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!