Saturday, September 30, 2017

Writer David Anthony Kraft on Netflix, Distribution and his new work

HEre's my guest David Anthony Kraft one more time from our August talks.

He and I are doing a big retrospective of his life and career very soon, featured in Alter Ego magazine, published by the man who hired DAK to Marvel, Roy Thomas. It's going to be so cool.

Monday, September 18, 2017

DA-Koom! 5 minutes with She-Hulk: writer David Anthony Kraft

While we're rapping about deep identification with the characters one writes, DAK and I switch over to She-Hulk. He wrote the series, passed straight to him and Mike Vosburg after #1 with John Buscema and Stan Lee doing that one The Marvel Way. DAK's approach, since this wasn't a hero seen before- and to keep her from seeming overly much like something done before-was to instead emulate the world of the Marvel Age, as the stories that originate it appeared in their forms from 1962-1965, basically. If She-Hulk were made then, what might her arc be like? How would she then be an utterly modern woman, too, to create the vibrant contrast with her and Marvel's superheroes?

You can bet there's more to say, but here's a podblast w/ DA-Koom, enjoy your DAK-attack with the original She-Hulk series writer.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

X-Men 169: Introducing the Morlocks, the hidden street people by Chris Claremont, Paul Smith

Uncanny X-Men #165 was both the debut of artist Paul Smith on the title, and a psychologically-rich characterization story. Faced with their ghastly coming death as incubators for the Brood’s larvae, the X-Men realize it’s suicide or a horrid death of self, becoming Brood themselves. While trying to find some other way- at the very least, making their inevitable deaths count by eliminating Brood World- each of them turn to their humanity: religion, friendship, romantic love. How will they respond? How does one behave? They become so vivid as people, interacting. It’s a new era for depicting their personalities outside the pulse-pounding battlefield: still suspenseful stories, but now, who they will become as people, what their adversity reveals about each of them gains a new independence from the conventional wisdom that action requires a certain amount of space each issue. It’s an environment that brings greater dimension to their villains, too. Antagonists increasingly behave like supporting characters with story arcs their own. After great action artists in Byrne and Cockrum, a new level of nuance opens with pencils by Paul Smith- the right guy to introduce: The Morlocks!

Jason Powell in his exhaustive and engaging Claremont posts on the blog Remarkable by Geoff Klock, describes Paul Smith:
 With a line as smooth as Byrne’s but softer, as bold as Cockrum’s but possessing more dimensionality, he delivers the series into an entirely different artistic realm. Inspired by the quiet versatility of his new collaborator, Claremont takes the storytelling into new levels of psychological complexity, which seemingly draws less from the tradition of superhero comics and more from the darker and more nuanced independent comics of the day.

Their rich character development as ‘people’ sets a nifty contrast when meeting a new, mysterious group of characters that represent a profoundly alienated group, a concept as outsidery as the X-Men but without the posh mansion or Blackbird or fortune. The development of the X-Men – a group of friends who are also a quasi-family, moving towards more family-like status with things like Kurt’s flirtation with marriage-promises a rich roll-out of the Morlocks as more than shadowy villains. We’ve moved from a concept like Alpha Flight, introduced to be superhero antagonists with little investment in their personalities, to this four years later, where subtle hints of their hard-luck lives and misfortune-forged bond.

So here we go: Uncanny X-Men #169, introducing a new concept- sort of the X-books’ answer to the Fantastic Four’s discovery of the Inhumans (particularly in FF #45).

A move like this evokes the invention characteristic of the blooming Marvel Age; it’s very much in the spirit of Stan Lee’s interest in humanizing characters with thoughtful stories. The differences in the feudal Inhumans, complete with a royal family in superhero costumes, and this Claremont/ Smith innovation reflect a change of the times, a kind of post-punk take on the ‘hidden tribe’ blowing up the naturalistic depiction of gritty urban reality to science-fiction proportions.

The conflict- set up as a sort of genre-requirement- also reflects the outlaw alienation of the Morlocks. We first meet them as a mystery group of mutant-powerful subterranean invaders, breaking, entering, terrorizing. There’s no mutant more antithetical in lifestyle from what we’re about to discover of the Morlocks you could choose, than trust fund baby, glamor boy, winged superhero Warren Worthington III, aka the high-flying Angel. It’s such an intentional contrast, one cannot help reading statements about economic class into Claremont’s choice of kidnapping victim. Previous stories don’t seem to indicate a great love of The Angel on the writer’s part, but Warren’s also a convenient symbol of all the Morlocks cannot have, cannot be. He’s no aspirational figure, because the Morlocks feel, as a community, resigned to the shadows underneath the capital of the World. The single broadest stroke by which their identity is painted is their shared compassion for their exiled, freakish nature.
With that comes a bitterness equal to fueling their villainy- which is aspirational in the only way they know how: rip down someone epitomizing all to which they are forever barred, recast him in chains as consort to their cunning leader, Callisto. Make him an Angel cast from the heavens. In their anger and anguish and jealousy, there is no crime that can be committed against a man who has it all that is worse than the fate in which they’ve been dumped to squirm and survive.

Now, there are problematic undertones: in today’s terms, we’re on the verge of depicting disenfranchised terrorists. The Morlocks are a deviation of the culture from which they feel excised. They are not direct victims of ongoing aggression from the establishment, but rather, of neglect, and personal exclusion, bigotry. This does upend the X-Men’s role in the series as champion of the disenfranchised- a point more often than not lost to this juncture. They are typically portrayed as superheroes in the interest of all humanity, a sort of ambassador of the emergent genetically-redefined race. From the start, their role as superheroes- an undercurrent of all superheroes- makes them protectors of the status quo. They are also protectors of mutants facing discrimination and fear, as per their mission to explore new mutant appearances via Cerebro. That story engine’s largely been abandoned at this point.

AT any rate, what do you do when those you wish to protect, those with whom you would be conciliatory, engage in violent anarchy? It’s hard to champion those who kidnap and terrorize your friends- but that’s how they’ll meet the Morlocks.


We open with Warren’s’ girlfriend Candy Southern, a nice, even brave person, returning home in a life of privilege. By the simple expediency of the very tall wall framing Candy, Smith tells us the penthouse is enormous. The scattered feathers- addressed with nervous humor in “Lover, are you molting?”- kick off the threat, the defilement- taut suspense comes immediately. She calls Xavier, a humanitarian who lives in a mansion, for help- with an automated phone system that also reflects, in 1983, status. The massive figure, who introduces himself menacingly as Sunder, looms over her, like any home intruder, promising unequivocally: “I am here to hurt you.”

Candy no doubt hoped to come home to a scene not unlike the one shared next by Kurt Wagner and Amanda Sefton. They flirt in a bubble bath, teasing an openness about marriage. His blue skin and outre yet handsome appearance represents an idyllic acceptance- happiness for someone marked by his very looks as a mutant. Danger separates them now, too- for Kurt is an X-Man. When it comes to hurrying to the aid of one of their own- as conveyed by Professor X’s telepathic communication-Kurt doesn’t even stop for clothes. Nakedness-not just bikinis on females-begins becoming a X-Men specialty, a covertly salacious means of conveying more mature themes. We see a lot more nude X-Men, only recently including male teammates.

Demonstrating his ability to cling to surfaces and most importantly, to teleport, Nightcrawler’s rescue of the waning Worthington in Sunder’s arms departing the subway halts. Candy’s sent smashing out a window to fall to her doom, save for his power. With his skill, he is fortunately within the couple miles’ proximity limit of his ability to move through extra-dimensional limbo and reappear somewhere else he can clearly visualize with a “bamf!” We get a hilarious, unceremonious dumping of Candy into Amanda’s bath, with further titillation in the form of his still-nude protesting girlfriend. They know the way to their adolescent fans’ hearts. Don’t kid yourself, it was never just the specter of Death alone that sold X-Men like nothing else. What’s better, too, than having powers and a girlfriend than to interact with both, nude? What liberation, right, in using reality-defying powers, also while unclothed?
It’s fair to say, a physical, warm relationship with an attractive person (to say nothing of the taboo where Kurt and Amanda were raised together, unaddressed here) represents as a vital an adolescent yearning as the more juvenile power fantasy.

Every serial needs a suffusion of new characters, along with a continuing development of interesting ongoing ones-we’ll get to the latter point shortly. Introductions, when I first chose a theme for this discussion, stuck out as a good one, with the care and flaws implicit in introducing the Morlocks. For one, unless you have a one-off of deep reverberating effect on the lead character, why not introduce concepts and characters that can flourish in future interactions- with your title character (s), in this case with the shared universe? Editorially: who fits what story, how do you cast them, what pieces of information do you wish to share in framing your concept, and how patient are you and how much space do you have for subtle tease-outs exploring both the concept and characters?

Claremont, of all Marvel writers, doubling down on a plotting style like Wein’s Spider-Man webs in the 1970s, loves introducing new concepts, nearly with a Kirby-esque lack of regard for the space he’ll need to develop them all. He’s already busy developing story lines for previous antagonists, now seen as quasi-supporting characters. As Powell cleanly noted, they’re all dealing with the fall out from epics past: Mystique & the Brotherhood (Days of Future Past), and the Hellfire Club (Phoenix Saga), the latter of which we encounter in their own sympathetic scene. The captions, and the silhouetted Sebastian Shaw appearing twice, make no mistake of his level of menace-how the Hellfire Club is a mutant-infiltrated opposite to the Morlocks. They seem haunted by madness within their own catacombs (also a metaphor for hidden conflict as well as the past). I don’t recall who was behind laying White Queen low, comatose as she lies beneath Tessa’ ministrations. Shaw’s musings provide a false foreshadowing, as does the look at Mystique coming soon, to increase parallels of the suggestion that Madelayne Prior will turn out to be the returned Dark Phoenix. Perhaps it’s a consciousness about space, rather than a lack of ideas, that will precipitate the X-Men’s brush-off of their alienated counterparts. It’s unfortunate that these are also unglamorous characters that echo some real life awkwardness, for anyone who’s opened their eyes in most urban American settings. In this case, their limited contact will yield disastrous consequences when the Marauders come calling around #210.

How do you set loose the X-Men on a quest for justice-when you know their foes will turn out to live not just on, but under, the streets- and not have them ideologically align with, say, the Los Angeles Police Department of that era? (You know, too, some of your readership wouldn’t have a problem with that- they like superheroes because they are extra-legal agents of law and order.) You have to make it personal; first things first, they gather in a living room to prepare their search for their helpless, endangered friend. He’s very fortunate, indeed, he has powerful, courageous friends. The fact that he is a mutant- and that’s why they’re friends-happens to be what marks him for kidnapping, adding a level to the exclusion-borne angst of Callisto and her followers.

We get a neatly layered reference, the sort Claremont did so well, where Amanda offers to guard Candy and watch after Lockheed- after all, her (sorcerer) mother taught her about caring for dragons. Every detail’s a potential story. Storm, Kitty and Kurt discuss Lockheed’s alien nature. It’s very relatable, comic relief: who is who’s pet? Appearances don’t tell the whole tale. The X-Men will have to leave their resources, their perch of privilege- the hand-held Cerebro’s only keyed to Angel, Xavier can’t penetrate the catacombs psionically, and he won’t loan them Wolfsbane – no New Mutants on missions. Descent, from penthouse to the catacombs- a clear psychological metaphor. From the point Nightcrawler exposed the cold..they’re coerced out of their safety, a plausible point of identification for most readers poised for vicarious excitement. The back cover advertises: Become a Jedi Master Without Ever Leaving Home. But in the Catacombs arena, for our mutants it’s no game!
For the second storyline in a row, the X-Men are essentially invaders, albeit provoked in both instances. In both cases, the setting introduced is integral to the concept. On the trail of the violent kidnappers, Claremont/Smith/Wiacek now introduce the Morlocks in earnest.

Strategic use of their home turf, and the mysteries of their powers, will give them an advantage. Nightcrawler recalls the token booth operator had taken sick, swarms of paramedics- “the opposition plays rough.” The rushing train, the smells: it’s antithetical to Storm, as concerned Colossus notes. Kitty’s phasing unveils a hidden door in the wall. We get Storm’s musings about life as an outcast, hints of her past-all throughout, the other X-Men will be concentrating on unraveling her thoughts, centralizing her. Kitty’s posture as she ponders Storm’s distant bitterness: introverted, sad. From the stairway’s high ground, a wave of menacing Morlocks rush down, testing the X-Men’s powers. And Kitty’s spying is betrayed to Callisto’s hyper senses- suddenly Plague’s left a touch of death, even through her intangible state. Concerned as ever for one another, as their skirmish concludes, the male X-men feel emotional distress at Storm’s careful leadership call- a revulsion she resents. Necessity’s busy pushing Ororo from serene goddess to hardened warrior, a knife’s edge removed from madness.

We discover Caliban- obscured at first, a recurrent mutant tracker introduced in #148-lives at some remove among the Morlocks. His desperation to help the ailing Kitty Pryde presents a step deeper into what will be a moral catacomb: Kitty will save herself and her friends through a Hobson’s Choice next issue, and it will embroil them all with the Morlocks again. Caliban, a decided contrast to regal Medusa, parallels the way we met one Inhuman before the rest- as an antagonist-before the rest.

Dwarfed beneath the surprisingly well-maintained tunnels-in real life, I believe they’re there to relieve flooding such as from Hurricane Sandy, beneath the subways- the three X-Men are blinded, spotlighted- then confronted with the sadistic sight of Angel, nearly naked and unconscious. Finally face-to-face, leader Callisto explains she’s chosen him, “the most beautiful Man in the world,” as her consort. Her turgid desire evokes more haunting memories from Ororo- of the time she was twelve, when a man’s advances caused her to become a runaway, an outcast, herself. Peter’s moral apprehension frames his character and invites us to further outrage in assessing these otherwise pitiable sub-city dwellers. Then she apparently begins trying to cripple his wings, as though for his own good!

This time, the nameless hordes somehow overwhelm both Kurt and Peter through sheer numbers, and some hinted hidden power leeching. Storm’s taken down with a simple slingshot and steel ball bearing, dangerous, efficient, in Callisto’s sure hands. From their darkness to Kitty’s queasy emergence from her sickened sleep, we see her deliriously confused that she’s safely at home. And if her would-be savior Caliban has anything to say about it...these catacombs will now, indeed- be home.

When Storm makes her breath-taking challenge for Morlock leadership next issue, the drama for her very soul will heighten. Moral compromise abounds, as I believe Claremont intended: he knows Rogue will come desperate and helpless to their door in #171. He does not intend for heroic choices, even right ones, to come easily. He will let the X-Men walk away from the needs of the Morlocks at their own peril. He seizes upon a sublimated fear of what we cannot do for those we might pity; only those with time and resources and will ever volunteer to make life better for real life street people. Even the sickness transferred by Plague’s touch strikes a nerve with prejudices and class distinctions, as if somehow the calamities that have befallen the less fortunate, or those they brought on themselves in addiction, might somehow infect one’s secure, healthy life.

The moral obligations don’t factor into this introduction in so large a way, but re-reading this and thinking on the social caste question- side-stepped initially by the nature of Marvel’s best-selling comic, which taught tolerance so many times in its adventures- I reflected on the hard reality on the sidewalks of my former big city life. I gave away, with my wife, over a thousand dollars on a big city street over the years: food, conversation, flowers. You rarely have the personal resources to address every single beggar. I assure you, even in temperate San Diego, it never gets easy to simply ignore the homeless, sleeping in the shadows of barely-filled condos, with needs overwhelming what any two working class people can do. It is human to shut the door to a one-room apartment, conflicted you can’t do more, grateful for what you have, hopeful you made any difference. It makes socialists or libertarians of us. Even a degree of desensitization cannot go ignored by any person of conscience.

Further, as several homeless people over time told me in our talks, the greatest threat, aside from being moved along by police, is that another street person will steal from you Why do the Morlocks work together? Even when, as Sunder states, it seems wrong to attack people you recognize as your own? They are bound by need as well as prejudice. They embody Stan Lee’s model of sympathetic villains to a T. A strip from their perspective might not have yielded action figures and lunch boxes and back packs, but even Marvel-style escapism would evolve past these halting steps.

Powell praises Smith’s psychological complexity and inventive sense of layouts; he considers his assignment to X-Men “serendipitous” to Claremont’s writing evolution prompted by his work with Miller on the Wolverine mini-series.

The two-parter inaugurated here has been convincingly deconstructed by Neil Shyminski in his essay “Mutant Readers, Reading Mutants: Appropriation, Assimilation, and the X-Men” for its dismally simplified identity politics, wherein, as Shyminski says, “[the Morlocks] are figured as villains as a direct result of their refusal to conform to non-mutant norms.”

Actually, in more prosaic plot-terms, they are figured as villains because inside of the first five pages they commit breaking & entering, kidnapping and attempted murder. But the point is well taken, nonetheless.
Once again, there’s a modern corollary in society that makes our choice of these comics relevant: one might interpret today’s mission by ICE agents as an effort to step amid the immigrant community to find the criminals within. One might find another between the sanctuary cities situation and the Morlocks. Depending on their leadership, what identity would these Morlock survivors choose: a haven for those who refuse to join a gang? A gang themselves? A force to stand against crime, themselves? What would happen to someone who wants to leave the Morlocks? They’re a durable story concept. It’s not enough that they be villains, nor victims.

I certainly wish we had more than five initial issues of Hero Duty, because early on I wanted at least one scene that mixes the legally-deputized superbeings (and one very controversial, satirical villain I created in an acrimonious moment of inspiration) with the troubles of policing in a community mixing some gang activity with illegal immigrants living beside legal ones. How does one address civil order and justice? My antagonist would, of course, go overboard taking the law into his own hands. Perhaps I can find the way to feed that modern difficulty deftly into my novel, The Butterfly. At any rate, I don’t doubt that if the Morlocks debuted today, they would be a home not only to dejected, angry outcasts. Their catacombs would be a haven to those otherwise hiding from the law, as almost certainly, criminals who found the Morlocks would’ve chosen a life with them as opposed to expatriate exile. It’s problematic territory, leaving the safety of fantasy to interact with harsh realities. Doesn’t your mind sparkle with the possibilities?

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Original Creator's Intention: Podblast with comics' Ron Frenz

Ron discusses here how the storytelling elements that make comics great were mostly developed in the work of Will Eisner, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko, and how he works with the earliest versions of characters to tap into their essence.

Art from my earliest Ron Frenz comic, Marvel Team-Up #140, and a commission such as you'll find at

Monday, September 11, 2017

Intimate Knowledge: Alpha Flight 1983 Marvel (Tragedy in the Twin Towers)

Alpha Flight was, of course, the second spin-off from the best-selling Uncanny X-Men series at Marvel Comics Group. 1983 first brought The New Mutants, written by the Chris Claremont half of the classic X-Men team that took those characters to the top. A lot of attention went into making these titles unique from their parent series. New Mutants told stories of the new teen recruits, whose existence as a team grew organically out of an X-storyline: the Brood-possessed Professor Xavier would bring fresh blood to his academy, candidates for Brood egg-implantation. (Promise I’ll be back for New Mutants, especially for you fans of Legion X!)

New Mutants’ origin grew out of one of Marvel’s earliest graphic novels; distinct from the original team, yet costumed and trained similarly, they weren’t intended to be a combat unit. The emphasis on dealing with their powers and place in the world reminds me a lot of Hero Duty, this creator-owned property I’m writing with artist Joe Phillips for IDW Publishing. He specifically wants not to take cues from any previous series for its identity, but concepts- even with the twist of a city government-recruited volunteer group meant to serve temporarily, like jury duty-bear echoes of their predecessors. Dr. Smith and Will Robinson once went inside The Robot for repairs, but you wouldn’t mistake that for Neal Adams’ fantastic voyage into the android Vision with Ant-Man. That’s the difference between Irwin Allen’s tv show and a Marvel Comic crafted by ambitious young Roy and Neal. There’s room for Twilight Zone AND The Outer Limits. Unless you’re veering off into truly experimental mode like Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol or The Invisibles, just search your story’s mix of familiar elements and highlight the chemistry unique to its interpretation, in fresh language and characters that ring true. A flip through the art can grab a new reader; a compelling mix of characters’ stories can make a talked-about fan favorite read and re-read dozens of times. Heroes have been assembling since Homer’s Illiad.

Like in that classical Greek epic, the blend of Canadian traits and differing personalities in Alpha Flight also present an heroic assemblage for the honor of a county. It’s a well-known true life origin: the Alphans first appeared in X-Men #120 created as sparring partners with the mighty mutants over the fate of expatriate Wolverine. Like Alpha Flight, Phillips’ original idea for Hero Duty was to create the volunteers as cyphers that illustrate a distinct concept (and both are government-founded by a reluctant leader), though I stress Joe never mentioned Alpha or any other comic as a guiding light, and my dissection of story-telling principles in Creating Marvels simply recognizes general patterns.
Canada itself is a great inspiration to each original member’s powers and personal background. Readers instantly recognized them as a cool mix of abilities and a distinct visual presence. I always found their color scheme a different response to many fundamental approaches of the proliferation of characters to this point. When demand for their own series built over the next few years, only creator John Byrne had the answer. Yet, he confesses he had no idea what to do with them. I wonder if the announcement that Claremont was striking out with a second team of mutants did anything to stir him to push his new team out onto their alpha flight. We’re nations apart from the ‘training teens but not to be super-heroes’ approach over in New Mutants. With his run of Fantastic Four now securely moving along, it’s possible he simply had time, ideas, and a decent-enough royalties agreement. With Denny O’Neil editing, Alpha Flight #1, cover date August, 1983.

Perhaps another spur to the series’ creation was the handling of various team members in guest shots after their second appearance in X-Men #142 & 143. Sometimes you see what you don’t intend, spelled out, and grasp the proper reply. Those rough drafts, like Machine Man #18, get a very thoughtful response. Structurally, Byrne tries something that not only helps build the characters to last, but tells their first year in a way like nothing before in mainstream comics. After reliving it with a creator’s analysis, I would love for John Byrne to tell me how much of his doomed themes was a personal statement about the trials of working with people, and how much was a dramatist’s calculation to produce well-illustrated popular art through the Alphans’ suffering.

For issue one, the entire team’s called together for one of few full-unit field missions, to deal with one of the Great Beasts, related to Snowbird’s (and as we’ll chillingly see, Sasquatch’s) origins. It’s established soon that the Alphans don’t live together at a headquarters like most teams; in fact, their government funding’s cut, so they will only assemble on whole in times of great threat. This means they won’t be training to work together. They resemble another concept: the non-team, an idea sometimes successfully applied to The Defenders. Their relationships, however, bond various members closely- or not, in the case of mysterious newly-promoted Marrina. What they don’t know about one another- and themselves- becomes a fount of Drama.
From the start, danger comes from within: Snowbird’s tormented father, Richard Easton, calls forth the Great Beast, Tundra. The Great Beasts are part of the magical fount that provides powers to so much of the team. I also like how the one member who’d be nearly useless against a Great Beast on the scale of Tundra, Eugene Milton Judd, a.k.a. Puck, arrives at the end. Yet, he also nails down the identity of the team for which he’s trained to join: name change? No way! Government or no, “Alpha Flight’s the team I busted my buns to join!”
While Marrina’s the youngest at nineteen, presented as still a naive country girl (albeit, she discovers, from space), the relationships are between adults, half of whom are practically middle-aged! Each has their own life, and all have a fairly fine degree control over their abilities. What’s different is they are still inexperienced working alongside one another- not just unfamiliarity with abilities, but more crucially, only in the field do they, time and again, uncover weaknesses, abrasiveness, even madness, within each other’s personalities. Threat after threat arises, throughout Byrne’s 28 issues, from vulnerabilities and animosities of team members.
Perhaps it was ever meant to be thus. At the risk of Flanderization- that venerable trope where an early distinguishing characteristic forever more defines the handling of a character-from the original appearance of James McDonald Hudson as Weapon Alpha in X-Men #109, Alphans were set against their own heroic kind. Weapon Alpha blows a mission to bring back Logan, a.k.a. Wolverine, as a Canadian special services agent, and in the process, nearly accidentally kills Storm, too! The storm manipulated by Dr. Michael Twoyoungmen as the Sarcee Shaman threatens to annihilate Calgary in the first showdown of the two teams in X-Men #121. The second issue of Alpha Flight nearly features Puck’s demise, when a training get-together ends in the triggering of Marrina’s hitherto unknown Plodex heritage, manipulated by The Master. In the process of the follow-up rescue mystery, mutant Jeane-Marie Beaubier, Aurora, panics and slips into her subliminated second personality brought out by torturing nuns after her mutant powers first appeared. Her twin brother Jean-Paul’s lifelong ignorance of Aurora’s existence and chauvinistic attitudes produce an Achille’s Heel that breaks up their partnership in #8, depriving them of a valuable incandescence power, too, generated only by their hands joining. Snowbird’s life force, bound in her birth to Canada, as depicted in Alpha Flight’s origins back-up, shrivels up in the middle of the fight of their lives in #12. Shaman’s daughter Talisman discovers the tiara he produces in conjunction with her implicit powers cannot be removed, and she thereafter rebuffs a man she already blamed for not saving her mother. What becomes of Walter Langkowski, Sasquatch, as the true nature of his powers becomes apparent will be the last blow Byrne deals the team, with, initially, his shocking death in #23.

As the back-up origin stories had carefully uncovered at five to seven pages nearly each month, Hudson was the closest thing to a man with the answers. The Alpha Flight story binds a year of mostly solo adventures that give Byrne room to spotlight powers and personalities, none of which are more straight-forward than leader Guardian. He doles out what he knows of each member to the others-often regrettably too late to avoid dangers. Hudson’s story is also Alpha’s origin, in #2 & 3- not superhero battles, but character development, the focus of Year One. He’s dedicated to science first, then to his helpmate, Heather. His college loans cover him as a retro-active Canadian employee; James assumes the duty of founding the program, then sees the emergence of the Fantastic Four as inspiration. If the most respected scientist in the world becomes leader of a band of adventurers, maybe that approach can shape Hudson and company too!

Each origin’s tied to others as Hudson finds his recruits, starting with a Logan cameo. Marrina’s origin folds into the actual adventure in #2, unveiled in layers during her captivity by The Master. The Invisible Woman and Prince Namor team up to answer a call crossing over in FF #257 and essentially save AF’s hash in the cataclysmic #4. The Shaman origin in #5 leads out of his medical treatment of Puck at the start of Puck’s solo in #5; part two becomes the birth of Snowbird, born of Hodiak and Nelvanna- star of the experimental “snowblind” #6- which also returns Kolomaq from perennial nemeses The Great Beasts. Heather figures into the Shaman origin as baby-sitter to little Talisman and family friend to the Twoyoungments. The twins become main feature and origin back-up stars next, complete with a past and friends. Next we get Sasquatch in a two parter that seems to guest star The Thing (with a plot that nods to the sci fi suspense movie of that name). He ends up in a revealing battle with Super Skrull, whose story continues from John’s stint years before on Marvel Team-Up.
“The Beast Unleashed” in #11 also underscores Langkowski’s friendship in college with Bruce Banner, ties Snowbird into his salvation after the initial transformation, and foreshadows ominously troubles to come. All along, we’re led to their common thread in Guardian, the likeable maverick scientist, shown putting together and working with Alphans, their differing personalities contrasting beside James, grounded by his relationship with his feisty wife.
In a very layered presentation, subplots link independent adventures. We get a mix of two or three Alphans every issue, original enemies in Deadly Earnest and Nemesis, and yes, the emergence of Omega Flight. From issue two’s opening training session in the Alberta wilds, a very real danger from one teammate to another’s present, as Northstar and Aurora’s attack cripples Hudson’s forcefield, and the throw from Sasquatch comes close to totaling their leader! Like Omega Flight, Marrina’s explained to have been the very first Gamma Flight recruit, promoted to Beta in months-and this explanation comes only moments after she’s nearly disemboweled fellow Betan Puck and escaped! The others demand any explanation; how, Walt of all people asks, could such behavior slip past psychological testing? Hudson’s destined to be endangered from the start by the programs, the suit, the friendships he’s forged. He gets a big job offer that will finally land him in New York City. But like the polar space ship headquarters of The Master in #4, beneath appearances, our heroes discover ever-deeper levels full of menace. Like that ship, their paths shift and grow organically, changing subtly in ways that leave them lost. Intimate knowledge backfires: when Walt tries to approach Jeannne-Marie gently and tells her of his romantic relationship with her as Aurora, she’s repulsed. After all, the personality within hates the person she is as a superheroine- hates her disregard of inhibition and cold discretion.
An enemy lurks within.

The offer to unemployed James Hudson looks like an opening to new intrigues and opportunities. It looks like the entire series is about to shift. For a team leader, he’s still somewhat a rookie superhero, starry-eyed at whom he’ll meet. Cap’s one-time artist adds one very nice touch when Steve Rogers and Bernie pass Hudson outside Steve’s apartment. He gets a sense of Hudson as “a man used to wielding power”-all the while, James daydreams of the heroes he’ll help, the excitement that’s changed his mind entirely about this superhero business. Love the moment- if Captain America could’ve known...alas, the two countries’ flag-wearing icons pass in civilian guise...more red herrings, memorably done differently. Once inside, the sinister maze shifts.

Moving Day: we get a cool glimpse back at their years together in sleepy Ottawa. She’s leaving behind their VW, hearing echoes of their voices from the Logan days, even her request they have no children. The word was out: that sales ingredient, Tragedy, closes Year One’s story. Depending on your sense of impending ironies, the offer from Roxxon- an industrial power known to regular Marvelites to engage in villainous power plays- either telegraphs his doom, or sets up shock surprise: surely, so much potential won’t be flushed away!

The theme’s well-established by now, but the most telling cut began with the origin of Guardian- Hudson’s eventually identity, by #2-and the man who cultivated his construction of the prototype exploratory suit for Am-Can, Jerry Jaxon, ruined by Hudson’s refusal to hand over the helmet design to the American military, secret sponsors of his four-year development of the cybernetic armor. Jaxon will manipulate the training program Beta Flight to become arch-rivals to Alpha, particularly for vengeance on Hudson. (Their motivation’s the story’s weakest point; that’s why Byrne reveals Courtney’s thoughts about her“Influencer” tech-another threat from within.) Jaxon uses a business card dropped deliberately by Delphine, then intimate knowledge-the helmet’s frequency- to lure Hudson to the World Trade Center. Marrina’s away being wooed by the Submariner; one match after another crosses over in chaos, taken one attack at a time by Byrne. Already divided by Northstar’s fight with Sasquatch over Aurora, the Alphans answer Mac’s call and teleport there to confront Omega Flight.

That Pyrrhic victory introduced me to Alpha Flight. I never forgot it. Sexually tantalizing Aurora, physically imposing Sasquatch, insightful Puck, subtle and dangerous Shaman-in a single episode, I became intrigued. In an exceedingly rare comics shop visit, the first dollar I spent on an actual comic book in Gordon Lee’s Amazing World of Fantasy, brought me the shocking double-sized conclusion.

The battle itself’s awesome- confined to a huge room, their powers clash dangerously. Aurora’s vulnerability after Wild Child’s attack leads to intended lethal force from Northstar. Smart Alec grabs the Shaman’s bag, peers within, and loses his mind; once again, someone’s destroyed by mysteries that lie within the source of an Alphan’s great power. Snowbird crumbles from the start, her life force severed from her homeland. Why? Her life from birth was bound to the land of Canada, by the man who delivered her, Shaman-to come to New York City is an isolation inviting death! A future version of Flashback’s killed in the melee, meaning his own demise awaits in a terrible moment that could arrive any moment.
Insinuated between arguing Northstar and Aurora, Sasquatch already went berserk; now he holds back against Box, setting up the critical moment where Box is free to isolate Guardian with a tackle that crashes through an empty shaft. Box: the remote-controlled robot Bochs credits to Hudson, who turned it “from a toy into a superhero!” The power made greater by Hudson now shorts his force field, smashes his suit to bits.

Box has the ultimate surprise- he’s not Robert Bochs, Jim’s personal recruit: he’s Jaxon. Once again, a mystery within a power fells another member of the program. Head to head, the leaders, the old friends, battle to the death. Heather’s entangled one last time in their machinations. Themes continue their haunting echoes.

Brutally beaten by Jaxon-controlling-Box, James shorts out the robot (killing Jaxon), then hurries to fix his damaged power supply, primed like a bomb now. A complication within the source of power itself- wrapped inside the symbol of his reluctant choice to play the leader the hero: the power pack is the source of doom. (Did some cheeky soul agree to run that silhouette advertisement on the letters page following, for Power Pack?)

Held hostage by Courtney-revealed as an android-Heather McNeil Hudson finds an opening left to freedom. The woman who discovered Logan berserk after his escape from Program: Weapon X, the awe-struck admirer who opened the door of the Prime Minister’s office to Hudson’s freedom after stealing back his suit- opens another door. She interrupts Mac in the countdown of frantically-depicted seconds as he frantically repairs his volatile suit. Before her very eyes, her husband’s incinerated.

A door opens. A door shuts forever.
Just like that...Jimmy Hudson’s gone.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Marvel 1982: Fantastic Four Integr8d Soul: the shared universe

Integr8d Soul: The Shared Marvel Universe, as seen in

FANTASTIC FOUR #232, 241 & 242

The interweaving of the fictional world depicted by Marvel Comics Group was always, when observed, a strong suit, and things at the turn of 1982 reflected wonderful integration! I happened to be writing up the guest appearances in Fantastic Four #241 and 242 about the time I kicked back with a copy of Amazing Spider-Man #229 to analyze the Stern/ Romita, Jr. run. Spider-Man’s desperately brainstorming with Madame Web, the imperiled psychic, for help protecting her from the Juggernaut. The footnote, as her efforts fail, refer us to Fantastic Four #241 and Avengers #219. Very cool! I’d covered the Avengers some years back, battling renegade Moondragon on a planet she’s taken over in collective style like Unity on Rick & Morty. The Fantastic Four happen to be exploring an anachronistic colony pervaded by an alien power in Wakanda alongside King T’Challa, the Black Panther. By the next issue of Fantastic Four, the meta-story goes one better: Spider-Man’s one of many superheroes responding to the invasion of Terrax the Untamed, as he rips Manhattan itself into the sky! So how great is that: our story tells us when the community of superheroes are absent, when they are trying to help!

FF #241 and 242 represent two different kinds of guest appearances I want to discuss. One features Black Panther as guest star, and expands the fictional world inside his kingdom, however briefly, another of the Twilight Zone/ Outer Limits- style tales Byrne favors so often in the first year he writes Fantastic Four. #242 falls into a category more closely represented by his first effort on the title, #232. What John does there is something seen often in the third year or so of Marvel, after the Marvel Age began with Fantastic Four #1 and continuing from FF #12 and Amazing Spider-Man #1: the heroes, and villains, even supporting characters, interact with one another across titles, giving the effect of a textured meta-story incorporating all Marvel’s titles in a time line and a shared setting. More specifically, we get unannounced appearances where characters play minor roles in one anothers’ stories. Diablo- a refugee from Marvel in the Silver Age if ever there was one, a villain Stan Lee himself found a bit of a misfire-sends his elemental proxies in a coordinated assault against the quartet. Given his mystical, rather than scientific, source of abilities, it’s a cinch that Doctor Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts, would pinpoint his location. His intervention provides a surprise ending to the story- perhaps, after all that action, it’s anticlimactic. It’s an imminently logical solution, however, for Reed to contact an expert at detecting a practitioner of those magical abilities. The FF won’t face a lot of mystically-based enemies during Byrne’s tenure, but it’s both a great call-back to Doc’s early aid to the Four in stories during their third year and a cool example of how sometimes, these heroes ARE around to help each other with problems outside their usual wheelhouse. It’s too bad for Spider-Man that trick didn’t work against the Juggernaut, before Madame Web was ripped from her life support/ communications “web” chair, but at least he took the clue “Cytorrak” she gave him and followed up! “This trick never works!” he fumes there to Wong, comically.
Now what’s so interesting about #242 to me is how other heroes are depicted dealing with the fall-out of Terrax’s attack. To have Thor and Iron Man themselves on clean-up duty underscores the level of threat the FF faces. They’re both roused from their civilian identities, in which they’re depicted, and happen upon one another to work together to save lives. Their relative power levels are obviously of interest to Byrne, too, which is why Iron Man’s saving stranded cars while Thor’s using his mighty storm powers to deal with the crashing waters in the wake of the physically-displaced city borough. It’s such an eminent danger, they haven’t even been contacted directly by the Four! That’s what makes it different. When Daredevil is depicted assessing the danger, Byrne’s filling his story with Marvel New York- and it’s right in tune with something we saw so much in the mid-60’s and not so much since. There’s great care taken to depict many city blocks at a time, subway tunnels, the harbor- it’s catastrophe and danger on a New York City-wide level, against a foe who can readily punch The Thing himself straight through several apartment building floors.

But what I like best: Peter Parker’s shown hanging out with Aunt May, building snow men for the holidays much like Reed and Sue wrap up their Christmas celebration, with Reed’s hilariously practical mechanical tree folding niftily in place. (Why that bothers Sue? I guess it’s meant to be funny while contrasting their approaches to such traditions as Christmas trees.)
AS though we’re in an issue of Spider-Man, he can’t go investigate the sense-tingling problem until he’s slipped away without alarming May. The scale of the problem, however, excludes his inclusion- at least, without direct help from the Four. It’s both an argument for closer collusion between heroes (it’s unclear what he could’ve done, but at least he cares) and an example of how, without a coincidence to put them on the scene together, street-level heroes, especially loners, as they usually are, operate on a different scale. He very nearly dies trying to catch the runaway borough! All he could think of was helping. The Galactus-level of trouble, however, takes the matter out of his hands, despite his best efforts.

In both #241 and 242, there’s trouble in the neighborhood in question that brings out the local superheroes. Black Panther runs into a level of difficulty and science fiction-style bizarreness that invites a larger team-up. He just might’ve been able to handle it- and while Jungle Action took things down to a more personal level of tribal intrigue, from his first appearance, Lee and Kirby clearly intended Wakanda to be a jungle locale that blended in high technology. In fact, S.H.I.E.L.D. contacts the Four and brings them together with king Panther- another guest appearance, mixing up Marvel!

In contrast, #242 gives us a similar confederation of forces, but cleverly, they converge on the problem by happenstance. (And they will all get their crack at the problem in #243!)

The show’s heading way out of town, however. The farther reaches of outer space are very nicely described in the opening page captions, which are good throughout, but especially inspired, as Terrax rides a meteor of his own devising towards his target. Guest member Frankie Raye- another symbol of cross-referenced Marvel, daughter of the creator of the original android Human Torch- will be changed forever by her encounter with Galactus and his wayward, vengeful herald. And Galactus starred in perhaps the central saga of the Fantastic Four’s peak Kirby/ Lee year. Everything old was new again, twenty years after the whole Marvel Universe as we know it innocently began, at the start of 1982.