Wednesday, February 22, 2017

December 1979 Part Two: Rom, Spaceknight Helps Us Put the 1970s in the Rear View!

Rom, Spaceknight 1
Story by Bill Mantlo
Art by Sal Buscema
Colors by Bob Sharen
Letters by Tom Orzechowski
Cover by Frank Miller and Joe Rubinstein

A fiery object cleaves through our atmosphere. Thought to be a meteor, it is, in reality, the spacecraft of ROM – the Spaceknight. He has traveled across the stars from Galador to hunt down an alien species called Dire Wraiths, with whom Rom’s people have been fighting for centuries. Many years ago, across the galaxy, Galador was a paradise; a world of peace and study, reaching out into the stars and meeting new life forms to spread the wealth. However, one race refused to be nice-nice – the Dire Wraiths. They attacked the emissaries of Galador and brutally killed them. Knowing their world was in mortal danger, the Galadorians chose a number of volunteers – the first being a young man named Rom – to sacrifice their humanity and become Spaceknights. After they had become space-faring cyborgs, the Spaceknights drove the Wraiths and their darkest weapon back into Limbo. Rom, hailed the greatest of all the Knights, decided to go and hunt down the remaining Wraiths and banish them. The trail leads him to Earth, to Clairton, where they have taken up residence by impersonating humans in the town. Rom arrives and, with his analyzer, scans each person to bring out the Wraiths. To him, as the bodies disintegrate, the Wraiths float away into limbo. To unaided human eyes, it merely looks as if Rom is burning people alive, so the National Guard goes after him. Even the Guard and the U.S. Government are infiltrated by Wraiths. While Rom defeats them in Clairton, there are more to be uncovered. He faces a future as Earth’s only hope while appearing to all to be a merciless murderer.
-Scott McIntyre

Scott McIntyre: For a comic based on a toy, I guess it’s okay. I was expecting better from Bill Mantlo, but this is about average for Sal Buscema.  It’s not very compelling and it feels as if more than a little was borrowed from the Silver Surfer. I certainly don’t feel the pull to read what happens next. Having read a few issues back then, I know Rom gets to meet The Torpedo and ties into Nova’s storyline, but other than that, this is just typical lower-tier comic-book blather.  The splash page, however, is amazing and was used in a lot of the ads for the comic at the time. It’s just what follows that lets it down.

Matthew Bradley: Interesting that after the May Bloodbath and other cancellations, we’re seeing debuts like the new Man-Thing and this one, curiously unheralded in the current Bullpen Bulletins (note the absence of lettercols in December issues as well), if not the ubiquitous Parker Brothers ads.  The month also sees resurgent reprints in new mags with old titles—Amazing Adventures (X-Men), Fantasy Masterpieces (Silver Surfer), Tales to Astonish (Sub-Mariner)—yet a boom-and-bust cycle has ever characterized the Bronze Age, and perhaps they had to thin the herd to make creative resources available for the calves.  Assuming Micronauts is a hit, another toy-based book written by Mantlo, here reunited with MTU partner Buscema, must’ve seemed a no-brainer.

This is a title that I quite liked in its early days, before it got darker and nastier, which is perhaps surprising in light of both its doubly commercial pedigree and the fact that in various ways, it’s actually the complete antithesis of Micronauts.  Excepting the Galadorian sequence, it’s largely Earthbound, at least for now; it doesn’t have an ensemble cast; and the self-inked artwork is nice but totally traditional, epitomized by Our Pal Sal.  Yet the spaceknight himself is pretty cool-looking (don’t know why so many people write “ROM” all in capitals when the flashback clearly establishes that it’s just his freakin’ name, not an abbreviation or an acronym), even if Marvel presumably can’t take credit for that, and the Body Snatchers stuff usually provides good drama.

Chris Blake: Hey, we’re covering Rom:Spaceknight?  I must’ve overlooked that in the lesson plans.  It’s a decent series, with a sympathetic lead character.  Worth extending Marvel University for another year or two -?  Well, no.

Marvel Team-Up 88
Spider-Man and The Invisible Girl in
"A Child is Waiting"
Story by Chris Claremont
Art by Sal Buscema and Eduardo Barreto
Colors by Bob Sharen
Letters by John Costanza
Cover by Rich Buckler

To pay the rent, Peter is reduced to playing paparazzo for the Globe, snapping celebs like the Pyms and Susan Richards at a Central Park society luncheon, where he sees Sue receive an upsetting phone call, slips a Spidey-Tracer onto her bag, and webs after her.  Through the skylight of a familiar-looking building, he hears Alicia Masters relate how Franklin was chloroformed and kidnapped from her studio by thugs, who soon call and order Sue to hit a Maggia “bank” in Harlem.  In a Ferrari “borrowed” from Johnny, she goes uptown to a decaying brownstone and, forgetting that “it hasn’t been treated with unstable molecules,” gives lookout Spencer Jarret the surprise of his life as her “empty” gown ascends the stairway and attacks him.

Donning the uniform in her purse’s secret compartment, she makes short work of the mobsters, one of whom escapes to alert Morgan, and makes off with a case containing millions, bound for a double-header with the Red Sox at Yankee Stadium.  Waiting in the back of the car is Spidey, who persuades her to join forces, but just then Morgan’s enforcers arrive, prompting a skirmish and a high-speed pursuit.  Sue orders Spidey to take the wheel (“Ooo-kay.  But you’ll be sorry.”) and, in a clever scene, creates an invisible ramp in front of the Caddy, sending it sailing through the front door of an abandoned tenement; shaken, Spidey admits that—perhaps like many a New Yorker—“I don’t know how to drive,” so she conveys them safely there before the second game.

Accompanied by an unseen Spidey, Sue is met on the mound by an “umpire” who takes the case and warns, “If you leave the mound or turn invisible before I leave the field…your boy’s dead.”  Kept invisible long enough to reach the bullpen (no, not that one), Spidey sees the ump dump his jacket—surrounded by others carrying identical cases to fool the cops—and, as Pete, follows him on the D train to 125th Street, then loses him on foot in a tunnel.  But he has given Sue a receiver for the Spidey-Tracer he placed on himself, and she saw the hidden door the ump slipped into, so our heroes take out the “Hole in the Wall” Gang just before Morgan arrives on the same mission; Jean DeWolff’s tactical squad, also following the tracer, saves the day as Sue’s force field fades. -Matthew Bradley

Matthew: Our last issue is Claremont’s penultimate, excepting his return for #100 a year hence, and befitting the baseball milieu, I’d say he ends our Marvel University “season” with a solid single.  “Solid” is, of course, a term many of us would also associate with Our Pal, backstopped by Uruguayan artist and future DC mainstay Eduardo Barreto (1954-2011), who makes his tripartite U.S. debut with this, Battlestar Galactica, and Iron Man.  The otherwise so-so Buckler cover highlights what I consider the story’s most interesting aspect:  I’m sure she’s probably done it before, but I thought having Sue—typically handled better by Chris than by many others—make Spidey invisible rather than herself was another creative application of her oft-underused powers.

It seems hard to believe Spidey’s been referring to her as “Mrs. Richards” all these years (“call me ‘Sue,’ okay?”), yet with the bell about to ring and set our nose-to-the-grindstone faculty free, I’m not taking the time to research it.  We’re not only spared the umpteenth MARMIS, but also treated to commendable collegiality, if you’ll pardon the pun, between our co-stars, with a relatively plausible mechanism bringing them together; boy, between this and the FF annual, poor Franklin’s been put in jeopardy a lot lately.  Barreto basically stays out of the way and lets Sal get the job done, in typically serviceable if unspectacular style…yet I have a bit of a bone to pick with Chris for relegating Jean to her single-page cameo—if you’re going to use her, use her!

Joe Tura: So, Janet and Sue in those dresses… gggrrrooowwwwllll! But anyway, that's neither here nor there, because most of the art is lesser My Pal Sal thanks to the inks, which seem to mute the facial expressions or distort them slightly. Spidey looks a little beefy at times also, but at least the action scenes are done well. Some good story moments include Sue conveniently having an emergency costume hidden away, lest the Comics Code Authority come calling; page 15's car chase, with rotten driver Spidey taking the wheel ("…I don't know how to drive.") and Sue crafting a nifty invisi-ramp; a scene at Yankee Stadium and a mention of Ron Guidry; a decent tail job by Peter/Spidey, and a better one by Sue; and the two heroes kicking some bad-guy-butt until my fave Jean DeWolff shows up with the NYPD. Not as bad as I expected it would be after all these years, and not my favorite MTU issue for sure, but better than the last two months and an OK end to the decade.

Marvel Team-Up Annual 2
Spider-Man and the Hulk in
"Murder in Cathedral Canyon!"
Story by Chris Claremont
Art by Sal Buscema, Alan Kupperberg, and Jack Abel
Colors by Roger Slifer
Letters by Joe Rosen
Cover by Al Milgrom

The fireworks are both literal and figurative as Peter kisses Cissy on “America’s 203rd birthday,” yet the moment is shattered, as is her front door, by the Crimson Dynamo du jour (the fifth, for those of you keeping score at home), whom Peter battles as best he can while preserving his i.d.  Darkstar—her darkforce holding Cissy’s father—and Vanguard follow; the trio makes off with the Ironwoods, flattening Peter after he slips a Spidey-Tracer onto Cissy’s belt.  Flash forward to Spidey seeking aid at the Baxter Building, where he finds Stretcho laid low with flu and relates to the Richardses how, during an NYPD postmortem, he stumbled on a page of quantum physics equations in the professor’s study that “made his blood run cold.”

Reed confirms the formula as “the first step to…an anti-matter bomb” that could destroy North America, and reveals that Daniel Ironwood—hailed as another Einstein until McCarthyism drove him from nuclear physics to astronomy—would be stricken by but perhaps capable of building it.  Meanwhile, in Castle Rock, Montana (a Roxxon Oil mining town), waiter Robert Bruce Banner is caught up in the nightly brawl at the Star-Lite Bar ’n’ Grill and hurled outside, but before he can Hulk out, he is shot with a narcodart.  In a Winnebago just over the Colorado state line, he awakens and recognizes his “host” from Glen Talbot’s FBI file as KGB Colonel Alexei Vazhin, wishing to enlist Bruce and his emerald alter ego “to save…the whole world from obliteration.”

It seems that General Nikolai Gregorievitch Kutzov opposed the SALT treaty as a sell-out and quit the KGB; setting up a rogue operation, he used forged letters to persuade the Soviet Super-Soldiers that they must force Ironwood to build the bomb and prevent a pre-emptive U.S. strike.  Reed having traced Darkstar’s “unique residual energy pattern” to a general area in the Rockies, Spidey jumps out of the Pogo Plane—sent back on autopilot—in a special hang glider, counting on picking up his tracer’s signal.  Below, Bruce and Alexei ride into Cathedral Canyon, observed by Kutzov, who bats Daniel around like a rag doll and compels his cooperation by threatening Cissy, sending his pawns to ambush the interlopers, although Darkstar is beginning to doubt him.

Alexei slips away as Bruce becomes the Hulk, whose power is turned against him by Vanguard’s hammer and sickle, yet just then Spidey drops in to even the odds a little, downing the Dynamo and trying to reason with ex-Champion Laynia as the escalating Hulk/Vanguard battle causes an avalanche.  Spidey saves Darkstar and uncovers Vanguard, his body shielded by that of the Hulk before he reverted to Bruce, who fills in the missing pieces of the puzzle.  Leaving Laynia to dig out the Dynamo—presumably protected by his armor—and with Bruce over his shoulder, Spidey heads for Kutzov’s secret base (a cavern abandoned after an abortive plan “to eavesdrop on the NORAD command post inside Cheyenne Mountain” 100 miles south), but Alexei gets there first.

Spidey arrives in time to save the overmatched Alexei from getting his skull crushed, but before being kayoed, Kutzov triggers the bomb, whose huge anti-matter spheres are drawn irresistibly together, and will detonate when they touch.  Slapping Bruce around to force the change, Spidey challenges the irate Hulk to prove his might, first by keeping the spheres apart, then by hitting one of them into space, where the second one quickly follows and they explode harmlessly.  The crisis averted, Bruce changes back and collapses, yet Vazhin shocks them by shooting Ironwood; the dying professor tells an enraged Spidey to let him be, agreeing that because only he knows the secret, it should die with him, lest the Kremlin strike first to prevent his building another one. 
-Matthew Bradley

Matthew: It’s not terrible, but does nothing to burnish Claremont’s rep or let us go out on a high note, and presumably reinforces Professor Scott’s hearty dislike of annuals.  There’s evidence to suggest an interesting backstory, e.g., the fact that Sal penciled only pages 1-9 and “Kupperburg” (sic) the rest, although Abel’s finishes provide commendable consistency; it opens on July 4, 1979, at which time October issues would be on sale and both co-stars were amid lengthy, perhaps even overlong, arcs in their own books.  It’s largely context-free—no mention, for example, of Spidey helping Sue save her son in the current monthly issue—yet it reportedly takes place after Cissy appears two months hence in #90, wherein Steven Grant makes no allusion to her father’s death.

This is the last time Chris uses his creation, and I can’t be alone in thinking that no loss, however amusing her classification of Peter as “one fine—nay, scrumptious—hunk o’ guy” may be; his love life is way too complex as it is, and her restriction to MTU exacerbates a lack of continuity among arachno-titles.  And then there’s her abruptly introduced (and dispatched) cosmologist father, the immediate mastery of whose arcane work by Peter leads an impressed Reed to say, “There aren’t many physicists in the country capable of even understanding what’s here, much less its implications.”  As with, for example, Don Blake’s medical expertise, we’re forced to ask in just which scientific discipline(s) Pete is supposedly an expert, or is he a prodigious polymath?

Sure, let’s dupe the big green galoot into doing our dirty work for us a-g-a-i-n, in the protracted climax that is poorly depicted in every sense on that underwhelming Milgrom cover.  Wouldn’t it be a much more interesting, more Claremont-worthy story if Spidey found a way to cooperate—to, shall we say, team up—with Greenskin, especially after Mantlo's nice interaction between them in #54 (“Goodbye, Bug-Eyes!  Goodbye—friend!”), back in the now-long-gone glory days of 1976?  Speaking of dupes, while the Soviet Super-Soldiers provide an enjoyable echo of Bill’s development of them in Champions and Iron Man, with his multiple Crimson Dynamos, doesn’t it seem like they’re often being manipulated by their fellow Soviets?

And, on that subject, I couldn’t help noticing the otherwise inexplicable emphasis when Vazhin first appears and thinks, “It seems I’ve arrived in the proverbial nick of time.”  Is the colonel, who wears glasses with one darkened lens that serves as a virtual eyepatch, supposed to be the KGB’s answer to Fury?  Then I found the following line on SuperMegaMonkey, giving me the double satisfaction of validating me and allowing me one last chance to annoy Professor Tom by quoting fnord12:  “if the dude is the Soviet Nick Fury, let him own it, eyepatch and all.”  Apparently, Claremont revived him—now with eyepatch!—in X-Men #194 (June 1985), and then retconned him into the back-up story in Classic X-Men #29 (January 1989), reprinting #123.

This suffers from what I might call villain-vacuum—if you discount the S3 due to the MARMIS Effect and the bomb because, however formidable a threat it may be, it’s not a character, then the 35-page epic’s entire Evilness Quotient has to be fulfilled by…a big, muscle-headed renegade Russkie, with a boring red-and-yellow costume that looks like he stole it from Rampage, and apparent super-strength that is either totally unwarranted or just never explained, depending how charitable you feel toward Claremont.  The rest supports very little scrutiny:  Ironwood built this thing in two days, with no labor force in evidence?  Did he visit the Anti-Matter Superstore for materials?  The art is acceptable if purely functional, Kutzov looking like a standard-issue galoot.

Joe: The thing about Marvel's Annuals, no matter what title we're talking about, was they were either excellent, expensive time-killers, or needless reprints. Where does this one stand? Well, to quote our hero's green-skinned guest star: "This book stink! Why waste Hulk's time with stinky story and pictures?" OK, maybe Hulk is embellishing a bit (as he often does), but overall, this one goes on way too long, with art that gets worse as the pages turn, and a "big bad" that has less personality than his awful outfit. At least the big solution is clever, with Spidey tricking Hulk into pushing the "shiny balls" apart then sending one into space with a mere flick of the wrist (and a BTHOW), cuz after all, no one likes anti-matter. Ironwood getting killed was a bit of a downer, too, but Banner's big speech almost saves it. Mostly this one deserves a Charles Nelson Reilly, "Meh".

Marvel Two-In-One 58
The Thing and Aquarian in
"The Pegasus Project Part Six:
To the Nth Power!"
Story by Mark Gruenwald and Ralph Macchio
Art by George Pérez and Gene Day
Colors by Carl Gafford
Letters by John Costanza
Cover by George Pérez and Terry Austin

Klaw is about to kill Ben when something dims the lights and weakens the energies keeping his body solid, allowing him to be sucked back into his blaster, and as Ben revives, he sees Wundarr standing over him.  The now-fluent former star-child relates how, his powers magnified beyond all limits, he mentally entered the Cosmic Cube and emerged reborn, with groovy duds to match, renaming himself the Aquarian “after the star-system of my native planet.”  As Solarr and Klaw are returned to custody, and Giant-Man and Quasar receive medical attention, Aquarian informs Ben that, “during my meditation inside the Cube, I became aware of a local disruption in the cosmic fabric…runaway spatial distortion right here in Project Pegasus.”

It is Lightner, now “a hole in the air—in the shape of a man”; the self-styled Nth Man explains how the Nth Command, “an organization seeking a monopoly on all energy research,” intended him to infiltrate and destroy Pegasus from within, but the projector made him “a living space warp,” growing ever larger as he draws in matter and energy.  When Ben’s attempt to “plug the dike” with a huge hunk of machinery fails, Aquarian tries to expand his null-field to surround the Nth Man and negate his power, disabling the energy bars imprisoning Thundra as Pegasus starts to shut down.  Aquarian’s plan is working, as the Nth Man begins to dwindle, yet he must abort it when he inadvertently shuts down the life-support machinery, threatening the lives of the staff.

Our co-stars offer aid, yet Quasar’s blasts only exacerbate things, so Bill—admitting that he is dying of radiation poisoning from battling Atom-Smasher, and came seeking a cure—attempts to enlarge inside Lightner enough “to cut him off from this dimensional plane.”  He disappears into the Nth Man, but with Ben, Quasar, and Thundra as “living links” in a chain, Aquarian dives in, pulling Bill back from the brink of madness, and this time, striking from deep within, succeeds in nullifying Lightner.  In multiple epilogues, Ben returns to New York, encouraging Foster to hang in there; Aquarian departs “to open the way for a new age”; Quasar drops all charges against Thundra because of her help; and Roxxon Oil (gasp) is revealed to be behind the Nth Command. -Matthew Bradley

Matthew: As with Micronauts, the end of the arc got in just under the wire, although this final chapter is somewhat anticlimactic.  The Nth Man doesn’t have much of a personality beyond the standard “Bwuhahaha!,” and his nature as “a sentient singularity” is hazily defined, so the conflict isn’t as dramatic as it might be; similarly, while wishing the Aquarian well in his mission to bring world peace, I found him more interesting as a misunderstood man-child, and his if-I-don’t-make-it-back speech to Ben (“I love you as deeply as any man could ever love another”) might raise an unintended eyebrow.  Typically, Pérez and Day compensate with strong visuals and creative layouts, especially scenes of people and objects drawn into that “living interdimensional vortex.”

Chris: Ben proves early on that his great might isn’t going to matter in this contest with Dr “Nth-Man” Lightner.  Clearly, Ben isn’t listening carefully enough when Aquarian observes “the more matter that passes into him … the larger he becomes!” since, on the very next page, Ben tosses a “handy hunk ‘a machinery” at Lightner … which he absorbs, thereby “making him grow!” (yes Mr Grimm – please do pay attention). Ben performs his supporting role well, as his rocky hand serves as the anchor to maintain Aquarian’s connection to our reality; suspense builds, as we learn said hand already is depleted of some of its “awesome might” thanks to Aquarian’s energy-sapping capability, the hand growing numb as Ben remains in close proximity to the Amazing Aq.  The climax, as Aquarian’s expanding null-field collapses the Nth Man from within, is all the more satisfying as it follows an earlier setback; Aquarian’s grasp of this power still is new to him (after all, he’s only existed in this suddenly-mature form for an hour or so), so it makes sense that his first attempt, which had only served to shut down the entire complex, is not successful.  

The Pérez/Day art continues to do amazing things.  The action stretches beyond the bash-and-smash variety of recent issues; instead, for our concluding chapter, we have mighty beings challenged by reality-warping  power.  Highlights include: our first look at the Nth Man, a black-bordered, “white hole” if you will, bending and twisting the material of ProjPeg as it consumes it (p 6); and then, visibly expanded, as it seems to reach out for our heroes and prepare to absorb them, too (p 15, last pnl); Quasar’s best shot vanishes pitifully, barely leaving a mark on Lightner’s absent surface, if there is such a thing (p 21, 1st pnl); Foster appearing to dissipate into energy as he makes contact with the Nth Man (p 22, pnl 4); Aquarian’s effort to reach Foster, now both at risk of loss in this other-dimensional reality (p 26 – nice touch by Carl Gafford to reverse the colors of Giant-Man’s costume, swapping the blues and whites); and finally, the team as a whole, straining to hang on as Aquarian mounts his final assault, the Nth Man now many times his original size, dwarfing our heroes, but also appearing to be in distress, its “hands” visibly reaching up, as if in a defensive posture (p 27).  

Gruenwald & Macchio – ably assisted by Pérez & Day – have established a high-water mark for this title.  

Master of Kung Fu 83
"Warriors of the Golden Dawn Part 1
The Phoenix and the Snake"
Story by Doug Moench
Art by Mike Zeck and Gene Day
Colors by Ben Sean
Letters by Diana Albers
Cover by Mike Zeck

From his secluded base of operations in South America, Fu Manchu stands before his warriors, as they diligently train.  Fu holds aloft a golden plate, created by alchemy from a piece of lead; Fu calls to them, “The change is at hand!” as the golden talisman indicates how they might “turn past defeats into future victories,” the gold serving as an example of bright new things coming from old.  The warriors salute him, calling “Hail Fu Manchu, returned from the skies!”  Fu then relaxes in a bath, prepared for him by the loyal Ducharme.  He bathes in his life-restoring elixir vitae, also drinking some elixir; he then indulges in a pipe, and is determined “to look into the future, hoping to glimpse the waiting signs, the clues pointing to success or failure.” Visions come, one of them of Fu as he rides at the vanguard of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.  A later vision is less satisfying, as it indicates his son, Shang-Chi, still “might turn all [his] goals to ash.”  Fah Lo Suee requests an audience with her father; she offers her service, and that of her warrior, Zaran.  Zaran admits to three defeats at the hands of Shang-Chi.  “How is my former son?” asks Fu; “Does he continue to grow?” “He does not think so,” replies Fah; “He is in confusion.”  Fu then inspects the scientists who had been captured in recent months, and anticipates that soon, he will be able to “activate a technological trance in all of them"; to what end, Fu does not say.  Sir Denis (abducted last issue) arrives at the compound as Fu’s prisoner.  As his blindfold is removed, he is shocked to see Petrie’s wife, Karamenah.  Sir Denis had thought she had died years before; she even looks younger than the last time he had seen her.  She explains Fu’s elixir has not only arrested her aging, but has also reversed the aging process (her presence at Fu’s court indicates she might have been behind the riddle-clue offered by the fake Leeks in MoKF #80).  Fu then travels alone to an underground cavern, and conjures colorful “shock-images;” Fu speaks to the floating colors, and declares that – in light of the failures of both mysticism and science – a new path “combining elements of the old ways” is sure to emerge.  Fu then sends the colored lights into the night, calling on them to light the sky with “beauty and fear!”  In Scotland, Shang-Chi and Co. have no choice but to travel to South America to seek out and rescue Sir Denis.  They consider the risks as they prepare to leave.  Shang-Chi considers Leiko’s question, as she asks “why … we ever wonder why.”  “Perhaps,” he replies, “to wonder is to be born anew, seeing old secrets through new eyes.”  -Chris Blake
Chris: And so, students – our way leads back to the beginning – so goes the way of all things – as we return again to Fu, and to his path, we see it has remained unbroken; Fu’s quest for power obscures the attainment of enlightenment, and peace.  Or something like that.  Where’s my “Kung Fu” handbook -?  
It’s been a great series to cover; I hope the student body has shared in my enjoyment.  As a budding Marvel devotee, I recall occasional mentions in lettercols that identified MoKF as one of Marvel’s better reads; but, despite these endorsements, I never gave it a try.  I know why, in its time, I didn’t ever read it: 1) kung fu was passé, an early-'70s affectation; and 2) the adventures of Shang-Chi transpired almost exclusively outside the super-hero-bound mainstream of the Marvel Universe, from which I rarely strayed.  Well, there’s nothing better than a second chance, right?  I now own nearly every issue from #16 to 120 (#15 being almost prohibitively costly), all four Giant-Sizers, and the one Annual.  There might have been a few duds along the way, but those little bumps have done nothing to derail my enthusiasm for this unusual, sometimes brilliantly illustrated, consistently entertaining series.

Mark: I worried in our last class, kids, that Shang's Father Fu (recently returned from gut-shot exile in space) might never utter another word before this august institution of four-color aesthetics shuts its doors forever, but, boy, was I wrong!

As the POV character in "Warriors of the Golden Dawn," Fu barely shuts up long enough for S-C and the rest of the cast to shoehorn in a word edgewise. Not a bad thing, necessarily, since FM's declamations are more learned and poetic than your average would-be conqueror's. We learn - not unexpectedly - that Fu knows the secret of alchemy; that he enjoys being swaddled in snakes in the hot tub; that his new, somewhat comically-clad Leopard Cult is just one platoon in his new Wehrmacht of world domination, joining hardy perennials the Si-Fan as well as thugees, hashishin (for some reason wearing ski goggles), templars; that's he's kidnapped high UN officials ('cause who notices if a diplomat or ten go missing?), and is currently brainwashing same; that his latest hostile takeover of the planet this time, this time, can not fail!

All that, of course, will have to await the Age of Reagan. And another group of erudite, aging fanboy professors to deconstruct Shang-Chi and company's latest round of Fu-foiling.

So I'll just close with a tip of the fedora (gotta get me one of those!) to Messrs. Englehart and Starlin, S-C's original creators, who somehow managed to birth a character who long outlived the pop cultural fad that spawned him. Proof, I suppose, that as with our barely-glimpsed-this-ish-hero, good genes will out.        

The Micronauts 12 
“To the Victors Belongs a World!” Story by Bill Mantlo 
Art by Michael Golden and Al Milgrom
Colors by Carl Gafford
Letters by Diana Albers
Cover by Michael Golden

The citizens of Homeworld hail the Micronauts and the recuperating Commander Arcturus Rann, the hero who merged with the Enigma Force to defeat Baron Karza. As the weary Commander ponders if he could actually be responsible for creating the Enigma Force during his 1,000-year exploration of the Microverse, Prince Acroyear strides forward and tells his friends that he must return to Spartak — there is a grim matter to resolve, the fate of his traitorous brother Shaitan. As the Acroyear fleet departs, Rann is told of Bug’s supposed death. 

Meanwhile, at NASA’s Human Engineering Life Laboratories, Colonel Macy discovers one of Professor Prometheus’ specimens in a liquid-filled capsule: the tiny, lifeless body of an Acroyear warrior. He summons a courier and the artifact is sent to S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters.

On Spartak, Shaitan is brought before the warrior tribunal, defiantly cursing that his pale skin has always made him an outcast among his darker brethren. But before a death sentence can be passed, the albino challenges his noble brother to a blood-feud — Acroyear accepts and they are both transported to Spartak’s uninhabitable Shattered Plains to fight for their very lives. Shaitan quickly gets the jump on his brother, taunting that Acroyear’s time with the Micronauts has dulled his killer instinct. However, the traitor is accidentally run through with his own sword, falling dead at his brother’s feet. Elsewhere in the Microverse, Time Traveler witnesses the body of Bug plummet through space and crash land on Kaliklak, the hive world of the Insectivorids. -Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn: And there we have it. The first year of The Micronauts — and the only one to be covered by Marvel University — wraps up with a let’s-catch-our-breath story that ties up the lone loose thread from the first eleven issues: the fate of Acroyear’s brother, Shaitan. Anyone surprised that it doesn’t work out well for the traitor? We do have the return of Bug in the last two panels: he was hurled into hyperspace when the Phobos Unit he was attacking exploded, conveniently landing unconscious on his home planet. So we’ll be left hanging about the fate of the master thief. Graduate studies will also be required to see what happens with the involvement of S.H.I.E.L.D. Nick Fury and Dum Dum Dugan are only seen in the shadows but they are unmistakable. It looks like Nick will get the Fantastic Four involved in a few issues. 

Now I’ll go out on a fairly firm limb and state that The Micronauts was easily the best new series Marvel introduced at the tail end of the '70s. However, we are somewhat lucky to have only covered the first twelve issues: the awesome Michael Golden departed after this one. Finished giving brilliant life to an entire universe based on plastic toys, Golden would go on to bounce between Marvel and DC, picking up various titles here and there. His longest House of Ideas assignment would be on The ’Nam, illustrating the first eleven as well as #13. The premiere issue, published in December 1986, outsold even The Uncanny X-Men that month.

Now I’m not going to say that the quality of The Micronauts plummeted after Golden’s departure, but the glorious heights were never matched. The series would stick around until #59 (August 1984), with Bill Mantlo writing them all except for the last. Pat Broderick and Butch Guice would have the longest runs, and I remember highly enjoying their work on the title, especially Guice’s — he seemed to channel Golden’s vibe with the most success. We also had Howard Chaykin in an uneven six issues immediately after Golden, Val Mayerik, Keith Giffen, John Garcia, Steve Ditko, Gil Kane, Luke McDonnell, Mike Vosburg, and Kelley Jones. After issue 59, the series would be rebranded as Micronauts: The New Voyages, written by Peter B. Gillis and illustrated by Jones. That one lasted to #20 when the series was either cancelled or discontinued because Marvel’s license ran out. Listen, I’ve been heaping praise on The Micronauts since day one, so not sure that I need to repeat how impressed I was revisiting the series. So I’ll call it a day. We do have the first annual to cover this month before we are totally through though. Sad to say, it’s pretty much a dud.

Chris: Mantlo conclusively ties up the Baron Karza storyline – no escape in a damaged TIE fighter for him, he’s dead (well, to the extent any arch-villain truly could be dead, that is) and the people of Homeworld now can move onto something else.  But what -?  Well, on that front, Mantlo isn’t saying much, but it’s pretty clear – from our glimpse of those two stogie-chompin’ figures in the shadows – that SHIELD will be involved (p 10).  Good decision also to bring back Bug (as he survived the fuel pod explosion, somehow) as we see him crash-land on his home planet (p 30); Bug’s kind of this team’s Beast, and it’s difficult to image Microtron delivering the same degree of levity Bug has provided up to now.  

The Micronauts will continue, but it will be without the inestimable talents of Michael Golden; what’s worse, Golden is not leaving so he can take over pencil chores for the Avengers, or Doctor Strange, or even Ghost Rider – Golden will provide pencils here and there (most notably 1980’s Avengers Annual #10), but will have no regular assignment for the remainder of the Bronze era.  Golden’s outgoing highlights mostly involve Acroyear’s blood feud, as they include: Shaitan’s silhouette, as he brandishes a rock overhead (p 21, pnl 3), followed by panel after narrow, fast-moving vertical panel of close-quarter battling (p 22-23, particularly p 22 pnl 4, and p 23 1st pnl); Acroyear resisting his brother’s force-hammer blow, from Shaitan’s POV (p 26, pnl 5), followed by Shaitan’s shocked reaction as Acroyear drives his blade home (p 27 1st pnl).  
On a closing note, for those of you considering post-graduate courses, I can’t recommend Micronauts as a title for future study.  While you might find a few amusing chapters, we’ve already covered all the ones that – by far – are the best from this title.  Mantlo will develop some of the other spheres of Homeworld,  but then he’ll continuously bounce the team back-and-forth between the Microverse and (typically pointless) encounters on Earth; and, we’ll have some pleasantly-illustrated pages from Pat Broderick’s pencil, but nothing that would remind you of the stellar (!) work he brought to his tenure at Captain Marvel.  
The advantage of hindsight allows me to offer that Micronauts would have benefited from Marvel’s soon-to-be-heavily-exploited reliance on the mini-series (as few as three issues, as many as twelve); if the Mantlo-Golden series had bowed – to appreciative cheering – after a completed 12-issue run, I’d like to think it would’ve been rightfully remembered as a comics classic.

Matthew:  For once, I didn’t mind the multi-panel splash—offset by page 2 anyway—as it provides such a nice snapshot of where things now stand, and it’s interesting how much better Mantlo handles the “aftermath of a multi-issue epic” routine than Moench did in last month’s Spotlight, Time Traveler conveniently checking in with various characters on our side of the Spacewall.  The shadowy S.H.I.E.L.D. honchos in page 10, panel 4 were effective, although I thought “Somethin’ knocked heck outta H.E.L.L.” was pushing it.  Of course, there’s a whole lot more going on here than just a postmortem, Golgrom’s well-drawn blood feud enabling a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too ending where Shaitan dies…but by accident.  Bug’s alive?  Gasp!

The Micronauts Annual 1 
“Timestream,” “Coup!” and “Arena of Death!” 
Stories by Bill Mantlo 
Art by Steve Ditko
Colors by Andy Yanchus
Letters by John Costanza
Cover by Steve Ditko

Our coverage of The Micronauts ends with the series’ first annual — there were only two, with the last published in 1980. Bill Mantlo takes the anthology approach, penning three stories set the day before the events of The Micronauts #1. An intriguing idea, but Bill is totally hamstrung by the terrible art of Steve Ditko, who had recently returned to the company as a freelancer. Sad to say, Mr. Ditko’s once groundbreaking work had become completely outdated at this point. And there doesn’t seem to have been much effort involved: page after page feature nary a background detail. He does seem to have an adequate grasp of the characters’ basic appearances, but there’s nothing to draw you into Mantlo’s trio of tales. Perhaps Steve was totally uninspired by the subject matter. Which is a disappointment since this could have been an interesting “prequel” if Michael Golden was involved. Couldn’t he have done the cover at least?

“Timestream” starts thing off with Commander Arcturus Rann and Biotron aboard the HMS Endeavor, returning to Homeworld after their 1,000-year exploration of the Microverse. But before the journey ends, Rann and Biotron encounter Paradise III, a strange and beautiful planet protected by the armored Galactic Defender. After a brief lasersonic battle, the Defender’s face shield is cracked and he begins to wither and die in front of the Micronauts' human and roboid eyes. With his final breaths, the Defender bemoans that he is the last of a race that fanatically pursued perfection. But when they realized that they couldn’t stem the effects of aging, they sealed themselves in aerobionic chambers for eternity. But over the eons, the chambers failed and shattered — the inhabitants crumbled to dust. When the Defender finally joins his lost race in the great beyond, Rann and Biotron return to the Endeavor and continue their trek home.

“Coup!” centers on the unnamed king and queen of Homeworld and their children, Princess Mari and Prince Argon. When they are all invited to one of Baron Karza’s Great Games, the armored madman assassinates the king and queen. However, Mari and Argon make their escape on horseback — a scene handled with much more artistic aplomb in the pages of The Micronauts #1. Seriously, it’s like comparing a Mary Worth strip to a Vermeer. And Mantlo couldn’t come up with names for Mari’s parents? They are not named in the premiere issue as well. Strange.

Finally, “Arena of Death!” returns to Karza’s Great Games as the recently captured Prince Acroyear and Bug are forced into the blood-soaked stadium. Much to the Baron’s dismay, the Acroyear warrior and the Insectivorid thief are triumphantly standing when the carnage is over. -Tom Flynn

Tom: Each of the three stories clocks in at a mercifully short 10 pages, which helps reduce the endurance required to get through the entire annual. With Ditko’s visuals, it’s like reading something out of the '60s, a jarring departure from the cutting-edge visuals of Golden and company. Only “Timestream” offers anything of interest — as you might judge by the length of my synopsis compared to the other two. “Timestream” is actually the least “Micronauts” of the three: it could have featured a pair of human astronauts and been run in one of Professor Gilbert’s Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction magazines. Or used as the teleplay for an episode of the original Star Trek. “Damn you Rann, I’m an Insectivorid not a doctor!”

Basically, the only aspect I found notable about this annual is the surprising amount of characters and vehicles based on the second wave of the Mego toys: Galactic Defender, Repto, Terraphant and Hornetroid. The last three of that list all appeared in “Arena of Death!” Of those, I owned a Repto — his exposed brain glowed in the dark — and a Hornetroid vehicle. That one was pretty cool: a button made its clear, insect wings flap. Don’t think that I wasn’t running around my room pretending it could fly while making laser sounds. Ptooie! Ptooie! While it did not come to pass, I always wanted a Terraphant. Why? It actually shot water from its trunk. “Mr. McDunnough wet himself!” 

Tom: There is a two-page pinup by Ditko in the center spread (above): it presents just about everybody featured in the series so far, even Muffin. The Fantastic Four and Psycho-Man are also included because they would appear in 1980. It’s pretty bad. Ditko, by the way, would be back to illustrate the second annual and The Micronauts #39.

Matthew:  I deliberately re-read this Mantko extravaganza in chronological rather than in publication order, because it forms the multi-part prequel to Micronauts #1.  As a result, so long after the fact, I can’t remember offhand how much, if any, of this material would have been revelatory at that point, but it certainly does a good job of establishing the status quo ante for the monthly book.  This annual and the concurrent #12 celebrate the mag’s first anniversary, according to the double-spread on pages 24-25 offering both a “gallery of heroes and villains”—some of whom have yet to appear at the time the annual is set—and thanks to the many creative talents behind it (maintaining their Karelessness Kuotient, the latter include Josef “Rubenstein”).

Longtime readers (assuming anyone has such stamina) know of my high regard for Steve’s pioneering Spider-Man and, especially, Dr. Strange, but to my eyes, his artwork is perhaps even more out of place in the Bronze Age than was Kirby’s writing.  As for Bill’s stories, despite the tripartite structure, the second and third effectively form a single narrative depicting life on Homeworld as Karza takes over, while the first, as far as I know, is totally superfluous, and could have been any old stopover by H.M.S. Endeavor.  The last-survivor bit feels pretty hoary, although I’m sure Professor Gilbert would find the Galactic Defender pleasantly reminiscent of Raymond Massey’s Wings over the World getup from one of his favorite films, Things to Come.

Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man 37
"Into the Hive!"
Story by Bill Mantlo
Art by Jim Mooney and Pablo Marcos
Colors by George Roussos
Letters by Clem Robins
Cover by Michael Nasser and Joe Rubinstein

Swarm's bee brigade stings Spider-Man endlessly, and since "spiders and bees are natural deadly enemies," the insects that "compose the living cells" of his body are easily drawn to our hero. Not even webbing works against the mutated army, but when Spidey falls into a table with vials of insect-repellent, it causes Swarm to flee. Dr. Sloan enters the lab with Steve and Philip, leaving a woozy wall-crawler to slither along the ceiling and somehow open a webbed door to get his "Peter Parker duds." Covered in bee stings, Peter stumbles out the door but recovers nicely in the hospital ward. The hive "sprawls obscenely" across campus, and with no scientist superheroes in sight, it's up to Dr. Sloan and the meddling kids to "synthesize a new type of insect repellent," using angry Marcy's formula and hoping to finish before Swarm's Queen Bee grows to monstrous proportions. When it comes time to dispense the repellent, Peter stays back, not from cowardice, but to douse his Spidey suit and web fluid in the formula!

Near the Physics building, bees attack Sloan and the students, causing them to drop the repellent! [Are you freakin' kidding me?] But Spider-Man swings in and breaks into the hive to confront Swarm and his mutated Queen. Spraying repellent-laden webbing into the walls causes the bees to fight one another, which causes harm to Swarm, but a punch doesn't do much, even though Spidey fired repellent into the buzzing baddie's chest. A quick flip of the flying fiend and one last squib shot halts the mental control Swarm has over his bees, and they even attack the Queen, before flying off, leaving just a skeleton in Swarm's cape, a dead Queen, and a triumphant, if not tuckered out, Spidey.  –Joe Tura

Joe: What's the buzz on the finale of this two-parter? Well, not too much really. The word repellent, even though it's the most prevalent by far, is not exactly the adjective to use, since the story ain't quite that bad. It sure isn't great, though. Most of that is due to Swarm. He's about as "bee"-list as it gets, and that's being generous. It may sting a little for fans of this fairly lame-o villain to hear this, but no one will miss him. The art is fine, nothing more, and Swarm looks like Sandman in parts because of the sheer number of bees flying to and fro. Mantlo tries to build more of a supporting cast, but then gives them next to nothing to do except DROP THE REPELLENT! How stupid! So much for the Manhattan Scooby gang's big moment!

Fave sound effect is page 5's loud "SKRASH" as Spidey falls off the ceiling and "skrashes" into some insect repellent, which ends up setting off the rest of the story and the eventual No-Pest Strip that ends Swarm's swindle.

And this ends our class for the mostly-not-quite-spectacular Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man. Of course, it's always great to have another Spidey book, but honestly, I didn't buy this one very often as a fledgling professor. It just didn't excite me except for the occasional issue. Well, it excited someone, as this title ran 263 freakin' issues, ending November 1998. Maybe there will be a post-graduate studies course if any of you kids out there want more info, or to learn about Peter David, J.M. DeMatteis, Sal Buscema's decade-long run, Gerry Conway's return, and more. Or maybe it'll be a summer school class to give you a chance at some easy credits.

Chris: I looked at the Nasser/ Rubinstein cover, admired their take on Spidey’s trim form and atypical positioning in the frame, and thought, “So, any chance of art like this appearing in the interior -?” before resignedly opening the front cover.  The look was better than I expected, though, thanks to Pablo Marcos’ capable finishes (I’ve had enough of Frank Springer to last me quite a while).  As we enter the hideous hive, George Roussos provides a crucial contribution, as the murky interior is cast in an unusual deep amber hue (p 23); points also to Mooney for his recognition of Spidey’s arrival in the hostile hive as a Big Moment, as we see Spidey cling to the comb and peer into the near-darkness.  One other art-highlight as Mooney & Marcos show Swarm reverting to skeletal form as the vanishing bees take flight (p 27, last panel).  So, despite my misgivings, this one turns out to be one of the more exciting issues of PPSS-M we’ve seen in some time; even Peter’s desperate, venom-hazed crawl across the men’s room floor (in order to change out of his Spidey duds) offers its share of suspense.  

Matthew: Bill gets to wind up two stories in PPTSS this month, his own here and Marv’s Ock opus in the annual (where we get the long-awaited payoff for Marcy’s bad behavior in general and “Pantywaist Parker” dig on page 19), and I am generally pleased with both.  I was initially dubious about the quick spillage of the repellent, thus seeming to make it relatively pointless, but I like how Mantlo handled the resolution, which was not only suspenseful but also more personal than using, in effect, a giant can of Raid.  For the most part, the Mooney/Marcos artwork is, shall we say, unspectacular, while admittedly getting the job done, yet that inside-the-hive full-pager on 23, effectively colored by Roussos, is a show-stopper.

Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man Annual 1
"And Men Shall Call Him... Octopus!"
Story by Bill Mantlo
Art by Rich Buckler and Jim Mooney
Colors by Bob Sharen
Letters by Jim Novak
Cover by Rich Buckler

Picking up the story in the same night as Amazing Spider-Man Annual #13, Spidey saves some citizens from a building façade falling during a windy rainstorm, then swings over to the construction site where he battled Doctor Octopus, recovering the tentacle he ripped off of his nemesis. Meanwhile, in the "subterranean subway hideout" of Doc Ock, the pain from losing his arm seems to have taken over his mind, or so says the physician treating him who gets tossed in the air for his troubles. But even in pain, the diabolical Doc vows to go on with his "crime-coup of the century," and "to tear Spider-Man from limb to limb," natch. The next day, Spidey gets an apology from Marcy Kane (after the Swarm soiree), as well as a lecture, which only cheeses Peter off. Behind locked doors in the lab, Peter runs a radiation test on Ock's arm [which he managed to hide in a small bag…good thing it didn't wake up accidentally, no?], when it suddenly comes to life and strikes out at him! Peter manages to get a web refill from his belt (web-shooters not in place), but to no avail, as the tentacle rips free, smashes out the window and slinks off, but not before a well-placed spider-tracer finds its mark. Marcy doesn't buy Peter's story about how the lab got wrecked, but he slips away to track the agile arm to an oil tanker near the East River. Spidey spies the arm, but it's a decoy! Ock was lying in wait!

A boisterous battle ensues, with Ock at full strength and full vengeance mode, including shooting an "ink-like gas" from his tentacles and covering the tanker's hull with oil, so Spidey can't crawl away! Ock knocks out Spidey with a dozen or so punches and tosses him into the river to drown! He and his men board the Octosphere [Yes, Doc Ock has a ship called the "Octosphere." No, this will not be on the test, it's too stupid.] and head off to undertake "the most astonishing act of piracy of the twentieth century!" [Then Ock calls his loyal men "dolts." Boss of the year!] An exhausted Spider-Man drifts down the river until he's fished out by the U.S. Coast Guard near the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where the Pentagon is about to test their new Atomic Sub! [Why they would tell Spidey all this I don't know] Spidey swings off, aware this is Ock's plan, but at the Navy Yard, the arm is ready for him! But as he fights the soldiers off, Doc Ock arrives, shrugs off everyone in his path and takes off in the sub! Spidey jumps in after him, somehow popping off the hatch and flooding the sub with water as he takes out Ock's goons. As the sub starts to sink, Spidey and Ock battle on the bridge, until the wall-crawler rips at the recently re-attached arm, causing the sinful scientist pain and leaving him talking to his tentacles, or his "pretties." [Wha wha whaaaaa?] Spidey decides to split, managing to get out, with Ock sort of right behind him. But Ock's "damaged, crippled arm" gets caught in the hatch, and he extends to the surface for a second…then is dragged down with the submarine, with "not even a ripple to mark his passing." --Joe Tura

Joe: From Byrne/Austin to Buckler/Mooney. Sigh™.  But the art isn't horrible, merely mediocre except for the battles, which at least have some energy to them. The script isn't too bad, but what's with all the coincidences and people offering information? At least we have Marvel's resident Don Rickles, Doc Ock to help us through. Besides being insane and devious, Doc is also in rare form, especially on his first page when he calls the doctor actually trying to help him "Fool! Imbecile! Cretin!...You have shown yourself to be a charlatan! … A quack!...You over-rated clown!" Imagine if he wasn't trying to help! There's more later, calling his men "misbegotten misanthropes" and Spidey a "mocking moron," then adding "pitiful weakling," "imbecile," "vermin," "accursed arachnid," "fool," and more. The entire repertoire!

Overall, not as good, or as page-turning as the first chapter of this Ock duo, but the ending is memorable. The bad arm, which is the limb that drives this whole annual, causes the Doc's "death." I mean, who could survive that, right? Well, of course he comes back again, but that's another class in another University, methinks. It does also lead us to our final favorite sound effect of the '70s [no tears, class…hey, no cheers either!], which is the "KTLANG!" of the hatch as it closes on Ock's tortured tentacle on page 46. Poor, poor Alfalfa, I mean, Ock.

Matthew: December’s avalanche of annuals (seven by my count) boasts three #1s, including Micronauts and Star Wars, which is interesting since the ’79 crop received little or no Bullpen Bulletins ballyhoo.  I haven’t seen Buckler’s byline on interior art too often lately, and while I generally favor him, his Mooney-inked work here puts this pretty much by definition a visual notch below Byrne’s ASM Annual first half, although I did like the powerful simplicity of page 45.  Mantlo’s script is thus the main attraction, this time a full 35 pages without the filler attending Marv’s ghost story, and for those of us who regard Doc Ock as Spidey’s arch-enemy, it’s nice to see him get such a substantial amount of “screen time.”

Chris: It’s a fairly fun issue, with no skimping on the action; overall, though, it’s not a sturdy-enough story to warrant being spread over two annuals.  I would’ve preferred a more compact, tightly-woven tale taking place in one annual (remember, our first chapter was a somewhat-skimpy 24 pages).  As enjoyable as the action can be, other parts feel more like padding, particularly the middle-section Ock-clash (p 19 -30).

This battle requires two glaring liberties by Mantlo.  First, Spidey has cleverly relied on a trusty spidey-tracer to allow Doc’s severed appendage to lead him to the Ock-lair.  When Doc Ock reveals himself, the yanked-out ock-arm appears to have magically reattached itself (p 19, last panel); there’s no explanation for how he’s regained its use.  Seems to me that, when Spidey broke the arm off in ASM Annual #13, there were metal bits and wiring scattered around (courtesy of the Byrne illustration).  If we’re to understand Ock simply screwed the arm back on (again, there’s no mention of how the arm has regained its place), then Mantlo has earned a “simply impossible” demerit.  If anything, it might’ve been more fun to see the severed arm remain loose, for Ock to continue to control mentally; this would’ve allowed Ock to attack Spidey from multiple directions.  
The other liberty taken by Mantlo involves Ock’s hideout – it’s a “half-submerged oil tanker” in the East River.  Wait – what?!  Now, I realize the city of New York had its share of fiscal crises in the sloppy '70s, but do you think a partially sunken oil tanker would be left in the river -?  I’m not even going to comment on the fact that an oil tanker travelling thru New York would not sail the East River, but rather the wider, deeper Hudson – oh wait, I guess now I have.  In fairness, I will point out that the Williamsburg Bridge, snagged by Spidey to escape the Coast Guard Cutter (p 34), is on the north end of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, so points to Bill for getting that part right.  
The Buckler-Mooney art is good in parts, although Mooney’s finishes lapse at times into indistinctness.  For instance, what’s the deal with Ock’s “subway hideout” (p 8)?  It looks like Buckler packed a lot of stuff in there, but in finished form, it doesn’t look like much.  There are highlights, though, which include: a Romita-esque splash page; a clever moment as Peter hand-operates a web-shooter (p 15, last pnl); Doc has Spidey upside-down, each pincer grabbing a forearm or a calf (p 22, 1st pnl); Spidey’s aquatic escape, as Doc gets washed behind, his arms desperately reaching for his fleeing foe (p 44-45).  Lastly, I can’t decide whether or not I should dismiss the “Octosphere” as a silly bit of DC business (p 31); I reserve the option to mock it further at a later date.
Okay, so I’ll finish on a supportive note.  Mantlo has a few prime pearls of snappy in-battle patter for Spidey, including: “Good speech, Doc. I hope they make you prison valedictorian!” (p 37); Ock insists he is not defeated (as the sub fills with water), to which Spidey replies Ock is close enough “that I thought we could begin negotiating your surrender!” (p 39); and, after Ock proclaims he will not be laughed at, Spidey offers that Ock should plea bargain with the district attorney “to guarantee no one’ll chuckle!” (p 42).

Power Man and Iron Fist 60
"The Terrorist Manifesto"
Story by Jo Duffy
Art by Marie Severin and Steve Leialoha
Colors by Marie Severin
Letters by Diana Albers
Cover by Bob Layton and Marie Severin

Alan Cavenaugh has been taken to Police HQ for questioning in the bombing of the Ducal Cellar restaurant but Luke Cage and Danny Rand are convinced the former I.R.A. terrorist is innocent. Misty Knight seems to be the only one, in fact, who's convinced of Alan's guilt (there may be a bit of bias on Misty's part since she had her arm blown off in a terrorist act years before) and she's preaching to anyone who'll listen. The next morning, Luke and Danny are visited in their office by the bomber's target, Ambassador Alpar of Halwan, who hires the boys to bring the bombers to justice (Alpar believes the real villains are vengeance-seeking ex-pats). Power Man and Iron Fist hit the bricks, looking for clues and all signs point to Princess Azir. Danny heads to the embassy to confront the princess while Luke keeps poundin' the streets (with help from Alan, released from the precinct), pumpin' the pimps for info. One of Cage's snitches, tech wiz Gadget, confesses he designed an explosive device for terrorist Farouk just that morning, so Luke heads out to find Farouk. Meanwhile, Danny has broken into the embassy and used his Iron Fist to melt a safe containing secret documents, discovering a conspiracy involving the royal treasury of Halwan. Suddenly, Princess Azir confronts the thief and sics her bodyguards on him. Across 110th Street, Luke and Alan find Farouk, who confesses he planted a bomb in a silver samovar in the embassy, set to blow in just fifteen minutes! Sweet Christmas! Luke and Alan haul ass to Azir's crib (with Misty not far behind), where they find Danny in full Kung Fu action. Alan grabs the samovar and chucks it out the window, saving everyone from a certain death (well, except for the schoolyard full of children next door) and earning immediate forgiveness from Misty. All's well that ends well, even for Irish bombers. -Peter Enfantino

Peter Enfantino: You gotta feel for Misty Knight here. She's the only one who seems to be thinking rationally. Why would anyone trust an I.R.A. terrorist? Even a former one who bemoans his part in the death of a dozen people. And why is it that Danny is so blind to this, as though it's just a minor character flaw ("It's not like he's responsible for the terrorist act that took your hand, Misty. Get a grip!"). And how about Danny Rand using his melt-o powers to purloin the incriminating docs ("I don't know how I'm going to explain this to the Princess if these turn out to be her old love letters.") Talk about a personality make-over. Best friends with a murderer and breaking and entering in the same week! Whereas last issue was a fun bit of nonsense, this one seems over-scripted right from the get-go. There's just way too much dialogue packed in those teensy balloons. Worse, what's in those balloons doesn't add up to much. I dug the "Appearing in this issue:" sidebar; a nice gimmick reminiscent of the old days of funny books.

Though I only read scattered issues of Hero For Hire/Power Man/PM and Iron Fist through the years, I had a full set and would, now and then, partake. Post-1980 does not get much better than the predominately sub-par junk we've been subjected to over the last couple years since Marv left the book, as I recall, except for the final issue (#125, September 1986). In the closing panels, we see what appears to be the death of Iron Fist and Luke Cage running from the law again, accused of Danny's murder.

Matthew: Who’da thunk we’d wind up with a PM/IF issue I liked (a virtual oxymoron), perhaps the best since Claremont and Byrne ankled?  Bits of Halwani lore have been strewn over IF’s nomadic career since Premiere #24, and it’s good to see Duffy treating Chris’s characters, including Cavenaugh, somewhat seriously, although I doubt he intended Azir to be a villain; also nice to get closure for Alan, without him getting blowed up real good, and Misty’s antipathy toward him.  Severin and Leialoha are a surprising combination, and knowing Marie—who also collaborated with Layton on the cover—there are probably all sorts of things I didn’t catch going on in those crowd scenes, but the results easily surpass Trevor Von Eeden’s aridity.

P.S.  “Because Luke and Danny are the Heroes for Hire, not us!”  Dude, your own girlfriend has no compunction about blabbing your “secret” identity in a crowded precinct house; why bother?

Chris: As I’ve been re-reading PM/IF, I’ve been continually reminded why I bothered to pick up each new issue, bi-month after bi-month.  It’s like tuning in to a reel of a buddy-cop movie, which happens to be on cable at a late hour; granted, there’s nothing extraordinary about the plotlines, although some circumstances are interesting, plus there’s a fair share of action, and the pacing overall works well.  More importantly, there is a host of characters, all of whom we – the readers – care about.  Granted, Iron Fist is scaled back; Danny Rand rarely is at the forefront of the story, as Luke Cage is likelier to be center stage.  I think it’s worth having less of Danny, though, if it allows room for Misty Knight and Colleen Wing to be in the mix; no offense to D.W., but Nightwing Restorations offers much more potential as  contributing members of the supporting cast.  

I continue to appreciate M.J. Duffy’s choice to occasionally eschew entanglements with super-villains.  The recent entanglement with the Living Monolith seems more like a parody of a PM/IF story than a true issue of this title.  Luke & Danny are fairly small-time, and should be dealing with capers like this as bread-and-butter for their small business.  The depiction of the Halwani situation, as we’re told of royal and governmental oppression giving rise to acts of terrorism, might be simplified here; still, in these pages, I prefer that to the sudden reveal of some super-powered villain who’s somehow behind the whole scheme.  Tangles with super-baddies will have their time and place, but I like how Duffy allows Luke & Danny to work a case and see it thru without feeling the need to raise the ante by including complications that aren’t organic to the story.
I wonder how the Severin/Leialoha pairing came together.  Leialoha has proven capable of finishing practically any Marvel penciller to good effect; Severin, while accomplished in her own right, picks up freelance work so rarely that I wonder how she drew this assignment.  Some might find her style a might too comical, but I appreciate the humorous turns, especially since they don’t appear overdone to me.  Highlights include: Colleen’s “Oh well!” look back to the group as Misty storms out (p 3, pnl 5); the nutty Times Square street-people in the background as Luke and Alan seek info (p 11, 1st pnl); a massive fist lands purposefully on Danny’s shoulder – “thump” (p 14, pnl 6); Danny launches into the palace – excuse me, embassy guards (p 21); a view from above, as an Iron Fist-propelled guard clears the window and arcs toward the ground below (p 23, pnl 5); a fairly detailed look at Alan’s Seiko watch, from Alan’s frantic POV (p 23, pnl 7); Danny resting on a table-edge, with the unmistakable samovar-bomb visible behind him (p 27).  

Spider-Woman 21
"Beware the Spider-Woman -- Bounty Hunter!"
Story by Michael Fleisher
Art by Frank Springer and Mike Esposito
Colors by Ben Sean
Letters by Gaspar Saladino and Diana Albers
Cover by Marie Severin and John Tartaglione

The DeFalco mob has just hit Majestic jewelers on a major heist; they’re so sure of their success that they hit the store in broad daylight, and take time to buy flowers from an elderly woman vendor on the sidewalk before they skate in their getaway car.  Little do the boys know, but the vendor was – the secretive Spider-Woman, in disguise!  S-W glides after the car, lands quietly on the roof, and guides the car off the road.  The gun-totin’ gang is quickly subdued, trussed up, and carted to the office of Captain Walsh, LAPD.  Capt Walsh (after his initial surprise at discovering S-W with the captured criminals) reports the reward offered by the jeweler is $20,000; the Capt has a “blind box number” where he agrees to leave the reward money.  S-W retrieves the flower vendor costume (conveniently left in an alley by the store…) and returns it to an old theatrical costume warehouse.  S-W then drops by the apartment of Scotty McDowell, an amateur criminologist who has become S-W’s partner.  Scotty has reason to believe a group called the Shark-Mob is prepared to strike again (mob sharks?).  This time, based on the mob’s recent activity near a lighthouse, Scotty expects them to disable the searchlight and cause a ship to run aground; the ship’s cargo includes a shipment of gold bullion, two million dollars’ worth – easy pickings once the ship is trapped on the shoals.  S-W crashes thru the lighthouse window, moments before the gang is ready to shut it down, and thereby foils the scheme.  Finally back at her apartment, Jessica Drew has finished a well-earned shower when a knock at the door announces her neighbor – Scotty McDowell – who would like to share a midnight snack with her.  As they eat, Jessica suggests Scotty could benefit from “a good-looking woman” in his life, and he agrees, as his thoughts turn to – Spider-Woman! -Chris Blake
Chris: So, another year, another change in direction for Spider-Woman.  All these adjustments have been somewhat warranted: Mark Gruenwald steered the character away from Marv Wolfman’s trappings of sorcerous influences and taunting unliving doll-twins, and also cured Jessica of her pheromone problems; with the insecure, angst-ridden ‘70s drawing to a close, who would want to follow the exploits of a super-heroine with hang-ups about offending people?  Gruenwald then steered the good ship Jessica into a reef as he got her involved with the Hatros Institute, which served its purpose (as it played a pivotal role in the correction of the serious negative vibe Jessica had been unwittingly putting out), but also had no long-term usefulness.  Gruenwald practically admits to having drawn a dead-end for Jessica, as S-W #20 featured her losing her job and her apartment.  
With that in mind, Michael Fleisher’s bounty-collecting angle on crime-fighting is far from the worst idea; the master-of-disguises angle is hokey, though – a person with super-powers should not have to rely on dress-up.  Beyond that, the truly glaring problem involves Scotty’s uncanny crime-detection skills.   For example: he’s onto the Shark-Mob scheme due to “soil analysis,” which somehow traces the mob to the lighthouse point.  Well, where did this soil come from?  How do we know the mobsters weren’t simply picnicking by the lighthouse?  I hear it’s a real purty spot.  There’s another staggeringly-impossible moment, as I mentioned in the synopsis, when S-W lands on the getaway car and – using her gripping hands and feet – pulls it off the road.  Those would have to be some mighty strong fingers, and toes, hmmm -?  I’m not even going to get into how S-W managed to convey three unconscious adult males to Capt Walsh’s office – oh wait!  She’s got those glider wings, of course!  I forgot.  With breeze-dependent gliders, why would anyone need a jet pack?  (As a bonus, it makes for a much greener approach to crime-fighting.)
The Springer-Esposito art continues to be fairly okay, with its best attribute being “not Infantino"; S-W’s gate-crash at the lighthouse is nicely atmospheric (p 23).  In or out of costume, Jessica Drew always will have the advantage of being very easy to gaze upon.  Frank & Mike give us a little shower scene to tantalize our pre-adolescent eyes (p 27); nice look also as she’s towel-lounging (p 20, 1st pnl).  Apparently, the Comics Code Authority did not withdraw their approval.  Neither do I.

Matthew: I was encouraged by the “Startling New Direction” tagline, because the bounty hunter/private eye gig seems perfect for Jessica, and I thought I remembered it being used effectively later on (probably by You Know Who), but holy cats, does this epitomize a good idea badly executed.  We use the phrase “scene missing” to deride abrupt, non-sequitur storytelling, yet “issue missing” would be more apt as Fleisher throws us into the deep end with an entire new supporting cast and milieu, Springer and Esposito bringing nothing to the table.  The supposedly brilliant Scotty must be a moron not to guess Jessie’s i.d., and the capper is Jim’s “A future issue will reveal the entire nerve-numbing story!” footnote—why not just tell us in some logical order?

Star Wars Annual 1
"The Long Hunt"
Story by Chris Claremont
Art by Mike Vosburg and Steve Leialoha
Colors by Bob Sharen
Letters by John Costanza
Cover by Walt Simonson

Luke and Leia explore a bazaar on the commerce planet of Tirahnn; Luke is happy to get out of the confines of the Falcon and just explore new surroundings, thinking he and Leia are safe from prying eyes. However, they are recognized, not as enemies of the Empire, but as two of the four people (including Han and Chewie) sought by “the tyrant.” A tall, green, beautiful winged woman arrives, flanked by large catmen, who announce her as “Majestrix of Skye.” The crowd parts, but she bumps into Leia quite violently. Luke’s first instinct is to protest, but the princess chooses to let it pass and stay out of the limelight. However, this proves futile when Luke find a dropped money pouch and the Majestrix accuses them of thievery and orders her servants to kill them. The catmen approach, but Luke instinctively draws his light saber, kills one and he and Leia make a run for it. The Magestrix smiles, as the pre-planned hunt is now on. A wild chase ensues, but eventually Luke and Leia are trapped. Exhausted, Luke is no match for the catumen and is beaten pretty badly until Chewbacca appears and, with Han’s help, cuts down the attackers. They return to the Falcon where Luke is given medical attention. Shortly following, a visitor from Han’s past arrives: a beautiful young smuggler named Katya. When Luke tells them about the Tyrant of Skye, Han and Katya clearly remember their situation and Han decides to go in and settle the matter. He leaves Katya on the Falcon with the instructions to take everyone off-planet if Han isn’t back by dawn.

As Han goes to find Kharys, the Tyrant of Skye, a creature of smoke enters the Falcon and weaves its way through the ship, finding Katya asleep. It touches her flesh and she screams. It sucks the energy from her, painfully and slowly taking her life until only her clothes remain. Having felt her death-cry, Luke bursts into the room and is attacked by the now-solid energy demon. Chewbacca saves him at the last second, but neither the giant Wookiee nor Leia’s blaster shots can stop it. Finally, Luke grabs his saber and impales the creature, killing it. Han returns and is greeted by the death of his old friend. They take off to the home planet of the Tyrant: Marat V, also knows as Skye, and he tells how he, Katya and a few other Corellians were smuggling there; how he and his friends were captured and made part of the Great Hunt. All but he and Katya were killed. Finally, the Falcon arrives and a holo-communication from the Tyrant tells him all of this was meant to draw them to Marat. The Falcon is intercepted by a squadron of TIE fighters. Han orders everyone but Chewie into the life pods as he holds off the fighters. Luke, Leia and the droids evacuate and believe the Falcon destroyed.  The pod is quickly captured and later, Luke and Leia are in a cell, greeted by Aragh, Patriarch of the S’Kytri – the Windborn. He is handsome as the Tyrant is beautiful, only bluer. They are taken to the Supreme Council to face judgment. When they hear Luke’s name is Skywalker, there is a sudden shift in their attitude. They test his honor and tell him that Han and Chewie aren’t dead, merely captured by the Tyrant. Regardless of the odds, Luke vows to rescue them. The S’Kytri promise to give him all the help he needs.

As Han is being tortured by Kharys, a flock of flying warriors approach her mountain fortress. Among them are Luke and Leia in winged flying suits. They attack, with Luke being the air cover while the other S’Kytri hang back and judge their valor. Leia takes to the ground with her blaster to find Han and Chewie. After a long battle, Han and Chewie are free, while Luke and Kharys duel in the air with light sabers. Her knowledge of the force is formidable and she outclasses Luke at every turn. However, Luke feigns weakness and draws her in close. Finally, he strikes, killing the Majestrix of Skye and freeing Marat V from her tyranny.
-Scott McIntyre

Scott: Much as I hate annuals, this one is really quite good. Part of the reason is that the art is beautiful and more realistic. Unlike the strange, Manga-style pencils of Carmine Infantino, Mike Vosburg and Steve Leialoha go to lengths to capture the likenesses of the actors and characters. It’s a very lovely visual experience. The story itself isn’t bad, it just doesn’t feel very Star Wars-y. Flying people of blue and green skin feels more Flash Gordon. However, it’s better than 6-foot-tall bipedal green bunny rabbits. The insight into Han’s past is very nice and it’s good to see him more serious and less quick to crack wise. Katya is a fun “street” type character and it’s fun to play up the friendly rivalry between Luke and Han when she arrives by having Leia show a little jealousy. Chris Claremont writes a good fantasy space-yarn. While not great Star Wars, it’s still a good story and a fun issue. Surprisingly.

Chris: Based on the title, and comments from Kharys, we’re given the impression early on she has a plan afoot to track and trap Luke & Leia, but it doesn’t really turn out that way, does it.  No, instead we have the usual capture-and-rescue, with some TIE-fighting worked in.  I admit Claremont gets the action and pacing a decent Star Wars story ought to have.  Just as importantly, Claremont is sure to include plenty of interaction between our principal star warriors; he gets the tone right, as there are some good-natured barbs, without any dialog getting too ridiculous or too heated.  

As I finished reading, it struck me how anyone writing for Star Wars in the late ‘70s, though, is at a distinct disadvantage for a number of reasons.  First of all, at this time, there aren’t eight Star Wars movies, dozens of books and comics, and literally dozens of animated shorts from which to glean material – there’s one movie.  At this point, it’s reasonable to wonder whether Luke or Han might wind up with Leia (although Luke and Leia seem more palsy than turtle-dovey).  

The final moment nearly had me in stitches, though – the notion that Obi-Wan had two pupils: Darth Vader and Luke’s father -!!  So, is it unfair for Mr I-planned-it-from-the-start Lucas to withhold information from Marvel, when it affords them no opportunity to avoid a whopper like this; or, is this further proof that Lucas was piecing the whole thing together as he went along -?
The Vosburg/Leialoha art is a curious pairing, but Leialoha’s inks achieve the best-looking results we’ve seen to date from Vosburg’s pencils (testament to the skill of the proven finisher).  Highlights include: the myriad creatures at the market (p 1-2); Luke & Leia move thru the multi-leveled city (p 7, 1st pnl); the smoke demon is fairly well done, although the concept seems more at home in Dr Strange than in a space opera (p 14-15); Kharys looks pretty spectacular throughout, as once again I regret never having signed up to take a year-long live-modeling course (p 30, pnl 2) – even when she’s evil, she’s plenty sizzlin’ (p 39, pnl 4).  

Star Wars 30
"A Princess Alone!"
Story by Archie Goodwin
Art by Carmine Infantino and Gene Day
Colors by Petra Goldberg
Letters by Joe Rosen
Cover by Carmine Infantino and Bob Wiacek

Metalorn is an Imperial Factory Planet, with a human slave labor force working long hours under the watchful eye of Governor Corwyth’s Stormtroopers and trackers. A young girl named Tammi sneaks away from school to plant seeds in an area of dirt. Her mother attempts to stop her before getting in hot water with the guards, who shoo the girl away, ruining her planting. Unknown to any of them, Princess Leia is dispatched to the planet to find her old mentor and hopefully build a new arm of the Rebellion. At the same time, Baron Tagge arrives under orders to make sure the Rebellion has not reached Metalorn. Cornwyth assures Tagge that nobody could penetrate their security. However, Leia has attacked a stormtrooper and taken his weapon. Cornwyth boasts how each weapon is equipped with a tracking device and uses it to follow her movements. However, Tagge is no longer there to hear. Leia hops on to a conveyer carrying ore and stromtroopers move to head her off at the Smelter Bay, but the princess jumped off en route, leaving the gun behind.

Leia enters the worker commissary and finds Arn Morada, her old teacher, who was convinced the entire royal family was killed when Alderaan was destroyed. Tagge arrives, confirms the spy is indeed Leia Organa of Alderaan and moves in for the kill with his light saber. Leia, however, tosses food paste rations at Tagge, blinding him, while she avoids his swinging weapon. Morada trips Tagge and once he’s on the ground, Leia shackles his leg to a table. By the time he frees himself, Leia is gone, given cover by Tammi. Leia explains to the little girl that, even when you’re scared, if you believe in something strongly enough, that’s the best time to do it. Leia hugs Tammi one last time and makes her escape. Tagge and Cornwyth agree this incident is best kept from the Emporer while Liea knows the seeds of Rebellion have been planted…even as Tammi sneaks out and once again plants her own seeds. -Scott McIntyre

Scott: Just a little over a month ago, Carrie Fisher passed away, so perhaps it is most fitting that my final Star Wars write-up should be of a Princess Leia solo story (see what I did there?).  For this run, it’s actually a fairly decent story, if light on plot. Leia arrives, is detected, runs from pursuers, finds who she’s looking for, and escapes. However, the final speech about hope is really quite nice and the little girl, Tammi, is kind of cute. I won’t miss the Infantino art, but it was the most distinctive until the Al Williamson art debuted in the Empire Strikes Back adaptation and pretty much blew everyone else out of the water. A single-issue story, one and done, this is a nice way to go out. No lingering cliffhangers to ponder.

Matthew:  It was rather poignant re-reading this one-off featuring Princess Leia less than a month after Carrie Fisher’s premature passing on December 27, followed by her mother, Debbie Reynolds, the very next day.  That may have made me more favorably disposed toward Archie’s story, but I will say I liked the “hearts and minds” message about how not every victory is a military one, and that instilling—as it were—“a new hope” among those oppressed by the Empire is just as important.  The stuff with Tammi was a bit more trite, and while they doubtless intended the labor force’s uniforms to be depersonalizing, they perhaps succeeded too well; I had a hard time differentiating between Leia in page 3, panel 2 and Tammi’s mom in page 5, panel 3.

The Mighty Thor 290
"Ring Around the Bull!"
Story by Roy Thomas
Art by Arvell Jones and Chic Stone
Colors by Carl Gafford
Letters by Joe Rosen
Cover by Keith Pollard and Bob Layton

The Mighty Thor is flying over Los Angeles when he sees a peculiar sight: a man dressed as a bat falling towards the ground. After the thunder god has rescued him and taken him back to his flat, the man explains that he is a big-time Mexican wrestler named El Vampiro but he has been beaten badly by another wrestler with the handle of El Toro Rojo. Suddenly, as if on cue, a giant man dressed as a red bull (ergo "El Toro Rojo!") busts through the wall and attacks Thor. The villain explains that he is a Deviant and he knows all about the Asgardian Avenger. The two duke it out but, during the fight, Thor is separated from his hammer and changes into lame Doc Blake. Rojo is able to escape with Blake's walking stick but El Vampiro tells Don that Rojo has a match that night. Don heads over to the arena, where he spies the Bull in the ring, using Don's walking stick to pummel an opponent! The not-so-lame Doc hops into the ring and manages to get hold of his stick. A huge lightning bolt hits the middle of the ring and there stands... "Thor -- Lord of the living lightning and heir to the throne of eternal Asgard!" The bout continues on, with Bull and Thor trading half-Nelsons and piledrivers, until Thor climbs atop the ropes and dives in for a back elbow drop-slam (no, not really, actually Thor takes off his cape and Toro charges him... no, seriously!). Adding insult to injury, Thor destroys El Toro Rojo's horns, leaving the Deviant half a man (or half a bull). Goldilocks is crowned the new champion and caps off a perfect night by turning down a sleazy promoter's wrestling contract. It's great to be a thunder god! -Peter Enfantino

Peter: It's pretty sad that the title I picked as the Best of the 1960s has fallen this far, becoming a parody of itself, no better than an above-average issue of Fatman, the Human Flying Saucer. There's something deadly wrong about the thunder god using the words "Amigo" and "Chicano" as if they're in his everyday vocabulary. It does little good to harp on the fact that these incidents always seem to happen just at the right time to just the right hero. Thor just happens to be flying through Hollywood (and thanks again to Hefner and Alice for paying for the sign -- Roy showing his new L.A. roots) when El Vampiro (great flick, by the way) just happens to be going through his traumas with El Toro Rojo (that means "The Red Bull" - The Decoding Dean), who just happens to be a Deviant which just happens to pertain to the 90-issue saga we're slogging through! I get it... I know... no story without all the coincidences; well, no story without the lazy writing is more like it. The Mighty Thor has suffered through embarrassments before (Circus of Crime, anyone?) but the climactic wrestling match (at a time when wrestling was at least four years past its prime), where the noble hero removes his cape and uses it as a muleta, is surely a low point for the  title, no? And why can't Roy make up his mind about translations? We get: a/ full English; b/ partial translations; c/ key words in Spanish; d/ full sentences in Spanish; e/ sentences with brackets around them so that we understand the character is speaking in Spanish; and f/ the annoying random translating caption box. Consistency is too much to ask for?  [Si.  ("Yes."  --Roy)]

Matthew: Obviously, not every book’s coverage will end on a high note and/or with closure, but it’s dispiriting to see this one go out with the most pathetic of whimpers in an issue marking a low point even for the bloated Celestials saga, a pointless diversion plunging the thunder god into the gripping mythological realm of…professional wrestling?  Was Marvel in its WWF (as it was then) phase, between this and the recent prominence of luchadoras in Marvel Two-in-One?  To make matters worse, and Stone notwithstanding, guest penciler Arvell Jones does a totally average job, so we don’t even have the compensation of excellent artwork to uplift the tiresome storytelling, and take our minds off the fact that, yes, Thor is mixing it up with masked wrestlers.

Sound effect from the bottom of the barrel:
Chris: It’s a strange little aside, isn’t it?  The Celestials can wait – let’s rumble!  Hey Roy – as writer and editor, you have some say over how these Thor-chronicles are depicted; any idea why we’re devoting an entire issue to Mexican masked wrestling?  El Toro Rojo is a working Deviant, and El Vampiro is an Eternal, married to an average human; aside from these fun facts, is there any other reason why we’re spending so much time with these two?  Thor himself saith that “the very planet doth stand in peril most dire,” so he questions why El Toro Rojo is engaged in grappling with puny humans.  Well, Thor, next time you see Roy, please pose the question to him; although, considering the languid pace he’s taken with this whole Celestials storyline, I doubt he’d have a satisfactory answer.  

Thor also might ask Roy how the Warriors Three are faring; when we last saw them, they were facing a standing eight-count against Fafnir.  No update on events transpiring with our supporting cast, so all I can do is hope the guys are okay.  Arvell Jones provides the adequate art; say, if Arvell Jones is here, does that mean we might see Rich Buckler next issue (just kidding)?

What If? 18
"What If Dr. Strange Had Been a Disciple of Dormammu?"
Story by Peter Gillis
Art by Tom Sutton and Bruce Patterson
Colors by Glynis Wein
Letters by Tom Orzechowski
Cover by Keith Pollard and Pablo Marcos

The Watcher tells us of Dr. Stephen Strange, how he became the disciple of The Ancient One and later Master of the Mystic Arts. However, in another world, Mordo befriended Strange under orders from Dormammu, instead of attacking him like in our reality. Then he heals Strange's hands, sending him back to the medical world, where he's found guilty of "flagrant malpractice." Seeking more power, he becomes Mordo's willing apprentice, then swears loyalty to Dormammu, which saddens The Ancient One. The wise old master travels to Latveria to recruit Victor Von Doom, even saying he can heal his face, but the tyrant declines. Instead TAO is left with seven magicians and two acolytes, including Dr. Anthony Druid, Genghis, and Agatha Harkness, in hopes of battling Dormammu, with the Eye of Agamotto holding the key to victory. The Eye is a gateway to the being Eternity, and is held in trust for TAO's successor.

Meanwhile, Dormammu decrees that Strange kill Mordo with his burgeoning powers, witnessed by the Dread One's sister Umar, whom Strange is dreaming about, and soon the two spark a romantic relationship that's not entirely trustworthy of course. Dormammu's wraiths find the good guys, who quickly prepare for the attack by an increasingly arrogant Strange and his minions. But Druid and Genghis break the spell with one from an ancient scroll to call on the power of the Eye, but instead "all becomes a vortex to madness!" Genghis is lost as Strange is caught in the whirlwind and sent through time and space to the lair of Eternity! The being examines Strange yet tosses him away when he suspects missed potential. Back at the sanctum of TAO, the white sorcerers try to regroup, with TAO using the "essences of the three Deathless Spirits" to inhabit Wong, Miss Bentley and the faithful Hamir, in hopes of getting guidance. 

Strange pushes Dormammu for more power, but the flame-headed fiend is less than impressed with his "slave" and is sticking to the plan to defeat TAO and Eternity. Strange and Umar are visited by a gold dove, which turns into the Eye of Agamotto—the sorcerers have given the amulet to their enemy! Is it a trick? Strange brings it to his master, but Dormammu instead orders him to destroy the Ancient One, knowing this could give his disciple enough strength to defeat him! Strange once again stages an assault on TAO's sanctum, and finds himself one-on-one against TAO! He can't stand the "unconcealed goodness" of his foe, so he wipes out the sorcerer squad and opens a portal to Eternity's realm! Dormammu has his opening, and uses Strange as a "human lens" to focus his power, and as the battle rages, Strange is the key to chaos vs. order, and he chooses the side of Good! All calms down as evil is defeated, and Strange swears loyalty to The Ancient One, and becomes his disciple, as well as, according to The Watcher, "perhaps the strangest and most wondrous incarnation of the spirit that ever is Dr. Strange!" Bazinga! --Joe Tura

Joe: "Magical Mayhem in the Marvel Manner!" proclaims our cover, and for once it's right on. Off the bat, our crew gets Shakespearean titles, including Peter Gillis, Bard; Tom Sutton, Illuminator; Bruce Patterson, Embellisher; Tom Orzechowski, Scribe, Glynis Wein, Colorist [what, nothing "original" for Glynis?]; Mark Gruenwald, Guide; Jim Shooter, Watcher. [Of course Shooter gets the "big" name.] Then the fun starts. It's magical mayhem alright, just about from start to finish. Dr. Strange gets saved by Mordo instead of the Ancient One, and the hunger for power and more power invades every single bad guy. Cassie's beloved Dormammu mainly sits on the sidelines barking orders until the end, and the battle is a mix of Ditko, Steranko, and Jackson Pollock. Sutton does a great job with the art, Patterson doesn't get in the way, and Peter Gills comes up with a convoluted, crazy plot that makes no sense if you stop to think about it. So my advice is don't! Tom and Glynis of course give it all a big lift in their own magnificent way. Really good stuff!

The best What If? issue since the legendary #13 (Conan, class. Conan) is a great way to end the decade, especially since overall what was once one of my favorite titles was a bit of a bummer. Letdowns, good memories turned sour, and flat-out dumb stories [see last issue] gave me a headache at times. Yet there's so much more to come, in a summer class most likely. I have to find if there's redemption, although I'm not optimistic. But since this is the title that got me back into comic collecting, it deserves a post-grad study for sure. Sign up today, seats are going fast!

Matthew:  I haven’t read the last two issues, and frankly haven’t missed them, but am happy to end with what I consider one of the best.  “Illuminator” Sutton, of course, did yeoman service on Doc’s book, and while I didn’t care for the Broderson Mar-Vell, embellisher Bruce’s ornate style seems suitable, yet it’s “bard” Gillis, a frequent target of mine, who’s the pleasant surprise.  There’s a legitimate point of bifurcation in his origin where Doc decides which path he will take, giving this greater legitimacy than the typical “What if Peter Parker had ordered pastrami instead of corned beef?” time-waster, and if the ending recalls that of #7, in which it’s posited that Peter was destined to become Spider-Man by however indirect a route, I don’t see that as a bad thing...

The idea of assembling an all-star team of Marvel’s magical heroes is an interesting one, and it’s fun to see such long-sidelined supporting players as Lord Phyffe and Rama Kaliph, but while I’ll admit I didn’t rack my brain to come up with any omissions, I immediately pegged Turan Barim and Count Carezzi as one-time-only seat-fillers, and don’t know why that was necessary.  They contribute nothing, and it’s not as if there were some insurmountable reason why we had to have a specific number of magicians.  The artwork is better than this always-marginal mag deserves, at times positively Ditko-worthy:  the sinister siblings in page 16, panel 5; whirlwind in page 23, panel 4; plunge on page 25; bisected Strange in page 44, panel 1; and Eternity, well, any ol’ time.

Chris: Peter Gillis has a sound foundation for his speculative tale, since anyone who has heard the origin of Dr Strange recognizes that, at one time, he had been a fairly selfish bastard.  Gillis picks a credible moment to lead him down the wrong path, as Strange – despite his lengthy search for the fabled healing powers of the Ancient One – is eager to accept Mordo’s offer of the quick-and-easy cure for his damaged hands.  If Strange’s spirit is never purified by his quest for – and acceptance of – the message of the Ancient One, then it makes sense for him to revert to his old ways, and if anything, to become an even more disagreeable character once he has a taste of Dormammu’s power.  

Clever moment by Gillis to pair Strange with Umar, and to provide insight into their plotting against each other, as they also quietly scheme to usurp Dormammu.  It would have been the right idea to develop this theme fully, and for Umar to figure prominently in the climax; as it is, Umar does not appear at all in the final seven pages, last seen expecting to reign unopposed once Strange and Dormammu have finished each other off (p 36).  
The ending also is unclear; why does Strange suddenly choose to support the “cosmic affirmation” and reject the “cosmic denial”?  We know the Vishanti (briefly, comfortably assuming human form, another clever moment –p 31) have offered the Ancient One their advice, which could mean they also recognize what Eternity has seen, that Strange has “potential,” albeit “sorely misused” (p 27); but, that’s about the only straw I can draw.  If Gillis wants us to believe that a what-if Dr Strange would willingly cast aside the well-practiced evil we’ve witnessed him indulging in from the outset, then Gillis would have to do more to foreshadow the character’s reversal properly.  (note: Gillis will script the final six issues of Doc’s Bronze-era mag, #76-81.)
It’s a bonus to have one more Dr Strange story from the masterful pencil of Tom Sutton.  Imaginative highlights include: Strange blasts into Mordo’s room, firing the oaken door from its hinges and upsetting furniture (p 14, pnl 3); Umar drifts over Strange as he dreams (p 15, pnl 4); Dormammu stands on a short platform, and stares off toward … a distant point, weaving off somewhere (p 16, last pnl); Strange and Umar share a kiss that blends into the cosmos (p 17, pnl 4); black cracks creep into the protective dome, as Druid begins to panic (p 22); the Eye of Agamotto creates a mystical vortex (p 23); Stephen drops forever, down a series of narrow vertical panels (p 25); the mind-blowing entrance of Eternity, who appears to exist simultaneously in several parts of the frame (p 26); Stephen and Umar walk together in the shadowy dawn (p 34); Strange and Dormammu approach Eternity on a series of plasmic steps and ledges (p 42).  Okay, I think that covers it.  Bruce Patterson’s inks are clearer than we’re accustomed to seeing for a shadowy Doc tale; his style points ahead to when Terry Austin (incredibly) will become Doc’s in-house crystal-clear finisher for a total of sixteen issues, starting in 1981.  

The Uncanny X-Men 128
"The Action of the Tiger!"
Story by John Byrne and Chris Claremont
Art by John Byrne and Terry Austin
Colors by Glynis Wein
Letters by Tom Orzechowski
Cover by George Pérez and Terry Austin

Having taken the body of his father, Joe MacTaggert, Proteus, his mother Moira in tow, turns the town of Edinburgh inside out. The X-Men hope to draw the rogue mutant out of the city and into the country where they can fight him. Cyclops hatches a plan to exploit Proteus’ weakness to metal and constant necessity for a new host body. The team attacks viciously, trying to get the mutant to use as much of his strength as possible, to weaken him greatly and make him vulnerable. Storm attacks and Proteus encases her in a hard, airtight cocoon. Wolverine frees her and gets his senses scrambled. Banshee shoots Proteus before he can kill Wolverine, but Proteus is able to seal Banshee in a bottomless pit. Nightcrawler saves him, but the effort wipes them both out. Jean attacks savagely, but even she is no match for him. Finally, Proteus takes Moira away, seconds from taking over her body, when Colossus grabs him by the shoulder and tosses Proteus against a wall. His decayed body shatters into dust and his true form attacks the Russian. He toys with him, making him suffer, but this only gives Peter Rasputin enough time to take on his armored form and slam his fists into the heart of the deadly mutant. This short-circuits Proteus, causing him to explode and spread what’s left of him to every corner of the globe. Comforted by Banshee, Moira is left to mourn the deaths of her husband and son. -Scott McIntyre

Scott: And so the Proteus saga comes to an exciting end. What a great way to go out. Even among the pyrotechnics, there are great character beats: Banshee’s concern for his lady love; Wolverine’s skittishness during the battle; Scott’s instability when he thinks Jean might be dead; and even Storm’s concern for the bees. It all clicks. We never lose sight of how shattering this is to Moira and that Sean really is of no further use to the X-Men. While he would appear now and again after this, this is his final major part in a storyline. He says his farewells in the next issue and has a cameo in a future issue. As always, the art is totally flawless.

Of all the comics I’ve covered since joining this merry band of bloggers, the Byrne/Claremont X-Men was truly my steady favorite. It was, at its worst, “good.” The characters truly took on new life when Byrne was handed over the pencils and the only regret, with this blog ending, is not being able to cover the greatness to come. From here, the X-Men meet the Hellfire Club and we learn that Jason Wyngarde, who has been influencing Jean Grey, is really Mastermind. We’ll meet Sebastian Shaw and the White Queen, and then move on into the apex of this team’s greatness: The Dark Phoenix Saga. There aren’t enough adjectives to cover how amazing this book gets. After introducing Kitty Pryde, Byrne leaves the book with one parting shot: "Days of Future Past," a superior storyline that finally became a great film. JB would then move to the Fantastic Four and, as writer/artist, usher in that team’s second golden age. It was a pleasure and an honor to chronicle this run.

Chris: We’ve seen how the X-team typically responds without hesitation to Cyclops’ in-battle commands (well, except Wolverine).  Partly, this is due to Scott’s frequent role as danger-room choreographer.  We see a real-time demonstration here, as Cyclops proves his worth on both macro and micro levels.  The big picture is critical; as Proteus has the team scrambling and off-balance, constantly having to react to his reality-morphing, Cyke devises a strategy for the team to re-take the offensive (as Claremont informs us, Phoenix thought-beams these instructions to the others).  He’s uncompromising about the stakes involved – it might require the sacrifice of any, or all of them, to defeat Proteus.  He’s not trying to throw off their confidence; he expects to motivate them to give their best, no-holds-barred effort (fortunately, Claremont refrains from his time-worn bit about “no quarter given – none asked” this time).  

As for the micro, Cyke demonstrates his combat-worth in several instances: he immediately blasts thru the covering over the pit Banshee has dropped into, and orders Nightcrawler to bamf Sean out (p 11-14); he positions himself and Havok on opposite sides as they hit Proteus simultaneously, and inflict serious damage to his wearing-thin physical form (p 21); he ingeniously pulses his optic blasts to slow Wolverine’s fall so Colossus can catch him, then sends Colossus to finish what’s left of Proteus, telling young Peter, “You know what to do,” to which he replies “I will not fail, Cyclops.” (p 22).  
Scott’s brisk efficiency and professionalism also allow him to keep thoughts of Jean at bay.  When he catches up to her after she’s felled by Proteus’ attack, he sees her, and thinks “Jean’s down—hurt!  No, I can’t think about her now – I don’t dare, or I’ll crack wide open.  I have to focus on the job at hand, nothing else,” which draws criticism from Wolverine at Scott’s apparent callousness, and silent support from Alex, as he arrives in the other side of the frame (p 21, 1st pnl).  
As Proteus wears down, he has several opportunities to snatch an X-body and continue the fight.  Most of the civilians have been safely cleared away, so the X-teamers (and associates, like Moira) are the only available options to increasingly-desperate Proteus, which leaves our heroes particularly vulnerable.  As we noted when he appropriated helpless Jennie Banks in #127, it doesn’t take more than a second or two for Proteus to snatch-and-grab.  So, why doesn’t he?  Is he enjoying the vitality of his father’s body?  Perhaps he’d thought he’d had more time, and the strategy to burn him out proves more effective than Cyclops had anticipated.  It isn’t until p 22, 1st panel that Proteus realizes he’s at risk to “discorporate,” but by then, he has only minutes to live.  His “fatal mistake” is when he tortures Peter with fire and painful memories of his dead brother, Peter observing “You toyed with me when you should have slain me … that mistake will be your last!” (p 26).
We know Claremont isn’t afraid to work adult-themed moments into his super-hero stories.  Moira reminded Joe in #127 that he’d left her in the hospital, pregnant, when last they saw each other.  Proteus now says “An act of hatred and violence created me,” which clearly suggests Joe had raped Moira.  I’m sure I didn’t have a clear-enough appreciation for the significance of Proteus’ statement when I first read it.  
A few art highlights before I go: Proteus twists poor Moira around, looming over her in a spooky bright red light (p 6, last three panels – colors by G. Wein, as you know); Storm’s shadow visible as she closes in on Proteus from above (p 7, last pnl); Phoenix’ attack, as Wolverine watches from above, followed by Proteus’ particularly nasty counter-strike (leaving Jean feeling as if she’s been dead and buried, “in the ground” for a year), and Wolverine’s classic gut-slash (all on p 19); Proteus, reduced to rags and sagging grey flesh, as he taunts Moira one last time (p 23).  

Matthew:  I’m glad our coverage coincidentally stops here, both because the Proteus arc ends with such satisfying closure and because the next nine issues, brilliant though they may be, are tinged with sadness due to—no, not the Dazzler’s debut, but (spoiler alert!) the decline and fall of Phoenix.  Claremont takes his title from Shakespeare’s immortal “Once more unto the breach, dear friends” speech (Henry V, Act III, scene 1), which tells you the level we are playing at here, right from the memorable Perez/Austin cover.  Love the quick look at Proteus’s real form, which reminded me of Swamp Thing, in page 5, panel 5; Wolverine’s unrestrained savagery in page 19, panel 6; the sweater-clad, decaying “Joe” in the climax; and…well, just about everything, really.

Mark: "Ever hear a city scream?"

Good opening line, and things only get better from there. I'd carped about Proteus' almost complete lack of characterization before my resistance was worn down last issue by his sheer malevolence. He's just, as a certain blowhard billionaire might opine, a "bad hombre." When the X-ers finally get the upper hand, Protie, unable to find a new body to snatch, is trapped in the quickly-decaying shell of wife-beating pappa Joe MacTaggert, revealing the moral rot and gleeful sadism of both father and son.

I almost cheered aloud when Colossus scattered "...every scrap of the villain's the four corners of the earth" in a burst of light so dazzling (p.27) ya gotta wear shades.

Cover to cover, it's a bravura performance but...

How does Sean fall down a fifty foot hole without so much as a sprained ankle? And what the hell is the title - "The Action of the Tiger!" - supposed to mean?

It ain't easy being the faculty scold, class, but someone's gotta take a little edge off the hosannas...  

Joe: Someone please remind me for the last time why I sold my stinkin' X-Men for a handful of Proteus pebbles? Sigh...

Also This Month

Amazing Adventures Volume 2 #1
Crazy #57
Fantasy Masterpieces Volume 2 #1
Fun and Games #4
< Machine Man #12
Marvel Tales #110
Marvel's Greatest Comics #83
Sgt Fury #155
Shogun Wariors #11
Tales to Astonish Volume 2 #1

Aaron “Machine Man” Stack witnesses a series of violent crimes.  In his frustration at these instances of “man’s inhumanity to man” (yes, that’s a direct quote from the issue), Aaron angrily releases “a coruscating charge” of electricity, which affects five people in a nearby tenement, causing them to “evolve.”  The beings drift down from the sky to meet with Aaron, who is threatening to kill a law-breaker, and challenge him to recognize “life is sacred,” even the life of one who would commit evil.  As Aaron continues his angry tirade, stating “the world would be better off without men corrupting it!," the beings ask themselves whether they should destroy Machine Man, to prevent him from interfering with mankind’s progress.  A child, the son of a man Aaron had saved from a shooting, speaks in MM’s defense, stating Machine Man is “not a monster.”  Aaron marvels at the child’s acceptance of him, despite their differences; contented, the beings fly off to seek their destiny.  
Wolfman’s depiction of MM is wildly out of character, as the ordinarily even-keel MM spouts rageful pronouncements thru most of the issue.  One being asks Aaron, “Can you not comprehend the illogic of your actions?” and another observes Aaron’s emotional state could indicate he is “more human than [he is] aware” (p 21); moments like these stand as opportunities missed by both the title character, and his writer/editor, to move the story in a more productive, less repetitive – and less shrill – direction.  Lastly, I did mention that these beings were evolved due to an electrical charge emitted by Aaron, didn’t I -?  -Chris Blake


The Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian 47
Cover Art by Earl Norem

“The Treasure of Tranicos”
Script by Roy Thomas
Art by Gil Kane, John Buscema, Joe Rubinstein & others

“The Secret of the Black Stranger” 
Text by Fred Blosser

“Swords and Scrolls”

As mentioned in my write up of Conan the Barbarian #104, this issue of Savage Sword — the final to be reviewed under the aegis of Marvel University — presents the last of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories that Roy Thomas needed to adapt. Well, yes and no. 

In the 1930s, Howard wrote a 29,000-word novella starring his Cimmerian hero titled “The Black Stranger.” However, the story was rejected by Weird Tales for not being, um, weird enough. I think I’ve written that before. Anyways, the Texan, never one to waste typewriter ribbon, recast the story as “Swords of the Red Brotherhood,” setting it in on the west coast of North America and changing the protagonist to Black Terence Vulmea, his big, black-haired Irish pirate. Sadly, that didn’t do the trick and Robert E. finally abandoned the plot and moved on. However, in 1951, L. Sprague de Camp somehow unearthed the original “The Black Stranger” and saw its potential. He tinkered with the tale, inserted Thoth Amon into the proceedings and rechristened it “The Treasure of Tranicos.” This one was ultimately published, included in the 1953 Gnome Press collection King Conan. Now all of this is detailed in “The Secret of the Black Stranger,” the Fred Blosser article included with this magazine.

With that out of the way, let’s get to a sticky conundrum: Roy Thomas’ adaptation of “The Treasure of Tranicos” is a two-parter, so next month’s finale falls outside of MU’s Hyborian curriculum. I’m going to assume that Roy sticks closely to what de Camp wrote so — with the help of Blosser’s text piece and some interwebs research — I’ll try to include what happens in The Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian #47 from January 1980 as well. I don’t own that magazine so there will be some guessing.

“The Treasure of Tranicos” follows up the events of last issue’s “Moon of Blood.” After being given the rank of general by King Numedides of Aquilonia, Conan is betrayed and forced to flee back to the Pictish wilderness. He is soon captured by the savage Pict warriors of the Eagle tribe: once again, he manages to escape and disappears into the forest. The scene then changes to a coastal fortress miles away, the home of Baron Valenso. Along with his niece Lady Belesa and a small battalion of soldiers, he has retreated to this remote spot to escape the fury of Thoth-Amon, the fearsome Stygian sorcerer he once double-crossed. However, his ship eventually sank in the harbor and he is basically now a prisoner of his own design. Over the next few days, Valenso’s outpost is sailed upon by two different buccaneers: the Barachan pirate Strombanni and the Zingarian privateer Black Zarono. Both are convinced that the baron knows the location of the priceless treasure of Tranicos, buried somewhere in the Pict-filled region. At first, Valenso protests his ignorance. But when Thoth-Amon is spotted lurking in the vicinity, he hopes to strike a bargain with one of the buccaneers to sail him away from his vengeful pursuer.

The baron invites both Strombanni and Zarono into his compound to parlay. But it soon becomes apparent to the two visitors that Valenso has not been lying and does not have the knowledge they seek. Suddenly, a ferocious storm created by the Stygian sorcerer strikes, smashing Zarono’s ship against jagged rocks and killing his entire crew, leaving Strombanni’s craft as the only one manned and seaworthy. After the winds subside, Conan surprisingly strides into the room and produces a map that leads to the treasure — shockingly, he tosses it into a fireplace. As the pirates proclaim their outrage, Conan reveals that he knows the treasure’s exact location and does not need a map: it is in a haunted cave he used to hide from his superstitious Pict pursuers. The Cimmerian offers all a deal. With Strombanni’s men and Valenso’s supplies, they have the resources to secure and transport the treasure back to the stronghold. Afterwards, they will split the gold and jewels four ways, and Zarono and the baron can sail off on the Barachan’s ship leaving the barbarian in command of the fort with the men who could not fit on board.

That’s where part one of “The Treasure of Tranicos” ends. According to Blosser’s “The Secret of the Black Stranger, ” this uneasy alliance eventually arrives at the cave. There, Thoth-Amon awakens its demonic guardian and Valenso is killed, securing the sinister wizard’s revenge. While Blosser doesn’t mention what happens to the Stygian after that, it seems that Conan kills the creature and the survivors manage to transport the treasure back to the fortress. However, the Picts rampage and overrun the stronghold: everyone is killed except for Conan who escapes with Lady Belesa and her young ward Tina. Now here’s where it gets a bit tricky. In Howard’s  “The Black Stranger,” Conan and the women are picked up by a passing pirate ship and the Cimmerian returns to his buccaneering career. But in de Camp’s “The Treasure of Tranicos,” they are rescued by a galley bearing a group of disgruntled Aquilonian noblemen. They were actually searching for the barbarian, hoping that he would lead a revolt against King Numedides. This would set in motion the epic events that witnessed Conan’s rise to the throne of Aquilonia. I’m not sure which version The Rascally One picked: I must assume the latter, the one I would have preferred.

If you remember, we have met Black Zarono before: he actually teamed with Thoth-Amon in an attempt to overthrow King Ferdrugo of Zingara in the four-part adaptation of the L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter novel Conan the Buccaneer that ran over Savage Sword #40 to #43. I wonder if there was a scene between the former allies in issue #48. Since Zarono has lost his men and ship, Conan only includes him in the four-way split of the treasure through the kindness of his heart — nah, he actually does it to stop the Zingarian from whining. We’ve never encountered Strombanni before but the pirate sure as heck heard of the mighty Cimmerian.

“The Treasure of Tranicos” runs 50 pages: part two, “A Wind Blows from Stygia,” 51. So that’s a fair amount of newsprint for Roy to wrap up his adaptation. While John Buscema and Klaus Janson would illustrate the entire issue #48, here we have a mix of Gil Kane and Big John Buscema, with Joe Rubinstein and others unnamed on the inks. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to who penciled what, but it’s easy to see that Kane handled the first 17 as well as 20 to 37 while Buscema drew 18 and 19 plus 38 to 55. Rubinstein and his cohorts deliver top-notch embellishments so the results are very strong. Sugar Lips was quite familiar with Conan, and he handles the character very well. His first six pages — showing the Picts hot on the Cimmerian’s tail through the forest — are particularly exciting. Considering that he was a mainstay of 1970s Marvel, it was a treat to see Gil’s distinctive style in the very last Savage Sword on the course list. Of course, a cherry on top that we had old friend Big John on board as well. -Tom Flynn

The Hulk! 18
Cover Art by Bob Larkin

“Cast Away”
Script by Doug Moench
Art by Ron Wilson and Alfredo Alcala

“Shadows in the Heart of the City” 
Script by Doug Moench
Art by Bill Sienkiewicz and Klaus Janson

“Readers Rampage”

Not to toot my own off-key horn — or Dean Pete’s or Professor Joe’s — but banging out a write-up of a Marvel magazine can be a daunting affair. Let’s face it, they are more than three times the length of a regular, color comic and often feature multiple stories plus an article or two. So while I am totally relieved that I am finally free of Ghost Rider, I’m literally doing cartwheels that The Hulk! is also in my rearview mirror. Even with the absolutely infuriating Bloodstone backups, the series offered a sense of goofy fun when it was called The Rampaging Hulk and set during the '60s, but things completely nosedived with the switch to color and a modern setting with issue #10. And the final issue to fall within the Marvel University curriculum might be the worst yet. At least with the lead Hulk story, “Cast Away.”

Following up on the events of last time, a panicked Bruce Banner wakes up in an African hospital. He hulks out, smashes a tank, leaps away, lands on a strange, crescent-shaped island and changes back to Banner. The scientist soon meets the island’s only inhabitant, an old hermit named Thaddeus Hatcher: the man used to be a widower working as a carpenter in Milwaukee until he lost his job and home. Cashing in his meager savings, he traveled the world by tramp steamer. When he eventually landed in Africa, he rented a small fishing boat — a storm shipwrecked him on this uncharted atoll. Over the years, Hatcher came to realize that he was on his own private paradise, a fertile land that offered all he needed. But there is one catch: drug smugglers use the island to store their ill-gotten goods.

Over the next weeks, Banner settles into a new life, sharing Thaddeus’ enthusiasm for his lush and peaceful surroundings. But during a tremendous tropical storm, Bruce turns into the Hulk and mindlessly smashes the impressive shelter they built together. However, Hatcher is a forgiving man and the new friends begin to rebuild. One day, two teenagers swim to shore — their boat broke down in the harbor. At the same moment, the drug smugglers arrive: the young boy rushes forward to greet them as rescuers but is shot. Banner transforms and more smashing commences, the terrified smugglers the victims on this occasion. Hatcher urges the Hulk to get help for the injured boy, but the green goliath refuses to leave his new home. Instead, he dives into the water, frees the island from its mooring on the ocean’s stone floor and pushes it to the African coast. Jade Jaws becomes Bruce once again as the teenager gets medical attention — unnoticed, Hatcher slips away and rows off in a stolen boat, searching for his next paradise.

Yes, you read that straight. The 37-page “Cast Away” features the Hulk pushing an island across the ocean floor to help a teenager shot by drug smugglers. Doug Moench and Ron Wilson must have thought it was a mind-blowing scene and give it a two-page spread. Wilson, who often has problems keeping Hulk’s proportions straight, goofs it once again: Jade Jaws is so large in the plus-sized panel that the island looks to be only as large as a football field. Which is ridiculous since Thaddeus and Banner spend hours exploring the land. And while it’s played up, there’s no payoff at all that the island is shaped like a crescent. A Moon Knight shout out? This issue only features three transformations — and the middle one, caused by the storm, seems completely unnecessary. The rest of the story concerns the backstory and creaky philosophies of Hatcher the Hermit. Which, of course, is completely bungled by Moench. What does it all boil down to? Money is the root of all evil. Boy Doug, going out on a limb with that one. In all, this story is 100% filler. Which would be fine if it was Boston crème. But no, we get pure sawdust. I will say that since most of the story is set on a tropical island, inker supreme Alfredo Alcala gets to strut his stuff somewhat, finely detailing fronds, grass and other flora. 

At 17 pages, the Moon Knight backup “Shadows in the Heart of the City” looks great but, like part one from last issue, doesn’t really offer much depth. The serial killer called the Hatchet-Man, who is actually Marc Spector’s brother Randall, has grievously injured Marlene in Central Park, driving his hand ax into her back. As police arrive, Knight orders them to call an ambulance and races off after his mad sibling. Randall — who previously only murdered nurses — now kills everyone in his path, including a helpless old man. Along the way, the Hatchet-Man manages to seriously wound the dark avenger. Eventually, Randall is killed when he is impaled on a tree branch when Moonie ducks after a crazed, leaping attack. Later, the Moon Knight stands vigil over Marlene in a hospital — it will take until morning to find out if she will survive.

We start off with a two-page recap of part one, so this wrap up is even more flimsy plot wise. Basically, Moon Knight chases his brain-damaged brother around Central Park for 15 pages until the Hatchet-Man does himself in with an ill-time leap. There’s a running subplot about how the chase mirrors Marc and Randall’s childhood war games. Marlene's wounds seem quite serious but we all know she’ll pull through: she will remain a supporting character as Moon Knight rises in stature in the Marvel universe. After his next appearance in The Hulk! #20 (April 1980), he gets a solo shot in the next month with the  black-and-white magazine Marvel Preview #21. Finally, Moonie will get his own color comic series in November 1980. Doug Moench and Bill Sienkiewicz will team on all of these — at least until Bill leaves and is replaced by Kevin Nowlan in issue 31 (June 1983). Plus, believe it or not, University whipping boy Tony Isabella will replace Doug with #34. -Tom Flynn

(On Moon Knight):  Frequently underwritten and/or poorly used, Marlene is here further reduced to an unconscious victim at death’s door, with neither the rest of MK’s supporting cast nor two of his multiple identities anywhere in sight.  Since those are often among my least favorite aspects of the strip, this atypical entry—distilled by Moenkiewicz into a fatal running battle between Les Frères Spector—handily overcame my typical aversion to “all-action issues.”  Again giving credit where it’s due, I salute Janson’s skill and utter suitability as inker, and enjoyed the conclusion more now that we’re past the pussyfooting around re: the Hatchet Man’s identity (apparent Shadowknight retcon notwithstanding) and their convoluted back story. -Matthew Bradley

Howard the Duck? 2
Cover by Val Mayerik and Peter Ledger

"Animal Indecency!"
Story by Bill Mantlo
Art by Gene Colan and Klaus Janson

"The Crash of '79!"
Story by Bill Mantlo
Art by Gene Colan and Dave Simons

Howard and Bev are a bit apprehensive about their first day as actors in a new movie, to be produced in Cleveland by Digatalis Productions (Howard’s a bit more on edge than Bev, since that morning he’d fought off an attack by a tentacled and taloned killer alarm clock).  After all, they both have pretty good paying gigs right now: Howard as a hack driver for Bev’s Uncle Bev’s taxi company, and Bev as a live model (a career to which she is, let’s say, uncommonly well suited).  Still, the draw of the bright lights is undeniable, so the two crazy young kids ride downtown to Union Terminal Tower, to take their shot at stardom.  They’re both floored when they arrive inside, and see the terminal converted to a working studio set!  Director Dino Digitalis is pleased to see his young stars – his feature, Duck Rogers, is sure to be a great success!  Before they change to their costumes, Digitalis introduces his accountant, a polite but curious man who keeps his face hidden by a paper bag (shaking his hand, and observing the accountant’s cracked nails, Howard wonders, “Where’ve I seen that manicure before?”).  

No sooner have they changed and emerged bright-eyed from their dressing rooms (admittedly, nothing more than the terminal’s public restrooms …), Howard and Bev are surprised to see the movie trappings have vanished, leaving one person – the mad magician/accountant, Pro Rata (aha – so that explains the alarm-clock attack from before)!  Pro Rata still aspires to cash in on the cosmic dividend.  To that end, he has taken a calculated risk by arranging to borrow additional powers (from a “force bank”) for 24 hrs; he intends to use this time to force Howard to return the gem key (retained by Howard after their first encounter, chronicled in the four-color HtD #1), to unlock the mystical money-load!  Howard has bad news about the key – he hocked it.  Rata rages, and sics his allies on Howard and Bev – a gargantuan, but filling and nutritious breakfast of Eggs, Toast, Bacon, OJ, and Coffee!  H&B have a means of escape, as a “supermarket moon rocket” (which had been at rest in the terminal) springs to their aide.  The rocket observes his ability to speak is no less inexplicable than Howard’s own capacity to communicate – plus, Rata’s magic has altered rules of reality in the terminal – but still, he cannot fly unless he’s fed quarters.  H&B charge the rocket up, as (under Howard’s able piloting) he flies thru the Toast, and far above the terminal floor, where the pursuing Juice and Coffee are frozen in the thinning air. The rocket’s forward guns dispatch Eggs and Bacon, right before the Rocket crashes into Rata’s flying cash register, sending him spiraling down.  Howard reminds Bev – as they also begin to plummet  – that the terminal’s reality is of Rata’s making, so all they have to do is “divest!” to find themselves freed from Rata’s realm, and returned safely to the Cleveland that is … home.  -Chris Blake
Chris: if there’s any drawback to the longer format of the Marvel mag, it’s that there might be more space than is required to tell a perfectly adequate, enjoyable comics story.  This one takes a while to get going – I didn’t even tell you about a largely-uneventful ten-page prolog involving a decency campaign against unclothed animals in public, which results in Howard bowing to the outcry and agreeing to wear pants (“It’s slacks or suicide, Bev!” Howard laments).  
Then, it’s sixteen pages before Pro Rata reveals himself to H&B.  During that time, I’m reminded that Gerber’s blend of satire and absurdity is difficult to mimic, let alone match; the inexplicable assault by the alarm clock is agreeably nutty, but overall, the goings-on in the first act are noticeably missing Howard’s oddball comments and acerbic wit.  We also don’t have Gerber’s whack-job narration to add another amusement-layer.  Anyway, then we have a six-page recap of HtD #1, which prompts Bev to ask aloud, “Ducky, why’s he blathering on about facts we all know?," to which I had no reply. 
To his credit, Mantlo rallies as Rata revs up, with the Attack of the Monstrous Breakfast taking on truly loony proportions (“Rise, my pretty palatable!” calls Rata).  Here’s where masterful Gene Colan again asserts his worth, as the manic motion of the kids-ride rocket is matched by the glaring Eggs and Toast, and glowering Juice and Coffee, most notably on the two page spread on p 46-47, and an almost full-page 50.  See also the reversal as the pursuing drinks abruptly find themselves freezing (p 52), and the murderous look in the Eggs’ eyes (oops, I guess those are over-easy yolks), p 53 1st pnl, before Howard empties the guns into its proteiny (+ good cholesterol? depends who you talk to …) goodness.  Lastly, another nifty full-pager as the determined young rocket-that-could (self-asserting “I can! I can! I can! I will! I can!”) slams itself straight into the register, upending an “Egad!”-spouting Rata. -Chris Blake

The Tomb of Dracula 2
Cover by Bob Larkin

"The Dimensional Man"
Story by Marv Wolfman
Art by Steve Ditko

"Dracula Director John Badham: the Making of the Movie"
Text by Steve Swires

"Nosferatu the Vampyre"
Text by Tom Rogers

"Court of the Dead"
Story by Marv Wolfman
Art by Frank Robbins, John Romita, and John Tartaglione

"The Dimensional Man" opens with a splash inarguably drawn by Steve Ditko. And a disembodied narrator who isn't the Count. "I am an evil, a dark force, an unwilling incubus..." A trench-coated, fedora-wearing figure stumbles through dark city streets and falls...then absorbs the life force from a wino who tries to roll him. Soon he does the same to a married couple, stalking him from a sedan. And we learn from the woman that she is/was his mother!

The shifting face of the killer resembles amoebas dancing under a microscope, Rorschach by way of a Dr. Strange spell.

INTRO Angela, a young, blonde medium in unexpected distress, crying, "Not them! Why them?!?" putting the kibosh on the rest of the séance. Her anxious-to-talk-to-the-dead patrons object, all save Dracula, showing up on page eight to recognize her as a "true medium" who helped him with a "reading," although we don't learn any details of that encounter. Musta been engaging, since Vlad, in courtly monarch mode, declares Angela a friend and bestows upon her the power to summon him, by merely mentioning his name. 

Back at her apartment, Angela is captured by a coven, learns that the pain of the "Why them?!?" cry was for her parents, killed in the sedan by her "unwilling incubus" brother, Joshua. Their Jewish Hungarian parents, desperate to escape the Gestapo, made a deal with an occultist. He shielded them and they soon became willing converts, the woman bore twins Josh and Ange, born marked with an upside down cross. Sticking with his folk's religion, Joshua was touched during a ceremony by evil entity Asmodeus, sparking his Dimensional Man transformation. He's taken to killing fellow cultists since, and arriving at Angela's place, Josh fights for his sis but falls back under the control of cult leader Damien. He can only watch as they strap her to an upside down cross, preparing her to mate her with Asmodeus!

Drac, meanwhile, has saved a streetwalker (or perhaps an overly amorous barfly) from a groper, only to suck neck (natch) back at her place. Later, he's about to chow on his intruding landlady when he receives Angela's psychic summons. He takes wing to her apartment, but his arrival is hardly timely, since giant demon-amoeba Asmodeus is already having his way with Angela. Joshua is compelled to battle the Count. The weird dimensional energy flares, starts to consume ID-Man, even as he begins to overpower Drac and drain him.

Then Angela's plea to leave Vlad alone, her proclaiming that Damien and his rapist-blob master have won, stirs her brother to defy his master. Asmodeus oozes down from the cross and Joshua attacks. The Count scoops up Angela and heads toward the door. Josh forces beast-blob into the open portal in the floor and follows him down into the abyss...

There's a text piece on film director John Badham (Saturday Night Fever and, more on point, the then-current Dracula)then an article comparing classic creepshow Nosferatu with the Werner Herzog remake.
 [A big favorite of mine.  --MRB]

The second story, "Court of the Dead" finds the Count hosting the Sultan of Turkey. As the tubby Turk feasts, Drac has his vixen vamps entertain the Sultan's guards as he regales his guest with the tale of how he, along with father and brother, were ambushed on a diplomatic mission to the Turks, fifteen years before. Vlad and brother Radu were held hostage to ensure his father complied with the Sultan's wishes. Radu died in captivity, while Vlad the First was assassinated for kowtowing to the Turks.

Dracula escaped and returned home to extract vengeance on the assassins, and now, apparently, has lured the Sultan here to settle the last score. The guards, meanwhile, have been snacked upon by the vixens, and the Count carries the Sultan to the castle's ramparts and throws him to his death.  

What a surprise to crack the cover (okay, I opened a digital file) and see our fave fanger rendered by Objectivist Man himself, Steve Ditko! As probably this august institution's biggest Ditko and TOD booster, I was both delighted and wary. Not only has Gene Colan long-ago established himself as the definitive Drac dramatist, but the more Mr. D focused on spreading the Randian word the less effort he lavished on his work for hire.

Happily, Ditko acquits himself nicely here, while Marv Wolfman's script delivers chills and oddball thrills. It's hardly evocative of the defunct color Drac, given the Count's really a supporting actor to Ditko's Dimensional Man. Marv may have dialogued it, but the 
other-worldly angst is Pure Ditko. His Count is, of course, off model: more pleasant and sociable, in a dapper '30s movie-star way, than Gene Colan's feral red-eyed fiend. Perhaps Ditko-fanboy fervor colors my judgment, class, but I find his version endearing. 

Poor Angela (yeah, she lived but...raped by a hell-slug...) puts lie to the notion Ditko can't draw attractive women. Where he does fail is in his little-more-than-a-doodle depiction of Angela on the cross. Not that I wanted a raunchy rape scene to take advantage of a magazine's less restrictive format, mind you, but Steve's offering is so bloodless, it almost evaporates off the page. One imagines a distaste for the material - perhaps subconsciously - led him to self-censor.

But the D-Man, tormented by uncontrolled energies surging inside him, is on par with Ditko's Dr. Strange heyday.

The Turk's tale is a brisk little revenger. Sure, ya wonder why the Sultan marches a huge army to the castle of an enemy then chooses to pow-wow inside, accompanied by three whole guys. And, yeah, the vixen-victim guards become instant fangers, sans the requisite three days dead, but, still and all, you hafta cheer whenever a Turkish despot gets tossed off a rampart. And John Romita does enough to make Frank Robbins endearing.

The last TOD we'll cover is an entertaining, if lightweight grace note to its four-color predecessor, lacking depth of characterization and the moral uncertainty Wolfman had injected in the comic. Gene Colan's absence plays a part, of course, but he did the debut issue and Marv's story was still only thimble-deep. Given Marvel's magazine track record, maybe he already heard the first shovel of dirt on the Count's black-and-white coffin (the zine would only last four more over-sized issues).

While this final offering adds nothing vital to the Count's Marvel canon, you still get your pint of blood's worth. -Mark Barsotti