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...