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.