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Longbox Graveyard Podcast: Marvel Comics — A Space Odyssey

I’ve always had affection for Marvel’s “cosmic” heroes, and now Hollywood is catching up with me, thanks to the pending big-screen debut of the Guardians of the Galaxy.

Cosmic Comic Heroes, Jim Starlin

 

Listen in as we journey out into the cosmos, Marvel heroes style!

Click here to listen!

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Blown Away!

Longbox Graveyard #123

Welcome to another installment of The Dollar Box, where I look at special or significant comics with an original cover price of a dollar or less. This month’s issue is Captain Marvel #34, a Jim Starlin effort (with a script assist from Steve Englehart) published by Marvel Comics in the summer of 1974. This isn’t the most memorable or important issue in Starlin’s Captain Marvel run, but it has an energetic visual style, with a superior use of sound effects, and does conclude with what would prove to be a pivotal moment in Captain Marvel’s life — his death!


Created only to protect a trademarkCaptain Marvel was always a tertiary book at Marvel, suffering through a series of unmemorable (yet accidentally brilliant) stories by rotating creative teams before the series was handed to a young Jim Starlin, first as penciller with issue #25, with with full creative duties by issue #27. Over the brief span of ten issues (which I previously reviewed here) Starlin would redefine Captain Marvel, transforming him into a cosmic warrior for peace and balance, and setting him to battle against the Death God Thanos of Titan, in the first of many such great outer space sagas that would become Starlin’s stock-in-trade.

By issue #34, though, that arc was in the rear-view mirror, and Captain Marvel — and creator Jim Starlin — were ready to move on to the next phase in their lives.

The first several pages of the issue were basic stuff for a 1970s Marvel Comic. The previous story was briefly recapped, then some long-simmering subplots were serviced, as Rick Jones — Captain Marvel’s earthly companion, with whom our hero must trade places if he is to escape the Negative Zone — caught up on a private life that was sidelined by a certain war for the fate of the solar system. Rick whined a bit about being Marv’s sidekick, broke up with his girlfriend, then departed on a music tour with his manager and an unenthusiastic new partner …

… and that’s where things got weird.

Weird, at least, by the standards of your usual 1970s Marvel fist opera. It wasn’t the set-up that was unusual — it was another off-the-shelf Marvel set piece, with Rick and his companions fatefully crossing paths with a villain intent on stealing a deadly nerve gas. But the entire tone and style of the issue was over-the-top and doom-driven, and also loaded with fannish Easter eggs, including a cameo appearance by Carol Danvers (who later would become one of the more significant female characters in the Marvel line as Ms. Marvel, before assuming the title duties of Captain Marvel, herself).

The plot was also enlivened by the first appearance of Nitro, one of the most gleefully-silly villains in Marvel history, a crazy man who’s entire repertoire involved blowing himself to atoms. As befit a man with such a one-trick resume, he entered the scene with a special kind of recklessness …

… and then went after what he wanted in a dynamic page that served notice that on a visual level, at least, this wouldn’t be your usual kind of superhero fight.

At this point I should note this issue was a personal turning point for me as a comics fan. Probably every comics fan has “that” issue — the one where the form came alive for them, when they first flipped to the credits page to see who it was that had written or drawn a story. For twelve-year-old me, soldiering through a visually indifferent summer of comic books in 1974, this issue left me “Blown Away” (which just happened to be the title of the story). Having come to comics too late to see Jack Kirby at the top of his game (or to see Jim Steranko infuse Kirby’s work with his own particular cinematic aesthetic), the way Starlin drew this otherwise-unremarkable action opened a doorway in my consciousness.

It blew my twelve-year-old mind.

Forty years later, it’s still pretty sweet. Sure, all we really have here is Captain Marvel — a throw-away character who had just had his Elvis Year thanks to Starlin’s run — slugging it out with a dumb supervillain for a half-dozen pages, but the contest is carried off with exceptional style.

There is real visual power behind the blows traded by Marv and Nitro, and the action seems more visceral and personal when Nitro curses like a street-level thug.

That “FOOM” sound effect gets an potent workout, too, as Nitro blows himself up in ever more explosive fashion …

… before meeting his own end with one last FOOM, thanks to a deft bit of trickery by our Kree soldier-hero, Captain Marvel.

Alas, the fun was ending just as it was getting started. Captain Marvel #34 was Jim Starlin’s last issue on the series. Jim knew it, even if the audience had no inkling, though it was spelled out plainly enough (if backwards) on a mysterious road sign …

… and with the freedom of a man quitting his job, Starlin did the unthinkable. He killed Captain Marvel.

Sort of.

(Actually, he did.)

Cliffhangers where heroes (appeared to) die were no unusual thing in comics, then or now, but this conclusion seemed to have an unusual degree of bite. Having finally defeated Nitro, Captain Marvel struggled to seal off the ruptured canisters of Compound 13 that the villain was trying to steal — a gas that we’d previously been told was the ultimate nerve agent.

Marv pulled it off, but just barely, and even Rick Jones, watching from the Negative Zone, seemed to sense that this wasn’t a routine cliffhanger. The next issue box assured us there will be a next issue, but this did seem an unusually “final” final image.

In issue #35, of course, a new creative team picked up the pieces, and contrived to restore Captain Marvel to life, and his book would continue on through another thirty-odd mostly-unmemorable issues before its cancellation in 1979.

But the events of this story would prove unusually far-ranging.

In 1982, Jim Starlin was back at Marvel, and the publisher was experimenting with a new, full-length graphic novel form. The first installment in the Marvel Graphic Novel line would be The Death of Captain Marvel, where Starlin revealed that Marv had an incurable cancer brought on by … his exposure to Compound 13! So it turns out that Starlin really did, kinda-sorta, kill off Captain Marvel back in issue #34 of his own book — it just took eight years for it to stick!

And stick it did. Captain Marvel’s death has proven one of the more significant character deaths in the Marvel universe, touching a number of other costumed heroes, and proving almost singular in offering a genuine end to the story of Captain Marvel. The character would appear again in flashbacks and brief life-after-death cameos, but his big 2008 “Secret Invasion” resurrection was a fake-out, and now the trademark-protecting mantle of Captain Marvel has been taken up by Carol Danvers (the former Ms. Marvel) in the latest incarnation of this particular title.

But all of that was in the distant future, back in the summer of 1974, when this particular comic opened my eyes and made me a comics fan for life. The cover price was .25, but a copy in decent condition will run you about five bucks now. That seems a small price to pay for a well-crafted issue with such a cool secret history, but I’d never tell you to purchase a comic on the basis of its events forming some permanent part of a comic book universe. If Bucky can come back from the dead, then no one is safe in eternal rest … though ol’ Marv has been there, more-or-less without interruption, for going on thirty years!

May he rest in peace.

This article original appeared at StashMyComics.com.

IN TWO WEEKS: #124 Ret-Con: Roy Thomas And Earth-2

Welcome To The Wonderful World Of Cosmics

This week’s F.O.O.M. Friday rockets ahead to F.O.O.M. #9, with a Jim Starlin cover and a subject focus that blew my twelve-year-old mind back in 1974.

F.O.O.M. #9 cover by Jim Starlin

I liked Silver Surfer and (especially) Captain Marvel before receiving this issue of Marvel’s in-house fan magazine, but it was the first time I thought of these characters as belonging to a specific genre.

The mag even coined a term for this new comics genre with a clever bit of wordplay:

Welcome To The Wonderful World Of Cosmics

I loved thinking of these stories as “cosmics,” rather than “comics” — it made the stories seem so much bigger, and more consequential. This clever bit of branding helped bind me to Marvel’s cosmic heroes for decades to come … and it is an obsession that continues to this day, as one look at this list of the many “cosmic” subjects I’ve tackled here at Longbox Graveyard will attest!

The articles in this particular issue of F.O.O.M. weren’t especially memorable, but that cover is as fresh today as when I plucked it from my mailbox almost forty years ago. Yeesh! I’m getting as old as The Watcher!

See you back here next week for another F.O.O.M. Friday!

The Power And The Prize!

Longbox Graveyard #110

Welcome back to The Dollar Box, where I look at single-issue stories or short runs of comics with an original cover price of one dollar or less. After reviewing a Nick Fury story and a Spider-Man book that cost all of twelve cents each, this time we soar into the stratosphere with a book that cost an astronomical twenty-five cents when it was published in 1968 — Silver Surfer #3!

Previously here at Longbox Graveyard, I looked in detail at The Silver Surfer, and concluded that the series went off the rails after the first four issues… but those first four issues are very good, and I think issue #3 is the best in the run. Many fans point to issue #4, featuring a battle with Thor as the high point of the series, but I prefer this cosmic tale in issue #3 — “The Power and the Prize!” — as it showcases the Surfer at his melodramatic Silver Age best.

Written by Stan Lee, with pencils by John Buscema — at the top of his superhero game here — and adequately inked by Joe Sinnott, this tale opens with the Surfer exiled to earth by his former master Galactus. Finally having enough of man’s prejudice and violence, the Surfer steals a page from The Day The Earth Stood Still and lashes out with his Power Cosmic to bring our world to a halt.

This gets everyone’s attention, of course, but also attracts the gaze of Mephisto, making his first Marvel Universe appearance. Mephisto is Satan in all but name, and upon seeing the Surfer he is reminded of the martyrs that humiliated him in the past, and immediately determines he must bring the Surfer to his knees.

Mephisto decides to strike at our hero through Shalla-Bal, the Surfer’s lost love. In Devil-like fashion Mephisto tricks Shalla-Bal into pledging herself to him that she and the Surfer may be together again, setting off a direct conflict between Mephisto and the Surfer in Hell itself, battling for love and souls.

Stan Lee’s script is cartoonish and over-the-top and even a little corny at times, as was much of his Silver Age work, but it fits especially well with the Silver Surfer, who is a kind of doomed, star-crossed Shakespearian character prone to long, emotional soliloquies about his shortcomings and longings. These characters really chew the scenery as they fight through Hell, with Mephisto trying to tempt the Surfer with wealth and women and power, and the Surfer nobly resisting and battling various demons from the pits.

It’s all very exaggerated and overwrought, almost like an opera, and not a little surrealistic — at one point Mephisto shrinks the Surfer down to the size of the palm of his hand, and swallows our hero, only to reject him because he cannot abide the Surfer’s goodness. Finally Mephisto demands that the Surfer swear him allegiance, or he will send Shalla-Bal back to Zenn-La, and the Surfer refuses, knowing this will trick Mephisto into sending his beloved to safety, even though it will break his heart.

It’s high adventure for the highest of stakes, made more personal for the relationships at the center of the story, and it’s full of powerful visuals from Big John Buscema, who seemed to especially relish drawing the devilish Mephisto, with his grasping talons and Satanic expressions and flowing cape. Stan Lee really cuts loose, too. Arguably the greatest Marvel story of all — Fantastic Four #48-50 — pit heroes against God in the form of Galactus, and here we have a similar level of ambition, as our hero battles Satan himself.

This issue represents all that I think is best about the Silver Surfer. Modern readers may find the story a little childish but I think as a fantasy it holds up well, and if you’ve attuned your ear to the rhythm of a Silver Age story, this is superior stuff. The art is tremendous and you get to see the first appearance of a major Marvel villain with Mephisto. The only downside is that the Surfer never says, “To Me, My Board!”

An original copy of Silver Surfer #3 in “Fine” condition can easily run a hundred dollars or more, so readers desiring to own this fun tale in print are advised to track down one of the many affordable reprints — but if you find an original for cover price, be sure to send it to me!

This article original appeared at StashMyComics.com.

IN TWO WEEKS: #111 The Pedigree Collection

Guardians of the Galaxy

Longbox Graveyard #93

There’s a brand-spanking new Guardians of the Galaxy comic series shipping from Marvel today …

Guardians of the Galaxy #1

… and there’s a feature film on the way in 2014, set to feature my old pal Star-Lord.

Guardians of the Galaxy

And here is the FULL movie trailer!

You are forgiven for wondering how the heck this is happening. DC Comics still can’t get a Justice League movie on track and Marvel is bringing a B-team to the big screen? Actually, calling them a B-team is giving them all the best of it. The Guardians of the Galaxy are a tertiary property (on their best day), and I really can’t explain how they’ve been fast-tracked for stardom. I’ve enjoyed their recent comics series but this seems a gigantic risk.

But while I can’t explain the inner workings of Hollywood, I can write about something close to home — namely the Guardians of the Galaxy themselves!

No, I don’t mean these guys

The NEW Guardians of the Galaxy

I mean these guys!

Marvel Super-Heroes #18, Gene Colan

These are the original Guardians, circa 1969, as imagined by writer Arnold Drake and artist Gene Colan for the cover of Marvel Super-Heroes #18. From left-to-right we have Major Vance Astro (cryogenically-preserved spaceman of the 1980s), Charlie-27 (Jovian militiaman), Martinex (genetically-engineered inhabitant of Pluto), and the weapons-master Yondu, last survivor of Alpha Centauri IV!

Yes, the Guardians had been kicking around the Marvel Universe for decades before the Guardians of the Galaxy trademark was resurrected for the post-Annihilation series of the same name in 2008. The original Guardians were nomads of the spaceways, perpetual guest-stars and try-out book headliners that took decades to (sort of) break through and earn a book of their own.

They’re just the kind of obscure and loveable losers that I can’t resist here at Longbox Graveyard!

Marvel Super Heroes #18, Gene Colan and Arnold Drake

The team’s fast-paced origin story in Marvel Super-Heroes #18 doesn’t afford a chance to do much more than put names to faces. Earth and her colonies have come beneath the heel of the baleful Badoon, a race of remorseless, reptillian interstellar conquerers, and our four heroes are the last of their kind — genetically-engineered human colonists of the outer planets, indigenous aliens, or star-lost men from the past. When the story is complete, our heroes have come together and pledged to liberate a captive earth …

Marvel Super Heroes #18, Gene Colan and Arnold Drake

… and that might have been the end for this one-and-done science fiction superhero team, had not Tony Isabella and Steve Gerber conspired to resurrect them. A full five years passed before the Guardians next appeared, in Marvel Two-In-One #4 and #5. Written by Steve Gerber, these issues saw Captain America and the Thing transported into the future, where they met the Guardians and helped continue the fight to free the earth from the Badoon.

Marvel Two-In-One #5, Steve Gerber and Sal Buscema

It was an action-packed and frankly bizarre tale (though not bizarre in the usual Steve Gerber way — that would come later). What was most strange was that these Guardians were given a second chance at all. This kind of intellectual property dumpster-diving was more Roy Thomas’ line of work, who delighted in unearthing Golden Age treasures for Silver Age audiences. Interested as he was in socially-relevant superhero stories, it’s hard to understand what Steve Gerber saw in these intergalactic freedom fighters — yet there they were, in all their generic Sal Buscema glory, clobbering bad guys along with Ben Grimm in the pages of his team-up book.

Marvel Two-In-One #5, Sal Buscema and Steve Gerber

I bought that issue of Marvel Two-In-One off the rack in 1974 — I liked it at the time, and it even fared well in my recent re-read of the full run of Two-In-One. I think I responded to “Superheroes In Spaaaaaace!” and there was something cool about discovering these obscure characters. As a tender youth of twelve this was a mind-expanding moment for me, first-hand proof that the “Marvel Universe” consisted not just of Spider-Man swinging around Manhattan, but also a cosmos full of aliens and forgotten freedom fighters, with a future history our heroes may or may not be doomed to live out. I was also taken with the story of Major Vance Astro, who sacrificed his humanity to explore the stars, only to find out he’d been made obsolete before his voyage had scarcely begun.

Marvel Two-In-One #5, Steve Gerber and Sal Buscema

Gerber so liked the team that he used them again in Defenders #26-29, more firmly cementing them into the Marvel Universe, and doing a bit of clean-up work on the Guardians’ origin and backstory. After crashing the Guardians’ time-lost ship on Earth in Giant-Size Defenders #5, Gerber teamed the Guardians with Doctor Strange, Nighthawk, Valkyrie, and the Hulk to mostly put paid to the Badoon occupation of Earth. Along the way, he indulged in some characteristic Steve Gerber weirdness (casting the Hulk in a kill-crazy reality television show!), but he also fleshed out the Guardians mythos by showing us peculiar details of Badoon culture, and constructing an elaborate future history for the series, which included ozone depletion, bionics, world war, and even a Martian invasion (resisted by a guy named Killraven).

Defenders #26, Sal Buscema and Steve Gerber

That Defenders run is also notable for introducing Starhawk, a character I’m still trying to wrap my head around going on four decades later. Starhawk is an enigma, popping up unbidden, referring to himself as “The One Who Knows,” and winging off to his weirdly prosaic little house on the galactic prairie between adventures …

Defenders #29, Steve Gerber & Sal Buscema

… which was all well and good, but the Guardians themselves were still a reasonably unknown quantity at this point, and there seemed plenty of stories to tell about the original cast without introducing a mysterious new character. Starhawk would be even more front-and-center (literally!) in the Guardians solo series that kicked off in Marvel Premiere #3.

Marvel Presents #3

It took seven years, but thanks to Steve Gerber’s efforts, the Guardians of the Galaxy had finally earned a series of their own! But now that the Guardians had the stage to themselves, this pack of perpetual second bananas seemed a little lost. First, there was the distracting presence of the enigmatic Starhawk, who seemed to suck the air out of every scene, gazing into the distance and promising that in time all will be revealed while the rest of the Guardians (and at least one reader) wished he’d just get to the point. Second, Gerber decided that the Guardians’ war against the Badoon had run its course, and wrapped up our heroes’ raison d’etre the the final defeat of the Badoon in the first issue of their solo run. Once again, Starhawk was on hand with moralistic advice about how the defeated Badoon should be treated, courtesy of one of Gerber’s signature typed-text pages.

Marvel Presents #3, Steve Gerber & Al Milgrom

Gerber’s vision was for the Guardians of the Galaxy to start living up to their name, and to guard not just Earth, but the Galaxy, and so our heroes were packed aboard a starship and sent off to confront a mysterious being at the center of space. All well and good, but it wouldn’t be long before the series took a turn for the silly, first when that mysterious being turned out to be a giant space frog …

Marvel Presents #4

… and then when — with all the universe to choose from — Steve Gerber had the Guardians land on an alien asylum planet that just happened to be a weird replica of New York’s Times Square.

Marvel Presents #5, Steve Gerber & Al Milgrom

In this run of Guardians of the Galaxy we found out the hard way that the cosmic wonder of the Marvel Universe matters only so much as it is connected to our mundane lives here on Earth. Galactus can eat all the planets he likes — but it’s just backstory until he confronts the Fantastic Four over the fate our our planet. Thanos can destroy half the universe with a snap of his fingers, but what we really care about is what happened to Mary Jane Watson. In a fictional construct as interconnected as the Marvel Universe, you strike out on your own at your peril, and by putting our men of action on the bridge of a starship and having them fly off on an abstract adventure with one-off characters in places we’d never seen before, Gerber unfortunately delivered stories that provided the worst of all worlds.

Marvel Presents #6, Al Milgrom

If the plotting was a drag, Gerber did wring some personality from our heroes. Yondu got to be a noble savage, and he did tricks with his bow (always the same damn trick, but it was better than nothing). Martinex became more brainy and alien. All of our characters came to feel like outcasts and freaks as the last of their kind. Vance started to behave erratically, living in a shipboard room reconstructed from his memories as a twelve-year-old …

Marvel Presents #4, Steve Gerber & Al Milgrom

Gerber added a female Guardian, too, but the team just never seemed to jell in their own series — absent outsized personalities like Ben Grimm or the Hulk or Doctor Strange to play off of, the Guardians were revealed as a B-team of generic comic heroes without a cause.

The series went into rapid decline as the big energy frog storyline wrapped up. A Silver Surfer reprint was awkwardly shoe-horned into issue #8, and then Steve Gerber would transition off the book in favor of Roger Stern, who finally revealed Starhawk’s origin — a messy mash-up of alien prophecies and a vaguely incestuous body-sharing relationship between step-siblings that somehow involved a giant Hawkman robot.

Marvel Presents #10, Roger Stern & Al Milgrom

It was a mess, and so was the book by this point, so it was a bit of a relief when the series met its inevitable demise after issue #12.

I will admit to being a bit disappointed revisiting the Guardians after all these years. But the improbable tale of the Guardians of the Galaxy was far from over. They would next appear in Thor Annual #6 to kick off of one of the biggest Avengers events of the decade … but that is a tale for another time!

(And for those of you who soldiered to the end of this article looking for relevant information about the new Guardians of the Galaxy, check out this excellent scorecard at Comic Book Resources).

Al Milgrom, Marvel Presents #12

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