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Howard The Duck #8

Howard the Duck #1

Howard’s Presidential campaign is in full-swing, and dealing with it has become a full-time job, with Howard and Bev dodging campaign fixers and an army of assassins determined to silence them.

These books were so wonderfully serviced by first-rate art. I think it was Stan Lee who said that Gene Colon could get tension out of drawing a guy turning a doorknob … and I’m not sure what that means … but man, I love seeing Colan on Howard the Duck (and anything else). It certainly elevates the script, which is only so-so here, as Howard lays out his campaign platform, including one of those patented Steve Gerber text pages. Mostly Howard’s political positions are just common sense, though they were satire in their day. Now it is we who are trapped in a world we never made.

  • Script: Steve Gerber
  • Pencils: Gene Colan
  • Inks: Steve Leialoha

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Doctor Strange vs. Dracula!

Longbox Graveyard #164

Super-Blog Team-Up returns with a Doctor Strange-driven look at magic in comics! Now, Halloween was last week, so I’m a couple days late for Dracula, but with his movie out this week, I’m right on time for Doctor Strange … and it’s always time for Bronze Age Marvel here at Longbox Graveyard. So let’s jump right in as Doctor Strange battles Dracula, Lord of Vampires!

Tomb of Dracula #44

This two-part crossover began in Tomb of Dracula #44, smack-dab in the middle of the classic run by Marv Wolfman, Gene Colan, and Tom Palmer. I’ve sung the praises of Tomb of Dracula here at Longbox Graveyard before (twice!) — it really might have been the finest Marvel comic of its age. And one of the reasons the book worked so well was that writer and editor Marv Wolfman largely kept Dracula and his tales sequestered from the rest of the Marvel Universe. While Drac would encounter Spider-Man and Thor in other titles, Marv jealously guarded the door of Dracula’s own book, ceding to editorial pressure to more closely connect Tomb of Dracula with the Marvel Universe only through crossovers with otherworldly and supernatural characters like Silver Surfer, Brother Voodoo, and (in our case) Doctor Strange!

The first part of the tale, written by Marv Wolfman, opened with Strange mourning the death of his faithful manservant, Wong, beneath the flashing fangs of a vampire!

Tomb of Dracula #44 by Wolfman, Colan, and Palmer

Just look at Gene Colan’s smokey pencils, beautifully illuminated by Tom Palmer’s perfect inks! There’s never been a better team for supernatural comics storytelling!

But this wasn’t just any vampire — this was Dracula, the Lord of Vampires, as Strange discovered when his sorcery allowed him to experience Wong’s final moments.

Tomb of Dracula #44 by Wolfman, Colan, and Palmer

Harnessing the fathomless powers of the All-Seeing Eye of Agamotto (which then, as now, could do about anything the writer needed it to do), Doctor Strange tracked the “life-patterns” of Dracula from the scene of the crime to Dracula’s lair in Boston.

Tomb of Dracula #44 by Wolfman, Colan, and Palmer

I love how Colan’s “camera” pushes in on Dracula, starting with his open coffin, then Dracula in repose, and then Dracula alert to Strange’s intrusion. Looking at this sequence, did you “see” Dracula’s eyes snap open between the last two panels? That’s the magic of comics, boys and girls — like Scott McCloud noted, comics are as much about what you don’t see between the panels as what you see in the panels themselves.

After that? Well, it’s on!

Tomb of Dracula #44 by Wolfman, Colan, and Palmer

But this battle between Dracula and Strange wasn’t the usual Marvel Comics Fist City beat-down, and it wasn’t even a garden-variety Doctor Strange ectoplasmic duel of ghosts.

No, to battle Dracula, Strange invoked the “Images of Ikonn” to delve into Dracula’s “passions and fears,” taking Dracula back to the moment his mortal self fell on the battlefield in a cavalry duel with Turkish invaders.

It’s kind of dirty pool, to be honest.

Tomb of Dracula #44 by Wolfman, Colan, and Palmer

For a couple panels, there, we could almost sympathize with Dracula, and this was intentional. Marv Wolfman considered Dracula the “protagonist” of Tomb of Dracula, rather than the hero, but as readers we still needed to get on board with Dracula, and moments like this served to humanize him. We see Dracula as a mortal terrified of his pending (un)death, we see his noble sacrifice in defense of his homeland, and can kind of feel bad for him … but it doesn’t take much for Dracula to revert to form, showing the dark side of his noble nature with his incredulity that this conflict originated with the death of “… a mere hireling … a cretinous menial … a whimpering domestic.”

(Don’t take a job with Dracula, folks).

Taken aback by Dracula’s sudden recovery — and reluctant to use his “more potent magics” for fear of rendering Dracula incapable of restoring Wong to life — Doctor Strange was quickly mesmerized by Dracula.

Mesmerized … and slain!

Tomb of Dracula #44 by Wolfman, Colan, and Palmer

How’s that for a vintage Marvel shock ending? Doctor Strange is dead? Say it isn’t so!

Fortunately, we needn’t wait even one week to see how this one turns out … the tale continued in Doctor Strange #14!

Doctor Strange #14

While this issue was written by Steve Englehart (who firmly put his stamp on the story, as we shall see), the book was illustrated by the self-same team of Colan and Palmer, and also edited by Marv Wolfman, resulting in an unusually coherent crossover, at least by Marvel standards.

The issue opened with Dracula gloating over his fallen foe, casting Strange’s body into a dungeon, where he might rot until rising, three days later, as Dracula’s undead slave.

Doctor Strange #14, by Englehart, Colan, and Palmer

But in his arrogance, Dracula didn’t reckon that Doctor Strange might be “no stranger to death,” as we learn that Strange escaped death by leaving his body instants before Dracula killed him at the end of last issue. But now, Strange was trapped outside his body, in astral form, with only three days to concoct a solution to his dilemma.

So what did Strange do?

Why, he thought, of course!

Doctor Strange #14, by Englehart, Colan, and Palmer

But all the thinking in the world didn’t solve Doc’s trouble. After trying to distract Dracula with visions and spells — and nearly catching Dracula out in the daylight — Strange was still a helpless, disembodied spectator when Dracula returned three days later. But Dracula was taking no chances, and in an odd reversal of roles, he sought to put a final end to the undead Doctor Strange with a stake through the heart!

Doctor Strange #14, by Englehart, Colan, and Palmer

Right on cue, Strange rose as a vampire, and we finally got some fist-and-fang action, as Dracula battled with a thing that was not-quite-Strange: Doctor Strange’s body, given in to dark vampiric impulses, while Strange’s conscience was helpless to intervene.

And it didn’t take long for Dracula to gain the upper hand against a Doctor Strange reduced to bestial impulses.

Doctor Strange #14, by Englehart, Colan, and Palmer

I love it when Drac calls someone a “clod.” If your boss calls you a clod — or “cretin,” another favorite — then he’s probably a super-villian

It’s when Dracula had Doctor Strange on the ropes that something intriguing and even a little profound occurred. When Dracula asserted himself as “Lord” while strangling the life from Strange, from the depths of his possessed soul, Doctor Strange called on the power of the Christian god to save his life!

Doctor Strange #14, by Englehart, Colan, and Palmer

It’s a bold turn of events, and something Steve Englehart didn’t shy away from — he once featured God Himself in a Doctor Strange story, then authored a bogus fan letter to deflect scrutiny — but what’s most interesting to me about this moment is what it asks about Doctor Strange’s own spirituality.

Does Doctor Strange believe in the Christian god, or is He just another deity in the Rolodex, to be invoked like Cyttorak or Vishanti? In his moment of greatest extremis, it is the Christian god that Strange turns to for salvation. Is Strange a man of faith, or is he just happy to use the best tool at hand?

Either way, that cross-like burst of light sure did the job …

Doctor Strange #14, by Englehart, Colan, and Palmer

Strange’s body and soul become one again even as Dracula is sent down to defeat, but Englehart implies that the will and even the cruelty required to overcome Dracula’s evil doesn’t come entirely from the divine force Strange invoked — that the “… true Dr. Strange would find no pleasure in his (Dracula’s) pain … that his tormentor (Strange) has been touched with Dracula’s own evil …” This conclusion points to an (ahem) strange duality, with the power of God getting Strange back on his feet, but Dracula’s own dark power of evil being the special sauce that let Strange finish the deed and kill Dracula for all time.

(Or at least until the next issue of Tomb of Dracula!)

And with Strange’s (and Wong’s) souls miraculously restored through Dracula’s death (could Drac have died for their sins? Nah …), that brings this tale to a close, and with it this installment of Longbox Graveyard!

It’s been awhile since I posted here, and it feels good! I hope to make this a more regular occurrence — please let me know what you think of this story and Steve Englehart’s Strange cosmology in the comments section below!

But, before you go — it took the awesome power of Super-Blog Team-Up to wake Longbox Graveyard from its Odinsleep … assuming you view this as a welcome development, please pay your thanks forward by visiting these other Super-Blog Team-Up articles, all looking at some form of “Strange” Magic!

Super-Blog Team-Up: Magic!

NEXT: #165 I Shopped At An Amazon Brick And Mortar Book Store

The Coming Of … The Falcon!

Longbox Graveyard #132

Welcome back to The Dollar Box, a where I look at comics with an original cover price of a dollar or less. This month I break format to review not one but three comics … and these aren’t exactly classic comics. But these are still fun comics — if for all the wrong reasons — with superior art, an A-list villain, and the first appearance of a mid-major Marvel character … who might not be so “mid” anymore, following news that Sam Wilson — the Falcon — is the new Captain America!

So without further apology, I present Captain America #117-119 — “The Coming of … The Falcon!”

Captain America #117-119

There’s a whole goofy backstory to this particular tale, but have no fear, True Believer — it’s all summed up on the splash page to Captain America #117, which is nakedly expository even by Stan Lee standards.

The Coming of the Falcon

OK, so the Red Skull has used the power of the Cosmic Cube to swap bodies with Captain America, and has teleported our hero to the “Isle of the Exiles,” which is inhabited by foes of the Red Skull, who will take a dim view of “Cap Skull” appearing in their midst. Got it? Good! Because if that goes down hard, break out the bourbon! There’s a lot more to swallow …

… starting with the Exiles, the aforementioned villains of this issue. Among Jack Kirby’s lesser creations, the Exiles were introduced in Tales of Suspense #41. They’re a group of would-be world conquerors and former allies of the Red Skull, and boy, do these guys like to carry a grudge. They have names, and powers after a fashion, but I won’t burden you with them. Suffice to say that their leader is a guy in a wheelchair who gets pushed around on a beach (which must really make everyone cranky).

Hunting the Red Skull

The Exiles fight with fearsome weapons, like a really nasty scarf.

I kid you not.

Red Skull Fighting with a Scarf

The Red Skull is particularly amused to see his Cap-self waltz around with these tools, but then makes a mistake they covered on the first day of class in Supervillain 101, tuning out on Cap’s struggles before his opponent’s inevitable demise.

Yep, that’s right up there with leaving Batman alone in a death trap, or leaving the self-destruct lever to your secret base in the “up” position right next to the coat hook. I might charitably allow that the limitless power afforded by the Cosmic Cube has made the Red Skull careless, but it’s probably more accurate to say that writing this story in fifteen minutes or less made Stan Lee careless.

Red Skull as Captain America

But maybe we can forgive the Red Skull his indulgence. This is a man with a plan!

Hitting the streets of Manhattan in the body of Captain America, the Skull laughs behind-hand at the unreserved affection afforded Captain America.

(Or maybe this is the way Cap really feels about his fans. Wouldn’t THAT make for a story!)

Red Skull as Captain America 2

Yes, the Red Skull is on the loose in Captain America’s body, performing unspeakable acts of evil, like stiffing a cabbie on his fare!

Red Skull gets a cab ride

Is there no bottom to the Red Skull’s villainy??

After checking into a hotel under Cap’s name, we leave the skull to run up a big room service tab — which I’m sure the scoundrel has no intention of paying — and return to Exile Island, where Cap/Skull has been rescued from scarf welts on his bum by the timely intercession of a mysterious falcon.

And this, my friends, is the first handshake between Steve Rogers and his soon-to-be-partner, Sam Wilson, a.k.a. The Falcon. You can be forgiven for not recognizing our heroes, given that Cap is in the body of the Red Skull, and that he’s removed his Red Skull mask and given himself a disguise with mud “just like he used to do in World War II.”

I swear to you, friends, I am not making this up.

Meet The Falcon

Not missing a beat, Cap does what any brain-swapped superhero would do when meeting a big city brother and his pet bird on a remote island — he tells Sam that he needs to don a costume, call himself the Falcon, and fight crime! (“Don’t knock it, fella! It’s been known to work!”)

Falcon doesn't want a costume

It all seems rather sudden, and Stan and Gene must have realized as much, because they’ve reached the end of the issue without actually introducing the character promised on the cover! To redress the oversight, the final panel of issue #117 is a kind of suit-up montage, giving us a look at the Falcon and warning us not to miss the next issue!

Falcon wears the costume

The month between issues does nothing to dissuade Cap from his crazy plan, and so confident is the body-swapped Sentinel of Liberty that Sam decides to go along with it.

“Stranger things have happened, Sam!”

(No, they haven’t).

Guy wants the Falcon to undress

If it’s training time, then there’s only one solution — montage! In the space of a page or two, Sam Wilson is … The Falcon!

Yes, it’s a cheesy origin, and the first African-American superhero in comics deserved better than meeting his date with destiny after answering a want ad for a falconer on a remote tropical island (which happens all the time, of course). In the scheme of things, though, maybe we should have been satisfied … Steve Englehart would later reveal that Sam was a mobbed-up pimp who had his memories manipulated by the Cosmic Cube. Later still, the Falcon would become a mutant (during those halcyon days when Marvel made everyone into mutants) before going back to … I dunno.

I really can’t tell you what the Falcon’s origin is supposed to be.

Let’s never speak of this again.

Falcon sparring

With his training montage complete, the Falcon and Cap/Skull win their return engagement with the still hopelessly-lame Exiles. Stan channels his Sgt. Fury days by busting out an “Ach Du Lieber!” so you know it is ON!

Redwing gets in the action

With issue #119, our fortunes improve — a little — as the Red Skull tires of this body-swapping nonsense. Resuming his true form, the Skull constructs a Bavarian stronghold through the power of the Cosmic Cube, then summons Cap/Skull and the Falcon to meet their final doom.

Red Skull with the Cosmic Cube

And the Skull is not messing around this time. Even Redwing — the Falcon’s “accursed bird” — isn’t safe from the Red Skull’s vengeance!

Red Skull with the Cosmic Cube 2

Thus begins a rather silly fight between the Skull, Falcon, and Cap, which sees the Red Skull restore Cap to his correct form (just because he wants to), before using the unlimited power of converting wishes-into-reality to trap poor Redwing in a birdcage.

Still, the addition of an A-list villain like the Red Skull can’t help but raise the rent of this wobbly tale.

Red Skull saying die

Unfortunately, no sooner does the story start to groove along to fist city with our colorfully costumed characters than it is over, and right out of left field. A subplot running through these issues is finally resolved, as Modok — entirely off-stage, mind you — creates a MacGuffin that nullifies the Cosmic Cube, which he just happens to activate when the Skull was about to blast our heroes into atoms.

Sigh.

Cap beat the Red Skull

Sorry, Cap, it wasn’t “fate” that punched the Red Skull’s ticket, but rather the most heavy-handed of story conceits, a genuine deus ex machina. (Modok Ex Machina?) Either way, it’s an unsatisfying end to an uneven tale. Maybe Stan wrote himself into a corner and didn’t know how to conclude his story, or maybe he was just exhausted after three issues of body-swapping silliness. I know I’m exhausted just from reading it!

Which seems like as good a reason as any to bring this month’s Dollar Box to a close. I’ve probably been a little too hard on Captain America #117-119. Goofy as it is, the first appearance of the Falcon drives the price of #117 — despite that .15 cover price — up past the $20.00 mark, and the later two issues will set you back five or ten dollars, as well. After all, these issues feature fine Gene Colan art, and some good scenery-chewing from the Red Skull. You also get the Cosmic Cube and a cameo from Modok. It’s probably not that much sillier than the usual Silver Age story … but even so, I doubt even Ed Brubaker could make this tale seem reasonable in a modern context.

And maybe that’s OK. Maybe it’s kind of a wonderful thing that the Falcon traces his origin to answering an ad for a falconer wanted on a remote island inhabited by costumed Nazi war criminals, and that he received his superhero training from a body-swapped Captain America inhabiting the disguised body of an unmasked Red Skull.

Yeah, sure it is …

(This article originally appeared at Stash My Comics).

NEXT WEEK: #133 Longbox Soapbox (Summer 2014)

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