Friday, December 9, 2011

158: The X-Men #6

The X-Men #6
May 5, 1964

  • Just a couple of months ago, the Sub-Mariner fought the Avengers, before returning to menace the Fantastic Four once again. And now, he (temporarily) teams up with the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants to face off against the X-Men. As Stan has already done with the Hulk, so too might he be intentionally keeping Subby in the reader's sights, certain that the time will come when he can spin the multifaceted character off into his own feature. It won't happen as soon as it will for the Hulk - another year and a half, as opposed to just a couple of months till the Hulk's new strip - but you can tell Stan is already planting the seeds...!

    Dude's got some major anger management issues.
    Also: Duck!!

  • On a similar note, Stan's not letting the readership forget about Magneto, as this is the fourth issue - out of a mere six - to feature the Master of Magnetism. And it's the third issue in a row to feature the Evil Bro's! Readers could be forgiven for wondering if Stan & Jack had fallen into a creative rut on this new title already, but that's not the case; rather, they've realized that Magneto and the Evil Mutants make for some fantastic foils against Professor X and his X-Men - and that with a truly rich cast of villains like this, it's worth spending some time on exploring who they are.

    That is one seriously bad superpower:
    Tie your shoelaces and you might detonate the car!

  • That said, this issue featuring the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants came out the same week as The Avengers #6, in which that team fought the Masters of Evil. Sense a theme? In the comments to that post, we talked about the preponderance of bad guys who freely refer to themselves in such a fashion, and why that might be. (As Barry put it, "Does anyone ever call themselves evil? These guys have very low self-esteem.") In the ensuing discussion, we agreed that it's simply part of the shorthand of the time, where Stan used names and descriptions that told you all you needed to know about a character or a group in as few words as possible. Yes, it came at the cost of subtlety, but when applied across the breadth of an entire issue, it contributed to an economy of storytelling. Compare this to the common complaint with many comics today, where the storytelling may be realistically subtle, yet distressingly takes six whole issues to tell a single story. A year later, you've not read twelve distinct stories - you've read TWO! Is there a "sweet spot" to be had, a compromise that could combine the narrative density of years past with the subtle storytelling skills of today? I believe there can be, yes - but to my continued frustration, it seems few modern creators are interested in exploring that.

    And it seemed like they were getting on so well...!

  • To have some fun with nitpicking, there are definitely some developments in this issue that are laughable or otherwise just bizarre. Along with the "Evil" naming conventions already described, the cover shows Magneto attacking with our heroes with a magnet. And not just any magnet, but a ridiculously unsubtle horseshoe magnet. And early on, in his bid to track down the Sub-Mariner, Magneto settles himself into his throne and relaxes his mind, sending out his astral self to search the seven seas. Wait a minute, what? Magneto can astral project? How?! Professor X: Sure, that makes sense. And Doctor Strange: Of course! That entirely fits his mystical makeup. But what on earth does astral projection have to do with magnets?! I suspect this is something that later writers probably went back and explained, but right here, out of the blue, it seems like a case of Stan's occasional sloppiness in granting characters brand-new powers just because it makes the plot easier, like the Human Torch's trick of creating living, thinking duplicates which can operate with complete independence, or the Sub-Mariner's quickly-forgotten ability to mimic the abilities of the creatures of the sea. Fortunately, this isn't an error in judgment that Stan falls prey to very often - perhaps with an instinctive understanding that operating within the limits allows for far more drama than operating without - but that does make it all the more noticeable on the few occasions when he falters.

    Say it again!
    BAM! BAM! BAM!

Monday, November 28, 2011

157: The Avengers #6

The Avengers #6
May 5, 1964

  • Introducing the Masters of Evil! Just as the Avengers were Marvel's first team assembled from pre-existing heroes, so too are the M.O.E. Marvel's first team of (mostly) pre-existing villains. And it's a pretty inspired thought! After all, since just about every hero on the Avengers has his own comic - why not take a villain from each and put them all together? Wham - instant crisis!

    Baron Zemo in the Jungle.

  • Of course, the exception to this formula is their leader, Baron Zemo, since Captain America doesn't have his own mag - not yet anyway - and thus currently has no enemies to call upon. (The obvious choice might have been to bring back the Red Skull, who appeared in Cap's first issue back in 1940, but maybe Stan hadn't yet thought of that - or if he did, realized that the return of Cap's first supervillain should require its own story, when the time was right.) In any case, the solution that Stan hit upon was to create a brand-new villain, but one retrofitted into Captain America's past. In fact, it's made clear that Zemo is the bad guy they were fighting when Cap lost Bucky, right before he went into the deep freeze! And with his hand revealed in that tragic back story, an archenemy is instantly born.

    The villains return.

  • Still, if there's one complaint we can voice about this new team of villainy, it's that it does seem thrown together somewhat at random. I mean, the Melter as the foe for Iron Man? Fine. Melting is about as opposite of hard iron as you can get, so he's conceptually a great foil. But the Black Knight fought Giant-Man and the Wasp just the once, and will only be really remembered in later decades, when at all, for his connection to the later Avenger by the same name. And the Radioactive Man - while a fine baddie, I suppose, and certainly emblematic of the nuclear terror of the times - isn't intrinsically a "Thor villain", in the same way that, say, Loki is. Fortunately, later incarnations of the team would be a bit more appropriately matched!

    Only in the Silver Age, y'all!

  • Finally, a note on the new villain, Zemo. We get a bit of his origin, set twenty years earlier in World War II, when he was supposedly so hated a figure that he had to wear a hood everywhere he went. (Although you'd think he might have chosen a color less conspicuous, no?) But a chance conflict with Captain America accidentally smashed a nearby container of Zemo's dastardly new superglue - Adhesive X - and the hood has been stuck on his face ever since. As origin stories go, it's not bad - somewhat reminiscent of Superboy's accidental baldifying of a teenage Lex Luthor, maybe - but c'mon, glue? That was going to be the secret weapon to win the war? I was at that point musing, and thinking how funny it would be if they ever showed a connection between Baron Zemo, and that other gluemeister, Paste-Pot Pete ... and so was caught completely off-guard when I turned the page and saw, to my astonishment, that they DID! As someone the Avengers phone up to help them defeat Zemo's special adhesive, yes, but still: Two villains, one a war criminal and the other a petty thief, yet both of them connected ... by glue.

    This has to have been the most welcome surprise cameo in all of 1964!

Monday, November 14, 2011

This Month in Marvel: May 1964

  • Another month of Silver Age Marvel means another look at Stan's "Special Announcements" pages, as he crowed to the readers about all the other superhero delights Marvel would be putting out that month. As mentioned last time, Stan didn't just write up the blurbs once and then copy them into each new mag, but would instead write them from scratch, every time, for every book! Nutty, man. So, as a point of comparison, here are two separate examples of the "Special Announcements" from May 1964; the one above is from Amazing Spider-Man #15, while the one below is taken from The Fantastic Four #29. Compare and contrast!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

156: Amazing Spider-Man #14

Amazing Spider-Man #14
April 9, 1964

  • Here we have another impressively significant, key issue from the Silver Age - and isn't it amazing how many of those Stan & co. produced, in such an astoundingly short period of time? - with the first appearance of the character who would go on to become Spider-Man's greatest enemy. (Granted, the main and lasting reason for that notoriety wouldn't come about until years later, after Stan was no longer writing the title.) This first appearance particularly plays up the "Halloween goblin" aspect of his character; note not only the high-cheeked grin, but also the fact that he rides around not on the Goblin Glider - that would come later - but on a mechanical flying broomstick.

    In his first appearance, the Goblin looks almost ... cute!

  • And yet the story itself is unmistakably silly. The Goblin wants to take down Spider-Man - so what does he do? What's the most evil and dastardly plan he can think of? Clearly, to approach a movie producer and claim he'll bring him Spider-Man, so the studio can film a story featuring them. WHAT? Spidey takes the pitch - hey, he could certainly use a film star's salary! - and they all fly out to the New Mexico desert. As the camera crew begins to set up, the Green Goblin and the Enforcers tell Spidey they should step away from the cameras to rehearse for a bit ... and that's when they attack in force. Without a doubt, this has to be one of the most convoluted plans for a villain that Stan's come up with yet!

    Uh ... no. I don't think anyone was expecting that!

  • But as goofy as the setup may be, you certainly can't argue with Lee & Ditko packing as much action as possible into the pages - because we get a guest-appearance by the Hulk as well! (And is it truly just coincidence that both the villain and the guest-star are the same emerald shade? It's certainly never mentioned in the dialogue, as you'd expect.) We're just a couple of months away from the Hulk finally getting his shot at an ongoing feature once again, and Ditko will be Stan's partner there - for a while, at least. Was that plan already in place, and this outing was just to test their work on the creature once again, while reminding the readers that the Hulk was still extant? Or was it actually the other way round - with Ditko & Lee's work this issue providing the impetus to make them realize they could give the monster another go?

    Hulking out.

  • So, all in all, the first appearance of the Green Goblin isn't the most impressive of debuts, and could easily have been forgotten - until the final few panels. Through some clever staging and dialogue, Stan & Steve shine a spotlight on the question of just who the goblin is, and as a result the readers' interest is suddenly piqued. We know now, of course - but as with so many of the successes in this era, they were just making it up as they went along (and the actual reveal would be famously controversial). Still, that smallest of decisions did give the readers a bit of a mystery with which to end the tale, and something for Lee & Ditko to follow up on ... and soon!

    The mystery begins!
    (Click to enlarge.)

Sunday, October 30, 2011

155: Fantastic Four #28

Fantastic Four #28
April 9, 1964

  • Hey, check that out! For the first time ever, we've got the Fantastic Four teaming up with the X-Men! And so soon after the two-part tale featuring the FF's adventure with the Avengers in #25-26. (Heck, there was only a single issue separating that story from this one!) By now, Stan's figured out that the best way to sell these new titles is through ample cross-promotion - and with the FF being the flagship title in his stable, that's clearly the book in which to do it.

    Sue's almost right.  It's actually the Avengers who fought the Space Phantom!

  • And speaking of success - you have to admit that's a great visual Jack Kirby's conjured up for the cover. Let's face it: the Awesome Android is a great visual period, and one that's far more eye-catching than that of the Thinker (despite the fact that the Android hardly appears). And Jack must have realized this too; after all, contrast the cover above to that which graced the Thinker's first appearance in Fantastic Four #15. There's simply no comparison!

    Um.  Wouldn't adding more clay just make the puppet look like the Blob?

  • Continuing to focus on the cover for a moment, it's not just the art that's a resounding success, as even the copy holds its weight. A potential reader wouldn't even have to look within to glean that the story inside must be an absolute pile-on: The Fantastic Four AND the X-Men, AND the Thinker and his Awesome Android ... AND the Puppet Master too??? Whew! And yet it's notable that the villains are exclusively FF baddies, and not (as would often feature in later team-up stories) a pair for each of them - like, for example, Magneto and Doctor Doom.

    Usually in these face-offs, the two token females are matched up.
    But here, Marvel Girl takes on the powerhouse that's The Thing!  Nice.

  • The only downside to the issue is that the plot is rather, well, bunk. The Thinker has the Puppet Master mentally take control of Professor X, who directs his X-Men to fight the Fantastic Four. They fight them at the Baxter Building, then lure the FF to a lonely mesa and fight them there. At the end, the Beast manages to smash the Master's puppet, and the fracas is over (albeit with the villains escaping). Ho-hum. But in all honesty - the plot's not the important thing here. Instead, it's really all about the excitement of pitting two of Marvel's mightiest teams against one another, and seeing what happens. It may not be the most compelling story for either of them - but to any kids who picked this up off the stands, it gives enough of an intriguing glimpse of these characters to make them maybe pick up the next issues of not just one, but two, new comic mags...

    Whoa!  Trippy.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

154: Strange Tales #122

Strange Tales #122
April 9, 1964

  • Previously, it had been a bit of a surprise to see a story open with a reference to another book. Well, here it goes even further, as we start with a footnote to a previous story on the very cover! And if that's not enough, the story begins with a recap of that adventure; not the most striking way to kick off a story. What's worse, the recap doesn't end until the bottom of page 3! And, y'know, when you've only got 14 pages to tell your story in the first place, that's not a very economical approach. Did Stan realize too late there wasn't that much story in the Terrible Trio's return, and was just stalling for time?

    Even Stan's aware of this story's excess.

  • Oddly enough, this story's over-reliance on the past isn't the only direction in which it looks, as the yarn unusually features not one but two instances of teases as to future tales. At the end of the recap detailling the Trio's original exile, we're once again shown the image of Doom flying off into unknown space. The next panel, however, goes on to say: "Now, before we resume our tale, for the benefit of those who wonder with the Fantastic Four whether Dr. Doom will ever return, we have this word ... He does return ... more dangerous than ever ... in the Fantastic Four Annual #2 'The secrets of Dr. Doom!'" And later, the final shot in the story is one of the Torch speaking directly to the reader, hawking the FF's next adventure in the pages of Fantastic Four #28. Stan's always been a natural salesman, yes - but usually this kind of promotion and cross-marketing has taken place via the house ads, or in the "Special Announcements" section of the letters pages. Putting them directly into the story itself might just be a step too far....

    A somewhat rare occurrence of the Marvel characters breaking the fourth wall.

  • The Terrible Trio seems to possess the self-esteem of whipped dogs. At the end of their last fiasco, Dr. Doom tricked them - giving them not their promised pay of $5000 each, but instead a one-way ticket to another dimension. Having now escaped from their exile, though, their thoughts are surprisingly not on revenge for their betrayal, but rather on an overeager desire to impress Doom and regain his favor (once he returns himself, that is) by capturing the Fantastic Four, one at a time - starting with the Human Torch. And what, do they think, is to prevent Doom from turning on them again? The thought seemingly never occurs. Well, I suppose that, out of this makeshift foursome, Doom had been the brains of the group....

    Note how Ditko's crazy interdimensional visuals morph
    into the green design of Nightmare's garb.  Snazzy!

  • Meanwhile, the Doctor Strange back-up story makes an odd misstep at its beginning, when the Doc falls asleep to find himself in a different dimension, being attacked by magicks and sources he can't predict. It soon turns out to be Nightmare, of course - and yet it seems odd that even this small bit of suspense at the identity of his attacker is telegraphed by the opening splash page of the story, which identifies Mr. Mare as the villain of the piece. You may recall that a similar predicament occurred in The Amazing Spider-Man #13, when the mystery of the crime-committing Spidey was spoiled by the cover appearance of the new villain. But there, it was understandable - because Mysterio has an incredibly eye-catching design, and his appearance on the cover might have sold more copies than not. Here, though, there's no excuse! And that's a shame, because although the story isn't a bad one, it's also not the most distinctive - and that bit of mystery at the beginning could have gone a long way towards imparting just a bit more flavor to the tale.

    The haunting tone in Strange's closing speech is surprisingly effective....

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

153: Tales of Suspense #55

Tales of Suspense #55
April 9, 1964

  • And so concludes the Mandarin two-parter we left Iron Man in last time. Regrettably, it turns out that most of the interesting bits were in the story's setup in part one; this really is just an action piece by comparison. Iron man manages to break free of the Mandarin's trap (of course) and then they fight for a bit - with M using disintegrator rays, illusions, tractor beams and more. Really, the most notable point is at the climax, when Tony smashes all of the villain's equipment before he leaves - America's stolen missiles reclaimed - and the Mandarin, thwarted, swears ever-lasting vengeance. Finally we see the beginning of the Mandarin's obsession, and the first few steps on his road to becoming Iron Man's "big bad".

    I suppose this is comedy?

  • But wait, there's more! In addition to the 13-page feature story, this issue also boasts five pages of "insider info"! And this is significant, because it means that the 5-page filler stories in Tales of Suspense are no more; starting next month, Iron Man's page count will bump up to 18 pages! Well, at least for the next few issues, until the format of the magazine changes once again, and quite dramatically....

    Um ... now that we know Stark's aware of the chemistry
    between Happy & Pepper, this really is churlish behavior.

  • Unfortunately, the bonus feature this month is really just a lot of filler in its own right. The first page is just a splash, with a shot of Iron Man standing in front of various of his villains. This is followed by a two-page explanation of donning his armor - which would be more interesting if we hadn't already seen that very thing just a few issues ago. A one page "more info about" does actually give some better insights into the man and the machine, but the piece is then rounded off with a "Pepper Potts' Pin-up Page", showing nothing more than Potts posing for Happy Hogan on a beach. Unusually, the text itself acknowledges the change in her appearance: "When first introduced in "Tales of Suspense" Pepper had been a perky, pug-nosed, freckle-faced imp! But, after she realized how Tony Stark feels about glamorous females ... Pepper went to her beauty parlor and 'shot the works!' Today she's one of the most gorgeous females in comics or anywhere else!"

    Notes on the machine.
    (Click to enlarge.)

  • Meanwhile, the backup "Tales of the Watcher" is amusing. One day, while the Watcher is gazing at the Earth from his home on the moon (now identified as his temporary domicile, definitively clearing up a bit of confusion), a bug-eyed alien lands and explains his plan to steal the Earth's sun, needed to replace his homeworld's star which is now dying out. Aware of the Watcher's oath to not interfere, the alien happily answers all his incessant questions, knowing there's nothing the enigmatic being can do to stop him. As it turns out, however, the Watcher had realized that the alien had parked his craft on a bog (a bog?? On the moon??), and was delaying him just long enough for the ship to sink - taking with it the alien's sun-stealing apparatus, as well as all his communications. Desperate, the creature begs the Watcher for help, explaining that without his ship he can't call home for help, and will die when his limited air supply runs out - but the Watcher, unmercifully, reiterates that there's naught he can do ... but watch.

    The Watcher pulls a filibuster.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

152: Journey into Mystery #105

Journey into Mystery #105
April 2, 1964

  • This issue features the return of not one but two Thor villains - the menacing Mister Hyde and the ridiculous Cobra. And, you know, Thor's having had enough villains by this point that they can easily cross paths and lead to a bona fide Super-Villain Team-Up is a sort of marker as to how far this thunder god has come. Granted, it may not be as classic a pairing as that of Dr. Doom and the Sub-Mariner, but it's a start...!

    Oh, the melodrama!

  • After the obligatory misunderstanding and battle that every superpowered meeting seems to lead to (and didn't we just see one of those?), the Cobra and Mister Hyde decide to join forces to take down the hero who's beaten them both. This is when Hyde shows the Cobra his latest invention - the ludicrously powerful "Time Reversal Ray". When fired at a person, the machine locks onto the target, tracks their movements backwards through time, and displays their tracked events for the wielder to see. The extent to which this could be exploited and misused seems almost limitless, and the only reason they don't discover Thor's secret identity is because as soon as Thor disappears from the scene (to be replaced by Donald Blake), the machine loses its lock. Still, it's such an unbalancingly powerful device that I'd have expected it to disappear after this story; to my surprise, however, it would reappear in one form or another a couple of times down the line.

    Bizarre concept, yes.  But it makes for a neat visual!

  • Continuing with the subplot of our hero's frustrated love for Jane Foster, Doctor Donald Blake decides that the only way he can win her heart is by giving up his identity of Thor (since Odin has specifically declared that Jane is unworthy of the love of a god). This is a compelling theme, and told right it would be the main thing we take away from the story. Unfortunately, what most sticks in mind are the couple of dumb loopholes that are used to get around the restrictions Stan has set up for the character. First, a captive Don Blake, separated from the cane that turns him into Thor, is able to trigger the transformation anyway - by getting the villains to tap his cane near him instead. (Okay, so ANYONE can turn him into Thor by tapping his cane? Really?) Of course, once Blake has turned into Thor and the cane has turned into his hammer, Thor is helped by the fact that no other mortals can lift or move the weapon, thus preventing anyone from taking it away from him. But not, as we find, anything - as we see when Hyde uses a machine of his own devising to nab Thor's hammer ... with magnets. If you can read these pages without eye-rolls and groans, you've thicker skin than I.

    Heimdall on the Bridge.

  • Meanwhile, the "Tales of Asgard" backup strip gives us another tale of the mighty Heimdall, whose origin as the Asgardians' guardian we just saw last ish. In this story, entitled "When Heimdall Failed!", the King of the Storm Giants sends a Vanna - a fairy-like creature so tiny and insubstantial it can be neither seen nor heard - to spy on the denizens of the godly realm. And yet mighty Heimdall's senses are so attuned that he can tell something is amiss - that something has passed him by at his vigilant post - and so he rushes to the royal chambers where the creature has made its way. By invoking the Odinpower, Asgard's ruler is able to pluck the creature from the air and punish it accordingly, at which point Heimdall lays himself down to receive his own grave consequence for having let the winged sprite by. Instead, Odin congratulates him, pointing out not just his heightened sense but his commitment to sound the alarm, despite lacking evidence of any kind. By the vignette's end, Heimdall is standing watch on the Rainbow Bridge once again....

    Heimdall praised.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

151: Tales to Astonish #57

Tales to Astonish #57
April 2, 1964

  • You can't say Stan didn't know when to hop on a trend. Once already in this week's releases - Daredevil #2 - Stan traded on the popularity of Spider-Man; now Tales to Astonish jumps on the bandwagon. Was Spidey's success really so meteoric that Stan felt justified aping or guesting the character in every mag needing a sales boost? Could be! (Although with the creatures being invoked here - ants, wasps and spiders - it's actually more surprising that such a team-up hasn't happened before now.)

    The Wasp tests out her new stinger.

  • And yet the real milestone for this issue isn't the guest-star, but the continued evolution of Janet Van Dyne, the Wasp, as Hank Pym unveils his newest creation: a weapon for her which consists of shooting bursts of compressed air. This "Wasp's Sting" isn't quite up to the bio-electric one Pym would later invent, but it's a start. More importantly, when coupled with the relatively recent addition of the Invisible Girl's invisible force fields - which can be shaped and directed offensively as well - this shows a commendable effort on Stan's part to gradually turn the Marvel women from passive spectators into strong, involved players in their own right.

    You are now listening to Anthill Radio!

  • The plot (such as it is) is serviceable, if uninspired - but then, in a tale featuring both a hero upgrade and a hero guest-star, that's not too surprising. Hank Pym's main bad guy (such as he is), Egghead, returns to cause mischief with his own ability to talk to the ants, convincing them that Spider-Man plans to attack Giant-Man and the Wasp! When Pym's antennae-adorned network passes along this message, he and Jan go on the offensive, and the obligatory super-hero battle ensues.

    I assume this "natural enemies" joke was dropped the next time they met.
    Or at least - I certainly hope so!

  • Finally, the Larry Lieber backup tale rounds off the issue - and this time, not with another story-within-a-story of "The Wonderful Wasp Tells a Tale!", but rather with a fully-embraced Wasp solo story! While the yarn is suitably miniature in scope - a story simply about Jan apprehending a jewel thief who tries to escape through the city sewers - the obstacles she encounters while Wasp-sized make it seem like one of the early Ant-Man stories, akin to Pym's battle against the Hijacker or the much-loved Scarlet Beetle battle. As a result, the Wasp spotlight story is actually quite refreshing and enjoyable, and makes one wish they'd started this feature a couple issues earlier! But as it turns out, next issue's backup story will also be her last....

    The bumbling hero seems a staple of Larry Lieber stories, from what I can tell.
    Or did that happen only in his Ant-Man tales?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

150: Daredevil #2

Daredevil #2
April 2, 1964

  • As previously discussed, the first issue of Daredevil was illustrated by Bill Everett - and, due to a variety of issues, took six months to complete. As a result, with issue #2 the art chores were taken over by Joe Orlando, a man who had worked for EC Comics in the 1950s, and would begin drawing for Warren Publishing's Creepy in late 1964, before beginning an editorial stint at DC Comics - where he would remain for the next 30 years. But it's these early EC and Creepy jobs that most concern us, as his illustrations show a scratchiness, and a slight weirdness, that made him the perfect fit for the stories from those particular publishers. One of the pleasant surprises in Daredevil #1 was the way Everett's art clearly did not attempt to ape Marvel's coalescing "house style", and I'm happy to report that element continues here.

    Here's a panel where you can clearly see the appealing weirdness
    of Joe Orlando's art.  Check out Electro's creepy eyes!

  • The first issue made sure to give the readers a hero in the same vein as Spider-Man, and this second one continues that tack, featuring as its second villain (and first super-villain) Electro, a relatively recent addition to Spider-Man's rogues gallery. Clearly Stan was hoping to duplicate the kind of gold he struck with Spidey, but he might have hewn a little too closely here. Why, he even repeats the opening kick of "Hero nabs some crooks; thinks how easy crime-fighting has gotten; gets cocky and wishes for a real challenge" that he used in ASM #3!

    So he fixes the busted door by pressing it together with enough force
    that the door
    fuses back together?  ...Okay then.

  • But that's not all! While the first issue was largely devoid of any of the shared-world elements that Stan had been layering into all these new titles, this story opens with a guest appearance by the Thing, soon joined by the rest of the Fantastic Four as well. They've come to Nelson and Murdock because they're signing a new lease on their Baxter Building headquarters and need a lawyer to look the place over first - and how marvelously inspired is that, to have such a pedestrian motive for bringing them across his path? Naturally, when Electro sees the news that the FF is flying to Washington DC for yet another fĂȘte, he decides to break into their headquarters to steal their equipment - and his clash with Daredevil is set.

    I'm on a horse!

  • Ever since the blind sculptress Alicia Masters was first introduced to the Fantastic Four, readers have unceasingly asked why someone of Reed's genius could not find a way to cure her. The top-level answer is, of course, that what the infirmity brings to the strip (the poignant theme that Ben Grimm's inner nature is far more important than any outward appearance) is much too compelling to give up; and yet, the readership can be forgiven for wondering how these many high-tech marvels can reside in the same world as such continuing low-tech ailments. So it's notable that Stan endeavors to bring the question to the fore in DD's second outing, rather than trying to evade the topic altogether. The answer as provided is somewhat unsatisfying - Matt turns down even investigating a doctor's cure, worried that regaining his eyesight might remove his super-powers - but it's impressive to see that Stan is already anticipating the kinds of questions readers might have for this new hero.

    The scene: stunning.  The content: ludicrous!
    (Click to enlarge.)

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

This Month in Marvel: April 1964

  • Before I resume these posts, I wanted to kick off a new mini-feature at this blog. As already seen, by this time Stan had taken to including a "Special Announcements" section in the letters pages, listing all of the comics coming out that month, and a short description of each. It's one of those brilliant yet obvious moves from the canny Stan - waiting until the readers had reached the end of the story, presumably wowed and delighted with the exciting tale they'd just read, then springing forth with the trained hawker's cry of: "But wait - there's MORE!" Out of the many factors contributing to Marvel's rise to dominance in these early years, this simple trick is one that's likely overlooked.

  • (Click to enlarge.)
  • Of course, you may notice that the column shown here doesn't list Marvel's flagship title amongst the offerings. That's because the excerpted example comes from the letters page of Fantastic Four #28 - and it would be rather silly, wouldn't it, to tell the readers about the comic they'd just finished reading? (Although, in a similar vein, I recently laughed upon discovering that 1979's Justice League of America #166 from DC Comics contained a full-page house ad ... for Justice League of America #166. Oh, how the readers must have boggled!)

  • I was surprised, though, when I stopped to compare the "Special Announcements" sections of various titles from the same month ... and discovered that the descriptions were different in each one! For instance, in FF #28, you can see that one of the blurbs reads as follows:
    - DAREDEVIL #2 is on sale now - drawn by famous Joe Orlando, and featuring the thrilling battle between the man without fear and Electro, the awesome menace who almost defeated Spider-Man! Until D.D. gets his own letters page, we'd appreciate your sending your comments right here to the F.F.
    while the one in Amazing Spider-Man #14 says:
    - Well, although Big Bill Everett didn't have the time to continue drawing DAREDEVIL after the first issue, we were extremely lucky in getting an old friend, Jolly Joe Orlando to take over beginning with ish #2. (Now on sale). Joe's art is really in the Spider-Man style, and we hope you'll get the same kick out of it that you do out of Smilin' Stevie's. You may have seen Joe's delightful drawings many times in MAD Magazine, as well as in many old-time Marvel mags. As for Big Bill, we won't stop trying to lure him away from his present job in New England, and when we do, you can bet we'll have a new mag for him to do. And, by the way - Daredevil tackle's Spidey's old enemy, Electro, in the current ish, so it'll give you a chance to compare Spidey's fighting style with that of Marvel's newest star.
    This was, frankly, stunning to me. The number of duties for which Stan was responsible, as both writer and editor, already beggars belief. But while these blurbs were obviously a great idea, wouldn't the smarter move have been to write out a description of each book once, then keep it by his desk for ease of copying into each mag's letter column? Isn't writing from scratch every time unnecessary, and akin to reinventing the wheel? The only thing that makes any sense to me is that Stan was such a prolific writer, and the words poured out of him with such speed and ease, that it literally made no difference: Coming up with the words each time really wasn't measurably faster, for Stan, than copying that which was already writ. There are so many reasons why Stan Lee forged such a legacy in the 1960s, and made such an enduring mark out of such small circumstance. This, then, is simply one reason more.

  • So: Going forward, I intend to kick off each new Marvel month with a scan of one of these pages, as a preview of what's to come. (And thanks once again to Barry Pearl, author of The Essential Marvel Age Reference Project, who has agreed to provide direct scans of these "Special Announcements" for this very purpose.) Observant readers may have already noticed the "This Month's Reading List" sidebar, which has graced the front page of this blog for the past few months and mirrors the same function; the difference there is that the comics in that box are listed in the order I plan to review them - so anyone who wishes to read the next comic in advance of the postings can do so.

  • Now let's get back to the comics!

Monday, August 15, 2011

Sidebar: The Essential Marvel Age Reference Project 1961-1977, by Barry Pearl

  • If you're a regular reader of this blog, and specifically the oft-illuminating discussions that go on in the comments of each post, you might have noticed the name Barry Pearl attached to some of the most thorough and frequent thoughts. Like his longtime friend Nick Caputo, Barry grew up in 1960s New York City, which provides a specific utility to his insights; after all, he was absolutely the target demographic, being a school kid in this decidedly magical era, picking up his comic books at the newsstands and candy shops every week. He's never lost his love for early Marvel, and for the last few decades - no joke - he's been steadily compiling a book about those transformative comics: The Essential Marvel Age Reference Project 1961-1977. And it's finally out!

  • So: What's in this book? I'm glad you asked! Simply put, it's a stunningly rich and comprehensive look at the early years of Marvel, with a scope and scale never before attempted. For instance, after some background material on Marvel's Golden Age and setting the scene (the early 1960s), Barry delves into the seismic shift that 1961's Fantastic Four #1 delivered, then charts how this new kind of comic gradually affected all of Marvel's output through the rest of that decade, and into the 1970s. In fact, you might recognize that particular approach as similar to the remit of this very blog! There's a reason that readers such as Barry and Nick were drawn to the discussions that grow in these posts, after all. Great minds think alike!

  • And it's this contextual insight that I find the most fascinating, wherein Barry discusses growing up in that specific time and place. See, some of the most welcome additions that readers have brought to the comments in this blog are the moments when one of them (for instance) point out how a certain Iron Man story was influenced by a hotly-anticipated blockbuster film. Which might then segue into a discussion on how films were released back then. Or which public figures certain characters were based on. And these kinds of details are so valuable! Due to the reprint editions currently available, often in a variety of forms, anyone who wishes to can read the old comics that were so incredibly foundational to today's comic book industry - but the one thing those reprints can't deliver is the historical context in which these comics were published. In this book, thankfully, Barry provides that in spades.

  • But that's not all! As indicated by its title, this is first and foremost a reference book, and the amount of data he's compiled is truly staggering. Every issue of every comic has a listing - with cover dates, characters, and full creator credits. Additional charts show the entire Marvel output on a year-by-year, month-by-month basis, so you can see at a glance exactly what the House of Ideas was releasing in any given period. And, most impressive of all, character maps purport to list every appearance in every title of just about every character - in chronological order. If you're familiar with the Marvel resources available on the Internet, you might recognize this as similar in design to the awesome Marvel Chronology Project - but in this case, it's era-specific and, most usefully, doesn't require one to be online to access it. And unlike the community-created MCP, this gargantuan undertaking is largely the work of one author! As I said before: Staggering. (A full list of the features and contents is detailed here.)

  • Yet even with all that insight, all that context, all that data and more ... it's still not done. After all, Da Vinci famously said that "Art is never finished, only abandoned" - a thought that most artists can probably sympathize with, as they keep seeing opportunities for improvement in their works. In fact, Barry continues to tinker with the book. And this is good news! See, even though the book is more than complete - staggeringly more - he keeps refining it; keeps finding more and more additions that belong in this fantastically comprehensive study. For instance, when Barry sent me the then-current edition of his book last year, I was amazed at just how much it contained. And yet the newest edition now features extensive hyperlinks, audio snippets of interviews and theme songs, and video clips too. It's a full multimedia experience!

  • In conclusion: Hopefully you'll forgive me for this bald and overly-blatant plug - but with any luck I've been able to convey to you that this is a product I am absolutely excited by, and think is entirely suited to the tastes of the readers of this blog. After all, over 1000 pages of context, data, reference and reviews? At $35, that's a steal! No, I'm not a paid shill in any way; I really am just that bowled over by the enormity of the work that Barry has put in on this compendium over many, many years, and would love to see it reach as much of its intended audience as possible.

    If you think that might be you - I strongly urge you to check it out!