It’s The Man’s 95th Birthday!

Stan-Lee.jpgThere is a podcast that my friend Douglas hosts, it’s called the Assault of the Two-Headed Space Mules. It’s a pop culture podcast examining music, television, movies, and all sorts of things from a Baby Boomer and a whatever that generation after the Baby Boomers is called perspective. From time to time, Douglas will gather a few contributing opinion-holders to have round table discussions on a given topic. He calls this group the “Gang Of Occasional Guest Hosts” or the GOOCH Squad. I count myself honored to be a member.

Earlier today, the GOOCH Squad, which for the purposes of this blog will include Douglas even though he’s the host and not a guest host, was chatting through Facebook, when I discovered today is the 95th birthday of a giant.

The Man.

Stan Lee.

I asked the fellows if they had any thoughts about the man who had such an influence on all of us. Each member of the squad is a life-long fan of comic books. And all of us were Marvel kids. I asked for their help in capturing just how important Stan Lee was to each of us and to several generations of comic book creators and fans.

Superhero comic books weren’t much of a thing in 1961. DC Comics pretty well had the market cornered. Their characters (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern, and others) were selling well, but other comic book publishers just weren’t making much headway. Until, as he tells it, Stan Lee, a frustrated writer working for Atlas (formerly Timely) Comics, decided to quit. But, as a last hurrah and at the suggestion of his wife, he decided to take a chance and write something he wanted to write. Not some romance, jungle, western, crime, monster, etc. story, but a superhero story.

Atlas hadn’t done superheroes since the cancellations of Captain America, Sub-Mariner, Marvel Boy, and Human Torch in the early 1950s, closely coinciding Timely’s transformation to Atlas.

Stan’s last hurrah produced The Fantastic Four, created with more than a little assistance from artist Jack Kirby. With that publication came the birth of Marvel Comics. And the world was changed forever.

Now, that’s Stan’s version. But we’ve heard that Atlas publisher Martin Goodman had assigned Lee and Kirby to create a superhero group to compete with DC’s Justice League of America, which debuted a year before the FF. Curious how that detail doesn’t make it into Stan’s version of history.

We should also note that The Man is a man and that there are some less seemly aspects to the history of Marvel Comics. Lee gets the lion’s share of the credit for the creation of the FF, the Hulk, Iron Man, and, or course, Spider-Man. But the talents of Don Heck, Steve Ditko, and the aforementioned Kirby in the visual creation of those and so many other characters cannot be understated. Especially, Kirby and Ditko. At times, it feels as though Stan wants the world to just remember him as the creator.

Maybe that’s not very fair. Stan would say that much of the mistreatment of artists, rampant in the industry, was out of his control. But, as Douglas points out, he needed the talents of Kirby, Ditko, Heck, Gil Kane, Wally Wood, Bill Everett, John Buscema, and many others to reach the creative heights together that couldn’t be achieved each on their own. Lee needed their drawing skills and they needed his words. (Although, as some comic historians have pointed out, it seems that Jack Kirby had a much, much greater hand in the development of storylines than Stan would like to admit.)

And to give Stan a little more credit, it was Marvel Comics that made certain readers saw the names of the writers, artists, inkers, colorists, and letterers in each issue. The other publishers would follow his lead and the creators would at least get some credit.

I think Stan Lee’s genius breaks in three directions: Creation, relate-ability, and promotion.

Of course there was his prolific ability to come up with so many fascinating and exciting characters, both heroes and villains. Seriously! Is there a better comic book bad guy than Doctor Doom? And he created a fantastic universe for his characters to inhabit. Yes, he used real locations, such as New York City, but he also gave us his version of Asgard and Hades. And completely new worlds such as the Negative Zone and the Dark Dimension, where lived the dread Dormammu. (Or, maybe not. It’s also been suggested that that universe creation was more the work of Kirby and Ditko.)

Stan also knew how to turn a phrase. “It’s clobberin’ time!” “Avengers Assemble!” “The Hoary Host of Hoggoth!” Whatever that was. And there was his sign off for his Stan’s Soapbox columns: “Excelsior!” (Which had a direct influence on how I sign off my blog. Look up the meaning of excelsior and Packing Peanuts will make sense.) It was also Stan’s practice to use words that might have been just a bit over the heads of us kids, so out would come the dictionaries. In fact, Douglas credits Stan’s use of such words as “ersatz” and “quixotic” with helping him pass his SATs.

The second branch of his genius was his desire to make his characters relate-able. DC’s readers might have enjoyed Superman and Batman, but they just weren’t quite like us when not out supering. Stan’s characters were human, even when being super. The FF was essentially a family with a special dynamic due to that relationship. Spider-Man had troubles at home, girlfriend problems, and homework. As GOOCH Squad member Michael so eloquently put it, “[Stan Lee’s] signature brand of realism and foibles infused into the lives of The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man and others set precedents and added a heretofore untapped dimension of reader identification that raised the industry bar.” Indeed!

The third bit of his genius is something obvious, but still overlooked or underestimated by most folks. Stan Lee was the greatest promoter and cheerleader the comic books industry ever had. Fellow GOOCHer, Brian, called Stan the “comic book ambassador for the masses.”

This cheer-leading is something all of us noted, but I will take it just a little bit further. Think of DC, Dell, Harvey, Charlton. What creative genius comes to mind? Comic book folks might come up with the name of an artist or writer, but not that one name. Think Marvel. You think of Stan Lee.

I will go still further. It may be different today, but not long ago if you were to ask someone who wasn’t a fan of baseball to name a player the answer you were likely to get is Babe Ruth. He was such a giant of the game that his name became synonymous with it. Inseparable. Babe Ruth is baseball.

In the world of comic books, Stan Lee occupies that same exalted ground. Ask a non-fan to name a comic book creator. The answer is Stan Lee.

Happy 95th to the Man.

Packing Peanuts!

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And a special thanks to the GOOCH Squad for their assistance.

Update 1-19-18: I recently watched the excellent documentary series Robert Kirkman’s Secret History of Comics, the first episode of which examines the beginning of Marvel Comics. After watching that episode, I feel I may have been a little unfair toward Stan by suggesting he wanted all the credit. He lauds praise on Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko and he’s more nuanced about the creation of the Marvel Universe. He also acknowledges his editor assigning him to create a super-hero group to compete with the Justice League of America.

It’s a very good series. I highly recommend it.

 

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My Favorite Christmas Songs

It’s Holiday again.

I mean, it’s Christmas time again. For the purposes of this blog I can call a ceasefire to my part of the War on Christmas and acknowledge the holiday that occurs every December 25th. Actually, there really isn’t a war on Christmas. I know, Bill O’Reilly is turning in his grave hearing me say that. (Is he dead?) But, seriously. The majority of Americans still celebrate it. We still get the day off of work and school. The specials still run on television. So retailers are opting to be more inclusive when giving Season’s Greetings to their customers. Big deal. Is that a war?

Be that as it may, I thought I’d list five of my favorite Christmas songs. As always, this is my list. Your results may vary.

In no particular order, here they are:

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Santa Baby – Eartha Kitt (1953)
Oh, yeah, it’s cheesy and the string breaks get a little annoying, but Kitt’s sultry gold-digging is quite enjoyable. It would be difficult for Santa to deny her requests when put the way she does it. Others have covered this song, but this version is the best. And the “boom-boom, boom-boom’s” are a nice touch.

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Snoopy’s Christmas – The Royal Guardsmen (1967)
This Christmas song was The Royal Guardsmen’s follow-up to their Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron hit from the year before. In fact, musically the two songs are virtually identical. I had to do quite a bit of digging through YouTube to find the first hit from 1966. Many people seem to think Snoopy’s Christmas is titled Snoopy Vs The Red Baron, but they are different songs. Apparently, this band had a thing for Snoopy.

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It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year – Andy Williams (1963)
Yes, I know. This song is almost cliche, but I have to include it. It reminds me of all those Christmas specials that would play on TV in the lead up to the big holiday. Those specials helped mark of the days until Santa came and, at the same time, ramped up the anticipation of the arrival of that generous and jolly old fella. Andy Williams also came up with the only version of Twelve Days of Christmas, normally an incredibly tedious song, that I like. (I’ve linked to it as a bonus.)

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A Holly Jolly Christmas – Burl Ives (1964)
I first heard this one the way I’m sure most of the rest of you have: From The Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Christmas Television Special. Yes, plenty has been said in recent years about what a terrible message that special taught American television-viewing audiences in the mid-60s and beyond. The message was if you’re different you’re a freak and unwanted, even by Santa! And that only when that difference can be exploited are you then worthy of inclusion. Well, despite the horrible treatment of misfits, the song is quite rousing.

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Christmas Time Is Here – Vince Guaraldi Trio (1965)
This might just be my favorite Christmas song. As with most of the others, this one comes from a television holiday special – the classic A Charlie Brown Christmas. I think the music for this program is what makes it so darn good. The Vince Guaraldi Trio really did something special here. In fact, the entire soundtrack is fantastic!

Happy Holidays! Merry Christmas! Happy New Year!

Packing Peanuts!

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Pat DiNizio 1955-2017

Guest blogger Michael Noble returns with a memory of The Smithereens and patient persistence as a tribute to lead singer Pat DiNizio, who the world lost to cancer earlier this week.

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It was naturally sad to hear of the passing Pat Dinizio this week, lead singer for the moderately successful power pop band The Smithereens. I was a fan of their brand of music: Crunching, driving guitars, catchy, hook-laden singles with the occasional melancholy tear-jerker thrown in for good measure. And, oh…what a voice DiNizio possessed. Instantly identifiable every time…at least to my ears.

He will be missed.

Shortly after hearing the news, my mind went a couple places. First, I knew what my work night music menu consisted of – a healthy helping of The Smithereens’ catalog. And then my nostalgia kicked in and I remembered one of the times I went to see them live.

It was 30-some odd years ago. It was a friend’s birthday and it was just the two of us for a night on the town. I knew The Smithereens were playing the world famous Roxy in Hollywood and that, I’d decided, was our destination. I heard the show was sold out, but that never stopped me for going anywhere. Somehow, I would get us into the show.

We arrived and were promptly told by the box office the place was filled to capacity with no tickets left. We hung out anyway, my friend firing questions at me. Yes, we were going to wait it out; someone was bound to come by with extra tickets or some such so we could go inside. He was doubtful, commenting it was not the manner in which he thought his birthday evening would go. Me? I was my usual cheery happy-go-lucky and confident self.

20 minutes into the opening act, a staffer came out for a smoke. He saw us saunter our way over. “Waiting for someone he asked?” he asked. I told him yes, someone with a couple tickets to spare. He chuckled and walked off, puffing away.

Half an hour more passed. I could hear the opening act firing up their final tune of the night and, afterward, out came that same staffer for another smoke. “Still no one with tickets, huh?”

I shrugged.

“The place is packed. Matter of fact, the fire marshal came by earlier to check us out, make sure we weren’t violating any fire codes by having too many people in the place. And we were right on cue, not a person more in the joint than we’re allowed. I hate that damned fire marshal, always coming around and checking on us…”

He took a drag of his cigarette.

“You know what? Screw him and his fire codes. You want in? Follow me…”

And that is how we got into the show, on a lark.

At some point into The Smithereens’ set, I turned and noted to my friend, “Not a bad birthday after all, huh?”

Thanks for the memory, Pat and comrades. Rest in peace.

Thank you, Michael. You can read more of his writing at hotchka.com.

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Here’s This Month’s Great Comic Book Cover

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This month’s great comic book cover comes from the religious Treasure Chest series (volume 1, number 5 – August 18, 1966). I haven’t read this comic, but I thinking it’s a safe bet that, since in was published in 1966, it’s not going to have a very sympathetic view toward the Native peoples who were fighting for their land and way of life. The title – The March To Glory: The Story of Custer’s Last Stand – pretty much confirms my suspicion.

But, I’ll put America’s troubled and sometimes shameful past aside to look at what I think is a great cover by artist Reed Crandall.

Although, what exactly happened during the Battle of the Little Bighorn, or the Battle of the Greasy Grass as it is called by Native Americans, will never be known, the image depicts Custer separating his forces as a Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, or Arapaho warrior observes. Since most of us know the results of the battle (Custer’s forces were soundly defeated), we can assume the splitting up of his men was probably not a good idea. Also, knowing the history, there’s a sense of foreboding to a lone warrior witnessing Custer’s error.

Crandall does an excellent job rendering the warrior. I don’t know if the garments worn are accurate, but the drawing is wonderfully done. It’s not a comic book superhero we see, but a realistically drawn man. The anatomy is right and looks real. There’s no exaggeration, no over-muscled physique. The coloring is muted with the exception of the bright orange markings of the Native’s battle gear.

Sometimes an illustration of a scene anticipating a great battle can be every bit as great as the battle scene itself. And that’s the case with this month’s great cover.

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Yes, but did I like it?

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Well, I didn’t hate it, but I nearly turned it off within the first ten minutes. I’m talking about Elia Kazan’s 1957 classic A Face In The Crowd, starring Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau, and making his film debut – Andy Griffith.

This isn’t Andy Taylor. This isn’t Ben Matlock. No. This is “Lonesome” Rhodes. He’s a drunk and a drifter. A nobody. A face in the crowd. He’s discovered in a small Arkansas town jail by a fresh-faced, naive, but ambitious woman who works at her uncle’s radio station.

Her name is Marcia Jefferies, played by Patricia Neal, and she came up with the concept of “a face in the crowd” as an on-air segment for the radio station. She intends to interview regular, everyday folk. People who the public at large don’t think of, but might be every bit as compelling as any celebrity. She believes these people have a story to tell. And it was she who brings Rhodes to the attention of the modest audience of her uncle’s station.

Rhodes can sing, he can tell stories, and he speaks truth to power. The public loves him instantly. He rockets from the small town station to being the host of television’s highest rated show. Rhodes becomes a powerful voice in the American political scene with great sway over his sizable viewing audience.

But power corrupts. Actually, I think this story is more of a case of power revealing someone’s true nature. Rhodes was never a saint. He was just such a fresh presence that people either overlooked, rationalized, or even admired his rough edges. It was those rough edges that made him exciting and real to his audience. Until his attitude toward that audience was finally revealed, he seemed to be unassailable. However, that attitude was revealed and as quickly as he rose, he crashed.

It’s a fascinating film, but did I like it?

As I said, I didn’t hate it. The problem I had with the film, which almost had me shutting it of not ten minutes in, was “Lonesome” Rhodes. Perhaps I’m too accustomed to the calm, laid back, steady Sheriff Andy Taylor character that when I saw Rhodes it was almost too unsettling. Maybe, but if I never knew of that sheriff of Mayberry, North Carolina I think I would still be put off by “Lonesome.”

Right from the start, he is so obnoxious I find it hard to believe anyone would want to listen to him in a jail cell, let alone on the radio or television. Griffith’s performance is as scenery-chewing as any I have ever witnessed. He’s crude, sweaty, wild-eyed, and loud. Oh, brother, is he loud. Half his dialogue is delivered at the top of his lungs. I’m surprised Griffith’s voice held up.

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This one image pretty much sums it up. How could anyone become a fan of someone so obnoxious?

When he sings that first song (Free Man in the Mornin’) in the drunk tank, a song he makes up on the spot, which he shouts and growls as much sings, I was feeling compelled to reach for the remote to hit the eject button. But I didn’t. This was an Elia Kazan film. I haven’t seen many of his films, but those I’ve seen feel real. They surprise me with a gritty truthfulness that films of the 1950s aren’t exactly known for.

It’s Kazan. I stayed with it.

I’m glad I did, but I’m still not sure I liked it.

Packing Peanuts!

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Scooby Doo, How Could You?

Writer’s note: The following is another blog ripped from my personal blog at dimland.com. It has been updated and rewritten just a little bit…

I’m a skeptic. What that means is I require good, scientific evidence before I accept an extraordinary claim. I’ve learned that, throughout history, ever mystery ever solved has turned out to be not magic. Not ghosts. Not demons. Not monsters. Not any paranormal or supernatural phenomenon at all. Nope. The mysteries all turn out to be something in this world and not out of this world. (Thanks to Tim Minchin and Michael Shermer for much of what I just wrote are their words.)

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The Saturday morning cartoon series Scooby Doo, Where Are You? did a lot to set a skeptical foundation for a generation of kids. Debuting in 1969, the series followed a group of four kids and their dog who traveled the countryside looking for mysteries in need of solving. These intrepid trust-funders (there was never any mention of any of them having a job) would stumble upon a mystery involving apparently supernatural causes. They would then search for clues. Chased by ghosts, witches, werewolves, and other assorted creeps, our heroes would manage to reveal the truth and catch the bad guys.

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The bad guys never turned out anything anywhere near being supernatural. It was never a ghost or a witch or a werewolf. It nearly always turned out to be someone in a costume, except that one time when it was a robot run amok in an amusement park. It’s a wonder the gang, especially Shaggy and Scooby, would continue to be scared of g-g-g-ghosts. After all the times the mystery turned out not to be supernatural, you’d think they would no longer believe in ghosts or anything similar.

I watched Scooby and the various later incarnations up until Scrappy Doo came along and ruined the show. But, even up to that point, the mysteries were always normal and natural phenomena.

In 1999 came the full-length animated special Scooby Doo and the Witch’s Ghost. A few years ago, my son was watching that adventure on DVD when I came home from work. I was shocked and disappointed. Sometime during the 30 years since Scoob and the gang debuted, the ghosts had become actual ghosts! No! Say it ain’t so.

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The show featured a grrl rock band called The Hex Girls. They referred to themselves as “eco-Goths.” From what I could tell that meant they were rockin’ girls that liked to look like the undead and sing about saving the earth. All the Goth look with none of the nihilism.

One of the group was Wiccan. No problem. But the show kept treating Wicca as though it was an ethnic group and not a religion. I may be wrong, but I don’t think Wicca can be considered an ethnicity.

But, I’m just picking nits.

What really bothered me was the fact Hanna-Barbera, the producers of Scooby Doo, thought it would be a good idea to drop the no supernatural policy and have an actual ghost witch in the story. My skeptic’s heart was broken.

The first two thirds of the show followed the original Scooby Doo ethos by having bad guys in costumes using trickery to scare people, but in act three it went supernatural. A character who turned out to be a double-crossing villain found a book of spells and released the witch’s ghost from whatever limbo in which it had been imprisoned. This time it wasn’t smoke bombs and mirrors or any other tricks. This time it was magic. Actual magic.

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That’s not smoke and mirrors, it’s an actual ghost witch. For shame!

It took the Wiccan girl, who was pure of heart, to read the spell that re-imprisoned the witch’s ghost. Mystery solved.

I was appalled. I explained to my son how it was wrong for Scooby to have been promoting the supernatural, after having shown kids that such mysteries always have a real world explanation. Scooby had taught kids that the supernatural, the paranormal, and the unexplained are merely mysteries that can be solved without invoking magic.

I don’t have a problem with other TV shows and movies, for kids or adults, indulging in supernatural fantasy. I am a a fan of The X-Files, Jonny Quest (the first season), Harry Potter, Dracula, Frankenstein, haunted house stories, etc. Those shows always allowed for the supernatural to be real (despite Scully’s protestations). Scooby Doo didn’t accept the magic when it started and for years after. But when Scooby Doo went supernatural, I felt betrayed.

Scooby Doo, how could you?!

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The Korvac Saga

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When I was a kid in the early 70s, I started collecting comic books in a hit and miss fashion. I’d buy issues with covers I liked. There were a few characters I was interested in, but I didn’t buy their titles on a regular basis until my best friend Todd introduced me to the idea of keeping up with storylines.

“Storylines? What are those?”

He patiently explained that Marvel Comics (DC was probably doing the same thing then, but we were Marvel kids) had running stories that would go through several issues of a title. He was collecting The Uncanny X-Men and The Avengers at the time and his collection was so much more fascinating than mine. He had long runs of the titles he collected. I had a couple Hulks here, a Werewolf By Night there, but no collections of series.

Todd’s comics were also in really nice shape. I don’t think they were bagged and backed, but they had been gently handled and carefully stored away. I wasn’t quite as careful with my collection. I had cut images out and even drawn on a few of mine.

Todd’s example turned me into a serious collector and I’m grateful to him for that.

The Avengers and The X-Men were among the first of the Marvel titles that became my passion. Especially, The Avengers. In fact, over the years I have collected nearly every issue of the first 200 of that series. I have less than five missing and, of course, those remaining are mighty spendy.

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The first Avengers I picked up was #171. It was part of a multi-issue battle with Ultron, but it was also the early stages of what came to be known as The Korvac Saga. Korvac was a villain from the 31st Century who betrayed the human race. Somehow he got sent back to the 20th Century and became a frequent foe of The Defenders. Eventually, he found his way onto Galactus’ space station and became imbued with the Power Cosmic, transforming him into the god-like man known only as Michael.

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Korvac before gaining the Power Cosmic.

If you’re not familiar with the preceding stories and characters, then that paragraph will be a tad confusing. Just go with me here. And you should know there are spoilers ahead.

In the saga, Michael has a plan for earth and humanity, but it will take time to implement. He and his girlfriend Carina, the daughter of The Collector and quite powerful herself, adopt a low profile and take up residence in a suburban neighborhood in Queens, New York.

Something I really liked about Marvel Comics is that they would take their time setting up big stories. They would sometimes have a frame or two in a comic book months ahead of the big story just giving a little hint, setting up something to pay off much later. Marvel did that with The Korvac Saga. In issue #165, Iron Man gets a dressing down by The Scarlet Witch due to his frequent absences. He was the leader of The Avengers at the time but he was barely around, just showing up acting like nothing was wrong. She accused him of trying to act as though he’s saving the day. Iron Man was dumbfounded by this accusation, but there did seem to be gaps in his own timeline. Thor seemed to be doing the same thing. Curious.

Later, in issue #174, we learned what was behind Iron Man’s and Thor’s frequent absences and reappearances. Other Avengers began to disappear before the very eyes of their teammates! Why? What or who was behind it?

It was The Collector. An archenemy of The Avengers had been up to his old tricks of collecting earth’s mightiest heroes. Except this time, he claimed to be doing so to save humanity from The Enemy! That’s how The Collector referred to Michael – The Enemy.

The Collector was collecting The Avengers to protect them. However, our heroes were able to foil his plan and remain uncollected. The Collector implored The Avengers to rid the universe of this awesome threat and, when The Enemy used his powers to rid the universe of The Collector right in front of them, they took notice. The hunt for The Enemy began.

They trace this awesome threat to that Pleasant Valley Sunday neighborhood and commandeer a city bus to get them there. That led to a funny moment when all those superheroes pile off the bus as the neighbors were out cutting their grass. Why take a bus? Long story. Don’t worry about it.

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Issue #177 was the epic battle. The Avengers along with the Guardians of the Galaxy gave their all to defeat this most terrible threat to humanity, but one by one Michael defeated them. And this was a battle to the death. Although there was a moment or two when Captain America and Wonder Man seemed to be getting to him, Michael also easily dispatched of them.

It took The Collector’s daughter Carina, in an act of betrayal, to finally defeat The Enemy. To kill Michael. Thor then killed Carina. Not intentionally! Carina had used her powers to kill herself with lightning from the Norse god’s hammer.

One superhero present had not joined in on the battle. Moondragon believed there was deception at work. She believed The Avengers had been duped. For she had looked into Michael/The Enemy’s heart and learned his intentions were benevolent. He wished to create a utopia for humanity, not destroy it. He had become angry when The Avengers attacked and allowed his anger to put an end to the heroes and his plans, but as he lay dying next to his beloved Carina, he reached out with his last bit of strength and restored to life all whom he had killed that day.

Thor reverted to his alter-ego Dr. Donald Blake and attended to his alive but in need of medical attention comrades. As he did so, the memories of The Korvac Saga began to fade from his and the rest of the heroes’ minds. Moondragon would be the only one who would remember the terrible mistake The Avengers had made.

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Thanks a lot, Collector!

The Korvac Saga is still one of my favorite storylines ever produced by Marvel Comics.

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