Sunday, September 5, 2021

Matthew Bradley's Superhero Grab Bag #1


Issue #1
by Professor Matthew Bradley

Introduction:  A Day Late and a Super-Hero Short

Welcome to another series of irregular (in every sense) posts, inspired by the confluence of two recent events, one of them a memorial gathering on Sunday, July 25—the day before what would have been his 55th birthday—for our fallen friend, Professor Tom Flynn.  In attendance were the surviving members of the MU faculty’s ex-Penguin USA (PUSA) wing:  (l-r)  Professors Gilbert Colon, Joe Tura, Bradley, and Chris Blake, whose actual 55th birthday it was.  Hosted by Tom’s incredibly gracious brother, Tim, and sister-in-law, Suzanne, the event was an opportunity for his friends and family to celebrate his rich life and legacy, especially since his sudden passing near the start of, although not from, the pandemic had deprived us all of the usual elements of closure.

Naturally, his steadfast devotion to MU came up more than once, reminding me what a joy it was to revisit my extensive Marvel collection and contribute to this blog on a regular basis until we’d finished its formal curriculum in February 2017, even if the workload was at times crushing.  By a curious coincidence, while working on an article for a future issue of the print version of bare•bones (also brought to you by the usual suspects), I was reacquainted with Comic Rack, the program some of us use to store and open files of Marvel and other publications.  There, I saw the files that our august Dean Peter Enfantino had generously sent me on CD long ago to fill the relatively small number of holes remaining in my collection, many of which—for various reasons—remain unread today.

I wasn’t in on the ground floor of MU, and at the time I dipped my toe in the water, access to my collection was limited, so my earliest contributions were sporadic at best.  Looks like my historic first solo post ran on 10/9/11, although I’d already been commenting for some time and, as early as 9/28/10, weighed in on Dean Pete’s “Return of the Original Captain America” post on b*b’s “e-zine” counterpart.  As I recalled, of the 98 issues (other than long runs of Tales of Suspense and …to Astonish, about which more another time) he’d sent me, most arrived when they’d been covered already, leaving them with no immediate practical application, but memory’s a funny thing, and I’ve now discovered that a little more than half were indeed pressed into service then.

That still leaves a fair number (44, if anyone’s counting) of Silver Age issues to which I’ll be devoting ex post facto coverage in these posts, which are intended merely to supplement, rather than to supplant, the fine work of my colleagues back in the day; this is simply an opportunity for me to play catch-up with my own take on them.  This inaugural post will be the most deserving of the “grab-bag” moniker, as it happens to include a few random issues of multiple titles, while each of the remainder will group 4-7 issues of a single strip, although even those will frequently not be contiguous. I envision one devoted to Daredevil (c. 1965-6), two to Fantastic Four (c. 1963-7), one to Journey into Mystery/Thor (c. 1965-7), and three to X-Men (c. 1966-8).

Amazing Spider-Man #57 (February 1968)  

“The Coming of Ka-Zar!”

Written by Stan Lee; penciled by John Romita and Don Heck; inked by Mickey Demeo [Mike Esposito]

Ironic that this issue is “co-featuring Zabu the savage, sensational saber-tooth,” since Tom, a man who loved his cats (as we do chez Bradley), had a wonderful one named Sabretooth when I met him.  First, poor Spidey has to get his head together, having lost his memory while defeating Doc Ock last time out, but amnesiac or not, some things never change:  as rain pelts his rooftop refuge, he observes, “I’m probably the original Hard-Luck Charlie!”  As he catches 40 winks in the rafters of Grand Central, Aunt May is sick with worry over Peter’s disappearance, and before she can phone Harry for an update, her own roommate, Anna Watson, finds her collapsed and calls Dr. Bromwell; meanwhile, John Jameson defends his decision not to try to capture Spidey.

And Zabu didn't even have to wear a mask!

Fortunately not our august
Dean Paste-Pot.
Unpersuaded, JJJ learns that Lord Kevin Plunder (aka Tarzan-clone Ka-Zar) has flown into JFK with Zabu in tow for a confab about the estate with his lawyer, some ambulance-chaser named Murdock.  Jonah pits the naïve jungle lord against “a dangerous, deadly menace,” and the cross-cutting continues as snoopy Harry, finding a Spidey tracer on the floor of Pete’s closet, draws the wrong conclusion:  that he’s been kidnapped by…himself!  Hearing a radio report that John is on his side, Spidey seeks him out in search of intel, wondering why the missing freshman’s name is so familiar, while Bromwell opines that his safe return would be the best medicine; Spidey finds John with the latter’s new ally, Captain Stacy, whose daughter Gwen bursts in to accuse Spidey.

Spidey laments, “We’re not getting anywhere,” perhaps sensing that a MARMIS (Marvel Misunderstanding- Dean Pete) is overdue, and leaps out the window, as does Ka-Zar, who “borrows” a rope and grappling hook before tracing his scent from GCT to the Bugle, where Spidey unwittingly hopes the paper’s “morgue” may aid his memoire.  Preying on his amnesia, JJJ is seconds away from tricking him into unmasking when Ka-Zar bursts in, shattering both the window and the prior panel average of six per page.  “Jazzy John Romita’s” pencils, finished by “Dashin’ Don Heck” and embellished by “Mickey Demeo” (Mike Esposito), show ol’ Kev appearing practically to leap off the paper (interestingly, Spidey’s flinching pose atop that three-panel page looks positively Ditkoesque) and it’s game on.

"You imbecile, not now Cato!" --J. Clouseau

Finally free from scene-change-induced whiplash, we savor a long-awaited donnybrook, with K-Z praising “truly a worthy foe” (recalling Kraven the Hunter, thrown into the mix when Spidey visits the Savage Land in #103) who “might have made a fitting friend…”  It carries them into Central Park, “his type of terrain,” where Spidey, out of web-fluid, is outnumbered when Zabu escapes his “tightly-locked hotel room…sens[ing] the grave danger,” and propels him to the bottom of the lake.  Having recognized his opponent’s innate nobility, and knowing that Zabu’s unsought intervention has placed an asterisk on the victory anyway, Ka-Zar fishes out our water-logged—presumably still amnesiac—arachnid and proclaims, “The battle has ended…forever!”

Avengers #7 (August 1964) 

“Their Darkest Hour!”

Written by Stan Lee; penciled by Jack Kirby; inked by Chic Stone

So quickly was Jack Kirby succeeded on this strip by Heck (the next issue would be his last with full pencils), who for me defined the look of the Assemblers, that despite his creating the group with Stan Lee, I always find seeing the King’s work in these early issues a little jarring.  Stan is wasting no time deploying his footnote-provided context for the Marvel Universe, immediately citing Shellhead’s blowing off an Avengers’ alarm in the same month’s “Iron Man [i.e., Tales of Suspense] #56”—leading to this issue’s “special board of inquiry session”—and the recent attack by the Executioner and Enchantress on Thor in Journey into Mystery #103.  In double-barreled judgments, IM is suspended from assembling for a week while Odin banishes the E & E to Earth.

The gang's all here.

The Executioner is stripped of helmet and ax before they’re kicked down Bifrost with clashing agendas:  he hopes he’ll still outshine “the weak mortals” to win her heart, while she has the hots for Thor; trouble ahead, but Loki, who’d pulled their strings, is thrilled they’ll imperil his foster brother.  No sooner has the Enchantress opined that they need an ally to clue them in on Earthly ways than she spots a headline about Zemo’s escape after the Avengers defeated the Masters of Evil.  Done mopping the floor with wrestlers for his daily workout, Cap explodes at Rick Jones when he finds and tries on Bucky’s old outfit, still haunted by his death at Zemo’s hands, and the baron himself is visited by the E & E’s astral projections in a secret Amazonian jungle kingdom.

He readily agrees to seek joint revenge on Cap and Thor, who soon see Giant-Man and the Wasp off on a New England entomological investigation, then go their separate ways.  Cutting through Central Park, Cap and Rick are approached by Hans Grubervelt, Zemo’s “repentant” ex- #2, who reveals his location, but it’s a masked Executioner, luring Cap into a trap—with Rick eating his dust—and isolating Thor.  Summoned by a “strangely haunting call,” the unwary thunder god is enthralled with spell and potion by the Enchantress, who convinces him the Assemblers are his enemies; meanwhile, bailing out over the Amazon, Cap repurposes his ’chute for protection from a gas-filled missile, slashes free with his shield and hits the ground running to fend off the locals.

With friends like these...

"If only I had a pillow"
Eluding them lands him in a big-game trap, while Thor summons the Pyms back, ambushing and shattering their jet copter with Mjolnir; Hank is forced to overtax himself by growing to 40 feet to shorten his fall, with a news report prompting IM to enter the fray, sentence be damned.  Jan’s buzzing distracts Thor until Shellhead arrives, yet although the Executioner gloats from a nearby rooftop, his partner frets over Zemo’s progress, and her long-distance effort to seal the pit with a cave-in merely provides Cap—protected by his shield—with a rocky “stairway” exit.  Scattering Zemo’s men with a “giant flexible vine” (looks like a tree to me) before they can deploy a vibra-gun, Cap levels his palace with it, hitching a ride on the getaway plane with his shield’s magnets.

The breather enabling him to return to a mere 12 feet, Hank assists IM, who breaks the spell with reflected sunlight, leaving the Avengers, uhm, reassembled as all parties converge with Zemo’s arrival.  Although Cap smashes his windscreen, the Executioner leaps aboard to stun and eject him, but Thor uses Mjolnir to create “an all-consuming space warp” that transports the fleeing ship and the unholy three within it to…who knows where?  Lots of moving parts, feeling at times like a jumble of misplaced JIM/TOS pages, but Stan orchestrates—as Jack and Chic delineate—the action nicely; of historical interest, the lettercol’s “Special Announcements Section” heralds the solo Hulk strip’s debut in Tales to Astonish #60, after he and co-star Hank cross paths in #59.

"Well, if I can't cause mayhem,
I'll just -- dance!"

Avengers #9 (October 1964)

“The Coming of the…Wonder Man!”

Written by Stan Lee; penciled by Don Heck; inked by Dick Ayers

As much as I adore the arc in which Gerry Conway et alia resurrected Simon Williams (in every sense), starting in #151 and crossing over with Bill Mantlo’s woefully underrated Super-Villain Team-Up, I’d never before had access to “the” Wonder Man’s origin story, marking Don’s debut as penciler.  After last issue’s Kang interlude, an obsessed Cap is seeing hallucinations of Zemo, who is “hovering helplessly between the sixth and seventh dimensions” with the Executioner and Enchantress; the latter’s spell returns them to Zemo’s jungle kingdom to hatch Plan B.  For this, they offer penniless inventor Simon—driven to embezzlement to avoid bankruptcy after “Tony Stark’s latest inventions made your patents worthless”—wealth, power, and a shot at vengeance.

"...if you want something
done, ask a woman."
-- M. Thatcher

Beefed up by the “most powerful ionic rays ever assembled in once concentrated area,” he’s now a bullet-proof “living engine of destruction,” and will join the Avengers to strike from within; it does not get by the Executioner that his partner, who seems to get hot pants for everyone but him, “has never looked at me like that!”  Having given him Giant-Man’s strength, fists rivaling Mjolnir, a rocket-belt, and Cap’s battle skills, Zemo ensures Wondy’s loyalty:  the rays are fatal sans weekly injections of an antidote.  Days later, a staged payroll robbery gives the Assemblers the return bout they craved, interrupted by Wonder Man, and after “driving off” Zemo et al., he claims to be the baron’s unwilling guinea pig, seeking help to find the cure for his “rare disease.”

"Ah, puny humans --gotta love 'em."
It all goes south (American) when Wondy returns to Zemo’s H.Q., luring the Avengers into yet another trap with a false radio report that he’s been “recaptured,” but being forced to bring Jan as bait makes him begin to question his allies’ m.o.  As all parties converge—the men assembling via no fewer than three separate modes of transportation in this pre-quinjet era—he sucker punches Thor, more comfortable showing his true colors, and at first single-handedly holds his own, knowing his injection depends on victory.  Yet as the Asgardians help Zemo tip the balance decisively in his favor, and he prepares to execute his defeated foes, Wonder Man asks himself, “they tried to help me when I came to them!...Is life so dear—that I’d pay such a price for it??”

So that's what they did
before the internet

He moves the boulder trapping Thor in a pit, which had separated him from his hammer for the crucial 60 seconds, effecting the change to Don Blake; unseen amidst the chaos, the lame medico retrieves Mjolnir—which, in a notable gaffe, did not revert to Don’s walking stick.  With Thor’s reappearance, the jig is clearly up for Zemo & Co., but it’s a pyrrhic victory as the baddies escape once more, with the Avengers narrowly avoiding a booby trap, and Wonder Man, absent the antidote, dies a hero’s death.  I probably haven’t seen a lot of Silver-Age lettercols, so I’m realizing that the “Special Announcements Section” (here occupying 75% of the second page, and bruiting the start of Cap’s solo strip in TOS #59) is a precursor of the Bullpen Bulletins Page.

"It has not been in vain." -- F. Unger

Up Next:
A heapin' helpin' of
the Man Without Fear!

Sunday, April 5, 2020

RIP Professor Thomas Flynn


Word reached us this morning that one of the most important pieces of the Marvel University passed away last night.

Professor Thomas Flynn was not only the preeminent scholar on everything Conan but also a die hard Lucio Fulci and Spaghetti Western defender. Most importantly though, Tom was a good guy. There are not enough of those to go around these days so his passing is that much harder.

Those wishing to read a heart-felt appreciation from Tom's best bud, Professor Matthew Bradley should go here.

Marvel University may well have been possible without Tom but it sure as hell would not have been as much fun.

Thomas, we are going to miss you, my friend. The lights will remain dimmed and the Cap flag will stay at half mast for the foreseeable future.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Post-Graduate Studies #23

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

In our coverage of Ms. Marvel #23 (April 1979), I noted that the book was abruptly axed with a brace of Claremont/Vosburg issues in various stages of development.  By the time the would-be #24-5 were belatedly completed and published in Marvel Super-Heroes in 1992, Carol Danvers had undergone such, uhm, seminal experiences as her rape/impregnation by Marcus, having her powers stolen by Rogue, and evolving into Binary.  It would be another 27 years before I finally obtained those issues through the good offices of Professor Tom, during which time she had not only assumed yet another identity, Warbird, but also claimed the mantle of the original Captain Marvel—in whose strip she’d been introduced—and become a major movie star in the process…

Marvel Super-Heroes Vol. 2 #10 (July 1992)

The Vision and the Scarlet Witch in “The Terror!”
Story by Bill Mantlo
Art by Mike Mignola and Armando Gil
Colors by Bob Sharen
Letters by Richard Starkings

Namor in “…I Won’t Take ‘No’ for an Answer!”
Story by Barry Dutter
Art by Patrick Archibald and Andrew Pepoy
Colors by Mike Rockwitz
Letters by Clem Robins

Ms. Marvel in “Sabretooth Stalks the Subway!”
Story by Chris Claremont
Art by Mike Vosburg
Colors by Heidi Goodhue (seriously?)
Letters by Jim Novak
Cover by Craig Brasfield and Jeff Albrecht

At Avengers Mansion, Ms. Marvel engages in a training-room session, with a worrisome lack of stamina, and some mixed-message banter with new teammate Iron Man.  Meanwhile, in the New York field office, S.H.I.E.L.D. Deputy Director Jasper Sitwell is overruled when refusing to train psycho Sabretooth in unarmed combat against the day the Canadian Ministry of Defense sets him to capture Weapon X (that’s Wolverine to you).  After a semi-gratuitous shower, Carol attempts a phone call she’s been dreading to “psychiatrist-cum-boyfriend” Barnett; the reason Mike’s not  picking up is that somebody needs to pick him up, lying slain as he is on the floor of his trashed office, and since he was last seen in #22 being watched by Mystique, we can likely do the math.

In Sheridan Square, Carol has lunch with John and Nancy Jellicoe, respectively her accountant and literary agent, who warn that her firing from Woman will require her to resume freelancing.  They are rudely interrupted by a S.H.I.E.L.D. security truck that crashes into the restaurant and disgorges Sabretooth, who flees into the subway while Carol changes into Ms. Marvel to free a trapped John.  He laughs off contact with the third rail, if not with a half-ton I-beam wielded by MM, who must also stop an express train that passed 14th Street before the police closed the line; losing speed herself after averting a crash, she finally fells her foe with a score of stun punches to his neck, but as the tale ends, she is stricken with seventh-sense images of Mystique…and Death.

Although given cover honors, this resurrected tale is relegated to the back of the book—perhaps due to its then-standard 17-page length—following a pin-up gallery featuring Wolverine, the FF, Dr. Doom, Machine Man, and the X-Men.  But complete with abortive original Cockrum/Austin cover, it’s worth the wait, in all senses, to be back in the mind of a nuanced Claremont character, even if Vosburg’s work sometimes looks better suited to Little Annie Fanny (and I say that as an unabashed cheesecake-lover).  MM’s banter with IM is a good example:  she’s flirtatious, noting that she essays to keep it light when not engaged in their “grim business,” yet the self-described “closet chauvinist” raises her hackles with the same sexism to which her father subjected Carol.

On a related note, her description of Mike (“he’s been hinting at a more…permanent relationship between us.  He really wants to marry me”) seems a bit charitable for a guy who evidently wants to blackmail her into drudgery.  But in a development I consider long overdue, Chris resolves the whole dysfunctional doctor-patient relationship by killing Mike off, and I for one will not mourn him.  In addition to sharing the name of Professor Tom’s late and much-loved cat, Sabretooth is, of course, a Claremont creation, introduced in Iron Fist #14 (August 1977), and as one of Chris’s more formidable villains he makes a good match for an opponent who is still being established as one of Marvel’s strongest super-heroines, although again, he believably acknowledges her limits.

Nothing here to make me revise my lukewarm opinion of Vosburg, who makes MM look goofy (e.g., story page 2, panel 2; page 12, panel 5, left) when she doesn’t seem like a PG Kurtzman/Elder outtake, and considering they had 13 years to polish this thing, the artwork looks pretty sketchy to me.  The montage depicting a dead Barnett on page 8 is a Psycho riff, starting on a close-up of his staring eye as the “camera” gradually pulls back to reveal Mike and the destruction.  Chris’s customarily complex characterization is always welcome, yet the story’s overall pacing leaves its climactic battle—which, given the respective threat levels of its participants, should have been a pretty impressive donnybrook—feeling rushed, and it is especially sad under the circumstances.

Bill Mantlo’s 22-page lead-off takes place before The Vision and the Scarlet Witch Vol. 2, and builds on his story in Marvel Fanfare #58 (August 1991), also inked by Armando Gil, here over  Mike Mignola’s pencils.  A town meeting in Leonia High School, at which their NIMBY New Jersey neighbors decry the “freaks,” is interrupted by a zombie eruption from the cemetery and the appearance of another “pillar of power,” for which Wanda is typically blamed.  But as her hubby points out, her mutant powers only simulate magic, and the ghostly Inquisitors emerging from the pillar were summoned by the town’s hate and prejudice, given a mystical manifestation by her “magic,” thus requiring the unhappy couple “to save even those who would destroy us.”

Also weighing in at 22 pages, with art by Patrick Archibald and Andrew Pepoy, Barry Dutter’s yarn precedes Namor the Sub-Mariner #8 (November 1990) and has multimillionaire J.Q. Stamp hire the Rhino to enforce his “art of the steal” attempt on Oracle, Inc.  Making like Br’er Rabbit, Namor dupes the Rhino into belting him near his indoor pool, but Stamp takes the next round by holding Carrie and Caleb Alexander hostage.  As Namor arrives to clean out his desk, a shapely Tigress Shark appears to avenge Oracle’s alleged exploitation of the oceans, so Subby directs her to the new owner; in return for rescue, Stamp agrees to cancel the takeover and confess to killing his rivals, only to learn that Namor freed his friends and Tigress Shark is really cousin Namorita.

Marvel Super-Heroes Vol. 2 #11 (October 1992)

Ghost Rider in “Fireworks”
Story by Tina Chrioproces
Art by Greg LaRocque and Vincent Colletta
Colors by Tom Vincent
Letters by Diana Albers
Cover by Bob Budiansky and Jeff Albrecht

Giant-Man in “Not to Touch the Earth”
Plot by Jim Shooter
Script by Dwayne McDuffie
Art by Bob Budiansky and Manny Manos (seriously!; pp. 24-37) and Don Hudson and Chris Ivy (pp. 38-42)
Colors by Steve Mattsson
Letters by Richard Starkings

Ms. Marvel in “Cry, Vengeance!”
Story by Chris Claremont and Simon Furman
Art by Mike Vosburg (pp. 43-69) and Mike Gustovich (pp. 70-79)
Colors by Heidi Goodhue
Letters by Jim Novak

In Mike’s office, Iron Man uses Mr. Fantastic’s Heat Image Tracer to record the “radiant energy patterns,” and projects a holographic replay of his murder; he and Ms. Marvel watch as a woman appearing to be Carol enters, kisses him, is recognized as an impostor, beats him to death, reveals her true form as Mystique (as yet unknown to MM), rifles the office to find Carol’s file, makes a phone call, and leaves.  At Mike’s gravesite, Carol is hit by seventh-sense images of flames and a collapsing skyscraper that literally knock her into his grave.  Tracing the phone number leads to the office of Southern Star Imports in a JFK cargo hangar, where she finds arms smuggler Peter Coelho’s Hong Kong airline ticket and hotel reservation…plus crates of cutting-edge armaments.

After being attacked by flaming replicas of herself in another flash, MM observes Coelho and the buyers he plans to betray, the Hellfire Club’s Harry Leland and Donald Pierce, but she is spotted by Sebastian Shaw’s aide, Tessa, and a fight ensues.  Disarming the cyborg Pierce (literally), she escapes by shattering a floor already weakened by mutant Leland’s “ultra-mass effect,” and falls into the sewer below.  Carol wangles the seat next to ladies’ man Coelho; while she beguiles him on the overnight flight—during which she sees herself clad as the Black Queen in another trance, being presented by her shadowy lover with a teenaged Rogue to kill—Raven ignores the warning of Irené Adler to leave Carol alone, desperate to forestall Destiny’s prediction of harm to Rogue.

She sends evil mutants Avalanche and Pyro to the Crown Colony Hotel to kill Carol, and as Pyro mentions Mystique, MM’s seventh sense shows an image of Mike’s killer; taking Avalanche out before he can fulfill her vision by collapsing the hotel, she realizes they won’t talk.  Coelho, the only lead left, is found in his room, killed by Shaw after Tessa learned of his double game selling the armaments to the Brotherhood.  “Weeks pass,” full of meaningless battles with the Avengers, until Destiny says that Carol “has gone from all possible futures I can perceive,” yet after “time passes once more” and she is sensed in San Francisco, Mystique again ignores Destiny’s warning that her hatred “leads to a dark, uncertain future,” and dispatches protégé Rogue to finish Carol.

Fighting to “forget about Michael, about Marcus, about the so-called friends who betrayed me!,” Carol explodes when Rogue mentions Mystique and—past caring who she is, or why she means Carol harm—turns into MM for a grudge match.  In the meantime, Raven arrives in full “What have I done?” mode, and is there to pick up the pieces after Rogue O.D.’s on MM and tosses her off the Golden Gate Bridge to be saved, now a powerless amnesiac, by Spider-Woman.  We end by flashing forward (or back, depending on how you look at it) to the events that made Rogue, like many a so-called “evil” mutant before her, defect to the side of the Angel et alia, while “an alien evolutionary ray unlocks buried potential in [the recovering Carol’s] augmented genes…”

At a whopping 30 pages drawn by two Mikes—Vosburg on the first 20, Gustovich on the rest—and again batting clean-up, this was clearly expanded to fit the new format, with an additional writing credit for Simon Furman and a series of false endings that awkwardly tries to bridge the gap in between the cancellation of MM’s book and Carol’s current status as Binary.  A figure as important as Marcus is mentioned only in passing, with no explanation, so it’s difficult to guess whether this material is intended primarily to enlighten the uninitiated, or for those who would take the interim events as a given.  Either way, it leaves the feeling that editor Rob Tokar wants to have his cake and eat it, too, when it might have been better just to complete it as envisioned.

Even as a hitherto “untold tale” of my beloved Claremontiverse, this feels overly ambitious, with Coelho—addressed by Carol as “lover” after the acquaintance of less than one plane trip—being identified as not just an ex-employee of the Deterrence Research Corporation, but an apprentice of founder Moses Magnum.  The story also crams in not one but two groups of X-Men foes, the Brotherhood du jour and the Hellfire Club, yet they have no interaction and, really, nothing to do with each other.  Worse, several elements (e.g., Carol severing Pierce’s bionic arm, plummeting into the sewer while having her mass increased by Leland and, above all, undergoing that Dark Phoenix-style vision) seem like unforgivable rip-offs of earlier and far better Claremont stories.

In short, it’s a mess, right from Reed’s convenient doohickey that was probably never heard of before or since; Mike being the scumbag that he was, it would have been far more plausible if he had hidden a video camera in his own office, so replaying that tape would accomplish the same objective.  And the artwork is so consistently amateurish that changing horses in midstream only makes it incrementally, rather than drastically, worse.  If finished and published in its intended state, this might have made a reasonably satisfying send-off for MM, and would certainly form enlightening connective tissue linking Mystique—who was, let us not forget, introduced in this strip—with the far-reaching events that Claremont depicted in Avengers Annual #10 soon after.

Arts lowlights include the practically simian Barnett in page 45, panels 5-7 (above); the squirm-inducing “naughtiness at 35,000 feet” scene on page 67 (left); Carol as evil crimson chipmunk in page 66, panel 9; and the utterly unrecognizable Shaw in page 73, panel 8.  Page 71, panel 6 (below): who is this figure we’ve never seen before?  Oh, it’s Ms. Marvel, whose formerly form-fitting mask has suddenly and inexplicably, in Gustovich’s clumsy hands, been completely redesigned in mid-issue!  But in fairness, I’ll give grudging points to the uncharacteristically detail-packed splash page; the reveal of Pyro’s flamebird in page 69, panel 2; the ECU of Avalanche—looking a lot like Juggernaut—in page 72, panel 5; and pretty much their entire portrayal of Raven, who looks good throughout.

Illustrated by faculty bêtes noires Greg LaRocque and Vincent Colletta, the cover story by Tina Chrioproces precedes Ghost Rider Vol. 1 #80 as the vacationing Johnny and Red enter Altro, a backwater town.  Sheriff Kuhn (who briefly jails them for DWW) suspects that Rev. Stryker, the leader of the survivalist Power Cult, killed his daughter Veronica’s fiancé, Frank Anders, when she broke with him and got a job at the local nuclear plant.  But she killed Frank herself, after he refused to leave the cult, which she and the boys infiltrate; released by Johnny, Zarathos plans to substitute Veronica, a willing sacrifice to this fiery “savior,” as Mephisto’s thrall, yet as the Rev tries to “save” her with explosives, Zarathos absorbs the flames and, weakened, reverts to Blaze.

The Giant-Man story seems to be another tag-team effort, scripted by Dwayne McDuffie from a Jim Shooter plot, with 12 pages done by Bob Budiansky and Manny Manos (presumably a close relative of Diverse Hands) and 5 by Don Hudson and Chris Ivy.  Defining “disposable” on every count, it has Bill brush off jobless Arlo Samuelson, who—afraid of losing material girl Donna—tries his untested levitation serum; economical substitutions leave him levitating uncontrollably, a boon in heisting the gold needed to stabilize his formula.  Increasingly irrational, Arie believes that if he touches the ground, feedback will kill him, but after reading his work, Bill realizes that it will discharge the levitational energy driving him insane, and Foster, proven correct, hires him. 

Note to Professor Tom:  The bulk of this post was written while wearing your “Keep Calm and Play Motörhead” t-shirt.

Bradley out (of Dodge).

And, just because we love you all so much...
The long-awaited return of MU cheesescake!

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Post-Graduate Studies #22

The MU campus is mostly unused right now but
from time to time, our Professors will drop in for Summer courses.
This Week:
by Professor Tom Flynn

It really didn’t take long for Frank Miller to become a superstar. His first published work — well, maybe — was a letter printed in The Cat #3 (April 1973) when he was 16, so he was a comics fan at a fairly early age. By 1978, Miller was illustrating shorts for Gold Key Comics, mainly in The Twilight Zone series. That same year, he brought his portfolio to DC, impressing “The Dreaded Eraser” himself, art director Vince Colletta, who tossed him bottom-rung assignments for Weird War Tales and Unknown Soldier. In a few short months, Frank jumped to Marvel, settling in as a regular fill-in and cover artist. 

Miller’s first job at The House of Ideas was issue #18 of John Carter, Warlord of Mars (November 1978). But it was his work on Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man #27 and #28 (February and March 1979), which guest-starred Daredevil, that set his career in motion. While the Man Without Fear’s bi-monthly solo series was on the verge of cancellation, Miller saw great potential in the character — “a blind protagonist in a purely visual medium” he thought — and lobbied to become DD’s permanent penciller. Frank joined writer Roger McKenzie and inker Klaus Janson on Daredevil #158 (May 1979). By January 1981and issue #168, Miller had forced McKenzie out and took over scripting duties as well. Three issues after that, the title became monthly and one of Marvel’s hottest properties. 

In our continuing series of Post-Graduate Studies on notable issues and stories from Bizarre Adventures, let’s take a look at Frank Miller’s contributions to that scattershot black-and-white magazine. He only did two stories, both rather short.

Bizarre Adventures #28
October 1981
Cover by Bob Larkin

“The Mongoose Gambit”
Story, Art & Inks by Frank Miller

Letters by Jim Novak

The ninja assassin Elektra steals aboard a fishing trawler and kills the radio operator as he attempts to send out an SOS. After planting a bomb, she struggles with another crewman: they both fall overboard as the boat explodes. The mercenary breaks the surface of the water and grabs on to a floating piece of wreckage — on the other end is the man she fought on deck, his gun pointed at her head. They enter into an uneasy truce, realizing that they will need to work together if there is any chance to reach land, many miles away. As they paddle, he claims that his holy mission will continue on even without his ship and that Von Eisenbluth will suffer for his crimes. When Elektra asks why he would want to kill a simple spice merchant, her reluctant companion insists that Von Eisenbluth is a Nazi and the murderer of thousands, including his parents and sister.

Two days later, Von Eisenbluth’s island appears on the horizon: the Nazi hunter fires and creases Elektra’s skull. She sinks into the ocean but revives and makes it to shore. There, she encounters a pair of body builders and steals their dune buggy. After killing two guard dogs with her bladed sai, the woman warrior slips into the German’s compound. She comes across the boatman standing before Von Eisenbluth, who is consigned to a wheelchair. The intruder shoots the old man in both knees but it has no effect: the enfeebled criminal mumbles that his legs have had no feelings for years and that heart medications have scrambled his brain. The hunter pauses — but the Nazi has been feigning his mental disabilities. He kills his would-be assassin with a concealed pistol.

Elektra makes her presence known and the clear-eyed Von Eisenbluth smiles. He apologizes for killing the target he paid her to assassinate, adding that it’s been far too long since he shot a Jew. The woman turns to walk away but suddenly spins and impales the Nazi to his wheelchair with a thrown sai to the heart.

Like Frank Miller’s fast-rising stardom, it didn’t take his creation Elektra long to appear in her first solo story. As mentioned before, she debuted in Daredevil #168 in January of 1981, the same issue that Miller solidified his grip on the series. So she had only four full-color appearances under her waist sash by the time she took the lead position in Bizarre Adventures

#28. At this point in Daredevil, Frank was only providing breakdowns for Klaus Janson. But for the 10-page “The Mongoose Gambit” — often referred to as simply “Elektra” — he provided full pencils and inked his own work. It’s hard to exactly call Miller a great artist: he’s sloppy, his characters use stilted poses, facial features are not well defined, and detailed backgrounds are rarely attempted. However, he’s a master of mood and shadows as well as quick and deadly violence. And he’s at the top of his game here. Surprisingly, there are a few close-ups of Ms. Natchios and she actually looks quite beautiful. Not something I would expect for an illustrator who revels in the grotesque. She looks a bit like a transvestite in the pin-up below though. From what I’ve read, this story is supposed to take place before Elektra first entered Matt Murdock’s troubled life.

Yes, we can check the box on Miller’s art, but there are quite a few issues with his story. Now Von Eisenbluth hired Elektra to destroy the nameless Nazi hunter’s boat, so she should have hardly been surprised that the “spice merchant” was a vile creep. Von Eisenbluth is dealing with assassins so he’s obviously not all cloves and allspice. Was she once approached by Mrs. Dash to knock-off Mr. McCormick and this stuff is all second nature? Plus, her “plan” of exploding the boat doesn’t seem very well thought out. The ship is in the middle of the ocean when she slips on board — how is not shown — so when it goes “WHOOMMMM,” Elektra is lucky that there is a large enough piece of debris floating on the surface of the water. Couldn’t she have used a pontoon boat and attached the explosive to the trawler’s hull? Also not sure what purpose the two bodybuilders on the beach serve. They claim that their “Dad’s swinging a deal” with Von Eisenbluth, but that goes nowhere. Elektra just does an old shuck and jive and makes off with their dune buggy. Plus, they are middle-aged men, one nearly bald, so that’s a bit confusing. Finally, Von Eisenbluth is totally nonchalant when the boatman caps him in both knees. Even though his legs have no feeling, I’d imagine that the Nazi would be a bit concerned about all the blood loss, considering the amount of splatter Miller illustrates. With all that aside, “The Mongoose Gambit” is a decent little time waster.

The rest of  Bizarre Adventures #28 is a mixed bag, about the standard for the series. “Shadow Hunter” is a lengthy, 20-page tale about a pint-sized ninja sent to infiltrate a U.S. Army base by his evil Chinese master — at the end, he switches side and foils the warlord’s plans. Doug Moench’s story is pretty dopey but the team of Larry Hama and Neal Adams provide more than agreeable artwork. Heck, Neal Adams. Next up is “Huntsman,” a shockingly shameless rip-off of

Logan’s Run by Archie Goodwin and Michael Golden. I’ll go more in-depth on this short in the upcoming “The Bizarre Michael Golden” post. Mary Jo Duffy and Elfquest’s Wendy Pini team on the sophomoric Triton tale, “Conscience of the King.” As usual, there’s yet another insufferable Bucky Bizarre farce by Steve Skeates and Steve Smallwood.

Bizarre Adventures #31
April 1982
Cover by Joe Jusko

“The Philistine”
Story by Denny O’Neil
Art & Inks by Frank Miller
Letters by Jim Novak

In a post-apocalyptic future, a swordsman makes his way across the burnt plains of eastern Missouri. In the distance, he notices a light — striding closer, he discovers that it’s a museum, a skeleton sprawled across the front steps. A voice beckons him inside: it is the bespectacled curator, a short, rotund elderly man. The warrior is welcomed with a feast of fruit and a cup of “special” tea, all free of charge. The curator begins to rant, complaining about the swinish herd that used to trample through his beloved institution before the coming of “The Shift.” Not only could they not comprehend great art, their presence would actually desecrate the fine objects on display. None of them understood the need to cast aside their defenses and let the paintings and sculptures assault them.

Suddenly, the figure from a Rembrandt portrait strides out of the painting, rapier raised. As the museum’s guardian continues to rant that art must be engaged with whatever weapon you possess, the swordsman kills the living portrait with a vicious slash of his samurai sword. Seductive creatures from a Michelangelo fresco start to emerge as the curator shouts that art can give you an awareness of life even as your very existence is threatened. With three well-thrown ninja stars, the swordsman slays the demons. A suit of armor lurches to life as the little man vows

that art will never be bested by sniveling, mincing buffoons. The swordsman beheads the silver spirit with its own lance.

As the wanderer tends to his wounds, the curator groans about the mess that has been made and the hours that it will take to clean it up. The warrior picks up the knight’s lance and impales his tormentor on an ornamental cartouche hanging from a wall. With his dying breath, the old man mutters “I don’t suppose I had … any right to expect … anything else from a … philistine.”

Um, yeah. I know that René Descartes was all “I think, therefore I am” and Nietzsche had a beef with organized religion, but don’t ask me what branch of philosophy Denny O’Neil and Frank Miller were aping with “The Philistine.” It’s basically eight pages of the curator pontificating about art while his rhetoric comes alive in real time. “You must permit art to assault you” and, BAM, a swordfight breaks out. “Art can be seductive as well as fierce” and, POW, naked succubi appear. “Art will ever be victorious” and, WHAM, the suit of amour strikes. What’s the point? I can’t imagine that O’Neil and Miller are anti-art. Is it about art snobbery? Maybe I’m just missing something obvious. 

In 1982, Miller was still only providing breakdowns for Klaus Janson on Daredevil, but, like “The Mongoose Gambit,” he goes whole hog here. There’s a very effective —  and prodigious — use of black, which makes up most of the backgrounds. Other panels are simply battling figures against the white of the paper. Miller doesn’t use the entire frame on many pages, leaving a lot of areas empty, though sometimes those spaces are used for the curator’s dialogue. He also experiments with washes and Zip-a-Tone, adding welcomed shades of grey and texture. I’ve said before that I thought that Frank got lazier — though some might say more stylized — as time went on, but he puts a great deal of effort into the paintings and other objects d’art. They are far from photo-realistic, but have that feeling. Maybe it’s just because their fine details stand out against the simple strokes of the characters. Now I’m guessing that’s supposed to be the work of Rembrandt and Michelangelo on display, but don’t make me swear on it. The swordsman has a nice design, kind of like a samurai El Topo.

As Bizarre Adventures #31 promised “A Hard Look at Violence,” according to the front cover at least, the rest of the seven stories are packed with bloodshed and death. But not much entertainment.  Of note are “The Hangman,” by Mark Gruenwald and the great Bill Sienkiewicz, a tale of a reporter trapped in a horror movie come alive. John Byrne offers a two-pager about book burning that’s way too short to work up any gravitas. And the talented Steve Bissette delivers some uber-creepy artwork for “A Frog is a Frog.”

Bonus: LOC published in Claws of the Cat #3 (April 1973)