Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Post-Graduate Studies #5

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

Part One:  Mordo Agonistes
by Professor Matthew Bradley

Doctor Strange 39 (February 1980)
"The Old Dark House"
Story by Chris Claremont
Art by Gene Colan and Dan Green
Colors by Ben Sean
Letters by Tom Orzechowski
Cover by Al Milgrom

Since being driven mad by witnessing the second Creation in Marvel Premiere #14, a catatonic Baron Mordo has lived in an upstairs room of Strange’s home, yet when Stephen and his friend Alfeo Cardinal Spinosa—curator of the Vatican’s San Gabriel archives, which Mordo was seen robbing on a security camera—enter, he vanishes.  A chagrined Strange realizes that recent events blinded him to the substitution of a “spirit form…created from elements of Mordo’s own flesh…”  After a restorative kiss from Clea, he announces that this is a more pressing threat than Royce’s murder; since his old ally Lord Julian Phyffe “showed an unusual interest in Mordo when we last met,” Doc and Alfeo head for Paris, leaving Clea behind.

Investigating Wong’s disappearance during a “personal errand,” she senses traces of his psychic aura despite being lied to about his visit by Mr. Sung, who sends two thugs after her, yet it gets worse:  Dormammu’s Wraiths, which only she can see, pursue her, instilling an instinctual fear.  She luckily—and literally—bumps into Strange’s friend Sara Wolfe, who sees only the human threat, hustling her safely back to the Sanctum in a cab.  No sooner have they arrived chez Phyffe on the Rive Droite than Doc sees Alfeo crumble into dust and is kayoed with a candlestick; Clea, meanwhile, fires up the Orb of Agamotto to see a captive Wong aboard an aircraft and, enlisting Sara’s aid, uses a simple spell to switch forms, walking out in full view of the unwitting Wraiths.

Strange awakens strapped to an operating table, amid ghoulish “doctors” representing those he’d rejected as a greedy surgeon; bound and gagged, he can cast no spells, but uses his cloak to raise and smash the table.  Defeating an apparition of Hippocrates, he finds himself first back on Skid Row, then in an operating room, where his shaking hands stop him from cutting into the patient, unmasked as ex-flame Madeleine de St. Germaine.  A spell restoring reality pops unbidden into his mind, showing that he’d nearly sacrificed her in a Black Mass, and as a fight with the cultists starts a fire consuming the chapel and adjacent mansion, he rescues Madeleine, who reveals that Mordo promised to spare Phyffe—now his servant—when he opens the Seven Gates of Chaos...

Picking up where our formal curriculum ended, Claremont’s sophomore entry resumed an eight-issue run that teamed him throughout with veteran Doc penciler Gene Colan and able inker Dan Green.  The latter, paired with Ricardo Villamonte in #40, was part of a “D. Hands” collective on #45 that, according to multiple sources, also included Frank Giacoia, Al Milgrom, Tom Palmer, Wendy Pini, Josef Rubinstein, Walt Simonson, and Bob Wiacek.  Tom Orzechowski’s typically outstanding lettering (the last effort on this title by Chris’s X-Men mainstay, alas), Al’s superbly macabre EC-style cover (showing what he can do when he puts his mind to it), and the title (evoking James Whale’s 1932 Karloff Klassic) all betoken the start of something wonderful here.

The Wraiths are a bracing callback to the seminal Mordormammu epic from Strange Tales, this sequence offering the strong and nuanced female characterization that is a Claremont hallmark, and there’s a wonderful shot in page 11, panel 5 of Sara oblivious to the Wraith right outside the window.  Gentleman Gene’s gift for atmosphere is epitomized by page 2, panel 5, a low-angle shot encompassing a seated Alfeo in the foreground and Strange from behind as he gazes into the fire in the background, with Clea in between—but only up to the start of her bust.  A class act, the Dean displays her admirable figure (e.g., page 14, panel 2) without resorting to the shameless cheesecake seen in, say, Spider-Woman, which Chris, ironically, will take over a year from now.

Now, I’m the first to admit that this is probably a reach, yet when I saw the sound effect “Phut!” in page 10, panel 6, I immediately thought of the silenced shot that killed Le Chiffre in 007’s debut, Casino Royale (1953):  “There was a sharp ‘phut,’ no louder than a bubble of air escaping from a tube of toothpaste.”  Wouldn’t put it past Claremont, whose handling of the ever-complex Doc/Clea relationship did not disappoint me.  My initial reaction to her offer of a hug and a kiss was to anticipate Doc’s (“And that will make all right in the world, eh, Clea?”), yet their ensuing clinch is characterized as “rare, beautiful, supremely precious, and too quickly over”; she stays in New York not because she is excess baggage but to pursue the vital search for their friend Wong.

Doctor Strange 40 (April 1980)
"Dawn of Death!"
Story by Chris Claremont
Art by Gene Colan, Ricardo Villamonte, and Dan Green
Colors by Bob Sharen
Letters by Mark Rogan
Cover by Bob Layton

Strange confronts Lord Julian at a party (the splash page a superb “gotcha” moment as he reacts to seeing Stephen still alive), where he dare not use his full power, and despite being warned that Mordo is merely using him, Phyffe refuses to divulge his location, fleeing by car.  An “arcane aura” protects him, yet his plea for aid is met by laughter as the baron forces his car off the road and into a watery grave where Strange, depleted by recent struggles, finds his old-fashioned rescue attempt a waste, the impact having broken Phyffe’s neck.  Lucky to survive the frigid water himself, Doc is pulled from the Seine by Madeleine, but passes out in her car almost immediately—and so is unaware that Mordo has reanimated the body of his slave.

Granting the revenant absolute power, Mordo rebrands him as Azrael, “after the Hebraic angel of death”; a few hours later, Doc calls the Sanctum and Sara expresses concern over Clea, who has followed Wong’s psychic trail 200 miles north to the Adirondack Forest Preserve, where she is shot by an unseen assailant.  Paying little heed to an International Herald Tribune headline about disappearances near Citrusville, Doc recalls how, as a resident at New York Hospital, he saved his hostess—then Madeleine Revell, a translator at the U.N.—from car-crash injuries and fell for her, but after a year she declined his proposal “Because I do not like the man you are becoming.”  Back in the present, she poses the $64,000 question:  so what’s the deal with these Chaos Gates?

Their ancient spell will reverse the seven days of Genesis:  once opened, unleashing a demon, the first gate can never be closed, while the second demon will destroy all life on Earth (this sounds suspiciously like a Fulci film).  With the book stolen from the Vatican, Mordo needs to sacrifice 13 mystics “in a place of great occult power—like Stonehenge,” or…a Nexus of All Realities!  Madeleine’s maid, Colette Joubert, bursts in and abruptly decays, heralding the arrival of Azrael, at whose touch all things, even spells, age.  Striking through his pawn, Mordo seals the cloak and Eye of Agamotto in a force field; Doc saves some gendarmes and gets Madeleine outside, only to be pinned by bricks and hefted by Azrael, his face masked by an astral projection of Mordo’s.

Let’s get a very few gripes out of the way:  first, I’m often oblivious to lettering, but even given what a tough act Orz is to follow, I think Mark Rogan’s work here is substandard; it looks uneven and too large, threatening to crowd the artwork.  And I never know whether the primary blame falls on him, Chris, or the three (count ’em, three) editors for the various typos, most annoyingly—and repeatedly—confusing “its” and “it’s.”  Finally, Doc addresses Julian as “Lord Phyffe,” whereas if I’ve learned nothing else from the sublime Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, it’s that the proper form would be “Lord Peter”…but that’s about it, with the positives outweighing the negatives by a huge margin in this new fast-moving example of Claremontian wonderfulness.

Now, Gentleman Gene.  God damn, man.  The Dean’s exquisite framing is worthy of an Oscar-winning cinematographer.  Check out page 2, panel 3 (above right):  Doc is truly ready for his close-up, with just enough of his cloak showing on all sides to give him a crimson backdrop.  Word and image commingle brilliantly in page 6, panel 2 with the lettering of “YYEEAAAGHK!,” shaped to fit around Phyffe’s car, enhancing the sense of motion as it plunges into the Seine.  Professor Blake can probably dissect the differences in the Green and Villamonte inks, but to me, it all just looks like prime late-Bronze Colan, with my only real complaint about the artwork being that Azrael, especially as portrayed on page 22, looks too much like the Pillsbury Doughboy to be truly scary.

This issue also demonstrates the impressively organic quality of Claremont’s work, as the former greed that Doc was forced to face last issue is, we learn here, the very quality that ended his relationship with Madeleine; the reverse-Genesis of the Chaos Gates would be a mirror image of the Sise-Neg experience that so traumatized Mordo; and Colette’s crumbling into dust echoes that of Alfeo.  It should be noted, however, that when he returned to reality, Stephen discovered Spinosa had been shot through the heart:  “My psychic senses were so hyper-aware that what I ‘saw’ when he disintegrated in my arms was the actual destruction of his life-force…”  (And you know I’m gonna give Chris extra points for using Doc’s signature line, “Curse me for a novice!”)

Per the last-page “Special announcement!!  This story continues in Man-Thing #4 (on sale in 30 days).  It concludes in 60 days, in Dr. Strange #41…”  The, uh, thing is, Man-Thing #4 resolves not one but two cliffhangers, so it behooves us to ask what writer Michael Fleisher and artists Jim Mooney and Wiacek have been doing with Manny since rebooting his book in November.  In Man-Thing #2, two men about to test an experimental teleportation device in the swamp—like you do—are suddenly confronted by Manny, panic, and fire it at him, transporting him into the Himalayas and a scenario strongly recalling Iron Fist’s origin:  Russell Simpson is there seeking the Yeti with his wife and his best friend, Roger Grafton, who really wants Elaine all to himself.

He’s naturally thrilled when an ice storm blows Russell off a cliff, yet Elaine continues to resist his slimy advances and wants to go look for hubby.  His 500-foot fall broken by snow, Russell is saved from a bear attack and sheltered in a cave by Manny, whose prints are mistaken for the Yeti’s by Roger, sparking visions of dollar signs; meanwhile, with jaw-dropping implausibility, Russell ascends the cliff with Mountaineer Manny in tow.  Spurned again, Roger leaves the tent in a huff and, seeing Russell inconveniently clambering up, plugs him with his rifle, but Manny, awash with Russell’s dying anguish, hoists his new BFF’s bod over the top, where he’s drawn to the fear oozing from Roger—who abandons Elaine as his ineffectual shots trigger an avalanche...

In #3, Rog hires a crew to excavate Manny, but he and Elaine have emerged into the hairy hands of the Yeti, Cro-Magnon descendants led by Hiram Swenson, an anthropologist nursed back to health after his Sherpas betrayed him.  An old Yeti sneaks Manny out of their ice-pit prison to show him a “wooly [sic] mammoth” sculpture with a similar snout in their temple, believing him (as Swenson scoffs) an “invincible mastadon [sic] demon whose return signifies the death-knell of your culture!”  Shoulda listened:  the immolation is interrupted as Roger—still calling moss-green Manny a “snowman” amid actual Yeti—mows them down, earning a fearful face peel; as a “Doomsday Gong” brings down the cliffs, his men fly off, Manny clutching Elaine and the strut.

Man-Thing 4 (May 1980)
Story by Chris Claremont
Art by Don Perlin and Bob Wiacek
Colors by Ben Sean
Letters by John Costanza
Cover by Bob Wicaek

The escape goes awry:  terrified by her plight, Elaine burns at, well, you know, wrenching out of Manny’s grip, while the plane’s lurch at the reduced weight and the sub-zero cold combine to crumble his wrist, so both plummet toward rocky peaks…and suddenly vanish.  Meanwhile, in Paris, with nothing to lose, Doc risks an all-or-nothing spell that may kill him as surely as Azrael’s touch, which is aging him rapidly.  Azrael is destroyed, yet after he has magically rejuvenated himself, Strange tells Madeleine, “In a sense, I’m borrowing from Peter to pay Paul by replenishing my strength all at once, instead of undertaking a lengthy convalesence [sic]. Sooner or later, this will catch up to me—I fear with a vengeance,” but first, off to Florida!

Still recovering, Strange minimizes his use of magic, but must employ a spell of cooperation on Sheriff John Daltry (his office oddly displaying a portrait of Man-Thing), who reveals details of the murders and kidnappings bespeaking Mordo’s selectivity in choosing his sacrificial victims.  Joshua, Jennifer, and Andy Kale were the first abductees, so Daltry recommends her ex-beau, Jaxon, to guide them through the swamp in his airboat.  Based on what he learned when he met Howard the Duck in Marvel Treasury Edition #12, Strange assumes that he and Jen—a disciple of Dakimh the Enchanter—are earmarked as the “high priest and priestess” of the coven; too late, Elaine tries to warn them, and as they approach the Kale house, Manny rises from the water.

Climbing ashore from the wrecked airboat, Jaxon and Madeleine pull Elaine to safety, perplexed that she is both burned and frostbitten, having literally dropped in from the Himalayas.  Mordo’s appearance confirms what Manny’s uncharacteristic aggression has already suggested (i.e., that he, like Azrael, is being used as a pawn) before the baron quickly fells Madeleine and the others.  While Manny tries to drown him, Strange muses that feigning defeat may buy him time to undo Mordo’s plan, but when he senses the ankh on his forehead, signifying mortal danger, it may be too late, and as Mordo regards his apparent corpse, he gloats to Madeleine—seemingly turned to gold—that his chosen one is really “the so-called guardian of this nexus of reality”…Ted Sallis!

Effective here, Fleisher and Mooney are replaced by, respectively, Claremont and Don Perlin, who round out most of the revival’s 11-issue run (inked in its entirety by Wiacek), and it’s worth noting Chris and Bob’s superb handling of Manny in Marvel Team-Up #68.  There’s a decidedly Ditkoesque look to the image of Mordo on Wiacek’s cool cover, with its effective color scheme, that is entirely appropriate and enjoyable in this context.  Yet to say that the interior artwork—an unwelcome reminder of Doc’s Perlin-drawn guest shot in Ghost Rider—is a comedown from the Colan splendor bookending it would be a vast understatement; even Don’s predecessor on this book, who if nothing else had a long history with Manny, would probably be preferable to Perlin.

I used to say that due to its structure, or lack thereof, Manny often seemed like a guest-star in his own strip, and this crossover—with its inevitable recap for non-Doc readers—recalls  that effect, placing the title character offstage for fully half the issue.  Taking over the book at just the right moment, Chris compensates by digging deep into Gerber-lore to dredge up Jaxon, possessed by a demon at Thog’s behest way back in Fear #13, while introducing new cast member Daltry.  The disappointing artwork notwithstanding, this is a fine continuation of Doc’s storyline into literal and figurative new territory, and given the mystical elements of Man-Thing’s origin and plotline, it’s perhaps surprising that he and the Master of the Mystic Arts have never crossed paths before.

Doctor Strange 41 (June 1980)
"Weep For the Soul of Man..."
Story by Chris Claremont
Art by Gene Colan and Dan Green
Colors by Ed Hannigan
Letters by Diana Albers
Cover by Bob Layton and Klaus Janson

Floating in an astral limbo, Strange is surprised when Clea appears and bids him to follow her, until he realizes it is really Death and eludes her yet again, emerging face-down in the Okealachobee River from a deep zen trance that slowed his life processes.  In a demonic temple he raised inside Ted Sallis’s shack, Mordo prepares to open the crystalline first gate; with Jen, in ritual garb (yowza!), and Man-Thing chained in the center, his other victims—e.g., Joshua, Andy, Jaxon, Madeleine—are on obsidian slabs on a dais laid out like a clockface, Mordo at noon.  He plucked Manny from the Himalayas, gave him Ted’s mind with no memory of his monstrous past, and duped Sallis into aiding him by promising to restore his lost humanity.

Planning to find and rule an alternate Earth with no sorcerers once this one is totalled, Mordo is summoning the “dread lords of the Mabdhara” when Doc appears.  Yet after he uses an illusion to distract and sneak up on his foe, the latter’s spell of protection hurls them into the Nexus, so Mordo need not even defeat Strange, merely keep him there as the demon’s hand reaches out of the gate and begins its grisly work of reducing the victims to bones, growing larger and stronger.  Forced to watch from afar as Madeleine dies, the enraged Strange is on the verge of strangling Mordo while Jennifer, in the moments before her own death, asks Sallis, “even if Mordo wasn’t lying…What kind of man are you to buy your ‘humanity’ with the lives of innocent people?!?”

As Doc turns away, realizing that killing Mordo would make him no better, his foe lunges at him with a rock; simultaneously, protected by his amalgam of magic and science, Ted-Thing forces the hand back through, slams shut, and shatters the gate, creating an interdimensional vortex into which he resignedly lets himself be drawn until Doc anchors him and seals it.  We are told—but not shown—how, just as Mordo was about to “administer the coup de grace,” the shock wave from the vortex swept away and separated the two sorcerers, with only Strange finding his way back to Earth.  The dead are returned to life, yet the same unique synthesis prevents Strange from restoring Ted’s humanity, driving him mad and forcing Doc to leave the monster mindless again.

Mixed feelings on this one.  Layton and Janson—an odd, and oddly effective, pair, that—get us off to a great start with their memorable cover, while the splash page by Messrs. GreenGene is, if you’ll pardon the groaner, to die for.  Overall, I find this a satisfying conclusion to an excellent arc; even if the “Hey, let’s cure the Hulk/Thing/Man-Thing/Whoever—oohhh, didn’t quite make it!” card is one played far too often, Claremont at least handles it with typical thoughtfulness.  So what, you might reasonably be asking by now, did I dislike about it?  Well, I’ll give you a hint:  it has to do with an atypical example of poor pacing on Chris’s part.  Hmm…could it be the 109-word, climax-describing “Gee, folks, I wish you could see this!” caption in the midst of page 27?

Bingo!  Now, I’m not suggesting that an arc of this size, while by no means overlong, should’ve been stretched out to another issue.  And I know that recaps are necessary, again, especially with crossovers.  And the opening sequence with Death is a keeper, if for the splash alone.  But still—dude, seriously?  “Sorry, we’re all out of time, but here’s what you would’ve seen!”  The loss of said spectacle is all the more regrettable when what Colan does show, drenched with atmosphere and the antithesis of Perlin’s monument to the mundane, is so, well, spectacular:  the cavernous, TARDIS-like interior of Ted’s rotted shack on page 11; the dais/clockface on page 14, right out of a Christopher Lee movie; the claw that is all we’ll see of the chaos-demon; its skeletal victims.

In two weeks...
The conclusion of Professor Matthew's
dissection of Claremont on Doctor Strange!

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Post-Graduate Studies #4

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

Fantastic Four #214
by Professors Mark Barsotti and Matthew Bradley

Fantastic Four 214 (January 1980)
"...And Then There Was - One!"
Story by Marv Wolfman
Art by John Byrne and Joe Sinnott
Colors by Carl Gafford
Letters by John Costanza
Cover by John Byrne and Joe Sinnott

Welcome back, Fab Fourophiles! You didn't think we would abandon you with three-quarters of Marvel's first family at death's door, did ya? That would have left you raging at the heavens, much like the Torch on the John Byrne/Joe Sinnott cover.

The mistitled "..And Then There Was - One!" opens with Johnny Storm on his knees before his teammates, sealed in the cryo-crypts keeping them alive - barely - from the effects of the Skrulls' aging ray (FF #206). Lots of wailing and gnashing of teeth before Johnny decides that, while he's not smart enough to figure out a way to save them, others could!

He calls Stark Industries, but Tony's incommunicado. He looks for Stark's "bodyguard Iron Man" at Avengers Manse, but Jarvis advises that Earth's Mightiest are "off on one mission or another," but suggests Stark might be hanging with SHIELD. Off Johnny blazes, promising Jarvis a cookie if the lead pans out. "No nuts, sir," Jar requests. "I'm allergic to nuts." It's a small, smile-worthy joke, but such has been the lack of humor under Marv's stewardship that when I read it, I had to check the credits to confirm Wolfman's authorship.

Aboard SHIELD's "flying hover carrier" (try helicarrier, Marv), Dum Dum Dugan hips Johnny that, yeah, Stark's aboard, but he ain't going anywhere for at least 24 hours: decontamination time from the pool of radioactive waste Tony's trying to convert into a fuel source (a big pool of radioactive waste aboard an aircraft? What could possibly go wrong?).

Pre-mourning his teammates, the Torch flies back to the Baxter and brainstorms dialing up Xandar for tech support. Princess Adora takes the call, informs Johnny there's no known cure for the Skrulls' aging ray but offers to tap the awesome knowledge of the Living Computer! And then... the call drops! Damn you (insert phone carrier of your choice)!!

At wick's end, Johnny's anger ignites a dazzling light show, illuminating the top of the B. Building and the sky above. The citizens below recoil in terror or grumble about unsafe supes, but the Torch's pyrotechnic eruption inexplicably does zero damage inside, as Marv has other aliens to fry.

Flaming off, Johnny tries to think "calmly, rationally," even as the computer by the wall behind him morphs into its genuine form: "Skrull X," a robo ringer for the Super Skrull, who followed Adora to New York, back in #204A two-page flaming fracas ensues, then Robo Skrull calls on the Torch to " the same tortured fate your fellow teammates have suffered!" as he pulls an aging-ray pistol from a hidey hole in his shoulder. This pisses the Torch off bigly and he turns Robo S into a steaming slag-pile. 

After a couple poor me panels, Torchie shakes it off, plucks the pistol from the floor with the hopeful theory that "whatever the components of that ray are...they can be analyzed and...reversed." Knowing hi-tech gizmos ain't his forte, Johnny reheats Reed from the cryo-freeze, his brother-in-law's decrepitude vividly rendered by John Byrne. Coming groggily to life on p.18, Reed is like an ancient, stretched-out rubber band found in an old desk, suffering a sort of body incontinence, all loose and floppy, while his dried-fruit face approaches mummification.

But Reed's brain ticks on like an expensive Swiss watch. One squint of a cataracted eye at the ray gun's guts under magnification and he has a fix, one requiring Johnny to do some micro-welding on Skrull tech "smaller than computer chips." Byrne gives Johnny welding goggles and plenty of facial sweat beads, and then, by Stan and Jack, he's done it! After returning still-saggy Reed to Frigidaire repose, Johnny fires the reverse-Skrull ray at his slumbering pards. 

Nothing happens.

"I - failed! I failed" Johnny wails, Wolfman's ladling out the self-loathing - "When the chips are ready to be cashed - when it all depends on Johnny Storm to carry the ball - I blow it!" The Torch turns the ray-gun into molten goo and wanders up to the airship garage, tortured by a floating-head rogue's gallery and the lash of his own self-abasement. Finally, after the Torch brands himself "a born loser!" his now-rejuvenated teammates make the scene. 

"There was a delayed reaction, lad," Reed announces. And not only that, but the boomeranged Skrull tech has made them younger, more vital than ever! 

Sue gives her bro a peck on the cheek. Ben picks up a giant whatzit with one arm. Reed loop-de-loops his body like a Hot Wheels track. We close with the classic stacking of four hands, straight outta FF #1, and the battle cry, "Look out world!! The Fantastic Four are back!!"

And for just a second there, class - and against all better judgment - I believed it.  -Mark Barsotti

Mark: In my almost four years on the MU faculty, this is the only comic I read cover to cover twiceOur final lesson of the last semester, examining FF #213, resolved one plot line with Galactus' satisfying smackdown of the up-powered but under-written Sphinx - but #214 got a quick read as well, so as not to leave any of you adangle over the accelerated-aging fate of three-fourths of the Fabs. When the Dean decided the denouement required a post-grad examination, I read it again, largely to my dismay. 

As the facility's top (only?) Matchhead maven, I was thrilled during that first rushed read. Wolfman not only wrote Johnny as heroic for once, but competent (no, Marv, we haven't forgotten the Security University/College fiasco, damn you, we never will!). Johnny seeks out Brainiac assistance (true, he didn't look up Banner or Pym, but do we really want the story stretched out in a Quest for Scientists installment? Didn't think so), slags Robo-Skrull, then revives Reed and aces the impromptu micro-welding. Well-thought, well-fought - Johnny deserves to give himself a fireworks display, except...

I couldn't, second time 'round, ignore the woesome pity-party that passes for characterization in Wolfman's unsteady hands. When Johnny's not fighting, he's crying. Now a bit of raw emotion is fine, given that his family and fellow Fabs are near death and the Torch feels guilty for being a.w.o.l. against the Skrulls (see Security University/College fiasco); fine, pathos and all that, but when Johnny's actively engaged in saving his pards - as he is throughout the rest of the story - it should buck him up a little, but instead, every time he gets to pause for breathe, it's back to the sell-flagellation.

On exiting the Helicarrier, Stark-less, p.5, "If anyone should be dying, it's me!"  

Point taken, Johnny.

"I'm the useless member of our quartet."

We get it, kid.

"I'm the one who never pulls his weight. And now it looks like I'm gonna fail for the very last time!"

Take a Valium, Jes-zus.

Alas, no salvation for us, class, as on the very next page, while lighting up the Manhattan sky with his impotent rage flare, Johnny yelps, "Why? Why are the fates plotting against me? Why? Why? Why?" 

Okay, give us a Valium. 

Fortunately, the action in the middle third of the book - energetically wrought by John Byrne and Joe Sinnott - limits the whining, but when the reversed Skrull ray fails to instantly revive the senior-cycles, Johnny barks, "I failed!" follow by two entire pages of self-loathing soliloquy, larded with gems like "I'm nothing more than a glorified match-stick!" before his revived teamies finally show up - a bit younger then they were before, in one of those minor, status quo tweaks - like Reed's expanded stretching power, which I think happened around ish #200;  hey, at least I remember it at all, unlike Marv - that will soon be forgotten. Everyone now hale and healthy, we exit with some forced rah-rah.

So, no, kids, I don't really believe the FF are back, but after Wolfman's malignant mishandling of one of my fave characters, even in a starring role - he's a hero, but boy, what a sad sack! - I'll take all the phony triumphalism and four-way hand-stacks I can get.

But let's conclude on a positive up-tick. Two, in fact. From the evocative cover (happily, dialogue free) to the last panel power salute, the groovy graphics rock. Joltin' Joe's the title's iron man since FF #44 (bonus points for students who know about #5), and Byrne brings both his burgeoning  talent and passion for the Fabs to the pages.

Second, and more importantly, I was considering reading through the rest of the FF's 1980 canon, perhaps to be reported upon in chunks, but have now been thoroughly disabused of that notion.

Maybe we'll be back when Byrne takes over the whole shootin' match.

Matthew Bradley:  I had hoped that after a breather, and absent the pressure of our erstwhile weekly deadlines, I might tolerate this a bit better, but Marv’s maundering annoys me as much as ever, most notably his mishandling of cover-boy Torch.  We’ve already had an extended Johnny Storm pity party, which is why he bailed on the Xandar mission, which is why he’s the only one not superannuated now.  And what is this nonsense about him being “the useless member of our quartet…the one who never pulls his weight”?  I like Sue, frequently think her underutilized, and would never want to be sexist, but I seriously doubt that anybody who had more than a passing familiarity with this book would say Johnny consistently made the least contribution to the team.

And there, per Hamlet, is the rub.  Read my lips, grad students:  this is out of character.  Johnny has always been the brash young, yes, hothead, self-confident or, frequently, overconfident, and did I miss the part where Sue had her own 34-issue solo strip in Strange Tales (crappy though it might have been) because her little brother was such a slacker?  This just reinforces what I have been saying all along about Wolfman’s tin ear for the strip and its characters, and of course the maddeningly inevitable corollary to all of that is Grandpa Reed’s pathetic gratitude when the Flaming Mope—shocker!—rises to the occasion and saves the day, well, sorta:  “You did it, son…you did it….Th-thank you, lad…th-thank you.”  Yes, kids, the FF is now led by Porky Pig.

I trust you’ll forgive me for feeling that the typically sumptuous Byrnott artwork deserves better, and it’s embarrassing that neither the then-current nor former Marvel EIC knows how to spell “gallavanting” (sic).  For me, the best part of this issue was the “Look out, world!!” final panel, not only because we all like seeing our Fab Four back in fighting trim—oh, wait, they’re “younger, stronger—more vital than ever!”  How convenient!—but also because it provides merciful closure to an arc that, starting with the Quasimodo catalyst, has been meandering along for more than a year.  So it gives me a nice juncture at which to suspend my FF studies for the nonce, although I see Marv only has one more issue to go anyway; well, maybe in another post...

In Two Weeks...
Professor Matthew dissects
Claremont's final days on Doctor Strange!

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!