Wednesday, June 25, 2014

April 1974 Part One: The Return of Neal Adams!

Astonishing Tales 23
It! The Living Colossus in
"Conquerors Three!"
Story by Tony Isabella
Art by Dick Ayers and Jack Kirby
Colors by Linda Lessmann
Letters by Dick Ayers
Cover by Gil Kane and Mike Esposito

Perched atop the Capitol Building, a dizzy Colossus rants against Granitor, then climbs down and collapses when Bob O’Bryan is forced to leave his body. Bob wakes up and realized the closer he is to Colossus, the less mental energy he uses. Diane Cummings is held prisoner by Granitor, with Magnor, also captive, giving advice. Dr. Vault and assistant Dr. Braun tell of Fin Fang Foom’s origin and the ability to control him/it. Colossus awakes and flies off to meet a golden mass that contains the attacking gargoyles! FFF joins the fray, fighting for Earth, and aids Colossus in destroying the gargoyles’ machine. (Hurray!) But we end on villainous Vault proclaiming he can soon control FFF again and inhabit the Colossus, just as a doctor tells us “Bob O’Bryan is dead!” (Booooo) -Joe Tura

Joe Tura: Nice Gil Kane cover of the offspring of The Purple Man and King Kong. Then we turn the page. Sigh…I want to like this throwback comic book series, but it’s just too…average, for lack of a better term. Lots of words, lots of nicely colored panels that are either too busy or too bland. Decent action, but does it really matter? Why does Magnor look like Gold from the Metal Men on page 12? What secrets does the nasty SOB Dr. Vault hold (ho ho ho)? Why more reprints of older commix with the FFF origin? Why did I agree to this title? Where the heck is Deathlok already?

Good news, everyone! We get a bonus, page-length Isabella diatribe about The Lost World. Um, no thanks…“Shaddup, Duffy!”

A Shanna the She-Devil Marvel Value Stamp? Geez, I can’t escape Ka-Zar if I try! Good thing I have a decent parking spot in the faculty lot!

Scott McIntyre: On page three, panel 4, Tony Isabella uses the word "again" three times in the same panel. That's how interesting this issue is. Dick Ayers…really, why was he even employed? His art is so old school and stilted he makes this title look like a reprint mag (which is why I never read it before now). Tossing in a few pages of Fin Fang Foom doesn't help. Awful.

Peter Enfantino: So, am I correct then that Tony Isabella's Marvel Foundation is built on a title that was built on reprints? I would imagine Jack was thinking royalties would be nice.

The Avengers 122
"Trapped in Outer Space!"
Story by Steve Englehart
Art by Bob Brown and Mike Esposito
Colors by George Roussos
Letters by John Costanza
Cover by Gil Kane and John Romita

Trapped in the warehouse disguised as a spacecraft, the Avengers are in orbit. When a wall slides away, revealing a force field, Thor tosses his hammer to break it. It passes through, but does not return. Sixty seconds later, Thor reverts to Don Blake, but finds cover before his identity is revealed to both heroes and villains alike. The remaining members of Zodiac notice Thor's hasty retreat and spring forward, but Iron Man (the only one who knows Thor is Don Blake), acts as a buffer, preaching teamwork to get them out of their current jam. They do not listen, but after a short battle, the Vision is able to convince them that everyone (else) needs food, water, oxygen and heat to survive - they must work together to get home. Back on Earth, Taurus dismisses the rest of his group for lacking the backbone to stand up to him. After leaving, and for reasons unknown, Libra attacks Gemini and frees his twin brother in a scheme to steal Taurus' star ship. Meanwhile, Wanda uses her hex power to assist Iron Man in breaking loose from the force field. Outside, he spots Thor's hammer and takes it before pushing the ship back toward Earth. However, once gravity takes hold, his hand becomes pinned under the weight of the Uru Hammer and the ship begins to burn up on reentry. They are suddenly rescued by Lira and the captured starship. Below, Taurus realizes he's being duped and the ship returns to Earth with the Avengers and the turncoat members of Zodiac. Taurus is able to convince his traitorous allies to switch sides again and betray the Avengers who rescued them. The battle is arduous, but the Avengers emerge triumphant. However, Taurus, zapped by the Vision, falls into his pool, panicking over the fact that he can’t swim. The Vision freezes, unable to save the villain. Luckily, Mantis arrives in the nick of time to save him. The Vision cannot explain his hesitation and fear while Libra explains his freeing the Avengers was a mistake. He initially believed Mantis was among them, which was his primary concern as he intones; "I…am her father!" -Scott McIntyre

Scott: A solid, action packed wrap-up to the Zodiac arc. Van Lunt is exposed and captured, finally. His goons still look ridiculous and switch sides really easily, but the overall adventure moves quickly enough to make it easy to gloss over the usual plot holes and silliness. Mantis' return is well timed and they knew they had an interesting character here. The father/daughter reveal isn't exactly blood chilling since we have little investment in Libra, but Mantis herself is a fascinating creature and we are promised her origin for the next issue. The Vision remains the other breakout character and his hesitation was well played, adding to the mystery of this character. Bob Brown's art is quite good this time around, there's little to turn me off other than the appearance of the bad guys, who really need to hire a better costume designer. Thor haphazardly throws his hammer into space and a panel later a minute has elapsed. Considering how much can happen in a minute (especially in comics), I have a hard time believing Thor just stood there crapping his panties, ticking off the seconds. 

Chris Blake: In a desperate attempt at self-preservation, the Avengers burst forth – led by Thor, they escape thru the front cover of Avengers #122, to freedom! No, I kid, I kid – a little. This issue isn’t as bad as the previous 3-4 had been; either that, or I’m getting accustomed to the lowered standard. (Any way that Gil Kane and John Romita could somehow lead the team back into the issue, and provide the art? Just askin’. But WOW, whatta cover.)

So, what exactly was Taurus’ scheme here – to launch his renegade teammates into orbit, open a wall to show them where they are, and then leave them there? Speaking of curious planning, the Avengers’ determined effort to expose themselves to the vacuum of space (why the hell are they so intent on breaking thru the force field?!) results in Thor’s hammer being stuck outside of the warehouse/spacecraft. Thor reverts to Don Blake, but the hammer . . . doesn’t change into a wooden walking stick? Howcum? Also, I thought it was a considerate gesture for Mjolnir to wait at a fixed point in space until the warehouse could orbit around again; I didn’t realize the hammer was smart enough to do that. At least, Libra’s announcement of Mantis’ parentage points ahead toward the Celestial Madonna storyline. If we can . . . hold on . . . for a few more issues, just a . . . few . . . water . . . (gasp)

Chris: Future What If?, Star Wars, and Savage Sword of Conan penciller Rick Hoberg writes in, and poses a question that ever plagues me, as a fan of Marvel, and The Avengers in particular – to paraphrase, why are certain artists paired together, when their styles clearly are not suited for each other? Roy offers some Deadline Doom-infused excuse for Mike Esposito’s inks not being their best in a few recent issues, and then has the gall to ask readers what we thought of Heck’s inks on the Assemblers! Suddenly, I turn into Judge Smails, and sputter “Why you - - you - - you - - !!!”

Matthew Bradley: Doubtless there are those in whom reversion from Buscema to Brown engenders much gnashing of teeth. My only serious reservation about the Esposito-inked results, especially with Steve’s flawed but generally solid script, is the depiction of the Vision, but one reader carps about earlier examples of that same pairing. The lettercol reply—“Mighty Mike has been called by his full-time duties on Marvel’s production staff, and has had to cut back on his Avengers ink slinging. Unfortunately, his production work before that, and some Dreaded Deadline Dooms brought about by Steve’s move to California, caused him to rush his creative contribution more than he (or we) wanted, and so appear to be less talented than he really is”—is admirably candid.

Conan the Barbarian 37
“The Curse of the Golden Skull”
Story by Roy Thomas
Art by Neal Adams
Colors by Glynis Wein
Letters by John Costanza
Cover by Neal Adams

A heavily armed squadron of rebellious Hillmen attacks Conan and the Turian cavalry guarding the caravan of Princess Yolinda, the young daughter of Yezdigerd, son of King Yildiz. Conan, Juma the Black, and Yolinda, the only survivors of the massacre, are brought before the golden hued Rotath, the evil sorcerer responsible for organizing and civilizing the Hillmen. After the Cimmerian kills the wizard’s fearsome baboon-man, Rotath plunges Conan and Juma into unconsciousness. The two mercenaries awake in the gold mine under Rotath’s towering citadel. After days of backbreaking slavery, Juma notices a lightly guarded mineshaft. When the duo makes a break for it, the guards do not follow — with good reason, as a giant serpent quickly attacks the escapees. But suddenly, a huge slug emerges from a pool of water and envelopes the dragon. As the slimy creature digests its meal, Conan and Juma notice a fortune of gold on the cave’s floor and begin to gather as much as they can carry into satchels. When the treasure-hungry slug notices their actions, it lurches after the pair, chasing them back to the main mine, upwards to the open air, and directly in the path of the wedding ceremony of Rotath and the terrified Yolinda. The slug turns its attention to the incredulous wizard: Rotath’s golden bones are more of a feast than the sacks his former targets were carrying. With Yolinda in tow, Conan and Juma ride to freedom. -Thomas Flynn

Thomas Flynn: By Crom, Neal Adams! Now call me a philistine, but just like I favor a great tune over great lyrics, I’ll take great art over a great story any day of the week and twice on Sunday. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with Roy’s writing, but come on, Neal freaking Adams, the man I’ll nominate as the greatest comic artist of all time?!? With Adams on Conan the Barbarian and Mike Ploog doing his thing on Kull the Destroyer, April 1974 was a high-water mark for Marvel’s sword-and-sorcery comics. Roy based the issue on Robert E. Howard’s short of the same name, originally written in 1928 but not published until 1967 in issue #9 of Glen Lord’s periodical The Howard Collector. It’s not a Conan story, and it’s not really a Kull tale even though Howard mentions the character. Seems like it was a good old horror yarn about a poor soul who encounters a gold skeleton — much to his regret. Juma is not a Howard creation, instead credited to L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter on the splash page. He’s a solid sidekick, and while Juma’s brawn doesn’t match Conan, he has more brains and spirit than the grumpy Cimmerian. Of course there’s a ton of dated “you can’t judge a man by the color of his skin” pronouncements but that’s a sign o the times. It doesn’t look like Juma will return next issue, but Big John Buscema is back on board. Can’t complain about that, but a Neal Adams break is deeply appreciated. Magnifico!

Scott: Neal Adams has a great feel for Conan and his world. Probably the best penciller since Barry Smith to handle the title. Really beautiful work which elevates this story grandly. If he did the book every month, I'd never leave the title. Good story, gripping high adventure and a black sidekick who really comes off as more of a partner and even smarter than Conan (who was never actually depicted as brilliant). And – so far – the guy hasn’t been killed off. Very nicely done.

Mark Barsotti: To quote my esteemed colleague, Professor Thomas, "Neal freaking Adams!" Yes, indeed, and thanks to a recent six degrees of Kevin Beacon interweb search (the details of which are already forgotten) I learned of Mr. Adams' Conan contribution just in time to have Our Esteemed Dean shoot me the digital version in time for this review. Thanks, Al Gore.

Neal's Conan is a synthesis of Barry Smith's angular, long-limbed youth and John Buscema's more Arnold-like muscleman. He, and the rest of "The Curse of the Golden Skull," looks great, as expected (it's Neal freaking Adams), and Roy Thomas delivers another ripping yarn, culled from a Howard short story and co-starring Juma, a character created by other writers (see Prof Thomas's recap for the creative genealogy). If the plot points aren't particularly fresh – Conan & Juma captured in battle and put to slave labor; a sexy young princess to be married off to an evil potentate; the giant beastie denouement – Thomas' mastery of the form delivers "first read" thrills from a well-worn playbook.

Captain America and the Falcon 172
"Believe It or Not: The Banshee!"
Story by Mike Friedrich and Steve Englehart
Art by Sal Buscema and Vince Colletta
Colors by Michelle Brand
Letters by Artie Simek
Cover by Gil Kane, John Romita, and Frank Giacoia

Moonstone stands victorious over the defeated Captain America and the Falcon. He drags them out to the waiting Sanitation Squad, but the heroes revive sooner than expected and shake off their captors, fleeing into the park until they can strategize. Moonstone, concerned that the press will arrive, wanting to see his capture of Cap, and find him alone, has one of his men clock him in the head to stage a convincing story of Cap attacking him from behind. Deducing Moonstone's power comes from a moon rock in Nashville, Cap and Falc hitchhike to Tennessee. Once there, they - literally - bump into the also-in-hiding Banshee, who believes they are hunting him for some shadow group. During the fight, Cap busts Banshee in the jaw, which hinders his sonic scream. Cap grabs him as he tries to fly off, but Falc swoops in and decks the villain. His jaw now recovered. Banshee screams again, toppling buildings and creating sound so powerful, he knocks Cap and Falcon to the ground. However, just as he thinks he's free, Banshee is attacked by the X-Men. Banshee flummoxes them with his scream and flies to freedom. At that moment, Cap and Falc are levitated by Marvel Girl to her and Professor X's location. The prof explains that there is a group hunting mutants and Banshee erroneously thought the heroes were part of that posse. He also explains that the same group is after Captain America. He and Falc vow to help the X-Men defeat their common foe. -Scott McIntyre

Scott: And so the prelude ends. We're on the cusp of (re)meeting The Secret Empire and really getting into one of the best Cap storylines of the era. Most of my experience with the Banshee comes from his time as a member of the X-Men, when Dave Cockrum and John Byrne turned him from a weird looking guy into someone more classically handsome and realistic. Chris Claremont made him into a hell of a hero and it's weird to go back and read this earlier appearances. He was only another year from this turn around and the X-Men getting their own book back from the reprint hell they were still mired in.

Matthew: In a fun touch, the returning Englehart and recent pinch-hitter Friedrich are credited as “Author” and “Amigo,” respectively, while this Colletta über-foe is again forced to admit that he has done right by Sal’s pencils. Where the Banshee goes, the X-Men are sure to follow; Sean looks decidedly different from the Byrne model, but Charles et al. are well depicted by Our Pal. A sidebar to Steve’s Alter Ego interview notes, “Editor (and former X-Men writer) Roy was determined to keep his former charges in the readers’ minds—and faces—during this period, and Steve…happily became the guy who between 1969 and 1974 scripted more stories featuring the merry mutants than anybody else!,” as I had observed regarding Avengers #110-11.

Scott: Another solid issue. Cap is still discovering his strength to an extent and Falcon is also not quite ready for prime time with his wings at this point. This helps make them a much more dynamic pairing. It also helps that Falc hasn’t had a “hate whitey” storyline in a while. What a difference Leila’s absence makes. Luckily the Marvel Coincidence Syndrome is in full effect, and the Banshee is a fan of country music. Yikes. I’m very happy to note that Claremont excised that particular personality trait from the character.

Matthew: Monday-morning quarterbacks who know what’s coming may enjoy this “inside scoop” from the current Avengers lettercol—no, I’m not reading the wrong mag; bear with me—regarding the Valkyrie-Swordsman segment from #117. “[A]s originally written, the mysterious owner of the Nazi castle was a suspect in the Watergate Agonies who had fled to avoid prosecution—but at the time the book was printed, nobody in that scandal had been convicted of anything, and it was decided that having a character sure to be interpreted as being one or more real people attempt a murder was too heavy. Since then, natch, convictions (not on murder, of course) have come down, so Now It Can Be Told!,” while we can see the wheels turning in Steve’s head even then.

Mark: Oh, right, the X-Men.

Memory is a funny thing, and – brain science tells us- oft about as reliable as that "Rolex" you bought in Time Square. I've re-read this entire arc within the last five years but remembered absolutely nothing about Professor X and his charges showing up to dish dirt on the Secret Empire. Without peeking ahead, I don't think their involvement amounts to much, but given my Total (lack of) Recall, maybe Cap charges into the White House a few months hence, riding on the Beast's back!

The story at hand is mostly connective tissue, and as such performs its function, but except for big Banshee fans (you two know who you are) there's not much to gin-up excitement here. We see more evidence that Moonstone (meaning Harderman, one step removed) get their henchmen on the cheap from Thugs-R-Us. Banshee has the good taste to like the Hag, but you'd think a mutant, member of an oppressed minority, long demonized by the press, might think twice before believing long-time hero Cap is suddenly a criminal because he read it in the Daily Bugle.

And I chuckled over the image of the Falc shimmying up a lamp post (pg. 22) so he can use his glider wings. With the wonders of Wakandaian science, the Panther couldn't come up with wings that allow actual flight?

As a stand alone adventure, this ish gets a generous gentleman's C; as part of the SE epic, B-.

Fantastic Four 145
"Nightmare in the Snow!"
Story by Gerry Conway
Art by Ross Andru and Joe Sinnott
Colors by Linda Lessmann
Letters by John Costanza
Cover by Gil Kane, Frank Giacoia, and Mike Esposito

When a force beam of some kind mysteriously breaks up the Pogo plane, en route to the Great Refuge, Johnny and Medusa are essentially marooned in the Himalayas. They were going because Black Bolt had sent for Medusa to return for “Project: Revival!” Soon they are attacked by a group of blue Yeti-like creatures that speak an alien tongue. The duo can handle most of them, but when the more powerful leader (who speaks English) appears—Ternak—it takes the Torch’s best blast to stun him. Medusa and Johnny win a respite as the creatures run off, and set up camp for the night. An elderly, somewhat more intelligent member of the creatures appears. He wishes to warn them of Ternak’s plans. His people have been essentially peaceful until Ternak became their leader, and he plans to use a device called a Climate Cannon to bring the temperature of the rest of Earth down to a level that will enable his people to spread beyond their realm. Five hundred years ago, his people had been primitive savages, until the leader of a group of monks, the only survivor of a travelling group, had become their leader. Initially hostile, they were “tamed” by seeing themselves in a mirror! He became known as the Master, teaching them of civilization and science. When he passed away, the creatures remained peaceful until Ternak became ruler, and had other ideas. The old creature is shot down and Johnny and Medusa are captured. After an initial escape, they are frozen by the Climate Cannon!-Jim Barwise

Matthew: Here we go again: no complaints about the art, with Andru subbing (as he did in #131) for two issues, and Sinnott’s magic touch forestalling any discomfiture, but Conway totally screws the pooch. Medusa refuses to tell a mere human the reason for her mission…then invites Johnny to join her; she dons a parka to stay warm…when the bare legs below it may have been a poor fashion choice for a journey to the Himalayas; the Yeti guy has to warn them of their terrible danger…but not before launching into a flashback lengthy enough for him to be silenced. I’ll reserve my greatest scorn for the “message on subspace radio from Black Bolt…[who] said something about—‘Project Revival,’” which would destroy the Great Refuge and save her a trip.

Scott: I've been trying to give Ross Andru a break because it's monotonous to keep harping on how much I loathe his work. I'm stuck with him on Spider-Man for the long haul, so I try to keep it in check, otherwise my remarks would be identical every issue. But when a superior penciller like Rich Buckler is subbed by an Andru doing his worst, it's like someone stabbed me in the face with a pitchfork. The art in this issue is extremely unpleasant. Joe Sinnott does what he can, but it's no use. And why is Medusa only wearing a coat in the snow? It's cold enough to toss on a jacket, but not quite chilly enough to wear pants? Those of you who are a little weary of my Andru hatred…buckle up. He really got under my skin this week. Wake me when Buckler returns.

Chris: It wouldn’t be my first choice to have an FF story that consigns both Reed and Ben to little more than cameo roles. But, with all the interpersonal drama plaguing this team recently, the change of focus and venue is welcome. The cold opening (I couldn’t help it) effectively draws us right into the new storyline. I’ve been wondering when we might see more of Medusa, so now’s the time; plus, give Gerry credit for having Johnny acknowledge his adolescent behavior. I’m interested to see whether J&M will be able to foil the Climate Cannon without help from Big Ben and the Big Brain.

I realize that Andru has his detractors among the faculty, but his layouts work well here – there’s plenty of action, while Ternak and the snow goons look the way they probably ought to (ie: not too silly). Naturally, we have to thank Joe Sinnott once again for preserving continuity of this mag’s appearance, issue after issue. Howja like the moment when Johnny and Medusa bust in on the yeti at happy hour (pg 30, first panel) – they didn’t even get their potato skins yet!

Mark: The bad Gil Kane cover doesn't bode well, but once inside guest-artist Russ Andru get Sinnottized by Joe's steady hand and all's well with the graphics. And I almost liked the story, wanted to, since Johnny and Medusa getting shot down in the Himalayas en route to the Great Refuge is a good, non-retread premise, and abominable snowmen could have worked (overlooking the unexplained failure & convenient return of Johnny's power) if Kid Conway's one toke over the line backstory made a lick of sense.
"So, Ross, five hundred years ago there was this monk, see, last survivor of a rice buying mission, 'cause the monks wait for a winter blizzard to go on a food run."


"Why what?"

"Why don't they stock up in summer?"

"I don't know, something Kung test their spirit! So the lone survivor gets attacked by the Abominables, but he puts them to rout with a mirror, then stays on to become their mentor."

"I like it."

"And get this: Old Monkie is also a scientist...and a weapons developer like Tony Stark."


"Yep. Pass the joint. So super science: the aboms shoot-down the Pogo Plane. They have ray-guns and plans for world conquest."

"All thanks to a five hundred year old monk?"

"He's Kwai Chang Caine meets Einstein."

"Plus Tony Stark?"


"Okay, Ger, but I'm gonna need another hit."

As do we all, Ross. As do we all.

Jim: I may be in minority here, but I found this a rather refreshing tale. It was interesting to see Johnny and Medusa work so well together. And although Ternak himself isn’t especially original, the origin of his people is rather interesting. Certainly the setting is different enough. The Master is an interesting leader/guru type character, pity we won’t be seeing more of him. Even the art has its moments; Medusa looks consistently good.

Adventure Into Fear 21
Morbius in
"Project: Second Genesis!"
Story by Steve Gerber
Art by Gil Kane and Vince Colletta
Colors by Petra Goldberg
Letters by Tom Orzechoski
Cover by Gil Kane and Frank Giacoia

Morbius has been hypnotized by the occult priest Daemon, who as sent him on a mission to kill his enemy…a child! His horror at this breaks the hypnotic spell, but his undesired thirst for blood drives him to continue. The girl, Tara, is not as innocent as she seems. She slows him with a force beam from her eyes, and then projects an image of herself twenty years hence. He disbelieves her, and in the struggle he succeeds in drinking her blood. His maniac appetite quenched, he tries takes her in the car where he found her to get help. A cloaked form appears in the road, instructing him to take her to a specified place where she can be saved. The road leads to a lonely hilltop mansion, where he meets the last survivors of an ancient race, whom had crash-landed on Earth 10,000 year’s prior. Initially just wanting to observe Earth, the three survivors of the starship, the Comet, decided to become the Caretakers of humanity. They have built a huge biophysics lab in the mansion, and have enlisted the aid of others to create a race of supermen, the “Children of the Comet” to carry on the work they are becoming too aged to continue, calling it Project: Second Genesis. They ask Morbius to kill Daemon, who opposes their efforts. He refuses, until they promise to help him find Martine, the woman he loves, if he carries out their request. Morbius finds Daemon in the building where he had been informed the priest would be. He arrives too late to stop the result of an evil spell that Daemon and a woman conjure up. It is a large cat-like creature called Balktar, who overpowers Morbius and pins him down. The reluctant vampire is stunned to see that the woman is his lost love—Martine! -Jim Barwise

Jim Barwise: This shortish story manages to pack quite a punch, surprising us with new developments along the way. It raises questions that we will have to wait to resolve. What is the unnamed race that became the Caretakers?

Who are Tara, and the other people working in the lab? Humans enlisted to aid them? And how did Martine get to be on Daemon’s side? Gil Kane surprises me; I never used to be a fan, but am finding his work more impressive this time around.

Chris: Morbius’ battle with Tara’s adult-self mind-projection is intriguing, but it doesn’t make sense in context of the Caretakers’ interest in recruiting Morbius to help dispatch their enemies. Morbius caves pretty easily as soon as Martine is mentioned; and, nice twist by Steve to have Martine show up at the end. Morbius co-creator Kane does well by the character here – as Gulacy had done in the previous issue – the non-undead vampire is depicted as expressive and conflicted. The art is robbed of depth at times by Colletta’s inks, but more often than not, Kane’s artistry fights its way thru. F’rinstance: how about the fang-plunge on page 3, panel 3?

Matthew: Possibly nostalgic for his old stomping grounds, Gerber returns to script four issues, teamed for the first one only with Morbius co-creator Kane (inked by Colletta). Despite the four pages poached by writer-artist Bill Everett’s disposable reprint from Mystic #8 ("Sorry Mr. Hopkins," May 1952), plus Gil’s space-consuming but impressive two-page spread, I don’t feel short-changed as Steve starts an ambitious plotline. In the lettercol, he recaps Morbius’s personal and publication history, and writes that “it’s taken a lot of time and a lot of thought to formulate just the right ambience for this new series…Mike Friedrich, who wrote the first episode…cheerfully handed the task over to me, jovially admitting that he had no idea where it was headed! I let it take its own direction…”

The Incredible Hulk 174
"Doomsday -- Down Under!"
Story by Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway
Art by Herb Trimpe and Jack Abe;
Colors by George Roussos
Letters by David Hunt
Cover by Herb Trimpe

Bruce Banner is stuck on a sinking ship in the ocean. All looks bleak The Cobalt Man rescues Banner and puts him on a raft with CM's brother Ted. The mentally unstable Cobalt Man did this because he believes that Banner is a victim of radiation just like him. Even though Ted tries to talk him out of it, the Cobalt Man goes off to terrorize the world and make them aware of the dangers of nuclear radiation. Bruce and Ted are picked up in a helicopter and Banner is reunited with Thunderbolt and Betty Ross. Finding out that he now has the power of flight, the Cobalt Man makes his way to Sydney, Australia. Banner has been kept tranquilized so he won't turn in to the Hulk. After Ted pleads with her, Betty plots to push Banner from a roof so that he will transform. Banner accidentally falls off the roof himself and changes into the Hulk. Remembering that he still has a grudge against the Cobalt Man, the Hulkster seeks him out in Australia where they renew their battle. Out of desperation, Cobalt Man flies the Hulk into outer space, so that he will suffocate, but the strategy backfires on him. The space atmosphere causes the Cobalt Man to explode. The story ends with the Hulk plummeting back towards earth. -Tom McMillion

Tom McMillion: Not really sure if this story needed to be continued because it could have just ended last issue. It wasn't bad but the third rate Cobalt Man has started to wear out his welcome. The strange villain is not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but I guess that can be explained due to his mind being warped by the radiation. The cameos of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger talking about getting to work on a cobalt bomb makes me wonder just how many times these two have made appearances in comic books? I'm a little surprised they didn't get their own series at some point. Marvel Super-Politician Team-Up would have been an appropriate title.

Matthew: After his much-vaunted return to writing last issue, plotter/editor Roy has already ceded the scripting duties to Gerry—which was probably a mistake—and for reasons I can’t even begin to imagine, Captain Kangaroo is credited as “honorary editor.” Abel’s inks are the usual mixed bag, while Betty somehow seems to have aged several decades in between the cover and the interiors, where George Roussos has inexplicably colored her with uniformly gray hair, perhaps due to the stress of turning into the Harpy and back. Conway’s overwritten script is stuffed full of annoying asides to the reader, e.g., “Okay,enough of this pussy-footing around. We’ve been building up to this fight all issue, so let’s get to it.” Yes, “get to it,” indeed, Gerry...

Scott: Bruce Banner: "Looks like-- this is-- the end!" - But don’t miss our next….UNDERDOG SHOW! Sorry. Anyway, Bruce is still sporting the shaggy black hair. Is it me, or does Bruce change his appearance often, depending on the artist/inker? Are there no character models to base these things on? This applies to Betty as well. Jack Abel gives them a totally different look. You could have changed their names and nobody could have known they weren’t Bruce and Betty. They could simply be new characters. They don't have distinguishing characteristics, like Thunderbolt's or Talbot's respective mustaches. Honestly, you really should be able to recognize your lead character. Betty's words and actions are interesting, leading us to believe she still loves Bruce and probably only married Talbot because Bruce came clean about Jarella months earlier. That's actually sort of interesting and I'd like to see that develop. Over on page 30, the Hulk does a swan dive and zooms back up out of the water. He doesn't jump while submerged. He is apparently flying. An okay issue, just not particularly memorable. 


Ghost Rider 5
"And Vegas Writhes in Flame"
Story by Marv Wolfman and Doug Moench
Art by Jim Mooney and Sal Trapani
Colors by Petra Goldberg
Letters by Tom Orzechowski
Cover by Gil Kane and John Romita

Johnny Blaze rides his motorbike through Vegas in search of his girlfriend Rocky Jensen, desperate to make amends. With nightfall Blaze becomes the Ghost Rider, and he is threatened by the visage of …Roulette. A demon sent by Satan, he gives Blaze the choice: save Rocky, or the city of Vegas! Rocky is held captive by Duke Jensen, the stock car promoter, who is in fact, said demon. The truth known, Roulette turns his attention to devastating Las Vegas, as the Ghost Rider finds and takes Rocky from the burning city. With a kiss, he returns to attempt to save it. Unafraid, he is nonetheless stunned by the vision of Roulette’s own “casino,” a giant hell-house of sorts, and an indication of the kind of power the Ghost is up against. He enters with his power casting him in flame, and finds his foe. Roulette was Duke Jensen once; when he was shot by the assassins from the casinos for overplaying, Satan appeared and granted him life and great powers, in exchange for killing five men, one of which is Johnny Blaze. Roulette pleas for more power from Satan, to finish the Ghost Rider. He is granted such power, but before he can use it, Blaze blasts him with all the power he has, downing Roulette. But what’s next in this madhouse? -Jim Barwise

Jim: This must be the most flame and destruction in a single Marvel issue! Still, despite its straight-ahead simplicity, the tension is built well throughout the story, and seeing Roulette’s giant castle, and Satan is very effective. The demon himself is made to be rather frightening; clever but not surprising, it’s what Jensen has become. The one panel, left bottom of page 3, is about the only moment that looks peaceful in the story.

Matthew: Offering a more palatable alternative to Friedrich’s Native American noodling is admittedly setting the bar pretty low, but the WolfMoench pairing provides an interesting one-off (Marv will be back solo in #20). Meanwhile, Trapani again displays his Hulk-tested skills at shoring up a penciler who is heavily dependent on a suitable inker, with two full-page shots that, while hardly Louvre-worthy, do get the job done, in my opinion. We’re obviously shifting gears here somewhat, if you’ll pardon the pun, by having the seemingly quotidian crooked promoter Jensen turn out to be a Satanic minion, but what the, uh, hell, and who doesn’t like seeing Vegas get trashed, with this book’s ever-increasing body count; seriously, though, Doug—“sniftering”?

Chris: A marked improvement in the title, and not a moment too soon. Lay this issue and GR #4 side by side, and turn the pages one at a time. The art looks completely different – it’s much more detailed, and dynamic, and vibrant – there’s really no comparison. All-new art team is your guess, right? No – same penciller (Mooney), even the same colorist (Petra G.) – the difference this time is that we are spared the rushed hack-work of V. Colletta, and instead have the far better-suited, more fluid inks of S. Trapani. I was drawn-in right away by the scene-setting splash page. Feast your eyes also on GR’s grim visage – kind of a classic GR look (pg 10, panel 2), and some cool head shots for Roulette (pg 26, panel 4) and Satan (pg 27, panel 2). The crazy palace in the sky (pg 23) shows some imagination, and skill, on the artists’ parts.

The Wolfman/Moench writing team crafts a satisfyingly swift-moving story. We’re finally rid of poor Gary Friedrich and his tedious bike chases and ill-advised, stupid love-triangle idea. One grisly kiss from GR (pg 16, panel 1) and all is forgiven between Roxy and Johnny (can you imagine pressing up against a lipless, flaming, brimstone-smelling skull? It must be love).

We’re still learning about GR’s powers. GR can turn up his hellfire, and a la the Torch, can burn his way thru solid objects. In a way, I’m glad to see that Roulette’s hellfire-shot can hurt GR – the character is more interesting when we recognize that he has limits. One contradiction from a previous issue, as Roxy is able to bound onto the flaming cycle to escape the burning building – a few moons ago, Linda Littletree had been left alone in the desert because she couldn’t ride the cycle, remember? A reply on the letters page also states that the hellbike is “a magical creation,” and can “only be ridden by someone with magical powers, like Ghost Rider.” Roxy’s purity protects GR, not some magic capability; oh well – they’ll figure it out.

The Amazing Spider-Man 131
"My Uncle... My Enemy?"
Story by Gerry Conway
Art by Ross Andru, Frank Giacoia, and Dave Hunt
Colors by Petra Goldberg
Letters by Artie Simek
Cover by Gil Kane and Frank Giacoia

Spidey peeks in at Aunt May marrying Doc Ock, but then Hammerhead smashes in to grab “the Parker dame”, halting the ceremony and peeving Ock to no end. Ock flies away in his private chopper, leaving Spidey to hitch a ride on Hammerhead’s whirly-bird. Back at the Christmas party and Ned worries about Pete as Mary Jane over compensates. The choppers head to a “crummy Canadian island” full of uranium, where Hammerhead decides to ram and Spidey leaps off to save Aunt May (against her will). Hot on their trail is Ock, but Spidey and Aunt May vamoose in a jet! Hammerhead bursts in as Ock stands in front of the “atomic breeder”, and heeding no warning, the anvil-headed mobster rams the wall and causes a nuclear explosion! In our epilogue, Betty Brant questions MJ’s feelings for Peter, which she doesn’t deny but doesn’t exactly confirm. -Joe Tura

Joe: When it comes to covers that I remember from this period of the greatest comic book ever, this one is a standout for sure. But for the right reasons? Well, I don’t know, I just remember being excited to get the new Spidey, I didn’t care. And this cover always stood out for the sheer audacity, maybe. What the heck is with the rose tiara on Aunt May’s head? Even in 1974 any wedding planner worth their salt would have plotzed over that. I think when I wrote hero or villain names under the credits on the splash page, this one was “Dr. Octopus”. Then I had them fight with each other. Near mint, be damned! (All this and I haven’t turned the page yet!)

Is it me or is the priest/whatever saying “Oh, my…this won’t do at all” when Hammerhead bursts in the Marvel-meets-Fawlty Towers moment of the year or what? Spidey saying of Doc Ock “I’ll give him this! The man has class” is such a foreshadowing to the end of the recent dumb-idea-but-great-from-what-little-I-read series Superior Spider-Man it brings a tear to my eye (almost). A great throwaway line from Conway that almost makes up for his goofy plots. And speaking of class, Ock looks damn natty in that tux! A fine issue all around, to be honest. But if Spidey can’t drive the Spider-Mobile, how the heck does he fly a fancy jet? “The cockpit’s been modified so even an idiot can pilot it! I hope!” Oh, that explains it. And MJ’s conversation with Betty about how she feels about Peter is honestly a great epilogue, and seems totally organic to me. Why wouldn’t she be in love with him? It has nothing to do with Gwen, but how she’s felt about him for a while, obviously. It’s not MJ’s fault that the old girlfriend isn’t in the picture any longer. Good for you, missy! Now go have another Shirley Temple!

Scott: What a cover. "With this ring, I thee…WEB?!" Man, they must have been howling over that one in the bullpen. I wouldn't put it past them to have created this entire storyline simply to justify using that pun. Doc Ock's shit-eating grin on the splash page is typical Ross Andru, as are the drawings of Aunt May's thick hair and eyebrows. Why this bothers me, I have no idea. Must just be my prejudice of his work.

Matthew: True, I have long lamented that the sporadic romance—for lack of a better word—between Doc Ock and Aunt May requires the latter to have roughly the intelligence of an avocado, which seems inconsistent with the relative realism on which Marvel as we know it was founded. While Conway doesn’t exactly help us suspend our disbelief by having a little old lady inherit a nuclear reactor and a uranium supply (wouldn’t the AEC have had a problem with that, even it were up in Canada?), I’ll try not to let it spoil the fun. However, it might say something about the Cold War climate and/or Gerry that not one but two of the mags he scripts this month end with atomic explosions, which you’d think Marvel might use a little less casually.

Scott: I can't buy a ruthless crime boss like Hammerhead using stun bullets. That old Comics Code and the staff's need to not murder Aunt May rears their ugly heads this issue. How Spidey "forgets" he has to fight six arms and not two is a mystery. Peter Parker really is the dumbest smart guy in the Marvel Universe. Mary Jane is as flighty and bitchy as ever. They killed Gwen for this? At least they finally resolve the mystery of the Canada storyline totally forgotten in the shadow of Gwen and the Goblin's deaths. The full page panel of the island's destruction is quite cool, but really, how does Spider-Man teach himself to fly a plane in, like, five minutes? And if anyone thinks Doc and Hammerhead are really dead never read comics before. A mess.

Mark: The Aunt May-marries-Doc Ock opus signals the start of Gerry Conway's baroque period. From this point forward, he goes bigger, broader, more extravagant, while building the intertwined, somewhat incestuous but mostly successful Jackal-Gwen-Clone epic, already in motion.

Are there nits to be picked here? By the bushel, baby (Spidey can't steer his dune-buggy in a straight line, but can suddenly pilot an EZ-Fly jet, to say nothing of hearing Hammerhead talk over the rotor-wash while webbed to the outside of a helicopter? A nuclear detonation can be triggered by whacking a reactor with a hammer(head)? And, most ludicrous, Aunt May inherits "the most modern privately-owned atomic processing plant in the world?" May's old enough to have gone to grade school with Marie Curie, so the unnamed ancient who gifted her a breeder reactor must have walked the earth when whale oil was the fuel of the future!), but that misses the point. One either embraces the leave-logic-at-the-door dictum and embraces the absurdist palette and Goblin-grin brio Kid Conway brings to the next 18 issues, and thus may well be in for a rollicking good time, or one does not. If the latter, I suggest you stop reading the title or prepared to pluck yer head Kojak bald in jabbering despair over the next year and a half.

Joe: Favorite sound effect has to be the one that I would have probably done playing S.W.A.T. with my friends in the 70s (I was always T.J., the sniper, complete with backwards hat, or Hondo the coolest old dude ever): “BRACK BRAKA TRACKACHOW” with a side of “TRABOOM!” that actually leaves the page as Hammerhead’s chopper strikes! Close second: “BRADABABOOM!” which is kinda self-explanatory for anyone checking out page 33.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Marvel Collectors Item Classics #25


*and almost retracted!

By Professor Mark Barsotti
Q.N.S., K.O.F., R.F.O.

I didn't read the Sise-Neg saga when it hit the stands in 1973. If memory serves – always a shaky proposition, almost 40 years in the rearview – it was '77 or so, after finding the first and last chapters, Marvel Premiere #12 and #14, among my big brother's dusty comic stack.

It seared my synapses. Steve Englehart and Frank Brunner (abetted by writer Mike Friedrich on #12 and the "Crusty Bunkers" ad hoc inking crew) deliver a king-hell of a story ("heaven of a story" may be more apt, but it clanks in the ear), and a flat-out religious heresy.

From Galactus to the Asgardian pantheon, many of Marvel's best stories had featured characters with god-like powers, but even as a callow youth, I realized that daring to cast GOD (Judeo-Christian division) in a funny book - let alone having a power-hungry bad guy become HIM - was several steps beyond what was considered Right and Proper, a gutsy move that pushed the envelope of the possible in comic storytelling. Editor Roy Thomas and the Marvel hierarchy (i.e. Stan) deserve credit for letting the New Breed Bullpen – Englehart & Brunner here, Starlin, Gerber, and Wolfman elsewhere – off the formulaic leash, and controversy be damned.

Well, not quite. Frank Brunner recounts in Sean Howe's Marvel Comics: The Untold Story how, after MP #14 hit the stands, Stan wrote him and Englehart a note demanding they run a reaction on the letters page: "You're going to have to print...'this is not God, this is just a god.'"

Instead, Englehart & Brunner wrote a letter praising the story from a fake Texas minister, mailed it to Marvel (complete with Texas postmark), and crossed their fingers. The letter was forwarded to Stan and settled Smiley's nerves. Instead of a retraction, he had them print the phantom rev's endorsement. That's such a great story I suspected it was apocryphal, but nope. From the letters page, Doctor Strange #3:

"Dear Mr. Lee,
"...I borrowed the comic..."(from a young congregant), "...thinking that I would find another denigration of our Lord in the manner so fashionable these days. However, after reading the issue, I must commend you on (the) taste and perception...your writer showed in handling a very difficult subject. It is magazines such as yours which truly perform the Lord's work, and open new eyes to His majesty."

Okay, so the tale broke new, heretical ground, and the book's braintrust hoodwinked Marvel's head honcho, but how does the story hold up, forty years on?

The arc opens in low-keyed fashion in MP #12, with Clea and Wong locating the Doc in the Mexican desert, where Strange has been meditating on the Ancient One's death/transformation and his own new role of Sorcerer Supreme. After appointing Clea his disciple, DS heads to Europe in a quixotic attempt to make peace with the Ancient One's original acolyte, Baron Mordo.

Strange doesn't find Mordo, but plenty of hostility from the Baron-hating locals and is hustled out of town by a friendly gypsy. The fetching, raven-haired Lilia then puts the Doc under her spell with a hexie hoochie-coo, proving that a Master of the Mystic Art is still a man.

Mordo had recently romanced Lilia to steal "our people's most treasured heritage," the mystic Book of Cagliostro (a real 18th century Italian occultist), and the Doc is tasked to retrieve it from the Baron's castle. Mordo's Watch-Gargoyle protects the tome, and Lilia releasing Strange from her spell so he can fight at full power costs the gypsy her life. After destroying Gargie, Strange learns Mordo used Cagliostro's secrets to not only travel into the past, but may have acquired the knowledge to change it.

Top-shelf stuff, thanks to Brunner's lush, Neil Adam's-inspired art (with a dash of Ditko) and Englehart demonstrating how to write "mystic" comics in the all ways his predecessor Garner Fox could not, but our expectations are of another Strange-Mordo clash, not the much higher stakes Steve and Frank were brewing up in their creative caldron.

MP #13 – which I only read in the last decade – starts upping the ante with twisty, Möbius strip time travel paradoxes: Strange follows Mordo to eighteenth century Paris, but arrives before him at Cagliostro's home. When the sorcerer ignores his warnings and vanishes, Strange impersonates Cagliostro to fool Mordo who, although promptly defeated, also mysteriously vanishes. A knock at the door gets Strange back into Cag-drag, just in time to greet Doctor Strange, come to warn Cagliostro...

Strange and Mordo find their powers inexplicably depleted, and neither can influence Cagliostro, who takes them both down at tale's end and reveals he's actually 31st century sorcerer Sise-Neg, sucking up ever-more of the universe's finite amount of mystic energy as he travels back in time, accounting for the others' weakness. And SN is just getting started. He's heading to "the dawn of creation! And what is another term for an all-powerful being at the dawn of creation?"

Okay, Steve & Frank seem all in, but the Marvel U is rife with Big Power Baddies, threatening star systems and the fabric of reality, god-like in their despotic fashion, before they fall. And Strange's last panel exhortation, "...Sise-Neg is the greatest threat our reality has ever known!" sounds like standard "continued-next-ish!" hype, when it's actually an understatement.

If the concluding chapter, "Sise-Neg Genesis," no longer wallops the reader with the shock of the new, it nonetheless holds up as a high water mark in graphic literature.

Traveling back to the dawn of human history with the ever-more powerful Sise-Neg (with stops in Arthurian England and Sodom and Gomorrah along the way), Strange and Mordo are cast as angel and devil, nattering away at the future mage like magpies. Mordo, desperate to bootlick his way to First Disciple, champions the ruthless exercise of power. Strange argues any god worth the name must possess understanding and compassion. Brunner's art (inked by D.C. stalwart Dick Giordano) is up to the weighty material, mixing Adams-like realism with slimy, slithering dragons and trippy, dimension-hopping eye candy.

In an unexpected callback to the spotty (at best) space-monster sagas of Gardner Fox – which, creatively, seem ages ago – multi-tentacled Shuma-Gorath returns to slaughter our ape-like ancestors, just come down from the trees. At this pivotal moment the Doc's argument – that the proto-humans are bound to the newly-transcendent Sise-Neg by the unbroken bloodline of our common humanity – holds sway. Even SN can't destroy the Lovecraftian malignancy that is Shuma-Gorath, but he can banish it. And deliver "the two surviving apes" to "a haven – a garden."

The story could have ended there to allegorical "ooh" and "ahh" applause – who doesn't love a good Adam & Eve riff - but Englehart and Brunner have a final card to play. And it's the fourth ace.

Sise-Neg and his symbiotic companions travel further, back to the Big Bang and beyond, to the instant everything is uncreated, leaving Strange and Mordo drifting in the darkness of absolute nothingingness. Then the Doc's amulet illuminates Sise-Neg's face, no longer prideful and triumphant, but pinched and pained, depicted by Brunner like a woodcut of some dour monk, driven mad by the Ultimate Insight that was his lifelong heart's desire.

"I have been wrong!" declares Sise-Neg, the most successful, power-mad despot in the History of Comics. "My plan to recreate the universe in my image was truly pitiable! (Having) achieved my Godhood...I have learned the truth that everything is as it should I shall recreate the universe – exactly as it was before...when you remember this, think not the man called Sise-Neg – but the God called – Genesis!"

Instantly, Strange and Mordo are rocketed back to the present, the Baron struck dumb by witnessing the Second Creation, while our more enlightened Doctor can only laugh at the irony of being returned atop a skyscraper just as the noise of the crowds celebrating the arrival of the New Year, 1974, ring through the canyons of Manhattan.

Dissected with professorial critical distance, one might sniff that Englehart's God should have had a wider ecumenical embrace, but you can't reverse spell multiple deities in the title. One could carp that dinosaurs appearing alongside proto-humans warms the hearts of cretin creationists. And if Sise-Neg's assertion that " this dimension's closest approximation of perfection!" is a scary and dubious thought some days, on others it's an ennobling summation of humanity's on-going struggle from the slime to the stars.

And it's a work of fiction, class, not Gospel. It's a comic book, and a great one.

Be thee a stone Chris Hitchens atheist, a wiccan, or a fake preacher from Denton, Texas, if you aren't moved by such masterful Let Their Be Light myth-making – agreeing with "the Message" being quite beside the point - then I suspect you ain't human at all, but rather a stone-hearted spawn of Shuma-Gorath.

And to Messrs. Englehart and Brunner, your work that made me shout with excitement as a kid still stands as a bold and thought-provoking work of Literature. Capital L.


And I hope you hit Stan up for a raise.