Wednesday, June 3, 2015

April 1976 Part One: Special Fourth Anniversary Issue!

Fantastic Four 169
"Five Characters in Search of a Madman!"
Story by Roy Thomas
Art by Rich Buckler and Joe Sinnott
Colors by Phil Rachelson
Letters by John Costanza
Cover by Rich Buckler and Joe Sinnott

Great King-like cover by Buckler & Sinnott, but with all the times Jack depicted Doc Doom looming over our heroes, I believe this is the first time a jumbo-Thing gets the God's-eye view. That's appropriate, since we open with the de-cobbled Ben Grimm, sporting Nick Fury three-day stubble, drinking his blues away in a working class bar. He rebuffs a blonde (presumptive) working girl's come-on, sparking a bar fight with some regulars. Ben acquits himself nicely before being clubbed (with a real club) from behind. The boozy crew is about to "stomp 'im but good" when Reed and Johnny arrive. The Torch's flame has the roaches scuttling toward the exits. 

Back at the Baxter, Sue, Alicia, little Franklin, and Luke Cage form perhaps the unlikeliest comic quartet of the year (I'm guessing nobody picked 'em in the pool). Luke entertains Frankie with feats of strength before – suddenly possessed by an outside intelligence – flinging a sofa at Sue with evil intent ("Got to kill! Kill!"), then battering her force field as her teammates arrive.

Ben rushes be easily swatted aside. Luke likewise gives Reed & Johnny the old one two, then heads to Reed's lab to bust it up, inadvertently causing a "strangely marked cannister" to roll onto Doc Doom's time machine (around since issue #5, which was also – and, yes, class, this can be used for extra credit come test time - the first time Joe Sinnott inked the Fab Four) and winks off to some when, setting up a future plot.  

The mind-controlled Cage splits in the Fantasticar, but rather than give chase, Reed tells the team that Luke was only a "temporary fill-in" and, from behind a locked door marked "Project X," reveals a replica Thing!

Android? LMD? Or...?
-Mark Barsotti

Mark Barsotti: Roy's last two stories ended strongly after scattershot openings, but this Ben-gets-replaced arc was nimbly spun out of the abortive Hulk team-up, and while Prof Matthew eagerly awaits what's to come, I remember nothing of these stories, even though I wouldn't quit reading comics for another year. 

So rather than nostalgia, it's the what's next hook that reels me in here, even knowing we're in for variations on a theme. I'm okay with that, so long as the story's good and this one's humming along nicely. Okay, the "Kill! Kill!" dialogue was overcooked, since it's clear the mind-controlled Cage isn't actually homicidal in his mission of "deep-sixin'" the FF. 

And while the unknown puppet master's (Wait! Did I just stumble onto something) identity is the mystery de jour, Ben's identity crisis is more interesting. The Fabs finally putting things (unexpected pun alert!) right will no doubt mean restoring the status quo. But 'til then, it's fun watching Roy shake up the dynamic.  

Chris Blake: Solid chapter in this continuing story, with contributions from all members.  I’m not sure why Ben continues to harp on Reed’s seeming overconfidence in Luke’s loyalty; Reed mentions more than once that Cage’s irrational, destructive behavior seems to be due to the influence of some other force, and isn’t willful or deceitful.  Nice bit of mystery as we wonder who might be pulling the strings; also, coming up, we should find out what happened to the cannister that blinked out once it hit the time platform – right (right! ->)?  Mysteries within mysteries!

The lettercol tells us that Buckler is leaving to focus on Deathlok, and that Perez is returning; as much as we’ve all admired Swash’s work on this title, I’d say it’d be a win-win to have both more Deathlok (on schedule – and, no more Arvell Jones/Keith Pollard, no more half-issues) and more pacesetting penciling on FF (although, I realize that moving Perez back to FF takes him off Inhumans, where his work has been quite good so far).  Roy also tells us that a live-action FF TV-show is in the works – man, with the production capabilities of the time, how awful might that’ve been -?

Matthew Bradley: The lettercol tells us that in a retrospectively quixotic move, Buckler will be leaving the book to devote more time to Deathlok, although he apparently divvies up #171 with Perez.  Meanwhile, his Power Man looks pretty good (the excellence of Sinnott’s inks is naturally a given), so I was curious to see if they had a history together, and was amused to discover that his only Cage credit is shared with Arvell Jones on this very month’s issue.  Roy continues to keep the plot pot boiling, and although I can’t recall who’s behind the mind-control, it smells like the Puppet Master; as if that weren’t enough, the throwaway scene at the top of page 27 will set in motion such momentous events that I am positively tingling with anticipation.

Black Goliath 2
"White Fire, Atomic Death!"
Story by Chris Claremont
Art by George Tuska and Vince Colletta
Colors by Phil Rachelson
Letters by Ray Holloway
Cover by Keith Pollard and Frank Giacoia

When their battle ignites a supply of aviation fuel, Goliath is left for dead by a fleeing Atom-Smasher, but after landing in a drainage ditch he almost drowns in the run-off from fighting the fire, passing out as a car approaches.  Sheltered by a lovely passerby, flight attendant Celia Jackson, he leaves with a promise to return, and has the Whiz-Kids—now with hyphen!—create a portable sensor to detect Atom-Smasher’s energy field.  Warned by Dale that his foe’s condition is unstable, and his radiation could contaminate the city, BG uses his powers to defeat the gang, and contains Atom-Smasher in a graphite-impregnated shield, but as he prepares to call the police, a sniper draws a bead on BG, told by his boss, “our operation must remain secret...” -Matthew Bradley

Matthew: Another BG/Tigra parallel as Claremont succeeds creator Isabella on both strips, if temporarily in Marvel Chillers, while Tuskolletta remains aboard in customary functional style.  The unseen assassin’s speech patterns reveal him as Warhawk, whom Chris created in Marvel Premiere #23, and the way Chris links the various books he touches over the years (e.g., rescuing Radion from well-deserved obscurity in MTIO #9, which he merely scripted from Gerber’s plot, for use in Iron Fist #3-4) suggests a kind of “Claremontiverse” within the larger framework.  Especially in retrospect, it’s interesting how much self-doubt is displayed by BG and some of his Bronze-Age peers, when their Silver-Age counterparts seemed to roar into battle with much more confidence.

Chris: It’s a solid issue overall; despite some flat and indistinct moments in the art, Tuska still brings some spark when it counts, such as the energy-cracklin’, debris-filled fight scenes with Atom-Smasher.  I don’t see how Goliath comes thru the first battle without a scratch, though – not even a rip in his uniform.  Foster tells A-S that his suit is fire-proof, but that doesn’t explain his bare forearms and midriff, all of which were fully exposed to the blasts and fire.  

Claremont struts his stuff in the middle section, in the search for A-S.  In most other comics, of course, our heroes have to rely on stoolies, police reports, and plain-old lucky breaks to locate the villain.  If mechanical aids are required, then Mister Fantastic tends to require 1-2 panels to devise the device he wants, then off he goes.  Instead, Claremont takes an unusual approach in comics-storytelling, as he shows Foster’s team taking their time, and working together, to develop the needed equipment.  
Also, nice bit of strategy toward the end, as Goliath rapidly changes sizes throughout the battle to throw A-S and his henchmen off-balance.  “There could be side-effects . . .,” Foster muses as he considers his actions; as I think ahead to his future health problems, I wonder if Foster could be right . . . 

The Champions 5
"The Economy is So Bad That..."
Story by Tony Isabella
Art by Don Heck and John Tartaglione
Colors by Janice Cohen
Letters by John Costanza and Irving Watanabe
Cover by Rich Buckler and Dan Adkins

As Warren learns from his lawyer, Emerson Bale, that his inheritance is larger than expected, Stuart Clarke learns from his lawyer, Crawley, that he and Clarke Futuristics have fallen victim to the recession.  Fired by UCLA along with Tasha and his client, Hercules, lecture agent Richard Fenster (last seen in Marvel Premiere #26) is rehired as the business manager of Champions, Inc., a group Angel assembles to aid the common man.  Clarke—soon to be dubbed Rampage—dons a prototype exo-skeleton, planning to rob FDIC-protected banks to pay back his creditors; Iceman stumbles on his first heist, but while news reports quickly summon all but the otherwise-occupied Ghost Rider to Bobby’s aid, Rampage threatens an unconscious Angel’s life. -Matthew Bradley

Matthew: The book finally finds its identity, via the group’s belated formalization and first very own super-villain, complete with topical recession-era origin.  As with Robbins and Invaders, having Heck (here reunited with Tartag from #2, again spelled by Tuskolletta thereafter) as its inaugural artist just makes his work seem even more suitable; it certainly didn’t bother me when I bought this at an impressionable age, and if nothing else, it will make us appreciate their successors even more when the new creative team takes over in #8.  Although it’s only been hinted at in the past two issues, with the de facto Champs using his Malibu beach pad as a hangout, having Warren be able to follow in the footsteps of a Tony Stark or a Kyle Richmond by financing them is inspired.

I’ve gotta hand it to Isabella:  he acknowledges the mundane details of setting up a super-team in a way that some books sidestep, with the “storefront superheroes” idea inevitably echoing recent issues of Daredevil, and as the fortunes of both team and book will show, said details gang aft agley.  I now get the reference to a competing project by “Stark’s L.A. operation” as an allusion to Black Goliath #1, and see Tony trying to bring coherence to his short-lived little corner of the Marvel Universe, as with writing both of GR’s mags.  Funny that hero and villain bear the same color scheme in the final tableau, and—all Heckling aside—there’s a nice symmetry of word and image in page 23, panel 5 as Herk says, “By the gods, the man is crazed!”...and he really looks it.

Conan the Barbarian 61 
“On the Track of the She-Pirate!”
Story by Roy Thomas
Art by John Buscema and Steve Gan
Colors by Phil Rache
Letters by Condoy
Cover by Gil Kane and John Romita

Conan and a group of Watambi warriors march off into the jungle on the trail of the Riders of the River-Dragons who have kidnapped Bêlit. Miles away, the Riders glide down a fetid river on the backs of their crocodiles, the Queen of the Black Coast on their leader’s mount, hands tied. The chieftain tells Bêlit that she will become the bride of Amra, the pale-skinned warrior who has been terrorizing tribes with his pack of man-eating lions. But she frays the ropes on the aquatic reptile’s sharp scales, jumps into the water and races into the thick brush. The Riders search frantically for their former captive but she has completely disappeared — they camp for the night and argue about how they will deal with Amra’s wrath. Conan and the Watambis come across the Riders' roaring fire: the Cimmerian silently circles the camp, pouring one of N’Yaga’s “magic” powders along the way. When the barbarian lights the chemical, the Riders and their crocodiles are encircled by flames: many die by fire or the Watambis' accurate arrows. Only the chieftain survives and he tells Conan that his lover has escaped. Bêlit, meanwhile, is sleeping on a high pinnacle when a grotesque moth-demon attacks, spraying her with a sticky liquid. Suddenly, muscular arms grasp the huge bug’s antennae and slices off its head. Bêlit thinks it’s Conan, but when she turns, the woman finds herself towered over by a bare-chested brute and his snarling lion companion. The mighty man bellows “Amra! I am Amra!!” -Thomas Flynn

Tom Flynn: OK, I think I’m going to drop the whole comparison to Robert E. Howard’s “Queen of the Black Coast,” supposedly the inspiration for this recent run of Conan the Barbarian. Roy has completely tossed all that out the window, creating completely unrelated scenarios. In fact, any mention of an adaptation has been removed from the splash page. Besides Bêlit and the Black Corsairs, the only thing here that has a relationship with Howard’s short story is the name Amra aka the lion: but in the original that was simply the nickname the Corsairs gave to Conan, not an actual character. It’s sort of like adapting Citizen Kane and having Rosebud turn out to be an android from Saturn. Well maybe not. Anyways, Roy’s Amra makes his appearance on the last page: he looks like a red-haired Tarzan. Oh sorry, Ka-Zar. Regardless, this issue delivers the usual high standards we have come to expect from this series. One more thing: way back when I wrote about issue #25, the start of John Buscema’s epic run on Conan the Barbarian, I mentioned that I took an art class taught by Big John as a kid, but couldn’t remember how I had heard about it. Well, “Stan Lee’s Soapbox” for this month might have just revealed the answer: he announces Buscema’s “How to Draw Comic Books” course and even gives the address that you could write to for information. Looks like Sal’s older brother lived on Long Island at the time, in West Setauket.

Chris: I’d wander into a dense, unknown jungle in an effort to rescue Bêlit – wouldn’t you?  Still, it’s a fair question Conan poses to himself: what is it about Bêlit that sets her apart from all the other women he’s known?  Conan doesn’t seem like a bedroom slippers kinda guy, so it’ll be interesting to see where this relationship leads.  

The attack on the dragon-rider camp is quite savage – a real take-no-prisoners approach.  I’m not sure what the giant moth is supposed to be doing here; based on the cover, I expected it to be featured more prominently in the story, but its two-page cameo seems only a device to lead Amra to Bêlit.

Captain America and the Falcon 196
Story by Jack Kirby
Art by Jack Kirby and D. Bruce Berry
Colors by Janice Cohen
Letters by John Costanza and D. Bruce Berry
Cover by Jack Kirby and Frank Giacoia

Still imprisoned in the secret society beneath the Badlands of the Western United States, Captain America is resisting the directive to fight in the Kill-Derby. It takes a squad of fighters to subdue him with gas. When he comes to, he is in a cell with the Falcon, who realized Cap's shield is missing. Cap is incensed when he discovers it will be used in the games, besmirching the proud symbol the shield represents. Meanwhile, on the surface, General Argyle Fist continues his search for the entrance to the secret city. The soldier on recon is attacked, his vehicle damaged and himself taken away. Beneath their feet, Cheer Chadwick threatens to cancel the derby unless Cap and Falc agree to fight. Since the stakes are a pot of gold for the winner (and death for the losers), the reaction is immediate. Team Captain Tinkerbelle gets Cap to agree to fight in the games if only to get his shield back. The games begin! Each team is armed and equipped with motorized skateboards. Cap and the Falcon fight hard, smashing their way through the other team's offensive lines until Cap finally reaches the man with his shield. First, Cap attempts to convince the man he's not interested in gold, but the man won't give up his prize. With no other choice, Captain America leaps toward his adversary. -Scott McIntyre

Scott McIntyre: Captain America, by definition, and by virtue of being a man well out of his time, is corny. He has outdated attitudes, but ones that serve him well in his fight on the side of righteousness. For the last two issues, Kirby was able to keep a lot of this in check. This issue, Cap himself takes a turn into massive corn. He spouts phrases like "great day in the morning!" Amazingly, he needs Falcon to point out his shield is missing, even though it's made clear in the dialog that it's strange that it's not hanging off Cap's arm. When Cap does realize it, he freaks and becomes crestfallen. The last time he was this upset and defeated was when Bucky was killed. Luckily, Sam rouses him with a feel-good speech. Incredibly, Cap says, "you can certainly make a bleak situation look brighter!" Since when? Falcon was the original Buzz Killington and just an issue or two ago, he was bitching about how Steve's ancestors owned slaves. Falcon was always the cranky bring-down guy of the team and I never got the impression "Snap" Wilson was any better. What makes this really cheesy is that these people are fighting and killing for a literal pot of gold. Not a million dollars in untraceable unmarked bills, but an actual pot filled with gold coins. I want to see the issue where they killed the Leprechaun who was guarding this pot.

We are reminded of the Madbomb once or twice, but mostly this feels like a lot of padding with no
forward motion. A huge fight issue and Cap doesn't even get his shield back at the end. General Argyle Fist (seriously) is just some anonymous tin idol in a uniform, standing in for any one of the army guys Marvel has used in the past. But since Jack is keeping this title out of the mainstream continuity, there's no T-Bolt Ross, who would be a logical character to use. On the other hand, maybe it's more realistic to not constantly reuse the same people over and over. That does have a tendency to make the Marvel Universe much smaller.

This Cheer Chadwick girl is still kind of a weird mystery woman who keeps dropping vague references to her father as "one of the big wheels!" It took me until this issue to realize Tinkerbelle is a woman. Granted, the name should have clued me in, but Jack's art make her look like a big black dude, not some butch chick. The energy is still here, but it's all so damned strange. Amazingly bizarre fun, but Kirby was off his nut if he thought this was actually "good."

Matthew: You don’t suppose Jolly Jack ever saw Rollerball, do you?  Nah…  I’ve never shaken a childhood suspicion of some significance to the fact that the letters of Kirby’s last name are contained within his title, “Kill-Derby.”  At any rate, the Kirberry team winds it up as Cap goes the Kansas City Bomber route, but he’s no Raquel Welch (and, as I recall, even she was unable to salvage that lame picture, whose director, coincidentally, later became a novelist I publicized at Viking).  While I find Berry’s lettering decidedly uneven, I have no quarrel with his inking, and the story, as one might expect, is nothing if not fast-paced, with the concept of Cap having to battle to reclaim his shield a compelling one, unusual if probably not unique to this ish.

Daredevil 132
"Bullseye Rules Supreme!"
Story by Marv Wolfman
Art by Bob Brown and Klaus Janson
Colors by Michele Wolfman
Letters by Joe Rosen and Gaspar Saladino
Cover by Rich Buckler and Dan Adkins

Bullseye flings juggling pins at Daredevil, as their battle is joined.  DD jumps to a higher point, on top of an animal’s cage, but Bullseye snags DD’s ankle with a bullwhip, and pulls him hard to the ground.  DD’s left shoulder is injured, but he tries his best not to favor that side, since he expects that his opponent would use DD’s setback to his best advantage.  Bullseye suddenly tires of the exhibition, and fires a sonic gun into a large vat of water, which produces a dense fog; as the crowd panics, Bullseye is able to escape easily.  Heather is worried about Matt’s late return to the Storefront, so Matt tries to put her at ease over dinner.  Matt had left hours before to investigate tenants’ claims of poor management of their buildings, but doesn’t realize until he’s speaking with Heather that her father could be tied into the sub-standard tenements.  Matt excuses himself abruptly as he picks up the sound of Bullseye’s sonic gun.  Bullseye is in the process of shaking down a couple (to the tune of $100,000) when DD crashes in, successfully catching Bullseye off-guard.  Bullseye improvises with weapons as well as he can (swatting with canes and umbrellas, aiming a pen as a dart), but ultimately, DD’s greater skill at close-in combat wins him the day. -Chris Blake

Chris: Marv clears up a few things early on; it seemed at the end of the previous issue that Bullseye had somehow drawn a crowd to Madison Square Garden, but now we learn that BE has commandeered a circus.  The big-top battling is well-done, but the conclusion comes too soon; we had been sold a fight-to-the-death, but instead BE grows bored of his prey.  It’s a bit much to expect that a sudden steam-cloud would be sufficient to cause a crowd to panic; since BE doesn’t know DD is blind, couldn’t he have simply turned out the lights?  Also, the earlier suggestion that there are machine-gun toting henchmen in the audience is completely forgotten; if it was simply a ruse by BE, then tell us so, Marv – otherwise, you’re fabricating drama by having us believe, as DD does, that the audience is under threat, with DD unable to protect them as long as he has to watch out for BE.  
I don’t want to harp on the weak points too much this time, since overall this issue continues a recent steady upswing by Marv on this title.  BE is curiously compelling; as much as he seems to want money, he seems just as satisfied with opportunities to promote his image as a not-to-be-trifled-with killer.  Marv wisely keeps much of the focus on Bullseye, interrupted only by two brief asides with Heather, who seems to be primed (due to her father’s possible crooked business dealings) to feature in our next storyline.  

Chris: Brown & Janson continue to offer plenty of action, as we have a fair share of impressive acrobatics from our featured performer (p 6, in particular, reprinted below).  My only reservation is that Brown doesn’t provide any instance of DD’s perspective, via the trusty radar sense; Marv gives us only one line (on p 2) when DD indicates how his radar sense gives him an advantage that ordinary people wouldn’t have against BE, but that shouldn’t stop Brown from offering the radar’s-eye view when he feels it suits the moment.

Matthew: Bullseye’s introduction overshadowed that of Lt. Rose, although reintroduction is more accurate in his case, since we’ll learn via the lettercol in #138 that Rose was one of the cops, then unnamed, who found Battlin’ Murdock’s body back in #1; last issue’s Bugle reporter, Jake Conover, will also be back…but not until Amazing Spider-Man #248 (January 1984)!  For a change, I decided that instead of using my energies to complain about Janson’s inks, I would try to channel them into a kind of mental dowsing rod, hoping to divine Brown’s pencils underneath.  That seemed especially timely for such an action-packed issue, in which facial and other nuances might be less important, and darned if Battlin’ Bob doesn’t deliver some really dynamic layouts.

The Defenders 34
"I Think We're All Bozos in This Book!"
Story by Steve Gerber
Art by Sal Buscema and Jim Mooney
Colors by Irene Vartanoff
Letters by Irving Watanabe
Cover by Rich Buckler and Dan Adkins

Nebulon the Celestial Man explains to Nighthawk his purpose for bringing him, and the other random sampling of humanity, to his headquarters. After their previous encounter, he had been thrust into the dimension of the beings known as Ludberdites. Their philosophy was to help races whose science was inferior to their own and, under their tutelage, he adopted the same philosophy. He has picked a random sampling of humanity to find in their minds what peace really means to humans and make it come true. Meanwhile, the Defenders have freed themselves from the "goo" that imprisoned them, and return to Stephen's home to try and find the whereabouts of their friends, to no avail. Nebulon makes an impressive landing on Earth... as a meek bespectacled man walking out of a meteorite! When the Hulk is the first to come and investigate, or attack, the man becomes Nebulon. He puts the Hulk in a force bubble and sends him skyward, resuming the human form and handing out sheets of  a meeting place where he will teach humans tricks of mind control. When Hulk breaks free and falls to Earth, the crowds have departed, but he finds one of the sheets and takes it to his fellows. Nighthawk and the captive humans collapse, apparently drained by the Ludberdites' machines. Stephen, Val and the Hulk dress up as humans and arrive at the performance of the human/Nebulon. His method of saving humanity is odd; blasting everyone as bozos and demanding they wear clown masks to appear as such. He calls Dr. Strange on stage, and when Stephen takes off his mask, Nebulon recognizes him, assumes his true form and attacks. They see Nighthawk and the others when the curtain is drawn, but soon both the Celestial Man and Chondu the mystic, in the body of the deer, vanish. -Jim Barwise

Jim Barwise: Quite unlike the straightforward adventure in Stephen's own mag, Steve Gerber here gives us an entertaining but rather baffling turn of events. The goofy human form Nebulon takes when he appears and his subsequent "bozo" tactics are bizarre to say the least. The discrepancy between Nebulon's noble claims and his somewhat harsher actions makes his true intentions unclear. Our heroes attending in human garb is a nice touch; humor abounds. The Hulk threatening to smash the workers in Stephen's house or shattering George Teekle's home earlier, for example. Really not sure what to expect from here...

Matthew: Already anticipating the naysayers—of whom I’m sure there were plenty in ’76 as well—I’ll readily admit this may not be for everyone, but for me it means we’ve begun the absolute pinnacle of Gerber’s run, unparalleled in its progressive weirdness, and I’ve loved every panel for 39 years.  With Kyle’s brain still in a bowl, we’re down to three complete members, yet even though two have their own mags, I think Steve has nailed all their characters as thoroughly as anyone ever has.  The Bozo/Celestial Mind Control stuff (presumably a spoof of est and other examples of the Human Potential Movement that were over my 12-year-old head) will be central to the Headmen/Nebulon saga that culminates in Defenders Annual #1, Gerber’s penultimate ish.

What’s so great about this issue?  Man, where to start?  Well, start with the splash page, dummy, e.g., the title (“I Think We’re All Bozos in This Book!”), a veritable gauntlet thrown down by Steve; the intriguingly kindler, gentler Nebulon; and the clever way in which Sal and Jim convey in  purely pictorial terms that although his mind is in Kyle’s body, Jack feels anything but super-heroic.  The Hulk, of course, is never a model of patience, yet his barely contained rage here is handled beautifully, and his interactions with friend and foe are priceless (“Curse your inability to recall names…”).  Doc’s contrasting savoir faire is equally delicious, especially in the CMC sequence, while the Nebulon/nebbish dichotomy works well on the visual and conceptual levels.

Chris: Certifiably crazy!  Steve G does a nifty job with Nebulon 2.0, as he announces his seemingly good intentions, but then doesn’t hesitate to use his powers to enforce his will.  Strange choice that he feels he should hide behind the guise of the harmless little man, when he could dazzle the crowd with his extra-shiny brilliance, but I’m not going to start questioning Steve G now (it’s far too late for that).  Steve also does a nice job of tying in the Headmen with Nebulon, and of bringing Jack back (with Chondu’s brain and Kyle’s body – that’s right, isn’t it?), when even the Orb of Agamotto was left shrugging its crystal shoulders.  I don’t know about you, but if I’m consulting anything with “Agamotto” in its name, and its only answer is, “Hey – beats me,” I’d be more than a little concerned, but it’s no surprise that Doc can take this development in stride.

Mark: Credit (blame?) my esteemed colleague Professor Matthew for sucking me in. An advance peek at his lesson plan reveals Matthew calling this issue "unparalleled in its progressive weirdness." When one's talking about Steve Gerber, the weirdness bar is already set at Guinness record book levels, so how could I resist?

Mark: And, no class, don't expect me to cram all night, bringing myself up to speed on all things Defender. What more does one need beyond reading the title and seeing Nighthawk holding his own brain in a bowl like a potluck casserole?

How 'bout Bambi in attack mode? "Sparkle Man" Nebulon arriving in Times Square via meteor, then transforming into a Wally Cox-like nebbish, tub-thumping for seminars in "celestial mind control"? Not enough, you say? Just another day at the office for Gonzo Gerber?

Then how about a red lizard race of scientist-philosophers? The Hulk disguised in white face? Or Wally's seminar audience, including our heroes, all donning Bozo masks on command, as cheerleaders egg them on?

Unparalleled weirdness? On, man, this one will make you as giddy as Hunter S. Thompson touring Sandoz Laboratories.

Doctor Strange 13
"Planet Earth is No More!"
Story by Steve Englehart
Art by Gene Colan and Tom Palmer
Colors by Tom Palmer
Letters by John Costanza
Cover by Gene Colan and Tom Palmer

The planet Earth is utterly destroyed, Dr. Strange spared only by the grace of the Ancient One. Mordo dead, Eternity vanished, Stephen momentarily despairs, then steels himself to search for anything that might help. He recalls seeing his foe Nightmare in Mordo's dream, something that makes no sense. He uses the Eye Of Agamotto to transport himself to Nightmare's realm of dreams. The demon finds him and unleashes some fearsome spells, but also underestimates Strange, whose skill has increased since last they met; the mage triumphs. Nightmare's comment of surprise at Stephen retaining his power convinces Stephen there is more than coincidence to the play of events. He sees a formerly hidden sphere, which he enters despite his foe's pleas. It seems that Nightmare has captured the mighty Eternity, who lies dormant. Strange frees him from the demon's spell and, as Eternity awakens, he explains. He created life in the Universe, including on Earth. As that life became more advanced and explored its mental capabilities, it allowed other dimensions--such as Nightmare's--access even to Eternity's dreams. From within, the creature of darkness attacked and controlled Eternity, achieving Earth's destruction. Stephen's shock at Eternity's unwillingness to undo the events of his dream brings wrath not gratitude. The Ancient One, one with the Universe, appears, sparing Stephen who witnesses a conflict beyond comprehension. The Ancient One triumphs, and Eternity recreates life on Earth, if only because its time for destruction was not yet here. The inevitability of death, the hope for life; two lessons learned, Stephen is returned to his study on this "new" and identical Earth, with much to ponder.  -Jim Barwise

Jim: Despite the brilliant twists Steve Englehart manages to pull off, getting us out of each seemingly unsolvable scenario, I'm struck by the wonderful simplicity of his stories. Here, it  flows smoothly, keeping us on the edge without confounding the plot with an irrelevant host of characters or details that don't relate. Stephen vows not to get lost in his grief and so finds an answer that he otherwise couldn't. Seeing the titanic battle between Eternity and the Ancient One is a glimpse into something even Stephen can hardly comprehend, as his lengthy contemplation in his study attests to. Much still to learn, more surprises for us.

Mark: Thanks to Dean Peter, for the extra effort expended to get a copy of DS #13 into my hands. Would that his effort had been worth it. 

I've been hoping Stainless Steve was keeping his powder dry for a mind-bending finale, but this has all the impact of a wet firecracker. If comics came with soundtracks, cue up Jackson Browne's "Running on Empty" as Englehart, huffing and puffing, staggers across the finish line only by dint of cupboard's-bare self-plagiarism.

Matthew: The lettercol is devoted to “Some Straight Talk from Stainless Steve” about the book’s brief monthly status.  This level of quality would admittedly be difficult to maintain, although recreating the world from scratch yet again (as in Marvel Premiere #14) might be said to lack originality.  I still maintain, while taking nothing away from Brunner, that Colan—with Palmer providing inks and colors—is the true heir to Ditko at depicting Doc’s cosmic grandeur.  I was doing an end-of-the-world story in which, of course, the world doesn’t endwhen I said ‘Who says so?’  So I destroyed everything, only to have Eternity recreate it all exactly as it had been, with none of us knowing we’d all died except Doc,” Stainless Steve added on his website.

Chris: So, if ever Eternity and the Ancient One are on the same fight card, the smart money would be on the Ancient One; Eternity has no martial arts training – strictly a street brawler.  I liked Steve E’s explanation that Nightmare’s increased power is due to there being so many people, all feeding their dreams to him every night.  Eternity’s reversal is a bit of a cop out, as he says he will not undo the earth-destroying disaster, but then proceeds to explain that, instead, he’s willing to grow a whole new earth from scratch; well, thanks Big E, but how is a re-do different from an undo?  Semantics.  

If Doctor Strange is ever to be taught as part of a school curriculum in the American south, then pages 17 and 30 would have to be trimmed out; censored, if you will.  At least Eternity has the presence of mind to explain that he isn’t capital-G God. 
Steve E tells us in his full-page epistle that he’s working on a new story with Frank Brunner, but that’ll never happen (sigh).  The Colan/Palmer art continues to blow minds, though.  I’m going to pick a quiet, subtle moment as a highlight: Doc, seemingly enclosed by enormous fangs, as the Nightmare creature stalks him from behind (p 7, 3rd pnl).

Mark: Gene and Tom are innocent bystanders to this train wreck. Colan isn't a co-plotter like Brunner; they just drew the pretty pictures. The turgid tale is all on Englehart, from the dubious notion that Eternity has a corporeal form and so must "rise slowly to his phantom feet," to giving the Big E a split-second split-personality, to wit, Eternity tells Strange, "I am above such petty emotions as gratitude," then indulges in petty annoyance by turning the Doctor into a green gnome (great graphic, Gene; loved the red fright wig!) the very next instant. Add the silliness of a giant Ancient One, duking it out with Eternity, and Englehart's gotta-wrap-this-up last minute assertion that while Mordo destroyed the real earth, it happened during "an artificial time," and so Big E can abracadabra-up a new Earth after just telling us that he couldn't because  "the stress on the fabric of reality would be too great!" 
That was so three pages ago.

Mark: All the above might have been palatable if Stainless wasn't ripping off his (and Frank Brunner's) greatest contribution to the Doc's canon, the Sise-Neg saga (Marvel Premiere #12-14. That masterpiece built flawlessly toward its epic conclusion. Here, Englehart seems to have written himself into a corner and, with Deadline Doom looming, plunged desperately into the recycling bin. At least one hopes so. Better that than the notion Englehart mapped this arc out in advance and still thought it was a good idea.

The one interesting bit, the Ancient One's face morphed into Eternity's body on the final page, is easy to miss the first time through, and a stray morsel of creative nourishment does not a feast make. 

If you riffle your own songbook in search of a hit, come up with something better than off-key hack-work.

The Eye of Agamotto weeps.

Ghost Rider 17
"Prelude to a Private Armageddon!"
Story by Tony Isabella
Art by Frank Robbins and Vince Colletta
Colors by Janice Cohen
Letters by Ray Holloway
Cover by Rich Buckler and Dan Adkins

Johnny Blaze returns to work but finds that production on the Stunt-Master’s TV show has been suspended because of Katy Milner’s injury and some tampering with an employee’s records. Blaze races over to Cedars of Lebanon hospital, meeting Richard and Wendy Pini. When he walks into Katy’s room he transforms into Ghost Rider because Milner has been possessed by Satan. Super strong, she pummels a doctor and Richard, then blows the Rider out of the room with a huge gust of wind; he turns back into Johnny Blaze. The doctor claims that the only man who can help Milner is an exorcist named Daimon Hellstrom. Blaze says he has met Hellstrom before (Marvel Spotlight #12) and calls the Son of Satan, who agrees to arrive by nightfall. At Delazny Studios, the accountant Cosgrove realizes that it is Karen Page’s records that have been tampered with, stolen by whoever put out the million-dollar bounty on her head. Back at the hospital, Hellstrom arrives and he and Ghost Rider enter Milner’s room — she has transformed it into an inferno. She summons lesser demons from beyond but the hellish heroes beat them back. Suddenly, a masked giant named the Challenger appears: he claims that Blaze has ridden the path between heaven and hell for too long and must complete the most devilish race ever devised to save both his and Katy Milner’s souls. -Thomas Flynn

Tom Flynn: I was so flummoxed by last issue’s sharkcraptacular that I had completely forgotten that issue 15 ended with the possession of Katy Milner. This one reads like an afternoon soap opera — admittedly one like Dark Shadows considering all the satanic shenanigans. There’s an entire spread of Johnny mooning over his one true love, Roxanne Simpson. On the very next page, we have Karen Page whining about her failed relationships, finally deciding to throw caution to the wind and pursue a love life with Blaze. Johnny also broods  over the friends in his life, including the mysterious messiah who pops up from time to time. Finally, at the end, Hellstrom spends a few panels pondering all the heroes he’s teamed with, concluding that Ghost Rider is the most courageous. It’s all a little too much. The possessed Katy Milner is quite the pip, ripping off groan-worthy lines like “It’s just sexy Katy Milner, cowboy,” “Kiss off, junior,” and “I could hardly entertain gentlemen callers the way it was before, so I redecorated!” Oh boy. As Isabella points out, Ghost Rider and Hellstrom have met before and they make a good match. It’s rare when Robbins and Colletta include any background details at all in a panel, but the awkward art wasn’t much of a distraction. I just wish that this series wasn’t so juvenile.

Chris: Decent team-up by this likely duo. Very satisfying, and more than a little surprising, that Tony thought enough to spare us a MARMIS; instead, these two are in concert from the beginning, with the double-fire fight with the helldemons a clear highlight. The early visuals of Katy's possession are lifted straight from The Exorcist, until we get the thankfully inspired "redecoration" scene (p 22), as George + Vinnie bring some of their own take to the possession story.  The arrival of the Challenger from somewhere beyond left field feels like a mistake; I would've preferred to see Daimon and Johnny continue to work together to see this story to its conclusion, rather than have it settled next issue by a (yee-aawn) road race.

Matthew: Again defying the Isabella-haters among my colleagues, I enjoy this run of the strip far more than I did under its creator, and despite a parade of artists they like little better, but they will have the last laugh soon, as Tony’s Marvel tenure lasts only four more months.  Even though it teams two of my least favorites, the Robbins/Colletta artwork somehow bothers me less here than it would on, say, Captain America, and Frank’s pencils are nothing if not energetic; check out the piratical Pini’s pose in page 11, panel 1, when he’s just supposed to be asking after Johnny’s welfare.  Given their mutual Marvel Spotlight background, supernatural milieu, and Satanic foe, Messrs. Blaze and Hellstrom are natural allies, and thus a pairing I always welcome.

Asked if Daimon’s presence was intended to boost the sales of his own fledgling book, Isabella replied, “No.  If it was logical for a character from another book to appear in Ghost Rider or any of the other titles I was handling, and if I could get permission for the guest appearance from the ‘editor du jour,’ then I used the character.  If I had any kind of an actual ‘sales strategy,’ it was simply to write the best stories I could.  As master plans go, it worked fairly well….Marv wasn’t a real ‘hands on’ editor in that, once he was confident in a writer’s abilities and that the writer was handling a given title well, he didn’t feel he had to edit just for the sake of editing.  We had our disagreements here and there, but they were never about the writing,” as told to Jon Knutson.

The Incredible Hulk 198
"The Shangri'La Syndrome!"
Story by Len Wein
Art by Sal Buscema and Joe Staton
Colors by Glynis Wein
Letters by John Costanza
Cover by Gil Kane and John Romita

The Collector has his group of pirates load up the Hulk onto his magnificent ship. Along with the Man-Thing and the Glob, the Hulk is put into a swamp exhibit alongside all of the other beings who are being held captive by the  Collector.  The pirates are rewarded for their hard work by being shrunken and stuffed inside a bottle with their ship.  When the Hulkster turns back into Bruce Banner, he is able to slip out of the leg bracelet that keeps him in his exhibit cage.  Bruce is then begged by all the exhibit beings to set them free.  Before he can help them, the Collector finds Bruce and offers to cure him, if he will spend time with him to discuss things, since the Collector is a lonely elder.  At first, Banner agrees, but then changes his mind when he realizes how heartless the Collector is, looking at his living captives as nothing more then museum pieces. When Bruce tries to attack him, the Collector's giant bodyguard punches him into some machinery.  This causes the weak scientist to turn into his monstrous alter-ego.  While all this is transpiring, the Man-Thing and the Glob escape. After knocking out the Collector's bodyguard, the Hulk wrecks the ship's control panel and all the captive beings escape their confinements.  It's an all-out melee as Civil War soldiers, Greek monsters, cavemen, aliens, and all other sorts of creatures try to escape.  Roman gladiators try to help out the Collector, but they are easily disposed of. Under the Hulk's command, the former slaves all escape from the ship into the Florida everglades. All except for the Glob, who tracks down the Collector and apparently kills him.  Once all of the exhibit beings are off the ship, they age rapidly and turn to dust without the Collector's powers to preserve them.  The story ends with the Man-Thing lumbering away as the saddened Hulk looks upon the empty swamp. -Tom McMillion

Matthew:  Reading an issue like this, which goes down like a cold drink on a hot day with very few hiccups (e.g., the trouble taken to set up the obvious but unidentified Scheherazade with no payoff; Banner’s abrupt volte-face), it’s hard to remember how uneven the early part of Len’s run on this book was.  Both he and the reliable Bustaton team do a fine job on Man-Thing—must run in the Buscema family—while the resolution of the related Glob subplot from Giant-Size Man-Thing #1 is satisfying, although one obviously shouldn’t count the Collector out so soon.  Last issue’s “Game Warden,” EIC Marv is now billed as “Museum Piece” here, “Prime Suspect” in the concurrent issue of Amazing Spider-Man and “Rebel with a Lost Cause” in Thor.

Addendum: By the time I reviewed June's Iron Man Annual #3, I'd already forgotten that Sal had previously drawn Manny here. Sigh...

Chris: I love the smell of Man-Thing in the morning.  It smells like . . . smells . . . eeyugh . . . whoa – could somebody open a window, or something -?

Interesting move by Len to have the Scheherazade character appeal to Hulk’s desire to be recognized as a hero.  I wondered whether Hulk’s Defenders exploits provide him a sense of being heroic.  If not, it could be because he’s only thinking about how he’s helping friends like Magician, Sword Girl, and Bird Nose; he might not recognize himself as performing any greater-good type heroic deeds.  The constant harassment by police, armed forces, and old ladies with leather handbags also might preclude Hulk from feeling that his efforts are appreciated.  He really rises to it then, doesn’t he, as he raises his arm and escorts the “ex-exhibits” to the egress.  
Nice twist at the end, as the freed people swiftly waste away to ash, when the years abruptly catch up to them.  Len elects to leave Hulk confused and disappointed, but fortunately does not choose for him to be rageful over this turn of events; to have Hulk storm off in a fury over the captives’ deaths would have removed us from the silent moment in the very last panel, and a sense that, on some level, Hulk can appreciate the freed exhibits’ gratitude for release from their pointless, empty lives.

Iron Fist 4
Story by Chris Claremont
Art by John Byrne and Frank Chiaramonte
Colors by Janice Cohen
Letters by John Costanza
Cover by Gil Kane and Frank Giacoia

Iron Fist and Radion continue their battle on an upper floor of the burning General Post Office Tower, the Atomic Man warning that after the Living Weapon destroyed his chest-plate control system he became an unstable hydrogen bomb that will eventually destroy all of London. In New York, Joy Meachum, her uncle Ward, and the unnamed man with a wingless dragon tattoo on his chest watch another explosion rock the GPO Tower on the news. The man insists that Iron Fist is still alive and that only he may kill him. Back in London, a broken and bruised Rand is trapped under wreckage: but he focuses his Iron Fist power, simultaneously healing and freeing himself. Radion is nowhere to be found but a computer screen suddenly crackles to life and a video begins to play. It is a recording of Dr. Henri Sorel, a research physicist who worked for the World Health Organization, developing a cure for radiation poisoning. When goons working for Ward Meachum tried to steal the formula, a violent accident transformed the scientist into the Atomic Man. A regretful Iron Fist realizes that Radion/Sorel was actually trying to cure himself before he barged in and attacked. The martial artist tracks the insane Radion to the roof of the burning building and the ferocious fight begins anew. But when the roof buckles they fall nine stories back into Sorel’s laboratory. Iron Fist kicks Radion into the scientist’s Anti-Radiation Transformer and the hydrogen horror is cured, transforming back into a horrified Henri Sorel. -Thomas Flynn

Tom Flynn: Another solid if not spectacular issue. While I’m pretty sure this marks the last appearance of Radion/The Ravager’s brief career, Dr. Henri Sorel will continue to pop up from time to time, developing methods to contain captured supervillains for Project: Pegasus. I guess I’ll get a big fat demerit from Professor Matthew by admitting that I only know that organization through the Marvel movies. The Meachums continue to worm their way back into Iron Fist’s life and the tattooed stranger from the premiere issue returns — looks like he has a bit of the Iron Fist power as well. By the way, I wish Iron Fist’s power was called something else than the Iron Fist: it’s a pain trying to avoid writing “Iron Fist channels his Iron Fist power.” Whaaa! And no cheating by using IF for me. Harrumph! As I mentioned last issue, Rand displays a pretty major new power by healing his busted-up body. Looked pretty painful though. I have to assume that this is the first time that John Byrne drew both The Thing and Thor: there’s a one-panel flashback to Marvel Two-in-One #9. It’s been said that Our Pal Sal Buscema was one of the few artists who could confidently draw every single Marvel character. I’d put Byrne on that small list as well — and at the top since I will also say that the Canadian’s talent easily surpasses the “workmanlike” artistry of Big John’s little brother. Most everyone else’s for that matter. Iron Fist will also boast another notable first down the road: issue 14 will be the first time that Claremont and Byrne collaborate on the X-Men. 

Chris: Early fans of this character had expressed concerns that every story might require Danny to pull out the iron fist in order to vanquish his opponent. Claremont’s approach proves the possibility of not only judicious use of the iron fist, but also variations on this power.  

It’s easily the most exciting issue of Iron Fist we’ve seen in awhile.  It’s due not only to the nearly non-stop action, but also to Claremont’s infusion of drama as Danny calls on his inner strength to overcome his injuries (with encouragement, somehow, from the spirit of Uncle Yu-Ti), which reminds us that heroics don’t have to be based on delivering the Big Punch, but can be more meaningful when a hero has to Overcome Adversity.  Claremont also shows Danny winning the battle by outthinking his opponent (directing him onto the distressed piece of flooring), which illustrates how you can conclude an Iron Fist tale without having to resort every time to a sha-kow.  

Claremont’s clever use of the iron fist as a healing device is inventive, and should open up other avenues for Danny’s use of this power, but I don’t recall seeing these variations in Iron Fist and PM/IF stories that follow; I’ll have to keep an eye out for that (I’ll go on the record right now, and say that I don’t want to see the iron fist used as GPS, or to re-heat leftover pasta).

Matthew: Oh, you're gonna hate the notorious "linguine scene" in Iron Fist #16.
Chris: I don’t think anyone captures the image of melting metal as well as Byrne; you can feel the glistening globs as they drop from the sizzling rod (p 23, last pnl).  Byrne also depicts Danny’s musculature particularly well (see p 7, 1st pnl), and there are some great expressions, such as Danny’s focus and determination (p 23, pnl 2).  Byrne twists panels around in any way that suits him in order to keep the story going; but, don’t miss the micro within the macro, such as Danny’s silent approach from the shadows behind Radion (p 17, last pnl).  Chiaramonte’s inks seem to work better this time, possibly because so much of the action is taking place at night.

Matthew: God, this was a great time to be a Marvel reader; so much great stuff was coming out, although so much of it was short-lived, I feel like yelling to my 12-year-old self, “Enjoy it while you can!”  A case in point is this book in general and this issue in particular, where except for a few spots in which I might raise my eyebrows at Chiaramonte’s inks, I am virtually unable to find fault.  Regarding Radion’s origin—a little too conveniently revealed to Danny, but what the hell—I doubt Claremont was thinking that many moves ahead in the aforementioned Marvel Two-in-One #9, predating Chris’s IF involvement by three months as it did, yet in my opinion he really pulls it off, and I’ll never forget that skeletal shot of Radion from the last panel of page 30.

The Invincible Iron Man 85
"...And the Freak Shall Inherit the Earth!"
Story by Len Wein and Roger Slifer
Art by Herb Trimpe and Marie Severin
Colors by Marie Severin
Letters by Gaspar Saladino and Irving Watanabe
Cover by Rich Buckler and Klaus Janson

A crowd of passersby tries to help Iron Man, who drains a youth’s radio to spark his reserve generators, but with most of his spare armor’s circuitry fused beyond repair (Happy’s fall having ruined the original), he must use his rocket skates to return to S.I.  As he redesigns his armor, Roxie arrives to upbraid Tony for failing to let her know he’d been rescued from the Red Ghost, and is buttonholed by O’Brien while leaving in a huff.  Cobalt emissions lead Iron Man to a deserted Queensborough freightyard, where the Freak has been hiding since hitching a ride on a Flushing-bound train and bursts from a car to attack; minutes before he will explode, IM uses a miniaturized version of his enervation intensifier to drain the radiation, restoring Hap to normal. -Matthew Bradley

Matthew: For better or worse, Herb’s style is almost completely submerged in this issue by Marie, credited as “M. Severin” and “Marie Sev.” in her respective capacities as “illustrator” and colorist.  She is obviously also responsible for the inexplicable Bullpen caricatures in the opening sequence, which most notably include Marie herself and plotter/editor Wein (again scripted by Slifer) on the splash page, and have been helpfully identified by Mark Drummond on SuperMegaMonkey.  The mechanics of Tony’s donning his armor have always required some suspension of disbelief, but this iteration, in which sleeves, leggings, gloves, and boots slither out of his chestplate and down his limbs with repulsor rays etc. intact, is especially unreal; at least that awful nose is gone.

"Well, you can tell by the way I use my walk..."
Chris: Every time I view the cover of this issue, I think it’s chrome-domed Crusher Creel coming after IM.  Maybe that would’ve made for a more interesting contest; despite Len & Roger’s insistence that the Freak is steadily building up to a cobalt-radiation critical-mass city-incinerating explosion, there’s never any tension in the story.  In fact, Tony has enough time to hide out in his lab and completely rebuild his armor, while the Freak (in true Mr Neutron fashion) is somewhere else, supposedly threatening the very fabric of reality.  

The new developments for armor-appearance are welcome, although I think I prefer the version that will follow this one, when Tony will take this process back a step, and require an attaché cash to carry boots, gauntlets, energy pods, and helmet – in other words, the hardest and heaviest parts of the suit that aren’t his chest plate.  But, I don’t want to get ahead of myself.  
The Trimpe-Severin art is okay, but I prefer this team for the Hulk, especially since they did a nice job capturing his many expressions (eg Hulk #190), and there simply aren’t many expressive moments for the man in the mask (and, well, there shouldn’t be – it’s metal).  I’m delighted that the pointy nose is gone, though – that had to, had to go.  

The Amazing Spider-Man 155
Story by Len Wein
Art by Sal Buscema, Mike Esposito, and Dave Hunt
Colors by Glynis Wein
Letters by Gaspar Saladino and Irving Watanabe
Cover by John Romita

Peter and JJJ head to D.A. Tower's press conference at Police HQ, to visit Dr. Armstrong Smith, who was working with the late Bradley Bolton on a specialized computer designed to catalog all Worldwide Habitual Offenders, a computer that could help deter crime in NYC. They find the door to the lab is locked, and when it's broken down, Dr. Smith is found dead! He was killed by a small caliber weapon, but no bullet was found and the police are baffled. Spider-Man owes Dr. Bolton a debt, and he starts investigating on his own by getting a list of three suspects from the super-computer. Getting addresses from informer "Weasel" Jack, Spidey heads for the Lower East Side in search of Jason Sledge. After a hilarious tussle with some thugs at a local bar, Sledge turns out to be a former hired gun, now sweeping up at the tavern. The second lead is safecracker Leroy Tallon, known for being caught in his own nitro-blast, holed up in an abandoned warehouse. Spidey tracks him and battles his goons, before almost getting defeated by Tallon and his steel hands. But Tallon was on a jewel heist all along, so it's down to the third suspect, Conrad Fox, who Spidey is able to find through dogged determination…in a cemetery, having been hit by a bus three days ago! Turns out our hero was lied to…by the super-computer! Now fully operational, the sinister circuitry killed Dr. Smith to preserve its own newly sentient life and become ruler of the underworld (I kid you not!). Spidey is able to evade the laser attack, but is locked in the lab, and webbing is no use. So he clogs up the cooling vents, forces the computer to work extra hard, and it overheats! It seems the solution to this whodunit was W.H.O. (computer code: Worldwide Habitual Offenders) done it! --Joe Tura

Joe: Man, oh man, it's hard to top John Romita as a Spider-Man cover artist. Even after all the years of working on Spidey, the Jazzy One can still craft a classic first look on the spinner rack. Maybe Todd McFarlane comes close, but we're way far away from that run. For the guts of the mag, we get guest artist Sal B. again, teamed with Mike Esposito and the results are excellent. Too bad they're drawing such a goofy story. Yeah, it's clever and all that, but to a fault. "W.H.O. dunit"? Yeesh, a bit of a stretch there Len, but I guess that's where the ideas come from, maybe just a single word. A complete one-shot, too, with no supporting cast other than JJJ and no personal life drama for the star of the show. So maybe that's a plus for Mr. Parker!

Favorite sound effect for this offbeat outing: There are a couple of good ones, but I'll go with page 11's "KROOM!", where Spidey tosses a tavern thug "like a whiffle-ball" into a table. Fun stuff, that!

Matthew: Mighty Mike has his off days, just like anybody else, but this isn’t one of them, and Sal (“still guest artist”) is lucky to have his frequent MTU colleague rendering his pencils razor-sharp, especially on Tallon.  In such stories, I’m less concerned with how hard it is to figure out who—or, in this case, W.H.O.—dunit than with how much fun we have along the way, amply provided here by Spidey’s barroom brawl and his tussle with the conveniently named Leroy Tallon, although in his dealings with Weasel, he’s kind of, well, a douche.  I wonder if Len had this in mind all along when he introduced Armstrong Smith and Blake Tower way back in Daredevil #124; he certainly has fun with his puns, e.g., “IBM-becile,” “Loonivac.”

Mark: Ah, the vagaries of an art form with a rigid production schedule. Two months ago, I praised ASM #153 as the best single issue story in recent memory, and now "Whodunit!" is one of the worst.

Can't blame our dependable pal's guest spot art (although the meat's a bit stringy, Sal, the 'taters bland), and while I don't like two consecutive issues with no supporting cast subplots (JJ and Joe Robertson get a couple panels here) that's okay if the Spidey Saga is so riveting that it demands every breathless panel, which this shaggy-HAL story definitely does not.

Chris: Hold on – you say there's a room-sized computer behind that door?  And, it’s killing people?  No big deal – okay, so where will I find the fuse box?  Right here -?  Problem solved.

Len's got us deeply immersed in the locked-door mystery, so that the unexpected switch to killer-computer story seems abrupt. The machine-turns-against-maker tale was already showing tread-wear when Ultron did this to Dr Pym; thankfully, Spidey’s encounter with the same is resolved in one issue.  You have to wonder why HAL -- sorry, I meant WHO -- only gave Spidey three leads; if he'd given him, say, 20-25 names to check out, WHO would've had a few more weeks to figure how to lure more scientist-criminologist-inventors into its lair. 
I realize this is the beginning of a fairly long scripting stretch for Len on this title, so I'm going to allow him some time to build a continuing storyline, with the sort of subplots and entanglements that we've come to expect in Parker's ever-complicated life.  ASM doesn't seem the same without hang-ups!

Mark: Wein works the manhunt mechanics okay. And I can buy the WHO-puter becoming sentient and, since it's programmed with nothing but criminal profiles, turning evil. But I want to know why its now-dead inventors installed a frickin' laser weapon in their database. Makes as much sense as a fish on a bicycle, and one suspects Len wrote the story backwards from the last panel "W.H.O.dunit" punch line.

Not very punny. 

Sometimes you Wein but, no, not this time. 

The Avengers 146
"The Assassin Never Fails!
Story by Tony Isabella
Art by Keith Pollard and John Tartaglione
Colors by Petra Goldberg
Letters by Dave Hunt
Cover by Gil Kane and Al Milgrom

This follow-up to the previous issue, where the Assassin put Captain America in the hospital and then planned to wipe out the rest of the Avengers, is a somewhat disappointing finale to what promised to be an above-average filler story.

Our story opens with the Avengers — that is, Yellowjacket, Wasp, Scarlet Witch, and the Beast along with guest-star the Falcon — in the mansion, worrying about Cap’s fate. They are so distraught that they are completely unaware that the Assassin’s cronies are busy putting sight targets on them from afar, waiting for the order to pull their triggers.

Meanwhile, in part two, Don Blake operates on Cap, using delicate surgical procedures to save Cap’s life and reduce the lethal radiation that the Assassin shot Cap with last issue. Iron Man, Hawkeye, and the Vision guard his room on the outside, and a nurse brings some coffee to them. Here the action starts. Why is the nurse being so insistent with that coffee? We soon find out when the Avengers are drugged as a result (except the Vision, who doesn’t need to drink). More henchmen of the Assassin appear, out of nowhere, all in nice masks and costumes (no wonder the Assassin needed a billion dollars to pull off this job!).

With Hawkeye and Iron Man down, the Vision nevertheless easily handles these lightweights until the Assassin returns and throws some sort of oddball doodad that disconnects Vision’s body from his brain, and which also has the double effect of increasing the Vision’s solar energy until it will eventually blow him, and everyone around him, up. The Assassin also discovers that Thor is secretly Donald Blake. Anyone with any lengthy experience with Marvel up until this point knows what that means (as I’ll discuss in the commentary).

The Assassin threatens to kill Thor/Blake, but an arrow from Hawkeye stops that from happening. The Assassin yells “I left you for dead!” — a bad thing to do, for, as explained in his character development in the last issue, the Assassin leaves nothing to chance, except, of course, the most crucial part of his mission!

Anyway, the Assassin is defeated and revealed to be that evil nurse with her drugged coffee. She escapes and runs down the street, but without her costume, the henchmen don’t recognize her, and she is killed. The person who hired the Assassin is revealed at the end, and he shoots his own son — the Assassin, it turns out, was his daughter — and then he prepares to kill himself on the last page of the issue. -Jerad Walters

Jerad Walters: The artwork here is pretty routine, as is this story. The one surprise is that the Assassin is a woman. What I mentioned earlier is that the Assassin’s fate seems foretold when it's revealed he knows Thor’s secret identity. I’m not saying this happens all the time, but when it does happen, it seems like the villains are killed soon after. It seems odd that villains who murder and cause destruction return issue after issue, but if they know a secret identity, the only fitting punishment is death.

Joe: After I whined a little two issues ago about how much I missed reading this run of Avengers, our Dean of Deans was nice enough to provide me with the research materials to be able to comment on this title. And proving timing is everything, I started off with this two-issue time-killer. I remember the covers very well, but the insides are average at best. Luckily, we're back on track next month, but meantime, it's too bad Pollard didn't have time to do the whole issue. I had forgotten about the Thor LMD, which is hilarious and way too practical at the same time. Almost as hilarious as Hawkeye letting us know he survived by yakking, thanks to his "glass stomach." The ending is as heartbreakingly out of left field as it was 39 years ago, and wraps up this tale with a big bullet-strewn bow.

Matthew: In Tony’s Online Tips,” Isabella noted that when this giant-sizer manqué was repurposed, “I had to write three new pages to fill out the required page count.  I’ve never been happy with [them].  No one…could tell me who would be in the new Avengers roster.  So I went with the heroes I thought might gather together to give each other comfort and support in this time of crisis.”  He also lamented “the big ugly caption on the first [page] in which someone in editorial went out of their way to draw reader attention to the [continuity] situation.”  It doesn’t help that the luscious Keith Pollard artwork for those new pages is such a marked contrast to the existing Heckstravaganza (a fact that having Tartag ink the entire issue does nothing to disguise).

Tony added that this story’s second serial editor “used to get funny notions that made sense to Len and only Len [and] decreed that Captain America could not be shot and critically wounded by a gun….The medical business in [the conclusion] bothers me more now than it did then.  The section of my original plot involving Dr. Don Blake operating on Cap made more sense when it was a gunshot wound, but I think I covered the editorially-mandated change pretty well.  I’m less sure about how Hawkeye survived being poisoned, but I confess I love the idea that he was saved because he tossed his cookies in the nick of time.  Ditto that Tony Stark’s synthetic heart was his salvation.”  Such explanations seem to me no farther-fetched than the rest of the story.  Move on.

Chris: It really is a laughably pitiful issue.  Who in their right mind ever thought Tony Isabella could be capable of writing an Avengers story?  We start out with more Englehart-style standing around and talking, so the fun doesn’t crank up until the Assassin’s goons attack the hospital.  The Vision is undone by a “thing” that attaches to his cloak – doesn’t touch his body, mind you, but his cloak – that has to be blasted off by Hawkeye and Iron Man in order for Vizh to revive; uh, guys, couldn’t Vizh simply allow the cloak to drop off his shoulders?  Sure he could.  Hawkeye and Iron Man both are killed by poisoned coffee – the poison kills them when it reaches their hearts.  It’s really too bad, a brutal loss for – Oh wait – they’re not dead?  But it only takes seconds for your bloodstream to absorb a liquid once it hits your digestive tract – once it’s in your blood, odds are it’s going to reach the heart pretty quickly – maybe one more second.  Was it a particularly thick and meaty poison molecule, perhaps, for it to linger more than 4-5 seconds -?  Lastly, I almost laughed out loud when the Assassin was tipped over, clonked by Dr Blake when he opened the OR door (whaa – whaa –whaaaaa); so much for that year of meticulous planning, Assassy.  For some reason, I went on and finished reading the issue, but I might’ve been going thru some mail and paying bills at the same time.  

This is an instance where the smarter play would’ve been to cut this monkey down to one issue, instead of padding it out to two; I’ll acknowledge that the padding-pages allow us a glimpse of Wanda, the Pyms, and the Beast (all standing around), who otherwise would’ve spent this entire issue on the shelf.  Could we possibly trade Tony to DC for a letterer to be named later -?  Let him apply his unique talents to 1970s JLA, where he belongs (how’s that?  You say Tony does land at DC?  Well – all right then). 

Peter Enfantino: Best line of the month, Professor Chris. You'll be getting an invoice for the new computer monitor I had to buy after spitting coffee onto the old one. Thanks a lot, pal.

The Inhumans 4
"The Doom Called Shatterstar!"
Story by Doug Moench
Art by George Perez and Vince Colletta
Colors by Glynis Wein
Letters by Irving Watanabe
Cover by Rich Buckler and Frank Giacoia

Lockjaw arrives to stop Shatterstar from killing Falzon and Black Bolt, allowing the Inhumans to regroup, but the battle goes badly until Black Bolt has Karnak effect entrance to Shatterstar’s skycraft and uses its weapon to fell the Kree.  An anguished Falzon identifies him as his son, Arides, chosen as a prototype super-soldier who converted light to energy; he was so thoroughly indoctrinated that he killed his mother, Murius, when the couple tried to leave Hala, but Falzon’s “rehabilitation” was unsuccessful.  Arides still lives, so the Inhumans depart to help him—Triton’s apology for the damage forcing the bigoted humans to reconsider—but when they arrive at Attilan, they see Iridia shot down by the forces of Shatterstar’s ally…Maximus the Mad. -Matthew Bradley

Matthew: Let us, if we may, metaphorically divide Doug into two Moench-Men:  the plotter, who spins a pretty nifty story, and the scripter, guilty of the same overwriting and purple prose for which he is oft lambasted by my colleagues elsewhere, plus a sledgehammer platitude on page 26.  That epitomizes this issue’s double-edged-sword nature, e.g., the art, with Pérez withstanding the onslaught of Colletta’s inks—by which he was similarly burdened in Avengers—in most cases, and occasionally going down in defeat, as in page 11, panel 2.  Ditto the resurgence of Maximus, which may seem depressingly de rigueur for any Inhumans yarn, yet in all fairness, his alliance with the Kree was set up in #1.  Boo to Irv for misspelling our leading lady’s name as “Medula.”

Chris: Awesome (not a term I use often) splash page by Perez, as his style continues to develop; his work is strong enough here to push thru an average ink-job by Colletta.  Striking change of mood at the middle by Doug, as we hear Falzon’s heartrending story.  Further evidence that, just because they aren’t Skrulls, doesn’t mean the Kree are a race to admire (or to fight for, against your will).

The ending is quite a surprise, but it involves two letdowns: 1) once again, a Maximus-coup is called upon for storyline-fodder; and 2) Perez won’t be on-hand for Inhumans #5 to provide illustrations for the members of the League of Evil Inhumans.  Anyone who is familiar with Perez’s skill at character and costume design will understand my disappointment.  Despite the support among the LOC, this will be the second-to-last appearance by Perez in these pages (probably due to George emerging as the semi-regular penciller for both Avengers and Fantastic Four in the coming months).


  1. Regarding this issue of the Defenders, is no one familiar with the Firesign Theater or was it just so obvious that no one thought it worth mentioning?

  2. I'm certainly familiar with the Firesign Theater, although I wasn't when I first read this month's issue of the Defenders. Nor was all that aware of the various quasi-religious movements Gerber was lampooning. None of that stopped me from immensely enjoying it back then and I still regard the Nebulon/Headmen saga as one of the great highlights of mid-70s comics. Gerber topped having Hulk as a contestant in a silly game show by now putting him in a bozo mask! And if Nebulon could grant himself a glamorous image, why not have him hide within the image of a short, puny-looking nebbish who could still convert ordinary people to his cult that requires they are all bozos and need to put themselves in his hands. Expert merger of humor, drama and social commentary by Gerber and well-rendered by our pal Sal.
    Meanwhile, Kirby almost seemed to be going for his own brand of absurdism in CA&TF; I kept on collecting and reading but it didn't quite pull me in the same way Gerber's story did. For all their outlandishness, Gerber's stories still seemed to be operating well within the Marvel Universe, but Kirby's CA&TF tales seemed as divorced from the rest of the MU as Conan the Barbarian! And as written by Kirby, both Cap & Falc might as well have been new characters as they hardly resembled the characters' personalities as written by either Lee or Englehart, the prime chroniclers of Captain America since his Silver Age revival.
    As to Tony Isabella's Avengers fill-in, uh, sorry Tony but this was awful -- bad art, bad story, wooden dialogue. Alas, this month's Spider-Man by Len Wein was almost as badly written, if better drawn, and was more in the style of typical issue of MTU, just without a guest-star. Took Wein a while to start producing stories that really got the gist of what Ditko/Lee/Romita and even Conway had done previously on ASM, balancing the adventures of Spider-Man with the interactions of Peter Parker with his supporting cast, which is IMO one of aspects that had made ASM one of the most popular comics ever. MTU was a side-show, often with Spidey never appearing out of costume for months at a time (at least to my recall, as with the ongoing Mantlo/Buscema time-travel epic), but in ASM readers expected to see a lot more of Peter and his cast, and not just JJJ, and stories like this Whodunit seemed more like something from a typical Silver Age DC than a Bronze Age Marvel.

  3. Professor Chris: yeah, Iron Fist will use his healing power again down the road.

  4. Sue Storm had a chance to switch her code name in FF #169, but instead she decided to stick with the Invisible Girl, "a little while longer". Little could she know that she would not give up that name until the end of issue #283.