Comic Book Review: Essential Captain Marvel Vol. 2

Comic Book Review: Essential Captain Marvel Vol. 2 by various creators.

Back in 1967, Marvel Comics became aware that the name “Captain Marvel” for a superhero had fallen out of trademark status.  It was too good a name for Marvel to pass up, so Stan Lee quickly came up with a character to appear in Marvel Super-Heroes #12, who then appeared in his own series.  Captain Mar-Vell was a representative of the alien Kree Empire, sent to spy on the Earth for potential conquest.  He was chosen for the job because of being of the oppressed minority “Pink Kree” who happened to look like Caucasian humans, as opposed to the majority “Blue Kree.”   (This allowed Marvel Comics to play him as an underdog who faced prejudice, while still having a “white” character as the hero.)

Essential Captain Marvel Vol. 2

Mar-Vell assumed the identity of recently deceased scientist Walter Lawson and began working at Cape Canaveral in Florida, the better to spy on the space program.  When danger threatened his co-workers, Mar-Vell put on his Kree uniform (with its face-hiding helmet), and due to accidentally revealing his name became known as the superhero Captain Marvel.  Unfortunately, Mar-Vell’s commanding officer Colonel Yon-Rogg wanted to steal his subordinate’s girlfriend, Nurse Una, and proceeded to try to get Captain Marvel killed.

Several issues in, Mar-Vell’s powers were reworked, and he was bonded with perennial sidekick Rick Jones–only one of them could be in the positive universe at a time, which the other floated around in the Negative Zone, swapping places with power-enhancing bracelets called Nega-Bands.  (And yes, this was a riff on the original Captain Marvel’s relationship with Billy Batson.)  Sales were never particularly good, and the series went on hiatus for several years while the character guest-starred in other heroes’ books.

Which  brings us to the volume at hand.  Issue #22 starts with Captain Marvel apparently dead, having given up his lifeforce to save Rick Jones at the end of the Kree-Skrull war.  But no, he was just “hiding” and a mad science treatment allows Mar-Vell to return to trading places with Rick.  The first few issues are standard superhero stuff, but then comes the Starlin run.  Jim Starlin was new to Marvel Comics at the time, but had big ideas for a cosmic plotline involving several characters he’d designed, and he convinced Marvel to let him anchor it with Captain Marvel.

This involved Thanos, one of a race of godlike beings that inhabited Titan, a moon of Saturn.  In love with Death (literally), he rejected the peaceful ways of his people to become a conqueror, gathering an army of outcasts and criminals from across the galaxy.  Along the way, he inspired the creation of Drax the Destroyer, a golem-like creature whose sole purpose was killing Thanos.  (This version was very different from the one most of you will have seen in the Guardians of the Galaxy movie, among other things being a formidable telepath.)

Thanos’ plans to conquer Earth accelerate when he learns that Rick Jones (unknown to himself) knows the location of the Cosmic Cube, a device that can reshape reality to the holder’s whim.  The mad titan plans to use it to elevate himself to true godhood, making him omnipotent.  While Captain Marvel and his allies manage to defeat some of Thanos’ minions and slow down his plans a bit, it is not until Mar-Vell is granted “cosmic awareness” by a being called Eon that he is finally able to save the day, resulting in Thanos’ first death.

The high-stakes action and some trippy visuals impressed the heck out of 12-year-old me, and a lot of other kids, and Jim Starlin became a favorite creator.  After the end of the Thanos Saga, Starlin stayed on only long enough for a transitional issue to Steve Englehart’s run.  #34 had Mar-Vell go up against a C-list villain named Nitro, whose power was exploding himself.  At the end of the issue, Mar-Vell was exposed to experimental nerve gas,  (Much later it would turn out he had developed inoperable cancer from this exposure, resulting in the classic story The Death of Captain Marvel.)

Nitro turned out to be a minion of the Lunatic Legion, Blue Kree purists headquartered on Earth’s Moon.  They in turn turned out to be pawns of the Kree Supreme Intelligence, who had been orchestrating events for years to turn Rick Jones into a jump-start for Kree evolution (this is not how evolution works; just roll with it.)  This volume ends with Mar-Vell and Rick defeating the Supreme Intelligence’s plan, but not without cost.

There are a couple of appearances by Carol Danvers (who’d been chief of security for Cape Canaveral during the early issues of the series) who has been demoted due to the events surrounding Lawson.  She doesn’t get to show off her competence, alas.  Things would look up for her a couple years later when she became the superhero Ms. Marvel, and Carol is now the Marvel Universe’s Captain Marvel.

Englehart’s run was also pretty good, but not up to the level of Starlin’s; some good art by Al Milgrom helps.

Trivia note:  A black singer says that she wants to be “Tina Turner–without Ike” two years before Ike’s abuse of Tina became public knowledge.

In addition to general superheroic violence, there’s the “fantastic racism” previously mentioned.  In addition to the skin color issues of the Kree, the Kree and their long-time enemies the shape-shifting Skrulls regularly hurl slurs at each other.  (Even Mar-Vell himself indulges in this before gaining cosmic awareness.)  There’s also an issue where Rick takes a hallucinogenic drug a friend gave him without consideration of what that might do to his mental link with Mar-Vell.

The art suffers some from the lack of color (Starlin did his own colors, which made his issues really pop.)

Recommended to Captain Marvel fans on a budget and Starlin fans in particular; check your lending library.

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents Men of War

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents Men of War edited by Paul Levitz

In 1977, African-American male leads in mainstream comic books were still countable on one hand (and don’t even ask about African-American women!)  But this also had the effect of making a comic with a black person on the front attention-getting.  And I suspect that at least some of the creation of “Gravedigger” came from that fact.

Showcase Presents Men of War

Gravedigger was the lead feature in DC Comics’ last-launched war comics series of the Bronze Age, Men of War.  He is introduced as Sergeant Ulysses Hazard, a polio survivor who threw himself into intense physical training (including martial arts) to overcome his handicaps.  Despite his superior physical condition and combat skills, Hazard was consigned to a segregated battalion and assigned to funeral detail (thus his codename.)  After his heroics saved lives (except his best military friend) and defeated Nazi troops, the white officers ignored his contributions and denied his request for reassignment to a combat unit.

In the second issue, Hazard somehow gets back to the U.S. and single-handedly infiltrates the Pentagon War Room to demonstrate his skills.  A character identified in that issue as the Secretary of War but in later issues demoted to an undersecretary (as his sliminess would have been a slur on the character of Henry L. Stimson, the actual Secretary at the time) decides to use Hazard as a political pawn.  If “Gravedigger” fails on one of the suicidal missions, he can be written off, but if he succeeds, the Undersecretary can take credit.

Now Captain Ulysses Hazard so that he can pull rank when necessary, Gravedigger returns to Europe and takes on a number of commando missions ranging from rescuing art from the Nazis to destroying an experimental mini-sub.  There are guest appearances by a couple of DC’s other war comics characters, and the final issue features Gravedigger actually leading Easy Company (normally the job of Sergeant Rock) for a few hours.

Gravedigger was basically “military Batman”, performing superheroic feats on a regular basis.  To be fair, this is common in comic books about commando-style solo characters, but if you are a stickler for realism, look elsewhere.  Later in the series, he gets a cross-shaped facial scar to give him more distinctive looks, important in comic books.  He even gets an archnemesis, Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Minister of Propaganda, who enlists mad science in a massive scheme to rid the Reich of this one commando.

In the next to last story, Gravedigger personally saves the lives of Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, though an opportunity is missed to have Captain Hazard bond with FDR over their mutual experience with polio.

In addition to the expected violence, there’s also period racism, ableism and anti-Semitism (the last confined to Nazi characters.)

The back-up features varied from issue to issue.  “Enemy Ace” featured Baron Hans von Hammer, “the Hammer of Hell”, a World War I German fighter pilot.  He was depicted as noble and honorable, one of a dying breed of warrior outdated by brutal modern warfare.  Some of the stories have art by Howard Chaykin, who is not as well served by the black and white reprint as the other artists.

“Dateline: Frontline” was about American reporter Wayne Clifford, covering World War Two while the U.S. was still neutral, and having his naivete chipped away bit by bit.  He struggles with censorship, the temptation of writing the story to suit the person who can give you access, and the moral gray areas of war.

“Rosa” features a spy working in the late 19h Century who is loyal to no country, and has the habit of switching accents in every sentence either to disguise his nationality or (as he claims in a somewhat dubious origin story) because he is literally a man without a country.  His name might or might not actually be Rosa.  Most notable for having a character switch sides between chapters for plot convenience.

This volume contains all 26 issues, and is not brilliant but is decent work by journeymen creators.  Worth picking up if you are a war comics fan, or interested in the history of African-American characters in comic books.

Book Review: Herblock at Large

Book Review: Herblock at Large by Herbert Block.

Herbert “Herblock” Block (1909-2001) was a multiple-Pulitzer-winning editorial cartoonist.  He’s most famous for his coverage of McCarthyism and Watergate, but kept working until just before his death.  This 1987 collection covers the early years of the Reagan administration.

Herblock at Large

As might be expected, these cartoons aren’t very kind to that administration.  From an Attorney General who was more concerned with “proving” pornography caused violence than with tracking down illegal arms shipments to America’s enemies, to the heavy influence of the Religious Right on the government, to the dubious Supreme Court nominations (the Senate finally balked at Robert Bork), there were a lot of things to criticize.

Iran-Contra gets a lot of play here, as does the fact that under Reagan’s “fiscally responsible” administration, the national deficit and debt both skyrocketed.  (A feat that would be repeated by his fiscally responsible Republican successors, while the fiscally irresponsible Democrats brought down those numbers.)  The rise of televangelists also came in for several cartoons, contrasting the prosperous preachers with the poverty-stricken viewers who donated to them.

Now, of course, we know that Ronald Reagan really was having memory problems at the time, early symptoms of his Alzheimer’s.  The cartoons about terrorists hijacking airplanes also take on a new connotation since that subject came to a head.

There are also text pieces by Herblock introducing the themed chapters, clarifying his views if the cartoons weren’t pointed enough.  One bit of information is helpful for those who did not live through those times–Mr. Block often drew the Secretary of Defense with a $640 toilet seat around his neck as that was one of the ludicrously expensive trivialities the military was spending tax money on instead of servicemembers’ salaries.

Copyright Herblock 1987
Copyright Herblock 1987

One subject where we have seen improvement is South Africa; back then apartheid and anti-equality violence were still the order of the day, with Reagan refusing to do anything that might make the white minority government feel the U.S. was unfriendly to them (what with them being anti-Communist and all, which was why we were allies with a lot of nasty regimes back then.)

This is perhaps not Herblock’s best work, but it’s still very good political cartooning, and a window into the issues facing America in the early 1980s.  Recommended for those who lived through the era and need a reminder, and those that want to know about the time before cell phones.

Book Review: Analog 1.

Book Review: Analog 1 edited by John W. Campbell

Astounding Science Fiction was one of the most influential science fiction magazines from the 1930s to the 1950s.   But long-time editor John W. Campbell had felt for years that the title did not reflect the more mature, “hard” science fiction he preferred to run.  So in 1960, he finally got permission to transition the magazine over a period of months to Analog Science Fact and Fiction.

Analog 1

This volume is a collection of stories from that first year of Analog and as such is a time capsule of the science fiction genre at that moment.  The opening editorial is perhaps a little hubristic, claiming that “mainstream literature” is just a subset of science fiction.  Mr. Campbell touts the fun of science fiction being the way it allows the mind to stretch and struggle with new concepts.  Then we begin the eight feature stories.

“Monument” by Lloyd Biggle, Jr. concerns a planet that is a tropical paradise, inhabited by primitive, peaceful humanoids.   A lone spaceman stumbles on the place, and lives out his life in peace…until near his death, he realizes that inevitably more humans will come, and given the history of tropical paradises on Earth, this will result in disaster for the natives.  He comes up with a plan.   Some time later, galactic civilization indeed comes calling.  All unfolds as O’Brien had foreseen–greedy developers, broken treaties, military men with their hands tied by regulations.  The people of Langri have the Plan, but will it come off in time?

This is the longest piece in the volume, being a full-fledged novella.   The critique of colonialism is pointed enough to sting a bit.   The greedy capitalist who doesn’t really hate the natives, but doesn’t understand that their interests should come ahead of his own, and so does them dirt, is the major villain of the piece.  He’ll be quite willing to employ the locals as maids and laborers in the hotels he’s building, once they’re properly put in their place.   He’s blind to the way he’s being outmaneuvered, and even the sympathetic military men don’t quite grok what the natives are really up to.

“The Plague” by Teddy Keller is set in the then present day.  The obscure Pentagon office of Protection from Germ Warfare had the previous officer retire a few weeks ago, and his replacement is tied up in red tape somewhere.  So when a plague breaks out, Sergeant Major Andrew McCloud and Corporal Bettijean Baker are the spearhead of the effort to stop it, despite the military brass trying to interfere.  A general is running interference, but if they don’t figure out why this illness has such a weird pattern of attack quickly, some new officer will be found to start all over.

The vector of spread is a clever one, and I have seen it in at least one other short story.  Younger readers might not catch on until it is spelled out for them, as customs and technology have changed since 1960.   There’s a whiff of the period’s sexism in regards to how grown women in the military are referred to as “girls.”

“Remember the Alamo!” by T.R. Fehrenbach is a time travel tale.  A scholar has gone back to observe the Battle of the Alamo, infiltrating the small garrison to get the full details.  Mr. Ord doesn’t quite grasp that the differences piling up between the history he knows and the events he is experiencing aren’t just trivialities he can dismiss.  The end result is telegraphed because we see the thoughts of those around Ord, and what they’re not telling him, since he should already know it.

“The Hunch” by Christopher Anvil features scout ship pilot James Connely, who is informed that two scout ships have vanished in a certain sector, despite having the latest equipment.  So his ship is being refitted with even newer equipment.  Equipment he has no chance to test before being launched into that same sector. As it happens, his hunch that one of these devices is actually responsible for the disappearance of the other ships is correct.  But which one of these newfangled gadgets is it?  This story is heavy on the sarcastic humor.

“Barnacle Bull” by Winston P. Sanders is a rarity, in that the protagonists are a Norwegian space crew in the “near future” flying the Hellik Olav in an attempt to find a safe way through the asteroid belt.  They discover why none of the other ships ever reported back.  Space barnacles.  This is one of those stories where the problem is in fact its own solution, looked at a different way.

“Join Our Gang?” by Sterling E Lanier concerns a galactic civilization attempting to convince a newly discovered planet to join them.  Sadly, the aliens are refusing, so it is time to apply pressure.  Turns out that invasive species are an Earth specialty.  Not exactly a happy ending to this one, more of a “that’s just the way it goes.”

“Sleight of Wit” by Gordon R. Dickson stars another scout, Hank Shallo lands on the same planet, in almost the spot as, the first alien scout humanity has ever met.  The alien’s ship is heavily armed, while Hank’s has no conventional weaponry.  But as he warns the alien, Hank is in possession of the universe’s most deadly weapon, one that cannot be detected or stopped.  Or is he bluffing?  Does the alien dare find out for sure?

“Prologue to an Analogue” by Leigh Richmond is the sole non-“hard” SF story in the volume.  We’re back in the present day, as an advertising campaign featuring “witches” proves successful in unexpected ways.  For younger readers, I should mention that many television programs used to be wholly owned by a particular advertiser, so a cleaning product company hosting its own nightly newscast wouldn’t have been considered unusual.   The story is also tied heavily to the politics of 1960, with tensions between the USA, the Soviet Union and Red China important to the way the plot unfolds.  The actual mechanism of the events is never explained.  Psionics?  The will of God?  Actual witches?  Who knows?  A rather frustrating tale, as intended.

These aren’t all-time classic stories, a couple are very dated, but are pretty good representatives of the magazine’s content.  It’s been reprinted a few times, and some of the other covers are better–check your local library or used book store.

 

 

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