Wednesday, July 15, 2015

July 1976 Part One: Jack Kirby Introduces His Even Newer Gods!

Fantastic Four 172
"Cry, the Bedeviled Planet!"
Story by Roy Thomas and Bill Mantlo
Art by George Perez and Joe Sinnott
Colors by Petra Goldberg
Letters by Joe Rosen
Cover by Jack Kirby and Joe Sinnott

We open with Gorr the Golden Gorilla, "shackled to the wall" in the Baxter Building (after growing forty feet high and Konging it up the Bax; he's a right-sized simian now), again uttering the dreaded name, "Galactus!" He breaks free after a quick last ish recap, battles the Fabs then makes his escape, via stolen F-Car, just like Luke Cage, two months ago. They gotta stop leaving the keys in that thing.

Triple G returns to his crashed-in-Central Park space ship, pursued by our heroes in the original F-Tub (its very appearance brings a smile). They follow Gorr aboard and the door slides shut behind them. As the ship blasts off, Reed laments, "It was all a decoy! A blind! Gorr baited us – and we flew (actually, Reed, you walked) right into it! Like sheep to the slaughter!" Not lines, one suspects, destined for scripter Bill Mantlo's career highlight reel.

Once well into space, Gorr (now in sporty unitard & matching cowl) re-greets the Fabs ("I'm overjoyed to find that you have all survived!") and explains his creation by the High Evolutionary on Counter-Earth before announcing C-E's recent discovery by current Galactic meal-sniffer, the Destroyer!* That metallic, Odin-spawned monstrosity is, even as we read, closing in on C-E's artificial moon, so the Thing is torpedo-tubed ahead to give battle. A couple pages of Perez powered sock-'n'-awe and then Ben k.o.'s the Destroyer, but Pyrrhic victory, pal, because the Big G has arrived.

And while Galactus has "forsworn never again to prey on your Earth," our counter-part planet is at the top of the menu! -Mark Barsotti

Mark Barsotti: Roy Thomas plotted this, but left the writing to Mantlo, who, despite the occasional Tourette's-like outburst of ham-bone hyperbole, delivers an effective script. Sure, we're taking up a collection for an F-Car anti-theft device, and there's a dozen better ways Triple G could have obtained the FF's buy-in than the ye olde follow-me-into-my-departing-rocket gag, but the amphetamine pace renders such minor gaffes barely perceptible. Who save the most hidebound creationist doesn't love the High Evolutionary? Toss in the Destroyer and a peckish Galactus, all lushly rendered by George Perez (it's as if King Kirby & Big John Buscema had a baby, lovingly wet-nursed by Joe Sinnott), and this one's pretty darn (nail, meet head) fantastic.       

(*see The Mighty Thor #228)

Chris Blake: Well, whaddaya know – I asked if we were going to have some explanation about Gorr’s change in size, his selective mutism, and his inclination to fight Our Team, and Roy (by way of Bill’s script) delivers all that in the first few pages; by the way, I like the way George frames the recap from last issue in Ben’s head, as if he were re-viewing these images as he’s relating them to us.  After that, we have sort-of FF #171 in reverse, with a bit of FF #170 thrown in, as once again the team is required to chase someone in an appropriated Fantasticar; at least Roy and Bill have the courtesy to acknowledge that yes, fans, we are repeating ourselves a bit here.  Reed might have to look into an access code, or parental controls, or something, to reduce the chances of other people helping themselves to the team vehicles; after all, what’s to stop Franklin from taking the FantastICBM for a spin?  Nice moment when Big-Brain has to admit that he’s had no awareness of a whole other planet, hidden here on the far side of our own sun.  

Chris: You knew I wasn’t about to limit my art-comments to one line, right?  High marks to Pérez for the two-page montage (above), which ably fills us in pictorially on the exposition, instead of having to resort to stills of Gorr talking, and the FF listening.  I recall the bit with the High Ev struggling to resist the Destroyer’s advance (left), and I really dig the reveal of Big G at the end (below), as he gestures toward his prize – a perfectly tasty Earth, one which he had not promised not to consume.  Mmmmm.
Matthew Bradley: Oh, Roy, your powers are undimmed, as demonstrated by how effectively (with the able assistance of scripter Mantlo, in the first of his sporadic FF issues) you merge two beloved tributaries.  One is Counter-Earth, which sets my pulse racing even with Warlock only in flashback, and who better to revisit it than its creator—well, okay, via the High Evolutionary; the other is among Conway’s better conceits, i.e., Galactus using the Destroyer as his herald, and a Thing/Destroyer face-off is certainly something to write home about.  Not surprisingly, Perez and Sinnott rise to the occasion, with George somehow avoiding the cramped look that has slightly undercut some of his Avengers work, and Joe polishing each jewel to lustrous perfection.

Amazing Adventures 37
Killraven in
"Arena Kill!"
Story by Don McGregor
Art by Craig Russell and Jack Abel
Colors by Petra Goldberg
Letters by Irving Watanabe
Cover by Craig Russell

New Year's Eve, 2020, at the Suwannee River, Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, and we open on Killraven battling Brother Axe, and our hero defeats the long-winded assailant easily, and Old Skull, Carmilla and M'Shulla have his back. The Freemen have travelled three days through the swamp, not to take over Axe's fortress, but to be directed towards Yellowstone. First, Axe and his people invite Killraven and Krew to a feast, with Old Skull befriending a raccoon at the dinner table as he tells his origin story.

Even back in 1997, young Old Skull was bald, and laughed at by his classmates for that and his seemingly below average intelligence. He lived on a ranch, with a cowboy Dad who called him "numbskull". In 2001, 14-year old Old Skull was with his Dad on the last cattle drive, riding a "rawhider" that was like the saddle part of a mechanical horse, then (after being interrupted briefly by Killraven while telling his tale), father and son take the "Transparent Tramway", which meets up with Martian tripods that derail the train, killing Old Skull's Dad.

Then Killraven takes over, telling a tale from the Arena, where he and Old Skull faced Warr, the "Ultimate Gladiator" and his Legion of Spiders…but Old Skull reminds him to fill in the details, including how the two met. In 2014, a gladiator named Artemus was bullying OS when KR came to his aid, even giving the former "numbskull" his name. Then the story about the battle with Warr is finally told, with the duo taking out spiders, then Killraven dispatching Warr. Which all leads to a toast by Brother Axe—however, the Freemen's glasses are empty, the begging raccoon having helped itself to their wine and stumbling off drunk! –Joe Tura

Joe: First off, shouldn't it be New Year's Eve 2019? Has a whole year passed? Nope, just bad calendar skills by the writer, letterer, editor, etc. But I quibble about an issue that takes the series down a notch or two. You would think my summary is as long as the issue itself, but that's because it is. All in all, it's slightly boring and the art is a little off, most likely the inking to blame. And naming Brother Axe's cohorts Huey and Louie, but leaving out Dewey? For shame! And a drunk raccoon? Hilarious this is not, but I guess it could have been worse. At least there's closure of some sort. Old Skull gets a moment in the sun with his semi-interesting backstory. But I felt like a dinner guest at the very same table, as impatient as Killraven to get on with it already, and as puzzled by the wine-swiping rodent's actions as all the Freemen. Next…..

Matthew: I don't believe raccoons are rodents.

Chris: Wow – I remember now how little I have forgotten of this story.  This was the first chapter I’d ever acquired of the Freemen epic, and I understand now why I invested time and effort to acquire the remainder of the McGregor & Russell installments.  We have not one, but three stories here: Killraven’s promised account of his and Old Skull’s battle with gladiator Warr (with the heart of the conflict related in nine furious word-free panels, all packed into p 30); Killraven’s first meeting with Old Skull, which features KR’s christening of OS, and provides insight to Skull’s loyalty to Killry; and, Old Skull’s look back at pain-filled moments of his past, which he recalls in inescapable detail.  Don sets this up masterfully, as he shows Old Skull’s inability to save his beloved calf, Randy (this loss hurting so profoundly that he weeps, “the kinda cryin’ where you can’t breathe”), and helplessness before the Martian attack that kills his father; but then, what happens on the last page?  Old Skull reaches over and yanks Warr away from Killraven, successfully sparing his new friend – a moment of redemption!  I always wondered (as I now recall) why OS feels compelled to intervene at that moment, and then I looked closely at the last panel on p 30, and realized: Warr has pushed Killraven back far enough that one of the arena-boundary lasers literally is licking at KR’s heel.

And yes, let’s look at the art – I have no idea how long it’s been since I last opened this comic, but there are so many moments that I recall from past reading: Old Skull shares with the hungry raccoon (p 7, last pnl); Killraven stares off and taps on the table as he tries to be patient with his old friend (p 10, pnl 8); the motorized “rawhiders,” replacing steeds (p 14); the imminent threat of the arena (p 16-17); the needlessly cruel treatment of Old Skull (p 22); wide-eyed fear as Old Skull is beset by a spider (p 26, pnl 6), and said spider laser-zapped (p 27, pnl 4); and of course, the gentle little gag at the end, as we share in the group’s surprise.  Masterful.

Greg P. of Warwick RI, in a LOC regarding AA/WotW #35, fairly observes that Don’s writing has improved, so that he’s no longer cluttering pages with captions stuffed with “overly wordy … confused and mixed metaphors.”  This observation certainly reflects fairly on this issue as well, as Don allows the characters to speak for themselves, in their own words – I went back and checked, and verified that there isn’t a single commenting-and-clarifying caption in the entire issue; nothing but dialog, conversation, storytelling. 

Mark: War of the Worlds debuted in 1973, an era when Marvel launched a lot of artistically ambitious, outside the box titles. Some deserved a much longer life, but you have to wonder how Killraven (the book's alternative title) lasted even this long. Peaking in quality around issues #28-29, the decline since has been steep. 

Our headed-for-Yellowstone-heroes end up in the Okefenokee swamp. For our geographically challenged students – Yes, Forbush, I'm eyeballing you – that's in Georgia, that's a long way from Wyoming and an apt metaphor for a creative braintrust that's lost their way. Don McGregor hasn't energy left to assault us with his prolix, Gatling gun prose. I'd accuse inker Jack Abel of butchering Craig Russell's art, but it looks like Russell did little more than breakdowns and the finished "product" – in the worst, assembly-line sense – is mostly Abel.

As for the story...sorry Old Skull's classmates and pap called our mentally-challenged, mustachioed comic foil "Numbskull," when only McGregor deserves that pejorative. All we really wanted to know about O.S. was the key to his resurrective powers, after being thoroughly murdered a few issues back. The sole highlight here - using that term loosely - is a drunken raccoon. The least I'd have settled for, this being the Okefenokee, would have been a pickled Pogo.

Poor Don, alas, couldn't roust himself enough to even offer us that.      

Astonishing Tales 36
Deathlok the Demolisher in
"Confessions of a Demolished Man!"
Story by Rich Buckler
Art by Rich Buckler and Keith Pollard
Colors by Rich Buckler
Letters by Howard Bender and Beth Beckley
Cover by Rich Buckler

The Luther Manning clone, with Deathlok's mind, tells Devereaux he's done, happy to be flesh but still linked to 'Puter, when suddenly a huge monster (courtesy of Hellinger) bursts through the wall! The mind-link alerts the cyborg Deathlok body, which rushes in and blasts the glowing monster away. As the CIA prepares the cyborg for future missions, they hand Manning a "mind-tape" in order to record some transcripts with details that could help them learn more. Hoping not to go back to what he was, meaning a cyborg, Manning proceeds, but feels he's a failed experiment.

In our second chapter, "What To Do After The Apocalypse", "a new adventure in the Deathlok future-legend", the cyborg anti-hero is on his first CIA mission, pondering his mechanical life as he makes his way to 23rd Street Station to take out some of Ryker's goons. Suddenly, a bearded poor man's Ka-Zar swings in to "save you from yourself, cyborg!" It's Godwulf, "skulker of the city's underside, and perpetrator of the Godwulf Principle" whatever the heck that means. Walking away from the meeting, Deathlok trips a wire that causes an explosion, then follows Godwulf, who sends the Demolisher…somewhere. Back at the lab, it's discovered the Deathlok replica is empty and the mind-link is broken, with Manning puzzled that he's even still alive.--Joe Tura

Joe: "A NEW beginning for the most action-packed series of all!" Oh, man there is a lot wrong with that statement. Yes, there's been lots of action, but the "most" is not an adjective I would use to describe the Deathlok saga. And yeah, it's a new beginning after the endless Ryker story, but it's the last issue, so that kinda goes right out the futuristic window!

But first, we get a Steranko-esque Buckler cover, and the insides have Buckler doing everything except hair and makeup. And what are we to make of all this craziness? I don’t really know other than Luther Manning is alive, and so is Deathlok. Are they separated, or still linked? Well, a little of both it seems. It's all slightly confusing and mysterious and downright tragic, with very good art highlighted by ultra-pensive Manning shots. This Godwulf guy mucks things up even further by not only being annoying, but also sending Deathlok away—and the Astonishing Tales series with it! Yep, this is it for this title, until 2009 when it appears as a limited series collecting webcomics starring a wide array of characters. As for Deathlok, the seemingly unexpected cancellation of his story here will go on, but not for another year. See ya in Marvel Spotlight #33, Demolisher!

What's the end result, the legacy of Astonishing Tales? Considering that it started as a Ka-Zar/Doctor Doom split book, some of which was laughable and the biggest thing that stuck with me was the Kraven issues drawn by The King, became a K-Z solo book to the detriment of many, and somehow survived the IT! The Living Colossus nonsense, it became a decent Deathlok book that I won't exactly miss, but certainly feel it brought Buckler to the creator forefront, while maybe missing its full potential.

Chris: This issue feels disjointed to me.  It’s as if Buckler had a storyline idea that had died out, perhaps unexpectedly, possibly in a tragic accident (the “Godwulf” sequence), so he took those pages – already set-up with a splash page, and credits, and such – and grafted them onto a few new pages, and brought the whole hybrid thing to life that way.  

Joshing aside, there’s really no connection between the two separate parts of the issue.  The notion that a reconstituted Luther Manning might be shunted into a data-entry job is pretty sad, both for him and for us; didn’t Ryker once say that his motivation to preserve the lifeless Manning as Deathlok was due in part to the value of Manning’s military acumen?  
Buckler throws a lot of new ideas into the mix here, and I don’t know if he had much of a chance to develop any of them.  The concept of Luther continuing to have a link to ‘puter is a good one, and the notion that he and Deathlok have a symbiotic connection also has potential (although it could reduce Deathlok to being little more than Manning’s faithful dog).  The idea of a fully-equipped Deathlok “replica” being constructed to serve as a monitoring system for the walking, talking cyborg seems excessive, and thoroughly unlikely.  I realize that this is the 1970s, but isn’t there someone keeping a watchful eye on the budgets for these creative types, already -?  
Matthew Bradley:  Absent a lettercol, internal evidence (the “new beginning” cover tag and last-page “Next:” box) suggests that the book was cancelled abruptly just as Buckler assumed greater control, writing and drawing it under his usual byline while coloring it as “The Swash.”  We’d also graduated to some nice embellishment by Pollard, with Devereaux looking almost human, yet as much as I love the character, the storyline had reached the point where I no longer knew who “Deathlock”—as it is so embarrassingly misspelled in page 2, panel 1—or Luther Manning was/were.  His next solo appearance will be nine months hence in another final issue, Marvel Spotlight #33, but I don’t think it’s a direct continuation of the threads left dangling here.

So we’re left with another Bronze-Age casualty, and one that in my considered opinion is among the sadder examples of wasted potential, only compounded by the increasing indignities heaped upon the character in years to come.  Yet having re-read the entire strip, I’m obliged to admit that despite its many strengths, not least of which was its originality, neither the writing nor the artwork was uniformly excellent.  Moreover, the amount of actual new material published over its 12-issue run demonstrates that even in a bimonthly, Buckler et alia had trouble meeting their deadlines, and if that was a major factor in its cancellation, one can hardly blame Marvel, especially at a time when, as we now know, such tardiness was a considerable financial problem.

Mark: At least the "demolished man" goes out with a twin-tale bang,  creator Rich Buckler writing and drawing 'Lok's swan-song. Intentional or not, the dual stories reflect the title's turn toward the schizophrenic. If Prof Matthew "no longer knew who 'Deathlok'...or Luther Manning was/were," he's not alone. Both characters are alive now, sharing battle-the-mysterious-baddie screen time, even though they are the same character.

think "Luther" is one of several clones, infused with his original personality, but without a careful re-reading of the last couple installments I can't be sure, and who knows about Rich? Maybe he had a long, Two-Luther identity crisis saga plotted out, or would have invented one on the fly. And what's with Godwulf, who seemed to swing in from whole 'nother mag?  I like his "My dear fellow" diction and sub-Tony Stark heart plug-ins, the Ka-Zar loincloth look, not so much.

Such questions are academic, of course, but rather than mope about the book's end, let's recognize Buckler's creation of a darkly iconic character and a ground-breaking apocalyptic vision, more nihilistic than anything yet seen in mainstream comics - William Gibson meets the Sex Pistols - if oft doled out in deadline-bustin' fits and starts.

More importantly, the series overall holds up well, forty years on. It's an exemplar of the unparalleled creative freedom at Marvel in the early '70's, when for a few years the kids really did take over the candy store.

Matthew: Hear, hear.

The Avengers 149
"The Gods and the Gang!"
Story by Steve Englehart
Art by George Perez and Sam Grainger
Colors by Hugh Paley
Letters by Tom Orzechowski
Cover by George Perez, John Romita, and Frank Giacoia

After a long time, the major characters of the Avengers (minus the continuing soap opera of Wasp and Yellowjacket, which, fortunately, Englehart doesn’t waste a single panel on) are reunited in a showdown with the evil Roxxon corporation. Thor and Moondragon arrive back in New York at around the same time that the Vision, Wanda, Beast, Cap, Iron Man, and Hellcat return from Other Earth. Cap and crew wade through the Roxxon underlings fairly easily until the giant fish of Orka smashes them all into unconsciousness with a single blow. They are about the be killed by Hugh Jones when Thor and Moondragon burst into the building.

Orka is then revealed, much larger and stronger than he has been in the past. Thor and Moondragon take him head-on, but Thor, finding Moondragon’s “prattling” too much, says that her mind blasts are not fair fighting! Orka knocks her out and Thor finally cuts loose. Moondragon had accused Thor during the last couple issues of “slumming“ with the Avengers and not using his full power. Now, calling on the lightning and using his hammer, Thor manages to subdue Orka in just a couple of pages in a furious outburst of power.

Then we cut back to the other part of the team, standing helpless and imprisoned while Jones and Baxter of Roxxon plot the best way to get rid of them. Of course they take too long and Patsy somehow frees herself and attacks Baxter, her ex-husband. Baxter manages to refer to her as a dumb broad twice on this very page but he is quickly taken care of and the remaining Avengers are freed. By the end of the issue, Iron Man knows its time for all of them to evaluate their place in the team and find a new roster. -Jerad Walters

Jerad Walters: A very good reunion of most of the major cast members. Hellcat and Baxter’s battle is decent and reveals a lot of Patsy’s character, but the big story here is Thor and the battle with Orka. Perez is in fine form throughout the issue, and the story moves forward at a brisk place. Thor’s annoyance with Moondragon turns to real concern for her when she is downed by Orka, and Thor reveals more of his powers and Godhood in a decent battle.

Joe: By far the best part of the script for me was the Thor-Moondragon bickering. Great fun, and to see Odin's son get so annoyed he says "Zounds! The woman is insufferably overbearing!" is so right on the money, I think 3/4 of all readers must have stood up and cheered! Then again, Thor gets peeved when Orka starts laughing at her, which proves he's always been about the team, as he'll stand and fight for a teammate, no matter how arrogant he or she might be. Then he goes out and kicks some blubber in what's a tour de force not only for the golden-haired Avenger, but also for Perez and Grainger, like a scene from a Ridley Scott movie. Another well done issue, down to the Eagle Eye G.I. Joe vs. The Intruder ad that follows the last page. Come on, raise your hands if you're like me and had The Intruder, with supreme hugging power!

Chris: In the thick of battle, Thor declares that he is “far, far more” than his mortal Avengers teammates, and then stops himself, thinking: “Hold! I, myself, am saying – that which Moondragon did argue!”  Well, not exactly – MD’s point was that, as a god among men, Thor has been “slumming;” there hasn’t been any question of Thor’s power being superior to that of the others.  I don’t recall that MD had indicated that Thor should rightfully employ his powers in some other way, so it’s hard to understand why she felt it necessary to raise this point in the first place; for the most part, Thor has been impatient with MD’s pretension to godhood.  Well anyway, if this is Steve E’s way to indicate that Thor’s been holding back on his powers, he’s welcome to do that – I wasn’t aware of any times that Thor had been reining himself in – were you?  

This also continues Steve’s “dyad” approach to writing Avengers stories, as the action primarily involves, yet again, two characters, with a little business toward the end involving Hellcat.  Most of the involvement by the other team members comes from George Pérez’s terrific battle scene (four pages from 3-10); otherwise, we barely get a line of dialog from Cap, Wanda, the Beast, or Iron Man, and not a single yellow-boxed comment from the Vision.  This is the best art we’ve seen in the Avengers in years, as Pérez now has established the standard that will define the look for this title (for the twenty-or-so issues we’ll get from Pérez over the next few years, that is).  We may finally have purged Colletta from these pages, but the inking subjected to us in his previous issues, sadly, cannot now be unseen.  

Chris: Hey, did anybody see a green crown around here, with snakes on it?  The Vision had it in his right hand when he got slammed by Orka, and he dropped it (P 10, pnl 4).  It’s, uh, kind of important that we keep track of it.  And, be careful not to put it on your head, okay?  You might feel really, really compelled to try it on, because it looks so cool, and you figure it’d be kind of comfortable, in a weird way, but trust me, you don’t want to do it.  Okay?  If you see it, please call me right away.  

Matthew:  Since his introduction in Sub-Mariner #23, I have identified this as the source of my retroactive soft spot for Orka, who as portrayed by Pérez/Grainger, and on the Ron Wilson cover, really comes across as a formidable foe (plus I love his color scheme).  Yet despite being sumptuous by definition, the artwork sometimes feels cramped, as the split splash page—however thematically appropriate—betokens, and overall, Englehart’s last full issue leaves me with equally mixed feelings.  Orka notwithstanding, the Serpent Crown storyline seems to end with a bit of a whimper, and I agree with Thor that Moondragon “is unsufferably overbearing,” although that’s obviously intentional; Colonel Baxter has been mysteriously demoted to Captain.

Captain Marvel 45
"The Bi-Centennial!"
Story by Steve Englehart and Al Milgrom
Art by Al Milgrom
Colors by Ellen Vartanoff
Letters by Tom Orzechowski
Cover by Al Milgrom, John Romita, and Mike Esposito

 The General who heads the underground seeking to rid Deneb IV of Null-Trons explains that after his throat was cut in battle, the only way to save his life was, ironically, to graft his human brain onto a fallen Null-Tron, and his cyborg allies are now mostly machine.  Distracted as his mind comes closer to merging with that of a comatose Rick, which would hand the Supremor his victory, Mar-Vell agrees to cooperate with a plan that the General promises will save them all.  He has his minions thrust Rick into a giant red jewel—one of six unique Soul Gems spread across the galaxy, like its emerald counterpart on Adam Warlock’s forehead—that he claims is their “gateway to freedom,” and bids a reluctant Mar-Vell to follow the teen inside.

There, they fight for control, duped into serving as proxies for the battle on Deneb’s surface, yet as the Supremor gloats over this latest phase of his plan, the General tells Rambu, the most human cyborg (who found the Gem in #41), that as a hybrid, he cares not who wins the war, only that its end will bring peace.  The armies pause as Mar-Vell and Rick realize that they risk mutual destruction, yet as the betrayed Rambu attacks the Gem, Fawn appears and asks his help to enter it and save Rick.  She informs them that their conflict is irrational and purposeless; that a victory for either side would diminish the winner; and that they will not merge unless they wish to, so—with Mar-Vell’s realization that the General tricked him—the quartet flies from the Gem. -Matthew Bradley

Matthew: Per the lettercol, “there’s a time to hang loose, and a time to tighten up…and Steve and Al have come to the conclusion that their present method of preparing these epics has gotten a little too loose.  See, Steve lives in Berkeley, and Al lives in Queens.  And so, though they run up outrageous phone bills every sixty days, they never see each other.  That, they’ve decided, has led to things getting a little out of hand when they tried to co-plot this series.  As it happens, the letters have never been rosier, so they shouldn’t care…but they do.  Thus, starting next issue, they’re going back to the traditional format of Steve handling the plotting and Al handling the artwork.”  In the event, #46 will be a one-off Claremont script (from an uncredited Engrom plot).

“Out of hand” aptly describes events of which Marv himself says, “this makes no sense,” and co-plotter Al is doubly culpable, providing art—pedestrian at best, goofy at worst—that relentlessly drags this space arc right back down to Earth.  Suffice it to say that a story tied by the presence of a Soul Gem into Starlin’s unfolding Thanos saga, which should by rights have given me a woody the size of a Null-Tron, instead left me blasé.  I wish Chris & Co. the best of luck, trying to bring this to a satisfying conclusion next issue, but in the meantime feel compelled to ask what is presumably a rhetorical question:  is it supposed to be significant that the General and Rambu appear to be Aakons, who as far as I know are not native to Deneb IV, or is it just Al’s whimsy?

Conan the Barbarian Annual 2 
“The Phoenix on the Sword!”
Story by Roy Thomas
Art by Vicente Alcazar and Yong Montano
Colors by ?
Letters by Jim Novak
Cover by Rich Buckler

A group of traitors plot the overthrow of King Conan of Aquilonia: Dion, hoping to replace the Cimmerian on the throne; Gromel, eyeing the command of the fearsome Black Dragon regiment; Volmana, seeking power and position; and the rabble-rousing minstrel Rinaldo. Behind these four stands the mastermind, Ascalante, former Count of Thune, who plots to assassinate Dion and take the crown himself. There is also Thoth-Amon, once the mightiest of all Stygian sorcerers, now Ascalante’s slave ever since his powerful serpent ring was stolen. With a few Aquilonian guards already paid off, the conspirators and a group of mercenaries will steal into Conan’s bedchambers at midnight and slay the king. Dion retreats to his castle to avoid suspicion: Ascalante orders Thoth-Amon to baby-sit the corpulent conspirator. At Dion’s residence, the fallen sorcerer bemoans the loss of his status. Dion, half listening, murmurs that he just bought a serpent-like ring from a Semitic thief. It is Thoth-Amon’s lost treasure: the enraged wizard kills Dion, places the ring on his finger and conjurers a huge, baboon-like beast, ordering it to massacre everyone found in Conan’s chambers. Meanwhile, Conan dreams of Epemitreus, the legendary mage, dead for 1500 years and once Aquilonia’s protector against Stygia — the vision touches the king’s sword and a glittering phoenix appears on the blade. When midnight strikes, Ascalante and the others burst into the room. The Cimmerian’s first strike shatters the sword Epemitreus marked, but he grabs a battleaxe and wades into his attackers. Many fall to the wide, vicious cuts but soon the king is cornered. Suddenly, Thoth-Amon’s horrifying monster arrives, quickly slaughtering all of Conan’s attackers. The monarch rushes forward but the axe bounces uselessly off the giant ape’s head. With the biting beast at his throat, the barbarian monarch desperately grasps the hilt of his shattered phoenix sword and plunges it into the baboon’s throat — the titanic terror dies in an instant, crumbling to dust. -Thomas Flynn

Tom Flynn: Since Conan the Barbarian Annual #1 was filled with reprints, this is Conan’s first all-original 33-page annual — and it has a legendary backstory. Before I tell that tale, let me mention that there’s some confusion about when this annual came out. Some say June, others argue July. Most don’t care. We flipped a coin. Mind you, it was an official MU two-bit “In The Dean We Trust” ducat, so nothing was taken lightly. 

Matthew:  Okay, I'm confused.  As a non-Cimmerian reader, I have no dog in the Conan fight per se.  But it was my understanding, based on my extensive research and lengthy discussions with our august Dean, that we would most reliably (and consistently) date the annuals by matching their Bullpen Pages with those in the monthly issues, which here suggests publication in neither June nor July but September.  (The confusion may stem from the fact that issues cover-dated September would likely go on sale in June.)  In this particular case, there is additional primary evidence that would seem incontrovertible.  The September Bullpen Page--which persists in referring to this, as with so many of the resurgent annuals, as Giant-Size Conan--lists it among "the [annuals] we're publishing this month."  I demand a meeting of the Curriculum Committee!

Tom: Anyways, way back in 1930, Robert E. Howard submitted his first King Kull tale, “By This Axe I Rule,” to Weird Tales. While it was rejected, the magazine’s editor, Farnsworth Wright, was kind enough to point out that the story did have promise and to give it another try. The persistent Howard took the advice to heart and reworked — or as Raymond Chandler put it, cannibalized  — “By This Axe I Rule” to create his first Conan story, “The Phoenix on the Sword.” But that’s not the end. Now, nearly six decades later, Roy Thomas puts his own spin on Howard history. You see, Roy based Kull the Destroyer #11 on “By This Axe I Rule.” And here he serves up the more successful baby brother, “The Phoenix on the Sword.” Talk about being comprehensive. Roy Rules. As this annual takes place years from where the monthly Conan the Barbarian is set, there are three prologue pages illustrated by John Buscema and inked by Yong Montano, who did the entire annual, that give a well-done overview of Conan’s entire life. Vicente Alcazar does a serviceable job with the main story: he shows a bit of style but is quite inconsistent. Of course, we finally have a flesh-and-blood appearance by Thoth-Amon, Conan’s Doctor Doom. Not very impressed by Alcazar’s interpretation: he looks like a monk with a craggy face and a ring through his nose. But he was fairly powerless for the most part. Too bad Big John didn’t handle the entire job. I’m sure he would have come up with something closer to the frightening visage Barry Smith dreamed up for Conan the Barbarian #7 (July 1971).

Conan the Barbarian 64 
“The Secret of Skull River!”
Story by Roy Thomas
Art by Jim Starlin and Al Milgrom
Cover by John Buscema and Mike Esposito

Tom Flynn: Let’s have the Apologia on the splash page do the work for me here: “Due to personal considerations, inker Steve Gan was unable at the last possible moment to deliver our cover-featured story on time for this issue. Thus, making our usual virtue of necessity, we’re taking this opportunity to re-present a tale never before printed in color, and which originally appeared in Savage Tales #5. (P.S. for you chronology buffs, this mini-epic occurs between the events recorded in Conan #44–45.” — R. T.

(Tom's original review of this story can be found here.)

A Conan fan reacts to the news
of the missed deadline 
Chris: Bad news: Steve Gan hasn’t finished his inks for the July issue, so we’ll need a last-minute fill-in. Good news: there’s an 18-page story we can lift from a b&w mag and add color, featuring art by Jim Starlin. Well – all right, then!

Once again, Starlin demonstrates that he’s more than a simple crafter of cosmic chronicles. It’s hard to believe that many other artists could realize the Cimmerian as well as the masters Windsor-Smith and Buscema, but with Starlin, all things are possible.

I realize that Prof Tom already has graced us with his insights regarding this story, so I’ll briefly mention a few of my favorite art-moments: Conan’s stealthy approach to the castle (p 15); a palace guard disappears from behind Anaximander (cool name!), to be replaced by the glowering barbarian (p 23); a rage-filled, doomed Grandall flattens a soldier (p 26); and a shadowed, dead Grandall, with bodies of his opponents piled on his back. Nice little twist at the end, too, as Conan grabs the mount “worth riding twice.”

Captain America Annual 3
"The Thing From the Black Hole Star!"
Story by Jack Kirby
Art by Jack Kirby and John Verpoorten
Colors by Janice Cohen
Letters by Gaspar Saladino
Cover by Jack Kirby and Frank Giacoia

While investigating a crashed spaceship with local farmer Jim Hendricks, Cap is attacked by a weird alien creature. Hendricks finds a laser gun and fires, stunning the monster. However, shortly thereafter, it vanishes. Apparently Cap was on a local TV show talking about UFO’s when Hendricks saw it and worked up the nerve to call him down to check out the craft in his field. He tells of how the ship landed and the pilot told him he was from a “Black Hole Star.” Cap is stunned to learn the pilot is at the Hendricks farm at that very moment. Meanwhile, another ship is looking for this alien, this “captive” as they call him, and each time they send down someone to collect him, they meet with defeat. They send down the “combatron” to “sweep the humans aside” and bring the exiled captive back.  At the farm, Cap unmasks the captive and sees he’s humanoid. The alien explains he was imprisoned in the black hole and that it took a million years for him to escape. Just as they’re trying to puzzle that one out, Cap and Hendricks hear the sound of another craft landing: the combatron has arrived. After a lengthy battle, they manage to defeat the combatron, so the aliens send down a landing force. As the landing party descends, Cap sends Hendricks and the captive to the downed spaceship to mount a defense. Once there, Hendricks tries to get a laser cannon to work, but the captive goes on about how Hendricks is a prime source of energy. Cap battles the landing force and makes his way to the spaceship. The captive is different now, stronger, and stranger. He tells Cap that Hendricks is below decks. Cap goes to find him and is met with a dried, empty husk. The captive is revealed to be an energy parasite. Cap fights the captive even as his own energy becomes depleted, finally defeating him long enough for the aliens to take him away. They launch him into a star just as it goes nova. Later, Cap tries to tell his tale to the government, but the officials downplay it to keep the population from panicking. -Scott McIntyre

Scott McIntyre: A really creepy and fairly exciting tale, better drawn than what Kirby was giving us in the monthly. Cap seems like an odd choice to give a story like this, but it gets downright scary in the last half. Jack knew how to draw terrifying creatures better than anyone and that skill is well utilized in this. As with the monthly, this is disconnected from the rest of the Marvel Universe, so much that even the Falcon is absent. It’s actually strange to have the General at the end mention the Kree, the Skrulls and Thor. Aside from that, there’s very little to this. “Kirby Science” gives us “black hole stars” that can be used as prisons. Interesting. Fun, action packed and not boring. I guess that’s kind of a minor miracle. This was my first taste of 70’s Kirby as a kid and I liked it well enough then. I still have that battered issue around somewhere.

Chris: The notion of earthlings misinterpreting intentions of aliens certainly wasn’t a new idea circa mid-1970s, but it is a different sort of concept to present in an issue of CA.  Jack makes a very good choice as he elects to open the issue with Cap and Farmer Jim already wrasslin’ with an alien enforcer; thankfully, we’re spared a few pages of Cap answering questions about UFOs on the local public access, and Jim leaning forward in his seat to exclaim, “Now there’s a man who could help me -!”

I was a bit distracted by the rare employment of Cap’s invaluable shield throughout the story; he tends to swing it around, but for the most part he keeps it on his arm.  It’s only toward the end that he uses the shield as an offensive force, and frankly, it’s not at all clear how his clanging of the Captive with the shield at that moment proves to be so decisive.  I also wonder why it was necessary to send the Captive spiraling across the galaxy to bury him in a sun (hey guys – we’ve got a perfectly well-functioning solar furnace right here; granted, it’s 93 million miles away, but you can see it from here), until I realized that Jack wanted the Captive to go up in a supernova.  Well, I guess there isn’t much of a chance of this villain resurfacing someday, with a half-baked story about how he had been blown clear by the force of the nova itself… 

Matthew: Unlike some of the year’s best resurgent annuals, this has no konnection with Kirby’s koncurrent kontinuity in the monthly mag…and that’s ironic, since said Bicentennial epic itself has nothing to do with the mainstream Marvel Universe.  So just think of this as a hermetically sealed kapsule of Kirby kraziness, with nary a recognizable face besides Cap himself.  His first non-reprint annual isn’t terrible, but at twice the length of a regular issue, this fairly simple Space Vampires/“Zanti Misfits” variant is stretched pretty thin; the “shocking” revelation on page 31—which even the object of the exercise should have seen coming—is plastered on the front; and its “Look to the stars!” capper is shamelessly pilfered from The Thing.

Captain America and the Falcon 199
"The Man Who Sold the United States"
Story by Jack Kirby
Art by Jack Kirby, Frank Giacoia, and Mike Esposito
Colors by Phil Rachelson
Letters by Gaspar Saladino
Cover by Jack Kirby and Frank Giacoia

Cap is inspecting the old mansion in advance of a vital SHIELD operation to capture Mason Harding, father of the Madbomb. A trio of assassins lies in wait, but just as they are about to get the jump on him, Cap springs into action. He dodges bullets as if they weren’t there. The Falcon lends a hand, making quick work of the gunsels. As the SHIELD boys mop up, Cap looks in on Harding’s daughter, Carol. She knows her father has done awful things and SHIELD is here to take him, but she feels no malice toward Captain America, a man of fairness and honor. At the moment, however, neither of them is aware that Harding is being held under restraint by Malcolm Taurey, orchestrator of the conspiracy.  He tells Harding of what is going on at the house and that the agents and the heroes will be met by a car driven by remote and armed to detonate. Harding is aghast over the danger to his daughter, but Taurey will hear none of it – he has a ball to attend.  Taken to a room by two toughs, Harding uses a micro-Madbomb on them, causing them to freak out. They turn on each other, one guard killing the other. Harding takes the gun from the fallen guard and fires on the remaining tough. The guard falls and Harding makes good his escape. A short time later, Cap awaits Harding’s car and when it finally appears to arrive, he goes to intercept. The Falcon, who has been trailing the car, knows it’s a set up and grabs Cap seconds before the auto detonates. Later, over cups of coffee, Cap and Falcon contemplate their next move when Harding arrives. He tells them of his meeting the conspirators and how they seduced him. Knowing they will accelerate their plan, he gives Cap and Falc the small, palm sized Madbomb as a sonic weapon to get them through enemy lines in time. Meanwhile, at the ball, Taurey makes the final decision: activate “Big Daddy!” -Scott McIntyre

Scott: We lurch toward a conclusion to this massive yet meandering arc, with so few developed characters to get a hold of. Cap and the Falcon are light years removed from the personalities provide by all previous writers; Dr. Harding is your typical misguided professor whose invention fell into the wrong hands;  Carol is just the reason for his “Selling of the US”;  Malcolm Taurey is nothing more than a wacko in a George Washington wig and the SHIELD agents all remain anonymous. The dialog remains weirdly stilted and out of date while the art is even more wonky than previously seen. Yet, for some reason, I refuse to hate this. It’s so bad it’s good. Well, okay, maybe not “good,” but it’s goofy fun, easier to take 40 years after it was done than at the time, I presume. These stories came on the heels of a mostly really good run of envelope pushing epics, so readers expecting a return to the golden years must have been, at best, confused at the turn of events.  Yet, no matter how bizarre this all gets, I still prefer it to anything drawn by Frank Robbins. Next issue brings this all to a conclusion, but the fun is far from over. Assuming any of you consider this fun…

Mark: It's clear that last month's "Love Story" was really an "I Like You As a Terminally-Ill Friend" story, and a good thing, that. Latter day Kirby is as subtle as a flying mallet (extra credit for any retro-rockers who grok the Dave Edmunds reference), and the tangled tug of heart strings was never Jack's forte (yeah, I know Simon and Kirby invented romance comics, but all the mushy stuff came from Joe).

As the Mad-Bomb saga ticks down to the Bicentennial Big Bam Boom, Kirby is in his wide screen, double page, Cap-somersaulting-through-gunfire wheelhouse. Come on, who else but the King could pull off an interior splash featuring the hero's boots

Matthew: With just one month to go, Kirby’s meandering Madbomb arc isn’t quite as interminable as I’d remembered, but it still isn’t very good.  The obligatory two-page spread following the splash has worn out its welcome, especially squandered here on a fairly prosaic shot of Cap evading some thugs, and Jack’s tin ear for dialogue is much in evidence, most notably with the Falcon’s non sequitur about ghetto life.  There probably wasn’t much Giacoia could have done to prevent said thugs from looking like Cro-Magnon men, or Carol’s Silly Putty face in page 10, panel 4, yet he otherwise remains one of Kirby’s more reliable inkers, and if you squint you can just about convince yourself you’re looking at some vintage Silver-Age Cap yarn.

Chris: I love Jack Kirby!  I love the exuberance he brings to his art!  I never get tired of it!  Although, I’m not a big fan of his writing (I realize I’m not the first to express this opinion!)!  I wish he would dispense with the needless captions, forget the wisecracking, and overall tone it down a bit!  I realize that, way back in the Silver Age, Smilin’ Stan tended to end his lines with exclamation points, due in part to the way that printing processes of the time made periods hard to read on the page!  But now, this measure really isn’t necessary!  It gets old!  It simply isn’t possible for every spoken line to require a jolt at the end!  

Okay, I realize that Jack gets flak over his writing, but let me say this – I think that his stories, for the most part, are fine bits of comics stuff.  The problem lies in Jack having secured the role of both writer and editor; if he had had a co-plotter, or at least a scripter to bring his ideas to the page, I think these Cap adventures would’ve been easier to read.  But I’m sure Jack had arranged for complete creative control as a condition of his return to Marvel, so we’ll simply have to deal with it on its own terms.  
I bought this issue and CAatF #200 on the same day (more flea market Marvels!), and I thought I’d lucked into a big score.  As I re-read it, I decided you could take the clunky dialog and translate it to Swahili for all I care – the visuals are great, with a few cracklin’-good moments, especially the dummy-car explosion (p 22-23).  I also love the mini-madbomb (p 14) – crazy idea.  A few other images stuck with me, particularly the square-off by the mind-bombed guards (p 15).  

Mark: Hambone line of the month: Cap telling Carol Harding, whose father created a weapon that could destroy America, "...your dad's made the boo-boo of all time!" This month's nod to modernity: one of the elite's gunsels had a Beatles' mop-top and teashades.

"Big-Daddy" is set to explode, no doubt on July 4th, and I hand-on-heart believe Jack's pledge of "Action! Action! ACTION!" as Cap and the Falcon rout the powdered-wig poofsters of the elite to save the Republic, and all in Red, White, and Blue KirbyVision!

Daredevil 135
"What is Happening?"
Story by Marv Wolfman
Art by Bob Brown and Jim Mooney
Colors by Michele Wolfman
Letters by Joe Rosen
Cover by Rich Buckler and Frank Giacoia

A Daily Bugle special edition confronts the recent controversy over unsubstantiated news stories that have been broadcast over network TV.  Network anchors are quoted in the paper as never having reported that the Kennedy brothers had been seen alive, that the war in Vietnam was a fake, that US forces presently were fighting a covert war in the Middle East, or that Daredevil had murdered three policemen (among other stories); nevertheless, people around the country are stating that they heard these very reports on the TV news.  The Bugle also features as story about a motley-clad man calling himself the Jester, who claims that DD had framed him, and tried to kill him.  Matt doesn’t want to hear any more, as he pulls the paper out of Heather’s hands.  He starts to describe the circumstances of his previous encounter with the Jester, but stops himself in time, as he recognizes that these events are part of Daredevil’s history, not his own.  Matt resolves to trace these phony, sensationalistic reports to their source, and employs his hypersenses to follow an out-of-sync radio wave to a warehouse by the west side piers.  DD crashes thru the skylight, to find the Jester dead on the floor, with the NYPD already on the scene; DD resists being taken in as a suspect, but finally relents.  Once he is ushered in the office of D.A. Tower, both men relax – they have secretly been working together to try to flush out the Jester’s plan to frame DD.  Tower goes along with DD’s suspicion that the dead body is not the Jester, but announces that DD is under arrest for the murder, so that they might uncover the Jester’s next move.  DD is checked into his jail cell; moments after his arrival, grappling hooks (suspended from a helicopter above) swing into his cell thru the open bars and yank free a section of the outer wall.  DD is climbing to safety, when his line is severed, and he plunges into the water below.  As DD climbs back to shore, he sees the Jester before him, claiming credit for having foiled DD’s attempt to escape from jail. -Chris Blake

 Chris: The nifty box on the bottom of the last page reads, “Confused, pilgrim?” to which I say, “Why, yes!”  The only possible explanation for the sequence playing out over the last few pages is that some other person might’ve been admitted to the cell, wearing DD duds.  I can say this with some confidence, since this DD’s speech pattern isn’t consistent with the verbiage we typically get from Matt Murdock J.D. Could the Jester have gone the extra step of planting a prisoner, who then would appear to attempt to escape?  Well, based on the way this story’s playing out, I don’t see how we could dismiss that as a possibility just yet -!
I’m pleased to report that Marv has come a long, long way with this title.  The problems I complained about in Marv’s early stories have largely been cleared away; this story is cleansed of the stupid banter and needless self-doubts that are no part of Daredevil’s character.  As I review some of the recent issues, I see how Marv’s been looking at traits that are consistent for DD: in #127, DD loses himself to anger in the house-wrecking fight with Torpedo; in #129, DD is wise enough to recognize not to continue a fruitless fight; in #131-132, DD is clever and resourceful enough to use his hypersenses to their best advantage in his battle with Bullseye, as he can protect himself against flung objects that a sighted person might not be able to pick up.  Against the Jester, DD is using his well-trained mind to think this through, and formulate a plan to snare the Jester, since brute force and fighting skill alone will not accomplish DD’s goals of clearing himself and exposing the Jester’s misleading machinations.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the opening few pages, especially pages 2-3, which are intended to resemble the first two interior pages of the Bugle.  There are seven different articles, set in type on the page, all dealing in one way or another with the fraudulent news stories; there’s also a short editorial from JJJ himself, fanning the flame of the threat of the superhero (what else), and even a bit of Page 6 cheesecake, as a lovely young thing stretched out on an Australian beach asks, “What, me worry?”  Complementing the stories are b&w images by Brown and Mooney, meant to resemble news photos; one of them, quite cleverly, is credited to “P. Parker, Photographer.”  I don’t know whether Marv came up with this on his own, or whether Brown might have proposed it (future lettercols might shed light on this question), but either way, it’s an inventive bit of storytelling, and quite unusual for its time.  
Matthew: The climax obviously and intentionally leaves a lot of questions unanswered, but despite its inevitable “work in progress” feeling, I really like this (except for the excruciating “July 4th, 1776” exchange on page 23).  Marv finally brings to the front burner the Jester/media manipulation subplot that’s been simmering for so long, and although I’m sure we’ve had mock-headline splashes before, this three-page Brown/Mooney extravaganza is not only a useful recap but also an artistic tour de force.  Its attention to detail is commendable, with the tabloid-worthy cheesecake, file photo of the Jester by “P. Parker,” Foggy Nelson article by Jake Conover, and JJJ’s pitch-perfect editorial, calling upon the government to probe all “so-called ‘super-heroes.’”

The Defenders 37
"Evil in Bloom!"
Story by Steve Gerber
Art by Sal Buscema and Klaus Janson
Colors by Don Warfield
Letters by Ray Holloway
Cover by Gil Kane and Mike Esposito

A skirmish with the local law enforcement finds a disgusted Hulk fleeing for peace. Jack Norriss overhears, and seeks the help of the other Defenders,  not knowing Nighthawk, Stephen and the Red Guardian are close by, prisoners of Plantman's giant dandelion. Jack calls upon Luke Cage for assistance. In the meantime Dr. Strange's magic has worked.  He and Red are free, sending Kyle to the hospital to complete his recovery. The combined attack of these two and reinforcements sends Plantman running for cover, although soon Nebulon's minions are blasting the super duo into unconscious. -Jim Barwise

Jim Barwise: A fairly average tale as they go nonetheless has its moments.  I like the giant spores that take Red and Stephen for a ride! Eel and Porcupine? As silly as they sound. The Hulk's temper? You get it.

Chris: Steve G continues to keep the big ball rolling; I feel like I’ve been saying something like this about every one of the past 3-4 issues.  It’s not like we’re in a holding pattern – it’s just that, with different team members working on separate problems, each story thread can only advance a short distance each issue.  I agree with the idea of sending off the Hulk for awhile – in its way, it’s true to Hulk’s character that his patience with the topsy-turvy world of the Defenders would wear thin from time to time.  Plus, if he’s going to be away from the non-team, he should have a chance to catch some rest and drift back into Banner-mode for awhile.  We all need some rest from time to time, even those of us who are the Strongest One There Is.  

Matthew: Naturally, it’s all relative at the moment, but Gerber seems to have cranked the weirdness factor down a notch in this entry in favor of some more straightforward advancement of the plot in certain areas, e.g., Luke Cage’s quasi-Defender status, the effects of Celestial Mind Control on lower-tier super-villains, and Kyle’s reassembly.  I don’t recall for sure, but I suspect that Stephen’s periodic problems with his powers and the Hulk’s unusual volatility—even by his hair-trigger standards—are due to the subtle mental manipulation they underwent at Nagan’s hands a couple issues back.  Steve pays the merest lip service to Val’s incarceration; meanwhile, Janson’s inks are more oppressive than ever, comparable to applying sandpaper to your eyeballs.

Doctor Strange 16
"Beelzebub on Parade!"
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

Dr. Strange and Clea find themselves in Hell... literally. Satan (or Lucifer, or whatever we wish to call him) has taken advantage of Stephen's guilt and sense of failure for recent events. The Dark Lord whisks Clea away,  and Stephen struggles with his own madness. The recent evil spell of Dracula, thought overcome, rears its head. As Strange recognizes he must take hold of his own darkness, he falls for many tricks. He sees Mother Earth and Baron Mordo, to name a few. Above ground, Wong seeks the aid of Stephen's guests Rama Kaliph and Lord Phyffe. They perform an exorcism that fails as such, but succeeds in restoring Stephen's faith. He realizes he need not fight Satan on his terms, for on those grounds Strange could not succeed. By disallowing the evil in himself, he and Clea can leave, cognizant of the failures we all must face, and how we can help one another move beyond them.
-Jim Barwise

Jim: Perhaps what makes Steve Englehart's Dr. Strange such an amazing comic is the writer's ability to embrace impossible challenges and find a way to overcome them. Unlike many titles, it doesn't assume forgone victories by some last ditch new power (as my favourite Thor might). Essentially a tour of torture through Stephen's soul, this issue ended disappointingly quickly, but entirely satisfactorily. Still my clear frontrunner for the best title of the seventies. Now I may have to hide from the wrath of my Asgardian friends for saying that...

Mark: Gene and Tom conjuring up their usual graphic sorcery? Check. The expected erudite script from Englehart? Yep, and with the Great Deceiver (cue Church Lady) Sa-tan! as adversary one would expect eye (of Agamotto) popping sparks and spells, but for all the brimstone flyin' and Mordos drowning, the amulet still slumbers.

Oh, there's nice bits, as when Strange sprouts fangs – thanks to his recent Count Drac encounter – and almost feasts upon a bloated green (actual) goblin, crucified upside down in one of 'Zebub's B-B-Q pits. And I love Colan's devil, the long Count Orlok face, yellow eyes ablaze, aquiline nose jutting out like another of his twisted-fangs, but...

Matthew: Effective with this month’s Howard the Duck, Colan is now (briefly) working with both of my “Two Steves,” Englehart and Gerber, on books to which he is eminently suited.  And “effective” is definitely the operative word:  unlike with the action-figure versions of Satan we’ve seen in other Marvel strips, you can practically smell the brimstone wafting from Gene’s splash-page rendition, aided and abetted by inker/colorist Palmer.  I’m not sure why I should find Satan’s presence so jarring in a milieu as routinely full of supernatural foes as this one, but I do, perhaps because such a specifically Abrahamic concept doesn’t necessarily mesh with Eternity et al.; I was also nonplussed by the alleged need for an exorcism with no apparent possession afoot.

Chris: It’s a fairly satisfying issue, for a number of reasons: the story’s fairly straightforward, without the abundance of cosmic concepts that have made the point of some of Doc’s recent outings a little challenging, shall we say, for me to grasp; it’s a one-and-done with Satan, a break from the recent trend of three-four parters – it was better for Steve E to allow Doc to see Satan for what he is, and close the gates of hell behind him, rather than pile layers upon layers for a story like this; and most notably, the art is off the charts, as Gene & Tom give us lapping flame-waves, towers that reach to infinity, and best of all, some nifty views of a leering, craggy, mist-shrouded lord of the underground (as contrasted with the straight-forward, clearly-defined depictions of Satan we’ve seen in some other Marvel mags recently), the headshot on p 11, pnl 1 (with tongues of flame leaking from his eye-sockets!) being the image I remember most clearly.  Brrrr!

Mark: We get Strange fighting illusions. Mordo trotted out again, only to be quickly dispatched. Hot on the heels of End of the World II, Eternity and Dormammu, the title (and the reader) may well be suffering from Spectacle Overload. 

Our creative team ain't mailing it in. You can see 'em working hard, but all the huff 'n' puff leads us nowhere. The put-on-a-happy-face escape from Hell left me with the taste, not of brimstone, but of saccharine. 

You wanna go that route, Steve, I prefer ruby slippers.

The Eternals 1
"The Day of the Gods"
Story by Jack Kirby
Art by Jack Kirby and John Verpoorten
Colors by Glynis Wein
Letters by Gaspar Saladino
Cover by Jack Kirby and Frank Giacoia

Far beneath the Andes, a trio of explorers search for evidence of a greater species, that of the ancient Space-Gods. Incredible, huge artifacts are very quickly stumbled onto by Ike Harris, Professor Damian, and his daughter Margo. But was it happenstance? Margo and her father, slowly but surely, become convinced otherwise as their companion, the mysterious Ike seems to know exactly the right buttons to push. Eventually, Ike reveals that he is actually an Eternal known as Ikaris. He further explains that, millennia before, three species were created by the Space-Gods: the Deviants (low lifers who dwell below the surface of Earth), the Humans ("destined to inherit the Earth"), and the Eternals ("immune to time and death"). Now Ikaris has come to this cavern to search for the "Cosmic Beacon," a homing signal for the Gods. Meanwhile, a pack of Deviants, led by Kro, races to the temple to thwart the efforts of Ikaris. They arrive too late and cannot stop the impending arrival of the Space-Gods.
-Peter Enfantino

Peter: If you analyze my synopsis very carefully, you'll see that I have no idea what I just read. I never went in for these big cosmic sagas (didn't buy Cap Marbles, Warlock, or any of Jack Kirby's loony 1970s titles) when I was a kid and have even less patience for them now. My idea of a great science fiction epic is Them! or The Slime People not 2001 or Silent Running. A cerebral chap I ain't. So, having not read this title, I'm in the dark on several questions that may get answered in successive issues. Why is Ikaris attempting to draw the gods to the temple and why would the Gods need a signal? Why would Ike Harris have to involve Professor Damian (and his really bad shorts) and his transgender daughter, Margo in this exploration? If he knew where everything was, why make such a mystery of it? And where has he been hanging out lately? Did he just fly in from Asgard or wherever and look the Damians up under "Ancient Civilization Explorers" in the yellow pages?  Where did Kro get those fabulous sun glasses (I love how Kirby has the warrior take them off during battle and hold them in one huge fist as if to keep them from damage)? Do the Deviants have shopping malls? When Ikaris doffs his shades and baseball cap, Kirby notes that the Eternal is graced with "the features which mark his kind." Since the guy looks like the perfect Arian to me, could there be something sinister lurking in Kirby's subtext? It's been noted by more intelligent MU professors than myself that Kirby was hardly a good scripter (this one reads as though "The King" had his eyes closed and was randomly hitting the keys) but his pretty pitchers more than made up for the lack of a story. There are plenty of awe-inspiring sights to drink in here (especially those first few pages which unveil the artifacts inside the temple) but I'm not sure that will keep me attentive through a further 18 pages of Von Daniken-inspired drivel.

Matthew: This is one of those books I bought by rote and don’t recall ever growing to love; in retrospect, it’s antithetical to the whole Bronze-Age spirit.  Kirby gives us “Ike Harris” and “Tode,” in the grand tradition of “Taurey” and “Heshin,” while Verpoorten’s squeaky-clean inks provide an unfettered view of all the spectacle (including a two-page spread in seeming anticipation of the Space Jockey from Alien) that would feel right at home in a Michael Bay CGI crowd-pleaser.  The first issue is like a big, dopey St. Bernard that bounds into the room, barks happily at top volume, and knocks everything off the coffee table with its mighty tail.  You can’t really get mad at it, so you just sort of give it a dog bone and hope for the best.  Down, King, sit!

Kirby’s inaugural “Eternal Utterings” lettercol is the first time I remember him ever addressing the reader directly.  “With the daily accumulation of new artifacts all over the globe, and the simultaneous input of UFO ‘flapology’ [defined by Charles Hatfield in an Eternals overview for Jack Kirby Collector as “pseudoscientific fantasizing”] on a worldwide scale, humankind is straining its ‘group memory’ to dredge up a proper picture of the ancient past, in order to deal with the provocative incidents of contemporary issue.  The compelling quality inherent in this type of theme has led me to project its mystifying questions into comic magazine storytelling.”  For those interested, SuperMegaMonkey also provides a useful series overview on his main blog.

Mark: Kirby can still conjure Big Spectacle – here a double page spread of "cyclopean grandeur" – with all his considerable power, and the various groovy ghoulies and "deviants," the underwater cities, spacecraft, and battling cavemen, all pop with Jack's exuberant high-energy.

The humans and Eternal Ikaris a.k.a. Ike Harris, it must be said, are less attractive, save for Margo, who Jack has endowed with an impressive figure and, thankfully, less than a meat platter-sized face. 

Chris: Kirby finally delivers a Marvel-version of The New Gods – well, sort of.  There is some similarity to that other super-team, as the Eternals arrive with a ready-made anti-group, the Deviants; but, Brother Tode is more Jabba the Hut than he is Darth Vader – there isn’t a Darkseid in the whole bunch.  Jack will keep this team insulated from the Marvel mythos, for the most part, which means they won’t ever develop the same staying-power as their DC counterparts; the Celestial-based story leading up to Thor #300 is by far the most we’ll see of Ikaris & Co outside of the pages of their own title.  

For now, Jack introduces a fair amount of excitement and mystery to his kick-off story.  The cold opening is the right idea, as we share in the explorers’ excitement at their discovery.  The stone idols are quite impressive, as Kirby infuses the visuals with sufficient scale and weight.  As always, there’s plenty of classic-Kirby energy-bristling.  

It’s not entirely clear to me why Ikaris is so intent on locating the Celestial beacon; it’s not as if he had to activate it – it seems to have turned itself on.  So, why is it on now?  Was it automatically triggered by some other earth-bound event, or something?  Hopefully, Jack will fill us in some more as we go along.  

Mark: That we know very little about "Ike," Margo, or her dad thus far means we care little about them. No distinct personalities on display, let alone the quirks, problems, or hang-ups that give Marvel's best characters their juice. Jack's boundless creativity, no longer harnessed to Stan's humor and humanity, is all about epic scale, grand clashes of Good vs. Evil, rendered in broad, billboard-sized strokes, and it can still stir the blood, so long as you're not looking for subtlety, nuance, characterization. 

You want Gods and Monsters? Kirby is still King.

Flesh and blood humans on the other, square-fingered hand...

Howard the Duck 4
"The Sleep... of the Just!"
Story by Steve Gerber
Art by Gene Colan and Steve Leialoha
Colors by Michele Wolfman
Letters by Annette Kawecki
Cover by Gene Colan and Steve Leialoha

Howard’s late-night reading is interrupted by a steady hammering on the ceiling; Howard cinches his robe and stamps off to the apartment above.  There, he finds Bev’s upstairs neighbor, Paul Same, pounding on his floor – sound asleep; Howard has to pop him to get the kid to snap out of it.  Paul identifies himself as a frustrated painter; his inability to finish his projects ties into his overall ineffectual nature.  Paul tells Howard and Bev how, since around age 10, he’s been able to doze off whenever he’s affronted by intense emotions.  Howard berates Paul for his self-pity, and slaps his webbed feet back down the stairs.  Bev asks whether Howard might’ve come down too hard on the fragile artist.  Howard’s thoughts get caught up in Paul’s issues, and the problems faced by all hairless apes as they try to play “by this world’s nutty rules,” until Howard’s musings serve as their own barrier to his rest; he pads out to clear his head.  Meanwhile, on a deserted Cleveland street, an old lady is accosted by a mugger.  Suddenly – a man clad in a nightshirt, with a cap on his head and a kerchief across his face, interrupts the would-be robber, and chases him off with a roman candle.  At Joe’s Bar, Howard’s reverie is broken as a drunken bar-fight erupts around him.  The nightshirted fellow, calling himself Winky-Man, arrives, and busts up the fight with a combination of threats and verse.  Howard recognizes Winky-Man as Paul, and pulls him from the crowd, so he can wake him up; Winky-Man only appears when Paul is asleep, presumably dreaming.  Howard speculates this could be a manifestation of Paul’s need to circumvent his powerlessness – as Winky-Man, Paul is safe to conduct himself in the forthright and assertive manner he wishes he could project during his waking hours.  In the weeks following the onset of Winky-Man’s appearances, Howard notices Paul’s attitude has improved, his apartment is orderly, and enough of his paintings now are completed that he finally is able to present them to the public.  At the showing, Paul’s work is belittled by a local critic, Xavier Couture, who dismisses Paul’s work as “passé” and “junk.”  Howard notices as Paul’s brittle confidence begins to unravel, along with his consciousness, and takes swift action: he leads Paul to a couch, as he falls to sleep.  Soon after, a sleepwalking Paul is able to confront Couture, and put him in his place – in part, by snapping off Couture’s well-guarded wig.  Couture employs quick thinking of his own – as a face-saving measure, he pretends (for the benefit of the attending artgoers) that he and Paul had planned this exposure as a bit of performance art; in the process, Paul sees himself as accepted by the culture crowd.  Howard is relieved that Paul didn’t have to yank the rug from a woman critic’s head. -Chris Blake
Chris: So, after the violence and social commentary in HtD #3, Steve G sets his boat back on the comedy course. Paul’s predicament, and Howard’s treatment of it, are all handled in a gently goofy way – no harm done to anyone.  We are missing the outright comics-parody in this issue, though – no spoofing of the storytelling styles that we’ve come to expect with non-feathered adventurers like Conan, Killraven, or Shang-Chi.  Instead, Steve G introduces a new character in Paul, while we see Howard continue to develop into a less-than-reluctant hero.  I chose to omit any description of Steve G’s account of Paul’s childhood difficulties; I think Steve already has dipped into this well a few times too many – gratefully, Paul’s life story only takes a page or two, and not half of the issue – and, no text pages.  
Who would’ve thought that the same artist who has pushed the limits of reality in Doctor Strange, and chilled our blood in Tomb of Dracula, then could pile on the silliness for Howard the Duck?  Well, since we’re talking about Gentleman Gene Colan, we have proof yet again that – much like Big John Buscema in HtD #3 – we have an artist who can Do It All.  Highlights include: Howard the Nightmare Duck (above); Paul’s “rampaging colossus” power-dream, featuring him lifting cars and men as he stomps down the street (below); and the indignity to Howard of being caught between the two brawling drunks (far below).  
Okay, last thing to mention is that the letters page kicks off the “Howard for President” campaign, which will give Steve G ample opportunity for some fun in the coming months.  Vote Howard!

Matthew: Stability breaks out in the form of the Gerber/Colan team, whose almost-unbroken run will last nearly as long as the book itself, bolstered by Leialoha through #13; to me, and Brunner notwithstanding, HTD is one of Gene’s signature characters, like DD, Doc, and Drac.  This issue’s other milestone is the lettercol announcement, “in this Bicentennial bummer of a year,” that Marvel is drafting him as a Presidential candidate, with Gerber actually selling “Get Down America!” campaign buttons, via Mad Genius Associates, for a buck apiece.  As for the story at hand, it’s a typical HTD outing with our waterfowl in fine form, Steve’s trademark social satire, and the Dean [Gene, not august] showing right out of the gate that his shadowy style is a perfect match.

Mark: Gene Colan arrives for a long, web-footed residency on Howard, and Steve Gerber eschews genre send-ups, instead offering that off-script rarity, a genuinely sweet tale, with about as "happy" an ending as the Gerb on his most outré titles was likely to offer. 

Somnambulist Paul Same's frustrated-artist creativity starts to flow when his nightshirted, roman candle-wielding alter-ego Winky-Man emerges, delivering street justice and second degree burns, but perhaps it's the sublime Ms. Switzler who's inspiring Paul to complete his series of female nudes.

Elsewhere we get Bev in a negligee (thanks, Gene!). Howard reading Hegel, slammed bill first into a bar by a drunk (who's actually defending him), and rendered as a nightmare demon (Colan sharpening his TOD chops?). 

As the cherry atop our sleep-walker's sundae, what red-blooded thirteen year old Marvel maniac doesn't pant for an art critic takedown? Gerber leaves some of my esteemed colleagues scratching their noggins, but even they must admit that Steve was always in step with the Zeitgeist.

The Incredible Hulk 201
"The Sword and the Sorcerer!"
Story by Len Wein
Art by Sal Buscema and Joe Staton
Colors by Glynis Wein
Letters by John Costanza
Cover by Rich Buckler and John Romita

Thanks to Doc Samson, The Incredible Huik finds himself shrunken down to the size of an atom and in the middle of a great battle between the village of Terragonia and their sadistic king, Kronak the Barbarian. Believing the Hulk to be the savior they've been praying for, the people of Terragonia (led by the sorcerer, Sham-San) beg the emerald giant to defeat the king and bring the reign of terror to an end. After a bit of goading (a little girl tells Hulk he must be afraid of Kronak and that gets the big guy's gourd), our hero travels to the castle and confronts Kronak's guards. The barbarian's wizard uses a bit of magic to overcome the Hulk and he transforms back into puny Bruce Banner. The confused scientist (who hasn't actually been himself since he was back on Earth) is taken before Kronak, who erupts into laughter when told this scrawny little guy is the savior of the people. Banner is taken to an arena where he faces off with the king but blood pressure and heart rate being what they are... The Hulk quickly dispatches the nasty tyrant and is in the process of accepting congratulations from his new fans when he shrinks down into nothingness again. -Peter Enfantino

Peter Enfantino: As a Marvel zombie-teen, I was a faithful follower of The Incredible Hulk until issue 200 when, for some forgotten reason (it may have been the loss I felt when Trimpe left the book) it dropped off my purchasing checklist, so this one's all new to me. I gotta say I enjoyed it, Buscema and Staton and all. At first glance merely a Conan rip-off, I thought Kronak was a breath of fresh air in the Barbarian-heavy Marvel Universe; the anti-Conan, if you will. Good timing that Hulk didn't start his next phase of shrinking until after the battle was won.

Matthew:  It’s a shame that REH-meister Professor Flynn isn’t reviewing this title, so he could tell us just how spot-on Len’s “Kronak the Barbarian” pastiche might be, but I have to assume it’s pretty accurate; later in the decade, Sal will follow in his elder brother’s footsteps with the occasional Savage Sword of You-Know-Who.  For now, the above-average Bustaton art makes this one-and-done a painless read on a lazy Memorial Day afternoon, sandwiched between the 200th-issue extravaganza and Jarella’s inevitable return.  How fortunate for the Terragonians that when the Hulk justifiably launches into his “Why should I help you?” spiel, there’s usually somebody around to say, “Oh, but of course, the emerald one is no match for [fill in the blank].”

Chris: Hulk finds himself in an unfamiliar place, and demands answers.  Hulk is subdued.  Hulk reverts to puny Banner.  Banner is provoked, and switches back to Hulk.  The battle is joined.  We’ve seen this plotline play out many times before with our Jolly Jade Giant; the key to making this kind of story stand out, is in the handling of the third act.  In this case, once Hulk turns on his Stronger-Than-Thou rage-on power-booster and defeats the ruby demon, Kronak is left to face Hulk alone.   So, what’s Len to do with this semi-Cimmerian?  In many cases, the Hulk could simply knock him over, and we’d be done; but this time, Len has opportunely-timed the peasant revolt so that their arrival coincides with the demon’s departure.  This way, when Hulk hears their calls for the tyrant’s head, he’s in a position to oblige, as he literally hurls Kronak to the mob’s less-than-tender mercies.  

Sal & Joe have a lot of fun with the art.  I especially enjoyed seeing the Hulk snap the huge oaken doors from their hinges (well, at least the handles held – the ironworker should be proud).  Other highlights: Hulk holding a guard by his head as he tosses him aside (p 11); Kronak’s growing dread as he witnesses the Transformation (p 17); and the non-Conan face of fear as Kronak desperately swats at Greenskin (below).

The Amazing Spider-Man 158
"Hammerhead is Out!"
Story by Len Wein
Art by Ross Andru, Mike Esposito, and Dave Hunt
Colors by Glynis Wein
Letters by John Costanza
Cover by Ross Andru and Frank Giacoia

Free-falling towards the ground after his web-line was severed by Doc Ock, Spider-Man smartly forms a hang-glider to bring him down slowly—straight into a dumpster! Back at his mostly unfurnished Chelsea pad, Peter is darning his Spidey suit when Glory Grant knocks, offering cake and brewing coffee. Then Mary Jane rings the bell, wondering why her Aunt Anna's place has a huge hole in the wall and Aunt May is missing. Then Peter gets a phone call from Joe Robertson, so leaves the lovely ladies for the Daily Bugle offices, where he not only learns the competition, The Daily Globe, has a new publisher who's been hiring away top talent, but that JJJ can't get good help with Betty Brant in Paris. When a news flash comes over the wire that Doctor Octopus is holding an old lady hostage at Brookhaven Labs, Peter ducks out for a quick change and hops a ride out to Suffolk. At the Labs, surrounded by commandos, Ock starts creating a machine to rid himself of the Hammerhead ghost when Spidey bursts in, trying to get Aunt May out of there, but ends up being thrown out a window. When he swings back in and starts destroying Ock's machine, the tentacled terror gets in the way, until Hammerhead threatens May, which makes both Ock and Spidey rush to put the particle accelerator back together…until the wall-crawler realizes it's a trick, and Hammerhead wants Ock to pull the switch, which he does—bringing the ghostly gangster back to flesh and blood!--Joe Tura

Joe: Spidey name drops Blackwell! Well, what more could be said after that? Plenty, actually. A very Romita-esque cover by Ross the Boss starts us off, the web-glider invention gets us soaring, the scene at Peter's pad and the Bugle puts our patience in peril, and the donnybrook at Brookhaven has us smiling, from the wisecracks to the insults to the return of Hammerhead. This series is firing on all cylinders here, which is not to say it's perfect, but it’s the second best book I've read next to Avengers. Not far off from 40 years ago. My favorite panel is when Ock outdoes himself on the insult meter with "microphelic miscreant", which must have had "Lab Technician" Marv Wolfman reaching for his Merriam-Webster. Fine work, which leaves us wanting more for sure.

Fave sound effect: I like the "CHUFF!!" noise when Spidey's feet meet Ock's noggin. Maybe that's the sound of the sinister scientist's hair moving with the kick? Or is that his reaction when his beloved May is knocked down? Either way, it's good "chuff". Oy…

Chris: Len serves up the recommended monthly allowance of Spidey, all in one helping!  Consider the ingredients: a creative escape from a tough spot (the web-glider – patent pending); a check-in with friends and neighbors (Glory and MJ, if only for a few panels); an observation of Jonah’s fierce resistance to a circumstance that is not within his control (ease up, JJ – you’re gonna give yourself a coronary!); a warehouse/factory/lab/trailer/abandoned zoo (insert villain’s lair here, as appropriate); Peter’s concerns for his beloved and frail aunt (nice moment there, as Peter has to watch out and not call Aunt May by name!); Peter’s knowledge of things scientific coming into play, as he realizes (– too late!) that he and Ock never should’ve let Hammerhead within a mile of Dr O’s devious machinery.  Clever variation on the formula, as Spidey and Ock work together (for a page or two) once they realize that Hammerhead is their common enemy.  And it’s all a part of your complete Spidey experience!

Matthew: From first page (as skydiving Spidey prepares to make a splash of a different kind) to last (inexplicably invoking the ’72 Liz & Dick flick Hammersmith Is Out), this is fine Wein, indeed; yes, I believe Len pronounces it “wean,” but strictly speaking, that rhymes with Frankenstein, per Frau Professor Matthias.  Spidey’s Jersey-baiting interior monologue and Stan-worthy dumpster dive are so much fun that I’ll overlook the implausibility of whipping up a functioning hang-glider while in free-fall.  I always enjoy Rossito’s panel-breaking layouts—the outside-the-lines battle virtually flying off page 17 is a nice example—while the supporting cast and subplots are well served, e.g., Pete sewing, the MJ/Glory bonding, Betty’s brief replacement.

Mark: Hokey, sure, but I liked the web-glider as a trendy new solution to Spidey's big fall. Even better, the return of the supporting cast, including a Glory Grant sighting, J. Jonah terrorizing secretaries, and a classic, Ditko era, Pete-sews-Spidey-suit bit, updated with the sight gag of a splay-legged Peter, awkwardly gearing up in his tighty whities.

As for the Ock-Aunt May stuff?  Meh. The overall grade is knocked down substantially by the presence of goofy, never-interesting mobster Flathead, whom Wein does nothing to freshen up, in ectoplasmic form or otherwise.

At least Doc Ock's panicked, last page expression is priceless, like he has the vapors.


  1. For this batch, the Avengers is my pick for straightforward superheroics -- great art & story by Perez & Englehart. But my favorite is HTD #4, the first issue of that title I picked up, and I loved it! Brunner and J. Buscema drew great versions of Howard, but IMO Colan drew the definitive version. I shared this with my mom, who didn't usually read my comics, and she loved HTD too.

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