Tuesday, February 21, 2012

This Month in Marvel: June 1964

  • We're now into June of 1964. And you know what that means: Another look at Stan's "Special Announcements" page, wherein he tantalized readers with all the new offerings that were coming out! This one comes from The Fantastic Four #30:

  • As always, thanks for these scans go out to Barry Pearl, author of The Essential Marvel Age Reference Project. Am I going to keep plugging his book every time I post the new "This Month in Marvel" page? I sure am! It's just that good.

Monday, February 13, 2012

165: The Amazing Spider-Man #15

The Amazing Spider-Man #15
May 12, 1964

  • With this issue we see the introduction of Kraven the Hunter, and at the risk of sounding repetitive: The hits keep coming! Seriously, it's nothing short of astounding how the pairing of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko on The Amazing Spider-Man has created classic villain after classic villain - foes who would be seen again and again and again, precisely because they work so well - with hardly a clunker in the bunch. (The sole exception would seem to be The Living Brain from #8.) Compare this, on the other hand, to the indisputable hotbed of creativity that was Lee and Kirby's The Fantastic Four, but which nonetheless featured occasional bozos like The Miracle Man and Kurrgo, Master of Planet X (amongst genuinely great creations like Dr. Doom and the Skrulls). But then, I suppose we could write off The Living Brain, MM and Kurrgo as all fading relics of Marvel's earlier age; after all, even hokey supervillains like The Mad Thinker or The Red Ghost and his Super-Apes would be back time after time, in large part because they fit the requirements of the new Marvel supervillain so very well.

    So they're not even trying to hide their source of inspiration.

  • In fact, one thing that makes Kraven so great, as a character, is the directness of Ditko's visual design: With a single glance, from the leopard-skin leggings to the lion-head vest, you already have an idea who this guy is - and the cover splash sobriquet, "Kraven, the Hunter!", clears up any ambiguity. The villain who is a ruthless hunter of men is, of course, a classic literary trope, most famously in Richard Cornell's short story "The Most Dangerous Game". It's a fascinating approach, because for once Spidey isn't being targeted so the villain can make a name for himself, or because Spidey got in the way of his crime, or for revenge - but just because he can. Which makes the villain legitimately scary, in a very serial-killer way.

    Later stories would reveal that these two are far more
    connected than this first meeting would have us believe!

  • And if that's not enough: The Chameleon's back! In fact, he's the one who's hired Kraven and put Spider-Man in his sights. Note the subtlety with which Stan and Steve are forging these connections between characters; instead of just making up Random Reason #18 for new-character Kraven to go after Spider-Man, as per usual, they use a preexisting piece of the canon, making Spidey's world seem bigger and more organic. Oddly, although the Chameleon hires Kraven because he's back in town and wants to prevent Spidey interrupting his criminal ways ... this master of disguise won't actually show up again in these pages for another six years. Guess he learned his lesson! (For a while, at least.)

    The very first mention of someone who will
    become quite a force in Peter's life.

  • As new villains go, Kraven's quite a success! Rather than being something as simple as a flying thief, he's got several powers and abilities that make him quite a challenging foe: He's an expert at tracking his prey, for instance, and a master of hand-to-hand combat. One secret potion gives him his enormous strength, and another is used to incapacitate Parker for a full day, giving our hero nausea and the shakes. And he's got mechanical aids too, like his special manacles that not only clamp the arm and leg together, but incorporate a ringing bell in case the prey tries to escape. He's a well-thought-out baddie, and Lee & Ditko know it - which is why he'll be back not in some number of months, as you'd expect, but rather in just a few weeks...!

    Does anyone else find that last bit of dialogue out of character for Spidey?
    Could Stan have thought he was penning a narrative caption box?

Monday, February 6, 2012

164: Fantastic Four #29

Fantastic Four #29
May 12, 1964

  • You may argue with me if you'd like, but I propose that Fantastic Four #29, "It Started on Yancy Street!", boasts one of the most striking, most compelling covers of the Silver Age. Just look at it: Our fantastic foursome crossing an empty cityscape (Johnny, tensed, looking off to his left at ... something), their shadows long and lean and reaching toward the reader, with the ghostly figure of the enigmatic Watcher towering over the nighttime sky, filled with far-off planets and space clouds and starbursts. It's a cover that tells remarkably little about what's inside, but does so by conveying a real sense of mystery and foreboding.

    Fleeing isn't the reaction we normally expect from our intrepid adventurers!

  • With such a great cover, then, as well as its equally intriguing title, it's a shame that the story inside is such a disappointment. The villain of the piece turns out to be the Red Ghost and his Super-Apes - and how implausible is it that our heroes don't immediately know who their foe is as soon as they're attacked by three super-powered apes they've fought once before? Bereft of any new motivation for the character, Stan Lee falls back on his oft-used trope of "wanting revenge solely for being beaten before"; never an interesting reason, even at the best of times. In fact, in every way the tale seems a rehash of their first appearance in issue #13, right down to the return to Earth's moon and the resolution being facilitated in part by the Watcher (who's still not interfering at all, honest you guys, seriously).

    This early instance of Kirby's photo-collage is too dark to be really
    successful, but surely prefigures further innovation to come.

  • The funny thing is that the idea inside is executed well - it's just not very original. (Which thus prompts reflection: Is this, then, better or worse than a good idea done bland?) Kirby's art is in top-form - including one of his rare, at this point in time, photo-collage efforts - and the Red Ghost's scheme to capture the FF and take them to the site of his prior lunar defeat is impressively planned, on a level of that which we'd expect from the Mad Thinker. I'm tempted to say "Imagine if this kind of creativity had been applied to an idea that was fresh, new and exciting!" - but on further reflection, I don't have to; we have most of the other issues of Lee and Kirby's FF to deliver on that.

    Does anyone else think that last panel was Stan playfully commenting on the art?

  • Still, despite the story's flaws (which also include a meandering pace whereby the action doesn't really begin until page 6), there are nevertheless a number of great moments to be seen within. The story does, as promised, open on Yancy Street, and the sight of the Four running away from a bunch of hidden pranksters is richly funny. When they return to the Baxter Building, The Thing and his girlfriend Alicia get a short scene in which each of them starts to break up with the other - convinced they're only being dated out of pity - before they realize they're both being sweetly dumb. And the climax of the story takes place within the Watcher's home on the moon, where the design and household accoutrements really do convey a sense of wonder and alien-ness that's only fitting for a being so removed.

    I love Marvel's occasional pop-psychedelia.
    Very "sixties", and very cool!