Tuesday, May 31, 2011

142: The X-Men #5

The X-Men #5
March 3, 1964

  • After the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants debuted last issue, they're back again. (And note how similar this is to the introduction of Doctor Doom, who also returned in the issue immediately following his first appearance. Stan & Jack are certainly sticking to a formula!) In fact, Stan seems so excited by these new foes that they won't be absent from the title until issue #8. But, oddly enough, that's not the only return this month! See that cover? See that goofy "flying Angel" placed strategically above the logo? That new bit of iconography debuted the previous issue too, perhaps with the idea of flight as the most visually instinctive signifier of mutation. In any case, this unusual symbology seems to have been incorporated as part of the logo now ... and, improbably, it will stick around!

    Asteroid M.  An idea so good, it will still
    be an active part of the X-mythos five decades later.

  • We can conjecture that the Brotherhood's omnipresence these next few issues might have something to do with the danger in introducing any new team; after all, with a limited number of pages, the ability to introduce each new member in a way that's both effective and resonant is vastly reduced. (Recall that the X-Men themselves didn't really start to develop personalities until their third issue, and Stan has already taken pains to spotlight individual members such as Iceman and the Angel.) And in addition to again featuring the team as a whole, this issue highlights arguably the least member of the Evil Mutants, the sycophantic Toad. Seemingly possessed of no greater power than the ability to hop around, we might wonder if he was thus conceived as a dark reflection of Hank McCoy, the Beast, with his simple-mindedness an additional inversion of Hank's mighty intellect. And noteably, when a crowd watches the Toad engage in leaps and bounds which clearly mark him as Something Else, the first grumblings of fear and distrust begin to emerge. Perhaps Stan was finally beginning to figure what this book was about!

    The new race war takes its first steps.

  • As the story opens, the parents of Marvel Girl pop by for a quick visit, passing through on their way to the 1964 World's Fair (which bore as its theme "Peace Through Understanding" - clearly relevant to the subtext at hand, yes?). When Jean Grey greets them at the door with a typically teenaged mix of affection and nervousness, and we see through her eyes these everyday parents visiting their beloved daughter at her (supposedly normal) boarding school, it strikes us that this is the first time it's seemed like a real school! Still, their quips as they leave do cause us to wonder if they're perhaps too easily accepting; not only did they change their mind about sending Jean to Xavier's after receiving a letter from Washington, D.C. strongly urging them to do so, but the fact that some of the school courses are labelled as TOP SECRET seems to impress them, rather than arouse any suspicion! Readers eager to reinterpret Xavier as a far more sinister force than was ever intended could find easy fodder in this scene, wondering if the professor gave subtle telepathic nudges to Mr. and Mrs. Grey in entrusting their daughter to his care. (And, to be fair, we've certainly seen such grey ethics from Charles already.) But in all fairness, any surprise we may feel at their blind acceptance is more a commentary on societal attitudes, and how they've so radically changed; fifty years ago, the average American may have just felt more inclined to implicitly trust their government, as opposed to the healthy skepticism in greater prevalence today.

    Were the creepy implications of telepathy and mind control as apparent
    to readers in the 1960s as they are today?

  • Finally, in evidence for the case of "Professor Xavier is a Jerk!", we get the resolution of last issue's bewildering cliffhanger. Upon the X-Men's return from this latest mission, which involved battling the Brotherhood on Asteroid M and retrieving their captive teammate Angel, they're greeted by Professor X - who, it turns out, didn't lose his powers after all! Instead, he tells them, he was just faking it to force them to get by on their own, as some sort of (potentially ill-advised) "final exam". So the good news is: They've graduated! But, er, they do so in the same issue in which Marvel have only just convinced us it can feel like a real school? Great timing, guys....

    See, you can tell it's magnetically powered because of the--
    Oh, never mind.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

141: The Avengers #5

The Avengers #5
March 3, 1964

  • Following the monumental FF/Hulk/Avengers brawl in Fantastic Four #25 & 26, the Avengers finally get a bit of a break in the action. It may be just a few moments of down time, but it does feel very nearly like the first time since they began! After all, in #1 the team came together, and #2 saw the Hulk leave their ranks after their very first case as a group. The third issue came out of the Hulk's immediately subsequent desire for revenge, while The Avengers' discovery of Captain America occurred on their way home from that battle - which led into their appearance in FF, which leads right back here. Whew! By the end of this tale, it really does feel like we've finally reached the culmination of a single story that's been in progress ever since the very first issue.

    This opening scene refers to destruction that didn't even occur in their own book! 
    A few years earlier, this would have been unthinkable.

  • And Stan & Jack use that period of down time well. In particular, they deliver a larger glimpse of who we're presently most interested in: Captain America. We've seen the other members during quieter moments in their own titles, but the only time we've seen Cap apart from the Avengers thus far was upon his initial return, as he wandered New York City and wondered at the many changes wrought in his absence. So, faced with another brief space between world-shaking crises, what does Cap decide to do? He gathers together Rick Jones and his Teen Brigade, and teaches them the basics of acrobatics and fighting fitness. In just a few panels, Stan & Jack give us an understanding of Steve Rogers that would have felt completely in-character to anyone who had read his stories the first time around, or even those of us who have read his adventures in the last several decades: Given any opportunity, Cap's first instinct is to teach, to lead - and inspire. And with both the Teen Brigade and the readers, he succeeds!

    The heavy hints at Rick Jones being a new Bucky for Cap continue.

  • So, since the initial character arc of the Hulk vs. the Avengers has finally wrapped (and not even in their own title!), it does seem a bit strange to find the green brute still turning up in these page. We might wonder: What's going on here? What's Stan's game? The most straightforward theory - besides just making it up as they go, of course - might find a clue in the fact that the Hulk has now guest-starred in more issues than his original comic lasted. Stan clearly saw the untapped potential in this character, and was perhaps keeping him in the public eye until he could grant the misunderstood monster his own regular feature once again. (Not much longer now!) In any case, after this unbroken string of appearances, the Hulk won't be seen again in these pages for several years to come.

    Just Stan's way of reminding you who that big green guy really is.

  • This time out, though, the Hulk isn't the threat: It's the Lava Men. Yes, building on the Lava Man story from Journey into Mystery #97, we've now got a whole race of molten, underground dwellers. After all, one of the advantages to having a super-team composed mostly of characters who have their own solo adventures is that the villains of those individual characters are now fair game for all. (Recall that the Avengers were first brought together by Loki.) And while the Lava Men could have been bland, cookie-cutter bad guys, as seen here they've relatively complex motivations. The Lava Man who had previously faced Thor is the lone voice of dissent, surely showing a capacity to reflect and learn generally uncharacteristic of most baddies, and while the others are certainly endangering the surface world, they're clearly not evil - they're just trying to survive.

    Impressively, Stan avoids the common mistake of making all members of a group
    act as one unified mob. And dig that witch doctor's crazy look!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

140: Tales of Suspense #53

Tales of Suspense #53
February 11, 1964

  • "Script by N. Korok", I read, and ask: Who the heck's that?! Wikipedia informs me that it was the pen name of Don Rico, who first worked during comics' Golden Age, along with a 19-year-old Stan Lee. A website run by one of his children has more information available - but otherwise, data on this man seems somewhat scarce. For instance: In the 1950s, Don had been one of the main writers for the proto-Marvel line of Atlas Comics. So why did he return only to write this issue (and the last), and then a random Doctor Strange story nearly a year later? In fact, given that Stan had taken on full writing chores for all the feature heroes several months back, why are these stories once again scripted by someone else at all? Was Stan feeling a momentary time crunch? Or was Don (who by this period was making a living as a paperback novelist) in a financial pinch, suddenly needing some quick work, and so Stan tossed an easy job to an old colleague for a favor? Given that Don himself passed away in 1985, and taking into account Stan's famously shoddy memory, we may never know.

    How does someone with an appearance so elegant
    possibly remain in hiding so well?

  • The story itself sees the return of "Madame Natasha", the Black Widow. After the events of last issue, the Russian spy has been living in exile on American soil, watching for a chance to make up for her last mission's failure and thus ingratiate herself with her Soviet superiors. Fortunately, she sees this opportunity when Tony Stark invents a powerful antigravity ray whose applications seem unlimited! Through a mixture of trickery and the arrogance of Stark, she manages to steal it, but the Commie agents sent to "help" her bungle the operation, and the device - created through accident, and thus irreplaceable - is destroyed in the chaos. And yet at the end of the tale, the Widow has once again fled the scene; clearly, Stan Lee knew that they'd only scratched the surface of this femme fatale.

    You heard it here first:
    Commies Just Don't Dig Us.

  • As the cover tells us, this month's backup strip contains a real treat - the origin of the Watcher himself! Although Tales of Suspense and Tales to Astonish have had backup stories narrated by the Wasp and the Watcher, they've thus far been tales clearly uninvolved with Marvel's increasingly connected superhero world. As a result, this is the first time that the subject of one of these stories has dealt specifically with (what would come to be called) Marvel Universe material. And it won't be the last!

    Even a Watcher knows the importance of good hygiene.

  • So how does the origin hold up, once told? After all, these 5-page stories are fine for short fables we're not going to spend much time thinking about, but what about when one details a character we've seen before, and will see again? Will such little space suffice? Surprisingly, the answer is a resounding yes! In the Watcher's first appearance, the character told the Fantastic Four that his race never involved themselves in the affairs of others, but neglected to explain why. The story behind his people's conviction is finally told here - and told so well that it's never since needed to be patched up, rebooted or retconned out of existence. Not bad for a mere 5-pager!


Thursday, May 19, 2011

139: Strange Tales #120

Strange Tales #120
February 11, 1964

  • In this issue, the Torch meets the Iceman! (In fact, the opening page deems Iceman as "a frozen version of the Human Torch.") As you might expect, fire and ice go really well together, as did fire and water when the Torch took on the Sub-Mariner; having a hero with a power so elemental really does lend itself to these kinds of pairings. Even better: Whether an accident of scheduling, or through deliberate intent, this story sees a one-issue return of Jack Kirby on art!

    Wait a minute.  Did that little hooligan just take off his pants?

  • If you're paying attention, you'll note that this is the second time we've seen a side story featuring an X-Man on his own, following the Angel's face-off with Iron Man. Attempting to ascribe Stan's motivations some five decades after the fact is of course guesswork at best, but if this was by design then it was pretty smart of Stan to give Marvel's new X-team greater exposure, one member at a time. Such spotlight stories are useful because they allow the featured characters more time to shine on their own, and let us see how they operate and act apart from their team, developing their own individual personae separate from their roles in the group. In this case, it works well because Bobby Drake, as the youngest and least mature of the X-Men, is a perfect match for Johnny Storm, who fulfills the same function for the Fantastic Four.

    Unlike the antagonism in the Torch's team-ups with Spidey,
    Johnny Storm and Bobby Drake get along pretty well!

  • Meanwhile, the backup story featuring Doctor Strange is a real treat. As the tale opens, we see a crowd gathered around a TV reporter being filmed before he enters a reputedly haunted house, intent on staying the night. The Doctor decides to tag along, unseen, just to keep an eye on things and lend a hand if events take a dark turn - which, naturally, they do. If the plot sounds familiar to you, it may be because the story was likely inspired by the 1963 horror film The Haunting, which had opened in theaters just a few months before this story was commissioned. (You may recall that Stan has pulled this trick once or twice before.)

    The scene is set with a mix of skeptic modernity and ancient dread.

  • I've mentioned before that I really enjoy seeing Doctor Strange in this kind of role, as a modest supernatural investigator rather than some sort of "cosmic protector". (So this being the third such story in a row is quite appreciated!) The secret of the haunted house is a genuinely surprising one, with a visual so compelling I nearly included it in this post - but in the end, I decided to avoid spoiling the plot twist for anyone who hasn't yet enjoyed the tale. Although only Strange knows the truth about the house, by the end of the story its effect is felt by all, only increasing the mystery surrounding this Doctor - who walks away from the crowd, alone in the night.

    Let's agree: This guy sure knows how to make an exit!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

138: Amazing Spider-Man #12

Amazing Spider-Man #12
February 11, 1964

  • This issue sees Dr. Octopus once again, so soon after his release from prison and subsequent scheme last issue. And with this third story, he's now appeared more than any other villain. (The only other baddie to have returned thus far was the Vulture in #7.) To put this into proper context, by Fantastic Four #12 Doctor Doom had appeared three times; by the twelfth Thor story Loki had appeared five times. Were Lee & Ditko setting up Doc Ock to be Spidey's Doc Doom? After all, octopi have eight legs, as do spiders - something that's rarely commented upon with this particular hero-villain match-up. Then again, perhaps the idea was scuppered for this very reason; if they subtly reminded readers of the eight legs issue, might they face of flood of fan mail asking why doesn't Spider-Man have eight limbs? (For which readers would have to wait another seven years to see!)

    Apparently Doc Ock rants aloud, even while hanging up the phone?
    Hey, if it helps the plot...!

  • So: Octopus, PhD, returns to New York City, intent to revenge himself upon the hero who's bested him twice already. And his first plan of attack is to recapture Betty Brant - only just returned to the city herself - as bait. To which we can only say: Man, she's got some rotten luck! Seriously, it's a wonder she's not traumatized. After the momentous events of last issue, she took the brave move of getting back to work and attempting to get on with her life, hoping to leave the memory of all that had happened in the past. But instead, the villain who had just days earlier killed her brother is back in her life, and using her to call out the presence of Spider-Man as well - who Betty had already identified as something of a psychological trigger, and a terrible reminder of the chaos that led to her brother's death. Girl just can't catch a break!

    There's really no need for this location but to give Ditko
    something cool to draw.  But I think that's reason enough!

  • This issue also contains a couple of firsts for the title, and for our hero. The earlier, and less momentous one, occurs early on, when Peter starts feeling a bit woozy and out of sorts. Despite his vaunted spider-strength, and the way that his abilities have corrected his eyesight and removed his need for eyeglasses, he's still vulnerable to becoming sick with a common virus, which is exactly what happens here. He's had to take down a super-villain while injured before - that occurred during that second Vulture appearance, in fact - but this is the first time he's had to face a baddie while ill. (And notice that this malady hits him the same week as Fantastic Four #26, in which Reed also began the issue battling a terrible sickness, if one of his own making. Perhaps there was something in the air!) In any case, it only serves to reinforce Spidey's everyman status, as "the hero who could be you"; this here, Lee & Ditko seem to be saying, sure ain't no Superman!

    The unthinkable fast becomes a case of mistaken assumptions.

  • On the other hand, the other first that occurs in these pages is rather a major one, as the story - against all expectation - makes good on the unbelievable event advertised on the cover: Spider-Man is unmasked! In a stroke of genius, however, Lee & Ditko have laid out the story so that when the worst happens - it is actually unthinkable, and no one believes it! Since Peter has been battling the virus, his strength is gone, and his punches land ineffective; certainly not the same kind of blows that Octopus has faced before. So when Doc Ock beats him easily, and then unmasks him, the obvious conclusion is that he hasn't just beaten Spider-Man; rather, that foolish kid Peter Parker has simply dressed up in a Spider-Man costume in a misguided attempt to save Betty Brant. (Recall that Flash Thompson once dressed up as Spidey too.) It's a clever upending of the secret identity convention, and it comes with an unexpected after effect - for when word gets out at school that Peter Parker tried something so brave yet foolhardy, his schoolmate Liz Allan suddenly shows an interest never seen before! Maybe she'd misjudged this Parker kid....

    The relationships aren't unchanged from the first issue; over time,
    we see the characters grow and become different people.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

137: Fantastic Four #26

Fantastic Four #26
February 11, 1964

  • Concluding the two-parter that began in last month's Hulk vs. Thing slugfest - and this time everybody else gets in on the action too. And it really is everybody, as this time out the Avengers are bona fide guest stars! Last issue they appeared only for the first few pages, setting up the continuation of the Hulk's story from Avengers #3, but after that the story belonged once more to the FF (and more specifically the Thing). This issue, though, delivers exactly what's promised on the cover, as the Fantastic Four meet the Avengers for the first time, and they have their very first official team-up! As a result, this comic really is something of a three-way feature starring the FF, the Avengers, and the Hulk, and all of them get what feels like equal time.

    This may not be the most realistic of ploys ... but it sure is funny!

  • And the superhero thrills are in plenty supply. Not only do we get the requisite number of punches and brawls, but the FF - largely sidelined by the events of last issue - show the indomitable wills they possess, as half the team is forced to overcome rather serious injuries to offer the aid they know their city needs. Reed had been felled low by a malady caused by the improper handling of dangerous chemicals, while Johnny's brief contact with the Hulk had landed him in hospital as well. (Certainly no better way to show just how dangerous your antagonist is!) But upon waking, the first thought for both is concern at the thought of The Thing taking on the Hulk himself. Though in no state to fight, each one leaps up to lend his strength - sapped though it may be.

    This dame just won't stop bugging him.

  • Meanwhile, the Hulk really is cast almost as villain. The destruction he leaves in his wake is fueled by nothing more than untrammeled rage, as he wants to take down his former teammates - wreak vengeance on Avengers - just because he feels that they wronged him. Compare this to any number of Human Torch baddies, such as the Wizard or Paste-Pot Pete, whose motivations quickly became little more than "beat the hero now because he beat me".

    Look at these two pages. 
    You'd never guess it was from an issue of
    The Fantastic Four, would you?

  • Finally, a neat side detail that Stan and Jack include is the media coverage of the super-battle going on downtown. (After all, remember that this is the first time two super-teams had ever joined to vanquish a common foe; the sight of such powerhouses going at it could surely have seemed like the end days to those on the sidelines.) And the news reporters go to some ridiculous lengths to follow the story, first hanging off a rooftop to better gauge the action, then later taking a jeep into the war-torn battleground itself! Perhaps this was Stan's commentary on the real-life media and war correspondents - that the men and women who put themselves at risk to cover such stories really are the unsung heroes of our day.

    And the readership was certain - and very quick - to agree!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

136: Journey into Mystery #103

Journey into Mystery #103
February 4, 1964

  • Introducing the Enchantress and the Executioner! (And marvel at Stan's skill in introducing a pair who are effectively "Love and War", yet with powerful and alliterative monikers.) Sent to Earth by Odin to interrupt the budding romance between Don Blake and Jane Foster, this comic has absolutely become a soap opera - though still one told in action-hero plot beats. After all, the Enchantress may fulfill the role of temptress, but superhero readers still need someone for Thor to hit! The comic gets off to a slow start, but soon its 13 pages are fit to bursting with developments, including the plot twist at the end whereby the Executioner wins Thor's hammer, but is then unable to lift the prize. (This special ability was implied by Thor's debut story - "if he be worthy" and all that - then developed in the recent "Tales of Asgard" shorts, but this is the first time the requirement has been made explicit.) So Thor wins the day, and continues to love Jane. And Odin is livid...!

    With visuals like that, there's no question as to what she's about!

  • Speaking of our new antagonists, it's worth taking a moment to talk about progenitors and descendants. These are the first Asgardians Stan & Jack have introduced who are not directly based on figures from Norse myth - but the Enchantress, though newly created, is very similar to the Norse goddess Freyja, who represented fertility, love and war. So why didn't Marvel simply use Freyja then, rather than an invented character? Keith J. Davidsen posits that Stan may have feared reprisal from the Comics Code Authority, in full power after the 1954 Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency which, under the purported guise of protecting the nation's children from unsavory influences, brought about crippling changes which nearly destroyed the comic book industry - and did, in fact, effectively end the output of several publishers. In such an environment, choosing to spotlight a verifiable figure from myth, one who was "sexually attractive and free with her favours", might have been seen as a move no less than suicidal. As John Grant writes in An Introduction to Viking Mythology, "To call Freya a fertility goddess is to euphemize: she was the goddess of sex...for her life...was one of unbridled promiscuity." As a result, Davidsen explains, "To introduce characters such as Freyr or Freyja, no matter how much their sexual prowess was diminished, could cause potential problems for Marvel Comics."

    BAM!  The sequence is enjoyably cartoonish.

  • The Executioner, on the other hand, is far less complicated - as you might expect from a bruiser, even an Asgardian one, whose main feature is that he carries an axe. Oddly, it's that axe which more commands our interest and calls into question any derivation! See, he doesn't just carry a regular axe, but rather one that's so sharp that it has unusual powers of its own - namely, being able to cut space itself, and cleave rifts into other dimensions. That's a genuinely interesting take for Stan to come up with, and one so specific that you wouldn't expect a similar character to pop up. Yet that's exactly what happened less than three years later, when Jim Shooter introduced Legion of Super-Heroes baddie The Persuader as one of the Fatal Five in Adventure Comics #352. Was this blatant copy an intentional swipe? Or simply a common case of having internalized a good idea which is then dredged up from one's subconscious while on a deadline? Whatever the answer, I think we can cut Shooter some slack; after all, at this point he had not only been writing comics for no more than six months - but was in fact only fourteen years old!

    Thor and Gullin may beat around the bush -
    but hopefully you won't be boared.

  • While the character of the Enchantress may have left her goddess inspiration behind, this issue's "Tales of Asgard" backup crams a truly staggering number of mythic characters and concepts into its scant five pages. It begins with Thor visiting the Asgardian Mountains to beseech Sindri, king of the dwarfs, to create for him a flying ship - one tiny enough to carry around, but which can grow to full size with a single thought. Cool! Using this means to travel to the dangerous land of Mirmir, Thor fights both the dragon Skord and the boar god Gullin - seriously, a boar god! - before finally reaching Mirmir's king, seated in his throne "behind the mystic fountain which feeds all the world's oceans". Fulfilling his mission, Thor gives to King Mirmir a branch from Yggdrasill, the tree of life, which the king uses to stir the mystic waters and spill them into the world below, where they water a pair of trees ... which come to life as the first humans! As with many of the Norse stories brought into Journey into Mystery, the stories are much more "loosely based on" (or, as Stan writes, "freely translated") rather than adhering to the source material with a strict fidelity. But then, the origins of many of these tales have been lost to the mists of time, while other parts were later whitewashed by the rise of the Christian world. In fact, one could argue that the very concept of Ragnarok, with its cycles of destruction and rebirth, implies that all stories which have happened before will one day happen again - even if the exact details may change.

    Who doesn't love a good creation myth?

Thursday, May 5, 2011

135: Tales to Astonish #55

Tales to Astonish #55
February 4, 1964

  • Aw man - it's the mediocre return of the Human Top! (I do not greet this news with joy.) Sadly, the character is as nonthreatening as ever, and the story is almost exceptionally dumb. For instance, the Top escapes from his prison cell by spinning so fast ... that he can't be seen! Because that's a thing that happens. Fortunately, his next move shows some real planning: Tracking down Hank and Jan at their scientific lab, he manages to snag one of Giant-Man's growth pills - right off his capsule belt - and turns himself into a Giant Top! All this extra gigantism may be a tip of the hat to the added page count, as the feature story graduates from 13 pages up to 18, squeezing out the extra inventory story that would usually fall between the main story and the Wasp back-up. And this time, it's not just a one-off; from here on out, Tales to Astonish is done with those non-superhero shorts.

    Plus, you've got a turnip head!

  • The comic does impress in one way, though - however briefly - when it finally addresses the Problem of Jan. When the character was first introduced, she was portrayed as flighty and a bit spoiled - and her subsequent appearances have been, at times, even worse. While the narrative is content to let the male super-hero solve all the mysteries, charge ahead in all the action, and essentially be the hero, the Wasp has until now rarely been more than comedic support, moon-eyed over Hank (and, occasionally, other eligible men) and generally complaining that he spends more time fighting crime than wooing her. So it's a startling move when Stan has Hank berate Jan for constantly choosing to perpetuate this facade of air-headed uselessness, rather than embracing the very real talents he knows her to possess. I honestly hadn't expected this fairly egregious problem to be addressed until much later, and I'm particularly impressed at the way in which Stan does so: All in one stroke, he makes the character a far stronger one than has been previously shown, reconciles this assertion with her past portrayal in a way that makes character sense, and has Pym profess that she is far more than a pretty face and legs to him - that her appeal, and their relationship, have far more to do with her mind and strength of character, and that she shouldn't be afraid to embrace those qualities. The plot in this story may be bog standard, but the character work done in these three panels is gladly welcome, and long overdue.

    Maybe not a flawless fix - but a giant step in the right direction!

  • Yet despite the uneven quality of the story, there are unusual number of laughs to be had as we're treated to a notable resurgence of Goofy Silver Age Writing, of the sort not really seen since the Larry Lieber-scripted days. For instance, when Pym becomes Ant-Man, he needs a new capsule belt to replace the one that the Human Top stole. He has a spare, but it's normal-sized and thus far too large for his tinier form. So he spills some "fabric reducer" on it, which miraculously shrinks it down all the way to Ant-Man size! After that, he goes to chase after the Top and set things to right, but for some reason opts not to ride a flying ant bareback, as is his usual wont. No, this time he has two such insects tow him along in the back of his "cellophane air chariot"! (The FF have their sleek & shiny Fantasticar. Ant-Man's ride is made out of cellophane. Just sayin'.) And as for the final triumph? Let's just say it involves suddenly-industrious termites and leave it at that.

    Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!

  • Meanwhile, the story that Wasp tells in the backup is remarkable for the way in which it initially goes against expectation. After all, look at the four settings the Wasp has employed in these vignettes thus far: The future. Aliens. The future. Aliens ... in the future. So it's quite a change to see that this time out, the main character is a gypsy merchant in the untouched lands of Europe. Though possessing the secret of alchemy and able to turn gold into lead, the merchant prefers to live a modest life and simply doles out a few golden nuggets at a time to purchase his few living needs. Only when a greedy baron attempts to capture him and procure the secret for his own riches does the gypsy reveal his true face - literally - and abscond with the luckless royal to the stars, thanks to his cleverly-disguised spaceship. When a recent Doctor Strange story pulled this exact kind of genre shift, it brought the mood of richly-gathering gloom to a jarring halt. Since this is just a 5-page story though (less that if not counting the framing device), the effect is simply hilarious...!

    Not pictured: the bit where the merchant's wooden caravan turns into a rocket.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

134: Daredevil #1

Daredevil #1
February 4, 1964

  • With this title, we now have the last of the original greats, the final piece of the puzzle, and the last major character to be introduced for quite some time. The anthology books like Tales of Suspense and Tales to Astonish will provide new homes for the likes of the Hulk, Captain America, and the Sub-Mariner (before they're granted their own titles), while new characters like Captain Marvel will similarly have trial runs in upcoming showcase books like Marvel Super Heroes before graduating to titles of their own. In any case, very few characters or concepts created after Daredevil will hang on for any real length of time. Did the concentrated brilliance seen in Marvel's first couple of years really just amount to the right people working together at the right time? Did Marvel's success and all that it entails (licensing, meetings, expansion, more meetings, diversification, even more meetings) naturally lead to less hands-on work from Stan, in both the actual writing as well as the canny management of talent, putting the right artists on the projects most suited to them? Or was the later dimming nothing more than the fade of a fickle and fleeting muse? Regardless of the answer: Marvel's best years may be yet to come, but nearly all of their best characters have now been brought to life. Were I tempted to wrap up this blog, having begun at the start with Fantastic Four #1, this would certainly make an appropriate bookend. Fortunately, I've still some life in me yet...!

    The art here is definitely not the house style.  The ultra-lithe forms and
    exaggerated poses may not be to everyone's tastes, but I really like it!

  • Here's a bit of trivia for you: Did you know that Daredevil played a secret role in the formation of the Avengers? It's true! What's not so well known about this issue, and only recently came to light in the public eye, is that the comic was actually six months late. In Stan Lee's introduction to the first Marvel Masterworks collection of Daredevil, he recounts how he unexpectedly ran into Bill Everett, famed creator of Namor the Sub-Mariner, after trying to track down the legendary artist for years. When Stan offered him work and started spitballing his startling idea for a blind superhero, Everett (as Stan tells the story) became so instantly excited that he began sketching out ideas on the spot. "But Bill Everett," Senior Vice President of Publishing Tom Brevoort recently divulged, "had both a day job and a drinking problem. And so production on DAREDEVIL #1 fell way behind." Mark Evanier had previously alluded to Everett's troubles and the effect they had on the book, but this is the first time, to my knowledge, that the resulting connection to The Avengers #1 has been detailed. (Read Brevoort's full statement for more.)

    Young Matt Murdock gets an origin.

  • Although many of these early Marvels are new to me, I had previously read (at least) the first issue of most of the major characters, and thus could have sworn I'd read this comic at some point in my past. Having now done so, I can't believe I ever did, or else the fact of it would surely have stuck with me. Because this comic is nothing short of STELLAR! Bill Everett's art has an appealing scratchiness while also being incredibly detailed, and both his figures and panel compositions seem more akin to illustration work than comic art. Meanwhile, it seems that Stan is using every successful trick he's learned all in this one comic, as it features compelling characters, an exciting origin, surprisingly subtle foreshadowing (note how it's a blind man who young Matt Murdock pushes away from the oncoming truck), a myriad number of plot points, and a mature storytelling structure. This may be the most purely distilled example of the superhero formula since Spider-Man's origin; it may also be, out of 134 entries thus far, the most sophisticated comic I've read for this project BAR NONE. Honestly, if you've never had the chance to read this story - or are unsure, or can't recall if you ever have - then please take my advice here: DO IT!

    A superhero who is blind, and navigates by radar?
    Was Stan musing on what a "Bat-Man" might really be like?

  • The modern reader may be surprised to learn, upon reading this early tale, just how fun a character Daredevil really is! As Brevoort points out in the above link, DD really was intended as "another Spider-Man". As a result, despite the tragic elements in his origin, he's here depicted as more a wisecracking and swashbuckling hero, instead of a broody and tortured one. That darker portrayal only really solidified during Frank Miller's seminal run on the title in the 1980s, and was such a massive success that it became the definitive version from then on. There have been some occasionally impressive followups - the underrated run by Ann Nocenti & John Romita Jr soon after, or the justly-lauded Bendis & Maleev epic of the past decade - but it also can't be denied that after thirty years of Daredevil as a dark character living a glum and dark life of dark darkness ... the routine has become a bit tired. So I'm looking forward to the new Daredevil series which begins in July, by Mark Waid (a modern writer with classic sensibilities) and Paolo Rivera, supposedly returning to its roots and bringing a real sense of superhero fun back to Daredevil's world - something that's long overdue, I think. There aren't a lot of modern comics I get excited about these days ... but with any luck, that could definitely be one of them.

    A Daredevil is born.