Friday, March 01, 2019

Memory québécois

I was going to add last night that I could put on a red wig and play Dot Cotton, since they've been very awkwardly filming scenes without June Brown in which Dot is just off-screen for the last couple of weeks of episodes. It's the part I was born to play.

But on the subject of my bad memory, everybody should know about the Quebec Memory Championships coming up on March 23! It's an innovative and really well-designed memory competition that should really be emulated all around the world. And you don't actually have to go to Laval University to compete, because you can take part, just for fun, as an 'honorary competitor', in the sense that they'll send people the memorisation papers and let you do it yourself. So I'm certainly going to do that, and I just thought I should publicly announce my approval of the whole thing here for the world to see.

Although most people will have stopped reading when I implied that I want to be Dot Cotton, but never mind.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Dreams of stardom

 I started watching EastEnders again for the first time in many years, when I heard Dr Legg was coming back. I still don't know what half of the characters in it are called, but it's fun to keep in touch with everyone on Albert Square. It even inspired my subconscious mind last night and gave me a dream that I was sitting in the café when Dr Legg (or possibly Leonard Fenton) came over and said he'd had an idea for a new scene with the two of us, which they could add into the episodes before he died, so we had a conversation which I think involved baking pies.

I've always sort of wanted to be on EastEnders, or even better, Coronation Street, as long as it was in some kind of role that required an absolute minimum of acting but basically just involved me sitting in the background of important scenes. And getting my picture in those soap opera magazines a lot, obviously. I'm available, casting people. Send me an email.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

And now we know what happened to our old friend the Over-Mind!

To tell the story of the Over-Mind, the character who appeared in Defenders comics for a short while in the early eighties and then just disappeared without trace, you actually have to chronicle the appearances of his/their component parts over the prior decade or so of comics.

The Over-Mind first appears in Fantastic Four #113-116, over the summer of 1971. Written by Stan Lee, with assistance from Roy Thomas and Archie Goodwin, and drawn by John Buscema, very much in the style of Jack Kirby, the Over-Mind is a giant (looking about eight or nine feet tall, though it's never entirely consistent from one panel to the next) bearded man with fancy armour and helmet (with long red hair underneath) and staggering mental powers. He started life as Grom, the mightiest of a warlike alien race called the Eternals (no relation to the Eternals created by Kirby in 1976, who went on to be more important to the Marvel universe), who eventually picked on a much more powerful (and gigantic) civilisation called Gigantus and were obliterated. The Eternals' last act was to transmit the brain-power of the last billion survivors of their race into Grom's body, and send him out to crush the entire universe.
He causes trouble for the Fantastic Four over the course of four months of their comic, before the rather anticlimactic ending when The Stranger (another giant alien of staggering power who'd been popping up as a deus ex machina in Stan Lee's comics here and there since 1965) comes along, says that he's the combined form of the people of Gigantus, and uses his vast power to shrink the Over-Mind down to microscopic size, giving him his own empty universe to crush, trapped forever within a single mote of dust.

Meanwhile, the superhero Nighthawk (real name Kyle Richmond) had first appeared in two issues of Avengers in 1969, in which the Avengers (Marvel's mightiest heroes) face the Squadron Sinister (a team of villains inspired by DC's mightiest heroes). Nighthawk is the Batman analogue. He reappears in a Daredevil story in 1970, trying to discredit Daredevil and take his place as a hero - it was probably unintentional on the part of Roy Thomas, who wrote these stories, but they do set Nighthawk up nicely as a spoilt rich kid who desperately wants attention and could do a lot of good if somebody would just point him in the right direction. That's how it worked when he was added to the cast of Defenders in late 1973, turning against the Squadron Sinister when they go a bit too far down the evil insanity path, and ending up the everyman hero who was the heart of the Defenders team from that point onwards.

A year later, Steve Gerber took over as writer of Defenders, and that's when it became a truly great comic. In #32, which came out in late 1975, he chronicled Nighthawk's origins for the first time in the course of a storyline in which he has his brain surgically removed and someone else's put in his body (the story also involves the more conventional mind-swaps by means of Dr Strange's magic powers too!) - the origin mentions in passing his college girlfriend Mindy, who he ended up killing in a car crash.

(he didn't actually wear his superhero costume all his life; these scenes are symbolic rather than literal)

That's our prologue to the story of the Over-Mind. Now we can skip ahead five years, and enter into the works of J.M. DeMatteis.

Just before taking over as the permanent writer of Defenders, DeMatteis wrote Marvel Team-Up #101, in which Spider-Man teams up with Nighthawk. Kyle Richmond is giving a press conference about the ongoing government investigation into his financial dealings (an unresolved plotline which DeMatteis inherited with the Defenders comic and doesn't seem to have had any particular idea what to do with) when he's attacked by a robot double of Mindy, screaming "Why did you murder me?" Peter Parker happens to be there in his capacity as a press photographer (a much better justification for Spidey's presence than most team-up comics managed!), and the two heroes join forces to investigate the robot's invitation to a 'class reunion' at Grayburn University.

Interestingly, Nighthawk's college days are specifically dated to 'twelve years ago', and the year 1968. Spider-Man seems to imply that he wasn't at college during that time, but of course by this point Spidey had been appearing in comics for nearly twenty years, and writers were already having to be very vague about exactly how old he was. The whole college is populated by robot hippies, protesters and riot police, enacting an exaggerated representation of the sixties, and attacking the superheroes. Nostalgia for the sixties, as I mentioned last time, is a feature of J.M. DeMatteis's works - he was thirteen years old during the Summer of Love, and I always get the impression that he resents being just too young to have had the full sixties experience.

Anyway, the villain behind the whole thing turns out to be... Mindy, not dead after all!

She's worked up an insane hatred of Kyle over the past twelve years, and used his father's money to orchestrate this revenge. But she can't finally go through with killing him when Spidey forces her to accept that she did love Kyle once. She gives herself up, and Kyle calls 'an exclusive sanitarium in New England' to take care of her.

Another year goes by, during which DeMatteis writes the epic 'demon drama' in Defenders which I raved about in my last blog on the subject. At the start of it, Nighthawk is sidelined by some kind of magic spell that leaves him paralysed during daylight hours. And with one thing and another, it takes him until Defenders #102 to get out to New England to see how Mindy's getting along. There, it transpires that the sanitarium is run by a man called August Masters, posing as a doctor but really working for a shadowy government agency called the Central Information Bureau, and they've gathered together people with psychic powers to use for their own nefarious purposes. Mindy, as it turns out, has particularly great psi-potential, and is the central focus of their experiments. There appear to be four other psychic patients/prisoners involved, although they're never drawn particularly clearly, and they're all hooked up to machinery channelling their mental energy. It is revealed (confirmed by Clea, Dr Strange's consort who's one of the Defenders) that it was Mindy's mental energies that caused Nighthawk's paralysis. And then Masters turns her on him to get rid of him once and for all...

But when Mindy hears Kyle screaming, she calls off the attack and turns it on Masters and his machinery. The place is ruined, but her mental state is worse than ever, and she's left catatonic. Masters cheerfully shrugs off the damage and tries to persuade Nighthawk to keep quiet about the whole thing in return for the CIB getting those government investigations and charges against Kyle Richmond dropped. Kyle angrily refuses and contacts the authorities and press, only to find that Masters gets away with his psychics and staff, and the whole thing gets hushed up anyway.

At the same time, J.M. DeMatteis was writing Captain America, and the very same month that this Defenders comic came out, a story with a similar theme appeared in Captain America #264. Captain America finds himself in a world that keeps changing in strange ways, from a perfect utopia into nightmare scenarios. It turns out to be all the work of one Morgan MacNeil Hardy (the bad guy behind the events of Spider-Woman #33 a year earlier, also written by DeMatteis), who wants to restore America to the beautiful and decent place he believes it to have been when he was a boy, back at the turn of the century. To that end, he's found four people with psychic powers and is using them to reshape reality itself.

The problem is, the psychics' own ideas as to what would make a perfect world are interfering with Hardy's - and since one of them is a racist who thinks black people need to be put in their place, another is an elderly German who thinks things would have been better all round if they'd won the war, and another is a young boy who's understandably become very down on adults generally and thinks it would be better if grown-ups didn't exist, the result is chaos. The most level-headed of the psychics, a woman called Ursula who worships Captain America, is able to point Cap in the right direction through all the madness to the centre, where he's able to confront Hardy about the folly of imposing your own view of what's right on others, and put an end to the whole thing. It's a really great story, this one!

At the time, there's no suggestion that the two stories are connected - quite probably, they just started life as DeMatteis writing two different stories around a favourite theme of his, and they happened to both be published simultaneously. The next month in Defenders, Kyle Richmond finally comes to the end of his government investigation and is let off with a warning not to be so careless with his taxes in future. August Masters appears in the corridor outside the courtroom and smirkingly takes the credit for Kyle's reprieve. But the rest of the comic is taken up with other members of the 'non-team' that was the Defenders - it was normal for characters to drift in and out of the main storyline and for people like Nighthawk to show up in one-page interludes keeping the subplots bubbling along.

The next month is more of the same - Kyle gets two pages to celebrate his freedom with those Defenders who aren't involved with that issue's central story, only for them to be kidnapped by CIB agents. Daredevil, who happens to be there in his civilian identity, identifies that they're lying about being government employees, but they get away with all the heroes nonetheless.

And the month after that, we don't see them at all, as the many other Defenders deal with their own problems (a lot more demons!). But the final panel tells us to check out Captain America #268 before returning for Defenders #106...

Captain America has had three unrelated adventures since dealing with Hardy and his psychics, but in this issue he gets a psychic summons from Ursula, realises that the two surviving telepaths from that story have been kidnapped shortly after returning to their own lives, and heads to Colorado to try to find what's happened to them. The two are named here as Ursula Richards and Philip Le Guin, from which we can probably deduce that J.M. DeMatteis is a fan of Ursula K Le Guin and Philip K Dick - or possibly it's just the letter K that makes them special? Anyway, Kyle Richmond, along with Hellcat, Gargoyle and Valkyrie, find themselves prisoners of August Masters. He cheerfully admits that the CIB never existed (in fact, it's referred to as the CID throughout this comic, which gets a giggle from British readers at least), and he's part of an organisation of people with former government connections who are keen to engineer world war three, wipe out the Soviet Union forever and thus make the world a better place. Hardy, he says, was part of their group, but went rogue with his own reality-reshaping plans. They all report to 'the Professor', who doesn't appear in any of these stories but eventually shows up in some other DeMatteis comics further down the line.

They have Mindy, as well as Ursula and Philip and an unspecified number of other psychics in the background, and an army of soldiers who for no fathomable reason are dressed as ancient Roman centurions. There doesn't seem to be any sense behind these costumes, there's not a line of dialogue offering any explanation for them, and I can only assume it was some kind of miscommunication between writer and artist that they just decided to shrug off and ignore. But Ursula and Philip manage to wake up the Defenders, they join forces with Captain America and free the psychics - but then Masters threatens to blow the whole place up, and the heroes surrender. Mindy, picking up on Nighthawk's mental suggestion, sends a psychic message to Dr Strange, and so it leads in to the next issue of the Defenders comic.

In Defenders #106, Dr Strange gets his brain zapped by Mindy's message, and calls in some help from his regular collaborator in mysteries like this the Son of Satan, who's in love with Hellcat amongst his many other problems, and the Beast, who... well, there's no reason at all why Doc should call the Beast, but it had just been decided that he was going to be added to the cast of Defenders, so there he is. They're joined by Daredevil, who's realised that someone has wiped his memory of what happened when he went to Kyle Richmond's party and come to Doc for help, and the four of them set off to Colorado to rescue their friends. Masters is continuing with his plan, and this is the best look we ever get at the other telepaths involved in it - there are three of them, apparently two men and one woman.

And those six telepaths eventually come together, get inside the mind of Kyle Richmond, and thwart the entire scheme. The whole base is blown to smithereens (fans of Kurt Busiek's Thunderbolts comic in the late nineties, like me, have to pretend that it was only one little tiny bit of the base, which is a stretch, but that's a different story) and that's the apparent end of Nighthawk, Masters, Mindy, Ursula, Philip and the other three.

The Defenders then get caught up in further adventures - during the course of them, the Hulk, Son of Satan and Sub-Mariner are swept off into another dimension in #109, where someone off-panel says hello to them, much to their surprise. Dr Strange sets off in search of his missing teammates, and when he finds them, they're with none other than... Nighthawk! In an interlude in #110, we go to Washington DC, where the scattered crowd are afraid of the president... Kyle Richmond! In a one-page interlude in #111, Nighthawk tells his friends that explanations will have to wait, and shows them the unconscious form of Squadron Sinister leader Hyperion! And then in the final half-page of the issue, we see President Kyle Richmond again, in conversation with... the Over-Mind!!

As the final line promises us, this has all been the prologue to the big spectacular comic storyline of 1982. And although we seem to have reached the point where J.M. DeMatteis is under editorial orders to stop doing things like making Patsy Walker into the daughter of Satan and devoting a whole wonderful issue to the mental struggles of Devil-Slayer, he still takes a concept like 'dozens of superheroes having a big fight' and interweaves it with the most convoluted plot you could ever hope to encounter.

As an aside, you can see why people in the early eighties thought comic continuity was getting too complicated. This storyline has a fair few asterisked footnotes explaining that it happens after that year's Avengers Annual, which hadn't been published yet, but before the dramatic changes to the Hulk that had happened in his own comic recently (written by Bill Mantlo without any real communication between him and DeMatteis), and presumably before the 'four months later' epilogue of Defenders #110 involving Dr Strange, so we all know he has to come through this summer spectacular unscathed. Not that there was any doubt about that, either, since he was also appearing in his own comic, written by Roger Stern without any real communication between him and DeMatteis.

But luckily, we don't have to worry about any of that kind of thing, because from this point on we're focusing on the Over-Mind, which limits us entirely to the Defenders comic! Here's the reader's digest version of the story that spans issues #112-114. After the events of that Avengers Annual, the Beast has invited various Defenders to a party to celebrate his moving into the New York brownstone Kyle Richmond had bought a while ago for homeless Defenders (currently inhabited by Valkyrie, Hellcat and Gargoyle). Hellcat misses this whole summer spectacular because she hasn't yet come home from her adventures in #111, but in attendance are the Beast, Valkyrie, Gargoyle, Silver Surfer, Vision and Scarlet Witch, plus Beast's girlfriend Vera and Hellcat's housekeeper-and-mother-figure Dolly. When they unite in concern for the missing Dr Strange, he's able to reach across dimensions and bring them (except Vera and Dolly) to help him, the Hulk, Sub-Mariner and Son of Satan with Nighthawk and his situation. So that's a lineup of eleven Defenders.

They are, as it turns out, on the alternate Earth that is home to the Squadron Supreme, an alternate, benevolent, version of the Squadron Sinister who had met the Avengers a couple of times before. There are twelve of them, including Hyperion and their own version of Kyle Richmond / Nighthawk. The Nighthawk of our world found himself there after his apparent death, and doesn't know why, but the world is in a bad state. The alternate Kyle Richmond had become the President of the USA since we last saw him, and at first all was great, but then the Over-Mind arrived, and became President Kyle's ever-present sidekick. It soon became clear that they were taking over minds, killing opponents and eventually taking over the world. The entire Squadron Supreme except Hyperion are now under the Over-Mind's control, and the surviving people of the world are living under terrified subjection to Kyle Richmond and the USA. So it's going to be the eleven or twelve Defenders fighting the eleven or twelve Squadron Supremes and eventually teaming up to defeat the big baddie, the Over-Mind - an epic but standard kind of summer spectacular superhero story.

At least, that's the situation the Defenders think they've found themselves in. But there are other complications. August Masters has found himself on this world too, and is being driven insane by the mad distortion of his American dream. There's a cloud of energy floating around Earth which shapes itself into the form of Mindy. And it's President Richmond who does all the talking - the Over-Mind just lurks behind him and quotes his catchphrase "From beyond the stars shall come the Over-Mind, and he shall crush the universe!" over and over again.

To cut the long, complex and brilliant story as short as it's possible to cut it, the real villain is Null, the Living Darkness, another combined-evil-of-an-extinct-alien-race being who the Defenders had fought before. He found the Over-Mind in his mote of dust and brought him back to Earth, ending up on the alternate Earth just by mistake but not caring - he just wants to destroy the universe, it doesn't really matter which one. He's sucking the mental powers of the Over-Mind, whose own mind has been shut down by his own traumas, to fuel his universe-destroying powers.

The President Kyle Richmond who's been appearing in this story is in fact just a construct created by Null to incubate in. The Nighthawk Kyle Richmond who's been talking to the Defenders is (although he doesn't know it himself), actually President Kyle. The six telepaths, mainly under the control of dominant mind Mindy, flung their minds across the dimensions to the alternate universe when the base exploded. They tried to save Kyle, but by mistake saved August Masters instead. Mindy, horrified, imprinted President Kyle with her idea of Nighthawk Kyle's mind and memories and had him try to save the world. With me? I don't blame you if you're not. It's three whole issues of this kind of thing:
Brilliant, believe me, but you really have to read it. It ends with the knowledge that poor Kyle Richmond of our universe is dead, as he has been all along. And the six telepaths have ended up in the vacant gigantic body of the Over-Mind. They (long before specifying your pronouns came into fashion, this version of the Over-Mind was a 'they') return to our Earth with the Defenders in #115, but most of that issue is taken up with a tribute to Dr Seuss, of all people, featuring only the Valkyrie, Sub-Mariner, Gargoyle and Beast.

And so we have a new character in the ranks of the Defenders - generally referred to as the Over-Mind, but actually the combined personalities of the six psychics. #116 establishes that they have moved in with Dr Strange temporarily (a slightly weird decision - you would have thought the Defenders' brownstone would be a better location, considering that there's no mention of the Over-Mind in Dr Strange's own comic and you'd think having a nine-foot giant telepath who's actually six people around the place would be something you'd have to mention). Dr Strange is gloomy because Clea has recently left him, so the Over-Mind take it upon themselves to show him the various relationships of the Defenders as they go about returning to their lives. The two of them just telepathically watch as five couples (Vision and Scarlet Witch, Beast and Vera, Hellcat and Son of Satan, Valkyrie and Sub-Mariner, Gargoyle and Dolly) either get on well or not. Dr Strange is left reassured at the end that love can be a good thing.

Defenders #117 is the one that fully defines the new Over-Mind and establishes them as a new central character of the Defenders comic. Some of the team gather together to pay a final tribute to Nighthawk again, and the Over-Mind changes into the form of Mindy to say goodbye to him one last time. She explains that the new merged mind of the Over-Mind has brought her more clarity and balance, but they now realise that they must make peace with their six pasts before they can move on. They turn into Philip and try to return to his friends and parents, who have all been told Philip is dead and are terrified when he returns to them, acting scarily different. He/they tearfully depart, knowing they can never return. Then Ursula, at first saying she doesn't have any real past or connections to lay to rest, gets into a cathartic rage against the slums where she grew up, and gets it out of her system. And we're told that the other three telepaths go through the same kind of experience, but it's not shown on the page, and they remain the nameless ciphers they've been all along. We do at least get to see their faces again in the conclusion to the story:

The next issue of Defenders is all about the Son of Satan. The one after that is a fill-in story written by Steven Grant, set some time in the Gerber era with a brief framing sequence. The next time we see the Over-Mind is #120, in a couple of pages of interlude when they help the Defenders (Beast, Valkyrie, Hellcat and Gargoyle) locate the Son of Satan and set out to help him against the Miracle Man. In #121, the Over-Mind is among the other Defenders who deal with the Miracle Man in another story about magically trying to make the world a better place but finding it's not so easy. The Over-Mind doesn't contribute very much to the story, but is an integral part of the team. The letters page prints a letter responding to #117 by strongly objecting to the Over-Mind being added to the comic. It also announces (following on from an article in Marvel Universe magazine) that #126 will debut an all-new look for the team.

Defenders #122 starts the storyline building up to that. The Beast starts thinking he wants the Defenders to be a more conventional superhero team. His friend Iceman comes to visit. Hellcat and the Son of Satan leave to get married. Valkyrie also departs, but only temporarily. The Over-Mind and Gargoyle are still there, and the comic ends with them all going to dinner together and sharing a toast to friendship.

… And that's the last we ever see of the Over-Mind.

Nor, indeed, does anyone mention them again.

The Defenders are re-formed into the New Defenders (a couple of decades before Marvel decided it was a good idea to put 'New' in front of the titles of all their comics!) and, importantly, Carl Potts takes over as editor and the style of the comic changes quite drastically. J.M. DeMatteis remains as writer until #131, but it's obvious he isn't being allowed to write his own brand of stories any more. The Over-Mind isn't mentioned in any of the various editorials about the new-look comic - one letter printed in #126, about the story in #122, says among other things that they are a boring character and 'will have to go'. They were, as it turns out, already gone and forgotten by that point. The editor's reply to that letter doesn't say anything about the Over-Mind at all.

It's really striking that the character, so recently introduced but the culmination of a whole lot of past plotlines, is so completely and totally dumped all of a sudden. There obviously wasn't a place for them in the kind of Defenders story that Marvel wanted to produce, just like there wasn't a place for the amazingly weird kind of stuff that J.M. DeMatteis liked to write. But it's baffling that it wasn't considered necessary to write them out of the series, just to stop writing about them!

Someone remembered the Over-Mind, at least - Mark Gruenwald, the Marvel continuity expert who'd contributed some ideas to the Squadron Supreme story, gave them an entry in the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe in 1985, ending the biography with "He then mysteriously disappeared from their ranks, using his mental powers to blank out their memories of his presence among them. His current whereabouts and activities are unknown."

That was probably what prompted the new writer Peter Gillis to drop a passing reference into the dialogue, but not the pictures, of the giant-sized Defenders #150 later that year. The Defenders don't mention the Over-Mind again after the Gargoyle's chirpy comment here.

A few people have used the Over-Mind in more recent years, but not with the personality of the six combined telepaths. They're a character you could do no end of fascinating things with, and I really hope some day we get some more stories like those epic DeMatteis Defenders sagas...