Wednesday 30 June 2010

Adventure Comics #408. Supergirl goes-a-haunting.

Adventure Comics #408, Supergirl, ghost When she left school, Supergirl showed her new-found independence from that awful Superman, who always seemed to be trying to ruin her life, by slavishly copying him and becoming a reporter.

Unlike him, she became a reporter in a place that actually existed - San Francisco - and so at least got the better of him in one respect.

In this issue's first tale, she and her intrepid reporter friends turn up at a reputedly haunted mansion. Happily, bearing in mind how smug they all are, the owner threatens to shoot them. Unhappily, bearing in mind how smug they all are, he doesn't.

Going back under cover of darkness, with the aid of a mysterious little girl, Supergirl discovers the shotgun-wielding owner killed the previous owners and walled them up in the cellar, hence his keenness on keeping snooping reporters at bay.

The big shock twist is the little girl's actually long-dead, and Supergirl has in fact been dealing with a ghost. This unbelievably jaw-dropping revelation is in no way shape or form given away by a front cover which tells you before you've even met her that she's a ghost.

In the second taleAdventure Comics #408, Supergirl, aliens on the beach, a bunch of aliens in helmets turn up, kidnap Supergirl's reporter friend and then reappear in order to declare they're stealing the Earth's water because they need it and they have a right to it because they're better than us, so there.

I think it's fair to say that, like virtually every Supergirl story ever written, neither tale's going to go down as one of the classics of comic book history. Both are based on a central cliche and they both suffer from on-going annoying subplots.

The first annoying subplot is the presence of a character called Nasty. If memory serves me right, I think she was the niece of Lex Luthor and was on a mission to expose Linda Danvers as being Supergirl.

Needless to say she hid her villainous intent magnificently by blundering around calling herself Nasty and constantly telling Linda Danvers she was going to expose her as being Supergirl. Clearly, like this issue's cover artist, she wasn't a person who believed in the power of surprise. Her constant attempts to expose Supergirl, mostly by tugging at her hair to see if it'd come off, were tedious in the extreme.

The Adventure Comics #408, Supergirl, haunted houseother problem is that DC at the time seemed obsessed with de-powering their heroines.

What Freud would've made of that I'm not sure but Wonder Woman lost her powers and, from what I can remember, became some sort of Emma Peel type karate queen while Supergirl had a terrible subplot for issue after issue after issue where her powers kept disappearing for no good reason whenever the tale got exciting.

By the time of this month's second story, she's wearing an exo-skeleton in case her strength fails and has filters up her nose so she can breathe underwater. We're told they'll even allow her to breathe in outer space, which'll no doubt be very handy as she explodes in the icy vacuum.

I can understand why writers might worry Supergirl's too powerful for the good of dramatic tension but it really is irritating to read her stories from this era and have her constantly going on about, "I hope my powers don't fail me right now," only for them to fail her right now. For God's sake, the title of the strip is Supergirl, not Ordinary Girl. It's like being stuck in a car that's guaranteed to stall at every set of traffic lights.

Am I sounding a bit grumpy in this review? I hope not because I actually have a soft spot for Supergirl in this era. The tameness and lameness of it all appeals to me in an odd sort of way and the feel of the stories reminds me of the stuff that was happening in British girls' comics at the same time. I just wish the powers-that-be had left things alone and let the Maid of Might be exactly that.

Tuesday 22 June 2010

Incredible Hulk #164. Bad Omens.

Incredible Hulk #164, Captain OmenThe Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau had nothing on the Undersea World of Captain Omen. Whilst Cousteau used to keep a seal captive on his boat and make it perform for the cameras, Omen's decided to keep the Hulk captive on his boat and use him as a labourer. Needless to say, with a protagonist as even-tempered as the Hulk, it's never going to end happily.

Maybe I have no genuine critical faculties or maybe it really is that great but the truth is The Incredible Hulk in the Herb Trimpe era can do no wrong for me. I can't think of a single one of those tales that I didn't like. He could draw monsters, he could draw machines, he could draw robots, he could draw aliens and, most of all, he could combine it with a simple but compelling form of visual story-telling. Granted, he couldn't draw traditional super-heroes too well but that never really mattered in a strip like this.

But how exactly did our hero get into this scenario? Simple. He did it the same way any of us would. Trying to get back to America, the Hulk finds himself going for a swim but is soon captured by the mysterious Captain Omen who bears no resemblance to Captain Nemo and is unchallenged ruler of a giant submarine that doubles as an underwater kingdom. By the end of the tale, everyone's fallen out and the Hulk's forced by Omen to walk the sea floor, eternally following the ship.

Incredible Hulk #164, Captain Omen,toad whales
All of this means Trimpe's in his element, getting the chance to draw submarines, wide people, funny-looking old people, fight scenes, and monsters a-go-go. He even gives us robot sparrows.

Writer Steve Englehart isn't quite so in his element when it comes to evolution. The crew of Omen's ship have only been aboard for two generations but already, we're told, they've evolved extra wide bodies to best survive the crushing depths. I'm no Richard Dawkins but I suspect it'd take longer than that - especially as Omen's undersea base clearly maintains surface levels of air pressure.

But so what? This is The Incredible Hulk, where exposure to Gamma rays gives you super-powers rather than killing you, where characters can speak in the vacuum of space, and women can be turned to glass then restored to normality with a quick blast of radiation. What matters is I love this tale as much as I love the entire Trimpe era, and the ending, with the Hulk trapped on the sea bed and forced to follow the ship of Captain Omen forever, is a great climax, eschewing the usual action-packed cliff-hanger melodramatics to give us a bind that there genuinely seems to be no way for the Hulk to escape.

I'll tell you what though. I bet he does escape.

Thursday 17 June 2010

"Covering the Covers" - The Sequel!

As promised roughly a week ago, it's the second part of my trawl through my favourite Bronze Age covers. And we kick off with four Nick Cardy covers in a row.

Superman #273, Nick Cardy Cover

Poor old Superman. First of all, in Superman #273, he's rejected by the people of Metropolis in favour of a man who dresses like Liberace...

Action Comics #440, Superman, Nick Cardy cover

...then, in Action Comics #440, he's rejected by his own dead parents.

Superman #276, Superman vs Captain Thunder/Marvel

Still, at least in Superman #276, Captain Thunder can't wait to meet him.

Superboy #194, Super-MerBoy

Something fishy going on. Superboy #194.

Mike Kaluta, the Shadow #12

I seem to spend all my time on here going on about how I prefer Frank Robbins' and E.R. Cruz's version of The Shadow to Mike Kaluta's. So, to prove I'm not Kalutaphobic, here's his rather stylish and magnificent cover for The Shadow #12

Frank Robbins, the Shadow #7

Then again, I can't not include Frank Robbins' cover for The Shadow #7

Jack Kirby, Kamandi #20

My second Kamandi cover, this time from issue #20, and my second Jack Kirby cover.

Jack Kirby, Where Monsters Dwell #2, Sporr, the giant amoeba

I know this is technically not a Bronze Age cover, having been drawn by Jack Kirby for 1960s' Tales of Suspense #11 but it's reprinted here on a Bronze Age comic, Where Monsters Dwell #2, and frankly that's all the excuse I need to post a picture of a giant orange amoeba threatening all mankind.

Wednesday 16 June 2010

The Shadow #10. E.R. Cruz; man of mystery.

The Shadow #10, E R CruzWho knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?

Not me.

Who knows anything at all about E.R. Cruz, DC mystery-artist extraordinaire?

Not me.

Not Wikipedia either. He doesn't even have his own page. He has a page on the DC Database site. This is it. Not exactly revealing is it? This has to be one of the great scandals of our age. I mean, even I have a Wikipedia page. Admittedly, I had to put it there myself but still...

The Shadow #10, E R Cruz
But perhaps it takes a man of mystery to draw a man of mystery and, whatever and whoever E.R. Cruz is or was, if ever there was anyone born to draw the Shadow it was the Filipino artist.

His work on the strip doesn't have the energy and quirkiness of Frank Robbins but it avoids the sterility of Mike Kaluta and gives it a somewhat filmic look as well as tying it into the world of DC's horror and mystery mags where it belonged.

So, what's the deal? In Night of the Killers, some small time crooks hold up a bank and take the local judge as a hostage.

As it turns out the judge is in on it and, with the aid of his trusty autogyro, the Shadow soon sorts everyone out. In writing terms, the tale suffers from the same problems as Michael Fleisher's Spectre stories of the same vintage which is the inevitability of the protagonist's victory against heavily outclassed foes. Basically, this is Brazil vs your local pub team and, surprise surprise, the pub team gets a beating.

The Shadow #10, E R Cruz
There's also a strange lapse in which, early in the tale, the Shadow's henchman Shrevvy spots a vital clue to the mystery. At the time a big deal's made of this. Trouble is, at the tale's resolution, we still haven't been told what that clue is. I'm assuming it's something to do with the judge's behaviour as he's being kidnapped but, having scoured the pages in question, I can't see any sign of it.

Still, in the end, as is his nature, the Shadow's always going to be more about style than substance and, in the hands of the only man on Earth more mysterious than the Shadow, it more than delivers on that score.

Sunday 13 June 2010

Kamandi #13. A day at the races.

Kamandi #13, A Day at the races by Jack Kirby

I suppose it's typical of Jack Kirby that, given the chance to do Planet of the Apes, he gives us Planet of the Everything, in which virtually every living creature is now more intelligent than human beings.

The one exception is Kamandi, the last boy on Earth. Whether he actually is genuinely the last boy on Earth or not, I'm not too sure. It's bad news for the human race if he is, as it suggests it's heading for extinction.

In Kamandi #13 it's the title character who's in danger of extinction as he's forced by leopards to enter a horse race in which the human contestants have to kill each other to win a cake. Needless to say, this being Kirby, somehow Kamandi manages to find himself riding the race on the back of a giant grasshopper.

Jack Kirby, Kamandi #13

It's a tale that throws into sharp relief Kirby's strengths and weaknesses. The strengths being his happiness to use any idea that pops into his head and an ability to keep the tale rushing along. The weaknesses being his traditional lack of interest in characterisation, structure and dialogue. On the strength of those weaknesses, I shouldn't like this issue which is, in plotting terms, a noticeably straight and slight thing but, like  The Eternals, it's a strip whose detached-from-our-reality nature makes it perfect for Kirby, and I definitely have to get my hands on more of the things when the chance comes up.

Jack Kirby, Kamandi #13

As a kid, I always subconsciously got an image of how an artist looked from how the people in his stories appeared. Thus, I had the idea that Jim Aparo was square-jawed and gritty and that Don Heck looked like an old-style movie star. It was a bit of a shock, then, to see how my favourite artists really looked. Jack Kirby was - along with John Buscema - one of the exceptions to this rule, as, when I finally got to see a picture of him, he actually looked just like I expected him to. Which brings me to the panel to the left. Is it just me or does it look suspiciously like Jack Kirby in a blond wig? Coincidence? Me imagining things? Or was it a deliberate policy of Kirby to get himself in his stories from time to time?

Friday 11 June 2010

Covering the covers, Part One.

Let's face it, when we were all knee-high to the wondrous Wasp, there were two factors decided whether you bought a comic or not. One was the star of it, the other was the cover. Of course, in the best of all worlds, it was both. But I thought I'd take the opportunity to post my favourite Bronze Age covers.

As is the case with the rest of the blog, I'm only going to post stuff I actually had as a kid, so there might be some great covers that get left off simply because I never had them. It's also my pick of the pics that grab me most, not necessarily what I think should be counted as the greatest covers of that age, so bear with me if some of my choices seem odd, perverse or just plain baffling.

After not a great deal of thought, I've managed to narrow it down to sixteen choices. To avoid going overboard on the image posting, I thought I'd split it into two posts of eight covers. So, in no particular order, here's my first batch:

Jack Kirby, Kamandi and the killer whale

I have to admit Jack Kirby isn't one of my favourite cover artists and, by all accounts, he hated doing them but, every so often, he showed us all how it should be done. Kamandi #23 is definitely one of those occasions. That thing's practically leaping out of the page, let alone the water.

Charlton Comics, Many ghosts of Dr Graves, Tom Sutton werewolf cover

The late Tom Sutton might not have been one of the more high profile artists but, for Charlton's Many Ghosts of Dr Graves #45, he gave us a masterclass in terror.

Jim Starlin, Rampaging Hulk crucified

Rampaging Hulk #4. Jim Starlin as good as ever.

World's Finest, cover, Superman and Batman vs Capricorn

World's Finest #218. Was there ever a better cover artist than DC's Nick Cardy? Like all his covers, I just love his composition for this, with the note from our villain cheerfully undermining our smug (and somewhat unobservant) heroes.

Tomb of Dracula, skeleton

Dracula looking like a wild beast, his foe looming like the spectre of death, as lightning crashes and tombstones stand witness. If Gil Kane and Tom Palmer's cover for Tomb of Dracula #16 doesn't leave you thinking we're in for the fight of the century, I don't know what could.

Weird Adventure Comics, Jim Aparo cover, the gasmen and the Spectre

It's Jim Aparo. It's the Spectre. It's (Weird) Adventure Comics #436. It's green. It's purple. It's simply the most elegant thing you've ever seen.

DC Comics, The Unexpected, Nick Cardy cover

Just to prove he didn't just do super-heroes, Nick Cardy gives us The Unexpected #149. If only the stories inside DC's horror mags had matched up to the drama of their covers.

Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes, Timber Wolf, cover

It's Nick Cardy again. Is there no stopping the boy? There might be but there's no stopping Timber Wolf in Superboy #197 as he takes on the Legion of Super-Heroes, single-handed.

Thursday 10 June 2010

X-Men #100. Out with the old, in with the new.

X-Men #100, Original X-Men vs New, coverIf ever there was a 1960s Marvel strip I could've lived without, it was the maraudings of Marvel's merry band of mutants. From the Fantastic Four knock-offs that were its heroes, to grumpy old Professor X - not to mention useless villains like the Toad - the whole thing just seemed so lame. For God's sake, the Iceman used to stick a carrot to his face and hold a broom to pretend he was a snowman!

But, back in the 1970s, we used to get proper summers, summers so hot it made your head hurt, your blood boil and your brain start to malfunction. So it was that, despite knowing I hated the strip more than school itself, when confronted by X-Men #100, on a Blackpool spinner rack, I knew I had to have it.

The instant I opened it, two things struck me. One, the new X-Men were so much better than the old and, two, I didn't have a clue what was going on.

For some reason, they were in space.

There was a madman ranting away.

The old X-Men were fighting the new.

Lorna Dane had a costume that defied several laws of physics.

X-Men #100, Dave Cockrum, old vs new
There was a woman called Storm floating around.

Jean Grey had suddenly got cojones.

A character called Night-Crawler said something in German.

A character called Wolverine had claws - and used them.

There was a space shuttle.

There was a solar flare.

And, most of all, nothing but chaos seemed to be reigning. This whole thing was on a totally different level from the Iceman and his carrot.

Apart from the total superiority of the new X-Men, both as heroes and as human beings, the other thing that strikes me now is how much more dynamic Dave Cockrum's art is on this than it was on his Legion of Super-Heroes run.

X-Men #100, Dave Cockrum, Jean Grey, space shuttle, solar flare
His work on that was great and made it a must-read strip but, here, the Dial of Drama's been turned up to eleven, virtually every panel leaps off the page as a masterclass in getting drama across to the reader. From his choice of angles, his ability to keep the action rolling and his knack of making you feel you're watching real people caught in the thick of it, Cockrum's work simply bowls you along unstoppably.

Coupled with Chris Claremont's determination to wring the most out of his characters - we get tears, we get anger, we get confusion - this was no longer super-hero comics as pure escapism. It was super-hero comics as a heightened form of soap opera and it was fantastic.

Now if only they'd let Cockrum and Claremont loose on Nick Fury, there'd have been no 1960s Marvel heroes left that I'd have had reason to loathe.

Tuesday 8 June 2010

Mighty World of Marvel Annual 1977.

Mighty World of Marvel Annual 1977, cover1976 was a bad year for Britain. We had the worst drought in history, the Brotherhood of Man hit the charts, and the government had to go to the IMF.

Happily, none of that mattered because we had a whole bunch of Marvel annuals to see us through, much as Vera Lynn had done in the war.

Flagship of this wave of rescue was of course The Mighty World of Marvel annual and it kicks off with a story that makes me very happy, as the Incredible Hulk comes up against his Communist Bloc equivalent the Missing Link.

Few monsters could get away with being pink, but the Missing Link pulls it off with style. Along with the Glob, the Link is possibly my favourite Hulk monster of his era. A shame then that we didn't see more of him over the years. The last time we did, Linky was exploding. Happily, a mere trifle like blowing up isn't enough to stop a man of the Link's calibre and now, in this tale, he's back, having been adopted by a mining community in the middle of nowhere.

The only problem is he's giving off dangerous radiation that imperils the very people who've taken him in.

Needless to say it's not long before the ever-turbulent Bruce Banner's lost his rag, and the Hulk and the Link are smashing the town up. Happily, the Missing Link explodes again and quickly reconstitutes, free of radiation.

I can't deny it, I'm a total sucker for 1970s' Hulk comics. There's just something that Happy Herb Trimpe brought to the table. Maybe it's the way he draws monsters. Maybe it's the way he draws machinery. Maybe it's just the way he tells a story but I get into these tales in a way that's quite unique. My only complaint about the outing is that, to my eyes, Jack Abel's inks don't suit Trimpe's pencils a millionth as well as those of John Severin and Sal Trapani did. But it's a crime I can forgive. Far as I'm concerned, as long as there's two big stupid monsters hitting each other, all's well in Hulk land.

A few days ago I reviewed Daredevil #115, featuring the conclusion of Daredevil's first encounter with the Shadow-inspired Death-Stalker. And, wouldn't you know it, this annual contains the previous instalment of that very tale as, blundering around the Everglades, the man without fear encounters that villain plus the Gladiator and the Man-Thing. Sadly, as too often with established villains who meet the Man-Thing, Gladiator turns out to be a scaredy cat and burns at the swamp monster's touch. Marvel's heroes never burned at the Man-Thing's touch, so I'm not sure why the villains did. They might have many unadmirable qualities but, if they were willing to take our heroes on, they couldn't have been that cowardly. Bearing in mind it's the mid-section of a longer story and therefore we don't know what's happened prior to it or would happen after it, it's all highly enjoyable, mostly because I do dig the Death-Stalker so much.

"No similarity between any of the names, characters, persons and/or institutions in this magazine with those of any living or dead person or institution is intended," a helpful box used to tell us at the start of every Marvel Comic. And so we next get a guest appearance from Richard Nixon, officially therefore designated not a real person. He's in the concluding part of a John Buscema/Stan Lee Fantastic Four tale in which Galactus has yet again returned to Earth in an attempt to get the Surfer to once more be his herald. I seem to recall that, when this tale was reprinted in Marvel UK's weekly comics, Nixon was redrawn as Jimmy Carter. Marvel really did like to pretend its presidents were imaginary. The FF are putting up a fight but, in the end, rely on the Surfer and Agatha Harkness (AKA; DSX McKinna) to sort them out. It's drawn by John Buscema and features Galactus, so, even if we don't have a Scooby what events have preceded it, it was always going to be good stuff.

Finally we get another Fantastic Four tale in which they take on the Hulk. In plotting terms, it's probably the crudest of our stories - the FF go looking for the Hulk, they find the Hulk, they knock him out - but it's drawn by George Perez and you never tire of the Fantastic Four against the Hulk.

It has to be said the choice of tales for the annual's an odd one. The stories themselves are fine but, apart from the Hulk outing, they're all single instalments of two or three part tales, meaning you simply don't know what's happened before and are left wondering what happens after. As a sample of what Marvel had to offer, they clearly worked and, if I were a new reader, they'd've been more than enough to get me hooked. But it would've been nice if they'd chosen single-parters and not kept leaving us dangling. Single-part stories were thinner on the ground in the era the choices come from but, off the top of my head, I can think of stand-alone FF, and Daredevil stories of that vintage that could've taken their place.

PS. Because I'm in a generous mood and I'm too bone idle to look it up, a great big Steve Does Comics No-Prize goes to the first person who can tell me from what original issues the above tales are reprinted.

Sunday 6 June 2010

Daredevil #115. The Shadow of the Death-Stalker.

Daredevil #115, Deathstalker, coverOne of the things I loved in the good old days before Marvel and DC got on well enough to do collaborations was when a Marvel hero found himself up against a DC hero. Of course, thanks to that inconvenient thing known as copyright, names had to be changed to cunningly disguise what was going on.

Probably my favourite example was Avengers #70 when our heroes assembled found themselves against the Justice League of America, renamed the Squadron Sinister. And, of course, there was X-Men #107 when, under the pencil of Dave Cockrum, Marvel's mightiest mutants found themselves fighting Cockrum's previous charges the Legion of Super-Heroes in everything but name.

With Daredevil #115, it was the man without fear's turn as he found himself up against the Shadow. Obviously, they didn't call him the Shadow, they called him Death-Stalker but the silly hat, the tendency to vanish into thin air and the love of inappropriate laughter left you in no doubt who he really was.

But it wasn't that simple.

Just as the early Christian Church demonised the gods of rival religions, so Marvel demonised DC comics' heroes and, far from being a determined battler of evil, the Shadow became a bad guy out to sell secret formulae to enemy powers and had a death touch that supposedly slew all it encountered. In fact, in the issues I read, I'm not sure it ever managed to slay anyone. I seem to remember him using it on the Man-Thing, the Gladiator and DD and all lived to fight again. Oh well, what's a villain without a little hyperbole?

Daredevil #115, Deathstalker
The Shadow might know but Daredevil doesn't.
Apart from him being a bad guy, the main thing that separated Death-Stalker from the real Shadow was his love of kinky boots. I'm not totally sure what that was about. Perhaps it was supposed to be some clue that our villain, by day, worked in a sex fetishists' shop, or was in reality a very short man, so that eagle-eyed readers would no doubt benefit from looking out for the arrival of a diminutive supporting character who could later be exposed as the villain himself. Whether this happened or not, I'm not sure. It certainly would have in the days of Stan Lee.

The story is that Foggy Nelson's sister Candace has stumbled on some documents relating to the formula that turned Ted Sallis into the Man-Thing, and now the Death Stalker's stolen them so he can sell them to whatever nation would like to create a race of pollution-breathing monsters. I suspect most nations would like to do that. Needless to say, after a bit of difficulty here and there, our hero finally succeeds in stopping him with the aid of an acid vat. To do this, he requires an incredible amount of luck. DD thinks to himself, "Where would Death-Stalker be?" On fairly flimsy grounds, he decides he might be at a chemical plant. And wouldn't you know it, the first chemical plant our hero comes across, Death-Stalker's there. Sherlock Holmes eat your heart out.

As a kid, I always had a soft spot for Daredevil, possibly because his lack of powerage made him more human and more the sort of hero that theoretically, any of us could be. As an adult, I'm not so bothered.

Reading through his adventures in the first three Essential Daredevil volumes was an oddly empty experience for me compared to the likes of Essential Avengers, Spider-Man and Thor. I found it hard to get into Gene Colan's art, and the human side of Daredevil's life, his trials and tribulations with Foggy Nelson and Karen Page, seemed dull compared to Peter Parker's. However, by the time issue #115 had come along Colan was gone and the strip was being drawn by Bob Brown. There was nothing spectacular about Brown's work but, like Sal Buscema, he was a solid story teller whose people looked like people and I do like the way he portrays Death-Stalker here, as a somewhat melodramatic, pantomime villain, never shirking the chance to adopt an arch pose.

The relationships also seem more interesting. We've had Candace Nelson added to the strip, and the Black Widow and Ivan are still lurking in the background, mostly hanging around on park benches. As a result, I do find this tale more interesting than those earlier ones, an odd example of a strip improving after what, at face value, is its classic era. It's still nothing special compared to Marvel's greatest triumphs but it carries you along painlessly and I'm not sure I have the right to ask more of Matt Murdock than that.

Thursday 3 June 2010

Marvel Premiere #31. Woodgod. Playing the not-so-giddy goat.

Marvel Premiere #31, WoodgodGenetic hybrids. Who doesn't want one? I've always wanted to create a being that's half killing-machine and half sofa, so I'd have a creature that could destroy all my enemies but would give me somewhere comfy to unwind when I saw all the dead bodies. In Marvel Premiere #31, two scientists, called the Paces, create a being who's half-man half-goat.

This is a mistake - and not only because such a creature would lack comfyness when sat on. It seems that, as well as making hybrids, the Paces are also creating huge big vats of nerve gas for the government.

As you can imagine, this combination of gas, genetic mutation and a bunch of drunk locals who show up at the house, looking to destroy, "the monster," proves an unhappy one and, within minutes, the whole town's dead, killed by the escaping gas. It's a terrible warning and the reason I never keep nerve gas in the home.

In the summer of 1976, I was actually quite fixated by this story. Looking back on it now, I'm not totally sure why. I suspect it was the combination of neuro-toxins and pretension that did it. Although it blares out at me now like an air-raid siren, the tale's total lack of logic never struck me, as a kid. Why did the Paces decide to create a human/goat hybrid? Do people working on deadly nerve gas for the government really do it in huge glass vats in their house?

Marvel Premiere #31, Woodgod
Regardless, damage done, some more government types turn up and try to kill Woodgod, get nowhere with that plan and, at the end of it all, Woodgod, wanders off into the distance, accompanied by the words, "The End?"

I'm not too sure what Marvel's plan was with Woodgod, whether it was meant as a one-off tale or if there were hopes to turn it into a series.

If the latter, given the protagonist's lack of a motivational force, it's hard to see what could've been done with it other than turn it into a kind of clone of the Hulk, with Woodgod roaming from town to town, wondering why no one wanted to be his friend, as some official agency tried to kill/capture him. I get the feeling that, if it'd continued, it would've been a classier version of all those titles Atlas Comics churned out during their brief existence, in which case it's probably best such a series never saw light of day.

Marvel Premiere #31, Woodgod, end
Thought of as a one-off story, it works much better. Although nicely drawn by Keith Giffen, its main flaw is writer Bill Mantlo's insistence on going on and on about "Scream" everywhere. It seems like every page has to have at least one reference to the concept.

It's hard to know exactly what he was getting at, as Scream, whatever it might be, seems to be something he's ascribing to the whole of existence, and it really doesn't add anything to the tale. Take this particular piece of pretension away from it and the outing's a mildly diverting Outer Limits kind of thing, without the twist ending.

But, whither Woodgod? According to Wikipedia, he went on, via guest slots in other people's comics, to create his own community of genetically-engineered beings who seem to be like the Inhumans, although, never having read the comics in which this happened, I could be wrong. So, he started off as a cross between man and goat and ended up as a cross between Black Bolt and The High Evolutionary. It seems some people just can't make up their minds as to what they're supposed to be.

Tuesday 1 June 2010

The Titans Annual 1977. A sideways look at a non-sideways book.

Titans Annual 1977, coverAccording to that infallible source of information we call Mr Google, The Titans was an unpopular comic unloved by readers because it shrank artwork to the size of a postage stamp, and feared by newsagents because it'd flop around hopelessly when stacked vertically. This is odd as I have nothing but happy memories of it.

For those not in the know, in 1975, someone at Marvel UK had the type of stroke of genius that leads to the invention of Post-It notes and decided to launch a comic that was printed horizontally rather than vertically. Because of the larger paper sizes used in British comics, this meant two pages of artwork could be printed on every physical page of comic, meaning that twice as much story could be crammed into each issue.

Granted, at a time when Marvel's weekly reprints were fast catching up on the US originals, printing twice as much material every week probably wasn't the wisest of moves but like I cared. I was getting twice as much super-hero action every Saturday. That's all that mattered to me.

It differed in one other way too. While the other Marvel UK's had a regular roster of strips, the Titans line-up changed on a regular basis, mostly because it concentrated on characters who'd often struggled to hold down their own title Stateside. And so, while the other UK mags gave us big-hitters like the Hulk, Spider-Man, Fantastic Four and the Avengers, in The Titans we found the likes of the Inhumans, Agent of SHIELD and Captain Marvel.

1977's Titans annual however ignored all that and was printed vertically. It kicks off with a story in which the Sub-Mariner comes up against a slime monster from space. Apparently, it was first conceived as the second part of an Aquaman story but, when it was never used, Steve Skeates dusted it down and rewrote it as a Sub-Mariner tale. This does explain something that always baffled me as a kid and that was why the Sub-Mariner in this tale seems noticeably less powerful than he normally is.

Next we get the comic book equivalent of a clip show, as Captain America spends twenty pages looking back on his life and career, trying to decide if he should remain as Captain America. Rather surprisingly, at the tale's conclusion, he decides he shouldn't. Despite being one long string of flashbacks, Sal Buscema and Steve Englehart give us what has to be viewed as the best tale in the book.

I think I've mentioned before that I was never that fussy as a child. The only 1960s Marvel Comics I never liked were ones starring Nick Fury, and the Original X-Men. It's a bit of a shame then that, from this point on, the annual becomes an Original X-Men smorgasbord; first with a Werner Roth drawn look at the powers and prowess of Cyclops and then, with a Dashing Don Heck story wherein they come up against Frankenstein's Monster who turns out to be a robot from outer space. Frankly, it's a terrible tale. All the more so since Prof X knows all along the monster can be defeated by Iceman but refuses to let Iceman use his powers on it until the allotted twenty pages are up. Re-reading this juvenile run-around reminds me all over again of why I hated the 1960s X-Men.

Next it's back to Werner Roth for a look at the powers and prowess of Marvel Girl . Despite being written by Linda Fite, who I assume to be a woman, it seems Marvel Girl's powers consist mostly of picking apples, peeling apples, doing housework and picking up scissors. She then reveals that her greatest power of all is the power to get men leching after her in the street. Who says the 1960s were a different age?

We finish off with another Captain America tale. Why the Captain gets two stories when a whole bunch of characters who featured in the weekly comics are missing is anyone's guess. Bearing in mind the short-lived nature of many of The Titans' strips, maybe there were simply more unused Captain American back issues available but it's an odd tale, drawn by Frank Robbins, who seems to loom large in this blog. Cap Am's walking past an airport when, as you do, he decides to randomly climb aboard a plane. As luck would have it, it's full of criminals led by the notorious Dr Faustus. After messing about for a bit, Cap sorts it all out by calling the police and letting them deal with the bad guys. In terms of super-heroics, that might not be the most dynamic thing you've ever seen from a Marvel character but it probably is the most sensible. I like to think Cap was hiding in the toilets while the police were sorting things out.

In retrospect, it's an oddly disappointing annual, bearing little relation to the comic that spawned it and certainly isn't up to the standards of the other Marvel UK Annuals that came out that year. But so what? I don't care. It appeared in my life on Christmas Day and you're never going to feel ill-disposed towards anything that did that.