In our last post, we took a look at Justice League of America #89 — a very special issue of DC Comic’s premiere super-team book, in which writer Mike Friedrich paid homage to one of his literary heroes by basing his story’s central character of “Harlequin Ellis” on the noted science fiction author and screenwriter, Harlan Ellison.
By a remarkable (but apparently entirely random) coincidence, the same month that saw the publication pf JLA #89 (March, 1971) also saw the release of a very special issue of the Marvel Comics series featuring that publisher’s nearest analogue to the Justice League, Avengers, which writer Roy Thomas had scripted from a plot outline by the real Harlan Ellison. You really can’t make this stuff up, y’know?
In point of fact, this wasn’t actually the first time that Ellison had written for the comic book medium. While still a teenager, he’d sold a story to EC Comics editor Al Feldstein; with a script by Feldstein based on Ellison’s plot, and art by Al Williamson and Roy Krenkel, “Upheaval!” ran in the 24th issue of Weird Science-Fantasy (June, 1954). Much more recently, at the request of publisher Jim Warren, Ellison had written a short story inspired by a Frank Frazetta painting; adapted by artist Neal Adams into comics format, “Rock God” had appeared in Creepy #32 (April, 1970).
Presumably, Roy Thomas knew of that recent effort (and likely the earlier one as well); in any event, he was well aware of Ellison’s interest in comics, having become familiar with the author’s writing for the fanzine Xero in the early ’60s (a period when Thomas himself was himself helping produce the early issues of another fanzine, Alter Ego). Like Friedrich and other comic book writers of the era, Thomas had eventually became personally acquainted with Ellison after meeting him at a convention. A few years later, in 1970, he’d included Ellison among a handful of well-known fantasy fans and pros to whom he sent black-and-white advance proofs of Conan the Barbarian #1, asking for an early review, and the writer had happily complied. (Introducing Ellison’s response on issue #2’s letters page, Thomas noted that “he collects Hugo and Nebula Awards the way Marvel collects Alleys!”) Now, he’d gone further, asking the prolific author for a more substantial, as well as more creative, contribution to the House of Ideas.
What Thomas received from Ellison in response to that invitation was a synopsis of some 1,800 words, which, with the aid of several artists, the comics scribe adapted and expanded into two issues of Marvel comics — Avengers #88 and Incredible Hulk #140. Photocopies of Ellison’s original typed manuscript exist — a reproduction of the synopsis’ first page appears at left — and the whole thing has been officially published at least twice, most recently in the Dec., 2003 issue of Thomas’ Alter Ego fanzine. Interestingly enough, the first such publication — in the 4th issue of the short-lived Marvelmania Magazine — came out sometime in 1970, predating the release of the actual comics by at least a few months. That meant that a number of Marvel’s most committed fans had already had a chance to read and pass judgement on Ellison’s plot when the finished version by Thomas and company finally reached the nation’s spinner racks — and that they also had the means to directly compare the two versions, story point by story point.
Your humble blogger was not among those fans so blessed, alas. While I eventually did become a card-carrying member of Marvelmania International (Marvel’s second official fan club), it wasn’t until sometime after the fourth issue of the club magazine had shipped. (Indeed, the only issue I ever received was #6, which came out in early ’71, and was the last published; basically, I got in right before the whole dubious enterprise went belly-up.) Therefore, all I had to go on in evaluating this two-part Avengers/Hulk storyline were the comic books themselves. Sure, I recognized the name Harlan Ellison (“perhaps the first writer of a comics story ever to have his name on Marvel covers,” Thomas wrote in Alter Ego #31, “at least without its being paired with that of an artist.”) — I believe I did, anyway* — but that was all.
Still, since I do have access to the original synopsis now, I’m going to refer to it as we go through these comics; not exhaustively, mind you, just when I think it’s enlightening (or at least interesting) to do so. Why not?
A few things to note at the outset: One is while that Ellison’s synopsis does include the Avengers, his header makes it clear that, as far as he’s concerned, this is a Hulk story. As we’ll soon see, most of what Earth’s Mightiest Heroes get up to in this issue is the invention of Thomas, and there’s a decent argument to be made that the whole thing might have worked better as a solo Hulk tale (and maybe even a single-issue one). Perhaps the co-billing of ol’ Greenskin at the top of the book’s splash page — unusual for a guest appearance, even with a double-title crossover involved — represents a subtle acknowledgement on Thomas’ part of the primacy of the Hulk in this adventure.
Another early alteration made by Thomas is a change in the spelling of Ellison’s villain’s name, from “Syklop” to “Psyklop”. This seems to be an attempt to have the name look less like that of the X-Men’s Cyclops (although, of course, it doesn’t affect the names’ phonetic similarity at all). Thomas is also responsible for including the epigraph by H.P. Lovecraft (from the latter’s classic short story “The Call of Cthulhu”), having been inspired to do so by the background Ellison provides for Syklop/Psyklop, which is at least vaguely evocative of Lovecraft’s “Cthulhu Mythos”. (Indeed, the very title given to this chapter by Thomas, “The Summons of Psyklop!”, is obviously derived from the name of that story.)
“You have a mouth — and you must scream!” Unlike the story’s conclusion in Hulk #140, Thomas’ script for Avengers #88 is not rife with allusions to Ellison’s prose fiction; nevertheless, he manages to sneak one in here. “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” is a short story originally published in the March, 1967 issue of the SF magazine If; winner of the Hugo Award in 1968, it would receive its own comic-book adaptation almost thirty years later in the first four issues of Dark Horse Comics’ Harlan Ellison’s Dream Corridor.
On a subject unrelated to Ellison, this is probably as good a point as any to note that Avengers #88 represents one of penciller Sal Buscema’s earliest forays into drawing the Incredible Hulk — a character he’d later handle regularly in The Defenders for several years before going on to enjoy an epic 9 1/2 year run as the regular artist on the Hulk’s own title. (Coincidentally, Buscema’s inker for this story, Jim Mooney, had also embellished his last go at pencilling the Hulk, in Sub-Mariner #34 and 35.)
How, exactly, has the Hulk found himself in this predicament? Faithful reader, your guess is as good as mine. Ellison’s synopsis says he’s been “lured” to Boulder Dam without specifying how; Thomas’s script, on the other hand, doesn’t give even us that much. It seems an odd omission, considering that the latter writer was at this time the regular scripter of Hulk as well as of Avengers; nevertheless, Thomas ended Hulk #139 with the emerald behemoth at liberty somewhere in upstate New York, and (to the best of my knowledge) never got around to explaining just how, prior to the beginning of Avengers #88, he fell into the trap set by renowned scientists Reed Richards (aka Mister Fantastic) and Charles Xavier (aka Professor X).
Waitaminutenow — Professor X?! What’s an expert in human genetic mutation doing as part of this project? Granted, he’s been shown before to have an aptitude for designing fancy-schamcy high-tech equipment (see: Cerebro), but this still seems like a stretch — especially since Reed Richards at this point appears to know Charles Xavier only as a teacher “at that upstate school”, and not as the leader of the X-Men. I’m inclined to think that Ellison included the Prof as part of the Hulk-trapping brain trust simply because, in 1971, he was one of the best-known good-guy geniuses in the Marvel Universe; and that Thomas then just rolled with the idea.
The “old Howard Hawkes [sic] movie” alluded to by General “Thunderbolt” Ross is, of course, the 1951 SF-horror film The Thing from Another World; the reference is Thomas’ way of incorporating Ellison’s succinct description of the Hulk being pinned “in a barrage of current (much in the way The Thing was killed).” (Ellison evidently saw no need to specify in his synopsis that “The Thing” he meant in this instance was not Reed Richards’ buddy and teammate, Benjamin J. Grimm.)
Here’s how the Avengers make their entrance in Ellison’s synopsis:
The Avengers, hot on the trail of a menace so great they cannot even speak its name without fearing dread. They are stalking through swampland… shrouded in mist, eerie, compelling… on a nameless atoll near Easter Island. Looking for a decayed ancient idol, an icon of a lost civilization: key to a subterranean stronghold of the decimator whose very existence on the planet is more deadly than a thousand hydrogen bombs.
Ellison doesn’t identify any of his Avengers by name (and, in fact, he places Tony Stark on the scene with Richards and Xavier at Boulder Dam, rather than here, in his Iron Man identity). Nor does he provide any information as to why the team of heroes has come to “a nameless atoll” in search of “a decayed ancient idol”. That job is up to Thomas, who’ll spend a good bit of the rest of the issue’s page-count filling in the gaps.
He begins by having Captain America go into a reverie about how, mere hours before, the hero and his new-ish partner, the Falcon, had taken an Avengers quinjet down to New Orleans to check on a friend of the latter’s who hadn’t shown up for a visit as expected. (It’s probably worth noting here that at this time, the Falcon not only wasn’t an Avenger, but hadn’t even been introduced to the team yet.) After arriving in the Big Easy, they’d learned that the Falcon’s pal “had last been seen marching off, as if in a trance, towards bayou country“. That doesn’t seem like a whole lot to go on, but it was apparently enough for our heroic duo — for, not too long after setting out into NOLA’s swampy environs, they’d come across a scene of…
The odds were stacked against Cap and Falc; luckily, however, the local police showed up before things went too far south…
Cap and the Falcon quickly jetted back to New York, and briefed the Avengers. The Sentinel of Liberty had recognized the words mumbled by the entranced Ralph as a latitude and longitude, and he had “a crazy hunch” that what was going on in that Louisiana bayou was more important than a single voodoo ceremony. That was good enough for Iron Man, Thor, and Goliath, who agreed to accompany Cap and Falc to the the Pacific to check out those mysterious coordinates…
Thomas’ script follows Ellison’s synopsis in taking this opportunity to cut back to Boulder Dam:
With page 11, we take our leave of Mister Fantastic and Professor X, as well as of the whole Boulder Dam project — none of which play any further role in the story. As far as the Hulk is concerned, pretty much everything in Ellison’s synopsis up to this point has been there simply because, well, the Hulk had to be doing something at the beginning of the story, right?
Ellison’s synopsis doesn’t give much in the way of a physical description of his villain, the “half-human, half-creature of a long-dead race”, beyond brief references to “the eldritch horror of his single bee-faceted ruby eye,” and “his strangely-structured body”. One has to wonder, however, if he was thinking of something more evocative of Cthulhuoid creepiness than the entirely serviceable, but indisputably more SF-oriented, design that Sal Buscema ultimately came up with.
In Ellison’s synopsis, once the narrative reaches the villain’s lair, it pretty much stays put for awhile; but even after adding the whole “voodoo in the bayou” sequence, Thomas still doesn’t have quite enough story to fill the remainder of this issue’s pages, and so we’re given an otherwise superfluous battle between the Avengers and a giant slug. All good fight scenes must eventually come to an end, however; and thus, after a couple of pages of mayhem…
This was hardly the first time that Roy Thomas had alluded to the origin story of the original Captain Marvel (the Fawcett Comics one; see right) in one of his own tales; he’d done so as recently as 1969’s Captain Marvel #17, in fact. The reference here, while serving no real story purpose, seems intended as a nod to Ellison and Thomas’ shared affection for the Big Red Cheese; indeed, Thomas will manage to work in a couple more such references before the end of this two-part story.
(No, Psyklop’s shrinking device hasn’t replaced the Hulk’s raggedy purple pants with the equally purple trunks he wore briefly at the beginning of his career; it’s just a coloring [and maybe an inking] error.)
Buscema and Mooney’s rendering of Psyklop’s “BEM‘s eye view” of the attacking Avengers is one of the highlights of the issue, for my money. But — doesn’t Stephen Strange have a trademark on the phrase “sanctum sanctorum” in the Marvel Universe?
Moving right along… Earth’s Mightiest Heroes proceed to bring the beat-down upon our one-(bug-)eyed friend, but his carapace (or whatever) proves surprisingly resilient to both the might of Mjolnir and Iron Man’s repulsor rays…
And thus this adventure ends for the Avengers, as they exit Thomas’ narrative at the precise place they do in Ellison’s synopsis, as well:
… the horror-representative of that sleeping race of monsters manages to reach the machine used to assemble and disassemble atoms. He turns the ray on the Avengers and they blink out of existence… appearing suddenly… with their memories wiped clean of anything even remotely connected to Syklop… on the downtown express platform of the IRT 7th Avenue Subway… turning and looking and confused at how they got there…
As a young reader in March, 1971, I found this ending unsatisfying for a couple of reasons. For one, I had a general aversion to stories in which the protagonists have their minds wiped of the tale’s events at the end. (Truth to tell, they’re still not my favorite.) For another, I’d assumed that as the co-stars of this double-title crossover, the Avengers would play at least as substantial a role in Hulk #140 as the Hulk had in Avengers #88, and I was bummed to learn that this wouldn’t actually be the case; I was, after all, a lot more interested in the Avengers than I was in the Hulk, whose own book I hadn’t picked up in almost two years.
Fifty years later, I’m still mildly annoyed by those aspects, although not nearly as much as by something which may not have registered with me at all in 1971 — namely, the story’s copious number of loose ends. Why was the entranced Ralph mumbling the precise coordinates of Psyklop’s secret HQ, back on page 8? Presumably, Ralph and his fellow bayou voodoo practitioners were worshipers of the same Dark Gods served by Psyklop (a concept which is itself somewhat problematic from a contemporary perspective, assuming that one recognizes voodoo as a legitimate religious tradition) — but what exactly were they up to, and what bearing (if any) did it have on the villain’s activities?** Finally, at what point did Captain America and the Falcon’s memories cut out — since, if they still remember going to Louisiana to check on Falc’s friend, there’s no reason they shouldn’t head right back out to the South Pacific to check once again on those cryptic coordinates — and if they don’t, there’s still the mystery of the missing Ralph for the two of them to solve.
Of course, none of those loose ends can be blamed on Harlan Ellison, who didn’t so much as hint at a Louisiana connection for his Syklop — but the same can’t be said of the whole Boulder Dam business with Reed Richards and Charles Xavier, which not only has nothing to do with Psyklop or the Avengers, but which (to the best of my knowledge) would never be referenced again anywhere, not even in the Hulk’s own comic. As already noted, it’s only there because the Hulk had to be doing something before Psyklop nabbed him, and Ellison either wasn’t interested in dovetailing the beginning of his story with Roy Thomas’ ongoing plotlines in the Hulk title, or simply wasn’t given the option to do so. For that matter, the entire presence of the Avengers is all but superfluous in Ellison’s tale — the only real impact they have on the plot is their distraction of Psyklop when he’s shrinking the Hulk, which results in the Green Goliath getting a whole lot smaller than the villain intended.
Still, even with all of its missteps and lapses, I’m glad that Avengers #88 exists — because without it, we wouldn’t have Hulk #140, which represents the true heart of Ellison’s story. And in the end, this tale really is a Hulk story — and one of the all-time great ones, to boot.
That’s my opinion, anyway. But you can decide for yourself just four days from now, when the blog takes a look at “The Brute That Shouted Love at the Heart of the Atom!” I hope to see you then.
*As I related in the last blog post, my personal timeline regarding my early knowledge of Harlan Ellison and his work is a little fuzzy. I believe that I first encountered his name in the book Star Trek 2, which featured a prose adaptation of his classic teleplay, “The City on the Edge of Forever” — but it’s at least possible that I saw it for the first time when I picked up my copies of Avengers #88 and Hulk #140. Adding to my confusion is the fact that I have no memory whatsoever of associating these two books with Justice League of America #89 in my mind back then, even though I must have bought and read all three comics in the same month (and even though JLA editor Julius Schwartz outed “Harlequin Ellis” as Harlan Ellison in the book’s letters column, both in that very issue and again a few months later). I realize that no one is likely to care much about this chronology but me; but since part of the point of my doing this blog is to honestly share my own personal history as a comics reader and fan, I feel obliged to let you know whenever I find myself having to wing it a little.
**Before someone else brings it up, let me say that I do realize that in crafting the bayou scenes, Thomas may well have thought of himself as following Ellison’s lead in taking inspiration from “The Call of Cthulhu”. Lovecraft’s narrative does indeed include scenes set in Louisiana as well as on an unnamed South Pacific island; more to the point, the connections between events in these as well as in other locales remain mysterious at the close of the tale. Unfortunately, the sort of ambiguity that can work very well in a horror story generally isn’t nearly as effective in a superhero adventure, especially one limited to only twenty pages; I believe that this principle holds true in the case of “The Summons of Psyklop!”.