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Blog Archive: February 2021

Beauty And The Beast
Over the past year or so of writing this blog I've got into an interesting situation where I'm reading a lot of comics that I first read when they actually came out. Several years ago when this all started it was all about series like Lee and Kirby's run on "Fantastic Four", long accepted as A Classic, but as we moved on towards the 1980s I started to find that any critical opinions I might have on a given text were mixed up with my memories of reading it when it first came out. With John Byrne's "Fantastic Four" series I can often remember which shop I bought each copy from, and reading them back now I find that they're touched with nostalgia for the excitement I felt back then.

However, as time moved further along we arrived at my teenage years where excitement got mixed up with disdain, when I'd spend a lot of my time around comics slagging them off with the two or three other people at my school who walked the long lunchtime walk to our local comics shop. I'd started to read fanzines like "Fantasy Advertiser", and was coming across viewpoints that were very different to the ones I'd read in "Marvel Age". I was beginning to see that there was a whole other world of comics out there aside from the superheroes.

With all that in mind, I did wonder what I'd feel when I got to series like "Secret Wars", which I had thought was so terrible at the time. Was that just me being a teenager and deciding that everything popular was crap, or was it really as rubbish as I remembered? As we've seen recently, it was, if anything, even worse! Looking ahead to some of the other comics still to come I'm starting to think that I was on the money back then, as there's some right ropey old rubbish on the way!

Which brings us to "Beauty And The Beast"! The cover to this first issue gives you the idea that it might be quite good, with a Bill Sienkiewicz illustration promising some of his thrilling "experimental" style of art, and a dramatic pose which leads the reader to believe they're going to get some high drama and also some Doctor Doom. Reading the actual comic, however, you get none of these things. The art is by Don Perlin, an old-fashioned craftsman whose style is about as far from Bill Sienkiewicz as you can get, and Ann Nocenti's story is a dreary, plodding tale that mixes up an unconvincing attempt at romance with a parade of entirely dull characters. Worst of all, Doctor Doom only appears for a couple of pages per issue, and doesn't join in with the main storyline until the very end!

Happily for me, the series does at least start with Doctor Doom, roaming around the art gallery which is the "heart" of Castle Doom, looking at artworks which only those worthy enough (i.e. him) are allowed to see. He wanders around monologuing to himself about the virtues of dictatorship, only to be interrupted by a lackey with news of someone in America claiming to be his son. It's not clear whether this person actually is Doom's son or not, although we do get a flashback to Doom sending a child and its mother away from Latveria while he thinks "Doom must not have a son", which suggests he might be. So why does Doom now call him a liar? With our alloted two pages of Doom done for, we get to the main story, which starts with The Beast arriving in Hollywood on holiday. He bounces around the sights and sees some anti-mutant graffiti on a poster for a Dazzler gig. We then see Dazzler herself at a "decadent" Hollywood party, where she's drinking Ginger Ale. As a Certified British Person I always find it extremely weird in American media when drinking booze is something that only villains and alcoholics do, and if started invariably leads to a rapid descent into evil and/or madness. Here Dazzler's heroic nature is shown by her refusal to drink alcohol, and the basic evil of the other characters by their acceptance of it. It does make me wonder though, what is she doing in this den of iniquity in the first place?

Dazzler meets a "fan" who next day introduces her to a "producer". She signs a contract immediately and then over the next few days she and her fan go to various parties where - OH NO - she has a drink of THE DEMON BOOZE. Days pass and she finds that she has very quickly got herself a reputation as... The Queen Of Decadence! She finally gets to a film studio, where she bumps into The Beast, who's on a studio tour with his old pal Wonderman. There's a minor kerfuffle when Beast objects to the way that Dazzler (who he's never met before) is being addressed, and then she leaves as Hugo The Producer stomps off. Hugo turns out to be a Bad Egg who is wanting to cynically use Dazzler for her singing and acting talents - the absolute fiend!

Dazzler gets lost in a back lot, where she realises that her power is operating without her wanting it to. The Beast, meanwhile, has become obsessed with Dazzler and decides to break into the Producer's house to prove he is Up To No Good. Here he meets another mutant and they have a big fight that goes on for ages while, elsewhere, we find Dazzler staggering around with her powers going haywire. We're meant to see Dazzler as an innocent victim of Hollywood Naughtiness and Beast as her saviour, but all the way through this Beast acts like an obsessional weirdo who's decided to "save" her despite the fact he doesn't really know her at all. This feeling is only added to when he strangles somebody to find out where she is. As with "Secret Wars", this sudden insertion of violence feels queasily wrong, like Marvel is trying to catch up with popular "Grim'N'Gritty" stories like "Dark Knight" and "Watchmen" by copying the perceived violence, rather than the storytelling, artwork, or ideas. This is something that would become a theme for the following decade of comics, and it's one of the reasons I'm glad my corpus finishes in 1987!

The issue concludes with Beast arriving at A Weird Old Hotel, where he finds Dazzler glowing uncontrollably on an old mattress. Rather than seek help from Professor X or any of the many other Superpower Experts he knows, Beast grabs hold of her, tells her to stop talking, and says he'll take care of her. And that's that for this issue - the series only came out bi-monthly, so we've got a couple more issues of "Secret Wars" to go before we find out whether Dazzler tells him to get lost and stop being so creepy. I wonder if she will?

posted 26/2/2021 by MJ Hibbett
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We're back to actual comics lettering on the cover of "Secret Wars" this time, which signals a return to some actual comics action inside, although you wouldn't necessarily guess that from the image on the front. To be fair, "Spider-man Changes Clothes!" would actually have been an exciting inducement at the time, as Spider-man had been wandering around in his new costume for over six months in his own series by this point, without any explanation of how he got it, so comics-readers at the time must have been quite excited to finally find out how it all happened.

I doubt they'd have been very excited when they actually found out, but that's another matter all together!

There's hardly any Doctor Doom in this issue, so we might as well get that out of the way. He appears just twice, and doesn't speak either time. We first see him sat on his bed, still stunned after being ejected from Galactus' ship last time. We then see him towards the end of the story, still sat on his bed, and still stunned. And that's your lot! There's a HUGE amount of hanging around for things to happen in this series, as if Jim Shooter had an idea for a four issue series that then had to be padded out to fill twelve. I re-read "Crisis On Infinite Earth" a year or so ago, and found that that suffers a bit from the same problem - the heroes are constantly going off to fight battles that don't seem to matter much, or embarking on busy-work side missions, but at least in that series you sense that it's building up to something, and of course it looks amazing with George Perez drawing all of those characters, and Marv Wolfman makes all the different worlds seem really exciting. In "Secret Wars" it's just the same characters every month, talking about the weather.

Still, this issue does at least fulfill the series' main objective, which is to have a load of superheroes having a big fight with a load of supervillains, although it takes a little while to get there. We start where we left off last time, with the heroes zooming off to Doombase to rescue She-Hulk and take revenge for the murder of The Wasp. Their approach is watched by The Enchantress, who is - horrors! - drinking!! Has Jim Shooter every actually had a drink? Or is this like the "romance" in previous issues, where he's channelling a thirteen-year-olds idea of what adult life may be like? Or - perhaps worst of all - is this another of his attempts to be "grim and gritty", as was the incoming style at the time?

Happily, we then launch into something which Shooter and Mike Zeck are much more capable of producing - a proper fight! Over the next several pages we get a whole series of punch-ups, as heroes and villains split up into various combinations to wallop each other in an entertaining set of ways. There is still an awful lot of talking, but at least this time it's accompanied by a bit of violence! The goodies win after a satisfying bout of punching and zapping, and after the usual dreariness of characters telling each other things they already know, we go over to Colossus in the alien village. He's carrying an unconscious Zsaji back to her hut. She seems "on the edge of death" so he does the only sensible thing - he lights up the "mind-linking vapors" that she shared with the Torch a little while ago because, as everyone knows, the best cure for death is to spark up a bong. This reveals a shocking truth, that "The Wasp was not dead - merely wounded, but also in some kind of death-like stasis". What? She was zapped by a lazer beam and then chucked out of a moving vehicle - how on earth is that "merely wounded", and where does this "death-like stasis" come from? It is, of course, a load of old rubbish like so much of the rest of the story, but it feels even more stupid than usual. Zsaji, it turns out, is in her own death-like state because she went off and revived Wasp when no-one was looking, and we see the results of this on the next page when Hawkeye and Captain Marvel find her back alive again. With that bombshell we briefly cut back to the X-Men, who are sat around watching Galactus tinkering with his device. All of a sudden though, something happens so shocking that it makes Nightcrawler drop his muffin! We're getting near the end now, but you might have noticed that we still havent had the thrilling story of how Spider-man got his new costume. Fear not, that mighty moment has finally arrived, as we see Spidey bump into a very pleased looking Thor and Hulk. It seems that the Hulk has worked out how to use one of the alien machines, getting it to create new clothes simply by thinking about them. How they managed this is anybody's guess, but there's a much more serious question to ask here: if the Hulk can now operate a machine to create new clothes just by thought, why is he still wearing the same tatty old ripped up trousers> Spidey goes into the Machinery Room, finds a machine that "looks like it wants to make me a costume", sticks his head in, and then the new costume appears. Yes, true believers, the big mystery is solved - Spidey got his new costume by... thinking he could do with a new costume! Wow!

As we all know, there would eventually be a bit more to it than that - various retcons over the years have shown that Spidey used the wrong machine and instead released the alien symbiote Venom which just pretended to be his costume for a while. I do wonder if there might have been an inkling of that right from the start - Spider-man does say that his spider sense is tinglling right before the costume appears, and there's a nice big gap in the plot which would very much allow for him to use the wrong machine. Could this be Jim Shooter NOT just making it up as he goes along?

He clearly wasn't thinking ahead for the pacing of the story though, as after finally getting round to the costume reveal there's only two panels left in the whole comic, one of which consists of Spider-man falling over due to a sudden earthquake, and the other with a weirdly dull looking image of Professor X telling the other superheroes that Galactus has finally finished tinkering with his Galactus-Gizmo and is about to start doing what he always does - eating the planet! Who can blame Nightcrawler for dropping his muffin in the light of that news? We've got a proper cliffhanger at last, but sadly we'll have to wait to find out how the heroes deal with it, as next time we're off to see what Doom's up to back in the main timeline, in "Beauty And The Beast"!

posted 19/2/2021 by MJ Hibbett
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Today we're taking a break from getting annoyed about "Secret Wars" to looking at (and also, to be honest, getting annoyed about) the first video game to feature Doctor Doom - although when I say "feature" I actually mean "mention".

The game is "Questprobe 3: Fantastic Four Chapter 1" which sees you guiding The Thing and The Human Torch through a text-based adventure story. There was meant to be a chapter 2 which, presumably, would have featured Mr Fantastic and The Invisible Girl, but that never materialised. Having tried playing this game I must say I'm not hugely surprised!

I must admit that I didn't actually manage to play this all the way through - I did try, but after a few hours it became so incredibly annoying and tedious (even for a 1980s text-based adventure) that I gave up, and so am basing this assessment a walkthrough on YouTube using, of course, the ZX Spectrum version.

There were tie-comics for the Questprobe series released, telling the story of what happened before the games started, with Spider-man and Hulk featured in the first two. The comic for "Questprobe 3" isn't featured in this corpus though because it doesn't feature Doctor Doom at all. The game barely squeaks in because we're told via a copyright notice that Doctor Doom and his distinctive likeness will be appearing... but he doesn't. The first puzzle in the game is how on earth to get it started. You can try all sorts of things but in the end the only option that actually gets you anywhere is to say hello to the Examiner, who then tells you that "you must free ALICIA MASTERS from DR. DOOM" and that you'll need to "master the powers of two MARVEL SUPER HEROS (tm)" to do it. Exciting! The game begins in office of The Examiner, a character invented for the Questprobe series as a mysterious figure setting extremely annoying and pedantic questions for superheroes. The first puzzle is how to get the actual game started, and once you've managed that the excitement kicks off with The Thing stuck in a tar pit and the Human Torch floating around helplessly. The Human Torch is generally useless throughout the story, getting tired within about 30 seconds whenever he flies anywhere, so you spend a lot of time using the command "WAIT" so he can get his breath back. There's so much waiting, in fact, that the game allows you to use commands "WAIT 10", "WAIT 20" and "WAIT 50" so you don't need to keep typing it. In this instance, your only option is to be The Thing, hold your breath, and then just wait to get sucked down further into the tar pit. Once you've fallen through you're in a dark space where you have to scrabble around and find some machinery, which you can smash! "IT'S CLOBBERIN' TIME!" says The Thing, and that is pretty much the end of Clobberin' for the whole game. He then has to wander around in the dark for ages (which at least saves on memory for graphics) while The Human Torch flies into a cave and uses his amazing powers to... er... chip a pebble off a stone and drop it down a hole. This is followed by some interminable falling down a ventilator shaft, and more staggering around in the dark. Maybe I was expecting too much from this, but it doesn't feel particularly superheroic. Eventually you find a maintenance room, and then the Human Torch flies outside again where he finds Doctor Doom's castle - at last! I'm slagging the plot and game mechanics off here, but I must say the graphics - when they eventually get a chance to show superhero stuff rather than darkness and tar pits - are pretty good, and Castle Doom is very on model! The entrance to the castle is guarded by The Blob, and the to get past him you first need to zoom off to a nearby circus tent, where we discover - The Circus Of Crime! I wonder if Scott Adams, the writer of this series, had been given Super-Villain Team-Up #9 as reference, as that has The Circus Of Crime in Latveria? It also has Namor, Rudolfo, and all sorts of exciting (if confusing) incidents, so maybe it wasn't such an inspiration after all, because none of those things crop up here. Instead there's some business with a cannon and the need to close your eyes to avoid being hypnotised (which leads to another wonderful image of darkness) and you then pop over to somewhere we know well - Latveria! This is "the village of LATVERIA", rather than the country. We've seen Latveria be an island back in the days of The Marvel Superheroes cartoon and we've seen it act as a homage to The Village from "The Prisoner" in Fantastic Four #85 (in a story called "Prisoners In The Village"!), but this is the first time it's been described *as* a village. Here it's boarded up and abandoned, for reasons not given, so all you can do is pop into an abandoned shop where you find some very handy gun powder. You can then use this, eventually, after lots of waiting and fiddling around with syntax, to fire The Thing via the cannon into the castle. You don't get to see this happen, but you do get the aftermath! The Torch has to WAIT a whole lot more to get his energy back, then re-traces his steps back into the castle via the tedious ventilator shaft where he causes an earthquake (somehow) which in turn allows Thing to go into a different room where he finally - finally - sees Doctor Doom! All right, he sees a statue of Doctor Doom, which has fallen over, but still, surely this is the start of the action, right? Hang on, what? You grab Alicia and then it's Game Over and back to the Examiner's Office! This was, of course, very often the case with computer games of the 1980s, where there was so little memory available that the end of a game would be signalled either with a text message saying "Congratulations You Have Finished" or just going back to the start again, but after all that it does seem like an anti-climax for a superhero story to end in an office. Although, having said that, an "adventure" that mostly involves waiting for people to get their breath back probably deserves something like this - it's almost making me miss the constant Chats About The Weather in "Secret Wars"!

Talking of which, we're back to Battleworld next time, when the big thrill is going to be someone changing their outfit! I can hardly wait!

posted 12/2/2021 by MJ Hibbett
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Secret Wars continues with a story in which, despite the title, nobody goes berzerk and nothing even vaguely berzerk-ish occurs. On the contrary, most people involved are very very calm and sober. This extends as far as the cover, where once again we see the use of non-comics lettering to explain what's going on inside. Were the usual letterers just so bored with it all that they had to get someone else to finish it off with some letraset?

The story itself kicks off with a splash page revealing the answer to last issue's cliffhanger , which showed a mysterious figure lurking in the shadows near the superheroes' base. Who could it be? What are there intentions? Comics fans must surely have spent a month trying to work it out, only to discover right away that it's... a character they had never seen before! And she's just popped by to say hello! Bizarrely, after taking up the whole splash page and then another page saying hello to everybody, this new Spider-woman doesn't say anything else for the whole issue, and only appears in two more panels, right at the end, in the distant background of a group of heroes. So what on earth is Jim Shooter playing at? It feels like one of those series where different creative teams leave a cliffhanger at the end of an issue for the next team to get out of, except here it's the same team and they get out of it by chucking in a new character (possibly because they needed new female characters for the toy range) and then forgetting about her. Have I mentioned before what a load of rubbish this all is?

Once Spider-woman's finished saying hello a tank arrives, and the super-villains inside chuck out the dead body of The Wasp. There's something about the way that this is done that just feels... wrong. Obviously Murder is a Very Bad Thing, and super-villains are meant to be super villainous, but just chucking a body around like this doesn't seem to fit with the way Marvel comics work. It's a queasy wrongness that hovers over the whole series, as if Jim Shooter is trying to do this new "Grim'n'Gritty" style that was becoming popular at the time, but does it all from the standpoint of the teenager who used to write Legion Of Superheroes. In many ways it's a forerunner for the really really terrible comics that were to come in the nineties, but without the crazy frenetic artwork.

Talking of which, there's a few panels in this issue that look markedly different from the rest, as if they've been drawn by another artist apart from Mike Zeck. This one, for instance. I want to say that it looks like Joe Staton, but I don't think that's right. John Romita Sr maybe? Anyway, in reaction to this horrible murder of their long-time friend the superheroes fly into action immediately and ... have a lengthy discussion before deciding to do absolutely nothing at all. Captain America says that Doctor Doom may be trying to goad them into action, so they mustn't fall for it and instead carry on with watching Galactus build his contraption. This is exactly the sort of thrill-a-minute superhero action that we want - who knows, by the end of the issue they may decide to take a nap!

Next we see Volcana and Klaw at the villain's base. Klaw is still doing the "repeat the second half of a word -urd - urd" thing that is so annoying, and also refers to Volcana as "plump". Everybody keeps referring to her weight throughout the series, but Mike Zeck does not seem to have read the dialogue as he continues to draw her to almost exactly the same body type as the Enchantress. Again, this feels like Shooter trying to be "Different" by having an overweight character, without going to the trouble of having them actually BE overweight.

Volcana makes a deal with Enchantress so she can go to be with Molecule Man, who is being brought back to base by some of the other villains. She gets there just in time for them to run into the X-Men, at which point an entirely pointless fight breaks out. I mean, it's a blessed relief to get some proper action at last, but it does seem a bit insulting when it's all over for the comic itself to state that it was entirely pointless. "They got clean away", "But we lost nothing, save one of our ships - which matters little." Phew, talk about high stakes!

We finally get to see Doctor Doom next, still prowlilng around Galactus' ship "like a burglar", monologuing to himself about whether he's scared or justifiably nervous, and wondering how long he can carry on before Galactus notices he's there. Clearly he forgot to touch wood, as no sooner has he said this than Galactus does notice, and expels him from the ship. Doom gets sent back to Doombase, having achieved nothing except to use up a few pages over a couple of issues, and collapses into bed. There's something that feels wrong about this sequence too, but I can't quite put my finger on it. We've seen Doom stagger off defeated on a few occasions before, but never to simply collapse into bed. We've seem him in bed before too, so maybe it's the fact that he doesn't even bother to get into his hooded pyjamas? While he's having a bit of a lie-down (I told you there'd be some napping by the end!) She-Hulk arrives to take revenge for the Wasp's murder, only to be roundly duffed up by the super-villains. She's slipped away from the other heroes without getting permission from Captain America, and when this news reaches him he still refuses to go and help her out, because it's very very important that they all sit quietly and watch Galactus do whatever he's doing, without taking any action at all. He won't even let the others vote on it - Captain America is rubbish! However, just when it looks like the rest of the issue is going to feature everyone sitting quietly and doing their homework, Cap gets a telepathic message from Professor X to say that the X-Men will take over the job of sitting around doing nothing, so that The Avengers can get on with any other projects they have on the go. Oh my good grief, this is just terrible. How does Professor X know about She-Hulk? Or is he just offering some generalised respite? Why is he now deciding to help out? Aren't they supposed to be enemies, or at least suspicious of each other? And how is this in any way a dramatic form of storytelling? Captain America refuses to take action, but then someone offers to help so he simply changes his mind. It all leads into a final panel which promises action at last, but it's action that could have been taken at any point ovee the entire issue. Thankfully that's the end of the issue, and marks a point where we're going to take a brief break from Secret Wars to go and look at... a video game!

posted 5/2/2021 by MJ Hibbett
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A process blog about Doctor Doom in The Marvel Age written by Mark Hibbett