Wednesday, August 3, 2016

October 1978 Part One: At Last! The Graduation of Peter Parker!

 The Amazing Spider-Man 185
"Spider, Spider, Burning Bright!"
Story by Marv Wolfman
Art by Ross Andru and Mike Esposito
Colors by Nelson Yomtov
Letters by Gaspar Saladino and Annette Kawecki

"The Graduation of Peter Parker"

Story by Marv Wolfman
Art by Ross Andru and Mike Esposito
Colors by Michele Wolfman
Letters by John Costanza
Cover by Ross Andru and Mike Esposito

Stuck in a burning vat of oil, Spidey the science whiz realizes oil burns from the top down, so covers himself from web-head to webbed toes with "flame-resistant web-fluid" and leaps from the vat and through a window! He swings to the river and pulls off the webbing, rushing home for a spare uniform [Really? Too vain to be seen with a burnt uniform?] and gets the story from the deserted Philip Chang (after White Dragon high-tails it): his parents were killed by enemies in Hong Kong so he swore never to commit violence again. Hiding aboard a cargo vessel, Philip made it to America, where Dragon learned who he was and threatened to tell his foes where he lives if he didn't join his gang. White Dragon is rousing a crowd of all the Chinatown gangs, when one boss mouths off, and is killed by the arrogant Dragon. Then he discovers the Spider-Tracer on his belt, and crushes it, but Spidey is able to track "Fancy-Face and his fiend-team" down. Shining the under-utilized Spider Signal, the wall-crawler has the gangs scrambling, splitting off into four groups—and each one is trapped on both sides by giant web walls! This leaves Spidey to face off against White Dragon alone, and after toying with and taunting the vile villain, our hero (wearing nose filters to ward off the gas from Dragon's mask) is able to smash him into one of the web walls.

Our back-up story is "The Graduation of Peter Parker," giving us an extended look at Spidey's personal life. Joe Robertson visits Aunt May in the hospital and brings a television set into her room. On campus for Graduation Day, Peter is happy to find Harry, Flash, and Betty there to celebrate with him, but is puzzled to see he's not on the list, but is able to get an extra cap and gown. He also doesn't have a seat, and isn't in the program. (Hmmmm…) Aunt May is thrilled to see Robbie is using the Bugle's videotape facilities to have the graduation on TV for her; while the graduating class is bored to tears by J. Jonah Jameson's commencement speech. When the time comes to get his diploma, Peter doesn't hear his name—it turns out he's missing one gym credit! But Parker, the pessimist, is actually looking at the bright side: "Well, whatever's in store for me, at least it'll be new and different—and, heck—what's life all about if it doesn't have some adventure and uncertainty?"--Joe Tura

Joe Tura: Right off the bat, there are two things we can learn from the cover. First off, Andru & Esposito can really craft a Jazzy John Romita tribute when they want to. Also, no one at Marvel thought enough of the White Dragon as a villain even to give a crap about featuring him on the front! And we can all agree that was a good choice! Nice to have Esposito back after two issues, just in time for Ross the Boss's last issue—and what a run it was! Andru will go down as one of the greatest Spidey artists ever, mainly for his consistency and overall solid work. At this point in 1978, probably the third best Amazing Spider-Man artist after Romita and Ditko (put them in whatever order you want, they're certainly 1 and 2), and one of the top 10 of all-time. Certainly the reigning best Spidey artist until Todd MacFarlane comes around. He will certainly be missed, especially with what's to come in the homestretch of the U. Ross even gets a small sendoff on the last page: "Bye, Ross & good luck!—M & The Gang."

The issue itself, besides the excellent art we will come to miss rapidly, features an average story that amounts to a big zero considering the White Dragon is not a great adversary. Sure, he has a fancy suit with claws and gas and fire, and an attitude to match, but big whoop. Of course, he'll be back, battling Spidey and Moon Knight in Marvel Team-Up #144, then in various Spidey books every once in a while, most notably in the Dark Reign storyline. The "Graduation" tale is much more interesting, although not exactly action-packed. And did anyone expect Peter to get his diploma without a hitch? At least he's looking forward to simply finishing up and moving on instead of being Mr. Mopey-Pants. Poor Aunt May though—hopefully not hearing Peter's name on TV didn't set her back for the umpteenth time.

Favorite sound effect is when Spidey smashes White Dragon into the web wall with a mighty "WANG!" But wait, is this racist? Is it a mistake or deliberate? Is it a poor clichéd joke? Well, either way, I do like that Spidey finishes the punch off with telling "Draggy" that he's "really just a big, stupid clown!"

Mark Barsotti: I admit it. Our hero's escape from a flaming vat of oil was less outlandish than expected, since, in lieu of conducting my own experiments, I'll accept Marv's assertion that oil burns from the top down, allowing Spidey time to break the chains, web himself up, and leap free. Yes, that he then swings across town, ablaze like a meteorite, before dunking himself in the river does strain credulity, but one's tempted to let Wolfman slide on audacity alone.

Phil Chang's violence-renouncing backstory elicits a yawn - move along; nothing new to see here - but then the spider-signal puts in a welcome appearance and, even rarer, Spidey webs-off entire blocks, flitting around off-camera to trap the Asian gangs with eight giant webs, so they can watch him whip up on the White Dragon and thus be shown the error of their gang-bangin' ways. Andru and Esposito render said whippin' in energetic, flayed-limb fashion. Let's just be thankful Spidey splurged on the jumbo web-fluid cartridges.

Peter's graduation offered as a separate story has a nice, retro feel, harkening back to the earliest Lee/Ditko days, and Joe Robertson is the perfect choice to cue up the ceremony for hospital-bound Aunt May, via live remote.

The kicker, of course, is that Pete doesn't graduate at all, having lost track of the fact that he's one credit short. And, irony of on-the-nose ironies, it's a gym class. Having already run off MJ, Wolfman seems intent on leaning heavily on the hard-luck-Parker tropes, but Pete's what, me worry? embrace of the post-collegiate "adventure and uncertainty" awaiting him closed things out on an up-beat note, even though it felt kinda forced and tacked on.

But, hey, no giant wheels or skateboards for two months running. In that context, a Spidey-meteor is progress. 

Chris Blake: Congratulations, Marv!  You applied yourself, and worked hard, and now you’ve accomplished something important.  After all these years, you’ve managed to find a way for Peter Parker to graduate from ESU; well done –we‘re all proud of you.  And best of all, you found a way to do it without requiring the Vulture or the Shocker to show up to interfere with the proceedings.  (Athough, now you’re going to have to pay off those loans for writer/editor school).  You handle the business of the graduation so well, Marv, as Peter encounters just the right sort of snafus for us to recognize this as a bona fide Parker event.

Sound decision on the part of the editorial powers to present Peter’s graduation as the issue’s selling point.  On its own merits, the lackluster White Dragon story could not maintain my interest for an entire seventeen pages; it was very helpful to know there was something else to look forward to, elsewhere in the comic.  Marv wraps up the White Dragon in a hurry (as Spidey fights off a gas attack, clouts the Dragon, and snaps him into a web), as if he suddenly realized he had to reserve space for the graduation.   
I know Andru-fans are going to miss him, and I agree he’s made a significant contribution to Bronze-era Spidey lore.  But, I have to say that the past few issues – basically, since Marv took the helm – have not been Ross’ greatest work; it hasn’t helped that Marv hasn’t availed himself of inspiring city landmarks to employ as backdrops to his stories (with the Brooklyn Bridge this time more the exception than the rule), as Len Wein had – numerous times – in his turn as writer.  I guess it’s possible Ross felt it was time to move on, but I don’t know whether there were other factors at work behind-the-scenes.

Matthew Bradley: Whether by chance or by design, Pete’s “graduation” coincides with another milestone, the end of Andru’s rarely broken five-year run on his signature title, which reunites him with “partner for life” Esposito, who will make scattered additional appearances over the next 18 issues.  The villain (whose return in MTU #144 is mercifully far outside our purview) and fight are suitably perfunctory, allowing us to get to the main event, and the final full-page adieu to Ross—whose jaunty illo of the dapper Peter is a keeper—echoes the one for Wein a mere five issues ago.  Marv earns what is perhaps my highest compliment in this context:  the gimmick he came up with to precipitate Pete’s deferred graduation is positively Stan-worthy.

 The Avengers 176
"The Destiny Hunt!"
Story by Jim Shooter and David Michelinie
Art by Dave Wenzel and Pablo Marcos
Colors by Bob Sharen
Letters by Rick Parker
Cover by John Romita, Jr. and Terry Austin

Collecting clues left as "psychic traces" in the Avengers, Iron Man feeds the data into one of his expensive machines and out pops an address in Forest Hills Gardens. But how will the mega-team (whose ranks have swollen past a dozen) car pool to the scene when their flying rights have been revoked by the government? By commandeering a city bus, of course! When the Earth's Mightiest Heroes arrive at the address, the owner, one Michael Korvac, allows them to search his well-furnished mansion but nothing is found. Perplexed, Starhawk asks his compadres why they're talking to a blank space (Korvac had monkeyed with Starhawk's brain, blocking out any memory or recognition of the baddie) and, suddenly, the pieces start to fit. As the team make their move, Michael Korvac transforms into bigger Korvac and promises the team will pay for their insolence.

Peter Enfantino: Another month, another badly written Korvac saga. Rather than reiterate my problems with this never-ending dirge, I'll just mention that, as far as battle small talk and one-liners from the innocent bystanders go, David Michelinie (at this stage, anyway) is just as dreadful as Jim Shooter was.

Innocent Bystander: Da wife ain't gonna believe dis!
IB: Anybody see Alan Funt around?
IB: I'll write the mayor! I'll write my congressman! I'll write Ann Landers!
IB: Hey watch it it, fella! Where'd ya get yer license -- from a box of Cocoa Puffs?

But the best tidbit, the quote of the month, in fact, comes from Iron Man as Michael Korvac opens his door:

IM: I'm sorry to bother you, sir, but we've reason to believe that something in this house poses great peril to the future of mankind!

You hope Michelinie has tongue firmly in his cheek but... who knows?

Joe: Page 1 starts this month off on a bad foot, as Iron Man turns to greet Starhawk so quickly his back breaks. Well, that's how it's drawn. Then it gets worse when Moondragon regains her uppity snobbery, Wonder Man sounds more pathetic and whiny, and Quicksilver gains "insight" courtesy of Moondragon. But the dumbest part of the script to me is when Captain Marvel senses something is amiss, as if "the universe itself" has been "subtly altered" and he needs to investigate further—after he answers Moondragon's psychic call! After! Don't ya think maybe it has to do with the issue facing the Avengers? Gee, I guess that's what happens when you're drawn as poorly as in the last panel of page 11. But that's Van Gogh compared to first panel of page 16, where all the Avengers seem to be on a rocking cruise ship, or are preparing to jump in the air, or they're all getting ready to fart after Jarvis cooked up some of his famous chili. Or the close-ups of some Forest Hills citizens on page 22 when the Avengers get off the bus—what are they, the Mutant Mod Squad? Yikes, Wenzel sure can draw some ugly facial expressions. And some horrible body poses, like when they get to Forest Hills Gardens, and Wonder Man and Ms. Marvel walk in like they're ready to do a split, then a disgusted Hawkeye throws his hands up in disgust—and the reader is disgusted that it looks like he's very awkwardly raising his hands, raising his hands if he's sure. This makes the Bullpen Bulletin quoted by Professor Matthew below sound like pure nonsense. Are they freakin' kidding? Did anyone at Marvel every actually read Avengers during this run?

Matthew: A breathless Bullpen Bulletin raves about “the terrific job that Dashing Dave Wenzel is doing pencilling on [sic] one of Marvel’s most demanding series, the Avengers.  Dave was there in our hour of need, stepping in to help complete the ten-part super-cosmic Magnum Opus begun by Jim (Trouble) Shooter and George (Pacesetter) Perez long ago!  Dave’s dynamic drawing seems to get better and better with each panel.  We just love watching future Superstars develop!”  “[T]he book is now unmistakably better than it was in the Thomas and Englehart days,” oozes a tumescent Peter Sanderson in the lettercol.  So, with all of these people yelling at me about how great this “super-cosmic Magnum Opus” is, it must be really great, hunh?  Hunh?

Well, not so much.  If we accept the hype about Wenzel’s steady improvement, then he’s worked his way up to aggressively average…assuming, of course, that we can even tell under the Mark of Marcos; the dullards in page 22, panel 4 are about as pure Pablo as I ever hope to see.  And I’m sure the ex-EIC is still chortling to himself over the alleged hilarity of the Avengers’ odyssey with the MTA, but it fell flat for me, especially since—with all the characters crammed into page 17, panel 1 (above) —colorist Sharen overlooked Pietro, who looks more like an unmasked White Tiger.  The only thing I can honestly say I really liked about this was the way in which “omnipotent” Michael’s brilliant decision to block himself from Starhawk’s perceptions completely backfired.

I wonder if the Exasperator-in-Chief and lapdog Dave intended us to draw the parallel between Moondragon’s high-handed “curing” of Quicksilver’s bigotry (complete with deathless dialogue “Hng?  Igh!  Ahk!  Mngh!,” which probably kept scripter Michelinie up all night honing it to perfection) and Mikey’s intentions as a would-be benevolent dictator.  Generally speaking, what passes for characterization and dialogue is so uniformly awful that I don’t want to dignify it with too much attention.  Korvac always looks like he’s about to start teaching an aerobics class, but ironically, as insufferable as she is here, Moondragon probably comes off best visually out of the entire group, e.g., page 3, panel 2; page 6, panel 2 (white lips notwithstanding); page 14, panel 2.

Chris: It’s another chapter of slow burn, as the team finally faces its outer-borough Enemy.   There isn’t much action, but at least this issue provides a clear sense of progress, not in evidence in Avengers #175.  Nice job by Shooter & Michelinie to demonstrate how Michael’s reconstruction of Starhawk has been too complete; I guess Michael never expected to run into Starhawk at the gym or the tennis court, and who could blame him?  Points also to our plotters/scripters for finding a small role for Hank & Jan, as their ant-intel contributes to the final conclusion.  That’s part of the overall approach, which involves check-ins with about a dozen team-members and hangers-on as they all try to prepare for the conflict to come.  Although, I’ve always found T’Challa’s advice to Simon, that he settle down with some Keats to “soothe the nerves,” to be a bit silly; seriously, Panther, who’s really going to focus on verse about Grecian urns when the fate of the world – nay, the universe – could be at stake!

Dave Wenzel continues with above-average art; I’d probably have a higher opinion if he hadn’t been recruited to replace George Pérez.  The splash page is quite good, as Starhawk swoops in past impressive-looking equipment, and Iron Man turns dramatically to his right to see Starhawk approach.  Speaking of dramatics, I’ve always found the poses of the Avengers (et alia) as they await Iron Man’s findings to be a bit forced, as nearly all seen about to spring into action (p 16, 1st pnl) – against what?  The monitor screen?  At least, when the Avengers next appear poised, there’s a reason, as they stalk Michael (p 30, 1st panel).  Lastly, nice work by Wenzel & Marcos as they deliver on a Big Moment, first Michael summoning his crackling energy, then bursting forth from his homo sapien-ish disguise (p 30, last pnl; p 31).

 Captain America 226
"Am I Still Captain America?"
Story by Roger McKenzie
Art by Sal Buscema, Mike Esposito, and John Tartaglione
Colors by Don Warfield
Letters by Gaspar Saladino and Diana Albers
Cover by Ron Wilson and Dan Green

Thanks to Dr. Harding’s mind-probe, Steve Rogers is scrawny once again. After days of rest and testing, he grows restless and jumps into a SHIELD training room to test himself. Fury shuts down the exercise, but moments later, technician Jacobs is struck by an energy beam that transforms him into a version of the Red Skull. He fires his blaster, striking the training room control panel, restarting the Impact android, who attacks Cap. Fury subdues the Skull/Jacobs while the test runs wild. Cap uses his training to keep himself alive while Impact destroys the monitors. Meanwhile, out in space, a strange skull-like spacecraft approaches Earth and fires energy beams at the SHIELD Helicarrier. Those beams turn the rest of Fury’s men into Red Skulls. The Skull who was once Dum Dum Dugan fires a stun bolt at Fury. While this goes on, Cap fights Impact, but the android is too powerful. Nearing defeat, Cap is enraged. This rage revives the dormant super soldier serum in his blood, returning him to his former glory. He dispatches the android with ease only to be faced by dozens of Red Skulls! -Scott McIntyre

Scott McIntyre: Wow, this one was a real time and page waster. It feels like a fill-in issue with Cap’s loss of strength and body mass to deal with in a single issue. There is very little plot here, just action, and it keeps stretching out the "Search for Steve Rogers" story well past its freshness date. With the multiple Red Skulls popping up and the bizarre sight of a scrawny Cap, this feels like a leftover Kirby issue. Lots of shouting, lots of fighting and mediocre art. A yawner.

Chris: We expect the issue to pick up right where we'd left off last time, as Cap suddenly discovers he's lost his super soldier-derived powers.  Instead, Roger McKenzie decides to show us how Cap already has spent a frustrating few days trying to regain his former abilities. Good choice by Roger to keep Cap focused on skills he's retained from years of training; also, I'm grateful for the decision to restore Cap to his normal self within one issue, rather than draw his powerlessness out too long; Cap simply isn't himself in that saggy, droopy uniform.  

I’m intrigued by the Skull’s newfound ability to transform loyal SHIELD agents into mindless drones; Cap certainly picked the right moment to regain his full powers, if he’s to have any chance against them.  Now, as for the circumstances that allowed the Skull to escape certain death, after Doom had abandoned him on the surface of the moon with a spacesuit leaking O2 in S-V T-U #12, will we be informed of how the Skull managed that little magic trick -?

Matthew: Hey, can somebody please tell letterer Albers and the multiple editors to brush up on their spelling (“gleeming,” “serge,” “seering”), and especially that the possessive of Jacobs is not “Jacob’s”?  Kicking off a year-long run, McKenzie adds Cap to a portfolio that, for the moment, also contains Daredevil and Ghost Rider; given how spectacularly his predecessors painted him into a corner, he can be forgiven for taking the easy way out by, first, contriving a complete coincidence to restore Cap to normal and, second, dragging in the Red Skull.  Although I don’t think Vestigial Cap versus Impact 739 merited a full two-pager, the artwork by the usual Buscema/Esposito/Tartag suspects leaves nothing to be desired, and makes Nick Fury look great.

Conan the Barbarian 91 
“Savage Doings in Shem”
Story by Roy Thomas
Art by John Buscema and Ernie Chan
Colors by George Roussos
Letters by Tom Orzechowski
Cover by John Buscema

Conan, Bêlit and Zula await on the Stygian shore as a longboat from the Tigress approaches. The She-Devil reunites with the crew, warmly embracing her mentor, the shaman N’Yaga. When she notices that her sub-chief M’Gora is missing, she is told that he in Asgalun scouting for useful information about King Nim-Karrak, the She-Devil’s uncle and the man responsible for the death of her father. That night, Zula demonstrates his hypnotic powers, mesmerizing Basara into thinking he is a seagull. At dawn, M’Gora is spotted dashing towards the beach, dozens of three-foot swamp rats scurrying after him. The Corsairs rush to his rescue and make short work of the vicious vermin. 

Back on board, M’Gora reveals that Asgalun is in turmoil. Along with six other Corsairs, he slipped through the gates by blending into the Kushite cavalry of the fierce Imbalayo: the black warrior was summoned to shore up the Stygian forces that basically rule the Shemite city, Bêlit’s birthplace. The sub-chief also reveals that Nim-Karrak is now protected by a troop of Hyrkanians — perhaps the ruler is fearful of a Stygian take-over. Finally, there are two men who stand to take control of the crown if Nim-Karrak is overthrown: the fat and jovial Uriaz and the madman Akhîrom. Leaving his fellow pirates behind to continue their surveillance, M’Gora made his way back to the ship.

While Zula and N’Yaga preach caution, Bêlit is more determined than ever to raid Asgalun and kill her uncle. The Cimmerian, the She-Devil, Zula and M’Gora depart the next morning and gain entry into the city pretending to be Imbalayo’s advisors. M’Gora guides them to a walled pleasure garden, the best way to gain entrance to the palace: but a squadron of Stygian soldiers is waiting inside. They are soon captured, Zula surprisingly attacked from behind by M’Gora. Nim-Karrak’s counselor, the minor wizard Ptor-Nubis, appears, boasting that he was warned of their arrival by Thoth-Amon. Bêlit quickly realizes that M’Gora was just a pawn, under the control of the sorcerer’s hypnotic powers. Ptor-Nubis then mesmerizes the intruders to fight among themselves — to the death. -Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn: Yet another tight, fast-paced and well-written issue. And, of course, top-notch artwork. While the swamp rats dominate the cover, they have little impact on the pages within. Nasty buggers though. After Zula entertains the crew with his hypnosis trick, Bêlit decides to do her part and performs an odd bump-and-grind for Conan — when she is done, he sweeps her up and takes her to their cabin for a bit more, ah, shimmying. Felt that this sequence was fairly embarrassing and out of character for the She-Devil. M’Gora is such a stand-up guy that it was a major buzzkill when he waylaid Zula from behind: fortunately, it was quickly revealed that he was simply under the sway of Ptor-Nubis. M’Gora’s report of his spying runs over three pages and seems needlessly complicated — but The Hyborian Page reveals why. As I mentioned in my review of last month’s Savage Sword, Marvel had finally secured the rights to Conan stories written by Robert E. Howard’s literary heirs: L. Sprague de Camp, Lin Carter and Bjorn Nyberg. Roy’s half-column editorial on the letters page reveals that when they introduced Bêlit way back in issue #58 (January 1976!), all they had to work with was Howard’s tale “The Queen of the Black Coast.” But, de Camp had expanded that storyline somewhat with “Hawks over Shem” (1955), introducing such characters as Imbalayo, Akhîrom and Uriaz. So, the Rascally One basically took a few pages to shoehorn them into the proceedings. By Crom, you gotta love Roy’s exhaustive work on this series. Always the completist! 

Chris: Roy includes an extended apologia, as he excuses his long expository passages, since he now is free to include other Hyborean-era characters (they mostly are royals, and mostly are the creations of post-REH Conan-scribes – but, Prof Tom probably told you all that already).  My question is: why would Roy introduce a new chapter in the storyline, now made more intricate by the inclusion of these other new personages, when he knows there is a fill-in story scheduled for next issue?  Wouldn’t it have made sense to have the fill-in appear in this issue, when there already is a momentary pause, and then bring in all the new information in CtB #92, and continue to build the story from there?  As writer/editor, Roy really should have some say about the timing of the release of these stories.  

As part of the apologia, Roy acknowledges there is not as much action as we tend to see in a typical issue.  Well, I guess; still, it’s not a snoozer, Roy – you’re doing fine, don’t worry about it.  I’m glad we didn’t have to spend too much time with the rat-fight (curious choice for a cover image, by the way); the giant rodents are pretty revolting, but again, we didn’t have to look at them too long.  For me, the highlights mostly involve the bit of down-time as Conan and Bêlit finally are reunited with the black corsairs, notably: the corsairs’ dance, Zula’s mesmerizing of Basara, and especially the intensity and emotion shared by Conan and Bêlit as she dances for him (p 3-7).  

Conan the Barbarian Annual 4 
“The Return of the Conqueror”
Story by Roy Thomas
Art by John Buscema and Ernie Chan
Colors by George Roussos
Letters by Joe Rosen
Cover by John Buscema and Ernie Chan

[Note: this annual picks up immediately after the end of the epic adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s only Conan novel, Hour of the Dragon — aka Conan the Conqueror — that spread across Giant-Size Conan the Barbarian 1 to 4 and The Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian 8 and 10]

Accompanied by his royal guards, the feared Black Dragons, King Conan of Aquilonia is delivering the defeated Tarascus, ruler of Nemedia, back to his capital city of Belverus. The royal barbarian intends to take one of his harem girls, Zenobia, and make her his queen — he had fallen for the beauty after she helped him escape from Tarascus’ dungeon. The Nemedian begs Conan to enter the city with only a handful of men to not spook the small band of guards still in the city. Reluctantly, the Cimmerian agrees, leaving behind his commander Pallantides to watch over the Dragons: he does take the man’s son, the brave Phaidon, and two others, Dodona and Metrius. If anything out of the ordinary happens, he will light a fire to summon the commander and the remaining soldiers.

When the small party is let through the front gate, Tarascus sends a secret signal to his commander, Karthanix — it is unnoticed by the Aquilonians. When they arrive at the seraglio, the Nemedian ruler asks Conan to have his men wait outside: only kings are allowed to enter a royal harem. Again, the Cimmerian reluctantly agrees. Inside, the barbarian finds Zenobia bathing: she quickly dresses and perfumes her body, stammering that she is eager to join Conan’s harem. Before the brawny king can state that he actually intends to marry her, Karthanix and a few other guards pounce and they are captured — Phaidon and the others are overcome as well, falling through a trap door.

Chained, Conan is brought before the gloating Tarascus and shown the Maze of Mystery, a twisting labyrinth with a ceiling of mirrors hanging over it. When a torch is lit, the passageway to the center is illuminated above — at its center, Zenobia is tied to a post. The Nemedian then points out a metal door at the other end: it slowly rises and the nightmarish Manotaur, a huge bull with the torso and horned head of a man. To start Conan on his challenge to save the woman, Tarascus fires a hand-held crossbow. The Cimmerian rushes through the maze, the mirror above guiding his path — but the torch is soon snuffed and he is left to his own devices. But the barbarian’s senses are finer tuned than most and he is able to pick up the scent of Zenobia’s perfume. 

Conan and the Manotaur simultaneously arrive at the center and a fierce battle begins — the bullish brute immediately shows his far superior strength. The barbarian ultimately gets pinned to a stone wall, his waist between the beast’s deadly horns. But Conan manages to grab the sharp protuberances and slowly twists until his mighty foe’s neck is broken with a sickening crack. When Tarascus has the torch relit, the Cimmerian is horrified to see that the Manotaur has transformed into the corpse of Phaidon: he was changed using a spell Tarascus learned from the recently deceased sorceror Xaltotun. Realizing that he unwittingly killed the son of his loyal friend Pallantides, Conan is driven into a berserk rage. He swoops up Zenobia and charges out of the maze, quickly dispatching the Nemedian guards and running Karthanix through after a lengthy swordfight. During the melee, Tarascus creeps up from behind, dagger in hand, but Zenobia kills him with his own miniature crossbow.

Conan fires a flaming arrow from a window, alerting the Black Dragons: their archers launch a volley at the city and the Cimmerian and Zenobia make their escape in the confusion. Reunited with his soldiers, Zenobia is hailed as the new queen of Aquilonia. -Tom Flynn

Tom: I won’t sugar coat it: the publishing history of the Conan annuals has been very spotty. The first and third offered nothing but reprints. Now while #2 was new, it was an adaptation of “The Phoenix on the Sword,” a Conan story that was actually a Howard rewrite of the rejected Kull tale “By This Axe I Rule” — which had already been done in Kull the Destroyer #11. So this was a pleasant surprise. Really enjoyed the fact that this original adventure immediately followed the 189 pages it took to finish up Hour of the Dragon, tying up some loose threads along the way. For example, what Conan did with the remaining kings who tried to topple him from the Aquilonian throne and the fate of Zenobia. After she kills Tarascus, John and Ernie give her a full-page illustration, comparing the woman to others in Conan’s life: Valeria, Bêlit and Red Sonja. A stretch since she’s not a warrior like those three ass- kickers, but an abundance of nice cleavage on display. However, the 34-page “The Return of the Conqueror” definitely felt padded: the story could have easily fit a single issue of the regular monthly comic. I was also firmly dubious that Conan would grant both of Tarascus’ obviously suspicious requests. And Manotaur? A totally dopey name that seems more suited for something like The Amazing Spider-Man. He does look totally fearsome, but, for some reason, his eyes are drawn as if the creature was blind — that doesn’t seem to be the case at all. 

But this annual does shine a light on one of the things that makes Conan the most uusual character in the Marvel universe during the 1970s: Roy Thomas readily takes advantage of the opportunity to present him during the different periods of his literary life. This month, October 1978, actually offers the perfect example: here, as King of Aquilonia, Conan is in his mid 40s; in the monthly comic, he’s in his late 20s; and in the Savage Sword magazine, he is even younger. Not sure if that can be said of any other Marvel hero during the 1970s. Well, maybe someone could argue that, currently, Captain America and Namor have adventures set in 1978 as well as in the 1940s with The Invaders, a series created by, wouldn’t you know, Roy Thomas. And, I guess a total nutjob could throw The Rampaging Hulk magazine in the conversation. But by Crom, they would be wrong. There are no “untold stories” or “revisionist histories” with Conan. He is all things at all times. Just like motherf**king Lemmy.

Chris: I’m not about to suggest Roy’s writing could ever be predictable or formulaic, but the moment I saw Phaidon, and heard he was the son of Pallantides, I thought, “Well, he’s a goner.”  The part I didn’t see coming is Phaidon’s transformation to the “nightmarish,” nearly mindless Manotaur, and Conan’s unwitting role in Phaidon’s killing.  Nice job also as Roy intimates Conan’s battle with the “horned killer-beast” will resonate thru time, and be sung about by later civilizations; I don’t remember the Greek legend ever being quite as vicious as this, so could it be some nastier details were lost in retellings, Roy?  

I wasn’t expecting Roy & John to pick up the storyline that follows the conclusion of the Conan the Conqueror adaptation.  Roy presents many great lines in this one, including: Conan ignores a gibe of Tarascus, since “not for him are the fine, verbal victories of civilized men” (p 9); Pallantides holds back his troops, stating he’s seen Conan the King survive three threats on his life, “and trodden on the graves of those who opposed him” (p 17); once he realizes Tarascus’ deceit has also cost the life of Pallantides’ son, Conan’s “raging despair [is] too deep now even for tears of sorrow, [as] Conan sheds his kingship – aye even his years of civilization –as easily as he would toss off rusted chains” (p 31).  
The Buscema/Chan art offers its usual greatness, with the Manotaur battle a clear highlight (p 24-30).  Zenobia looks like a woman who would be worth fighting the entire palace regiment (p 10-11).  Interesting effect on p 23, as lines along the maze-walls (which I assume are Chan’s finishes) accentuate the sense of Conan rushing thru its alleys, in search of his distressed damsel.  Credit goes to George Roussos for three panels: a light red as Conan reflects on his imprisonment and trials in Belverus, prior to his return as the city’s conqueror (p 2, pnl 5); a deeper red as the Manotaur collides with Conan, and the battle is joined (p 25, 1st pnl); a medium blue, as Conan struggles to twist the Manotaur’s horns around and snap its neck, which matches the exertion on Conan’s face, as it suggests Conan’s energy reserves are running dangerously low (p 27, last pnl).  Nice effect also in the very last panel (p 46), as Conan and his queen, their hands clasped, ride toward us, framed by the grey-red sunset behind the mountain peak.  

 The Defenders 64
Story by David Anthony Kraft
Art by Sal Buscema and Don Perlin
Colors by Bob Sharen
Letters by John  Costanza
Cover by Keith Pollard (?) and Frank Giacoia

The legitimate Defenders have their hands (and paws) full trying to lasso up the New Defenders (as seen in the last startling issue) but it may be a case of too many cooks in the kitchen. The police arrive and place the whole lot of them (legit and faux) under arrest but the bad guys aren't for hanging around and they hightail it. The good guys follow. The swollen ranks of the Defenders are parceled out into smaller groups and each group heads off after a band of no-goods, with the Hercules-led faction battling the Beetle-led baddies in the subway. Meanwhile, Valkyrie's team battles a band of ferry-jackers led by Moon Knight lookalike Libra, and Val seems to be losing her marbles. Imagining she's on a Viking ship at sea and the villains are sword-carrying ogres, Val lets rip with adrenaline, dispatching the whole lot and then almost offing Nighthawk for good measure. Clearly, the gal is overworked. Meanwhile, in the USSR, General Kharkov gets some distressing news: Sergei has returned to the "Forbidden Area and reawakened the Unholy Creation!" -Peter Enfantino

Peter: Good Christ, what an unholy mess this is. Stepping in for the retiring Jim Barwise (who, I am convinced after reading this pile of crap, was not being paid near enough) and reading my first Defenders in years (since about issue #20, to be exact), I have to admit, first of all, that I was lost and, for about an eighth of a second, considered catching up by reading all the back issues. I say now that nothing could prepare one for something like this: one part herded cats, one gigantic portion of Not Brand Echh (though, I'm sure, the humor is not intended), and way too much cliched battle action. If there is one iota of a smidgen of a ray of hope here, it's in the Valkyrie situation. I have to admit to being interested in Val the Gal's mental state. But then, that could just be me hoping against hope that there's something that keeps me turning the pages for the next 14 issues. Oh, and if 246 Marvel characters weren't enough, we're promised a guest-appearance by Millie the Model next issue. How exactly did this title make it to 152 issues?

Matthew: Faint praise though it may be, this is probably the least annoying episode of the trilogy, even earning the Dude a grudging Archaeology Award.  When I got to page 14, panel 5, I immediately said to myself, “Is the blonde bearded guy supposed to be one of the super-villains or just some random thug?”  Later on, he’s identified as Joe the Gorilla, which rang a distant bell, and when I looked it up, I discovered that he and the equally disposable Pecos had the same dubious credentials:  they were both members of the Split-Second Squad that Roy Thomas, on an extremely off day, introduced in Avengers #77 (June 1970).  Inked with more skill than usual by Don, Our Pal may set a new record for drawing the most identifiable characters in a single issue.

 Doctor Strange 31
"A Death for Immortality"
Story by Don McGregor
Art by Ricardo Villamonte and Tom Sutton
Colors by Marie Severin
Letters by Gaspar Saladino and Diana Albers
Cover by Alan Weiss

As his physical form lies still, the astral form of Stephen Strange ventures deep into the ocean to seek the help of an old friend: Namor, the Sub-Mariner! The Sword of Kamuu, once integral to Atlantean history, and long ago lost, has come into the hands of... Alaric. The power of the sword has given Alaric, once a minor mystic, control of arcane forces. One of those forces is the ability to become immortal if he slays a Sorceror Supreme. You can guess who that's going to be! Stephen seeks Namor's help because of Atlantis' connection to the sword. Namor wants to help, but has his people to look after, and before he gives an answer, Strange must leave. Alaric has arrived in New York, penetrating Stephen's mystic defences. It doesn't take him long to breach Strange's sanctum, where Clea puts up a fight with her own magical skill. She cannot stop Alaric, however, and just as the evil one is about to slice through Stephen's body, the mage rejoins his astral and physical self and escapes harm's way. Strange's magic isn't effective enough in our dimension to fight  the sword's ancient Zartran magic. Luckily, Namor has decided to come to his friend's aid, and while the blood of a Sorcerer Supreme may grant Alaric eternal life, the blood of the wounded Atlantean Avenging Son brings the curse of Zartra upon him, finishing him off. -Jim Barwise

Jim Barwise: It's about time, I'd say, we see Dr. Strange and Namor together again in Stephen's own magazine. Atlantis looks the part it should here, regal and epic. And Namor is fittingly full of pride, although there's never a doubt he would ever come to his friend's aid. Clea gets in a good shot, not stopping Alaric, but adding strength to her character. Some nice artwork, including a cover that represents accurately what transpires inside.

Matthew: It’s Musical Job Titles Day at the Sanctum:  writer Stern shifts into editorial mode, to accommodate a one-off by guest scripter McGregor, while regular artist Sutton, who embellished his own work last issue, provides the same service to Villamonte, better known as an inker himself, and notching his only penciling credit on the book.  The results are pleasing as Don restrains his penchant for prolixity, also earning points for invoking Kamuu and Zartra; the ornate artwork has a spectacular and satisfyingly mystical flavor; and long-neglected Clea even gets to seal the deal.  I only balked at Namor’s initial reluctance to help, first, because we know damn well he’ll change his mind, and second, because I doubt even he would be so short-sighted.

Chris: Rick B. of Tempe AZ complains bitterly how Dr S #29 “did not fit Doc,” and that it “stunk.”  I’m completely in agreement with our self-defending armadillo, who relates Roger Stern’s concern that “after all the extra-dimensional hoopla …, a down-to-earth story was really in order.”  This issue isn’t exactly earth-bound, but it continues the recent trend of lower-stakes one-shot stories that have come in the wake of the extended Creators/In-Betweener storyline.  Don McGregor offers a welcome departure from the norm in another aspect, as Doc legitimately requires the help of others to resolve the threat of Alaric; Clea buys Doc a few critical moments as she defends his empty physical form, then Namor arrives and (thru no small cost to himself) provides the key to Alaric’s defeat.  Clea even puts a bow on Alaric’s downfall as she traps him in Dyzzak’s Cage (that’s a new one, as far as I know), thereby saving Doc the trouble.

The look of the art is mostly the work of Tom Sutton, but credit still needs to be paid to Ricardo Villamonte, who does an inspired job on the layouts (a far better job, I might add, than many of Villamonte’s turns as embellisher).  Highlights include: the lightning-lit splash page (which includes more names and words than I’ve ever seen hidden in the border of Doc’s cloak, including “Sterno,” “Don,” “McGregor,” “Shooter” (!), “Ditko,” plus 2-3 others I couldn’t make out); Doc’s arrival at the gates of Atlantis, portrayed in a neo-Greco-Roman style (p 2); Namor puts aside a scroll and emerges from the shadows (p 3, 1st pnl); in an impressive full-pager, Alaric storms the Sanctum, casting aside doors and furniture, with Clea staunchly defending Stephen, as the Sanctum’s central archways tower over the scene (p 14); Alaric casts Clea aside, causing further disruption to the house (p 15); Doc reunites with his inert body in the proverbial nick, leaving Alaric’s sword with an empty “THUNK” (p 17); another full-pager, as Alaric revels in his seemingly imminent triumph, with bizarre platforms and walkways stretching into the distance – what are those gold-colored figures, far in the background? (p 26); okay, last one – the very final panel, yet another reunion for Doc and Clea, with marble columns stretching above them, and Namor standing alone, looking pleased and amused.  

This post marks the departure of one of our most tenured professors, Jim Barwise. Five years is a long time to devote to a pet project and we all appreciate Jim's time and energy. In that time, Jim covered nearly every issue of JIM/Thor, Defenders, Doctor Strange, Eternals, and Silver Surfer! We'll miss you, Jim!

-The Staff

 Fantastic Four 199
"The Son of Dr. Doom!"
Story by Marv Wolfman
Art by Keith Pollard and Joe Sinnott
Colors by Janice Cohen
Letters by John Costanza
Cover by Keith Pollard and Joe Sinnott

We open with Doom, exultant in his lab, as the captured FF's collective powers start streaming into "The Son of Doctor Doom!" Part of the transfer process involves Victor playing a symphony on a futuristic "sonic keyboard" that would have any prog-rock band worth their twenty minute solos creaming their bellbottoms (they don't call him the "Beethoven of the Balkans" for nothing. Would ya buy the Salieri?). His reverie is interrupted when toadying scientist Hauptmann rushes in to inform Doom that the rebel Zorba - and the mob he's led to the castle's courtyard - demands an audience. Casually backhanding Hauptmann (the second n in his name has returned, after going missing last month; perhaps it's a rebel ploy to sow confusion), Doom mentions Zorba is the brother of "our late King Rudolfo." 

{Zorba name-checked the King last ish, but left out the brother part. During last class, I erroneously identified Hauptman as Zorba's bro, thanks to a combo of Marv's muddled dialogue and my early on-set senility. For the record, Hauptmann's brother, also one of Doom's scientists, gave Zorb his cyborg-eye}.
Doom addresses the mob from a balcony, but his always shaky PR skills fail him, as he veers from "My dear, dear subjects..." to "...mindless maggots..." in a space of one panel. Zorba counters by threatening to spill secrets from the Doc's diary. Doom zaps part of the crowd, but the rest brandish smuggled weapons, and the standoff ends when Doom apologizes, promising that the Coronation will allay their fears, then goes to see Alicia, still chipping away on his statue. We learn the UN, to whom the statue is to be presented, is considering expelling Latveria. The statue may look like Dr. Doom, but it smells like a Trojan horse... 

Back in the lab, Reed smashes out of his "transference globe." After freeing his teammates, Stretch reveals he'd used  "...a micro-feedback system" in his belt to short-circuit Doom's gizmos. The Fabs go on the attack and make short work of the Doomsguard, but when they crash in on Victor, he turns Alicia into a hostage. The Fabs stand down and...

It's Coronation time! Sinnott and Pollard serve up a full splash (p.17) of the open proceedings - oddly composed in its focus on the back of the crowd's heads - as the Doc officially introduces " few of you ever knew son!"  The captive FF are cooling their heels in the dungeon, but when Zorba turns off the device monitoring them, they're free to break out without endangering Alicia. Zorba hands over pilfered notes and equations that, Reed says, explain everything.

As the massed Latverians watch Doom place the crown on Junior's head, our heroes arrive and Zorba shouts out the Doc's secret: Junior is a clone! 

Doom's omni-bots attack, but that's a sideshow to Victor Von Clone turning Thing-like. Unlike Ben, however, he keeps his thick mop of hair (and if you think Trump's follically-challenged, you ain't seen nothin' yet!). More surprisingly, Jr. goes rogue and attacks dear old cell-donor dad, since he doesn't possess the original's "...outrage, your hate, or your insanity!"

As if to prove that exact point, a furious Doom kills (apparently) his clone-son, setting up next month's double-sized denouement. -Mark Barsotti

Mark: While I'm certainly still hoping that the historic 200th issue of Fantastic Four will be a memorable epic that does Marvel's first family proud, my actual expectations are fairly muted. After almost twenty years, is there any new wow factor to be wrung from a FF-Doom clash?

Victor Von Clone was a nice twist, but if he's really dead, Marv took his shot a month early. It's also hard to believe someone as narcissistic as Doom, no matter his anger, would kill "himself." Junior going all orange and cobbly is presented as an unanticipated side effect of Reed short-circuiting the transference process, but it begs the question: if you're going to imbue someone with all the FF's powers, what did Doom expect to happen? And if the clone was raised, as one would imagine, on a steady diet of the Doc's worldview, how did getting the FF's powers also overwrite a lifelong indoctrination with ethics and morality he was never exposed to?

Doom threatening a blind woman, one he admires as a "brilliant artist" and has promised to release, is out of character. The best, latter-day Kirby/Lee presentations of the Doc made clear he has a flinty sense of honor. Not only does Marv trash that here, but when our heroes invade the throne room all the characters forget the Alicia death threat, making her hostage-taking all the more pointless.

Thus, barring a big turnaround next month, Wolfman has squandered the two characters, Alicia and Doom Jr., that had me excited a couple months back.

Zorba (unlike Hauptmann) flirts with becoming a fully-rounded character. Will we learn how he gained access to Doom's diary and any other secrets contained therein, or will that plot thread be left dangling?

There was no hint of Reed's "extra power" this month, and Sue's more prominent role - one of the highlights of Len Wein's tenure - has completely gone by the wayside. 

Doom's statue (or any gift from the Doc, really) is an obvious threat, so why would the UN accept such an offering, particularly when they're considering giving Latveria the heave-ho? Yet Marv's spent a lot of time on this, so let's hope he has a big surprise up his sleeve.

What isn't a surprise is the top flight Sinnott/Pollard art, on frenetic display doing the Fabs two-page takedown of the Doomsguard (pgs.14-15). We'll have more of the same to ogle next month. As far the rest...? 

We'll find out in thirty.

Matthew: Well, family matters are certainly at the, uh, “four”-front as Marv “Kiss my lips” Wolfman sets the stage for the milestone #200.  Zorba seeks to avenge his late brother, Prince Rudolfo (inexplicably referred to here as “King”—wishful thinking?); Gert Hauptmann fears the fate Doom meted out in #87 to his late brother, Gustav, whose experiments cost Zorba an eye; Doom passes off his clone as his own son to try to hoodwink the U.N.; and, most important, the “family” of the FF is finally restored.  Through it all, the Pollard/Sinnott art is as rock-solid as Ben’s orange hide, and the appearance of quasi-Thing Vic Jr. visually arresting, but I have to ask if it was intentionally humorous that Zorba says, “Kronar, keep an eye on Doom…”

Scott: A very busy issue, but the final panel on page 11 is a wonderful payoff to the months leading to that moment. Really well done there. I can’t remember if Doom’s son being revealed as a clone was a surprise or not back in the day. However, I do remember enjoying the fight between them and being vaguely shocked at Junior’s death. It is interesting to watch Doom lose his cool and then backpedal and later try to justify to his people why he keeps them prisoner. Yet, with all of that, the way he treats Alicia is fascinating. He really is one of the best villains in the Marvel Universe. The art is smashing, as usual; Pollard and Sinnott show us how it’s done.

Chris: Marv has told us a few times already that we’re in the midst of “The Greatest F.F. Epic of All!”  Well, with this title’s history, that claim seems more than a little presumptuous.  Still, it has been a good ride, and a worthy storyline to carry us to the landmark #200 (on sale next month).  The expected-since-they-broke-up re-unification takes place, and the team finally has a chance to cut loose and bust up some costly guard-bots.  The twist of Doom’s son/clone battling his creator is blown by the telltale cover, but the debate as they battle makes for compelling reading; Doom’s action to silence permanently the accusations of his clone makes for an ugly finish, as the team can only stand by and gape.  Sue observes Reed has an uncharacteristic edge to his voice; should make for a high-octane showdown with Doom next issue (on sale – oh right, I told you already).  

Pollard & Sinnott continue to deliver art worthy of the World’s Greatest Comic Magazine.  Action highlights include: Ben tears up the stone floor, scattering Doombots (p 15); the clone swats Doom off the stage, then protects himself with a Sue-shield (p 26); the now-sinuous clone stretches and twists as it blasts a fire-bolt, which catches Doom in the shoulder, and illustrates how Doom basically has created his own Super Skrull, of sorts (p 30); the clone corpse, its neck and right arm twisted in agonized angles (p 31).   

 Fantastic Four Annual 13
Story by Bill Mantlo
Art by Sal Buscema and Joe Sinnott
Colors by Francoise Mouly
Letters by Gaspar Saladino and Irving Watanabe
Cover by Keith Pollard and Steve Leialoha

Johnny lights up the NYC sky, celebrating the reunited FF's (upcoming) victory over Doctor Doom. Told to cool it by the Fire Department, the Torch flies by the Baxter Building, its top floors still empty since the team's breakup (FF #191). He arrives at Alicia's apartment, where the rest of the Fabs are gathered for the unveiling of the sculptress' new statue of a young Agatha Harkness. After the celebrants depart for dinner, a mysterious figure absconds with the statue, exits the window and descends a ladder of living forms. It's the Mole Man and his subterraneans!

And the statue snatching wasn't a one-off. Moley and his obedient minions have been making nocturnal forays into Manhattan, not only stealing statues, "...all symbolizing beauty, nobility...", but committing a series of kidnappings. The victims - the blind, the hideously ugly and the derelict - are carried off in life-sized Glad Bags.

Meanwhile, due to an unspecified real-estate snafu, the Fabs don't have access to the Baxter and are reduced to riding the bus. They're approached by the DA with a request to look into the kidnappings, but Reed begs off, since SHIELD has all the FF's equipment in storage, and they're otherwise occupied, looking for a place to crash. Later, after failing to get into a sold-out show at Radio City Music Hall, our civvy-clad heroes and Alicia return to her studio, where Moley and minions have returned for their "final raid," toting off Alicia's works to where "...they will be more fully appreciated."

The FF object, but in a spirited battle that manages to do minimal damage to Ms. Masters' digs, the neuro-shocker in Moley's staff stuns our heroes long enough for him to grab Alicia and crash through the window like, well, a daredevil (who gets a two-panel cameo earlier in our tale). An invisible Sue follows, and soon the recovered trio see her 4 flare light up the sky. Our team is soon descending into a deserted subway tunnel, then a hole leading them deeper, down to where Moley's set up shop. After a brief fight, the kidnap "victims" rally to Moley's defense, backed by none other than Alicia!

Rather than a standard invade-the-surface-world scheme, the newly empathetic Mole Man had gathered the blind and those who "...hated the sight of themselves...even as I once did. So I could give them beauty they could taste and touch and hear." Further, he planned to return the stolen statues, after having Alicia make copies. 

And so the Fabs let his plan proceed. Some of the abductees decide to stay below the surface in the oasis for outcasts. And along with " new friends," Harvey Elder is left with Alicia's parting gift, a heroic statue of the Mole Man. -Mark Barsotti

Mark: Considering the wildly inconsistent quality of this era's annuals, writer Bill Mantlo - aided & abetted by Our Pal Sal and Stalwart Joe Sinnott - gets extra credit for drawing outside the lines here, taking an old character (and the Mole Man was there at ground zero, FF #1) in a new, unexpected direction. Not world conquest, but a world class Braille museum and reject sanctuary. 

But to get us there, Mantlo puts a high hurdle in our path, namely the noggin-scratching notion of Moley as nimble cat burglar, scampering up literal stacks of subterraneans to reach high-rise apartments. Has he been training with the Great Gambonnos? Bitten by a radioactive mole? No matter, he can now go crashing out of fifth-floor windows and scamper merrily away.

If that premise has you reeling, class, lunging, perhaps, toward the exits, I can only suggest that those who buck up and soldier on shall be rewarded. While Moley's hardly transformed into a full-blown altruist - there's still the little matter of kidnapping - his empathy for the blind, ugly, and rejected is deeply rooted in his own character. And while Mantlo could have fleshed out the premise further by, say, having some catalyzing event spark MM's burst of unorthodox cultural outreach, the motive and emotion behind it ring true. 

So while, no, the ending didn't have me cheering for Moley, it certainly brought me closer than I ever would have thought likely.

A not inconsiderable accomplishment.   
Chris: A very satisfying issue, one of my all-time favorites from this period.  We can share Johnny’s delight at the opening, since we’re nearly as glad as he is that the team’s officially reunited.  From there, we get some cozy team-time, followed by (thinly-veiled) mystery, and action, until we conclude with a moment of pathos.  We all can question the Mole Man’s methods, but his intentions certain seem noble.   

Mantlo moves smoothly from one segment of the story to another, with dialog and characterization consistent with the team as we know them; fortunately, Sue has another moment to defend her actions, as she reminds Reed that she takes “the chance we all take!” when she dons the royal blue (with black accents, and a “4” at the heart).  Most importantly, the events fit the series’ continuity, as readers are reminded the team doesn’t presently have a HQ, or access to most of their handy gadgetry, processing power, and rapid transit.  Speaking of which, great moment as we see Reed and Ben emerge from a cab – no Fantasticar – at Sue’s flare-firing location (p 34), followed by Ben’s jawing with the stiffed cabbie (so, there’s room for a flare gun in the belt, but clearly not a change purse).
I have two other quibbles, which I’ll address quickly.  First, how does Ben get his jacket back (p 19)?  Did he take the split-back one and have it repaired, or did he have another size 70 hastily custom-made?  It’s not like they shot these scenes on separate days, and didn’t realize the mistake until they got the prints to the editing stage.  Also, it’s pretty hilarious that Alicia was able to make a life-size clay mold, and that the subterraneans were able to copy her statues, all in less than an hour; I guess we’ll have to chalk that up to artistic license.  Doesn’t interfere with my enjoyment of the issue as a whole. 
Okay, back to the praiseworthy stuff.  Sal + Joe work beautifully together; if Sal hadn’t been so busy with so many other Marvel titles, he would’ve been a fine choice as the FF’s regular penciller.  Highlights include: the heated draft that precedes Johnny into Alicia’s apartment window, as seen in the fluttering of her curtains (p 6, first three panels); heavy atmosphere as Moley and crew prowl the night streets, assisted by Francoise Mouly’s deep blues (p 18-19); the Mole Man crashing out the window, with Alicia in tow (p 30, 1st pnl); Ben’s outrage with the cabbie (p 35); Sal’s large-panel takes on Moley’s underground world (p 37, p 39).

Matthew: Now that we’re past what I consider the Golden Age of Marvel annuals (you’ll notice they’re publishing fewer of them, and haven’t even mentioned them on the Bullpen Pages), I regard them with some suspicion, but there’s plenty to like about this one, e.g., its place in the regular continuity, after next month’s #200.  Bill’s script is well paced, stretching his relatively simple story out over the double-sized issue without it seeming thin or padded, and I think the Sal & Joe art credit speaks for itself.  My minor complaints are the repeated references to the Mole Man’s yellow subterraneans as pink, presumably confusing them with the Leader’s little critters, and totally Sue-perfluous “I’m a member of this team bla bla bla” speech.

Ghost Rider 32
“The Price!”
Story by Roger McKenzie and Don Perlin
Art by Don Perlin and Rick Bryant
Colors by Francoise Mouly
Letters by Diana Albers
Cover by Keith Pollard and Bob Layton

In the ghost town of Last Chance, Nevada, the Bounty Hunter has Ghost Rider tied up on a gallows, a noose of hellfire around his neck. But before the trap door can give way, a monstrous, tentacled demon appears and tries to drag the Rider down to the darkness from which it came. The Hunter, furious that his claim is slipping through his boney fingers, fires his shotgun at the quivering nightmare — the flame-headed stuntman falls free and quickly forms a Skull Cycle. The Rider and the Hunter temporarily join forces and destroy the grotesque creature. With his prey now safely in his gunsights, the Hunter tells his tale: in the old west, he used to be a bushwhacking bounty hunter named Haskell. After delivering yet another cold corpse and collecting his blood money, Haskell is shot in the back by the man’s vengeful younger brother. Haskell awakes in a strange beer hall: when he looks in the mirror above the bar, he is horrified to see that his face is now a skull. The evil bartender cackles that to save his immortal soul, Haskell must bring him 50 more of his choosing — the Hunter concludes that Johnny Blaze is the last name on that list. 

But just before the undead killer can pull the trigger and secure his freedom, three skeletal cowboys appear in the sky riding hellish horses: one shouts out that the Witching Hour has passed and the Hunter must pay with his very soul. Frustrated that the Hunter has been double-crossed — the same thing that Satan did to him — the Ghost Rider tries to protect his former pursuer, crashing his cycle into two of the sinister skeletons. They smash apart but quickly reform and begin to pummel the cyclist, shouting that they share much in common. But Blaze takes human form, defiantly cursing that he will never be like them. The craven cowboys recoil at the feel of his flesh and flee — but not before one lassoes the Bounty Hunter and drags him away to his eternal rewards. -Tom Flynn

Tom: Roger McKenzie has been teasing us with glimpses of the Bounty Hunter for the PAST THREE ISSUES and this is the furshlugginer payoff?!? Sigh™. First of all, it’s obvious that Haskell was a good-for-nothing varmint, shooting his prey in the back or while asleep. But he was still performing a public service, rounding up murders, train robbers and other scum. And the wanted posters do include the word “dead.” Heck, in half of my beloved spaghetti westerns, the bounty hunters are the good guys. So, was he that evil to deserve his fate? The skeletal cowboys seem to show up out of nowhere: Haskell never mentioned that he was on the clock and that his time was running out. And what the heck was with the tentacle monster at the beginning? Where did it come from and why? It’s never explained. I’m also not buying it that Blaze would try to help the Bounty Hunter. Let’s face it, if they had managed to drive off the cowboys, the Hunter would have just probably tried to kill him again. This is just another dreary issue that offers little entertainment value — if any. And, of course, the art blows. Bob Layton’s inks last issue gave us a slight tick in quality but Rick Bryant doesn’t have the talent to save Perlin’s pencils. At least at this point: I think I remember that Bryant would round into a fairly good artist in the years to come. I can’t imagine that anyone was satisfied after plucking down their 35¢ on a Ghost Rider comic back in the day. Just like the Suck Kut, this series sucks my will to live.

Chris: In a LOC from Beppe S. of E. Lancing (sic) MI, in re issue #29, the corrospondent takes Roger McKenzie to task for devoting so much time to the set-up of the Ghost Rider/Dr Strange battle; “After waiting 60 days,” she writes, “I’ve got to wait another two months for the real thing.”  Well, the same concern is in effect here: we’ve watched the Bounty Hunter (went to great lengths for the character’s name, eh Rog -?) as he’s stalked Ghost Rider, but now when we finally have a chance for a showdown, we barely see any confrontation between these two characters.  

Instead, we have a fairly disjointed story, as we move from the seemingly imminent hanging of Ghost Rider, to a brief alliance with the Bounty Hunter so they can quash the presumptuous hellspawn, followed by a fairly lengthy (five pages!) account of Bounty’s deal with the devil, and then the hellriders' arrival.  The thorough exploration of this minor character’s backstory is of concern; over 25% of the issue tells his tale.  If I were editing this mag (and I’m sure someone had this assignment …), I would’ve opened with no more than three pages of Bounty’s story, probably as a flashback, and then picked up the GR hangin’ as advertised on the cover.  I will award some points to McKenzie (no, I haven’t figured out how many, yet) for the downbeat ending, as Johnny is unable to foil Satan’s nasty plan, and fails to heroically rescue his once-foe.   
The Perlin/Bryant art has its moments, but not quite as many as I would’ve liked.  The splash page sets the tone well, with its fiery gallows and shadowy moonlight.  Then we get a truly hideous hell-creature, the type that Perlin does so well (p 2), and some pretty solid battling with said creature (p 6).  Once our venue moves to the old west, the faces sort of flatten out (p 11, panel 3); the hellriders also look a bit silly – there’s something goofy about their faces (p 23, last pnl).  

Matthew: “Rarely have I sensed such overwhelming evil!” we were told last time by Dr. Strange, a guy who’s faced down everyone from Shuma-Gorath to Johnny’s old nemesis, Satan himself (or Mephisto or whatever we’re calling him this week), not to mention the just-banished Dormammu.  So now we’re supposed to sympathize with this son of a bitch, who’s delivered 49 souls to damnation in a self-deluded attempt to save his own?  For better or, more likely, worse, Don is becoming increasingly ubiquitous; not only does he continue co-plotting Roger’s two remaining issues—and note their “Salicrup Brothers” in-joke in page 10, panel 6—but after this it will be rare to see Perlin’s pencils inked by anybody else, as Bryant so indifferently does here.

 Godzilla 15
"Roam on the Range"
Story by Doug Moench
Art by Herb Trimpe and Dan Green
Colors by Don Warfield
Letters by Shelly Leferman
Cover by Herb Trimpe

Fresh off his victory over the Mega-Monsters, Godzilla comes upon a valley where the creature is intrigued by the bones of cattle, then takes a nap while cowpokes Hal and Larry hustle back to John Hawks' ranch, thinking the "big Gila Monster" is responsible for the recent cattle disappearances, not suspected rustlers. Hawks sends them out to tell the other ranchers, and also to guard the herd on the range. We also get a quick aside back to Salt Lake City, where Dum Dum and company head out hoping the Heli-Carrier is fixed, and young Robert wishes the same for headless Red Ronin. When night falls, Lefty commiserates with rancher Bill Ford, since the two of them are in cahoots to steal the cattle, as the rest of the crew is dealing with a stampeding herd! Of course, the cattle have been spooked by the sight of Godzilla, and borderline insane Hal decides to use a lasso to climb up onto the Big G's tail with a bundle of dynamite to distract him before the herd is driven into the river—and it works! Hal and co-worker Jake ride back to the ranch with an annoyed Godzilla in hot pursuit, and once they get inside, the big guy steps on the building!--Joe Tura

"Sometimes I sits and thinks...
and sometimes I just sits."
Joe: This issue moved as fast as Godzilla through the valley, but ultimately it was mostly fluff. The rancher setting is out of nowhere, even though it makes sense geographically, and the sight of Godzilla gently playing with the cattle bones is both puzzling and interesting, and well-drawn by Trimpe and Green. This is one of the better issues art-wise, and the story, as marshmallow light as it may be, is not bad. But Moench treats us to the clichés of the "crooked cowboy" and the "rival rancher" as well as the "fearless one" who sorta saves the day—until Godzilla steps on all of them, that is. And imagine a Toho movie where part of the plot is Godzilla bothering to menace a ranch, or peeved at some of the ranchers for distracting him, so he literally chases them down. Nah, not likely. The one thing that bothered me about the artwork was the design of Hal's outfit, which was straight out of Rawhide Kid territory, but in a different color, like he picked it up at the gift shop.

Matthew: The second I got to page 10, panel 5 and they started talking about roping Godzilla, the jaunty Jerome Moross theme from Ray Harryhausen’s The Valley of [no “the”] Gwangi started running through my head, but I guess that spectacle is being saved for next time.  My main man Dan Green, who joined us last issue and will embellish all but one (#22) of the remainder, is here practicing what we might call “invisible inking”:  it’s completely capable, but leaves Trimpe’s signature style untouched.  Once again, Moench has made this something else in addition to another story about an essentially mindless oversized lizard, in this case a modern-day cattle-rustling yarn suitable for a film with anyone from Roy Rogers to Abbott and Costello.

 The Incredible Hulk 228
"Bad Moon on the Rise!"
Story by Roger Stern and Peter Gillis
Art by Sal Buscema and Bob McLeod
Colors by Phil Rachelson
Letters by Gaspar Saladino and Bruce Patterson
Cover by Herb Trimpe and Bob McLeod

Now that Doc Samson has calmed the beast in the Hulk, he can run tests to push the strength of the green goliath. The tests are going well until a mysterious woman enters the scene. Her name is Karla Sofen and she's a world-famous psychiatrist (she caused quite the stir at the Utrecht Conference as you recall), but she harbors a deadly secret: the gorgeous blonde is AKA Moonstone, a sixth-tier villain who's come to Gamma Base to steal the "Gammavator components!" Unbeknownst to the villainous vixen, Doc Samson has rigged the corridors around Hulk's sleeping quarters in case he decides to wander the base. When Jade Jaws gets antsy and hits the halls, the alarm sounds and Moonstone mistakenly believes she's triggered an alert. She heads for the exit but runs smack dab into the Hulk, who's surprised to see a silver-helmeted chick walking through walls. The two get off on the wrong foot when Moonstone tries the violent approach to introductions and stirs Hulk into fighting back. Moonstone can alter the frequency in her voice and she screams out a plea for help from Samson. When the Doc arrives, he sees his green buddy hoisting the helpless girl (who has changed back into her civvies) and immediately jumps to conclusions. -Peter Enfantino

Peter: Not a rip-roaring adventure but at least Krap-otkin and Jim Wilson are kept to a few precious panels. We'll have to wait until next issue for Roger to spill the beans on Moonstone's origin but I'm not holding my breath for anything startling. A super-villain with the power to change her voice from frightened teenager to aggressive hell-hound is original but I'm not sure it's all that interesting.

Scott: This issue is a little uneven. Marvel’s TV Sensation spends the first half of the issue doing physical tests and other exciting things like trying to sleep in a real bed. By the time Moonstone shows up, I’m kind of ready to hit the sack myself. But, then it gets a little more fun as she pushes the Hulk's buttons and enrages him to a state we rarely see in him. Old T-bolt Ross has taken a sudden turn from being super polite the last batch of issues to being super cranky again. That’s the old warhorse I remember from the good old days. A cameo by Betty isn’t unappreciated either. I’m not as familiar with this issue as I was the last few, so I don’t have the nostalgia coloring my reaction to the piece, but it’s not bad. It’s not great either….

Matthew: Hands, or something, up if you recall Kurvaceous Karla as the “nude” chick bowdlerized in Captain America #192; it’s eminently logical that the “psychiatric black sheep” (oh, Len, you have no idea) would be a protégé of Dr. Faustus, although we have yet to see how she wound up as a female Moonstone.  Now, “monkey suit” is generally synonymous with a tuxedo or other formal attire, so once again, my antennae went up when our favorite Harlem native, Jim Wilson, used that term to refer to his “high-impact G-suit.”  There are spots—e.g., page 27, panel 4—where the Buscema/McLeod art doesn’t look like Bob’s work at all, leaving me wondering if Janson slipped in and inked a few panels when nobody was looking.

Chris: Samson uses the stuck-as-Hulk week to everyone’s best advantage, as he endeavors to prove to Hulk that the Gamma Base staff are willing to help, and can be trusted.  The Hulk wrecks the six-ton press, and Samson rewards him with some steaming franks and beans (Hulk likes).  Jim tries to reassure Hulk that, given time, he could grow accustomed to mattresses and linens (Hulk doubts).  

The Hulk’s first sight of Moonstone walking thru the wall doesn’t incite him to confusion that leads directly to anger; instead, the Hulk’s quiet days now allow him to dismiss Moonstone as a potential threat, and treat them both as harmless participants in a dream (nice job by Stern & Gillis, as they depict Hulk with a child’s undeveloped sense of boundaries, as he believes his dream also could be happening in Moonstone’s mind – they could be sharing the same dream).  The tragedy of the Hulk now takes on a new dimension, as Moonstone’s manipulation undoes Samson’s purposeful progress.  Something tells me she wasn’t counting on getting knocked out, and leaving herself at the mercy of a fully-enraged, reason-proof Hulk.  

The art continues to be in good hands, as we have a brief visit from Bob McLeod as inker; the results are as clear and sure as we saw a few issues ago with Joe Rubinstein.  As always, my test for Hulk art involves the depiction of his expressions, and Sal & Bob come thru.  We see him unhappy, but not rage-filled (p 14, last pnl), surprised (p 23, pnl 4), and then we’re back to full-scale fury (p 27, last pnl; p 30-31).

 The Invaders 33
"A Time of Titans"
Story by Roy Thomas
Art by Alan Kupperberg and Frank Springer
Colors by George Roussos
Letters by Joe Rosen
Cover by Alan Kupperberg, Jack Kirby, and Dave Cockrum

Thor’s demo (tearing up the tracks, starting a storm that douses the Torch) fails to dissuade the Invaders, who “seem like noble warriors,” yet even the rain-strengthened Namor is outmatched, so he carries Stalin to his flagship and heads for Moscow.  The Falsworths can but delay Thor’s departure, an inadequate-feeling Brian vowing to quit, so the quartet follows aboard what’s left of the train, its locomotive fed by a dried-off Torch.  On a mountain peak, Thor uses Mjolnir to contact Hitler, who says, “The same machine which brought you here from Asgard will point the way [to the Kremlin], via electronic impulse you will receive thru [sic] your hammer,” but while complying, Olsen starts experiencing second thoughts and ominous angina.

Ordered to continue when he dies, Hans—revealed to us as Victor von Doom—obeys “for now, because it suits my own experimental purposes,” and Thor reaches Moscow, where Cap leaves Stalin under Union Jack’s protection.  Thor makes short work of the others, but no sooner has he zapped a strangely silent Stalin with lightning than he overhears Der Führer and learns the truth, Hans (who sought to contact his gypsy mother’s spirit) having fixed the machine to transmit his rant and then explode, leaving Hitler trapped “to see how the world deals with you.”  Wised up, Thor withdraws most of the lightning-force from Brian, who’d hidden and impersonated Stalin; erases their memories; and departs leaving Union Jack with an inexplicable new electrical power. 
-Matthew Bradley

Matthew: I have mixed feelings about Roy’s use of Doom (having accidentally looked ahead, I knew who “Hans” was this time, and don’t remember if I guessed his identity back in the day); having him resent Hitler’s treatment of his gypsy race is a nice attention to detail, yet calling Hitler “the one man on Earth who is more evil than I could ever hope to be” rang false for me, since a hallmark of many great villains is that they don’t see themselves as evil.  The ending is awfully pat:  no idea where Brian got or whipped up that lifelike Stalin mask, and it sure is convenient that the self-described “weak link” suddenly gets an upgrade.  In his penultimate issue, Springer proves as uneven as usual in inking the work of Kupperberg, who will remain on board for the duration.

Chris: The story really doesn’t hold together well; Roy counts on us to play along as he takes far too many liberties.   Thor loses the Atlantean flagship in a cloud bank; he can’t dispel said clouds, Thor the god of the storm?  Cap & Co settle in and chug along to Moscow on a train; somehow, they arrive in Moscow comfortably ahead of Thor, who is capable of flight (oh that’s right, he was lost in the clouds – for hours -?).  Thor blasts Stalin – but it’s not Uncle Joe, it’s Brian, disguised as Stalin (since, you know, wartime Moscow is loaded with novelty shops that carry lifelike rubber masks of the supreme leader).  Brian’s not dead from electrocution, since Thor can recall a significant portion of the lightning, much like an assault weapon that can draw high-velocity bullets thru its barrel and back into the magazine; you’ve heard of those, haven’t you?  Thor plays a Doctor Strange card and mystically wipes his memories of his would-be comrades; but, what’s to stop him from remembering his encounter with the heroes of yesteryear?  It’s rare to see a Roy Thomas story that has so many glaring holes in it.  

Mark: A dramatic Kirby-Cockrum-Kupperberg cover - check out how it shoves the wounded Union Jack into the foreground, almost at the reader's feet - that produces its own lilting alliteration!

Inside, Roy Thomas hems the dual plots together like a master weaver - the 'Vaders battling Thor for Stalin's life while trying to wean him off Hitlerism & post-lab-explosion mummy impersonator V.V. Doom thwarting 'Dolph's plans at the other end of the Magic Norse TV transmission, brought to you in Fasc-o-vision! It's a pleasing slice of fan service, almost a retcon squared in that its tosses a WWII-era Marvel/Timely team that never actually existed in the 1940's together with a pre-Don Blake Thunder God, who readers likewise never experienced. And Thor memory-wipes our heroes at story's end, a further distancing device that makes it almost like a What If?, save it's far better than most offerings from that woe-begotten title.

The Kupperberg-Springer art seems better this time out, or maybe our expectations have simply been eroded. On the downside, the Achilles tank, delivery of which to the Reds much was made of last ish, simply disappears down the memory hole, as predicted. Union Jack gets almost killed by Thor while impersonating Stalin (good thing UJ packed his rubber Uncle Joe mask!), and his restoration comes with a new finger-zapping power. 

Maybe now he'll quit carping about being the team wuss...  

 The Invincible Iron Man 115
Story by Bill Mantlo
Art by John Romita, Jr. and Dan Green
Colors by Don Warfield
Letters by Gaspar Saladino and Diana Albers
Cover by John Romita, Jr. and Bruce Patterson

Observed by the ubiquitous mole, chairman Shellhead orders the Avengers to search the Mansion (again) for any clues regarding Arsenal after they’ve helped transport the Unicorn to S.I., where—in a continuity gaffe—he is to join Jason Beere in a cryogenic chamber.  IM risks using the memory extractor, now that there is no chance of Uni being cured, but while the probe recaps his entire history, his deterioration has left his recent memories too incoherent to identity the “Other,” who apparently found him in suspended animation in the frigid South China Sea after the Mandarin’s base exploded in #69.  Planning to check on his old enemies in the morning, he orders his stand-in, LMD-Unit 6, to deactivate, and heads home to join Whitney.

As Tony points his Corvette toward Manhattan, the mole follows, planning to fulfill his contract by assassinating Stark, while the Other rages that the signal from his pawn has gone dead.  When he reaches the penthouse, he is greeted not by Whitney, but by an attack from the imaginatively named Ape-Man, Frog-Man, Bird-Man, and Cat-Man, who prevent him from reaching the attaché case containing his armor.  Even as Stark, he is giving a good account of himself until he is felled by a karate chop to the back of the neck, yet the pain of betrayal is even greater as he recognizes the voice of Whitney, who vows, “Tony Stark will restore my father, Count Nefaria [seen in the background with the Ani-Men, sitting in his wheelchair], to his proper age…or die!” -Matthew Bradley

Matthew: The winds of change are blowing again:  per the lettercol, “the Boisterous one…will be leaving Iron Man to take over a new project called The Micronauts [which debuts in January], and the scripting of ol’ Shell-head will pass on to Dave Michelinie…[while] Klobberin’ Keith Pollard also is taking a permanent leave of absence from Iron Man to help Marvelous Marv Wolfman catch up on Fantastic Four.  But never fear!  Shell-head will get a brand-new art team of his very own.  Starting next issue, Bob Layton will be handling the inks and finishes—and, of course, John Romita Jr. stays on as penciler,” embellished here by Green as the second-generation soon-to-be superstar, having already contributed to the last two IM covers, begins his first regular gig.

After a run that I consider a Bronze-Age highlight, Mantlo certainly leaves us with a cliffhanger, whose continuation will presumably answer some of the lingering questions, e.g., what effect, if any, Uni’s revival had on Nefaria.  I think this is the first we’ve heard that he is Whitney’s father, which would make both the Maggia connection and the presence of his erstwhile X-Men minions, the Ani-Men, eminently logical.  It seems almost premature to critique the artwork before next month’s advent of the Romiton team, which (excepting a year-long hiatus by JRJR) will handle virtually all of the next 40 issues, but some highlights are the irate Beast in page 3, panel 3; driven Unicorn in page 11, panel 5; and enraged but shadowy Other in page 17, panel 4.

Chris: Fairly average issue.  I’m not sure why we needed a comprehensive recap of the Unicorn’s career, as he’s about to drop into a deep freeze.  I’ll grant you, though, the appearance of the Ani-Men is pretty surprising, since we’ve been given no reason to expect them.  Well, yeah, the cover completely gives it away; I mean there isn’t any indication in the story that we should expect the Ani-Men to be lying in wait for Tony once he arrives at the penthouse (Dragonfly, who escaped confinement on Muir Island in X-Men # 104 [if memory serves …], is nowhere to be seen – no telling yet how the other Anis got here).  The only compelling aspect to the story is Whitney’s apparent betrayal, as she demands the restoration of her father to health; “What gives?” thinks Tony; “Things’ve been going so well …”

The story doesn’t amount to a whole lot, but the debut of John Romita Jr is worth noting.  A tip of the helmet to our young pencil artist, who had the presence of mind to establish his own style, rather than try to mimic his legendary dad.  JR Jr will go on to become the definitive Iron Man artist of the late Bronze era, as Shellhead will stop looking like a yellow and red tin can with limbs and a head (no offense to George Tuska), and start looking like a nimble, highly-polished athlete in impregnable armor.  Junior is helped only slightly by the flat, thin inks of Green; but don’t fret – Bob Layton is soon to arrive, and the look will be established to carry this title to MU’s completion.

John Carter, Warlord of Mars 17
"The Master Assassin of Mars, Chapter 2:
What Price Victory?"
Story by Chris Claremont
Art by Ernie Colón and Bob Layton
Colors by Bob Sharen
Letters by John Costanza
Cover by Ernie Colón and Rudy Nebres

The sound of a sword being drawn pulls Carter from the brink of unconsciousness; his warrior instinct and a “miasmic cloud” make him slow to notice that some of his humanoid foes are winged, declaring themselves the True-Born of Karanthor.  When Dejah is borne aloft after leaping to his aid with a handy rock, he goes completely berserk and is soon knocked out, awakening to realize that he’d behaved so strangely due to the after-effects of the poison.  Chancing upon a garden, he is greeted by name by Garthon, a wingless young man who offers his friendship—explaining that Carter revealed much of himself in his delirium—and before beating a hasty retreat cautions Carter not to let slip that Dejah is his wife.

The white-skinned True-Born, who believe that “this great canyon is all that exists of Barsoom,” are Orovars, and their winged jedwar (warlord), the towering Gar Karus, explains that like all red-skinned people, Dejah is a slave.  A summons to the Jedak’s (sic) palace gives Carter his first look at Karanthor, built around and into the stalactites of a huge cave, a mile above fields tended by slaves.  Dejah is auctioned off, but after Gar Karus outbids his odwar (second-in-command), Kon-Dar, on behalf of Carter—who gains his rank when he is challenged by and slays Kon-Dar—the jedwar explains that his nephew, the evil Jeddak Chan Tomar, “decided that Dejah Thoris must be an exceptional woman to merit such a champion as you,” and he has taken her… -Matthew Bradley

Matthew: Surprisingly, Claremont sidelines the initial assassin’s-guild premise even faster than Burroughs did in Swords of Mars; the only reference to the trade in chapter 2 of “The Master Assassin of Mars” is found in the 2-page recap of Daria’s abortive attempt on Carter’s life.  Moreover, the disconnect (at least for this reader) between the “hunch-backed, amorphous shapes” heralded in last issue’s cliffhanger and the literally angelic figures seen on the splash page here contributes to a “scene missing” sensation that is only exacerbated by the dramatic shift in the artwork.  The penciler remains the same, but Layton’s one-time-only inking style—which I might argue was poorly matched with Colón—is so different from that of Rudy Nebres that you’d never know it.

Purists might shudder at the repurposing of the Orovars, whom Marvel introduced in the first Carter annual (based, you may recall, on a segment from the tenth ERB book).  Karanthor and its winged inhabitants are so different from those of Horz that I can’t imagine why Claremont didn’t simply use another name for them.  He also brings to the fore an issue that has been troubling me about the novels:  when Gar Karus asserts the innate inferiority of the red race, Carter thinks, “I had heard such sentiments before, on a friend’s plantation in Virginia before the ill-fated War of Secession.  I did not like them then.  I do not like them now,” which seems a curious position when slavery is common even in enlightened Helium—personified by the assassin Daria herself.

Chris: Seriously, someone has to come up with a different plot device aside from Dejah Thoris being abducted, and Carter having to fight like hell to free her and get her back.  It seems to happen every issue; I’m fairly sure this is the first instance when it’s happened twice.  Gar Karus is an intriguing figure; Carter is warned not to disclose Dejah is his wife, but Karus seems to have figured it out, and gallantly offers a king’s ransom to reunite Carter with Dejah – before she is taken away again, that is.  What does Karus hope to gain by helping Carter, and keeping his secrets?  Claremont also offers an intriguing observation on perspective, as the isolated “true-born” believe the whole world to be contained within the vast valley that has been their home, with the canyon’s distant walls holding up the sky.  As the true-born, of course, they are entitled to enslave races that are smaller, and look different – some things are the same, regardless of the world you happen to be visiting.  

I always enjoy Bob Layton’s consistently clear inks, despite his violation of my First Law of Embellishment: his style tends to supersede that of the penciller.  In this case, I think it would be a worthy trade-off, since the results suggest these artists could ably have continued on this title.  Page 11 is a noteworthy highlight, as we have a clear sense of the scale, atmosphere, and ornamentation of the palace where Carter finds himself (aided by colorist Bob Sharen, who provides deep blues to complement the shadows in panel 2).  Points also to the realization of the unimaginably massive below-ground world on p 22, as the fields below the stalactites appear far away, and to stretch far into the distance.  

1 comment:

  1. One thing you can reassess confidently: Dave the Dude definitely intended "Defenders For A Day" to be humorous, as a switch-up. #61 comes with something of a punchline, too, but the wackiness outside of Val's harrowing hallucinations? Quite intentional. It's an answer of sorts to the endless stream of requested C-listers, for one.
    That Conan Annual sounds awesome! I have most of the regular run from #39 up til way up in the 160's and then some, but no annuals. No denying that Savage Sword tends to be even better!
    Reading Korvac on DVD-ROM some years back, I must've ignored how awkward the art is, in places. Characterizations are a mixed bag, and the plot definitely drags on.
    I ran into Prof. Matt in a humorous werewolf-vs.shark-inspired exchange on one of our favorite forums- then I recognized the name, and immediately remembered visiting here before! I had trouble this spring, clicking to the earlier years-disappointing, as it's pretty entertaining! My blogspots are not quite as easy to navigate as I'd like, either- with a bit more physical energy and time, I really should build my own site as a professional calling card. But for accessible means to gas on about comics and personal life topics, I was happy to start with blogspot.
    I realize you're basically wrapping things up, from the precipice of experimental, jammy-loose Marvel; that's the identity chosen for Marvel U. Some darn fine tales were crafted afterwards, nonetheless- but there is something idiosyncratic about these years- unique in the world of corporate publishing.