Friday, January 29, 2016

The Champions (1975) # 1

Cover Artist: Gil Kane
Published: Oct. 1975
Original Price: $0.25

Title: "The World Still Needs...the Champions!"
Writers: Tony Isabella
Artist: Don Heck
Inker: Mike Esposito
Letterer: Dave Hunt
Colorist: Petra G.
Editor: Marv Wolfman

On the campus of UCLA, Bobby Drake and Warren Worthington III - two former X-Men named Iceman and the Angel - walk amongst the students and talk about what they could do with their lives now that they're no long part of the X-Men. They talk briefly about their old friend Beast and his membership in the Avengers, but their discussion is cut off by a shimmering hole that opens in mid-air and the group of demonic Harpies that emerge. The Harpies attack the students, demanding them to hand over Venus, but Iceman and Angel intervene. Angel debuts a new costume that doesn't cover his face with a mask, prompting Bobby to ask about it. Warren tells him that he's tired of hiding his identity, and from this moment on the Angel is going public.

In a nearby building, the Black Widow and her partner Ivan wait for a job interview, hoping to be hired on the college to teach Russian to the students. Without warning, another hole in space opens, and a group of Amazons come through also demanding the whereabouts of Venus. Ivan tries to fight the women but is knocked unconscious, leaving the Widow to fight alone. A moment later, Dr. Victoria Starr arrives at the room to interview the Widow, and the Amazons finger her as Venus. The Widow rescues Starr and the two escape out a window, with the Amazons in hot pursuit.

Elsewhere on campus, Johnny Blaze - the Ghost Rider - rides to pick up a package for a friend when he is suddenly attacked by Cerberus, the guardian of Hades. His power triggered by danger, Blaze transforms into the Ghost Rider and attacks Cerebus, causing the demon to retaliate by transforming into a giant dog. Blaze turns and flees with Cerebus chasing behind. Also on campus, preparing to give a lecture on mythology, the legendary Hercules is attacked by an army of mutates that have sworn to conquer him. The battle quickly takes Hercules and his enemies outside, where he is seen by the Ghost Rider. Blaze rides up to Hercules and offers him a ride so they can talk about what's going on. They quickly approach Iceman, Angel, the Black Widow, and Dr. Starr, who are being chased by the Amazons and Harpies. The assembled heroes change opponents: Hercules bests Cerebus, the Ghost Rider causes the Harpies to flee from his hellfire, and Iceman traps the Amazons in blocks of ice. The mutates are defeated by Dr. Starr, who reveals her true form of Venus, goddess of love. Hercules, Venus, and the other heroes talk briefly about the confusion of the attacks, but are suddenly struck by a powerful, unseen force that drives them to the ground. Hercules and Venus are the first to recover, and the heroes are approached by three godly figures: Pluto, Ares, and Hippolyta. Pluto tells them that he is a messenger for Zeus: Hercules shall marry Hippolyta while Venus is to marry Ares. Should either of them refuse, the universe shall die!

This issue and the next take place before the end of Ghost Rider (1973) # 14. Johnny was sent to UCLA in that issue to pick up a package for Katy Milner, who would later be revealed as Roxanne Simpson in Ghost Rider (1973) # 19.

Blaze's transformations into the Ghost Rider began to be triggered by danger in Ghost Rider (1973) # 13.

Welcome to the series that was doomed to failure from the moment of its inception.

The Champions is one of those books that comic fans like to look back at with fond memories these days, with Marvel even recently reprinting the entire series in a collection of trade paperbacks, and its obvious that most of these people digging the nostalgia of the book weren't around when it first debuted. Granted, I wouldn't even be alive for a few more years when this series hit the shelves, but even with my unadulterated love of all things Ghost Rider I can't help but shake my head while reading through this run.

Riding high on the success of the Defenders, Marvel tried again with their tried-and-true method of throwing whatever characters were available into a team book, regardless of how well they fit together or the strength of the concept. With the Defenders, the hodgepodge of characters like Dr. Strange and the Hulk became the premise of the book - the "non-team" that was completely different from the likes of the Avengers or the X-Men. The Champions, unfortunately, didn't have that luxury. They were the super-team that was put together for absolutely no reason at all, story-wise, and no matter how many attempts there were to make it feel otherwise the series just constantly felt forced. Nothing about the line-up or interactions were natural, and the characters honestly just had no reason whatsoever to stay together.

It also didn't help that the line-up was made entirely of cast-offs from other books. With the exception of Ghost Rider, the only character to have his own series at the time, the rest of the team was made of a former Avenger and Thor supporting character, two former X-Men, and the former partner of Daredevil. The book seemed to be born of the abandoned character pile, which became even more obvious later on in the series when Black Goliath joined up, complete with all the subplots from his cancelled series. It's not a good sign when the poster child of your team is Hercules, a character that's never had his own series nor much of an identity outside of his affiliation with Thor and the Avengers.

And that brings us to Ghost Rider's inclusion, which is probably the most forced aspect of all. Johnny Blaze was consistently shunted off to the background of the series, which was odd considering he was the only character in the book to also have his own solo series. It feels to me that Tony Isabella simply included him because he had control over the character (due to writing the Ghost Rider series) and he needed another warm body to round out the roster. It's also a mystery why Blaze stayed with the team as long as he did, considering how badly treated he was by his teammates - from insulting him to outright calling him evil on a bi-monthly basis.

But regardless of the behind-the-scenes decision to start this series in the first place, we need to talk about the actual story in this first issue - and bluntly speaking, there isn't much there to really talk about. It's an attack of awful coincidences, as all five of our soon-to-be team members just happen to be visiting the campus of UCLA when Pluto makes his move against Venus and Hercules. It goes to show that the writer and editor really had no idea what to do with this team from the get-go, as they're formed - and stay together - simply out of happenstance. Sure, this happened in a way with the Avengers as well, but the Marvel Universe didn't need a copy of the Avengers alongside them on the spinner racks. The story is also filled with some awful characterization and plot moments - from Ivan's horrible American slang (isn't he supposed to be pure-blood Russian?) to the Black Widow wearing a skirt over her leather cat suit as a poor attempt at "plain clothes" to the cookie-cutter villains that attack our heroes.

I expected better from Tony Isabella, who honestly did a good job writing the Ghost Rider series around this time. This is evident when Blaze himself joins the story in this issue, as he's the only character that's actually written well - hackneyed dialogue was sort of his trademark in this period of his life.

The artwork for this first issue is handled by Don Heck, an artist I've never been a fan of. It's classic Marvel house art in the most stereotypical way, with the bad Jack Kirby influence on the villains' costumes ('cause lets face it, no one could draw those types of outfits other than Kirby and make them look good) to the stiff poses of the heroes during the action. It's dreadfully boring to look at, but in that aspect it at least matches the dreadfully boring script and plot.

Don't get me wrong: in the latter days of its life, The Champions series does produce some good stories with some incredible art by John Byrne. The entire series isn't as bad as this first issue - it's just too bad that this book was allowed to come out with little insight as to why it should be made in the first place.

Grade: D