Wednesday, March 28, 2012

168: Tales to Astonish #59

Tales to Astonish #59
June 2, 1964

  • With this issue, we've reached another milestone. Before The Fantastic Four #1, the majority of Marvel's comics at the time (maybe all of them?) were anthology books. Then superheroes arrived on the scene, and Stan started up a couple of new titles (FF, The Incredible Hulk, and some months later The Amazing Spider-Man) which were devoted entirely to one hero or team. At the same time, he created new heroes to take up residence in the anthology books, so Thor was the first story in each issue of Journey into Mystery, Iron Man kicked off each issue of Tales of Suspense, and the FF's Human Torch had solo adventures at the start of every new Strange Tales, with 2-4 unrelated and non-continuing backup stories still filling out the remainder of the pages; anthologies these books remained. Then a few small continuing backup strips (usually about 5 pages long) started appearing - such as The Wasp in TtA, The Watcher in ToS, "Tales of Asgard" in JiM and Dr. Strange in (appropriately enough) Strange - but small backups remained for a while, even if just the occasional 2-page text story. Well, hang on to your hats, because next month that finally starts to change - and the three remaining anthology books will each become 50/50 split books, with one hero taking up the first half of the comic, and a second hero taking up the entirety of the latter. (Journey into Mystery will become solely a Thor book just by lengthening the lead.) So say your goodbyes to filler material now! Marvel will never really see its like again.

    Is this the first instance of the now-classic
    "The madder Hulk gets, the strong Hulk gets"?

  • But hey, this book also represents a second milestone, because this is when the Hulk gets his second chance - and this time, the green monster succeeds. Stan & Jack first tried out the lumbering creature two years earlier in his own brand-new magazine - which, again, in an era of anthologies certainly must have indicated some confidence in the concept - but despite their efforts, it was cancelled with the sixth issue. Sadly, this was due in no small part to the fact that they just couldn't figure out what kind of character they wanted him to be - a Jekyll-and-Hyde monster cursed with his other half? A superhero able to put on his Hulk suit at will? A freak? - and the book's six issues are thus a fascinating and mystifying illustration of whiplash inconsistency, as they leap from one concept to the next without ever settling down on any of them. This time around, though, they'll make him work. In fact, the character will go on to become so successful, and so popular, that by issue #102 he'll even boot his co-star out of the other half, take over the book entirely, and the name of the comic will change from Tales to Astonish to, once again, The Incredible Hulk. (Yes, trivia fans, that means that The Incredible Hulk Vol. 1 has issues numbered #1-6 and #102 on up, but is missing #7-101!)

    A new era dawns for the emerald aggressor.

  • But this split-book format, as mentioned, starts next month; Canny Stan was much too smart to launch the Hulk in a new feature completely out of the blue and with no lead-in or set-up. (Not a second time, anyway!) So Stan eases him into the title with an 18-page story which pits Giant-Man and the Wasp against the green behemoth! And yet what's really interesting is that the story functions incredibly well as a stealth pilot, not simply using the Hulk as a bland antagonist, but doing so in a story that contains and conveys all of the character's background and supporting cast: the New Mexico desert setting, the strained and lamented relationship between the Hulk and Banner, the way the monster is hounded by General Ross of the US Army, whose daughter Betty is enamored of the scientist Banner... All of the things that will be so central to the strip, as it goes forward, are quietly restated here - but because of the action that ensues, the exposition and back story never feel forced.

    This is disastrous!  Somebody stop him! 
    He's deliberately snubbing genre conventions!

  • Hilariously, the story features not just Giant-Man, the Wasp and the Hulk - but also perpetually lame villain the Human Top! At first I feared that the plot might just recycle The Avengers #1, with the Top aiming the easily-manipulated Hulk at Hank & Jan, just as Loki had against them and the rest of the soon-to-be-team in that inaugural issue. Refreshingly, that isn't the case here; instead, Hank takes Jan to New Mexico because he feels bad about the Hulk having left the Avengers under such terrible circumstances, and wants to try talking him into joining up again. (It's nice to see Hank acting truly noble and selfless for a change, instead of arrogant and cocky!) That's when the Human Top gets involved, first following the pair on their journey to the Southwest, and only afterward directing the maddened Hulk at Giant-Man and the Wasp - and then aiming the US Army at the Hulk! The increasing escalation of all this chaos and hostility is so effective that for once it finally makes a nutty sort of sense when an atomic bomb is launched into the fray as well...!

    Take it from one of the Marvel U's leading scientists:
    Explanations are boring!