Thursday, August 26, 2010

73: Tales to Astonish #47

Tales to Astonish #47
June 4, 1963

  • So here's the tale of Trago, a swingin' jazzman with a trumpet who's sadly down on his luck. During a terrible lapse of judgment, he gets caught looting the cash box of the jazz club that hired him and the manager fires him on the spot. More than that, in fact: He instead chooses to forcibly deport Trago (you can do that?), saying that he'll decline to press charges so long as Trago boards the next flight out of the country, which turns out to be headed for India. Apparently it's just that easy! Once in India, of course, Trago falls under the tutelage of a wise old mystic who teaches him how to use the power of his instrument to hypnotize snakes, reptiles - and even humans! Trago therefore jumps a plane back to the States, and immediately starts using his newfound power to swindle all those he can.

  • In fact, in modus operandi Trago behaves exactly like the Ringmaster, hypnotizing his audience then stealing their coin. (I'd wonder why there are so many hypnotism tales, but with the larger preponderance of nuclear bombs, duplicate stories and xenophobic paranoia, that might seem disingenuous.)  Here, though, you get the sense that Trago's not an inherent villain, but just a weak man who's fallen on hard times. At the story's end, when Trago's memory is erased and he takes up playing jazz gigs once more, you find yourself hoping it works out for him. And the fact that Ant-Man never again faces The Man with the Magic Trumpet may be a sign that it does!

  • And yet there is one tragedy within these pages, and that is the sad end of Korr. Who's Korr, you ask? Why, none other than Ant-Man's trusted steed, of course! Granted, it is a surprise to get the name of one of Pym's ants, as up to this point they've only been referred to en masse - for instance, every time Hank launches himself across town and summons a mound of them to break his fall, like some raked-up pile of fallen leaves - but the sudden change of protocol is made clear when Korr saves Ant-Man from a menacing garden snake, nobly sacrificing himself for the pint-sized hero. But weep not!  For Korr is survived by the steadfast Foss, who stoically takes up his fallen brother's post. (Still: I doubt we hear mention of Foss, or any named ants for that matter, ever again.)

    For such a silly tale, it has a surprisingly somber coda.
    And the use of silhouette in panel two is quite the beautiful effect.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

72: Journey into Mystery #95

Journey into Mystery #95
June 4, 1963

  • Reader GeneralNerd recently pointed out that some of these early Thor stories have the distinct feel of a Silver Age Superman story, and it's hard to deny. Virtually all superheroes can be said to descend from The Great Supes, of course, but when you have a super-strong, godlike figure in a red cape, complete with frail secret identity, the similarities become inescapable. With such thoughts on the mind, it's then impossible to see this cover and not instantly think: Bizarro Thor. Fortunately, in just two more issues Stan & Jack will finally start to flesh out the Asgardian backdrop in real, painstaking detail, giving Thor the distinct identity he's been mostly lacking up till now.

  • Early in the tale, Thor lends his talents to the demonstration of a new, android lifeform. A lifeform that - wait, what?! - Dr. Don Blake has himself invented, despite all indications of Blake being a general practitioner and not (say) a biosynthetic engineer. Ah, yes: Reinforcing the similarities to the very simple DC stories of the time, we have here the first Marvel appearance of that quaint old Silver Age trope - the idea that one scientist or doctor is as good as any other, regardless of field or focus. Scripter Robert Bernstein indicates an awareness of this discontinuity, when Blake protests to the evil scientist Zaxton, "I'm not your equal in the physical sciences! I specialize in the human body!" But Zaxton dismisses this (quite reasonable) protest, exclaiming "Nonsense! Your android was a mechanical miracle!" So it's hard to see what, exactly, Bernstein was trying to accomplish.

  • When Zaxton's duplicating machine creates an evil version of Thor (and just what is with all these duplicate stories, by the way?? The Carbon-Copy Men were just five issues ago!), the real Thor finds himself sorely tested ... until he discovers that the duplicates can't actually harm him with their hammers. Re-examining his own hammer, he once again sees the inscription first seen in his debut story - "Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor!" - and realizes that the opposite Thors, being evil, are not actually worthy of the duplicate hammers they wield. Seeing that the jig is up, Zaxton creates a duplicate of himself to aid in his escape - but then, in his panic, slips from a height and falls to his doom. An unexpected side effect of this is that Zaxton's duplicate survives ... and, being an opposite-aligned copy, is free to use his genius to do good, where the original went foul. Finding a genuinely surprising twist at the end of what had seemed a very simple story is something of a surprise; having two, in quick succession, is impressive indeed.

    Oh, come on!  He's not even trying to hide his Evil!
    (And doesn't he remind you a bit of Myron Reducto?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

71: Fantastic Four #17

Fantastic Four #17
May 9, 1963

  • With regards to utility, the cover to this issue has a great layout, effortlessly showcasing separate scenes of personal peril - but the threats in question are some of the least exciting dangers they could show. "The menace of the moving bars"? "The threat of the whirling cement"?! Yawn. And yet, having grown up on John Byrne's Fantastic Four comics of the 1980s, I can't help but theorize that this issue might have been an childhood favorite or formative influence on the later writer/artist: Not only does he recreate the cover for his own purposes nineteen years later - note the identical sequencing of the four characters, with (the real) Doom at the center - but Byrne would also invoke the Doomship-disguised-as-cloud device the following year, in the opening act of #259.

    Sonar heat waves?!  Um.  Yes.  Torch, there may be a reason
    you're not picking anything up....

  • In many ways, the awesome villainy of Doctor Doom was apparent from his first appearance, while in other respects he would seem ... less than grandiose. Here, for instance, we see him slowly inch closer to the inventive, power-mad dictator we would know him to be - and yet there are missteps as well. Early on, each of the four gets a diabolical plastic disc attached to their wrists ... but the mischief is delivered by a Baxter Building janitor, who is Victor Von Doom in disguise. Now, confess: Can you see the haughty, arrogant Doom throwing on a pair of overalls and a fake beard? Yeah, me neither. The next stage of his plan comes about when four disturbingly serene marshmallow-men, floating six feet overhead, home in on each member of the team, annoying any and all civilians around ... and that's it. Spying on them from a distance, Doom gloats in triumph that the first phase of his scheme has ended, as he "only intended to embarrass and confuse them!" And, heaven help us all, the look of triumph on his metal face is bizarrely exultant.

    Disturbing Love Scene.
    In more ways than one.

  • In discussing the previous issue, reader Asbestos Man disagreed with my assertion that we seemed to have reached the first two-parter - and, having now read the next one, I'm inclined to agree. Just as the end of FF #3 led into the separate story to be found in #4, so too does their search for Doom this issue have really quite little to do with his escape in the last. However, this isn't a bad thing. On the one hand, yes, our curiosity may be eager to see the first wholly-distinct story large enough - wild enough - to actually require a second issue's space to tell it. And yet the economy of storytelling used in these Silver Age Marvels is damned impressive - especially to a reader accustomed to the modern comic's need for six-to-eight issues to tell a single tale - and the ability to deliver a satisfying conclusion and then employ a cliffhanging link to a second, distinct story is a narrative device that seems to have fallen out of fashion. Much, I think, to our loss.

    Some of Doctor Doom's goofiest faces.
    How does he get the metal to do that?

  • Old-time readers know that letters pages used to be the norm in comic books, unlike the rarity they are today. So it was something of a surprise to discover that, in these early days of Marvel, they were just as scarce. To address this, an editorial note some issues back announced that readers should therefore feel free to send their thoughts and notes on all of Marvel's assembled comics to the letters page in The Fantastic Four - a suggestion the readership quickly took to heart. By the same token, Stan began dropping in comments and hints about their other comics as well, as an early forebear of the later "Bullpen Bulletins". Here, for instance, Stan mentions in one item that although they had cancelled The Hulk because "we felt we were spreading ourselves too thin", they had since been besieged by countless pleas requesting his return - though they didn't yet know how, or when, or where. Two bullet points later, however, Stan also mentions that they're already planning new comic mags, buoyed by their recent success. If a canny reader were to wonder if those two announcements were at all connected, he might not be too wrong....

    Ben Grimm heads off to fertilize the egg.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

70: Tales of Suspense #44

Tales of Suspense #44
May 9, 1963

  • Was this simply the month for Marvel to send all its heroes around the world? We expect to see the Howling Commandos fighting their way through wartime Europe, and Doctor Strange visiting his mentor in Tibet seems commonplace as well, just two issues in. But then there was also amnesiac-Thor's international rampage, and Ant-Man and the Wasp travelling to Greece ... so why should Tony Stark miss out on the fun? Sure, we've seen him play the world traveller before, living up to his image as an international jet-setting playboy, but clinking glasses at a high-society gala in Monte Carlo is a very different thing from going to Egypt and getting down and dirty with an archeological dig. It's only upon seeing these world-spanning stories in such rapid succession, and finding how refreshing the change of settings really are, that we realize that the stories had started to fall in a bit of a rut.

  • Besides nabbing the spotlight on the cover and being teased at tale's start with a massive lack of subtlety, Cleopatra doesn't feature much within its pages till the end. It's instead the Mad Pharaoh that occupies most of our attention, and he's a surprisingly entertaining baddie! While battling Cleopatra's armies he faked his own death - instead putting himself into a state of suspended animation that's only broken two millennia later, when Iron Man helps an archeologist friend locate and open an ancient tomb. The newly-awakened King Hatap then uses his dark magics to whisk both himself and Tony Stark two thousand years into the past so he can revenge himself upon the Queen of the Nile - though Iron Man quickly appears, stopping both Hatap and his various attacks, until the mad king literally slips and falls onto a random sword. It's too bad, really; the sinister pharaoh might not have been the most inspired or original of villains, but he's enjoyable enough that we could easily have stood to seen him again.

  • Which isn't to say that the story doesn't have its requisite share of Goofy Silver Age Writing, of course. Aside from the expectedly convoluted plotting (why does Hatap originally escape Cleopatra by sleeping two thousand years, only to immediately time-travel back to the time he left? Why does Tony Stark point out that Hatap's "Chariot of Time" - a great concept - is just an illusion, yet makes the bizarre distinction that they're still crossing the ages via the pharaoh's dark powers?), this yarn features some of the goofier "Iron Man attachments" we've seen yet. When Stark notices a Roman galley about to attack the barge carrying Cleopatra, he slaps a propeller to his feet, jumps in the water, and launches himself at the attack ship at ramming speed, with devastating results. (Try not to question how the iron suit stays afloat.) But that's nothing compared to the way he takes out Hatap's final forces: by lying down, attaching four tiny wheels to his back and the back of his feet, attaching a jet engine to the top of his head - and aiming himself at the mad king's army, who are thrown to the sky like so many tenpins. If it's not the silliest thing Tony Stark's ever done to his armor ... it's got to be pretty close.

    Oh, I bet she says that to all the guys....

Thursday, August 12, 2010

69: Strange Tales #111

Strange Tales #111
May 9, 1963

  • Well, this comic is sure to be appreciated by a certain commenter, as he's claimed the ridiculous villain's ridiculous handle for his own. And it is a laughable baddie; there's no doubt about that. I mean, this guy's a talented inventor, as he's come up with: an acid that can instantly melt steel and iron, a pen that can electronically reproduce any signature, a machine that could create flawless counterfeit bills, and more. And yet he goes with ... asbestos? Even going so far as to dub himself The Asbestos Man? Clearly he's not very good at this.

    I swear to God, that's how the story opens.
    It makes me wish more comics started like this!

  • And yet it's Professor Kasloff's almost complete incompetence that makes the issue so memorable, and so enjoyable. Feeling mistreated by his employers (who nevertheless express their joy at having him), he sets out on a criminal path ... and bungles it like a novice his first time out. Realizing that the problem is his lack of experience in this realm, he tries to sidle up to some local mob types, but they understandably brush him off. Hence his plan to take down the Torch - an event to which he calls the press, bizarrely - and thus impress these underworld goons. Yes, it's another "villain challenges the Torch" tale, like so many others we've seen by this point, but this time there's a much better motive than "just because he's better than me" - and one that rings entirely true for the very nebbish character we've been shown. (You may not be shocked to find that he's never heard from again.)

    Oddly enough, this happens every time the Torch opens the mail.

  • Meanwhile, it's Doctor Strange's second outing, and both times we've been introduced to villains who would go on to be major archfoes. This time it's the evil mystic Baron Mordo, who is a peer of Strange's in a way that Nightmare is not. This has the wonderful side benefit of giving us our first glimpse of a true struggle between equally-matched sorcerers, and that mystical battle makes for a series of fascinating visuals from Steve Ditko - the first of many, many to come.

    Note the fantastic way their astral fight weaves in and out of their surroundings,
    as well as the symmetry implied by the three panels taken as a whole.

  • I fear repeating myself, but once again it's astonishing to see how many of the character's essential elements were in place right from the outset. (As opposed to, say, Daredevil, which wouldn't really figure out what it was doing until fifteen years into the book.) The magicians battling via their astral forms, the reliance on magical artifacts and attacks, and even setting up hints at the back story between Doctor Strange, Baron Mordo, and the Ancient One: These are all things that would become nothing less than intrinsic to the strip. In fact, the only thing that's off - and it's a minor point indeed - is that at this point they'd not yet settled on their mentor's name, as he's here only referred to as "The Master". Hmmm, the Doctor and the Master? It's tempting to wonder if this might have been a subconscious influence on the creation of a certain character across the pond, nearly ten years later. But no, that's surely just coincidence....

    In fact, he'll be back in the very next story - but not the very next issue....

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

68: Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos #2

Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos #2
May 2, 1963

  • First off, a correction: Last issue, I mentioned the problem of Gabe having been miscolored as a white guy throughout the bulk of the first issue. The oft-cited story (which seems to have originated with Stan, or at least is attributed to commentary by Stan) is that the error occurred after it left Marvel's hands - though I pointed out that such a story seemed suspect. Far from the error owing to sinister or unsavory reasons, however, reader Nick Caputo convincingly suggests that the mistake might have originated much closer to home, as the original artwork to this second issue bears a margin note to Stan Goldberg, the colorist, stating "Stan G - this is Gabe". And so, a cautionary lesson about too-eager conclusions: Sometimes a mistake is just a mistake!

    Nick Fury accepts his new marching orders.  Barely.

  • Sgt. Fury's first issue began with the cast being introduced to the reader and brought into the field. No hard introduction is needed now, though, so the issue opens with the Howlers finishing a mission before heading back to their camp for some richly-deserved R&R. Little peace is had, however, before they're almost immediately drafted by their commanding officer - "Happy Sam" Sawyer - into another assignment, and a vital one at that: The Germans have been developing their own version of our Manhattan Project, and are quickly on the way to achieving the atomic bomb. Note that not only does this give their next mission an urgency that cannot be denied, but it also allows Stan to deftly combine a World War II comic with one of his current pet obsessions: Nuclear paranoia.

    The comedy with which Kirby infuses this scene is priceless.
    Dugan clutching his hat is a particularly good touch!

  • To Marvel readers who are more familiar with Nick Fury's later occupation as cool-and-collected, ultra-serious spymaster - in other words, about every single one - it's a bit surprising to see him at this earlier stage in his career. The grimace with which he receives a chewing out from "Happy Sam" is an expression you can't really conceive on Nick once he's with SHIELD, and his over-the-top bluster which rallies the Commandos can be likewise arresting. But it's clearly a raucous and rowdy group he leads - they're not called "Howling" for nothing - and the mutual ribbing, as well as such comedic turns as Dugan's running joke about the wife his service has freed him from, illustrates a close-knit family bond from which they derive their strength.

    Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos raise some hell,
    as the energy of the scene seems to explode off the page.

  • Still and all, it is a Silver Age Marvel, so the plotting remains goofy. Setting out disguised in a fishing boat, they meet up with and capture a German E-boat in short order. No sooner have they made the mainland, however, than Dum-Dum Dugan is captured - so they divert to free him, of course! But here's where it turns screwy: Having liberated Dugan, they then arrange for their entire group to be captured, since being taken to the labor site that borders the weapons development base seems the speediest way to their goal. This is sure to raise an eyebrow or two, and the reader might understandably wonder if this wild bunch casually suggesting they be thrown into a concentration camp is in questionable taste. But you stop for a moment, and you think of how Stan Lee and Jack Kirby both served in World War II, and you recall their real names - Stanly Lieber and Jacob Kurtzberg - and you know what? You're somehow inclined to give them a pass.

    Last issue featured a full-page backup showcasing the various guns of wartime;
    this time there's another weapons page as well as this "Know your enemy" feature.