Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Wonder Wednesday 06-23-10 Contest of Champions... Or Jason Gets SCHOOLED!

If there's one area where I don't consider it bragging to discuss my expertise, it's comics, especially those I grew up reading in the 70s and 80s. I know my shit. There's a magazine I loooove called Back Issue:#1, they published one of my letters once, so that's like the only time a piece of my writing has been printed outside of this joke of a blog. #2, it's strictly about comics from the Bronze Age, i.e. the 70s and 80s. Also, it's hard to call it a "magazine" because most magazines are pretty light and you can read the entire thing in like 30 minutes. It takes me days to get through a Back Issue because the articles are so in-depth and lengthy. The issues have themes, so occasionally there's a theme that I don't care for, so I end up not reading the whole thing, but it's been invaluable in providing me information on things that were sort of before my time, or that I may have a vague memory of.

But rarely, do I get SCHOOLED about a comic I actually read, and that happened this month! The subject was Marvel's first miniseries, 1982's Marvel Super Hero Contest of Champions, starring EVERY Marvel Super Hero: Every hero on earth is engulfed in a crimson glowing light and teleported to a huge facility in space.
The heroes spend the rest of issue #1 mingling, in a series of childhood cream dream panels. Three underwater heroes, The Sub-Mariner, Triton and Stingray confer, while the X-Men's bald, telepathic Prof. X consults with The Avenger's bald, telepathic Moondragon. In a scene that would probably never be repeated today, all the black super heroes including The Falcon, Luke Cage and Black Panther compare notes.
Reflecting politics of the time, The Shamrock, a newly-introduced heroine from Ireland, tensely shares a panel with Captain Britain. A similar scene occurs later in issue #2, between the Arabian Knight:
And the Israeli Sabra, who I think rocked the first Jew Fro in comics:More on these International delights later. Basically, the heroes have all been Shanghaied by The Grandmaster, a cosmic game-player who'd previously used The Avengers as his pawns and a mysterious female entity, completely concealed in a purple robe and hood, referred to only as The Unknown. Each cosmic being selects 12 heroes as their "champions."
The actual "Contest" begins in issue #2, where the heroes, divided into teams of three, are dispatched to Earth (which is in suspended animation) to locate four quarters of a golden sphere, hidden in four locations around the globe. In issue #2, each side scores one quarter of the golden sphere.
The game ends in a tie, in issue #3, with each side gaining two pieces of the sphere... except in the next panel, the caption reads: Grandmaster 3, Unknown 1. Whoopsee! Just go with it! The "Unknown" is revealed as none other than DEATH!
Death grants The Grandmaster their agreed-upon prize, the resurrection of his brother The Collector, another cosmic deity. BUT, trickery! One life cannot be restored without relenquishing another in its place, so just as The Collector returns to life, The Grandmaster is reduced to a pile of ashes! Wah-waaaaah!

Not the most involved storyline, but when you're getting hundreds of heroes in one comic, what does it matter to a kid?! Here's the me-getting-schooled part. Contest of Champions was originally supposed to be released in 1980 as a huge Treasury Edition comic called Marvel Super Heroes at the Summer Olympics! The space arena to which the heroes are teleported was actually the Olympic Dome constructed in Moscow for the 1980 Games. In the original artwork, the heroes are engulfed in the red glow, then vanish ONLY TO BE REPLACED by confused Olympic athletes!

Since 99% of Marvel's heroes are white New Yorkers, for this Olympic-themed book, they created several new heroes from various countries. From Israel, came the heroine Sabra, who could fire energy "quills." China's Collective Man, was actually FIVE mutant brothers who could combine into one super powerful body and could drawn on the strength of every person in China-- that's pretty damn strong! The terribly anachronistic Arabian Knight slung a mean scimitar and swooped around on a flying carpet and from Germany came the electrically-charged Blitzkrieg.
I think they were basically just throwing out random words that they knew in foreign languages. From France came, Le Peregrine. Australian aboriginal Talisman possessed mystical powers. Defensor from Argentina wore a suit of conquistador-style armor and carried a mighty shield. And finally, from Ireland came Shamrock, whose power was literally that she was super lucky!

Thank goodness for The X-Men! In 1978, the team had been revamped from a team of white, young Americans to an eclectic mix of heroes from around the globe:
Banshee from Ireland, Colossus from Russia, Nightcrawler from Germany, Storm from Africa, Sunfire from Japan, Thunderbird NATIVE American and Wolverine from Canada. It's funny that these heroes' powers and identities aren't reflective of their nations of origin, whereas the Contest of Champions characters' are very much so. Not only that, but the Contest heroes tended simply to reflect existing heroes' powers. Blitzkrieg super charges the air with his electricity to create a wind storm, emulating Storm's abilities. Le Peregrine, whose only power was flight, reflected both The Angel and The Falcon. Captain America already had that shield thing on lockdown, decades before Defensor. (As revealed in the article, though, Defensor was created instead of a cat character The Ocelot, because there were already MANY animal-based heroes in existence.) Even Shamrock's luck powers could be traced back to Scarlet Witch's probability-controlling hexes.

A few other International characters were drawn from existing comics.
Iron Man, in particular had a rogue's gallery with several Soviet characters, The Crimson Dynamo, Titanium Man, The Black Widow, and siblings Darkstar and Vanguard. To Iron Man and his American readers, they were villains (it was the Cold War) but to the Russians, they were HEROES and most of them eventually banded together as Russia's answer to The Avengers, The Soviet Super Soldiers:
In England, Marvel published a series starring Captain Britain:
The character made his American debut in Marvel Team-Up, joining forces with Spider-Man, just shortly before the creation of the Olympics special.
And from the pages of the X-Men, and from Wolverine's mysterious past, came the all-Canadian team Alpha Flight, led by the super-suit wearing Vindicator and including the massive Sasquatch, the mystical Shaman, ethereal Snowbird, super fast twins Aurora and Northstar, the first dwarf super hero, Puck and alien aquatic Marina. They were, not-coincidentally, co-created by Canadian writer/illustrator John Byrne, who'd soared to stardom drawing The X-Men.

Then, in the real world, the USSR invaded Afghanistan, so America BOYCOTTED the 1980 Olympics. With this development, it made no sense to publish a tie-in comic for the American audience, so the special was scrapped!

In the ensuing years, a few of the International heroes created for the book surfaced in other Marvel titles, most notably The Incredible Hulk. Eventually, Marvel decided to venture into the realm of comic book miniseries. These would allow them to delve deeper into the lives of some of their heroes who'd never headlined their own series and were only known as supporting characters and members of teams. Hercules, Hawkeye and Wolverine were slated to receive three-issue minis, but to kick the format off with a bang, Marvel revisited the aborted Olympics comic.

Since several years had passed, a lot of the existing pages had to be tweaked or completely redrawn. The Olympic Dome had to be altered into a space coliseum. This time, when the heroes vanished, they were not replaced by the confused Olympic athletes. And certain characters had to be removed entirely because they'd either retired or died, including Black Goliath, Ghost Rider and Phoenix. The most significant was Ms. Marvel, who'd lost her powers and left the Earth. Originally, Ms. Marvel was part of The Grandmaster's team of heroes. She-Hulk was drawn over Ms. Marvel's form in her scenes.
Interestingly, the She-Hulk cannot fly, whereas Ms. Marvel could, so strangely, most of She-Hulk's scenes involve her soaring through the air, with it being explained that she was LEAPING the whole time.

Despite the screw-up in scoring, the series was a lot of fun and gave fans a once-in-a-lifetime event where EVERY super hero, major and minor appeared in one series. (Not every hero is depicted "on camera" but they're in the crowd somewhere!) Marvel even printed in the back of every issue, a complete alphabetical listing of all its living heroes, complete with alter ego and description of their powers, implying that every one of them was SOMEWHERE in that crowd! And for me, it was a snapshot of Marvel at its damn-near perfect point in history, featuring appearances by both Spider-Woman (chatting with Spider-Man at one point) and (Disco) Dazzler (who, when she is teleported to the dome, was onstage performing, causing one concert-goer to remark, "What a great finale!").

But I had never heard about the series' true origins, so I my mind was wonderfully blown by this article, complete with some of the original, unaltered artwork! Fascinating!

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