Thursday, December 22, 2011

What If Wednesday #9: What If The Avengers Had Been Formed in the 1950's? (On a Thursday. Whatever.)

On Wednesdays, The Amazing Justin Palm! gets drunk as shit and reviews an issue of Marvel Comics’ “What If?” so that you, the reader, can enjoy his drunken ramblings about a comic book whose sole purpose is to talk about shit that never happened, so it doesn’t matter at all. Dear Internet: You’re welcome.
I meant to post this yesterday, but then I didn’t. So you get it today. Just pretend it’s Wednesday or something.

Well, I promised you a good one, and I sort of am delivering. I admit, I’m way more into this issue than probably most people, because I like obscure comic book characters, and, well, that’s what this issue is about. But the 1950’s Avengers have since starred in some really great comics as the Agents of Atlas over the last few years, and that might not have happened without this book. So I’m a little sentimental about it.

That being said, the framing device IS pretty lame, but whatever.

We open in Avengers mansion, where Iron Man has summoned 4 other Avengers- Captain America, Beast (see the X-Men movies), Thor (see the Thor movie), and Vision (too complicated to explain here, he's a robot, and otherwise just go with it)- for a top secret pseudo-briefing. He says he'll explain later, but first, he asks them the question that is this issue's title. What if the Avengers had been founded in the 1950's? Preposterous, I know.

Using a bit of continuity nonsense not worth explaining here, Iron Man shows the gathered heroes a version of the 1950s filled with “I like Ike” buttons and other random crap you might have seen on “I Love Lucy”. We come to a scene in San Francisco in the late 1950's, where secret agent Jimmy Woo, patrolling the streets of Chinatown, is attacked by a vicious gang of bikers. See, way back in the 50's, before the Marvel Age of comics, Atlas Comics (Atlas was Marvel before Marvel was Marvel) made comics about Jimmy Woo, Asian-American agent of the FBI who hunted down the evil Chinese communist (and in no way Fu-Manchu analogue) Yellow Claw. It was a different time.

Anyway, as Jimmy Woo gets his ass handed to him, he's spotted by the 3-D Man. Probably should have warned you, this issue involves a lot of crazy continuity. This issue of What If waits to explain all this later, but I'll fill you in now. So the 3-D Man... uh, okay, this is pretty crazy, so shortest version possible: Experimental test pilot, ran into some aliens that turned out to be the shape changing Skrulls (see my review of Essential FF vol 1), crazy stuff happened, and he and his younger brother sort of ended up combining their bodies, which... turned them into the 3-D Man... look, I don't even know, dude. He wear's a half green, half red jumpsuit, and can see Skrulls. Just go with it. 3-D Man beats up all the bad dudes, and then Marvel Boy shows up to mind read them and find out that the motor cycle gang works for Yellow Claw. Yes. Marvel Boy.

Okay, so, Marvel Boy. This shit’s about to get REALLY crazy, guys. (Crazy. Awesome.) When he was just a baby, his mom and sister were killed by Nazi's. So, naturally, his father built a spaceship and he and his dad went to Uranus, because, you know, why not? There, he grew up with the native Uranians, and got super-powers. I warned you about just going with it. Anyway, Agent Woo is setting up a team to fight Yellow Claw, and 3-D Man and Marvel Boy are two of his recruits. You know how the Avengers movie is coming out next summer? Well, this is basically the same plot, but in the 50's, with Jimmy Woo instead of Nick Fury. Jimmy sends Marvel Boy and his space ship with Jann of the Jungle (uh... think Tarzan's Jame, but in a comic) to find Gorilla Man, and convince him to join the team.

Believe it or not, Gorilla Man rules the schools. See, Ken Hale was a big game hunter who learned of a Gorilla Man, who, if killed, supposedly turned the killer immortal. So, he found this Gorilla Man, and shot him dead, only to discover that the Gorilla Man was really a curse. Turned out that who ever killed the Gorilla Man became the next Gorilla Man, and was super strong and awesome, but also a gorilla. This makes more sense than it sounds, I promise. Anyway, Gorilla Man joins the team, and Jann stays behind, because no one cares about her. Also joining the team is Namora, Namor the Sub-Mariner's cousin who has all his powers; the Human Robot, a super awesome kill-bot who is human in name only, he’s seriously just a crazy robot built to kill stuff; and Venus, who's essentially what she says she is, the Goddess of Love.

It's at this point that we flashback to the REAL Avengers, asking what the hell Iron Man is talking about, and he explains everything I just already covered about who these people are. Anyway, the gangs all together now, and thus the Avengers of the 1950's is formed! Meanwhile, Yellow Claw has formed his own team, which, to be honest, is lame as hell, and you don't care about. Believe me, if I don't care bout them, then I KNOW you don't either. But Yellow Claw has his own team now, and obviously, now the good guys have to fight the bad guys. For CAPITALISM, god damn it!

Anyway, the Yellow Claw's agents kidnap President Eisenhower off the golf course, cuz they're dicks, but Jimmy sneaks underground with them. The 50's Avengers are busy in a fight amongst themselves (it is, after all, the Merry Marvel Manner of superheroing), until they get a coded message from Agent Woo. Then they all band together to go save the President! Back in the Yellow Claw's headquarters, Ike is held captive, and Jimmy visits Suwan, Yellow Claw's grand-niece and Jimmy Woo's long time love interest. Jimmy gets his make out on, until he's captured by the bad guys, cuz he's a worse secret agent than James Bond.

Luckily, the day is saved by Agent Woo's team! The good guys beat the bad guys, Suwan lets Jimmy go free, and although Yellow Claw escapes, Eisenhower is saved, so yay the good guys! Except, uh, it's the 50's. So, because aliens and communists are everywhere in the public subconscious, Eisenhower asks the team to disband, and pretend they never existed. Eisenhower wants to make everyone think none of this happened, because McCarthyism was a crazy time, kids.

So, the team disbands, and we learn why Iron Man selected this particular group. It's kinda silly, but basically: Cap= 3-D Man, Iron Man = Marvel Boy, Beast = Gorilla Man, Vision = Human Robot, and Thor = Venus. Try not to think about it too much.

Seriously, though, Jimmy Woo’s team is awesome, and if you’re bored and looking for something to read, go find a copy of the Agents of Atlas books by Jeff Parker and co. And if you want to ignore all the nonsense involving the Avengers as stand ins for the 50’s Avengers, this isn’t a bad story.

Next time, well, it’s gonna be a weird one folks. Next time it’s “What If Jane Foster Had Found the Hammer of Thor?” I’m not entirely sure how Jane’s going to be found worthy, or what this means to Dr. Donald Blake, but apparently it involves the Stone Men From Saturn from the first Thor story, and I am a HUGE fan of them. So there’s that I guess.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Making Marvel Mine: Marvel Masterworks Sgt. Fury Vol. 1 ( Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos #1-13)

Okay, I know I don't usually start like this, but right off the bat, I want you to know, I LOVE this book. Straight up, this is my favorite book I've done a Making Marvel Mine of that wasn't about Spider-Man (to which, I admit, I am extremely biased). And I'm not a big War Story fan or anything. But this book is so far ahead of the curve, and has such an energy, that I don't know what else to call it but a thing of brilliance. Racism and bigotry are taken head on, the horrors of war are experienced, propaganda, concentration camps, and the blitzkrieg are all in there, and a major character gets killed off in a comic book that came out in 1963. That was simply NOT DONE, but there it was. This wasn't just another war comic (there were a lot of those in the sixties), this was a book where anyone could be lost, and the stakes were always high.

It's also a very personal book, at least by the standards of early sixties comics. All 13 issues in this volume were written by Stan Lee, and the art was by Jack Kirby (issues 1-7, 13) and (the often under-appreciated) Dick Ayers (issues 8-12), and all three had served in the U.S. Military during World War II. I don't want to suggest that they were basing the stories after their own memories, because I know that the war wasn't a particularly happy subject, especially for Kirby (he would have nightmares about it all of his life). But I do think they felt the need to express something about the war to younger generations, and this was one of the places they did that.

It's a peculiar thing; the book isn't exactly a glorification of the allied forces, but it is at times deliberately dishonest. I mean that in the best way possible- this is World War II as it happened in the Marvel Universe. The army is integrated, our heroes bust open a concentration camp like it’s nothing- but never once are the complexities and horrors of war undermined or completely ignored. It’s a very shrewd series.

The book opens with immediate fanfare- no time wasted on explaining an origin, simply an action splash page of the Howlers and then two pages to cover the biographiesof each member of the eclectic cast. Sgt. Nick Fury, the "steel-muscled, iron-nerved fighting man" is the leader of the Howlers. Fury is pretty much the biggest, most hardcore man's-man that ever lived, and it's easy to see how, over the years, he'd grow from being this shaggy soldier into the greatest spymaster the (fictional) world has ever seen. At his right hand is Corp. "Dum-Dum" Dugan, the bowler hat wearing, cigar smoking strongman who you might remember from the Captain America movie (Fury himself isn’t in the WWII scenes, for obvious reasons of movie continuity). The rest of the cast was easily the most diverse of it's time: Izzy Cohen, one of the first openly Jewish characters in comics, was a scrappy mechanic who could fix anything with a motor. Dino Manelli was an ex-movie star of Italian-American decent, who left Hollywood to join the army. "Rebel" Ralston was a jockey from Kentucky whose small size hid how deadly he could really be. Jonathan "Junior" Juniper had joined the army as soon as he graduated from an Ivy-League university. And Gabriel Jones was a bugle player who just happened to be African-American. Later on we meet characters like Captain "Happy Sam" Sawyer, Fury's hard-nosed C.O.; Pamela Hawley, a British nurse who falls in love with our brash hero; and Percival Pinkerton, a British soldier who's eventually assigned to the Howler's.

It's hard to talk about this book without spoiling all kinds of things and/or gushing about it, but I would like to talk about the brilliance of my favorite issue in this collection. Sgt. Fury #6, "The Fangs of the Desert Fox!", may be, and I am 100% serious when I write this, the SINGLE BEST COMIC OF THE SILVER AGE, PERIOD. I admit, I haven't read them all, but I've read more than most people, and it really is that good. It’s a complex tale of friendship, bigotry, and the place morality has even in war. It’s not exactly your typical 1964 funnybook.

The story revolves around the Howlers being sent on a mission to stop the unstoppable General Erwin Rommel, Hitler’s greatest general, and leader of the Afrika Korps. Now, if that sounds like a pretty meaty subject on its own, well, it is, but that’s just the frame work to tell a much more grounded story- the personal drama becoming far more important and interesting than the marching armies and grand explosions that surround them. As Fury and his men do exercises to prepare for the capture of Rommel, Dino Manelli is injured in a parachuting maneuver gone wrong, and so he is quickly replaced by the military brass with a soldier named George Stonewell.

It quickly becomes apparent that Stonewell, despite being quite a competent soldier and Red-Blooded ‘Merican, is also a Red-Blooded ‘Merican Racist. His general jerkwad behavior gets Fury right pissed off, and Fury makes it clear in no uncertain terms that Stonewell needs to get over himself right now, or Fury will personally hand his ass to him.

The mission gets started, and is almost immediantly screwed up by Stonewell continuing to act like a general all-purpose asshat. In the course of battle, the Howlers escape and even manage to capture a Nazi soldier. Now, the Nazi soldier sees that Stonewell is a big, strong, blond dude, possibly of Aryan descent. And the Nazi also sees that Stonewell doesn’t seem to particularly like working with Cohen or Jones, and offers Stonewell a secret deal. He tells Stonewell that if he helps the Nazi escape, he will make sure that Stonewell is not executed when Rommel comes in and wins the day for the Germans. Now, the easy-writing route would be to have Stonewell defect and join the Nazis here. But no, see, Stonewell may be a racist, but he’s also a proud American soldier (if a flawed one), and he steadfastly refuses to betray his country. He’s an intolerant dick, but he’s also on our side- a very mature concept, for a book originally aimed at young kids.

I won’t spoil the whole thing, but I will say that the book successfully walks a very tight line- talking about after-school special material without ever feeling like an after-school special. A lesson is sort of learned, but never once does it feel forced; Stonewell never has a ridiculous moment when he suddenly realizes “Hey, maybe I shouldn’t be a racist anymore!” It’s a very human and sympathetic portrayal, one that Stan Lee in the introduction calls his “most impassioned plea for an end to bigotry”. And then, at the end of the issue, you learn that General Rommel himself isn’t the monster he’s suggested to be, and that he was actively planning to assassinate Hitler- in affect, the entire issue is a series of enemies turning out to not be the enemies you thought they were. It’s spectacular.

By the way, pretty much everything in that issue that is about Rommel? It’s true. Not only was he one of the most brilliant Generals in World War II, but he deliberately refused orders to kill captured allied soldiers, Jews, and civilians. He really was a major part of a conspiracy to kill Hitler, and his death was directly because of that fact. In his book, “The Second World War,” Winston Churchill said of Rommel; “He also deserves our respect, because, although a loyal German soldier, he came to hate Hitler and all his works, and took part in the conspiracy to rescue Germany by displacing the maniac and tyrant. For this, he paid the forfeit of his life. In the sombre wars of modern democracy, there is little place for chivalry.”

While Rommel, Hitler, and the invasion of Normandy are all in this book (Normandy to a small degree, but still), not every villain in the series is historical, as this is still a Marvel Comic. The two biggest standouts are clear. Baron Wolfgang von Strucker, a skilled swordsman and scientific genius, is set up by issue 5 to to be Fury’s arch-nemesis, a role he still fills today. And in issue 8 we’re introduced to Dr. Heinrich Zemo, 12th Baron Zemo, and his death ray. He’s a brilliant scientist working for the Third Reich, and I’m sure we’ll see more of him (*cough*Essential Avengers is only two reviews away!*cough*).

Straight up: Sgt. Fury is great comics. It’s not much in the way of capes and cowls, but there are a few in there nonetheless. Captain America and Bucky are in issue 13, titled, appropriately enough, “Fighting Side-By-Side With...Captain America and Bucky!”, and heck, if you’re playing close attention, the Fantastic Four’s Reed Richards even has a cameo in an issue! But even if they had never shown up, this would still definitely be a great piece of Marvel history, and seriously, just brilliant work from all the collaborators. This may well be Stan Lee at his very best (I’m hesitant to confirm that, because I have a lot more Lee-scripted Fantastic Four and Spider-Man to read yet), and the art is all top notch. Top marks all around on this book, I highly recommend it, not just to comic book fans, but everyone.

Editors Note: Full disclosure, I bought my copy of this book over a year ago, a hardcover Marvel Masterworks version. Unlike the Marvel Essentials books (which all the previous reviews have been), there are only about 10-15 issues in each Masterworks collection. The Masterworks are gorgeous, fully colored and on really, really nice paper. Essentials are uncolored, and on paper that's basically like the paper you find in a coloring book. That being said, Masterworks are $50 and up for half as many comics as the Essentials (which run $16-20), so I usually stick with the Essentials. When I bought this, though, there was no Essential Sgt. Fury, so this was my best option for the stories. However, a few weeks ago Marvel finally released an Essential Sgt. Fury, probably because the characters are so integral to the plots of the Captain America and Avengers movies. Anyway, I'll eventually get around to grabbing a copy, and you'll get a review of the stories in it that weren't in this volume. Just letting you know.