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Celebrating the return of 007 James Bond to theaters in Skyfall with Jim Steranko’s groundbreaking run on Nick Fury.
Last year I lauded Steve Gerber’s Defenders run as among the strangest and most entertaining in the history of mainstream superhero comics, but The Defenders, as a title, continued long after Mr. Gerber left the building. And while Gerber took his Bozo masks and homicidal elves with him, Gerber’s era left a lingering aura of weirdness that The Defenders never were quite quit of.
Kraft’s tenure would last twenty-four issue on Defenders, and featured superior stories throughout. That the run isn’t more celebrated is I think due to two factors. First, this is The Defenders, and even on their best day, our favorite non-team dwells in the shadows of the Avengers. Second, while the artwork was competent throughout the run, it was rarely consistent, and especially prey to that 1970s Marvel plague — the Dreaded Deadline Doom. A rotating cast of pencillers and inkers — exacerbated by fill-in issues and truncated main features, with inferior back-up strips — prevented the series from getting traction and kneecapped some promising tales.
Where the pieces best came together was the three-part “Who Remembers Scorpio” arc in Defenders #48-50. Keith Giffen penciled each issue (though with three different inkers, including his own inks in issue #50). As a team, Giffen and Kraft had some storytelling mojo that still holds up after more than three decades.
This story revolves around the machinations of the eponymous Scorpio, and you can be forgiven if despite this arc’s title you don’t remember him — I don’t think anyone else did, either. First appearing in Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. #1, Scorpio was Jake Fury, Nick Fury’s inadequate brother, who through a series of plot twists too tedious to recount took on the identity of Scorpio and headed up the Zodiac crime syndicate.
All well and good, but what distinguishes Zodiac from Hydra and A.I.M. and all those other sinister super-spy organizations (at least in this Defenders run) is Scorpio himself, a pathetic figure struggling with inadequacy, depression, and self-doubt — a condition only made worse by coming up second to his much more famous brother, Nick.
Scorpio is an unusually self-aware villain, but what he can’t see is that his own well-realized inadequacies have manifested themselves in a kind of paranoia about a “system” out to get him. Now, the system may indeed be out to get Scorpio, but only to the degree that it is out to get everyone. By himself, Scorpio doesn’t rate. The world doesn’t even know he exists at this point, but Scorpio’s delusions make him the bullseye of a worldwide conspiracy. In a particularly self-aware and meta moment, Scorpio admits he is a second-rate character (and that’s giving him all the best of it), but he refuses to fade into obscurity. He has a plan. Lacking significance, Scorpio has constructed a great drama where he can be the star … and everything about it is constructed, right down to the (admittedly confusing) appearance of Nick Fury in that page above. But more on that later.
Scorpio is central to this arc but he is only part of what makes this a great run. Also on display is Kraft’s deft hand at characterization, an important quality in a book like The Defenders, where the absence of a center of gravity (or even a secret clubhouse!) continually threatens to send the cast spinning off on their own arcs. Rather than try to hammer the team into some convenient shape, Kraft embraced the disparate nature of the non-team’s cast of characters, bouncing from character to character in a series of interweaving subplots that keep readers hooked with hints of future action while also (more often than not) providing some comic relief.
I particularly liked the way Kraft handled the Hulk. The 1970s saw the Hulk at his most childish, but even the Hulk has a canny self-awareness in Kraft’s Defenders …
Kraft’s Hulk is a force of nature, and more interesting here than we was in his own book at the time. Perennial Defender Nighthawk remains a bit of a stiff even on Kraft’s watch, but Valkyrie is brought to life through an extended subplot (later in this run) where she tries to enroll in college. Moon Knight also features in this arc, though we never really get under his skin, but where Kraft really hits it out of the park is in his handling of Hellcat, an emotionally-direct breath of fresh air who joins the Defenders without really meaning to, then sticks around to shake things up (and put the Hulk in his place when he misbehaves).
The series is grounded in little details. Often, little details are all we have. Scorpio must have some grand plan of conquest, but all we learn from this arc is that he intends to extort money from Kyle Richards/Nighthawk to help spawn his new Zodiac. What he intends to do with these loonies is left to the imagination … but our villain isn’t so busy that he can’t offer his hostage a beer.
Being on the hard side of fifty myself, it cuts a little close to the bone that Scorpio is driven to distraction by being fifty-two … but these books came out in 1977, well before fifty became the new thirty (wrote the blogger, desperately).
Keith Giffen’s art was polarizing on this run. I liked his detail and dynamic action, and wasn’t bothered that Giffen openly emulated Jack Kirby, never more so than when his pencils were finished by long-time Kirby inker Mike Royer in issue #49.
Giffen’s storytelling had a snappy visual pace, and by channeling that broad-shouldered Kirby aesthetic, the operatic exaggeration at the heart of Kraft’s scripts was made to feel natural.
But rather than usher in a new and evil age of Aquarius, that ominous “klik” instead transitions directly to …
It is a great piece of visual juxtaposition and comic timing, and illuminates one of the great charms of this run — how melodramatic superhero action is intercut with mundane and funny scenes that illuminate character and ground a pretty crazy story in the “real” world. It’s the same kind of storytelling sleight-of-hand Joss Whedon would manage so well on the big screen, decades later, which his shawarma-eating Avengers. I mean, we know our heroes will put paid to Scorpio one way or the other, but will Hellcat figure how to safely brew a cup of coffee?
Well, will she???
The lesson here is that it is the little stakes that matter. I recently finished the Avengers vs. X-Men omnibus, and that I didn’t much like it is neither here nor there. But one of the things I disliked about the book was how emotionally remote the whole thing felt. Here were the biggest stars of the Marvel Universe slugging it out over the fate of the earth and all mutantkind but I just … couldn’t … care about it. It was too big, too orchestrated, too over-the-top. (I felt kind of the same way when Thanos destroyed half the universe with a snap of his fingers).
But little stories like this Scorpio arc — leavened with interpersonal relationships, and conflicts between members of the team — this story feels meaningful, because the stakes are human-scaled. Will Hellcat ever brew that coffee? Will Hulk get to eat his lunch in peace?
Well, will he???
But this Defenders arc isn’t just about little things. For all of its characterization and soul-searching supervillains, this run is foremost an action comic, with the bulk of the last two issues given over to blockbuster punch-outs of the highest order. That scene with the Hulk above is a set-up for issue #49, as Hellcat, Valkyrie, and Moon Knight hatch a harebrained plan to enrage the man brute, that he might follow them to Scorpio’s hideout. It’s really just a thin excuse to spend an issue showing the Hulk tearing up Manhattan … but it works in the flow of the story, it helps emphasize the bass-ackwards nature of the Defenders, and it gives the cast a chance to play off of each other as they realize they’ve bitten off more than they can chew.
Fun comics, pure and simple … offering exposition-through-action in the way the comics form does best.
Issue #50 brings this brief epic to a close, and once again it’s an all-action issue, made memorable by Kraft’s characterization, with the doomed Scorpio at the center of what might otherwise be a pedestrian punch-out. Scorpio’s plan comes to fruition as he reveals his new Zodiac army, with some nifty character designs each patterned after astrological signs.
It would have been enough for the fiftieth issue to be a mindless action brawl between our heroes and these villains, but the proceedings are spiced up a bit by having the Zodiac behave in accordance with their astrological nature, with Gemini arguing against himself, and Libra balancing everything out before his late (and decisive) design to join the fray to the detriment of his teammates.
Sure, it’s just “Hulk Smash” … but it is smashing with a purpose, smashing with dimension, and smashing that frames the story of Scorpio’s psychological collapse.
Giffen’s attention to detail serves him well in that fiftieth issue brawl. I love how the geometry of Scorpio’s base serves as a kind of artificial panel border in this sequence below, separating and framing parallel action … and I also love how the Hulk smashing Taurus into Scipio’s refrigerator sends the bad guy’s beer stash spraying across the room. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a beer fridge in a supervillain’s lair. It’s wonderful.
It’s all action, but it’s meaningful action, demonstrating the choices and consequences of characters we’ve come to care about.
And the character we might most care about by this point is Scorpio, as the true purpose for his new criminal elite is revealed. The Zodiac was to have been Scorpio’s family — a family where Scorpio would be in charge, loved, respected, and needed. Over-the-top, improbable, melodramatic … and meaningful. Great stakes for a comic book.
Giffen continues with his clever panel construction as the big brawl wraps up, and even the heroes sense that Scorpio is about to do something extreme …
… but they will arrive too late to prevent Scorpio from taking his own life, comforted only by the Nick Fury “Life Model Decoy” that was standing in for his estranged brother all along. With his interior destruction complete, Scorpio’s physical destruction is inevitable. True to the series’ ethos, Scorpio doesn’t go out in a blaze of glory — instead he puts on a Judy Garland record, refuses a Schlitz beer, and rejects the world’s last attempt to offer him love.
And then it is over! Kraft and Giffen would stay together five more issues, but their next major arc — “The Power Principle,” which also explored the emotional needs of a flawed supervillian — would come up short, sputtering through shortened page counts before Carmine Infantino came aboard to finish artistic duties for Giffen. It’s a shame this team didn’t stay together longer, because “Power Principle” was shaping up to be a great tale in its own right …
… but at least we have this Scorpio arc, a little gem of a story, and further proof that sometimes the best superhero comics are more obscure titles like The Defenders, where supervillains can wistfully listen to “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” and creators can indulge their muse telling the kinds of stories that comics tell better than any other art form.
NEXT WEDNESDAY: #86 Star-Lord
The Christmas season is traditionally a slow time for newsstand comic book sales, so you can’t blame Marvel Comics for trying to create some holiday cheer with with their 1975 Giant Superhero Holiday Grab-Bag … but would it have killed them to hunt up some actual holiday-themed stories for their holiday-themed collection? “Marvel’s Yuletide Gift To YOU!” turns out to be a lump of coal!
It starts well enough, with a genuine grab-bag of superheroes hanging stockings by the chimney with care. Luke Cage thoughtfully drapes the tree with chains, but I’m not sure which is more disturbing — that the Hulk must have mugged a plus-sized Santa to get that St. Nicholas suit, or that Nick Fury thinks its appropriate to attend a tree-trimming in a bondage costume.
It’s a charming bit of hokum, and it appeals to me now just as it did in 1975, when I bought this book off the rack. As a thirteen-year-old I appreciated anything that connected my comic book world with the spirit of the season, and I especially enjoyed those monthly books that included Christmas content in their December issues (especially considering that the teams must have been sweating out a New York summer when they first created those pages). But if my regular comics adventures couldn’t manage some snow and mistletoe, then a big holiday reprint collection was the next best thing.
And I do mean big. This Holiday Grab-Bag was a part of the Marvel Treasury Edition series — a big, over-sized, 10″ x 13″ edition (and for more about Marvel’s Treasury Editions, check out the spectacular TreasuryComics.com). That means this Grab-Bag wasn’t the usual Marvel reprint — it was a double-sized reprint, providing an unusual opportunity for Marvel fans to see their favorite characters big, blown-up, and beautiful.
So why oh why does Marvel lead this edition with a story penciled by Frank Springer?
Actually, as Frank Springer goes, this tale isn’t bad. Originally appearing in Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. #10, ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas” shows some ambition, starting with a typographic splash page in the Will Eisner/Jim Steranko tradition.
Nick foils a street crime, then hustles home for some real sixties spy action …
This is a Nick Fury comic, so the mushy stuff doesn’t last long, and before you know it Nick is called away by S.H.I.E.L.D. to battle Hate Monger (née Adolph Hitler) on the edge of space, foiling a plot that involves germ warfare, an atomic bomb, and (just maybe) Santa’s sleigh!
But it’s all in a night’s work for S.H.I.E.L.D.’ top cop … and even more impressive is that ol’ Nick doesn’t miss a beat when he returns home to find his paramour (whatever her name might be) still in her Christmas Eve party dress. Hey, there’s a reason we named Nick Fury the manliest character in all of superhero comics!
I’ve made the story seem better than it reads. This is a pretty by-the-numbers Nick Fury tale, the best part of which may have been the original cover, which sadly appears only in black & white on the inside back cover of this Grab-Bag Treasury Edition:
It’s a silly tale with a poor conclusion and it doesn’t do Frank Springer any favors showing his art at this expanded size. But you know, compared to the stories that follow, this tale looks like The Great Gatsby.
Take the next tale, for example — a reprint of “Spider-Man Goes Mad!” from Amazing Spider-Man #24. This is a great Spider-Man story — maybe my favorite single-issue story from the unmatched Steve Ditko/Stan Lee run on Amazing Spider-Man. Spider-Man is attacked where he is most vulnerable by a mystery villain — directly in his neurosis, triggering a near-psychotic experience and a genuine crisis of confidence for Web-Head.
The only problem is this story has nothing to do with the holidays (aside from the part about losing your mind). I looked in vain for a street Santa or a wreath or a menorah or even a throw-away line referencing the time of year but no luck — this is a seasonally-neutral superhero tale. Treasury-sized Steve Ditko is always welcome (and I’ve devoted an entire post just to blowing up Mr. Ditko’s Spider-Man panels), but however much I like this story, it’s a peculiar inclusion for a holiday collection. (And a question for Spider-Man scholars — was there a worthy pre-1976 Spider-Man holiday story that might have better served here?)
The holiday returns (though the quality does not) in the next tale, reprinting “Jingle Bombs” by Steve Englehart and George Tuska from Luke Cage, Hero For Hire #7. Sadly, Luke does not decorate Christmas trees with his belt-chain, as he does on this collection’s cover, but this story does have Luke doing what he does, with a holiday twist, like making out in the snow with his foxy girlfriend:
The plot is a muddle, with Luke bedeviled by some quick-changing knucklehead who tests our hero with moral dilemmas before ultimately threatening to blow up New York with an atomic bomb. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, and as was the case with Mr. Springer, George Tuska doesn’t immediately leap to mind when listing the Marvel artists I’d like to see in double-size format.
But this tale does get points for being a holiday story — there’s even a Santa Claus in it. There are also some vintage Luke Cage moments, like his quasi-hippy rant over “Freakin’ GUNS!” …
… and Luke’s out-loud reference to the day they lay pennies on his eyes …
Overall, this story is just a little bit better than the Nick Fury issue that leads this collection. It’s full of snow and Santas and it is neither very much better or very much worse than other Luke Cage stories of the era.
Except for one problem (and it’s a big one).
How can we get through an entire issue of vintage Luke Cage — a Christmas issue, especially — without Luke exclaiming, “Christmas!” ??
It’s just not right.
NOT from the Giant Superhero Holiday Grab-Bag
At least there’s snow on the ground in Luke Cage’s story — something that can’t be said for the next story, “Heaven Is A Very Small Place,” from Incredible Hulk #147 by Roy Thomas and Herb Trimpe.
This story looks great in the expanded Treasury format, with Trimpe’s pencils softened by the skillful sable brush of John Severin.
This is a short, nine-page story with the Hulk coming to the usual heartbreak in the illusory town of his dreams. It’s thin on supervillains and smashing but it is a well-told and heartfelt story. Again, the problem here is that this is not a holiday tale. It’s too much to expect snow in a desert mirage town, but there isn’t even a hint of Hanuka here. If you squint just right I suppose there’s an echo of It’s A Wonderful Life on display but with none of that classic tale’s uplifting reason-for-the-season message.
It isn’t spoiling much to reveal that the Hulk feels safe and at home in his idyllic hometown-of-the-mind, before it is all yanked away from him. That’s the way it had to be, because this is an early 1970s Hulk story …
… and because nothing says “Christmas” like a tormented man-brute!
Our Giant Superhero Holiday Treasury Edition has been a (mixed) Grab-Bag so far, and it’s all down to the fifth story — “Eternity” from Doctor Strange #180 by Roy Thomas & Gene Colan — to determine if our collection will ultimately prove naughty, or nice. And there is some cause for optimism here. These Gene Colan/Tom Palmer pages look as spectacular as you would expect in this expanded format, and the tale nails it’s holiday bona fides early as Strange and the lovely Clea hook up for a New Years Eve date.
The story unwinds at a languid pace, offering touching insight on Strange & Clea’s relationship. For for a panel or two, this story is as snuggly and seasonal as a Norah Ephron rom-com.
I award bonus points for a Times Square New Years Eve reference …
… and BONUS bonus points for the inevitable supervillain attack taking the form of a rampaging T-Rex!
Alas, it all ends in tears.
First, there’s the unfortunate fact of Doctor Strange’s costume, dating from that forgettable era when Earth’s Sorcerer Supreme wore a full-face mask to conceal his identity from extra-dimensional, mind-reading alien gods. Of Marvel’s many costume-revision gaffes, putting Doctor Strange in a ski-mask ranks second only to giving Iron Man a nose.
Second … this tale ends in the middle! No sooner does the Big Bad stride into Times Square than we get this lame denouement telling us that the Marvel Bullpen wishes us a swell time and get the hell out, kid, you’re out of pages even if the story is just getting started!
And so the Giant Superhero Holiday Grab-Bag turns out to be a lump of coal after all — a haphazard, thrown-together box of parts that don’t fit, comprised of stories with no business being in a holiday anthology and a New Years Eve tale that makes us go home right when the clock strikes midnight!
But, you know … when it comes to gifts, it is the thought that counts, and there is that great front cover, and the back cover isn’t too shabby either …
… and shucks, there’s Santa Claus waving at us, and even the Hulk is smiling. Having just torn this collection apart, I still get a warm feeling when thinking about this book — maybe because it transports me back to a simpler time when it was just cool to have superhero friends for the holidays. After all, in 1975 you couldn’t walk into a book store and find row after row of graphic novels or superhero movie tie-ins. These geek ways were held more closely then, and we were happy with what we got, whether it was Hulk in a Santa suit, Doctor Strange in a body sock, or just a collection of moldy old Marvel superhero stories to read under the tree. They don’t all have to be books for the ages.
And so I am content with this “Merry-Marvel Season’s Greetings To One And All!” … and please accept Longbox Graveyard’s greetings, wherever you may be this holiday season. Be peaceful to each other, and thank you for reading this blog, on Christmas and every other day of the year!