Friday, December 26, 2008

Jack of Hearts Revisited

Jack of Hearts is one of those characters that snuck up on me back in the day. In my original collecting window, he could be seen in the background on a couple of panels in the January 1983 "Everybody Loves a Parade, Right?" story on the pages of Incredible Hulk #279, and then co-featured with Spidey in the "The Boy's Night Out!" story from October 1983 for Marvel Team-Up #134. Then came the Jack of Hearts four-issue limited series in 1984. I remember loving this saga as a 13-year-old then, and I had a blast rereading it 25 years later. According to Comic Book Database, the character then sort of fell off the Marvel Universe map until the '90s.

I rediscovered him when I read the trade paperback of Avengers Disassembled, where he is the catalyst Wanda Maximoff uses to signal the beginning of the end for her sanity and the Avengers. I don't know what happened to Jack Hart between 1984 and Avengers Disassembled, but the Bill Mantlo limited series holds up fantastic.

I love the way the first issue of the miniseries is so firmly rooted in and interwoven with the Marvel Universe. Mantlo does a great job taking a somewhat fringe character and making him a part of the mainstream continuity by immediately involving S.H.E.I.L.D. and Nick Fury. Series editor Bob Budiansky calls out references to Spectacular Spider-Man and that great Marvel Team-Up, along with the Vision and the Scarlet Witch miniseries in the first issue alone! And that issue sets the table for some great origin story retcon for Jack, turning him from a hero-by-accident into a Cosmic Marvel character.

Turns out Jack Hart's mom was a Contraxian who was sent out into the universe to find a habitable planet that doesn't currently have life on it. You see, Contraxia's sun is a dying star, so they have to find a new home, but their honor code forbids them from displacing or destroying an existing life to save their own. Hart's mother came to Earth and was monitoring Hart's father's work on the Zero-Fluid in the hopes that it might save her planet's dying sun. She fell in love with him and they had Jack. Years later, Jack falls into a vat of Zero-Fluid giving him his powers, or so we thought. In this version, though, the Zero-Fluid doesn't grant him his powers, but rather activates his dormant Contraxian abilities.

Now as an adult, not only is the Jack of Hearts being unknowingly monitored by Kaina, a Contraxian love interest in the human form of Marcy Kane, but also by the morally ambiguous Survivalist sect of Contraxia. This sets up some great lessons on right and wrong, the good of the many versus the good of one, a redemption arc for one of the villains, and a heartbreaking ending.

I love that Marvel was granting characters like the Jack of Hearts, Rocket Raccoon, Machine Man, and others a chance to shine in their own limited series back in the day. I don't know what's happened to Jack since Avengers Disassembled, but it was worth digging this limited series out of my collection for some Retconned Cosmic Marvel '80s fun!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Marvel Solicits - March 1984

March 1984 was a great time to be a comic book fan. We'd just survived Assistant Editors' Month in January, G.I. Joe was just finishing its second year of publication, John Byrne was hitting on all cylinders with Alpha Flight, Fantastic Four, and The Thing, The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe was wrapping up, and limited series were everywhere: X-Men/Micronauts, Magik: Storm and Illyana, and Jack of Hearts.

And, remember, because of the timing of these books' release, we were in the throes of the holiday season. And my most favorite Marvel subscription ad of this era shows up here: the Inhumans' Black Bolt, Medusa, and Lockjaw hawking the yuletide savings from the House of Ideas. This is one of the few solicit ads I've come across from back in the day that's actually signed (just to the right of the chimney), but unfortunately I can't discern whose signature it is.

The Inhumans were one of those groups that were sort of on the fringes of the Marvel Universe, always there but rarely front-and-center. They showed up on the pages of the Avengers, Fantastic Four, and The Thing, both Vision and the Scarlet Witch miniseries, and even in "The Origin of the Vision" Marvel Illustrated Book I had. But in 1984, Black Bolt and Medusa got married in Fantastic Four Annual #18. I was reading FF at the time because She-Hulk was filling in for The Thing, and I have always been a fan of that line-up. So it was cool of Marvel to put the newlyweds out in front of their holiday subscription campaign.

Happy Holidays!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Attaboy, Clarence.

When I was growing up in the '70s and '80s, It's a Wonderful Life wasn't on TV as often as it is now. VCRs were just starting to creep into households, and cable didn't come to our little town until the mid-'80s. So the closest thing I had seen to It's a Wonderful Life was the gender-reversal Marlo Thomas made-for-TV remake, It Happened One Christmas. I haven't seen that in years, but it debuted in 1977 on ABC and costarred Orson Wells (who was selling no wine before its time), Wayne Rogers (Trapper John!), Cloris Leachman (who received an Emmy nomination for her role as angel Clara Oddbody), Doris Roberts (long before Remington Steele and Everybody Loves Raymond), C. Thomas Howell (Ponyboy!), and Christopher Guest ("These go to eleven.").

I have seen snippets of the original Jimmy Steward-Donna Reed classic over the years here and there, but never the whole thing. Until now. Now I can say I've finally seen It's a Wonderful Life. I mean the whole movie, start-to-finish in one sitting. And, just to up the ante, I saw it on the big screen.

We met my parents at the Akron Civic Theatre on a bitter cold Sunday afternoon, and took in a holiday classic. What a great movie. I suppose I shouldn't have been shocked at just how fantastic this movie is. After all, it's directed by the legendary Frank Capra -- who was behind two of my all-time favorite movies: It Happened One Night (1934) and Lost Horizon (1937). I can't count how many times I've watched those two movies over the years. But somehow It's a Wonderful Life got by me.

And Jimmy Stewart. Good lord. I have loved him in everything from The Philadelphia Story ("C. K. Dexter Haven you have unsuspected depth!") to Harvey to all of his fantastic work with Hitchcock... Rope, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo, and the genius turn as L. B. Jefferies in Rear Window. And he is mesmerizing in his "everyman" persona here as George Bailey.

Donna Reed's performance as Mary Hatch Bailey is simply gorgeous. The scene where Mary and George first set eyes on each other as young adults at the high school dance... Man! What an amazing scene that the Stewart and Reed telegraph beautifully, then transition perfectly into the comedy of the gym floor opening to the swimming pool! All the way to the final, emotionally moving scene, I was completely sucked in to this movie. And at the end, there was nothing left to do but surrender to the emotion of it all and, yeah, I was more than a little choked up.

It was amazing to see this classic movie on the big screen. And I hope it's memories like these that the kiddo remembers years from now. Among family, entertained by the famed Mighty Wurlitzer theatre organ beforehand while the atmospheric clouds drifted by and the stars twinkled overhead, there was no better way I can imagine being introduced to this film.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Marvel Solicits - February 1985

Comic books are released with cover dates that are months in advance. For example, last week I picked up Mighty Avengers #20, dated February 2009. This was the case even back in the days of the Original Collection. Case in point: the February 1985 issue of Fantastic Four (#275, my all-time favorite) contains a holiday festive subscription solicitation because it would have been at my corner convenience store in December 1984.

The deal here is less robust than others I've highlighted. Here we are only offered a baker's dozen for the discounted price of admission, but they do try to work the gift-giving angle with the postscript by telling us to "Give Marvel comics as a gift." The available title list reveals this was really in my heyday of comic book reading: Alpha Flight, Amazing Spider-Man, Avengers, G.I. Joe, Marvel Team-Up, The Thing, X-Men.

This is another one of those ads that has stuck with me over the years. I remember wondering why Iron Man's Santa getup was obviously made of metal... rivets and all! I think it's great that whoever drew it took the time to include joint-like details at the elbows, shoulders, and along the lapel so that Santa Shellhead could enjoy some flexibility in the jacket. I do wonder who is under that armor, though. After all, in his own title at this time (Iron Man #191, February 1985), James "Rhodey" Rhodes was sporting the iron hardware and Tony Stark had just recreated his original Iron Man suit. Regardless of who's under that mask, though, it's still a pretty memorable ad.