Never heard of’em
I’d been reading comics for about four years. I had read Origin of Marvel Comics, and Son of Origins, I’d struggled with The Steranko History of Comics volume 1, I had my issues of FOOM coming in the mail, and I had an envelope stuffed with Marvel Value Stamps. I was eleven, I was finally afforded an allowance that didn’t vanish with a single candy bar, and more than anything in the world, and as far as real life is concerned, considering I’d already met Leonard Nimoy, I wanted to be in on the ground floor of a new, world-beating, mighty Marvel comic magazine. That’s what they were saying: now was the time, the chance to Be There when Marvel carried on this magnificent tradition of blowing comics doors off with new heroes and especially hero-groups … I suppose I wasn’t the only one who felt that way.
A minor detail of the following events is that comics were not my first heroic literature; I’d begun with Greek and Norse mythology. My first criticism of Marvel was that they’d under-rated Hercules, or, as I reminded anyone since I was six, Her-a-cles. I remember my first letter to Marvel roughly at age 8, written on my mom’s Underwood typewriter: “You say Thor is stronger than Hercules, PFFFFFT on you. Why don’t you call him Heracles?”
Think about it: I was a fanboy for Hercules, a reader of the Black Widow in Daredevil, a memorizer of the original Ghost Rider run, frustrated by the lack of availability of the old X_Men characters, especially after the teaser of Marvel Team-Up #4 … So who should come along but a new Marvel hero group composed of Hercules, the Black Widow, the Ghost Rider, Iceman, and the Angel? There was some potential for a truly bad-kids o’Marvel title here: the hedonist bruiser of Olympus, the hot Russian ex-villain spy, the actual-Satanist biker who beat the devil, the white boys who didn’t get to be white ’cause mutanthood … OH MY GOD.
No pain was greater than realizing that #2 never made it to my local store, and then seeing it on the rack at Holman’s Department Store, knowing that I’d already spent my only 25 cents on some other mag. I was 11. The teenage clerk took pity on my evident horror and brimming eyes and let me trade, for which I will always be grateful – Whoever you were, I remember! You are a good person!
Too bad the story in #1-3 was sub-par. Did I say “sub-par?” It was terrible. You know how Lee and especially Kirby turned Asgard into the most bizarre, monolithic, not really textual yet astounding, awesome cosmic place? Yeah, no one did that here with Olympus. I think there might have been a column and a cloud or something. They get there through a portal conveniently preserved inside one of the Iceman’s ice-walls (? … uh?). The gods had no dignity or forceful presence at all. Venus was a dumb bunny and Pluto was a spit-spraying idiot, plus, my young literary self was offended by equating the Greek underworld with Nordic hell. I have a truly unreasonable tolerance for the historical weaknesses in Marvel scripting, but there are limits, and this was past’em. When people say 70s Marvel was stupid, “Bronze Age,” talk like that, this is what they are talking about: they’re mining the character bank to fill pages, the heroes show up for no reason and fight the wrong people, they contort and grimace, there’s no genuine use of their past comics history, there are one or two verbal tics but not even boilerplate characterization, and for all the bombast, no hint at all of the events in the story being important in any way, and I don’t mean to larger story-arcs or the other titles, I mean to the characters in those events.
Both of the main writers, first Tony Isabella and then Bill Mantlo, have much to their credit, but this wasn’t a good time for them, handed an impossible editorial mess and obviously filling-in to make scheduled deadlines. The plots relied solely on coincidences about who bumped into whom and Mind Control Incidents (MCI). In the first four issues, they had two stories of “villain-addled team members attack other team members” taking up most of the issue. Even when they weren’t mind-controlled, for a group which combined the power of Olympus, the power of Hell, slinky-suit espionage, an elemental power best described as “whatever the artist wants,” and (uh …) a flying guy, they sure got beat up, captured, and held helpless a lot … I mean, they have trouble with the Stilt-Man? Man did they scrape the barrel for villains, including my old pal Griffin from the Beast stories. But that’s the key: no villains, not like I mean villains. “Put currently-unused heroes in it, and write something!”
So, the Isabella issues introduce a berserk disgruntled industrialist in super-armor, who … breaks store windows (?) and seriously, keeps blowing himself up by accident, which then transitions into something about Russians. Mantlo then does what new writers on a poor book always do,immediately kills the allegedly center-of-the-story Rampage with a true idiot stroke, and produces the one genuine plot for the title, a Russian spy back-story drama. I’ll give him credit for trying to make it interesting, with a cool, beautiful new Soviet superhero lady (this was a big hit song at the time), and with various agencies lying to one another. This was an important political time, between the SALTs: 1 in 1972, 2 failed when the U.S refused to ratify the agreement in 1982. Everyone thought the Cold War was over and was trying to figure out if we “liked” Russians or not. We got a real Soviet Russian student at my high school. Russian defection was a big topic in books, TV, and movies with The White Shadow and Barney Miller and Mikhail Barishnykov in The Turning Point. Comics still had some leeway for boldness about it, and as an topic, this set of conflicts was a good call.
Still, the story didn’t work, mainly because the last thing a Black Widow and Darkstar story about Russian spy games needs is … Hercules, the Ghost Rider, Iceman, and the Angel. Wedging them in there meant pages and pages of dumb things people do when they don’t know something crucial, and misunderstandings by which the heroes fight one another again. Sad as it was, this Russian story was the last bit of coherence for the title; the rest was basically dragging in outside characters to ramp up “buy this other new guy’s book,” like the Two-Gun Kid and Black Goliath, maintaining the substandard of misunderstandings and not-listenings. The title of #13 is “The Doom That Went On Forever!” appropriately enough. It tries to be cosmic but just like the mega-ultra-mystic bomb-thing in the story, just fizzles.
The primary artists were Don Heck and George Tuska, which probably triggers some people. Not so much for me, though, as I have good things to say about each in the right genre, but that was not roomful o’superheroes, and this book saw a lot of their standard compositions I knew well from the old X-Men and Iron Man days. The scripts were really to blame, as I think both artists were “story-responsive” (I just made that term up), meaning, given a good plot, each would produce better work than they’re usually recognized for. More importantly, I could also see the inkers’ names jumping around, which I already understood was a red flag, like a band which keeps switching bass players. I blinked at the #10 cover, though. That was … great! Who is this person? I didn’t read the Legion of Superheroes so was unprepared to recognize Dave Cockrum, newly come to Marvel; since covers were usually uncredited, I’d often try to figure out who it was, but this time I was stumped. I spent a lot of time with comics and tracing paper back then, and I remember working on this one in detail.
The series’ other interesting historical feature is that Chris Claremont wrote issue #4 (experiments on the homeless! you bastards!), and John Byrne showed up during the final year, mostly as penciller. This is the period when both were “proving themselves” in various pinch-hit or special-issue moments scattered through the titles, and for those who didn’t know, you can find lots of pre-X-Men tandem work by them in forgotten Marvel byways … I can’t help but go off-topic to prove it, and to show you the one time anyone might want actually to be Kraven the Hunter.
Anyway, moving right along, I remember sitting straight up with #11, surprised by the sleek, dynamic, and non-imitative figures, showing influences from Kane, Smith, Adams, and Perez, but also its own thing. All the characters suddenly had necks.
You could see the Angel streaking in flight without motion lines, and Darkstar in particular was gorgeous and forceful-looking. The Ghost Rider’s head looked like a skull on fire again, for the first time since Mike Ploog. Since Byrne was probably trying to impress, I’ll hold up his The Champions work, as well as Iron Fist and Power Man (two titles at that time), as some of his most ambitious. In the black-and-white below, Mike Esposito really steps up to bring out the pencils’ power, something I’d never seen in his inks of Ross Andru in Spider-Man. The art kept me on the book, both these remarkable interiors and more Cockrum covers. He really liked blasting Hercules with eldritch forces.
Byrne did some of the writing in #14, including the first interesting villain, Swarm, but the book was dead on its feet. The later issues show how even political material can fall apart, with weird, pointless depictions of the Carter administration, and Jerry Brown, California governor, on panel at one point to very little effect or point.The last two issues, #16-17, are the most appalling heroes-idiotically-fight-heroes dust-up tied into a bunch of other titles’ stories, with Magneto and Dr. Doom and the Hulk and all whatnot, including, what else, more MCI for our title heroes, and to cap it, nothing but a tie-in with the emerging X-Men reboot. It’s sort of famous for Tuska being inked by Byrne and I also note the Ernie Chua cover, credited as Chan, a common sight at the time.
The tie-in is the Len Wein + Cockrum getting the X-book back on track with “the new X-Men” as they were then called, and Claremont and Byrne, having teamed up on Iron Fist, bucking to become the primary team for that (Byrne had to wait a while longer). I haven’t bothered to timeline each of these out and won’t unless someone pays me, but whoever did what on which book when, this was a multi-title process of working out what titles were going to receive major promotion, and who was going to be doing them. Really, the whole run is a frighteningly complete capsule of the sequence for editor-in-chief: Wein (under whom it was proposed), then Wolfman, then Conway, then Goodwin, and finally Shooter (under whom it was canceled). What are we supposed to do with these properties (confused chaos), I dunno, do what we always did with these properties whatever that was (confused blandness), and finally, let’s blowtorch it all and reorganize these properties (crossover + extinction).
Apparently I wasn’t the only one: out of dozens of titles Sean Howe might have chosen to illustrate the editorial breakdown at Marvel during this time, he cites The Champions as a “weird mutt of a book” due to conflicting decrees striking almost as soon as it was proposed. I wonder if back then, he was a youngster frustrated by it too.
I diligently bought each issue of the The Champions as well as I could, realizing with some pain that I could no longer run up to an adult and insist that they “read this, it’s really great.” See, you could do that with Adam Warlock! This is when they started fucking with us on price again too, 30 cents variants of 25-cent issues – a big shift between a dollar buys four vs. a dollar buys three, which means a lot to a pre-teen. I made a decision: the superheroes weren’t worth the money. This was the book that did it, the perfect example of maximum hope and commitment met with the bottom-out of content and infrastructure.
The whole experience was a substantial addition to my growing, unpleasant understanding, begun with the disappearance of the Planet of the Apes TV show in 1974, compounded with the wretchedness of Battle for the Planet of the Apes, the clear desperation and frustration between the lines of the editorial chatter in my comics … that the love I felt for this kind of material, the attention I bestowed, the effort I made to explain evident quality to others, the care I took to ensure that our action figure pageantry conformed to the comics’ characterizations, was strangely unreciprocated by whatever mighty forces made them.
Next: ‘Verse this
Posted on April 19, 2015, in Heroics, The 70s me and tagged Angel, Archie Goodwin, Bill Mantlo, Black Widow, Chris Claremont, Darkstar, Dave Cockrum, Don Heck, FOOM, George Tuska, Ghost Rider, Hercules, Iceman, Jim Shooter, John Byrne, Kraven, Len Wein, Leonard Nimoy, Marv Wolfman, Marvel Value Stamps, Mike Esposito, Mind Control Incident (MCI), Russians, SALT, Sean Howe, The Champions, Tony Isabella, van painting. Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.