Monday, December 28, 2009

Happy Birthday Stan Lee!

As I'm sure all True Believers know, December 22, 2009 is Stan Lee's 87th birthday. Comics as we know them would have taken a very different path if not for Mr. Stanley Martin Lieber, but then I don't need to tell you that--really, is there anything left to say about Mr. Stantastic that hasn't been said a kazillion times already?? (Okay, okay, so a lot of it was said by Stan himself--hey, he's not called The Man for nothing!)

Anyway, I'm getting a little verklempt, so let's all wish Stan a very Happy Birthday--hope it's a great one, Stan!

Stan the Man Marvel Universe

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

More Legion Lore: Teenagers From the Future!

Hi, guys and dolls...hope you're all sipping pina coladas and enjoying the beautiful summer so far. And let's imagine for the rest of said summer, you can buy only two more books about comics—well, it goes without saying one of them has to be Assembled! Volume 2, right? (Available on Amazon...check out our panel to the right for details!)

As for the second book, if you’re a Legion of Super-Heroes fan–and who isn’t?—do yourself a huge favor and grab a book called Teenagers From the Future. Like Assembled!, it's an anthology of essays, and also like Assembled! it's a great read: informative, enjoyable, and thought-provoking. I’m not exaggerating when I say that every single essay here is worth reading. You may not agree with the contributors' varied opinions and analyses, but you won't be bored--and you'll come away with an increased knowledge of the Legion's rich history.

Some background: Teenagers From the Future is a collection of essays edited by Timothy Callahan, with a foreword by Matt Fraction. The essays are presented in chronological order according to the Legion’s publishing history, so you get a good overview of the Legion oeuvre: the Silver Age Legion, the progression to the 1970s, 80s, 90s and so on, up through today’s Legion (and yes, the reboots are included).

The topics range from fairly standard (but still interesting) such as the “The Death and Resurrection of Lightning Lad” and “Women in the Early Legion” to the more esoteric “The Legion’s Super-Science” and “Decades to Get It Right: Architecture and Utopia” to the provocative “Diversity an Evolution in the Reboot Legion” and “The Racial Politics in the Legion” to…well, you get the idea. And what Legion tome would be complete without a piece on the Legion’s splendiferous sartorial style—so we get “Fashions From the Future, or ‘I Swear, Computo Forced Me to Wear This!’ "

There's commentary on the usual suspects including Mort Weisinger, Jim Shooter, Paul Levitz, and Mark Waid…but there’s also attention paid to the Legion’s earliest scripters Edmond Hamilton and Jerry Siegel. A minor quibble: I would have liked to seen an essay focusing on E. Nelson Bridwell (hey, Timothy Callahan, if you’re reading this and need an extra essay or two for your next volume…)

The book includes a fair number of reproduced panels and covers throughout (in black and white, alas) and there's a handful of factual errors, but it’s a very captivating read and provides a good basic overview of those kids from the future. If your local comic shop doesn't carry Teenagers, head on over to ever-reliable Amazon and order a copy. Happy reading!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Guardians of the Galaxy: Earth Shall Overcome!

Marvel Super-Heroes #18, January 1969
Arnold Drake/Gene Colan-Mickey Demeo

I recently picked up the Marvel Premiere Hardcover, Guardians of the Galaxy: Earth Shall Overcome. I recalled the Guardians mainly from the pages of the Defenders, back in my early comics-buying days. When I saw that not only this collection was coming out, but its sequel (Guardians of the Galaxy: The Power of Starhawk), I was very excited to read them. I am a big fan of Marvel's recent strategy of getting not only important storylines from the Bronze Age back into print, but entire runs of short-lived series.

Since we tend to focus mainly on the Silver Age here at TGAGASC, I thought I'd stick to the first appearance of the Guardians from 1968 -- Marvel Super-Heroes #18 (cover-dated January 1969). The tale was authored by Arnold Drake and rendered by Gene Colan and Mike Esposito (under the latter's pen name of Mickey Demeo).

Arnold Drake, creator of the Doom Patrol and Deadman, was a longtime writer for DC Comics who fell out of favor with editorial toward the end of the 1960's. Shortly after seeing his workload dwindle to nothing, he moved over to Marvel Comics, where he created (with Colan) the Guardians. You can read more about Drake in a wonderful obituary penned by Mark Evanier at the following link:

I'll be honest -- this story reads just like a 1960's DC science fiction yarn! Colan's pencils (and I am speaking of figural form, speed lines, etc.) somewhat lend themselves more to the DC style than to what Marvel was then producing. Saying that, however, other than one splash page, there is not a single panel in the story that has right angle corners! Colan was really pushing the envelope with panel lay-outs here. Although there are no characters or backgrounds that break the panel boundaries (as we'd see a little later from not only Colan but also from the likes of Neal Adams, et al.), Colan's style is somewhat unnerving to the unsuspecting reader. A Colan-art veteran, I was nonetheless taken aback by the frenetic pace of the storytelling -- it was as if Drake's words could not keep up with Gene the Dean's pictures!

Drake's characterization is pretty basic. The bad guys, an alien race known as the Badoon, are pretty typically malevolent. They posture, they say all the right (or wrong, I suppose) things, and are pretty menacing in speech and in their looks. The goal of the Badoon is to eradicate the galaxy of humanity. On the other hand, the good guys fall into pretty basic team-book dynamics. It's difficult at this point to tell any pecking order among the four white knights, but it is pretty clear that Yondu the archer will be toward the bottom. I really had to laugh at the total lack of political correctness in Yondu's speech patterns -- reading him here was to "hear" Jay Silverheels speaking as Tonto! It really was funny. Vance Astro is a little bit of a smart aleck, and nowhere near the Captain America-clone he will become in subsequent incarnations of the team. Martinex is basically written as he will be later -- serious, focused. Charlie-27 is the one character who seems really undefined. He is listed as a survivor of the Jupiter colony, with a mass 11x that of an Earthman. However, the way Colan draws his head is quite odd, as it seems almost to flow -- it certainly changes shapes throughout the story. And, one would think that in spite of his bulk and weight that Charlie-27 possesses super-speed. He is drawn on many pages either with an overabundance of speed lines, and even at times in sequential pictures as if moving faster than the eye could normally follow -- as if he were Quicksilver or the Flash! I never remembered Charlie-27 possessing super-speed in any other stories, and indeed I can find no online references to that power in regard to his character. So perhaps Drake/Colan wanted to tinker with this later...

And that "later" wouldn't come to pass anytime soon. The Guardians, after their one-page, cliffhanger first appearance, would be back-burnered until Steve Gerber chose to unshelve them in 1974. After that, they would appear somewhat regularly as guest-stars in Marvel Two-In-One and the Defenders (1975), before gaining their own series in the pages of Marvel Presents (1977).

If you're a fan of the Bronze Age, or of science fiction, or just of today's Guardians (which I admittedly know nothing of), then you should seek out this hardcover. For my money, I wouldn't plunk down any change just for Marvel Super-Heroes #18, but for the added content the collection was the way to go.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

You've Lost That Loving Feeling...

It's tough these days for a fan of the Silver/Bronze Age. Contemporary comics, while they may be prettier to look at -- the art is certainly more complex, and the color palette available boggles the mind -- don't have the overall substance that those stories of yore brought to the reader each month. While there are a few modern books I enjoy, I often find that it is those stories with sort of an "old school" feel that make me smile -- and for the prices the publishers want these days, it would take a little effort to smile! Current trends of decompressed storytelling, anatomically incorrect art, and meandering plots just leave me cold. So, what I'd like to do here is spend a few minutes recommending some books from the past 15-18 years that can bring you back to those good times.

Superman/Batman: Absolute Power. Jeph Loeb, Carlos Pacheco, and Jesus Merino

Reprinting Superman/Batman #14-18. Published 2005 and MSRP $12.99

A lot of people knock Jeph Loeb, and I would never say that modern knocking of him isn't justified -- one need only look upon the trainwreck that was Marvel's Ultimates, Volume III to see what this man wrought on Earth's Mightiest Heroes. Yuck! However, I have largely enjoyed much of his writing on Superman/Batman and this volume is perhaps my favorite in the series of trade paperbacks. It certainly doesn't hurt that the art by Carlos Pacheco is every bit as good as his masterpiece that was Avengers Forever. The back cover tells the gist of the story:

"The Earth wakes up one day to a brand-new world order -- one in which Superman and Batman rule with an iron fist. Humankind has a choice: obey or die. How did things get this way? And is anyone left who can stop them?"

Loeb pens a really fun tale. It's what back in the day would have been called an "imaginary story"; perhaps in the language of today it's an Elseworlds story. The synopsis above is the thread that runs through most of the book, but what a tour de force of DC history this book is! From the Legion of Super-Villains to Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters, from the Mike Grell-era Legion to Kamandi, from Sgt. Rock to the Haunted Tank and then on to the Adult Legion, Loeb romps through the 1970's in a really fun, fast-paced story. I highly recommend this as a wonderful nostalgia trip!

The Adventures of Captain America: Sentinel of Liberty. Fabien Nicieza, Kevin Maguire, Kevin West, Steve Carr, Terry Austin.

Four-issue prestige-format series, published in 1991-92; has not been collected in tpb format.

Can anyone out there tell me, with all of the CRAP that gets collected into a trade paperback, why this story still languishes in four prestige issues?? This book is wonderful!! I can't recall very many times in the past 20 years when I have enjoyed a book this much. First of all, I love Kevin Maguire's art -- I have since the Justice League's post-Crisis days. And Maguire's style fits Fabian Nicieza's story to a T. However, Maguire moves to "storyteller" credit in issues 3 and 4 as Kevin West and Steve Carr take over the penciling. Inks throughout are by Terry Austin, who gives the book a consistent look. Much of the appearance that modern readers would associate with today's Ultimate Captain America is here -- the pronounced chain mail and the helmet most notably.

If you are at all familiar with the serialized movie adventures of 1940's action heroes like Flash Gordon, you'll really take to this tale. Each book ends with a cliffhanger, and all of the intrigue of WWII, Hitler, and of course the Red Skull are here. Great stuff, and I'd imagine that through either the back issue bin or eBay, you won't have to pay much over the $5 cover price. Check it out!!

JLA: Liberty and Justice. Paul Dini and Alex Ross.

One-Shot, Treasury-sized. DC Comics, November 2003. MSRP $9.95 at the time of publication.

The dedication of this volume, one of many books in the Paul Dini/Alex Ross collaborations that began with Superman: Peace on Earth, is to 1970's Justice League of America artist Dick Dillin. This couldn't be more appropriate, as Dini and Ross weave a tale of the JLA of that era. This is a younger JLA; Aquaman has both hands, Barry Allen is the Flash, and there is no gray on Hal Jordan's temples. As such, it's a JLA bereft of some of the post-Crisis baggage and it is better for it. This story follows the original seven, but includes enough cameos and guest appearances to satisfy any fan of Bronze Age DC Comics. The basics of the story are found on the book's back cover:

"In JLA: Liberty and Justice, the League confronts a threat from space, but a much different menace from those they have faced before. This new danger arrives on our planet in the form of an alien disease -- a cellular composition unlike anything on Earth, deadly to all who come in contact with it. The virus spreads quickly, setting off a chain reaction of global fear and panic. Soon the Justice League themselves are under suspicion -- are they ultimately responsible for this alien danger? Before long, paranoia, distrust, and an ensuing wave of hysteria threaten to rip the world apart."

Great stuff --fast-paced writing, and Alex Ross' art is never hard on the eye. Appearances by Green Arrow, Hawkman, the Atom, Black Canary, and Plastic Man (among other cameos) really make this a fun read!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Magneto: Testament
Historically Useful, or Travesty to Memory?

In my love for comics, specifically men in spandex (super-heroes, you know!), I rarely take the time to "get out of the box". Occasionally I'll try some sword and sorcery, or even some comedic material like Bone. But one genre of comics I usually seek out and make time for deals with another passion of mine, and that is study of the Holocaust. In my spare time, I am an educator with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and I travel the country (and even beyond at times) teaching teachers how to deliver this subject matter to secondary-aged students.
I use Art Spiegelman's Maus with my own freshmen-level classes, and I've cited that graphic novel as well as Will Eisner's The Plot (an extensive look at the writing and desemination of The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion) in my senior-level Social Injustice class. I just finished reading Magneto: Testament, and I want to recommend it to you. The edition I read is hardcover, runs $25 retail, and reprints the five issues of the mini-series that was published in 2008. It also includes historical endnotes and a teacher's guide. While I didn't wholeheartedly agree with all of the lesson suggestions, it would still be a welcome resource for many educators.

If for some reason you aren't up on your X-Men lore, or if you haven't seen any of the three X-films (and my main question would be -- why are you reading this blog if you are in the dark on the X-Men??), Magneto is the main bad guy in the mythos. He is a tragic hero, bent on making the world safe for those with mutant powers. He has been shown at times to be quite militant, and is opposed by Professor Charles Xavier and his X-Men; you might think of Malcolm X's means for achieving racial equality vs. Dr. Martin Luther King's means; you'll get the basic story. Make no mistake -- just above I stated that he is a "tragic hero". That's somewhat of a newer characterization, as throughout the Silver and Bronze Ages Magneto was one of the premier do-badders in the Marvel Universe. He left a body count, to be certain. But, around 30 years ago, Chris Claremont (and subsequent writers) decided that a way to explain Magneto's militancy in the mutant vs. non-mutant conflict was to set his origins in the Holocaust. Magneto: Testament is the definitive origin/backstory of the character.

While this graphic novel could be used in any high school class-room, and is a serious and straight-forward look at a German-Jewish family and their lives before and during the Holocaust, I'll recommend it, too, as a fine read for the comics enthusiast. The first thing the reader of this story might assume is that Magneto is going to use his powers against the Nazis as was shown in the first X-movie. However, as a boy in this tale, Magneto exhibits virtually no powers, so this truly is a Holocaust story and not a superhero story in any way. The author and artist (Greg Pak and Carmine Di Giandomenico) were edited by scholars at the Simon Wiesenthal Center; I can say that everything they wrote/drew is accurate to the best of my knowledge -- the Auschwitz I and II scenes are outstanding. I was able to travel to Warsaw and Krakow, Poland last October -- my journey included a tour of Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau. The author/editor of this graphic novel use the book's endnotes to offer specific support for many of the scenes in the story. I felt good that what had been presented was rooted in actual events, a danger that historical fiction often faces (and often loses, in my opinion). I did somewhat cringe, though, at a scene (panel, actually) that was right out of Schindler's List (when the women are on the train bound for Auschwitz).

The basic plot of the story follows young Max Eisenhardt (Magneto) as the Nazi noose around the collective necks of the Jews of Europe tightens. From the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 to Kristallnacht (November 9-10, 1938) to the invasion of Poland, and of the USSR (June 1941), Max is thrust into the middle of events he cannot control. Compounding his problems is his budding love for a young Roma (gypsy) girl named Magda. The tale is fast-moving, historically accurate, and a page-turner of excellent characterization and suspenseful story-telling.

Magneto: Testament is a much shorter read than Maus, and probably more accessible to youngsters than The Plot. It is graphically violent in spots, but then I would add that no student of the Holocaust would be surprised at any of the situations depicted. I'd rate the book PG-13 I suppose, but there is more than that implied at times. Of course, with as much violence as generally makes its way in between the pages of the standard 20-page comic these days, perhaps no one will be surprised. I'd offer, however, that "real" violence -- that based on historical fact and in real-world events -- carries a bit more weight, even shock value.
So, if you have time to waste someday at a Barnes and Noble or Borders... or if you will actually part with your hard-earned cash, I'd recommend picking up this collection. I wanted to also give you a head's up that this could prove to be an exciting new resource for secondary teachers.

Note: The trade paperback collection was solicited in Marvel's section of the June Previews.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Feel Good That You Bought It

Stan’s Soapbox: The Collection

Over 14 Years and Over 46,000 Words of the Wit and Wisdom of Marvel Comics’ Stan Lee

Brian Cunningham, Managing Editor and Copy Chief

HERO Initiative

MSRP $14.99

Doug: This week we continue our off-and-on series of book reviews spotlighting various comics’ histories/artist profiles. Stan’s Soapbox: The Collection is just that – a chronological reprinting of Stan’s columns that ran on the Marvel Bullpen Bulletins pages from 1967-1980. The book is published by the HERO Initiative, which is a charitable organization benefitting aging comics creators who have fallen on hard times. Stan Lee has long been known to have a heart for those who went before him, and even those who were his contemporaries. It’s no surprise, then, that he loaned his name as well as a small slice of his work to this project.

Doug: As we’ve done in the past with our looks at the Marvel Chronicle and John Buscema: A Life in Sketches, we’ll give you the lowdown – good and bad – on the book. I say that with somewhat of a bad feeling; after all, the book is for charity – and a great cause at that in honor of so many men and women who’ve given comics lovers so much joy through the years.

Doug: Stan’s Soapbox is a fun trip down memory lane. For those of us who grew up in the late 1960’s or 1970’s, this book really takes the reader back to those times. On the back cover, Stan is referred to as “the P.T. Barnum of comics”, and that characterization certainly shines through over the time covered between these pages. Huckster, spin doctor, even philosopher – all sides of Stan are on display in his columns. And that’s the brightest part of the book – we see Stan as the world’s biggest Marvel booster. He connected with Marvel’s fans by writing to them – the reader felt as if Stan was speaking directly to them. I wanted to be a part of what Stan was telling me – I wanted to know the creators of whom he wrote, to own the books Stan was plugging, and to consider the social commentary of which Stan sometimes soliloquized. Stan Lee was the difference between Marvel Comics and DC Comics in the time period covered herein – where DC seemed sterile and afraid to take risks, Marvel continued to redefine the industry with its forays into different genres, formats, and media. And Stan was always at the front, letting us in on the scoop ahead of everyone else. Or so we thought…

Doug: And herein lays the main problem with the book – its organization by cover date.

Sharon: Yes, as I’ve noted offline, the issue of the cover dates bothers a stickler like me. Simply put, the dates ascribed to the Soapboxes aren’t entirely accurate. Some background: in the mid-1960s, Marvel comics that were on sale at the same time were either cover-dated 2 months ahead of the actual release month (Avengers, X-Men, Daredevil, FF, Thor, Sgt. Fury) or 3 months ahead (Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Tales to Astonish, Tales of Suspense, Strange Tales). This tiered approach means that’s what’s labeled in the book as the July 1967 Soapbox would have appeared in the July 1967 Avengers, but not in the July 1967 Fantastic Four; instead, the book's "July 1967" Soapbox would have appeared in the August 1967 issue of FF. This may be confusing to the diehard fan that may want to check out the Soapboxes in the original issues of FF, Spidey, etc. To be fair, the provider of the Soapboxes (Charlie Novinskie) does state he'd scanned the Soapboxes from his very own Avengers collection (with some Spideys thrown in). Also, some Soapboxes are missing, such as the one that would have appeared in the June 1968 Avengers-X-Men-etc./July 1968 FF/Spidey and so on. I guess Charlie didn’t have a copy of Avengers #53 in his collection!

Doug: A word about the format of the book: Stan’s Soapbox is a very colorful, eye-grabbing book. Until about 2/3 of the way through. I wonder – did the budget start to run low? Because the first part of the book is filled with lots of color, period art, and even the actual yellow-boxed columns reprinted alongside the newly typeset material. The latter pages, while giving us the material promised, just become bland – it’s as if the extra effort to make it a homerun just stopped. Troubling…

Doug: A comment on the Soapboxes themselves: Stan often pitched upcoming products, some of which never materialized. A nice touch would have been to have some historical information, to see what happened to those ideas that never saw the light of day. In addition, I felt like additional commentary as far as market reports, etc. would have benefitted some of Stan’s points – the reader is often left just scratching the head. So instead of just reprints of Stan’s columns, we could have been given an in-depth look at one corner of Marvel Bronze Age marketing.

Doug: So what’s the conclusion? Should you buy this book? Let me say that I am not sorry that I own this.

Sharon: Neither am I. Despite the layout and the date issue I mentioned, and the fact that many of the photos and graphics are available elsewhere, this is still a worthwhile book for any Marvelite. And I’ve never seen the great photo of Lee and Kirby on page 19—I got a real kick out of seeing that!

Doug: As was stated at the top, it is for a charitable cause, and is a small way for me to say “thanks” to those who’ve given me so much four-color fun over the course of my 35+ years of reading comic books. It is handy as a source to read the columns, even though I have some of the Marvel DVD-ROMs and own a complete collection of all of the Bullpen Bulletins therein. We have also recommended on the right sidebar of the blog the Bullpen Bulletins webpage, located at If you are close to a computer and want more of the total feel for Stan’s promotion then that is a wonderful resource to consult. But if you are strictly looking for some illumination of Stan’s thought processes, maybe that new nugget about Marvel history in the 1960’s-70’s, then you are going to be disappointed.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The More Things Change...: Cap's Kooky Quartet, Part Four

Avengers 24 Cap's Kooky Quartet
Avengers #24 (1966)

Avengers 24 (January 1966)
“From the Ashes of Defeat”
Stan Lee – writer, Don Heck – penciller, Dick Ayers – inker

Karen: We’ve reached the fourth and final part of our look at Cap’s Kooky Quartet with this issue of Avengers. I’m not going to give everyone a blow by blow – basically, Kang’s men turn on him and he and the Avengers actually team up to save Princess Ravonna and her people. Yet another Stan Lee twist! But despite the initial head-shaking, it actually works well, with Cap demonstrating the fighting spirit that we’ve come to expect from him. His leadership seems to blossom in this issue – perhaps because the Avengers are actually in a war? – and he inspires the team, and Ravonna’s people, to fight.

Doug: I did like the bit from Kang’s warlords about Ravonna’s required death – that all conquered monarchs must be put to death to impede the prospects of any potential future rebellions. That was a great vehicle to deliver the main thrust of the plot.

Sharon: Wanda and Pietro sure seem completely content to follow Cap’s lead, almost mindlessly so. But I guess that’s what they were used to back then: following someone else’s orders, first Magneto, now Cap. At least Hawkeye—while acknowledging Cap’s gifts-- shows some spirit and independence. He’s starting to respect Cap but he doesn’t get all mushy over it.

Doug: I thought Wanda was the queen-waffler when she changed positions from “it’s hopeless” on the splash page to “Captain America’s words make me proud to be an Avenger” only a scene later. In regard to Stan finding people’s “voices”, did you think it was appropriate that Cap called Ravonna’s general “Bush Head”?

Karen: Cap peppers his speech with much more slang than we expect from him. Again, it’s not quite the Cap we all know. However, he does come across as a soldier, which works with the story. You can definitely feel the Cold War influence here, with Cap and others talking about showing Kang’s men “how free men fight”! For even more politically incorrect fun, one of Kang’s treacherous generals looks a lot like Ming the Merciless, with Asian features and a long drooping mustache! Ah the 60’s…the Commies were everywhere, even the far future!

Doug: Kang’s warlords looked to be dressed as traditional Japanese shoguns – Heck probably used some type of photo reference for inspiration. Funny what passed for political correctness in days gone by – and this was all still serious stuff. Showing this kind of thing wouldn’t become satirical until Archie Bunker rolled in quite a few years later.

Doug: What was the deal with Wanda not using her “hex power” (this is becoming more maddening the longer we discuss it) in the first fracas? She said she was saving it up for the next time?? I’m sorry, but things were getting a little tenuous at that point. You know, maybe Stan envisioned her as REALLY powerful and was afraid to end any battle too soon. I don’t know…

Sharon: We three agreed in our last post that, back then, Marvel usually wrote their energy-wielding characters as exhausting their powers, so it stands to reason there was a need to conserve their energies. Wanda keeping her hex power in reserve is in keeping with that reading.

Karen: It is sort of maddening; if nothing else, it gives one the impression that Wanda’s power is unreliable – which would make it pretty hard for Cap to try to integrate it into a fight.

Sharon: Yes. But later on (when Roy’s the writer) you get dialogue like Cap telling Wanda (in #44) “Wanda, it’s time you used your hex power.” And she obliges with no problem. Plus in #45 she tells Jan she’s spent “hours perfecting her spells” (ugh! You know how I feel about her power being characterized as “spells”…). So I guess the idea is that she was continuously working on her own to obtain a better level of control.

Karen: On another note though, in contrast with the incredibly over-powered heroes at DC at the time, it makes the characters seem more human, and perhaps more relatable. In fact, this whole group of characters would probably be the equivalent (or perhaps even the inferiors) of DC’s Teen Titans, power-wise! Cap is like Robin, Hawkeye like Speedy, Quicksilver like Kid Flash, and Wanda is “the girl” just as Wonder Girl was! So Marvel’s A-team at the time was on par with the kiddie team at DC!

Sharon: That particular quartet of the Titans appeared in 1969 when Speedy officially joined replacing Namor Jr.—I mean, Aqualad …by which time the Avengers’ Kooky Quartet had long ceased to exist. (Prior to his joining Speedy had only made a few sporadic appearances with Titans since 1966). Geez, you’d think if DC were trying to ape Marvel and create their own Kooky Quartet in the Avengers mold, DC could have been more, er, timely… (And of course I’m referring to how events played out back in the ‘60s and not to the retcons that have since established that Speedy was an original member of the Titans).

Sharon: But it’s a very good point, Karen, about the similarities with the two teams, though I don’t think Marvel considered the Avengers their A-team at that time (I think that title was held by the FF at the time…). And the Wanda/Wonder Girl comparison is apt: in both quartets, “the girl” was the most powerful member of the teams (even if in Wanda’s case her power’s potential was unexplored then because the Marvel writers seemingly didn’t know how to write Wanda’s powers).

Doug: Yes, great observations. And probably the only direct correlation one could draw, as I don’t recall the JLA ever being as depowered as this version of the Avengers. I guess to attempt to parallel the adults, we’d be talking Batman, Green Arrow, Flash, and Zatanna (yes, Sharon, I know you hate the comparison. J), huh? Certainly a strange combination of DC heroes, isn’t it? Which is funny, because I don’t have a problem seeing the meshing of either this group of Avengers or the Teen Titans line-up mentioned above.

Karen: Dick Ayers is the third inker in these four issues, and I would say I probably like his style least of all. There’s nothing terrible about it, but it just doesn’t excite me. It does seem like there’s more of Don Heck’s style coming through with Ayers than with either Wood or Romita.

Sharon: After seeing how Romita drew the women’s faces last issue, the difference in their appearance here is jarring—at least in the black and white Essentials I’m reading. Here, Wanda and Ravonna’s faces are rendered with very simple strokes. This issue contained a lot of battle scenes, though, and Dick (“Sgt. Fury”) Ayers is certainly up to the task of embellishing those!

Doug: I would concur with the above comments – Ayers is serviceable. Not bad, but certainly not memorable. His Cap seems somewhat pale to me – lots of blue without much texture.

Karen: What did you think of the sub-plot with Quicksilver, where he is rescued by a woman and hidden from Kang’s troops? It brought to mind years later, when again a weakened Pietro would be rescued by another woman – Crystal of the Inhumans! However, this sub-plot didn’t seem to go far - definitely not as far as Quicksilver would go with Crystal!

Sharon: Yes, it seemed like an intrusive development, as there was no payoff to this subplot—why was it Pietro, and not, say, Hawkeye, here? Just so we’d get some dialogue of Wanda worrying about her brother?

Karen: Exactly, there’s just no pay-off.

Doug: You know, in addition to your reference to the Johnny/Crystal/Quicksilver love triangle, I also thought this was reminiscent of Johnny Storm’s excursions to the Fifth Dimension (Strange Tales #103, FF #158-59) where he met up with a very Kang-like Xemu after falling for the beautiful Valeria. But you’re both right – this was somewhat out of place in the story, and perhaps served to remove Quicksilver from the battle? And another thing! After all of the future-dudes rip on the “primitives”, is Stan seriously going to ask me to believe that Pietro was healed by an “herb”??

Karen: I thought Ravonna falling for Kang was a bit much, even in a comic. Kang to me has just never seemed especially noble, particularly not after reading Kurt Busiek’s Kang saga in the third volume of Avengers.

Sharon: I know we’re supposed to feel that Kang is a “good guy” when he allies himself with the Avengers, but let’s face it—he does so for a purely selfish reason: his carnal love for one person, Ravonna. Is that supposed to be admirable?

Doug: Karen, Kang has never seemed as ruthless as Victor von Doom. Even though he’s supposed to be a conqueror par excellence, it has always seemed that the subjugation of the nation/world/time period was the goal, and not necessarily the holding of it. On the other hand, one need only look at Doom’s Latverian subjects and how they cow to him.

Karen: I don’t know Doug, I think Kang has always seemed, as Sharon says, selfish: his goal of conquering others seems more about vanity and ego than attaining power for any constructive purpose. And he always seemed every bit as ruthless as Doom – particularly in the afore-mentioned Busiek saga. Prior to that nonsense about Doom skinning his old flame and wearing her skin as armor (yes, I’m not making that up), I always felt Doom was portrayed as having a certain degree of honor and nobility. I think there was a feeling that if things had played out differently, Doom could have been a great man. I don’t get that feeling with Kang.

Doug: I don’t know that I implied that Kang wasn’t selfish. My main point was that I don’t feel he’s interested in any sort of permanent administration of conquered territories. It’s almost as if he’s similar to the Collector in that possession is the goal – what to do with it later is secondary. At this point in Marvel history Stan was exploring time and space travel and had begun to explore the multiple personas of Kang; how Kang established and maintained his various empires would be discussed later under other authors’ watches.

Doug: But you wanna know what else I wanna know? Is Kang’s skin blue or peach-colored? I guess I’ve always assumed that the glass on his helmet (do you notice how he refers to his “armor”, when his clothes are just that -- cloth?) is clear, so his skin is blue. But there’s a panel in this story that shows peach-colored skin around his eyes.

Karen: Oh yeah, the blue part is definitely his helmet. How it sticks to his face and moves is another question. I guess that’s 40th century technology for you. Hey, maybe that’s what Cap used for his mask in the previous issue!

Sharon: See, this is a drawback of reading the Essentials.

Karen: So the Avengers are re-united by the end of the story, but in the issues to follow, Cap would still have doubts about staying with the team, Hawkeye would still mouth off constantly, Wanda would still pine over Cap - we’re back to the status quo! I guess those couple of issues where the team was split was some of Stan’s well-known “illusion of change”, huh?

Sharon: And speaking of Smilin’ Stan: the in-team squabbling, Wanda mooning over Cap and Hawkeye’s witty repartee--these elements were seen as innovative for superhero comics, but when you look closely the bulk of Marvel’s Silver Age character “development” could really be seen as an extension of Stan’s writing from his 1940s/50s romance or humor or Millie the Model comics.

Karen: I’ll admit I haven’t read Stan’s prior work. So Sharon, are you saying that Stan was already writing in “Marvel style” before Fantastic Four #1? Stan always talks about the writing of that issue as if he decided to go in a radically different direction than anything he’d done before. Would you say that’s not exactly true?

Sharon: Ah, Karen, I’m so very glad you asked! The way I see it, an ingredient of Stan’s innovation was to bring certain elements from his romance/humor/teen comics, chiefly the “hip” character-based dialogue (and situations like love triangles) to his new line of superhero comics. Stan didn’t do this in the ‘50s when Timely/Atlas attempted to revive their superheroes…but as he’s said in many interviews, by 1961 he had nothing to lose so he probably felt freer to write the dialogue more to his liking, meaning in a breezier fashion akin to what he was already doing in the romance/humor/teen books. And this use of “hip” dialogue and romantic situations starting in the early 60s was in part what made Marvel’s superheroes seem so fresh and different from DC’s back then.

Doug: I’d argue that it’s difficult to give a summation of these character’s personalities after reading these four issues. Sure, you can ascertain that Hawkeye’s a loudmouth, but beyond that what do we see? Cap’s full of self-doubt, then portrayed as one of the finest leaders – so strong in fact that an army from the future defers to him immediately. Wanda is full of doubt herself, and frets/fawns over Quicksilver relentlessly. And Pietro? Hothead to goofball – how about the line near the end of the story where he utters, “It’s just that little ol’ fleet-footed fun boy – me!” Not exactly what I “hear” when I’m reading Quicksilver. None of these characterizations is how I think of these people. So maybe what we have, then, is a genesis of personalities from the pen of Mr. Lee, as he himself struggled to find a group dynamic.

Karen: Agreed, all of the characters are still in the process of becoming the personalities we recall. There are a number of instances where we get incongruous lines, such as the quote you gave from Pietro. That one is just jarring! But the foundations for the characters are there.

Sharon: Yes; Cap using the term “Bush-Head” that Doug mentioned earlier, Pietro’s way-too-casual speech here…I see these lapses as a by product of Stan stretching himself too thin, what with being the chief writer (dialoguer) for several comics.

Karen: As I mentioned in a previous post, this group of Avengers has not fared particularly well. Steve Rogers is (supposedly) dead and has been for nearly two years, Wanda went mad in Avengers Disassembled and caused the deaths of numerous Avengers, including Hawkeye, who’s now back and strangely saddled with the identity of Ronin, and Pietro has had many difficulties, to the point where he has become almost a villain. I’m not sure whose fate bothers me the most! I miss Cap terribly – I think (at least before the Civil War) he was the Marvel Universe’s moral center. Although I’ve enjoyed most of what Ed Brubaker has done with Bucky over in Captain America, I would prefer to see Steve back.

Sharon: I like Pietro’s complexity: he’s not charismatic (which is refreshing) but he’s fascinating because he’s neither completely good nor evil. I’ve always found him to be interesting; except perhaps during his first stint with the Avengers (yes, here!) when he was pretty one-dimensional (he’d had more of a spark earlier when he was in the X-Men comic). As for Wanda, I’ve always considered her to be mentally fragile. She seemed very immature in the early Avengers days and then in Avengers #49 and #53, and the related X-Men #43-45, she just seemed so lost. Her history of breakdowns doesn’t surprise me in the least. Naturally I didn’t expect (or want) the Avengers we know and love to be dissolved in Disassembled, but her actions there were in keeping with her character as I’ve seen it over the years. The Ronin issue doesn’t bother me either because Hawkeye has always had a penchant for changing identities, powers, and costumes--maybe not as much as Hank Pym, but it’s part of who Clint is: always trying to better himself. Now, as for Steve Rogers: I think it’s pretty ballsy of Marvel to have killed him off (though I have no doubt he’ll be back one day). But his absence is a story element in itself, and I think that’s one of the points.

Karen: I hated Disassembled and having Wanda go completely insane – we’ve already seen her have breakdowns or be twisted by evil entities, but this was too much. Perhaps the worst part was that it seemed to be done primarily so a new title could be launched. Hawkeye’s death was meaningless, and to have him running around now with ninja weapons makes absolutely no sense! Quicksilver was already a jerk before Brian Bendis got to him, so I guess his situation bothers me least.

Doug: I’m sure I’ve stated before that I no longer buy too many new comics, and I’ll be quite blunt – it’s largely (way largely) due to the very events you two have just discussed. I find it depressing that writers today cannot think of stories that exist within the parameters that have been set over the course of a 40-year history, but instead find it necessary to turn everything upside down. Not change with logic, but destroy. Clint Barton from Hawkeye to Goliath was fine in the face of Hank Pym’s metamorphosis to Yellowjacket; Clint Barton to ninja – uh, no.

Karen: Probably the only other Avenger to suffer as much as these four would be Hank Pym…and he would be returning to the team shortly after this series of issues we’ve just read!

Avengers 16 Cap Kooky Quartet
Avengers #16 (1965) 

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Come Together: Cap's Kooky Quartet part 3

Avengers 23 Kang
Avengers #23 (1965)

Avengers #23 (December 1965)
“Once An Avenger”
Stan Lee – writer, Don Heck – penciller, John Romita – delineator

Karen: We’ve just made it past the half-way point in our look back at Cap’s Kooky Quartet. Here in issue 23, things really start cooking. You’ll recall that at the end of issue 22, Cap had left the team, disgusted with all the constant squabbling. We start this issue with the remaining Avengers discussing their loss. Again, the Scarlet Witch appears to have romantic feelings towards Cap. She thinks, “How I miss the sight of him working out in our private gymnasium! So confident…so handsome! To me, he was every inch an Avenger!”

Doug: Wanda was just another of Stan’s lovesick girls in a few panels – the tears, the longing glance toward her vision of Cap in the gym.

Sharon: To think that our sweet Wanda enjoyed leering at Cap as he went through his sweaty gyrations in the gym…. well, I’m glad the girl has a pulse! Anyway, the drawing of Wanda in that panel is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.

Karen: The object of her affection has decided to seek out a job as a sparring partner for “the champ”, a boxer.

Doug: Did you find it odd that Cap would cut loose with that super-soldier strength on those guys? Would you say that it was a little irresponsible?

Karen: I’m sure Cap was still careful not to hurt anyone too badly. But he seems a bit feistier here than he would later on.

Karen: We see that Cap, too, feels pain over his decision to leave the team. Meanwhile, Kang the Conqueror, that megalomaniac from the future last seen in issue #11, has returned, ready to take vengeance on the Avengers. Realizing that “they are like a ship without a rudder” without Captain America, he reasons it is the perfect time to strike. He captures Hawkeye, Quicksilver, and the Scarlet Witch and whisks them off to the future. Although Wanda is able, at great effort, to free them, Kang manages to re-capture her and Hawkeye. Pietro’s great speed allows him to escape.

Doug: I’d like to interject here, and I’m going to get back on the time travel problems I voiced in our discussion of the Adult Legion stories. Kang obviously has a log of all history up to his era. Is it merely mischievousness that prompts him to attack certain worlds or time periods? While I would not dispute that his technology would be infinitely better than most places he would choose to conquer, he certainly has the knowledge to attack at just the right moment. How could he ever be truly defeated?

Doug: I loved the way Kang initially attacked the Avengers by landing what seemed to be an additional story on top of the mansion. Did you notice, too, that Kang referred to having the Avengers lost in a “labyrinth” later in the story – a motif we’ll see again in the Celestial Madonna arc, which we’ve previously discussed!

Doug: Did you notice that the force field employed by Kang on page 16 was the same as was depicted on the cover of his initial appearance, issue #8?

Sharon: It’s been said Heck used Kirby’s books as a primer or reference guide. Smart guy, that Heck. (I’m sure other Marvel artists during that time did the same.)

Karen: I thought their escape was a nice reminder of how Wanda was portrayed back in the old days – heck, how most Marvel heroines were portrayed – as weak, near-defenseless hanger-ons. After she uses her hex power she is almost exhausted.

Doug: And you’re right, Karen – the immense tiring-out after using one’s powers was a Marvel mainstay – Johnny Storm, Cyclops, etc.

Sharon: I agree with both of you; many “energy-wielding” characters of both genders often exhausted their powers, as did some characters with enhanced bodily attributes like Reed, Angel and Quicksilver. This gave Marvel the opportunity to inject some “vulnerability”—no Kryptonite needed! The only exceptions seemed to be non-powered people like Hawkeye (who depended on gadgets) and, at the other end of the spectrum, the truly powerful strongmen like Thor and Ben Grimm.

Doug: What did you think of Wanda saying a spell when using her hex in the glass confinement? I thought it channeled Dr. Strange, or even Zatanna (although Wanda spoke her words forward).

Sharon: LOL, Doug, I think you’re channeling me, as this is a point I have made countless times, both here in our humble blog--as recently as in our entry on Avengers #21—and on the Avengers Assemble boards. So you can probably guess what I “think of” Wanda acting as if her power is to cast spells: it is wrong! Wanda does not cast spells! She is not a sorceress!! (Especially not back then.) She is not the equivalent of Dr. Strange/Zatanna/Enchantress/Miss Harkness/Clea!

Sharon: Now, of course the writer here (Stan) could argue that we the readers should attribute this “spell invocation” to the limited viewpoint of the character herself…we can overlook this inaccuracy as the character (Wanda) not being all knowing about her power. And Wanda would continue to occasionally refer to her power as “spells” in some other issues in the Silver Age, so perhaps that’s how she characterized her power. But that’s really stretching it. Bottom line, I see it as sloppiness on the part of the writer--first Stan, and for the later Silver Age issues in which this occurs, Roy’s.

Karen: Cap has heard about the Avengers’ abduction and returns to the mansion. Kang discovers this and teleports him to the future too, but the beautiful Princess Ravonna, whom Kang desires, interferes and Cap winds up outside Kang’s clutches. He and Pietro meet and after expressing their happiness at seeing each other again, go after Kang.

Karen: I have to say something here about the art and the women’s faces in this issue. The hand of Jazzy Johnny Romita is highly evident when it comes to both Wanda and Princess Ravonna. Both have that typical Romita girl look – clean, lush art much like he would later be associated with on Spider-Man. In fact, Princess Ravonna could almost be Mary-Jane’s sister! Although the clunky head-gear she’s wearing is a disaster – is that really what the glamorous women of ‘the future’ will be wearing?

Sharon: I agree that Romita really shines when it comes to the womens’ faces; Wanda looks gorgeous while retaining a voluptuous look, and Ravonna is absolutely ravishing in a sleeker, more modern way. The women’s sharp facial architecture (cheekbones, chins) is Heck’s work, but the strong yet feminine facial features (including Ravonna’s delicate cleft in her chin) are Romita’s. And it’s not only the women: Romita makes the unmasked Steve Rogers look very classically handsome, and Quicksilver also looks more attractive than usual.

Doug: Speaking of clunky headgear, I always think there’s a bit of a disconnect in the way Wanda’s head/face is depicted in this era of Avengerdom. When looking at her from the front, her headpiece seems to stick out to the sides, yet when seeing a side view, it would appear to be tight to her head.

Sharon: It was difficult to draw, to say the least (Kirby’s fanciful costumes aren’t known for being practical or realistic); and it’s probably why Heck finally said to “heck” with it and changed Wanda’s headgear to a tiara-like piece in #36.

Doug: Karen, I couldn’t agree more about the impact of Romita on this issue. I noticed how much better Heck’s pencils looked right from the splash page; Jazzy Johnny’s faces are beautifully on display throughout the issue.

Sharon: It’s no surprise that the women look so good; before taking on this Avengers assignment (his first for Marvel, I believe) Romita had spent several years as one of DC’s top romance book artists, so he was a pro at drawing attractive people, especially women. Romita had previously worked with Stan during the waning Timely/Atlas days, before the Atlas implosion; he then went to DC and became their principal romance artist; but when the romance work dried up at DC for various reasons, Romita accepted Stan’s offer to do some work for Marvel. The second time’s the charm, I guess--Romita ended up on staff and in many ways became Stan’s right hand man during the Marvel era.

Karen: And as an aside, I have been looking at both the Avengers DVD-ROM and the Marvel Masterworks edition with these stories – and Wanda’s hair is colored auburn in the Masterworks!

Sharon: That’s disappointing; I think reprints should be as faithful as possible to the original material, though I understand that the Masterworks coloring was done by following a more current color guide (and most people consider Wanda’s haircolor to be the auburn).

Doug: I still think the raven-haired Wanda is a strange look. Not a bad look – just not used to it, as I always think of her as having the auburn hair.

Sharon: With me it’s the opposite—I go for the black hair since that’s how Wanda appeared when I first saw her (Avengers #45). Though I’m used to it by now and I know Wanda’s black hair only lasted for a mere 3 years of her 40-plus years existence, there’s still that part of me that thinks her auburn hair looks wrong! Just goes to show how powerful and long-lasting first impressions are.

Karen: Cap and Quicksilver go after Kang but he is able to defeat them with his scientific weaponry. Kang demands that Princess Ravonna agree to marry him, or he will level her kingdom. She asks her father what she must do. Just as it looks like she is about to accede to Kang’s demands, Hawkeye and Wanda arrive, having freed themselves. Cap and Pietro are also recovered and the whole team is reunited, ready to take on Kang! Sensing potential defeat, Kang orders his armies to attack the city, leaving us poor readers to wait ‘til next issue!

Karen: I thought this was a better-written issue than last issue. Stan seemed to make more of an effort to capture the individual voices of the four Avengers. I thought it was funny that Hawkeye jumped on Wanda and Pietro for quoting Cap, and then he himself does it later! “Rats! Now you got me doing it!” It’s obvious despite all of his wisecracks about Cap that deep-down Hawkeye respects him. It’s interesting to see the ways Cap has influenced all of them.

Doug: Did you think that although Pietro had pined for the leadership of the team, that he and Wanda quickly deferred to Hawkeye? I thought Clint showed some of his potential in this issue. And I would wholeheartedly agree with you, Karen, that Stan’s dialogue was solid – he wrote the characters as I hear them.

Karen: Yes, it almost seemed like Hawkeye slipped into that leadership role without even trying. The three of them did work well together, but I would expect that sort of bonding, given the circumstances of their arrival to the team. When we wrap up next issue, I’d like to talk to both of you about the fates of this quartet of Avengers…time has not been kind to them.

Sharon: Yes—so many twists and turns, often tragic—better than a soap opera! To be continued next time, as Karen says…

Karen: I also feel like Stan was successful in showing that this team, despite lacking the power of the original, showed great determination and courage, and truly deserved to be called Avengers. There was also a sense of vitality to this issue that I enjoyed.

Doug: Yes, Kang gave them a sign of respect in the middle of the story when he commented that despite their relative powerlessness in comparison to their forebears, “I almost regret that they have… no chance!”

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Long and Winding Road: Cap's Kooky Quartet, part 2

Avengers 22 Power Man Enchantress
Avengers #22 (1965)
Avengers 22 (November 1965)
“The Road Back!”
Stan Lee –writer, Don Heck – penciller, Wally Wood – inker

Karen: The second part of our Kooky Quartet of Avengers reviews picks up right at the end of last issue. The team has been ordered to dissolve by the city council. Cap wants to go after Power Man to discover how the team was framed. But the three younger Avengers seem to have thrown in the towel. They are prepared to disband. This really riles Cap, who says, “All right then –take off—all of you! I never could stomach a bunch of quitters!” When Wanda tells Cap “A man should be able to accept defeat gracefully,” Cap says disgustedly, “Lady, how did you ever become an Avenger?”

Sharon: The sight of Wanda spouting platitudes and wagging her finger—she seems especially obtuse and clueless here.

Karen: This of course tweaks off Pietro, and there’s a brief skirmish between he and Cap. The artists do a very nice job of demonstrating Quicksilver’s speed here. It really seems possible that he could beat Cap!
Sharon: I always liked Heck’s way of depicting Pietro’s speed (it’s similar to how Kirby usually rendered Pietro’s speed in the earlier X-Men issues).

Karen: It’s funny how a bunch of lines somehow manages to get across the idea of speed so great, the image is blurred. But it works. And this was before all the computer-enhanced gimmickry of today!

Doug: As I said last in last issue’s comments, I get tired of all of the constant in-fighting during this period of Avengers history. Yes, I know what Stan was going for, and even if annoying it is 100x better than some of the storytelling that was going on at the Distinguished Competition. But it just gets stale. I also wonder about another matter we’ve previously discussed: Marvel time vs. real time. Because if this is only the sixth issue in the Kooky Quartet’s history, it’s somewhat likely that they would have been on the job less than a month in the real world! There is an awful lot of bickering, etc. coming from new employees!!

Sharon: It’s in keeping with the Fantastic Four model I mentioned in our last entry. The unceasing bickering here is reminiscent of the early issues of the FF, in which that team was far from solid, what with the Thing and/or the Torch complaining (and deserting the team, or threatening to). Also, here, in #22, we see the seeds planted for a future respect between Hawkeye and Cap, as Hawkeye takes the initiative and steps in to restrain Pietro; and Cap gives thanks where it’s due.

Karen: It may be tiresome to us reading it now, but back in 1965, it was revolutionary. I’m sure many readers found it both shocking and refreshing that not all the team members got along. I know when I’ve read Justice League tales from about the same time, they seemed like the blandest group of heroes ever! If not for their costumes, I would never have been able to tell Flash from Batman or Green Lantern. It may have been a quick way to provide conflict and characterization, but it worked.

Karen: As they all go their separate ways, Cap feels ashamed that the team has fallen apart on his watch. It’s odd to see Cap so insecure and uncertain as he is here.

Doug: Agreed. It had seemed that Stan had gone away from the self-doubting, even self-loathing Steve Rogers and had replaced him with the strong leader we’ve known and loved.

Sharon: It certainly is a different Cap than later on. He’d expressed doubts about his leadership since #16 and what’s more, he didn’t seem that keen on being a full-time Avenger; remember how ecstatic he was a few issues earlier when he thought SHIELD wanted him?

Karen: So I guess we can say that Cap also evolved into the great leader we think of him as today, much as the rest of the quartet evolved too.

Karen: The other three erstwhile Avengers attempt to get jobs – which I thought was a typical Stan Lee ‘real world’ element. While one might expect them to be out stopping crime, the reality is, they’ve gotta eat! They try to get on TV shows (Wanda even tells one producer she can sing!) but it’s no go. The Avengers’ reputation is so tarnished nobody wants them. Enter the Ringmaster. Knowing that the threesome must be desperate, he and his Circus of Crime contact the three and offer them jobs at the circus. Of course, he actually plans to use them to commit robberies.

Sharon: What I don’t understand is: why did Pietro and Wanda stick with Hawkeye (as evidenced by Wanda’s line: “Perhaps Hawkeye will get a lead!”)? There was certainly no love lost between the two men, and Wanda had barely noticed Hawkeye.

Doug: As I was reading this issue, I almost forgot that what I’d come here for was the conclusion of the Power Man/Enchantress saga! This was like getting two stories for the price of one!

Karen: Is it just me, or was the Circus of Crime one of the lamest groups ever? The only early Marvel group that I think was even less interesting was the Enforcers, over in Spider-Man. I also found it odd that no mention was made of Hawkeye’s carnival background, as shown in his origin in Tales of Suspense 57.

Sharon: Ha--maybe that’s what convinced the trio the job offer was legit, since, after all, one of them had experience. And Pietro had expressed a desire to work in a circus in an earlier issue...I can see why our ambitious heroes thought this job opportunity was “too good to be true!” (rolls eyes…)

Doug: Agreed on the Circus of Crime. They are pretty lame. However, and maybe we’ll get to these issues later (although after suffering with the Vision for six weeks, I’m not sure I’m up for our other downtrodden Avenger), the height of Circus glory was definitely the cover of Avengers #60 – the wedding of Hank and Jan! Phenomenal John Buscema cover and interiors. The python was very menacing!

Karen: In any case, when the three young ex-Avengers discover what’s going on, they make quick work of the Ringmaster and his stooges. Again, Quicksilver’s speed seems so much more formidable here than it would in many later stories. His comments about slow-moving “Homo sapiens” also remind the reader that Pietro did spend a good amount of time in the presence of Magneto. Some of that superior attitude seems to have rubbed off. Of course, it got worse as he got older.

Sharon: Why would Pietro assume his foe was a human (Homo sapiens), and not a mutant (Homo superior)? I mean, maybe Cannonball had a big, mutated head underneath his helmet.

Doug: The Homo sapiens comment smacked me right between the eyes. But, upon doing a little research (I used the Avengers DVD-ROM for this review), I found that Pietro had used the term “Homo superior” in describing himself and Wanda during their reflection of their careers on page 10 of Avengers #16.

Karen: his hang-up with this presages some of his later issues, particularly when it comes to his daughter, Luna.

Doug: Is Wanda’s lack of ability to use her hex power when having her eyes shielded just one more confusing aspect of her powers?

Sharon: Seems to me a case of a harried Stan not really understanding the art. He could have easily dialogued something like Wanda was caught by surprise and being choked or the like, starting to black out, etc., before she had a chance to use her power.

Karen: Unfortunately the police side with the Ringmaster, and the ex-Avengers are on the lam again! There’s a fun couple of panels where we see the reaction of the man on the street, including two kids in Marvel t-shirts (one with the Avengers, one with the FF) arguing over the innocence of the team! “Aw, your uncle eats pickles!” shouts one youngster – obviously an insult of high degree.

Doug: Your saying that brings to mind the scene from the film “A Christmas Story” when the kids discuss the “double-dog dare”. Funny, very childlike, stuff!

Karen: In the meantime Cap has tracked down Power Man, and discovers he’s been working with the Enchantress. He manages to tape a confession from the villains, which will undoubtedly clear the Avengers – if he can survive long enough to get it to the authorities!

Doug: Is it just me, or are disguises used in comic books the greatest technology known to man? I mean, how in the world could anyone not have known that the PR guy was someone wearing a costume?? Similarly, going back a couple of weeks in blog-time, we discussed Superman and Cosmic Man switching identities by using rubber masks… Has anyone ever been fooled by a trick-or-treater at your door?

Sharon: The worse part is, Cap has his Cap mask on underneath the rubber mask! This is one of those Silver Age comic book conceits you just have to take with a grain of salt.

Karen: There are some sizzling action scenes, with Cap trying to outmaneuver the super-strong Power Man. At one point he says to Power Man, “Remember – you’re fighting the weakest one! My partners are all younger- and have greater powers!” Again, we see Cap as less than the ever-confident leader he would one day become.

Doug: Cap at his best.

Sharon: To me, this seemed to an instance of Cap using his “leadership” skills and psychology to impart some fear in Power Man; I can’t imagine Cap really thought he was weaker than Hawkeye or Wanda (with her then “small-potatoes” power that seemed useful in making people trip or drapes fall and the like).

Karen: Eventually Cap does get knocked out, but right then, those three younger and greater team-mates of his arrive! They battle Power Man to a standstill, but he gives up when the Enchantress deserts him. The Avengers are exonerated, and it seems like we’re cruising towards a happy ending – but guess again! Cap says he’s had it with the rest of the team. “Now that our names are cleared, I’m kissin’ you off!” the star-spangled hero says, leaving both the Avengers and the reader shocked!

Sharon: Cap seemed reluctant to take on the leader role that was handed to him (in Avengers #16), and as mentioned, he seemed awfully eager to join SHIELD (and become a part-time Avenger) just a couple of issues earlier. Cap at this time was very conflicted--this was underscored in his Suspense tales, which had just reverted to the present day--and frankly, he would remain so until he finally cut the cord and “left” the Avengers—yes, again! --in #47. Some time later (after #47) when he returned to the Avengers, he had matured into the leader and paragon we all think of him as.

Karen: What a fun issue! There’s so much going on, and just when you think everything is back to normal –wham! Stan hits you right in face. Although it feels to me like Stan doesn’t really have Cap’s voice yet (“kissin’ you off”?? Really?), that just may be due to the fact that I’ve read so many later Cap and Avengers stories, where Cap is always depicted as a paragon of virtue. Here, he is much more human and in some ways more interesting.

Doug: Karen, you hit the nail on the head in regard to dialogue. I felt at several times in the story that the characters were just using cookie-cutter lines. I also thought that our musings about the nationality of Erik Josten were lost in his speech patterns (one could argue that Wanda and Pietro have lost their “European accents” as well).

Karen: Yes, Josten later makes a comment about ‘Santa Claus’ which seemed very American to me.

Sharon: It’s hard to believe Stan would have problems with the dialogue, since the protagonists were very unalike. But Stan gives Pietro Hawkeye-like dialogue: “I hope—for your sake—that you’re joking, mister!” and the oh-so-proper Wanda even calls Princess Python “Lady.” It’s not in keeping with the notion that Marvel’s strength was in its focus on characters’ individuality (in no small part through the dialogue). But as with the earlier example of the Wanda panel, this is a by-product of having one person—Stan—as the chief scripter (dialoguer) for the majority of the superhero books at the time. While it led to a unified Marvel Universe, it could also give rise to shortcuts and sloppiness, as here.

Karen: Sharon, I think you have got something there. Stan had so many books to write, I suppose he just slipped a bit with this one.

Karen: I also enjoyed all of the little inside comments, such as the page where Stan explains that the original Avengers are busy and can’t get involved. We find out Iron Man is fighting the Android in Tales of Suspense 72, and Thor is in Asgard in Thor 122. But as for Giant-Man’s whereabouts, the footnote says, “Your guess is as good as ours!” And at the conclusion of the story, the caption in the last panel tells us, “Does Cap really mean it? Is this another crucial split-up for the mighty Avengers? Do we have all kinds of dazzling surprises waiting for you next ish? Why not tune in and see for yourselves? This much we can tell you – if it isn’t the zingiest 12 cents worth of the month, we’ll never talk to Irving Forbush again! Face front!” It’s all good, goofy fun, without diminishing the characters or the story one bit.

Doug: Yep – I really miss storytelling like this. It is goofy, but there are pictures that move the eye across and up and down the page, and there are words – and lots of them! The cross-referencing is great fun, too – but no where did the reader feel like he/she was required to buy all of the other books in order to have a handle on what was happening in the Avengers.

Doug: I’d also comment that I love the house ads! Every month from this era was a great month. I wish I’d been around to have that wide-eyed wonder at the spinner racks as each new week brought more four-color wonderment.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Breaking Up is Hard To Do: Cap's Kooky Quartet

Avengers 21 Power Man Enchantress
Avengers #21 (1965) Introducing Power Man--no, not that Powe Man. 

Avengers #21 (October 1965)
“The Bitter Taste of Defeat”
Stan Lee (writer), Don Heck (penciller), Wally Wood (inker)

Karen: This post kicks off a four-issue review of Avengers, at a most auspicious time for the team. It was 1965; mere months before, The Avengers were inarguably a team of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. But with the departure of Thor, Iron Man, Giant-Man, and the Wasp, we were left with a team of Captain America and … well, a bunch of misfits, if not outright criminals! While Cap stayed on (and where would he go? In those days he was really a man without a home other than the Avengers) to lead this group, the three newest members of the team were hardly respected heroes. The mutant siblings Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch had formerly been members of Magneto’s Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, if somewhat reluctantly so. Hawkeye had been mistaken for a bad guy by Iron Man, and then been caught up in the Black Widow’s web of espionage. But the one thing all three had in common was a need to redeem themselves. So with Cap’s guidance, they took up the mantle of the Avengers.

Karen: But it wasn’t easy. The team lacked the sheer raw power of the founding members. They had to make up for that with teamwork. After a very rocky start, they would coalesce into a superb fighting force, even capable of facing Kang (as we’ll soon see)! We’ll be looking at a group of issues that show us how that transition occurred.

Doug: I thought the team’s lack of power was really on display in the scene in the middle of this issue when the subway train was bearing down on the unconscious Quicksilver. In the past, the reader might have envisioned Thor, Iron Man, or even Giant-Man leaping in front of the charging juggernaut and putting a shoulder to it – with this group, that simply wasn’t an option! They had to rely on stealth, brains, and teamwork.

Karen: Issue 21 opens up with a squabble between Hawkeye and Captain America. This wasn’t uncommon back then; Hawkeye was young and cocky and took every opportunity he got to try to put Cap down. In return, Cap is more than willing to put Clint in his place. As a long-time Avengers fan, I can say that seeing the character growth of Hawkeye as it played out over the years, as well as the development of his friendship with Cap, was one of the most enjoyable aspects of the title. At the stage we’re discussing here, Hawkeye is all bluster. He wants to lead the team, be the hero – he’s full of himself, and yet there’s also the sense that he feels inadequate, particularly when compared to the living legend of World War 2. In this issue he does not have literally a single non-insulting comment to Cap! Cracks about his age, his abilities, his leadership skills – I don’t know how Cap restrained himself from beating the living daylights out of Hawkeye!

Sharon: So Stan, who was writing this banter, would have been roughly the same age as old man “Methuselah” Cap here—early forties.

Doug: Having read these issues several times, I do think that Stan’s insistence on highlighting the tension between these characters could become grating on the nerves at times. Even though, as you said, most of Hawkeye’s shtick was all bluster, it is hard to believe that nary a civil word seemed to ever have been spoken! You know, I was thinking about who might have played Hawkeye on the big screen, and the very first actor who came to mind was the dashing young Harrison Ford as playing Han Solo in Star Wars: A New Hope way back in 1977! He was good looking, brash, sarcastic – just generally obnoxious!
Karen: While Hawkeye makes no bones about wanting to lead the team, Quicksilver says nothing, but Wanda suggests her brother would make a good leader. Always sticking together, those two. And her thoughts indicate some romantic interest in Cap –“His touch! So strong, and yet, so gentle!” – but he is seemingly oblivious. I wonder if Stan ever thought to put those two together?

Sharon: Oh, absolutely! I have no doubt that a Cap-Wanda romance was the original plan. I believe Stan wanted to replicate his successful Fantastic Four formula with the Avengers, so in Avengers #16 he installed a quartet of characters who didn’t exist outside the Avengers comic (at the time, Cap’s feature in Suspense was set in World War II). Notice, too, that that Cap hanger-on Rick Jones (a mainstay in the Avengers comic since issue #1) was gone with issue #17, so Stan was obviously aiming to move Cap in a new direction. So…now you had a pair of siblings, Pietro and Wanda (à la Johnny And Sue); a quarrelsome, irreverent loudmouth, Hawkeye (à la Ben); and with Cap-Wanda-Hawkeye, an incipient love triangle (not exactly the same, but potentially similar enough to what had gone on with Reed-Sue-Namor). But then with Tales of Suspense #72 (contemporaneous with Avengers #22), Cap’s Suspense adventures suddenly shifted back to the present (due to fans’ demands?) and any Cap-Wanda involvement just petered out. And Sharon Carter’s introduction a few months later in Suspense was the nail on the coffin, at least back then; not to mention the Black Widow’s appearance a few months later (in Avengers #29). With both Cap and Hawkeye otherwise occupied, Wanda was no longer needed as the romantic prize of the Avengers.

Karen: Not only would it have been a triangle, with both Cap and Hawkeye romantically interested in Wanda, but it could almost be a square(!), since Pietro was extremely watchful and protective of his sister. I could see him causing all sorts of trouble for Wanda’s paramours.

Sharon: I mentioned Reed-Sue-Namor as a possible early prototype, but I wonder-- had it been allowed to develop--if the Cap-Wanda-Hawkeye angle would have morphed into something closer to the (then-contemporary) Tony Stark-Pepper Potts-Happy Hogan soap opera…you know, rough-at-the-edges “ordinary joe” wants beautiful girl who wants handsome leader-type who doesn’t dare return her affections for reasons of his own.

Doug: I have to ask you two ladies (and perhaps you’ve voiced your opinions before…): Wanda with black hair or red? I must say that the black hair seems to date her in the 1960’s, as I believe by the time we get to the Englehart era, she is a redhead. But Karen, you are right – Wanda and Pietro seemed inseparable in these days – outcasts together, even though they were full-fledged Avengers.

Sharon: To me, comic book redheads are “tomato heads” Jean Grey, Mary Jane Watson and Medusa; and also orangey “pumpkin heads” like Crystal and Jimmy Olsen. Now, in terms of Wanda’s hair color, here’s the chronology: in her first Marvel appearances as an X-Men antagonist, her hair was consistently red-brown or, as Marvel often categorized that color, “auburn.” In X-Men #11, when Wanda and Pietro finally left the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, her hair was still auburn. But that same month, when she appeared in Avengers #16, all of a sudden her hair was black (or what passes for black in comics--meaning gray or blue colored hair with a lot of black shading). In fact, in #16 she was even specifically referred to (in a caption) as a “black-haired beauty.” Her hair remained black throughout her entire first tenure with the Avenger, through issue #53.

Sharon: Then, a couple of years later when she returned in Avengers #75, all of a sudden her hair was—you guessed it-- auburn again! Why the switch? Well, shortly after #75, I recall a reader wrote in and complained that then-inker “Tom Palmer had “inked Wanda’s hair the wrong color”; that it was supposed to be black, not auburn. After politely correcting the letter-writer regarding the difference between an inker and a colorist (though coincidentally Palmer just happened to have colored the issues circa #75 too), Marvel responded that Roy had recently discovered the early X-Men issues in which Wanda’s hair was auburn and he preferred the auburn to the black; so it’s been auburn more or less ever since (though at times it has been miscolored black, such as in Avengers #105-106). As for me, I prefer the black hair; I think it’s more harmonious with the fuchsia of her usual attire (for the same reason I like the standard color schemes of Sif and Star Sapphire; black and fuchsia is a color combo that appeals to me).

Karen: When I first saw Wanda, her hair was auburn, so I suppose it’s how I generally think of her. But I agree with Sharon, the black hair is more striking! I wouldn’t mind seeing her return to that color.

Sharon: And just to throw some more Lady Clairol into the mix: wasn’t Wanda’s hair a Jean Grey red color for a while in the 1990s? Not Wanda’s best look, in my opinion.

Karen: Beyond all the internal bickering, there’s actually a plot to this issue! One of Baron Zemo’s mercenaries discovers his hidden lab, where Wonder Man was created. With the help of the Enchantress (who has ditched the Executioner), small time crook Erik Josten becomes Power Man! The two of them then conspire to make it appears as if the Avengers are causing all sorts of problems in the city, thereby turning the citizens and mayor against them, even calling for their disbanding!

Doug: I don’t recall seeing this before – am I correct that Erik Josten is not an American? He remarked that he was wanted by Interpol for smuggling in Europe, and shortly after said something about “a foolish American science fiction movie”.

Sharon: I guess that’s why Stan gave him a name like Erik Josten –and not something All-American like, say, “Simon Williams.”

Karen: With the Germanic name, and having worked for Zemo, I’m getting a definite neo-nazi vibe, although that doesn’t come into play in the story. But heck, the Nazis were always the best villains. So easy to hate.

Karen: Doug, I know you mentioned before that you thought Wonder Man’s original outfit was pretty bad, but what about Power Man’s? Not only does it have the unappealing brown and red color scheme, but the guy has puffy sleeves! Puffy sleeves on a bruiser…I don’t get it. They look like they’d be more at home on Barbara Eden from “I Dream of Jeannie”!!

Doug: Barbara looked infinitely better in her outfit than Erik Josten could ever hope to look in his…

Sharon: Well, the costume was “created” by the Enchantress…perhaps puffy sleeves were all the rage in Asgard at the time…

Karen: Overall I thought the art in this issue was pretty good. But I have to admit, I’m more excited about the upcoming Heck-Romita team than I am Heck-Wood. Another costume comment: why is Quicksilver wearing winged booties???

Sharon: A holdover from Pietro’s X-Men look (designed by Kirby); a nod to Hermes/Mercury’s winged feet—or the Flash’s boots! It wasn’t until Avengers #36 that both Pietro and Wanda’s costumes were streamlined by Heck; Pietro lost the winged booties and Wanda lost the clunky headpiece (and the huge sash/belt she sometimes wore that—when miscolored pink instead of fuchsia--gave her costume the look of a two-piece bathing suit…as on the cover of Avengers #21!). And years later, in #75, the siblings’ costumes were tweaked again, by John Buscema.

Karen: I kind of liked Wanda’s ringed boots here. The boots she later wore were rather bland.

Sharon: I agree; when Buscema redid her costume in #75, he dispensed with the unique boots and the opera-length gloves and her attire became much more superhero-generic. Buscema also discarded the straps from the top part of her costume, but I guess she had enough to hold it up anyway (like Rita Hayworth in Gilda wearing that strapless gown…)

Doug: I just didn’t think Wood did much to enhance Heck’s stiff pencils. I’ve seen Wood’s pencils, and he was very good. We’ve all remarked that Heck became stiffer and stiffer as his work moved into the ‘70’s – at times I can see the foundation of that transition.

Sharon: I love Heck’s work here; as has often been stated, his work is very much in the Caniff tradition: lean, angular. Like Caniff, Heck manages to convey characters’ expression with an economy of line. I’ve read that Heck said he had a hard time adjusting to the “Marvel Method: (no full scripts for the artists) but you could have fooled me--his storytelling here is superb…there’s never an ambiguous panel, the story moves! And as a bonus, Wally Wood gives Heck’s pencils an unaccustomed lushness and depth. The characters all have more dimension, more heft than is commonly found in Heck’s renderings. Wanda looks very much like a 1950s version of Elizabeth Taylor—very velvety. One of my favorite Wanda pics of all time is the first panel of page 11. The Enchantress also looks especially beautiful, but in a different way. Heck and Wood…a most felicitous pairing of talents!

Doug: As long as we’re on the subject of costumes, a couple of comments – one, how the heck does (and more so – why the heck does - ) Pietro get the front of his hair to look like horns? When I was a kid, I just couldn’t figure out what was going on there, and to be honest, I still can’t.

Sharon: The wayward tufts of hair were meant to convey “windswept” hair—you know, running so fast his hair would not stay in place and would go “backwards” (away from his face). Again, you have to remember it was the fanciful Kirby who created Pietro’s (improbable) visuals.

Doug: Two, no one has drawn Cap’s costume better than John Cassaday. He really accentuated the chain mail around Cap’s chest and shoulders. As a child, I always thought Cap looked like he was molting! But in a few panels of his fight with Power Man we see what must be chain mail on the back of Cap’s head! Strange – don’t know if that was Heck or Wood doing that.

Sharon: Most likely Heck, as it’s present on his Cap here and there during that time, with other inkers.

Doug: We’ve talked about Wanda in the past – hex power, magic, chaos magic, etc. Here it didn’t seem that she was able to alter probability, but instead had the power to “cause a calamity” as she does when she topples the brick building. I don’t understand why there was such an evolution (read: indecision) of her powers over the years.

Sharon: Wanda’s original powers were thought to cause calamities, as you state, Doug; that’s very clear from her first appearance (X-Men #4), in which Pietro warns her not to gesture because doing so “always causes a disaster to happen!” Her so-called hex power seemed to make people trip over themselves, or caused levers to jam, or ceilings to crumble and fall, etc…she seemed to provoke “accidents.” Then soon after she joined the Avengers, a reader wrote in and theorized that, based on such examples, her power caused changes in molecular structures, which could result in pipes rusting and bursting, or a person’s nervous system having “crossed wires”, etc. (Avengers #23 letter column). The bottom line is that her hex caused some sort of entropy in the target. This made a lot of sense to me.

Sharon: Then another reader wrote in and hypothesized that, because her power usually manifested itself in “accidents” for the target, Wanda could influence probability and that she was a sort of “probability nexus” (Avengers #29 letter column). Yes, this was posited waaaay back in the mid-1960s and I believe someone at Marvel must have been paying attention, as years later, lo and behold—Wanda could all of a sudden “officially” alter probability. I will say I prefer these sorts of powers for her; I always detested her learning magic. As I’ve said many times, in my view Wanda was never meant to be a Zatanna or Enchantress or Dr. Strange. Her original power was unique.

Karen: It’s interesting to see the evolution of explanations for Wanda’s power. I’m sure that when Stan first devised it, it was little more than a ‘jinx’ ability – how it worked was left unsaid!

Karen: At the end of this issue, with the city demanding that the team disband, Cap feels terrible. “When I took command, the Avengers were at the height of their power, their prestige, their fame! And now- look what I’ve done!” Hawkeye responds, “Still tryin’ to hog all the credit, huh? Well, it won’t work! We’re all to blame! Maybe we just weren’t cut out to be - Avengers!” Dramatic, no?

Doug: Dramatic – yes! And maybe one of the reasons they weren’t cut out is that none of them remarked, not once, that their powers were not up to par when battling Power Man. The Enchantress, in each case, claimed to have depowered the Avengers. I would have thought that Quicksilver more than any of the others would have noticed. Too, I thought that Amora channeled Loki in many ways with her broad display of powers.

Sharon: Dramatic--yes! I think this would have been an exciting book to read back then. I know this ending would have had me counting the days until the next issue.

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