Tuesday 30 November 2010

Thor: Agog at Mangog.

Thor #155, Mangog, Jack Kirby
As our Thor Week concludes after, erm, four days, the most important question of them all has yet to be answered. Just what is my favourite Thor story of the era I'm covering?

It's not a simple choice. The Silver and Bronze Ages gave us a whole slew of classics. I love the first High Evolutionary story and the first Destroyer outing, not to mention the Wrecker's debut. There was Thor's first clash with Galactus and the first appearance of Ulik. Who could forget Ego, the living planet, or Hercules' descent into the Underworld?

From the John Buscema era there was the tale where Odin turned evil and thus became a slightly greater threat to the whole of existence than he normally was, and I do have a soft spot for the story where the Silver Surfer gets his board smashed by the Demolisher. Granted, that could owe more to my not being a fan of the Surfer rather than anything else.

But, no matter how hard I think about it, I can't get past one story and that's the four-part epic that is Mangog's first appearance. Mangog, a being of pure evil, made from the souls of a billion billion beings, a single-minded menace that didn't know how to take no for an answer.

The appeal of Mangog was obvious. Nothing could stop him. It was impossible to not be thrilled by the sight of him flinging storm giants around, smashing Asgardian legions and shrugging off Thor's mightiest blows like they were feathers.

If there are failings with the tale, for me, they're twofold. One is that, while Odin's in his Odin Sleep and Thor's busy trying to stop the monster, Loki finally gets his chance to claim the throne of Asgard but, having got it, shows no great interest in protecting it from the rampaging behemoth. I know Loki's supposed to be the God of Evil and therefore untrustworthy but it would've been nice if, once in power, like Dr Doom, he felt some urge to fight to preserve his kingdom.

The more damaging flaw was the resolution. In it, just as Mangog's about to draw the Odin Sword and destroy the universe, Odin finally condescends to wake from his Odin Sleep and deal with the menace. He does it with a ridiculous ease, simply willing Mangog out of existence with a casual wave of his sceptre. After all that battle, after all that strife, all that melodrama, it does feel like a total cheat for it to conclude so tamely and it brings home the problem of having a seemingly all-powerful character in the strip, a problem that meant contrivances like the Odin Sleep had to be invented to keep him away from the action.

Was Mangog based on Forbidden Planet's Monster from the Id? That too was an unstoppable beast crafted from the machinations of a dead race and, in that final shot of the creature fading as Odin exposits, the last glimpse we see of it's noticeably reminiscent of that monster.

Complaints about the resolution aside, the tale works because it's simply the ideal playpen for Jack Kirby to unleash his all-action style. Thor's battle with Mangog in issue #156 is simply awesome, as the thunder god throws everything he has at it and has any artist ever got more dynamism into his work than Kirby does for the following issue's assault on Asgard? Given such pictures, how could Stan Lee refuse to give us his finest hyperbole?

So there you have it. Action and hyperbole. In the end, what more could you want of a Thor story?

Monday 29 November 2010

Hela. Drop dead gorgeous?

Hela, goddess of death, and her great big doggie
There comes a time in the life of even a god when he must lay down his sword and turn his thoughts to the gentler things in life; puppies, kittens, and fluffy romance. As we're still in the middle of my Thor Week, that raises the question of who was my favourite female character in the strip.

It's a dread reality that, during the time when I was reading Thor, there wasn't an awful lot to choose from. Basically, we had Sif, Jane Foster, Karnilla and Hela. There was someone else, I seem to recall, a seven foot tall warrior woman type, during John Buscema's reign. Being a Viking, she was probably called Hildegaard, or Brunhilde or something but the fact I can't remember her name suggests she can't have made that great an impact on me.

Well, as we saw when she got her chance at godhood, Jane Foster was a total wimp and, after a good start, the lovely Karnilla spent more time pining after boring old Balder than she did weaving mischief.

All of which left Sif and Hela. Well, I had a certain soft spot for Sif. Leaving aside the fact she seemed to buy her spray-on armour at the same place that Wilma Deering bought her spray-on spacesuits; after years of Jane Foster, anything was going to seem good, and at least Sif could handle a sword.

But still, when it came to it, Sif was another Stan Lee heroine, which meant that, in times of crisis, she was still there to be rescued at every opportunity by Thor.

But Hela....?

Hela, goddess of death, gets philosophical
Hela. Saying in four panels what it once took Neil
Gaiman's Death an entire issue to say.
Now Hela was the real deal. Long before Neil Gaiman gave us death in female form, Marvel gave it to us. And could they have done it with more style? She was eight foot tall. She was the living incarnation of death. She wore a silly head-dress, hung around in a land of mists and could flatten Thor if she really wanted to. What was there not to like?

I was so much on her side that every time she turned up, I wanted her to win. I actually wanted her to kill Thor and bring the strip to an end - not because I had anything against Thor but just because, sometimes, some villains you want to win. Thus was I terribly aggrieved when, in Thor #190, Odin killed her. The idea that Odin - or anyone else - could kill Hela was, to my eyes, a disgrace. She was death! How could Odin  kill death? Even Odin should be powerless against her. My god, even Galactus should be powerless against her.

Happily, despite the Odin aberration, she "lived" to kill again and all was right once more in my world but still it was a shameful episode in the history of the human race. The last I saw of Hela was in the pages of an X-Men comic where Storm had become the new Goddess of Thunder and, not happy about it, the X-Men took on Asgard. I seem to recall Hela tried to claim Wolverine at the tale's climax. As always, she lost - but she retained her sense of menace, so I was happy.

So, there it is. When it comes to goddesses, my ideal woman's eight foot tall, wears a silly head-dress and is death. I'm not sure what it says about me but I like to feel it says all you need to know about her.

Sunday 28 November 2010

Odin: the Norse Numbskull.

Odin, king of Asgard
Ah yes. Odin... the living incompetence.
Having recently ploughed through those first few Thor Essentials, I've come to the conclusion that I'm on Loki's side. Granted he might have been evil and stupid and could've taken someone's eye out with those horns but there's one good thing you can say about him.

He wanted to get rid of Odin.

Has there ever been a stupider and more annoying comic book character than Odin? Granted there've been other annoying comic book characters - Mantis and Moondragon spring instantly to mind; not to mention Mr Myxomatosis or whatever he was called. And as for Superman...

But then again, Mantis, Moondragon and Mr Myxtlpltoijoindfonjrognjeoerhptl (?) were at least meant to be annoying and, however irritating Superman may have been, he did at least make up for it by repeatedly saving the world.

Odin, however, was a threat to all who lived. Despite his constant declarations of being all-wise and all-knowing, he messed up every single thing he ever did. He created an indestructible suit of armour that became a rampaging engine of destruction if anyone got close enough for it to absorb their life force. He created a sword that'd destroy the universe if it were unsheathed. He decided to amalgamate a billion billion evil beings into one unstoppable evil being and then left it in a cave where any old troll could find and release it. And let's not forget that incident where he transferred his power to his evil adviser Siedring the Schemer who - being a schemer - used it to take over Asgard. Which bit of the word, "Schemer," did the all-knowing not get?

If that weren't enough, whenever he was needed to sort out any of the messes he'd created, he'd be in his Odin Sleep, with orders that none should wake him, no matter what was going on in the real world. In Thor #180, we were even treated to the sight of him sending Thor (in Loki's body) to Mephisto's hell and then, when Thor's friends tried to tell him the mistake he'd made, them being told it was his time of day for brooding, and therefore none may disturb him! Well, brooding, that's so much more important than any threats your loved ones might face.

But his biggest crimes against competence were his ridiculous hissy fits where, just when Thor most needed his godly powers, Odin'd strip him of them to teach him a lesson, usually leading to Thor's total humiliation and occasional death. If I were Thor, the only lesson I'd learn from this is that Odin's a complete imbecile.

Being evil, and a coward, and totally untrustworthy, Loki might not have been the ideal ruler but he was the only one in Asgard who seemed able to spot that Odin wasn't fit to run a whelk stall. Therefore I like to feel he should at least have been given a chance. I mean, he couldn't really do a worse job than the bloke who inflicted Mangog on the universe.

Could he?

Ditko, Romita & Andru. The art of spinning a line.

Amazing Spider-Man #69, John Romita
Faster than a flash of lightning, Spidey swings
into action, ready to punch Steve in the face
before he can do any more posts in the style of
Stan Lee!
ITEM. Hold onto your hats, true believers, because the results of our greatest-ever poll to find the finest, most magnificent, most majestic Spider-Man artist of the Silver and Bronze Ages are finally in! Steve Does Comics' favorite, Radial Ross Andru has one vote, Sizzling Steve Ditko has two votes -- but, with a universe-shaking five votes, Jazzy John Romita is our ever-lovin' winner! And remember, pilgrim, five votes is all it took to get George Washington elected first-ever President of the United States!* Smilin' Steve can see that extra head being carved on Mount Rushmore right now!

(*This claim may not be true! -- Factually Inaccurate Steve)

Mary Jane Watson's poll dance - the results.

Amazing Spider-Man #87, Gwen Stacy and Mary Jane Watson
MJ and Gwen are so outraged by the results of
our poll, it's all Harry and Captain Stacy can do
to keep them apart.
ITEM. walloping web-snappers! The result of our sensational Mary Jane Watson v Gwen Stacy poll are in -- and, with two votes for the lovely Gwendolyn, two for the ever-swingin' MJ, and one for, "It's a draw," that means our tumultuous poll of power is a tie! Never before have the people of the Blogiverse spoken so loudly!*

(*I'm definitely going to have to give up taking the Stan Lee lessons.)

Saturday 27 November 2010

Journey Into Mystery #83. Rocky times for the Stone Men from Saturn.

Journey into Mystery #83, Thor's first ever appearance, and origin
Hold onto your hammers because it seems it's gonna be Thor Week here on Steve Does Comics.

I could claim this is down to me being as topical and in touch as always and therefore foreshadowing the Thor movie that's due out come May.

It wouldn't be true.

It's because I've been reading two of the Essential Thor books in the last few days and, verily, I'm fully Thor'd up.

Admittedly, when I say, "week," I can't guarantee it won't be longer or shorter, or that every post'll be about Thor. Such is the ramshackle and uncoordinated nature of this blog. But, as with my schoolboy days as a wizard of the wing, I shall set the ball rolling and see where it takes me.

I can't deny Thor's origin's always been my favourite of all the main Marvel heroes. I suspect it's because it's a lot more concentrated than most. In Fantastic Four #1, we get two stories in one, the tale of how they became the Fantastic Four and then the tale of their first meeting with the Mole Man. In the Hulk's debut, we get the origin of the Hulk and then his encounter with the Gargoyle. In Amazing Fantasy #15, we get the story of how Peter Parker's a social outcast then how he gets spider powers then how he uses them to make money and then the twist that finally turns him into a super-hero.

Journey into Mystery #83, Don Blake finds a stick
There's none of that messing about with Thor. With Thor's debut, from the first page to the last, the whole thing's devoted to the Stone Men and their attempt to take over the world. Don Blake even gets his powers directly as a result of the Stone Men's invasion. The only other Marvel origin I can recall, off the top of my head, that's as concentrated in its story-telling is Iron Man's but, as Iron Man's just up against normal people, it doesn't have the sense of magic and fantasy that Thor's origin does.

The second reason it's always grabbed me's probably that it's the only major Marvel origin that, as a kid, I could see happening to me. Even at a very young age I knew the chances of me being fired into space, FF style, were a little slim, as was the chance of me being bitten by a radioactive spider. As for the likelihood of me getting caught in a Gamma bomb blast...

Journey into Mystery #83, Invincible
Still, finding a stick. I could do that. In fact, I used to find sticks all the time. Admittedly none ever gave me super-powers but, still, at least the opportunity was there.

But most of all, my love of Thor's origin has to come down to one thing.

Its bad guys.

I'm not going to hide it for one second. I love the Stone Men from Saturn. They were made of stone. They could uproot trees with their bare hands. They hung around in fields, talking to themselves. They had spaceships and a robot.

Journey into Mystery #83, Thor's first ever appearance, and origin, the Stone Men from Saturn and the Mechano Monster
Spiritually, of course, they didn't come from Saturn. Spiritually they came from those old monster mags Stan Lee and Jack Kirby'd been churning out before Marvel'd turned its gaze back towards super-heroes. Still, that didn't mean I didn't love them.

Now, I'm not oblivious to the prospect that this might not be a universally held view. The fact they were neither seen nor heard from again until 1977 tells me all I need to know about their popularity at the time but I think of it this way; virtually all  Marvel's Silver-Age heroes encountered aliens very soon after they were created and, of that wave of would-be invaders, the Stone Men were easily the best.

Not for them the silly antics of the Skrulls, the Toad Men, the Tinkerer's little helpers or of whatever those aliens were supposed to be that set a robot Neanderthal on Iron Man. Oh, no, the Stone Men just turned up with their fleet and started invading.

Journey into Mystery #83, Thor, Stone Men from Saturn
And yes I know people'll be pointing out the obvious problem - that we know there are no Stone Men on Saturn.

Well, I don't know it. Until they land a man on Saturn and he's not greeted by rocky men and their Mechano-Monster, I'll refuse to know it.

But, beyond that; the last time I looked, there were no Norse gods on Earth, and that never put us off the mag, therefore why should the alleged absence of Stone Men on Saturn?

So, no matter, what anyone else says, I say hooray for the Stone Men from Saturn, and for the hours of fun I had behind settees, pretending to be Don Blake fleeing them when I was a child.


If only I'd had a stick.

Thursday 25 November 2010

Superman vs the Amazing Spider-Man. Worlds apart.

Superman meets the Amazing Spider-Man Marvel DC Treasury Edition, Ross Andru, Neal Adams, Dick Giordano
Plenty of other people on the Blogosphere seem to have been talking about this lately, so I may as well leap on that wagon they call band and give my own thoughts on the matter.

I got my copy of Superman Vs The Amazing Spider-Man back when it first came out. That was hardly amazing, I'd already got a few Marvel Treasury Editions by that point and if there was one I wasn't going to miss out on, it was the first ever senses-shattering, epoch-making encounter between Superman and Spider-Man. I'm pretty sure I got my copy from Sheffield's Sheaf Market, as I remember reading parts of it on the bus on the way home but, even before I'd bought it, it was clear to my twelve year old brain that there were inherent problems with the concept.

One was that Superman and Spider-Man clearly lived in different worlds, so how could they possibly meet?

The other was that Superman was a gazillion times more powerful than Spider-Man so how could they possibly fight?

Superman vs The Amazing Spider-Man, Marvel/DC Treasury Edition
As it turned out, the second question was easily dealt with, as Lex Luthor fired a beam at Spidey that temporarily boosted his power.

The other matter was completely ignored as we were seemingly meant to take it for granted that Superman and Spider-Man actually do inhabit the same world - it's just that they inhabit different cities in that world and had therefore never before met.

It was a less than satisfactory solution and, given that both Marvel and DC had in the past been willing to send their heroes off into alternate worlds, a somewhat surprising one. Maybe neither company wanted their hero to pass into the other company's world because that'd raise questions as to which company's world was the real one? Well, clearly Marvel's is because it's set in  places that actually exist, whereas the DC universe is full of cities that don't. Perhaps there was a fear on DC's part that acknowledging this'd establish their universe as false and therefore subordinate? Or maybe I'm just reading too much into it and they just couldn't be bothered to make up an explanation.

Despite the historic nature of the publication, the plotting's pretty workmanlike. We get to meet each hero and his arch-villain, then those villains meet up, then, thanks to the villains, Superman and Spider-Man meet and fight before uniting to tackle the villains. In other words, it's the standard Marvel approach whenever two heroes bump into each other. That's the thing; although it's a joint venture, it feels more like a Marvel comic than a DC one - especially in the scenes involving the heroes' everyday lives.The fact that it's written by Gerry Conway and drawn by Ross Andru - both strongly associated with the monthly Spider-Man mag - adds to this sense that what we're reading is actually a giant-sized version of Marvel Team-Up.

What reminds you that we aren't is the treatment of the two main Marvel characters. In Spider-Man's case, this was inevitable. Spider-Man was always going to seem redundant in a partnership with Superman but a bigger crime was the treatment of  Dr Octopus. Octopus, as we all know, is highly dangerous and a genius but his role in the comic seemed mainly to be to stand there going, "Incredible," and, "Amazing," every time Lex Luthor did anything. It's Dr Octopus, you lunatics! He's a scientific genius too! Let him get at least get a share of the super-villain glory!

But if the story's a little lacking, the book's main selling-point is the look of the thing. It's huge! I've had smaller carpets. It has that magnificent cover that alone makes you feel the astronomical price of $2 is justified. It's also pencilled by Ross Andru, who, as I said a few days ago, was my favourite Spider-Man artist, and inked by Dick Giordano who, along with Tom Palmer, was my favourite inker, so it was always going to find favour with me on that score. What I didn't know at the time was the pencils had been touched up by Neal Adams and John Romita. Once it's pointed out, it's obvious but I was clearly a very trusting soul back then and, because neither were credited, it never occurred to me.

So, overall, it's a mixed bag. A somewhat workmanlike story with visuals that were anything but workmanlike. Clearly comics are a visual medium but there was something about the encounter that never sat right with me; so much so that when Marvel and DC did other cross-overs, I never had any desire to read them. The first meeting of the two companies' standard bearers had convinced me that, however exciting it might seem, such an idea was not a good one.

Wednesday 24 November 2010

Steve Does Comics' 100th issue special

Hooray, Steve Does Comics celebrates its 100th postiversary.

That's right, despite often lengthy and unexplained absences, I've somehow managed to rack up 100 missives on this blog. And to celebrate - and avoid me having to do any proper writing - I thought I'd look at how some of my favourite heroes marked their 100th issues. I'm only including tales I've actually read, so I'm afraid the likes of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman don't make the list.

Daredevil marks his 100th appearance with a tale I have no memory of whatsoever, although I'm sure I must have read it in the pages of Mighty World of Marvel. Judging by the cover, it seems to follow the Marvel trend of having a load of old foes show up to mark the occasion. Unfortunately, it probably also highlights the fact that most of his foes were a bit on the so-so side.

Amazing Spider-Man #100

I said there was a trend with these things. Like Daredevil, Spider-Man fights a whole villains' gallery of his deadliest foes - this time in his dreams. It all climaxes with him getting a mystical message from the late Captain Stacy before waking to find he has six arms. Words can't describe how much I loved the six arms when I was eleven.

Avengers #100

This is how to celebrate a 100th issue. Everyone who's ever been an Avenger up to that point - including the Swordsman - goes to war with Olympus. I read this in the pages of Marvel UK's Titans mag. Thanks to the ground-breaking landscape format, the art was shrunk to the size of a postage stamp but Barry Smith's art still shone through.

Fantastic Four #100

Just like Spider-Man and Daredevil, the Fantastic Four get to fight a whole bunch of their greatest foes. I think they were the first of Marvel's Silver Age heroes to make a hundred appearances, so they can at least claim to have been the ones who set the trend. Sadly, the foes in question are only robots, and the not-exactly-awesome villains behind it all are the Thinker and Puppet Master who manage to blow themselves up through their own incompetence.

Thor, Journey Into Mystery #100

Thor celebrates Journey Into Mystery's big ton by tackling Mr Hyde. Mr Hyde might not be one of Marvel's greatest - or best dressed - villains but, like the Gray Gargoyle and the Cobra, I've always had a soft spot for him. Love the smiley Thor pic in the top left corner box.

The Hulk and Sub-Mariner, Tales to Astonish #100

One of Marie Severin's best efforts sees the strongest man on land tackle the strongest man in water, as the Hulk and Sub-Mariner square up to each other. Again the Puppet Master's involved, this time looking like Donald Pleasance. I seem to recall the story's set in Miami, which, when I read this story, as a kid, impressed me greatly, even though I'd never heard of Miami.

X=Men #100

The very new New X-Men grapple with the original X-Men. Again, it's only a bunch of robots they're up against but, happily, despite the appearance of a bald bloke on the cover, it's not the Puppet Master who's behind it. This was the first issue of the new X-Men I ever had and I didn't have a clue what was going on or who any of these people were. But I knew one thing. It grabbed me. The tale was a roller coaster ride of action, tension and human drama, starting with the scrap between new and old X-Men and ending with a battle to escape a solar flare, and the genesis of the whole Phoenix saga. Could they have crammed more into a comic if they'd tried? 

Of the above tales, I have to say the X-Men, Avengers and Hulk/Subby stories are the ones that stand out most in my memory and, like the visiting judge at a prize marrow contest, I think I have to give first prize to the X-Men which really was a classic in every way imaginable. 

Tuesday 23 November 2010

Gwen Stacy and Mary Jane Watson. Two Women separated by one dance.

Amazing Spider-Man #59, Mary Jane dances - her first ever appearance on the coverLennon or McCartney? Sheep or cows? Red or blue? It's a choice that at some point in our lives all men must make.

But there's one choice we're not forced to make.


Because it doesn't matter.

That doesn't mean I'm not going to make it anyway.

That choice is simple. Gwen Stacy or Mary Jane Watson?

Now, it should be said the natural girlfriend for Peter Parker was always Betty Brant. Being duller and less glamorous than the other two, it always made more sense for the loser-figure Parker to date her. It never made sense for him to be dating beautiful glamorous sex-bombs. Still it was comic books, it was Stan Lee, it was John Romita and so we got a defiance of all logic to match the characters' defiance of gravity.

Gwen Stacy and Mary Jane Watson, dance-off, John RomitaReading through the Spider-Man Essentials, several years back, it was a genuine shock to see how the characters were when they first appeared. Both of them seemed like they might be mentally ill. Gwen Stacy, as well as looking vaguely evil, seemed totally obsessed with Peter Parker. Everything she said was about him. Everything she thought was about him. Everything she did was about him.

Mary Jane, on the other hand, seemed to be thinking about everything but Peter Parker, seeing him as a football she could either pick up or leave lying around as she saw fit. She was a strange character, the living embodiment of the Swinging 60s but a woman to whom nothing at all seemed to matter.

While Gwen Stacy's head was filled with endlessly plotting thought-balloons and concerns. Mary Jane had no thought-balloons at all. It was as though she was an empty shell or simply had thoughts she had no intention of sharing with anyone, including herself - a woman in denial of even her own inner being. The differences meant a spiritual conflict was inevitable and, in the very early days, Gwen and MJ were involved in a kind of Cold War to prove who could be the hottest chick in New York. For a spell, amazingly, Gwen Stacy came out on top.

But then it all started to go wrong, as MJ continued being the life and soul of the party while Gwen slowly deteriorated into the dull, earnest limpet that prompted a young Gerry Conway to kill her off.

On the other hand, as Mary Jane went along she simply got nastier, metamorphosing into a total bitch who took the fact her boyfriend was in hospital, from a drugs overdose, as her cue to come on to his flatmate at every opportunity. All the more amazing then that she ended up becoming a proper love interest for Peter Parker, and at no point did the transition seem forced.

I have to admit I've always preferred Mary Jane. I've got a feeling the reason why's to be found in the events of Amazing Spider-Man issue #59, in which Mary Jane becomes a dancer at the Kingpin's club, while Gwen's dad is hypnotised into committing a crime by that self-same villain. Both women are dragged into a super-villain's machinations, one by her sense of freedom, the other by her sense of duty. This is the point. Despite Gwen's early status as Hot Dancing Chick TM, Mary Jane's role in this issue is one Gwen could never have played because she was never free. She always existed only in relation to other people, whether it be Peter Parker or her father.

Mary Jane, on the other hand, had from day one demonstrated she had a life independent of anyone, including possibly herself. Gwen Stacy never had a life beyond Peter Parker and her father, never said anything that didn't involve them, never had a thought that didn't involve them. It meant that, for all her emoting and agonising, she could never be as three dimensional as the determinedly two dimensional Mary Jane. Without Peter Parker, without her father, there was nothing left of her. She'd simply have vanished into the ether, a never-even noticed breeze - while, without other people, Mary Jane would probably have spent all eternity dancing away on that front cover, oblivious to everything but herself. It made her more self-obsessed but, to be self-obsessed, you must first have a sense of self, and to have a sense of self is to exist. Mary Jane had it. Gwen Stacy didn't.

Monday 22 November 2010

Marvel cartoons. Pining for glory through the bars of a Pennine cage.

The 1960s' Amazing Spider-Man cartoon, trapped by Dr Octopus
"I don't care if you do do Saturday Night Fever
impressions. You're still barred."
Look at that picture hard. In so many ways it sums up my childhood. I was Spider-Man, those bars were the Pennines, and Dr Octopus was the people of Lancashire.

Growing up in Yorkshire, I knew one thing - that we had the dullest TV station in history. A quick glance at the TV schedules told me that people in neighbouring Lancashire's Granada TV region seemed to be getting a virtually non-stop diet of Marvel super-hero cartoons and old Gerry Anderson shows. Well, when it came to Yorkshire, Gerry Anderson was often a rare treat to be slotted unannounced into the Sunday afternoon schedule when, for whatever reason, they had nothing else to show. And as for the Marvel cartoons? We didn't get them at all.

It rankled mightily that, probably no more than twenty miles away from my house, audiences were being treated to super-powered derring-do of a style guaranteed to blow the mightiest of minds, while we were watching Richard Whitely interviewing a ferret.

Of course, later, thanks the wonders of YouTube, I could at last see all those cartoons Yorkshire TV'd so cruelly denied us, and discovered I hadn't exactly missed the finest animation known to man.

But I'm sad.


I'm very sad.

And so, despite their total uselessness, I get a strange pleasure from watching those cartoons. Their oddly inanimate animation and often hopeless miscasting of voice-artists holds a strange allure. Why, for instance, did Peter Parker have the voice of a middle-aged man in a hat?

But of course, the real gift those cartoons gave us had nothing to do with animation, writing or acting.

It was music.

When it comes to the matter of which is my favourite theme tune from those shows, it's a hard one to go for. There's always the inappropriate Americanness of the Thor theme, the weirdly 1940s Hollywood corniness of the Sub-Mariner song and the good old back-alley wildness of Spider-Man. Meanwhile, the admirable idiocy of the Hulk theme trying to rhyme "Gamma Rays" with "unglamorous" is a work of near genius. The worst was the Fantastic Four theme, an aimless piece of jazz that seemed to have been randomly acquired from some unmade Irwin Allen production.

But in the end I'd have to say my favourite's the Captain America theme, mostly because the air of gung ho,  Mom's Apple Pie squareness suits the cartoon's protagonist down to the ground.

For those who need reminding of the magic of the Captain America theme, here it is. Altogether now; "When Captain America throws his mighty shield..."

Sunday 21 November 2010

The Valkyrie. The Norse with the horse.

Avengers #83, the Valkyrie makes her first ever appearance, John Buscema, the Lady Liberators and the New Masters of Evil
In his song Woman, John Lennon implied that Yoko Ono was the other half of the sky. Well, I've had a look out the window and she isn't. He did however have a valid point that women make up half the population of the Earth. And that means that even the macho world of comic books'd be a strange place without them. As my recent campaigning for Red Sonja to be allowed to stay conscious throughout an entire adventure shows, I've always been a fearless champion of super-heroines' rights, and this raises the obvious question of who's my favourite Marvel super-heroine.

The truth is that, from the time-frame this blog deals with, there isn't actually that much to choose from, principally because most of Marvel's early heroines were co-created by Stan Lee and therefore spent more time worrying about their hair and love-life than they did trying to fight villains. Sue Storm was always trying to decide whether she wanted to marry Reed Richards or the Sub-Mariner, the Wasp only seemed to be fighting crime because her fiance did, the Scarlet Witch just seemed to be tagging along with her brother, and Medusa's super-power was her hair.

To redress this - and to try and double Marvel's profits by getting girls to read comics - the early 1970s saw an influx of new heroines like Red Sonja, the Cat and Shanna the She-Devil, designed to fall into the feminist mode by running around half naked and being a bit grumpy.

There was one "feminist" heroine, however who always stood out for me from that pack.

That woman was the Valkyrie.

If the others were meant to be Women's Lib, the Valkyrie pushed it off the dial, her first incarnation coming in The Avengers #83 as, carrying a grudge against men, the Enchantress took the guise in order to turn a bunch of fed-up super-heroines against the male Avengers before defeating those male Avengers.

Incredible Hulk #142, Samantha Parrington, the Valkyrie, Herb Trimpe
Next she was the short-lived alter-ego of full-time protester Samantha Parrington in The Incredible Hulk #142, literally handing the Hulk a defeat before reverting to her original form.

And finally, in The Defenders #4, we got the finished article as the spirit of the Valkyrie took possession of sometime occultist Barbara Norris.

While her first two incarnations were short-lived, her third wasn't. It well and truly stuck and The Valkyrie became easily for my money the most interesting of Marvel's 1970s' attempts at feminist heroines.

For me, like a successful piece of origami, the reasons she worked were multi-fold. One, she was a lot more powerful than those others. In her first incarnation, she'd taken out the Avengers. In her second, she'd taken out the Hulk. The likes of Red Sonja, Shanna and the Cat might have been touted as a new breed of heroine but they were still feeble compared to their male equivalents. But here was a woman who could throw cars around, smash her way through brick walls and bend lamp posts. Given the existence over at DC of the likes of Supergirl and Wonder Woman, a super-strong woman might not seem that ground-breaking but, for whatever reason, Marvel had traditionally stayed clear of the concept.

Defenders #4, the Barbara Norris Valkyrie makes her first ever appearance
Secondly she was slotted into the Defenders, a team ideally suited to a character who didn't fit in. Her status as not quite human and not quite goddess, leading her to need refuge amongst a group of misfits and outcasts. It also enabled her to be given a string of fish-out-of water story lines, whether they be set in a woman's prison, a university or what was left of her host body's marriage.

Thirdly was the perverse but correct decision to have her not talk like she should have. Realistically, being an Asgardian Valkyrie, she should've spoken like Thor, all, "verily, " this and, "varlet, " that but she didn't. For the most part she spoke like a normal if slightly stilted person.

The fourth reason was an inbuilt dichotomy of her combining ultra-masculine and ultra-feminine traits into one package. She wore an outfit that on one hand - with its bare legs and steel breast cups - was sexualised but on the other, forbidding. She had the physical power of a man but rode around on that little girl's fantasy a flying horse. She had a warrior's mindset but, if a super-team is a family, filled the role of being the group's maternal figure.

But in the end, let's face it, there's another reason the Valkyrie grabbed me.

It was the hair.

As a hairstyle, it made no sense. She was a warrior woman who thought it was a good idea to go into battle with zero-depth perception and a total inability to spot an attacker coming at her from the right. Somehow it didn't matter. Why? Because it made her look cool. That might not seem important but imagine Spider-Man with a Superman cape, or Batman dressed as Robin. How a super-hero looks counts. So maybe those Stan Lee heroines who spent all their time worrying about their hair had it right. Maybe hair really is the secret of success if you're a super-heroine.

Saturday 20 November 2010

Why my love of Spider-Man means I can never show my face in Manhattan.

Amazing Spider-Man Gwen Stacy back from the dead, Ross Andru
Peter Parker's just found out that not everyone
loves Ross Andru's artwork.
Even though I grew up loving American comics, there's one thing makes me glad I'm not American. It's what'd happen if, as I roamed the streets of my hometown, someone asked me, "Steve, what's your favourite Spider-Man era?"

If I was American, I of course would reply, "I don't know. Maybe they once drew him with two left feet or something."

To which they'd reply, "Not error, you buffoon. Era. It has no R on the end of it."

To which I'd reply, "The letter R means nothing to me unless it's in the middle of a word."

Thus shall I have made a complete and total fool of myself.

Fortunately, being English, everyone around me pronounces it, "Eera," meaning I need never fear making such a mistake every time I leave the house.

I do of course have to fear contracting pneumonia from the icy rain that constantly lashes my home town, every time I leave the house, but at least I shall die unembarrassed.

Mary Jane Watson, Ka-Boom! Ross Andru
Mary Jane's boobs make a very strange noise
whenever Peter Parker sticks his head between them.
So, to answer the question no one asked, my favourite Spider-Man era's the Ross Andru/Gerry Conway one. Thanks to the wonders of Mighty World of Marvel and Spider-Man Comics Weekly, as a child I was familiar with the Steve Ditko era, the John Romita era and the Gil Kane era - not to mention the mini-eras of the likes of Don Heck, Jim Mooney and John Buscema - and I took the view that each was better than the one that preceded it till the Ross Andru era topped them all.

In my blithe ignorance, I'd always assumed this was the consensus. After all, how could anyone not concur with such an indisputable sentiment?

The Amazing Spider-Man and the Punisher, Ross Andru
Nope. Can't think of a witty caption.
And so, it was a bit of a shock when I finally got access to the Internet and discovered that, among some Spider-fans, there's not necessarily as much love for the Ross Andru years as there might be.

I have to say it baffles me. I thought it was undeniably the strongest in the wall-crawler's history. We had the aftermath of the death of Gwen Stacy, with Peter Parker and Mary Jane growing ever-closer. We got the return of old foes like the Scorpion and the Molten Man, new incarnations of old foes like the Vulture and Mysterio, and a bunch of new opponents like the Grizzly, the Tarantula and the Punisher.

Most of all we got the wicked machinations of the Jackal. Admittedly the revelation that the Jackal was Professor Warren was as stupid a denouement as has ever been inflicted on any readership but, if you were willing to turn a blind eye to that then it was still great stuff as the flappy-eared felon worked his evil plans.

Amazing Spider-Man, Mary Jane Watson, Tiger not, Ross Andru
We also got the "return" of Gwen Stacy which thankfully turned out not to be her return, the real return of  Liz Allen, and even the sight of Peter Parker becoming Flash Thompson's room mate. Granted the seeds of a whole bunch of terrible future wrong-turnings for the strip - such as the Clone Saga, and Peter Parker being married to MJ - were laid in these issues but Conway and Andru can't be blamed for the incompetence of later creators.

But it seems the problem some people have with the Ross Andru era is Ross Andru. It's something that's always baffled me. I've always thought he was perfect for the strip. In his use of wild angles, perspective and layouts, he echoed Gil Kane's approach to capturing the web-slinger's action sequences but, conversely he also had the ability to perfectly capture the more everyday aspects of Peter Parker's life. No, his characters didn't look like real people but something about Andru's story-telling meant that, for me, Peter Parker and his cast never seemed more alive nor more real than when he drew them, and that's why he has always been and I suspect always will be my favourite Spider-Man artist.

Frankenstein Unbowed.

Marvel Comics Frankenstein Monster #18
Frankenstein's Monster shows his gratitude to
all those Steve Does Comics Readers who
voted for him.
I'm proud to announce, true believers, that the results of our sensational Frankenpoll are well and truly in - and a mammoth 100% of you agreed with me that Marvel's Bronze Age version of the Frankenstein Monster was better than DC's.

That's right, Marvelstein won by a walloping 2 votes to none. Take that, DC-Stein.

Wednesday 17 November 2010

Conan the Barbarian #43. Red Sonja goes beddy-byes.

Conan the Barbarian #43, Red Sonja
You might think, from reading comics, that a warrior woman's biggest challenge in life is keeping her boobs in her bikini but Conan the Barbarian #43 reveals there's an even bigger one facing her.

Staying awake.

The story's this. Fleeing a gang of bounty hunters, Red Sonja and Conan find themselves in a mysterious valley filled with pink mist.

But they're not alone in there.

They share it with a strange tower and a man-bat-thing. While Sonja flaps around helplessly, Conan kills the man-bat-thing.

But then a new player arrives, to knock them out with the contents of a thrown vial.

When Conan wakes, he finds he's inside the tower, and a prisoner of a pair of sorcerers called Morophla and Uathact who're brother and sister. Morophla has designs on Red Sonja, whilst Uathact has her eye on Conan. Sonja's their prisoner too but she's still out cold.

She remains out cold all the way through the next few pages of exposition as Conan gets a potted resumé of the lives of their captors. Just three pages after finally reviving, she's out cold again as she's pushed into a pit, by the jealous Uathact. Conan jumps into the pit and rescues her from the subhuman creature that dwells there, and the tale ends with Conan and Sonja back in the tower dungeon as he's warned of the nightmare fate that awaits them. I would say that Sonja's warned too but she's still out cold and, judging by the way her mouth's hung open in the last panel, seems to be snoring.

It's a perfectly nice comic, as beautifully drawn as ever by John Buscema and appealingly atmospheric in places. Unlike the second part of this tale, Conan the Barbarian #44, it's inked by Ernie Chua rather than the Neal Adams stable and, while it doesn't look as lovely as that did, it still looks good. Glynis Wein should be praised too for her colouring job.

Sadly though, you can't get round the Red Sonja problem. If I'm eleven years old and have just given my newsagent seven pence for the return of Red Sonja, I want to see Red Sonja. I want to see her waving her sword about, shouting, "Tarim's blood!" breaking men's jaws and running around being stroppy. The last thing I want is her spending a good two thirds of the issue lying flat on her back, snoring. To make matters worse, in the first few pages when she is awake, she has to be rescued by Conan after being shot in the horse and, in the three pages toward the end of the tale when she's again awake, she comes over all squeamish and feeble just because a subhuman's looking at her a bit funny. The truth is you could've got any old serving wench, put her in this tale in Red Sonja's place and it wouldn't have made any difference to anything that happens. Red Sonja might've been dead for about twenty thousand years by the time this tale was published but there're times when I can't help feeling the 1970s weren't quite ready for the concept of a warrior woman.

Sunday 14 November 2010

Battle of the Frankensteins.

Marvel Comics Frankenstein #1
Like any master criminal I'm never to blame when things go wrong. That's always the fault of my underlings.

Unfortunately, when it comes to this site, I don't have any underlings, therefore I'll blame my template.

You see, when I set this blog up, I never intended it to be a review site. Inspired by the Bronze Age Babies somewhat free-form approach, I saw it more as a place for me to drone on about any aspect of old comics that took my fancy. I could drone on about the adverts. I could drone on about which comics company's pages smelled nicest. I could drone on about Stan's Soapbox and anything else I wanted. I could be like an old befuddled relative sat in the chair in the corner, rambling on about how everything used to be better in the good old days, when artists knew how to draw and inkers knew how to ink, colourists knew how to colour, and comics were printed on proper paper - you know, toilet paper.

However somewhere along the way I rail-roaded myself into doing nothing but reviewing things.

I blame my template. When I just had the Minima Stretch, I felt I too could be more free-form but, once I had a more defined template, I felt I had to be more focused. So, this is where I put things right, and a brave new era starts for Steve Does Comics as, in between the reviews, I simply ramble incoherently.

That leads me onto the obvious subject of Frankenstein.

The Phantom Stranger meets the Spawn of Frankenstein, Mike Kaluta
Now I know people'll be pointing out that it's not "Frankenstein" - as Frankenstein's the creator not the monster - but, as Mary Shelley's main aim in writing the book was to complain about men's lack of parenting skills, I suppose we should do as Mary would've wanted and view the creature as Frankenstein's offspring and therefore rightful inheritor of the name. In the 1970s, both Marvel and DC had their own versions of Frankenstein and, while various groups of peasants over the years have set the monster alight, neither comic book version set the world on fire.

I read the Marvel incarnation in their old weekly Dracula Lives comics but only caught the earlier stories. A couple of years ago, I bought the last ever issue of Marvel's Frankenstein mag and he was hanging around in some fields with a friendly robot. I don't have a clue what was going on and it was probably best not to know.

My experience of DC's Frankenstein was always more limited. I only knew him from two stories in the Phantom StrangerIn one of which he met the titular titfer wearer himself.

Armed with this expert knowledge, I have to say I always preferred Marvel's version. He had a cooler jacket and looked so much healthier. DC's, from what I can remember, always looked a bit unwell. Admittedly, I'd probably look a bit unwell too if I were stitched together from reanimated corpses but, despite this, I like to imagine Frankenstein being able to knock doors off their hinges without even trying.

The X-Men meet the Frankenstein Monster
Of course, Marvel had at least one other version of Frankenstein.

Back in the 1960s, the X-Men came up against the Monster, who on that occasion, turned out to be a robot from outer space. The depressing thing is that, although it's a terrible story and a stupid explanation for the Monster, the version of Frankenstein we got in that tale could have easily whupped the asses of both Bronze Age Frankensteins and still have had the energy left to tear his creator's bride's head off.

If there's a moral in that, I don't have a clue what it is. Maybe that Mary Shelley was right and the monster makes a better threat to humanity than he does a hero.

Templates, you see. Once they're laid down, it doesn't matter what you do, it's hard to break free of them.

Wednesday 10 November 2010

Les Daniels' "Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World's Greatest Comics"

Les Daniels, Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World's Greatest Comics, John Romita cover
When I bought this book, eighteen years ago, I wasn't too sure what it was called. Was it called Marvel or was it called Five Fabulous Decades of the World's Greatest Comics? Was it called both? After much thought, I've decided it's called Marvel, as that's what it says on the cover, in great big letters. I might be slow but I get there in the end.

But, "in the end," is all that matters and, in the end, the title doesn't. What matters is that after the mid-1980s, I stopped reading American comics - or in fact comics of any variety. I could claim it was because I was too grown-up to read them but the truth is I was just too lazy to buy them. However, even I must shake myself out of my sloth sometimes and, by the early 1990s, my sense of nostalgia'd grown sufficiently to motivate me to dip the occasional toe back into those four-coloured waters.

This meant Les Daniels' Marvel came out at exactly the right time. It meant I could acquaint myself with the company's entire history in one great big go, while looking at lots of pretty pictures and reading about my favourite characters. At the time, pretty much all I knew about Marvel's back-story had come from Stan Lee's not totally impartial  Origins of Marvel Comics books and so I didn't even know the company had come close to financial ruin even as I'd been reading those books.

Les Daniels' tome isn't perfect. While it's certainly not a hagiography, it is clearly an authorised biography and, while it acknowledges the more controversial elements of Marvel's history, it tends to only lightly touch on them. I don't personally mind that the whole Kirby vs Lee, Ditko vs Lee, disputes are only briefly dealt with. Frankly I long since grew tired of hearing Kirby vs Lee vs Ditko vs Whoever arguments and it's a blessed relief to escape them here.

Where the book does suffer from its reluctance to rock the boat is in its coverage of the Jim Shooter years. The only acknowledgement that his reign as Editor in Chief might not have been greeted with universal love by his underlings is the statement that he, "may have stepped on a few toes." At the time, I knew nothing of the Shooter story and didn't realise just how much of an understatement that was. It has to be said that Jim Shooter's fall-out with what seems to have been virtually the entire comics industry is a tale so epic it deserves it's own multi-part cross-over, let alone proper coverage in a book detailing Marvel's history. In the book, Stan Lee describes Shooter as, "Competent and hard-working." Given how effusive Lee usually is when describing people - or indeed anything - "Competent and hard-working," sounds suspiciously like the closest thing to damning with faint praise you'll ever get from the great man's lips.

As for the rest, once the history lesson's over, we get a piece telling us how a Marvel comic's put together and then we get a number of key stories from the company's history, reprinted. We get Fantastic Four issue #51 and Amazing Spider-Man issue #2. There's also an early Sub-Mariner tale and a Wolverine story. In what way the Wolverine tale's historically important, I've no idea. It just looks like another story to me. I suspect it's there purely because Wolverine's popular and so they were determined to crowbar him in somehow, but it features Wolvie vs some mandroids, so, if you like to see mandroids get hacked to death by an angry man who's just been shot full of bullets, you'll probably be delighted.

Such quibbles aside, it's simply a great book to read, bombarding the reader with classic images, panels and pages from the company's history, putting it all in chronological order and getting interviews with the luminaries we all grew up loving. It's probably of limited use to someone doing serious research into the back-room shenanigans at Marvel over the years but, for the fan, it's a great thick wallow in nostalgia and, let's face it, if we weren't fans, we wouldn't be reading it.

Sunday 7 November 2010

Justice League of America #117. Even a Hawkman can cry.

Justice League of America #117, The Equalizer, Hawkman returns
If there's one thing I learned from John Buscema and Stan Lee's How To Draw Comics The Marvel Way it's that one should always draw one's characters with their feet wide apart.

I sometimes think that's why I prefer 1970s Marvel to DC. To me, DC Comics always seemed to be a company that stood with its feet too close together. While Marvel was bold, brassy and dynamic, DC seemed somewhat staid, solid and dependable.

Justice League of America #117's a perfect example. Where the Avengers issue I looked at a few days ago was a master-class in imbuing stationary images with movement, mood, intent and urgency, this tale seems to be trundling along the spiritual slow lane. If Marvel were driving a Porsche, DC's Morris Minor was towing Batman's caravan.

What we get is this. There's an alien called The Equalizer who travels the universe, averaging out everyone he meets. Why he does this isn't explained but basically, he's trying to make everyone the same. Now, Hawkman - who's no longer a member of the Justice League - shows up on Mars to average-out himself and the JLA members so he'll get a share of each of their powers and be able to use it to tackle The Equalizer who's already averaged-out the populace of Hawkman's home world Thanagar.

The attempt fails but, fortunately, the rest of the League show up and, after all their attacks are fended off by The Equalizer using an equal and opposite amount of force to whatever they try to throw at him, they hit on the idea of bombarding him with hatred, to make him vanish. I don't understand this. Surely, if they bombard him with hate, he'll simply respond with an equal amount of love? However, the plan works and, instead of giving them all a big hug and a Valentine's card, he goes ka-blooey and everyone's back to normal. At which point the JLA decide to readmit Hawkman to their ranks and we get what seems like a blatant lift from the end of The Avengers #58, the one that closes with the Vision blubbing like a big girl's blouse.

Maybe imitating the Avengers wasn't such a great idea, as it only draws attention to the fact the Justice League of America simply isn't as interesting as The Avengers. Where the Avengers have clearly delineated characters, the JLAers - Green Arrow apart - are pure wood. And, whereas a Marvel villain like Ultron has a bucketful of motivations and complexes - and stands with his feet wide apart - The Equalizer's totally devoid of anything and never even bothers standing up, let alone parting his plates. We're never told why he's doing what he's doing and to be honest, he doesn't even seem that bothered about doing it anyway. To call him passionless would be an understatement. He seems to just be doing things because he doesn't have anything better to do. The tale's pleasantly drawn by Dick Dillin and Frank McLaughlin, but in that generic DC style that a whole bucketful of artists of the time seemed to have, and the space ship designs seem horribly Silver Age to say they were drawn in the 1970s.

Overall it comes across like the reinvention of the comic book as an art form, that Marvel had overseen in the 1960s, had completely bypassed DC who were still churning out the same kind of solid but redundant tales they could just have easily churned out a decade earlier. I suppose it's ironic that the villain in a DC comic should be a creature who makes super-heroes average and identikit when DC's own mindset was doing that already.