Monday, August 3, 2015

Sharing the Fight Together -- Champions 12


The Champions #12 (March 1977)(cover by Dave Cockrum)
"Did Someone Say... the Stranger?"
Bill Mantlo-John Byrne/Bob Layton

Doug: When I was a freshman in high school I split my football season oscillating between the "A" team and the "B" team. I was a bit undersized for the line positions as compared to a couple of the 14-year old brutes in my class, but I guess I must have done something right (periodically at least) to get called back up a time or two throughout those three months. I reflected on those days while reading our comic of the day. Let's face it -- we don't all have the same talents, body types, attitudes, etc. Each of those attributes goes into our ability to perform at a necessary level for the task at hand. So as I was reading I kept coming back to a question we've asked so many times on this blog: Why did some Bronze Age titles last longer than others?, why did some seemingly good ideas crash?, and so on. The Champions was a team I always thought should succeed. Throw two Avengers, two X-Men, and a popular Ghost Rider together and what's not to love? Shoot -- the marketing possibilities should have been inherent to the characters. But as we all know, this title didn't have whatever it was that could have elicited the "call up" to prime time status. In fact, as we get into today's review I'm going to posit that I am surprised it lasted as long as it did!

Karen: Well partner, you know I spent a lot of time on this question, when I wrote an article on The Champs for Back Issue! magazine a little while back (issue #65 to be precise). I think there were a number of reasons for their failure, but issues like this one, for reasons we'll get into, certainly didn't help improve the team's status.

Doug: To some extent I think we as readers just rationalized, "Well, these guys aren't the Avengers, or the Fantastic Four, or the X-Men..." and just accepted shoddy execution.

Doug: I chose this issue rather than the preceding book in large part to the throwdown that dominates the first half of the story. Having purchased this off the spinner rack as an almost-11-year old, the visuals were striking to me -- giant on the cover (check) and on the splash page two more giants (check and take my money, please). I've told of my affinity for Hank Pym and for Colossal Boy several times -- I don't know why, but I just think visually giants are the best part of any comic they're in. Maybe you're in the "everything's better with gorillas" camp. Me = giants. So as I'm coming back to this as a 49-year old (I read this while out in Washington DC a few weeks ago), I'm pretty eager to renew my sense of wonderment. Yeah, no -- that didn't happen. So what went wrong? Shall we?



Apologies for the small scanner bed -- but a cool Byrne/Layton 2-page splash nonetheless!

Doug: We open on the roof of a building in Los Angeles, hometown of the Champions. Black Goliath, who showed up as a guest-star in #11 is slugging it out with the Stilt-Man. THE STILT-MAN!! Has the hair on your neck laid back down yet? Me, too. Let's face it -- if we're reading an issue of Daredevil, OK. Give me the Stilt-Man for a one-issue filler until we get the next plot of the Owl or the Purple Man shows up again. But against Black Goliath? Now we're back to another previous conversation -- why didn't that character take off? Great costume (well, if the abs window had been closed... Carol Danvers got it taken care of with her own costume), as I've said - great powerset, association with the Avengers via Hank Pym, and on and on. But if you're going to reduce the character to relying solely on his size and stripping away what made him a recurring character in the Avengers in the first place -- his brains -- then of course he's not going to last long. He's not the Hulk, after all! And let me get a beef off my chest right from the start: the Stilt-Man is a normal-sized guy with hydraulic lifts that telescope his "legs" to allow him to burgle offices and apartments in high places. That's about it. He himself does not grow. But apparently artists John Byrne and Bob Layton didn't get that memo, because throughout the story Stilt-Man is proportionally larger than he should be. So while the splash page looks cool, it's really not. Or it shouldn't be. One punch from BG and we should be moving on to some other conflict. But no...

Karen: Black Goliath was one of those characters I always enjoyed seeing whenever he popped up, but he certainly was never utilized to his full potential. So that made him a perfect fit for the Champions. I agree with you about how annoying it is to see Stilt Man drawn as a giant - did no one look at old comics?

Doug: It does make one wonder. Maybe an issue like that could be due to all the editorial instability at Marvel in the mid-70s?

Doug: So the Champs arrive, and while the pictures are pretty, this quickly devolves into one of the most frustrating things about team books: Why don't teams fight as teams? Here the Champions attack singly... over and over again. Darkstar, Iceman, Hercules, Black Goliath, Angel, Ghost Rider all fail in succession and it's almost comical. Against the Stilt-Man if you didn't catch that earlier. And the big guy gets away. From all of them. Of course Herc wants to go after him, but BG says no way -- it's his fight and he'll end it. So off he goes in pursuit while the team heads back to their HQ. Black Widow had gone ahead of them and had found a Ms. Reggie Claybourne, a woman in possession of an item wanted by the Stilt-Man. Reggie relates a tale (in what passes for "urban language" in Bronze Age comics) of how her husband had come into possession of a glowing box of something after having been assigned the task by some underworld types. He stole the deal from Stark International, and it doesn't look good. So Herc swears the lady will have their aid, but before they can make the next move the wall begins to glow!

Karen: The Stilt-Man. The Champions couldn't even beat the Stilt-Man. They spend six pages trying to stop him, and fail miserably. Honestly, any single one of them should have been able to beat him, and certainly he should be no problem at all for Hercules. But no, Stilt-Man actually kicks Hercules away! So even an Olympian God becomes a loser when he hangs around with these guys! And I think that sort of exemplifies one of the biggest problems with the book - the team never felt like they were big league, despite having some major players. 

Doug: I fully agree. Hey, and when you think about the battle that begins this book, I'm wondering if the 2-page splash (so three full-pagers to begin the story) was in large part because the plot was so weak?

Doug: Shortly, as the radiant area continued to enlarge, the Stranger of all people steps through! Say, you ever get a load of that fella's togs? Pretty big dude, and pretty awful outfit. Strip away that green belt and whatever-it-is, and he's wearing a big red Onesie. Pretty scary. So he's not happy, says he doesn't have much time, neither does the universe, and he needs what Reggie Claybourne has. Yeah, right. Darkstar again attacks first (did we Americans have a stereotype of Russians as headstrong? Because Natasha always remains pretty calm, at least in this book), and gets eye-zapped. Bobby's next -- nothing. Natasha and Johnny -- hand-zapped, and then Blaze is telekinetically launched across town. Darkstar is able to save him from taking the ultimate header, but they're away from the fray for the time being. Herc picks up some machinery a la Ben Grimm, only to have it melted by the Stranger's soul gem. While all this is going on, the telly is on and showing news reports of Black Goliath's battle against the Stilt-Man. I suppose it's a nice juxtaposition of two fights, but again -- the first one should be over, and this new one is progressing so much the same way that I began to think the Champs would never win a battle. No wonder they got cancelled!

Karen: While the Stranger is certainly an improvement on the Stilt-Man, he really moves the Champs out of the realm of being the "team for the common man" as they had proclaimed themselves. Although you could argue that the Stranger is an old foe of Angel and Iceman, since the two faced him in his first appearance way back in X-Men #11 in May 1965. Regardless, I guess I'd rather see the big shorts-wearing alien than Stilt-Man. "Onesie" - nice one Doug. What was it with Kirby and giving all these giant, near-omnipotent beings leg-baring outfits?

Doug: I'm going to defer to a psychoanalyst on that last question. Too many possibilities racing through my mind right now!

Doug: So while all these shenanigans are taking place, Reggie notices that the glowing box that was in the paper bag is no longer there but has in fact been replaced by what looks like an alien igloo. And it's glowing and growing quickly. Reggie is swallowed by the thing while she cries for help. The Stranger turns with a concerned look just as the Angel pummels him right in the kisser. Ah, impetuous Warren Worthington. The Stranger grabs him angrily, then makes him listen to the history of this menace he calls the Null-Life Bomb. The Stranger had brought it to Earth to pass judgment on our planet, but was thwarted by the Silver Surfer. During that battle, an earthman had sacrificed his own life to disarm the bomb. The Stranger left, contemplating whether or not he'd judged humanity too harshly. But only days ago he sensed that the bomb had become active again, hence his journey to Earth to claim it. The Null-Life Bomb is basically a mechanical black hole, growing and swallowing all life in its path. The Stranger remarks that it is over -- the one thing in the universe that can stop the bomb cannot be obtained. Natasha, the most sensible of her teammates, says wait -- if there's a way at all it needs to be found. The Stranger, in his best "to be continued" manner, says that there is one way, but that it will be virtually impossible. And then, prior to departing our plane, he teleports six Champions to the realm of one Kamo Tharn (last seen in Thor #235). Herc warns everyone to be on guard, because this is going to get rough.

Karen: There are a couple of things that I liked in this second half of the issue. When I first read this story, I thought the idea of the Null-Life Bomb was pretty cool. And it's still kinda neat today. I also was intrigued by Johnny Blaze's interest in Black Widow, and if that could go anywhere, seeing as how he had his own title and presumably his own love interest in it. But I have to agree, too much recap, the interspersed scenes with Goliath were ho-hum (if anything, how long it took him to defeat Stilt-Man only made him look worse), and the last page, revealing next issue's big threat to be a grade C Thor villain nobody cared about in the first place, was less than thrilling.

Doug: I know Bill Mantlo is a respected scribe among our readership. His work on the Champions was certainly a step forward from what had come before in that mag. But this issue's dilemmas, and next issue's conclusion, certainly could have been combined and fit into one 20-page story. It's one thing if the storytellers create tension, giving the reader a sense of dismay in regard to the well-being of our protagonists. I never felt that. The first half of this tale instead ended up being really frustrating for me because I just knew if this were "real" we most likely wouldn't have even read about the Stilt-Man battle in the papers. It should not have been worth mentioning. But instead I spent 10 minutes of my time on it. Jeez, I sound grumpy. I'm really not, and I don't usually dwell on things like the query "Does it hold up?" because I normally don't know what that means. But this book's the poster child for what we loved as kids and read later as adults and have a long pause to wonder why in the world we'd have liked it in the first place. Again, the art is nice (aside from my quibble about Stilt-Man's body size) and moves the reader through the plot. But the plot itself needed some work.

Karen: I don't know if you're grumpy so much as frustrated. I've always had a sort of love/hate feeling for The Champions, because I wanted to like it more than I did. It seemed like it was starting to come along when Mantlo came aboard and we had fairly consistent artwork from Byrne (although I liked Bob Hall as well). Sometimes you can throw a hodge-podge of characters together and make a team book work; and sometimes, you can't. The lack of any real reason for their existence, coupled with less than sensational stories, left me always wanting more. I think the Champions stories and ideas I had in my head were (and are) what made me enthusiastic about the book.

Doug: This book (and title) should have been better than it was...


28 comments:

Colin Jones said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Edo Bosnar said...

"This book (and title) should have been better than it was..."
Hear, hear. I obtained the whole run of Champions a few years after it was cancelled, and that statement best sums up my own thoughts on it. Yes, the later issues did have better art, but the stories still weren't up to par.
Otherwise, I guess I count as one of those Mantlo fans you mention, because I certainly liked his work on Micronauts, Rom, Hulk, Spectacular Spider-man, etc. But that doesn't mean I can't be critical, and I'll readily acknowledge that (in the late '70s especially), he hacked out quite a few stories in various titles, often fill-ins. However, I can't help but think if Champions somehow managed to escape the cancellation ax, Mantlo might have actually turned it into solid series (provided, of course, that he had stable art team).

The Groovy Agent said...

I agree, this issue is a mostly-mediocre page turner, and the Champions was better in concept than execution, but I absolutely love the conclusion in the next issue. Byrne and Layton really rip it up, and Mantlo's plot (while hinging on what many call "silly" but I call "clever" hide-and-seek ploy) is very exciting--a better ending than even, for example, the Kree/Skrull War finale. But that's just my opinion. They say I'm very easy to please! ;D

BobC said...

I'm with Miss Karen on this one. I bought most of the Champions' run, but honestly can't recall any story that made me say wow! I liked all the characters individually, but didn't feel like they meshed at all. Even though I think Black Widow is a great character, she was still in her bipolar stage where she was constantly harping and whining. Remember her brief romance with Hercules? And she would sting him anytime he made her mad? I hated that. I mean should Herc haul off and smack her when she misbehaved? No. Anyway. Back in the 70's/80's I like Avengers best, X-Men 2nd, FF 3rd, and probably Champions last. Never got into Alpha Flight.

dbutler16 said...

I agree with Doug and Karen about Black Goliath, he was a character I always enjoyed seeing, but they didn't do much with him, and emphasizing his scientific expertise would have been a good idea.

Also, as to why The Champions didn't last longer, it looks like the battle vs. Stilt-Man is exhibit A.

Gary said...

I was 11 or 12 when the Champions came out and I loved them. However, I didn't remember anything about the stories themselves, just that I liked the series and characters.

I bought the entire run a few years ago and yeah, it wasn't that good. I still enjoyed reading them, but it was more for the nostalgia.

J.A. Morris said...

With the (major) exception of Micronauts, I can't think of Mantlo doing a lot of good with team books. He was better suited for writing loners like Rom and Hulk.

It's funny how good art can distract you from mediocre storytelling. I picked this up as a back issue when I was 14, during a time when I was trying to collect every Byrne-penciled issue. I re-read it when it was published in a tbp and had the same questions as Karen and Doug. Stiltman? I'm guessing that Mantlo had limited villains that he was allowed to use, since Champions was a B-level title.

William said...

My first introduction to the Champions was in Avengers #163, when Hercules, Black Widow, and Iceman fought Iron Man (for a really stupid reason). But it was a cool battle, and it stuck with me, as I remember it pretty clearly to this day.

I liked that story a lot, but I never did pick up any of the Champions comics back when they were on the spinner rack, because I had to spend my limited funds wisely back then. So, I used what money I had to pick up Spider-Man, The Avengers, X-Men, and Captain America, etc. I just couldn't afford to experiment with the "B" Teams.

As a result, my only other exposure to the Champs back in the day was in Spectacular Spider-Man #17 and 18, which was an epilogue to the Champions title after their book was cancelled and the team broke up. (Much in the same way they used Marvel Team-Up to tie up loose ends on Iron Fist's cancelled title).

Those two brushes with the Champions always left me curious about what their actual comic was like, and a few years ago I got the chance to find out when I picked up "The Champions Classic" Vol. 1 and 2. A couple of full-color TBPs that reprint every issue of the original title. So, I got to read every issue all at once, and I must agree that the stories didn't exactly light the world on fire. I thought the book had kind of a "Defenders" vibe going on, with an unrelated group of heroes loosely banded together to form an eclectic mishmash of a team. However, the Champions didn't quite have the same mass appeal as the Defenders. Maybe it was the lack of any star players like the Hulk, Doc Strange, or Namor.

Sad thing is, I thought the book was actually starting to pick up a little steam and get better (especially in the art department) right around the time they pulled the plug on it. Ahh well, the same thing happened to the aforementioned Iron Fist as well.

Edo Bosnar said...

Forgot to add that I also like Bill Foster (Black Goliath/Giant Man), and thought he made a great addition to the Champions. But man - and I've mentioned this here before - that poor guy got no respect. As I recall, he even got pummeled by Stiltman in his own title.

pfgavigan said...

Hiya,

Well, everyone on this book was so young, so early in their careers. The Champions was definitely a 'C' level book as far as internal politics in the Marvel editorial offices was concerned and was assigned talent accordingly. This ties in with yesterday's blog topic, it was a book published primarily to create work.

I want to stress that this isn't a slam at any of the people working on the book. You've got to learn your craft by doing. These guys did and they all got better at doing it. Although the weird thing is that they grew in story telling ability they all seemed to lose some of the spontaneous energy, the sheer goofiness that can make books so fun.

seeya

pfgavigan

Colin Bray said...

I don't have this issue, sadly.

But the cover and art published here look sweet, especially the Black Widow. I was seven years old when this issue was published and seeing the Stilt Man take out The Champions wouldn't have fazed me then but does look ridiculous now.

What a pity the title never flew. Does anyone know, was the original concept editor or creator driven?

Colin Bray said...

PS - thanks pfgavigan, you answered my question while I was asking it!

pfgavigan said...

Hiya,

To Colin Bray;

It's really hard to figure out what was going on at Marvel at the time. Stories of in office intrigues abound and some principal participants have demonstrated less than reliable principles. So this is the very bare bones story behind the creation of the Champions. If somebody else knows the true story, or has heard a different one, please share it.

Tony Isabella wanted to write a team book. All of them were taken and he was low man on the totem poll of Marvel writers at the time so nobody was going to be removed for him to get a slot. He and the editor at the time looked around for a set of characters that weren't being used at the time in other team books and built a comic around them.

That is, as I understand it, the behind the scenes origin of The Champions.

Really, it's as good of a reason to put out a comic book as many that I've heard.

seeya

pfg

No man's principles are complete,
Great Galileo likes to eat!

William said...

I reread my earlier post and realized it came off kind of negative towards The Champions comic. Au contraire, despite the fact that the writing and art (at least early on) didn't exactly revolutionize comics storytelling, I still liked the book. I love the out there concept of just throwing those particular characters together on a team. It had a goofy weirdness that gave the Champs a unique charm all their own.

I highly recommend picking up the trades and checking it out.

Colin Bray said...

Thanks for the response pfgavigan, very illuminating. So the book was created on pretty shaky ground. If it had a strong core concept to back up the office politics it might have stood a better chance of longevity...

Dr. Oyola said...

I wrote about Black Goliath a few years ago and despite my criticism of his title, he remains a sentimental favorite and was angry as hell when they killed him off in Civil War.

Anyway, I only every owned one or two issues of Champions back in the day and I ended up trading them for the first issue of the Wolverine mini-series in the lunchroom of my elementary school. The kid I traded them to was convinced that since the Champions was an older comic they were "worth more," but I just wanted to complete the Wolverine series as I had #2 (and #3 and #4 had not come out yet). But anyway, I could not tell you which two issues of Champions they were (maybe if I looked as some covers my memory would be refreshed).

I love the idea of a Champions team, but they fell victim to what contemporary Marvel has decided is the pattern to make team books by - every team must have Avengers or "X-" in its name or it will not sell.

Lastly, I am a Mantlo fan, but that doesn't mean I think all his work is as good as it could be.

Martinex1 said...

I wish I could remember where I read it, and if I find the source I will share it, but I recall reading that the original concept for the Champions was an extended road trip with Angel and Iceman. Following their exit from the XMen they were to go on a cross country adventure. This evolved somehow to more of a team concept centered on the west coast. I also recall that some of the discussion of who would be on the team included Luke Cage and Captain Marvel. Again, if I find where I read that I will share.

The Champions have always had a place in my nostalgic heart, but I can clearly see it doesn't hold up well.

Regarding the Stilt Man, I cannot recall if this came before he developed Adamantium stilts and a power suit of some kind. He actually battled Thor in that suit.....yes Stilt Man battled Thor. Oh, the good old days !

Anonymous said...

Well, it ain't Shakespeare, but the art does make up for a lot, as others here have noted.
I kind of like the idea of Stilt-Man knocking over Hercules. I bet he didn't want that to get around! It was an okay comic in a cheesy sort of way.
I also quite enjoyed the fact that the Stranger was not in the least impressed by Ghost Rider. He's cosmic; hellfire ain't gonna faze 'im.
m.p.

Karen said...

Hey gang, isn't it amazing to see that a third-rate team like the Champions still generates so many comments? There's obviously something there that still pulls people in.

I am still at work (still!) and don't have my notes or access to the Champions article I wrote for Back Issue, but I will attempt to lay out the Champions meta-origin as best I can. Martinex has the basics. Tony Isabella wanted to do a buddy book with Angel and Iceman on the road. He told me his concept was basically "Route 66" with the two of them. He took this to the powers-that-be, and they nixed it, but -they wanted to do another team book. Now why they would want to do that, when they had I believe 7 team books at this point, I have no idea. But the editors, who I recall were Marv Wolfman and Len Wein, told Isabella he'd have to add members -a strong guy (Hercules), a woman (Black Widow), and someone who had their own title. This was debated but wound up being Ghost Rider, which as artist Bob Hall said, made absolutely no sense. Isabella wasn't thrilled with something so far from his original concept, and eventually it was handed over to Mantlo.

Initially senior, veteran pencillers Don Heck and George Tuska were on the title, but as the downward plunge went on, Hall and fellow newcomer John Byrne were brought on. As mentioned before, as newbies, they had cheaper rates, so putting them on a failing book was pretty much standard practice.

That's most of what I recall -if you want all the details, might I suggest purchasing Back Issue 65? ;)

Martinex1 said...

Thanks Karen. My memory is not what it used to be... I was probably referencing your article. Ha. Thanks for filling in the blanks.

pfgavigan said...

Hiya,

Karen and Martinex1, thank you very much for the background info, much appreciated.

Sometimes a catastrophic failure is more interesting than an unqualified success.

seeya,

pfg

Anonymous said...

Oh man Karen and Doug you all sure know how to jog a guy's dead brain cells! I read this very issue many, many moons ago back in the day as a kid, so looking at it again here really got my memory working overtime.

I think pfgavigan hit the proverbial nail on the head as to the creative process for the Champions. You have a set of unused characters lying around, so why not put them into a team and see how it works out? It worked for the Defenders, so why not Herc and company?

Admittedly, Stilt-Man (hereafter shortened to Stilty) and the other villains were not exactly the greatest choice of adversaries, but I guess Mantlo had to work with what little he had, or at least what characters they gave him.

Martinex1, I have that issue where Stilty battles Thor in his new adamantium armor, and boy it was a hoot to see a B-level villain duke it out with the Thunder God. Thor exclaims something like 'his armor doth fire high intensity concussion charges!' in this issue. It's not the exact quote, but boy I laughed at that juxtaposition of faux Shakespearean speech with modern munitions!

Yeah, like William said, even though I never collected all the issues of the Champions' limited run, I do think the series was picking up steam when they pulled the plug on it. This team was always one of those series which would have gone further had there been a concerted effort to push it more. I think in the modern age today the Champions would have gotten a longer run, but that's just my opinion.


- Mike 'until we get a Marvel vs DC matchup between the Champions and the Losers' from Trinidad & Tobago.

Colin Bray said...

Thanks for the response pfgavigan, very illuminating. So the book was created on pretty shaky ground. If it had a strong core concept to back up the office politics it might have stood a better chance of longevity...

Colin Bray said...

PS - thanks pfgavigan, you answered my question while I was asking it!

Humanbelly said...

Oh golly-- really busy week on tap myself, too.
As an addendum to the quite informative and interesting discussion and bit of speculation above, I'll toss in that for me personally the team (I have the whole run, yep-- all off the spinner rack at one or the other of our two grocery stores) hit a very early false note with that ridiculously forced "Team for the Common Man" mission statement. Even then, at my most dedicated zuvembie-rific age, I couldn't buy that premise at all, 'cause other than Bobby NONE of the original team were even remotely "common-man"-! "This is stupid", was my very first thought at that statement. Hercules was a demi-god; Natasha was a complicated spy/former prima ballerina; Warren was a true 1-percenter; and Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider. . . yeesh, carny? Demon? Showbiz figure?

What's the "common" common element among them all??

Kinda took the wind right out of the sails of creative sincerity, y'know?

HB

Doug said...

HB, I'm not sure I'm following your line of thinking. The Champions were supposed to be defenders of the common man, not "common men" themselves.

By your rationale, should we say that the Kennedys are wrong or incapable of delivering for all of the social justice initiatives the family has pursued through politics? They certainly are not themselves "common men" (and of course I am using "men" generically for humans in both instances here).

So I think I have misinterpreted your statement above.

Doug

Edo Bosnar said...

Hmm, I agree with Doug: it seems like they wanted to say the team would help out the common man, rather then actually be or represent everyday, ordinary folks. Although I'm not sure how they actually did that in the series itself. It's not like they went around knocking the teeth out of slumlords or something similar...

Dougie said...

The "Chanpions of the Common Man" theme is picked up a few years later in Conway's JLA issues ( around 79-80, IIRC) The Olympian detachment of the Satellite JLA frustrates Black Lightning so he refuses the offer to join up and shortly afterwards, Green Arrow has a crisis ( no pun intended!) over the team's goals. Ollie quits (and returns of course) but the approach is revived for Batman and the Outsiders, I'd say, and of course for Conway's Detroit League. I think Conway began the process for Ollie quite subtly with the BL story and you can see that he sensed potential in "street level" heroics long before the Bendis Avengers.

I loved this issue of the Champions back in the day but I can see its flaws here. For what it's worth, I never cared for Ghost Rider but maybe he might have become a Wolverine-level star in the 80s, if the title had survived another few years.

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