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Books – Dara
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Archive for the ‘way back machine’ Category

Amazing Spider-Man # 161

Geez, all these posts I’ve made and I’ve never gotten around to talking at length about how incredibly cool Ross Andru was. Alongside Herb Trimpe, he was one of the earliest artists that turned me onto comics. Like Herb on the Hulk, he illustrated the exploits of my favorite character for the better part of a decade during what may have been the peak of the series’ popularity (someone check the sales figures and let me know if I’m right or not), defining Marvel’s flagship character for an entire generation of readers like me. First with Gerry Conway then Len Wein, he helped guide the series from the full spectrum of urban gothic clone sagas and Punisher debuts to goofy 1970’s Rocket Racer origins and giant dinosaur battles, keeping them all grounded in a world I could relate to.

I’ve mentioned before in a previous post regarding Gil Kane’s Spider-Man comics: he and Andru breathed so much life into Spider-Man’s New York City that it became a supporting character itself, far more even than Batman’s Gotham. I had a sense of an almost real Rockefeller Plaza and Times Square from the issues in which Ross had carried the story’s action through those settings. He didn’t blow my mind like Kirby or Steranko later would, he just created a world with an amazing sense of visual depth and space for my childhood fantasies to be played out in. Add to that his wonderfully down-to-earth figure drawing (that panel of Spidey running on the ferris wheel– really looks like a guy running on a ferris wheel. I don’t know how else to verbalize it)– and it felt like I wasn’t being drawn into Ross’ world; he was illustrating mine.

This particular issue is noteworthy for another reason: it was my introduction to a few of Len Wein’s other creations, the all-new, all-different X-Men. Just a few months old themselves, one of their characters drops in on Spider-Man’s title to try to draw a little attention to their own struggling little mag. It was 1976, and even for Marvel this was one screwed up group of characters calling themselves super-heroes, incredibly bizarre in appearance and kind of scary. During the glory days of the Byrne/Cockrum years, that was my favorite book, and Nightcrawler was probably my favorite character because of the introduction I received here. To top it all off, this is one of my favorite superhero battles between a couple of well-matched power sets and two of the coolest character designs ever. Len Wein even throws in the Punisher, who at this point was a cool supporting character rather than the overbearing and obnoxious presence he would later become.

Our story goes like this:a serial sniper is on the loose, and his latest victim was a friend of Kurt Wagner’s from his circus days. He tracks the killer to Coney Island where Peter Parker and his girlfriend Mary Jane are spending the afternoon, only to witness the next murder. The murderer escapes, but Nightcrawler recovers the gun… just as Spider-Man appears, mistaking the mutant for the killer. Spider-Man photographs the inconclusive tussle that follows, so the X-Man must track him down for a rematch in order to destroy the evidence of his existance. The issue ends on a cliffhanger as the two are interrupted by the Punisher, who is certain one of them knows something about the killings.

One last word on Ross Andru, from the letters page of ASM # 169:
“…Not since Ditko has there been as conscientious a penciler on the strip, nor one as successful at capturing the mood and style that made the strip the most popular of them all. Comic-book fans are rarely as appreciative of honest craftsmanship as of flashy techniques or special effects, so the care and skill Mr. Andru have brought to the strip have largely gone unnoticed. …Presently, Mr. Andru’s work is second only to John Buscema’s in the Marvel line.”
The letter is signed by an aspiring artist named Frank Miller.

While I’m skipping around my long boxes, I usually try to avoid repeating creators or series’ as much as possible, but we’re in for some repeats over the next couple posts. I hope no one will object if two posts regarding Neal Adams appear in a row, and if someone does, what the hell is the matter with you?

Amazing Adventures #8

This one I waited too long to post about. I have several issues from this series and have always had it on the back burner to write about, taking the opportunity to chastise Marvel for not getting around to reprinting this series since it first appeared in 1971. Seriously, if you had a multi-part story lying around that was started by Jack Kirby and handed off to Neal Adams, would you wait 38 years to collect it into a single volume? Who’s been asleep at the wheel all this time? I picked up another issue at MidOhio and decided to finally get around to writing that post, only to discover that coincidentally a Masterworks edition including this very series is being released later this month. So at the risk of doing something nice for corporate Marvel, let me finally get this one out of the way and recommend that Masterworks to everyone. They’re still idiots for sitting on this one for so long, though.

The Inhumans shared this book with the Black Widow in her first pre-Daredevil solo adventures which weren’t exactly standouts, so we’ll ignore them. The earliest chapters of the Inhumans story were by Jack Kirby, who created some memorable clashes between the Atillans and the Fantastic Four and the whole of the outside world. Somewhere about halfway through the series, however, Jack defected to DC and the series landed in the capable hands of Roy Thomas and Neal Adams.

I say capable hands, but there are some interesting contrasts. Neal’s figure work is brilliant, but anyone following in the steps of Kirby will have their weaknesses exposed. Kirby depicts an Atillan filled with super-science and bizarre landscapes whose every exposed surface is covered with functional gadgetry the King designed with a purpose in mind for every piece. Neal’s backgrounds don’t have the same gee-whiz effect Kirby communicates so easily.

Roy Thomas addresses this by moving the action to San Francisco where Adams’ work can shine in more familiar urban settings. An amnesiac Black Bolt befriends an orphan who is being manipulated by his criminal uncle, and all three fall under the influence of a black militant determined to burn down the ghetto he escaped from as a youth (yes, this issue was published just a few months before the Captain America comic I reviewed a few posts back…). It seems the well-meaning madman spent his life trying to change the system from within before discovering he has cancer, and now has only two months to try to change the world by force. He appears to have Black Bolt under his control and intends to use the power of his voice to destroy the slums.

As the Inhumans race to the scene to rescue their missing monarch they are met by Thor, whose alter-ego Don Blake is the doctor who has been caring for the misguided lunatic. A tussle ensues as the thunder god seeks to defuse the situation and save his patient, while the Inhumans want simply to barrel in and recover their leader.
Since I just recommended a book that’s coming out in a week or two, I’ll leave the denouement off the end of the review; but I will add that this issue provides evidence of my own deep and terrible sickness regarding these funny books: that first page scanned above, showing Neal’s splendid version of the Avengers? I was able to date this comic based solely on the membership pictured there.

Good lord, MidOhio Con was good to me this year– at least from a buyer’s perspective. I left Bell, Book & Comic’s table with enough goodies to keep the WBM going until Gem City rolls around next year and I can visit them again to replenish my supply. We’ll start with the issue that is the standout from the huge pile I have to read through: A Ka-Zar appearance by Roy Thomas and John Buscema with all sorts of surprise appearances.

Astonishing Tales #12

A couple of federal agents have recruited Ka-Zar (wearing the dockers he favors when visiting civilization) to help track down a scientist who has disappeared in the Florida everglades. A group of researchers had isolated themselves in the swamps to focus on their work: the recreation of the super soldier serum that gave birth to Captain America a few decades before. Just a few weeks ago, lead scientist Ted Sallis went missing when agents of Advanced Idea Mechanics (A.I.M.) attempted to raid the compound to steal their research. The feds hope to find Sallis alive before he is captured by the spy organization.

The mission gets off to a bad start as A.I.M. soldiers shoot down the good guys’ helicopter, causing it to crash in the swamp. Ka-Zar and his pet sabretooth Zabu both get to demonstrate their gator-wrestling prowess as their guides make it to safety, then lead them to the (apparently poorly) hidden lab where Sallis’ colleagues continue their work. They are shown to an infirmary, where an aged scientist clings to life, victim of a gunshot wound. As they ponder her seemingly incoherent ramblings, a mossy form shambles up to the window to observe them from outside.

This is where a very pleasant surprise appears in this issue. As everybody better already know, Ted Sallis escaped his A.I.M. pursuers by injecting himself with the prototype super soldier serum and crashing his car into the bog, where the chemicals interacted with the strange environment to transform him into the Man-Thing. This is Manny’s first color comic appearance; he first appeared with Conan the Barbarian in the b & w mag Savage Tales for all of one issue. A second story by Len Wein and Neal Adams was prepared but never saw print until it was integrated into this very Ka-Zar adventure. So it is that I discovered a happy interlude with Neal Adams illustrating my favorite Marvel b-lister, written by Len Wein months before the arrival of Swamp Thing #1 (adding to the layers of coincidence surrounding the two characters, his roommate Gerry Conway had written that Savage Tales story months before that).

In the Man-Thing flashback, A.I.M. agents have riled up the superstitious locals into believing the old woman leading the group of researchers is actually a witch, a charge made plausible in their minds by the recent monster sightings in the area. During an encounter with the angry mob, the woman is shot before the Man-Thing’s very eyes just as she has put two and two together and figured out who the mute monster really is. Now he hovers nearby as his only hope for regaining his humanity lies on her deathbed.
We then return to John Buscema’s pages, as Ka-Zar’s jungle bred senses detect the eavesdropper at the window. He pursues Man-Thing into the swamp, but A.I.M. catches the beast first, dropping him into a deep pit. Ka-Zar leaps into the fray before they can train their laser guns on Manny, but is himself overwhelmed by their numbers and knocked into the pit to face the monster himself as the cliffhanger arrives.

Even next to Neal Adams’ amazing work, I’m impressed by how well Buscema’s pages stand out. Tastes being relative, my ideal for comic illustration is to convey as much information as simply as possible, and John Buscema is the paradigm. Even more than Kirby, his work defined Marvel’s “house style” for decades. His simple lines carry a tremendous amount of power; you can practically feel the weight of the jungle lord as he slams into that hapless A.I.M. goon, and Ka-Zar’s crouched form in the next panel is bursting with energy. This is what us old-timers once called drawing comics “the Marvel way.”

Captain America #143

For today’s post, let’s dip back to a simpler time and pick up a comic geared just for children that won’t challenge our preconceptions; something shallow, purely juvenile, that doesn’t make any attempt to provoke thought. We’ll return to the simpler days of 1971, where we find…

Oh. That can’t be right. This is a pre-Vertigo, code approved superhero book published when I was 1 year old. I thought Alan Moore or Frank Miller invented this grim-n-gritty real world deconstruction stuff.
Or we could simply call this exhibit #379 in my case against any knuckleheads that think the soft porn being published today is more “mature” or “sophisticated” than what was being far more widely read decades ago. Gaudy costumes and Marvel-style cornball dialogue aside, put it in it’s proper context: Martin Luther King was assassinated less than three years previously, and All In The Family was barely a blip on the cultural radar when Gary Friedrich and John Romita played up the tension between blue-eyed Cap and his Harlem based, dating-a-militant crime fighting partner The Falcon. The subject matter aims pretty high, and any suburban mom who bought this for their kid probably didn’t anticipate the discussion they were about to foster.

A masked figure is preaching a message of violence to a group of militant activists, and social worker Sam (Falcon) Wilson is dragged to one of their meetings by his girlfriend where he learns of their intent to burn down a Boys’ Club whose organizer they have labelled an Uncle Tom as the first salvo in a race war. Wilson’s attempt to preach moderation doesn’t go over well, and he is later found bruised and battered by police officer (really) Steve Rogers.

So it is that Cap and the Falcon end up standing between an army of rioting youths and a very nervous police department (it’s surely a coincidence this was published soon after the Kent State massacre, as well). Bartering for time with the leaders of the two factions, the pair take the fight to the masked man that started it, discovering that he’s got his own history of race warfare behind him.

One death trap and secret escape route later, Cap and the Falcon return and defuse the situation, though both sides make it clear they are not going away. Along the way, Cap unintentionally makes a thoughtless remark that creates some tension with his partner, underscoring the troubled macrocosm they inhabit. The partnership of this spandex-clad Tibbs and Gillespie is an uneasy one.

I have a dirty little secret. Like a Republican senator railing about the sanctity of marriage, I harbor a secret love in my heart that until now I have been unable or unwilling to give voice to for fear of exposing my own hypocrisy and secret, terrible shame.

I really, really enjoyed Steve Englehart’s late 1980’s tenure on the Fantastic Four.

Fantastic Four #323

That’s right… at the same time the once-mighty scribe was driving the train called West Coast Avengers off the tracks, I actually took out a subscription to the FF title he was writing so I could be spared the embarrassment of slipping each new issue into the middle of my stack of books as I approached the register at Central City’s east side location.

It was a dark time for the FF, coming during the era in which Marvel dictated across the board cosmetic changes to all their non-mutant core titles– black costumes, Grey Hulks, goofy yellow and blue armored Thunder Gods… The FF got saddled with turning the Thing into a talking pineapple and replacing Reed and Sue Richards in their membership with the Inhumans’ Crystal (not necessarily a bad idea) and a She-Thing (THAT was a bad idea), all under the umbrella of Englehart’s relentlessly goofy plots. What did the book have going for it? Well, Ron Frenz was supplying some beautiful Kirby-Klone covers that pretty much sold the book (he was doing the same for Thor and Captain America at the time), and something about the interior artwork appealed to me. My former arch-nemesis Keith Pollard provided some “poor man’s Buscema”-style layouts, while inker Romeo Thangal and colorist George Roussos both took a light approach to their respective crafts that gave the art a very crisp look. Plus, there were Englehart’s relentlessly goofy plots…

So it is that I owe Dara an apology for the scorn I have so frequently heaped upon his own fondly remembered and much-maligned WCA series. I’ll probably continue to do it in the future, though.

With everything going against this series, Marvel had to heap one more thing onto the pile: an intrusive crossover with the “Inferno” storyline over in X-Men. New York has been overrun by demons, but since the cause and resolution will be confined to the two (!) X-titles that summer, we just had to put up with all the rest of our comics making absolutely no sense for a couple months. I never understood the logic behind these crossovers; if Nova guest starred in Spider-Man’s mag, it was to get Spidey readers to check out Nova. Did they decide that not enough people reading the Marvel line of books were checking out the X-Men on a monthly basis, so they were trying to lure in the legions of Englehart fans? The crossovers certainly weren’t required reading for the X-Men series’, so I can’t imagine the goal was the other way around.

The FF are strolling through Manhattan fighting stray demons when they stumble across the 1970’s kung fu lady Avenger called Mantis (a relic from Englehart’s own run on the title back in the day). Once married, power-augmented, and impregnated by a cosmic being, she has been stripped of her powers and seen her child taken away to be raised in outer space, or some such. She has come to find the FF because they have a rep for manned space flights (one wonders why, given the horrible mutations that tend to occur) in hopes they might help her find her offspring. Unfortunately her quest is interrupted first by hordes of demons, then by an old super-villain.
Kang the Conqueror is aware of a “time bubble” in place around the years 2005 and 2020, preventing time travellers from entering that era– except during an upheaval like “Inferno”, apparantly. Legend says a Celestial is hiding within those years with a super weapon which Kang plans to steal. Unaware that Mantis no longer has her cosmic powers, he plans on using her energies to defeat the Celestial; Mantis was oncle called the “Celestial Madonna”, so her power must be effective against Celestials (giant Kirby space gods who could kick Galactus’ ass), is the reasoning. Really.
Of course, having progressed to those years ourselves by now, we have learned that reports of Celestial WMDs were exaggerated. Kang really should have known, given that 1988 didn’t look as bad as Deathlok would have had us believe, either (though Reagan tried). Our cast is unaware of this yet, and the story closes with Mantis mysteriously disappearing as the FF’s attack on Kang’s ship goes horribly wrong.

This was among my favorite series’ of the time, up until the point Englehart had a falling out with the editors and wrote his last few issues under a pseudonym. Walt Simonson was actually brought in to clean up the mess, but he unfortunately was allowed to use his FF series to tie up loose ends from three different comics (Avengers, FF, and Thor), so his run was an exercise in continuity-cleaning more than anything else, and lacked the charm of Englehart’s issues.
I can’t believe I said that.

Tony has his Geo-Force, but I’ve got Machine Man…

There are great cosmic mysteries that baffle our minds, from the secrets of Stonehenge to male nipples, but none are so puzzling as the D-list status of Aaron Stack, aka X-51, aka Machine Man. Birthed in a premise taken from a Clarke & Kubrick movie masterpiece, translated onto the page and injected into the regular Marvel universe by Jack Kirby, picked up by Steve Ditko before being passed on to the hands of Barry Windsor-Smith; in terms of pedigree alone, Machine Man has enough going for him to make him ten times as popular as Wolverine, yet somehow he has been relegated to the sidelines, a blip on the radar less impressive than a third string Defender. In an ordered, sane universe, the character would occupy the center of our cultural consciousness. Instead, he has as much credibility as a prototype Inspector Gadget. Go figure.

2001: A Space Odyssey #8

It’s a new Friday the 13th, only instead of the Knights Templar being put to the sword by the Vatican, it has been decreed that the new X-series robot, built for deep space exploration, must be destroyed en masse by the U.S. military. Like their predecessor the HAL 9000, these mechanical men have developed a rudimentary sentience, which leads to psychosis brought on by existential angst. The first fifty robots perish when their self-destruct mechanisms are triggered, but X-51 has bigger things in store for him.

Brought into the home of Abel Stack, one of the X-project’s chief scientists, the robot has been named Aaron and “raised” as a human being, even coming to address his creator as “Dad.” This foster father removes X-51’s self destruct device when he hears of the order and sends his robot progeny away, sacrificing himself in the detonation of the bomb without Aaron being aware of his fate. The military hunts the fugitive robot down when he is spotted flying over an unnamed city (he flies by “cancelling the gravity equation”– flight powered by math!) and he is quickly recaptured.

Mister Machine, as he will come to be called in another issue or two (the name Machine Man following a couple issues after that), is stripped of his human face and brought to a military lab where (in accordance with science fiction plot #317) his human tormentors are revealed to harbor less actual humanity than their inhuman captive. As X-51 gives voice to his tormented soul, a mysterious black monolith appears before him as it has during numerous pivotal points in human evolution. Breaking free of his bonds, he approaches it– running straight into this issue’s cliffhanger.

Kirby explored the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of the character through a few issues of 2001 and then into Machine Man’s own title. Marv Wolfman and Steve Ditko followed him, putting the character into more conventional superhero settings, and a couple years later Barry Smith (aided by Herb Trimpe!) moved the character back into a beautifully illustrated Blade Runner-esque future dystopia. Despite all of this, the character never set the world on fire and is not the subject of a summer movie starring Hugh Jackman, a fact which underscores what a horribly flawed universe we inhabit.

Not dipping as far back this time, and revisiting a run I’ve previously posted on: the DeFalco/Frenz Thor series that followed the Simonson issues I got into too late. I recently dug through a pile of these to loan a sampling of this Lee/Kirby homage to Matt and got the notion to dust off this particular issue along the way. This title was one of a handful that kept getting better while everything around it went to hell in the late 80’s/early 90’s, so this run remains one of my all-time favorites to this day.

Thor #390

An odd appeal to me from this era as well: we’ve all heard of the nostalgic “feel” of old comics– the smell of those old pages when you crack open a back issue. For me, the books from this time carry that effect the heaviest. Silly as it sounds, whatever combination of paper weight, cover stock, and ink they were using around this time made the biggest tactile impression on me of any books I’ve ever bought new off the rack. It’s a pleasure opening most Marvel or DC books from this time period (I would have plucked this one from the shelf of Central City’s east side location in December of 1987, don’t ask how I know off the top of my head) for that effect alone, and I miss whatever combination of materials they were using at the time.

This issue is just a few episodes into the DeFalco/Frenz run. Ron is obviously starting to evoke Kirby with many of his layouts, but inker Brett Breeding is reining him in a bit, giving the pages a hint of a Buscema/Palmer look. These guys are actually among my favorite pairings of illustrators. DeFalco channels Stan Lee hyperbole with ease and knows how to write with a cosmic scope; the first several issues after Simonson included a three-part battle with the Celestials which was itself all kinds of awesome. In this issue, Thor is finally returning to Earth after the long absence begun in Walt’s series, and he finds a number of things have changed.

Most troubling is the appearance of Steve Rogers in an adsurd red, white, & black getup, answering simply to “The Captain.” The editorially mandated change in Cap’s title (black costumes, grey Hulks, blue & gold armored norsemen and Steely Dan-style Iron Men all happening at the same time) involved the government stripping him of the Captain America role and handing it to an unstable redneck. At about the same time, the “Armor Wars” story in Iron Man (which I still haven’t yet read) involved Tony Stark going all neocon for some reason and causing a rift between the two Avengers. Thor learns all this when he arrives at the Avengers’ hydrobase (the mansion having recently been wrecked by Roger Stern) and is troubled by things having become so darned complex whiole he’s been away, and even wonders if all that has happened is a result of Rogers himself becoming unbalanced and untrustworthy.
The rest of the Avengers depart, which is okay because this was one of the more oddball gatherings of Avengers ever (though their book at the time was excellent). Only the Black Knight and The Captain are still hanging out with Thor when a subplot resurfaces: an army of Egyptian gods seeking to invade Asgard crashes the Avengers’ HQ, seeking to take out Thor before the real fight begins. This is where things get really good, as the Black Knight and Cap strive to keep up in the middle of a battle with an army of actual deities. Actually, Cap fares okay for a while…

Things soon go sour, though, especially when Thor is separated from his hammer and overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of his enemies. The thunder god is on the ropes, and a squad of super-beings bears down on Cap…
Remember a few posts back, when I expounded on the paradigm superhero scenario– that moment of facing down a runaway train with no apparent hope of victory only to miraculously find a way to beat the odds and save the day? That stuff gets me every time. Here’s another example:

That was so cool the first time I turned the page and found that surprising splash, and it has the benefit of making perfect sense. The magic behind Mjolnir isn’t that only Thor can lift it, but only those as noble and virtuous as the norse warrior god can (check out the inscription on the side of the hammer as seen in Journey Into Mystery #83 if you don’t believe it); if Captain America doesn’t fit that bill, who the heck does? Our heroes rally, and Thor delivers one of those brutal one-sided villain thrashings I dearly love to see, paraphrasing Shakespeare as he deals the knockout blow. We’re treated to a touching farewell scene as Thor is reassured by his newfound kinship with Cap that his friend’s honor remains intact– and Iron Man must be a dick.

Hot damn, here’s another new favorite thanks to an impulse buy at Gem City a couple weeks ago:

Strange Tales #169 (Brother Voodoo)

Let’s ponder the cover for a little while before moving to the interior pages. That’s obviously a John Romita drawing, yet done in a strange Kirbyesque fashion. Could this have been derived from an unused Kirby layout? Was Marvel trying to “Kirby up” the look of some of their covers since the King had defected to DC? Was Jazzy Johnny just feeling frisky that day? I have no idea. This just struck me as a strange piece coming from Romita.

Another detail to ponder: Strange Tales #168 was published five years prior to this issue, just before that anthology series’ features graduated to their own titles (Doctor Strange, Nick Fury). When fishing for a new title to showcase new characters in, Roy Thomas reached back to revive that title with issue #169. Imagine that kind of thinking today– not only a series devoted to generating new concepts, in a market that hasn’t seen a lasting new ongoing character since John Constantine stepped off the Gordon Sumner back in my high school days, but also that the issue number was completely an afterthought.

Brother Voodoo is the Haitian Doctor Strange, a witch doctor superhero whose loosely defined and mysterious powers are apparently the result of Thomas and writer Len Wein having just seen Live and Let Die in the theatre earlier that year. Most of the Marvel “Phase 2” characters seem to have been created by committee, the result of Thomas sitting down with a writer over lunch to discuss the “kind of character” he had in mind before the writer fleshed out the concept. As with Wolverine and the Punisher, John Romita probably designed the look of the character before passing it on to the series’ artist, Gene Colan.

Now on to our story! A doctor from the U.N. is waylaid by thugs as he arrives in Haiti, only to be rescued by the spooky protagonist. The scene demonstrates the character’s premise as he dispatches the terrified criminals; he walks through fire, and summons the spirit of his dead twin brother to possess one of his enemies. After this introduction, we’re taken by flashback to witness the character’s origin…

…as big city physician Jericho Drumm returns to his homeland of Haiti after two decades away to rush to his brother’s deathbed. Daniel Drumm was the first Houngan known as Brother Voodoo, until a hex laid on him by an enemy put him at death’s door. The man of science is skeptical at first, until the villain– a mystic called Damballah– shows up to finish the job and Drumm witnesses the magic firsthand.

Tasked by his brother’s dying words to search for a voodoo Yoda called Papa Jambo, Jericho carries his twin’s body with him into the jungle. After nearly dying on the journey, he awakes in Papa Jambo’s hut where he is told he will be trained as the next Brother Voodoo.

This comic truly rocks.
One last note: remember my point a while ago about the loss of captions and expository text, along with the trend toward “naturalistic” dialogue, dumbing down the vocabulary of new comics? Chew on the panel below which leaped out at me as I read the book and consider how you think the reading level of most material on the stands today would compare.

The Hands of Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu #19

This is a series I missed when it was first published. Having almost entirely given up on new comics, I’m finding there are plenty of gems from yesteryear that I didn’t have the allowance for or that simply didn’t make it to the shelves of the Groveport Pharmacy. Cruising the “bronze age comics” category on eBay, I expect it will be many years before I run out of books to discover for the first time. In the case of Master of Kung Fu, this was a book which was over my head when I first encountered it, being one of a number of non-superhero books with an adult slant which Marvel was launching during their “Phase 2” period in order to expand their readership (the version I briefly saw was the Moench/Zeck model). I’ve recently discovered this little gem thanks to the guest appearance of another old favorite, Man-Thing, in this issue which is Shang-Chi’s fifth appearance in a comic book.

How can issue 19 of the series be the fifth appearance of the title character, you ask? The series was originally called Special Marvel Edition, and featured (if I am not misinformed) old superhero reprint material until Master of Kung Fu debuted in issue 15; the character was a hit, and the title became The Hands of Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu with issue number 17. Imagine that! No passing up a high-numbered issue because you didn’t “get in on the ground floor”; the biggest draw to an issue on the stands was the cover and the promise of story within! If you did get an issue #1, the story was still likely continued from the anthology title the character had previously appeared in (Iron Man, Sub-Mariner, Werewolf By Night, to name a few). The numbers were totally irrelevant except for organizing a stack of your favorite books. Must have been nice. My 11th issue of the Dave Gibbons Doctor Who reprint series became “Series 2, #1”, Dark Horse’s Conan series has inexplicably reverted to a first issue even though it originally promised a continuous narrative of the character’s life, Captain America has seen at least four 1st issues in the last decade… but good luck finding (silver age) Captain America #’s 1-99, Hulk 7-100, Thor 1-82… or Master of Kung Fu 1-14. The necessity of a completist mentality didn’t come into play at all, not fostered by the demands of the audience or the marketing strategy of the publishers. How strange. How, dare I say, accessible.

Back to MOKF: Allegedly Marvel had gained the rights to Fu Manchu and related characters at the same time as securing rights for a comic series based on David Carradine’s Kung Fu TV show. Someone had the notion to meld the two concepts together, giving us Shang-Chi, who discovers one day that the father he revered is actually the greatest force for evil on Earth, so he splits from the family temple to walk the Earth helping people– like Julius from Pulp Fiction– and battling against his father’s plots. This issue opens with a couple of Fu Manchu’s assassins chasing Shang Chi into the Florida everglades, where waits a shambling, barely sentient pile of mud and moss not quite known for his kung fu skills. Our hero is already tripping before he even sees Man-Thing, thanks to an assassin’s poison his body is fighting, so the encounter goes about as badly a conceivably possible.

Luckily, there happens to be a fellow Asian philosopher traveling through the swamp– one who bears a striking resemblance to David Carradine. This stranger rescues Shang-Chi and even makes sure the Man-Thing is uninjured, before binding our protagonist’s wounds and helping him sort through the conflicting emotions he is dealing with since his peaceful philosophy has been thrown into doubt by the conflict with his father. We even get a TV show-style flashback to young Shang-Chi’s youth in the monastery, wherein we learn that artist Paul Gulacy might have encountered Steranko at some point early in his career.

(Gulacy is inked by Al Milgrom here; I was surprised to see both of these gentlemen’s careers stretch back to 1974.)
The assassins catch up to the pair, but Shang-Chi has not only rested, but also become more philosophically strengthened, which of course provides the edge here. Worse for the villains, the David Carradine look-alike points out that the bravado they display is founded in fear– always a bad thing when the Man-Thing is lurking nearby. Martial arts once again prove useless against a walking compost heap, and we’re treated to a double page spread of burning bodies (I’d better not have to explain that).

Steve Englehart wrote this, as well as just about everything else for Marvel in the 70’s, reinforcing my belief that the guy could spin gold from straw until he went horribly astray a decade later (but for Dara’s sake, we won’t go into that…). He and Shang-Chi leave us with some final philosophizing regarding the use of violence for us to chew on after we have put the book down.

I’ve had this one on deck for a while; since I want to return to the bronze age for a couple posts before starting the anniversary month theme I’ve been planning (which Dara pointed out is fast approaching), and since it’s been a pretty busy day here on the web log anyway, I’ll go ahead and wrap up my 2nd Golden Age theme.

This one might surprise someone almost as much as the earlier Cable entry. Now I’m throwing a book by one of the founders of Image Comics onto my list. Check off another sign of the end times…

The Defenders (vol. 2) #1

This series came along in 2001, marking the closing days of my personal 2nd Golden Age. It was doomed to fail from the start; being published at a time when comic readers were starting to take things far too seriously, a comic book series whose characters were portrayed in a comedic tone wasn’t going to last long when the audience was being trimmed down to a core group unable to look at the material with a nod and a wink. This series lasted twelve issues before being morphed into a new series which was dark and moody, then withered and died completely. Too bad. I’d compare this effort to the Giffen/DeMatteis/Maguire Justice League, which flourished a decade previous while everything went grim n’ gritty around it.

Hey, did Dr. Strange just say…? HELL YES!
Kurt Busiek and Erik Larsen must have had a blast with this book. It’s filled with all sorts of affectionate references to classic Marvel material delivered in an atmosphere of pure fun. The single-minded simplicity of the Hulk is mined for comedy like he’s a giant, surly Leslie Nielsen, while the Sub-Mariner acts as his straight man and foil. Doctor Strange and the Silver Surfer trade off the superior-minded role of a Charles Winchester III, viewing their teammates with exasperated contempt. Imagine the overly serious, Alex Ross-loving comic fan of today picking up a book like this and reacting in horror when his spandex clad, magic ring-bearing crime fighters aren’t taken with stone-faced seriousness. This book was like an ice-cold enema to the people who were about to ruin comics for me.

I’m not a fan of Larsen’s art; his full-length vertical panels and bizarre one point perspective make my head hurt, and no matter how many layers of depth he tries to pile onto a composition, they still seem flat to me. That said, I can appreciate his cartoony approach and his frequent attempts to evoke The King, and I’ve inferred from the little of his work that I’ve seen that his long boxes and mine might have a lot of material in common. He’s also credited as co-writer for this series, so I imagine he’s got more going for him than I know.
The story: Patsy (Hellcat) Walker accidentally helps the original Defenders villain, a wizard named Yandroth, to capture the living personification of Gaea. He uses her power to summon a gazillion classic Marvel monsters to rampage all over the globe so he can destroy the world (Why? Who cares?). Hellcat escapes the wizard and calls former teammate Kyle (Nighthawk) Richmond for help. The Avengers and FF and everyone else are all busy fighting monster outbreaks in their own backyards, so Richmond turns to the mystic he keeps in his employ for help in assembling the original Defenders to combat the source of the threat.
The four core members are pissed off at being reunited, but manage to stomp Yandroth’s plans anyway. As the wizard lay dying, he sees the quartet squabbling; realizing how much they hate each other, he curses them with his dying breath so that in times of danger they will be drawn together against their will, forever inseparable. A simple setup for the 12 issues of splendor which followed.

What tone did this series take, and how was it taken by most readers? The blurb below from the banner of a later issue says it all:

I say again, too bad. My 2nd Golden Age came to a close when this series folded.

Having argued that my 2nd Golden Age isn’t about Roy Thomas’ “rule of 12”, I’ll now present a post about… the artist I’ve been following since the fourth grade.

This one was tough to choose, for a good reason: my favorite artist was in the midst of a creative peak during these few years I‘ve labeled my personal 2nd golden age. It may be painful to see John Byrne’s work turning up in wrestling magazines today, but during this stretch of years he proved he’s still got the same touch that made his time on the FF or Superman so enjoyable. He had a stellar run on his own X-Men book, Hidden Years (chronicling the time that passed in the Marvel universe while the X-Men series had gone into reprint in the early 1970’s), and produced a near-perfect comic with his Batman/Captain America crossover. But my favorite from this time, and among my favorite of all his works, was the mini series that spun out of that crossover: Superman/Batman: Generations.

The concept behind this “Elseworlds” series was that there was no “comic time”, and the characters age naturally from the days when they were first introduced in the late 1930‘s. Superman’s alien nature and super powers make him nigh-immortal, and a later chapter shows an aged Bruce Wayne taking a dip into the Lazarus Pit, so both characters have a presence throughout the series. With them, however, we get a decades-spanning family saga that reads like Giant with superpowers. Bruce Wayne passes the mantle of Batman to Dick Grayson, who takes on Bruce Wayne jr. as his Robin, who becomes Batman when Dick Grayson is killed by the Joker, and is engaged to Kara Kent, son of Clark and Lois and sister to the tragic Joel. Through the decades we see Lex Luthor lurking in the background, plotting against both families.

Byrne adds another temporal device to the series, altering his writing and drawing style to mimic the tone of the decades he represents in each chapter, moving in ten-year segments. The title characters are both brutal vigilantes in the 1939 chapter, but soften their rough ages over the decades before growing into forms more familiar to a modern reader. The most jarring (in a good way) example is the second book, whose first chapter is set in 1959 and uses a Jimmy Olson adventure to segue into a Bat-Mite/Mr. Mxyzptlk story, then moves on to 1969 filled with topical references to Viet Nam and the murder of Batman II.

The 1979/1989 issue is the one that is set during the time Byrne himself was a major player at Marvel and DC, so on some level it reads like a regular John Byrne comic. This is the issue where all the plot threads come together and it’s all kinds of awesome, so I’m focusing on this one anyway.
Superman/Batman: Generations #3
The wedding of the century is about to go on, but nobody knows about it since everyone involved has secret identities. Batman III and Supergirl (Bruce Wayne jr. and Kara Kent) are set to get hitched just as soon as they get back from fighting Brainiac in deep space. The father of the groom is missing the ceremony because, unbeknownst to everyone else, he’s been captured by Ra’s Al Ghul (another device used in the story is that characters are introduced during the time period they originally appeared in, so Bruce Wayne is already an old guy when he meets Ra’s), but reformed smoker Lois Lane has battled her cancer long and hard enough to have lived to be present at the ceremony. Unfortunately, there are a couple wedding crashers as well.
Earlier chapters showed Lois Lane being exposed to gold Kryptonite by Lex Luthor and the Joker, causing her unborn son to be stripped of any powers he may have inherited from his father. Later, their daughter Kara is born very much her father’s daughter, not as super-powered but with strengths characterized as “half of infinity is still infinity.” Their son Joel is kept in the dark about Dad’s night job and sis’ talents, but Luthor comes to him when the boy is ten years old and exposes the family secrets, having deduced Clark’s identity himself long ago. Joel becomes driven over the edge trying to compensate for his perceived weaknesses and the assumed betrayal of his family; he enlists during the Viet Nam war, leads his unit to slaughter a village of civilians, and is presumed dead when his men turn on him to stop his brutality.
So it is that the wedding is interrupted by a familiar green-and-purple armored figure who starts blowing everyone to kingdom come, exposing the true nature of the Kent family. With Clark incapacitated by a dose of Kryptonite radiation, Kara takes off after the figure as it flies away, only to discover it is her brother; rescued by a villager who took him in when he was left for dead, further brainwashed and newly empowered by Luthor, he has returned for revenge against his family. And gets it.

But there’s a catch: the serum Luthor provided Joel to give him powers kills him by the end of the day; add to that Luthor, disguised all along as the Kent’s doctor, snaps Lois’ neck as the helpless Clark watches, and Luthor has managed to kill Superman’s entire family in a single day… save for an infant presented to Clark and Bruce jr., Joel’s son born by the villager who rescued him; the child would be raised by Wayne and assume the role of Nightwing in twenty years’ time.

The next chapter skips ahead to 1989, where our heroes have become all grim n’ gritty. Batman III sports an armor that looks like something Image comics might have published, while Superman has been cornered into murdering Luthor, his crime telecast around the globe as it happened, thus making him a wanted fugitive. Batman breaks into the underground vault where President Hal Jordan keeps a sample of kryptonite stored in the event Kal-el ever goes rogue and races to confront him at the fortress of solitude, where after a struggle he discovers Luthor’s final revenge: having been exposed to gold kryptonite during the final meeting with Luthor (now revealed to be an even older villain called the Ultra-Humanite), Superman is now a powerless mortal. Supes agrees to stand trial for his crime, but his human condition and well-earned enmity of criminals worldwide makes putting him in with a general prison population impossible. He volunteers to accept an alternative punishment, and the issue closes with him consigned to the Phantom Zone for a ten-year sentence. The next issue’s concluding chapters pick up in 1999, followed by a flashback to 1929 where we see the two patriarchs meet as teenagers.

This series was followed by two equally excellent others: Generations 2, whose primary purpose is to flesh out the other characters populating this alternate universe, and Generations 3, which stretches the timeline far into the future in a war against Darkseid. All three are some of the best material Byrne has produced in his career

Mark Waid is one of only a handful of contemporary comic writers who gets how superhero comics should be written. He manages to write stories that provide insights into a character’s persona without losing the sense of reverence and awe that should surround these heroic figures. My favorite of his works will probably always be the “Return of Barry Allen” story from Flash, but a very close second is his run on Captain America with Ron Garney and Andy Kubert.

Waid is very good at providing cliffhanger moments throughout this series; instances where the story pauses long enough for the reader to think “sweet bejezus, how are they going to get out of that?” before turning the page to see the hero step in front of a runaway train and somehow save the day despite impossible odds. Properly done, that kind of storytelling should be what drives a regular superhero comic; excitement, inspiration, idealism, and all those other charmingly naïve emotions. That’s what I took away from Waid’s Captain America.

When writing the “Desert Island Comics” list many moons ago, I cited an issue of Flash in which Wally West throws himself out of an airplane to try to rescue an innocent bystander as an iconic moment capturing the spirit these books are supposed to convey; I neglected to mention that book has a cousin:

Captain America (vol. 3) #22.

A “sonic cancer” is sweeping the globe, a sound wave which is causing the molecules in the super-metal called vibranium to become misaligned. An early casualty is Cap’s own shield, which has been shattered into pieces. For months, Cap went through a series of replicas and substitutes (see those Avengers panels scanned a couple posts below) before Tony Stark identified the problem and delivered some dire news: the sound wave is heading for the vibranium mounds of Wakanda, and will destroy a hefty chunk of planet Earth when it hits. Stark offers a solution, a device that will alter the pitch of the sound wave, rendering it harmless– but destroying the remnants of cap’s old shield in the process.

Like a good soldier, Cap flies to Wakanda, ready to sacrifice his most cherished possession for the good of the world. But he is met there by Klaw, longtime nemesis of the Black Panther and evil master of sound, who seeks to take advantage of the sonic wave to bolster his own power. The villain destroys Tony Stark’s device and soaks up the power of the sound wave, amplifying his own formidable power a thousand fold, then flies toward the vibranium mounds to destroy the metal which is his own sole weakness. All that stands between him, absolute power, and the destruction of countless lives is one man holding pieces of a shield bound together by duct tape. Sweet bejezus…
I’ll let the following panels speak for themselves:

The Bogarts had just been through a very, very bad time when I first read this; it blew me away when I first read it, and it still gets me today. (If that strikes anyone as cloying and sentimental, I’ll remind you we’re gathered at this weblog because we dig superhero comics. ‘Nuff said.) This is the feeling that every writer who tries to pen a superhero book should be aiming for. Contemporary writers have mistaken the tearing down of that sense of wonder and awe for “realism”, when instead it was always the metaphor of real-life struggles and conflicts these characters embodied that came closer to reality.* Mark Waid gets that, and gave us a big helping here.

Get this: I was enjoying the comics of the late 1990’s so much, I’ll even list as one of my favorites a second generation X-Men spinoff featuring a character created by Rob Liefeld!

Cable #67

I came into this series rather late, for obvious reasons. The title character was a central figure in the worst books of the early part of the decade, and was a product of the doodlings of one of the hot superstar artists who made things so unbearable in our corner of the world for several years. Not being familiar with much X-Men related comics since before Romita jr. was drawing them, I’ve inferred that the backstory which dragged along behind this guy was one of the more convoluted elements of the mutant universe.

That said, writer Joe Casey made it easy, distilling the basics of the character for someone just coming in. Cable’s from a ruined future world, having traveled back to change history for the better (to this day, that‘s all I know, or need to know, about the character). Arch-villain Apocalypse is the main bad guy who is gearing up for some big nastiness at the coming turn of the millennium, and he’s sent an unstoppable brute to start wiping out the humans as the first stage of his plan. The population of Manhattan has taken refuge in underground shelters while Cable and a few plucky guest stars make a desperate stand against their enemy.

This series is all kinds of old-school Marvel cosmic, which is what initially drew me to try a couple issues. Ancient threats, a sense of discovery, and heroes uttering their lines with as much drama as could be mustered. Great stuff. Mark Millar gives us the Avengers sitting around playing the fan-men game of imagining who might play them in a movie; this book has them battling a foe who is so badass that it finds its way back from another dimension where it had been zapped by Thor in just a handful of pages. Which do you want to read?

Jose Ladronn provides the pencils, which look like a beautiful collision between Jack Kirby and Moebius. I really dig what he does here; it perfectly complements the tone and scope of the story. Even Apocalypse looks cool here in his Aztec getup, rather than his usual look that never did anything for me (if Walt designed the original look, I apologize.)

Either this team had a relatively short stint on this title, or I came in near the end; either way, I wish I’d seen a lot more of Casey & Ladronn on this series, but I did get a handful of really cool issues.

Shortly after the speculator bubble burst in the 1990’s and the Ponzi scheme known as comic collecting had been dealt a brutal blow, I was speaking with a friend whose father owned stock in Marvel (the guy was a comic collector since his own childhood– I could show you a shed full of old comics you’d love to spend a few hours in) about the state of the industry. He made a remark that rang true to me: for all the talk about the terrible shape Marvel and DC were in, the books they were putting out at the time were as good as they had ever been. Tony wanted some examples of my “second golden age” of comic collecting, so I’ll add to Matt’s impressive list (ooh– I’d forgotten about Orion. The best non-Kirby Kirby book ever!) with a few weeks of the WBM dwelling in more recent history.

Avengers (vol. 3) #7

The Busiek/Perez Avengers stands right up there with the Thomas/Buscema or Stern/Buscema days in my mind. This issue is the concluding chapter of the four-part “Live Kree or Die” story that wound it’s way through several Avengers-related titles. The strangest thing about this crossover event is that each issue was a self-contained story! Any chapter can be enjoyed as a complete read without having to chase after other titles you might not normally pick up; take that, Grant Morrison. This issue is also wonderfully compressed, giving us a story that would have been spread over four to six issues and cost up to $18 today. I write as if those things were remarkable; back in 1998, that wasn’t the case. These days were the last gasp of accessible, story-driven all-ages books that set the bar for quality pretty high.

The first part of the book deals with the court-martial of Carol Danvers, the once-and-future Ms. Marvel then known as Warbird. She had developed a problem with alcohol that endangered her fellow Avengers on a couple missions, so the team had to drop everything to stage a drumhead trial to determine her fitness to continue with the group. Writer Kurt Busiek uses the trial setting as a device to supply the reader with all the context needed to catch up on the plot and enjoy the story, something which was once taken for granted in just about any comic.

The trial is interrupted by a signal from the moon; a group of Kree fanatics have assembled a weapon that, when aimed at Earth, will alter the genetic structure of any humans that survive its activation, turning them into genetic duplicates of the Kree and making them susceptible to the mind control of the Intelligence Supreme. The Avengers scramble for the Earth-like atmosphere of the moon’s Blue Area, leaving an embittered Warbird behind. She attempts to fly to the moon under her own power in order to prove her worth to her teammates– and fails spectacularly.

The big battle scene follows! A Bendis Avengers story would stretch the scene over three issues in an effort to rob his readers of their comic buying dollars while delivering much posturing and little story; Busiek confines this most satisfactory climax to the back half of this single issue, and it’s all the more enjoyable for it. Reading these scenes, I was reminded of the awful pinup fight scenes in Secret Invasion, wherein the totally forgettable artist haphazardly crammed a jumble of figures into repeated double page spreads with no regard for backgrounds or storytelling. George Perez, on the other hand, is the master of delivering a host of characters and action while still maintaining a sense of order and context in every panel. This stuff is beautiful as always.

Another great thing about the Busiek/Perez run was it’s longevity; these guys gave us close to forty issues on the series. That’s a lot better than a creative team that cranks out a couple tpb’s worth of issues and then wanders off, calling that two-or-three story contribution (likely never referred to again by the series of unrelated teams to follow) a “run” on the series.

The Bozz Chronicles #2

I may have mentioned before: there was a brief spell when at about the age of 14 I decided to become a serious young man and gave up collecting comics. It was only a year or so later that I wandered back into Groveport’s newly opened, hole-in-the-wall comic shop, but I credit a handful of titles for sucking me back into the joyful habit of reading these four-color funny books: Flaming Carrot, Simonson & Buscema’s Thor, and The Bozz Chronicles by David Michelinie and Bret Blevins.

Bozz was a product of Marvel’s mid-1980’s Epic Comics line. This was one of those everything-but-the-kitchen-sink kind of series’, featuring a Victorian England filled with aliens, demons, and time travelers– like a Sherlock Holmes detective story with Doctor Who monster weirdness and a Wild Wild West-style steampunk sensibility (others may be familiar with these concepts when they were done by Waid and Guice under the name Ruse). How influential was this series on my own creations? Well, my first ever, best-left-forgotten self published series was an old west tale with a gambler, an Indian sorcerer, and a tough barmaid battling aliens and time travelers, and the character dynamics of this series even peek through the panels of The Ineffables.

Here’s the setup: a prostitute named Amanda Flynn stumbles across a bipolar alien known only as Bozz who is stranded on our planet. Recognizing the usefulness of his keen intellect and space borne powers as a means of keeping herself off the streets, she establishes the detective agency of “Boswell and Flynn” in order to keep his mind engaged with interesting puzzles so he doesn’t descend into depression and kill himself. Along the way they pick up Salem Hawkshaw, a salty American barroom brawler who hangs around in case they need any heads busted. Six great issues of bizarre retro-futuristic adventures followed before the series was cancelled because I was apparently the only person reading it.

In this issue, Bozz & Flynn are engaged to investigate a series of demon sightings plaguing an area of London. The case revolves around two brothers born into wealth, one of whom has been disinherited for leaving his family to make his own way in life (in an occult bookstore, no less). The wealthy brother feels he has wasted his life in indolence, so when his prodigal sibling returns with an occult artifact, he begins experimenting with it as a means to make something of himself. The artifact was actually a trap from the other brother who wished to get his rightful share of the family fortune; it causes the spells the user experiments with to backfire with gruesome results.

Physical deformities and demonic manifestations still fall short of killing someone to get their estate, so when the detectives expose the situation, the scheming brother steps in to close the deal personally, only to have Bozz’s array of bizarre alien powers block his efforts. The villain kills himself in the final confrontation, leaving Bozz to make the sort of moral observation that only the objective outsider in this sort of story is able to do.

Reading these issues after literally decades, I hadn’t realized just how much I took away from them. Credit where credit’s due, this series is as big a personal influence for me as anything Lee and Kirby did.

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