Thursday, December 15, 2011

Joe Simon, RIP

This is shaping up to be a bad week for comic book professionals. Not only did we lose Jerry Robinson earlier this week, today we lost Joe Simon.

Joe Simon was a writer/artist/editor whose early efforts at Marvel included the Fiery Mask...but we're bound to remember him for ages to come because, with Jack Kirby, he created Captain America! The Simon-Kirby partnership went on for more than a decade, through just about every genre of comics (even creating a new genre - romance comics - together). When they parted ways in the 50s, Kirby went on to bigger and brighter things. Simon? Well, he was still out there, but never really an equal to Kirby again.

Personally, I'm very fond of Simon's 1970s DC comic Prez, which told the story of the USA's first teenaged president and his trials against chess-playing robots and vampires. Even by 70s standards, it was too bizarre to last.

We were fortunate to have Simon around as late as we did (he was 98). The giants of the Golden Age of comic books are slowly passing your appreciation while you still can!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Today's riddle

Q: What do you get when you cross Triton...

...With the Eel...?

A: I don't know either, but he's on the cover of Deathstroke#7!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

I Love Atlas Comics#17: "the Brain Trap!"

This story, this... man alive, this story. I can't do it justice my mere words, you must experience it for yourself; courtesy of George Roussos and World of Suspense#5 (1956):

At times I've been so disparaging to contemporary comics that I feel I have to point this out: Sturgeon's Law applies to every point of history in popular culture. Atlas Comics really suffered under the Comics Code Authority; even though they had some terrific talents who could make the most of the situation - Jack Davis, Joe Maneely, John Severin, Russ Heath - I frequently find post-code Atlas to be some of the dullest comic books ever written. World of Suspense#5 is tremendously dull, not even the Bill Everett story is worth consideration.

Here then we have a story about a man trying to invent a new "skin cure," instead cures baldness, then - nearing the end of the story - discovers he's also become telepathic! The page 4 action sequence has some of the most awkward fight choreography I've ever seen, as the attacker goes from throwing a stool over his head to banging his head against a cabinet which springs out of nowhere. I realize the Code occasionally restricted fight scenes, but that's no excuse for such a poor set-up and follow-through. Even with the caption explaining the scientist has stepped aside (to dodge the stool, not the following lunge), there's no sense of how the attacker is suddenly trying to tackle him, nor where the cabinet came from.

I feel this was being made up as they went along; I feel Roussos needed the money; I feel a regular diet of stories like these helped urge Stan Lee to give up on the comics industry.

In a better world, this would be a delightfully funny piece of unintentional comedy. The closing line "To grow hair would be a good thing... but the other things the formula can produce could be EVIL!" offers a glimpse at what might have been.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Nick Spencer, comicdom's answer to Ingmar Bergman, part 3

From Secret Avengers#13, page 5, art by Scot Eaton:

In the above: Washington DC is besieged by Nazis in giant robot suits in an all-out Blitzkrieg attack; the Beast races to the US Capitol to confront a congressman who refuses to evacuate.

Not seen here: Washington DC; Nazis in giant robot suits in an all-out Blitzkrieg attack; the US Capitol.

Net result: The Beast races past some bodies into some building for some reason.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

A gun-based exercise regimen? Must be made in the USA.

An advertisement from Combat#8 (1953):

So this is how Hoppy built his muscles? He must've had a bad case of trigger-finger. Build big arthritis as "Hoppy" does!

Friday, December 9, 2011

The films of Jack Benny

Some time ago, I read Joan Benny's biography of her father, Sunday Nights at Seven: the Jack Benny Story. Helpfully, the book contains extensive passages which Jack intended to run in an autobiography he never completed. At one point, Jack discussed his film career and wrote happily about his one picture, To Be Or Not to Be, but advised fans interested in his work to avoid the rest of his filmography.

It was a fine thing for Jack to ask his fans to forget about his film career, it's another for us to obey. I had already seen To Be or Not to Be by the time I read the biography, but I went on to see two more of his pictures. The Meanest Man in the World was undistinguished, but not too bad and at least had some choice lines for Eddie Anderson. On the other hand, Buck Benny Rides Again was about as close as a movie could come to Jack's radio program, with almost every cast member and even an audio-only Fred Allen putting in appearances; and yet, Buck Benny didn't quite satisfy me. It's a neat curio, but felt "off," just as I find his television programs don't entirely click with me.

Perhaps I should have stopped questing for Jack's films then and there, but within the last week I watched three more of them. Having done so, I feel compelled to share what I learned; hey, you don't have anything better to read, right? Charley's Aunt

Charley's Aunt (1941) came up in scattered references via Jack's radio show, even post-war. It's just one of several film adaptations of a then-popular play, but as I have familiarity with the play, it was as good as new to me. Jack is an English university lad (who's spent 10 years in school) whose roommate Charley asks to pose as his wealthy aunt so Charley and another friend have a chaperone for their dates on the day they each intend to propose. Charley's real aunt turns up as well, using a false identity for her own reasons. So, it's a farce, basically looking for an excuse to get a man to wear drag. It also features Edmund Gwenn as the guardian of the two young ladies; Gwenn needs to give his consent for them to marry, so Jack's character is encouraged to woo him into writing his consent. It brings to mind Gwenn's alleged deathbed quote, "Dying is hard; but not as hard as comedy."

Because Jack's character spends most of the picture in drag, he's given very masculine characteristics, notably being a boozer and womanizer. This is very odd for a Jack Benny fan, as I'm used to the set-up where Phil Harris is the local drinker and skirt-chaser to contrast against Benny. Just as the radio program realized it was occasionally very funny to have Harris play against his type by taking a feminine role, the film takes the not-very-masculine Benny and places him in a role meant for a stronger, alpha male type, except the latter doesn't fit.

Of course, Benny isn't English either, which is the other odd part about him being cast in the film. Jack uses an exaggerated accent on the word "can't" (ie, "cawn't") throughout the picture, but that's about as much effort as he makes to sound English. Once you start to notice the accent, it actually becomes very funny, so much so that I wonder if Jack was doing it intentionally, much like his broad attempts at caricatured accents on the radio...and I wonder if the director knew what Jack was doing.

Charley's Aunt isn't terrible, probably because of the original source material. It's odd, but it isn't Jack's worst film. George Washington Slept Here

George Washington Slept Here (1942) is a frustrating picture - frustrating because it comes so close to working. The film features Benny and Ann Sheridan as a couple who purchase a dilapadated old New England manor with supposed ties to the Revolutionary War and attempted to fix the place up until it's fit to live in, but along the way they suffer monetary troubles, family growing pains and accusations of infidelity. So, it's Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House then, isn't it?

Unfortunately, just about everything Blandings did right, George Washington gets wrong. Too many of the jokes are delivered in an episodic manner, instead of being tied to the overall narrative, as in Blandings. A sub-plot about Benny's cousin joining an acting troupe goes a long way for a very slight payoff. A bratty kid is introduced who is so bratty that he drives you to distraction (ie, "why am I watching this film? can't I find a better distraction?). The family's rich uncle leads to a few good comedy routines, particularly as he tells an old anecdote with Benny correcting him on various details, yet claiming he hasn't heard the story before.

Probably the biggest misstep is in the climax; facing foreclosure, the family is saved when they unearth an old boot which contains a long-lost speech written by George Washington, validating the old claims about the house. Reciting the speech stops the comedy dead in its tracks and while the speech gives the family the capital they need to keep the house, it's not as strong as the resolution to Blandings, where the family solve their problems through their own ingenuity rather than a deus ex machina. George Washington Slept Here is my least-favourite of Benny's pictures. The Horn Blows at Midnight

Of course, the most infamous picture Benny ever made was the Horn Blows at Midnight (1945), a movie he mocked for so many years (decades?) that you would suppose it were something truly terrible. It's a picture with some serious troubles, but it's not that bad. Jack plays a musician who dreams he's an angel who's been charged with going to Earth and playing four notes on a celestial trumpet at the stroke of midnight which will usher in the end of the world; unfortunately/fortunately, various parties get in his way, including a pair of fallen angels who have taken up residence on Earth and don't want to see it go away.

The Horn Blows at Midnight was allegedly a box office bomb, hence Jack's many jokes about the film's quality. I can believe this film would have had trouble during its release. The movie's entire premise is that the protagonist is having a dream; how are you supposed to entertain an audience who know dreams "don't matter?" Unlike, say, Buster Keaton's Sherlock Jr., it isn't fanciful enough to make the dream worthwhile, despite the director's efforts. Raoul Walsh was the film's director and he was a top-drawer talent; early scenes set in heaven with thousands of angels playing instruments are gorgeous, particularly one shot which flies over the orchestra. Walsh clearly made the film with a bit of love, so there are some things worth seeing in the picture. The other really fine bit in the picture is a waiter played by John Brown who is a typically entertaining John Brown character.

Outside of the visuals and the performances by Benny and Brown, I can't say much in favour of the Horn Blows at Midnight. Even moreso than George Washington, it feels like a collection of sketches. There's a thief, his ladyfriend and strongarm clinging to the edges of the story, along with the fallen angels, Benny's love interest, Benny's boss, a hotel detective, a wealthy dowager and about a dozen even less important characters. Strangely, the radio adaptation works in about every way this picture doesn't; the radio version dispenses with the business about the dream and instead of coming up with humourous reasons why Jack is distracted from blowing his trumpet, has characters argue for humanity's survival, until Jack himself is convinced. The Horn Blows at Midnight shouldn't have been a Warner Bros. picture - it really belonged at Columbia, where Frank Capra could've had a chance at making it cohesive.

At any rate, the radio version is keen. You can download a copy via the Internet Archive.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

RIP Jerry Robinson.


The word is that comic book legend Jerry Robinson died earlier today at an unbelieveable 89 years old. I say "unbelieveable" because I didn't think he carried himself like he was 89. When I saw him at San Diego Comic-Con in 2009, I marveled at how quick-witted and spry he appeared - he had a real presence at the microphone, moreso than some creators in their 60s!

As one of the most important men to shape the Batman mythos - including the creation of Robin & the Joker - I'm sure his name will be remembered long into the future. However, I feel his greatest legacy is his work in creator's rights, how he pulled himself out of Bob Kane's shadow and told the truth about how Kane had suppressed recognition for the Batman creative team. Taking that a step further, he helped Superman's creators Siegel & Shuster earn some of what they were due.

As a fan of Atlas Comics, it's sad to think how since I went to San Diego in 2009, two of the best remaining Atlas artists who were still with us then - Gene Colan & Jerry Robinson - are not with us now. It's great that Robinson's career at DC has become legendary, but I wish more people were aware of his work at Marvel in the 50s. If anything, I suppose Marvel fans will remember him as the man who mentored Steve Ditko.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A balanced diet of reading

Recently I was thinking about the comic books I read and considered how so many of them have a consistent tone or style - that is, I know what tone to expect in the Punisher, I know what style to expect in a Roger Langridge title. I found myself wishing there were at least one comic book in 2011 which delivered a wide range of tones, from serious to irreverent, from action to drama, from meticulous world-building to turning points, from intellectualism to bawdy humour. Boy, I'd love a comic book like that.

"Oh yeah." I recollected. "I'm already reading Usagi Yojimbo." Usagi Yojimbo#142

I've blogged about Usagi Yojimbo a few times already, but I feel like I can't stress enough just how fine this series - in no small part because it goes unmentioned by virtually every comic book review site & blog on the web. Here's a book which has survived three publishers, driven on by a single creator's vision, telling a variety of small stories which fit together into a larger ongoing story with no end in sight...but as much as readers claim they want self-contained stories, they never seem to prove it with numbers. Usagi Yojimbo#84

Camouflaged by the funny animal trappings, Usagi Yojimbo has shocked me: Usagi Yojimbo v1#8

Usagi Yojimbo has educated me: Usagi Yojimbo v1#20

Usagi Yojimbo has amazed me: Usagi Yojimbo v1#33

Usagi Yojimbo has made me somber: Usagi Yojimbo v1#18

Usagi Yojimbo has made me laugh: Usagi Yojimbo v2#6

Usagi Yojimbo has thrilled me:

Usagi Yojimbo has warmed my heart: Usagi Yojimbo#75

Usagi Yojimbo has kept me guessing: Usagi Yojimbo#109

Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai is a full course meal. I think you should treat yourself to a generous portion.

Usagi Yojimbo#113

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

When War Was Wonderful!

From Davy Berg's Boot-Camp Brady story "DMZ Marines!" in Marines in Action#13 (1957):

Can North Korea really be all bad if their patrol units are manned by chorus girls?

I've taken this panel out of context, but just barely...the chorus girls have nothing to do with any of the preceding or succeeding panels in this story.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Nick Spencer, comicdom's answer to Ingmar Bergman, part 2

Back by popular demand...

From Iron Man 2.0#3 (2011), page 2, art by Carmine Di Giandomenico:

Iron Man 2.0! The cutting edge in comics about old men sitting in desks -- and getting up from them!

Here we see some cinematic technique, but not comics storytelling. Please read Miguel's post on comics storytelling for some cogent thoughts on these trends.

Obviously, this page is taken out of context; in context, this is the 2nd of 5 pages rendered without captions, dialogue or sound effects. War Machine has just been caught in a nuclear explosion and the general (above) is reacting to the news (the following two pages show different characters reacting). Since the pills he takes have no apparent purpose here (or in future issues), this could have been easily summarized in just one panel, rather than a full page. Also, note how three panels depict the General's computer screen, but nothing is really visible on the monitor. In this age of hot-to-trot Photoshop effects, surely this was a missed opportunity to convey something to the reader, such as exposition? (ie, a newsfeed crawl along the bottom of the screen declaring "War Machine hit by nuclear blast -- Emergency crews respond")

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Kâramanèh: an uncommon creature

From time to time here on the blog and in real life, I bring up author Sax Rohmer; when I do start to speak of him, I often open with an apologetic statement. There was a time when I was very defensive about Rohmer, feeling he was judged a racist by modern critics strictly for his Fu Manchu novels, which I had found weren't as bad as their reputation suggested. However, the more I've read of Rohmer's non-Fu Manchu career, the more...objectionable material I've encountered.

Apologetics aside, I'd like to speak a bit about why exactly I became a staunch Rohmer supporter; I can chalk it up to one of his Fu Manchu creations, the slave girl Kâramanèh.

Kâramanèh was introduced in the first novel (the Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu or the Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu, depending on your edition), as narrated by the character of Dr. Petrie:

I thought that I never had seen a face so seductively lovely nor of so unusual a type. With the skin of perfect blonde, she had eyes and lashes as black as a Creole's, which, together with her full red lips, told me that this beautiful stranger, whose touch had so startled me, was not a child of our northern shores.

By the time Kâramanèh has been introduced, we've yet to meet her master, Fu Manchu, nor even heard the famous "brow like Shakespeare..." description Petrie's friend Nayland Smith relates. Petrie is quite taken with Kâramanèh and it's mutual as she winds up saving he and Smith's lives a few times. In one encounter, Petrie begins to realize just how strange her loyalty to Fu Manchu is:

"But if you will carry me off" - she clutched me nervously - "so that I am helpless, lock me up so that I cannot escape, beat me, if you like, I will tell you all I do know. While he is my master I will never betray him. Tear me from him - by force, do you understand, by force, and my lips will be sealed no longer. Ah! but you do not understand, with your 'proper authorities' - your police. Police! Ah, I have said enough."

Kâramanèh's terms are so startling to Petrie that he repeatedly lets her out of his grasp. It's a good thing he did, because being on the inside of Fu Manchu's operation, she's in a perfect position to save him! At one point, Petrie and Smith are chased through darkened streets by four of Fu Manchu's Dacoit assassins, but Kâramanèh comes to their rescue - executing the Dacoits herself with a revolver! For a piece of 1913 fiction, Kâramanèh is a pretty formidable woman and, against the expectations of the times, it's the men who are in distress and need to be rescued!

But who is Kâramanèh? And why does she remain with Fu Manchu? It seems she's from Egypt and a Bedouin...

"You may call me Kâramanèh," she said. "As Kâramanèh I was sold to Dr. Fu-Manchu, and my brother also he purchased. We were cheap at the price he paid." She laughed shortly, wildly.

"But he has spent a lot of money to educate me. My brother is all that is left to me in the world to love, and he is in the power of Dr. Fu-Manchu. You understand? It is upon him the blow will fall."

Kâramanèh's brother Aziz is being kept alive through a serum which only Fu Manchu can supply. Thankfully, Petrie is a doctor and, guided by Kâramanèh, eventually steals both Aziz and the serum and finds a way to set Aziz free. The first book ends with Fu Manchu seemingly dead and Kâramanèh reunited with Aziz, setting home to Egypt, leaving a heartbroken Petrie behind.

Much changes in the second book from 1916 (either the Devil Doctor or the Return of Dr. Fu-Manchu, take your pick). Petrie and Smith quickly learn Fu Manchu is still alive and still bent on destruction. To their considerable surprise, Kâramanèh is back - and in Fu Manchu's thrall! And she has no idea who Petrie is! We eventually learn Kâramanèh has been brainwashed back into Fu Manchu's service. This brainwashed version of Kâramanèh shows no consideration for Smith & Petrie, depriving them of a valued resource and generally throwing Petrie off his game. However, the brainwashing isn't permanent and it's a good thing since by the end of the novel, Smith & Petrie are in Fu Manchu's clutches, with Smith in a death trap so terrible the Devil Doctor has given Petrie the opportunity to kill his friend to spare his suffering. As Fu Manchu begins to unleash rats to gnaw Smith to death, Kâramanèh enters the scene!

She looked, not at the tortured man, not at me, but fully at Dr. Fu-Manchu. One hand clutched the trembling draperies; now she suddenly raised the other, so that the jewels on her white arm glittered in the light of the lamp above the door. She held my Browning pistol! Fu-Manchu sprang upright, inhaling sibilantly, as Kâramanèh pointed the pistol point blank at his high skull and fired...

Isn't that amazing? Fu Manchu's first "definitive" death comes at the hands of a woman who puts a bullet in his skull! It's certainly a well-earned triumph for Kâramanèh after being a brainwashed thrall for the rest of the novel. The book ends happily with Petrie, Kâramanèh (and Aziz) together again.

Unfortunately, in some ways this was the last we saw of Kâramanèh. She reappeared in 1917's the Hand of Fu Manchu/Si-Fan Mysteries, but had barely any dialogue, spending almost the entire novel as Fu Manchu's prisoner. The fourth novel didn't arrive until 1931 and by then Rohmer had begun changing the formula (Fu Manchu is barely in the 4th novel!). Petrie was retired from the series and the narrator duties fell to other characters (until Rohmer finally adopted the third person narrator). Petrie and Kâramanèh were married during the publishing gap and their daughter, Fleurette, became the subject of two novels: the Bride of Fu Manchu (1933) and the Trail of Fu Manchu (1934). In those books, Fu Manchu tries to make Fleurette his bride (which was pretty skeevy of him), even threatening to kill Fleurette if he can't have her; it's finally Petrie who bargains for her life by saving Fu's and with that Petrie is forever removed from the narrative as Fu gives his word to never trouble him or his family again.

Personally, I wish the Kâramanèh from the first two novels had played a larger role in those two latter books. Instead of making Fleurette's peril a matter for either her lover (Alan Sterling) or her father. Man alive, I would have really enjoyed reading about a Kâramanèh who plays the part of a tigress, hunting Fu Manchu down and thrashing him until he vows to leave her cub alone.

Because she played such a prominent role in the early novels, Kâramanèh has been well-represented in every media. There were Fu Manchu serials in 1923 & 1924; Kâramanèh was played by Joan Clarkson in the former, Dorina Shirley in the latter.

In 1931 a Fu Manchu comic strip began by adapting the first novel, thus dramatizing a great deal of Kâramanèh's story.

A 1932 Fu Manchu radio program featured Sunda Loe and Charlotte Manson as Kâramanèh; in 1939, the terrific serial show the Shadow of Fu Manchu featured Paula Winslowe as Kâramanèh, again adapting the first two novels. This latter radio program was my introduction to the Fu Manchu universe, sparking off an obsession which has lasted me some 15 years.

The 1956 television program the Adventures of Fu Manchu cast Laurette Luez as Kâramanèh; perhaps one of these days I'll watch the show.

Marvel's Master of Kung Fu series made extensive use of Fu Manchu, Nayland Smith and Fah Lo Suee, with occasional use of Dr. Petrie; issues #83-87 included appearances by Kâramanèh, revealed to have been kept eternally young by Fu's Elixir Vitae, while Petrie had continued to age; Kâramanèh couldn't bear to be reunited with Petrie, despite her love for him. These stories by Doug Moench & Mike Zeck showed Kâramanèh in fine form, once again coming to Nayland's rescue.

If there had been no Kâramanèh in Rohmer's stories, I wonder if I'd bother thinking about them today? There are certainly some fine adventure tales in Rohmer's fiction - particularly his earlier fiction - but nothing especially remarkable. As with so much of the genre fiction I enjoy, it's the emotions of the characters which draw me in and the genuine relationship which develops between Petrie and Kâramanèh was the heart of the program; Nayland Smith, whom most consider the proper protagonist of the series (he's the only character to appear alongside Fu throughout), is rather dull; he often berates Petrie's feelings for Kâramanèh, even after all she had done to save both their skins. I feel Petrie's faith in her - and how she repeatedly came through for them - is to Rohmer's credit. I'm not going to claim he was a champion of civil rights, but for a man of his time and means, Rohmer wrote a terrific heroine.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Numbers to Marvel at

During 2011, Marvel published a lot of comic books. The comics blogsophere has been reacting to a lot of recent cancellations and firings; these are obvious changes to the publishing regime, the "hard" side of the business which is presumably a reaction to the burden of too much merchandise at the market. The "soft" side - and something I'll be interested to follow in 2012 - is the number of titles which have been double-shipping lately.

There are only two comics which have been promoted as twice-a-month: Amazing Spider-Man and Incredible Hulks. 2011 was also the introduction of the "Point One" initiative, which meant virtually every title shipped one extra issue in 2011. And yet, the number of books running extra issues in 2011 was really quite high and I wonder A) how it effects buying habits, perhaps causing readers to spend less on other titles to afford the extra issues and B) if monthly titles which have been double-shipping will quietly revert to single-shipping in 2012.

I put together some numbers based on the average number of issues the premiere monthly super hero titles shipped in 2011. Bear in mind the caveats I mentioned about Amazing Spider-Man & Incredible Hulks (anything up to 2 per month is expected) and the Point One initiative (1.083 is acceptable). 0.666 Average Per Month: Astonishing X-Men
0.833 Average Per Month: Daredevil
1 Average per Month: Captain America, Heroes for Hire
1.083 Average Per Month: Avengers, Invincible Iron Man, New Avengers, Secret Avengers, Thor, X-23
1.111 Average Per Month: Iron Man 2.0
1.166 Average Per Month: New Mutants, Ultimate Spider-Man
1.181 Average Per Month: Black Panther
1.25 Average Per Month: Daken
1.333 Average Per Month: Avengers Academy, Fantastic Four, Thunderbolts, Uncanny X-Force, Uncanny X-Men, Wolverine, X-Men, X-Men: Legacy
1.416 Average Per Month: X-Factor
1.428 Average Per Month: Herc, Journey into Mystery
1.5 Average Per Month: Deadpool, Hulk
1.75 Average Per Month: Incredible Hulks
2.166 Average Per Month: Amazing Spider-Man

As I said, the "soft" side; I never heard announcements about Deadpool and Hulk going 18 issues per year, but if they go back to 12 per year in 2012, I don't expect there to be announcements then either.

Just for fun, here's the 2011 numbers on how many comics are published each month per character/franchise (not counting handbooks, saga, indexes, spotlights, reprints, promotional material or digital comics): Ghost Rider: 0.416 per month
Alpha Flight: 0.5 per month
Anita Blake: 0.5 per month
Moon Knight: 0.5 per month
SHIELD: 0.5 per month
Venom: 0.666 per month
Daredevil: 0.75 per month
The Stand: 0.75 per month
Sub-Mariner: 0.75 per month
Dark Tower: 0.833 per month
Oz: 0.833 per month
Spider-Girl: 0.916 per month
Heroes for Hire: 1.083 per month
Loki: 1.083 per month
Ultimates: 1.083 per month
X-23: 1.083 per month
Hercules: 1.166 per month
Black Panther: 1.25 per month
Daken: 1.25 per month
Fantastic Four: 1.333 per month
New Mutants: 1.333 per month
Thunderbolts: 1.416 per month
X-Factor: 1.416 per month
Punisher: 1.5 per month
X-Force: 1.583 per month
Iron Man: 3.083 per month
Thor: 3.666 per month
Hulk: 3.75 per month
Deadpool: 4.083 per month
Wolverine: 4.25 per month
Captain America: 4.5 per month or 1.038 per week
Spider-Man: 6.416 per month or 1.48 per week
Avengers: 7.666 per month or 1.769 per week
X-Men: 8.833 per month or 2.038 per week

At this point, why not simply launch Captain America Weekly, Amazing Spider-Man Weekly, Avengers Weekly, New Avengers Weekly, Wolverine Weekly, X-Men Weekly and Uncanny X-Men Weekly? The content's already there.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Unearthed: Uncanny X-Men#161

Halloween caught me thinking about comic books which gave me a fright in the past. There are certainly some obvious books I could drag out for an entry in first Tomb of Dracula or I, Vampire for instance. But no, I've decided to unearth the first comic book which scared me, the comic book I was often afraid to look at: my first issue of Uncanny X-Men.

I was not a Marvelite growing up. My favourite comic books were Superman, Action Comics starring Superman, Justice League of America featuring Superman and perhaps something with Superman. However, a family friend who read nothing but Marvel comic books would occasionally divest himself of recent titles and they would wind up in our house; until my younger brothers came of age, they were usually my comics de facto. I kept them in a little brown suitcase.

So it was in 1982 at the tender age of four (I'm dating myself; no one else will) that Marvel's Uncanny X-Men#161 introduced me to the Holocaust. Hey kids! Comics!

It only seems fair to open with the cover, although I don't recall ever seeing it on my copy; young as I was, I would trash comics very quickly; I was lucky to retain all of the story pages, the cover was a small loss. Perhaps for that reason, the cover doesn't impress me now; it establishes the two principals of this story (Xavier & Magneto), supporting character Gabrielle Haller and the villains, Hydra.

We open on a nightmarish splash page which etched itself into my brain:

Xavier is in this state because of a recent story where the alien Brood kidnapped and did Stan-knows-what to him (spoiler: he's carrying a growing Brood inside his body). The X-Men (Cyclops, Storm, Colossus, Nightcrawler & Wolverine) have gathered at Xavier's bedside; with them his one-time lover Moira MacTaggert, current lover and alien princess Lilandra, Corsair of the space pirate team the Starjammers and the Starjammers' medic, Sikorsky.

At this time, the X-Men were living around the Bermuda Triangle in a base which Magneto had been utilizing in a storyline which wrapped up in issue #150 (I'll refer to that issue a few more times to come); the team's Westchester manor was recently destroyed and reconstruction would take a few more months of issues. Among the team is Cyclops, who had left the X-Men after Jean Grey's death (#137), handing the reigns of leadership over to Storm. It's interesting to note that while Cyclops is frequently considered the X-Men leader, he'd reunited with the team in #150 and was now almost a year back in the saddle without reclaiming the leader's position; he wouldn't lead the X-Men again 'til X-Men#1 (1991).

Cyclops is upset by Xavier's condition, particularly hearing how when the X-Men tried to use the alien psychic Oracle to wake him up, Xavier tried to commit suicide in response. This, of course, brings back Jean's suicide and Cyclops leaves to torment himself in private. Of the X-Men, Wolverine correctly guesses what's ailing Cyclops, noting their need for privacy is one of the few things they hold in common. Corsair, having recently revealed himself to be Cyclops' father, attempts to step in, but as team leader, it behooves Storm to deal with Cyclops.

Against a beautiful sunset, Cyclops questions Storm about her recent decisions, noting how she had recently led the X-Men to raid the Pentagon and destroy government files. Storm stands up for herself, but stung by his criticism tells him he be the leader again if he'd prefer; Cyclops apologizes and lowers his guard, telling Storm how much Xavier means to him as a surrogate father and how Jean's suicide still eats at him. Storm supports Cyclops for showing his vulnerable side and they reconcile rather nicely. Back at Xavier's bedside, Lilandra tries to reach Xavier, to no avail.

We now journey inside Xavier's mind, where the real story begins!

Some 20 years earlier - back when Xavier could use his legs - he was traveling through Haifa, Israel to see a friend, psychiatrist Daniel Shomron. A footnote helpfully explains this entire story occurs after the flashback story from issue #117 (which depicted Xavier's first meeting with Storm and first battle with an evil mutant). Daniel is working on Holocaust survivors and one the volunteers at the hospital - Magnus - is himself a Holocaust survivor.

And so we have the first meeting of Charles Xavier and the man who would be Magneto. This was only the second time Magneto had been referenced as a Holocaust survivor (it first came up in #150, the first comic to treat him as a sympathetic character). Here, Magnus displays a tattoo on his forearm from Auschwitz and mentions having lost his family there. Xavier is fascinated to sense how powerful Magnus' will is - his mind can't be read.

Xavier helps treat one of Shomron's patients, Gabrielle Haller, a Dachau survivor. Shomron describes her condition as "catatonic schizophrenia" and he's just about out of ideas.

Of course, Xavier has resources Shomron couldn't imagine; namely his psychic powers! He projects his mind into Gabrielle to try to unearth the source of the trauma which placed her in this state.

This page was the second moment to terrify me as a youngster. It depicts Gabrielle's memories as seen on the astral plane in which the Nazis at Dachau are depicted as frightening monsters, menacing Gabrielle and finally encasing her in gold. At four years old, I certainly didn't understand World War II, Nazis or the Holocaust, but in retrospect this page does a fine job of impressing something about the Holocaust on a young mind - you couldn't show what really went on in the death camps in reading material suitable for a child, but I understood what Xavier was seeing was a figurative representation of what happened to Gabrielle - so what really happened had to be even scarier.

Xavier's psychic treatment works and Gabrielle wakes up from her catatonic state. Xavier discusses what he saw in her mind with Daniel and Magnus but they don't understand what the gold meant; however, a spy eavesdropping on them is very interested in this information.

In the time which follows, Xavier, Magnus and Gabrielle form a tight bond. Xavier and Magnus find themselves discussing mutants and Magnus expresses his belief that "Homo Superior" will have to "hold the rings of power." (Power Rings?) Gabrielle starts to fall in love with Charles, but the peaceful times are shattered by the arrival of a band of heavily-armed men wearing green.

These fellows are agents of Hydra; although Hydra were supposed to be a band of terrorists introduced in 1960s continuity, a story from - of all things - Captain Savage and his Leatherneck Raiders established Hydra as having been founded during the latter days of World War II; I believe this was the first comic book to make use of that little retcon*.

The Hydra agents kidnap Gabrielle and make their escape, but during the tumult Xavier sees Magnus from afar, wielding his powers of magnetism to destroy a Hydra vessel. Xavier realizes he's met another fellow mutant. One Hydra agent is captured and Xavier reads his mind to learn where the rest are located.

Hydra is currently in Kenya, trying to dig up long-lost Nazi gold; Hydra's founder Baron Strucker is overseeing the operation; although Hydra have plenty of guns, airships and spiffy uniforms, one assumes Strucker's blown through his budget and needs the surplus funds. It seems Gabrielle learned about the gold's location in Dachau, which is what Hydra needed her for. Thanks to the reliable nature of torture to provide intelligence, they find the underground chamber which conceals the gold.

However, it's Xavier & Magnus to the rescue, even putting on Hydra uniforms to steal into the dig site! While Xavier tends to Gabrielle, Magnus does most of the fighting. By this time Magnus is no longer worried about hiding his true nature and has even figured out Xavier is a mutant like him.

Strucker attacks Magneto with his chief weapon, the Satan Claw**, but being a metal weapon Magnus easily crushes it with his powers. He winds up tunneling passage back to the surface for himself, Xavier, Gabrielle and all of the gold, but leaves Strucker buried alive. Having obtained a massive wealth of gold, Magnus sets off to ensure mutantkind's survival, determined they "won't go to the gas chambers." As Gabrielle wakes up from her ordeal, Xavier himself wakes up back in the Bermuda Triangle.

There's a happy moment as Xavier is met by all the well-wishers who kept him company while he was comatose.

Later, the X-Men visit Lilandra's yacht for a celebration, everyone decked out in bizarre, alien party clothes (this said, Nightcrawler looks great in a cape). Kitty Pryde and Colossus engage in flirting banter, while Corsair has to depart, feeling at odds with attending a Shi'ar party when officially the Starjammers are enemies of the Shi'ar Empire. In fact, his hasty departure seemed suspicious to me as a child, given what transpired next...

Lilandra delivers a toast to the X-Men as she prepares to return home, when suddenly she pauses out in mid-sentence. At this, Lilandra's evil sister Deathbird appears, having evidently drugged Lilandra. The X-Men attack Deathbird, but a force field protect her from harm; a bomb explodes, knocking the X-Men unconscious.

And now, the third image which terrified me! The vicious-looking Brood arrive as Deathbird's allies, hovering over the unconscious X-Men. Deathbird tells them they're welcome to use the X-Men as hosts for their young. To be continued...

When this story was reprinted in X-Men Classic#65 I bought it again, replacing my well-worn copy and getting a pretty nifty Mike Mignola cover in the bargain!

In fact, since I hadn't obtained any of the issues following Uncanny X-Men#161, I followed X-Men Classic regularly for a few months so I could finally see how the story of the X-Men against the Brood resolved itself (it has my vote for the all-time best "X-Men in space" story).

It's amazing how influential this comic book was; it was the introduction of the idea Xavier & Magneto were close friends before becoming enemies; this has informed every Xavier/Magneto story since, including those in animated programs and live action films. It also introduced Magneto's tattoo, which would be prominently displayed in the first X-Men movie. This would also be the first example of Magneto fighting leftover Nazis, which Claremont and others would revisit a few times across Magneto's appearances, until it became a major focus of this year's X-Men: First Class film.

Magneto's "Magnus" alias here would eventually prove to be just that - an alias. In the 1990s, Erik Lehnsherr was promoted by some as his actual name, while others tried to dismiss it as another forged identity; once it became his name in 2000's X-Men film you'd have thought that was final...only for it to be given as Max Eisenhardt in 2008. It's gone over about as well as revealing Wolverine's real name is James Howlett.

This story also continued the gradual softening of Magneto which had begun in issue #150; after this, Magneto would soon ally himself with the team in the Secret Wars mini-series, then start helping Xavier run the school after Charles was nearly beaten to death and finally become headmaster in #200. #200 would also feature Baron Strucker's children Fenris attack Xavier & Magneto as revenge for their humiliating the Baron back in #161. Fenris would periodically turn up in Claremont's X-Men material, but after #200 seldom did anything of importance.

Also of note is the introduction of Gabrielle Haller, who would eventually prove to be the mother of Xavier's son, Legion.

*=Of course, Hydra being founded by Baron Strucker was yet another retcon - Stan Lee introduced Hydra as being founded by evil industrialist Arnold Brown, but Jim Steranko apparently felt tying them to the Nazi regime was a better fit - and apparently he was right, to the extent that last summer's film Captain America: the First Avenger dispensed with Nazis almost entirely in favour of Hydra!

**=Used by writers to prove their "street cred," as if to say, "look, I read Steranko's Nick Fury!" As I discovered while writing a profile for the Satan Claw, Magneto crushing Strucker's hand would later be spiritually succeeded by scenes of people cutting off Strucker's hand.