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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

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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