Into the back issue box #39

It's back, baby!

It's been so long since I've did one of these, I'm sure I need to link to the ground rules! That's just what I do for you, people!

Namor the Sub-Mariner Annual #2. "Body Doubles" by Ron Marz (writer), James Fry (penciler), Christopher Ivy (inker), Chris Eliopoulos (letterer), and Kelly Corvese (colorist). "The Gift" by Ron Marz (writer), Ron Lim (penciler), Terry Austin (inker), Kelly Corvese (colorist), and Michael Higgins (letterer). "Good Girl" by Ron Marz (writer), Tom Raney (artist), Ed Lazellari (letterer), and Gina Going (colorist). "Namor's Top Ten Villains" by George Caragonne (writer), Larry Alexander (penciler), Don Hudson (inker), Michael Higgins (letterer), and Ariane (colorist). Published by Marvel, 1992.

Remember these "clustered" annuals Marvel used to do, where they would take characters that were linked somehow and spread a grand story across several annuals? Well, this is the second part of a story called "The Return of the Defenders," which started in 1992's Hulk annual, continued in the Silver Surfer annual, and presumably concluded in the Dr. Strange annual. But how does this stand as a single issue?

Oh, it's not that bad!

Well, you can say what you want about pre-Joey Q Marvel, but the one thing the editors did back then (Terry Kavanaugh is the editor, Tom DeFalco is the chief) was make sure people could pick up a stray book and at least follow what was going on. Yes, it led to some egregious monologuing, but this is a comic in which a gamma-radiated "monster," a sorcerer, and an Atlantean trapped in someone else's body battle a demon while a silver-coated surfing dude flies through space, so "realistic" dialogue isn't really all that important. Ah, the curse of Bendis!

We begin in Los Angeles, at the Pan-Dimensional Publishing Building, the address of which is 666 (a shot at the DC offices in New York?). Kavanaugh helpfully lets us know that this issue takes place before Namor #25, in which, you might recall, John Byrne destroyed Namor's life. A security guard goes outside for a moment and is immediately killed. Upstairs, a mysterious man who is completely white (not Caucasian, mind you, but white) gets a message from his receptionist, Miss Schaff, who tells him that he has visitors. He tells her to send them in as we get the splash page: Miss Schaff is obviously not herself, as she looks a bit dazed and is completely surrounded by nasty little demons. Outside, the Defenders show up. In the first panel, we learn that the big guy is called the Hulk, and that he likes to be called "Bruce" or "Dr. Banner." We also learn that Namor's mind (we don't find out who Namor is until later) is in Rick Jones' body. We also learn that the group had some demonic encounters in the aforementioned Hulk annual, and that the security guard is actually dead. That's some good exposition! The sorcerer, whose name we haven't learned yet, tells the audience that Pan-Dimensional Publishing has a book called Spelling Made Easy that has been transforming readers into demons. Well, that kind of sucks. On that note, our heroes head inside the building.

Hulk wants to take the elevator up, but Dr. Strange (whose name we still don't know) suggests the stairs because it will not alert anyone to their presence. We finally learn his first name (Namor calls him Stephen) as he says they should split up. Hulk decides to take the elevator anyway by climbing the cables in the shaft. We get a quick page on which we check in with the Silver Surfer, who is identified in a footnote about his regular book. He's zipping around the universe, heading toward Earth, and he's being watched by a demon, who speaks to his "master," a pair of evil eyes floating in the void. According to the "master," the Surfer will unwittingly help "turn the Earth into a smoldering husk." Well, damn.

Back in LA, "Stephen" does some thinking. We learn he has astral senses, but they're being blocked by something. He enters a plastic surgeon's office and finds a nurse, who unfortunately has been transformed into a demon. She's clutching three scalpels in fist, making her look like a certain ubiquitous mutant. Before we witness the fight between them, we return to the Hulk, who's still climbing the cables. He's a bit peeved because his new shoes were shredded, and it's expensive to special order them in his size. He reaches a floor on which is a fitness center, and when he enters, he too finds a demon - a grotesquely large blue one. Hulk says "Oh man ... get off the 'roids before before somebody puts a saddle on you." I mention this because of something that appears later in the book. Meanwhile, the demon throws a huge barbell at the Hulk's head, saying "I'm here to PUMP YOU UP!" Believe me, young'uns, back in '92 that was Hi-larious.

Namor is checking out a floor that has, on one side, cubicles, and on the other, mannequins. I'm not terribly sure what it's supposed to be - the developmental office of a clothing line? Anyway, one of the mannequins is wearing some green swimming trunks, so Namor decides to ditch Rick's clothes and go with a more "classic" look. Luckily he's not in a body like, you know, mine, or he might keep the clothes on! At that moment, he hears the sounds of fighting on the floor above and correctly surmises that the Hulk is up there. He runs upstairs just in time to get a Nautilus machine thrown at him, followed by the Hulk. They all crash to the ground and share a tender moment that lets us know their true feelings for each other:

Hulk and Namor look deeply into each other's eyes!

But then the demon shows up, and Namor leaps into battle without thinking that he's in a puny human's body. The demon swats him aside, through a wall (which, surprisingly, doesn't kill him) and into a pool, where he's pinned beneath some debris. Yes, Namor is going to drown. Oh, the irony!

Hulk still cares! Awwwww.

On the page following this realization, we see an ad for Fleer baseball cards featuring 1991 AL Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens. I found it humorous that the Hulk tells the demons to lay off the steroids, and later in the issue there's an ad with Clemens featured prominently. Oh, even more irony!

Dr. Strange is fighting the demon and making jokes, but he pauses to exposit that the demon was once human. He also lets us know that in the Hulk annual, a lightning strike helped turn Marlo and Paris back into humans, but he doesn't want to rely on something that random here. So he stands behind his mystic barrier and tries spells on the demon. Back in the fitness club, Namor watches the Hulk battle the demon and realizes that nobody saw him fall in the pool. As he blacks out, he has a vision of Neptune, who tells him that he's always appreciated Namor's worship of him. He can't help him too much, but he can give Namor a small gift - Rick's body will be strengthened by water and can breathe underwater, so Namor is saved! He leaps out of the water and both he and the Hulk bash the demon into unconsciousness. They rejoin Strange and bash the other demon into unconsciousness. Strange yells at them because they might cause damage to the human host, but we quickly move on. Nobody wants to dwell on bummers, man! They reach the offices of Pan-Dimensional Publishing, where they find an evil sorcerer who's acting on the orders of a mysterious stranger. The stranger steps from the shadows and is revealed! It's the white dude, who calls himself "Shanzar, sorcerer supreme of the strange matter dimension." Well, that's handy. Of course, he also tells them that they should know his name, as the three of them met him in Incredible Hulk #370-71 (well, he doesn't tell them that, but Kavanaugh's footnote tells us). Oh, and he's also possessing Namor's body. Namor doesn't think that's sporting.

Shanzar, like any good villain, must explain his entire plan, and we learn that after he was thwarted in the earlier encounter, he began "exploring other realms." While exploring, he came upon a "disembodied elder being, a dark power hungering to be returned to the flesh." His body happens to be on Earth (of course - it couldn't be on an uninhabited planet on the other side of the galaxy, could it?) and this being told Shanzar to possess a body "hardy enough to sustain [him] for the week required to orchestrate the wild one's rebirth." Namor's body fit the bill! In return, the "wild one" will give Shanzar a permanent body, as he's burning out Namor's. He traps the Hulk and Strange, knocks Namor unconscious, and his sorcerer apprentice drags Rick's body away. Shanzar says they need one more demon to "complete a portion of the summoning," so he has to go. He leaves through a door and when the Hulk tries to follow, the aperture leads ... well, outside the building. Hulk crashes to the ground, and when Strange joins him, he asks the magician what's next. That sounds like a cue for something dramatic, and the sultry Silver Surfer provides the moment, showing up behind them and reiterating the Hulk's question. What, indeed, is next? Find out in Silver Surfer Annual #5!

Before I break the main story down, I should point out the three other stories in this issue. Ron Lim draws a story that takes place in 1943. Namor shows up at a castle on the Irish coast (it's probably just down the road from Cassidy Keep) and gives a woman named Siobhan a present. He's been visiting her and proclaiming his love for her for a while, we're led to believe, but she can no longer wait - she has a new lover! Worse, it's Baron Blood! Marz doesn't tell us much about the baron beyond that he's a vampire and he's an ally of the Nazis. So, you know, he's eeeeeeevil! Namor fights him until Siobhan tells him that she chose the baron because he makes her squeal like a rhesus monkey when they're in bed together. Oh, of course she doesn't say that! She just wants a companion, and because Baron Blood made her a vampire, they can be together forever. Namor gets grumpy and leaves. Siobhan fades into the darkness with Baron Blood. Oh, the tragedy! The next story focuses on Spitfire, who is shopping with Namorita (it's interesting to see minor characters in comics from years ago, as Spitfire has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance recently in Captain America and now Captain Britain and MI 13). A sleazy photographer accosts them and offers to shoot Spitfire for a magazine cover. Jacqueline - Spitfire's real name - was around in World War II, and now she's young again, but she's still uptight about her looks. Namorita convinces her to go, and she starts to enjoy it as she wears swimsuits and lingerie and other tiny pieces of clothing. Then the photographer tells her to take it all off, and she freaks out at him, beating him to a pulp. He thinks he took photos and can sue her, but his pictures show only a blur beating on him, so his plan is foiled! It's a cute little story, and it's always fun to see artists like Raney early in their careers. Finally the top ten villains story is one of those info-dumps where someone is updating computer files, and there's not much to say. Well, except that Namor needs better villains - #9 is "Doctor Dorcus." When one of your top ten villains is named "Dorcus," you need better villains.

But let's consider the main story. It's a fairly typical superhero story, and there's really nothing all that wrong with that. I will probably never live down the fact that I called Marz a "hack" on this here blog, but I suppose I used it incorrectly, because this is the kind of story I was talking about - Marz has always seemed to do these kinds of stories without ever really making an impact with whatever he was doing. I guess "hack" means he's a bad writer, but he's not, he's just kind of there. If you want a story about pan-dimensional demons trying to take over the world and some Marvel heroes trying to stop them and you want it to be competent, Marz is your guy. He gives us enough information to follow the book easily but still ties it into the first chapter of the story, and because Marvel heroes for the most part have one-dimensional personalities, it doesn't take that long for a decent writer to show them to us. Therefore, Namor is arrogant, Hulk is arrogant, Strange is arrogant ... oh, wait a minute, they're arrogant in different ways. Namor is regal, Hulk is sarcastic, and Strange is cocky. Marz does a pretty good job with those broad personality traits. And unlike a lot of poorly-written superhero comics, the exposition doesn't feel terribly forced. It's obvious, of course, but it's not obnoxious. This is what I think of as a typical Marz comic - it's mildly entertaining, but ultimately forgettable. Like every other pre-millennium pre-Joey Q Marvel comic, the writers and editors make sure that the characters are acting "in character" - therefore, Banner is the "intelligent Hulk" of the Peter David comic of this time, and, as I wrote above, Kavanaugh makes sure to let us know it's prior to Namor becoming "Wild Man Sub-Mariner" of the Byrne/Jae Lee stories post-issue #25 of the regular series. Things like that used to matter, and I still wish it did in both the Marvel and DC Universes. Oh well - water under the bridge.

Fry and Ivy give us typical early 1990s art, influenced by the Image guys, but I always thought they had better chops than a lot of the clones who were drawing at that time. Fry does a nice job with demonic stuff, and although he succumbs to the time period and gives us some mouth-spanning saliva, he generally does a good job. His characters are slightly cartoony but not unrealistic, and his anatomy isn't freakish except for the 'roided-up demon, which is kind of the point. Fry and Ivy did some freaky (in the best way) issues of Moon Knight around this time, but after that I have no idea what happened to them. Fry had some talent - I wonder why he never made a bigger splash?

This is actually the kind of book that might get someone into comics. It's not great, but it tells a solid, superheroey tale, it's entertaining, and it might make you wonder why the Hulk, for instance, isn't acting all brutish and saying "Hulk smash" and crap like that (if you remembered the television show, for instance), which might lead you to Peter David's Incredible Hulk, which is, of course, a great comic book. Or it might lead you to Byrne's Namor, which is not a great comic but a pretty darned good one. Or it might lead you to Dr. Strange, which I haven't read, but Roy Thomas was writing it at this time! Or it might lead you to Silver Surfer, which I also haven't read. But it might!

So: Not a great comic, but one that does its job and has a lot of potential as a gateway comic. Yay!

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