Wednesday, January 18, 2017

October 1979 Part One: Welcome to OUR Nightmare!

Marvel Premiere 50
Alice Cooper in
"From the Inside"
Story by Alice Cooper, Jim Salicrup, Roger Stern, and Ed Hannigan
Art by Tom Sutton and Terry Austin
Colors by Marie Severin
Letters by Tom Orzechowski
Cover by Tom Sutton and Terry Austin

Evidently, Alice Cooper is in a mental institution of sorts and is trying to escape. He is held back by some guards, and when his friend Johnny tries to help, the nurse tells him that they are going to "patch Alice up." Then this crazy doctor guy comes in and he tells the guards to put Alice in the "quiet room," and that's where Alice breaks the fourth wall and begins to speak to us, saying we should know the real story. It turns out, Cooper used to be a performer with his snake, Veronica, and when he started having a "meltdown," Cooper decided to get help from a clinic. Little did he know, the man next to him was named Alex Cooper, and when guards went looking for a man named A. Cooper, they thought Alice was Alex because he had a snake. They threw his snake into the alley, and "made Alice normal" by washing him, cutting his hair, and shocking him. Doctor Fingeroth brings him into a room with the other crazy people and says that Nurse Rozetta will attend to all of their "needs." Alice meets the other patients, thinking each one crazier than the last and, as he meets them, his hair grows back to its original length. When he sees someone painting a picture of a snake, Alice decides to transform back to his original self so that Veronica will recognize him. Alice attempts to depart from the hospital, only to be stopped by a fellow patient who is hopelessly obsessed with the nurse. Alice is then strapped to a bed when he wakes up, but pretends to be asleep and the nurse gives him another sedative. Feeling bad for him, the nurse unstraps him and Alice escapes, finding his snake in the process. At a political rally for, ironically, Alex Cooper, Alice is caught again and tells the readers that everyone is crazy, but he doesn’t care.--Cassie Tura

Cassie Tura: Basically, everything in this story was really weird, and  I've seen some pretty weird stuff.  The art was ok, but very creepy, and all of the characters were creepy as well. The story was very hard to follow since the plot jumped back and forth, and because of this, my favorite character was the snake, which didn’t say anything. There were some odd innuendos here and there, such as a man with an intense foot fetish, and the doctor's odd fascination with one of the patients, even saying that he would give her some "intensive care." Certain parts of the story I had to go re-read, like the part where all of Alice's hair grew back, because some things were just plain mystifying. The ending was the weirdest part because Cooper said that we were in the institution with him, and we are all crazy—when he is obviously the crazy one! All in all, this story was the oddest thing I've ever seen, and obviously Mr. Alice Cooper has some stuff he needs to figure out about his mental state.

Joe Tura: Based on the Warner Brothers album by Alice Cooper and Bernie Taupin, this issue wins the prize for most puzzling Marvel Comic of the year. Maybe the decade. Why the heck would they bother doing this? The Bullpen Bulletin clues us in a little with a fairly strange, over-italicized ITEM: "'Hey," said our Assistant Editor Impatient Jim Salicrup, looking up from his gruel one lunchtime. The brownish goo drizzled greasily from his shaggy beard. 'Hey, why don't we do a comic starring Alice Cooper! I hear his latest album, 'From The Inside,' is a gas.' Recreational Headmaster Shooter simply sneered: 'Alice Cooper? Bah! Lunchtime is finished! Back to editorial therapy!' Nurse Florio helped Salicrup into his straightjacket and he limped off sniveling. Shooter continued to sneer, but his imagination was piqued. If only the Marvel Institution could get its hands on this 'Alice Cooper.' A rock star! Wouldn't Dr. Lee, the Institutional Director be pleased! Perhaps this fool Salicrup could be used to trick Cooper into being…committed. Time passed, plans were hatched, machinations were effected and now…it's done! He's inside now, a new face in the Marvel Madhouse! Alice Cooper is trapped in MARVEL PREMIERE #50, the grandest, wildest, weirdest, psychotic fantasy of all. Only forty crummy cents, at your newsstand, as usual. Buy it now before it…gets away!" Well, I don't know about the rest of the faculty, but I would have demanded my forty crummy cents back!

We are also "treated" to an editorial page with more explanation, titled "From The Inside." Here we get a quick history of Alice Cooper the band, and how their stage show lends itself to a fascination with media, including Marvel Comics. After many discussions, they came up with this goofy story here in the pages of Marvel Premiere, telling and asking the reader: "And now, Alice Cooper is part of comics history. But what of the future? Should Alice be awarded his own regular Marvel title? Should we break him out of that asylum and send him blasting through the Marvel Universe? That, for the most part, is in your hands! Let us know what you think. We'll be eagerly awaiting your responses…" Obviously, the answer was a resounding "NO!" since this was the first and only Alice Cooper appearance for Marvel. To quote Professor Tom, "Thank Jeebus!" Man, what a lame attempt at being topical and strange and goofy and "hip," for lack of a better word, complete with "kooky" cameos from Namor, Alley Oop, Bluto, Popeye, Wimpy, Hulk, Archie Andrews, and freakin' Toody and Muldoon from Car 54, Where Are You? Yikes... The Sutton/Austin art is not horrible, though, and the Orzechowski letters and Severin colors are the best things about the book. I'm certainly not getting any 2017 Father of the Year points by having my daughter take the lead on this one…

Chris Blake: It doesn’t amount to much of a story; basically, it’s built around the one joke of Alice getting snapped up, as he’s mistaken for the other A. Cooper, who’s really nuts.  Sadly, the suggestion that Alex Cooper could successfully campaign for office, without anyone seeing anything untoward about his candidacy, has become more of a discouraging reality than a ridiculous possibility.  

Ed Hannigan gamely throws some yuks into the script, but the real takeaway is the art; the chaotic atmosphere plays-up the psych-ward setting of 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  Overall, I can’t say there are too many teams capable of greater looney-tuneage than Sutton & Austin.  In fact, for pure visual hilarity, this one probably ranks right alongside FF #176, when Impy invades the Bullpen.  The cameos alone are noteworthy: Namor (with a rubber duck), Alley-Oop, Frankenstein’s Monster, Popeye and Bluto standing with Wimpy in a doctor’s white jacket (next to a taped-up sign reading “Group Therapy for the Punch-Drunk”), the Hulk holding a worried-looking Kermit the Frog in his right fist, and is that editor and co-plotter Roger Stern (p 15, last pnl)?  My favorite moment, though, is when Alice makes good his escape, beginning as Veronica the Snake flings herself over the wall, grabs a spindly tree (uttering “Ungh!” as she twists around the treetop), then yanks Alice up-and-over, leaving the two on the ground – Alice seated with Veronica still wrapped around his shoulders – two red hearts suspended in air over their heads (p 26).  

Mark Barsotti: I could never bring myself to read Marvel's KISS mag, having suffered through Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Parkbut Alice Cooper is a whole 'nother kettle of shock rock. Why? Simple, my dear Forbush. Alice always had a sense of humor about his Grand-Guignol theatrics, whereas Gene and Paul were dead serious in their forced march to world domination, one blood-spewing, ponderous riff at a time.

Whether credited-writer Cooper had any input other than signing off on the work of Bullpen triumvirate Sterncrupigan, those with an affection for the original Mad comic book and Marvel's own Not Brand Ecch will find plenty of insane sight gag kicks here. Quality varies, of course. Every Subby in the shower sighting has a head-scratching Car 54, Where Are You? counterpart, but the rat-tat-tat machine-gun pace of the visual gags and graffiti eventually mows down all resistance. It helps immensely that the Tom Sutton-Terry Austin art conjures the spirit and mash-up look of pranksters and ghouls like Jack Davis and Graham Ingels. And while the estimable Marie Severin, who did yeoman (yeowoman?) work on Brand Ecch, is only officially credited here as colorist, no one's gonna convince me that she didn't pick up the pencil a time or ten.

The snake pit story, centering on Alice's repeated attempts to escape the tender ministrations of Doc Fingeroth and curvaceous Nurse Rozetta, is a mere skeletal frame to hang the jokes on, and two Billion Dollar Babies shoutouts is one too many, but how many other mags follow the bouncing ball from Dachau to the Broderick Crawford Comedy Hour to prison-break antics starring a snake named Veronica?

As a bonus, this one had me scurrying to my CD collection for Alice Cooper's Greatest Hits...which I couldn't find anywhere...

Welcome to my nightmare.

Matthew: Presumably "Doc" Fingeroth is a nod to then-editor Danny Fingeroth.

 The Amazing Spider-Man 197
"The Kingpin's Midnight Massacre!"
Story by Marv Wolfman
Art by Keith Pollard and Jim Mooney
Colors by Ben Sean
Letters by Joe Rosen
Cover by Keith Pollard and Frank Giacoia

Spider-Man comes to and faces his old enemy, Kingpin, who explains he survived the derrick accident of Amazing #164 by swimming through the sludge into a drainage pipe "free of water," but had temporary amnesia, wandering the streets until Silvermane hired someone to hit him with a car. But the resulting hospital stay helped his recovery and, 18 hours ago, he returned to sorta faithful wife Vanessa, who responded to his vow of vengeance against Silvermane with an ultimatum—24 hours to get out of crime or she will leave him! With six hours left until the midnight deadline, Spidey starts the festivities so he can get to the nursing home, but to no avail, as Kingpin is ready for his every move with powerful counterstrikes. Trading insults, deadly punches, and nasty kicks, the two battle to a near standstill. We get two quick asides that help us catch our breath, one to Restwell and an angry Dr. Rinehart and the other to the Bugle, where a sympathetic yet exhausted Betty and Glory Grant see Joe Robertson walk away from his job, and JJJ is actually apologetic and sad.

Back to Kingpin's mansion, and the two enemies are tearing the place apart! Kingpin uses an electrified lance that lasts only seconds, and they trade blows in an incredible full-page montage! Spidey manages to web and pull a cabinet down on the heavy hooligan, but Kingpin recovers almost instantly and sends the cabinet back at him! Spider-Man is able to evade it and sneak out through the hole in the floor! Kingpin can't let him leave, so he runs downstairs and forces Spidey down onto his bad shoulder! Dragging the web-slinger into the light of the library, the seemingly triumphant tub aims his laser cane at his enemy…just as the clock strikes midnight! Vanessa opens the door, demanding her husband decide! Will Kingpin take one second to end the battle once and for all? No! His love for Vanessa wins out, sparing Spidey, who lies dazed on the floor as the criminal couple walks away. -Joe Tura

Joe: For once, the Marv hyperbole when he says "thrill-a-minute slugfest" isn't a leap of faith! After some exposition and flashbacks, we get one of the most exciting, knock-down drag-out fights maybe in Marvel history! It's packed with tons of insults in the usual Spidey banter, from "Tubbo" to "Fatso" to "Baldy" to "Chubby," which is really not very nice if you stop and think about it, even though we've been hearing it for years. The corpulent crime boss usually has a more sophisticated response, nine times out of ten tooting his own horn. The Kick-Ass Kingpin Komeback of the issue is page 10, panel 4's "Insect! Your meaningless rantings only serve to kindle my fury!" Maybe the best dialogue, though, is when Spidey senses Kingpin coming and answers the shock with "I told you before, Kingy—it's your breath! You should never eat onions before a fight!"

Overall, in a back-and-forth battle that's borderline classic, there are only a couple of nitpicks, including the story that Kingpin found a pipe free of water, which seems odd if it's underwater but what do I know. Plus a wet Kingpin getting hit by the car, when he had been hanging around for months and didn't just exit the water. As well as a handful of odd shots like page 27 panel 2 where the big bad looks more like George "The Animal" Steele. Most of the actual donnybrook is downright dynamic, including some of Pollard's best Spidey work, and the end is ironic in that Kingpin blows another chance to kill his nemesis. You have to admit, at least he's a man of his word—and is truly in love with the sultry yet sneaky Vanessa. I can't help feeling issues such as this inspired Vincent D'Onofrio's take on Kingpin in the Netflix Daredevil series.

Best sound effect? Man, there are a bunch of loud ones here! Maybe not groundbreaking or wacky like a Gil Kane issue, but certainly painful and powerful. I'll go with the cleverly lettered "SOKKO" on page 23 when Spidey smashes Kingpin with a cabinet and knocks him out for about 1.3 seconds. Although anything on the epic page 22 would have worked just as well. "THBAMM!"

Matthew Bradley: Pollard’s cover feels very old school, like a Jazzy Johnny homage, even if in page 3, panel 4, Keith and Jim make the Kingpin look too much like Egghead.  His relatively random reappearance in the midst of this arc reminds me of the Red Ghost’s in FF #197, only strengthening the parallel between Wolfman’s run-ups to their respective 200th issues.  The “I’m going to delay my vengeance until the last possible second—oops, it’s too late!” device seems a bit hokey, although I think there have already been enough allusions on this blog to the Kingpin’s subsequent “adoption” in the Miller/Janson Daredevil that I won’t be accused of any spoilers if I observe that reports of his permanent retirement from crime are greatly exaggerated.

Chris: Of all the enemies Kingpin has earned in his uncompromising career, isn’t it just Spidey’s luck that he makes KP’s short-list for last-chance payback.  It’s quite the knock-down, drag-out fight with the seemingly inexhaustible (and non-knock-outable) Kingpin.  Part of me wants to complain that the fight at times verges on pointlessness, as it takes up nearly the entire issue, but that seems churlish; fact is, if this fight sequence were part of a movie, it would be among the highlights we’d talk about afterwards.  Pollard clearly has fun bringing the brawl to us, which features these noteworthy points: Spidey gives KP an alley-oop, smack into the weight set (p 14); a wordless, but sound-effected page of close-quarters sparring (p 22, which Marv manages to spoil as he adds a box to point out how he hadn’t added any words to the fighting – well yes Marv, you did it just now); and, a clever bit as Spidey uses a web-line to drag in a large fridge from the next room, and slam KP in the back with it (p 23).  The last panel, as we see Spidey trying – and failing – to regain his feet is particularly effective, as it reminds us how the wall-crawler had been pretty sufficiently beaten up (mentally even more than physically) even before he had the misfortune to fall into the Kingpin’s clutches.

I’ve complained ad nauseam about Marv’s pattern of questionable editorial choices; I admit it.  I probably haven’t leveled enough criticism, though, toward Marv’s handling of characterization.  He’s handled the complexities of Peter Parker fairly well over his 18 issues at the helm; no small feat.  I’ve noticed, though, when he wants to establish an emotional state of mind for supporting characters (and also stars of titles like Daredevil, MTIO, and the FF), Marv tends to go for mopey, and self-pity (you might have noticed it too, dear readers).  Not the most endearing characteristics.  
This approach becomes more problematic, though, when these traits suggest a direction that isn’t in keeping with the established character.  Take Jonah Jameson, for instance.  He’s finally managed to drive Joe Robertson from the Bugle; Jonah recognizes “I’ve chased him away for good this time,” which shows some insight.  What’s next, though – Jonah continues, as he ruminates over being alone, as he alienates himself from others (p 16).  Two things to consider: what happened to Dr Madison?  That seemed to be going fairly well, but obviously didn’t fit the moment Marv wanted to establish; and, Jonah’s about as likely to resort to self-recrimination as Victor von Doom.  At a moment of doubt, Jonah turns the blame (and his attention) to an outside target – someone else is responsible.  Jonah’s been doing this (to himself, and his entire staff) for too long to change his spots now; it’s a deeply ingrained part of his personality, and pathology.  I mention this because of Marv’s able handling of Jonah’s grief at the (apparent) loss of his son; that occasion warranted a look at a different side of him, especially since his appearances in the Man-Wolf stories from Creatures on the Loose established Jonah’s vulnerability when it comes to his heartfelt concern for John Jameson.  In this instance, though, Marv is manufacturing something to try to inspire sympathy for Jonah, but it rings false.  
Mark: This is one of those almost excellent stories that leaves the reader (or at least your grouchy prof) more irked than satisfied over opportunity squandered. Still, thinking of Marv's Spidey tales that weren't even in the same zip code as excellent, this Kingpin 7-10 split continues the up-tick in quality as Wolfman slowly gins things up for the 200th-ish blowout. 

The minor irks first, starting with K-pin's fishy survival after being trapped under a collapsed trestle at the bottom of the harbor (see ASM #164). It doesn't bother me that Tubby can hold his breath for four or five minutes; with Kingpin-sized lungs, that's almost a given, but then he swims into an open drainage pipe that's literally on the bottom of the harbor, yet remains somehow "free of water."

Also free of logic and plausibility.

Minor irk the second: last ish, Spidey had his broken wing supported by a thin strand of webbing, which had completely disappeared by the final pages. Yet when this issue opens, Webs has acquired a wide sling made of green cloth. Maybe K-pin tended our unconscious hero (the sling also switches from his right to left arm and back again on p.26. Hopefully, someone won a No-Prize over that gaffe), a touch of mercy before murder?

Thankfully, thirteen of the last fourteen pages are devoted to an epic battle, as Spidey tries to escape (so he can head to the old folks home and shake down the shady doc), but K-pin has a mad-on to slay the Web-Spinner before the midnight deadline, after which Tubby must forsake his life of crime or lose his wife, Vanessa. The extended fight scenes are the attraction here; they're exciting and well-staged by Pollard and Mooney in energetic if somewhat ham-fisted fashion, right down to the clock running out on K-Pin, even as he finally has Spidey in his laser-cane sights. 

Which brings us, class, to my major irk. Unlike some of Spidey's flakier foes, Kingpin has always been a rational actor, not given to fits of pique or misplaced vendettas. The last time Tubby saw Webs, after sinking to the bottom of the harbor, Spidey was trying " save me in some heroic manner..." Then, while Tubby was wandering the streets with amnesia, (about which, the less said the better), Silvermane tries to have him assassinated! After recovering both health and memory, K-pin gets the "quit crime" edict from Vanessa, "a mere 18 hours ago," as our story begins. So for his criminal curtain call, K-pin goes after the man who tried to save him from drowning, rather than the rival crimelord who tried to kill him?

Yeah, yeah, I know the title ain't the Amazing Silvermane, but Marv's mishandling of motivation and brick and mortar details like impossible air pockets in underwater pipes robs the sock-o long-underwear action of that extra oomph of verisimilitude that Marvel's taught its readers to, if not expect, at least hope for.

And what in the Wide World of Sports does Glory Grant mean when she calls J. Jonah Jameson, "Laser breath?" 

 The Avengers 188
"Elementary, Dear Avengers!"
Story by Jim Shooter and Bill Mantlo
Art by John Byrne, Dan Green, and Frank Springer
Colors by Bob Sharen
Letters by Gaspar Saladino
Cover by John Byrne and Terry Austin

After defeating the menace Cththon, the Avengers drop Quicksilver off at the Inhumans' mountain retreat, Attilan, where the speedy one gets some good news: he and Crystal are going to be parents. The team congratulate the couple and then hop back in the Quinjet for the long ride home. Unfortunately, the vehicle veers into Russian airspace but the Beast (who is fluent in Russian) is able to hold off the MIGs surrounding them. Suddenly, one of the MIGs comes apart in mid-air, attacked by some force on the ground. The Avengers debate whether to land and offer their services, finally coming to an agreement that they should investigate. They track the MIGs to a nuclear plant and discover that some strange experiment has gone awry and beings have been created, each representing a different element (Vanadium, Carbon, Phosphorus, etc.). The Avengers engage the "elementals" and are finally able to overcome the menace with the help of a laser-cannon (very Avenger-like, no?).
-Peter Enfantino

Peter Enfantino: After the stellar arc we were just treated to, I suppose there was nowhere to go but down... and, in the words of Captain America, "We're going down!" From the hard-to-swallow coincidence of the Avengers flying over USSR airspace just as a team of super-villains (whose powers bear a striking resemblance to DC's Metal Men, but what do I know?) is born to the unending (and, I do mean unending) bad Beast one-liners to the quick wrap-up, this is one big shaggy dog. I'd be sick and tired of the Falcon's self-pitying "Uncle Tom" talk if I didn't stop every few panels and ask, "Just why is this guy in the Avengers again?" Sam's "Yassuh, massuh!" mumbles and Gyrich's assertion that all the colors of the rainbow should be represented so that it gives the government a good rep obviously allow guest writer Bill Angry-Young-Man-tlo the avenues to explore those underlying racial tensions that only he's been bold enough to explore for the last half-decade. Problem is, Sam's complaining comes at random times and is annoying as all hell. The only event of note that prevents this from being anything other than a "completist" issue is Crystal's announcement that she and Pietro will have some kind of little mutant baby in the near-future (I see a Johnny Storm-involved MARMIS coming -- especially if the kid flames on in utero!) and Wanda's musings on her own possibilities of parenthood with an android. I just can't imagine the Viz throwing a baseball in the back yard, can you?

Matthew: Falc is a gigantic dick here, and whether you blame that on scripter Bill, plotter Jim, or the character is up to you.  “I kept my mouth shut—waitin’ to see when somebody’d ask my opinion!  But nobody thought to consult the token!”  News flash, you putz:  nobody else was asked his or her opinion, either; they just spoke up like adults without big chips on their shoulders.  Byrne’s art is typically excellent, yet the story is pretty terrible, and the fact that the “unliving beings” destroyed on page 30 apparently all started out as men (commies, but still…) appears to be conveniently forgotten.  Strange to think that of the current members, Wanda was the only Avenger to have visited Attilan previously for Pietro’s wedding in Fantastic Four #150.

“I’ll take the point!  Falcon, you cover me!”  --Wonder Man

“Sho’nuff, massuh.  Shee-oot!”  --Biggus Dickus

Because yeah, why would you send the nigh-invulnerable guy in first?

Joe: A nifty, albeit far from perfect, time-killer and one-shot that also includes some Marvel Universe revelations. For instance, in wrapping up the Quicksilver cameo by dropping him off at his Atillan abode, we learn wife Crystal is expecting a tiny Inhuman. Plus, Black Bolt watches from afar because of his missing Medusa, giving us some continuity. But enough of that, let's talk about the Avengers story, which has nice moments but raises some problems. Wacky premise set in Russia, silly villains that get dispatched quite easily even though they are pretty powerful, possible diplomatic issues with actually going into Russia, and destroying a nuclear core—does that sound like a good plan? And the Falcon schtick with feeling like he's the "Token Avenger" is so one-note it's nearly boring. Then again, at least we have Cap, Wonder Man, and Beast to save the month, along with boffo Byrne art. Small details like Beast clapping Pietro on the back on page 3 panel 2, and the hilariously unexpected Beast leaning up against the Quinjet window in panel 3 of page 7 make this Avengers run soooo memorable! Really, who would think to draw that window thing? 

Chris: It’s a quickie little issue, as a team flight home runs into the inevitable imbroglio.  It’s a clever device to have the A-team fly Quicksilver back to the Hidden Refuge, not only so we can be informed of Crystal’s pregnancy, but also to necessitate a direct route, thru Soviet airspace; not a prospect you take lightly.  I’d forgotten Mantlo wrote this issue, and that Shooter had plotted it; part of my brain had recorded Dave Michelinie as the sole writer for #185-188, but he’s served only as scripter for the previous three issues, and not on hand at all this time.

The first problem with Shooter/Mantlo taking over from Gruenwald-Grant/Michelinie is the Avengers’ means of getting home; the last time we saw the quinjet, Wonder Man had planted it pretty deeply in a Bulgarian mountainside, breaking off the left wing in the process (see Av #187, p 11 pnl 4).  I can’t imagine they have a quinjet tow-and-repair shop in Transia, so in the interest of continuity, it would’ve helped to acknowledge the time and effort required to get the craft airborne.  We also don’t know how the Darkhold was repaired after the Beast thrust a lance thru it in #187; it’s intact now, which allows the Beast to treat it as an in-flight magazine (p 3-6).
Mantlo does a nice job with some of the characters, but seems to focus most of his attention on the Beast (whose wit and knowledge of Russian keep him in the forefront), Cap (he’s running the show), and Wanda (wondering whether she and the Vision might have children, concerned about the Beast’s casual reading of the Darkhold, and preoccupied with the perils of life in Soviet-controlled territory); Ms Marvel and the Wasp have a few moments, but mostly are along for the ride.  The Falcon has a frown on his face and a chip on his shoulder, feeling snubbed when no one asks his opinion about whether they should intervene to assist the Soviet military (p 11, pnl 2); well Sam, if you review the transcript, you’ll find that no one was asked – they’re all adults, so they chimed in and offered their viewpoints.  Later in the issue, the team rallies to rescue the Falcon to prevent him from being transmuted to argon or xenon.  It’s clear the team has no objection to Falcon’s presence on the team – otherwise, if he were changed to a gaseous form, they’d simply let him drift away, right?  The Shooter/Mantlo presentation of the Falcon’s character comes off as simplistic, but it does help to illustrate how single-minded is his perceived inadequacy within the group.
I mentioned before I had forgotten our guest writers; that was an oversight.  Now, to forget Frank Springer as our fill-in embellisher for six pages – that had to have been deliberate.  It’s too bad, since Dan Green has done a respectable job on finishes lately; so, there’s a noticeable drop as we reach Springer’s pages, as faces and figures take on his stringy look.  Getting back to earlier pages, the first look at the reactor (p 16 last pnl, with tiny Elementals visible in the distance, beneath the massive structure) and of the Elementals themselves (p 17, 1st pnl) both are impressive, but no image in the entire issue holds a candle to the vibrantly-colored Byrne/Austin cover.  

 The Avengers Annual 9
"--Today the Avengers Die!"
Story by Bill Mantlo
Art by Don Newton, Jack Abel, and Joe Rubinstein
Colors by Carl Gafford
Letters by John Costanza
Cover by Don Newton and Joe Rubinstein

Far below Avengers Mansion, the robot known as Arsenal suddenly clicks on with a "hum of machinery," commanded by "mistress," a machine designed by Howard Stark to defeat the Axis in World War II (Codename: "Project Tomorrow") but never reprogrammed afterwards. Coincidentally, the Avengers happen to be having a meeting upstairs about Arsenal (unaware that the menace is below their feet) and what to do about him. Later, Beast and Hawkeye come across a hole in the wall of one of the corridors and enter, discovering a passageway and a cavern below. Investigating, the duo encounter Arsenal and are quickly defeated. Sensing something wrong, Yellowjacket comes across the battle and, sensing that something is behind Arsenal's activity, he heads back to warn his teammates. The Avengers head downstairs, rescue Beast and Hawkeye and turn their attention to Arsenal. The giant is a formidable foe, tossing the heroes to and fro, until Iron Man gets to the root of the problem: "Mistress." Turns out Stark's father had programmed "Mistress" with the "persona of the woman he loved," Tony's mother. Once Stark convinces the machine that the war ended thirty years before, "Mistress" shuts herself down and Arsenal is all but defenseless. The Scarlet Witch and Thor combine to destroy the misunderstood villain, once and for all. -Peter Enfantino

Matthew:  Not known for his work on this title, Mantlo follows the current monthly issue with what feels—given how it builds on Arsenal’s introduction there, and adds to Tony’s backstory—like a holdover from Bill’s run on Iron Man.  In fact, while it’s not a criticism per se, my antennae always go up when I see one of these epics that breaks down so neatly into 17-page halves (note the transition from the cliffhanger on page 23 to the splash on 24), which along with the dual-inker byline suggests a two-parter repurposed into a faux annual.  Even one of Newton’s few prior Marvel credits, inking the Midnight backup story, is from Iron Man Annual #4; he later pencils #204, and does a respectable job here, obviously aided by stalwarts Abel and Rubinstein.

Peter: I couldn't agree more with Matthew's theory of a two-parter sewn together. The story runs hot and cold for me; there's a lot of running around with nothing much being done but I liked the twist of "Mistress" being Ma Stark. Unlike the similar "I need a moment alone" scene at the climax of this month's Doctor Strange (reviewed below), Iron Man's melancholy seems a bit forced, no? The art, likewise, is hot and cold; there's a lot of good stuff but then NewtAbelRub have to ruin it with silly poses like Iron Man's on page 23 (two very awkward stances if you ask me). Still, Ma Stark's smiling visage gives me the creeps!

Chris: Good plan by Mantlo to pit Arsenal against the Avengers, since Arse had proven to be a formidable opponent for a short-staffed team in Iron Man #114.  It would have been a far better idea, though, for  Mantlo to envision a more exciting fight, involving more of the team assembled at a given time; instead, we have the classic team-book mistake of members going off in ones and twos to engage an opponent, when we all know – presumably, they know too – they should be tackling Arsenal as a unit.  Hawkeye and the Beast find a huge hole in the wall (should they call in the rest of the team -?  Naahhh …), and get themselves captured.  Wanda runs down the corridor in response to the Vision’s scream – the others stand there, practically saying “Wait – hey Wanda – where ya goin’?” – and gets knocked out (the pain-wracked Vision already  has flown from his encounter with Arsenal), followed by solo Wonder Man – same result (Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor couldn’t possibly be that far away – could they?).  The lack of team-coordination is enough to make an iron-clad chairman’s moustache go grey.  Let’s hope Gyrich doesn’t hear about this – he’d be apt to schedule team practices next.  

The annual format is the right time and place to vary the regular lineup to serve a specific purpose; proof yet again that Gyrich’s membership mandate doesn’t preclude writers and editors from bringing back favorite team-sters.  Yellowjacket is put to good use, as he returns from the unscheduled advance-scout party to clue in the others, cleverly utilizing a micro-glass and voice amplifier to get everyone’s attention (p 23).  It’s fun to have Hawkeye on board, even though he’s held captive for most of the issue (and why does Mistress wait for the entire issue, without ever enacting the mind-probes -?).  It’s probably a mistake, though, to have Thor on board.  Once the “mightiest Avenger of all!” is thru swimming under the Mansion and in Central Park Lake, he (aided by a revived Wanda) contains Arsenal very effectively.  It would’ve been preferable for the Vision (seen in this mag for less than two pages) and Wonder Man to work with the others (Cap, Wanda, Hawkeye, Beast) to find a weak point to exploit in Arsenal, while Iron Man swaps Thanksgiving memories with Mistress.  
The art is fine, as we have a rare Bronze-era Marvel appearance by Don Newton; although, too many panels – especially in the second half – lack backgrounds, making the fight with Arsenal look less like it’s happening in an underground complex, and more like it’s on a sound stage, or a really oversized black box theater.  The art improves noticeably in the second chapter, as Rubinstein – making one of only two Bronze-age appearances as an Avengers embellisher – brings more fluidity to the figures and definition to their faces than had Abel.  

Captain America 238
"Snowfall Fury"
Story by Peter Gillis
Art by Fred Kida and Don Perlin
Colors by Bob Sharen
Letters by John Costanza
Cover by John Byrne and Al Milgrom

Nick Fury asks his estranged pal, Captain America, to look into a rash of telepathic assaults (the only survivor of the victims is the villain, Mentallo). On each victim was found a blank metal disc. While Cap is holding these strange discs, he gets a mental picture of a gorgeous girl calling herself Snowfall. The damsel is in distress and she tells our hero she is being held in an isolated cliff-top safe-house known as Dovecote. Cap heads there immediately, climbing the sheer wall without much in the way of climbing gear. He's attacked by men riding giant hawks but is able to repel the enemy with sheer toughness and fighting skill. Once at the top, he steals a vehicle and heads for the main building. He is attacked by men riding giant chickens (well, technically Diatrymas, but let's just call a fowl a fowl) but is once again able to overcome great odds and arrives at the gates to Dovecote. Cap enters through the gate but is immediately set upon by a giant nicknamed Widowmaker, who overpowers the exhausted Avenger and promises he'll learn "what it means to break into Dovecote!" -Peter Enfantino

Peter: Here's a two-issue filler story that doesn't insult or assault my senses. It's not great art but it sure isn't the lame nonsense we've been tolerating for so long. "Snowfall Fury" is obviously not one of those fillers that's been sitting on the shelf waiting for its day as Gillis manages to tie in to last issue's finale (the late-night call from Fury) and then drop us into this weird scenario. It's a very pulpish tale (complete with Burroughs-ian big bird riders) that managed to make me smile a few times. Can't beat that. And guest-penciler Fred Kida does a fine job choreographing a whole bunch of (literally) cliff-hanging tension. But what's this? My dreaded Pretension-ometer is ticking wildly at the title of the conclusion of "Snowfall Fury": "Mind-Stains on Virgin Snow." Holy crap, has Peter Gillis just crossed over into the Moench-Zone?

Chris: The cold opening (sorry, couldn’t resist) is a good choice by Gillis.  We might recall from the final page of #237 that Nick Fury had a mission for Cap, and we might figure this frozen cliff-climbing is part of it (Cap’s clearly not doing this for fun, although it’s possible he’s into it for the strenuous exercise …), so we have an opportunity to start with some action as Cap tries to avoid the hawk-riding guards; we can catch up with the exposition afterwards.  I fully understand why Cap might be motivated to climb a sheer rock cliff to aid a woman like Snowfall – it’s because he would risk his life “for a dream!," not for any other reason (not based on how she looks in her skimpy costume, or how she’s holding out her arms to him …).  

As we return to the action, we see Cap has a short-range back-jet, which seems kinda hokey; Cap admits it isn’t his style.  But, as Cap approaches Dovecote, his quest loses all suspense as he encounters … well, these sort-of giant dodos; they look like something Terry Gilliam might’ve dreamed up, and I take them just as seriously as any of Gilliam’s fever-dreams.  Cap suckers one rider into coming close enough for him to yank him off his mount, then tricks the whole group into a mine field (mind you, these are the elite guards), marked by a Warner Bros-type red sign reading “Danger"; now, all we’re missing is a gadget-crazed, slightly singed Arizona coyote (who, despite what he might tell you, is short of super-genius).  The Widowmaker seems a legitimate sort of threat, especially by comparison with the others, but by the time we reach him, the story really has lost momentum, and credibility.  
The art is perfectly acceptable, although as I’ve already stated, the dodos look pretty ridiculous.   Fred Kida is a capable penciller, and the Perlin inks are good enough; we’re certainly better off with the team working this way, rather than have Kida finish Perlin’s pencils.  
Matthew:  It appears to be Guest Month at Marvel:  with or without the wandering hyphen, that qualifier is applied to Mantlo in Avengers, Gillis and Kida here, McLeod in MTU, and all three principals in PPTSS.  The auctorial byline and this title’s dismal recent track record gave me rock-bottom expectations, fully met by a far-fetched yarn whose cliff-scaling and aerial foes felt like leftovers from John Carter.  As if the Super-Agents weren’t an abysmal enough idea, learning that said fiasco came at the cost of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s venerable ESP[er] Division adds insult to injury; the Perlin-inked art is largely okay, although some of it (e.g., page 22, panel 4) looks oddly like Tuska, while Fury evokes the depths of the Springer era (e.g., page 10, panel 3).

Conan the Barbarian 103 
“Bride of the Vampire!”
Story by Roy Thomas
Art by John Buscema and Ernie Chan
Colors by George Roussos
Letters by Joe Rosen
Cover by John Buscema and Bob McLeod

As the drelliks, the Men Who Drink Blood, force the Bamula warriors into a stone prison, their leader, the true vampire K’Chama, carries Conan to an inner chamber and places him on a slab. When the fist-swinging Cimmerian comes to, the fanged fiend tells how he was bitten by a giant bat generations ago: only after driving the wooden shaft of his spear through the creature’s heart did he manage to kill it. But the bat’s curse was passed and he turned into the undead freak he is today. Over time, he came to rule a nameless Kushite tribe: while he did not turn them, he forced the men to sharpen their teeth and sleep during the day. K’Chama adds that the barbarian is the only one he has found who is worthy to share the secret of eternal life after death — with a bite, they could conquer the world together. When Conan defiantly refuses, he is tossed in a cell.

Inside, the Cimmerian encounters another captive, Eesee, the lone female drellik. Even though K’Chama refuses to make her his immortal bride, she has loved the dark king for years. Later, the barbarian is dragged before the vampire. One of the Bamulas is brought forward and torn apart by the drelliks. Willing to sacrifice himself for the lives of his men, Conan relents and gives his word that he will submit to K’Chama — but only if the Bamulas are allowed to leave unharmed. The vampire agrees. But, jealous that Conan will be given the “gift” instead of her, Eesee stabs the bloodsucker in the back with a spear, the head only partially piercing his grey skin. Angered but not injured, K’Chama knocks the woman across the cave with a vicious swat. Taking advantage of the distraction, the Cimmerian races away and clambers up a sheer cliff outside of the cavern to a ledge high above — the vampire scuttles up after, the spear still jutting from his back.

Suddenly, the Bamulas, led by Basotu, return, climbing over the high wooden wall that surrounds the drelliks’ hive-like cave city, unleashing a volley of deadly spears. As his gaunt tribesmen fall one by one, K’Chama reaches Conan and a fierce struggle begins. The Cimmerian manages to shove the vampire off the ledge and he falls on his back below, driving the spear through his chest, killing him instantly. Grievously injured, Eesee drags herself to the body of her love and dies besides him. Conan and the Bamulas slaughter the rest of the drelliks and burn their cursed city to the ground.  
-Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn: Conan the … Familiar? K’Chama is sure smitten by the brawny barbarian, convinced he is the only one worthy to stand by his side in a bloody conquest of the Hyborian Age. So, I’m not sure if this issue’s title — “Bride of the Vampire!” — refers to the Cimmerian or Eesee. If, after more than 100 issues and dozens of magazines, we haven’t realized that Conan is a stand-up guy, this one should seal it: he is willing to submit to an endless existence of blood and horror to save his men. Even as he scales the cliff, he frets that he is breaking his word to K’Chama. Luckily, the Bamulas decide to return and rescue their white war-chief so his worries are over. On the last page, a relived barbarian gives Felida, the bride of the Bamula’s former chief, to Basuto. Conan seemed to like the woman but, as he says, “He travels highest … who travels lightest.” Which is nice for Baguto but perhaps not so swell for Felida: she’s been passed around like a piece of meat the past three issues. 

Let’s face it, does anyone really need to be told how someone was turned into a bloodsucker? They were bitten by a vampire. So when Roy took the time to have K’Chama explain how the big bat was only killed after the wooden shaft of his spear pierced its heart, we could all probably see what was coming. It became even more obvious when the fiend spent a few pages with a spear sticking awkwardly out of his back. Eesee is given a lot of facetime and she’s really not much of an engaging character: though she plays a pivotal role in getting Conan off the whole undead hook. And I’m thinking of calling bullshit on how the Bamulas routed the drelliks fairly easily towards the end after meekly surrendering last issue. Conan chalks it up to Baguto finally putting on his big-boy pants and rallying the troops like the born leader he is. But I did enjoy the psychological twist that The Rascally One gave to a vampire story: it had the feel of Interview with the Vampire at times, with a ghoul trying to convince a worthy companion to join in on the ghastly fun and games. Of course, Big John and Ernie swing for the fences as usual.

 The Defenders 76
"Little Triggers!"
Story by Steven Grant
Art by Herb Trimpe and Steve Mitchell
Colors by George Roussos
Letters by Gaspar Saladino and Clem Robins
Cover by Rich Buckler and Al Milgrom

The Wasp has offered her services to (what's left of) the Defenders in their search for James-Michael Starling. Even though they are scouring the countryside (in an Avengers quinjet), there is no sign of the strange orphan. Suddenly, a group of UFOs appears in the sky before the quinjet... But first, our attention turns to the Las Vegas city morgue, where fork-tailed Dibbuk and shape-shifter Ruby Thursday steal the body of... Omega the Unknown! Meanwhile, in the Pennsylvania Appalachians, James-Michael and his gal-friend, Dian, have spent the last two years, sitting on a couch, gawking at the two robots standing before them, exact replicas of J-M's parents! Outside, the Avengers quinjet hovers while the occupants of the UFOs, robotic soldiers, beam down to capture J-M. The kid's not all right with that plan and he aims his Omega-embossed hand at one of the villains and blows it to hell. The Semi-Defenders and Jan enter the picture but the odds are still great so Patsy heads back to the quinjet to phone Kyle. Speaking of Kyle, just as his phone is about to ring, the Feds tell him if he so much as puts on his Nighthawk jammies before bed, he'll be spending years behind bars. Meanwhile, the Hulk fights a giant white bowling pin (uh, yeah). Back at the melee, Moondragon arrives to attempt a peace treaty with the robots; the leader tells Moony that the energy they'd tracked to this spot has vanished so there will be no need for further violence. With that, the goons get back in their space-wagon and high-tail it. A piercing scream sends the group running inside the house, where they find Omega where once lay James-Michael! -Peter Enfantino

Peter: Reading "Little Triggers! is tantamount to watching one of those Italian Mad Max rip-offs, where having the sub-titles on seems to make the whole thing even less intelligible. You know you should just close the book and move on to something a little more... ane (the opposite of inane) but, by God, you want to stick around to see just what kind of bejesus will rear its eyeball-crossed head next. In the grand tradition of Roy Thomas feeling indebted to the fans and continuing the saga of The Eternals over in Thor, Steven Grant (and only Steven Grant) wants to know whatever became of Omega and his supporting cast of Unknowns (and thank the lord we're picking up right where we left off with Amber and her endearing nickname, "punk," for James-Michael) and Steve, bless his soul, has decided that if he's going down this muddy road, the whole world must follow. Bring it on, I says, it can't be any worse than the original Omega series, can it? Can it?

Matthew: Don’t know if the Kraft→Hannigan→Grant progression is a decline or a straight line—“flatline” may be more appropriate—but at any rate the poor man’s Two Steves (i.e., Grant and indifferent inker Mitchell) hit the bricks after this two-parter, the former returning for two post-blog issues.  I think I can safely say that nobody on the faculty was clamoring for Omega’s resurgence; sure, we were curious about all the unanswered questions, yet not enough to want to read more, especially written without his creators’ input…more on that next time.  Unfortunately we get no comparable break from the relentlessly ill-suited Trimpe, while despite my feminism and fondness for Jan, the coalescence of the Distaff Defenders does not signal great things ahead.

Chris: For those of us who heeded the warnings of fellow faculty, and never read an issue of Omega: the Unknown, the proceedings here don’t convey a whole lot of sense, and can’t help lacking imperative.  How did this become a matter of interest to the Defenders, again?  Dollar Bill’s chance meeting (see that – it’s this friggin’ Bill again -!) with Foolkiller then leads to the Defenders meeting Richard Rory, who has some stake in locating James-Michael.  We have some explanation of why Omega’s resting on a morgue slab in Las Vegas, but when we meet James-Michael and Dian, somewhere in Pennsylvania, we join them already in progress, and we have to catch up to a lot of exposition about the whole Omega storyline.  

As long as Defenders drew the short straw, and was required to recount Omega’s last chapter, there could’ve been a way to devise a smoother, more organic connection between the team and Omega/James-Michael.  Wouldn’t it have been easier (on all of us reading at home, I mean) if Al Milgrom (purportedly, this title’s editor …) had asked Steve Gerber to address a letter and mail it out to the title’s few dozen subscribers, instead -?  Yes, a far better way to close the book on Omega; this title’s having enough trouble maintaining readers’ interest (and perhaps, maintaining readership) as it is.
I’m not sure where to fit this story into existing Marvel continuity; I’m not sure the writers know either.  On the letters page, Steven Grant explains why he felt it necessary to truncate the two calendar years between publication of Omega #10 and the present Defenders storyline; okay, fair enough.  Jan is here with an official Avengers quinjet (does H. P. Gyrich approve this non-Avengers use of the craft -?); so, that means she’s here either before or after flying to eastern Europe to rescue Wanda and Pietro.  Wait, now Moondragon’s here, saying that she’s coming from events depicted in MTIO #60, slated for publication four months from now?  Hoo boy.  (By the way, classic reaction as Jan sees the new arrival, and thinks to herself “Moondragon?!  Oh, great …”.  You and me both, sister.)
Defending S&M

 Doctor Strange 37
"And Fear, the Final Victor!"
Story by Roger Stern and Ralph Macchio
Art by Gene Colan and Dan Green
Colors by George Roussos
Letters by Jim Novak
Cover by Steve Leialoha

The Black Knight, reanimated via Ningal, threatens Stephen Strange's friend, Victoria Bentley, until the Master of the Mystic Arts zaps the demon with a "spell of elemental dissolution," reducing the statue to rubble and freeing Victoria. The victory is short though, as the demon reassembles its host and launches a second attack. Meanwhile, in "the Halls of Fear," the Dweller in Darkness has a pow-wow with D'Spayre, who's a bit peeved his boss isn't using him against Doctor Strange. As a demonstration of his power and to show D'Spayre that there's a bigger picture than just running bad guys at Strange, the Dweller possesses Marcia Trent and attempts to murder Murdoch Adams. The assassination is thwarted by the locket around Adams' neck (a talisman given him by Stephen), but Marcia is killed and the demonstration convinces D'Spayre that the Dweller has a lot of irons in the fire. Back at the battle, Strange (with a helping hand from lover Clea) shuts down the Black-Ningal-Knight one more time with a bit of trickery, but Stephen's attempt at peeking behind the curtain to see who's running the show is thwarted and Doctor Strange is left confounded. The Dweller puts his toys away for the day, confident he's rattled the sorcerer. -Peter Enfantino

Peter: I could go on and on about Gene Colan; how his art just seems to get better and better (just compare his work in this issue to that found in one of the early DC war books), that Colan's presence elevates any story he illustrates, how utterly evil his bad guys look (with a nod to Dan Green's excellent inking) swimming in a sea of blue and black, and how he just has that uncanny ability to make a grown man wish he were in the same panel as Clea (who has one of the most prominent posteriors in all of Marvel-dom, as evidenced below). That's not to ignore the quality of the story either; this is a solid chapter in the mega-Dark Dweller-epic, one that bedazzles as well as befuddles. Ningal-as-Black Knight has such a Harryhausen-esque vibe to him, you can almost imagine him moving in that magical, herky-jerky Ray-way. The finale is especially powerful, with Strange a victor and victim all at the same time, spurning Clea for some alone time to ponder the puzzle.

Unapologetic cheesecake
Chris: The conclusion helps illustrate both why Doctor Strange holds a unique place in the Marvel pantheon, and why it must be so difficult to write well.  A Dr Strange story is not likely to end with a slam-bang finish, the villain going down in a shower of sparkly pyrotechnics (in fairness, I guess a few of Doc’s battles have ended this way – but only some, not all!).  It’s clear Doc would eventually defeat Ningal; despite the minor demon’s ability to increase his size, and attempt to crush Dr Strange thru physical might, he never poses a serious threat to Doc.  But, based on the Dweller’s reaction, he never expected his pawn to overwhelm a superior opponent, but apparently Ningal did succeed in sowing questions and doubts in Doc’s mind.  Doc recognizes a greater force has sent Ningal and his ilk to harass him, but Doc feels he is no closer to identifying this hidden factor, and his inability to expose this interfering power … sows doubt.  The Dweller has succeeded in returning “the horrifying unknown” to Doc’s life; as a result, “he doubts his ability and his world-view, and so, himself.”  The Dweller is content now to withdraw, until … when?  To do – what?!  I’m left intrigued, and a little apprehensive (still, somewhat hopeful) for Doc’s chances.  

Gene Colan!  Art highlights!  The unreal, high-energized look of the Whitman statue as Ningal (empowered by the Dweller) re-constitutes it (p 3); the other-worldly dark dimension of the Dweller, as he peers in on his plan’s progress (p 7), with the skull-head of sycophantic D’Spayre swimming in thru the gloom (p 7, last pnl); another look at the fluid reality of the Dweller’s command center, as he looms over D’Spayre (p 14); the undeniable physical presence of the steadily-expanding stony form of Ningal (p 22-23).
Matthew: “Scenarist” Stern’s last issue before the Claremont Interregnum (of which we will, alas, cover only the first) also marks scripter Macchio’s swan song, and even the Dweller won’t return for more than a decade.  Plenty to applaud here, with Gentleman Gene back on one of his signature strips—and respectfully inked by Green—but I’m sure there are those who will be dissatisfied by the equivocal ending:  Doc defeats Ningal, and the jealous Clea even gets to stifle Victoria, yet TDID insists to D’Spayre that “I have won my duel with Strange,” leaving the mage deeply fearful.  Fond as I am of closure, I think it’s a nice touch, partly because TDID feels like such an almost primal force that a clean win over him probably wouldn’t seem appropriate...

Fantastic Four 211
"If This Be Terrax"
Story by Marv Wolfman
Art by John Byrne and Joe Sinnott
Colors by Ben Sean
Letters by Joe Rosen
Cover by John Byrne and Joe Sinnott

In his quest for a new herald, Galactus transports the FF to "a tiny, barren, rock-strewn moon of an immense, gaseous giant." Johnny calls it a planet, but either way it has not only a breathable atmosphere, but a humanoid society as well. This, the Fabs learn the hard way, as they soon come to the aid of telepathic natives (who look like samurais crossed with Goth rockers), on the run from robots who look like "stone knights." Wielding sonic lances, these "war-men" - settle on a name, Marv - take down Reed and Ben, but when Johnny lands and flames off to check on his pards, one of the humans they were fighting for rocks Torchie to sleep with a rock! The rock-wielder explains to Sue (switching from telepathy to speech for no apparent reason), "...punishment for resisting the war-men is torture and death but the punishment for destroying them is considerably worse," so they're turning on the Fabs to save their own skins.

Our captive heroes are marched to a city that "...looks as if it were carved out of a single stone" and presented to Tyros, the planet's (or moon's) "undisputed warlord." About this time (p.10), John Byrne starts drawing Reed, Sue, and even Ben with wrinkles and crow's feet, the first noticeable effects of the Skrulls' aging ray that's due to kill the trio in a day or so.

Even while not looking her best, Sue's offered a spot in Tyros' harem. The Big G pipes up, telepathically, to let the team know Tyros must be humbled. A two-page fight ensues, and after the Thing lays one haymaker on the warlord and is about to deliver another, Galax steps in and zaps Tyros with an energy beam, apparently having set the humble bar pretty low. The locals now approach the Fabs to report the war-men lost power when Tyros did, and to thank the FF for freeing them, this soon after betraying our quartet.

What suck-ups.  

After beaming the Fabs and Tyros back to his ship, the Big G recounts his previous heralds (Silver Surfer, Gabriel, and Firelord) before transforming Tyros into Terrax the Tamer (I guess that name could be lamer), made of stone and armed with a "cosmic axe." Thus up-powered, the newly-dubbed Terrax immediately challenges his creator, but the Big G devolves him to a "lowly, crawling insect" as a warning and the reconstituted T-rax, recognizing the better part of valor, bows before his new master.

His herald biz attended to, Galax and the Fabs board his spherical scout ship and speed toward Earth, there to confront the Sphinx. An epilogue has the Watcher explaining that the Sphinx "has (already) made his base upon the Earth" and a great battle is coming. 

Then Chrome Dome, in full bummer mode, predicts "Earth, fair Terra," is tabbed for destruction! 
-Mark Barsotti

Mark: This one rolls along nicely, moon or planet confusion notwithstanding, building momentum toward next month's expected Galactus-Sphinx smackdown (my money's on the Big G, for an early round k.o.).

Terrax, by all appearances, should make a formidable herald for the Purple Planet Eater, if hardly the hyperbolic "new superstar" promised on the cover. Yet, why Galactus needed the Fabs to fight Tyros/Terrax first is less clear, save as a handy plot extender. One can speculate that the Big G wouldn't have shed any tears if Tyros took down the FF, except that would have robbed Galax of his chance to finally gobble up Earth. Speaking of which, when Ben mentions that Reed has "sold Earth down the river," in his deal with Galactus (for those who missed our last lesson - first, shame on you!- if the Big G takes out the Sphinx, the FF will release him from his vow to leave Earth forever off his menu), Stretch replies with a lame, "I can't tell me," which tells me that Marv most likely has some groan-inducing poison pill built into the deal. But we'll skin that Wolfman if & when we come to it.

The Sinnott-Byrne art (Joltin' Joe gets top billing because John's only doing the rough layouts) is polished to the expected high sheen, from exotic splash page, to the creepy-if-hot members of Tyros' harem and clobberin'-time combat. No problem with the pretty pictures. As for the looong story arc itself (which stretched back to the Skrulls and Xandar, Nova and the Generics, and Johnny's solo foolishness with Security U), I've no real feel as to how it'll play out, quality-wise. The components are all in place for a memorable epic or an epic fail.

And Marv Wolfman has certainly shown himself capable of both, so stay tuned, effendi, and we'll discover the answer together.   

Matthew: Sure, it’s great that with Byrnott on hand (not that I had any complaints about Pollard), we have artwork befitting the so-called “World’s Greatest Comic Magazine,” but it’s not cool that in the first—and supposedly flagship—title of the Marvel Age, we have to say, “Thank goodness there’s some compensation!”  Terrax?  Feh.  The FF quickly expose him as a cowering bully, yet this clown is considered a suitable successor to the noble Norrin Radd?  The only part of this half-baked origin for which I give Marv any credit, assuming it was his own interpretation rather than the original intent of creators Lee and Conway, was having the former Tyros complete a quartet of heralds representing the classical elements earth, air, fire, and water.

Chris: Marv’s handling of this title finally is beginning to grow on me.  Very good choice to attend to the process of identification, humbling, and transformation of Galactus’ new herald, all within one issue.  I’m sure a part of Marv wanted desperately to check in with Agatha Harkness, and Frankie Raye, and Willie Lumpkin! (after all, who knows which other note-worthies might be on his postal route, right?), which would require the FF’s arrival at the city of Terran to eat up the entire issue, with the reveal of Tyros the Terrible Tyrannical Tamer coming no sooner than story-page 17.  So, extra points to Marv the Editor for electing to move things along expediently.  

Galactus’ heralds always manage to be impressive, but Terrax clearly represents a departure.  Nice work by His G-ness to identify a fundamental flaw in his previous design, as the other beings to serve him had all been “men of morality! And thus their moral natures have forced them to betray Galactus who[m] they served!”  Tyros doesn’t appear to be someone to be restricted by qualms about handing over planets for plunder; so far so good.  Galactus also is “prepared for [his] treachery,” as the newly-empowered Terrax tries to take down the Biggest Gheese, prompting G to reduce Terrax to a squishable bug; as befits a true thug, Terrax swears loyalty, once he’s been put in his place.  In a way, the earlier sequence of Tyros getting some push-back from the FF (“Never before has Tyros been struck!”) sets him up for Galactus’ assertion of dominance.  Just as Tyros had been accustomed to rule, his rule had been uncontested; now, faced with a far-greater power, Terrax bows.  
The unbeatable Byrne/Sinnott art continues to shine, from the opening, as the F-team shimmers into place on Tyros’ planet, a “scarlet helix” of energy dissolving around them, causing tiny flames to ripple at their feet.  Other highlights: a second contingent of war-men, glowering down from the rocks above, after the FF had scragged Team 1 (p 7, last pnl); the impressive intro of the supremely confident, and comfortable, Tyros (p 11); Sue dives into Tyros, throwing him off-stride (p 14, last pnl); thuggish Tyros, cowering, his hands before his face (p 16); the awesome (in the true sense of the word) transformation of Terrax (p 22), and a quick run-down of his mighty powers (p 23, p 26 – I’m sure Reed was taking careful notes); the double-image of Terrax, as his form vanishes to a shadow, and is replaced by a wriggling Byrne-alien (p 27, pnl 3).  High marks, all around!

Ghost Rider 38
“The Cult of Doom”
Story by Michael Fleisher
Art by Don Perlin
Colors by George Roussos
Letters by Diana Albers
Cover by Bob Budiansky and Bob Wiacek
The fanatical members of the Cult of Death gather on a high desert mountain. Armed with flamethrowers, two Death Cyclists perform a joust on motorcycles — both are burned alive in a huge explosion. Their masked leader then commands that the daughter of State Senator Arthur Sterling be dragged forward: the kidnapped Karen is to be sacrificed as a warning to her meddling father. She is tossed off the cliff. Luckily, Ghost Rider is racing below on his Skull Cycle and catches her at the last minute. The Rider hails down a patrol car and hands Miss Sterling to the amazed officers.

Later, the Spirit of Vengeance transforms back into Johnny Blaze, absorbing his flaming bike. Walking along the highway, Blaze soon comes across Harley Baggs’ Cycle Shop and impresses the owner with his mechanical skill — Johnny is hired on the spot. The next day, Harley insists that his new employee enter the local rally. Even through riding a sub-par bike, as a professional stuntman, Blaze is concerned that he has an unfair advantage over the other contestants. So he is surprised when one of the riders takes a large lead. 

But suddenly, the leader is ambushed by a group of Death Cyclists. After Johnny manages to chase them off, the lead racer is revealed as Karen Sterling. She informs Blaze about the Cult of Death and how her father has been trying to launch a state investigation — Karen then kisses him in thanks and rides off. Afterwards, a few Death Cyclists charge into Harley’s shop looking for Johnny. When Baggs refuses to reveal his mechanic’s whereabouts, he is burned alive by flamethrowers. Blaze soon arrives and sees the smoldering corpse. Enraged, he turns into the Ghost Rider and heads towards the mountains — and straight into an ambush. Four Cyclists open fire with flamethrowers and the Skull Cycle hurtles off a cliff. -Tom Flynn

Tom: Since this is such a horrendously plotted and written series, I have a theory. Now I haven’t read the next issue of Ghost Rider — I prolong that torture for as long as possible — but four new “characters” were introduced here: Arthur and Karen Sterling, Harley Baggs and the faceless leader of the Death Cult. Now Harley was quickly fried and Karen was nearly killed by the Cult. However, Senator Sterling is never seen only mentioned. So, I deduce that, in a “shocking” turn of events, the Senator will revealed to be the leader of the Cult. The lazy and unimaginable Michael Fleisher is not going to waste the effort of coming up with a character name and then just throw it away. The subject of a Marvel University Sunday Special, an issue of Atomic Comics' long-forgotten The Grim Jester used the same tack: the crusading Senator Wu was uncovered as the leader of the psychos murdering handicapped children in New York City, including his own daughter. Not sure who should be more embarrassed, the talentless creator of The Grim Jester or Fleisher.

Now it must take some convincing to get anyone to join the Death Cult. Not only do you have to turn over all your worldly possessions, you might be called on to take part in a motorcycle joust with flamethrowers. Don’t think that even Evel Knievel could walk away from that. And the Cult’s chant is “Death! We worship death!” Not exactly an enticing slogan to put on recruitment posters. Again, in another lazy plotline, the Cult uses masked motorcyclists because … yet again ... the star of this series rides one as well. The bad bikers' face-shields are completely ridiculous: the “mouths” look like jack o lanterns. And the two cops whom Ghost Rider leaves Karen with are not exactly shining examples of law enforcement. Since they think that no one will believe that a dude with a flaming skull delivered the girl, they decide to report that they found her by the side of the road. Really? Karen saw that it was Ghost Rider that saved her bacon before she passed out. She’s not going to mention that back at police headquarters? But, of course, Fleisher’s not going to think these things through. Do I need to add that the art absolutely stinks? Another tiresome chore.

Chris: Michael Fleisher sets the tone well from the start, as Ghost Rider (possibly responding to internal cues from Johnny Blaze, right?) saves the young woman plunging from the cliff, and thinks of the “vermin who require punishment … only the Ghost Rider can administer!”  Once he’s handed the unconscious woman off to the law, GR proceeds to ride off, so he can … find a dark cave, revert to Johnny, and catch some ZZZs.  Well okay, Ghost Rider’s an intense bag, I dig it, so after some shut-eye (which he has to do as Johnny, since GR has no eyes in his empty skull-sockets), GR’s gonna whup him some death worshippers, right?  Uh, no, first Johnny’s got to get some breakfast, and meet a cycle jock, and then go to a road rally.  O-kay.

Fleisher does manage to turn his attention back to the cultists at the very end, as they burn “Harley” (a real stretch for the character’s name …) and his garage, which prompts GR to act (“Yeah, that’s right – those cultists who threw the woman off the cliff!  I meant to scald them with the very fires of hell for their misdeeds!”).  Then we’re left with a cliffhanger – sorry, a cliff-faller, to be accurate.  Not much suspense here, as falling a great height never has caused serious harm to GR in the past; Fleisher tries to pump it up with “a height which even he cannot survive!” but I’m not buying that for a minute.  So, once GR does survive the fall, and makes good on his promise to properly punish the cultists (as we well know, to be seen next issue), something tells me this story will wind up fitting comfortably in a single issue; all Fleisher would have to do is cut the Johnny stuff by half, and keep the pedal down on the quest for vengeance.  
Matthew: Okay, let me get this straight:  Johnny B. wanders out of the desert, broke and hungry, and the first place he sees just happens to be a cycle shop, where his supernatural skill at changing spark plugs just happens to earn him a meal and a job from the colorful proprietor, who enters him into a race where he just happens to meet the girl he’d saved the night before, which just happens to be when the cultists go after her again.  People say this book was poorly written by Isabella.  And that cult is the capper—joining it earns you the privilege of being flame-broiled on the back of a bike?  So what’s the upside?  Must thin their ranks pretty quickly, yet they don’t seem to have a recruiting problem.  Wanna guess who their mysterious leader might possibly be?

 The Incredible Hulk 240
"... And Now El Dorado!"
Story by Roger Stern
Art by Sal Buscema and Joe Sinnott
Colors by Glynis Wein
Letters by John Costanza
Cover by Al Milgrom

The Hulk (with the unconscious Goldbug in tow) is led to the peaceful city of El Dorado. The people there bow and scrape before him to offer their respect, but Jade Jaws will have none of it. The last thing he wants is to be crowded by puny humans. He is taken before They, three men in fabulous outfits: Prince Rey, the aged Des and Lann, so-called Keeper of the Sacred Flame. Des shows the Hulk an image of Jarella and convinces him her body is being experimented on by his enemies at Gamma Base. Hulk flies into a rage, but Des keeps goading him until his rage is so freaking huge, it triggers the transformation back to Bruce Banner. He is taken away and cared for.

Meanwhile, back in Nevada, Betty Ross returns to Gamma Base, now a pilot of all things, and wants to help her father. However, she is told that Doc Samson took Old T-bolt away somewhere for treatment.

Back in El Dorado, Banner goes to see They once more and is shown the Sacred Flame while he is told of the origins of El Dorado and how they all came to be and how the ancient flame has almost been restored to its former glory (I’d tell you, but I kinda skimmed over it because I was falling asleep). Anyways, Banner offers to help, and Des – all sinister-like – says Banner will indeed help. They’ve been waiting for someone like him to arrive for a long time. Then a giant claw comes out and grabs the scientist.  -Scott McIntyre

Scott McIntyre: This is a really frustrating title. The Hulk can be a brilliant book at its best. There are so many issues in the last few years that really made an impact. To this day, they remain in my collection of favorite comic stories. But the series is just as often crummy. Or just plain dull. This is a hell of a boring stretch. The only saving grace is that Banner is finally back and Joe Sinnott is doing the inks. Otherwise, get me the No-Doz.

Matthew: To give credit where it’s due, that is one seriously cool cover by Editori-Al, although I can’t remember when Milgrom starts calling himself that.  Meanwhile, Sterno and Sal certainly could not “welcome Joe Sinnott to the pages of The Incredible Hulk” any more warmly than I, yet it’s, um, incredible to think that it is just his second issue after #226, followed only by fewer than a dozen between #274 and 292.  So let’s enjoy the work of my favorite inker while we can, which isn’t hard to do anytime Joltin’ Joe embellishes a Buscema, giving us plenty of eye candy to savor as we start to wonder if, like the Machine Man trilogy, this arc is going on a bit too long, especially since the current installment is really little more than a protracted setup.

Addendum:  Having now read the next issue, I know it’s not directly followed up on there, and I won’t provide any spoilers, but I loved how the supposedly not-so-bright Hulk looked at Aged Des and said, “Hulk knows you.”  And by gum, he was right!  That was a nice touch.

Chris: They have been around for some time now.  We’ve had glimpses of them – sorry, of They – from time to time, but we never seem to have enough of an opportunity to figure out why They are attending to the Hulk, and what They might want from him.  While They’ve caused him some trouble – their enabling of Crusher Creel to attack the Hulk in #209 comes to mind – They never seem to be harassing him For Badness, not simply poking Hulk with a stick for fun.  

Sterno keeps us guessing as Hulk enters El Dorado.  Hulk’s been wary about coming to They’s city since he was met by Tulak at the end of #239; since Hulk has been on edge – granted, for good reason, based on greenskin’s past experience nearly every time he’s found himself in new surroundings – we the readers have been kept in suspense too, awaiting the attack to begin.  The reception by the populace doesn’t help us (or the Hulk) figure out what’s happening, as they (the populace I mean this time, not their rulers) greet him as a champion.  But, what’s happening in El Dorado that requires a savior?  We’re kept in the dark.  
So, if Stern had given me a hundred guesses – no, hundreds of guesses – would I ever have figured They to be the ruling triumvirate and flame-keepers of El Dorado?  No, hundreds of guesses would have not been nearly enough.  The twist at the end tells us Hulk might be expected to serve as some sort of inexhaustible power-source for the sacred flame.  But why had They shown him earlier that Jarella is being held at Gamma Base for study?  Whether it’s true or not, there’s nothing Hulk can do about it, except become enraged; were They hoping to provoke him in order to test the upper limits of Hulk’s power, or something?  Either way, Stern leaves us with plenty of intriguing questions still to be addressed.

 The Invincible Iron Man 127
"... A Man's Home Is His Battlefield!"
Story by Bob Layton and David Michelinie
Art by John Romita, Jr. and Bob Layton
Colors by Ben Sean
Letters by Jim Novak
Cover by Bob Layton

 In a spectacular splash page, IM scatters the “Super-Army” with his wide-beam repulsor blasts, and as they regroup, Hammer explains, “It is my pleasure to offer sanctuary and financial aid to those particular gentlemen and ladies…for a mere 50% of their profits.”  Aptly, Stiletto and Discus are the first to fall as he lowers his plexiglass shields, preventing the former’s projectiles from penetrating his mask, then repels the latter’s with reverse magnetism, knocking one partner out with the other.  The rest attack en masse “in a multicolored wave of calculated violence” that mirrors Layton’s memorable cover; taking to the air, he rips off the Beetle’s wings and uses his tentacles to propel him into the Leap-Frog, turning the attempted rescue into a rout.

No doubt eliciting lusty jeers from Professor Tom, the indescribably lame Water Wizard (created by Jim Shooter, you will recall) uses his power to form a “surf-scooter” and flee while Hammer turns the equally ineffectual Spymaster into a messenger boy, ordering him to find the navigator and have him prepare the “lift pods.”  Blizzard and the Melter fare no better with their hot-and-cold “Atlantic City stratagem” the second time, as IM knocks their heads together with a mighty “FLOB,” and then, after confusing Man-Killer with his image projector, he repeats his crack-the-whip routine by absorbing the electricity from the Constrictor’s coils and flinging him into her.  Last, and perhaps least, the Porcupine’s costume explodes when his mini-grenades are aborted…

Having finally convinced them that Stark was kidnapped, Rhodey copters in with the Monaco Police, told that Tony is safely ashore.  Meanwhile, taking a page from Emilio Largo’s playbook, Hammer jettisons the “flotation foils” and his island villa rises “on a cushion of jet-powered air,” racing toward international waters…until IM bashes right through, splitting it in two and saving Barnett—who can clear him—from drowning, although Hammer escapes.  IM is exonerated, his impounded armor returned, yet his conscience and the bratty onlooker in a “J.R. JR. Fan Club” t-shirt (“Mommy!  Don’t let him get me!”) drive him deeper into alcoholism, precipitating a break with Bethany and a drunken outburst at Jarvis that prompts the loyal butler’s letter of resignation. -Matthew Bradley

Matthew: As reaffirmations go, defeating a dozen villains in fewer pages isn’t bad, even if the threat posed by these mid-to-low-level heavies is due strictly to quantity rather than quality (demonstrated by the embarrassing ease with which most are laid low), and any sense of triumph is erased by the words I hoped I wouldn’t have to transcribe—“Next Issue:  Demon in a Bottle!”  But there’ll be ample time to bemoan that next month.  I normally don’t provide so much blow-by-blow for the fight scenes, yet here it seemed suitable, partly because of the number of participants involved, and partly because such an “epic” conflict would appear to be this issue’s raison d’ĂȘtre, yet it’s over in no time, only emphasizing what losers these clowns are; Whiplash literally does nothing!

Itemizing Shooter’s latest bloodletting, Sean Howe relates in Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, “Shortly afterward, Dave Cockrum, on staff as a cover designer, sent an excoriating letter to Stan Lee….[so] Jim Salicrup took [it], changed the names, and inserted it into the comic” as Jarvis’s.  It reads, in part:  “I am leaving because this is no longer the team-spirited ‘one big happy family’ I once loved working for.  Over the past year or so I have watched Avengers’ morale disintegrate [into] a large collection of unhappy individuals simmering in their own personal stew of repressed anger, resentment and frustration.  I have seen a lot of my friends silently enduring unfair, malicious or vindictive treatment.”  Perhaps MU is closing its doors at just the right time!

Chris: I’ve always found the battle with the “super-army” (as touted by the cover) to be too brief, and that’s because it is; by page 11 – the seventh story-page – the villains have been routed, and Hammer’s on the run.  Iron Man’s ease with his opponents (the outcome is never in doubt) demonstrates the improved armor’s might, but also shows you what a fighting-mad Stark can do; Michelinie puts it best, when he tells us Stark “can think of nothing quite so purging as a fist well-planted in a threatening face” (p 3).  

Since I’m an action junkie (the Zodiac-thrashing in Defenders #50 being a personal favorite), I could’ve gone for an extra 3-4 pages of baddie-bashing before we turn to the latest chapter of The Gradual Unraveling of Tony Stark.  The bit when an addled Tony says he’ll write the restaurant’s Lexington Avenue address on a “naperkin” is pathetically amusing (p 23).  
I’d forgotten Jarvis’ resignation following Tony’s insulting comment; it’s a very effective story device.  Jarvis has seen and done it all with the Avengers (including being knocked out by the Whizzer a few times, you’ll recall).  To think he’s been driven to the point of bowing out helps illustrate how unpleasant the environment has become thanks to Tony’s behavior; when you look back, there already had been tension brewing due to Iron Man’s Midas-crisis-enforced absences.  I will say Michelinie gets the tone and content of the resignation letter all wrong; Jarvis would never grandstand (and certainly would not employ improper contractions) in a letter like that – if anything, a succinct one or two lines would be more professional, and in its way, more cutting.  
Matthew:  As we now know, Michelinie didn’t write it or—per a subsequent lettercol—approve of the substitution.

 Battlestar Galactica 8
"Shuttle Diplomacy!"
Story by Bill Mantlo
Art by Sal Buscema and Klaus Janson
Colors by Ben Sean
Letters by Clem Robins
Cover by Rich Buckler and Klaus Janson

The prevention of Adama’s assassination by Sire Uri’s forces resulted in the commander being trapped in the memory machine. He cannot be removed forcibly without danger of being lost in his memories forever. Meanwhile the fleet is in danger, as three ships have gone missing in the starless void. However, rather than showing us this intriguing plot, they instead subject us to some of Adama’s creaky old memories of his time as a Captain with his buddy Lieutenant Tigh. Adama and Tigh are assigned to the planet Scorpia to transport the Scorpian ambassador to the Counsel of Twelve to sign some pact. Adama hates this place. The Scorpians have placed their total dependency in the hands of robots, letting them do the work while the population grows fat and lazy. On the way to the embassy in their hovermobile, Adama sees a walkway collapsing, so using his Jedi powers…I mean, using his superior warrior skill… he saves them from certain death. All the way to the embassy, Adama bellyaches about how crapulent this society is. Honestly, the guy’s a tool. Anyhoo, Adama and Tigh meet the Ambassador, a shadowy, robed individual, who declines fighter escort and prefers her own robot-manned, poorly-armed transport to the Galactica. On the way, they are attacked by Cylons. Without proper weapons, Adama takes the ship to the nearby planet Vesper, a planet ravaged by storms. They crash-land and the robots take up defensive positions. The human passengers refuse to fight; fighting is for robots. The Ambassador takes up arms and says she will fight then, boringly, she reveals that she is a robot. She gives her life for the lazy slobs in the shuttle and they fight back in her honor and agree to work hand in hand with the robots as partners. -Scott McIntyre

Scott: Oh lordy. Was this some leftover Star Wars story? It smells a lot like an old “tale of Obi-Wan” fill-in. This really sucks; BSG started off really strong and was building up momentum until they ground to a halt with this memory machine BS. Now we have flashbacks that give us NOTHING. No new insights, just fill-ins. Young Adama is more of a stuffed shirt than Old Adama, a guy continually on his soapbox and bitching about how lazy the people of Scorpia are. The art is middling, the story predictable, and I am struggling to stay awake.

John Carter, Warlord of Mars 28
"The Weapon-Makers of Mars!"
Story by Peter Gillis
Art by Larry Hama and Ricardo Villamonte 
Colors by Bob Sharen
Letters by Diana Albers
Cover by Bob McLeod and Klaus Janson

On an atmosphere-mapping expedition with Kantos, Carter picks the dead city of Aaanthor as a campsite, yet eminent scientist Sasoom Thil’s dismay only grows with the appearance of a huge, hitherto-unknown bug.  Inside a chamber they find a group of white apes, apparently paralyzed while clambering toward a throne equipped with shackles that are locked and unbroken, yet empty.  Sentry Gur (sic) Hajus spots a thoat-drawn chariot that bears a light-skinned couple and is pursued by a horde of green men without rifles, one of whom suddenly grows gigantic, and then dissolves “in a coruscating blaze of color”; all have vanished without a trace, but that night, after they camp outside the gates, Kantos re-enters to investigate.

Following a light, he is beset by another giant figure, and aroused by his cry, his friends follow a trail of bugs to a wall bearing an ancient glyph, effecting entrance by blowing a hole with radium from their bullets.  A pneumatic tube takes them down to a vast chamber filled with mammoth weapons, and when Carter telepathically senses Kantos on the other side of a portal, they enter to find him atop an altar, plus a wizened figure who paralyzes them with a crystal scepter.  The self-proclaimed “last priest of the elder gods” defied the Therns and was denied the river Iss, but after being chained to the throne to be killed by the apes, he paralyzed them with the scepter he found beneath and—receiving such peace that he refused to die—grew so emaciated his bonds slid off.

Confounding his foes with visions of Barsoom’s former glory, he believes that after sufficient sacrifices, the gods will give him their power and secret, yet as Carter overcomes the paralysis (presumably due to his Earthly physiognomy) and attacks, the vault opens at last to reveal...bugs.  While the priest collapses in shock, John pushes buttons on the sceptre until he frees his friends, destroys it, and leads the group away, planning to seal off Aaanthor for Barsoom’s protection.  No sooner have they left than the bugs, now activated, project a holographic image of a beautiful white woman, who prepares to share records of the knowledge—“wonders undreamed of!”—her long-dead civilization learned too late, as the oceans died and hordes of green men approached...
-Matthew Bradley

Matthew: I’ll give Gillis points for incorporating actual Burroughs elements into this lame-duck one-off:  Gor Hajus was victimized by Ras Thavas and befriended by “Vad Varo” in The Master Mind of Mars, while Aaanthor was one of the settings in Thuvia, Maid of Mars.  But then I’ll deduct some for the haphazard way he uses them, since both are completely out of continuity, and the principled assassin is present in misspelled name only; the “stinger” ending feels like a Twilight Zone twist.  The artwork, with recent DC defector and future G.I. Joe mainstay Hama inked by Villamonte (who has oscillated between ERB books since March), is solid, e.g., Miss Holograph, plus those vertiginous shots of Aaanthorian technology in page 16, panel 2 and page 17, panel 1.

On a related note, while re-reading the final books, I learned that en route from Horz to Gathol in the second novelette comprising Llana of Gathol, Carter finds a “great rift valley” he compares to the Grand Canyon, a concept Claremont clearly appropriated for “Master Assassin.”  ERB’s is inhabited not by winged offshoots of the Orovars, the white-skinned race Carter had encountered in Horz (seen in Annual #1), but by a contingent of the novelette’s eponymous “Black Pirates of Barsoom” from the Valley Dor, the self-styled First Born introduced in The Gods of Mars.  This occasions the umpteenth retelling of the Tree of Life creation story adapted in #15; indeed, Llana touches on all three of Barsoom’s lesser-known races, the black, white, and yellow men of Mars.

“Two issues ago,” per the lettercol, “we announced that [this book’s] cancellation…had been premature.  Well, it now appears that our announcement was premature as well.  In other words, with this issue, we draw the saga of John Carter to a close.  Save for this year’s…Annual, this is the final issue…”  Among those commenting on #23, Bren Gibson takes them to task over the Two Taras confusion; as the armadillo points out, all was eventually explained, but they could so easily have made it a lot clearer a lot sooner.  Unusually, said annual has a lettercol as well—which is devoted to #25 and sadly juxtaposes the delighted response to Carter’s reprieve with the news that it was just temporary—while both stress how much the creators enjoyed working on it.

John Carter, Warlord of Mars Annual 3
"Amazons of Mars!"
Story by Marv Wolfman, Alan Weiss, and Chris Claremont
Art by Alan Weiss and Tony DeZuniga
Colors by Roger Slifer
Letters by Jim Novak
Cover by Alan Weiss

Visiting a mine on the Korz Plateau on behalf of the Jeddak, who is shaken by the extent of the guild’s aborted coup, Carter finds the men’s loyalty as firm as ever—as well it might be when he not only works beside them, but also frees foreman Kharis Hol from a boulder trapping him after the first of two gas explosions.  En route back to Helium, he sees three fliers chasing a woman on the ground; downing two and driving off one, he learns that she is Klys, pursued by slavers, and offers to take her to her city, north of the Equator and the rift valley.  Known as Paradise, it seems at first to live up to its name, populated entirely by lovely women...yet warning signs begin as, unresisting, he is relieved of his weapons.

Carter had immediately found Klys’s perfume strangely intoxicating and, despite protesting that “my heart, my sword are pledged to another,” is overcome by the Amazon warriors’ fragrance; meanwhile, in Helium, Mors Kajak is confident that his overdue son-in-law will return safely but plans a search party just in case.  Dejah’s concern is justified as John, having given himself over to “sensual delights,” grabs a sabre to aid in the defense against vampiric bat-people.  Although grateful for his help, with its uncharacteristic butchery, the Amazons have a different purpose in mind for Carter, not the obvious one (i.e., procreation, oddly never addressed), but one that becomes clear as he is led across a bridge to an altar, on a granite island in a lake of molten lava.

Klys explains that “the ambush in the desert was a charade,” and Carter, a victim of “the will-destroying poison in our perfume and lip paint,” is chained to the pillar as a sacrifice to their goddess.  Part II shifts to Dejah’s perspective as the ceremony begins and, unnoticed amid their hypnotic trance, one of the dancing Amazons vanishes.  Tars Tarkas has plucked her up by the hair, in order that Dejah may change clothes with and impersonate her, while flashbacks reveal that seeking John, they found evidence of the ambush, slipped past the sleeping bat-men in the deserted avenues of a city, and discovered the cave; trusting in speed and surprise, Dejah orders Tars to return to their flier and, when signaled with her radium pistol, fly in with cannon blasting.

She has infiltrated to the front rank when, in his delirium, Carter spots her and unthinkingly calls her name; cover blown, Dejah scatters the sisterhood with her pistol as the bridge is submerged, battling them amid the ruins until she can swing via chandelier to the altar.  Distracting her long enough to be stabbed by Klys, Tars finally arrives, having been delayed by the bat-people, who flee when the goddess rises from the pool, consuming the defiant couple with flame.  Yet the Thark’s vengeful rage is interrupted as she returns, enabled by her rapport with the lovers—now reborn—and Klys to explain what the matriarchs never could, or would, understand:  she had no need for sacrifices (“A song would do as well.”), leaving the Amazons to rethink their existence. -Matthew Bradley

Matthew: Aptly, what might be considered this title’s true final issue marks a collaboration between its two regular writers:  Wolfman, who plots with penciler Weiss, and scripter Claremont.  It’s not a bad send-off for our favorite transplanted Jasoomian, an apparent original nonetheless seasoned with both Burroughs flavor and Chris’s trademark humanism, while our three stalwart heroes are very much in character.  As in #28, where Kantos seeks to prove he has fully recovered from nearly dying at the hands of the guild, references to the aftermath of “The Master Assassin of Mars” give these two essentially stand-alone final stories the feeling of being in continuity, rather than fill-ins, and I share the sadness of the creators, who reportedly found Carter “a joy to work on.”

I’ve never been a big fan of Weiss, so I’ll invite Professor Tom’s typical good-natured mockery by citing this as a case where inker DeZuniga—well matched with, yet able to enhance instead of simply complementing, Alan’s somewhat rough-hewn style—really adds value.  Since much of this double-length issue comprises wall-to-wall, well-depicted feminine pulchritude, it would be hypocritical of me to register any serious complaint there…oh, yeah, and Carter looks okay, too.  They even get Dejah out of her customarily revealing royal togs and into a somewhat outlandish Amazonian get-up, complete with not one but two kinds of boots (a mild MRB fetish), while on a more substantive note, she is again portrayed as his worthy match in courage and fighting skill.

Chris: Warlord of Mars was one of those titles I didn’t read during my Bronze era dutiful-collector period.  I wasn’t into ERB, and I typically didn’t pick up titles that weren’t woven in to the mainstream Marvel universe.  That said, I now own most of the series, and while they aren’t earth-shattering comics, I’m glad to have had a chance to read and enjoy (most of) them.  It’s a solid story to end Carter’s Marvel run; since both chapters are exactly seventeen pages in length, it’s my working theory that this had been plotted out as two regular issues, which then were pasted together into the Annual format, once Carter’s monthly title had been cancelled for the second, and final, time.

I was critical of Claremont last month for his reliance on the by-now all-too-familiar avenue of Dejah’s capture and required rescue as a plot device.  I’d like to acknowledge his decision to turn that around this time, as Carter is this issue’s captive, although, I suppose I really should be thanking co-plotters Wolfman & Weiss, shouldn’t I?  Well, even if Claremont didn’t come up with the captive role-reversal, I will properly credit him for presenting the second half from Dejah’s perspective.  Claremont nimbly recaps Dejah and Tars Tarkas’ search for Carter in less than a page (roughly the time required for Dejah to change costume, and impersonate a Paradise maiden), which of course keeps the action going.  Not only is Dejah familiar with going undercover, but we’ve witnessed her battle-prowess before, so it’s no stretch for her to battle Carter’s captors.  
I’ve heard Alan Weiss is one of those people who could take forever to complete an assignment, so as much as I appreciate the look he brings to this title, and although I might wish he could’ve been a regular artist for JCWoM, I can understand why that might not’ve worked out.  The great time-requirement also precludes Weiss from self-inking.  DeZuniga is a curious choice (do I say that every time -?), but overall Carter and Dejah typically look the way they should, and the women of Paradise look fine (sorry, I meant fiiinne …), so I really can’t complain.  The encounter with the goddess could’ve been a big mistake, but our art-team hits on the right other-worldly look for her (p 42); we also have a sense of her benevolence, when she restores Carter and Dejah (p 44).  Points also to Roger Slifer for his colors, which not only contribute to the different appearances of all the women (p 19, 26), but also set the flashback apart (a greenish hue on p 27), and add to the unreal appearance of the lava-goddess.

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