Sunday, April 25, 2010

50: Strange Tales #108

Strange Tales #108
February 12, 1963

  • By this point, Jack Kirby's art was seen to be so instrumental in Marvel's developing success that his style was used as something of a template for others; artists being groomed to take on a title would often start out by inking over his full pencils, then graduate to drawing over his loose pencils or layouts, before finally taking over as sole inker. For instance, Kirby was succeeded here on Strange Tales by Dick Ayers, who had been inking him up to that point, while Tales of Suspense #40's Iron Man story contains such a clear example of Don Heck's artwork - despite Heck only being credited as that issue's inker - that we can safely conclude Jack only provided the rough layouts. What's less understandable, then, is why Jack would be brought back for an issue or two, as occurs here. While the Painter certainly has the overly exaggerated features you'd expect from a Kirby villain - to the point that you can't really conceive of the character being drawn by anyone else - you still have to wonder about the poor guy (in this case, Ayers) who is promoted to full artist for two issues, then dropped back to simply inking for two, then full art for four more, then dropped back to inking....

  • In other creative changes, we have here the first in a rotating line of new scripters for the following six months, as Robert Bernstein takes on the duties for the next two issues. By 1963 Bernstein had been around for about fifteen years, writing for one comic publisher or another, though he never quite attained the accolades of a Stan Lee or a Gardner Fox. And he turns in a solid (if generally unremarkable) performance here: the voices sound in-character, the narration is informative without being distracting, and there are fewer than the usual number of credibility-busting clunkers we've come to expect from these stories.

  • In fact, the only valid complaint isn't with the scripting at all. A few issues back I pointed out the seeming lack of confidence they had in the Torch's ability to draw an audience on his own, as his stories seemed to be heading more toward team-ups and guest stars. Nowhere is this more blatant, however, than the inexcusable bait-and-switch here. The Painter of a Thousand Perils is a fantastically Silver Age villain, and the image above of the Human Torch being attacked by his teammates is an exciting one. But while such a thing does in fact occur in the comic, it only happens on the second-to-last page of the story! If the tale weren't so darned enjoyable anyway, we just might be upset.

    "Look behind you!  A three-headed monkey!"

Saturday, April 24, 2010

49: Tales to Astonish #43

Tales to Astonish #43
February 5, 1963

  • After signing off from his monthly duties on the Human Torch and Thor, we have here Larry Lieber's last regular story for Ant-Man as well. And, much as I dislike saying it, we won't really miss him. I do feel bad ragging on the guy, as his scripting abilities aren't terrible. But neither are they anything special, or what you would actually call good. Certainly he suffers unfairly in comparison to his brother Stan Lee, who has the ability to convey a complexity of character with just a few choice words. Larry, however, never seemed to pick up on this ability for nuance - the main innovation, it could be argued, which made the Marvel books different from everything else on the stands.

  • But, surprisingly, he does at least leave us with a fairly clever twist. After Ant-Man is stricken with an aging ray that leaves him a frail, elderly man, he is then deposited in an empty flower pot: a simple prison out of which he could easily climb under normal circumstances, now unscalable due to his aged muscles. However, it's pointed out that no one actually realizes Ant-Man is a normal-sized man who can shrink down and then re-enlarge, rather than a superhero who is simply tiny all the time; as a result, he's able to simply use his enlarging gas to return himself to normal size and escape. It's a surprisingly inventive use of noticing the reader's natural assumption - that everyone else in the story knows what we know - and effectively subverting it.

  • Most interesting about this issue, however, is the theme of ageism. Elias Weems is initially shown to be a pleasant, hard-working scientist, eagerly awaiting a visit from the grandson who looks up to him. He suffers a shock, though, when he is summarily fired from his job as part of the company's blanket disdain for elderly workers; they're now only interested in employing young, fresh minds. His response of declaring war on the world and aging everyone else to infirmity may be typically melodramatic, but the theme is still poignant, and makes for a somewhat more sympathetic villain than we're used to seeing. The last two decades have seen the society-wide idolization of youth surge forward to a frankly alarming degree, so - for the unusual prescience of mind, and deft handling of such an issue - it's nice to see Lieber go out on a high.

    The innocent daydreams of an Ant-Man...

Friday, April 23, 2010

48: Journey into Mystery #91

Journey into Mystery #91
February 5, 1963

  • Still trapped in Asgard after his capture by Thor last time, trickster god Loki still finds a way to sow his mischief here on Earth. Detecting some small, latent abilities in Sandu, a carnival mentalist, Loki amplifies his powers from afar, giving Sandu the ability to read minds, levitate objects, and teleport himself and others. So, of course the shady character immediately turns to robbing his customers, stealing an entire city bank, setting himself up in a golden palace, and even abducting the United Nations building. But when he strains to lift Thor's mighty hammer, he short-circuits the power he's been given, and everything snaps back to normal.

  • After last issue's turn by Al Hartley, this issue sees Joe Sinnott step in as penciller for (most of) the next six issues. A veritable industry legend, Sinnott is perhaps best known for his staggering 16-year stint inking The Fantastic Four, starting out on #44 (over Jack Kirby) and going through #231 (over Bill Sienkiewicz), with many other pencillers between. Though he was always in-demand as an inker, and highly sought after by the pencillers he worked with, his own pencilling work hasn't received nearly as much acclaim, and we can see why: His work is competent, professional, and absolutely solid - but, while there are no flaws to be found, there's also not much to set it apart from the other comic art appearing on the stands at that time. It's absolutely good, solid work, and should be appreciated for that, but it seems his real skill would be in embellishing the work of others, rather than in his own layouts and composition.

  • Although we're still a ways off from Stan realizing the rich tapestry of stories available to him in Norse mythology, Loki hasn't spent more than two issues away from the book (and will be spotlighted in the next issue as well). More to the point, there are signs that they're moving to touch on the pre-existing mythos more and more, as this 13-page story not only includes Loki and Odin, but also references Asgard, Thor's belt of strength, and the Valkryies. Interestingly, we're initially surprised to see the Valkyries shown here as heavenly, sweet-faced maidens in white, flowing gowns, as opposed to fierce warrior women as they're often portrayed.  However, this isn't without cause: Though they first appeared in ancient tales as sinister spirits who claimed men's souls, later stories which emphasized Valhalla as a paradise for the fallen saw the Valkyries evolve into Odin's angelic attendants to the dead.  However, by their next appearance in Thor some three years later, they would indeed be sporting a more dire and frightening look....

    Meet the Valkyries: Attendants to the Dead and Bringers of Belts!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

47: Tales of Suspense #40

Tales of Suspense #40
January 10, 1963

  • The first thing we notice in the cover above is that, despite this being the second outing for the character, he's already got a new look! Apparently Stan Lee was shocked to find that the colorist had made Iron Man look like he was made of, well, iron, and promptly decreed a different hue. Fortunately, this works just fine in context; after all, you'd expect that a suit cobbled out of spare parts while in captivity would look much cruder than when Tony had the time and resources to improve upon the design. Speaking of which, we also see the first real suit upgrades this issue, in the form of attachments kept in an accessory belt: a transistor-powered drill to bore through rock, PA speakers and a microphone, a searchlight from his chest, air-pressure jets in the boots, and suction cups on the palms. Some of these extensions are amusingly low-tech, in comparison to later models, but it's still a significant step towards the Iron Man as we would come to know him.

  • When discussing FF #12, I spoke about the need for proper pacing and story structure: Having too much action can feel like flash and sizzle without anything for the reader to connect to, while too much setup and too little action can make the tale rather dull. And given that the action doesn't really start until page 8 (of a 13-page story!), you'd expect that would be the case here - and yet it's not, because this story's not really about the plot at all. As with Thor's first appearance, Iron Man's debut was an exciting origin story with no room for anything else, so it's left to the second appearance to start fleshing out character and setting details. So we see Tony developing high-powered roller skates for the US army (!), charming a dazzling international socialite, recharging his life-giving iron chestplate via a standard electrical outlet, apprehending a mad scientist who's created a shrinking ray, and engaging a pack of escaped circus lions. The menace of Gargantus doesn't come in until the last few pages - and we're not too surprised that it isn't nearly as interesting as everything else!

  • Last issue, I expressed dismay at Don Heck being regarded as the early Iron Man artist, since he only pencilled a half-dozen stories between Tales of Suspense #39 and #50. A closer look reveals the answer, for on most of the issues that he did not pencil, he did in fact still ink, thus preserving a continuity of style even with Marvel's stable of rotating artists; out of those initial 12 issues, he was only absent for two. And impressively, based on this second issue, it's entirely successful! For instance, in this story he inks over Jack Kirby - who has, famously, a markedly distinctive style. But flipping through the issue, you could hardly tell! Rather than going the route of inks over full pencils, they appear here to have taken the route of loose pencilling (also known as "layouts" or "breakdowns"), a method which leaves much of the actual composition to be done by the inker. Honestly, the only time the Kirby designs really come to the fore is in the few panels at the end showing the green, four-fingered aliens, of the sort seen in many a Kirby "aliens from outer space" tale. For the rest, Don Heck's detailed realism is on display more than the muscled exaggeration of Kirby - and the comic is all the better for it.

    I'd be fascinated to see a page of Kirby's layouts from this issue;
    the romance-comic style seen here seems almost wholly Heck.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

46: Strange Tales #107

Strange Tales #107
January 10, 1963

  • In yet another milestone, we have a face-off between the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner! As well-read comics readers know, this hearkens back to the justly-famous epic fight between the Sub-Mariner and Jim Hammond, the original Human Torch, back in 1940's Marvel Comics #9. This story is also notable for the setup and introduction that Namor doesn't receive. We're told he's a villain, and that Sue still has a soft spot for him, and ... that's it. Is this an example of the writer's laziness, and not doing what's needed to bring new readers up to speed? Or cockiness, assuming that anybody reading about the Torch would (of course!) already be familiar with the stories from The Fantastic Four?

  • This is the last issue scripted by Larry Lieber. And with this story, I've finally realized that one of his weaknesses as a writer is that he just doesn't have the intuitive understanding of character motivations like Stan does. A couple of times now Larry has had a villain attack the Torch for no other reason than to make a name for himself - just because he's there. Surprisingly (or perhaps not?), this time it's Johnny who uses that empty logic, as he sets out to challenge the Sub-Mariner simply to impress his teammates in the FF. Granted, there is a creative, unexpected diversion with Johnny getting sidetracked on a fishing boat - but given that that's in the art, that would have come from either Stan Lee or Dick Ayers. Larry's character work isn't usually bad, per se, but unfortunately it rarely rises above the level of competent.

  • Still, at least there's enough Goofy Silver Age Writing to keep us entertained, even if in the eye-rolling manner. In Fantastic Four #9, Namor claimed that he could duplicate all the abilities of the creatures of the sea, locating the Invisible Girl with a cave fish's radar sense. And when he invokes the shock of an electric eel, we can buy that too. But when the Torch hurls him at an iceberg, Namor protects himself by inflating his body like a puffer fish ... and, damn, that just looks ridiculous! Just as implausible, however, is the sight of the Human Torch continuing the fight under the sea, his flame still burning bright. How? We're told he's using "a flame so hot that it evaporates the waters around it, forming an air pocket for the Torch to breathe in..." Well, for Lieber's last outing here, I suppose we can let it go....

    Yes, this is Johnny's plan to prove to the FF that he's not an immature child.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

45: Tales to Astonish #42

Tales to Astonish #4
January 3, 1963

  • In "The Voice of Doom", uninspiring radio announcer Jason Cragg receives superhumanly persuasive abilities when the radiation from a nearby atomic laboratory escapes - into his microphone. Drunk on his new power, he then follows the long line of other lame villains who see the best route to success as confronting the nearest superhero directly, rather than leaving well enough alone and staying out of sight. Though he initially turns the crowd against Ant-Man, and even succeeds in making him walk off the edge of a pier, Pym is rescued by his loyal ants and later defeats Cragg - by infecting him with microbes which cause laryngitis.

  • Though the story is largely unimpressive, special note should be given to the unusually exciting opening. We begins in media res, with the already-powered Jason Cragg getting on a soap box (seriously) and imploring the city to drive Ant-Man from its midst, while Pym looks on, already having figured out that the man must be employing some degree of hypnotism - all on the very first story page. No protracted setup here! We then get a couple of pages filling in the details of Cragg's accident and misuse of his power, but it still illustrates why this tool is such an effective and instantly compelling way to begin a story; certainly it's somewhat more interesting than the standard, bland Ant-Man tale tends to be.

  • The re-appraisal of Don Heck continues. Don's first turn as the new Ant-Man penciller last issue was a bit of a rude shock, as the artwork looked crude, unpolished, and - in one or two panels - not quite of professional quality. Which is why it was such a surprise to be so impressed with the subtlety of his linework in the first Iron Man tale! Now, with his second Ant-Man story, a couple of things become apparent. First, Heck's art has a softer, finer line to it than what we see from Kirby; we can instantly believe that he was renowned for his work on Marvel's romance comics for a time. But even with that in mind, the art on display this issue is leagues above that of his debut on the title last issue. The evidence for his assignment there having been a last-minute rush job continues to mount!

    I love what Don Heck does with the texture of Cragg's beard here.
    It's such a small thing, but makes the character seem so real!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

44: Fantastic Four #13

Fantastic Four #13
January 3, 1963

  • After last issue's disappointing turn, this comic is crammed SO full of ideas that you wonder why it isn't regarded as more of a classic than it is. (Probable answer: The Red Ghost and his Super-Apes.) For instance, for the first time since the first issue, we once again get a sense of the four as determined explorers, set on conquering new heights and discovering the unknown just because they can. Reed tells us of a meteorite from outer space that recently crashed in Siberia, has been harvested as a new source of fuel, and which suddenly makes space exploration possible again in a way it hadn't been before. In any other comic, this might have been the story, but here it's just one more intriguing detail in a lunar sea of ideas.

    And speaking of lunacy....

  • However, this was during the height of the Space Race, so when the FF prepare a mission to the moon we shouldn't be surprised to see a parallel endeavour entered into by the Soviets. Strangely, scientist Ivan Kragoff is planning his launch not with fellow humans, but with three apes whom he has painstakingly trained: the gorilla has been taught to operate Ivan's space ship, the orangutan has become the ship's mechanic, and the baboon is now skilled with a gun. But while the FF has smartly shielded their rocket from the cosmic rays that gave them their powers back in FF #1, Ivan has made his craft transparent and with as little shielding as possible, in the hopes of duplicating the FF's accident! (This same trick would be performed by Hulk villains The U-Foes years later.) When this does in fact occur, Ivan finds he can now fade away like a ghost; the gorilla has become a super-strong powerhouse; the baboon can mold and change its shape at will; and the orangutan has become "magnetized" somehow. And if you're thinking that most of these approximate the powers of the FF, you'd be right.

    How wonderfully eerie!  And the mystery of who built this city
    never even comes into it.

  • One of the things that makes this issue such a gem is the sense of mystery and wonder that's conveyed in every page. When the FF rocketed into space in their very first issue in 1961, the original intent was a flight to the moon; however, this was changed in the finished comic to a vague trip "to the stars" because Stan feared that by the time the issue saw print, mankind might have already achieved such a thing, making the first issue immediately outdated. Think for a moment about what that means: that the advances in space exploration were so exciting to the public consciousness that new events seemed to spring forth with dizzying speed! But a year and a half later, we still hadn't reached the moon (and wouldn't for another six years after that), so Stan felt comfortable again with the idea. And why shouldn't he? It may seem blase to us now, but in a time of such unknowns, the idea of an extraterrestrial object - a new celestial landscape - being so close must have been fascinating! What could be found there? Who might live there? H.G. Wells' 1901 novel The First Men in the Moon found great success in these tantalizing questions, and it should be no surprise that a big-budget motion picture, adapted by Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale, would hit theaters just a year after this comic came out.

    Jack Kirby's Watcher is a sight to behold: Similar enough for us to recognize,
    but different enough to be unsettling and weird.

  • The Red Ghost and his Super-Apes may have (rightly) faded into obscurity, but an impressive number of other concepts were introduced in this issue that would later become important to the Marvel stories of the future. The Blue Area of the Moon, with an atmosphere all its own, is seen to house the remains of a long-dead civilization, and years later would become the new home of yet another exotic race. Most notably, however, the FF first meet The Watcher, member of an immeasurably long-lived race that has been witnessing and recording the myriad pockets of the universe for eons, sworn never to interfere. A reading limited only to a perspective of geek culture could see this as the progenitor of Star Trek's Prime Directive, but it's so much more than that. The members of the FF may have been to other worlds when abducted by this or that alien dictator, but it's notable that when we first see the four successfully exploring an uncharted world of their own volition, we also get an iconic, living reminder of the ideal of self-determination. It's pointing out to us that were we to encounter higher forms of life out in the heavens, we needn't take that as sign of our smallness or insignificance in the vastness of the cosmos; the time of Galileo's famed persecution for suggesting Earth was not the center of the universe is long past. After all, it's mankind's ambitions and accomplishments alone that would take us to such heights and beyond, and nothing should diminish that sense of self-actualization, regardless of who or what we were to find there. Standing on the cusp of space exploration, these were undoubtedly fears deeply rooted in the public's minds, whether they were aware of them or not, and it's astonishing how well - and how subtly - Stan was able to address them, and turn such fears into hope and inspiration.

    Was Stan Lee strongly in need of a thesaurus?  Or was this his sly hint
    that there was another "Voice of Doom" on the stands that selfsame week...?

Thursday, April 1, 2010

43: Incredible Hulk #6

Incredible Hulk #6
January 3, 1963

  • At a faroff glance, it always seemed odd that Jack Kirby drew the first five issues of The Incredible Hulk, but Steve Ditko drew the sixth. Now, having seen Kirby's disappearance over the past month from all of his titles but The Fantastic Four, it at least has some context to it - if still no answer to the mystery. Of course, it's entirely possible to imagine Jack getting the absurd plot for this issue and exclaiming, "Are you outta yer mind, Stan?! I ain't drawin' that!" But, surprisingly, Kirby's loss is Ditko's gain (and ours, as well), as Steve turns out to be the perfect choice for illustrating something just this WEIRD, as well as infusing the characters with the sense of paranoia and desperation so often found in his figures.

    As bizarre plot developments go, they don't get much stranger than this....

  • Okay, yes, the weirdness: Over the course of the series to date, Stan has turned the Hulk from a creature who only emerges at night, to a dumb brute telepathically controlled by Rick Jones, to an intelligent and cruel monster he can turn on and off with the use of a gamma ray machine. This time, though, something goes wrong - and he emerges as a bizarre hybrid, with Banner's head on the Hulk's body. When Rick worries that this would endanger the Hulk's secret identity, the Hulk goes and picks up a lifelike Hulk mask - one of several copies he'd had made, for study (??) - and slaps it on. Unfortunately, when a group of army goons apprehend an unconscious Hulk, they immediately pull off his Hulk mask ... only to discover a Hulk head underneath, having finally caught up to the rest of him. Which, while insane, really makes you wonder: Just what on earth was such a ludicrous development for?!

    If you think Stan's "teen dialogue" sounds painful here ... you've never read
    Bob Haney's
    Teen Titans, over at DC.  And you should!

  • Meanwhile, in the category of "too little, too late", Stan finally gets around to fleshing out Rick Jones a little as he purports to give him something of a supporting cast. Despite having been dared by his friends onto the bomb test site in issue #1, we've only seen Rick as something of a loner ever since. Here he meets up with them once again - though none of them are actually named - and they decide to form a kid-gang called (at least by themselves) The Teen Brigade. Surprisingly, they would actually go on to appear a handful of times in the next couple of years! Unsurprisingly, they never caught on.
    Though Ditko inking Kirby in #2 was a mismatch, he's great on his own.
    The emotive expressions and exaggerated body language are truly inspired.

  • And so, with this sixth issue ... the Hulk is cancelled. And we aren't surprised. The first issue was a mostly successful story that was effectively creepy and darkly powerful. But as has been discussed, they instantly lost focus, and didn't seem to have a clue as to what to do with this character after that. Every issue seemed to bring a new incarnation of the monster, as Stan & Jack rapidly tried on new and different versions of the character, seemingly at random, just to see what worked. So it's not too shocking that the readership might have gotten tired of this constant tinkering with the formula, and simply lost interest. But Stan must have known, deep down, that there was still some power in the concept somewhere, and last month's stint in FF #12 would be just the first of many guest appearances for the now-homeless Hulk....

    And thus ends the Hulk.  He wasn't very popular, wasn't beloved by many, and would
    never star in TV series and blockbuster movies.  No one would ever hear of him again....