Thursday, July 29, 2010

67: Tales to Astonish #46

Tales to Astonish #46
May 2, 1963

  • What's most interesting here is not the comic itself, oddly, so much as the developments to come which the story prefigures. The main element, alluded to on the cover, is the absolute enormity of the creature that Ant-Man and the Wasp will face within. Granted, relative size is an idea that's always present in an Ant-Man tale in some regard - but given that Hank Pym will remain as Ant-Man for only two issues after this, one has to wonder if this was Stan's way of testing the waters as to how much more exciting the visuals might be if there were, say, a Giant-Man instead. The other bit of foreshadowing, of course, is the monster's very name. In most of the story the word "cyclops" is used as the kind of creature it is: "The Cyclops". But on the cover, and in the story title, the word is used as if it's the creature's proper name: "Cyclops walks the earth!" "Cyclops is alive! He's as big as a mountain!" One can imagine Stan scribbling a note to himself that hey, that's a pretty good name! And he should use it again someday....

  • Refreshingly, most of this adventure takes place away from the city, as Hank & Jan head to Greece in a surprising and entirely welcome change of pace. (Although, hilariously, they can't just leave and go on vacation. No, first they have to justify it by pointing out that there's been no crime in the last two weeks - because, you know, they've been doing their jobs so well that the criminals are too scared to act!) So instead of the typical cityscapes we've come to know, Don Heck gets to draw Greek sailors, a seaside town cradled in the hills, and a mysterious island. With but a simple change of setting, it almost seems like a completely different book! And then they meet the Cyclops in question ...

  • ... annnnnnnnd it's a robot. Built and controlled by space aliens. Of course. And it had all been going so well! It's one of those plot twists where you can't help but throw your hands in the air, and wonder just what was going on with Stan. Look, we've talked about the xenophobic themes already running rampant in these stories, and in the context of then-recent history and then-current politics it's understandable why the national consciousness might be paranoid about attack from without. But what makes an attack from outer space more palpable or realistic than the thought of attack from creatures of so-called myth, who suddenly turn out to have been real? Isn't knowledge we had been so secure in turning out to have been in error just as scary a thought? Was it just evidence of the arrogance of man, the thought that we had conquered the Earth and so had discovered everything that could possibly exist upon it? (But who knows what might rain down from above!) All I know is that the thought of Hank & Jan encountering something from legend excited my imagination - but when space aliens turned up, it was all groans and rolling eyes.

    Not their most dignified moment.  Also: Maybe it's just the color scheme,
    but they kind of remind me of this guy....

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

66: Journey into Mystery #94

Journey into Mystery #94
May 2, 1963

  • Okay, I can't put off writing about this one any longer - much as I've tried. And there's good reason: This comic is a dud. Undeniably, unequivocally, a dud. Granted, it's not offensively bad, and nothing  outrages. No, it's worse, and commits the one crime art can never afford: It's boring. Joe Sinnot's art is solid if unspectacular, and the script by Robert Bernstein neither raises nor lowers the material at hand. The sad fact is there's just not much to Stan Lee's plot. We've got another bog-standard Loki Vs. Thor tale - y'know, just like last time - and, if we didn't know better, we could be forgiven for thinking Stan had simply run out of ideas.

  • You know that cartoon? The one where somebody gets an anvil dropped on his head and loses his memory? Yeah. That's this comic. See, first Loki endangers a missile test, causing Thor to go and avert catastrophe by hurling his hammer to explode the capsule at a safe distance. Then, when Thor is just about to catch the metal mallet on its return flight, Loki surprises his brother, causing Thor to turn his head at the wrong moment - and thus get clobbered by his own weapon. (Not his most dignified moment, then.) Now convinced that Loki is his best and most loyal friend ever, Thor frees him from his chains and goes on to assist Loki in his various schemes - until he gets wonked on the head again, in the exact same spot, and reverts back. Of course.

  • Sadly, it gets worse. Once Thor & Loki have teamed up, their rampage is of astounding and eye-opening proportions. Thor smashes apart the Great Wall, opens up chasms in the earth, creates giant tidal waves, and pounds the pyramids into rubble. He causes a tornado to blow away the Taj Mahal, whisks the Eiffel Tower to parts unknown, smashes the Golden Gate Bridge to pieces, and even topples the Leaning Tower of Pisa. (Yes, even the rampant destruction in this issue is not immune to cliches.) Truthfully, all this chaos is the only really interesting part of the comic, as the reader is left wondering how on earth this could possibly not be "just a dream" - the cop-out ending usually the province of Silver Age DCs. The answer, regrettably, is a Big Giant Reset Button, for after Thor has returned to his true self and Loki has once more been captured by Odin, they "vow, with our supernatural powers, to repair all the damage done" - and magically erase everyone's memories, to boot. Such hand-waving resolution is insanely powerful and completely story-breaking, of course, and thankfully it's never seen again. Heck - maybe the spell worked better than they'd hoped, and both readers and Marvel staff alike were eager to forget any of this had ever occurred....

    Homer throttles Bart, while Marge looks on in horror.
    Just try to tell me you don't see it too.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

65: Fantastic Four #16

Fantastic Four #16
April 9, 1963

  • In another notable step, Ant-Man and the Wasp guest-star this issue - which means that the FF have now met Ant-Man, Spider-Man, and the Hulk. They really are the cornerstone of this fresh Marvel Universe! When the four start experiencing episodes of being shrunk down to just a few inches in height, they call in the Astonishing Ant-Man for advice and assistance, who not only gives them some of his shrinking & enlarging formula, but later on bails them out of trouble when they need it. This also means that Dr. Pym is the first non-FF character to go up against Doctor Doom; will this be remembered when the Avengers have their first run-in with the armored tyrant?

    You've gotta admit: That Thing's pretty darn cute.

  • When one begins to learn about atoms and chemistry in school, it's easy to be struck by the planetary model used to describe the nucleus, electrons, etc. In fact, sometimes the fact that this is just an analogy useful for conceptualizing is glossed over, and we can start to think of the atoms - the building blocks of of matter - as actually possessing that innate structure. From such a simple misunderstanding, it's then easy to make the leap to the "worlds within worlds" idea, leading to stories such as these. At the end of his last appearance, Doom was shrunk down - by his own mislaid schemes - to apparent nothingness. Here, we discover that it actually shrunk him down to a different world! This idea would be used again and again by Marvel - in particular, their toy tie-in comic The Micronauts would spend most of its seven-year run in a similar kind of "Microverse" - but, upon reflection, it does seem unusual that such a fertile idea would have been planted here, rather than in the more appropriate Ant-Man stories in Tales to Astonish.

    The soon-to-be-ubiquitous footnotes are just now beginning to creep in....

  • But maybe the answer to that is simply that an Ant-Man story - usually only a dozen pages in length - just didn't offer enough space to tell this story in the way Stan & Jack wanted to. After all, even one issue turns out not to have been enough, as the comic ends with the FF and Ant-Man escaping the micro-world ... but Doom escaping too, and the FF vowing to go after him. This isn't the first cliffhanger; that would be FF #3, when the Torch quit the team and flew off in a huff, chancing upon the amnesiac Sub-Mariner in the following ish. But that was clearly just a last-page linking device between two very different stories, while this is the first time the reader gets the sense of experiencing a story that was simply too big to tell in a single issue...!

    With shots like this, you can believe a giant-sized Doom
    would be even more terrifying than normal.

  • And there is a lot to tell in this issue - from contacting Ant-Man, to discovering a hidden world, to helping the royal family which Doom has imprisoned to take back their throne. And yet, as we've come to expect, there are wonderful little details as well. For instance, before they embark on their micro-journey, Reed tracks down Ben at his girlfriend Alicia's apartment to test out a new serum, one that he hopes will be instrumental in someday changing the Thing back to human, permanently. Meanwhile, Sue is grappling with the problem that while she can turn invisible, she can still be identified by creatures with a strong sense of smell, such as dogs, and so is seen experimenting with different kinds of perfumes in an effort to "deaden" her own scent. Even Johnny gets a bit of attention when Pearla, the princess they save from Doom's clutches, sends a few flirtations his way before the FF leave their realm. Any hopes that this could be a potential love interest for the Torch are for naught, however, as Pearla's next Marvel appearance would take 19 years to occur.

    Benjamin J. Grimm: No Time for Teenage Love!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

64: Tales of Suspense #43

Tales of Suspense #43
April 9, 1963

  • From time to time we've discussed how frequently and blatantly Stan & co. would recycle stories - sometimes as short as a single month apart! But this small, 13-page story really takes the cake for the number of elements it reused. First offender: the villain, Kala, Queen of the Netherworld. Except here, "netherworld" means "underground". Yup, Kala is a monarch who lives beneath the Earth, now determined to rise up and attack the surface world ... just like Tyrannus, and the Mole Man before him. It's no surprise that most of her (incredibly few) appearances after this would be in stories that involved all three.

  • Recycled element two: Atlantis. "But wait!" you object. "With Namor, Atlantis is now an accepted part of the Marvel story; wouldn't this fall under 'developing an idea' rather than 'recycling plots'?" And you'd be right ... if this weren't astoundingly, bizarrely, a completely different Atlantis! Kala tells Tony Stark that at some point in Earth's past, her ancestors in the fabled paradise were menaced by enormous tidal waves, which eventually sank the domed city to the bottom of the ocean. Okay, fine; we can make the unstated connection ourselves and conjecture that this city later gave rise to Namor's race. At least until the next panel, when we're implausibly told that "each year, Atlantis sank more deeply into the earth until eventually, it reached the core of the globe, where it exists now as the Netherworld!" Um ... "core of the globe"? For the first time, scripter Robert Bernstein has pulled a boneheaded move worthy of some of Larry Lieber's.

  • Okay, so stop me if you've heard this one before: This villainous dictator, bent on invasion and conquest, captures Tony Stark because of his reputation as a genius weapons designer. So they give him a bunch of metals and materials, lock him in a room, and tell him to design for them an incredibly powerful weapon ... but instead, he uses those raw materials to build a weapon for himself - a powered suit of armor made out of iron! Okay, I'll admit: The original idea is a compelling one, and one that could stand to be revisited every once in a great while ... but a mere four issues later?! (Oddly, this time he appears to have had gold paint on hand as well, and didn't have to free himself in a drab gray....)

    Ah, but see?  Maybe it's intentional!  Thematically, each one of these duplicates
    represents an existing Marvel story that's being copied in the current tale.  No...?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

63: Strange Tales #110

Strange Tales #110
April 9, 1963

  • As the cover shows, this issue features the combined return, and first team-up, of Paste-Pot Pete and the Wizard! (Later readers will realize the significance, as these two would go on to form half of the FF's enemy team The Frightful Four.) Surprisingly, the story is even more entertaining than one would expect, as pinch-hit scripter Ernie Hart more than earns his pay, giving us dialogue that shows PPP busting the Wizard out of jail so they can get revenge on the Torch, only to become increasingly fed up as the Wizard insists on giving the orders and talking down to him. In fact, the only complaint with this issue - and it's a very minor one indeed - is that for the first time we truly feel Kirby's absence on these Torch stories, if just because no one else draws the Wizard quite like that.

    The worst super-villain team-up of all time, or the best?

  • But fun though the tale may be, that's not what we're remotely interested in. Because this issue also marks the debut of Marvel's Sorcerer Supreme, Doctor Strange! As you'll recall, anthology titles like Strange Tales, Tales to Astonish, and Tales of Suspense all featured by this point a superhero in the first half of the comic, with two or three very quick, standalone short stories in the back. The good doctor is therefore the first ongoing backup feature to be seen, and is only allotted 5 pages to begin with - but both of those things will change before too long, and within the next 18 months all three of the above titles would become true split books, with one superhero in the front half of each comic, and a different ongoing superhero taking up the latter.

    You have to admit: That's a hell of a first glimpse!

  • In the 1970s reprint book Origins of Marvel Comics, Stan Lee claims that he based Doctor Strange on Chandu the Magician, the protagonist of a radio show he'd devotedly listened to some decades past, and the similarity to the characters of Vincent Price has been noted by, well, everyone. The mystic is, after all, a stock genre character, but one that's hard to do right, as magic can act as the deus ex machina to any problem. Fortunately, the writing is crisp and smart and aware of such pitfalls, as Stan resolves the life-threatening danger at the end of the story by combining two of the elements introduced earlier - Doctor Strange's magical Eye of Agomotto, and his powerful mentor The Ancient One.

    Note the body language and expressiveness in these panels,
    and the shock at the end.  Ditko was in fine form.

  • In fact, it's once again fairly stunning to see just how many key elements of the strip were in place by this first story. In addition to Doctor Strange's mystical amulet, his supporting cast of both Wong and the Ancient One, and the first fleeting appearance of Strange's archenemy Nightmare, Steve Ditko's art is inspired, as this particular genre allowed Steve to combine two of the most vivid aspects of his artwork - creepy suspense and an unsettling weirdness - into one masterful whole. Throw in a deft introduction of the main character via the story itself, as a man wracked with shaking dreams determines to seek help from the master of black magic only spoken of in whispers, and what you end up with is one of the longest, richest 5-page stories you will ever read.

    Beware when you call on Doctor Strange! 
    You may get far more than you bargained for....

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

62: Amazing Spider-Man #3

Amazing Spider-Man #3
April 9, 1963

  • When we first meet Dr. Otto Octavius, he seems a genial sort of man: well-liked, respected by his colleagues, and miraculously unscarred from the trauma of having been named "Otto". However, an explosive accident during his atomic research causes the metal arms he uses in his experiments to fuse to his body - and Doctor Octopus is born! Although we only get to see Octavius for about a page before his mind becomes deranged, what's interesting is just how abrupt this change is, and the idea of a man suddenly enslaved by his madness. In an era where most villains were evil just because, the astute reader quickly realizes that this isn't the way Otto has always been, and the tragedy of that original mind trapped within the broken one is poignant.

    A nuclear experiment?!  Golly, yes!  Let's watch!

  • This seems appropriate a time as any to talk about story lengths, as the first two issues of Spider-Man contained two separate stories apiece, but here it's allotted the full amount - and, save for the occasional departure, things will stay that way. This is, on the whole, a good move. While two-stories-per-issue definitely has a great "bang for your buck" feeling - and no one can deny that the stories in those first two issues were well told - the fact remains that, due to the economy of space, stories only 10 or 12 pages in length aren't able to live up to their full potential. Since plot is the one thing that can't be sacrificed in an action narrative, the corners that are cut end up being the smaller details, the character traits, and the subplots. It's no coincidence that the most engaging Ant-Man story to date was the one twice as large (ha!) as the others, and the same effect is felt here. Without these extra details, Spider-Man might have been just another comic hero; with them, he's a Marvel hero, and the quintessential one at that.

    Not all of their future team-ups would leave the Torch as confused as this.
    Just some of them.

  • The most obvious example of what would have been cut had this been simply another half-length story is the appearance of the Human Torch, called in by the city to stop the terror of Doc Ock. Since he needs time to recharge his flame, however, he agrees to first give a speech to the students of Midtown High on the merits of perseverance and never giving up. Though lasting only a single page, this memorable scene is a moment of Stan Lee genius, for while these words do deliver the jolt of encouragement that Peter needs after having been trounced by the Octopus in their first meeting, the true value for the reader is in the contrast this scene provides between the two teenage heroes. After all, Johnny Storm is a kid, like Peter Parker - but where Peter is a loner, an outcast, dismissed and disdained by his peers ... Johnny is a member of the universally loved Fantastic Four, superhero celebrities adored by their public and feted with honorary gala dinners. Despite their similar age, these two couldn't be more different - which is part of what will make their forthcoming friendship a joy to behold.

    When you have your hero acting this cocky on page one,
    it's a sure bet he's getting a karmic beat-down by page ten.

  • As the story opens, Spider-Man is foiling a warehouse robbery. In just a handful of panels he's caught and bound them, leaving them for the police, as he thinks to himself how easy it's all been. Later, when J. Jonah Jameson explains that he's been unable to procure any photos of Octavius, Peter brags that he'll get Jonah those pictures, no sweat. Yup - Pete's getting cocky, and it's that surge of overconfidence that leads to the initial, decisive trouncing mentioned above. In true teenage fashion, he melodramatically wonders whether he's really cut out for this gig after all, maybe he should give up and pack it all in - until he happens to hear the Human Torch's words of encouragement, right when he needs them most. No longer sloppy and incautious, he tracks down the Ock again and this time defeats him - with determination, brainpower, and a well-timed punch. At least until the next time ...

    Perhaps you've heard of the most famous lettering error of all time...?