Wednesday, January 11, 2017

September 1979 Part Two: The Uncanny X-Men Heats Up With the Return of Phoenix!

The Uncanny X-Men 125
"There's Something Awful on Muir Island!"
Story by Chris Claremont
Art by John Byrne and Terry Austin
Colors by Glynis Wein
Letters by Tom Orzechowski
Cover by Dave Cockrum and Terry Austin

On Muir Island, Moira MacTaggert is running tests on Jean to get to the bottom of her Phoenix power. She is nervous about the implications of the extent of her abilities. Unknown to them, both women are being watched from the shadows by a soulless entity that has killed Angus MacWhirter and taken over his body.  Back at the Xavier School, the X-Men run drills in the Danger Room, but Wolverine is fed up with being bossed around over games. Cyclops is at a loss as to how to hone the team’s skills.

On her home world, Lilandra is hosting a State Ball. Charles Xavier is lost in the shuffle and leaves the party for the archives; he reads a report on how Jean saved the universe from the threat of the Neutron Galaxy and is gripped in fear. Her power is so great, he doubts Jean can handle it so he decides to return to Earth at once.

In the town of Stornoway in the Scottish Isles, a man known as Jason Wyngarde ruminates on how he has controlled Jean for months, taking the forms of people she’s met throughout her journey, learning about her and finally meeting her as the handsome Jason. He is almost ready to deliver her to the Hellfire Club as their new Black Queen.

On Muir Island, Moira finds a gold tooth near the cell of “Mutant X.” When she checks to see if the subject is still secure, she opens the cell and what she sees makes her recoil in shock. Her terrified thought patterns reach Jean who becomes Phoenix and flies in to save the day, but when she rounds a corner, she believes she is in an 18th-Century Regency mansion and dressed for the period. To her, this is completely real. She is unaware of the animated corpse of MacWhirter until it reaches her, and she screams. Alex Summers and Jamie Madrox suit up to help. Back at the School it is 2 am, and the Beast arrives to check on the mansion he expected to be deserted. Sneaking inside, he is intercepted by Nightcrawler, who panics when he finally sees Hank McCoy’s features, believing him to be a ghost. The rest of the team arrive and finally Hank and his comrades discover none of them perished during their last battle with Magneto. When Scott realizes Jean is alive, he is simply numb. Scott calls Muir Island to talk to Jean and gets Lorna Dane. Suddenly Lorna screams and the line goes dead!
-Scott McIntyre

Scott McIntyre: Stories like this are a joy to read, but a bitch to summarize. There are so many pages filled with backstory and inner monologues, each more interesting than the last, that don’t come off all that interesting when put into synopsis form. Xavier’s boredom and his panic about Jean propel his decision to return home. Hank and Scott finally discover the other isn’t dead, but Scott’s numbness over Jean remains. Jason Wyngarde plots (and fans of Department S, Jason King and The Avengers TV series continue to rejoice), and the beginning of the Proteus arc are all packed into these pages. Even a brief visit with the healing Magneto, just to remind us that he’s still around, provide more story than the average issue of The Incredible Hulk. What I found most interesting was Jean’s attitude. Very slowly and subtly, she is changing, getting a little darker and less patient. The seeds have been planted, this is masterful story building. All of this – Wyngarde, Proteus, and Phoenix – will ramp up into the greatest arc of the series. The art is, as usual, orgasmic. Every issue of this title will be exceptional for the remainder of our blog.

Matthew Bradley:  Okay, broken-record time.  Scott knows Jean’s alive, but not vice versa, so Chris’s Chinese water torture (you’ll notice he’s now credited as sole author), which really was plausible only when they were incommunicado in the Savage Land, isn’t quite over.  Now, I’m a big boy, and I know that comic-book time is, shall we say, elastic, yet I think it all hinges on how long the X-Men have been back in civilization, where even before the advent of cell phones we still had a number of ways of staying in touch.  Dramatic though it was, the Cyclops/Beast reunion reminds us that Hank has been Avenging away all of this time, and those guys don’t exactly keep a low profile, so Scott should’ve known he was alive, and if he was, then Jean most likely was, as well.

There.  Now I can discuss the rest of the issue, which was excellent if, for us Monday-morning quarterbacks, depressing as they plant the seeds of Jean’s post-blog doom, subject to one or more retcons.  Marvel giveth and Marvel taketh away, it seems, and I guess it was unthinkable to have a truly super-heroine, so we have to corrupt (in what our august Dean correctly called an echo of the Scarlet Witch’s Byrne-drawn possession by Chthon) and—spoiler alert!—ultimately kill her.  The cover-tagged “Mystery of Muir Island!” is shaping up nicely, even if the cliffhanger reminds me of MTU #69; the Magda scene ties in with Wanda’s origin du jour; I will welcome Charles’s return, however dire the reasons; the Austin-inked art is simply superb.  Best line:  “Scott who?”

Kudos to SuperMegaMonkey for identifying the cameos by Star-Lord characters and Popeye (no, I’m not kidding) in the last two panels of page 16.

Mark Barsotti: Yeah, it's a bigly tremendous cover, but having missed most of the X-Men renaissance (and all of John Byrne) the first time 'round, I'm far less susceptible to the nostalgic aura of reverence, if not outright worship, that surrounds All Things Phoenix to Marvel Zoms who cut their teeth on the Feen-Jeanie. 

And so for the first few pages here I was thinking that, no matter how expertly the Dream Team executes their fizzy superhero formula, it remains just that, a reductive myth-making recipe for bright-if-socially-awkward middle-schoolers, cranked out by low-rent pulp-hustlers like so much sausage. Here, Jean's memory lane recap and the Danger Room shenanigans are pretty bland but then...

The fizzy formula works its intoxicating effect. Plotting-in-space Magneto has a poignant moment. Jason Wyngarde has a Speedo. Jean looks great, imagined as the Hellfire Club's Black Queen. Prof X, finally learning of Phoenix Ver.1, heads back to Earth. The Beast is back, but who has Jean? Or does she have them?

Too tipsy to tell, it strikes me that Laphroaig single malt whiskey is likewise produced by a formula, and that doesn't prevent it from being a work of art. So as an act of contrition, if not reverence, a bottle each for Chris, John, and Terry, zapped back to 1979 via Doc Doom's time machine!

Bill it to the Dean, who's about to make a fortune - rumor has it - selling our beloved ivy-covered campus to the soon to be re-booted Trump University. 

Chris Blake: Claremont, Byrne & Austin are beginning to make me feel like an idiot.  I have nothing but good things to say – do I have no critical sense at all?  Could they truly be deserving of my seemingly unexamined support, issue after issue?  Okay, let’s start from the beginning.  Jean looks – incredible.  She’s just as attractive as always, with Phoenix giving her a spooky edge from time to time; we can see why Moira’s concerned (p 2).  Plus, Moira seems to have some understanding of why Phoenix’s power levels shifted, leaving her vulnerable to defeat against Magneto, which at the time appeared to doom her teammates.  We also see Jean at ease with her powers – as she playfully changes the molecules in her outfit (a brilliant take by Byrne, p 15 last pnl), then comfortably goes outside without a jacket, despite the cold.  Okay, well … I guess those parts are okay.  

We get a few asides – Magneto plots his next move against the X-Men, and probably against homo sapiens as well, which allows us a blindingly clear hint tying in to recent events at Wundagore Mountain, as chronicled in recent issues of the Avengers.  Meanwhile, Charles Xavier, dressed in his later role as Jean-Luc Picard (no wait – that’s something else, or someone else – never mind, I’m confused …), reaches a similar conclusion as Moira had regarding Phoenix’s power potential, and resolves to race back to Earth.  So yeah – those parts are pretty good too.
The reunion of the Beast with the X-ers is quite good, especially Hank’s wordless word balloon when he realizes he’s battling Nightcrawler (“>?!?<”), and a visual of Kurt hanging back, behind the door frame, as Hank tells Scott Jean is alive as well (p 27, last pnl).  I’m not surprised Hank wouldn’t have known about the X-team being back in town (they’re kinda private people, after all), but I guess that means the Avengers haven’t done anything newsworthy lately, otherwise the X-Men might’ve learned Hank is still alive; in fairness, the Avengers’ most recent public appearance was against the Absorbing Man, which roughly corresponds with the X-Men being in Calgary, right?  Scott’s thoughts still are hidden from us, but that could be by design, as it could indicate Scott’s true state of mind; as Hank asks Scott whether he’s okay, Scott thinks to himself, “I don’t know anymore,” before he answers, “Yeah Hank, I’m fine.”  Ehh … nothing really to complain about here, either.
But the best part – the really best part of the issue – is the mystery and suspense regarding the thing, the thing that used to be Angus MacWhirter, but now is dead, and stalking around Muir Island, and is so awful that it gives Jean an eye-popping fright (p 23, pnl 7), and look out!  Lorna – it’s right outside the window – it’s gonna get ya!  Quick quick, turn around it’s right there -!! (p 31, pnl 3, with another incredible shock-reaction by Lorna).  Plus, Jason Wyngarde is getting in Jean‘s head – what’s he plotting?  And on top of everything, Mutant X is on the loose -??!  Does the Blackbird have an ultra-sonic speed?!  Cause there’s no way they’ll ever get there in time -!
Yet again, another unbeatably great issue.  If I were to claim otherwise, then I truly would be an idiot.

 Marvel Spotlight 2
Captain Marvel in
"The Dark Corners!"
Story by Doug Moench
Art by Pat Broderick and Bruce Patterson
Colors by Ben Sean
Letters by John Costanza and Diana Albers
Cover by Frank Miller and Terry Austin

Mar-Vell propels Rick—his laser-rifle useless against Chaos—and Gertie to tenuous safety in the Tree of Eternity (now stripped of leaves) as their oxygen dwindles; he and Drax are being beaten by Stellarax and Gaea, respectively, when Isaac-Prime elects to watch all his foes die together and transports them to the control room where the Titans gasp for breath.  Rick is enraged upon learning that Drax planned to slay Mar-Vell, but bored with their squabble, Isaac orders Stellarax to “destroy the Destroyer first!”  Mar-Vell intercepts a blast meant for his would-be killer, and in quick succession after his self-sacrifice, Drax destroys Stellarax, only to be struck down by Chaos and Gaea, who are then struck down themselves by the vengeful Kree.

Carried into the computer by Mar-Vell’s lunge, Isaac replicates himself, but in a last-ditch effort, the Kree expends his very life energy.  Being made to see the pain and pleasure of life drives the machine mad, “purging him of all intelligent schemes,” and restoring his normal, life-sustaining functions. Two weeks later, at Dionysus’s victory feast, Drax departs (“No need to fear me…if you ever did.  You have life, and I will not take it.  You have love—while I have had nothing but obsession, and hate, for too long a time.  Perhaps it is time I stopped being the Destroyer.  Perhaps I should try to become some sort of…creator.  Or perhaps I should merely journey the stars, endlessly…until I destroy myself.  Farewell.”) and Mar-Vell pledges to tell Elysius of Una. -Matthew Bradley

Matthew: This is the last we’ll see of the Broderson duo, although Bruce D. will be back with a completely new roster in #8, one of two stand-alone adventures that follow next issue’s swan song for Doug and Pat; we may have to rebrand that one yet again as Marvel Denouement, as it looks from this climactic wingding to be all over bar the shouting.  I never did warm up fully, then or now, to this arc or creative team, but that doesn’t mean I have no laurels to bestow.  The matter of Drax, for example, had to be resolved somehow, preferably not by killing one of my favorite characters (no mention made here of the fact that it was the now-dead Warlock, and not Marv, who killed Thanos, thus putting revenge doubly beyond reach), and this strikes me as a satisfactory solution.

As for Isaac, his mandate to carry out the mad Titan’s posthumous programming seems to have been either conflated with or superseded by aspirations to humanity, depending upon how much credit you want to give Moench, and I’m not entirely sure I buy the progression.  But taking it as a given, to have a machine that wished, as it were, to be “a real boy” brought low by learning just what that entails is nice, although I’d have preferred it to be more logically and overtly effected via cosmic awareness than jazzed up with this life-force bit.  I’ll never love Broderick’s rendition of Marv, yet he goes all out with a splash page that somehow packs in eight main characters plus a recap, three powerful pages of Isaac-maddening montage, and an aptly contemplative epilogue.

Chris: In lesser hands, we’d be required to be impressed at how Mar-Vell, Kree Warrior and Defender of the Universe, would refuse to yield to the threat of Isaac; his determined progress toward Isaac, which ends as they plunge together into the computer’s machinery (p 15, last panels), would be resolved by a right hook to Isaac’s jaw, causing his chrome head to go spinning into a corner, with the life-functions spontaneously flicking themselves back on.  Isaac has made it clear, though, that he can’t be defeated thru raw power or brute strength.  So, instead of a smash-em-up finish, Doug Moench defies our expectations as Mar-Vell infuses Isaac with the power of life, which (for the first time) gives the “living computer” an understanding – dare I say an appreciation – for life that had not been part of Thanos’ programming (no surprise).  In the process, Isaac seems to recognize he cannot be part of life, so he withdraws, and reverts to his original function: to serve the needs of the living of Titan.  (I guess it’s a good thing Marv wasn’t required to expend his entire life-force in his effort to overwhelm Isaac, right?)  We haven’t been cheated of action at any point in this storyline, so this unusual WWF-free finish feels in no way anticlimactic.  

As I’ve re-read this series, I’m reminded how these Moench/Broderick issues have been among my favorite Mar-Vell stories; I’ll go as far as Jon H. of Coopersburg PA, who states they’ve been “the best non-Starlin issues I’ve ever seen.”  Jon H. goes on to describe it as “a thought-provoking visual treat,” which we see once again on the two-page 22-23, as Isaac’s singly-purposed programming wilts under the weight of the human experience, in all its wonders and contradictions.  

 Marvel Team-Up 85
Spider-Man, Shang-Chi, the Black Widow, and Nick Fury in
"The Woman Who Never Was!"
Story by Chris Claremont
Art by Sal Buscema and Steve Leialoha
Colors by Ben Sean
Letters by Irving Watanabe and Clem Robins
Cover by Al Milgrom

The Widow effects a risky rescue:  plunging through the porthole after Spidey, she snags him with one web-line and the Helicarrier with the other, using the pendulum-swing to propel him toward the ship, and although the Samurai cuts hers, Spidey has just enough momentum to gouge his fingers into the hull and return the favor.  On the command deck, Viper orders Quartermain to flood the ship with knock-out gas and, assuming the others dead, prepares to crash the Helicarrier into the Capitol and kill “the core of America’s government,” assembled for Carter’s address.  But Fury, still dressed in Boomerang’s costume, has led Shang-Chi through airtight passageways “designed for just such a situation”; Clay, hit with a narco-dart, wings Nick.

The tables turn as Spidey and Natasha crash through the observation window, but as she follows Viper, he fears a fatal reversion to the Nancy persona and sends Shang after her, barely defeating the Samurai single-handed.  Viper (whose interrogation forced Tasha, aware of her plans, to take refuge in another i.d.) shoots Shang, stops the engines, tosses the control module overboard, and battles the Widow atop a rotor platform, yet Fury rallies enough to guide Spidey in rewiring the main trunk lines just in the “nick” of time.  The prop wash hurls a beaten and dangling Viper out of Tasha’s grasp and into oblivion; the Helicarrier stops just short of impact; Shang reveals that his wrist-band deflected the bullet; and the Widow regrets what Spidey and Nancy might’ve had. -Matthew Bradley

Matthew: I respect the fact that, rather than dragging a random character in out of left field to justify a new guest-star for the conclusion, they use those from each prior entry for multiple guests à la MTIO #51 (having Fury in common).  With Mrs. Professor Matthew still mourning Bowie, the “Spider-Man Who Fell to Earth” tagline is apt for his cliffhanging dilemma, although luckily he never makes landfall, but the actual title, “The Woman Who Never Was!,” is even more spot-on, and of course looks fantabulous creatively written along the Helicarrier’s hull.  I have no particular allegiance or objection to Shang-Chi—now properly hyphenated!—yet the other characters are among my favorites, so there’s a lot to like right out of the gate as we wind up this fine tetralogy.

The opening rescue is a three-page tour de force staying just on the right side of the line between being unlikely and implausible, with the side benefit of reminding us that the arachnoid pair are natural allies.  They also nicely juxtapose the fights with the timely speech in which Carter calls the energy crisis “the most serious threat our nation…has ever faced,” little dreaming that a more immediate one hangs literally overhead.  Given the consistent creative team, I have nothing new to offer about the Buscemaloha art, but it’s as good as ever, from the well-choreographed battles and Ben’s pale-blue flashbacks to the spectacular shot of the Helicarrier poised over the Capitol; I loved Editori-Al’s footnote citing “Shang’s debut in Special Marvel Edition #15—(I inked it!)”

Chris: Claremont continues to make some strange choices, as this action-packed, but ultimately flawed four-parter wraps up.  First of all, why in the wide wide world of sports would Viper and Natasha have climbed to the top of one of the Helicarrier’s propellers to stage their fight – was Claremont so devoted to the idea of Viper being flung off into the night by the force of the whirling blades, that he had to wedge the opponents into this terribly unlikely setting?  The Helicarrier’s recovery of altitude, “in the last possible split second” (p 30, last pnl) before it crashes into the Capitol, is an uncharacteristically hysterical bit of over-selling the moment by Claremont.  

The most egregious bit, though, is Natasha supposedly having hidden herself within the “Nancy Rushman” identity, as an ego-defense from the Viper’s vicious interrogation (p 16).  It’s a Miracle-whip-topped slice of pseudo-psychiatry, the notion that a person might respond to a situational stressor by dissociating and suddenly developing multiple personalities; legitimate cases of multiple personality are among the most uncommon psychological phenomena.  Claremont is diminishing the fiercely independent spirit of Natasha Romanoff if he feels exposure to trauma (even an admittedly intense trauma) would cause her to concoct this other, safer persona.  I also find it thoroughly inconsistent for Claremont to tip his hat to Natasha as “the best secret agent in the world” (p 26), but somehow overlook that any agent – let alone the best one – would be intimately familiar with textbooks full of means to safely resist interrogation.  
I’ve been looking forward to Claremont’s solution to the Nancy/Natasha disconnect; clearly, the answer he’s been holding back leaves me thoroughly dissatisfied.  I’m an admirer of Claremont’s consummate skill with characterization; most importantly, his ability to depict people in credible, recognizably human interactions.  That, more than anything else, might explain why his handling of Natasha as a character from a daytime TV storyline (“She’s forgotten who she is!  Natasha – don’t you know me?  Don’t you … remember -?”) is so disappointing.  At least she didn’t require an accidental bonk on the head to snap out of it.  

Matthew:   While I admittedly lack Professor Chris's psychiatric credentials, I feel that I must once again rise to Claremont's defense, based on a possibly closer reading of the issues at hand.  The Nancy Rushman persona by no means came out of the blue, concocted by Natasha in response to Viper's interrogation.  It was clearly established in an earlier chapter that she had used the Rushman i.d. when she first came to the U.S. as a Soviet spy, which in fact was one reason why Fury initially suspected that S.H.I.E.L.D. had been penetrated, but by whom he knew not.  I know nothing about psychiatry, but I know something about espionage fiction, and it's a common device to have an undercover agent drilled thoroughly in their cover identity as a way to help them undergo interrogation, or at least avoid slipping up and giving themselves away.  For Natasha to be driven into an alternate identity in which she'd presumably been thoroughly schooled years ago seems, at least, more plausible than having her pull one out of thin air, no?
Joe: A Black Widow tour de force ends this 4-part epic Team-Up and it all works quite well. Each of our heroes gets his or her own little moment, even Nick Fury, who mainly gets to be shot in the shoulder as he takes out the under-the-influence Quartermain. Shang-Chi has the least to do, but some fine hoodwinking helps save the day. Our favorite Spidey gets two big parts, from battling and beating Silver Samurai at a pivotal point to settling things with Widow at the end like a good little host. Quite a nice wrap-up overall, with kudos going to Claremont for a nifty story and the artists for a moody, action-packed tale that has the zombies cheering. 

 Marvel Two-In-One 55
The Thing and Giant-Man in
"The Pegasus Project Part Three:
Giants in the Earth"
Story by Mark Gruenwald and Ralph Macchio
Art by John Byrne and Joe Sinnott
Colors by Bob Sharen
Letters by John Costanza
Cover by Keith Pollard and Joe Sinnott

Ben’s hoped-for poker game is derailed by security alarms, so Quasar investigates an energy imbalance in the nuclear module as Bill joins Ben to track an escape in the compound module, reasoning that Atom-Smasher’s arrival may have triggered it.  Unknown to them, the apparent malfunction that threatens to crush them between an elevator platform and the ceiling is just a game to the childlike Nuklo in the shaft; with insufficient leverage, it looks like Ben’s arm won’t be the only body part in a sling until Bill forces the platform down, blowing his cover.  As Nuklo wanders off, Ben suggests that the recostumed Black Goliath (they met in #24) “complete the overhaul” and call himself Giant-Man:  “They ain’t improved on that name yet…”

Quasar deduces that Nuklo has “accelerated the reactors’ energy conversion,” but finds the fail-safe systems sabotaged, and must adjust his wristbands to become “a living dampening rod”; meanwhile, Titania is now the one refusing to stick to the script, as she drugs Thundra to win an MSG match.  Although Ben has the foresight to protect him by improvising a pair of lead gloves, Bill is so eager to prove himself that he goes off half-cocked, risking severe radiation burns and wading in just as Dr. Henri Sorel tries to talk Nuklo down.  Ben belts him into “an experimental null-grav generator” and is chided by Sorel, his appointed guardian, for brutalizing a “child” very like Wundarr—who, in his coma, relives his past and hears a voice whisper to him of his future... -Matthew Bradley

Matthew: Now, you just know I’m gonna be a sucker for a purple cover featuring Nuklo and Black Goliath (albeit a rebranded one); the latter’s sad-sack rep continues to vex me, although his assertion that “I haven’t had a good clean win in my whole career” is belied by the immortal moment when he ripped off Stilt-Man’s leg and beat him with it in Champions #12.  No big fan of his new outfit, new-old name, or persistent self-doubt, I am nonetheless glad to see him back in play.  While it’s not acknowledged here, Sorel was previously Radion, who is best known for his appearances in Iron Fist but first encountered Wundarr back in #9, so the touching Sorel : Nuklo :: Unca Benjy : Wundarr analogy brings things full circle, also forming a nice segue to upcoming developments.

I just love Gruenwacchio’s chutzpah as, for the third successive issue, Thundra is shoehorned in for no apparent reason, yet the tie-in we all knew was coming manifests itself next time.  As for the art, the lettercol tells us that with Avengers, X-Men, and a Spidey annual on his plate, John is trading one of Ben’s books for the other, leaving the second half of “The Pegasus Project” in Pérez/Day’s capable hands, but Byrnott goes out with a bang, handling Bill with dignity (you’ll recall that Byrne drew BG in Champions, as well as Sorel in IF).  The glowing Nuklo is always visually exciting, and even the sedate splash page of the interrupted game has a nice flavor to it, while Quasar’s face in page 11, panel 5 (above), limned by Sharen all in yellow and black, echoes Nuklo.

Chris: Okay, with this issue, I’m prepared to register my concern regarding the apparent lack of progress in the storyline.  MTIO #55 is much like #54: there’s a fire at Pegasus; Ben helps the Pegasus crew put the fire out; but, we’re left no closer to knowing who’s lighting the fires, or why they’re being lit.  Meanwhile, Wundarr is left mostly to himself; at least on the last page (and with no connection to anything else that’s happened in the previous sixteen pages), we’re told a voice is speaking to him, which suggests Something Will Happen.     

The real puzzler, though, is Thundra.  What is the deal with this professional wrestling gig?  Are we supposed to view this unrelated moment as if Pegasus staff are changing the issue’s channel, and watching women’s wrestling when they’re supposed to be attending to their duties -?  It takes me back to those times when an issue of Captain Marvel would stop so we could check in on Rick Jones, Kid Entertainer, whose personal dealings typically hadn’t the slightest connection to Mar-Vell’s interstellar affairs.  I don’t dislike these Thundra asides as much as those Rick moments, but we’re past the point when we should be informed why Thundra is appearing, and doing something with no apparent Pegasus involvement.  Unless, of course, women’s wrestling is about to be studied as an alternate energy source -?
Byrne is one of my all-time favorite comics artists, but I find little here to get excited about.  We get a clear sense of Giant-Man’s scale, as Byrne maintains a consistent 15-foot height (p 6-7); I also like the “G” on his mid-section, similar in style to a Champions “C,” since Black Goliath was a shoulda-been member of that former team.  Giant-Man’s approach from the shadows toward Nuklo is a highlight (p 22, 2nd panel), and the ensuing brawl has suitable action (p 23, especially the last pnl).  But even these bits convey little of the excitement Byrne’s turning in right now for Avengers and (of course) X-Men; I guess it’s possible that four books (including Fantastic Four, natch) to pencil per month is one too many -! 

 Master of Kung Fu 80
"The Pride of Leopards"
Story by Doug Moench
Art by Mike Zeck and Gene Day
Colors by Nelson Yomtov
Letters by Joe Rosen
Cover by Mike Zeck and Gene Day

 Sir Denis calls his colleagues together to confer on the bits of information they have regarding the intentions of MI-6, and to discuss the possibility of a return to power by Fu Manchu.  “Indeed,” says Sir Denis, paying particular attention to Shang-Chi, “I don’t believe any of us … ever fully conceded that Fu Manchu could die.”  There is no doubt of the return of Fah Lo Suee, who has ensured S-C would receive a recording, which serves two purposes: Fah has taped-over Lancaster Sneed’s testimony of his training by MI-6 to eliminate Sir Denis’ team; and, Fah suggests “the MI-6 dogs … might well aid our own plan … by slaying you.”  Black Jack asks whether Fah would be on Fu’s side, or against him, as she has been in the past.  Sir Denis has his own question: could Fah have escaped prison “with MI-6’s cooperation or influence?”  This opens another topic: could Fu now be in league with a splinter group within MI-6?  Or, could a third party, “a hidden manipulator,” be influencing both?  Shang-Chi laments the possibility of finding the truth within the Great Game; “the rules change with every turn of the dice.”  Further, S-C is concerned that the meaning of his name – the rising and advancing of a spirit – “has come to seem strange to me … foreign … alien.”  With that, Sir Denis introduces an avenue to pursue: an old friend, Lyman Leeks, had contacted Sir Denis directly (i.e. without passing this intel thru regular channels, which means other parties in MI-6 might not be aware of it) regarding possible activity by Fu Manchu in South America.  Sir Denis and Mr Leeks agree this sensitive information should be relayed in person, so a plan is devised to meet Leeks at Victoria Station.  Leeks and Reston exchange the proper code-phrases, but before anything else can happen, they are strafed by bullets from a passing car.  Leeks isn’t shot, but is hit in the back by a dagger.  Tarr races after the attackers, and has his car riddled with bullets.  Shang-Chi pursues the knife-thrower into the station, and finds himself led to a trap, as he’s surrounded by leopard-skinned assassins.  His fight goes well, until a passing train scatters the leopards into the tunnels.  With his dying breath, Leeks gives Reston a coded message, which only Sir Denis would recognize.  As the team pulls away from the station, another man is at the kerb, offering the initial code-phrase, wondering aloud where Sir Denis’ team might be! -Chris Blake
Chris: Doug makes some good decisions here, as he recognizes Sir Denis’ team has amassed a fair amount of information to work with, except this intel doesn’t bring them any closer to understanding exactly who their enemies might be.  It’s taken some time to re-assemble the team, so it’s a good call to show them working together, in action, after the first half of the issue has been devoted to careful, quiet analysis (plus some self-examination by the increasingly disillusioned Shang-Chi).  Lastly, the clincher is Moench’s reveal of Fu, his profile distinctly visible in the shadows as he supervises training of assassins from a high throne; Fu’s mercilessness continues, as he orders the death of two sparring assassins, Fu dismissing them as unable to “endure two minutes against the opponent for whom they train"; and, we all know who that is … .
The Zeck/Day art effectively keeps us involved during the team’s discussion of the threats they face, as perspective changes with every panel (that is, we’re spared having to look at a talking-head Sir Denis for panels on end).  The highlight, though, is a series of wordless panels inserted during the discussion, depicting Fu in a candlelit room, his body placed in an ornate casket; over the series of four panels, the body lifts its head, and rises – yes, exactly like a vampire – Fu’s eyes finally opening and staring fiercely forward, his claw-like hand gripping the side of the coffin (p 3-7).  There’s another effective sequence of inter-cut panels prior to the hit on Leeks (well, we thought it was Leeks …), as a series of seven panels show the assassins assembling and donning their leopard skins, seemingly at the same time Sir Denis & Co are making preparations to meet Leeks in London (p 14-17).

Mark Barsotti: It's clear that after sixty some adventures, Shang-Chi has been westernized - more or less against his will - to the point where he doesn't just know who Mick Jagger is, he quotes Stones lyrics to Black Jack Tarr!

As to our who's-zooming-who plot, that's as clear as mud, as our cast so helpfully explains: "Fah Lo Suee might be in league with MI-6...then why would her new man Zaran kill a hard-line MI-Sixer like Sarsfield...maybe she's already turned on MI-6...or maybe Sarsfield was a renegade within MI-6...or maybe he was a mole, a sleeper from some other agency and never represented MI-6 in the first place...pursing this line of logic is madness. It could ultimately lead to the 'indication' that MI-6 and Fu Manchu are partners."

Yes, I've co-mingled the words of several characters, but, no, proper attribution doesn't bring clarity to the murk. Sure, I expect Doug Moench to untangle this web in time, and sowing puzzle-box confusion is a staple of spy games, real and fictive, but there comes a point when such opaque obfuscation starts to annoy rather than entice, particularly when you get the nagging suspicion the writer's just showin' off.

Still, with their heads spinning with what-if speculation about who's trying to kill 'em and why, I suppose Shang-Chi, Sir Denis, Leiko and the rest can be forgiven for not even wondering, not how Fiendish Fu managed to survive a point-blank gunshot wound (that's kind of a given, actually), but how he managed to return to Earth after taking a one-way ride in space, back in MOKF #50.

Maybe only the dead Sarsfield knows, and he ain't talking.

 The Mighty Thor 287
"Assault on Olympia!"
Story by Roy Thomas, Mark Gruenwald, and Ralph Macchio
Art by Keith Pollard and Chic Stone
Colors by Marie Severin
Letters by Joe Rosen
Cover by Keith Pollard and Bob Layton

Thor, Eternals Sersi, Ikaris, and Thena; and Mutates Karkas and Reject all head for Olympia in order to speak to Mighty Zuras about upcoming events on Earth. The ship they're traveling in is damaged by a strange disc-shaped object and the sextet must abandon ship. Once they're all safe on terra firma, they realize they've visited Olympia during its Olympics and the saucer that destroyed the ship was actually a discus tossed by an Olympian contestant. The team confronts Zuras but the mighty one only wants to partake in the games and tells them to bother him later. Has anyone been wondering what has befallen the Warriors Three and Sif, sent on missions (last issue) from Asgard by almighty Odin? Sif finds herself stranded battling a storm giant and the Warriors are attacked by the dragon, Fafnir. More on that next issue (maybe!). Back in Olympia, the games are interrupted by the sudden materialization of The Forgotten One (who I'd mercifully forgotten about long ago), who relates the story of how he'd survived a bomb explosion and drifting through space (see Eternals #13 if you dare), to be saved by "the one above all" and sent to Olympia to deliver a message: no one shall interfere in the fifty-year judgment about to go down on Earth. TFO punctuates his proclamation by declaring that from this day forth he carries the much more descriptive moniker of "Hero." Eternals and Mutates alike charge the visitor with violence on their minds but Hero lays waste to them with one massive blow. It's up to the thunder god to save the day but, before much of a fight can get underway, the two brawlers are transported to another place: the home of "the one above all!"
-Peter Enfantino

Peter Enfantino: This turgid "epic" becomes more bloated and convoluted with each passing issue; I defy anyone to tell me they can simultaneously read and enjoy this poppycock. Ironic that we're in this jam because Roy seems hell-bent on tying up all the loose ends created by The King, the guy who was responsible for the pinnacle issues of The Mighty Thor way back in the mid-'60s. Had I been close enough to whisper in the ear of the Rascally One, I'd have recommended that he just let it go.

Chris: After twenty issues (including the one-time Annual) of the Eternals, we finally have – in the person of the Forgotten One/Hero – a moment of contact between Celestials and Eternals!  That’s progress.  In a way, Roy is mining Jack Kirby for material, in much the way he (reverently and respectfully) has taken REH and ERB stories for adaptation in four-color format.  The difference here, of course, is that Roy is building on Kirby’s half-realized ideas, hopefully drawing some to a coherent whole missing from the Eternals (as discussed among MU faculty with every issue of Kirby’s ambitious, but ultimately uneven title; please check your notes from those previous lessons).

I was concerned, in our preoccupation with Eternals business, that Roy had forgotten our title character, but I see now Roy simply was holding Thor in reserve so he could tangle with the Forgotten Hero.  At one point in their brawny scuffle, the self-named Hero relates his anger toward Zuras, who had banished him “for [his] supposed pride.”  Hey Thor – remind you of anyone?  Maybe, once the dust settles, you and Hero can compare notes on unsought-for lessons in humility.  
Pollard & Stone continue to do well on the art, with Hero’s pages-spanning plunge to scatter the ranks of Eternals an obvious highlight (p 22-23).  There’s a lot to like in his scrap with Thor, too (p 26-27), each combatant giving as good as he gets.  One thing I’m curious about: page 16, as the Warriors Three tangle with Fafnir, appears to be in a different style than the other pages – the finishes are heavier than Stone’s usual clear, spare approach.  Here’s a possibility: Marie Severin is our colorist this month; might not she also have inked this one page, in a pinch, the night before the issue was due to go to the printers?  Grand Comics Database doesn’t weigh in, so it’ll have to remain my unsubstantiated working theory.  
Matthew: Writer/editor Roy credits the up-and-coming Gruenwacchio team, currently redeeming MTIO with its “Pegasus Project” arc, “with special thanks…for suggestions and concepts utilized in this and near future issues.”  Don’t know if those included the resurgence of this month’s Eternals cover boy, but he seems to have had both an indecently large number of names and a quite robust subsequent career, including a stint as an Avenger.  I’d forgotten his “metallic look” from his debut as the Forgotten One in Eternals #13, which I do recall as one of the better entries of that Kirby Klunker, yet he certainly benefits from the typically excellent Pollard/Stone artwork; renamed Hero here, he is later known as Gilgamesh (among other things).

 Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man 34
"Lizards on a Hot Tin Roof!"
Story by Bill Mantlo
Art by Jim Mooney and Frank Springer
Colors by George Roussos
Letters by Jim Novak
Cover by Al Milgrom

Battling on the rooftop, The Iguana drops Spider-Man, who is able to throw out a web line and swing back up, webbing the mouths of Iguana and Lizard to no avail. Lizard spies a worried Martha Connors in the penthouse and is distracted by his human side enough to get whacked by "Iggy" (as Spidey has dubbed him), and both reptiles get knocked off the building. They hit an awning, then smash through the sidewalk (!) and vanish into the sewers. Talking to the Connors family, Spidey gets a brainstorm about the Enervator and how it can help Curt. Quick change to Peter duds back at the college, another run-into with Dr Sloan (who has some mysterious experiment going on involving a skeleton), then Mr. Parker hits the research lab to craft a portable Enervator unit. Marcy Kane shows up, complaining to Peter and about Peter to Sloan, who covers for the lad.

Back to Spidey, he heads for the East River Water Purification Plant, a dark, damp place where the Iguana may be hiding—and he's right! Iggy grabs Spidey from the shadows, then Lizard pops up from the depths, the two teaming against our hero. But he slips away and beams the Enervator rays, turning Lizard back to Curt Connors, and transferring his power to Iguana! But the scaly scoundrel "burns with the power" and jumps into the water fountain, where he vanishes in a flash of light! As Connors and Spidey discuss what just happened, a small hissing iguana crawls on a nearby pipe… -Joe Tura

Joe: Pretty lame Liz Taylor reference in the title, most likely to balance out last ish's Burton shout-out. What, no love for Eddie Fisher? Anyway, this was a hard issue to get through due to the super slow pace of the storytelling, both script and art. Peter's foray to the lab must have taken hours, yet probably only like 20 minutes—good thing he's a science whiz! The Sloan aside is bizarre and hints at more to come, yet some of us hope it won't. The action scenes are staged like Mego figures, without the plush Lizard tail, and the final battle is handled fairly well, but gets ruined by the iguana on the pipe in the final panel. Why the heck would we want to have such a lame-o villain come back in the future? Yeesh.

Best sound effects are when we think we are rid of Iggy, both on page 30, as he hits the fountain and lets out a loud "SSSKRIEEE," then dissipates on the next page with a "FZASHT!" But three panels later we see/hear the unfortunate "HSSS." Ugh.

Chris: It’s always a satisfying moment when Peter can apply his course work and hours in the lab to a solution to a Spidey-problem; in this case, it’s the conversion of the Enervator to a handy back-pack model.  I have to laugh, though, at the moment when Spidey thinks he knows where the sewer lines from the Upper East Side will lead, due to having surreptitiously peeked “at the city’s water department records"; so, when did you have time to stroll by the office and check that out, I wonder – between classes -?  It doesn’t hurt the overall story, which is fine.  

PPSS-M continues to be the third-best Spidey title (especially with Wolfman turning out some solid scripts for Amazing, and Claremont continuing to do well by MTU), which doesn’t mean it’s bad, only that it’s rarely better than ordinary.  At least Mantlo has the decency to wrap up the Iguana-Lizard story without carrying it further; 2 ½ issues has been plenty.  
Matthew: Every once in a while, I encounter ineptitude so staggering as to merit citation.  Per the lettercol, we’ve “already met the curvaceous Marcy Lane and the scholarly Doctor Stone…”  Nope, never heard of ’em, although this issue does feature the curvaceous Marcy Kane and the scholarly Doctor Sloan.  So a special Addled Armadillo Award for not knowing the names of the characters in your own book, to which a typo like “disassemling,” or a factual error like Bill calling a spider an insect rather than an arachnid, pales in comparison.  Love seeing Pete use brains as well as brawn, but if I had a dollar for every time Connors or his ilk was “permanently” cured I wouldn’t need MU’s generous retirement program.

 Spider-Woman 18
"Sins of the Flesh!"
Story by Mark Gruenwald and Josh Wilburn
Art by Carmine Infantino and Mike Esposito
Colors by Roger Slifer
Letters by John Costanza
Cover by Bob Budiansky and Tom Palmer

Jessica quietly declines the advances of Eric, a man she had met earlier that evening at a disco.  Eric runs from the car and disappears in a nearby wooded area.  Jessica thinks Eric might be upset, so she goes to find him; she doesn't realize he had run because his face had begun to melt.  Eric desperately recomposes himself, and is ready to talk when Jessica finds him.  He leans in and tries to kiss Jessica, but his skin begins to run again; Jessica recoils as her face and chest are coated with slimy skin molecules – it’s now her turn to run away.  Once she's clear of Eric, Jessica turns a mild venom-blast on herself, to repulse the gelatinous material.  She pulls her Spider-Woman costume from her bag, and takes flight to follow Eric's car, as he drives back to the disco.  She's certain she has the right car, and is surprised to see a different man emerge from it.  After some time, this other man escorts a woman from the disco to the car; Spider-Woman follows from above as they drive to a house and step inside.  S-W is uncomfortable invading their privacy; after ten minutes, as nothing untoward has happened, S-W glides away, questioning whether she might've hallucinated her bizarre experience with Eric (possibly as a reaction to the new medication she's taking to reduce the effect her pheromones have on others).  Jessica is shocked the next day to hear news of a woman smothered to death; the crime took place in the house where Eric had been the night before.  Jessica resolves to find this man whose fluid skin can change his appearance, and also can kill.  She goes out to discos night after night, trying to identify Eric by his gestures and speech pattern.  On the fifth night, she feels she's found him – he's now a dark-haired fellow named Bill.  She doesn't want to compromise her secret identity, so she invites "Bill" to Mrs Dolly's house (Jessica still has the keys to the empty residence).  Once inside, Jessica excuses herself to go upstairs; she then changes to Spider-Woman and jumps outside, in order to re-enter the house as the crime-fighting super-heroine.  Bill flings a handful of gelatinous skin at S-W, then runs upstairs and climbs into bed.  S-W asks herself, "Is he kidding – hiding under a blanket?"  Bill pulls back the covers slowly, as Spider-Woman realizes she's looking, somehow, at herself -?  S-W is briefly fascinated by this mirror view, realizing too late that Bill/Eric intended to distract her long enough to drop an "oozing pink mass" on her from the ceiling.  S-W reacts instinctively, as her "bioelectric venom courses uncontrollably thru her system," which casts off the skin stuck to her, but also affects the skin at its source, reducing Eric/Bill to a skeleton, the skin effectively abandoning his body as it came in contact with her venom.  -Chris Blake    

Chris: "He's come to a sticky end," as the song goes.  It's a bizarre subject for a superhero comic; Mark Gruenwald establishes a truly creepy and mysterious vibe, as we ask ourselves what this person might be, and how he has this unusual (and more than slightly disgusting) ability.  Strange choice as Gruenwald devotes a full page to the origin of the "Waxman" ( 'cause he’s the Wax-man; yeah-ah, he's the Wax-ma-an ...) at the very start of the climax, immediately after S-W has accused him of the woman's murder (not that you asked, but it happens this young scientist was researching cell regeneration, and managed to turn his own skin into "countless living one-celled organisms").  I'm not sure when the best time might be to tell us all this – if we find out too soon, it diminishes his mystery, but if the revelation is too late, it could derail suspense.  
In any case, this two-parter continues a trend Gruenwald had introduced with the previous storyline, which casts Spider-Woman as a crime-fighter, but also an amateur detective.  This investigative theme will continue after Gruenwald's departure and provide Jessica with a means to make a living that (fortunately) doesn't involve answering phones at the Hatros Institute.  
I wasn't sure how I might handle Carmine Infantino's art in the absence of Al Gordon, but Mike Esposito has done well in these two issues. The oozing skin-molecules are sufficiently icky, especially when Jessica gets slimed (p 7) and when the skin drops from above (p 30), and Spider-Woman fights thru it (p 31).  Effective work also as we see Jessica and Eric moving around in the shadowy, moonlit woods (p 3); extra points for the blank, inhuman look of Eric's face, once he's recollected the ooze and is ready to formulate a face (p 3, pnl 3).  Points also for the origin page, which shows the Waxman as his face melts, reforms as another, melts, and reforms again (p 26).
Matthew: “Yuck!”  I’m sure that’s the response Gruenwald and “kibbitzer” Wilburn expected/hoped to elicit, so I won’t disappoint them.  And I’m equally certain that I’m not going out on a limb when I say that on page 7—where Waxman thinks, “I can’t hold it, anymore [sic]!” before covering Jessica with gloppy liquid—something else is going on that sailed past the CCA, making me feel even more queasy.  But while I’m not exactly, uh, showering this story (or the Infantinosito artwork) with praise, I’ll freely admit that by page 30, with the slow reveal of her doppelgänger, I was thinking, “Man, this would make a really creepy movie!”  Nice touch for Jess to think that Eric’s flight meant she needed a maintenance dose of pheromone-suppressant...

Star Wars 27
"Return of the Hunter"
Story by Archie Goodwin
Art by Carmine Infantino and Bob Wiacek
Colors by Petra Goldberg
Letters by John Costanza
Cover by Carmine Infantino and Bob Wiacek

On a world called Junction: The Cyborg bounty hunter Valance guns down his prey and, with the reward, pays a man called Skinker, who provides Valance with second-hand droids to fry. Valance is also paying him to look for any information about the droid-loving boy who destroyed the Death Star. Meanwhile, Luke and Threepio are probing to discover the extent of the Imperial blockade when they happen upon a Star Destroyer. Using tricks that he learned from Han Solo, Luke makes good his escape and lands on Junction, hoping to find parts to repair the damaged Artoo back at Yavin. Skinker spots Luke and Threepio and alerts Valance while pretending to provide Luke with the parts he needs. Valance arrives and is out for blood. In his mind, humans and droids cannot be friends. However, when Threepio offers his life to save Luke, Valance begins to doubt his convictions. In this moment of emotional confusion, Valance allows Luke and Threepio to leave alive. -Scott McIntyre

Matthew: At the risk of damning with faint praise, I’d call Valance the most interesting character Marvel created for its Star Wars comic during the course of this blog.  Of course, he looked a lot better when Wiacek was inking Simonson instead (as he was when our self-loathing cyborg was introduced back in #16, during a two-month hiatus for the Goodwinfantino team, before Carmine returned for an unbroken 20-issue run), but beggars can’t be choosers.  I must salute Audacious Archie for the very notion of a bounty hunter who immediately blows all of his earnings on the twisted pleasure of blasting rebuilt droids, and—as with the current Spider-Woman—I doubt I’m the only one to see some sexual symbolism in that “Veedow!  Pa-kooww!”

Scott: Valance is the most interesting character created for the comic and this is the second  part of a trilogy of stories dealing with the bounty hunter. His ironic hatred of droids is well played, but his constant shredding of his face and hands just to give the reader a visual “shock” is a little ridiculous. His fake skin seems to dissolve when removed from his metal skeleton, and it can’t be easy to put back on. Otherwise, not much really going on of note. Luke and Threepio are a dull pair on their own and Leia’s handwringing over Luke and Han is just so much page filler.

Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle 28
"Flight of Terror!"
Story by Bill Mantlo
Art by Sal Buscema and Ricardo Villamonte
Colors by  Carl Gafford
Letters by Irving Watanabe
Cover by John Buscema and Bob McLeod

Evidently having looked up in the interim, Ian sees Jane scaling the remainder of the Empire State Building and fears Tory’s reprisals, but is still locked inside his 85th-floor suite; meanwhile, police arriving at the Safari Club shoot down a leaping lion that emerges, fortunately not Jad-bal-ja.  He and his master are still fighting the drug-maddened albino gorilla as Blackjack takes revenge for Roger’s unpaid debt by seeing that his uninsured club, in which he has sunk every cent, is destroyed.  Sensing a parallel to his own fight for survival in the streets, Blackjack spots the stolen knife that had been passed down from one Lord Greystoke to the next, reclaims it from Tory, and tosses it to Tarzan, turning the tide and enabling them to slay the gorilla at last.

Blackjack prevents the NYPD from capturing Tarzan and, told by Sarah that the ape man’s voice will return, offers to hide his new BFF until the drug wears off, but on learning Jane’s location, Tarzan races to her rescue, Blackjack agreeing to meet him at the East Side docks an hour hence with Tory and Jad-bal-ja.  Reaching Roosevelt Field after a 39-hour non-stop flight, Korak hears a report about Jane and, unwilling to await refueling, commandeers another plane.  His voice returning as he jumps the barricades, Tarzan takes the elevator to the tower, where the freed Ian and Tory’s men—facing a federal kidnapping rap—are taking aim at the couple as Korak swoops in, borrowed biplane’s guns blazing, and airlifts them away, headed for Blackjack’s rendezvous. -Matthew Bradley

Matthew: So much for deliberate pacing:  in what we now know to be the penultimate monthly issue, Bill suddenly kicks in his afterburners, racing pell-mell to a frantic quasi-conclusion (the upcoming “Adrift!” denouement notwithstanding) that is, as the cover telegraphs, more King Kong (1933) than Tarzan’s New York Adventure (1942).  A lot of this strikes me as far-fetched—e.g., Jane’s perilous ascent—but especially Tarzan holding her while clinging to Korak’s airborne ladder with one hand.  This time, Sal and Ric go for the full double-pager on 6-7 as, amid the chaos of the partially burning club, Tarzan and Jad-bal-ja fight for their lives, flanked on one side by the NYPD, and on the other by the Blackjack Gang, a disdainful Sarah regarding the begging Roger.

The Micronauts 9 
“Home is Where the Heart Is!” Story by Bill Mantlo 
Art by Michael Golden and Al Milgrom
Colors by Carl Gafford
Letters by Joe Rosen
Cover by Michael Golden

Rapidly shrinking, the Endeavor plummets down the Prometheus Pit — the ship arrives back in the Microverse smack in the middle of an Acroyear battle fleet. As powerful tractor beams guide the ship to the Acroyears' home planet of Spartak, an unforgiving mass of craggy spikes, Prince Acroyear worries about their reception: his people had mysteriously turned against him and gave their allegiance to his traitorous brother, Prince Shaitan. But when the Endeavor is forced to land before the royal palace, he is hailed as a returning hero. His mate Cilicia approaches: the disgraced Shaitan returned three days ago, the same time that Baron Karza’s thoughtwash suddenly dispersed.

Meanwhile, Karza also returns to the Microverse after reversing the mind-merge with Phillip Prometheus. Major D’Ark informs him that the Endeavor has arrived as well, emerging near Spartak: the Baron orders his entire fleet to jump to hyperspace and invade the planet. On Homeworld, the rebellion, lead by Force Commander — aka Prince Argon — is underway, capitalizing on Karza’s absence. When they encounter heavy fire from sentry-tower Phobos units, the Shadow Priests move to the front of the ranks and obliterate the weapons with an Enigma Force-based spell.

On Spartak, Baron Karza’s forces have arrived and are pummeling the rocky planet with Thorium bombs. As the Micronauts blast skyward on Wing-Fighters, Acroyear prepares to enter the Crystal Chamber and merge with the Worldmind, the combined might of his people and their home. Above, Commander Rann spots Karza standing on the deck of his Galactic Command Center. Arcturus dive-bombs the massive craft but his Wing-Fighter explodes against the force field surrounding his smug target — Mari screams and rockets her small ship towards the dark dictator. -Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn: Wowie wow wow. This one offers high drama in every panel. Again, Bill Mantlo’s story takes baby steps — but from multiple directions. All the subplots are once again contained within the Microverse, churning towards the inevitable conclusion. This had to be Marvel’s most cinematic series of 1979.

Spartak is a marvelous vision, looking like a cave turned inside out, towering shards of rock bursting skyward from its surface. Never a lazy artist, Michael Golden gives each Acroyear warrior a distinctive suit of armor — and they all look fabulous. And I’m quite pleased with Al Milgrom’s inks: he meshes with Golden much more successfully than last issue’s Bob McLeod. No offense to Bob of course. We are introduced to the Prince’s mate, Cilicia: her suit is particularly curvy. When they reunite, Princess Mari exclaims “Oh, Arcturus, look at them! There’s not the slightest display of emotion … yet it’s obvious they’re in love!” Oh boy. And it’s made worse by Rann’s reply: “Not everyone believes in arguing as a way of showing affection Princess!” Hate to complain but enough of this sappy junk. It just stops everything in its tracks. Microtron is becoming more of an annoyance as well. His “wisecracks” are a dumb distraction. At one point, the little roboid is flipped on his head and he yells at Biotron to turn him over. When his metal friend asks “what’s the magic word,” Microtron replies with “#!*!!#!” Really? Come on Bill. But again, minor quibbles for such an outstanding comic.

I can’t remember and it’s not fully explained what the Worldmind actually is — but it totally freaks out Cilicia when her man hooks himself up to its rocky columns. From the dialogue I am assuming that it is the spirit of the entire planet — inhabitants and all — and is nearly impossible to contain. Which doesn’t bode well for Acroyear, who removes his armor for the ceremony. He looks like a dusky Deathlok. Well, his nose at least. I guess I owe the Shadow Priests an apology. Last month I doubted their veracity: but they kick some mighty Dog Soldier ass this issue. Glad to have them on our side. And let’s not forget that Baron Karza lifted his thoughtwash on the Acroyears to punish Shaitan in issue 4. Methinks that Karza might have shot himself in his armored foot. 

Chris: There’s nary a wasted breath as Mantlo expediently introduces the Acroyears of Spartak, who are free of Karza’s thoughtwash and hold the traitorous Shaitan in custody.  Acro-year’s-got-a-girl-friend.  Prince Acroyear becomes king; he barely has a chance to test-sit the throne when Karza’s assault force arrives.  Mantlo holds off until the end before he tells us (in a few captions on one page) of the symbiotic link between the once-wandering Acroyears and their stone-cold home, Spartak; Acroyear enters the Worldmind, which means something might happen as a result (as opposed to the Uni-mind).  Plus, there’s pulse-pounding battle action above the Spartak surface, and in the streets of Homeworld.  It’s no fluke; Mantlo & Golden have taken a small pile of kids’ toys and produced one of the most consistently entertaining titles of 1979.

Golden continues to outdo himself, as the reasonably familiar setting of Florida gives way to the truly alien world of Spartak, with its hundred-mile-high stone pillars and Pueblo-inspired cliffside dwellings.  The dynamite page 11, as Forge Commander and Slug lead the attack on the dog soldiers, is an obvious highlight, as are a slanted view of Acroyear’s brief exchange with his fleet commander (p 17, last pnl, as another view screen shows damage occurring elsewhere) and a long-panel ground-level look as force-bolts destroy nearby structures (p 22, 1st pnl).  There are quieter moments as well, such as Acroyear unmasked in the Crystal Chamber (p 23 – I remember at least one LOC asking whether we’d see Acroyear without his helmet – well, you get to see more than that in the following panels -!), and Microtron chuckling (!) after Bug gets a forceful rejection from a female warrior waitress (p 16, pnl 2).  Golden’s pencils are so strong that there isn’t even a noticeable dropoff in the illustrations’ quality, despite the significant downgrade from Rubinstein and McLeod, to Milgrom. 
Matthew: Those like Professor Chris who are more inker-attuned than I may notice a huge difference, now that the self-styled “Editori-Al” has donned another hat to initiate the Golgrom team, but to me, it just looks like “Magical Mike” doin’ his thing, and thank God for it.  Lots of significant stuff goin’ on with our introduction to Cilicia, our first look at unmasked Acroyears (who always reminded me of Deathlok), and their renewed fealty to their betrayed prince.  One quibble:  I believe Professor Tom has lamented Microtron’s use as comic relief, and I think they really push it when he says, “it’s just too funny!  I don’t think my circuits can stand it!,” since the telepathic link with Rann might allow Biotron some emotion but it wouldn’t explain Microtron’s.

Also This Month

Crazy #54
< Fun and Games #1
Marvel Super-Heroes #83
Marvel Tales #107
Shogun Warriors #8
Spidey Super Stories #42


The Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian 44
Cover Art by Bob Larkin

“The Star of Khorala”
Script by Roy Thomas
Art by Sal Buscema and Tony DeZuniga

“Notes on Hyborian Heraldry and Cartography” 
Text by Lee Falconer

“Conan the Conquistador”
Text by Douglas Menville

“The Bullpen’s Barbarians”

“Swords and Scrolls”

After wrapping up the four-part adaptation of L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter’s novel Conan the Buccaneer last month, Roy Thomas gives us his one-shot take on the Björn Nyberg and de Camp short story “The Star of Khorala.” It first appeared in the Bantam Books paperback Conan the Swordsman, published in August 1978. The splash page actually credits Lin Carter as the co-author instead of Nyberg, an obvious mistake on Roy’s part. As I mentioned in my review of this month’s Conan the Barbarian, the story follows immediately after the events in Robert E. Howard’s “The Man-Eaters of Zamboula” (Weird Tales, November 1935). That one was adapted in The Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian #14 as “Shadows in Zamboula” — in a caption, Roy states that it was issue 13, another sloppy goof on The Rascally One’s part. 

With the fabulous gem the Star of Khorala in his possession, Conan rides towards Ophir to ransom a reward from the ring’s rightful owner, Marala, the kingdom’s queen. But when he arrives in the capital city of Ianthe, he discovers that King Moranthes has falsely jailed Marala in a high tower for public lewdness on the advice of his cousin, the scheming Count Rigello. In a tavern, the barbarian meets the middle-aged Garus, captain of the queen’s disbanded guards. After joining together to defeat a few of Rigello’s men, Conan and Garus decide to rescue the queen — the Cimmerian for his own gains of course. Garus takes the barbarian to meet Doctor Khafrates, the only one allowed to visit with Marala. Afterwards, they knock on the door of the retired thief Torgrio, who lends Conan his Dragon’s Feet, sharp, claw-like shoes used to climb sheer surfaces. 

Later that night, Khafrates makes his way to Marala’s chambers, suffering the insults of the guards. Before the doctor can tell her of the escape plan, the lonely queen delves into the true nature of the Star of Khorala: it is not used to bend men to her will as Moranthes mistakenly believes. Instead, the ring can be used by a good man to rally others to a just cause — as her forefather Count Alarkar did to found the nation of Ophir before he was betrayed and murdered by an ancestor of Rigello. Suddenly, Conan bursts through one of the room’s stained-glass windows, having scaled the tower’s wall with the Dragon’s Feet. After binding Khafrates — to make it appear that he had tried to stop the escape — the barbarian ties the queen to his back with an embroidered coverlet and they climb down outside, Garus waiting below with three horses. They ride out towards Aquilonia where Marala can find refuge with kin.

Along the way, Conan returns the Star to the queen — she is in no position to reward him now but promises to return the favor one day. One morning, Conan spies Rigello and a battalion of his men fast approaching in the distance. As the fugitives race forward, a crumbling castle comes into view in a valley below. Marala exclaims that it is the remains of Castle Theringo, the place where Count Alarkar was killed. The trio enters the ruins and the Cimmerian and Garus flank the only opening, causing a deadly bottleneck of slashing swords. While the warriors manage to kill many of Rigello’s men, it becomes obvious that they soon will be overrun. But out of nowhere, a group of fierce horsemen arrive and overwhelm the attacking Ophirians — Marala exclaims that they are the ghosts of Alarkar and his loyal followers. The Ophir soldiers run off and Rigello is killed by a crossbow bolt fired by the queen before he can escape. Marala asks Conan to join her in Aquilonia where she will change her name to Countess Albiona. The Cimmerian declines and bids her and Garus farewell.

At 43 pages, “The Star of Khorala” is heavy on talk and light on action. Tony DeZuniga has been successful in the past with helping Our Pal Sal’s pencils resemble the work of his more talented older brother, Big John. But things look a little too cartoonish this time out, not as mature and confident as we have come to expect from the senior Buscema. The art’s not bad, just fairly plain and uninspiring. The story is nothing special as well: many pages are spent on Queen Marala blabbing about the Star of Khorala and her ancestor, Count Alarkar. And I’m not sure that the Dragon’s Feet deliver the “wow” factor that was intended. Let’s face it, Conan hasn’t needed any gimmicks to climb sheer walls in past stories. While Alarkar and his fellow ghosts do save the day at the end, they show up on one page and disappear on the next without generating much awe or excitement. And Sal decides to illustrate their reveal with a confusing aerial shot that blunts the impact as well. A rather drab and dull affair all around. However, the fact that Marala plans on changing her name to Countess Albiona is noteworthy: as Albiona, she played a role in Robert E. Howard’s only Conan novel, Hour of the Dragon, which Roy Thomas and Gil Kane adapted in all four issues of Giant-Sized Conan the Barbarian and Savage Sword 8 and 10. 

This issue offers a variety of back-up pieces. Lee Falconer’s “Notes on Hyborian Heraldry and Cartography” is another supplement from the limited edition Starlight House book A Gazetteer of the Hyborian World of Conan Including the World of Kull and An Ethnogeographical Dictionary. Three pages feature brief commentary and illustrations of various coats of arms from the Hyborian age, including those from Cimmeria, Nemedia, Aquilonia, Stygia and other countries — 32 in all. 

Now I actually touched on this topic in my review of Conan the Barbarian #1 (October 1970), but Douglas Menville’s 6-page “Conan the Conquistador” is a much more comprehensive look at La Reina de la Costa Negra (Queen of the Black Coast), an unauthorized Mexican comic-book series that featured a blond Conan and his mate, Bêlit. It debuted in 1958, ten years before the first Lancer paperback editions of Robert E.’s hero and twelve before the Marvel launch. With the help of Roy Thomas and others, Menville managed to get his hands on issues 2, 3, 4, 10, 15 and 16, so he had a lot to work with. There’s an abundance of crummy art on display and it sounds like only one of the issues was actually inspired by a Howard story. Now Mr. Menville has gone on to become quite the email pals with both Professor Matthew and Gilbert — so I’ll cut this short since I’m sure that the latter will chime in.

Finally, we have the 5-page “The Bullpen’s Barbarians,” a collection of one-page pinups by Ernie Chan (Conan), Marshall Rogers (Conan), Joe Jusko (Red Sonja, above), Will Meugniot (Red Sonja) and Tony DeZuniga (Conan). All are nice but the Jusko illustration is the bomb. -Tom Flynn


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