13 Apr 2015

Do You Remember The First Time? AVENGERS #88

In Do You Remember The First Time? we take a nostalgic trip back in time to discuss a seminal purchase that introduced us to a character, title, creator, or even a hobby.

During April, we're looking at our first Avengers comics.

Rob N: Issue #88 of Avengers (cover dated May 1971, but bearing in mind the idiosyncratic distribution system for US comics in the UK in the '60s and early '70s, it could easily have been purchased new by me at any time in the latter half of '71) was not only my very first Avengers comic at the age of seven years old (it cost me a whole schilling of my pocket money!), it was also my very first Marvel comic full stop, and will therefore will always have a special place in my collection. Boasting a typically overblown cover of the period, featuring the core members of the Avengers (and for some reason, the Falcon) crashing into a secret lair just as a sinister alien villain is in the process of shrinking the Hulk down to a subatomic particle level, we have Iron Man crying out, “Shrink him down any further and you're one dead alien!” to which the villain hisses back, “You are too late to help the man-monster, Avengers! TOO LATE!” For indeed we are presented with 'The Summons of Psyklop!', subtitled 'A Marvel Masterwork by Harlan Ellison'. And notice those exclamation marks, for this is the Silver/Bronze Age when characters! On covers! Would always! End sentences! With exclamation marks!

Flashback to the summer of 1971 and I had for some time been traipsing down to the local newsagent in my quiet and sleepy Cornish harbour village (where the people were outnumbered by the seagulls) on Sunday mornings, despatched there by our neighbour, an ancient silver-haired woman (easily 175 years old), who perpetually dressed like Mrs Haversham from Great Expectations, to buy for her a copy of the News Of The World and 20 Benson & Hedges cigarettes, this being a time when tobacconists saw no problem in selling primary school children cancer-inducing nicotine sticks.

Or knives for that matter.

And during these bold forays into the adult world, I had noticed a rusting, four-sided wire spinner rack full of glossy, brightly coloured comics from America in a corner of the shop. How those covers gleamed and pulsated with an unnatural radiance almost certainly alien to the southern coast of Cornwall! I had no idea what they were, but each cover seemed to be ablaze with action and they called out to the magpie inside of me. For many months I had been gazing at them, occasionally going so far as to spin the racks and marvel at the sheer range of titles on offer. I was of course familiar with British comics from my trips to the local barber. While waiting to have my hair butchered in the sort of terrible early '70s schoolboy cut later popularised by Liam Gallagher and Paul Weller in the mid to late '90s, I would spy a small stack of dog-eared British anthology comics featuring three-page strips of characters like the Spider and the Steel Claw and Robot Archie, and they were great, but it was always the same six copies, in no particular order, often months apart with the cover dates, and it felt like dipping five minutes at a time into a long running and impossible to understand soap opera. But they had whetted my appetite for modern comic strips, because frankly, when you were six years old in 1970, the alternative was impossibly old-fashioned-looking kids' books featuring prim and proper and very well spoken middle class children who took part in thrilling adventures, often when on holiday in Cornwall or Devon, visiting a strange and mysterious Uncle, while always making it home in time for tea.

In the end I took a leap of faith and bought two DC titles at random. By the time I had read those first two US comics I knew this was the literature for me! I think I ran back to the newsagent the very same day to pick up two more comics with my remaining money, and this time it was a copy of Thor, and more importantly, Avengers #88, which I read first.

I didn't know at the time of course that this issue was something of a coup for Marvel, as it featured a commissioned script by Harlan Ellison who, while not well known by the current generation of sci-fi geeks was, along with Philip K Dick, the most radical voice in American SF in the '60s. His stories would have titles like 'Repent Harlequin! Cried the Tick-Tock Man!' which kind of tells you everything you need to know about them without even opening the cover. For Marvel to be able to commission a script by him was a serious achievement in a time when comics were still regarded as primarily childish, for Ellison had literary chops as far as the counter culture critics were concerned. Not that you'd notice once you read the comic, since all the dialogue was crafted by Rascally Roy Thomas with all the subtlety that you'd normally expect from him in this period i.e. none.

But what an issue it was, and for my first foray into Marvel comics I remember being absolutely astonished by the frantic pacing and range of ideas on offer. We open with the Hulk, once again a prisoner of the Hulkbusters, led by General 'Thunderbolt' Ross who, with the aid of Reed Richards and Professor Xavier, is bombarding the Hulk with millions of volts of crackling electricity, magneto-powered poles AND coma-gas in the heart of the Boulder Dam (they really weren't taking any chances with old Greenskin). And it is enough to subdue the Hulk! But before you can figure out what is going on, suddenly you're in the heart of a dark Pacific jungle where Thor, Captain America, Iron Man, Goliath and the Falcon are making their way in search of something. But that something has to wait because suddenly we have a flashback where the Falcon enlists the aid of Cap to help him search for a missing friend, a search which leads to a Lovecraftian cult drumming away in the New Orleans bayou in worship of the Dark Eldar Gods. And there they find the Falcon's missing friend, now a drugged and zombie-like worshipper who when subdued begins to recite a mysterious set of coordinates in the Pacific. Which brings us back to the present where the Avengers are still stumbling through dense jungle until they realise that it's almost the middle of the comic and they haven't yet hit anything! This will not do, so we turn over to reveal a glorious splash page by Sal Buscema of a slavering monster that surely they can punch, but no, it only turns out to be a '"graven image carved here by some long dead hand, forgotten eons ago."

No fight then?


But wait, we're back with the Hulkbusters and we just know the Hulk is going to escape and start to smash! But he doesn't, because while Reed Richards watches, the prone body of the Hulk becomes transparent and disappears from sight! What is going on?

Hell if I knew. I was only seven years old and to be honest, I didn't even know who the characters were!

But look! Now the Hulk has appeared in the laboratory of an alien creature called Psyklop who has a single big segmented eye like an insect's, and of course he's gloating and telling the unconscious and helpless Hulk all about his evil plans. His race lived here beneath the earth eons before even our apish ancestors walked the land above. But they fell into disrepute with the Dark Gods they worshipped and so his race was put to eternal sleep. “Can your brutish brain comprehend that, you who are called the Hulk?” Never mind him, what about me? I still didn't know who anyone here was. And why does everyone keep kidnapping the Hulk? But I was loving all the cosmic sci-fi rooms with flashing banks of Kirbyesque equipment.

But never mind that! Look, we're back in the jungle with the Avengers, and wow – there is going to be a fight! About time too! Harlan Ellison was only messing with me, because now there's a big snake-slug monster that can spit concrete and we're told it once prowled the swamps of time-lost Lemuria and they're off – throwing hammers, firing repulsor rays and lots of punching and hitting. Wow, this really is the literature for me I thought, as I reached for a 3p bar of Curly Wurly and a can of Cresta fizzy pop. I bet the Avengers don't even care if they're late home for their tea!

And then we're back with Psyklop and he's still talking! You can't shut him up! Doesn't he know the Hulk can't hear him? He's been giving an unconscious Hulk a complete history of his race and how he's going to free the Dark Eldar Gods from Time and Space and wake his people by tapping into the Hulk's energy with a big sci-fi gun, and to do this he has to, um, shrink the Hulk? It's not quite clear why he has to shrink the Hulk, but obviously that's the way a Gamma-ray-siphoning gun works! You have to shrink the target first! Because... you do! Which leads us at last to the bit on the cover, because crash! Bang! Wallop! Here are the Avengers, and boy are they mad. They're really going to give Psyklop a good kicking, and about time too, because honestly the snake-slug was a bit of a disappointment once Thor threw his hammer at it. There are only a few pages left in the comic, so it's got to be a big punch up, and yay, it is! But oh no, the Hulk is still shrinking, and getting smaller and smaller and now he gets so small he's not there any more. Where's he gone? Is he now living inside a molecule? The Avengers are so distracted by this that Psyklop has time to turn another gun on them and this is a special gun he has built that will specifically transport them to a subway platform in New York AND make them forget everything that has just happened. What a guy Psyklop is, he must have a gun for every conceivable purpose. Now that's what I call planning!

And um... the story stops there except to say "to be concluded in the purpled pages of Hulk issue 140 – now on sale! 'Nuff Said!"

I raced back down to the newsagent obviously to feverishly search the spinner rack for Hulk #140, but of course there wasn't one. Where's Hulk #140? I pleaded with the newsagent, but of course he was Cornish and 175 years old and he had no idea what I was talking about.

I think he offered me a copy of Whizzer And Chips. Bloody adults...

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