It’s that time again.
Gil Kane was a great fit for these ugly gods.
The Inhumans: an insular race of super-beings, this Lee/Kirby version of the Addams Family was actually an experiment by the alien Kree. The most high-profile members are of course Medusa and her little sister Crystal, who served memorably as the FF’s first replacement member. The silent Black Bolt is a majestic but unknowable character. The remaining cousins, Triton, Karnak and Gorgon are visually interesting but have no discernible personality traits. Triton did have some cameo roles alongside the Sub-Mariner and the Avengers in the 60s but Maximus is probably more familiar. The Caligula-like brother of Black Bolt was driven mad when, in a Shakespearian twist, his schemes led to their parents’ death.
Ultimate Madonn- er, Crystal
I was crazy about the Inhumans as a kid but they’ve never been able to support a regular series for very long.Kirby returned to the same themes with more success and more grandeur in The Eternals.
Shanna the She-Devil: part of Marvel’s short-lived 70s attempt to grow a female readership, Shanna is a descendant of jungle queens like Nyoka, Sheena and Tarzan’s Jane. Despite attempts to spice up tired imperialist fantasy with SHIELD antics and a skimpy bikini, the She-Devil never caught on like her Sword and Sorcery sister, Red Sonja. Shanna was married off in the end to another minor Marvel star: jungle hero Ka-Zar, Marvel’s fusion of David Innes and Tarzan. And jungle comics haven’t sold since Kubert in the early 70s.
Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu: acid-inspired film fans Englehart, Starlin and Milgrom combined their love for David Carradine’s Kwai Chang Caine with Marvel’s rights to Fu Manchu. The result was the longest-running martial arts comic of the Bronze Age. Ultraviolent young philosopher Shang-Chi was propelled in short order by another pair of cineastes, Moench and McGregor, into a series of moody and cinematic Bond pastiches.
The character’s popularity has persisted to the present day. Having teamed up with the X-Men , Moon Knight, Ultimate Spider-Man and many more, Shang-Chi is joining the Avengers. Marvel has no rights to Fu Manchu now, so would it kill them to retcon his father and sister as the Yellow Claw and Suwan?
A purchase met with derision and mockery in secondary school. I bet that kid took his kids to Disneyworld
Howard the Duck: as a 14-year-old, I adapted a couple of Steve Gerber’s jaundiced, satirical comics into radio plays that I taped reel-to-reel with my bemused school-mates. Some years later, the duck starred in one of the most infamous films in history. HTD was able to interact with Spider-Man, the Defenders and the Son of Satan in Gerber’s own paranoiac corner of the Marvel Universe. And he was the “straight” among the Bronze Age auteurs! Howard still cameos from time to time, chiefly for novelty value.
Spitfire: plucky upper-crust English gel Jacqueline Falsworth was the daughter of Union Jack and the first female member of the Invaders. An example of Roy Thomas’ trope of wartime continuity implants, Spitfire was a favourite of mine as a young teen. De-aged in the 90s, Spitfire has featured in New Invaders and Captain Britain and remains in action as a C-list UK heroine.
Torpedo: Marv Wolfman’s insurance man- turned- superhero, this working stiff joined Rom to protect a small town from the Dire Wraiths. He failed. His female successor Turbo was a member of the New Warriors. Essentially a 70s version of the Rocketeer.
Deathstroke, the Terminator: the only DC solo star in this listing, mercenary and assassin Slade Wilson was cast as an anti-hero in the Exxxtreeme!! Nineties. Slade headlined his own book, even fighting alongside Superman in the Panic in the Sky storyline, in spite of his inappropriate relationship with teen psycho Terra. DC’s answer to the Punisher has reverted to his true villainous colours in more recent years: manipulating his daughter Rose, Batgirl Cain and Titan Risk, and murdering the Ryan Choi Atom.
New Mutants: the so-called X-babies arose from Jim Shooter’s insistence on a return to the school concept for Marvel’s mutants. This early-80s batch of adolescent “muties” is the most enduring : lanky, lovelorn Sam; cocky Roberto; cripplingly shy and religious Rahne; fearless Dani and tainted sorceress Illyana.
The book began with a shot of photorealism from Bob McLeod and rather quaint school rivalry stories. It then warped and spasmed under the experimental vision of Bill Sienkiewicz. His weirdly-distorted machine child Warlock, Xavier’s autistic son Legion and the grotesque, obese Karma were nightmarish invaders into Claremont’s proto-Harry Potter world.
The first casualty had been the trendy but dull Xi’an, who was replaced by the horrendously powerful- but utterly misplaced -Burroughsian teen Magma. Subsequent additions like Cypher and Bird-Brain appeared in painfully twee post-Claremont stories. The title morphed into Rob Liefeld’s ludicrous but phenomenally successful militaristic pamphlet, X-Force.
But the X-Babies have always come back and now alumni Sunspot and Cannonball are joining the Avengers. They grow up so fast.
Binary: Dave Cockrum revived the former Ms. Marvel, Carol Danvers as a cosmic-powered space heroine in his final issue of X-Men. I wondered at the time if she was meant to be a replacement for Phoenix. The vague nature and vast scope of her powers made her an ineffectual team player although she was an unofficial member of the swashbuckling Starjammers. Eventually, the Ms. Marvel identity was restored anyway. Cosmic doesn’t sell, as the saying goes.
Captain Marvel/Photon/Pulsar: in my opinion, Marvel’s last classic heroine of the Bronze Age. Monica Rambeau was a casualty of the times. An independent female of colour, within five years or so, she rose through the ranks to become leader of the Avengers. Then Simonson depowered her and she hit comics’ glass ceiling. She lost her codename to a teen version of Mar-Vell then tried out a couple more ( Photon being the only one that appeals but it still doesn’t say Diamond Top Twenty, does it?)
Despite her iconic and elegant design I think the reason she’s been sidelined lies with her quanta powers which, like those of Binary, are elusive to grasp. In recent years, the character has been parodic and her spot in the Avengers squandered on Storm.
New Warriors: Marvel’s very belated response to the New Teen Titans, the Warriors were a mixed bag of obscure adolescent heroes. In spite of their popularity, prominence and solid, old-fashioned storytelling, I found them almost entirely lacking in charm. Possibly, this was because I entered my twenties when Wolfman and Perez found success with the Titans. By contrast, I was entering my thirties when the Warriors were at their height.
A second version of the New Warriors appeared at the end of the 90s with a short-lived redesign for Nova and a couple of generic new members, Aegis and Bolt. A third iteration was killed off to ignite the Civil War debacle. The youth super-team concept seems redundant in a MU with X-men or New Mutants but 90s nostalgia seems likely to generate a new New Warriors comic before long.
Every once in a while, I have to feature a villain of long standing and this time, it’s a fowl felon from 1941:
I believe this is the first Batman comic I ever read
The Penguin: a ridiculous figure to modern tastes perhaps yet a highly visible villain the Golden Age. Oswald Cobblepot is a subversive figure whose veneer of Old Money respectability barely conceals a dangerous criminal mind.
For me, the greatest Penguin was, of course, tv’s Burgess Meredith.
The Legionnaires of December
Matter-Eater Lad: as a child, I never realised Tenzil Kem was meant to be a comedy character. No one treated Duo Damsel as a figure of fun. Anyway, the boy from Bismoll appeared only rarely in the first dozen or so stories I read. Later, he was written out completely because comics ain’t, well, too comical. In the 5YL era of the early 90s. the Giffen/Bierbaum team made Tenzil a surprise star through his eccentricity and humour. Sadly, in the New 52, M-E Lad is inactive. Paul Levitz has always eschewed the wackier, more fun elements of the LSH but I hope with Giffen’s imminent return we might see more of Tenz.
Kid Psycho: poor Gnill Opral was born a mutant thanks to an alien encounter for his astronaut parents. As was often the case in the early 60s, the Legionnaires appeared as elitist, country-club snobs who refused him membership. Wrapping his enlarged cranium in a turban, KP recruited Superboy’s aid in the 20th Century. It transpired the Kid’s force-field power shortened his life by one year every time he used it. He was awarded the booby prize: Legion secret weapon status. I have no recollection of him ever participating in any subsequent story other than the Crisis. Where he died. Bummer.
Coming soon: Treasuries of Christmas Past
All images are presumed copyright of their respective owners.