Captain America, The Odd War of Dimension Z: A Review

Rebooting after Ed Brubaker’s acclaimed run on the title, the newly rebranded Marvel NOW Captain America from writer Rick Remender and artist John Romita, Jr. recently wrapped up its first arc, The Odd War of Dimension Z. In a story that spanned ten issues and twelve years, this bold new chapter in Captain America’s enduring saga saw the rise of a surprising new status quo. Steve Rogers finds himself abducted by Armin Zola and whisked away to the bizarre wasteland of Dimension Z, with only the principles he learned from his mother Sarah to keep him going. A stark departure from that Sentinel of Liberty we know, he’s stripped of his usual power and authority, haggard and battle-scarred after over a decade on the run, without the luxury of superhero friends and A-List guest stars to bail him out. Now a single father, he’s charged with caring for his son Ian, the heir he rescued from Zola’s clutches, raising him to the best of his limited ability in the face of constant danger. Suffice to say, this is definitely not your parents’ Captain America.

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Switching gears from the typical action-adventure and espionage themes of the series, Remender takes a sharp turn into the realm of fantasy and science-fiction. He and Romita develop Dimension Z quite well, a hellish wasteland populated by strange beasts and Zola’s genetic experiments, its jagged horizon peppered by artificial structures and Zola’s looming citadel. The inks of Klaus Janson and the color palettes of Dean White flesh out this world of metal spires and spindly mountain ranges, rocky gorges and endless deserts, making for a unique read that’s visually more Arzach than Avengers. Over the course of the story, this changes Steve, a victim of Zola’s experimentation in an unpredictable wasteland of monsters and mutants. He begins to let go of the memories and experiences that had previously defined him, adapting to survive the unsettling landscape of Dimension Z. Through violence and art, warfare as well as fatherhood, Remender depicts Steve’s twelve-year evolution in fascinating ways.

Prior to his abduction, Steve had fallen into a rut. Exhausted from the endless flood of hackneyed villains and terrorist plots, he was lost under the weight of his role as Captain America, having sacrificed his own happiness and sense of identity to live up to his legendary namesake. We see that in his relationship with longtime on-again/off-again girlfriend Sharon Carter, whose marriage proposal Steve meets with a weary mixture of passiveness and obligation. Over time in Dimension Z, however, separated from everything he knows, he begins losing the Captain America identity that he’s built, the wall of service and duty that overshadows every other aspect of his life. Even as he still carries the shield, it again becomes the symbol of strength it was originally intended to be, and less the burden that’s cost him so much. Remender does something quite interesting in showing the development of Steve, and the resurgence of his fundamental identity over that of his all-encompassing alter ego.

The core of this book, the germ of Steve’s transformation, and the unifying theme throughout, is Steve’s CAP5relationship with his mother. In Remender’s version of Cap’s origin, Steve is the son of Irish immigrants during Depression-era Brooklyn, a sickly boy terrorized by his abusive alcoholic father. It’s only through watching his mother stand up to his father that a young Steve learns the moral code that would later dictate his entire ethos: Stand up to bullies wherever you find them. Never back down. Flashbacks to several key moments in Steve’s turbulent childhood are present throughout this storyline, as Sarah’s teachings keep her young son going, despite the insurmountable odds. When his mother eventually dies of pneumonia, she leaves the orphaned Steve with the strength to survive without her. The idea of having the mother impart this knowledge and strength to the son is not a convention one often encounters in superhero fiction, as this is a genre where the relationships of fathers and sons are privileged above most others. It’s an interesting emphasis in his backstory, as this unique mother-son dynamic is paralleled through Steve’s relationship with Ian.

Steve, having stumbled into parenthood, is in no way equipped to deal with raising a child, let alone by himself. Ian is a rebellious young boy with a lot of questions, about his past, his father, and the future. Their relationship is complicated, and sometimes quite messy, too. As a father, Steve wants to impart to Ian all the things that his own mother taught him, but this is a far different world than the one that he left behind. For this, Steve’s often critical of himself and his inability to meet all of these challenges the way he would like to. He makes mistakes, he has regrets, but he’s still hanging on. In this way, he’s become like his mother: Trying to instill the strength of will in his son that his mother had in him, but accepting that hiding behind his mother will only bring him more pain. Through Ian, Steve is finally shocked out of his malaise to accept that there are things larger than the heroic persona that he had forged in his mother’s memory. Ian gives him something to live for beyond his ideals and, despite his perceived shortcomings as a father, Steve conquers that emotional baggage that’s been holding him hostage all these years.

Besides Ian, one of the more fascinating characters that Steve encounters along the way is Jet Black, Zola’s daughter and Ian’s older sister. Jet is an accomplished warrior with unique powers that give her an advantage on the battlefield. When we first encounter Jet she’s just a child, a witness to Zola’s experimentation on Steve and Ian’s abduction as Steve breaks free and escapes. Soon, raised on cruelty and violence, Jet grows up the formidable successor to her father’s realm, determined to retrieve her stolen brother and kill Steve. While her initial, vaguely romantic interest in Steve feels a bit shoehorned in, Remender manages to salvage Jet and Steve’s peculiar relationship. In having Jet come around as an ally, abandoning her father’s quest for power to help Steve escape Dimension Z, Jet fills a strange new role in Steve’s life once they emerge on the other side.

CAP4The ten-issue arc comes to a head as Zola, planning to return to Steve’s dimension with an army of mutants, abducts Ian and leaves Steve for dead. Steve, already infected with the same techno-organic virus that Zola plans to unleash on Earth, storms Zola’s citadel to rescue his son, despite his ravaged condition. Steve is able to persuade Jet to his side, having seen the true extent of her father’s madness and becoming a critical player in stopping him. Ian, who’s been brainwashed into accepting Zola as his father, rejects Steve and tries to kill him. Just as Steve is finally able to get through to Ian, Sharon appears, having traveled into Dimension Z to rescue Steve. Seeing what she thinks is a hostile target, she shoots and kills Ian. Steve is completely destroyed by this, but, with no time to grieve, pulls it together long enough to take Sharon and Jet into one last battle with Zola.

Compounding Steve’s loss and grief, Sharon stays behind to destroy Zola and his citadel, buying Steve and Jet enough time to get through the quickly closing portal to Earth. Steve tries to go back for Sharon, having already lost his son, but there’s no hope. As the portal wreaks havoc on time-space in Dimension Z through the use of some intriguing imagery on Romita’s part, Jet takes Steve’s hand to lead him through the portal with her, emerging on the other side in the subway tunnels beneath Manhattan. While Steve has aged twelve years in Zola’s personal Hell, it’s only been a day since he vanished, leaving the reader with the cold realization that Steve has spent more time in Dimension Z than he has our modern world. As Jet tries to herd him to safety, surrounded by strangers in an unfamiliar place, Steve stumbles out of the subway and collapses on the sidewalk, crushed by his grief. He’s lost his son, and with him all of Steve’s hope for the future; he’s also lost Sharon, and with her his connection to the life he no longer figures into. If Steve Rogers no longer belongs to our world, what does that mean for Captain America? Who is Captain America going to fight for now?

This is an arc that posits more questions than it answers, and that’s what makes it so engaging. There are no CAP3easy conclusions or neat little bows on this one, as Steve must find a way to reconcile the last twelve years and deal with his grief. The epilogue suggests that we may not have seen the last of Dimension Z, as the war between the indigenous Phrox and Zola’s mutant army rages on in Steve’s absence. Another warrior bearing Captain America’s shield and principles emerges to lead the Phrox armies to victory. We can only assume that Ian somehow survived his apparent death, or Zola used some kind of trickery to convince Steve that Ian had betrayed him. In any case, seeing how this plays out, and what Steve would think if he knew what happened while he was away, could be quite interesting if Remender chooses to follow-up on this thread in the future.

This isn’t a perfect story, by any means. Remender’s narration and dialogue has quite a few soft softs throughout, prone to fits of overly operatic scripting that feel dated and sometimes cheesy. The artwork suffered from some inconsistencies on Romita’s part in the first few issues, especially with the cartoonish anatomy of Steve and the other neighborhood children in the flashbacks sequences. There are also a few missteps in Jet’s addition to the main plot that fail to fully explain her powers until after the conclusion of the arc, leaving the reader with a few puzzling moments through issue #11. However, given the strength of the art and storytelling, these are just a few qualms that fortunately don’t detract from an overall enjoyable reading experience.

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Pledging to change the status quo of Captain America forever, The Odd War of Dimension Z lives up to its promises. This storyline offers some unique insights into the Steve Rogers we know and love, and changes his characterization in bold and heartbreaking ways. This certainly isn’t your parents’ Cap, but I’m fascinated to see where he goes from here.

Magen Cubed

Retro Comics: The Vision and The Scarlet Witch #12, Double Sized Climax!

1986 was a busy year in the personal lives of Marvel’s vast stable of heroes, seeing everything from the birth of Cable to Scott Summers and Madelyne Pryor to the wedding of Bruce Banner and Betsy Ross. That same year Avengers alumni Scarlet Witch and Vision have their twin sons, Billy and Tommy, in the finale of The Vision and The Scarlet Witch limited series. This seeming domestic bliss, however, wouldn’t last, leading to events that would have lasting consequences in the Marvel Universe for decades to come.

As we later come to find out, Vision’s marriage to Scarlet Witch was part of Immortus’ plan to prevent Scarlet Witch from ever having children. A mutant of devastating magical ability, Wanda Maximoff is a nexus being with the power to shape her universe, and her children could very well warp the foundations of reality itself. Unaware of this plot, Wanda’s desire to have a family with her husband would cause her to unknowingly draw on dark magical forces from the demon Mephisto to have Tommy and Billy. The demon would eventually reabsorb them, snuffing them from existence, and cause a chain of events that would lead to Wanda’s madness and the cataclysms of House of M and M-Day. In this issue, however, which concludes the arc of Wanda’s pregnancy, none of that is on the horizon. Written by Steve Englehart with artwork by Richard Howell, this unique limited series ran from 1985 to 1986, and was the second series to feature this prominent couple’s extracurricular adventures.

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As the title suggests, this double-sized issue follows the day of the birth, as Vision and Wanda excitedly prepare for the arrival of their first child, a boy they plan to name him Thomas. Going into labor six days earlier than anticipated, Wanda is quickly whisked off to the hospital for much of the issue while danger looms outside. Guest appearances include Wonder Man, Magneto and Doctor Strange as supernatural complications arise in the form of Nekra, Grim Reaper and Brady Kent in a subplot centered around Nekra’s raising the dead. Both sides of the extended Vision-Maximoff family brawl outside of the hospital to stop Nekra’s plot while Strange delivers Thomas, only to realize that Wanda’s having twins in a pleasant surprise for the new parents. They name their boys Billy and Tommy, and conclude on a joyful note surrounded by friends and loved ones as the young family settles in to begin their new lives.

A highly nostalgic read, this is a story that certainly shows its age. Englehart’s script is very dated, with the kind of cheesy dialogue and over-the-top plotline you would expect from a mid-‘80s title. That said, it’s an endearing kind of cheese, appropriate for all-age readers and free of the edge and attitude that later came to consume superhero comics in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Seeing an entire limited series about the personal lives of heroes is also interesting and worth a look, if only for the kitsch factor. I’ve always been a fan of family-oriented storylines, and for that reason this series doesn’t disappoint. As far as the artwork is concerned, Howell’s pencils reflect a pretty predictable ‘80s aesthetic. While fairly average, he does offer a few visually interesting panels here and there, especially in the scenes with Doctor Strange’s solo adventure before arriving to deliver the twins.

While having read a lot of the reborn Billy and Tommy, all grown up as the heroes Wiccan and Speedster in the pages of Young Avengers, I wasn’t too familiar with the source material surrounding their origins. Going back to read this series, and especially this issue, sheds some light on their backstories and makes for a fun reading experience. While a cute and enjoyable little story, it does ring a little melancholy in retrospect, knowing how their not-births and not-deaths drive Wanda to a madness that nearly destroys reality in the future. Still, it’s an amusing read with a unique premise and lots of nostalgia value. If you’re looking for a light read and some nice backstory on this impact moment of Marvel history, The Vision and The Scarlet Witch limited series is worth digging up.

Magen Cubed

Secret: A Fascinating Title, If You Don’t Mind the Wait

Featuring a puzzling world of murder and corporate espionage, one of the most fascinating books to come out last year was Secret from Image Comics. The brain child of writer Jonathan Hickman with art by Ryan Bodenheim, this unique book follows a seemingly unconnected series of events surrounding Grant Miller, an ex-intelligence operative working for a private security firm. There’s a murder in London, a break-in at a high-profile law firm, and an accountant giving away company secrets after being tortured during a home invasion. What does it all mean? Well, I don’t know. That’s the point. Just how these events intersect is the mystery of the book, as Miller navigates a quiet and subversive world of spy-games and murder, all pointing to a widespread global conspiracy of shadow governments and secret organizations.

SECRET1Sound good? It is. If you’re looking for something a little different, with a slick design and intriguing execution, I highly recommend this book. Fans of Hickman will appreciate its complexity, a fresh counterpart to the multifaceted and surreal alternative histories we’ve seen in the pages of Manhattan Projects and East of West. Fans who know Bodenheim’s work on Red Mass for Mars and Halcyon will love its sleek visual aesthetic, heightened by the captivating color choices of Michael Garland. But there’s a catch: There have only been three issues in the last year.

Beginning in April 2012, this peculiar mix of espionage fiction and corporate intrigue saw just two issues. By the end of the summer it went on a year-long hiatus due to a series of production snags. The book, which had gained quite a bit of buzz and critical interest, was considered abandoned by readers. In the meantime, Bodenheim seemed to vanish from comics, and Hickman continued with other projects, such as Manhattan Projects, East of West, God is Dead, and championing Thanos’ return to the main stage in Marvel Comics’ timeline-shattering Infinity event. In August, the long-awaited third issue of Secret finally hit the shelves, as Miller dealt with the fall-out of the London murders. While an intriguing issue that explores Miller’s complex web of professional and personal relationships, I can’t help but keep my expectations low, even as I hope for more from this strange little world Hickman has cooked up.SECRET2

However, as an original and innovative work of spy fiction, Secret does a have lot going for it. It’s a plot-driven title with a wealth of subtly, as Hickman delivers another slow burn in exploring the complex networks and associations that tether the key players. His principal characters quietly develop in the first three issues, illuminating the peculiar fishbowl they operate in through tense nonlinear flashbacks, tinged with contrasting degrees of violence. The scripting is slick and cool, with compelling dialogue and a sharpness of tone that keeps things from turning glib, alluding to deeper relationships than what are being shown on the page. Hickman, true to form, doesn’t give anything anyway, and instead leaves the reader to ponder. You might not know what’s going on, but you’re always left wanting more. This isn’t James Bond or Jason Bourne, or any other familiar spy tale, and the title is far better for it.

SECRET3The real draw of the book is its visual execution. Hickman, Bodenheim and Garland collaborate wonderfully together to create a unique and cohesive reading experience issue to issue, even with the interruptions. Bodenheim’s use of thick, emphatic lines bring us into settings that are at once familiar and unnatural: Offices, parks, cafes, places where characters meet in private to discuss the nature of their business. These environments are often empty but for the principal characters themselves, establishing palpable tension and loneliness that almost feels claustrophobic from panel to panel. The panel compositions and page layouts are often slightly unexpected at times, affording the reader varying perspectives and playing with the chronology of events in clever ways, linked together by evocative undercurrents brimming with well-developed tension.

This is made most effective with Gardener’s subtle, selective use of color. His muted green, brown and purple tones wash over grayscale scenes in a pulp-inspired haze, affecting a cold and distant tone that removes the reader from the act, relegated to the margins to simply guess what’s really going on. The austerity of tone is then completely abandoned as emotionally heightened moments run wild in vivid oranges and reds. Flashbacks are emphasized by the richness of blood or lipstick to highlight the visceral nature of memory, providing small slivers of insight into the minds of the internal lives of the characters. All of these elements, from scripting to artwork to color, come together in an innovative package that leaves you guessing long after you’re done.

So if you’re on the lookout for a fresh, sleek title with a rich narrative and engaging artwork, pick up Secret. This is a title that swings for the fences, even with the interruptions. I can’t guarantee this book will resume a consistent release schedule, but, when the work is this good, maybe it’s worth the wait?

Magen Cubed

Retro Comics: X-Men Unlimited #3, The Whispers Scream

To begin my first edition of Retro Comics, I decided to go back and look at the first comic book I ever read: X-Men Unlimited #3. First published as a double-sized quarterly between 1993 and 2003, X-Men Unlimited served as a short story anthology series in the X-Men universe. The series focused on small, self-contained one-shots between major monthly storylines and events, and provided a vehicle for lesser known writers and artists to work with these well-known franchise characters without impacting the rest of Marvel’s continuity. Issue #3, titled The Whispers Scream, was written by X-Force and Deadpool co-creator Fabien Nicieza and penciled by Mike McKone. It was released December 1993 with cover art by Bill Sienkiewicz.

This issue follows Maverick as he seeks the help of Wolverine in stopping Sabretooth. Following the death of his friend and partner Birdy at the hands of his son Graydon Creed, Sabretooth is on a vicious killing spree, murdering the members of an illicit trade operation that took place some years prior. When Wolverine proves too elusive to find, Maverick instead enlists the assistance of X-Men, to help him track Sabretooth to Japan for an encounter with the Silver Samurai. While this issue first presents itself as a straightforward chase story with Sabretooth as its antagonist, it quickly becomes an intriguing look into the mind of a murderer.

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Sabretooth, who had previously relied on the telepathic influence of Birdy to quell his violent urges, is now at a total loss. Overcome by insanity, he begins searching for another telepath to pacify his broken mind. This opens the door to several fascinating questions of morality as Charles Xavier takes it upon himself to venture into the hellish landscape of Sabretooth’s memories. There he finds the source of Sabretooth’s cruelty: A childhood spent under the fist of his abusive father indoctrinated the young Victor Creed in an endless cycle of violence and pain. With Birdy’s help he was able to bury his guilt behind the trauma, and excuse his own savagery as a product of his father’s abuse. Determined to rehabilitate Sabretooth, Xavier agrees to house him at the school, entering into a tenuous pact to put an end to his violence and make him pay for his crimes.

Overall this is a solid and captivating story with some serious emotional punch. A lot of the strength lies in the writing, with some deft handling of the morally compromising situations presented here. At no point does Nicieza attempt to rationalize or excuse Sabretooth’s violence, and that works to his advantage. He appropriately paints the young Victor Creed as a victim of violence, who turned his cruelty outward rather than attempting to overcome his demons. Yes, Sabretooth is a product of brutality, but he chose to pursue this life, making him culpable for his actions. He is a wounded animal, but also an intelligent one as Xavier finds, and something about him is worth trying to redeem. This moral question of putting Sabretooth down like an animal or choosing to rehabilitate him is certainly interesting in the context of a superhero book, given the weight of his crimes and the full breadth of his violence.

No matter the strength of the script, however, it’s the artwork that really carries this book. McKone’s offers some strong art here, with several really engaging panels and dynamic page layouts peppered throughout. There’s a peculiar static quality to his lines that makes the book feel somehow quiet to me, perhaps even a little eerie. It reads like Xavier’s clinical detachment as he moves through Sabretooth’s memories, looking for answers, and perhaps it’s meant to. To put the reader in Xavier’s frame of mind as an unintended viewer looking in on Sabretooth’s madness. Whatever the reason, there’s just something about the ferociousness of McKone’s flat-nosed, dog-like Sabretooth that really sticks with me. It’s sinister and beastly without coming across as cheesy or overplayed, and helps to ground Sabretooth as a villain, albeit a much more complex one than we expected.

This issue is emblematic of 1990s comic books in a lot of ways. From the elaborate and often clunky costumes designs to the sometimes long-winded dialogue, complete with the almost perplexing accents from Rogue and Gambit, this book is quite the product of its time. Even for that, the story is striking with some truly memorable scenes. A nice balance of philosophical questioning and action-adventure storytelling, this is a favorite issue of mine with real staying power, even after twenty years.

Magen Cubed

The Fearless Defenders #7: The New Status Quo

FD1After the somewhat controversial end of this title’s inaugural arc, many readers were disappointed to see Annabelle Riggs die so soon. The character’s surprising death abruptly ended her role as a powerless but capable (and certainly fearless) Defender, as the team’s resident expert on Asgardian artifacts. Her sacrifice to stop Valkyrie’s killing spree (as Val’s alternate persona, the Doom Maiden Rage) caused serious rifts in this relatively new team, as Misty Knight lashed out at Valkyrie and their fellow Shield Maidens abandoned her as their leader. However, with the recent release of the much-anticipated #7, this title has lived up to its promise to begin an all-new arc, with some surprising plans for its principal characters.

Stephanie Hans takes up the artistic reins in this issue, stepping in for regular artist Will Sliney, as Annabelle deals with her new status as a member of the celebrated dead in Valhalla. Her particular station is at an old inn and tavern, filled with many great and boisterous warriors, all of whom Annabelle feels little kinship with. She doesn’t belong here but she’s resigned to her fate, content to have sacrificed herself to help Val return to her senses. Meanwhile, Val mounts a rescue effort and travels to Valhalla to resurrect Annabelle, making amends for stranding her there undeservedly. Her quest reunites her with Clea, the exiled sorceress Val helped hide from otherworldly threats, whose skills Val requires for this spell. Although Clea is pleased to see Val, she hesitant to use her magic to revive Annabelle, warning that the ritual comes at a great cost.

Determined, Val convinces Clea and brings her to see Annabelle at the inn. There Val and Annabelle try to FD2reconcile their thorny recent past, and Clea brings Annabelle back, but at a price: Val must sacrifice her life to restore Annabelle’s, and Annabelle is her new host. Their spirits tangled in the same body, Annabelle is the vehicle through which Val must navigate the mortal realm, switching back and forth between forms whenever the need arises for Val’s brute warrior strength. Changing things up for the team, this decision helps to mend the rift between Val and Misty, and allows Annabelle to fulfill her new role as Val’s earthly vessel. Val sacrificing herself for Annabelle, and Annabelle’s upgraded status as Val’s host, adds another layer of humor and interest to the team dynamics. While things seemed to be smoothed over between them, and Misty is likely on her way to forgiving Val for killing Annabelle in the first place, this opens the doors to new intrigue as the Defenders gear up to tackle Le Fay’s new team of Doom Maidens. New status quo, indeed.

A striking departure from Sliney’s regular pencils, Hans’ artwork steers this book in a gorgeous new direction in tone and presentation. Her vision of Valhalla is lush and fertile, with an ethereal quality that feels dreamy and fantastic but appropriately so, offset by the ugliness of the trolls Val and Clea face. The principle characters are gorgeously rendered with the help of strong panel compositions and soft, otherworldly color palettes. Her females are strong but still feminine, sacrificing little of their quirks or flaws to embody the strength and power that warriors like Val FD3represent. Gone is the serviceable but at times bland artwork we’ve seen from Sliney, upgraded to Hans’ decisive action sequences and evocative interior spaces, which keep the story balanced and well-paced. Overall, Hans strikes a good equilibrium of emotional weight and action-adventure, making for a highly engaging visual reading experience.

As for the writing, Bunn’s script this issue is straightforward but intriguing. The surprising reveal of Val’s updated backstory could have cheapened the character, but it continues to work here, especially in the face of recent developments. Although it was somewhat surprising to see Annabelle come back so quickly, after the pomp and circumstance surrounding her death, the decision for Val to immediately look for Annabelle is true to her character. Val’s resolve to make amends speaks to her need for redemption; not just for Annabelle’s death, but for the sense of loss and ineffectiveness she’s felt since the beginning of the series. She’s looking to restore her own honor by living up to Odin’s expectations, which she has previously failed to do. All of this feels very natural for her characterization, and further humanizes her, despite the many twists and turns she’s taken as of late.

Bunn also does something very interesting with Val and Annabelle’s relationship in this issue. While far more FD4complicated than before, their dynamic remains refreshingly downplayed, and very much based on the mutual respect of comrades. Just what comes of their uncertain friendship, however, remains to be seen. Annabelle’s romantic interest in Val, as seen since the first issue, has not yet been fully addressed, and is likely to be further confused by recent events. It does say a lot about Val’s feelings for Annabelle in that she was so willing to sacrifice herself for her, which does open the door to some exploration on Val’s side of the relationship. As Val’s new host Annabelle has a lot to ponder, but her feelings for Val have been given the opportunity to further develop her character. All of this will be interesting to see in the future.

Overall this is a successful issue with some solid writing and stunning artwork. Big on promises, it lives up to nearly all of them, offering an intriguing new opportunity for this team to grow. Where this title goes from here is uncertain, but the foundations put in place make for some interesting possibilities.

Magen Cubed

Books We’ll Miss: Journey into Mystery

JiM1While the Marvel Universe is embroiled in its share of sweeping drama this year, from the reality-crushing consequences of the Infinity event to the mutant brawling going on in Battle of the Atom, something quite sad happened. In the fray of big budget movies and multi-title tie-ins, a little book slipped under the radar and ended a beautiful run after only ten issues. The fourth and final incarnation of Journey into Mystery, helmed by writer Kathryn Immonen and artist Valerio Schiti, recently wrapped up its last issue at #655, sailing off into that good night with little pomp and circumstance. Despite rave reviews and consistently excellent content, this little book that could just couldn’t live up to the hype of other, better selling titles. Although this book is gone, the adventures of Lady Sif, as well as the amazing efforts of Immonen and Schiti in bringing her to life, won’t soon be forgotten.

The original Journey into Mystery began its life as a horror-fantasy title leftover from Marvel’s predecessor Atlas Comics, carrying into two volumes that ran intermittently between the 1950s and 1970s. Focusing principally on the adventures of Thor, this title covered much of the mystical fantasy elements of the Marvel Universe, and over time served as an introduction for many other characters in the same vein. Taken over by Kieron Gillen and Doug Braithwaite after the events of the Siege series, the focus shifted to Loki from issues #622 to #645 for a run that was praised by both critics and fans. With issue #646, the title was relaunched to coincide with its rebranding under the Marvel NOW imprint, JiM2and Immonen stepped in to bring Lady Sif into the spotlight.

For ten issues, Sif led a dynamic cast of Marvel’s most well-known Asgardians into a world of magic, mystery, humor and action, expertly developed by Schiti’s skillful pencil work.  Sif, while a major supporting character in Thor’s title, is not quite so well-known beyond the pages of his companion’s book. This made it somewhat difficult to stir a strong sales base, as many mainstream readers just weren’t as familiar with Sif as they were other, better known Asgardians. Despite its short run, Journey into Mystery covered a lot of ground. From the depths of ancient ruins to New York City, deep space to children’s fairytales, this adventure title followed Sif’s character development with poignant resonance. While taking a few cues from Gillen’s run, Immonen made this series her own, putting a unique spin on the character and the tone of the book. Every adventure was well-framed by Immonen’s strong scripting and razor-sharp dialogue, offering equal measure of heartfelt introspection and witty banter to keep things fresh and fun. Even in keeping with the expectations set by her predecessors, this title was always uniquely Sif’s.

JiM3When we first encountered Sif, she was conflicted about her role as a warrior in what she saw as a culture in decline, as Asgardia turned its back on its once-proud past. We saw this reflection throughout the series, a question of purpose in uncertain times. With regular guest appearances from many big-name hitters in the Marvel stable, Sif was always busy and had a great cast to play off of, with much success. Through her perilous journeys, first as a wayward berserker then later as the warrior we know and love, we watched Sif grow and change, forging new relationships and strengthening old ones. Over the course of the title she came to terms with her place in a changing world, and accepted Asgardia’s new role in that world as well. Her journey wasn’t easy, and it certainly didn’t always paint her in a favorable light, but she was always fascinating, relatable, and engaging to read about.

The book’s biggest strength was its visual consistency, guided by Schiti’s amazing pencils and the stellar color work of Jordie Bellaire. Issue after issue, this title was a gem with its inventive page designs and panel compositions, serving as an evocative complement to Immonen’s scripting. Bursting with energy and emotion, Schiti carried every plot through to the end with dynamic action scenes and engaging character interactions, his pages rounded out by Bellaire’s distinctive color palettes and clever background development. This visual cohesion helped to make the book so enjoyable: not only did every component of this title work well, JiM4but they worked even better together.

While this book certainly wasn’t flawless, and did have a few fumbles as it sought its footing in the opening issues, it was a highly enjoyable addition to the Marvel pantheon. Immonen and Schiti told poignant stories, full of adventure and heart, intrigue and humor. Sif was a strong protagonist with a fun supporting cast and engrossing exploits, offering a consistently satisfying reading experience month after month. So while Sif may be shelved for now, she will not soon be forgotten by her readers and fans, who got to enjoy this little gem of a book for as long as it lasted.

Magen Cubed

In Review: X-Men #1 – #3

The latest irritation of the X-Men opened with the storyline Primer, a three-part arc that saw the hesitant formation of a new team on the heels of Jubilee’s surprising return to Westchester. This critically acclaimed title, helmed by writer Brian Wood and penciled for the first three issues by Olivier Coipel, features an all-female X-Men squad, led by Storm with Rachel Grey serving as a strong but firm second-in-command. The cast is rounded out by an interesting batch of characters choices in Kitty Pryde, Rogue, Psylocke, and Jubilee, who has recently taken in an infant named Shogo. The book also garnered a lot of attention when Wood made it very clear that this is a book about female X-Men and not X-Women. This sparked a debate about the industry’s expectations of female-only team book and the need to divide teams by gender lines.

XMen 1In a market where many female-only team books have shown the tendency to err on the side of the gimmicky or exploitative, this title is bold and interesting, but a little out of place. Given the traditionally gender role-defying history of the X-Men franchise, the need to reaffirm the reader’s understanding that all X-Men are X-Men, regardless of their sex, race, religion, or any other mitigating factors, is a bit uncertain. The main cast, with the exception of Storm, are the creations of writer Chris Claremount. They are some of the most notable characters in the X-Men’s stable of well-developed women, from a writer that did a great deal to further the presence of women in comics. Perhaps, in that respect, this book serves as the logical progression of the franchise, rather than a red flag to address issues in the franchise’s representation of women.

Still, while there may not be a dire necessity for an all-women X-team, this book is a solid title and a strong addition to superhero genre at large. It takes great strides to avoid the designation of X-Women all together, and undermines any pretense of a “chick book” by focusing on character dynamics over gendered politics. This isn’t about women, as Wood argues. It’s about family.

The premise of this arc is fairly simple: Sentient parasitic bacterium Sublime realizes that his sister Akrea has returned to Earth. Piggybacking on a recently crashed meteorite, his sister is back to continue their ancient rivalry over control of the planet. Adept at hijacking technology through cybernetic implants, Akrea’s first host is an orphaned infant boy, using him to get back to civilization and begin spreading to more useful targets. Jubilee takes the boy in and names him Shogo, unaware of the intense family struggle she’s stumbled into until Sublime begins following her to New York. With no one else to turn to, Jubilee returns to Westchester to seek the help of her only real family, the X-Men.

From there the mystery of Akrea’s plot deepens as she gets loose in Hank McCoy’s lab. She takes control of the XMen 2comatose Karima Shapandar, using her Omega-Prime nanites to wreak havoc. The hunt for Akrea sends the X-Men all over the globe, a struggle that gravely compromises the security systems of the school and nearly destroys it as Akrea hijacks the computer mainframe. With Akrea using Karima to enact her plans of global domination, the team is deeply troubled by the prospect of their friend’s consciousness still being trapped inside her stolen body, and the realization that killing Akrea would kill Karima as well. Karima emerges from her coma to stop Akrea herself, but Storm’s order for Psylocke to kill Akrea’s then-unconscious host doesn’t sit well with Rachel, which causes tensions between them. Meanwhile, Jubilee comes to terms with the responsibilities of parenthood now on her young shoulders, and draws strength from those around her in her decision to keep Shogo.

The underpinning theme of this arc is family, which Wood handles in several subtle ways. While the entire X-Men family tree has been embroiled in various and ugly internal struggles over the last few years, the unifying idea of team-as-family, despite their differences and misunderstandings, is refreshing to see again. Obviously there is the enduring rivalry between Sublime and Akrea, which facilitates the suspense the plot is framed around. Beyond that, however, Wood makes great use of his cast in exploring their dynamics. Each principal character is strongly defined with organic and well-rounded characterizations, playing to each of their strengths and individual contributions. Their interactions, banter and disagreements come from a place of familiarity, a warmth of tone that the reader understands from the strength of the writing. Many team books show teams interacting, and the writer takes for granted that the readers simply know that these characters know each other. Wood manages to make it appear effortless. Their relationships are complicated, but built on years of trust and respect. Even as tensions rise between Rachel and Storm, which spill over into the recent fourth issue, their conflict reads like a natural extension of that relationship.

XMen 3One of the best examples of family-oriented character development is Jubilee and Shogo. Her emotional struggle to care for the boy she’s decided to raise is palpable. An orphan herself, her instincts to protect the boy (whom she herself names Shogo) is relatable, even as she remains fraught with uncertainty about her decision. She seeks comfort and counsel from her own adopted family, looking for reassurance that she’s fit to parent her son. While the presence of an infant in a book with an entirely female cast can be read as suspect, the inclusion of Shogo in Jubilee’s life forces her to grow up and develop as a character, and works well here. It sheds an interesting light on her and her emotional processes, and tackles the topics of child-rearing and family in a natural and appropriate way. Jubilee is an orphan, in a family of orphans, now raising an orphan of her own. The theme is cyclical but effective, and poignantly handled. It’s going to be difficult for Jubilee as a single teenaged mutant vampire mother, but she’s going to make it work.

One of the great strengths of this arc is Coipel’s artwork. He achieves great narrative economy with his dynamic page compositions and panel design, and captures each character with well-developed distinction and charm. The well-struck balance of each character’s internal state with the action-adventure elements allows every cast member to feel completely realized on the page, wearing their personalities like their iconic costumes. This precise storytelling makes for organic characterizations that feel effortless and well-rounded, and really makes the most of the emotional subtleties of the scripts.

Overall, this is a strong opening storyline for a book attempting to establish a new status quo. Wood and Coipel successfully set the tone for the development of a new, untested X-Men team, and all the family problems that comes with it. Instead of being weighed down by the complications of family dynamics, the book is strengthened by it, exploring the various permutations of family within the team itself. Just where this book is headed as it hurdles toward the upcoming Battle of the Atom event is unclear, but its future looks bright.

Magen Cubed

The Marshall Islands and World War II

The Marshall Islands, an old German colony in the Pacific Ocean, were caught in the tag of the World War II as it was there where many air and naval operations took place between the Americans and the Japanese. Today, they are under the protection and care of the United States.

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fig.1 The sets are wonderfully designed while covering all the aspects of the War

The thing that we would like to point out, from a philatelic point of view, is the fact that this inland complex has issues a great number of stamps with reference to World War II. From 1989 to 1998 there were about 230 stamps issued on the specific topic. Any collector wishing to start a thematic collection on World War II, it goes without saying that s/he will certainly find those islands of invaluable help. The sets are wonderfully designed while covering all the aspects of the War (fig. 1).

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Stamps have been issues ranging not only from very important events but also covering battles of lesser significance such as the Warsaw battle and the Dieppe landing. The Katyn graves have not been forgotten either (fig. 2). All first-class leaders, generals and admirals of both sides, Allied and Japanese forces alike, are portrayed. Even Mark Clark, the well-known blunder-head of the Italian expedition, is also depicted.

One may also find: all the American and Japanese war ships, including the German

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ones; most of the fighter aircraft which took part in World War II; military uniforms; even the surrender of Japan in 1945 (fig. 3).

There is no other country with so many issues in such a short spell of time covering the topic of World War II to that superlative extent. Perhaps the 230 stamps from Marshall Islands along with some more from the rest of the world, would be enough to satisfy the needs of a potential collector embarking on the theme of World War II.

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Rafael the Italian painter through philately

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Pic: 1: Federico da Montefeltro di Urbino

Raffaello Sanzio, or simply Raphael, was an Italian painter who was born in Urbino of the Montefeltro in 1483 (Picture 1), an important cultural center at the time.

Raphael, along with Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, are regarded as the Great Masters of the later Renaissance, who have exerted a lasting influence on Western art. His father, also a painter, sent his son to be apprenticed to Perugino (Picture 2) where he quickly rose to teacher status himself.

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Pic: 2: Leonardo da Vinci                                                 Michelangelo                                                Perugino

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Pic. 3: Kolona’s Retample

One of his first surviving works is the Retample of Colona (Picture 3), an altar painting of 1502, situated in the New York Metropolitan Museum. This is a grand masterpiece with rich decor. The main piece is made of tempera wood and it measures 1.70 x 1.70 meters.

On the block of Turks and Caicos, we can see the Gavari Crucifixion also

Pic. 6: Mond or Gavari Crucifixion

Pic. 4: Mond or Gavari Crucifixion

known as the Crucifixion of Mond (Picture 4). Measuring 2.80 x 1.65 meters this is a 1503 work and is displayed in the London National Gallery. The painting is done in oil where the artist has started to establish his own style.

In 1503, having been influenced not only by Perugino but also by his own innovations, the young Raphael adroitly painted the Maria Conestabile (Picture 5). This is a small-size work, 18cm in diameter,

Pic.5: Contestabile

Pic.5: Contestabile

which was sold for 310,000 francs by his owner, Count Scipione Conestabile della Staffa, who found himself in a difficult financial situation, in 1869. Ever since the piece has belonged to the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg in Russia.

The Coronation of Mary (Retample Oddi) (Picture 6) is an oil painting of 1502-04, measuring 2.67 x 1,63 meters and belongs to the Vatican. As an artistic style it belongs to the Perugino style. Mary and Christ flanked by cherubs appear to be in motion and are rendered very expressively. The classical spirit can be distinguished in the very small painting, 17×17 cm, known as “The Knight’s Dream” (Picture 6), made between 1504 and 1505, which is situated in London. The figures accompanying the sleeping youth are Virtue and Love and are made with both simplicity and clarity. Along the same dimensions and period (1504-05) as the “Knight’s Dream”, the “Three Graces” (Picture 6) are to be found in the Museum of Count in Chantilly. In this case the figures are three-dimensional with classical analogies symbolizing immortality. In the 15 cents of Lesotho we can see the “The Wedding Ceremony of Holy Mary” (1.74×1.21 meters): a work of 1504. This is about an artistic Renaissance masterpiece, with vigorous structure, which is the pride of the Brera Gallery in Milan. This is young Raphael’s distinguished piece of art with meticulous attention to its structure.

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Pic.6: Retample Odd                     The Knight’s Dream                              The three Graces                     Virgin Mary’s Weddings

In the portrait of Elizabeth Gozzanca (Picture 7), 53×38 cm, produced in 1504, we can see the wife of the Count of Urbino, Guidobaldo, an educated and refined woman. The painting belongs to Uficci of Florence. The “Young Holy Mary”, Kaouper is displayed in Washington Museum (Picture 7). With dimensions of 60×40, made in 1505, the work still resounds Perugino along with the innovations of Raphael. The faces are gentle conveying a sense of intimacy to the observer. It was named after the Kaouper family who owned the piece for 130 years. The great Retample Ansidli (2.74×1.52 meters) was produced in 1505 (Picture 7) where one may notice the emotions depicted on the faces along with their three-dimensional version. It is situated in London. Its technique is exceptional. Under its Florence arch there is an interesting landscape in great detail in the background. From St. Lucia we may see the “Mary of the Meadows” (Picture 7) or Belvedere which measures 1.13 x 0.88 cm. It is a 1506 piece of art and is to be found in Vienna. Its composition comprises elements of Leonardo while this piece is an eternal prototype honoring Holy Mary.

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Pic.7  Elizabetta Gontzanca           Young Madonna Kaouper                The Ansidei Retample                      Madonna di Belvedere

Around 1506, he created his self-portrait (47x33cm – Picture 8). This is situated in Ufficci gallery. This great painter reveals his melancholy while in his youth. In his “Madonna of the Great Duke”, 84×56 cm, (Picture 8), situated in Palazzo Pitti in Florence, a piece of 1506, we may distinguish the affectionate relationship between mother and child, as its name also denotes: due to the fact that its former owner, the Duke of Tuscany, Ferdinand III always used to carry the painting with him. “The Lady with the Unicorn” (65×51 cm) dates about the same period (Picture 8). It is part of the Borghese Gallery in Rome, while the unicorn acts as a symbol of purity. In 1506, he also created the “Holy Mary with the Goldfinch” held by two young children. The expressive figures, full of light, witness the influence of Leonardo. The painting belonged to the Nasi family until their house collapsed in 1547 and the crippled painting still survives. Today, it belongs to Ufficci Gallery.

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Pic.8: Self Portrait              Madonna of the Grand Duke             Woman with the Unicorn               Madonna with the Goldfinch

In this Bulgarian stamp we notice the markedly rich bourgeois man, Agnolo Doni (65×45 cm – Picture 9), work of 1506-07, found in Palazzo Pitti. The all-pervasive, intelligent look of Doni, who had the rare opportunity for his name to be recorded in history because of that painting, dominates, while we are not in position to know about the actual ownership of many other surviving works of art of that period. The “Fair Gardener” (1.22 x 0.80 cm – Picture 9) comes from Canada , now part of the Louvre Museum, is a work of 1507: a simple composition, on surface, but with particular attention to the third dimension. The moving “Sepulchral Lamentation” (1.84×1.76cm – Picture 9) by Retample Baglioni was created in 1507. The painting secretly bears the message of the Resurrection and was stolen in 1608 by Schipio Borghrse from Perugia, where it previously belonged. Ever since it has been part of the Borghese Gallery, in Rome. The “Dumb” (Picture 9), work of 1507- 08, belongs to the Museum of Urbino and has been influenced by Leonardo. Her perfectly oval face emerges from the dark background and is staring at the observer. This is considered as a great portrayal achievement by Raphael.

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Pic.9: Aniolo Doni               The Beatiful Gardener            Pieta Borghese or Baglioni                  The Mute

From Hungary we may see the portrait of a man of 1508 (Picture 10). This is in the Budapest Museum and the unknown youth has a lively look while there is a wonderful Tuscany landscape spreading in the background. During the same year (1508), Raphael is called by the Pope, Julius II, in the Vatican and embarks on the renowned frescoes within the Papal palace. In the Vatican block, we can see “The Dispute over the Sacraments” fresco of 1508-09 (Picture 10) with enormous dimensions, as its base measures 7.70 meters. Among the individuals discussing the Truth of Christ real figures have been included. This technique has undoubtedly earned the favor of many an admirer. “The School of Athens” (Picture 10), work of 1509, is one of the most well-known frescoes around the world. It is a masterpiece both in terms of its conception and execution. Among the figures presented one may recognize Sodoma, Brabande, Leonardo, Michelangelo and other famous figures of the time. This is his best creation. In 1510 the “Cardinal’s Portrait” was created (Picture 10), which belongs to the Prado Museum in Madrid. The name of the figure illustrated remains unknown but this unofficial work is full of the social and existential dignity of the person depicted.

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Pic.10: Portrait of a Young Man                          La Disputa                                 The School of Athens                      Cardinal’s Portrait

The creation of the “Mary of the Duke of Alba” or “The Holy Mary of the Dawn” emerging from the morning light in the landscape (Picture 11) goes back to 1511. This is a well-wrought round painting – 95 cm in diameter – that is distinguished by its fluidity in its composition and an almost invisible circular rhythm. It belonged to Hermitage, but in 1930 a great number of masterpieces were secretly sold under the blessings of Stalin. Thus 21 pieces reached the hands of the American tycoon Andrew Mellon who in his turn offered them to Washington Museum. “Madonna Alba” was one of them. It is worth noting that the Russians needed the money in order to buy tractors! The portrait of Tomasso (Fedra) Inghirami (Picture 11) was made in 1511-12 and is situated in Palazzo Pitti. Here Raphael succeeded in incorporating a kind of internal energy in his work along with an ethical force while, at the same time, he was not dealing with a beautiful model: in fact the model suffered from strabismus. Surely, Inghirami being a great intellectual, deserved that. The postcard (Picture 11) presents the portrait of Pope Julius II, Raphael’s patron. The power of his personality can be seen along with some degree of fatigue. This painting (1.08×0.080 meters) enjoyed such a success that the Popes who followed demanded to be depicted in the same manner. The piece belongs to the London National Gallery. On the Gibraltar postage stamp (Picture 11), work of 1511-12, we may see “Madonna Folignio”. The commissioner is shown on his knees in the foreground. The work is renowned for its artistic landscape by Raphael.

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Pic.11: Madonna of the Duke of Alba          Tomasso (Fedra) Inghirami             Pope Julius II                  Madonna of Folignio

The great fresco of Galatia was made in 1512 (2.95×2.25cm – Picture 12) in the villa of Farnesina in Rome. Agostino Chiggi, a very rich banker, was the owner of the place. The sense of movement, beauty and sensuality that are part of this fresco point to the fact that Raphael’s art had no limits regardless of the theme, being it religious or mythical, as in our case. The Holy Mary is depicted as lively and beautiful in the Holy Mary of Saint Sistine of Dresden or, better known, as “Madonna Sistine” of 1513 ( 2.65×1.96 meters – Picture 12). It is almost certain that his lover, Fornarina, posed as a model for the Holy Mary. On the left, there is the face of Julius II replacing that of Saint Sistine. The angels (Picture 12) in the foreground are universally known as they have been used in various different decor including any other conceivable artwork such as tapestries and Christmas tissues. The round picture of Holy Mary of 1513-14 (Picture 12 – 71cm in diameter) with the armchair comes from Lesotho and is to be found in Palazzo Pitti. This a well-known work of art distinguished by its movement, tenderness and power of expression.

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Pic.12: Fresco “Galatia”         Madonna of the Chapel                              Angels of Madonna’s                          Madonna of the Armchair

In 1514, Raphael was appointed as the architect of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome (Picture 13), as Brabande, who had offered so much to that artistic workshop had died (Picture 13). Baltassare Castiglione (Picture 13 – 0.82×0.67 cm), both an ambassador and an author, became one of the themes of Raphael in 1515. This is part of the Louvre Museum in Paris. Here the artist created an exceptional, psychological portrait. This painting is characterized by its simplicity along with its very expressive face revealing its inner world. The composition is full of serenity, culture and nobility. “La Velata” (Picture 13 – 0.82×0.60 cm), situated in Palazzo Pitti and painted in 1516, is a woman richly dressed and is allegedly the painter’s lover. The arrow that is covering her contributed to the very name of the painting. Raphael rendered her as an individual belonging to high society by stressing her delicate features.

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Pic.13: St. Peter and Bramante                                                     Baltassare Castiglione                             La Velata

In 1516, he also painted Cardinal Bernando Dovicci di Bibiena (Picture 14). He was a powerful man, who had a tendency towards a luxurious way of life including art and the authorship of comedies rather than religion. The new Pope, Leo X and Raphael’s patron was painted along with his nephews in 1518 (Picture 14). The painting belongs to Galleria Ufficci and measures 1.55×1.19 meters. It has a stately appearance with expensive material and objects interspersed within its magnificent figures. All three figures in the painting belong to the Medici family. The “Fornarina” of Palazzo Barberini (Picture 14), work of 1518-1519, shows Raphael’s lover, whom Chiggi had brought with him in his house (Farnesina-Galatia) so that the painter could spend some time with her, in order to help the artist finish his frescoes as there had already been a great delay due to his uncontrollable passion for her. His last work is the oblong “Transfiguration” (Picture 14 – 4.05×0.78 meters). This masterpiece of 1518-1520, which can be found in the Vatican, is full of movement along with warm and bright colors while it conveys the message of Resurrection through the light enveloping Christ. This painting was placed next to his coffin during his funeral, in 1520, at the age of only 38.

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Pic.14: Cardinal Bibiena                        Pope Leon X                             Fornarina                          The Transformation

For more than 500 years, his Madonnas, along with those of Leonardo, have become eternal prototypes of beauty and have exerted a great influence on other artists as they bordered on perfection. He did not get on well with Michelangelo, however, there was always mutual respect in terms of artistic recognition. Almost all Raphael’s works bear the names of their previous owners or their depicted themes. The names do help towards the recognition and differentiation among his Madonnas: Alba Colona Sixtina and so on.

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The Greek stamp dedicated to Aristotle

Postage stamps with Raphael have been issued by many countries around the globe with the exception of, mainly, Arabic ones. Only one postage stamp was dedicated to Raphael, in Greece, in 1978, without bearing his name on it! The stamp is actually dedicated to Aristotle!

The greatness of his name within the artistic pantheon is beyond dispute. He has left us with a wealth of extraordinary pieces, all done within his brief lifespan, escorted by his ingenious ideas that reveal themselves through his creations.

I hope you enjoy this artistic journey through philately. Rafael was one of the greatest artists of all times. The little paper stamps tribune him as much as they can. And they can do it … a lot!

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1000 followers thank you!

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You have no idea how much it means to us to know you’re there, reading and watching eCharta Blog. We cannot communicate enough how much it means to us that people have responded to our many involvements with various forms of paper in such an enthusiastic and sometimes profound way.

So we thank you once again, everyone who has every liked a post enough to tell us so or had the inclination to comment on something that they wanted to address – and thank you to the 1000 remarkable people who thought that our words, were worth following for a while.

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The eCharta Team