Wednesday, October 29, 2014


These covers were always so excited to be part of a limited series.
Marvel Comics managed to get through the 1970s almost exclusively on a diet of mashed-up monster superheroes. Where there wasn’t room to actually make a monster the star of a book, then horror-themes became sort-of the setting and scene for some of their ancillary ongoing  titles – the Avengers and Fantastic Four were pretty straightforward sci-fi and superheroics, for instance, but titles like The Defenders and Marvel Two-In-One straddled an infernal line.

By the 1980s, the rampant runaway success of mutant mania meant that Marvel could rely on its homegrown heroes to fuel their line, and straightforward superheroes dominated the racks again. One of the last gasps of that era’s supernatural blend of spandex and sorcery happened in the four-issue limited series, Mephisto Vs (April through July 1987).

"...just sitting on the toilet, watching you brush."
This quartet of titles featured Marvel’s satanic stand-in Mephisto, a not-uncommon major baddie who got his start bedeviling the Silver Surfer, tackling the major super-teams of Marvel’s late-Eighties roster in a series of knockoff horror-style titles: Mephisto vs The Fantastic Four, Mephisto vs X-Factor, Mephisto vs The X-Men, Mephisto vs The Avengers, Mephisto vs Food, Mephisto vs Muhammad Ali and Mephisto Meets World., some of which I just made up. A product of editor, inker and this-time-around writer Al Milgrom paired with artists John Buscema and Bob Wiacek, the story featured the House of Ideas’ own Lord of All Evil carb-loading on superheroic souls in a sort of four-color Faustian riff on the guy who traded a paperclip for a house.

Through the four issues, Mephisto bargains, tempts, confuses and just generally shoots fire at a lazy susan full of superheroes, with the goal of trading up for increasingly valuable heroic souls. Starting with the Fantastic Four, Mephisto launches his assault by having Marvel’s first family discover a massive pit smack-dab in the middle of their headquarters. If I’d come across a giant pit in the Baxter building, I’d just assume it’s where the Thing leaves his cosmically-irradiated dumps or HERBIE throws the bodies of the hookers he kills, if not both.

What the pit turns out to be is a flame-spewing metaphor – the worst KIND of metaphor! – after which he proceeds to fling a shit-ton of hallucinogenic cheap shots at the heroes to unsettle them and rig ‘em for a quick trip to his infernal domain. He enrages Ben Grimm to the point of murder by engaging him in some sort of cuckold porn scenario, and likewise arranges for Johnny Storm to murder John McEnroe – the most unforgiveable murder of all, EIGHTIES MURDER! Not wanting to repeat a motif three times, he tricks Mister Fantastic into tampering with the mail – a federal sin! – and snags Sue Storm for wasting cooking oil, or maybe because she’s not a very good cook, something like that. The Bible is a pretty strict document, I guess.

"Well, if it'll help boost sales..."
Long story short, Mephisto comes out of the arrangement with Sue Storm’s soul in his possession. He originally traded her for the soul of her son Franklin Richards, but it’s revealed that Franklin’s contract was void because he was a minor. Also I assume infernal contracts can’t contravene federal law? Do you need witnesses for this thing? Are their satanic notaries? Leave it to the bureaucrats.

Mephisto catches up with X-Factor in the second issue, pleading his case to the mutant outcasts that he, himself, shares a lot in common with them as an outcast as well. It’s an interesting issue, if presented a little antiseptically, and then he repeats the hallucinogenic shaming-and-sinning gag from the FF’s issue with X-Factor; he makes Beast appear even Beastier, and banishes Angel to Marvel Fanfare. In the end, he trades Sue Storm’s soul for Marvel Girl’s, leading the Invisible Woman to complain that she’s being treated like a “Collector’s Item” and it is – at this moment – that you might begin to suspect, as a reader, that this book is a big satire about the changing face of the comic book company which employs Al Milgrom and how they perceive their own characters. Hold onto that thought.

As we catch up with the X-Men, Rogue – the team member who can steal the memories and powers of other with a single touch – is now walking around in patriot boots and loose sleeves, which is a pretty good formula for engineering “accidental” contact with someone else. It’s time to face facts: Rogue is engineering these accidents, clearly.

Mephisto trades Jean Grey for Rogue via something hilariously called a SOUL KISS via a single-page splash panel which looks like the worst makeout album cover of all time. The Soul Kiss nonsense doesn’t stop, though, as Mephisto forces Rogue to go around stealing everyone’s powers – and alarmingly their souls, too, which is not something we were told her powers could do. Rogue does this by contact, of course, which manifests itself as French kissing the male heroes and merely touching the female heroes. This is, of course, bullshit because if Claremont established anything with his X-Men, it’s that Sapphic underpinnings hold every female character together.

Eighteen great makeout hits! 

Mephisto uses Rogue’s soul-siphoning powers to snag his apparent ultimate goal, the soul of Thor, God of Thunder, primarily in a bid to unseat the ambitions of a rival underworld bigwig. The cap to the Thor scene involves Mephisto encasing the hero in “MYSTIC MYLAR” to preserve his soul for all eternity and THERE YOU GO, remember how I asked you to hold onto the idea that this was Editori-Al’s editori-alizing about the changing face of comics? Well, here you go.

Milgrom has always been a feisty so-and-so and, with a background working in creator-centric projects such as Marvel Fanfare, there’s a good chance that he found the comics landscape’s conversion to a collectors’ market and the increasing media interest in the creations of individuals who were simultaneously excluded from the benefits of that interest worth writing about. With Mephisto, the lord of all evil, playing the role of the buyer-seller, the deal-maker, and the hand holding the mylar bag. Is this whole book a metaphor for corporate ownership, for the diminution of characters for the sake of making them easier to market, a protest against the commoditization of idea? Hey, Al Milgrom is tricky, you guys, maybe it was.

Still, as a work of art, Mephisto Vs was badly overwritten, overlong, a little obvious as a tie-in product yet pretty ambitious despite having the most powerful scion of evil in the entire comic book universe fighting the version of the Avengers that had Tigra and Mockingbird on it. In a lot of ways, it’s like Contest of Champions except for garbage, or possibly just the weirdest nativity play ever.

He's been watching Dane Cook.

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