Thursday, June 17, 2010

61: Tales to Astonish #45

Tales to Astonish #45
April 2, 1963

  • It's hard to believe it's only been seven months, but ... Egghead is back! See, Hank Pym never really develops many nemeses or archenemies - not until he starts building them, at least - so, as ridiculous as this villain may be, he's about as good as it gets. The story starts with a recap of Egghead's last outing, when he was so shell shocked by his defeat that he ended up living as a mumbling bum at a dingy old flophouse. And there he has stayed, a broken man - until two small-time crooks rush in, talking about their narrow escape from the Ant-Man. Stunned by this, Egghead snaps back to reality, and he immediately enlists them in his clever plan for revenge.

  • Unfortunately, in this instance "clever" means "mind-bendingly convoluted". First Egghead sets himself up with a new identity as a brilliant professor and goes on the lecture circuit, giving highly-attended talks about the wonders of the insect world. After countless (Good God, how many?!) such events, he's gained enough fame to be invited to lecture at the city zoo - just what he'd been waiting for! He and his new henchmen then steal the Middleton Diamond, newly in town, with the aid of "an electronic dewelding gun" to burn out the alarm wires and a sleeping-gas gun to knock out the guards. But see, they only stole the diamond as bait to lure Janet Van Dyne! When Egghead next gives a lecture on wasps at the zoo, Janet attends (as he knew she would) and is stunned to see the stolen Diamond hidden about, badly. Attempting to retrieve it herself, she is soon captured and has to call in Ant-man to save her (again, as Egghead knew she would). And when Pym arrives, the mad scientist - at this stage, what else would you call him? - attacks Hank with a combination of zoo animals, electrified boundaries, and "water pistols filled with liquid gas!" Um. Liquid gas? Man, I don't even know what they're going for!

  • Sadly, what should have been the funniest weapon in the arsenal is a bit deflated, simply by virtue of having been telegraphed on the cover. (Look above if you missed it.) Yes, Egghead is such a brilliant strategist that he figured out what none of Pym's enemies to date have been able to put together: That if you want to catch an Ant-Man ... you have to use an anteater! Unfortunately, by the time it shows up we've been waiting for the (unintentional?) joke for a dozen pages, and it's about as funny as it is threatening: i.e., not very. However, an unexpected boon is that Egghead having set up headquarters in the Reptile House means that Don Heck gets to draw an unusual array of animals this time out, including the anteater, an iguana, and even some snakes. As you might expect, they're not subjects that Heck usually gets to draw, and his elegant renditions of them are some of the highlights of the entire piece.

    The lizards are ignorant of the buffoonery going on behind them.
    And that's just how they like it!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

60: Journey into Mystery #93

Journey into Mystery #93
April 2, 1963

  • The story opens, unusually, in India - which had recently become embroiled in a conflict with communist China. And it's to this scene that Dr. Donald Blake has come, leading a mission of medical aid. While this was an exceptionally timely move on Marvel's part, an odd note is that for a lame and ostensibly boring doctor, Blake sure does seem to get around! Recall that he first found the hammer of Thor while vacationing in Norway, in an era when personal travel when less common than it is today. And the very next issue saw Don join another mission of aid to the still-hilariously-named country of San Diablo. Why, he's almost becoming as much of an international jet-setter as Tony Stark....

  • This issue also features the debut appearance of Chen Lu, the Radioactive Man (although, as indicated on the cover, the word is hyphenated all throughout). When Chinese forces are turned back from their Indian assault by the timely arrival of Thor, they turn to their top scientists for advice. Fortunately, Dr. Chen has just figured out a way to use radioactivity to imbue a human with extraordinary power - and, in an alarming change of plans, decides to test it on himself. Y'know, because that always goes well, and there's nothing more harmless than rampant radiation. The experiment an improbable success, he is now supremely powerful, can melt or destroy objects simply by willing it, and is protected by a sort of repelling force field. Also? When he walks he leaves sizzling footprints in the asphalt, which is always pretty cool.

  • The real-world events make for a compelling backdrop, and for the first five pages convey a seriousness to the story - yes, superheroics and all - that's rarely found in these tales. And then, on page six, all of that screeches to a halt with the kind of ridiculous turns usually only found in a Larry Lieber Ant-Man comic. Strangely, the culprit this time appears to be Jack Kirby, surprisingly back for a single issue in the middle of Joe Sinnott's run. First off, as Dr. Chen Lu returns to his lab we see that it's ... in a converted Buddhist temple. Why? No reason. Then, as Chen takes stock of his equipment, we see that his assistants are all robots. Golden, shiny robots. Why? The dialogue blathers something about not trusting men with the secrecy of his new discoveries ... but I'm guessing that Jack just wanted to draw robots! It doesn't lessen one's enjoyment of the story - far from it - but the tonal shift is, shall we say, something of a surprise.

    Kids: Don't throw your hammer in the ocean.
    You'll just have to fish it out later.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

59: Fantastic Four #15

Fantastic Four #15
March 12, 1963

  • Continuing the rollout of villainous Marvel mainstays, this issue introduces The Mad Thinker, clearly meant to be yet another foil for Reed Richards. Granted, they could have poached The Wizard from Johnny's solo adventures - though he'll be seen in these pages soon enough - and even Sue Storm offers her commentary on the matter: "Good grief! Another power-mad genius for us to contend with!" And in one of Marvel's more blatant tributes, The Thinker (no one actually calls him "The Mad ..." inside the book) is obviously modeled on Rodin's renowned sculpture of the same name; in addition to the instance on the cover, above, the character is seen at several points within the book sitting in that famous pose, chin resting on hand.

    The Thinker may be Mad ... but he's polite enough to bring out snacks for his crew!

  • So here's The Thinker's shtick: With the aid of powerful computing machines (as large as a room, of course), he's been able to gather data on everything that has ever happened, and thus can predict anything that that ever will happen. Anyone with even a passing interest in philosophy (or science) will, of course, recognize this as a clever riffing on determinism, and specifically Laplace's demon. Unfortunately, even as a child I could tell the concept, as presented, didn't quite work.  See, the other half of the Thinker's shtick is that he's always undone by being unable to predict some action taken by our heroes or a side character; he just couldn't account for "the x-factor", "the human element". Except that at various other points in the story he clearly has, such as when he evaded police because he knew a hot dog vendor would pass by at just right moment. Essentially, the weakness of the character is that he can supposedly predict all sorts of events and human behavior to an uncanny degree ... up until the point when, y'know, the writer needs the story to end.

    There may not be much to the Android - but you have to admit,
    he's got a pretty Awesome visual.

  • But The Mad Thinker isn't the only new character we meet, as we're also given the Thinker's creation, the Awesome Android! Although the "Awesome" part of the name may be Stan Lee's typical hyperbole being stretched even further than usual, as the creature is big, strong, can expel a mighty wind from its mouth, and mimic certain textures. Not exactly the most amazing set of abilities, and he won't really become a fan-favorite until he's revitalized in Dan Slott's 2004 She-Hulk series, as office temp "Awesome Andy". In fact, the most alarming thing about the Android is usually glossed-over: that the Thinker created him from Reed Richard's notes on creating artificial life! Yes, that's right - Reed's been playing God. No need for committees on scientific ethics here!

    Step One in Reed's journey to Mad Scientist Extraordinaire.

  • Finally, this issue is notable for being the first instance of "We're bustin' up the team!", with the Thinker engineering various temptations and obligations that cause each of the four to take a leave of absence (including never-seen-before-or-since relatives of Johnny, who convince him to join their circus. No joke). Of course, this wasn't the first time someone had quit the Four, as Johnny had done so at the end of their third adventure - and again, later, in his solo book - and on many future occasions the roster would actually change for a time, most famously with She-Hulk replacing the Thing for much of the late 1980s. The entire team taking a break tends to be a rare instance; however, brief though this occasion is, it's still an indication that these four might not always be around....
    Okay, that's just adorable.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

58: Tales of Suspense #42

Tales of Suspense #42
March 12, 1963

  • One of the joys in reading these old comics is picking up the newest issue and seeing the villain: Is it some one-shot baddie? Is it the first or evolving appearance of a well-known rogue? Maybe it's some obscure Marvel villain who had a few early appearances but soon disappeared. And so there's an initial reaction when reading the captions on the cover: "Oo! The Red Barbarian? Who's that?" followed immediately by the reaction when looking at the villain's uniform: "Oh. Never mind." Yes, it's another "dirty Commies" story! But while the Soviet general is of no interest, we're considerably surprised by the agent who comes to offer his services. He calls himself The Actor, and with the use of a rubbery face and a little makeup, claimes he could impersonate anyone. (Even, bizarrely, the metal-suited Iron Man.) What's confusing about this to even a moderately knowledgeable Marvel reader, of course, is that his schtick is essentially identical to that of infamous Spidey foe The Chameleon, who appeared just a few months earlier and was also a Soviet spy. Needless to say, neither the Actor nor the Red Barbarian would be seen again.

  • As the story opens, Iron Man is foiling a group of Commie spies who are attempting to steal "America's newest atom bomb" (can a comic get more 1960s than this?) before demonstrating to army personnel his prototype for a disintegrator ray. Yes, that's right: A DISINTEGRATOR RAY. Despite vaporizing an entire monster tank and a two-foot thick wall, Tony apologizes for the ray not being ready yet. Why, if he could just figure out how to enlarge the ray, it could disintegrate "a fleet of enemy battleships or even a great metropolis"! Which, even allowing for the fascinating complication that our hero is an arms manufacturer, really leaves us wondering if Tony has finally become completely drunk with power. Then again, future stories would assert that his father, Howard Stark, worked on the Manhattan Project - so I suppose he's not that far afield.

  • Plotwise, the story's a bit of a mess. When The Actor, disguised as Tony Stark, raid's Starks laboratory in search of the disintegrator plans, he also comes across "various metal spare parts ... gleaming like gold!" ... and somehow leaps to the conclusion that Tony Stark is Iron Man. Rather than telling anyone, however, he opts to keep it to himself, in case he ever needs to get out of a bind. When Tony realizes that the plans have been stolen, however, he quickly catches up to the Actor, imprisons him, and returns to the Red Barbarian's base with the plans. Passing himself off to the general as The Actor dressed up as Iron Man, Stark explains that the plans are in the attache case he carries, which is closed with a time-lock that will only open in four hours. So the general congratulates him, tells him to come back then, and lets him leave (with the case). Iron Man then frees The Actor before leaving the country, and when The Actor returns to the Red Barbarian without any plans ... the general shoots him. And not a single thing I've recapped here makes a lick of sense...!

    The twist ending has something of an EC Comics feel to it,
    and the use of the silent middle panel is really quite gorgeous.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

57: Strange Tales #109

Strange Tales #109
March 12, 1963

  • Y'know, I'm really starting to warm to new scripter Robert Bernstein. Under his words, Johnny seems more like an actual teenager than we've generally seen. For instance, on a day off from high school, the Torch swings by to see what the rest of the FF are up to, eager for new adventures. But they brush him aside, planning as they are a mission for the next day, when he'll be in school and unable to help. He pouts, petulantly, and then reluctantly flies off, sighing, "It's tough to be a kid when you're dying to do a man's job 24 hours a day!" There's no malice or melodrama this time round, as Johnny knows the FF is doing what's right, but his lonely desire to fit in with the rest of the team - all adults - has never been quite so affecting.

  • Fortunately, Bernstein's skill with character detail doesn't mean we're left without gems of dialogue such as "Say! What's that commotion up ahead? That's where the old eccentric hermit known as the 'Sorcerer' lives!" At which point the tale becomes very silly indeed and, honestly, a bit Scooby Doo. The Sorcerer is a nutty old man who claims to have spent years studying the black arts (although, reading between the lines, with nothing to show for it). When he comes into possession of the mythical Pandora's Box, however, he uses it to commit a string of robberies until the Torch figures it out and manages to take him down. The only odd note in the tale is when a police officer quips "But who can it be? Judging from the almost supernatural techniques used, the villain must be some sort of wizard!", thus cluing Johnny in. But, especially given that specific synonym, mightn't the Torch have thought of someone else? (No worries; he'll make his return next issue.)

  • Aside from the wonderfully grotesque features given him by Jack Kirby and Dick Ayers, the Sorcerer doesn't have much going as a character. But the Pandora's Box is actually pretty neat! Every time the Sorcerer opens it, he makes use of another evil or imp, each with its own special powers; for instance, by unleashing the evil of Hatred he makes everyone present at the bank start fighting amongst themselves, while releasing the imp of laziness makes the officers' bullets, already fired, move slowly and sluggishly through the air. While the box has the same drawback as any magical device - namely, the possibility of being powerful enough to break the story (diabolus ex machina?) - the ways in which the imps are used are incredibly inventive, and makes what could have been a dull and routine tale into a really enjoyable one. Given that the box was simply dumped in the ocean after the Sorcerer's defeat, it's disappointing that the artifact never surfaced again.

    The Torch arriving too late to help Shaggy, Fred and Velma.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

56: Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos #1

Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos #1
March 5, 1963

  • Brace yourself for a change: There are no superheroes anywhere in this comic! Yes, Stan Lee & Jack Kirby's newest creation was a war comic, a genre lacking from Marvel's output for some time. Stan and Jack had both depicted wartime in comics during the early days of World War II - most notably in Jack Kirby & Joe Simon's Captain America, as well as the WWII efforts of the Sub-Mariner, the android Human Torch, and more - before shipping off to service themselves: Stan in 1942, Kirby in 1943, and both of them returning home in 1945. So they each had very real experiences to draw upon in shaping this comic twenty years later, from the missions they ran to the kinds of men they served with, and the result is plain to see: The first issue of Sgt Fury is compelling, exciting, and even a bit shocking. For the first time since Fantastic Four #1, you get the feeling that Stan & Jack were firing on all cylinders, and working on a project that they really believed in.

    No small cast here!
    (Click to enlarge.)

  • Immediately noticeable is the mixed-race cast of Fury's team. While this admirably reflects the reality of the enlisted men they served alongside, such ethnic diversity wasn't something generally portrayed in comics of the time. (In all the comics reviewed on this site so far, how many non-white characters have appeared? And how many of those as non-villains? Off the top of my head, I count Ho Yinsen, who helped Tony Stark build his first Iron Man ... and that's it.) While there were thankfully few missteps as embarrassing as the Legion of Super-Heroes' Tyroc blunder in 1976, it's worth keeping in mind that, yes, even into the 1970s decision-makers at the big companies displayed questionable judgment on the issue of race. In fact, in this first issue Gabriel Jones was famously colored the same hue as his companions; the colorist who worked on the issue had colored the character correctly, but the printer noticed the "error" and "fixed" it. That's the story, at least, but it seems somewhat suspect: After all, the idea that someone might have assumed this to be a mistake is perhaps plausible, if horribly naive ("Why would there be a black man in a comic book?"). However, we're not talking about one panel being corrected, but a character's appearance throughout. Can we truly believe that the person responsible for the "fix" really thought the colorist accidentally chose the wrong color on one character, in every panel that character appeared in, in the entire book?

    Cornered, boxed in, with nowhere to go ... and then 
    saved, miraculously, by members of the French Resistance!

  • Perhaps the most shocking thing to the typical reader of Silver and Bronze Age Marvels is how the comic doesn't shy away from a soldier's obligation to kill his enemies. The pre-modern superhero comics always made a point that heroes don't kill, and even their villains were rarely shown to engage in more than mere dastardly behavior; the unintentional joke in reading a Rawhide Kid comic is how he always disarms his opponents by harmlessly shooting the guns out of their hands, rather than shooting the villains themselves. But here, while good taste is utilized in the depiction - we see grenades launched and a Molotov cocktail lobbed, but no sight of flaming bodies or destroyed limbs - there's no denying that they're fighting for keeps here. Even with the wildly over-the-top style with which the action is portrayed, that distinction alone places the comic on a different level than all of the (nevertheless enjoyable!) superhero comics Marvel was producing at the time.

    Sgt. Nicholas Fury is a take-no-prisoners kind of guy.

  • Stan and Jack, being masters of their craft, knew the need to start off strong. Which is why this first mission for Fury's team is a big one: ensuring that D-Day goes off without a hitch! As the comic opens, we see LaBrave, leader of the French underground, radioing US troops for aid - right before Nazi soldiers burst in and capture him! Since he knows the time and details of D-Day, Fury's superior officer explains, it's imperative that he and his Howlers track down and liberate LaBrave from the clutches of the enemy before they can torture the information out of him. It's a difficult task, and the forces arrayed against them are mighty; in fact, a reader of the time might be forgiven for wondering, near the end of the story, if the title character had indeed been killed off in his first issue! Stan has said that he felt the Sgt Fury comics he did with Jack Kirby were some of the finest stories he ever wrote - and upon reading it ourselves it's hard to disagree.

    And the the readers would be back as well...