Wednesday, November 26, 2014


"...the whole room probably smells of B.O. and wet spandex."

Say, what do you think of when you recall the Eighties? Big hair? Skinny ties? Family Ties? Awakening to strange, new urges while watching Van Halen's “Hot for Teacher” music video? Well not me, no sir! I think of MARVEL SUPER-HERO CONTEST OF CHAMPIONS! No, just kidding, I think of the Van Halen's “Hot for Teacher” video. Just like you.

Contest of Champions was Marvel's premiere Big Event Super-Hero All-Invitational Clusterfuck-slash-Gangbang long before Secret Wars and the all of the other Big Events which have basically become the de facto publishing schedule for both big companies anyway. If you want a vision of the future, imagine never not having superheroes fighting each other forever.

 Released in the Summer of 1982, the series was actually originally intended as a Marvel Treasury Edition which, for the folks who missed that particular era of publishing, was an oversized tabloid edition comic, largely passe come the early 1980s. They stood about half-as-high as your average comic book reader of the day, and if you had a stapler and enough patience you could build a treehouse fort out of them.

The Contest of Champions Treasury Edition was meant to coincide with the 1980 Olympics, which – for those of you who’re also weak on your Cold War playground politics – was taking place in Moscow and was boycotted by the USA along with about five dozen other countries, although I’m not sure what the effect was on their treasury-sized comics. For Marvel, at the very least, it meant that, as a promotional project, the book had very little to go on, and at worst might’ve seemed to have been rubbing salt in the geopolitical wounds.

"Flamboyant Atomic Samurai?"
Did he write his own intro?
Instead, C-of-C was reimagined as a self-proclaimed innovation called a “Limited Series.” An editorial blurb in the back of the first issue celebrated Marvel’s apparent ingenuity at having developed, for the first time in history, a new type of comic series which only ran a “finite” number of issues. This is as opposed to those comics which are running an infinite number of issues. I wonder who they’ll get for art chores of Fantastic Four # 115,576,986,193,000,000,000 … it’s an anniversary issue after all!

Never mind that Marvel was actually picking up the scraps. Competitor DC Comics had already done the mini-series as early as 1979, when Contest of Champions was still earmarked for a format only slightly smaller than the side of a shed. For the record, DC had managed to shove World of Krypton, The Krypton Chronicles, The Phantom Zone, The Untold Legend of Batman and Secrets of the Legion of Super-Heroes out the door before C-of-C debuted, although I guess to be fair those were billed as “mini-series.” Worlds of difference

Contest of Champions comes to u courtesy of the Dudley Boys of early Eighties comic writing: Steven Grant, Bill Mantlo and cruiserweight underdog Mark Greunwald, whom I assume did all the heavy lifting on keeping the superheroes properly categorized. That’s a lot of cooks for one stew, but outside of comics’ premiere obsessive-compulsive collector of spandex oddities Roy Thomas, I can’t think of many writers I’d be happier to have in the saddle.

The premise of the book involved a high-stakes competition staged between cosmic entities The Grandmaster and Marvel’s skull-headed Death figure, using the superheroes of planet Earth in a worldwide game of Capture the Flag.

Appropriately for the original Olympic-theme of the book, when we join the heroes it’s to catch the Avengers in the middle of a regularly-scheduled workout. Wonder man lifts weights, Cap and Beast and performing acrobatics, and Iron Man and the Vision are jogging, for no reason at all because one of those guys is in a highly advanced suit of technological armor which does all of his work for him and the other guy is a tireless android. So. I dunno, enjoy your run, guys. Maybe they’re doing it to raise Breast Cancer Awareness.

Across the globe, other superheroes are teleported away from their meals, workouts and general downtime (which, hey, not unlike what happened to the DC heroes in their Strange Sports baseball game, recently mentioned, as a matter of fact), and deposited in the Grandmaster’s Cosmic Game Dome – renamed OfficeMax Arena back in ’08 – in such a way that it apparently really hurt The Falcon’s feelings.

Oh hey c'mon little Falcon guy, it'll be all right.

Before the action gets underway, we’re treated to several pages of characters walking around and introducing themselves to the readers by way of awkwardly wedging their names into every sentence. It goes a little something like this:

Captain America: “IRON MAN, what's happened?”

Iron Man: “I don't know, CAPTAIN AMERICA. THE VISION and I were going to ask MACHINE MAN if he knew!”

Vanguard: “DARKSTAR, URSA MAJOR and I, VANGUARD, of the SOVIET SUPER SOLIDERS would also like to know! Let's ask our friends IKARIS and FIREBIRD!”

Ant-Man: “Sure, NAMOR, SPIDER-WOMAN, HAWKEYE, DR.STRANGE and THE THING were just asking SASQUATCH, RED WOLF, THE TEXAS TWISTER, BROTHER VOODOO and the pre-natal POWER PACK if they had any ideas!”

Iron Man: “And what was their answer ANT-MAN? Or didn't even REED RICHARDS of the FANTASTIC FOUR know?”

Thundra: “I, Thundra, have mighty strength greater than any man's!”

All: (pause)

Thundra: “Uhh … oh, such as THOR, STINGRAY, or … shit, I dunno, THE PROWLER! That guy, in the cape, whoever he is! That's the Prowler, right? Sorry guys.”


Ultimately, Hulk neglects to go apeshit and kill anyone in the crowd, and the meet-and-greet settles down. Grandmaster and Darth Vader spill the rules, which are that each of them will pick twelve representatives from the gathered heroes of Earth who will compete against one another in contests to locate the four segments of some big damn magic space-globe. Four segments. So they’ll be playing for the best … three out of four, I guess, and in the case of a tie, it comes down to dodgeball.

Oh, would you two just
fuck already?
The Grandmaster’s team of Daredevil, Darkstar and an Australian aboriginal superhero named Talisman face off against “The Unknown”s team of Iron Fist, Sunfire and Invisible Woman.

If it’s a competition for whose internal dialogue doesn’t have a stop button, points go to Daredevil, who muses throughout the story that he's no longer in the space arena, Darkstar's a young woman, Sunfire's taking off, having people around confuses his radar sense, he's blind, he HAS radar sense, it's cold in the arctic, his dad was a boxer, the ice confuses his radar sense, the ice no longer confuses his radar sense, the water confuses his radar sense, SOMETHING confuses his radar sense, he has to concentrate, the prize is being lifted from his hands, and SHUT UP DAREDEVIL!

At least he gets the first segment, though. WINNER: GAMEMASTER

We’re in an unnamed Old West ghost town (possibly Scottsdale, if we mean “culturally”) where the Grandmaster’s team is She-Hulk, an armored hero named El Conquistador, and Captain Britain in his incredibly ugly, awesome original costume, while Hoody McSpooky’s team is Iron Man, the Arabian Knight and Israel’s number one superhero, Sabra.

Naturally, Sabra and the Knight get into a little snit here, because of the historical enmity between Israel and, uh, whatever Arabic nation the Knight is supposed to be from, given that everything about him is clearly Persian. Anyway.

This chapter’s a hotbed of political and social issues, with regional confrontations ruling the battle between Sabra, Britain and the Knight, with Sabra, She-Hulk and Iron Man musing on male chauvinism. For its eight-year old audience, this must have been a heady political scenario. Also, it's killing a couple panels before someone gets zapped by mind lasers POW POW BAWOOOM!!!

Despite being everyone’s least favorite partner, the Arabian Knight grabs the next segment and it’s WINNER: UNKNOWN (aka Death).

This image is disturbingly erotic.
Somewhere on an Asian steppe or something, the Grandmaster’s team of the Thing, Wolverine and French idiot Le Peregrine face off against the Unknown’s Vanguard, Black Panther and Angel. It goes to the team with Wolverine, I call it, there, let’s just watch wrestling instead.

The Grandmaster, the cosmic embodiment of gamesmanship, had all of Earth’s heroes at his disposal and he ended up choosing Peregrine, whose power is flight. I assume his opponent picking Angel is just taking the piss. If your only requirement for a player is “Flight,” then you literally have pretty much every superhero ever at your disposal, and they’ve all got additional powers beyond “Has Batroc the Leaper’s cellphone number of speed dial.”

Anyway, Ben Grimm wrecks a Chinese landmark so it’s WINNER: GRANDMASTER.

Lastly, Captain America, tastefully named German hero Blitzkrieg and Alpha Flight’s Sasquatch represent the Grandmaster in an Amazonian confrontation with the Unknown’s team of Storm, Shamrock and China’s The Collective Man. Collective Man, for you fans of state-controlled birth allowance facts, has a really amusing power for a Chinese national - he's actually five identical quintuplets who can merge into one being. My guess is, you're a set of Chinese quintuplets, you LEARN to merge into one solitary baby boy FAST.

Again, Grandmaster is a brilliant tactician but he sent the furry hero whose thick coat makes him suitable for arctic conditions to the Amazon rainforest. Anyway, there’s a cute scene where Blitzkrieg pretends not to recognize what South America looks like. OPA SENT PHOTOS, HERMANN.

Captain America manages to get outsmarted by Irish mutant Shamrock, so that’s definitely not getting written down in the diary. With that, the Unknown’s team grabs its second piece of the Cosmic Terry’s Chocolate Orange, and so it’s a tie game OR as the caption explains, “GRANDMASTER -3 UNKNOWN -1 “ fucking what hold on?

Apparently it’s important to let the Grandmaster win, despite the fact that the game should have ended in a tie, or possibly Hulk and the Thing had a farting contest for a tiebreaker, I dunno. The end result is that the Grandmaster wins, his brother is returned to life and sent off to be played by Benicio Del Toro, and then Death claims Grandmaster’s life in return. The heroes react to this by letting it happen, possibly because they were completely arguing about the scores.

"I am, 'ow do you say, 'a feeb''!"


Bram said...

Agh! Trigger warning!

12-year-old me, having just discovered comics can be bad, sputtering and wondering how one can find the person responsible and tell them THEIR MATH IS WRONG (possibly the first and only time I've ever been able to correct someone thusly).

And, OK, it's stupidly simple, but Le Peregrine's costume's far and away the best of the characters they introduced.

Calamity Jon said...

I remember being inordinately obsessed with the international heroes they introduced in this series (possibly because they lacked overexposure). Even the Arabian Knight, of all characters, captured my imagination to such a degree that I made a knockoff in my own badly-drawn grade school comics ... Can't remember his name, but I'm sure it was Rug Knight or something equally dumb.

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