by The Masked Bookwyrm

Miscellaneous (Superheroes) - "E"

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Elementals: The Natural Order 1988 (TPB) 160 pgs.

Elementals: The Natural Order - cover by William T. WillinghamWritten by Bill Willingham, Michael Wolff, Jack Herman. Illustrated by Bill Willingham, with Dave Johnson, Mike Leeke, Bill Cucinotta, Rick Rankin. Inked by Rick Rankin, Bill Anderson, Bill Willingham.
Colours/letters: various.

Reprinting: Justice Machine Annual #1 (the Elementals back-up story), Elementals #1-5 (1983-1984)

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Published by Comico

Four people mysteriously return from the dead with superpowers that reflect the four elements, in order to combat a modern wizard -- with his own super-team, the Destroyers -- who's intent on a world-shattering agenda.

Going into this trade paperback, I didn't know what to expect. I knew  nothing about the Elementals and was unfamiliar with the work of creator Willingham, and I still subscribe to the (perhaps old-fashioned) notion of regarding with skepticism anything not published by the Big Two, Marvel and DC. Not that I haven't read good stuff by independents, or that Marvel and DC can't disappoint, but there's a baseline of professionalism with Marvel or DC that isn't guaranteed with the various "smaller" companies.

Well, my fears were quickly put to rest. The dialogue is good, even clever, as is the characterization -- happy-go-lucky heroine Fathom was particularly effective, and even the bad guys have some complexity.  Willingham's art -- the poor cover notwithstanding -- is very good, with a nice eye for composition, shadow, mood, etc. In the writing and art (and colouring and lettering), it's easily as good -- and often quite a bit better -- than a lot of Marvel and DC stuff.

The story is an odd mix of alternative and mainstream elements, with occasional profanity (maybe three or four times in 160 pages), and the "thou shalt not kill" rule of mainstream superhero comics is less inviolate...although, conversely, when the Elementals kill, it's a heat of battle thing, and the characters struggle with the morality of it -- there's none of the cold-blooded ruthlessness of a Wolverine or a Punisher. In other ways, Elementals: The Natural Order is very much a fun, mainstream superhero comic, with colourful costumes, the team's interplay, glib humour, and flamboyant action. It reminded me, particularly in the squaring off against the Destroyers, of the X-Men circa the late-'70s/early-'80s.

The Elementals is a delightful blend of the off-beat and the cozily familiar.  Much of the action takes place on the villain's island domain (vividly coloured in lush greens -- bad guys or no, you'd want to vacation there), removing the story from the urban landscape of most comics, and because the Elementals have nothing to do with Marvel or DC, there's no baggage, no fictional "Universe" that has to be incorporated, no "guest stars" or references to previous stories. You can relax and enjoy it knowing you don't need a "required reading" list to understand what's going on. The in-jokes are pop cultural, like Vortex singing the theme to the TV series "The Greatest American Hero", or references to the movie "Jaws". The characterization is at once original...and evocative without crossing over into being derivative. There are clever things: like villain Behemoth, a super strong, invulnerable bully...who comically is rife with sundry phobias, or the effectively chilling way one of the Destroyers, who the reader dismisses as the weakling of the group, turns out to be one of the more deadly.

The minuses? You knew there were some, didn't ya?

The story is pretty action heavy, which is fine, I wasn't bored, but there's a sense the fights are crowding out the potential for story -- it's a little too linear in spots, lacking twists and plot complications to justify the length. The story introduces questions, such as who resurrected our heroes, and what's the villain up to -- but when the answers come, they're kind of shrugged off nonchalantly, so that you're a page or two on before belatedly realizing there's been a "revelation". And Willingham gets some art assistance as the story moves into the climax... unfortunately, the art from the pinch-hitters is more uneven.

How well this represents the Elementals overall, I don't know -- whether it remained of comparable standards in subsequent issues. Some references I've come across to the Elementals remark upon its violence. I wouldn't have said this is that violent -- there's plenty of fighting, and it does get a little nastier toward the end -- so maybe the series moved more in that direction later. Another hard-to-define weakness is in the fall-out: after reading Elementals: The Natural Order, I might pick up a copy of the Elementals comic (well, a back issue, since I think it's defunct) -- and I might not. Yet reading The Power of Shazam, for instance, or JLA: The Nail, at least temporarily re-generated an interest in those titles. The fact that Elementals: The Natural Order didn't fire quite the same enthusiasm hints at some sort of weakness, somewhere.

Still, taken on its own, The Natural Order was a surprisingly enjoyable read.

Original cover price: $13.95 CDN./ $10.95 USA.

cover by Infantino Showcase presents the Elongated Man 2006 (SC TPB) 560 pages

Written by Gardner Fox, John Broome. Pencils by Carmine Infantino, with Murphy Anderson, Sid Greene, Gil Kane and others. Inks by Joe Giella, Carmine Infantino, Sid Greene, and others.

black & white. Letters: various.

Reprinting: stories from The Flash #112, 115, 119, 124, 130, 134, 138, Detective Comics #327-371 (1960-1968)

Rating: * * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by DC Comics

When Marvel introduced its Essential TPBs, and DC -- eventually -- followed with its Showcase Presents collections, the idea was to collect consecutive runs (20 issues or more) of hard to find, older comics in economical black and white. But the Elongated Man never had his own, self-titled comic (well, until a 1990s mini-series). Instead, he appeared in the pages of the Flash comics a few times as guest star, before landing a solo back-up spot in short stories in Detective Comics...a couple of times graduating to the lead feature when he would team up with the comics' regular star, The Batman. So instead of simply collecting an old comic, the editors here had to do some hunting, to present the consecutive early Elongated Man appearances.

And you know what? There oughta be a law against having this much fun.

Ralph Dibny has, perhaps, one of the most implausible origins in comics. Fascinated with carnival side show contortionists as a boy, he discovered they all enjoyed a particular beverage made from a rare plant. Distilling its essence into an even purer form, he developed extraordinary malleable abilities. I mean, it's a bit of a stretch -- pun intended -- to get from a carnival contortionist to someone who can squeeze his head (cranium, brain, and all) through a key hole! But once you get past the unlikely explanation, there's a lot to enjoy.

Firstly, there's a nice mix of tones. The Flash appearances are good ol' super hero adventures (from a less gritty era of comics) with some costume foes (The Pied Piper, Captain Cold) and sci-fi (with more than one alien invasion). And the two Batman team ups are straight ahead action-adventure tales. While Elongated Man's solo tales are meant to be mystery tales, opening with some puzzling incident that gets his "mystery sniffing" nose twitching. Ralph is independently wealthy and so he and his wife Sue live their lives as if on permanent vacation, each story taking place in a different local (occasionally a different country). While not ignoring the greater DCU (there are occasional guest stars) the stories are somewhat isolated from it, as the tone is meant to be more realistic with few costumed foes in sight.

Setting the super powered Elongated Man against normal bad guys might seem like an unfair match. But in a way, this isn't meant to be a suspense-thriller where you wonder how will our hero survive. Rather, it is meant to be a fun exercise in the bizarre, as we see what freakish contortion he'll use to nab his adversaries...and also a fun exercise in puzzlement, as the mysteries he investigates are not simply "who robbed the bank", but unusual incidents -- from a crook who tears up the money he's just stolen to something as innocuous as a man who seems just a little too particular about the car he gets from a rental agency. And if the solutions don't always live up to the questions (some solutions being positively goofy in their implausibility) at less than a dozen pages, it's easy to forgive. The mysteries are intriguing enough to get you turning the pages.

And the very brevity of the tales is part of the appeal -- just right when you're settling into bed and don't have time (or consciousness) to read a full comic.

The character was created by John Broome, who wrote most of the Elongated Man's early Flash guest appearances, but it's Gardner Fox who writes the lion's share of his solo adventures. And there's a wit, and cleverness to the writing that I don't necessarily associate with Fox in general -- you could almost believe that he was having a blast writing these adventures. I've had some ambivalence about Fox, because of his redundant use of captions (describing the hero swinging his fist at someone...when the picture shows us that). There were times where I was half-tempted to just skip over the text captions (but you never know when the caption will, indeed, provide extra info). And the contrast between him and Broome is pretty apparent, as everytime I would read a story that was less heavy handed with the would turn out to be Broome. Yet Fox did modify his style, as toward the end of this collection he starts being restrained with his use of captions, showing more faith in his illustrators to convey the action.

The vast majority of these stories are drawn by Carmine Infantino, who originated the character in the Flash. Like with Fox, I could almost believe that there was something about the strip that really ignited Infantino's creativity. I tend to have mixed feelings about Infantino, but I really enjoyed his work here, he seems almost to revel in a chance to portray a more realistic world of regular people in regular clothes (Ralph excepted) and his art helps add to the feeling of a more down to earth flavour. And when other artists occasionally join in, they tend to also be of a relatively realist style, with the likes of Murphy Anderson and Sid Greene (who also inks some of the other stories) and Gil Kane, with one off efforts by Neal Adams, Mike Sekowsky and Irv Novick. I never really considered myself a Novick fan, but he seems more than ideally suited to the flavour of the series and it's a shame there weren't more stories by him.

Of course, the vary "realism" means that there's actually a slightly unsettling aspect to Ralph's abilities that I'd never really noticed with the similarly powered Mr. Fantastic or Plastic Man.

There's a whole tone to the solo short stories that hints at a little more...sophistication, at least compared to then contemporaneous comics. As mentioned, there are no garish costumed villains, and there's some fun quirks to the characterization of the Ralph and his wife Sue, some amusing byplay, that one doesn't associate with a lot of DC characters at the time (Marvel, maybe). Even the fact that Elongated Man had dispensed with a secret identity adds a unique flavour to the stories as he is essentially supposed to be a celebrity, easily identified wherever he goes. And he revels in it. Ralph is a noble good guy, but there is a certain vanity fuelling his adventures -- again, a human character quirk you don't necessarily expect from a Silver Age DC hero. The fact that he developed his powers out of a fascination with carnival entertainers suggests a character who is a showman at heart.

I suppose some fans took exception to Ralph not hiding his secret identity, as it flies in the face of all the other heroes who insist they need to work in anonymity. But, as I say -- Ralph wasn't really playing in the same sand box as the other super heroes. (And, as a kid, that also is what made him interesting to me -- that he was the exception to the rule).

Perhaps what makes the stories charming is that Ralph is, himself, a charming hero. No dark and twisted origin, no tragic motivation. He discovered the formula that allowed him to stretch...simply because he thought it would be cool. And he investigates puzzling mysteries because he loves a puzzle. In a way, he's the dilettante of the super hero set. In one story where he is told Green Lantern's secret identity, he then asks that the knowledge be erased from his mind. Why? Because, he says, there's no fun in simply being told the answer to a mystery.

Ironically, reading a few old Justice League comics where Ralph was part of the team, you realize that in a way, the character loses something portrayed as just another super hero. Ralph is less a super hero than a talented amateur detective who, for all his bizarre (and impossible) stretching, plays best in a realist setting. Heck, in the story where Green Lantern guest stars, Green Lantern barely appears in costume, as if they felt a costumed hero would kind of break the tone.

In recent years, Ralph and Sue have been particularly badly served by DC Comics, starting with Brad Meltzer's Identity Crisis in which Sue was murdered and it was revealed that she had been raped by a super villain years before. Subsequently, I think even Ralph was killed off (I think I read somewhere that he and Sue are now ghosts).

With all respect to Meltzer: who reads these old, light-hearted stories about an affable married couple -- with a slight hint of, say, the Thin Man movies -- and says to himself, "You know what's missing? Sue needs to get raped! Oh, yeah, and murdered, and her body mutilated! Yeah, that'd be soooo kewl! That'd make these stories really rock!" For all the goofiness, the improbable events, I think these stories were written with a breezy sophistication that must've whizzed right over Meltzer's arrested adolescent head.

Though, ironically, it was precisely as a kind of rebellion against Meltzer and DC's current creative regime that I decided to pick up this collection on a whim...and was more than pleasantly rewarded by that impulse!

This isn't the entirety of the Elongated Man's solo stories, and although later period tales I've read were certainly enjoyable (and I have no idea if there'd be enough to fill up a second Showcase volume), I think there's just an extra level of something to these earlier Fox-Infantino tales.

If you're looking for some charm, you don't have to look much farther than this collection.

Cover price: $16.99

cover The Evolutionary War Omnibus 2011 (HC) 472 pages

Written & illustrated by various

Reprinting stories from: X-Factor Annual #3, Punisher Annual # 1, The Silver Surfer Annual #1, The New Mutants Annual #4, Amazing Spider-Man Annual # 22, The Fantastic Four Annual #21, The X-Men Annual #12, The Web of Spider-Man Annual #4. The Spectacular Spider-Man Annual #8, West-Coast Avengers Annual #3, The Avengers Annual #17 - (1988)

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Published by Marvel Comics

Many years ago, annuals were often used as reprints forums. Then they tended to be all-new, full length stories -- usually stand alone adventures, though sometimes used as a climax to a multi-issue story running through the regular, monthly series (sometimes they'd actually be continued into the monthly...which was just annoying). With the popularity (commercially, if not always critically) of crossover storylines (interconnecting most of a company's series in one story arc) both Marvel and DC took to using Annuals as the place to tell crossover stories so they didn't have to interrupt the flow of the monthly series -- though that has declined a bit in recent years (or is restricted to crossovers between only two or three series as opposed to most of the line).

And even with crossover annuals there were two ways of doing them -- as still basically stand alone issues, but loosely connected by a unifying threat (or theme) and crossovers where the plot literally crossed over, so that annuals ended "to be continued".

In the cast of the Evolutionary War, which was Marvel's second (large scale) attempt at crossover annuals, the idea was largely to go the stand alone route. That is, though each issue involved various Marvel heroes getting embroiled in the schemes of the High Evolutionary, the individual conflicts generally begin and end in a given issue.

Tending to regard such crossover/story-by-committee ideas with skepticism, it was with mainly academic interest that a few years ago I decided to make the effort to track down many of the Evolutionary War issues -- just to try a crossover annual "event" (some years after the series was first published and when most of the issues could be picked up in the cheap bins!). And now Marvel itself has decided to release the series in a massive collected edition. And since I've read 8 of the eleven issues, I figure I can offer an opinion.

The premise focuses on the High Evolutionary, a recurring figure in Marvel Comics who has long occupied an ambivalent position of not being a hero, nor a villain, but sometimes one or the other. He's a human super-evolved almost to Godhood and with a penchant for genetic manipulation, ostensibly for the greater good (as he sees it) -- he created the beast men that crop up in stories set around Wundagore Mountain of Transia (a fictional nation that has, nonetheless, served as homeland of the Scarlet Witch & Quicksilver, the FF villain the Puppet Master, and others) and made the Counter-Earth that served as the setting for the initial Warlock series. In the Evolutionary War the High Evolutionary has decided to forcibly evolve all humanity to the next level -- at least that's the general idea. In the various stories, these plans might take the form of an attempt to eradicate undesirable mutant off-shoots, examine the powers of a particular super hero, or sometimes even less obvious schemes.

The advantage to the, more-or-less, self-contained plotting idea at the time was that it meant a reader didn't necessarily have to buy the other comics. The problem when they're collected together, is that there aren't really plot threads being developed from issue to issue. Indeed, one suspects many of the individual creators had only a vague idea what the others were doing (if that). In some issues (notably the Fantastic Four Annual) the High Evolutionary's presence seems extraneous, as though shoe-horned into an already plotted story that had nothing to do with him or his schemes -- though certainly the Avengers Annual (the only one to use most of the comic's pages for the story, as opposed to the others which pad it out with back-up tales) does serve as the explosive conclusion.

In fact, that's worth mentioning: in most of the annuals, the main Evolutionary War related story usually ran 30-35 pages, plus a 5-6 page chapter detailing the HE's origin (a story that was more blatantly serialized from annual to annual) -- but in addition there might be one or two other stories completely unrelated to the larger theme, as well as some pin-ups. Though I don't have this collected edition, my review being based on the original comics, I'm guessing the TPB only reprints the Evolutionary War lead stories, and the High Evolutionary origin chapters, and leaves out the unrelated filler stories.

When I first collected these issues (as mentioned, on the cheap) I'll admit, few of them really struck me as much. The New Mutants Annual was pretty good, but in general they were rather...middling. Not especially well thought out, dramatic sagas on their own...while not really adding much to a greater arc. The writers were of course ham strung by having to write to a theme -- and a character -- they might not have otherwise had much interest in.

Yet read (or in my case, re-read) together, they acquire an added appeal. As mentioned, it's not as if squeezed together between a single cover does a complex plot emerge. But at the same time, as part of a collected edition, no one story really has to be anything more than a breezy page turner. And in most cases, they do accomplish that. Some may be little more than a rudimentary plot wrapped around some action scenes, others may be more focused on character/drama exploration given some justification by a contrived conflict. But most are easy enough to flip through. And part of that is because what this also serves as is a nice little window on a creative/editorial era. On one hand, these might not be "quintessential" periods of the various characters (the FF consist of the Thing, and the Human Crystal and a female Thing! while the Avengers had temporarily disbanded in their own comic, and the group featured in the annual are reserve members -- though most of them associated with the team to make a familiar enough group like Captain America, the Falcon, Hercules, etc.).

Plus there are plenty of guest stars, from the Inhumans, to the Eternals, to the lesser known Young Gods (older, obscure characters who Marvel was presumably dusting off on seeing DC's then being published New Guardians -- which was basically the same concept), to cameoes by Man-Thing and Ka-Zar. And though a Daredevil and a Hulk Annual weren't part of the crossover, Daredevil guest stars in the Amazing Spider-Man Annual and the Hulk is part of the reserve Avengers line-up. Sometimes I grumble about extraneous or excessive guest stars, but here, it kind of suits the feel of this being just a big romp through the 1988 Marvel Comics Universe.

Individually, the various stories are of variable quality. As mentioned, the Louise Simonson written New Mutants Annual (nicely illustrated by June Brigman and Bob MacLeod) tells a decent story and nicely uses what was, ultimately, an appealing cast of young heroes. Gerry Conway's Spectacular Spider-Man revisits his clone of Gwen Stacy, left over from his clone arc a decade earlier, and has some nice Spidey introspection -- though the plot itself is a bit of a mishmash (and funnily, was presumably ignored when Marvel unleashed its second Spidey clone epic a few years later). In fact, mishmash plots mark a few of the issues, as if the writers were struggling to work in the High Evolutionary into a maybe pre-conceived, unrelated story, plus carry along on going character threads -- resulting in a few issues that can seem like, well, a mess (like Steve Gerber's Web of Spider-Man Annual...which also tries to work in a brand new super hero/anti-hero whom I'm guessing was headed straight for obscurity). Likewise, Steve Englehart's Silver Surfer Annual, though a decent page turner, doesn't really make a lot of sense.

In fact, it's not clear why the Beast appears in the X-Factor Annual in human form and suffering from a mysterious diminished intelligence...and then reappears in the Avengers Annual with restored intellect and in his furry blue mode. I assume between the two issues, something occured in the monthly comics.

The Origin of the High Evolutionary story, beginning in the 1920s and concluding in modern times and told in short chapters, is perhaps more interesting than many of the lead stories. I assume much of it had been told, piecemeal, in earlier comics, and this was just an attempt to string it together in a proper, chronological narrative. But as such, though not perhaps exceptional in writing or art, nonetheless benefits from being a slightly off-beat kind of tale when contrasted with the main super hero adventures. At least at first, when (presumably) dramatizing hitherto only vague alluded to events. But in later chapters, when we are just getting recaps of previously chronicled adventures (without the benefit of footnotes to say where they first were presented) the "story" can get a bit disjointed and erratic (and maybe assumes the reader will recognize key figures, to explain why a character named Bob Frank can run so fast -- answer: he's the Whizzer).

In the end, the problem with this collection is, as mentioned, that few of the individual stories are great -- or even particularly good. At the same time, many are okay as just breezy little romps and the whole acting as a flashback to 1988 Marvel Comics, touching on characters and plot lines from that era. The result can be a kind of fun little romp...but probably still reads best fished out of the discount bins.

This review is based on the original comics.

Cover price: $74.99

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