Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Post-Graduate Studies #6







The MU campus is mostly unused right now but
from time to time, our Professors will drop in for Summer courses.
This Week:



STRANGE DAYS:  THE CLAREMONT RUN
Part Two: The Wizard of the West Village
by Professor Matthew Bradley


Doctor Strange 42 (August 1980)
"The Black Mirror!"
Story by Chris Claremont
Art by Gene Colan and Dan Green
Colors by Bob Sharen
Letters by Jim Novak
Cover by Michael Golden

Sailing out of the sky (erased from the public eye by “a useful spell” that also alters their appearances) at Miami International Airport, Strange and Madeleine go their separate ways—New York and Paris, respectively—weighing rekindled passion against their other relationships, since she is now MWC.  Daily Globe stringer Lou Wallis recognizes Doc, reports his presence to Starrett, and agrees to follow him in search of info, “the dirtier, the better.”  Cameramen across the street shoot his return to the Sanctum, where he sees Sara asleep amid takeout containers; awakening, she admits to finding unpaid bills while “tidying” his desk, so Doc shows her ten 10-pound gold bars in his safe and hires her to manage his business affairs.

Doc follows Clea’s psychic trail to the Adirondack Forest Preserve, where Asian minor mystics force his car off a cliff, but he is saved by his Cloak of Levitation and subdues the Warriors of the Golden Dragon.  Their otherworldly-garbed masters—whose “dread liege” is Shi’almar—gather around the Crystal of Power to conjure a 1,000-foot pillar of fire that turns into a dragon as Strange approaches the mansion.  He leaves his body in the library, yet the beast can track his astral form, so Doc uses his cloak to break the circle, banish the dragon, and knock out the four sorcerers; he follows Clea’s path through the Black Mirror, a “gateway to countless dimensions,” only to be captured and readied for beheading by brigands, including his own lover and disciple!




I always enjoy Doc’s occasional “greatest hits” issue:

  • Crimson Bands of Cyttorak?  Check.
  • Shield of the Seraphim?  Check.
  • Flames of the Faltine [or, per Ben Grimm, “Flamin’ Saltines”]?  Check.
  • Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth?  Check.
  • Images of Ikonn?  Check.
  • Vapors [only later Vipers] of Valtorr?  Check.
  • Demons of Denak?  Check.

Penciler Gene Colan and inker Dan Green deliver the goods, as they consistently have since the start of Claremont’s run, and it’s interesting to compare their rendition of the dragon on page 22 with the complementary—if by no means drastically different—one on that atmospheric cover, which I correctly pegged as Michael Golden’s work.  I just wish I found this new storyline more immediately engaging; hate to be narrow-minded, but one with old friends like Man-Thing and Mordo is of greater intrinsic interest to me, so I’ll have to wait and see.  Not that there are no compensations, e.g., Strange’s upgrade of Sara from next-door neighbor to P.A., and the benefits package must have been pretty good, because I see that she stayed with the strip far longer than I.

As usual, Chris takes his time unfolding things:  the kidnapped Wong, the object of the exercise, is still M.I.A., while Clea, last seen getting gunned down and rolling into a ravine, makes a yet-to-be-explained, last-panel entrance.  For some reason it’s the quiet moments that struck me most about this issue, e.g., Doc pondering life’s mysteries in page 7, panel 3; a surprised Sara peeking over the back of her chair in page 10, panel 1; Doc in 007 mode as he reconnoiters while sitting on the hood of his jeep in page 15, panel 2.  That said, the battle with the dragon is suitably cool, and really, as I look over it again, there’s nothing wrong with this whatsoever—it looks great, as only Gentleman Gene can make it, and Claremont is planting his usual garden’s worth of seeds...




Doctor Strange 43 (October 1980)
"Shadowqueen!"
Story by Chris Claremont
Art by Gene Colan and Dan Green
Colors by Ben Sean
Letters by Diana Albers
Cover by Michael Golden

Recognizing Strange, who understandably has not noticed her, Clea tries to stop would-be headsman Duron just as Doc uses his cloak to fly free, scattering the brigands.  Nipping the MARMIS in the bud, she introduces their leader, Bayan, who conjures the symbol of the Vishanti (“No sorcerer consecrated to evil could stand to look at it, much less re-create it”), a challenge that Doc must answer in kind.  Clea relates how the Lords of the Golden Dragon kidnapped Wong “to pay some ancient, ancestral debt,” captured and drugged her, and forced them both through the Black Mirror into another world, where warriors took them into the mountains toward the city of the Shadowqueen, Shialmar, now mysteriously sans the apostrophe.

The tables turned as Bayan’s rebels ambushed the warriors, then turned again as avian-mounted sky-slayers recaptured Wong, but Bayan saved Clea, who has fought with the brigands over the weeks that ensued there while mere days passed on Earth.  She explains that Shialmar is opposed by Silver Fox, the last of the wizard kings who once ruled their world, and Strange is stunned to learn that the Shadowqueen, the immortal demon-sorceress who overthrew them, is sworn to serve the N’Garai.  The involvement of this “race of other-dimensional beings—elder gods who are utterly, irredeemably evil [introduced in Claremont’s Satana prose story in Haunt of Horror #4, debuting in comic-book form in X-Men #96]…makes things far more serious than I thought.”

Bayan learns that Wong is in Majaedong, former capital of the wizard kings, now dominated by the black crystal towers of Shialmar’s palace, where she berates her minions for embroiling Doc; their Warriors having already paid the price with their lives, the Lords are turned into gargoyles.  Subduing and impersonating three soldiers, Doc, Clea, and Bayan infiltrate the imperial prison, and after his Morpheus Mist fells all within, Bayan—a recent “guest”—tracks Wong’s “outworld life-force” to his cell.  The rescue is delayed when those ornamental gargoyles overhead turn out to be you-know-who, as Clea laments her constant need to be rescued, yet they are defeated, with Bayan not only displaying further sorcerous ability but also admitting that he is, gasp, Silver Fox.

Back at Bayan’s camp, Wong reveals how—okay, deep breath, class, we’re almost done—1,000 years ago his ancestor, the mystic monk and warrior Kan, was investigating a reputedly haunted temple when he saw, touched, and was drawn through, yes,  a Black Mirror.  He was greeted and hailed by Jehan, the king of Siridar; his sister, Princess Shialmar; and court magician Mung as the savior and liberator of their race, who would lead them in their war against the wizard kings.  Then the “camera” pulls back, and we see the Shadowqueen smugly observing this through her coffin-shaped crystalline Shadowscope™, having duped another unwitting member of the Kan clan, this time into flushing out Silver Fox, and preparing to slay them all…BWUHAHAHAHA!



For those who share my interest in housekeeping details (although I don’t know if any of these constitutes a “new normal,” especially since this book is a bimonthly), only the story pages are numbered, as in the Silver Age, i.e., 1-17, rather than the Bronze-Age norm of 1-31, including ads.  The Bullpen Bulletins Page is nowhere to be seen, and the checklist that lately dominated it is squeezed into the bottom of the lettercol, where Chris thanks longtime fan Cat Yronwode for compiling years of Strangeiana into The Lesser Book of the Vishanti for the writers’ benefit.  Meanwhile, this storyline lurches on in fits and starts, its pace periodically halted by not one but two big info-dump flashbacks, the brief Bayan/Silver Fox masquerade just muddying the waters.

When Clea first invokes him, an image of Silver Fox looms over her and Strange, a bit indistinct, yet clear enough to see that he bears a suspicious resemblance to Bayan…who bears a suspicious resemblance to Stephen…which makes me wonder if I know where this whole thing is headed.  But damn, it looks good right from the splash, a big ol’ slab of Colan wonderfulness with Duron ready to chop Doc into kindling; page 3, panel 3 is a delightful shot of Strange grabbing Clea and soaring into the air while planting a big smooch on her.  Nobody draws gargoyles quite like Gene the Dean, with these guys looking like the Dragon Man’s quadrupedal cousins, and although I’m not sure the world was waiting breathlessly for The Secret Origin of Wong, we get one anyway.




Doctor Strange 44 (December 1980)
"Duel of Fire!"
Story by Chris Claremont
Art by Gene Colan and Dan Green
Colors by Bob Sharen
Letters by Jim Novak
Cover by Michael Golden

As Shialmar watches through her “mystic viewing crystal,” to use the Claremont-approved terminology, we learn that she loved Kan, and Wong continues his tale, albeit with some odd alterations; now Jehan is prince of Sirik and Mung is chief sorcerer Vung.  Sirik, they say, leads “a confederation of human states” oppressed by non-human wizard kings, and M/Vung’s spell brought a warrior to lead their struggle.  No fool, Kan is skeptical, so Vung, invoking the lords of the Mabdhara (as Mordo did in #41), sends a Kyrii—the demon that reportedly slew Shialmar’s parents at the wizard kings’ behest—to attack the nascent couple, and after dissolving it with a shuriken “edged in sacred silver,” he’s gonna unleash the wrath of Kan.

Only after Kan and the siblings raze Majaedong, massacring the (really beneficent) wizard kings when they refuse to surrender, does Vung show his true colors, downing the trio in the name of the N’Garai, yet designated sacrifice Shialmar makes them a better offer:  “not blood, but the soul of one who loves.”  Transformed into the Shadowqueen, she expunges Vung; chooses Jehan to satisfy the N’Garai’s demand for the life of a loved one; and sends Kan safely back to China via the mirror, which he kept, while the first-born males of his line indentured themselves to mages devoted to the forces of good to atone for his sin.  Back in the present—as Wong reveals he is the son of Hamir the Hermit, who’d served the Ancient One—she appears in Bayan’s camp.

Turning a slain rebel into a stone gargoyle whose touch transforms others, she begins an airborne “Duel of Fire” (this issue’s title) with Strange, who seeks to exploit Shialmar’s good/evil duality, since she was created by a self-sacrificing act of love.  Clea’s alien nature blunts the effect when she is touched; hit with an arrow by Wong, Shialmar hesitates to slay Kan’s “twin,” allowing Doc to draw her evil into himself and then cast it out again, causing a lightning bolt visible even on Earth, as Sara sees the Sanctum briefly covered with scarlet flames.  Clea uses the Eye of Agamotto to ensure that no evil remains in Strange, and the gargoyles return to normal, yet the dying Shialmar, her soul now free, refuses aid, reaffirming her love for Kan with her last breath...

Third in a series of vibrant Golden covers—collect ’em all!  Inside, though, things get a little, uh, strange:  the overall count is still 32, yet the story pages, now completely unnumbered, total a whopping 22; can they really have sacrificed five pages of ads for the sake of this conclusion?  It turns out my guess was completely wrong.  Since she’s established as the Sorcerer Supreme of this other-dimensional “Earth similar to—yet far removed from—our own,” I thought Shialmar would turn out to be that world’s Clea, twisted by resentment, and BayFox its Stephen Strange.  Meanwhile, Chris augments the strip’s lexicon a little, with Shialmar deploying the Crystals of Cyndriarr and Daggers of Daveroth, and I think Doc’s “By the soul of Rhiannon!” might be new.

Despite my doubts about its structure, Chris ultimately sold me over the course of this trilogy, with no small measure of assistance from Gene and Dan, the latter notching his penultimate inking credit on this series (although I see he penciled #58-61).  Look, I admire Brunner as much as the next guy, yet four full issues doth not a dynasty make, while co-creator Ditko had no peer when it came to the rapid-fire phantasmagoria of the Strange Tales serials.  But although there are plenty of books I don’t want Colan to work on, when it comes to the long-form storytelling that his solo title made possible, there is very little in my Marvel frame of reference that simply feels as right as the Dean on the Doc, like that old shirt you slip on when there’s a chill in the air.


As for Claremont, this book being by definition one of Marvel’s most intellectual, it’s a perfect fit for such a cerebral writer, who spends a commendable amount of time inside Doc’s head.  No, there’s no shortage of spectacle, as Gene unleashes his battles and tempests and gargoyles (with a delightful shot in story page 17, panel 3 of Clea staring goggle-eyed at the hand turned into a claw), yet much of what I consider the “action” takes place in thought balloons as Strange feels out his foe and plots his strategy.  Wong occupies an interesting position:  while the arc gives us lots of interesting material concerning his backstory, he himself spends comparatively little time onscreen, although Chris lets him play a major part in Shialmar’s literal and figurative downfall.




Doctor Strange 45 (February 1981)
"Wizard of the West Village"
Story by Chris Claremont
Art by Gene Colan, Dan Green, Walt Simonson, Al Milgrom, Wendy Pini, Frank Giacoia, Joe Rubinstein, Bob Wiacek, and Tom Palmer
Colors by Carl Gafford
Letters by Jim Novak
Cover by Dave Cockrum

 “Wizard of the West Village,” blares a New York Daily Globe headline.  “Police Call Dr. Strange on Ritual Murders.”  When Doc—consulted as “an expert in occult lore”—protests the insinuation that he is a suspect, the man responsible, Jack Starrett, tells him legal action is fruitless, and the story is the first of a series.  Comparing his life to Pandora’s Box, “a book better left closed,” Doc departs and Starrett calls Gillis, who has been staking out the Sanctum from across the street with his partner.  Posing as a Ma Bell employee (and evoking, for me, Clouseau’s “Emile Flournoy” i.d. in The Return of the Pink Panther, my favorite of the series), Sanderson plans to plant bugs...but he and Wong encounter something down in the cellar.

The same fate befalls Sara, puzzled by Wong’s absence when she arrives while Strange and Clea enjoy a romantic lunch at the Plaza, which ends abruptly as Clea, asked if Doc can help her with whatever’s been bothering her lately, blurts out that he is the cause and runs off.  Catching up to Clea, Doc takes her to Central Park, where she says she will remain his lover but not his disciple, afraid that her lesser power and his concern for her may doom him in battle.  He asks her to put off a final decision, yet after a carriage ride back to Bleecker Street, they find Starrett at the door, seeking the overdue Sanderson; hearing Clea scream when she investigates, Doc races to her aid, telling Starrett to wait in the foyer—so naturally he disobeys (thinking, “Not a chance, jerkball”).

In the cellar, Doc finds a “pool of liquid fire…[a] mystical gateway to the N’Garai dimension,” occupied by an Old One that seeks to avenge Shialmar’s death and clutches Clea, Wong, Sara, and Sanderson in its tentacles.  Strange severs one with the Fangs of Farallah, freeing Clea, yet the others are pulled into the sa’arpool, re-emerging possessed and armored by the demon, so the lovers retreat and regroup after Clea entraps them and summons Wong’s sword to sever a second tentacle.  Leaving Clea to guard his body, Strange sends his astral form up to his study to brush up on an ancient, obscure spell in the Book of the Vishanti that can seal the pool, and finds the snooping Starrett, who flees as Doc “summons a silver dagger [yes, that one] from its cradle…”

The weapon that once took his life now saves others as he stabs the slaves, freeing their souls but leaving their bodies unharmed, then Doc arranges the five of them around the pool, drawing on their life forces to seal it and banish the demon.  Having seen into Pandora’s Box, Starrett avows that his series is over, leaving Strange to ponder how Shialmar’s defeat opened a portal between their worlds.  Praising Clea’s role in the battle, he accepts her doubts, yet notes that “from doubts come questions; from questions, knowledge; from knowledge, enlightenment.  You are stronger than you realize,” and so, countering that he has “a knack for saying the right thing at the right time,” she agrees to stay on in both capacities, as lover and disciple.  Passionate smooch.  “Fin.”

Pagination Update:  another 22, and I’m now thinking there may be a connection with the recent price hike from 40¢ to 50¢, but since it took effect back in September—a non-Doc month—and absent those Bullpen Pages, I don’t know if there’s been any talk of a 29% increase in editorial content to offset the 25% price increase.  Meanwhile, reading between the lettercol lines gives us the sense that lame-duck writer Claremont’s departure was abrupt and/or unwelcome, a theory supported by the “D. Hands” inking of Colan’s pencils.  “The (Not so) Cheerful One moves on handing the reins over to Roger Stern (equally capable but not half as good looking.)  Any details about what’s coming up will have to be ferreted out of him.  Nuff said,” reads the next-issue box.

A house ad on page 25 states that future entries will be “mystically conjured by Roger Stern and Frank Miller”—as does the lettercol  in #46, a transitional issue encompassing two stories, three writers, and four artists—yet evidently this never eventuated; Colan’s Green-inked swan song in #47 is followed by the year-long Marshall Rogers run.  On his way out the door, Chris harvests a seed planted back in #42 (interestingly, the “Randy Johnson” Globe byline on the splash page is seen nowhere else), but typically turns it from a mere anti-tabloid romp into a significant coda to the Shialmar trilogy.  While it’s not immediately clear if this is the third and final sa’arpool Chris invoked in Marvel Team-Up #79, I can’t recall if Stern ever followed up on the N’Garai mystery.

Before leaving, Claremont gives us another new spell (the Chains of Krakkan, with which Clea subdues the N’Garai’s pawns, although the Farallac Fangs date back to Silver Dagger’s debut in #1), and tackles Clea’s feelings of inadequacy head-on; a permanent fix is perhaps out of the question, but the tale ends on a satisfying note of resolution.  The full-pager on 16 of the N’Garai clutching its victims cries out for Harryhausen, but Gene commendably brings it to life on paper, and the image of the pentagon surrounding the pool that dominates page 27 is stunning.  Kudos go to the Giacoia/Green/Milgrom/Palmer/Pini/Rubinstein/Simonson/Wiacek inking collective for what is, to my eyes, a largely consistent feel, although page 10 has a sparse, unfinished look to it.




In Two Weeks!
Professor Tom discusses
Roy Thomas' final issues of Conan!

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Post-Graduate Studies #5







The MU campus is mostly unused right now but
from time to time, our Professors will drop in for Summer courses.
This Week:



STRANGE DAYS:  THE CLAREMONT RUN
Part One:  Mordo Agonistes
by Professor Matthew Bradley



Doctor Strange 39 (February 1980)
"The Old Dark House"
Story by Chris Claremont
Art by Gene Colan and Dan Green
Colors by Ben Sean
Letters by Tom Orzechowski
Cover by Al Milgrom

Since being driven mad by witnessing the second Creation in Marvel Premiere #14, a catatonic Baron Mordo has lived in an upstairs room of Strange’s home, yet when Stephen and his friend Alfeo Cardinal Spinosa—curator of the Vatican’s San Gabriel archives, which Mordo was seen robbing on a security camera—enter, he vanishes.  A chagrined Strange realizes that recent events blinded him to the substitution of a “spirit form…created from elements of Mordo’s own flesh…”  After a restorative kiss from Clea, he announces that this is a more pressing threat than Royce’s murder; since his old ally Lord Julian Phyffe “showed an unusual interest in Mordo when we last met,” Doc and Alfeo head for Paris, leaving Clea behind.



Investigating Wong’s disappearance during a “personal errand,” she senses traces of his psychic aura despite being lied to about his visit by Mr. Sung, who sends two thugs after her, yet it gets worse:  Dormammu’s Wraiths, which only she can see, pursue her, instilling an instinctual fear.  She luckily—and literally—bumps into Strange’s friend Sara Wolfe, who sees only the human threat, hustling her safely back to the Sanctum in a cab.  No sooner have they arrived chez Phyffe on the Rive Droite than Doc sees Alfeo crumble into dust and is kayoed with a candlestick; Clea, meanwhile, fires up the Orb of Agamotto to see a captive Wong aboard an aircraft and, enlisting Sara’s aid, uses a simple spell to switch forms, walking out in full view of the unwitting Wraiths.

Strange awakens strapped to an operating table, amid ghoulish “doctors” representing those he’d rejected as a greedy surgeon; bound and gagged, he can cast no spells, but uses his cloak to raise and smash the table.  Defeating an apparition of Hippocrates, he finds himself first back on Skid Row, then in an operating room, where his shaking hands stop him from cutting into the patient, unmasked as ex-flame Madeleine de St. Germaine.  A spell restoring reality pops unbidden into his mind, showing that he’d nearly sacrificed her in a Black Mass, and as a fight with the cultists starts a fire consuming the chapel and adjacent mansion, he rescues Madeleine, who reveals that Mordo promised to spare Phyffe—now his servant—when he opens the Seven Gates of Chaos...

Picking up where our formal curriculum ended, Claremont’s sophomore entry resumed an eight-issue run that teamed him throughout with veteran Doc penciler Gene Colan and able inker Dan Green.  The latter, paired with Ricardo Villamonte in #40, was part of a “D. Hands” collective on #45 that, according to multiple sources, also included Frank Giacoia, Al Milgrom, Tom Palmer, Wendy Pini, Josef Rubinstein, Walt Simonson, and Bob Wiacek.  Tom Orzechowski’s typically outstanding lettering (the last effort on this title by Chris’s X-Men mainstay, alas), Al’s superbly macabre EC-style cover (showing what he can do when he puts his mind to it), and the title (evoking James Whale’s 1932 Karloff Klassic) all betoken the start of something wonderful here.

The Wraiths are a bracing callback to the seminal Mordormammu epic from Strange Tales, this sequence offering the strong and nuanced female characterization that is a Claremont hallmark, and there’s a wonderful shot in page 11, panel 5 of Sara oblivious to the Wraith right outside the window.  Gentleman Gene’s gift for atmosphere is epitomized by page 2, panel 5, a low-angle shot encompassing a seated Alfeo in the foreground and Strange from behind as he gazes into the fire in the background, with Clea in between—but only up to the start of her bust.  A class act, the Dean displays her admirable figure (e.g., page 14, panel 2) without resorting to the shameless cheesecake seen in, say, Spider-Woman, which Chris, ironically, will take over a year from now.

Now, I’m the first to admit that this is probably a reach, yet when I saw the sound effect “Phut!” in page 10, panel 6, I immediately thought of the silenced shot that killed Le Chiffre in 007’s debut, Casino Royale (1953):  “There was a sharp ‘phut,’ no louder than a bubble of air escaping from a tube of toothpaste.”  Wouldn’t put it past Claremont, whose handling of the ever-complex Doc/Clea relationship did not disappoint me.  My initial reaction to her offer of a hug and a kiss was to anticipate Doc’s (“And that will make all right in the world, eh, Clea?”), yet their ensuing clinch is characterized as “rare, beautiful, supremely precious, and too quickly over”; she stays in New York not because she is excess baggage but to pursue the vital search for their friend Wong.



Doctor Strange 40 (April 1980)
"Dawn of Death!"
Story by Chris Claremont
Art by Gene Colan, Ricardo Villamonte, and Dan Green
Colors by Bob Sharen
Letters by Mark Rogan
Cover by Bob Layton

Strange confronts Lord Julian at a party (the splash page a superb “gotcha” moment as he reacts to seeing Stephen still alive), where he dare not use his full power, and despite being warned that Mordo is merely using him, Phyffe refuses to divulge his location, fleeing by car.  An “arcane aura” protects him, yet his plea for aid is met by laughter as the baron forces his car off the road and into a watery grave where Strange, depleted by recent struggles, finds his old-fashioned rescue attempt a waste, the impact having broken Phyffe’s neck.  Lucky to survive the frigid water himself, Doc is pulled from the Seine by Madeleine, but passes out in her car almost immediately—and so is unaware that Mordo has reanimated the body of his slave.

Granting the revenant absolute power, Mordo rebrands him as Azrael, “after the Hebraic angel of death”; a few hours later, Doc calls the Sanctum and Sara expresses concern over Clea, who has followed Wong’s psychic trail 200 miles north to the Adirondack Forest Preserve, where she is shot by an unseen assailant.  Paying little heed to an International Herald Tribune headline about disappearances near Citrusville, Doc recalls how, as a resident at New York Hospital, he saved his hostess—then Madeleine Revell, a translator at the U.N.—from car-crash injuries and fell for her, but after a year she declined his proposal “Because I do not like the man you are becoming.”  Back in the present, she poses the $64,000 question:  so what’s the deal with these Chaos Gates?

Their ancient spell will reverse the seven days of Genesis:  once opened, unleashing a demon, the first gate can never be closed, while the second demon will destroy all life on Earth (this sounds suspiciously like a Fulci film).  With the book stolen from the Vatican, Mordo needs to sacrifice 13 mystics “in a place of great occult power—like Stonehenge,” or…a Nexus of All Realities!  Madeleine’s maid, Colette Joubert, bursts in and abruptly decays, heralding the arrival of Azrael, at whose touch all things, even spells, age.  Striking through his pawn, Mordo seals the cloak and Eye of Agamotto in a force field; Doc saves some gendarmes and gets Madeleine outside, only to be pinned by bricks and hefted by Azrael, his face masked by an astral projection of Mordo’s.

Let’s get a very few gripes out of the way:  first, I’m often oblivious to lettering, but even given what a tough act Orz is to follow, I think Mark Rogan’s work here is substandard; it looks uneven and too large, threatening to crowd the artwork.  And I never know whether the primary blame falls on him, Chris, or the three (count ’em, three) editors for the various typos, most annoyingly—and repeatedly—confusing “its” and “it’s.”  Finally, Doc addresses Julian as “Lord Phyffe,” whereas if I’ve learned nothing else from the sublime Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, it’s that the proper form would be “Lord Peter”…but that’s about it, with the positives outweighing the negatives by a huge margin in this new fast-moving example of Claremontian wonderfulness.

Now, Gentleman Gene.  God damn, man.  The Dean’s exquisite framing is worthy of an Oscar-winning cinematographer.  Check out page 2, panel 3 (above right):  Doc is truly ready for his close-up, with just enough of his cloak showing on all sides to give him a crimson backdrop.  Word and image commingle brilliantly in page 6, panel 2 with the lettering of “YYEEAAAGHK!,” shaped to fit around Phyffe’s car, enhancing the sense of motion as it plunges into the Seine.  Professor Blake can probably dissect the differences in the Green and Villamonte inks, but to me, it all just looks like prime late-Bronze Colan, with my only real complaint about the artwork being that Azrael, especially as portrayed on page 22, looks too much like the Pillsbury Doughboy to be truly scary.

This issue also demonstrates the impressively organic quality of Claremont’s work, as the former greed that Doc was forced to face last issue is, we learn here, the very quality that ended his relationship with Madeleine; the reverse-Genesis of the Chaos Gates would be a mirror image of the Sise-Neg experience that so traumatized Mordo; and Colette’s crumbling into dust echoes that of Alfeo.  It should be noted, however, that when he returned to reality, Stephen discovered Spinosa had been shot through the heart:  “My psychic senses were so hyper-aware that what I ‘saw’ when he disintegrated in my arms was the actual destruction of his life-force…”  (And you know I’m gonna give Chris extra points for using Doc’s signature line, “Curse me for a novice!”)

Per the last-page “Special announcement!!  This story continues in Man-Thing #4 (on sale in 30 days).  It concludes in 60 days, in Dr. Strange #41…”  The, uh, thing is, Man-Thing #4 resolves not one but two cliffhangers, so it behooves us to ask what writer Michael Fleisher and artists Jim Mooney and Wiacek have been doing with Manny since rebooting his book in November.  In Man-Thing #2, two men about to test an experimental teleportation device in the swamp—like you do—are suddenly confronted by Manny, panic, and fire it at him, transporting him into the Himalayas and a scenario strongly recalling Iron Fist’s origin:  Russell Simpson is there seeking the Yeti with his wife and his best friend, Roger Grafton, who really wants Elaine all to himself.

He’s naturally thrilled when an ice storm blows Russell off a cliff, yet Elaine continues to resist his slimy advances and wants to go look for hubby.  His 500-foot fall broken by snow, Russell is saved from a bear attack and sheltered in a cave by Manny, whose prints are mistaken for the Yeti’s by Roger, sparking visions of dollar signs; meanwhile, with jaw-dropping implausibility, Russell ascends the cliff with Mountaineer Manny in tow.  Spurned again, Roger leaves the tent in a huff and, seeing Russell inconveniently clambering up, plugs him with his rifle, but Manny, awash with Russell’s dying anguish, hoists his new BFF’s bod over the top, where he’s drawn to the fear oozing from Roger—who abandons Elaine as his ineffectual shots trigger an avalanche...

In #3, Rog hires a crew to excavate Manny, but he and Elaine have emerged into the hairy hands of the Yeti, Cro-Magnon descendants led by Hiram Swenson, an anthropologist nursed back to health after his Sherpas betrayed him.  An old Yeti sneaks Manny out of their ice-pit prison to show him a “wooly [sic] mammoth” sculpture with a similar snout in their temple, believing him (as Swenson scoffs) an “invincible mastadon [sic] demon whose return signifies the death-knell of your culture!”  Shoulda listened:  the immolation is interrupted as Roger—still calling moss-green Manny a “snowman” amid actual Yeti—mows them down, earning a fearful face peel; as a “Doomsday Gong” brings down the cliffs, his men fly off, Manny clutching Elaine and the strut.


Man-Thing 4 (May 1980)
"Death-Knell"
Story by Chris Claremont
Art by Don Perlin and Bob Wiacek
Colors by Ben Sean
Letters by John Costanza
Cover by Bob Wicaek

The escape goes awry:  terrified by her plight, Elaine burns at, well, you know, wrenching out of Manny’s grip, while the plane’s lurch at the reduced weight and the sub-zero cold combine to crumble his wrist, so both plummet toward rocky peaks…and suddenly vanish.  Meanwhile, in Paris, with nothing to lose, Doc risks an all-or-nothing spell that may kill him as surely as Azrael’s touch, which is aging him rapidly.  Azrael is destroyed, yet after he has magically rejuvenated himself, Strange tells Madeleine, “In a sense, I’m borrowing from Peter to pay Paul by replenishing my strength all at once, instead of undertaking a lengthy convalesence [sic]. Sooner or later, this will catch up to me—I fear with a vengeance,” but first, off to Florida!

Still recovering, Strange minimizes his use of magic, but must employ a spell of cooperation on Sheriff John Daltry (his office oddly displaying a portrait of Man-Thing), who reveals details of the murders and kidnappings bespeaking Mordo’s selectivity in choosing his sacrificial victims.  Joshua, Jennifer, and Andy Kale were the first abductees, so Daltry recommends her ex-beau, Jaxon, to guide them through the swamp in his airboat.  Based on what he learned when he met Howard the Duck in Marvel Treasury Edition #12, Strange assumes that he and Jen—a disciple of Dakimh the Enchanter—are earmarked as the “high priest and priestess” of the coven; too late, Elaine tries to warn them, and as they approach the Kale house, Manny rises from the water.

Climbing ashore from the wrecked airboat, Jaxon and Madeleine pull Elaine to safety, perplexed that she is both burned and frostbitten, having literally dropped in from the Himalayas.  Mordo’s appearance confirms what Manny’s uncharacteristic aggression has already suggested (i.e., that he, like Azrael, is being used as a pawn) before the baron quickly fells Madeleine and the others.  While Manny tries to drown him, Strange muses that feigning defeat may buy him time to undo Mordo’s plan, but when he senses the ankh on his forehead, signifying mortal danger, it may be too late, and as Mordo regards his apparent corpse, he gloats to Madeleine—seemingly turned to gold—that his chosen one is really “the so-called guardian of this nexus of reality”…Ted Sallis!

Effective here, Fleisher and Mooney are replaced by, respectively, Claremont and Don Perlin, who round out most of the revival’s 11-issue run (inked in its entirety by Wiacek), and it’s worth noting Chris and Bob’s superb handling of Manny in Marvel Team-Up #68.  There’s a decidedly Ditkoesque look to the image of Mordo on Wiacek’s cool cover, with its effective color scheme, that is entirely appropriate and enjoyable in this context.  Yet to say that the interior artwork—an unwelcome reminder of Doc’s Perlin-drawn guest shot in Ghost Rider—is a comedown from the Colan splendor bookending it would be a vast understatement; even Don’s predecessor on this book, who if nothing else had a long history with Manny, would probably be preferable to Perlin.

I used to say that due to its structure, or lack thereof, Manny often seemed like a guest-star in his own strip, and this crossover—with its inevitable recap for non-Doc readers—recalls  that effect, placing the title character offstage for fully half the issue.  Taking over the book at just the right moment, Chris compensates by digging deep into Gerber-lore to dredge up Jaxon, possessed by a demon at Thog’s behest way back in Fear #13, while introducing new cast member Daltry.  The disappointing artwork notwithstanding, this is a fine continuation of Doc’s storyline into literal and figurative new territory, and given the mystical elements of Man-Thing’s origin and plotline, it’s perhaps surprising that he and the Master of the Mystic Arts have never crossed paths before.




Doctor Strange 41 (June 1980)
"Weep For the Soul of Man..."
Story by Chris Claremont
Art by Gene Colan and Dan Green
Colors by Ed Hannigan
Letters by Diana Albers
Cover by Bob Layton and Klaus Janson

Floating in an astral limbo, Strange is surprised when Clea appears and bids him to follow her, until he realizes it is really Death and eludes her yet again, emerging face-down in the Okealachobee River from a deep zen trance that slowed his life processes.  In a demonic temple he raised inside Ted Sallis’s shack, Mordo prepares to open the crystalline first gate; with Jen, in ritual garb (yowza!), and Man-Thing chained in the center, his other victims—e.g., Joshua, Andy, Jaxon, Madeleine—are on obsidian slabs on a dais laid out like a clockface, Mordo at noon.  He plucked Manny from the Himalayas, gave him Ted’s mind with no memory of his monstrous past, and duped Sallis into aiding him by promising to restore his lost humanity.




Planning to find and rule an alternate Earth with no sorcerers once this one is totalled, Mordo is summoning the “dread lords of the Mabdhara” when Doc appears.  Yet after he uses an illusion to distract and sneak up on his foe, the latter’s spell of protection hurls them into the Nexus, so Mordo need not even defeat Strange, merely keep him there as the demon’s hand reaches out of the gate and begins its grisly work of reducing the victims to bones, growing larger and stronger.  Forced to watch from afar as Madeleine dies, the enraged Strange is on the verge of strangling Mordo while Jennifer, in the moments before her own death, asks Sallis, “even if Mordo wasn’t lying…What kind of man are you to buy your ‘humanity’ with the lives of innocent people?!?”

As Doc turns away, realizing that killing Mordo would make him no better, his foe lunges at him with a rock; simultaneously, protected by his amalgam of magic and science, Ted-Thing forces the hand back through, slams shut, and shatters the gate, creating an interdimensional vortex into which he resignedly lets himself be drawn until Doc anchors him and seals it.  We are told—but not shown—how, just as Mordo was about to “administer the coup de grace,” the shock wave from the vortex swept away and separated the two sorcerers, with only Strange finding his way back to Earth.  The dead are returned to life, yet the same unique synthesis prevents Strange from restoring Ted’s humanity, driving him mad and forcing Doc to leave the monster mindless again.

Mixed feelings on this one.  Layton and Janson—an odd, and oddly effective, pair, that—get us off to a great start with their memorable cover, while the splash page by Messrs. GreenGene is, if you’ll pardon the groaner, to die for.  Overall, I find this a satisfying conclusion to an excellent arc; even if the “Hey, let’s cure the Hulk/Thing/Man-Thing/Whoever—oohhh, didn’t quite make it!” card is one played far too often, Claremont at least handles it with typical thoughtfulness.  So what, you might reasonably be asking by now, did I dislike about it?  Well, I’ll give you a hint:  it has to do with an atypical example of poor pacing on Chris’s part.  Hmm…could it be the 109-word, climax-describing “Gee, folks, I wish you could see this!” caption in the midst of page 27?

Bingo!  Now, I’m not suggesting that an arc of this size, while by no means overlong, should’ve been stretched out to another issue.  And I know that recaps are necessary, again, especially with crossovers.  And the opening sequence with Death is a keeper, if for the splash alone.  But still—dude, seriously?  “Sorry, we’re all out of time, but here’s what you would’ve seen!”  The loss of said spectacle is all the more regrettable when what Colan does show, drenched with atmosphere and the antithesis of Perlin’s monument to the mundane, is so, well, spectacular:  the cavernous, TARDIS-like interior of Ted’s rotted shack on page 11; the dais/clockface on page 14, right out of a Christopher Lee movie; the claw that is all we’ll see of the chaos-demon; its skeletal victims.

In two weeks...
The conclusion of Professor Matthew's
dissection of Claremont on Doctor Strange!

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Post-Graduate Studies #4


The MU campus is mostly unused right now but
from time to time, our Professors will drop in for Summer courses.
This Week:

Fantastic Four #214
by Professors Mark Barsotti and Matthew Bradley



Fantastic Four 214 (January 1980)
"...And Then There Was - One!"
Story by Marv Wolfman
Art by John Byrne and Joe Sinnott
Colors by Carl Gafford
Letters by John Costanza
Cover by John Byrne and Joe Sinnott

Welcome back, Fab Fourophiles! You didn't think we would abandon you with three-quarters of Marvel's first family at death's door, did ya? That would have left you raging at the heavens, much like the Torch on the John Byrne/Joe Sinnott cover.

The mistitled "..And Then There Was - One!" opens with Johnny Storm on his knees before his teammates, sealed in the cryo-crypts keeping them alive - barely - from the effects of the Skrulls' aging ray (FF #206). Lots of wailing and gnashing of teeth before Johnny decides that, while he's not smart enough to figure out a way to save them, others could!

He calls Stark Industries, but Tony's incommunicado. He looks for Stark's "bodyguard Iron Man" at Avengers Manse, but Jarvis advises that Earth's Mightiest are "off on one mission or another," but suggests Stark might be hanging with SHIELD. Off Johnny blazes, promising Jarvis a cookie if the lead pans out. "No nuts, sir," Jar requests. "I'm allergic to nuts." It's a small, smile-worthy joke, but such has been the lack of humor under Marv's stewardship that when I read it, I had to check the credits to confirm Wolfman's authorship.

Aboard SHIELD's "flying hover carrier" (try helicarrier, Marv), Dum Dum Dugan hips Johnny that, yeah, Stark's aboard, but he ain't going anywhere for at least 24 hours: decontamination time from the pool of radioactive waste Tony's trying to convert into a fuel source (a big pool of radioactive waste aboard an aircraft? What could possibly go wrong?).

Pre-mourning his teammates, the Torch flies back to the Baxter and brainstorms dialing up Xandar for tech support. Princess Adora takes the call, informs Johnny there's no known cure for the Skrulls' aging ray but offers to tap the awesome knowledge of the Living Computer! And then... the call drops! Damn you (insert phone carrier of your choice)!!

At wick's end, Johnny's anger ignites a dazzling light show, illuminating the top of the B. Building and the sky above. The citizens below recoil in terror or grumble about unsafe supes, but the Torch's pyrotechnic eruption inexplicably does zero damage inside, as Marv has other aliens to fry.

Flaming off, Johnny tries to think "calmly, rationally," even as the computer by the wall behind him morphs into its genuine form: "Skrull X," a robo ringer for the Super Skrull, who followed Adora to New York, back in #204A two-page flaming fracas ensues, then Robo Skrull calls on the Torch to "submit...to the same tortured fate your fellow teammates have suffered!" as he pulls an aging-ray pistol from a hidey hole in his shoulder. This pisses the Torch off bigly and he turns Robo S into a steaming slag-pile. 

After a couple poor me panels, Torchie shakes it off, plucks the pistol from the floor with the hopeful theory that "whatever the components of that ray are...they can be analyzed and...reversed." Knowing hi-tech gizmos ain't his forte, Johnny reheats Reed from the cryo-freeze, his brother-in-law's decrepitude vividly rendered by John Byrne. Coming groggily to life on p.18, Reed is like an ancient, stretched-out rubber band found in an old desk, suffering a sort of body incontinence, all loose and floppy, while his dried-fruit face approaches mummification.

But Reed's brain ticks on like an expensive Swiss watch. One squint of a cataracted eye at the ray gun's guts under magnification and he has a fix, one requiring Johnny to do some micro-welding on Skrull tech "smaller than computer chips." Byrne gives Johnny welding goggles and plenty of facial sweat beads, and then, by Stan and Jack, he's done it! After returning still-saggy Reed to Frigidaire repose, Johnny fires the reverse-Skrull ray at his slumbering pards. 

Nothing happens.

"I - failed! I failed" Johnny wails, Wolfman's ladling out the self-loathing - "When the chips are ready to be cashed - when it all depends on Johnny Storm to carry the ball - I blow it!" The Torch turns the ray-gun into molten goo and wanders up to the airship garage, tortured by a floating-head rogue's gallery and the lash of his own self-abasement. Finally, after the Torch brands himself "a born loser!" his now-rejuvenated teammates make the scene. 

"There was a delayed reaction, lad," Reed announces. And not only that, but the boomeranged Skrull tech has made them younger, more vital than ever! 

Sue gives her bro a peck on the cheek. Ben picks up a giant whatzit with one arm. Reed loop-de-loops his body like a Hot Wheels track. We close with the classic stacking of four hands, straight outta FF #1, and the battle cry, "Look out world!! The Fantastic Four are back!!"

And for just a second there, class - and against all better judgment - I believed it.  -Mark Barsotti

Mark: In my almost four years on the MU faculty, this is the only comic I read cover to cover twiceOur final lesson of the last semester, examining FF #213, resolved one plot line with Galactus' satisfying smackdown of the up-powered but under-written Sphinx - but #214 got a quick read as well, so as not to leave any of you adangle over the accelerated-aging fate of three-fourths of the Fabs. When the Dean decided the denouement required a post-grad examination, I read it again, largely to my dismay. 

As the facility's top (only?) Matchhead maven, I was thrilled during that first rushed read. Wolfman not only wrote Johnny as heroic for once, but competent (no, Marv, we haven't forgotten the Security University/College fiasco, damn you, we never will!). Johnny seeks out Brainiac assistance (true, he didn't look up Banner or Pym, but do we really want the story stretched out in a Quest for Scientists installment? Didn't think so), slags Robo-Skrull, then revives Reed and aces the impromptu micro-welding. Well-thought, well-fought - Johnny deserves to give himself a fireworks display, except...

I couldn't, second time 'round, ignore the woesome pity-party that passes for characterization in Wolfman's unsteady hands. When Johnny's not fighting, he's crying. Now a bit of raw emotion is fine, given that his family and fellow Fabs are near death and the Torch feels guilty for being a.w.o.l. against the Skrulls (see Security University/College fiasco); fine, pathos and all that, but when Johnny's actively engaged in saving his pards - as he is throughout the rest of the story - it should buck him up a little, but instead, every time he gets to pause for breathe, it's back to the sell-flagellation.

On exiting the Helicarrier, Stark-less, p.5, "If anyone should be dying, it's me!"  

Point taken, Johnny.

"I'm the useless member of our quartet."

We get it, kid.

"I'm the one who never pulls his weight. And now it looks like I'm gonna fail for the very last time!"

Take a Valium, Jes-zus.

Alas, no salvation for us, class, as on the very next page, while lighting up the Manhattan sky with his impotent rage flare, Johnny yelps, "Why? Why are the fates plotting against me? Why? Why? Why?" 

Okay, give us a Valium. 

Fortunately, the action in the middle third of the book - energetically wrought by John Byrne and Joe Sinnott - limits the whining, but when the reversed Skrull ray fails to instantly revive the senior-cycles, Johnny barks, "I failed!" follow by two entire pages of self-loathing soliloquy, larded with gems like "I'm nothing more than a glorified match-stick!" before his revived teamies finally show up - a bit younger then they were before, in one of those minor, status quo tweaks - like Reed's expanded stretching power, which I think happened around ish #200;  hey, at least I remember it at all, unlike Marv - that will soon be forgotten. Everyone now hale and healthy, we exit with some forced rah-rah.

So, no, kids, I don't really believe the FF are back, but after Wolfman's malignant mishandling of one of my fave characters, even in a starring role - he's a hero, but boy, what a sad sack! - I'll take all the phony triumphalism and four-way hand-stacks I can get.

But let's conclude on a positive up-tick. Two, in fact. From the evocative cover (happily, dialogue free) to the last panel power salute, the groovy graphics rock. Joltin' Joe's the title's iron man since FF #44 (bonus points for students who know about #5), and Byrne brings both his burgeoning  talent and passion for the Fabs to the pages.

Second, and more importantly, I was considering reading through the rest of the FF's 1980 canon, perhaps to be reported upon in chunks, but have now been thoroughly disabused of that notion.

Maybe we'll be back when Byrne takes over the whole shootin' match.

Matthew Bradley:  I had hoped that after a breather, and absent the pressure of our erstwhile weekly deadlines, I might tolerate this a bit better, but Marv’s maundering annoys me as much as ever, most notably his mishandling of cover-boy Torch.  We’ve already had an extended Johnny Storm pity party, which is why he bailed on the Xandar mission, which is why he’s the only one not superannuated now.  And what is this nonsense about him being “the useless member of our quartet…the one who never pulls his weight”?  I like Sue, frequently think her underutilized, and would never want to be sexist, but I seriously doubt that anybody who had more than a passing familiarity with this book would say Johnny consistently made the least contribution to the team.

And there, per Hamlet, is the rub.  Read my lips, grad students:  this is out of character.  Johnny has always been the brash young, yes, hothead, self-confident or, frequently, overconfident, and did I miss the part where Sue had her own 34-issue solo strip in Strange Tales (crappy though it might have been) because her little brother was such a slacker?  This just reinforces what I have been saying all along about Wolfman’s tin ear for the strip and its characters, and of course the maddeningly inevitable corollary to all of that is Grandpa Reed’s pathetic gratitude when the Flaming Mope—shocker!—rises to the occasion and saves the day, well, sorta:  “You did it, son…you did it….Th-thank you, lad…th-thank you.”  Yes, kids, the FF is now led by Porky Pig.

I trust you’ll forgive me for feeling that the typically sumptuous Byrnott artwork deserves better, and it’s embarrassing that neither the then-current nor former Marvel EIC knows how to spell “gallavanting” (sic).  For me, the best part of this issue was the “Look out, world!!” final panel, not only because we all like seeing our Fab Four back in fighting trim—oh, wait, they’re “younger, stronger—more vital than ever!”  How convenient!—but also because it provides merciful closure to an arc that, starting with the Quasimodo catalyst, has been meandering along for more than a year.  So it gives me a nice juncture at which to suspend my FF studies for the nonce, although I see Marv only has one more issue to go anyway; well, maybe in another post...

In Two Weeks...
Professor Matthew dissects
Claremont's final days on Doctor Strange!