Wednesday, August 31, 2016

December 1978 Part One: Ghost Encounters of the Turd Kind

 The Amazing Spider-Man 187
"The Power of Electro!"
Story by Marv Wolfman and Jim Starlin
Art by Jim Starlin and Bob McLeod
Colors by Michele Wolfman
Letters by Annette Kawecki
Cover by Keith Pollard and Frank Giacoia

Spider-Man slinks into the trees at Indian Point, on a photo assignment from J. Jonah Jameson, and SHIELD agents have the area blocked off. Thinking about Betty, Mary Jane, and his love life, Peter/Spidey does some acrobatics to get closer to the action, when Captain America sneaks in from behind! The star-spangled Avenger asks Spidey politely to leave, but when the curious web-head refuses, Cap smashes him good, letting our hero know he's in danger if he stays, so Spidey swings off. Cap goes directly to the heart of the matter, flashing back to a boy, Barry Starr, who was bitten by a rat (causing a deadly disease) and kidnapped for a million-dollar ransom—and when he finds the boy, he also meets the kidnapper face to face—it's Electro! Suddenly, Spider-Man swings in, and he and Cap get the zap on Electro, until the volt-heavy villain grabs little Barry, only to learn from Cap that Barry has the plague! The coughing and upset Electro runs off and tries to siphon the electricity of the power station they're in, but that ends up causing the building to explode! Cap finds his shield among the rubble, but no sign of Electro as Dum Dum Dugan shows up, with the news that they got the kid to the doctor on time, and Spidey received his antidote shots. -Joe Tura

Joe Tura: A nice cover by Pollard starts us off, and when we open to see Jim Starlin is co-plotter and layout artist, we're excited to remember this one! A decent one-shot, it's a combination of intrigue, sci-fi, action, the usual derring-do from Cap, a patented fake-out by Spidey, a youngster in trouble, and a New York rat carrying the plague, which for us native New Yorkers might be the scariest plot development of the year! The story moves along like a current from Electro's hands, with fluid artwork from Starlin that's surprising in the assignment and features some nifty panels like the ones Prof. Matthew mentions below, as well as two behind shots of Spidey which are my favorites for their ingenuity—page 2 panel 3 and page 6 panel 1. We even get a strange-but-fun pop culture reference from Spidey this time: "We make a great team, Cap! Like Abbott and Costello!" Alas, straight man Cap does not ask "Who's on first?"

Favorite sound effect in an issue with some electrifying choices is not the original "SKRAKKK" as Cap busts down the door, or the high-voltage "ZWATTT" when Electro reveals himself, or even the logical "SPOK!" when the two heroes give Electro a double punchline. Instead, it's not a stretch to choose the awesomely lettered "SWOK" as Captain America throws the right cross of the year into Web-Head's noggin, with an emphatic "And Captain America means what he says!" If he wasn’t punching my favorite Marvel character, I may have cheered!

Matthew Bradley: Although Starlin’s Captain Marvel is my favorite arc, I am often paradoxically underwhelmed by his renditions of less cosmic subjects, but found his layouts here as felicitous as the finishes by McLeod, whom I have long championed.  Love the detail of Randy’s photo on Robbie’s desk in page 2, panel 5; the haymaker in page 10, panel 3; stealth-Cap in 14 panel 7; and the Electro-reveal in page 21, panel 1.  Jim also did well co-plotting with Marv:  too often a MARMIS is a lame device as liable to impede as to advance the story, yet this one is both more integral and more justifiable—fears of a plague-panic seem reasonable, and a by-the-book guy like Cap unlikely to tell tales out of school (even to a longtime ally like Spidey).

Mark Barsotti: Jim Starlin's art is the main attraction here, not to say the only one. But it's close. A mucho muscular Cap (check out his first panel appearance on p.7) is more in Starlin's wheelhouse, but he does fine by the spindly web-spinner. His Spidey-in-trees staging is the most effective.

When we get to the words - and I suppose we must, class, else Dean P won't pay me - this comes off as an average issue of Marvel Team-Up, which is to say, not very good. The single page devoted to the supporting cast, Bugle boys Robbie and J. Jonah in this case, is mere plot service. And it can, to be fair, use all the help it can get.

We get a little slo-mo MARMIS between Cap and Spidey, and then Wing-head, not Web, gets four solo pages and check the cover again to make sure you're in the right mag. But workload distribution is the least of the problems. Electro's the most, in all his pompous, ineffectual glory here, crowing about becoming invincible before blowing himself up, one way or t'other.

And who doesn't love an adorable kid with the plague?

Chris Blake: It’s a pretty ho-hum team-up issue, despite Marv’s efforts to drum up suspense by having Cap refuse to disclose why Spidey has to “beat it!”  The fact that this plague can be effectively combated with a simple (albeit uncomfortably administered) injection removes the life-or-death element.  What’s worse, there’s absolutely no good reason for Cap to fight Spidey; their brief clash feels obligatory and empty.  Spidey observes he and Cap have previously “fought alongside” each other; as a leader of men, Cap would be far more likely to put Spidey to work to help him locate Electro, especially with a sick kid’s life at stake.  For a more accurate depiction of Captain America’s character under MARMIS conditions, please refer back to your notes from the Claremont/Byrne Iron Fist #12.

I’m surprised Jim Starlin would be involved with this thin concept.  It would help if his art were more in evidence, so at least we could admire his distinctive style with these characters; but, the credits accurately describe his work as “layouts,” so the finished product mostly is solid Bob McLeod, but not potentially-spectacular Starlin.  I might be disappointed by Starlin, but not by Marv Wolfman; he’s brought little of interest since he assumed writer’s reins in ASM #182, and this issue is no different.  Granted, Len Wein needed some time to get his footing as a Spidey-scribe, but Wolfman’s run on Fantastic Four – which began seven issues ago – so far has been more ambitious, and shown a clearer grasp of the characters, than we’ve seen with ASM.

(Note: on the letters page for ASM #190, the obliging armadillo informs us Marv and Jim originally had drafted this story a year before as an MTU fill-in; Marv then took the basic framework and re-purposed it to fit the present storyline.  So now, I’m even less inclined to blame Judo Jim for the story’s shortcomings.)

 The Avengers 178
"The Martyr Perplex!"
Story by Steve Gerber
Art by Carmine Infantino and Rudy Nebres
Colors by Nel Yomtov
Letters by Joe Rosen
Cover by John Buscema

Enjoying the single life, Beast whoops it up in a nightclub until a jealous on-looker takes a swing at Hank and denigrates his mutant status. After giving the cad a small taste of what super-villains get, Hank walks back to the Avengers mansion, somber and pensive. He is approached by a man dressed in tatters, claiming he will die for Hank's sins. The man collapses and is struck by lightning. The incident, obviously, leaves Hank troubled and confiding in his fellow Avengers, once he gets back to the estate, helps him not one bit. Back out on the tiles the next night, Hank is talked into some hanky-panky by a gorgeous woman; the girl convinces Beast to steal a little black box for her. Turns out the girl is working for a baddie coined the Manipulator, an evil fiend  who's conducting the experiment for the benefit of four organizations that want to go on a robbing spree without having to watch out for the Avengers. The Manipulator convinces these hoods that he can, in fact, control superheroes but once they agree to his 10-million-dollar fee, it's revealed that he's actually working for the government. The Manipulator hands over his memory-cell stimulator to the agents who remark that the gizmo may come in handy one day as "one of (the Avengers) could turn against us someday." -Peter Enfantino

Peter Enfantino: Since Steve Gerber had already been fired from Marvel by Fall of 1978, this Beast solo adventure is obviously one of those emergency file stories we keep hearing about. Whatever the reason we got it, it couldn't have come at a better time. Is it a great story? Nope. But it doesn't have to be, seeing as it's following several months of the Korvac Swill Saga; it just has to entertain, that's all. Oh that Steve Gerber! Never one to pass up a middle finger at the government. His heavy-handed "never trust the man" message in the climax made me want to put a finger down my throat but, otherwise, he had me smiling and turning the pages at a regular rate. The Beast's cameo (rambling on about his libido) in Defenders #66 segues quite well into the splash for this issue. And the art, by the way, gets a big thumbs-up from me even though there are several on the staff who regularly regard Infantino and Nebres as paragons of mediocrity.

Matthew: I can reiterate my somewhat more nuanced attitude toward Rudy upon request.

Joe: Ooooooookay….That was different. After starting off fairly normal, which is how I remembered the issue (in addition to recalling the so-so Infantino art), this one goes off the rails faster than a scared rat burns at the Man-Thing's touch. There's seemingly an explanation for the odd guy who wants to give his life for Beast. But what about the two-faced Manipulator? What the heck does he really want? What is his purpose? Why would we even care? The fedora-clad dime-a-dozen G-men wannabes are no help either, ultimately as unforgettable as the Manipulator (his only other appearance, alluded to by Prof. Matthew, was Captain America #242 in Feb 1980, where after being shot by an errant bullet from the boisterous Brian Muldoon, learns he's an android and shuts down. Oh, well.). I agree with Prof. Matthew about the typical Gerber conclusion, but there are some good moments here. Beast's "dates" are handled well, besides the odd panels of him looking as if he's growling and about to bite. And his reactions with Jarvis are excellent, as well as the "pondering" page 14 where he tells Cap "Aaah, go pledge allegiance, willya?!" But my fave is bottom of page 30, where a bewildered Beast (more like "manipulated" hardee har har) sings, to the tune of "Eleanor Rigby": "Professor Xavier—writing the words of a sermon that no one will—", before he lands on his hirsute hindquarters. 

Chris: It’s hard to know where this story would be best suited to see print; it’s not an Avengers tale by any stretch (cameos by Wonder Man, Wasp, and a glimpse of Captain America do not an Avengers adventure make).  If the Beast were to have a series of solo adventures (Amazing Adventures II, if you will), this story might fit in that mix.  I remember skipping this issue when first published; as a longtime fan, I should’ve been wowed by the prospect of a Beast-centric story, but I suspect Carmine Infantino’s art inspired me to return the issue to the rack.

I’m glad to have discovered this at a later date, since Steve G. concocts a compact, clever little story that includes disparate elements like a Beast’s night out, a mysterious encounter in the rain, some soul-searching (not too much), a devious plot, and then a few twists to round it out.  Credit to Gerber for surprising me as the two “company” men arrive, and reveal they’ve paid a villain to prove he can control an Avenger (so, a little insurance, in case the super-types turn bad; paranoid much, Steve -?).  I’m left wondering whether the ragged man in the rain, the one willing to absorb Hank’s lifetime of slings and arrows, has been part of the Manipulator’s scheme, until the same man re-emerges from the shadows to confront the two agents!  Steve really outdoes himself with these closing moments; if he had to take time off from Howard the Duck to dream up this story, then it was worth it. 

We’ve seen in recent issues of John Carter that Rudy Nebres’ total dominance can be helpful when paired with a penciller like Infantino.  In fairness to Carmine, he has some fun with our star, especially the chandelier-dancing featured on the splash page, but also presents a very effective sequence in the heavy rain (p 6-7), most notably the deeply-contemplative panel before he meets the empath (p 6, pnl 2).  Points also for the unusual panel that shows Hank’s mind flooded with thoughts of new and old comrades, “tumbling off their psychic shelves” (p 26, 1st pnl). 

Matthew: This isn’t much of an Assemblers yarn—Jan and Simon essentially bring nothing to the table—yet I loves me my Beast (so magnificently, and misleadingly, depicted on Big John’s cover), and try not to be reflexively negative toward fill-ins, so I might’ve been able to get behind this virtual solo story…if there weren’t so much else wrong with it.  I’m not just talking about the art, but while you might get away with Infanebres on John Carter, as in #12-14, it’s just a goddamn train-wreck here.  And, if you’ll pardon the pun, lame-duck guest writer Gerber just flounders with an incoherent story, ineffectual hero, nothing villain whose sole return visit is mercifully outside our purview, and EC-style WTF ending, missing only a final “Choke!”

 Captain America 228
"A Serpent Lurks Below"
Story by Roger McKenzie
Art by Sal Buscema, Mike Esposito, and John Tartaglione
Colors by George Roussos
Letters by Gaspar Saladino and Diana Albers
Cover by Ron Wilson and Dan Green

An off-day for crime-fighting finds Captain America climbing the walls. Looking around him at his fellow Avengers makes him feel hollow so he goes up to the roof for a bit of air. A little boy playing super-heroes steps in front of a truck and Cap has to act fast to save the little moppet from becoming part of the asphalt. The little boy tells Cap that he and the Falcon are the greatest. This reminds our star-spangled hero that he hasn't seen Sam in months and he should get back to his search for his ex-partner. Knowing SHIELD might have eyes on Sam, Cap heads to their HQ, only to find it surprisingly quiet, with a SHIELD killer robot the only distraction. After the 'bot is dispatched, Cap gets a call from Jasper Sitwell, who informs Cap that the SHIELD HQ had been breached and so Fury had commissioned its destruction. Cap has but minutes to get out or become part of that destruction. As he's heading for the exit, he's attacked by the Constrictor, who has been hired by the "Corporation" to take the hero out of commission. Cap tries to reason with the twelfth-tier baddie, citing the upcoming building demolition, but the dope isn't buying it. Not, that is, until the walls start coming down.
-Peter Enfantino

Peter: Not much to write about here; this is what we call in the business a 'tweener. A story that comes between arcs and doesn't add up to much. There's a lot of uncharacteristic "woe is me" from the red, white and blue sensation (something you never got in the Englehart years) and Avengers frivolity (Thor and Herc arm-wrestling and Beast excited about an upcoming date). What there's a lack of here is excitement.

Chris: Another slight issue.  Following his recent search for his past, I can appreciate how Cap might feel dissatisfied with the empty spaces in his present.  But, Iron Man’s right, when he observes Cap has no cause to feel sorry for himself.  This kind of moping is completely out of character; the Cap we all know is a self-starter.   Then, we lose a few pages with the inevitable split-second rescue of the kid in the street; what, again?  I think the only kid in the entire city who hasn’t been saved from being hit by a truck was Matt Murdock.  This business takes up nearly seven pages, until Cap suddenly remembers Sam “Falcon” Wilson went missing a few weeks ago; well, good thing he wasn’t counting on a ride home from the airport, right?

Next Issue: "Cap Saves a Tabby from a Tree!"
I’m going to miss the barber shop; that was a clever device.  Nice moment as Cap realizes he’s out of the loop about the closure of the underground center.  The clash with the Constrictor goes reasonably well, but it’s all over pretty quickly as the walls come a-tumblin’ down.  One question: Cap asks himself how the Constrictor knew to find him there, and reflects on how only Jasper, and the Super Agents, knew his present whereabouts.  That may be so, but how could the Constrictor possibly arrive within ten seconds of the call to SHIELD being disconnected?  Do the Constrictor’s coils now also allow him to teleport, or something -?  I’d be more inclined to make a small allowance in an otherwise solid story, but there’s too little to be excited about in the issue as it is, so instead, I’m likelier to find fault. 

Matthew: With variations, I could almost write the same review for every McKenzie issue thus far:  the Buscema/Tartag/“Espo” artwork is typically solid, especially that atmospheric splash page, yet the story is mediocre at best, and Cap way too whiny.  Was it actually established that Falc “disappeared” in #217, rather than being tacitly or overtly written out?  I can’t recall, so Rog gets the benefit of the doubt, and it’s not his fault that the plot uncomfortably recalls the loose end from MTU #57, when the Black Widow also found S.H.I.E.L.D.’s H.Q. deserted.  But come on:  Cap suspects he was set up by Jasper or one of the Super-Agents, all of whom have been aware of his presence there for a few minutes?  Oh, please.

Conan the Barbarian 93 
“Of Rage and Revenge”
Story by Roy Thomas
Art by John Buscema and Ernie Chan
Colors by George Roussos
Letters by Tom Orzechowski
Cover by John Buscema and Ernie Chan

Under the thrall of Ptor-Nubis, Conan battles Bêlit while Zula faces off against M’Gora. But the Zamballahian is wise to the ways of hypnosis — he secretly shrugs off the minor wizard’s spell. Zula then allows M’Gora to force him back towards Ptor-Nubis. When he gets close enough, the wizarding warrior slashes the sorcerer’s throat, finally getting his revenge on the one who  sold him into slavery as a child. Its source dead, the enchantment dissipates and the Cimmerian and his allies slaughter the remaining Stygian guards. Bêlit sends M’Gora and Zula into the streets of Asgalun to spread the word that the daughter of the former king Atrahasis has returned to claim her rightful throne from her murderous uncle, Nim-Karrak. As the two black men leave, Bêlit reminisces that once she has killed the current king, only the fat and jovial Uriaz and the madman Akhîrom have royal Shemite blood in their veins.

In the throne room, a nervous King Nim-Karrak retreats to the safety of his secret hiding place, warned that the Stygians are planning to annex Asgalun. A lucky move, since moments after, Prince Khamun and his men storm the royal chamber, sent by King Ctesphon III to control the city. Hours later, Khamun addresses the populace from the palace’s huge, multi-leveled entrance, announcing that they are all now under Stygian rule. The Hyrkanian soldiers, Nim-Karrak’s hired guards, stand by nervously as Imbalayo’s Kushite warriors, paid allies of the Stygians, hold the murmuring crowds at bay by spear point. A screaming Uriaz is dragged forward and Khamun orders him under the executioner’s axe. But before the death blow is delivered, the executioner flips back his hood  — it is Conan, who hurls his weapon into the new king’s chest, killing him instantly. Also removing her Stygian disguise, Bêlit storms forward and claims the throne. The Asgalunians surge and attack their oppressors. After the terrible battle swings to the crazed citizens' advantage, the Hyrkanians and Kushites join in and the Stygians are soon overwhelmed.

As Bêlit surveys the carnage wrought in her name, Nim-Karrak emerges from his hiding place and stalks from behind, dagger raised. But Zula luckily spots the assassin — he magicks a huge stone lion and makes it appear to be alive. Nim-Karrak recoils in horror and falls to his death. Bêlit screams in anger: her long-delayed vengeance has been taken from her. When the bloody dust settles, the She-Devil learns that all rulers must reign until their death or be killed. She places the crown on protesting Uriaz’s head and strides off to the Tigress, her true throne, with Conan, Zula and M’Gora, leaving Asgalun behind forever — as the army of the insane Akhîrom approaches from the distance. 
-Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn: Well, not sure that this one deserve the Landmark Issue logo, but I could attempt an argument. Sorry for the long synopsis, but considering that this storyline has been percolating since issue #72 — March 1977! — The Rascally One had a lot of loose ends to tie together in the grand and glorious finale. And he does in a masterful way. So what happens when Bêlit finally gets Nim-Karrak, her uncle and the man responsible for her father’s death, in her sights? Basically, he is accidentally killed by Zula — who also manages to get his revenge on Ptor-Nubis ten pages earlier. To me, that makes him the ultimate and surprising hero of the whole shebang. And what does Bêlit do when she gains her rightful crown? After learning that wearing it is a “till death” deal, she pawns if off to the chubby putz Uriaz and returns to her true kingdom, the pirate ship Tigress, to continue her plunder of the Hyborian seas. Now some loyal readers might throw their hands up in disgust and shout “after all this time, that’s it?!?” But I think Roy holds true to the spirit of this series. Hasn’t Conan himself turned down the chance to rule on a few occasions? 

We have a ton of pieces locking together in this action-packed issue: besides Conan and company, there’s Ptor-Nubis, Nim-Karrak, Prince Khamun and the Stygians, Uriaz, Akhîrom, the Shemite citizens, the Hyrkanians, and Imbalayo’s Kushites. Thoth-Amon is also present in a roundabout way: a raven under his command watches the wild proceedings from a lofty perch. Speaking of Akhîrom and Imbalayo, they return in this month’s awesome The Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian magazine, a tale set in Asgalun a few years after this one. Hats off to Roy for such outstanding timing. And the usual props to Big John and Ernie: most of their breathless panels are filled with multiple if not dozens of characters but everything remains well defined and easy to follow. This is a very complicated comic and the creative team guides us through like true and talented professionals. A rare breed.

So that’s it for what I have been calling the Luxor Quest. We’ve met a slavegirl who became the king of Stygia, mighty Hawk-Riders, the violent Hor-Neb and his peaceful brother Mer-Ath, the tragic giant Gol-Thir, the warrior wizard Zula, the Devourer of the Dead, the weasely Ctesphon II, a crippled Giant King, and, of course, Thoth-Amon. And that’s not to mention the dreaded deadline doom side trips to the Valley of Iskander and the swamplands of Viper’s Head. By Crom, let’s have a standing ovation all around.

Chris: Reversals, reversals! Roy packs about three issues-worth of plot developments into this one story. I fully admit to being left a bit confused at times (ya need a scorecard ...), but I'm willing to bet it's part of Roy's design, as the various factions switch allegiances during the chaotic scrum for succession in Asgalun. The rapid changes in characters' fortunes play right into the tale's excitement. The most satisfying of these is on p 14, as all factors are pointing toward the seeming inevitability of another wrongful coronation, this time of Prince Khamun, as the Stygians expect to wrest uncontested control. The execution of Uriaz will cement this dirty deal -- unless, that is, Conan the executioner is here for you, would-be monarch. Best of all, Roy doesn’t telegraph the Moment; unless we recognize Conan's bulk under the hangman's hood, we the readers are just as surprised (in a good way for us -- for Khamun, not so much) when the hard-flung axe-head crushes his chest cavity.

Roy makes good use of Zula's understanding of "arcane magic" (which has come in handy a few times now) as he breaks free of Ptor-Nubis' hold, and claims his vengeance; John & Ernie seal the deal as Ptor-Nubis recognizes -- too late! -- he's seen that Zamballan somewhere before (p 3, pn 3). Zula's powers come into play for another turnaround on p 23, which comes together pretty quickly (good thing Zula is able to catch Nim-Karrak's eye for a "spilt-second," isn't it Roy?); in this case, John & Ernie's seemingly living statue (p 23, pnl 6) helps to sell a moment that isn't as credible in the script on its own. These guys are quite a team, aren't they?

I'm not terribly surprised that Zula doesn't revel in his revenge against Ptor-Nubis, but it's unexpected for Bêlit to share a similar reaction, once throne-grabber Nim-Karrak has met his undignified end. Conan (who's learned a thing or two about payback over the years) rightfully observes that Bêlit wanted only a dead Nim-Karrak, not a lifetime commitment to rule for herself.

 The Defenders 66
"Val in Valhalla Part One:
War of the Dead!"
Story by David Anthony Kraft
Art by Ed Hannigan and Bruce Patterson
Colors by Bob Sharen
Letters by Gaspar Saladino and Elaine Heinl
Cover by John Buscema and Bob McLeod

With some unknown itch to scratch, Val heads to Asgard, where she meets with the Three Fates, Skuld, Urdur, and Verandi. The trio of witches tells Val she's been marked for death by Hela and there's no use dodging the goddess of death. Knowing she can't change her future, Val heads to Valhalla to find out from Hela why she's been marked for death. Hela sends Val and Vallhalla's "leader of the legions," Harokin, to the nearby mountains, where the army of Ollerus the Unmerciful is about to march into Valhalla. Meanwhile, Ollerus has just received a really good battle plan from Poppo the Cunning and instructs his men to move to the Pass of Peril. A furious battle ensues between the two armies but Ollerus' horde is too much for Val's troops and she is the only survivor. Fleeing, she sees an impossible sight: a moving mountain. When she enters a portal in the mountain, she comes across an image of herself lying on a stone altar. The figure is that of her human alter ego, Barbara Norriss, and when she touches Barbara's forehead, Val slips into a coma and Barbara is "alive" again! -Peter Enfantino

Peter: This has got the rumblings of something either epically good or laughably bad. I liked almost all aspects of this Solo Val "Journey Into Mystery." Between Defenders and Thor, there might be just a little too much Armageddon/Ragnarok going on for one Universe in one month though, wouldn't you say?  If Ed Hannigan's battle scenes aren't quite on a par with the work of Joe Maneely, he at least gives it the old college try, with clashing swords and hyperventilating steeds aplenty. When it comes time for Netflix to unveil their Defenders series, I'm begging them to feature Ollerus the Unmerciful as the lead villain. How glorious would it be to watch a bad guy, who looks like one of those behind-the-scenes photos from Godzilla (with Haruo Nakajima's head sticking out of the Big G's mouth), attempt to bring down a super-group without swiveling his neck?

Matthew: Anybody who name-checks Haruo Nakajima automatically goes up a notch in my book (and I presume Professor Joe will concur). Okay, I get it, the Valkyrie originated in Norse mythology, so it’s fair to send ours to Asgard...but still.  I’ve read every damned issue of this series, and other than the obvious fact of her creation by the Enchantress, I don’t recall a whole lot of Asgardian associations with Marvel’s version.  Where, for example, when the two teams chilled together during the cease-fire after the Avengers-Defenders War, was the scene of Val and Thor reminiscing about the good ol’ days doing shots with Heimdall, unless my memory’s gotten worse than I thought?  So the “At Last!  Valkyrie Enters Asgard!” tagline already seems to come out of left field, since I wasn’t aware that anybody was breathlessly waiting for the declining strip to be thus hijacked “at last.”

Worse, Buscema’s busy cover, with nary another Defender in sight, asks the musical question, “And if Valkyrie is here, can the Hulk be far behind?”  Well, if by “far behind” you mean “yet again not to be found inside, despite being shown/invoked on the cover,” then the answer is yes.  Perhaps Greenskin is essaying the role of Sir Not-appearing-in-this-film.  Oh, Dude, how can I miss you if you and your relentless “DAK-OOM” sound effects won’t go away?  The Hannigan/Patterson art is largely indifferent, and Onerous—uh, Ollerous—looks like a cross between Starlin’s head-in-the-Venus-flytrap Kathulos in my beloved Marvel Premiere #8 and the equally unforgettable (albeit for other reasons) jellyfish monster in the classic Sting of Death.

One exception is the “view from the Rainbow Bridge” panorama spanning the tops of pages 2-3 (far above), into which the names of the creative troika have been “cleverly” interpolated.  Meanwhile, the poorly punctuating Bullpen Hype-Machine is working overtime on this muddled mess:  “Dave and [editor] Bob [Hall] have been closely coordinating with Consulting Editor and resident Mythology Expert, Rascally Roy Thomas concerning the Defenders’ doings in the Golden Realm, to make certain everything meshes perfectly with Roy’s current storyline in the pages of Thor.”  Can’t say I’ve seen much sign of that, but since this is, alas, “a three part mini-epic” (à la Matt Groening’s “Mini-Jumbo” Life in Hell collections?), I fear there will be ample opportunity.

Chris: It’s a real departure from our typical Defenders outing, isn’t it?  It’s one of the strengths of this title, that there are numerous settings available for the stirring adventures of our non-members.  Consider the past year (publication time): we’ve been to New York, Doc’s sanctum and the riding academy, but also a demon-invaded Mexico, irradiated stretches of Russia, and undersea Atlantis.  The timing seems right for Val to return to Asgard; it’s a clever and fitting notion that she should be on hand to battle for the fate of Valhalla.

It’s also a welcome change after several issues-worth of shaky stories; thankfully, no sign of Dollar Bill, or Lunatik.  If there’s any downside, it’s the clear absence of all the other Defenders; three panels with Patsy as she wakes up, and a half-page of prosecutors targeting Kyle, leaves us well short of our non-team fix.  The (lying) box on the cover asks: “Can the Hulk Be Far Behind?”  Well, the answer is “yes,” since his role this time is “Sir Not Appearing in This Comic.” 

It’s a bit too early to know exactly what’s happening with Hela; we’re told she’s taken advantage of Odin’s negligence (under recent threat of Ragnarok; Marvel continuity!) to infect Valhalla with influence of thrice-damned Niffleheim.  But when we see Hela, she’s all business as she orders Val to battle (p 21), and doesn’t seem interested in expanding her sphere of influence; maybe we’ll hear more about this in our next chapter. 

The body-switcheroo at the end is intriguing, as it appears Barbara Norriss has been freed from confinement somewhere in Val’s mind (as Val has inhabited Barbara’s body all this time), and now has taken possession of Val’s original form.  Well, whatever you do, don’t tell Jack Norriss, until we see how all this is going to work out, okay?  Otherwise, he’s going to go crazy as he tries to book a flight or a train (or cons Kyle into buying him another sporty convertible …) to take him to Asgard. 

The art’s pretty good, with Ed & Bruce’s Asgardian vista (p 2-3) a clear highlight; their take on the city includes trees and open spaces that we typically don’t see in the pages of Thor.  You don’t have to look too closely at the giant column in the center to read the names “Hannifin,” “Patterson,” and “Kraft,” but I’m glad they’re having fun with it. 

 Doctor Strange 32
"The Dream Weaver!"
Story by Roger Stern
Art by Alan Kupperberg and Rudy Nebres
Colors by Francoise Mouly
Letters by Jim Novak
Cover by Rudy Nebres

Clea and Stephen give their best to a departing Namor, who agrees to hold on to the Sword of Kamuu, despite its dangerous nature. After the Sub-Mariner departs, Clea hits the sack and Strange works on various conjurings. Meanwhile, a dimension away, the Dweller in Darkness discovers an interloper in his domain, the Dweller's servant, D'Spayre, who asks his master if he may regenerate his weakened powers. The Dweller then meets up with Nightmare, in hopes the sorcerer may have some idea how to dispose of Stephen Strange. Though Nightmare refuses to aid, the Dweller seems to think he's found the answer in the dream image of a young girl on Earth. He transforms the girl into the Dream Weaver and sends her to the Sanctum Sanctorum just as Doctor Strange is conducting a sorcerous experiment involving mirrors. Images burst from the mirrors and Strange and Clea seem to have no defense against them. -Peter Enfantino

Matthew: I was initially apprehensive at the pairing of odd-couple “guest-artists” (here we go with the hyphens again) Kupperberg and Nebres; Subby is already a pretty angular guy, but he looks like you could cut glass with him in page 2, panel 4 (left), and we get what may be the mother of all Nebres-Nose Alerts in page 14, panel 1.  Yet Rudy’s ornate style is nothing if not suited to mystical doings, and by the time they cut loose with the Dweller in Darkness, starting on page 3, I was a believer.  Sterno, too, has a good time with this one, turning the spotlight over to the Dweller in his encounters with Marvel foes who traffick in fear, even if it’s not immediately clear—or perhaps ever will be—exactly what the relationships among them may be.

Chris: Roger Stern observes that a preponderance of Doc’s recent tales, including those featuring him with the Defenders or in opposition to Ghost Rider, have involved a fairly straightforward breach of Doc’s once-formidable defenses protecting his sanctum.  So, a useful bit of business to rectify that here.

We have some pleasantries with Namor, including an exchange of tokens.  We also spend some time with the Dweller and his neighbors, both the needy and sniveling (D’Spayre – interesting to see him reduced to a shade – so to speak – of his once formidable self) and the haughty and nettlesome (Nightmare, miserable as always).  We see a post-partying young woman transformed to a Dream Weaver (which also happens to be the name of a hit song by 70s synth-man Gary Wright …), which obviously is part of the Dweller’s plan to exact revenge on Dr Strange.  

Aside from that?  Not a whole lot to see or be excited about here, in the slightest issue of Doctor Strange I can recall.  It’s noticeable in a title that has earned a reputation for its sometimes dense (nearing the point of opacity) plotting.  Kupperberg’s cavernous layouts contribute to the emptiness, as many of the large panels lack fine details we’ve also come to expect in this title’s look; the absence of atmosphere-master Tom Sutton is keenly felt.  This is one instance when we can be grateful for Nebres’ presence, as his finishes provide texture and shadows for the Dweller’s Day Out sequence at the mag’s middle.  

 Fantastic Four 201
"Home, Deadly Home!"
Story by Marv Wolfman
Art by Keith Pollard and Joe Sinnott
Colors by Francoise Mouly
Letters by John Costanza
Cover by Keith Pollard and Joe Sinnott

The Fabs get a tickertape Latverian parade, then Pogo Plane it back to Gotham. En route, Reed still expresses doubts about a re-formed FF. Landing atop the B. Building, they're met by landlord Collins, a.k.a. Monopoly Man, who says since prospective tenants are scared of super villain pop-ins, they can return to the Bax, at a slight rent bump. Ben plays hardball, mentions they have an invite from the World Trade Center (insert freighted historic comments here, kids), and will only return with a rent decrease

Boom, drop the mic. Had the Thing gone into real estate, he might have tangled with another orange-tinged New York monstrosity for supremacy...  
Back in their digs, SHIELD movers return equipment and gizmos. Sue laments her wardrobe, so Johnny incinerates the offending dress. "Are you guys for real?" asks a dumb SHIELD agent, given his boss has a flying aircraft carrier. We get a retro cut-away view of the FF's five floors atop the Baxter Building (wait, they have a sewing room? Feminist Marv strikes!). Then the hijinks begin.
A microbe Reed brought back from the Negative Zone grows and tries to gobble him up.
Ben's exercise machine goes wild.
Security lasers try to zap Sue then a broken water pipe almost drowns her.
Fire extinguishing foam attacks Johnny. 
These obstacles overcome (with scant more detail than this recap), Reed tasks the others with shutting down the "central power core" (don't look for it on the cut-away, class, it's not there), "...while I man the main computer." Overcoming gas and a couple robots Reed brought back from Latveria, our trio gets the job done. 
On the final page, Reed says he could find nothing wrong with the computers. Then declares, once and for all, the FF is back in business.
Sue serves champagne.
What's an antonym for Wow?
-Mark Barsotti

Mark: This one packs all the punch of a Hostess superhero ad. Maybe less.
Is there even a story here, and if so, what? What was rotten in the "center power core?" Just one of those things, I guess. You get no sense the Computers Gone Wild gambit is just the opening move in a bigger story - the only way it could make a lick of sense - but rather that Marv thinks it both fine and dandy. 
Homicidal computers, they're like a temperamental car, ya know. Sometimes it makes the noise, as sometimes it don't...
For those hunting bright spots, Ben makes a wise-crack about midget wresting.

Chris: One of the weaknesses of the Doom saga leading up to FF #200 had been the lack of opportunities for the team to work as a unit.  We get a fair share of teamwork here, which might help explain why I remember this as an issue that weathered numerous re-readings.  Each team member has his/her own threat to address; I wouldn’t have guessed Johnny would be the one to withstand his, and begin the process of rescuing his mates.  One aspect of the story I don’t recall being problematic, but which now stands as a glaring fault, is Reed’s escape from his deadly, all-enveloping Neg Zone microbe, without a word of explanation; just like that, he’s on the belt radio, calling the shots (p 22, last pnl).  Good call by Marv to show Sue handling a challenging situation on her own (p 26-27).

I read FF Annual #13 prior to this issue, and I credited Bill Mantlo and editor Marv Wolfman for their depiction of the FF as temporarily out-of-doors; that would place events in the Annual immediately after FF #200.  This issue, though, tells us the team flies directly from Latveria to the roof of the Baxter Building, and then moves in within a day.  So, either the events of the Annual take place during that in-between day (it’s possible …), or Marv the editor missed a meeting with Marv the writer (which has been known to happen – often).  

Matthew: See this month’s Captain America—lather, rinse, repeat.  Here’s another helping of agreeable Pollard layouts and smooth Sinnott finishes (as Bruce Weintraub’s LOC reminds us that Joltin’ Joe, my favorite inker, has graced this mag pretty consistently for thirteen years), marred by another annoying Wolfman script.  Their divided cover doesn’t endear this to me, either, and even the Baxter Building cutaway, with its microscopic “living quarters,” just feels tiresome.  Can you really restore democracy to Latveria?  Did they ever have it in the first place?  The killer-computer stuff is as stale as party mix left out on a humid day, and the epilogue, anticlimactically formalizing a reunification I thought was a done deal, vexingly trite…

Ghost Rider 33 
“Whom a Child Would Destroy”
Story by Roger McKenzie and Don Perlin
Art by Don Perlin
Colors by Francoise Mouly
Letters by Diana Albers
Cover by Bob Budiansky and Bob Wiacek
After his encounter with the Bounty Hunter, Johnny Blaze is lost in the middle of nowhere: the abandoned mining town of Last Chance, Nevada. Furious over the abysmal state of his life, Johnny erupts into the Ghost Rider and blasts one of the ramshackle buildings with hellfire — only to be thrown across the dusty street by a powerful, unseen force. From a rooftop, an old coot named Woody Guthers appears and cackles about his “power.” The wizened varmint suddenly appears behind the Rider and sends him flying into the town’s rusty jail cell. After Spirit of Vengeance bursts free on his Skull Cycle, he grabs the diminutive Guthers by the collar. But when the pruney prospector says he was just worried that Blaze was sent by “him,” like the other demons, the Rider sets him free, curious for more information. 

Inside of Guthers' shack, Woody tells Johnny that he stole his power from “him” and that he can now do just about anything he sets his mind to, including amassing an impressive stockpile of gold. Suddenly, a huge, futuristic and heavily armed hovercraft swoops down from above, its tremendous jets shaking Last Chance to bits. Blaze and Woody crawl from the wreckage as the shining ship lands — six dark motorcyclists emerge from a hatchway and race towards them. The prospector’s psychic blast destroys two of the alien riders as Johnny fires up and forms a Skull Cycle. Hellfire engulfs the remaining attackers: they are revealed to be robots with human brains encased in their shiny skulls. Despite the Rider’s best efforts, Woody is captured and dragged inside the hovercraft. The hellish hero follows, dazzled by the sprawling, technological maze of hallways within. After falling through a trap door and being knocked unconscious, Blaze awakes to see a strange boy floating in a glass bubble before him. The demon-like child warns that they are all prisoners — the boy’s father, locked in a strange chair a few feet away, sadly agrees. -Tom Flynn

Tom: Oh boy, things keep getting worse and worse. First, we had to endure the pathetic Jaws rip-off in #16. And now we have, as the cover extols, “The Ultimate Cosmic Encounter!” Why Marvel used the word “cosmic” instead of the obvious “close” is beyond me. My sisters still tease me about the nonsensical stories I used to make up as a six-year-old to entertain my family at the dinner table. Most were about an octopus — one centered on legendary Kansas City Chiefs flanker Otis Taylor. “Even with his shirt ripped he kept running.” Everyone would sit patiently and wait for the payoff that they all knew would never come. There wasn’t much entertainment value along the way either. This issue reminds me of one of those tiresome tales. “So Ghost Rider is in a Western town and he meets an old man and then a big spaceship comes out of the sky and then robot motorcyclists come out, you know since Ghost Rider rides a motorcycle too, and then he meets a young boy in a bubble and then … ” 

Just as Ghost Rider was a flaming fish out of water while battling a giant shark, he doesn’t quite fit into what looks to be a science-fiction milieu. Sure, we do have evil motorcyclists, but they could have been just about anything: mechanical spiders, bug-eyed monsters, heck, Big Foot. McKenzie and Perlin made them robot bikers because, you know, it’s Ghost Rider. But look! Their heads are brains in a jar! Snore. Haven’t seen that before. And don’t get me started about Woody Guthers, the prototypical old Western coot. Dagnabbit, they should have just called him Gabby Hayes instead of something that played off, for some reason, Woody Guthrie. Now Woody doesn’t actually say dagnabbit, but we do get a “gol-dangit.” And a “hoosegow.” Yet again, we have Blaze fretting over that fact that it’s becoming more and more difficult to control the Ghost Rider’s rage — and how he’s starting to enjoy it. Have I mentioned that I hate this series?

Matthew: Having already been formally adapted by Marvel, and name-checked in last month’s MTIO as Captain Marvel’s “research” material (“Unbelievable!”), Close Encounters of the Third Kind now gets shamelessly ripped off on the cover of this “Ultimate Cosmic Encounter,” complete with CE3K-style Mother Ship.  Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, the plot concocted by scripter McKenzie—whose work on his three current series really isn’t impressing me—and the self-inked Perlin bears virtually no resemblance to the film, aside from the presence of a spaceship.  I’m obliged to admit that I liked the shot of the “deadly two-ton cockroaches” emerging in page 15, panel 3, and the interior in page 27, panel 1.

Chris: I’m willing to take the fairly-good with the less-than-good.  Points off to McKenzie for the spoiler title, which tells us right away that Ghost Rider will be battling a threat from a child.  The mangy prospector is a tired stereotype; if McKenzie and Perlin wanted to throw an oddball into the mix, then they succeeded, but it’s impossible to take this character seriously.  Last complaint: Ghost Rider travels via flame-cycle, so when the hovercraft arrives, the dark riders are depicted riding motorcycles of their own; well, why?  The bubble-boy is capable of constructing an immense, heavily-armed craft, but is that the full extent of his creative power?  “Sorry guys – used up all the juice on the hovercraft; you’re okay riding motorcycles to do my bidding, right?”  Don’t get me wrong, I ain’t pokin’ no fun at the bubble-boy; I don’t want him to send me to the cornfield.

These knocks feel like petty criticisms; I’ll feel better about myself if I turn to the parts I do like.  Nice play with the splash page, as Johnny (looking defiantly back at his voyeuristic readers, from amidst his ruined surroundings) has legitimate cause to be irritable.  Johnny recognizes he’s having more difficulty keeping the GR persona under his control (p 2), but does manage to prevent GR from causing harm to the prospector (p 6, as McKenzie reports “the man wins … this time.”).  Once GR gets the vengeance bug, though, there’s no stopping him, as he peels unthinkingly thru the wondrous craft, dismissing any thoughts that don’t pertain to his “hellspawned craving for revenge!” 

I’m not a big fan of Perlin’s self-inked art for this title; if it worked this well every time, though, I might feel differently about it.  Highlights include: Johnny’s face vanishes in hellfire as he transforms (p 2, pnl 2); gangway for Ghost Rider! (p 5, last pnl); GR’s grey-faced determination (p 27, pnl 2). 
One last comment on the art: the cover features the first appearance for this title by Bob Budiansky, who will pay his bills by toiling as an editor for Marvel, and will offer frequent contributions as a GR cover artist.  Budiansky’s capable rendering of the character will inspire sincere wishes for interior art from him, and while it will happen, it won’t be until well past the time Marvel University has shut and padlocked its doors.  So, enjoy the covers.  

 Godzilla, King of the Monsters 17
"Of Lizards, Great and Small"
Story by Doug Moench
Art by Herb Trimpe and Dan Green
Colors by Ben Sean
Letters by Bruce Patterson
Cover by Herb Trimpe and Bob Layton

Fresh off the rollicking roundup, Godzilla eats some trees and takes a nap—after all, "two days without sleep" is a long time! Back at John Hawks' place, he and Hal get a visit from the Behemoth Heli-Carrier ("a new-fangled flyin' machine outta the future"), where Dum Dum gets the lowdown from the rancher. Aboard the craft, Hugh Howards (complete with pipe and throwback aviator 'stache—how did I miss that) lets young Rob know they're working on getting Red Ronin back together again, just before Dr. Takiguchi welcomes "eminent paleontologist and one of the foremost authorities on Reptilian Behaviour Patterns,"  Dr. Gladstone Hawkins, who reveres the mighty Godzilla. In the cafeteria, a comment from Gabe Jones about G's size gives Dum Dum an idea—so he sends Gabe on a mini-jet to visit Hank Pym in New York and get a mysterious solution. Gabe makes his way back to the Behemoth, and at dawn, they enlist young Rob to wake up Godzilla, who recognizes the boy's voice—but is hoodwinked when SHIELD sends out a crane that shoots the King of the Monsters with Pym's' "reducing gas!" The angry Godzilla gives a right cross to the Heli-Carrier, then picks up Dum Dum—but soon enough, the old Commando turns the tables when Godzilla suddenly starts shrinking! Slipping away from Dugan, the Little G bites Gabe on the hand, but is unable to avoid Dr. Hawkins' butterfly net and is captured!  –Joe Tura

Joe: After all this time, someone finds a way to capture Godzilla, other than maybe the Xiliens from Monster Zero (aka Invasion of Astro-Monster), and it takes lunch, an off-the-cuff comment from Gabe, and the genius of Hank Pym to do it. The shrinking of our humungous hero is certainly different, and quite goofy (biting Gabe on the hand and getting caught by a net like a Spongebob catching a jellyfish?), but it actually works for the story. I'm not so sure about that "smile" on page 21 when Godzilla hears young Rob call him, or the salad he enjoys on the splash page of the nap right out in the open. Then again, it's not like there was a volcano to hide under out there on the range. Introducing Hawkins could be intriguing in coming issues (without fast forwarding), and he's the combination of a young James Coburn and Peter Cook. Hank and Janet Pym's cameo is quite important, yet also odd, between Hank wearing a suit and the comment about Janet not liking lizards. Then again, what's odder than the sight of Godzilla being carried off in a net? If only the cover didn't give away the end....

Matthew: In his 60-odd years onscreen, Toho has done a lot of freaky things with Godzilla, but I don’t believe they ever shrunk him down to roughly the size of the plastic likeness proudly on display in Maison Bradley…and if you ask me, there’s a good reason for that, which makes me dread this hazily remembered arc.  I also think it highly unlikely that at this late date, Janet Pym would need to be introduced to Gabe Jones; although unable to prove it without the issues handy, I suspect they’d have encountered each other at least as far back as his appearances during Avengers #66-72.  As for Godzilla’s grazing, we’ll have to rely on kaiju-meister Professor Joe to say if it is consistent with whatever Toho established, if anything, about his eating habits...

Joe: I honestly can't remember ever seeing Godzilla eat anything besides a car or a train or maybe a zillion fish. Trees, not so much. Maybe the American comic book Godzilla was embracing the vegan trend to prove once again that he didn't eat the cattle last ish?

The Incredible Hulk 230
"The Harvester from Beyond!"
Story by Elliot S. Maggin
Art by Jim Mooney and Bob Layton
Colors by Petra Goldberg
Letters by Gaspar Saladino and Bruce Patterson
Cover by Ron Wilson and Bob Layton

A peaceful Hulk sits among a field of corn, noshing on dozens of cobs when he is spotted by a panicky farmhand named Lumpy. He calls the sheriff who arranges for some men to come over with nets. As they prepare to capture the jade giant, none of them are aware of weird alien eyes watching their every move, interested in the Hulk because he is “the color of vegetation.” The sheriff and his men get the drop on the Hulk, but, of course, it’s a worthless effort. Ol’ Greenskin rips though the netting like it’s wet toilet paper and shrugs off the shotgun blasts that follow. He goes on a rampage, throwing around equipment and country bumpkins until he is snatched up by an alien transporter beam. He reappears on the spacecraft and is confronted by an insectoid alien who wants to know the Hulk's “secret.” Hulk wants none of this and attacks, but the alien is plenty sneaky and uses his magic science to fell the Hulk. He puts Hulk under a “sedation beam” that transforms him back to Bruce Banner. Banner revives and is caught by the bug dude, who wants to dissect Banner to figure out what his deal is. This, naturally, panics Banner, who then transforms. Hulk smash, but the alien is able to knock him out again long enough to get some soil scraping from under his fingernail. Hulk wakes and crashes through the hull and escapes, but the alien patches the breach and analyzes the specimen he got from Jade Jaws. It has the basis of plant life. Possibly what he needs to save his world. Happy with his discovery, the alien leaves and the Hulk goes home. -Scott McIntyre

Scott McIntyre: Light and vaguely silly fluff. Elliot S! Maggin provides a breezy quasi-fill-in issue that isn’t bad. It’s just inconsequential, goofy fun. Professor Matthew mentions the Marvel Database listing the alien as “S’mggani Scientist.” I had to laugh out loud, slightly, since whoever wrote that was just anagramming the S. Maggin part of Elliot’s name. I feel smart for picking that up so quickly. Do I get a biscuit? There’s little fanfare for Banner’s return, since he was trapped in the Hulk for “at least a week.” The Layton/Patterson art isn’t bad at all, but Banner is ridiculously jacked up. Isn’t he supposed to be “puny?” Guy looks like he could go a few rounds with Cap. The Hulk to Banner three-panel change (below) looks like reference material, some old Kirby sequence copied a little too closely. The farmhand is named Lumpy. I just thought that was worth mentioning.

Matthew: Yes, this is a lark (“He…has resumed his vegetative color”), yet it’s an enjoyable one, a rare Marvel outing for “E.” Maggin, whose only other work in my collection, PPTSS #16, I recall liking more than some of my colleagues.  It’s also a fill-in, if only—being clearly in continuity—in the sense that it has an all-guest creative team, with Shooter’s delightful “guest towels” credit.  Mooney seems well matched with Layton, whom I presume was responsible for the issue of Iron Man amid the unnamed alien’s (he’s identified on the Marvel Database as “S’mggani scientist,” but by what authority I know not) “samples” in page 21, panel 5; I also note with amusement the “R. Neckk” name plate on the sheriff’s desk in page 2, panel 5.