Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Invaders - Heroes Assembled!

I was out of the new comic book game when this limited series hit the shelves. I'd just stopped reading The Avengers after decades of dedicated following and I was frankly loathe to contradict my resolve to stay off the new stuff so soon after going cold turkey. And Dynamite was involved and that company has rarely failed to let me down.

So despite being a recently reformed Avengers fan and a longtime devotee of The Invaders, I let Avengers-Invaders one lay. Then some years later I found the wildly overprice collected edition for relatively small money, and having several years off the new comics at that point took a chance on it. I read it quickly, forgot and moved on.

But as part of my recent binge of Invaders material I found it and thought it a good time to give it another read and see if it fit into the broader context more effectively than my limited memory suggested. It did, and I liked it better this time.

The story like so many comic yarns is at once simple and complicated, and maybe even a bit complex. The Invaders along with some plain old G.I.s attack a castle in Italy near the end of World War II and suddenly a mysterious fog appears and the team plus one soldier are transported out of their time into the present day where they find The Thunderbolts and think they are still fighting Nazis. The battle rages and the T-Bolts are defeated as word of Captain America's return to the living gets out.

The Avengers at this time are embroiled in a mighty conflict between teams as Iron Man leads a group bent on capturing the renegade Avengers led by Luke Cage among others. The Invaders are thrown into this mix as Tony Stark realizes this time-lost team must be contained and returned to their original time before havoc erupts.

But the Invaders get split up and Namor confronts his older, somewhat more sanguine self as he attempts to raise an army in Atlantis. The Human Torch discovers the Life Model Decoys used by SHIELD and imagines he's found kindred spirits. Bucky is at a loss as is Toro as both boys must confront their mortality. Everyone is fascinated by the return of Captain America, and see his return as a turning point.

But the lust for battle gets the best of everyone and its difficult to keep the peace in a world filled up with so many energetic super types. The Human Torch leads an uprising of the LMDs who seem to have an agenda of their own. Namor is rebuffed by the Atlanteans who after long decades have a less provocative stance ont he surface world.

They eventually learn that the Cosmic Cube is the root of the problem, but the secret of who is operating it is one they think they know. They are wrong.

The story quickly becomes one about regret as The Invaders have to increasingly face up their own mortality. The various Avengers to varying degrees try to keep the future info under wraps but the desire to change the tragedies of the past are difficult to suppress.

A hidden enemy is revealed, a few of them in fact and the battle of course continues to rage between the teams as well as between the heroes and the villains.

All the Invaders have to confront their inner demons and finally are able to work together to overcome the threat which has sought to make use of them since they landed in the modern world. They seek to return, but again the desire to improve the past proves problematic.

The Red Skull gets his hands on the Cosmic Cube and changes the world to reflect his own mad image of a Nazi paradise on Earth. Needless to say most of us would not agree that he's got a firm handle on what makes for a great society.

Heroes battle and heroes live and die and the struggle to return the world to its pre-Skull reality proves to be the only mission which matters. The Avengers who find themselves in this wacked version of the post World War II reality hide themselves behind the guises of then-know superheroes.

But secrets are revealed and classic villains emerge to battle the assembled team which eventually includes many Golden Age luminaries, as they try to stop the Red Skull's mad scheme to control the world.

It's not much of a revelation to say they succeed, but there is a cost and there are consequences which last beyond the parameters of this one expansive storyline.

Now to put this into perspective. The weakest aspect of this story is The Avengers. The Assemblers are far from their classic model in this storyline, coming as it did when the teams were largely shambles. With the editorial decision to jam heroes like Wolverine and Spider-Man onto the teams (a sales decision I understand) the distinctiveness of The Avengers  is lost. It was one of the reasons I left new comics behind to begin with. The Avengers became everyone, so in a sense they became no one.

So it's a wildly complex Avengers world the Invaders find themselves in. So complex that frankly there's little room for the story to breathe effectively. The story very much improves when the scene is shifted away from the modern world and put into a war setting. We get a limited number of Avengers who match up well with the Invaders giving everyone a chance to shine.

Jim Krueger always writes an intriguing story, which often finds neat little insights into the motivations of characters. When that stuff works its clever and fresh, but sometimes it seems a bit forced. I never bought The Human Torch's affinity for the LMD community and when that relationship is shown to be at least a bit fraudulent it feels a bit like a red herring in a story which is already full of a gaggle of moving parts.

The storytelling does a smart thing to keep the focus on the sidekicks Bucky and Toro for much of the saga and more of that would've been perhaps more effective. There's an everyman soldier in the story who proves to be crucial to the plot, but he seems extraneous for much of the tale and his place could've been taken by someone else, as the theme of regret seems well distributed.

This is hard read, especially at the beginning where gathering the threads together requires quite a bit of work. But it does gather momentum, especially in the final quarter and ends with a really nice coup for future storytelling.

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Red, White And Scarlet!

Of course it's only natural that here at the Dojo, Captain America and his WWII cronies would get a lot of love and attention since Marvel's Living Legend was almost certainly the inspiration for Judomaster's creation. Both battled during World War II and are distinct products of that conflict, both wore costumes which proudly display national themes. In the case of Cap he sports the classic red, white and blue he defends with each heavy fist and potent kick. With Judomaster, the irony is that he wears the Rising Sun on his chest the symbol his enemies seek to pervert in their efforts to dominate the Western world.

Both heroes are assisted by teenage sidekicks. Cap of course has Bucky to help him in battle and the Scarlet Smasher has Tiger, the last unironic sidekick created in comics in my estimation. Tiger is not intended as any kind of comment on the nature of sidekicks, but is merely one more creation in that venerable comic book tradition.

When Joe Simon and Jack Kirby co-created Captain America and Bucky in the days just before the entry of the United States into the second World War, they were creating a character who spoke to the era in which he lived, inspired patriotism and sadly even contributed a bit of jingoism to an era in waging war of the primary mission of most every American.

When Frank McLaughlin created Judomaster in the time of the Vietnam War, he was of course drawing inspiration from Simon and Kirby's creation, but also putting him into the context of a time when war was somewhat less romantic. Turning him on his head so to speak, making him sympathetic at some level with the enemy spoke to the conundrum of the time in which war seemed at best a murky proposition.

So the Scarlet Smasher is an echo of Captain America, with new moves and a slightly revised contextual reality, but part of that grand tradition nonetheless.

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Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Saga Of The Human Torch!

Following on the heels of 1988's The Saga of the Sub-Mariner we get the four-issue limited series The Saga of the Original Human Torch.

Having recently been brought back to life (yet again) in the pages of West Coast Avengers, the hero is ripe to have his somewhat complicated story told. In the first issue we get a detailed retelling of his origin from Marvel Comics #1 by Carl Burgos when Professor Phineas Horton reveals his "monstrous" creation to the world, an android who erupts into flame upon contact with oxygen. Eventually that power is brought under control by the Torch who is given a quick eduction in his tomb, hidden away from a fearful public. He breaks lose and soon comes into conflict with the hoodlum Sardo. But all the time he finds he admires the police and seeks to follow a mission of service as they do.

He eventually finds a partner in Toro, an orphan who it turns out was affected to some extent by the Torch's power. The two battle domestic crime and even join The Invaders and take the war to the Axis powers overseas.

The Human Torch and Toro eventually confront the dicator Hitler himself and burn the evil man to death, though as we learn his vile mind is preserved by Arnim Zola. The Torches then work apart for a while as Toro deals with the illnesses of his foster parents. Torch gets a new partner in the beautiful figure of Sun Girl though their time together is brief. The work with the All-Winners Squad follows during which the duo fight alongside two more different Captain Americas.

Eventually the Human Torch is tricked by thugs and is confined in a coffin which fails to hold him an atomic bomb test rips through the area. Quickened by this atomic might he rises from the tomb and finds himself in the 1950's where he eventually locates Toro who has been brainwashed into working for the Communist North Koreans. The two partner again and battle several weird criminals before the Torch's flame begins to go out of control and he must bury himself once again aided by Toro. The saga ends with a mention that eventually he will be discovered by the Mad Thinker.

Told with brutal efficiency by Roy Thomas and rendered beautifully by Rich Buckler aided by Danny Bulanadi and Alfredo Alcala on inks, this is a romp. It lacks the scope of the previous Sub-Mariner series,  but then the Torch's story is a shorter one, though definitely we needed one more issue to complete it. As always Roy is intent on straightening out the confusions which come from decades of stories, and he does that as far as I can tell.

We desperately needed one more of these "sagas" dedicated to Captain America, but it was not to be. Either sales didn't support the notion or Roy wasn't interested. Having the third of Timely's "Big Three" handled with the encyclopedic effort revealed in these sagas would've been dandy. It's unfortunate it didn't happen.

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Saga Of The Sub-Mariner!

In 1988 Roy Thomas, returned now to Marvel from his sojourn to DC Comics, got to fulfill a dream, a project which allowed him to indulge to the fullest extent his love of the superhero lore. In a twelve-issue maxi-series, he told the accurately named "saga" of Prince Namor the Sub-Mariner. The Saga of the Sub-Mariner begins with his mother Princess Fen bravely investigating the arrival of surface men to Arctic seas of beneath which lay Atlantis. There she met and fell in love with Captain Leonard McKenzie. Their brief romance yielded a single child, Namor whose name mean "Avenging Son". From the very beginning his pink skin isolated him from the people he'd one day have to lead, and almost as quickly his great strength became apparent.

The saga details the earliest days of Namor as he slowly grows and matures and learns more about the human side of his heritage. He even gains the power of flight by dint of tiny wings which sprout on his ankles. Often he proves to be a quixotic character possessed by rage which results in death and destruction. Soon he finds that Atlantis is under threat from the race he knows only as "Americans".

Rising to the surface world he attacks New York City, the first of many such campaigns, but soon meets Betty Dean, a surface woman he comes to have great affection for and trust in. She is able to turn Namor's lust for retaliation against the surface people against the great threat of the time, the Axis powers rampaging through Europe and the Pacific.

But not before he engages in many duels with another deadly superheroic figure, the Human Torch. The two face off time and again with neither gaining a lasting victory until eventually both become wary allies in the great war. Also the complexities of a kingdom like Atlantis become ever more apparent as King Thakkor is influenced by less than reliable types like the soldier Krang and the noble-born Byrrah. Namor swims back and forth, trying with limited success to balance his his responsibilities to the two worlds to which he feels a part.

He even joins forces with others such as the aforementioned Human Torch and his sidekick Toro and Captain America and his partner Bucky. The heroes form The Invaders, a team dedicated to routing out the forces of the Axis in Fortress Europa. For a long time this alliance holds, even following the death of the first Captain America when Namor agrees to fight as a member of the All-Winners Squad.

Eventually though the surface world loses its claim on him and he attempts to focus on his people in Atlantis. But it's a difficult scenario since fate seems often to cause him to spend more and more time away from his people. Then he meets Paul Destine, a former colleague of his father who found the Helmet of Power which he used to cause great earthquakes to rumble through Atlantis, killing Namor's mother and grandfather. Namor is struck by the Helmet and his memory is wiped away causing him to return to the surface world and lose himself among the bums and vagrants of New York's poorest districts.

He is ultimately found by Johnny Storm, another Human Torch and for all practical purposes Namor becomes once again a menace to the surface world, especially when he discovers anew that Atlantis is destroyed. Eventually he finds his people and leads an invasion on New York City, one of many he will conduct. He is rebuffed, and despite his affection for Sue Richards finds himself always scheming to attack the surface world time and again.

Eventually he comes into conflict not only with the Fantastic Four but other heroes such as The Hulk and The Mighty Avengers. He even is responsible following one of these conflicts for finding the frozen Captain America and accidentally freeing his former ally to become leader of the Avengers himself.

Now follows a time when he battles many such as the X-Men when he learns he is not only a hybrid but also a mutant and so for a time allies himself with Magneto's Brother of Evil. Following an attempt to broker peace with the surface world he finds himself in battle with Daredevil. Then begins "The Quest" as he seeks to find the Trident of Neptune to prove once and for all his fitness to rule Atlantis which has to some extent turned its back on him after his long disappearances.

Battle follows battle but eventually he encounters Paul Destine one more time and defeats the man who murdered his mother. He meets Betty Dean once again and finds allies such as Triton of the Inhumans, Dr.Walter Newell known as Stingray and others such as the sister of Todd Arliss the man who became the viscous Tiger Shark. The Helmet of Power is revealed to be the Serpent Crown and takes him to Lemuria in the Pacific Ocean where he runs afoul the first time of Lyra who eventually murders his lifelong love Dorma.

Eventually Namor learns that his father is still alive but not long thereafter Leonard McKenzie does die. Namor learns that his cousin Namora, once his ally and friend has seemingly passed, but that her daughter Namorita proves to be a worthy comrade in arms. Betty Dean returns but weirdly changed by nerve gas into an amphibian who has to live beneath the sea like Namor and his people.

The saga (as of 1988) wraps up with Namor allying himself with the Avengers and meeting another woman named Marrina, a member of Alpha Flight. But Marinna is actually an alien with a brutish heritage which ultimately claims her life. Nonetheless Namore loved her deeply if briefly. So we see that over the long years Namor finds and loses many woman, but rarely and for only the shortest of times does he find happiness. Torn between two worlds, above and beneath the sea, he is a true mariner looking always for what comes next.

Roy Thomas told a great tale here since Namor's life story as revealed through decades of comics was rich and often in conflict. Thomas tries to make all makes some sense, explaining to some degree why Namor's personality often changes. Despite his great will he seems to have a fragile psyche which leads him astray often.

The steady beam in this saga is the sturdy and reliable artwork of Rich Buckler who does a magnificent job of relating a detailed and complicated story clearly and efficiently. Buckler's gift for mimicking the styles of other artists is ideal for a project like this which allows him to evoke (without aping in any fashion) the art of luminaries like Bill Everett, Jack Kirby, Gene Colan, John Buscema, Sal Buscema, John Byrne and others. The inking is mostly handled by soft hand of Bob McCleod though othes doe pinch hit once in a while.

More about heroic sagas when the Human Torch gets the treatment.

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Monday, July 27, 2015

The Invaders - Eve Of Destruction!

Carlos Pacheco
Marvel Universe was one of the best ideas Roger Stern ever had. The book only lasted for a few story arcs, was to be an anthology of sorts which didn't focus on any one hero but rather used the whole splendid canvas of the Marvel timeline for source material. Roger Stern with outstanding artwork by Steve Epting and Al Williamson for the first three issues gives us a humdinger of an Invaders story.

What this story is really is one more installment of the secret history of Hydra, the secret organization which was sparked by Baron Wolfgang Strucker out of the ashes of the Nazi cause which he saw as doomed to failure. One of the greatest yarns ever spun at Marvel focused on Hydra's World War II roots and ran in the first four issues of the largely forgotten Captain Savage and the Leatherneck Raiders way back in 1968. This newer Stern story uses that nigh-forgotten classic as a launching point for getting the Invaders involved.

Also Stern reaches back to the Golden Age of comics, specifically those of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby when he plunders the third issue of Captain America Comics for the enormous and deadly Dragon submarine used by the Japanese. This mammoth undersea device serves well as the over-the-top spectacle a good superhero story requires.

John Byrne
The story begins with intros to our heroes the Sub-Mariner, the Human Torch, and Captain America. The sidekicks have been...ahem...kicked to the curb for this particular storyline.  We get some fairly clever reprises of the origins of these classic heroes as the U.S. government conducts some security checks and we find a man named Bob Frank acting as a liason.

Dave Gibbons - Alternate Cover
We learn that Baron Strucker sees the end coming for the Nazis and has taken measures to see that the dream of world conquest does not die with Hitler, seen by Strucker as an imperfect leader at best. To that end he's funded the secret organization called Hydra who are seeking one of the war's biggest secrets, the atomic bomb. He operates with knowledge of the future stolen when he observed and followed a mysterious man who turned out to be Doctor Doom, and made use of his time machine. This is a great little call back to a vintage Invaders story and answers some curious questions that story created in the Marvel timeline.

Paul Smith
The Invaders are called upon with the assistance of The Whizzer (Bob Frank of course) to keep the atomic secrets from falling into Strucker's vile mitts. They succeed, no secret, but the getting there is a whiz-bang frolic and highly enjoyable super heroic action romp.

Roger Stern is writing on all cylinders here, creating a story which balances the nostalgia with then-modern comic styling very effectively. Steve Epting is a fantastic artistic storyteller with a handsome classic style, and having a supreme pro like Al Williamson on the inks only adds a luster to the proceedings.

This is a damned fine Invaders story, one of the best I've ever read and highly recommended. For the record the next storyline in Marvel Universe was a four-part story about a group called the "Monster Hunters" and it was a ton of fun too, though not quite as stellar as the Invaders trilogy. Marvel Universe did not find sales success and ended after only seven issues, a pity and a shame.

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Sunday, July 26, 2015

Timely Returns - Post-Modern Edition!

Several years ago during Marvel's 70th anniversary celebration the company issued a great many one-shot issues which called back to their Timely roots. The books as are typical of the modern era of comics are wildly uneven in their quality, some with artwork which is lovely to behold and some with art that requires more patience. The covers though by and large are very handsome. I have not bothered to read these again since gathering them up and I do not have the complete collection pictured above. For better or worse here are the covers from this event.

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