Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Post-Graduate Studies #3

The MU campus is mostly unused right now but
from time to time, our Professors will drop in for Summer courses.
This Week:

The Hulk and the Kree
by Professor Matthew Bradley

Bill Mantlo’s impressive 69-issue tenure on Incredible Hulk kicked off with #245-8, a Buscema-drawn tetralogy that marked Captain Marvel’s last major guest-star turn, and was published in between his unrelated final solo appearances in Marvel Spotlight #4 and 8.  But in fairness, I feel I should first connect the dots, especially since our formal curriculum ended with a cliffhanger in #242.  A transitional issue in every sense, and a weird one at that, #243 is the last credited to its plotter, Roger Stern (although some sources include him on #244), who bizarrely announces his departure in a LOC to “Editori-Al” Milgrom and Jo Duffy, citing his own “editorial duties over the eight-and-a-half books I’m overseeing every month” and wishing the best to his replacement.

Depicted on Al’s cover, the long-overdue ending of Stern’s “They” arc mercifully occupies only the first half, as the Hulk rips open the tower containing the Flame of Life and sends Tyrannus—now one with the Deviant-created flames—hurtling upward to flicker and die among the stars.  This is dispassionately watched by Gammenon (Roy Thomas is credited as “Celestial Advisor”) before Greenskin returns his attention to his traitorous ally, the Goldbug.  They just happen to stumble into one of Tyrannus’s traps, which just happens to teleport them to Manhattan, where a fleeing Goldbug just happens to be two blocks from his penthouse, but then is apprehended by Luke Cage, who has been seeking him since Power Man #42 and just happened to be passing by.

Quakes destroy El Dorado, the survivors seeking their destiny in huge caverns as the Hulk, who has been reminded of Tyrannus’s reference to Jarella, lumbers off on a new quest.  Then, Betty Ross becomes the next interviewee for Fred Sloan’s book about the Hulkster, while Trish Starr (whose head is wider than her waist in page 21, panel 2, an off-moment for Sal) books him a slot on The Mike Douglas Show, shooting on location in Denver…with guest-host Rick Jones.  After a continuity-lover’s wet dream—a two-page spread depicting the Hulk’s interim adventures in Defenders #68-74 and the yet-to-be-published Daredevil #163—we end with a transferred Clay Quartermain bidding goodbye to Ross’s successor at Gamma Base, Glenn Talbot, now a colonel.

Scripter Steven Grant also wrote #244, delighting the Isabella-bashers by reducing It! The Living Colossus, Tony’s stony hero from Astonishing Tales #21-4, to dust; the less said the better about Infantino’s art.  A ridiculous contrivance has Bruce—in L.A. following Iron Man #133—Hulk out and confront actor Grant Marshall at a Graumann’s awards banquet, prompting FX wizard Bob O’Bryan (now wed to ex-starlet Diane Cummings) to reactivate It.  Evil Dr. Vault has been waiting for just such an opportunity so his “necessary apparatus” can project his mind into It, supplanting Bob’s control, but the Hulk shatters and disperses It, and when Vault’s mind returns to his body, he discovers that its brief absence has accelerated his nerve disease with fatal results.

Incredible Hulk 245 (March 1980)
"When the Hulk Comes Raging!"
Story by Bill Matlo
Art by Sal Buscema
Colors by George Roussos
Letters by Joe Rosen
Cover by Al Milgrom

Seeking to take Jarella’s body home, the Hulk leaps into Gamma Base, brushing aside all resistance until Talbot, having issued shoot-to-kill orders, faces him in Super-Mandroid armor.  In Denver, Rick and Fred assure Mike Douglas that the Hulk is harmless if unprovoked, and are met after the taping by Mar-Vell, who was in the audience with Elysius but quickly departs on hearing a news report of the battle.  He arrives in New Mexico in time to stop the Hulk from killing Glenn, once the pair has toppled into the base’s “subterranean ultraclassified chambers,” yet while sensing, and sympathetic to, the man-monster’s situation, he “cannot allow you to further harm Colonel Talbot,” a distinction the Hulk is slow to appreciate…

Milgrom’s generic cover sadly suits an issue that—save for the Denver scene, harvesting seeds sown by Sterno—is overwhelmingly by the numbers, e.g., Greenskin’s rage over Jarella’s body feels like a replay of his rampage following her death.  Although they’ve faced favorites from Avengers (#94-5) to X-Men (#118-9), I’ve always found the Mandroids dull and overly similar to fellow Hulk foes like the Quintronic Man (#213) and Ross-controlled HS-1000 (#185).  Marv’s cosmic awareness, here serving as a kind of mystic lie detector, risks becoming one of those ill-defined catch-alls à la Spider- or Daredevil’s radar sense, while Bill descends into annoying self-evident dialogue that just tells us what we can already see:  “Y-you’re pulling me off my feet?!?”

Incredible Hulk 246 (April 1980)
"The Hero and the Hulk!"
Story by Bill Mantlo
Art by Sal Buscema
Colors by Ben Sean
Letters by Diana Albers
Cover by Rich Buckler and Jack Abel

Still convinced that Marv turned Rick against him (in CM #21), the Hulk greets his offer of aid by throwing the fallen Mandroid at him, bringing the roof down on them before stalking off in search of Jarella.  Protected by the inoperative armor, from which the Kree extricates him, the ungrateful Glenn pays lip service to avoiding further conflict by giving Greenskin his way; the “interfering alien”—told his presence is no longer required—sees right through that one and, only pretending to depart, follows a path of destruction to the cryogenics morgue.  Meanwhile, in a cabin in the Colorado Rockies, Doc Samson’s weeks of therapy are ruined when General Ross hears a radio report about the devastation at Gamma Base.

When the well-intentioned Mar-Vell unwisely interrupts the Hulk’s reverie (a flashback relating Jarella’s life and death, typically sidestepping the fact that for much of their relationship, he had Banner’s mind) to renew his offer, Greenskin backhands him.  Via a kind of Kree Mind Meld—another hitherto unknown ability, I believe—Marv convinces the Hulk of his sincerity, then leads him to the submolecular studies lab, where he energizes and plots the coordinates on the micron-cannon that will return the Hulk to Jarella’s world.  But just as he and his tragic burden shrink from sight, the treacherous Talbot orders the firing of the beta-borer, “designed to punch holes through asteroids,” destroying the device and exiling his bête noire to subspace “for all eternity.”

I allowed myself a smug chuckle upon reading, “When the alien intelligence called Eon gave me the gift of cosmic awareness, I doubt if he expected it to function as a simple lie-detector!”  After a disappointing first act, things pick up somewhat despite the semi-MARMIS, i.e., Marv is well, uhm, aware of what’s going on—and displays commendable forbearance as the grieving Hulk’s punching bag, most notably in the full-pager on 19—while Greenskin’s understanding is, shall we say, characteristically limited.  Talbot’s transition from perennial also-ran supporting player to full-on psychotic is perhaps inevitable, given his litany of real or perceived grievances against Jade-Jaws, but at the moment, I can neither see nor recall how Glenn might walk back from that.

Our Pal Sal is no stranger to Captain Marvel, having drawn him at least as far back as the final panel of Avengers #72 (January 1970)—happily paired with Sam Grainger—and the early stages of the Kree-Skrull War.  His self-inked rendition here is just okay (a coloring error makes Marv look like “Bird-Nose” in page 2, panel 2, and his face is oddly simian in page 17, panel 4), but by definition preferable to the Broderson beauhunk recently on display, and boy, do they obviously like drawing him with that starfield superimposed on his face to indicate the use of his cosmic awareness, an effect I counted no fewer than four times in this issue alone.  Mantlo’s handling of the character, firmly in his “sworn protector of the human race” mode, strikes me as satisfactory.

The Incredible Hulk 247 (May 1980)
"Jarella's World"
Story by Bill Mantlo
Art by Sal Buscema
Colors by Ben Sean
Letters by John Costanza
Cover by Rich Buckler and Al Milgrom

Landing at last on solid ground, the Hulk wonders if Mar-Vell lied to him but then realizes that, although much changed, it is indeed “Jarella’s World” (this entry’s title), confirmed when he sees people sharing his emerald hue endangered by a “bat-dragon” that he defeats in a mighty battle.  Like K’ai itself, reduced to rocks and dust, the power of the Pantheon of Sorcerors (sic)—Holi, Moli, and Torla—is diminished, yet can still bridge the language barrier.  Receiving the sad news of their queen’s death, they explain that when the Hulk broke the slide containing K’ai in #203, the geological upheaval destroyed their civilization; now living in caves, they decree she “must be buried alongside her ancestors…in the Valley of Life!”

Meanwhile, Air Force brat Betty has flown Elysius and the boys to Gamma Base, where Marv brings her up to speed and Rick offers the platitude that Glenn did his duty but lost his humanity; maybe he can get a song out of that one.  The Hulk reasonably asks why Jarella’s people must scavenge for food when the valley—forbidden to the living—is full of, well, life, and vows that once he has interred Jarella (prompting graveside memories of Bruce’s parents and “Kraker Jak Jakson”), he will defy the demons on their behalf.  Easier said than done, naturlich, and after the burial detail has been beset by soil, rocks, trees, a cat-beast, an aquatic dragon, monkeys, and bugs, he is confronted by the valley’s master, the Gardener, who will allow no shelter to humans.

By now a well-oiled machine, the Bill & Sal team will—for those of you who like statistics—be creating this book and Rom almost without interruption through Rom #58 (September 1984), and remain together on the Hulk through #309 (July 1985); Our Pal will ink his own pencils through Rom #20 (July 1981) and Hulk #273 a year later.  They turn in a typically professional job here, but alas, through no fault of theirs, I’ve never been a big fan of the more fantasy-oriented K’ai stories, preferring either the grittier relative realism of traditional Earthbound super-heroics, Marvel’s bread and butter, or overt cosmic SF à la Starlin.  Ironically, the return of the Gardener, whom Bill created in MTU #55, nudges us into the latter…but more on that in just a few minutes.

Mantlo’s three-panel check-in with Len and T-Bolt accomplishes zilch, while the slightly longer New Mexico stopover offers little more than a recap, but at least Bill reminds us (to Greenskin’s ire) about the shared-brain thing.  Infuriatingly, the panel depicting the dragon rising from the waterfall and snaking out its tongue to grab the Hulk bears a dialogue balloon reading, “Dragon rises from waterfall and snakes out tongue to grab Hulk…”  Yet I am perhaps being overly harsh toward a change-of-pace story that puts old Jade-Jaws into more of a welcome heroic mode than a misunderstood-monster one, giving him a cause to fight for besides his own well-being, and the melancholy moments augment a far greater emotional palette than the usual wall-to-wall action...

The Incredible Hulk 248 (June 1980) 
"How Green My Garden Grows!"
Story by Bill Mantlo
Art by Sal Buscema
Colors by Ben Sean
Letters by Jim Novak
Cover by Michael Golden 

Seeking to be better understood, the Gardener uses his Soul Gem to imbue the captive Hulk with Banner’s mind and says, “I am one of the Elders who came to your universe in the wake of creation!  Brothers had I, one who loved to study, another who engaged in endless sport!”  Having abandoned his own red Gem—corrupted when he joined his power with Warlock’s to drive the Stranger from the moon, where it was found by Thanos—he claimed Adam’s emerald Gem from atop his grave on Counter-Earth, and swore “never again to place [its] powers…before undeserving humanity!”  But as he departs to inter Jarella, Bruce’s despair slows his pulse; regaining human form, he slips out of the vines holding him and follows.

Meanwhile, Betty bids farewell to Mar-Vell, who is touring Earth with Elysius, and plans to get Fred an interview with her father, who while out hunting with Samson sees a shadowy, inhuman figure he mistakes for the Hulk.  A two-front war erupts:  Jarella’s people face a stampede that seeks to drive them from the outskirts of the valley while the Hulk battles the Gardener, finally hurling his Gem “to the very core of K’ai,” where it effects a miraculous transformation.  Peace breaks out as paradise spreads from the valley across the entire planet, and after the Hulk has tearfully fulfilled his promise by burying their queen, on whose grave a green flower blooms (“It is just Jarella saying goodbye to Hulk one last time!”), an apologetic Gardener sends him home...

Despite giving Marv the least face time (barely enough to observe, “There is much that I gleaned from my contact with that poor, tortured brute that humanity could stand to learn as well!”), this final chapter is of the greatest interest to me, building on Warlock’s sad history.  Having already made a significant contribution to the evolving mythos of the Soul—later Infinity—Gems when he introduced the Gardener, Bill now does so with the Elders of the Universe, who will became A Big Thing.  “I am one of the Elders!...My brother [i.e., the Grandmaster] sought sport in this continuum, and roamed in search of games to play!  I wished only to study the simple creatures here,” states the Collector in the Mantlo-scripted Avengers #174, the very first reference to them.

I dislike doomed romances, and if ever there were one in the Marvel Universe, it was the Hulk’s with Jarella, as sure to end badly as James Bond’s marriage, yet this ingenious ending manages to add a hopeful note of redemption to both her death and Warlock’s.  After a run of largely indifferent covers, mostly by Milgrom, this one—with artwork by faculty-fave Michael Golden and an interesting green-and-gold color scheme—also signals that we’re in for something special (although those lines beside Betty’s mouth on the splash page make her look like Heath Ledger’s Joker).  Meanwhile, with the lettercol telling us Ditko will pinch-hit as Sal gears up for the 250th-issue spectacular, this is perhaps the perfect time to suspend my Hulk studies until further notice.


Since Greenskin wasn’t the only one left hanging in December of 1979, we offer this closure…

The Avengers 191 (January 1980)
"Back to the Stone Age!"
Story by Roger Stern and David Michelinie
Art by John Byrne and Dan Green
Colors by Bob Sharen
Letters by John Costanza
Cover by George Pérez and Sal Buscema

With Horn- and Shellhead turned to stone, the other Avengers are bested by the Grey Gargoyle with Shooteresque ease:  the Vision is belted halfway through a brick wall in his desolidified state (again raising the question of conscious control over his density); Wanda and Ms. Marvel are kayoed; Cap, Beast, and Jan are trapped under a petrified and shattered awning.  Meanwhile, Jarvis releases a frenzied Redwing from the Mansion, but the Falcon is nowhere in sight when they recover, with the Vision opining that Wanda has acted strangely since returning from Attilan.  Unaffected inside his stone armor, IM orders the others to pursue the foe, who is followed by the Falcon as he returns to an apartment he had rented in his human i.d. months ago.

Current tenant Margot Neil refurbished it after Paul Duval vanished, and when (having revealed how he created a shell of cosmic particles and wreckage from the exploding rocket in Thor #259) he learns that she threw away the chemicals with which he’d planned to augment his powers, the Falcon steps in to protect her, but the arriving Redwing is turned to stone.  Luckily, hearing of an altercation in an East Side brownstone, the others arrive and defeat him with teamwork, Wanda’s hex returning him to normal.  At the hearing, the committee decides that the incident reaffirms both the Avengers’ concern for law-abiding people and the freedom they need, so it restores their “priority privilages [sic] and security clearance” and lessens “the restrictions on their autonomy.”

Reliable Byrne/Green artwork aside, this concretizes, ha ha, my disappointment with the recent run of my long-term favorite title, even if the Falcon does get a better showing.  Once again, the assemblage doesn’t gel for me, although I’ll cut writer Michelinie and plotter/editor Stern some slack, since this may have been the intention with their government-mandated line-up, and it remains to be seen what will happen with Gyrich off their backs.  The usual editorial sloppiness grates, as the French phrase après vous (after you) is mangled into aprez-vous (will you); on a tangentially related note, following its total absence in December, the Bullpen Bulletins page will be devoted solely to Stan’s Soapbox and a bigger-than-ever checklist for at least six months.

My biggest beef is with the treatment of the Beast and the Scarlet Witch.  When Hank chides the Gargoyle for decking Wanda (“Don’t you bad guys have any sense of chivalry at all?”), his intentions are obviously good, yet I consider it sexist to assume that a female Avenger is not fair game in a fight, and taking her eye off the ball out of concern for the fallen Vision (“I must go to him!”) only exacerbates the problem.  Hank, meanwhile, is “mortified” for the umpteenth time when retrieved from the rubble, while Dave goes out of his way to remind us that once Duval is no longer, uh, stoned, “Now this joker’s more in my league!”  As with Hawkeye, a good writer could highlight his unique talent to make him an effective team-member without belittling Hank.

In Two Weeks!
Professors Mark and Matthew team up
to battle Fantastic Four #214!

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Post-Graduate Studies #2:

The MU campus is mostly unused right now but
from time to time, our Professors will drop in for Summer courses.
This Week:

Closing the Book on Captain Marvel
by Professor Matthew Bradley

Marvel Spotlight 4 (January 1980)
Captain Marvel in
"Shadow Doom!"
Story by Archie Goodwin and Marv Wolfman
Art by Steve Ditko
Colors by Bob Sharen
Letters by Joe Rosen
Cover by Steve Ditko

Denver scientist Lyman Shaw is killed by his own shadow before breaking “a big discovery” to a local reporter; the cause appears to be a coronary but Mar-Vell senses “the otherworldly” and visits his home, the former Harlow mansion, where he too is attacked by his shadow.  A photon burst saves his life, yet when the shadowy figure pulls him in the doorway, he becomes humanoid, and Marv finds himself not in Harlow House but in another dimension.  Hiding the Kree from a patrol of shadowy Screamers, Primus brings Mar-Vell to his people, who hail him as “avenger of the faith” for finding a champion to help them overthrow the Soul Masters, and is greeted by his wife, Stara, before finally giving an agreed-upon explanation.

After his father, the “last of the old warriors,” was killed by the living shadow, their dimension was “absorbed into that of the Soul Masters,” who draw power by draining souls and made them into “slave reserves.”  Just before the attack, Primus learned that Shaw, attempting interstellar contact, had also pierced the dimensional fabric with ultra-high frequencies, so the chief scientist bargained for his people’s lives and souls.  Since the Soul Masters—unable to leave their own dimension—can send Screamers and shadows to Earth via Shaw’s sonic waves, Primus agreed to strengthen and broaden the wave bands, with Harlow House as a base for their conquest, while secretly recruiting Marv…who, alas, can never return, his soul having been stolen in the process.

With his military training and secretly manufactured weapons, an attack force leaves Stara, “the most experienced monitor,” on duty, but the Screamers take her from the monitoring chamber to the citadel of the Soul Masters, whose mind scan extracts the plan.  Sans the element of surprise, the attackers are wiped out in stopping the Screamers, leaving only Mar-Vell and Primus to enter the citadel and find Stara dying, her soul stolen.  Battling the Soul Masters as Marv destroys the generators maintaining the dimensional link, Primus is mortally wounded, yet they prevented the enemy from stealing the souls of those who fell in battle; infusing his own into his ally, Primus enables Mar-Vell to return via the swiftly closing rift, thus regaining some measure of his honor.

Coincidentally, the antipodal prior credits of plotter Wolfman and writer Goodwin epitomize the strip’s dizzying highs and lows.  Marv and DC escapee Wayne Boring perpetrated its arguable pre-Starlin nadir in Captain Marvel #23-4, yet while Archie’s one-off in #16, which introduced this classic uniform, was overshadowed by #17’s seminal Thomas/Kane/Adkins revamp, he did (as I said in my coverage) “extricat[e] the character from the Drake/Friedrich mire...[He] does a superb job—inevitably awash with exposition—of not only weaving together their dangling plot threads but also putting an entirely new spin on Mar-Vell’s career since Day One [and] throws us an out-of-the-blue, game-changing cliffhanger” by first stranding our Kree in the Negative Zone.

Well, this is a gloomy little tale “Marchie” tells—true, Primus is redeemed, but the victory over the Soul Masters is Pyrrhic in the extreme, coming at the cost of both races’ apparent destruction.  Despite lip service to recent events (e.g., “my love Elysius,” “Could this be the alien threat which Eon warned me of?”), this is a quintessential one-and-done that leaves nary a ripple on the river of Mar-Vell’s existence, while blithely suggesting that all souls are interchangeable.  Yet it is uniquely suited to the former Kree warrior, who, “unlike most of the super heroes [sic] Primus might have secured for the task…adjusts swiftly to the alien setting and culture,” with Archie adeptly handling his spilt-milk attitude and able leadership (“Flexibility is the best battle plan”).

I won’t beat a dead horse by dwelling on my dislike of Bronze-Age Ditko, although ironically, this story’s otherworldly nature suggests that he, too, might have been singularly suitable.  Steve is certainly no stranger to shadowy dimensions, at which he excelled on Dr. Strange, yet these seem perfunctory; many of the panels have white backgrounds (e.g., the training scenes on page 10), pastel colors, or uninteresting geometric shapes.  The rubber-faced humanoid characters and largely featureless Soul Masters are similarly ill-defined, so the whole thing has an unfinished look to it, as though Ditko were simply phoning this in, even if the destruction of Harlow House in page 30, panel 1, just as Shadow-Marv emerges from the rift, admittedly has a little zing to it...

Before and after Mar-Vell’s final appearance therein, the short-lived Spotlight revival remained a showcase for characters without their own books, starting with Marv and Steve’s creation in #5 of Dragon Lord, whose handful of appearances would span decades.  Next was a double-header by erstwhile Kree chronicler Doug Moench and artist Tom Sutton featuring Marvel’s most peripatetic hero, future Hollywood cash cow Star-Lord.  Rounding out the run, Bill Mantlo spun off his Micronauts champion Captain Universe in #9-11, all drawn by Ditko (as were both of his Micronauts Annuals); the twist here is that the Uni-Power possesses different hosts in each issue, starting with Steve Coffin after inducing a luckily non-fatal heart attack in his aging father, Ray.

Marvel Spotlight 8 (September 1980)
Captain Marvel in
"Planet Where Time Stood Still!"
Story by Dick Riley and Mike W. Barr
Art by Frank Miller and Bruce D. Patterson
Colors and Letters by Bruce D. Patterson
Cover by Frank Miller and Terry Austin

Nearing a strangely silent planet, Mar-Vell recalls how a tour of an observatory became “a busman’s holiday” when the latest shift of Operation: Starlight, a search for new stars, failed to emerge from its top-secret camera-telescope.  Tearing off a three-foot-thick, tempered vanadium steel door, he found the scientists gone, leaving a purple glow in the sky; no sooner had Dr. Wilcox noted that the photographic plates were broken—except one showing a star-like streak that was headed to Earth and, if guided by intelligence, might return—than she and Dr. Carson also vanished.  Marv followed the glow there, and as he spots a Skrull, his instinctive hatred makes him attack, but an unseen force hurls him from the unmoving figure.

A humanoid, Vindar, welcomes him to Norsec, explaining that all his “guests” are paralyzed yet conscious, cruelly punished by Those-Who-See; sensing that a “blank wall” is not what it seems, Mar-Vell finds the scientists being prepared for punishment, and demands an audience.  Their power source a violet gem, TWS are the supreme council, who transferred their intellects into a sphinx-like vessel after a dike (whose inspection was Vindar’s job) broke, drowning the entire population.  Marv must defeat their sentry, an energy-construct in the form of Cerberus, before he can destroy the gem—leaving TWS helpless, and restoring those punished for “merely trying to gain knowledge” to their own worlds—while threatening to return if this lesson is not learned.

DC vet Mike W. Barr scripted this farrago of unanswered questions (and I’m not even including “Will we ever learn what Eon was on about?”), which deservedly appears to be co-plotter Dick Riley’s sole credit; the marquee player here is, natch, penciler Miller, now firmly in writer-artist mode on Daredevil, whose okay cover is embellished by Austin.  Unfortunately, one-man band Patterson—serving as interior inker, letterer, and colorist—drowns Lanky Frank’s style so much that we seem to be back in the bad old days of Marv’s dying mag, blonde bouffant and all.  That said, this is the visual antithesis of #4, with ornate planetscapes and a background figure in page 15, panel 2 that looks like a two-armed Thark, echoing Miller’s masterly job on John Carter #18.

I find it a curious choice to put Marv in an observatory setting, again evoking the Broderick era, but then make it a different one from his erstwhile Colorado hangout—wouldn’t a meeting with, and perhaps a rescue of, Jacqueline Carr have given this more resonance?  Yet the plotting is so haphazard that such logic is perhaps superfluous, and the script oddly repetitive:  he “need not be cosmically aware to realize,” “one need not be one with the universe to perceive...” Vindar inexplicably looks like nothing so much as Victor Buono’s King Tut, befitting an Egyptian motif that makes as little sense as anything else, and overall, lame-duck Mar-Vell’s final appearance toplining a regular four-color issue is, if you’ll pardon a mixed avian metaphor, a sad swan song.

During the nomadic existence of those with cancelled strips, Marv was reunited by Mantlo with an old sparring partner and their mutual sometime sidekick, Rick Jones, in Incredible Hulk #245-248 (March-June 1980), a complex arc that I should probably cover in its own right elsewhere.  Ditto—albeit for different reasons—Marvel Two-in-One #69 (November 1980), in which I think Mar-Vell is limited to a one-panel cameo, while a tale planned for the never-published Spotlight #12 that, believe it or not, ties in with an old Dr. Strange storyline was apparently excavated in Marvel Super-Heroes Vol. 2 #3 (Fall 1990).  Aptly, Moench teamed him up with Reed Richards against some Skrulls in Fantastic Four Annual #15 (1980) before Starlin drew the final curtain…

The Death of Captain Marvel (April 1982)
A Marvel Graphic Novel
Story and Art by Jim Starlin
Colors by Steve Oliff
Letters by Jim Novak
Cover by Jim Starlin

En route to Thanos’s ark—towed past Pluto and abandoned by the Avengers—Mar-Vell begins recording a mini-autobiography that “may prove of some use to those I leave behind,” recalling how he switched his allegiance to Earth from his native Kree after the death of Medic Una (misidentified as a communications officer).  Eros and Mentor wish to return Thanos’s stone body to Titan’s royal crypt, but Mar-Vell sees that it is now on an altar-like platform, and anticipates an attack by intergalactic worshippers awaiting his resurrection.  Marv reluctantly joins in, calibrating his counterattack to avoid bloodshed, yet after Mentor orders the craft vacated, planning to destroy it, the Kree is overcome with a coughing fit.

Back on Titan, Isaac’s medi-scan confirms what he already suspected (“Cosmic awareness can be turned inward.  My body has no secrets I cannot unravel”).  Due to the carcinogenic effects of Compound Thirteen, the nerve gas to which he was exposed while battling Nitro in CM #34, he has cancer—called the “inner decay” on Titan, or the “blackend” by the Kree—and, with the photonic power of his Nega-Bands only slowing its progress, about three months to live.  Marv breaks the news to Elysius in the royal gardens, watched by Mentor in a poignant dialogue-free page, then resumes recording his fights with the Kree Supreme Intelligence, exile in the Negative Zone, enforced partnership with Rick Jones, revenge on Col. Yon-Rogg, friends, and many foes.

This prompts a visit to a 44th Street tenement roof, where Mar-Vell urges Rick to get a check-up in case “our symbiotic relationship would allow this disease to be passed on to you,” but the lad accuses him of giving up—Mentor’s radiation treatments aside—and storms off.  Reminded by Elysius that “all his life people have been leaving [the orphaned Rick] behind,” Marv contrasts himself with Adam Warlock, who “welcomed [Death] as a friend.”  At Avengers’ (sic) Mansion, Rick gathers a septet (Yellowjacket, the Black Panther, Vision, Wonder Man, Beast, Iron Man, Thor) whose expertise might save him; he again storms off when they point out that this is a little outside their line, not knowing they all had already agreed to go to Titan and work with Mentor.

Worlds across the galaxy receive the news with mixed feelings and provide all of the oncological data they possess (except the Kree, who consider Mar-Vell a traitor), enabling Isaac to design a life-support tunic that reduces the degeneration.  Knowing of his feelings, Marv asks Eros to be a friend to Elysius when he’s gone and recalls how, after a “honeymoon” touring Earth together, the enemies-turned-lovers decided to settle on Titan.  Rick’s Dream Team, joined by Dr. Strange and Mr. Fantastic, is stymied by an increased dependency on the Nega-Bands, to whose photonic energy the mutating cancer has gained an immunity, yet that energy blocks all attempted cures; per Dr. McCoy, “the one thing that’s keeping Marvel alive is also keeping us from curing him!”

Marv collapses, and the final vigil begins as “the family of super-man” gathers to say goodbye, a shaken Spidey observing, “We die from bullets and bombs…not from something like cancer.”  Visitors include an apologetic Rick; Drax, who is reconnecting with daughter Moondragon, and has experienced death; and General Zedrao, who has made “guarantees of proper conduct” and—in marked contrast to the Kree’s snub—presents him with the Royal Skrull Medal of Valor as  their greatest enemy.  Mar-Vell falls into a coma, yet amid the litany around his bedside that it’s “so unfair,” a curious thing begins to happen:  in his sub-basement tomb, the stone figure that is Thanos “hears the call and must answer,” coming to life and ascending to the royal bed chamber.

Restoring the frail Mar-Vell with a wave of his hand, Thanos has “returned from the darkness for one last, magnificent battle,” showing Marv the literal heart of his universe and challenging him to prevent its destruction.  He faces and defeats his foes who have died over the years, yet in the end, he must accept the inevitable, and when Thanos’s beloved Death appears, Mar-Vell passes his hand over her face, which changes from beauty to a skull:  “It is not that I fear her.  It’s just that…I no longer need…the illusion.”  While the heart stops beating, Thanos announces, “She will lead us on our journey.  She will show us that this is not the end…only the beginning!”; as the trio walks hand-in-hand into the light, and the monitor flatlines, Mentor says, “He’s gone…”

At 62 unnumbered pages, Marvel’s debut graphic novel was 3.65 times the length, 10 times the price, and roughly 1.16 times the trim size of a then-standard issue.  Per Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, EIC Shooter suggested this landmark opus after seeing sales soar on X-Men #137, while Starlin agreed to write and draw it (with colors by Steve Oliff, whose name I now know from those Moon Knight backup stories in The Hulk!) “on the condition that he could do another graphic novel featuring Dreadstar, a character he owned.”  When it was published, two weeks after Elektra’s death in the bestselling Daredevil #181, “it quickly sold out of three printings, and Jim…made himself a tidy sum and bought himself a new Camaro Z28,” as Sean Howe recounts.

At this late date, I don’t recall when I acquired this (I don’t think it was immediate, probably due to distress over the concept, plus my “Marvel age” was waning by then) or how I reacted to it at the time; on a re-read, it affected me more than expected and, shocker, reduced me to tears.  Yet as much as I love the creator and characters, it seems a little too aware at times of its status as A Big Thing, and I found minor annoyances, e.g., since when does Wonder Man possess “special scientific or medical knowledge”—ditto Thor, even if Don Blake does—while the “Why didn’t we cure cancer before?” bit feels out of place.  But to be brutally frank, Mar-Vell had been in a slow downward spiral since Starlin left, so if euthanasia was called for, Jim should pull the plug.

The “autobio tapes” make this as much a recap of The Life of Captain Marvel—a five-issue 1985 special edition reprinting Starlin’s Thanos War—as an account of his death, and amid all of the inevitable handwringing (“Who would have thought that, in the end…it’d be my own body that would turn on me and do me in”), Jim treats us to some mighty fine tableaux.  These include, but are not limited to:  Marv surrounded by friends and foes (story page 21), a montage of Thanos and his “network of schemes” (page 22), the super-heroes assembled for the vigil (page 38), and Marv shattering his resurrected enemies (page 56).  These are, of course, balanced by the quieter moments, e.g., those with Elysius, and among his friends as they try to grapple with the situation.

I’m sorry to see from Wikipedia that—as with Thanos, Warlock, and so many others—poor Mar-Vell was not allowed to rest in peace, while to maintain its trademark, Marvel further cheapened the brand by churning out lesser characters bearing the “Captain Marvel” name, only the first of whom, Monica Rambeau, I endured.  These are among the reasons why I stopped buying new comics c. 1985 and have never looked back, leaving Marv’s Bronze-Age glory untarnished and this work a transitional milestone:  the “end” of the character who starred in my favorite arc ever, and the beginning of a new format that would prove very successful.  And, having chronicled his adventures since Day One in our regular curriculum, I’m honored to bring closure to them now...

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Post-Graduate Studies #1

The MU campus is mostly unused right now but
from time to time, our Professors will drop in for Summer courses.
This Week:

Full Moon by

Professor Tom Flynn

With an Assist from Professor Matthew Bradley

The Hulk! 20
April 1980
Cover Art by Joe Jusko

“A Long Way to Dawn”
Story by Doug Moench
Art by Bill Sienkiewicz
Colors by Steve Oliff

Marvel Preview 21 Moon Knight
May 1980
Cover Art by Bill Sienkiewicz and Klaus Janson

“The Mind Thieves”
Story by Doug Moench
Art by Bill Sienkiewicz, Tom Palmer and Dan Green

Call it separation anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder, but when I finished my write-ups for December 1979 — the last month that Marvel University was commissioned to cover — my thoughts turned to “well, what’s next?” But then I remembered: Dean Pete had mentioned that professors could contribute post-graduate studies if moved by the mood. So I pondered for a bit. Did any of my series end on a cliffhanger? Not really. Well, The Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian #47 was the first of a two-parter, but my review worked in a bit of coverage for the finale published in the January 1980 magazine. 

But then I remembered: “Shadows in the Heart of the City,” the Moon Knight backup in The Hulk! #18 (December 1979), ended with Marlene on her deathbed. In hindsight, we all know that she’ll pull through: the character will be featured in Moonie’s solo color series that debuted in November 1980. But still, readers back in the day were left dangling — not unlike Jaye Davidson at the end of The Crying Game. Sorry about that. Anyways, it also struck me that Moon Knight was the main attraction of Marvel Preview #21, a black-and-white magazine published in May 1980. By Crom, not only could I wrap up the “Hatchet-Man” storyline from The Hulk! backups, I could also cover his final appearance in a Marvel magazine. And here we are.

Clocking in at a slim 7 pages, “A Long Way to Dawn” from The Hulk! #20 opens with Moon Knight standing over Marlene’s bloody body in a hospital — she was grievously wounded by the Hatchet-Man, Mark Spector’s insane brother, Rand. When a nurse informs the costumed crusader that they won’t be able to tell if Marlene will pull through until the morning, the Knight walks out into the dark streets of Manhattan, allowed to leave by two cops who decide to “look the other way” since the hero put an end to the Hatchet-Man’s reign of terror. Tortured by visions of Marlene’s face in the full moon, the white avenger performs a variety of good deeds — stopping a mugging, calling an ambulance for an overdosing hippy, etc. After returning to the hospital at dawn, the relieved Moon Knight is told that Marlene will live. 

This wisp of a story basically pads things out until the end’s big reveal: Marlene survives. And Moon Knight’s little “adventures” during the wee hours are pretty pedestrian. Besides the mugging and 911 call, he chastises a drunken doorman and a cabbie who let the air out of a rival driver’s tires. He also intervenes when a pimp is about to put the smack-down on one of his prostitutes. But the woman calls Moonie a freak and tells him to get lost. Surprised she didn’t yell “whitie!” Not exactly earth-shattering stuff. What the heck, Bill Sienkiewicz’s self-inked art is outstanding. There’s no doubt why Bill quickly became Moon Knight’s signature artist: you can nitpick some of his artwork, but he made the character cool. 

Moon Knight is given a much bigger showcase in Marvel Preview #21, published the next month, May 1980 — six before his solo color comic debuts in November. Things kick off with a one-page editorial by Ralph Macchio titled “Full Phase.” Much of it is spent on how lucky it was that Bill Sienkiewicz walked into the Marvel offices one day with his portfolio. Indeed.

In the 39-page “The Mind Thieves,” Steven Grant and Jake Lockley take a backseat to the Marc Spector persona as the story focuses on the mercenary’s CIA background. Things open up at Grant’s mansion: a coffin-sized box has been delivered, surprisingly addressed to Spector. After Frenchie decides that it is not a bomb, the crate is opened to reveal the brutalized corpse of Amos Lardner, Marc’s old agency buddy. Spector recalls that Amos disappeared after he dropped him off at the Ravencrag sanitarium in Montreal on an unknown assignment. Months later, Lardner's brother James joined the CIA but remained close-lipped whenever asked about the whereabouts of his missing sibling. Spector left the agency soon after. Suddenly, a shadowy figure launches an incendiary grenade at the mansion and races away in a getaway car. After the fire is extinguished, Marc tells Frenchie to fire up the Moon Copter — they leave for Ravencrag.

That night in Montreal, Moon Knight breaks into the sprawling institution only to encounter the masked man who fire-bombed Grant’s home: while the stranger manages to escape once again, the crescent crusader disarms the explosive he was setting. Next morning, Marc Spector meets with Ravencrag’s director, Mr. Hanson. Hanson informs Spector that the sanitarium is no longer a front for the CIA — it is now a legitimate hospital. He adds that LeBlanc, the former director, is living in Paris, apparently continuing his sinister mind-control experiment, Operation Cobra. Spector flies out of Canada to Paris on the Concorde, telling Frenchie to take the Copter back to New York, book a trans-Atlantic flight later in the day and meet him at the Hotel Regina. Against Spector’s orders, Marlene takes an earlier plane to the City of Lights.

In Paris, Marlene surprises the annoyed mercenary at Orly Airport and they take a cab to the hotel. When darkness falls, Moon Knight slips into LeBlanc’s office on the Left Bank and confronts the fat CIA operative. LeBlanc quickly spills the beans: he is in the last phase of Operation Cobra, the implantation of electrodes in the human brain. Using a simple radio controller, he can then bend patients to his will, making them mindless assassins. The portly psychiatrist adds that he is delivering his findings to agents the next evening at the bizarre Museum of Robert Tatin. Unexpectedly, the doors to LeBlanc’s office burst open and the shadowy stranger rushes in, machine gun drawn. He removes his mask and reveals himself as James Lardner — he is here to get revenge on LeBlanc and Marc Spector, the murderers of his brother Amos. Moon Knight proclaims Spector’s innocence and then disarms Lardner with a crescent dart. Lardner flees, jumps in his car outside and tears off. The midnight avenger gives chase — on the street, Marlene drives up in a rental convertible and the Knight hops on the sideboard. But, after a tremendous traffic accident (caused by LeBlanc’s associates Jenkins and Crane), Spector, Marlene and Lardner are all knocked unconscious. 

Unmasked, Moon Knight wakes hours later, tied to a chair in the psychiatrist’s country estate: Jenkins and Crane inject him with a psychotropic drug. As hallucinations set in, he overhears his captors speaking of Marlene — even incapacitated, Spector breaks his bonds, overpowers the men and stumbles out of the room. Fighting off terrifying visions, he manages to find Marlene tied to a bed in another room. They both make their way outside and are whisked to freedom by Frenchie’s waiting and rented helicopter. 

After Spector recovers from the drug’s effects at the Regina, they all rush to the Tatin museum to foil the hand-off. But LeBlanc is waiting along with the mindless James Lardner: the Cobra electrodes have been implanted in his head, giving him immense strength and agility, all under the control of LeBlanc. Lardner begins to throttle the Knight but the costumed hero smashes the controller out of the psychiatrist’s hands with a well-thrown truncheon. Realizing that all is lost, LeBlanc tries to flee in his car. But Spector flattens one of his tires with a crescent dart and the fat man crashes into a tree. Freed from control and driven by an animalistic rage, Lardner begins pounding the flaming automobile. It soon explodes in a huge fireball, killing the creator of Operation Cobra — and his final victim as well.

Well, it’s yet another convoluted and unengaging magazine story from Devil-May-Care Doug Moench. I’ve always had the feeling that Doug starts with a simple idea — here, CIA mind control experiments — and then gets to the padding, stretching and long, dull blocks of dialogue to fill up the page count. Plus, to hold the slim thread together, he makes quite a few unexplained — or simply ignored — leaps in logic. Let’s start at the beginning. James Lardner sends the corpse of his brother Amos to Marc Spector in care of Steven Grant. Does this mean that the younger Lardner knows that they are the same person? If so, that important plot point is completely dropped. And, if you consider Moon Knight’s adventures in the pages of Werewolf By Night (August 1975), Marvel Spotlight (June 1976), The Defenders (May 1977), Spectacular Spider-Man (September 1978), Marvel Two-in-One (June 1979), and The Hulk! magazine, it has been years since Spector quit the CIA. So where has Amos’ corpse been all this time? It looked pretty fresh — it would have been a skeleton by now. Was he one of LeBlanc’s experiments and kept alive? Nah. My guess is that Doug didn’t bother to think things through yet again.

Also, how does Frenchie know that LeBlanc brought the unconscious Knight and Marlene to his country estate? The pilot is waiting outside when they make their escape: did he just guess and, if so, how did he know where the estate was even located? Plus, at the end, Marlene uses some high-kicking karate skills to help take down LeBlanc’s associates Jenkins and Crane. Where did that come from? She hasn’t displayed any knowledge of the martial arts at this point. Speaking of the sexy assistant, she’s very sexually aggressive towards the Spector and Grant personas throughout the story, eagerly tearing off her shirt at one point. Sadly, poor cabbie Jake Lockley isn’t the recipient of these amorous advances. Moon Knight/Spector’s escape from Jenkins and Crane is a stretch as well. Despite being under the thrall of a powerful psychotropic drug — as demonstrated by Sienkiewicz’s horrific visions — he still breaks bonds applied by CIA agents, beats the two well-trained men and finds Marlene. Seems a stretch.

Speaking of the Spector/Grant/Lockley three-headed monster, when Doug Moench created the character for Werewolf By Night #32 (August 1975), only Spector was Moon Knight: the other two personas were introduced in Marvel Spotlight #28 (June 1976). Now I’ve only read the Moonie backups in The Hulk!, but not sure Doug had a firm grip on how to handle the three characters from the very beginning. While they all seem to consider themselves three distinct individuals, the only thing that really separates the trio is what they wear — well, and Grant’s money and Lockley’s hack license. Not sure what Moench thought he would gain by giving them some type of split personality. In this very magazine, Marlene asks “But one question first! Just who are you, Steven?” Grant replies “Sometimes I’m not sure I know.” It would have made more sense — and made it easier to write about Moon Knight — if the crescent crusader was the alter ego of Marc Spector and Grant and Lockley were just the mercenary’s disguises. But, I don’t have to worry about that any more. Not that I really needed to worry about writing this post at all!

As always, Bill Sienkiewicz is the perfect artist for Moon Knight. It’s a dark character and he has a dark style. I couldn’t really tell the differences between the pages inked by Tom Palmer or Dan Green: they both used a heavy brush so everything meshed well. I will say that I much more enjoyed Sienkiewicz’s self-inked art in “A Long Way to Dawn.” Oh, forgot to mention: the oddball Museum of Robert Tatin is an actual place. Looks extremely interesting.

As you must have noticed, I didn’t spend a second on the main feature story of The Hulk! #20 — that’s not what I signed up for. It seemed to involve the green giant actually stopping a meltdown by smashing the insides of a nuclear reactor. Whatever. Now Marvel Preview #21 included a backup, the 15-page “Walk a Crooked Mile,” starring The Shroud. While I’m not going to cover that as well, I’ll note that it was written by Mark Gruenwald and Steven Grant (him again!) and illustrated by Steve Ditko, the Golden Age legend I last encountered in The Micronauts Annual #1 (December 1979). Ditko’s art is much better here. Though the Crooked Man, the bad guy in this extremely dopey story, has the oddest haircut in the history of comics (see below).

Matthew Bradley:  The two tales reprinted in the third and final issue of the 1983-4 Moon Knight Special Edition, although both by Moenkiewicz, are a decidedly mixed bag.  The first, marking MK’s swan song in the unlamented Hulk!, is but a belated 7-page coda to the Hatchet-Man epic of #17-8, while the second, anonymously colorized here from its first appearance in Marvel Preview #21 (with a Shroud backup story that I sadly don’t have), weighs in at a whopping 39 pages.  The self-inked Sienkiewicz is at his moody best in the former, depicting a snapshot of each hour during the long night while MK awaits news of Marlene’s fate, and Moench cleverly contrasts the hopelessness felt in several episodes with the promise of literal new life as he learns that “She’ll pull through.”

The latter unsurprisingly required some helping hands for Palmer, with “Add’l Inking” credited, at least here, to Sienkiewicz and Dan Green.  Those who know me well may be surprised to learn that I have any reservations whatsoever about the generous helping of cheesecake Bill serves up, and yet I have two, starting with the fact that, although Marlene has just narrowly survived an attack by a guy wielding a hatchet, who if memory serves me correctly struck her in both back and front, her “squeaky velvet” doesn’t display so much as a blemish, let alone a big scar.  And it epitomizes the aptly schizoid way in which MK’s main squeeze is often portrayed:  one minute, she’s like bubble-headed (pun intentional) eye candy, and the next, she’s kicking rogue CIA butt.

Obviously, Savage Swordsman Flynn—who, by a bizarre coincidence, sent me a recent review of The Manchurian Candidate the very day before I read LeBlanc’s allusion to it here — has far greater experience than I do with these economy-sized stories, yet I think Moench handles the plotting and pacing of this one pretty well.  To me, it seemed substantive, never dull, and free from conspicuous padding.  My biggest beef is with the electrodes sticking out of Lardner’s head, which not only look ridiculous (how on Earth did he ever get that hat on?), but also seem like they’d be incredibly vulnerable; how hard would it be to disable him, control board or no, by whacking a couple of those with MK’s truncheon?  Is that supposed to be Shooter on the splash?

Two Weeks From Today:
Professor Matthew Answers the Question:
Whatever Happened to Captain Marvel?