Shadow of the West

During last summer, I became hooked on reruns of Kojak and the scuzzy streets of nigh-bankrupt Noo Yawk in the mid-70s.  This year, I discovered Sixties gem The Wild, Wild West. I knew there was a Will Smith movie in the late 90s but the tv series was never shown in the STV region, to my knowledge.

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Essentially, this is The Avengers in Stetsons- US secret service agent Jim West is a James Bond of the 19th Century, foiling diabolical masterminds with an array of gadgets and the aid of Artemus Gordon, a bon vivant  master of disguise.

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West is played by gravelly, pugnacious bantam Robert Conrad;  a very handsome and athletic actor who would have made a very fine Golden Age Atom in the Wonder Woman series of the 70s.  Ross Martin plays “Artie” and the pair live like kings on a luxury train which also features a laboratory.

Like the Emma Peel era of the Avengers, the first season is shot in black and white and features a variety of death traps; numerous light bondage scenes (lingering on Conrad’s torso, in the main) and a gallery of epicurean super-villains; in particular, the singing dwarf megalomaniac, Dr. Miguelito Loveless.

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The second series is in colour. I’ve caught early episodes in the past weeks starring Boris Karloff, Sammy Davis Jr. and a UFO story with green space girls (which confirms my theory that Jim is an ancestor of the Jupiter II’s Mjr Don West.) I haven’t found it as enjoyable as the first season although it’s certainly even more bizarre.

However, WWW sent me to Aberdeen for the DC Showcase collected edition  of Bat Lash, an unconventional Western character from the late 60s. I only knew this gentleman loner from ads in sixties comics and a couple of appearances with the JLA- which we’ll see below…

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This is a cynically comedic comic with an amoral dandy as lead, with a love for flowers, fine wine and pretty girls. Later in the series, they attempt to give the roguish “Bat” a tragic backstory and an estranged bounty hunter brother, as if his self-interest weren’t heroic enough. The beautiful art by Nick Cardy is truly amazing and it’s well worth a look, although nothing really like the steampunk WWW.

I haven’t read many stories of Dc’s Western characters: the odd entry in the canon of Jonah Hex; or El Diablo; Firehair; the Vigilante  and even Super-Chief.  I did enjoy these stories of the Justice League however.

JLA Conway cowboys hex-justice-league-coverBatton Lash appears on both covers!

I know even less about Marvel’s Western stars. I think I had one issue of the late 60s Mighty Marvel Western circa 1970.

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I’ve read the Englehart Avengers issues with the “rannies” of course, but they’re all quite indistinct personalities.  Only the infamous and puerile  gay innuendo of the Noughties Rawhide Kid series gave him any colour.

The closest analogue to the cowboys and super-heroes comics cited just above was this early 80s Hulk adventure:

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 While he’s really another iteration of Ka-zar or even the Falcon, I was intrigued to read about Red Wolf in the early 70s; his solo series is one I’ve never read. I also knew of the western Ghost Rider from reprints in the final days of TV 21. If there were a Marvel Western star to revive, he has the name, of course, the supernatural shtick and the gimmicks.

 

PeacemakerBrowder smithBen Browder (left) also voiced the animated Bat Lash!

While Dr. Who has featured a few Western-themed adventures on tv, audio and in print,  some years ago I was daydreaming about a US remake of Dr. Who, in the vein of The Office or Life on Mars. WWW aside, the boffin or mad scientist seems a European trope and the Western drifter of the plains seems like a more appropriate image for an American Time Lord. And a VW hippy van made a good substitute for a police box, if the Doctor is something of a snake oil pedlar.

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Coming attractions, here and on Some Fantastic Place: Batman; the Spirit; the Fox and the Vixen.

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A Vagrant and a Wanderer on the Earth

This is the time of year where I revisit the sword-and-sorcery craze of the early-to-mid Seventies- which reared its hoary head again in the very early 80s, thanks to a Heavy Metal boom, the Schwarzenegger Conan Movie and the rise of role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons.

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It was Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian that got me first- very swiftly followed by DC’s Weird Worlds. Gil Kane’s elegant, dynamic and deadly Cimmerian seemed a departure to me: I associated Kane with tearful, tormented and declamatory DC heroes like these:

Dove Flashalthough I was aware, in passing,  of his work on Captain Marvel and Warlock–  who both also seemed weepy and temperamental. I didn’t know in the early 70s that Kane was one of the progenitors of the graphic novel, with His Name is Savage in 1968 and Blackmark, in 1971.

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 Four chapters comprising the first book of Blackmark – a kind of sci-fi Exodus-meets-Spartacus– appeared in Savage Sword of Conan 1-4, beginning in late 1974. The first chapter of the sequel, The Mind Demons, saw print the following July in the second issue of Kull and the Barbarians, a very short-lived sword-and -sorcery magazine from Marvel. I reviewed that issue last summer. https://materioptikon.wordpress.com/2014/08/16/idylls-of-the-king/

Blackmark was scheduled to return in issue 4 but K and the Bs was cancelled  with issue 3. Kane had regained the rights to the series from Bantam Books but his Shakespearean tragedy of ambition, revenge and loss would not resume until  the winter of 1979!

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Marvel Preview 17 prints The Mind Demons in full. It’s a Sword-and-Science feature, not unlike DC’s Stafire or the gruesome Ironjaw from Atlas. Gardner Fox’s prose barbarian Kothar was also set in a distant future but these characters operate in a world where technology is seen as magical in a fallen savage world.  Blackmark wields a sonic “demon” sword which prefigures the lightsabre. Obviously, John Carter amd Marvel’s Gullivar Jones (both of which were illustrated by Kane at some stage) originate the concept (albeit on Mars)  but we can include Killraven in this sub-genre too – and perhaps Kamandi, too.

Marie Severin , of Kull and Sub-Mariner fame, is art director and John Romita Jr is credited as Art Consultant. This very much a graphic novel- it is an illustrated text with the odd word balloon and the style is quite appealing. I’ve seen it used in later comics- such as  1990’s Secret Origins 50, with its O’Neil/Perez Robin story. The character designs of Blackmark are reminsicent of the Gullivar Jones strip from Creatures on the Loose that also appeared in the earliest issues of the UK POTA weekly.

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The driven Blackmark declares war on the mutant lords of Psi-Keep but is betrayed by a sleazy nobleman and his wife is assaulted and expires in the aftermath of the battle. Blackmark is implied to have a great destiny but is humourless and not very identifiable.

Why was Blackmark bumped from SSOC for a spin-off project like Kull? Possibly to bolster the title- the  pensive Atlantean king was never the hit that Conan was ( stories that were too sedate and concerned with disguise and illusion?). More likely, I think, is the length of the stories being adapted for the Conan magazine. Perhaps there just wasn’t room for Kane’s epic.

Cut now to DC, eight years later and, in the wake of the ERB-esque Sword of the Atom ( which I confess, I still haven’t read), a new sword-slingin’ special.

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 Like Blackmark, Talos of the Wilderness Sea is set in a post-nuclear war world. Carn Whitemane is a Moses-figure: the human child of mutants who bears a red birthmark, like a domino mask, when angry. He becomes bonded as a boy with a huge white feline called Star ( shades of Ka-Zar). More appealing than the haunted Blackmark, this prophesied redeemer of the mutants is also Mowgli – and of course, Kane’s  Jungle Book was published by Marvel in the early 80s.

The comic didn’t spawn any sequels however- nothing much happens and perhaps it’s too Marvel-esque even for late-80s DC.  While I first read it in 2011, it’s certainly a dozen years too late for comics’ brief Barbarian phase or a handful of years too early for the edgy Anti-hero age of the 90s.

For admirers of Kane’s work, Talos gives a melancholy flavour of what might have been. In a future post, I’ll try a comics genre with which I’m not at all familiar: the Western.

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Four Letter Words

As I indicated yesterday, having been entertained by the latest movie, I wanted to post some more images of Fantastic Four stories  that had stayed with me over the years.

In my primary school days, life rarely stretched beyond Strathaven and East Kilbride- maybe Glasgow or Clyde coast towns like Ayr or the more distant Girvan, where my godmother lived.

I had missed the most inventive period of Kirby’s work on FF but I think the late Sixties saw the comic at its most cinematic and gorgeous.

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Two early memories of the First Family from Craig’s newsagent

Happily, 10p  reprints enable me to catch up with the earlier exploits of the team in their “B-movie double feature” mode:

super skrull classicsDragon man

The Diablo comic was from EK but the older one was from Baird’s pet supplies shop in Strathaven

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I missed the 100th issue of the FF – just as we seemed to miss every anniversary issue of every comic here- but, a few years later, the cover could be assembled from the bubble gum cards that accompanied these stickers:

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Of course, it wasn’t simply the fabulous foursome themselves who were an attraction of the comic in its sixties heyday. Many characters span off from concepts featured in the series, including the Silver Surfer, Captain Marvel, Warlock and the Black Panther.

The split book format had been popular in the 60s and I read at least one or two copies of  Tales to Astonish with the Hulk and the Sub-Mariner ( and originally Giant-Man) and  Tales of Suspense with Iron Man and Captain America; Strange Tales with SHIELD and Dr. Strange was one I never read as a child. Too outlandish!

Concurrent with the centennial issue of FF, I think, two new split books  were launched featuring Dr. Doom and the Inhumans- supported by a Kirby Ka-Zar riff on Tarzan’s New York Adventure and an Emma Peel-styled Black Widow.

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Doom is very much ahead of his time here, predating the antiheroes of 90s Marvel ( Sabretooth, Venom or DC’s Deathstroke). The vagaries of distribution in Scotland being what they were, I got the comics above in East Kilbride and this one, with the Skull’s Exiles, in Ayr.

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This one, somewhere in Glasgow city centre.

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The narration in the Inhumans strip reads very like a DC Fourth World comic.

The Inhumans was subsequently graced with Neal Adams art for a short while. Barry Smith took over from Kirby on Ka-Zar and brought a uniquely stylish (while still dynamic) fantasy flavour, not unlike his early Conan stories. The Petrified Man’s demise ( a rip-off from She) haunted me for a long while.

If Kirby hadn’t moved to National/DC, I think Thor, rather than the FF, would have been the vehicle for these guys:

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After Kirby departed, however, the next issue of the comic that I read was by Romita and starred Magneto and the Sub-Mariner. The issues after that had a darker, more menacing tone:

ThingHarknessI didn’t know there’d been two “Ben Goes Bad” stories earlier and wasn’t aware that Stan’s melodramatic scripts were becoming hackneyed and lacklustre ( cf. the Cap/Strucker/Gorilla Man stories).

Black Leopard

The High Street (near Bow’s), Glasgow

Conversely, I was too young to appreciate Thomas’s apartheid story that introduced us to T’Challa’s short-lived “Black Leopard” i.d.

As I indicated in previous blog posts, once Marvel UK began producing b/w weeklies, US Marvels became more scarce. Last time you saw my first Conway issue. with the awful Gor-inspired Makhizmo. I also read this dull Doom/Surfer story:

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I like the cover and the twist ending but otherwise…blah.

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Bought in the village in EK with a Defenders/ Sons of the Serpent comic that was far more cool.

My later encounters with the FF were sporadic and I never enjoyed the comic as much. The Inhumans story above returned to the early 70s status quo- out went Medusa and the Torch’s red togs. I never cared for Buckler and Buscema seemed inhibited or constrained- the FF never had the grandeur and hauteur of his Avengers. There’s also a jaundiced, sour tone in Thomas’s scripts. He sounds as disaffected in much of his 70s work, except perhaps in Invaders.

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Kirby drew some mid-to-late 70s covers and I was excited by this Strathaven purchase, since I knew Marvel Boy from Marvel Super Heroes reprints in the late Sixties. But here, Thomas employed his Red Raven/ Toro schtick by making a vintage hero dangerously unbalanced.

It was, as I said yesterday, Byrne’s FF, wordy as it was, that reconnected me to the Baxter Building gang. There’s something of Gil Kane’s sinewy dynamism in Byrne’s 80s work and I’ll be looking at Kane’s sword-and -science creations in the next post.

 

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4ever

As promised on my Some Fantastic Place blog, and in the wake of the rebooted FF movie, I wanted to post some more covers of Fantastic Four comics to try and identify what was so exciting about them in my younger years…

Marvel_Collectors'_Item_Classics_Vol_1_18These early reprint collections were a great introduction to the origins of the Marvel Universe and this story captures the urban drama/sci-fi blend of early FF adventures. This comic was bought in East Kilbride, when I was in primary school.

Maximus MoonKirby Kozmic: wide-screen adventures with “those nutty Inhumans ” and real-world events reflected in a 1969 moon landing tie-in. Like wild! All bought in Strathaven, while I was in primary school.

Sub-MarinerKirby’s gone, baby.I can remember looking at the letters page of this issue on a sunny day in my dad’s garden (aren’t they always?) and trying to picture baby Franklin in a Fantastic Five…

ThundraI didn’t realise this was a Steranko cover as a kid but I liked villain teams; still do. I’d seen Ben go bad before but Sue leaving here was, oddly, more disturbing. My intro to Thundra where I first learned the word “Ms.”

I read, in a desultory way, about three or four more US FFs in the period between 1972 and 75 but Kirby comics and Grell’s Legion held my real interest. Then circa 1975, the US Marvel drought was suddenly over.

Torgo salem's seven

I really liked this Galactus vs. the High Evolutionary story; Gorr the Golden Gorilla reminded me of (the ” real”) Hank McCoy. The Salem story featured some of the wacky Perez villain designs that would, in about three years, gain prominence in New Teen Titans.  It was also was my last colour FF comic of the 70s.  These were also comics I bought in Craig’s, in Strathaven, during my time as a pupil at the Academy.

I didn’t return to the FF until the Byrne Era, by which time  I was a student at Strathclyde-the first time. I became a devoted follower, despite the deadly, wordy prose style ( I don’t know why Claremont is lambasted when Byrne’s dry as dust style isn’t)

sideways skrull milk masque Phoenix

It was amusing to see the landscape style we knew so well from The Titans and Super Spider-Man in the US. The “Skrull milk” annual returned to the B-movie sci-fi roots of the comic.The She-Hulk was the first non-Kirby replacement member that really worked for me (since Crystal, anyway).  The mid-80s return of Jean Grey was audacious,  although it set a precedent for the resurrection of the honoured dead ( and paved the way for the terrible X-Factor title, a dreadful Ghostbusters riff).

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In the late 80s, the FF was shaken up again as Reed and Sue departed ( and ended up as rather awkward Avengers, briefly). I thought the “Quicksilver as villain” plot was the most interesting thing to happen to the character for about twenty years.

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Fantastic_Four_The_End_Vol_1_2At the very end of the Nineties, I got to see my childhood dream of a Fantastic Five ( although Stan and Jack would surely have found a better code name than “Psi-Lord”! Ugh!)

The Erik Larsen minsiseries World’s Greatest... returned to the comic’s  late Sixties heyday. Above, we can glimpse my favourite take on the Falcon, as, er, a falconer.

The 2007 FF The End series portrays a more mature Torch in a team of Avengers ( including that slinky lady Captain Marvel: a look I wish Carol Danvers had, rather than the military look she sports now. I believe this character might be Her aka Kismet aka Ayesha, the female Him/”Cocoon-Man”).

This series, despite the ominous title, is a joyful tribute to Stan and Jack with a cosmic scope that, I think, is the true secret of the First Family’s success.

(I enjoyed that so much there might be more…)

Coming soon: Blackmark; Talos of the Wilderness Sea; Moon Knight

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