Monday, August 4, 2014

Keep on Rocking in the Free World... or Not - Marvel Presents 3

Marvel Presents #3 (February 1976)
"Just Another Planet Story!"
Steve Gerber-Al Milgrom/Pablo Marcos

Doug: I can honestly say I got more from Al Milgrom in this issue than I expected, but way less from Vance Astro. So should I applaud Pablo Marcos and pan Steve Gerber -- is that what I'm trying to say? As we go through the month of August (and a temporary return to weekly partner reviews -- how's that for a taste of the past in a mag about the future?), I am confident that I'll be analyzing what it was that I liked about this incarnation of the Guardians. Of course the heavily-publicized feature film debuted just days ago here in the States, and I admittedly have no knowledge of the present team (I am assuming that these modern versions of Gamora, Groot, and Drax have no relations to their Bronze Age namesakes). So I'm definitely looking at the first five issues of the Marvel Presents Guardians series with an eye toward successes and failures.

Karen: I had most of the issues of this short series, and recall liking it well enough. I also enjoyed a lot of the more recent Guardians stuff (back when I was actively buying comics) although the original team are still the "real" Guardians to me -it's just a matter of perspective. I can say before we even get started, that this series is drenched in 70s attitude, most of it of the negative or bad variety, so on some level I have an automatic appreciation for it, although it gets a bit too bizarre for my tastes.

Doug: I think we can all agree that Steve Gerber often (OK, always?) injected his own politics into his stories in the form of satire. This series seems to be no exception, as right from the front page we get some POV narration from Gerber about the significance of the Milky Way, the Earth, and life. It ends well enough, and sets up the story, but I thought it read just a bit heavy. So do you suppose that imposing his own point of view on readers led Gerber to the Guardians strip, or would he have played it as heavy-handed in any title on which he would work? Gerber's writing style is quite different from that of Denny O'Neil, yet as I've read through the first few issues of this series I have found Gerber writing with as heavy a hammer as O'Neil in his Green Lantern/Green Arrow feature.

Sorry - small scanner bed!
Doug: We turn the page and we're faced with a nice two-page splash from Milgrom and Marcos that shows a full-on war between the Earthlings, the Badoon, and the Guardians. It's a summer movie spectacular, with fire, energy beams, and explosions! And the four main heroes are all in action, dutifully aiding those seeking to throw off Badoon imperial oppression. From the beginning, there is a reference to the storyline in Defenders #s 26-29, and keep in mind that prior to this issue, the Guardians had only been seen in less than ten comics. The creative team uses the next four pages to spotlight each member actively engaged in the skirmish, giving their backgrounds, power set, etc. Most of this is accomplished through narration boxes and relates information with which we are all by now familiar. I will say, though, that I was a bit surprised on the re-read that Milgrom showed us both a Badoon taking an arrow bloodily through the neck as well as Martinex turning a Badoon governor to ashes. It seemed a bit rough for a newsstand comic.

Karen: I guess all's fair in war, huh? In retrospect, this was shockingly violent.

Doug: Once reunited, the team quickly discovers that they have been victorious over the Badoon and have effectively freed the Earth! As the comrades celebrate, Vance Astro wonders where Starhawk is, and why he didn't help out. And then Astro seems to become a cipher for that guy on the street, the one who used to turn up from time-to-time in the Lee/Kirby books, doubting the heroes, dwelling on the power they have and that they don't have to answer to anyone for it. It's an odd voice I hear coming from Astro, as I don't believe it's the same characterization we've seen in the Marvel Two-In-One two-parter nor in the Defenders stories. I think in those stories Astro had more of a Captain America-type voice; here he's a grump, even a loose cannon. Maybe that's Gerber shaking things up, bringing us the unexpected. So we see Starhawk, rather aloof from the fighting, who takes off to survey the damage and to see what the next steps will be. He listens in on some Earthlings railing on about an eye-for-an-eye form of justice, and then Gerber gives Starhawk the moralizing voice, thinking to himself that the challenge will be to create a new society based on dignity, not hatred.

Karen: To play Devil's advocate, I can see why Gerber gave Vance Astro the personality he did. In his other appearances, he was a pretty bland guy -sort of your generic hero, nice, upstanding, etc. But if you start thinking about his situation, and the extreme,  ironic cruelty of it all (the thousand year old man whose mission was pointless, and who can never leave his foil suit), well, making Astro into a somewhat bitter, angry guy makes a lot of sense. He's not the most pleasant character, I'll grant you that, but he definitely has some layers. All of the characters have something of an edge to them, and looking back, it's surprising that a lot of this made it past the Comics Code!

Doug: I agree with your assessment of the change in Astro. Prior to this issue, ol' Vance could have been a cut-out from a Silver Age DC comic. So he provides some depth, some controversy on the team. I guess he was odd man out, huh? I couldn't have seen this personality being foisted upon Yondu or Martinex, and Charlie-27 is sort of a gentle giant, like Ben Grimm. Yup -- Vance was the guy. But what a jerk...

Doug: But just as we think the worst is over, there's a relapse to the situation. Another starship is landing -- a Badoon starship. Immediately Charlie-27 joins the Astro I-don't-trust-Starhawk chorus, this time to be coaxed back to his senses by Martinex. Everyone is understandably on edge, but in this short time span of a few panels it reads as over-the-top to me. But most fears are allayed -- or at least confused -- when the ship lands, opens, and out walks the female Badoon. We're reminded that the two Badoon genders hate each other and only reproduce to continue the species. The males are warlike conquerors, while the females are rational and would like to keep the males in check. They have come to take the males away and to deal with them. Of course the males want no part of this, and actually encourage the Earthlings to flay them alive! Wow... The man on the street, all couple hundred of them, of course think any Badoon is a bad Badoon and don't trust anything about this -- nor do they trust Starhawk, who seems to be in league with the Badoon women. The Badoon queen, growing weary of the arguing and accusations, basically says "you want the males dead, fine -- deal with them yourselves" and turns to leave. Astro steps in to calm the crowd, but Starhawk interrupts him. This causes friction between the two, and Astro again states his opinion about Starhawk's lack of assistance during the fighting. Starhawk says he answers to only himself, and one other -- and the other one is not Astro's god. We then get an odd page in the story, half art and half text, where Starhawk explains his position.

Karen: It sure seems like Gerber used a lot of text boxes, doesn't it? I can't think of another writer who had large runs of text like that. The mystery of Starhawk was one of the more interesting aspects of the title and the way it unfolded was well done. He certainly had an angelic aspect to him, and Astro's sarcastic response of "I suppose He speaks to you directly" properly shows the friction between the two of them. 

Doug: To close the issue, we again get one-page vignettes focusing on each of our main characters. Yondu heads to the forests of Earth, which reminds him of his homeworld. Yondu is a bit of a mystic, and in his meditation is nearly taken down by a... caveman? Wait, wait, wait. Every Earthling in the first half of the story, despite the advancement of time, was dressed much as we are. But only months later, and on the same planet, Yondu is attacked in the woods by a caveman? Who cannot speak? And as the guy leaps from a tree Yondu runs him through the vital organs with an arrow -- and then says he'll nurse the guy back to health? A few months later Martinex is hoping to get back into the science game -- that's his background. But while inspecting a command center of some sort, he's told by the resident director that the knowledge fell to the will of the Badoon -- there was time and space to craft shelter for humans or for their physically stored knowledge. But not both. And during the conversation, in a human effort to console, the Earthman reaches out to touch Martinex, but draws back. Martinex picks up on this and asks him why. And here Gerber asks us to consider bigoted behavior.

Karen: The scene with Yondu is a bit puzzling. I assumed that some humans had reverted to a more primitive state -that's really the only explanation I could come up with! The more disturbing thing here is that Yondu was considering suicide before the attack, but was convinced that his reflexive defense was a sign from his gods that he was not ready to die yet. Then again, he (like Martinex and Charlie) is the last of his kind - the Badoon really did a job on the galaxy! The encounter between Martinex and his colleague was very well handled by Gerber and Milgrom. Martinex, like Charlie, is of human descent -his ancestors were humans with genes altered so they could live on Pluto. He's not an alien. But his appearance causes unease. Despite helping to free the Earth, he has no place there.

Doug: On the west coast, Charlie-27 has gone to work for a construction company. He's a grunt, with a tyrant for a foreman. Toward the end of the shift Charlie finds that he can take no more. So, right before the whistle (why all these 20th Century conventions for a story set in the 31st Century?) to end the day, Charlie decides to wrap the boss in a girder... and leave him there. Lastly, we look in on Major Vance Astro. He's in a strip club (seriously? I was only 9 years old when this was on sale, and I could tell you 2-3 grocery stores/drug stores where I could buy this off the spinner racks) feeling sorry for himself due to his condition of advanced age -- after all, if not for his containment suit, he wouldn't exist. He cannot eat, cannot touch, nothing. So when one of the ladies strolls over and asks him about a good time and all that, Astro brushes her off. He's mocked by a nearby patron, and Astro's response was -- to me -- startling. I don't know that he was vaporized, but I'd be willing to bet he got more than a taser's worth of shock from Astro's mind blast.

Karen: All four of these vignettes stuck with me from when I read them as a kid, but the one with Astro really got burned into my brain, because you just did not see super-heroes in strip clubs back in the 70s! I don't know that I truly grasped everything that was behind this scene when I first read it, but upon re-readings as I got older, the meaning became crystal clear. Again, how this got through the Comics Code I have no idea, as it speaks of sexual frustration. The shot with Astro staring at the dancer's torso and the jewel in her navel pretty much says it all. I felt that this scene laid out the reasons for Astro's borderline mental breakdown later on -all of the normal physical activities that humans engage in are completely denied to him. Who wouldn't be angry and even a little nuts from that?

Doug: We end back on the Captain America, as Vance Astro is teleported aboard. He's, in his own way, happy to see his teammates. The same could not be said, however, for his greeting to Starhawk as the mystery man informs Astro that they are embarking on a mission of his own choice. They are leaving Earth for the stars, on a pre-destined course of travel. Astro's not sure he's given his consent to any of this...

Karen: Who's leading this thing? And we've got a crew of outcasts and malcontents -oh boy...

Doug: I can't say that I truly enjoyed this story much past the nostalgia factor. In fact, if I were to put myself in the shoes of the current film's producers and this was the issue I was shown as backstory for the original characters, I think I might have gone with the updated incarnation of the Guardians. We'll see how this goes as we move through the next four issues (week #4 of our series will be a two-for-one, as we were originally going to end in the middle of a story), but I have to say as we begin that I'm a bit edgy about Gerber's style and the art -- it was overall better than expected, but could still be uneven here and there.

Karen: I still have fondness for these issues, but I'm trying to evaluate them on their own merits. I have to say, this issue is pretty dark! But it's entirely set-up, so I'm prepared to see where it takes us. The art was solid -I've found Al Milgrom to be a mixed bag, really varying in quality depending on who's inking him. Here, Marcos is a good match.


Edo Bosnar said...

I first read these all of these Guardians stories back when I was a kid (bought the whole stack cheap) and then again more recently thanks to the magic of reprints, and I can say I liked it both times.
Anyway, nice review, Karen & Doug, I enjoyed reading your thoughts, given my own fondness for this issue and the entire Guardians run in Marvel Presents.

Yes, this story was at times rather shockingly dark and violent, but I think it works in the context of the Guardians' reality - an Earth just liberated from conquest, etc. Also, Vance Astro's personality - as Karen suggests - seems pretty logical to me.

As for the art, this is pretty much Al Milgrom at his best (although he did some pretty solid work in the post-Starlin issues of Captain Marvel). I think it's mainly due to the inkers: Marcos here, and also Terry Austin later.

Anonymous said...

Doug, the modern Gamora, Groot and Drax are all meant to be the same characters as their Bronze Age versions.

Humanbelly said...

I think this series was Al Milgrom's finest hour. And possibly Pablo Marcos', as he really does help to enhance Al's strengths while seemingly mitigating his deficiencies. While no Joe Sinnott, I always felt that Pablo brought a nice,clean, "Marvel" look to whatever penciler he was working overtop of.

Since I was fifteen when I picked this book up, the borderline "mature" themes and graphic violence that are skirted here had a particular (and predictable) appeal to me. Now my curiosity is piqued, too, by how in the world did this book slip by (and continue to do so) the CCA folks' red pencils? Maybe it was a low-profile book, relegated to someone low on the bureaucratic pyramid there, and they just were too over-worked to sit and read this text-heavy mag? Just flipping through the pages, looking for particularly lurid images? In the instance of the relatively graphic depictions of Badoon soldiers being killed, I do think that the Badoon's appearance was sufficiently inhuman enough to ward off censure. Stuck in the xenophobic mindset of the 50's and early 60's, the CCA was much more lenient about lettin' ya kill off inhuman monsters.

And Vance's strip-joint scene was actually all the more effective because it was handled with the same style that you saw in movies decades earlier, when they had to work around the Hayes Commission's censorship. NOT saying or depicting something directly makes it all the more provocative, even as it's perfectly clear what's going on. Good storytelling. And requires that the reader be reading every word of every panel, pretty much.

I wonder. . . if there was eventually any blowback on any of this? I don't recall any "Marvel Presents" scandal out there-- and yeesh, a couple of issues from now it's gonna take a couple of big jumps up the expliciteness ladder--!


david_b said...

This looks like an awesome issue to have in any collection. Great cover, real nice review.

My Milgrom art exposure was pretty much in the '80s with the Avengers (East and West coast) and it was pretty dismal, to say the least.

Under Marcos's inks, it looked much better.

Edo Bosnar said...

HB, if Son of Satan, on the spinner racks at the same time, never led to any blowback of note, then why would the Guardians?
And as for that enhanced "explicitness" a few issues on (if you're talking about what I think you're talking about), I knew that pretty much flew over my head the first time I read it as at about the age of 12.

David, like I said above, Milgrom was really well-served by the inkers on this Guardians run - not just Marcos and Austin, but also Chaykin and Bob Wiacek.

Dr. Oyola said...

Son of Satan, now THAT's a series I'd love to collect!

J.A. Morris said...

I thought the first 2 issues of this Guardians run were pretty good, then Gerber ran out of ideas. I can understand why Astro might have a chip on his shoulder, but bickering with just about everyone on the team got old fast.

Yes, this is some of Milgrom's best penciling.

Humanbelly said...

That's true, edo-- this was pretty much right after the Monster Craze had called it a mid-night, so to speak, wasn't it? So really, most of the CCA-proscribed boundaries had already been hammered at, stretched, and pretty much breached (Y'got yer drugs in Spidey, yer Satan-based heroes w/ Satana & Hellstrom, yer gruesomely-disfigured villains like the Orb, yer "bad guys" as protagonists like Dracula. . . ah, I'm sure the list goes on. . . ). And this relatively tame encounter involving human sexuality delivered a particularly insightful glimpse of Vance's troubled existence. The other one we're referring to? At fifteen I totally got it-- but the circumstances were so bizarre (and, well, unprecedented in a comic) that I couldn't believe what I was reading. But. . . I'm sure we'll get to that issue down the road before too long. (Man, I have to pull these out. . . )

Man, how many artists on a series this short can claim to have had the likes of Marcos, Austin, Chaykin, and Wiacek as their wing-men?? That's like having the Beatles, Wynton Marsalis, and Duke Ellington in your back-up band on open-mike night-!


Anonymous said...

Along with the Guardians, other short lived Marvel science fiction series of the mid 70s - like Killraven/War of the Worlds and Deathlok - had themes and levels of violence that seem surprising in retrospect. As they were all quite text heavy, I suspect whoever checked them out for the comics code just skimmed through and didn't pay much attention. Just a theory....

As to the full page image with column of text Doug mentioned - I recall this being a bit of a thing back then. Steranko did it - possibly he was the first - as did Jim Starlin and Don McGregor.

Theres not much scope for that kind of thing with the current fashion for "decompressed" storytelling, which is a shame; I miss comics that take more than five minutes to read.


Anonymous said...

FIrst off, gotta say sorry for my unavoidable absence from this blog - my demon-possessed computer suddenly decided it didn't want to be part of the internet anymore! Son of Satan lives - and its new name is Windows 8! I'm typing this on my brother's borrowed laptop (which by the way, has Windows 7 yet chugs along quite nicely).

Anyways, I bought this issue last year from my old comics shop, and it definitely is a darker universe than the typical Marvel one we all know and love. War with the Badoon, entire planets being enslaved, it's quite a dark turn of events. Say what you will about Gerber's politics, but I think it fits this story quite well. As for Al Milgrom, I've always been of the opinion that he's a journeyman artist, not great but passable. Marcos's inks blend well with Milgrom's layouts here, so I don't have any complaints about the art.

Starhawk looks like he was conceived to be a Christlike figure; maybe he was supposed to be a messianic presence in this team, a mysterious yet powerful presence which guided the team in its missions, even if the team didn't exactly know what missions they were on.

Gerber hit the nail on the head with his characterization of Vance Astro here - if you woke up after many centuries and found out that you would collapse into a pile of dust if you removed your protective suit, you wouldn't be the world's cheeriest person either.

What struck me most about this issue wasn't the violence but the prejudice that the team members encounter at the end.I think GotG along with other titles like Killraven flew under the radar of the censors because the stories were so far out there,and seemingly not connected directly to mainstream Marvel continuity, that Gerber & co. simply got away with otherwise controversial plotlines.

By the way, wasn't Groot an old tree-like monster that terrorized humans way back in the day? I remember he fought the Hulk in an issue where ol' Greenskin took on seemingly every old giant monster from the Marvel archives!

- Mike 'wants to see Nikki instead of Rocket Raccoon' from Trinidad & Tobago.

Humanbelly said...

Hulk Annual #5, that would be, Mike from T-n-T.

It is SO sad that I didn't have to look that up. . .

H- "One corner of my comic book room IS Planet Hulk!" B

Edo Bosnar said...

HB, that's not sad - it's actually a bit cool.
You want sad? That's the fact that to this day I can still name at least three members of the Bay City Rollers without looking it up...

Osvaldo, I just finished reading the entire original run of Son of Satan in Marvel Spotlight and his own series (thanks to Essential Marvel Horror, vol. 1) about a month or so ago. Overall, I was pretty unimpressed - there's a few good stories and ideas here and there, but that's about it. I actually preferred the stories featuring his sister, Satana (mainly from the b&w magazines).

Fred W. Hill said...

This issue definitely has the Gerber touch with its relatively unflinching (for a mid-70s aboveground comic) violence -- they were involved in actual war, after all; the bits of cynical humor and human foilbles. All of which made me love it. I really felt for Vance's predicament and his change in outlook could also be attributed to a bit of the post noble-cause blues -- before, he, Charlie, Yondu and Martinex could all be focused on beating the Badoon, leading the war effort. But after the Badoon have gone, and remembering that the societies they were once a part of no longer exist and having difficulties fitting in with any post-war human society, they've become heroic freaks. Clearly that aspect appealed to Gerber as he did much of his best writing dealing with outsiders & misfits. Also, Vance previously seemed the clear leader of the group, but now he's having to take a backseat to Starhawk and obviously isn't too happy about it. I think as far as coming up with ideas, Gerber was generally filled with them, much like Kirby, but he sometimes seemed unable to stay focused. Nevertheless, during this period, Gerber & Englehart were my two favorite Marvel writers (at least among those who wrote several titles; Jim Starlin was another favorite but in a special class as he was also an artist and rarely did more than one series at a time).

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