Wednesday, June 22, 2016

July 1978 Part One: Marvel as We Know It Is Dead. Jim Shooter Becomes Editor-In-Chief

Introduction by Professor Matthew Bradley

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story confirms what I’d suspected.  “Lee planned to announce Jim Shooter as the new editor in chief the week before Christmas [1977].  But on Monday, December 19,” 37-year-old production manager John Verpoorten was found dead in his duplex apartment.  This month’s announcement is the typical Lee whitewash:  “Good ol’ Archie Goodwin seems to have been bitten by the same bug that previously affected Rascally Roy, Marvelous Marv, and a majuscule multitude of other Marvel editors [presumably unpersons due to their subsequent defections to DC]; namely, the guy wants to devote his time to writing rather than editing.”  But, as usual, author Sean Howe gives a far more nuanced, and far less rosy, account of the transition.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the qualities that made “Amiable Archie” such a beloved editor appear not to have suited an effective administrator, and Howe quotes Shooter as stating that, amid his general dissatisfaction with the comics, “Stan starts realizing that Archie won’t take the reins and fire people…”  Blown deadlines remained rampant, and neither the success of Star Wars and the KISS tie-in nor the boost in sales of Hulk and Spidey comics provided by their CBS-TV shows could revitalize an anemic line.  In the face of his associate editor’s naked hunger for the job—which reportedly alarmed Roy—and rumors of his possible replacement, the now-Angry Archie resigned from the post, thus officially making Jim EIC on the first working day of the New Year.

Soon, “he was busy overhauling the structure of the expanding editorial division….Two editors shared stewardship of the color comics:  former associate editor Roger Stern, who had extensive knowledge of the Marvel characters, and Bob Hall, an artist who’d been a protégé of John Buscema and who also moonlighted as a playwright.  The magazine line was edited by Rick Marschall [and] his assistant, Ralph Macchio…”  Shooter hired Mark Gruenwald, “a comic-book obsessive on the level of Roy,” to be his own assistant, while ominously high on his agenda, “the autonomous writer-editor title—held by Roy Thomas, Marv Wolfman, Steve Gerber, and Jack Kirby—that would have to be done away with.  It was time for someone to consolidate control.”

And now July 1978!

The Amazing Spider-Man 182
"The Rocket Racer's Back in Town!"
Story by Marv Wolfman
Art by Ross Andru and Mike Esposito
Colors by Glynis Wein
Letters by John Costanza
Cover by Ross Andru and Mike Esposito

With everyone in Peter Parker's life seemingly happy except for him, it gets worse when the Rocket Racer returns with souped-up gadgets and a need to get somewhere fast. Pursuing him across town, Spidey loses the skateboarding stinker in the subway, then hops the uptown E Train (with all the riders aboard avoiding him) back to his Chelsea pad. Rocket Racer drops the satchel he was carrying off to small-time crook Jackson Weele, who hired Racer to get the embezzlement evidence against him, but the board-riding buffoon is keeping the Minerva document to get more money from the "Big Wheel," a nickname Racer uses with dripping sarcasm. Peter goes to visit Aunt May, just missing a mysterious figure who asks Mrs. Muggins if she can wait in his apartment (which seems pretty bold!), and the recovering May doles out some life wisdom, while Peter promises to call Mary Jane later, then at the Bugle, a distracted JJJ agrees to give Peter an advance (talk about a mystery!). At the downtown docks, Jackson Weele thinks about jumping off the piers, but the money-hungry Rocket Racer stops him, dropping the Tinkerer's name, which gives Weele a thought…

Two cops in a coffee shop get a radio call about the Rocket Racer, but end up crashing the squad car into a billboard (believe it or not) while pursing him. Spider-Man takes over the chase, snagging the Racer and riding a web ski (!) before the line snaps on a column (causing him to think the original web formula is weakening); he slips off a rusty bridge and is belted by a "rocket punch." Spidey doubles back, but Racer gets away, leaving Spidey to swing off, with "the toughest confrontation of [his] career waiting." Later that night, Peter shows up at Mary Jane's door, handing her a box of Cracker Jacks with a prize inside—an engagement ring! Peter asks Mary Jane to marry him!
--Joe Tura

Joe: We can all blame Len Wein for inventing the Rocket Racer, but it's "Spidey's new erudite editor and scripter supreme," Marv Wolfman, who we can boo and hiss for bringing the super-lame Racer back. Yuck. Spidey calls him "the cause of my mountainous migraine" and the reader is right there with ya, Spidey! And calling him "Rocky" is annoying, even for our hero. "Rocky" is still constantly updating everyone with what his powers are too, either internally or out loud, and he's also too brash for his own good, thinking because his gizmos are more souped up, he can act like that with embezzler Jackson Weele. And there's more nonsense that Marv throws in, like the whole idea of Weele, and this nickname "Big Wheel" which he uses to his advantage soon.

That exchange on the bottom of page 14, with one officer calling his female partner "the shapeliest flatfoot I've ever seen," is downright offensive and unnecessary, even by 1978's standards (or lack thereof). Then, when they're pursuing Rocket Racer, she says "take your hand off my knee" and turns out to be a not-so-hot driver. Come on, Marv. I know you're trying to create interesting background characters like most good Spidey writers, but don't get stupid. The ending is a bit of a shocker, maybe not entirely out of character for Peter, yet still a stretch if you stop and think about it. What really brought this on? After the kiss before Peter flew to Paris, I would have said yeah, that makes sense, but here I'm not sold on Peter Parker popping the question. Of course, in 1978 I was all for it! P.S. The art is solid Andru as expected, but maybe there are some odd facial expressions and head shots when they're not close-ups. On page 29, there are a bunch of  details that look more like an Archie comic, from Peter's too-long legs in panel 2 to M.J.'s priceless expression and "gulp!" in the final panel. And why does she let him put the ring on before saying "yes?" That's not gonna end well for our hero…

Favorite sound effect in an issue with not many standouts is the "NOK! NOK! NOK!" on page 29, as Peter raps on MJ's door with the intent to ask for her hand in marriage. A huge step which may turn out to be a misstep. Well, for a couple of decades, yeah.

Matthew Bradley: I’d say that “new erudite editor and scripter supreme” Wolfman couldn’t be off to a less auspicious start…did I not know that things will take a further nosedive next month with the advent of the Big Wheel.  If we never saw the Rocket Racer again, it would be too soon, so ten issues seems like an eyeblink, and whatever possessed Farmer Marv (who’s frantically planting plot seeds from weakening webbing to engagement rings) to make him the first character he revived from Len’s stint is utterly beyond me.  You can prattle on about “gyro-skates” and “magnetic clamps” all you want to, but I seriously doubt they’d enable him to defy gravity inside a stone arch; Androsito surrenders by phoning in everything except Officer Helen.

Mark Barsotti: Rocket Racer redux...still sux.

And Pete's rhetorical quip, "Who gives a hairy bongo?" is perhaps the worst single line ever written in the English language. 

Chris Blake: 
“Gulp!” goes Mary Jane at our story’s conclusion; I had a similar reaction, but not in a “good surprise!” sorta way.  Marv’s maiden voyage on Marvel’s flagship isn’t a stirring success.  Questionable choice to open with smallest-of-small-timers Rocket Racer – wasn’t this guy suitably dispatched in about seven pages last time he appeared?  And now, Marv’s opening with a two-part story centered around this character?  Curious.  It doesn’t help that the story lacks flow.  Why is Rocket Racer travelling north on the FDR – where is he going?  More importantly, why needlessly draw attention to himself?  Does he plan on riding loops around Manhattan during the three hours he’s allotted to Jackson Weele (who, we’re told at least twice, is NOT a “Big Wheel” …) to raise twenty grand?  Last question: why take the FDR when, despite the traffic lights, Second Avenue usually moves more quickly -?  

To Marv’s credit, the bits with Peter are more satisfying; although, I question why Pete’s thoughts about settling down with Mary Jane don’t involve the realization that she would have to learn his Secret Identity – kind of a major consideration, isn’t it?  The bit with riding the subway home is quite good (p 4).
I usually find a lot to enjoy with Andru’s pencils on this title, especially as he works-in recognizable NYC landmarks; nice shot of the iconic Empire State on p 21.  This time, though, I have two criticisms.  First: the bit with the patrol car (p 19-21) already is awkward due to Marv’s dopey script (did the driver get her license from a Cracker Jack box -? sigh …), but then Ross takes a bit too much license, as the car drives over the median (which I’m fairly certain has been a metal divider for a long time now), and finally goes off the road, where it plunges into the river -?  But no, instead it gets planted into a billboard (whaa whaaaaa), of which there are none along the FDR, since there’s no space between the roadway and the water.  Second: the bit with Spidey webbing-skiing on the East River is head-shakingly silly (p 23).  

Matthew:  See, it’s times like these when my ignorance of geography works in my favor, because it prevents gaffes like those from bothering me!

The Avengers 173
"Threshold of Oblivion!"
Story by David Michelinie and Jim Shooter
Art by Sal Buscema, Pablo Marcos, Win Mortimer, 
Bob McLeod, Joe Rubinstein, Dan Green, Rick Bryant, 
and Klaus Janson
Colors by Nel Yomtov
Letters by Gaspar Saladino and Annette Kawecki
Cover by George Perez and Terry Austin

Still trying to piece together the puzzle of the missing Avengers, Iron Man calls a meeting of all available ex-members (and general hangers-on, it seems). Already at the mansion are Captain Marvel and the Whizzer; en route are Black Widow and Hercules. En route may be a gracious term though since Natasha can't seem to get Herc out of the airport without making a fuss and literally tearing down the walls but they do eventually make it to HQ for a debriefing. Unbeknownst to the team, their every move is being eyed by Michael Korvac, who's priming himself to become owner of the universe. Korvac is keeping tabs not only on the Avengers but other super beings scattered here and there, including Eternity who is, as Korvac describes, "the universe personified, within whom all the stuff of this reality exists." While formulating a plan, Scarlet Witch and Wonder Man vanish without a trace but Black Panther wonders if the Guardians of the Galaxy, with their advanced technology, might be able to help track their missing teammates. As Iron Man contacts Drydock, Hank Pym vanishes in a bevy of pretty sparkles. Vance Astro replies to IM's pleas by teleporting Thor, IM, Wasp, and Hawkeye to an "invisible construct the size of a phone booth" floating in space. When the heroes arrive, they discover their missing comrades in the clutches of ... The Collector! 

-Peter Enfantino

Peter Enfantino: I never read the famous "Korvac Saga" as a youth because, by the time it rolled around, I was no longer a youth. It's got the feel of a big space saga and the art is fantastic (with the exception of pg. 20, pnl. 5 (right) where Wanda's head suddenly goes Silly Putty on us -- possible pre-teleportation side-effects?), but the build-up is much better than the finale, where we learn the guy behind the 'nappings is a fifth-tier villain. And, I'm sorry, Shooter's completely lost me with the Korvac thread of this epic but that's probably my fault as the character isn't familiar to me. It's got me turning pages though, if for nothing else than to discover why the Collector feels the need to add a third-tier gunslinger (and there are only three tiers in the Marvel Western Universe, kids) to his souvenir case.

Joe Tura: Alas, this is the last good art we will get on Avengers for a while, and that's downright depressing. But more on that next time, class. Hercules is herc-u-larious here, between threatening Natasha and flipping the bird, um, the helicopter, and entering the Avengers conference room with "Who are these strange mortals?" We're also back into the Korvac Saga, and Michael reaching out to see if the gods notice him—which you would think might draw attention, but I guess he really is that powerful—ends with an awesome full-page shot of Eternity on pg 13. The Thor craziness continues also, not even recognizing Wonder Man or remembering the past ten or so issues. Curiouser and curiouser. But ultimately not a lot happens in this issue except for talking and planning and posturing. Finally we get some action and answers on the last couple of pages, leaving us to ponder: can Shellhead's Kooky Quartet corral the Collector?

Chris: Not much action this issue, but there’s plenty of tension as team members past and present continue to blink away to parts unknown.  Thankfully, we’re spared a MARMIS as Simon proves not to be a hothead, and merely is confused – not outraged and pugnacious – as Thor states he does not recognize him.  This issue also marks Dave Michelinie’s debut, as scripter of Shooter’s plot; as Shooter passes the baton, Michelinie will provide (a few) noteworthy Avengers stories in the waning hours of the Bronze era.  

It’s rare that a “diverse hands” issue is superior in appearance to the single-inker issue that had preceded it, but that certainly is the case here.  Klaus Janson reminds us of the poor results he’d produced for #172, but fortunately he’s limited this time to two messy-looking pages (p 28-29).  The rest of the issue looks far better, except for two indifferent-looking pages by Dan Green (p 11, p 20).  When you compare Green’s efforts to the well-textured pages of Pablo Marcos (p 1, 6, 19), Bob McLeod (p 4, 21, 23), Joe Rubinstein (p 7, 10, 14), and even underutilized (at least in the color titles) Rick Bryant (p 13, 27), it’s an outright baffler to me that the ordinary Green wound up as in-house inker for this title – for years.  I realize it’s rarely a simple matter to pair creative talent for one of these funny books; that’s part of the reason why Claremont-Byrne-Austin works are so highly treasured.  I’m sure there were other considerations at work that might have precluded a McLeod or Rubinstein from emerging as the regular inker – availability, responsibility to deadlines, freelancer rate for work, personality conflicts, etc – but it will always gall me that Byrne (and later Pérez, when he makes his return) didn’t consistently have a top talent to finish their incredible pencil work for the Avengers.
On a personal note, I’d like to indulge in a rare moment of horn-tooting; according to the Grand Comics Database, I successfully identified the inker on nine of the seventeen pages.  Of the ones I missed, I failed to identify two of McLeod’s three pages (shame on me!), I missed Green completely (not hard to do), and I failed to identify both Bryant and Win Mortimer who provides Mooney/Esposito caliber work on p 2-3.  I don’t remember ever seeing Mortimer’s name in the “D. Hands” mix, and I’m fairly certain this is his only Avengers appearance, so I hope the judges won’t come down too harshly.  
Matthew: It may be new writer Michelinie—a seasoned DC vet making his Marvel debut here, whose byline will appear on the lion’s share of the next 30-odd issues—or it may be the story by Shooter, whose ascendance as EIC, as noted above, is announced in Stan’s Soapbox.  But for Iron Man to refer to the Black Panther, Captain Marvel, and the out-of-costume Whizzer as “you ‘old’ Avengers,” when only T’Challa has ever been an Assembler, is ludicrous, even if “old” does apply to Bob Frank in the literal sense.  The “D. [for “Diverse”] Hands • Finisher” credit tips us off to the mishmash that remains of Sal’s layouts (although Drydock looks nice); meanwhile, Herc is a jerk, and I continue chafing at the arrogance of making Korvac omnipotent.

The Black Panther 10
"This World Shall Die!"
Story by Jack Kirby
Art by Jack Kirby and Mike Royer
Colors by Roger Slifer
Letters by Mike Royer
Cover by Jack Kirby and Joe Sinnott

T'Challa makes quick work of the Sudanese muscle sent to arrest him and take him to prison and then borrows their plane to jet back home. Meanwhile in the Panther's Wakanda, Jakarra continues his trek to the Vibranium mound. With the militia unable to stop his advance, it seems sure (as Black Mousketeer scientist Joshua M'Tobo theorizes) that, once the monster enters the mound, the world will crack open. The Mousketeers formulate a strategy and then act on it. They head out after Jakarra with the only thing that can stop him: the anti-sonic toxin!! T'Challa finally arrives, is brought up to speed on the disaster, and takes charge. During a fierce battle, he injects Jakarra with the toxin and watches as the purple monster explodes. The end of the world will have to wait until another day. 

-Peter Enfantino

Peter: Well, this is a load of hooey. Not only do we get some of the worst dialogue of the King's second coming (and that's saying a lot), we get an anti-climactic wrap to what seemed to be developing into a nifty little thriller. Maybe Jack got itchy, saw the sales figures, and decided he wanted to tell as many stories as he could in what time he had left with the title but that finale is as flat as  roadkill. Jack literally shoves an expository into two small captions and then says "Hey, forget about this one. Have I got something to show you next issue!"

And how about that dialogue? I'm glad you asked for some examples. How about when three of the Black Mousketeers interrupt a verrrry important discussion about the end of the world:

Ishanta: Is this a time for discussing scientific research?

Zuni: Don't you two know what's going on?!
Khanata: Take off that laboratory smock -- we've got a job to do!

But the best, oh, the most glorious moment comes after Joshua M'Tobo reveals to his fellow 
Panther-wannabes that, once Jakarra reaches the Vibranium, it's lights out:

Joshua: Fortunately, none of us will be alive to see those monstrous tremors crack this world open like a cosmic egg!

Ishanta: T-That's horrible! Unbelievable!!
Zuni: I'm frightened, Joshua! -- Terribly frightened!
Khanata: He's not smiling! He means it - !

And these are the heroes entrusted to save the planet? Ulp.

Matthew: The relief I felt that we’d reached the conclusion of this lumpy, lumbering plotline did not blind me to how abrupt and unsatisfactory said conclusion is.  It reminded me of nothing so much as Lancelot’s approach to Swamp Castle:  an endless period of furious activity that never seems to bring him any closer to his goal, suddenly followed by a “Ha ha!” leap into violent action.  Turnabout being fair play, Kirby is kut off in mid-arc after two more issues, just as poor McGregor was; meanwhile, as far as I know, he’s still making up vibranium lore as he goes along, which irks me, and tossing off choice lines like, “It’s too late for hindsight, Jiru!”—uh, isn’t that kind of the point of hindsight, that it’s the perspective you can only get afterwards?

Captain America 223
"Call Me Animus"
Story by Steve Gerber
Art by Sal Buscema, Mike Esposito, and John Tartaglione
Colors by Mary Beveridge
Letters by Irving Watanabe
Cover by John Byrne and Ricardo Villamonte

The freakish mutant calling himself “Animus,” who had brought the Lincoln Memorial to life, attacks Captain America. First he strikes with his club and then with powerful mental bolts. Cap, however, is able to land decisive blows by letting himself go, to become as merciless as his enemy. Unfortunately, the creature, gripped in fear, vanishes before Cap can land the final double-fisted punch. Returning to his apartment, he remembers he originally left through the window in costume and so had left his keys within. However, Veda charms the landlord into letting her in and unlocks the doors from the inside. Cap brushes her off gently because he needs rest and she goes, promising to see him the next morning. After she goes, Cap notices two tracers attached to the underside of his shield and assumes it is the work of Nick Fury. He calls Fury to get more info on Veda and angrily tells the SHIELD head to stop placing tracers on him. Cap slams the phone down before Fury can respond. Later, Cap dreams of his college days and hears the word “Animus” uttered by a long forgotten professor. He awakes, knowing he must return to New York to find his answers. He tells Veda the next day of his plans and she is soon contacted by Kligger of the Corporation. She tells him that Cap’s search for his identity is indeed real and has no bearing on Kligger or the Corporation. However, the Corporation heads have voted to have Cap killed. On a train bound for NY, Steve whiles away the time listening to some guy chattering away when the train is mercilessly attacked and derailed by the Animus. Amid the dead and dying, Cap snaps and attacks the creature. It goes as it did before, with Cap beating the creature near to death before it is spirited away. -Scott McIntyre

Scott McIntyre: An action-packed issue, offering up more questions and precious few answers. This is not a bad story, it just needs to come to a conclusion. Said conclusion is promised for next issue, which really needed to happen a little earlier, judging by the slenderness of this issue. The Falcon is now off the title, the book now officially titled simply Captain America. The lettercol indicates there is a demand for the Falcon to stick around, but plans for the character seemed to dictate otherwise. The Falcon is indeed a good character, but he was badly used in these pages, originally there to comment on civil rights (in as ham-handed a fashion as could be imagined), the later “Snap” Wilson story tarnished the character and was then subsequently forgotten. He needed a break and Cap needed to go it alone for awhile. The art is typical Sal Buscema and the Gerber script is well done. I can’t really complain too much; it’s a little thin, but it is fun.

Matthew:  Starting here, they’ve belatedly abandoned the pretense of partnership by removing the Falcon from the masthead, although one could hardly blame him for leaving what looks for all the world like a sinking ship.  I’m not saying we’d be better off if Kirby had stuck around, but since he left, the supposed storyline has been derailed with one album issue, one non-Cap reprint, two back-up stories and—guess what?—next issue is a fill-in; not sure if that’s better or worse.  The final page, in which the Animus cries out to Kligger in a woman’s voice, led me to conclude he/she/it was Veda, and that may have been Gerber’s original intent, but after a SuperMegaMonkey discussion drove me to investigate, I see it ain’t so.  Nice artwork.

Chris: Steve G. paces the story well, as we go from a resolution of last month’s action, to more questioning by Cap of his memories (and lack thereof), to two conversations with Veda, with Steve Rogers’ dream between them (complete with a mid-sentence segue, as Cap’s thoughts about his dream tie in to a line delivered to Veda), and finally the train wreck and second battle with the Animus.  Steve G. doesn’t get himself bogged down by any one part of the story, which allows him to cover so much ground.  

A few moments are very much in-character for citizen Steve Rogers, as he resolves throughout to keep his thoughts in order; then during his battle with Animus, he clear-headedly determines that Animus can’t employ his physical and psychic powers simultaneously.  These moments are offset as our author takes our hero down a peg, first as Cap absent-mindedly walks into the hotel in costume (having forgotten that he had left via a window, so as not to draw attention to himself), then as he misses the possibility that someone else – aside from SHIELD – might’ve placed the tracers on his shield.  Plenty to think about as we try to see what Steve (G) might have in store for Steve (R) next issue.  

Captain Marvel 57
"Star Burst"
Story by Roger McKenzie
Art by Pat Broderick, Bob Wiacek, and Terry Austin
Colors by Don Warfield
Letters by John Costanza
Cover by Pat Broderick and Bob Wiacek

Feverish and unresponsive to Dr. Blake’s treatment, the terrified Mar-Vell mumbles about Thanos and a “starburst”; as the glowing Kree snaps out of his delirium and exits through the wall, we learn that he had found Rick but been unable to make him understand.  Sending Rick to alert the authorities, Don changes to Thor and confronts Mar-Vell, who—crazed with pain as he tries to siphon off enough energy to forestall critical mass—begs the thunder god to kill him before belting Thor in an impressive full-page shot that reminds us just how powerful he is.  Seeing Rick endangered by falling rubble from the impact, Mar-Vell swoops down to the rescue, but Thor understandably misconstrues these actions, and stuns the Kree with his hammer.

Recovering, he declares, “if the universe is to survive—Captain Marvel must die!,” and when Rick admits he’s never known Marv to lie, Thor summons a lightning bolt that subdues him long enough to explain.  Before he died (“less than a week” ago), Thanos had begun tampering with our sun, now “throwing off excess energy [that] my cosmic nature draws to me, as if I were a magnet,” threatening a chain reaction that will destroy the universe.  As the power swells Marv to giant-size, Thor throws Mjolnir, but not with lethal intent:  it strikes the Nega-Bands, “creating a gateway to the Negative Zone!” (since when?) that sucks in the “rampant energy,” and as he ensures that the weakened Mar-Vell is not pulled in after it, it creates a new star in the Neg Zone. -Matthew Bradley

Matthew: Moench is subbed by newbie McKenzie before he can even establish any momentum, while this marks the end for the Brodericek pairing, having been teamed with four writers in three entries.  I’m starting to think that I simply may not care for Pat’s pencils regardless of who’s inking them—which is a shame since, with 11 issues, he’s the most consistent creative force behind this once-brilliant strip’s sad last days—but with McLeod on deck, I’ll continue trying to keep an open mind.  And, in fairness, there are some striking effects here:  Marv limned in red and black as the lightning hits him on page 13; solar energy flaring from his eyes as he foretells his fate in page 20, panel 5; and especially the full-pager on 21, as he “watches” the solar system destroyed.

This is one of those context-free stories that makes me sigh as the writer—here compounding the error by seeking reflected glory from Starlin—manufactures an artificial crisis with no basis in the regular plotline, and an equally convenient feel-good solution (“Methinks that from this day on, that realm shall not be quite as cold”) that may not withstand close scrutiny, all for the sake of a gosh-wow story.  Traditionally, the Nega-Bands exchanged matter between here and the Zone without opening any handy gateway.  Those who relaxed in relief as Rick departed on his European tour must have been disheartened indeed to see Ramblin’ Roger not only return him to Marv’s side, but also throw in the umpteenth callback to Rick’s role in the creation of the Hulk…

Chris: It’s a fascinating possibility, a Thanos-devised fall-back to ensure his gift for Lady Death (ie the destruction of everything) would be delivered to her door on schedule; it fits with the cunning aspect of his personality.  While I expect Thanos’ supremely confident ego would never allow for the possibility of failure of his scheme, the question of whether Thanos might also have a pragmatic side is a puzzle we all can live with.  The story element that doesn’t quite work, though, is Mar-Vell’s handling of his realization that he has been transformed to a conduit for the destruction of the Sol system, which then would domino over to other (infinitely distant) systems, etc.  Ordinarily, I would think Marv would recognize this problem, and react to it, in a rational, somewhat distant manner; instead, McKenzie (in his one-time handling of this character during the Bronze era, if memory serves), portrays Marv as frantic, almost hysterical, as he demands “Shoot me now!  Shoot me now!” of Thor.  Fortunately, Thor keeps his head together, and concocts a non-fatal solution.  Marv’s inability to work with Thor to find this acceptable outcome isn’t true to the character as we’ve seen him for most of this run.  If the powers-that-edit insisted on a Thor vs Mar-Vell clash, then Thanos’ plan should’ve involved some sort of post-hypnotic suggestion that would’ve required Marv to behave in a manner inconsistent with his nature; there’s no reasonable way to explain Marv seeking a fight with Thor to ensure his own annihilation.  

This flaw in the characterization doesn’t mean it’s an altogether irredeemable issue; no, it’s action-packed, with Broderick art bristling with power.  I’m still not crazy about Wiacek’s finishes, as there are too many panels that look too heavy, bordering on murky.  Still, there are highlights: Marv slams Thor (p 6 – make it count – that’s not going to happen too many times!); Marv caught in the lightning storm, turned a deep red by D. Warfield (p 13); quick recap of Avengers Annual #7, with Iron Man taking a dynamic angle of approach, and employing seeming plasma-repulsors (p 19, IM in pnl 5); the expanding Marv smashes the garbage truck (maybe the same one that nabbed Spidey and Captain Britain in MTU #65 -?) to the ground (p 27).  

Conan the Barbarian 88 
“The Queen and the Corsairs!”
Story by Roy Thomas
Art by John Buscema and Ernie Chan
Colors by George Roussos
Letters by John Costanza
Cover by John Buscema and Ernie Chan

Having been saved from the Devourer of the Dead, Bêlit informs Conan and Zula that the slavegirl Neftha is actually the sister of King Ctesphon II — even more than that, she’s the rightful ruler of Stygia. She also reveals that Ctesphon II is barely more than a boy, and a fearful one at that, relying on his councilor, the wizard Hath-Horeb, to make his decisions. Using another secret entrance that Neftha mentioned, the trio steals back inside the royal palace. Passing by a wooden door, they hear voices and burst inside to see Neftha about to lose her head to an executioner’s sword as the cowardly king, his royal sorcerer and assorted guards look on. The She-Devil springs into action and drives her cutlass into the hooded swordsman’s stomach as the Cimmerian and his Zamballahian companion wade into the soldiers, blades flashing. Zula, wise to the ways of magic, warns Conan not to greet the gaze of Hath-Horeb as they hack their way through the Stygians. Suddenly a scream rings out: Bêlit has cornered Ctesphon II on the top of a staircase, demanding to know the location of her captive father Atrahasis. The cowering monarch blurts out that he was executed to make room for other prisoners in the royal dungeon. Enraged, she pushes the boy king over the railing and he lands to his death on the floor below. Neftha shouts out, demanding an end to the fighting as Hath-Horeb proclaims her as Ctesphon III, the reigning king of Stygia. Surprisingly, the new ruler commands her soldiers to kill Bêlit and throw Conan and Zula into the dungeon. But the She-Devil hefts a wayward spear and impales Hath-Horeb — in the confusion, the warriors rush off to make their escape.

-Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn: Now I know that I should be grateful when we have an issue that actually moves the Luxor storyline ahead — instead of the fill-ins and reprints that have hamstrung this series throughout 1978 — but #88 left me a bit cold. Bêlit had already explained to Conan and Zula how she and Neftha were captured at the end of last issue and on the splash page of this one, so why does Roy bother wasting seven pages recreating that scenario? Seems completely unnecessary. That flashback does reveal that King Ctesphon II is basically a scared teenager which I thought was a neat touch: he's been talked about for so long now that the reveal was totally unexpected. It's actually tough to guess his age by the way he's drawn by Big John and Ernie. I assume he's supposed to be in his teens but he could be in his twenties. Also a bit of a surprise that Bêlit kills him so quickly — and abruptly knocks off Hath-Horeb as well. Guess Neftha’s immediate transformation into a bloodthirsty monarch was out of left field as well. She did call Bêlit the murderer of her brother, but I’m not buying that: he was going to have her beheaded after all. Bêlit finally shows some real emotion at the end, choking back tears over her dead father as they make their escape. Come to think of it, another wicked twist that Atrahasis has been dead the whole time, making the assault on Luxor ultimately fruitless. But perhaps the She-Devil’s father was not actually killed. Roy threw us enough curveballs with this issue that he might have another in his mitt. The illustrations are a joy to behold as usual, just wish that this issue wasn’t so padded. Now I usually don’t peek ahead, but guess who finally makes his flesh-and-blood debut in this series next month? Come on, guess!

Chris: A story full of surprises and reversals.  Neftha is a princess, in line to the throne; Hath-Horeb’s magic is powerful enough to disguise him as the cringing Ctesphon, and to render Bêlit powerless; Bêlit shows no mercy to Ctesphon (well, I guess that shouldn’t come as a surprise …); Hath-Horeb abandons his faithful defense of Ctesphon, as he feels the tide turning against the king, and recognizes Neftha as the new power; Neftha might’ve been executed, if not for Conan & Co’s timely arrival, but that doesn’t stop Neftha from ordering her rescuers killed for having killed her brother; Zula has learned a few sorcerer’s poses, one of which actually works as he hoped it might, as the palace guards are left unable to see or hear the attackers in their midst – possibly the most unexpected, and most clever, moment in this action-packed story of twists and turns.  Bêlit has the worst kind of surprise; I find it’s true to the tenor of this title, and the era it depicts, that our heroes’ quests don’t always lead to the results they’re after.  

Plenty of art highlights, with a visual surprise when we turn the page and see – from Conan’s POV – the executioner, suddenly frozen in surprise, as Neftha quietly awaits her end (p 19), ably aided by fiery red and yellow light, offset by deep purple shadows, all brought to you by George Roussos.  On a far smaller scale, I’d honestly like to know whether there might be other panels to go with Bêlit’s discreetly-done changing scene (p 14, pnl 2); you know, there might have been other shots, uh, I mean sketches, that had to be passed over for some reason.  I’m asking purely from an art-appreciation standpoint.  

 Daredevil 153
Story by Roger McKenzie
Art by Gene Colan and Tony DeZuniga
Colors by Mary Titus
Letters by Denise Wohl
Cover by Gene Colan and Klaus Janson

Responding to her urgent call, Daredevil crashes thru the window to Heather’s apartment, but his hypersenses tell him he has not found his missing girlfriend – it’s Mr Hyde and the Cobra!  DD tries desperately to sort this out, as he asks himself how these two villains knew to find him here; does Heather’s hatred run so deep that she would betray him to his enemies?  In his distraction, DD is unable to evade Cobra; DD requires a well-placed club-carom to knock Cobra in the head, and free himself from Cobra’s crushing grip.  Hyde bull-rushes DD, and in his rage, plows them both out the window, multiple stories above the pavement.  DD twists and kicks himself free of Hyde’s grasp, but without his billy-club, he has only a second to find a safe way to land.  His radar sense picks up a flagpole on the side of the building, but the previous injury to his arm (from when Paladin threw a park bench at him, last issue) prevents DD from hanging on; fortunately, he already has slowed himself so that he can bounce off a ground-level awning without driving straight thru it.  Hyde isn’t so lucky; he smashes straight into the ground.  DD looks on in amazement as Hyde pulls himself from his impact crater; Hyde reaches for DD, and woozily mumbles “ … must capture Daredevil … he said … must capture,” before he collapses on the sidewalk.  DD only has a moment to consider who “he” must be, before he’s clouted by his own billy-club, flung by Cobra from behind him.  Before DD can focus his blurred radar sense and secure the club, Cobra grabs it and cracks it in half.  DD springs forward and lays into Cobra, until a large hand hauls DD back and hurls him into a wall, knocking him out.  The police arrive on the scene, but are unable to do anything but watch as Cobra removes a manhole cover and leads Hyde, bearing the senseless DD, to disappear into the sewers. -Chris Blake
Chris: Daredevil has had a tendency to balance action with the complexities of Matt Murdock’s private life.  This is one of the few issues I can think of where Matt does not appear at all; there simply isn’t a spare moment , as the action plays out in real time from the moment of DD’s arrival at Heather’s apartment to his vanishing underground, in the clutches of his foes.  DD barely has a chance to complete a thought, as he scrambles to figure where Heather might be, how she might be involved with Hyde and Cobra, and whether she might be in grave danger wherever she might be.  The one conclusion he’s sure of is the identity of the man who sprang Hyde and Cobra to send them after him; the name isn’t even stated out loud – at no time in the entire issue! – but anyone who’s been paying attention for the past 6-7 issues will know right away it’s Killgrave, the Purple Man (boo hsssss).  McKenzie follows thru with the direction he established last issue, as all factors point to Daredevil’s long-sought showdown with his violet-hued tormentor. 
I don’t expect anyone will be too surprised by these two responses to the art: it’s great to have definitive Daredevil penciller Gene Colan back after so long (not seen in these pages since DD #124!); but, it’s hard to recognize Colan’s signature style under the finishes of Tony DeZuniga.  DZ does add one element, as Hyde’s face is even uglier this time (particularly on p 7).  Page 10 (below) is the one art-moment that truly stands out, as Gene establishes a perspective from above DD and Hyde as they plunge thru the window; the angle allows the street visible behind DD’s head to appear as if it’s further away, as we appreciate the long, long distance they have to drop before they hit the ground.  
The finish to this great fall is pretty amazing too, first as Hyde takes a header into the road, sending the pavement flying (p 14, last pnl), then – incredibly – as he claws he way back to the surface (p 18).  I find it a pretty daring chance by Roger & Gene, as this moment could’ve come across as Entirely Too Impossible.  But, since we’ve already learned Hyde is more powerful than DD remembers him to be, Hyde’s unlikely semi-recovery successfully underscores the difficulty DD will have if he ever expects to defeat this villain.
Matthew:  Not saying much, I’ll admit, but this is among a dismal week’s brighter spots as McKenzuniga “proudly welcome back: Gene (The Dean) Colan, Daredevil Penciler without Peer!”  It’s a brief return, yet I’ll always welcome Gentleman Gene or the Cobra/Hyde duo; for the record, the creative team also “introduces” erstwhile—see how I used that word correctly?—Hornhead scribe Jim as EIC, and this is Ben Urich’s debut.  Speaking of duos, while it’s perhaps not surprising, since they both tend toward the darker side, this one-issue pairing of Gene, who always cries out for the proper inker, and Tony, who typically, uh, overshadows his style a tad, is solid, with those full-pagers on 3 and 10 packing a nice punch, and DD looking good throughout.

 The Defenders 61
"Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Lunatik!"
Story by David Anthony Kraft
Art by Ed Hannigan and Bob Lubbers
Colors by Nelson Yomtov
Letters by Rick Parker
Cover by Ed Hannigan and Ernie Chan

At the home of Kyle Richmond, Hellcat shows him, Valkyrie and Dollar Bill how she's mastered her new shadow-cloak. It turns out the learning has a way to go when an Ort-Beast makes a brief appearance, before disappearing again.  The group witnesses a newspaper headline that reminds them: the lunatic known as Lunatik is still on the loose, and more victims have suffered for his evil antics; the heroes decide to lay a trap. Dollar Bill suggests they seek the help of Professor Turk, head of drama at the university; he may be crazy enough to lure Lunatik in. Turk is indeed a little dramatic, and figures Lunatik won't like any competition so his idea is to have the school put up a statue of Spider-Man, currently in the bad books with the law as well. It takes a week but the statue of Spidey is complete, delivered to the Defenders' riding academy. Nighthawk's idea is that Hulk can hide inside the statue's stand and surprise Lunatik, but Greenskin has no such interest, and takes off. Meanwhile, at the office of the Daily Bugle, J. Jonah Jameson hears about the planned unveiling of the statue, making him furious, of course, and he sends Peter Parker to cover the action. As Spider-Man goes to check out the site, he encounters Hellcat, who explains the whole plan to him. The plan works, kind of. Lunatik does show up and the cat and spider have the first go at him. When Val and Nighthawk arrive, Lunatik turns it to his advantage and knocks out the 'Hawk. He then pulls the cover off of the statue (the ugliest thing you've ever seen) and tosses it on Hellcat and Spidey, enough time to make a quick getaway, but to where? -Jim Barwise

Jim Barwise: We get a glimpse into a future storyline as Sergei, the radioactive Russian, has basically hidden himself away in a remote part of the U.S.S.R., where some highly dangerous series of events has destroyed a village. The events are in the past, but obviously the secret will be out soon. The main tale is pretty decent, surprising since it's relatively predictable--but why can't they get this Lunatik guy under control? He says he "used to be a god"; is there something to that? The cast of characters is pretty big, but the airtime gets spread around. We're missing Dr. Strange in the mix.

Chris: First of all, how did Lunatik ever warrant so much screen time with this title?  Granted, he’s a legitimate menace, but he has no powers to speak of – why is it so difficult for the combined might of this team to bring him down?  A solo Nighthawk was able to corral the rinky-dink Ringer, and yet Lunatik by himself can evade the Spider-Man aided Defenders?  It’s a bit hard to accept.  It’s also a bit of a stretch that no one has yet to figure out that Professor Turk (NOT an esteemed member of the MU faculty – so, that’s clear) is Lunatik, but I’m ready for it to happen so that we all can move on.  

I know Bob Lubbers’ work from a handful of covers during this period, and frankly, I expected better results with him as inker; aside from a few panels of a fittingly fierce Hulk (such as p 3, 1st pnl), the characters don’t come off so well.  Credit to Hannigan for his creative layout on p 6, as the various images of Lunatik in motion fit with the Defenders’ understanding of him as a figure moving quickly and unpredictably.  
Matthew: The finished art, over Hannigan’s pencils, kicks off a Marvel mini-flurry by Bob Lubbers, a seasoned veteran of Fiction House comics and various newspaper strips, but if this is any indication, I’m glad we won’t be covering the remainder in Human Fly #13-17.  The Dude persists in expunging the Hulk’s once-interesting rapport with his non-teammates, leaving him little more than a big green grump, and the one intriguing note—his instinctive caution regarding Patsy’s use of the Shadow Cloak—lasts for all of a page before he grunts, “Do more cape tricks, Cat-Girl!”  Professor Turk’s implied evil (most notably that “Bwuhahahahaha!” close-up in page 7, panel 6) is so utterly unsubtle that I can’t imagine anybody not guessing the eventual outcome.

 Fantastic Four 196
"Who in the World is the Invincible Man?"
Story by Marv Wolfman
Art by Keith Pollard and Pablo Marcos
Colors by Glynis Wein
Letters by Joe Rosen
Cover by George Perez and Pablo Marcos

Behind a dramatic Perez/Marcos cover, newly-installed scribe Marv Wolfman starts to ramp things up for the sure-to-be-ballyhooed 200th issue (even though your humble prof cut his Marvel teeth on subscriptions to FF and Spideyway back in the primordial mists of 1968, I'd "outgrown" comics by '78 so, like most of you, class, I'll be experiencing the run-up to the Fabs' bicentennial for the first time). We open with Reed, mid-nightmare, one inflicted by his shadowy employer (where's the Dept. of Labor when ya need 'em?), who's progressed from merely co-opting Richards' work to shattering his will. Strapped to a lab table, Reed is subjected to a hypnotic "tracking beam," administered by "sniveling toady" Dr. Hauptman, who alternately worries about killing Reed while kowtowing to the World's Worst Boss with news that "the required components have been removed from the Psycho-Man*'s uniform."

Ben and Johnny surprise Sue and little Franklin in their Hollywood digs. As Sue shares her concern over not being able to reach Reed for days, the Invincible Man descends from the sky to peep through the hotel window. After dropping Franklin off with Agatha Harkness, the three Fabs hit the Hollywood Walk of Fame, where John Wayne (I kid you not, pilgrim!), thinking the Thing is a contestant dressed up for Let's Make Another Deal, snubs Ben's request for an autograph. At the famed Brown Derby restaurant, the staff mistakes Sue for various female stars (Angie Dickinson, Dinah Shore, Ali MacGraw), before she suddenly sees the face of her father (disgraced doctor Franklin Storm was thought to be the original Invincible Man, but it was really the Super Skrull, in FF #32). Ben sees Alicia in his soup (!) then she materializes, tells him he's a "hideous monster" and belts him across the dining room!

Tiring of mere mindgames, the new I-Man reveals himself. Battle is joined, but Sue is immobilized by a vision of little Franklin in distress; Johnny's racked with doubt; Ben hates everything. I-Man blasts them all into unconsciousness, floats them away to his ship, and whisks the trio to captivity in upstate New York. I-Man is unmasked as hypnotized Reed, who's released from the spell to join the others in a dungeon, hardly the reunion they envisioned after almost six months apart. And in the last panel of p.21, a metallic gauntlet holding a "D" engraved goblet reveals the real evil mastermind.

"The next day..." Reed's (one assumes now ex-)boss shows Stretch a "solar-powered station," filled with Kirby-lite machinery and walls covered with diamond-like facets, the reflections of which would drive people mad. Meanwhile, a jailbreak's underway back in the dungeon. But after taking out a platoon of henchmen, Sue, Ben, and Johnny are put down by sleeping gas, making them, in a final page splash, "...the powerless prisoners of Doctor Doom!" -Mark Barsotti

Mark Barsotti: Pablo Marcos again provides finishes & inks over Keith Pollard's layouts, and while the results are generally pleasing, I dare you to pick in-civvies Johnny and Sue out of a police line-up. Pablo's Thing is generally pretty good, but his Torch is all wet. The "doubting Johnny" panel on p.14 looks like the Scorch, traced from a tattered copy of Not Brand Ecch. On the plus side, Reed is on model, and last page Doom, coiled in his armor, bristling with malevolent menace, is rendered with appropriate gravitas.

Marv, like Conway, Thomas, and Wein before him, dips into the Lee/Kirby toy box. That's to be expected, but the splash-dash grafting of Psycho-Man's powers onto one-time villain the Impossible Man doesn't play as loving homage so much as haphazard ransacking. Maybe trotting out the Fabs' rogues' gallery is all part of Doom's (and Marv's) malevolent master plan leading up to the big anniversary, but if so, we're off to a shaky start.

Matthew: It’s never a good sign when you resurrect a justifiably obscure “character” like the Invincible Man, who has even Perez turn in an unattractive cover (complete with ironic reference to his “mind-numbing powers”), and whose unmasking as Reed was surely tied with the reveal of Doom as the non-shocker of the month.  Marcos is aptly credited as the “finisher,” since he once again finishes off any quality that might have been fighting for life in “story teller” Pollard’s work.  As in Amazing Spider-Man, the LenMarv transition seems to be off to a rocky start, although here we’ll obviously have to cut Wolfman a little more slack, since he’s following through on the FF break-up/resurgent Doom plotline that Wein set in motion several months ago.

Scott: Things heat up as we barrel down to the giant 200th issue. This is not a particularly well drawn story, and it’s a little disjointed. All of the red-herrings, the Invincible Man costume, the vision of Sue and Johnny’s father and the illusion of Alicia are all there seemingly to give us a great cover. It’s all just padding and not very clever as a way to get them all into the clutches of Doctor Doom. And by the way, was anyone really surprised by the reveal on the final page? The mystery guy who set the traps looks like Victor Von Doom and the guards all look like Latveria’s military. At any rate, if my memory serves, the next couple of issues are better.

Chris: The pilfered powers of the Psycho-Man turn out to be sort of a throw-away, as the so-called Invincible Man zaps the three 4-somes with a ray to their foreheads to trigger fear, doubt, and hate, and then blasts all three with a force-beam anyway; if he could take down the group at the same time, then why the need to trigger the emotional unrest first?  Well, I guess it makes for reasonably good theater.  

The important thing is that the FF is back again; was anyone else as pleased as I was to see them together in the classic raw-stone dungeon setting, with Ben getting fired up while Reed argues for clearer heads to devise a plan?  Seems like old times.  And what’s this about restoring Reed’s stretching powers – what could Doom possibly gain from that?  Unless, of course, his point is to prove to Reed that he could achieve something Reed could not; and that certainly would be a good-enough reason for Doom, right?

Chris: Marv and Keith do a nice job keeping our villain under wraps, first as the three-piece suited, cigarette-holder guy is kept in shadows, and then finally revealed to be … well, someone we don’t recognize, and whom Reed can’t seem to place.  Doom himself isn’t tipped off as the true power behind the scheme until p 21 (past pnl), as we see a metal hand holding a goblet with a “D” crest stamped on it.  If that clue isn’t clear enough, I’d say those are Doombots the team’s tangling with, wouldn’t you?  Either way, it’s a nice build until the big-time reveal on the final page.  
I still like the Pollard/Marcos art, although I respect that other FF fans will be clamoring for the return of Joe Sinnott.  Favorite art moments include: the spooky way the defeated team is levitated above the crowd and moved soundlessly out of the restaurant (p 14, last pnl); the machinery-heavy “inner complex” for the solar power station, an intricate-looking gadget, in keeping with FF tradition (p 23); Sue’s ingenious idea to free herself from the wrist-shackle (p 26), and the way Doombots scatter under the weight of the crashing wall (p 26, last pnl).  
Mark: The attempts at Hollywood humor (the Duke strolling down Vine Street in a big cowboy hat, Let's Make Another Deal) also fall flat. The identity of Reed's boss remains a minor mystery (unless the cigarette holder denotes a slimmed-down & bewigged Kingpin, but I doubt it), and the prism/mirror weapon inspires more befuddlement than dread. Let's hope Marv has more in mind for Doom than hypnotizing the world.   

Still, our foursome is finally reunited after months of uninspired solo (mis)adventures. And if the promised return of the Red Ghost doesn't bode well, the return of Reed's elasticity certainly does. And, of course, the Doctor is in.

Prognosis: unknown.

*See Fantastic Four Annual #5, 1967 

 Godzilla 12
"The Mega-Monsters From Beyond!
Part One: The Beta-Beast!"
Story by Doug Moench
Art by Herb Trimpe and Fred Kida
Colors by Mary Titus
Letters by Bruce Patterson
Cover by Herb Trimpe and Joe Rubinstein

After the battle in the Grand Canyon, Red Ronin flies off, Dum Dum and Gabe jet away, and Godzilla lumbers from the scene, only to be drawn into a "jagged gash of crackling energy," which takes him to a distant moon in outer space! With a cocoon of air around him to enable the Big G to breathe, he's attacked by the Beta-Beast, "a loathsome monstrosity spawned far beyond the visible stars." The two monsters battle ferociously, with the B-B firing "quills" at Godzilla that almost take him out, but when the two creatures match fire with radioactive breath, the rage of Godzilla wins out!  A ship of some sort rises from a nearby crater, taking credit for the "oxygen-sheathe [sic]" which helps Big G stay alive, and the aliens inside use a freeze ray to stop Godzilla before he can attack them. We learn they are from the planet Beta, stuck in a centuries-long war with the planet Mega, who are sending their most powerful war-monsters to attack Earth—which is happening right now! They send the mighty Godzilla, who was able to defeat the Betans' most powerful creation, back to Earth so "that he will take up the fight for two worlds." Suddenly, Red Ronin is hit from above by "the first of the Mega-Monsters—Triax," and Godzilla shows up out of nowhere, but is he there to help? –Joe Tura

Joe: "The Mega-Monsters From Beyond!" Part One begins with Godzilla becoming "Space Godzilla," way before the actual character was created in the films. Well, not really. It's quite the hokey idea, and Moench spends some dramatic captions capturing Godzilla's thoughts about courage and rage and defeating enemies and basically getting cheesed off. The Betans have the best intentions, saving their planet and Earth while they're at it, and what better champion than Godzilla? Especially when Andre the Giant wasn't available! The big battle with the Beta-Beast worked nicely, with decent Trimpe art, and the entire issue went fast, which was fine with me. More monster mayhem is promised next month, but with Red Ronin involved, we'll get some inane teenage angst dialogue with it.

Matthew:  Suddenly, Yetrigar seems like a model of sophistication.  In their appearances and names, the Betan war-monsters—especially Triax, with his eye-stalks—resemble escapees from a tweener’s sketchbook that would be laughed off the screen even in a Gamera movie (the first, unnamed Beta-Beast greets Godzilla with “Grusssss”; is he German?).  When I first saw those sock-puppet aliens I think I even exclaimed “Dude, seriously?” aloud, to the presumed perplexity of my fellow commuters, but that was par for the course amid this sorry-ass issue’s countless sound-in-airless-space gaffes, the myriad unanswered questions regarding Godzilla’s “oxygen-sheathe [sic]," and the Betans’ hope that our protagonist “will take up the fight for two worlds.”

Howard the Duck 26
Story by Steve Gerber
Art by Gene Colan and Klaus Janson
Colors by Janice Cohen
Letters by Irving Watanabe
Cover by Gene Colan and Klaus Janson

Howard wants no part of this.  He knows the Ringmaster had nabbed him, and now expects to include him as an act in his circus, but Howard resents the idea that he might be used to help the Ringmaster “rook the rubes"; a pointed gun barrel forces Howard to reconsider.  But he makes the best of it, and right when he’s got the crowd where he wants them, the Ringmaster retakes the stage and calls for the crowd to watch the ring on his hat, as it spins and spins, and draws the crowd to another place, where they willingly surrender all their cash and valuables to the Circus of Crime.  More bad news for Howard: following their successful haul, the Ringmaster will keep Howard with the circus – indefinitely.  Across town (I forgot to mention our setting is Skudge PA), one of the circus-goers, unemployed steelworker Ignatz Hubley, has just discovered he has no cash to cover his after-circus bar tab; he’s cleaned out!  Ignatz wanders around town, fairly drunk, and vows to get his bacon back, so that he can bring it home – somehow.  Around the same moment, a sporty convertible pulls into Skudge, as Iris, Paul, and Winda pursue the criminal circus.  Paul asks how Iris expects to find anything in this western Pennsylvania hamlet, and is surprised to learn Iris had planted a tracking device on the circus’ truck; his mood turns furious, though, as he realizes Iris had anticipated the Circus would rip them off, and that she is enjoying this little adventure of potentially “bringing an authentic super-villain … to justice!”  Paul storms off, and Winda agrees Iris has acted immaturely, so Iris leaves Winda on the street and drives away.  Meanwhile, Ignatz’s desperate search for money – any money – has led to him holding up the local 24-hr gas station – the very same station the Circus pulls into on their way out of town.  Howard trots into the station to see what’s taking the Ringmaster so long, and finds him with his hands raised before the drunken Ignatz; Howard’s far more surprised to see Paul, also in a defensive posture (Paul had stopped in to ask directions to the highway).  A single gunshot takes out the Ringmaster’s hypnotic hat; Ignatz, suddenly overwhelmed by the situation, dashes out, and is nearly run over by Iris.  As he falls, he fires one shot, which hits Paul.  Winda winds up at the hospital too, bruised and scratched after fighting off the advances of another in-town drunk (sheesh! wotta place this is!).  Howard calls Beverly Switzler (uh, Mister Beverly that is; Ms Bev’s cousin), who tells Howard to stay put – he’ll drive straight down from Cleveland to take all three of them … home. -Chris Blake

Chris: It’s a certifiably nutty story, with a series of crazy coincidences at the end that I would have scoffed at if this weren’t the funniest of funny books.  The one downside to this issue is that much of the action takes place without Howard’s involvement, as Ignatz grabs more of the spotlight than even Howard’s supporting characters.  One of the issue’s undeniable highlights, though, involves an oddball conversation between Howard and Cannonball, as C-ball encourages Howard not to say things that might hurt the Ringmaster’s feelings.  Y’see, the Ringmaster had his family’s circus snatched by the “Ratzis” back in Vienna.  The Ringmaster came to the States, hoping to recapture circus magic, but could never build up a true big-top circus, so he’s had to settle for an ignominious carny show.  They may be criminals, but as C-ball light-heartedly observes, “Heck, we’re not even good at it!” as super-heroes routinely “beat the livin’ spit” out of them.  Howard listens with gritted beak, thinking “I hate it when they go sincere on you.” 
Howard’s stand-up act is a ridiculous pastiche of humorous material from the mid-70s.  At one point, he announces he’s going to run “a list of funny words,” such as: “Ex-CUUUSE me. Hockey puck. No respect. Wonderful wino.”  I’m counting on all of you to be strong enough in your stand-up comedy fandom to recognize all of those references; if not, then see me during office hours, so I can provide a brief refresher.  
Matthew: Well, I knew the first three, and correctly guessed the fourth one was Carlin; do I pass? Of the 11 issues I reviewed this month, I can only admit I unequivocally liked the 9% represented by this one, which will be par for the course under the nascent Shooter administration; say what you want to about him personally, but I increasingly disliked the comics produced under his aegis, to the degree that I stopped buying them for good, which to me is the ultimate litmus test.  Gerber’s theme of “Repercussions…!” is an unusually sobering one for the Wile E. Coyote world of the funny book, where a super-hero battle usually ends with everybody dusting themselves off and bouncing back for the next gig.  As usual, Colanson renders indelible images of our favorite fowl, e.g., the classic cover and goggle-eyed “Hah…?” in page 7, panel 4 (above).

Mark: I've been anticipating an apoplectic fit shortly when new tyrant, er, editor, Jim Shooter goes gunning for the writer/editor fiefdoms, prompting - among other run-to-DC divorces - Steve Gerber's exit, but considering "Repercussions...!" is arguably the worst issue of HtD to date, maybe we'll forego all the teeth gnashing, as Steve seems to be running on fumes anyway. 

The Howard who once galvanized the nation on the presidential stump now holds forth beneath a circus tent, rib-tickling the rubes with sub-Stephen Wright non sequiturs, but none of it's funny except Howard's very silly duds, courtesy Gene and Tom. Gerbs gets nothing out of the Ringmaster's admittedly motley bunch, missing, in Bev's absence, a tailor-made Princess Python/Howard flirtation and instead serving up some hooey about "Ringo's" circus folk roots.

On their own, Winda soon wears out her whisping welcome, and Paul's become such a cipher/slug that it barely registers when he gets shot. Making things worse, Steve ties the story together through one Ignatz Hubley, an unemployed mill worker on a toot. Goofy name? Check. Pathetic backstory? Yep. This is the Gerbs going back to his Man-Thing playbook, where he'd oft tell the tale through the eyes of the hippies, kooks, and good ole boys that crossed Manny's shambling path. That was a necessary device, given the titular character was insensate goo, and Gerber often used it to good effect. But that equation's flipped, with Howard one of the great characters of the era. Here he's passive or ineffective, as when the audience thinks his warning is another gag. He's abused by the carnies and off-screen a lot, as Steve lavishes attention on Ignatz, who's neither tragic nor funny, just - worst sin of all - a complete bore.

As is this.

Howard's random thought about Bev on p. 20 is the only hint of the story we wanted to be reading. 

The Incredible Hulk 225
"Is There Hulk After Death?"
Story by Roger Stern
Art by Sal Buscema and Joe Rubinstein
Colors by Janice Cohen
Letters by Gaspar Saladino and Rick Parker
Cover by Ron Wilson and Joe Rubinstein

Doc Samson manages not only to save Bruce Banner's life but also to transform him back into the Hulk (How? Who knows? Roger Stern ain't tellin'), just in time to thwart the Leader's plans for world domination. Since Doc is bound to the laboratory by the Leader's mind-whatsit, he tricks the Hulk into bashing him through a wall. Together, Samson and the Incredible one put an end to the big green dome's evil plot. While exiting stage left via a teleportation, the Leader is "totally disintegrated" (until he's integrated for The Incredible Hulk Annual #11 in 1982). When the smoke clears, the Hulk makes it clear to Samson that he's next on the Smash List. -Peter Enfantino

Peter: The adjective that comes to mind to describe this issue is lackadaisical but then The Lackadaisical Hulk might not have sold as many copies. The definition of lackadaisical is "without vigor or interest." Yep, that describes this one in both the script and art department. Rather than present something original, Roger Stern regurgitates the same old MARMIS and rushed finale. How do you solve the problem of Doc Samson being mind-melded to one room? Have the Hulk smash him through a wall to the outside world. Brilliant! Really, how many times can the Leader be vaporized only to return to Lead another day? And, is it my bad eyes or does his cranium seem to change sizes from panel to panel? At least we were spared from enduring more than a page of Jim Wilson and the Great Kropotkin doing their best Bob and Bing. Who the hell was telling Roger that the kids were diggin' this crap? The one bright and shining light emanating from this big turd is the iconic cover. That's a keeper.

Matthew: Not wild about the Silly-Putty Hulk on the cover, which pretty well sums up my attitude toward this acceptable but uninspiring issue.  While not Sal’s best inker, Joe is far better than some (not naming any names), and I especially like their handling of the Leader, with the exception of those goofy-looking metal mittens he’s sporting in the climax.  Sterno’s story is somewhat tiresome:  we know the book’s star isn’t dead, so why pretend he is for a single page; the self-induced MARMIS that lets Samson trick poor, dim-witted Jade-Jaws into punching him out of the building is as stale as the Hulk’s boy-who-cried-wolf reluctance to accept his “I didn’t mean it!” biz is justified; and is anybody following The Jim and Kropotkin Show with interest…?

Chris: The action certainly moves briskly along, doesn’t it?  As surprised as the Leader might be to realize himself undone so quickly – when he was only an hour or two away from gaining control over the world’s communication systems – you can add my name to the list of those surprised, as I fully expected the Leader to hold the Hulk at bay, and to up the ante somehow so the Hulk would be stuck, unable to defeat the Leader, until our next chapter.  So, nice job by Sterno to devise an outcome that neither the villain nor the reader expected.  

The Hulk suddenly seems a bit more articulate – you noticed that, right?  “Very well,” Hulk says to Samson, “Hulk will follow this time, but – !”  Wait – since when has the Hulk ever used an expression like “very well”?  He then calls the Leader by name (“Leader, you talk too much!”), instead of “long-skull,” or “green-head” or something, and then rhetorically asks, “Where is your power now, Leader?” as he closes in and crushes L’s “kinetron mitts.”  Samson might’ve picked up on Hulk’s expanded vocabulary, but he might not’ve counted on Greenskin retaining his usual capacity for ferocity; a moment after the Leader (apparently) has disintegrated, Hulk’s retention of his knowledge of Samson having tricked him earlier results in the Hulk diving right after him.  Does this mean the Hulk also is exhibiting an improved degree of executive function, as he’s able to shelve one concern (smash Samson) in order to direct his attention toward a higher priority (smash Leader)?  It’ll be interesting to see where this might go; Samson might be required to employ equal measures of clinical skills and gamma-powered might.  
I’m enjoying the art a great deal.  Sal & Joe certainly know how to deliver a scheming villain (p 3, last pnl; p 4, pnl 3), and certainly know how to present our title character, starting with his first moment on stage (p 10, pnl 3), to his staredown of the Leader (p 23, pnl 3), and his brute-strength victory over advanced technology (p 28).  The battle with the “rubber men” is empty fun, but it’s only three pages, so where’s the harm?  
Scott: And so the Leader Trilogy ends. What a fun three issues! With Banner close to death, the only way to save him is to, of course, make him the Hulk again. Predictable, but so what? The character interaction is great, although Ross getting teary-eyed over the death of a man he never respected and always hounded comes off as hollow. However, Samson and the Hulk fighting side by side is always a good time. The Leader’s “Death” will be explained away at some point, but he’s gone for now. The art is exceptional, with the only sticking point being in the eyes of some characters. They tend to be googly, like a pug (my dog’s always look in two directions at once). On page 6, panel 4, it’s Banner’s turn to go googly. However, the callback to Banner’s reaction to his first exposure to gamma rays is appreciated. These last three issues remain a real apex for me as far as this book was concerned. It will rarely be this much fun again. I happened to catch it at just the right time in my life, as the TV series was my favorite new show and I couldn’t get enough of “Marvel’s TV Sensation.”

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