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‘M.O.D.O.K.: Head Trips’ review

Homework for Hulu’s ‘Offenders’ series.

Marvel truly has become a globally dominant brand. The not-so-assured success of the first Iron Man film led to vehicles for comics mainstays Captain America, Thor, and more. Once it seemed Marvel Studios couldn’t miss, they even started cranking out media for little known, edge characters, like the Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s gotten to the point now that, despite the dissolution of Marvel’s television branch, we’ll even be getting an animated series based around M.O.D.O.K., the giant-headed, tiny-armed super-scientist villain lately used more as a comedic foil than anything else.

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And to prepare for that, Marvel publishing has released a 456-page volume of his most impactful appearances! What a time to be alive! Although, as a huge M.O.D.O.K. fan (maybe more conceptually than anything else), it’s hard not to be a little disappointed with Head Trips (points for the title, at least).

The book kicks off with material from Tales of Suspense #93 and #94, the very first M.O.D.O.K. story, by Stan “The Man” Lee and Jack “King” Kirby themselves. Yes, there are some cool elements here, in how the identity of Advanced Idea Mechanics’ new leader is teased, and how the peons IMMEDIATELY want to mutiny. And of course, Kirby’s visuals are something to behold.

But “If This Be… M.O.D.O.K.!” also illuminates some of the flaws in the duo’s famous Marvel Method, or maybe just some of Stan’s stubbornness. It’s hard not to think at some points Lee wasn’t following what Kirby was laying down artistically, deliberately so or otherwise. Consider two panels in which it’s pretty clear an A.I.M. agent is simply getting the drop on Captain America, but Stan has some other ideas.

It doesn’t get much better in 1970’s Captain America #133, “Madness in the Slums!” It’s here that M.O.D.O.K.’s full origin is revealed, with Gene Colan on pencils this time, though it seems likely the Marvel Method was still in effect. The big brain with a mind laser that can do anything has decided to create a robotic golem to terrorize New York City neighborhoods. In so doing, the black residents of the destroyed buildings actually … cheer it on?

As written by Lee, they think the golem is trashing everything so they can move into better apartments. The art doesn’t really drive that home, though, and visually they could have just as easily been afraid for their lives — the much simpler explanation. You get to see that Lee really did want to push social issues, and good on him for that, but shoehorning them into art that was laid out for other purposes does no one any favors.

Then there’s a slug of Bill Mantlo work, beginning with the rather random Iron Man annual #4. M.O.D.O.K. doesn’t really do anything special here, but the issue does feature the Champions. The dialogue shows once again how far comics have come, as each character (even Ghost Rider) pretty much just sounds the same, if you forget about Hercules’ “thous.” George Tuska’s art follows the house style, and is an adequate facsimile of Colan’s.

Mantlo’s next installment is Incredible Hulk #287-290, the Ms. M.O.D.O.K. story (what, no M.O.D.A.M.?!). Banner has merged with the Hulk (for the FIRST time) and the combined being is hard at research again, with his trusty recordashphere. Because, apparently, Banner needs an advanced AI floating around his head at all times, logging what he does? Being both cautious and shady, S.H.I.E.L.D. sends agent Kate Waynesboro undercover as an assistant to keep tabs on the notoriously volatile subject.

There is a neat subplot in which, after being savagely beaten by him, the Abomination is terrified of the Hulk. Regardless, a never-more-vicious M.O.D.O.K. trains him with verbal and physical abuse so he can take on the jade giant once again, as part of M.O.D.O.K.’s deal with General Ross. No joking here, it’s genuinely unnerving seeing the often comical character’s cruelty.

I guess we hadn’t come as far as I’d thought by the early ’80s, because of course Bruce and Kate fall in love within the span of about two issues, and the whole “saga” wraps up in three. It makes you wonder if all the people who complain about modern “decompression” have actually read any old stuff. Sure, you’re getting a whole story quicker here, but it moves along so rapidly that you never get the chance to feel and take in any individual moment — a fact made worse since writers still didn’t trust their artists, so half the dialogue is basically stage directions to begin with. It’s even stranger in that Sal Buscema and Chic Stone do a fine a job as anyone depicting things visually, so why the verbal crutch?

After all this, we finally get to the best M.O.D.O.K. story ever told, a 2007 riff on the whole “heist” genre, years before Rick and Morty was even a thought. Fred Van Lente is the perfect person for “Super Villain Team-Up:  M.O.D.O.K.’s 11,” tweaking the creature’s origin a bit (for the better), though M.O.D.O.K. still isn’t the main character in his own story. Yes, it does begin and end with his own goals and machinations, but the story is really told through the motley group he’s assembled to steal from his ex-girlfriend.

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Armadillo, Rocket Racer, Mentallo, Puma, Nightshade, Living Laser, Chameleon, and yes, the Spot will have to … you know what, I’m not going to spoil it. Suffice it to say the story has all the twists, turns, and betrayals that you’d expect, while still being surprisingly character-driven. Francis Portela’s art makes you wonder why he never became a bigger star, admirably rendering the imaginative settings, and helping to tell the story through facial expressions, while Guru-eFX make the whole thing pop with their bright yet measured colors.

Then there’s 2010 one-shot “Fantastic Four in:  ¡Ataque Del M.O.D.O.K.!” which, you guessed it, isn’t really about M.O.D.O.K. It’s more of writer Tom Beland’s origin story for the new hero, El Vejigante, who defends his native Puerto Rico from the evil genius and his legion of (can’t make this up) monkey henchmen. The character is a nice addition, even if the story itself if a little thin, and Juan Doe fans should rejoice as he does beautiful, stylized work on both the pencils and colors.

As if this collection weren’t weird enough, there’s also a Marvel Adventures:  The Avengers (read:  “all ages”) issue, #9, written by Jeff Parker, in which the Avengers are all turned into M.O.D.O.K.s. Yep, also not really about M.O.D.O.K., and pretty creepy to see the heroes become mutated and villainous. Juan Santacruz does a fine job of making the strange thing look kid-appropriate, although the colors of Impacto Studios’ Adriano Lucas are a little drab.

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Head Trips concludes with — can you believe it?! — a story ACTUALLY about M.O.D.O.K.! Sadly, it’s not very good. Chris Yost spins a five-issue tale from Secrets Wars’ Battleworld, “M.O.D.O.K.:  Assassin,” in which our macrocephalic hero … sigh … falls in love with Thor’s sister, Angela. Thankfully, though, it’s portrayed as the weird thing it is, and Angela doesn’t really reciprocate. Amilcar Pinna’s art is appropriately goofy, but serious when it needs to be, and Rachelle Rosenberg’s colors, as usual, set each scene in just the environment they should.

M.O.D.O.K.:  Head Trips is a hodgepodge of stories from different eras that, probably unintentionally, shows just how much comics have changed over time, for better or worse. And how M.O.D.O.K. is mostly known as the guy A.I.M. is always trying to overthrow. To say it’s uneven only barely scratches the surface. If you really need the character’s “key appearances” for some reason, then you might want to pick this up. But if you just want to read some great M.O.D.O.K., go get the M.O.D.O.K.’s 11 paperback and be done with it.

M.O.D.O.K.: Head Trips
Is it good?
It's as strange as the character it focuses on. Silver Age issues that poke holes in the mystique of the old, an off-beat all ages issue, and two mini-series of varying quality. "Key" appearances included, but other than "M.O.D.O.K.'s 11," this may change your mind about watching the animated series.
"M.O.D.O.K.'s 11" is the story all M.O.D.O.K. stories should be patterned after.
A window into the Silver Age, with some of the character's key moments
Cool origin of El Vejigante
May ruin your illusions that Stan and Jack were infallible
What the hell is up with this Hulk story?
Secret Wars series is as disposable as it all was
Surprising how many M.O.D.O.K. stories barely mention M.O.D.O.K.
6.5
Good

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