Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Post-Graduate Studies #16

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

by Professor Tom Flynn

Debuting in February 1975 — and admirably covered by the esteemed Professor Joe Tura — Marvel Preview magazine was the oversized, black-and-white brother of such color “try out” comics as Marvel Spotlight.  Originally priced at $1.00 and packed with a big 84 pages, each issue offered a main story on a character not quite popular enough for their own series: the Punisher, Blade, Satana and others, though mainstream regulars Thor and Robert E. Howard’s King Kull were also featured. For some reason, Star-Lord was a big favorite with the editorial staff and he was given five separate appearances, including the very first collaboration of Chris Claremont, John Byrne and Terry Austin in #11. 

The final issue covered by Professor Joe in the magazine wing of Marvel University was #19 (November 1979) starring the aforementioned Kull. Well, that’s not exactly true. As chair of the Hyborian Department, I stole that one off his already full plate. When MU switched to Post Graduate mode after wrapping up Marvel’s output for December 1979, Marvel Preview ran for five more issues, finally giving up the ghost with #24 in February 1981. I actually covered one of these extracurricular magazines in the very first Post Graduate, a mediocre piece on Moon Knight’s last two black-and-white adventures, which included issue #21 (May 1990). But Marvel Preview wasn’t exactly dead yet.  A year later, in May of 1981, the series was rebranded as Bizarre Adventures, continuing Preview’s numbering with #25. Why Marvel didn’t just start with #1 is beyond me. The publisher did this on quite a few occasions, opting to miss the golden opportunity to have a blaring “Fantastic 1st Issue” burst on the cover of a premiere issue. Wouldn’t that attract collectors and the curious? It’s not like they weren’t justified to start the revamped publication from the beginning. Unlike Marvel Preview, Bizarre Adventures — a pretty creaky title by the way, recalling such Silver Agers as Journey Into Mystery and Tales to Astonish — featured three or four shorter stories starring much more established characters such as the Black Widow, Howard the Duck, Elektra and, the subjects of this Post Graduate, the X-Men. 

Now, my original plan was to cover every issue of Bizarre Adventures. There were only ten, as the magazine was once again cancelled with #34 (February 1983) — this time for good. But when the honorable Dean Pete supplied me with the run, that goal was quickly scuttled. It’s not that Bizarre Adventures was a complete dud. But taken as a whole, the series was fairly uninspiring. However, there are plenty of noteworthy parts to cherry pick for a limited number of Post Graduates. Throughout the 10-issue run, some of the top artists of the day are on display, from Frank Miller and Marshall Rogers to Michael Golden, Bill Sienkiewicz, John Byrne and Paul Smith. Plus, since I’m a Robert E. Howard completist, I am compelled to cover #26, another magazine featuring his thick-headed Atlantean monarch, Kull. That one was a rare Marvel job by the great John Bolton: he also illustrated the Thor tale in #32, so I’ll also tackle that one down the line. But let’s start with #27, featuring current and former members from the most popular Marvel comic of the day, The Uncanny X-Men.

Bizarre Adventures #27: Secret Lives of the X-Men
July 1981
Cover Art by Paul Gulacy

Story by Chris Claremont
Art by John Buscema and Klaus Janson

“Winter Carnival”
Story by Mary Jo Duffy
Art by George Perez and Alfredo Alcala

“Show Me the Way to Go Home”
Story by Mary Jo Duffy
Art by Dave Cockrum and Ricardo Villamonte

We kick off with the 18-page “Phoenix,” as Sara Grey stands over the tombstone of her younger sister Jean, aka Phoenix, in a Dutchess County, New York, cemetery. Now Jean’s body is not actually contained in the grave: it’s mostly symbolic since she was obliterated on the moon. Tearfully, Sara begins to remember an incident from two years earlier …

Planning on meeting their significant others afterwards — boyfriend Scott Summers for Jean and husband Paul Bailey for Sara — the two sisters head off for a day of sailing the Long Island Sound. As they enjoy a picnic lunch on board, Sara, a normal human, confesses that she is worried that her children might share Jean’s mutant genes, cursing them as misfits and outcasts. Soon, the siblings sail into a thick fog bank: both are surprised since the forecast called for crystal clear weather. Sara is overwhelmed and falls unconscious. Jean soon succumbs as well as and slides over the side. As she sinks through the chilly waters and darkness begins to overcome her, Jean recalls how her telekinesis was triggered by the tragic death of a childhood friend and how her sympathetic parents sent her away to Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters when she struggled to control her new powers — and how, years later, she was reborn as the all-powerful Phoenix. 

Jean bolts awake in a well-appointed bedchamber underwater, shocked to find that her skin has turned blue and that she can still breathe. Alerted by a scream, she swims off to find a panicked Sara in the same strange condition. Armed guards soon appear — their skin blue as well — and take the shaken sisters to their lord, Attuma, scourge of the seven seas. The damp despot boasts that he has developed a genetic virus that can transform surface-dwelling female mutants into water-breathers: they will then be used as breeding stock to create a race of super-beings he will use to finally conquer Namor the Sub-Mariner along with the entire planet. Attuma also informs Jean that a score of psychic dampers are focused on her — if she tries to resist their effect, she will become a mindless vegetable.

Jean, realizing that the dampers were merely designed to contain Marvel Girl, transforms into the far more threatening Phoenix. She blasts Attuma and his heavily armed guards with tremendous telekinetic force bolts and rushes off with her sister in tow. But Attuma recovers and corners the women, huge sword in hand. However, once again, he proves no match for the mighty mutant. The Greys finally make their escape and swim to freedom. When Sara breaks the surface, she is unable to breathe air — clutching her throat, she slips below the waves. Using all of her immense power, Phoenix corrects every single one of the trillion cells in her sister’s body, removing Attuma’s genetic virus and transforming her body back to normal. Exhausted, Jean blacks out. But Sara, with the help of a school of dolphins, is able to drag her to the shore above. When Jean recovers, she removes the memory of the entire stressful event from her sister’s memory.

Back in present time at the cemetery, Sara reveals that she regained the memory of the encounter with Attuma after her sister’s death. 

First of all, this story is referenced as “The Brides of Attuma” by various sources, but the Table of Contents and the splash page clearly indicate that it’s simply called “Phoenix.” Regardless of the name, there is something not quite right with the proceedings — which is odd considering the talent involved. While Chris Claremont did not create Jean Grey/Marvel Girl, he was perhaps the most talented writer to handle the character and fleshed her out more than any other before him. And obviously, he did give life to Phoenix. So while he is true to Grey’s personality, the whole situation he places her in is a headscratcher. Phoenix, an immensely powerful and often cosmic being, becomes the kidnapping victim of Attuma and finds herself swimming to and fro? Not a plot that leaps to mind. Perhaps Claremont thought he needed to “ground” the story since her nervous sister Sara was involved. But still, couldn’t Chris have had Galactus kidnap the pair, wanting Phoenix for his next herald or something else a bit more grandiose? Phoenix seems shoehorned into a plot meant for a much more minor hero. And did we really need a school of friendly dolphins to help save the day at the end? Plus, is Claremont’s take on how Marvel Girl’s mutant abilities were triggered a new wrinkle? Can’t remember if the topic was breeched before.

Attuma’s whole plan is a bit of a stretch as well and he clearly thinks that Sara is a mutant. Not that Jean or Sara argues the point. Though, after a bit of poking around the interwebs, it is claimed that she does possess some sort of latent mental power. If true, it’s not referenced in any way at all here. And let’s remember that the story is a flashback by Sara so it’s supposed to be told through her eyes. Yet Jean has a flashback of her own and is given plenty of thought balloons throughout, inner dialogues her sister would obviously not have access to. So not sure why Chris decided to give the story that format at all. Perhaps he thought that the framing pages in the cemetery would add gravitas? I hate to lay any negatives at the feet of my main man John Buscema, but the art is rather weak and sloppy. It’s obvious that Big John only provided rough layouts. As much as I admire his work in other instances, Klaus Janson is not the man to tighten or focus loose illustrations. He’s all mood and shadows.

In the 16-page “Winter Carnival,” visiting sophomore Bobby Drake is at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, to attend the title event. When he notices that the carnival’s theme is superheroes and that the university’s grounds are littered with ice sculptures of Angel, Captain America and other heroes, he forms one of his alter ego, Iceman. When some of Bobby’s friends appear, a snowball fight breaks out, Drake surreptitiously forming a steady stream of ammunition behind his back. Suddenly, the festivities are interrupted by an alarm: three ski-masked men have been caught trying to steal components of Dartmouth’s new computer system, blasting anyone in their way with high-tech stun guns while trying to escape. Ducking behind a tree, Drake transforms into Iceman and easily puts them in deep freeze. After the police drag the would-be thieves away, the icy X-Man entertains the students with a display of his frosty powers.
Later, Iceman and his new pals are doffing a few beers in the campus rathskeller when they are approached by Lieutenant Jimmy D’Angelo, the officer investigating the thwarted robbery. He informs the students that the thieves were attempting to steal large crates containing a new computer system donated by Dr. Henry Pym, aka Yellowjacket. When D’Angelo asks who sounded the alarm, Drake’s boozy friend Bubba states that it was a new math professor — yet no one knows his name or has attended any of his courses. Back at the computer lab, the thieves have returned, led by the mysterious academic, a man named Thatcher. It seems that the earlier robbery was a ruse: when the computer crates were returned, an extra one was mixed in containing one of the robbers. When everything quieted down, he simply slipped out of the box and unlocked the door to the lab. But Iceman, suspicious of the phantom mathematician, returns to the lab during the shenanigans. After a brief firefight, the X-Man ices the gang until Thatcher is the only one left standing. But the elderly mastermind has a trick up his sleeve, a more lethal version of the stun guns concealed in his cane — Iceman is brought to his knees by a direct hit as Thatcher flees with the blueprint to Pym’s invention.

The mutant manages to shake off the blast and gives chase, ultimately cornering the faux professor using ice skis and poles. But Bubba and the rest of the rowdy students stumble on to the scene. Thatcher sets off a chain reaction in his cane, claiming it will cause a massive explosion that will kill them all. But Iceman surrounds the weapon in a ball of snow and forces it skyward with thin columns of ice from his fingertips — it detonates harmlessly in the atmosphere. Thatcher is carted off by Lieutenant D’Angelo and the X-Man strides away proudly, relishing the opportunity to win the day without the help of teammates. 

Let’s start off with the art. My second main man Alfredo Alcala is on hand and the inks provide the lush textures and masterfully gradated shades we have come to expect from his gorgeous black-and-white work. But if you are looking for the unmistakable style of the non-accented George Perez in the layouts and figures, you’ll have to look somewhere else. Not sure if Perez merely provided roughs — like John Buscema in the Phoenix story — but you can only spot him in a series of thin, vertical panels that spread across the top of pages 34 and 35: Thatcher and his goons are walking past the ice sculptures of the heroes until, of course, they pass the real Iceman who leaps into action. Seriously, without the Table of Contents page, George’s mamacita would be hard pressed to tell if he was involved. Which is a shame, even with Alfredo’s outstanding inks.

While I mainly recall Mary Jo Duffy as an editor, she did script single issues of both Daredevil and The Defenders in 1979 and began a pretty lengthy run on Power Man & Iron Fist the same year. However, this is the first time I’ve reviewed anything written by her for MU — and she’s pretty unimpressive. I would imagine that Duffy thought the whole “fake robbery to mask a real one” was a clever idea, but she glosses over so many details that “Winter Carnival” comes across as a surprisingly violent issue of Archie. She states that Bobby is a “visiting sophomore” but doesn’t bother to mention from where. How do the thieves manage to slip in a dummy crate after the first brouhaha with the campus crawling with police? No explanation. And head honcho Thatcher is given nothing but a last name and a professorial goatee. We are supposed to believe that he simply showed up on campus and hung around for a few days pretending to be part of the faculty? No one would ask him who the heck he was? And where did he get the stun guns and cane? Thatcher does mention that it would be quite difficult to steal Pym’s computer in New York City, so he waited until it was transferred to Dartmouth — which is reasonable, but just about the only thing remotely intelligent about the story. And speaking of the computer, there is no information whatsoever about what it does or what makes it so special. “Winter Carnival” left me completely cold. Sorry about that.

Nightcrawler takes center stage in the 18-page “Show Me the Way to Go Home.” As the X-Men are gathered around the TV watching Kurt’s favorite movie, 1940’s The Mark of Zorro, Cerebro sounds an alarm: it has sensed half a mutant in Poughkeepsie, New York. The team boards the Blackbird and jet upstate, spotting the Vanisher trapped in mid-teleportation, half of his body still in Darkstar’s darkforce after the villain’s encounter with the Champions. When Nightcrawler reaches out and touches the bald baddie, a tremendous “Bamf!” transports them both through a mind-bending dimension — they end up in different locations on a planet inhabited entirely by beautiful, scantily clad woman warriors. The lovelies tell the confused visitors that men are rare on their world and whenever one shows up, he is treated like a god. While Nightcrawler is more concerned with getting home, the Vanisher begins to relish the promise of a pampered life and other, more naughty, perks.

When Kurt asks about the prospects of returning home, he is guided to the Oracle, an old woman named Sehu who is displayed on a vintage television. The sarcastic soothsayer informs the mutant that there is a Well at the Center of Time nearby: all he needs to do is jump in with whatever he brought to this dimension. Realizing that he needs to bring the Vanisher along, Nightcrawler begins to search for his fellow teleporter. He quickly finds his prey hording a fortune of gems and other priceless treasures — not surprisingly, the Vanisher refuses to accompany Kurt to the Well. A running skirmish breaks out, with the Vanisher trying to fend off the lithe youngster with a rapier, a boiling cauldron and various darkforce generated weapons, including a giant black fist. But Nightcrawler overcomes all obstacles and his opponent eventually succumbs. On the way to the Well, a giant creature — a monstrous mixture of a chameleon, alligator and cat — gives chase. But the two mutants manage to hurl themselves into the time portal and are transported back to Poughkeepsie. The Vanisher, stripped of the darkforce, arrives naked and embarrassingly blinks away.

“Show Me the Way to Go Home” is played as a lark, but Duffy doesn't have the talent to deliver giggles, only groans. Before we get to some examples of her side-splitting zingers, let’s pause on the splash page as the X-Men are watching TV. Wolverine is of course complaining — “the hero acts like a wimp” — as a line of dialogue floats from the speakers: “His bath was tepid! Poor Lolita, I fear her wedded life will be the same!” Since Mary Jo doesn’t bother informing us what the mutants are watching, I lazily guessed Stanley Kubrick’s “Lolita,” a film I haven’t seen in my defense. But on the next page, Colossus starts talking about “this Zorro,” so a quick search revealed that the film was actually The Mark of Zorro. Why couldn’t Duffy just let us know in one of the many captions on the page? It’s not like zombies had computers those days. Plus, what is the motivation behind the women warriors treating the men like gods — and why have the few they’ve encountered disappeared? No clue since Mary Jo doesn’t provide any. They look like Amazons and are armed with swords, so you’d figure they’d have some man-hating tricks up their sleeves. But they are consistently helpful and subservient. And now for some “zany” bits. When the women take Nightcrawler to see the Oracle, there’s a glowing sign spelling out “Oracle” over the entrance to her odd cave. One of the women says, “It’s in there!” as Kurt replies, “I’d never have guessed.” Is the Oracle’s name, Sehu, supposed to be funny as well? See Who? See You? See me sigh. When the sword fight breaks out, the Vanisher shouts “En garde” as ’Crawler replies “Café au Lait!” Speaking of the Vanisher, I’m not familiar with him at all, but he comes across like a spineless dunce, hampered with such fey dialogue as “Hee hee, he’ll never catch me,” “Girls help, save me” and “I’m philosophically opposed to dying.” And the giant creature at the end bellows “Ooga! Ooga!” Bleech.

Now I am much more of an admirer of John Buscema and George Perez, but Dave Cockrum is easily the artistic star of Bizarre Adventures #27. Dave was back as penciller of The Uncanny X-Men at the time, so he obviously has a firm grasp of the characters. Not only that, his artwork — nicely embellished by the scattershot Ricardo Villamonte — is the cleanest and most energetic of the entire magazine. Too bad it was illustrating such a “comedic” waste of time. The two-page spread of Nightcrawler and the Vanisher plummeting through the dark dimension is very well done, as strange, altered images of the two are floating besides them. If you’ve ever wondered what Kurt would look like as a woman, here you go. 

Unlike most of the black-and-white magazines I’ve covered for MU, the issue doesn’t have any text pieces but there are a few bonuses. A frontispiece includes a nice illustrations of Phoenix by Frank Miller with what looks like inks from Janson, there’s a brief and breezy editorial by editor Dennis O’Neil and Cockrum provided an “X-Men Data Log” of each character to kick off their individual stories — check ’em out below. Paul Gulacy delivers an outstanding cover, but what’s with his take on Nightcrawler’s hair? Is that a perm? 

While I imagine that the fanatic legion of X-Men fans would have snatched this magazine up in July of 1981, it’s rather flat and could have easily been skipped. Which is a shame considering the creative teams involved. Bizarre Adventures #27 should have remained a secret — X-Men or not.

In Two Weeks...
Professor Tom Stays Bizarre!

Featuring the Art of John Bolton!

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Post-Graduate Studies #15

The MU campus is mostly unused right now but
from time to time, our Professors will drop in for Summer courses.
This Week:
The Gruenwacchio Run, Part 3
by Professor Matthew Bradley

Marvel Two-in-One 69 (November 1980)
The Thing and The Guardians of the Galaxy in
Story by Mark Gruenwald and Ralph Macchio
Art by Ron Wilson and Gene Day
Colors by George Roussos
Letters by John Costanza
Cover by Ron Wilson and Gene Day

An early-rising Ben makes breakfast for Sue and Franklin so that he can ask her advice about Alicia, and is rightly told he’s jumped to conclusions regarding the “other man.”  Before we deduce that MTIO has been rebranded as My Love Vol. 3, Starhawk beams down to warn of the latest “grave danger to your world”:  about to return to the 31st century, Vance Astro vanished, with Drydock’s tracking devices evidently sabotaged by the responsible party.  Encountering his 16-year-old 20th-century counterpart “would cause untold damage to the course of time,” so after enlisting the FF’s help (“We are alerting your era’s other champions, as well.  If you learn anything, contact us on frequency 12-G”), Starhawk hies away.

Meanwhile, in Saugerties—and how often do you get a chance to write that?—adult Vance has in fact “jumped ship” in search of his past self, whom he unnerves by popping out from behind a tree in true stalker fashion.  Although convinced that “This guy’s weird!,” the teen is intrigued by “The Major’s” detailed knowledge of his life and prediction that he will one day be famous; as they walk and converse, “a dark grey fog begins to swell ominously behind them…”  Back at the Baxter Building, Reed’s various sensors all point toward that southbound fogbank, now about to engulf the Bronx and endanger air traffic, so with an Avengers Quinjet graciously granting dibs, the Fantasti-Car splits up and Ben plunges in, flying on instruments toward the fogbank’s center.

There, V31 has just revealed his future history, explaining that he’s trying to prevent it and seeks to elicit a promise that V20 will never become an astronaut, but he comes on too strong, and V20 freaks out, fleeing into the fog just as Ben lands.  Spotting V31, Ben empathizes, yet warns that when he gave his past self a curative serum, he merely created an alternate world that did nothing for him; undaunted, V31 says he’ll help probe the cause of the fog if Ben reciprocates with his mission.  Cue one-panel cameos by “other champions” Spidey, DD, Shellhead, Storm, Aquarian (“I am the way and the light”—sheesh), and Captain Marvel as they cope with the pea-souper, then V31 arrives at his parents’ house, where he’s greeted by…his Jovian teammate, Charlie-27.

Naturally, he was expected, but Charlie don’t surf—uh, agree to let the Vances palaver, duking it out with Ben for the heavyweight title while sending the others to pursue him into the fog; V31 makes like his boyhood hero, Captain America, by using a trash-can lid to spoil Yondu’s control of his “Yucca [sic] arrow” until the thermodynamic Martinex forces him to cool down…literally.  Ben shucks Chuck and spots the Vancicle (who fears a fatal crack in his “copper life-suit”), only to be felled by the Centaurian archer, and with both immobilized, the GOTG quartet beams up to Drydock, rejoining Nikki and Starhawk.  Yet the mist persists, and a defrosted V31 explains that this brief encounter triggered V20’s psionic powers, just as a 1,000-year space flight did with his.

They beam back down chez Astrovik, where V31 tells V20 only he can dispel the fog, but again, he comes on too strong, his PK demo merely goading the frenzied lad into dispersing the GOTG.  It’s up to Ben, of all people, to be the voice of reason, calming him with thoughts of Cap and the good he could do; cue “Here Comes the Sun” as an angry Arnold asks who gave V31 the right to mess with his son’s life.  He answers by unmasking just before they return to Drydock for their temporal journey, positing to a perplexed Nikki that “I probably should have guessed my suit had some sort of regenerative capacity….Until now, though, I never had a strong enough reason to want to risk testing it,” leaving Ben to introduce Stretch to “the newest super hero on the block!”

No trilogy this time, so we’ll have to settle for a Guardians one-off and the two-part resolution (spoiler!), after almost eight years, of the amphibians subplot begun in Sub-Mariner #61.  I was ready to be delighted over a full-on GOTG appearance to bookend Starhawk’s in the Her saga, which a two-page remedial lettercol—afforded by the newly expanded format, as was a 21-page story—tells us was the first thing Gruenwald ever plotted for Marvel, hence his solo script credit; put on hold to avoid simultaneous space epics in MTIO and Fantastic Four, it was reactivated to give Pérez a head start on “The Serpent Crown Affair.”  But my hackles were already up when the cover billing promised an adversarial reunion with said former allies:  “The Thing Battles…”

John Carpenter’s The Fog is a personal favorite, so I wondered if the tag’s erroneous reference to a “strange, mysterious, killer FOG!”—which, in fact, kills nobody—might be capitalizing on the film, released about six months earlier.  In any case, look, I’m as big a fan of tying up loose ends as the next guy, probably bigger, yet I think Gruenwacchio, who specialize in such closure, may have taken it too far here.  They not only declaw the longtime bugbear of a catastrophic meeting between Vances—and I’ll offer a proverbial cheer-within-a-jeer for Ben’s invocation of #50 as a time-paradox precedent—but also remove a key element that made him so compelling, i.e., being trapped in a copper-foil suit, except under the very special circumstances of Marvel Presents #7.

“Very special” is a phrase that does not spring to mind when addressing the Wilson/Day artwork, which as usual is aggressively average at best, and for some reason, Ron seems to love placing Ben in the kitchen with drippy things on the, uh, splash, e.g., making pizza in #40 or pancakes here.  Especially disappointing for this fan of Our Pal Sal’s definitive Guardians is their version of Charlie, who looks more thuggish than jovial.  On the asset side, Gruenwacchio handles V31 better than some, nailing his dilemma (“I must have gone mad from the unendurable isolation three times!  And the last time, I went so crazy that my psionic powers came to the surface!  Nobody should have to suffer as I did—not even me!”) and interaction with Ben, a kindred spirit.

Marvel Two-in-One 70 (December 1980)  
The Thing and the Yancy Street Gang in
"A Moving Experience"
Story by Mark Gruenwald and Ralph Macchio
Art by Michael Netzer and Gene Day
Color s by George Roussos
Letters by John Costanza and Irving Watanabe
Cover by Keith Pollard and Joe Sinnott

We’ve had some interesting variations on the usual “The Thing and [fill in the blank]” billing, e.g., replacing “and” with “vs.,” pitting Ben against himself, and even having him “Alone against the Mystery Menace!,” but I think this is unique:  “The Thing and—?!”  Revisiting this, I had absolutely no recollection who either “?!” or the bad guys were, so I steadfastly resolved not to look ahead and spoil the surprise…until I opened it up and the splash page did it for me with its “The Thing and the Yancy Street Gang!” header.  Nice goin’, guys, especially since it would’ve been a bit of a surprise, with our nominal guest-stars not even introduced (if you can call it that, when they’re mostly tiny silhouettes) until story page 13.

Villains Shellshock and Livewire were a bit of a surprise as well, not least because the former, or at least the hand representing him, inexplicably appears to be African American on the otherwise acceptable Pérez/Sinnott cover (complete with “No shots?  No school” street-sign PSA echoing a curious LOC).  Actually, even a full-page reveal of S&L would probably still have left me going, “Who?,” since Gruenwacchio seems to have set a new standard for dredging up Obscure Heavies We Never Needed to See Again.  Excavated from FF Annual #5—which for some reason needed not one but two footnotes—they weren’t even primary villains, merely minions of Psycho-Man, although starting in Power Man #24, Livewire had a desultory side gig with the Circus of Crime.

Look, the Thing/YSG team-up in #47 was a cute change of pace but no masterpiece, and surely not an idea that cried out to be revisited, which is sadly par for the course in this consummate dog of an issue—where’s Coco when we need her?  Ditto the numerous errors (e.g., “whose the wiseguy!?,” “Gene Autrey,” “marshmellows”), while the lettercol ’fesses up that it was Pablo Marcos and not Gene Day, also implicated here, who inked #68, to which I respond with a hearty “Whatever.”  I hope I’m as willing to suspend my disbelief as the next guy, yet Mark and Ralph earn a gold medal this time in Exposition Clumsily Camouflaged as Implausible Dialogue, with S&L filling several panels by telling each other what they both already knew about their origins.

The plot?  If I must.  Sigh™.  This issue of My Love—er, MTIO—opens as Ben buys a cherry ice en route to Alicia’s, then helps the kids who accidentally knock it out of his hand with a softball that rolls under a car.  Subtle thought by Lift-Rack Ben:  “Sure wish I could handle my problems as easy as I can handle those kids!”  Still in mufti and as yet unidentified, S&L lurk about outside her building with sinister intent while inside, amid credulity-challenging dialogue (“Uh, Alicia, it’s me—Ben!”  “That voice!  It is you—Ben!”), he learns that, gasp, the guy he saw her with is not his replacement but her art dealer, Mr. Burge, who does a fast fade as Ben reveals the idea he has cooked up to solve their security problem, i.e., to have Alicia move into the Baxter Building.

“Don’t look now [ha ha?]—but that’s the blind broad,” quoth Livewire as they exit reunited, and soon Reed takes a break from “photographing…empty stretches [ha ha?] of sub-space” (because I guess everybody needs a hobby) to let Ben pitch the idea to his teammates.  Looking strangely sinister in DC defector Mike Nasser’s rendition, Reed intones, “Alicia, you may not be a member officially…but you’ve always been one of us,” not to mention the caretaker; gooble gobble!  “I thought you hated all this mushy stuff,” Johnny tells the elated Ben, apparently unaware of the retitling, and the next day, a suited-up S&L initiate the lucrative “little capers” they hope to pull after breaking jail, wielding, respectively, a “special shootin’ iron [and] high voltage [sic] lariat.”

Kayoing and replacing the movers as Alicia follows by cab, they dislodge Ben, riding shotgun on the back, as the van “takes several…two-wheeled turns”—doubtless doing wonders for all of that valuable statuary (which, BTW, they may have fun trying to fence)—before zipping into a body shop.  Hilarity ensues when he lands in a pile of garbage, contested by a purse-wielding bag lady, and is rejected by the cabbie due to the resultant stink.  This forces the couple to hoof it on, you guessed it, Yancy Street, whose denizens begin plotting deviltry while Ben spots a remarkably similar van dripping fresh paint and disables it Cap-style with a manhole cover, whereupon S&L emerge for a fight lasting six pages, rather than the two panels necessary to mop up these clowns.

Ben saves a couple from being crushed by a hotel sign shot down by Shellshock, then cleverly lets Livewire’s lethal spurs shred the amorphous blob—apparently inspired by Paste-Pot Pete—with which Shellshock has engulfed him, before Livewire shocks him long enough to take Alicia hostage, forcing Ben to replace the truck’s wheel.  Justifying their nominal co-star status, and befitting their “he’s our victim” policy, the YSG short-circuits Livewire by pouring a bucket of water on him from a rooftop, thus freeing Ben to crush Shellshock’s heater and down him with a patented “plink” of his rocky finger.  In the aftermath, the couple unwittingly follows the NYPD to the station in a van now emblazoned, “The Thing Is a Butt-Head”; consider my thigh slapped.

Marvel Two-in-One 71 (January 1981)  
The Thing and Mister Fantastic in
"The Cure!"
Story by Mark Gruenwald and Ralph Macchio
Art by Ron Wilson and Gene Day
Colors by George Rosussos
Letters by John Costanza
Cover by Ron Wilson and Joe Sinnott

Ben brings Reed to Attilan, where Triton reveals the good news/bad news scenario:  as “it was indeed Terrigen Mist that metamorphosed the Hydro-Men,” there is a strong chance that Reed and the Inhuman scientists can cure them, yet it means that “my race’s most precious secret—has somehow fallen into the hands of an outsider.”  Their conversation is rudely interrupted by another “airquake” (briefly invoked back in MTIO Annual #4) that topples a bank of machinery, requiring a Ben-tervention to save the oblivious eggheads.  Noting that the quakes have lessened in severity, Triton takes Ben to visit Crystal, who is with child, and Pietro, shortly joined by “Attilan’s answer ta the Blues Brothers,” Gorgon and Karnak.

Cue a fun and well-drawn two-page digression as Gorgon and Pietro trounce Ben and Karnak in a rousing match of inertia-ball, “kinda like full contact air hockey,” then back to business in the Citadel of Genetics.  The brain trust—including Nadar, quintessentially Kirbyesque in story page 8, panel 2—isolates the Anti-Terrigen Compound, successfully tests it on Croft, and checks him for side effects before synthesizing the A-T-C in bulk.  Nadar cautions, “It is a secret that could subvert and destroy Inhuman society as we know it,” a justifiable concern, for the lab is under surveillance by a hazily glimpsed villain who not only is the source of the quakes but also sends his minions Phobius, Gronk, and Helio to “acquire” the compound from “our ancestral enemies.”

Chapter Two finds the Pogo Plane landing on Hydro-Base, where Ben, Reed, Triton, Karnak, Gorgon, and Croft are greeted by the artificial island’s governor, Joe Jennings, and new resident Stingray.  With the gym refitted into a regeneration center, the 500 amphibians line up by lottery to enter the tube and receive the blessed A-T-C, a process projected to take some 17 hours.  Ben, given an inertia-ball for practice, persuades the Blues Brothers—sent by Black Bolt to guard the A-T-C as Triton and Reed administer the cure—to get a game on with Stingray, since “we’ll still be in earshot,” but absent “one ’a yer whacky indoor courts, we’ll haveta modify the game a bit.  Heh-heh,” said modification emulating football, and naturally benefiting the Grimm/Gorgon duo.

In Chapter Three, Helio (long-haired “lord of the air” and its quakes), Gronk (a pale-yellow hulk who controls his body’s adhesion), and Phobius (a shrimp who instills fear) surface and head for the gym, brushing off Reed and Triton as they fill a canister with an A-T-C sample.  Dimly aware of the hubbub, the guards belatedly spring into action, faring badly at first as Helio downs Stingray, while Gronk clobbers Karnak and engulfs Ben’s fist:  “Leggo, ya overgrown Gumby!”  Yet coming full circle, our heroes use inertia-ball skills to subdue and capture the minions, with Stingy’s “forward lateral” nailing Phobius as he swims out to sea with the sample, but unnoticed, the self-propelled canister makes its way to their master, revealed in the last panel as Maelstrom.

This is my final entry’s nominal showpiece, but even as a longtime champion of Mr. Fantastic, I don’t find Wilsinnott’s cover a promising start.  Too busy.  Hideous colors.  The tag “Holocaust on Hydro [sic] Base!” was presumably chosen for alliteration, yet the use of “Holocaust” seems questionable, although Ben does equate Dr. Hydro’s mist with Zyklon B.  As for “Introducing: The Minions of Maelstrom!”—not that we knew who he was then—the mag has alternated lately between ancient villains who weren’t terribly interesting (e.g., the Terrible Trio, L&S) and new villains who weren’t terribly interesting (e.g., Serpent Squad 3.0), with the MOM sadly living down to the expectations created by the cover, even visually by lacking the Pacesetter’s panache.

But credit where it’s due to Ron and Gene for a high-calorie splash that accommodates a ton of exposition and striking visuals in one impressive page:  pensive Ben and Triton in the foreground at left, watching Reed and the Inhuman scientists working on Croft below, with intricate Attilan cityscapes and Himalayan peaks seen through the windows in the background.  Put that in your pipe and smoke it till it burns, Mike Nasser!  Kudos, too, to Gruenwacchio for Triton’s ensuing exchange with Ben, which leads into a legitimate Hydro-Men recap—the plotline having been on the back burner since #64—while offering effective character nuance, e.g., Ben’s explaining that any apparent coolness toward Croft was due to the interruption of his personal plight with Alicia.

While being scrupulously fair, I’ll allow that the pro-Wilson lettercol hype (“When it comes to portraying the sheer power of Bashful Ben Grimm, Ron is in a class by himself”) isn’t totally unjustified; capturing Ben’s heft and might are among his better qualities, so we just have to hope that the inker isn’t having an off, uh, Day when it comes to the finer points.  During the cure, Reed tells Ben, “we sometimes forget that there are other ways to aid humanity than simply battling super-powered malcontents.  I find this just as fulfilling,” to which he replies, “Aah, gimme a good malcontent any day.”  And after Ben jokes, “Maybe Stretcho’s holdin’ a pep rally or somethin’,” Gorgon deadpans, “Your levity surfaces at odd moments.”  It’s good stuff, Hilts...

Marvel Two-in-One 72 (February 1981) 
The Thing and The INhumans in
"The Might of Maelstrom"
Story by Mark Gruenwald and Ralph Macchio
Art by Ron Wilson and Chic Stone
Colors by George Roussos
Letters by George Costanza
Cover by Ron Wilson and Chic Stone 

Assured by Gorgon that the MOM, held in a device neutralizing their powers, are not among “the 1,124 Inhumans of the Great Refuge,” Reed goes to cure the last 100 Hydro-Men.  The MOM remain silent, yet despite receiving the A-T-C in his lair (accessible via a subsea crater) and ordering flunky Falon to have 10,000 liters synthesized, Maelstrom says, “There is but one price for failure for any of us.”  He sends “master punisher” Deathurge, who resembles a cross between Blacksun and the Wraith, to mete it out; like “a two-bit Silver Surfer,” he rides a flying lance that penetrates solid matter as easily as he does—also letting blows pass through him—and silences the MOM, leaving them carbonized on the outside.

After his effortless escape, Reed determines that his victims also represented unauthorized use of Terrigen Mist, heavily guarded in a great vault beneath the Citadel of Genetics, but is surprised to learn from Nadar that Attilan was once an island, excavated from the Atlantic before being relocated to the Himalayas three decades ago.  Pledged to help the ex-Hydro-Men return to the U.S., which could take days, Stretcho sends Ben, Gorgon, and Karnak in a borrowed mini-sub to investigate the site of Old Attilan, and in just which crater do you suppose they find themselves?  Aw, somebody told.  Karnak senses an opening that leads to a gigantic, air-filled cavern, where they find evidence of habitation, and are felled by “a barrage of mind-jamming hypersonic rays.”

Meanwhile, back on Hydro-Base:  “This is Reed Richards.  I must speak to Black Bolt.”  Okay, pal, but don’t be too surprised if the conversation’s a little one-sided!  Speechless at the news, ha ha, BB weighs how to handle this new threat to his people as Maelstrom (“ever-present plume of bioluminescence” and all, in case you were wondering what that was swirling around him), who needs fresh meat for his experiments, prepares to have the captives carved up, and then visits his frail, bedridden father, Phaeder, recapping their history in one of those implausible “As I’m sure you will recall…” speeches, as in #70.  Dudes, why not just present the flashback as a flashback, rather than asking us to believe that one character will drone on, telling another what both knew?

Conflict between the Houses of Agon and Phaeder came to a head over a century ago, when the Council of Genetics expelled Phaeder for conducting forbidden experiments, but the wily traitor fled, an apparent suicide, after fashioning and aborting a genetic replica.  Craving vengeance, he passed his knowledge on to his son, and upon learning of Attilan’s relocation, they set up shop in the cavern, where traces of Terrigen they discovered in ancient vaults gave Mally his “ability to siphon kinetic energy.”  Confirming that he had provided Dr. Hydro with the mist, he is alerted to an intruder just as Karnak breaks loose, having detected the stress point in his restraining device, and the intruder is revealed as the “son of Agon, enemy of my father”; cue grudge match.

Ben, Gorgon, and Karnak have their hands full with apparent clones of “the Three Stooges,” just the nickname I considered for the MOM; “there’s a whole army of these guys crawlin’ outta the woodwork,” thinks Ben, but we only get glimpses, and so are spared the dubious pleasure of that visual.  “My power feeds on yours,” Mally gloats, holding BB in a standoff, but it gets worse:  he has launched a missile with an A-T-C payload (clearly, his “synthesists” were working overtime) at Attilan to “turn your race into powerless humans—ripe for the conquering!”  Gorgon’s hooves having scattered the Stooges, Ben urges Black Bolt to fly after it while he handles the ten-foot “stringbean,” who also turns Ben’s own power against him, knocking him right through the wall.

Weakened by battle, unwilling to risk an uncontrolled scream, BB uses the last of his strength to redirect the rocket in the nick of time, so that the A-T-C will safely diffuse in space.  Ben nails Maelstrom with a test tube of A-T-C, stripping him of his powers; after witnessing his failure in a nearby monitor and apologizing to Dad, who conveniently breathes his last a moment later, he summons Deathurge to do his duty.  As our heroes are on their way out the door, Gorgon creates a shockwave to collapse and flood the cavern, forestalling future Terrigen mischief, yet as they head back to the surface, the final panel reveals a “gotcha” shot of tubes labeled with the names of Maelstrom, Helio, Falon, Phobius, and Gronk, obviously clones who will emerge another day.

Although what I’m calling “the Gruenwacchio run” (i.e., the issues written by Gruenwald and/or Macchio) lasts for two more months, those are “or” rather than “and” stories, making this the last of their “Two-in-One Twins” collaborations.  So it’s fitting that they would end with yet another multi-part tale that ties up long-dangling plot threads, although its hasty conclusion raises almost as many questions as its answers, suggesting that a trilogy might have been in order.  And while I’ll take the writers, letterer, and editors to task for the usual howlers (e.g., “cannister,” carried over from #71; confusing “skunk” with “skulk”; “bring Attilan to it’s knees”), I’ll also commend them for using the frequently confused “apprise” and “appraise” properly, both in the same issue.

This time, Wilson is inked inside and out by old hand Chic Stone, which doesn’t seem to make a big difference, although the splash page is worrisome, with Reed inexplicably sporting Lemmy-sized mutton chops and Karnak looking like a poor man’s Batroc.  In page 11, panel 2, Reed’s hair is back to normal, Professor Bradley-style gray temples and all (poor “Karny” never really recovers), but his blocky face typifies Ron’s sub-Trimpe style.  There are, however, grace notes such as a noble and pensive Black Bolt in page 15, panel 7 (above) and two interesting effects by colorist George Roussos on Maelstrom’s face:  shown purple and bisected as it borders the flashback on page 16, and ominously lit with black, red, and sulfurous yellow as he exults in page 22, panel 5 (below).

Whether you consider the news good, bad, or neutral is up to you, but Maelstrom & Co. will all be back at various times, a prospect already being dangled in the lettercol, where a “Credits Due” box again thanks “the irrepressible Paty, who designed and colored Mally’s costume and stealthy Steven Grant who provided conceptual input at the mutagenic master’s creation well over a year ago.”  Serpent Squad redux, anyone?  This is lacking in the nuances I savored last time, but I’ll always welcome an appearance by the Inhumans, who make a better showing than Reed (far less actively involved than the cover of #71 suggested), even if Karnak’s Silly Putty face in page 18, panel 5 seems stretched horizontally like a movie that’s being shown with the wrong aspect ratio.

Apparently, later stories—some by Gruenwald—not only bring back the villains as foes for the Avengers and MTIO regular Quasar, but also retcon Maelstrom’s mother as a Deviant and his father as having supplied technology to the future High Evolutionary, Magneto, Arnim Zola, the Jackal, and the Enclave (the founders of the Beehive and creators of Him, aka Adam Warlock).  Mally himself says, “Dr. Hydro was but one of many whose experiments I sponsored in return for the data from their results.”  Conversely, Croft and Jennings are never heard from again, their “normalization” feeling curiously underplayed; Stingray vanished in between issues, and the fate of Hydro-Base resident Tamara Rahn, unseen since Avengers #156, will be unresolved for years.

Marvel Two-in-One 73 (March 1981)  
The Thing and Quasar in
"Pipeline Through Infinity"
Story by Ralph Macchio
Art by Ron Wilson and Chic Stone
Colors by George Roussos
Letters by John Costanza
Cover by Ron Wilson and Joe Sinnott

We join Ben and Quasar in medias res, floating in a cold void between worlds before they materialize in a swamp and flashbacks reveal why.  Following Thundra’s lead through an abandoned subway tunnel, they had invaded the underground H.Q. of the group bent on destroying Project Pegasus, only to be teleported away by a strange beam, and now make their way to a rocky precipice overlooking an oil-drilling complex where, incredibly, dinosaurs are used as beasts of burden.  Attacked by familiar flying “skimmers,” they hold their own until the enemy deploys gas grenades, but before succumbing to their effects, Ben grabs and downs one skimmer, buying the wounded Quasar time to crawl into the underbrush and pass out.

As a captive Ben is taken to the central Watchtower, Quasar is dragged to safety by a native tribe whose chief, Tonah, explains that they learned English from those who use them as slave labor, and begs him to lead their revolt.  Despite the dinosaur legion Tonah has in readiness (the Marvel Database asserts that this “Dinosaur World,” Earth-78411, was the setting of Devil Dinosaur), Quasar is dubious until he sees how badly oppressed they are when a patrol enters their village, seeking the fugitive.  Meanwhile, “mercenary, adventurer, entrepreneur” Bennett Pittman tells Ben that he runs this Roxxon Oil complex and works for the New York-based Nth Command, which seeks to sabotage alternative energy sources, such as Project Pegasus, on Roxxon’s behalf.

With the Nth Projector’s access to alternate realities, they can “exploit the untapped resources of virgin planets” to ensure a steady supply of fossil fuel, projected by Nth Adaptors to “counterpart pipes” in their New Jersey refineries.  Unsurprisingly, Ben rejects a lucrative offer to join up, and has been marked for death when Quasar and Tonah launch a tyrannosaurus-and-pteradactyl (sic) attack that decimates the opposition, one of whose helmets is mislabeled “Roxon.”  Ben breaks free, uttering the issue’s second “It’s clobberin’ time!,” and is joined by Quasar, comparing notes as they pursue Pittman, who escapes to New York and, as a fail-safe, teleports the projector with him, stranding our heroes as Tonah et al. finish destroying everything but…that pumping station.

Eureka!  Quaze has Ben close the valve, realigning the adaptors into Nth H.Q. so that once it’s reopened they can ride the petroleum wave home, enclosed in a protective photonic bubble; he’s set the circuitry to shut off the flow after seven minutes, giving them enough time to, uh, mop up the enemy.  With the viscous flood ruining all their projectors, the Nth Command is finished, so having seen the handwriting on the wall and been told “Roxxon doesn’t take these sort of failures well,” Pittman decides to take the coward’s way out and allow himself to drown.  But Ben plucks him from the oil, since—per Quasar—“it’s going to be almost impossible to tie this operation in with Roxxon directly.”  Says Ben, “Ya got some answerin’ ta do before sayin’ sayanara [sic]…”

Each of the Twins gets a solo effort before we’re through, and this is Ralph’s, with the Wilstone art team carried over from #72; ironically, it will be Mark who goes on to write all but one of Quasar’s 60-issue 1989-94 series.  The former Marvel Man-Boy had, of course, been rebranded in Incredible Hulk #234, but Gruenwacchio popularized and set him up as the security chief for Project Pegasus.  Like #67, this is a story that could probably be enjoyed as a stand-alone, yet builds on the whole Nth Command/Projector plotlines they’d been nurturing since Day One, and basically resolves them, since the interest-free Pittman heads into oblivion—no loss—while the Nth Command won’t resurface until the long-forgotten (at least by me) Captain America #288-9.

Although not a total dick, Ben’s a bit condescending to Quasar after the collegial relationship they’d previously established in this very mag (“Lemme handle the jokes, pal,” “I need you ta tell me that?!”), yet has some otherwise nice lines:  “Hey, Pittman—I hope yer runnin’ ta check out Roxxon’s disability benefits.  ’Cause when I git done with ya, yer gonna need ’em!,” and my favorite, “I don’t plan on windin’ up as a dipstick.”  While the artwork is largely functional, Ron cuts loose with some nice spectacle, e.g., the void on the splash page; the complex in page 3, panel 2; the dinosaur cavalry charge on pages 12-3.  Overall, it’s not a bad little story, but holy cats, did they even stop to consider what an environmental nightmare that flood of oil would be?

Marvel Two-in-One 74 (April 1981)  
The Thing and the Puppet Master in
"A Christmas Peril!"
Story by Mark Gruenwald 
Art by Frank Springer and Chic Stone
Colors by George Roussos
Letters by Michael Higgins
Cover by Frank Springer

Ben, Alicia, and the Richardses return from last-minute Christmas shopping, delayed by Reed’s “work on the nucleonic pulse engine,” and Alicia urges Ben to “get into the spirit of the season” by sending a card to her stepfather, Phillip.  Said Puppet Master is being paroled from Ryker’s Island when it arrives on December 23, and doesn’t open it before returning to his undisturbed Lower East Side workshop, only to discover that his supply of radioactive clay has decayed.  So it seems like the last straw when he reads the card; he takes it as an attempt to mock him (and not without justification, since we can see it reads, “May you get what’s coming to you in the year ahead”), but it also sparks the idea for an audacious scheme.

At the FF’s Christmas Eve bash, the Aquarian—largely unseen since inexplicably asking a deer for directions in #64—is reunited with Jeannine O’Connell, his former therapist and Quasar’s current fiancée.  Uninvited guest Phillip has no gift under the tree, but after declining Franklin’s kind offer to pick one of his, Masters admits there is just one thing he wants:  a chance to revisit his birthplace…which is also the only source of the clay.  So, with Ben’s hearty “Bah, humbug!,” they and Alicia take the Pogo Plane on an impromptu Christmas Day vacation to Transia, “a tiny kingdom bordering Romania nestled in the Balkans,” yet having snuck out of the inn at night to dig at the base of feared Wundagore Mountain, Masters is dwarfed by two huge wooden soldiers.

Seeking him on Boxing Day, the couple is directed to “the cottage of the mystery woman of the mountain,” who naturally turns out to be Bova, recapping her history with the High Evolutionary and how the now-childlike Modred became her ward (points to “Set-It-Straight Salicrup’s” note explaining that they recall meeting the H.E. but not the ex-mystic, due to his mind-wipe in #33).  They’re forced by a blizzard to stay over, and during the night, Modred—who thinks “that man with orange rock skin…looks like a bad man!”—dreams, his latent mystical power activating his toys.  Also tumbling out of their chest is Phillip, so before you can say “Jack and the Beanstalk,” he awakens Ben and they realize they have shrunk, leaving everyone else appearing to be giants.

Ben swiftly intuits who’s responsible, and Masters—having pocketed a small amount of clay just before his capture—says he can compel Modred to cooperate if he gets close enough to sculpt a puppet, but an army of toys stands between them, leading to one of MTIO’s more offbeat battles.  Ben propels Phil to a perch atop the dresser, where he fashions an effigy by hand, yet it only controls conscious actions, so Ben rouses “Mody,” whose shout summons the, uh, ladies.  Made aware (two pages later) of our heroes’ tiny presence, they explain to Modred that “different” is not the same as “bad,” and order is restored; the next morning, the storm over, the visitors depart after Masters tells Modred, “Dreams can be real in the daytime, too…if you wish hard enough.”

It seems apt that Mark ends the run—“the Two-In-One Twins bid sayonara, and ask all you good people out there to check out Thor for our current whereabouts”—with a “Special X-mas Issue!”  Speaking of which, the lettercol also helpfully identifies all but one of the guests at the Baxter Building Christmas party on page 6, e.g., such usual suspects as Johnny’s inamorata du jour, Lorrie Melton, and mailman Willie Lumpkin.  The less obvious include Sue’s old friends Bob and Carol Landers with their daughter, Audrey; Walt “Stingray” Newell and his wife, Diane (née Arliss, Tiger Shark’s sister); sometime roommates Annie Christopher and Namorita Prentiss, the Aquarian’s erstwhile guardians from his Wundarr days; and Quasar’s father, Dr. Gilbert Vaughn.

A missed opportunity there for Masters and ex-Wundarr to mend fences after their altercation in #9, yet when Gruenwald observes of Modred, “Now it is a child’s mind that rules this body of a man,” all I could think was, is this book required to have a resident man-child?  Mark keeps the Continuity Quotient up by contributing to the mythos of Wundagore Mountain and Transia; he’d already established in Spider-Woman #12 that Mr. Doll, uh, got wood for the Brothers Grimm from Pietro and Wanda’s adoptive dad, local boy Django Maximoff, but I think this is the first we’ve heard that the indigenous clay unsurprisingly gave Phillip remarkably similar abilities.  By throwing Bova and Modred into the mix, he makes it feel as though all roads lead to Wundagore.

Penciler Frank Springer’s byline is usually cause for alarm, yet perhaps it’s that “seasonal spirit” making me say that he and Chic don’t make too bad a team here, with some fun stuff like the splash page showing Reed’s pliable arms wrapped serpent-like around a tower of gifts, although Franklin seems a little off-model in his otherwise heart-tugging scene on page 8.  They’re at their worst with the Puppet Master, whose appearance not only is inconsistent, but also looks at times (e.g., page 6, panel 1) as if his teeth are about to shoot suddenly from his mouth, Alien-style.  It’s interesting that no mention is made of Masters’s benign appearance in #60; I guess I’ll overlook Ben’s casual homophobia (“Some of those dames make Doc Doom look like a blushin’ pansy!”).

Nice moment in page 18, panel 3 as Ben cracks open the door to Mody’s room and, in ECU, says “Uh-oh” at the sight of the oncoming march of the wooden soldiers (“Where the heck are all these toys comin’ from?  This kid’s really spoiled!”).  Mark upholds the tradition of unusual co-stars, whose predicament offers ample comedy, as when Ben is endangered by Bova’s posterior, plus another memorable shot in page 27, panel 5 of the tiny Thing dwarfed on Alicia’s hand.  He is quite reasonably concerned about what mischief an aware Modred might create, yet Masters, whose puppets were his only childhood companions, argues, “perhaps if Modred learns, now, to treat dolls like people instead, he will not follow the lonely path I did”; “Happy Holidays to All.”

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