Welcome to the weblog of the writers and artists of Ferret Press (a publisher of fine comix) and PANEL (a Columbus, Ohio comic creators collaborative.) Here you will find our musings on comics, art, the creative process, politics, the web, and life.

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Monday, January 04, 2010
 
  Posted by Craig on 1/04/2010 02:35:00 PM :

       Way Back Machine

I feel a Ditko fixation coming on, so it's time to start looking up some of those old Charlton Watchmen templates and oddball series' he made for DC in the late 60's and 70's. Of course, I've read most of his work at the House of Ideas from the 60's and from his return to Marvel in the early 80's, but that decade he spent bouncing around the other publishers is as much a mystery to me as, well, Steve Ditko is to anybody. This is the sort of thing that makes swearing off new books to go live in Back Issue Land so damn rewarding.

Like Kirby, Ditko is a genius who can crank out an endless series of bizarre and captivating concepts coupled with arresting visuals-- then demonstrate just how crucial Stan Lee was to the creative mix at Marvel by producing a series that is brilliant but remarkably short lived. As Spider-Man is more about Peter Parker than superheroics, both these artists needed Stan to put a human heart at the center of their cosmic vision. Seperately they each turned out numerous great concepts of which all but a couple of Jack's died within a handful of issues. For us Ditko fans that means we'd better enjoy the hell out of those eight issues of Shade the Changing Man, as well as the six issues of the series which brings me here today...


Beware The Creeper #1

I'll have to revise my list of favorite comic book covers, because I'll be damned if this one doesn't crack the top ten. The visual presence of the title character is a treat, as well; the artist who gave us the best superhero costume design ever with Spider-Man pulls off another visual gem with only yellow skin and a pair of red Hanes briefs. Lord knows I'd hate to see that coming after me in a dark alley. If there's a flaw to be found on the cover, it's with the question posed by the copy: "Where Lurks The Menace?" I've read the book and I still don't know, because the bad guy inside is called The Terror. Steve may have got the greater creative freedom he craved at DC, buy maybe he still should have called his editor once in a while.


The story is a very densely written murder mystery plotted by Ditko and scripted by a "Sergius O'Shaughnessy", which the internet tells me was a pen name for Denny O'Neil. There are plenty of characters zipping in and out of the panels as possible suspects and as many names to keep track of as in a Miss Marple mystery, but who cares? It's the Creeper bounding through a gaggle of thugs we want to see, and we get plenty of that, too.


Ace TV reporter Jack Ryder is as involved with the case as his cackling alter ego, which may be the only problem I have with the book. The guy is a square jawed bareknuckle brawler himself, leaving me to wonder why he didn't have his own series even before the Creeper came along (the character's origin is only briefly alluded to here, having been covered in a single issue of Showcase before moving on to his own first issue). The secret identity is supposed to be the reader's gateway into the fantastic world inhabited by the costumed persona, but Jack Ryder seems just as idealized and distant as his alter ego.


Nevertheless, this comic rocks. Those six issues will go by too quickly, but I have my sights on Ditko's Etrigan the Demon back up series in Detective next...

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Monday, November 30, 2009
 
  Posted by Craig on 11/30/2009 10:53:00 PM :

       Way Back Machine

Micronauts #7, sort of...

Today I learned that you can go home again.

I would have been eight years old when I first saw the ad pictured above. I didn't know Michael Golden by name, nor his inker Neal Adams, but the cover pictured here knocked my socks off (and even the copy on the ad rocks). There's only one test for an effective comic book cover, and that's if it makes you want to read the story inside; this one made a gigantic impression on young Craig. I had only picked up the first couple issues of Micronauts, and I was not yet the Man-Thing fan I would become about a decade hence, but the sheer coolness of this cover art filled me with nothing less than a burning desire to read this comic, it just looked so friggin' awesome.

Marvel Comics was even kind enough to provide the date the issue was going to go on sale-- right there near the bottom of the page, it says April 10th. I had a couple weeks to wait, but I marked my calendar and endured the days of anticipation that followed. While I looked ahead to that day, my older brother said something odd: "They probably won't have it", he told me. What a cruel thing to say to an eight year old who had been promised such a treasure. I don't know what prompted him to tell me that. He had no special insight into Marvel's network of distributors, the comic book ordering practices of the Groveport Pharmacy, or the demand that might await the copies of the magazine in question when it was removed from the bundle of new comics. Nevertheless, his pronouncement gnawed at the back of my mind even while the approaching date stoked the fires of my excitement at the thought of getting my hands on this beautiful, beautiful book.

Sure enough, I showed up at the store early on the appointed day and there was no Micronauts #7 to be found. I'm sure I found something to take home in its place, but the fact of my writing this passage three decades on illustrates the depth of the disappointment which filled my young heart. In 1979 there were no comic stores with back issue bins to be found, no conventions in the small burgs here in flyover country. A missed comic was lost to time, a dim memory of promise unfulfilled. At least that's how it felt.

Years later I would occasionally find this ad in an old comic I was reading, making note of it with more than a little interest. I never actually got around to tracking down that particular issue, though it was always in the back of my mind that I had to one day. Recently while browsing eBay for something to spend a buck or two on, I came across a listing for this very book from Mile High Comics and decided to take the plunge. I would grant that saddened eight year old kneeling at the magazine rack his wish, albeit many years late, to finally hold that comic in his hands.

Of course, the intervening years bring a more jaded sensibility even to the most idealistic of fools. I knew when I placed my order that the renewed feeling of anticipation I felt would far surpass the actual payoff of reading the book. Built up in my mind as such a milestone in my earliest years as a comic reader, the actual comic was bound to fail to live up to the excitement I felt rippling through time. I only hoped it made for an enjoyable enough diversion when it arrived.

Today I came home after picking up my daughter from preschool and found the package from MHC waiting inside the door for me. More than a little delighted, I tore it open and pulled out the books inside. There was part three of the first JLA/JSA crossover I ever read, there was the first issue of Night Force... and there was a note from Mile High Comics, printed on a dot matrix printer, telling me they did not have Micronauts #7 in stock. For just a moment I thought I heard my brother laughing.

Nostalgia distorts memory, adding a rosy glow or exaggerated significance to all manner of experiences. Nevertheless, I'm remembering April 10th, 1979 with a powerful clarity on this day which so perfectly evokes the memory of not getting the same book as a child. Maybe I'll try again when I'm 68.

(It's worth noting that MHC gave me a refund and an additional credit for my troubles, so I could pick up another handful of books for the same price. I'll hardly complain about the service itself... though a quick peek on eBay shows they returned Micronauts #7 to their active listings the very same day.)

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Sunday, November 01, 2009
 
  Posted by Craig on 11/01/2009 04:22:00 PM :

       Way Back Machine

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.

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Wednesday, October 14, 2009
 
  Posted by Craig on 10/14/2009 05:22:00 PM :

       Way Back Machine

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.

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Tuesday, October 06, 2009
 
  Posted by Craig on 10/06/2009 10:09:00 AM :

       Way Back Machine

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."

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Sunday, September 13, 2009
 
  Posted by Craig on 9/13/2009 12:37:00 PM :

       Way Back Machine

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.

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Monday, August 17, 2009
 
  Posted by Craig on 8/17/2009 09:35:00 PM :

       Way Back Machine

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.

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009
 
  Posted by Craig on 6/17/2009 12:39:00 AM :

       Way Back Machine

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.

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Sunday, May 10, 2009
 
  Posted by Craig on 5/10/2009 10:49:00 PM :

       Way Back Machine

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.










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Thursday, April 30, 2009
 
  Posted by Craig on 4/30/2009 03:31:00 PM :

       Way Back Machine

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.

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