Saturday, November 28, 2015

Meanwhile . . .

So just what have I been up to lately, since it obviously hasn't been writing about Secret Wars?

A lot of real-world work stuff, to be honest, and which includes grading papers and dissertation chapters. But in between all that SUPER-FUN STUFF I did manage to put up a couple things for the AV Club - a piece on the precarious current straits of the X-Men franchise, and a retrospective look at Marvel's original run of Star Wars comics.

Even if you're not usually a comments reader - and if you're not, you should know that the comments over at the AV Club are well-curated and often very interesting - you might want to check out a back-and-forth in the comments for the latter article between me and Charles Lippincott, of all people, which is pretty amazing if you know who that is. It was about Roy Thomas, which only makes it nerdier.

And of course, I can be found weekly over at the AV Club's comics panel, and there's even a handy link on the sidebar taking you to a list of all the writing I do for that site. I only get 500 words a week, but I do my best when it comes to dismantling crap like Stan Lee's "autobiography" or Uncanny Inhumans. (It's not just negative reviews, but that does seem to be what people respond to . . . HMMMM I WONDER WHY)

(And don't forget, the Jams never stop.)

Friday, October 16, 2015

Let's Talk About Secret Wars Crossovers!

Everything That Now Exists

Cover by Jack Kirby and George Roussos

3. The Molecule Man

The Molecule Man, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, first appeared in Fantastic Four #20 in 1963. Despite his status as a prime-era Lee & Kirby creation, he spent much of the first twenty years of his existence out of the spotlight. He wouldn't fully come into his own until 1985, when Jim Shooter plucked the character out of semi-obscurity to play a surprisingly large role in the first Secret Wars - a role which would later be expanded to co-star in the sequel.

Even though by 1963 Marvel was already experiencing its first real successes, it would be an exaggeration to say that the company yet had a firm grip on its formula. A villain like the Molecule Man was the product of Lee & Kirby's trial & error period - less a full-formed world-beater like Dr. Doom or the Sub-Mariner, and more a gimmick menace along the lines of the Miracle Man or Kurrgo. Even the name, "Molecule Man" - much like "Miracle Man" - has a faintly generic ring to it. Whereas the likes of the Mad Thinker, the Mole Man, and the Red Ghost - other second-stringers introduced in the strip's first two years - continued to appear and develop throughout the 60s, the Molecule Man was one-and-done. He would not appear again for another ten years, until Steve Gerber brought him back for Marvel Two-In-One in 1974.

But at the moment of his creation, the Molecule Man was a big deal, such a big deal that Uatu the Watcher himself - in only his second appearance - drafted the Fantastic Four to defeat him.

Art by Jack Kirby and Dick Ayers

Now, it bears stressing that Lee & Kirby were (literally) making everything up as they went along. The "rules" that we take for granted simply hadn't been written yet: the Watcher was some bald guy who lived on the moon, and even though he said he couldn't interfere, that was all he really seemed to do. Things were a lot more hyperbolic back then. The FF could take on a guy capable of destroying the galaxy and call it a Tuesday without really breaking a sweat. It was a weightless statement, which added to the impression of the Molecule Man as a weightless villain. Accordingly, the Fantastic Four were able to defeat him without much fuss, simply exploiting (what he believed at the time to be) his only weakness, an inability to manipulate organic matter. (They covered themselves in clay in order to pretend to be statues, in case you were wondering.) Uatu banished him to another dimension, and that was the end of that.

There were lots of stories like this in the early days of Marvel. We remember the highlights, of course. The characters and concepts that touched a nerve would return and eventually become fixtures - those that didn't, wouldn't. But eventually, almost everything from the Lee & Kirby run returned, in one form or another - even Kurrgo and the Miracle Man. When Steve Gerber brought the Molecule Man back for the first issue of Marvel Two-In-One, no one had seen him for a decade. Given the opportunity to reintroduce the character with a relatively clean slate, Gerber instead opts to needlessly complicate matters. He kills off the Molecule Man on his first page back, but not before the character passes on the family business of trying to destroy the Fantastic Four to his son. (Where'd the son come from? Where was this world that had genetically compatible humans with whom to breed? If Uatu had the power to drain [or make him believe that he had drained] the Molecule Man's powers, why not simply send him to a universe without any oxygen and let nature take its course? Steve Gerber isn't concerned with asking these questions, so I guess we shouldn't be either.)

Art by Gil Kane and Joe Sinnott

As should come as no surprise, Molecule Man, Jr. is no match for the titanic team of The Thing and the, er, Man-Thing. But by the conclusion, Molecule Man, Jr. is dead, leaving only his wand as a memento of his passing. The wand, believed to be the source of - or at least a necessary focusing device for - his powers, banged around for a while. Rather than being simply an inanimate rod, however, the wand now actually did contain the powers and essence of the Molecule Man, and possessed everyone who came into contact with it - a succession of parties that included a little girl, a snake, an unemployed boxer, Reed Richards, and a hobo.

Enter Jim Shooter.

For whatever reason, Shooter decided that the Molecule Man wasn't living up to his potential, in more ways than one. So at the tail end of 1981, he resurrected the character - literally - for a two-part appearance in The Avengers, guest starring the Silver Surfer. The first thing Shooter did was to actually bring him back, separate from merely a disembodied mind inhabiting a magic wand.

Art by Alan Weiss and Dan Green

Living in a magic wand for a decade hasn't done much for the Molecule Man's disposition. After the Surfer tells him about where he's from and why he's on Earth, Molecule Man decides he wants to be Galactus now, and sets about eating the Earth - beginning with Western New Jersey.

The Surfer is easily overpowered by the Molecule Man, but not before he can send his board (which I refuse as a matter of principle to call "Toomie") to seek help with the Fantastic Four. They're not in town, but Iron Man just happens to see the signal, at which point he convenes the Avengers to investigate the problem. The team is no match for him, even with the Surfer on hand to help. All seems lost after the Molecule Man destroys the Avengers' weapons (Cap's shield, Iron Man's Armor, Thor's hammer, and the Surfer's board), and then destroys them, crushing them in a giant, er, crushing machine. The only Avenger left standing is . . . Tigra!

Up until this moment, Tigra had been experiencing a crisis of confidence as an Avenger. Next to the likes of Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America, she felt insecure, and had actually been suffering from bouts of anxiety over her perceived uselessness. In fairness, however, when left alone against the Molecule Man she reacts more or less the way you or I would.

With no one around to tell him what to do, the Molecule Man is the biggest creep you can imagine. (Shooter, being Shooter, even gives us a tiny bit of gay-bating just to make sure we're supposed to know how much of a loser the guy is.) But all is not lost, and the heroes have not been killed - rather, saved by the Surfer, who phased the Avengers through the bottom of the crushing machine at the last moment. (Incidentally: this story marks the first time Cap, Iron Man, and Thor's identities are revealed to each other - as, without his hammer, Thor reverted to Don Blake, and without his armor Tony was just a greasy man in a banana hammock. Weird to think that didn't happen until 1982!)

Tigra doesn't really come off very well in this story. Left alone to handle the Molecule Man herself, she loses her nerve when presented with the opportunity to kill him. But after the battle is joined, she's had enough of his shit.

Eventually, they got the drop on him for good. But before the Avengers can decide whether or not to kill him, Tigra actually does save the day.

Now, if you can put aside all of the other terribly problematic issues raised by this story, the ending is actually quite good. Tigra talks Owen (who didn't even have a name until this story, either) down from wanting to destroy the world, convincing him that maybe, just maybe, his dissatisfaction with the world stemmed from his feelings of inadequacy, and that these feelings were based on insecurities that could be helped through therapy. What a concept! Now, one would think based on this turn of events that the Avengers would hoist Tigra up on their shoulders and parade her through town, congratulating her for saving the world . . . and (more or less) nonviolently, to boot. Well, that's not exactly what happens. She decides she's not cut out to be an Avenger, and Cap, Thor, and Iron Man - in a stunning echo of their monumentally bone-headed response to Carol Danvers in Avengers #200 - let her walk away without so much as a feigned attempt to get her to stay.

The Molecule Man - now Owen Reece, with a newfound commitment to sanity, not being a misogynistic creep, and, er, not destroying the planet, disappears from the Marvel Universe for another three years. But then . . .

Art by Mike Zeck and John Beatty

The premise of the first Secret Wars, for those of you who may need a refresher (and if you do, don't worry, another will be along soon, Jim promises), was beautiful in its simplicity: the world's greatest heroes and villains were transported to the far end of the universe, to a specially constructed planet called Battleworld, in order to participate in a gladiatorial contest for the edification of a mysterious being known only as . . . THE BEYONDER!

While most of the Beyonder's (or, technically, Galactus', since Galactus was doing the Beyonder's bidding) choices were sound, there were still a couple of questions.

First among them being, in any assortment of the world's deadliest villains, why include an obscure villain who had, in his most recent appearance, been reformed? As we see, at the beginning of the series he really has no interest in being a bad guy anymore, even going so far as being unwilling to fight Ultron when Ultron loses his shit and tries to kill everyone (which, being Ultron, he does on page 9).

But even though he's trying to be better, he's still stuck with the villains. He doesn't need to be, obviously. But the Molecule Man is easily suggestible, easily scared, and as a result even more easily manipulated. So while Doom may initially dismiss him -

- he soon comes to realize that of all the assembled villains, Owen is the single most important.

As the war rages on, Doom recruits new soldiers from Denver (oh yeah, there was a suburb of Denver on Battleworld too, did I mention that?), using the machines located within the villains' fortress to transform two normal human women into Volcana and Titania. Volcana, AKA Marsha Rosenberg, doesn't have much in the way of self-esteem either, and is easy prey for Doom's manipulations. It's no wonder that she immediately makes common cause with the similarly star-struck Molecule Man.

Eventually Dr. Doom "wins" the war. (Spoiler alert for a thirty year old comic, I guess.) Having successfully stolen the Beyonder's power, he . . . well, he changes. He proclaims that he has no more desire to conquer or rule. With the Beyonder's power he becomes the most powerful being in the universe, and wants nothing more than to save his mother's soul from Hell and then leave the mortal plane entirely. His villainous cohort, however, does not react well to his attempts to make peace with the heroes of Battleworld - especially the Molecule Man, who strikes out with the fury of a true believer scorned.

Finally we've come full circle. When first he appeared the Watcher believed the Molecule Man to be a significant enough threat that not merely did he break his vow of non-interference in order to aid the Fantastic Four, but he personally intervened to banish the Molecule Man - who, importantly, believed he that had lost his powers - to another dimension. When he (sort-of) returned to Earth it took him years to get his act together, and when he did he realized that he had no real desire to fight anyone anymore. But on Battleworld, thanks to the "gift" of Doom's insight, we see that the Molecule Man was far more powerful than even he had been led to believe - in fact, he was every bit as powerful as the Watcher had initially said, back in 1963.

But ultimately, he didn't want to do anything with his power. He carried the villains - along with that chunk of Colorado - back to Earth, leaving the heroes to settle accounts with Dr. Doom and bring the first Secret War to its climax. He then settled down to a quiet, normal like with Marsha, in Denver. Far from being the angry nerd who emotionally tortured Tigra out of feelings of sexual inadequacy, he appeared positively sensitive. (Other than the whole trying to kill the heroes on Battleworld thing, which I think we can agree to chalk up to Doom's charismatic influence).

And that is where we find him at the beginning of Secret Wars II. But that is a story for another day.

Next: The Cosmic Cube

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Let's Talk About Secret Wars Crossovers!

Everything That Now Exists

Cover by Jack Kirby and Chic Stone

2. The Savage Land and Comet Man

The Savage Land is a prehistoric jungle hidden in Antarctica which dates back to the tail end of 1964, when it first appeared in the pages of Lee & Kirby's X-Men #10. Although it would remain a staple of Marvel stories - with just about every character and team having at least one adventure in the land of dinosaurs over the last fifty years - Its origins would go untold until the mid-80s.

Art by Jack Kirby and Chic Stone

At the tail end of his early 80s solo series, Ka-Zar learned that the Savage Land was created by an alien race known as the Nuwali as a kind of "game preserve," where Earth's evolutionary process could be studied in detail (Ka-Zar the Savage #34, written by Mike Carlin). However, he was given incomplete answers regarding who had hired the Nuwali to do this.

Art by Paul Neary and Carlos Garzon

Based on this, it's probably best to surmise that the Nuwali weren't very bright. But seriously, it's probable that Mike Carlin had something more planned for this big reveal, but rushed through the explanation because this was the series' last issue. By the time this was picked up on, years later, the idea that the Savage Land's patrons were vulnerable to adrenalin was mooted (more on this below). (I mean, boy howdy, could Rabum Alal have saved himself a lot of trouble if this were true!)

In 1985, in the pages of The Avengers #257, the Savage Land was destroyed by Terminus. After this the Savage Land lay fallow for a few years, and in that time the area was retaken by the snow and ice. But in 1988 the Fantastic Four - Englehart's team, sans Reed and Sue, during the period when Ms. Marvel (Sharon Ventura) and Crystal had taken their places - became involved in an extremely involved intergalactic conspiracy, involving the alien race known as the Fortisquians (from the pages of Comet Man!), ancient Atlantis, and Michael fucking Morbius (who spent some time space traveling in the 1970s, lest ye forget). Eventually the trail led them to the ruins of the Savage Land, where an international team of scientists (and, is turned out, AIM) was studying the former site. The need to get to the bottom of just who paid the Nuwali (and later the Fortisquians) to preserve the Savage Land required an excavation of the defunct machinery that had powered the Land for millions of years (in issue #316). Here's what they found.

Art by Keith Pollard and Joe Sinnott

(In case you were worried, the Savage Land got better almost immediately after this story, thanks to the timely intervention of - guess who? - the High Evolutionary, aided by the X-Men, also during the Evolutionary War [Uncanny X-Men Annual #12 ].)

The next issue, #317, picks up a moment after this bombshell, and, well, best just to let Englehart explain himself.

Art by Keith Pollard and Romeo Tanghal

Comet Man was, even by the standards of 80s Marvel, an odd book. Despite - or perhaps because of - the "pedigree" of its writers, Bill Mumy and Miguel Ferrer, the book came and went with little fanfare. The fact that Comet Man and the Fortisquians - the aliens who gave Comet Man his powers - have made all of two appearances since 1988 attests to the fact that a character created by two C-level celebrities to cash-in on the approach of Halley's Comet in 1986 might not have been destined for lasting fame. Considering how little lasting impact Comet Man has actually made, his insanely detailed entry from The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe Update '89 appears to have been written during a bout of temporary insanity on the part of all involved.

Art by Kelly Jones

(If you hate yourself, you can read them slightly bigger here and here. And if you're on a roll, here's the entry for Comet Man's pal, er, Max - here and here. However, it should be noted that the series is not without its fans, as this piece demonstrates - but in terms of their long-lasting contribution to the Marvel Universe, they didn't have a lot to offer after Englehart had finished his continuity-transplant.)

However, the Fortisquians serve a necessary purpose, as they are revealed to be the third alien race be employed by the Beyonders. And, given as how they have access to instantaneous intergalactic transportation, they have no problem with giving the FF a lift out to meet the Nuwail.

(For context, I should probably point out that Sharon Ventura was suffering from PTSD as a result of being sexually assaulted in the pages of Captain America a few years ago, which explains her hair-trigger when it comes to being grabbed.)

An artifact, you say? What kind of artifact?

Does this machine look familiar to you? Well, it should if you remember all the way back to Fantastic Four #51 (1966).

In addition to being perhaps the single greatest issue in Lee & Kirby's run on the title (and therefore perhaps the single greatest story in Fantastic Four, and Marvel, history), this issue introduced a pair of extraordinarily important concepts: the Radical Cube, and the Negative Zone. Chances are very good that you know what the latter is, but the former deserves explanation.

The Radical Cube was the device that first allowed Reed Richards to travel beyond Earth's dimension.

And now we know, a Radical Cube was the device through which the Beyonders first communicated with our dimension. Now, since Reed isn't here, the Fantastic Four are left with only one option to explain this amazing device - poke it with a stick.

At which point the Nuwali rush in, along with an AIM agent who stowed aboard the Fortisquians' ship and hired the Nuwali kill the Fantastic Four. Turns out AIM had already found the teleportation system at the Savage Land and had been using it for some years. But you can probably guess how this ends . . . the Nuwali were no match for the Fantastic Four. But, like the Fortisquians, they served a purpose: bringing the FF one step closer to the Beyonders themselves. They knew what the Beyonders were doing - and even if they still don't know why, they now knew how to find them.

Next: The Molecule Man and the Cosmic Cube

Monday, October 12, 2015

Let's Talk About Secret Wars Crossovers!

Everything That Now Exists

Cover by Gabriele Dell'Otto

After spending decades in contemplation of the subject, it has become clear to me that the first two Secret Wars series occupy a unique and central place in the history of the Marvel Universe. The first issue of Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars shipped in January of 1984 and the final issue of Secret Wars II shipped in December of 1985 - two years precisely during which the entire line was preoccupied, in one way or another, with the threat of the Beyonder. In the real world, of course, the two Secret Wars were just crossovers - two of the very first, yes, but followed by many to come. But in-story the scope of the Secret Wars had not, until 2015, been equaled. So while there may have been bigger or better crossovers published in subsequent decades, "in story," to the heroes themselves, the stakes were never higher, nor the repercussions as deep.

Rather than Secret Wars being "merely" a single crossover, therefore, it would be more correct to say that everything else Marvel has ever published has been a Secret Wars tie-in. Allow me to explain.

1. Jim Shooter and the High Evolutionary

In 1987, Jim Shooter was fired from Marvel comics. The Secret Wars franchise - and the Beyonder as a character - were Shooter's creations. As soon as he was gone the company immediately set about dismantling his legacy. Before his chair was even cold they demolished his New Universe initiative, having his pet creation Ken Connell blow up his hometown of Pittsburgh, setting in motion a chain of events which would eventually lead to the already-ailing line's death in 1989. (This pattern should be familiar to anyone who followed the long decline of Marvel's Ultimate line, which never recovered from 2008's controversial Ultimatum series [which, similarly to The Pitt, launched a soft reboot with the destruction of a major city - in that case, New York], and was finally put to rest in the pages of . . . 2015's Secret Wars.) Special rancor was reserved for the Beyonder. IN 1988 Steve Englehart was in the middle of his excellent, if ill-fated run on Fantastic Four when the word came down that the Beyonder needed to die. As Englehart explains in his annotations to the run:
Editor Ralph Macchio had always hated Jim Shooter's Beyonder, and asked me to write the guy out of the Marvel Universe. I did not hate the character so I wrote him out with, I hope, some heroism and grandeur.
You can't blame Englehart for the debacle of Fantastic Four #319. He was the bag-man. I believe based on his own testimony that he tried his best to be done with the matter as well as he could. He had no investment in the Beyonder or the Secret Wars either way.

But unfortunately, he did his job a little too well.

Cover by Ron Frenz and Joe Sinnott, middle finger by me

Ah, Fantastic Four #319, the so-called "Secret Wars III." Long have I hated you. Your existence these past 27 years has been for me a never healing canker, a wellspring of bile and revulsion. You were born of spite and midwifed by regret. It wasn't enough simply to kill the Beyonder, you see. Not only did the Beyonder need to die, he needed to be wiped from existence - and not just wiped out of existence, but the entirety of the Secret Wars completely retconned.

Like I said: Englehart was very good at his job. The storyline that ended with the Beyonder's erasure was the climax of a multi-issue storyline partially designed to wrap up a number of loose ends, not merely from the Secret Wars, but stretching back to the very beginnings of the Marvel Universe. If you can discount the end result, it's a remarkable run. Who built the Savage Land? Where do Cosmic Cubes come from? What the hell was up with Bill Mumy and Miguel Ferrer writing Comet Man in 1987? The answers to these questions - as well as a few tantalizing hints into the origins of the Celestials and even the resolution of the first Kree / Skrull War - were, as it turns out, bound up with the origins of the Beyonder . . . and the Beyonders.

Art by Keith Pollard and Joe Sinnott

The trail starts a few years earlier, before the first Secret Wars, all the way back to the (second) death of Adam Warlock, in Marvel Two-In-One Annual #2 [1977]. Three years later the character known as Her (originally Paragon, later Kismet, created by Len Wein, David Kraft, and Herb Trimpe; first appearance in The Incredible Hulk Annual #6 [1977]), the second artificial offspring of the same Enclave that created Adam Warlock (originally known as Him, created by Lee & Kirby; first appearance in Fantastic Four #66 [1967]), set out to resurrect Adam Warlock in order to mate with him and spawn the race of genetically perfect superhumans that the Enclave had dedicated their lives to creating (Marvel Two-In-One #61 [1980], written by Mark Gruenwald). The problem was that Adam Warlock had been buried on the High Evolutionary's Counter Earth (the duplicate Earth for whose sins he had died, before he was resurrected the first time as a Christ-analogy, with the Hulk as his John the Baptist (Incredible Hulk #178 [1974]). And this was a problem because when they ("they" being Her, the Thing, Alicia Masters, Starhawk [of the original Guardians of the Galaxy, then marooned in the 20th century], Moondragon and the High Evolutionary himself) went to find Counter Earth, they discovered it had been stolen, by a group of Pegasusians called the Prime Movers of Tarkus (Marvel Two-In-One #62 [1980]) (no relation, I'm sure).

The Prime Movers were themselves merely hired hands, however, having been contracted by the Beyonders to steal Counter-Earth, for their own mysterious purposes. The High Evolutionary (created by Lee & Kirby, first appearance The Mighty Thor #134 [1966]) - well, he's an interesting fellow. On the one hand, he's probably the most powerful baseline human Earth has ever produced, a "normal" (as in, non-mutant, non-Inhuman, non-Eternal) man who by dint of technology and genetic manipulation elevated himself to the level of a cosmic power. But on the other, he's also pretty much insane, due to his mind being fried after having been up and down the evolutionary ladder dozens of times. He's very unpredictable. On any given day you have no way of knowing whether or not he'll be a kindly father figure, a genocidal eugenicist working from the same playbook as Apocalypse, a reluctant but dedicated galactic defender, or a dude trying to make it with Shanna the She-Devil (as one does). So, when confronted with the theft of Counter-Earth at the hands of the Prime Movers (Marvel Two-In-One #63 [1980]), he did pretty much the opposite of what you might expect: nothing.

Art by Jerry Bingham and Gene Day

Long story short, the Thing punches the green guy a couple times and they let the group go down to Counter-Earth briefly, where Her tries and fails to resurrect Adam Warlock (an attempt which may have worked, had she possessed Warlock's soul gem, then in the possession of the Gardner, where it would remain until 1990 and the publication of Thanos Quest). But more importantly, the High Evolutionary accompanied the Prime Movers to meet the Beyonders, in the hopes of . . . well, I'll let him explain, as he does here to Dr. Bruce Banner, one year later, in Incredible Hulk # 266, written by Bill Mantlo.

Art by Sal Buscema

It's worth pointing out that the scene of the High Evolutionary's encounter with the Beyonders - the first "appearance" of the Beyonders - has only ever been shown in flashback. The flashback was expanded later during the Evolutionary War (in the backup to Avengers Annual #17, written by Mark Gruenwald), which also gave us the first-ever visual representation of anything connected to the Beyonders (this would also remain, until 2014, their only visual representation).

Art by Ron Lim and Tony DeZuniga

The High Evolutionary was never a stable dude to begin with, but this was the beginning of what would be many decades of mental problems (only exacerbated when he witnessed the birth of a Celestial a while later in the pages of Thor #424). But back in 1981, in the aftermath of his run-in with the Beyonders, his first priority was to kill himself as quickly as possible - and to his credit, suicide by Hulk is a pretty baller way to die.

Art by Sal Buscema

It didn't stick, obviously. He came back seven years later and triggered the Evolutionary War, an attempt to forcefully speed-up the evolution of humanity to catch up with the Beyonders (which actually makes sense in the Marvel Universe, where you need to remember that evolution doesn't work the same way as it does here). But even though his brief encounter with the Beyonders would mark him forever, for the moment he recedes into the background of this story.

Next: The Savage Land and Comet Man