Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Marvel Team-Up: The 1970s Comics of Chris Claremont & John Byrne

I'd been feeling nostalgic for early John Byrne art and recently ordered a sampling of books from his 1970s run on Marvel Team-Up. The vendor on Ebay with whom I placed my order had a nice selection of Bronze Age books in VF/NM condition, and each selling for less than the cover price of today's comics.

Iron Man #109
Cover date: May-July, 1978

Iron Man #109 is a book that I purchased solely on the strength of the John Byrne cover. Ain't it cool?

This issue of Iron Man picks up in the immediate aftermath of a battle with villans Midas and the Growing Man–a battle that has left the Stark International building in smoking rubble.

Ol' Shell-Head is joined in the opening pages by Avengers teammate Yellow Jacket, as well as the Jack of Hearts, Whitney Frost (the metal-faced love of his life), and a pretty ticked-off...Tony Stark?

"Stark" is giving Iron Man a tongue lashing over his seeming mishandling of the millionaire industrialist's orders to get the clean-up and the rebuilding of Stark International underway. Yellow Jacket quickly steps in to brief Stark on all of the recent happenings and pretty much saves Iron Man from 'himself.'

In a quick about face, Stark offers his thanks to Iron Man and everyone else for their assistance, and then exits to give his bodyguard a chance to say adios to his amigos.

As the others move to take their leave, the Jack of Hearts stays behind and asks Iron Man if might consider taking him on as an apprentice; the costumed novice realized in the battle with Midas that he has a lot to learn about being a super-hero. Iron Man obliges.

In the second act, Iron Man and Jack of Hearts take one of the Avengers' quinjets on a quick, interstellar jaunt to the moon. They want to investigate the possible existence of lunar base from which the Growing Man launched his attack.

Immediately upon their arrival, our heroes are quickly ambushed by the Soviet super-powers known as Darkstar, Vanguard and Crimson Dynamo!

How will they fare against the soviet threats? If I told you that, you wouldn't want to read it to find out for yourself.

As mentioned, Iron Man #109 is a book I judged by its cover, and I'm glad I did. It was a solid read that reminded me of days gone by when you could jump into any random comic without knowing anything about what happened in the issue before, and still find yourself entertained.

This issue's writing was skillfully handled by long-time scribe Bill Mantlo, and the art was nicely done by guest-penciller Carmine Infantino.

Iron Fist #15
"Enter the X-Men"
Cover date: September, 1977

With this issue of Iron Fist, a short-lived series featuring the pulse-pounding exploits of the books' titular character comes to an end.

In the opening pages of the story titled "Enter the X-Men," Iron Fist's young life nearly comes to an end when he is attacked--once again--by a mysterious dragon branded bruiser who's been stalking Fist and attacking from the shadows.

After this last sucker punch, Iron Fist seeks refuge at the home of his girlfriend Misty Knight, who shares a posh Greenwich Village apartment with Jean Grey of the X-Men. Misty, he groggily recalls seconds after his arrival, is away on an undercover cop assignment, and Jean Grey is out with her boyfriend Scott Summers, picking up some last minute items for a little soireƩ she has planned for that evening.

One of people on the guest list, Wolverine, arrives early and mistakes Iron Fist for a prowler when he spies the fighter entering the apartment through the skylight. Unfortunately for Fist, the hotheaded Canadian's blood is already boiling over Jean's undying love for Scott, so he charges after the apparent prowler in a red-eyed rage.

The psycho lovelorn X-Man is soon joined by his teammates in a battle that could have and, frankly, should have been avoided. But it's still fun to see.

Iron Fist is obviously over-matched, but handles himself reasonably well against the coordinated efforts of Wolverine, Nightcrawler, Colossus, Banshee, Storm...and a justifiably pissed-off redhead who finally comes back from the grocery store. 

As this was the the very last issue of the Iron Fist series, fans would get to read by way of the letters column that although the title was ending, they'd be getting to see more of Danny Rand in the pages of the re-named Power Man and Iron Fist (issue #44). And, thanks to the benefit of hindsight, we all know what a historic pairing it was for two really well-liked characters.

Overall, Iron Fist #15 is a fitting end to a now classic Bronze Age title that introduced many comic book readers to Danny Rand, Misty Knight, Colleen Wing, and Sabertooth, Wolverine's ever-popular arch-rival, who was introduced in issue #14 of the series.

The writing and art chores were skillfully handled by the dynamic duo of Chris Claremont and John Byrne, who would take their talents over to Danny's new home in the pages of Luke Cage's book.

Marvel Team-Up #63
"Night of the Dragon"
Cover date: November, 1977

In my review of Iron Fist #15, I mentioned the dangling sub-plot of a mysterious martial artist who had been attacking Iron Fist from the shadows. Before moving Fist over to Luke Cage's book, this story is brought to a climactic completion in Marvel Team-Up #63, which pairs Iron Fist with the spectacular Spider-Man.

As per usual, Peter Parker's pockets are full of lint and the rent is due. As luck would have it, the Daily Bugle photographer has received an assignment to shoot the luxurious home of the wealthy Danny Rand (aka Iron Fist). At the same time that Peter arrives at his home, Danny discovers a mysterious note that had been left on the front door by Steel Serpent, a man whose fighting ability reminds him of his own.

Rand abruptly cancels his meeting with Parker so that he can meet with the Steel Serpent, but ends up being shadowed around town by a concerned wall crawler. Meanwhile, Misty Knight, operating under the alias of Maya Korday (and lookin' super-duper fine on the yacht of a character called the Bushmaster) had been starting to think that the criminal tycoon may have something to do with the attacks on her boyfriend.

She blows both her cool and her cover when she overhears Bushmaster confirming during a telephone conversation the that he's put the hit out on Iron Fist. Meanwhile, cut back to Spider-Man. He has lost Danny Rand's trail. Eventually, though, Spidey tracks down the taxi that Rand had been riding in and learns from the driver that his fare had disembarked at a public park. The web-slinger shoots over to the park and soon finds Danny Rand's abandoned clothing.

Minutes later, Spidey finds Iron Fist in the midst of trading losing blows with the chi-draining Steel Serpent! But does the K'un-Lun kid stand a chance against him?

Marvel Team-Up #63 is a fine example of Chris Claremont and John Byrne near the senses-shattering apex of their combined creative powers. The writing is intelligent, the art is impeccable, and the final page--which features Misty holding the limp body of Iron Fist like the Madonna with lifeless body of her son draped across her lap a la the famous "La Pieta"--offers a moving portrait that leads into the soul-searing conclusion in the next exciting issue of Marvel Team-Up!

 Marvel Team-Up #64
 "If Death Be My Destiny..."
Cover date: December, 1977

Danny Rand lost the battle with Steel Serpent, and was drained of the mystic power of the Iron Fist. Spider-Man and the Daughters of the Dragon (Misty Knight and Colleen Wing) team up to help Danny get back the powers that were taken from him. But Steel Serpent also has plans to to end the life his adversary altogether, to make sure that he retains the power that he has unjustly come to believe is his birth-right.

In this issue of MTU, readers get the revisionist back-story on Danny Rand and Davos, "son of Lei Kung" (a.k.a. Steel Serpent). It's a tale that goes back two decades to the magic-shrouded realms of K'un-Lun City. After the psychedelic flashback, we come to our senses to find Spider-Man and the Daughters of the Dragon trading blows with Steel Serpent. And even fighting as a gang of three, the trio is virtually outta' of their league. Will Iron Fist join the battle and tip the scales?

Marvel Team-Up #64 offers yet another fine example of early work by writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne. The issue nicely finishes up a lingering sub-plot that was started in Iron Fist #14, before the title was cancelled. The two men would stay with Marvel Team-Up for two more issues, bringing to conclusion a classic tag-team that included issues 60, 61, 62, 63, 64, 65 & 66 of this long-running title.

Also, before going on to make their soon-to-become legendary run on Uncanny X-Men, Claremont and Byrne would take the green and gold garbed ass-kicker from his solo book to another team-up or sorts in the knucking-cracking pages of the renamed Power-Man and Iron Fist (issue #48).

Uncanny X-Men #122
"Cry for the Children"
Cover date: June, 1979

The cover of Uncanny X-Men #122 is somewhat misleading, as any good cover should be. It shows the adamantium-skinned X-Man in the danger room flexing his "muskles" between the teeth of a hydrolic vise, under which appears the tag line "The trial of Colossus." And while the issue does feature such a trail, the actual title of this issue is "Cry for the Children."

In all frankness, this issue could actually have been called "Black Power." Because that is what came to mind for me as I read turned its pages and was hit with hit with the unexpected appearances of Luke Cage (aka Power Man) and Misty Knight.

Well, Knight's appearance wasn't all that unexpected. She shared an apartment with the X-Men member Jean Grey, and had made many cameos in Uncanny starting with issue #102.

Luke Cage (aka Power Man) on the other hand, was more of a surprise.

As a young kid in the 1970s, you often found yourself--or at least I did--dreaming of seeing more than one major character who looked like you on a comic page at the same time–because it almost never happened. This story offered one of those very rarest of times.

The greater portion of this book of is devoted to living up to its cover. It's the part in which I was least interested. The more intriguing part for me takes place in Harlem, where Storm has been chauferred in the back of Xavier's Rolls Royce by none other than Wolverine.

Approximately seven pages are devoted to Storm. She asks Wolvie to drop her on the corner of Broadway & 135th. From there, she roams the streets for several hours in a seemingly aimless attempt to find what she lost there two decades before: the American roots of her childhood. 

Entering a familiar looking, but abandoned brownstone, Storm climbs the stairs to the second floor and opens the door of what she has a hazy memory of being her childhood apartment. But to her dismay, it's a shooting den now inhabited by half a dozen or more teenage heroin junkies!

Things quickly go sideways when the young junkies see the regal-looking woman as a target for a quick shakedown––so they can score more drugs. One of the teens pulls a switchblade and slashes Storm's hand with it. She then reveals herself to be more than they bargained for.

Storm shows her mutant power for controlling the elements and the teens start scrambling. But one falls out of her line of vision and circles behind her with his knife drawn. He creeps up behind our heirone and readies his blade to strike. But Luke Cage and Misty Knight arrive to the apartment just in the nick of time to cover the exquisite X-Man's back.


The meeting between these three characters is short but sweet. But that it occurred at all makes me recall now why I was a particular fan of comics written by Claremont and illustrated by Byrne.

At the same time as Uncanny X-Men, the duo also handled the production of Powerman and Iron fist. Both books frequently featured various degrees of overlapping stories, and shared characters––a handful of whom were people of color. That was cool.

And I wish now that there had been just one Uncanny X-Men tale featuring just Luke Cage, Misty Knight and Storm, written and drawn by Claremont & Byrne. That would have been so fantastic. But alas...

Saturday, May 7, 2016

[Video On Demand™] The Georgia Boy Choir - Nigra Sum

In 1943, the Spanish composer Pablo Casals (1876-1973) wrote "Nigra Sum," perhaps his most well known choral work. Like many of his compositions, the piece was designed to be sung at the famed Montserrat Monastery in Catalonia, the ancient Spanish city of Casals' birth. It was written as a six-part chorus, with an organ or piano accompaniment.

Rather fittingly, I found a performance of his masterpiece by the Georgia Boy Choir, recorded at the majestic Benedictine abbey on June 14, 2016. The performance took place during the Spain/Portugal International Concert Tour in which the choir participated. Some of the kids look a bit overwhelmed by it all, but the sound of their performance is beautiful.

The video itself is also beautiful, offering us establishing views of the picturesque "sawn" mountains where the Monsterrat Cathedral sits. Rather surprisingly, the video also includes shots of the boys with La Moreneta (The little dark one), a wooden Black Virgin statue whose legendary existence in Catalonia can be traced to the 12th century.


Nigra Sum - Pablo Casals, 1943

Nigra sum, sed formosa, filiae Jerusalem. 
Ideo dilexit me rex et introduxit me in cubiculum suum et dixit mihi: 
Surge, amica mea, et veni. 
Jam hiems transiit, imber abiit, et recessit. 
Flores apparuerunt in terra nostra, 
Tempus putationis advenit 
Vox turturis audita est in terra nostra. 


I am black and beautiful, o daughters of Jerusalem. 
The king has brought me into his chambers. 
We will exult and rejoice in you; 
We will extol your love more than wine; 
Rightly do they love you. 
My beloved speaks and says to me: 
“Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; 
For now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. 
The flowers appear on earth; 
The time of singing has come, 
And the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.” 


(Song of Solomon)

Friday, May 6, 2016

Love Letter to the KKK

Several years ago, I got this million dollar idea for a best-selling book, a controversial essay collection called Love Letter to the KKK. As a creative person who has many more ideas in his head at any given time than actual time in hand, the idea never really got off the ground.

But I still have a decade's worth of unparalleled research to show for it.

As such, the idea is always hovering there, a few feet away from the drawing board, should I ever chance to win the lottery, or strike it rich in the stock market.

Or maybe a brilliant editor at a book publishing company will happen across this peculiar post and say: Whoa, Nellie! Nobody in America has ever published anything like this before! The title alone screams ,"New York Times Best-Seller!!!" I'd better pony up mah pennies and offer this guy a million dollar book deal!

And then I can throw myself feet first into its development.

Stranger things have happened, right?

Love Letter to the KKK was envisioned as essay collection on the history of Christianity where it intersects with the history of racism in America--and well, Europe, too. But the Christian-based white supremacist group known as the Ku Klux Klan offered a crazy lens through which several remarkable, interesting ironies could be examined. So I make them the focal point.

The foundation of the story lies in Europe, a few centuries before people began their mass migrations from Ye Olde World™ in pursuit of religious freedom–which is basically a load of crap. Sure, there were some groups that came for that-most-popularly-given-reason-printed-in-school-textbooks. But groups like the Quakers then--as is true to this day--are a tiny minority in relation to their peers who sailed from Europe. And the driving force for those folks wasn't religious freedom.

History teaches us that the first Europeans to colonize this part of the world were the Spanish. Colonists from Spain had a 100-year head start on the rest of Europe's peoples--a great many of whom were convinced that the world was flat. But they finally figured out that the world was indeed round and, as a result of embracing the learning curve, joined the Spanish in colonizing this part of the world.

Along with these various groups of people from Europe came various incarnations of their Christian religious faith, Catholicism being the very first and oldest of them. Before the Christian Reformation, which led to various factions breaking away and "reforming" Christianity with a 'back to basics' approach, the Catholic Church held sway across the continental face of Europe.

Without giving too much away (gotta keep the publishers who are going to be in a million dollar bidding war for this book salivating), it should be said that one of the most significant problems cited by those protesting factions that broke from the Catholic Church was its use of images in places of worship.

Protestant or Reformed Christians cited amongst their grievances with the Catholic Church its failure to adhere to the God of Moses' commandment to not make for themselves "a carved image--any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them."

If you were raised Catholic, you couldn't walk into a place of worship without bowing. That's just what you did. You walked into the Church, looked up at the image of the Crucified Christ, or Baby Jesus in the lap of the Holy Mother, and you bowed. It was expected, as Christ was the "King of Kings" and the "Lord of Lords," and it needed to be shown that he was revered by worshippers as such.

Moreover, people in Europe, like the citizens of other nations around the world, had an established practice of bowing before authority, even representations of authority. Heck, if you didn't, you could quite literally lose your head.

Now, at this point, I'm going to advance ahead in my super-oversimplified summary to make a unique point about an unspoken aspect of the problem some protestants had with religious iconography in the Church. It's so unspoken that across America today--even having the internet--people are mostly ignorant about it.

The problem was that these images of Jesus and Mary in churches across Europe, particularly Catholic churches, represented these figures as black folks. That's right, boys and girls. Paintings of Baby Jesus on the lap of his mother and the adult Christ on the Cross represented were represented in glorious color as darkies. (See later post)

The irony of this is so deep that it leaves one speechless, which is partly why those who do know never, EVER talk about it. Any acknowledgement would throw the whole Conservative Christian mindset out of wack if they understood that images of the Son of God in human form represented him as a negro in the Churches found throughout the countries of their ancestors.

So, what was the historical response in Europe and subsequently America?

Well, they did one of at least three things:

1. Made images of Jesus, Mary and everyone else in the biblical story look like Europeans. Many of these artists and artisans had never been the Middle East. What did they know?

2. Kept going to Church with these images of a black Jesus on the wall and literally. did. not. talk about it--because the truth was just too confounding. And ignorance is bliss, as they say, so they chose bliss.

3. Separated from the Catholic Church, they removed all images from their worship practices, citing that passage in the Ten Commandments; meanwhile the other nine commandments that require folks to not covet, or bear false witness against their neighbor, or steal, or commit adultery?

Well, let's just say that nobody's perfect.

Come to think of it, the only real success story in any of this was making Jesus white (yes, sarcasm). And that had much less to do with the teachings of the Bible, and more do with the teachings of white supremacy, which gives us a nice segue to a very cursory overview of that terrorist organization known as the Ku Klux Klan, aka the White Brotherhood. [Cue visual aid]

The Klan, originally founded in Tennessee 1866, describes itself as a "law abiding," Christian organization whose main purpose is to "protect our family, race and nation" and "restore America to a White, Christian nation founded on God's word." (See: Trump voter)

What the KKK is and always was is an organization of hood wearing terrorists whose poor, rank and file members have only two things in common with its wealthy, higher ranking members: European descent, and a near complete ignorance of history.

"Aren't you afraid of the Klan?" a lady friend asked out concern for my well-being after I shared with her some thoughts now contained in this post.

"Hell, fawkin' no," I replied.

"An incalculable number of our people have been terrorized and murdered in this county for doing absolutely nothing but being black the presence of racist idiots. As recently as 1989--when I was twenty years-old--young man named Michael Donald was lynched on a neighborhood street in Texas by two asshole "Klansmen." He was an innocent kid who did nothing but walk down the block within the sight of two hateful, murderous, predators.

"If they come after me," I warned, "it'll be because I completely scarred their minds."

Love Letter to the KKK © Paco D. Taylor, 2007