Sunday, January 29, 2017

Crabs, Assemble!, Part Twenty-Five: The Evolutionary War Omnibus

 Journey back in time, to when annual crossover events were just a gleam in Marvel's collective eye.....

 In 1988, I was a lapsed comic-book reader. I pretty much dropped out of the hobby in 1985, due to teenage ennui and lack of funds. By 1988, I had my first real job, and a little disposable income on my hands, and I had discovered a relatively new phenomenon: The collected edition. A quick trip to Waldenbooks exposed me to a new, small section devoted to trade paperbacks, and that itch was back. I picked up WATCHMEN, THE SHADOW: BLOOD AND JUDGMENT, Alan Moore's SWAMP THING, UNCANNY X-MEN: THE DARK PHOENIX SAGA, and Claremont & Miller's WOLVERINE. I worked nights in a grocery store, and would spend my breaks perusing the comic-book spinner rack to see what was going on, and that was where I first discovered the intriguing notion of Marvel using all of their annuals to tell one interconnected story. I didn't notice this until the eleven-part event was up to part ten, but, still...THE EVOLUTIONARY WAR stuck in my had for years, and even after getting back into comics hardcore, I never picked up those old issues to see what the event was all about. I even resisted when Marvel first released this omnibus in 2011, due to poor word of mouth.

 Flash forward a few years, after I'd been stricken with a bad case of "Omnibus fever", and I decided to take the plunge. THE EVOLUTIONARY WAR OMNIBUS is one of Marvel's smaller, lower-priced omniboo, and at half-off, who could say no? And what better time to finally crack open my copy than in the middle of a massive AVENGERS reading binge....?

 It's interesting to see the germ of the annual event concept take shape here. THE EVOLUTIONARY WAR played out across eleven Marvel Annuals (X-FACTOR ANNUAL #3, THE PUNISHER ANNUAL #1, THE SILVER SURFER ANNUAL #1, THE NEW MUTANTS ANNUAL #4, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN ANNUAL #22, THE FANTASTIC FOUR ANNUAL #21, X-MEN ANNUAL #12, WEB OF SPIDER-MAN ANNUAL #4, WEST COAST AVENGERS ANNUAL #3, THE SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN ANNUAL #8, and THE AVENGERS ANNUAL #17), and Marvel clearly had not mastered the formula yet.

The threat/purpose of villain The High Evolutionary is never quite clear (He likes to evolve things/people/animals....), and the general impression that I got from this story was that there was a lot going on offscreen or in between issues. Motivations are muddled, actions are never quite made clear, plots are developed and dropped constantly....The story reads more like a hot potato that was passed from writer to writer, round-robin style, than an event that was thought-out fully beforehand. Even the usual "Everyone comes together in the end to defeat the bad guy" finale was missing. That said, a lot of the annuals shine as perfectly good standalone stories, and some advance the underlying plot admirably.

 The event starts in X-FACTOR ANNUAL #3, which fails on every possible level. Writer Louise Simonson hits the ground running, and hits readers with X-Factor, Apocalypse, The High Evolutionary, Caliban, and subterranean mole-people, and throws them all together without any rhyme or reason. This is typical, busy 1980's mutant nonsense, and, as wordy as it is, there is no clue given as to who any of these people are, or what they want. Terrible stuff.

 THE PUNISHER annual #1 isn't much better, Terribly written by Mike Baron, it's a typical Punisher vs. drug lord story, with The High Evolutionary shoehorned in. Bleh.

As much as I've come to loathe Steve Englehart's writing over the course of this marathon, his three contributions to this collections were actually high points. THE SILVER SURFER ANNUAL #1 continues to have barely anything to do with the main story, but the sheer craziness of The High Evolutionary pitting The Silver Surfer, The Eternals, and The Super-Skrull against one another was a lot of fun, and the art, by Joe Staton and Joe Rubinstein, looked good.

 THE NEW MUTANTS ANNUAL #4 presents a slightly more comprehensible Louise Simonson story, again barely related to the main plot, which finds The New Mutants defying their teacher Magneto in an attempt to save a former classmate from The High Evolutionary. Nice art from June Brigman and the always reliable Bob McLeod saves the day here.

 THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN ANNUAL #22 featured the first appearance of Speedball, but that story isn't collected here. Speedball does appear, but in a small part, totally skipping the Steve Ditko story that introduced him. The Spidey/Daredevil team-up is decent, if somewhat forgettable.

 More Englehart ensues in THE FANTASTIC FOUR ANNUAL #21, which finds an odd iteration of the team (A severely mutated Thing, Crystal, female Thing Ms. Marvel, and The Human Torch) facing off against The Inhumans, who are attempting to reunite Crystal with her estranged/deranged husband, Quicksilver. I appreciated this story a lot, since it tied up dangling threads from THE WEST COAST AVENGERS that haven't been covered in a collected edition yet. That saves me from having to buy the WCA issues that I'm missing to find out what happened to their marriage. Money saved! Very nice art from Kieron Dwyer and Joe Sinnott. Again, the plot is barely advanced.

Despite the overly-wordy nature of 1988 Chris Claremont, X-MEN ANNUAL #12 is a blast, thanks to the Art Adams/Bob Wiacek art team, and the villainy of Terminus. Claremont completely undoes the death of Terminus and the destruction of The Savage Land in a handful of pages, in what I took to be a big "Fuck you!" to Marvel and former AVENGERS scribe Roger Stern.

 WEB OF SPIDER-MAN ANNUAL #4 features a fatter crime-lord than The Kingpin on the cover ("He's bigger than The Kingpin! He's the crimelord of Miami! He's The Slug!), but he barely appears in the actual comic.

 In a truly inspired example of early fat-shaming, The Slug kills underachieving employees by smothering them in his fat-folds. This alone was worth the price of the omnibus.

 Once again, the main plot goes nowhere, and writer Steve Gerber manages to shoehorn in his fucking pet character Man-Thing yet again, but...a guy got killed by fat-folds,'s all good.

 THE WEST COAST AVENGERS ANNUAL #3 is the third Steve Englehart outing, and he nails this one, too. Englehart deftly tells the same story from two different angles, first from Hawkeye's official WCA team's POV, and then from the POV of his estranged wife Mockingbird and her renegade offshoot team. Englehart includes his awful pet character Mantis here, and there are a few fun examples of something that I read Englehart complain about in an interview with BACK ISSUE magazine a while back. His inclusion of Mantis irked editor Mark Gruenwald, so Gruenwald rewrote all of the panels that had Mantis speak to remove her dialogue. There are a few great Al Milgrom panels here that clearly depict Mantis speaking, but the dialogue all comes from other characters. I love it! Plus, the overall plot finally moves along slightly.

THE SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN ANNUAL is kind of a mess, as it devotes a lot of space to "The Young Gods" , a huge, boring assemblage of characters that no one cares about. That said, writer Gerry Conway finally puts the Gwen Stacy/Miles Warren clone storyline to bed in a most logical fashion, at least until "The Clone Saga" blew that all to hell. The needle is not moved much on the main storyline, but...there's only one chapter left! Let the next guy handle it!

 The next guy turned out to be Walter Simonson, who had to write THE AVENGERS ANNUAL #17 with no Avengers. He cobbles together a team comprised of the Joe Fixit Hulk, the evil female Yellowjacket, Hercules, Jocasta, The Falcon, The Beast (Who, in the first chapter of this crossover was hairless and dumb, and is now, inexplicably, hairy and smart...), and "The Captain", formerly known as Captain America. Here, The High Evolutionary's plot to explode a gene-bomb (To cause the instant evolution of everyone on Earth.....) is laid bare. I'm pretty sure this is right when DC's INVASION event was running, which also featured a gene-bomb. Go figure. Simonson killed it on THOR, but his AVENGERS run was nowhere near as good. I did get a chuckle out of how Hercules sacrifices himself in a truly excruciating manner, which causes The Falcon, The Captain, and The Beast to silently look at each other and then carry on as if to say "Eh, fuck it! Who's hungry?" Their teammate is dead, and no one even mentions it! Considering how mad Zeus was when Hercules got beaten up on The Avengers watch, you would think Cap would say "Man, his father is gonna be pissed at us...", but, nothing.

 Overall, a fun grouping of solo adventures under a not-very-successful umbrella plot. The book ends with an eleven-part continuity-porn story by Mark Gruenwald that tells the history of The High Evolutionary, and one can't help but feel that the main story would have been enhanced if this had been printed in the front of the book, seeing as it lays out the actual motivation of the bad guy in a way that the main story never does. As always, Gruenwald sprinkles his story with all kinds of obscure characters and connections. I consider myself pretty up on Marvel history, but I actually had to run to Wikipedia a few times during this one. It was all worth it to see baby Puppet Master play with baby Spider-Woman, though. (It did bother me to see The High Evolutionary be all loving and tender towards the Mole-People in the back-up story, and then remember that The Evolutionary War started with him sending his troops TO STERILIZE AND WIPE OUT THE MOLE-PEOPLE. Asswipe!)

 There is exactly one page of extras, which is comprised of three thumbnail-sized pictures: The new cover of this omnibus, the variant cover, and the cover of MARVEL AGE #64.

 I've spent $37.00 on worse things. THE EVOLUTIONARY WAR OMNIBUS gets a fun seven out of ten devil heads:

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