Super-Blog Team-Up returns with a Doctor Strange-driven look at magic in comics! Now, Halloween was last week, so I’m a couple days late for Dracula, but with his movie out this week, I’m right on time for Doctor Strange … and it’s always time for Bronze Age Marvel here at Longbox Graveyard. So let’s jump right in as Doctor Strange battles Dracula, Lord of Vampires!
This two-part crossover began in Tomb of Dracula #44, smack-dab in the middle of the classic run by Marv Wolfman, Gene Colan, and Tom Palmer. I’ve sung the praises of Tomb of Dracula here at Longbox Graveyard before (twice!) — it really might have been the finest Marvel comic of its age. And one of the reasons the book worked so well was that writer and editor Marv Wolfman largely kept Dracula and his tales sequestered from the rest of the Marvel Universe. While Drac would encounter Spider-Man and Thor in other titles, Marv jealously guarded the door of Dracula’s own book, ceding to editorial pressure to more closely connect Tomb of Dracula with the Marvel Universe only through crossovers with otherworldly and supernatural characters like Silver Surfer, Brother Voodoo, and (in our case) Doctor Strange!
The first part of the tale, written by Marv Wolfman, opened with Strange mourning the death of his faithful manservant, Wong, beneath the flashing fangs of a vampire!
Just look at Gene Colan’s smokey pencils, beautifully illuminated by Tom Palmer’s perfect inks! There’s never been a better team for supernatural comics storytelling!
But this wasn’t just any vampire — this was Dracula, the Lord of Vampires, as Strange discovered when his sorcery allowed him to experience Wong’s final moments.
Harnessing the fathomless powers of the All-Seeing Eye of Agamotto (which then, as now, could do about anything the writer needed it to do), Doctor Strange tracked the “life-patterns” of Dracula from the scene of the crime to Dracula’s lair in Boston.
I love how Colan’s “camera” pushes in on Dracula, starting with his open coffin, then Dracula in repose, and then Dracula alert to Strange’s intrusion. Looking at this sequence, did you “see” Dracula’s eyes snap open between the last two panels? That’s the magic of comics, boys and girls — like Scott McCloud noted, comics are as much about what you don’t see between the panels as what you see in the panels themselves.
After that? Well, it’s on!
But this battle between Dracula and Strange wasn’t the usual Marvel Comics Fist City beat-down, and it wasn’t even a garden-variety Doctor Strange ectoplasmic duel of ghosts.
No, to battle Dracula, Strange invoked the “Images of Ikonn” to delve into Dracula’s “passions and fears,” taking Dracula back to the moment his mortal self fell on the battlefield in a cavalry duel with Turkish invaders.
It’s kind of dirty pool, to be honest.
For a couple panels, there, we could almost sympathize with Dracula, and this was intentional. Marv Wolfman considered Dracula the “protagonist” of Tomb of Dracula, rather than the hero, but as readers we still needed to get on board with Dracula, and moments like this served to humanize him. We see Dracula as a mortal terrified of his pending (un)death, we see his noble sacrifice in defense of his homeland, and can kind of feel bad for him … but it doesn’t take much for Dracula to revert to form, showing the dark side of his noble nature with his incredulity that this conflict originated with the death of “… a mere hireling … a cretinous menial … a whimpering domestic.”
(Don’t take a job with Dracula, folks).
Taken aback by Dracula’s sudden recovery — and reluctant to use his “more potent magics” for fear of rendering Dracula incapable of restoring Wong to life — Doctor Strange was quickly mesmerized by Dracula.
Mesmerized … and slain!
How’s that for a vintage Marvel shock ending? Doctor Strange is dead? Say it isn’t so!
Fortunately, we needn’t wait even one week to see how this one turns out … the tale continued in Doctor Strange #14!
While this issue was written by Steve Englehart (who firmly put his stamp on the story, as we shall see), the book was illustrated by the self-same team of Colan and Palmer, and also edited by Marv Wolfman, resulting in an unusually coherent crossover, at least by Marvel standards.
The issue opened with Dracula gloating over his fallen foe, casting Strange’s body into a dungeon, where he might rot until rising, three days later, as Dracula’s undead slave.
But in his arrogance, Dracula didn’t reckon that Doctor Strange might be “no stranger to death,” as we learn that Strange escaped death by leaving his body instants before Dracula killed him at the end of last issue. But now, Strange was trapped outside his body, in astral form, with only three days to concoct a solution to his dilemma.
So what did Strange do?
Why, he thought, of course!
But all the thinking in the world didn’t solve Doc’s trouble. After trying to distract Dracula with visions and spells — and nearly catching Dracula out in the daylight — Strange was still a helpless, disembodied spectator when Dracula returned three days later. But Dracula was taking no chances, and in an odd reversal of roles, he sought to put a final end to the undead Doctor Strange with a stake through the heart!
Right on cue, Strange rose as a vampire, and we finally got some fist-and-fang action, as Dracula battled with a thing that was not-quite-Strange: Doctor Strange’s body, given in to dark vampiric impulses, while Strange’s conscience was helpless to intervene.
And it didn’t take long for Dracula to gain the upper hand against a Doctor Strange reduced to bestial impulses.
I love it when Drac calls someone a “clod.” If your boss calls you a clod — or “cretin,” another favorite — then he’s probably a super-villian
It’s when Dracula had Doctor Strange on the ropes that something intriguing and even a little profound occurred. When Dracula asserted himself as “Lord” while strangling the life from Strange, from the depths of his possessed soul, Doctor Strange called on the power of the Christian god to save his life!
It’s a bold turn of events, and something Steve Englehart didn’t shy away from — he once featured God Himself in a Doctor Strange story, then authored a bogus fan letter to deflect scrutiny — but what’s most interesting to me about this moment is what it asks about Doctor Strange’s own spirituality.
Does Doctor Strange believe in the Christian god, or is He just another deity in the Rolodex, to be invoked like Cyttorak or Vishanti? In his moment of greatest extremis, it is the Christian god that Strange turns to for salvation. Is Strange a man of faith, or is he just happy to use the best tool at hand?
Either way, that cross-like burst of light sure did the job …
Strange’s body and soul become one again even as Dracula is sent down to defeat, but Englehart implies that the will and even the cruelty required to overcome Dracula’s evil doesn’t come entirely from the divine force Strange invoked — that the “… true Dr. Strange would find no pleasure in his (Dracula’s) pain … that his tormentor (Strange) has been touched with Dracula’s own evil …” This conclusion points to an (ahem) strange duality, with the power of God getting Strange back on his feet, but Dracula’s own dark power of evil being the special sauce that let Strange finish the deed and kill Dracula for all time.
(Or at least until the next issue of Tomb of Dracula!)
And with Strange’s (and Wong’s) souls miraculously restored through Dracula’s death (could Drac have died for their sins? Nah …), that brings this tale to a close, and with it this installment of Longbox Graveyard!
It’s been awhile since I posted here, and it feels good! I hope to make this a more regular occurrence — please let me know what you think of this story and Steve Englehart’s Strange cosmology in the comments section below!
But, before you go — it took the awesome power of Super-Blog Team-Up to wake Longbox Graveyard from its Odinsleep … assuming you view this as a welcome development, please pay your thanks forward by visiting these other Super-Blog Team-Up articles, all looking at some form of “Strange” Magic!
- Between The Pages: The Wondrous Worlds of Doctor Strange
- Chris Is On Infinite Earths: Batman Visits The Sanctum Sanctorum
- Crapbox of Cthulhu: The Makings of a Sorcerer Supreme — Optimism And Sacrifice
- Coffee And Comics: Doctor Strange — Journey To The East
- DC In The 80s: The Immortal Doctor Fate
- The Unspoken Decade: Nighttime Sunburn — The Rise of the Midnight Sons
- Retroist: The Other Doctor Strange Movie
- Superhero Satellite: Strange Magic
With news breaking last week that Paul Bettany will be playing the Vision in Avengers 2, this seemed a good time to take a look at FOOM #12, which featured … the Vision!
FOOM #12 cover from the unusual pairing of John Buscema and P. Craig Russell
The origin and nature of this new cinematic Vision are of great interest to Marvel fans, as it seems one of Marvel’s iconic characters of the 1970s can’t help but be a shadow of the original. With the Hank Pym story seemingly in flux for the pending Ant Man film, and with Ultron supposedly a creation of Tony Stark in the Marvel movie universe, the Vision’s origin will certainly be seeing revision (and to be fair, this is a character that’s always suffered a bit for muddled origins).
But back in 1975, the Vision was still a new(ish) kid on the block, and one of the most intriguing characters in Marvel’s line-up — intriguing enough to warrant an issue of Marvel’s in-house fan magazine mostly to himself.
This issue of FOOM dates to a time when Steve Englehart was developing the married relationship of the Vision and the Scarlet Witch, having taken over Avengers scripting duties from Roy Thomas. Most interesting to me were little tidbits offered by Thomas and Englehart in separate interviews about the origins and nature of the Vision.
Roy Thomas, on the pragmatic origins of the Vision:
“The Vision was created because, at certain periods, I was not allowed, because of editorial policy, to use Captain America, Thor and Iron Man as much as I wanted to … I wanted to create an Avenger that I could play around with … and I wanted to bring back a new version of Jack Kirby’s Vision character … Stan, at the same time that I went over it with him, wanted an android character. He wanted the name Android Man or something like that … since I really wanted to get the Vision I talked Stan into having the Vision but as an android …”
Thomas, on John Buscema’s character design, which in Thomas’ estimation was heavily linked to Jack Kirby’s original:
“I explained to John what I wanted and sent him a picture of Kirby’s Vision … one of the early issues where he looked very grim … and I said I wanted that but I wanted kind of a helmet feeling. And I think I probably drew a picture of the head and mentioned the jewel and mentioned the diamond on the chest and so forth. John came up with it and we changed it between the first and second book only in how the cape fastened on the front. But it was basically a combination of sort of Kirby’s and mine and Buscema’s.”
the Vision, by Jack Kirby
Steve Englehart, referencing Roy Thomas on the original nature of the character:
“The Vision was created, as far as I could determine from talking with Roy, to be Marvel’s Mr. Spock. He was going to be the mysterious guy that everybody fell in love with … the sort of untouchable but super man. You know, the guy that everybody wants because he’s so unapproachable … (Now) he’s sort of like at Stage Two, having totally abandoned the pure concept of Mr. Spock. We’re into the stage now where we see what happens when Mr. Spock gets married.”
Englehart, on the Vision’s anatomy:
“It’s always been my opinion that the Vision could not be a natural father. I had played with the idea and rejected it as being impossible to explain in a code approved comic book … that the Vision could drop around to his local sperm bank and pick up a liter of stuff … it became very logical to me that Ultron-5 would not have endowed the Vision … given the fact that he was trying to build a sort of ‘son’ … you never think of your son as being a sexually together individual. A son is not thought of in terms of his sexual prowess.”
The Vision of the mid-1970s is “my Vision,” and I’ve always resented how the character was handled by later creators … but as we prepare ourselves for this new, cinematic version of the Vision, it’s worth remember just how much these characters owe to the variable and sometimes accidental confluence of necessity, convenience, pop culture influences, and collaboration by creators who may have seen their original … uh, vision … only part-way realized — and yet somehow the whole was greater than the sum-of-the-parts. Here’s hoping Paul Bettany’s Vision catches a little magic of its own!
See you again next week for another FOOM Friday!
Welcome to a new feature: Super-Blog Team-Up, where I and a select cohort of blogging pals all tackle a similar issue on the same day. For this inaugural feature, we all look at a time when a superhero decided to hang up his mask!
For my favorite superhero — Captain America — that particular moment came in issue #176, in the summer of 1974, marking a bold high point in author Steve Englehart’s long run on the book.
That 1974 date is critical to putting Cap’s decision into context, and that context can best be summarized in one word: Watergate.
The greatest political scandal in American history, the Watergate affair led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon, and sent the United States into a tailspin of shame, despair, and self-examination. Even as a twelve-year-old, I felt the sting of national embarrassment as the Watergate scandal dragged on and on, dominating the news cycle and providing one final, fatal flashpoint in the national debate about Nixon’s controversial terms in office.
Nixon would flee the White House in August of 1974, but Captain America’s identity crisis — sparked in no small part by Tricky Dick’s malfeasance — would continue into 1975, concluding with issue #185. It is the length of Cap’s absence from his own book — as well as the reasons why he quit, how Cap handled his own hiatus, and how the experience changed the way we regard the character — that makes this particular resignation saga unique among the many times this trope has been examined in comics.
So pervasive was Watergate that the scandal is scarcely referenced in the comics — we don’t need a reminder for why Captain America might be feeling a crisis of conscience over the country he embodies. Instead, rather than Watergate, the roots of Cap’s fateful decision reside in the “Secret Empire” story from issues #169-176. Here, Cap found his public image smeared by the “Committee to Regain America’s Principles” (an allusion to the real-life Comittee To Re-Elect The President, which was saddled with the you-can’t-make-this-up quasi-acronym of CREEP). Cap’s quest to reclaim his good name brings him face-to-face with the leader of the Secret Empire, who was, in all but name … Richard Nixon!
When “Nixon” kills himself, Cap decides he’s had enough. America isn’t a country he recognizes anymore — it has become a corrupt and ambiguous place unlike the nation he fought for during World War II. After a bit of soul-searching, Cap decides to give up his identity, provoking incredulity from his fellow heroes, including a “nosey” Iron Man who appeals to Cap’s sense of duty …
… as well as more personal appeals from Cap’s partner, the Falcon, and Cap’s World War II-era love interest, Peggy Carter.
But for Cap, what was once simple is now complex. In the wake of Watergate, and the Vietnam War, America is uncertain of her place in the world … and so is Captain America.
And so, Cap makes an impossible declaration.
So far, so good. Cap is suffering from a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder after seeing “Nixon” top himself, uncorking all his long-simmering anxiety over representing an America that has come off the rails. Still, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen a superhero hang it up, and even twelve-year-old me knew our hero would have to reverse his decision eventually.
But the following issue makes clear that this isn’t a crisis that will be resolved quickly. Steve Rogers is resolute in his decision to give up his Captain America identity, which is as much as his partner, Sam Wilson, can take. As the Falcon, Sam would become the book’s headline hero for the next several months …
… but the name on the masthead was still, “Captain America,” and to keep the character present in his own book, Englehart developed a clever subplot where substitute heroes — with no particular powers — sought to take up the uniform, with uniformly disastrous results!
Man of action that he is, Steve Rogers can’t help but be involved in fisticuffs, but coming to the Falcon’s aid in a street fight backfires when Sam’s deep-seated “sidekick” insecurities are laid bare.
The only person in Steve’s life who seems content with his decision is Steve’s lady love, Sharon Carter. Having resigned her job as a S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent, Sharon seems only to want to play house with Steve. Frankly, this isn’t Sharon Carter’s finest moment — she spends most of this saga acting frivolous, or pouting when Steve begins to reconsider his decision (and in this her behavior is in marked contrast to how Steve Gerber was writing Sharon in the contemporaneous Marvel Two-In-One #4-5, where Sharon elbowed her way into a time travel adventure with Cap and the Thing, then put it to the Badoon alongside the Guardians of the Galaxy!).
Despite this dissonance, Cap’s resignation is nicely handled in the rest of the Marvel line (and it helped that Englehart was also scripting The Avengers at the time). Cap’s decision sends ripples through the Marvel Universe, prompting Steve Rogers to come under attack from the obnoxious “Golden Archer” …
… who proves to be Hawkeye, hoping to convince Steve to more fully examine his decision.
It weirded me out that under his Golden Archer mask Hawkeye was wearing … another mask! But no matter, it’s the thought that counts, and in this as in many things, Hawkeye proves the right kind of crazy, inspiring Steve Rogers to take up an entirely new identity!
Now we’re really onto something — the story has taken an unexpected turn, and Englehart revels in it (“You thought this was just a rerun of a thousand old plots.”) From the end of Captain America we are now present at the birth of a new superhero — Nomad, the man without a country!
But first, there has to be a costume montage, with a not-so-subtle Batman reference …
… and who knew that Steve Rogers suffered from Cape Envy?
Hmm. Not a great look, Steve. That plunging neckline is especially daring, but … sheesh.
No matter. Cap — I mean Nomad — is soon in action, and his new costume scarcely survives its shakedown cruise. Cap learns that capes are reserved for DC superheroes …
… but Steve’s fashion crime isn’t severe enough to cost him his Avengers membership, as the team is eager to welcome him back, whatever his identity.
Alas, things go from bad to worse for Steve, as the Nomad soon bottoms out, battling against … the Gamecock? Oh, Steve, say it isn’t so!
Still, Steve seems to have had genuine affection for his alter-alter ego, and might have remained the Nomad indefinitely, but he would soon learn that Captain America wasn’t something he could just pack away in a box.
The public’s confusion over Cap’s decision would come to weigh heavily on Steve, who did himself no favors by renouncing his identity while Cap was still under a cloud from the Secret Empire’s smear campaign …
… and so powerful a symbol was Captain America that aspiring heroes could not leave it alone. First played for laughs, Englehart’s subplot about the substitute Captain Americas took an exceedingly grim turn when the last of Cap’s stand-ins was gruesomely murdered by the Red Skull!
The Red Skull’s reappearance sparks another identity crisis for Steve. At first he seems to cleave even more strongly to his Nomad identity, but in the span of a few panels, Steve has an epiphany about the power of symbols, as well as his own central role in the pinnacle of symbolism — the “American Dream.”
And just like that, Steve realizes that Captain America isn’t a symbol of America as it had become, but instead a symbol of America as it should be.
And so Captain America was reborn!
In short order, Cap would put paid to the Red Skull and restore his good name. With Captain America restored to the Marvel Universe, Steve Englehart would depart the book, but he made a mark on the character that few creators can equal. By positioning Captain America as the guardian of the American dream, Englehart simultaneously insulated the character from future political scandals, and elevated the character to mythic status. Captain America because Marvel’s elder statesman, more purely heroic than ever before, and occupying the role of the one superhero in the world that everyone could agree was truly … super.
In giving up his Captain America identity, Steve Rogers finally discovered what Captain America was all about. There would be dozens of different takes on the character in the years ahead (Jack Kirby’s idiosyncratic take on Cap in his 1970s return to Marvel would commence within a year), but Cap’s role as the voice of moral conscience would be core to the character, echoing down through the ages, lending additional authority to countless “Cap speeches” and possibly reaching it’s ultimate expression when Cap chose to side with the spirit of America over the letter of the law in Marvel’s 2006 “Civil War” event.
That will do it for my look at the day Captain America walked away, but our Super-Blog Team-Up continues over at Flodo’s Page, where Super-Blog Team-Up #3 (of 6) looks at the time Green Lantern told the Guardians of Oa to take their ring and shove it! And be sure to check out all the articles in our “Day They Walked Away” Super-Blog Team-Up series …
#1 Silver Age Senstations: The Thing
#2 LongBox Graveyard: Captain America
#3 Flodo’s Page: Green Lantern
#4 SuperHero Satellite: Superman
#5 Chasing Amazing: Spider-Man
#6 Fantastiverse: Hank Pym … COMING SOON!
And you can always see the latest Super-Blog Team-Up project on the team’s very own page.
Thanks for reading! Share your thoughts on Cap calling it quits — and on all our Super-Blog Team-Up efforts — in the comments section, below!
Read The Collection: Amazon
NEXT WEEK: #117 Top Ten Superhero Lairs!
Editor’s Note: This week’s guest blog is a special treat — a look at the buried treasure that is the Ultraverse from two men who were there at the start! Along with a host of high-powered comics creators, Chris Ulm and Tom Mason played critical roles in the foundation of the Ultraverse, which might just be the greatest comic book universe you’ve never heard of! In an age where Marvel is bringing Ant Man and the Guardians of the Galaxy to the movie screen, the time may be right for the Ultraverse’s return!
Take it away, Chris & Tom!
Hey, Disney executives and producers with a Disney deal in your hand or a desk on the lot — have we got some ideas for you! As you know, your Marvel Comics properties are all locked up and tied together to create a Marvel Movie Universe that mirrors the founding comic books.
But, if you look on the fringes of Marvel’s super-hero properties, you’ll find a few gems in the Ultraverse, a universe of comic books that Marvel purchased from Malibu Comics back in 1994. There are several titles that could be pulled out to start their own tentpoles separate from the Marvel Universe.
Here (in no particular order) are our top five!
Creator: Mike W. Barr, debut issue pencils by Terry Dodson
High Concept: Ancient Warrior Knight Reincarnated In The Body Of A Soccer Mom!
There’s nothing you guys love more than a body-switching movie. It’s been a reliable box-office performer ever since Freaky Friday. Sometimes, you have such a switch-crush that you’ll make two of them in the same year. In Mantra, an eternal warrior named Lukasz is killed but reincarnated into the body of a woman, Eden Blake. Now, you’ve got a manly-man warrior with the attitudes of a guy from centuries before stuck in the body of a single mom with two kids and an ex-husband. However you pitch it, it’s Highlander meets Switch and that’s either comedy gold or high drama.
Creator: James Robinson, debut issue pencils by Cully Hamner
High Concept: Film Noire Detective Hunts Super-Heroes
Too many super-heroes? That’s what the so-called pop culture critics say. Somehow four super-hero movies in one year is too much for them and they need more idiotic rom-coms or weepy historical dramas instead. If you’re one of “those” people, then Firearm is your antidote: he hunts super-heroes. He’s no angry vigilante, though. He used to be in a British secret agency called The Lodge, but he “retired” and moved to California to set up shop as a private eye. But his cases are far from normal and usually involve crossing paths with both good and bad super-heroes, including the super-hero serial killer called Rafferty.
High Concept: Boy Living In A Man’s Body
The big man of the Ultraverse, he’s Superman and Captain Marvel all in one. A boy named Kevin Green transforms himself into a super-hero by “building” a super-strong hero shell around himself. The shell is built from organic liquid skin that ejects from his body. And when he transforms back, the body withers and spits him out. But that’s not the best part — he’s super strong and has basically all the powers of Superman, but he’s controlled by Kevin, a 14-year-old boy, with a boy’s experiences and emotions. So the world’s most powerful super-hero is an inexperienced, hormonally-charged teenager. The teenager never goes away — he’s always trying to masquerade as an adult. Once again, that’s either comedy gold or high drama.
High Concept: Twisted Twilight
Rune was a walk on the dark side. Rune, an ancient energy vampire, had many guises through the history of mankind: alien, sorcerer, beast, god, devil. Now he is dying of cancer and only the blood and energy of super-humans can stave off imminent death. Rune has it all: secret societies, government conspiracies, teenage romance and a story that spans the history of humanity.
Creator: Steve Englehart, debut issue pencils by Rick Hoberg
High Concept: Passengers Assemble!
Random passengers on a cable car get struck by energy and find themselves changed beyond recognition, with strange powers. Who becomes a hero? Who tries to hide? Who uses their newfound powers for evil? These are the questions that drive the strangest collection of super-heroes ever assembled. While suited to film, this property seems tailor-made for episodic television in the tradition of Lost or Under The Dome, with seemingly random characters thrown together, and then tested in the crucible of paranormal circumstances!
Malibu Comics Co-Founders Tom Mason, Chris Ulm, Dave Olbrich, and Scott Rosenberg at their 2012 Comic-Con Reunion
Drawing from classic super-hero comics, hard science fiction, horror and epic fantasy, the Ultraverse was known for its epic premises and imaginative takes on classic tropes. Many of the best concepts could not have been realized as movies because the state of the art for CG was not up to the task in 1993, and the audience was not sufficiently literate in all things comics. Now, that’s all changed — comic books drive box office world wide and it’s about time the strange and wonderful corridors of the Ultraverse were explored on the silver screen!
Are you listening Disney?
About The Authors:
Chris Ulm was a co-founder of Malibu Comics and the Editor-In-Chief of the Ultraverse, which was based on his original development. He co-created the Ultraverse title Rune with artist Barry Windsor-Smith. Chris Ulm is now CEO and co-founder of Appy Entertainment, a leading mobile games development studio.
Tom Mason was a co-founder of Malibu Comics and the company’s Creative Director. He co-created the Ultraverse title Prototype with writer Len Strazewski. Mason is currently an Emmy-winning writer-producer in the big, wide world of television.
Thanks, Tom and Chris, for making your case why the Ultraverse is ready for its close-up! What do you think of their list? Did they forget your favorite Ultraverse character? Should Marvel go with their own C-list characters rather than develop these Ultraverse properties? Does the loyal devotion of Facebook’s Ultraverse group indicate the Ultraverse still has the capacity for mass appeal? Sound off in comments, below!
IN TWO WEEKS: #113 Ben Urich: Role Model in a Sea of Heroes
LONGBOX GRAVEYARD TOP TEN LISTS
- Top Ten Instagram Superheroes
- Top Ten Superhero Lairs
- Top Ten Manliest Superheroes
- Top Ten Longbox Graveyard Articles (Year One!)
- Superhero Music Top Ten
- Top Single Issue Stories
- Top 1o Loves of Peter Parker (Part 1)
- Top 10 Loves of Peter Parker (Part 2)
- Top Ten Marvel Comics Characters
- Top Ten DC Comics Characters
- Top Ten Spider-Man Battles (Part I)
- Top Ten Spider-Man Battles (Part II)
- Top Ten Captain America Villains
- Spider-Man’s Bottom 10 Bronze Age Bums
- Top Ten Superhero Spoonerisms
- Top 5 Captain America Graphic Novels You Can Actually Buy (Sometimes), Read, And Enjoy!
A trilogy of titanic mini-reviews in this week’s Longbox Shortbox!
#469-479, May 1977-October 1978
Batman is one of the most malleable characters in comics. The Christopher Nolan interpretation dominates the contemporary imagination, but Batman began as a grim, murderous pulp character, and served time as a whacky Silver Age science hero and as a sometimes cartoonish gothic screen vigilante before morphing into the current Dark Knight that audiences know and love.
While the flashpoint for Batman’s current incarnation was clearly Frank Miller’s seminal 1986 series Batman: The Dark Knight, the transformation from “Batman” to “The Batman” arguably started a decade earlier in this late-1970s run in Batman’s companion comic, Detective. This is a stylish series of Bat tales from several creators, including Len Wein and Walter Simonson, but the most lasting impression was formed by the team of Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers, knocking over the first domino leading to the Batman of today.
Like many successful writers, Steve Englehart doesn’t shy away from claiming credit where it is due. Over on Englehart’s page you can read about how he feels this series reinvented Batman for modern audiences, shedding the image of the Biff-Bam Adam West/TV era and leading the charater into the Dark Knight era, later popularized by Tim Burton’s Batman (which Englehart notes is based on his run). I’m not enough of a Batman scholar to verify these claims, but reading these books in the late 1970s, they felt like a breath of fresh, gritty Gotham air.
Marshall Rogers’ pencils are thin, tight, and detailed, with a solid sense of draftsmanship that made the cars and buildings of Gotham City seem real. In an era where Marvel and DC really cranked them out, the work of detail-oriented artists like Rogers and George Perez popped off the page.
The look of the series is more modern than Englehart’s scripting, which on review seem more rooted in tradition than that author would allow. His Penguin story, in particular — with it’s museum exhibit robbery and wordplay clues left by the villain — feels very much a Silver Age story. But there are also emerging elements of the a more grim and gritty Batman, who runs afoul of Professor Hugo Strange, sending Batman on a bad trip and compromising his identity as Bruce Wayne.
The series is also notable for Bruce’s adult relationship with Silver St. Cloud, who intelligently recognizes Bruce beneath Batman’s cowl the first time she sees Batman in the wild.
It is the Joker story that is best remembered from this run — and the imagery is vibrant, with Joker-faced fishes showing up as the herald of the Joker’s crazy plan, and the Joker himself deftly cast as a deranged, murderous lunatic obsessed with his impossible, insane crusade to secure royalties on every fish in the sea (!).
But despite Englehart’s superior work, it was the two-part Clayface story by Len Wein and Marshall Rogers that most stuck with me when re-reading this series, with Clayface cast as a victim more than a villain, hiding like the Phantom of the Opera in an abandoned wax museum, and confessing his longing to a wax dummy. The fire at the end of the tale was an inevitable cliche, but it was a tragic turn and I still felt for poor Clayface.
This run of Detective presents stories that are solid and worth experiencing in their own right, whatever you may think of Englehart’s claims to framing the modern milieu of Batman. Rogers’ pencils are still a delight and the Joker story ranks among the best in breed.
Read The Reprints: Shadow of the Batman.
#1-15, January 1977-November 1978
Jack Kirby originally brought us the Black Panther in issue #52 of Fantastic Four, and this was one of the characters where he was handed the keys upon his return to Marvel in 1976. If you’re looking for the wordy and introspective Black Panther of Don McGregor’s Jungle Action, or the noble and intriguing supporting character from the Roy Thomas’ Avengers run, then look elsewhere. Kirby’s Black Panther is a costumed adventurer caught up in cosmic happenings from page one of this short-lived series, as wonderfully out-of-step with the rest of Marvel’s line as was Kirby’s equivalently bizarre Bicentennial run on Captain America.
Kirby’s later work is an acquired taste — and it is a taste that took me decades to acquire. Reading his books in the 1970s, I was attracted to the energy, and the action, and the familiar heroes, but put off by stories that didn’t follow the usual rules and certainly didn’t seem to reside in the same Marvel Universe as the other books of the time. This Black Panther run is no different — from the first page, we are through the looking glass, as the Panther and the comical “Mr. Little” encounter a victim of “The Brass Frog,” a time-travel device much esteemed by a mysterious society of collectors with which the Panther has somehow come to be involved.
I think that by this time of his career, Kirby was bored with drawing the usual superhero fist operas, and he pretty much abandons the formula here — his Panther is more a witness to events, rather than a protagonist, and the world unravels around him in sort order. Before two issues are through we’ve seen a grim vision of man’s future and had a punch-out with a psychic slayer from the 66th century. It all barely makes sense but many pages swarm with Kirby dots and I personally find it irresistible.
Kirby’s run lasts twelve issues on the book (which would be cancelled after issue #15), and splits into two story arcs — the Panther and fortune-hunters seeking treasures of the past, and a Wakandan civil crisis brought about when T’Challa’s half-brother suffers a demonic transformation from Vibranium exposure. I found the treasure-hunting story more engaging, with an Indiana Jones-meets-Erich von Däniken vibe (about which more below). The civil war series has its moments, but spends too much time with the well-intentioned but embarrassing-in-retrospect “Black Musketeers” characters that Kirby created to flesh out the Wakandan royal family.
yes, this happened
This is not the Panther’s finest hour — mostly he reacts to events, rather than driving things forward, but he’s kept plenty busy smacking the robots, samurais, aliens, and tomb guardians let loose by his “Collector” companions, Mr. Little and Princess Zanda. As co-creator of the character, Kirby is due his idiosyncratic take on T’Challa, even if it conflicts with every impression of the character we formed before or since. There’s magic here if you don’t take things too seriously, and for all that the stories are bizarre, the King gives it his all.
LBG Letter Grade For This Run: C-Plus
Read The First Issue Online: Mars Will Send No More
Read The Reprints: Jack Kirby’s Black Panther
#1-19, July 1976-January 1978
If Kirby’s Black Panther dabbled in the cosmic, Jack Kirby’s original 1970s Marvel series, The Eternals, dove right into a cosmic Bermuda Triangle, leveraging the mid-70s fascination with ancient astronauts to spin a tale of space gods, demi-gods, mutants, and humans thrown together in a crucible of prophecies and end times. Even more clearly influenced by von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods than was his contemporary work on Black Panther, Eternals is a masterclass in world building from an artist who had for decades made his bones by capturing the cosmic with pencil and paper.
Judging by the pace of the story, Kirby must have intended this tale to run a hundred issues or more. Unfortunately, the series was cancelled after a scant nineteen issues, leaving behind scattered artifacts and clues as inscrutable as Kirby’s space gods themselves. Mostly what we get is Kirby deploying his chess pieces — but what pieces they were! Kirby set out to tell a big story here, and even the generous full and double-page panels he uses in this series aren’t big enough to contain his vision.
The series revolves around the Celestials — ancient, gigantic space gods who mysteriously return to earth to judge the human race. It was the Celestials who were responsible for life on earth, mutating primitive life forms to give birth to earth’s three races — we humans, the now-revealed demi-god Eternals, and the demonic Deviants.
In many ways this series feels like an extension of Kirby’s work on DC’s New Gods. It is less overtly superheroic and gonzo than that earlier series (no escape artists or Jimmy Olsens here!), and is maybe a bit less fun, but the concepts are stronger for all that the series lacks memorable characters. Kirby contents himself with Eternals that are paradigms for mythic heroes like Mercury or Icarus, and for his bad guys co-opts ancient Lemuria. His human characters exist only as viewpoint characters for the cosmic goings on initiated by the return of the space gods to earth. None of the characters really resonate — it’s as if Kirby was too intrigued with his cosmic canvas to do more than rough in the characters on his stage — and the series suffers for it.
The book is at its best when he concentrates on the enigmatic Celestials, and the human reaction to the “Fourth Host” in their midst. For me the series high point is when the Soviets set out to nuke a space god, with predictable results.
We’ll never know where the series might have gone if Kirby had a full run of issues to explore his concepts. Later writers would bring the Eternals more firmly into the mainstream Marvel Universe, but for such a personal work as Eternals, those books are at best non-canonical, and at worst another example of the commercial exploitation of Jack Kirby’s world-building genius. I prefer to think that the world of the Eternals is still out there someplace, balanced on a knife-edge as Kirby was forced to leave it, with Arishem’s thumb hovering between earth’s salvation and condemnation.
Read The Reprints: The Eternals Omnibus
That brings us to the end of another Longbox Shortbox! Thanks for reading, and please give me your reactions in the comments section below. And for more Jack Kirby goodness, please check out my review of the first Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. story over in my Dollar Box column debuting today at StashMyComics.com!
NEXT WEDNESDAY: #52 Longbox Soapbox — Our One Year Anniversary!