…the Scourge of the Underworld’s identity?

3111208-nomadThe following guest post comes from AF McGill who has been reading comics since 1995 and collecting them since 2006. Despite that, she finds herself hating comics more often than not. She might be a contrarian, she might be wrong or she might just be passionate to the point of insanity. She has absolutely no love for several of the “acclaimed” creators or books, instead her favourite comics include mostly Mark Gruenwald, J.M. DeMatteis, Fabian Nicieza, John Byrne and Roger Stern stuff. Her favourite characters are a bit more traditional and include Spider-Man, Captain America, Quasar, Quicksilver and Emma Frost. She also likes some DC but not enough to ever write anything of meaningfully amount about them.  Over to AF:

Jack was the 1950s Bucky who took an incomplete version of the super soldier serum and wound up going a bit insane and becoming an evil racist. He was eventually rehabilitated by S.H.I.E.L.D. during the 1980s and became the real Captain America’s sidekick as Nomad.

figure-01

During J.M. DeMatteis’ Captain America run, Nomad is routinely shown to be a bit of a chump. He always falls into traps, he is headstrong and brash, pessimistic and defeatist and his old way of black-and-white thinking is too ingrained for him to truly accept the way things are now. One more than one occasion, Nomad uses excessive force on super-villains much to the protests of Captain America while Nomad debates Cap’s lake of finite action and how the villains will always come back and they don’t care for the sanctity of life the way Cap does for theirs.

figure-02figure-03DeMatteis wraps up writing the book with #300, and then we enter the “Gruenwald era” (although the first few issues aren’t by him, they still feel part of his run). One of Gruenwald’s first goals was to write Nomad out as he saw no point of having Captain America have a sidekick who had equal (or debatably greater) strength to him. There’s a lot going on with Nomad in this issue, firstly Nomad tries to establish a normal civilian life for himself as Jack Monroe and it seems to be going well but then it’s all ruined one day by the arrival of a super-villain called Madcap. Jack is fired from his new job, rejected by the girl he fancied and then pursues Madcap to exact revenge. Instead, Nomad ends up discussing philosophy with Madcap who is… well, mad. Eventually, Nomad, who’s agenda and views are portrayed as wonky throughout the tale, takes Madcap down by himself and announces to Captain America that he wants to strike out on his own and try being a hero in his own way.

figure-04Captain America #309 ends with Nomad and Cap parting ways.

figure-05And started pretty much then across all the Marvel books, Scourge arrived. A master of disguise who dispensed justice by executing supervillains. Of particular note in Captain America #311 – only 2 issues after Nomad left the book – Scourge makes one of his first appearances targetting Constrictor who is the first supervillain Nomad faced on his return in DeMatteis run, a supervillain who beat Nomad spectacularly. Scourge’s assassination of Constrictor is foiled by Cap but Scourge is more successful in other appearances.

figure-06figure-07In Captain America #319, after the mass murder at the Bar with No Name, Scourge removes his mask and his silhouette could match Jack.

figure-08Likewise on the cover to #320 shows Scourge unmasked and the person again resembles Jack.

figure-09However in the actual issue, he doesn’t have the same features as on the cover.

So, eventually, the storyline/crossover is wrapped up in the aforementioned Captain America #320 where Captain America draws Scourge out into the opening by disguising himself as a super-villain as bait. This is where the story gives us the great ambiguity with the ending. “Scourge” arrives to assassinate Captain America but is depicted in an entirely black catsuit costume which is neither Scourge’s costume nor a disguise.

figure-10Captain America subdues “Scourge” and unmasks him to discover he doesn’t know who the guy is. “Scourge” offers up a origin story but before Captain America can cart him off to jail, “Scourge” is shot dead from off-panel as a voice cries out “Justice is served!” (Scourge’s catchphrase).

figure-11figure-12The issue points out all the possible things going on here. Was that REALLY Scourge Cap caught? Or was Scourge still at large? Who killed him?

figure-13For the sake of this, we are going with the idea that Captain America going on the television to bait Scourge inspired a copycat to follow in Scourge’s steps. Cap fought the copycat and when captured the copycat offered up a pleasing sounding tidy origin story. He was in it for the glory (as echoed in his “went out with a bang”). The copycat was assassinated by the real Scourge who arrived later and discovered it was a trap when he found Cap fighting “Scourge”. Realizing this was also a perfect “out”, especially since Captain America was now investigating him, Scourge retired for a time following this.

The Scourge saga resolved then in #320. And what do you know in #324, Nomad – who has been absent from the book since #309 – returns! This time Nomad is planning to murder a drug dealer called the Slug and is employing disguises to get close to his target. How appropriately Scourge-like.

figure-14Captain America eventually confronts Nomad and the two engage in a debate and a fight over killing a villain.

figure-15Eventually, Nomad relents but makes no effort to save the Slug’s life, firmly establishing that Nomad can’t argue with Captain America but doesn’t agree with Cap.

figure-16Nomad remains a supporting character in the book for the next 20 or so issues. This debate continually rears it’s head. Nomad is always quick to suggest fighting or killing baddies and in #340, when Captain America isn’t around, he proudly allows super-villain Vibro to fall to his death.

figure-17Honestly though, I’m glancing over a lot, there is loads of more evidence in both these issues and the DeMatteis issues to support Jack’s uneven character but they usually are a lot of very similar debates about brutality/killing, Nomad acting suspicious or being unstable, Nomad being cynical about the whole superheroes v supervillains dichotomy. I’ve not even mentioned his frequent bouts of anger with “boy scout” D-Man.

Eventually, Captain America and Nomad lock horns over these issues in #345 and a drunk Nomad, after suggesting “storming” the Commission on Superhuman Activities, gets mad and basically calls Cap a pussy. This is Nomad leaving the book’s supporting cast. Forever, actually. He never does return to the book.

figure-18That was #345. In #347, you’ll never guess who returns? Scourge. This time Scourge is shown assassinating the 1950s Red Skull – one of Nomad’s MAJOR enemies.

figure-19figure-20A subsequent appearance (#351) has Scourge arriving at the Commission on Superhuman Activities office and assassinating a member of the Watchdogs (after he in turn attempted to assassinate John Walker). This neatly aligns and mirrors with Jack’s proposed attack on the CSA.

figure-21But by then the Scourge thing more or less fell apart. There was contradictory appearances and a complete lack of success of Scourge’s part to actual do anything. The character was shown to be associated with the Red Skull but also shown to be operating independent. He was killed in one issue by the Red Skull and re-appeared in another completely fine. Eventually we got the explanation that Scourge was basically an organization funded by the Golden Age Angel and there were loads of them.

Meanwhile, Nomad eventually pursued his whole Renegade Easy Rider solo series when he began to notice the complexities of villainy and the law (that’s the actual canon reason for that cosmetic change). Many many years later, Nomad did actually become Scourge in Thunderbolts #33-50. At this time, it was the result of brainwashing.

Here’s where the more tenuous stretches come in.

I’m not sure how to handle Nomad’s relationship with GA Angel. On one hand, the first time around with Scourge, it’s not necessary. But if I want the Scourge who appears in #346-351 to be Nomad, it needs to be established. However, that second round can also be attributed to a subsequent Scourge – but it does ruin the neatness Nomad’s storming out and returning next issue as Scourge.

Secondly, a lot of people cite the Scourge appearance in an issue of Thing where Scourge was disguised as a female wrestler as early evidence there were more than one Scourge because he passed himself off as a scantily clad female.

figure-22However, in Captain America #320, we see Scourge disguised as a pretty convincing woman.

figure-23He also disguised himself as women in other issues such as Cap #311.

figure-24In one issue of Nomad’s solo series, he dresses up as a woman to go undercover.

figure-25When Nomad was Scourge in Thunderbolts, he used an image inducer. He could use one here but that makes the idea of disguises a bit redundant. But Scourge was a MASTER of disguise, he could disguise himself as a bulked up female wrestler.

It’s actually pretty easy to rationalize that Nomad and Angel have met or have a previously unseen adventure together. For what it’s worth, Nomad was shown to interact and have unseen history with some other Golden Age heroes in New Invaders #2 and #9.

figure-26Nomad and Angel (along with “sidekick” Domino, Scourge’s info supplier) could have been behind the original Scourge and when Nomad abandoned the guise he convinced Angel and Domino that they should lay low for a while until the heat dies down so Captain America or others don’t investigate them. Or perhaps first time around it was just Nomad and Domino and Angel only came onboard to finance the second round. Either way, After Nomad returned to Captain America’s side, Angel received funding and support from “John Smith” (a.k.a. Red Skull).

I also think it’s a very very smart way of explaining the sudden change in the Scourge organization as being the suggestion of Red Skull – who himself was exploring capitalist ventures, as a means of spreading his evil. He gave Angel the idea to restructure the Scourge idea now as an actual organization with several Scourges (unknowingly ultimately in the Skull’s pocket). But this may have come before or after Nomad’s brief return.

When Nomad abandoned Captain America he briefly returned to being Scourge for a few hits. He was happy to assassinate 50s Red Skull at the command of “John Smith” due to his past with 50s Skull. Or perhaps “John Smith” is receiving the report from GA Angel and Nomad really isn’t aware of the outside source of target selection.

figure-27Either way his next hit was again personal; U.S.Agent.

However the first new recruit appeared in #350…

figure-28However, he was beaten and killed (latter off-panel) by U.S.Agent. (originally I came up with that this could be Jack, and the reason he stopped being Scourge was when he realized “John Smith” was also aligned and working with terrorists, but you see a big pool of blood coming from Scourge on a later page).

figure-29Nomad soon went to the building housing the CSA to kill U.S.Agent but instead found he’d been beaten to it by what was apparently a member of the Watchdogs. Nomad killed him instead and fled.

Following that Nomad hastily abandoned the guise forever, either realizing that the Scourge organization was being played by “John Smith” (and suspecting that the information he was fed about U.S.Agent had also been supplied to the Watchdogs). He may also have been aware of the new recruit who died in #350 alongside other terrorists which further made him realize Scourge was being made into a puppet. Or he didn’t agree with the idea of franchising the Scourge character.

However, Angel was either not made aware of Nomad’s concerns or didn’t care where the funding was coming from since it seemed sincere in support and he continued the program with what was now an organization with it with multiple new recruits to be Scourge. At least one of whom was loyal to Skull.

(Note: In actual fact the “Watchdog” was a CSA agent in disguise)

The Skull had high expectations for his new Scourge organization but found them to be incompetent without a dedicated operative like Nomad and abandoned them – killing (one of?) his inside men and cutting off funding.

figure-30figure-31Despite this, Angel had enough money to continue on. Nomad’s hatred for John Walker from those issues in the #340s could also contextualize why the Scourge organization / GA Angel spent so long screwing with U.S.Agent in U.S.Agent #1-4. Maybe they even held him responsible for Nomad retiring as Scourge.

figure-32And that’s more or less it. Nomad pursued his solo career as a hardened but complex character and along the way began to realize the Scourge M.O. didn’t really work. There was evil that escaped notice, there was innocent people, there were victims who turned to crime. And his care for Baby Bucky also helped him find the humanity and balance to stop him from going full-on Scourge again.

Also worth noting is following the original Scourge saga, Jack hooks up with a woman Priscilla Lyons who is the basic reason Nomad was going after Slug that time. They eventually fall apart but she goes on to becomes one of the subsequent Scourge recruits in U.S.Agent #1-4.

In all his publishing existence Nomad has been brainwashed 6 times and he has been “dead” 3 times. If ever a character was so messed up in the head to justify dramatic psychotic breaks in becoming a serial killer, it’s Jack Monroe. But, as you can see, it takes quite a lot of legwork to reconcile the latter appearances, but in my mind, the original Scourge was definitely Nomad. While I think the Scourge well has been tapped well past the point of dehydration and adding anything else to it would be pointless, if I was writing Captain America or an appropriate book, I would try and find some way to hint at this idea. Even if it was just adding a few big hints that Nomad was the original Scourge without actually pursuing the idea beyond suggestions.

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…Black Widow’s unusually youthful lifespan?

A year after the Communists rejected Nixon’s Five-Point Peace Plan for Southeast Asia and Matt Damon’s birth, Brian C. Saunders was born to redress the balance. Regrettably, the infant failed to stop either the Vietnam conflict or Matt Damon’s career.  For his sins, he was punished with enrolment in US public education and, addled with lack of knowledge, went on to public university for good measure. During this time, he filled his hours with drugs, alcohol and sex with women comic books!, which filled his days with a warm and happy glow. Many careers later, he writes for the public good, using facts and avoiding social media for information or human interaction.  You who read this are welcome.

Natalia Alianovna “Natasha” Romanov, aka the Black Widow, was at a bit of a crossroads in 1990.  That’s when she unexpectedly appeared in one of the most popular issues of the Uncanny X-Men, #268, written by Chris Claremont and illustrated by Jim Lee.

figure-01_uxm268At the time, for anyone who had been reading comics for over five years, it would have come as no surprise to see the late 20’s Black Widow turning out to have known Wolverine since her childhood since by that stage, the trope of Wolverine already knowing everyone who turned up in his path had become an entrenched part of the character.

figure-02a_mfan24_loganfuryfigure-02b_uxm228_gyrichWhat would have confused readers, though, is the fact that Uncanny #268 depicts Natasha as a young child in World War II, almost 50 years before the present of the issue’s main story.

figure-03a_uxm268So what sort of perspective might Chris Claremont have had to account for the Black Widow’s apparent lack of aging?

Readers would sadly never find out, since while the September 1990 dated issue of Uncanny X-Men #268 raises the question, it never provides an answer, and Claremont is booted off the title before having an opportunity to follow the story up at a later date.

“Madripoor Knights” is very much a Wolverine story.  It is early in Captain America’s career, in “Late-Summer 1941” that he engages ninjas (genin field agents) of the Hand on the streets of Madripoor to rescue Ivan Petrovich.

figure-03b_uxm268Both men are hard pressed to overcome the tide of battle against them, when Logan (the character we are to know as Wolverine) appears, turning the tide in Cap and Ivan’s favour.  After the fight, Logan takes the two men to a local establishment, Seraph’s Bar, where Logan and Cap are briefed by Ivan on his mission and Logan narrowly avoids causing a bar fight with Baron von Strucker and his Nazi aide.

Natasha Romanov has been captured by Strucker to be delivered to the Hand.  The Hand has identified her as gifted with extraordinary aptitude for the martial arts, and means to begin her indoctrination into their organisation.

figure-03c_uxm268The men rescue Natasha but lose Logan, and instead of returning to the bar they go to the local American Consul, who, turning out to be a fascist loyal to the Nazis, promptly delivers them back to Strucker and the Hand.  Only Logan’s return to the conflict halts the ritual death of Ivan and Cap by a blade wielded by the Hand-entranced Natasha.  Freed to act, together the three men defeat Strucker and the Hand, and Logan sees to the safe return of all involved to their respective countries.

In the present of the story, Natasha, as the Black Widow, is surveilling the sibling group Fenris: Andrea and Andreas von Strucker, mutant children of the abovementioned Baron.  She falls prey to Hand field agents under the command of the evil organisation’s new jonin, Matsuo Tsurayaba, but is rescued by Wolverine, Jubilee and Psylocke who are on the run and searching for the missing X-Men. Upon her recovery, Natasha hugs her “Little Uncle”, Logan, and expresses concern at his debilitated state.  After briefing them, Logan and Natasha draw comparisons with their previous encounter almost 50 years ago to a dismayed Jubilee’s shock.

figure-03d_uxm268Natasha and the X-Men find an informant who gives up a meet location for Fenris and Matsuo. The location turns out to be a sham with decoys, and the villains themselves drink a toast to their victory from a safe, alternative location.

To understand this curious story requires a little history of Marvel itself.  Established in 1961, the Marvel Universe was born piecemeal from characters created in the late 1930’s and 40’s such as Captain America.  Steve Rogers was created in fact early in the year of 1941, a year partially known for fighting in Europe and sabre-rattling from the Pacific.  Nazi political interference with Jews in Germany had by this point become rumors of Ghettos and disappearing of Jewish citizens under German political influence.  These rumors of later proven fact became the impetus that Captain America was created out of, and Marvel had a patriotic Nazi fighter all ready when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941.

Captain America would go on to return again and again after the war in Marvel’s publishing history, but it was only in Avengers #4 in 1963 that Steve Rogers would return to ongoing publication.  Not long after, 1964 to be precise, the Black Widow was created.  She was a secret agent for the USSR who bedeviled Iron Man…

figure-04a_tos52…a Cold War femme fatale who seduces the unaware Hawkeye into supporting her missions against the USA.

figure-04d_tos57In a few years, she has defected to the West, gotten a makeover as a superhero and uses her Soviet training and “Widow Sting” equipment to fight for the Avengers…

figure-05_avengers-30_-1st-widows-sting…go on to work for the Western-based spy organization, SHIELD…

figure-06_avengers-38_-1st-mission-for-shield…and date Daredevil.

figure-07_daredevil-84_1st-dateAt this time, some background started to be established for the Black Widow.  She acquired a chauffeur who apparently had a long standing relationship with Natasha and he rescued her from her bombed house in Stalingrad during WWII.

figure-08b_daredevil-88_ivan-rescues-natThen, in Daredevil #102, Chris Claremont went on to establish two things about the Black Widow.  Her middle name was Alianovna.  Russian middle names are patronyms which means the name is a version of their father’s first name.  So Natasha’s father is named Alian Romanoff.

figure-09_daredevil-102_1st-alianovnaThe second thing was that in the omnipotent captions, she is referred to as a Tsarina, which means “Empress Queen”.

figure-10_daredevil-102_1st-tsarinaAs Natasha is called Princess throughout Uncanny #268…

figure-11_uxm268_tsarina…Claremont is clearly implying that Natasha is in fact the last surviving heir to the Russian monarchy and Empress and Autocrat of All the Russias!

figure-12_uxm268_last-surviving-heir-of-the-russian-monarchyBut by 1990, Madame Romanoff would have been well over 50 years the age that she was depicted in 1990.  In 1964, this would have not been a problem.  In 1990, though, she was still a clearly young woman and always had been.

figure-13_uxm268_over-50-years-oldAt this point, it is necessary to remember that the Marvel Universe has a compressed time line.  Though most of it has been depicted beginning from 1967, in fact, the compression means that working backward from the present (currently early 21st Century, the beginning of the modern Marvel Universe, Fantastic Four #1, takes place in the early 2000’s and not 1961.  However, characters tied into fixed events, such as the Cold War or World War II, require explanations to orient the reader into how they can exist in the endless present of the Marvel Universe.  For instance, Captain America, fell into suspension animation towards the end of WWII until he awoke in Avengers #4.  But the Black Widow, a WWII child survivor, had no ready reference for her youth.  How could this be?

Some real word history is called for at this point.  During the Russian Civil War, the ruling monarchy was killed.

figure-14a_-colour-restored-picture-of-romanov-familyAmong them was Grand Duchess (or Princess) Anastasia, about whom rumors persisted throughout the 20th Century to the extent that she had survived and escaped.

figure-14b_grand-duchess-princess-anastasiaSeveral women claimed to be the surviving Anastasia, but none were accepted as such in their lifetimes and have since been disproven upon the discovery of the real Anastasia’s grave and subsequent DNA testing.

However, we are talking about the Marvel Universe, which can diverge from ours in subtle ways.  Anastasia was born in 1901.  Natasha Romanoff would have been born in the mid-to-late 1930’s.  It is possible she could be the daughter of Anastasia, if her mother had survived and stayed in Stalingrad and married a man named Alian Romanoff.  This seems unlikely to me as the Secret Police would never have countenanced the existence of a Royal Heir surviving or furthering the line.  The real Anastasia and her family were executed to prevent any threat to the dominance of the Communist Party’s control on the new government.  Moreover, none of the women who claimed to be Anastasia did so within the USSR, but safely in foreign countries far away.  It’s therefore very unlikely the real Anastasia could have lived in open sight in Stalingrad until World War II.

So how could Chris Claremont have reasoned this?

Natasha survived the destruction of her own home during the Battle of Stalingrad which took place from August 23, 1942 to February, 2 1943.  We know this because she told this to Viper in Marvel Team-Up #85.

figure-15_marvel-team-up-85-p13She could only safely exist in her homeland if all the ruling Romanoffs were believed dead.  But, what if there was a heretofore unknown infant born just before the February Revolution?  Conceived and born in secret because of the impeding revolution, this boy would have been the last hope for Nicholas II to continue the Romanoff house and restore the monarchy.  He could not remain in St. Petersburg, but was removed by a trusted retainer to the city of Stalingrad, where he could be raised in safety.  Nicholas II gives his lastborn son Alian Romanoff to his trusted retainer, Ivan Petrovitch.  Petrovitch raises the young Alian in a house purchased with what would be his family inheritance and there, Alian would grow to manhood, being trained by Ivan and study, waiting for the opportunity to regain the throne. Alian marries and the union produces Natasha, who is naturally athletic.  As World War II commences, Alian and his wife allow Natasha to train in ballet.  Her ballet performances expose the child’s prowess to the local martial arts community, resulting in her abduction by the Hand.  Unwilling to alert the Russian authorities, Ivan is enlisted to undertake the mission to save Natasha.  Alian’s wealth has allowed him to make contacts with foreign governments such as the USA, who are very interested when the heir to Russia’s throne asks for help and send their top asset, Steve Rogers as Captain America to Madripoor to meet Ivan, thus setting the stage for a young Steve Rogers to meet Logan and rescue Natasha.

In 1990, it had been many years since Black Widow’s WWII history had been referenced and many political changes had befallen the relationship with East and West since.  It was a shock to see it thoroughly and somewhat definitely referenced.  The floating timeline of the Marvel Universe wherein all present day issues took place in a past circa some eight to nine years since Fantastic Four #1 meant that the Black Widow’s childhood, fixed in WWII made her older than her apparent age.  While her present day adventures could be compressed, her past expanded as her meeting Wolverine and Captain America, and presence at the battle of Stalingrad locked her origins much the same way as Captain America and the Sub-Mariner’s were.  Steve Rogers was in a state of suspended animation until Avengers #4, Namor is a hybrid with an enhanced lifespan.  How does the Black Widow, a human peak athlete remain so?

The answer, I posit, lies in Claremont’s Spider-Woman #42, “The Judas Man.”

figure-16a_spider-woman-42_the-judas-manMichael Kramer has disappeared and daughter Pamela hires Jessica Drew, aka Spider-Woman to find him.  Michael is on the run from Viper and Silver Samurai.  Viper has gotten the catalyst for a virus that’s 99% fatal to all human beings.  In 1944, Kramer and his fellow American servicemen went down behind enemy lines, only to end up implanted with the deadly virus by the Red Skull.  The virus, dubbed the Judas Plague, required genetic modification to create immune plague carriers for distribution of the agent.  The antidote for the plague is generated via human reproduction by the “Judas Men”: their children will be born with the mutated matrix that will provide the antidote.  However, Captain America and Nick Fury and the Howling Commandoes destroyed the lab and all the research…

figure-16b_sw42_recap…except for the catalyst which was later found.  The sole survivor of the Judas Plague experiment, Michael escaped, and hid.  He also gained extended longevity…

figure-16c_sw42_michael-kramer-longevity…and his virus was discovered to have mutated into an inert form after Spider-Woman defeated Viper and Samurai’s plot.

figure-16d_sw43_michael-kramers-virus-discovered-to-be-inertIn 1945, we know victorious Russian forces in Germany took resources and assets from the conquered country as reparations for the War.  As part of this process, it is likely the Russians would have been instructed to collect any scientific research or seize sites of laboratories.  Although Fury and Captain America reported the Judas Plague research destroyed, the report was obviously not entirely accurate, given Michael Kramer’s status and the catalyst’s destruction given Viper’s later obtaining of it?

Jessica Drew recounts in Spider-Woman #43 that the Judas Plague was “required reading” for all Hydra agents.

figure-17a_sw43_jessica-recalls-judas-plague-knowledge-from-hydra-trainingViper, having likewise been a Hydra recruit, would have likely known about the site of the experiment and that Fury’s report was inaccurate.

figure-17b_sw42_viper-knew-furys-report-was-inaccurateIt stands to reason, then, that acquiring the Plague was an operational goal for Hydra, so at some point, Hydra got the catalyst from the Russians and Viper later stole it from Hydra.

But what were the Russians doing with it for so long?

By the late 40’s, early 50’s, Natasha Romanoff would have been identified as a prime candidate for espionage.  Instead Natasha was allowed to be a ballerina…

figure-18a_dd104_bolshoi-ballet…and marry Alexei Alanovich Shostakov, a top pilot for the Soviet military.

figure-18b_avengers-44_bw-married-soviet-military-pilot-alexei-shostakovAfter she was told he was killed (in reality, Shostakov was in training as the Red Guardian) she volunteered and trained for the KGB.

figure-18c_avengers-44-flashbackThe aptitude for martial arts that the Hand had seen in 1941 would have been manifest and she would have been trained in those arts and spy craft to serve the USSR.  As a Hand candidate for Master Assassin, she would have been top in her class and a prime asset.

figure-18d_dd88_bw-married-soviet-military-pilot-alexei-shostakovAs the Red Guardian, Alexei would have been a public figure, a role model to rally Soviet patriotism in the public and inspire fear of the strength of Russian might in the world.

figure-18d_avengers-44-red-guardian-projectThis did not happen because of his apparent death after Avengers #44 and the length of his experiment, which displayed considerable flaws such as his psychological volatility and his willingness to die to save the embodiment of Soviet Russia’s arch-rival.

figure-18d_avengers-44-flashbackHad that not happened, however, he would have been an individual of considerable influence according to Soviet planning.

I would further posit, therefore, that the Soviet government could not allow either Natasha or Alexei such unchecked influence.  Thus, both of them married and were subsequently separated for training alone.  The KGB by this time would have found the surviving German scientists of the Judas Plague experiment site.  Natasha was then subjected to a KGB-run Judas Plague experiment as the agency’s scientists would have deemed her likely to survive and then used as a spy. Natasha would assume the code name of the project, “Black Widow,” although she would be likely be unaware of the actual project or her status as a vector of a plague that could virtually depopulate the planet.  At the time that Alexei completed his training, Natasha would have been reunited with him.

figure-18f_natasha-and-alexeiAnd with that reunion, Alexei would be exposed to the plague, it likely being a sexually transmitted disease, and thereafter he could be deployed in the field with full confidence, either under Natasha’s influence as a loyal wife and operative or blackmailed with his life should he turn against the motherland.  He would serve as public relations at home and at the forefront in the Rodina’s military defense.

However, it obviously took much longer for Alexei to complete his “training.”  The Marvel compressed timeline meant that when Natasha was told Alexei was “dead” in the flashback in Avengers #44…

figure-18c_avengers-44-flashback…she spent decades believing he was dead.  During this time, the Red Guardian project crawled on.  Obviously inspired by the West’s Super Soldier Project, the Soviets’ process was flawed, with Alexei being endowed with superior strength, but a volatile psyche.  These setbacks might have required lengthy periods of mental conditioning, revealing the Super Soldier longevity effect.  Being the first operational asset, any other subjects of the project were likely driven insane if they survived the physical and psychological trauma of the incomplete chemical and radiological procedure.  Alexei’s personality was so altered, Natasha perceived little of the man she loved.  It’s likely he was brainwashed repeatedly in an effort to restore his sanity and bring him to operational readiness.  By the time he was, Natasha’s Judas Plague infection, like Michael Kramer’s, would have been found inert.  Well before then, she would have noticed her own longevity via the Judas Plague process and found out about what happened to her.  She would have been about 40 some years old and although youthful, she would have also realized she was infertile from the Judas Plague treatment (designed for men, I have to assume it wouldn’t be good for a woman’s reproductive ability).  This would have been another factor leading to her eventual defection to the West.

Without either Natasha or the Judas Plague, the Red Guardian project would have needed another control, but it’s likely at this point the break-up of the USSR would have loosened the paranoia and the need for a counterpart to Captain America.  At any rate, the Red Guardian went into the field with an unstable mentality and apparently died, leaving Natasha an indefinitely young widow.  Considering Alexei’s mental instability, his mission would have been selected to cause the most damage and result in his death.  Ironically, he died a hero, saving his wife and Captain America, somewhere in Southeast Asia.

figure-18f_avengers-44-death-of-alexei-shostakovWhen Natasha defected and her infection was inert, the catalyst would have been of no use and the Russians would have been either glad to sell it, or warehouse it.  Through either of those opportunities, Hydra and Viper could have acquired it, not knowing that the lifespan of the active virus in Michael Kramer had already expired.  After Viper stole the project from Hydra, she acquired Michael Kramer before the virus’s efficacy was verified.  By the time Spider-Woman freed Kramer, Viper’s scientists had determined his infection was inert as well.  The project was a failure and was subsequently abandoned, leaving two survivors, Michael Kramer and the Black Widow, forever changed.

Among her friends, such as Ivan and Logan, Natasha is called Princess or Tsarina.  It seems like a nickname to those who overhear, but in truth, she is the last surviving member of the Romanoffs and the rightful heir to the long deposed Russian Monarchy. She will never claim that crown, because her calling is a higher one.  She claims the titles of S.H.I.E.L.D agent, Avenger, and most importantly the Black Widow as a remembrance of the insidious exploitation of female agents by the Rodina through projects like the one that created her.

…the reason for the Reed Richards’ Rocketship?

fantastic_four_cosmic-rays-112Today’s guest post comes from Justin Zyduck, who used to write about superhero comics at the Adventures of Wyatt Earp in 2999 and was a semiregular guest contributor to Mightygodking dot com from 2009-2010. Since then he’s had two children and has retired from active blogging, but he still thinks about comics all the dang time even if he’s not writing about them. These days he writes and performs music as half of Madison, Wisconsin-based indie pop duo Evening Afternoon. He’s also published some short horror fiction under the name Justin Pollock and still works at prose in fits and starts.

“If Reed Richards is so smart, why did he take his girlfriend and her kid brother on the first test of his experimental rocket?”

Everyone from J. Jonah Jameson to Jay Leno has posed that question, or some variant of it, over the years.  Professional and amateur pundits alike have long debated the reason behind Susan and Johnny Storm’s presence on the historic flight that created the Fantastic Four. Feature films and other fictionalized versions of their exploits tend to portray the Storms as fellow scientists or astronauts to Reed Richards and Ben Grimm.  But, in reality, they had little, if any, training in those fields.  Sue Storm (now Richards) holds a bachelor’s degree in theatre, and Johnny Storm was, by all reports, an average-to-bright but underachieving high school student at that time.

When faced with the question himself, Richards plays it off charmingly.  “Even before we were the Fantastic Four, we were a team,” he said at a press conference shortly after their public debut.  It’s a sentiment he’s repeated many times since. “Every risk we took, every success we celebrated, we shared equally. Sue and Johnny are two of the bravest individuals I’ve ever known and – with no disrespect intended to the highly trained and dedicated astronauts in the international space-exploration community – there’s no one I’d have rather had with me.”

Beyond this seeming non-explanation, we can only speculate. Frustratingly, due to the nature of the U.S. government’s funding and involvement, official explanations and documentation on the Richards rocket project have been largely classified. In most cases we must depend on the licensed Fantastic Four comic books as primary sources.  However, whether through deliberate or accidental miscommunication between the Fantastic Four and the creative teams behind the comic – or perhaps even for matters of simple artistic license – details are often inconsistent.

Indeed, the very nature of the rocket itself has been inconsistently portrayed over the years. The flight was described as a mission “to the stars” in the debut issue of the Fantastic Four comic book (Vol. 1, #1.)  Later retellings frequently speak only of a nebulous “spaceflight” that may or may not have involved a “hyperdrive” or “star drive.” Furthermore, the first issue presented Richards’ decision to launch the rocket without official clearance as a spur-of-the-moment impulse because “conditions are right tonight.”  Only later did Vol. 3, #11 reveal that Richards effectively stole his own ship after the government withdrew funding from the project. When we don’t even know why Richards himself undertook that flight, is it any wonder that researchers and journalists have had difficulty reading between the lines to figure out what exactly the Storms were doing there?

But what if, instead of trying to determine what Richards is not saying about his friends’ involvement, we were to focus on what he is saying? Perhaps it’s a dead end to read such statements as the one quoted above as merely some kind of media-friendly deflection. What if we take him at his word? A man goes into space with his three closest friends. What would it suggest about the mission?

In following that question to its logical conclusion, we may discover not only why the Storms were on that rocket, but the purpose of the flight itself. And, quite unexpectedly, it may also lead us to the secret behind one of the other great and terrible marvels of the modern age: the so-called “Incredible Hulk.”

*

Let’s begin with one of the few details that remains consistent in almost every account: the Fantastic Four gained their powers because the Richards rocket was insufficiently shielded from cosmic radiation.  What was the nature of that radiation? “Cosmic rays” are not in fact unusual in outer space.  Their effects have been known, studied, and guarded against in the shielding of conventional spacecraft for years. Why, then, was the Richards rocket not so protected? Critics of Richards cite this seeming negligence on his part – negligence paid for by Ben Grimm in his transformation into “The Thing.”

Others, however, rush to defend Richards. On a special edition of the TV news magazine Lateline, Dr. Henry Pym – a leading biochemist and founding member of the Avengers under identities such as Giant Man and Yellowjacket – stated the incident was “a freak accident. No one could have predicted it. A cosmic ray storm on the surface of the sun produced particles that reacted with the star drive” (Vol. 3, #543.) This statement suggests a singular, anomalous incident that Richards was not and could not have been prepared for, which would seem to absolve Richards at least partially of blame.

The “freak accident” theory, however, while occasionally repeated elsewhere, can’t be entirely accepted because the effects of the cosmic rays have been reproduced. Specifically, rogue scientist Ivan Kragoff – alias the Red Ghost – exposed himself and his trained “Super-Apes” to what would appear to be the same type of cosmic rays, as did the terrorist group known as the U-Foes. Both teams traveled in spacecraft even less shielded than the Richards rocket for the deliberate purpose of gaining cosmic ray-derived superhuman powers. The Fantastic Four themselves have re-encountered the same or similar cosmic rays on subsequent flights.  During the account of their first battle with the extraterrestrial Skrull race, a spacecraft containing the Fantastic Four passes through a “radiation belt” that temporarily cures Grimm of his condition.  It is suggested that this same belt gave them their powers in the first place (Vol. 1, #2.)  Today, it is commonly held that this radiation belt was the Van Allen belt, two bands of trapped particles held in place by the Earth’s magnetic field.  At least one account of the Fantastic Four’s origin, in Vol. 3, #60, explicitly names the Van Allen belt as the source of their powers.

We can even resolve the Van Allen belt explanation with some of Pym’s comments.  As recently as 2013, space probes detected a third radiation belt, presumably created by unusual solar activity and apparently destroyed by a subsequent shock wave from the sun.  A “cosmic ray storm on the surface of the sun” as Pym describes might indeed have created an additional, temporary radiation belt with unexplained properties – a “fantastic belt,” if you will – that interacted with the Richards party to alter their genetic structure.  A reaction with a “star drive,” however, seems unlikely given that Kragoff and the U-Foes’ ships would almost certainly not have had the same hyperdrive on board.

In any event, we can likely pinpoint the cause of the mutation as abnormal, but by no means unique, activity in the Van Allen belt.  Such fantastic belts may be created and destroyed all the time.  The ones that affected Kragoff and the U-Foes might have been different belts that shared a common origin with the one that empowered the Fantastic Four. At the time of Richards’ flight, however, the existence and effects of these fantastic belts would have been unknown.  So, it is quite possible that the “insufficient shielding” of the rocket might have been perfectly sufficient if not for the unusual Van Allen belt activity.

*

Still, there is the detail, again unusually consistent among accounts, that Ben Grimm warned Reed Richards about the shielding on the rocket. Many underestimate Grimm due to his gruff layman’s persona, often portrayed referring to Richards’ inventions as “doohickeys” and “whoziwhatzis.”  But, his credentials in the aerospace field are not to be sniffed at.  It does seem unusual that he would have been so incredibly right and Richards so incredibly wrong about the shielding. In fact, why would anyone build a rocket with anything less than the standard amount of shielding?

But perhaps the shielding not being “standard” was precisely the point. Radiation shielding is bulky and expensive, and any spaceship traveling to interstellar space would require even more than conventional spacecraft. Seeking to get around this, Richards may well have used unconventional shielding. Scientists today have proposed spaceships that generate magnetic fields to block cosmic radiation; Richards may have beaten them to this notion several years ago.  Therefore, Grimm’s concern in Vol. 1, #1 that “[they] haven’t done enough research into the effect of cosmic rays” may not have been referring to the cosmic rays themselves, but rather the ability of this unconventional shielding to successfully block it.

*

Because we tend to focus on the failings of Richards’ rocket and the seeming impracticality of bringing largely untrained astronauts aboard, we tend to overlook the true marvel of its engineering: the very fact that it could be successfully operated by civilians.

It was eventually revealed that Richards and Grimm were originally intended to pair with two trained astronauts identified as Burroughs and Hennessey, although those might be pseudonyms employed by Marvel Comics for legal reasons.  Vol. 3, #11 shows that these two were pulled from the mission, along with the government’s funding. Yet, on short notice, Richards, Grimm, and the Storm siblings launched the rocket without clearance, without ground support, fast enough to take off “before the guard can stop them” (Vol. 1, #1.)  Then, in the worst possible conditions, they navigated the rocket safely back to Earth.  They achieved all this despite half their number having effectively zero astronautics training.

We can attribute their takeoff and survival to luck, or we can ask a more compelling question: what if the Richards rocket was designed to be operated by untrained astronauts? Richards’ decision to include the Storms on the mission would no longer be a massive mistake, but instead a test of the rocket’s intended function.

This question, however, seems to muddle the purpose of the mission at first glance. By itself, a spacecraft that can be launched and operated by a mix of professional and amateur astronauts with no outside support is a lofty goal.  Faster-than-light travel is even more wildly ambitious. Combining these two parameters makes the job exponentially more difficult. Why would Richards need to build an interstellar spaceship that requires minimal training?

*

On the same edition of Lateline where Pym described the incident in space, Dr. Herbert Eagle, former Dean of Men at Eastern State University, is quoted as saying, “When [Richards] proposed a practical hyperdrive… financial backers fought for the opportunity to invest in his prototype.” Yet, ultimately, the project was funded and pulled at the discretion of the U.S. government. With the private sector champing at the bit to fund Richards’ project, why was the government interested enough to foot the bill themselves, and again, why was a hyperdrive and the ability to be operated with minimal training a necessity?

It was only after Reed Richards’ encounter with the extraterrestrial creature known as Gormuu, self-proclaimed “Warrior of Kraalo,” was declassified and published in comic book form (Vol. 1, #271) that we could begin connecting these dots. The account revealed how, some time before making his flight with the future Fantastic Four, Richards helped defeat this would-be conqueror through ingenuity and quick thinking. The incident strengthened his resolve to complete his in-progress “experimental star-drive rocket” because “this experience with Gormuu has shown [the] universe to be more dangerous than anyone ever suspected.”  It seems probable, even likely, that the U.S. government agreed with Richards’ assessment, and that they agreed to finance the rocket not for research or exploration, as Richards intended, but for defense purposes: as a prototype for the next generation of military vehicle, one that could engage extraterrestrial threats.

Here, the unusual requirements of the rocket start to make sense. It would be prohibitively expensive to create a military fleet of conventional spacecraft with heavy radiation shielding, each of which would require massive, highly trained crews on the ground and in the air just to take off and land. But, what about a spaceship, with cost-effective magnetic shields, operated by one or two experienced astronauts that would allow additional, minimally-trained personnel to perform other functions, perhaps even combat?  Whatever Richards’ original goals for faster-than-light travel, such a ship creates compelling military implications.

Why, then, would the government abandon this idea? In fact, they might not have, at least not completely. Shortly after the Richards’ flight, a lower-profile but still very unusual space launch was undertaken by Col. John Jameson – not from NASA’s usual launch site at the John F. Kennedy Space Center, but just outside New York City.  This launch could take place close to a major metropolitan center, with relatively little preparation time.  Jameson was not even in the rocket fifteen minutes before launch! Perhaps this unique launch received so little attention because it was overshadowed by a malfunction with the rocket and its subsequent rescue by the burgeoning vigilante Spider-Man, then known largely for his television appearances and live stunt shows. But might that rocket have been a derivative of Richards’ technology? Did the government steal Richards’ designs and then shut down his program in favor of a homegrown one? Richards might have been uncomfortable with his work being used for explicit military purposes.  His own subsequent work, after all, has largely been focused on exploration, with superhuman combat used only when needed and as a last resort.

*

We can make an even wilder speculation here, an intriguing speculation which has never been proposed before now. Consider the other unusual major military project undertaken at around the same time as the Richards project.  Just what was Dr. Robert Bruce Banner working on in the New Mexico desert before the accident that transformed him into the Hulk?

If the Richards rocket was top secret, Banner’s project was doubly so. The official story, as it was originally disseminated, was that Banner was studying gamma radiation for medical or genetic research.  Some sources or adaptations continue to use that explanation, undoubtedly because it makes Banner a more sympathetic figure. But today, we know that Banner was actually working on a gamma-powered weapon, although its purpose has never been made clear.

A “gamma bomb” would likely be considerably more powerful and considerably more deadly than any conventional nuclear weapon in history. The utility of such a weapon seems limited: most nuclear weapons research focuses on variable yield rather than just a bigger payload.  Whatever your political and ethical feelings about weapons of mass destruction, harnessing this highly unusual radiation for a bomb that could only sanely be conceived of as a “use only in case of Armageddon” deterrent would seem to be an egregious waste of a potentially world-changing form of energy.

But what if the gamma bomb was never meant to be used in defense or offense against another nation on Earth? What if it was a weapon designed to be used against Kraalo, or the other hostile civilizations of the universe we were only just beginning to encounter? What kind of deployment system would such a weapon require?  In light of the Fantastic Four’s reputation as peaceful ambassadors representing humankind at its finest and most high-minded, it is chilling to consider that in other circumstances, the Richards rocket might have been used as an interplanetary Enola Gay carrying a gamma-powered Little Boy.

…the Origin of Doom 2099 (or “The Fate of Doctor Doom”)?

In this special guest post, Victor Cardigan, admin of the 2099Bytes Facebook page and owner of a fan-site dedicated to 2099, gives you his thoughts on Doom 2099’s true identity.

In the year 2099, mega-corporations rule everything. They run the United States, with each of the mega-corp CEO’s ruling their own slice of the country. Mega-Corps such as Alchemax, Stark-Fujikawa, Pixel, and D/Monix, to name a few, serve as the primary antagonists in the 2099 books.

There are no heroes in 2099, at least not at first. The heroes we know – the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and the X-Men – are all gone after the end of the Age of Heroes. Exactly how that age ended is shrouded in mystery. The world of 2099 suffers from a “cultural amnesia.” Only snippets of the Heroic Age remain, distorted by the passage of time.

When Marvel launched the 2099 universe in 1992, it included four characters: Spider-Man, Punisher, Ravage, and Doom. Ostensibly, Doom 2099 was the only character implied to have a direct connection to the original.  In fact, he believed himself to be the original Doctor Doom. Given Doom’s penchant for time travel, a technological capability of his since his very first appearance in Fantastic Four #5, it seemed reasonable that this Doom was the genuine article.

But, writer John Francis Moore threw readers a curve ball in Doom 2099 #1, planting the seed of doubt when Doom 2099 faced his first opponent, Tiger Wylde.  Unmasked, Doom 2099 was revealed to be a young man sporting an unscarred face – definitely not the original. He was also definitely not a Doombot, since Tiger Wylde burned his face away, leaving him to bleed all over the office carpet. Adding to the doubts about his identity, Doom 2099 suffered from amnesia and could not account for his whereabouts prior to his sudden arrival in 2099.

figure-01Despite these clues, Doom 2099 clearly had extensive knowledge that only the real Doctor Doom could have. For example, he knew the true purpose of an amulet he gave to Boris, his longtime friend and ally.

Writer John Francis Moore teased readers with more details surrounding Doom 2099’s past in issue #2.  There, we learned that Doom apparently outlived allies and enemies alike, surviving the end of the Age of Heroes. Doom, however, was still human, and age took its toll on his health. His friend Boris, apparently deceased, was replaced by Damon, who attended to his declining health.

Despite his triumph, Doom became convinced that shadowy wraiths were subverting his empire. In order to rout them, Doom “hurled himself again into the void.”

figure-02Another fragment of his past was revealed in Doom 2099 #3, where we learned that Doom’s attempt to bring unity and vision resulted in the destruction of a city or cities. Accompanied by his servant Damon, Doom concluded that to restore order he must leave. He knew where he would find answers, but readers were left to ponder where Doom went. All we knew for sure is that after his journey, whatever the outcome, he ended up in 2099.

figure-03These questions were tabled until Doom 2099 #19, when Doom 2099 received a vision that made him doubt his own identity. He saw another man’s face reflected in a mirror. He saw himself seemingly tortured by the “real” Doctor Doom.

figure-04Later, in issue #21, Doom 2099 received further evidence that there was another Victor von Doom in the mad ranting and ravings of Christian L’Argent. L’Argent, an Alchemax employee gone AWOL, traveled to the Savage Land in order to escape the all-seeing eyes of the Shadows who truly rule the world above and beyond the powers of the mega-corps.  L’Argent identified Doctor Doom as one of these Shadows.

figure-05The quest for the truth about his identity led Doom 2099 to the island of Myridia, a nexus of information ruled by General Tibor Czerny. There, Doom 2099 learned that General Czerny had a son, Erik. Erik disappeared fourteen years ago, obsessed with finding the Shadows he believed were responsible for the “political and social crises of recent years.”

figure-06In issue #25, Doom 2099 learned that 14 years earlier, in 2085, Erik Czerny was captured by one of the shadows he was chasing: Margaretta von Geisterstadt. Margaretta also happened to be the lover of another of these shadows: Victor von Doom. Margaretta and Doom played games, deadly games, against each other. Margaretta’s most recent scheme ended with Doom being severely wounded. She then placed Doom in a regenerative bubble to be healed. Meanwhile, she brainwashed Erik into believing he was the real Doctor Doom until the healed Doom was ready. This healing process would take fourteen years. Once he was ready, she unleashed him with Erik’s memories mixed with his own incomplete ones into the year 2099.

This “origin,” however, left some questions unanswered. Certainly it remains an open question if Doom 2099 is indeed the real Doom. Margaretta, a brilliant geneticist, could easily have “grown” her own Doctor Doom. L’Argent suggested as much during the Savage Land incident. There is also the question of character: how did the Doctor Doom we know evolve into Doom 2099?

After Doom 2099 was cancelled, I still wondered how Doctor Doom became Doom 2099. Although I believe them to be the same man, they are clearly the same man at two drastically different points in their life. The younger Doctor Doom is still fueled by his desire to destroy the Fantastic Four and rule the world.  Doom 2099 wants primarily to safeguard his homeland, Latveria. If that means taking over the world and making it a better place, so be it. But based on what we see in Doom 2099 #25, Doom decided at some point to leave Latveria and rule the world from the shadows. How? Why? When?

I propose that Doctor Doom made the choice to withdraw from the world and rule as a shadow king after two life-altering encounters with his own future. The first encounter was in Iron Man #250. That story showed Doctor Doom transported to the year 2093, a mere six years prior to 2099. He met and killed his future self, finding him a pathetic shadow of Doom’s former self. The Doom of 2093 was more robot than man. He lived only by virtue of the mechanics in his armor. Doom swore that this would not be his future.

Yes, at the end of Iron Man #250, Merlin erased both Iron Man’s and Doctor Doom’s memories of the events which transpired. However Iron Man: Legacy of Doom showed Tony Stark breaking through Merlin’s spell to recall the events of Legacy of Doom. I propose that Doom could similarly break through the spell and recall the events of Iron Man #250 at a later date.

figure-07The second encounter took place in the pages of Doom 2099 itself. Issue #43 tells the story of how Doom 2099 traveled to the year 1996. During his trip, he met his past self. After learning of his failed conquest of America and the subsequent destruction of Latveria, Doctor Doom once again denied this would be his future.

figure-08I propose these two encounters had a profound effect on Doctor Doom. They gave him important information about his future and informed his decisions on how to extend his life – and how to live it. From both encounters he learned that by the 2090s, he would still be trying to take over the world.

Remember, Doctor Doom has successfully taken over the world on a number of occasions. Two things always happen.  One, he gets bored.  (See the graphic novel Avengers: Emperor Doom and the two-part story Super-Villain Team-Up #14/Champions #16 for examples.)  Two, he is overthrown.

I propose that at a future date, a unique solution occurs to him. Instead of conquering the world publically, he will conquer the world in secret and become its shadow king. Thus, Doctor Doom leaves Latveria, possibly leaving a Doombot in charge, or maybe Kristoff.  Doctor Doom moves into the shadows to do his work, and he succeeds.

Doctor Doom quickly realizes that by removing himself from the scene, he can assert greater control over the world. Being in the shadows has its benefits. For instance, no one is trying to overthrow him, because they don’t know he’s really in charge. Also, he need not become bored with the daily drudgery that comes with being ruler of the world.

In time, he discovers he is not alone in the shadows. There are other such shadow kings – possibly Vulcann, Essex, and the Shaper’s Guild, all mentioned by John Francis Moore at the end of X-Men 2099. These Shadows are a loose cabal who do not exactly work together. In fact, they vie to wrest control of the world from each other. These Shadows, including Doom, push the world’s buttons from behind the scenes. It was their machinations that ignited the Pollution Wars which erupted between elected governments and the giant trans-national corporations. It was the hand of the Shadows which pulled the strings of the ruling mega-corps to hide advanced technology from the public. The world is their chessboard. Hidden from public view, Doom is no longer a piece on the board but one of the players moving the pawns.

In the shadows, Doctor Doom meets a woman, Margaretta von Geisterstadt, whose intelligence is matched only by her cunning. She is a master player in the chess game of the Shadows. Where she comes from is not important. She is the last of her people, as her name implies: von Geisterstadt = of Ghost Town. She lost everything in her past because of events completely out of her control. To make up for this lack of control, she sought total control of the world.  She has attained this, arguably, as a Shadow Queen.

This brings us to the second part of my proposal. I posit that the “cancer” which gnaws at Doctor Doom in the flashback from Doom 2099 #2 was not a preoccupation with the Shadows subverting his empire.  That was merely Erik Czerny’s memories bleeding into Doom’s. Rather, it was a real cancer.

What caused this illness? Take your pick from all the various energies Doom has exposed his body to over the years.  His body has held the power cosmic (stolen from the Silver Surfer in Fantastic Four #57), the power of the Beyonder (Secret Wars #10), the power of Galactus (Fantastic Four World’s Greatest Comics Magazine #10), the power of a Watcher (Fantastic Four #375), and the Life Force (Avengers: The Children’s Crusade #7.)  A line of dialogue in Doom 2099 #43 could be interpreted as evidence of this future cancer. Doom 2099’s final warning to his younger self was, “But know this, for every victory you savor, there will be a loss that scars you.”

A human body was never meant to hold or endure being exposed to such energies. I propose that as the Age of Heroes ends and Doom survives triumphantly, his body finally succumbs to the years of torment he has put it through.  Never one to lie down and die, Doom seeks options to extend his life. However, Doom is acutely aware he must be careful of the choices he makes. At all costs he wants to avoid the future he saw in Iron Man #250.

Having vowed to change this future, and seeing that technology alone will not save him, Doom attempts to restore his health through mystical means. He returns to the place of his “birth” and attempts a “rebirth.” Doom travels to the Himalayas and visits the hidden order of monks who forged his first armor.

In a repeat of what Dr. Strange once did for him during the Infinity Gauntlet story (Dr. Strange, Sorcerer Supreme #34,) Doom attempts to heal himself in the furnace of his birth as Doctor Doom. Unfortunately, the restorative qualities of the flames are not enough to completely cure him.  They only stall his death. Doom leaves to continue his search for a cure, but not alone.  As seen in the Doom 2099 #2 flashback, he takes with him one of the monks, Damon, who administers his medicine.

figure-09For his cure, Doom turns to an unlikely source: one of the Shadows. Doom has always been drawn to powerful women like Morgan Le Fey, Storm, and Dorma.  It is not surprising he was drawn to Margaretta. Margaretta is likewise drawn to Doom because, in his weakened state, he is a man she can dominate.  Just look at her style of dress in the flashback in Doom 2099 #25 if you need evidence that this is her type of thing. Margaretta, a master geneticist, offers Doom a cure for his illness. He promptly accepts. In this way, Necrotek’s tease about Margaretta in Doom 2099 #13 comes true: her “love” redeems him. But how does it curse him?

figure-10A “cured” Doom begins an ongoing relationship with Margaretta. But, theirs is not a flowery romance. It is a game of chess, with the whole world as their chessboard. We know of Doom’s penchant for chess games from tales like Fantastic Four Special, Master of Kung-Fu #59-60, and Strange Tales #167. Doom and Margaretta’s games, like those of all who lurk in the shadows, shake and move events on a global scale.

However, by 2085, it becomes clear that Margaretta’s cure is not as permanent as they thought. Doom’s condition begins to deteriorate once more. Margaretta concludes that in order to heal Doom once and for all, she requires a “clean” genetic sample of Doom. She needs a sample not tainted by the energies he exposed himself to in his public quest to rule the world during the Age of Heroes.

Doom plans a journey into his own past to obtain the required sample. However, by doing this, he is inserting himself once more onto the chessboard at the mercy of Margaretta’s games. The journey into the past is a trap. Doom’s trip is diverted into a time corridor where Doom is forced to revisit his worst defeats, over and over again. The arduous flight through time ends with Doom’s arriving back at his citadel in the Pacific nearly dead.

This brings us full circle to the events depicted in Doom 2099 #25 where Margaretta finds a good use for Erik Czerny while healing Doom for her next game. She mixes Doom’s memories with Erik’s and erases some of his own memories before sending him out into the world of 2099.  This represents her best challenge yet for her lover. Doom, of course, overcomes her obstacles and wins the game. He is, after all, Doom.

figure-11figure-12

…the Molecule Man and the Beyonder?

beyonder-and-molecule-man-turn-into-a-cosmic-cube

Today’s post is fnord12’s, of the Marvel Comics Chronology project.  This time around, he has decided to unpick the fixes for the Beyonder’s origin, and the character’s connection to the Molecule Man, thereby weaving a logical rat’s nest into a wearable garment.  So over to fnord12.

Ok, ok, put the pitchforks down.  I know no one wants to hear any more about the Beyonder ever again.  I know we all hated Secret Wars II, and that’s fair enough.  I’m right there with you.  But, you have to admit the ending of Secret Wars II was pretty good.  The Beyonder, we had learned, was once a universe unto himself.  After he spent the series thrashing about in our universe in various ill-advised ways, the Beyonder decided to return to the void of his previous existence.  He would forego his consciousness and become a new universe – perhaps even a New Universe.  And that’s pretty cool.  Whether you see Secret Wars II as a metaphor for Jim Shooter thrashing about and disrupting the status quo in the Marvel offices, or just a cosmic storyline full of admittedly goofy moments, the ending has a nice sense of closure.  It’s a shame it got ruined when the Beyonder was brought back and “fixed” in a really weird way – actually, in two really weird ways.  And that’s what I’m hoping to get at with this piece: a way to unfix the fixes with my own fix.

But before we get to that, a more esoteric and personal bugaboo of mine:  the handling of Molecule Man in the 1970s.  Molecule Man first appeared in Fantastic Four #20 as a nerdy dweeb who suddenly had vast power and was immediately corrupted by it.  This triggered the Watcher to break his personal vow to never interfere (we know it doesn’t take much) and alert the Fantastic Four.  Then, the Watcher spirits him away in the end.  That was Molecule Man’s only Silver Age appearance.

Then, in the 1970s, things got weird.  Steve Gerber brought the character back in the first issue of Marvel Two-In-One, but it wasn’t really him.  It was Molecule Man’s son, which he somehow produced in the isolated dimension where the Watcher had trapped him.   When his “son” comes back to Earth, he’s a much more generic villain in terms of personality.  He loses his body and instead possesses whoever holds his wand.  The resurrection as his son was also supposed to eliminate his inability to affect organic molecules.  But, that starts creeping back in later stories, beginning with an inability to affect unstable molecules.  Along the way, he also seems to become his original self again, dropping the idea that he was actually Molecule Man’s son.

Then, in the early 80s, Jim Shooter brought back Molecule Man as the original Silver Age version.  Molecule Man re-grew a body for himself, ditched the wand, and went back to his old nebbish self that we all know and love from the first Secret Wars.   (I don’t care what anyone says.  The first Secret Wars was a fun story, and Molecule Man’s interaction with the Beyonder was one of the best parts of the second series.)   Molecule Man even regained his inability to affect organic materials.  The Shooter story in Avengers #215-216 gave a quick hand-waving explanation about the wand possessions, but offered no explanation for the son thing or the reversal of his power limitation.  That always bugged me.  The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe says something about the son being a construct he created to serve as a companion, but I never liked that.  Molecule Man was never shown to be able to create something with a consciousness.  It seems like a step too far even for his godlike powers.

Now, back to the Beyonder.  Apparently, Ralph Macchio disliked the Beyonder so much that even though the character was done/finished/caput/off being another universe where he would never bother us again, he ordered Steve Englehart to bring him back just so he could do away with him again.  Fantastic Four #318-319 showed the Beyonder merging with Molecule Man so they could become a cosmic cube.  Just typing that makes my brain hurt.   Of course, this “fix” actually had the opposite of Macchio’s intended result.  Molecule Man eventually disentangled himself from the Beyonder, or Kosmos or whatever we have to call it, and went back to his usual routine.  Now, instead of having a nice finite ending, the Beyonder is free to menace the Marvel universe (and us!) without notice, as s/he did in the 2003 Thanos series.

Then, we have the second, most recent, “fix” from the New Avengers Illuminati series by Brian Michael Bendis.  The nearly incomprehensible third issue suggested the Beyonder was a mutant Inhuman all along.  It also implied that all of Secret Wars II was just an illusion played out on an unpopulated moon out in space.  It seems unlikely, considering the number of actual developments that came out of Secret Wars II, like the first appearance of Boom Boom and the curing of Rick Jones’ cancer.  How could it in any way jibe with the Kosmos story?  Bendis has said that he kept the story deliberately vague, so that we could interpret it however we want.  I am now exercising my option to do that in a way that a) preserves the original ending of Secret Wars II while b) compartmentalizing the two Beyonder “fixes” so that we can blissfully ignore them both at once, and c) addressing my personal problem with the long forgotten weirdness of the 1970s Molecule Man.  So, here we go!

What if there was a mutant Inhuman?  Let’s call him Kosmogar Beyondagon.  (That’s a Blackagar Boltagon reference, people!  Look it up!)  Kosmogar, although incredibly powerful thanks to the mind-blowing awesomeness of his mutant Inhumanism, might lack and covet a corporeal form of his own.  He would sense Molecule Man and secretly break into the dimensional prison where the Watcher was keeping him.  He would possess the lifeless construct of a “son” that Molecule Man created and then start manipulating the guy.  Eventually, Kosmogar would use their combined powers to escape, but trap Molecule Man in the wand.

Throughout the 1970s, then, we really saw Kosmogar.  That’s why he possesses various bodies, and why his powers are inconsistent.  Eventually, though, Molecule Man subconsciously asserts himself enough to expel Kosmogar.  From Shooter’s Avengers through the two Secret Wars series, we have the “regular” Molecule Man again.  But, we do see Kosmogar separately at this time, taunting the Illuminati and priming them to think the worst of the Beyonder.  Kosmogar plans to swoop in and steal the Beyonder’s power at the right moment, something he fails to do behind the scenes in the final issue of Secret Wars II.

We could tell a whole behind-the-scenes story from Kosmogar’s point of view where we get to relive a fairly chaotic battle devoid of character moments in that issue.  This story could deliver bonus fixes, like explaining why Cyclops didn’t recognize Rachel Summers using the Phoenix Force at a time when he didn’t know she was his alternate future daughter.  It could explain some of the minor errors in character appearances, like the roster of Alpha Flight that appears in that issue, while also telling the story of how Kosmogar failed to steal the Beyonder’s power.  We can also use the bodiless Kosmogar during the early 1980s period for other fixes as well, like explaining The Thing #3 where Lockjaw talked.   The other Inhumans seemed convinced he was a real person and not a dog, but Peter David’s reversal of that had some inherent contradictions.  Kosmogar wouldn’t want to risk the emergence of another mutant Inhuman, so he possesses Lockjaw long enough to make him talk and discourage Quicksilver from exposing Luna to the Terrigen Mists, and then puts it into the Inhumans’ heads that it was all just a practical joke.

After Secret Wars II is over, Kosmogar starts manipulating Kubik and the other cosmic entities.  He gets them to think he is the Beyonder and force him to merge with Molecule Man again – which is what he actually wants.  When Molecule Man disentangles himself, Kosmogar goes on to appear in the short-lived Thanos series, where he’s put into a coma (Thanos #10).

This fix keeps the real Beyonder safely away from all of the post-Secret Wars II nonsense, allowing him to have retired in peace never to be used again.  Plus, it provides an explanation for the changes to the Molecule Man.  If we were doing all of this in some actual comics, we could frame it around a Secret Wars III.  Don’t groan!  We could have all of our various sentient cosmic cubes – Kubik, the Shaper of Worlds, and, yes, the Kosmos/Beyonder – each pitting a faction of heroes and/or villains against each other for the purposes of some cosmic contest set up by the Grandmaster.  Keeping it not too complex leaves room to work in all our changes.  It starts to come out during the course of the story that the head of the third faction isn’t really the Beyonder.  He is really Kosmos, or rather our Kosmogar.

What does Kosmogar want?  What was all that possession of the Molecule Man and his various machinations for?  Well, that’s what Secret Wars III can be about, interspersed with some classic Secret Wars-style slugfests.    We can flash back to his birth and childhood and exposure to the Terrigen Mists, seeing how he first gained his powers but also lost his corporeal form.  For all his vast power, he’s been unable to create permanent body for himself.  The “son” created by the Molecule Man got burned out by his energies, and he had to release all the other forms he possessed or they would have burnt out too.  In order to form a permanent body, he needs truly cosmic power.  The real Beyonder could have created one for him, but Kosmogar failed in that attempt.  Now he needs to win the Grandmaster’s contest.  But, why does he want a body?  Again we go back to his childhood to find a very simple and human reason:  a boy that could never receive a hug from his parents, a kiss from his girlfriend, or even pet his Lockjaw puppy.  Over the years in his quest for power his mind has become more twisted, and he’s forgotten the reason for his quest.  But with this, we can resolve the character arc for Kosmogar without him ever succeeding in gaining a body, as our heroes delve into his psyche and learn that, deep inside, he’s just a little boy that needed a hug.

…X-Men Forever

This post comes from G. Kendall who began his blog Not Blog X to answer a simple question: Were X-Men comics in the ’90s as bad as you think?  The focus eventually began to shift to all mainstream comics from the ’90s, leading him to review everything from Spider-Man’s clone saga to the Archie TMNT series.  Over the years his site has been linked on major comics sites like CBR, The Comics Journal, Newsarama and even the New York Times’ pop culture blog.  Amazingly, ’90s comics haven’t killed him yet, but they have tried very hard at times.

X-Men Forever debuted in 2009 as the latest Chris Claremont X-project. The premise was simple but also intriguing: what if Claremont never left the X-Men in 1991? Claremont’s abrupt departure from the X-Men titles after his historic run of over fifteen years seemed unthinkable to the core fan base at the time. Now, years later, readers had a chance to see what could, or if you’re a certain type of fan, should have happened next.

X-Men 01 1991Hopes were high, but as soon as the preview pages for X-Men Forever #1 were released, Internet Outrage had officially begun. The next chronological issue of Claremont’s run would’ve been X-Men (vol. 2) #4, an early entry in the “merged team” era of the titles that featured an X-Men cast consisting of over a dozen characters. The teams were divided into Blue and Gold squads, with each squad receiving a separate title dedicated to their exploits. X-Men Forever #1 opens with no Blue or Gold squads, just a single group of X-Men that’s missing several established members of the team, circa Claremont’s final issue.

A logical assumption can be made that the other cast members are on a mission and that Claremont never intended for the Blue and Gold squads to have static line-ups. Not that these words were ever spoken aloud in the series, of course, but it’s a painless No-Prize explanation. But, there is a larger problem for the continuity-minded reader. Shadowcat and Nightcrawler, two characters written off years earlier to appear in the British-themed spinoff Excalibur, are now members of the team. A line or two indicates that Excalibur still exists, but what are these two characters doing here? How could this possibly be the X-Men (vol. 2) #4 the readers never got to see?

X-Men_Forever_1_coverThe real reason: a decision was made at some point in the development of X-Men Forever to keep the cast relatively small and not to dwell on every character who should hypothetically be an X-Man. That means around half of the cast is dropped, and two of Claremont’s favorite characters that he hasn’t used in ages pop up as new/old members of the team. Broadly speaking, this is a defensible position, even though the cast will soon balloon out of control with characters that weren’t X-Men in 1991. The execution, however, undermines the premise of the series. X-Men Forever #1 is clearly not the next issue of the Claremont canon, and the questions raised from the awkward transition are never adequately addressed.

Magneto memorialLet’s find a way to get to the starting place of X-Men Forever #1 without causing any continuity headaches. How would I fix the questions of who should be where? I’ll begin with the cast as it exists in X-Men Forever #1: Xavier, Cyclops, Wolverine, Rogue, Nightcrawler, Beast, Storm, Jean Grey, Gambit, and Shadowcat. Nightcrawler and Shadowcat are in America for Magneto’s memorial service, as established in X-Men Forever Alpha, and are now considering rejoining the team. Fair enough. Who is missing at this point, following X-Men (vol. 2) #3? Colossus, Iceman, Archangel, and Psylocke haven’t been accounted for. Plus, the mansion’s support staff, Banshee and Forge, is missing. We can’t forget Jubilee, who was last seen in the Muir Island Saga storyline. Her whereabouts during X-Men (vol. 2) #1-3 remain unknown. Future issues of X-Men Forever hint that Psylocke has joined Excalibur, and we later discover that Colossus has returned to Russia to work as a government-sanctioned superhero. Fair enough, again. But that leaves no explanation for Iceman, Archangel, Banshee, Forge, and Jubilee. Where could they have disappeared between issues?

My solution: Australia. Specifically, the deserted outback town populated by the X-Men from Uncanny X-Men #229-#251.

Australian BaseWhen last seen in Chris Claremont’s canon (Uncanny X-Men #269), the X-Men’s outback base had been overtaken by the Reavers. The last X-Man at the location was Rogue, who emerged in her old room after using the Siege Perilous to escape Master Mold. The rest of the X-Men were gone, following the events of Uncanny X-Men #251, which had Psylocke tricking the other team members to disappear through the Siege Perilous in order to avoid a fatal battle with the Reavers. Rogue found herself in enemy territory, fleeing from the Reavers. She promised Gateway that she would find the X-Men and return to help him, as she absorbed his powers and teleported far away. That’s a promise that subsequent writers quickly forgot.

Rogue - Master Mold269-GatewayThe next time we see the outback base in the mainstream continuity (Uncanny X-Men #281,) Gateway is still a prisoner of the Reavers. The X-Men have found the time to defeat the Shadow King, reassemble the team with the members of X-Factor, and rebuild their mansion in Salem Center. But, they never got around to helping poor Gateway. What if, in the Forever continuity, Rogue didn’t forget about her promise? I posit that after the united X-teams battle with the Shadow King, Rogue explains the situation in the outback to her teammates. Their response would not be to sit around and do nothing. It would be an all-out mutant assault on the Reavers! Gateway is rescued, the Reavers are defeated, and the X-Men have control of their former base once again.

What if the months spent rebuilding the mansion were also spent reclaiming the Australian base? So, where did Iceman, Archangel, Banshee, and Forge disappear to? They split their time between Salem Center and Australia, thanks to Gateway’s teleportation powers. What are they doing there? My theory is that they’re training the next generation of young mutants. That’s where Jubilee’s been the entire time: she is the first student of the All-New, All-Secret Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters.

While the school in Salem Center is in fact a home for well-educated adults, the real Xavier school is in a secret ghost town in Australia. What better place to hide the next generation of mutants from a world that fears and hates them? The geography is almost impossible to reach, protecting the school from intruders, while Gateway’s teleportation powers grant easy access for the mutants to travel to any location they wish. The school in Salem Center can be the cover, the public face of the school, while the students are actually in the safest possible location.

Now, you might ask why Xavier himself isn’t in Australia training these mutants. I have two rebuttals. One: the precedent set in the mainstream continuity is that Xavier stays with the adult X-Men in Salem Center while Banshee (with Emma Frost) trains the neophyte mutants in Generation X. It is plausible that a group of X-Men, including Banshee, would be chosen to head up the new, secret school in the outback. Two: who is to say Xavier isn’t teaching these kids? He could reach them telepathically, or travel there at any time thanks to Gateway’s powers. Just because we never saw the events on-panel doesn’t mean they couldn’t have happened. It’s not as if we ever saw the mansion being rebuilt, either.

With the Australian base reintroduced into the series, Claremont has the option to finally resolve all of the danglers relating to Gateway and the outback ghost town. He would not have to shift the focus of the series to this location, but he could throw an occasional storyline towards the “B-team” while also giving the readers the answers he teased decades ago. If anyone is going to unlock the secrets of the Australian base, wouldn’t Forge be the most likely contender?

I can’t speak for what Claremont had in mind for the Australian base, but he certainly planted enough clues following its introduction Uncanny X-Men #229 to indicate that he had some elaborate plans for the future.  (As I’ve mentioned earlier, this site has the most comprehensive list of the danglers and possible resolutions I’ve ever read.)  Why is the computer system seemingly alive?  Why is it exempt from Roma’s spell of invisibility?  Who built the tunnels underneath the town?  What’s Gateway’s connection to the land?  What’s Gateway’s history with the Reavers?  As cryptically hinted in the letters page – why would the full truth behind Gateway cost the X-Men dearly?  Perhaps after some of the answers are revealed, we’ll discover this isn’t the best place to be training teenage mutants.  But would the X-Men discover this information in time?

xterminatorsAre all of these X-Men traveling across the globe for the sake of educating one mutant? Of course not! There are plenty of unclaimed mutants at this point in continuity that could be potential recruits. The X-Terminators are still around, leaving Wiz Kid, Artie, and Leech as potential students. X-Men (vol. 2) #1-3 has already been established as predating Uncanny X-Men #281. That means it could conceivably take place before X-Force #4 as well. X-Force #4 had Siryn joining the team. But, had she been reached by Xavier sooner, it is entirely possible that she would have joined Jubilee in the outback. That’s one more student. Rictor and Wolfsbane are unaccounted for during this period, with Rictor abandoning the New Mutants in order to “rescue” Wolfsbane in Genosha. Shouldn’t the X-Men take care of something like this? And, while we’re at it, wouldn’t the former members of X-Factor be interested in rescuing Rusty and Skids from the MLF? See, there’s an entire student body waiting to be taught at this location.

It’s a simple solution, and it’s a shame X-Men Forever never gave the readers an explanation like this. It’s an easy, one sentence justification for shuffling any unwanted character from this era off the stage. “Where’s Iceman?! I know he was an X-Man at this point!” “Australia.” There. Done! Not only does this solution ease the transition from the original continuity to the Forever continuity, but it leaves several doors open for new stories. It also gives Claremont an opportunity to resolve storylines he was never able to finish in his original run; i.e., what the audience expected from the title in the first place.

…Avengers Forever? (part three of three)

Aaaand here it is, Fan-Fixers, the epic conclusion! This is where I sign off, and turn control of your television back over to you! I’d like to thank Nate for letting me post this gargantuan folly on his blog, and thank him and Richard Bensam both for being faithful beta-readers…both highly inventive fellows! There really is some nice stuff floating around here, isn’t there? Barring a massive public outcry, I think I’ll have to return soon, and dash some more absurd paint on these still-partly-blank walls…

Thanks for reading! Your pal, Plok.

Like Johnny Storm, Reader, you are passing through the celestial barriers known as Un-Life! To touch them is to perish! But this is why I have selected you! Only you possess the necessary skill to make this journey!

Reed, Sue, and Ben can’t hear you yet! You’re still on some different plane! But you’re getting closer…CLOSER…!

THE MISTS ARE CLEARING…!

“It’s the kid! He’s okay!”

Indeed he is, and look what he’s brought with him.

It’s gonna go fast, now. The moment of truth is at hand.

Fair warning, for those of you who haven’t done the assigned homework.

SO!!

The important thing to bear in mind, is that within the confines of the MU’s fictional reality the divergent timelines do not share an equal ontological status with the main timeline. In our own reality, things that didn’t happen can be mapped, and that map can be used to explain why the world’s actual events took the actual course they did…and the MU is no different, notwithstanding the fact that you can go visit the places where things happened differently and fall in love with Kitty Pryde there or whatever. In the limitless branches and sub-branches of the tree of never-happened that supports the world, these encounters are accounted for too, you see…and they’re not nothing, not by any means, but they do remain merely a part of the overall “calculation”. Well, if they could be any more than that, the MU would have imploded as soon as Professor Horton let that first little bit of oxygen into the Torch’s glass tank!

Every moment in time would have attained an infinite energy density, and closed just like the mouth of a wormhole before a single photon could penetrate to its centre!

Because in a fictional universe one can arrange for many things to happen that ordinarily cannot happen, but one cannot arrange for EVERYTHING to happen that ordinarily cannot. Or at least: one cannot arrange for all these to happen at once.

So by the immutable law of the real-world physics that have crept into the MU just by accident, even though such creeping-in was never actively intended by anyone, it is nevertheless true that the main line is “real”, and the divergents are not. Even a divergent that also diverges further by having a visitor from the main line “enter” it…well, that does add to the mix, but it only adds to the mix, and it doesn’t change the fact — the fact! — that the divergents are constituents of the main line in the same way that the main line is not a mere constituent of the divergents. Oh, to be sure, the main line wouldn’t be what it is without the divergents! Ever wonder why the heroes always win, and the universe never dies? Well, it’s because there’s a universe out there where that does happen (even though everybody does the exact right thing), but there’s also a universe out there where it doesn’t happen (even though everyone screws up!), and when you count up all these different kinds of universes what you find is that they basically sum to “Peter Parker eventually became Spider-Man anyway”. Johnny brought back the Ultimate Nullifier. Dr. Strange beat Dormammu. Thor still made his father proud, even though his father was so pissed at him, and Jean still died because she loved Scott.

Or to put it another, slightly-weirder way: we know there’s only one main line, because seeing the divergent timelines is actually proof that there’s only one main line. The robustness of the main line is accounted for by a (relatively) simple tally of other possible universes: the universes where things break down utterly are outliers, and the universes where they don’t are amplifiers. And it isn’t that it couldn’t be otherwise — because anything may occur in a fictional reality — but it’s that it isn’t otherwise, because the necessities of the publishing business in the real world have made Marvel’s fictional universe stable over time in its world. Interstitial space clutches at vanished forms, and preserves them against some future day of resurrection: however things fall out or fall apart, the MU “remembers” them as they were before things went pear-shaped.

However.

There is also Avengers Forever.

The fractal net of Limbo extends to everyplace there’s a phase transition, to everywhere there’s a boundary…and there is a BIG one between the main line and its constituents in the counting universe of Hilbert Space. Going into Tme is dangerous as hell for Immortus, because (in complementary fashion) it is only from Time that you can actually change things pretty fast and pretty directly. There may be a What If? in which Reed Richards is kept from stealing the Pocket Rocket, and in that alternate universe it may develop that he steals it anyway, or that somebody else steals it, or anything else that makes it so there’s a Fantastic Four in any event…or the universe may end because there isn’t a Fantastic Four, or anything at all may happen but it’s still subject to “calculation”, still just a matter of where that branch is located on the ol’ Tree of Life…but if you get into Dr. Doom’s time machine and go back in the main line to that fateful day, you will be able to definitely stop that rocket from taking off, and there is no “calculation” about it.

Oh…except that the main line is robust, right? So you may stop the rocket from taking off, but you will not be able to be sure that the FF won’t still come into existence somehow. Somewhere there are a bunch of possibilities surrounding the FF that most definitely include you stopping them from taking off in the rocket, and if in a lot of those they become the FF anyway, well you may not be able to stop that from happening. Possibilities boil and bubble beneath the skin of eventuality, and all of them count…so cut one away, and that doesn’t mean you have cut all away. Before your intervention, the sum of divergents ensured a Fantastic Four…

And after your intervention, they may still ensure it, but the real point here is: a time machine does allow you to cut into the flesh of “what happened”, very directly and to immense immediate effect. And hey, it’s possible that you may succeed anyway, right? After all you don’t know that your own robustness might not triumph over that of the Fantastic Four…!

Maybe they’re not so special as you are, right?

But there’s another way to change the main line, and that’s by pruning the divergents. An unimaginably monumental task! To create a “diffraction grating” of that scope, that’s as contingent on other divergents not changing around it, that involves messing about with such frighteningly infinite numbers of universes…to be honest you would be better off taking your chances with the time machine, but for Immortus it’s a better option, because going into Hilbert Space doesn’t threaten him at all. It’s far more difficult a matter than just sending the Space Phantom to alter real and actual Time, but it has the twin advantages of safety and precision…because there is probably some serious question about whether or not it can even be done, but at least all your mistakes will be confined to the laboratory, right? God, how long would it take to alter the weave of the divergents enough to cause a real change in the main line, could you even be sure that it would work at all much less the way you want it to…but again, there’s complementarity there: the more time it takes, the more you can take your time. And since in Limbo there is no time anyway, you have to think that Immortus could eventually do just exactly as he pleased…

If he had a reason to, which of course by himself he does not. What can change his own life? Nothing, anymore. What does he care about what happens in Time?

There’s no reason for him to care about any of it.

Except maybe Kang. At some point Kang “wearies”, and becomes the second Rama-Tut…and it does appear as though once he does so his transformation into Immortus may not be capable of being halted. Immortus certainly doesn’t appear to care much about interfering with Rama-Tut II! But he does care about Kang, thus we might assume that Kang’s retirement is the key. A sophisticated Limboite like Immortus can probably feel when the boundaries that make up his environment change because something has disappeared or something has emerged — or re-emerged — in much the same way that the Space Phantom can probably feel when the number of his fractured selves is going up or down. So perhaps Immortus knows that the MU has a tendency he can’t hope to entrain very much, of sending forms away and then bringing them back. After the meeting of all three of his selves in the affair of the Celestial Madonna, he didn’t give a damn if Kang died — although Rama-Tut II did! — and in fact we could even go so far as to suggest he wanted Kang to die, that once he and his earlier selves had met in the same place and gotten their timelines irretrievably tangled it was his plan that Kang must die…but whether he wanted it or he didn’t, whether he planned it or not, in the end it didn’t matter because the MU brought Kang back.

Complementarity: Kang wasn’t necessary to Immortus anymore, but because of that Immortus also had no say in whether he had to exist or not. Once the threat of paradox no longer bound their fates, then…well, their fates weren’t bound, were they?

And Kang’s Decision once again was a threat. BUT!! Complemetarity one more time: Immortus probably concluded that the MU didn’t need Kang to turn into Immortus, in fact might be inclined to continue “remembering” his form even after he turned into Immortus…so was this not, perhaps, the very source of the danger to him? Multiple reappearing Kangs, all headed toward the unfixed point in the interstitial fluid that was blowing little Immortus-bubbles into Limbo. As long as Kang could become Immortus, then Immortus was in danger of becoming Phantomized…but if the universe didn’t need Kang to become Immortus, then all Immortus had to do was…

…Just make sure that what his fictional reality wanted, it got?

But then enter the Time-Keepers. Immortus lied about this too, it seems, because the Time-Keepers are not exactly figures shrouded in mystery. In fact, it’s painfully obvious that most of what’s ever been said about them can’t be straightforwardly true. And should Immortus not know about it? At the end of Time, in its last moments, the “One Who Remains” creates the Time-Twisters, beings charged with immense temporal powers…then thinks better of letting them loose, creating the Time-Keepers instead. And we are told this resulted in two separate flip-flopping states of possible reality, a final divergence between two timelines: one which was dominated by the “evil” Time-Twisters, and one which was dominated by their “good” twins the Time-Keepers.

And what we are told here is obviously not true, to the point where if we accept it we pretty much must also accept Gerry Conway’s mistake about how rocket propulsion works. A rocket doesn’t need anything to push against, obviously, no matter what it says in a little yellow caption box. For that matter, and just to show that even the original talent must not be limitlessly respected in this way, the Hulk cannot be just so strong that he can change course on a massive jump through the air, because there isn’t any strength like that outside of Flex Mentallo. The Hulk also (unlike Flex) can’t be just so strong that he can read minds or turn invisible, either! And in a like manner…

The episode of He Who Remains cannot have created two divergents at the end of time, because it actually created four. One in which there is only the Time-Twisters. One in which there is only the Time-Keepers. One in which both exist. One in which neither of them exist. And also we could even imagine a “hidden fifth”, an implied negative — oh, how I love these implied negatives, a staple of Western literature since The Brothers Karamazov! The obscured ground, upon which the forms float! — in which He Who Remains doesn’t even make it to the end of time, never thinks of making any powerful Time-Beings at all, where it all just sort of…never happened even a little.

And in the calculation of all that, it is apparent that the mainline MU is one in which there are Time-Keepers but no Time-Twisters, which would ordinarily be the end of it…except that there are a couple of extenuating circumstances, because the Time-Twisters, like the Time-Keepers and the Time Variance Authority they (presumably) founded, have too much power — and too little sense of responsibility! — to be trusted anywhere near anything that’s even like time. On the Tree of Never-Happened there are millions of Peter Parker branches and millions of Fantastic Four branches, and they’re all different…but every last twig terminates in one of only five conditions as regards the Twisters/Keepers, and none of those twig-ends has any other idea in their tiny minds except “survive” and “beat the other guy”. So that ubiquity actually represents a tremendous power to trim divergent universes — well, that’s what you get when you advance a pawn all the way to the end of the board! — but there are a couple of things standing in the way of this power being fully employed.

One is theoretical: inside Hilbert Space the Keepers and Twisters doubtless act to create a terrible centipetal power that could collapse all the divergents together, but the manner by which they might accomplish this is not necessarily clear. How does it work, exactly, when inside a divergent universe there lies an amplitude for said universe to alter another? Would a dimension-hopper from inside Hilbert Space actually be able to make it to another branch of the Tree? Or would it simply create another sub-branch? The question is open, but if it so happens that the second possibility is the one that obtains, then it would seem that Twisters and Keepers across the Tree would have to be content with competing on the basis of who could create the greatest number of sub-domains: in a manner slightly analogous, then, to how altering the mainline by screwing with divergents is less direct than simply entering Time. So if that were the case, Immortus’ power to operate from Limbo as a Limbo-seated being (something which neither Twisters nor Keepers, Universe-dwellers by law of what’s printed in a Thor comic somewhere, can do), would be a powerful weapon for doppelganger to employ against doppelganger…

…If only they could compel Immortus to do their bidding somehow!

Another thing that stands in the way of the Keepers/Twisters War destroying the Tree is mathematical: they just cannot comprehend that numbering divergent universes doesn’t do any good unless the universes are enumerable…which they’re not, or at least not without using the invention known as “fractions” that both Keepers and Twisters seem so senselessly to abhor. But I guess this is just a way of thinking inherited from the unimaginative hordes of the TVA whose ultimate product was He Who Remains…patrollers of time who do little more than walk up and down the same sidewalk on the same side of the same block all day, and call it a city. To explain how the TVA can even continue to function in the MU without so much as the ability to count properly (I mean really, there are four divergents there at the end of Time, for heaven’s sake! How do they stubbornly see only two?) would probably take an essay even longer than this one (!), but I can only assume what they’re doing is analogous to what the Twisters/Keepers would be doing in Alternity if they were actually unable to jump from branch to branch of the Tree…just constantly expanding a sub-domain that they perceive as the All. Powerful? Tyrannical? Absurd? Yes, yes, and yes…but fortunately also small. Did they really threaten to take the Watcher’s dimensional viewer away? It’s hard to imagine anything more rewritable at some future date than the adventures of the TVA, in fact at this very moment I am holding myself back from proposing that they’re all just Space Phantoms, and that Immortus cooked the whole batch of them up as part of a plan to make a better diffraction grating! And, consequently, that it isn’t by accident the Keepers and Twisters find themselves needing his help…deluded about the nature of Time…

Finally, the third thing that stands in the way of the ultimate domination of the Keepers and Twisters, is that they have an Enemy. And that’s Rick Jones, wielder of the Destiny Force…although regular readers of this blog might know him better as the descendent of Moon-Boy: unintended “brother” to Michael Korvac.

What?

You think the Time-Keepers care about the brutal Human Empire of the future?

What did they ever do about the brutal Empires of the past?

And meanwhile…back in Limbo…

Immortus finds that Kang is back. It doesn’t even matter how…in fact, it barely matters who, because Kang the individual isn’t the problem: his timeline is.

How to make it take another direction?

What matters to the Space Phantom is what happens in Time; divergent universes, which he can pretty much spawn at will, can’t hurt him…but his own presence in Time can. What matters to Immortus is breaking the time-loop that connects him to Kang; once he doesn’t have that to worry about, he’ll be completely immune to consequences arising from Time. What matters to the Time-Keepers is divergent universes; in Alternity, they are racing their dark reflections to see who can produce more divergents that are under their control, in order to replace the other in the mainline MU…although they are unaware that such an attempt is doomed by their stubbornly number-line thinking, no matter how Aleph-1 ubiquitous they may be on the tips of the branches…

And somewhere in the middle is Rick Jones…since evidently the Destiny Force can affect what goes on in every sphere of existence that we’ve detailed so far. And perhaps its reach may even extend to the interstitial fluid, wherein all forms are remembered? Rick’s power of imagination seems functionally identical to Roy Thomas’ power of memory — that is: it is a reader’s memory — though it seems quite certain Rick can’t possibly know this — which implies that his Destiny Force is an active factor in all three of the realities we have examined: Universe, Limbo, and Alternity. Which is no particular problem for any “metaversal” figure who’s trying to escape overdetermination…as (in this construction) Immortus and the Space Phantom surely are…but it’s absolute FROZEN HELL on any such figure who is seeking a defence in overdetermination, as the Time-Keepers are. Rick Jones, after all, can summon forth from his subconscious characters that are NOT currently in MU continuity…not to yank you out of the fictional context for no reason, Reader, but Rick Jones is one of those characters that provides writers and artists with the opportunity to drawn in le vrai Alan Moore-style “Alternity” …over there in the corner, that’s Mr. Magic…the Phantom is punching him…Neil The Horse looks on…Linus cowers under his blanket while the original Daredevil bloodily subdues Fin Fang Foom…Doc Savage looks on in concern, while The Shadow stands invisibly behind him and laughs…

So there’s no “control”, in a situation where that’s possible. The TVA seizes the tremendous power of the very last instant of Time, to create a method of exerting control over continuity that couldn’t possibly exist otherwise…but Rick Jones, though initially just an Atom Age Jimmy Olsen for an Atom Age Superman, became something else when Roy Thomas wrote him as an identification figure: became connected to the desires of a real person in the real world to have an effect on the fictional world, and so he is in possession of an ability that dwarfs anything else to be found there.

In effect: he’s become a Cosmic Personification.

But, of what?

The answer is right there at hand: “fictitiousness”. Or maybe: ‘”fictionality”? But this isn’t as straightforward as perhaps it may seem to us: within the MU the key concept in play here is IMAGINATION, but from our lofty real-world perspective it’s quite clear that “imagination” in the MU is not a very “imaginative” thing at all…since Imagination, as a cosmic force in the MU, is just a grandiose helmet that Memory wears. Rick’s imagination is massively dull by our standards…oooh, look, call out Plastic Man, or Buck Rogers! Or Prospero or Mary Poppins! Or Mandrake or McMillan & Wife. Alternity begins here, in terrible boredom…the sudden influx of imagination into the MU is only stuff that we’ve seen before, and never stuff that we haven’t…the breaking of the fourth wall is only the cracking of the cache of memory in there, that’s never not-uncracked here. And Rick isn’t the only Marvel character whose writer has meant for him to break the fourth wall by remembering things the other characters around him can’t, but most of these other attempts at the same thing have tended to fail rather dismally: metatextual awareness in a world constantly being rewritten just isn’t a very useful attribute, right! Because the world of Cosmic Atoms is all about forces and actions, not manifestations of the secret knowledge of the reader…since 1986, the DC Universe has had a “top layer” of reality, and therefore a universe in which if a character receives some vague intimation of his or her fictitiousness then that is meaningful…since you will probably never see a story at DC which reveals that the Crisis actually never happened at all. But the culture of Marvel has never permitted such finality, to the extent that Avengers Forever is probably as close as we will ever get, to a “Marvel Crisis”!

Or at least, to a constructive one…

But things are moving too fast, now, to stop and wonder about what a “Marvel Crisis” would look like! I’m running out of pages! And so we’re running out of time to get to Immortus’ real plan.

Now, bear in mind I am not definitely saying that he created the TVA, just so they could produce the Time-Keepers and the Time-Twisters and thus place a perfect infinite diffraction grating in his hands…although it might explain why they’ve always had the wrong information…but whether he did or didn’t, it still doesn’t change the fact that for all the Keepers’ power they can never do what he does. And can he ever screw them up, if he wants to! From inside the main line, in the very trunk of the tree of Time, the Space Phantom can generate an arbitrary number of divergent possibilities…has, in fact, already done so just by the fact of his existence…as the fact of a “main line” is itself necessary to the creation of divergents OH YES OF COURSE IT’S TRUE…!

…But not only that, but he can keep doing it, too, and Immortus knows that the integer-bound Keepers will never detect this counterforce to their attempt to own all and claim all, and resolve all. They can blast him dead where he stands, even in Limbo…but he holds their lives in his hands too. What they most desire is security: therefore they send him into every divergent that promises to support any other of the four He Who Remains divergents than their own, and they also send him everywhere they can to try and eliminate Rick Jones…

But Rick Jones proves very hard to eliminate by messing around with time, again for reasons this blog’s readers know very well…and this naturally implies he’ll be awfully hard to kill by killing him, as well, but of course the Time-Keepers don’t see this, and Immortus chooses not to tell them. Because he needs Rick Jones: things can happen, around Rick Jones, that can’t happen anywhere else. Kang and Immortus could be completely split, one from the other, if Rick Jones only wants it…

…So Rick Jones will make excellent cover, for Immortus’ scheming. It’s apparent that he can’t kill Kang, so what else can he do with him? Well, he can educate him in a false theory of time, that will leave Kang unable to figure out how to re-seat himself in Limbo in the first place! Without a shared ontological status between the main line and the divergents, there can be no possibility of a Council of Cross-Time Kangs, but somehow it seems as though there is…”somehow”, because Immortus tricks Kang into believing it. Rama-Tut II is already gone, thousands of years ago, into Limbo…and what do you suppose was the thing that made him go? Way back in the Celestial Madonna Affair, Rama-Tut II stays the Swordsman’s hand when he’s about to kill Kang, wondering if the act would wipe out his own existence too…and the next time we see him, he’s Immortus. And it’s just a coincidence, sure, but this is still both the first and last time that the man we now call “Nathaniel Richards” will be seen to worry much about paradox…and very shortly afterwards, he stops worrying about it once and for all.

After, possibly, he realizes the true nature of Time and Limbo?

But Kang will now never get there, because Kang now believes in the same sort of abhorrent state of “paradox” that the TVA does. And, in the same stroke, Kang no longer believes that he is fated to become Immortus at all, now that he’s successfully removed various other sorts of “impostors”. Oh, he still fears it…!

But deep down, his victory over the “other Kangs” has convinced him that his destiny can be changed. Meanwhile Immortus merrily removes, at the Time-Keepers’ urging of course, a vast number of divergents that make a Kang-who-becomes-Immortus a robust form. Now, the last thing to arrange is the showdown with the Keepers!

In which he is destroyed by them!

But he knows something they don’t, which is that the MU wants him around…and wants Kang around…and Rick Jones is right there, so it’s a calculated risk but as it turns out he’s calculated it right. The Time-Keepers, possibly his own devious creations, are destroyed…just by weaponry, or also by the Destiny Force reaching out and snipping all the little twigs off all the ends of all the branches, on the Tree of Never-Happened?…and Kang is set free, in that very same gesture which reconstitutes Immortus himself, just as it was all planned.

So…

What was he hiding, from Genis-Vell’s cosmic awareness? Naturally it was never that the Space Phantoms were playing dress-up, as no one has ever needed cosmic awareness to find that out! But it was the fact that they were all the same guy, that Immortus didn’t want discovered. Because in the final confrontation with the Time-Keepers, the Avengers must believe absolutely in all the lies Immortus has told them, all the way from there being such a thing as “42%” of an infinite number of universes, to his final Marvel-style last-minute conversion and self-sacrifice…and if they were to see how powerful the Space Phantom really is, it would all be an awfully tough sell. It needs to be sold to the sort of people that can be believed, but that’s what makes it such a dangerous game, you see? Because the only reason to believe them, is that they might have found out it was all just another big Immortus lie-fest!

But fortunately for him…they didn’t find that out!

And they will never all be together in the same room ever again, so they won’t find it out later either. And…

Oh my goodness…is that the end?

Did I actually finish this thing?

Can’t help thinking that I’ve left something out