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...!