Hasslein Blog: Longbox Legerdemain: Who the %$#& Are The Champions?


Hasslein Blog

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Longbox Legerdemain: Who the %$#& Are The Champions?

By Matthew Sunrich

"I guess there must be a fracus [sic] in the wind."

What do Hercules, Black Widow, Iceman, Angel, and Ghost Rider have in common?

If you answered "not much," I'd be inclined to agree with you.

Yet once upon a time they came together as a team and kept things going for an impressive seventeen issues and a handful of guest appearances.

How on earth did this happen, you ask?

Well, it's not something that's easy to pin down, but perhaps we can shed some light on it by examining what was going on with the individual characters at the time.

In 1975, a new crop of mutant superheroes were introduced in the pages of one of the Bronze Age's most groundbreaking books: Giant-Size X-Men #1. These new members, including Wolverine, Colossus, Storm, and Nightcrawler, revitalized the team and famously rescued the title from reprint limbo. One of the unanticipated consequences of this was that three of the original X-Men, viz. Beast, Iceman, and Angel, wound up striking out for greener pastures.

Beast joined the Avengers, while Iceman and Angel decided to give college a go.

Originally a villain, Black Widow changed her ways and became an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. and a member of the Avengers during the Silver Age. In Amazing Spider-Man #86 (1970), her appearance was overhauled into the one we recognize today (i.e., red hair and black bodysuit). Next, she split billing with the Inhumans in the first eight issues of Amazing Adventures before taking a spin in the pages of Daredevil.

Hercules had been around for a while, having made his first appearance in Journey into Mystery Annual #1 in 1965. One of Marvel's "powerhouse" characters, he eventually became an Avenger—if it seems that everyone eventually becomes an Avenger, it's pretty much true—and frequently found himself allied with Thor against a plethora of Asgardian nonsense.

Having debuted in Marvel Spotlight #5, Ghost Rider, the hell-spawned stunt cyclist, proved popular enough to earn his own title in 1973. There's not much else I can say about him other than the fact that a character with a flaming skull for a head gets people's attention.

The Champions was the brainchild of writer Tony Isabella and artist Don Heck, and, though decidedly oddball, it's one of the strongest titles of the Bronze Age, thanks in large part to the dynamic art of George Tuska, Bob Hall, John Byrne, Bob Layton, and Pablo Marcos (with outstanding covers by Gil Kane, Rich Buckler, Dave Cockrum, Ernie Chan, and Jack Kirby). Most of the team's adventures were written by Bill Mantlo, who is perhaps best known for his resplendent five-year run on Incredible Hulk. The comic's relatively short lifespan can be at least partially attributed to its simply being overshadowed by Marvel's other team books (Avengers, Defenders, X-Men, Fantastic Four), which, unlike Champions, featured first-tier characters, because everyone involved in its creation brought his A game to every single issue.

The impetus behind the team's formation is rather strange but is perfectly fitting for the era.

Iceman (Bobby Drake) and Angel (Warren Worthington III) are wandering around UCLA, discussing whether or not college was the right choice for them, when a portal opens in midair, from which a bevy of hideous, green-skinned harpies emerge. The monstrous women threaten passersby, demanding to know where "Venus" is. Bobby and Warren waste no time in assuming their superhero identities and attempt to subdue the attackers.

Meanwhile, on another part of campus, Black Widow (Natasha Romanoff, for those of you might have forgotten) waits nervously to interview for a job as a Russian-language instructor. Suddenly, another portal opens, unleashing a battalion of Amazons, similarly demanding the whereabouts of Venus. Just then, lovely humanities professor Dr. Victoria Starr appears, intent on meeting Natasha, and is shocked to find the room filled with warrior women. The warriors instantly recognize her as the woman they seek in mortal guise, and Natasha grabs her and leaps out the window (grasping a rope attached to something).

The scene changes to yet another part of the campus, where Johnny Blaze is riding his motorcycle for some reason. It becomes apparent that something bad is going on, and he races to address the situation, allowing the hellfire to burn his flesh away as he transforms into the Ghost Rider. He discovers that the source of the commotion is Cerberus, the mythical hellhound, in humanoid form. He blasts the creature with his infernal flame, and it changes into the more familiar form of a dog (albeit with one head) and pursues him, its huge, terrible jaws agape.

It just so happens that Hercules is also there as a guest lecturer. As he discusses matters with the lecture coordinator, an army of "mutates" appears, apparently out of another portal, and attempts to seize him. During the fight, the wall gives way, and the demigod plummets to the ground, taking several of the monsters with him. The hellhound still—ahem—hot on his heels, Ghost Rider stops long enough to convince Herc to climb onto the back of his bike, and within moments they encounter Black Widow, Venus, Iceman, and Angel, still dealing with their own threats.

Herc pummels the hellhound, Ghost Rider blasts the harpies, Iceman seals the Amazons in blocks of, well, ice, and Venus uses her overwhelming sex appeal (or something) to subdue the mutates. Before the heroes can sort out what's going on, they are caught in an enervating blast, the source of which turns out to be Pluto, ruler of the underworld. Flanking him are Ares, god of war, and Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons, who are to wed Venus and Herc, respectively, or THE UNIVERSE DIES.

Quite a setup for a first issue, huh?

Stay tuned for more.

But if you just can't wait, every comic featuring the team (seventeen issues plus five guest appearances in Iron Man, Avengers, Super-Villain Team-Up, and Spectacular Spider-Man) has been collected into two trade paperback volumes titled The Champions Classic. Unfortunately, these books are now out of print, but they can still be found on the secondary market if you're willing to look hard enough.

Matt Sunrich, a great fan of the Bronze Age of comic books, maintains two blogs: The Other Other Castle, about Bronze-Age sword and sorcery, and Forging the Dark Knight, concerning Bronze-Age Batman.

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