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Gamma Goes Grey: The Rampaging Hulk!

Longbox Graveyard #144

Once again, Paul has allowed me, your old pal, Dean Compton, to venture into the Bronze Age with you guys!  It’s funny, but I have noticed that whenever I get out of my 90’s comics bubble, (which all of you can read more about at The Unspoken Decade) and come here to chronicle some Bronze Age favorites, I only deal in the very bright (as my prior articles on SHAZAM! and All-Star Squadron prove) or the very seedy (Punisher, this article) elements of the age.  Just like Billy Joel, I don’t know why I go to extremes, but unlike Billy Joel, I allow characters like Hulk to take me to extremes.  Also unlike Billy Joel, I cannot play the piano.

Another thing Billy Joel and I do not have in common is the fact that he was a living, breathing being when The Rampaging Hulk debuted in 1977, while the world would have to wait with bated breath for two more years for me to emerge.  That’s just another reason for me to be jealous of Billy Joel.  I mean, he had a great career, he married Christie Brinkley, and he also had the chance to buy something as cool as The Rampaging Hulk right off the shelf.

The Rampaging Hulk Magazine #1 - Page 1

If your pulse doesn’t feel pounded after this first issue, you deserve your money back.

There’s no proof that Billy Joel frequented 7-11 after 7-11 while on tour, pushing back magazine after magazine until they were dog-eared so that he might find these Hulk comic books, but there really isn’t any proof that he didn’t either, and I prefer to think that we live in a world where the Piano Man demanded his tour bus stop at newsstands as he tried to find these.  I also prefer to think that his tour bus is shaped like a giant piano, so my thoughts are most likely not worth much.  Besides, isn’t that a funny image to have in your head now?

The images in The Rampaging Hulk usually are not so funny.  They tend to be somewhat visceral, as black and white does Bruce Banner’s green alter ego very well!  Of course, it does not hurt that we get some great art by several masters.  The first few issues are done by Walt Simonson in what i think may be his most underrated work ever, which is nothing short of a war crime in my book.

Before I show you any of that though, let’s discuss the magazine…I hear you whining,  Ok, one picture from Simonson, but then it is right back to the background behind The Rampaging Hulk!

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It isn’t just how beautiful the pictures look; it’s how magnificent of a storyteller that Walt Simonson is, and apparently always was.

Now that your appetite for Walt Simonson has been momentarily sated, let’s chat a bit about the background of this magazine.  It started in January of 1977, which is a good year and a half before Hulk debuted on TV. With issue #10 of the magazine’s run, the magazine will become full color and start to focus more on adventures like the ones TV Hulk would have, and it would also start to have lots of interviews with the cast and crew of the show. After those changes, I find myself disenchanted with the magazine.  I know this is probably blasphemous, but I have never cared for the Lou Ferrigno/Bill Bixby Hulk TV show.  Even as a youngster, I thought them to be cheesy and silly.  Later, when I saw the made-for-TV movies with Daredevil and Thor, I liked them more due to my penchant for crossovers, but I still hated the changes that were made to Thor and Daredevil.

That having been said, I wonder why this was launched when it was.  Was there an outcry for more Hulk material in 1976 and 1977?  Was this just added in anticipation of the TV show?  If it was added for the TV show, they did it in a rather odd way, as the first none issues deal with filling in gaps in Hulk’s history.

That’s right.  This title is set YEARS earlier than when it is released.  In fact, it is designed to fill in gaps between the end of Hulk’s original series (which only lasted six issues, believe it or not) and when he started appearing regularly in Tales to Astonish,so in many ways, this is one of the first “retcon” type of title.  Of course, it apparently caused more harm than good, and so later it was determined that these stories were all fake, told by one of the characters located therein. I find it sad that they could not work any of these into continuity (for whatever that is worth) because these issues are very fun and very solid.  Doug Moench writes most of them (Jim Starlin writes a GREAT issue) and while I do not think it stacks against his Master of Kung Fu or Moon Knight work, I still like it a lot, and it is probably unfair to make the comparison.  It is sort of like comparing albums by The Beatles.  I mean, Rubber Soul isn’t as good as Revolver, but they are both amazing albums by amazing creators.

One big complaint that I have about the magazine is that it did not really take advantage of its medium.  When I did my Punisher article here at LBG, I noted that the black and white magazines put out by Warren, Marvel, Skywald, and others during the 70’s had a dangerous vibe to them.  Many of them were a little more violent and offered a little more sexuality than color comic books (regulated by the code) could.  I was not interested in the Cinemax adventures of The Hulk, but I would have liked to have seen this medium used more effectively, even if the storylines were a little more mature with some social commentary and whatnot.  This magazine cost a buck in 1977, which means that the people who could afford it not only wanted more for their money, but they also were almost certainly an audience of an older age, one who would have expected some meatier stuff than what they got.  Jim Starlin’s issue has some excellent death/outer space imagery (IMAGINE THAT) that fits into the grindhouse/nigh-seedy feel of 1970’s black and white magazines, but the rest of the series sort of falls flat.

That doesn’t make it a bad read though, and in fact, I highly recommend it just for the art of Walk Simonson, George Perez, Jim Starlin, Kieth Giffen, and more!  In fact, there’s so much incredible imagery that it is going to be beyond difficult to keep this article to a manageable level; some of you probably already find it too wordy, so here’s some more Simonson!!!

The Rampaging Hulk Magazine #1 - Page 12

It’s the most awesome drawing of a staircase you have ever seen.

 I also want to give props to Alfredo Alcala for his great inking job; he makes Simonson come alive in a way I think many others could not.  Alcala is a favorite of many pros I know, and this really makes one see why.

The basic story is that Hulk is thwarting a secret invasion of Krylorians.  He does this working alongside his pal and the mascot of the Marvel Universe, Rick Jones.  Of course, we all are probably aware of how intertwined Bruce Banner and Rick Jones are due to Rick basically being the catalyst for the chain of events that formed Hulk, but in case you didn’t know, Walt Simonson and Doug Moench break it down in a really cool manner.

The second part of the origin story is above; Breaking all the rules!

The second part of the origin story is what I gave you when you were clamoring for Simonson; Breaking all the rules!

We see very little of the traditional Hulk supporting cast.  After issue #1, there’s no Better Ross, Thunderbolt Ross, or Glenn Talbot.  Due to flying saucers being spotted over London, Hulk and Rick Jones head for Italy.  What I especially enjoy though, is how jingoistic Thunderbolt Ross is.  I mean, there’s certainly no surprise that a general in the U.S. Army is very blindly patriotic, but few would convey it in as humorous a fashion as good ‘ol Thunderbolt.

The Rampaging Hulk Magazine #1 - Page 14

He calls the wine of Italians cheap while smoking a 15-cent cigar.

I have no idea what a milksop is, but I am working that into my everyday insult collection.  Instead of hurling expletives at the drivers in Atlanta, I will shoot a milksop or two at them.  My road rage is becoming more refined, and I feel like that makes me a better person.  It doesn’t, but at least it makes me feel like it.

That’s really the last we see of the usual gang of Hulk Hangers-On! (Hello Stan Lee alliteration)  Instead, Hulk and Rock head for Europe, where they meet the Krylorian who is on our side, Bereet!

That name may sound familiar, because she was the alien Starlord forgot he had aboard in the incredible Guardians of the Galaxy movie.  She is a neat character, and due to her gentle nature, status as a techno-artist, and neat tricks like a spatial distorter and a banshee mask that doubles as a supersonic ship!

The Rampaging Hulk Magazine #1 - Page 28

I feel like if I could just find that crown and put it on then I would become Space Emperor.

Once this trio joins forces, they gallant all across Europe, thwarting Krylorian plan after Krlylorian plan.  Their adventures also lead them to meet The Uncanny Original X-Men!  I do not know if Walt Simonson ever got to do the original X-Men elsewhere (other than a stint on X-Factor, which only sort of counts in my eyes), but he does them justice here.  His Danger Room sequence packs in more excitement than many other artists rendition of the X-Men in action against actual foes!

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You say that Cyclops, yet it looks like you are just playing a giant video game.

The Danger Room sometimes seems like a false danger, in that they are holograms and the like.  I know that these holograms can be deadly, but there’s something much more viscerally satisfying about watching these young mutants dodge spiked balls and knives on poles.  The danger comes to life, as it does when Simonson draws the Hulk completely unleashed!

The Rampaging Hulk Magazine #2 - Page 2

If this were the 90’s, I could make a “Talk to the Hand” joke. As it is, I will just let it go.

Moments like the X-Men’s arrival propel this title, but I think the best overall issue is the one Jim Starlin wrote and drew.  Jim Starlin has so much talent; I wonder if he could lend me some.  We often discuss Starlin and his greatness, and I think nearly everyone would agree that he is indeed one of the all-time greats, but I think we often overlook his ability to do good Hulk stories.  One of my favorite Hulk moments of all time happened in Infinity Gauntlet, where he and Wolvering are chatting on the roof of Avengers Mansion.  The dialogue is perfect, and the if the characterization where anymore spot on, Gordon Ramsay would be here to tell you all about it,

Jim Starlin also draws a tremendous Hulk, as evidenced by his bittersweet standalone story in The Rampaging Hulk.

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That’s some of my favorite Starlin work, and if that double-page splash doesn’t convince you of Starlin’s greatness, then I guess you only have about 439783498734983 other great things he did to convince you.  Something about the black and white of this magazine makes Starlin’s work sinister at the edges; that’s perfect for this book and the story he tells here, which takes Hulk away from the main tale of beating up Krylorians left and right.  Starlin does not ignore the main story though, as he bookends his tale of outer space and magic with how Hulk got there and how Hulk got home in one of those bittersweet tales that Jim Starlin is really good at doing.

The other two big highlights of the series are Hulk meeting people from the rest of the Marvel Universe before he “actually” would have met them.  His meeting with Namor, the Sub-Mariner is a 2-parter, and it is one of the highlights of the book to me.  Namor is a favorite of mine, and I love the line of nobility and savagery that he manages to walk!  Or is that swim?  OR EVEN FLY?  The possibilities remain endless!!!

A Hulk vs. Namor fight almost always delivers.  Namor’s arrogance and prodigious strength of his own almost never allow him to admit defeat in the face of a foe, even one as superior in strength as the Incredible Hulk, while Hulk, well, HUlk just wants to smash, of course.

I am unsure when Namor got all He-Man/Conan, but that is what he decided is necessary to beat Hulk on this cover.

The Rampaging Hulk Magazine #6 - Page 1

The Hulk in the corner box looks like he is trying to use Kung Fu on us. Wrong black and white mag, Hulk!

One thing is for sure, though; I have no problem believing that indeed, is the axe of Namor.  Look at how ornate it is.  Also, did they build a replica of the domed cities of Atlantis on his shield?  That seems pointless, seeing as how while it may look beautiful, that part of the shield is just gonna get crushed, unless you are fighting Hulk, in which case it will get SMASHED.

I especially like the post fight sequence where Namor sees off the Hulk and the Hulk’s pals.

The Rampaging Hulk Magazine #6 - Page 40

Namor has a friend-crush on Hulk!

Also, Namor obviously lays down his smooth game on Bereet, as they become smitten with each other.  I am glad Namor is not real, lest he would steal every single lady living on the surface…and some of the married ones too!  Just ask poor Reed Richards!  (By the way, I think there is no contest.  As much as I love Namor, Sue and Reed belong together.  Butt out Atlantean!!!!)

Also, isn’t it funny how Namor is talking up how green Hulk is?  I mean, we all know he is green and all, but it tickles my funny bone to see Namor refer to him as green when the comic book is black and white.  It shouldn’t, but hey, it’s a little pleasure, and if life isn’t about little pleasures, what do we have?  Maybe a Hulk vs. Avengers story?

The last two issues before the magazine went color featured Hulk taking on/teaming up with the original Avengers…BEFORE THEY WERE AVENGERS!  I find it a smidge surreal to see, but it gets pulled off fairly well, and if you say you aren’t intrigued by this cover featuring the funeral of crystal-encased Hulk, you’re guilty of perjury in the court of comic books, son!

The Rampaging Hulk Magazine #9 - Page 1

Thor is too cool to actually hold Hulk up, which is why I think Iron Man has that look of horror on his face; he is unsure how much longer he can support the weight of the Hulk. I see Wasp and Ant-Man back there, but no way they are supporting that weight very well. Quit being a dick and put your hammer in your other hand, Thor!

Sal Buscema does a great job on this issue, as we wrap up the retcon portion of The Rampaging Hulk (which would be renamed “HULK” with the following issue) with a bang.  The story starts in #8, and it is a really good example of the Marvel “when heroes meet” formula, in that when heroes meet in the Marvel Universe, they fight.

A lot.

One of those fights that I think we all love, is Hulk vs. Thor.  Thor, the noble warrior, the scion of Asgard, and the sort of arrogant prick, takes on Hulk, who is savage, unrelenting, and uncaring.  I think that on the surface, we are all required to cheer for Thor, but deep down, many of us hope Thor gets put in his damn place.  It’s sort of like watching a car chase on Cops.  I mean, we know that the people speeding away did something wrong and are causing problems, but man, those cops act so full of themselves and righteous that I’ll be damned if we don’t start cheering for the bad guys to get away about 3 minutes into the chase.

Unless you are me, then you are cheering for the bad guys the whole time (unless they murdered someone or are putting too many other drivers/people in danger).  But I am of the 90’s folks, when things were extreme and we loved “Stone Cold” Steve Austin for being the bad guy!  To the kids reading, I have two things to say:  Mine is not the example to follow, and also, go read an actual comic book!

For the rest of you, here’s Thor and Hulk punching on one another.

The Rampaging Hulk Magazine #9 - Page 7

Hulk has some drawbacks, but man, is he loyal to his pals.

The Rampaging Hulk Magazine #9 - Page 8

If this happened today, that cop would have already tased Rick Jones.

The Rampaging Hulk Magazine #9 - Page 30 The Rampaging Hulk Magazine #9 - Page 31

So we get to see “The Avengers” team up and stave off a threat to the planet before they even existed!  I find great comfort in the fact that Hulk treats them about the same before, during, and after his tenure as an Avenger.  I like the world to be a simple place…at least sometimes.

The editor of the book provided an epitaph of sorts for The Rampaging Hulk era of this magazine:

Another of them?  The B & W mags must have been dropping like flies!

Another of them? The B & W mags must have been dropping like flies!

It is very true that some of the greatest artists stepped in to try their hand at Hulk.  I have already mentioned several of them, but I would be remiss if I did not show you some of what George Perez did.  Perez is, in my opinion, the best artist in comic book history not named Jack Kirby.  Controversial?  Perhaps, but no one makes the page live for me like him.

He never did a regular feature on The Rampaging Hulk, but he did do a pin-up gallery featuring the history of a few of Hulk’s associates and enemies:

The Rampaging Hulk Magazine #8 - Page 37 The Rampaging Hulk Magazine #8 - Page 39 The Rampaging Hulk Magazine #8 - Page 41

One thing I found fascinating about this gallery (and there are a couple more Perez Pin-Ups in the book) is that one can see the vast impact different inkers can have on the same penciller.  That’s something that can be hard to notice for the artistically disinclined such as myself.  Here though, it’s as blatant as a bank robbery in broad daylight where the perpetrator is dressed like the Hamburglar and is carrying big sacks with “$” on them.  The Stranger looks mighty different than the Silver Surfer.  Kieth Giffen gets to do his own gallery in issue #4, and he channels his best Jack Kirby!

The Rampaging Hulk Magazine #4 - Page 33 The Rampaging Hulk Magazine #4 - Page 35

I love Giffen’s work and how he has the ability to take on so many different styles.  Look at this next to his stuff from the 90’s, like Trencher, and one would be astonished to find out it was the same guy working on both.

The only other thing to really mention is the back-ups, but I won’t spend too much time on them.  For those picking up the magazine, like say, Billy Joel, they’d get treated to some sweet back-ups featuring Bloodstone, Man-Thing, and Shanna, the She-Devil, among others.

The back-ups are one of the most enticing elements to the black and white magazine boom of the 70’s.  I have heard many folks talk to me about Bloodstone.  I am not a huge fan, but just even just skimming through it made me realize that I will be back into these soon to learn more about this guy.  The Man-Thing stuff interested me a great deal, as Steve Gerber can really write that sort of character just so much better than anyone else.  Of course, it still could never live up to this pin-up:

The Rampaging Hulk Magazine #7 - Page 2

Woe to the lumberjacks to who have to cut down spiky trees for a living.

All in all, I’d say the series is solid.  I’d say it is must-read for Hulk fans, and a I would say the Simonson and Starlin issues (#1-4) are must read for any fans.  The rest is good, but one would not be missing out on something spectacular if one were not to grab them.  The series is a fun read, and the arch does definitively conclude in issue #9, so if you have the completionist bug and get #1, you will find it enticing enough to grab all 9.  I also think that these have been re-printed in an Essentials volume, which would be one of the rare Essentials that would not lose anything by now being in black and white.

I want to thank Paul again for letting me write about these Bronze Age gems!  I highly encourage you to check out all the cool stuff here if you haven’t, and when you are out of cool stuff here, come check out The Unspoken Decade!  JNCO Jeans are coming back, so why not check out some 90’s comic book action as well?  You’ll find it at The Unspoken Decade!  Let Paul and I know what you think below, and I am looking forward to my next article here at The Longbox Graveyard!  Hell, I am looking forward to Paul’s too!

NEXT MONTH: #145 Here Comes Daredevil!

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Longbox Graveyard Sidekick Showdown March Madness — Final Four!

The second round of the Longbox Graveyard Sidekick Showdown March Madness Tournament is in the books … and YOUR votes have determined the winner!

  • (1) Robin defeated (8) Speedy, 94/6
  • (4) Rick Jones defeated (5) Kid Flash, 55/45
  • (7) Wonder Girl defeated (2) Jimmy Olsen, 63/37
  • (3) Bucky Barnes defeated (6) Harley Quinn, 73/27

Very little in this round went as I expected!

Robin’s victory was no surprise, but I thought Speedy would put up more of a fight. Rick Jones trailed Kid Flash all week, until a suspicious avalanche of last minute votes propelled him to victory … which is completely in the spirit of this competition, so the result will stand! Wonder Girl easily defeated #2 seed Jimmy Olsen (despite a comment on Twitter that Wonder Girl isn’t a proper sidekick), while the Harley Quinn fans failed to turn out in a contest that saw Bucky Barnes waltz to an easy victory.

Full results are posted here.

However they got here … the Final Four of the Longbox Graveyard Sidekick Showdown March Madness Tournament is now set!

Superhero Sidekick Final Four!

A spirited semi-final awaits, with Marvel vs. DC match-ups in both games!

The Final Four has begun!

Final Four!

YOUR VOTE will decide who advances to the championship match! Vote below … vote early … and vote often! And tell your friends!

FINAL FOUR VOTING WILL CLOSE sometime in the evening of Saturday, April 5th. Championship match voting will open back here at Longbox Graveyard on Monday, April 7th!

VOTE NOW FOR YOUR FAVORITE SIDEKICKS, BELOW!

Robin … dominating his first two opponents, fully living up to his #1 seed … vs. Rick Jones, narrowly surviving two upset bids, now seeking to pull the ultimate upset himself!

Bucky Barnes … asked to beat up on another girl (not that it figured into his defeat of Harley Quinn) … vs. Wonder Girl, the tournament’s “Cinderella story,” the only lower seed to make it to the Final Four!

 Voting for the Final Four will end the evening of April 5th! 

(Cheer on your favorite sidekicks in the comments section, below!)

Longbox Graveyard Sidekick Showdown March Madness — Round of 8

The first round of the Longbox Graveyard Sidekick Showdown March Madness Tournament is complete … and YOUR votes have determined the winner!

  • (1) Robin defeated (16) Snapper Carr, 93/7
  • (8) Speedy defeated (9) Toro, 66/34
  • (4) Rick Jones defeated (13) Aqualad, 51/49  (1 vote difference!)
  • (5) Kid Flash defeated (12) Arthur The Moth, 74/26
  • (2) Jimmy Olsen defeated (15) Bob, Agent of Hydra,  75/25
  • (7) Wonder Girl defeated (10) Skeets, 64/36
  • (3) Bucky Barnes defeated (14) Stripesy, 89/11
  • (6) Harley Quinn defeated (11) Fallout Boy, 78/22

Full results are posted here.

The first round saw every favorite advance, so I suppose the tournament committee did their job correctly … though if we had it to do over again, we’d reverse the seeding of Rick Jones and Harley Quinn. But doing so would have robbed the first round of its most nail-biting contest, as Rick Jones defeated Aqualad by a single vote

Nail-Biter!

On paper I thought Rick Jones vs. Aqualad would be no contest … a triple-sidekick and winner of the Kree/Skrull War versus an obscure salt water sidekick … but it just goes to show that not everyone is stuck in 1978, and that Silver Age Rick Jones isn’t the star he used to be!

It’s also the best proof possible that every vote counts in this tournament! Let’s get on to the Round of 8!

Screen Shot 2014-03-23 at 11.49.20 AM

YOUR VOTE will decide who advances to the Final Four! Vote below … vote early … and vote often! And tell your friends!

SECOND ROUND VOTING WILL CLOSE sometime in the evening of Saturday, March 29th. Final Four voting will open back here at Longbox Graveyard on Monday, March 31st!

With the pretenders out of the way, it’s time for the contenders to prove their superhero mentors chose wisely in naming them their sidekicks! There are some tough choices here, and I expect at least one higher seed will fall!

ONLY YOU CAN DECIDE! VOTE NOW FOR YOUR FAVORITE SIDEKICKS, BELOW!

Robin … one of the few sidekicks who grew up to become a hero of his own … vs. Speedy, sidekick to Green Arrow, who sought his own identity as the adult Red Arrow!

Rick Jones … his best days as partner to the Hulk, Captain America, and Captain Marvel seemingly forgotten by fandom at large … vs. Kid Flash, the speedster-in-training who himself wore the mantle of the Flash for a decade!

Jimmy Olsen … cruising through the first round without once having to activate his signal watch … vs. Wonder Girl, seeking to overcome her tortured origins and step into the spotlight at last! 

Bucky Barnes … killer of Nazis and now back from the dead as the Winter Soldier … vs. Harley Quinn, fan favorite, doomed romantic, and Gotham City siren!

Voting for the Round of 8 will end the evening of March 30th! 

(And stump for your favorite sidekicks in the comments section, below!)

Longbox Graveyard Sidekick Showdown March Madness — Round of 16

March means the NCAA Basketball Tournament here in the United States, and while it is one of the greatest events in all of sport, there isn’t always a lot of cross over between hoop fanatics and the fans of four-color funnies that read Longbox Graveyard.

To keep my loyal readers from feeling left out (and to provide a port in the office pool storm for folks who wouldn’t know Wichita State from the Wicked Witch of the West), I’m hosting the Longbox Graveyard Sidekick Showdown! This single-elimination tournament will run between now and April 12th, with results announced here at Longbox Graveyard on Monday, April 14th!

Using a super-secret formula (which I made up on the spot), the Longbox Graveyard Tournament Selection Committee has seeded the sixteen top comic book sidekicks as follows!

Screen Shot 2014-03-12 at 9.13.31 PM

(Participants and seeds were assigned after consulting Wikipedia, Crave Online, Newsarama, and The Hero Complex!)

YOUR VOTE will decide the results of each round! Vote below … vote early … and vote often! And tell your friends!

FIRST ROUND VOTING WILL CLOSE sometime in the evening of Saturday, March 22nd. Second round pairings and voting will open back here at Longbox Graveyard on Monday, March 24!

Who will win the Sidekick Showdown? Will top seed Robin waltz to the final, or will hipster sentiment for drug-addled Speedy create an upset in his bracket? How will prohibitive favorites like Jimmy Olsen and Bucky Barnes fare against Cinderellas like Stripesy and Bob, Agent of Hydra? Can a very dangerous Harley Quinn ride her #6 seed all the way to the Final Four?

ONLY YOU CAN DECIDE! VOTE NOW FOR YOUR FAVORITE SIDEKICKS, BELOW!

Robin … the ORIGINAL boy sidekick … vs. Snapper Carr … sidekick to the entire Justice League of America!

Speedy … disgraced, drug-shooting sidekick to Green Arrow … vs. Toro … inexplicably flammable partner of the Original Human Torch!

Rick Jones … sidekick to the Hulk, Captain America, and Captain Marvel, and the Deus Ex Machina winner of the Kree/Skrull War … vs. Aqualad … lame salt-water sidekick to Aquaman, the biggest punchline in the DC Universe!

Kid Flash … to an entire generation, a greater speedster than his mentor, The Flash … vs. Arthur the Moth … ironic sidekick to the ironic Tick!

Jimmy Olsen … kid reporter and Superman’s pal … vs. Bob, Agent of Hydra … Deadpool’s favorite whipping boy!

Wonder Girl … Donny Troy, bum-rushed by DC time and again … vs. Skeets … partner and foil to Booster Gold!

Bucky Barnes … Captain America’s wartime partner, and the once and future Winter Soldier … vs. Stripesy … kinda-creepy adult sidekick to the teenaged Star-Spangled Kid!

Harley Quinn … fatally attracted to the Joker … vs. Fallout Boy … faithful companion of the Simpsons’ Radioactive Man!

Voting for this round has closed. Voting for the Round of 8 will commence on Monday, March 24th! 

(And sound off in support of your favorite Sidekicks … and complain about seedings and snubs … in the comments section, below!)

Captain Not-So-Marvelous

Longbox Graveyard #11

I’ve had pretty good luck resurrecting books from the Longbox Graveyard. Micronauts wasn’t as epic as I’d remembered, but Conan the Barbarian held up better than expected, and Walt Simonson‘s Thor is still brilliant (and will be reviewed soon!). I’ve read a few one-off books here and there that haven’t made it to this blog and for the most part I’ve enjoyed them. I’ve even worked up the courage to make a little Pandora-peek into the boxes containing my own work, and that wasn’t so bad as I’ve been dreading.

Returning to Jim Starlin’s run on Captain Marvel, though, was not so marvelous.

I found this run in 1974 with issue #34, the last of ten issues Starlin penciled for Captain Marvel in my Bronze Age heydays of the early 1970s. This was my first encounter with Starlin’s style, and just like “Nitro, the Exploding Man,” it blew me away!

I loved the pace, the fine-lined art style, and even the balls-out dialogue and attitude of what is really a pretty silly issue. From hints scattered in the book, it’s obvious that Jim Starlin knew he was leaving the strip, and I gather he wasn’t happy about it. Despite this, there was a raw energy to this issue that caused me to read it several times (a rarity in those days), and for the first time I flipped to the splash page and took note of who actually wrote and penciled a comic book: Jim Starlin. A creator I would follow in comics for years to come.

Apparently birthed to assert a copyright claim, Captain Marvel was a throw-away book. With ten creative teams in it’s first twenty-four issues, the series was a box of parts that didn’t fit by the time Starlin debuted on the book in issue #25.

Consider:

  • Captain Marvel himself is a block of wood as a character despite his potentially interesting backstory as an exiled Kree warrior.
  • Rick Jones is even worse, popping off seventies slang and pursuing an irredeemably boring career as a folk singer.
  • Rick and Marv are linked to each other by “Nega Bands” that allow them to swap places between our world and the Negative Zone, a gimmick that got old the first time it happened.
  • Marv is dependent on “photonic energy” that lessens his powers at night.
  • Rick’s personal storyline is mostly mooning over his girlfriend, Lou Ann, who did nothing memorable save being enslaved by the Controller.

It was a mess. Captain Marvel was an empty vessel with a bunch of random concepts slapped on him like tattered handbills. It was just the kind of tertiary Marvel book that was ripe for reinvention in the hands of an ambitious creator.

Enter Jim Starlin. Having gotten his start with a few issues of Iron Man (where he introduced his signature creation, Thanos), Starlin quickly deployed that villain here, thrusting Captain Marvel into an interplanetary war where Thanos is using the moon base of Titan as the staging point for his invasion of Earth and then the entire galaxy.

A decade later, Alan Moore would become the master of franchise reinvention, by going inward — his Captain Marvel would have been an exiled warrior suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, dogged by war crimes charges, hunted by the Kree secret service and recruited by corrupt nobility to lead a coup on his homeworld. Hey, I’d read that! I’d even like to write it.

When Starlin reinvented Captain Marvel, he went outward — expanding the scope of the book by co-opting the largely undeveloped “universe” part of the Marvel Universe, creating new characters and backstory that he could make his own. Problem was, all this expansion just cast into stark relief how flat Captain Marvel really was. Against Starlin’s cosmic canvas, Captain Marvel was less interesting than ever. He was a black hole at the center of Starlin’s dynamic universe.

I knew none of that at the time. So impressed was I by that issue #34 that I tracked down back issues of Starlin’s run, and while I liked them enough thirty years ago, I see in them now the echoes of better books. Clearly influenced by Jack Kirby’s New Gods, Starlin roped in cosmic concepts like Olympian gods in exile, a planet-wide computer intelligence, and a divine father, son, and brother engaged in civil war.

Unfortunately, these ambitious elements are little more than window dressing for a book that is for the most part standard superhero fare. When Captain Marvel fights the Controller or the Thing it’s like any other Bronze Age Marvel book — big dumb guys hitting each other with chunks of buildings and saying out loud whatever expository nonsense is on their minds. Scarcely an issue goes by without a gratuitous guest appearance by Iron Man or the Avengers. Throw in the origin of Drax the Destroyer — who is turned into a star-spanning spirit of vengeance while driving his family home from an Elvis concert in Las Vegas (!) — and you have a comic book favorite sandwich.*

Young Starlin is still finding his way as a penciler here, and while his layouts are sometimes something to behold, his anatomy is stiff and his facial expressions — aside from the broad, grim faces of Thanos and the Controller — don’t convey a lot. While the plots are entertaining, the scripting isn’t great. The first issues are written by Mike Friedrich, who seems to fully understand he’s just the most recent writer through the revolving door on this book. He’s eventually shouldered aside by Starlin, who evolves from plotter, to co-writer, to writer on the book, but then goes into such hyperbolic overdrive that the dialogue actually drops a notch on the Bombast-O-Meter when Steve Englehart comes in to write the last couple issues.**

The books do have transcendent moments. When Thanos and Drax confront each other, or when Captain Marvel gets his brain turned inside-out by Eon, we see the future Starlin emerge. Channeling Steve Ditko, Starlin’s cosmos becomes a starfield populated by menacing maws, eyeballs, skulls, and faces, and his layouts twist in fractured spirals to suggest infinite struggles and strange destinies, a kind of crazy mash-up of superhero showdown and the last reel of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Starlin is groping toward something larger when he positions the Captain as a kind of enlightened Zen warrior who is at one with the universe, but the concept is vaguely developed and rings hollow when Cap has to keep reminding us how enlightened he is, usually by admonishing an enemy for using violence just before hitting him with something heavy. Starlin gets points for trying, with a bonus for degree of difficulty, but in the end, Cap’s “Cosmic Awareness” is just another one of those weathered handbills slapped on his red-and-blue hide.

All sins are forgiven, though, when Starlin reveals Thanos’ motivation for wanting to destroy the universe. Thanos steps free from the shadow of Jack Kirby’s Darkseid when he reveals that he pursues universal genocide in the name of love!

Captain Marvel #25-34 is an idiosyncratic and uneven run, highlighted by outbreaks of cosmic concepts that aren’t always properly realized on the page. The series veers between standard superhero beat downs, to the secrets of the universe, to teen romance, to space ship battles, to shady music promoters — from issue to issue, even page to page, you don’t know what you’re going to get.

Viewed as Starlin’s first full experience in comics, we can see his craft improving and elements and obsessions come onto the stage that will be better realized in his later Warlock series.*** On it’s own, though, Captain Marvel #25-34 escapes the Longbox Graveyard for nostalgia alone. They have been bagged, boarded, and entered into the database, but as was the case with Micronauts, I doubt these books will come out of their plastic again.

NEXT WEEK: #12 Top Ten DC Comics Characters

*Favorite Sandwich — Term attributed to an old colleague who characterized first year art projects as an unholy pile of everything someone liked, even if they didn’t go together … like piling ham, ice cream, potato chips, and scrambled eggs into the same sandwich.

**Remember! My beloved Steve Englehart! Ends every! Sentence! With an exclamation mark!!

***And I’m not setting myself up for more disappointment — I peeked ahead, and those Warlock books are a lot better.

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