Walt the World’s Been Waiting For

To my regret and disappointment, I decided to quit the Facebook group for Twomorrows’ Back Issue Magazine this week. I had posted a comment to the effect that DC characters of the 80s who seemed heavily influenced by Marvel (or more specifically Kirby Marvel characters) failed to find a long-term audience. I cited Jade and Obsidian from Infinity Inc. – who owe a lot to Wanda and Pietro, as the rest of the team echo the Avengers- and Blue Devil.

One member of the group took  issue with my only passing familiarity with the latter, fairly obscure character. Another poster went to great length to “mansplain” how BD’s creators was more overtly influenced by Ditko- whose Creeper is revived by DC every decade with no real commercial impact, I might add.

While I don’t think my point was invalidated at all, the condescension and antagonism was most unpleasant and it’s making me reassess whether it’s worth venturing an opinion on comical books for the vituperation of (other) middle aged men.

 

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Clearly no influence.

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Nonetheless, here are my thoughts on a collection of Bronze Age Thor comics. I picked up this b/w library copy because it reminded me of my own school days when US Marvels were spottily distributed. Also the thumbnails printed in the sporadic but thrilling FOOM Magazine marked Kirby’s return to the title after half a decade. The third reason was the debut of Walt Simonson as Thor’s penciller. Another series with which I’m largely unfamiliar is the 80s Thor run , apart from a few of the Malekith/Casket of Ancient Winters issues. Simonson’s Manhunter for DC seemed like a Marvel hero manque ( as we’ll see when I come to post on Deathlok and Skull the Slayer). His very brief reboot of the Avengers at the end of the decade is an oddball favourite of mine.

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Authorship of the God of Thunder’s adventures had passed by 1975 from sci-fi writer Gerry Conway to another DC creator, Len Wein ( who would originate the All-New X-Men in the same time period.) The bulk of the artwork in this book is by John Buscema, who lends a savage grandeur to Thor’s worlds.

This is most noticeable in the reprinted Thor Annual 5, which I believe was repurposed material from an aborted b/w Thor the Mighty magazine. Steve Englehart retells the first clash between Thor and Hercules in a Tolkeinesque saga, stripped of most Kirbyisms.

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However, in the regular monthly series, Wein revived many Lee/Kirby antagonists for Thor: Mangog, Ulik,  the Grey Gargoyle, the Destroyer and even the Stone Men from Saturn. He also revisited the very worn trope of Loki seizing the throne of Asgard with the aid of the Enchantress and Executioner. The Rigellian Recorder joined the supporting cast once again while Jane Foster was suddenly replaced by Sif, in a rather arbitrary reversal of their Rick Jones/Mar-Vell sytle melding.

While, by the end of the collection, Wein decided to reset Thor’s status quo as an Earthbound hero, interacting with fellow Avenger Iron Man and Nick Fury ( and with cameos by Mar-Vell, Daredevil, Nova and Shang-Chi), the majority of the run features aliens and monsters. One of the few two-parters I bought at the time ( issues 256-57) is a sci-fi/horror tale with a twist.

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The decaying worldship Levianon is very similar to the vessel in Space 1999‘s Mission of the Darians. The Kirby Klassic monster Sporr, in its motivation,  is also very like the creature from the “Conan: The Crawler in The Mists” record album that was adapted for the barbarian’s newspaper strip.

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The book also reprints the 1977 Thor Annual. This is the prologue to the Korvac/Avengers storyline, pitting the God of Thunder against the 70s version of the Guardians of the Galaxy and the world-beating cyborg himself.

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It’s rather bland and workaday but it features a cute homage to Cap’s revival from the ice, as the Guardians rescue Thor from floating in space.

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Unfortunately, this whole collection felt a little stale and second-hand. While the distinctive and ornate Norse trappings of Simonson’s vision  are evident from his second issue (#261), the quest for Odin, trapped on the Doomsday Star strongly reminded  me of Conway’s God-Jewel and Black Stars epics.  Wein is a more stylish writer than Conway- certainly more so than his contemporary, the saccharine, overwrought Marv Wolfman. But, as with his JLA scripts, his nostalgia for the Sixties stifles invention, aside from the automated Adamantium menace of FAUST. This is largely dull fare, although the artwork is gritty and regal.

Coming soon : Deathlok, Skull the Slayer and Magik

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Give My Regards to Sgt. Fury

Apologia: I may not always reply to your comments but it doesn’t mean I don’t read and appreciate them.

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My oldest surviving friendship in Glasgow is with Alex Harvey, whose rock star father wrote the song referenced in the title of today’s post. I recently read the Marvel Masterworks collection of the early Howling Commandos tales. War comics, along with Romance and the very prolific Westerns, are among the Marvel titles I rarely – if ever- read. Just over forty years ago in MWOM #220, Nick Fury’s battle diaries were serialised in b/w from December 1976.  Weirdly, although this was the long-distant period immediately before Louise Jameson’s Leela joined Doctor Who, those British weeklies feel quite recent to me!  Last December, I fell asleep twice during Rogue One and berated it as a poor imitation of a genuine war film – one that might feature some real acting.

Here’s a breakdown of the contents of the book:

 

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Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos is an explosive, dramatic introduction. Junior Juniper is a typically Kirby name and the group echo the diversity of other Kirby gangs- foremost, the Boy Commandos but also the next generation of the Newsboy Legion and the Dingbats. In a tense mission to rescue a Free French leader, resistance fighter Marie Labrave (!) looks a lot like Kirby’s first Agent Carter.

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Seven Doomed Men: the Howlers infiltrate a concentration camp to foil experiments with heavy water. The story ends with a mushroom cloud but unlike wartime stories at Bronze Age DC, there is no handwaving to suggest history has been rewritten.

Midnight on Massacre Mountain: the strange atomic world of WWII Marvel is referenced again.  Marvel After a pub brawl in Stratford-Upon-Avon, an MP asks if the Howlers are fed on H-bombs.  On an Italian mission, the squad uncover an SS officer impersonating a war correspondent. We also meet Reed Richards of the OSS! I can easily imagine Wolverine being retconned into this story at some point.

Lord Ha-Ha’s Last Laugh: this is the first Fury story I ever read- although I’m not sure where: an annual, perhaps?- and it’s significant for several developments in the Fury Formula established thus far. We are introduced to aristocratic Pam Hawley who will be Nick’s sweetheart until her tragic exit in one of the most moving episodes of the series.  Her brother, the eponymous propagandist, is a thinly-disguised portrayal of the traitor William Joyce. The Howlers travel to Berlin to capture him, as part of a circus troupe ( an early Marvel trope). Death is foreshadowed in the circus ring: ” Some way for a Howler to die…” and the prediction is fulfilled by baby-faced Junior Juniper. This is probably the highlight of the Kirby run.

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At the Mercy of Baron Strucker: this is the second Fury story I ever read. It appeared in the Pow annual above, alongside the debut of  both the Looter ( later the Meteor Man)  and the FF’s Invincible Man. Fury, driven by guilt over Junior’s death, is demoted after he is lured into a duel with Bavarian baron and weapons master, Strucker. Stan and Jack borrow the duel from Hamlet but locate Jutland (Denmark) is in the English Channel! Strucker is a cheat and a hissable baddie, the antagonist the series needed, who would return in Steranko’s SHIELD as Supreme Hydra; his descendants would include the terrorist twins Fenris (and a new Swordsman).

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The Fangs of the Desert Fox:  Dino is injured and replaced temporarily by the bigoted George Stonewell. It’s a rather ground-breaking “message” story where Jazz player Gabe gives the racist a blood transfusion. Some Arab allies in the desert also communicate the brotherhood theme.

The Court Martial of Sgt. Fury: does an amnesiac Fury bear a lifelong grudge against a superior officer? Flashbacks to Fury’s youth make for an interesting change of pace in a courtroom drama.

The Death Ray of Dr. Zemo: This is the first issue by Dick Ayers and it’s also notable for Marvel’s first ostensibly gay character, the David Niven-esque Percy Pinkerton ,who is Junior’s replacement. Certainly, his colourful name and his imitation by American soldiers  might very vaguely imply Percy’s sexuality but really, to me, he’s just depicted as another effete Britisher. We are also introduced to a treacherous, hoodless Nazi scientist with a disintegrator ray. I wish Stan and Jack had stuck to his adhesive obsession. Heh.

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Mission: Capture Adolf Hitler: Fury inveigles Strucker into a mission to kidnap the Fuhrer – but it turns out to be a double.

On to Okinawa: Jewish American Izzy impersonates a “Jap” and the Howlers compare him to Marlon Brando ( who wasn’t on Broadway until 1944! ) perhaps as a reference to Teahouse of the August Moon.

The Crackdown of Captain Flint: a by-the-book new commanding officer ends up becoming more like Fury- down to the stubble and see-gar- in a mission to smash a rocket convoy.

When a Howler Turns Traitor: In another mission to stop V-1 rockets, Dino poses as a deserter but ends up facing the firing squad until Fury turns up in the nick of time.

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Fighting Side-By-Side with Captain America: Kirby returns for a dynamic team-up with Cap’n’Bucky. Pam and Nick watch a newsreel of the Sentinel of Liberty and Nick grouses; Steve Rogers drinks in the Pig and Whistle and the action alternates between the two leads.  Gabe is injured for the second time in thirteen issues. The story involves a secret tunnel built to invade Britain. It’s blown up in an early example of Kirby Kollage. After the Ayers issues, it’s refreshing but there’s a lot of plot and character crammed into these pages

The Ayers episodes simply aren’t as strong as the Kirby adventures. There’s more slapstick and comedy and a flavour of Apokolips in Jack’s stories. Some Howlers seem redundant: Rebel Ralston the jockey and Izzy Cohen the mechanic, play little part in the stories. Dino, the Dean Martin analogue, is often the second lead but supporting characters like Pam, “Happy Sam” and “Bull” McGivney  are memorable.  I was surprised by how entertaining the series was and I would recommend it to fans of Sixties Lee and Kirby.

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So now, the only continuing Marvel stories of the Sixties  I haven’t tried are seafaring exploits of Captain Savage and his Leatherneck Raiders. But I think I’d rather experience Kirby’s work on the Losers at DC instead. Coming up soon:   Spy Smasher; Walt Simonson’s earliest sagas of Bronze Age Thor; the dystopian 1990s as experienced  by Deathlok the Demolisher.

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Journey of the Sorceror

So, here we are just over five years later, with the 300th post on  a blog- more often about old comics than not- which I originally started a year after moving to Elgin. Now,  three months after moving back to Glasgow and a mere six weeks after picking  it up from the sorting office, today’s tricentennial post concerns the 1979 Fireside book Doctor Strange: Master of the Mystic Arts.

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I had actually planned to buy this book for Christmas about a year ago but only got round to reading it last night. It’s an ebay purchase and in beautiful condition. Not only are the adventures of Doc Strange among my oldest recollections of Silver Age Marvel (primarily from 60s issues of Fantastic), he is probably the supernatural star of the Big Two whose comics I’ve read most. Perhaps DC’s Dr. Fate , Swamp Thing and Etrigan the Demon are fairly distant rivals unless we count Tomb of Dracula- but that’s rather blurring horror/monster comics with magic-users.

This is a slim book by necessity, since most of the stories were from the split book Strange Tales, which Doc shared with the Human Torch. As has become my wont lately, I’m dividing this review into three sections.

The first are the early adventures of Doc Strange, when his costume consisted of sombre shades of blue. This look is the one I’ve come to like best for the Sorceror Supreme. This early period also sees Doc depicted as of Asian origin: Kurt Busiek has made quite a case for this on Twitter. While it supports stereotypes of Orientals and “Celestials”, it is in keeping with Dr. Droom (subsequently Doctor Druid) the progenitor of the series.

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Face to Face with the Magic of Baron Mordo: I think this is the second Strange Tale and it introduces the sinister Mordo, who launches an attack on The Master ( the original sobriquet for the Ancient One. The spirit combat between the two adepts is more akin to Tibetan philosophy ( and Beat poetry) than the Lovercraftian tropes of Dr. Fate

Return to the Nightmare World is a sequel to the very first Strange Adventure (!). The Shadow World is a riot of stylish symbolism and the surreal. The face of the gaunt and evil Nightmare is always in shadow. How daring to introduce abstract villians that represent human consciousness- it’s a development of Jungian horrors like the Joker or Two-Face.

Beyond the Purple Veil: burglars who try to steal a mystic gem have to be rescued from slavery by the tyrant of the Purple Dimesion, Aggamon ( NOT Agamotto, apparently)

The House of Shadows: a live tv broadcast from a haunted house leads Strange to discover the house itself is actually an intruder from another “space-time continuum”. On some levels, Strange Tales (!!) can be read as science fiction. Here, in this clash with technology, the doctor is depicted as a silent, brooding figure reminiscent of the Phantom Stranger

The Challenge of Loki: I read this story again last summer in Galloway in the 1979 Marvel Summer Special. George Bell’s inking  makes Ditko look less ornate and more cartoony; more like his 70s work on Machine Man or Captain Universe.

These episodes are all unconnected save the Nightmare rematch. This is a contrast to the next cycle: three stories from the epic battle between Strange and the Mordo/Dormammu team.

The Hunter and the Hunted sees Strange on the run from his enemies in Hong Kong. It’s a pulp thriller that reminds me of the Englehart/Ditko Djinn story- I only ever saw one episode of that in Coyote.

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Face To Face At last With Baron Mordo reworks the title of the very first story in the book in a colourful clash that I first read in an issue of Marvel’s Greatest Comics: one which also reprinted the first appearance of the revamped  Black Widow.

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A Nameless Land, a Timeless Time pitches Strange into a dimension ruled by Shazana. Her good half-sister is a bit too much like Clea while Shazana joins the ranks of despots like Tiboro and Tazza. I really would have liked to see the story that introduced Eternity instead.

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I think I first read The Wondrous Worlds of Doctor Strange, from a Spider-Man annual, in the Fantastic summer special. Unusually, it’s plotted and drawn by Ditko and like the last story, the occult landscapes are astonishing. Spidey seems exceptionally sanguine about being banished to an unknown dimension…

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Stan’s last Strange tale, While the World Spins Mad is drawn by Barry Smith. It’s a blend of Art Nouveau and psychedelic imagery in the vein of Smith’s final Conan stories. Smith is a perfect replacement for Gene Colan as a master of mood but with an extra dimension of exoticism. This comic relaunched Doc for the Seventies.

I would have like to have seen a whole volume depicted to the Dormammu/Mordo saga – or the inclusion of the Lovecraft homage which was the last issue of the blue-visaged Strange of my childhood. Nonetheless, this  gorgeous book is one of the most enjoyable Fireside reprint collections, none of which I owned in the 70s because I’d seen most of the material too recently in the British weeklies.

Coming up in the winter of 2017:  the battle diaries of Stephen Strange’s co-star, Nick Fury; the earliest Simonson Thor sagas; Byrne’s Superman revisited; Skull the Slayer and Deathlok the Demolisher.

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