Monday, January 30, 2012

163: Strange Tales #123

Strange Tales #123
May 12, 1964

  • Now, just take a look at that cover! Some covers are more worthy of comment than others - some are more dynamic, while others deadly dull - but this one has more going on than a quick glance might suspect. For one thing, note that the design (through no real intention, I'm sure) hints at the evenly-split double feature status which all the anthology books will soon be moving to, as recently discussed. Not only that, but the cover also takes full advantage of the guest-stars in each tale within, advertising four heroes for the price for one! What kid, the thinking must have been, could possibly resist?

    Good grief!  Is every guy who invents his own super-suit
    inviolably destined to first fall down in it?

  • Inside we see the introduction of the Beetle and - you know what? In his first few panels there's a sense of real potential! After all, he's not yet another in a long line of super-geniuses, or petty thieves with access to high-tech gear, but rather a factory mechanic who's just spectacularly skilled at engineering. A bit of a change, to be sure, and a nicely realistic one - right up until he dons his new villainous getup. And falls down. Even the heroes can't take his outfit seriously, as Johnny immediately shrugs, "Maybe he's an insect lover! Well, let's get it over with!!" And yet the goofy bug-man inadvertently helps to inject a welcome amount of humor into the story, aided further by the addition of the Thing. These two elements combined actually make the strip more enjoyable than it's been for - well, if we're being honest, most of its existence - and that isn't lost on Lee; from here on out it's no longer a Torch solo series, but rather will be a Torch/Thing buddy book to the end.

    Aw, just look at that li'l guy!  Isn't he cute?

  • The real item of interest, though, isn't some new goofy bad guy, but rather the fact that this story is illustrated by Carl Burgos: the man who created the very first Human Torch way back in 1939's Marvel Comics #1. WOW! For those old enough to remember back that far - and this would certainly have included Stan & Jack - it had to have been a real treat to see how the Golden Age legend rendered the new, then-modern version of his original fiery hero. As a bonus, we also get Carl's portrayal of the 1964 New York World's Fair, as the site of this story's climax! And rather timely too, as the expo would have opened to the public only a few weeks before the issue hit the stands. In fact, given that the story had to have been done some months prior to that, does this mean that Burgos perhaps had a chance to tour the grounds before the fair's official opening?

    And this Golden Age Great even gets honored with an in-story
    cameo (abeit one he had to draw himself).  Prety nice!

  • Meanwhile, in the Doctor Strange backup strip, we're treated to the villainy of Loki! And yet, surprisingly (or perhaps not?), it's an underwhelming affair. Loki has, of course, appeared outside of Thor's home in Journey into Mystery before - notably, it was his own mislaid plot that created the Avengers in the first place - but the inclusion of both him and Thor marks the first real introduction of superhero elements to what had previously been an almost entirely mystical-based strip. It's not really bad, per se, but it does seem strangely out of place, and the results jar rather than gel. Fortunately, this ill-judged mixing of genres will rarely reoccur - for some time, at least.

    Well-drawn it may be, but still and all: In the end,
    it's little more than a standard superhero slugfest.

Monday, January 23, 2012

162: Tales of Suspense #56

Tales of Suspense #56
May 12, 1964

  • This issue sees the introduction of the Unicorn - and, although he'll never go on to become a major foe, he's still one of those villains so darn goofy in concept and design that you wonder how he ever came back at all. I mean, he wears a suit with a power-beam mounted on his forehead - so, sure, why not name him after a mythical creature from European folklore (and one with a quizzical connection to virginity, at that)? This naming is made even more inexplicable when it's revealed that the character hails from Soviet Russia, and that the suit was designed by the Crimson Dynamo before his defection to the West. Although I suppose we could speculate that the suit was perhaps named after the Russian myth of the Indrik...?

    Um. Nobody wants to see Emo Tony.

  • On the more human side of things, the cover hints at a closer look into the psyche of Tony Stark, and this is revealed as a re-emphasis on his mortality, poignantly held in check during Iron Man's origin story, but oddly underplayed ever since. The doubled-edged sword of this premise - that the chestplate he wears represents not just his enormous strength, but also his greatest weakness - is a powerful one; strange, then, that it's been overlooked for so long. In virtually all of the Iron Man stories that have touched on it since, this vulnerability - Tony Stark's need to recharge his chest battery at regular intervals, in order to keep his very heart beating - has always been presented as little more than a lighthearted "Whoops!" moment, rather than something more akin to "My God - I lost track of time and nearly died!"

    "Black light tracker"?  I think this is another case of
    what we can generously deem "Marvel science".

  • In this issue, as well as the two following, Iron Man's feature is upgraded to 18 pages again, and so it's worth taking a moment to talk about format. As we've previously discussed, Marvel's various anthology books - Tales of Suspense, Tales to Astonish, Journey into Mystery and Strange Tales - all began life in the 1950s as comic books that featured multiple stories per issue, all of them unconnected from any other, and each story finite unto itself; no continuing stories with returning heroes there! Stan's early innovation, not long after the introduction of the Fantastic Four, was to place an ongoing superhero feature as the lead story in each one of these mags, so we got Thor in JIM, the Human Torch in Strange Tales, Ant-Man in TtA and Iron Man in ToS. At first the lead feature continued to be rounded out by unconnected tales as of old, but then the backup strips started, featuring the Wasp, the Watcher, Doctor Strange and "Tales of Asgard". With most of these, there was still just enough space left for one of the "filler" strips - perhaps burning off purchased, yet-unused inventory? - but as of now, they're done and used up. From this point forward, all of the superhero-related titles contain only superhero features (barring a couple of one-page text stories still trickling out over the next few months). The anthology titles will further concretize in the next few months into the double-feature books that will define the next period, but there's no denying it: Truly, the Marvel Age of Comics has taken hold!

    Did you ever think you'd see the Watcher in love?
    No, neither did anyone else.

  • Along similar lines, this title's backup strip, "Tales of the Watcher", has only a few months left to live. (Don't worry; it'll get another brief run in '68.) Interestingly, just as the last couple Wasp backups have focused more on the character in question rather than just using her as a framing device, so too do these last few Watcher tales take a greater interest in the enigmatic alien himself, as evidenced from the titles alone: "The Watcher's Sacrifice", "The Watcher's Power", and "The Watcher Must Die!" And why not? If they're going to (temporarily) take the character off the table, they may as well go out swinging!

    The Watcher seems to have an oddly flimsy
    interpretation of "non-interference".

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

161: Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos #8

Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos #8
May 5, 1964

  • Well, this is a first! When Stan needed to come up with a retroactive arch-nemesis for Captain America in Avengers #6, he created Dr. Zemo. (The "Baron" title would come later.) And what better way to show how long this villain has been around than by showing us his beginnings in World War II? You've got to admit that's a pretty cool idea - and even better, both this and the Avengers issue came out on the stands during the very same week of May 5, 1964! That said, despite being the focus of the Howlers' mission this time out, he doesn't actually appear in the story until the last five pages. Fortunately, that doesn't impinge on the issue's success in the slightest, and it's a highly enjoyable tale.

    Zemo's missing his distinctive pink hood; clearly, this adventure
    must predate that terrible glue catastrophe.

  • But there are actually two reasons why this is something of a milestone issue, because the Howling Commandos gain a new member! You may recall that in issue #4, "Lord Ha-Ha's Last Laugh", the Howlers lost one of their own, "Junior" Juniper - a genuinely shocking occurrence for the time. While stationed in England, however, they're joined by British soldier Percival "Percy" Pinkerton, who initially is mocked by other soldiers for his more erudite speech and manners - quite different from the generally gruff, working-class American troops we've seen thus far - but who quickly dispels such doubts with his ability to take down his attackers in no time flat, and otherwise prove himself on the field of battle.

    Introducing Percy.

  • You want controversy? We've got controversy! See, back in 2002, Stan Lee turned some heads when he revealed that he had always written Percy as gay. The times being what they were, and specifically in an artform under the strict scrutiny of the Comics Code Authority, Lee could never make it explicit - or even mildly hinted at, for that matter - but this was (Stan claims) his intention; simply a hidden aspect of Percy's character that informed Stan's writing. And yet, if this was in fact the case, then it was certainly a closely-guarded secret, one that Stan didn't even reveal to Sgt. Fury stalwart Dick Ayers. So what's the answer? Was Stan just making something up in that interview to get attention? Possibly. On the other hand, the Howling Commandos are such an unfamed piece of Marvel lore - absolutely unknown to pretty much every "person on the street" you might wish to ask - that it would be an extremely odd thing to invent. As with so many questions we have about the Silver Age, it's something we may never discover a definitive answer to ... but it's an idea worth keeping in mind, and continuing to wonder about, as we read future issues.

    Whoa!  Don't get this guy angry.

  • Having co-created a damn fine war comic with Stan, Jack Kirby has now left the battlefied, and will return briefly only a couple of times hereafter. A significant factor might be that, starting with this issue, the comic is going monthly! (Was that perhaps more than Jack could give, while juggling his other responsibilities?) Instead, stepping into the breach, as alluded to above, is penciller Dick Ayers. The transition isn't a seamless one - the change in art styles is a bit jarring, at first - but we can assume any wrinkles will be ironed out pretty fast; after all, barring the occasional fill-in, Ayers remain on the series for the remainder of its run, pencilling in total nearly one hundred issues over the next several years! Not a bad record, especially for someone who seems to be close to Jack in terms of enormous output; after all, at this time he's currently drawing the lead features in Strange Tales and Tales to Astonish, as well as the adventures of Two Gun Kid! Like I said: Not bad, not bad at all....

    This is one of three explosions depicted in the story, all of them
    uncluttered by narration or dialogue.  It really helps sell the terror of war.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

160: Tales to Astonish #58

Tales to Astonish #58
May 5, 1964

  • Hank Pym and Janet van Dyne are busy at Hank's lab, when their Avengers teammate Captain America drops on in. And isn't it notable that such a thing's not even an event anymore, so much as something he can just do to casually hand out a mission to them? Said mission requires them to hop a plane to Africa, where the (archaically stereotyped) native population is being menaced by a gargantuan being calling itself "Colossus". Oddly enough, this isn't the same creature as from the Wasp's tale only five issues back - despite both of them being such central figures as to lend their shared name to each story's title. Strange that Stan would have chosen such an identical name after so short a time; was his famously shoddy memory so sieve-like even then?

    Aww - how sweet.  Even when he's saving their lives,
    he still has time to condescend!

  • And yet, despite the reappearance of certain identical elements, in other ways there are clearly changes afoot. For one thing, Giant-Man revamps his size-changing ability so as to obviate its previous need for pill-popping, becoming now able to trigger the change mentally, via his cybernetic helmet. And in the debut outing of what will in time become something of a character-defining trait, the Wasp changes her uniform for the very first time! (In this case, the adjustment is comparatively mild; future costume changes will be much less so.) Finally, in what's clearly intended to be a thoughtful gift, Pym also reveals that he's revamped her abilities so that he can mentally change her size at will too, and not just his own! - but note that he doesn't design it so that she can change her own size mentally. Indeed, what appears at first glance to be a nice surprise takes on a more troubling tone upon further perusal; after all, by implementing this new design, he's essentially taking away her agency of change and keeping it for his own use and approval. Might we catalogue this as another subconscious step in his growing paranoia?

    Somehow, I doubt this is an accurate portrayal of Africa circa 1964.

  • But at the same time as we see additions and expansions in our heroes' repertoires, the tale also takes pains to set specific limitations. When Giant-Man and the Wasp reach the 30-foot-tall Colossus, Hank decides to try matching the creature in height, despite not having attempted this size before. He's able to do so, but just barely and briefly; having stretched his mass so thin, he finds he's so weak he nearly passes out. Once he recovers, he realizes that he should never try growing taller than twelve feet ever again - answering, perhaps, certain reader questions on the fact? In the end, though, the Colossus is revealed as the member of an invading race, who is eventually scared into fleeing Earth - making the whole thing a pretty blatant retread of their equally globe-trotting adventure from TtA #46, "...When Cyclops Walks the Earth". (Also: Colossus? Cyclops? I suppose we should count ourselves lucky that Hank & Jan don't next find themselves tasked to Siberia to fight a giant wolverine.)

    Of course they've got a trophy room!  How else would their friends
    know they defeated such villains as El Toro and the Hijacker?

  • Meanwhile, in the backup story the Wasp finds herself pitted against their old bunny-wielding menace from two whole months ago, The Magician! Finding herself lured downtown by the promise of a line of clothing inspired by her superheroic look, the entirety of the battle therefore takes place in a department store - even allowing her a whimsical moment behind the wheel of a tiny car from the toy department, as the Ant-Man famously did in his fantastic encounter with the Scarlet Beetle! Though flawed, it's undeniably a fun 7-page story, and one that gives the enjoyment of showing Jan fully on her own. Sadly, this is the last solo adventure we'll see from her for some time ... but that's only because Very Big Changes are coming to this title! Kicking off, in fact, next month....

    Snagged by an escalator.  Small wonder he never again showed
    his face - not out of fear, but embarrassment!

Friday, January 6, 2012

159: Journey into Mystery #106

Journey into Mystery #106
May 5, 1964

  • Happy New Year! Now let's get back to Thor: Picking up from last issue, we return to the danger of Thor separated from his hammer, and thus quickly transformed back into Don Blake (due to the enchantment which turns the god back into his mortal guise after 60 seconds). Unfortunately, this issue turns out to be just more of the same, with Don having to trick the villains into getting the object back to him, and then finding a way to transform into Thor without their knowledge. Again. Really, it's just a naked retread of the action from last ish, which is a shame; last month's cliffhanger may have been an effective one, but Stan & Jack don't seem to have had any new idea to carry on from after. I suppose it just goes to show that not every story is worthy of being broken into two installments!

    When I see scenes like this one, I wonder about the poor contractor
    who has to redo the entire floor.  It's not just gonna meld back together!

  • Correspondingly, there's actually very little human drama in the story at all, despite the revolutionary mix of superhero action and human drama being the foundation of Marvel's early success. The tale really is just a series of separations and recaptures - Thor from his hammer; the villains from Thor - until the very end, when Blake returns to his medical practice to find Jane enrapt by television news coverage of the fight. But since Blake had tricked the villains into thinking that he'd betray Thor to them - rather publicly, at that - Jane calls him a coward and angrily runs out. Note that this parallels rather nicely Jane's supposed betrayal of Thor in Hyde's own two-part origin story, which was the event that caused Odin to declare her unworthy of his son in the first place! However, there's no indication in the narrative that Stan is aware of this parallel or that it's at all intentional; instead, it's likely just a happy accident in the midst of his rapid-fire plotting.

    Something tells me there might be a design flaw in that paint machine.
    Does it paint just one side of the building?  How does it know what
    not to paint?  Etc.

  • Meanwhile, "Tales of Asgard" turns its focus to another of the divine cast: Balder the Brave. In a post-battle rehash, Odin demands to know why Balder fell behind when the rest of their forces pursued the deadly Storm Giants. But when Balder defends himself by saying that he stopped to help a baby bird that had fallen from his nest, Odin is seriously not amused and sentences Balder to death on the execution fields. And yet the first arrow shot at Balder is snatched from the air by a hawk, while a subsequent spear is blocked by the fast-moving shoots of a nearby plant. Finally, when Thor raises his hammer to smite his friend, Odin stops his hand - claiming that he himself had summoned the hawk and the plant, and that the proceedings had been designed to test Balder's bravery as well as his gentleness.

    Look at the feathering on Balder's back, and the
    stippling effect on his leggings. Impressive!

  • Additionally, this "Tales of Asgard" segment merits a note on the art. These have all been pencilled by Kirby, but so far the inking has been by whomever was seemingly available: George Roussous, Paul Reinman, Don Heck, and Chic Stone have all taken part. And, although more expert inking connoisseurs than I might be inclined to disagree, none of them have really let their inking styles come to the fore, instead being willingly subsumed by the style of the great Jack Kirby - all bold strokes and deep blacks. Here, though, Kirby is inked by Vince Colletta - a controversial figure, to be sure - and the inks on "ToA" look incredibly distinctive for the first time, with a light scratchiness that evokes some of Don Heck's pencilled art, yet overlaid onto the powerful figures as drawn by Jack. It's a bit of a marriage of opposites, and one I wouldn't have expected - yet I can't deny that the combination, for me at least, really works! Fortunately, the rotating cast of inkers looks as if it will cease, and within a year Vince will be inking the lead story as well.

    There really is something of a Prince Valiant feel to these images, don't you think?