercept them, killing the scientist but letting Wolverine and the scientist's daughter escape. Now the Wolf has returned, having been genetically enhanced with the DNA of his animal namesake and seemingly seeking revenge on Wolverine and the daughter. Over in the regular series there's a four-part epic involving a mercenary known as McLeish or the "White Ghost" from Wolverine's time in Hong Kong who killed Logan's girlfriend's father for the Triads and in return Logan believed he'd killed him. Now it seems McLeish has survived and is subjecting Wolverine to a gauntlet of hire killers in revenge. It's a tough thriller but it's also about two issues too long for all that it actually does.

There's another encounter with Roughouse and Bloodscream from the Madripoor era, followed by a team-up with Captain America against a bunch of killers using invisibility technology. The final showdown takes place before an audience at a time when Cap is experiencing a huge surge of popularity to almost religious levels, making for quite a contrast between his reception and the way Wolverine is normally responded to, if at all. But both these tales are simply marking time.

The final four-part storyline in this volume sees the return of Chris Claremont to the series, after having been away from the mutant titles and Marvel as a whole for nearly seven years. And it's a story arc that suggests that his absence was for the better as we get a storyline packed with guest appearances, silliness and unexplained developments. The anniversary issue #125 brings together a wide range of Wolverine's female allies from over the years, serving to underline his ties and also to allow for a passing back of the torch from Jubilee to Shadowcat as the innocent youthful sidekick. But the whole thing gets messier and messier as the Viper brainwashes many of the women and both Jubilee and Wolverine are forced to relive past actions by both themselves and others. Most of this part of the plot is ditched once the anniversary issue is over and the focus turns to the wedding of Wolverine and the Viper for frankly incomprehensible reasons. Just to add to the mix, Hydra and the Hand team up to take over Madripoor whilst Sabretooth, now enhanced with an adamantium skeleton, shows up to attack Wolverine but then unites with Shadowcat to save Madripoor from take-over. It's a tangled web of shifting alliances, complicated further by a protracted sequence in which Wolverine seeks to pick off Hydra agents by convincing them the Hulk and members of the Avengers, Fantastic Four and X-Men are all in town, simulating various heroes' powers with movie effects. The whole thing reads like a mishmash of various Claremont obsessions over the years that have been shoved in a blender and poured out in an incoherent whole, made worse by some rush work on the art including issue #127 having no less than six different artists. The one good idea in the whole mix is Sabretooth being enhanced and deadlier than ever, making for very tense encounters between him and Wolverine, but it is sidelined in the rush to get through everything else. All in all it's a rather messy ending to the volume but a symbolic sign of the incoherence that has plagued it.

This volume is a classic example of how a series can get into a mess when a long term writer moves on and there's no clear plan in place for what to do with the series, resulting in a protracted set of fill-ins and overlong storylines that meander about, doing nothing to develop the character or take the series forward. What should have been a triumphant return by Claremont, and which was doubtlessly highly anticipated as such, instead turns into an incoherent mess as far too many elements get chucked into a single storyline without proper explanation. The volume is also let down by having to contributed to the overlong "Operation: Zero Tolerance" crossover and the "Flashback Month" event where neither of these contributes anything of significance to the series. Overall this is quite a poor volume.

Essential Wolverine volume 6 - creator labels

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