Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Post-Graduate Studies #10

The MU campus is mostly unused right now but
from time to time, our Professors will drop in for Summer courses.
This Week:
Marvel Minis:
We Are the Champions
by Professor Matthew Bradley

Starting in 1982, Marvel prospered with “limited series” of self-contained runs, most often four issues apiece, that generally featured a single character (or pairing), storyline, and creative team.  Logical successors to such anthology titles as Marvel Spotlight or Premiere—the latter having given up the ghost in August of 1981, less than a year before the first limited—they similarly served as tryouts for predominantly second-tier heroes, some of whom once had, or would later have, their own open-ended books, e.g., Cloak and Dagger, the Sub-Mariner, the West Coast Avengers, Machine Man.  Possessing a representative sampling from the first three years of this then-new miniseries format, I will examine a number of them in a (very) irregular series of posts.

Marvel Super Hero Contest of Champions 1 (June 1982)
"A Gathering of Heroes!"
Story by Mark Gruenwald, Bill Mantlo, and Steven Grant
Art by John Romita, Jr., Pablo Marcos, and Bob Layton
Colors by Andy Yanchus and Patricia DeFalco
Letters by Joe Rosen
Cover by John Romita, Jr. and Bob Layton

On the splash, against a backdrop of said heroes, the Grandmaster and his hooded, as-yet-unidentified opponent agree to select pawns for their life-and-death contest from “Earth, having the greatest concentration of super-champions in this star sector…”  We then get a series of increasingly repetitive and—mercifully—shorter scenes of said heroes vanishing in a red glow with a trademark-infringing “Bammf!” as the Avengers are whisked away during a workout with visiting ex-member Beast, the FF are plucked from a dinner at the Adventurers Club and the dialogue-deprived X-Men from a Danger Room session, etc.  These occupy 10 of the 21 pages, onto the last of which are crammed eight globe-spanning newcomers.

Each of these characters, 75% of whom are being formally introduced here, not only represents but also might be considered a stereotype of his or her nation:  France (Peregrine), Australia (Talisman), Argentina (Defensor), Northern Ireland (Shamrock), Israel (Sabra), China (the Collective Man), Saudi Arabia (the Arabian Knight), and West Germany (Blitzkrieg).  Next is a two-page money shot of them all assembled in a “vast arena” as it is, perhaps inevitably, left to the Beast to cry out, “Hey, where the heck are we?”  Two more pages depict various encounters that range from the topical, as Shamrock and Captain Britain give each other the stink eye, to predictable groupings of mutants, “artificial life-forms,” arachnids, Russians, supernatural types, swordsmen, amphibians, and so on.

Big brains Moondragon and Professor X have only been able to determine that the arena is in Earth orbit when their “hosts” appear, stating that they and the planet are paralyzed by an “inertia-glow,” from which they will only be released if they join the game.  Each player will choose 12 champions, who will be divided into sub-teams to seek out quarters of the Golden Globe of Life (recalling the notorious War of the Super-Villains), “hidden at the four corners of the Earth.”  The Grandmaster wishes to restore life to his brother, the Collector, slain by Korvac—“Even I, who hold the power of life and death, cannot restore life to an immortal!”—which the unnamed entity will do if he wins; if he loses, says she, “he will be stripped of his cosmic powers and will join his brother in oblivion.”

It should be noted that although she is, pardon the pun, a dead ringer for the personification of Death whom Jim Starlin portrayed as Thanos’s love interest, she is referred to here as “the Unknown…the eldest of the Elders [of the Universe]!”  She adds, “So that neither will have any undue advantage over the other, we have disqualified all but Earth’s main race of homo sapiens—excluding from the game those immortals, Inhumans, Atlanteans, Eternals, and aliens who also occupy this world!”  Okay, fine, this was far too unwieldy an assemblage even for a three-parter anyway, but if so, then aside from the obvious desire to please the groundlings and narrowly justify the “Featuring every single super hero on Earth” cover tag, why bother bringing those guys to the arena in the first place?

With the Grandmaster swearing that “if you win for me…I will never use Earthmen as pawns in my games again!,” and the Unknown vowing to extend the life of our sun by a million years, they then begin the selection process, most of which we are fortunately spared as we cut to the chase with a full-pager of the two rosters.  Now, whom do you suppose makes up fully a third of those two dozen heroes, conveniently split into four per team?  By George, I think you’ve got it:  the International Eight!  That’s right, rather than a showcase for all of our old favorites, this is starting to look like a backdoor pilot for a bunch of boring newbies, none of whom goes on to set the world afire, so now, with an hour-long clock running, and the preambles finally finished, we’re ready to…be continued.

“Welcome, one and all, to mighty Marvel’s very first Limited Series—a special, all-new kind of comic book series designed to run a finite number of issues,” begins an unsigned editorial.  “Marvel Limited Series based on such longtime favorites as Hercules, Wolverine, The Vision, and Hawkeye will be rocketing their way to you in the months to come.  But, as a very special treat to kick off this new format, we have chosen a project that encompasses all of Marvel’s stalwart super-stars in a single senses-staggering epic…”  In retrospect, it’s rather difficult for me to revisit Marvel’s first “crossover event” without wanting to do a Fulci and gouge my own eyes out, since it’s an obvious antecedent to Secret Wars, which many people regard as the death knell of my beloved Bronze Age.

I will take at face value what was actually published, but must mention its colorful history, “a full two years in the making.  Originally conceived in the winter of 1979 as a Treasury Edition based on the Summer Olympics, the book was stalled in mid-stream by the United States’ withdrawal from the international games in early 1980 [to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan].  Since the basic story did not directly hinge upon the real Olympic games, we could easily eliminate the tie-in.  But, between its inception and now, a lot of history has gone down in the mighty Marvel Universe, and the book required quite a bit of revamping so that it accurately reflected the current state of our super heroes,” some even redrawn into others, hence an “additional art” credit to Bob Layton on #1.

In fact, it was intended as a companion piece to the early-1980 Marvel Treasury Edition #25 (which I have never seen), with a story by Mark Gruenwald, scripter Bill Mantlo, and Steven Grant that pitted Spidey against the Hulk at the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York.  The artwork on MSHCOC was arguably upgraded from Herb Trimpe and Bruce Patterson to John Romita Jr. and Pablo Marcos, but the writers were the same.  Although Grant remains low on my list, Gruenwald is widely celebrated for his encyclopedic knowledge of the Marvel Universe, making him a natural for this kind of thing, while Mantlo’s diverse and prolific oeuvre, including stints on the guest-filled Marvel Team-Up and Two-in-One, gave him the chance to write virtually every Marvel character.

Events parallel to its long gestation make this feel like Mantlo Super Hero Contest of Champions.  During his TOD on Incredible Hulk, he had already laid the foundation for the mythos of the Elders in #248; pictured but not identified the Arabian Knight, Collective Man, and Sabra as the Silver Surfer scoured the Earth in #250; formally introduced Sabra and the Arabian Knight in #256 and 257, respectively; and added Ursa Major to his Soviet Super-Soldiers (from Iron Man #109-12) in #258.  Many of the MantlOctet’s sporadic subsequent appearances were essentially cameos, to fill out a crowd of heroes or give the proceedings an international flavor, in which role Bill—shocker—used most of them when the Hulk was pardoned in #279 and/or amid the Wraith War in Rom #65.

I won’t claim that none of them had any potential, but here’s a detail I find telling:  the editorial is followed by the first installment of “a special bonus feature…a complete list of every single super hero alive today.”  Defensor’s entry begins, “(Real name unknown)  Argentinian hero wielding armor, a sword, and shield, its properties still undetermined,” so in other words, he’s basically a cipher, seen again only in the aforementioned Hulkstravaganza and in a flashback to this story from its quasi-sequel, Avengers Annual #16.  We’re being asked to invest a lot of interest in these minor members of the Mantloverse, who haven’t even been fully fleshed out; I wonder if those introduced during the Hulk’s “World Tour” had been repurposed from that abortive Marvel Treasury Edition.

In case I’ve insufficiently burnished my Curmudgeon Credentials, I even have a complaint about the title.  Just five months before this appeared, they had ceased publication—after 16 years and 105 issues—of Marvel Super-Heroes, wherein I grew up reading reprints of Hulk and Sub-Mariner stories from Tales to Astonish; of greater historical importance, during its brief stint as a first-run mag following a title change from Fantasy Masterpieces, it featured the debuts of my beloved (yes, Professor Tom, there’s that word again!) original Captain Marvel and Guardians of the Galaxy.  That, to me, was incontrovertible evidence that the term “super-hero” should be hyphenated, as I have always endeavored to do, but for the umpteenth time, they have cast consistency to the winds.

The Romarcos artwork is…well, “functional” is perhaps too dismissive a term, since there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with it, despite Pablo being at best hit or miss in my view, and yet “anodyne” might not be.  That isn’t too surprising, because in an opus starring characters drawn from virtually every Marvel book, one doesn’t necessarily want a particular style to predominate.  Nobody looks truly terrible, but nobody looks that great, either, with the group shots the unavoidable highlights, and while it’s tempting to fantasize about, say, a George PĂ©rez, who excelled at large groups of heroes, I’m sorry to say he probably would have been wasted on what is not a very promising story so far; fully a third has been consumed just with the set-up, yet I’ll try to keep an open mind here.

Marvel Super Hero Contest of Champions 2 (July 1982)
"Chapter 2 First Contest: Frenzy in the Frozen North!"
"Chapter 3: Second Contest: Ghsot Town Showdown!"
Story by Mark Gruenwald, Steven Grant, and Bill Mantlo
Art by John Romita, Jr. and Pablo MarcosColors by Michele Wolfman and Christie Steele
Letters by Joe Rosen
Cover by John Romita, Jr. and Bob Layton
The first contest pits the pawns of the Grandmaster (Talisman, Daredevil, Darkstar) against those of the Unknown (Sunfire, Invisible Girl, Iron Fist) at the North Pole, forcing them to find the prize before freezing to death.  Within three panels, the sullen samurai has flown off to grab all the glory for himself (“Hothead!” IF thinks, with devastating wit), leading to the inevitable atomic fire vs. darkforce duel with Laynia.  Talisman and DD immediately split up as well, since each, for his own reasons, works best alone, but because the Aborigine—whom Gruenwald reportedly shoehorned into his 1991 “Cosmos in Collision” arc in Quasar #19-25—is essentially introduced on the fly, we never really get a clear sense of his powers.

Between the need to protect his body as his “dream form” roams free and the psychedelic, “senses-staggering song of Tjurunga, my whirling bull-roarer!,” he comes across like a mishmash of Dr. Strange and Angar the Screamer.  DD disappointingly does a 007 and ignores IF’s courteous pre-battle bow, then evens the odds by blinding his opponent with a snowball (“Splat!”), just one of countless instances in which Bill belabors the obvious, like Sue lamenting a lack of the teamwork she enjoys with the FF.  The blast with which Sunfire frees himself from Darkstar’s energy-hand (“I will not be bested by a mere woman!!”) begins cracking the ice below them to reveal the prize, and despite “dream-time” chaos, DD snags it with his billy-club cable, instantly transporting them away.

The second contest, granted only 9 pages instead of 12, matches the Unknown’s Iron Man, Arabian Knight, and Sabra with the Grandmaster’s Defensor, She-Hulk, and Captain Britain in a ghost town, but in the interim, our unnamed Argentinian has now become “Gabriel Carlos Dantes Sepulveda of Brazil”; I guess those South American countries are all alike, right?  Alas, teamwork is in even shorter supply here, with the two groups riven by multiple isms, e.g., “Whatever her powers [e.g., “energy quills” that can also paralyze], the Arabian Knight will not fight alongside a Jewess!”  She-Hulk (who appears able to fly—can that be right?) spends most of her time beating a feminist dead horse, railing equally against friend or foe and actually using the words “male chauvinist pigs.”

The setting seems little more than an excuse for jokes about High Noon and the O.K. Corral, and Mantlo to indulge in lines like, “And so begins a barroom brawl—super hero style!”  Once Captain Britain and the Knight (“British swine!”) have gotten their star-sceptre vs. energy scimitar duel out of the way, the carpet-flying Arab takes advantage of a She-Hulk/Shellhead clash, the chivalrous IM delaying his search to ensure that he didn’t “give her a stronger repulsor blast than she can handle,” to locate the prize inside a blacksmith’s forge on behalf of the Unknown.  So the middle chapter ends with the score tied at one to one, but you can do the math and figure out that there won’t be much room to squeeze those other contests and a satisfying wrap-up into the conclusion; stay tuned.

Now, I’m on record as a fan of the whole sub-teams and chapters shtick, but here, it’s just not doing it for me; the groupings seem so random (although Sue speculates, “I wonder if everyone’s been thrown together with heroes they’ve never worked with…”), and the animosity within the teams as common as that between them, that nothing ever gels, so it just feels like a lot of running around.  And I’m normally pretty pro-Mantlo, yet there’s some truly wince-inducing dialogue on display, especially in this issue.  Raise your hand if you think this line of Sabra’s sounds like something a human, or even superhuman, being would really say:  “Like the spiny pear that is the symbol of the Israeli people from which I derive my name—I am harsh to my enemies…yet sweet to my friends!”

There are times when I’m not sure if Bill is trying to be clever or ironic or something, or just has a tin ear, like when Talisman says that the Invisible Girl “must traffic with the unseen,” or Iron First observes that DD—the son, we are helpfully reminded, of Battling Murdock—“fight[s] like a heavyweight boxer,” never mind the fact that I don’t think his style would be described that way.  Meanwhile, this has perhaps the most interesting cover of the three (credited to “J.R.J.R. + BABYFACE”), with the heroes aptly looking like 3-D chess pieces on a tabletop in between the oversized Grandmaster and Unknown.  That’s the best I can say about the artwork, with Pablo’s failings somehow seeming more pronounced here, and poor Sue consistently coming off the worst...

Marvel Super Hero Contest of Champions 3 (August 1982)
"Chapter 4 Third Contest: Siege in the City of the Dead!"
"Chapter 5 Fourth Contest: Struggle in the Jungle!"
"Chapter 6 Winner Take All!"
Story by Mark Gruenwald, Steven Grant, and Bill Mantlo
Art by John Romita, Jr. and Pablo Marcos
Colors by Don Warfield and Carl Gafford
Letters by Joe Rosen
Cover by Ed Hannigan and Al Milgrom

Typically, both the Unknown’s team (Vanguard, Angel, Black Panther) and the Grandmaster’s (Wolverine, the Thing, Le Peregrine—now with initial article!) disperse with little love lost as soon as they reach their destination.  This is discovered by T’Challa to be near “the ancient funerary citadel named after Emperor Qin,” with its life-sized terracotta army, just before Logan attacks him, leaving little doubt as to his lethal intent.  Concurrently, Warren engages his Gallic foe in a dogfight (“I won this little round on a wing and a prayer!”; groan), while Ben disarms and humbles the Soviet Super-Soldier just in time to intervene on his old friend’s behalf, prompting the Panther, who has scented the prize, to point him right to it.

The per-contest page count drops from 9 to 7 as the Unknown’s Storm, Shamrock, and Collective Man and the Grandmaster’s Sasquatch, Captain America, and Blitzkrieg materialize in an equatorial South American setting.  Tao-Yu splits up to aid the search (“We are five beings in one [who]…can draw on the power and abilities—of any and all citizens of our nation!”), as do the rest, prompting Cap’s “So much for teamwork!”  As the self-proclaimed “Lord of the Lightning Strike” trades bolts with Ororo, Big Walt belittles “Red China’s answer to Bruce Lee,” until thrown off by the strength of 10,000; “Ireland’s lucky lady,” whose probability-altering power mingles those of the Black Cat and Scarlet Witch, beats Cap to the prize just as Blitzkrieg has revealed it via an “electrical vortex.”

Incredibly, a total of six writers and editors manage to screw up the final score as “Grandmaster—3, Unknown—1,” when simple math makes it a tie, so as the combatants materialize simultaneously in the stadium, the Unknown concedes defeat.  Yet as the Grandmaster joins the components of the globe, pondering her cryptic remark that “the power—and the choice to use it—will be yours,” a number of the pawns smell a rat, and Talisman determines to unmask the hooded figure.  Unable to touch her in his astral form, he requires an agent, selecting Sue because she has experienced dream-time, and so will adjust the fastest to “the swirling altered state”; with that, the Unknown is revealed (GASP!) as…exactly who she appeared to be, Death, which also does not surprise the Grandmaster.

The Known Unknown has, however, “neglected to tell you…that the Golden Globe is but an empty instrument.  It needs a life-force to energize it.  Yes, it can restore the Collector to life, providing that one of equal power dies in his place.  One such as you...”  The alternative is to sacrifice the combined life energies of the heroes, but having promised never again to use them as pawns, he is good to his word, “and one elder god dies to bring about the rebirth of another!”  Death departs with the vengeful Collector (“when you play a game of life and death, mine are the only rules.  Ha ha ha ha ha ha—”), the assembled heroes are dispersed, the orbiting arena collapses into nothingness, Earth is freed from the stasis field, and all is returned to the way it was, with a single hour elapsed…

Bill continues bludgeoning us with the obvious, especially regarding the match-ups that are never confirmed to be anything but implausibly coincidental.  “This clown’s fighting rings around me!” thinks Warren.  “Me—the guy who practically invented the idea of the winged super-hero!” (note inconsistent hyphenation), although Le Peregrine is also derivative of Batroc, with his savate kicks and tiresome accent.  T’Challa muses, “So Wolverine’s animal-senses are as acute as my own!,” while Ororo indignantly asks, “How dare [Blitzkrieg] seek to ensnare within an elemental prison—one who commands the elements?”  She appears as surprised as Shamrock is when the Collective Man splits into five, which seems odd, given her acquaintance with original Multiple Man Madrox.

In fact, there’s an annoyingly random quality to a lot of this.  “Surely the Unknown would not have me destroy such irreplaceable art treasures to retrieve the prize!” thinks T’Challa.  Presumably not, but then why send the teams there?  Did they effectively toss the quarters of the globe up in the air and let them land where they might?  We’ll never know, because it’s never addressed, nor is there ever any follow-up to Sue’s speculation about the teams.  If you haven’t already guessed, I think the whole thing is ill-conceived, or way too ambitious for a three-parter, or poorly executed, or all of the above; despite the alleged gosh-wow factor of all those heroes, I don’t recall being impressed with this at 18, and I’m certainly not at 53, especially now that I’m aware of how poorly written this is.

Those from the oft-abrasive Logan might be considered a given, but in general I’m disheartened by the routinely derogatory forms of address these supposedly superior beings use with Le Peregrine (Frog, Frenchie), Vanguard (Ivan, Red, Russkie), and T’Challa (Blacky).  As long as I’m up on my stereotyping soapbox, how tiresome is it that the very first words uttered by Shamrock and Blitzkrieg when they arrive are, respectively, “Begorrah!” and “Gott in [sic] Himmel”?  Anticipating The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, which would debut in January of 1983, the serialized list concludes with inactive heroes, an “Honor Roll of the Deceased,” heroes of “Other Worlds, Other Times,” and “Quasi-Heroes” such as Rick Jones, the Punisher and Howard the Duck.

The art credits haven’t changed (except the jumbled, “surprise”-blowing Hannigan/Milgrom cover, rehashed in page 21, panel 1), so neither has the caliber of the art, which as usual is average, the splash pages of #2 and 3 broken up to accommodate recaps.  Panels are mostly small, to cram in all of the figures and action, but I’ll grant them some nice layouts:  across the top of pages 2-3 is a maxi-panel showing both teams with the snow-capped Chinese mountains in the background, while the vertical page 4, panel 1 shows the Angel and Panther starting to get reacquainted as Vanguard keeps his distance.  In sum, this is a pretty undistinguished effort that still probably got many a fanboy excited back in the day and, if nothing else, launched the miniseries format with a big splash.

Beginning in two weeks...
Professors Flynn and Bradley dissect the 1980s'
biggest.... something or other.


  1. They get the score wrong at the end? How is that even possible?!? Like Secret Wars, this one was after my time but the fact that all those "new" characters were more involved than most of the mainstream Marvel heroes sounds like an ill-advised marketing ploy. And a rip-off. I know you touch on some of this briefly, but wonder if any of the newbies had much of a shelf life. Shamrock? Would an Italian hero have been called Pizza Pie?

    1. And the great Polish hero: Pierogi!!

  2. No, not much shelf life outside the aforementioned Hulk and Rom group gropes. Le Peregrine and Shamrock (“Begorrah!”) both resurfaced in ALPHA FLIGHT #108; they, Collective Man, and Arabian Knight also had one or more gigs in MARVEL COMICS PRESENTS.

  3. there was a few Comic Book legends Revealed about it, including She Hulk was originally Ms Marvel, which is why She Hulk can fly