Andy’s Read Pile: The Mephisto Versus Series

cropped-img_4788.jpgHowdy gang! It’s your old buddy, GhostAndy, back to serve up a second helping of his Read pile for all you hunger fans out there. As you may have guessed, this entry is another in the month long theme of “Versus” books. In fact, this entry was teased in earlier this week during my “Xmen vs. Avengers” review as another one of the many types of these books that were written in 1987 at Marvel Comics. And now that I’ve read it, I’m glad this one is my final entry in this theme especially as we head into the spooky month of October. To say that this Verses book was somewhat unsettling at times, and filled with horror type aspects would be an understatement. But what to do expect from a series which in essence pits the greatest teams of the Marvel universe vs. the Devil himself.

Of course, Marvel has never officially said that their character of Mephisto is actually the Devil from a theological sense. In fact, they make it very clear that he is simply an inter-dimensional being of immense power similar to Dormammu, except infinitely more cunning.

However, as anyone who has read a story that Mephisto is in whether it’s the Christ like allegory of the original Silver Surfer #3, or his battle against Dr. Strange and Dr. Doom for Doom’s mother in Triumphant and Torment, or his deal with Peter Parker and Mary Jane in the horrible “One More Day”, there is no doubt that he functions for all intents and purposes as the Devil in the Marvel Universe, and is used by various writers in that same capacity in terms of storytelling. As mentioned above, writer Al Milgrom, who is the architect for all four of these books, is no exception to that rule.

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The story begins like all Marvel stories should with the Fantastic Four, given they are the well spring from which all Marvel goodness flows. After finding a mysterious newly created bottomless shaft in the Baxter Building and Franklin Richards receiving ominous dream warnings about a “bad man” coming to get the team, Marvel’s first family are systematically picked off one by one with their worst fears coming to life to consume them. This is actually one of the more frightening parts of the book, especially the scenes where She Hulk casts a young and terrified Franklin Richards into the pits of hell for a lack of a better term. As a Dad of young children, I was pretty unsettled by some of those panels for sure, but it does succeed in relaying the immense threat the team has to face.

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In any case, Mephisto makes short work of both the Thing and Torch after they threaten retaliation which leads to Reed trying to take control of the situation. He almost succeeds challenging the devil to fight one on one against his massive intellect. But this the devil we are dealing with so he turns the tables on Reed claiming the only reason he has such that massive brainpower is because he made a deal with Mephisto for it a long time ago. Reed claims he doesn’t remember that happening, but the kernel of doubt is placed in both he and Sue’s brain, which ends up being their undoing as Sue believes the story enough to sacrifice herself to release Reed from his contract.

Of course, it’s then revealed that Mephisto was indeed lying the entire time, but the fact that she believed him and agreed was enough to seal her in his dimension. So that should be a lesson to all you comic readers out there (especially some of my podcast co hosts), as much as you want to think Reed Richards is a douche bag at times, he’s actually a really nice guy, nice enough that he wouldn’t make deals with inter-dimensional baddies.

So does that mean this whole story is about getting Sue Richards back from the devil? I mean that would seem to be the case, right? Au contraire mon frère! You see, Mephisto was just warming up. You don’t become a master manipulator without planning this chess match out 6 or 7 moves in advance. Turns out he’s planning on using Sue Richards as a bargaining chip to get what he really wants: a pure soul for his collection. Not to say Sue Richards isn’t pure, but c’mon she did wear the boob window costume in the 90s, she’s obviously no stranger to sinning. No, Mephisto really wants someone like the Silver Surfer, and for some reason instead of going after him again, he’s decided to trade in that chip for another mainstay lady at Marvel: Jean Gray.

Now I know what you are gonna say, Jean Gray killed entire planets as Dark Phoenix, how is she pure?!? Well, remember that was later retconned that it was the Phoenix entity that destroyed those planets, Jean Gray was napping in the Hudson River at that time. So indeed Mephisto first tries to get all of X-Factor by offering a ton of silver promises to the members like merging Jean Gray and Madeline Pryor together (which would have negated the Inferno event a year later). He also offers to allow Beast to retain his human form but keep his “beastly” animal magnetism. But it’s actually Iceman (Go CHAD!) that makes the team snap out of it and fight against the Devil’s deals. However, in the end, like with the Fantastic Four, they are hopelessly outmatched and so Jean makes the deal to spare the rest, especially because of her love for Scott Summers.

So like baseball cards, he traded Invisible Woman for Phoenix. Do you think Mephisto is done now? Nope. He is the devil after all. His appetite for destroying souls is insatiable. So after sealing Jean Gray in a Mylar bag (he’s a collector after all), he decides to set his sights on trading that soul in on a whole team: The X-men.

After some initial struggles with group of merry mutants, Rogue seems to be again go willing with Mephisto if he leaves the rest of the team alone. At first I thought I was starting to see the beginnings of  lazy narrative pattern here, however the twist with Rogue is that Mephisto can survive kissing her and after so long without intimate touch, Rogue seems to welcome the chance to be with someone, even if it is the Devil. Of course, she pulls away in terror as she realizes that Mephisto still plans on claiming the rest of the team regardless of whether she goes with him or not.

Thus starts a mad frenzy in which Rogue fights the rest of the X-men to try to absorb their essences before Mephisto can claim them. But again this is the Devil, so that was exactly what he secretly wanted her to do, thus making it easier to claim the team all at once through Rogue herself. Thus, once again, this wheelin’ dealin’ son of a gun named Mephisto trades Jean Gray for the likes of Storm, Psylocke, Longshot, Dazzler, and Rogue. Not a bad days catch if I do say so myself.

But again, we still have one more team to fight, so of course, Mephisto is not happy with his X-men catch. I will say that is a shortcoming of this series in that after the first 2 issues it becomes pretty formulaic in terms of what’s going to happen next. And sure enough, it turns out that Mephisto wants to trade his Uncanny lot in for a brand new shiny Thor model.

Although unlike his previous outings, Mephisto actually does seem to be entering his final “end game” in that he really does truly need Thor for an actual purpose. You see at the same time this series is happening, Walt Simonson was finishing up his run on Thor which does see the mighty Asgardian “die” albeit temporarily. It also sees long standing Journey into Mystery foe, Hela, start trying to chisel into Mephisto’s turf as the afterlife’s dumping ground for those of ill repute. Thus Mephisto has to respond in kind less his kingdom crumble or his demon subjects sense his weakness and revolt.

So the entire series actually boils down to a fight over Thor’s soul between Mephisto and Hela. As an aside, for those of you that were big fans of the Ragnarok movie as well, Hela does get a good showing in this book, so it’s worth reading this showdown just for that.

In any case, Mephisto uses Rogue’s powers to separate Thor’s soul from his dying body and places it too in a Mylar bag (I do think that’s very clever) just as both the Avengers and Hela arrive. The Avengers of course fight Mephisto thinking that he killed Thor, despite the fact that Thor actually died of his previous injuries. After the ensuing battle, Hela manages to free Thor’s soul by convincing Mephisto that he could never claim it fairly. Of course it doesn’t hurt that Thor actually does all of the heavy lifting by resisting both Mephisto’s seductive guile and ensuing torture.

With Thor’s soul in the hands of Hela, it seems like Mephisto has lost and that his kingdom will now fall apart as was predicted. However, in giving Hela a Thor that has been sufficiently pissed off by Mephisto’s prodding, the dark lord knows that he is about to open up a whole can of whoop ass over the Hela’s underworld. This will in turn distract Hela from further thoughts of undead expansion for the time being as she has to deal with this new threat.

So ends a series which really could be looked at as a “Day in the Life” of Mephisto. More than just another Versus book, this series is just about the hard work and lengths Mephisto has to go through in order to keep his kingdom in check and his borders secure. I mean he had to fight all those heroes, kidnap so many more, make deals, trades, lie through his teeth, kiss the girls and make them cry, all so he can in the end pretend to fail just to maintain the status quo. That’s a full day, buddy. You deserve a vacation.

And I guess if you look at the book from that perspective, it’s a very interesting character study of the lengths people go through to maintain their power and influence, and that the more powerful you are, the harder you have to work. It’s almost like Mephisto is a salesman or an account manager, just trying to retain what business he already has in the face of deadly competition.

If however, you just look at it as a chance for the superheroes of the Marvel universe to fight again the Devil, then this story is full of shortcomings. The opening fight with the Fantastic Four is interesting enough with true menace and uncertainty, but the rest pale in comparison just being a rehash of the same old story told over and over again. As I pointed out before, at times it just seemed like the only reason the story was continuing was to pull in another team due to editorial mandate. In fact, if this was going to be a strict Versus book, you should have probably just stuck to the original protagonists of the FF and finished that story out.

I will say though for any shortcomings this book might have from a story perspective, on a personal note, it’s saved time and time again by the wonderful art of John Buscema, who I have mentioned on the podcast and blogs frequently as my all time favorite comic book artist. John’s direct and dramatic style fits a story of this grandiose and near biblical nature to a tee, and like his previous work on the Silver Surfer series, excels at bringing the hideous threat which is Mephisto home, oozing unspeakable malice and guile in every single panel. Kudos to John! I’ll say it once again, the best comic illustrator for my money the business has ever seen.

So in closing, did I enjoy this book? I gotta say I did.

Yeah, the whole “Versus” thing was tiring after a while and most of the real battles outside the brilliant FF beginning were pretty mundane.

But if you again look at this series as a character analysis of Mephisto himself, and cast him in the light of being the book’s real protagonist, then it actually becomes a lot more interesting. Plus there are parts that are almost meta fictional in a way with the collecting things in Mylar, the trading of one comic character for another, some definite fascinating ideas being thrown around.

And if you throw in that John Buscema art, well, he could draw a dumpster fire and you’d still think it was gorgeous, and this story is far from that.

Yep, more than some of the other Versus I did this month, this is one was a pretty pleasant read. Despite it not being ground breaking, it’s still worth reading if you had a free hour sometime.

Andy’s Read Pile Grade: B-

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