Monthly Archive: February 2015

Re-imagining Image

I’ve been collecting comics, in some fashion or another, since 1973.  As a kid, I remember being attracted by the cool art and the bright colors and being mostly confused by the storylines.  Things were complicated by the fact that I rarely had the money to purchase a whole set of comics to complete an arc.

As I got older, somewhere just shy of my teens, I really began reading comics for the stories.  I still remember when I actually started paying attention to the credits and could remember who the authors were.  My first clear remembrance of an author’s name was Steve Englehart, and his work still remains a favorite of mine.  It was through his work that I began to see comics as a vehicle for philosophy and drama and the examination of the human condition.  His work on Doctor Strange was a particular favorite, from the cosmic Sise-Neg storyline in Marvel Premiere #13 & #14 to his very spiritual exploration of life and death in the Silver Dagger saga in Doctor Strange (1974) #1-#5.

Over the following years other authors touched upon those core areas.  Jim Starlin and his compelling cosmic stories about Thanos provided much food for thought.   Alan Moore’s wonderful stint on Swamp Thing was very fulfilling and well-thought out.  J. M. DeMatteis produced a beautiful set of stories about good and evil in in his Six-Fingered Hand run on the Defenders.  John Ostrander’s successful revival of the Spectre in the mid-nineties was a treat for the theologically minded.  I could go on but I think the point is clear – story drives my interest in comics.

That brings me to Image Comics.  For those who don’t know, Image Comics started as a reaction by some of the ‘biggest creative’ talent at Marvel Comics in the early nineties. The core group seems to have been comprised of Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefield, Jim Lee, Erik Larsen, Whilce Portacio, Marc Silverstri, Jim Valentino, and Chris Claremont.  Protesting the lack of creative ownership and the page rate and the limited royalties afforded them at Marvel, this group went off to create their own company.  A founding principle behind Image was the idea that creators owned the fruits of their labors.  And, while I applaud their entrepreneurial spirit, I could not applaud their creations.

From the start, Image offered the same ‘eye-candy’ that made the founders work (Claremont notwithstanding) so tiresome at Marvel.  Everywhere I looked there were testosterone-laden men, with ridiculous anatomical exaggerations protruding from arm, leg, and torso – all wielding bizarrely constructed slabs of metal that passed for guns of some sort.  The women were impossibly thin and scantily clad, with spines so sharply rounded and concave that they looked like a yoga pose gone horribly awry.  Buildings, backgrounds, and breakdown art were simultaneously far too detailed and yet strangely unfinished.  In short, it was an adolescent dream of what the world should be.

All of this might have been tolerable if they had stories to offer that actually probed humanity and the state of being in this world.  Unfortunately, their approach to stories was as adolescent as their art.  All told, I regarded their books as the junk food of the comic world.  And I wasn’t alone in this viewpoint.  I was present at Comicfest ‘93 in Philadelphia when Peter David debated Todd McFarlane on the tension between artist and writer, their stint together on The Incredible Hulk, and on the foundation of Image Comics.  I call it a debate but it would be more accurate to call it a lecture on the part of the older, wiser, and smarter David against the petulant, incoherent, and childish McFarlane.  And so Image and I went our separate ways.

Well, time has passed and somehow we’ve found each other again.  The original cadre of artists who founded Image are, for the most part, still there, but I don’t care because their influence isn’t.  Somewhere in the intervening years Image discovered a soul and attracted real talent – writing talent, imagination talent.  Gone is the one size fits all eye-popping, cookie-cutter, pedal-to-the-metal action of the past.  Now there is a wonderful variety of books to discover and explore.

Some of my personal favorites include East of West, Saga, Fatale, Pretty Deadly, Five Ghosts, and Satellite Sam.  Each of these is quite distinct in look and feel, in story and pace, and in line and color.  None of them are burdened or compromised by a shared universe or by what has come before.  Some of the best ideas are coming out under the Image banner and I hope that they keep at it.

Faustian Tale

Well, it seems that my circle of friends and family are as devoted to the Marvel television show Agent Carter as they are to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D..  And since I filled in the backstory of the Inhumans and Calvin Zabo/Mister Hyde from the Marvel publication, the expectation arose that I would do something similar for Dr. Ivchenko.

To be fair, I brought this task on myself during the course of this past Tuesday’s episode, SNAFU. The episode starts with a flashback vignette from the Russian front during World War II.  A Russian doctor approaches Ivchenko, asking for the later to use his ‘techniques’ to help in a surgery to save a young man’s life.  It seems the man’s leg must be amputated in order to keep the infection that has invaded his wound from causing his death, and that the field hospital has run out of anesthetic.  Reluctantly, Ivchenko agrees to help, and as he rises to follow the surgeon back to the operating theater, he closes the book he was reading.  We get a glimpse of the title for only a few seconds, but that was enough to see that he had been pondering the old renaissance tale The Tragic Life of Doctor Faustus.

Ivchenko_reads_Faust

At this point, I believe I muttered something to the effect of “Ah, so that’s who he is,” at which point the questions began to fly.

To begin, we need to take a step back about 500 years and briefly look at the German historical figure of Johann Georg Faust (why are these guys always called Johann?).  History seems to know very little about the life of the original Dr. Faust, except that he was an alchemist, astrologer, and purported magician.  Above all else, he seems to have been a fraud or charlatan, and he was denounced by the Church as being in league with the devil, although I suspect that, in this regard, he was like Aleister Crowley or Ozzy Osborne or Marilyn Manson, having a reputation for dealing with demonic forces that was based more on the hysteria of those around him than on actual fact.

Johann Faust’s most lasting work was to give birth to the legend that currently bears his name.  Tales about his demonic side remained largely oral until the publication of The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe in 1604.  In Marlowe’s telling, Faustus (the Latinized version of Faust) is a scholar of prodigious talent.  Having mastered all of the fields of academia of his time, he remains unfulfilled and dissatisfied.  He resolves to turn his skill to magic and, summoning the forces of Hell, he makes a pact with Lucifer.  In exchange for his soul’s damnation, Faustus will receive tutelage in the mysteries of the universe from his own personal demonic servant Mephistopheles.

Later, in the 1800s, Wolfgang von Goethe published his two plays about the legend of Faust.  The basic premise of the plays is identical to Marlowe’s tale, although the religious and philosophical implications that are explored are quite different, reflecting differences in both time and space between Calvinist England of the 17th century and Lutheran and Catholic Germany of the 19th.

And, so, by the middle of the twentieth century, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had a rich literary tradition to draw upon when they were looking to introduce a sinister character into the pages of Captain America.  First appearing in issue 107, Doctor Faustus was not intended to be the kind of traditional super villain who battered the hero with his fists or blasts of energy.  Rather, Faustus battered minds with a wide barrage of techniques ranging from pharmaceutical & chemical manipulations, to carefully contrived scenes and social cues.  All meant to inflict harm to the victim’s sanity.

Steve Rogers, aka Captain America, explains how he met Dr. Faustus

Steve_explains

and has come to depend on the ‘good’ doctor’s his help in dealing with his guilt at Bucky Barnes’s death.  Unbeknownst to Steve, Faustus has been hired to rid the world of Captain America, and Faust boasts at his confidence that he can deliver.

Faustus_explains

Faustus almost succeeds in breaking Rogers, but at the last minute he slips up and stands revealed as the fiend that he is.  Sadly, Lee and Kirby fell back to the old standby of physical violence.  Rather than depend on his wits and biding his time, Faustus decided to rely on his immense size.  He challenged Captain America to a fight,

Lee_cops_out

which he lost in short order.

Faustus was a bit player in the comic from then on.  He made minor appearances throughout the run but never quite reached a height of evil that made him particularly memorable.

I don’t know if Ivchenko is intended to be Dr. Faustus.  Perhaps he is the first to develop these techniques and will eventually pass them onto a contemporary Dr. Faustus – much in the way that Natasha Romanoff was apparently trained in a long line of Black Widows.  Perhaps the appearance of the book in the hands of the doctor is just a nod to the longtime fans of the comics.  All I do know is that the character of Dr. Ivchenko is loathsome, horrible, and scary – all the things that make you love to hate him.

Skye’s the Limit – Hyding in Plain Sight

In this final installment, I’ll be covering two different topics related to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. as they pertain to Skye and her father.  The first topic is a historic look at just who Calvin Zabo is and where he was introduced into the Marvel universe.  In the second topic, I’ll speculate on what is in store for our beloved 0-8-4 and how the writers may be deviating from the published works.

Who is Calvin Zabo

First let’s talk about Calvin Zabo.

I must admit that, when Skye’s father was introduced and the connection between Skye and the Inhumans (via the Kree) became increasingly obvious, I assumed that her father would end up being Maximus.  This was a natural fit, since dear-ole-dad was clearly super-human and mad as the proverbial hatter.

So, it was a bit jarring when it was revealed that he was, in fact, Dr. Calvin Zabo.  Since his introduction in Journey Into Mystery #99 in 1963 until now, Zabo has been a secondary villain, derivative and disgusting, and a bit of a pathetic loser.

For those who aren’t familiar, Journey Into Mystery (JIM) was an anthology title that featured short tales of weird fiction.  The character of Thor was introduced in JIM #83, and the title was renamed to Thor by issue #125.

When we first meet Calvin Zabo in JIM #99, he is in his twisted ugly alter-ego Mister Hyde.

Hyde_reflects

As he stands on a street corner, heedless of the fear and loathing of the people around him, he contemplates his upcoming confrontation with Dr. Donald Blake.

For those more familiar with the modern incarnation of Thor, Donald Blake was the name given to the human guise that Thor would assume in between outings.  For a long time, readers were led to believe (and most likely the writers as well since they hadn’t retconned the story yet) that Blake just happened to be bestowed with a Thor alter-ego during a trip to Norway.  Later it became convenient to say that frail and crippled Donald Blake was a disguise Odin forced upon Thor to teach him humility.  It is this narrative that survives to this day in both the publication and cinematic universes.

In any event, Hyde’s hatred for the good Doctor began months earlier.  Before his transformation to Mister Hyde, our villain was simply Calvin Zabo, a knowledgeable doctor and chemist but a complete crook whose modus operandi was to work for other doctors, gain their trust, and then rob them blind.  Unfortunately for Zabo, Blake heard of him first and turns him out:

Zabo_and_Blake

Bitter at this rejection (and apparently dejected that he doesn’t have a beautiful nurse), Zabo devotes himself to revenge.  Inspired by the Robert Louis Stevenson story The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mister Hyde, Calvin set out to recreate Jeckyll’s elixir.

Zabo_narrates

After weeks of experimentation, Zabo achieves success,

Zabo_transforms

if you can call success being transformed into an ugly lout with a violent attitude and the strength of twelve men.

The remainder of the story is as uncreative and derivative as its beginning.  Hyde confronts Blake and throws him out a window, but Zabo doesn’t stick around to see Blake produce a red splat at the end. As a result, Blake is free to transform into Thor on the way down.  A typical melee occurs, evil seems to have the upper hand, but good triumphs in the end.

Mister Hyde remains in orbit about Thor for a while, eventually teaming up with another Thor foe by the name of the Cobra.  Due to their different personalities and the fact that Hyde is a completely vulgar creature with no scruples, their alliance is an uneasy one, and they fail to bring down Thor.  Even with a significant power boost from Loki

Loki_takes_charge

Hyde and Cobra are unable to prevail, and they soon separate and go their different ways.

Mister Hyde then kicks around other Marvel comics.  He spends some time battling Daredevil, but is always defeated despite the fact that he is so much stronger and powerful.  He also makes appearances in both Spider-Man and the Avengers, but despite the company he keeps, he never seems to shake off the B-list status.

His most ‘notable deed’ is that he manages to impregnate a prostitute during one of his business calls.  The daughter grows up to be Daisy Johnson, aka Quake, who becomes a member of S.H.I.E.L.D. and one of its few level 10 operatives.

AOS and the Cinematic Universe

Clearly the writers of the Marvel cinematic universe are taking liberties with the published material, and I say that’s all for the good.  The original Mister Hyde was completely unsympathetic, which would have been OK if he also weren’t boring and pathetic.  In addition, it was hard to see how Calvin Zabo, a man who uses a chemical elixir to change into his alter ego, and a prostitute with no known special abilities, would produce a baby with super powers.  It is even more farcical to see how that child, born into a very disadvantaged position, would then make it into S.H.I.E.L.D. and achieve a level 10 security rating, putting her on par with Nick Fury.  I’m willing to concede that she might have inherited super powers from her father, but why does that make her so special compared to all the other paranormals in the Marvel world that she belongs in the inner circle of the most secretive spy organization in the world?

The current direction the show is taking is both more enjoyable and more logical.  It seems that Zabo, while mad, is not the vile creature that we saw jumping from the pages of Thor.  He is sympathetic, and perhaps driven to his madness by the horrible crimes committed by Daniel Whitehall against his wife, who, I assume, will be revealed in later episodes to be an Inhuman.

This approach nicely ties together a bunch of dangling plot points from the publication universe.  And, so, I am going to kick back and wait eagerly for what I believe will be a wonderful half of Season 2 of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Skye’s the Limit – Kree and Klear

The Kree and the Inhumans

One of the most intriguing aspects of the Inhumans is the ultimate explanation of how they evolved leaps and bounds beyond their human brethren.  When Kirby and Lee first introduced their origin in Fantastic Four #46, published in January of 1966, the Seeker simply said that the race of Inhumans dates back to pre-historic days when they were creating an advanced civilization, while humans were still living in caves and attacking each other with clubs.

There was no hint of an extraterrestrial involvement in the course of Inhuman history until Fantastic Four #64, published in July of 1967. This issue is the first time that the Kree show up in Marvel comics.

FF_64_cover

After some preliminary pages associated with cleanup from the previous issue, the story switches to focus on two explorers who’ve come ashore to explore an uncharted island ‘a half a world away’ from our heroes.

Explores_awaken_the_Kree

The ‘energy waves’ emitted by the professor’s gadget quickly reveal a subterranean lair of the Kree. The two enter and soon find themselves witness to the amazing, millennia-old, remains of the alien race of the Kree, who walked on the Earth in ages past.  As the pair enters the abandoned space port, the guide begins shooting at a monster in the shadows.  The monster, stepping forward into the light, announces itself as Inter-galactic Sentry 459.

Kree_Sentry_Activates

Owing to some strange coincidence having to do with selling comic books, at the same time these events are happening on the island, our intrepid team decides to take a vacation in the same region of the world.  By the time Reed, Sue, and Ben have packed and are in route to the South Seas, the Sentry has erected a force field extending in all directions. The two parties are brought into close and violent contact when the FF’s plane collides with the force field.  The melee that follows is pretty much a draw and ends when the base’s energy supply is breached and begins to build to an overload.  The Fantastic Four retreat from the island while the Sentry stays behind to face his doom.  In his last moments, the Sentry sends a message to the Kree Homeworld letting them know of the destruction of ‘outpost 10’.

The Homeworld’s response follows in the next issue (FF #65, Aug. 1967) in the form of a warning from Supreme Intelligence

Kree_Supreme_Intelligence

that the team will be punished for the demise of the Sentry.  Ronan the Accuser is dispatched, and shortly arrives on Earth

Ronan_the_Accuser

looking amazingly like Lee Pace

Lee_Pace_as_Ronan

right after he heard about the cancellation of Pushing Daisies.  Ronan seeks to punish the Fantastic Four for their crimes, but they resist arrest and, through a clever maneuver, manage to bring down on the Kree Accuser the very punishment meant for them.  Seeing that he is beaten, Ronan’s transport whisks him away and the end comes to the first Kree storyline.

I don’t suppose that we’ll ever know if the Kree were introduced in these two issues as a prelude to weaving them into the Inhuman’s history or whether, once introduced, Lee and Kirby seized the opportunity.  In any event, three months later, backup stories featuring the Inhumans began running in the Thor monthly title.  The key issue is Thor #147 (Dec 1967) where we learn that the Kree experimented on a small tribe which became the Inhumans.

Kree_Sentry_explanation

From this point on, the Kree become a mainstay in the Inhuman storyline, showing up from time to time, usually with disastrous results.

As discussed in the last post, the Inhumans maintained a strong presence in the Fantastic Four monthly until about 1975.  In October of that same year, they were launched into a new bi-monthly book that focused on their relationship with the Kree.  In this excerpt from issue #2, we find that the Kree regard the Inhumans as cannon fodder

Kree_War_of_Three_Galaxies

genetically engineered as weapons in the upcoming War with the Three Galaxies.  Maybe the creative team felt that they were onto something big but looking back at the series run it is clear that it was doomed to a short life.  The plots were confusing and the writing ponderous and the bimonthly publishing schedule killed any momentum before it could build.  By August of 1977 the series was canceled and the storyline hurriedly resolved in Captain Marvel #53 (Nov. 1977).  Inhuman fever had run its course.

Over the next 30 years or so, the Inhumans were relegated to guest star status, showing up in a variety of books but with very little involvement in pivotal stories.  The one exception to this was the reintroduction of Crystal into both the Fantastic Four and Avengers monthlies, but that is a tale for another day.

Modern days have seen a resurgence of interest in publishing stories about the Inhumans (in both comic and in the Cinematic Universe). I won’t dwell on these as there are very good summaries available on the web but I will note that one of the arcs, called the War of Kings, involves the Black Bolt assuming the rule of the Kree empire.

The Moving City of Attilan

One of the most fantastic aspects of the Inhuman canon is the notion that their home can actually be relocated – not only from place to place on the Earth – but off of the Earth as well.  When first introduced, the city of the Inhumans bore only the name ‘The Great Refuge’.  This name stuck for a number of years but finally in Thor #146 (Nov 1967), we found out that its proper name was Attilan.

Attilan_by_the_sea

When it first appeared, Attilan was on an island far from the Himalayas. It was to this island paradise that the Kree Sentry, who conveniently shared his thoughts about the ultimate origin of the Kree, visited them so many millennia ago.

So then how did the city relocate from seaside to mountain?  Well, it took about 13 years for that answer to surface in What If #29 and #30 (Oct and Nov 1981).  It seems that as a young man, Black Bolt decided to move the entire city, in one go, from the sea to a more attractive clime in the mountains of Nepal.

Blackbolts_ambition

 

His outward reason being fear of rising humanity, but I often think it was simply that island life was too hot for someone who wears a skin-tight, black costume covering him from head to toe.  Whatever the reason, this brief storyline is notable in that it links the Inhumans to another genetically modified human offshoot, the Eternals (yet another Kirby creation).

I don’t know how many years elapsed between Attilan’s settlement in the Himalayas and the first visit by the Fantastic Four, but soon after, the pollution of the human world finally chases the city from the Earth entirely.  Fantastic Four #240 (March 1982) chronicles the relocation of Attilan to the legendary Blue Area of the Moon, where a small earth-like atmosphere exists, free of contaminants.

Attilan_moonward_bound

Somewhere in the intervening time, Attilan returned to Earth where it was subsequently destroyed (not to worry it is destroyed and rebuilt often in the course of ‘ordinary’ events) and the Terrigen mists, exposure to which makes each Inhuman acquire their unique power, were released all over the Earth.

Okay, next week I will actually talk about who Calvin Zabo and then I’ll try to tie all of this back into Agents of Shield.