Wednesday 31 August 2011

Essential Captain America Volume 1.

Essential Captain America Volume 1, cover
As I defy the warning notices and try to climb the trees in Sheffield's Winter Gardens, people often say to me, "Steve, why do you look so good naked and where did you get your ability to only ever be shot by stun guns?"

"It's simple," I tell them. "I got the first quality from drinking a strange frothing formula that turned me into a perfect physical specimen of humanity. I then had to kill the scientist responsible so there could never be any others like me. The second quality I got from reading too many issues of Captain America."

You guessed it. Thanks to my recent spending spree, I've been reading Essential Captain America Vol 1.

Now, I must own up that I bought it because it was going cheap, rather than through any huge compulsion to catch up with the star-spangled superstar. In truth I read most of these tales as a kid, in the pages Marvel UK's The Titans but to say my memories were vague would be an understatement.

Still that didn't stop me leaping in with my usual gusto.

Surprisingly, Cap's Silver Age series doesn't kick off with his origin. Instead we leap straight into the action, with him seeing off a gang of crooks who break into the Avengers' Mansion. This lays down an early template with Cap repeatedly coming up against gangs of brawlers who he soon sees off with his fighting skills in what're clearly just an excuse for Jack Kirby to draw punch-ups.

Essential Captain America Volume 1, Origin of the Red Skull, Hitler
After just a few stories however we're suddenly flung back into the past as, instead of present day tales, we're given a diet of World War Two outings. As with the very early Hulk comics, you get a feeling of Lee and Kirby not being quite sure what to do with the strip and trying different approaches to see what sticks. It's during this period that we get the classic retelling of Captain America's origin.

We also get the origin of the Red Skull, which comes after a jarring leap from the events of the previous issue, with no explanation of what happened in between. That aside, this is easily the best of the WW2 tales, even if the Skull's ascent from mere bellboy to arch-villain relies a little too much on luck on his behalf.

Clearly Lee and Kirby decide the WW2 approach isn't what the readership want because, after a few issues, they switch back to tales set in the present. Once there, the stories settle into one of two moulds. Either Captain America comes up against the always irritating Batroc the Leaper who quickly realises he's better off helping Cap than fighting him, or a mystery villain kidnaps SHIELD's enigmatic Agent 13, and Cap has to launch a one-man attack on his base to rescue her. The mystery villain nearly always turns out to be either the Red Skull or the almost identical Baron Zemo, and so the regular shock revelations rarely come as a shock.

For some reason, Lee and Kirby seem reluctant to move away from a James Bond template and also seem to fear straying too far from Cap's past, as we keep getting World War Two menaces repeatedly rising from the grave to pester him. This trend reaches its nadir when, in the present, he finds himself up against the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Sleepers, giant robots created by Hitler to destroy the world in the event of his defeat. To say the Sleepers are among the lamest robots ever seen in comics would be an understatement. Basically think of a giant robot hanging from a flying manta ray with a giant metal skull on top.

Essential Captain America Volume 1, Modok
The one major exception to this World War Two-ness is the introduction of the huge-headed Modok who, despite being arguably the most interesting villain of the collection, only appears in one tale and isn't seen again, as we get yet more of the Red Skull and Zemo.

Modok aside, perhaps the strip's two most impressive creative contributions during this volume are the introductions of the Cosmic Cube - that little box that allows its owner to do anything he wants - and the 4th Sleeper, a Nazi robot far superior to its predecessors which, thanks to its control over its density, can walk around underground while firing devastating force beams upwards to destroy whole swathes of real estate.

One of the things you can't miss when reading this collection is that Captain America isn't a Silver Age character. He's a Golden Age one, crafted long before the Marvel template for the fallible hero was laid down, making him much less interesting than other Marvel do-gooders. There's also the problem that he'd been in suspended animation for nearly twenty years before returning in The Avengers and so, unlike other Marvel heroes, has no inbuilt supporting cast.

Essential Captain America Volume 1, The 4th Sleeper
Lee and Kirby try to remedy this by making SHIELD and its agents his supporting cast but there's an obvious problem that, while this makes some sense - bearing in mind Nick Fury's shared World War Two background with Cap - it means it's Captain America's supporting cast and not Steve Rogers'. In these tales, Rogers literally has no existence. He has no family, no friends, no neighbours, no job, no interests, no hobbies. We simply never see him other than when he's about to become Captain America.

Even when Lee and Kirby try to give our hero a love interest in the shape of Agent 13, she's not Steve Rogers' love interest, she's Captain America's. Despite being in love with him, for most of this volume Agent 13 never even sees him without his mask. And when he finally does reveal his true identity to her, we get the unlikely sight of them on a date, with him referring to her throughout as, "Agent 13". Gwen and Peter this isn't.

There's also the somewhat bizarre idea that Cap's in love with her because she's identical to a resistance fighter he loved during the War. At one point it's hinted that Agent 13's the younger sister of that original love interest, making Cap's infatuation the sort of thing a psychiatrist would have a field day with. Fortunately, after their first meeting, that particular idea's never mentioned again. Nor is the fate of that original love interest, last seen in the 1940s, wandering off with amnesia.

Essential Captain America Volume 1, The Red Skull and the Cosmic Cube
This failure to develop Steve Rogers is a glaring weakness in the strip and means that while other Marvel titles of the era were able to widen and deepen their dramatic appeal though the heroes' private lives, the world of Captain America, even his love life, effectively becomes one long fight scene.

If the tales tend to be uninvolving on an emotional level, the upside of them is Jack Kirby's art which, mostly inked by Jolting Joe Sinnott, looks as good as it ever did, up until the final few stories when Syd Shores takes over the inking. I don't like to be mean but I've never liked Shores' inking and for me it does Kirby's work no favours here.

All in all, I can't get round the fact that there're good reasons I didn't previously remember these tales. Their reliance on action action action can make it a hard grind ploughing through them at times and you really do start to feel you're reading the same story over and over again. Still, it's yet another piece of Marvel's history caught up on and I did at least become reacquainted with the births of the Cosmic Cube, AIM and Modok.

The things I learned from reading Essential Captain America Volume 1:

1. Captain America survives most of his fights by dumb luck. In virtually every story, there's a point where the bad guys could kill him but choose not to because, "That would be too easy," or because, despite being ruthless killers/assassins, they're only packing stun guns.

2. All foreigners are stereotypes.

3. The Red Skull thinks Scotland is in England.

4. All vehicles belonging to top secret organisations whose existence the world knows nothing of, have the name of that organisation written on them in giant letters.

5. The Avengers have daily meetings with military types, at which they're given the current co-ordinates and travel plans for every US naval ship and submarine. Those meetings must just fly by.

Thursday 25 August 2011

Tales of Suspense #63. The origin of Captain America.

Origin of Captain America, Tales of Suspense #63, cover

Hände hoch! Steve Does Comics has gone World War Two crazy. Only two days ago I was celebrating the death of Hitler in 1963, and now I'm celebrating the birth of Captain America in 1941, as retold in Tales of Suspense #63. 

And what a masterpiece of compression it is as we get not only the origin of Captain America but also the origin of Bucky, and even their first adventure together, all done and dusted in just nine pages.

Within the origin story there's a strong hint of the problems that'd plague Cap's solo tales of the 1960s, as we get no introduction to Steve Rogers at all. The first we see of him is when he's in the secret, government-funded lab of one Dr Erskine. Rogers is a skinny weakling rejected by the military, for being too puny, but about to drink Erskine's formula that'll turn him into a perfect physical specimen, one of a planned army of super-soldiers ready to take on the Nazi menace. Inevitably a Nazi agent sneaks into the room and shoots Erskine. Now a walking powerhouse, Rogers sorts out the spy, but not in time to save Erskine, meaning Rogers'll be the only super soldier America'll ever have.

Origin of Captain America, Tales of Suspense #63, Bucky Barnes, camp mascot
They never did explain what was camp about

We then get a little bit of characterisation as we see Rogers in the army, as a private, acting incompetent in order to disguise his true identity. I assume this idea came from Superman and his Clark Kent alter-ego. The only problem is it means that in our one chance to see what Steve Rogers is like, we're given a fake persona and're still no nearer knowing anything about him than we were at the start of the tale. The truth is that, just as Superman's really Superman, with no true identity beyond that, so Captain America's only himself when he's behind a mask that's meant to be a disguise.

Origin of Captain America, Tales of Suspense #63, Cap can't kill Bucky Barnes

If Steve Rogers is based on Clark Kent then I assume his sidekick Bucky's based on Robin. One night, as Rogers is putting on his costume, ready to smack up yet more Nazis, camp mascot Bucky Barnes blunders into his tent and discovers his secret.

If I were Rogers, I'd show him my fist and tell him to keep his trap shut or else. This may be why they never let me have sidekicks. Cap, on the other hand, is cut from a different cloth - a star-spangled cloth - and so acquits himself far more honourably.

Bucky then carries out his missions under the brilliant pseudonym of "Bucky". Who could ever hope to discover his secret identity when he has that kind of smarts?

Origin of Captain America, Tales of Suspense #63

Still, as portrayed here, Bucky's a more successful character than Robin - perhaps because Captain America's a less dark character than Batman, with Bucky a less colourful character than Robin. Somehow, despite the irresponsibility of a grown man taking a child into combat, it doesn't seem as unlikely for Captain America to hang around with a youthful sidekick as it does for a Dark Knight to do so.

It's a story where plot dominates to the cost of all else, which is inevitable given the short page count and the amount of info to pack in but it does an excellent job of it, cramming a whole pile of information into a bite-sized chunk and I really do like Kirby's art here.

So, the hero of the Free World gets off to a promising start but can he keep it up?

I suspect we may be finding out in my very next post.

As long as a Nazi agent doesn't get me first.

Tuesday 23 August 2011

Fantastic Four #21. Give hate a chance.

Fantastic Four #21, the first appearance of the Hate-Monger (Adolf Hitler), Nick Fury
Hooray! This weekend sees the return of Dr Who, the show made famous by my other blog.

Will it be any good? Will it make sense? Will it disappear so completely up its own backside that it comes out the other end?

None of us can know.

What we do know is the first episode goes by the endearingly arresting title of Let's Kill Hitler.

This is ludicrous.

We all know there's only one set of people allowed to kill Hitler.

And that's the Fantastic Four.

It's late 1963 and there's trouble on the streets of New York. A character called the Hate-Monger's spreading a message of bigotry and intolerance. Apparently the authorities can do nothing because he's so far broken no laws.

Fantastic Four #21, The Hate-Monger, Un-American activities
Unamerican Sentiments?
Where's Joe McCarthy when you need him?
That doesn't stop the Fantastic Four from sticky-beaking at one of his rallies and, as sure as night follows day, within moments they're fighting amongst themselves, as the Hate-Monger fires his hate ray at them.

Fortunately, Nick Fury, now a colonel in the CIA, is at hand to trick them into going to the well-known republic of San Gusto whose government the Hate-Monger and his men are trying to depose.

Together Fury and the Fantastic Four defeat the villain by turning his own hate powers against him, causing his own men to shoot him dead. It's then that we get the dread revelation...

...The Hate-Monger was none other than Adolf Hitler!

Fantastic Four #21, The Hate-Monger is Adolf Hitler
You can't get away from it, it's a pretty silly tale. The idea that the authorities can't do anything to stop the Hate-Monger because he's broken no law - when he's conducting public rallies, complete with storm-troopers, inciting full-blown riots and public lynchings - makes me wonder just what kind of slack laws New York has in the world of the Fantastic Four. No wonder it needs super-heroes.

There's also the problem of it featuring Nick Fury.

Long-suffering readers'll know I've never been the biggest fan of Fury, and his appearance here - with both continuity-busting eyes intact - does nothing to change my mind as he announces his presence by beating up the Baxter Building security staff just because they won't let him go barging unannounced into the FF's headquarters.

Fantastic Four #21, The Hate-Monger messes with the moon
But of course the story's pivotal weakness is the revelation that the Hate-Monger is Hitler; as silly a denouement as was ever seen in a Silver Age Marvel comic - and let's face it, silly Silver Age denouements were not exactly hens' teeth in Marvel comics. The fact that, in the very next panel, Stan Lee has Mr Fantastic fling in the caveat that it might not be the real Hitler but just a look-alike, suggests Lee realised they were venturing too liberally into the valley of the absurd, and I do wonder if the Hitler thing was Kirby's idea, inflicted on Lee as a fait accomplis, with Lee trying to write his way out of it through dialogue.

It also has to be said that George Bell's inking's not great, looking crude, rushed and slapdash. It's a bit of a shock to the system for those used to the clean and classic lines of Joe Sinnott.

But of course, there's always something to like in a Silver Age Fantastic Four tale and, on the upside, the Hate-Monger's costume, with its hints of the Inquisition and medieval torturers, is a great design. The Hate-Monger himself - apart from the Hitler thing - is a potentially great villain, which probably explains why he returned on numerous occasions, his guise adopted by various baddies, including at one point the Man-Beast.

Nick Fury, despite my general dislike of him, does at least show a fair amount of intelligence in the way he quickly realises the Fantastic Four's quarrelsome behaviour must be down to the villain, and in the way he subsequently manipulates them into tackling the revolutionary forces of San Gusto.

So, in the end, I don't think this can be regarded as a classic tale, coming well before the strip's peak era, when it was still aimed at a relatively naive and undemanding audience.

Still, at least with Hitler dead, it means Dr Who isn't going to have to worry about killing him after all. Meaning, no doubt, that Saturday's episode's going to consist mostly of The Doctor, Amy and Rory sitting around doing nothing. In other words, the show exactly as it would be if I were allowed to write it.

Heaven only knows why I'm not allowed to write it.

Sunday 21 August 2011

Essential Thor Volume 4.

Essential Thor Volume 4, coverAs I mentioned the other day, I've recently bought a pile of Marvel Essentials and, being the Thor fan that I am, I was never in any doubt which was going to be the first one I read.

Like a good football match, The Essential Thor Volume 4's a game of two halves. The first dominated by the latter days of Jack Kirby, the second by John Buscema, with a well-known guest artist to keep us entertained at half-time.

It all kicks off with Thor sent on a quest to discover the origin of Galactus. Whilst it's good to see Galactus again, his origin turns out to be something of a let down, as we discover he's just some bloke who got exposed to radiation, grew big and started eating everything. By this point we'd seen so many Marvel characters who'd got their start by being exposed to radiation that it all feels way too humdrum an explanation for Marvel's biggest of Big Bads.

Essential Thor Volume 4, Jack Kirby, Karnilla and Balder
Once this tale's done, the remainder of Jack Kirby era spends most its time reworking older stories as we get a rematch with the Wrecker, the Circus of Crime and Ulik. Even the new villain Crypto-Man features in a story that's a fairly blatant rehash of the Replicus tale from issue #141. While these tales are all fun, it's hard to avoid the feeling that, as with The Fantastic Four, by the time he'd left, Kirby's best work on the strip was already waving to him in the rear-view mirror.

As though to prove it, the major storyline of this late Kirby period's a straight reworking of the first Mangog outing when, thanks to getting his hands on the Odin-Ring as Odin sleeps, Loki seizes the throne of Asgard - only for Surtur to inconveniently appear and attack the kingdom. As in the Mangog tale, all seems lost until Odin awakes from his slumbers to dispatch the threat with no noticeable difficulty.

After this is we get an odd little tale - presumably a last minute fill-in - in which John Buscema takes over for an issue to give us Thor versus the Abomination. It's a tale that reveals that Thor can turn back time, which he's never done before and which you would've thought makes him effectively unbeatable.

Jack Kirby returns for just one issue before departing for good, followed by Neal Adams' debut on the strip as Thor and Loki swap bodies in a tale involving Mephisto. I'm not convinced it's a happy debut. It all looks as slick as you'd expect but Joe Sinnott's inks are so distinctive that, however polished it is, it looks more like Rich Buckler's Neal Adams impersonation than it does the real thing. For me it also lacks the dynamism of both Kirby and his long-term successor.

Essential Thor Volume 4, Hela
That successor is John Buscema who returns with a Dr Doom scrap before it's back into epic territory with the tale of Infinity, a star-devouring hand that turns out to be Odin's dodgy side unleashed by Hela.

Happily Infinity's seen off.

Not so happily, Hela's in a bad mood about the foiling of her plans, and kills Thor, only for wimpy old Sif to touch the Death Goddess with her tears, causing Hela to bring him back.

Unfortunately when they all return to Asgard, Loki's got his hands on the Odin-Ring (again) and has seized the throne (again). Instead of giving Loki a good smacking like he should, Odin stays as annoying as ever and goes off to have a kip, leaving Loki to do whatever he wants.

What he wants is to get his leg-over with Sif and create a creature called Durok the Demolisher who spends a fair amount of time knocking Thor around before knocking the Silver Surfer around. Highlight of all this has to be Durok smashing the Surfer's board to pieces. I always liked to see the Surfer suffer.

Essential Thor Volume 4, Hildegarde, first appearance
But there's still no rest for the dunderheaded because, having finally woken up, Odin banishes Loki to the place where Mangog's buried. Needless to say it's not long before the block headed villain releases the monster, and Odin has to thus send our cast off on yet more quests. At this point we meet the Asgardian warrior woman Hildegarde. Hildegarde as a character's great but has one obvious flaw which is that, with her rugged fighting ways, she really does rub-in what a complete and total wet dish-cloth Sif is in comparison.

You can't get away from it that there's an awful lot of repetition going on in these tales, with two reruns of the original Mangog tale and two epics involving Loki taking over Asgard by getting his hands on the Odin-Ring. Just how stupid is Odin that he learns nothing from the earlier problems and still leaves the Odin-Ring lying around for Loki to find? It's also annoying that Odin keeps going into the Odin-Sleep every time he's needed. You really do wonder why the people of Asgard revere the useless old berk.

But there're new ideas too - the main ones being to do with the characters. Freed from the constraints of working with the more concept-oriented Kirby, Stan Lee clearly starts to remodel the strip the way he wants it to be, as grandiose soap opera. This is no bad thing. As the strip goes along it's obvious it's becoming more and more an ensemble piece and less and less a solo strip, as Balder, Volstagg, Fandral and Hogun get more and more page time.

They're not the only ones. Once Gerry Conway takes over the writing chores, there's also the introduction of the strapping Hildegarde, brought in to accompany the increasingly useless Sif on a mission, while, before Lee goes, Hela, rarely seen in the strip before this era, gets noticeably more involvement.

But perhaps the most interesting thing about these tales involves Karnilla the Norn Queen, as we see her gradually evolving from out-and-out villain to a more ambiguous figure, purely through her love for Balder. Balder meanwhile finds himself torn from emotional pillar to post as he tries to balance his love for Karnilla with his sense of duty to Thor, Odin and Asgard. To a large degree, although the comic's called Thor, these are really the adventures of Balder and Karnilla, and the strip's all the better for it.

Friday 19 August 2011

Another Adventure with the Ready Rangers.

comic book Ready Rangers Field Pack advert
Hooray! I've had a request - and just for once it's not the usual one.

In response to my post about the Steve Scout advert, R.W. Watkins has asked me to dig out and post the legendary Ready Rangers advert, which in this case comes from the back cover of the 100 page Witching Hour #38.

What a marvellous thing a Ready Rangers Mobile Field Pack was. To those of us unused to the ways of Ray Mears it might seem like a flimsy plastic box with flimsy plastic toys inside it but to the dedicated survivalist it's all you need to launch an all-out war-of-will on the Great American Wilderness. "Bow before my flimsy plastic box!" you'd shout, as nothing nature could throw at you could stop you.

Why, with its periscope and signal light, I wouldn't be surprised if you could stage an assault on the North Pole itself and be back home in time for tea.

Witching Hour #38, 100 page special
Personally, with its ponchos and Distance Computer, I wouldn't trust it to keep me alive in my back garden, let alone the American wilderness, but it all takes me back to the days of Clarks' Wayfinders, the legendary shoes that had a compass in the heel, so you'd always know where you were as long as you went everywhere stood on one leg. I seem to recall they also had animal tracks reproduced on their soles so that if you saw strange animal footprints, by taking your shoes off and staring at the soles you could tell what animal had left the tracks. While you were doing this, the animal in question would no doubt take advantage of the fact you were stood in bear country, distracted by staring at your shoes, and kill you.

Ray Mears, eat your heart out.

Thursday 18 August 2011

Kate Bush: the campaign starts here.

Kate Bush, Babooshka. Make Oh England, My Lionheart the English National Anthem
Reader, this woman must represent this nation!
As we all know, Steve Does Comics rarely ventures into the realms of Politics, viewing such a pursuit as the first refuge of the scoundrel. However, sometimes an issue raises its head, an issue so vital that even I can't ignore it. So it is that I have to announce I've launched a government e-petition calling for Kate Bush's Oh England, My Lionheart to be the official English National Anthem. I'm sure you're aware that if a government e-petition gets 100,000 signatures it has to be debated in parliament and thus might become law.

But why? I hear you ask.

Well, the truth is that no one knows more than me the power of a National Anthem to unite people. One of my happiest childhood memories is of the communal mass scramble to flee the cinema before the National Anthem started. Hundreds of total strangers united in one cause - escape.

While the plucky Scots and Welsh have their own National Anthem, England still doesn't, relying on the horror that is God Save the Queen. Leaving aside the fact it's presumptuous for us to use the UK anthem as the English anthem, it's such a rotten song, a one-note dirge that no one knows the words to beyond the first verse. Everything after that verse just seems to be an exhortation to kill the Scots. This is clearly not a good thing.

Admittedly, during those dense, dark months of 1994 when Wet Wet Wet were Number 1 for 87 consecutive weeks, such a course of action suddenly seemed tempting - but then I look into the eyes of Wee Jimmy Krankie and think how could we do it? How could we take the life of that innocent child whose life has barely begun?

Clearly therefore, if only for Jimmy Krankie's sake, England needs a National Anthem of its very own.

Unfortunately the contenders that people always put forward tend to be bombastic shouty nonsense about global supremacy and killing even more foreigners, or are on the geographically-challenged side. Not only that, they're the sort of things that get played at The Last Night of the Proms, thus multiplying their misery-inducing powers a hundredfold. Therefore I've decided it's vital that, before anyone can inflict one of those songs on us, we need to head them off at the pass by demanding an actual good song as the National Anthem. Therefore I'm proposing Kate Bush's gentle tribute to all things Englishness.

Unlike those other songs about crushing people, Oh England, My Lionheart is about the last thoughts of a Spitfire pilot as his plane crashes towards the ground. This is appropriate, as watching an England World Cup campaign is like watching a plane crashing - very slowly. Amazingly, despite being launched only last night, and me not yet having told anyone about it, the petition's already got two signatures. I'm assuming one of them's me. I don't have a clue who the other person is but, whoever you are, if you're reading this, thank you for your support.

As for you, Dear Reader; if you want an actual good song as a National Anthem, please sign the petition. If you want something that isn't a rampant exercise in bombastic nationalism, please sign the petition. If you're a Kate Bush fan, please sign the petition. If you hate Kate Bush, please sign it, because she doesn't like the song and therefore you'll probably annoy her. Most of all. If you want to ruin The Last Night of the Proms, please sign it. The petition in question can be signed here:

Tuesday 16 August 2011

Marvel Essentials.

Essential Amazing Spider-Man Volume 1
Sometime in the late 1990s, I walked into the now-deceased Star Store on Sheffield's Cambridge Street and stumbled across a humble little book on a low shelf. It clearly hadn't been cut right - the cover being marginally smaller than the pages it was meant to be covering.

However, a close inspection revealed it reprinted the first 20-or-so issues of The Amazing Spider-Man - in glorious black and white, just as I remembered them as a child.

Needless to say I had to buy it.

That slightly dog-eared book was of course The Essential Spider-Man and, since then, those mind-controlling villains at Marvel have taken full advantage of my mental weakness by bringing out ever-more Marvel Essentials to prise my money from me. Creaking are my shelves with the weight of Essentials.

Well, there's no fool like an old fool and, still bitten by that bug, I've just gone mad and bought a whole slew more of the things: Thor Volumes 4 and 5, The Avengers Volume 6, and even the first two Captain America Essentials, even though I have no great interest in Captain America.

In terms of consistency my favourite run of Essentials is The Amazing Spider-Man from the start of Steve Ditko all the way through to the end of Ross Andru. The ability of that strip through the first fifteen years of its life to keep improving as it went along's genuinely astonishing and reflects just how strong the central concepts and characters of the title really were.

Essential Avengers Volume 3
My favourite individual volume's probably Essential Avengers Volume 3 with all those Roy Thomas/John Buscema/George Klein tales.

My least favourite so far's been the Essential Killraven which totally failed to engage me despite me having loved the strip as a child. And I can't ignore the fact that Volume 1 of The Incredible Hulk's mostly poor, with even the likes of John Buscema and Gil Kane somehow failing to bring it to life.

Even for one with my addiction to the books, I can't deny there are certain Essentials I'll probably never own. With all the will in the world, I can't see myself ever buying The Essential Human Torch or Essential Ant-Man. However, Essential Sub-Mariner and Captain Marvel are on my future shopping list, as are all the Tomb of Dracula and Defenders books.

All this rambling is of course not done without ulterior motive. It's simply my way of leading up to the big question. Are you a fan of the Marvel Essentials and which have been your favourite and least favourite ones so far?

Saturday 13 August 2011

Amazing Spider-Man #36. Steve Does Comics gets topical.

Amazing Spider-Man #36, Steve Ditko cover, the Looter
As I'm sure you've noticed, there've been two big events this week. First has been the looting that afflicted large parts of this land. The other's been the arrival of the Perseid meteor shower. Sheffield, being the action-packed centre of the world that it is, managed to miss out on both.

But you couldn't say the same of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Somehow, way back in the 1960s, they managed to predict it all as they gave us a villain created by a meteor and calling himself The Looter.

How did they know the two events would be so linked?

I have no idea.

Amazing Spider-Man #36, The Looter
Perseid Pete Runs awok.
All I know is that, given the nature of the villain's origin, I'd've called him Perseid Pete but that's probably why no one ever listens to me.

In Amazing Spider-Man #36, Norton G. Fester's doing a Fred Hoyle, convinced that meteors hold the secret of life itself. Unlike Hoyle, his experiments on one make it release a gas that grants him super-human strength. Also unlike the late Professor Hoyle, he turns to crime.

Amazing Spider-Man #36, Gwen Stacy, stalker
Mad! Mad! Completely mad!

Amazing Spider-Man #36, Gwen Stacy, mad laughter
Mad! Mad! Completely mad!

Amazing Spider-Man #36, Gwen Stacy laughs some more
Mad! Mad! Completely mad!
Quickly does he become rich. But it's not enough. He decides he needs to steal another meteor, from the local museum, in case the effects of the first one wear off. Happily Spider-Man's on hand to thwart him, with a good old fashioned knuckle sandwich.

Much as we all love Spider-Man and much as we all love Steve Ditko, you can't get away from it, the Looter's a terrible villain, lumbered with a mediocre costume, strength as his only super-power, and a lame motivation of stealing a meteorite. The tale also suffers from the less than clever resolution that Spider-Man wins-through simply by hitting the villain. It'd be fair to say the issue's plotting isn't complex and goes against Stan Lee's early rules that Spider-Man should beat foes as much by wit as power. Clearly Ditko, who by this stage was being left alone to plot things as he saw fit, took a different view.

Where the issue's more interesting is it features the very early days of Peter Parker's relationship with Gwen Stacy. Judging by some of Parker's thoughts, it may even be the first time he's ever spoken to her. What leaps out at you though is that this isn't the wholesome girl we remember from later years. The truth is that, as well as somehow managing to look more evil than the tale's official villain, she really does come across as a complete and total madwoman, endlessly stalking Parker, never thinking of anything but him and spontaneously bursting out in delirious fits of maniacal laughter. Frankly, if you met someone like her in real life, you'd take out a restraining order.

So, there you have it, a tale where the love interest seems more threatening than the villain, and the creators knew nearly fifty years ago of the mysterious link between meteor showers and civil disorder. What would've happened had Steve Ditko not left the strip within two issues of this one? Who can know? Would Gwen Stacy have been revealed as the Green Goblin? Who can know? Do I have the slightest clue how to end this post? Who can know?

Thursday 11 August 2011

The Fantastic fifty for the Fantastic Four.

Fantastic Four #1, Jack Kirby, cover

Apparently, it's the fiftieth anniversary of the very first appearance of the Fantastic Four, making Reed Richards approximately 95 years old but still as limber as ever - assuming Marvel haven't killed him off while I've not been looking.

Well, Steve Does Comics has never seen a kitten it couldn't hug, nor a bandwagon it couldn't leap on, so this is all the excuse I need to ramble on aimlessly about the book they called, "The World's Greatest Comic Magazine."

I first encountered the Fantastic Four in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man Annual #6 when they took on everyone's favourite web-headed wonder. What most impressed me about them was Reed Richards' ability to make his hands into giant ping pong paddles and the fact they didn't seek to make money from their powers.

My next encounter came in Mighty World of Marvel #4, in which we got the concluding part of their first battle with the Skrulls. Although I loved the Skrulls ending up thinking they were cattle, what most impressed me about that tale was I got the idea into my head that Benjamin J Grimm had three nostrils. From where I got this notion, I don't have a clue but it took many a long month of reading their adventures before I realised he didn't.

Fantastic Four #5, Dr Doom's first appearance

From that point on, the thrills came thick and fast as the FF took on Dr Doom and the Sub-Mariner, battled for control of their very limbs with the Puppet Master, encountered the Watcher and, erm, killed Hitler.

Other early highlights were their first encounter with Kurrgo: Master of Planet X, and their once having to be rescued from a crisis by Ant-Man, making Ant-Man officially the greatest hero in comics to my then tiny mind.

But it wasn't all plain sailing. Frankly, the Invisible Girl's uselessness in any crisis, leading to her getting kidnapped in what seemed like every issue, rankled with my youthful sensibilities so much I used to fill in her dots with a marker pen, so the bad guys could see her and kill her.

They never did.

Fantastic Four #52, first appearance of the Black Panther

There was also no denying that sometimes Mr Fantastic could be a bit of a jerk, with his constant ordering around of his team mates, especially his oft declaimed demand of his own wife; "Silence!" The Thing probably turned against his own team mates one time too many to be forgiven and the Torch never did seem to learn to think before flying off.

But of course, despite all this, the strip hit its peak in the mid 1960s with the wedding of Reed and Sue and then that astonishing sequence of stories where they first met the Inhumans, met Galactus, met the Black Panther, met the Negative Zone, met the Kree and came up against a Cosmic-Powered Dr Doom.

As I roam the streets of Sheffield, no one whatsoever asks me what my favourite Fantastic Four tale is.

That won't stop me from telling everyone.

Fantastic Four #45, the Inhumans

It was the FF's first encounter with the Inhumans. I know popular consensus goes for the first Galactus tale but I've never been popular and it was the Inhumans' debut that really grabbed me, as our heroes discovered a a hidden race of super-beings running around New York.

In hindsight, the tale made no sense at all, with the Inhumans failing miserably to work out whether they were trying to get away from or to the Great Refuge. It didn't matter. The madness of the tale just swept you along.

Sadly, as the 1960s entered their late afternoon, a fed-up Jack Kirby started to put less effort into things and the quality and freshness of stories tailed off noticeably. Ideas got recycled, sometimes from the comic itself, sometimes from movies and TV shows.

But still, even amongst such derivative stuff, there was The Prisoner-inspired tale of the FF trapped in Latveria, and the Thing being taken to another world to fight Torgo the robot. The roots of these stories might've been obvious but that didn't make them any less effective. And, as a Hammer Horror fan, how could I not love our heroes' first encounter with Agatha Harkness, their very own Mary Poppins?

Fantastic Four #92, Ben Grimm - Killer

Jack Kirby left the strip in 1970 and, thanks to the likes of John Romita, John Buscema, Rich Buckler and George Perez, I still loved it all through the 1970s. I even enjoyed it when the Impossible Man reappeared - although replacing the Human Torch with H.E.R.B.I.E. the flying robot stretched even my patience.

Shortly after that period, I lost touch with the Fantastic Four, mostly because the UK reprints disappeared from the newsagents.

In the last reprint I read, Galactus was halfway through a fight with the Sphinx. I never did find out how that story ended.

But, despite my total ignorance of almost everything that's happened in the Fantastic Four since, I still retain my soft spot for them, the squabbling heroes who couldn't even muster a single secret identity between them. And if they each had their failings as human beings, I suppose that was what ultimately marked them out as human beings and therefore more interesting than the perfect heroes who'd preceded them.

Well, that's the bandwagon jumped on. All I need do now is find a kitten to hug.

But where will I find such a thing at this time of night?

Sunday 7 August 2011

Planet of the Apes.

Planet of the Apes, Marvel Comics UK weekly, #1, cover
It's time for me to lay my dirty stinking paws on my keyboard and remind us all - with the escape of the Rise of the Planet of the Apes movie - that, when it comes to simian antics, there was once something far better than any mere film.

There was a comic.

That comic was Marvel UK's Planet of the Apes.

Planet of the Apes Weekly kicked off with the beautifully painted cover to the left, Part 1 of an adaptation of the original Charlton Heston Apes movie, and a poster that at this very moment sits just two feet away from me, rolled up in a tube.

Happily, I remember more about the Planet of the Apes' title strip than that of the Star Wars comic I blathered on about the other day. I recall that, after the Charlton Heston Apes adaptation, we were given a beautifully rendered Mike Ploog series about two characters who may have been called Jason and Alexander. As that serial went along, it drifted a little too far from the feel of the original movies for my liking but at least it always looked great.

Planet of the Apes, Marvel Comics UK, Apeslayer makes his first appearance
Later we got the legendary Apeslayer and his remarkable resemblance to Killraven. I also recall a Tom Sutton series set on a giant ship - and an ape-tastic reworking of Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.

But the truth is such stories paled besides the back-up strips.

They kicked off in issue #2 with a Ka-Zar series that started off unpromisingly with a Jack Kirby adventure involving Kraven, before taking flight with a classic bunch of Barry Smith reprints that introduced Zaladane and Garokk the Petrified Man. Those early days also brought us Gullivar Jones on Mars while we later got Gil Kane and Roy Thomas' Warlock, the start of Marvel's Captain Marvel, the seemingly obligatory Man-Gods from Beyond the Stars and yet more Ka-Zar. There were also the delights of War Toy, Day of the Triffids and Farewell to the Master.

Arguably most impressive of all, we got the whole of Don McGregor's Panther's Rage, as the Black Panther tried to thwart a would-be revolution in his kingdom of Wakanda. We also got Mike Ploog's Man-Thing.

Planet of the Apes merges with Dracula Lives, Marvel Comics UK
Later, as Marvel UK's decline began, the comic merged with Dracula Lives before merging with The Mighty World of Marvel. It was an uneasy fit; Planet of the Apes stories in a comic otherwise devoted to the likes of the Hulk and Daredevil.

Still, at least - as far as I remember it - the stint in Mighty World of Marvel gave the Powers-That-Be the chance to run the adaptation of Battle for the Planet of the Apes, meaning the whole Ape cycle was completed before the strip disappeared from the UK forever.

And so the reign of the apes had proven to be as doomed as the reign of man before it.

But at least it was fun while it lasted, and through it I learned the meaning of the word "lobotomy." Now it's time for me to grab my mute girlfriend, climb on my horse and set off into the Forbidden Zone of watching Sunday night TV.

What will I find there?

My destiny.

Either that or the millionth series of John Craven's Countryfile; whichever is most likely to make me fall to my knees, punching the sand in despair at the mad folly of the human race.

Wednesday 3 August 2011

Once, twice, three times a maybe.

If you're in the habit of reading this blog with a calculator in one hand and a slide rule in the other, you'll have noticed that Steve Does Comics has smashed through an obstacle to compare with the famed Sound Barrier itself.

That's right, Steve Does Comics is now a walloping 3 megabytes big. Frankly I don't know how Google can take the strain. They're probably ordering a van-load of new servers right now. But that magical number 3 is all the excuse I need to look at what our favourite Marvel heroes were up to on their third ever appearance.

As we'll see, like Steve Does Comics itself, it's a totally random mixture of the inspired and the hopeless.

Fantastic Four #3, first costumes, first Fantasti-car, first Miracle Man

After two issues of behaving like you and me, the Fantastic Four suddenly start acting like proper super-heroes, getting themselves costumes, a fancy HQ and a flying bath tub.

They also get to come up against the disgracefully under-rated Miracle Man. I don't care what anyone else says about the Miracle Man, I still love him.

Amazing Spider-Man #3, first ever appearance of Dr Octopus

The Amazing Spider-Man celebrates its third outing in style as Spidey meets Dr Octopus for the first time ever. That's what Peter Parker gets for complaining there're no real challengers in this world for a man with the powers of a spider.

Still, it could've been worse. Our wall-crawling wonder could've come up against Man-With-A-Giant-Glass-And-Sheet-Of-Paper Man. Then he'd've really been in trouble.

Avengers #3, the Hulk and Sub-Mariner

The green goliath's membership of the Avengers doesn't last long as, faster than you can say, "Hulk smash!" he's turned against his former team mates and linked up with the Sub-Mariner to give them no end of trouble.

Daredevil #3, first appearance the Owl

With his third appearance, the man without fear finally gets a super-foe of his own to fight as he comes up against what I suppose you have to count as his arch-enemy.

With his awesome power of gliding and not much else, the Owl's not exactly Dr Doom but he's still almost too much for DD to handle.

Everyone else in the world can say otherwise till they're blue in the face but I still prefer Daredevil's original costume to that fancy new red one he's been wearing for nearly fifty years.

Incredible Hulk #3, Ring-master and his Circus of Crime

The ever-changing feast that is the early run of The Incredible Hulk takes yet another turn as he develops the ability to leap but loses the ability to think, becoming nothing but a puppet of Rick Jones.

You can't get away from it, Lee and Kirby really were struggling to get the strip to work in its early days. Even the Ring-Master and his Circus of Crime couldn't get it going.

Journey into Mystery #85, Thor, first appearance of Loki

In his third outing, Thor meets his deadly ancient enemy Loki - even though Thor's only been around for three issues and therefore can't have an ancient enemy. I wonder how they'll ever get round that conundrum?

Personally, I'd love to read Filbert's Frightful Future but I fear I'll never get the chance.

Tales of Suspense #41, Iron Man v Dr Strange

Iron Man takes on Dr Strange but not that Dr Strange.

With his mind-control powers and his wholesome daughter, this Dr Strange was like the Puppet Master without the puppets. Was he ever heard from again? I'd like to think he was but suspect he wasn't.

X-Men #3, first appearance of the Blob

The Blob makes his first ever appearance, and the world of comic books would never be the same again.

Well, OK, it would.

I don't know much about the Blob. Is he one of those villains you could defeat by locking him in a closet? I always feel any villain who can be defeated by being locked in a closet probably isn't worthy of the title, "Super."
Tales to Astonish #37, Ant-Man v the Protector

In his third adventure, the mighty Ant-Man comes up against the Protector.

The Protector? He sounds nice - unlike that creepy sounding Ant-Man.

I love the tiny cannon sticking out of Ant-Man's house, capable of firing him all of two feet through the air.

And to think they called Henry Pym mad.

PS. A special celebration 3 megabyte Steve Does Comics No-Prize goes to the first reader to spot the "deliberate" mistake in this post. Never let it be said this isn't the Steve Does Comics Age of Megabytes.

Tuesday 2 August 2011

Star Wars. A comic not that long ago, in a galaxy not that far away.

Star Wars Weekly #1, Marvel Comics UK

I must confess I wasn't the biggest Star Wars fan in the world.

I liked the look of the thing; the flying car and the robots and spaceships - and I wouldn't have said no to owning my own real-life Millennium Falcon in which to zoom about the universe. But the story and the characters always lacked a certain something for me. Not least Luke Skywalker who was always a bit Waltons for my liking.

The truth is that, at a time when I was big on Killraven and Panther's Rage, Star Wars' characters and plot lines seemed more than a little simplistic in comparison. Not even the sight of Princess Leia chained half-naked to a giant slug while teddy bears acted like Tarzan could convince me otherwise.

That of course didn't stop me from having the famous Hildebrandt poster on my wall, nor from reading Marvel UK's Star Wars mag each week for years on end.

Star Wars poster, Brothers Hildebrandt

Nor did it stop me assembling the cardboard X-Fighter that came free with issue #1.

I have a feeling issue #2 came free with a DIY cardboard Darth Vader plane, which was also dutifully assembled.

Sadly, I don't think they ever did a DIY Millennium Falcon.

As for the comic, I always lumped it in with Marvel UK's Planet of the Apes weekly, in that I was always more interested in the back-up stories than the main strip itself. In all honesty I can't even remember anything about the main strip other than it was drawn by Carmine Infantino at one point, which presumably meant that everyone suddenly started to look very wide.

But the back-up strips? Well, there was a whole other matter. Thanks to Star Wars Weekly, I got to catch up on all the adventures of Jim Starlin's Warlock, John Byrne's Starlord, the Guardians of the Galaxy and the Tales of the Watcher. Plus I got another chance to read Man-Gods from Beyond the Stars.

Star Wars Weekly #48, Marvel Comics UK

On the downside, it also ran Deathlok, one of the few 1970s' Marvel strips I could never get on with, and there was a thing called Sword in the Star which made so little impression on me that all I recall is its title and that I didn't like it.

I also can't neglect the oddity that was Micronauts, a strip I never knew quite what to make of. On one hand it was clearly classier than it should've been, bearing in mind it was based on a set of toys. Then again, I could never quite get past the fact it was based on a set of toys. It was also the strip that introduced me to the work of Jim Shooter's favourite writer Bill Mantlo.

Sometime in the early 1980s, Star Wars Weekly moved to a monthly format and I still kept on reading it, though my memories of that stage in its history really are vague. In fact, I can't even remember what the back-up strips were during that era - assuming there were any and it wasn't all wall-to-wall Star Wars.

Taking it all into consideration, as Denny Laine once said, I'm not sure The Force was strong in me and I'd rather have a light snack than a light sabre but, if Star Wars never quite set my soul on fire the way it was meant to, it did at least allow stuff that I preferred to sneak in through the back door, and therefore did me a service even greater than blowing up the Death Star.