Days of Future Imperfect?

This week, I made an overnight trip to Glasgow’s Hillhead Library for a Graphic Novel training day. It is always astonishing to me that I live (and teach) in an era where super-heroes are a major part of mainstream pop culture. I think that’s in no small part due to the potency of Chris Claremont’s operatic X-Men stories.

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X-Men: Days of Future Past is yet another cinema blockbuster in a year that’s already yielded Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Winter Soldier. In case you didn’t know, this movie is loosely based on a legendary Claremont/Byrne story – although it was largely Byrne’s idea ( and based on Dr. Who’s Day of the Daleks from 1972).

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While cover dated January 1981, I suspect I read it in November of the previous year. My brother bought it in Strathaven one Saturday and it quickly became one of my favourite comics. Not only because of the grim fascination with the X-terminated X-men; nor for the adult appearance of Franklin (FF) Richards- which I’d been waiting for since about 1970-; but for the revitalisation of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants.

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Although Avalanche and the spectral Destiny had little or no development, there was a Lee-Kirby vibe about the swishy, aristocratic Pyro. I had been a fan of the gross and vulgar Blob since the late 60s and Mystique aka Raven Darkholme had been an enigma in Ms. Marvel’s 70s series. In this storyline there would be hints, in Claremont’s maddening, compelling style, of her relationship with Nightcrawler.

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Also, Kitty Pryde, the 13-year-old Jewish girl- dancer and genius- had just been inducted as Jean Grey’s thematic replacement in the series. Abruptly we met a middle-aged version of that kid, who’d experienced horror and tragedy in the terrible dystopian world of the Sentinels. Brilliantly, this was an epic sci-fi story with powerful emotional themes and tips of the hat to the Bronze Age of Marvel.

Of course, in those days, distribution was hopelessly spotty. Only shops like John Menzies or some department stores sold any comics. In fact the issues either side of this one weren’t even available in my area.  I didn’t read the second part of this storyline until around 82/83.

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The movie, as we’ve come to expect, diverged  from the comics storyline in many ways. Let’s get my criticisms out of the way first.

No recap of how Xavier survived his destruction in X3; no introductions for Warpath, an unrecognisable Sunspot or 90s fan-favourite Blink; off-stage killings of Angel Salvatore, Havok and Banshee ( that ginger kid was one of my favourites in First Class!). Most heinously, Kitty Pryde’s pivotal role was sidelined for the over-exposed Wolverine: over-exposed in more senses than one, given a gratuitous beefcake scene. Granted that 45-year-old body is in amazing condition- but I probably would be too on a Hollywood budget.

On the other hand, the best part of the movie for me was the coda where all the toys were returned in one piece to the box. The events of X3 were retconned and all the inhabitatnts of the X-Mansion were present and correct-except for my favourite, Nightcrawler. The downside is that the deaths of all the characters- on and off-stage -had no impact, just like a computer game.

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The Seventies sequences were more engaging than the dystopian future. ironically, 70s Wolverine looked exactly like Dave Cockrum’s drawings of the character. I especially enjoyed the introduction of Quicksilver, although he seemed more like a modern goth teen than a 70s bad boy.Of course, a completely different Pietro is cast in the Avengers sequel so it might have made more sense to go with another Bronze Age Marvel mutant, like Sunfire perhaps.

Fassbender’s Magneto reminded me more of Claremont’s steely, regal Magnus than SirIan ever did and it was a joy to see a bouncing blue Beast – although his hipster monologues were lost to (ahem) bestial roaring.

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The post-credits scene which is now an expectation -and an annoying tradition – was on a grand scale: featuring the slender figure of En Sabah Nur, telekinetically building a pyramid. While I admire Simonson’s art, I’ve always found Apocalypse a silly and uninspired villain- a one-dimensional mash-up of Darkseid, the Metal Men and Rama-Tut. I also feel that, as a “stinger”, it would be incomprehensible to the majority of the audience. 

Maybe it’s just fatigue but this sprawling but two-dimensional adventure made me feel the tone of future super-hero movies needs to move away from the portentous and dystopian- but the promise of X-Men:Apocalypse doesn’t make that sound likely.

Coming soon: He’s more evil than anyone here ever thought 

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200

The 200th ‘Optikon post looks at the final Batman Giant before the Super-Spectacular issues began. In the near future, we’ll look at some issues of Batman Family.

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This issue (no. 233)  is cover-dated August 1971 but I actually read it the following year. Again, I’ve given numerical rankings to indciate how much I liked the individual stories,

The Death-Cheaters of Gotham City (1952) The premise involves a club who believe themselves to be  living on borrowed time, like the Challengers of the Unknown. Gangster Little Dougy (!) is rejected by the club; then the members start to die in re-enactments of the perils they had previously  survived.  Unusually, the revelation of the killer’s identity is printed upside-down. (1)

The Other Bruce Wayne (1957): Bruce’s older cousin is a private eye who wants to teach his trade to the idle playboy. Batman has to keep his identity secret in this fairly ho-hum story. (4)

The Murder of Bruce Wayne (1952) Bedridden after an accident, deranged Roger Keep wants to witness the deaths of his “enemies” remotely. A tense tale about the power of television. (3)

Bruce Wayne’s Aunt Agatha (1955) This doting, early incarnation of Aunt Harriet is yet another of Bruce’s relatives, not Dick’s aunt. Bizarrely, the elderly comedy relief aunt disguises herself as the Joker at one point. The flying Rotor Robber bandits add menace to this whimsical trifle. (5)

The Crime of Bruce Wayne (1957) at last, a Batwoman story! Bruce goes undercover posing as The Collector, a masked crook but ends up on Death Row. Robin has to work for Batwoman to prove Bruce’s innocence but is shown to be the superior detective. Kathy has to swallow her pride after a showdown among the Collector’s exotic treasures. If not for putting Batwoman ” in her place”, this would be  my favourite story. (2)

I was given this comic to read during my first-ever hospital stay: a week in late May to early June, 1972. I know that because I missed episode one of The Time Monster on Dr. Who.

I was given these comics also:

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Aside from the fact that they were just chosen by my parents at random ( really, does a 9-year-old need to see Adams’ lurid overdose scene? I much preferred the Golden Age GL/Icicle reprint), what’s interesting is they hail from 1968 and 1971. I presume they were on sale in the cafeteria in Stonehouse Hospital ( it was still selling comics, including Harvey Comics, in 1974).

I knew at the time they were “old”- the Black Panther in this final issue of ToS had not yet joined the Avengers and Sue Richards was wearing a mini-skirt.I think it’s likely that these issues had been ships’ ballast that had finally made its way to South Lanarkshire. I didn’t find a shop selling back issues until I went to Edinburgh’s Science Fiction Bookshop in the early 80s so all these comics represent an unexpected trip back in time.

Coming soon: The Joker’s Daughter

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Death Traps and Diabolical Masterminds

(A nod there to Mrs. Emma Peel’s exit from the Avengers tv show.)

Today’s post continues with our look at Batman Giants in the early 70s. This time. it’s Batman 228, a 64-page comic from February 1971 and an issue I actually owned at the time.

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It’s one of my favourite covers too- the yellow and red masthead contrasts vividly with the white background. The Bat-logo is groovy and the cover also evokes the tv series with its “deadly traps” theme. A couple of months later in 1971, that concept will be the core of one of my favourite series of the seventies, Kirby’s Mr. Miracle.

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I’ve ranked the stories in terms of my enjoyment from first to sixth.

2. Outlaw Town USA (1953)  B&R hunt three crooks in a ghost town, Silver Vein. It’s been taken over by criminals as a haven and themed around crime: a restaurant serves “Beef a la Dillinger” for example. The story ends in a Western-style showdown even though it’s a noir-ish scenario.  Lawless Silver Vein could be an intriguing location in a coherent DCU.

6.The Living Batplane (1955) Crooks use the Batplane for crime in a story of aerobatics that is pretty dull.

1. The Duplicate Batman (1954) Batman is injured in a plane crash and a crooked impostor fools Robin and Alfred. Gangster “Fish” Frye ( whose skin appears scaly) has recruited a double who loses his memory. Harry Larson then recovers from his amnesia and sacrifices himself to save the real Bats from being incinerated on a giant searchlight.  This Hitchockian adventure was my favourite in the issue.

4.The Gotham City Safari (1957) The Safari Club has recreated the jungles of Africa, India, Malaya and Mexico on an estate outside Gotham. This is a story of blackmail and murder: a little like the Himalayan story in the previous giant.

5.Prisoners of the Batcave (1957) B&R are trapped in the Batcave with the evidence to save an innocent man from execution. One of the trophies is a giant bust of Two-Face. I think this was probably the first time I’d seen the character- the next being his revival by O’Neil and Adams in the summer of ’71.

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3. The Doors That Hid Disaster(1956) A lethal “funhouse” of replica traps is the legacy of a dead criminal called Checkmate, who succumbed to radiation poisoning after hiding from B&R near radioactive material.

Checkmate is the first costumed villain to star in a Giant Batman for about a year ( if we count the hooded & robed Wrecker). He likes to wear a crown and fur-trimmed robe over his chess-board themed suit: recalling both the Riddler and the Monarch of Menace, but with the added twist of being dead. Hence my reference to The Avengers: the villain of the classic “House That Jack Built”  strikes from beyond the grave.

The death traps are all from past cases, we’re told, which seems a bit pointless since B&R obviously escaped them. Silly Checkmate! A number of heretofore unknown villains are namechecked: The Harbor Pirate, the Bowler and, er, Wheelo, the crooked stunt rider. Given the calibre of Col. Gumm, the Archer and Lord Fogg on tv, they didn’t sound  improbable to me as a kid.

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While harking back to the Sixties heyday of Batman, the giant also features the two-page teaser of the Swanderson Superman and previews Kirby’s debut on Jimmy Olsen. It’s an era for which I have huge fondness, since it was the first comics “reboot” I was prepared for. Batman had shifted tone from dayglo camp to Gothic horror without warning, it had seemed.  I also dig those far-out chicks, Thorn and Supergirl.

All in all, an entertaining package although I have no recollection of the circumstances under which it was first bought or read. There’s one more Bat-giant to go before the Super-Spectacular era begins; I’ve already covered them in earlier posts.

Coming soon: the 200th ‘Optikon.

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Around The World In A Day

Continuing my series of Batman Giant posts after a pause for Free Comic Book Day and the May Day Bank Holiday. The lowlight of FCBD was Future’s End. I have a fondness for Terry aka Batman Beyond ( or Batman 2099, to be more precise) but this preview was an ugly, shameful rip-off of X-Men/ Days of Future Past tropes, poised to hit cinema screens worldwide shortly.

In any case, this post revisits August 1970 with a nod again to Prince, who provided the soundtrack to Burton’s first Batman movie. ( I may have mentioned I was the only person who recognised the verse of “Electric Chair” as quoted by author Alan Bissett a few weeks ago, at his one-man show in Elgin.)

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The giant in question features a cover by Curt Swan, more associated, of course, with Superman for nearly three decades. The theme is B&R adventures outwith Gotham City or the USA. Numerical values indicated how much I enjoyed the story in question: 1 being the highest rating. Later in this post, there’ll be an Avengers-themed digression…

1. City Without Guns (1953): A US gang leader takes on Scotland Yard. B&R pursue him from Madame Tussauds, to the Thames- and to Oxford, minutes later! ( Maybe on Earth-2, they’re adjacent?) There’s a charming glimpse of the Pickwick Bicycle Club and we are introduced to Chester Gleek, a slightly creepy English  Bat-fan. Silly fun in Merrie Olde England.

4.Batman of the Mounties (1953): B&R tackle the ruthless LeClerc brothers, who have attacked Mountie Bob Jason. While wearing their white “snow uniforms”, the Dynamic Duo face danger from wolves and on a log chute. Picturesque but a bit tame.

 5.The Mardi Gras Mystery (1944): A syndicated strip from the late summer of ’44. Bruce and Dick attend Mardi Gras dressed as the Dynamic Duo (*Hee!*) and discover a cache of money hidden on a riverboat for almost 70 years. Starts amusingly enough but not enough plot.

2. Journey to the Top of the World (1955): Exciting short where an impostor menaces a Himalayan expedition. B&R also discover the tracks of a “mystery Snow Creature” never actually referred to as a Yeti.

3. Around the World in Eight Days (1957): B&R chase  vital stolen medical supplies from a Dutch windmill to a Venetian gondola, through the Parisian sewers, a Viennese funfair, the ruins of Greece, the streets of Algiers and a Siamese temple to a Mexican bullring. B&R fall into exhausted sleep at the end of this noir-ish, educational tale.

Again. there are no super-villains in this issue. I imagine this is because DC/National was still trying  to distance their “dread Batman” from the tv version. Indeed, in the next issue, the villain Moloch is a hideous, deformed crook, as if a tv rogue were being viewed through the prism of the new wave of mystery/horror titles.

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It’s a tremendously atmospheric Neal Adams cover but the O’Neil/Novick contents are workaday, despite the New Orleans setting. My experience of early 70s Batman was generally of horror-flavoured stories:

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Speaking of grotesque villains, the Avengers issue of July 1970 saw the first assembly of this ugly band:

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The Lethal Legion is interesting because its members were all created as antagonists for the Avengers and generally for weaker rosters numbering four or five. like Cap’s Kooky quartet (Swordsman, Power Man) or Hank/Jan/T’Challa/Hawkeye (Grim Reaper).

This was the last issue I read for nearly a year and a half. This was particularly frustrating at the time because issue 80 introduced Red Wolf, Marvel’s first Native American superhero. (Wyatt Wingfoot had no secret i.d.)

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RW- his family slain by crooks connected loosely to the Zodiac cartel’s Taurus- actually had something to avenge and must have been created with a view to full membership. But his schtick was too similar to the Panther and Ka-Zar- even the Falcon- and he never returned to the comic.

Red Wolf had a short-lived Western series circa 1972 then languished as a D-lister, eclipsed by the fatalistic X-Man Thunderbird, who had the advantage of borrowing from the wardrobe of  Lightning Lad and Ultra Boy.

Incidentally, I got Avengers 79 in Ayr in the summer of 1970- where I also saw these Tolkien posters, in a shop in the Sandgate.

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Apparently, they were distributed by the legendary shop Dark They Were and Golden Eyed. I had already heard of LOTR from the letter pages in X-Men 64 and I would learn even more from Monsters on the Prowl 16. The posters really capture the foggy, incense-scented world of fantasy that existed right up until the late 70s.

This lengthy digression is related to the fact that I’m re-reading our school library editions of Essential Avengers, so there may be more Marvel musings this May.

Coming soon: Inescapable Death-Traps!

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