Monday, August 18, 2014

Soapbox Steve and Underground Al Bring You -- Marvel Presents 5


Marvel Presents #5 (June 1976)
"Planet of the Absurd!"
Steve Gerber-Al Milgrom/Howard Chaykin

Doug: You want "absurd"? You've come to the right comic, friend! I remarked at the end of last week's review that while not totally sold on what Gerber was doing with characterization, etc. in this series, he at least had me intrigued enough to read on. Well, as I write this I am on my second read of this story. My first one was near the beginning of my 10-day trek to Washington DC a month ago and I admittedly put the book down somewhat disgustedly. But after two weeks of Karen's (and our readers') comments, as well as some off-line conversations with my partner, I'm seeing this with new eyes. So let's see what sort of mood I'm in by the bottom of this write-up.

Karen: This is one of those rare occasions where you and I differ in our opinions on a book. I'll admit I'm looking at this with a sheen of nostalgia over my eyes. Even so, I can say I'd only give it a B- or so -it's certainly not in the top ranks of favorites, but I've enjoyed revisiting it.

Doug: If you'll backtrack in your brains seven days, you might remember that after the Guardians did battle with the giant space frog the beastie not only ate Starhawk, but also infected the Captain America with some sort of virus. With the ship's life support on the fritz, Martinex orders his mates down to the nearest planet -- which hopefully has a favorable environment! So Vance, Charlie, Nikki, and Yondu "beam down" to some place they know nothing of. And what a sphere it is! Martinex thinks he's dropping them into a city, yet they end up in a forest. Or do they? Yondu gets in tune with Mother Nature right away, and senses that all is not good with the flora. Suddenly a humanoid appears, toting a double-barreled shotgun. He tells our assemblage of wanderers that he's the gardener, and his main job is to keep pests off the private property. And then everyone moves toward a door. A rooftop door. They were in a huge urban garden all along -- which sort of gave me a vibe from Daredevil #s 142-143, where DD had to fight the Cobra and Mr. Hyde in a rooftop jungle.

Karen: The 'gardener' looks like the Heap! But he sounds like a redneck. Uh oh. I'm not real fond of "parallel cultures"...

Doug: Once inside the building, we're treated to a cast that looks like they jumped ship from a Dick Tracy strip. Planet of the absurd, indeed. The dudes in the room appear to be some sort of mobsters, and they think the Guardians are hit men assigned by some rival boss. After the godfather of this troop, a Mr. Slech, tries to get fresh with Nikki, Charlie takes exception. Well, OK -- he bodily threatens Slech. And of course, all hell breaks loose. But the thugs are no match for the Guardians' powers, and with Slech in tow, the displaced heroes make it out and onto an elevator. They head for the ground floor to be greeted by more weirdos, and then the kicker -- the planet (or at least this part of it) is made up to resemble Times Square, circa 1980! Vance contacts Martinex, who says he's really having trouble getting the ship running. He rattles off some device that he needs, which Vance recognizes as basically a transistor. So, ordering Charlie and Nikki to stay put, Vance and Yondu head off in search of such a thing.

Karen: If Milgrom wanted to make this pseudo-New York look as unappealing as possible, he succeeded. It was almost as if you could feel the slime oozing out of the pages.


Doug: Vance tells Yondu that he's along for the ride because he's basically too innocent to survive by himself. Before Yondu can really muster a protest, the two enter what amounts to a pawn shop. Vance asks if the proprietor has what they need, which he does, but doesn't seem so willing to part with. So they begin to dicker over the price, how will Vance pay, etc. With no resources on him, Vance offers up one of Yondu's arrows. Yondu protests, but to no avail. The deal cut, Vance hurries his buddy out the door. But Yondu's going to stand up for himself, and rips Vance's stealing of an arrow that was not his to give. And in his soliloquy, Yondu shows Vance how his whistle makes the yaka arrow react -- and it basically comes right to Yondu's hand. And in a moment of mid-70s political incorrectness, Gerber has Vance call Yondu an "Indian giver". The two run like thieves, and split up in case the cops trail them.

Karen: Once again, Vance acts like a jerk. It is kind of hard to like the guy.

Doug: It seems that Gerber feels most comfortable using that tried and true super-team method of dividing the players and then telling short vignettes about each group. We check in next on Charlie and Nikki -- right away, this looks like it's going to play out as a big brother/little sister relationship, doesn't it? They come across an arcade, and Nikki remarks right away about the cacophony that greets them upon entrance. Well, that, and the gang of local teens hanging out. The leader of the pack tries to hit on Nikki, and as we saw in the gang leader's board room earlier, Charlie is having none of it. The toughs pile on, but you know they're no match for Charlie's mass. He shrugs them off easily, until the cops show up and hit him with some tear gas. Nikki bolts, her fire-like tresses blending in with the rest of the weirdos in the crowd.

Karen: You know, I didn't think of the "brother/sister" thing at all, so it was interesting to read that and then go back and read that scene again. I can see how it could be interpreted that way. I think I always felt Charlie was a bit of a white knight, living by his own code of honor -perhaps influenced by his military background?


Doug: Gerber saves his most in-your-face bit of satire/political criticism for the next scene, where Yondu wanders into the midst of a crowd watching a candidate stumping for the presidency. As fate would have it, this nation on the planet of the absurd is also celebrating its bicentennial. Who'd have thought? We present the entire page for your perusal -- no subtleties here, no sir! Note Yondu's line at the bottom of the page, about post-Watergate Americans -- "They are... to be pitied."

Karen: Did you notice the "WIN" button on the presidents' collar? Who here does not remember "whip inflation now"? Boy that sure was a great slogan. Yeesh. Yes, this was as subtle as using a cannon to hit a mosquito.

Doug: Vance, in his effort to avoid the cops after the what's-now-a-theft from the pawn shop, wanders into some sort of hippie gathering. I'll give Al Milgrom credit in this issue -- I don't know that he duplicated any of the "creatures" on this planet of the absurd. At least to my eye as I move through this tale, they all look different. Perhaps that's by design, intentional -- maybe that's Gerber's way of saying that conformity and/or sameness is part of the problem in the society in which he was writing. Either Milgrom felt the same way, or at least took Steve's instructions and filled them to the letter! Anyway, a young lady who I swear looks like a character in the Inhumans mag published at about this same time, wants Vance to tune in, turn on, and drop out. Vance says that maybe he's not ready for that sort of therapy and hightails it past this group.


Karen: I felt this scene in many ways duplicated the scene from issue 3, with the bar dancer, in as far as showing Vance's discomfort with physicality. Was it necessary to give this to us again so soon? Then again, this was a bimonthly book, so maybe Gerber felt he had to reiterate major themes, like Vance's isolation.

Doug: Back to Charlie, now cooling his heels in the city lock-up -- and Gerber uses it for another platform, this time his views on our judicial and penal systems. Charlie's cellmate tells the Jovian that he's in for grand theft auto -- been in the clink for many years. But while he narrates his sad, sad story, a fellow from down the block walks by, paroled... for murder. Gerber takes a shot at parole boards through his cipher, but Charlie doesn't have time for this -- gotta run. As only Charlie can. Right through the wall! Outside, Nikki is accosted by a woman who wants her to hear a message of salvation. Obviously Gerber is seguing into a bashing of organized religion, cults, salvation messages, messiah complexes, you name it. And he does -- actually gets quite a few rip jobs into only eight panels! The man certainly made use of the space he had to work with. In the end, Nikki ticks off the entire "congregation" and has to run for her life, accused of blasphemy. And you know what the penalty for that is... Leaping outside, she encounters Charlie -- also running from the law and anyone else who wants a piece of his hide. So the two make tracks together, attempting to hook back up with Vance and Yondu.


Karen: Of course, it was also the time of the so-called "Jesus Freaks," "Moonies," and a zillion small cults; even in my small town, we ha people handing out flyers on street corners, proclaiming their leader to be the glorious incarnation of God, or whatever. Gerber captures this lunacy and magnifies it here.  

Doug: We've had cults in our area. One notable group was known as "His Community"; I think it was in 1977 or '78 that the cult left town in the middle of the night, families split apart as one parent took the children, and stuff like that. To this day, long-time residents of our county recall that.

Doug: As Charlie and Nikki run, they come face-to-face with Yondu! He's about to fire an arrow into the crowd, which cause Nikki to question his sanity. But the yaka arrow does its thing in response to Yondu's whistle, and throws the mob off its collective game. This gives the now-three Guardians a chance to catch their breath. Not too far away is Vance Astro, communicating with Martinex. Marty tells him to hurry and find the others, and they'll communicate again. Just then, Yondu's arrow sails by -- Vance has his troops back. They gather, but before they have time to relate all that's gone on, a ship appears in the sky. Charlie says there's no way these chumps on this planet could have built something like the space shuttle now hovering above. And -- as you might guess -- a tractor beam lifts the Guardians up and aboard.

Karen: Really enjoyed the two panels with Vance watching Yondu's arrow go by -that was a nice comedic bit, well done.

Doug: The Guardians are brought aboard the craft and greeted by a Dr. Pazz-ko and his associate, Dr. Roh-ma. They are the custodians of the planet below, a place they call "Asylum". You see, it's for all the crazies they've collected from 50 planets in the area, all loosely confederated. Astro asks about the parallels to the Earth of his time, and Pazz-ko tells him that he and Roh-ma made no designs or promptings. What was created below is the result of the will and desire of the asylum's... inmates. They live in what they want to live in. The story ends with the team reunited aboard the Captain America, Martinex having been given the components he needed for repair. And then Gerber leaves us with his final political treatise: when asked by Martinex if he's still up for saving the galaxy, Vance replies, "Why not? It's a mission for a crazy man if ever I've heard of one."

Karen: Yeah, parallel culture development. Like I said at the beginning, not my cup of tea. Tie that to the idea that modern humans are completely crazy, and this issue gets a big yawn from me.


Doug: As I said at the top, I was going to try to read this with a different attitude, and I think I was successful. I decided this time that rather than react to Gerber's promptings/rantings/warnings -- whatever you want to call them... I was instead going to just let them come to me and approach them with a more reflective mindset. After all, I wasn't in my 30s in 1976, didn't live in New York City, and overall was not that much affected by the Vietnam and Watergate eras. I was simply too young through all of those events and happenings to have understood. But reading this now, as an adult with a penchant for wanting to learn about history, I sort of appreciate Gerber's thoughts. I still feel it's a bit heavy-handed to do this in a mainstream superhero comic, and I'd love to know what "tweens" who read this off the shelf thought of it -- probably that it was just weird. But I'm sure some older high school-aged kids and college students would have "gotten" what Gerber was trying to say. And how about the art? First off, I thought Howard Chaykin's inks were terrible. Very heavy at times, generally uneven, and really didn't help Milgrom (whose pencils weren't terrible). After three issues, I'm still voting for Pablo Marcos as "best inker".

Karen: So far, I agree, Marcos was the best. I completely agree with you about Chaykin. But next time we get -Terry Austin!

15 comments:

Edo Bosnar said...

I'm going to have to go back and re-read these, since the last time I read this was about a year or so ago. Anyway, I recall liking it just fine: I found the whole idea of portraying modern-day (well, 1970s) society on Earth as something like an asylum for lunatics a bit amusing. Although I would agree that Gerber has all the subtlety of a charging rhino here.

I agree about the art, here, though. Chaykin is normally one of my favorite comic book artists, but it doesn't show here. There were certain artists with whom he didn't mesh well, and I also don't think he's very good at inking the work of other artists in general.

And since you both shared childhood memories of cults and the like, I have to say that one of the leit-motifs of growing up in Oregon in the first half of the 1980s was the whole Rajneesh movement (they even bought a ranch and turned into a town for a while).

Redartz said...

Afraid I cannot recall my impressions of this story upon the original reading. Gerber's tendency to editorialize was as familiar as his penchant for absurdity ( I'd been reading Man-Thing and Defenders, after all). Speaking as an "adult" reader, I find the story's socio-political commentaries interesting, if not subtle. And I note Mr. Gerber's familiarity with the function of a certain electronic device: as a teen, I couldn't have described the function of a transistor to save my life...

Colin Jones said...

Is the whole planet supposed to look like New York because making NY the embodiment of insanity seems a bit mean - there must have been far worse places. When I was ten I'd have seen New York as the ultimate in coolness with all the skyscrapers, the Marvel characters, Kojak, Columbo, McCloud, McMillan & Wife and so on and so on.

Steve Does Comics said...

Colin raises an interesting point. When I was a kid - and a teenager - I thought of New York as being cool, glamorous and futuristic. It's therefore a bit strange as an adult when I see TV shows and read articles that put across the exact opposite view. I remember seeing a documentary about Blondie and another about the rise and fall of Disco not that long ago that both portrayed New York in the 1970s as being a grim, bankrupt, crumbling mess in a state of seemingly unstoppable decline. It's strange how a place can create two such totally disparate impressions at the same time.

Dr. Oyola said...

New York is still like that - they're just better at putting a super-rich and/or tourist-y veneer on it.

Anonymous said...

Well, I've been to New York, and I don't consider this comic a slam against the Big Apple. Then again, I wasn't there in the '70's! I think you can criticize or comment on a thing and still have affection for it. Hell, I'm from Iowa, and I didn't get pissed off about Children of the Corn. (We stopped sacrificing travelers to the Corn God, by the way, so feel welcome to come visit us!)
This is my favorite Gerber comic. It's just a classic sci-fi story with wonderful characterization and a wicked ironic twist at the end. Four-star bronze-age Marvel comic book. Good art, too.
I have spoken. mp

Anonymous said...

Whooboy! Gerber really was trying to give us his political and social views here! This the Marvel version of the zany Bob Haney! This is definitely a different scenario from the previous space frog issue.

Like Karen, I'm not too keen on the parallel evolution theory, but hey I'm sure there were some readers who got a real kick from this story. Yes, I've never been to NY either (heck not even the USA) but it sure seems like it was both a sleazy city or a sentimental wonder depending on your viewpoint. Heck, even in my country Trinidad, depending on who you ask it's either a crime infested third world country or the most developed modern oil rich Caribbean nation. The truth is, like NY, it's a little of all the above.


- Mike 'good thing Yondu didn't hiccup when he whistled for his yaka arrow' from Trinidad & Tobago.

Fred W. Hill said...

It should be noted that Gerber came from Missouri and wound up living in Hell's Kitchen when he moved to NYC to work for Marvel. NYC, like so many other big (geographically and population wise) cities has its glamorous side and sleazy side and everything in between. Some of the social commentary in this story probably went over my head when I first read this 38 years ago but I still loved it -- not quite as much as Starlin's Warlock madness, but only a couple of pegs behind that in my estimation. And, yeah, Vance was very much a jerk in this run, rather unusual for someone who previously, and under the very same writer, came off as a Captain America type character. Reading this again now I get the sense that Gerber was writing Vance as someone close to the edge of a mental breakdown, trying to hold on to his sanity and being a bastard to everyone else in the meantime.
Also, of course, here we also get Gerber's variation of the classic Star Trek episode where Kirk & the gang wind up on a planet where aliens have adopted the mores of 1930s U.S. gangster movies. Who cares if Lee & Kirby had already done it in the FF, Gerber & Milgrom had a lot of fun with it and I had fun reading it.

lilbaggie said...

Edo, I had the exact same reaction to Howard Chaykin's work here as to the 1979 World of Krypton mini series which he supposedly pencilled.

I had always assumed his pencils on that project were obscured by heavy inks from Frank Chiarmonte and Murphy Anderson… but read in an issue of Back Issue magazine that Alan Kupperberg had ghosted all three issues. I wonder if the same thing happened here.

Chaykin has a very distinctive style and look, even in his early work. This looks a lot closer to Kupperberg than to Chaykin. Just speculatin'…

Anonymous said...

I think Fred summed it up pretty good. The point of science fiction, (which we all love, or else we wouldn't be here) has less to do with real science or even logical plausibility then it has do with social commentary, or just good ol' fashioned storytelling.
I always thought this was an amazing comic, one of those weird jems like Starlin's stuff that made comics interesting.
I mean, standard superhero stuff could get pretty old. I liked Vance, I liked the fact he was an ornery bastard, and I liked the way the characters in the comic played off each other. It was a petty damn fine piece of writing, in my opinion. mp

Anonymous said...

"pretty" I meant. bad typing.

Edo Bosnar said...

Interesting point about Chaykin, lilbaggie. I only recently learned that he probably didn't do the art in that World of Krypton mini (which makes sense, because it really doesn't look like his work at all), so you might be right about this issue as well.

Edo Bosnar said...

Oh, and Doug, I keep forgetting to mention: yes, I also immediately thought the woman with butterfly wings looked like the character from the 1970s Inhumans series (her name was Iridia, if memory serves).

Goldenrulecomics said...

I haven't read this issue since it first appeared, but I always remembered the inmate being in prison longer for stealing cars than the guy for murder! I don't remember much else about the story but at the time I thought it was pretty fun. Inconsequential but fun!

Ward Hill Terry said...

I know I'm late to the party, but this has been on my mind all week. I don't remember reading any of these issues, but when I read the review of the first story I got the impression that Gerber was a misanthrope. This story did nothing to allay that impression. One of his prevalent themes is that humans from Earth are failures and foul-ups. Vance Astro, non-mutated, non-evolved Earthman, is useless and a complainer. It is only the other Guardians who accomplish anything. I wish I had the time and space to expand on this, but I won't here. The only other thing I want to state is Gerber's depiction of Asylum. It comes from such a narrow view of the world. Think of other cities in the mid-1970s. Moscow, Johannesburg, Hanoi, Tokyo, Oslo. Are any of these more or less representative of the whole planet as mid-town Manhattan? Finally, the inmates created their world. They are responsible for an economic system, reliable energy supply, tolerance of different beliefs, and an open, inclusive society. This is madness?

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