Thursday, January 31, 2013

185: The Fantastic Four #31

The Fantastic Four #31 
July 9, 1964
  • Hey, guys - the Mole Man's back! What, no great cheer? That's understandable: After all, it's the Mole Man. This is the third time he's appeared in these pages - his last outing being in issue #22 - but Stan keeps on bringing him back. The problem is that he was the villain seen in the Fantastic Four's very first adventure, so it'd be nice if the readers cared about him ... but the sad truth is that he's just not very interesting. And maybe Stan & Jack will start to realize that, as he won't be seen again in these pages until 1969's issue #88! (Also: What's up with his coloring? Previously he'd sported a green jumpsuit and green cape, but now it's a green and purple ensemble. Except... on the cover he's got a green suit and purple cape, while inside it's a purple suit and green cape! Maybe that's why he'll be back to green-on-green the next time we see him.)

    "New Look" Mole Man seems almost debonair!
    (Now, now - I did say "almost".)

  • The tale opens with the FF in their Baxter Building headquarters, shocked by a sudden and inexplicable earthquake. When they rush out to investigate, they find an entire city block has vanished, leaving a gaping hole in its place! Oddly enough, the Thing wonders if the Hulk might be responsible - despite the fact that when their own building had been plucked out of the ground, it was due to the machinations of Dr. Doom. Upon descending the newly-created block-sized pit to its bottom, the Four discover the Mole Man, who reveals that his end goal is the same as it ever was: conquest of the surface world. BORING! Have none of these villains ever thought about how much work, management, and, ultimately, paperwork must be required if they ever once attained their aim of global conquest? The first time I recall this point ever being made was in 1987's surprisingly decent Emperor Doom graphic novel; 1964, on the other hand, is probably far too early to expect that kind of self-awareness. (This is, after all, when a villain like The Wizard can come back for no greater reason than settling a grudge against the hero who first defeated him - again and again and again.  Deep motivations they definitely lack!)

    That's a bit harsh, Sue.  It's not Stan & Jack's
    best tale by far, but it's not

  • After the Mole Man takes Sue Storm hostage - yes, the Invisible Girl's role in the story is relegated to simply a prisoner to be fought over, once more - ol' Moley tells the FF to leave him to his conquest ... and that if they or anyone else attacks him, Sue's life is forfeit. They return to the surface, as directed, and immediately find the Avengers investigating the enormous hole, ready to descend. This of course is a very artificial way of providing the two teams an opportunity to fight - and yet this guest-appearance isn't even teased on the cover, as you might expect. The manufactured tension fortunately lasts not much longer than a page, but even this minor diversion can't distract from our noticing that the plot is paper thin: Our heroes go to the Mole Man, then they head back to the surface, then they return and defeat him. It's somewhat reminiscent of the famously padded stories in early Doctor Who, for instance, which could often be broken down into broad strokes of "captured - escape - captured - escape", and a lot of running about from place to place.

    Yes, but how do the city blocks stay in place once they're raised?

  • Fortunately, the issue does see one element that genuinely excites the reader's interest. Near the start of the tale, Sue sees a newspaper article and photo proclaiming the daring escape of a certain prisoner, and reacts with alarm. She doesn't want to discuss it, but instead heads to the police station to investigate on her own, leaving an insecure Reed to wonder if the older man in the photo is some lost love from her past. Only in the tale's finale, as Sue lies hospitalized from an injury sustained in the subterranean battle, does the escaped prisoner step forward. Not only is he a world-renowned surgeon, and the only person who can safe her life - but he's also Sue & Johnny's long-lost father! After successfully performing the needed operation, the police come to take him away again, but we finish this otherwise humdrum tale with our interest fully piqued: Who is this mysterious character, and what is his story? Readers would have to come back the next month to find out...!

    Father revealed ... and a mystery teased.

Monday, January 21, 2013

184: The Amazing Spider-Man #17

The Amazing Spider-Man #17
July 9, 1964
  • Get ready: It's the return of the Green Goblin! And this marks the beginning of an extended run of appearances that will form the strip's earliest ongoing mystery - one that won't resolve until the departure of Steve Ditko in 1966. A couple of commenters in the discussion of #14 pointed out the obvious comparison that I entirely missed: namely, that the character's terrifying grin recalls that of main Batman baddie The Joker! And this similarity might have crossed the minds of Lee & Ditko too, as they her start to reposition the character as the archenemy he would go on to be. Note, for instance, how they've already upgraded the villain's mode of transport from his previous (and laughable) "flying broomstick" to the much more successful Goblin Glider. Perhaps they realized they needed to shy away from the Halloweenesque elements, if they wanted to focus on making him a truly menacing character? And yet: The Goblin's first weapon of choice this outing is still "an electrically-charged toy FROG". 'Nuff said!

    "Mr. Brant"?  No, that's Mr. Allan!  Apparently,
    even Stan can't keep Peter's girls straight.

  • This issue, constant aggravator Flash Thompson surprises Peter Parker (and the readers!) by forming a local Spider-Man Fan Club. Since said club impacts the plot of this issue pretty heavily, it's perhaps worthwhile to take a moment and explicitly ponder the question: What unconscious gains are had by the choice to have Flash be such an enthusiastic fan of Spidey? Well, it's undeniable that Peter has always craved a certain amount of adoration and praise - remember that one of the first things he did upon gaining his powers was to go on television, lured by promises of fame and money - but instead he's usually met with suspicion and scorn. (Note the contrast with this issue's guest star Johnny Storm, whose exploits as the Human Torch do indeed net him the kind of easy life and worldwide praise that Peter envies.) Notice too that this development taps into the eternal hope of the lonely and misunderstood child, that "they'd like me if they only knew who I really am!" - a fantasy of wish-fulfillment that goes right to the heart of the secret identity itself, and provides ample hook with which many readers could self-identify. The irony, of course, is that Peter is thus able to receive a degree of affirmation from his peers, yet it doesn't actually change anything for his social life or public persona. Finally, Flash's hero worship allows for an increasing depth of character than the one-dimensional boor we met in the earliest issues - showing us that he has the depth of insight to see that Spider-Man isn't the "menace" the Daily Bugle make him out to be, and giving him a heroic role model to look up to, admire and try to emulate.

    Flash Thompson: The best frenemy a guy could ever have.

  • Near the start of our tale, Spider-Man notices a gaggle of costumed ne'er-do-wells fleeing along a rooftop and jumping into a waiting 'copter. He immediately races after, and apprehends them in the course of their getaway ... whereupon he's extremely chagrined to find that he's only interrupted the filming of a motion picture, and the "villains" are just actors! The scene is slightly contrived, yes - would he really get that far along without a glimpse of the cameras filming? - but also oddly familiar. Hasn't Stan used this very scenario once before, and rather recently? (The eerily strong sense of deja vu would suggest so, but I can't quite place it.) Clearly Stan is enormously enamored of the movies, as they pop up in these pages far more often than either television or radio - and recall their use in other notable stories, such as Namor's own movie studio in Fantastic Four #9, or the convoluted scheme involving the fake film shoot in the Green Goblin's first appearance, just three months earlier. It's no surprise that Stan would leave the publishing biz behind and move to California as soon as he reasonably could!

    The stage is set.

  • The main plot of the issue concerns Flash's decision to hold the first meeting of the Spider-Man Fan Club at the Avenue Dinner Club - complete with special appearance by Spider-Man! - and what happens when the Green Goblin crashes the party. Fortunately for the readers, what could have been a humdrum affair is actually pretty darn exciting! Critically speaking, this doesn't appear to be down to any one narrative strand, but rather because Stan & Steve have set up a bunch of different elements at the club, and then juggle our attention from one to the next, letting them all come into conflict with each other as they will. For instance, J. Jonah Jameson has requested the presence of Peter as Bugle staff photographer, but gleefully watches to see Spider-Man fail. Betty Brant has come with Jameson, but since she's been jealous of the attention Liz Allan has been paying to Peter, Pete doesn't want her to see him there (and especially under Liz's unasked-for affections). Johnny Storm's girlfriend Dorrie Evans is fed up with him always hogging the glory of others, and makes him swear not to steal the spotlight ... which puts him in an awkward position when he begins to wonder if the attack by the Green Goblin really is just part of the show, as the audience first thinks, or is instead all too real. The primary dilemma - that both Spider-Man and Peter Parker are expected to attend the same event - is obvious, and would certainly have fallen flat on its own, but is quite successful as the dramatic backdrop against which all the other concerns play out. Even the eventual Human Torch team-up adds to the thrills, which really indicates what an exciting and effective Torch solo strip might have looked like, rather than the bland effort we've consistently gotten in Strange Tales. And then, in the midst of all that, Peter receives the terrifying news that Aunt May has suffered a heart attack too! Readers of the time, upon reaching that last page, must surely have felt they'd gotten their money's worth, and then some.

    Of all the lame excuses Peter's had to use ... that might be the worst.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

183: Strange Tales #125

Strange Tales #125
July 9, 1964
  • Hey, it's the Sub-Mariner again! Which isn't anything especially newsworthy; after all, he's been appearing off and on since his reintroduction in The Fantastic Four #4, and was most recently seen just two months back in The X-Men #6. But we're now in the period when those appearances will become slightly more frequent, as his own ongoing strip is less than a year away. In this manner, Subby's trajectory kind of mirrors Stan Lee's approach to the Hulk after the monster's initial cancellation: Make sure to keep the character alive in the readers' minds, until he could figure out how to best utilize this hero/villain concept successfully.

    Aha!  This must be what the kids call ... "comedy".

  • On the other hand, the Human Torch strip hasn't felt particularly inspired in some time - possibly ever - and unfortunately, this revised "Torch and the Thing" version (now that The Rocky One is the ongoing, official costar) isn't actually new or improved. To be blunt, it mostly just feels padded, like Stan's out of ideas and is just phoning it in. The plot? After the pair drive off a couple of journalists for wanting to interview Reed and Sue instead of the two of them, they hear that Namor has been sighted off the coast. So they track down the Sub-Mariner and fight him, for no reason other than him being around (and, okay, past egregious behavior) ... and that's the story! Sure, there are some clever reveals at the end - but that just means that the only interesting parts come on the final page, and the previous dozen mostly encompass just mindless fighting and other meandering maneuvers. (Johnny & Ben spend an entire page reminiscing about the events of FF Annual #1, and Ben spends most of a page - in a story only 13 pages long! - towing the Torch & Subby, both unconscious, back to land.) The effect is a tale that feels utterly unengaging up until the very, very end - and then it's suddenly over.

    Regrettably, so did Stan.

  • In a frustrating bit of synchronicity, however, the Dr. Strange story feels similarly plotless. Baron Mordo has kidnapped and imprisoned the Ancient One, so our hero and villain both take to their astral forms and trade mystic blows all over the world, while Doc also searches where his Master has been stowed. And when Strange finds the place, he & Mordo fight some more. There's not much beyond that - and while Steve Ditko's rich visuals make this a marginally more interesting yarn than the preceding Thing / Torch story, it's not perfect; we've already seen Strange & Mordo battling in spirit form before, while the "fighting across global landmarks" device clearly recalls Thor & Loki's battle across the same, and questions raised early on (for instance: why did Mordo send his henchbeings to attack Strange when he knew they wouldn't be successful, and would only arouse the Doc's suspicions?) are never answered. Part of the problem may be that Baron Mordo has been designed almost from Day One as Doctor Strange's primary enemy, his Doctor Doom or Magneto ... but really, he just isn't very interesting. (At least not yet.) Fortunately, a new and more successful archfoe will make his first appearance next month!

    The preceding images of the Eiffel Tower and the pyramids of Egypt
    aren't nearly as compelling as this stark, crumbling ruin.

  • This is, perhaps, as opportune time as any to discuss the magical naming conventions found in this strip. At several points in every story, Doctor Strange or his sorcerous enemies will cite some magical being or force in their incantations, and it's usually a recurring name that we've heard before. (It's impressive that Stan can come up this mystic gobbledegook and mostly keep it straight from month to month; he must have been keeping notes.) For instance, here Mordo calls upon the "vapors of Valtorr" and "the hoary hand of Hoggoth", and the Ancient One has intriguingly been imprisoned via the "crimson circle of Cyttorak" - a mystic being who will become more famously associated with an X-Men villain, starting the following year. Granted, Stan doesn't always get it right: Readers know that Doctor Strange's "Eye of Agamotto" refers to the force that resides in the eye-shaped amulet clasped at the front of his cloak, but in this issue he enters his Chamber of Shadows (What a great name! Was that room ever referenced again?) in which, he says, "stands the all-seeing Eye of Agamotto!" The implication being that he's referring to the mystic globe stood in its center. A particularly enterprising fan could come up with reasons why this is not actually a mistake - and for all I know, some future writer may have noticed this oddity and crafted a tale to explain just that - but, as stated above, it's impressive enough that the famously improvisational Stan was able to maintain as much consistency of detail as he did. Finally, another name of note comes when he calls out, at the start of the story: "In the name of the dread Dormammu, begone!" It's not the first time he's invoked that name as a source of mystic power, and to date the entity has seemed as invocationally interchangeable as with, say, Oshtur or Munnopor. Starting next issue, however, that will no longer be the case....

    Baron Mordo?  Or Doctor Octopus?
    Perhaps it's Baron Octopus!

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

182: The Avengers #8

The Avengers #8  
July 9, 1964
  • Introducing Kang the Conqueror! In time he will go on to be one of the Avengers' greatest single villains, and quite possibly their primary archenemy. The Masters of Evil are certainly tops when it comes to team vs. team, and Ultron will arguably become their most fearsome returning baddie with a personal connection to our heroes literally built-in - but that won't occur for another four years. So Kang's arrival here is important, as the brand-new villains introduced thus far have included Lava Men (just a recooked version of the Mole Man's Moloids), shape-changing goofy-faced dude The Space Phantom, and ... Broccolli-head. In other words, we're rather overdue for somebody truly fearsome. Fortunately, you can tell from the outset that he's destined to be a classic: Groovy, alliterative name? Check! Impressively arresting visual design? Check! Now if he just happens to have any interesting abilities or an unusual back story, we may have something!

    Wh... Why on Earth do they have THOR on tech duty?!

  • Stan & Jack may have suspected that this villain had real potential. Rather than introducing him to our heroes with a humdrum arrival on the scene as per usual, the Avengers first hear that something is amiss via an emergency Pentagon alert regarding an approaching UFO. Once it lands, the hatchway doesn't immediately open, but instead sits immobile: Watching. Waiting. After an hour, it's been surrounded by the national security forces, and only after a nozzle protrudes from within to dispose of the army tanks does its master step out to greet the Earth in suitably dramatic fashion. The scenario is more than a little reminiscent of Klaatu's arrival in The Day the Earth Stood Still, to the extent that I wondered if Stan was deliberately cribbing ... but that film came out in 1951 - 13 years before! (Did movies get second releases back then, as much as a decade later?) Still, it is worth pondering from whence the Kang concept came. Sure, the idea of time travel had been popularized as far back as H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, and we've already seen the trope used by Stan himself in the past couple of years, via Dr. Doom's time machine, Zarrko the Tomorrow Man, and Pharaoh Rama-Tut. Speaking of which...

    As the Avengers meet Kang, Janet's "characterization" continues.
  • When Kang begins to divulge his back story to the Avengers, we're shocked to discover that his mystery identity alluded to on the cover is that of Rama-Tut! (In actuality, the readers are more shocked than the Avengers, who have likely never heard of the Pharaoh in question.) We'd last seen Rama-Tut in the pages of The Fantastic Four Annual #2, which just came out the previous week. That's actually pretty cool, and with hindsight makes Tut's appearance there, and the question as to whether he might be the past or future incarnation of another villain - which at the time seemed entirely unnecessary - to suddenly make a strange kind of sense. Whether intentional or a bit of genius improvisation, it almost seems like Stan has had a plan all along! So how did Rama-Tut become Kang then? Well, after dropping Doom off in the 20th century, the Pharaoh headed off towards his own time in the 30th. But due to a mysterious glitch, he overshot his mark by 1000 years and instead landed in the 40th century - which he soon conquered entirely and made his home. (Though that does bring another question to mind: Why the change from the 30th century to the 40th? Did Stan notice the setting of DC's Legion of Superheroes, and decide to leave the 30th to them?)

    Kang conquers.
  • In record time, the male Avengers find themselves captured, and the only ones left to free them are the Wasp, Rick Jones and the Teen Brigade! It's honestly a bit mystifying seeing the Teen Brigade get the spotlight as much as they do; they've appeared in nearly every issue, been instrumental in the team's formation, and their increased involvement here even ranks a shout-out on the cover. Stan clearly seems to think they're a concept the readers might respond to, perhaps in the same vein as Joe Simon & Jack Kirby's 1940s DC creation The Newsboy Legion - and yet, unlike the Newsboys, Stan consistently forgets to give any of the Brigade special talents, or unique traits, or even recurring names - anything that would make them actual characters, and not just the barest sketch of a concept. Still, despite their admittedly coglike sameness, they're nevertheless resourceful enough to break the Avengers out of captivity ... which is honestly more excitement than the Wasp gets, whose contribution is limited to flying to Hank Pym's lab to fetch his shiny new Stark-designed raygun, then flying back. Stan's heart is in the right place, but his execution is still lacking. Ah well: In another couple of years, the Teen Brigade will have faded into obscurity, while future decades will see Janet Van Dyne become a strong, rich and complexly-layered heroine. All she needed, really, was ... time.

    Thanks, Rick Jones!
    Now let's grab some RandomTeens.

Monday, December 10, 2012

181: Tales of Suspense #58

Tales of Suspense #58
July 9, 1964

  • Here we have the final piece of the puzzle, in which the Marvel of old can fully be said to have transitioned to that of the new. We've seen how the Marvel superhero comics grew out of the '50s craze for monster stories, before quickly establishing a footing for themselves. And in recent months we've seen the elimination of "filler" material of the sort that used to dominate: One-off short stories featuring characters and situations which didn't return. (Indeed, we can theorize that the "Tales of the Watcher" and "The Wonderful Wasp Tells a Tale" backup strips might have been devised as ways to burn off unused inventory, as the Watcher and the Wasp were usually used - at first - only as framing segments.) The final move was begun last month, as the Hulk guest-starred in Giant-Man's story in Tales to Astonish, as a seamless lead-in to the following issue in which the two characters would begin sharing the book for the foreseeable future. Here the same thing occurs, as Captain America guest stars in Iron Man's regular feature; next issue, the title will likewise become a split-comic with each hero getting half the book. This will last until 1968, when Captain America will claim the book entirely, kicking Iron Man out to get a full-length mag of his own. Of historical note is the fact that when Cap's new strip starts next month, it will be the first solo series Cap has had since his very brief revival attempt during Marvel's "Atlas Era" in the 1950s, and which lasted a mere three issues. This time, though, will be much more successful, and his adventures have run continuously ever since.

    Hey, that's a good point.  Why is there an
    Iron Man tracer in Iron Man's car?

  • While the format change is taking the approach utilized by Tales to Astonish as its cue (the two characters fight one issue, then split-book the next), the result is sadly far less successful. Whereas the Hulk / Giant-Man tale was an astonishingly impressive example of a "stealth pilot", elegantly conveying to the reader everything he or she might need to know about the Hulk's origin, supporting characters and general milieu in the course of the story, the same can't be said here. Instead, Cap shows up as Iron Man's Avengers teammate, and someone for Iron Man to fight ... and that's it. Sure, maybe the reason we're not treated to Cap's supporting characters and setting is because he - as of yet- doesn't really have any, but it's still undeniable that his appearance here is simply that of a random guest-star in an Iron Man yarn (whose function could have been filled by anyone) ... as opposed to the TTA tale, which really did read as a Hulk story just as much as a Giant-Man one. The rest of the story is no less frustrating; for instance, face-changing Spider-Man foe The Chameleon may be a decently clever way to get two heroes to fight each other via mischief and confusion, but it's harder to see why Stan had The Chameleon return to the American shores in the company of Kraven the Hunter - who is defeated in the space of two pages, and not seen again. The rest of the comic is then hampered by case after case of "idiot plotting", that unfortunate example of lazy writing where a simple misunderstanding could be cleared up in ten seconds by the characters talking to each other, rather than by fighting or otherwise overreacting. It's probably not the worst Marvel tale we've come across thus far ... but it might be in the bottom ten.

    Iron Man goes for a spin.  And Don Heck's
    Captain America seems oddly off-model, doesn't he?

  • Still: Let's talk about the coming changes! Because if Captain America is going to be taking over the other half of Iron Man's book, then that surely means the "Tales of the Watcher" must end. (Although the feature will return, briefly, as a backup strip in 1968's Silver Surfer.) And so we receive the final tale, "The Watcher Must Die!" From that title, I had hoped we might get a story purporting to show the Watcher actually dying / transcending / whatever, even temporarily: a fitting sendoff to the backup strip, and an acknowledgement that its time had now passed. Instead, what we get is the Watcher's planetoid being invaded for the third time in the last four issues. (If this plot is all that could be conceived for the character, perhaps it was indeed time to retire the strip.) This time, instead of providing the readers with a shocking twist like the kind seen last issue, the Watcher instead defeats his enemy by speeding up time in the area around him, and watching him die. Not only does this display near-godlike abilities on a level I'm not sure we'd previously seen ... but it's also not that far distant from the "cosmic filibuster" seen in issue #55. It's just that this time the "wait him out" approach hinges on near-magical powers, rather than a genuinely clever ploy.

    The plot may be hokey, but I love the design sense Heck uses
    to convey the sequence of events.

  • And as we say farewell to "Tales of the Watcher", having already seen the final Wasp strip, so too do we see the last of Larry Lieber's monthly backup features. (Surprisingly, his final tale was last month, as this outgoing story is by Stan Lee - and not altogether better for it!) More than one reader of this blog previously took me to task for being perhaps unduly harsh on Larry's writing in the early Ant-Man stories, but I really took a shine to his work on these later backup strips - and it's safe to say that he enjoyed them far more as well! We've not seen the very last of his pen in the Marvel U - he'll continue to put in the occasional appearance, from time to time - but for the most part, he'll be much happier from here on out toiling in the realm of cowboys and gunslingers. Coincidentally enough, while this last tale signals the departure of one voice, it also sees the introduction of another ... as Golden Age artist George Tuska here returns after several years away, going on to become a Marvel mainstay for many years to come.

    of an era

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

180: Fantastic Four Annual #2

Fantastic Four Annual #2
July 2, 1964

  • All-Doom Special! Yes, this second annual for The Fantastic Four is packed with superhero goodness. But what, might you ask, do the "72 BIG PAGES" shouted on the cover contain? Well, first it starts off with a 12-page origin of Doctor Doom - expanding greatly on the half-page seen in Doom's first appearance - before then getting the now-traditional (see here, and here) gallery of full-page dossiers of their newest foes, from #18 through #30: The Super Skrull, Pharaoh Rama-Tut, the Molecule Man, the Hate Monger, the Infant Terrible and Diablo (6 pages in all). A reprint of Doom's debut in Fantastic Four #5 follows (23 pages), along with 5 pages of pin-ups (one for each of the Fantastic Four, and Alicia). Rounding things off is a new Fantastic Four story clocking in at 25 pages - which means that the "double length epic" billed on the cover is a blatant lie. If you've added all these up, however, you've noticed that this only accounts for seventy-one pages. What's the other? Simply a Marvel house ad for the two other annuals on the stand that summer!

    From the lost pages of Grimm's Fairy Tales?

  • Doom's origin story actually has a very fairy-tale quality to it, beginning when he was but a young boy, the son of a gypsy healer in the Bavarian Alps. When the local baron's wife falls deathly ill, he has his men take the older Von Doom by force, demanding that he save her with his healing arts - or else. Von Doom is unable to do so, however - she's simply too far gone - and he is thus hounded through the woods, doing whatever he can to protect his boy, and eventually dying from the strain. The young Victor Von Doom swears vengeance, of course, so it rather dovetails nicely when he discovers that his dead mother had been a sorceress, and he finds a strange chest containing all manner of magical artifacts and paraphernalia. Using these magics and his own mechanical genius (learned from where, we might ask?), he soon begins a campaign of swindling the upper class through a variety of tricks and potions, nobly giving all his ill-gotten gains to the poor. Yes, as incredible as it might seem, Doctor Doom first began as a strange sort of Robin Hood, waging class warfare against the aristocracy!

    Marvel continue to be unable to spell "pharaoh"

  • Before long, we're told, Doom's numerous inventions bring him to the American attentions of State University, who offer him a scholarship on the spot. There he meets - and instantly rebuffs - a young Reed Richards, who instead becomes fast friends with football star Ben Grimm. One day, Reed stops in at Doom's dorm room while he's out, and reads over Doom's notes about his newest invention, having to do with "matter transmutation and dimension warps" - all culminating, in fact, in an attempt to "contact the nether world". (Later stories would expand this into his first of many attempts to contact his dead sorceress mother, giving this portion of his origin story a personal, driving motivation it here lacks.) When Doom appears at the door, Reed tries to point out a few mathematical errors, but the arrogant Doom banishes Reed from his room, and goes on to try the experiment anyway. The machine explodes, of course, disfiguring Doom's face and causing his expulsion. Subsequently turning his back on the world, he goes into seclusion, tracking down and then training with a hidden group of secret Tibetan monks. At the end of this time, he has them create for him an ominous suit of armor and mask ... and thus garbed, ready to finally take his leave and return to the world, Doctor Doom is born.

    In a slight continuity gaffe, Doom wouldn't wear this particular cloak until
    his second appearance.  It's a great scene anyway.

  • This being the first time we've encountered Doom's full origin, we can talk about the several theories which have arisen regarding the initial accident, and the status of Doom's face. As presented here, Doom is said to be horribly scarred in the explosion, which is why he had to go into hiding; that's certainly the impression Stan's dialogue presents. However, Jack Kirby would later express his own theory that the explosion only gave him a very slight scar - but that the unyielding Von Doom, witnessing his own perfect beauty ruined, thus declared himself unfit to be seen by the world. In a later story which some have questioned - but I actually find quite satisfying - writer/artist John Byrne would try to marry these two opposing viewpoints by indicating that the initial scarring was minimal ... until Doom instructed the monks to set the iron mask upon his face while it was still red-hot. (Note how even in this issue Kirby draws the mask being set on Doom's face as it still gives off clouds of steam.) This idea seems to me a very rich combination of the vanity and perfectionism found in Kirby's theory, while making Doom's accident the result of his pride - the very Shakespearean flaw favored by Lee - not just once, as originally portrayed, but in fact twice over.

    Silly is definitely the word for this!

  • The main story opens with a very pedestrian occasion, as Ben loses control of the Fantasticar and is forced to bring them in for a rough landing on the Manhattan streets, rear-ending a civilian's automobile in the process. As might happen with any accident, the out-of-town owner jumps out of the car and starts laying into the Thing, yelling about damages and remuneration and the like. Up walks another man, however, introducing himself as an art dealer and offering to buy it from the driver on the spot. As soon as the cash trades hands, he asks the Thing to bust up the auto even more, claiming he'll sell it as an original "Clobber Creation!" It's a pretty funny way to kick off the tale, illustrating the impressive mixture of character realism and delightful absurdity that's made The Fantastic Four such a hit.

    A clearly momentous meeting.

  • Meanwhile, we check in with the current goings-on of Doctor Doom, who was last seen drifting off into deep space at the end of Fantastic Four #23. Against all odds, however, he's picked up in the nick of time by Rama-Tut, the time-travelling pharaoh introduced in FF #19! Recall that at the end of that issue Reed had theorized that there might be some connection between Rama-Tut and Doom; unfortunately, this new meeting does little to answer the question. At first, Rama-Tut claims that Doctor Doom is clearly his ancestor who created the time machine which the Pharaoh's own time travelling sphinx was based on. But then they get to wondering if the two of them might actually be the same man, at different points in his life: Does Doom eventually travel to the 25th century and start calling himself Rama-Tut? Or, alternately, will the Pharaoh take a visit to the past and become the gypsy who would one day call himself Doctor Doom? It's really a very bizarre conversation, because neither of them asks the obvious question: If that were the case, in either regard, wouldn't the future version of the person remember his earlier deeds? The latter theory is especially perplexing, given that the annual opened with Doom's origin story - beginning with Victor as a young boy...

    Kirby really excels that that "villain stalking
    through the crowd" thing, doesn't he?

  • The time logic gets even weirder, in fact. Rama-Tut suggests that the two of them team up to take down the FF, which has now defeated them both, but Doom says that they can't attack together - because if they're the same person, and the younger version is slain, the older version will die too. So Rama-Tut instead just drops Doom back on Earth, to pursue their vendetta on his own, and goes to live his conquering life back in the 25th century. It's a bizarre, bizarre development that doesn't really go anywhere, and doesn't answer the Doom-Pharaoh question that was first poised back in #19 ... so you have to wonder what the point was in bringing these two together in the first place. Did Stan have a plan, and first wanted to remind readers of the question? (Unlikely, given his usual, improvisational working method.) Or was it just a flashy, if convoluted, way to rescue Doom and get him back on Earth?

    Does this remind anyone else of the famous
    J. Jonah Jameson soliloquy?

  • As the plot gets underway, our heroes receive an invitation to a gala at the Latverian embassy, honoring them with a scientific fellowship. And yet none of them so much as bats an eye or sees anything suspicious, which I found odd. A few panels later we see them at the event, where Sue comments, "Reed, I'm rusty on my current events! Who is the actual ruler of Latveria?" And suddenly, with a shock, I realized: This annual was the first time Latveria had ever been seen! (For all we know, Doom's previous castle may have been located in upstate New York.) Doom and Latveria have been so completely connected in readers' minds ever since - the land can be said to be an intrinsic part of his character - that I had entirely forgotten the fact that we'd never seen or heard it before now.

    Hey, look!  It's that bizarre limitation on Sue's powers!
    (Wonder if it ever comes up again?)

  • When the Fantastic Four's drinks are drugged at the embassy, they quickly hallucinate and turn on each other before discovering Doom as the culprit. Reed then leads them back home to the Baxter Building, where Doctor Doom awaits for their final confrontation. Wanting to put an end to Doom's madness once and for all, Mr. Fantastic whips out the most INSANE device imaginable: The encephalo-gun! This device, we're told, pits two combatants' willpowers against each other, and whoever loses ... is sent away to a timeless limbo forevermore. The idea that Reed would have invented something SO outlandish, and yet so ruthless, seems completely unbelievable ... until we're subsequently shocked to see Doctor Doom win the battle of wills, gloat over Reed's disappearing form, and then walk away satisfied. Sue is quite confused at Doom's actions, and asks Reed for an explanation - now seen casually leaning against the door - who points out that the gentleman's toast which Reed offered Doom before their duel was spiked with the same drug that had been used against them earlier that night, causing Doom to merely imagine his final victory against his foe. Now, what I find fascinating here is that apparently some readers have interpreted this to mean that it was only the victory itself which was imagined, and that everything up to that point was real. I think this misses the point: Everything that occurs after Reed & Doom drink was entirely imagined, up until we see Reed explaining the plan to Sue. I mean, something called "the encephalo-gun"? With that insane of a premise, and with such an iconic-yet-ludicrous visual design? In such a case, the revelation that it was all just a trick actually works because of the excesses in Lee's words and Kirby's designs, rather than in spite of them. Heck, even Sue's melodramatic outburst makes sense in retrospect: "Reed! Not the encephalo-gun!! Not that!! You can't!!" Exactly the kind of over-the-top histrionics a megalomaniac would imagine his cowed foes shrieking, don't you think?

    Crazy.  Beautiful. Nuts.

Monday, November 19, 2012

179: Tales to Astonish #60

Tales to Astonish #60
July 2, 1964
  • In this issue: The return of the Red Menace! When Hank Pym receives news that his old FBI contact Lee Kearns has been captured in East Berlin, he heads off on a solo mission behind the Iron Curtain to track Kearns down and free him. In the course of doing so, he learns that the Reds (which, by the way, is the only referent to the baddies in these pages; unlike previous "Red" stories, this issue avoids the words "Communist", "Socialist" and "Soviet" alike) have accidentally invented a super-ray which gives gorillas human intelligence. Fortunately, Pym is able to gain the upper hand when he turns the ray on the German officers and is delighted to find that the ray has the opposite effect on humans, giving them the intelligence of apes. It's a good thing it didn't end up making the humans super-intelligent - which would have been my guess! And yet at the end of the story, one question remains: Man, what IS it with the Reds and their intelligent apes?

    This is Pym's idea of travelling incognito.

  • Despite being a solo story, this story unusually has a couple of callbacks to Tales to Astonish #44, which contained the first appearance of the Wasp. For one thing, a footnote points to that issue being the previous appearance of Kearns, and it is - if just barely. See, at the end of that story, Pym phones up Kearns to tell him that he & Janet have defeated the Creature from Kosmos. Kearns gets one snippet of dialogue in response - unseeen and in a single panel. Hardly meaty enough to dig up the name 16 issues later, is it? More significant - if also more problematic - is Pym's decision to tell Jan about his "secret origin" from that same issue, when he lost his new wife Maria to Red forces in Hungary. I noted at the time how odd it was to give Ant-Man a deeply personal, unsolved mystery, yet go nowhere with it; here again it's odd to bring up the story - as if to refresh readers' memories - and then not follow it up. (Perhaps Stan originally had an idea on where that was leading, but realized it could be problematic to further develop the romance between Pym and Van Dyne if he continued to hint that Hank's wife might still be alive somewhere.) Fortunately, in the 1980s writer Steve Englehart would finally revisit and resolve this plotline in the pages of The West Coast Avengers. In fact, Englehart's storyline would additionally include the return of not only this issue's superintelligent gorillas, but also that of Madame X, the Scarlet Beetle, El Toro and The Voice! Guess Steve was a pretty big fan of these early Hank Pym adventures, huh?

    They're gorillas!  But they're intelligent!  But they're gorillas!

  • Meanwhile, the backup strip is pretty darn notable - as we now begin the Hulk's second lease on life, after the "stealth pilot" intro last month. In an interesting move, his new adventures aren't initially illustrated by his co-creator, Jack Kirby, but rather Spider-Man and Dr. Strange artist Steve Ditko! It actually provides a nice bit of accidental continuity between the Hulk's first series and this second, since Ditko was the artist on the Hulk's final issue of that initial run. And in terms of callbacks, this issue has a couple (unintentional?) similarities to the Hulk's debut story - arguably the most successful one out of those first six - as this opening tale also features the army base being infiltrated by an enemy spy, as happened there, and a moment when someone tries to stop the atomic test being conducted, but it goes off anyway...

    Banner realizes the nature of the beast.
  • It's no secret that the Hulk's second go will turn out to be far more successful than his first, as the character has been continuously in print ever since. And it's easy to see why! From reading those first six issues, it seemed as if Stan & Jack had created a compelling character from the outset, but then been at a loss as to what to do with him. Here, though, we can see that Marvel have already begun to figure out what would prove to be the lasting formula. In what was quite probably an insight on the part of the deeply reflective Steve Ditko - who, though uncredited, was responsible for plotting much of the stories he worked on in this period - Banner realizes that the changes now come at times of emotional stress: When he loses his cool, the Hulk comes out. Or, as Barry Pearl puts it, "When Kirby introduced him, his change was caused by external factors, dusk and dawn and later a machine. Ditko’s Hulk changed for an internal issue, anger management." Clearly this change is one that would really hit home with the fans! It's worth noting, though, that they're not yet all the way there, as emotional stress also turns the Hulk back into Bruce Banner - which slightly breaks the resonating theme of The Hulk as a physical manifestation of Anger. Before too long they'll perfect it though, and the Hulk will become human again when the crisis has passed, and he's started to calm down...

    Whoops!  Little Hulky's falling off this ride.

Monday, November 12, 2012

178: The X-Men #7

The X-Men #7
July 2, 1964 
  • In this issue: The X-Men graduate from Xavier's academy! Yes, despite having set up the presumably rife premise of "super-powered teenagers in high school" in their debut, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby surprise us by seeming to resolve it a mere half-dozen issues later. It's impressive to see how casually Stan introduces real change, and doesn't shy away from acknowledging the real passage of time - things which would happen less and less in Marvel Comics as the years go by. (That said, it's worth pointing out that casual yet radical changes proved utterly disastrous once before; hopefully such a significant change to the status quo was considered carefully this time, weighing benefits gained against any potential lost.) Still, such a graduation does give rise to a number of questions, like: How can they all graduate at the same time, if the X-Men are different ages? Does that mean they were all, effectively, in the same grade? What kind of academic program did the Professor teach them? Wouldn't it have been neat to show the occasional classroom session (a welcome insight which would be seen regularly, and to great effect, in the 1980s series The New Mutants)? And most importantly: Where do they go from here - and why did Stan choose this moment to graduate them? Well, as we soon learn, because it's now time for the X-Men to grow up...

    These aren't graduation caps affixed to their heads.
    They're incredibly unfortunate secondary mutations.

  • Under the less-than-illuminating pretext of "unfinished tasks", Professor Xavier announces to his students that he's going away for a while. In his place, he's chosen Scott to be team leader in the interim, and reveals to him (and us) his secret invention "Cerebro" - an advanced machine which can duplicate Xavier's ability to locate new and previously-identified mutants. This, more than anything else, should drive the point home, as the Professor is now giving his charges the means to track down and investigate new cases without him. In practice, Xavier's departure is to last only a short stint, as he'll return in the issue-after-next - yet it's worth noting that this is the very first time he's leaving the X-Men on their own, an event that will recur a number of times in the decades to come. (On those occasions, his absence will often last for many years at a stretch, with the team massively changed as a result.)

    What they don't tell you is this is how Magneto
    spends every Sunday afternoon.

  • After having debuted in issue #4, and returned in every issue since, the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants will take a break for a bit after this story, unseen again until issue #11. Last time, they tried to recruit the Sub-Mariner and failed. (Amusingly, because the arrogant-yet-chivalrous Namor didn't appreciate the way Magneto spoke to a lady.) This time out, the Brotherhood heads to to the carnival to recruit The Blob! Hey, they probably need a bit of a powerhouse in their ranks, don't you think? And yet this new alliance is trounced once again by Mag's inability to play well with others, or even marginally conceal his contempt for those he considers beneath him - which, let's be honest, means just about everyone. At the end of the tale, The Blob turns his back on both heroes and villains, dejected, and returns to the carnival ... the only place, he believes, a freak like him can ever truly belong.

    Dig this swingin' sixties hangout!
    We'll be seeing a lot more of this.

  • The rest of the plot is fairly pedestrian, as the main importance of the issue is the introduction of elements like Cerebro and the X-Men working on their own, as well as continuing to flesh out the characters' lives via new settings and situations. To this end, we get our first trip to the Cafe A-Go-Go (though not named as such in its first appearance) over in trendy Greenwich Village, and some of the regulars of that joint, such as Bernard the Poet and Zelda. Meanwhile, Scott Summers - already a tightly-wound young man - settles into his new role, and is further cemented as the personality he'll become known for: seemingly destined to bear the weight of the world on his shoulders.

    Scott as grim and lonely leader.
    We'll also be seing a lot more of this...!

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

177: Journey into Mystery #108

Journey into Mystery #108  
July 2, 1964 
  • The opening scene to this story is one of the most credibility-stretching premises we've seen for some time. The splash page shows Thor on the streets of New York City, smashing his hammer into the pavement in front of a score of onlookers and causing an untold amount of city damage. Why? It seems he had just been flying over NYC when he spied an out-of-control truck about to hit a boy playing in the street. Knowing that he could never reach the scene in time, he instead flew to the ground and slammed his hammer down, sending out shock waves in one controlled direction, which reverberates through miles of the city (causing how much more damage along the way?) until it reaches the desired spot, 1.2 seconds later - at which point it causes the truck to leap into the air, and thus bounce over the terrified child in question! This comic should have come with a health warning, as the unparalleled degree of eye-rolling evinced could very likely lead to ocular damage ... and yet the opening is entirely appropriate too. After all, yes, that scene is in one sense ludicrous - but in another, it's a way of declaring what kind of story this is: A melodrama, with stakes and situations we can understand, but raised to operatic proportions. And for a comic book story starring a thunder god, isn't that exactly right?

    Thor's getting a little cavalier with those emergency funds!

  • As seen on the cover, this issue guest-stars Lee & Ditko's sorcerer supreme, Dr. Strange. And it's worth noting that Dr. Strange appearing in Thor's comic feels right in a way that doesn't necessarily hold true in other books, as they're both heroes that come from a foundation of mysticism and lore. (Compare this, for instance, to the slightly mismatched feeling when the magical Strange guest-starred in the super-scientific world of the Fantastic Four!) Interestingly, Strange summons Thor from afar to where he has collapsed in his home, entirely spent after defending the city from his archenemy Baron Mordo - which has the unusual effect of making it almost seem as if Thor is the guest-star, suddenly popping into a Dr. Strange adventure already in progress! Was this Stan thinking on the standard storytelling tropes, and purposely inverting a formula that he was consciously aware of? Or was this simply a matter of him striking gold while winging it - as usual?

    The Doc after an all-night bender.

  • On to the plot: Devious trickster god Loki flies to Earth, kidnaps Nurse Jane Foster from the medical office of Dr. Don Blake, and then throws Blake's cane out the window so that he can't transform into his alter ego Thor and thus stop him. But when Don gets outside - the cane is gone! To find it, Blake therefore enlists the aid of Dr. Strange, whose life he had just saved at the hospital hours earlier, to scour the city with his astral form. This favor Strange does indeed return, seeking afar while his physical self remains sat in the hospital wheelchair. So, to sum up: Thor comes upon Dr. Strange collapsed in his own house, rushes him into surgery to save his life, and then later begs for help in finding his lost stick. Surely one of the most heart-pounding guest-appearances Marvel had ever wrought! (I kid.)

    I love the intimation that it's the resulting shock wave
    that sends them all flying back, and not the blow itself.

  • In a similar vein, this month's "Tales of Asgard" feature is but a short vignette telling one of the exploits of the young Thor - as opposed to the recent Tales we've had filling in the background on the other Asgardians. It came to pass that Sindri, king of the dwarves, had been sending Asgardian captives to the trolls, as part of a terrible pact to keep them from attacking his kingdom. Accordingly, a disguised Thor gets himself captured and sent off, then leads the Asgardian prisoners in revolt and ultimately seals away the land of the Trolls. It's a very simple story (even by TOA standards) - but even if it doesn't have the mythic resonance that most of these instalments usually do, it still does a decent job of illustrating more of the Asgardian lands than we've seen to date, and the relationships between the people and monsters therein.

    Finishing touches.