Friday, 30 April 2010

Mighty World of Marvel #10. How green was my comic book?

Mighty World of Marvel #10There was a time when street lamps could fire laser beams, buses could double up as submarines and the Fantastic Four lived in an alternate world which could be reached by knocking down the back of my nan's closet with a sledge hammer if she'd only let me.

That time was 1972, and I believed all those things to be true because I was eight.

It was also the time when I first started reading American Comics.

I first started reading them in the summer of that year. In fact, I'd read one issue of The Amazing Spider-Man before then but summer 1972 was when American comics became a regular part of my life rather than a rarely glimpsed piece of exotica.

Clearly this was how fate designed it, as, within weeks of this, The Mighty World of Marvel started up and I, thanks to its reprints, could suddenly catch up on the early adventures of my favourite heroes, each and every week.

Sadly, those issues all eventually found their way into the dustbin but, by chance, I recently came into possession of issue #10 of said comic. Yet again it must be fate because (apart from issue #4) issue 10 happens to be the early issue I remember most strongly.

Mighty World of Marvel #10, Spider-Man vs Sandman
It's certainly something to be reacquainted with. The first thing that strikes me, apart from the non-glossy cover, is the lack of staples. The things were put together so cheaply that even this was presumably seen as an unnecessary extravagance. The second thing you can't miss is the green. Page after page after page is rendered in the hue.

Clearly it was done to compensate for the lack of full colour - something a British editing team would never have felt necessary, as British readers didn't expect comics to be in full colour. Looking at it now, the green's terrible, degrading artwork that'd already been damaged by the seemingly random addition of zip-a-tone at every possible opportunity. Still, kids see things differently and I seem to remember feeling it all seemed rather exciting and special at the time..

But this is all packaging. What about the actual content?

Well, this issue, we get three tales, kicking off with a truly odd one wherein the Incredible Hulk decides to take on the hordes of would-be-Genghis-Khan General Fang, by disguising himself as the Abominable Snowman for no good reason. This is from the era when Stan Lee'd decided the Hulk should talk like a cross between the Thing and Al Capone and spend as much time threatening Rick Jones as he did the bad guys. Frankly, with its clichéd enemy and unsympathetic "hero" you can see why the Hulk lost his own comic after just six issues. The big mystery at this stage must've been how he ever got it back again. Fortunately, more impressive days were ahead for Jade Jaws.

Next we get part of Spider-Man's first battle with the Sandman, whose artwork suffers more than the other stories under the twin assaults of zip-a-tone and green.

Finally, we get the mid-section of the Fantastic Four's first battle with Dr Doom, in which they go back in time to retrieve Blackbeard's treasure, only to learn the Thing was in fact Blackbeard. It's clearly the best of the tales we're presented with here and, thanks to Jack Kirby's relatively simple artwork, suffers the least badly from the greenification of its world.

But the comic, overall, is an odd thing. The lack of staples and the fact the cover doesn't even get the name of the Hulk's foe right (it claims he's up against Tyrannus) suggests it was knocked together with little love. Then again, it has a cover specially drawn by industry great Jim Starlin. Then again, it looks like he bashed it out on the bus on the way to work. Then again, it does have a maze, part of a poster, a pin-up and a letters page so, at least there, more effort was put in than strictly needed. Tony Isabella in this article gives an insight into how the UK comics were put together and leaves us in no doubt that Marvel weren't exactly pulling out all the stops in their production.

But, in the end, despite the implied lack of respect for the British readership (you couldn't see Marvel cutting such corners for a US audience) production flaws don't matter. The comics weren't designed to be read by men in their mid-forties. They were meant to be read by eight year olds, and you can't get round the fact that, for a kid in the early 1970s, there were two things in life that made the wait for each weekend a long and torturous thing. One was the wait for the latest adventure of Dr Who and the second was the wait for the arrival in your newsagents of the latest issue of The Mighty World of Marvel.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Weird Mystery Tales #17. "A catchphrase, kid. You gotta have a catchphrase."

Weird Mystery Tales #17, a butler enters a hallway to encounter his employer who has been turned into a crocodile or alligator in clothing

A life lived in the light is rarely free of shadows and thus we once more delve into the haunts of darkness and torment with yet another DC horror title. This time it's one of their less celebrated mags, having lasted a mere twenty four issues. I suspect there was a limit to how many noticeably similar comics the market could bear and Weird Mystery Tales seems to have been the one that found that limit.

I couldn't claim to have an intimate knowledge of Weird Mystery Tales, what with only ever having had two issues but, from those two issues, it seems a little lighter than the likes of House of Secrets, Ghosts and House of Mystery. Perhaps a little quirkier but also a little less focused.

Weird Mystery Tales #17, alchemist get his come-uppance

First up is the tale of a man who runs a pharmacy by day and an alchemists' by night. When a man from The Board comes round to inspect his shop and deems it unacceptable, our villain decides to kill him, only to get his comeuppance in a pleasingly twisted manner.

Weird Mystery Tales #17

Next, a hitman makes the mistake of being nasty to Satanists and is subsequently doomed to keep dying over and over again. As you can guess from that, it's a standard story but drawn by ER Cruz whose artwork always seemed to be in some way rotting on the page in front of you and was thus perfect for such tales. Regular readers of horror mags won't need help to guess the true identity of the mysterious surgeon who finally removes his mask at the denouement. All I'll say is, with the number of horror stories that climaxed with this particular character revealing his true identity, it's a miracle he ever had time for his more "regal" duties.

Weird Mystery Tales #17, human cannonball

Last up's the tale of a stunt man who, told by a fortune teller that he'll only die by hanging, is convinced he can't die unless he commits murder. Needless to say, this being a horror mag, within mere pages, he gets a bit of a shock.

The truth is there's nothing outstanding about the issue, the twists are obvious and, as it uses just Ruben Yandoc and ER Cruz, it's visually indistinguishable from all the other DC horror mags of the time. Its use of a witch as narrator draws to mind DC's own Witching Hour and, unlike that comic, it doesn't benefit from the availability of a catchphrase to end each tale with and thus create a brand for itself. All of this means it's hard for Weird Mystery Tales to justify its existence but, maybe I'm perverse or maybe I just like a plucky underdog but there's something about it I like.

Actually, the real highlight of the issue for me is the long running ad for 132 Roman soldiers for $2.25. Like the Sea Monkeys ad, the thing seemed to run for years and years and years, ignoring inflation with all the determination of the Roman Army itself. Not only do you get four generals (mounted) you also get for four buglers, meaning they could form their own swing band. I wonder what'd happen if I sent off for them? I wonder what'd happen if I left them too close to the fire? I wonder what'd happen if I strayed too close with my vacuum cleaner?

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Atlas Comics, Phoenix #1.

Atlas Comics, Phoenix #1 If those who learn nothing from the failures of history are doomed to repeat them, it seems those who learn nothing from its triumphs are likewise doomed.

All of which brings us back to Atlas Comics and, here, to the Phoenix who's the opposite of the company that spawned him, having started off effectively dead before coming back to life with great power, as opposed to Atlas Comics who started with great power and then promptly dropped dead.

If the long-standing allegation's true and Atlas' heroes were all knock-offs of previous characters then I suppose the Phoenix is Iron Man with a dash of Captain Marvel thrown in. Astronaut Ed Tyler crashes in the Arctic Circle where he's rescued by a bunch of aliens who want to kill him and then destroy the Earth, which sort of makes you wonder why they bothered to rescue him.

Needless to say our hero won't stand for that, steals one of their suits - that fits him like a glove despite being designed for creatures two foot taller than him - steals some of their atomic transistors, to give him super-powers and, in the process of saving a weirdly Americanised Reykjavik from them, destroys both them and their base in a humongous nuclear explosion the likes of which the world has never seen before.

Atlas Comics, Phoenix #1
Sadly, being destroyed in a humongous nuclear explosion the likes of which the world has never seen before seems to have done neither the aliens nor their base any harm at all and, only two pages later, they're plotting their next round of attacks on our hero before their planned destruction of Earth.

Why they don't just destroy the Earth and cut out the, "Getting revenge on the Phoenix," bit is anyone's guess but one can only assume that having superior intellect doesn't actually equate to being all that bright.

You can't get away from the fact that writer Jeff Rovin seems to be making his dialogue and captions up as he goes along, as the motives and personalities of the aliens change from panel to panel and page to page. One moment they're there only to observe, the next they're there to destroy the Earth. One moment, they're concerned about Ed Tyler's welfare and whether they have the right to leave an intelligent being to die, the next they're declaring that human beings are mere animals to be wiped out at will. One moment an alien's threatening to kill Tyler if he doesn't do what he's told. The next Tyler's thanking him for all he's done for him. One moment an alien's called Daelin, the next he's called Nerei.

Atlas Comics, Phoenix #1, aliens
Despite all this, I have a soft spot for the Phoenix. I mean, it was never actually any good and, with issue#4, went completely down the toilet as Atlas tried to turn him into a more conventional hero but, as he was when first created, he had some sort of potential.

If you want to understand the genius of Stan Lee it's laid stark here for all to see because 1960s' Marvel would've seen him destroy the aliens, or have them flee saying, "With protectors like this, there is no way we can ever conquer this world. We must leave and never return," leaving Phoenix to get on with the task of returning to New York to develop a supporting cast and fight quirky super-villains in need of a punch up the bracket.

Atlas Comics, Phoenix #1, escape
Instead, we got a series of stories based around his battles with the same alien race and a total lack of supporting cast, meaning he could never develop as a character rather than just being a man in a funny suit.

In this issue, Tyler has a wife - who we see - but decides he can't have anything to do with her in case the aliens use her against him. So, immediately, the twin concepts of novelty and a supporting cast are thrown out the window, meaning, despite setting out to replicate publisher Martin Goodman's success with Marvel, Atlas actually managed to do exactly the opposite of what Marvel had done in the Silver Age and fell flat on their face as a result.

PS. I have to love the idea of the super-advanced aliens' technology being powered by transistors. In this high-tech age, it now seems ludicrously quaint but, in my opinion, when it comes to comics, quaint is good.

Atlas Comics, Phoenix #1, Reykjavik

Because good manners cost nothing but are worth at least as much as potatoes

A quick thank you to Ol' Groove of Diversions of the Groovy Kind fame for his plug for my blog. Coming from the ever-hip Groovester, it's like getting a commendation from the great Stan Lee himself.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Superman in DC-18 100 page Super Spectacular

Superman 100 page super spectacular, cover
If the past was a different country, then DC's 100 page comics would often transport us to a whole Whicker's World of foreignness. Many had the good manners to include a new story or two to return us to familiar haunts but some gave us nothing but reprints and, in that realm did we learn of lands most strange.

The obliquely titled DC-18 was a perfect example. It was otherwise known as DC 100 Page Super Spectacular Presents Superman but see how far you get trying to find it under that title on the Grand Comics Database, and it gave us a whole bunch of old tales to chew over.

First up it's the 1940s and Superman helps the war effort by smashing Hitler, Hirohito and all forces between to restore peace to the world.

Well, no, he doesn't. He does it by hanging around a military training camp for a few days and doing everyone's work for them. I can't help feeling he was missing the big picture here.

Superman 100 page super spectacular, the Golden Age Atom and his telescope
Yes. "Accidentally."
Next up, a deliriously silly tale featuring the Golden Age Atom who, somewhat disappointingly, doesn't have the power to shrink, leading to the question of just why he's called the Atom. He's also lumbered with the name of A Pratt in his civilian identity, which, in retrospect, may not've been the greatest naming decision in the history of comic books. Happily he has some sort of magic telescope because through it he sees an old woman being shot and stabbed. He calls his girlfriend who rushes round. She looks through the telescope - which is pointed straight up into the air - and also sees the woman being shot and stabbed, which, by my reckoning, makes this the longest-lasting shooting and stabbing in history. Anyway, it all turns out the woman was murdered by her identical twin brother who then took her place. It all makes perfect sense to me.

Superman 100 page super spectacular, the Silver Age Atom and Dr Light
Or you could just squash him.

Now we get the real, I mean the Silver Age, Atom, drawn by Gil Kane and Murphy Anderson. Kane's artwork here's noticeably more conventional than some of us are used to. I don't think we get a single shot up a single person's nose. Somehow I feel cheated. Basically, Dr Light's escaped from prison by using a light bulb to open a doorway to another dimension. The Atom uses the same technology to follow him and is then put in a light bulb designed to disintegrate him to death in a mere five hours. Those super-villains, they can never do things the simple way, can they?

Next we get a story in which Superman discovers that something he did on his last day in Smallville will cause a soon-to-be released prisoner to get his hands on a million dollars. The main interest of this tale is we discover the people of Smallville are complete cretins. Superboy leaves Smallville to go to Metropolis on the same day Clark Kent - who looks exactly like him - leaves Smallville to go to Metropolis and still they don't figure it out. We also learn that, without Superboy, Smallville would've been completely third world, devoid of prisons, roads or even street lighting. What a local authority that town must've had.

Superman 100 page super spectacular, TNT Dan and Dyna-Mite, have the Social Services been informed?
TNT knows how to treat a child.
Then we delve into the worlds of insanity as we're introduced to TNT and Dan the Dyna-Mite. Like Batman and Robin, they're a grown man and a boy who have adventures together. Unlike Batman and Robin, every time they touch anything it explodes. Highlight of the tale has to be them touching each other to make each other's clothes fly off. Here, they deal with an evil clown who kills a man dressed as a deep sea diver. Why he's dressed as a deep sea diver is anyone's guess. Why the social services haven't had a word with TNT about his constantly putting a child in danger is an even bigger one.

Next up, a hopeless drug addict, I mean Hour Man, comes up against a mad scientist and his terrifying Gombezi, a cross between dogs and buzzards. It has to be said that, for a terrifying cross between dogs and buzzards, the Gombezi are remarkably docile, putting up no resistance at all while they're captured by a bunch of children with butterfly nets. Hour Man, who has to keep popping pills to maintain his powers, is surprisingly badly dressed, wearing a costume that brings to mind Daredevil's in Bill Bixby's Trial of the Hulk TV show. Oh well, when you're a drug addict, I suppose such things are only to be expected

No danger of drug addiction for our next hero as we get the most square-jawed adventurer of them all, Captain Triumph, dealing with some fraudsters who've sold his friend a dodgy goldmine that turns out to be the real deal

Superman 100 page super spectacular, Superman Red and Superman Blue get engaged to Lois Lane and Lana Lang. It's Lori Lemaris I feel sorry for. She'll probably have to settle for Krypto the Superdog.
Feminism, comic book style.
But of course, the big story of the issue is the epic tale of Superman Red and Superman Blue, a tale so legendary it clearly inspired a Russell T Davies Doctor Who episode. Here, a Kryptonite accident splits Superman into two beings - both genii - who promptly solve all the world's problems with a mix of Orwellian mind control and a whole bucketful of dodgy science. At the end of tale, we're left to ponder whether the two Supermen are happy with the way their lives have turned out. I certainly was. The whole thing's lunatic, displaying no grasp of logic, science, morality or even basic human emotion but you can't help loving it.

And so our journey to foreign lands comes to an end.

And what can we conclude from it?

That the past was indeed a strange and alien realm -- but also one blessed with a sense of fun and a lack self-consciousness that, however crude and unsophisticated, might, if one lets it, sweep us along for an hour or so with its tide of madness.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Marvel Presents #4. The Guardians of the Galaxy.

Marvel Presents the Guardians of the Galaxy #4
I first came across the Guardians of the Galaxy in Marvel UK's Planet of the Apes comic which reprinted their début outing.

I wasn't impressed.

For a start, they looked bad. And, for another thing, so did their enemies.

Their enemies were an alien race called the Badoon who, in some far-flung future, had conquered the Earth and its colonies. As far as I was concerned, if the Marvel Universe needed another race of aliens, it wasn't the Badoon. Obviously someone had got the word "baboon" and changed its first syllable to "bad" to let us know they were, well, bad.

Leaving aside the fact they were clearly reptilian and therefore not baboons, the trouble was they weren't only bad they were rubbish. "We shall overcome," sang the Guardians at the end of that tale. If it was reader apathy they were hoping to overcome, frankly, I didn't fancy their chances.

But, in Comicbookland there's rarely life without hope and they were brought back by Steve Gerber who slotted them into The Defenders comic and brought the whole Badoon saga to a welcome end. Needless to say, with Gerber in charge they were a much more interesting proposition. Like the Defenders, they were a bunch of misfits - in this case, having to hang out together because they were unable to fit into a post-war society. They also acquired two new members; Starhawk and, in this issue, a young female Mercurian called Nikki.

Frankly, to my eyes, Starhawk was a bit of a stiff. He was a man of mystery and,  aside from coming across as irredeemably pompous, men of mystery rarely sustain interest for more than five minutes. On top of that, he kept turning into a woman of mystery. Just what we needed, two persons of mystery on one starship.

Nikki was much better. Just as the addition of Valkyrie to the Defenders brought an extra dimension to an otherwise all-male strip, so the addition of a teenage girl to the previously all-male, all-square Guardians changed the gang's dynamic for the better. In this tale, the Guardians, having failed completely to cope with life in a normal society, have got back together to do the Star Trek thing and, thanks to Starhawk, are on the trail of a huge beast that eats stars.

Needless to say, despite being led by, "One who knows," by the end of the issue it's all gone belly-up and they're facing doom but what's interesting to me is that, the ending aside, not a lot happens in this tale. Basically they hang around talking about stuff, then Nikki shows up and they talk about some more stuff and then, at last they get to face up to a giant monster.

This follows on from the previous issue where, also, not a lot happened. It was an approach that reminded us that Steve Gerber was nothing if not unconventional. And maybe this refusal to toe the comic book line guaranteed the strip a one-way ticket to cancellation but perhaps it was also this refusal to do the expected that secured the previously forgettable Guardians a place in my heart. Even in their revamped form they were never quite as good a strip as The Defenders but, when it came to reader apathy, they had at least overcome.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Jungle-Action #15. The Black Panther gets the point.

Don McGregor, Black Panther, Jungle Tales #15, K'RuelIf Johnny Rotten was right and he was the Anti-Christ, it strikes me that Don McGregor is the Anti-Kirby. Here, Jungle Action #15, he gives us the exact same concepts as Kirby would but approaches them from exactly the opposite direction.

Just as Kirby would've done, he gives us the Black Panther using a pterodactyl as a kind of airborne surfboard. Just like Kirby, he gives us, in King Cadaver, a man shrunken by radiation but gaining a giant head. And , of course, we get the issue's villain of the piece, who Kirby would no doubt have labelled Cactus Man.

Cactus Man; you can just see him stalking the pages of the Kirby Panther comic, with his powers of a cactus. But, whereas with Kirby, it would all have been an escapist romp with no emotional consequences for its protagonist, here, every page, every panel, is a feat of endurance for the characters (and occasionally the reader). This isn't Cactus Man, this is K'Ruel, and the whole tale lives up to that sobriquet as T'Challa is shot at with napalm, penetrated by a thousand spikes, left tied-up out in the sun, attacked by a pterodactyl and dropped from the sky towards a jungle of thorns. He's not the only one suffering. In the interludes, we get to visit the supporting cast, all of whom are having a tough time of it.

Don McGregor, Black Panther, Jungle Tales #15, Monica Lynne
The days when Wakanda's main worry was a man who can't spell the word "claw" are long gone. Under McGregor's stewardship, the forces of revolution have risen against our hero. Because it's Don McGregor, the Panther isn't totally right and the bad guys aren't totally wrong. In fact, some could argue the Panther is completely wrong.

He's been wrong to spend all his time in America, having adventures with the Avengers, and neglecting his own kingdom. He's been wrong in failing to have ever asked his people if they actually want the brave new Wakanda he's created around them. Because it's Don McGregor, we know this because he tells us, using lots and lots and lots of words. Possibly the worst part of the story for this is where the Panther's American squeeze Monica Lynne visits some of the locals and promptly goes off on a long speech about plates that really makes no sense. Even McGregor seems to acknowledge this as the old woman Karota totally fails to understand the point she's trying to make.

It'd be interesting to see a Don McGregor synopsis. I'm used to hearing Stan Lee talk of the "Marvel Method" and how he'd often give an artist only a rough outline - or even just a sentence - and then leave him to get on with it, and how this became the standard practice for all writers at Marvel. But that can't be how McGregor did it, can it? The way Billy Graham's visual story-telling works in this tale's so similar to how Craig Russell's worked in Killraven that I assume McGregor must have given his artist something altogether more detailed to chew on. Graham's work seems darker, more visceral, than Russell's, with none of the light touches Russell would throw in, but the use of flashbacks, the pacing and the interludes is remarkably similar.

On re-reading, I think I prefer this to the Killraven story I reviewed a bit back. It has all the same flaws as that but, somehow, the moral ambiguities of a rebellion against a super-hero king who spends most of his time in another country and has made no attempt to listen to his people, seems to lend itself better to McGregor's style. It's still not perfect. Too many words, too little structure, too many cut-aways to other scenes that add nothing to the story. But, as with Killraven, it's wrong to dismiss it out of hand - even if you're not sure you're ever going to be able to make the effort that it'd take to read it again.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

House of Secrets #127. Haven't we been here before?

House of Secrets #127, cover
Cain and Abel, Karloff and Lugosi, Ant and Dec. Twosomes to send a shiver down the spine of the most hardened of souls and, in the 1970s, there was no fear greater than reading the latest issue of House of Secrets.

Well, OK, probably, buying an ice cream was more frightening than reading the latest copy of House of Secrets.

But I didn't care. It was a DC horror mag and that was good enough for me.

In fact the only DC horror title that had any ability to confer fear on the reader was Ghosts because, as it said on the front cover, all the stories inside were true - even the ones that involved only one person who ended up dead at the end of the tale and had no witnesses, meaning the writer would've had to be psychic to have known of the events within.

What with this and Sea Monkeys, I always got the feeling advertising laws in the US were somewhat more lax than they were in good old Blighty.

House of Secrets #127, headless executionerBut each of DC's horror mags had a clearly differentiated identity and there was of course, a huge difference between House of Mystery and House of Secrets. House of Mystery featured a house, and House of Secrets featured a different house.

For those still not certain, House of Secrets was the one narrated by poor old put-upon Abel and House of Mystery was done by his brother Cain.

All of which leads us to House of Secrets #127, an issue I first got on holiday sometime in late 1970s.

In the first tale, a man in post-revolutionary France wants to know who the masked axeman is who's ruthlessly decapitating dissidents.

In the second, a man enters the Amazon Jungle back in the days when you could still call it a jungle, rather than a rain forest, without fear of upsetting David Attenborough.

He finds some Indians with loads of emeralds, steals them and then gets eaten by piranhas.

In the the third, a man steals a magic pool cue that guarantees its owner victory and is promptly squished by giant pool balls.

House of Secrets #127, piranhasI can't deny it, this is basically the same issue that got published over and over again every month for years, with just the names changed. The only thing missing is the story about a man/child who dresses up as a monster for selfish ends and then bumps into the real monster.

I once read a book.

In fact I once read more than one.

One of them had Daleks in it.

But, in the book I'm referring to, its feminist author asked, "Does the fact that the baby I'm carrying will be male mean that, even at birth, it'll be born a male oppressor?"

Frankly, I didn't get the feeling she was a barrel of laughs.

As an equally deep thinker, I must ask, "The House of Secrets, does this lack of fear and originality mean I must despise it?"

House of Secrets #127, magic pool cueNo.

It doesn't.

Of course the mags weren't scary. They were comics. I'd be a bit worried if things that could scare people into lunatic asylums were being sold for 8 pence to children. Why, I'd expect to pay at least 12 pence for a thing like that.

And the originality point is pointless. By the time you reach issue #127 of anything, what're the chances you're going to be doing things that have never been done before?

So, for me, it's a question of kick off your shoes, sit back, dig the skeleton-fixated Luis Dominguez's fab cover and then soak up the cosy familiarity of it all.

Cosy? That's something they never called Sea Monkeys. Vicious they were. Vicious.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Defenders #38.

Defenders #38, Nebulon
Defenders #38. "Exile to Oblivion!"
The Defenders. They never did things the easy way. Leaving aside the fact they were a team who weren't a team, cobbled together from whatever misfits happened to be hanging around Dr Strange's vicinity at the time, they couldn't even manage to rustle up a straightforward adventure between them, and issue #38's no exception. If anyone, including the Defenders, has the slightest idea what's going on, I'd be amazed.

Basically, Dr Strange, Luke Cage and the Red Guardian have been trapped on an alien planet, by Nebulon, another of those all-powerful-type beings from space who just can't leave the Earth alone. The only problem is it's an alien planet on which Strange can't use his magic, because magic attracts lightning, meaning they're stuck there, in a cave, with a big white ape monster and killer termites.

Meanwhile, The Valkyrie, my favourite character, has found herself in a women's prison and having to deal with the resident bully despite not being able to use her powers on other females.

Meanwhile, there's an elf with a gun disguising itself as a dead American Indian in order to shoot a couple of backpackers.

Meanwhile, perpetually underwhelming villains the Eel and the Porcupine have found religion -- just not a good religion.

So, what's going on?

I don't have a clue.

And that's what's great about it. The Defenders was a strip in which it seemed anything could happen and often did. Along with Tomb of Dracula, it's my favourite strip of the 1970s and this issue gives us everything some of us grew to love about the thing; it's completely and totally bonkers and yet holds together beautifully. The strange thing is you actually care about this odd group of characters in a way you really shouldn't. Somehow writer Steve Gerber manages to get a bunch of powered-up super-beings and injects an odd sense of vulnerability into them. Despite their power, they always seem to be slightly out of their depth, no matter what they're dealing with, whether it be threats to the world or merely trying to find their own place in that world.

Is my love of The Defenders shared by others? Judging by comments on other blogs, it seems to be but, having said that, try buying old Defenders comics on eBay and you can get great piles of them for virtually nothing. Oh well, whoever said you could judge the value of art in monetary terms?

By the way, I should have mentioned that when we first see Nighthawk in this issue, he's in hospital, having just been given a brain transplant by the Red Guardian. Six pages later, he's on an alien world, having stepped through a doorway after fighting a bunch of people dressed as clowns.

All in a day's work when you're a Defender.
Defenders #38
Just another day in the life of the Defenders.

Friday, 16 April 2010

Prez #4. A Vampire in the White House.

Prez #4, Dracula
Some things defy all critical analysis. Prez has to be a perfect example of that, a comic from the early 1970s built around the adventures of America's first teenage president. It only lasted four issues.

But what a four issues.

In this, Prez #4, the USA finds itself at war with Transylvania and, after a legless Dracula's attempt to assassinate Prez fails, the Transylvanians hatch a plot to release a plane load of rabid vampire bats over the US.

Clearly something has to be done.

Happily, Prez's chief of security, a teenage American Indian who lives in a teepee (!) has just the answer.

It involves pigeons.

The thing was written and created by Joe Simon who, in the 1940s, had a hand in the creation of Captain America and was thus, presumably, well past his teenage years by the time he was doing this.

Prez #4, Ibsen, Dracula flies in
So, is Prez comedy?

Dunno.

Is it drama?

Dunno.

Is it good? Is it bad?

Don't ask me.

All I know is it's a law unto itself and that I had all four issues as a kid.

I also know that, having once again got my hands, almost by accident, on issue #4, I have the strange urge to buy the other three issues as well - not to mention the final issue of Supergirl's 1970s' run, in which she teams up with our hero.

All of which suggests that, in some strange way beyond human comprehension, a strip beyond human comprehension is nagging at my pleasure centres whether I realise it or not.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Tiger-Man #1. Atlas, poor comics, I knew them well.

Atlas Comics, Tiger-Man #1, Tiger-Man cover
Tiger-Man #1. Somehow I'm not feeling awe.
Back in the summer of 1975, something odd happened on the streets of Blackpool. The shops suddenly filled up with comics that said "Atlas" on the front of them. Who Atlas were and where they'd sprung from, I had no idea and'd have to wait years to find out. But it was obvious they knew how to distribute comics; the first three issues of their mighty tomes seemed to be everywhere. Oddly, there seemed to be no sign of issue four of any of those comics but, as the sad geeky geeko that I was, I quickly snapped up every copy I could.

Years later, I was shocked to discover those comics had had nothing but opprobrium heaped on them from all sources.

Could it be true? Could these mags I remembered so fondly - with titles like The Tarantula, Iron-Jaw and Devilina - really deserve all this contempt?

Sadly, I had to wait until the wonders of the Internet allowed me to rebuild my collection to find out.

Even more sadly, that contempt really was deserved. Every single Atlas Comic I've re-acquired over the last few years has been awful (although The Phoenix had potential even if it was never tapped). And here, as further evidence, we have Tiger-Man.

I'd love to say Tiger-Man #1 is a triumph that proves the critics to be fools but it's simply dreadful. A doctor in Africa injects himself with tiger serum, in order to... ...well, in order to inject himself with tiger serum, and promptly gains the powers of a tiger. Why his origin's set in Africa and not Asia if he gains the powers of a tiger is anybody's guess but, regardless, he returns to New York where his sister's promptly murdered.

Atlas Comics, Tiger-Man #1, costume
Tiger-Man, a hero so awesome his feet can't
be contained by a mere comic book panel.
Hold on a minute, aren't his arms and legs
blue in the rest of the story?
Happily, before he left Africa, the local chieftain gave him a super-hero costume as a going-away present, which the good doctor puts on. It's fair enough; after all, who of us hasn't thought of giving our local GP a super-hero costume as a going-away present? Unhappily, it's the most embarrassing costume any super-hero was ever lumbered with.

Ignoring the fact he now looks a complete plonker, Tiger-Man tracks down the killers and kills them. So, basically, it's a new kind of hero - a murderer.

All this might not matter if our hero had anything that even vaguely resembles a personality but he's such a complete and total block of wood that you half-expect Handy Andy to start sawing him in half at any point. It says it all about writer Gabriel Levy's lack of interest in character development that we're nine pages into a twenty page story before we even get to find out the hero's first name.

The story doesn't seem to be credited but, according to the Grand Comics Database, it's drawn by Ernie Colon, and it sort of looks quite nice but Colon seems to have lost all grasp of how to draw a super-hero comic as he produces a whole string of stiff poses for our hero. And the whole thing's not helped by the fact that, for some reason, the lettering seems to have been done with a typewriter. According to the Grand Comics Database, it's done by Leroy Lettering. I like to think Leroy Lettering is the world's most celebrated Rastafarian calligrapher and possibly a performance poet on the side but, sadly, I suspect Leroy Lettering is some sort of process rather than a man.

But Atlas Comics, so many talented and experienced people involved. How did it all go so disastrously wrong?

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Sub-Mariner #68. A Man Called Force

Sub-Mariner #68, A Man Called Force, John Romita
The Savage Sub-Mariner #68.
Was there ever a hero more frustrating than the Sub-Mariner? Here you had a character who, when he was in water, could go toe-to-toe with the Hulk, but, take him out of water for more than a few minutes and suddenly he was struggling to beat a stick of celery.

On top of that, he couldn't decide if he was mankind's saviour or its enemy.

And then there was his constant inability to save his kingdom from disaster. Had any nation ever befallen more misfortune than Atlantis under his reign? It seemed like every time he turned up, Atlantis was facing doom and destruction.

In The Savage Sub-Mariner #68, it was at it again. This time, during a fight with Orka, Subbie'd collided with a shipwreck that'd promptly released a nerve gas that'd put everyone in Atlantis into a coma. Needless to say Namor responds to this latest catastrophe with his usual calm by declaring he's going to destroy the surface world. Then a bunch of amphibious scientists tell him a surface-dwelling professor may be able to furnish a cure, and Subbie sets off to find him. On the way, he encounters Force a gloating imbecile in a power-packed suit who our hero soon flattens.

If the Sub-Mariner was frustrating he had the most appropriate artist possible in this issue because it's drawn by Don Heck and was there ever a more frustrating artist than Don? There were times when his artwork could be appealing. I've always had a fondness for his work on the early Iron Man, especially his last few issues before Gene Colan took over, and I like his early work on The Avengers too. On the other hand, at other times he could make a strip almost impossible to read. His last few issues of The Avengers before John Buscema took charge literally make my eyes hurt, with their jagged edges, scratchy lines, awkward angles and random blocks of dead black. Somehow black never seemed deader than when Don Heck used it. Happily, here, he's in his best mode. The art in this tale's never going to be accused of being a work of genius but has the simplicity and elegance that his work at its best possessed.

Of course the thing that leaps out at you about this tale is the Sub-Mariner's wearing clothes. Presumably the costume change wasn't too popular, as it was dumped fairly quickly but I've always liked it. After years of dressing like a Baywatch refugee, at last he was dressing like you'd think a ruler of Atlantis would dress. Admittedly they rationalised it as him having lost his power to breathe out of water and needing the suit to survive on land but, in the stories I've read where he's wearing it, there's never any dramatic use made at all of the the fact he can no longer breathe out of water, meaning the explanation's not really necessary and becomes just another addition to his failings out of water. Then again, a needless addition was only to be expected. After all, he was never nothing less than frustrating.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

The Mighty Thor #243. Jurassic larks.

Mighty Thor #243, John Buscema, the Tomorrow Man
The Mighty Thor #243. Cover by Gil Kane.
I have to admit to having a soft spot for Thor. As a kid, I used to stick a plastic arrow on the end of my wooden ruler, with plasticine, to make it look like a hammer, and then crawl around behind the settee, pretending to be him.

Why I thought Thor was in the habit of crawling around behind settees, I've no idea. But I always felt that should have been his origin. Fleeing from the Stone Men from Saturn, Don Blake hides behind the settee, where he finds a gnarled old walking stick that transforms him into Thor. In hot pursuit, the Stone men follow him, behind the settee, and Thor and the Stone Men from Saturn battle it out to decide the fate of the world; behind the settee.

I'm not a professional comic book writer.

I don't know why.

But this comic, the Mighty Thor #243, is one of those special issues because I got it on a Sunday and, as I've said before, any comic I got on a Sunday always felt more special than one bought on any other day of the week. I have no explanation for this phenomenon but, apart from an early issue of Captain Britain, (which featured Nick Fury, so I was never going to like it), I never met a comic that entered my life on a Sunday that I didn't love.

For those who don't know, what happens in Thor #243 is Kang the Conqueror appears in the present day, to enlist the aide of Thor, Jane Foster and the Warriors Three. He needs them to fight some bad aliens who're spiralling backwards through time and repeatedly destroying the Earth. Now those aliens have reached Kang's time and he needs Thor's help.

Mighty Thor #243, John Buscema, Zarrko the Tomorrow Man
Zarrko the Tomorrow Man.
Not at all cut from the same
cloth as Kang.
In fact that's not what happens at all. It's not Kang. It's someone called Zarrko, the Tomorrow Man, a character I have no memory of but who, apparently, turned up in a very early Thor story many years earlier. But it shows how the human mind plays tricks on you that, over the passage of time, I'd come to think it was Kang, until getting my hands on a copy again, a couple of years ago, ended that notion.

Why it isn't Kang, I don't know, as there seems to be no great difference between the Tomorrow Man and the Conqueror except Kang was more memorable and therefore a more likely candidate for inclusion in this tale. In fact, it's a slightly odd outing for Thor as most of it's taken up with the heroes' short journey through the time stream, as they discuss the situation with Zarrko.

That's not to say nothing happens.

Mighty Thor #243, John Buscema, the Tomorrow Man
Whomm! Take that, lizard boy!
What happens is that, on the way, Thor gets to face off against a tyrannosaurus. Oddly, Thor doesn't recognise it as a tyrannosaurus, thinks it's a dragon and tries to have a conversation with it as he fights it.

That does raise a point I always wondered about as a kid, which is just how much of Don Blake's memory does Thor retain when he transforms? Whenever there was medical work needed doing, Thor would always change back to Blake to do it, implying he lost his medical knowledge when he changed. Oddly enough, he never lost knowledge of Jane Foster. Straight after transformation, he never found himself standing in Don Blake's surgery, saying to her, "Who are you and what am I doing here?" Maybe it would've been a better strip if he had and if, every time he transformed, he had to have the whole situation explained to him over again.

I'm not a professional comic book writer.

I don't know why.

But, here, Thor must've lost all knowledge of not only paleontology but also popular culture to not know what a dinosaur is or that they don't speak English.

It's all very unlikely but it's an appealing tale from one of my favourite Thor eras and it's drawn by John Buscema which means every panel, is perfect and a thing of beauty.

If only it had all been set behind a settee.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

The Eternals #7. "Chew on this, Mister Big!!"

Jack Kirby, Eternals #7
The Eternals #7. "The Fourth Host!"
I don't know what kind of an idiot Nick Fury is but he's clearly not fit to be in charge of an international anti-espionage agency.

In this issue we discover his agents are given hand-held atom bombs, in case of emergencies. Now, I'm no expert but I refuse to believe any responsible spy network would give its men atom bombs.

One; what exactly are they expected to use an atom bomb for? And, two; if they get captured, that means the forces of darkness'll have got their hands on an atom bomb.

Leaving that aside, what kind of training is it that leads a SHIELD agent to believe the correct protocol upon meeting an alien visitor for the first time is to throw an atom bomb at it?

No kind of protocol.

But that's exactly what happens here.

Yes, it's the world according to Jack Kirby and, despite its loopiness, you just have to love it.

The story is this. We're in the Andes and, after a lengthy absence, the giant Celestials have returned to judge the planet Earth. If it fails that judgement, it'll be destroyed. A bunch of SHIELD agents have blundered into this scenario, have been captured by the Celestials and are out to escape so they can warn the world. Needless to say, before such as the Celestials, they and their puny atom bombs are mere gnats and are soon disposed of.

It may be heresy but I've always had mixed feelings about Jack Kirby. On the one hand, I love his mid-era Fantastic Four and Thor stories. The energy and imagination of them's too much for any self-respecting comic fan to resist, and I love Kamandi. On the other hand, on the wrong strip, his "anything goes" approach can be a disaster. I hated his post-Don-McGregor take on The Black Panther, and I recently got my hands on a whole pile of his 1970s' Captain America mags and thought they were awful, the lowpoint of which being the sight of Cap and the Falcon riding around on skateboards. That was the problem with Jack. All that creativity, he just couldn't rein it in.

Jack Kirby, Eternals #7, the Celestials
Still, we're on safe ground here with The Eternals, because, unlike Captain America, it gives Kirby the chance to do what he does best - make everything big.

Big?

The Celestials were so big they made Galactus look like Charles Hawtrey.

But The Eternals was a strip that took the established Marvel continuity and flung it in the bin. Suddenly, there was an Atlantis that had nothing to do with the Sub-Mariner, and Greek Gods who had nothing to do with the Olympians from such strips as Thor and the Avengers.

As long as the two worlds were kept apart it didn't matter but the presence of SHIELD agents in this outing confused matters immeasurably. Suddenly, these stories were taking place in the same world as all those other comics whose continuity they were directly contradicting.

In the end, it doesn't matter.

None of it does.

It's not real, it's just fiction, and the continuity of comic books is so strained these days, you can explain a million and one routes around the problem. What matters is that, for the nineteen months that the strip lasted, you got pure Jack Kirby as it was meant to be done.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

The Rampaging Hulk #9.

Rampaging Hulk #9, The Avengers, Earl Norem
Rampaging Hulk #9. "To Avenge the Earth!"
Just like Agatha Christie, the Hulk once went missing.

Unlike Agatha Christie, he was gone for more than a week.

And, unlike Agatha Christie, he didn't go on to write a string of successful crime novels

Horses for courses.

He was gone for about eighteen months between the cancellation of issue #6 of the Incredible Hulk and issue #60 of Tales to Astonish. Was he on the booze? Was he living it up in Las Vegas? Was he the secret fifth member of the Beatles? When the Rampaging Hulk was launched in the late 1970s, we finally found out.

He'd been fighting aliens.

He'd not been fighting good aliens. He'd been fighting the Krylorians, a bunch of UFOnauts who made the Toad Men look like the Celestials. Why the decision was made to make them the recurring villains of an entire series was anyone's guess but it seemed like Marvel were out to make things difficult for themselves from the start when it came to the Hulk's very own black and white mag-format.

But one of the strengths of Marvel's black and white titles was their use of painted covers and here we get a prime example as Earl Norem gives us the original Avengers carrying the Hulk in what appears to be a huge block of ice through a sun-baked desert that, judging by the Northern Lights in the sky, is at the North Pole. I don't have a clue what's supposed to be going on here and it seems to have only a tenuous relation to what happens inside but it's still a great image.

Sadly, once inside it all starts to go a bit wrong.

Rampaging Hulk #9, Sal Buscema, the Kryloreans
Yes. A Krylorian. What an idiot.
The story's drawn by Sal Buscema. And it's well drawn by Sal Buscema. He's got his best story-telling head on and does it all with considerable style. The only problem is I always felt the black and white mags worked best when the art was a wild departure from what we were used to in the colour monthlies.

Who can forget Alfredo Alcala's inking over John Buscema's pencils in the Savage Sword of Conan? Sal Buscema's art, while excellent on this tale, is too similar to what we'd get in a monthly Hulk comic of the late 1970s to justify this mag's existence as a separate entity from those tales.

The story is that a Krylorian's been impersonating the Hulk, and now the heroes who'd later become the Avengers have come together to fight the real Hulk. It's fun to see the Avengers before they became the Avengers - especially seeing Ant Man bringing down the Hulk in a way you know just wouldn't work - but, it's still got that problem; the Krylorians are so lame they drag the story down whenever they appear.

Rampaging Hulk #9, Shanna the She-Devil
But if the main story's a bit of lightweight fluff, the back-up strip's positively disastrous. Like the early Hulk, Shanna the She-Devil had her own comic. Like the Hulk's, it folded. Like the Hulk, now she was back.

Is it a happy return?

No.

It stinks. It's a terrible and frankly repellent story where Shanna strips down to a costume that seems to have been bought from wherever it is Vampirella gets her outfits, writhes around on the floor with a python, writhes around chained to an altar then gets her snake to eat the bad guy while she gloats, like a psycho, at his death.

There are times, when you watch something like Life on Mars and wonder if the world really was as different a place back in the 1970s as they claim it was. And then you read something like this and realise that, yes, it was.

The thing's beautifully drawn by Tony DeZuniga but it's positively unpleasant to read and it's a shame that a strip that was launched as part of a wave of  new heroines meant to attract girls into reading comics ended up as a piece of pure sexploitation virtually guaranteed to make sure that any girl who read the thing would never dare open a comic again.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Adam Warlock. Strange Tales #181. It's all turned out mad again.

Adam Warlock, Strange Tales #181, Jim StarlinWas there ever anybody less suited to having his own super hero comic than Adam Warlock?

Yes there was.

Me.

...

...

...

And George Formby.

Admittedly Adam Warlock had a bit more power than me and George but, being more than a man, he was also less than human. When introduced in the pages of Fantastic Four #66, he was the living embodiment of the Jack Kirby, "Concept Is Everything," approach to comics, a character with no personality, no goals, no needs, no friends, no history and, apart from total a lack of life experience, no flaws. He didn't even have a name, being introduced to us merely as Him. On top of that, he was so powerful that, like the early Silver Surfer, he could basically do anything he wanted.

So, a hero who's basically an empty shell and all-powerful. If anyone thinks they can get good drama out of that they're nothing if not optimists.

Clearly Marvel were nothing if not optimists and so he got his own strip in which he ventured to Counter-Earth to fight the naughty Man-Beast who'd corrupted it. While that strip grabbed me initially, it soon ran out of steam as they bashed you over the head with the, "He's Jesus," stuff and even had him crucified and resurrected.

Happily, by then, he'd lost his own book and had to do his resurrecting in the pages of the Incredible Hulk.

I say happily because it's hard to see how such a storyline could possibly have worked if he'd been the star of the comic it happened in instead of a guest in someone else's.

But, as somebody else once proved, you can't keep a good Messiah down and so it was that Jim Starlin brought him back.

I can't say how much I loved Starlin's take on the character but, when I first got this - Strange Tales #181 - and saw the new Adam Warlock, I was hooked. With Warlock's tendency to stand around debating philosophical and metaphysical points with himself, he had a touch of the Don McGregor Killraven stories that I reviewed a bit back, aiming at something more than just the usual super-heroics.

The difference being that Jim Starlin was an artist as well as a writer and so wasn't going to let the words get in the way of the pictures.

Was Starlin an artist who wrote or a writer who drew? It was impossible to say. Unlike most who attempt the creative double, he seemed equally adept at both. This issue is a perfect example as our hero finds himself in a landscape so inspired by Steve Ditko's Dr Strange you wouldn't be surprised to see Dormammu show up.

Adam Warlock, Strange Tales #181, Jim StarlinInstead, a bunch of clowns show up.

They're not meant to be clowns. They're supposed to be heroes of the Magus' religion, there to convert Warlock to the cause but Warlock's mind-set warps his vision of them so much they appear to him as clowns. Either this is a sign of his iron will resisting indoctrination or proof that he's actually a bit bonkers.

I like to think the latter.

And clearly, so did Starlin because at, the climax, the enemy of the piece, the Magus shows up; a purple, future version of Warlock with a huge Afro. He looks terrible but conceptually he was a perfect foil for our hero. In the end, other heroes had to fight other people. Unlike me and George Formby, Warlock had to fight himself.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Marvel style, done the Fleetway way. Marvel Annual 1972.

Fleetway Marvel Annual 1972/1973I was in the grip of madness. A madness that had led me, for long and bewildered years, to believe that, long before the Mighty World of Marvel comic hit UK news stands, I'd had three issues of TV21 that featured the Silver Surfer fighting the Abomination.

Apart from the fact that this meant "Abomination" was probably the biggest word I knew at the age of six or seven, such a thing made no sense. After all, TV21 famously published Gerry Anderson stories, and in what way was the Silver Surfer either TV or Gerry Anderson?

So, over the years, I decided I must have got confused and that it must've been a comic like Terrific, which did indeed publish Marvel reprints and, crucially, also began with a T.

But the Internet's a wonderful thing and, through it, I recently discovered that, in its dying days, TV21 did indeed publish Silver Surfer adventures. It seems Fleetway had a deal with Marvel to reprint their tales and no longer had the rights to the Gerry Anderson shows. Hence we suddenly got the likes of Spider-Man and the Surfer in the pages of TV21.

It also explained my Christmas disappointment of 1972 when I eagerly received that year's Marvel Annual, only to discover that most of the tales therein had been published in the Mighty World of Marvel just a few weeks earlier. Given their massive back catalogue of stories, what had possessed the House of Ideas to make such a perverse decision?

I now know the answer to both mysteries was the same. That year's Marvel Annual wasn't published by Marvel at all but by Fleetway, taking advantage of their reprint rights. I admit, you don't have to be a Sherlock Holmes to know that. After all, it says on the front cover that it's a Fleetway publication and, even at that age, I knew Fleetway and Marvel weren't the same thing. Fleetway, after all, did Whizzer and Chips. But I assumed Marvel'd got Fleetway to publish it on their behalf, because Marvel didn't traditionally do hardback annuals and Fleetway did.

Time, however, heals all wounds and while I felt let down as a kid, I now see the book as a treasure trove of ancient Marvel tales. It doesn't hurt that it features some of my favourite outings of that era. Spidey's first meeting with the Scorpion's always been my favourite Spider-Man epic of the Ditko run. It's so hard and violent, with Spider-Man nearly beaten to death twice by his specially created nemesis, and Ditko's art's at its peak here. I also love the Terrible Tinkerer's debut for its off-beatness. The Hulk comes up against Tyrannus, a cross between Alexander the Great and the Mole Man. The Fantastic Four come up against Kurrgo and his robot, and the Hulk comes up against the Toad Men.

I have to admit the Hulk v the Toad Men might not be Marvel's greatest achievement but it was drawn by Jack Kirby and inked by Steve Ditko, and Bruce Banner looked like Eric Morecambe in one panel, which always gave me great pleasure. The book also had a Barry Smith Conan tale. I'd never seen Conan before and, for some reason, had it in my head he must be Thor - who I'd also never seen before - even though everyone kept calling him Conan!

What really stands out about the annual though is that, in its pages, it has a couple of articles. One deals with the various villains in Spider-Man's life. The other gives an overview of the world of Marvel and those who inhabit it. Given that they still had the rights, using the reprints made sense but it does seem odd that, through those articles, Fleetway was needlessly giving publicity to a rival publisher's entire pantheon but perhaps, it being Christmas, they were in a generous mood.

The other matter of interest is the cover. What a thing of beauty it is. Who did it? I don't know. Is it by a British artist?

I only ask because I've always felt there's something oddly continental, maybe Italian, about the thing. I base this on no knowledge whatsoever of Italian comic book covers of the early 1970s but, for some reason, whenever I look at it, the world "Italy" always bursts into my head.

That aside, I always felt there was something oddly camp about the soldiers in this picture and, looking at it now, it's suddenly occurred to me what it is.

It's the footwear.

Were those men really sent into battle with those things on their feet?
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