In stories, there is just about nothing worse than the evil of evil failing to be evil. This post concerns the supervillain whose single contribution to comics is to provide the gauge of bad-guy quality with its lowest indicated reading. You know about zeroing out a scale before you measure something with it, right? Graviton is what it says next to that horizontal line.
This is said while admitting that I am a truly forgiving comics reader, or if you will, that I have terrible taste. No hiding in the safe & successful characters, “the good ones,” for me. In this very blog, I have lauded Dazzler, the Shocker, Woodgod, Mantis, and Orgazmo. I have spoken kindly and possibly with primal urges concerning Princess Python. And this in the context of blasphemously unsympathetically criticizing Watchmen and the Iron Man movie! Clearly I am a bad, bad fan, the one you definitely do not interview for your “Zappo! Comics grow up!” Wired article, a shameless swimmer in the murky underworld of four-color newsprint where the cinema franchises dare not go. Are there no depths to which I will not sink?
Well, yeah, there are actually. Graviton is not even a failed attempt at a good villain. He is the worst villain character ever.
You would think not. Graviton is a distinguished middle-aged scientist-industrialist with silvered temples sporting the triple-awesome that is the beard, all too rare among villains for no reason I can understand. His initial costume has a certain admirable disco to it. He checks column B in the headgear choices for the very greatest villains, i.e, “none” (column A is “Durkheim ritual, full-face”). He has ridiculous para-elemental power, ready-made for all manner of scientific and dubiously-scientific applications. Compared to, say, Whirlwind or the Porcupine, he would seem un-fuckuppable.
But he is so wretchedly and absolutely a supervillainous zero that Jim Shooter and Sal Buscema, despite their many accomplishments and deserved regard, should also have had But I made up Graviton tattooed on their asses. I provisionally retract that comment because I tell myself, every so often, that they must have done this deliberately. I mean, the scale needed a zero-calibration – it’s … kind of doing us a favor. Right?
Let us discuss the ways of villainy, including but likely not limited to, and not all at once:
- Competence concerning what one is trying be villainous at. Shoot, even the Beetle is a good bank robber.
- Strong emotional reactions, whether a matter of being driven
toover the brink by circumstances, or being a wrong’un from the start, or having an idea or ideal which the rest of us find unconvincing, or suffering from a sympathetic trauma … anything like that.
- How did James put it in that comment, being the “special tumor in the social cancer” or a similar phrase.
- Audacity, both in-fiction and to us – it comes in all kinds, but this is how we know this guy really means it, whether scary, twisted, relevant, tragic, or what-have-you.
- Pie, which is rooted in understandable human emotions and relationships, and escalates into a distorted form via understandable events.
Let us also discuss the Avengers at this time, early 1977. Englehart is gone, shortly after finishing his utterly whacked plot threads with the Serpent Crown story, and after a couple of Conway issues, the title is taken up by Jim Shooter. This transition is full of things, but none more so than the whole “Simon Williams is back, how does that relate to the Vision” thing. You may scoff, but this thing was important to me as a young reader, well-versed in all the Marvelness that spiraled into that one android body. Picture me as #158 opens with their inevitable hissy-fit brawl as Wanda goes”oh no, c’mon, stahhhhp.” It’s six glorious pages of unnecessary misunderstanding, conflicted-male, my-sibling/myself trauma fighty-ness. With powers. Sal totally brings it!
That panel’s at the top left of the page. Do you know what happens in the next two panels? Do you? Wonder Man screams “Get – your – hand — out of me!” and punches the fuck outta the Vision ten times harder than the Vision had hit him a couple pages ago, and the Vision says (in the same panel), “Impossible! No human can resist disrup — uhh!” And Wanda clutches her pearls again and bewails that it has come to this. And I’m going, whoa, no one has ever done that. The Vision took down Hyperion with that! I am twelve. I have been following the emotional travails of the Vision first from my brother’s comics and then into my own buying habit, for almost a decade’s worth of comics. This is me in heaven. I just wrote this paragraph from memory, based on my initial reading off the rack, about 38 years ago, without having seen this comic in nearly 30 years.
But you know what? In that second reading, in my friend’s comics stack in 1985 or 1986, I had no memory of the second half of that issue at all, the part that does a 180 into the Graviton story. Reading #159, the rest of this story, I could swear I’d never seen it, although my decade-old purchases, reading, and memory included the title well into the #160s. This is clearly the result of protective amnesia in response to unacceptable shock. What could possibly have been wrong with it?
Where do I start …
- He gets his powers because, research director and tagged as “very smart guy” or no, he decides science means “amp it up” and overloads his equipment.
- He takes over the research facility and floats it to the UN, and demands they turn over “world power” to him … for some reason. Really, he never says why. Dormammu has more accessible motivations than this guy.
- He is completely hung up about this one blonde woman named Judy who has never given him even the slightest jot or tittle of a hint that she might be interested.
- Whose husband (the guy who alerted the Avengers) he does not obliterate but instead he promises to keep him safe so she’ll “do whatever he wants”
- Which evidently means dressing her up in a lot of jewelry and gauze as his “queen,” complete with tiara
- While he ignores the hot, slutty, loyal brunette
The story doesn’t resolve because the Black Panther serves his traditional purpose in the Avengers by running as errand boy to Thor and letting his teammates loose with a device from Stark’s lab (… shit man, they didn’t even let the Panther invent it), because Graviton beats up Thor + Avengers too. It resolves because our terrifying, powerful, dramatic, and exciting supervillain … wants this one babe to like him, and in whatever passes for her mind, seriously, Judy is not even a little bit interesting, she doesn’t. He gets rattled. He gets confused. She runs off while he is Stomping Avengers Mk 2 and has left a trail of the jewelry he made her wear to the edge of his big floaty-place. Oh no! Judy is dead! At which point he unleashes his powers, immediately loses control of them, and inadvertently entombs himself in a super-dense rock. I’m not even bothering to tell you how Judy survives.
You’re with me? Competence, flat fail: “beating Avengers” or not, he doesn’t even get the UN to consider acquiescing, and his mastery of his powers (NOT) follows directly from their hasty and accidental origin. Villainous motivation, flat fail: no one ever did anything bad to the poor, poor man; nor did this already wicked man finally achieve power to fulfill his aims. Emotional goals, flat fail twice: his desperate need for this one woman’s regard, whom he doesn’t even know, makes an aging hipster’s crush on his regular waitress look dignified. As for dressing her up like I Dream of Jeannie, that goes into some special slot where incompetence and stupidity are the same thing – it’s only audacity if it works (“hey, not bad!” says Judy, e.g.), and his doesn’t. Social and political identity, flat fail: he has no vision of ruling the world, no purpose in doing so, not even revenge of some kind. I get the idea they’d cede world leadership to him and then ask what to do, but he’s not there, and they find him still pleading for Judy to talk to him with a little tear trickling down from the corner of his eye. Finally, there’s no true villainous audacity here at all: he lets the husband live, for criminy’s sake … c’mon, what if he’d atomized the Scouts Couple and sensibly switched his interest to Raquel and dressed her up? Watching him brood over lost love as she lounges nearby with a little smirk on her face would of at least been fun.
And most of all, no Pie. There isn’t the slightest connection between him and the Avengers, and (positing one) no events which tighten and toxify that connection. They happen to be the heroes the husband calls, that’s all. Their personalities, history, thoughts, and role in the world are entirely irrelevant; there is outright whiplash between the lurid soap opera of the initial fight and the utter blandness of what purports to be the A plot. There’s not even the Cow Pie of grabbing the Idiot Ball because of his connection to the heroes. Graviton is merely and nothing but the Idiot Ball personified from start to finish.
Special note: I am not interested in learning about or discussing later appearances or versions of Graviton. Image searching has revealed to me that the Thunderbolts version is re-imagined via Frank Zappa (apparently) and that there is an animated cartoon version. Some or all of these may be magnificent, for all I know. I don’t need to know, for reasons known to readers of the ‘Verse tag at this blog.
Links: #158 summary, #159 summary, Graviton’s Girls (you see?! a little audacity goes a long way), Gutter Talk
Next: It is unwise to annoy cartoonists
Posted on November 29, 2015, in The 70s me, The great ultravillains and tagged Avengers, Emil Durkheim, Graviton, idiot ball, Jim Shooter, Pie, Sal Buscema, Vision, Wonder Man. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.
I have to agree here. Graviton is AWFUL. And like you said, there’s a lot of potential.
I came to this story incredibly late: I knew that Graviton was, at one time, regarded as a pretty serious Avengers villain, so I figured, “Hey, I will read this thing.”
All I can conclude is that somewhere they had plotted at least another 10 pages of material that had to be chopped out for some reason, which would have made this a good story.
When I want to impress a woman with MY powers of gravity control, I just say, “Hey girl, check it out, I control gravity” and let the conversation go from there. I DON’T say, “At last my love I shall conquer the world with you as my queen!” or whatever. That’s something you spring on a woman after she moves in with you, and works best after you help her with a longstanding personal problem.
Also, I have to believe that they really intended that woman to die, and then chickened out. It was really effective for a page or two.
The timing has got to be important. This is during the transition from Englehart to Shooter, which in the former’s case we know was a ragequit, and we also know the scheduling/assignment situation at Marvel was utterly in shambles – books were being assigned in desperation, finished late, and published post-schedule via fill-ins, almost at at 1:1 ratio. The mid-158 transition is absurdly jarring, as if the Vision-Wonder Man clash had been done for a while, but somehow everything was half-an-issue off in terms of art they were waiting for or somethingI wouldn’t be surprised if this was some old B-level Legion (or whatever) story that got rammed into Avengers format in order not to be a reprint fill-in. Or something like that, I’m not claiming anything about the details.
Also, Wonder Man is the Graviton of heroes. There is just nothing there.
In theory there’s nothing wrong with the cowardly, reanimated corpse of an embezzler empowered by Nazi uber-science. Certainly, that’s waaaay more interesting than the Vision’s ever been. But at least by the 1980’s Wonder Man was just Thor without the hammer or awesome Asgardian backdrop–i.e., unspeakably dull.
We will discuss the awesome that is the 1970s Vision and the interesting if never-developed aspects of Wonder Man another time. I know your rants on the matter are well-developed and much-honed by use, but these two characters suffer horribly and unfairly from a retroactive perspective.
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