Western Stars Light Up The Sky

I’m postponing the series of blogs about the Fantastic Four temporarily today to deliver the goods on the Vigilante movie serial.

Vig serial

During the winter months of the late 70s and early 80s, the BBC screened the serial adventures of Flash Gordon, Crash Corrigan and the King of the Rocket Men. In that tradition , I’ve viewed a number of 40s movie serials in recent years, from the Shadow, to Batman and Robin and Captain America.

This year, I chose The Vigilante, Fighting Hero of the West– “Action Comics magazine’s favourite of millions!” This 1947 Columbia serial starred stolid Dick Tracy actor Ralph Byrd as the Prairie Troubador, Greg Sanders.

The Vigilante is a character I first encountered in this issue of JLA, which was a radical departure from the Fox-Sekowsky interstellar challenges of my early childhood.

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I next saw the modern-day gunslinger in a 100-Super Spec and subsequently in the JLA’s 100th anniversary.

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Below is a Vig story I’ve yet to read:

img173Appearing in his own Adventure Comics strip and even teaming with Superman here, Vig was nonetheless a C-lister in the early 70s. But he still turns up from time to time, in last years’s Convergence event, for instance.

World's Finest

In Fighting Hero, singing movie cowboy Greg is secretly a government agent, although I didn’t pick up on this element until the final episode. He investigates the mystery of the 100 Tears of Blood. a string of cursed pearls belonging to Prince Hamil. The pearls have been smuggled in horseshoes and the horses are stolen while Greg is making a movie on the ranch of a nightclub owner. Hooded criminal X-1 makes several attempts to obtain the pearls with the aid of his lieutenants, Doc and Silver with whom he communicates through an illuminated jukebox.

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Aside from an obligatory man in a gorilla suit, the serial features rather too many vehicles going over cliffs as too-literal cliffhangers. Ramsay Ames plays Rodeo Queen Betty Winslow, frequently a damsel in distress. The Vigilante’s teen sidekick, Stuff the Chinatown Kid, is played here by George Offerman Jr ( on the phone, above)- a white guy of around thirty and the character seems to be a loyal but dull mechanic. There is also a brief appearance by a character who resembles Billy Gunn, the old-timer who was Vig’s sidekick in his Seven Soldiers of Victory adventures.

The Vigilante was very easy to realise on screen- a motorcycle and a bandana. However, the serial was a trial to watch. Vig had no gimmick like the Masked Marvel’s phonograph record communication and no memorable villain such as the fiendish Dr. Daka or the “Black Tigerrrr”. The revelation of the identity of mastermind X-1 was a complete anticlimax.  If this serial had featured the macabre Dummy, how much better it might have been!

Dummy

While I’m not a fan by any means, I might try James Robinson’s mid-90s Vigilante series:

Vigilante_City_Lights_Prairie_Justice_2

Next year, I might buy the Spy Smasher serial but I hope it would be more engaging than the Prairie Troubador’s exploits.

Coming soon: more Fantastic Four

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Lost 4 Ever?

Today is the first post in a short series about the Fantastic Four. We start with Fantastic Four Lost Adventures from 2008. I bought this trade paperback in the sale at icy Aberdeen’s Plan 9 before Xmas.

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The Lost Adventure aka “The Menace of the Mega-Men” was the original story intended for publication in FF#102. Stan rejected it, however and went with the first part of the Namor/Magneto team-up. Then, pages of the artwork were re-purposed for issue 108. This was in the wake of Kirby’s departure for DC and the launch of his Fourth World tetralogy.  Dark days for Marvel’s House of Ideas.

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The original, completed here ( with the original Kirby pages as a bonus) and published in 2007, is a fairly weak Corsican Twins story- a theme Kirby would return to with (King) Kobra. The art is vibrant and gutsy but the good and bad twin plot is oddly undramatic. Aside from an encounter between bank-robbing evil Janus, Ben and Johnny, there’s little action. The story is on a par with the lacklustre Monocle or Maggia issues.

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The published version “The Maddening Mystery of the Nega-Man” (sic) is superior in my opinion. Here, singleton scientist Janus has experimented with the energies of the Negative Zone and, like Captain Kirk, has unleashed an evil doppelganger.  This Lee/Buscema arc, as with the contemporary Thor, has elements of horror and tragedy and while John Morrow of Twomorrows says it makes no sense, the Neg Zone connection is more logical than Kirby’s newly-minted Mega-Man module.

I’m biased because, as a little boy in the early 70s, I found this period of the FF utterly compelling and quite upsetting. The brain-damaged, cynical Thing, Reed facing death in the Negative Zone, eerie Agatha Harkness and the monstrous, sadistic Annihilus were all recycled FF tropes from the late Sixties- but I hadn’t read them before and I was unable to look away, as it were. The published FF#108, ultimately, feels more modern and vibrant than New Gods #1, “across the street” in the same month.

Megaman

NB: Marvel did eventually introduce a villain called Megaman, a faceless antagonist in Marv Wolfman’s Nova – and a total rip-off of another  Star Trek episode “Metamorphosis”.

last F4

This book also reprints The Last Fantastic Four Story by Stan and John Romita Junior. The plot revolves around the retirement of the FF after a rehash of the original Galactus storyline.

This time, the population of Earth is judged a menace by a Cosmic Tribunal which dispatches a colossal Adjudicator. I compared this “Day The Earth Stood Still” homage story unfavourably with the Thomas/ Colan “Judgement in Infinity” trilogy from 1982’s Wonder Woman.

I don’t find that JRjr’s style resonates with me; his work seems like Simonson on a larger, more simplified scale. The plot is also humdrum and anticlimactic- the FF and Galactus team up to save the Tribunal from their enemies the Decimators and in a Roddenberry moment, the human race is found worthy. The FF’s retirement then seems an inexplicable development in the light of this victory. Still, fans of JRjr get cameos of:  DD, Spidey, Prof X,  Doc Doom, Namor, the Surfer, Cap, Vizh, Thor, Iron Man, Doc Strange, the Inhumans, Cyke, Storm and Wolvie.

Fantastic Four #296

The 25th anniversary adventure Homecoming is a mammoth tale from the mid-80s. It starts well with moody Barry Windsor- Smith pages then descends into page after page of cramped and unremarkable art with a charmless story by Jim Shooter. The mutilation of Johnny Storm by the Mole Man is needlessly unpleasant and the plot about raising a new continent for outcasts from the ocean floor is unconvincing.  Minor character “Hopper” Hertnecky is Shooter in excelsis. Coming so close to the 300th issue, this disappointment is a cliche-ridden drag, loaded down with acres of lifeless dialogue.

Stan’s comedic pastiche If This Be Anniversary– celebrating the 45th anniversary -is quite unfunny but still has a weirdo charm thanks to the talents of Dragotta and Allred. It’s like a modern(ish) Not Brand Ecch. But even a FF fanatic would find this volume unrewarding, sad to say.

Next time, we’ll look at another, perhaps more successful pastiche of The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine.

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Society Reporting

I’ve been fascinated by the Golden Age heroes of DC’s Earth-2 since the very early 70s, when I first “met” them in this oddball “crisis”:

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The Green Lantern, the Red Tornado and the sombre Dr. Fate were clearly more colourful than their E-1 counterparts- and they had a rogues gallery of unfamiliar villains too!

When they were granted a new continuing series in the mid-70s, they became firm favourites:

Staton jsa

I followed them in All-Star Squadron and Infinity Inc. in the 80s where they withered, aged and were finally shipped off into Valhalla. But in the next decade, these antiquated avengers had shaken off perceived irrelevance through their sheer four-colour bravado and effervescence.

JSA returns

The Justice Society Returns from 1999 was a relaunch for the team, after an appearance with Morrison’s JLA. This maxiseries begins and ends with two bookends and mimics the format of All-Star Comics, with individual chapters but here in the form of single-issue revivals of antique titles.There is also a greater similarity  with early issues of the JLA where pairs or triads of heroes team up across the globe.

So, “Time’s Keeper” begins with a mysterious visitor for Hourman in his 1919 childhood, who gives him an hourglass. We flashforward to 1943 and a Nazi occult ceremony that summons Stalker.

Stalker_001

Yes, the Levitz/Ditko 1975 take on Elric returns as a destructive avatar of chaos, able to transmogrify disciples of his own and in the image of the god who empowered him. I was strongly reminded of the Avengers/Juggernaut/Exemplars storyline, also from 1999…

The JSA gathers in an impressive two-page spread and the story climaxes with an exciting conflict in Washington DC. It then spins off into various chapters:

All-American Comics- GL and JY at the Yalta Conference. Johnny, who was always a goofy stooge for his Thunderbolt genies seems to something akin to global learning difficulties- but this is never explored.

Adventure Comics- Starman and Atom at Los Alamos, where the mighty mite has a struggle with his self-worth, counterpointed with ominous hints of a breakdown for Starman. This foreshadows The Golden Age and Starman.

National Comics-Flash and Mr. Terrific witness the death of the Americommando in Dresden and Terrific has a crisis of conscience.

Sensation Comics- Wonder Woman, Hawkgirl meet Speed Saunders at Iwo Jima. ( I like how the heroines are dubbed Polly and Sherry here).

Smash Comics- Hourman and Dr. Midnite appear to be on Gruinard Island, as Tick Tock Tyler’s hophead personality is explored. The story ends on a silly note as Hooty the owl is revived from near-death with a Miraclo pill.

Star-Spangled Comics- Sandman, Sandy, Stripsey and the Star-Spnagled Kid team up in New York City and meet the obscure master of disguise , the King. Sandy the Golden Boy’s transformation into a “creature in a velvet cage” is foreshadowed.

Sandy

Thrilling Comics: Sea Devils/Haunted Tank legend Russ Heath illustrates an adventure in Angola for Hawkman and Wildcat. The JSAers team up with Kirby’s Manhunter Paul Kirk and the Tigress ( the GA Huntress, Mrs. Menace) against a Lovecraftian monster.

ASS 1999

All-Star Comics 2: “Time’s Arrow” introduces Atom’s new look, based upon the late Cyclotron. There’s a second two-page panorama of JSA members, this time with Manhunter, Tigress, SSK and Stripesy.

The heroes travel to Antarctica,where Stalker is attempting to extinguish the sun. Terrific and Atom play key roles and Dr. Occult sacrifices himself ( but will be restored by his gal Friday, Rose Psychic) Hourman’s hourglass from #1 devolves Stalker and its mystery donor turns out to be the android Hourman of the future.

 Hourman rick

We get glimpses of the MacFarlane Hourman ( one of my favourite unpopular designs); the Last Days of the JSA; Zero Hour and the JSA revival. The maxiseries  thus sets up the “legacy” theme that will characterise the team until the New 52.

The elegiac tone of the series fits well with the indulgent “miserablism” of  Goth icon, Starman. But the concluding installment , with its Nazi occultism, time travel and snowy wasteland face-off reminded me very much of Morrison’s Zenith Phase III a decade earlier.

The tpb is rounded out with two shorts from the always-engaging “secret Files and Origins” specials DC released in the 90s. “Scenes from the Class Struggle at JSA Mansion” always intrigued me. At a gala, circa 1941, we see two factions have formed: the literal socialites at one table- the Hawks, Fate,Sandman, Starman, Midnite and arriviste GL.

At the other, the blue-collar members: Flash, Atom, Hourman, Johnny Thunder and ex-cop Spectre ( who used to share a bedroom in a rooming house). It’s a really interesting idea but of course a discordant note of modernity. Atom jeers “let’em sip with their pinkies out and gripe about their butlers!” Dr. Mid-Nite then gets his comeuppance for bringing an owl to dinner.

“History 101” features a lesson in the team’s heritage for the new Star-Spangled Kid ( aka Stargirl) from Sentinel (aka Green Lantern). There are glimpses of the Thinker’s Thinking Cap; Harlequin’s glasses; the Paul Crane Robotman body and a photo of Doris Lee in Starman’s costume.

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This cross-dressing moment actually happened in All-Star Comics 15, 1943. When the Brain Wave first captured the JSA, Wonder Woman rounded up their girlfriends, who then impersonated the heroes!

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The modern story is little more than a vignette of memorabilia, however.

parobeck

While this isn’t the 70s JSA I enjoyed most, nor even the Parobeck version of the early 90s -and the tone is too portentous and introspective for my liking- it was good to see the original super-team reunited against an arcane figure from comics’ Bronze Age. This collection is also an interesting selection of late 90s comic art styles.

Still to come: The World’s Greatest Comics Magazine

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Red River Valediction

In an attempt to meet my goal of posting more regularly, here is a sequel of sorts to both Saturday’s

Avenging 1978

and https://materioptikon.wordpress.com/2015/01/17/sing-a-song-of-sonjas/ from this time last year.

Today, I’m reviewing the second volume of Dynamite Entertainment’s Adventures of Red Sonja, featuring the late-70s exploits of the chaste mercenary in the scalemail bikini.

Sonja 2

As I stated previously, Frank Thorne’s lush fantasy world is very different from the sword-and-sandal settings of Buscema’s Conan. It has more in common with Barry Smith’s more intricate Kirby-via- Art Nouveau vistas of the early 70s.

Sonja herself is among a wave of female Marvel stars launched in their own titles between 76 and 78: Tigra, Ms. Marvel and Spider-Woman (This is could be seen as a more elastic period: a Perez Black Widow strip originated in this period surfaces later in the 80s Marvel Fanfare title. Satana starred in one issue of Marvel Premiere in late ’75. At the other end of the scale, we have 1980’s launch of the She-Hulk, which might be considered a late entry in this wave).

Unfortunately, of these titles, only Spider-Woman made it to the fifty-issue mark, when she was promptly cancelled. Ms. Marvel probably has had the most longevity, having survived in one form or another since the mid-70s and spinning off two modern-day titles. Surprisingly, for a non-super-hero comic, and unlike Tigra, Sonja graduated from a Showcase-style title to her own book. But surely, like Tigra, she’s a character designed to appeal mostly to the straight “male gaze?

I suppose she’s fairly unique in the comics world (Note to self: I still haven’t blogged about DC’s “Siren of Sword and Science”, Starfire!) in being a blend of (loose) literary adaptation and fan favourite-  enough of one to have both her own convention and her own 80s movie.

Also, it could be argued that Sonja is not -completely- a distaff version of a male hero, like her contemporaries. But as I’ll argue later, Conan casts a very long shadow over the comic- and, in some ways, it might have been better if she were simply a female Cimmerian.

Raven

Sonja is also fairly unique in the sword-and -sorcery world since I can only think of one serial adventuress, Raven, Swordsmistress of Chaos. This is a dreary series I tried only once, in the 80s;  Marion Zimmer Bradley is in a totally different league.

To this Sonja collection, then:

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Blood of the Unicorn (cover date: Jan 77):  a grotesque and ambitious villain seeks an elixir of immortality with the eponymous ingredient. A dreamlike tale of a girl and her horse with the vaguest erotic frisson.

Demon of the Maze (Feb 77): a confusing and unclear quest in a mirror maze with skeleton warriors that reads like a chaotic assembly of sword-and -sorcery cliches.

The Games of Gita (Mar 77): far more excitingly billed on the cover as ” Web of the Spider Queen”. Son joins in with the gladiatorial games between two feuding Burroughsian cities and kills the shape-shifting queen. Doesn’t make much sense.

The Lake of the Unknown (Apr 77): “The Lurkers in the Lake” is more Marvel-lous, no?  Aliens from a “star chariot” mutate and degenerate while building a city under a lake. But they also perform in an odd Theatre of Monsters, ripped off from Anne Rice. Son picks up a male companion called Mikal, as Conan picked up Natala, Olivia et al and they set off to rescue the aliens’ captive king.

Master of the Bells ( May 77) or “Dragon in the Pit”- the former’s better. Red Sonja and Mikal meet some whimsical robber gnomes(!) and encounter the king of last issue’s aliens. But his dreams of flight are made blackly comic when he’s propelled to his death by a giant bell. Just random, as  the kids say.

sonja singing tower

The Singing Tower (Jun 77): “Siren of the Singing Tower” is probably the best story in the book and it’s co-written by Elfquest‘s Wendy Pini. Son is searching for Mikal and is captured by insect-men (“fingerlings of Hell”- I like the pseudo-Shakesperian voice). Sonja is to replace their giant queen, transformed through  “golden nectar” but her evil beekeeper captor is eaten alive by larvae. We learn Mikal is the king of the oppressed city in issue 3 but Son isn’t bothered.

Throne of Blood (Jul 77) “The Blade and the Behemoths” was the first issue I actually bought, one chilly summer’s day in Largs. Still wandering in Argos, Son encounters Oryx, son of the General of Generals of Skranos. This is a city where mammoths (“behemoths”) are penned. After stopping a stampede- oh, the irony- Son is to be hanged for the regicide in her first solo appearance (by Maroto). The collection ends on this cliffhanger.

I rather think a bounty hunt for Sonja would have made a good initial story arc for this series. Its episodic nature ( and the feeble gimmickry of the stories) is one of its weaknesses. The other is Red herself. She’s an echo of the Thomas/Smith heroine- as bland and generic as Richard Kirk’s Raven.

The purposeless and rather dour wanderer of these stories who seems to fight for lost causes with little motivation is very different from her original incarnation.

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Smith’s Sonja is, in the words of Longbox Graveyard the “wrong kind of crazy”; an antediluvian biker chick. She’s a little butch, dangerous, unpredictable and fun. I feel she has something in common with Professor River Song who arrives in the Doctor’s life every so often and sets it on its head. (And they both have adventures with “Singing Towers!”) I’ve still to find out whether Big Finish can make River work outside of her relationship with the Doctor. But I wonder if Sonja’s failure to sustain a title might be related to how much she is only an effective foil for Conan. And I’m sorry to say this of Marvel’s biggest solo heroine of the Seventies.

Another problem is there’s no Marvel-style supporting cast. Mikal is terribly dull and we only glimpse doe-eyed Tarzan-lookalike Suumaro in the final story.  A Gerry Conway-Ms. Marvel approach, where he borrowed Spidey’s cast for his launch issues, might have worked, The Murilo/Tara pairing from Conan’s Ring of Black Shadow arc would have been welcome, for example.

Murilo

Nor does Sonja have any strong, recurring villains, like Thoth-Amon or  Thulsa Doom. Since her baroque world is so unfamiliar, it might have been wise to see Sonja in Hyborian locales Conan readers already knew- Shadizar or Messantia- and those we saw next to nothing of: Koth or Ophir perhaps.

But crucially, wouldn’t the book have been more successful if it had just been drawn by Buscema and written by Thomas? He claims he was excited to launch his creation. But his new bachelor lifestyle in LA ( understandably) led him to hive off writing chores to newcomer Clara/Clair Noto, whose fantasies are, to my mind, bland and generic- regardless of a well-intentioned female voice. I still like Thorne’s design flair and prettiness but Sonja’s world seems increasingly divorced from the Hyborian Age.

Clearly, the answer to how one solved a problem like Sonja lay with one other creative team:

WINTER SPECIAL 1980

Claremont would have been a good fit for Sonja. Arguably, Storm and Phoenix were among the most rounded and successful female characters at Bronze Age Marvel. Byrne had drawn the character before MTU and would have brought a dynamism to the title. But it remains “an age undreamed of”…

Byrne 75

In the end though, while I’m a little curious to know more about Red’s adventures in Skranos,after nearly 40 years, I’m dubious about ever picking up volume III.

Coming soon: The Justice Society Returns

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Avenging 1978

I had hoped to review the 1940s movie serial exploits of the Vigilante today but I’m finding it hard to get beyond the fifth episode. The print is quite poor and the storyline is very dull.

Previous posts on Steve Does Comics about UK Marvel annuals have prompted me instead to talk about this item of memorabilia:

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The Avengers Annual 1978, probably on sale (I would imagine) in the autumn of 1977, was not one I owned at the time. I added it to my collection last month, for Xmas 2015. I don’t own the MWOM   annual either but have previously bought the Captain Britain and Titans annuals for that year; I was given the Spidey annual 78 as a gift from  Alex Harvey (junior) some years ago.

The Name is Yellowjacket: This is of course, the introduction of a new identity for Hank Pym by way of a two-part murder mystery  ( of sorts)with a shock ending. It can also be read as the beginning of Hank’s psychological problems after some years of physical ones. The relationship between Hank and Jan has been the story engine since Goliath’s introduction. The Kooky Quartet’s in-fighting necessarily moved off centre-stage. The Big Man and the Little Lady begin the process of removing themselves from being conflict-generators  here; by the end of Thomas’s tenure, the vacuum will be filled by Vizh and Wanda.

Yellowjacket

Yellowjacket’s persona at first resembles the boorish Hawkeye ( an unconscious mirroring of Barton by Hank?) but he reveals a more sinister side, abducting and ( seemingly) seducing Jan , in sequences that seem a bit rapey to modern sensibilities.

However, the story also presents a sequence of gorgeous vignettes revealing the thoughts of Avengers Jan, T’Challa, Vizh and Clint. I’d wager that, Neal Adams and Cardy aside, there’s nothing to touch Buscema at DC in December of 1968.

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Til Death Do Us Part: the second part of the story is equally beautiful and a comic I owned in its original format as a little kid. This is, however, the bizarre wedding ceremony between a couple where the groom claims to have fed the bride’s fiance to a spider.

The Circus of Crime seem very menacing here, really looking to settle the score with Thor, but prepared to murder the Wasp. Although they might therefore be thought of as Kirby villains, the Clown et al are Ditko creations.

While Buscema’s women are stunning ( Sue Richards, Jan and Crystal), this full-page spread of the Marvel Universe wedding guests is a stand-out: funny, charming and awesome- an overused epithet.

Buscema wedding

I had forgotten Spidey’s  1964″Duel with Daredevil” because I thought DD recognising the Princess’s python was a goof. I still think it might be, though, since the Masters of Menace didn’t appear til ’65.

More importantly, however, Jan reveals he knew YJ was Hank all along and that they are now legally married . Could this shared deceit (and Hank’s long-standing frustration and physical strain when trapped at giant size) have contributed to his breakdowns and depression? The murder of his first wife, largely forgotten after the Avengers formed, must also have had an effect. Poor Hank. With friends like these…

Despite- or perhaps because of- Thomas’s far-out plot, this is a memorable episode. As I’ve said before, the Vision has quickly usurped the brooding “man of mystery” role from the Panther. T’Challa never regains his 1968 starring role in the team and after some flirtation with Relevancy, is essentially a B-list  guest-star in the title from the early 70s onward.

Sonja

The Song of Red Sonja: this is a bowdlerised version of the award-winning Smith/Thomas Conan story.  The scene with the “fast dip” in the pool has been cut (even though it could be seen  in the Treasury Edition version, on sale two years earlier). The interlude between the king and queen of Makkalet is also cut but that could be for reasons of space. It’s also an episode of a longer arc which can be read fairly independently and obviously, the work of a British creator.

The Avengers had been incorporated into MWOM in the summer of 1976- July, as far as I can see.  It seems surprising then that an annual would be on sale, nearly eighteen months later, mimicking the line-up of a title that was defunct.

Also, when you look at the contents of Avengers Annuals between 1974 and 1977, they form an interesting pattern of unseen and previously reprinted material. What’s the logic behind marketing an annual where the strips have already been read by the likely customer base, perhaps two years earlier? Particularly when compared to the MWOM annual, which reprints a Luke Cage/Moses Magnum Marvel Giant. Then again, both the Titans and Spidey annuals reprint Sixties US annuals, the latter Lieber story never presented in SMCW ( perhaps because “The Parents of Peter Parker” isn’t very good).

For me, the obvious choice for the UK Avengers Annual would have been either this story, effectively a sequel to the 75/76 one:

Nuklo

or this story:

Thanos Avengers

where the MTIO wrap-up could have been in the Spidey annual.  In any case, that’s not what happened, despite the disappointment it might have engendered in British Merry Marvelites. Nonetheless, I am now quite keen to own the annuals that do feature mid-70s material, like this one:

1977

but that’s a tale for 2017, I think.

coming soon: more  Red Sonja, Frank Thorne style.

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World in Action

A belated Happy New Year! At the end of the space year 2015. I finally got around to completing the trio of World Distributors UK Marvel annuals that were issued at the end of 1974.

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Apologies for the poor focus with my phone’s camera ( but feast your eyes on the rug from Johnstons of Elgin)

Last year, I wrote about the Spidey annual: https://materioptikon.wordpress.com/2015/01/10/a-warrior-fighting-a-lonely-war/

Prior to that, I blogged about my favourite of the trio, the Avengers annual:  https://materioptikon.wordpress.com/2014/01/11/personal-magentism/

As I said last year, I found these annuals in the pillowcase at the end of my bed, in the room I shared with my brother, when I was eleven years old, over forty years ago.

The Hulk was never a huge favourite of mine. Since MWOM had featured two Hulk stories from the spring until the autumn of ’73, however, I knew the green goliath very well. Although Dardevil and the FF were co-starring with Banner in the winter of ’74, they didn’t make it into the annual. The reprints within included one story I had seen advertised in the first FOOM magazine some two years prior, so being able to read more “contemporary” Marvel tales was a boon.

Mwom

UK reprint, one year later

Stainless Steve Englehart’s Hulk was an infantile innocent and the author’s affection for and encyclopedic knowledge of  the fledgling Marvel Universe saw Ol’ Greenskin encounter antagonists as diverse as the Mimic and Tiger Shark. Here, however, Englehart satirises religion with a parody of Jules Verne.

The Phantom from 5,000 Fathoms: the Hulk has escaped from the Soviet villain Gremlin but becomes a prisoner of the gnomish Captain Omen and his Infra-World. Six miles below the surface, the green galoot meets two generations of  Omen’s crew, physically adapted to the terrible pressure and their freaky Toad-Whale steeds.

Meanwhile, blocky, brash  Col. John D. Armbruster ( which I always read, probably deliberately, as “Arm-buster”) is heading a mission with Glenn Talbot to rescue General Ross from Russia.

The Green-Skinned God: after four decades under the sea, Omen’s crew have formed a revolutionary underground and the Hulk is seen as their saviour.  A quisling betrays the movement but after a clash with the bizarre and inexplicable Aquon, ” half-man, half-fish, all hate!” the rebels disembark for the surface. Then we have the unforgettable climax as the “children… (become) bursting, bloody pulps”. The story ends with pathos and futility as the foolish Filius tries to return to his father’s ship: ” Pater! Pater…he’ll change his mind! I know he will!”

This gruesome mix of child-like distress and body horror must have made an impact on a lot of other British kids that festive season…

The Destroyer from The Dynamo: back in the Big Apple, terrorists accidentally cause an accident that spawns an energy- monster. Hawkeye continues his struggle to go solo in a timely nod to the stories in the UK Avengers annual. Englehart makes Clint both a little pathetic and vainglorious: ” This is a job for-me!”

Hard-luck hero Hawkguy caused 60s-throwback monster Zzzax to dissipate but ironically, puny humans think Hulk has saved NYC! Clint will go on to gig with the Defenders against Attuma and the Red/Mad Ghost. Meanwhile, Thunderbolt Ross is rescued but Talbot is tragically shot in the final moments of the mission – his fate will be explored by Len Wein.

He Who Strikes the Silver Surfer: the annual goes back to the Sixties here.  I think this Marie Severin story took place after the Cosmically-Powered Dr. Doom saga. The tragic twist of the story is that Norrin could cure Banner but it all goes wrong, natch. I was never keen on this story and it wasn’t reprinted in MWOM. It sets the stage however for the return of the New Men and the transformation of the High Evolutionary into a Trek-Style higher being.

To conclude, it’s a vibrant and unforgettable hardback and certainly my second -favourite of that epochal Xmas.

In the next  post, we’ll look at the 1977/78 UK Avengers annual and the 1940s Vigilante movie serial.

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Thunderbirds are Go!

I made a joke about Krautrock on Facebook last weekend on a friend’s page and instantly another poster accused me of utilising a “lazy racism filter”. Heaven knows how this post will be received…

Yesterday, I saw a video clip of Native Americans free- associating their reactions to the name “Columbus”. Responses included “genocide” and “evil”.  Then today, I saw a comic ad for a new Red Wolf series which reminded  me  of another mid-life milestone: my introduction to the All-New X-Men in the winter of 1975/76.

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Of the many new US comics I encountered forty or so years ago, this one, along with the Conan/Belit saga and Gerber’s Defenders, made a very big impression on me. My favourite new mutants were Nightcrawler and Storm. But one, referred to only in the letters page, intrigued me most of all.

John Proudstar aka Thunderbird, according to author Chris Claremont, was killed off primarily for drama and shock value because he duplicated too many other X-Men. So of course, I longed to see this character and his demise. I even dreamed about reading X-Men 95. Literally. But such were the vagaries of distribution in those days, as I regularly say,  it would be a fairly lengthy wait.

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My first glimpse of Thunderbird was a minuscule image on the tiny cover of Foom 10 in a Marvel ad, circa 1977. It wasn’t until the b/w reprint of G-S X-Men 1 in 1978’s Rampage magazine that I saw a  full-figure  illustration of the hero. His slightly fussy costume was clearly a meld of Cockrum’s Lightning Lad ( one of the simplest and most striking designs of the 70s) and team-mate Ultra Boy.  I had already learned about his generic power set from a text feature in RM 2.

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Then I was able to read about Thunderbird’s last stand in the summer of 1979- or I would have, had the Rampage issue with the climax of the story actually made it to my newsagent. (I wouldn’t see the whole story- with “extra footage”-until Classic X-Men 2 & 3, in the mid-80s)

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I next saw the character- in colour at last- in X-Men 138 in the late autumn of 1980.  My school friend Graham Sim loaned me his copy, which was like a hen’s tooth.

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A successor to the mantle- younger sibling James Proustar was introduced as a member of the Hellions: the Hellfire Club’s mirror image of the New Mutants. James adopted the costume in a mid-80s issue of X-Men 193.

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In the early 90s, James then took on the identity of Warpath as his family were massacred in one of those cliche, routine slaughters that bedevil the X-verse in order to provide “motivation”. He became a member of Liefeld’s militaristic Titans “homage” X-Force  for many years. As the team “brick”, the hero was bulkier and more threatening.

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Meanwhile  Claremont introduced a third Thunderbird, solar-powered Neal Sharra, in the early Noughties. As an actual Indian ( not an “American Indian”), the nomenclature made little sense and the hero is little seen now, if at all.

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Proudstar has hardly had a stellar career although he did appear in the Days of Future Past movie and, earlier, was the protagonist of a House of M miniseries. I think it’s safe to say that the character has had a very poor deal.

Was Claremont being disingenuous, all those years ago? Certainly, the death of the Swordsman propelled the Avengers from a plodding, rather poorly drawn series of rehashed Roy Thomas plots into tragedy and Kozmic action. Similarly, Thunderbird’s death raised the stakes for the New X-men. And his powers were redundant: his speed was nowhere near that of Quicksilver (married and semi-retired at the time) or Storm and Banshee. Had he had vibratory powers, ( a la Vibe) Banshee, Storm and Cyclops would have long-range attacks covered. Wolverine outdid him as a tracker and Colossus was much stronger.

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The only remaining route might have been as “medicine man”-the route taken later with Forge and Moonstar. But not only is it patronising, it’s also uncomfortably similar to Apache Chief from Super Friends.

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In lieu of original powers, James Proudstar is now furnished with Adamantium knives- it’s surprising they aren’t tomahawks, in keeping with the “savage” part of Noble Savage.

Like DC’s Sioux hero Man-of-Bats, both Thunderbirds came from a background of  prejudice, deprivation and despair. The seeming death wish of the senior Proudstar is a tragic trait for an indigenous champion.

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It could have been very different, however. If we follow the template of the original X-team, we had Cyclops; the bestial acrobatic guy; the kid who can alter the substance of his body; the girl and the bird-guy. From the All-New X-Men, we can therefore identify Cyke, Nightcrawler, Colossus, Storm and Thunderbird.  If he had walked out in X-Men 94, the modern-day Conan, the feral samurai Wolverine might never have become the megastar he is today. But would that have been a price worth paying , in order to improve the portrayal of Native Americans in comics?

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Coming soon, here or on SFP: Plas, Metal Men, Dr. Strange and Superman Confidential

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