That’s How We Do It In LA

If you’re anything like me, you’ve dreamed up adventures of DC and Marvel superheroes- perhaps even your own characters. I still daydream about projects I’d like to have seen and Bronze Age Babies picked up on a suggestion of mine recently: an imaginary line of 70s b/w magazines from DC that mimicked Marvel’s Savage Tales or Dracula Lives. http://bronzeagebabies.blogspot.co.uk/2015/10/suggestion-unboxed-dcs-black-n-white.html

Some commentators suggested that conservative DC’s comics line was skewed at a younger market than Marvel’s and certainly, mid-Bronze Age, I can see a certain truth in that. As you may recall, I have fantasised about the Justice League circa 1975, positing a move away from the Silver Age nostalgia of Kanjar Ro and the Weaponers of Qward. Instead. I fancied Bob Haney, author of the fantastically popular, continuity busting Brave and the Bold writing a street-level League of vigilante heroes like Batgirl, Green Arrow and the Creeper and dispensing with the “Super Friends”.

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This week, I was thinking about those ousted JLA icons and came up with a Californian League for the Bronze Age that could go “Headshop Kozmic” like Englehart’s Avengers at the House of Ideas: Aquaman ( but preferably the recent “outrageous” animated version) ; buddies Hawkman and Atom; Deadman and the Mod Diana Prince Wonder Woman (just before her reversion to Amazing Amazon):

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Then it hit me: I had assembled the Champions.

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It’s forty years since the Heroes for the Common Man made their October-cover-dated debut although I didn’t make their acquaintance until March 1976. That autumn into winter period was the era where everything changed: colour US Marvels flooded my local newsagent and I discovered all sorts of new characters: Tigra, Black Goliath, the All-New X-Men.  While, as was often the case, I had missed issue one, I felt I was getting in on the ground floor with the Champions- a sentiment shared by Karen Walker of BAB ( see Back Issue 65 , Jul 2013)

Originlly pitched by Tony Isabella as a buddy-book for Angel and Iceman and then altered dramatically by editorial dikatat, the Champs were really the West Coast Avengers a decade early. Although it was a comic that never caught on, faltering and failing under tyro artists and an irregular publishing schedule, it was one I was drawn back to, time and again. This, despite the fact that none of them were remotely favourites of mine…and despite the Angel’s goofy headband.

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My first issue introduced me to Bill Everett’s Venus and it was really the first time I’d read a Ghost Rider story.  My second issue was a Claremont guest script, utilising an old Marvel standby, the team-mates brawl.

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As ever, Scottish distribution meant I missed the two-parter introducing the recession-born meance Rampage but my next introduced me to the Griffin and Darkstar, who would be a mysterious floating member in the near future. By this time, Isabella had departed for DC where his most significant creation would be Black Lightning. The new creative team was Bill “Rom” Mantlo and novice Bob Hall.

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Issue 8 turned up in a Grab-bag in Morecambe; I bought 9 in Strathaven as usual for its Kane cover but it was 11 and 12 that really grabbed me. They were among John Byrne’s early Marvel works and the Champs suddenly looked sleek and dynamic. There was a cameo by the Two-Gun Kid: FOOM magazine had given me the erroneous impression that the masked cowboy was actually an Avenger, and that bizarre idea made me more interested still. Black Goliath stuck around and the Champs went Kozmic with the Stranger and the Possessor.

Unfortunately, however, I never saw any more US issues although I read reprints in early 80s issues of Marvel Superheroes. The team’s final exploit featured the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants (and one of my favourite mutates, the siren Lorelei.)

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 The ignominous collapse of the Champions through internal friction had been recounted a couple of years earlier, in b/w reprints in Super Spider-Man in late 1978. The team’s facilities and equipment -specifically the flying Champscraft- had been sabotaged and constructed with the cheapest materials. It seemed like an oblique comment on the creative process of the mid-70s.

Mantlo had further plans for the majority of the team, however, as implied by this Avengers cover:

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Bill Mantlo was pegged to become the regular scripter of the Avengers in the early 80s but in fact, as we know, the role went to Jim “Secret Wars” Shooter. Mantlo seems to have had plans to merge the Champs and the Avengers but that never happened since Shooter memorably brought us the downfall of Yellowjacket. Herk and Tasha did become mainstays of the Avengers in the 90s, however.

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For my own imaginary Justice League West, I thought of up-and-coming tv star Supergirl for the Darkstar role. I think the roster has enough panache and dynamism to work but was there any way that the “real” Champions could have established an identity that was different from Marvel’s other team books?

The FF is a family; the X-Men a student body; the original Guardians of the Galaxy were a resistance group; the Inhumans a cult; the Defenders infamously, a non-team; the Invaders were a militia and the Avengers were a strike force of the heaviest hitters. The Champions, as we’ve seen, were Avengers wannabes but it was their milieu that was unique. Scuzzy, nigh- bankrupt NYC was replaced by sunny LA, perhaps mirroring Marvel’s tentative steps towards the wider entertainment industry during the latter half of the 70s.

The FF had satirised the Hollywood lifestyle in their earliest days; Infinity Inc. would embrace it. I once saw an imaginary incarnation of the Whackos in Wizard and it consisted of the most glamorous, celebs in the MU: Angel, She-Hulk, Starfox, etc. That’s the route the Champs should have gone: the red carpet treatment. Instead, a strange focus on being surface and shoddy and a lack of any A-listers combined with a carousel of creative teams sank the Champions.

Coming soon: Thunderbird, Sensor Girl and the real Guardians of the Galaxy

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Shine On, High Priest Moon

With Hallowe’en looming, there are some Batman posts coming up on SFP in the near future but here today, I’ll focus on one of Marvel’s versions of Batman: also, one of two mid-life milestones this year.

Incredibly, it’s forty years now since the first truly oddball addition to the Avengers since the Kooky Quartet. The bombastic Beast became a mainstay of the team for some five years.

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The first mutant to leave the X-Men for another group- predating Wolverine by thirty years- the Beast was actually a strange cash-in on the Marvel horror boom of the early 70s. Undergoing self-induced mutation, Hank McCoy became an off-and -on amnesiac werewolf character, interacting with some of the X-villains for a seven-issue run in Amazing Adventures. Happily, revamped with a blue pelt, Hank detached himself from the lycanthropic brigade and went on from strength to strength with the Defenders and the first X-Factor team.

Man-Wolf was another spin on the man-into-wolf trope but I suppose Marvel’s most successful lupine title was Werewolf By Night: moving the action from Transylvania to California, Jack Russell’s adventures span off two further Avengers-to-be: Tigra the Werewoman and Moon Knight.

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I only read three or four WBN stories in the 70s but I can remember being fascinated by the design of MK in Marvel Spotlight– in particular, the crescent-moon cape. I can see myself one school lunchtime, with the comic newly purchased from Craig’s newsagent, walking round the red sandstone main building of Strathaven Academy (demolished eight years ago. Sic transit gloria mundi). I really “glommed onto” MK as I had some time earlier with the Creeper (who come to think of it, reminds me a little of the Beast). I wasn’t keen on the Don Perlin art- nor Doug Moench’s dialogue- but there was something pulpy about MK that connected with the Avenger or Doc Savage ( another strip written by Moench). This was perhaps suggested by his three secret identities,  whcih allowed him to move freely in all of society’s strata.

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Some years later, I read part two (with its Kirby Kover) in a Marvel Grab Bag. but, in real time, I next saw Moon Knight in Defenders 50. I loved villain groups, like the Zodiac and pin-up HQ diagrams. However, MK seemed redundant in the non-team; his whole shtick was almost identical to Nighthawk,  a character introduced -ironically enough- as a parody of Batman in the Avengers.

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I began to realise that Marc Spector (ouch!) was being positioned as Marvel’s Batman when he graduated to his own Direct Sales comic: drawn byBill Sienkiewicz very much as an homage to Neal Adams. I only bought one issue of this fan favourite off the spinner rack in Lewis’s, on Argyle Street, in the early 80s. I was also aware from fan magazines that the hero’s role playing was linked to Multiple Personality Disorder, which was very fashionable in the 80s (cf Aurora in Alpha Flight.)

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I was more interested in what Steve Englehart did with MK in West Coast Avengers in the late 80s: gradually, MK became the vessel of the Egyptian moon god Khonshu, experiencing life as a mortal in the form of Marc Spector. It’s perhaps just as well that Englehart’s plans to draft Daredevil into the Whackos never came together: the Sightless Swashbuckler would have been in the shadow of the Fist of Khonshu.

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In the welter of  extreeeeme!! titles of the 90s, I didn’t follow Moon Knight’s fan -favourite progress.  It wasn’t until the Noughties that my waning ( pun!) interest was revived. The design of Ultimate Moon Knight in Ultimate Spider-Man is one that I almost prefer to the original. Thankfully without the chunky jewellery, it still feels like a priest’s vestments but it also has, ahem, spectral qualities.

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It seems that now in mid-Middle Age, I prefer “noir” comics to the Kozmic variety. I especially enjoyed the 2011-12 Bendis title where MK’s personality disorder led him to mimic traits of his Avenger allies: Wolverine, Spidey and Cap. The series reinvigorated 60s Mafioso  Count Nefaria but killed off the deaf heroine Echo rather perfunctorily.

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I haven’t been following recent revivals of Moon Knight and would probably prefer to read the original Batman rather than any metatextual commentary on the Darknight Detective. However, I would recommend the Bendis/Maleev series for the blend of photorealism and expressionism.

Coming soon here or on SFP: Batman’s Ego; Col. Gumm;Hawkeye; Metal Men

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