Thursday, December 30, 2010

99: Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos #4

Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos #4
September 4, 1963

  • "Lord Ha-Ha's Last Laugh". Dumb title, right? Sounds like exactly the kind of hyperbolic, over-the-top villain name that Stan has been coming up from the beginning. Only one difference: This bad guy was based in true fact. From 1939 to 1945, an English-speaking radio broadcaster - derisively dubbed "Lord Haw-Haw" by the British press - spouted Nazi propaganda on the German airwaves, which was then transmitted to other shores until the last days of the war. And yet he peppered his broadcasts with nuggets of otherwise accurate information, one of the only sources providing reports on attacks and movements in Germany and behind enemy lines. As a result, Lord Haw-Haw was able to use this steady trickle of information as incentive for Allied forces to listen to these broadcasts, where the mocking tone and carefully laid disinformation could demoralize the troops and crush their spirits.

    Nazi lies.

  • In this fictionalized version, Lord Ha-Ha is the brother of Pamela Hawley, a Red Cross worker who Fury meets in London during a bombing. Her father, Lord Hawley, is convinced that his son is being forced to make these broadcasts against his will, and thus enlists the Howling Commandos to liberate him from the Nazis and thus win the Allied forces a significant propaganda victory. Sadly, by the tale's end it turns out that Haw-Haw is a traitor, does believe in the Third Reich ... and is yet mistakenly killed by his own side, the Nazis, while trying to escape the Howlers' custody. The demoralizing broadcasts may have been silenced, but Lord Hawley and Pamela have lost a brother and son - and to them it's a Pyrrhic victory indeed.

    Circus antics.

  • Marking this as still a transitional issue, however, is the fact that even amidst the story's pathos there's yet room enough for Howling hilarity. On the outskirts of Berlin, the Commandos come across their contact, a female lion trainer, whom they meet while she's chasing her escaped lion. Yes, really. And her circus is to be their base of operations! Oddly, this ridiculous setting only lasts a few pages: just one of those bizarre occurrences the Howlers have to deal with in the pursuit of their goal.

    Tragic loss.

  • But all of this pales before the event that makes this issue so memorable: the death of Howling Commando "Junior" Juniper. While such a thing might not be too surprising today, in the relatively lightweight comics of the 1960s the death of a major character was something that just didn't happen. And as Fury dourly points out at the end, they lost two men that day - "Junior" Juniper and Pamela's brother. Not to put too fine a point on it, this changes things: What had previously been an unrealistic, over-the-top comic full of wa-hoo action divorced from reality, would forevermore be tinged with at least a sense of grim consequence and stark realism. In this as in other ways we've seen, the comics were gaining a maturity never before seen....

    Downer ending.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

98: Tales to Astonish #50

Tales to Astonish #50
September 3, 1963

  • Hey, it's the fiftieth issue of Tales to Astonish! And how does Marvel celebrate this anniversary issue? Erm ... they don't. I mean, the splash page of the story proclaims it to be a "double-length spectacular", but at 14 pages it's clearly not. Note, however, that the story unusually ends on a cliffhanger, to be continued next issue. So was it originally designed as a full-length tale, taking up the entirety of the comic - but then for some reason Stan decided to split it in two after all, and put back in the requisite backup strips as normal?

  • The bad guy this time round is Dave Cannon, the Human Top. Goofy in name, and goofy in deed. First we glimpse Dave as a young hooligan from years ago, terrorizing the neighborhood kids and stealing fruit. Growing up, he decides to cash in on his abilities as an ice skater ... but, still not satisfied, continues to commit crime in his off-hours. The character, in every regard, is entirely ridiculous - the kind of villain you expected to see Hank fight during his earlier issues, along the lines of the Protector or the Hijacker. If Stan was hoping to get the readership to take Pym more seriously, this was not the way to do it.

  • What is interesting, though, are the strange, subtle personality developments we see starting to occur in Hank. Despite reading a newspaper that declares the Human Top to be "Public Enemy Number One" (seriously?!), Pym declares the crook to be beneath his notice. When Jan hears of this, however, she immediately reprimands him for having a new giant-sized ego as well, which seems to jolt him out of his complacency. After an attempt at capturing the Top which sees Giant-Man walk into signs, crash through property, and essentially trip all over himself, Pym goes back to the lab and creates a training regimen designed to increase his speed and reflexes, instead of just his height. Although the initiative is sound, we can detect a slight hint of the inferiority complex that drove him to create the Giant-Man guise in the first place, and the seeds for his later mental instability are in surprisingly clear view.

    You sometimes get the feeling that these new villains don't ever stop
    to see what they look like in a mirror.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

97: The Avengers #2

The Avengers #2
September 3, 1963

  • It would be a bold and risky move to introduce multiple changes to a comic in its second issue, just after the team has debuted. After all, conventional wisdom says that readers should have time to acclimate to a status quo before you start changing it - and let's not forget that frantic, frenzied changes doomed one title already. But Stan apparently has no use for conventional wisdom, because this issue highlights Hank Pym's new identity of Giant-Man! I suppose that's one of the necessary risks of doing a book which features characters with their own titles: major changes in those titles must then be acknowledged. All perfectly normal, if you're going to do that sort of thing. But what is unusual is to also debut the new feature of a character in this, the secondary book - such as when Jack Kirby shows us a cutaway of Giant Man's ant-communication circuitry, no longer encased in a bulky silver helmet as before, but wafer-thin and affixed to the inside of his mask.

    Watch out, Tony!  The Hulk be spoilin' for a fight.

  • Do the changes stop there? They certainly do not ... for at the end of this issue, the Hulk leaves the team! Think about that: One of the founding members has left, after their first official outing. It must have been positively shocking! Was this Stan's intent all along? Or did he really change his mind that quickly? Did Stan suddenly realize that making the Hulk into a team player diluted the power of his metaphor as the ultimate loner? Or did the character, on second thought, seem too limited as a sullen, angry brute (unlike the Fantastic Four's cranky-but-more-evenly-tempered Thing)? Or did Stan, perhaps, realize that there was even more untapped potential in the character than he'd first suspected, and perhaps he needed to rethink giving the Hulk his own feature again, sometime down the line...?

    The Hulk as portrayed in this issue seems more sullen and confused than anything else.
    Also, the angular design of the Space Phantom gives him a creepy and alien feel.

  • Meanwhile, the villain for this piece is the Space Phantom. On the surface, he seems all too familiar, as he's yet another alien scout spearheading yet another alien invasion, in yet another allegory for American fears of the Communist threat. But it has to be said that in this case the analogy is more successful than usual, because the Space Phantom operates by stealing someone's identity and then infiltrating their life. In other words: Look around you! The invader could be anyone!

    This was truly one of Stan's strengths: the ability to juxtapose action & suspense with
    perspectives that were unexpected, and often ridiculous.

  • Additionally, this issue sees the Avengers get the headquarters they'll operate from for most of their existence, as Iron Man provides them with a mansion owned by Tony Stark. Pretty nice, that! (Though it's not yet called Avengers Mansion, and their famed and beloved butler won't show up for another year.) Also, take note of the "thou" in Thor's speech during this issue, marking what I believe to be the first appearance of his famed faux-Shakespearean dialogue - something that Stan could sometimes pull off, other writers often couldn't, and which yet remained rooted to the character until just a couple years ago.

    Surprisingly, Stan's dialogue implies that the Hulk was quite a sensitive soul,
    and all he really wanted was some friends.  Not that he's done with the Avengers, oh no...

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

96: Journey into Mystery #98

Journey into Mystery #98
September 3, 1963

  • After returning to the comic last issue to help kick off Thor's new direction, Jack Kirby is mysteriously gone once again, and he'll remain so for the next three issues. (With the exception of the new "Tales of Asgard" backup stories, which he'll continue to pencil throughout.) There does seem to be a certain creative team shuffle in these strips for these next few months. But that's okay, because as brilliant as Kirby may be, in the interim we get a guest stint by the inestimable Don Heck - an artist whose name I only vaguely knew before embarking on the Marvel Genesis project, but of whom I quickly became a fan.

    Feel the angst!  Also, notice that either Jane had her own very spacious office,
    or else Don Blake kept a picture of himself as Thor upon his desk.

  • The evolution of the Marvel comic book progresses, as we get the first Thor story which explicitly continues on from the events of the previous issue. As you'll recall, Don Blake's constant disappearing act when needing to turn into Thor has resulted in his nurse Jane Foster getting fed up with his perceived cowardice and indecision - so she walked out of both his practice and his life. What's a lame doctor to do, when faced with such heart-rending disaster? Go on vacation, of course! Although the melodrama only lasts these two issues - Jane's back by the end, you see - it's still a sign that the interchangeable, inconsequential and non-changing yarns of the early days are on their way out the door.

    Surely one of the greatest lines ever written in a comic.

  • So the villain this outing is the Human Cobra. And OH MAN does he have one of the more convoluted origins ever seen! In India, the assistant to the noted Professor Shecktor is a shady ex-con named Klaus, who the prof has taken under his wing in an attempt at rehabilitation. Far from being grateful to such a kindness, Klaus envies the professor the fame and acclaim he receives for his work - so he concocts a scheme to do away with him. But ensuring the scientist is bitten by a deadly cobra isn't enough; no, in an attempt to throw any investigation off the trail, he decides he must also be bitten, while ensuring that he alone takes the antidote which he denies the prof. How was he to know that the cobra was radioactive...?

    Bit of a design flaw in the hammer's enchantments, wouldn't you say?
    And Thor does his best Br'er Rabbit impression.

  • Continuing the new backup feature just begun last issue, we have the second instalment in "Tales of Asgard, Home of the Gods!" After last time's broad overview of the Norse myths, this time we have the first actual story, in which Lord Odin fights the Ice Giants and ... well, that's it, really. I mean, it is a welcome change to see Odin as King-hero for once, rather than just play the patriarchal supporting character role, but I can't deny a bit of disappointment with just how little happens: Ice Giants attack; Asgardians fight back; Odin traps their leader Ymir in a ring of fire. The End. But then, I suppose one should keep in mind that we're still just in the introductory phase of these stories, and being only 5-page backups (told in giant-sized Jack Kirby panels, no less), the amount of plot that can be delivered at any one time is going to be limited. It may do to adjust one's expectations when reading these backup stories, recalling that the myths told in such broad strokes leave little room for details or plot, but rather place the emphasis squarely on the grandeur and epic scope. And in that, it must be said, the tales clearly deliver!

    These two panels take up the entire bottom half of the comic page.
    No small windows of action here!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

95: The X-Men #2

The X-Men #2
September 3, 1963

  • Okay, it's their second issue, so now we need to re-introduce the team. Back in the day, the common wisdom was that "every comic is somebody's first", so it was understood to be vitally important to deliver all the information a first-time reader might require to comprehend the story, such as character names, powers, premise, etc. At the same time, you always want to find as elegant a way to do so as possible, so as to not alienate your returning audience with expository dialogue that sounds offputtingly artificial. Needless to say, it's a tricky business that doesn't always succeed in finding the proper balance. And in this comic it's a taller order than most, because it's a BIG team - five members of the X-Men proper, as well as Professor Xavier, their school and the Danger Room. So it makes for a healthy intro scene as our opening pages give us separate scenes of each of the X-Men using their powers in different ways while answering the professor's summons. (That said, a few pages later we then have a scene of Xavier testing them out in the Danger Room, one by one - which seems an unnecessary bit of repetition.)

    What a fantastically funky bit of perspective!  They almost seem ready to fly out from the panel itself.

  • It's interesting to see the ways in which the comic is finding its feet, as Stan & Jack still haven't realized what the book is about. This is most starkly illustrated in the opening scenes, when Warren Worthington III, the Angel, finds himself mobbed by adoring and love-struck fans - as if the X-Men are celebrity superheroes just like the Fantastic Four! This disparity between The X-Men's beginnings and what the book would later become is further emphasized by Professor Xavier's relationship with Fred Duncan, an FBI agent in the Department of Special Affairs who has been tasked to working with the X-Men in order to more efficiently combat mutant threats. In other words, the X-Men are not simply unfeared by the public at this stage in their development - they're in fact positively depended upon. Heck, the government's even loaned them a special plane!

    Y'know, with Warren's outer uniform pulled up like that, I'm struck by the similarity
    to the Golden Age Angel from
    1939's Marvel Comics #1.

  • On the other hand, if we wanted to conjecture a history detailling when the Marvel populi began to distrust mutants as a whole, we could argue that this was when it all started to change. After Magneto's very public plans for racial elevation in issue #1, we here see the Vanisher referring to the men who try to stop him as simply "homo sapiens", the disdain dripping from his voice. It could be argued that the public first thought of the X-Men as superheroes to be celebrated, just like the FF - but that the bad seeds of this new race, with their outright contempt for baseline humanity, soon turned the public perception against mutants as a whole.

    Sadly, the art in the background is just too tiny
    to make out the form of JFK agog at the window.

  • So, yes, the villain this outing is the Vanisher - and man, that is one weird looking dude. (Seriously: What's going on with his head?) His ability to disappear from one place and reappear in another is a surprisingly simple gimmick, and one that reminds us of the Living Eraser, or the aliens from the Fifth Dimension.  In fact, his one bland trick does seem like that of a Tales of Suspense foe, or a Strange Tales baddie ... which makes you realize that although Stan has begun giving the separate heroes their own quirks and identities, he hasn't yet started to ask himself: "What make a good threat to the X-Men?  What makes an Iron Man villain different from one for the Torch?"

    Mindwiped by the Prof.  You do realize that if Xavier
    tried that stunt today, he'd be sued?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

94: Tales of Suspense #47

Tales of Suspense #47
August 8, 1963

  • With this issue, we have the final piece of Stan's plan. For these first two years, all of the superhero half-length features - Ant Man in Tales to Astonish, Thor in Journey into Mystery, the Human Torch in Strange Tales, and Iron Man in Tales of Suspense - all had Stan providing only the plot, with dialogue and captions added later by someone else. By taking over full writing duties on this issue, those days are now over. (I know I've hammered on it again and again as those changes have occurred, but it really is the beginning of a new stage.) And, as he's done before, Stan further heralds his greater attention to these heroes by having one of his lead artists take over for a few issues - in this case, Steve Ditko!

    I love seeing a well-constructed tableau such as this, where so much
    information is conveyed in a single panel, rather than in several.

  • That said, the contents within don't show sweeping changes - and in fact, some of them are downright repetitive! In this story, Tony Stark finds his arms plant the victim of industrial sabotage. (Just like last issue.) When he therefore can't deliver on his contracts, this leads to congressional pressure. (Just like last issue.) Fortunately, this unoriginality is made up for by the action - which starts immediately, before delivering a flashback and the villain's origin by page 3! So you at least can't say the plot wastes any time.

    What he possesses in inventiveness he more than lacks in fashion sense.

  • Speaking of plot, the villain this time is one Bruno Horgan, The Melter. A former competitor of Tony Stark's, whose business failed when Stark pointed out his use of inferior materials, he subsequently discovered a directed beam by which he could dissolve iron in seconds. With his parallel background and inverse ability, he's seemingly Iron Man's direct foil - but then, so was the villainous Dr. Strange, and he was never seen again. Amusingly, since the Melter's beam specifically melts iron, Tony tricks him by ... remaking his armor out of aluminum?! (Or "aluminium", as our international friends might have it.) It's a great, if ridiculous, twist, and one that foreshadows another major change, coming next issue. Tellingly, the Melter gets away at the end - and unlike Strange, will actually return. And not just on his own, either!

    I think I can see Ditko's work in the particular way Iron Man moves.
    But not much else!

  • It should be said, though, that the only real oddity in this issue is the art. As mentioned, this is the first of a three-issue guest-stint by Steve Ditko, with finishes by Don Heck. And yet, this seems to be one of those cases where the style of the underlying art is almost wholly subsumed by the style of the inks. I'm not the strongest in identifying art styles, but the wide eyes and lanky figures associated with Ditko's art are nowhere to be found! The look of the villain is quirky enough to possibly be of Ditko's design, and the "staging" of the figures show some of his distinctive poses as well. But to my untrained eyes, what I see is mostly Heck - especially in the faces. (The very unusual credits may be a clue, as instead of the normal "pencils" and "inks", we get "interpreted by Steve Ditko" and "refined by Don Heck".) In any case, Ditko's pencils will be much more visible in the next instalment....

    Another clue to Ditko's work may be how the pages spring from a six-panel spread,
    in the way (for instance) that his Spidey work is based on grids of nine panels.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

93: Amazing Spider-Man #6

Amazing Spider-Man #6
August 8, 1963

  • In this issue we meet Curt Connors, the Lizard. And he's the first baddie who really commands our sympathies, as he's unquestionably a decent man gone wrong. A good-intentioned scientist as well as a loving husband and father, he lost an arm while serving as a war surgeon and instead became one of the world's authorities on reptile life. Fascinated with the regenerative ability displayed in certain lizards, and aware of the rewards all mankind could reap from such a development - his own phantom limb a constant reminder, of course - he painstakingly concocted a serum which he hoped might impart this capacity, and (because this is comics, after all) tested it out on himself. To his delight, his missing arm grew back in seconds - but, in a bald nod to Jekyll and Hyde, he in turn loses his humanity.

    Um.  Can we just hope that Dr. Connors happened to find
    a rabbit that was already missing its leg?  Please?

  • And what an action-packed issue this is! Which makes for a refreshing turn after the surprisingly lackluster Fantastic Four #20. It's an intriguing contrast in what makes a successful comic book versus that which fails; they each have the same length, but this one makes SO much better use of the space it's given. Whereas the bulk of FF #20 was just one big fight scene, this story sees quite a lot going on: After the initial setup of the threat, Peter foils a totally unrelated robbery at a museum before convincing Daily Bugle publisher J. Jonah Jameson to send him to Florida on the trail of the Lizard. Rather than a single fight scene, Spider-Man has three separate encounters with the creature, in between which he meets the Lizard's wife and son, and we're treated to a flashback scene of the monster's origin. Add to all this the creature's defeat and denouement, some typically comedic faceoffs with Jameson, and Peter flirting with Betty Brant and Liz Allan - and you've got a comic with so many story elements the reader never runs the risk of getting bored!

    The worst thing about becoming the Lizard is what it's done
    to his penmanship. You'd be crying too.

  • But, having made this observation, I then naturally wondered as to the cause: Why (aside from varying levels of writerly inspiration) might one story seem so full, when another seemed so light? And so, wanting to get down to the bottom of the question, I pulled out the two stories - FF #20 and ASM #6 - and compiled some data on each. And the results were illuminating! Steve Ditko is famous for his use of the nine-panel grid, where nearly every page consists of (or is based off of) nine equally-sized panels. By contrast, most pages in FF #20 contain five panels each - one tier of two panels, another tier of two panels, and one tier of one panel (in varying order). As a result, FF #20 has 105 panels total, or 4.77 panels per page ... while ASM #6 has 157 total panels, or 7.47 panels per page. Artistically, it makes sense: Jack Kirby's drawing power, especially on The Fantastic Four, is his ability to convey grandeur and epic scope - see, again, his awe-inspiring scene of the FF landing on the mysterious blue area of the moon - while one of the main reasons Ditko was chosen for Spidey was because Peter is specifically a grounded and street-level character, in scenes that are less cosmic and with a more intimate feel. So Ditko generally has more space to work with, while Kirby has more leeway in conveying the incredible ... but it does mean that if Lee & Kirby don't deliver a wholly breathtaking tale, there are far fewer elements to distract us when the main story falls flat.

    That's a great one-panel transition.

  • Finally, it's impressive to see the continued and steady evolution of Peter's character. As mentioned above, early on in the story he's about to ask out Betty Brant when he's interrupted by another of Jameson's outbursts, and the story ends with Peter phoning up Liz Allan for a date instead. She turns him down - suddenly enamored with that hero Spider-Man who saved her at the museum - but instead of feeling rejected, Peter just shrugs in bemusement at his wry luck. It's a significant change to see him displaying this kind of cool confidence, something he clearly lacked in his earlier stories. (The cocky indifference showed in his first appearance doesn't count, arrogance being just one's insecurities overcompensating.) This might have been Stan's plan all along, or it could just be a natural change due to persistently wimpy characters making a dull read. However it may have happened, the continuing change is a welcome one, and it's refreshing to see a character we enjoy actually becoming a better, stronger person as we watch.

    Comedy gold, man.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

92: Fantastic Four #20

Fantastic Four #20
August 8, 1963

  • In this issue, we meet the villainy of the Molecule Man! And ... it's not a great success. No, he may not be as bad as any number of early Iron Man or Thor foes, never to be seen again - yet he would appear only sporadically over the decades, and usually command neither respect nor fear. One has to wonder if it's due in part to the rather off-putting visual design - did Kirby actually create a look so creepy that the readers didn't clamor to see more? - but Stan sadly has to shoulder the blame for, it must be said, completely forgetting to give the character any engaging personality at all! In fact, only much later would he receive the surprisingly unique portrayal of a neurotic suffering from a massive inferiority complex, and it was this version of the character that would become most known for his roles in (the classic) Secret Wars and (the not so classic) Secret Wars II.

    Note the plural: "universes". Is this Marvel's first hint
    of a multiverse, slipped in the careless words of a Watcher?

  • In fact, if we're being completely honest here, the writing is a bit of a disappointment all round. (In Stan's sudden desire to spend more time on the other heroes, has he mistakenly given the FF short shrift?) In addition to the rather bland villain, the plot's pretty lame too. After an opening scene in Reed's lab, Uatu the Watcher appears - in an inexplicably obscure fashion - to warn them about the Molecule Man. They then find and fight him, in a scene which lasts nearly half the book! It finally becomes a bit interesting, as they find themselves first on the run, then hiding out in Alicia's apartment ... but by that point there are precious few pages left, and nowhere left to go. Superhero fiction may ostensibly be a subset of the action genre, yes, but when the bulk of your story is one long, uninterrupted fight scene? There's not enough meat on them bones.

    Make no mistake: That's one creepy-looking dude.
    (Though still an improvement over his first face, above.)

  • An additional oddity is the issue's confusing approach to the title's own history. As mentioned, the FF is first contacted by the Watcher, whom they first met on Earth's moon back in issue #13. And, y'know, bringing back that character wasn't strictly necessary. (The villain didn't need to be foreshadowed for just a couple of pages, and they didn't need a preexisting character to do it.) But Stan was already recognizing that the readers responded gladly to familiar elements - one of the reasons he began having the characters guest-star in each other's stories - and so aimed to make use of it here. And yet! Not only does the story reuse the plot device of the Baxter Building being snatched from its foundations whole cloth - without any reference to the first time it happened in Fantastic Four #6 - but it also confuses us by having the story open with Reed discovering something shriveled and organic in a newly obtained meteor, which he says "proves that some form of life must exist in outer space!" Well, yes. And you've encountered them - some half a dozen times in these first twenty issues alone!

    Ben's street-level irritants show their own particular brand of loyalty.

  • After last issue's discovery of a fan letter from later Marvel writer Steve Gerber, a careful perusal of this issue's letters page reveals a couple of famous names as well. First up is accolades from a Fantastic Four Fan Club in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, signed by its secretary, a 10-year-old Mark Gruenwald. This was a cherished, if poignant, surprise. In the 1980s, Mark's work as a Marvel editor and writer was deeply significant to me, and his sudden death at age 43 hit me in a way I wouldn't have expected, given that I'd never met the man. His presence is still missed, some 14 years on. A second surprise in the letters column, however, comes from a George R. Martin in Bayonne, New Jersey. This couldn't be from the Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author, could it? Turns out: Yes it could! And, from what he says, that printed fan letter led him to where he is today....

    The FF heading off, in search of a better story.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

91: Strange Tales #114

Strange Tales #114
August 8, 1963

  • Stan & Jack are back! In fact, you may be noticing a trend. The previous week saw the release of Journey into Mystery #97 and Tales to Astonish #49 - comics which featured the return of Jack Kirby on art, as well as Stan Lee doing full script on those titles for the first time. And the same occurs here! The only difference is that, unlike the other two, this story doesn't seem to herald any major change for the series.

    The return of Captain America!  Well ... not quite.

  • But hey, wait! Captain America?! Really?! Um ... no, actually. As it turns out, it's really just a disguise for the Torch's enemy The Acrobat, who once fooled Johnny into joining him in a ridiculously-named partnership. But make no mistake - this was deliberately a test-run for the real thing, as Stan makes explicit in the story's closing captions. And why not? After all, Stan & Jack updated the Human Torch when they were creating the Fantastic Four, and very quickly found a way to bring back the Sub-Mariner as well. So Stan must have surely been pondering the third member of that Golden Age trifecta - who Jack Kirby co-created, after all, way back in 1941. Obviously, the readers would in fact respond most positively!

    You certainly can't say Stan didn't know the hard sell!

  • Speaking of reader response, this issue tells us that was why Doctor Strange went missing for the two months following his first two stories: to judge whether or not the public dug this new mystic hero. But is that the real reason? I'm not entirely convinced. After all, given the typical lead time of the era, the timing involved seems (maybe?) suspiciously tight. Maybe this really was their plan, as stated - or maybe it was just a convenient excuse for whatever real reason caused them to miss those couple of issues. We may never know for sure....

    This is Mordo prank calling.  It's how he gets his kicks.

  • Although it's not the most remarkable story for Doctor Strange - certainly it's the weakest of these first three - there are still a number of noteworthy developments. Baron Mordo appears for the second story in a row, confirming his position as Strange's archenemy; their master is now called the Ancient One instead of just "the Master"; and we're introduced to Victoria Bentley, a now-forgotten supporting character who would nevertheless go on to have ties not only to Doctor Strange, but also the Black Knight, Psylocke and Captain Britain. One of the more memorable moments, though, comes from the unintentional hilarity which would often arise when an overseas locale was written by an American. In this particular case, a cabbie drops Strange off in "a dark, foggy London street" ... which just happens to contain Lord Bentley's castle. Really? A castle in London? Tell me, is that on the Piccadilly Line? Or closer to the financial district?

    Maybe not the most memorable return, but it only goes up from here.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

90: Tales to Astonish #49

Tales to Astonish #49
August 1, 1963

  • Here comes the birth of Giant-Man! And as shocking as it may have been to the regular readers of the time, in hindsight it comes as no surprise. After all, when the tiny superhero first came on the scene I noted how oddly he fit in, amongst thunder gods and hulking monsters of might. Next to such larger-than-life characters, could a man who simply shrinks down to a few inches hold his own? Sadly, the lackluster stories that Pym has been mostly saddled with since his inception would indicate not, and having the character join a super-team - alongside that selfsame thunder god and monster - must have driven that point home. (Stan might also have wondered if it was really all that necessary to have two members of a five-person team be able to do little more than become very very small.)

    This is from the first panel of Giant-Man's debut.  Smashing entrance, eh?

  • As with Journey into Mystery #97, which came out the same week, such changes are heralded in true style - with the return of the team of Stan Lee & Jack Kirby! Jack hasn't been seen on the strip since issue #40, after which he was supplanted by Don Heck (a jarring change at first, but one I quickly took a shine to). Kirby's just on board for the next few issues, but hopefully that will have been enough to work his magic. By contrast, Stan Lee is now providing plot and script here, for the first time ever - just like on Thor - and it will stay that way through almost the entirety of Giant-Man's run.

    I'd wonder if he always had such markings on his wall ... but c'mon.
    This is Hank Pym. 
    Of course he did!

  • The villain for the story is The Living Eraser, and you have to admire the simplicity of design: from the cover alone, it's abundantly clear not only what he does, but how he does it. And a callback to our old friend Paste-Pot Pete is in order! As with that wonderfully ridiculous villain, even a cursory examination reveals that this is a character who came about simply because of an ordinary function that's used in the creation of comics, and thus would have been in front of the artist every day. The most common question any writer or storyteller gets asked is invariably "Where do you get your ideas?" Sometimes the answer is just staring you in the face!

    That's the last time this hot dog vendor sells his wares in a random field!
    (Seriously.  I'm not making this up.)

  • Despite being essentially just another "alien invaders from another dimension" story - one is reminded of the aliens Pym fought in that first Don Heck tale, or the denizens of the Fifth Dimension tackled by the Torch - it's surprisingly enjoyable! Partly this is due to the greater space Lee & Kirby have to work with, as the story has been allotted 18 pages instead of the normal 13 (much like the last time there was a major change to the comic), and partly due to no more than the talents of Stan & Jack keeping the story unusually fresh and exciting. There's definitely a sense of renewed life and vigor in the concept; now we'll see how long that can last....

    Reading between the lines, I think we can pinpoint the inferiority complex
    that led to this latest of developments....

Thursday, November 25, 2010

89: Journey into Mystery #97

Journey into Mystery #97
August 1, 1963

  • Here begins the reign of Stan! Not that he ever left, of course; he created the character with Jack Kirby back in issue #83, and he's been plotting the stories the entire time, with just the scripting duties being written by someone else (Larry Lieber first, then Robert Bernstein for the last spell). But starting with this issue, Stan takes over the writing in full, and settles in for a lengthy run of doing so - till Thor #192, in fact. Wow!

    The first thing Stan does, of course, is ramp up the melodrama.
    Now we're getting somewhere!

  • And if that's not enough: Jack's back! Perhaps to mark the beginning of Stan's new dedication to some of Marvel's lesser-tier characters, Kirby comes back for this one issue to illustrate the main story - the first time he's been back on the book since issue #89. After this, we'll have a three-issue stint of Don Heck's artwork on the main story, before Jack returns for good with issue #101, beginning an uninterrupted Lee-Kirby run on the character which will last until issue #179.

    The Lava Man may not be a very inspired idea, but his visual design certainly is.
    Just look at all those shadows and crags!

  • Satisfied yet? Too bad. Because also beginning this issue is a new series of 5-page backup stories, the justly lauded "Tales of Asgard"! One of the frustrations with Thor's first year of comics has been the wasted potential; despite the richness of story ideas to be found in a pre-existing mythology, in these early days he's been just Random Superdude in a Cape, facing the likes of comedy wizards and mafia mugs. From here on out, though, we'll be privileged to receive a new short story drawn from the Norse mythos in every issue, all the way through #145!

    I love that the first "Tales of Asgard" has the confidence to begin not in the world of myth,
    but with the simple lives of the Ancient Norse, telling stories to each other.

  • If you haven't figured it out by now, this issue is decidedly important for kicking off what's generally acknowledged to be one of the greatest runs in the Silver Age of comics - and by the powerful team of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, one of the most important pairings in comics history. When comics fans, critics and historians talk about Jack Kirby, and the Lee-Kirby team, they always point to the first 102 issues of The Fantastic Four as being an unparalleled height that's only rarely been approached since. The second-most acclaimed of their works, however, is always their run on Thor ... and I'm incredibly excited to see that start to take shape.

    Okay, I know the chances are incredibly unlikely, but ... can we get some more Magic Cow?
    Please?  We don't get nearly enough of those in comics.