John Byrne gets in on the Scourge kill-fest, and Norm Breyfogle breaks into the biz – Marvel Fanfare #29
I wish there was still a place in the world for things like Marvel Fanfare. Anthologies used to be everywhere. On television. In print. They’ve largely gone the way of the dodo. I can understand why people might not be interested in a series whose characters change on a weekly/monthly basis, but that’s the format that gave us stellar material like The Twilight Zone — would we really want a world that didn’t have William Shatner yelling about monsters on the wings of planes?
Fanfare was the finest of Marvel’s anthologies, far outpacing the storytelling quality in the later Marvel Comics Presents. An early foray into direct sales, with no ads and high-end paper to further cement the “ooh ain’t this slick” desirability, it functioned as a front window display for the best that the company had to offer. Like the Mighty Marvel Boutique Shop or something. Going though old issues, I’m often struck by the quality of the brief — sometimes continued over multiple issues — stories inside. At times they dealt with lesser lights, for instance a rather delightful Warriors Three Asgard story illustrated by Charles Vess that I’d love to yak about here one day. They could also focus on big stars, the titans of the line.
This issue has heavyweights. Plural. Both on the pages and behind them. Some John Byrne Hulk and some [Special surprise! Unless you read the title!] Captain America, making this one of the more noteworthy Fanfares that I can think of.
Byrne at this point was at the peak of his powers. His tenures on The Uncanny X-Men and The Fantastic Four had established his reputation both as an artist and someone who could right a listing ship. His artwork, though, was perhaps never more suited to a character than the Hulk. A behemoth who’s a mountain of muscle, his look was tailor-made for Byrne’s sinewy pencils. Byrne’s writer/artist run on the Hulk’s title was eventful, seeing the Green Goliath separated from Bruce Banner, and therefore becoming nothing but a rampaging beast, without the usual “Hulk wish humans were nicer” pathos. (I recall one panel where the mindless Hulk came upon a deer in the wilderness, and proceeded to backhand it and break its neck. Nothing says “mean” LIKE KILLING BAMBI.) It was a good read, and one of the titles the young me looked forward to every month.
The Byrne-crafted (script and art) Hulk story here falls right in the midst of that arc (it was originally intended for the Hulk series proper, but got left out). Told all in splash panels (a gimmick that feels less wasteful here than in the death of Superman issue (#75), which needlessly rushed what was the biggest comic story ever), it also falls in the midst of another memorable storyline from the 1980s. Remember the Scourge of the Underworld? The cross-title housecleaning, which had an anonymous villain offing lesser evil-doers and thus clearing out the basements and attics of the Marvel Universe? Yeah, that Scourge. The one that obligingly murdered useless baddies that hadn’t been seen since appearances in Omega the Unknown or some other D-list book. For fun!
The story has Hulk coming upon a Native American shaman in the desert, one who’s sitting on a rock and contemplating whatever people contemplate in deserts. Hulk’s about to liquefy him, until the shaman makes nice:
It’s as easy as that. The shaman keeps repeating “friend” over and over again, until Hulk sits down in front of the fire, inhales some fumes and starts remembering faces from his past (the mindless Hulk has rudiments of a mind after all). While he’s in this trance, we find out that the shaman isn’t who he appears to be, but has technologically advanced equipment and is tracking the approach of two targets. He goes off to hide as they make their appearance:
Yes, Hammer and Anvil. You don’t remember Hammer and Anvil? Neither did I until I read this, hence the reason that they were shoehorned into this Scourge plot (they made their debut in Hulk’s title, so it’s somewhat fitting they should meet their end alongside Ol’ Greenskin). They were convicts (a white racist and a just plain angry black man) who escaped from a chain-gang The Defiant Ones-style, and were (preposterously) given powers by an alien, though they remained tethered together in their newfound super state.
They were kind of lame. So Scourge — OMG SCOURGE WAS DISGUISED AS THE INDIAN — shoots Hammer in the face, and then we get The Tearful Lament of Anvil:
Two for the price of one.
Scourge — who never shows his face — disappears, and poor dumb(er) Hulk is left all sad and stuff:
The second of the two shorts was a bit of a surprise. It’s a largely silent story, centered on Captain America, and once again it’s scripted, pencilled and inked by the same person. The twist here is that that person is Norm Breyfogle. Yes, the Norm Breyfogle who made a name for himself in a memorable Batman run that bridged the eighties and nineties. The story represents some of his earliest work at a major publisher — though not THE earliest — and it’s interesting to see the early stages of the dreamy, angular style that would be so perfectly suited to Gotham’s champion (and would make the Breyfogle Batman a personal favorite).
Things open with bullying (more culturally relevant than ever) and book-dumpings:
Events escalate when a crook crashes his car (you see it VROOMMing into sight above), grabs both the kids for hostages (preventing the inevitable snicker-snag), and hides out in a classroom. Captain American is hot on his tail, and, as the kids take shelter, he proceeds to kick the ever-loving piss out of this thug. It’s a beating that involves everything from punches to fire extinguishers set off in the guy’s face Three Stooges style — here’s the finale:
Yes, watching Captain America thoroughly outclass this dolt brings the two erstwhile enemies together. They awake the next morning in their differently appointed bedrooms, and start on new regimens:
Captain America: His fists have the power to make the brawny smarter and the smart brawnier. Like a superhero Tony Robbins.
Stories like this don’t really have a place in regular comics, which is a shame. Losing the trees for the forest or something — mangle whatever metaphor you want. So it goes. But make no mistake, Fanfare was excellent and fun — the Al Milgrom “Editori-Als” were always neat — and it offered opportunities for established creators like Byrne to burn (no pun) off material that didn’t fit into their regular assignments. Perhaps more importantly, it gave a chance for up and comers like Breyfogle to strut their stuff. Quite a one-two punch. Both entries here are small gems, and it’s good to see Breyfogle’s distinctive style — very much fully formed at this stage — tackling a character not from his usual repertoire (though the message from his scripting — violence heals societal wounds — might need refinement). A treat, to say the least.
Marvel Fanfare: We hardly knew ye.
Note: The Hulk/Scourge story is a part of the Byrne/Hulk Visionaries book, which is worth a gander.