Sunday, August 14, 2022

Ms. Tree - Skeleton In The Closet!


The first of Hard Case Crime's Ms. Tree books captured a series of stories from DC's Ms. Tree Quarterly which formed a defacto graphic novel. This second volume gets the rest, stories which are as they say "torn from the headlines". These are provocative stories about provocative subjects, but the treatment is thoughtful and not completely exploitational. Collins and Beatty seem intent on creating stories that strike on sensitive subjects but offering some level of context. 


The first titled "The Devil's Punchbowl" deals with Satanism and specifically the craze which seemed to whip through the early 90's about Satan worshippers sacrificing creatures including people. It's a murder tale of course about a young girl who left an unquiet home and found, for a time, some comfort in a cult. When her body turns up, seemingly marked up as if for a ritual, Ms. Tree is hired by her parents to get to bottom of it. Collins is careful to showcase how cults and fear of cults can affect communities.


From the fourth issue comes "Skeleton in the Closet" which deals with gay rights and the struggles inside and outside the gay community to deal with issues such as "Outing". The world has come so far on this issue since this story was published that it seems a bit quaint in places but that's not the fault of Collins and Beatty who try to present a sensitive issue in a sensitive way while at the same time treating the reader to rather intense murder yarn. The characters in this story, even ones we are familiar with have some rough ideas and things to say. An important revelation seals this dandy story. 


"Cry Rape" from issue five follows quite closely on after the previous tale and like its predecessor is set on a college campus. Young women who are subjected to sexual harassment and even rape, are the focus here. Like the previous story Ms. Tree's step-son Mike is at the center of his story and his attitudes are complicated by indicative of those of a less enlightened era. Like the story about gay bashing, this one seems somewhat dated, though both are still very much concerns for our modern times. We have not come as far as we imagine in this are for certain. 


From issue six we get "Horror Hotel", a splendid whodunnit that smacks of Richard Matheson's Hell House as well many movies of the haunted house variety. Ms. Tree is among a group of folks hired to examine an old mansion presumably haunted by decades of abuse and murder. There are deceptions galore in this fast-paced humdinger of a tale and as to whether ghosts are real, Collins and Beatty seem to leave the door open to that fundamental question. I'm always taken by how Beatty can draw the most gruesome scenes but make then seem so well managed and clean. 


Next the volume reaches back to issue twenty-eight of Renegade's Ms. Tree run with "Roger's Story". This sleek black, white and red little gem of betrayal and deceit gives us necessary backstory to understand better the next story in this collection. 


The Ms. Tree series at DC ended with issue ten titled at the time a Ms. Tree Special. This story takes Tree Investigations team to Vietnam where a mystery which ties two of our main characters is explored. It's fascinating story, which has a real twist I actually didn't see coming. Most of the time in stories this short a reader can guess the ending or get close, but I confess that Collins and Beatty genuinely surprised me with this one. 

The collection closes out with a short story titled "Louise" by Collins which itself was nominated for an Edgar Award. This is a sleek and trim reading experience. The Ms. Tree stories in this collection felt like television episodes put on paper, with neatly defined characters and some twists but rarely confounding. Collins and Beatty stick to the expectations of the hard-nosed detective genre but fill in the spaces with more compassion than one often finds in stories of this kind. 

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Saturday, August 13, 2022

Black Widow - The Long Goodbye!


For this final part of the Black Widow's journey with Daredevil I have to resort to Essential Daredevil Volume 5. The logo of the Daredevil comic has returned to just featuring "The Man Without Fear" alone. The Widow's name was gone but she was not yet. It would some months but the signs are there that this partnership and romance are ont he rocks. 


Bob Brown is back on the pencils with Paul Gulacy supplying he inks. Steve Gerber is cueing up his next bit story and it turns out to be a doozy. Daredevil and Moondragon have seemed to be close and Natasha wants to know what Matt plans. He dodges the question but it's clear that his devotion to Natasha is waning. Matt gets a call that Foggy has been shot and heads off to NYC, but the Widow refuses to go, her enmity against Foggy still very much part of her. Moondragon offers DD a ride and at the same time gives him the brush off. Once in NYC Matt meets Foggy and his sister Candace who Matt hadn't before known about. Then the Beetle shows up to steal some government printing plates at the same time as some mysterious masked villains. DD knows little after the battle. 


The next issue showcases some weird crimes which have defaced national monuments with wicked stuff like carving Hitler's face onto Mount Rushmore. Then the soldiers of Black Spectre spill uncounted bills onto the streets to film for unknown purposes. At first it seems DD and the Beetle are both fighting on the same side but the latter proves unreliable. Black Widow runs up against a strange pale indestructible woman named Nekra. 


The next stop is Marvel Two-In-One #3 of all places. Gerber was writing this at the same time and this story with Sal Buscema artwork fits between these issues of Daredevil. DD and the Thing end up trying to invade the weird metal blimp used by the organization known as Black Spectre. They encounter the mysterious leader and tragically the Black Widow who has become his slave by a means yet unexplained. 


The next issue is drawn by Gene Colan and we learn that the Black Spectre soldiers are all women. This because the leader is The Mandrill, a mutant who can make slaves of nearly all women. We learn that he and Nekra were both born of the same radioactive accident. The Widow is still a slave and barely shows up in this one. 


Shanna the She-Devil has been a part of this storyline from the beginning and in issue #111 she takes Natasha's place in the logo design. DD faces off against the Silver Samurai who is a mercenary hired by Mandrill. Bob Brown draws this issue.


Gene Colan is back for the finale when DD and Shanna invade the aircraft and finally free Natasha from Mandrill's malign influence. Mandrill and his soldiers have dropped an idol on the front lawn of the White House and issued an ultimatum to the entire country that he will blow up NYC is his demands are not met. But the combine efforts of DD, Widow, and Shanna end the threat. Matt and Natasha seem to be back together, at least temporarily. 




Daredevil is on his own for the next three issues of the comic in which he battles the Death-Stalker in the Everglades and later in NYC itself. He is looking for Foggy's kidnapped sister Candace who has uncovered a project which seeks to make men into pollution-breathing creatures so that industry and such can continue unabated. This turns out to have military possibilities as well and so DD battles first the Gladiator then his mysterious employer. The Widow only shows up in a few pages, in this storyline, in San Francisco where she and Ivan reveal they have a problem which is weighing on them. Bob Bronw and Vinnie Colletta handle the art on this trilogy which also features the Man-Thing. 


Gene Colan returns as DD goes back to San Francisco to help the Widow. The duo seem still to love one another as they work together fight the Owl. The trouble is that Natasha's lease on her mansion has run out and both she and Ivan are living out of their car, albeit that auto is a Rolls Royce. 


Bob Brown returns for part two of this tale which sees the inevitable defeat of the Owl and also perhaps the end (sort of) of the Daredevil-Black Widow partnership. After all the action, the two say goodbye at the airport as Matt returns to NYC. It feels like the end of an era. But it's not quite. The script for this issue is by Chris Claremont for Steve Gerber's plot. 


When DD returns to NYC he immediately runs into trouble when the Ringmaster and his Circus of Crime are back in town and up to their usual thieving ways. (How do these guys keep getting out of jail?) In this story by Gerry Conway and artist Don Heck with Vinnie Colletta inks we meet a new baddie named Blackwing who has an uncanny power over bats. The Circus if of course captures (they always are) but Blackwing escapes. More on him later. 


Tony Isabella is the new writer, and his debut is smashing. He has DD return to the boxing ring when he tries to help a young bantam weight fighter who wants to go heavyweight. He has found an unscrupulous scientist who has gotten access to the Crusher chemicals and applies them to his new charge. The transformation is brutal and it's all DD can do to survive, but not everyone does. It's dandy little story with some of Bob Brown's best work yet for Marvel under some Don Heck inks. We learn that the Black Widow will be returning to NYC in the next issue. 


The finale begins in Daredevil #120 when the Black Widow and Ivan return to NYC. The San Francisco adventure seems to be at an end. Natasha is upset when Matt takes her to a party given by Foggy Nelson who she has not forgiven for putting her on trial. She is on the verge of accepting his apology when El Jaguar and other Hydra agents appear to attempt to kidnap him. They fail. This four-part story was written by Tony Isabells and all four parts are drawn by Bob Brown with Vinnie Colleta inks. 


Nick Fury informs Foggy that SHIELD wants him to be on an advisory board to oversee the outfit's operations. We learn that Hydra has reformed under a new leader and we further learn that they have specific divisions to maximize their efficiency. They prove so efficient that when the Dreadnought leads another attack Foggy is captured. 


Turns out that Blackwing was a Hydra operative all along. He lures DD into a trap, but the Widow is most upset at being treated unlike an equal when DD heads off yet again. The two seem to be confirming with every encounter that their relationship, though full of mutual affection, is less sturdy than it ought to be.  Most of the problem is Matt's unwillingness to be fully honest. The Widow and DD talk and agree to work together. DD is caught while the Widow defeats El Jaguar. 


This great four-part tale wraps up with Daredevil and the Widow battling a gaggle of villains aligned with Hydra. Nick Fury and his SHEILD agents show up and a small war erupts in Shea Stadium under which is hidden the Hydra base. The new Supreme Hydra is a revived Silvermane and his son is Blackwing. After a bitter battle, Foggy is saved, Hydra is defeated though Silverman and Blackwing escape. The Daredevil-Black Widow partnership is about to end for good. 


In the first few pages of Daredevil #124 Black Widow and Ivan leave. Matt and Natasha say their goodbyes and the Widow says that despite their affections she will not live in DD's shadow as merely his sidekick. Matt is reluctant to accept the truth but has no choice. Natasha and Ivan leave and it's over. DD goes on to battle a villain from the past called Copperhead. Len Wein and Marv Wolfman write this issue with Wein handling the pages with the Widow. Bob Brown is joined by Klaus Jansen on inks. The logo will change with the very next issue when the Black Widow disappears from the book for good. 


Marvel is clearly wanting to build a little buzz around the Black Widow again by having her guest-star Marvel Two-In-One #10. Natasha even references this adventure when she talks to Matt about going solo again. I'll have more on this one later. 


Natasha's next stop will be The Campions. She may not have succeeded in going it alone, but this is a chance for her to prove her leadership skills as she takes the helm of this new Marvel team. Clearly Tony Isabella like writing the Widow and is the force behind The Champions. More on The Campions next week. Now some final thoughts. 


I have pleasant memories of the Daredevil and Black Widow partnership. I enjoyed the stories and the art for the most part. Reading them again though so many years later has given me some clarity. For one thing Matt Murdock behaves like an asshole an awfully lot in these stories. Despite the Widow's proven history of taking care of herself he constantly shuts her out and tries stupidly to protect her. He also is careless with their relationship, finding himself caught up with other women from time to time without really considering Natasha at all. He walks off to NYC rather abruptly when Foggy is hurt and stays for a very long time. She for her part refuses his help when he offers it especially in regard to finances. As far as I can tell he lived rent-free for many months because the Widow dropped a bundle on the mansion. Her later money woes are not Matt's responsibility, and he does offer to help, but he seems oddly ignorant of that side of the relationship. In other words, we got witness two people who had a complicated adult relationship that ultimately did not work out. Not bad for a funny book. 

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Friday, August 12, 2022

Black Widow - Going Out West!


One of the defining features of the Marvel Universe in its early day was the decision to locate nearly all the heroes in the New York City area. (The peripatetic Hulk was a notable exception.) This made it easier for the heroes to crossover which they did constantly and added a smidge of realism. DC had Coast City, Central City, Gotham City, and most famously of all Metropolis. Each hero had his or her own burg to protect. But in the MU it was different so when Daredevil and the Black Widow switched operations to San Fancisco was a big deal. 
 

But oddly when DD first moves to San Francisco he and the Widow are barely moved into their plush digs (thanks to her money) when he finds an old foe -- Electro. A fight ensues. 


Likewise,a vintage DD villain, Killgrave the Purple Man turns up as a minor league mastermind. Both DD and the Widow lose their free will when he's around. 


These two baddies team up to give DD and the Widow an even harder time. While the Black Widow is a substantial part of the storytelling, she rarely made the covers. 


A notable exception is issue ninety where both Widow and DD are shown to be fearful of their surroundings. And it's for a good reason. 


Yet another old-time Daredevil villain is dusted off --Mr. Fear. It's a new face beneath that skull-like mask but the terror he instills in his victims is no less potent. 


In issue ninety-two there is a major breakthrough. The logo of the book changes to reflect the growing role of the Black Widow in the comic. "Daredevil and the Black Widow" becomes the new name to check for on the spinner racks. Like "Captain America and the Falcon" it is determined that two is better than one to attract customers. I remember loving this change at the time. I was much impressed with the fact that Matt and Natasha were clearly lovers, and not just the weepy pining kind which was the norm for all comics. These were two more-or-less adult folks who had a more-or-less adult relationship and that my friends means sex. There was no doubt in my teenage brain that Murdock and Romanoff were getting busy between the sheets, though that was not shown. 



They are drawn closer together still when a secret from the Widow's past shows up and results in a villain named The Indestructible Man. All of San Francisco is under threat from this menace. Natasha for her part had to deal with a man from her past who showed up.  



With the next two-part tale things begin to change. Gene Colan is still on board as the pencil artist, but his ideal inker Tom Palmer is called away to make room for Ernie Chua. Gerry Conway plots this DD story making room for Steve Gerber on scripting chores. But through all that Bullpen drama, Matt and Natasha seem only to grow more comfortable with one another. DD is hurt grievously when the Man-Bull shows up to create havoc. The Widow needs to act alone to keep things at bay until he can rejoin the fray. 



The Conway, Gerber, Colan and Chua team are up again for a bizarre two-parter about Mordecai Jones the Dark Messiah and the Disciples of Doom. They have wild realty-altering powers but the power stems from the Messiah himself, a young boy injured on the street who is operated on by a mysterious figure in the hospital. No explanation much is given for how this all could be, but it does point to the fact that the newer writers at Marvel had a real penchant for the cosmic. DD and the Widow are over their heads or so it seems for most of this one. 


Guest artist Sam Kweskin is buoyed by Syd Shore's inks but still this is a pretty static looking comic when Hawkeye, Natasha's old beau comes to San Fran for a visit. In Steve Gerber's first full script Hawkeye and DD mix it up a bit but aside from injured pride there are few consequences here save that the Avengers show up and sweep DD and the Widow away. 


The reason is Magneto who has reappeared and taken the X-Men and several Avengers in thrall using his amazing powers. DD and the Widow join the team to battle the arch villain in a story by Steve Englehart and Don Heck. I've always liked Heck's take on the Widow and she looks good here. After the battle is won the Avengers offer both Hornhead and Natasha a spot on the roster. He turns them down, but in a surprise move the Black Widow finally becomes a fully-fledged Avenger after spending  years in the background of the comic book. 


Then it's time for Daredevil's one hundredth issue. Daredevil has left the Widow behind with the Avengers and returns to San Francisco in time to reflect on his origin story and then encounter most of his old foes, although they turn out to be illusions. Those hallucinations are created by a new enemy named Angar the Screamer. DD sadly had the least impressive centennial to date. 


Angar the Screamer appeared at the end of issue one hundred and this issue picks up the action with art by Rich Buckler. Angar is a militant hippie who has been given the power to induce hallucinations with the sound of his voice. He's walking talking LSD. DD and the Widow fend off his threat. 


Next up is the vintage villain The Stiltman who is out to steal equipment which will make him more powerful. It's all DD and Widow can do to knock over his plans in this issue drawn by Syd Shores and inked by Frank Giacoia. 


Don Heck becomes the regular artist on Daredevil just in time to feature new baddie Ramrod, a roughneck with steel reinforced bones. He gives DD, Widow and guest-star Spider-Man more trouble than you'd expect. There is also the suggestion that Ramrod is part of the same plot which created the Black Messiah. 


And speaking of Spidey, the longtime arachnid enemy Kraven the Hunter is enlisted to track down and eliminate Daredevil. The Widow of course gets involved. This ends on a literal cliffhanger. 


The gang is all gathered as the mastermind makes his final move. The Dark Messiah is reactivated, Ramrod breaks out, and even Angar the Screamer is summoned. DD for his part is confused until Moondragon shows up and says she's been fighting against the threat of Thanos and has enlisted an ally. Sadly that ally, the Matt Murdock's boss proves to be the villain behind the scenes and has used Moondragon's science to make Terrax, a giant green creature able to absorb life. In addition to the regularly scheduled Don Heck art this time we have a vignette drawn by Jim Starlin summing up Moondragon's life including her confusing debut as Madame McEvil in Iron Man. One nifty trick this issue is that DD gets his sight back by means of Moondragon's science but he also loses his edge as Daredevil so he makes the sacrifice of sight again to save the day. 


The battle rages as Dark Messiah is dealt with. Angar though suffers a tragedy when Terrax kills his girlfriend. Ramrod stays the course but is a tough nut to crack. The story ends with Terrax threatening all of San Francisco is the mastermind doesn't get his way. 


This volume ends just as Steve Gerber's story does. Bob Brown steps into the penciling chair with Sal Buscema on inks to wrap up this story which co-stars Captain Marvel. Mar-Vell is making waves in his own comic book in his epic struggle against Thanos and that battle leaks over into these pages. Angar the Screamer turns against the powers that made him in retaliation for his girlfriend's demise. DD and the Widow are beginning a rocky part since DD seems more than a tad interested in the evocative Moondragon.  But by story's end Terrax is defeated, the heroes are victorious (for the moment) and the world is momentarily safe. 


One thing that has been happening in the book in the more recent issues is that Natsha's role has diminished. The relationship between the Widow and DD was never really well explained but they seemed to be lovers who shared a residence if not a room. I guess in the early 70's that was as daring as Conway and Gerber thought they could go. But as a reader at the time I never doubted they had a sexual relationship, in many ways a very adult relationship. That relationship will be severely tested in the issues of  Daredevil to come. Issue one hundred and seven was in fact the last to have the Black Widow in the logo, though her image would remain for a bit longer. 

I'll touch on those significant Daredevil issues tomorrow. 

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