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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Horror a la Carte

Welcome to the first post on the site since I moved to East Ren in October! Normal service will hopefully resume now, as we approach the holiday season.  This blog post concerns a Marvel horror comic from the Seventies.

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In the wake of the success of the DC mystery titles revamped by Joe Orlando, Marvel followed suit with tales of magic and ghost stories in an identical, anthology format.  Those late 60s titles Tower of Shadows and Chamber of Darkness haven’t been collected in an omnibus to my knowledge and, along with Captain Savage, the romances and the Westerns , they represent the largest gap in my Marvel reading.

On ebay, I tracked down a copy of Giant-Size Chillers 3 to read on Hallowe’en. This comic, from August 1975, reprinted stories from ToS and CoD and it was interesting to see familair Marvel talent work in this genre. of course, early sword-and-sorcery was tried out in these titles too.

This mid-70s collection features a ghoulish frontispiece by Alfredo Alcala and the horror hosts are Marie Severin caricatures of Len Wein and Tony Isabella. The stories are:

Gargoyle Every Night: from Chamber of Darkness 7,  Berni Wrightson and Roy Thomas tell the cautionary tale of a craftsman of gargoyles and some opportunistic thieves.

The Warlock Tree: Gerry Conway and Barry Smith deliver a psychedelic love story with imagery reminiscent of  The Sword in the Stone. This was reprinted from CoD 3.

Desert Scream:a treasure hunter unleashes the alien Neron-Alak from his tomb.  Allyn Brodsky and Jay Hawk aka Jack Katz ( inked by Barry Smith) anticipate the Dr. Who story Pyramids of Mars here. Reprinted from Monsters on the Prowl 9

The Moving Finger Writhes: Len Wein and Gene Colan turn in a Twilight Zone-style tale of a schlub with a prophetic book.  Colan’s work is lovely but the story, from Tower of Shadows 3, is very simplistic.

The Monster: one of Kirby’s last Marvel jobs before the Fourth World, this story first appeared in Chamber of Darkness 4. The story of tragic, deformed hermit Andreas Flec reminded me strongly of the 1968 Dennis Waterman/Michael Gough episode of Journey Into the Unknown

To Sneak, Perchance To Dream: Tom Sutton brings an underground flavour to a comedic tale about foreign spies sabotaging a plutonium plant. Denny O’neil scripts as heavy-handedly as ever in this reprint from ToS 4.

One Little Indian: Marv Wolfman’s first script for Marvel, again reprinted from ToS 4, is another TZ/Night Gallery story about a doomed executive. It’s another moody Colan piece but Wolfman’s gauche, melodramatic style is already in evidence.

It wasn’t a hugely memorable comic; I feel the DC books did this kind of thing far better. I rather suspect the bland stories and corny humour ensured the rapid transformation of ToS and CoD into reprint books featuring pre-FF monsters.

Coming soon: the Fireside Dr. Strange

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All Roads Lead to Zamora

This first week back at work has been cruelly hot and sunny after about three weeks of showery, humid, cloud-covered days.

portobello

Today is the thirty-ninth anniversary of getting the 1977 Conan Treasury in Stranraer after a week in a caravan at Cairnbrook farm Galloway’s Portobello.

Cairnbrook

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I’ve blogged often of that week, when Elvis died, here and on our sister blog, Some Fantastic Place, where I’ve also been posting about Roy Thomas’s Conan stories for Marvel in the Nineties.

1977 was probably the peak of my Conan comic-reading. I would buy my third ( and second-last) US Savage Sword  when school term recommenced in the late summer of ’77.

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I was a devoted follower of the Belit Saga all through 1976 and into ’77. But by 1978, I had stopped. Maybe it wasn’t on sale any more? I don’t know now. I had moved on to the Sphere paperbacks by then so I wasn’t reading the comic when Thomas departed from the title- and from Marvel- in 1980.

I did follow his DC work quite avidly through the next decade: my beloved LSH, Wonder Woman, All-Star Squadron and Infinity Inc.- both of which I followed pretty keenly for the first couple of years of publication.

When Thomas returned to Marvel in the 90s, on Avengers West Coast and Fantastic Four Unlimited, I was deflated by his writing. His scripts in the late 60s and early 70s are some of the best writing the House of Ideas ever saw. Young turks of the Bronze Age may have had other strengths: Gerber’s perspective was always more adult; Moench drew upon cinema as Claremont did upon television; McGregor’s poetic bent beat O’Neill’s novelist posturings into a cocked hat. But not only were Thomas’s comics melodramatic, hip and respectful of other creators; he was adept in any genre from super-heroes to pulp horror.

So, aside from four of the issues of CTB in 1991, why didn’t I follow his sword and sorcery comics any further? Probably because I was so heavily invested in the theatre and cinema by then; barbarian heroes and undead horrors in cyclopean ruins seemed awfully gauche. I was working in the Census office in Hillington and rehearsing the first of two productions of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

In my last couple of posts, however, I’ve blogged about catching up with the b/w SSOC sagas of 1991 and 92. Today, it’s the turn of the colour Conan comics, as reprinted in volume 31 of Dark Horse’s Conan collection: Empire of the Undead.

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The first three stories –All Roads lead to Zamora/They Came to Castle Zukala/Dawn and Death-Gods– form an arc entitled The She-Devil and The Sorceror.  This saga revisits my personal second Conan story from the legendary 1972 Fleetway Marvel Annual.

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The wizard Zukala attempts to reincarnate himself through the offspring of Red Sonja and his own son. This is surely the plot of the infamous Avengers 200/Ms.Marvel/Immortus story! Sonja loses her potency here as well as her signature “iron bikini”. However, there’s a droll joke about the fairytale troll under the bridge and a number of flashbacks to issues 4,5, 14 and 115.

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Fiends of the Flaming Mountain/Empire of the Undead:  Conan and Sonja are captured by the Afterlings: human-bat hybrids they met back in the rather kinky Conan #44, back in 1974. Zula, the wizard’s apprentice, and a shipmate in the Belit Saga, is also a captive. The bat-people themselves have been enslaved by Marvel’s primordial vampire ( at least since 1982) Varnae. Named after Varney the Vampire from the Victorian penny dreadfuls, Varnae seems to be set up as a world-beating threat but is easily overcome by Zula’s magical knowledge. I don’t know as yet if this plot thread was resolved later.

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The highlight of the collection is the final arc:  Chaos in Khoraja/The Sword That Conquers All/The Peril and the Prophecy/Red Wind. This retells Black Colossus ( reprinted in its Buscema/Alcala glory in that aforementioned treasury) from the perspective of Zula and Red Sonja. It also sees the return of Ernie Chan as inker and the previously indifferent 90s art starts to resemble the Conan books of 77-78.

Black Colossus is a story of desert warfare as a pocket kingdom is besieged by the forces of a living mummy, Thugra Khotan aka “Natokh”. I was so infatuated with  SSOC I can remember writing Tolkien pastiches in S1 and S2 ; Natokh was the name of my Sauron.

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Sonja gets some characterisation as she is forced to kill a child soldier and Zula is revenged on his old master. We also witness the spectacular fall of Kuthchemes thousands of years previously, the sinister entombing of Thugra Khotan, and his final destruction at Conan’s sword’s-point. Howard would recycle the villain’s gimmicks with the eponymous Devil in Iron, Khosatral Khel and Xaltotun in The Hour of the Dragon.

On balance, I enjoyed Thomas’s deft use of his own continuity and REH’s and the super-star covers by McFarlane, Jim Lee and Arthur Adams. This next phase of Conan’s career is The Freebooter: Iron Shadows of the Moon and A Witch Shall Be Born . As for the comics, I wouldn’t buy another 90s Conan until I picked up #250 in a charity shop in Renfield Street in the Noughties.

I think at present that I might make my way back to Portobello next summer and then we’ll probably continue with volume 32! In the meantime, look out for upcoming posts on both blogs on Teen Titans, Supergirl, Vigilante and in the autumn, the fortieth anniversary of Captain Britain.

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Isle of Pirates’ Doom

As you may have noticed by now, during the summer, I re-acquaint myself with Marvel’s sword-swinging Cimmerian, Conan the Barbarian. It’s a tradition established long ago in the late 70s, when. on holiday in Galloway, I read both the 1977 Conan Treasury Edition and some of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories  in volume 3 of Skull-Face Omnibus.

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For the next three years, I hunted down all the Sphere Conan paperbacks and branched out into Lin Carter’s Thongor- a Marvel stablemate- and the vivid psychedelia of Michael Moorcock.

Marvel UK, at that time, was reprinting the US b/w Savage Sword of Conan and I followed that title, in an increasingly desultory way ( never quite succeeding in getting reprints of the US issues I’d missed and longed to read) until December 1980. Around the time I was leaving school, I fell out of love with Conan- although I would still be interested in the first of Carter’s Green Star series of paperbacks in the summer of ’81.

The American SSOC title has been collected and reprinted in weighty, telephone-directory style volumes by Dark Horse over the last eight years. There are posts coming up on my Some Fantastic Place blog about Roy Thomas returning to Conan in the 90s; this post, reviewing vol. 4,  functions as a trailer for them.  Here are the contents:

Sons of The White Wolf from Feb 1979 is a story about a prophet launching a holy war. There’s some minor nudity in an oasis occupied by a giant crustacean but otherwise it’s as dull as it was when I first read the UK reprint at the end of July ’79.

The Road of the Eagles concerns the rescue mission of an exiled prince and a tribe of vampires. More eventful and more violent than the previous story, I read the original in Sphere’s Conan the Freebooter in ’78.

Legions of the Dead is a grisly zombie story, explaining Conan’s capture by the Hyperboreans as a youth. I first read this in Conan The Swordsman, which I got in Glasgow in the summer of 1979.

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A Dream of Blood is the first part of a four-part adaptation of Conan the Buccaneer. This was the second DeCamp/Carter pastiche novel I borrowed from Strathaven Library and it was a favourite of mine. This chapter introduces the plot to steal the throne of Zingara (Spain); is a sequel of sorts to CTB#73 with its toad-demon; and introduces the younger version of Sigurd, an ersatz Viking who also stars in Conan of the Isles. He has a “humorous” verbal tic of swearing on various gods which is actually quite tiresome.

The Quest for the Cobra Crown, like part one, features a lot of nudity for its princess heroine; Juma from Conan# 37 is a guest star.

The Devil-Trees of Gamburu sees the heroes imprisoned by Amazons and fed to  man-eating trees very like the Mungoda of Thongor’s Lemuria. Conan is reminded of a similar monster from#41. We will meet his (probable) daughter by the Amazon Queen in King Conan in 1980. There’s a depressingly salacious four-page S&M scene too.

King Thoth-Amon (Aug ’79) is the climax of the novel. The Cobra Crown will be revealed in August 1980 to be the Serpent Crown from Sub-Mariner, Captain America and Avengers. Thoth-Amon will die at the end of the same year. Conan turns down the offer to be consort to the princess of Zingara.

The Star of Khorala is a boring origin story for Countess Albiona who turns up early in Conan the Conqueror. Like the next two stories, it comes from Conan the Swordsman.

The Gem in the Tower is very like CTB#9,  with a winged demon in, er, a tower and some pirates. It was the only story I liked in the paperback and it’s also a lot like Carter’s 1976 Thongor story, Black Moonlight.

Moon of Blood is an inferior sequel to the Last of the Mohicans pastiche,  Beyond the Black River, one of REH’s best. It sets Conan up as a revolutionary figurehead.

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The Treasure of Tranicos is an adaptation of another of Howard’s better Conan stories. What’s particularly exciting is the vibrant artwork of Gil Kane for 3/4 of this episode. Kane was the first Conan artist I encountered as a kid and he brings vitality and energy to the story. It’s a three-way pirate standoff in the fortress of a nobleman in exile.

A Wind Blows from Stygia. The exiled aristo’s betrayal of Thoth-amon reaps a bloody climax and a gruesome Pictish assault on the fortress sees the two pirate chiefs die. There’s a very lengthy epilogue that sets up Conan the Liberator, a dull and constrained military epic.

On balance, I enjoyed about half of this book. I wasn’t keen at all on the art- DeZuniga embellishing Buscema doesn’t appeal to me and the Kane pages were a welcome relief. The stories tended be rehashes of other Conan adventures, either by Howard or Roy Thomas. Conan the Buccaneer is much slower and less exciting than I remember and its excesses now seem tacky. However, I like the Marvel-style continuity references throughout. There’s a genuine sense of a saga.

The stories are probably no more violent than the average modern Batman but they are more explicitly so. Tranicos suffers from the mixture of art styles but is more dramatic and engaging than many of the other episodes.

See upcoming posts on Some Fantastic Place for more adventures with Conan on the seven seas.

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Mystery Fiction

Well, yesterday, I enjoyed posting about the proposed -but-never-published 1970-71 Marvel comic shared by Iceman and Doctor Strange. In musing about that, I suddenly had strong visual impressions of other titles that could have been on sale on spinner racks in Scotland in the early years of comics’ Bronze Age.

(What halcyon days! Especially now that I have to travel about sixty miles to get them. But I digress…)

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The images I had most clearly of these “imaginary stories” were of the Falcon, who received shared billing with Cap and guest starred with the Avengers in the spring of ’71. It might have been time to try him in a solo strip, perhaps contrasted -and in conflict- with the angry, young Prowler from Spider-Man. A very young Gerry Conway scripting for Gene Colan seemed to fit the bill as a creative team.

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I’m sure the House of Ideas would want to discuss race issues and the protest movement at this point in history. However, Black Panther in this period was another “ghetto” hero like Falcon, in his guise as school teacher Luke Charles. But he also had the option of sci-fi and jungle milieus and a sleek, mysterious visual, so I think T’Challa would have been a better fit for a regular series. Here, the creators might be Roy Thomas and Sal Buscema, with Modok and AIM as the baddies.

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Given that I had thought of a revived Journey Into Mystery as the comic’s title, I thought the “journey” part might come from space opera adventures with the Sensational Captain Marvel. The Kree hero was reduced to guest-star roles at that time but I could see him in combat with the reptilian Baneful Brotherhood of the Badoon,  in a Roy Thomas/Sal Buscema series.

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However, would we then ever have had the Kree-Skrull War, probably the mainstream titles’ finest hour in the segue between the Silver and Bronze Ages? Would we have had the introspective and complex Panther’s Rage serial in Jungle Action?

Astonishing Tales served up jungle adventure and anti-hero intrigue with Ka-Zar and Doc Doom, where the early issues of Amazing Adventure sci-fi team action and glamorous noir, er, adventure with the Inhumans and the Black Widow. Which pop culture trends could Marvel have exploited in the early 70s?

Well, one such trend which Marvel explored to rapid critical acclaim was  heroic fantasy or “Sword and Sorcery”. Marvel’s proto-Cimmerians Arkon; Val-Larr in Iron Man; Starr the Slayer and to an extent, even the Sub-mariner had been (pardon the pun) testing the waters.

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What if Roy Thomas returned to his own revived, medieval Avenger, the Black Knight? And what if Wally Wood, who had drawn some S&S shorts printed in Tower of Shadows ( a Marvel version of the Orlando “mystery” books at DC), was the penciller?

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Perhaps transported by his old ally Doc Strange, Dane Whitman could have had some adventures with Wood’s wizards and gargoyles although I could see Sal Buscema taking over from Wood in short order.

For a contrasting second feature, I  returned to 1969’s Marvel Super Heroes, the Showcase-style title where BK, Dr. Doom and Ka-Zar all made their solo debut. Submitted for your approval: Starhawk!

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A dystopian futuristic tale by Dan Adkins, who had worked for Wally Wood and RT, Starhawk never saw print outside Marvelmania magazine.

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 Looking like a futuristic Phantom Eagle, Starhawk’s premiere was cancelled because, according to Roy Thomas, publisher Martin Goodman felt “rockets, robots and rayguns… never sold comics”. Hmm. Star Wars by Thomas and Chaykin, in 1977, put paid to that idea. I imagine Marv Wolfman and Herb Trimpe, who collaborated a couple of years later on Killraven, might have worked on a Starhawk strip. (The Black Knight might have to don his ancestor’s armour to differentiate the two leads, however!)

I tried applying the same formula to DC but wasn’t very convinced by the results. In the “52 BIG pages- don’t take less!” era of 1971-72, most comics had back-ups, some new, some Golden Age. Most of the characters who seemed like fan-favourites- Black Canary and Metamorpho, for example- got their own back-up series in Adventure and Action. The Hawkman/Atom team-up was cancelled and the Winged Wonder was pretty much moribund until ’75.

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The Metal Men and Eclipso were Sixties stars who were quirky enough to be supporting features but if any new/old series were to be launched in ’70-71, I think they might have featured E-2’s Wildcat or Dr. Fate, probably by O’Neill, Dillin, Wein and Aparo. It didn’t seem like DC was very interested in the Marvel-style super-hero at that point- I doubt even a “Go-go” title with Black Canary and the Enchantress would have sold.

Again, any comments on split-books or team-ups that might have been are welcome.

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Strange Days

Back in the days when WH Smith stores were John Menzies outlets, I bought toys. comics and books from them religiously ( as I said back in https://materioptikon.wordpress.com/2012/10/14/barbarians-of-blackpool/)

I was browsing in Elgin’s almost-deserted WH Smith store yesterday afternoon and found a copy of Dr. Strange: Way of the Weird.

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Aaron and Bachalo were responsible for one of my favourite mutant books of recent years, Wolverine and the X-Men, so I knew I would enjoy their eclectic, psychedelic take on Strange and their assault on magic itself. My only reservation is that  the narrators of most modern Marvel series have the same snarky, Brian Bendis voice and it is a little repetitive. However, Aaron takes the concept of the price of magick, really putting Strange through the wringer and Bachalo’s art is creepily quirky.

I wonder if this take will inform the new Cumberbatch movie? Isn’t it amazing that another character whose sales flagged and led to cancellation in the Sixties will be a box-office smash this autumn?  Yet The Master of the Mystic Arts had vanished beyond the Purple Veil in 1969.

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I loved this unearthly version of Strange as a kid ( even though he’s really like the Golden Age Vision…and the Silver Age Vision, come to that.) But Roy Thomas, Gene Colan and Lovecraft wasn’t selling. The saga of Dr. Strange was wrapped up, seemingly for good, in Sub-Mariner (Feb 1970) and Incredible Hulk (April 1970) ; the latter saw him retire from magic in the new identity of physician Stephen Sanders.

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Apparently, the 5th issue of Marvelmania magazine announced plans for a “split-book” for Dr. Strange and Iceman, of all people. Marvel had launched two similar titles in 1970 and I had loved them both as a kid.

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I was mad about the Inhumans and this pre-Fourth World Kirby story ( bought in Glasgow, that Babylon of the Moderns) was just what I wanted in a comic then.

I was too young, however, to connect Astonishing Tales and Amazing Adventures with older split-books in the collections of other village kids, which I had read when they’d visited . Nor did I realise how they had been springboards for solo series.

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This is one of my favourite 60s Marvel comics!

Like Doc Strange, the X-Men fell out of favour in the 60s. The title stopped telling original stories in March of 1970, actually going on hiatus until becoming a reprint title in December of that year.

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Iceman, however, was the guest-star in the January 1970 issue of Spidey’s own Marvel-lous mag and I suspect this comic was intended to test the waters for a split-book. Clearly Stan et al saw Bobby Drake as the breakout character from the original mutant band- but we know, with hindsight, that it turned out to be the bludgeoning Beast!

Unlike Iceman, Doc Strange’s first strip for the proposed split book appeared in print in Marvel Feature 1, the debut of the Defenders, in December 1971. It’s a Thomas/Heck story which returns Strange to his pre-1969 regalia.

But what might that never-published “split-book” be like? Which creative teams would steer it?

Firstly, I think Strange Tales was the obvious title to revive for the book; it was the original home of the Master of the Mystic Arts. But since the “super-hero” version of Doc Strange had been undone, perhaps Stan would look again at DC’s “mystery” line of 1969: The Witching Hour and the Phantom Stranger:

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We’re daydreaming, remember, about the days before the Comics Code change of 72. I think a Dark Shadows vibe of ghosts and witches might have been the route taken. Initially, I’m picturing a Roy Thomas/Neal Adams strip but maybe Mike Friedrich and Ross Andru two or three months later?

Similarly, Stan might look to the “Relevance” trend at DC and the protest movement, reflected in youth-oriented titles:

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An Iceman strip dealing with peace rallies and disaffected youth  by Gerry Conway and Gil Kane would have felt contemporary but Don Heck, whose collaboration with Tom Palmer in the X-Men/Sunfire story was so striking, is another probability. Strking out from Westchester, I think Iceman would be a very hard sell, without a guest-star of his own. For his debut, I’d revisit the first encounter of the Human Torch and Iceman in the original Strange Tales:

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In addition to the boys’ first opponent, the Barracuda, I imagine old X-men villains like Blob, Unus, Mastermind and the Vanisher would make a return appearance- maybe we’d even see the Lorna Dane/Alex Summers relationship blossom ( as we finally would, retroactively,  in John Byrne’s Hidden Years series).

But I rather suspect that Iceman would vanish from a revived Strange Tales, and it would become a solo book for Doc Strange, as Astonishing Tales did for Ka-Zar.  The youngest of the original X-Men always seemed to work better paired with the Angel and has only really become interesting in his own right, coming out as gay in the Bendis X-Men.

However, I still wonder what would have made the split books more successful in the very-early Seventies and which characters might have been paired up to sell them? Feel free to share your thoughts on such pairings: Captain Mar-Vell and the Silver Surfer? Black Panther and the Prowler? Falcon and SHIELD?

Coming up: Savage Sword of Conan in the 90s

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