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COMICS 101

By Scott Tipton
Scott Tiptons Comics 101

2006-05-24 - MARVEL'S MOST OVERLOOKED GIANT: Black Goliath

By the time this sees print, the first issue of Marvel's CIVIL WAR will have come and gone, so we should have a slightly better idea of what's to come in this summer's big crossover event. However, at the time it's being written, the issue #1's release is still days away, so most fans are only reacting to preview pages and solicitation covers provided to PREVIEWS, one of which has generated quite a few e-mails here at COMICS 101 HQ, all asking the same question:

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"Who's that big Black guy in the back?"

That, my friends, is one Dr. William Barrett Foster, Ph.D., best known (at least briefly) to comic-book fans of the 1970s as Black Goliath, another of Marvel's attempts in the 1970s to break the color barrier in superhero comics, following the success of LUKE CAGE, HERO FOR HIRE. Foster's appearance on the cover of the upcoming CIVIL WAR: FRONTLINE comes as something of a surprise, as the character has been mostly inactive for the bulk of his career, with only a few sporadic bursts of superheroic activity. However, you might surprised to learn just how far back the character's history and pedigree goes. Let's take a look.

Bill Foster was created by none other than Marvel Founding Father Stan Lee himself, along with artist Don Heck, all the way back in September 1966, in AVENGERS #32, "The Sign of the Serpent!" At the time, Avenger Henry Pym, then working as Goliath, had found himself permanently stuck at a height of 10 feet, and was growing despondent at his inability to return himself to his normal size. At his wit's end, Pym asks the Avengers' financier Tony Stark if he knows anyone qualified enough to work as his assistant. Stark sends over the top biochemist from his Baltimore office, none other than one Bill Foster.

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Together, Foster and Pym work to solve the dilemma at hand: how to strengthen Pym's weakened blood cells, which can so longer handle the strain caused by his size-changing abilities. Although the two settle into a productive working relationship, the solution eludes them, until Foster is assaulted by a hatemongering terrorist group known as the Sons of the Serpent, who beat the crap out of poor Bill for daring to set foot in the neighborhood. In response, Pym rallies the Avengers to track down the Serpents.

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When the plan to bring the Serpents down involves Goliath's pretending to join them, Foster temporarily loses faith in his colossal associate, until Goliath turns on the Serpents onstage at a public rally. Foster returns to the fold in AVENGERS #34, and the two get back to work on Pym's ailment. Pym, it turns out, had hit upon the answer on his own, but the two get to work on testing the procedure.

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By the next issue, Pym had regained his ability to shrink (so much for testing, but then Henry Pym never was much for caution anyway), and Foster had vanished.

If I'm not mistaken, we wouldn't see Bill Foster again for 9 years, until LUKE CAGE, POWER MAN #24 (April 1975), with "Among Us Walks ... Black Goliath!", written by Tony Isabella and drawn by George Tuska.

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Here Luke Cage and his buddy D.W. have taken a road trip out to Southern California to track down Luke's girl, Claire Temple, who had mysteriously disappeared from New York, then sent Cage a postcard with only her hotel address in Los Angeles, prompting Cage to investigate further. After tracking her to the local fairgrounds, Luke confronts Claire, who it turns out, is there at the behest of her ex-husband -- wouldn't you know it -- Bill Foster. Foster, Claire tells Cage, had remained fascinated with Hank Pym's size-changing serums and continued experimenting with them. Unfortunately, Foster also followed Pym's example in using himself as a guinea pig, resulting in Foster being trapped at a height of 15 ft. Too proud to go to Pym or his former boss Tony Stark for assistance, Foster took a job with the local circus in order to fund the research necessary to allow him to assume his normal size, and asked Claire to come help him while he was trapped as a giant.

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Naturally, Foster walks in just as Luke and Claire are having their reunion, and the two throw down. It should be noted that Foster's new "Black Goliath" ensemble sports not only the super-high squared-off disco collar, but also that most mysterious of fashion statements, the male peekaboo belly shirt. Luke Cage and Black Goliath manage to tear it up pretty good for awhile, before they both fall under the thrall of Bill Foster's heretofore unknown employers: the Ringmaster's Circus of Crime.

The two remain hypnotized until Claire Temple manages to free Luke's mind, and Luke puts into motion the actions that return Bill Foster's sanity as well. Cage and Black Goliath take down the Circus of Crime, and Claire decides to return to New York with Cage, leaving Bill Foster, unemployed, heartbroken and still trapped at a height of fifteen feet.

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Or was he?

Foster would quickly return to newsstands later in 1975 with the first issue of his own solo series, BLACK GOLIATH #1, once more the work of writer Tony Isabella and artist George Tuska.

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As the first issue begins, Bill Foster seems to have gotten his life together, working to clean up his old neighborhood in Watts as Black Goliath, and taking a position heading up Tony Stark's West Coast operations. Curiously, there's also some creative backpedaling going on.

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First comes the assertion that, although Hank Pym developed the size-changing serums, it was Bill Foster who perfected them, a credit Foster certainly wasn't given in his AVENGERS appearances. This was probably done to give Foster a bit more heroic credibility, as someone who actually contributed to his own powers, as opposed to just borrowing them from a guy who wasn't using them any more. Even stranger, it's revealed that Foster was never trapped at his 15-foot height, nor was he ever so destitute as to be forced into working at a circus. The whole thing had just been a ruse perpetrated by Foster, in the hopes of convincing his ex-wife to come back to him. Kinda pathetic, really. It's an odd revelation to make about your protagonist in the first issue of his new series when you should be trying to get the reader on the new hero's side, that he's willing to deceive his wife into returning to him, but not smart enough to pull it off. Granted, they needed away to change Foster's status quo from his previous appearance, but it seems to me like "found a cure" would've been a stronger solution character-wise than "big fat liar."

Black Goliath's inaugural case involved protecting Stark Industries West from a radioactive super-type called the Atom-Smasher, who was raiding laboratories all over in a series of radium thefts. Goliath finds the Atom-Smasher to be a little more than he bargained for, taking a series of devastating radioactive blasts in the course of the battle. More on that later.

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Black Goliath's battle with Atom-Smasher continued into his second issue, and while he didn't manage to win out, he at least stopped Atom-Smasher from stealing the radium. More surprising, the comatose superhero is rescued by a Good Samaritan, stewardess Celia Jackson, and winds up getting a little action in the process (or at least that's what we're to assume transpired in the space between panels, with Marvel's typical 1970s restraint).

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Foster's technical staff at Stark West puts together a radiation scanner for him that allows him to track Atom-Smasher, and the two go at it again, this time with better results for Black Goliath, as he manages to trap the radioactive villain in a graphite shield, rendering him harmless. That is, until the Atom-Smasher's heretofore unknown employer prevented the captured villain from talking by shooting him in the back, thanks to a nearby sniper.

Black Goliath next tangled with a musclebound type called Vulcan, who was attempting to steal a mysterious box from Stark West. This time, the villain got away and the box was lost. Not a very auspicious track record for Black Goliath so far.

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So how were the comics themselves, you ask? Well, they just kinda ... were. They definitely felt no worse than other Marvels of the period. The writing by Isabella and later a young Chris Claremont was sturdy if unremarkable, and the art, by workhorses like George Tuska and Rich Buckler, was always solid, clear and easy to follow. The work just never coalesced into a truly enjoyable narrative experience, one where you put the book down and said, "Wow. Where's the next issue?"

Issue #4 saw Black Goliath facing off against Stilt-Man, a logical enough pairing that made for this Giant-Size double-page spread:

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Even worse, Stilt-Man endangers Black Goliath's booty call from the other night, Celia Jackson, who just happens to be at the scene with her teenaged nephew, and soon, Stilt-Man unleashes the power of his "Z-Ray" on the three of them. As it turns out, the "Z-Ray" had teleported them all to a distant planet (as seen in BLACK GOLIATH #5, by Claremont and artist Keith Pollard), where they encountered the friendly alien Derath and the not-so-friendly alien guardian Mortag.

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Before Dertah dies at Mortag's hands, he's able to devise a way to get Black Goliath and company home, and that's it for Black Goliath's solo series, ending on a bit of a space opera that seems very much out of character for the series, I think indicating that the book's demise was an unexpected one.

Black Goliath next appeared in a three-issue stint (issues 11, 12 and 13, to be exact) in Marvel's then-new team book THE CHAMPIONS, serving as the group's technical advisor as well as helping resolve the mystery of just what was in Tony Stark's mysterious box. However, before Black Goliath could make any more appearances, CHAMPIONS was cancelled as well. At this point, Bill Foster wasn't exactly setting the world on fire. Foster's next appearance of note was later in 1978, in the Thing team-up series MARVEL TWO-IN-ONE, in the Mark Gruenwald/Ralph Macchio-penned "Project Pegasus Saga" a rare-for-its-time six-part epic involving Ben Grimm's short-lived stint working security for a government energy research facility. The storyline introduced the character of Quasar, as the facility's new security chief and reintroduced Bill Foster, who had brought the corpse of his radioactive enemy Atom-Smasher to the facility for research, and eventually wound up returning to action, although not as Black Goliath:

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Thanks to a bit of logic from Mr. Grimm, Foster was now the new Giant-Man. As Foster investigated the series of break-ins and attacks on Project: Pegasus with the Thing and Quasar, we discovered that he was also hiding a tragic secret:

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Foster attempts to sacrifice his life to save the project from the menace known as the Nth Man, but in the end, thanks to the combined efforts of the Thing, Quasar, Thundra and the hippie alien known as the Aquarian, he survives, and is left to face an uncertain future. When all efforts to cure Foster's condition have failed (despite the best efforts of the usual band of Marvel Universe genius types, Reed Richards included), his life is saved at the last minute thanks to a blood transfusion from Jessica Drew, a.k.a. Spider-Woman, whose blood is immune to all radiation and toxic poisons. However, it was determined that Foster's body could no longer handle the strain involved with size-changing, and so he retired his superhero costume and returned to scientific research.

Naturally, it didn't last. Foster regained his powers and returned to action in 1988 in WEST COAST AVENGERS ANNUAL #3, only to lose them again in 1995 in the pages of THE AVENGERS, and then most recently to regain them again in an as-yet-undisclosed manner and return to action, this time calling himself just Goliath, in the first issue of Dan Slott's new THING solo series:

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What's next for Bill Foster? We'll have to wait and see. But based on his past, let's hope he has some better luck.

Scott Tipton tips his proverbial hat to Black Goliath for being one of the few superheroes to dare attempt the high collar. Nice look, man. If you have any questions about Black Goliath or comics in general, send 'em here.

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