The Many Loves of Doctor Strange

Today’s post is a sequel of sorts to January’s “Journey of the Sorceror”. It looks at an East Ren library copy of Essential Doctor Strange. For convenience, I’ve split the stories collected within into three arcs.

The first, A Gathering of Fear includes episodes I previously read in Marvel UK’s heroic fantasy title, Valour. This weekly was a blend of Kirby’s Devil Dinosaur, late 70s Thor ( which we’ve looked at in a previous blog post ),late 70s Conan and the odd Wally Wood short from the late 60s.

The first stories follow up a Conway Thor storyline and reintroduces the Lovecraftian Dweller in Darkness, a shadowy colossus with facial tentacles, whose servants include “Shade Thralls” and the cloaked spook,  D’spayre. Tom Sutton’s artwork has a grotesquely cartoony feel, reminiscent of early 70s-Strange but is replaced by classic Strange penciller, Gene “the Dean” Colan. Roger Stern is a writer whose work I find rather bland and workmanlike. This unmemorable batch of a half-dozen stories, like those Marvel Premiere tales by Roy Thomas, Archie Goodwin and Gardner Fox, seem to suggest that 30s Pulp Horror isn’t a successful milieu for Doctor Strange.

The subsequent Shadowqueen arc was written by Chris Claremont and it really piqued my interest in the pages of Valour. Claremont pits Strange against the N’Garai, his own brand of Lovercraftian Elder God, familiar from his stories of the  X-Men and Dracula.  Colan’s art looks fantastic but the stories are dreadfully verbose and fall flat in terms of emotion. Wong is given a heroic ancestry but the rebel leader of another dimension rejoices in the comical sobriquet Silver Fox.  Mordo is re-positioned as the major antagonist of the series and Claremont introduces a new love interest in the form of old flame Madeleine St. Germaine. He also introduces Sara Wolfe,  Strange’s business manager. She is of Native American ethnicity because , y’know, Claremont loved the patronising “Noble Savage” trope. Despite a crossover with his Man-Thing stories, somewhat to my surprise, I found Claremont’s idiosyncrasies failed to entertain in this arc, although Colan’s work might now lead me to try Night Force again.

The most enjoyable stories in the book comprise the This Menace Reborn arc, which introduces the art of Marshall Rogers. His employment of graphic effects and panel arrangements is playful and exhilarating, reminiscent of Steranko. Stern returns as scripter and his stories are more “super-heroic” than Claremont’s moody monologues. Guest-stars in this arc range from Brother Voodoo, the 1960s Fantastic Four and Sgt. Fury, in an exciting, anniversary time-travel story with more than a hint of Aleister Crowley.  Guest artist Michael Golden makes the DeMatteis Defenders of the early 80s look tremendous.

 

As Clea, Strange’s lover/apprentice, is finally written out- the writing is on the wall from the very beginning of this collection- Stern introduces yet another romantic interest: Morgana Blessing, whose love for Strange has survived through all her reincarnations. This love story is cleverly linked to the FF’s classic adventure with Rama-Tut ( and later, Englehart will add further layers of complexity by involving the West Coast Avengers and Khonshu, Moon Knight’s patron). Paul Smith provides the final story in this Essential volume. His stylish and clean art is less detailed and exaggerated than Rogers and “A Mystic Reborn” also reintroduces Kaecillius, the villain of the 2016 Dr. Strange movie. He’s the Great Gambonno lookalike, who was a servant of Baron Mordo in the Sixties.

Given the tiresome verbiage of Claremont and the blandness of Stern,  this book is not really “Essential”, in comparison with the Fireside Dr. Strange collection. The notable exception is of course the Marshall Rogers run. He really seems like the natural heir to Ditko.

Coming soon: Superman 1987

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Here Be Monsters

Today’s post is the third and final entry in a spring crossover with my original blog, Some Fantastic Place. Appropriately so, since it concerns mid-Sixties reprints of the X-Men, which I first read fifty years ago, in the black and white weekly comic Fantastic as a “pre-schooler”. I read them again, when they next appeared in the pages of The Mighty World of Marvel, nearly forty years ago.  And, most recently, at the beginning of this year, in a collection entitled Lonely are the Hunted.

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The first story today is from the US X-title’s fortieth issue but I first read it in a wildly miscoloured reprint in the 1970 Fantastic Annual. The Mark of the Monster is a goofy and oft-derided story but I’m fond of it since it represents my childhood fascination with the team. In this Thomas/Heck/Tuska collaboration, the Monster of Frankenstein  is an alien android on a survey mission.The Frankenstein family and their creations would be folded into the MU later in the pages of Silver Surfer, Iron Man and of course, the eponymous fright-mag of the 70s. This story, I suspect, shows off Thomas’s literary expertise and may be an homage to the Frankenstein comics of the 40s and 50s.

 

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Oddly, the mini-arc which follows also features a monstrous antagonist. Now Strikes the Sub-Human/ If I Should Die introduces Grotesk, a mutated subterranean who wants to obliterate the human race. He’s clearly Thomas’s tribute to Kull the Beast-man, the Marvel Family villain. His origins are reminiscent of Sub-Mariner’s reintroduction in the FF but in a Marvel Universe where Mole Man and Tyrannus, not to mention the obscure Kala and even the Lava Men rule their own netherworlds, Grotesk is an unnecessary addition.

Professor X sacrifices himself to defeat the would-be world-beater in a climax which is still sombre and dramatic even if Angel isn’t sure that it is Xavier …and observant readers who paid attention to the Changeling in the Factor Three saga might also be doubtful…

The Origins of the X-Men back-ups recount Xavier and Scott Summers’ first meeting and their first Evil Mutant nemesis- Jack O’Diamonds, who with further mutation becomes The Living Diamond. I’m not convinced crystal-fisted teleporter Jack Winters is any more a mutant than Electro or Sandman however. The first two parts of Iceman’s origin have a flavour that reminds me of S.E Hinton’s Outsiders or Rumblefish.

The next story arc is a crossover with the Avengers, where Magneto escaped his captivity on the Stranger’s planet. With a dynamic Buscema cover, Xavier’s lonely funeral is depicted in The Torch is Passed and Pietro, now back in the Brotherhood, pays his respects. However, the pursuing X-Men are soundly trounced by Magneto. George Tuska’s mutants are pencilled more excitingly than Heck but I prefer the latter’s design sense.

Angel escapes from Magneto’s island stronghold in an odd interlude. Red Raven, Red Raven reintroduces an obscure 1940s hero and his sunken city of birdmen. The tragic Raven will return in the pages of Sub-Mariner and later as a member of the homefront Liberty Legion. This pause in the narrative makes sense when you discover (as Alter Ego magazine attested ten years ago) that Thomas intended to team Red Raven up with Quicksilver and Rick Jones as Bucky. This was allegedly a collaboration with Barry Smith but it has a Forties flavour of the Invaders or Liberty Legion.  Ironically, Thomas had a habit of killing off his wartime idols before retroactively introducing them in The Invaders ( c.f. Toro, Miss America – and Marvel Boy, although he was from the Fifties.)

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When Mutants Clash is the last colour issue of the original X-Men before the Cockrum team take over the bi-monthly title. I got it in the market in Morecambe in 1978 and it’s a conflict between Cyclops and Quicksilver by Heck and Roth In Battle Joined. Meanwhile, Angel musters the forces of the Avengers- somewhat depleted at this stage and comprising Hank, Jan, Hawkeye and brand-new recruit the Black Panther. Magneto  exacerbates a Mighty Marvel Misunderstanding between the two teams but he is hoist by his own petard as the much-maligned Toad betrays him.

Magneto won’t be seen again until the Neal Adams era and post-Sentinels, Wanda and Pietro rejoin the Avengers a couple of years after these issues. John Buscema’s art is gorgeous and Angel is looks more heroic than he’s ever done before. The final images of the fleeing Brotherhood on a spiral staircase, the Toad stamping on Magneto’s hands and Mags’ helmet bobbing in the waves stayed with me for life, from whatever Power Comic reprinted them.

This collection is rounded out with two 60s reprints from Not Brand Ecch, one of which features a cheeky cameo by the Doom Patrol. The other parody features the Sgt. Pepper-era Beatles and represents “college boy” Marvel at its hippest height. Although these stories represent, in part at least, my formative experience of Marvel mutants, it’s clear that X-Men was a title that was struggling. Shaking up the status quo, debuting new costumes and, playing it, at least from the covers, as a series of solos ( as Arnold Drake would do subsequently and as John Byrne did initially with Alpha Flight in the 80s ) really did little to revitalise the title until the epoch-shattering Adams issues.

I wonder if a new member wouldn’t have been a good idea- and a female one at that? Angel’s romantic interest Candy could easily have been revealed as a mutant, although any powers she had would probably have been of the “point and faint” variety. A new master villain was needed with Magneto written out and the Conquistador from the Beast back-up tales might have been a possibility, with some development. Unfortunately, everything post-Factor Three was a little dreary, with the exception of the Buscema crossover.

Coming soon: the many loves of Doctor Strange- and on Some Fantastic Place, Batgirl and Spy Smasher

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Fantastic Voyage

In the last post, we looked at the torrid torment of teenage mutant Illyana Rasputin, one of the second intake of students at Xavier’s school for the gifted in the 1980s. I first discovered the X-Men in the mid-60s, in the pages of the weekly b/w Power comics, before I could actually read. I can almost remember my mother reading a Roy Thomas/ Werner Roth story to me- it might even have been in the form of a reprint in Fantastic, which is, staggeringly, now a half-century old. The distance between then and now is akin to the distance between then and World War One!

Those months just before primary school, from 1967-1968, represent my formative experiences with the FF, Spidey, Thor, Dr. Strange, the Avengers and the X-Men. The first eight or so Lee/Kirby stories came my way shortly afterward in the very early Seventies but my fascination with the merry mutants, especially Cyclops and to a much lesser extent, Iceman, began with Power Comics. I bought a brace of issues on ebay a few years ago; they were first published in February-March of 1968.

Unlike the earlier Power Comics- Wham, Pow and Smash, Fantastic and its sister publication Terrific contained none of the traditional British humour strips. In their almost exclusively Marvel-reprint content, they were the precursors of the longer-lived British Marvel weeklies of the Seventies.

I was bought a few issues of Terrific as a pre-schooler but strips like Giant-Man and Sub-Mariner – even the Avengers- didn’t have the same impact as those in Fantastic. My earliest memories of the latter are of the Nefaria/Washington DC two-parter and its panoply of third-string villains. Those that are clearest, however, are of the 1968 issues leading up to Easter, astonishingly contemporary with Doctor Who’s Web of Fear and Fury From the Deep.

Shorn of US creator credits, these copies of Fantastic have a chummy editorial tone that sounds hip but avuncular. Ads for an anti-smoking campaign suggest the audience is sporty junior schoolboys; an ad for a Tonibell Miniball was absolutely beguiling when I was almost five- I don’t think such futuristic desserts were available in our rural stretch of the Central Belt.

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Those Thomas/Roth stories of the X-Men which made such an impact on me are reprinted in colour in Lonely Are The Hunted and in order to revisit then, this post will have to be in three parts. Today’s first installment cover the stories originally published  in the US from September 1966 to April 1967- or from the winter of 1967 into 1968 in the UK.

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Reading them in sequence again after many years, I was struck firstly by Roth’s clean, charming art. His preppy Peyton Place mutants look like Archie’s Riverdale gang, who spend their down time in coffee bars taking in Beat poetry. We also see Thomas making links to the wider Marvel universe with guest-star cameos and also creating character who would re-appear throughout X-Men history.

If the X-Men title was struggling at this time, the antagonists in the stories Plague of the Locust/The Power and the Pendant/Holocaust are hardly stellar. August Hopper and his giant insects would eventually return in an issue of the Hulk. El Tigre and his South American goons are far from a “mind-staggering menace” but the man-god Kukulcan is probably the team’s most powerful foe since Lucifer, at least.  Thomas would return to Meso-American misanthropes with Tezcatlipoca in Conan and the Feathered Serpent in All-Star Squadron.

The soap opera elements of the strip are ramped up by a suspicion that Cyclops may have unconsciously wounded his romantic rival, the Angel. Jean Grey has left for Metro College, where we meet two more students who will cause ferment for the team. The first is impulsive braggart, the Mimic. I was wild about the design of this character and he plays the gadfly Hawkeye in the group, appointed as Cyclops’ replacement as deputy leader.

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Cal Rankin is only a member for three issues however. He is a pawn of the Puppet Master in  Re-enter the Mimic, where we see a more sympathetic side to the only non-mutant X-Man. I actually found the first US reprint of the story in Prestwick Airport in the early 70s; this version contains the cameos of Wanda and Pietro and also Spider-Man , who are all offered membership of the team by Xavier.  Jean gifts the group with new costumes: red belts break up the colour scheme and clearly this is another gimmick to make the book more dynamic.

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The Wail of the Banshee introduces the threat of a shadowy conspiracy known as Factor Three and the verbose, elfin Irish mutant Banshee. He is a visually striking and almost grotesque character but his appearance is softened  a great deal by the mid-70s. Banshee quickly becomes an informal ally; this is another issue I read for myself in a US reprint, this time on Glasgow’s High Street.

 

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Early 70s reprints. Love those “framed” covers

The Mimic meanwhile has his last hurrah in When Titans Clash, which is the story I remember on my mammy’s knee. Xavier kicks Rankin out since he isn’t a team-player but he redeems himself to foil the Super-Adaptoid, losing his powers in the process. The story gives us another X-Men/Avengers clash in miniature. As a little kid, I thought the Super-Adaptoid was the Blob, probably because the name was easier to say.

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The Warlock Wakes is a fill-in by Jack Sparling. I always found it a bit dull, with its futuristic, subterranean spin on King Arthur’s court. The villain is the erstwhile Mad Merlin from the earliest days of the Thor strip, He has a number of psionic powers and returns just over a year later as the Maha Yogi. The other Metro student in Jean’s life is earnest Ted Roberts whose sibling rivalry with brother Ted erupts in  We Must Destroy the Cobalt Man. Ralph Roberts has a knock-off Iron man armour but his cobalt threat is  a very tame one. The story introduces sultry Candy Sothern, a new romantic interest for Angel and we have glimpses of the Monkees Paw, even “hearing” a snatch of Like a Rolling Stone. The young mutants have quite the burgeoning social life as we’ll see next time.

Next: American History X-Men continued

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Do You Believe in Magik?

This last post of the mid-term break returns again to the theme of anti-heroes of Marvel Comics and another tpb collection from my local library. As we noted yesterday, it would be hard to top The Son of Satan, a shriekingly melodramatic mash-up of the Hulk and The Exorcist. As you’re probably aware, Daimon Hellstrom also had a sinister sibling, Satana The Devil’s Daughter, who made her debut in the b/w Vampire Tales ( although she was more of a Babylonian demoness than a vampire and a Vampirella rip-off to boot.)

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Marvel gave Satana a colour launchpad in the mid-70s but the sultry succubus didn’t catch on- perhaps she was just too unsympathetic. In any case, Chris Claremont- something of a champion for Marvel’s femmes fatales in the Bronze Age- gave Satana a heroic send-off in Marvel Team-Up. (Relax. She came back from the dead: comics. Although I think some modern creators conflate her with Dracula’s Daughter, Lilith).

Claremont’s fascination for the morally ambiguous, self-damned heroine can be seen in his addition of Rogue to the X-Men roster although he de-aged the character to make her more vulnerable, easily manipulated and more accessible. He then revisited the trope in New Mutants with Illyana Rasputin. Introduced to the series as a hostage initially, the baby sister of X-Man Colossus was magically aged to adolescence and positioned as a kind of demon seed for about a year. The storyline gave Claremont the chance to have a demon sorceress interact with his wider superhero community, an opportunity which Satana’s horror mag heritage rather denied her. The character of Magik is very much a product of the horror/heavy metal/Dungeons and Dragons subcultures of the early 80s.

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The backstory of Illyana’s experiences in a magical dimension (ruled by a bargain-bin Beelzebub from the direct sales Ka-Zar comic of the 1980s) was revealed in a miniseries entitled Storm and Illyana: Magik. This format of course, which had begun at DC, was a very popular one and was really the starting point for the popularity of Wolverine. The first couple of issues by John Buscema and Tom Palmer are in the classic Marvel vein.  We are reintroduced to the corrupted version of Nightcrawler (from the Brent Anderson fill-in issue of summer 1982) and meet Cat, an adult Kitty Pryde who has a strikingly simple (and again classic) design.

 

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With assistance from Ron Frenz and Sal Buscema, the four issues explore themes of power, mercy and choice while Claremont puts his characters through the usual ordeals and torments.  Illyana learns dark magic from Belasco the demon king and from an elderly Storm. She also develops her own mutant teleportation powers which, Tardis-like, randomly transport her through time and space. It’s not at all clear why Illyana’s mutation is so different to her brother’s -except that there’s a precedent with Wanda and Pietro. The story ends with Illyana musing on her future as a living conduit for Lovecraftian elder gods. The same fate was promised to the Scarlet Witch and to Spider-Woman, during Claremont’s run.

From my current perspective, re-reading the series, the Lolita/corruption imagery and themes are somewhat distasteful.  As noted above, many of Claremont’s heroines undergo experiences of submission and corruption- from the Daughters of the Dragon, through Rachel Summers , Psylocke and Sage. In the case of a young teenager, it’s even more unpleasant and even a little salacious. Interestingly, Claremont already had a character poised on the brink of evil in the original roster of the New Mutants. Karma, one of the Vietnamese boat people, had absorbed her evil brother’s personality but this duality wasn’t explored and she vanished from the comic for years until the close of the Sienkiewicz era.

Like Magma before her, whom Magik derailed rather, Illyana’s presence dominated the New Mutants storylines and pulled focus particularly from Cannonball and Sunspot. (Relax. They share the spotlight in Al Ewing’s Avengers books) Illyana was ultimately freed from her “darkchilde” affliction in the late 80s but, a child again, was a casualty in the 90s of the Legacy Virus, an unsubtle  metaphor for AIDS.

Relax. She came back from the dead: comics. In the recent Bendis era of X-Men, a more provocative incarnation of Illyana became the apprentice of Dr. Strange.  Given her clear influence on several characters in the Buffy franchise, I would be surprised if  the recently-announced New Mutants movie does not count Magik as one of its roster.

Coming soon: Fifty years of Fantastic; Starlin’s Warlock; Byrne’s Superman, thirty years on

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Death-Machine for Hire

In previous posts, I’ve spoken of the rise of the anti-hero in comics published by Marvel and DC in the Seventies. Last time, we charted the adventures of the morally ambiguous survivalist Skull  and in the recent Thor post, I made reference to the Goodwin/Simonson Manhunter at DC, an assassin who seemed a plausible stablemate for Shang-Chi. Today, it’s the turn of a suicidal zombie who survived eleven issues of Astonishing Tales and has helmed a couple of series over the decades.

Deathlok is a rogue cyborg assassin in the dystopian world of 1990. This is cyberpunk about a decade early. The cinematic influences of Steranko – panel layouts which keep the stories in jittery, paranoid motion- are married to a schizophrenic narrative coursing with pop culture references to Bowie and Blue Oyster Cult- although the nods to the Doors already seem quaint in 1975.  As with Skull, tropes in pop culture at the time informed the comic, from the original Westworld to the Six Million Dollar Man and The Stepford Wives. Deathlok himself is a significant influence on Robocop.

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Deathlok,  a conflicted protagonist literally locked into a living dead state by technology, was the creation of Rich Buckler with assistance from Doug Moench. Halfway through the series, however, Bill Mantlo takes over and, as he did with Skull, tries to build links between the series and the mainstream Marvel Universe; Mantlo retrofits antagonist Simon Riker into a Marvel Spotlight vehicle for the Sub-Mariner.

Deathlok’s messianic enemy is defeated by his own hubris, in a cybernetic spin on the fates of Thanos and Kang. But a new enemy, the robotic Hellinger was waiting in the wings, with a cadre of radioactive clones, like a metallic version of Captain Action’s Dr. Evil or the modern Golden Skull. The strip finally ended in the aforementioned Marvel Spotlight with a typically 70s oddball team-up in the present day with Devil-Slayer, a reworked Buckler creation once known as Demon-Hunter.

I came aboard with issue 32 posted above, after seven issues, at the point where colour Marvels suddenly deluged the shops on a weekly basis after an absence of some years, Despite a dearth of traditional super-heroics, I was clearly interested enough in the series to buy four consecutive issues at the time. But re-reading the collected edition a few weeks ago, I was not engaged despite its innovation.With its psychedelic excursions into cyberspace and its preoccupation with cloning and electronic surveillance, Deathlok is a much more sophisticated and ambitious series than Skull The Slayer. But the clinical, callous world of the cyborg is off-putting and the individual episodes are terribly slow.

And what was the story behind the crucifixion imagery? Was it merely influence of Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell?  It seems excessive and distasteful.

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In the near future, we’ll revisit the demon sorcery of Magik in the Eighties and celebrate fifty years of Fantastic with the mid-60s exploits of the merry mutant X-men.

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Skullduggery

In the last post, I rhapsodised about the kinetic, pell-mell world of Lee and Kirby’s Captain America in the very late Sixties. Cap was perhaps less inventive but more self-consciously “hip” when his comic became a platform for political commentary in the mid-70s. So much so that Kirby’s Bicentennial return to the title was met with bafflement if not outright hostility. Yet, in many ways, King Kirby was tapping into a very weird zeitgeist:

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The fascination with ancient astronauts and the Devil’s Triangle perhaps mirrored a United States struggling in an era where the dissolution of post-war certainties and the souring of the hippy counterculture bred strange days indeed, mama. The new generation of heroes from Marvel Comics, the grandchildren of Captain America were futuristic barbarians; tormented cyborgs; Viet Nam veterans and even the scions of Satan himself.  One such was Marv Wolfman’s Skull the Slayer. Wolfman has created many successful characters for DC and Marvel – Blade, Nova, Cyborg, Deathstoke- but Skull is probably on  par with The Torpedo in terms of obscurity.

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Jim Scully is a former prisoner of the Viet Cong and killed his drug addict brother in self-defence. When his transport plane crashes in the Bermuda Triangle, Scully leads a mismatched trio of survivors ( a secretary, the troubled son of a Senator and a misanthropic black doctor) in a struggle to survive cavemen and dinosaurs- gaining super strength into the bargain from an alien artifact.

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Those of us who grew up in the British isles during the Seventies might describe  Skull The Slayer as a cross between The Land That Time Forgot and Fantastic Journey. The lush artistry of Steve Gan suggests the fecund jungle landscapes of DC titles of the mid-70s, Tarzan, Korak and Rima, perhaps. The interior monologue, meanwhil,e aspires to the hardboiled, cynical tone of 70s darlings Englehart or O’Neil: more sour and jaded than the literary allusions of a Roy Thomas. However, the experiment as a whole was an unsuccessful one. Reading the tpb collection the other week, I found Wolfman’s dialogue  contrived and risible: “Who gives a screamin’ spit?”

Back in the 70s, though, I came aboard with issue 3, a story that plays heroic fantasy off sci-fi trappings , much as Mike Grell’s Warlord did at DC, as we discover that other time periods are accessible to Scully’s band. It’s all change  in issue four however as Stainless Steve Englehart and Sal Buscema pit the travellers against a reptilian alien mastermind.

In a shock twist, Englehart has all of Scully’s team slain by ersatz Egyptians ,which makes our protagonist look like a massive bastard. It was very daring and in keeping with some of his later, self-serving characters like the Djinn and Coyote. It might even have worked in the Nineties era of anti-heroes.

However, with the next issue, Englehart was gone- off to DC for memorable and influential runs on JLA, Mr. Miracle and Batman. In his place, Marvel’s Mr. Fix-It du jour, Bill Mantlo restored the series’ status quo after an Arthurian interlude.

In addition to the original Black Knight and Merlin,  Mantlo made links between other Marvel Universe elements and the series. Anxious about his missing son, Senator Turner appears the Lords of Light and Darkness epic in the Marvel Team-Up Annual for 1976. I didn’t read any of these stories at the time of course, thanks to the vagaries of comic distribution in Lanarkshire ( Cf. any number of previous blog posts!)

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Back on track, Mantlo leads the group to a city of time-lost Incas. Their leader is a disfigured US pilot defending them from samurai riding pterodactyls (!).

If you pick it, it won’t get better

Hideously deformed countenances, like those of the Vizier in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad or the earlier Dr. Phibes, are as much a trope of Seventies Marvel as the crucifixion imagery we’ll discuss in  a future post.

And there, like so many comics of the 70s, Skull ended. But unlike Steve Gerber’s Omega the Unknown, for example, Wolfman was able to resolve the adventures of his creation, staging the rescue of the travellers in Marvel Two-In-One with the assistance of the Thing’s pilot skills. It’s a rather tame resolution but the art by Ernie Chan recalls the steamy jungles Gan established.

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I must’ve had  enough interest in Skull to pick up the second part in 1978, even though previous Wolfman issues of MTIO had been ugly and histrionic. Even here, we can see Wolfman’s awkward way with dialogue: ” Don’t worry it”?!

Why did Skull go the way of virtually all the adventure titles from DC, which it resembled? The ever-changing locales and creative teams, perhaps and the fractious, feuding cast. I think it would have been wiser to publish the series in the pages of the b/w Savage Tales, but it might’ve still been too much like Ka-Zar.

Years later, in 1993’s Quasar (a repository for all manner of Marvel loose ends)  Scully returned as a new incarnation of 40s battler Blazing Skull with a visual that recalled Batman’s freakish foes Bag O’Bones or Dr. Phosphorus. Recent appearances were more true to the conception of the character: he returned to the Bemuda Triangle with Cyclops’ old flame, Lee Forrester.

It’s not a series I remember with much fondness and it had little to say that wasn’t said better in , for example, the aforementioned Warlord. Next time, we’ll look at  reflections of the 1990s through the cybernetic eye of another marvel antihero, Deathlok the Demolisher.

Coming soon: Do you believe in Magik?

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America Goes Pop

We’ve all been focused on the USA for weeks, as probably the most controversial president of my lifetime evokes criticism and protest across the digital landscape. Meanwhile, Marvel’s movie juggernaut caroms onward, unveiling the early stages of Infinity War. So, for this morning’s first post of the mid-term holidays, we’re returning to the collected adventures of Captain America from the very end of the 1960s .

 

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The last library volume covered the super-spy adventures of Cap and SHIELD in conflicts with AIM, the Super-Adaptoid and a resurrected Baron Zemo. Ironically, the driving forces of the series were actually Steve Rogers’ emotional relationships with two characters: his long-dead teenage sidekick Bucky and  SHIELD’s Agent 13, the courageous Sharon Carter. The past  wouldn’t stay dead as WWII villains resurfaced ( in the case of the Red Skull, quite literally, from the sea).

These tropes continue in volume 3 and  inform a series of roughly three story arcs, from May of 1968 through to May of 1969. I’ve entitled them after individual issues. As a child, I read four of these comics in their original colour format ( which I’ll use to illustrate the post) and then, in my very early teens, almost all in the b/w weeklies of the mid-70s.

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Slave of the Skull recounts  two new devilish plans from the skeletally-featured arch-fiend, both more grandiose than his previous, rather silly city-stealing scheme. First the fourth and final Sleeper, a Nazi android with powers not dissimilar to the later Infinity Man is defeated, essentially and rather cheesily, by the power of Agent 13’s love. This makes her the target of the next plan: abduction of the couple and Cap’s enslavement as the living trigger for a nuclear weapon.

In these four issues we are first introduced to the Exiles,  sci-fi stormtroopers, the inner retinue being grotesque stereotypes of Nazis, Commies and Red Chinese. The most memorable are probably the Mussolini-lookalike with the deadly scarf and the wizened Cadavus, Monarch of the Murder Chair. On their Sargasso Sea island retreat, they foreshadow the sinister cabal who serve Darkseid on the war-camp world Apokolips. The Skull’s decadent gladiatorial games are brutal and depraved, like the distorted Dickensian workhouse of Granny Goodness. The defeat of tyranny on the beach by SHIELD feels very timely ( no pun intended) and both Cap and Sharon employ Bondian gadgets and gimmicks in their adventures.

Cap Goes Wild is a sequence of five “one and done” adventures, like the final days of the Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four. Two new villains are introduced: the corpulent criminal headshrinker Dr. Faustus and an eerie LMD  duplicate of Steve. The android appears in what is, for me, one of the most memorable and quintessentially Kirby episodes- pitting Cap against not only the machinations of Mao Tse-Tung but a pair of brothers who run Infinity Studios (!).

batroc

The other stories make use of established Marvel villains, including the Swordsman, the Living Laser and the Trapster. Lee and Kirby makes both Swordy and Trappy more deadly than I think I’d ever seen before ( with the erstwhile Paste-Pot Pete working as a mercenary for an off-stage Red Skull). Cap is absolutely driven through this sequence, frantic about Sharon and tormented by WW2 combat films and elaborate re-enactments of the war by his enemies.

trapster

There is a temporary catharsis  with an expanded, gritty retelling of Cap’s origin ( which introduces, I think the Vita-Rays which enhance the Super-Soldier formula).  This issue acts both as a kind of epilogue and prologue for the ground-breaking work of Jim Steranko.

The Strange Death of Captain America: Steranko draws upon cinema techniques and blends them with Kirby’s sci-fi arsenal. He uses close ups, high-angle shots, shadows and double -page spreads as Steve’s inner conflict reaches a crescendo. Rick Jones is finally permitted to play the role of Bucky but more significantly, the chaste Cap series ( all yearning for the unattainable Sharon, who scarcely appears in this arc) gets the shock treatment from the perverse, dominatrix presence of Madame Hydra. The villainess’s mittel-European origins and disfigurement recall both Doctor Doom and Scarlet Witch and Steranko employs the imagery of masks and mirrors for his three central characters.

album

There are clear influences of Eisner and Salvador Dali in Steranko’s work. The final Kirby “album issue” is a valedictory epilogue to the Tales of Suspense Era ( and one that introduced me to so many Cap icons-: Modok, AIM, the Fourth Sleeper) but in the vein of Frank Miller’s 80s Batman, Steranko reboots the series’ status quo for the Seventies, through surrealism and expressionism. I completely loved it.

 

cap-by-steranko

The next phase of Captain America would be memorable for another reason, as Lee and Colan introduce a new partner for Cap: the Falcon, the first Afro-American Marvel hero. Next time, however, we’ll look at two Marvel heroes who were very much products of the dyspeptic mid-70s.

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