Infinity and Beyond

Thirty years ago at Xmas, I read issue one of Thomas, Ordway and Machlan’s spin-off from the wartime All-star Squadron of the 80s. How does Infinity Inc. stand up in the 21st Century?

0031_jpg_size-285_maxheight-285_square-true

The hardback volume one -and-only  of “The Generations Saga” opens with the legacy team’s intro from the summer of 1983. Despite the gorgeous nostalgic art and its Art Deco flourishes, be warned that ASS and its sequel are driven by Thomas’s obsessive need to weave a vast tapestry with every 40s comic he had read. Be warned also that this is a loooong post…

The Infinity Syndrome: a play perhaps on the title of a Star Trek episode, this story opens with the wartime JSA- an unfamiliar line-up with Kirby’s Sandman and Starman. They’re about to go on a mission as the Justice Batallion against the Japanese Black Dragon Society. Meanwhile, in the midst of a battle with Amazing Man (an Afro-American version of Marvel’s Absorbing Man).

InfinityInc2

The various members of the All-Star Squadron – Tarantula, Liberty Belle, Johnny Quick, Steel, Atom  (AND guest-stars Batman, Robin, Kirby’s Guardian, Green Lantern and Phantom Lady ) have various conflicts with six members of Infinity Inc. THEN Brainwave Jr., introduced in the previous issue, gets involved too. 

Talons across Time: Not only do Flash and Wildcat make an appearance and  an injured Johnny Quick retruns to the fray, the Earth-2 members of the Secret Society of Super-Villains turn up. As does 70s JSA foe: Vulcan, Son of Fire, a Gerry Conway/Wally Wood creation. Brainwave Jr’s internal monologue reveals that the Infintors are the “sons, daughters…more or less adopted wards of the JSA”- in case anyone still hadn’t guessed.

Comics - All Star Squadron Annual _2

The Ultra War: the second All-Star Squadron Annual is a giant “donnybrook” featuring twenty-three superheroes AND cameos from Dr. Fate, the Spectre and six other JSAers. In the heat of battle, the Mighty Mite will gain the “atomic punch” he demonstrated in the late 40s. I’ve neglected to mention that the villains are the slinky female version of the Ultra-Humanite; “her” troglodyte Sub-Men; the sadistic Deathbolt and the tormented Cyclotron. For about half a dozen issues, Superman, Robotman and the female Firebrand have been their hostages.

all-star-squadron-25

 These early stories feature a red-haired Fury and a more informal Nightwind. The Ultra War reminds me of Thomas’ Kang/Grandmaster plot from the 1969-1970 Avengers on a massive scale. There’s lots of conflict and period detail but the characters are two-dimensional.

infinity-inc-teaser

Generations! It’s the first Baxter paper issue of Infinity and the events which set the time paradox in motion are revealed. The core four Infinitors crash a JSA meeting but are rejected as prospective members. They reveal their origins in conversation; the details of their student lives are realistic if a little humdrum. The smock-clad Brain Wave Sr. makes a dramatic exit. The Machlan/Ordway team create a more modern milieu here and in the next issue. 

splash-infinityinc1-1

Generations- A Gauntlet Hurled: The rejected quartet, joined by Jade and Obsidian, sulk in a McDonald’s- an amusing contrast to the classy JSA brownstone but one that bristles with menacing and rather racist black cariactures. 2nd-generation JSA-ers Power Girl and Huntress tag along ( although the greying adult Robin does not- introduced in the 60s Camp Craze, he’s from a different generation and not as sympathetic to the college kids). Forties exile Star-Spangled Kid proposes the formation of a corporate-style super hero team, perhaps along the lines of Heroes For Hire.  The simian Ultra-Humanite abducts the newly-formed group but fortunately Brainwave ( who was impersonating his own dad last issue) is on hand to follow them back in time.

mtNCA-jLx2JNPJGjbUj_R-Q

If you think Bendis invented talking-head comics with New Avengers, think again. The bulk of this issue and the next is conversation- and  frequently about things readers of this collection already know. Compared to the shallow combat of the Ultra War, these issues are action-free, really. 

Solomon Grundy Goes Hollywood: Junior retells the story of the Ultra War for new readers. After checking in with Hawkwoman and learning that some JSAers are missing, Infinity decamps to Stellar Studios- scene of the 40s Evil Star tale.  There they have a battle with Solomon Grundy and the Kid learns that Junior is the son of Merry the Gimmick Girl ( his adoptive sister). 

SSp90-Merry

A subplot sees Golden age Superman luring the parents of the Infinitors into a trap- a submerged river that will affect their personalities ( harking back to the “Five Drowned Men” JSA-tale of the 40s)

Origins and Outcasts: Jade and Obsidian tell their origin stories, then we visit Northwind’s homeland via a1946 Hawkman reprint. Joe Kubert and Gardner Fox produce a riff on Lost Horizon with “The Land of the Bird People”. The yellow-hued Feitherans are as bizarre as any of Burroughs’ Barsoomians and somewhat ridiculous. The story ends with the discovery of the drowned JSAers and Fury ( a blonde in the monthly book) swears vengeance. Thomas’ early plans included seeing Fury go bad but this angle, like his proposed gay male Harlequin ( possibly an LA stand-up comedian) never materialised.

01infinc2

The next volume was cancelled so we never saw the conclusion to the Generations Saga reprinted: the climax of the Stream of Ruthlessness plot included the final conflict between the Ultra Humanite and the Brain Wave. Future comics superstar Todd McFarlane would take over from Ordway and introduce three more Infinitors: luckless female incarnations of Dr. MidNIGHT and Wildcat and a new Hourman who became the focus of the book for many months. He also introduced  Helix,Thomas’s antagonistic, yuppie parody of the X-Men and a modern, corporate Injustice Society- Injustice Unlimited .

HELIX_Infinity_Inc_Vol_1_17

After the series sputtered to a halt in the late 80s with the senseless death of Skyman ( a revamped Star-Spangled Kid) the other Infinitors continued to pop up elsewhere. Jade, Obsidan and Nuklon were all members of different incarnations of the JLA- and the latter pair served with the 90-Noughties JSA.  Hector Hall became Dr. Fate in that same revival of the JSA while Brainwave and Northwind became minor super-villains.

1291358-jsa_black_reign

Bad Boys Inc: Norda, Albert and Henry King

Re-reading it so many years later, the book’s flaws are apparent. During a glut of DC team books, infinity Inc. had neither the fervent emotions of New Teen Titans nor the absurdity of Outsiders or the futuristic cosmos of the Legion The WWII milieu of the All-Star Squadron makes the team feel old-fashioned. No scene more underlines the feeling of decrepitude than the bizarre revelation of Green Lantern’s toupee in the first Infinity Inc annual.

Alan-1

 Compared to the elemental machismo of the Invaders, the swanky Justice SOCIETY is staid and moneyed- Cole Porter characters with super-powers. Furthermore, the Infinitors are a transplanted Avengers- a giant; youthful twins, one of whom is a spectral figure; an armoured member and one who draws on mythology. Their youthful emotions are rather repressed compared to the torrid Titans ( despite unfunny Wolfman’s tendency for schmaltz). Crucially, they’re often not the stars of their own aventures- mostly, the comic is  about the more interesting but historical lives of their parents and guardians.  In the end, this isn’t so much an elegy for the Forties but for Thomas’ personal Golden Age as a writer at Marvel.

 Coming soon: Please Save Me From the Monsters

All images presumed copyright of their respective owners

Personal Magnetism

I’ve found I still can’t use Blogger in the public library, to my frustration. So today, we continue to look at my Xmas haul with the storied World Distributors Avengers hardback annual of 1975. This book was published in late ’74 and was one of an unforgettable trio of annuals released at the height of Marvel UK’s popularity. I was fortunate enough to get all three on Christmas Day in 1974 but the Avengers Annual was always my favourite. So much so, I treated myself to a second, second-hand copy last month.

Image

Such was their impact, I can’t recall what else I might have been given that year. One reason for the resonance of the Assemblers book was probably the fact that I hadn’t read a single US issue in almost two years: I hadn’t even seen one in the shops. So, this was an opportunity to catch up with the team that had superceded the FF as my childhood favourites.

The annual opens with a two-part Englehart/Don Heck adventure. And Now, Magneto: the story begins with a videolink between Wanda and Pietro. Roy Thomas had written out the speedster who had become romantically linked to one-time FF sub, Crystal. Pietro is outraged by Wanda’s affections for the Vision. This story beat seems to negatively alter the character for good; a decade later, Englehart will play Quicksilver as a cuckolded maniac. It also indicates the soap opera tone that will dominate the book for at least the next three years.

Image

The Assemblers are then lured into a trap by, er, Magneto – as the title makes plain. His mutated lackey Piper sics a herd of dinosaurs-presumably shipped in from the Savage Land- on the team. Mags impersonates the fallen Angel and uses the imposture to capture some Avengers and a handful of X-Men. At this point in time, the mutants’ own comic was a reprint title: RT had tried to rebrand them as freaks in plain clothes but it didn’t take (MTU 4, 1972).

With Two Beside Them: This tale then crosses over to Steve Gerber’s Daredevil but that segment- perhaps for  reasons of length- isn’t reprinted. In any case, Thor, Iron Man and the Vision have bolstered their diminished numbers with DD and his love interest, the Black Widow.

We get some exposition about Magneto’s brand-new mind-control powers. Then we have my favourite part of the entire annual- a flashback to Maggie’s last outing in Amazing Adventures, where his Universe Machine plot was thwarted by the Inhumans ( his Orc-like mutate army- the likes of Mooneye and Obar- seem to have been killed off). Then , another flashback, to Neal Adams’ Savage Land story from X-Men. The cameo of Mag’s Beast-Brood became seared on my brain- a frog/man, a beadred figure with a large cranium; a troll-like figure; and a human, swathed in metal coils- Magneto himself. It is incredibly evocative but it will be another couple of years before I see the languid Lorelei too.

Image

The mutant maven’s master plan is thoroughly deranged: he plans to expose mankind to radiation and rule over the mutated survivors. The story climaxes with Magneto’s defeat as the Vision controls Piper, Deadman-style. It’s strange to see Vizh so central to the plot considering he’s barely even a feature of modern Avengers tales. His star has fallen as far as DC’s 90s trio of legacy heroes: Kyle, Wally and Connor.

This is a portrayal of Magneto that’s quite unrecognisable compared to the dark, sexy, tormented Holocaust avenger of X-Men First Class – or even the elderly, waspish Mittel-European of the first three X-Men movies.  This Mags is a raving, grandiloquent loon- a grotesque Caligula of genetic tinkering. A glimpse of his original mutant band prefigures his next outing in Defenders with Mastermind’s reformed Brotherhood. Here his plan to create an Ultimate Mutant takes him off the board for a couple of years.

 The story ends with a mystery: Angel has vanished. Englehart would thread this subplot through subsequent stories of the Hulk and Captain America, where eventually we discover that mutants have been kidnapped by the seditionary Secret Empire. Oddly, the X-Men returned to their school uniforms at that point, which seemed retrograde. Another year or so would elapse before the All-New X-Men debuted.

Englehart gives a practical explanation as to why Daredevil turns down an offer to become an Avenger: the sheer number of them interferes with his radar sense. Interestingly, Englehart contemplated adding DD to the West Coast Avengers in the 80s. No doubt he would have addressed the problem but it seems he elected to go with Moon Knight instead.

(Bendis would go on to make The Man Without Fear an Avenger but did virtually nothing with him, let alone play up his uniquely enhanced senses.)

 Suddenly, the tone and look  of the Annual shifts with Among us Wreckers Dwell: a mid-60s Cap’n’Bucky short from Lee and Kirby.in this  WWII flashback from Tales to Astonish, Sando and Omar are a stage mentalist act who are promoting acts of sabotage by the Nazis as propaganda. C&B encounter a spunky young Agent 13. Much later, Englehart would reveal that this was Peggy Carter, elder sister of SHELD’s Sharon Carter, the Agent 13 of the 60s and 70s.

Image

The Lion God Lives: The final Englehart tale in the annual introduces a supernatural opponent drawn from African mythology. He debuts in a sequence that seems inspired by the voodoo sacrifice scenes from Live and Let Die. Having broken up the DD/BW team last issue, Englehart goes on to show how the romantically- conflicted Romanova is a good fit for the team. However, the story is really about the Black Panther’s conflict about his two cultures: Wakanda and Harlem. The Panther decides to stay with the team while Natasha changes her mind. To me, this was the wrong decision given the dynamics of the group, although I understand keeping T’challa on as a hero of colour. I don’t feel anything much was done, however, with his majestic persona or  the stealth or tracking skills that predated Wolverine.

.Image

The most interesting part for me was the three-panel introduction of Mantis, in a slinky dress ( and her usual colour scheme). The Swordsman is completely obscured by darkness. This is a strikingly downbeat entrance for a character who will dominate the direction of the comic for the next year or so.

I throughly enjoyed reading this book again. I was struck especially by Englehart’s style: rising and falling cycles of subplots, usually driven by romantic passion, duty and self-discovery. Hawkeye is a powerful presence in cameos throughout the stories even though it feels like Englehart doesn’t know where the character’s going. The other striking aspect is Englehart’s employment of his vast knowledge of Marvel history: it feels effortless and organic. 

I will very possibly return to the Spider-Man and Mighty World of Marvel annuals for 1975 when we get to December 2014, celebrating their fortieth anniversary.

Coming soon: Infinity and Beyond.

All images are presumed copyright of their respective owners 

Thirteen Silly Doctors

The tinsel and lights are down and packed away for another year as the Christmas/ New year holidays are swiftly running out. The most-watched tv moment of the festive period appears to be Matt Smith’s final bow in The Time of The Doctor. I have enjoyed his performance over the last three years for its emotional range- although I have found some of the wackiness forced and tiresome  and the sexualised and sexist aspects of the character quite inappropriate.

hr_Doctor_Who_-_The_Time_of_the_Doctor_7

Steven Moffat orchestrated the fall of the Eleventh with less sentiment than his predecessor did for Tennant. Smith gave a performance of great dignity and poignancy as the Man Who Stayed for Xmas- an increasingly elderly, Hartnell-esque  Doctor defending a human settlement against the armed forces of his enemies, prophesied since 2010.

Peter-Capaldi-Doctor-Who-Time-of-the-Doctor-Clara-Twelve

I was also touched by the final  and fitting appearance of Amy Pond although I felt it was heavily and annoyingly implied that space nun Tasha Lem might be another incarnation of her daughter,”bespoke psychopath” River Song. (“Lem” being “Mel”(s) in reverse…). Clara’s to-ing and fro-ing in time was anticlimactic and frustrating,  as was her hapless admission that she was attracted to Eleven. Still, it was the Impossible Girl’s impassioned ( if illogical) plea to the Time Lords (revealed as the true prisoners beyond the Crack in the Wall) that kickstarted the Doc’s new cycle of regenerations. Yes, there was only the flimisiest of stories and one that felt stretched to fit the running time but Moffat resolved some of his dangling plot threads- even if it was in exposition. He also gave us a glimpse of the intense new Capaldi Doctor- who appears to have failed to retain his memories, despite Eleven’s promises.

20130820-065904

 

There seemed however to be a disconnect with The Day of the Doctor, the 3-D Golden Anniversary extravaganza beamed into cinemas and front rooms across the planet, a mere six weeks ago . Time felt less satisfactory to me than Day; less satisfying still is The Light at the End. This is the 50th Anniversary special audio play from Big Finish productions and it features all four surviving “classic” Doctors in a struggle with the Master. The renegade is played again here by the silkily malevolent Geoffrey Beevers. Each of the Doctors is assisted by a recurring audio Companion- Leela, Nyssa, Peri, Ace and Charley Pollard. There are also cameos by surviving Companions of the Sixties and Seventies. As if that weren’t enough, the first three Doctors are all vocally impersonated – unfortunately, William Russell’s First Doctor isn’t as convincing as the version Peter Purves has delivered. I also felt it unfortunate that Maggie Stables did not have a cameo as BF’s first original audio Companion: cocoa-loving academic Evelyn Smythe .

RTEvelyn

The plot of Light is a thin one: the Master infiltrates a trade show run by alien arms dealers and sets a trap for the Doctor in the home of an ordinary mortal in November, 1963. This domestic and tragic aspect of the play is the most successful; the team-ups between the old Doctors are nostalgic but scarcely dramatic. It’s the equivalent of a child’s action figure battle on Xmas Day and the play could have been condensed on a single disc.  Given that Big Finish employ the slogan “We Love Stories”, it’s frustrating when that story is a secondary concern to the event itself. (2/5)

Exactly the same can be said of The Five Companions. Here, the usually-inventive Eddie Robson delivers a series of encounters between Five and biochemist Nyssa with a handful of Sixties companions – Ian, Steven, Polly and a revived Sara Kingdom. The Daleks and Sontarans provide the peril.This was the subscribers free gift of December 2011 but it’s essentially plotless and is a fan-service tie-in to 1983’s The Five Doctors. (1/5) 

A third audio play I listened to while travelling in December was Prisoners of Fate. Jonathan Morris had cornered the market on “timey-wimey” Who stories long before Moffat. This audio sees the climax of a long-running subplot in which a much older Nyssa is reunited with her offspring. She has finally obtained a cure for the space plague – the mission on which she embarked back in Cobwebs ( Jul 2010). This is a long and complicated story about time paradoxes, involving a rogue Tardis and its milieu seems inspired by Minority Report. I found it unmemorable but the ending is poignant. (3/5) 

Heroes%20of%20Sontar%20Retro%20CD%20Cover

Much more satisfactory was Heroes of Sontar by Alan Barnes. An earlier installment of the Nyssa arc, it parodies legendary sitcom Dad’s Army as its premise. A squad of comedy Sontarans- the senile veteran, the doom-monger, the dim new recruit- find they have been dispatched on a suicide mission as offerings to a gestalt entity known as the Witchguards. Alongside the black comedy, Nyssa is infected by  parasitic lichen and the Doctor, Tegan and Turlough undertake hazardous journeys on – and above-a poisoned planet. I’d definitely award this one with five Talmars.

Coming along in the next few weeks: The recovered 1967 adventure The Enemy of the World and the audio Lost story, Lords of the Red Planet. 

All images are presumed copyright of their respective owners

This Happy Morning

Best wishes for 2014! I got back from Glasgow just before Hogmanay but as a library user, this is my first chance to post about the Christmas comics haul. 

Over the holiday period, I re-read the classic Marvel UK 1975 Avengers Annual and another childhood favourite, The Horrific World of Monsters. I also got the hardback reprint of  Kirby’s brutal and adult In The Days of The Mob. And, full of nostalgia for 1983, the Thomas/Ordway Infinity Inc. Generations Saga. Frustratingly, DC saw fit to cancel the second volume that would have completed the story.

Among the regular monthly comics, I enjoyed Astro City and Byrne’s Triple Helix. But I really preferred Marvel’s Mighty Avengers spin-off, with its ethic minority line-up.

Today’s post, however-  number 175!-  is the last in a series on festive comics and it looks at a DC tabloid from ebay. The 1976 Limited Collectors Edition C-43 Christmas with the Super-Heroes features a Curt Swan cover. Reputedly, Captain Marvel Junior was  trailing behind the sleigh on the original design; the kid marvel didn’t make the final cut, unfortunately.

xmas-superheroes

Superman at the North Pole: a whimsical fairy tale from 1940, in the vein of Captain “Shazam” Marvel. While Supey teaches the true meaning of Xmas to a spoiled, wealthy boy, the villainous pair Dr. Grough and Mr. Meaney launch an assault on Santa’s toy factory by space rocket. ” The world will be flooded by the tears of little children”, the fiends exult!

The Silent Night of the Batman: a mostly wordless 1970 vignette written by Mike Friedrich and with art by the hugely stylish Adams/Giordano team.  Bats lends his “deep vocal chords” to Xmas carols with Gotham’s Finest. Corny but effective.

Night Prowler: a 1971 House of Mystery short by the creepy team of Wein and Wrightson. Surprisingly, this Twilight Zone- tale has a happy ending of hoofbeats and jingle bells.

Wonder Woman and the Story of Fir Balsam: a bizarre 1943 adventure from Sensation Comics. A talking Xmas tree narrates a tale of the amazing Amazon, a jealous husband, neglected children and a Nazi spy ring – one of the villains being the eponymous Carl NATZ. The usual silly antics  of Wondy’s bondage -happy dreamworld.

Santa Fronts for the Mob: a sensational 1943  seasonal comedy from Adventure Comics. Sandman and Sandy, The Phantom Pair, rout an underworld plot as a wrestler is hired to be a department store Santa. References to the underprivileged kids of Suicide Slum (of Newsboy Legion fame) make this Art Deco Simon/Kirby story an ancestor of Marvel’s shared universe.

Ultimately, this collection is a little silly and juevenile, when you compare it to its Marvel contemporaries in February 1976. This was the era when US Marvels returned to our shops with a vengeance and I was buying one every day:

imagesCAAIS4RH

$T2eC16d,!)QE9s3HF4zEBSBUDkIsdw~~60_35

Uncanny-x-men-97-justthecoversdotcom

Compared to the themes and emotions explored by Marvel’s creators, DC in 76 seemed very thin, pre-teen fare.

The final Batman 100-pager of the 70s, also a Xmas issue, will soon be discussed as part of this year’s series on vintage tales of the Caped Crusader. Next time, I’ll look at the swansong of the Eleventh Doctor and the Big Finish 50th anniversary epic.

All images are presumed copyright of their respective owners