Tuesday, June 14, 2011

146: Strange Tales #121

Strange Tales #121
March 10, 1964

  • The first page describes the Plantman's return as "One of the most fearsome foes the Torch has ever faced!", and ... really, could even the most wide-eyed kid in 1964 have seriously believed that? This is a character who was hokey in his inception, and has remained hokey ever since, and his continued appearance through the bulk of Marvel's history is as unlikely as it is ridiculous. Granted, his debut did imply a certain mental instability (even beyond that required for the typical super-villain), and that alone could largely account for his actions here. Any reasonably-minded person would have considered himself fortunate to have escaped the first time, and left his evil plans behind! Or at the very least find himself a new enemy to obsess over, because the outcome should be obvious: Fire and heat trump vegetation, every time.

    Johnny Storm: All washed up.

  • But rather than leave the Torch to other, more evenly-matched bad guys, the Plantman targets him for revenge, tracking Johnny down at his Glenville home. Although the scene is played mostly for laughs (he uses his plants to throw a bucket of water on Johnny, then taunts Storm's inability to stop the Plantman's next crime), the most compelling element is the early insight, if only implied, of the dangers to be found in deliberately eschewing a secret ID. The stories which riff on that today are a much darker shade, with a hero's loved ones terrorized or worse - yet even here, with the goofy Plantman's goofy plants, the seed of such fears are still present on the page.

    Y'know, when you're taken down by dew-covered acorns ...
    it might be time to call it a day.

  • The backup story sees a return as well, as we once again face the menace of Baron Mordo! But while he'd quickly worn out his welcome by being used far too often at the start, his absence these past few months has made all the difference, and his reappearance is well received. And there are further signs of Ditko and Lee figuring out the strip when Mordo prevents Dr. Strange's astral image returning to his body - for we're told that if Strange cannot reunite with his physical form inside of 24 hours, he'll surely perish! The significance here is that for the first time we're finally starting to get some rules in place for the Doctor's magical travels and sorcerous powers, rather than have him solve every little crisis du jour with the latest bit of arcana ex machina. It makes Strange no longer as all-powerful as he'd seemed, and goes a way towards restoring a relatability and sense of danger, both of which had been of late fading fast.

    "123 Underwear Lane.  Hahahaha--!"

  • And yet in contrast to the great strides being made in some areas, there are still certain odds and ends which, while not too distracting, do seem a bit off. For it can't escape our notice that despite the Wax Museum being both story-titled and cover-featured ... it actually has very little to do with the plot. Did Stan, upon receiving the pages, latch onto that element as the tale's most distinctive and salable feature, regardless of its relative unimportance? Or, conversely, did the drawn story perhaps deviate markedly from the pitch - with Stan ballparking to Steve, "Hey! How 'bout a yarn where Doc Strange fights Baron Mordo in a Wax Museum?!", and then Ditko fulfilling the letter of the request, if not entirely the spirit?

    In this context, "magic" seems to mean "we can make up whatever science we like."