BRONZE-AGE FLASHBACK: Captain America Annual 7 (1983)
February 8, 2003
As you have probably deciphered if you read this column with any regularity, my passion toward comics centers around two aspects: 1. producing new material, and 2. collecting comics of old. I’m a huge fan of Silver- and Bronze-age Marvels, these being the books that had, and continue to have, the greatest influence on me creatively. Thanks to my Texan pal, Jay Weesner, I’ve also become a fan of Bronze and Silver DC war comics such as Sgt. Rock and Star Spangled War Stories; my eyes are now open to these amazingly well-crafted tales by the likes of Joe Kubert, Russ Heath, et al., that I’d heretofore ignored, stories that far surpass Marvel’s war books (i.e., Sgt. Fury, Captain Savage) of the era (the sole exception being the short-lived, albeit brilliantly conceived, War is Hell series produced in the mid-1970s).
Aside from the dynamic art and Stan Lee’s flamboyant, over-the-top scripting, what draws me back time and again to Marvel Comics of the Silver- and Bronze-age are the amazing, innovative characters and concepts that were once the status quo at the self-proclaimed House of Ideas. And while I have my mainstream favorite characters (e.g., Silver Surfer, Ghost Rider, Galactus, Dr. Strange) and concepts (the Negative Zone, the Ultimate Nullifier, the Blue Area of the Moon, the Serpent Crown), I’m also terribly infatuated by some of the lesser-explored ideas and characters that emerged during this era.
First and foremost is MODOK, whose debut appearance was in the pages of Tales of Suspense wherein he battled Captain America. MODOK would later prove an annoyance to other heroes in the Marvel stable including Iron Man and the Incredible Hulk. MODOK was, if my weathered memory is still accurate, introduced by Stan Lee and the late, great Jack Kirby—the team that was responsible for the vast majority of Cap’s adventures published in Tales of Suspense. Which leads me to one of my favorite Marvel concepts: the Cosmic Cube.
Like MODOK, the Cosmic Cube was also first introduced in Tales of Suspense by Lee and Kirby and it immediately assumed an almost Lord of the Rings mysticism. Much like Tolkien’s “Ring of Power,” the Cosmic Cube had the ability to “convert thought waves—into material action.” The evil Red Skull was the first to wield the Cube—having stolen it from the AIM engineers who created it—and he envisioned the world would soon bow to his every command. Yet his own egotism proved the Skull’s undoing, and both he and the Cube were believed lost to the sea in a climatic battle against the star-spangled avenger. The Cosmic Cube would subsequently appear in numerous stories over the next few years, the magnum opus of which was Jim Starlin’s cosmically-charged Thanos saga in the pages of Captain Marvel. Acquiring the Cosmic Cube, Thanos used its power to transform him into an omnipotent God, but was defeated narrowly by the Kree-born Captain. Starlin crafted perhaps the most visionary stories of the Bronze Age, though I found his later Dreadstar and Infinity stories to be somewhat tiresome and repetitive, devoid of the ingenuity and imagination that once fueled every panel, every page of this amazing writer/artist.
The Cosmic Cube later became a sort of back-drop in the long-since defunct Marvel Two-in-One (a monthly team-up book that featured the Fantastic Four’s Thing with a rotating cadre of guest stars). In the six-part “The Pegasus Project,” writers Ralph Macchio and the late Mark Gruenwald scripted an intriguing saga, ably illustrated by John Byrne and George Perez. The energy-absorbing, child-like being known as Wundarr, who was under study at Project Pegasus to determine whether his body could channel the energies of the Cube, was, through the Cube’s mysterious energies, reborn. The Cube magnified Wundarr’s intellect and power. As a result of his rebirth, he became the Aquarian and proclaimed himself “the living son of the cosmic cube.” The saga ended with the Aquarian decreeing to “open the way for a new age—to bring mankind the peace I’ve found.” Which leads me to Captain America Annual 7 (1983), the cover copy of which describes it as, “CHAOS CUBED! THE ULTIMATE TALE OF THE COSMIC CUBE!” Having just acquired this comic (and several others, natch!) at the recently held Pasadena convention, I decided to assess whether the story stands up to its hard-sell cover hype.
The story beings interestingly and cryptically enough with a now dormant Cosmic Cube suddenly radiating to life in a heavily-guarded chamber within Project Pegasus. This abrupt release of energy is felt by the Aquarian who, while walking through a rural area of Ohio, reacts as if summoned by the Cube; distantly, by the evil forces of AIM, “somewhere in the American west”; and a galaxy away, by the Shaper of Worlds and the Supreme Intelligence. With regard to the Aquarian, we can only assume he’s decided to bring peace to the buckeye state and work his way either west to LA or east to New York, unless, of course, he’s been vacationing at Sea World in Aurora, Ohio. But I digress.
The AIM forces launch an airborne assault against Project Pegasus. This assault can best be described as one of the most unchoreographed double-page spreads ever illustrated in Marvel history. The AIMians (for wont of a better term) break through the Pegasus defenses. Desperate, the Pegasus staff sends a distress signal that is picked up by Captain America at Avengers headquarters (the other Avengers are out, natch). Cap flies toward Project Pegasus via an Avengers Quinjet, and spots the Aquarian who, walking away from the raging battle between the forces of good and evil, holds the Cosmic Cube in his hand. He explains to Cap that he is the former Wundarr (Cap knew him as Wundarr but was unaware of his metamorphosis [part of which involved growing a beard that would make the members of ZZ Top look like a trio of Charles Xaviers] to Aquarian) and that the Cube is perfectly safe in his care. Cap, hell-bent to remove the Cube from his possession, places an Aikido hold on the Aquarian. The Cube falls to the ground and is immediately snicker-snagged by a tractor beam of the evil agents of AIM who’d been hovering overhead in their Star Wars-esque warships. Always cordial, the AIM agents thank Captain America for his assistance. Cap, asked by Aquarian why he couldn’t have left well enough alone, ignores the remark and tries to draw attention away from his blunder by shouting,“There’s no time for regrets!” Cap pursues the fleeing AIM vessels (Aquarian having decided to handle things in his own fashion) and infiltrates the AIM headquarters, fighting his way through many-a-AIMian, but ultimately failing to obtain the Cube.
Meanwhile, we meet the AIM mastermind, none other than the notorious, the dastardly, the infamous…um, Bernard Worrell. Altogether now: WHO? I’m glad you asked.
Bernard, it seems, was the protégée of AIM scientist George Clinton (not to be confused with the musically-challenged sibling of our nation’s former cigar-loving Commander-in-Chief). They created MODOC (later MODOK), and eventually, upon punching a hole through the fabric of space (and who hasn’t done that?), trapped an “X-element” within a “perfect cube of force.” Later still, when a disgruntled and power-hungry MODOK annihilated his AIM overlords, only Worrell and Clinton survived; they remained as “flunkies in the AIM hierarchy.” Seriously, if you have to be a flunky in a hierarchy, you could do far worse than AIM.
Eventually, Clinton and Worrell reestablished the original AIM (Blue Cross/Blue Shield benefit package notwithstanding); unfortunately, Clinton was captured by the Red Skull, the Hate Monger, and Arnim Zola who drained his mind (subsequently killing him) in an effort to construct a second Cosmic Cube. Acknowledging himself as the sole survivor of the original individuals who shaped the first Cosmic Cube, Worrell proclaims that his hand must be the one to wield it.
Meanwhile, Cap is trying to overcome an AIM onslaught and faring less than well when he is suddenly and unexpectedly aided by the Aquarian. The duo attempt to burst Worrell’s bubble, but the Cube in now within his grasp. Yet the Cube is still drained of its mystifying energies. Through Worrell’s will, however, the Cube begins to do his bidding. The Cube begins “to deform horribly…until something snaps!”
Worrell apparently reshapes the world into a series of oddly-drawn skyscrapers described as “Technopolis” (the actualization of his conscious mind), though the city might just as well been called “Syringopolis” since the top of each strangely-drawn skyscraper resembles a syringe tip. Worrell proclaims this to be the new world and the new world order; beyond those vague proclamations, there is no indication of how the world has been changed. Worrell then plans several traps for Cap and the Aquarian, though each trap fails. He then transports the Aquarian to the mountains of Tibet. Face-to-face with Captain America, Worrell teleports Cap’s bones out of his body in what can only be described as one of the most horrific fates ever to befall the good captain. In a scene that is more akin to Franz Kafka, Worrell reforms Cap’s shield into crab that begins to crawl across the ground and onto Cap’s now spineless back, it’s claws wrapping around his misshapen body. Moments later, to prove he’s not “a vengeful God,” Worrell returns Cap to his former self (though Cap’s crablike shield still envelops our hero’s back). Cap explains to Worrell that the Cube does not exactly obey his every command; Worrell doubts this statement, vowing to gain control of the Cube. However, the Cube, seemingly alive, mutates into a sphere with tentacles, and explores the hatred within the mind of Bernard Worrell. The Cube, absorbing the myriad of thoughts governed by hate and fear, lashes out at Cap who tries to explain that it has nothing to fear.
The Shaper of Worlds and the Aquarian arrive and the Shaper cradles the Cube and, using a “modicum of power,” restores reality to the way it was. He then explains that the Cube is about to hatch, that he, in fact, was a former Cosmic Cube once belonging to the Skrull Empire. The Shaper of Worlds, it seems, had been in search of the infant Cube so as to nurture it. The Cube, he explains, is but a child, and the Shaper of Worlds takes the Cube, vowing to “watch the child’s development with eagerness.”
Given that it/he (the Shaper of Worlds) was a former Cosmic Cube that remade, twisted, and destroyed star system after star system and “destroyed two-thirds of the Skrull galaxy, sending it back into barbarism,” Cap’s closing remark (“I have a feeling that the Cube’s childhood is going to be an interesting one.”) would appear to be the understatement of the century.
In as much as it would seem to be the “final” Cosmic Cube story, I suppose the cover copy was accurate. Unfortunately, Peter Gillis’ tale could have stood a more solid edit. The artwork by Brian Postman and Kim DeMulder, while competent, does not rank among the best of the era. From a sequential point-of-view, the art is choppy and uninspired, the strongest panels being those that employ grid flashback sequences. Given the template of remarkable Cosmic Cube stories and artwork from previous years by the aforementioned Lee, Kirby, Starlin, Byrne, Perez et al., I expected a bit more. Bob Sharen’s coloring, as usual, left much to be desired.
Consider this story a great concept with a sub-par execution. Chaos Cubed? Chaos Squared would seem more apropos.
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