The Mystery Men of August

Welcome to the somewhat-tardy first instalment of my regular feature on super-heroes old and new who made their début in this month. As ever, I post images of comics where I first encountered the characters or of stories that are significant to me.

The Whizzer:  a member of both Marvel’s WWII retroactive super-hero teams, the Invaders and the Liberty Legion. I first discovered this speedster in an All-Winners Squad reprint in the late 60s. Blessed with super-speed after a transfusion of mongoose blood, the Whizzer’s second-biggest claim to fame was his romance with myopic patriot Miss America. Roy Thomas, of course, needlessly established the couple as parents to Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch.  Such a link with the Pastramian Pair was obviously silly and retconned as mistaken identity.

Unlike the Golden Age Flash, the Whizzer’s career sadly spiralled into decline and he died of a heart attack in battle with the All-Winners’ old foe, Isbisa.

There are two other Whizzers in the MU, both quite deliberate parodies of the Silver Age Flash: one a villain ( aka Speed Demon) and the other, that villain’s counterpart on a parallel world and a member of the Squadron Supreme ( a JLA homage).

Spider-Man: what  is there to say about the figurehead of the Marvel Universe, one of their top-selling titles of the Bronze Age, an Avenger who met everyone in Marvel Team-Up and star of several cartoon series, a tv show and four Hollywood movies? I first discovered Spidey in the pages of Pow, which I associate with that clever Ditko-web emblem.

The moody and stylised adventures of Peter Parker were quickly succeeded by the Romita era which saw Petey change from nervy, hypochondriac Tony Perkins to motorbiking James Dean. Smilin’ Stan, Jazzy Johnny and Gil Sugar-Lips Kane explored student unrest, civil rights and drug use through Spidey as the the Sixties came to an end, presaging the Relevancy Era at DC.

The early 70s of course saw Spidey immersed in the dark, paranoid world of Gerry Conway and Ross Andru. Despite Peter’s decades-long marriage to Mary Jane, this period is always the furthest limit explored in the wider media.

A dozen years ago Bendis and Bagley launched Ultimate Spider-Man, a modernised and highly successful retelling of the classic stories. More recently a new teen character, Miles Morales, has adopted the mantle of Ultimate Spidey.

However, thanks to Spidey-fan Andrew Garfield’s wonderfully gauche ( not to say randy!) performance on screen, it’s Peter Parker who remains Spider-Man in the public consciousness. We’ll be looking at Spidey Bronze Age Treasuries here in the coming weeks.

It’s also worth noting, I think, that Peter’s little girl May starred as Spider-Girl in the longest-running superhero book with a lead female character ever published by Marvel.

Thor: another Marvel movie star and definitely in my Top Ten Marvel series of all time. The God of Thunder was obviously a riff on the Original Captain Marvel and his original, early Sixties adventures have a stodgy quality reminiscent of the Wayne Boring Superman.  But with the introduction of the Tales of Asgard featurette  in 1963, the super-Viking started to morph into something more majestic and literally mythic . Thor’s  adventures in the mid-to-late Sixties also prefigured some of the themes and concepts that would be explored in Kirby’s Fourth World tetralogy: genetic engineering and cosmic warfare.  again, we’ll see this in the Thor Treasury Editions.

Thor remained a blend of sci-fi and sword and sorcery through the Seventies. In the 80s, Walt Simonson infused more Tolkienesque elements and the end of the decade saw Frenz and DeFalco driving a more super-heroic book, while touching on some of the grim and gritty trends. But it’s the Lee and Kirby Thor, essentially, on screen.

SHIELD:  Lee and Kirby inventively revamped their  burly, ragged  Sgt. Fury as a suave, sexy  techno-spy at the  height of the Bond craze. However it was magician and iconoclast Jim Steranko ( the inspiration for Mr. Miracle) who turned SHIELD into a dazzling, psychedelic serial thriller. I dare say without Steranko, we wouldn’t have Samuel L. Jackson and the Avengers movie. I wouldn’t be surprised if Joss Whedon’s Marvel tv project is some iteration of SHIELD.

A rare Kirby GR cover.

Ghost Rider: one of the most iconic creations of the Satanic Seventies, Johnny Blaze  was an unlikely member of the Champions . The Danny Ketch incarnation was a huge star in the 1990s as Marvel’s Goth answer to the vengeful Spectre. After two risible movies, I’d still like to see GR in the Avengers sequel simply for the remarkable design of the character.

Living Mummy:  a lacklustre late entry in Marvel’s Bronze Age horror canon, N’Kantu was an African prince who underwent a grisly process of mummification. After some mindless rampages, the Living Mummy fought a generic group of mystical villains, the Elementals. One of their number was a proto-Storm character called Zephyr. Another ally was a thief and adventurer nicknamed The Asp, who might very well have been one of Marvel’s earliest gay characters.

Deathlok: Rich Buckler anticipated both William F.Gibson and the zombie craze with his cyborg assassin Luther Manning. Deathlok inhabited a dystopian version of the 1990s; interestingly,  like Ghost Rider, Deathlok was a popular character in the real  90s, influenced I think by the Terminator movies.

The Scarecrow: not to be confused with the Batman  ( or indeed the Iron Man/Ghost Rider)  villain of the same name, this character was created by Scott Edelman for his own solo series in 1975. After a couple of appearances in Dead of Night, this derivative blend of Kirby’s Demon and Ditko’s Creeper vanished for years but returned as the Straw Man.

Moon Knight: Also introduced in 1975, a werewolf- hunting mercenary with super-strength linked to the phases of the moon ( not unlike Nighthawk‘s gimmick). MK rose to fame as a the star of one of Marvel’s first Direct Sales comics at the beginning of the 80s. With Bill Sienkiewicz clearly imitating Neal Adams, MK became Marvel’s answer to Batman, with a multiple personality disorder.

I like this version too.

Having been revived several times as the instrument of an Egyptian god, the Fist of Khonshu just completed a gritty noir series by Bendis and Maleev and might also make a suitable television vehicle for Joss Whedon.

Marvel Boy and the Kree:  introduced as the creators of the Inhumans  in the FF, Kirby’s mysterious alien race of genetic manipulators was an example of his fascination with the Ancient Astronaut hypothesis.

The Captain Marvel series revealed the godlike Kree to be ruthless imperial militarists riven by racial bigotry. Marvel Boy was Grant Morrison’s take on the Mar-Vell character: an aggressive and adaptive – but sexy- alien invader.  Brian Bendis retooled Noh-Varr as the Protector and assigned him to the custody of the Avengers. He has been a low-key member -lost in the sheer number of Assemblers-  but  has contributed Kree tech to battles with Ultron and the Phoenix Force.

Gravity: yet another attempt to recapture the teen hero vibe of Spider-Man . This graviton-controlling noob feels very much like a Noughties version of Nova or Quasar and a potential Avenger-in-training. In fact, he was  touted as such when he guest starred in a humorous Bendis-Era Xmas story. At one stage, Gravity was poised to be the new Captain Marvel and Protector of the Universe.  Think Marvel’s version of the Jaime Blue Beetle.

Next: The Mystery Men of August at DC

All images presumed copyright of their respective owners

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