The Mystery Men of April Part 4

The fourth instalment of this month’s entry in this series…


Namor, the Sub-Mariner: Bill Everett’s  Antarctic Amphibian, wise-cracking flattopped Namor brawled through Timely Comics accompanied by sassy Namora while occasionally duelling with the android Human Torch.

I first encountered Namor as a barbarian king in proto-Sword and Sorcery adventures in late-60s Marvel like this Thomas/Severin homage to Hammer’s The Lost Continent. He also featured in super-hero adventures with other Golden Age relics, like the tragic Red Raven.

I only glommed onto his role as FF antagonist and anti-hero through reprints. After his initial non-membership of the Defenders, Namor was largely featured  in The Invaders and Super-Villain Team-Up. His mid-70s role as the “Savage Sub-Mariner” was gradually faded out (although the finny blue Romita suit has more-or-less survived into the present day)

A stint in the 80s Avengers always seemed an uncomfortable fit to me and I much preferred John Byrne’s 90s series, where Namor was portrayed as a CEO in Big Business. This corporate warfare angle was quickly superceded, however,by storylines reviving the Invaders and Iron Fist.

In more recent years, Namor has been folded into the X-Men, which robs him of his unique role as Prince of Atlantis. Like Superman, it seems that very few creators are interested in making this remarkable character’s rich heritage relevant to modern audiences.

Daredevil: a Silver Age version of Dr. Mid-Nite, the Sightless Swashbuckler is  one of Marvel’s most tragic heroes, yet was mostly written as a playful, wise-cracking acrobat. His early career was reprinted in Mighty World of Marvel beginning with the vibrant Starlin cover above.

That first incarnation  is best encapsulated in Tim Sale and Jeph Loeb’s Daredevil: Yellow. It’s both achingly romantic and a pleasingly retro noir that shows Matt making best use of his  sensory powers against his earliest (and rather unimpressive) foes.

I dipped in and out of DD from time to time: here’s a very late discovery from Stonehouse Hospital in 1972.  Largely, however, he fought boring Batman-knockoff crooks: the Beetle, the Owl, the Gladiator and Mr. Fear, in spite of the moody, cinematic pencils of genius Gene Colan.

In the early 80s, Frank Miller rocketed to stardom transforming Daredevil into a  hardboiled noir. Matt Murdock was now a tormented but devout Catholic, acting out a doomed love story with the assassin Elektra. I  only read these stories in reprints a couple of years later. I admired them but they didn’t “speak” to me.

DD was the third Marvel movie release after X-Men and Spider-man , with a reasonably faithful retelling of the Elektra storyline. Ben Affleck created a sympathetic and glamorous Murdock.  For a short time, a promotional  effigy maintained a rather disquieting vigil over my street from a billboard.

At the beginning of a new decade, DD’s stylish new comic is a critical success again and he has joined the Avengers, probably to no-one’s surprise.

Black Widow:  Her super-power may be to devour her mate: I first saw Madame Natasha as a Soviet spy with spider-gimmicks, making a sap of Hawkeye. As was the case with Medusa, she was soon reformed however. Marvel lost a memorable villainess and gained an indifferent heroine in fishnets and beehive, with nowhere to go.

This situation changed dramatically when the Widow was re-imagined as, well, Modesty Blaise:  a jet-set superheroine in the vein of Mod Wonder Woman. The “little tsarina” had something of a fixation that she was cursed after the death of her husband, the Red Guardian. This morbid character trait gave a motivation for her rather rootless, glamorous lifestyle. After reading this issue of AA  on a trip to Glasgow, I found it easier to think of BW as a different character.

Here I was smitten by Titan priestess Moondragon.

Soon, Tasha and Daredevil formed a swinging partnership where the personal and professional blurred. They were both offered- and eventually declined- Avengers membership in the early Bronze Age.

I have a vivid memory of reading The Sun on a sizzling day on Rothesay in 1975, the summer before I went to secondary school. The photo feature told the story of Mrs. David Bowie’s tv debut as the Black Widow. Like this proposal, the  relationship with DD petered out in the mid-70s. This was presumably so that ‘Tasha could lead the Champions.

I was really struck by this team as a schoolboy- I had missed the debuts of the Avengers and the Defenders but I could get in on the ground floor with the Champs. Sadly, they were cancelled before Bill Mantlo could permanently add Black Goliath and Jack of Hearts*.

Jet-set Natasha was re-purposed again by Frank Miller in Daredevil with a short new hairstyle and a rather drab grey catsuit. By the late 80s, the ageless Widow was revealed to have been abducted as a child by Elektra’s ninja clan, the Hand and rescued by Cap and Wolvie. At the dawn of the 90s, she was leading the Avengers, in their  90s leather jackets

In recent years,  Natasha saw off Yelena, a younger model and popped up  in Mighty Avengers. She has also been  a romantic interest for the Winter Soldier (the revived Bucky) and for  Colossus in Chris Claremont’s professional fanfic X-Men Forever. Of course, with the Avengers movie, Black Widow is poised to achieve a level of fame (or notoriety) that Angie Bowie could only dream of . Hopefully, there will only be a dash of  the sultry, lethal but treacherous version from The Ultimates.

This issue introduced me to three “new” Avengers at once! Guess who the other two were!

Goliath II: the third point of the Bronze Age love triangle saw Hawkeye, feeling overshadowed by the recent additions Black Panther and the Vision, using Hank Pym’s growth formula to play giant in order to rescue Black Widow from Egghead ( not the Vincent Price Bat -foe; the uninspiring villain Roy Thomas kept foisting on the Assemblers).

Clint Barton successfully occupied the giant role in Avengers for a few years, adding visual “oomph” to the team and a certain cynical cool. I would say he made a better job of being Goliath than any other contender (apart perhaps for Goliath/Atlas from the Thunderbolts)

Adam Warlock: yet again,  I arrived late for the party with Thomas and Kane’s strange super-hero version of Jesus Christ Superstar. I had seen Kane’s agonized heroes- Captain Action and the Dove- as a younger child and I understood the parallel world-setting easily enough. But the series was cancelled before I could read any more issues other than this one (from Glasgow’s Queen Street station bookstall). Although I was vaguely aware of Kirby’s “Cocoon-Man”, for most of my childhood, Warlock was a one-off X-men villain or a sinister figure from Superman cartoons:

I missed all of Jim Starlin’s paranoiac  Kozmic satire, becoming reacquainted with Warlock in my teens with this issue.

However, I followed him avidly in b/w reprints in Star Wars Weekly and recognised the elements of Elric and Dorian Hawkmoon that Starlin had grafted on to the character.

The Avengers- MTIO Annual crossover that “ended” the Thanos saga was one of the finest Bronze Age cosmic tales. I never felt the subsequent revivals in the Nineties did it justice. In fact after The Infinity Gauntlet, which felt like a belated attempt to recapture the success of Crisis on Infinite Earths, the Infinity crossovers were extremely diminished returns.

After orchestrating cosmic conflicts with Warlock’s alter egos The Magus and the Goddess, Starlin delivered The Infinity Watch, Infinity Abyss and a short-lived Thanos series. Marvel had some success with its cosmic properties in the Naughties, putting characters like Warlock, Nova and Quasar through a series of heroic deaths and resurrections. Like the New Gods, I suspect it’s only a matter of time before Adam returns yet again.

The Shroud: a deliberate homage to both Batman and The Shadow, this spectral figure was blinded in a nasty chop-sockey ceremony and gained extrasensory abilities. He was introduced as a nemesis for Dr. Doom in SVTU. Later Max Coleridge gained the power to generate darkness ( like the Champions’ Darkstar).

After his team-up with Spider-Woman, he hung around the fringes of the Marvel Universe for years, although he did appear in one story by Steve Ditko,  acquiring a pair of assistants called Cat and Mouse. He’s pretty redundant in the MU while we still have DD and Moon Knight; in fact, the Fist of Khonshu appropriated most of his Californian milieu in his recent series.

* Jack of Hearts  is one of the most tragic Avengers and an oversight in March. Originally introduced in the Bronze Age as an antagonist for the White Tiger, Jack Hart  briefly became the “apprentice” of Iron Man. Having apparently gained his explosive powers in a chemical accident, it was subsequently revealed that he was of extra-terrestrial descent. This garbled origin and the complexity of his design, combined with his dull power set, may have done Jack of Hearts few favours.

Wandering in space during the early 90s, he was  rejected by alien warrior Ganymede ( a girl, confusingly enough) and although ultimately accepted into the Avengers, had a very fractious relationship with the second Ant-Man.  Jack  committed suicide rather than endure fourteen hours a day in confinement.  It seemed to be an oblique comment on the right to die but was quite a negative message from a comics hero.

Next Mystery Men part five!

All images are presumed copyright of their respective owners


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