Friday, March 09, 2018

The Phoenix Gambit: Part Four Black Queen's Mate (DC)
Suicide Squad #43 When: July 1990
Why: John Ostrander & Kim Yale How: Geof Isherwood

The Story So Far...
The Suicide Squad have been dissolved, and Amanda Waller imprisoned, but political unrest in the Eastern European nation of Vlatava has forced the powers that be to reactivate their expendable black-ops force!

Now operating as a fully autonomous outfit under Waller's command; a team, partially reassembled by The Batman, infiltrates Vlatava under the guise of going freelance to a global market!

Russian General Kaligari agrees to hire Waller under strict conditions, working to expedite hardline aggressions against the deranged Count Vertigo, and his Vlatavian resistance. In truth, the Squad work against the Russians, aiming to bring in one of their toughest agents -- the man wanted in connection to an assassination in Gotham City: Ivan Illyich Gort - Stalnoivolk!

Tale of the Tape...
Strength: Stalnoivolk 5 (Super-Human)
Intelligence: Bronze Tiger 4 (Tactician)
Speed: Vixen 4 (Olympian)
Stamina: Stalnoivolk 6 (Generator)
Agility: Vixen 5 (Cat-like)
Fighting: Bronze Tiger 5 (Martial Artist)
Energy: Draw 1 (None)
Total: Stalnoivolk 25 (Champion)

It's a classic case of speed and skill against brute strength! The martial arts mastery of Bronze Tiger is unleashed by Amanda Waller with a mission to prove that even an invulnerable man can succumb to the right technique!

Bronze Tiger's target is a Secret Wars on Infinite Earths newcomer: Ivan Illyich Gort, aka; Stalnoivolk - translated as "Steel Wolf"!

Gort is the product of Soviet experimentation during the Second World War. He was born in the early 1900s, but his aging was drastically retarded by the process that also granted him phenomenal super-human strength, endurance, and stamina.

He could have been the first of many, but Stalin ensured his Steel Wolf would hunt alone. The fiercely loyal Soviet super-soldier participated in hostilities in Ukraine, only to be exiled to Siberia after the war. He was eventually recalled to action by the cold and calculating Major Zastrow, to participate in his covert super-human group Red Shadows.

Today we find Stalnoivolk operating under Zastrow to suppress rebels in Count Vertigo's homeland of Vlatava. He's best known for confronting the suspected nuclear threat of Firestorm, and covert operations of the Suicide Squad. As it so happens -- today: he is the Suicide Squad's covert operation!

Bronze Tiger is fighting master enough to challenge most strong-man types, but it's fair to say there's an air of mismatch when he goes up against Stalnoivolk.

It also doesn't help that Ben Turner isn't in the best of mental states, having been severely rattled under interrogation from Sargent Steel, before the Suicide Squad were officially disbanded as a government operation. The cold control he exhibited fighting Ravan in Suicide Squad #2, or taking care of Enchantress in Legends #3, is replaced with a recklessness that could prove dangerous.

His former lover Mari McCabe, aka; Vixen, secretly has his back, but in his current state The Tiger has no desire to call upon her assistance. She isn't exactly thrilled with the idea of offering it, either. The Ben Turner she once loved is a memory replaced by a man haunted by past misdeeds.

Which is a shame, because Vixen is arguably the better match-up for Stalnoivolk. Her ability to channel the morphogenetic field through her tantu totem means she can emulate characteristics of the strongest animals. That allowed her to go it alone against Professor Ivo and his androids in her own moment of darkness [Justice League of America #261]. She's also gone toe-to-toe with Wonder Woman in JLA: Classified #3, and Volcano Man during Justice League of America (Vol. 2) #15!

If Bronze Tiger and Vixen can get on the same page, they should be able to match the brute force of Stalnoivolk. If they don't, there's a real danger they'll just get in each other's way! The combined stats favour the Suicide Squad duo, but do not count out the simplicity of Stalnoivolk's power!

The Tape: Bronze Tiger & Vixen Ranking: Bronze Tiger (#79)

What Went Down...
Walking the streets of Vlatava; Stalnoivolk receives a call summoning him back to Red Shadow headquarters. It sufficiently distracts him from the figure leaving the shadows behind him. The mystery man strikes with deadly precision!

The blow to the base of the skull manages to send Stalnoivolk to his knees! The attacker is Bronze Tiger -- and he doesn't believe in true invulnerability!

Stalnoivolk defiantly digs his fingers into the concrete sidewalk beneath him and hurls the rubble at his looming attacker! He manages to catch Bronze Tiger by surprise -- momentarily blinding the martial arts assassin!

The Russian powerhouse rushes to capitalize on his gambit, but the Tiger can sense his movements. He vaults over the hulking super-soldier, buying enough time to regain his vision!

With clear sight on his target - Bronze Tiger responds with a furious flurry of targeted strikes! He hits a knee, the jaw, the back of the skull -- all in an effort to bring the "steel wolf" down!

The Tiger finishes his combo by thrusting both feet at Stalnoivolk's face -- but the Russian super-soldier catches him by the ankles! He's getting annoyed!

Luckily for Bronze Tiger, his Suicide Squad teammate and ex-lover Vixen has been following him. She leaps from the rooftops above and summons the charging power of a wild rhinoceros - targeting Stalnoivolk's steel back!

The super-human sneak attack involuntarily arches Stalnoivolk's back, releasing his grip on Bronze Tiger! The martial artist spills to his back, but wastes no time reorienting to capitalize on the unexpected assist!

Vixen channels a stampeding elephant into her punch as she strikes the wolf of steel's skull for the umpteenth time! At that same moment: Bronze Tiger thrusts his heel into Stalnoivolk's chest at full force!

The Russian finally falls! Invulnerable, but not undefeatable!

The Hammer...
At last we can answer the riddle: How do you defeat an invulnerable Steel Wolf? With the pure power of a stampeding elephant, and the striking ferocity of a tiger, of course!

After deep diving into Black Panther's origins last month; it might seem as if we're keeping up a theme of featured feline fighters. It's mostly a coincidence of what I've been reading lately, and maybe a little bit of influence from the recent Winter Olympic Games. I saw a whole lot of foulplay from Russians during the games. What's with that, any way?

The thought occurs that Bronze Tiger would be a very interesting opponent for Black Panther, should we ever get another round of DC versus Marvel fantasy fights! He's kind of a fusion of the physical discipline and mastery of Bronze Tiger, and the animalistic spirituality of Vixen!

Fans have often posited Black Panther works well as a counterpart for Batman, but there's no shortage of those. Who could resist a "cat fight" between two hand-to-hand masters of Black and Bronze?... Speaking of which: we really will have to get to Bronze Tiger's famous fight with Batman sometime soon!

As noted: I've been busied with the pages of Suicide Squad of late, reliving some of their classic conflicts from the back-half of the memorable run.

The Cold War was basically deemed done & dusted by this time in the series, but with a character as fun as Stalnoivolk, who wouldn't want to go back for another round of Soviet espionage and hostility? Facebook trolls and nudging speed skaters pale in comparison to the man dubbed Steel Wolf!

Regular readers know I love a good, simple second tier villain, and the bushy moustached Stalinist fits the bill perfectly! He's a great no frills kinda bad guy! A WWII relic who almost serves as a Russian counterpart to a 1940s Superman.

Stalnoivolk is a "man of steel" from behind the iron curtain - just as capable of leaping tall buildings, or out-pounding the powerful surf, as early era Supes! Like classic era Superman, he also doesn't do much more than take a good punch - or deliver one! The presentation is more austere, but that's both part of its charm, and the effectiveness of the character as a threat of will.

John Ostrander apparently created Stalnoivolk as a Firestorm villain, but he's arguably at his best as a threatening presence stalking the periphery throughout his Suicide Squad run. The Russian shows up pretty early as a continuation of threads from the first year's mission to Moscow [which went poorly]. 1990's "Phoenix Gambit" may come at a time when Cold War tension was losing topical relevance -- but it was the showdown readers had to have been waiting for!

The fight described is an action-packed moment of triumph for two of The Squad's best heroic characters, but it also shows the breakdown of their one-time romantic relationship.

The modern Bronze Tiger is fairly inseparable from Suicide Squad, but their mutually shared arc also did a lot to move Vixen forward after the final days of the Detroit era Justice League [see; Vixen versus Professor Ivo]. She goes into the Suicide Squad an emotionally broken hero, and comes out of it stronger. An inverse to the Bronze Tiger story, which finds him broken by Sarge Steel's grilling amid the governmental dissolving of the Squad in the previous story arc. It also plays to his earlier days brainwashed by the League of Assassins.

Ostrander [and Yale]'s
Suicide Squad is a great time just about anywhere you might drop-in, but as I'm finding out while I fill in gaps, it's much more satisfying read in its entirety!

The accumulation of character development, sub-plots, and high concepts is really fantastic. In many ways, the content feels very relevant to our present world. Yet I'm not entirely sure if the long form spread would lend itself to the more timid aspects of our present pop culture.

If you've enjoyed dipping a toe into Suicide Squad with today's featured fight, you can currently seek out trade paperback collections for most of the original run. Using the link provided [right] will even help support the site at no extra charge to you!

As always, you can find plenty more action by following your curiosity to links littered throughout this post, tags down the bottom, or by plunging into the Secret Archive for an index of every fight organized by publisher, series, and issue number!

You can also subscribe to Secret Wars on Infinite Earths via Twitter and Facebook to get daily links to fights inspired by the topics of the day! A like and a share is a great way to spread the word and support the site!

Winners: Vixen & Bronze Tiger
#48 (+31) Bronze Tiger
#69 (+49) Vixen
#845 (new) Stalnoivolk

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