Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Marvel Comics Presents #18

Christmas 2018
Marvel Comics Presents #18

Half a review for half a book about Christmas

When Marvel Comics Presents popped onto the scene in 1988, I had to buy it. The cover story was Wolverine and that first book contained three other favorites: Man-Thing, Shang Chi, and Silver Surfer. And once you bought one issue of the anthology, you were hooked in for the long haul, as that Wolvie story drug on for ten issues. And issue ten featured part one of a Colossus story…which hooked you for the next eight issues, while starting alongside it, around Part Three there began a multipart Black Panther story running for…

You get the picture?

Once you were suckered into Marvel Comics Presents, there was no easy way off the train. You could jump, sure! But you would miss the ending of one story or another and ten feet down the track would probably come a creator or character you wanted to read…and back on you’d find yourself.

I don’t remember liking any of the multipart stories all that much. Seems many had issues with not having enough page count to really feel impactful. Also these solo tales didn’t always mesh well with current Marvel continuity.

The book worked best with it’s short one-issue stories, in my opinion and as a Christmas treat I’m presenting you with this issue from May 1989. At least that was the cover date. Not certain why Marvel would throw out half a Christmas issue in the middle of the year, but perhaps that’s a mystery best left unsolved.

What we do get are two nicely done tales that are more comical than relevant to Marvel Universe goings-on. They are a bunch of fun though, so we need to give each one its due. Let’s start with the one drawn by our fabulous cover artist John Byrne.

John Byrne’s falling out with DC over lack of ongoing support for his revamp of Superman landed him back on Marvel’s doorstep, where he was given She-Hulk and card blanc. So ,Byrne being Byrne took She-Hulk as far out as he could. Stealing a page from DC’s Ambush Bug playbook, Byrne broke the forth wall and turned it into a laugh riot. Not that She-Hulk audiences minded. The art was great and the stories poking fun at the industry, the storytelling process and the character herself were very well done.

Let’s start there, shall we? It’s about half-way through the book and it’s a little number we call…Xmas Tease

"Xmas Tease”
Writer – John Byrne
Penciler – John Byrne
Inker – Bob Wiacek
Letterer – Michael Heister
Colorist – George Roussos
May 1989

Byrne drops us in to She-Hulk’s life and offers a stirring re-introduction to his most famous addition to the Fantastic Four. It’s interesting to note that this is most assuredly the same hair he would later use on Wonder Woman, however Byrne’s skill with crafting postures make this wholly Jennifer Walters. Even if the page had no coloring, you could recognize the more comfortable, less goddess-like She-Hulk over the serious and perfect Amazon princess.

But it appears She-Hulk is brooding over something. I wonder what that could be?

As we filp the page, Byrne lets it fall: even though it is Christmas time, She-Hulk is bored. Easy to see why, since as of Byrne’s departure and her stint with the Avengers, the character was in limbo for a time. Not the magical dimension Limbo, I mean more the creative limbo. She was last seen leaving the Avengers in disgrace after Dr. Druid’s meddling with the team’s minds. This issue marks Byrne officially taking She-Hulk off the shelf and putting her to work around the fringes of the Marvel Universe.

She begins by calling up her old FF buddy Ben Grimm, a/k/a The Thing.

And I want to point out that this is probably a little fan service on Byrne’s part. His drawings of the Thing was one of my favorite images from his FF days. I don’t know if this was consciously done or not, but that second image of Ben on this page has him reverted back to his old non-spikey self for just a moment, at least from the way I view him. 

And Byrne is playing this straight still. She-Hulk is looking for something heroic to do. Ben had no ideas for her other than check with the Avengers. And then Doc Doom crashes through the wall of She-Hulk’s apartment.

…Sorry! She-Hulk’s friend’s apartment. In fact, the place is getting plenty tore up when all of a sudden it happens. 

She-Hulk breaks the forth wall for the first time. Telling Doom they have to finish quick because they’ve only got four pages of story left. And then she puts her fist in his face.

And I meant that literally. Her fist is inside Doom’s skull.

She’s right, Editor-in-Chief Tom DeFalco isn’t going to like having one of his best villains reduced to a corpse. But then Doom’s hands start to make a grab for She-Hulk, and we aren’t at all certain he’s dead. 

Aww, he IS dead. It’s just that mutant master of magnetism, Magneto. But wait! In continuity, Magneto was currently a GOOD Guy. Why is he attacking She-Hulk…ya know? Never you mind. Just go with it. Byrne’s got this one.

Just as She-Hulk has this one using Doom’s body as the wrong end of a rubber band toy being held by your kid brother. The nicest thing about a rubber band is you just let go…(paraphrasing Mike Grell's Longbow Hunters here).

Love this joke about the X-Men and it is easy to see how with this issue Byrne cemented a huge opening for his She-Hulk solo series that came after. In fact, this whole piece is really nothing more than….WHOA! What’s that light?

Holy Geeze! It’s the G-Man hizzelf. Ain’t no way Shulkie can take him on alone and live. Right?

And that’s when we learn this has all been one long telephone call between Ben and Jen, none of this happened. It was all an imaginary story.

However, as Jen hangs up she spies an odd package under the tree. Since it is addressed to her, she opens it and discovers…

That Byrne has fooled us into reading a short test-run of his Shulkie series. 

As with anything, Sensational She-Hulk appealed to people with specific tastes. It ran great for eight issues with Byrne at the helm and then something broke down and he left the book. Issue 9 was titled Burn out!, a clever play on Byrne’s absence. Then around issue 31, he was added back to the struggling title, and his humor carried the book until issue 50 where he left the book again. At that absence, She-Hulk is told that John Byrne is dead and she has to choose the artist who will continue her series. Issue 50 featured art by Frank Miller, Adam Hughes, Dave Gibbons, Walter Simonson, Todd Britton, Terry Austin, Wendy Pini and Howard Chaykin…and John Byrne, himself, proving he was in on the joke this time. The title lasted ten more issues without Byrne before cancellation.

Well that tale…er, can we call it a tale?...um, I’m being told it was more a product advertisement than anything else…ANYWAY, it was fun, wasn’t it. Now on to more fun with the final tale in this four issue sampler platter. It’s a little dilly called A Christmas Card.

"A Christmas Card”
Writer – Glenn Herdling
Penciler – Richard Howell
Inker – Joe Sinnott
Letterer – Jack Morelli
Colorist – Richard Howell
May 1989

Our tale this time is the perversion of a Christmas classic. It all begins with Willie Lumpkin, the ever popular mailman who delivers the Fantastic Four’s mail. Seems they have a huge amount arrive this holiday season and we open with Lumpkin sitting astride them in the 4 Freedoms Plaza lobby.

As Willie turns down the Things offer of joining them for Christmas, a sudden impulse has him inviting the famous foursome to his nephew’s abode for Christmas. Ben accepts, and Willie goes home. In the final panel we see that specter from Dicken’s A Christmas Carol has plans to visit everyone’s favorite Daily Bugle editor and scare some holiday cheer into him. 

Fate intervenes in the form of a powerful gust of wind that rips the address card from his grasp. We know where this is going to wind up going, right gang? Cut to Wille’s apartment at midnight…

True to the Christmas Carol formula the ghost takes Willie on three sightseeing tours. First stop is Willie’s past…

…where we learn that Willie was the third wheel with a gorgeous brunette he was clearly in love with and his best friend. Due to Willie’s shy demeanor, he never makes a play for Lila, and ends up watching the two of them announce their engagement.

With that painful memory, Willie is trying to figure out what the ghost of past, present, and future Christmas is trying to tell him. The fella has no time for questions and wisks him off to his next destination…

…a past Christmas spent with the Fantastic Four. After being invited in to the odd foursome’s even odder celebrations…

…an attack by the villainous Super Skrull ends up with the FF tossing Willie into a panic room-slash-unlit closet for the duration of the battle…and then forgetting him for the next six hours. Aww!

Willie tries to escape the ghost's clutches…

… and it appears he has done so, waking up back in his apartment. But, our persistent ghost isn’t about to let Willie off the hook yet, pressing on to the second vision, that of Christmas Present…

…which happens to be a Christmas with his nephew and his family that very evening. They discuss Willie like he’s got Alzheimer’s due to his recounting his adventures being around the Fantastic Four and even go so far as to suggest putting him in a nursing home. It’s all too much for Willie.

But the shade has one final indignity which to visit on our almost postal postman. The vision of Christmas Future, where heroes gather at Willie’s gravesite only for us to discover that Willie was killed by…

…LOCKJAW! The giant teleporting dog of the Inhumans. Seems all dogs hate all mailmen.

And with that, the specter realizes he may have needed to make a right-turn at Albuquerque and promptly vanishes.

As for Willie though? His entire view of Christmas has changed. So when the Fantastic Four do come to call…

…he blows them and his nephew off. I think that’s just ensuring his commitment to a nursing home later.

Well, number two tale was in no way as fun as number one. And that ending? What a downer, huh? But it was a Christmas story and what did you expect from a blog called “The Crapbox” anyway?

Check my twitter feed for a poll on what types of reviews we do in January! Give it a click and tell us what you’d like to see next year.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Krampus #1

Christmas 2018
Krampus #1

Meet the Lobo of Christmas

Writer – Brian Joines
Artist – Dean Kotz
Letterer – Charles Pritchett
Colorist – Ron Filey
December 2013

Here’s a fun little series to peruse as you sip mulled wine by a nice toasty fire this Christmas Eve. It stars over a baker’s dozen of Santa stand-ins as well as that nasty-to-top-all-Christmas-nasties. NO, I am not talking about that damn Elf on the Shelf.

I mean Krampus, you Johnny-come-latelies. Certainly, he’s grown in popularity in the last few years, what with that big budget movie affair a few years ago. Mostly though, he still is thought of as a European only kind of thing.

His legend has it that Krampus is one of the companions of Saint Nicholas (the original Santa Claus) who was in charge of punishing the wicked children who misbehaved during the year. I love how Central European is a study in absolutes: either children are good and get presents or they are bad and get coal/swatted with Ruten bundles (birch branches or, in some versions, a whip). There’s no middle ground embodiment that gives kids socks like the ones grandparents always provide.

Krampus in myth is a sort of goat in human form. He has the typical goat head, and hindquarters and forelegs of a goat, while maintaining an upright human posture and hands. In all, he looks most like the old images of the devil and I’m pretty certain was the inspiration for some of that shared mythological vision.

As for the Krampus we are about to meet in this first of five issue miniseries comic, he’s pretty much the same as my long-winded intro. However, in the story he was deemed too out of control by the powers that be, namely a counsel of the various national aspects of Saint Nicholas (more on them in the review), and thus had to be imprisoned. That’s where our tale begins.

We start in Bari, Italy, with this fella. Meet Belsnickel, a crotchety, fur-clad Christmas gift-bringer who ran with Saint Nicholas back in the day. He originated out of southwestern Germany along the Rhine and is popular among the Pennsylvania Dutch communities.

Belsnickel has come here to meet someone, it seems. But now that he is here, it appears he’s under attack. 

And while the person springing the trap many remain a mystery, here are the minions serving under him or her…those dancing, dangerous sugar plum fairies.

Belsnickel tries to drive them off, but the fairies are intent on claiming their prize from inside the tomb. Under that lid they are lifting is a very special corpse. As he is overcome by the flying nuisances, the lid finally pops free.

Notice a couple-a-three things here: 1. The fairy queen mentions that they are working for a “boss.” Wonder who that could end up being? 2. The hand that reaches over the fairy queen and into the tomb isn’t that of a fairy. It’s even more evident in the next shot as it holds up the skull.

3. That sleeve isn’t their boss either, apparently. That makes at least three groups involved in this heist and the hit on Belsnickel. And as to the treasure they are stealing? To find that out, we turn to the North Pole as this figure dress in fur-trimmed red watches a newscast.

The bones were Saint Nicholas, himself! And from the exclamation from Father Christmas, the United Kingdom’s embodiment of Santa Claus, it appears this is grave news, indeed.

An elf comes in to tell him that “the last ones” have arrived. This Father Christmas (United Kingdom) has called a gathering, and not a festive one. Appears he and his guests are quite distraught over the theft of St. Nick’s bones. And who are these guests you might ask?

I give you…the emergency session of the SECRET SOCIETY OF SANTA CLAUSES! (love this panel)

What makes it so special is that the back of the comic is a “users guide” to who goes where and many of these names I hadn’t heard before. Joines really did his homework, is all I can say, adding some historical depth to his fanciful tale of desperate Santas. See the chart here:

I love that we have a surfer Santa and a very salaryman Santa and … It’s just a wonderful inventive idea. But, beyond the look of these fellas, each of them have a distinctive personality. Like Sinterklaas (Netherlands)there in front being all “end of days” gloom and doomy. Also AgioVassilis (Greece) telling Sinterklass that his schtick is pretty much played out.

But back to the problem at hands, which may be as bad as Sinterklass portends. He explains how the magic of the bones is what gives all of them their Santa powers.

Not believing this is so (or being crafty enough not to try it himself), Mos Craciun (Romania) proposes that one of them test their resistance to fire by scrambling up the lit chimney. He puts the test to Baba Chaghaloo (Afghanistan), who gamely gives it a try…

…but Baba fails utterly as his Santa powers are no more.

This causes much consternation among the gathered throng, especially since they are in a remote part of the world without access to food. At least Kris Kringle (United States) is worried about food.

The motion is made to escape back to civilization using the reindeer, but…

…their magic is tied to the Clauses as well. That means no sleigh flights out for this group. Luckily, Hoteiosho (Japan) has a plan: get the elves to start working to build a solution to get them back to better climes. He also states that there are other types of magic they could access, looking specifically at an imposing tower like building outside of Father Christmas’s domicile.

This, of course, is the place where Krampus is imprisoned. Come a few moments later and four of the Clauses traverse the tens of yards from Father Christmas’s house to the austere rectangular building. Their intent is to parlay with Krampus, as his powers would be untouched by St. Nick’s bones being stolen. However, not all of the four are convinced this is such a great ideal. Namely Sinterklaas, who has had years of experience dealing with Krampus.

Okay, so we can take a step back with the Clauses unlock Krampus’s cell door and talk about the book. So far this story hits enough high points that I want to keep reading it and perhaps invest in the rest of the series. The differences between the Clauses are intriguing enough to warrant a close look at those other four issues. All this aside from having met the main character yet. Joines has done a great job on the story and Kotz is doing marvelous at crafting differences between Twenty different itineration’s of Santa Claus. 

Now back to our story in progress, as Father Christmas approaches a slit in a huge sealed door and lays it all on the line. 

Of course, Krampus wouldn’t fit the “reluctant hero” type if he didn’t tell them to shove off when first asked to help. 

And with good reason. The Clauses have keep him imprisoned for centuries. I love this bit here about Kris Kringle, the United States' embodiment. 

Father Christmas doesn’t give up easily, pulling on Krampus’s affection for Belsnickel and his desire for freedom. Dangling that last little reward appears to get Krampus’s attention.

Over the objections of Sinterklass, a deal is struck. If Krampus gets back the bones, he is free to do as he pleases. He hastily agrees.

If he fails, his agreement is voided, though. And the only way to ensure he doesn’t go back on his word is through this little device Hoteiosho dreamed up called “The Naughty Bomb.”

And so, thus shackled and with a communication device added to his ear, Krampus calls for his trusty wolf Stutgaard who pulls him in a sled out across the sky.

Which is fortunate, because soon after the Clauses learn that the elves’ magic was affected as well and they can no longer make anything that works.
And with the Elves so dumb they can’t even work an iPad…

…that means that…

It appears that isn’t such a bad thing, as Krampus finds Belsnickel’s hospital room and at once determines the Sugar Plum Fairies involvement. 

In fact it appears all is going too well, right up until Krampus hears two children roughhousing in the hallway outside the room and…

Whew! That was close. Christmas almost lost it’s last hope. But in doing so, he discovers Belsnickel’s hospital chart and an pseudonym used on his health insurance. Off Krampus goes to check it out.

Meanwhile, a bit of intrigue is brewing as one of the Clauses appears to be communicating with the big-bad we haven’t seen yet via magic snowglobe. He’s spying on the Clauses and specifically points out that Krampus is on the case. To which the evil on the other end, plots to send agents to stop Krampus dead in his tracks.

As these events take place, Krampus has made his way to Belsnickel’s alias’s listed home address, which appears to be a storage shed…

…filed with enough crackpot notes and string-tied theories to choke out Pepe Silvia.

Before Krampus can check any of this out though, it appears he’s going to have to take on the Nutcracker…but all that will be done in next month’s issue.

Loved this issue. The inventive use of many different embodiments of Claus and the mystery elements have drawn me in like a cat to a tinseled-up Christmas tree. Great job everyone! Looks like I will be hunting the rest of these down.