September 16, 2010

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Essential Super-Villain Team Up

Written by a lot of people, including Gerry Conway, Steve Englehart, Bill Mantlo, Jim Shooter, and Roy Thomas
Illustrated by even more people, including John Buscema, Sal Buscema, Gene Colan, Keith Giffen, Carmine Infanto, George Perez, Jim Shooter, Herb Trimpe, and Wally Wood

I love the Essentials series because I get to read old comics that I'd never have a chance to read otherwise. Given how violent and "edgy" most capes comics are now, even the ones written by the many good creators working today, it's always fun to go back and read stories from the days when heroes only threatened to kill, but never did.

This collection was especially interesting to me, because it's an attempt by Marvel to start working with the idea of anti-heroes, a concept that would gain a lot of traction in the 1980s. Dr. Doom is a famous villain, but he's also a man of honor, however twisted. Namor was both hero and villain for many years up to the point, even having his own series for awhile. Pairing the two prideful people together should have been a match made in heaven, but the trouble is, there's just no consistency.

The writers listed above are wonderful people, but their styles don't match at all. Thomas looks to the past, while Conway looks to the present. Peter Gillis' warped scripting is light years away from Englehart's more traditional framing. If the stories were self-contained, this wouldn't be a problem. But even though we're talking about four different titles, there is an overarching plot that ties everything together--and that plot is strained to the breaking point by the varying perspectives.

There are some cool moments here, most notably Conway's story that completely humanizes Doom as he vies for his mother's soul. Tony Isabella, someone I don't even know, works from this page, but as the story changes hands, Doom becomes less and less sympathetic until he's pitted against the Red Skull, and really, who doesn't look good compared to him?

Those latter issues are by the usually reliable Mantlo, who fails miserably here. The collection falls off the rails in a crossover with the Champions where humanity can only be saved by Magneto and the Beast, because Doom uses gas to get everyone under his thrall. It's Magneto he chooses to keep free, rather than Richards, for one last challenge. Really?

Englehart's issues are also a bit suspect. They lose some of the depth and add a Batman clone, the Shroud. Part of the big issue is a desire to really integrate the series into the Marvel Universe, kind of like a big crossover, but without the level of editing care we'd see when items such as Secret Wars got started. Characters run in and out of the books, often crowding our two main characters to the sidelines.

It's all just a bit too muddled, and the art doesn't help. Again, it's a who's who of Marvel stars, but when you add in the lesser names and the fact that some of the others look rushed, the end result is disappointing.

Overall, the idea of Doom and Namor interacting while debating a partnership, is a pretty cool idea. Had it remained the two of them, working with only a few writers and artists, I think thin would have been a great series. As it is, it's just okay. There are flashes, such as when Namor and Doom wrestle with their desire to be their own man and their constant failures when they try. Had these issues been more psychological, they'd stand out. Instead, they're just more comics featuring characters I like doing things that really aren't all that special.

I'm not sure I'd call these issues Essential, but I enjoyed reading them to see how the concept played out. I don't think I'd recommend it to others, unless you're really in to Marvel comics of the 1970s. Put another way, they are stories I am glad I read, but I don't see any big need to re-read in the future. You'll probably feel the same way, should you decide to find out.