Friday, March 7, 2014

1987 and all that 024: big kid

by Matt Derman

...reading comics from the year i was born!

Mephisto Vs. #1-4 (Marvel)
By Al Migrom, John Buscema, Bob Wiacek, George Roussos, and Rick Parker

'Mephisto Vs.'  is an odd duck. I completely understand the impulse to pit the Marvel Universe’s version of Satan against some of its premier super-teams. That makes perfect sense and sounds pretty cool, if perhaps overly simple. What I’m less clear on is why in this story Mephisto is characterized as a petulant child. Has he always behaved this way? I admit I’m not overly familiar with Mephisto, but I think of him as being very grim and stern and aloof. Though stranger, I far prefer the Mephisto of this series who, while he has an obnoxious temper, is also playful, chatty, and often hilarious. He’s a little kid, collecting and playing with toys, arguing with his parents, upset because his sister stole his things and messed up his room. That’s an amusing personality for an uber-powerful supervillain to have, because unlike most spoiled children, this one actually has the ability to get his way.

The plot of 'Mephisto Vs.' is either exceedingly straightforward or needlessly complex, depending on how you look at it. All Mephisto wants to do is get back at Hela, his Norse mythology counterpart, for breaking their jurisdictional agreement and stealing human souls from him. Hela is only supposed to get the souls of Norse gods, apparently, while evil humans go to Mephisto, and he’s pissed that she broke the rules. He also worries that if she gets her hands on too many human souls, she’ll have enough to challenge him, sending her souls against his in an attempt to take his realm from him for good. So he sets out to stop her, and to preemptively give himself the upper hand should that confrontation between them ever occur. That’s simple enough in theory, but the execution of Mephisto’s plan is tangled and hard to follow, especially because his true motive is not revealed until more than halfway through the story. Also, the real purpose of this series is just to have Mephisto fight a bunch of different heroes, so the plot that ties those fights together isn't necessarily the point, and therefore not all that carefully constructed. 

Mephisto begins by going after the Fantastic Four. He kidnaps them all and brings them to his kingdom, and then proceeds to torture them one-by-one until only Sue Richards is left intact. Then, as demons and devils are wont to do, he offers Sue a deal: her soul in exchange for the release of her family. Sue of course agrees, and stays behind as Mephisto’s prisoner while the rest of the FF return home. From that point on, Mephisto continues to trade one superhero soul for another, each time getting a slightly more valuable soul than before. So he gives up Sue Richards for Jean Grey, because mutant souls are better than human, apparently. He then lets Jean go, but only after acquiring the souls of several X-Men at once by just capturing Rogue (because Rogue had touched her teammates and absorbed their essences into herself in a desperate attempt to save them from Mephisto). Only Rogue is permanently trapped, however, since Mephisto loses control over the other X-Men’s souls once Rogue’s touch wears off and their personalities and powers return to them. Rogue is all Mephisto needs anyway, because what he really wants is to get his hands on Thor, what with Thor being a god and therefore having the purest, most powerful kind of soul. Mephisto forces Rogue to come in contact with an unconscious Thor, driving Thor’s soul from his body so Mephisto can trap it. But it turns out Thor’s soul is too stubborn and mighty to be kept down by even one as powerful as Mephisto, so in the end Thor breaks free and Mephisto is left with nothing.  

At each step in this better-and-better-souls scheme, Mephisto explains out loud and with some verbosity what he’s doing, how, and why. The problem is, none of what Mephisto says is necessarily true. As evil incarnate, he uses an awful lot of deceit to get what he’s after, so he’ll often lay out his reasons for doing something quite clearly one issue, only to backpedal the next and say that, no, he was lying before, and his real reasons for doing whatever he did were entirely different. Initially, he says he’s attacking the Fantastic Four to get back at little Franklin Richards for hurting him in a previous conflict. It’s not until 'Mephisto Vs.' #2 that the idea of gradually gathering souls of higher and higher quality is introduced, and even then Mephisto’s endgame is kept obscure. The final issue is when we finally learn that the whole affair is Mephisto trying to stick it to Hela for an earlier slight, which is why Thor is his actual target. According to the current rules, Thor’s soul would go to Hela after he died, so Mephisto claims he wants to steal it now, robbing Hela of a powerful addition to her own collection of souls and also better preparing himself to fight her should she make her move against him in the future. But then, at the very, very end of the series, there is yet another exposition twist, when Mephisto explains (to no one in particular) that even that wasn't his real plan. All he truly aimed to do was make Hela think he wanted Thor’s soul, so that she would insist on keeping it for herself, and then someday, if/when Thor actually dies, Hela will be the one who has to deal with trying to control his overpowered, rebellious spirit.

I hear your cries, But why would Mephisto need to trick Hela into keeping a soul that was already going to be hers eventually? And boy do I wish I had an answer to that question, but I don’t believe there are any to be found. By the time Mephisto divulged that final detail, he had already flip-flopped and re-explained himself so many times that trying to suss out what he actually accomplished (if he in fact accomplished anything) seemed like it would be exhausting and futile. Especially because I know full well that giving Mephisto a legitimate reason to encounter all these different super-people was not this comic’s primary concern. Also, his constant lying and mind-changing goes well with the rest of how he’s portrayed here, namely as a rotten brat of a kid who’s having the longest, silliest tantrum ever.

Mephisto is not literally depicted as a child, it should be noted at this point; he just acts like one. I mean, this whole narrative is basically Mephisto pitching a fit over Hela taking his toys without asking. At one point The Living Tribunal shows up to warn Mephisto about the dangers of the game he’s playing, and the dialogue is very much that of a parent scolding a kid. The Tribunal stays calm and direct, but has a hard time penetrating Mephisto’s fussy fury. Mephisto’s arguments, meanwhile, basically boil down to, “It’s not fair!” and, “Why aren’t you yelling at Hela?” two classic childhood tactics that get the same lack of results here as they typically do in the real world. He sees the souls he takes as his playthings, literally referring to them as “pawns,” and delights in his control over them. It’s the selfish joy of a kid with his favorite toys. Even when battling the heroes directly, ostensibly bringing himself to their level, he plays the role of schoolyard bully, pushing around and teasing the weaker kids just because he can. This immaturity is a somewhat ill-fitting contrast to Mephisto’s power level and the intricacy of his plan, but it adds levity to the series that I think it needs. It also gives the reader one constant truth to hang onto in the sea of Mephisto’s lies. No matter what he says he’s doing or how he tries to paint himself, Mephisto can be counted on to act childishly.

Here I am carrying on about the plot and Mephisto’s personality, when at the end of the day none of that is really why anyone would have any interest in this comic. Like Mephisto himself, I’m dancing around the truth, which is that the best reason—maybe the only good reason—to read 'Mephisto Vs.' is to see John Buscema draw so much of the Marvel U all in one book. Also, Buscema helped create Mephisto, and draws him incredibly well, really selling him as a viable star of a series, even if it is just four issues long. Buscema gets to do whole issues worth of the Fantastic Four, X-Factor (back when they were the original X-Men pretending to be mutant hunters), the X-Men, and both the East and West Cost Avengers teams. There’s also The Living Tribunal, Hela, a whole bunch of crazy and/or goofy demons, and one great flashback panel of the Silver Surfer, and everybody looks amazing. Buscema is such a professional talent; he’s equally comfortable with the lineups of all these teams and more. His settings are varied and detailed, most impressively Mephisto’s kingdom, which is richly textured despite being desolate. His strongest work comes when Mephisto is tormenting the heroes. There’s a standout moment in every issue: the full-page splash of Mephisto kissing Rogue, the horrified puddle face of a melted Iceman, Mephisto’s crazy extended arm grasping Wonder Man’s throat, and best of all, Mephisto peeling the rocky skin off of The Thing to expose a paper-thin soul underneath. Buscema is inventive in his combat choreography, never having Mephisto use the exact same trick twice, because his powers are so many and so mighty that he has no need to repeat himself. If nothing else, it keeps the comic from growing stale, and that plus the ever-changing cast makes each issue visually distinct from the others, so all four are worth it if you’re into the art. Come for the Buscema, stay for the Buscema.

'Mephisto Vs.' is not a bad comic book, or at least not as bad as it very well could’ve been considering it's openly gimmicky nature. The conflict of Mephisto being the most powerful but least grown-up character is highly amusing, Buscema makes everything look nice and classic, and though the plot is wonky, there’s no pretense that it was at all the top priority. Four issues is the perfect length for this sort of thing, although I do wonder how much it would have suffered if the X-Factor chapter had been removed completely. It’s the least connected issue, and it features the least established team, though the cast are the founding X-Men so I guess that’s debatable. In any case, four issues feels right, enough space to display the full range of Mephisto’s powers but not so much that it runs out of steam. I wouldn't call this a good comic book either, but it’s fine and it’s fun and it’s not trying to be anything more than that. It’s a curiosity, and even without offering much of substance, it manages to be well worth a look.

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