Bronze Age Baby

It was disappointing to see the informative and friendly  Bronze Age Babies blog announce a state of permanent hiatus back in November. By way of a tribute, today’s post, the last one for 2016, will look at Bronze age Spider-Man team-ups, reprinted in one of my Xmas ebay buys.

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Spider-Man Annual 1977 would have gone on sale in the autumn of 1976. My parents had bought me the trio of annuals for 1975 but none of the 1976 annuals. Then for Xmas 1976, they got me the Mighty World of Marvel annual, the Star Trek annual and that year’s oversized Dr. Who annual (as they had the previous year) so I was lucky to get what I did in that era of austerity. My dad was still working as the manager of the TSB in Strathaven- it would be another couple of years before he moved to the Uddingston branch, his last job- and my mum was still a civilian typist in the police pool in East Kilbride. I was in second year at Strathaven Academy at that time.

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In the present day, I like to pick up a UK Marvel annual for its nostalgia value and the fact they sometimes contain material which wasn’t reprinted in the weeklies, such as the 1977 Avengers and Titans annuals.

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Another case in point are the two 1975 Giant-Size stories in the Spidey annual:

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The Yesterday Connection is a collaboration by Gerry Conway and Ross Andru. It’s a timey-wimey adventure with Doc Savage, where the protagonists never actually meet. It also has something of the flavour of a Gardner Fox JLA yarn. On October 7th, 1974, Spidey is lured to a demolition site by an extra-dimensional woman called Desinna. Her astonishingly revealing costume gives Aala of Bal-Sagoth a run for her money.

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desinna

Spidey’s antagonist is not a satyr as the cover suggests but a Dick Dillin-style force field in humanoid form. A flashback establishes how Clark Savage and his Amazing Five encountered Desinna in the Thirties. She requested their help to restrain her mutated colleague Tarros and the sextet imprisoned the entity in the foundations of a building, now demolished. Spidey reasons that Doc was deceived by Desinna’s feminine wiles, which rather writes off the elder hero as her dupe, and ensures that Tarros  metes out his own justice for his mutation and exile.

My first encounter with Marvels’ Man of Bronze was the Buscema/Moench Silver Ziggurat story in the UK Super-Heroes Weekly but Ross Andru’s rendition of the Thirties heroes is quirky and full of character. Conway’s story rather cheats the reader of a team-up; if you can buy into a parallel world without time inhabited by blue humanoids, why not a full-blown time travel adventure for Web-head?

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The second story has no sci-fi elements. To Sow the Seeds of Death is the first team-up for Spidey and Conway’s gangland executioner the Punisher since his first UK appearance in the 1975 Spider-Man annual. The Punisher’s killing of a kidnapper at the beginning of the story is quite brutal and shocking. Spidey trails the Punisher to his abandoned power station hq and is informed of the Deterrence Research Corporations experiments on kidnap victims with toxic gas. Punny and Spidey infiltrate the DRC’s office but Spidey is captured and shipped by hover-copter to the death camp run by the organisation.Of course, Punisher pursues him and ensures director Moses Magnum dies horribly and graphically, exposed to the gas. Merry Christmas!

Magnum is unequivocally established as being born fifteen years before Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. Despite his advancing years and melting to death, the alliterative arch-fiend appears in a  sequel to this story – a Luke Cage adventure by Chris Claremont, published in the US in the summer of 76-  which would be reprinted in the 1978  MWOM annual. Moses Magnum would return yet again from apparent death to menace Japan in the X-Men story which wrote out Banshee; the DRC, meanwhile, return in Spider-Woman 34, from very early in 1981, also written by Claremont.

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The Longest Hundred Yards is a straightforward crime thriller with no super-villain presence. The daughter of a computer scientist (and  former university football star) is kidnapped to extort a computerised catalogue of “all worldwide habitual offenders”. The scientist re-enacts his last,losing game in order to save his child but of  course, it ends tragically- a key note of Spidey stories? It’s a bit corny but shows Len Wein was a writer with a shade more flair than Conway. Unfortunately for the 1976 reader, the story would immediately be reprinted in the Super Spider-Man weekly in January 1977.

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Next year, I think I’ll go for that aforementioned  Mighty World of Marvel annual for 1978. but I’ve never read “The Web and the Flame”  in the 1979 Spidey annual. That’s a decision to make eleven months from now! In the meantime, have a happy new year- all the best for 2017!

Coming soon: Strange Tales

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Ants Will Vanquish The Lion

One of the series I most enjoyed this year was Nick Spencer’s Ant-Man, a broadly comic Elmore Leonard take on Marvel’s surprise cinematic star. In the last week, I read the Marvel Masterwork collection of Hank Pym’s original adventures, commencing with 50s-style monster shocker,  The Man in the Ant Hill.

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Ant-man is one of the most venerable heroes of Marvel’s Silver Age but I originally read his exploits quite out of sequence. First in the Avengers, the third Marvel UK b/w weekly. Then from 1976, in the Super-Heroes weekly ( see also https://materioptikon.wordpress.com/2015/02/)  and finally as Ant-Man in the Hulk weekly.

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We can divide the Ant-Man saga into three phases beginning with Return of the Ant-Man and continuing with Challenge of Comrade X/Trapped by the Protector/Betrayed by the Ants/Vengeance of the Scarlet Beetle/Day That Ant-Man Failed. These are Lee/Larry Lieber/Kirby adventures introducing the secret lab where Hank is catapulted into action- first against a young woman who masquerades as a Stalin lookalike; then, the traitor Egghead who might have inspired Vincent Price’s memorable Bat-villain; a mutated insect bent on world domination who reminds me of the denizens of Kamandi’s Dominion of the Devils; and the Protector and the Hijacker: racketeers who star in identical plots.

These are all disposable tales but they’re distinguished by Kirby’s invention and dynamism. Even the duplicated villains have a distinctive look.

The next phase is delivered by the Lieber-Don Heck team, beginning with Prisoner of the Slave World, where Hank recruits alien insects to overthrow an extra-dimensional warlord who has kidnapped Earth scientists. This dismal phase continues with The Voice of Doom and Mad Master of Time.  The former is a radio announcer who gains mind control powers akin to the more interesting and longer-lived Purple Man. The latter is a mad scientist with an ageing ray, redeemed by the affection of his nephew.

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The Wasp is introduced in The Creature From Kosmos, where we learn about Hank’s tragic marriage to Maria Trovaya. This retcon introduces a note of obsession and vengeance in Hank’s character and also rings a warning bell for his relationship with Jan, who has also been touched by tragedy. Hank refers to her as a child three times in the one story, which is unsettling. The whole thing smacks of Hitchcock’s Vertigo. However, flighty, silly Jan has another side, as we see later: a storyteller for “shut-ins” ( orphans and war veterans) in what seem to be rejected Tales of the Watcher.

The subsequent Hank & Jan stories are dreary and don’t capitalise on the grim, avenging angle. The  Terrible Traps of Egghead/ When Cyclops Walks The Earth/Music to Scream By/The Porcupine are all by Heck and Ernie Hart. The Cyclops is an alien invasion story which will be revisited in the subsequent Colossus adventure. (Holy Gifted Youngsters!) Trago, the Man with the Magic Trumpet reminds me of Golden Age Flash-foe the Fiddler. Jan, we discover, loves good jazz and digs a cool brass man. The Porcupine will always be a loser and will die in the 80s Cap/Serpent Society storyline.

The final phase sees Kirby return to revitalise Hank with The Birth of Giant-Man.  After only fifteen stories, all very lacklustre, Hank has an adventure with the Living Eraser, in a tale very reminiscent of Kirby’s Xeen Arrow epic.

The book concludes with my favourite villain from my earliest memories of Terrific, the Space Turnip- er, The Human Top. Dave Cannon has quite a developed back story and seems very realised.

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Showdown with the Human Top is a much more lively and vivid story and Kirby makes full use of Hank’s giant stature. Unfortunately, Hank’s self confidence issues are highlighted too, as Jan fakes his tests against a speedy Top robot. Again, we see Jim Shooter’s disintegration of Hank Pym’s sanity has an inevitable historical basis.

The last story is The Black Knight Strikes: I first read this in a b/w Alan Class comic in Lesmahagow in the early 70s. Another traitor scientist, Nathan Garrett, creates a flying horse through genetic engineering but is unnerved by Hank’s changing size?! A visually impressive villain who would go on to challenge Iron Man, his biggest contribution was the inspiration for the heroic Black Knight of Avengers fame ( Marvel’s first “Britisher” hero by proxy).

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It’s worth noting that DC’s Mighty Mite, the Atom, lasted for thirty-eight issues before a merger with Hawkman. Almost ten more than Gi/Ant-Man, despite being pitched into campy corn in the mid-60s. Why was Ray Palmer more successful than Ant-Man? The art by Gil Kane is one factor but I suspect it was the consistency of the gimmick-driven Gardner Fox scripts- the Atom’s competition in the form of the Flash, Green Lantern and even Batman was fairly equal. Compared to Spider-Man and the FF, however, Ant-Man was tame, predictable and sophisticated.

The drama and visual impact of the Kirby Giant-Man was too little, too late. Hank would get a new costume with a helmet resembling his Ant-Man gear in his final exploits, before being replaced by Sub-Mariner in Tales to Astonish and by Cap’s Kooky Quartet in the Avengers. No wonder he felt undermined.  When he returned, it was as the tormented but more dynamic Goliath. If Don Heck designed the costume, it’s one of his best, right up there with Sunfire.

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Hank of course had a further stint as Ant-Man in the early 70s, (pencilled by Herb Trimpe as a pastiche of The Incredible Shrinking Man) but spent the rest of the decade as the infamous Yellowjacket.  The flippant, fallible Scott Lang Ant-Man of the late Seventies was largely a supporting character in Iron Man, Avengers and the FF , even undergoing death and resurrection in the 2000s. Making him a good-hearted schlub and f*ck-up, as in the movie, seems to have made him a success in our cynical, solipsistic era.

Coming soon: Give My Regards to Sgt. Fury

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The Batmobile Lost a Wheel

It’s an overcast, stormy Christmas Eve morning here in suburbia. This festive period also marks the end of the 50th anniversary of the Batman tv show: the series which I remember most vividly as a preschool child and one I was still watching in middle age, trying to get a teaching job, as recently as four or five years ago.

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Last weekend, I read Batman: the TV Stories, a trade paperback released in response to the Batman ’66 title ( I might be posting about the 66/Steed/Mrs. Peel series on Some Fantastic Place soon). The reprints within were inspiration or direct sources for plots or plot elements in the tv series and they include:

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The Riddler: I first read this Bill Finger/Dick Sprang adventure in a b/w edition of the  Batman 30s-70s trade paperback, which I found in the Parnie Street incarnation of City Centre Comics in Glasgow at some point between the late 90s and  early 2000s. We are introduced to puzzle expert and cheat, E. Nigma, a visually memorable foe who vanishes in a pierside explosion at the climax of the story. As we know, it was Frank Gorshin’s manic and zestful performance as the giggling, grandiose Riddler which catapulted the character out of obscurity, languishing with the Signalman or Dr. Double-X.

A Hairpin, A Hacksaw, A Hole in the Ground: plotting to establish himself as the authority on comedy, the Joker traps B&R in a deathtrap where the masks of tragedy and comedy spout gas. This Finger/Lew Schwartz tale gives the lie to the idea that the Joker only returned to his murderous ways under O’Neil and Adams in the 70s.

The Joker’s Utility Belt: I first read this story in the Batman Giant of December 1965. David Vern Reed and Dick Sprang give the Clown Prince of Crime his own utility belt, obviously, containing exploding cigarettes, sneezing powder, etc. The joke is on the Joker, however, when he ends up as foreman in the prison belt factory.

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The Mad Hatter of Gotham City: Bill Finger and Shelly Moldoff introduce the bizarre hobby-robber version of the  Mad Hatter. I first encountered him in the mid-80s Barr/Davis Detective. While not as creepy or disturbing as the Wonderland iteration, this Hatter enables Tweedledee and Tweedledum to have their own agency as distinct characters. I also love the way David Wayne says “Beeeyat-man”. This story is quite dull, however.

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The Ice Crimes of Mr. Zero: another Giant reprint, this Dave Wood/Moldoff story sees the frigid fiend curiously cured at the end. I like the cartoon narration that described him as “the cool, cruel Mr. Freeze” but Captain Cold is the more effective villain.

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Partners in Plunder: France Herron and Moldoff  give the Penguin a jet-propelled umbrella in this story, from 1965’s  drab, workaday Batman period. I really enjoy Robin Lord Taylor’s hysterical, mother-fixated Penguin on Gotham but the sneering, pompous Burgess Meredith is my favourite.

 

BATMAN, Frank Gorshin, 1966. TM and Copyright ©20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved, Courtesy: Everett Collection

BATMAN, Frank Gorshin, 1966. TM and Copyright ©20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved, Courtesy: Everett Collection

The Remarkable Ruse of the Riddler: A Gardner Fox/Moldoff revival for the Riddler, who pretends to go straight. Another dreary tale which looks like it came from a colouring book.

The Joker’s Comedy Capers: a beautiful Broome/Infantino collaboration where the Leonardo of the Larcenous Laugh employs doubles of silent movie comedians to commit crimes.

Batman’s Inescapable Doom Trap: I think I first read this one in an issue of the b/w Super DC comic in the early 70s. It’s memorable for the oddly-named inventor Eivol Ekdal but otherwise, it’s deadly dull.

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The Million Dollar Debut of Batgirl: the first time I read this Fox/ Infantino story was in a Double Double comic and of course, it’s reprinted in the Greatest Batgirl Stories tpb. I love seeing the “colorless female brain” having the time of her life and I particularly likethe montage depicting her quick-change costume:  the skirt, beret and handbag are all part of her Batgirl ensemble.

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This was also my first encounter with Killer Moth, the Lethal Lepidopteron. Sadly, there’s no Catwoman caper here. It’s a mixed bag and if you really want TV nostalgia, pick up the Bat-66 series,

In future posts, I’m considering returning to Grant Morrison’s Batman but after Xmas, I’m also thinking about Thor, Dr. Strange, Doc Savage, Spy Smasher, Sgt. Fury and Skull the Slayer. Have a cool Yule.

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The Man and The King

School has broken up for the Xmas holidays and I’m holed up in the library while Storm Barbara gathers her forces outside. This is the same branch from which I borrowed Fantastic Four Marvel Masterworks volume 9. The Sixties stories of which it’s comprised were reprinted in The Titans forty years ago; in the spring of 1976.

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I don’t think I could read or write before I started primary school. Perhaps that’s why the comics of 1968 and 1969 made such an impression upon me; Marvel’s more than DC too.

In this trade paperback, we can divide the twelve monthly stories, running from January to December of 1969 into four arcs, where the plots rise and fall organically in a way emulated by Claremont and Byrne in their lauded X-Men years. The images I’ll post are the individual issues I owned or read at the time.

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The Mark of the Madman was my second Inhumans tale and follows on from Crystal’s election as the FF’s first new member since issue one. Maximus the Mad ( whom I may have “met” in the susbsequent encounter with the Hulk has taken over the Great Refuge and wants to use a hypno-ray on Mankind. It’s interesting that Roy Thomas retroactively gives Max powers of mind control when he next takes over in Amazing Adventures- up til now he was portrayed as a scientific genius , albeit a child-like crazy one: Caligula crossed with Einstein.  I loved the variety and strangeness of the Inhuman populace. Stan and Jack muddy the waters over Zorr- is he an android or an enhanced Alpha Primitive? Are the Alphas androids?

 

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I remember, shortly after reading one of the early parts of this story, choking on a boiled sweet in primary school and Miss Morrison holding me by my ankles to dislodge it!

Within the Tortured Land is my selection when they next plan a FF movie. It’s the sequence where Kirby first apes The Prisoner. Again, a hypnotic weapon is used to strip the quartet of their powers as Doom pits them against his omnipurpose robots in a sinister experiment. It’s a tense mix of super-spy drama ( Nick Fury and SHIELD cameo) and Ruritanian fantasy. The ending is an anticlimax but we see Doom at his most expansive and majestic. Even the Commies fear him. Unfortunately, Doom’s portrait artist seems to be wearing a wig- he’s bald in 85.

 

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A House There Was is the “nutty overgrown mushroom” which Sue selects , bizarrely, as the ideal place to bring up baby. Of course, it’s an elaborate trap by the Mole Man, at his most pathetic here and using an ultrasonic ray machine (?) to strike humanity blind. Reed almost dies in this claustrophobic tale. Ben’s anguish over Reed is set-up for the next arc…

 

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The Skrull Takes a Slave is a space age take on Spartacus. I enjoyed the alien gladiators we meet: the Magna-Man, the Rhinogon, the Cat-man and the Primitoid.  Also, with the Skrull Prohibition Era pastiche planet,  it’s something of a rehearsal for In The Days of the Mob and the Chicago-Land two-parter in Kamandi. The serial, which was partially reprinted in a b/w “album” largely focuses on Ben Grimm . For years, I though I bought the “Ben Grimm, Killer” issue in Seafield,  Ayr instead of Subby’s May 71 comic. Clearly, I was mistaken; it was either Thor’s showdown with Infinity or Astonishing tales 5. or both.

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Super-teams can be measured by their antagonists. Of course, some of the FF’s oldest foes return here. But the plethora of robots and androids in the series began in 64 with the Kree Sentry, continued in 70-71 with the Thinker’s green android; Galactus’ Punisher; Psycho-Man’s Indestructible One; Th e Thinker’s Android Man and of course, Tomazooma.

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Crystal never quite achieves an impact although she wears a beret well. Sue upstages her by saving the entire village in 86-87 and Crystal herself is a hostage in 82-83. She uses her powers in 83,87,89 and briefly in 93 but they’re described hand-wavingly vaguely as “force blasts” or “sonic waves”. While Johnny is now, increasingly, a handsome romantic lead, Ben is very much the star as the last arc attests. Perhaps these issues aren’t as inventive as the 1966-1967 period but, for me, they’re more beautiful and dramatic.

 

Next: Thank you, Caped Crusader

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I Too Sing America

 

I was disappointed, before I moved “Down South” to only provide a cursory look at the career of our own Captain Britain in his fortieth year. It’s ironic that his longest story arc saw the Lion of London overshadowed by the USA’s own Sentinel of Liberty and his nemesis with the carmine cranium.

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The other week, while exploring the graphic novel section of this very library in Giffnock, I picked up Marvel Masterworks Captain America volume 2. This collection reprints Cap’s solo adventures from the split book Tales of Suspense from the autumn of 1966 until the launch of Captain America 100 in the spring of 1968. I had read virtually all the stories in b/w reprints in The Titans, roughly forty years ago also. They can be gathered into six story arcs with one unconnected fill-in.

The Inconceivable Adaptoid: AIM’s secret weapon, the mimicking android attempts to steal Cap’s identity. cameos by Wanda and Pietro and Agent Axis of Invaders infamy. The Tumbler is a one-shot villain who faces off against the Adaptoid.

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Tumbler is an acrobat-strongman who doesn’t have the comic foil qualities of Batroc but this was the oldest issue of ToS I ever had, so I have a fondness for him. He did return a couple of times in the 70s and 80s. The Adaptoid copies the powers of Goliath, the Wasp and Hawkeye to battle Cap and is next seen, cleverly, in combat with his mutant-mirroring counterpart, the Mimic.

The Blitzkrieg of Batroc/The Secret: the first story is panel after panel of combat with the Gallic Gamboler. I’d never seen this episode before, perhaps due to spotty distribution of The Titans; Batroc is a comic foil. The second half is a techno-thriller about a SHIELD  agent in deep cover in the” Orient”.

Wanted: Captain America:  a weird, off-key interlude by Roy Thomas and Jack Sparling. It reads like one of Thomas’ mid-Sixties off-days on X-Men.

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If Bucky Lives: this is a dynamic arc by Gil Kane. Cap is lured into combat with colourful old Avengers foes, Swordsman and Power Man. This is a preamble to a ludicrous scheme by the Red Skull to use a plastic bubble to imprison and move New York City. En route, Cap is pitted against a Bucky-bot; Baron Strucker has a similar ploy in the very early 70s. I wonder why Kirby was off Cap for this period? What was he working on? The Inhumans?

If This Be Modok: this arc begins with the infamous conflict with AIM’s Mecho-Assassin which brought us the deathless scene below:

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I think this story might be the first instance (of many) of Nick Fury faking his death. There is also a cameo by new Avenger Hercules and Wanda in her old Brotherhood outfit. Cap pursues Agent 13 to the submarine stronghold of Modok. In his brief first appearance, the freakish living weapon, in his plight, resembles tragic Kirby monsters Quasimodo or the Misfit (from Kamandi). Physically, Captain Victory’s Mr. Mind is like a benevolent Modok. During the course of this story, Cap’s feelings for Agent 13 grow in intensity, almost as great as his obsession with Bucky’s death in previous years.

To Be Reborn: Cap swears he has undertaken his last battle in order to be with Agent 13 but beret-wearing one-off The Sniper leads to Rogers rededicating himself to the role. The Sniper is in the vein of other Kirby gangland grotesques like The Monocle or Steel Hand. “Cap Quits” is a trope that will have a couple of outings, most notably in the Nomad stories of the 70s.

 

The Claws of the Panther/The Man who Lived Twice: this arc revives the Black Panther in a James Bond thriller about the revived Zemo and his orbiting solar weapon. It also leads in to the first Sixties issue of Cap’s own mag. Agent 13 impersonates the lethal Irma Kruhl ( what a Kirby name!) and her double agent role lends drama to Cap’s predicament.

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Pay close attention for the secret of  Zemo’s resurrection!

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Cap offers his role in the Avengers to the kingly T’Challa. When the Panther returns, he will be much less feline and more like an African Daredevil. Syd Shores gives Kirby’s pencils a gritty, grainy quality but I prefer the blocky clarity of Joe Sinnott.

I really enjoyed this collection. Stan and Jack’s Cap is a compelling tragic hero on the edge of a breakdown: driven by guilt, yearning and frustration and doomed to a cycle of  fighting resurrected fanatics who have adopted sci-fi technology, with only his physical prowess and wartime values.

Next, I’m going to read a collection of what I consider “my” FF- the Prisoners of Latveria/ Skrull Slavers era of 1969, when the Fantastic Four was probably my favourite comic.

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