Friday, January 29, 2010

20: Tales to Astonish #37

Tales to Astonish #37
August 2, 1962

  • Does "The Protector" sound like an odd name for a bad guy to you? Turns out that it's in the sense of "protection racket", and therefore hews closer to the penchant for realistic villains found in Golden Age comics. On the other hand, this guy carries a disintegrator ray.

  • If you've read any number of Larry Lieber comics featuring a masked villain, it's an easy guess as to the identity of the bad guy at story's end. It's also no surprise that the explanation given for how he accomplished his feats makes no amount of sense whatsoever.

  • The main item of interest in this comic, though, are the new tricks employed in the artwork. It finally seems to have occurred to Jack Kirby that the most interesting visual would be to emphasize Pym's point of view, with towering figures and perspectives that race toward the sky at dizzying, vertical angles, for the first time really giving an idea of what it would mean to be an ant-sized human. Although you'd think the ants would get tired of being constantly, frantically summoned to form a big clump on which Pym can safely fall....

    You may not be surprised to find that last line of dialogue
    appears nowhere else in the whole of human history.
    Also: Yes, the baddie is really using a water pistol. He's scary.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

19: Fantastic Four #8

Fantastic Four #8
August 2, 1962

  • And so we meet Phillip Masters, the Puppet Master - a man who, by sculpting figures out of radioactive clay (!), can then control the people in question. Essentially, it's a new twist on the voodoo doll. And how wonderfully creepy he looks! With those oversized eyelashes, the maniacal grin, and the arching eyebrows, Jack Kirby has daringly designed the villain as a virtual puppet in his own right.

    Ether vents: Now standard in all modern New York apartments.

  • Of course, what makes this issue such a landmark is the introduction of his daughter, Alicia Masters, who would go on to be an important and frequent member of the FF's supporting cast for the next 30 years. A blind sculptress herself, Alicia is unable to see the Thing's disfigurement which still causes him so much anger and self-loathing - but nonetheless instantly sees the inner goodness beneath. Ironically, instead of realizing he's found someone who appreciates him for who he is, and not what he looks like, Ben fears that she only likes him for his rocky appearance, and wouldn't care for the man inside. Comic book characters with insecurities so present, and so recognizable, had never been seen with such gripping potency.

    The level of detail the Puppet Master has put into this one part of his plan is staggering.
    And a bit insane.

  • Interestingly, the issue could be read as a treatise on the limits of control. Reading the comic with modern insight, one can't help but notice that the Puppet Master's main flaw (besides the ludicrous leaps of logic in his master plan) is the need to replicate everything one is controlling. Note the way the warder's office contains a miniature desk, chair, keys, photographs! See how the jailbreak requires a sculpted figure of every inmate needed to escape! Taking this to its logical ends, one can conclude that the Puppet Master could indeed control the entire world ... but only if he went through the staggering work of recreating the world, in painstaking detail, down to the very last rock. Rather than try to control the world and everyone in it, how much better had he simply learned to live in it...?

    And so begins the budding relationship between Ben Grimm and Alicia Masters,
    here disguised as Sue Storm for reasons too complicated to explain....

Monday, January 25, 2010

18: Journey into Mystery #85

Journey into Mystery #85
August 2, 1962

  • Though Thor first appeared in JiM #83, this issue is just as significant - if not moreso - as it's here that we're introduced not just to Loki, the God of Mischief and Thor's eternal enemy, but also their heavenly home of Asgard and such gods as Heimdall, Balder, Odin and more (if just in passing). After a hokey sci-fi origin issue, and then an impressive second issue pitting Thor against a realistic South American dictator, this is the issue that finally points the way towards what the character and series would most become.

    With these first two panels of the story, readers are immediately signaled that
    something far grander is starting than what they've seen before

  • In something of a shock, the introduction of these elements is so well done that it's hard to believe this is the same Larry Lieber responsible for Ant-Man's monthly escapades. Rather than devoting the entire story to a grand and sweeping tour of all the Norse elements, as one might expect, they're deftly introduced in an almost offhand fashion - with all-father Odin himself barely making a one-panel appearance. Recall that although such subtlety in storytelling can be found in many (if not most) of the comic books of today, back in 1962 such restraint was practically unheard of. And this in just a 13-page feature!

    Pigeons?  Well, they don't call him the God of Terror....

  • Honestly, this makes me wonder a bit more about the creative process involved between Lieber, Stan Lee, and Jack Kirby. Based on what I've read of Larry's work so far, he's seemed serviceable ... but not exactly inspired. And so I had assumed that Stan maybe gave Jack the basic plot, and then had Larry dialogue the art. But these mythic elements are introduced in such a skilled way that it's hard to conceive of them having come from only a brief outline, as Stan usually did with Jack. For instance, the Loki-in-tree scene sounds so completely authentic that I was surprised to find no references to it in the original mythology - though the requirement of a tear (perhaps intentionally, perhaps not) echoes the tear Loki refused to shed that consigned Balder to the underworld. Either Stan was giving Jack & Larry a thoroughly detailed plot for the story - something famously uncharacteristic of Stan, especially for a short story - or I may have to revise my estimation of Mr. Lieber from here on out....

    After ending on his end, a smart man might have called it quits.
    Luckily for us, Loki is not that man.

Friday, January 22, 2010

17: Strange Tales #101

Strange Tales #101
July 10, 1962

  • In one of the more underrated milestones of the building of the Marvel Universe, here we have the first spin-off, as the Fantastic Four's Human Torch takes over the lead slot of this anthology book (in the same way that Thor grabbed the lead story of Journey into Mystery), less than a year after FF #1. Interestingly, although the Thing seems to have been the character that resonated with readers the most, Stan Lee apparently still saw the teenaged Human Torch as the key to tapping a wider readership. By contrast, Ben Grimm wouldn't receive his own book until 1973.

    Reed Richards scoffs at EPA health concerns.

  • Wisely, Marvel decided to give the Torch's solo stories a unique flavor by furnishing Johnny with a hitherto-unseen apartment in the suburb of Glenville, New York. (So the FF doesn't live at the Baxter Building quite yet?) Bizarrely, they also endeavored to give him a secret identity - despite the fame the FF has been seen to possess on any number of occasions. The thinking is so convoluted that it's a miracle they kept it up for as long as they would....

    One suspects Johnny hasn't entirely thought this through....

  • The scripting chores once again go to Stan's brother, Larry Lieber - and if this issue's amusement park setting is any indication, we can expect to see a slew of deliberately teen-oriented stories, just as Bob Haney would famously do for DC's Teen Titans two years later. Of course, this being a Larry Lieber comic, we can't be blamed for anticipating his pet tricks of the hero using his powers in inventively improbable ways - and damn commies. Sure enough, he doesn't disappoint....

    Because wrecking a nearby theme park is always the best way to avoid drawing attention to yourself.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

16: Tales to Astonish #36

Tales to Astonish #36
July 10, 1962

  • So, it's Ant-Man's second costumed outing, and this time he's up against ... er, spies. Again. That's two for two. Although I suppose if you're writing tales where the main character's power is to become very tiny, shrinking out of sight and hiding in cracks, tales of espionage are a natural fit. But this time they're not just regular spies - they're Commies!

  • A little creepy is the fact that Pym seems to have no concept of privacy. His ability to know when he's needed is due to having stationed a vast network of ants throughout every police station and newspaper office in the city to listen for key words - including "Ant-Man" - which they then transmit through their antennae to each other, from ant to ant to ant. (Er ... really?) As if this constant, unauthorized surveillance isn't enough, Pym later thinks nothing of hopping into a woman's handbag and taking a ride back to her apartment....

    If this is Pym's lab ... why can't he just come and go through the front door?

Monday, January 18, 2010

15: Fantastic Four #7

Fantastic Four #7
July 3, 1962

  • A first glance compels the thought: "Well, they can't all be winners." After all, "Kurrgo, Master of Planet X"? How many times did we see him again? (Answer: Twice, which is more than the "never" I'd thought.)

    One suspects the soup isn't all that had been simmering....

  • And yet, far from the hokey Toad Men or Stone Men from Saturn, the issue holds up impressively well, reading instead like a pastiche of sci-fi classics. When the flying saucer lands on Earth and Kurrgo's robot walks out, one can't help be reminded of Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still. And Reed's inspiration of shrinking down a populace to enable planetwide evacuation has popped up variously over the years - although off the top of my head I'm only coming up with Doctor Who's 1966 story The Ark, and the end of Grant Morrison's Final Crisis in 2009. Can anyone come up with instances of that sci-fi trope that predate this 1962 issue?

    It's either an homage ... or a robot emerging from a spaceship.
    You make the call.

  • A theme to this issue seems to be that of "fame". Superman may be loved by the people on the street, but here we see the Fantastic Four summoned to Washington to attend a government dinner honoring their achievements. Sue, Ben and Johnny nonetheless all relate their own fears about committing some mortifying faux pas in the face of such public declarations - fears quickly forgotten when Kurrgo's hostility ray turns the people of Earth against both each other and the foursome! And, while unstated, it's clearly the fame of the FF's planet-saving deeds that propelled Kurrgo to seek the FF's help in the first place.

    Superheroes as celebrities was something rarely seen.
    Also: Whatever's on that platter doesn't look good....

  • Finally, it has to be noted: For the first time, this issue of The Fantastic Four came out one month later than the last; as of this issue, the series is no longer bimonthly. Anecdotal evidence and Stan's personal mythologizing would have us believe the FF was a hit from the first issue - and maybe it was - but from here on out it's incontrovertible. And that won't be the only sign this month of the FF's success....

    Kurrgo's fall.

Friday, January 15, 2010

14: Incredible Hulk #3

Incredible Hulk #3
July 3, 1962

  • In a troubling move, Stan's already messing with the formula. Due to events too convoluted to go into, the Hulk is stuck as the Hulk and no longer changes to Banner. Even weirder, he's suddenly under the mental control of Rick Jones - but only while Rick is around, and awake. Perhaps they realized that having Banner only change to the Hulk at nightfall, then back to human again at dawn, was limiting. That may be true - but it was also unique, and lent the creature more of a "classic monster" vibe.

    Rick Jones always wanted a puppy.  Now he has a Hulk.  They both make a mess.

  • Even worse, he's rapidly becoming the dumb Hulk most people now know him as: Compare the Hulk's dialogue from the first issue ("I -- I seem to remember now! It was the bomb! The gamma rays! They turned me into -- this -- when darkness fell!") to how he speaks only two issues later ("You! Boy! You locked me in cell! You pay for that now!").

    Oh, come on!  That story doesn't even make sense!  It fools Rick, of course.

  • Other signs of editorial panicking are present too. Where the first two issues were feature-length stories, this issue marks a change to multiple stories in one book, with the first section devoted to the status-quo-smashing shenanigans, and the second half featuring the first appearance of the Ringmaster and his not-yet-christened Circus of Crime. Most worrying of all, though, is that between these two tales is a three-page story recounting the Hulk's origin ... only 2 issues after it had occurred.

    On the one hand, that's a really cartoony sequence. 
    But it conveys his power with an elegant simplicity.

  • 44 years before Planet Hulk, General Ross gets the bright idea to shoot the Hulk into space and get rid of him forever. You may be shocked to learn it didn't work this time either.

    Ranty McRantpants. His real name, honest.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

13: Journey into Mystery #84

Journey into Mystery #84
July 3, 1962

  • This story, as was Thor's initial outing last issue, is pretty short at only 13 pages. Journey into Mystery - like Tales to Astonish and several of Marvel's comics of the time - was an anthology magazine. Thor might have instantly grabbed the lead story for each issue, but he would continue to share the comic with smaller, done-in-one stories for the next two years.

    That bum leg is but one of the many reasons Dr. Blake is lame.

  • Now that the requisite origin story is done away with, Donald Blake - the doctor who discovered the thunder god's hammer, and is now Thor's alter ego - returns to the States. The short page count prevented us from learning much about him in the first issue, but this second story immediately sets to fleshing out his supporting cast, including nurse Jane Foster. Taking a cue from the Clark Kent / Lois Lane / Superman love triangle that had worked for several decades, Blake pines for Jane from afar - while by story's end she only has eyes for Thor. Oh, the irony!

    I don't think that's how science works.

  • After the ridiculous aliens found in Thor's first appearance, his second outing features a more realistic villain in the form of the communist dictator of a small, oppressed country. In fact, it's quite reminiscent of many of the Golden Age comics from the late 1930s, where brightly-colored and sometimes-powered heroes would be set against entirely human menaces such as gangsters, kidnappers and racketeers. And Thor's offensives are occasionally on the same level; while he attacks the jets and tanks directly, one of his more creative strikes involves summoning winds and rain so the attacking troops are washed down the side of the mountain pass on which they perched. Still, it needs to be said: The war-torn country of San Diablo? Take a second to translate that. BEST. NAME. EVER.

    The Mighty Thor, thunder god and commie smasher.

Monday, January 11, 2010

12: Fantastic Four #6

Fantastic Four #6
June 12, 1962

  • This issue boasts another first, as we have the first returning villain. Actually, two of them - which means it's also the first super-villain team-up! It goes about as well as you'd expect, with Namor being immediately betrayed by Doom, and story's end showing Doom sent spaceward on a rapidly-retreating meteor. Of course, they wouldn't learn....

  • And yet, the Sub-Mariner already shows signs of a deepening complexity of character, as he quickly does what he can to make amends for his acts against the FF and set things right. This first redemptive act sets the stage for his journey from antagonist to hero - one that would in time nab him his own series once again.

  • In fact, the theme of the issue seems to be how these larger than life characters are viewed by others. On the one hand, you have a troubled Namor - just now beginning to see the error of his ways - cajoled into further villainy by Doom, who sees him as nothing more than an easily manipulable pawn. And the issue opens on a crowd in awe of the Torch flying overhead, and a courier at the Baxter Building flustered at a chance meeting with the Invisible Girl.

  • And then Stan and Jack further invite us to think of the Fantastic Four as real people, as we see an expanded cutaway of their headquarters, first seen in #3 ... and the FF answering their fan mail! In fact, when Reed gets a letter from a hospitalized boy, he stretches out the window and across several city blocks to pay him a visit. More than a few letter-writers after that must surely have been thinking of that very same scene!

Friday, January 8, 2010

11: Tales to Astonish #35

Tales to Astonish #35
June 5, 1962

  • Despite the last post, some additional research shows that Journey into Mystery #83 was not Larry Lieber's first writing gig, despite sources such as the Origins of Marvel Comics reprint book, where Stan unambiguously claims that to be the case. In fact, not only did Larry script the return of Hank Pym here - he did Hank's origin in Tales to Astonish #27 as well! But maybe, to a certain degree, it still counts. After all, as noted, that first tale was clearly a done-in-one, with a scientist character not meant to continue in further adventures. This issue is Pym's second appearance, but his first as a superhero; as a result, one could almost argue TtA #27 as preceding the shared universe of Marvel's Silver Age and later being pulled into it, in the same way the Sub-Mariner was. Certainly the Pym of #27 didn't live in the same world as the Fantastic Four, while the one seen here conceivably could.

  • But the return of this characters begs, if not screams, the question: WHY?? Available data suggests this issue came out the same week as the debuts of both Spider-Man and a certain god of thunder. Surely, next to those, a man who can shrink down and talk to ants seems ... passé, doesn't it? But not only is he brought back, he's given a slot as a monthly feature too. More to the point, he's suddenly recast as a superhero - where he's given a costume, the ability to talk to ants, and ... a healthy dose of international espionage!

  • The examples of Goofy Silver Age Writing in this 13-pager are too many to be believed, as Pym, in rapid succession: rigs an ashtray and rubber band to propel himself through the air; fends off an angry ant by first hurling it overhead, then giving it a judo chop to the head (!!); is able to "dig a deep hole in mere seconds" (somehow, being inches tall but retaining his full strength makes this possible?); when plummeting from two feet up, is able to call the group of ants quickly enough that they cushion his fall; and finally, ludicrously, instructs those ants to stop the Commie spies by plugging up their guns ... with honey. And, heaven help us, it works. It's almost as if, remade in his new, superheroic image, Hank Pym was able to throw off the shackles of credibility as well....

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

10: Journey Into Mystery #83

Journey Into Mystery #83
June 5, 1962

  • As Amazing Fantasy #15 was the first Marvel Silver Age comic not to be drawn by Kirby, so too was Journey into Mystery #83 - the debut of Thor - the first not to be written by Stan Lee. After adding to his workload so many new titles that he was personally scripting, Stan quickly realized he was reaching a breaking point. As a result, he had to start handing off some of the new titles to others to pen - in this case, his younger brother, Larry Lieber. So while Stan came up with the basic character of Thor, he didn't actually write him for the first year, which is why the character is missing the faux-Shakespearean dialogue that would come to be his hallmark.

  • Still, it reads well enough like a Stan Lee tale - even down to the ill-conceived genre-mixing seen in the first two issues of The Incredible Hulk. This time, Stan decided to top all else - super-team and hulking brute and spider-teen - by going impossibly grand, and creating a hero who can actually change into the thunder god of Norse mythology ... but they do it by having his origin tale pit him against the Stone Men from Saturn. (Seriously?!) It would be a couple of issues before they realized that the best way to convey Thor's grandeur might be to call upon more of the Nordic mythology, and flesh out an actual pantheon.

  • And yet, while the scripting itself might be fairly pedestrian - in two pages, Thor runs through all of his powers as if checking off a shopping list for the reader - one can't deny that the concept holds true. A superhero in the form of a god is one that hadn't been seen much before, and the secret identity - often just tacked on, out of adherence to the genre - actually serves double duty here. While it still satisfies the function of wish fulfillment most famously illustrated in the Clark Kent / Superman paradigm (i.e., the frustrated reader identifies with the weaker aspect, yet knowing they have an inner strength hidden away), the dual identity also provides a tether of relatability. For while The Mighty Thor might be a bit too gradiose for readers to really connect to, his other identity was not a billionaire playboy, but a harmless doctor - and one with a lame leg, to boot. In fact, his adventures begin when he trips and falls down a hill ... and what's more mundane than that?

Monday, January 4, 2010

9: Amazing Fantasy #15

Amazing Fantasy #15
June 5, 1962

  • Credit where it's due: Having encountered success with his first innovation (a super-team that doesn't always get along), it would have been easy for Stan Lee to simply repeat that twist again and again - but he keeps coming up with fresh takes on the superhero concept. Case in point: A comic where the teenager isn't the sidekick - he's the protagonist. One where the hero isn't a charming and brawny stud, but a lonely and bookish outcast. One who, far from having everything turn right at the end of every adventure, would be the first superhero to be perpetually down on his luck.

  • In fact, that's largely why this is the first addition to the Marvel canon not to be drawn by Jack Kirby. Stan first gave the assignment to Jack, explaining that this character was to be far more nebbish than strongman ... but as the pages started to churn out, he found that Peter Parker still looked far too godlike and muscle-bound for his liking; after all, figures of power and the idealized form were such hallmarks of Jack Kirby's artwork that they were present even when toned down. So instead he gave the story to Steve Ditko, whose style was grounded in realism, but with an slightly eccentric twist.

  • Still, untangling the history here is more complicated than most. Just as the Fantastic Four was Stan's last-ditch effort at "doing superheroes right", so too does the story hold that Stan's publisher, Martin Goodman, was so appalled by the concept ("People HATE spiders!") that he stonewalled it until declining sales of their anthology comic, Amazing Fantasy, warranted its cancellation - saying Stan could just throw the 11-pager into the final issue if he wanted. But what no one ever brings up is that bit on the cover about "the NEW Amazing!", and that the final page of the comic ends with "Be sure to see the next issue of Amazing Fantasy for the further amazing exploits of America's most DIFFERENT new teen-age idol -- Spiderman!" Maybe they thought if sales were through the roof, they could keep the mag going (which didn't happen). Or they could spin the one feature off into his own comic and leave the anthology mag on the floor (which did). But what is certain is that Stan conceived this as the beginning of a brand-new hero, and not just a done-in-one; compare Spider-Man, who by story's end has origin, costume and super-name, with Henry Pym, who by the end of his 7-page story was never meant to be seen again.

  • Everyone knows the phrase which sums up the Spider-Man concept, supposedly handed down by his uncle Ben - that "With great power there must also come -- great responsibility!" What most readers won't catch is that this isn't spoken by Ben at any time before his murder in this story; it's simply part of the closing narration, retroactively assigned to Ben later on. Of course, given Spider-Man's disregard for the fleeing burglar, a more appropriate phrase might have been: "A moment of arrogance -- a lifetime of regret!" But not only is that not nearly as catchy, as a character slogan it would have been a downer to boot...!

Friday, January 1, 2010

8: Incredible Hulk #2

Incredible Hulk #2
May 1, 1962

  • With this issue, the Hulk is now his famous green, instead of grey as in the first issue. But when the Hulk, at issue's start, lumbers out of a nearby swamp at night (a swamp? bordering a desert? really?), the coloring is darker - almost a greenish/grey hue - so it's not an immediate change all at once. His bright emerald tones would start appearing just pages later, though.

  • And speaking of greens, let's get this out of the way: There's no way to avoid a comparison with Fantatic Four #2. In that second issue, Stan & Jack allayed any doubts their readers might have had by pitting their still-fresh super-team against an alien race - looking not completely unlike frogs - bent on world domination. The Skrulls would return again and again, going on to become one of the most feared alien menaces in the Marvel canon. The Toad Men, on the other hand ... would not.

  • That's not the only misstep, sadly. Jack Kirby was the penciller for the first five issues of The Incredible Hulk, but after just two pages the canny reader will note that the art this issue has the distinct look of Steve Ditko, early artist and co-creator of Spider-Man and Doctor Strange. Turns out, for this issue he was drafted as the inker! Unfortunately, Ditko's style is SO distinctive that it blots out most of the lauded Kirby style from Jack's pencils underneath. Steve Ditko is, of course, a master in his own right ... but is perhaps not well-suited for a monster book (or at least not here). And certainly the mixture of these two artistic powerhouses came at the nigh-total expense of one of them. Perhaps Stan realized this too, as Dick Ayers would come on as Kirby's inker with issue #3.

  • In fact, it's tempting to see the whole comic as a well-intentioned mistake from start to finish. Reading it now, the comic is certainly enjoyable enough on a kooky, kitschy level ... but that's kind of the problem. Whether you're laughing at the goofiness of the Toad Men, or trying to read it with the degree of seriousness they hoped their younger readers would, the tale is still one of an angry, misunderstood monster - versus space invaders in actual flying saucers. Alien toads are completely at odds with the dark, horror tone of having a monster as the book's protagonist, and the mix never completely gels. Maybe next issue will get back to basics...?