Friday 31 December 2010

2010: a cyberspace oddity.

Essential Iron Man Volume 1
Essential Iron Man Vol 2. Now available from
Amazon for a mere £104.80. 
John Lennon once said, "And so this is Christmas, and what have you done? Another year over, a new one just begun." He was of course completely wrong. The year isn't over at Christmas, nor has a new one just begun.

A week after Christmas is however a whole other ball park. It's a ball park in which we find ourselves looking both backwards and forwards at the same time. In such a state we're likely to hit few home runs but might just contrive to hit on a few home truths.

For this site, the year began in March when, mildly fired up by reading such blogs as Bronze Age Babies and having bought an early issue of Marvel UK's Avengers weekly, I decided to share with the world my thoughts on the comic books of my youth.

I can't deny that, right from the get-go, it was a half-hearted project and, after a few reviews, I'd pretty much given up on it till Cerebus660 posted a comment on one of those missives. It was the first ever comment on the blog and, spurred on by the sudden realisation that real-life people were actually reading the thing, I began posting again. So, thanks to Cerebus for that. I know you've had a tough year but you have at least brought a little light into the lives of others. Speaking of which, my best wishes also go out to Comics Bronze Age's Andrew Wahl who I know's also had his problems. I hope you'll be back blogging before too long - although only when you want to, of course.

And so here we are, ten months later, sitting supreme at Number 74 in the Comic Blog Elite's chart. OK, so maybe this site's never going to be challenging Wikipedia for visitors but it's been a surprise to me how this thing's readership just keeps rising. By the end of today, I should have almost exactly 6,000 page views for December alone, topping by some distance November's then-record of 3,600 page views. I suppose the challenge now is to see if I can get over the 10,000 mark per-month at some point in the future.

And what of that future? At this time of year a man's nothing without resolutions to allow him to convince himself he's capable of being a better man.

I on the other hand know I'm not capable of being a better man and therefore my resolutions are feeble and self-serving. They are:

To get Essential Iron Man Vol 3. There's a reason I want this, which I should be going into in my next post. As you'll discover in that, Iron Man might've made his debut in Tales Of Suspense but in my case it'll be very much a journey into mystery.

To get Essential Daredevil Volume 4. I've resisted it because I didn't enjoy the first three volumes but I live in hope that things'll pick up with the arrival of the Black Widow. The Black Widow does show up in Vol 4, doesn't she?

To get the first three volumes of Essential Defenders. The Defenders is my favourite super-hero strip of the 1970s and it's a mystery to me why I haven't bought any of these collections yet. Been too keen on individually buying the originals I think.

And finally in the Essential envelope, to buy Essential Thor Volume 1. The fact it'll set you back £75 to £80 at the likes of Amazon and means I've never been tempted to buy it. Fortunately it seems there'll be a new edition out in February, meaning at last it'll be available at a price that non-millionaires can afford.

Then again, if I thought that was extortionate, I've just found out Essential Iron Man Vol 2 could now set me back a whopping £104 on Amazon. I know from personal experience that, if shrewd, you can buy the original Gene Colan Tales Of Suspense stories in VGd condition for less than a fiver each which means you can theoretically get the original run for less than the cost of a black and white book of reprints. How can this make sense?

I'm also thinking of buying the the entire runs of Marvel UK's Titans and Planet of the Apes comics. Much as I loved the likes of Mighty World of Marvel and Spider-Man Comics Weekly, there's no point me buying them, because, thanks to the aforementioned Essentials, I've already got the stories they contained. Most of the stuff in Planet of the Apes and The Titans, I'm never likely to have in the Essentials, so there is a point in buying them. At last I shall be reunited with the likes of Gil Kane's Warlock, Lord Barrington Windsor-Smythington's Ka-Zar, and Various Artists' Gullivar Jones on Mars.

So, that's me and my adventures in cyberspace covered. All that leaves me to do now is thank you for coming here and making the site the almost-success it is and for me to wish you all the best for the new year. If I haven't mentioned you by name, that doesn't mean I don't appreciate you.

Wednesday 29 December 2010

Avengers #90. The Kree/Skrull War Part 2. The Arctic Turn.

Avengers #90, the Kree-Skrull War
The Neal Adams section of the Avengers' Kree/Skrull War might be more celebrated but I have to admit that these days I tend to enjoy its Sal Buscema prologue more.

That might be down to the latent human instinct that makes teenagers pretend they prefer bands no one's heard of to bands that're Number One. Then again, it might be that over-familiarity's dulled my appreciation of Adams' work, or simply that I was so blown-away by his part of the epic, as a child, that its inevitable inability to have the same impact on my more dulled adult senses makes me rate it less highly than it deserves.

But I suspect that, in reality, in my dotage I appreciate the efficient straightforwardness of Sal Buscema's work more than the determined sophistication of Neal Adams'. It seems to me that Sal Buscema constructed comic strips with the expert craftsmanship of a man who hand-makes makes wooden chairs for a living. They might not make it into any design museum, like those fancier chairs do, but they just feel right when you sit on them.

Of course it doesn't hurt that this issue has the advantage that a large part of it's set in a jungle and, as seen in The Avengers #88, which immediately preceded the Kree/Skrull War, there's something about jungles that seemed to bring out the best in Buscema.

And so we get the tale of how Sentry 459 kidnaps Captain Marvel, takes him to a foliage-covered island in the Arctic Circle and then mind-controls Goliath into helping it fight the Avengers as Ronan the Accuser gives the captive Mar-Vell an expository lump abut his plans to de-evolve the human race and all other life on Earth to a prehistoric state so it can pose no threat to the Kree and their future plans. We also get a nice flashback to the Sentry's first meeting with the Inhumans, and a quick recap of Mar-Vell's entire career to date.

I'm not sure how sound the science is in all this. I'm no David Attenborough (or even a Richard Attenborough) but surely de-evolving a modern dragonfly wouldn't turn it into a giant form of extinct dragonfly? I assume a modern dragonfly isn't descended from one of those extinct ones but from a different branch of the same family? As for what Hank Pym turns into; are they sure that's what man's ancient ancestors looked like? A word with Richard Leakey might have helped.

None of it matters of course. In story-telling terms it's more entertaining if Hank Pym turns into some sort of huge, mad savage that bears no real resemblance to how homo sapiens' forebears  really were than a two foot tall monkey-like thing that mostly lives on fruit, and it does give the tale a classic climax as the brutish Pym, club in hand, closes in on the unconscious Wasp. A reminder perhaps that it's alright to stage an epic but the threat of one person doing harm to another's still dramatically more potent than all the threats of worlds being destroyed.

One of the main things that strikes me about the tale is that its recap of Captain Marvel's career reminds you just how bad Captain Marvel's strip was in its early days and how bad his initial costume was. If Henry Pym can change immeasurably for the worse, it's nice to see that counter-balanced by how Captain Marvel could change immeasurably for the better.

Tuesday 28 December 2010

The Department of Pointless Questions: Results. Apeslayer. A Rose by any other name.

Planet of the Apes, Marvel UK, Apeslayer/Killraven
Well done to (c)The Stardust Kid 2010 on correctly remembering that, in the Marvel UK Killraven/Planet of the Apes mash-up that was Apeslayer, the unfortunate Carmilla Frost found herself renamed San Simian. Well done to me too. The question's already had just under a hundred page-views in the few hours since it was posted, making it already the site's most viewed post of the week and knocking at the door of the site's all-time Top Ten. Who'd have thought there was such love for Apeslayer out there?

Like just about everyone else on the Internet, it seems, The Stardust Kid goes joint top of our Department of Pointless Questions Leaderboard.

For those of a curious bent, the original question can be found here.

PS. Don't forget to vote in our Apeslayer v Killraven poll. You never know, with all those Martians and speaking apes around, the future survival of humanity might depend on it.

Happy birthday to Stan Lee.

Fantastic Four issue #1, Jack Kirby
Walloping Websnappers! Can it be true? Can fearless front-facer Stan "the Man" Lee really be a cosmos-shaking 88 years old today?

Yes it can, true believer, and he shows no sign so far of departing this coil we humans know as mortal. So, happy birthday to the man without whom I'd never know that with great power comes great responsibility, or that sometimes within each of us there dwells a raging beast.

PS. Don't forget to enter our hot-off-the-presses Apeslayer Quiz. As always with Steve Does Comics, there's great prizes not available.

The Department of Pointless Questions: Apeslayer. A rose by any other name.

Planet of the Apes, Marvel UK, Apeslayer
As we all know, the weekly Marvel UK Planet of the Apes comic reprinted US Marvel's Planet of the Apes material so quickly it often ended up reprinting stories before they'd even been printed in the first place.

When even that didn't work and they ran out of material altogether, they came up with the brilliant wheeze of getting the Killraven stories and having an artist redraw the bad guys' heads as ape heads, and replaced the word, "Martians," with the word, "Apes." Thus was born the legendary strip we in the UK knew as Apeslayer.

Obviously, in these tales, Killraven became Apeslayer but what was the new name bestowed upon the luvverly Carmilla Frost?

Monday 27 December 2010

Amazing Spider-Man Annual 1969. The Sinister Six and the Fantastic Four

Amazing Spider-Man Annual 1969, the Sinister Six
It's a matter of some vague blurriness as to what was the first American comic I ever read. To some degree it depends on what qualifies as an American comic. I know at one point we had a pile of Alan Class books my dad brought home with him from somewhere or other. They were of course British but featured nothing but American stories.

As for the real deal, I'm pretty certain I've mentioned before that I acquired a coverless Superman comic from a community centre jumble sale one Saturday. All I recall of it was that it featured Lois Lane hiding in a piano.

And then there was that Sunday morning when my dad bought home a copy of Vampirella for my sister, presumably working on the principle that it starred a woman and so must've been aimed at girls. Despite having read it at the time, I have no memory of the contents of that comic and haven't read an issue of Vampirella since but, judging by the covers, I suspect that girls may not have been its primary target demographic.

But, all these considerations taken into consideration, if I had to stake money on what was the first American comic I ever read, it'd be this one - the Amazing Spider-Man Annual #6. It's a sign of how American comics in those days  tended to hang around in some strange and waterlogged limbo before finally making themselves available for purchase in the UK that, even though it was the 1969 annual, I got it as as a new comic in 1972 and remember seeing it for sale in a newsagents at least a couple of years after that.

Clearly it was fate. If you're going to start with any American comic it might as well be this one because it seemed as thought the entire Marvel universe was present in its pages. First of all we had Spider-Man up against  not one but a multitude of his deadliest foes; Sandman, Dr Octopus, Mysterio, Electro, the Vulture and Kraven the Hunter. That's right, it was the Sinister Six and their debut tale.

As though that weren't enough, the story contrived to feature a cameo from just about every hero Marvel had had at that time. Dr Strange even showed up, interrupting a fight between Peter Parker and Flash Thompson before striding off back to his Sanctum Sanctorum.

But the guest-starring do-gooders who made the most impact on me were the X-Men, even though they weren't technically in it. Their cameo turned out to have been made by a group of Mysterio's robots. But there was something about the yellow and blue of their costumes and the way they just seemed to be hanging around in a building when Spidey showed up that grabbed me.

That story alone would've kept some of us satisfied for life but there was more because next we had the web-slinger up against the Fantastic Four. It's the meeting he had with them in Amazing Spider-Man #1, where he decides to try and join the group to earn some money. But here's the twist. It's not the Steve Ditko version. It's the Jack Kirby retelling of that tale, from Fantastic Four Annual #1.

The mag finishes off with Spider-Man gatecrashing the Human Torch's party in a tale reprinted from Amazing Spider-Man #8. Again it's by Jack Kirby and and leads to a scrap between Spider-Man and the Torch that involves Spidey whipping up a whole range of unlikely items with his webbing before the Invisible Girl talks some sense into him.

I can't put into words just how much of a mind-expanding experience this book was for me when I was a kid. After years of  British comics, to suddenly be exposed to so much colour, so much escapism and so much glossiness in one comic was a life-changing event for me.

And it wasn't only my mind that was expanded by it. So was my vocabulary. Never before had I come across the phrases, "Cold feet," and, "Burying the hatchet," till I read the tales within.

So there you have it. Spider-Man wasn't just entertaining, it was educational - and I dread to think what a mundane life my childhood would've been had I never come across it. Would I have been doomed to endure a youth of reading nothing but the likes of Victor and Commando as they endlessly re-staged a Second World War that even in the 1970s seemed like ancient history to me? Worse, would I have grown up thinking Roy of the Rovers was as good as comics could get?

So hats-off to the greatest annual a child could ever want. It might've been just a load of old stories repackaged to squeeze a bit of extra money out of readers without the expense of producing new material for them but I don't care. Because of what it led to, to me it's the most important comic Marvel ever produced and, because of that, there'll always be a special place in my heart for it.

The Department of Pointless Questions Results: The Avengers play "Spot the Difference."

Marvel UK's Avengers #79
Well done to Kid on spotting that the change Marvel UK made to the cover of The Avengers #79, so that it wouldn't confuse UK readers, was they redrew the Vision as Thor because the story was published by them before they'd published the Vision's debut story.

Thanks to his Action Man style eagle-eyes, Kid goes joint top of the Department of Pointless Questions Leader Board. It's so tense up there. Will Steve Does Comics ever live to see that table get an outright leader?

Because it's a matter of life and death that such things are seen to be done properly, the original question can be found here.

Sunday 26 December 2010

The Department of Pointless Questions. The Avengers play, "Spot the Difference."

Marvel UK's Avengers #79, spot the difference
As many of us know, Marvel UK's Avengers comic was a fine and wonderful thing that gave us not just reprints of the Avengers tales but also Dr Strange and Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu - not to mention the odd bit of Iron Fist and Conan the Barbarian.

But, for whatever reason, they didn't always reprint their stories in the right order. Issue #79's a perfect example of the problems such a policy could cause.

I didn't initially notice it when I reviewed the original version of this comic a bit back but there's been a change made to the cover to make it acceptable to a British audience. So, the question is can those eagle-eyes of yours spot just what that alteration is? And no I'm not talking about them having changed the price to pence.

Saturday 25 December 2010

Lest we forget those lost at Christmas.

Gerry Anderson's Thunderbirds Annual 1971
Christmas is a time for giving but also a time for remembering those we've lost. I am of course referring to annuals; those hard-backed slices of entertainment that could illuminate any Christmas morning and make even a plateful of turkey seem palatable. While I still have a fair few of the annuals I received in days gone past, there are a select few that're no longer with me, and I thought I'd dedicate a quick post to those.

As you can see from the pic on the left, I had the 1971 Thunderbirds Annual. In truth, even though I loved it at the time, I can't remember anything about its contents except that Captain Scarlet was in it. Why Captain Scarlet was in a Thunderbirds annual, I have no idea. I assume he was there by the same logic that saw the Silver Surfer turn up in TV21.

But the nub of this post isn't annuals that I remember. This post is about annuals I don't remember. For the most part, I recall  my lost annuals pretty well but there're two whose identities are as big a mystery to me as those of Billy the Cat and Katie were to their enemies.

The first mystery concerns a legendary figure of British athletics. I had an annual once in which there was a story about a mystery runner called WH Oami who, to everyone's astonishment, performed an unfeasible feat of distance running. At the tale's conclusion we discover that in fact it was all done by cheating, and the clue was in his name. As I'm sure you've spotted; WH Oami is another way of writing, "Who am I?" How could anyone doubt that all was not as it seemed?

The other annual lost from both my collection and my memory is one whose front cover featured a penguin on a sledge. When I got it one Christmas I was somewhat baffled to receive it as it was the annual of a comic I'd never even heard of let alone read, and seemed to be aimed at a much younger age group than myself. The cover was predominantly blue.

If anyone has a clue what either of these annuals were I'd be delighted to hear from you (I'm sure I can't be the only one in the world who remembers WH Oami). And remember, when it comes to such life-or-death information, those Steve Does Comics No-Prizes might be priceless but they're always available.

Thank you very much and Merry Christmas to you all.

Thursday 23 December 2010

The Ghosts of Christmas Passed.

Christmas. What a time it is. A time in our childhood when some of us could look forward to a whole heap of Marvel UK Annuals in our stockings.

Sadly, in my very early childhood the Marvel UK Annual had yet to be invented, and so I thought I'd take a look at what regular Marvel mags the comic fans might've been finding under their trees in the festive season of exactly forty years ago.

And what an oddly familiar lot of comics they are. In fact there's only one I didn't read when I was a kid. Thanks to those Marvel UK reprints, I got to read pretty much the entirety of Marvel's first decade and a half of publishing, all for a few pence a week. I suppose that means it was like Christmas every day for some of us.

Avengers #83, the Valkyrie

Who wouldn't get into the Christmas spirit with this? My favourite Defender makes her debut (in a fashion), as the Valkyrie shows those male chauvinists what an opponent really is.

Even though the tale's from December, I seem to recall it being set at Halloween, showing that forward planning wasn't necessarily a priority at Marvel.

I first read this in one of the Avengers Treasury Editions and it still has to be one of my favourite Avengers covers.
Conan the Barbarian #2, Barry Smith

Conan the Barbarian makes his second-ever Marvel appearance as, from humble origins, Barry Smith's artwork inches, step-by-step, towards greatness.
Daredevil #71, The Tribune

I vaguely recall this story from when it was reprinted in The Mighty World of Marvel. Sadly, apart from the fact it was drawn by Gene Colan, and that the Tribune was a full-time nut, I don't remember much about it beyond that.
Incredible Hulk #134, the Golem

The Hulk stands in for the Golem, with a large chunk of Frankenstein thrown in. It's one of my favourite Hulk tales, as our hero very slowly comes round to the idea that he should be taking on the evil Draxon the Dictator.
Iron Man #32

I've no idea at all what happens in this. I'm afraid that, of all the Marvel big-hitters, Iron Man post-Gene Colan's the one I have least knowledge of.

I blame Marvel UK for not reprinting enough Iron Man epics to keep me informed.
Thor #183, Dr Doom

Thor takes on Dr Doom. I read this story in Super Spider-Man Comics Weekly during its Being Printed Sideways phase - and remember diligently copying one of the panels, in my A3 cartridge pad. It showed Don Blake, with his cane, skulking around and up to something.

I loved this story. It had Thor. It had Dr Doom and it had John Buscema. What more could you ask?
Amazing Spider-Man #91, Bullitt

If Peter Parker thought he never had much luck, he should've tried being a member of the Stacy family.

After the death of her father, Gwen decides to recruit the services of a crooked politician called Bullitt, to get her revenge on Spider-Man. Not surprisingly, that turns out to be as good an idea as her dating Peter Parker was.
Fantastic Four #105, John Romita

It may be heresy to say it but when Jack Kirby left The Fantastic Four, and John Romita took over for a few issues I was delighted.

I'd nothing against Jack but I do love a bit of Romita and this was one of those rare stories where Sue Storm actually got to do something other than get kidnapped or stand around waiting for Reed to tell her what to do.

It didn't hurt that Jazzy John made her look as good as all his other heroines too.

Nick Fury Poll Results.

Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD #6, Jim Steranko. Nick Fury in space
The votes are in. The Internet has spoken. And you The Reader voted Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD as being better than Nick Fury: Howling Commando, by a mighty five votes to one - a result that only an agent of HYDRA could quibble with. Two people voted, "I don't like either." I could accuse those people of being mean-spirited but I was one of them, and for me to accuse myself of being mean-spirited would be the height of mean-spiritedness, so I won't do it.

As always I'd like to give a big thank you to everyone who voted. And, on this occasion, wish a Merry Christmas to you all. I hope that Santa's taken note of your efforts and'll be leaving more for you than you bargained for in your Christmas stockings tomorrow night.

Wednesday 22 December 2010

Avengers# 89. The Kree/Skrull War.

Avengers #89, the Kree-Skrull War
Just as it was inevitable that the Smog Monster had to take on Godzilla, so it was pre-destined that at some point I'd have to tangle with the greatest comic book epic of my childhood.

That's right. In a daring series running for night after night after night, I'll be reviewing Amazing Spider-Man's Death of the Kangaroo. Who can forget the trauma and horror we all felt as the antipodean bouncer opened that door to the reactor and...

Then again.

Maybe I'll stick to a lesser epic that thrilled me as a kid. Was there ever a cover that more demanded you buy it than that of Avengers #89? Who wouldn't be drawn in by the sight of poor old Captain Marvel being fried in an electric chair as the Avengers watched on?

Mere days ago the world thrilled to my recollections of the time when, as a child, I created the world's greatest comic strip, the tale of the sllurks and the eerk and the starship Pihs-Rats.

But I must confess it wasn't a totally original story. Being never backwards about going backwards, I disguised it brilliantly but, amazingly, its three completed panels may have been influenced by a set of comics that'd already been published.

Those comics were what came to be known as the Kree/Skrull War and right here's where it started. I could lie and say that every night I'm going to review an issue till the job's done but, as I found out with my Thor "Week", even doing four consecutive days on one subject's a strain for my pitiful excuse for self-discipline. So instead I suspect I'll be doing one issue a week, with Wednesdays being Kree/Skrull Night.

The war itself starts without warning, as Captain Marvel's again on the look-out for a way to escape Rick Jones. Ever since he was plunged into the Negative Zone Mar-Vell can only leave it for three hours at a time by swapping places with Jones. The rest of the day his consciousness sort of floats around in Rick's head. As Rick Jones spends half his time being rejected by super-types and the other half doing concerts that're clearly not exactly up there with Muse, it's hardly surprising that Mar-Vell's getting a bit desperate to get away from him. Fortunately, there's a way-out way out. He can use the doorway to the Negative Zone that exists in the Fantastic Four's Baxter Building.

Now, at this juncture, you or I'd pick up the phone and ask Reed Richards if we can use his machine but Captain Marvel's not like you and I. He's stupid. So, instead, he heads for the Baxter Building and breaks in. In doing so he manages to attract the attention of the both Avengers and Annihilus who, ever the optimist, sees the opening of the door as his chance to invade the Earth. The grandiose grasshopper though is quickly seen off by being sucked back into the Negative Zone, and Captain Marvel takes that as his cue to steal the Avengers' quinjet for no good reason.

What he doesn't know is that, thanks to his time in the Negative Zone, he's a bit on the radioactive side and if he's not drained of the radiation, he'll blow up and kill us all. That's what that cover's about. They're not trying to kill him at all. They're trying to save him.

Someone who definitely doesn't want to save him is Ronan the Accuser. He's back on the Kree home world and doing his usual thing of trying to overthrow the Intelligence Supreme who, despite being an intelligence supreme, hasn't noticed that all his guards have been killed. With a sinister blast, Ronan activates the sleeping Sentry and sends it off to kill the still-recuperating Mar-vell. Then again, compared with such a turn-up, maybe a lifetime of Rick Jones concerts isn't that bad after all.

Tuesday 21 December 2010

Tales of Suspense #39. Iron Man's origin.

Tales of Suspense #39, Iron Man's first appearance and origin
There are many things in life I don't know. I don't know who put the bop in the bop shoo-wop doo-wop. I don't know who put the ram in the ram-a-lam-a-ding-dong and I don't even know why do birds suddenly appear every time you are near. But one thing I know even less than any other is just what a transistor is.

I do know one thing though.

They're the future.

They have to be. Look at them. You can do anything with 'em. According to Tales of Suspense #39, you can increase the power of a magnet a thousand-fold for even more fun with iron filings, you can make bazookas the size of flashlights (although some of us would prefer to have flashlights the size of bazookas) and build suits of armour that can fly. If I had any sense at all I'd be investing in a transistor factory right now.

That factory would of course belong to Tony Stark, the Western World's greatest manufacturer of transistor-made technology. Not that that does him any good when he goes to Vietnam to get his jollies by seeing how good his weapons are at killing people who don't matter. You know. Communists.

That's right, it's the early 1960s and, if he can't be fighting alien invaders, there's nothing a Marvel protagonist loves more than getting one over on a Red.

Before Stark can even find time to stop and question whether being an arms dealer's the most ethical way to make a fortune, he has bigger fish on his plate as he finds himself captured by the evil communist Wong-Chu. Not only that but the booby trap that led to Stark's capture's left him with shrapnel embedded in his body. Shrapnel that's making its way towards his heart as remorselessly as the Proclaimers were once making their way to our front door. Can he survive?

Of course he can. He's got transistors.

Looking to buy himself some time, Stark agrees to make a weapon for his captor. Well, he makes the weapon all right but has no intention of giving it to a communist. He makes a suit of transistor-powered armour, and Wong-Chu's in trouble.

I've said before that, along with the origin of Thor, Iron Man has my favourite debut of all Marvel's Silver Age heroes. I'm not sure what this says, as both tales were scripted by Larry Lieber and not Stan Lee. Could it be that Larry was the true comic book genius in that family?

So, what's the appeal of the birth of the super-hero who doesn't introduce himself as, "I: Ron Man"? Well, I suppose it's a three-pronged attack. There's the tragedy of a grim reality being inflicted on a man who'd previously led a charmed life. Then there's the same man getting his comeuppance in a war he's done more than anyone to help propagate. There's also the self-sacrifice of Chinese scientist Yinsen - giving his life that Iron Man might live. As well as adding an element of tragedy and nobility to the tale - he is, after all, it's only genuine good guy - Yinsen's also important in letting us know it's communists we're meant to hate and not just anyone from East of Doncaster. Above all, there's the sheer sense of focus to the tale. Because of its low page-count, there's no room for the sort of diversions that found their way into the origins of the Hulk or the Fantastic Four.

But writing's only half the tale when it comes to a comic book. Just how good a job does Jack Kirby do on this new character's origin?

He doesn't. For once, Jack must've taken five minutes off work, because the thing's drawn by Don Heck and, as we all know, Don Heck was an artist whose bad days could leave you feeling like shards of glass were being hammered into your eyes.

Fortunately, when it came to Iron Man, Don Heck didn't have bad days. For me, the strip's early days  featured the best work I ever saw from him, and that applies here where he tells the tale with a pleasing simplicity. He didn't have the abandoned dynamism of Jack Kirby or the stylishness of Steve Ditko but, at his best, he occupied a ground somewhere between the pair and, while occupying the ground between greats might never confer that status upon you, there are times at least when Heck proved there are worse territories to occupy. But then, Tony Stark could have told him that.

Monday 20 December 2010

Superboy & the Legion of Super-Heroes #203. The death of Invisible Kid

Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes #203, the death of Invisible Kid, Mike Grell
Someone once told me Invisible Kid was transparently the greatest super-hero of all time.

Personally, I couldn't see it.

Maybe I was too busy wondering if Bouncing Boy had only married Duo Damsel on the rebound.

It seems I wasn't the only one not paying enough attention because, in Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes #203, it's Invisible Kid's turn to not be seeing things.

The Legion have decided to security-test their HQ by having some of their members fake a break-in, to see if the other members are alert enough to spot them. As the other members have  been warned in advance that the break-in's going to happen and even appear to know the rough time when it'll happen, you'd hope they'd spot they're being broken into.

Unfortunately, there's someone who doesn't spot it.

Invisible Kid doesn't have time to be foiling pointless fake break-ins. He's too busy canoodling with a girl he's met in a secret dimension that can only be seen while invisible. Cue remonstrations from his colleagues over his lack of professionalism at such a time of high alert.

But what can you do? When a boy's in love, a boy's in love and he can't wait to turn invisible again so he can propose to his beloved Myra. Myra, by the way, is his mystery girlfriend, not his shower. Even in the world of the 30th Century, marrying your shower would still seem a strange thing to do.

But, back in the visible world, there're other troubles awaiting the Legion because that titanic titan of terror Validus is on the rampage, seemingly being summoned towards the Legion HQ by the criminal Tharok's mental commands.

Except, when Superboy goes to see Tharok in prison, it's obvious that, with his robot-half severely damaged from his last run-in with justice, he's in no state to summon anything.

Back on Earth, Validus attacks the Legion HQ and makes short work of the Legionnaires until Invisible Kid puts two-and-two together and destroys a souvenir in the Legion museum. That souvenir's made of parts of Tharok's mechanical brain and was what lay behind Validus' rampage. With that gone, the monster loses interest in its fight with the Legion and heads off back into outer space.

But it's too late for Invisible Kid. He's been crushed by the huge hands of Validus.

This should be a tragedy. But then comes the twist that makes you feel like you've blundered into a Charlton Comic by mistake. It turns out his invisible girlfriend Myra's actually a ghost and, now that he's dead, they can be together through eternity, proving it really is an ill-wind that blows no one any good.

I do hope Invisible Kid was never seen again. Not because I have anything against him. If I'm honest, I'm not sure I'd even heard of him before this tale and so had hardly had the chance to build up resentment. Plus, from what we can see here, he seems a nice enough lad. But it's always depressing when dead comic book characters come back to life.

Speaking of people who weren't coming back, the issue features a surprisingly bitter mini-editorial about Dave Cockrum having left the strip. It seems fairly clear, reading between the lines, that DC noses were put well and truly out of joint by his departure.

Still, as great a loss as Dave Cockrum was, they were hardly left bereft. As this issue shows, they had Iron Mike Grell all ready to replace him, which was not a concept to be sneezed at. So, DC had Mike Grell,, Invisible Kid had Myra, and I had an issue of The Legion of Superheroes. It seems that some days you just can't help coming out on top.

Sunday 19 December 2010

Nick Fury. Agent of SHIELD.

Strange Tales #135. Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD's first appearance
One of the things I always find hard to believe in life is that the Second World War ended less than twenty years before I was born, and that those people who were teaching me at school - even some of the younger ones - had actually lived through it. Somehow they seemed too much a part of the modern world to have come from such ancient and alien times.

Another person I always found it hard to believe had been in the War was Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD.

Oh, I know we were told he was and I knew he had his own comic set in that very conflict but, somehow, no matter how I tried, I couldn't see him as the same man. The Nick Fury we got in Agent of SHIELD didn't look like the Nick Fury of the Howling Commandos, didn't dress like him and didn't even seem to live in the same world as him. While the other Nick Fury was stuck in the 1940s - a time we all knew to be technological primitive compared to our hi-tech world of the 60s and 70s - this Nick Fury inhabited a realm of ray guns, spaceships and jet packs.

And maybe that was the root cause of my problem with the strip.

I never believed in it.

Even when I was a kid and could accept that being bitten by a spider could give you super-powers, every single thing that happened in Agent of SHIELD just seemed too far-fetched to me. I remember reading the first SHIELD story, in Son of Origins of Marvel Comics, and even then, with its Life Model Decoys, cars that fired missiles, and flying fortresses, it just seemed totally disconnected from any kind of reality. Lee and Kirby (Kirby especially, you suspect) were clearly taking their lead from James Bond and his many gadgets but, being Lee and Kirby, they turned the dial up to 11 till it felt like gadgets were all you were getting. Only twenty years after the days of the Howling Commandos, the  world according to Marvel had gone from World War Two technology to devices that could do anything. How could you take such a technological leap seriously when, in Nick Fury, it had a thread tying it so intrinsically to that past - one whose very presence instantly reminded us that only twenty years separated the technology of the two eras?

The odd thing was I didn't mind either Nick Fury or SHIELD when they turned up as guests in someone else's mag. Nor did I mind characters in other mags using ridiculous technology. It was just when Fury, his cohorts and his technology came together in their own mag that I had a problem.

Still, despite all my complaining about the strip being too far-fetched, SHIELD did at least give us one thing I could accept.

Nick Fury's flying car.

I refuse to listen to anyone who tells me that thing could never work.

Name That Character Issue #3. Results.

Congratulations to the Groovy Agent on winning the latest round of the Internet's thrillingest quiz. He correctly surmised that our mystery character was none other than the surprisingly memorable Bouncing Boy from the Legion of Super-Heroes.

The Agent's site - Diversions of the Groovy Kind - was one of the ones that first got me fired up enough to launch a blog of my own, and I had several enjoyable minutes yesterday reading his reminiscences of his days as one of Marvel's top cover artists in the 1970s. Admittedly, right that the end of the article I finally cottoned on that the piece was actually written by Rich Buckler but, still, I enjoyed it anyway.

So, congratulations, Groove. From now on, to me at least, you will always be that man who used to draw the Mighty World of Marvel covers in the 70s.

Following his pulse-pounding triumph, the Groovester goes joint top of our league table, alongside cerebus660 and TomO.

For those who'd like to see it, the original post with the question in it can be found right here.

Saturday 18 December 2010

Name That Character Issue #3. This time it's personable

Real life, and my deep-rooted psychological need to spend all day tinkering with my template, mean I've not had time today to think of anything substantial to write about. Looks like that article about Iron Man's nose'll have to wait for another day.

But that means it's time for another round of the quiz that never fails to bring back nightmarish memories of TV's Dusty Bin.

So, for anyone still left with the will to live, here goes.

Rules: As always with Name That Character, every day I'll give a new clue to the identity of a Bronze or Silver Age comic book character until someone guesses who it is. The first person to guess it wins, earning him/her/itself a Steve Does Comics No-Prize and a coveted place on our almost legendary Name That Character League Table, currently headed by TomO and cerebus660.

Clue 1. Some people might think he has an over-inflated opinion of himself.

Friday 17 December 2010

Marvel Spotlight #14. The Son of Satan chills out.

Son of Satan in Marvel Spotlight #14, Ikthalon
And there was me thinking I had it rough, with my dad never seeming to know when it was Christmas. I should've recalled  that there're those amongst us for whom it's never Christmas.


Because their dad's Satan.

I could be showing my prejudice here but I suspect that, when Daimon Hellstrom was growing up, Yuletide was never celebrated big-time in Chez Lucifer. Still, not to worry; if the Son of Satan won't get to celebrate the birth of the Lord this Christmas, at least this issue he gets to have fun with snowmen.

Returning home from his latest clash with Darkness, it's not long before the Son Of - in his daytime guise of Daimon Hellstrom - finds himself invited to meet Dr Katherine Reynolds, about a university building that's haunted by demons. The demons are Ikthalon and his hordes, a group of beings from a world of ice, and themselves made of that substance. Granted, we only get to see about five or so of his hordes but I'm sure he's got the rest  hidden somewhere. Needless to say, Ikthalon and his kin plan to overrun the planet Earth.

Fortunately the Son of Satan's on hand and after getting captured in their ice kingdom where his fiery powers don't work, he quickly contrives a return to Earth to defeat the dread Ikthalon by melting him with Hell Fire, straight after promising he wouldn't. Exactly what happens to the rest of Ikthalon's demons isn't explained. The mysterious disappearing demons aside, this is the best part of the tale as the comic's "hero" proves himself perfectly happy to lie and cheat to get what he wants. He then follows this up by giving the hapless Dr Reynolds a good old-fashioned bitch-slap before flying off in a very ungainly manner.

While it might be ungallant and unbecoming for a hero to threaten a young lady - especially one as lovely as the young doctor - it has to be said she's been asking for it. After agreeing she wouldn't enter the building that night, she promptly entered it for no good reason, standing there like a lemon while the cretinous caretaker failed to take care and washed away the ankh that Hellstrom'd painted on the front step to prevent Ikthalon and his goons from leaving the building and taking over the world.

This is the Son of Satan's third outing and, for me, the tale's not up to the standards of the first two. For one thing it's not drawn by Herb Trimpe and therefore lacks the sweaty twisted delirium Trimpe brought to the title. Instead it's drawn by Jim Mooney. I like Jim Mooney. He drew Spider-Man and he drew Supergirl and he did both with a visual charm. But his somewhat wholesome style isn't ideal for a strip that deals with demonic creatures from Realms Diabolique.

Despite this, it's an engaging if insubstantial read. Clearly writer Steve Gerber at this point was looking to move the strip away from the, "Daimon Hellstrom takes on Satan," template laid down in the first two stories, and to widen its palette, its world and its supporting cast by bringing in Dr Reynolds who keeps declaring to herself that she's "fascinated" by Hellstrom. It makes the first move towards doing that, and does it entertainingly but you can't help feeling it's a strip that's rapidly conventionalising out, and already starting to lose sight of just how dark and macabre it had the potential to be.

Daredevil's costume. Poll results.

The votes are all in - and it seems the Daredevil costume the good people of the Internet prefer is...
...his red one.

In a devastating blow to those of us who prefer Matt Murdock in his original yellow and red threads, just one person voted for his original costume (that person was me), while four people voted for his all-red one, and one person voted that he/she doesn't like either of them.

So, well done to Daredevil's more usual attire for its stunning victory, and hearty thanks to everyone who voted.

Thursday 16 December 2010

Mighty World of Marvel Annual 1975.

Mighty World of Marvel Annual #1975, the Incredible Hulk
Dads. Are they psychic - sometimes sensing their future blunders and taking action to make amends for them before they've even committed them?

A couple of years before he completely forgot to give me the Avengers 1977 annual for Christmas - meaning that, when he finally remembered, I got it in the Spring - my dad, for no reason I've ever been able to determine, gave me the 1975 Marvel Annual, weeks before Christmas. Clearly Christmas was a movable feast in his eyes.

Why he did it I shall never know but I know it was on a Thursday because Top of the Pops was on and David Essex was singing I'm Gonna Make You A Star, with a little help from The Goodies.

Well, David Essex was a big fat liar and never did make me a star but my future bitterness over his broken promises was the last thing on my mind right then because I suddenly had a Marvel annual to keep me warm through those long dark cold winter nights. This was the first Marvel annual I had after the 1972 Fleetway Marvel Annual that had so disappointed me at the time and this more than made up for it. Not only had I not read any of the stories before but blow me down if they weren't in full colour too.

So, what did we get for our 90p?

Well, we got lots of Hulk. First up we got a double-length helping of him and his encounter with Captain Omen's undersea kingdom that owed nothing to Captain Nemo. Clearly Steve Englehart had the same kind of mentality that I had when it came generating names.

When it came to the tale itself, I was most struck by Captain Omen's bright red metal tentacles the Hulk thought were giant worms, the wide-bodiedness of his crew, the salivary goodness of Aquon and most of all  the shocking denouement as the crew of Omen's ship exploded in the lower air pressure of the surface world. Never before had my youthful mind reeled before such titanic terror. There were other things that grabbed me  too; the fact that General Thunderbolt Ross had been captured by the Russians, and that one of Captain Omen's crew kept a leaf as a sacred relic of the surface world.

This was followed by the Hulk's first punch-up with Zzzax, the creature from the Dynamo. I like Zzzax. Zzzax always referred to himself in the third perzzon and was as stupid as they came. This is how a Hulk villain should be. Through the story I also got a bit of a lesson in electricity from Hawkeye, thanks to which I've never been tempted to use my electric toaster in the bath.

Finishing off the annual we had what for me was its highlight; the Hulk's first-ever encounter with the Silver Surfer. The Hulk's determined to force the Surfer to take him into outer space, where he can escape the puny humans who hound him. The trouble is the Surfer's not allowed to go into space, thanks to the orders of Galactus. Violence follows - the ironic ending being that, after discovering where the Hulk came from, the Surfer's about to cure him, with his cosmic powers but the Hulk thinks he's about to attack him. The Hulk hits the Surfer in preemptive "retaliation" and the Surfer takes his board home and leaves.

Mighty World of Marvel Annual #1975, the Incredible Hulk
Sandwiched in between all this green goodness were a series of pin-ups, mostly the covers to the issues from which the annual's tales originated. There was also a very curious pin-up of the Hulk landing in what seems to be a courtyard, as a bunch of oddly-dressed men run away and a strange looking tank waits  in the background. I don't have a clue who did it. It's clearly not by what you'd call one of Marvel's top rank artists. The issue also features what for me's quite a special pin-up, a reproduction of Marie Severin's  cover to Tales To Astonish #99. Unless there's something wrong with the version on GCD, the one in the annual's clearly been re-embellished noticeably and it looks genuinely epic, which is why I'm reproducing it here.

So David Essex didn't make me a star and my dad never again displayed anything that resembled psychic powers but I had an underwater kingdom and a rider of the space ways to keep me happy and, in the often blighted days of the early 1970s, that was enough.

PS. Don't forget the breathless results of our Captain America vs Daredevil poll are in, fresh from the burning inferno of democracy -- and it's not good news for one of them.

Captain America vs Daredevil. Poll results.

The results of our latest sensational poll are in and, with a walloping majority of twelve votes to one, Captain America's battered poor old Daredevil when it comes to people's opinion on who'd win a fight between the pair.

Poor old Daredevil; not only the Man Without Fear but also the Man (almost) Without Friends. So, congratulations to Captain America, commiserations  to Daredevil, and thanks to all who voted.

Will the results of our Favourite DD Costume poll be equally as momentous? Only this blog can tell you. And it can only tell you tomorrow. Be there or be L7.

Wednesday 15 December 2010

At last - a hero like no other!

As you can see, today's picture is a lovely blank sheet of paper. Well, they say there's nothing to stimulate the imagination quite like nothingness, and this blank sheet certainly did that.

You see, it's no ordinary blank sheet. It comes from the inside back cover of Spider-Man Comics Weekly #50 and was produced for a competition they were running for readers to create a super-hero. As I mentioned in my review of that comic, a few months back; Reader, I entered the competition. Long and hard did I labour, for what must've been all of an hour, and when I'd finished, that blank sheet was filled by a character to send chills down the spine of any wrong-doer.

The Masked Manhunter.

The Masked Manhunter was like no hero you'd ever seen before. In fact he was like four heroes you'd seen before. He had a name taken from a not-at-all obscure DC hero of the time and a costume identical to the Black Panther's except he had boots like Captain America, a cape like everyone and carried a handgun. Strapped to one of his thighs was a pistol holster. Strapped to the other was a Fray Bentos tin.

Now, as I can see no possible reason for a super-hero to carry a meat pie into battle, I'm sure that, at the time, I didn't intend it to be a pie tin, but exactly what it was meant to be, I don't have a clue.

It's at this point I feel I should impress you by revealing the Masked Manhunter so wowed the editorial staff at Marvel UK that he won first prize, and so my career in comic books took its first step towards making me the industry giant I am today.

Sadly, despite his pie tin, the Masked Manhunter was never heard of again and my career in comic books only lasted until I once tried to draw one for my own amusement and gave up after three panels. The thing I soon discovered is that thinking up stories is a lot more fun than drawing them.

As for the contest; after all these years, all I remember is that one of the finalists was a creature called Anthracite - a monster made of living coal. I assume this meant he had all the powers of coal. Quite what the powers of coal are I'm not too sure. I suppose if it was a bit nippy you could set fire to him to keep warm but then he'd give off unheroic amounts of smoke; whereas a hero called Coalite - as those of us who grew up during the 1970s' power cuts could tell you - would've given off virtually no smoke at all. Then again, there were always the insane fire-hazard powers of Paraffin Heater Man.

Regardless of all speculation of heroes created in response to power cuts, this leads me to one question; Have you ever invented a super-hero? I'd especially like to hear from you if you were the child behind the might of Anthracite the living coal man. Even though I like to think Anthracite would've been helpless before the power of the Masked Manhunter, I'd still love to hear from you.

Tuesday 14 December 2010

Daredevil. Yellow and black, and red all over.

Mighty World of Marvel #20, Daredevil makes his first appearance and origin, yellow and red costume
A costume that demands to leap through paper.
As I've discovered to my own personal cost, it's all well and good having awesome super-powers but it's nothing if you don't have the right costume. Like a fool I thought that having the powers of a terrifying bird meant it'd be a good idea for me to run around town dressed as a giant chicken. "What could be better suited to strike terror into the hearts of criminals, who're a cowardly and superstitious bunch?" I reasoned.

Well, anything but a chicken, it turned out. My super-hero career was over before it had begun.

But there're heroes who got it right. Where would Captain America be without the wings on his head? He'd be in the latest Hollywood blockbuster, as it turns out, but that shouldn't blind us to the fact he knew a good costume when he saw one. The thing is, some heroes, like Cap, get it right straight away and others, like Iron Man, have to tweak things till they get it just-so.

But there's a third category. Heroes who get it right in the first place but then change their minds.

Daredevil #10, the Beast-Men, red costume
A costume that wouldn't be seen dead leaping
through paper.
All of which brings me to Daredevil. While it's true that most of Marvel's early changes to their heroes' costumes were for the better, I'm going to commit blasphemy by declaring I don't think Daredevil's was one of them. As I've said before, although the first half-decade of Daredevil doesn't really grab me these days, when I was a kid he was one of my favourite do-gooders. First introduced to me in the pages of Mighty World of Marvel #20 by a somewhat mighty Jim Starlin cover, I think the primary reason Daredevil so appealed was his costume. I don't mean the one we're all familiar with. I mean the yellow and red one he wore in his salad days.

It wasn't as slick as the version we're all used to - or as devilish - but it was more interesting, with its two-tone colour scheme and the strange buttons on his boots and gloves. The more familiar version might look more professional but it has no flair, it has no power to surprise. It wasn't just Daredevil who was leaping out of that Jim Starlin cover at you. It was his outfit. It was natural to draw him that way. One look at that first costume told you Daredevil was a showman. He had it written all over him.

So, while the world agrees that Stan Lee and his cohorts got it right in dumping Matt Murdock's original look, I'll sit in my little corner of my bedroom, in my chicken suit, dreaming of what might have been and knowing that, when it comes to Daredevil's costume, I've got it right and all those sensible people in the world have got it wrong.

Unless of course, there are those who agree with me?

Monday 13 December 2010

Daredevil #43. DD vs Captain America.

Daredevil #43, Daredevil vs Captain America
If ever there was an obvious hero for Daredevil to fight, it had to be Captain America, mostly because there weren't many Marvel heroes you could see him being able to tackle without getting his teeth smashed in. As Daredevil: The Man Without Teeth! would make a rotten title for a comic, it's just as well that in this issue he comes up against a hero who's similarly unencumbered with super-strength.

But if there's one thing our childhood selves should've learned  it's that Daredevil was versatile. It wasn't only super-heroes he couldn't handle.

He couldn't handle women either.

Like all good Marvel heroes, Matt Murdock didn't have the first clue about how to conduct a relationship, and so Daredevil #43 kicks off with him kicking off about the mess his love life's in. He's leaping around in his gym, giving its equipment a hard time because Karen Page has left him. Bearing in mind how dull she was, some might think this a difficult thing to get upset about but love's a strange beast and, when smashing up his gym doesn't work, he goes out in the hope of smashing up the Jester.

Rejected cover for Daredevil #43, Captain America vs Daredevil, Gene Colan art
Gene Colan's original, rejected, cover for the issue.
Sandwiched between the emotional drama of the first half of this tale and the physical drama of the second, the mention of the Jester has to be the worst part of this comic. It's like someone's got three balloons, the middle one of which they've suddenly let the air out of. Maybe I'm alone in my hatred of the character but frankly the only thing that could drag the comic down more than the Jester showing up would've been Mike Murdock turning up. Happily, Mike Murdock was "dead" by this point, having been blown to smithereens.

Instead of the Jester, our hero finds a thief who's stolen some radioactive materials. What DD doesn't expect  is that the radiation from the thief's haul affects his super-senses and turns him aggro - and if you're an aggro super-hero, there's nothing better to do than fight another hero.

So he shows up at what I assume to be Madison Square Garden to fight Captain America who's busy beating up members of the public for charity. I'm not sure what charity this was that expected people to get beaten up on its behalf but remind me never to give to it.

After a few pages of action, Daredevil regains his senses and makes like a banana by splitting as Cap's left in the street, none the wiser as to what it was all about. As for the fight itself, you do get the feeling that if it'd gone on for much longer Daredevil would've lost. Let's face it, that was the inevitable fate of Daredevil no matter what hero he met. There really aren't any Marvel heroes -  apart from maybe Ka-Zar - who you could realistically see him beating.

Gene Colan's art's as splendidly untidy, chaotic and energetic as ever and, when it comes to the fight, he repeatedly finds dynamic perspectives and angles with which to convey the action. You do wonder how both men don't end the scrap on a stretcher, such is the apparent force of the blows he has them land on each other, while, in the tale's opening section, Stan Lee merrily ladles on the human drama. The truth is there aren't many Daredevil tales from this era that grab me but I've always had a liking for this one. Ultimately it makes no difference to anything. Nothing's resolved. Nothing's proven. Nothing's answered. But it's sufficiently different from the typical DD yarn of the time to make it stand out.

PS. Don't forget the breathless results of our Captain America vs Daredevil poll are in, fresh from the burning inferno of democracy -- and it's not good news for one of them.