Thursday, May 27, 2010

55: Tales to Astonish #44

Tales to Astonish #44
March 5, 1963

  • And so we finally get to the introduction of Janet Van Dyne, the Wasp. And what a tale it is! After over 100 pages of mostly mundane Ant-Man stories, the levels to which this story succeeds is nothing less than astonishing. In part, this may be due to the increased size, as the feature is allotted 18 pages this month instead of the usual 13 - and it makes the most of the them. In fact, when thinking of the device of using one story to tell what's really two, with the flashback origin immediately followed by the monster menace du jour, it's hard not to think of Fantastic Four #1. That may be a lofty comparison with which even the greatest Ant-Man story can't compete ... but the fact that it's even in the conversation is proof of its high marks indeed.

    The one time Larry Lieber tried to write with an evocative style, we got "the octopus
    of crime has many tentacles..."  Ernie Hart's effort is more a success!

  • Had I known ahead of time that this story was going to feature "the secret origin of Ant-Man", I would have laughed. After all, we saw Hank Pym when he first discovered his shrinking formula. And we saw his next story, when he donned super-hero garb, used his cybernetic helmet to talk to the ants, and took down his first Commie spies. What's left to tell? I would have wondered, when the answer is, in retrospect, fairly obvious: Though he was a superhero, he wasn't a Marvel hero. He had no tragedy, no melodrama, no painful beginnings ... and, as so many of his stories to date had shown, no excitement. Until now, when a daydream sends his mind back to the time he visited Hungary with his new wife, Maria. She and her father had once been political prisoners of the state, but they had fled long before to make a new life in America. Sadly, Communist grudges are not easily forgot, and Maria is kidnapped and killed on their honeymoon while her father is similarly assassinated by agents back in the US. And so Pym vowed to one day find the men responsible (and wage war on the criminal element in the meantime), thus providing the drive to develop his shrinking formula in the first place. Oddly enough, this unresolved plot thread wouldn't be touched on again until twenty-five years later...!

    Hank Pym swears vengeance.  Then forgets all about it.

  • After his reverie, Pym starts to think about how effective he's been on his own, and how much better he might be with a partner. Enter society playgirl Janet Van Dyne, who - despite an uncanny resemblance to his dead wife - immediately gives Hank the impression of a spoiled, flighty child. All that changes, however, when her scientist father is killed by a creature from beyond the stars, and she passionately implores Dr. Pym to help bring his murderer to justice. And suddenly we've got so much: A partner for Ant-Man - someone he can talk to besides his loyal insect army. An instant chemistry between the two, though Pym (of course) feels he must resist. And a spontaneous, energetic spirit, to contrast with his upright, scientific one.

    Janet Van Dyne swears vengeance.  And gets it.
    Too bad Hank wasn't taking notes....

  • It's such a great story, and so markedly above what we've come to expect from the standard Ant-Man tale, that the whole creative team should be applauded. The many welcome additions to the usual format had to originate with Stan, of course, but the scripting from Ernie Hart (credited as H.E. Huntley) is also beyond the norm, with some of the narration even reaching for the poetic. The art is incredibly refined as well, but ... who is it by? The credits box in the issue states Jack Kirby on pencils, with Don Heck inking. However, in checking the front-of-book credits in my Marvel Masterworks reprint, I was surprised to see Don Heck listed as the sole artist for #44 - as he has been for the last three issues, and will be for the next four. An accidental omission of Kirby's credit? Or did the Masterworks reprint editor know something we don't? Certainly I was surprised to see the Kirby credit in the issue, as the art looks to my eye wholly Heck, feathery and romantic, without a trace of the exaggerated power that Kirby's figures are known for. On the other hand, another reader has pointed out that the unusual perspectives and intricate machinery in the background are Jack's hallmarks, so perhaps he only did layouts for the story, as opposed to full pencils. (Which we've seen before.) And for a game-changing story like this, you could imagine Stan bringing Jack back to the title to design the new character, and make sure the pages had the foundation of dynamism and excitement they would need. I don't know; am I really just making too much of an omitted credit in the front of a reprint book? It may very well be....

    Melodrama in the foreground, alien menace in the back, army tanks getting set,
    and bystanders fleeing the scene.  You really couldn't ask for a more perfect panel!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

54: Journey into Mystery #92

Journey into Mystery #92
March 5, 1963

  • The latest story opens on Bifrost, the magical rainbow bridge that leads from Earth to the heavenly home of Asgard, as its guardian Heimdall is approached by Neri, one of the hand-maidens of Fricka, Queen of Asgard. The character of Neri was entirely made up - but, debatable etymology aside, Fricka certainly wasn't. Which brings up a question I've had since the first Loki story: Who was responsible for bringing the Norse mythical elements into the stories in the first place? Normally we could simply respond "the writer", but as all the Thor stories have thus far been written by two separate men - Stan Lee doing the plots, with someone else (Larry Leiber, then Robert Bernstein) providing the dialogue - it's a thornier issue. For instance, anyone who's seen a reproduction of one of Stan Lee's plots knows that they were generally little more than broad strokes. And here the inclusion of Fricka isn't relevant to the plot at all, as the woman who meets Heimdall at the bridge could have been any Asgardian. On the other hand, the increasing number of mythological elements - the introduction of Heimdall and Bifrost in the first place, for instance - did have to arise at the plotting stage, as opposed to being just a bit of flavor text thrown into the dialogue after the pages were already drawn. This may not add overly much to the ongoing question of how much was done at one stage over another, from plotting to pencils to dialogue, but we can at least see that even an attempt to wholly credit just one step for the inclusion of the mythological source material isn't nearly as simple as we might expect.

  • Although the plot idea of "Loki steals Thor's hammer!" is a basic one, it's impressive to see that the 13 pages are used with an economy rarely seen today. After the Bifrost prologue which sets up the fettered threat of Loki, Thor first takes a couple of pages to capture some jewel thieves who had the misfortune to corner him in Don Blake's medical practice, before then fighting a mechanical serpent in and under the sea for a filmmaker's Viking movie. (And we don't even have a full panel in which to roll our eyes at Thor taking part in such a trivial task before he mentions that his proceeds are all going to charity.) Add in Loki using his trickery to break free, Thor calling on Odin for aid and advice, and a creative showdown between Thor and Loki's machinations, and we end up with a comic that should have been a dull execution of a very simple idea - as with many of the Ant-Man tales, for instance - but is instead far more entertaining than we expect.

  • While not quite up to the level of other Goofy Silver Age Writing of the era, the way that Thor gets by without his hammer in the latter half of the story does raise certain questions of logic. When Thor enters the Asgardian forest to search for his mystical mallet, Loki magicks the trees into attacking him. In response, Thor chops one down with the edge of his hand, does it again with a smaller tree, and binds the two with vines to create a makeshift hammer with which to fight the animated brutes. Later, when Loki transforms lazy clouds into angry, fearsome dragons, Thor rushes to the nearby mountainside and inventively uses his fingers at lightning-fast speed to chisel yet another mallet from the stone of the cliff. And maybe the ten-year-olds this was aimed at wouldn't question it. Looking at it ourselves, however, we can't help but wonder: If Thor's hands are that powerful ... then why does he need a hammer in the first place?

    In one of Thor's nuttier moves: Bad guy delivery service!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

53: Tales of Suspense #41

Tales of Suspense #41
February 12, 1963

  • The first thing most comic readers will notice from the cover is that this foe isn't the Master of the Mystic Arts they're familiar with. And it's true: while he may share the name of Dr. Strange with the soon-to-be-seen Sorcerer Supreme, it's otherwise an entirely different character. This isn't too strange for the time - the conventional wisdom of the day was that kids were into comics for a relatively short period, just a few years - and thus reusing plots, or character names, was seen as fair game. After all, who would be likely to remember? What is unusual is the surprisingly short amount of time in this particular case, as the mystic Doctor Strange would make his heroic debut just two months later.

  • Carrying on from last issue, we get another couple of pages fleshing out the character of Tony Stark, both in and out of his Iron Man suit. What's so impressive about these rapid-fire vignettes - three or four per page - is how many of them seemingly could have been stories in their own right, as we see Iron Man battling gangsters, stopping Commie spies, and frightening off alien invaders. And when Tony's latest flame asks him about settling down, he explains that he could never be an attentive husband due to all his scientific contributions: upgrading the artillery on naval battleships, developing an instantaneous flesh-healing serum for use in surgeries, or inventing a new alloy to strengthen the radiation shielding needed for space exploration. In addition to being a hell of a way to dodge commitment issues, it really is admirable to see a Marvel hero using his talents not just to battle fantastic foes, but to benefit all mankind. Of the many times we've seen The Fantastic Four's Reed Richards use his enormous intellect, we've rarely seen occurrences like this!

  • In this story, Stan & co. set up something of a foil for Tony Stark, in that Strange is another scientific genius - albeit one who uses his talents for personal gain and the ambition of world conquest. He invents 200-megaton bombs with which he threatens the world leaders, a force field to protect the base containing him and his followers, and an electronic frequency which can control Iron Man himself. And he's even been given a daughter, Carla: sweet, sympathetic to Iron Man, and saddened at the direction her father's life has turned. So why, despite the deliberate choice of having the villain get away at the end, is he never seen again...?

    Tony Stark:  The only superhero to be saved by a couple of D-cells.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

52: Fantastic Four #14

Fantastic Four #14
February 12, 1963

  • Last time, the FF took a trip to the moon, where they encountered the Red Ghost, his Super-Apes, and the Watcher. This issue begins with them returning from space to be greeted by an enormous crowd of spectators and well-wishers, far beyond their normal fans. It's yet another reminder of just how big of a deal the space race was at the time; despite all the fantastic things these four have done, Stan and Jack knew that having their characters achieve something the US was actually determined to accomplish would cement them in their readers' hearts, and make their world seem that much more real and believable - yes, even amidst Super-Apes. And lest the reader think the characters themselves unaware of how important this achievement was, the first thing Reed does upon getting home is write up the new rocket fuel which made the flight possible, and send his notes to NASA.

    Aw, come on, guys!  This is how you respond to reader complaints
    about Sue's supposed uselessness?  Really?

  • It's issue #14, and it comes out not just in February, but in the week of February 14th as well. So it's no surprise, or at least an enjoyable coincidence, that love rules this story. After they've recovered from their trip to the moon, Reed chances to come upon Sue pining for Namor as she scans the seven seas for some sign of him; in a rare moment of emotional crisis for Reed, he wonders how useful his intellect really is if it can't help him win the woman he loves. By the same token, Sue is caught in the same indecision that's trapped her since they first met the Sub-Mariner: her heart still devoted to Reed, but unable to deny what she feels for Namor as well. And when Subby breaks free of the mind-control he'd been under at the end of the story, the implication is because he was told to destroy the four, including Sue - and that's something his mind could simply not accept.

    Mr. Fantastic versus the foe called Love!

  • Fortunately, there's still enough room for all the Goofy Silver Age Writing we've come to expect. And, as with his last FF appearance, most of it has to do with the strange powers of the Sub-Mariner and the sea. This time out we meet: The Mento-Fish! Capable of transmitting a person's thoughts anywhere in the world through "mental electro waves!" The Hypno-Fish! Able to instantly hypnotize someone with its one enormous, gaping eye, then carry them in a huge, mobile air bubble! Sharp, dangerous dagger-needle coral! A fungus that quickly spreads over and engulfs any living creature! A giant undersea scavenger clam! A giant undersea porcupine! And yet, there are also signs of apology for past crimes against logic as well. In Johnny's solo outing against Namor, just last month, we were slack-jawed to see him flying around under the ocean, his flame both staying alive and providing air for Johnny to breathe. This time out he tries the same trick, but it's made clear that this is something he can only do for a very short time - just a few seconds, really - and it utterly, dangerously exhausts him. It's almost as if Stan read that last tale by Larry Lieber and decided that, of all Lieber's excesses and logical lunacies, that really was just a step too far.

    Yep.  Still creepy.

  • With this issue, the Sub-Mariner passes Doctor Doom for the number of appearances in the book, having been the baddie four times in these first fourteen issues (and once in Strange Tales), as opposed to Doom's three. And just as he shared billing with Doom in his second outing, here he's conscripted against his will by the terrible powers of the Puppet-Master, who somehow survived his last encounter with the FF. This provides a perfunctory excuse for the rest of the FF to bring along Alicia - the Thing's girlfriend and stepdaughter of the Puppet Master - as they go to rescue the Invisible Girl, kidnapped by the mind-controlled Namor. Even if it does seem a tad ludicrous for them to bring a blind, nonpowered woman on a dangerous, undersea mission against a known super-villain. And yet she ends up saving the day, of course, when she somehow senses the sinister, controlling presence of her (miles-away) step-father. Y'know. As blind people do.

    Man, this guy really goes off on a tear, doesn't he?  I bet that whenever
    he finds his people, he's totally gonna calm down.  Or something.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

51: Amazing Spider-Man #2

Amazing Spider-Man #2
February 12, 1963

  • In this second issue of The Amazing Spider-Man, we have the inspired addition of yet another piece of the Spider-Man mythos. Last time out, we met J. Jonah Jameson, publisher of The Daily Bugle and NOW Magazine, with an instant dislike and furious vendetta against the vigilantism of our hero. However, he's so far been unable to run any pictures alongside his mad crusade, as no one's been able to photograph the wall-crawler to date. In this, Peter sees a remarkable opportunity - and one filled with delicious irony - and soon figures out a way to take snapshots of himself as Spider-Man in action, fighting the new menace of the Vulture. Jameson is so overjoyed at the appearance of the photos that he readily buys them under a condition of "no questions asked", and this arrangement would be a defining part of the Spider-Man stories for decades to come.

    Spider-Man's newest foes: a couple of geezers.  Maybe he can just wait them out?

  • It's been said before, but it bears repeating: One of the biggest innovations that Stan Lee brought to his stories was making his characters feel like real people, with genuine feelings and reactions to which the reader could relate. For instance, a common objection to the character of Superman is the meekness that makes up his alter ego of Clark Kent; the reader can understand a desire for anonymity, but it's his smiling, unbothered response to countless insults and looks of disdain that stretches the credibility. By contrast, when teenage science nerd Peter Parker is openly mocked by his classmates, he doesn't chuckle and flush with embarrassment. Instead, he becomes surly, tossing back fiery invectives of his own - and it's this seething anger that we recognize. The patience of a Superman might be what we aspire to, but the hotheadedness of the Marvel heroes is who we often tend to be.

    Spiders on the upgrade.

  • The second story in this issue features the menace of the Tinkerer, initially posing as a radio repairman ... but soon shown to be spearheading an alien invasion! Having seen this plot device for the umpteenth time - not to mention its countless occasions in Marvel's monster mags of the era - we can't help but wonder why there was such an obsession with xenophobic stories, desperately paranoid of attack from without. We could point to the wars of its recent decades, from World Wars I and II, to the Korean War, and the then-current Vietnam war. However, although each of those made use of conscripted soldiers, and could thus be seen as agonizing examples of outside forces tearing families apart, the point remains that in none of those cases was the United States ever in serious danger of actual invasion, regardless of what the McCarthyist paranoia of the 1950s might have you believe. Instead, perhaps this was a surprising effect of the first real signs of modern globalization, as radio and television were now able to bring to the masses word of faroff lands with shocking immediacy. To a people of still-huddled masses, who had founded the Pony Express as the apex of rapid communication just a century before, the dizzying speed of technological progress - and how it made the world seem so much smaller than it had been before - might have been worrying indeed.

    Annnnnnnd it's aliens.  Of course.  And they've got another foolproof plan!

  • The two stories in this issue also gives us a chance to briefly examine the way that comic book stories evolved in terms of page count and reader expectations. In the 1930s and 40s, most comic books were enormous affairs that contained, on average, 8 (or so) different yarns of 8 (or so) pages apiece, each of them generally a complete story in and of themselves. Compare that to today, where the average 32-page comic has 22 pages of story content - but a single tale usually takes six consecutive issues to tell the story, from beginning to end (and often not even then). Clearly Marvel in the 1960s were in something of a transitional phase, as most of their output were still anthology titles like Tales to Astonish, Gunsmoke Western, Love Romances and Strange Tales, all of which offered an assortment of smaller stories each month. And even when Stan started putting superhero features in the front of some of these anthologies, like the Human Torch tales that would take up the entire first half of each issue, that still meant (for instance) there would be two 5-page comics and a 2-page text story to follow. So, while a single comic split into two separate stories - as done here, and in several of the early Hulks - might seem unusual to our modern eyes, it was very much a product of the time. It wouldn't last much longer, however, as just a few years later almost every comic Marvel put out would have a single, complete story between its covers - a paradigm that would last for the better part of the next two decades.

    What?!  That was a mask?!  But that's impossible!
    Just like the half-dozen times we've seen it before....