Monday, August 11, 2014

Space Frogs and Hermaphroditic Heroes? Marvel Presents 4

 This is the 500th review written by the Bronze Age Babies!

Marvel Presents #4 (April 1976)
"Into the Maw of Madness!"
Steve Gerber-Al Milgrom

Doug: Space frog. It looks like a space frog. Admittedly, I am not as big a fan of Steve Gerber as I know many of our readers are, but then in the Bronze Age I did not really care for Gil Kane or Jack Kirby; I've acquired tastes for both. If you were around last week you will recall that I had some serious reservations about the Guardians' inaugural voyage steering their own title. I went so far as to say, at the end, that had the producers of the major motion picture presently running in a theater near you been shown a copy of Marvel Presents #3, it might be no wonder they shied away from the classic incarnation of the team. In my opinion, Gerber's script was oddly paced and the characterizations he'd used in his previous forays into "Guardiandom" now seemed off. So we'll take a dive into this second chapter and see how we like it. I did remark last time, too, that Al Milgrom's art, under the embellishment of Pablo Marcos, was surprisingly good. I've never been a fan of Milgrom's art, and not of Marcos as an inker, either. But the combination by and large seemed to click. You'll notice today that Milgrom inks himself. So at the end, be sure to leave a comment on the lines as well as the words.

Karen: I really like the cover, although it is completely symbolic. I thought perhaps it was Milgrom inked by someone else, but Comic Book Database attributes it solely to Milgrom. I wouldn't be surprised though if some of the figures (Astro in particular) were touched up by art director John Romita.

Doug: Charlie's left leg seems really off, so I am going to assume that if the Jazzy one touched that cover, it wasn't there.

Doug: We find the Guardians stopped on Centauri-IV, the home planet of Yondu. At the conclusion of last week's issue, the team had abandoned the very Earth they'd helped to free from the Badoon. Each Guardian tried, in his own way, to ease himself into terran society... and each had failed, been grossly dissatisfied. So Starhawk had come up with a mission for the team, one that would take them across the stars. But Yondu felt like in order to proceed, he needed to seek the will of his gods. So the field trip was not planned, but necessary. Yondu went through his rituals, praying for a sign as to whether he would live or die on the mission. He received an omen that he would indeed live. Now last ish I complained about an abrupt shift in the personality of Major Vance Astro. Gerber writes him consistently here from the previous chapter, so I think I begin to see where he's going with it. One of our regular knocks on Silver and Bronze Age characterization at DC Comics is the "cookie-cutter" superhero, showing no discernible differences between any of the males on Super Friends (for example). As no one had really stood out as the loose cannon in previous stories featuring the Guardians, I guess Gerber decided that it was going to be Vance. So I guess I can get used to this. I'll have to.

Karen: Again, we see Yondu seeking signs that he is to continue on with living. The small bug crawling up to him in the midst of the storm is a nice touch. I find Charlie to be very similar to the Beast -a big, hulking guy with a strong intellect. It's Charlie rather than Martinex who decides to inform Astro about Yondu's society and culture. Of all the team, Vance, the man from old Earth, is the least inclined to believe in spiritual matters. But then given his situation, is it any wonder he might not have any faith any more?

Doug: So the team teleports up to the waiting Captain America to resume their mission. Astro continues to mutter about religion/metaphysics, etc. Martinex tries to talk him down, but eventually Astro gives up and leaves the room. As he enters his quarters, we find that his lodging is set up as it might have been when he was a child. Images of Captain America adorn the space. Astro complains to himself about his condition, of being over 1000 years old, yet trapped in his sustaining metal foil suit. Suddenly he is addressed by Starhawk. Astro whirls, and accuses Starhawk of invading his privacy. But Starhawk tells him the door was open; he assumed his mind was as well. This ticks off Astro, who then fires a mind bolt at Starhawk. What follows is unnerving, for both men. For a split second, Astro sees a woman standing just barely in front of Starhawk, but then just as quickly gone. Starhawk is staggered by the bolt, and as he rises from a knee he reminds Astro that he is the giver of light and of life, and while he has killed in the past, he's only once regretted it. This was a strange little monologue, as Gerber wrote Starhawk at one time Christlike, yet more of as a judge/jury/executioner all at the same time. Perhaps that was Gerber's view of Christianity, or at least of the institution as represented by its various institutions/denominations. Starhawk leaves, and Astro wonders what he just saw.

Karen: I was going to remark on how odd it is that Astro chooses to reside in a room designed for a 12 year old -til I took a look around at my own room! Perhaps we are all most comforted by the carefree days of youth. Yet the room is a constant reminder of how unhappy he now is. As Starhawk points out, Astro got to do something few of us can, fulfill his dreams, by becoming an astronaut, but the reality was not what he expected.

Doug: I think that Vance had lost all connection to his boyhood hero, Captain America. It seems like he's very far removed from those values and leadership qualities. I get what's been said about the hand he's been dealt in regard to the containment suit, etc. But he's so far removed from any semblance of a team player. 

Doug: On the bridge, Yondu tells Charlie-27 and Martinex that an object is coming up on the viewscreen. It's a small Earth-based craft, directly on a collision course with the Captain America. It's meteor deflection shields are causing a problem, so Starhawk tells Martinex to employ the CA's tractor beams and haul the craft on board. Shortly, once in the airlock, a figure emerges from the small ship. It's a girl, a Mercurian, and she's feisty! She assumes the Guardians are Badoon in disguise, and levels a gun at them. They assure here that they are not, and ask her her story. We have been introduced to Nikki, the sixth member (soon, anyway) of the GotG. She relates her origin, of the Badoon murdering her parents before her eyes as they subjugated Mercury. She was only 11, but knew how to pilot the family's space craft so took to the stars. She got away from our solar system, and drifted throughout the galaxy for seven years, until this time. Along the way she saw a lot and learned a lot, and allowed the Guardians to see the course she had been on. Interestingly, Martinex said he'd get her some clothes, as she found the CA's climate control system to be a bit cool to her tastes -- he got her some caveman furs. Odd choice...

Karen: Reading this, I began to think about Nikki, who was a new character created just for this team, and compare her to Mantis, who Steve Englehart had created for the Avengers. I like Nikki a lot better. Gerber gives Nikki a background of self-reliance, and although she's clad in a midriff exposing two-piece outfit, she doesn't come across as particularly sexualized. If anything, she's 'plucky' and a survivor, which makes her a good fit for this group. The furs, though, make no sense!

Doug: I think "plucky" is a great term for Nikki. And I agree about the lack of sexualization, even though they remarked that she was 18 or so. We'll see beginning next issue, though, that she forms a special bond with Charlie. As Nikki related her adventures, Starhawk asked her if she had ever noticed a strange odor on any of the dead planets she'd visited. She said that yes, she had! Comparing notes, it was determined that she had been through space zones where a cosmic being had been previously -- draining the life forces from planets and even solar systems. But in the midst of this conversation, Astro again piped up as abrasively as getting your face sandpapered. I don't mind controversy and/or conflict. I guess my main trouble here is that I want to like my heroes. And Gerber is putting Vance Astro into that Sunfire category for me -- know what I mean?

Karen: Basically, anything Starhawk says, Astro is going to object to or belittle it. It feels like he's lost his leadership role and he's fighting back, but just making it worse. The events on Earth obviously took their toll too. But I agree, it's tough to see him make an ass of himself repeatedly after seeing him as essentially a normal guy in those Defenders issues.

Doug: We cut to a farm, but where we know not. Three children play in a pasture with a horse, until a foreboding shadow casts itself over the landscape. The children hurriedly head for a log cabin, but inside to a computer. As they run, they say they will contact Aleta, if Starhawk is not there. He is not, so they sit down to the computer. Immediately a beautiful woman appears onscreen, her calming face quieting the children. Beams shoot form her eyes, and the children immediately turn to get into bed (a Three Stooges bunk bed, no less!). But up on the Captain America, we see Starhawk first take leave of his fellows (to Astro's jerk-like protestations), and then seated in a chair in his quarters, where Aleta emerges from his very being -- no, replaces his being! This was the woman that Astro had glimpsed previously! She stretches, now wearing a mini-dress version of Starhawk's costume. She looks for something to write a note on, but finds nothing. Vance enters the room, and obviously is quite alarmed at the person who greets him. But Aleta plays it off and tells Astro that she needs for him to relay a message to Starhawk -- the children need him. And then she exits the room. Almost immediately Starhawk enters the room, and Vance loses it (again). But as he's going off on Starhawk and how he's so mysterious, yada yada yada, Martinex comes over the comm system and tells them both to get to the bridge -- they've found their planet eater.

Karen: We wouldn't learn the full story about the children, and Aleta and Starhawk, until issue 9, so it was a bit of a tease here. I thought Aleta's costume was pretty lame -maybe they should have asked Dave Cockrum to design something for her? Astro's bewilderment over Aleta and then righteous indignation with Starhawk is par for the course.

Doug: Starhawk readies to head into space to try to get some readings on this creature. Charlie and Yondu explain to Nikki, as well as they can, how Starhawk can exist in space without a spacesuit. He has a biorecorder, and drops from the Captain America. His cosmic sails emerge, and the faceplate drops into place. He flies close to the "creature", and it begins to negatively affect him in multiple ways. Martinex remarks that they are getting no readings, that this "being" has no form and no life essence -- rather, it is "Karanada" to Yondu -- "the emptiness that devours". In our vernacular, I suppose it would be a sentient black hole. Of course Vance has to ridicule Yondu's Centaurian mythology, denigrating it rather than embracing it as a "what if...?" Outside, Starhawk is grabbed by the "creature" and pulled toward its "mouth".

Karen: I have to wonder who thought that a giant celestial toad was a good design for a terrifying galactic destroyer? I can't look at the thing and take it seriously. It looks like it's made out of marshmallow creme. So silly.

Doug: Perhaps various herbs were consumed during those editorial sessions?

Doug: Inside, Martinex is alarmed that he can no longer find any signs of Starhawk, nor of the biorecorder. Yondu bows his head, knowing that his people's prophecies have come true. Martinex relays that Starhawk had left instructions should he not come back, but before anything can be implemented there is a large explosion -- some of the computer systems aboard the Captain America are beginning to malfunction. The team begins to pick themselves up from the deck when Nikki notices on the viewscreen that the space frog (my term) is heading straight for the CA. Everyone scrambles to attempt to get the team out of there -- hyperdrive, anything! They succeed, but not without damage -- the creature somehow introduced a virus into the ship's systems, rendering them increasingly useless. And Starhawk? As the CA zips by, Martinex locates the biorecorder -- floating unattached. Just floating in space.

Karen: This is certainly a cliff-hanger -life support failing, Starhawk presumed dead., and a dangerous space frog on the loose!

Doug: I thought Al Milgrom's art was again pretty solid. He had a bit of a Vinnie Colletta vibe at times, particularly on the opening splash page. He and Gerber do seem to be in tune on the plot, and on Gerber's various weirdities. I've commented that all this seems a bit unconventional, yet Milgrom is along every step of the way. So it works (at least visually -- I'm still not sold on the elements of which I've voiced concern). As I write this, I've not yet read the third book -- my curiosity is up, however, and I declare that even if I didn't "have" to read it, I do think that I would. So there's a sale for you!

Karen: We will see a number of different inkers on Milgrom over the course of these reviews, including Milgrom himself, so it gives us an opportunity to really take a look at his art. I thought his work here was a little rough but not bad. As for the story, I feel it is still getting going. I'm really more interested in the characters than the space frog though!


Edo Bosnar said...

Another fine review, Karen & Doug, and a worthy entry for the big 500 milestone. Congratulations!

As noted before, I like the entirety of Gerber's work with the Guardians, so I had no problems with this specific issue, either. With one exception: the big cosmic toad or marshmallow thing. I definitely agree with you guys, it really doesn't look all that threatening or imposing.

As for the art, I've said before that Milgrom was pretty much at his best in these issues. However, I think this issue really would have looked better if someone else had done the inking. There's a few pages in particular where it just looks too rough, and could have used some refinement by someone like Marcos from the preceding issue, or Austin or Wiacek (who would appear in later issues).

Anonymous said...

"but then in the Bronze Age I did not care for....Jack Kirby" - wow, isn't that illegal ? Kirby blew me away first time ! Yes, congratulations on the 500th review.

Doug said...

Yeah, Colin, the problem with my dislike of Kirby's Bronze Age Captain America, etc. was that it jaded me toward his Silver Age work. It took me several years to get past that and appreciate the entire body of his output. Pretty similar experience for me with Gil Kane, too. The nose upshots got very tiresome. Once I laid eyes on his Silver Age stuff at DC, however, I came to see the true talent.


Edo Bosnar said...

Yep, I'm also one of those who did not like Kirby's art at all when I first saw it (and he's still far from one of my favorites).
Far from being illegal, Colin, I think it's actually a pretty common stance of fans who first started reading comics at some point in the '70s - as is Doug's experience of learning to appreciate Kirby after reading reprints from a previous period (either the Golden or Silver Age). That's pretty much my case as well.

Anonymous said...

Awesome job on the 500th post Doug/Karen Karen/Doug.

In hindsight, what I find interesting about the Gerber's storyline was the sense of pacing. Gerber seemed to have a sense of knowing where he was going and not being in a hurry to get there. For this not being a Guardians of the Galaxy comic, Gerber was laying out the bits and pieces of his story at his pace. He introduces the menace, and immediately, our heroes are off on a side trail!?! To do what, develop characters, add layers and introduce story elements!?! Are you kidding me? Where's the action? The punching? This had to be mid-70s its best!!!

Al Milgrom's art, to me, was what comic books were to me. A means to an end to visually show you the story. He had good moments and bad. And he seemed to be everywhere. I bounced around this morning on Groovy's site and caught his work on a Robin two part back up and his art wasn't bad especially inked by Terry Austin. And his art on Capt Marvel vol 1 50 had everybody looking "right" and not very "off". In my opinion, again as a US American, his art, especially when inked by Austin, could be serviceable. I don't think it's anything to hang on a wall, but it doesn't distract from the story.

The Prowler (is to posting what Jack Black is to action movies).

Martinex1 said...

Congrats on 500 reviews. I collected Marvel Presents over the years and I have to say that the goofy creature on the cover kept me from purchasing this particular book for a long time. It was the last to fill my run. I finally got it and enjoyed the story but could not help imagining how much better it would have been if the threat appeared as something more sinister than a ghostly Pac Man. Just weird. In general I like Al Milgrom's art here - it seems light years from the work he did on West Coast Avengers a decade later. The art on WCA soured me on Al Milgrom for a long time and I avoided his work. Funny how a bad spell or bad impression of an artist can stop a current collector from seeing the value in the artist's earlier work. Never been a huge fan of Gerber, but I think the characters and their loneliness (while conversely finding companionship on the team) was compelling. For some reason I also like the masthead and was always curious why Nikki was not included in the corner box. She is in my opinion a very good character - a tough and fearless free spirit and ultimately the heart of the team. I think she was ahead of her time in terms of comic heroines. I also liked Starhawk; his aloofness always seemed realistic in its other worldly nature. He was not a typical hero at all; his strangeness always made me question his loyalty. I always thought that was where the tension came with Astro; that Astro could not trust Starhawk because Starhawk so embraced a distance from humanity, a humanity that Astro so desperately sought.

Anonymous said...

Congrats on your 500th review Karen & Doug!

As it so happens, this was the very first issue of GotG that I ever read, so you know it has special significance for me.

I loved the introduction of Nikki, that marvelous splash page with Yondu and his spiritual connections, the startling revelation that the mysterious Starhawk shared a body with another mysterious woman, and yes, even the space frog. Hmm maybe he belongs to Galactus, with its taste for planet devouring!

Al Milgrom's art was rough but passable, good but not great. Maybe this is why I've never disliked him outright. Gerber, well, what can I say? Good slow reveal of different plot threads here, and great cliffhanger ending!

I agree with Martinex1's (cool name by the way) analysis of why Starhawk and Vance didn't get along; one is purposely distancing himself from humanity while the other is desperate to get it back.

- Mike 'till Yondu gets a widow's peak' from Trinidad & Tobago.

Redartz said...

Congratulations on a fine 500th. review! I must take a minority opinion, here: i actually liked the space frog! Of course, at that time Gerber's oddities appealed greatly to me. I was generally predisposed to the somewhat twisted in pop culture ( Sunday nights finding me faithfully listening to Dr. Demento).

As for the artwork, I feel Milgrom did his best work on this series. There was quite a bit of material crammed into each story page, and Al visualized Steve's imaginings effectively.

Looking forward to the next installment...

Terence Stewart said...

Another fan here who started reading during the'70s, and though I started out with Kirby's early Marvel work in the UK reprints, it still took me a good couple of decades to learn how to appreciate Kirby fully.

Not so Milgrom. I never learned to like his work. He essentially killed Englehart's West coast Avengers for me, and Stern's earliest Avengers too.There was also that awful inking job over Walt Simonson on the first two issues of Englehart's Detective Comics run....Brrrrr!

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