You’re a Big Man, but You’re in Bad Shape

One of the major issues that arose from the erratic distribution of Marvel colour comics in 70s Lanarkshire was a scarcity of first issues.  I got on the ground floor with very few titles between 1975 and 1979. On the rare occasion I did so, however, I became very attached to the characters. Today, we’re celebrating the fortieth anniversary of one such hero: Black Goliath.

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Of course, BG had appeared nearly a decade earlier in the first Avengers/Sons of the Serpent storyline. In his civilian identity as a scientist, Bill Foster was a ground-breaking supporting character- even though he was only Hank Pym’s assistant.

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Tony Isabella revived Foster as the alter ego for Marvel’s third incarnation of Goliath- as an antagonist for both Luke Cage and the Circus of Crime. I didn’t actually read that first part until 78, I reckon,  in one of the Marvel Grab Bags my brother and I bought in Morecambe that summer.

In early 79, however, I did buy BG’s first issue in Strathaven and I had been intrigued by his Amazing Five-style supporting cast, The Whiz Kids. His first villain was a rather silly -looking nuclear menace called Atom Smasher who would be very significant in years to come. I wasn’t wild about George Tuska’s art in those days but the script seemed more sophisticated than many other  contemporary Marvels.

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My next issue was number 4, with a Kirby cover; a script by the great dramatist and sci-fi fan, Chris Claremont; and the antagonist was that ancient Daredevil villain,  the Stilt-Man.

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I didn’t read issues 3 and 5 until the early 80s. Foster’s adventure on an alien desert world was part of another Grab Bag, from Lewis’s in Glasgow.

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BG was immediately a casualty to poor sales but went on to guest-star, in 77, with his LA neighbours, the Champions, drawn by a fledgling John Byrne. Isabella,  of course,  had originated the group and has blogged about his own intention to add BG to their ranks.

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Bill Mantlo, the next Champions scribe, also  featured BG in a team-up with the Thing where they fought a very old Ant-Man foe, The Hijacker. Goliath never had the longevity or success of Isabella’s Black Lightning, who felt very much like a DC attempt, some years after the fact, to ape Marvel’s grindcore house style of the early 70s. Perhaps the derivative villains played a part in that, despite the dynamism of a giant hero and the West Coast milieu.

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The next phase of the character’s life was again derived from Henry Pym.  He was re-christened Giant-Man in the Project Pegasus storyline in MTIO. I was a big fan of this arc- even though, as usual, I’d missed the first part.

John Byrne gave Giant-Man  a new costume-dispensing with the 70s high collar and bizarre midriff window. And now we had a classic Marvel dilemma as Foster announced he had radiation poisoning after his first clash with Atom-Smasher.

The story of Foster’s cancer was a major subplot in the early- 80s Marvel-Two-In One. After he was cured, the character lay low until the summer of 1988 and the  “Evolutionary War” annual of the West Coast Avengers. Giant-Man was back.

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When Englehart left the Wackos, John Byrne made no attempt to follow up Foster’s allegiance with Mockingbird’s spin-off group. Bill Foster made a brief appearance in the Avengers in the early 90s but then vanished again.

BG met an ignominious end, however, as a casualty of Mark Millar’s 2006-7 Civil War, killed by a clone of Thor. *sighs* A legacy version then appeared in World War Hulk but the image of DNA being harvested from Foster’s corpse in the Bendis’ Avengers seemed like another slap in the face.

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On a happier note, a more elderly Foster appeared in the late 90s A-Next series. Here, his own son  took on the Kree costume and weaponry of 1968 Mar-Vell as the Earth Sentry. A terrible name from the originator of Thunderstrike but some respect at least for creators who came before.

So, yes: Black Goliath was a faddy, unloved, rather patronising attempt to create a black solo star in the ghetto-tastic 70s. He never had the cool of his Afro-wearing “cousin”, Jefferson Pierce. But let’s remember him with the tv narration-style blurb from BG issue 1:” Dr. William Barrett Foster, DSc, PhD – a child of the GHETTO who has pulled himself up out of the Los Angeles slums to become director of one of the nation’s most prestigious research labs. A man whose research has given him the power to instantaneously grow to a height of FIFTEEN FEET, with the strength of a TRUE GIANT. A man who has become… a HERO.”

Coming soon: Ten Years of Doctor Who

All images are presumed copyright of their respective owners

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Monkey See, Monkey Do

In this post from last autumn, https://materioptikon.wordpress.com/2014/10/22/return-to-the-forbidden-zone/- I discussed the UK Planet of the Apes weekly comic. It was launched, reprinting US Marvel stories, as a response to the tv series spin-off from the movies.

STV, of course, saw fit never to screen that series in 1974/75, opting instead to broadcast “from Norwich, the Quiz of the Week”: the archetypal cheapjack Anglia TV game show. Perhaps £8 prizes hidden behind a curtain connoted less of a sense of Popery? Who knows.

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Anyway, thanks to Freeview channel True Entertainment, I have now finally seen two episodes. The Good Seeds starred Pete Duel’s brother, Geoffrey, in ape guise and the second, The Gladiators featured Marc Singer from V.

The titles are striking and nightmarish- again, perhaps not nearly godly enough for a West of Scotland 70s Sunday . The stories themselves are essentially Westerns, where the humans are the White Hats, falsely accused and on the run. In The Gladiators, when one of the astronauts loses a “computer tape”, I was reminded of the similar loss of access to the Tardis in DW’s Hartnell era.

As I wrote last year: “The weekly publication schedule  (of the UK POTA) quickly devoured US Apes material. The response to this crisis, in March 1975, was one of the  most notorious creations of Marvel UK:  Apeslayer. Basically, this was a reprint of the mongrel Adams/Chaykin/Trimpe Killraven/War of the Worlds series…with Martians substituted by apes.

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Absorbed as I was by any and all of Marvel’s sword-wielding barbarians, I owned exactly… one issue of Amazing Adventures (from Stonehouse in ’73) so I was more than happy to read a bastardised into of Carmilla Frost and Grok the Clonal Man. However, this hybridised strip was mothballed by mid-May as Marvel’s version of the mutant-ridden sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes began in June 1975 …”

One fact I had forgotten was that supporting characters Carmilla Frost, Grok and M’Shulla were renamed San Simian, Zom and Mala. San Simian, of course, is a pun on San Simeon, the Californian locale of Randolph Hearst’s personal “Xanadu”; that’s a joke worthy of Kirby.

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Passing Killraven off as Apeslayer is a fundamentally ludicrous concept. The bionic ape Warlord alone is comical, to say nothing of the blatantly Martian tripods. I also think UK fans treated it with (understandable) derision. If you have never read Killraven, it is worth pursuing, however. Don McGregor’s experimental- if bloated -and bluntly satirical prose style is one I find hard to take ( and it dissuaded me from the reprint of “Panther’s Rage”) However, Craig Russell’s art is delicate and ornate.

What little I read of the series was in the usual haphazard style thanks to British distribution. First was the derivative Warlord issue by Wolfman and Trimpe, bought on a visit to my mum’s home town,  then- as a total contrast,  three years later- the unsettling tale of The 24 -Hour Man in the early spring of 76.

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This issue ignobly combines two uncomfortable sci-fi tropes: women having sex with monsters (which also featured in the Conan story, “The Last Ballad of Laza-Lanti”) and babies ageing to adulthood with weird designs on mum or other women ( cf. Space 1999 and the justly infamous Avengers 200). As you can see, the masthead of the comic proclaimed Killraven for a while but presumably the WoTW tie-in boosted sales.

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The return of Marvel colour monthlies to the town where I attended Secondary School allowed me to  dip into many different titles. Next stop on the Martian trail some weeks later was the impressive and tragic “A Death in the Family”, which features an origin story and the deaths of two supporting characters.  This was followed in May ’76 by a journey to Mars in “Red Dust Legacy”.

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By the summer, the mentally challenged Old Skull had a touching origin story and the mind-blowing “Only the Computer Shows Me Any Respect” was a trippy highlight of our week’s holiday in Port William.

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Returning to school for S2, I next read Keith Giffen’s  dense, impressionistic Marvel Universe parody and …that was all, until I read Russell & McGregor’s final issue in 77/78. It was one of several comics in a “grab-bag” sold in Lewis’s department store.

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In the mid-80s, the rise of comic marts and back issue sales in Glasgow allowed me to catch up with “The Death Breeders” storyline: a gruesome and horrific tale of human birth, oppression and the appetites of the Martians. It also introduced the scintillating Volcana Ash.

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I didn’t read the Killraven Marvel Graphic Novel until the b/w reprint Essential Killraven was published. Prior to that, however,  I did read the first issue of Alan Davis’ re-imagining of the saga in 2002. However, financial pressures at that time prevented me from following the series. I’d also lost interest in sword-slingers for a while.

Despite its various shortcomings, Marvel’s War of the Worlds/Killraven series became a concerted effort to wrest something articulate, imagistic and scathing from a shonky sword and science stew. The desperate invention of Apeslayer sells it rather short.

Coming soon: Black Goliath and The Seven Soldiers of Victory

 

All images are presumed  copyright of their respective owners. Thanks especially to Hunter Goatley’s Planet of the Apes archives.

The Curse of Shazam

This week, we had a big graphic novel extravaganza in school on World BookDay. My colleagues and I dressed up as Catwoman, the Joker and the Riddler and we had a very popular creative workshop with the award-winning Metaphrog.

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One of the most popular graphic novels we had in the school library was Jeff Smith’s Shazam and the Monster Society of Evil. Sadly, a girl called Devon (Taylor?) had it out on loan but took it with her when she moved to England last summer. If she hears about this, could she please post it back?

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Today, I want to look at the modern history of the World’s Mightiest Mortal. Like Plastic Man, Captain Marvel is an icon of the DCU even if the publishers don’t quite realise it. The character has never come close to regaining his phenomenal Golden age success.  It came as a surprise to me to recall that Jerry Ordway’s acclaimed monthly Power of Shazam series DC was launched twenty years ago.

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The Original Captain Marvel was quite unknown to me- and the US tv series yet unmade- when he made his debut in DC’s first Shazam! title in 1973-74. The new material was very whimsical and rather corny for my tastes even then. But the 100-page Super-Spectacular and their reprints had a sunny charm not present in their 40s contemporaries:Batman, Green Lantern or Dr. Fate. I quickly learned of the mythos that Mort Weisinger co-opted for Superman:  Capt. Marvel Jr.; Mary Marvel; the Sivana Family- the whole, zany tapestry.

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The series lost its way during the late 70s and it wasn’t until nearly a decade later, very much in the wake of the Crisis, that Shazam: the New Beginning was launched. This  take by Roy Thomas and Tom Mandrake was seemingly unpopular. Ironically so, since Thomas had presided over Marvel’s revamp of the Kree warrior Mar-vell: something of a winking homage to the Big Red Cheese. It’s a pity that, in the late 80s era of “Dramedy”, someone like Alan Davis hadn’t been assigned to the title. One aspect that interested me however was the folding of the gnome-like Sivana into Billy Batson’s miserly uncle, Ebenezer.

John Byrne proposed a “gritty ” take on the series in the very early 90s, with a series that would occupy its own continuity. But editorial edicts about crossovers drove the  Canadian creator from the project although his Omac series gives a flavour of what might have been.

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As I say, Ordway’s painted novel,with its distinct Art Deco flavour, appeared in 1994. The ongoing series reintroduced Mary Marvel and Bulletman while modernising Mr. Atom and Mr. Mind slightly. It was surprisingly faithful to the 40s material, even visually “casting” Boris Karloff as Black Adam. The only misstep in my mind was the modish CM3- the new moniker for Cap Junior.

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Another rather beautiful and cinematic take on CM appeared in the wake of the cancellation of PoS. In 2001, Paul Dini and Alex Ross produced the third of their thematically- linked painted treasury editions. Power of Hope was a very sentimental tale of children living with abuse and terminal illness but a very charming and sweet one.

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Mytstifyingly, Alex Ross pitched unsuccessfully to DC in 2005, with an older teenage Billy Batson, dramatic lighting (or should that be lightning) effects and a new Black Vulcan. Two years later, the aformentioned Jeff Smith series appeared in four softcover issues. This was the story of Billy Batson told anew and out of DC continuity. Not only was Tawny the talking tiger an Arabian Nights ifrit but Mary was reimagined as a scrappy baby sister. Again, it’s charming and accessible but with a sharp edge of political satire ( Sivana is head of Homeland Security!)

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This series, in turn, was followed by Billy Batson and The Magic of Shazam by Mike Kunkel. Very much in the style of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, this was disinctly aimed at a junior school audience, with Black Adam a bratty schoolmate.  The art deteriorated when Kunkel left but in its final issues in 2010, it was back on track with Mike Norton, with Justice League guest appearances.

In the New 52 Justice League, Geoff Johns and Gary Frank serialised yet another reimagining of CM, in the style of their Superman: Secret Origin and Batman Earth One.  This serial was back “in-continuity”and ran for 13 episodes from 2012 to the late sunmer of 2013.

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Billy Batson is a troubled, spiteful kid but with a large and well-drawn foster family, all of whom gain magical powers. Sivana is deformed by the magic released by Black Adam ( a very Namor-esque figure in Johns’ JSA series of the last decade) The Big Red Cheese is re-christened simply as Shazam here and with his slightly sinister hooded and ornate visual, the series has a very Young Adult-feel : very Harry Potter, very Percy Jackson- movie friendly. I enjoyed the contrast of the realistic artwork and the more fantastic elements ( just as in PoS, 20 years ago).

Is it the storybook elements of Captain Marvel’s world that fail to catch the imagination? How can this be when fairy tale and fantasy are huge money spinners in other media? Are the associations with kid-friendly iterations box office poison? Is there a curse on Shazam?

In a few weeks, I hope to review Grant Morrison’s Multiversity on Some Fantastic Place, my Blogger site. That will be an opportunity to look at DC’s most recent version of CM.

Posts may be a bit less regular again in coming weeks. I need to find new accomodation. In any event, I plan to post about Apeslayer and Black Goliath sometime before Easter.

Tamam Shud!

All images are presumed copyright of their respecyive owners