Monday, August 25, 2014

Tales from Topographic Men: Marvel Presents 6 and 7


Marvel Presents #6 (August 1976)
"The Topographical Man"
Steve Gerber-Al Milgrom/Terry Austin

Karen: Today you're getting a "two for the price of one" deal. We realized the Guardians storyline we were reviewing didn't wrap up until issue 7, but we had only slotted out for issue 6, so we're going to cover both issues in one post. It may be a little more succinct than normal, but we'll still cover the salient points. Oh, and that scene on the cover? Never happens.

Doug: It is a bit of a grabber, though. From most of the interiors we've looked at so far, the depiction of Martinex is the best I've seen. I'm thinking that Joe Sinnott could work some magic on Marty's face.

Karen: The team has beamed back aboard the Captain America and is stuck watching the cosmic space frog devour a planet. They have no way of stopping it, as their weapons are ineffective against it. It's all too much for Nikki though, and she drops the hammer and heads straight for the creature in hyperdrive. Instead of being destroyed, the team passes through the thing's energy field and crashes onto the surface of ...something. Martinex suggests they go out to explore -that this may be what happened to Starhawk too. But Vance is once again in full-on fit mode, and retreats to his room. Nikki tries to apologize and lure him out, but Vance seemingly begins to crack up, saying they're all nothing but "motes," and then begins to proposition the young Mercurian. Charlie puts his head in the door and sees this and growls at Vance to leave her alone. The big Marine walks off with the girl, telling Vance to get his head together.

Doug: I remarked to Karen a week ago in an email that I really haven't enjoyed this set of posts. I really thought I had read some of these stories 40 years ago, but I certainly did not. Which I cannot figure, as I know I'd have wanted this series -- I loved the Guardians' appearance in the Defenders. But this is all too weird for me. I don't want to read stories where I hate one of the protagonists. And I hate (strong word, I know) Vance Astro. There is no redeeming quality about him. He is rude, crude, full of self-pity, and just a general wet blanket. And then we get this scene. They've known Nikki by now for what -- a couple of days? I believe I recall that Gerber made a point to say that Nikki was 18, but still. Charlie should have throttled Vance.

Karen: It really is hard to feel anything more than contempt for Vance at this point. But he also seems to be cracking up. There's no real other explanation for his behavior.  The Guardians, minus Vance, find themselves on a desert-like world. They soon come across aliens who live just like Bedouins, complete with camels and tents. They are attacked but  quickly overcome their foes. The chieftain introduces them to his son -Starhawk!

Doug: The influence of Jack Kirby's Skrull world where they were all gangsters lives on! Except these guys look like the long-lost relatives of Curt Connors. In the scene with the harem, why were all of the females humans? Man, outer space sure can be confusing!

Karen: We get another story with the "parallel culture" riff -boy, I really don't care for this! Why were the women human? I don't know, for eye candy purposes? I can't think of any other reason. Back on board the ship, a tiny version of the space frog has attacked Vance. He fights back with his psionic powers and eventually overcomes it. He takes it and looks at it under a microscope and discovers that it is essentially a grain of sand surrounded by an energy shell -it's possible every grain of sand on the planet could be like this. He heads toward the radio to warn his team-mates when an earth-tremor occurs. The Guardians also feel it and call Vance. Starhawk tells them to have Astro start the engines. Vance is incredulous, but does it. He blasts right through the soil and past it, coming out the other side, and soon discovers that it was no planet they were on, but a colossal, light-years long humanoid body, composed of mountains and deserts and oceans.

Doug: Do you suppose Gerber meant for Vance's rant about everyone being just a mote to tie into this
vignette with the mini-me of the space frog? Obviously Vance uses the term again, but what is the greater meaning? Perhaps Gerber was mocking man's insignificance in the scene with Vance and Nikki, and I suppose here, further into the story, he cements that by showing that even if man's life is insignificant, he is yet able to be felled by entities even more insignificant than he... Maybe I am over thinking it.

Karen: No, I think you're onto something there. In general, Gerber's opinion of humanity seems to be pretty low, if his writing is any example. 

Doug: I was about to question the vegetation that must have been consumed in coming up with the look and even idea for the Topographical Man. But then I assumed Kirby was playing it straight when he created Ego, the Living Planet. 

Karen: Back on the "man-planet" Starhawk leads the others to a mountain where they enter a cave and go deep underground to discover a huge temple built in a cavern. He says it is the Convent of Living Fire. On board the Captain America, Vance, still stunned by the revelation of the gigantic humanoid, discovers that the being holds a star in either hand -and he's accelerating their growth towards supernova status, and fast. Vance calculates that they are smack dab in the hub of the galaxy, where the stars are most densely clustered. If those two stars explode, it will  start a chain reaction. But before he can do anything about it, his doppleganger shows up -it's a young Major Vance Astro, in his astronaut suit, prior to being put into his foil encasement. Vance immediately recognizes him as either an illusion or something similar. But this does him little good, as the creature strikes out with an energy-sapping tendril.

Doug: I struggled throughout to get in tune with Gerber's take on religion and religious conventions. I keep thinking he mocks it as a belief system as well as institutionally, yet he comes back to it often. Starhawk is often an edgy sort of Christ-like.

Karen: Vance is beyond flawed, but I suppose he's more "human" and perhaps supposed to be more relatable than Starhawk, who is enigmatic. Was the idea to set up two diametrically opposed personalities here? If so, it doesn't really work for me.  Before we get to the next issue, I want to say how much I loved Terry Austin's inks. Can the man do any wrong? He just elevates anything he works on. Fantastic inking job, and my favorite of all the inkers we've seen (including the next issue).

Doug: Agreed. This pushed Pablo Marcos into second place, and I continue to be impressed that I liked his work so much. But you're right -- Terry Austin is the gold standard.



Marvel Presents #7 (November 1976)
"Embrace the Void!"
Steve Gerber-Al Milgrom/Bob Wiacek

Karen: The Guardians enter the Convent of Living Fire and hear a loud wailing sound. The Mother Superior
explains that it is their prayer -a song of joy and anguish. The Guardians are baffled but walk further in, past what appear to be flaming sculptures of women. They soon discover these are actually live women -who quickly burn to ash! And Starhawk tells Nikki she must do this, to save the galaxy!

Doug: So Nikki had to do this because... why? She was the only woman they had on hand? She was a Mercurian? She was a virgin (although lord knows if Vance really wanted to change that last issue)? Additionally, although the Mother Superior had reptilian features, her markings were different from the males of the desert tribe we'd seen the previous issue. Were these nuns their "women"?

Karen: None of this is explained. There's so much left for the reader to try to figure out. Had the nuns been trying to do what Nikki does and failing for some time? A lot of this story felt rushed to me. Aboard the Captain America, Vance faces off against his younger duplicate, giving him the most potent psychic blast he's ever unleashed. Both beings fall to their knees -and then Vance falls to the floor!

Doug: I got a real Rocky II vibe out of this scene. I also wondered if somehow Vance's essence was transferred to his younger self and he'd be freed from the imprisonment inside his foil suit -- that maybe, just maybe, he would quit acting like such an ass.


Karen: We cut away from the actions swirling in and around the Topographical Man, and go instead to an asteroid base far away. The clear dome surrounding it has been cracked, and all atmosphere has been eliminated. No life is present. On a computer screen, the woman Aleta cries for her children, until at last the computer also malfunctions and explodes.

Doug: I've not read all the way to the conclusion of this series -- are those kids hers? They only seem to be referred to as the children.

Karen: Yeah, the kids are theirs. I actually like the Starhawk origin story better than this one! Back in the convent, Nikki is put into a gown and led to a chair for the ritual (this seemed awfully quick). The Mother Superior explains that the woman's body bursts into flame as her mind expands  across the universe. Most die soon after but some do return -only the strong willed. She emphasizes that Nikki will experience supreme ecstasy. Nikki insists she's not the martyr type, but Starhawk is emphatic that only a woman can do this. A switch is flipped and the process begins. At that very moment, Starhawk convulses in pain and takes off, imploring the others not to follow him. So of course Martinex does. They climb up out of the cave where Starhawk transforms into Aleta, shocking Marty. She says Starhawk abandoned the children to the reavers of Arcturus. While this is going on, Nikki slowly begins to ignite.

Doug: Gerber again used this scene for commentary of his own, referring to "the chair" and "the rap". Then his words had the Mother Superior equate marriage to an execution. And how about the Mother Superior explaining what will happen as the ultimate sensual experience? Seemed an odd description. I wonder why, if Starhawk is the One Who Knows, that he didn't ask Aleta to be the martyr? Hrmph -- some hero...

Karen: They all seem awfully willing to let Nikki hop up there and burn. On the ship, Vance has awoken -but he's inside the body of the dopplelganger! He's somewhat pleased to be out of his foil shell, but he can't stop to enjoy it, as the two suns in the Topographical Man's hands have started to go nova. As he tries to figure out what to do, his body becomes energy and is absorbed into the Topographical Man. Back at the Convent, as Vance's spirit enters the Topographical Man, Yondu senses that something has changed. He feels that Nikki's soul is in danger and tries to get to her but Charlie, not understanding, stops him. Moments later, all assembled see the shining white form of the girl's spirit ascend from her body and go off into space.

Doug: I gotta be honest -- what is going on in this scene totally escaped me when I read it the first time. However, on the second read I definitely got it.

Karen: Once in space, Nikki's spirit sees the Topographical Man and realizes what she must do. She
expands to equal his size, and then touches his face to awaken him. However, since the T.M. is the opposite of life, he cannot awaken, and so she has roused another spirit -Vance. The T.M.'s form takes on the appearance of Vance, although it is his-foil-suit-covered appearance. Got all this? The two of them together will work to destroy the T.M. The illustration shows Nikki embracing him.

Doug: Yeah, embracing him with her left leg curled around him. Good grief.

Karen: Back in the cavern, they are experiencing a major earthquake. The Mother Superior is pleased that the T.M. is being torn apart, and says to leave Nikki, she's done her job. But Yondu is having none of that. He picks her up and carries her out, despite the fact that she's still on fire. Charlie clears a path for them and Martinex and Aleta show up and transport them out, just in time to beam back to the ship. They get a look at the viewscreen to see that they were never on a planet...as the Topographical Man and Nikki's spirit are blown apart. Yondu explains for us that, "Nikki and Vance have brought it about the only way possible - by force of spirit alone - causing the demon to engage in an act of love -- an affirmation of its own opposite, which is life!" Well, OK then.

Doug: I got nuthin'.


Karen: Nikki and Vance both awaken and at first seem a bit caught in the afterglow. Martinex points out that there's a new star, right where the Topographical Man used to be. Vance says to Nikki that they felt the creation of it, and Aleta points out that they are holding hands, which makes Vance feel awkward, and he pulls his away. He walks off with Nikki telling him there's no reason to be shy about it...


Karen: OK, well, this is a pretty damned weird story, and although I read it when it came out, I can honestly say I thought it was pretty weird then too. The space frog is like a cut-rate Galactus, or perhaps Thanos, in that it seems to actually desire death. But the frog wasn't the actual enemy I guess, but the Topographical Man? I'm not sure, and I'm not going to re-read it either. Although nothing graphic is actually shown (it was still a Code-approved 1976 comic) the implication that Nikki and Vance had sex is there, and seems like the only reason for the story -there's just not much of a plot here.  The Starhawk story that follows is much better, in my opinion.

Doug: I've voiced here, and before, my doubts about Steve Gerber. And I think it's OK among our friends if I say maybe he's just not my cup of tea. But I will say this about the man -- as we focus on the Bronze Age around here, Gerber's about as Bronze Age as it gets. Karen mentioned the Code, and certainly we've discussed that by the mid-70s the Comics Code Authority had been relaxed or reformed. Gerber was on the edge of wherever that reform fell. And he was loving it. Tip of the hat to the man for that.


7 comments:

Edo Bosnar said...

Okay, I'll admit that the story lost some of its coherence at this point, but I still remember liking this when I last I read it; I just found it amusing - and still do - that Gerber found a way for two characters to (sort of) have sex in a Code-approved comic. And it was suitably vague; I know that when I read this story the first time around at about the age of 12 it completely flew over my head.
Otherwise, I enjoyed reading your review, as usual. And I definitely agree, Austin tops the inkers that we've seen in these Guardians stories, although personally I think Wiacek did a pretty solid job as well.

J.A. Morris said...

The art looks great in the Milgrom/Austin story. Otherwise, not much to recommend here.

When I reviewed these stories for my reprint blog, I ordered it through interlibrary loan instead of buying it. That turned out to be a good decision, as these stories from Marvel Presents aren't tales I plan to revisit anytime soon.
And I say this a big fan of Gerber's work in Defenders and Howard The Duck. It's like he got a title for the Guardians and didn't know what to do with the characters.

Murray said...

This slice of Guardians history ended with a dull thud for me in that previous "New York as an insane asylum" issue. Vaguely interesting to see I didn't miss a thing by dropping the book.

To me, Gerber is what I sometimes call a "rubber mallet comic book writer". In that he scribes whatever story strikes his whim and then pounds on the characters until they fit. Even unto square pegs beat into round holes.

Never been a fan of that style at all, and never been a booster for Mr. Gerber.

Anonymous said...

In August of '76, Claremont and Byrne were working together on Iron Fist. In that story line, The Man Called Angar had Colleen Wing under his control and was going to use her to kill Danny Rand, the Iron Fist. To save her life, Danny used his power to break the spell by melding with her. This is how Claremont set the scene:

Beginning
Two Apart
Visions of lives, separate, intertwined, collapsed in upon each other like a jumbled house of cards.
Memories, thoughts, emotions, wants, needs, loves, hates, fears, secrets…
…all the myriad , private things that make up two people’s totality…
…all crashed banged together.
An instant of agony, of ecstasy, of sharing… yin and yang… balance and chaos…
Together.
One.
Ending.

As expected, it worked and they went on, in the next issue to defeat the bad guy. As Danny attempted to check on Colleen's well being, this is how Claremont handled the aftermath:

Me, I’m glad you got out of the fortress all right Colleen. Hey, it is me. Iron Fist.

I know who you are Danny. How well I know all the hopes, fears, loves, hates, needs, feelings, thoughts. All the myriad factors the make up Daniel Thomas Rand. I know them all. Just like you know me, because of the mind-meld.. “meld” that’s a laugh! I’d use another word for it. And I could kill you for what you did to me.

Then do it! I won’t stop you

I think, in his way, Claremont was pushing the envelope in Code Approved Comics. I can't say I "got it" in 1976 as an 11 year old but I can appreciate his storytelling these many years later.

The Prowler (didn't learn what "it" was until many MANY years later).

Anonymous said...

Whew was ol' Gerber using some psychedelic mushrooms here or what? What a trippy story! Still, gotta love it. Milgrom's art looks good here, but hey he had the great Terry Austin inking him,so that automatically raises the standard.

Personally, I wasn't a fan of how Vance Astro is depicted here. To me, Gerber writes him like he's on the verge of a mental breakdown.

Yes, it does seem that Gerber and Claremont (thanks Prowler) were pushing the envelope when it came to what they could write that wouldn't offend the censors. It's only when we reread this issues many years later that we realize what these guys were thinking!


- Mike 'no subtlety here' from Trinidad & Tobago.

Ace Hamilton said...

I can see where you're coming from with the "rubber mallet" thing. Gerber often was an uneasy fit with previously established characters, but I thought Howard The Duck was brilliant.

Redartz said...

I had forgotten how convoluted this story got...and yes, I "got" the meaning of Nikki and Vance's 'meld'!

Artwise, Wiacek's inks were nice, but Terry absolutely nailed it. I actually have a page of the original art from this issue. It's a kick to get a close-up look at those Austin ink lines.

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