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The Annotated Manchester Gods, Part 3

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You’ll have to forgive us for being a little slow to get this final set of notes out. We’ve had a terrible affliction whereby something seems to have got stuck in our eyes all week. Sniff. And our hayfever is just terrible. Yes. That’s definitely it.

Needless to say, you shouldn’t be reading this if you haven’t yet read issue #641 of Journey Into Mystery but might be planning to do so at some point. Even if you have, you probably shouldn’t be reading it – it might reopen all sorts of painful wounds – but what the hell, we’re still publishing it anyway.

Previously

Hark to the tale of Loki!
And the girl* he loved so dear
They remained the best of friends**
For years and years and… <sobs>

* handmaiden of a vengeful goddess of death
** although not if anyone’s watching

Part Three (Issue #641)

Page 1, Panel 1
Salisbury Plain, Britain – Wiltshire, to be precise. This is the large plain where Stonehenge is, as you’ll learn on – spoilers! – the following page.

Page 1, Panel 2
“There really is an app for everything.” – Loki seems to be falling victim to a popular misquoting of Apple’s advertising slogan, which is in fact “There’s an app for that”. The poor boy’s excited, we’ll let him off.

(An alternative explanation, of course, is that the Marvel Universe’s popular smartphone brand “Starkphone” does have the advertising slogan “There’s an app for everything”.)

Page 1, Panel 4
“It’s symbolic.” – It sure is, Loki. It sure is.

Okay, so. If you’re reading a comics website and yet somehow inexplicably don’t get this, let’s have a bit of fun explaining it. Loki and Leah are, of course, wearing “V” masks. V is the eponymous hero – well, the eponymous lead character, anyway – of Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s V For Vendetta, a comic originally published in the UK’s Warrior magazine and later reprinted (and completed) by DC Comics before being collected into a hugely-selling collected edition. It lays a legitimate claim to being one of the best comics of all time – in the opinion of at least one, perhaps both, halves of Alternate Cover it surpasses Moore’s own Watchmen – and tells the story of a morally ambiguous vigilante-cum-terrorist who wages an explosive war on a totalitarian alternate-future regime. Politically, it’s very closely aligned – albeit reaching to a few further extremes – with everything that Loki has chosen to side with in this particular conflict.

The mask, incidentally, is a play on the popular image of Guy Fawkes, a British historical figure from the late sixteenth century who was either – depending on whom you believe – the figurehead of a Catholic plot to destroy the Palace of Westminster (aka the Houses of Parliament) and assassinate the Protestant King James; or a patsy in an elaborate government-led conspiracy designed to whip up anti-Catholic sentiment (and legislation). Either way, the so-called “Gunpowder Plot” failed, and – for reasons nobody’s really sure about – Fawkes became a near-mythological figure as part of the annual November 5th (aka Bonfire Night, aka Guy Fawkes Night) celebrations, in which the narrow escape of the government/monarchy is (supposedly) celebrated. Moore’s choice of the mask – which subsequently became used on effigies during Guy Fawkes Night celebrations – for V was therefore entirely apt, particularly given that at the beginning of the book V actually succeeds in destroying Westminster.

However, its appearance here arguably draws on a secondary source. Following the movie adaptation of V for Vendetta (the relative merits of which will be debated some other time), the Guy Fawkes mask was appropriated by the anarchists/hacktivist collective “Anonymous” as a means of hiding their identity during protests. This was in part inspired by the arresting image (albeit one that pretty much entirely missed the main point of Moore’s work) of the film’s climactic scene, in which the assembled masses of London wear the masks in tribute to V and defiance of their rulers. It’s also turned up for similar reasons being worn by members of the Occupy movement. Both of these groups are anti-establishment, broadly anti-wealth, and largely interested in redistributing power from the rich rulers to the poor ruled. Again, the theme of class is represented.

And in one final, beautiful piece of irony, because DC and Warner Bros own V For Vendetta, and produce the replica masks, they make a substantial amount of money from all this anarchy-inspired protesting.

Page 2
“Symbolism is important.” – Kieron Gillen, there.

Stonehenge – Discussed last issue, and the issue before that. Before Stonehenge, incidentally, there was Woodhenge and Strawhenge, but a big bad wolf came and blew them down.

Page 3
The Long Man of Wilmington – A giant (two hundred-plus feet tall) chalk figure on Windover Hill in East Sussex. Supposed by most to date from around the sixteenth or seventeenth century, although others believe it dates to pre-historic times and is the work of Celtic Druids. As if there hadn’t been enough Sandman links in JiM already, the Long Man made an appearance in the famous “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” issue – where, as opposed to the scythe and rake (or pair of staffs) that the man is generally accepted to be holding, the figure was the keeper of a doorway between Faerie and the “real” world.

“I have become death! The destroyer of Otherworld! I am the lightbringer!” – The first two parts of Loki’s exclamation are a paraphrasing of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s reputed words upon the testing of the first atomic bomb (although this is generally considered to be apocryphal – in fact, Oppenheimer, the director of the Manhattan project, only said in later interviews that the words had come to mind during the test). This itself was a misquoted line from the Hindu scripture Bhagavad Gita.

“Light-bringer”, although more commonly “light-bearer”, is one translation of the Latin name “Lucifer”. You know, him with the tail and pitchfork. If Loki weren’t so against “old people’s media”, we’re pretty sure he’d dig John Milton.

Glastonbury Tor – A hill in Somerset which, despite the name, has no connection to the Glastonbury Festival Of Contemporary Performing Arts, Posh Hippies And John Peel Worship. In fact, the Tor has all manner of indelible links to legends of England past – including, most notably, the belief of some that it is the location of the mythical Avalon of Arthurian Legend.

Page 4, Panel 2
“Ahem” – Yeah, we all remember Agent Coulson, you bastard.

Page 5, Panel 1
“Camelot” is, as we all know, the company who administer’s Britain’s national lottery (aka “the Lotto”). We trust that clears up any confusion.

Page 6, Panels 1-4
The first three buildings are locations from or related to Arthurian Legend – Merlin’s (or, in Marvel’s continuity, Merlyn’s) tower, the castle owned by the sorceress (and sometime Avengers villain) Morgana Le Fay, and the home of the Green Knight. The last, the Starlight Citadel, is where Otherworld’s protectors (most frequently Merlyn and Roma) have operated ever since its first appearance in Daredevils #1 (1983).

Page 7, Panel 1
“Iron tracks burst from the ground [...] they swept in on their engines.” – It’s hard to tell whether Herne is remembering the battle he’s just fought, or if he’s just watched the Olympic opening ceremony and is describing that. Either way, it’s apparently an idea whose time had come.

Page 9, Panel 3
Kingston Upon Hull, popularly referred to as “Hull”, is a port city in Yorkshire (as Wilson suggests, in the North) and as such, played a major part of the industrial revolution. It has since lost much of its prestige, and famously placed first (by vote) in the book “Crap Towns: the 50 worst places to live in the UK” published in 2003. Its juxtaposition against “hell” here would be considered apt by many Brits.

Page 10, Panel 1
Cheap non-franchised fried chicken outlets are a staple of modern British high-street life. We don’t think there’s one called “Choice Chicken” in Camden, but maybe there is in the Marvel universe. As pretty much the worst type of fast food imaginable, it’s an apt choice for a Prince of Hell to be seen eating.

Maybe he had the Junior Spesh. We hope so, anyway.

Page 10, Panel 2
“A guy who’s usurped a few thrones in his time” – The definition of “hell” in the Marvel universe is almost as confusing as the one in the DC universe, but we think Daimon has ousted the leaders of, and temporarily ruled, at least two of them.

Page 11, Panel 2
The Lady of the Lake – Mentioned last issue. There are actually lots of different Ladies in Arthurian legend, but the one in the Marvel universe is named Niamh Chinn Oir, and takes inspiration from the classical Nimue. In addition to being the keeper of Excalibur, it appears here that she guards the Holy Grail.

Pages 12-14
BECAUSE “LEAH” IS AN ANAGRAM OF “HELA” AND SHE’S A “HAND”-MAIDEN AND OH GOD WE CAN’T TAKE IT

*sniff*

Page 15
Ikol explains on the next page how the timelines don’t necessarily match up (as they so rarely do with myths) – but it is indeed said in the thirteenth-century Icelandic work Prose Edda that Loki is the father of Hel (who is, of course, the antecedent of Marvel’s Hela).

Page 21
Muspelheim – One of the Nine Worlds of Asgardian cosmology (both classical and Marvel). Inhabited by the sons of Muspell, who are ruled by Surtur – and yes, he’s the big red fire demon taking up the entirety of this page. In Norse mythology, the Ragnarok prophecies state that the destruction of the Bifrost bridge by the sons of Muspell is the signifier of the end of times. The Marvel version is even more specific: in Thor #128, way back in 1966, Odin states that the freeing of Surtur by Loki will be the cause of Ragnarok.

So.

Um. Yeah.

Whoops.

Alternate Cover Team | 31st July, 2012

The Annotated Manchester Gods, Part 2

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So, it seems our notes on issue #639 of Journey Into Mystery went down quite well (thank you, Tumblr). Which is nice, because we only really did them to give us the excuse to go on and do issue #640. Which naturally, of course, will mean that these ones will turn out to be shit and no-one will like them, but hey ho.

Previously!

Loki (teenage reincarnated spirit of dead Asgardian god of mischief now trying to be a bit nicer and stuff) and Leah (teenage handmaiden of Asgardian goddess of death never trying to be nice to anyone, ever) are secretly helping out their British chums in Otherworld, who have been besieged by new-fangled working-class spirits of urbanity. Weary of sitting back and watching people hit other people with heavy things, Loki now contemplates whether there’s a subtler way to win the war…

Part Two (Issue #640)

Page 1, Panel 1:
Camden, London – Located at the bottom end of what’s generally considered North London, Camden Town is an area within the London Borough of Camden. For some people, it’s the centre of the universe. For others, it’s a slightly scummy high street topped off with a noisy traffic junction, an overcrowded tube station and an array of street and covered markets designed to do nothing other than part tourists and silly teenagers with obscene amounts of cash in exchange for horribly-designed slogan t-shirts, “goth” wear and marijuana-based paraphernalia. Both points of view are right and wrong at the same time.

Its use as a location in this story is far from accidental. As an important area in the development of London’s railways (it’s just up the road from King’s Cross) and canal network, as well as being the spawning-ground of a notable cultural scene (in this case, Britpop), the comparisons with Manchester are manifold.

The World’s End is an enormous pub on the main corner junction referred to above (the panel here is drawn from a perspective looking directly out from one of the exits of Camden Town tube station). It’s a very convenient place to meet up with people – because it’s huge and everyone knows where it is – but not necessarily somewhere you’d want to spend any great length of time. Already immortalised in comics in Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s earlier series Phonogram: Rue Britannia, it’s also giving its name to the upcoming third film in Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s “Three Flavours Cornetto” film trilogy.

Page 1, Panel 2:
We were going to do a “hilarious” joke about how we didn’t recognise who two of the people sitting around a table on the left-hand side of the panel are – until we realised that actually, lots of readers genuinely won’t recognise them. So, the girl with dark hair and the shaven-headed bespectacled gentlemen are Emily Aster and David Kohl respectively – major characters in Phonogram. We’ve, er, mentioned Phonogram a few times on this site already. We don’t really need to talk about it very much more for the moment.

The guy sitting in between Aster and Kohl is (we think) John Constantine. This would make sense, because Hellblazer was an obvious point of reference not just for that first Phonogram series, but also for Gillen’s take on Daimon Hellstrom, who makes his second Journey into Mystery appearance in this very panel. Given that Manchester Gods is essentially a Phonogram story being told in the Marvel universe, this would appear to be Gillen acknowledging his influences.

Daimon Hellstrom, incidentally, is the Son of Satan. In the Marvel Universe, that’s not quite as simple a title as it sounds. As JiM previously established, there’s one throne in hell that’s reserved for Satan, and the Satan-wannabes who rule the divided Hell (of which Hellstrom is but one) are generally too scared to sit on it because it would invite the others to test their claim. Hellstrom is one of the more morally ambiguous lords of Hell, in that he’s been known to do some good on occasion.

Page 2, Panel 3:
“toe-rag” – A mild British insult. A toe-rag was originally a cloth that tramps wore around their feet instead of socks. It then became synonymous with tramp, and thus used as an insult. Notably for this arc, it’s based, as many British insults are, on denigrating the recipient’s class and wealth.
“tosser” – A bit more pejorative, this is a primarily British insult meaning “a male who masturbates”. Or, to put it more concisely, a male. Synonymous with “wanker” but slightly less rude-sounding.

Page 3, Panel 3:
In case you’ve been living under a rock for the last decade, Hogwarts is the school from Harry Potter, the structure of which heavily based on pre-war British Public Schools attended only by the wealthiest tier of British society. Hence, “posh mages”. As some of the oldest establishments in the country, they’re famed for producing vastly more than their fair share of politicians and businessmen (yes, men). Even though they’re what most countries would call “private” school, they’re called “public” in the UK because they were among the first to admit any student, rather than those aligned with a specific church or trade guild – assuming their family could pay the fees, of course. From his disrespectful tone here, we can see that Hellstrom isn’t exactly a fan of the upper classes.

Page 4, Panel 1:
It’s perhaps worth noting that all of the “classic” British touchstones mentioned here relate to authority in some way: monuments to higher powers, fortifications to keep the unwanted in or out, and the home of royalty. This is in stark contrast to places of power that relate to “the other side”, as we’ll come to see.

Stonehenge -

Stonehenge! Where the demons dwell!
Where the banshees live and they do live well!
Stonehenge! Where a man’s a man!
And the children dance to the Pipes of Pan!

Discussed last issue, obviously.

The Tower of London - We’d expect our American readers might know more about this place than our British readers. Anyway, it’s a castle in Tower Hamlets (East-Central London), founded in 1066 as part of the Norman Conquest. It’s where they keep the Crown Jewels, and it’s where they used to imprison (and, occasionally execute) the treasonous.

Avebury - Great big prehistoric stone circle in Wiltshire. Hugely significant historically, but not as iconic as its neighbour Stone’enge.

Buck Palace - Daimon is trying to be  cool, here, so he’s left off the “ingham” of “Buckingham Palace”. This is where the Queen lives. You’ve probably seen it.

Hadrian’s Wall - A wall built under the supervision of the Roman Emporer Hadrian to protect the northern border of the Roman Empire in Britain. Contrary to popular belief, it’s entirely within England, and nowhere near the modern Scottish border for most of its length. Even at its closest point, the border is still almost a kilometre away. Used to be a great big bloody thing (it remains the most heavily-fortified border in Britain’s history) but it’s now somewhat smaller…

Page 5
… er, except for in Otherworld, apparently, where  Hadrian’s Wall still stands high and mighty and serves as a fortfication for “the Highlands”.

Is Gillen here making a comment on how the march of industrialised progress has spread throughout England, but has yet to reach our cousins in the North? As the country is most notably responsible for the invention of the television, golf and the deep-fried Mars bar… we’re betting yes.

Page 7
Cragside - remember last week when we said Gillen likes to spoil the fun by doing his own annotations? Well, this page basically tells you everything you could ever want to know about this really quite astonishing country house in Northumberland. Er, except for where it is. It’s in Northumberland.

Page 8, Panel 2
“The other side’s places of power” - Yeah, so this panel is basically the reason we thought to do these annotations in the  first place:

The Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol - Magnificent feat of engineering, designed by the incomparable Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Opened in 1864, placing it right at the centre of the thematic history of this particular story.

Some guy with an awesome beard’s grave in Highgate - We’re sure lots of men with awesome beards are buried in North London’s notable Highgate Cemetery, but we’re equally sure that in this case Loki is referring to either famous communist philosopher, Karl Marx or infamous TV funnyman, Jeremy Beadle. Who can say for sure?

The Cavern Club in Liverpool - Not actually the venue the Beatles first played at, but easily the most significant of their early haunts. Found on Mathew Street in Liverpool’s city centre, the club still exists, but is actually now based across the street from the original location (which was demolished/filled in for an underground railway extension). Although it does still host live music gigs, it’s perhaps more notable as a place for tourists to come and have their picture taken with a statue of John Lennon.

Oddly, some greenhouse in Northampton – We’re not sure what’s more staggering, here: that Gillen has snuck a direct reference to Alan Moore into a Marvel comic, or that he’s snuck in a reference to Moore’s taste for, ahem, herbology. What would Stan Lee say?

Page 8, Panel 3
“bally” – We explained the meaning of this one in the last instalment, but because we’ve now established that this is a story that uses class as a significant theme, we should point out that “bally” is the sort of word only used by the upper classes. The fact that Captain Britain is using it draws a clear line of distinction between him and – for example – the kind of person who might call you a tosser.

Page 9, Panel 3
Starkphone – Loki’s favourite toy. To be fair, if we had a smartphone invented by Tony Stark, it would almost certainly be our favourite toy, too.

Page 10
The Haçienda – The narration here explains that the Haç is important, without really going into detail as to why. It was a nightclub, founded and funded by the Factory Records label, and particularly their figureheads Rob Gretton and Tony Wilson. For much of the 1980s, it was notable as a hugely influential live music venue – acts ranging from The Smiths to Madonna played there – but it became “the cathedral of a cultural revolution” when it was almost entirely responsible for the “Madchester” scene of the late ’80s and early ’90s. The fact that it’s now so revered as a cultural touchstone hence makes it entirely appropriate that, having never actually made a penny for its founders, it closed down in 1997 and is now a block of flats.

Page 11, Panels 2-3
“My British guidebook the merchant ensured me is both comprehensive and inexpensive” – We’ve got no idea. Our immediate thought was a Rough Guide, however…

“A Rough Guide” – A line of popular travel guides originally aimed at low-budget backpackers, but now aimed at a more general audience. Although Leah’s clearly not a fan.

Page 12
Stephenson - George, English civil engineer of the 1800s. Didn’t exactly invent steam trains, but for the manner in which he was instrumental in their impact on the world, may as well have done. But you knew that.

Page 13
“I’m Master Wilson” - Right, then. Here’s where things get a little bit odd.

Because you can, if you want to, take “Master Wilson” entirely at face value. It probably helps if you understand the elements of Marxist philosophy that go into him, but aside from that, there’s no harm to the story if you understand him as an entirely new creation, a “contemporary druid” who represents the spirit of the Industrial Revolution and progressive, urban modernity.

But there also just happens to be the fact that he looks like, sounds like, and shares a name with, Anthony H. “Tony” Wilson.

Impresario, TV presenter, journalist, record label boss, club night promoter, band manager… Wilson did all of this, and more. He fell into music by presenting Granada’s showcase series “So It Goes” (yes, it’s a Vonnegut reference), gave the Sex Pistols their first TV appearance, and was hugely responsible for thrusting Joy Division (and, consequently, New Order) into the world. Inconsistency was his very essence: from a working-class background, he took a Cambridge education back to Manchester and stayed there while the rest of the media was looking squarely at London. He was egotistical and self-deprecating in equal measure. At the same time as running the Haçienda by night, he was presenting local news in the North West by day. And his personality and demeanour were far-removed from just about everybody else around him in the music industry – which is why most of them thought of him as, in his own words, “a prat”.

Yet his fervent love for his home town of Manchester was unparalleled (he was nicknamed “Mr Manchester by some, and the flag on Manchester Town Hall was lowered to half mast on the day of his death), and as the two major political beliefs he held were regionalism and socialism, this makes him the perfect figure on which to base a so-called “High Priest of Manchester” and druid of Marxism.

He was played by Steve Coogan in Michael Winterbottom and Frank Cottrell Boyce’s magnificent film 24 Hour Party People. If you want to know more about him, see it. Even if you don’t, see it anyway.

So, yes. The major figure of a story in a mainstream Marvel superhero comic is a fusion of Tony Wilson and Karl Marx. You couldn’t make it up. Except Kieron Gillen has done. Blimey.

Page 14, Panel 3
“Ah, ‘Pretentious’. A lovely word. A verbal tick of the dull and slovenly, a whip to last those who have ideas above their station. I don’t have much time for people being stuck at their stations.” - Yeah, see, this sounds exactly like the sort of thing Tony Wilson would have said. ‘Pretentious’ is also a label frequently applied to the author, which explains his familiarity with its linguistic function.

Page 16, Panel 2
“They say Britain is fundamentally rural…” And here we find one of the story’s major themes spelled out for us. Rural Vs. Urban. Cities Vs. The Country. The impoverished workers Vs. the wealthy land-owners. Rich Vs. Poor. What is Britain, and who does it belong to? We suspect every character in this storyline has their own interpretation, but Loki’s, in particular, will shift noticeably before the issue’s out…

Page 16, Panel 4
“Manchester was the first city of the future, anywhere.” – You could argue until the cows come home whether Wilson is in any way correct with this statement, but the fact that it’s so contentious is entirely in keeping with his character. After all, there’s a moment in 24 Hour Party People where Coogan-as-Wilson interrupts the narrative – having just told a not-actually-true story of catching his wife in a nightclub toilet with Howard Devoto of the Buzzcocks – to (mis)quote John Ford and say “If it’s a choice between the truth and the legend, print the legend.”

(credit to Abigail Brady for that one)

Page 16, Panel 5
“There’s no future in England’s dreaming.” – A line from the Sex Pistols’ 1977 hit “God Save The Queen”, a record released to coincide with Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee celebrations (and the subject of a great many conspiracy theories surrounding its placing at #2, rather than #1, in the singles chart of that week). It’s a damning indictment of the United Kingdom’s insistence on clinging on to the Royalist system of hereditary privilege. Hmm.

The “real” Tony Wilson could probably just about claim the Pistols as “friends” – he was one of the few people to claim to have been at their infamous gig at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall in June 1976 who actually was there, and as a result (as mentioned above) he booked them for their first ever TV performance.

Oh, and given that the phrase has cropped up, we should mention that Gillen cites John Savage’s history of punk, England’s Dreaming, as a major influence on him and his work. Given that punk was (you guessed it!) as much a class movement as a musical one, it’s probably worth having a look at in the context of this story.

Page 18, Panel 2
“Change is good. I’d thought that some gods would understand.” – Readers will no doubt be aware that the reason Journey into Mystery exists at all is because a god realised that he must change or die, and made his choice.

Page 18, Panel 5 (+ others)
Aristocrats have portraits and fine art on their walls. Wilson has blueprints and engineering diagrams. Makes sense, if only because you could convincingly argue that engineering is as much an art as a science.

Page 20, Panel 5
“We’re on the wrong side.”  - Is Loki (a) genuinely sympathetic to the cause, as someone whose life has been dominated by an authoritarian monarch who gets to do that “because that’s how it works”; (b) successfully swayed by the power of a charismatic orator; (c) being his inherent unfathomable trickster self; or (d) all of the above?

We’ll find out in the concluding chapter, but our money’s on (d)…

Alternate Cover Team | 2nd July, 2012

The Annotated Manchester Gods, Part 1

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So there’s this comic called Journey Into Mystery. Written by Kieron Gillen, and illustrated by a rotating roster of artists (but most notably Doug Braithwaite and Rich Elson), it’s actually been going since the 1960s (hence why its issue numbering is in the 600s), but back in 1966 it was renamed The Mighty Thor. Relaunched in 2011 under its original name and numbering, the series now focuses on Thor’s reincarnated brother Loki.

Gillen’s run has been a consistently clever, witty and entertaining series since the word go – but with the beginning of the latest arc, “The Manchester Gods”, it’s started to feel that bit more special. It’s started to feel like there’s a hell of a lot more going on beneath the surface (and, indeed, on the surface) than in the majority of Marvel and DC superhero comics around at the moment – in fact, if anything, it feels like a Vertigo comic would if they were published by Marvel rather than DC. Following some casual discussion of a number of the deliberately-planted references in the latest issue, #640, James and I (Seb) came to the conclusion that here was a comic that could stand to be annotated – for the enlightenment of readers who haven’t quite caught everything, and the general entertainment of those who have. Gillen has, of course, written a comic that stands up to detailed annotation and analysis before – but with Phonogram, he rather spoils the fun by doing it himself in the backmatter before anyone else can get the chance.

Journey Into Mystery, however, doesn’t yet seem to have had that sort of attention. And in the absence of Jess Nevins – who presumably is quite busy with something else at the moment – we thought we’d give it a crack. So this week we’re rolling back to last month’s issue #639, the first chapter of “The Manchester Gods”, because there’s really quite a lot to talk about in that one as well. We’ll then catch up with #640 next week, so that we’ll be nice and well-prepared for part three when that comes out. So, without further babbling nonsense, let’s get mythical (mythical)…

General Notes

CAST:

Loki

The Asgardian God of lies and mischief, reborn as a young boy. Freed from the crimes of his previous incarnation, Loki seeks to follow a new path in life. His reputation, however, frequently precedes him.

Leah

Hela’s Handmaiden and Loki’s BFF, although just to be clear, she doesn’t like him all that much and anyone who says otherwise is lying. The coolest person in Asgard.

THE STORY SO FAR:
Loki and Leah, working (secretly) under the orders of the ruling All-Mothers of Asgardia, have done much good in the world. They helped foil the Serpent. Defeated Nightmare (sort of). Freed the Disir from their curse. And re-homed a whole bunch of puppies! Unfortunately, along the way they managed to release Surtur, piss off Mephisto, and get on Daimon Hellstrom’s bad side (if, indeed, the son of Satan can have a side which is any badder than the other). So it’s not all good.

Part One (Issue #639)

Page 1, Panel 1:
“It rose in the North. A God called Manchester.” – If you somehow didn’t know, Manchester is a city in the North West of England. As its history and significance are going to prove quite important to this story, the Liverpool-born half of Alternate Cover will refrain from passing comment on it at this point.

Page 1, Panel 2:
“No-one knew whence it came.” – “Whence” is a somewhat archaic word, meaning “from where”. We mention it here, because it’s quite frequently misused as part of the phrase “from whence” (which therefore translates as “from from where”). We like that Gillen got it right, here. This makes us imagine that he’s not the sort of man to say “PIN number”, either.

The Red Lord, aka Bodb Derg (yeah, we know) is a mythical creature – a demon dedicated to chaos and destruction. He (it?) was introduced in Marvel’s Knights of Pendragon #17 (1991), by Dan Abnett, John Tomlinson and Gary Erskine, and is the opposite number of the Green Knight (himself a reference, we presume, to Sir Gawain and the).

Page 2, Panel 1:
“The Otherworld was the subconscious of the British Isles, the home of all magic.”
Well, that sums it up, really. In Marvel’s long established “mystical British stuff”, the Otherworld (aka Avalon) is basically the parallel Britain where all the magic happens. It’s where Arthur, Merlin and everyone (and, by association, the source of Captain Britain’s powers) come from.

This is, incidentally, why the “Manchester” you see here is a “God”, rather than a grim and extremely rainy conurbation full of people with an inflated sense of self-importance. It’s parallel, innit.

Page 2, Panel 3:
The Trolls – Real ones, not people being rude about celebrities on Twitter.

Page 2, Panel 4:
Engels – This one’s a new one on us – and it seems on everyone, as they appear to be a new creation of Gillen’s. Winged creatures that spawn from Manchester, it seems. Maybe called “Engels” ‘cos they’re like Angels, but from England? Your guess is as good as ours. We don’t think it’s because they’re responsible for a swathe of early 1990s US teen sitcoms, anyway.

EDIT: Or, you know, this guy. Whatever. Technically, making the link with Engels-the-person should only really become obvious upon having read part two, though, which technically we shouldn’t pay attention to just yet.

Page 3, Panel 1:
“It is a God called Birmingham, the first child of Manchester.” – A child that’s outgrown its parent, you might say. Birmingham, the second-most populous British city after London, is located approximately in the middle of England. It’s the sort of place that everybody should get the chance to pass through without stopping on their way to somewhere else.

Page 3, Panel 2:
“Manchester sired a spawn that headed west. Another marched to the northeast…” – Liverpool and Newcastle respectively. Really, if you’re a non-Brit reader struggling with the geography of all this, you’ll want to get yourself on Google Maps.

Page 3, Panel 3:
“The Speaker for the Silent Ones” is new. But we’ll learn plenty more about him next issue, so let’s leave him with his air of mystery for now.

Page 3, Panel 4:
“Gods should rule us no more. We rule our gods. We live in them. Your time of power is over.” – And we’ve got a theme. It might be around this point that, having read the quite superb gently-Sandman-nudging previous arc “The Terrorism Myth”, you might be wondering whether Gillen is also familiar with American Gods.

Page 4, Panel 2:
Caber (as in “tossing the“?) is essentially the Marvel Universe’s personification of Celticness. First appeared in Thor #398, by Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz.

Page 9, Panel 1:
The caption “Heathrow, London” is a slight misnomer, as there isn’t actually a place called Heathrow any more. The hamlet was demolished in 1944 to make way for the building of London Heathrow Airport – the airport Loki and Leah are arriving at, if you hadn’t figured it out – but the airport itself is technically considered to be in the area now known as Hillingdon.

God, we’re pedantic.

Page 9, Panel 2:
The names being held by various greeters at Heathrow – er, not counting Loki’s, obviously – might seem random, but upon closer inspection they appear to be in-jokes planted by Birmingham-born artist Rich Elson. Because they’re all the names of former Birmingham City footballers from the 1970s: Bob Hatton, Bob Latchford, Paul Cooper, Trevor Francis and Roger Hynd.

Page 9, Panel 3:
Herne the Hunter is a character of English mythology who is closely associated with Windsor Forest. The first reference to Herne was committed to paper by William Shakespeare (in The Merry Wives of Windsor) although that hardly makes him unique. There’s a fairly good chance he existed prior to that, since Shakespeare frequently appropriated existing stories to use in his work. The Marvel version of the character hasn’t appeared before, although the Pendragon spirit which possessed Peter Hunter (aka Albion) in Knights of Pendragon #8 was said to have previously belonged to both Herne the Hunter and Merlin, so he has been kicking around for some time.

It’s also worth noting that “The Great War” (as Herne describes events in Otherworld) was what people called World War I when they hadn’t considered that there might be a second of similar scale just around the corner, the crazy optimists. And that’s “great” meaning “large” or “immense” (it’s used here in the perjorative sense).

Page 9, Panel 4:
“I must be properly prepared” – Kieron Gillen has a growing army of young women the world over who show their dedication to his cause by dressing up as Teen Loki. He is giving them tasks to fulfil by issuing hidden instructions in the pages of Journey Into Mystery. We’re on to you, Gillen.

Page 10, Panel 1:
“Do you know the Queen?” – At some point between now and 1066, every country outside the Commonwealth got together and agreed to make sure that all English tourists were asked this question at least once per visit. The answer is usually no.

Page 10, Panel 2:
“He is a genius of little brain.” – Leah references A.A. Milne’s popular ursoid pictograph, Winnie-the-Pooh, famously “a bear of very little brain”. Pooh Bear was said to reside in Hundred Acre Wood, a fictional location based on Ashdown Forest in the southern English county of East Sussex. This continues the theme of forest folklore established for this arc. Also, he’s currently licensed to Disney, who own Marvel. Coincidence? Or the first signs of Disney’s creeping editorial intervention? You be the judge.

Page 11, Panel 3:
The “beef-eating men” Loki refers to are Beefeaters, or to use their full title, The Yeomen Warders of Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress the Tower of London, and Members of the Sovereign’s Body Guard of the Yeoman Guard Extraordinary. No-one knows quite where the name “Beefeaters” originated, but you’ve got to admit it’s much easier to remember than the alternative.

Page 11, Panel 5:
This panel appears to depict the M25 motorway, which is consistent with the route from Heathrow Airport to Stonehenge (M4 West, M25 South, M3 West, A303 West). It’s around 90 miles, or 140 kilometres. Getting a cab to take you that far out outside the M25 would require the full negotiating skills of an Asgardian trickster god. Listening to Heart FM for that long, however, would require stamina beyond any mortal or immortal endurance.

The M25 was famously immortalised in Chris Rea’s popular soft-rock MOR ballad, “Road to Hell“. Apt, no?

Page 12, Panel 1:
For reference, the fare for this journey, according to WorldTaxiMeter.com, would be £222. And that probably assumes he can find someone to pay for the return journey.

Page 12, Panel 2:
“This place” is Stonehenge, a famous British monument permanently erected in Wiltshire in 1984 as a tribute to the mockumentary masterpiece This is Spinal Tap. You can’t actually get this close to the stones without special dispensation because there’s a bloody great rope-fence forming a 30-yard perimeter around the monument. To be fair, you could simply step over it, but luckily it’s located in Britain where everyone’s too polite to actually do that.

Page 13, Panel 4:
Captain Britain, an aristocrat named Brian Braddock given powers by Merlyn, exists variously in Marvel’s superhero and magical worlds depending on who’s writing the story at any given moment and what their agenda is. More recently seen in Paul Cornell’s excellent Captain Britain and MI13 and making appearances in Secret Avengers, Cap was created by Chris Claremont and Herb Trimpe and was rare in that his first appearances were (appropriately-enough) in UK-only comics – back in the glorious days when Marvel considered that such a thing was a worthwhile venture. He eventually appeared in US comics by virtue of a team-up appearance with Spider-Man, but saw his best use in Alan Moore and Alan Davis’ stories of the early 1980s. In his appearance here he’s reverted to the costume seen there, despite having been given a natty redesign in MI13. The fact that he’s from an aristocratic background is, as we’ll come to see, somewhat relevant to this particular story.

“Bally” is an exclamation, a softer synonym for “bloody” (itself a softer synonym for “fucking”). Like the other two words, it is an expletive attributive, meaning that it can either be used as an intensifier (“bally good show, old boy”) or to express (a usually negative) strength of feeling about someone or something (as here, as Cap declares “Bally Loki”).

Page 14, Panel 3:
“Yes. Several.” – Well, his wife, for one thing. In the absence of the (temporarily) deceased King Arthur, Brian served as ruler of Otherworld for a while.

Page 14, Panel 5:
We refuse to believe that the inclusion of the words “common people” in a comic written by Kieron Gillen is in any way accidental.

Page 15:
“Behold, Camelot! None of the obvious jokes, please.” – If you need Monty Python and the Holy Grail explaining, then you don’t deserve to have it explained to you, as Loki discovers. Kids today, eh?

Page 17, Panel 4:
The Holy Grail, according to Arthurian (and later, popular) legend, is a vessel used by Jesus at the Last Supper (either to drink from or pour from, depending on your particular flavour of myth.) Sent to Britain for safe-keeping by Joseph of Arimathea, it is said to have healing properties. But then again, so is homeopathic medicine. The Marvel version (or something believed to be it) was previously kept in London’s Museum of National History until it was taken to Glastonbury by the vampire Baroness Blood, used to give her immunity to vampiric weaknesses, then crushed. (in Union Jack Vol. 1 #3) Presumably, someone was able to recover the remains and take them to Otherworld so that it could be protected by something less easily negotiated than a velvet rope.

Page 18, Panel 1:
This assemblage contains various characters from Arthurian/celtic legend, many whom were first introduced into the fledgling Marvel Universe in The Black Knight #1, an Atlas comic from 1955. We can speculate, but you can definitely see Merlin (long beard, purple robes), King Arthur (er, in the crown), a (the?) Green Knight (first appearance: Knights of Pendragon #6) and The Lady of the Lake (first appearance: Hulk Comic [UK] Vol.1 #18)

Page 19, Panel 3:
At the bottom of the panel you can see a rout of Green Knights, presumably somehow associated with the original. We’ve got no larger point to make, but the chance to use the collective noun for Knights is a rare one that demands to be taken.

Page 21, Panel 4:
“I suspect there’s a smarter way to win this war than just having everyone take turns hitting each other in the face with hammers.” – Yeah, Loki doesn’t really like hammers.

Page 21, Panel 5:
“Evil me” – Oh, yeah. Ikol (flip the name), the magpie, is what remains of the spirit of the deceased, significantly more malevolent incarnation of Loki. Just go with it.

Next Time!

Camden! Trains! Devious plotting! And, er… Tony Wilson?

Alternate Cover Team | 25th June, 2012

Just for Even More Fun: Our DC 52

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In a circuitous yet inevitable piece of logic, the natural progression after doing our ideal 52 Marvel books the other week is for us to turn around do exactly the same for DC. Even though it’s DC that are actually launching 52 new books in the first place. Of course, we could argue that they deserve being given the chance to see how it works before people tell them how they think it should be done – but frankly, even among the solicitations there are editorial and creative decisions that look baffling and worrying to the long-term fan. In particular, a number of creators that have been turning in strong work for the company have found themselves – unfairly, in our view – without a regular gig, while there’s been little to no emphasis on seeking out new talent or on providing contemporary or challenging takes on the characters.

Read the rest of this entry »

Seb Patrick | 7th July, 2011

Just For Fun: The Marvel 52

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With DC launching 52 new ongoing series with new issue #1s, it’s nearly impossible for any comics nerd not to wonder what they’d like to see from Marvel if the other half of the Big Two went a similar route. For no other reason than it’s fun to do, we’ve cast ourselves in the role of Marvel EiC and attempted to nailing down 52 Marvel ongoing series, with creative teams, that we think could propel the company to greatness.

Although we’ve tried to limit the number of titles that any individual writer works on to an amount well within their capabilities, and to artists who have even a hope of churning out the three-issue minimum reportedly required by DC for its relaunch, the only other restriction we’ve given ourselves is that the creators can’t be working on DC’s new titles. Other than that, everyone currently or recently at Marvel (and a few who aren’t) is fair game. And while we know it’s possible that the artists and writers involved might not actually want the titles we’re assigning them, well, let’s just assume for argument’s sake that they do, you big killjoy.

Now, for the EXCLUSIVE and HIGHLY FICTIONAL reveal of Marvel’s COMPLETELY HYPOTHETICAL relaunch titles:

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James Hunt | 20th June, 2011

Forgotten Runs: Batman – KnightQuest

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Title: Batman: KnightQuest (The Crusade) and KnightQuest (The Search)
Publisher: DC
Creative Team: Chuck Dixon, Alan Grant, Doug Moench, Dennis O’Neill (writers); Graham Nolan, Mike Manley, Vince Giarrano, Bret Blevins, Jim Balent, Barry Kitson, Ron Wagner, Scott Hanna, Eduardo Barreto, John Beatty, Frank McLaughlin, Josef Rubinstein, Steve George, Ron McCain (artists)
Core Issues: Detective Comics #667-675, Batman #501-508, Shadow of the Bat #19-28, Legends of the Dark Knight #59-61
Essential crossovers: Justice League Task Force #4-6 (The Search); Robin #1, Catwoman #6-7 (The Crusade); Robin #7 (Conclusion)
Years: 1993-94

There’s been a renewed level of interest in the KnightFall saga recently, courtesy of the announcement that the character of Bane is to feature as the (or a) major villain in the upcoming Dark Knight Rises film. Going back over the storyline in the wake of this, however, reminded me of an odd quirk in the publishing of the whole thing – in that a massive chunk of the story as told monthly has never actually been collected in trade – and thus, will never have been read by the majority of the people who’ve sought out the rest of the saga.

In the current print editions, KnightFall consists of three distinct chapters (collected in three separate books). Part one, “Broken Bat”, concerns Bane’s arrival in Gotham and eventual defeat of Bruce Wayne. Part two, “Who Rules the Night”, tells the story of Jean-Paul Valley taking over as Batman, and his initial descent towards being a more brutal version of the hero, before redesigning the costume and then taking on – and beating – Bane himself. The third part, “KnightsEnd”, then sees a healed Wayne return to reclaim the mantle of the bat from the increasingly deranged Valley.

However, when originally published, KnightsEnd was actually the third of a trilogy of Knight-prefixed storylines that ran consecutively from one-another, rather than just being a chapter of KnightFall itself. Indeed, the first edition of the trade didn’t say KnightFall anywhere on the cover – it’s only later ones that called it “Part Three”. And missing completely from any sort of trade collection is the entire middle section of the trilogy – KnightQuest.

Running through about eight months’ worth of comics (but taking in a lot of different titles – the four Bat-books of the time, as well as issues of Robin, Catwoman and Justice League Task Force), KnightQuest actually followed two major plot strands – and referred to each by its subtitle on the banners of the issues. The shorter one, “The Search”, is a particularly odd little tale, in which a recovering Bruce Wayne investigates the disappearance of Dr Shondra Kinsolving – the woman who had begun the process of miraculously healing his injuries through little more than her touch. It loses its way badly towards the end, when it gets bogged down in the sort of story that really doesn’t feel like it has a place in a Batman comic – but in the first half, there’s some decent material, particularly the Alan Grant-written three-part segment set in England, which introduces the UK-based vigilante Hood (of note at the moment due to the character’s apparent planned use by Grant Morrison in Batman Inc).

The bulk of KnightQuest, however, is the storyline “The Crusade”, which sees Jean Paul Valley struggling more and more with the weight of the Batman identity, coupled with his own delusions (brought about by the brainwashing/programming that turned him into Azrael). Along the way, he continually makes tweaks to his costume – until it becomes the fully armour-based suit, complete with extensive weaponry, seen in KnightsEnd – and shows less and less care for the well-being either of Gotham’s criminal population, or even its innocents. This comes to a head with the most significant part of the story, seen in Batman #508, in which Valley allows the serial killer Abbatoir to fall to his death in a vat of molten metal. Although he strictly speaking doesn’t kill the villain, it nevertheless represents a significant watershed moment, as he crosses a line that Bruce Wayne never would have. More importantly, by not bringing the killer in for questioning, he slows down the police in their efforts to track down his latest torture victim, Graham Etchinson – who subsequently dies before he can be found.

At the very least, the Abbatoir story should have made it into collected print somewhere. Anyone reading the story in trade, or years after the fact, would surely be left baffled by reading about a hugely important event in the overall story, but not actually getting to see it happen on the page. The sudden shift in costume between the end of Knightfall Part Two and KnightsEnd is also jarring if you haven’t seen the incremental changes (and the reasons given by Valley each time, as heldover elements of the original outfit, such as a cloth mask and the cape, are increasingly considered detrimental).

As for the rest of the story, there are good parts and bad parts – although in terms of tone and overall quality, it’s pretty consistent with the other parts of the run (the same goes for the art, too – some of it’s good, some of it’s lousy, and whenever Bret Blevins gets his hands on it it’s an absolute joy). Perhaps one reason for not bothering to collect it in trade is that Valley is a difficult character to spend much time with as a lead. One of the storylines, a crossover with Catwoman, shows a conflicted side to him as he becomes obsessed with Selina while chastising himself for doing so – but even that comes off a bit creepy, and in a general sense, as a character whose sole purpose is to be shown to be unfit for his job, he’s largely just irritating. And when I was younger, I thought the “subway rocket” he uses (taking convenient advantage of an abandoned rail station that backs on to the Batcave) was cool, but nowadays its existence, and importance in helping AzBats stop a particular crime, just seems contrived.

Another major problem is that the KnightQuest section is pretty long – the character had to be in the role long enough to make it seem like he was supposed to be sticking around – without the stories ever really going anywhere (beyond nudging him slightly further into demented sociopathy each time), and that too could be a reason for not bothering to collect the issues. Nevertheless, a number of the individual stories feel like little more than treading water – the Joker’s movie-directing scheme might just be his worst plot ever - and, one senses, could have been excluded to at least make a KnightQuest trade that would at least have included the important bits. It’s odd that an entire chunk of one of the most-remembered comics events of the last couple of decades should have slipped between the cracks, but while in some cases it’s justified, there’s much of KnightQuest that shouldn’t be ignored by anyone following the Bat-saga of the ’90s.

Forgotten Runs: Nicieza & Bagley’s Thunderbolts

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Title: Thunderbolts
Publisher: Marvel
Creative Team:Fabian Nicieza (writer), Mark Bagley (Penciler), Pat Zircher (Fill-in Penciler), Norm Breyfogle (Annual Pencils)
Core Issues: Thunderbolts #34-50, Thunderbolts Annual 2000
Essential crossovers: Avengers (Vol. 3) #32-#34, Maximum Security
Years: 2000-2001

Kurt Busiek may have been the original Thunderbolts writer, but the one with the longest pedigree on the series is still Fabian Nicieza, who shaped the team from issue #34 of the original series, right up until #109. Nicieza spent most of his run working with artist Pat Zircher, who took over with issue #51 – but many will have forgotten that for the first year or so, he mostly collaborated with original Thunderbolts penciler, Mark Bagley.

Today, when creators leave a title, it’s generally at the end of an arc, and often involves a relaunch or repositioning of the characters. This wasn’t always the case. In fact, Busiek actually began several plot threads in the couple of issues before he left for Nicieza to pick up – the most major being the series climax, in which Hawkeye (who was leading the team at the time) announced that the Thunderbolts were going to take down the Hulk.

Much of Nicieza’s early run owed something to Busiek’s plot notes, which is why the veteran writer retained a credit for several issues after. With events such as the return of The Beetle, the debut of MACH 2, the unmasking of Citizen V, the introduction of the new Scourge and the death of Jolt the early issues retained – indeed, recaptured – the pace of Busiek’s earliest stories. Although the opening 12 issues are considered classic, the latter half of Busiek’s run was comparatively limp – many of the book’s biggest events, in fact, occurred during the Nicieza/Bagley period.

Artistically, the book had been consistent ever since the series began. Bagley had drawn almost every issue, and his particular blend of superheroics and storytelling was then, as it is now, a joy to read. When Bagley was taken off the title to concentrate on his Ultimate Spider-Man run, he quickly became one of the industry’s top talents – or rather, people finally recognised him as such. Those of us reading Thunderbolts were already well aware.

For many years now, Marvel has treated the series rather like the red-headed stepchild of the Marvel Universe. While Busiek’s opening 12 issues garnered much acclaim, it was soon eclipsed by his work on the returned Avengers title. Nicieza’s run – explosive though it was, by the fans’ standards – never quite managed to get the book much attention. A cancellation was undone by a Busiek and Nicieza Avengers/Thunderbolts collaboration, and the relaunched book ticked over under Nicieza until it was handed to Warren Ellis and reworked into something massively successful – though perhaps not entirely similar to what came before.

In light of the rejuvenation of the brand, Marvel did little to remind people of the Thunderbolts’ more conventionally superheroic past. Even Busiek’s run – acclaimed though it was – has never been reprinted past issue #12. Nicieza’s run, even those issues with a name collaborator like Bagley – is unlikely to ever see print, if only because the second and third volumes required to get to it will end up slogging through Busiek’s weaker period first.

And yet the Nicieza/Bagley issues are arguably the title’s fasted-paced period, every one featuring a major event and interleaving several compelling plot mysteries. Although Nicieza eventually succumbed to his own predeliction for convoluted plots and pet characters, the run with Bagley, which ended in the title’s fiftieth issue, was incredibly entertaining.

It might not be revolutionary stuff – but if you’re interested in reading a companion to Busiek’s own Avengers run (which received a complete reprint in hardcover), the Thunderbolts of this period is the perfect book for it – not just because of the direct crossover, but because Songbird features in Avengers Forever, the Genis-Vell Captain Marvel of Avengers Forever guests in Thunderbolts, and the 2000 annual follows up on a Hawkeye/Mockingbird plot thread introduced in one of Busiek’s earliest Avengers stories. And best of all, it’s doubtlessly available on the cheap.

James Hunt | 12th February, 2011

Forgotten Runs: Dan Jurgens’ Spider-Man

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Title: Sensational Spider-Man
Publisher:
Marvel
Creative Team:
Dan Jurgens (story, pencils), Klaus Janson (inks)
Core Issues: Sensational Spider-Man #0-#6
Essential Crossovers: “Media Blizzard”, “The Return of Kane”, ”Web of Carnage” and “Blood Brothers” (multi-part stories, each also taking place in the other monthly Spidey books)
Years: 1996

In converstion with James about George Perez recently, I remarked that the legendary Teen Titans/Crisis/Avengers penciller had achieved one of those rare feats in comics – that is, becoming a widely-revered artist with both the Big Two publishers. There are a handful of artists that have done it, but very few in the great scheme of things that have achieved the same level of respect on both sides of the divide – but Perez has undoubtedly managed it, to the extent that you couldn’t really call him a “DC” or a “Marvel” artist over the other.

Dan Jurgens, meanwhile, is very firmly a “DC” artist – but he had a shot at becoming another one of those exalted few in the mid-1990s. Unfortunately, a pairing that seemed for all the world like a perfect matchup – Jurgens drawing Spider-Man – ended up only lasting around half a year, and culminating in disappointment all around.

Having spent the first half of the ’90s establishing himself as the definitive Superman artist of that era, the prospect of seeing Jurgens apply his bold, clean-cut style of superheroics to Spider-Man was a mouthwatering one; and while he’s always been a better artist than writer, there was nothing fundamentally wrong with his scripting of the Man of Steel, and again his style seemed a good fit. But from the outset, circumstances were difficult: the high-profile launch of Sensational Spider-Man, the new “third” monthly Spider-book given to the writer/artist, also happened to be the first issue featuring Ben Reilly as Spider-Man – new hairstyle, costume and all.

For those of us who actually liked Reilly, this was no bad thing (even less so if you happened to like the Bagley-designed costume, too – which I certainly do/did). But unfortunately, while he had a game stab at setting up Ben’s new supporting cast and setup (the launch issue #0, while a little bogged down in the sort of expository talking-to-self narrative of which Jurgens has always been fond, was actually pretty good fun), Jurgens’ heart wasn’t really in it. He wanted to be writing and drawing the real Spider-Man – but as far as Marvel were concerned (publicly at least), Ben was in it for the long-haul.

Still, we got some good material out of the run – even though the publication style of the time means it’s difficult to follow Jurgens’ issues alone as one whole, as only the first and last issues actually stood alone. The rest were all individual chapters of storylines spread across all three monthly Spider-books – so in Sensational we get part one of the Mysterio-starring “Media Blizzard” (the only story that had little to do with the ongoing saga, also featuring an utterly cracking redesign for my favourite Spidey foe), part two of “The Return of Kaine”, part one of “Web of Carnage”, and parts one and five of “Blood Brothers”. It’s all a bit bewildering, really.

Nevertheless, through all of that, Jurgens was working hard to try and carve out a niche for Ben himself. Of the three monthly books at the time, Sensational was the one that really seemed to care about the character – it’s the one that gave him his job and supporting cast – while Amazing and Adjectiveless were more concerned with the longer-term, Clone-Saga-fallout ramifications. As such, there’s some good character material – and of course, Jurgens got to play with his one major contribution to the Spider-mythos, courtesy of Ben’s brief relationship with the photographer Jessica, who turns out to be the daughter of Uncle Ben’s killer. A potentially intriguing plot, it’s wrapped up in far-too-hasty fashion due to Jurgens’ last issue on the title being as early as #6 (one suspects he would have drawn the story out far longer had he stuck around – as it is, that last issue is simply a rush-job of loose-end-tying). Tired of being stuck writing the adventures of a fake Spider-Man (even though at the time the editorial line was that Ben was the “real” one), he left the Spidey books, never to return.

The cruel irony is that if only he’d stuck around for a bit longer, he would have had the chance to do what he wanted after all – the new creative team of Todd Dezago and Mike Wieringo only had to do five issues themselves before Reilly was promptly dispatched, in the “Revelations” storyline; and by the first issue of 1997, Peter Parker and the classic duds were back. It’s a shame, as Jurgens’ run had been an interesting new direction – and looked terrific, especially under the inks of Klaus Janson – and it would have been nice to have seen him have a crack at the character proper. Although I can’t help but wonder, if he had stuck around, how long it would have taken for him to put Spidey in a time-travel story…

Seb Patrick | 7th February, 2011

Forgotten Runs: Claremont & Larocca’s Fantastic Four

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This twice-weekly project posted throughout February sees us looking at the forgotten creative runs on some of Marvel and DC’s biggest properties. Uncollected, uncelebrated, and unexplored, these runs fell between the cracks of history – and in this series of articles, we try to decide whether or not they actually deserved to.

Title: Fantastic Four
Publisher:
Marvel
Creative Team:
Chris Claremont & Salvador Larocca
Core Issues:
Fantastic Four (Vol. 3) #4-#32
Essential crossovers: Iron Man (Vol. 3) #14, Heroes Reborn: Doomsday, Heroes Reborn: Ashema, Heroes Reborn: Doom
Years: 1998-2000

After the conclusion of the “Heroes Reborn” event (which farmed out several of Marvel’s biggest properties to Image creators), Marvel intended to bring back those series with some of their top-notch creative talent. Busiek and Perez’s Avengers run was undoubtedly the jewel in the crown, while Waid and Garney reprised a celebrated run on Captain America. By comparison, Scott Lobdell and Alan Davis’ Fantastic Four series was over almost before it started. Only 3 issues in, the team was unceremoniously dumped and replaced by Chris Claremont and Salvador Larocca.

It’s clear that Claremont and Larocca’s arrival wasn’t particularly planned – Lobdell had previously stated an intention to stay on board the title for a 50-issue run, and his plots were used for two issues following his departure. Claremont, for his sins, had recently returned to Marvel to work as an “editorial director”, and was presumably just in the right place at the right time to take over at short notice when relations between Marvel and Lobdell/Davis broke down, for whatever reason.

Having written the Fantastic Four at least once in the past, during the X-Men Vs. the Fantastic Four miniseries, it’s relatively easy to see what Claremont’s interests in the team are, as many were reprised here. In that series, Claremont wrote Doom as the dark mirror of Reed, capable of forging a diary so convincing that even Reed didn’t notice it was fake. This duality would later inform the ongoing plot when Reed found himself trapped in Doom’s armour and becoming more and more Doom-esque in his actions, mannerisms and morality.

Such big, character-centric ideas were the high points of Claremont’s run. However, it would take nearly a year for him to make any steps towards the Doom/Reed plot, and the intervening issues were incredibly weak and convoluted. As soon as Lobdell’s plots had been worked through, Claremont immediately set about reinventing the book’s status quo in his own tradition. His first year on the title relied heavily on alternate universes, and he introduced three separate new female characters, all of whom were the standard, Claremontian archetype – spunky, brilliant and utterly flawless. Two of them – Alyssa Moy and Valeria Von Doom (the teenage version) – caught on and enjoyed life beyond Claremont’s run on the title. The third – Caledonia – didn’t. Not least because, as an alternate Captain Britain, she was really an Excalibur refugee (as were many of the title’s concepts and villains during this period)

Despite being Rachel Summers with the serial numbers filed off (she even took the codename Marvel Girl) Valeria Von Doom – apparently the daughter of Sue and Doom from the future – would eventually become the focus of the book’s direction, as much for what she implied about the future of the team than for the mystery of where she came from. Although the plots became turgid as Claremont bounced the core team from dimension to dimension, the mystery of Marvel Girl’s origins drove the book’s subplots – as did the tension between Sue and Reed over various extra-marital issues (Reed’s ex-girlfriend, Alyssa Moy’s presence, Sue’s villainously-revealed “heart’s desire” to be Namor’s Queen, and of course, Valeria’s stated origin).

The book only really got going when Doom returned, forcing the various plots Claremont had been seeding to actually start blooming together. His X-Men run had long since proven that Claremont was a master of long-term plotting, but the convoluted nature of the individual issues and massively off-theme storylines suggested that his single-issue plotting was much rustier than his macro plotting. The final issues (#25-32, together with a group of “Doomsday” one-shots) cap Claremont’s run off, and tie up the loose ends so satisfactorily that it almost excuses the 18-issue mess that precedes it. A wordless, underwater sequence that opens issue #32 even proves that despite’s Claremont’s much-criticised wordiness, he does know what to be quiet occasionally.

Unfortunately, despite a truly enjoyable finale, the flaws in Claremont’s run were incredibly pronounced, and probably familiar to those who read his subsequent X-Men stories. The supporting characters and villains Claremont used – many of them new creations – were usually little more than a codename and visual (I’m looking at you, Lockdown, Rosetta Stone, Caledonia, The Ruined, The Bacchae and the Twisted Sisters), and characters had a tendency towards exposition that constantly grated. Many of the stories involved mind-control and body-modification (more staples of Claremont’s work) and the plots were virtually photocopied from issue-to-issue. It wasn’t a high point for either Claremont or the Fantastic Four.

There is, at least, one thing that can be universally praised about this period in Fantastic Four history: Larocca’s art. For me, this is Larocca at this height of his ability – before the horrific digital inking of X-treme X-Men, before the lifeless photoreferencing of Invincible Iron Man – just pure storytelling. Even if he does have a habit of drawing Sue Richards like she’s smuggling melons in her uniform, and the computer colouring (by Liquid!) is so obviously a product of a company who just got access to their first copy of photoshop and want to squeeze every available colour onto the page.

In retrospect, it’s not difficult to see why Claremont and Larocca’s run has passed into history fairly unnoticed. Although his series finale works well as a postscript to the Heroes Reborn era, the series’ main contributions to the lore were to introduce Alyssa Moy (who was given a near-total makeover when she returned in the Millar/Hitch run) and to introduce Valeria, who was eventually replaced by her own infant self when Carlos Pachecho and Jeph Loeb were writing the book. Hardly broad strokes. Still, there are some good ideas in there, and if nothing else, it’s consistently a good-looking book, even if the writing is uneven. It might not be a hidden gem, but the finale plotline, at least, is worth a look. Just avoid everything before #24 and you’ll be fine.

Best Comics of 2010: Avengers Academy

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The Avengers reboot at the start of this year was, admittedly, fairly strong. The thing is, after 7 years of Bendis’ New Avengers, I was done with it. Between the increased price, the gradual decline in enthusiasm and the fact that the franchise was getting a wholesale reboot, I figured that was the time to leave. If only to reassure myself that I’d never pick up an issue of New Avengers and find myself reading about The Hood for 75% of the story again.

That left a gap in my budget, and after some dithering, I decided to fill it with Avengers Academy. Although Christos Gage isn’t a writer who burns up the charts, his Thunderbolts fill-ins were enjoyable enough, and the new character designs that had been released as teasers really hooked me. Plus, it was launching at $2.99, and as much as I hate to admit that I might let finances get in the way of my love of the medium, price has become a genuine consideration for me since the $3.99 era began.

As it turns out, I’d probably have bought Avengers Academy even if it was $3.99. There’s nothing massively revolutionary about it – it’s just a really well-done slice of superhero-filtered teen angst/soap opera, much in the vein of Claremont’s X-Men or Runaways – but since very few books have that feeling these days, it gets away with it. It, like Generation Hope, feels more like X-Men than X-Men does right now – and as longtime readers of this blog know, I’ve got a soft-spot for the X-Men.

It helps, too, that Avengers Academy combines the X-Men-style soap opera with a high-concept twist half-stolen from Thunderbolts. At the end of the first issue (spoilers!) we discovered that these kids – ostensibly picked to be trained up as the next generation of Avengers – were actually picked because they’re the “problem” children, potentially headed down the path to super-villainy. It’s particularly interesting because the first issue’s main character – Veil – seems completely level-headed, if a little shy and socially reclusive. When we discover that she’s considered a potential villain, the audience feels the same betrayal that the character does, the same will that they be proven wrong. To get an audience invested like that in the space of one issue takes skill.

In an industry seemingly obsessed with events and stakes-raising, it’s always nice to find a book able to tell character-centric stories. I fully admit this is more of a personal favourite than a flawless technical masterpiece along the lines of Power Girl, but if you’re into superhero comics, I find it hard to imagine this one leaving you cold.

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