The Fifth Element

Even now, I have  hazy childhood memories of the very early Seventies: far-off , summery days in my dad’s garden, with its collection of ramshackle, pungent pigeon lofts.  I would be squinting at “American comics” in the rare Scottish sunlight: Buscema’s epic Thor; Astonishing Tales with Ka-Zar and Doc Doom; occasionally, the Industrial Iron Man and very rarely, a polished Thomas/Buscema Avengers.

DC selections might be a rare Tuska Legion story in an old Action or Superboy; the ginchy new Satellite JLA or maybe something spooky like the Phantom Stranger or the dread Batman.

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Above all others, though, came the Fantastic Four. I think this issue might have carried a fan letter about a grown-up Franklin Richards joining  a Fantastic Five. That idea really caught my imagination and astoundingly, I lived to see it happen.

FF spider -girl

The F5 made their debut in the late 90s Spider-Girl comic, a very popular title. (Why isn’t there a movie for Mayday?  For more Spider-Girl thoughts, see my other blog Some Fantastic Place:http://somefantasticplace-dougie.blogspot.co.uk/2016/02/why-have-cotton.html)

F5 2

The MC2 universe seemed to be set some ten-to-fifteen years ahead of mainstream Marvel continuity, where the heirs of Wolverine, the Black Panther, Black Goliath and Hercules were adventuring and Nova was a leading light.

F5 Doom

With characters like Johnny’s Skrull wife, Lyja and the Psi-Lord iteration of Franklin, Tom DeFalco developed ideas and plot threads from his 90s FF run but the first series was curtailed after five issues. The Five returned several years later, however, for a miniseries in 2007. I’ll look today at the trade paperback of that run. I picked this one up in Aberdeen just before last Christmas.

final doom

The first thing to note is that, as the title implies, the arc is simply about an apocalyptic struggle with Dr. Doom, very reminiscent of the “Cosmic Doom” saga of the mid-Sixties. There are some subplots about child custody featuring the second Ms. Marvel, Ben Grimm’s ex, Sharon Ventura.

Dr. Doom, imprisoned in the ruins of Atlantis by a goatee-d Namor, finally breaks free, and imbues multiple robot duplicates with the Power Cosmic.  One Doombot defeats Reed, Johhny and Doom’s protege Kristoff. In a flashback, we learn how Ben was originally injured by the suicide attack of Terrax. Ben’s bionic implants are destroyed but he escapes Doom’s prison.

Doom gives Reed a diabolical dilemma- exile his son, Ben’s two kids and Johnny’s son , the shape-changing Torus, into space- or NYC will be hurled into the sun(!)

When not  subsequently torturing Reed and Namor, Doom declares himself emperor of Earth, crushing the Avengers.

Avengers next

In a reprise of Jean Grey’s fate in X-Men 100, Franklin becomes supercharged by cosmic rays and leads the kids in an attack on Doomstadt.  In an echo of both The Final Victory of Doctor Doom and Simonson’s run, Reed and Doom become locked in eternal mental battle. Sue and Kristoff remain  in Latveria with Reed and look after the comatose Reed, while Rad/Alyce goes home with her mother.  Grimm/Jake ( who was born in his mutated, orange form) takes Reed’s place in the F5.

Franklin, by the story’s end, is a masked radioactive “freak”, not unlike the Doom Patrol’s Larry Trainor. There’s an hysterical note of tragedy that I don’t really associate with Stan and Jack- tormenting the heroes is more of a Byrne trope.

The art is cartoony and the figurework attenuated but it has energy and some charm. While the theme of family and legacy is appropriate, the dialogue is a drawback: corny and generic . There’s little character or individuality in its soap- operatic tone. Doom is a ranting megalomaniac with none of the black humour or chivalry that made him Marvel’s greatest villain in the Sixties.

In some ways, I preferred the vitality and scale of the Larsen maxi-series we revisited last time. Fantastic Five is still a more entertaining read than the Lost Stories volume but probably more to the taste of 90s comic fans.

Coming soon: the 60s JLA.

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One Last Wild Ride

Lat week in Glasgow, I met up with an old Uni pal, whom I had introduced to comics ( via Swamp Thing and the Sienkiewicz New Mutants in the mid-80s). Now we are middle-aged and with about twenty years to catch up on, we did a lot of reminiscing. He did suggest that my cultural tastes were rather wistful and backward-looking. I fully accept that: my favourite songs this week are Any Way that You Want Me by Evie Sands ( 1969) and Born To Be With You by Dion (1975).

While I enjoy many modern Marvel titles- Ms. Marvel, Al Ewing’s New Avengers, Mark Waid’s All-New Avengers ( and his recent DD run), Silver Surfer and Hellcat- my heart quickens at images like these:

Mwom 13 jim starlin Mighty world of marvel 24

There’s a popular Facebook page which celebrates the heyday of Marvel UK ( say, 1972-76) and there’s a deep, nostalgic tug of affection for classic Marvel.

I found that yearning at its strongest at the beginning of the 21st century as the Ultimate Era dawned. The House of Ideas seemed to be rejuvenating and retelling the stories of  its iconic heroes. It seems that some comics creators also felt that longing keenly too.

WGCM 1

In Inverness, at the end of last year, I  bought a discounted hardback edition of 2001’s Fantastic Four: The World’s Greatest Comics Magazine in The Works. Described as a love letter and a birthday card for the FF’s fortieth anniversary, this is a collection of retro pastiches by Erik Larsen, Bruce Timm, Ron Frenz and others.The conceit is that this maxi-series takes place between the 100th and 101st issues of FF in 1970 and as such, it’s a hodge-podge of Kirby swipes and a tribute to the MU of that era.

Interestingly for me, it’s a period that marks quite a change in my reading of Marvel Comics. A lot of my purchases ( more accurately, comics bought for me) were value-for-money reprints as hip Marvel seemed to lose ground to the  social commentary of DC. Ironically “defector” Kirby’s Fourth World would be a strange and short-lived curiosity as Golden Age reprint fever would subsequently swamp DC.  Marvel subsequently flourished creatively in Sword and Sorcery and Kozmic Head Shop meanderings.

FF Timm Falcon

So: is WGCM any good? I feel it’s a very padded storyline that could been told in half the number of issues. In fact, at the time, I had abandoned the original run by issue 9.  Still,  I rather liked seeing the FF encountering other Kirby Kreations like the Sentinels and AIM. I particularly enjoyed  the return of  the original iteration of Sam Wilson as a falconer, despite his drab “psychedelic ghetto” costume.

Similarly, Mar-Vell’s cameo was interesting, given that the Kree  debuted in the FF. It also made sense to me that Blastaar would join the Frightful Four after his brief alliance with Sandman. I always liked the blue-skinned Stephen Strange, Lorna Dane and the Wanda-Pietro-Goliath Avengers of the early 70s.

However, the story itself is hugely derivative of the mid-Sixties Cosmic Doom epic.  Doc Doom steals several esoteric power sources- including an Atlantean trumpet, the Inhumans’ Helix of Randac, the Cosmic Control Rod and the Watcher’s Ultimate Machine from Tales To Astonish–  in a quest for godlike power. That power is ultimately wrested from Galactus himself.

FF Timm Asgard

Perhaps Stan and Jack would have eventually pitted Victor against the purple planet eater if Jolly Jack no longer wanted to create new characters and scenarios. But while the FF’s visit to Asgard was overdue,  I found some of the story titles  jarring . For every  “The Baxter Building Besieged” there’s a “Touched by the Hand of Havoc”.

Galactus

The issue devoted to the battle between the Hulk and his duplicate – perhaps the android from issue 100- is tedious. The second episode is a complete rehash of the first Kree Sentry story and Namor’s attack on NYC with his sub-sea creature army was more old hat. However, the ingenious use of pre-FF Marvel Monsters like Sporr, the Blip and It, the Living Colossus was charming and more inventive than the climactic hand-waving of the Cosmic Cube.

This hardback is handsome and heartfelt but it doesn’t quite capture the invention and intensity of the original material. On the other hand, it’s more entertaining than the Lost Stories collection I reviewed previously.

Coming soon: the Gardner Fox/Mike Sekowsky JLA

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Western Stars Light Up The Sky

I’m postponing the series of blogs about the Fantastic Four temporarily today to deliver the goods on the Vigilante movie serial.

Vig serial

During the winter months of the late 70s and early 80s, the BBC screened the serial adventures of Flash Gordon, Crash Corrigan and the King of the Rocket Men. In that tradition , I’ve viewed a number of 40s movie serials in recent years, from the Shadow, to Batman and Robin and Captain America.

This year, I chose The Vigilante, Fighting Hero of the West– “Action Comics magazine’s favourite of millions!” This 1947 Columbia serial starred stolid Dick Tracy actor Ralph Byrd as the Prairie Troubador, Greg Sanders.

The Vigilante is a character I first encountered in this issue of JLA, which was a radical departure from the Fox-Sekowsky interstellar challenges of my early childhood.

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I next saw the modern-day gunslinger in a 100-Super Spec and subsequently in the JLA’s 100th anniversary.

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Below is a Vig story I’ve yet to read:

img173Appearing in his own Adventure Comics strip and even teaming with Superman here, Vig was nonetheless a C-lister in the early 70s. But he still turns up from time to time, in last years’s Convergence event, for instance.

World's Finest

In Fighting Hero, singing movie cowboy Greg is secretly a government agent, although I didn’t pick up on this element until the final episode. He investigates the mystery of the 100 Tears of Blood. a string of cursed pearls belonging to Prince Hamil. The pearls have been smuggled in horseshoes and the horses are stolen while Greg is making a movie on the ranch of a nightclub owner. Hooded criminal X-1 makes several attempts to obtain the pearls with the aid of his lieutenants, Doc and Silver with whom he communicates through an illuminated jukebox.

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Aside from an obligatory man in a gorilla suit, the serial features rather too many vehicles going over cliffs as too-literal cliffhangers. Ramsay Ames plays Rodeo Queen Betty Winslow, frequently a damsel in distress. The Vigilante’s teen sidekick, Stuff the Chinatown Kid, is played here by George Offerman Jr ( on the phone, above)- a white guy of around thirty and the character seems to be a loyal but dull mechanic. There is also a brief appearance by a character who resembles Billy Gunn, the old-timer who was Vig’s sidekick in his Seven Soldiers of Victory adventures.

The Vigilante was very easy to realise on screen- a motorcycle and a bandana. However, the serial was a trial to watch. Vig had no gimmick like the Masked Marvel’s phonograph record communication and no memorable villain such as the fiendish Dr. Daka or the “Black Tigerrrr”. The revelation of the identity of mastermind X-1 was a complete anticlimax.  If this serial had featured the macabre Dummy, how much better it might have been!

Dummy

While I’m not a fan by any means, I might try James Robinson’s mid-90s Vigilante series:

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Next year, I might buy the Spy Smasher serial but I hope it would be more engaging than the Prairie Troubador’s exploits.

Coming soon: more Fantastic Four

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Lost 4 Ever?

Today is the first post in a short series about the Fantastic Four. We start with Fantastic Four Lost Adventures from 2008. I bought this trade paperback in the sale at icy Aberdeen’s Plan 9 before Xmas.

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The Lost Adventure aka “The Menace of the Mega-Men” was the original story intended for publication in FF#102. Stan rejected it, however and went with the first part of the Namor/Magneto team-up. Then, pages of the artwork were re-purposed for issue 108. This was in the wake of Kirby’s departure for DC and the launch of his Fourth World tetralogy.  Dark days for Marvel’s House of Ideas.

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The original, completed here ( with the original Kirby pages as a bonus) and published in 2007, is a fairly weak Corsican Twins story- a theme Kirby would return to with (King) Kobra. The art is vibrant and gutsy but the good and bad twin plot is oddly undramatic. Aside from an encounter between bank-robbing evil Janus, Ben and Johnny, there’s little action. The story is on a par with the lacklustre Monocle or Maggia issues.

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The published version “The Maddening Mystery of the Nega-Man” (sic) is superior in my opinion. Here, singleton scientist Janus has experimented with the energies of the Negative Zone and, like Captain Kirk, has unleashed an evil doppelganger.  This Lee/Buscema arc, as with the contemporary Thor, has elements of horror and tragedy and while John Morrow of Twomorrows says it makes no sense, the Neg Zone connection is more logical than Kirby’s newly-minted Mega-Man module.

I’m biased because, as a little boy in the early 70s, I found this period of the FF utterly compelling and quite upsetting. The brain-damaged, cynical Thing, Reed facing death in the Negative Zone, eerie Agatha Harkness and the monstrous, sadistic Annihilus were all recycled FF tropes from the late Sixties- but I hadn’t read them before and I was unable to look away, as it were. The published FF#108, ultimately, feels more modern and vibrant than New Gods #1, “across the street” in the same month.

Megaman

NB: Marvel did eventually introduce a villain called Megaman, a faceless antagonist in Marv Wolfman’s Nova – and a total rip-off of another  Star Trek episode “Metamorphosis”.

last F4

This book also reprints The Last Fantastic Four Story by Stan and John Romita Junior. The plot revolves around the retirement of the FF after a rehash of the original Galactus storyline.

This time, the population of Earth is judged a menace by a Cosmic Tribunal which dispatches a colossal Adjudicator. I compared this “Day The Earth Stood Still” homage story unfavourably with the Thomas/ Colan “Judgement in Infinity” trilogy from 1982’s Wonder Woman.

I don’t find that JRjr’s style resonates with me; his work seems like Simonson on a larger, more simplified scale. The plot is also humdrum and anticlimactic- the FF and Galactus team up to save the Tribunal from their enemies the Decimators and in a Roddenberry moment, the human race is found worthy. The FF’s retirement then seems an inexplicable development in the light of this victory. Still, fans of JRjr get cameos of:  DD, Spidey, Prof X,  Doc Doom, Namor, the Surfer, Cap, Vizh, Thor, Iron Man, Doc Strange, the Inhumans, Cyke, Storm and Wolvie.

Fantastic Four #296

The 25th anniversary adventure Homecoming is a mammoth tale from the mid-80s. It starts well with moody Barry Windsor- Smith pages then descends into page after page of cramped and unremarkable art with a charmless story by Jim Shooter. The mutilation of Johnny Storm by the Mole Man is needlessly unpleasant and the plot about raising a new continent for outcasts from the ocean floor is unconvincing.  Minor character “Hopper” Hertnecky is Shooter in excelsis. Coming so close to the 300th issue, this disappointment is a cliche-ridden drag, loaded down with acres of lifeless dialogue.

Stan’s comedic pastiche If This Be Anniversary– celebrating the 45th anniversary -is quite unfunny but still has a weirdo charm thanks to the talents of Dragotta and Allred. It’s like a modern(ish) Not Brand Ecch. But even a FF fanatic would find this volume unrewarding, sad to say.

Next time, we’ll look at another, perhaps more successful pastiche of The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine.

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