Monday, December 10, 2012

181: Tales of Suspense #58

Tales of Suspense #58
July 9, 1964

  • Here we have the final piece of the puzzle, in which the Marvel of old can fully be said to have transitioned to that of the new. We've seen how the Marvel superhero comics grew out of the '50s craze for monster stories, before quickly establishing a footing for themselves. And in recent months we've seen the elimination of "filler" material of the sort that used to dominate: One-off short stories featuring characters and situations which didn't return. (Indeed, we can theorize that the "Tales of the Watcher" and "The Wonderful Wasp Tells a Tale" backup strips might have been devised as ways to burn off unused inventory, as the Watcher and the Wasp were usually used - at first - only as framing segments.) The final move was begun last month, as the Hulk guest-starred in Giant-Man's story in Tales to Astonish, as a seamless lead-in to the following issue in which the two characters would begin sharing the book for the foreseeable future. Here the same thing occurs, as Captain America guest stars in Iron Man's regular feature; next issue, the title will likewise become a split-comic with each hero getting half the book. This will last until 1968, when Captain America will claim the book entirely, kicking Iron Man out to get a full-length mag of his own. Of historical note is the fact that when Cap's new strip starts next month, it will be the first solo series Cap has had since his very brief revival attempt during Marvel's "Atlas Era" in the 1950s, and which lasted a mere three issues. This time, though, will be much more successful, and his adventures have run continuously ever since.

    Hey, that's a good point.  Why is there an
    Iron Man tracer in Iron Man's car?

  • While the format change is taking the approach utilized by Tales to Astonish as its cue (the two characters fight one issue, then split-book the next), the result is sadly far less successful. Whereas the Hulk / Giant-Man tale was an astonishingly impressive example of a "stealth pilot", elegantly conveying to the reader everything he or she might need to know about the Hulk's origin, supporting characters and general milieu in the course of the story, the same can't be said here. Instead, Cap shows up as Iron Man's Avengers teammate, and someone for Iron Man to fight ... and that's it. Sure, maybe the reason we're not treated to Cap's supporting characters and setting is because he - as of yet- doesn't really have any, but it's still undeniable that his appearance here is simply that of a random guest-star in an Iron Man yarn (whose function could have been filled by anyone) ... as opposed to the TTA tale, which really did read as a Hulk story just as much as a Giant-Man one. The rest of the story is no less frustrating; for instance, face-changing Spider-Man foe The Chameleon may be a decently clever way to get two heroes to fight each other via mischief and confusion, but it's harder to see why Stan had The Chameleon return to the American shores in the company of Kraven the Hunter - who is defeated in the space of two pages, and not seen again. The rest of the comic is then hampered by case after case of "idiot plotting", that unfortunate example of lazy writing where a simple misunderstanding could be cleared up in ten seconds by the characters talking to each other, rather than by fighting or otherwise overreacting. It's probably not the worst Marvel tale we've come across thus far ... but it might be in the bottom ten.

    Iron Man goes for a spin.  And Don Heck's
    Captain America seems oddly off-model, doesn't he?

  • Still: Let's talk about the coming changes! Because if Captain America is going to be taking over the other half of Iron Man's book, then that surely means the "Tales of the Watcher" must end. (Although the feature will return, briefly, as a backup strip in 1968's Silver Surfer.) And so we receive the final tale, "The Watcher Must Die!" From that title, I had hoped we might get a story purporting to show the Watcher actually dying / transcending / whatever, even temporarily: a fitting sendoff to the backup strip, and an acknowledgement that its time had now passed. Instead, what we get is the Watcher's planetoid being invaded for the third time in the last four issues. (If this plot is all that could be conceived for the character, perhaps it was indeed time to retire the strip.) This time, instead of providing the readers with a shocking twist like the kind seen last issue, the Watcher instead defeats his enemy by speeding up time in the area around him, and watching him die. Not only does this display near-godlike abilities on a level I'm not sure we'd previously seen ... but it's also not that far distant from the "cosmic filibuster" seen in issue #55. It's just that this time the "wait him out" approach hinges on near-magical powers, rather than a genuinely clever ploy.

    The plot may be hokey, but I love the design sense Heck uses
    to convey the sequence of events.

  • And as we say farewell to "Tales of the Watcher", having already seen the final Wasp strip, so too do we see the last of Larry Lieber's monthly backup features. (Surprisingly, his final tale was last month, as this outgoing story is by Stan Lee - and not altogether better for it!) More than one reader of this blog previously took me to task for being perhaps unduly harsh on Larry's writing in the early Ant-Man stories, but I really took a shine to his work on these later backup strips - and it's safe to say that he enjoyed them far more as well! We've not seen the very last of his pen in the Marvel U - he'll continue to put in the occasional appearance, from time to time - but for the most part, he'll be much happier from here on out toiling in the realm of cowboys and gunslingers. Coincidentally enough, while this last tale signals the departure of one voice, it also sees the introduction of another ... as Golden Age artist George Tuska here returns after several years away, going on to become a Marvel mainstay for many years to come.

    of an era

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

180: Fantastic Four Annual #2

Fantastic Four Annual #2
July 2, 1964

  • All-Doom Special! Yes, this second annual for The Fantastic Four is packed with superhero goodness. But what, might you ask, do the "72 BIG PAGES" shouted on the cover contain? Well, first it starts off with a 12-page origin of Doctor Doom - expanding greatly on the half-page seen in Doom's first appearance - before then getting the now-traditional (see here, and here) gallery of full-page dossiers of their newest foes, from #18 through #30: The Super Skrull, Pharaoh Rama-Tut, the Molecule Man, the Hate Monger, the Infant Terrible and Diablo (6 pages in all). A reprint of Doom's debut in Fantastic Four #5 follows (23 pages), along with 5 pages of pin-ups (one for each of the Fantastic Four, and Alicia). Rounding things off is a new Fantastic Four story clocking in at 25 pages - which means that the "double length epic" billed on the cover is a blatant lie. If you've added all these up, however, you've noticed that this only accounts for seventy-one pages. What's the other? Simply a Marvel house ad for the two other annuals on the stand that summer!

    From the lost pages of Grimm's Fairy Tales?

  • Doom's origin story actually has a very fairy-tale quality to it, beginning when he was but a young boy, the son of a gypsy healer in the Bavarian Alps. When the local baron's wife falls deathly ill, he has his men take the older Von Doom by force, demanding that he save her with his healing arts - or else. Von Doom is unable to do so, however - she's simply too far gone - and he is thus hounded through the woods, doing whatever he can to protect his boy, and eventually dying from the strain. The young Victor Von Doom swears vengeance, of course, so it rather dovetails nicely when he discovers that his dead mother had been a sorceress, and he finds a strange chest containing all manner of magical artifacts and paraphernalia. Using these magics and his own mechanical genius (learned from where, we might ask?), he soon begins a campaign of swindling the upper class through a variety of tricks and potions, nobly giving all his ill-gotten gains to the poor. Yes, as incredible as it might seem, Doctor Doom first began as a strange sort of Robin Hood, waging class warfare against the aristocracy!

    Marvel continue to be unable to spell "pharaoh"

  • Before long, we're told, Doom's numerous inventions bring him to the American attentions of State University, who offer him a scholarship on the spot. There he meets - and instantly rebuffs - a young Reed Richards, who instead becomes fast friends with football star Ben Grimm. One day, Reed stops in at Doom's dorm room while he's out, and reads over Doom's notes about his newest invention, having to do with "matter transmutation and dimension warps" - all culminating, in fact, in an attempt to "contact the nether world". (Later stories would expand this into his first of many attempts to contact his dead sorceress mother, giving this portion of his origin story a personal, driving motivation it here lacks.) When Doom appears at the door, Reed tries to point out a few mathematical errors, but the arrogant Doom banishes Reed from his room, and goes on to try the experiment anyway. The machine explodes, of course, disfiguring Doom's face and causing his expulsion. Subsequently turning his back on the world, he goes into seclusion, tracking down and then training with a hidden group of secret Tibetan monks. At the end of this time, he has them create for him an ominous suit of armor and mask ... and thus garbed, ready to finally take his leave and return to the world, Doctor Doom is born.

    In a slight continuity gaffe, Doom wouldn't wear this particular cloak until
    his second appearance.  It's a great scene anyway.

  • This being the first time we've encountered Doom's full origin, we can talk about the several theories which have arisen regarding the initial accident, and the status of Doom's face. As presented here, Doom is said to be horribly scarred in the explosion, which is why he had to go into hiding; that's certainly the impression Stan's dialogue presents. However, Jack Kirby would later express his own theory that the explosion only gave him a very slight scar - but that the unyielding Von Doom, witnessing his own perfect beauty ruined, thus declared himself unfit to be seen by the world. In a later story which some have questioned - but I actually find quite satisfying - writer/artist John Byrne would try to marry these two opposing viewpoints by indicating that the initial scarring was minimal ... until Doom instructed the monks to set the iron mask upon his face while it was still red-hot. (Note how even in this issue Kirby draws the mask being set on Doom's face as it still gives off clouds of steam.) This idea seems to me a very rich combination of the vanity and perfectionism found in Kirby's theory, while making Doom's accident the result of his pride - the very Shakespearean flaw favored by Lee - not just once, as originally portrayed, but in fact twice over.

    Silly is definitely the word for this!

  • The main story opens with a very pedestrian occasion, as Ben loses control of the Fantasticar and is forced to bring them in for a rough landing on the Manhattan streets, rear-ending a civilian's automobile in the process. As might happen with any accident, the out-of-town owner jumps out of the car and starts laying into the Thing, yelling about damages and remuneration and the like. Up walks another man, however, introducing himself as an art dealer and offering to buy it from the driver on the spot. As soon as the cash trades hands, he asks the Thing to bust up the auto even more, claiming he'll sell it as an original "Clobber Creation!" It's a pretty funny way to kick off the tale, illustrating the impressive mixture of character realism and delightful absurdity that's made The Fantastic Four such a hit.

    A clearly momentous meeting.

  • Meanwhile, we check in with the current goings-on of Doctor Doom, who was last seen drifting off into deep space at the end of Fantastic Four #23. Against all odds, however, he's picked up in the nick of time by Rama-Tut, the time-travelling pharaoh introduced in FF #19! Recall that at the end of that issue Reed had theorized that there might be some connection between Rama-Tut and Doom; unfortunately, this new meeting does little to answer the question. At first, Rama-Tut claims that Doctor Doom is clearly his ancestor who created the time machine which the Pharaoh's own time travelling sphinx was based on. But then they get to wondering if the two of them might actually be the same man, at different points in his life: Does Doom eventually travel to the 25th century and start calling himself Rama-Tut? Or, alternately, will the Pharaoh take a visit to the past and become the gypsy who would one day call himself Doctor Doom? It's really a very bizarre conversation, because neither of them asks the obvious question: If that were the case, in either regard, wouldn't the future version of the person remember his earlier deeds? The latter theory is especially perplexing, given that the annual opened with Doom's origin story - beginning with Victor as a young boy...

    Kirby really excels that that "villain stalking
    through the crowd" thing, doesn't he?

  • The time logic gets even weirder, in fact. Rama-Tut suggests that the two of them team up to take down the FF, which has now defeated them both, but Doom says that they can't attack together - because if they're the same person, and the younger version is slain, the older version will die too. So Rama-Tut instead just drops Doom back on Earth, to pursue their vendetta on his own, and goes to live his conquering life back in the 25th century. It's a bizarre, bizarre development that doesn't really go anywhere, and doesn't answer the Doom-Pharaoh question that was first poised back in #19 ... so you have to wonder what the point was in bringing these two together in the first place. Did Stan have a plan, and first wanted to remind readers of the question? (Unlikely, given his usual, improvisational working method.) Or was it just a flashy, if convoluted, way to rescue Doom and get him back on Earth?

    Does this remind anyone else of the famous
    J. Jonah Jameson soliloquy?

  • As the plot gets underway, our heroes receive an invitation to a gala at the Latverian embassy, honoring them with a scientific fellowship. And yet none of them so much as bats an eye or sees anything suspicious, which I found odd. A few panels later we see them at the event, where Sue comments, "Reed, I'm rusty on my current events! Who is the actual ruler of Latveria?" And suddenly, with a shock, I realized: This annual was the first time Latveria had ever been seen! (For all we know, Doom's previous castle may have been located in upstate New York.) Doom and Latveria have been so completely connected in readers' minds ever since - the land can be said to be an intrinsic part of his character - that I had entirely forgotten the fact that we'd never seen or heard it before now.

    Hey, look!  It's that bizarre limitation on Sue's powers!
    (Wonder if it ever comes up again?)

  • When the Fantastic Four's drinks are drugged at the embassy, they quickly hallucinate and turn on each other before discovering Doom as the culprit. Reed then leads them back home to the Baxter Building, where Doctor Doom awaits for their final confrontation. Wanting to put an end to Doom's madness once and for all, Mr. Fantastic whips out the most INSANE device imaginable: The encephalo-gun! This device, we're told, pits two combatants' willpowers against each other, and whoever loses ... is sent away to a timeless limbo forevermore. The idea that Reed would have invented something SO outlandish, and yet so ruthless, seems completely unbelievable ... until we're subsequently shocked to see Doctor Doom win the battle of wills, gloat over Reed's disappearing form, and then walk away satisfied. Sue is quite confused at Doom's actions, and asks Reed for an explanation - now seen casually leaning against the door - who points out that the gentleman's toast which Reed offered Doom before their duel was spiked with the same drug that had been used against them earlier that night, causing Doom to merely imagine his final victory against his foe. Now, what I find fascinating here is that apparently some readers have interpreted this to mean that it was only the victory itself which was imagined, and that everything up to that point was real. I think this misses the point: Everything that occurs after Reed & Doom drink was entirely imagined, up until we see Reed explaining the plan to Sue. I mean, something called "the encephalo-gun"? With that insane of a premise, and with such an iconic-yet-ludicrous visual design? In such a case, the revelation that it was all just a trick actually works because of the excesses in Lee's words and Kirby's designs, rather than in spite of them. Heck, even Sue's melodramatic outburst makes sense in retrospect: "Reed! Not the encephalo-gun!! Not that!! You can't!!" Exactly the kind of over-the-top histrionics a megalomaniac would imagine his cowed foes shrieking, don't you think?

    Crazy.  Beautiful. Nuts.

Monday, November 19, 2012

179: Tales to Astonish #60

Tales to Astonish #60
July 2, 1964
  • In this issue: The return of the Red Menace! When Hank Pym receives news that his old FBI contact Lee Kearns has been captured in East Berlin, he heads off on a solo mission behind the Iron Curtain to track Kearns down and free him. In the course of doing so, he learns that the Reds (which, by the way, is the only referent to the baddies in these pages; unlike previous "Red" stories, this issue avoids the words "Communist", "Socialist" and "Soviet" alike) have accidentally invented a super-ray which gives gorillas human intelligence. Fortunately, Pym is able to gain the upper hand when he turns the ray on the German officers and is delighted to find that the ray has the opposite effect on humans, giving them the intelligence of apes. It's a good thing it didn't end up making the humans super-intelligent - which would have been my guess! And yet at the end of the story, one question remains: Man, what IS it with the Reds and their intelligent apes?

    This is Pym's idea of travelling incognito.

  • Despite being a solo story, this story unusually has a couple of callbacks to Tales to Astonish #44, which contained the first appearance of the Wasp. For one thing, a footnote points to that issue being the previous appearance of Kearns, and it is - if just barely. See, at the end of that story, Pym phones up Kearns to tell him that he & Janet have defeated the Creature from Kosmos. Kearns gets one snippet of dialogue in response - unseeen and in a single panel. Hardly meaty enough to dig up the name 16 issues later, is it? More significant - if also more problematic - is Pym's decision to tell Jan about his "secret origin" from that same issue, when he lost his new wife Maria to Red forces in Hungary. I noted at the time how odd it was to give Ant-Man a deeply personal, unsolved mystery, yet go nowhere with it; here again it's odd to bring up the story - as if to refresh readers' memories - and then not follow it up. (Perhaps Stan originally had an idea on where that was leading, but realized it could be problematic to further develop the romance between Pym and Van Dyne if he continued to hint that Hank's wife might still be alive somewhere.) Fortunately, in the 1980s writer Steve Englehart would finally revisit and resolve this plotline in the pages of The West Coast Avengers. In fact, Englehart's storyline would additionally include the return of not only this issue's superintelligent gorillas, but also that of Madame X, the Scarlet Beetle, El Toro and The Voice! Guess Steve was a pretty big fan of these early Hank Pym adventures, huh?

    They're gorillas!  But they're intelligent!  But they're gorillas!

  • Meanwhile, the backup strip is pretty darn notable - as we now begin the Hulk's second lease on life, after the "stealth pilot" intro last month. In an interesting move, his new adventures aren't initially illustrated by his co-creator, Jack Kirby, but rather Spider-Man and Dr. Strange artist Steve Ditko! It actually provides a nice bit of accidental continuity between the Hulk's first series and this second, since Ditko was the artist on the Hulk's final issue of that initial run. And in terms of callbacks, this issue has a couple (unintentional?) similarities to the Hulk's debut story - arguably the most successful one out of those first six - as this opening tale also features the army base being infiltrated by an enemy spy, as happened there, and a moment when someone tries to stop the atomic test being conducted, but it goes off anyway...

    Banner realizes the nature of the beast.
  • It's no secret that the Hulk's second go will turn out to be far more successful than his first, as the character has been continuously in print ever since. And it's easy to see why! From reading those first six issues, it seemed as if Stan & Jack had created a compelling character from the outset, but then been at a loss as to what to do with him. Here, though, we can see that Marvel have already begun to figure out what would prove to be the lasting formula. In what was quite probably an insight on the part of the deeply reflective Steve Ditko - who, though uncredited, was responsible for plotting much of the stories he worked on in this period - Banner realizes that the changes now come at times of emotional stress: When he loses his cool, the Hulk comes out. Or, as Barry Pearl puts it, "When Kirby introduced him, his change was caused by external factors, dusk and dawn and later a machine. Ditko’s Hulk changed for an internal issue, anger management." Clearly this change is one that would really hit home with the fans! It's worth noting, though, that they're not yet all the way there, as emotional stress also turns the Hulk back into Bruce Banner - which slightly breaks the resonating theme of The Hulk as a physical manifestation of Anger. Before too long they'll perfect it though, and the Hulk will become human again when the crisis has passed, and he's started to calm down...

    Whoops!  Little Hulky's falling off this ride.

Monday, November 12, 2012

178: The X-Men #7

The X-Men #7
July 2, 1964 
  • In this issue: The X-Men graduate from Xavier's academy! Yes, despite having set up the presumably rife premise of "super-powered teenagers in high school" in their debut, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby surprise us by seeming to resolve it a mere half-dozen issues later. It's impressive to see how casually Stan introduces real change, and doesn't shy away from acknowledging the real passage of time - things which would happen less and less in Marvel Comics as the years go by. (That said, it's worth pointing out that casual yet radical changes proved utterly disastrous once before; hopefully such a significant change to the status quo was considered carefully this time, weighing benefits gained against any potential lost.) Still, such a graduation does give rise to a number of questions, like: How can they all graduate at the same time, if the X-Men are different ages? Does that mean they were all, effectively, in the same grade? What kind of academic program did the Professor teach them? Wouldn't it have been neat to show the occasional classroom session (a welcome insight which would be seen regularly, and to great effect, in the 1980s series The New Mutants)? And most importantly: Where do they go from here - and why did Stan choose this moment to graduate them? Well, as we soon learn, because it's now time for the X-Men to grow up...

    These aren't graduation caps affixed to their heads.
    They're incredibly unfortunate secondary mutations.

  • Under the less-than-illuminating pretext of "unfinished tasks", Professor Xavier announces to his students that he's going away for a while. In his place, he's chosen Scott to be team leader in the interim, and reveals to him (and us) his secret invention "Cerebro" - an advanced machine which can duplicate Xavier's ability to locate new and previously-identified mutants. This, more than anything else, should drive the point home, as the Professor is now giving his charges the means to track down and investigate new cases without him. In practice, Xavier's departure is to last only a short stint, as he'll return in the issue-after-next - yet it's worth noting that this is the very first time he's leaving the X-Men on their own, an event that will recur a number of times in the decades to come. (On those occasions, his absence will often last for many years at a stretch, with the team massively changed as a result.)

    What they don't tell you is this is how Magneto
    spends every Sunday afternoon.

  • After having debuted in issue #4, and returned in every issue since, the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants will take a break for a bit after this story, unseen again until issue #11. Last time, they tried to recruit the Sub-Mariner and failed. (Amusingly, because the arrogant-yet-chivalrous Namor didn't appreciate the way Magneto spoke to a lady.) This time out, the Brotherhood heads to to the carnival to recruit The Blob! Hey, they probably need a bit of a powerhouse in their ranks, don't you think? And yet this new alliance is trounced once again by Mag's inability to play well with others, or even marginally conceal his contempt for those he considers beneath him - which, let's be honest, means just about everyone. At the end of the tale, The Blob turns his back on both heroes and villains, dejected, and returns to the carnival ... the only place, he believes, a freak like him can ever truly belong.

    Dig this swingin' sixties hangout!
    We'll be seeing a lot more of this.

  • The rest of the plot is fairly pedestrian, as the main importance of the issue is the introduction of elements like Cerebro and the X-Men working on their own, as well as continuing to flesh out the characters' lives via new settings and situations. To this end, we get our first trip to the Cafe A-Go-Go (though not named as such in its first appearance) over in trendy Greenwich Village, and some of the regulars of that joint, such as Bernard the Poet and Zelda. Meanwhile, Scott Summers - already a tightly-wound young man - settles into his new role, and is further cemented as the personality he'll become known for: seemingly destined to bear the weight of the world on his shoulders.

    Scott as grim and lonely leader.
    We'll also be seing a lot more of this...!

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

177: Journey into Mystery #108

Journey into Mystery #108  
July 2, 1964 
  • The opening scene to this story is one of the most credibility-stretching premises we've seen for some time. The splash page shows Thor on the streets of New York City, smashing his hammer into the pavement in front of a score of onlookers and causing an untold amount of city damage. Why? It seems he had just been flying over NYC when he spied an out-of-control truck about to hit a boy playing in the street. Knowing that he could never reach the scene in time, he instead flew to the ground and slammed his hammer down, sending out shock waves in one controlled direction, which reverberates through miles of the city (causing how much more damage along the way?) until it reaches the desired spot, 1.2 seconds later - at which point it causes the truck to leap into the air, and thus bounce over the terrified child in question! This comic should have come with a health warning, as the unparalleled degree of eye-rolling evinced could very likely lead to ocular damage ... and yet the opening is entirely appropriate too. After all, yes, that scene is in one sense ludicrous - but in another, it's a way of declaring what kind of story this is: A melodrama, with stakes and situations we can understand, but raised to operatic proportions. And for a comic book story starring a thunder god, isn't that exactly right?

    Thor's getting a little cavalier with those emergency funds!

  • As seen on the cover, this issue guest-stars Lee & Ditko's sorcerer supreme, Dr. Strange. And it's worth noting that Dr. Strange appearing in Thor's comic feels right in a way that doesn't necessarily hold true in other books, as they're both heroes that come from a foundation of mysticism and lore. (Compare this, for instance, to the slightly mismatched feeling when the magical Strange guest-starred in the super-scientific world of the Fantastic Four!) Interestingly, Strange summons Thor from afar to where he has collapsed in his home, entirely spent after defending the city from his archenemy Baron Mordo - which has the unusual effect of making it almost seem as if Thor is the guest-star, suddenly popping into a Dr. Strange adventure already in progress! Was this Stan thinking on the standard storytelling tropes, and purposely inverting a formula that he was consciously aware of? Or was this simply a matter of him striking gold while winging it - as usual?

    The Doc after an all-night bender.

  • On to the plot: Devious trickster god Loki flies to Earth, kidnaps Nurse Jane Foster from the medical office of Dr. Don Blake, and then throws Blake's cane out the window so that he can't transform into his alter ego Thor and thus stop him. But when Don gets outside - the cane is gone! To find it, Blake therefore enlists the aid of Dr. Strange, whose life he had just saved at the hospital hours earlier, to scour the city with his astral form. This favor Strange does indeed return, seeking afar while his physical self remains sat in the hospital wheelchair. So, to sum up: Thor comes upon Dr. Strange collapsed in his own house, rushes him into surgery to save his life, and then later begs for help in finding his lost stick. Surely one of the most heart-pounding guest-appearances Marvel had ever wrought! (I kid.)

    I love the intimation that it's the resulting shock wave
    that sends them all flying back, and not the blow itself.

  • In a similar vein, this month's "Tales of Asgard" feature is but a short vignette telling one of the exploits of the young Thor - as opposed to the recent Tales we've had filling in the background on the other Asgardians. It came to pass that Sindri, king of the dwarves, had been sending Asgardian captives to the trolls, as part of a terrible pact to keep them from attacking his kingdom. Accordingly, a disguised Thor gets himself captured and sent off, then leads the Asgardian prisoners in revolt and ultimately seals away the land of the Trolls. It's a very simple story (even by TOA standards) - but even if it doesn't have the mythic resonance that most of these instalments usually do, it still does a decent job of illustrating more of the Asgardian lands than we've seen to date, and the relationships between the people and monsters therein.

    Finishing touches.

Friday, September 21, 2012

This Month in Marvel: July 1964

  • As we've already seen, the summer of 1964 is when certain things started to fall into place for Marvel. "Filler" stories were on their way out, the Hulk had been announced as sharing a book with Giant-Man ... and as declared in the Special Announcements page below (from Fantastic Four #31), Captain America will soon be joining Iron Man in a similar capacity. And just look at how many heroes are now guest-starring in each other's books!

    (click to enlarge)

  • Once again, these scans come to us thanks to Barry Pearl, author of The Essential Marvel Age Reference Project. And as an extra treat this month, Barry's also included an ad that ran in that selfsame comic, appearing right after the letters page. Take a gander at this fascinating artifact from the past!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

176: Marvel Tales Annual #1

Marvel Tales Annual #1
June 11, 1964

  • By June of 1964, it had been nearly three years since the advent of The Fantastic Four #1, and all the many changes wrought in its wake. New titles were still being added, with Daredevil on only its third issue, and yet Stan Lee knew that there were new readers encountering Marvel's entire stable of superheroes for the very first time each and every month, and perhaps wondering from where this dazzling array of heroes had sprung. To fulfill that need - and perhaps give readers an attractive sampler pack of Marvel's varied offerings, for the price of one shiny quarter - Stan assembled the very first issue of the reprint title Marvel Tales, which would end up running in one form or another until 1994.
  • So what was in this 72-page collection, you may ask? Quite a lot! Stan wisely kicks things off with the very first Spider-Man story from Amazing Fantasy #15, before excerpting the first half of The Incredible Hulk #1, dealing with the monster's origin. Hank Pym is next, with his first costumed outing from Tales to Astonish #35 reprinted in full (skipping over Hank's first experience with the shrinking formula from #27), and then two pages from #49 introducing his new persona as Giant-Man, as well as showing his crime-fighting partner and love interest in Janet Van Dyne, the Wasp. The costumed adventures are then paused for a few pages as we're treated to an excerpt from the first issue of Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos, followed up by the origin story of Iron Man from Tales of Suspense #39, as well as the three pages of Tony demonstrating his new red-and-gold armor from #48. The final tale reprinted is the first appearance of Thor from Journey into Mystery #83. Stan makes a few adjustments to the start and end of the stories, telling readers what issues the tales originally came from, and ending each reprint with a caption, like "The Hulk's own mag has been discontinued, but our popular roving hero-villain will now be appearing each month in Tales to Astonish!" Amusingly enough, Stan didn't take the opportunity to correct the notorious mistake at the end of JIM #83 - where the original inscription on the hammer in the final panel read "THORR" - but simply laughs it off in an end note. (Would correcting the art have taken more resources than was presently available?)
  • Although this comic was almost entirely a reprint title, there was one new feature included which must have tickled readers, and which has probably given the comic a bit more historical cachet than it otherwise might have retained. Sandwiched neatly between the Sgt Fury and Iron Man segments are two pages entitled "Meet the Gang in the Merry Marvel Bullpen!", and displaying photos of many of the Marvel staffers of the time. Of particular note is the inclusion of publisher Martin Goodman, and the omission of Steve Ditko! Stan's note on the second page playfully refers to several staffers having been "out of town" - but given Ditko's legendarily reclusive status, one can't help but wonder if he simply refused the offer.
  • And that's the first Marvel Tales Annual! Note that out of all stories contained, the only reprint of a team book is that from the Howling Commandos; the X-Men and Avengers would have to wait till the next year. By contrast, the FF's origin wouldn't be featured in these pages at all - but in fairness, it had already been reprinted as one of the backup features in the first Fantastic Four Annual, just one year before. Of course, if you want more musings on the early Marvel annuals, I'd like to direct you to a couple of recent blog posts by Nick Caputo and Barry Pearl. By the purest coincidence we realized that all three of us were writing on the same subject at the same time: Seemingly now, just as then, it's the Summer of Marvel Annuals!
  • Thanks to Barry Pearl for the scan!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

175: Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1

Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1
June 11, 1964

  • It's Spider-Man's first Annual! The previous year (1963) saw the first couple of annuals for Marvel's superheroes, with the Strange Tales Annual #2, and Fantastic Four Annual #1. This year, with more titles under their belt and even greater confidence in their direction, you'd think that Stan and company might have several more ready for their readers - and yet the growth is a conservative, gradual one. This first annual for Spider-Man came out the same week as Marvel Tales Annual #1 (an all-reprint book), followed a few weeks later by the Fantastic Four Annual #2 (published the same week as Millie the Model Annual #3) - and that's all for 1964! Sgt. Fury and Journey into Mystery won't receive annuals of their own until the following year, and books like The Avengers, The X-Men and Daredevil will have to wait even longer.

    This doesn't forward the plot at all.
    It's just incredibly, effectively funny.

  • So, what's contained in this mammoth, 72-page package? Glad you asked! Stan Lee & Steve Ditko kick things off with a 41-page lead story (an increase over last year's 37-page epic in FF Annual #1); there's a wry caption at the start claiming that "It's taken us a year to produce this double-length epic," and you can almost believe it's true. Taking a cue from the aforementioned FF Annual, this is then followed up by 14 pages of "A Galley of Spider-Man's Most Famous Foes!", full-page illustrations of every Spidey baddie to date (up through #15, at least). Nine pages of "The Secrets of Spider-Man" follow, discussing and explaining such elements as the "bitten by radioactive spider" origin, Spidey's strengths and abilities, his webbing, his mask, and beyond. Several more full-page illustrations follow, including not just a Spider-Man pinup - albeit one so iconic that it would be emulated a few years later for the cover of Spectacular Spider-Man Magazine #1 - but also scenes spotlighting Betty Brant, Peter Parker's classmates, Aunt May and their Forest Hills house, and occasional guest-stars the Fantastic Four. Possibly the most amusing bonus feature, however, is the 3-page strip that rounds off the package, "How Stan Lee and Steve Ditko Create Spider-Man!" In Stan's typically jocular fashion, it portrays the two men as haranguing each other over the course of days as Lee calls up Ditko at all hours with his new ideas, making demands both incredible and unreasonable, while Ditko's pencil flies along, trying to keep up. It's an enjoyable tale, clearly designed to give readers an insight into (a version of) the creation process, while unafraid to poke fun at themselves ... and yet, it's hard to read the blatantly parodic figures hurling insults and aggravations at each other, and not think of the legendarily acrimonious rift that would lead to Steve's departure in 1966.

    Is Ditko drawing the story from
    last year's
    Strange Tales Annual #2?

  • Over the course of the prior year, Stan Lee & Jack Kirby seemed to really embrace the "team of bad guys" concept, first introducing it with the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants over in the pages of The X-Men, then creating the Avengers' villainous analogues in The Masters of Evil. Here, Lee & Ditko offer yet another take on the concept, introducing an alliance composed of the most heinous baddies of a single hero - and then launching them at the poor hapless schlub! As we've seen, the Spider-Man villains to this point have nearly all been destined to be remembered as "the classics", and so it makes a certain terrifying sense to see them come together and pool their various, nefarious forces.

    The Sinister assembled.

  • Appropriately enough, the story opens on one of the villains, Doctor Octopus, in prison after his last bid of naughtiness. Having thought better of his last stay, the authorities have this time separated the bad Doctor from his tentacular additions, and locked them up. But then we find that Otto has learned to mentally control them from afar, thus using them to effect his own breakout! So we begin the tale with not just the returning menace of one of Spidey's top villains, but one who has suddenly received an upgrade. And if that wasn't bad enough, he in short order calls together the Sandman, the Vulture, Kraven the Hunter, Mysterio and Electro - to form the chillingly-named Sinister Six!

    On the downside, he's not in the Six.
    Then again, he's in the new movie and they're not!

  • As much as this comic may rely on the past (assembling a team composed entirely of preexisting enemies), we should note that this appealingly-full package also takes pains to introduce Spidey's world for any new readers who might be encountering it for the first time. On the first page of the story, Spider-Man pesters Jonah in his office at the Daily Bugle, who rants "If only that blasted Peter Parker was here to snap some photos of him!!" Take a moment to marvel at how much information is delivered in that one moment: character points for both Spider-Man and Jonah, Peter's occupation at the Bugle, the two completely separate relationships which our hero has with the publisher, etc. Two panels later, a flying Thor narrowly misses our hero in mid-swing, thus establishing that this superhero solidly occupies the same cityspace as the other Marvels on the rack. (Similar walk-on appearances subsequently abound by Doctor Strange, the Fantastic Four, Ant-Man and the Wasp, and more - all with helpful footnotes pointing the new reader to the monthly mags in which those characters appear.) And soon after scenes showing the teenaged Parker being bullied by Flash Thompson and other schoolmates, and the introduction of Aunt May, we're treated to a very short flashback retelling the origin of Spider-Man - although note that this flashback doesn't refer us to the original story from Amazing Fantasy #15, already two years old and thus unobtainable to readers of the day, but rather the reprint found in the Marvel Annual #1, on sale that very same week. And all this occurs in the first five pages alone! It's incredibly, undeniably impressive to see how masters such as Stan Lee and Steve Ditko could craft a tale which certainly rewards long-time readers, yet remains the perfect introduction for any kid who'd never read a Spider-Man tale before.

    Five decades later, Ben's words seem slightly prophetic.
    Also, note with amusement Reed's oddly dark description of Spidey!

  • So here we have a comic which assembles the worst of Spider-Man's villains into a nightmarish force. Each of them alone tested his strength, ingenuity and resolves, so he's clearly going to have to be at the top of his game to survive the coming assault. Which is why it's so shocking to find, before the villains have even attacked, that ... Spidey's lost his powers?! Despite happening as he's swinging across the city, he somehow manages to safely make it back down to the ground, but he (and we) wonder how this could happen - and what this means for the days ahead. Having not yet begun the gauntlet the villains will soon be subjecting him to, he wonders if maybe now he can just live an ordinary life again, without always having a secret to protect, and the superhuman abilities begging to be used as a force for good. (Although note that this occurs right after he see him wishing he "were just like any normal teen-ager!")

    This is the kind of comic panel that I love:
    Pathos, menace and hilarity all in one place.

  • After the requisite amount of stage-setting and plot maneuvering, the Sinister Six begin their deadly assault. And Doc Ock's ingenious plan is for the villains to attack him ... one at a time?! And not even in any strategically-conceived sequence, but rather ordered by a simple luck of the draw?! (One wonders, yet again, just how much the supposedly-brilliant Doctor's brain chemistry changed in his originating atomic accident.) And yet this seeming randomness appears to be contradicted when Otto tells the assembled villains that the cards they drew at random also list the sites at which they should engage their enemy: places chosen to be "best suited for [their] particular talents!" Well ... which is it? Were the cards distributed at random, or were they strategically distributed to each specific baddie? In what seems nothing short of an outright flub on the part of Stan Lee, the dialogue seems utterly and hopelessly confused on the matter.

    Check out that power pose!  It's enough to
    make the reader stand up and cheer.

  • The bad guys kick off their plan by kidnapping Betty Brant (whom Doc Ock knows Spidey has fought for twice before) - and, coincidentally, the older lady she was meeting with: Aunt May. When Peter finds out, he immediately accepts the challenge laid out by the Sinister Six and goes to tackle them, one by one, despite the fact that he's now powerless. But on tackling his first foe, Electro, he's surprised to find that he can dodge the villain's bolts just as nimbly as before! Upon later reflection, he realizes he never lost his powers after all; he just imagined he did, as a psychosomatic result of the deep guilt he was feeling as he recalled the death of his lamented Uncle Ben.

    Each of the villains gets a full-page action shot in mid-fight.
    It's a neat device, and gives an unusual, welcome rhythm to the tale.

  • At the end of the day, the first Amazing Spider-Man Annual is an entertaining, extra-stuffed, deserving classic that will go on to be remembered for years; the "villain team-up" approach is a popular and well-used device, and it truly is great seeing all the baddies in one place, and putting all their efforts into fighting their common foe. But at the same time, this narrative trope has never entirely worked for me, even as a kid. After all, since the bad guys have to share the same comic (even an oversized one, as here), that means each villain can only take up a very, very small amount of space - which, if one stops long enough to really think about it, actually serves to diminish the menace of each baddie, rather than increase it. For instance, the original tale in which Spider-Man first fought Kraven the Hunter was a harrowing experience for our hero, and one he only survived by the narrowest of margins ... but in this comic, he defeats and moves past the villain in just over two pages. And I know, I know, that's not the point here - the aim, rather, is to provide a thrilling spectacle starring all of Spidey's top foes, and on that level it massively succeeds! - but still...

    Man.  Is it just me, or was Silver Age
    Aunt May kind of a ditz?

Monday, June 4, 2012

174: Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos #9

Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos #9

June 9, 1964

  • One would be hard pressed to find a story premise more bold or shocking than "Mission: Capture Adolf Hitler!" Even the cover says "The world knew that it couldn't be done!" But perhaps it would be more appropriate to say "The story Marvel knew they could never tell (at least, not really)!" - and we aren't surprised to find that such an astounding event has not, in fact, happened by story's end. There are several reasons for this, of course: For one thing, the natural limitation of the war story genre is that by virtue of being set within the cracks of history, we know how the story (as played out on the world's stage) will eventually end; one can make small inventions or embellishments, but any such dramatic departures would divorce the setting from our own world far too much. And even if we approached the idea on purely narrative terms, we can easily see why such a story couldn't take place, as the mythologized dictator is "the great white whale" of not just Nick Fury, but every Allied soldier: Were they to capture him, or finish him, their tale would be finished too. Finally, there's the inherent danger in utilizing any historical period of real trauma as simply story fodder, as it's not unreasonable to conclude that one of the countless souls who had lost so much in the Holocaust - a family, a homeland, a culture - could take real offense at a kids' story seeming to trivialize the very source of their suffering. (Though, again, Sgt. Fury co-creators Stan Lee & Jack Kirby were themselves both Jews who served in World War II.)

    Till now I've had problems with the inks of George Roussos, but his occasional use of
    heavy blacks here lends a somewhat stylized approach I find very appealing.

  • In addition to the seemingly outrageous story hook, this issue also sees the return of Baron Strucker! In his debut outing, the character seemed strongly influenced by the "Baron" part of his name; he was first introduced at his home castle, idle and pampered, initially dismissing the idea of taking down Fury because he deemed the American unworthy of his time. And even when he was convinced - well, ordered - to do so, he didn't come across as much more than an arrogant, aristocratic weapons master. Here, on the other hand, he's presented as a dangerous and high-ranking officer in the Nazi regime, and the character is all the better for it. After all, for the many reasons cited above, Hitler himself can't really be an effective or believable recurring villain for Fury and his Howlers - but the Baron can, and that really begins now.

    These "translation" arrows are hokey as all get-out.
    I'm not sure we'll ever see them again.

  • With a premise as provocative of this, you could be forgiven for wondering how Lee & Ayers could credibly pull it off! And the answer is ... well, they can't, really. Not credibly. Even the "plan" is jaw-droppingly naive, as it consists of no more than parachuting the Howling Commandos into Germany, having them attend one of Hitler's crowded rallies, and hoping they can somehow capture him there. In front of hundreds upon hundreds of supporters? And then get away without being seen? It's little wonder that a fight breaks out around them before they've even approached the F├╝hrer in question! Before too long, any remaining credibility flies straight out the window when a disguised Fury captures Baron Strucker, forces him at gunpoint to convince Hitler to attend the public execution of the captured Commandos in person, and then chauffeurs the pair of them to the site. (!!) There are countless times over the course of this increasingly ludicrous story when the reader is forced to wonder why Fury might not take down Adolf himself when in such close proximity, or why Strucker wouldn't turn the tables on Fury when the sergeant is occupied with such distracting business as, oh, say, driving the villains around town.

    The situation is becoming frankly untenable.

  • And yet, readers must have been shocked upon nearing the end of the tale to find that, against all odds, Fury's Commandos seem to actually capture Adolf Hitler after all, triumphantly whisking the dictator back to their Allied base! It's at this point, however, that their notorious prisoner removes his fake nose and moustache, revealing himself to be but one of Hitler's many doubles, used for the Nazi commander's various public appearances. While based in fact, the concept of "Hitler doubles" has of course proven rife for use (and misuse, and overuse) in fiction ever since, even forming the basis for numerous myths and conspiracy theories of the "Elvis is alive!" variety. Of course, recall that one of these potential doubles had already been seen some months before...!

    Well, I guess we can be thankful it wasn't a lifelike rubber mask!