Wednesday, December 28, 2016

August 1979 Part Two: Help Us Close the Door to the Tomb of Dracula

Tomb of Dracula 70
"Lords of the Undead!"
Story by Marv Wolfman
Art by Gene Colan and Tom Palmer
Colors by Michele Wolfman
Letters by John Costanza
Cover by Gene Colan and Tom Palmer

Marvel's best - and sole surviving - horror comic comes to an end, as does the Count himself, but let's page back to the beginning of this 60-cent, double-sized behemoth.

Opening where last ish (old enough now to be dissected in the letter col) ended, Dracula chases a bat swarm of his one-time minions across the night sky, somehow still holding the crucifix he'd grabbed on impulse to save some kids, even though he's in mist form. The fangers all land, and the Count demands to see their new leader Torgo. Karla, once his "...most loyal hand maiden," points out he's still holding the cross " a human," and only then does his hand begin to burn. He throws the cross away as, high in a tree above the graveyard, his son Janus (who plays for the Other Team, while dressing like a lesser X-Man) looks on.

Torgo appears, appropriately vulpine, with purple robe and long red hair, holding a scepter. Now "Lord of the Vampires," he forces Drac to bow then kicks him in the face. Rallying, the Count challenges him to a duel. Torgo accepts.

We check in for one important panel with Harker and crew, wherein Quincy asks Frank Drake to assist him with a "little invention." 

Pre-duel, Torgo regales the Count with his life (and undeath) story, beginning with fighting Attila the Hun. Like Drac, T-go was a great warrior, finally killed in battle, only to be resurrected by a vampire's kiss, in his case administered by a hideous old hag. After noting their similarities, Torgo says he's reviving the Count's discarded plans to turn humanity into feed cattle. 

Duel time, with the contestants bound wrist-to-wrist by a length of rope, each wielding a long, pointy stake in his free hand. They tumble to the ground, where Torgo produces an against-the-rules knife, soon plunged through Drac's hand. After more close combat - viciously, viscerally rendered by Gene Colan and Tom Palmer - the Count thinks of "His father, his brothers, his heritage..." as he turns the knife and plunges it into Torgo's heart. His enemy now crumbling to dust, Dracula proclaims himself supreme as "the skies are filled with thunder."

His ex-minions fawn over him once again, but he has no time for the "filthy scum" and, instead of taking bat-wing, he climbs the long, narrow road up to his castle. He wants to "reassess my past...and my future," which takes the form of climbing to the top of a parapet to rage against "all you gods,"  who've left him to "...Lord over filthy woe-begotten trash!" 

Quincy rolls out of the shadows to offer non-condolences (good thing the castle has handicapped ramps) and pulls a silver spoke from one of the wheels of his chair. Then, by a supreme act of will, the "old warrior" stands and clicks a button on the side of the chair. Then, even as the Count taunts him, "Quincy Harker jerks forward. Whether he fell or leapt with one mad desperate effort, is unimportant" because the spoke strikes home in Dracula's dark heart. Producing a knife, Quincy is about to remove Drac's head when the exploding wheelchair goes off, collapsing the castle tower and burying them both beneath a mountain of "stone and ancient memories."

Rachel and Frank soon find their way to the scene and find the remains of Harker's chair. Back at their hotel, Rachel cold-shoulders Frank, but then a letter from Quincy arrives, exhorting her not to give in to bitterness and to give Frank a chance. We leave them in a teary embrace.

In Boston, Janus pays a call on his mother, Domini, who already senses her hubby's death. Mother and son embrace, after which the Holy Avenger portion of Janus ascends skyward, leaving Domini with her infant son in her arms.

We close by returning to Castle Dracula for a four-page elegy for a one-time nobleman who, becoming a monster, nonetheless remained a man.

One not to be forgotten. 

 -Mark Barsotti

Mark Barsotti: Gallows irony in the "Comicdom's Number 1 Fear Magazine" cover blurb. Pity poor Number 2. 

And it would have been nice, being the last ish and all, if the mixed-up Bullpen could've coordinated titles; the cover pimps "The Death of the Night Stalker," but the story inside's called "Lords of the Undead!" Neither shows much imagination, yet both prove to be accurate.

After excoriating Jim Shooter in my lesson plan for TOD #69, I'd be remiss if I didn't give him credit (per Marv's letter page column) for getting this published at all, finessing a way around the Cadence Industries bean counters, after the monthly TOD had been prematurely cancelled, by calling this issue an "annual." While fans certainly would have preferred the originally planned three-issue send-off, Shooter going to bat (pun intended) for the finale gets him off my back-dated sh*t list.

One upside of this condensed version is there's nary a wasted panel, with our creative triumvirate of Wolfman, Colan, and Palmer at the top of their game, racing through thirty-seven pages of conflict and reconciliation. 

Conflict first: Dracula vs. his mutinous minions. Vs. the upstart Torgo. Finally vs. Quincy Harker, with the old man literally and symbolically standing up for all his Drac-murdered relatives and winning his long war, via exploding kamikaze wheelchair.

Then Quincy's final letter leads Rachel back to even the possibility of happiness, with Frank or with anybody. And Janus, still an enigma (or just left fuzzily-defined by Wolfman) returns to Domini her son, sans orange skin and blazing red eyes for the first time.

All first-rate stuff. 

Yet the minor misstep at the beginning - Dracula in mist-form still having crucifix-clutching hands - also reveals a missed opportunity. Because far more interesting was that the Count continued holding the cross casually, almost forgotten, until it was pointed out by Karla. Even pitching it away, he wonders, "How was I able to hold it? How?!?"

The answer would seem to tie-in with him impulsively saving children, with his recent time spent as a human, but having raised the philosophical stakes, Wolfman leaves the table without showing his cards. That denies us perhaps the most interesting, unwaged battle - Drac vs. Drac, the savage old bloodsucker struggling with new, unexpected bouts of humanity. 

Still, it's not bad to be left with unanswered questions, not amid such an entertaining funeral. 

Peter Enfantino: Well, though I certainly had my share of problems overall with this series, Marv and Company wrap up the saga in a satisfying way. All the Ts are dotted and... well, we never do get to see Hubert write his sophomore bestseller. About three years later, Marv and Gene would reunite over at DC to create a vastly superior version of the Fearless Vampire Killers in Night Force. As for the behind-the-scenes shenanigans detailed on the letters page, well, evidently it wasn't the only version of the finale being thrown about. I quote from The Comic Reader #165 (February 1979): "Tomb of Dracula, which had been set to end with Marv Wolfman, Gene Colan, and Tom Palmer's last issue (#72), then revived with Mike Fleisher as writer, has again been cancelled. #69, apparently, was the final issue. The material for the next two books will appear this Spring as a Tomb of Dracula Annual, and then will return to the black and white format it enjoyed during the days of Dracula Lives!" I don't know about you, but I would have killed to see a ToD written by Fleisher, who polarized fans with his ultra-violent reboot of The Spectre in the early 1970s. Suffice to say, Marv's announcement of the new magazine-sized Tomb of Dracula (which will premiere in October, so stay tuned) pretty much puts the kibosh on Dracula's eternal sleep.

Chris Blake: My collection includes every issue of ToD from #14 to the end, including all five giant-sizers.  I’ve read every single issue after dark, sometimes late at night, when’s there’s hardly any other sound in the house.   Maybe I’m listening for the subtle rustle of a cloak, as it moves across the floor, and makes its way toward me from the shadows of the next room …

Marv makes a lot of the right decisions in this final issue: Dracula overcomes his latest challenge, as he defeats upstart Torgo in single combat; Drac then turns his back on his fickle followers; Quincy, Drac, and Drac’s stony home all go down within a few seconds of one another (although, I’m not sure how Quincy managed to lunge toward Vlad and catch him with his silver spoke – I guess we’ll have to accept Marv’s word of Quincy’s “mad, desperate effort”); and, Domini’s son is restored to her.  Extra credit to Marv for his campaign (and to Jim Shooter, for his efforts to make it happen) to ensure Drac’s final story would appear as intended, in a four-color format rather than a B&W mag.  Even though several pages of story (reportedly) are sacrificed, it’s worth it, since the end result is a fairly complete conclusion.  
An advantage of having the entire finish contained in this single volume, instead of spread across three issues, is to spare us a ToD #72 that would’ve been little more than one very long denouement.  As it is, the final fourteen pages – yes, nearly an entire issue’s worth – after the explosion at the castle mostly involve Frank & Rachel, and their reading of Quincy’s farewell missive; could you imagine closing out the series this way, with a little more than a whisper -?  Instead of a separate issue, it works far better here, immediately following Drac’s apparent demise.  
I admit I’m more than a little disappointed to hear Marv, with Gene & Tom, are moving straight on to a brand-new Dracula magazine.  Not long ago, Tomb was slated for cancellation, due in part to Gene’s inability to continue to turn out ToD pages on a monthly basis.  Now he’s ready to put together enough material to feed a full-sized mag?  Well, I guess I shouldn’t begrudge him, since the art is great as always. A few final highlights: Torgo’s gruesome undead minions (p 3); Torgo’s triumphant pose (p 11, pnl 2); ferocious vampire hand-to-hand (p 19); Dracula’s defiant scowl in his final rejection of Quincy’s determination (p 25, pnl 3); Rachel’s quiet recollection of Quincy’s kind treatment (p 32, last pnl); Frank & Rachel’s tender embrace (p 37); Domini’s wordless reunion with her infant son (p 42).  
Final sidenote: longtime ToD readers will appreciate this bit.  In Howard the Duck’s b/w mag, Bill Mantlo and Michael Golden bring back Drac, together with our dear old friend Harold H. Harold.  After Drac fails to convert Howard to undeadedness (“Feathers? Feathers ?!?” Drac sputters), Howard drives a fence-picket thru Drac’s back.  Drac turns to Harold (recently let-go from his post as lead writer of True Vampire Stories, turned out by a familiar-looking, lanky editor), and promises to show him “horrors enough for a thousand manuscripts!” if Harold will remove the stake.  Once restored, Drac calls him a “prattling simpleton, who trivializes the deeds of the lord of the undead with even less finesse than that fool Stoker did!”  Vlad fulfills his offer by sucking Harold’s blood, and thereby teaches him “more about vampirism than you ever dared dream!”  Suffice to say, as his life drains away, Harold doesn’t have much time to realize his mistake; you’d think, after all this time, he would’ve learned some of the basic facts about Drac’s nature!  Serves him right.  I wonder if Mantlo & Golden disliked the character as much as the rest of us did; is that possible ..?

 Master of Kung Fu 79
"To Sleep... This Side of Death"
Story by Doug Moench
Art by Mike Zeck and Gene Day
Colors by Bob Sharen
Letters by Jim Novak
Cover by Mike Zeck and Gene Day

As Leiko drives herself and Shang-Chi to Sir Denis’ Scotland estate, S-C complains about swollen glands.  Leiko observes that – due to S-C’s lack of sleep, exhausting battling, and multiple immersions in cold water – he might’ve contracted the flu.  They arrive at the home and find the front door unlocked.  They hear a crash, and run to the dining room, where Black Jack Tarr has just freed himself and decked Zaran.  S-C hesitates, as he questions his first sight of weapons-master Zaran; “Can’t be Zaran … just fought him … in lodge on lake … ,” as he concludes, “must be sleep … dreaming … .”  Zaran hurls a blade at S-C, which he deflects at the last second, as if by instinct; the blade handle catches Leiko in the back of her head.  “You can barely stand, Shang-Chi!” Zaran states; “You’re nothing but an easy kill!”  S-C still is unsure whether he sees Zaran, or whether his “desire to face him again created this fantasy of his presence.”  Zaran takes advantage of S-C’s inactivity, as he launches an attack; “must be very sick,” S-C observes," … if sleep brings … pain.”  Tarr watches helplessly as he shouts at S-C to wake up; Tarr’s unable to defend S-C due to a bullet wound to his side, inflicted on him last issue.  “Zaran?” thinks S-C, as he dimly perceives his opponent, poised above with raised blade; “Yes … Zaran – holding the glitter of sleep – the final, ultimate sleep!”  S-C twists away as Zaran’s weapon thunks harmlessly onto the floor.  His “fever raging,” S-C climbs to his feet, attacks Zaran, and feels as if he’s watching himself, “this strange creature, this maddened beast … I know he cannot be stopped.  I think … he is me.”  The fight is nasty, brutish and short, S-C feeling like his body has begun “to glow.  A red haze burns from my skin. … I will stop now – because my enemy has fallen.”  

S-C stands and contemplates how he has “conquered sleep"; Zaran takes advantage of S-C’s reverie, and tosses an explosive knife directly into the ceiling, creating a commotion that allows him to escape.  After S-C is put to bed (he can’t tell whether the room is cold, or hot), Sir Denis proposes that Tarr, Reston, Leiko, and Melissa plan on staying at his home for the time being, as they try to sort out who else might’ve been involved with Sarsfield’s plot to eliminate all of them.  Sir Denis decides to listen to Shockwave’s incriminating tape (the one recorded at Mordillo Island, when he describes being trained to serve against his will as an MI-6 assassin), but instead hears a different voice.  In the next room, the delirious S-C tries to think why the person he’d seen with Zaran (outside the lodge, last issue) seemed so familiar.  Sir Denis reaches the conclusion first, as he recognizes the voice immediately – as that of Fah Lo Suee, “the daughter of Fu Manchu!” -Chris Blake
Chris: Spider-Man is the only Marvel character I can think of who has to go into battle when he’s under the weather.  Typically, though, it’s a head cold (and sometimes a mask-messing one, at that), nothing like the full-blown fever that has Shang-Chi questioning his senses, and mistaking Zaran for a strange embodiment of Sleep (now, there’s a man who’s desperate for some shut-eye).  Good call by Moench to bring back Fah Lo Suee; it’s been awhile.  When we last saw her, toward the end of Shang’s impending face-off with their dad, she appeared to have (perhaps begrudgingly) joined the forces of the light, which brings some intriguing questions to this possible partnership with Zaran.  What could possibly be her message to S-C?  Did she deliberately tape over Shockwave’s confession – does that mean she’s in league with the forces behind Sarsfield’s hit squad -?
The most noteworthy art moments tend to be those when Zeck & Day capture Shang-Chi’s confusion (p 7, pnls 2-5; p 10, last 4 pnls) and exhaustion (p 15), followed by his transition to all-out fury (p 19, 21).  Points also for the ghostly depiction of Sleep, as feverishly perceived by S-C (p 11 last pnl; p 14 last pnl).

Mark: For the second consecutive month, Shang-Chi beats weapons (and part-time dungeon) master Zaran to a pulp, then lets the masked meanie escape. Admittedly, our high-kickin' hero has now gone days without sleep, to the point of catatonia, but Moench flicking Shang's ON-OFF switch mid-battle (will he fight back in time? Yes! Uh-oh, there's another chip drop!) to gin up the drama is nearing Captain Obvious levels. 

More effective is Doug's take on the ON-OFF bureaucratic loyalty of MI-6 spies - when agents taking orders from Sarsfield show up at the castle and unexpectedly find him dead (instead of Sarsfield's captives), they take orders from Sir Denis (one of the captives) without missing a beat. He plays along, wanting those orders obeyed. 

Keep your enemies close, but your co-workers closer.  

Post-battle, exhausted and conked by falling roof debris, S-C takes to bed. Semi-conscious, he worries over a hallucinatory vision he had mid-fight, sparked by the mysterious figure visiting dungeon master Z, last ish at the lake. QUICK CUT to Sir Denis playing Shockwave's confession, only to find it's been taped over by Shang's naughty sister, Fah Lo Suee! Mystery solved.

Mike Zeck delivers another nice splash, and while returning inker Gene Day has me pining for last month's sub, Al Gordon, graphics grade out at a solid B. 

Let's just hope S-C's near-psychosis, well-timed it may be, is cured by a good nap.

Marvel Two-In-One 54
The Thing and Deathlok in
"The Pegasus Project
Part Two: Blood and Bionics"
Story by Mark Gruenwald and Ralph Macchio
Art by John Byrne and Joe Sinnott
Colors by Bob Sharen
Letters by John Costanza
Cover by George Perez and Terry Austin

Ben’s search for poker partners is rudely interrupted when Deathlok, “maser pistol set for maximum penetration,” actually draws blood from his arm; outraged, Ben crushes the gun and the hand holding it, learning to his sorrow that “this unit no longer contains a single cell of living matter,” but is weakened by blood loss.  Energizing to deploy his auxiliary maser, Deathlok retreats from guards led by Quasar, who informs Ben that the erstwhile cyborg “disappeared from a S.H.I.E.L.D. depot less than a month ago.”  Passing through the Compound, where Wundarr et al. are kept, he/it proceeds via utility shaft to the Pit, a storage area for nuclear waste, and begins assembling the components of the Nth Projector before Quasar confronts him.

Forced to avoid hitting the storage containers, Quasar is on the ropes as Ben, his arm in a sling, arrives and crushes Deathlok’s other hand; successively blasted by a guard and by Quasar, who hears the ticking of a self-destruct device, Deathlok blows what’s left of him/itself to pieces.  At Kowalski’s Gym, Thundra departs from the script by trashing the Grapplers (Poundcakes, Letha, Titania, Screaming Mimi), arousing the ire of their handler.  Meanwhile, Bill Foster arrives at the project with Atom-Smasher’s body, and the reluctant Lightner, having discovered that Deathlok was unable to complete his task, is ordered to commence Operation Expurgate:  “Pegasus must be thrown into chaos…random elements introduced to mask the true threat.”  First up is…Nuklo! -Matthew Bradley

Matthew Bradley: Longtime readers (aka masochists) know that as a rule, I dislike split covers, yet as I always say, every Godard has his Alphaville, and I’ll gladly make an exception for this Pérez/Austin stunner, which places its powerful central image against an evocative green montage.  What it does not do, surprisingly, is tout that “a major Marvel character—a hero—dies!,” as the Bullpen Page does.  As for the inside, these guys aren’t stupid:  the last page of #53 was so stunning, they repeat it as the splash page here, while this issue’s ending brings back Nuklo, for whom I have a gigantic soft spot, not so much because he’s a great character per se, but because his appearance in Avengers Annual #6 was part of an arc representing one of the high points of my Golden Age.

I have such mixed feelings about this:  in Byrnott’s hands, my beloved Deathlok looks fabulous (who wouldn’t?), but we effectively lose him twice, first when we learn that, by means as yet unexplained, he’s been divested of any trace of Luther Manning, and second when he goes all too literally to pieces.  Another thing Gruenwacchio is able to do on this larger canvas, if you’ll pardon the pun, is to develop the Thundra/wrestling plotline without any immediate connection to Project Pegasus, and the acreage of pulchritude John and Joe so lovingly depict on those three pages certainly aroused my, uh, attention.  I’m probably among the few who appreciated seeing some strands picked up from the late, lamented Black Goliath, whose second home this becomes.

Chris: The multi-part story is off to a strong start, due mostly to the numerous questions already in play: what happened to Deathlok, that caused him to be reduced to a single-minded product of his programming?; who is Lightner working for, and what is the “Nth projector” supposed to do?; how will Thundra tie into all this?  Under different circumstances, I’d be distracted by the seemingly disparate storylines, but it doesn’t seem Gruenwald & Macchio might be winging it – rather, they’re planting seeds, and for now, I’m reasonably confident that these questions will be addressed, and the early uncertainties will lead to something.  

The one glaring problem is the absence of Luther Manning’s unique personality, and his interplay with the always informative, but not always useful 'puter.  Deathlok plainly states he’s been purged of his former connection to humanity (“this unit no longer contains a single cell of living matter,” p 3), as he responds unquestioningly to directives of his programming.  As Ben observes, “Deathlok wasn’t alive anymore.  Somebody got to him …” (p 21).  Well, even if they only brought him back in order to put him away, points to Gruenwald & Macchio for daring to go with – shall we say – less-famous members of the Marvel-verse in this continuing story; Quasar and Deathlok so far, with Giant-Man and more Thundra still to come!  And not a sales-boosting Spider-Man, Human Torch, Captain America, or Hulk anywhere to be seen!  
Byrne/Sinnott highlights: prowlin’ red-eyed Deathlok, emerging from the shadows (p 2); Quasar’s double light-blast, causing D-lok to shield his face (p 11, 1st pnl); Quasar’s light shield, followed by Deathlok’s recoil when the radio signals mess with his circuitry (p 14); a well-placed laser rifle cuts Deathlok down to his hardware, but he keeps coming (p 19); Thundra’s opponents, airborne (p 23).  

Power Man and Iron Fist 58
"El Aguila Has Landed!"
Story by Mary Jo Duffy
Art by Trevor Von Eeden and Dan Green
Colors by George Roussos
Letters by Gaspar Saladino and Diana Albers
Cover by Bob Layton

While Danny and Luke entertain their dates at the local disco (Studio 51), the party atmosphere is disturbed by the entrance of quasi-hero El Águila, there to rip off drug lord Mr. Hayes. Several shotgun blasts disturb the dulcet tones of "Boogie Oogie Oogie" and, finally, the Heroes for Hire decide things have gotten out of hand and they must act. Despite Luke's interference,  Águila separates Hayes from his jewelry (and the jewelry belonging to his... lady friends) and escapes. Luke vows to hunt the man down and bring him to justice. Days later, while lounging in their office, the boys have a meeting with J.P. Preston, representing a group of slum lords terrorized by the new vigilante, who tell the boys they must stop El Águila or face a breach-of-contract suit; the boys are surprised to learn they are already employed by Preston's company! Luke and Danny hit the streets to smell out leads and finally resort to staking out Preston himself, in the hopes that their prey will show.  Sure enough, the Eagle swoops in and tries to rip off Preston but Power Man and Iron Fist step in, with a pair of on-the-take cops cuffing and working over a downed El Águila. Preston holds a gun on the masked man but Luke steps in and the slumlord opens fire on him. In the ensuing to-do, the Eagle flies the coop. -Peter Enfantino

Peter Enfantino: It's been nearly forty years since I had the pleasure to hit the dance floor of a disco (shout-out to Mother's in Santa Clara!), but I seem to remember one thing most of all: it's pretty dang loud. How would all these characters carry on their conversations with the pulsing, driving beat of "San Francisco (You've Got Me! Owwwwwwwww!)" blasting into their very DNA? I'll grant that El Águila is nothing more than an urban Robin Hood (with more than a liberal dose of White Tiger) but, hell, he's much more interesting than anything that's gone down in Mr. Cage's crib of late.

Unfortunately, we won't get to know anything more about Mr. Eagle (aka Alejandro Montoya) during our tenure as he won't make a return visit until PM/IF #65 (October 1980). The Von Greeden (Take that, Professor Matthew of the Contractional Nicknames!) art is, at turns, acceptable (there's an almost sketchy kind of Frank Miller-ish vibe going on if you look at it sideways) and annoying (not since Culture Club have there been so many feminine poses on what should be males). I'm not sure what the hell Danny is doing with Misty in the opening but it's going to lead to back pain.

Matthew: Man, they’re really shoving this Duffy broad down our throats, aren’t they?  Their tumescence over her Living Monolith fiasco had barely subsided when they popped another Viagra—or whatever filled that perceived void in 1979—and wrote the current Bullpen Page, touting this effort by her, “another rising star, Trevor von [sic] Eeden, [and] long-time super-star, Frank Springer” (’nuff said) as “merely terrific,” and El Águila as “the most sensational super foe to make the scene in ages.”  This Zorro knockoff doesn’t seem to have set the world afire, with most subsequent appearances relegated to PM&IF, so how excited you’ll be to go where Eagles dare is your call; in page 3, panel 3 (above), he looks like he really, really has to pee.

Chris: Now that we’re past the noisy Living Monolith business, we can settle-in to the type of story that works for PM/IF: a street-level tale of crime and corruption.  No super-villains – you’ll note that, while Luke & Danny are pitted opposite El Aguila, they clearly stand for the same ideals.  It’s a nice twist by Duffy to have the Hired Heroes hemmed in by a contract – and the need to pay the bills – which requires them to defend the scurvy corporate types, despite their misgivings.  My only misgiving concerns the allotment of dialog and action, which seems to be 2/3 Cage and 1/3 Rand; ideally, Duffy would find a way to involve both characters fairly equally, with one only rarely in a support role for the other.  

I like the look Von Eeden has brought to this title, as he continues to depict action well, and varies panels to include occasional close-ups that contribute to characterization.  Green’s capable inking from Avengers carries over to this issue, as he provides another above-average effort; the resulting visuals have texture without looking murky.  The first six pages (the disco sequence) could be a mini-story of its own (sorta like the odd bits with Clea and Nick Fury that follow the main story in Defenders #53 and #54), as we see Hayes emerge from his shadowy limo (p 2, pnl 4), El Aguila swoop in (p 3, pnl 3), Danny urge Misty to consider restraint in the crowded room (p 3, last pnl), a quickly-moving ten panels as Aguila disgraces Hayes (p 5), followed by more nifty action as our heroes dodge gunfire and disarm Hayes’ henchmen, followed by Hayes’ ill-advised reach for the shotgun (p 6).  Great opening!   
Long-time Power Man fans will be glad to see D.W. again, but my highlight is the return of the dastardly soda machine, still damaged after Cage slugged it in PM/IF #54 (p 15, 1st pnl).  Danny’s left hook to Aguila’s jaw is another highlight (p 22, last pnl); good decision to skip the added sound effect, since the panel really says it all, doesn’t it?  Art-points also for a bullet-stung Cage as he closes in on Preston (p 27, pnl 4).
Last thing: is it me, or does corporate mouthpiece J.P. Preston resemble former Yankees owner George M. Steinbrenner (p 11, pnl 7)?  I didn’t realize Von Eeden was a Mets fan.  

 Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man 33
"Night of the Iguana!"
Story by Bill Mantlo
Art by Jim Mooney and Frank Springer
Colors by Bob Sharen
Letters by Jim Novak
Cover by Al Milgrom

Spider-Man and the Iguana are instant enemies, even taking the battle outside momentarily, but Spidey regains the upper hand. Across the Bronx Zoo, as Marcy Kane is starting a tour, the reptiles break loose! Iguana has commanded the reptiles to do his bidding, since he has the powers of the Lizard, but Spidey is able to turn on the lights to incapacitate Iguana temporarily, then webs up the rampaging reptiles and ducks out. Back at Curt Connors' lab, the good doctor recounts how he was offered a research grant at ESU, thinking he found a way (again) to regenerate his missing arm, experimenting with a Marine Iguana, but his Enervator's feedback knocked him into the Iguana specimen as he was turning into Lizard—giving the little guy his alter ego's powers! As Spidey goes after Iguana, Connors decides to become Lizard in order to help. At the Connors' Manhattan penthouse, Spidey spies Iguana trying to hypnotize the Doc's wife and son, but after a brief brouhaha, Iggy gets the momentum, holding our hero over a ledge with his tail—as the Lizard approaches, seeking revenge! --Joe Tura

Joe Tura: No sign of Richard Burton, John Huston, Sue Lyon, or Tennessee Williams anywhere! But there is "Iggy," as Spidey calls him almost instantly, in addition to teasing the creature about his grammar and getting his goat. Turns out the fledgling fiend is certainly no mental match for the recent college grad, even as he is more than formidable as a fighter. With the powers of the Lizard, the once-tiny Iguana controls reptiles, bashes his enemy, threatens the Connors family, and climbs like the dickens. All so he can…he can…well, I don't know really what his motivation is. Or if it's a he, I'm just assuming. The artwork is average at best here, and at times nearly poor, like just-hit-the-buffet Spidey on page 19, or just about any shot of Lizard. Basically, a less-than-spectacular but better-than-crappy issue overall.

Fave sound effect, in a very average selection to choose from, is the odd "FASSHT" during Doc Connors' flashback, meaning either the Enervator is "feeding-back," or the rays are giving either him or the iguana some nasty gas!

Chris: This is the second time we’ve seen a Lizard-battle become a three-headed affair involving threats to Dr Connors’ family; I’m glad Billy has lost none of his pluck.  Once all this is straightened out, Doc might want to consider moving the wife and son to Piscataway.  For now, I’ll say I’m enjoying the brisker pace from Mantlo; events are proceeding more quickly than in the previous Carrion tale, with its deliberate parceling-out of hints and leads about Carrion’s identity, mixed in with mostly inconsequential battling.   

The Mooney/Springer art also works better this time.  Springer’s dark, heavy finishes are well-suited to a story taking place above nighttime city streets, and in the swampy “World of Darkness” at the zoo; points also to Sharen’s choice of darker hues to enhance the shadowy atmosphere of the first few pages.  There’s an oddly funny moment on p 7 as the Iguana stands, waving his forearms (forelegs?) in a clearly threatening gesture, then does nothing but wave and wait as Spidey and Dr Connors compare notes.  On the plus side, Mooney appears to channel Ross Andru on pages 21 and 30, as we see some high-angle cityscape; I especially appreciate the look of the headlights on the road, far far below (p 30).

Matthew: “The War of the Reptile-Men” in ASM #165-6 is one of the signature stories of my personal Golden Age (which we’re now sadly past); Bill must have liked it, too, since he uses a virtually identical set-up, further emphasizing the superfluity of the Iguana, who then gets a 36-year rest.  “Hey, Professor Matthew, what’s this story got that TWOTRM hasn’t?”  “A third issue.”  Whether you consider that good news or not is strictly up to you.  Also, I don’t remember where they’re headed with her, but so far, Marcy Kane seems like a character introduced specifically to be annoying.  Since the phrase “Mooney/Springer art” sparks very little excitement, I’ll have to content myself with their spelling “Connors” correctly...

 Star Wars 26
"Doom Mission"
Story by Archie Goodwin
Art by Carmine Infantino and Bob Wiacek
Colors by Petra Goldberg
Letters by John Costanza
Cover by Carmine Infantino and Bob Wiacek

By the grace of the Force and the timing of a squadron of Rebel X-Wings, the ship Luke, Leia and the droids are on is saved at the last second from certain destruction and escorted to the Rebel Base on Yavin’s fourth moon. They are met by General Dodonna and he is told the bad news: the House of Tagge Ship is in orbit of Yavin Prime and is releasing TIE Fighters into the murky atmosphere. Normally, no ships would be able to navigate the mess, but they have a turbine that creates a storm, which swirls the gasses into a tunnel that ships can traverse. With this technology, Tagge can launch attacks on the rebels at his leisure. Already, the attacks are decimating their supply of fighters. Remembering a TIE fighter that crashed nearby, Luke takes off to get a transponder that would help them navigate the corridor. Luke finds the ship and gets what he needs, but not before the surviving TIE pilot shoots and severely damages Artoo-Detoo. Luke repays the pilot, but the damage has been done. Artoo is taken back and is considered a candidate for harvesting of spare parts for droids that don’t need as much work. Now that the rebels have the means to get through the corridor and destroy the turbine, Luke volunteers (before he can be ordered) to go in and do the job. It is considered a one-way mission, but Luke knows he’s the best pilot they have. He goes in and succeeds in destroying the turbine and is nearly trapped in the poisonous atmosphere. However, his skills as a pilot and his knowledge of the Force give him what he needs to escape. Defeated for now, Baron Tagge vows to find Skywalker then mutilate him as Vader once did to Tagge. -Scott McIntyre

Scott McIntyre: Surprisingly, not a bad story. While there’s very little actual suspense, the feeling of hopelessness regarding Luke’s return from the mission is quite well done. While there’s no reason to worry that Luke Skywalker will actually die in any comic book (same with R2-D2), the stakes are convincingly escalated. The art is what it is. This is an okay yarn, a lot more fun and interesting that the endless Wheel Saga. Nothing special, but a passable time waster.

Matthew: I’ve noted Esposito’s ability to mitigate Infantino’s excesses in the concurrent Spider-Woman, but Wiacek seems to have had mixed success here, judging by the aggressively angular appearances of Leia in page 2, panel 2 and Luke in page 6, panel 3, while page 11, panel 2 suggests that Nebres-Nose is contagious.  Still, I’m all about the credit where it’s due, and Carmine achieves some interesting effects, both in the jump-cut from long shot to ECU in page 15, panels 2-3 (below), dramatizing Leia’s quiet pain, and in the montage depicting Luke’s disorientation on page 27.  Archie soldiers on with a job many would consider thankless, the film being a tough act to follow, yet this maintains its spirit more than, say, Roy’s Seven Space Samurai escapades...

 The Mighty Thor 286
"Mayhem Under Manhattan!"
Story by Roy Thomas
Art by Keith Pollard and Chic Stone
Colors by Glynis Wein
Letters by Joe Rosen
Cover by Keith Pollard and Al Milgrom

Searching for the City of the Deviants under New York, Thor, Sersi, and Karkas are attacked by a band of the devious, devilish Deviants, led by head honcho Warlord Kro. Mercy will be shown to the heroic trio if Thor will give up his beloved Mjolnir. Seeing no way out, the thunder god hands the hammer over. Meanwhile, in Asgard, Odin has been keeping track of the events (through Mimir) but, when the Warriors Three and Sif beg the All-Father to assist his son, Odin tells them Thor must stand alone. Kro serves up his prisoners to Tode, who commands his servants to fire up the dreaded Atom-Displacer (not that!)! Ikaris makes a final plea for the Deviants to join humans and Eternals to stave off the impending (forty-seven years and change) apocalypse but the giant green ogre simply laughs and belittles Thor. To his amazement, Tode watches as Thor vanishes and is replaced by Sersi, who had taken up the veil when the Asgardian had transformed back into lame Doc Blake. Kro just then notices he no longer holds the hammer of Thor. The blonde non-practicing physician enters the room and nabs his walking stick from Kro, immediately summoning the thunder god from the green room. Seeing the tide has turned and failure is about to become reality yet again, Kro summons his new "super-mutate," the many-limbed Metabo, who can absorb power like a sponge and give it back to his enemies in spades. The mutate can't stand against the might of the "lord of living lightning" for very long and falls to defeat, while its masters, Kro and Tode, hightail it to an elaborate roller-coaster-like getaway tram. Kro sets off an explosive device designed to level the city. At the last second though, Tode has a surprise for Kro and leaves him standing in the dust of the escaping rocket. Thor and his compadres escape the cataclysm and agree to fly to Olympia, in order to enlist the aid of the remaining Eternals. -Peter Enfantino

Peter Enfantino: More wheel spinning for the Rascally One; Roy seems distracted. The confusion of Dean Peter over all the Mjolnir rules continues. Why was Kro able to hold the hammer when Thor surrendered it to him but remarks that he can't lift it "now that it's changed form" later on? And why the heck does Roy continue with the "Look, it's that Thor hero! Maybe he's the one that caused all this damage!" nonsense coming from innocent bystanders as if this was 1962? Cripes, Thor has seen more Earth time than lame Doc Blake and he's known world-wide as the only guy to call in to an operating room if you want the job done. At least Roy acknowledges that Metabo bears more than a striking resemblance (in powers, at least) to the Absorbing Man. The Crusher Creel clone would see only one more appearance in a Marvel funny book, The Avengers #370 (January 1994).

Matthew:  The covers are starting to make this arc look like The Eternals’ Greatest Hits; we’ve had the Gammenon cover, the Ajak cover, the Karkas cover, and now the Kro cover.  Obviously, I’m taking nothing away from Big John, my all-time fave, when I join Roy in welcoming Keith as “nefarious new penciler-in-residence,” especially with Chic, whose work here has been among his most consistently satisfactory, providing some consistency.  But Rascally has so many balls in the air that the story—even allowing for the gentle rocking of the Metro-North commuter train as it lulled me into a semi-stupor—went by in a bit of a haze, and looking back now, I see that the artwork, as handsome as it admittedly is, contributes to a sense of this being densely packed.

Chris: Okay, Roy, ya got me – I was genuinely curious to know how you intended to sell the possibility of Kro handling the enchanted mallet of Mjolnir.  I read Kro’s line, as he dismisses the idea of Thor’s hammer being borne by him alone as a legend applying to “gods and humans – not Deviants!," but I could only think “Kro is a Deviant – so what?  He’s clearly unworthy of being able to lift the hammer.”  Plus, I didn’t buy the possibility of Thor surrendering the hammer so readily.  I didn’t realize Thor and Sersi had a clever gambit worked out, to trick Kro into thinking he had Thor quietly in custody.  Of course, that plan is reliant on Tode’s throne room being decorated with long drapes for Don Blake to hide behind, but I’ll allow it.  We also have to forgive Sersi’s stated reluctance to speak in Tode’s presence, for fear of exposing herself as non-Norse (p 14), when she had been perfectly happy to spout Asgardian phraseology while Thor-guised with Kro (p 6).  It’s all well worth it to see the surprised look on Kro’s face, when he realizes he’s been had (and failed Tode again!), and that he cannot in fact lift the fabled hammer (p 15); best of all, Thor frees Mjolnir of Kro’s grip by flinging him away (p 21) – indignities upon indignities!  

So, we finish with a decision to visit Zuras?  Well, that’s fine, but be careful: the last time the Eternals tried to devise a plan-of-attack for the Celestials, it led to a Uni-Mind, which resulted in … well, nothing really.  If the meeting with Zuras is followed by a battle with a fake Hulk, then I’d advise Thor to pack up and clear out before his title gets cancelled on him.  
Pollard shows promise as he offers page after page of action, which has been mostly lacking for a few issues now.  Stone’s finishes can be inconsistent, as the occasional face doesn’t look quite right, but I’m willing to give the new team a chance.  Page 22 is particularly good, as Thena and Sersi try a high-low double eye-blast on Metabo, but are merely buffeted away for their trouble (with Sersi’s well-coiffed 'do knocked all askew, pnl 4).  

 The Uncanny X-Men 124
"He Only Laughs When I Hurt!"
Story by John Byrne and Chris Claremont
Art by John Byrne and Terry Austin
Colors by Glynis Wein
Letters by Tom Orzechowski
Cover by Dave Cockrum and Terry Austin

Colossus has been brainwashed by Arcade into becoming the Soviet hero Proletarian and he attacks Cyclops and Wolverine in Murderworld. Arcade finds this hysterical and after he’s done laughing, he explains to Colleen Wing and the other captured women how he became Arcade: he was an entitled son of a millionaire, cut off because he was spoiled and lazy. In response, Arcade killed his own father and realized he had a talent for murder. After becoming the world's most successful assassin, he used his family fortune to create Murderworld and hires out his services to kill super-heroes. After that backstory is helpfully laid out, we get back to Colossus, who tosses Wolverine and Cyclops through two hidden doors. Storm, meanwhile, is having trouble in her own Lightning Trap. She is pushed into the rising waters and when she bobs to the surface, she is only inches from the ceiling. Soon, she’ll drown. She swims below and uses her electrical powers to try to rupture the water pipe and give her egress.

Cyclops slides through the passageway and into Nightcrawler’s trap. Cyke is able to shoot one of the bumper cars menacing Nightcrawler just as four more lethal, buzzsaw-wielding cars burst from the wall slots. Using his skills, Cyke shoots his opti-blasts against the walls, wiping out all of the cars with one shot. He then creates an exit hole with a second beam. Nightcrawler takes the main tunnel while Cyke takes the low road.  At the same time, Wolverine enters Banshee’s trial, a holodeck where ships are firing lasers. Wolverine is able to find the wall and rips open the access tunnel, but is faced with replicas of Magneto and the Hulk. They fight them off as Nightcrawler “bamf"s into the control room and destroys the main panel. However, Crawler is knocked out by gas released by a henchman.

Cyke helps Wolverine and Banshee defeat the robots when suddenly Storm’s water pipe breaks and floods the chamber. Just as Storm revives, Colossus bursts in and grabs both Storm and Cyclops by the throat. However, they are able to reach Peter by reminding him that they are a family. He snaps out of it, begging forgiveness. Arcade, knowing he’s lost, ejects them all from the park, sending Nightcrawler and the girls out in parachute pods. Since there’s no way to find Arcade and bring him in, the X-Men leave, counting this as a victory. -Scott McIntyre

Scott: Not deep in the slightest, but a ton of fun! We’re given Arcade’s origin, which is interesting enough, but could use further depth. How he went from being a spoiled, poor little rich boy to a murderer is glossed over. The traps aren’t quite as fun this time around, losing some of that Silver-Age Batman charm, but the story moves at a quick pace and the pictures sure are pretty. No great insight this time around, just a lot of well-paced action and fun. Colossus’ brainwashing is both cool and cheesy at the same time: cool because it plays on his huge self-doubt, of which Cyclops is painfully unaware, but cheesy because he looks like an idiot in that outfit. He snaps out of it pretty easily and suddenly, but we had to wrap this all up. Arcade is a decent enough villain, but his shoes are ridiculous. This is the last middle-of-the-road regular issue we’ll cover (we still have an annual to suffer through – did I mention I hate annuals?); from here on, they’re all quite superior.

Chris: It’s unusual for Claremont to cruise thru an entire issue without a few cut-aways to burgeoning stories taking shape elsewhere – no check-in with Charles and Lilandra, no update from Muir Island (where Jean still doesn’t know her teammates are alive!).  Of course, it’s the right decision, as Claremont already has a multi-ring circus playing out in Murderworld.  Arcade doesn’t seem to be trying terribly hard to kill anyone; he makes it clear from his account of his origin that he really doesn’t need the money.  I mean, sure, he’s certainly creating tough spots for everyone, but his willingness to give his opponents an even chance – and not take advantage and kill a defenseless X-Man who already is removed from the fight, such as Nightcrawler – proves he’s really only here for the sport.   He does have himself a good ol’ time – the Byrne/Austin shots of Arcade are priceless, as we see him laughing himself silly whenever the X-ers drop into one trap after another.

That serves as a nifty segue to art highlights: a spooky look at a menacing Arcade who – in the early going – seems determined to take out our heroes (p 5 1st pnl); claustrophobic Ororo’s surprise to see how high the water level already has risen, as she’s nearly pinned against the ceiling (p 7, last pnl); the nutty, random decision to have Magneto and Hulk 'bots stationed in the service tunnel, as Banshee exclaims, “How’d they get here?!” (p 14, 1st pnl); Cyclops’ billiards trick shot, as he banks his optic-shot around the room to take out all the razor-cars (p 15; I remember tracing the lines – with a finger, not a pencil – to follow the course of Cyke’s blast as it caroms in the blink of an eye around the tight space); Ororo’s weary expression, after Scott’s administered mouth-to-mouth (p 22, last pnl); the contrast between Sean, Peter, and Scott’s expressions as Sean greets Peter, a half-second before Peter slugs him (p 23); Ororo’s desperation as she pleads with Peter (p 26, pnl 2, 6); the steel ball that ingeniously folds itself around the X-ers, suggesting Arcade kinda expected the whole team to wind up here, eventually (p 27, 1st pnl).

Matthew:  I liked the ending (followed chronologically by the ANADX-Men’s first annual in November):  a qualified victory for the mutants, yet one leaving a dangerous foe at liberty, while offering the opportunity for some nice characterization in the form of Cyclops and Wolverine’s differing responses.  I’d forgotten we had that much of a back-story for Arcade, who ironically could challenge Logan for the Proletarian’s title of “little madman”; the trying-to-break-through-a-friend’s-hypnosis routine is hardly new but, as usual, Chris handles it with typically unusual skill, emphasizing the familial aspect unique to any team outside of the FF.  Amid consistently excellent art, I especially loved the forced-perspective shot of Scott and Kurt in page 10, panel 5 (left).

Question:  is this the first reference to “Wolverine’s unbreakable bones” (Scott, page 6, panel 4)?

Mark: Even for an assassin, Arcade turns out to be quite the psychotic goofball. Not many twenty-one year-old spoiled rich kids dynamite dad when their allowance is cut off. With a mop of red hair, white leisure suit, and star-spangled platform shoes, Arcade looks like Jimmy Olsen at Studio 54, by way of Marc Bolan. At least when he's not mad or cackling mechanically, then he's more like the Joker. Putting the X-folk through their paces at Murderworld ("my Disneyland of death"), Arcade's over-the-top gimmicks fuel this goofy, grandiose romp that almost pinballs into parody.

He doesn't just brainwash Colossus, but decks him out in Lenin-emblazoned commie rompers and peasant cap, he adds giant spinning saw blades to bumper cars, and has a robotic Hulk & Magneto waiting behind a wall, in case Wolverine busts through it.

The Dream Team - Prof Matthew shorthand for Claremont, Byrne, and Austin - serve all this up with great verve, vigor and a straight-face, so who are we to quibble?

Cyke gets to serve up an eye-beam bank shot that takes out the killer cars and give Ororo the kiss of life. Logan gets easily manhandled by the Proletarian, before familial team bonds turn the killer commie back into Colossus.

That Arcade ultimately releases the X-Men via gerbil tube and parachutes the captive girls (and Nightcrawler) into an amusement park might make him a really cool villain, but - after pocketing a cool mil to off the X'ers - he's a really bad hired assassin.

But who's gonna ask for a refund?

 Spider-Woman 17
"Jessica's Night Out!"
Story by Mark Gruenwald and John Wilburn
Art by Carmine Infantino and Mike Esposito
Colors by Ben Sean
Letters by Diana Albers
Cover by Bob Budiansky and Joe Rubinstein

Jessica repairs her Spider-Woman costume, damaged during her furious clash with Nekra.  As she takes the suit for a test-flight, the right glider-wing separates from her arm, and S-W quickly loses altitude; she tries to angle toward a nearby rooftop, but instead crashes thru a picture window, disturbing a couple’s quiet evening of TV.  S-W slinks home to bed, and manages to laugh at her recent setbacks.  The next day, she leaves work early to meet with Dr Sachs, who proposes a pharmaceutical remedy to her excess pheromone production; Jessica leaves with the pills, but worries that her unique metabolism will adjust to the chemicals, and counteract their possible utility.  On her way out, Jessica reflects on Dr Sachs’ suggestion that she prove the effectiveness of the new medication by placing herself in “a vigorous social situation” and see how people react to her.  Jessica arrives that night at a disco, meets a charming man named Eric, and tries to dance with him; she doesn’t know how, but her martial-arts training allows her to pick up the steps.  While she's dancing, another woman idly picks up Jessica’s bag, and in an effort to draw her date’s attention, changes into Jessica’s Spider-Woman costume (fashions of the time don’t allow Jessica to wear the costume under her dress)!  Jessica is stunned to see her costume paraded on the dance floor; of greater concern, of course, is the question of recovering the costume.  The costumed dancer’s inebriated enthusiasm carries her to a balcony, where she loses her footing, and pitches over the edge; she manages to hold onto the balcony floor for a moment, then plunges toward the rocky shore 185 feet below!  Jessica, meanwhile, has kicked off her shoes and begun to crawl along the balcony’s underside, so once the panicked partier is falling, Jessica dives after her.  A modest venom blast stuns the woman into quiet, as Jessica climbs on her back and steers the glider wings toward the cliff face; Jessica clings to the rocks and carefully carries the woman to the stretch of beach at the bottom, and retrieves her costume.  Jessica stows the outfit, and returns to Eric, who suggests he take her home.  On the way, he pulls off the road and suggests they get better acquainted.  Jessica begs off, but before Eric can respond, he recognizes a change is happening; his face is beginning – to melt?! -Chris Blake
Chris: It’s a decent, though largely unexciting issue, as Gruenwald takes a step back after the multi-part Kali kult/Shroud/Nekra storyline.  The undignified costume malfunction, and the uncertainty as Jessica steps alone into the disco and tries to figure how to comport herself, appear to be part of Gruenwald’s effort to humanize Jessica, and continue to downplay the earlier mystical trappings.  Thru it all, Gruenwald maintains attention on S-W’s unusual skill-set.  In case you’re wondering (it’s possible …) why Jessica doesn’t simply ditch the spider-suit and let the other woman keep it, Jessica had reminded us earlier that the Hydra-designed glider-wings allow her to fly; it’s not like she can just go home, and spin herself a new one.  We’re also informed how the pharma-based solution to the pheromone problem might not work, since Jessica’s metabolism might counteract the unfamiliar chemical introduced to her system.  The wall-crawling and venom-blasting also are well-employed in Jessica’s rescue of the no-harm-intended suit-snatcher.  
Is it so obvious that I’m trying to find positive things to say?  Overall, this is another okay, but nothing-special issue from Gruenwald, whose most significant contribution has been to clear out some of the unworkable, sometimes nonsensical story elements imposed on the series by Marv Wolfman.
I was displeased to see Mike Esposito as Carmine Infantino’s finisher this time, since Al Gordon’s heavier inks have been a key contributor to allowing me to overlook the loopier aspects of Infantino’s pencils.  The art doesn’t come off too badly though, with the rescue sequence – the cliff presented on an angle, which undoubtedly contributes to the effect of the two women dropping more rapidly than they might otherwise – one of the few highlights (p 23).  I tried to overlook most of the disco stuff, although – and I’m no fashion guy, not by the longest of shots – Jessica’s observation that women out dancing in the late '70s tended to wear calf-length skirts struck me as wildly out-of-date (p 11).  Why not add bobby socks to that poodle skirt -? 

Matthew: Okay, the last panel’s incredible melting man just confirmed my hazy recollection that Gruenwald’s tenure was characterized by yucky villains like the lip-sewing Needle; John Wilburn’s “plot assist” on this two-parter appears to be his only professional credit, so I’ve got nothin’ there.  Meanwhile, Marvel’s trend-chasing obsession with discos continues with this colossally stupid story, perhaps insulting our intelligence the most when Jessica is able to, uh, “ride” the unconscious impostor to safety on her oh-so-tenuously repaired glider-webs.  Occasionally, Mighty Mike almost enabled me to forget this was Infantino art, although I doubt pages 1-2 made Margaret O’Connell retract her lettercol complaint regarding cheesecake scenes.

What If? 16
"What If Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu,
Had Remained Loyal to Fu Manchu?"
Story by Doug Moench
Art by Rick Hoberg, Bill Wray, and Dave Stevens
Colors by Roger Slifer
Letters by Joe Rosen
Cover by Rick Hoberg

The Watcher recounts how 19-year-old Shang-Chi was sent by father Fu Manchu to kill Dr. Petrie, and was found by Nayland Smith, who told the youngster of his father's past horrors, which led him to leave the evil patriarch's rule. But in another reality, he escapes the room thinking Dr. Petrie was evil, leaving a too-late-to-the-ball Smith to swear revenge. Fu pontificates to his son about his vision for a new world that "embodies the glory of Old China," also telling S-C it's right to kill "only those who wish to kill," including Nayland Smith. Smith goes to Black Jack Tarr, who employs a team of Clive Reston and Leiko Wu to track down Fu Manchu. They get a tip about Shang-Chi, who is sent by Fu to Highgate Cemetery to retrieve five members of the Dacoit Cult, slain 20 years earlier by Smith's men. It's easy to surmise it's for Fu's experimental serum, which brings a dead rat back to life. Of course, the fiendish Fu plots to use the serum to take over England—then the world! At the cemetery, S-C fights Black Jack until Fu's men bust through the gates, take the coffins of the Dacoits, then drive off with S-C, who wonders why a Chinese girl (Leiko) is fighting against his father.

Fu uses his serum to reanimate the Dacoits, which angers a puzzled and inquisitive Shang-Chi, but the son is sent to his room [without supper, one would assume]. At the same time, a captured Manchu minion is given three doses of truth serum before revealing Fu's plans to make the Queen his hostage! S-C breaks out of the caged room he is locked in, and heads towards Buckingham Palace, where Black Jack, Reston, and Leiko are also arriving, just in time for the Dacoits of Death to invade, riding giant lizards! [Really, giant lizards!] The deadly Dacoits break into the Palace, with Team Tarr furiously fighting them off, but S-C is upset, saying "My father's vision of life…is a blind mockery." He battles Fu's dead demons beside the good guys, then Reston appears with a flamethrower to end the dance of the Dacoits—much to S-C's annoyance! The young warrior fights his way through both "Si-Fan and Briton alike," hoping to reach his father, who sits gloating on the throne! Shang-Chi disavows "all allegiance" to his father, but will not fight with Smith, since they are also disrespectful to the "sancity of life," and walks away to fight alone.--Joe Tura

Joe: I imagine Prof. Chris and Prof. Mark will have much more to say on this one than me, being the resident chopsocky comix club members, but as the What If? champion of the faculty, I found this one interesting, if not alien, even 37 years later. I think I owned maybe one regular issue of MOKF, so when I read this one I was a bit lost. Still am. But I enjoyed it nonetheless. Lots of talking, sometimes about nothing, plus switching back and forth like an episode of General Hospital. The action is short but drawn nicely by Hoberg, who otherwise turns in an OK at best job. His panel layouts are more on the positive side, at times resembling a future Tetris board. Moench's story moves at a faster pace than we are used to with the Caption King, which is also a positive. Overall, not bad, even though at times it feels like there are gaping holes in what's going on. Maybe this should have been a two-parter?

On our letters page, "Why Not?," departing editor Roy Thomas tells the readers why he is leaving the title he thought up, mainly because he's now on the West Coast. But he promises to come back for "an occasional Thor WHAT IF" or if Claremont and Byrne ever finish their long-awaited X-Men issue. Heck, I'm still waiting! Roy is putting his baby in the hands of Jim Shooter and Mark Gruenwald which, alas, begins the downward spiral of one of my favorite '70s comics. Oh, well.

Chris: As we passed the halfway point, I grew concerned that our alternate-reality story might amount to little more than a delay in Shang-Chi’s defection from Poppa Fu; S-C’s inherent decency draws him to seek the rising and advancement of his spirit, so it’s merely a question of time before he recognizes Fu for who he truly is.  Doug Moench probably feels he’s presented an ending with a suitable twist, as Shang-Chi dismisses the prospect of joining Sir Denis & Co.  Well, we already know Shang-Chi and the other members of Sir Denis’ elite crew had left the employ of MI-6 after they had foiled Fu’s plans to use a rocked-from-orbit moon to drastically disrupt ocean tides on earth (as seen in MoKF #50-51); Doug had written those issues himself.  

No, a really inventive, twisted conclusion would feature S-C confronting Fu’s evil, and yet deciding – drawn in by either Fu’s twisted logic, or a sense of obligation – to remain loyal to Fu.  Even better, if Fu could’ve found a way to corrupt S-C’s decency – if he’d seduced S-C with promises of power, or tarnished S-C’s sense of himself as a man on the right path – so S-C would be left with no option than to serve evil, and stand at Fu’s right hand (willingly or not), now that would be a devastating finish.  This outcome would be especially effective, since we’ve seen S-C is capable of such careful introspection, and we know of his honest desire to serve the right side;  who but Fu could undermine these aspects of S-C’s character -?
Fu Manchu seems to be creeping stealthily back to the pages of Master of Kung Fu, but it’s been awhile since we’ve observed his devious scheming, so that’s a welcome element here.  I would think it’s obvious, though, that a body left in the ground for twenty years would no longer have skin and muscle.  As long as Fu had been capable of generating a new body from the long-dead bones of Shaka Kharn, we could’ve seen something similar here – his chemical treatments could’ve caused flesh to re-grow over the dead skeletons, before the elixir restored the bodies to life.  Cool, right?   
Overall, I like Hoberg’s art.  Based on this one issue, I would’ve been comfortable with Hoberg as a regular contributor to MoKF; the style is closer to Zeck than to Gulacy, but still better than Craig.  Clever bit of social commentary as Fu’s injections to revive the Dacoits are offset by panels showing MI-6 injecting a captured Si-Fan with truth serum (p 32).  Most of the highlights are in the climactic assault on Buckingham Palace, as the dead-eyed Dacoits storm in, mounted on giant lizards (p 35, last pnl; p 36), followed by S-C’s hand-to-hand with the undead warriors (p 39).  
Craziest moment: Reston, Tarr, and Leiko reason the bullet-resistant Dacoits might be vulnerable to fire (as S-C observes from above), so Reston calls out, “It’s worth a try, Tarr – I’ll get some flame-throwers!”  Sure, Clive – they’re probably in the hallway closet, next to the hutch where the queen’s staff keeps the everyday china.  

Mark: As editor Roy Thomas announces his departure, let's pause to credit him with creating a concept - fake stories (behind the fig leaf of Tales of the Watcher "alt-reality") about "real" Marvel heroes - that's lived on in various incarnations, down to the present day. Roy also wrote most of the good stories (and the one great one, "Conan in New York") thus far, but when he's not behind the ole Underwood, the WI? results have varied widely, generally trending downward, but a good editor gives writers their head, something the in-coming Jim Shooter isn't renowned for.

Here, in Roy's last hands-off editing effort, long time MOKF writer Doug Moench riffs lightly on Shang-Chi's Steve Englehart-Jim Starlin colab origin, while delivering a story that, with a tweak or two, could appear in the current MOKF without missing a beat. The changes here - S-C recognizing Father Fu as evil later on and not (yet) joining MI-6 - are hardly earth-shaking, and it's not surprising that Moench's alt-Shang ends up pretty close to where he's taken the character in the "real" Marvel U. 

The real eye-opener here - from the killer cover on - is Rick Hoberg's star-turn art (abetted by inkers "Wray & Stevens"), which, among other things, depicts Fu Manchu as Ancient Chinese Stereotype, right down to jaundice yellow coloring and Vulcan ears, yet somehow makes that work with MOKF's well-rendered contemporary cast. And Hoberg's reanimated Fu's Si-Fan assassins (wearing masks that look like they inspired Batman's Court of Owls) astride giant lizards are inspired, and could have benefited from at least one big panel, which, with 34 pages to play with, you'd think the creators coulda managed.

All tolled, class, this effective bit of "alt-reality" will appeal to readers of the real MOKF, but it lacks any emotional or plot-twist punch to land it in the Fakery Hall of Fame.

Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle 27
"Concrete Jungle!"
Story by Bill Mantlo
Art by Sal Buscema and Ricardo Villamonte
Colors by George Roussos
Letters by Jim Novak
Cover by Rich Buckler and Bob McLeod

Korak saves Lieut. Dennis Haversham of Her Majesty’s Coastal Patrol (an apparent Mantlo creation) from a panther attack, learns he is a friend of Tarzan’s, and arranges to borrow a plane.  On Fifth Avenue, Tory taunts the raging ape man by hurling champagne at him, which triggers a fusillade of glasses from the club’s drunken patrons, but the main event is still to come; meanwhile, Ian stops Jane’s molestation by one of the guards, only to get a bottle to the head in return, yet by falling against the door, he locks it, forcing her to seek another egress.  In the alley behind the club, the Blackjack Gang enters through the kitchen, unseen by Smithers—once again looking like a demented caricature—as he watches Roger introducing “the battle of the century.”

Tarzan and the Golden Lion face a huge albino gorilla (would Tory, also looking a little less than human here, really risk losing his star attraction?), yet Roger’s plan to feature “Tarzan and His Mate”—catchy title, that—is held up by Ian’s absence.  Things get a lot worse when Blackjack, seeking to settle an unpaid debt, refuses to grant an extension, yet borrowing a machine gun from his flunky, Swift, he fires it not at the begging Tory but at the “unbreakable” glass behind which the battle with the gorilla rages.  As it spills out amid the terrified clientele of the uninsured club, Ian finds the 85th-floor window broken and assumes that Lady Greystoke has killed herself, little dreaming that if he had looked up instead of down, he would have seen her climbing to freedom. -Matthew Bradley

Matthew: Villamonte has been inking the sister John Carter title, to which he’ll return in October’s final issue, and as he briefly succeeds Hall here, I have to say that he does better on the ERB books than on super-hero fare.  As for Our Pal Sal—once we’re past another appealingly colorful Buckleod cover—he continues to impress me with variations on the standard double-spread, e.g., pages 4-5 (marred only by a “New York, the 1930’s” caption that slipped by three editors, even though #24 specified a 1929 setting).  Across the top is a panorama of the skyline, at its center the beloved Chrysler Building where Dad’s dentist had his office; the lower left panel replays the Fitzgeralds entering the club; the dominant image provides a different perspective on its interior.

Those oversized panels, along with the de rigueur full-pager on 22 of an embattled Tarzan and Jad-bal-ja squaring off “against a ton of fanged fury,” admittedly eat up a lot of space that could be devoted to other things, but I think they serve two salutary purposes.  First, I feel that this is by its very nature a strip that depends more heavily on the visuals than many others, and second, Marvel stated at the outset that they wanted it to have a somewhat more deliberate pace than their contemporary fare, which I still feel is eminently suited to the material.  Tarzan is not going to wind up embroiled in something as complex as the Kree-Skrull War or Magus Saga, and the ERB originals emulated are of a simpler time, so this can be simple, if not necessarily simplistic.

The Micronauts 8 
“Earth Wars” Story by Bill Mantlo 
Art by Michael Golden and Bob McLeod
Colors by Carl Gafford
Letters by Diana Albers
Cover by Michael Golden and Joe Rubinstein

Human sized, Baron Karza emerges from Phillip Prometheus’ pit and attacks NASA’s military police, the professor’s humanoid guards firing machineguns at his side. Young Steve Coffin and the Micronauts arrive: the miniature warriors rush at the Baron, but one by one, they are laid low by the now towering dictator’s deadly hand blasters.

Back in the Microverse, Prince Argon stands before the remaining rebels. The Shadow Priest informs the centaur-man that his holy order has secretly been on the loyalists’ side the whole time and they are waiting until Karza leaves Homeworld unguarded to strike. The Priest also proclaims that Commander Rann — the son of the cause's first martyrs, King Dallan and Queen Sepsis — will be the rebellion’s ultimate champion. Elsewhere, a Time Traveler floats before Ray Coffin, imbues him with the power of the Enigma Force and sends him back to Earth. There, Coffin arrives as Captain Universe, a blue-and-white costumed avenger, and engages Karza in battle.

As the evenly matched Baron and Captain trade explosive blows, Rann — despairing over the injuries his crew has endured — decides to use Prometheus’ pit to fly back to the Microverse in the Endeavor: hopefully the Baron will follow and they can do battle on a more level playing field. Or, if he simply stays on Earth, they can destroy the link between the two universes from the other side. Deciding that the true conflict is with Rann and the Enigma Force, Karza reverses the mind-merge: Phillip Prometheus is returned to NASA as the Baron plunges back to the Microverse in pursuit of the Micronauts. The Time Travelers remove Ray Coffin’s temporary superpowers and he reunites with his son Steve. -Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn: While it's still a grand entertainment, there’s something a tick off with this issue. The four pages of Prince Argon and the rebels recap much of what we already know. Perhaps with the rising popularity of this title, Bill Mantlo thought that new readers could use a bit of an introductory course. There are a total of five “See issue” captions spread throughout the issue as well. And we have lost some of the creative talent. Now I usually love Bob McLeod, but he doesn’t seem to mesh as well with Golden’s spectacular pencils as Joe Rubinstein did. This is McLeod’s only appearance in the credits: the inks of our current Editor, Al Milgrom, will see us through the end of the year. Don’t get me wrong, the art is still spectacular but it has lost a bit of its subtle textures. Plus, the pedestrian Diana Albers replaces the much more talented letterers we have enjoyed so far, including Tom Orzechowski and John Costanza.

While I wouldn’t call him a major player in the Marvel universe, the introduction of Captain Universe is somewhat noteworthy — he’s still kicking around today. It’s not really detailed here, but there will be many Captains to come: his power jumps from host to host. The next Captain will actually be Steve Coffin in the pages of Marvel Spotlight #9 (November 1980). Love his costume, but, for some reason, I seemed to remember him sharing Ray Coffin’s potbelly. Not sure why. He is certainly a formidable hero: he matches the Baron punch for punch. Plus, what Karza considers a weakness — his emotional attachments — actually make the Captain even stronger.

As usual, Mantlo and Golden don’t skimp on the explosions. The battle scene with Karza is a humdinger, the military blasting away with tanks, rockets and bazookas — with little effect of course. And since he now towers over the Micronauts, they are helpless, swatted aside like, well, toys. Only Acroyear and the Endeavor’s laser cannons manage to have any impact at all. And is anyone totally buying that the Shadow Priests have been good guys this whole time? They do have the word “shadow” in their names. We shall see. Now both Professor Chris and I have commented that we would have preferred if Mantlo hadn’t sent the Micronauts to Earth so early in the series. Well, things return to the Microverse fulltime starting next issue. And, lucky us, the battle between the ’Nauts and Baron Karza will wrap up with issue #12. That one was published in December 1979, so it will just squeak in before the University shuts its doors.

Matthew: As noted earlier, I believe Mantlo himself objected to the Micros’ Mego-mandated trip to Earth.Selected August issues contain humorous house ads promoting specific editorial fiefdoms, including “Meanwhile back at the Bullpen…,” a Marie Severin-drawn parody of an American Express ad featuring Roger Stern, assistant Jim Salicrup, and their stable.  In the other, Fred Hembeck depicts characters from the Milgrom/Duffy titles—like this one—as a chorus line, so if you’ve ever had a hankering to see Tarzan or Karza make like a Rockette, now’s your chance.  This is a one-off by McLeod before the aforementioned Al replaces Rubinstein for a 10-issue run, but Golden’s style remains unobscured as all H.E.L.L. breaks loose (sorry), the durable Captain Universe makes his debut (“We don’t apologize for compassion, buster!”), the Coffins are reunited at last, and the Micros head home…

Chris: I’m with Commander Rann – there’s little to gain in a fight with Karza on his terms, on some foreign big-people planet; better to zip back to Homeworld and force Karza to resume his usual scale.  We have a nearly-simultaneous rising by forces commanded by, uh, Force Commander, so I’d say Karza might have a fight on his hands!  Mantlo & Golden continue to pour on the action and excitement, in another flash-fast issue; most importantly, they recognize that the battling in Florida has had its moments, so it’s best to vacate this setting now before it gets old (if it hasn’t already).  It’s easy to overlook that we’ve had only one issue of this series – #1, you’ll recall – that took place in its entirety on Homeworld.  

I’d forgotten Micros #7 was the final issue with inks by Joe Rubinstein.  Bob Mc Leod’s finishes are fine, they simply aren’t as full (lush, if you will) as Rubinstein’s tend to be.  Yes folks, Mr Golden is still here, so there are art highlights: the massive, time-pitted sculptures of Dallan and Sepsis (p 6); a flashback to Karza’s execution of Homeworld’s rulers, in a disturbing panel featuring Dallan, hanging, and a naked Sepsis being strangled by the fully-armored Karza (p 10, last pnl); Acroyear gets a giant-size smack-down, as his impact fractures the pavement (p 15, pnl 4); big-time blast of Karza by Captain Universe (p 21, last pnl); Captain U draws on his full power for another assault (p 26, 2nd pnl).

Also This Month

Crazy #53
< Machine Man #10
Marvel Super-Heroes #82
Marvel Tales #106
Marvel Treasury Edition #22
Sgt. Fury #153
Shogun Warriors #7

Machine Man returns after a nine-month hiatus; the armadillo informs us of a volume of mail, requesting Aaron Stack’s reinstatement to the mainstream Marvel milieu.  Marv Wolfman wisely makes adjustments to Jack Kirby’s original character, without resorting to radical changes.  In a welcome bow to continuity, Marv re-introduces X-51 moments after his costly battle with the Hulk (as seen in Hulk #237).   In the process of much-needed repairs, Dr Broadhurst simplifies Machine Man’s equipment, as he explains how Aaron’s assembly had included “extraneous testing devices” that could severely tax his power cells.  A one-page illustration outlines the core abilities retained by Broadhurst (p 7), which should help to reduce the impression that Kirby would improvise a new function anytime he needed Machine Man to perform a specific task; as for me, I will miss the weapons assembly mounted in Aaron’s fingers.  Aaron resumes his quest for self, but his concerns of possible reprogramming to become a “menace to humanity” are dismissed by a holographic message implanted by Aaron’s constructor and “father,” Dr Abel Stack.  This too-pat dismissal of Aaron’s potential for future menace is compounded by Senator Brickman, whose insistence that Aaron somehow does pose a threat, and needs to be destroyed, reduces his character to that of a one-note lunatic; his senseless rantings would make even a New York tabloid publisher blush.  I realize Steve Ditko has legions of devoted fans from his Silver Age work, but his spare style doesn’t deliver any of the palpable physical action that was a hallmark of Kirby’s handling of this title.  -Chris Blake


The Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian 43
Cover Art by Bob Larkin

“King Thoth-Amon”
Script by Roy Thomas
Art by John Buscema and Tony DeZuniga

“Notes on Various People of the Hyborian Age” 
Text by Robert E. Howard

“The Deadly Claws of Kathulos”
Text by Fred Blosser

“Pass of Death”
Script by Roy Thomas
Art by David Wenzel

“Swords and Scrolls”

And now class, here we have the 35-page finale of Roy, John and Tony’s four-part adaptation of L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter’s novel Conan the Buccaneer.

Conan, Princess Chabela, Sigurd the Vanir and his crew and Juma and a group of his Kushite tribesmen arrive at the shore to find The Wastrel sunk and smoldering in the harbor. Zeltran, the Cimmerian’s bruised and bandaged second-in-command, rushes forward: the ship was attacked by Master Zarono’s boat, The Petrel, and most of the crew was killed. When Zeltran refused to tell the Zingaran privateer the location of Conan and Chabela, he set fire to The Wastrel — the first mate managed to slip his ropes and dived overboard before being consumed by the inferno. Zeltran adds that he overheard the evil priest Menkara say that they were setting sail towards Kordava, the capitol city of Zingara, to join the supreme Stygian sorcerer Thoth-Amon, their co-conspirator in the plot to overthrow King Ferdrugo and crown Duke Villagro as ruler. After days of repair, The Wastrel is made seaworthy once again. Conan bids farewell to his old friend Juma and sails off for Kordava as well.

Meanwhile, in his throne room, the pale and weak Ferdrugo — under the thrall of Thoth-Amon — reads a proclamation that bestows his rule to the Stygian. The shocked Villagro, who naturally assumed that he would be named the next king as according to the plan, realizes that the deceitful wizard has betrayed him. The Duke rushes forward and grabs the Cobra Crown when Thoth-Amon removes the ancient talisman to accept the royal Zingara headwear. Placing the serpentine tower on his head, Villagro is filled with incredible black magic and attacks Thoth-Amon with crippling spells. Suddenly Conan and his men arrive: the soldiers now beholden to their new Stygian king rush forward and a bloody melee ensues. Thoth-Amon and Villagro continue their psychic battle until the Cobra Crown overheats and the Duke is burned alive — realizing that all is lost, including the now-powerless Crown, the sinister sorcerer slips away unseen with Zarono.

After dozens of casualties on both sides — including the conspirator Menkara — Conan’s forces emerge victorious. In thanks, a grateful and recovered King Ferdrugo offers the Cimmerian the eager hand of Princess Chabela in marriage. But the barbarian declines, realizing that he would have to bend to the bourgeois responsibilities of princehood. He returns to The Wastrel with Sigurd and his crew and sets sail for further savage adventures.

There we have it. After 157 pages, Conan the Buccaneer wraps up with one of the most bloody battle scenes in the annals of The Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian. And I guess that’s what it was all about. After all the political plotting, sailing to and fro, black Amazons, man-eating trees and whatnot, it all boiled down to sweaty muscles and slashing swords. The Cimmerian didn’t even manage to get his revenge on Zarono — or come face-to-face with Thoth-Amon. But I thoroughly enjoyed the ride regardless. Part 2, issue #41, was my favorite of the arc but the final battle was tremendous. And this is easily our lengthiest encounter with the awesome Thoth-Amon, one of greatest villains in literary and comic history. Conan is becoming a major thorn in his dusky side: not only did Thoth-Amon lose the throne of Zingara, the Cobra Crown, his ultimate prize, was fried in the process as well. A rough go for the supreme Stygian. Throughout all four chapters, the Cimmerian strides from conflict to conflict like a man among boys. Not only is he the toughest, he proves to be the smartest character as well, winning the day with both his razor-sharp blade and rousing leadership abilities. Of course, this adaptation was well served by Big John and Tony DeZuniga. The art is consistently sharp, exciting and masterful. Bravo!

The action continues in “Pass of Death,” the 15-page Part Two of Roy Thomas and David Wenzel’s adaptation of “Kings of the Night,” Robert E. Howard’s short story about the Pict warrior king Bran Mak Morn, which first appeared in the November 1930 issue of Weird Tales

With the help of his shaman Gonar, Bran Mak Morn has resurrected the legendary King Kull to help in the Pict’s war against the overwhelming force of an approaching Roman battalion. The plan? They will bait the Romans into a narrow valley: Kull and 300 mighty Vikings will plug the exit while Mak Morn’s savage Gaelic warriors and Cormac’s British chariots rain hell down from both sides. And it works perfectly — but all the Norsemen are slain in the process. Kull suddenly disappears and wakes in his own time. The original Gonar, a trusted advisor, enters the royal bedchambers. Kull tells the wizened Pict about his odd dream. But Gonar only smiles and points to the numerous wounds on the king’s body.

Now obviously, Robert E. Howard stole from the legendary tale of the 300 Spartans for “Kings of the Night.” But let’s give him a break: he certainly received the same treatment over and over and over again after his tragic death. Brak the Barbarian anyone? Thongor? Ator? Well, the Ator movies were made by Italians so we’ll give them some slack as well. Where would Italian genre filmmakers be without the rip-off? Nowheres I tells ya. I’m not going to proclaim greatness for this Bran Mak Morn two-parter, but even Professor Gilbert might admit that it’s much better than the usual Solomon Kane backup. As I said last time, even the Puritan’s signature artist, David Wenzel, raises his game. Of course, we do have Roy Thomas instead of Don Glut. That would easily do the trick.

We also have two highly interesting text pieces. Written by Robert E. himself, “Notes on Various People of the Hyborian Age” was a supplement to Lee Falconer’s limited-edition Starlight House book A Gazetteer of the Hyborian World of Conan Including the World of Kull and An Ethnogeographical Dictionary — the lengthy Savage Sword serialization just wrapped up last issue. “Notes” was never published in any other form before the Gazetteer, discovered by Howard’s literary agent, Glenn Lord. So a big kudos to Roy Thomas for making it available to a mass audience. Conan’s creator writes of the major races in his Hyborian world, offering fairly lengthy paragraphs detailing the crude cultures of the Aquilonians, Gundermen, Cimmerians and the Westermarck. A superb historical piece. 

In the two-page “The Deadly Claws of Kathulos,” Fred Blosser reviews the FAX Collector’s Edition of Howard’s previously unpublished The Return of Skull-Face. The author’s first Skull-Face short novel was published in Weird Tales, but, again, this unfinished sequel was discovered in a dusty drawer by Glenn Lord and given to a writer named Richard Lupoff to finish. Never heard of Lupoff before but the still-living author had a pretty robust career according to his Wiki page. Not only was he Edgar Rice Burroughs’ posthumous editor at Canaveral Press, he unsuccessfully sued the makers of the movie Groundhog Day for stealing the “time loop” idea from his short story “12:01 PM.” It looks like Lupoff used the pen name Ray Razzberry from time to time. Ouch. It sounds like The Return of Skull-Face is a pastiche of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu thrillers. Howard you thieving bastard! The knowledgeable Blosser gives the publication a so-so rating, laying the blame at the feet of Lupoff.  -Tom Flynn

Lupoff (whose “12:01 P.M.” has apparently been filmed twice, once as a short and once as a TV-movie) also wrote the early bio Edgar Rice Burroughs: Master of Adventure, essential reading for young ERB fans like me.  And Gardner Fox, on a rare good day, borrowed the REH name for his sublime, Starlin-illustrated, Howardian Dr. Strange entry, “The Doom That Bloomed on Kathulos!,” in my beloved Marvel Premiere #8 (May 1973). -Matthew Bradley

The Hulk! 16
Cover Art by Earl Norem

Script by Doug Moench
Art by Mike Zeck

“Marvel’s Live Action Heroes” 
Text by Tom Rogers

“A Hulk/Nebres Portfolio”
Art by Rudy Nebres

“Readers Rampage”

Kicking things off, Rick Marschall’s editorial on page 4 sent a shudder up my spine:

“We think you’re in for a treat this issue. In a bit of a departure, Robert Bruce Banner leads us to an adventure that’s shorter on action but longer on suspense this time ’round. Now of course we’ve still chocked the tale full of chases and fights and movement like we oughta, but we have heightened the impact of personality conflict, tension, mystery and deathly intrigue.”

Uh oh. But we do have a saving grace: the amazing artwork of marvelous Mike Zeck, one of my favorite artists of the later '70s. Now Mike has done a few fabulous frontispieces for this series, so he’s no stranger to the magazine and the Hulk in general. But he’s never had a single spotlight as long as this 43-page story — and I’d say it’s the best work he’s produced so far. The lush Marvelcolor certainly helps Zeck raise his game. This is a beautifully illustrated issue. Doug Moench’s story? Meh.

Basically, Banner finds himself in New Orleans. There, he is approached by a beautiful young woman named Valerie and her streetwise companion Jannar who work for a mysterious benefactor, Drago. They know that he is the Hulk and have a proposition, one that will earn him enough money to finally find a cure to his curse. Bruce reluctantly agrees and they board a seaplane and fly to Drago’s sea cliff mansion in the Florida Keys. There, the billionaire lays out his offer: offshore is a lost treasure of $200 million worth of Inca gold and only the Hulk is strong enough to uncover it from the razor-sharp reef it is buried under. If Jade Jaws can manage to bring it to the surface, they will split the profits. But, of course, it is all a ruse: Drago only wants a sample of Banner’s gamma-radiated blood to continue his own genetic experiments — which have resulted in the deaths of dozens of innocent dogs. Ultimately, Banner dives in and transforms but, instead of finding treasure, Hulk encounters Drago’s only successful experiment, a tremendous octopus, ten times the normal size. But the Green Goliath kills the cephalopod by ramming a piece of reef through its brain. The brute surfaces and tosses a boat into Drago’s house: the resulting explosion kills the villain.

Now why is this talky tale called “Masks?” That’s because Doug constantly ruminates on the masks we all wear, hiding our true identities. Moench has the stone-cold mercenary Jannar deliver most of this pseudo-psychological babble — and it ultimately causes his death after Drago tires of the nonsense and pushes him off a cliff. And the luscious Valerie is revealed to be Drago’s sister and the dogs were her pets. I left out the sequence where she purposely crashes the seaplane into the Everglades to confirm that Banner is really the Hulk: which he does by transforming, leaping away and tussling with an alligator. Dunno, seems a very risky way to check that Bruce is the man for the job. Now, in my review of this month’s Ghost Rider, I wondered how Johnny Blaze supported himself. I’m starting to think the same thing here. Bruce Banner has only had a paying job in one issue, yet he has the money to travel to places like Switzerland and New Orleans. Not to mention all the replacing of tattered purple pants. How? Anyways, as I’ve said, we do have Zeck’s art to marvel at. He includes a couple of two-page spreads: the one of the octopus’ reveal is a corker.

Due to the length of the main story, there is no Moon Knight backup but there are a few bonus features. Tom Rogers’ “Marvel’s Live Action Heroes” is a four-page article about the film and television appearance of the publisher’s characters, starting with Republic’s Captain America serial from 1944 which he recaps in great detail. Rogers moves on to the 1979 CBS Captain America movie (Reb Brown!) and, of course, The Incredible Hulk and The Amazing Spider-Man shows. He even writes of the little-seen Dr. Strange CBS movie from 1978. And there are six one-page Hulk pinups by Rudy Nebres. Nebres has a unique take on the character: his face is much more normal looking than usual. But they all burst with energy. Finally, there’s a one-page promo of the new Hulk newspaper strip. -Tom Flynn

Marvel Preview 18
Cover Art by Bob Larkin

"Less Than Human"
Story by Doug Moench
Art by Bill Sienkiewicz and Bob McLeod

"Into the Shop"
Story by Ron Goulart
Art by Steve Bissette

"The Destiny of the Dinosaurs"
Story by Don Thompson
Art by Lee Elias

After a two-issue vacation, Star-Lord is back in the pages of Preview, this time, according to the super-bright yellow cover, facing "the most agonizing decision of his cosmic career!" In case we missed that, the mercifully-short editorial on the Contents page by good old Rich Marschall tells us that not only is Star-Lord entering a "new phase of his career and persona," becoming a "true Lord of the Stars—but not without the wrenching emotional traumas one would expect in a truly human hero," but we get some back-up stories that balance "the old and the new" as well as artwork that's "experimenting with some wild black-and-white shading techniques." Plus, better paper, giving you a lot more bang for your buck twenty-five, I guess!

 Doug Moench kicks things off with his "Less Than Human" Star-Lord saga, drawn by Bill Sienkiewicz & Bob McLeod. In our Prologue, a human aboard a ship of lion-esque aliens helps them test a power-rod that can destroy a world when suddenly they're under attack! The attackers, led by Quan-Zarr, board the gutted spacecraft, kill everyone on board, and take the power-rod back to Redstone—but one crew member was able to send out an SOS first.

Star-Lord/Peter Quill and Ship investigate the deadly power source on Redstone, as the hero zips down to a city within a crater, which he finds primitive, until he's met by police asking for his gun. He gives it up, then heads to a nearby tavern for info, getting it from a friendly bartender, natch, learning Quan-Zarr is the founder of Redstone and there is no power source on the planet. Q-Z learns Ship is in orbit around the planet, and orders it shot down. Back at the bar, Beastmen break in to steal a courier pouch from two of Quan-Zarr's men. Star-Lord swipes a sword from a nearby sultry siren, fights the felines off, and absconds with said pouch, with hot gal in tow. Ship finds herself under attack and sends Widgets in search of Peter, who uses the adorable orbs to decipher the computer tape in the pouch, which contains plans and details on the power source. The Beastmen use the courier's Air-Skimmer to find Peter and Sylvana, the beautiful bar denizen. After a short chase, they wound Sylvana and catch up, whereupon Star-Lord plays them the tape, and the livid lions tell him the truth about Quan-Zarr, who slaughtered the true natives of Redstone and kept some survivors for experiments, which created the Beastmen. Q-Z's son was helping the Beastmen, but was the human killed in the prologue, so Q-Z now holds the power-rod, which the last surviving Beastmen are after.

The animalistic aliens let Star-Lord and Sylvana go, the Widgets heal her arm, and Ship is still under attack. But the duo still travel to the fortress, where Sylvana wants Peter to kill the Beastmen before everyone on the planet dies! After the violent skirmish below, three Beastmen remain alive to enter the fortress in search of the power-rod, while hundreds lie dead. A seething Sylvana tells Star-Lord to "forget about [his] stupid, selfish vow" not to kill and save the innocents on Redstone. Spurred by the memories of loss and death throughout his life, he flies down, but not before a close-quarters battle leaves but one Beastman and Quan-Zarr himself alive—but not for long! Q-Z is slain and Star-Lord battles the final Beastman and stabs him. He and Sylvana bury Quan-Zarr with the last Beastman and the now-broken power-rod, and board Ship, changed forever by his decision to kill once again.

Well, that was interesting. A "moral dilemma" at the end, after a nearly typical alien-race battle with Star-Lord in the middle. But it takes a bikini-wearing bombshell to just about guilt S-L into acting (which comes too late to save any of the combatants), and shatter his vow. Nicely done, if not a bit heavy-handed in the last third. The art is solid but unspectacular, and the new "black and white shadings" make a little bit of a difference, if one goes back and pays more attention than I did. One bit of dialogue that stands out like a sore talon is the last panel on page 12, which may make Prof. Matthew "Ship" himself: "Wait'll Quan-Zarr here's [sic] what the spaceport computers had to say." Yep, no need for third-grade grammar when just a sound-alike word for "hears" will do! Ugh.

Our next tale is Ron Goulart's "Into the Shop," drawn by "brand-newcomer" [per the editorial] and future horror-meister Steve Bissette, with Rick Veitch. In the "far future," the Lawagon of Marshal Clemens—a machine that catches crooks and carries out instant death sentences—catches notorious killer Sheldon Kloog. Clemens gets a new assignment: find the criminal Jim Otterson, who assaulted Dianne Marmon, a woman Clemens was once in love with. A call from HQ tells him Kloog is still at large, so he asks Lawagon 203 if it made a mistake—and the ship malfunctions with a BONK and crashes! The repairman shows up and fixes the ship as Clemens waits with other weirdos, but the good-as-new machine kills him too, thinking he's Kloog. Going after Otterson, he finds him in an abandoned car, and the villain and Dianne up a mountain, but 203 retracts the line Clemens is holding and the malfunctioning machine doesn't listen to his orders. Clemens falls and is knocked out, awakening to 203's announcement that "Sheldon Kloog and his female accomplice have been captured, tried, sentenced, and executed." A crazed Clemens goes after 203 for killing Dianne, but is halted when the ship grabs him, saying, "No you don't, Kloog!" The End.

So, another Outer Limits-esque tale in the pages of Preview, this one a murky, messy, muddy, yet still interestingly-drawn story. It's interesting if not predictable, with odd touches throughout, like the napkin holder that also keeps malfunctioning. I liked the art, which gets increasingly darker as the script itself takes the dark twisty turn in the finale. Not too bad.

Which is more than I can say about our last effort, "The Destiny of the Dinosaurs," from Don Thompson and Lee Elias. Jack, the builder of a time sphere, and Professor Clement board the ship with hopes of traveling to the past to "see a living dinosaur." All is fine, with the Prof capturing moments throughout history on film, until they come to the Mesozoic Age, the "very height of dinosaur dominance"—and spot a spaceship! It's the property of the dinos, who speak telepathically and, for some goofy reason, Clement can hear them (???). Jack tries to call the creatures, but they don't hear and start to leave, until one dangerous dino spots the humans and rushes after them! The men split up, Jack escaping with the Chronal Capsule just in time, coming back to save the pensive professor from the frustrated Saurian in hot pursuit. Traveling to the present, they see scenes of "man's inhumanity to man," before pondering their next steps. Jack and the professor meet one week after returning, with a report ready to present, when Jack wonders if the greenhouse effect would help the dinos since they were wiped out when things got too cold. Suddenly, spaceships start appearing all over the world—the dinosaurs have come back, after leaving Earth until it warmed up enough, and they're going to "eliminate" all the mortals so the Earth is fit for them to live on again!

Wheeep whomp….another wacky twist, and this one seems worse than the previous story. Maybe it's because it's after midnight, maybe it's because I'm crankier after turning 50, maybe because it's just not that great, but either way this one seemed very, well, minor to me. Sure it's an interesting premise—Dinos were really smart spaceship builders that had to leave when Earth got too cold—but there are so many plot holes it's like dino-sized Swiss cheese. The art is nothing special except for the standing Saurians, who almost look like something out of Mad or Cracked. Overall, an average-at-best issue of Marvel Preview, without even a letters page to pass the time. Next issue is Kull the Destroyer, so be careful what you wish for I guess!—Joe Tura

This Sunday!
Professor Tom Gives Us the Lowdown on
Marvel's Super-Hyped End-of-the-Seventies
Fantasy Trilogy