Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Post-Graduate Studies #13

The MU campus is mostly unused right now but
from time to time, our Professors will drop in for Summer courses.
This Week:
The Gruenwacchio Run, Part 1
by Professor Matthew Bradley

Marvel Two-in-One #59 (January 1980)
The Thing and the Human Torch in
"Trial and Error!"
Story by Marv Wolfman and Ralph Macchio
Art by Chic Stone and Al Gordon
Colors by Ben Sean
Letters by Irving Watanabe
Cover by Bob Budiansky and Chic Stone

Ben is reading a Thomas/Chan Conan newspaper strip when Johnny provokes a needless quarrel, then suggests he “live up to [his] rep as a big-hearted slob” by buying a broke Torch burgers at McDonald’s—gee, thanks.  En route, they encounter a runaway horse that makes a car swerve into a hydrant, which Ben seals while Johnny saves the unseated rider and puts Wyatt Wingfoot’s bronco-busting lessons to good use.  Cowboy manqué Norman Dunsell, joined by fiancée Deena Jasper, has a list of four goals to accomplish before he turns 30 on their wedding day a week hence, but ducks into the subway while she’s asking the F2 to keep him out of mischief, explaining that the only other goal he has told her is to be a fireman.

Conveniently, Norm tackles that one next, sneaking into a firehouse and donning a uniform just as an alarm summons the crew to a fire at one of the Twin Towers, where it doesn’t take long for his utter unsuitability for the effing job to manifest itself.  Playing a hunch, Johnny flies in to do the ol’ thermal-vortex routine, helping not only the real FDNY but also Ben, who—too heavy for their ladders—climbs the side of the building to rescue Norm from his own rescue of an innocent civilian, now lucky to be alive, no thanks to him.  Inexplicably interested in seeing the wedding through, Deena requests further help, but Ben and Johnny beg off to fight the fire and then check out a robbery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where, naturally, Norman is playing detective.

Using intel bought from a stoolie, and irresponsibly leaving the actual guard bound and gagged, Norm liberates his gun and confronts the crooks (“the vile fruits of a permissive society!”), fast discovering another job that doesn’t suit him and becoming a hostage as our heroes arrive.  After he accidentally extricates himself, the crooks cave in fear of the F2 and the sappy couple departs, with Deena allowing that “We all have to express ourselves at times, I guess,” and Norm noting of the unspecified fourth goal that “I get the feeling it’ll be the easiest one of all!”  Picking up the crumpled list he discarded, Ben sees that the last of the “Things I must become by age 30”—each of which is preceded by the initial article “a” excepting, oddly enough, “cowboy”—is “husband.”

The “Gruenwacchio” team of Mark Gruenwald and Ralph Macchio made an immediate splash in MTIO with their six-part “Pegasus Project,” which coincidentally ended with our undergraduate curriculum.  One or both writers worked on every issue through #74, and these posts will cover the remainder of that run, perhaps the book’s best since its inaugural Steve Gerber heyday.  Alas, it kicks off the 1980s with a dog that suffers from the absence of an actual antagonist, and which poor Ralph merely scripted from a plot by Marv Wolfman (a byline that will immediately lower the morale of those with memories of his tiresome tenure on #25-38), with indifferent artwork by penciler Chic Stone—who would go on to ink #72-89—and Spider-Woman survivor Al Gordon.

The tagline “The World Trade Center—Ablaze!” evokes retroactive sadness, especially for those who were in NYC on 9/11; my coworkers and I watched the North Tower burning in the distance from the roof of our midtown building.  “These firemen are the bravest men I’ve ever seen!” says Norm, but if you want a real tribute to the FDNY, check out Marvel Team-Up #75, on which the Claremont/Byrne Dream Team ironically collaborated with Macchio and Gordon.  I’m sure any real first responder would piss all over this depiction of civilians endangered by his Catch Me If You Can imposture, and for all you young’uns, Ben calls him “New York’s answer to George Plimpton” after the writer whose NFL tryout was related in the book (and 1968 film) Paper Lion.

A classic Ben-Moment as the Thing, noting that “old Benjy was a kid once hisself,” pokes a hole in the compacted hydrant to give the locals an improvised sprinkler, and a fun sight gag as a guy walks by the museum reading a Daily Bugle with the headline, “Austin New Suspect in Chaykin Murder.”  Setting aside Norman’s insufferability and the issue’s pervasive mediocrity, at least I can say that in page 7, panel 3, for example, the Thing really looks like the Thing, and that unlike certain other writers (yeah, I’m lookin’ at you, Jim Secret Wars Shooter), Macchio has an actual grasp of the Ben/Johnny dynamic.  So perhaps “dog” is too harsh a word for an admitted change-of-pace tale, even if “Next:  Back to reality with…the Impossible Man?!” doesn’t bode too well.

Marvel Two-in-One 60 (February 1980)  
The Thing and The Impossible Man in
"Happiness is a Warm Alien!"
Story by Mark Gruenwald and Ralph Macchio
Art by George Pérez and Gene Day
Colors by Roger Slifer
Letters by John Costanza
Cover by Bob Budiansky and Joe Rubinstein

The splash is one of several cleverly conceived pages, investing a mundane event like Ben’s workout with drama via a low-angle shot emphasizing the massiveness of the “multi-ton press” under which he crouches.  Before leaving to meet Sue for dinner at the Top of the Sixes, Reed goads Ben into smashing the press, which a chagrined Thing soon realizes was a way to release his tension over the opening, one hour hence, of “Alicia’s first big-time sculpture show” (at this late date?).  Why even Ben would fall for such a timeworn trick by now is beyond me, yet it does segue into a brief but nice reminder that their friendship dates back to college—complete with a look at some of the memorabilia decorating his living quarters.

As Ben hits the shower to “clear out the ol’ cobwebs,” they do a High Anxiety (1977) on page 5, divided into a dozen panels precisely recreating shots from Hitchcock’s legendary shower scene in Psycho (1960), evidently the subject of a new documentary.  In this case the intruder is, natch, our guest star, the Impossible Man (“Greetings, Earthman.  I come in peace”), provoking Ben’s rejoinder, “Whatta ya tryin’ to do, drive me psycho?!”  Impy, who has just seen Alien (1979) for the fifth time—tying in with the title, “Happiness Is a Warm Alien!”—cons the Thing into letting him tag along as a purple and green top hat, on the condition that he “stay a hat all night,” which promise he nominally keeps while transforming into a coonskin cap, Mickey Mouse ears, et alia.

This actually works to Ben’s advantage as he and Alicia—whose lack of reaction to the “sight” of Impy puzzles the Poppupian—take Yancy Street en route to “SoHo’s famed Yates Gallery,” where as the “eyes in the back of [his] head,” Impy deflects a gang-thrown brick with the Thing none the wiser.  In the converted warehouse, Mr. Fogarty introduces Alicia to the assembled highbrows as “the new first lady of the neo-realistic movement in modern sculpture.”  A center spread that covers most of pages 14-15 shows the gallery dominated by granite figures of, among others, the Sandman, Ultron, and the Wizard, while getting it all down for posterity are Messrs. Pérez, Gruenwald, and Macchio, who are seeking a “plot for issue sixty [which] is late…again!”

It is, however, the faux caterers who concern us at the moment, for they are in fact Ben’s old foes “Handsome” Harry Phillips, Bull Brogin, and Yogi Dakor, who quietly assume their positions by the effigies of, respectively, Dr. Doom, Blastaar, and Diablo, into which—with “special powers of mind that Yogi developed during his long incarceration”—they begin to transfer their life-forces.  Meanwhile, Alicia pronounces this “the happiest day of my life” when the warden allows stepfather Phillip to attend, so of course the Puppet Master is immediately suspect after the three figures attack Ben.  Luckily, that doesn’t last long, nor does his determination not to damage her work by fighting back when she avows, “They mean nothing to me…nothing compared to you!”

Thus reassured, Ben bashes “Blastaar” and “Doom” together, shattering them and knocking out their, uh, masters, whereupon “Diablo” takes Alicia hostage.  Impy saves the day when he sees the fakir hiding in the wings and innocently tries to draw him out (“You’re missing all the fun”) by turning into a water balloon that bursts on his head, destroying his concentration long enough for Ben to down him with a dismissive “Plink!” of his finger.  His loneliness exacerbated by the joyfully reunited lovers, the sole survivor of the planet Poppup, who has essentially contained all of his “community-brain” people within him since Galactus consumed their home in Fantastic Four #175, forms his own mate by becoming two, departing Earth to find a world of their own…

Per the lettercol, “We just hope that you’re as pleased by the new art combo of Perez [sic] and Day as we are.  George had long expressed an interest in having Gene apply the finishing inks to his breakdowns, and when the opportunity arose to team the two of them [in #56], editor Roger Stern jumped at the chance.”  Ironically, this “new art combo” would only briefly reconvene in #64, even if Day—who had previously inked Alan Kupperberg’s pencils in #49—does remain on board through #71.  Speaking of teams, this also reunites Gruenwacchio, although amusingly, the armadillo replies to a query (in the same LOC from Bruce Weintraub) about the mechanics of their collaborations by saying, “all we could get out of them was that a typewriter was involved!”

Excavating ancient villains is always a dicey business, and the Three Stooges—uh, Terrible Trio, although they are not identified as such here—certainly haven’t been missed since they faced Johnny and Ben in Strange Tales #129.  But Gruenwacchio, known for their mastery of Marvel lore, unsurprisingly handle it effectively.  With so much else going on in this issue, heavyweight villainy would unbalance things; the explanation for their significant power-up is kinda sorta plausible, by comic-book standards; and while they themselves are, visually, “a big nothing” (as Dad used to say), the fact that they are able to command simulacra of three relative big-leaguers enables us to have our cake and eat it too with this literal, if not figurative, appearance of majors.

Like the last issue, this one is clearly a lark, yet so exponentially better done that I found myself enjoying it despite my mild aversion to Impy, and even there it serves the purpose of getting him gracefully offstage until, I believe, a backup story in #86.  We get standbys “the idol o’millions,” the Yancy Streeters, and “clobberin’ time!,” plus potshots at pretentious art critics; Alicia seems suitably nonplussed when one states, “the genre of superhuman misanthropy and megalomania is of particular relevance in our egocentric society.”  This, at least, is a welcome one-off before the next major arc (evoking the Piranha Brothers, comic-Ralph asks, “I mean, how could we ever top that six-part Project Pegasus story?  It had everything—drama, humor, irony, pathos, satire—”).

Marvel Two-in-One 61 (March 1980) 
The Thing and Starhawk in
"The Coming of Her!"
Story by Mark Gruenwald
Art by Jerry Bingham and Gene Day
Colors by Ben Sean
Letters by Joe Rosen
Cover by George Pérez and Terry Austin

On Pier 17, three workers haul a huge cocoon out of the East River, then flee in fear as it glows and releases a barely glimpsed humanoid form that says, “My metamorphosis is complete.  My destination is near.”  That turns out to be Alicia’s SoHo loft, where Ben is enjoying a candlelight dinner after a performance of “Mozart’s Magic Fruit” at the Met, and understandably assumes that the gorgeous golden female—revealed in a full-pager on 6 as she bursts through the skylight—has hostile intent.  But clobberin’ time is deferred as she decks the Thing with a Terrax-worthy blast, then explains to Alicia (her actual quarry), “I have no name, but there is one worthy of christening me—and I need you to help me find Him.”

“Goldengirl”—a nod to Susan Anton’s 1979 SF film debut—blows a resurgent Ben through the wall, depositing him on a terrace (“I would not permit the object of your misplaced affections to perish”), then restores the damage and whisks Alicia off to Central Park for a chat before he gets back.  Those who recognized the cocoon will be unsurprised to learn that Her, that is, she, is the erstwhile Paragon, who was created by, and destroyed, the evil scientists of the Beehive in Hulk Annual #6 before retreating therein.  Believing that her purpose is to mate with her predecessor, creating a perfect race, she became his physical counterpart, and knows that Alicia was “among the last to see [as it were] Him” when he “left Earth for a home in the stars” way back in FF #67.

Meanwhile, Ben races to the Baxter Building and, with neither his teammates nor the Avengers available, seeks “some kind of doohickey” to locate Alicia.  Lamenting his lack of attention to Reed’s instructions, Ben finds and activates “the frammistat [he] uses to monitor cosmic activity on Earth,” yet the incoming blip turns out to be not Her but Starhawk, who establishes his bona fides by citing Ben’s meeting with his fellow Guardians of the Galaxy in #5.  He had sensed “an immense disruption in the local fabric of space” while preparing to depart after Korvac’s defeat, fearing he was reborn; “unfortunately your device has somehow interfered with my perceptions,” so Ben agrees to turn it off, since Starhawk wants to satisfy his curiosity, even if it’s not Korvac.

Meanwhile, Moondragon has also sensed Her and, parking her craft in the Hudson, approaches the women’s bench.  Evading “a sphere of containment,” she tells Her that, “Ironically, I am one of a mere handful of beings on Earth who can aid you in your quest,” then recaps Adam Warlock’s ( Him) death at the hands of Thanos and his burial “on his adopted planet, Counter-Earth,” in MTIO Annual #2.  Noting—and not without justification—that “Death does not mean to our kind what it does to yours,” Her wants to dig Him up and have a go at it, on which journey Alicia asks to join them, sensing “something momentous,” but first has to contact Ben, who turns up just as Her says “This one [pace Mantis] cannot permit such an imperfect being” to tag along.

Moondragon raises her ship from the river as Her deals summarily with the “interlopers,” sealing Ben under cement from which he is released by Starhawk, who knows Moony from the Korvac fiasco and tries to stop her “crummy flyin’ submarine.”  Faring no better, he is flung “half way ta Jersey,” and after the impotent Ben—who cannot hear her “I’m going voluntarily!”—realizes he cannot bring them down without endangering Alicia, he fishes Starry out of the Hudson.  “Jeez, givin’ artificial respiration to an Arcturan mutant wasn’t covered in my Boy Scout Handbook,” he frets, but his efforts are successful, and vowing to “track ’em down…clear across the galaxy,” he swears, “if Alicia ever makes it outta this one, she’ll never get in danger ’cause of me again!”

As a longtime Pérez fan, I was initially disappointed to see that the Pacesetter had been replaced by Bingham for this “cosmic trilogy” (a solo Gruenwald effort), but then reassured by pleasant memories of Jerry and Gene’s heroic holding action during the concurrent death march of the Black Panther’s strip.  I’ve long felt that certain writers have earned proprietary rights to certain characters, even if they didn’t create them, and this three-parter is virtual one-stop shopping that borrows not only Steve Gerber’s original Guardians of the Galaxy, but also Jim Starlin’s Titans and adoptive Warlock.  Yet while I won’t go so far as to say that Mark has set himself up to fail, he is walking a very high wire indeed, so he’ll need to have some good art providing a safety net.

Part one is a pretty mixed bag, a mishmash of MARMIS and set-up full of expository flashbacks, and I have a sneaking suspicion that said MARMIS was included solely as an excuse for some allegedly crowd-pleasing action.  For myself, I would have found it a refreshing change of pace if our little cosmic quintet—whose interests do not, in fact, actually differ—had come together peacefully and formed a kind of “Fellowship of the Thing.”  Despite some good lines and his success at deploying Reed’s “frammistat,” poor Ben serves as little more than a punching bag in his own book here, repeatedly humiliated by Her, and of course it’s always worrisome when the guest star doesn’t show up until page 16, but I guess I owe this one the courtesy of an open mind.

The artwork is, after all, somewhat disappointing, not bad but hardly soaring in the way I’d hope a self-proclaimed “cosmic” story would merit.  Her looks sexy, albeit generic, her Orphan Annie eyes giving her a vacuous appearance, yet Bingham’s rendition of the ever-challenging Thing is admittedly satisfactory; he also does well with Moondragon in page 17, panel 4 and page 18, panel 1 and Starhawk in page 30, panel 5.  Except in the title, “The Coming of Her!,” she is not referred to as such, but it’s eminently logical given her backstory (with one of the Editor-Jims, presumably Salicrup, incorrectly footnoting Adam’s leave-taking as FF #66), and while I was no more impressed than my colleagues by her debut, her eventual return was a foregone conclusion.

Marvel Two-in-One 62 (April 1980)
The Thing and Moondragon in
"The Taking of Counter-Earth!"
Story by Mark Gruenwald
Art by Jerry Bingham and Gene Day
Colors by George Roussos
Letters by Joe Rosen
Cover by George Pérez and Joe Sinnott
Mark, Mark, Mark.  If you feel you absolutely must use a MARMIS as the engine to set your trilogy in motion, well, it’s a time-honored device, and I shall restrict myself to a mild grouse, but when you squander two-thirds of your story pages (then still 17) in part two on largely repeating the same beats, I call that an undue liberty.  Here’s how it all plays out:  Starhawk is still recovering from his near-drowning when a cabbie—who thinks him drunk—delivers him and Ben to the Baxter Building, where out of Reed’s “showroom” of ships he selects the Skrull saucer commandeered way back in FF #2, believing that “we’ll need…its pre-Harkovian hyper-drive if we have to travel beyond your solar system,” and pilot Ben assents.

A recap is, naturally, folded into that and the concurrent journey by the distaff contingent aboard Moondragon’s ship, identified—for the first time, I believe—as Sensia, just as the ex-Paragon is now referred to, even by herself, as “the one called Her!”  Yet when they reach what should be their destination, opposite our orbit on the far side of the sun, they discover that “Counter-Earth has vanished!”  They seek answers in the lunar H.Q. of its creator, the High Evolutionary, as Her alters Alicia’s dress into a spacesuit, then bypasses an automated stasis ray by blasting through a titanium floor beneath her, smashing through the moon’s hull into space, and doubling back to blow open the docking-area hatch…which would really play havoc with the internal atmosphere.

Sprawled on the floor of the “nerve center,” they find the lifeless H.E., so of course they’re then interrupted by the arrival—undetected by a distracted Moondragon—of Ben, who’s now ready to add murder to the mistaken kidnapping charge, and Starry.  Mayhem ensues as a dogfight breaks out between “cosmic gladiators” Her and Starhawk, which takes an unexpected turn when Aleta, “the aggressive female counterpart who shares his corporeal existence,” displaces him.  Moony’s “chance to show Her that I am her peer—by defeating the Thing in physical combat” goes about as well as you’d expect, with Ben noting that his rocky hide precludes pressure points, and even turning her over his knee, before Alicia detaches “her sound-stifling helmet” and calls a halt to it.

It’s not until page 19 that, as Gruenwald puts it, “the cosmic-powered combatants lay aside their pointless conflict,” formerly known as “Mark’s MARMIS,” but what happens next makes it all worth the wait for a true Warlock fan.  Per Jim Starlin, what happened to Gamora in between her craft’s destruction by Drax in Warlock #15 and her death in Avengers Annual #7 “was supposed to be Warlock #16, which never happened,” due to his Gerry Conway-inspired exit from Marvel, yet alert readers know that there was one piece still missing from the puzzle.  The ancient hermit who predicted in his abrupt last issue that Adam would watch his loved ones die also foretold his causing the High Evolutionary’s death, and we saw the other aspects of that prophecy come true.

Moondragon detects the H.E.’s spirit still floating about, and pooling their powers, Her channels it back into his corporeal form, which “I thought I had lost…for good this time.”  Ben noted that when “last I saw him, he was fit ta take on Galactus” in FF #175, and he says that soon after, his crazed “son” burst in to accuse him of destroying the planet and its 4 billion inhabitants, despite the “tranquil sphere” appearing on the view-screen.  A despairing Adam fled, believing that his Soul Gem slew the H.E., who luckily had integrated into his armor the evolutionary accelerator that transformed him into his “ultimate form as a being of disembodied intelligence,” as it did in Tales to Astonish #96, a “shimmering apparition” nicely recreated by Jerry and Gene on page 22.

Told of Adam’s death and burial, the H.E. thinks the quintet is sharing in his delusion until the view-screen confirms, “By the stars!  It is missing!  My world is missing!”  Investigating what took place “while I was disembodied and beyond caring about so trivial a matter as a single planet,” he picks up trace particles of a tell-tale radiation “leading right out of the solar system,” suggesting that Counter-Earth is literally being towed away.  As the High Evolutionary adapts his moonship’s engines for warp-speed capacity, locks onto the particle trail, veers out of orbit, and drops into hyper-space, Ben—persuaded by Alicia to accompany them—asks, “do even the six of us have the power to take on someone who steals planets like a flatfoot near an applecart?”

Alas, the gorgeously colored Pérez/Sinnott cover makes a promise that the Bingham/Day interior art, perhaps inevitably, cannot keep, with much of it, as epitomized by the woebegone Ben on the splash page, looking rushed and perfunctory.  There’s really nothing wrong with the layouts, which are actually pretty solid, it’s just that the faces often leave something to be desired, for which I suppose Gene bears a heavy responsibility.  They do rise to the occasion now and then, e.g., with very different but equally effective images of Moony in page 7, panel 2 and page 19, panel 5; the first, positively Starlin-worthy (my highest praise), shows her face heavily shadowed and incredulous at Counter-Earth’s absence, while the second reminds us of her physical beauty.

Way too much time is spent on competition between Her and Moondragon, who despite being born of man and woman is given to musings like, “She has a distressing habit of putting me in the same category as common humanity.”  It’s not restricted to the ladies, as Starhawk’s “Your willingness to waste your cosmic force ill becomes you, golden one” prompts a withering reply:  “What gives you the right to judge one infinitely more perfect than yourself?”  The timing is presumably coincidental, yet it’s interesting to juxtapose “the perfect love [despite never having laid eyes on her “beloved”] embodied by her genetic prototype,” into whose physical counterpart she remade herself, and the amoeba-like division of the Impossible Man and Woman just before.

There seems to be a whole lotta gender stuff goin’ on, e.g., “Starhawk has become a woman—even as I myself had once been a man!,” while Moony predictably answers Ben’s “I ain’t keen on tusslin’ with women” by boasting, “I am no mere woman, I am a goddess!”  I can’t recall if it was controversial at the time, and it’s been pointed out that Ben’s penchant for spanking dates back to FF #38, but it’s hard to argue when he says, “Accordin’ to some ’a my pals in the Avengers, ya had this comin’ to ya for some time now!”  Regarding those solid layouts, some of the best are those of humanoid figures dwarfed in the entrances to Reed’s spaceship hangar (page 3, panel 1) and the H.E.’s command center (page 11, panel 2), plus that aforementioned page 22.

Marvel Two-in-One 63 (May 1980)
The Thing and Warlock in
"Suffer Not a Warlock to Live!"
Story by Mark Gruenwald
Art by Jerry Bingham and Gene Day
Colors by Roger Slifer
Letters by Joe Rosen
Cover by George Pérez and Terry Austin

The trilogy ends as it began, i.e., as less than the sum of its parts, perpetuating both the gender debate (“Starhawk ol’ pal—I’ve seen weird powers in my life, but changin’ into a woman has to be—!”) and the cosmic pissing match (“Once again my power looks second-rate next to hers!,” s/he laments).  The conclusion is especially frustrating in failing to live up to its potential, with the prudent billing of Ben’s co-star as “Warlock?” on the aesthetically excellent Pérez/Austin cover reassuring me that they may not spit in Starlin’s face by bringing Him back to life.  For those of you rusty on your King James Bible, the title “Suffer Not a Warlock to Live!” plays cleverly on Exodus 22:18:  “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”

Nobody is happier than I to see the High Evolutionary back on, or perhaps I should say “in,” his feet, with the low-angle shot on that socko splash page emphasizing the grandeur of a guy who “[blows] up ta 20 feet tall just like that” on page 15, and faced Galactus as an equal, although I’ll insert a mild kvetch at the reference to him as “an angry god,” part of a systematic devaluation of that word.  The double-spread to follow suggests that while Jim has set the bar unattainably high, their promise of “the wildest cosmic adventure ever!” may not be all hype.  Bingham surrounds the huge view-screen—which shows Counter-Earth ringed by the tow-ships holding it in stasis fields—with floating heads, whose captions introduce our cast and economically provide a recap.

Since pursuing their mission on the planet’s surface would presumably leave them paralyzed as well, they “must first deal with the planet-thieves,” so “one who knows” identifies the command ship, and it’s at this point that things become a bit more, shall we say, variable.  Not for nothing have I long maintained that Ben—who elects to hold down the fort and keep watch over Alicia—is the most difficult Marvel character to draw, and by now I’m resigned to the fact that Jerry and Gene simply don’t do so very well, with him frequently looking misshapen, misproportioned, or just plain off (e.g., page 22, panel 1).  Yet the arrival of Starhawk, Her, and Moondragon aboard Ringship 1 in page 7, panel 4 is strikingly effective, a Dutch-angle shot…between an alien’s legs.

A battle with the oversized crew of what appear to be anthropomorphic reptiles ensues, yet just as the H.E., Ben, and Alicia are wondering how things are going, they are beamed aboard by the captain, who introduces himself as Sphinxor, one of the Prime Movers of Tarkus, and explains that he learned English from monitoring transmissions of sitcoms (uh oh).  And if his name or likeness rings a bell, it’s because “Sphinxor from the star system Pegasus” was a self-described “throwaway character” Starlin used to narrate Warlock’s history when his solo strip was all-too-briefly revived in Strange Tales #178.  So Gruenwald is, in effect, diving into Jim’s dumpster, but as we’ll see, what looks at first like a nifty in-joke will turn out to have serious ramifications.

Naturally, just as the H.E. springs up to Sphinxor’s height so they can see eye to eye, the others burst in, yet he halts them with a word, awaiting explanations.  The aliens “were contracted to move your planet by a race of beings called the Beyonders,” this first mention of whom is said to be notable, but they are largely outside my frame of reference.  Per SuperMegaMonkey, “Like a lot of Gruenwald stories, [this trilogy is] more about making sense of disparate events in the Marvel Universe than actually telling a story,” and indeed, Sphinxor’s flashback does make it seem suspiciously like one big continuity fix; he says that the Beyonders “became aware of [the planet] while you were collecting the extra-dimensional mass to build it” in Marvel Premiere #1.

So, he’s been a fly on the wall all along, preparing for the theft and working to undermine their expected impediment, “someone we’d never be able to make a deal with….Following [Adam’s] crucifixion, I fooled with his Soulgem [sic], unleashing the bauble’s vampiric appetites—a side effect you probably didn’t know about when you gave it to him.”  I’m unaware how, if at all, Starlin reacted to this, yet however glad I am to see the H.E. absolved of responsibility for that, having Sphinxor be indirectly responsible for so much of Adam’s trials and tribulations seems a bit presumptuous on Mark’s part.  Adam’s belief that he had grown to dwarf Counter-Earth (in Warlock #14) and, last ish, that it was destroyed are also explained as Sphinxor-created illusions.

“Figuring that he snuffed you, we simply set up our stasis-rings and took off with Counter-Earth in tow…we kindly refer you to the Beyonders” regarding their intentions.  His curiosity aroused, the H.E. reveals that he’d been trying to rectify a fatal instability in the core of the planet, which due to a shortage of raw material is the same size but only about 1% of Earth’s mass.  He agrees to let the delivery proceed on the conditions that he accompany them to meet the Beyonders, and that the others are allowed to do their business on the surface; when Sphinxor objects that turning off part of the stasis field would threaten the Beyonders’ “very strict time-table,” Ben threatens him with a clobberin’ until the quintet is permitted to teleport down near the three hilltop graves.

Having only ten minutes (or three pages) on the clock, Her “pours her power, her love, her very lifeforce” into the center grave, seemingly rewarded when “a red-and-gold splashed figure bursts forth,” an admittedly impressive visual in page 26, panel 4.  Yet she quickly realizes that she has failed, for the revived body is but a hollow shell, with Adam’s soul residing in the Gem, which a footnote informs us is “now in the possession of the extraterrestrial Gardener,” although his theft of it from the grave will not be revealed until next month’s Incredible Hulk #248.  With Warlock reinterred, Her sadly and silently departs, leaving Moondragon and Alicia to ponder the concepts of, respectively, godhood and “perfect love” before they all head home; “Finis,” and Bradley out.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Post-Graduate Studies #12

The MU campus is mostly unused right now but
from time to time, our Professors will drop in for Summer courses.
This Week:
War Games, Part II
by Professor Matthew Bradley

  First, it should be noted that Professor Tom and our august Dean are graciously allowing me to weigh in with my curmudgeonly comments, but I am doing so without access to Tom’s material, and thus apologize in advance for any redundancies or unwitting contradictions.  Second, I am a poster child for a phenomenon he will doubtless discuss, those driven away from Marvel at least partly by this limited series.  For me, it was more like the beginning of the end, as I’d already been growing dissatisfied with what I considered the relentless downward slide in average quality under Shooter’s regime, although I finally pulled the plug and started letting my subscriptions lapse at the outbreak of the shameless marketing gimmick that was Secret Wars II.

It may tie in with my status as self-proclaimed Elder Statesman of the faculty’s ex-Penguin USA wing (Professors Chris, Gilbert, Joe, and Tom), but I think I might’ve liked this better if it had been published a few years, or even a decade, earlier.  The sad thing is that I freely acknowledge, and in fact dearly love, the crossover as a defining characteristic of the Marvel Universe, when used judiciously.  Yet here, with each character wrenched from his own book’s continuity—and bear in mind that I’m revisiting this absent the dubious benefit of more than four years of context since our undergraduate curriculum ended with the 1970s—it just seems way too commercial; to this day, I can’t come across the phrase “Sheep Meadow” without my eyes narrowing ominously.

The Post-Grad Effect has also erased a gap of almost two years in between the publication of this and the similarly dire Marvel Super Hero Contest of Champions, increasing the here-we-go-again feeling as the heroes suddenly find themselves assembled in a mysterious installation out in space.  Admittedly, Shooter restricting himself to heavy hitters (Avengers, X-Men, Hulk, Spidey, Fantastic Three) obviates the “It’s a Small World (After All)” flaws inherent in MSHCOC, but this egregious mix of super-villains makes that a wash.  I don’t know which notion troubles me more:  that those three stooges from the Wrecking Crew are elevated to A-List status, or that the mighty Galactus is considered on par with, say, the Molecule Man; way to drag everything down to your level, Jimmy!

I’m well aware that penciler Michael Zeck has his partisans on the MU faculty, but I am not one of them, and recall being similarly unenthused by the rarely interrupted run on Captain America #258-89—the last two years of which were also inked by John Beatty, so don’t look for any help there—that he wrapped just prior to this.  Then as now, I find their stuff way too cartoony and goofy-looking, e.g., the grotesquely misshapen Thing on unnumbered story page 3 or the wonky faces of Cap in page 4, panel 2; Xavier in page 5, panel 5; the villains in page 11, panel 5; and Wolverine in page 17, panel 7.  Thus, combining prosaic-at-best artwork, a Shooter script, and an intrinsically annoying premise in a 12-issue endurance race makes for a pretty daunting package.

Obviously, certain elements are jarring with no 1980s frame of reference other than my memory, e.g., Sue expecting again; the presence of Monica Rambeau, pretender to the venerated rank of Captain Marvel, and the vexing She-Hulk; and the He-Hulk having Cousin Brucie’s brain.  But Banner didn’t used to be so obnoxious as when he curtly dismisses his friend and fellow egghead with, “That’s obvious, Richards” (except, apparently, to Iron Man, who as Tony Stark should be one of the savviest characters)—and why do they all call Reed that when they’ve known him for decades our time?  Inevitably, not everyone gets equal time in these feeding frenzies, yet by my count Spidey, arguably Marvel’s #1 character, gets a grand total of 13 words, counting “Wheee!”

Jim’s dialogue and characterization are typically crappy, as when the supremely confident Doom (who has wielded the Silver Surfer’s Power Cosmic, for [Dean] Pete’s sake) feebly gasps, “awe-inspiring…humbling…”  Could we cut with those incessant references to his “personal force-field,” please?  Does he have an impersonal one, too?  The reduction of the normally somewhat ditzy Wasp to insufferable-moron status is particularly bothersome, although it’s no surprise that another Pym would be subject to his mistreatment after the sodomization her poor husband—one of my favorite Marvel characters—underwent in Avengers, my single biggest beef with Shooter-as-Writer.  And, as usual, those lacking Chris Claremont’s subtlety overdo Logan’s abrasiveness.

Even the wavy lettering of the Beyonder’s dialogue, presumably intended to convey an “awe-inspiring…humbling” otherworldly quality, looks more like Big Joe Rosen was three sheets to the wind, while an apparent printing error, at least in my copy, omits the purple from Galactus on pages 12-13.  Given my reflexively negative recollections of this limited series, it would clearly be disingenuous of me to claim that I was disappointed in revisiting this first installment, so let’s just say instead that it completely lived down to my expectations.  Although I’ll try my hardest to keep an open mind, there’s little reason to hope that this creative team—which remains virtually unchanged over the course of the dozen issues—has any pleasant surprises in store for me ahead.

Some improvement:  Doom sounds more like Doom (we’d certainly expect a despot’s dialogue to come naturally to Shooter, no?); the splash page is pretty cool, marred only by Cyke’s risibly prominent tongue; and, judging by the snippet of the Beyonder’s dialogue in the flashback, Rosen seems to have sobered up.  Yet in my view, the negatives still outweigh the positives, even if any accusations of my being hypercritical are, at this point, probably justified.  How lazy is the art?  Well, it’s not until page 20, panel 3 that poor, neglected Spidey is properly portrayed with the web-patterns on his costume…which is still missing in the adjacent prior panel.  I’m sorry, it may seem like a small thing, but to me, that’s glaringly, unforgivably sloppy.

Again, I’m hampered by lack of context.  Per Richards—excuse me, Reed—Professor X “wasn’t in his wheelchair when he disappeared, though he arrived here in it!”  Naturally, that went right over “No Frame of Reference” Bradley’s head, and when I saw Charles up and about, I assumed it was just one of those recent developments, like Storm’s punk mode, that I had overlooked in all of the chaos of #1 (although I did notice that his suit keeps changing from green to blue—perhaps Joe handed the bottle to Christie Scheele?).  But when Reed adds, “It’s as though the Beyonder ‘fixed’ little things that seemed to be wrong, or missing!,” is it mere cynicism on my part to suggest that you could substitute “editor, Tom DeFalco” for “Beyonder” in that sentence?

Similarly, I was going to comment on how odd it seemed that quintessential New Yawker Stark would compare the fortress to the Pentagon when a little research revealed, as the story pointedly did not, that this was not Tony but ex-jarhead Jim Rhodes.  And I was still bugged by Banner’s peevish persona until Spidey said, “He’s been so touchy, lately!,” suggesting the existence of extenuating circumstances in his own book.  But however given to speechifying some may consider Captain America to be, I’m doubting that he or anyone else would actually say, “It’s no wonder that the name Mister Fantastic is renowned for compassion as well as courage!  [Is it?]  You give added meaning to the word hero, Richards!”  Aw, gee, thanks, Cappy—call me Reed...

As with the arrogant nationalist slurs Bill Mantlo kept putting in people’s mouths in MSHCOC, I’m bothered on multiple counts by the ubiquity of the dismissive term “kid” in Jim’s dialogue here.  Granted, we’re all spoiled by Chris’s consummate characterization, but wouldn’t Logan be more likely to call Colossus “Petey” or the like at this late date?  Speaking of our merry mutants, yes, I fully understand the various reasons why one shouldn’t get too hung up on either the respective ages of our heroes or the elastic passage of time in the Marvel Universe, but while the original X-Men were students when they debuted, the torch has been passed to a new generation, so for Bruce and Ben to call Cyclops (who, we are reminded, was on his honeymoon when snatched) “kid” is jarring.

Miscellaneous Matthew-Nits to pick:  upon seeing She-Hulk (whose “tubular…to the max!” made me gag), the Enchantress marvels, “A green woman?  Is there no end to the varieties of mortals?”  This seems a strange statement coming from an Asgardian who battled You-Know-Who in Hulk #102…then again, why would we expect the freakin’ Editor in Chief to know that?  Doc Ock says, “You rebuilt Ultron?!”  Well, he was completely intact, but just needed to be powered back up, a nuance we might expect to be lost on, say, Crusher Creel, yet perhaps not on one with the intellect of Otto Octavius.  Has the Lizard said or done anything except be glimpsed in the background?  Finally, am I the only one who thinks Galactus looks like he’s auditioning for the role of Arishem?

MSHCOC already gave me a less-is-more feeling that I considered a fatal flaw in its conception, and Shooter only exacerbates despite having four times as many issues in which to service his cast; here, for example, some of us learn for the first time that Scott isn’t the only one recently married, as Hawkeye pines for his “new bride” (née Dr. Barbara “Bobbi” Morse Huntress Mockingbird).  Yet I’m glad to see that Cap can take time out from being the Sentinel of Liberty to listen to some constructive criticism from the MU faculty:  “How’s your work going, Reed [emphasis mine]?”  Says the latter, “I’ve managed to keep tabs on Galactus,” but since he’s been standing motionless on a mountaintop since #2, I don’t know how big an accomplishment that is.

So, Magneto’s “person [evidently his favorite word, at least in Jim’s interpretation] is magnetically shielded”; is that like having one of those “personal force-fields”?  Gleefully kicking a man when he’s down, Shooter adds insult to injury by having poor Hank Pym’s estranged wife succumb to a certain mutant’s, uhm, personal magnetism in about 3.5 seconds—“Oh, why not?”—and start locking lips with The Person Of Magneto, as in “None may touch…,” except maybe Jan if he gets lucky.  Meanwhile, Tom (DeFalco, that is, not Flynn) has suddenly gone from 0 to 60 in the footnote department, now helpfully informing us that Ben Grimm is “a.k.a. the Thing.”  And I thought he was a.k.a. the Easter Bunny, as he cracked in #1.  Ya learn something new every day.

In the first of the obligatory WTF art moments, what the hell has happened to the Wasp’s nose in page 4, panel 2 (right)?  She looks as though someone drilled two tiny holes in an otherwise featureless expanse between her eyes and her mouth.  And the caption “he smiles” doesn’t quite do justice to Thor’s maniacal grin in page 6, panel 3, “exultation” or no.  But nothing says “WTF” like when Dr. Victor Frankendoom whips up the intensely forgettable Titania and Volcana in his lab at the self-styled Doombase.  “Forgettable” may be the operative word, because Jim either doesn’t know or doesn’t care about the ur-Titania, a luchadora created by Gruenwacchio in Marvel Two-in-One #54; despite having a little more staying power, she sure looks like a misplaced Grappler.

Even more annoying, he has his villains raise the obvious question for us (Wrecker:  “Where did they come from?  I thought we was the only ones on this planet except for Captain America’s jerk squad!”  Absorbing Man:  “Who knows?  I wouldn’t put it past Doomsie to build broads from scratch!”)…and then drops it like a hot rock.  The Spidey/X-Men MARMIS, for lack of a better word, is equally annoying.  They’ve fought together as friends, so why wouldn’t Spidey take a little time to talk things out with them?  Why does it take Charles that long to “sense an eavesdropper”?  And I hope I live long enough to see the day when Wolverine—Wolverine, mind you—would say, “He really clobbered us!  He made us look like fools—!  Like amateurs!”

Of course, Xavier would probably be just as likely to say, “there is no escape from my power!,” a line that would sound more suitable coming from, say, The Person Of Magneto, but that’s what happens when just anybody thinks he can write believable X-Men dialogue.  Meanwhile, the good guys’ citadel is “roughly the size of Chicago”?  It looked pretty big when we first saw it, but not that big.  As one whose countless sobriquets include Maudlin Man, I resented Bruce’s kvetching about Reed’s “maudlin whimpering!  You think I don’t miss my woman?”—obviously another development I forgot—but in fairness, that pensive shot of Reed (page 7, panel 4) and a comparable one of Hawkeye (page 6, panel 5) are among the Zeck/Beatty duo’s better moments.

“The worst thing for me is thinking about my wife back home,” quoth Cyke, “not knowing what happened to me, whether I’m dead or alive!”  I can’t help wondering if that’s a deliberate (and, to me, most unwelcome) reminder of the whole “I thought you were dead”/“No, I thought you were dead” fiasco that was not among Claremont’s better moments.  “I am not interested in an alliance!” TPO Magneto tells Frankendoom.  No surprise there, given the treatment he received at Victor’s hands after proposing one in Super-Villain Team-Up #14.  Hey, DeFalco—that might have made a nice footnote!  Finally, like Mr. McGuire (Walter Brooke) in the late, great Mike Nichols’s The Graduate (1967), “I just want to say one word to you.  Just one word”:  “Skeeter.”

In a phenomenon I don’t recall seeing before—for whatever that’s worth—the space atop the splash page, oft devoted to boilerplate giving the star’s origin, contains an issue-specific recap that engendered some teeth-gnashing on my part with its inconsistently punctuated reference to “the mightiest Super Heroes [sic] and Super-Villains of all…”  Yeah, just throw that in my face, guys.  Even before the Molecule Man (“call me Owen”) says, “I’ll just drop those [mountains] on ’em!,” the unusual cover reminded me of the delightfully hyperbolic narration from the On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) trailer:  “and this time, they drop a mountain on him.”  The scene in question obviously aspires to be one of those “most-talked-about moments.”

I’d half-heartedly hoped that these two fill-ins by Layton, who was offering some pretty polished inks over the pencils of John Romita, Jr. (coincidentally the artist of MSHCOC) on Iron Man when our formal curriculum ended, would make for a nice break from this Zeckstravaganza.  But it seems this issue’s title, “Situation: Hopeless!,” has a dual meta-textual meaning, because either Bob isn’t as good a penciler as he is an inker, or Beatty is doing him no more favors than he has Mike.  I mean, check out the Hulk’s face in page 4, panel 3, which looks like a wizened cabbage.  Page 19 is just ridiculous: we get about three pages’ worth of eye-glazing technobabble—interspersed with Rhodey’s baffling “It’s un-stickin’-believable!”—squeezed into eight tiny, cramped panels.

I guess it was supposed to be obvious that this wasn’t your father’s Iron Man inside the armor when he says, “I never drop talent like this, my man!” while (coincidentally or not) having just rescued his fellow African-American do-gooder, the Captain Marvel du jour.  This month’s Lazy Characterization Award goes to Wolverine for declaiming, “I go through life holdin’ back—keepin’ the animal inside in check—just barely!,” with a Self-Evident Silver Medal to Thor for calling the Enchantress “verily, a goddess!”  The Torch outdoes She-Hulk on the Contemporary Pop-Culture Barf-O-Meter when he tells his cat-eyed alien instant girlfriend, “Baby, I’ll tumble [fantastic?] 4 ya!,” which I presume tells us all we need to know about the EIC’s listening habits.

Jim clearly wants us to go all aquiver over the cleverness of his “when icicles ornament Surtur’s fiery realm!” line, but I think his overreach is obvious in the parallel sequence set in Magneto’s fortress, which appears to have been constructed over a sea of worms.  First, Jan calls him “the most evil scum since Hitler” (at whose hands, we may recall, the young Magnus lost his family), and then, Xavier says, “I was no better than Doom…or Hitler…”  Two comparisons to Adolf, of two different characters, within less than three pages seems a bit much already, but for Charles to equate himself with Der Führer simply for using the power to cloud men’s minds—as he’s done like a hundred times before, and always for the most altruistic reasons—is really pushing it.

For the nonce, my criticisms may have plateaued with this issue, which I paged through a second time, just to confirm that there is not a sign of the Lizard, apart from the recap in page 4, panel 3.  I swear to God, I don’t recall him having one single line (assuming he’s even capable of speech in Shooter’s rendition, as he was in, say, my beloved War of the Reptile-Men) or bit of business to date, so why use him at all?  May I call that bad writing?  This month’s pop-culture name-checks include Remulac and Mongo, the respective home planets of the Coneheads and Ming the Merciless.  The fact that Colossus is as instantly smitten with Ƶsaji as “Jah-Nee” is tips us off that something’s going on with her, but at least Peter didn’t say, “Я рушится 4 года.”

Most of my complaints concern Galactus.  The amount of chitchat I recall between him and, e.g., Reed over the years suggests that Jim overdoes the “we can’t even get his attention!” shtick, especially since Big G is clearly somewhat flummoxed himself, yet that’s outweighed by a level of bad science offending even a layman like me.  More than once, we’re told his home is “solar-system-sized”; if that were possible, would it be readily viewable, even from “millions of miles away”—just how, pray tell, was that distance calculated?—and wouldn’t it exert a gravitational field that would destroy Battleworld, as it’s now dubbed?  Then, suddenly (and again, more than once), it is referred to as the “world-ship,” which if indicative of its size is scarcely synonymous.

The heroes get their first gander at Shooter's ego

As for the art in this second and final Layton/Beatty fill-in, the splash-page image of Reed looks disturbingly like one of those desperate, distorted figures in the supremely atmospheric woodcuts with which Fritz Eichenberg illustrated the tales of Edgar Allan Poe—presumably not quite the effect they were going for.  The normally lean Xavier appears positively squat on several pages, while Piledriver is suddenly sporting a curly coiffure that would seem better matched with the Torch’s excruciating attempts at ’80s-style smooth talkin’ (“Hey, you’re one fast mover, lady!”).  And although I’m sure they’re trying to create an aura of mystery around the Beyonder, limiting themselves to trotting out that same damned quote for the umpteenth time wasn’t doing it for me.

Hey, who’s that green, scaly guy on page 4?  Is he a Marvel character?  Oh, you say he’s called the “Lizard,” eh?  Having benched him for so long, Shooter unsurprisingly seems to have a poor grasp of the character, although that’s not the worst aspect of the swamp scenes, which would be the dimwit dialogue Jim inflicts upon the Wasp (whose hideous jumpsuit is, by the way, truly one of the low points of her countless costume changes over the past two decades).  Ironically, such sequences involving fewer characters are a refreshing change of pace from the group gropes that reduce many of them to anonymous stick figures, and another reason why my complaints about the writing have, at least for now, leveled off to a maintenance dose, as it were.

For example, the Galactus-Mobile is further downgraded from “solar-system-sized” to “world-ship” to “impossibly huge construct,” which if still inconsistent is far more plausible, while the mutant leadership squabbles remain tiresome, yet at least Monica slaps down the ubiquitous “singles-bar chit-chat.”  Zeck is back, which is cause for…uhm, renewed utterance of “Meh.”  In terms of new wrinkles, Klaw (Deep-sixed by the Dazzler?  Man, that won’t look good on your super-villain résumé) brings very little to the table, especially in his current infantile state, and most especially as defaced by Mike and John in page 8, panel 2; Doom’s variation on “Klaatu barada nikto” seems cool—but with the code words revealed, couldn’t anyone then utilize them?

A cluttered Layton cover (although I like the rare pink background) trumpeting all sorts of new developments.  I presume, particularly in light of its placement directly beneath her bier, that “The Death of an Avenger!” refers to the Wasp, although first, said alleged death is actually portrayed in the prior issue, albeit confirmed here, and second, it’s strongly implied that the She-Hulk is about to buy the farm at the climax of this one.  Kang, of course, has reputedly been killed already, but even aside from the fact that he’s been “dead” before, Shooter has played this card already—and, in fairness, is not the only one to do so—in his vastly overrated Korvac Saga, so the whole thing is completely devalued as we await the inevitable Cosmic Reset Button.

“The X-Men’s Greatest Battle!”  I won’t even dignify that with a response.  “Introducing the All-New Spider-Woman!”  Well, I never liked the old one (so, of course, I bought all fifty freakin’ issues of her largely lame mag), and don’t know if this one will be any improvement, but I have to assume that Spider-Man’s lament, “I should have gotten a patent or trademark or something,” is supposed to be an in-joke, since Stan freely admitted that Jessica Drew was whipped up just to protect the copyright.  Speaking of which, I don’t know if it’s overtly spelled out later on, but for now I guess we have to assume that Mary “Skeeter” MacPherran and Marsha Rosenberg—sorry, that’s Titania and Volcana to you, buddy—hail from that same Denver suburb as Arachne-to-be.

On the subject of La Rosenberg, I’ll freely admit to being notoriously accepting when it comes to the female form (not that any are being offered to me, mind you), but I am truly perplexed at the constant insults leveled at Volcana’s body type.  On page 7 alone, she is derided as “plump” by Klaw and “bloated” by the Enchantress, yet while I might go so far as to call her “voluptuous,” it seems to me that her figure—certainly as depicted in page 8, panel 1—is both attractive and not all that different from those of the other distaff characters.  Zeck and Beatty do better than usual with Galactus in page 13, panel 6 and Captain America in page 22, panels 3 and 5, although the faces in page 5, panel 1 are an incredible hodgepodge that looks like a mix of artists participated.

Don’t fall over, but I even have something nice to say about Shooter’s scripting:  Professor X’s telepathic speech in page 24, panels 1-3 actually gave me a tingle of excitement and put a micro-lump in my throat, although I had to read it over 2-3 times just to be sure I wasn’t hallucinating.  Galactus-Mobile Watch:  “impossibly huge” has now been reduced to “enormous,” so I presume “relatively substantial” is next.  Not sure if Creel’s self-repair contradicts established Absorbing Man-lore, but will say that the sight of him carrying around his severed arm amid “The X-Men’s Greatest Battle!” (a chaotic mess epitomizing Professor Gil’s “running around”), complete with ball and chain—no, not Mrs. Creel!—was fairly hilarious; Rogue’s abilities seem poorly defined.

Given what little I know about how fraught Shooter made the production of this series, on which I hope Professor Tom elaborates at great length, it’s not terribly surprising that Beatty would need some help, credited here alongside old hands Jack Abel and Mike Esposito.  Methinks the Bullpen could also have used some help with that crappy cover tagline:  “Amid the Chaos, There Comes a Costume—!”  Don’t quit your day job, fellas.  Oh, right—this is your day job.  It’s also a bit of a cheat or a spoiler, depending on how you look at it, since said costume doesn’t materialize (literally) until the last page, but that’s okay, because I never liked it, and it’s a bit anticlimactic anyway, since in real time it had debuted seven months back in Amazing #252.

The Symbiote Subsequently Known as Venom (after my time, thank God) is, of course, the most notorious example of Jim’s supposed diktat that major characters had to undergo some massive upheaval; I call that change for change’s sake, which I deplore, rather than growing organically out of their own strips and better writers.  In this case, it was reportedly yet another shameless marketing gimmick, forcing readers to buy Secret Warsyet another reason to hate it—as well as their own books, but I believe it was not, as it were, limited to this series, e.g., Tony Stark’s drunken abdication of the Iron Man armor or the ruination of Yellowjacket.  If Tom or anyone else has the ammo to shoot me down on this, believe me, I’ll welcome setting the record straight.

Getting back to the inking for a moment, while I neither know nor care who did what, that would explain anomalies like the protean shape of Creel’s head, ranging from normal in page 4, panel 2 to his Beldar impression (hence the Remulac reference?) in page 7, panel 1; Greenskin looks like he just stepped out of an Archie comic in page 24, panel 2, yet on the plus side, Xavier actually looks like himself, and good, in the very last panel.  So, the Wasp wasn’t quite dead, although Shooter drags her down another notch with the hair-and-makeup line, but just needed Ƶsaji to recharge her batteries before bringing Jan back to life.  Thank goodness—I was afraid Jim was going to write a story in which characters were killed and then resurrected.  Well, that’s a relief...

I thought the drunken Enchantress scene was terrible (especially the on-again, off-again slurring of her speech), typically out of character—and apparently those fast-moving “cats of Skornheim” to which she compares Cap were never heard of again—yet it couldn’t hold a candle to the jaw-dropping Patty-Cake Quartet.  “Were you surprised there was a black man under the metal?”  Nah, not after all of the times you went around jiving “Sheeoot!”  Maybe we should rename the EIC Jim Sheeooter. Any doubts about his ignorance of Marvel history were erased when Amora asked her old foe, “you are the mighty Hulk, are you not?”  Ironically, since they were separate personae in those days, it’s Banner who should have forgotten all about their previous encounter!

For what it’s worth, the Shooter/Zeck/Beatty credits will remain unchanged for the rest of the series.  My comments concerning this issue may be somewhat curtailed by the fact that, uhm, I’m not 100% sure I understand what’s going on!  Granted, I could go back and reread it, but to be blunt, I neither think it’s worth it nor feel I should have to; as far as I’m concerned, if Stretcho can’t make his case clearly enough to convince Cap to back him, then I’m off the hook.  I think when Reed said he’d had tea with Galactus, who as far as I know doesn’t even consume human foodstuffs, something switched off in my brain, and it didn’t help that in the very next panel, he didn’t look like any rendition of Mr. Fantastic I’ve ever seen.  What was in that tea…?

Not to be outdone, the oft-problematic Ben looks like a Muppet in page 6, panel 5 while Rhodey, who seemed like a pretty cool dude when he was Stark’s pilot, continues to behave like a sexist dick, and I remained mystified by his “I think they’ve started to realize there’s a different guy in here, now…”  Again, I haven’t refreshed my memory as to how this was being handled in Iron Man, but in the subsequent panel, his brown eyes—and, it looks to me, some brown skin—can be clearly seen through the slits in his helmet, whereas Tony’s eyes are blue; also, however much said helmet muffles his voice, it would have to be obvious that it was someone else’s, especially to Avengers with whom he’s served on and off for 20 years.  So, exactly who was being fooled?

Then there’s Reed in the next shot (page 7, panel 4); granted, the forced perspective is making him look tiny, but man, I’ve seen stick figures on street-crossing signs that looked more realistic.  And how many times are we gonna be subjected to that same damned quote from the Beyonder?  Is that the extent of his characterization, perhaps making him the most boring villain in history?  The annoying Peter/Ƶsaji/Jah-Nee triangle was reportedly the EIC’s controversial way of tearing down a Colossus/Sprite romance that Chris was building in X-Men.  Galactus-Mobile Watch:  we’re back to a “solar-system-sized construct.”  And just how, precisely, was it constructed?  By galaxy-sized elves?  Doom:  “I need only activate my point-singularity power supply…”  Hunh?

Sayeth Doom, “The war is over!”  If only, as we have two more issues through which to suffer.  I’ve long said that the worst comics (or movies or whatever) often result in the best—i.e., most interesting to write and, I hope, read—reviews, but in this case, the worse it gets, the less I have to say, presumably to general rejoicing.  This thing is supposed to be such a huge deal, and yet the Zeck/Beatty artwork is so consistently, relentlessly lame, with its stick figures and rubbery, off-model faces, that it’s not even worth singling out individual panels for censure.  And because the Beyonder has so far been neither shown nor given any personality whatsoever, there’s just a great big vacuum where the antagonist should be; no antagonist, no drama, nothing.

Maybe next time Jim will get around to telling us things like what the hell happened with Doom and his chestplate, but by that point, will anyone care?  Right now, it’s just a blur of mediocrity, at best.  How is solidified sound in any way relevant to lenses, which concern light?  Logan’s ill-timed anti-American rant, with its humans : mutants :: Nazis : Jews analogy (just six issues after mutants Magneto and Xavier were both compared to Hitler; can you say “mixed messages”?) is no more welcome than his patronizing “you’re a better man than I gave you credit for!”—hey, that’s Captain America you’re condescending to, you little Canuck—and even for the Torch, no matter how preoccupied he is over Reed, suddenly to dismiss Ƶsaji as a “chippie” is implausible.

So, Shooter has written a story that features a former villain who has become all-powerful, wishing only to share his benevolent omnipotence, and climaxes with its outsized cast of heroes seemingly slaughtered.  Am I the only one who finds all of this slightly familiar?  (*cough* Korvac *cough*)  Ororo’s ongoing petulance is beneath her, and Nightcrawler has had so little screen time that I keep forgetting he’s actually in it, but Mike and John, perhaps inspired by seeing light at the end of the tunnel, have actually drawn some nice faces, most notably Cap’s in page 23, panels 3-4 and page 25, panel 3.  “I can get us home,” says Reed.  Hey, great.  Uh, by the way, exactly where are you?  Might knowing that first help?  Other than that, I got nothin’…

“War is over, if you want it…”  Oh, John, you have no idea.  Or, as Professor Tom would succinctly say, “Ofah.”  So many pages (43, with the already premium price jacked up even further accordingly), so much wrong.  I think this war should have stayed secret.  Excuse me, “these wars,” although Shooter naturally declines to differentiate or enumerate which war is which.  But of course the title—with its unfortunate historical echoes of clandestine involvement in Laos and Central America—was just a meaningless, marketing-driven concession to the toy line that sired this unholy mess, as were such costume changes as Doom’s cloak-free look, which sharply reduced the effectiveness of one of Marvel’s greatest villains.  Right, a big surprise there.

So, after 11 issues, you’re finally going to tell us a little something about the Beyonder, although we will still never see him except as a “shimmering radiance”?  Whatever.  As you may imagine, when that buck-naked Conveniently Expository Elemental oozed from the tub in page 6, panel 5, I had some decidedly unprofessorial thoughts, but how’s this for presumably unintended irony:  at the top of the page, she says, “Those [beings]…really puzzled him,” immediately above a shot of a Xavier who, at least in my copy, has puzzlingly become African-American.  Is he Professor Malcolm X?  Speaking of which, we don’t escape without an inane Rhodey line (“His warranty must have just now expired!”) or egregious error on page 39 (“it’s [sic] useful life is at an end”).

Fulfilling Shooter’s Commandment, we’re saddled with not only Spidey’s questionable fashion choice (“Oh, well…,” concludes scientific whiz Peter Parker with an ultimately self-destructive lack of curiosity), but also Greenskin the Gimp (parenthetical pet peeve:  if you were shot, or in this case zapped, in the leg, would you really yell, “My leg!,” just to make sure everybody got where you’d been hit?  That always annoys me) and Shulkie replacing Ben.  Mind you, this is the same guy who, not too long ago, was mooning over Alicia, yet now abruptly decides to blow her off and remain on Battleworld, his only ticket home from “trillions of miles” away being Reed’s device.  Man, I hope he’s got a change of batteries for that “gizmo” and keeps it in a safe place…

Later, as Reed hints at on the last page, we’ll learn that his transformations between Ben and the Thing, which have been the subject of some concern during Secret Wars, are actually the result of a mental block…just as the slowness with which Xavier regained the use of his legs, which has been the subject of some concern during Secret Wars, is actually the result of a mental block.  An occupational hazard, I suppose.  Deus ex machina—that’s Latin for “this…‘wish-fulfillment’ phenomenon we’ve been experiencing,” right?  And yet, “Apparently, at some point, death is irrevocable!”  Not, of course, when you’re “blown to bits,” thus the endless pages of dead heroes being resurrected, interspersed with endless pages of resurrected heroes battling cartoony critters.

I’m too battle-weary to formulate a clever conclusion.  So, let’s just declare victory and go home.

In Two Weeks!
Marvel Two-In-One
Gruenwald and Macchio!!!