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.

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