Thursday, November 15, 2018

Longbox Junk - Silver Surfer: Parable

With the recent passing of Stan "The Man" Lee, it's inevitable that there will be a flood of tributes complete with lists of great characters, classic issues, and epic storylines. . .of which there are indeed many.  Stan Lee was a prolific writer with a great imagination and creative talent, and along with equally-talented collaborators such as Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby, he helped to create many of the characters that we know and love today.  

So of course we're going to hear about Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four and The X-Men.  We're going to hear about "This Man, This Monster" and "Spider-Man No More", among many other classic stories. . .and rightly so!  

BUT. . .

THIS is Longbox Junk.  And while I DO feel a need to try to pay a small amount of tribute to a man that stood larger than life as the outspoken and ever-present goodwill ambassador of comic books for. . .well. . .pretty much my entire life, I'm not one to reach for the low-hanging fruit.  

No. . .if I'm going to show my respect for Stan The Man, I'm going to dig a little deeper and go right past those well-known issues that are probably FAR beyond the budget of most comic collectors (outside of reprints and collections) and talk about a great Stan Lee story that can be found in original copy at quite an affordable price that will certainly be passed over by many collectors in favor of more "valuable" comics.

Rest In Peace Stan Lee.  You taught me that the value of comics isn't just measured in dollars.  I didn't know you, but I'll miss you, and the world will be a sadder place without you.

Let's do this!


SILVER SURFER: PARABLE

MARVEL (1988)
SCRIPT: Stan Lee
PENCILS: Jean (Moebius) Giraud
COVERS: Jean (Moebius) Giraud

ISSUE ONE

A little background first?

So from what I've read about this odd little two-shot, it came from a chance meeting of Stan Lee and French artist Moebius at a comic book convention.  They were in almost immediate agreement as to what character they should collaborate on and the issues were written using the "Marvel Method" of Stan Lee writing an outline and letting Moebius build the visuals around it, then Stan doing the finished dialogue and Moebius putting in the final touches (including the lettering).  

Moebius saw this project as a bit of a self-challenge, as he'd never worked on an actual mainstream superhero comic book before, and he had to make some changes to his art (in particular the coloring) to fit the newsprint the comics were printed on.  In an interview I read about this comic, Moebius claims it was one of the hardest projects that he'd worked on, as the color palette was extremely limited compared to what he was used to.

At the time of publication, this comic sold very well (It had a pretty high print run, which is probably why it can still be found in dollar boxes today) and was well enough regarded that it won the Eisner Award for best finite series. I find it strange that despite the good reception and critical accolades, it seems to be somewhat forgotten and certainly not very "valuable" to collectors today.

But enough about that.  Let's get into it!

The story goes like this:

A gigantic spaceship is sighted heading for Earth,  plunging the population into fear and panic.  When it lands, the huge figure of Galactus comes forth and demands that mankind worship him, and that their obedience to him will usher in a new age for the planet.

Almost overnight, religions spring up around Galactus, the primary one being led by Evangelist Colton Candell. . .who positions himself as the self-appointed prophet of Galactus.  As Galactus declares his followers worship him by throwing aside their laws and inhibitions and do as they will, the Earth quickly descends into chaos and anarchy.

The Silver Surfer, who has been living in exile (and disguised as a hobo for some reason) on Earth since Galactus' last visit, finally has enough of the chaos and decides it's time to confront Galactus and find out why he's returned when he previously vowed not to harm Earth or Mankind.


And that's pretty much it for the first issue.

It's a deceptively slim story. . .Godlike alien lands on Earth and demands obedience.  Mankind falls into chaos and religious fanaticism.  The forgotten hero decides to take a stand.  But despite the somewhat skeletal framework, there's quite a bit to chew on here.  

Basically, this first issue asks the question, "What would happen if (a) God was right THERE telling you what to do. . .even if it was against what you believe in?  Would you have the courage to resist, or would you just join the crowd and do what you were told to do?"

It's well written and Stan Lee steps outside of his usual bombastic superhero box to ask the reader some hard questions.  There's very little traditional "action" in this comic beyond a few scenes of Earth falling into chaos and rioting.  There's also no other superheroes on the scene of this worldwide event, which I found odd in light of Stan Lee being one of the creators of the modern connected "Comic Universe".  

Judging from the title, I'd venture to say that the oddly isolated nature of this story is meant to teach a lesson more than it is to entertain with superhero appearances.  An interesting departure from what one would expect from someone like Stan Lee, who usually revels in the extended Marvel Sandbox of heroes  he helped create.

The art was also somewhat unexpected.  I'm mostly familiar with Moebius through his "Blueberry" western series.  The lines are a lot thinner than in Blueberry. . .almost to the point that it looks like the work of a different artist.  That's not to say that it's bad by any means. . .the art on this issue is superb. . .it's just different than what I would think of from Moebius.  But then again, I don't have many other examples of his work to compare to beyond Blueberry (which is a great series.  If you haven't read it and you like western comics, you MUST read Blueberry!)

The thin lines, sparse backgrounds, and flat colors combine with very cinematic angles and an unusual lettering style to perfectly complement a story with hardly any traditional superhero action.  Moebius gives what is (in my extremely humble opinion) one of the WORST Marvel villain designs an actual presence, weight, and sense of size that is impressive. . .especially considering that we're talking about a giant purple-clad guy with a ridiculous hat.

Overall, this first issue was a great read.  Stan Lee took a skeletal narrative that can be summed up in 3 short sentences and fleshed it out with a surprising amount of thought-provoking dialogue.  Moebius took one of the most ridiculous Marvel villains and gave him a sense of size and power that makes you believe that he COULD throw mankind into chaos with a demand to be worshiped.  Together, the two of them have crafted a quite interesting comic.



ISSUE TWO

Continuing directly from the first issue, the story goes like this:

The Silver Surfer confronts his former master and demands to know why Galactus has broken his vow not to attack Earth.  Galactus smugly informs his former herald that no vow has been broken, and that he has done nothing except allow humanity to destroy themselves by choosing to worship him as a God.
Silver Surfer decides to take his case to the people, but his pleas for humanity to not follow Galactus without question fall on deaf ears and the Surfer is attacked by the military for speaking against "God".  Their attacks do no harm and the Surfer doesn't retaliate, which makes Galactus angry enough that he takes up the battle with Silver Surfer himself.
As the battle between the Silver Surfer and Galactus rages across the city, it becomes clear to the onlookers that while Galactus has no care for the damage and destruction he is causing, the Surfer is trying his best to save bystanders caught up in the fight, even though they were attacking him only a short time ago.  
Finally, the sister of Galactus' self-proclaimed prophet is killed during the battle in full view of the world as the Surfer begs him to stop the destruction.  The "prophet" publicly denounces his "God" and the U.S. Air Force attacks Galactus, making him realize that his ruse is over and humanity no longer worships him.  Galactus ends his battle with Silver Surfer and leaves Earth. . .but not before promising to return again because he is eternal and man's memory is not.
In the aftermath of Galactus' short reign and his defeat, Silver Surfer is invited to the United Nations, where the leaders of the world now want HIM to be their God.  The Surfer is disgusted that mankind learned nothing from the recent events and purposely makes such impossible demands as a condition of his worship that the Surfer is immediately denounced as a tyrant.  As he leaves, only the former "prophet" of Galactus realizes that the Surfer sacrificed his chance to be a God for the greater good. . .but by then, the Surfer is gone and it's too late.
In the end, Silver Surfer is alone and hated by humanity.  He can only look down on the planet from space and wonder if it's worth protecting at all.  

The End.

Where the first issue is primarily concerned with setting up the conflict between Silver Surfer and Galactus, the second leans HARD into the religious aspects of the narrative, so your enjoyment of this part of the story will depend a lot on how you see panels such as this one:



As you can see, the religious allegories in this issue are not exactly subtle.  There are several layers to be found that question religious belief in general and organized religion specifically.  The title of this story is "Parable" and this second issue takes that to heart. . .giving us a battle between organized religion and  humanistic agnosticism in the guise of a fight between Silver Surfer and Galactus.

There are a lot of questions asked during the course of this issue, and the answers are mostly left up to the reader to decide.  It really shows a different side of Stan Lee than what is normally presented, and I can sort of see why this story generally flies under the radar even though it seems to be pretty well regarded.  It's a thoughtful story that (although it's a bit heavy handed, to tell the truth) asks the reader to look not only inside themselves, but at the world around them.  It doesn't ask "What would Jesus do?" but "What would YOU do?"

CONCLUSION

Basically, this is not so much a Silver Surfer vs. Galactus story as it is a parable illustrating the conflict between organized religion and humanistic agnosticism.  If that sentence made you grit your teeth a little, then this comic is probably not going to be for you.

BUT. . .

If you want to see a side of Stan Lee that isn't often on display,  paired up with one of Europe's finest artists for a one-time collaboration, then this story is definitely worth a look.

This is an unusual story, to be sure.  And it's not for everyone.  But you can feel the spirit of Stan Lee in this story as he uses the comic medium that he loved so much to give us the message that you don't need God to be good, you just need to be good to each other.  To me, that's as good a memorial to the late, great Stan "The Man" Lee as any.

Up Next. . .

Back to Longbox Junk business as usual.

Be there or be square!

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Longbox Junk - Wolverine/Gambit: Victims

As far as Marvel is concerned, EVERYTHING is better with a little Wolverine in it.
Let's take a trip back to 1995 and put that theory to the test, shall we?


WOLVERINE/GAMBIT: VICTIMS


MARVEL (1995)
SCRIPTS: Jeph Loeb
PENCILS: Tim Sale
COVERS: Tim Sale
ISSUE ONE
IN HARM'S WAY


The X-Men's Gambit travels to London to investigate the death of an old friend, one in a string of murders of women that seem to mirror those of Jack The Ripper. He quickly finds himself hunted by the police and running into fellow X-Man Wolverine. . .who can't explain why he's in London or why he's covered in blood. 

Not a bad start for this mini. The story hook of Wolverine possibly being a serial killer is a decent one, but it's pretty obvious that's not how this is going to play out. 

This issue is more of a Gambit comic, with Wolverine showing up only in the final couple pages and being told from Gambit's point of view. I like that the focus was more on Gambit investigating than on superheroics and punching through problems.

Tim Sale's art is really good on this issue. I'm a fan of Sale but he can sometimes get a bit over-impressionistic. Except for Gambit's face sometimes looking demonic or like a vampire, there's nothing holding this comic back from being a showcase for his dark and moody style. 

Overall, a great opening issue that makes me want to get right into the next one.

ISSUE 2
IN DEEP

After Wolverine and Gambit escape from an elite anti-terrorist unit with the help of a mysterious and beautiful woman claiming to be working for Interpol and Nick Fury, they find themselves trapped in an underground maze of sewer tunnels. . . 

After a great opening issue, things take a turn for the worse with this second part.

It turns out that Gambit and Wolverine are being played for suckers in some sort of game being played by the villain Arcade and the mysterious woman (who turns out to be the daughter of the villain Mastermind), but the book is completely propped up with a series of coincidences and unexplained situations that lay a convoluted trail to the final villain reveal.

The art also takes a bit of a turn as well. . .while still generally good, Sale begins to indulge in some of his particular habits of over-exaggeration, with the features of Gambit becoming more gaunt and demonic and Wolverine becoming more bloated and muscular as the issue goes on.

Overall, I wouldn't call this issue BAD. . .I'd just say it's not as good as the first and showing signs of the typically worst parts of Loeb/Sale collaborations.

ISSUE 3
NO WAY OUT



The villains Arcade and the New Mastermind manipulate the thoughts and memories of Wolverine and Gambit, forcing the heroes to fight each other. 

Not sure what Arcade and Mastermind's end game is, but Mastermind has the ability to manipulate memories, so most of this issue is Gambit flashing back to when he met the detective whose death he was investigating, and Wolverine married to Mariko and living happily in Japan.

Gambit manages to fight his way free and somehow is able to enter Wolverine's flashback in order to try and bring him back to the real world. . .all while the villains laugh evilly. 

Sales art swerves back to very strong here, with Wolverine's scenes in Japan being exceptionally good. . .but the story is a bit weak and riddled with holes. A cliche "heroes fight until they realize they're being used", then escape and villain beat-down for the next issue is obviously projected.

All in all, this third issue has some of the best art so far, but that great art is in service to a weak story that pretty much is nothing but setup for the finale.

ISSUE 4
A WOMAN SCORNED



When Mastermind discovers that she is being used by Arcade, the two villains turn on each other, giving Gambit and Wolverine the chance to escape captivity and bring their scheme to an end.

The final issue brings it all together in a hot mess of robot punching, deus ex machina, dangling plot threads, and things that have absolutely nothing to do with the previous 3 issues being extremely important to the conclusion.

The good news is that while the writing has been on a steady downward curve since the first issue, the art has been on an upward curve, with this issue having probably the best art in the set, especially the final scenes of Wolverine and Gambit in a graveyard discussing what happens next in their lives (SPOILER: They're both going to remain gloomy a$$holes for the time being).

Overall, this issue feels disconnected with the other 3. Instead of finishing up THIS story in a satisfactory way, it seems to want to set up future story threads. 

It wasn't until this issue that I realized the whole mini was ACTUALLY for the introduction of the New Mastermind to the Marvel Universe.

And here, I thought it was a Wolverine/Gambit teamup.

CONCLUSION

If I had to describe this mini-series in one word, it would have to be: Misleading.

On the surface, it obviously seems to be a Wolverine/Gambit teamup comic, but in reality it's the introduction of a new villain to the Marvel Universe (Mastermind II).  Of course, this doesn't become clear until the final issue.  By the time you realize the true purpose of the story, it's over with.   I'm not sure if that's extremely clever or just plain deceptive.

That aside, this mini is pretty forgettable.  The story is okay.  The art is pretty good.  Neither is great in any way.  There's nothing standing out as excellent or memorable. This mini is like a popcorn action movie that you forget the plot to immediately after leaving the theater.  It's not BAD, but it's not good either.  It's just sort of. . .there.  I found these comics in the dollar box.  That's right where they belong.


Up Next. . .

How about some more 90's -Tastic Wolverine Team Up Action? Iron Fist/Wolverine, then more Punisher/Wolverine, then some Elektra/Wolverine and THEN Nightman/Wolverine!

Just kidding.  No more Wolverine teamups for now.

HEY! Anybody remember the time that Jonah Hex traveled to the future for some apocalyptic mayhem? DC's HEX. . .all 18 goddamn issues.

Be there or be square!

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Longbox Junk - Wolverine/Punisher: Revelations

Take a look at any "Worst" or "Insane" list involving either Marvel or The Punisher and you'll come across a brief, strange time in Punisher's history when he had killed himself and come back to life with heavenly (READ: Super) powers.

These powers were given to him by an angel (who was responsible for the death of Frank Castle's family and him becoming The Punisher) so that both he and The Punisher could seek redemption in the eyes of Heaven. . .

Needless to say, this new status quo was NOT popular with the fans.  Hell, even the much-maligned "Franken-Castle" arc lasted longer.  Punisher as a heavenly avenger lasted exactly two 4 issue mini's and a handful of references here and there later on.

This is the second of those mini's and the last time the comics world would see The Punisher in undead heavenly avenger mode.  I don't have all the issues of the mini that introduced this idea, but for what it's worth, from what I've read this is the better of the two.

And so with a hearty, "Welcome to the 90's!" let's take a look, shall we?

WOLVERINE/PUNISHER: REVELATION

Marvel (Marvel Knights) 1999
SCRIPT: Christopher Golden & Tom Sniegoski
Pencils: Pat Lee
Covers: Pat Lee
ISSUE 1
LADIES IN WAITING

Wolverine and Punisher are both enjoying a moment of peace in their crazy lives when construction workers accidentally discover hidden tunnels deep under New York City and unleash an imprisoned being that causes sickness and death. . .

The first issue of this mini is off to a pretty good start, even though it's part of what's widely regarded as one of the most WTF times in Punisher's history (SHORT VERSION: He killed himself and was brought back to life and given angelic powers in order to be a warrior for heaven and join his family in paradise. The 90's. Just roll with it).

It's mostly setup in order to throw Punisher into a Wolverine story. . .or maybe it's the other way around. Hard to tell. But the issue does a good job moving the pieces onto the board by introducing the title characters, the threat, and the reasons for them to face the threat.

The Anime/Manga style art by Pat Lee is very nicely done. Not as good as DarkMinds, but his art style fits this story pretty well, even making Punisher's somewhat ridiculous heaven guns look a LOT better than Wrightson did in the original "Punisher as an angel" Marvel Knights mini. The cover is very nicely done as well. The only thing about the art I didn't like was Wolverine's amazingly triangular hair. . .but hey, 90's, right?

Overall, a surprisingly strong start.

ISSUE 2
ASCENSION

Wolverine and Punisher meet up in the tunnels beneath New York City while panic breaks out as the contagion spreads sickness and death above. The source of the contagion, a Morlock named Revelation, has been driven insane by years of captivity and is convinced she's in hell and must escape. . .

After a pretty strong opening issue, Marvel pours weaksauce on the second. The art takes a swerve for the worse, including a god-awful cover. There's TEN FU*KING PAGES of exposition (About a third of the book)! And the. . .er. . .revelation. . .that Revelation is a Morlock who was imprisoned because her mutation was a death aura.

Correct me if I'm wrong, fellow comic nerds. . .but weren't The Morlocks basically hideous homeless mutants that lived as scavengers? They weren't high-tech people with advanced cryogenic laboratories and a legion of robotic sentries. Am I wrong here? Am I remembering things wrong?

Anyway, Punisher and Wolverine meet up and engage in the obligatory "We fight until we realize we're on the same side" trope, and then things devolve into robot punching.

NOT GOOD!

ISSUE 3
ONE SHOT AT HEAVEN

The Mutant Revelation continues to make her way to the surface, pursued by Punisher and Wolverine. After Punisher is badly wounded, he becomes convinced the only way to stop Revelation is to kill her. Wolverine becomes the surprising voice of reason and reminds Punisher that he's been given a chance at redemption, and that usually doesn't include killing the innocent.

The proceedings are watched closely by a council of angels who decide to test whether or not Frank Castle deserves the power of heaven and a second chance to be with his family.

The art in this issue thankfully swerves back to the good side of things. . .with the exception of the strange way the pointy side eye/ear/mask thingy (I really don't know what to call it. His mask?) on Wolverine is drawn. It's just bad. So bad. Also, for some strange reason, the angels watching and testing The Punisher are wearing the same super science carapace body armor as Revelation.

Storywise, we continue to get massive info dumps and exposition. Every issue so far has gone over the background of Wolverine, Punisher, and Revelation until at this point, about half the book is background material with very little story actually taking place. And again. . .the Morlocks are portrayed as super-science high tech mutants instead of grungy scavengers.

Oh. . .and Punisher gets a steel I-Beam punched through his chest and walks it off after Wolverine pulls it out. New healing factor bro!

Overall, there wasn't much to this one. The issue was stuffed with exposition and I'm thinking this mini could have been a two-shot instead of a 4 parter.

ISSUE 4
SO THIS IS HELL

In the final confrontation with Revelation, Punisher resists killing her and convinces the Council of Thrones that he is worthy of redemption. Oh. . .and he stuffs a nuclear bomb into a dimensional pocket of his trench coat, where it explodes harmlessly somewhere in heaven.

So here we are at the end of things for this mini AND Punisher as an angel (it was referenced a few times after this, but never shown again). I have to admit that the ending of this mini was actually pretty good.

To tell the truth, based on some of the dangling story threads here, I think there was some potential for Punisher Angel. . .call me crazy!

But that aside, this was a good ending to the mini. The only parts that REALLY stuck out as bad were the whole "Putting a nuke into a handy deus ex dimensional trenchcoat pocket", and Wolverine refusing to believe in heaven AFTER HE ALREADY WENT TO HELL WITH GHOST RIDER AND PUNISHER A FEW YEARS BEFORE! (In the 1991 "Hearts of Darkness" one shot)  And not for nuthin' after he sees angels come down to collect the innocent soul of Revelation.

CONCLUSION

Overall, I came away from this Xtremely 90's relic of a strange time at Marvel Comics with two main impressions. . .

The First was that, even though the character didn't seem to have been handled or presented very well, there actually WAS some potential in a supernatural-based Punisher. There were just little glimmers of it here, but maybe they should have given it a bit more of a chance.  I know, I know. . .call me crazy.

The second main impression I got from this mini was that there was actually only enough story for two issues.  This is a series that is HEAVILY padded with background and exposition.

I really, REALLY like Pat Lee's art. . .DarkMinds is one of my all-around favorite series. . .but this time out, I was a bit disappointed.  There were some very nice moments here and there, but this wasn't close to his best work.

All in all, if I had to describe this curiosity in one word, it would be: Disappointing.  It wasted a potentially interesting character to the point that it was never seen again.  Instead we got a lot of robot punching.  A damn shame.

Up Next. . .

Everything is better with some Wolverine in it, right? RIGHT?
More Wolv-Tastic teamup action with Marvel's Gambit/Wolverine: Victims mini.

Be there or be square!