…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.

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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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…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.”

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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 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.

…Aunt Petunia’s age?

This guest post comes from foremost Fantastic Four scholar, Chris Tolworthy.  Chris holds the unconventional view that the Fantastic Four (from 1961 to 1988) was the Great American Novel, and equivalent to Shakespeare.  This essay is typical of the stuff he finds every time he opens a comic, and why his site will never be finished.  Over to you Chris…

Since 1964, Ben Grimm (The Thing) has referred to his “old aunt Petunia” as a source of wisdom. Note the word “old.”  But in Fantastic Four #238-239 we finally see her, and she is young.  How young?  She looks to be in her 20s or 30s.  O’Hoolihan calls Petunia “a foin broth of a girl” and Johnny considers her attractive.  Assuming an upper age of 35, and with the stretching time scale between 1961 and 1982, she was born after 1935.  But for Ben to have fought in WWII he left home in 1945 at the latest.  Petunia would have been 10 or younger when she was dishing out old lady advice to a teenage Ben.  More seriously, she was supposedly a qualified nurse and possibly even married to Uncle Jake at this time.  The numbers do not add up.

Figure 1: Ben’s “old aunt Petunia”, from Fantastic Four #239, page 5.

As an aside, Petunia has a highly dated name.  Flower names (rose, lily, iris, etc.) had an explosion in popularity around the year 1900, but the fashion soon ended.  Babycenter.com now ranks Petunia as number 12,986 in popularity (compared with the dated but still possible Susan at 840 and relatively trendy Alicia at 185).  Everything points to Petunia being a generation older than Ben, and not a married nine year old graduate.

However, the story suggests a solution.  Petunia appears to ask Ben’s help with problems in the town.  We learn that ancient earth spirits are causing the bad people to face their inner demons and die, and the solution is to get the bad people to leave.  Only a handful of good people are left, including Petunia and Jake, and a girl called Wendy who spends time with the spirits.  Perhaps Petunia also spends time with them?  Wendy does not tell people what she knows about the spirits.  At the end of the book she is shown with the spirits, a fact not revealed to anybody.  But if it was not revealed, how was it in the book?  In the Fantastic Four we only see what the team tell Marvel: if the team don’t know about it then it can’t go in the book (cf. Fantastic Four #10, #176).  How, then, did they know Wendy’s secret?  Presumably somebody else had experience with the spirits.. Who else could it be but Petunia?  Jake is not mobile, but Petunia is feisty and curious: another Wendy.  Petunia would have explored there as a small girl (face it, there was not much else to do) and, like Wendy, would have discovered the spirits.  Perhaps “Wendy’s friends” are not just the spirits, but also Jake and Petunia.

Figure 2: Ben’s Uncle Jake was once angry we are told, from Fantastic Four #239, page 7.

Jake is also another version of Wendy’s father: he was once angry, we are told.  He comes from a time when men were often violent, and Ben comes from a culture of violent gang members.  But now Jake is at peace.  Perhaps Wendy’s tale is also Petunia’s tale.  Perhaps it is really all about Jake, but like Wendy, Petunia and Ben are too loyal to ever speak against him.  Jake had to face his inner demons, the demons of the violent earth that made his generation (the last generation to sweep the Native Americans away): he had to reap the whirlwind.  Notice that redemption comes from the land itself.  The American settlers lose their thirst to conquer the land and begin to cooperate with it.  The Grimm story is the story of the people of the land.  Note that none of this contradicts “second wife” or “many years younger” story.  But the significance is not that a 50 year old man married a 9 year old, the significance is that a 50 year old man married a 30 year old who healed his anger.

This raises several questions.

First, did Petunia move to Arizona too late to be this young? She said they moved to Arizona “shortly before” Fantastic Four #1.  But why would two New Yorkers choose Arizona?  Seems a long way from New York – where they trying to escape?  Or did they already have connections there?

Second, Jake is portrayed as a nice middle class doctor who was only angry because of his legs.  He contrasts with Ben’s alcoholic father and gang leader brother.  In The Thing #2 we see how Ben idolised his brother, but then his brother was killed in a gang fight, and Ben went to live with Uncle Jake.  Later Ben became leader of the same Yancy Street Gang; and only THEN did Jake talk to Ben about leaving the gang.

Something does not add up. While it is possible that a lower class alcoholic has a middle class doctor for a brother, it is statistically unlikely.  More seriously, Jake knew that Ben’s favourite brother was killed in a gang fight.  Why did Jake wait until Ben was gang leader before suggesting it was a bad idea?  It sounds like Jake was saw gang membership, including stabbing, as perfectly acceptable.

Third, we are told that people disapproved of Jake marrying a much younger woman.  But the numbers suggest this was only a man in his fifties marrying a woman in her thirties – unusual but hardly a scandal.

Which leads to our next curiosity:

Fourth, why did Petunia have such an influence on Ben?  According to The Thing #2, Ben was raised by his aunt Alyce, and Petunia did not arrive on the scene until later.  Ben was a gang leader while Petunia was a student nurse who claims she never questioned anything Jake did.  Why would Ben be influenced by Petunia more than Alyce?  Petunia’s story is all very neat – far TOO neat.  Jake was an idealised man?  Jake needed the excuse of an injury to explain why he met this nurse?  But he was a doctor in a busy hospital (cf. Fantastic Four #238, 257): he worked with nurses all the time!  Then it took years for Petunia to be Jake’s student and then eventually his wife, and then become an influence on Ben?  There isn’t enough time.  And Petunia never questioned Jake? This doesn’t sound like a woman that the rebellious Ben would idolise.

A simpler explanation is that Jake was seeing Petunia before the accident, and we are hearing the sanitised version of events.  I am not suggesting that Jake killed his wife deliberately.  But if Jake was seeing somebody then his marriage may not have been a happy one: Jake’s brother was an alcoholic.  It’s easy to see how Jake might have been driving after drinking, and having a lot on his mind.  That would explain why he and Petunia wanted to move from their home in New York and get as far away as possible: accidentally killing your wife then marrying your much younger mistress is quite a scandal, and they would want to get away.

In short, Jake was not innocent.  Though Petunia probably is.  Petunia must have a pure heart, to survive being friends with the spirits.

Fifth potential problem: if Petunia knew about the spirits, why didn’t she tell Ben?  For the same reason that Wendy kept them secret, right to the end.  Some things are best not discussed.  But why would Petunia come to ask help from Ben if she could already talk to the spirits?  Because the evil in the town is causing deaths, and she needs help to get the bad people out of there.  Wendy did not tell everything she knew, so why should Petunia?

Finally, why did Ben not notice that Petunia had not aged?  Reed notes that the spirits may still be around in ten thousand years.  Like the Native American “ancient ones” found by the Miracle Man, they appear to have slowed aging to an almost standstill.  Being around time-stretching superheroes keeps a person young (as noted in the fourth-wall-breaking She-Hulk book), so perhaps being around these earth spirits will slow aging to a crawl.  This would explain why Petunia had barely aged since Ben knew her when Ben was a child (and 35 then seemed ancient).  This also explains why Ben does not notice that Petunia has not aged: time dilation in comics is never noticed by those who experience it.