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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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Star Lord!

Longbox Graveyard #86

Obscure heroes have been my stock-in-trade here at Longbox Graveyard, and I’ve enthused about quite a few of them, whether it was pleading for respect for Captain Marvel, remembering the still-unrealized potential of Deathlok, or lamenting the unfinished saga of Killraven and his War of the Worlds.

But among my favorite heroes, more obscure by far would be Star Lord. At least, he was obscure until this guy came along.

Chris Pratt | Star Lord | Guardians of the Galaxy

That is Chris Pratt, and until yesterday, I didn’t know who he was. Maybe you didn’t, either.

But now he’s fast-tracked to join a holy trinity of Marvel leading men named Chris (along with Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth) because Mr. Pratt will shortly share center stage with this motley crew:

Guardians of the Galaxy

That is concept art for Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel’s superhero/science fiction movie coming in 2014, and that guy in the center with the two guns and the funky face mask is Star Lord (sort of … as we shall see). It is shocking enough that we live in a world where there is a Guardians of the Galaxy movie in the first place, but we are really through the geek looking glass when Star Lord is a part of it (though I suppose with Rocket Raccoon also coming to the screen that anything is possible). Still, even with Marvel’s developing reputation for using every part of the buffalo, it has to rate among the least likely of unlikely twists and turns that they’ve opened up their intellectual property vault and dusted off Star Lord for the big screen.

Who is Star Lord? (Besides Chris Pratt).

He’s was one of my favorite characters, and one lost to the ages — or he was until plucked from the purgatory of Marvel’s dead file to begin his transition into the Marvel Universe in the pages of Timothy Zahn’s quasi-canonical Star-Lord #2 in 1997, followed by his eventual integration with the Guardians of the Galaxy (and even the Guardians aren’t my Guardians, but that is another column!)

The NEW Guardians of the Galaxy

Of course, this is Longbox Graveyard, the comics blog where it is always 1978, so that 1997 comic story isn’t of real interest to me. I have read a bit of the rebooted Guardians of the Galaxy, and enjoyed both that team and the new Star Lord who leads it, but he isn’t really the Star Lord (or Star-Lord!) that I remember.

This is my guy:

Marvel Preview #4

My Star Lord debuted in the black-and-white magazine pages of Marvel Preview #4 in 1976, and he is a distant echo — or maybe the distant progenitor — of the Star Lord now fast-tracked for cinematic stardom. My Star-Lord practiced astrology (for an issue, at least), was loved by his sentient ship, had a pistol that fired blasts of the four elements, and he had a hyphen! A hyphen, do you hear? He was Star-Lord back in the day, none of this Star Lord business!

He was also a bit of a jerk. And definitely NOT a part of the Marvel Universe.

The old Marvel black-and-white magazines were often a place of experimentation. Sold for a buck and not covered by the Comics Code Authority, Marvel’s mags sometimes touched on more adult content than their color comic book line. Dozens (hundreds?) of them came and went over the ages, but aside from Savage Sword of Conan, few of them got much traction in the market. Marvel Preview, in particular, was all over the place, with a rotating cast of editors that all seemed intent on taking the magazine in a different direction. It’s a new character try-out book! It’s a showcase for edgy takes on costumed heroes! It’s a standard-bearer for the legitimacy of graphic fiction! It has tits so it can compete with Heavy Metal!

In its day, Marvel Preview was all of those things, but of interest today is that Marvel Preview was the birthplace of Star-Lord.

Star-Lord, by Bernie Wrightson

Bernie Wrightson‘s Star-Lord frontispiece for Marvel Preview #4

Developed by Steve Englehart under the editorial direction of Marv Wolfman, Star-Lord told the tale of Peter Quill, a young man who saw his mother killed by space aliens, and made it his life’s mission to avenge her death. Star-Lord’s origin story in Marvel Preview #4 is fast-paced and action-packed, during which we learn the astrological configuration of the sky at Peter’s birth approximated that of the birth of Christ; that the young man had a psychopathic father who wanted to kill his son at birth; that Peter’s mother got whacked by space lizards; and that Peter was a brilliant astronaut but not so nice a guy.

Steve Gan & Steve Englehart, Marvel Preview #4

whacked by space lizards (bummer)

In subsequent interviews, Englehart said he intended Peter Quill to be a bit of a dick — right down to giving him a prickly name — and that over a series of stories he intended to chart Peter’s gradual march toward enlightenment or at least being a mellow dude.
Englehart would leave Marvel before penning another chapter in his magnum opus, so what we have is this brisk and sometimes harsh origin story that doesn’t try to redeem our hero in any way.

The story sees Peter aboard a space station when an alien presence promises to turn someone into a superhero. Peter is instantly disqualified by his NASA bosses … then adopts a novel approach to fulfill his destiny. I believe it is singular in that Peter more-or-less steals a Star-Lord identity intended for a more worthy character. It would be like some mentally-unstable schmo laid something heavy across the back of Hal Jordan‘s head and took for his own that Green Lantern power ring proffered by Abin Sur.

Peter was so driven to get into space to avenge his mother’s death that he resorted to mass murder — I mean, how else are we to interpret this particular scene …

Steve Gan & Steve Englehart, Marvel Preview #4

… and I’m not sure we can excuse his behavior just because it leads to him becoming the Star-Lord, whatever the “Master of the Sun” might suggest.

Steve Gan & Steve Englehart, Marvel Preview #4

Still, it is an original superhero origin, this idea of stealing powers and identity that were supposed to go to some other character. It reminds me a bit of the story of one of my own Irish ancestors, who knocked out his brother and stole his ticket to America. Maybe that’s why this tale spoke to me, as a lad — or maybe it was because Peter and I were born in the same year of 1962, and if he was destined for some cosmic transfiguration, then maybe I was, too.

Whatever the reason, I liked Star-Lord, I liked that he was a bit of a prick, I liked his uniform and I liked that he flew around in space with a water pistol (excuse me, “element gun”). I wanted more Star-Lord, and (years) later, I got my wish, when the character received his “second launch” in Marvel Preview #11.

Star-Lord, by John Byrne & Terry Austin

This was a different Star-Lord. Englehart was gone, and with him all that astrology hooey. In it’s place was a two-fisted space opera tale, by the first-time-together superstar team of Chris Claremont, John Byrne, Terry Austin, and Tom Orzechowski. While not exactly a reboot, this was a new take on the character, picking up his adventures sufficient years into the future that our hero can be expected to have evolved past his difficult origins and become a kind of seeker and protector of the galaxy.

Citing Robert Heinlein’s “juveniles” as his primary inspiration, Claremont’s vision for Star-Lord was one of unapologetic space opera, and so we have an adventure centering on intrigue inside a stellar empire, with nobles wearing capes on the bridges of their starships, and a nifty bit of meta story-telling where we’re asked to reflect on the anachronism of men fighting for the destiny of stars by dueling with swords …

John Byrne & Chris Claremont, Marvel Preview #11

There is imagination to burn in this story, told at a breathless pace with exciting elements absorbed on the fly. Peter Quill is afraid of his own powers and potential! Peter has a secret heritage! Our hero helms a sentient, shape-changing starship that appears to be in love with him! There’s a sprawling interstellar empire out there brimming with intrigue and adventure!

If this tale had the good fortune to come out after Star Wars, instead of a few months before, Star-Lord might have become an instant superstar. Instead, John Byrne and Terry Austin moved over to X-Men with Chris Claremont to change the face of superhero comics, and Star-Lord’s next outings — in Marvel Preview #14 and #15 — failed to build on that dynamite tale from #11. Chris Claremont returned to script, but Carmine Infantino was at best serviceable on pencils. These issues were also smaller in scope and spirit of adventure than the previous tale, as Claremont abandoned the fast-paced space opera derring-do of his previous tale, opting for a planet-of-the-week kind of story that centered on Peter’s relationship with “Ship.” Having “Ship” take on humanoid female form was an interesting step (and it provided Infantino an opportunity to draw “Ship’s” female avatar in various states of undress, hubba-hubba), but the development of Peter and “Ship’s” relationship felt forced and rushed. Rather than teasing out details of “Ship’s” true nature on-the-fly as Claremont had done in issue #11, much of the character’s mystery is explained away by the end of issue #15, and the character was less intriguing for being better understood.

Carmine Infantino & Chris Claremont, Marvel Preview #14

hubba hubba

Doug Moench took the reins of Star-Lord for his final black & white adventure in Marvel Preview #18, then shepherded the character into his color era in Marvel Super-Special #10 and Marvel Spotlight #6 and #7. Moench retained Claremont’s planet-of-the-week structure but also saw Star-Lord as a vehicle for morality plays, putting the character in situations that tested his avowed and emerging pacifism. The Marvel Spotlight books were also the first Star-Lord stories published in conventional comics format, and under a Comics Code Authority stamp, which had little effect on the story, save to make Star-Lord seem that much more like any other Marvel book — indeed, looking back at it, I can see seeds being planted for Star-Lord’s eventual transition to the Marvel Universe.

Marvel Spotlight #6

The books themselves, ably illustrated by Tom Sutton, aren’t especially memorable. All of issue #6 is spent recapping and subtly cleaning up Star-Lord’s origin; issue #7 puzzlingly recaps the recap, before offering a talky and vaguely preachy parable where Peter gets involved in a karmic conflict on a planet called Heaven (which makes the preachy part inevitable, I suppose). Star-Lord seemingly becomes more homogenous by the page, but at least Moench and Sutton pull off the most convincing (and maybe the first) demonstration of the value of Star-Lord’s element gun to date.

Tom Sutton & Doug Moench, Marvel Spotlight #7

Star-Lord continued his nomadic publication ways, next appearing in Marvel Premiere #61, a Moench tale where all the gears were on the outside. “Planet Story” was a (you guessed it) planet-of-the-week story crossed with a (ta-da!) morality play. Using a bifurcated narrative to tell the same story twice, Star-Lord first encounters what from his point of view is a sentient planet along the lines of Harry Harrison’s Deathworld, where every rock and vine is out to kill him. Then we see the same tale from the living planet’s point of view, where all it wants is … love (sniff).

Marvel Premiere #61, Tom Sutton

This is all well and good, but Star-Lord has completely jumped the rails by this point. The promise of that warts-and-all-origin story and that spectacular, swashbuckling sophomore outing have given way to weak-sauce, second-tier Green Lantern-style stories. Marvel must have felt the character had come adrift, as well, as Star-Lord’s next appearance was in 1982’s Star-Lord Special Edition #1, which reprinted that great Star-Lord tale from Marvel Preview #11 (this time in color), and added a few pages of story wrapper that saw Peter reconciled with his actual and mysterious birth father, and rocketing off to new adventures with “Ship” and his old man.

Star Lord, now in color!

Star-Lord seemed to know who he was, even if his creators didn’t

And that was the end of Star-Lord. The name would next be used for a successor character, in Timothy Zahn’s 1990s-era series, before the character formally entered the Marvel Universe in 2004’s Thanos #8-12. By this point, the character was practically unrecognizable from his origins, with Peter blinged out with cybernetic inputs, “Ship” long gone, and a new uniform replacing those elegant 1970s threads of yore.

As an original vintage loyalist and curmudgeon of the first order, I came into this blog locked and loaded to blast this new character as not really being “my” Star-Lord (or Star Lord, as he is known in this brave, new, hyphen-less future) … but you know what? I can’t do it.

I can’t do it for two reasons.

Starlord re-design

First, the new Star Lord is an entertaining character. I hate the costume — he looks like a bellhop — but as Han Solo writ small and tasked with holding together the quarrelsome and bizarre new Guardians of the Galaxy, Star Lord is more readable than at any time since his inaugural appearances. His connection to that original character is one of name only but Star Lord works well in an ensemble format (who knew?).

Second, re-reading these Star-Lord books after so many years, I see there was no “there” there with the Star-Lord of my acquaintance. I thought I was a Star-Lord fan, but I see now that all I really had were memories of a promising origin story and a dynamite Claremont/Byrne/Austin space opera. Everything else published under the Star-Lord name was pretty dire — a rattling box of disparate concepts that didn’t fit together at all.

And so I consign Star-Lord back to the airless tomb of the Longbox Graveyard with a poor overall letter grade and the recommendation that you read my in-depth review of Marvel Preview #11 over at StashMyComics.com, and then drop the best two bucks you will ever spend on a color copy of that story’s reprint in Star-Lord Special Edition #1. My own issues likely won’t see the light of day again unless they improbably skyrocket in value when Star Lord leads his Guardians of the Galaxy into cinematic battle in 2014 … but maybe I shouldn’t bet against it, given the odds this peculiar character has overcome to make it this far. I suspect the best part of Star-Lord’s story is still to come.

  • Title: Star-Lord
  • Published By: Marvel Comics, 1976-1982
  • Issues Rescued From The Longbox Graveyard: Marvel Preview #4, 14, 15, 18; Marvel Super-Special #10; Marvel Spotlight #6-7, Marvel Premiere #61, Star-Lord Special Edition #1
  • LBG Letter Grade For This Run: C-minus
  • Read The Reprint: MyComicShop.com

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #87 By Any Other Name: Darkseid

Super-Diva Team-Up

Longbox Graveyard #48

Super-villains should rule the world.

It’s simple math. There are more super-villains than there are superheroes. A lot more.

Every superhero has an arch-nemesis. Some — like Spider-Man and Batman — have dozens of them. And every hero has a host of lesser villains that pop up, time and again, to give them grief. Even when heroes band together, all they get are more villains! When the Avengers Assemble they don’t catch a break — they have to contend with the likes of Count Nefaria, Ultron, Kang the Conquerer, and Korvac in addition to the villain-of-the-week in their normal books!

The bad guys must outnumber the good by 25:1 — maybe more! If the villains ever get on the same page, the world is doomed. So why hasn’t it ever happened?

Super-Villain Team-Up tells us why: super-villains are divas.

Super-villains argue over everything! Whether they should team-up in the first place, what their goals should be, who should be the boss.

They’re touchy, too. Very prideful, these super-villains. The headlining alliance of Super-Villain Team-Up between Dr. Doom and the Sub-Mariner falls apart on every other page in this book, largely because neither man can accept that they need the other.

And they’re mistrustful. It’s a staple of the Marvel Universe that heroes go brain dead when they run into each other, and slug it out for a few pages before they remember they’re on the same side. The bad guys have that same dynamic in spades.

Add to this their poor PR instincts — self-identifying in groups like The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants and The Masters of Evil — and I guess we can conclude that super-villains are their own worst enemies.

So, too, was Super-Villain Team-Up its own worst enemy.

There’s a kernel of a cool concept in this book — late 1970s Marvel super-villains chewing the scenery and battling the world (and each other) for global domination. At it’s best, Super-Villain Team-Up is full of Grand Guignol and low-stakes action, like an all-villain WWE wrestling match where you can’t predict the outcome. For the most part, though, Super-Villain Team-Up is an incoherent mess.

Many of Marvel’s books had rotating creators through the seventies but Super-Villain Team-Up must set some kind of record. In seventeen regular issues — and two Giant Size editions — this book had an astonishing sixteen different creative teams! That’s right, almost more creative teams than there were issues published! That’s quite a trick. Take a deep breath and try to read them out all at once …

Roy Thomas/John Buscema, Thomas/Larry Lieber, Thomas/Mike Sekowsky, Tony Isabella/George Tuska, Isabella/George Evans, Isabella/Sal Buscema, Jim Shooter/Evans, Bill Mantlo/Herb Trimpe, Steve Englehart/Trimpe (for three whole issues — stability!), Englehart/Keith Giffen (so much for stability), Mantlo/Shooter (now on pencils!), Mantlo/Bob Hall (another streak of three!), Mantlo/Giffin, Mantlo/Hall (they’re back … But now the book is cancelled!), then Mantlo/Hall again as they finish off the series in Champions #16, but wait the book is back from the dead a full year later with a reprint of Astonishing Tales #4-5 by Lieber/Wally Wood, then finished out with a two-part Red Skull story by Peter Gillis/Carmine Infantino and Gillis/Arvell Jones!

Phew! They should have called this book Super-Bullpen Team-Up for all the guys that pitched in on the series. And don’t even ask about the inkers on this book!

With the revolving door of creators spinning off its hinges it’s no wonder the book jumps the rails almost from the outset.

In a confusing start to what would always be a confusing series, Super-Villain Team-Up launched with a pair of Giant Size issues that stitched together new material and reprints to explain how Doctor Doom survived some death trap in the pages of Fantastic Four, then was rescued by Namor, the Sub-Mariner, who was bitter over cancellation of his own book and the nerve gas that has rendered his dull, fishy Atlantean subjects unconscious.

After arguing for a couple books about who should be the boss and if they even need to be a team (pausing for multiple flashbacks and a revolt of Doom’s androids), the two kinda-sorta agree that it might be cool to conquer the world together.

But first, the most villainous menace of them all — backstory!

Marvel was pretty good about finishing out stories from cancelled books, but Super-Villain Team-Up went overboard trying to wrap up the loose ends from Sub-Mariner’s book, which bit the dust after issue #72. Were you clamoring for more Hydrobase Amphibians, Octo-Meks, Attuma, Dr. Dorcas, Men-Fish, and Ikthon? Neither was anyone else — but that’s what we get, as Namor is fish-slapped around by his C-level rogue’s gallery for most of the (non-Giant Sized) first issue of the run, giving Dr. Doom the opportunity to intervene and seal his alliance with Sub-Mariner. But nothing lasts forever — or even for an issue or two in this book — and no sooner have Doom and Subby put paid to Namor’s dull opponents than Doom and Namor are at each others throats again. Doom disables Namor’s pimp suit and robs him of his ability to live outside of water, then bombards Atlantis for good measure, winning a vow from Namor to serve him.

As the writers come and go, the story makes less and less sense. Doom is captured, somehow, by the Atlanteans, while Namor is smuggled out of Latveria by the Circus of Crime (!). A cross-over with the Avengers makes things even more confusing. And don’t even ask about the inexplicable guest appearance from Deathlok’s Simon Ryker in issue #4, or the most shocking guest-star of all … Henry Kissinger!

The book gets its feet back under itself around issue #10, when the Red Skull joins the cast. A sure way to make Dr. Doom seem like a swell guy is to match him against someone more evil, and there’s no one more evil than the Red Skull. The series peaks in issue #12. Forget the details and the backstory — here’s the setup. The Red Skull has taken advantage of Doctor Doom’s apparent death to fill the power vacuum in Latveria, building an orbital death ray using Doom’s technology and occupying Doom’s throne himself! After a preliminary battle, the two move to the moon … and here, we see the promise of Super-Villain Team-Up fulfilled at last, as Doctor Doom and the Red Skull engage in hand-to-hand battle on the surface of the moon!

We get this …

… and this …

… and this …

… and THIS!

(And you can see a lot more of Super-Villain Team-Up #12 over at this entry from the highly-recommended Diversions of the Groovy Kind).

After the moon story we got a pretty good wrap-up to the book’s long-running Doom/Subby story (which you can read in it’s entirety in my guest post over at Mars Will Send No More) and then a Twilight-Zone style tale where Doctor Doom had conquered the world with an invisible gas, but the victory rung hollow because no one was aware of his triumph. It was a gimmicky story, but still entertaining, and was further evidence this book had finally found its way.

But by then of course it was long past too late for this crazy concept of a book. An orphan, bi-monthly book in an era where Marvel would cancel a comic without a second thought, the odds were always against Super-Villain Team-Up, and the rotating creative teams, changing focus, and erratic publication schedule were too much for the poor book to bear. The series was cancelled, only to inexplicably reappear a year later with a Red Skull story that was frankly a bit too grim, with Herr Skull and Hate Monger (nee Hitler) lording it over their own private concentration camp.

And then the book was done for good. It’s a shame, as I still like the concept and it fit the late-1970s Marvel editorial approach well. The premise is too goofy to work under the current grim-and-gritty Marvel editorial style (and a 2007 attempt to resurrect the series under Modok was scuttled after a half-dozen issues). I suppose the miracle isn’t that the book was ever any good, but that it existed at all.

At least we got some groovy covers, like …

… and …

… and this timeless image of Doom über alles.

To generalize, and putting on my Goldilocks wig (DON’T try to imagine that!), I can say that the Giant Size books and issues #1-11 were too silly, issues #16-17 were too serious, and issues #12-14 were just right. It was with issues #12-14 (all scripted by Marvel’s jack-of-all-books, Bill Mantlo) that the series dialed it in right for me — these issues were all about melodramatic villains chewing the scenery and beating the crap out of each other. It’s a bumper crop of awesome, highlighted by Doctor Doom stomping around, talking about himself in the third person, showing off a never-ending supply of gadgets and acting all noble and Bond-villain smooth. If the earlier issues had adopted a similar tone, and treated my old favorite Namor with the same aplomb … ah, what might have been!

In a previous column I said it was rare to find a genuinely dreadful 1970s Marvel book … and Super-Villain Team-Up might be the exception that proves that rule. I love those late Mantlo issues enough that I won’t “Fail” the book like I did John Carter, or demolish it with a “D” as I did Deathlok. Super-Villain Team-Up earns a passing grade — but just barely, and only because Doom is giving me a hard stare!

(And no one wants to disappoint a super-diva!)

King of the Monsters!

Longbox Graveyard #43

The long and winding road that has been the Longbox Graveyard has taken some unexpected side trips. When I began this blog I intended it only as a means of keeping myself on track as I cataloged and sold off my Accumulation of unwanted comics.

But a funny thing happened on the way to eBay … I started reading my comics again, and found that I kinda sorta still liked them. After decades away from funny books, suddenly I was hip deep in the buggers, not only reviewing favorite books like Conan and Thor, but also looking at newer series like Ed Brubaker’s run on Captain America, and even exploring the intersection of comics and technology with books like Operation Ajax and the vintage comics on offer through Marvel’s Digital subscription service.

Surprises all! What I never expected — with so many issues of Master of Kung Fu, Fantastic Four, Batman, Daredevil, and Swamp Thing as yet unexamined — was that I would devote an entire column to Marvel’s Godzilla.

Inspiration comes when you least expect it. There I was, arguing the merits of John Carter with fellow blogger Mars Will Send No More when the conversation turned — as it will among learned men — to the merits of fictional T-Rexes. Before I knew it I was committed not only to reviewing Godzilla, but also to participating in a March Madness T-Rex Beat-Down tournament (for the results of which, mouse over to Mars’ blog).

Mars and I don’t always see eye-to-eye, but I echo his blog comments excluding Godzilla from our tournament, and not merely because Godzilla isn’t a proper T-Rex. As Mars put it, “… Godzilla annihilates everything, everyone, everywhere, always. And any story where he didn’t is a lie.” Godzila is an outsized character who can’t help but dominate any scene he enters, whether he’s sharing the stage with a field of cinematic dinosaurs or the headline characters of the Marvel Universe.

Godzilla annihilates the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier (and the Golden Gate Bridge for good measure)

And so what of Marvel’s Godzilla? Does this big green galoot annihilate everything and everyone, everywhere and always? Or is Marvel’s version of the King of Monsters a big pile of lies?

My plan was to review just those Godzilla books I had in the Accumulation — issues one to six or so — but after the first half dozen books I found myself unaccountably caught up in the admittedly thin story. So rather than dump my Godzillas for pennies on eBay, I instead went into WonderCon determined to fill out my run, but found that the dealers on the convention floor thought their Godzilla back-issues were worth ten bucks a pop.

Hey, I like the book, but there’s a limit. My first impulse was to review what I had and offer the first “incomplete” grade on the Longbox Graveyard report card, but then thirteen bucks and a trip to eBay secured a copy of the black & white Essential Godzilla, and the great Godzilla review project was on once more!

So what was the deal with Godzilla, anyways? The year was 1977, and Marvel would try just about anything, including adding the Godzilla license to the Marvel Universe. What could have been a disaster was instead a workman-like book in the tradition of late 1970s Marvel, where solid editorial standards and dependable mid-list talent ensured a firm floor for the entire comics line. It’s rare to find a truly dreadful Marvel book from the late 70s, and thanks to an energetic effort from the Doug Moench on scripts and a professional job from penciller Herb Trimpe we have two years of Godzilla books that for the most part deliver the goods — neither very good nor very bad, but always entertaining and probably better than the series had any right to be.

A snappy first issue introduces Godzilla to the Marvel Universe (and you can read that issue online, in it’s entirety, over at Mars Will Send No More). It does feel like Marvel was hedging their bets, at least at first. Pitting Godzilla against S.H.I.E.L.D. was an inspired choice, but we get the S.H.I.E.L.D. B-team here, with secondary Helicarriers commanded by Dum Dum Dugan rather than the iconic Nick Fury. When Godzilla stomps Alaska, Seattle, San Francisco, and San Diego in short order, it really should get the attention of the Avengers and Fantastic Four (but we will have to wait until the end of the series for that moment). Rather than scrambling even the B-team Defenders to the rescue, we get the forgettable Champions for a serviceable superhero battle with the Big G most memorable for Hercules taking down Godzilla with a judo flip.

The Marvel Universe has always been New York-centric, but you figure it would get national attention when Godzilla destroys Hoover Dam, stomps Las Vegas, and wrecks Salt Lake City during a battle with bizarre space monsters … but Godzilla is still regarded as a hoax when he finally makes it to Manhattan in issue #20, and only then do Marvel’s most iconic heroes scramble for a pretty decent superhero fight against Godzilla.

(image grabbed from Comic Vine)

But I’m not sure Moench could have handled Godzilla any other way. In contemporary terms, Godzilla attacking the United States would warrant a summer’s worth of Marvel Comics cross-overs, bleeding into every book in the line, but in 1978 Moench and Marvel elected to keep Godzilla partitioned in his own little bubble of the Marvel Universe. The only alternative would have been to go right at it — to deeply integrate Godzilla in the line with increasingly improbable cross-overs every issue, which would have been a hoot with an absurdist writer like Steve Gerber or David Anthony Kraft, but there’s no way it could have been a sustainable premise.

Instead, Moench went to the Marvel monster playbook, adopting the tropes on display in books like Man-Thing, Tomb of Dracula, and even Hulk, where his title character is a remote and sometimes unfathomable anti-hero, while the subplots and characterization revolve around supporting characters trying to help or hinder the star of the book. And this proves one of the weaknesses of Godzilla. Along with the aforementioned S.H.I.E.L.D. back-up squad we have a team of generic Japanese scientists trying to stop Godzilla, including a twelve-year-old boy who (of course) bonds with a giant robot to fight the monster that he is convinced is good at heart.

Godzilla versus obligatory giant robot Red Ronin

In the first year of the book, Moench also gets some play out of examining Godzilla’s motivation. Is he a rampaging monster, or a misunderstood victim? The cast eventually comes down on Godzilla’s side, but Dum Dum Dugan needs some convincing.

The second year of the book is a little more whimsical, and while the plot contrivances of pitting Godzilla against cowboys (in a distant echo of Valley of the Gwangi), or having Godzilla shrunk down by Hank Pym’s reducing gas to fight rats in the sewers of New York will make Godzilla purists apoplectic, I found the less leaden tone of these later tales more entertaining. The last half of the book also gave me a renewed appreciation for Herb Trimpe, about whom I always thought the best I could say is that he wasn’t Sal Buscema. Trimpe struggles with facial expressions — Dum Dum’s cigar pops out his mouth the hundred-odd times he wears his “surprised” face, which is identical to his “angry” face. There are plenty of those recycled Trimpe panels where a character’s foreshortened index finger fills half the frame, as someone points, blank-faced, at something happening beyond our view. But Trimpe has real strengths when it comes to draftsmanship, and the backgrounds of his New York are appropriately detailed and authentic. The two-part western interlude also let Trimpe draw horses — Trimpe got his start doing western comics, and he draws good horses, something that’s not as common among comic book artists as you might think.

And he pulled off the odd inspired Godzilla panel, too.

In all, Godzilla does what you’d expect. Our hero stomps a bunch of cities, and he battles but is never really beaten by S.H.I.E.L.D. and Marvel’s superheroes. He crosses-over with Devil Dinosaur, fights a sewer rat, and he shares a panel with Spider-Man. He’s at the center of some ridiculous story lines (at one point reduced to human-size, led around the New York Bowery in a hat and trench coat!), but it didn’t bother me as I’m one of those ignorant gaijin who finds it hard to parse “Godzilla” and “quality” in the same sentence. No matter these indignities, Godzilla emerges from his weird, twenty-four-issue Marvel odyssey with his reputation intact, clearly still King of the Monsters, and having delivered a solid, entertaining run of comic books.

trench coat Godzilla!

Godzilla in a trench coat! (image via Tars Tarkas.net)

In all, Marvel’s Godzilla isn’t a bad read. I won’t tumble to the inflated prices those WonderCon guys want for this book, but I’d happily fish an issue or two out of the dollar box, and the out-of-print but readily-available black & white Essential Godzilla is an inexpensive way to experience this series for yourself. Where else where you see Thor bonk Godzilla on the nose with his enchanted hammer?

Yep, that happened. Godzilla really was part of the Marvel Universe! A second-class citizen, sure, and this might seem a second-rate book. But Godzilla is not a second-rate effort. Sometimes comics are art, but most of the time comics are just comics, and as a guy who wrote a lot of inventory assignments himself, I have genuine admiration for the team that turned in such consistent effort along the way to bringing this self-contained run to a satisfactory conclusion. I doubt I’ll go back to this series, but I’m happy to have spent a couple nights with Godzilla, stomping through the Marvel Universe. Hail to the King!

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #44 Superhero Music Top Ten

Catching Lightning

Longbox Graveyard #15

Continuing my appreciation of Walt Simonson’s seminal run on Thor

Two weeks ago I looked at the way Walt Simonson handled Thor’s mythological background and supporting cast. This week I’ll dig in directly on the first part of Simonson’s celebrated era with a look at issues #337-353 of Thor.

There were a lot of parts scattered on the floor when Simonson took over this book. Thor has been many things through the years — cosmic hero, earthly doctor, Avenger, thunder god, and good old fashioned superhero. Unlike Jim Starlin, who would reinvent his cosmic heroes by sending them off into a corner of space he could make his own, Simonson roots his Thor in the Marvel Universe, giving him a stake in mortal affairs and having him turn to Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. to fashion a new civilian identity — Thor even absurdly calls into work to explain his absence when he was distracted by saving the universe.

At the same time, Simonson expanded Thor’s canvas, by teaming him with Beta Ray Bill to battle an alien invasion from the heart of the galaxy, and putting Thor on the front lines of a fire demon invasion of Asgard. It is this juxtaposition of the infinite and the mundane that gives Thor its unique strength — and as I enthused in part one of this review, Simonson was unequaled in the way he handled this aspect of the series.

I won’t cover Simonson’s storyline in detail — Chris Sims already did a great job of hitting the highlights of this run over at Comics Alliance — and I don’t want to spoil the tale should you choose to read one of the many reprints that are presently available. But to paint in broad strokes, this first part of Simonson’s run sees Thor called to defend earth and Asgard, first against a mysterious alien spaceship, then later against a “wild hunt” invasion led by dark elves, and finally a last stand of the gods against Surtur, the fire demon fated to destroy the universe (a DOOM-driven subplot Simonson developed, one page at a time, for the better part of a year before bringing events to their climax).

Along the way we see Thor gain a new civilian identity and attend to the prayers of “the last Viking,” and we’re also treated to rich subplots revolving around Sif, Baldur, and Odin. The run examines themes of duty, destiny, depression, and obsession, but mostly it is a broad and fast-moving adventure story told with style, humor, and joy.

It started with a bang.

Simonson literally blew up Thor when he took over the book with issue #337, with his signature creation — the “alien Thor,” Beta Ray Bill — shattering the old Thor logo on cover. But Simonson wasn’t kicking over the card table, however it seemed at the time — when Beta Ray Bill does the impossible, and lifts Thor’s hammer, it reminds us of Thor’s original virtues, and serves to deepen our appreciation for Thor when we see his noble reaction to being replaced, however briefly, by an alien interloper.

It’s a clever storytelling judo-flip, and it wouldn’t be the first time Simonson took the book in unexpected directions. But even when Thor turns into a frog (!), the book remained on the rails, thanks to Simonson’s life-long study of the series. Simonson grew up on Marvel comics — in the letters column of issue #347, Simonson reveals how his life was touched when Stan Lee sent him a missing Thor back-issue when he was a teen — and by building respectfully on the foundation established by Kirby & Lee that he absorbed as a youth, Simonson restored a book that had foundered for several years to the top of Marvel’s line with expansive pencils and deft scripting that made everything old seem new again.

One of the things that makes this series sing is that it is a tale that can be told only in comics. This isn’t a novel masquerading as a comic — the action is relentlessly visual, and while Simonson isn’t afraid to write thought balloons or have his characters speak aloud their inner monologues, neither does he descend into long dialogue sequences at the expense of action. Likewise, this book isn’t auditioning to be a movie — the action is cheerfully compressed, without regard for cinematic conventions, and we crazily jump between storylines in the best tradition of serial adventure comic books. With dozens of speaking roles, and action that sprawls across time and space, Simonson’s epic would require three movies and hundreds of millions of dollars to bring to the screen — and that film would still be inferior to this comic book form, where we effortlessly change focus and dip in and out of multiple characters’ minds in a fashion that comics, of all forms of fiction, still does best.

This is a big story, drawn with bold lines — Simonson’s landscapes are wide and clean, with the night sky above Asgard swarming with rainbow rays and Kirby Dots. Those landscapes are peopled by heroes with heart — tormented champions like Baldur and Beta Ray Bill, wise Odin, and steadfast Thor — but Simonson’s epic vision is leavened with the absurd, such as when Simonson cheerfully hangs a lampshade on the impossibility of Thor masquerading behind a simple pair of glasses … by having Thor bump into Clark Kent himself!

(for those who don’t obsess over the differences between DC and Marvel comics, this was an entirely unauthorized two-publisher cross-over)

The run is not flawless. Some of Simonson’s solutions smack of fiat — such as that possibly-too-cute-for-it’s-own-good secret identity bit with Clark Kent; or an ancient Casket of Winters, seemingly shattered beyond repair, but put back together by a determined old veteran with a tube full of superglue.

The story also expands as it goes along, and the series gets away from Simonson a bit. Compared to the brisk Beta Ray Bill stories that opened the run, the conclusion of the Surtur saga feels a little bloated. With so many supporting characters competing for spotlight time, there’s an entire issue (#352) where Thor does not appear at all — he’s knocked cold while Odin battles Surtur at the gates of Asgard — and Beta Ray Bill, the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, and the gods of Asgard wrestle with demons all across the earth.

But these are quibbles. Long time readers of Longbox Graveyard may remember my reply when this blog was invaded by Mars last July, when I wrote Simonson’s run was “… in some ways is a bridge (a rainbow bridge?) between the Bronze Age and what was to follow.” A dozen “issues” later, I stand by those words. Simonson’s Thor really is a bridge between the Bronze and Modern comics ages — a modern take on Silver and Bronze age comics tropes, fast-paced like the comics of old, with the big moment sensibility and epic visual scale of modern books.

This is how you reinvigorate a series. Simonson didn’t kill Thor, and he didn’t blow up Asgard. There was no rebooting, re-chewing, or renumbering. Just solid, fundamental storytelling, brilliantly drawn and scripted, respectful of the past but freshly framed and unafraid to adorn the mythos with new characters and legends. Simonson caught lightning with this classic run, giving us the finest Thor stories ever told and leaving the title better than he found it.

If you haven’t read these books, read them now. And if you’re already read them, then read them again.

And again.

And again …

  • Title: Thor
  • Published By: Marvel Comics, 1966-present
  • Issues Rescued From The Longbox Graveyard: #337-353, October 1983-March 1985
  • Your Opera & Chrome Overblown Big Hair Rock Soundtrack: Live Killers — Queen
  • LBG Letter Grade For This Run: A+

NEXT WEEK: #16 Top Ten Marvel Comics Characters

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