Thursday, January 31, 2013

185: The Fantastic Four #31

The Fantastic Four #31 
July 9, 1964
  • Hey, guys - the Mole Man's back! What, no great cheer? That's understandable: After all, it's the Mole Man. This is the third time he's appeared in these pages - his last outing being in issue #22 - but Stan keeps on bringing him back. The problem is that he was the villain seen in the Fantastic Four's very first adventure, so it'd be nice if the readers cared about him ... but the sad truth is that he's just not very interesting. And maybe Stan & Jack will start to realize that, as he won't be seen again in these pages until 1969's issue #88! (Also: What's up with his coloring? Previously he'd sported a green jumpsuit and green cape, but now it's a green and purple ensemble. Except... on the cover he's got a green suit and purple cape, while inside it's a purple suit and green cape! Maybe that's why he'll be back to green-on-green the next time we see him.)

    "New Look" Mole Man seems almost debonair!
    (Now, now - I did say "almost".)

  • The tale opens with the FF in their Baxter Building headquarters, shocked by a sudden and inexplicable earthquake. When they rush out to investigate, they find an entire city block has vanished, leaving a gaping hole in its place! Oddly enough, the Thing wonders if the Hulk might be responsible - despite the fact that when their own building had been plucked out of the ground, it was due to the machinations of Dr. Doom. Upon descending the newly-created block-sized pit to its bottom, the Four discover the Mole Man, who reveals that his end goal is the same as it ever was: conquest of the surface world. BORING! Have none of these villains ever thought about how much work, management, and, ultimately, paperwork must be required if they ever once attained their aim of global conquest? The first time I recall this point ever being made was in 1987's surprisingly decent Emperor Doom graphic novel; 1964, on the other hand, is probably far too early to expect that kind of self-awareness. (This is, after all, when a villain like The Wizard can come back for no greater reason than settling a grudge against the hero who first defeated him - again and again and again.  Deep motivations they definitely lack!)

    That's a bit harsh, Sue.  It's not Stan & Jack's
    best tale by far, but it's not

  • After the Mole Man takes Sue Storm hostage - yes, the Invisible Girl's role in the story is relegated to simply a prisoner to be fought over, once more - ol' Moley tells the FF to leave him to his conquest ... and that if they or anyone else attacks him, Sue's life is forfeit. They return to the surface, as directed, and immediately find the Avengers investigating the enormous hole, ready to descend. This of course is a very artificial way of providing the two teams an opportunity to fight - and yet this guest-appearance isn't even teased on the cover, as you might expect. The manufactured tension fortunately lasts not much longer than a page, but even this minor diversion can't distract from our noticing that the plot is paper thin: Our heroes go to the Mole Man, then they head back to the surface, then they return and defeat him. It's somewhat reminiscent of the famously padded stories in early Doctor Who, for instance, which could often be broken down into broad strokes of "captured - escape - captured - escape", and a lot of running about from place to place.

    Yes, but how do the city blocks stay in place once they're raised?

  • Fortunately, the issue does see one element that genuinely excites the reader's interest. Near the start of the tale, Sue sees a newspaper article and photo proclaiming the daring escape of a certain prisoner, and reacts with alarm. She doesn't want to discuss it, but instead heads to the police station to investigate on her own, leaving an insecure Reed to wonder if the older man in the photo is some lost love from her past. Only in the tale's finale, as Sue lies hospitalized from an injury sustained in the subterranean battle, does the escaped prisoner step forward. Not only is he a world-renowned surgeon, and the only person who can safe her life - but he's also Sue & Johnny's long-lost father! After successfully performing the needed operation, the police come to take him away again, but we finish this otherwise humdrum tale with our interest fully piqued: Who is this mysterious character, and what is his story? Readers would have to come back the next month to find out...!

    Father revealed ... and a mystery teased.

Monday, January 21, 2013

184: The Amazing Spider-Man #17

The Amazing Spider-Man #17
July 9, 1964
  • Get ready: It's the return of the Green Goblin! And this marks the beginning of an extended run of appearances that will form the strip's earliest ongoing mystery - one that won't resolve until the departure of Steve Ditko in 1966. A couple of commenters in the discussion of #14 pointed out the obvious comparison that I entirely missed: namely, that the character's terrifying grin recalls that of main Batman baddie The Joker! And this similarity might have crossed the minds of Lee & Ditko too, as they her start to reposition the character as the archenemy he would go on to be. Note, for instance, how they've already upgraded the villain's mode of transport from his previous (and laughable) "flying broomstick" to the much more successful Goblin Glider. Perhaps they realized they needed to shy away from the Halloweenesque elements, if they wanted to focus on making him a truly menacing character? And yet: The Goblin's first weapon of choice this outing is still "an electrically-charged toy FROG". 'Nuff said!

    "Mr. Brant"?  No, that's Mr. Allan!  Apparently,
    even Stan can't keep Peter's girls straight.

  • This issue, constant aggravator Flash Thompson surprises Peter Parker (and the readers!) by forming a local Spider-Man Fan Club. Since said club impacts the plot of this issue pretty heavily, it's perhaps worthwhile to take a moment and explicitly ponder the question: What unconscious gains are had by the choice to have Flash be such an enthusiastic fan of Spidey? Well, it's undeniable that Peter has always craved a certain amount of adoration and praise - remember that one of the first things he did upon gaining his powers was to go on television, lured by promises of fame and money - but instead he's usually met with suspicion and scorn. (Note the contrast with this issue's guest star Johnny Storm, whose exploits as the Human Torch do indeed net him the kind of easy life and worldwide praise that Peter envies.) Notice too that this development taps into the eternal hope of the lonely and misunderstood child, that "they'd like me if they only knew who I really am!" - a fantasy of wish-fulfillment that goes right to the heart of the secret identity itself, and provides ample hook with which many readers could self-identify. The irony, of course, is that Peter is thus able to receive a degree of affirmation from his peers, yet it doesn't actually change anything for his social life or public persona. Finally, Flash's hero worship allows for an increasing depth of character than the one-dimensional boor we met in the earliest issues - showing us that he has the depth of insight to see that Spider-Man isn't the "menace" the Daily Bugle make him out to be, and giving him a heroic role model to look up to, admire and try to emulate.

    Flash Thompson: The best frenemy a guy could ever have.

  • Near the start of our tale, Spider-Man notices a gaggle of costumed ne'er-do-wells fleeing along a rooftop and jumping into a waiting 'copter. He immediately races after, and apprehends them in the course of their getaway ... whereupon he's extremely chagrined to find that he's only interrupted the filming of a motion picture, and the "villains" are just actors! The scene is slightly contrived, yes - would he really get that far along without a glimpse of the cameras filming? - but also oddly familiar. Hasn't Stan used this very scenario once before, and rather recently? (The eerily strong sense of deja vu would suggest so, but I can't quite place it.) Clearly Stan is enormously enamored of the movies, as they pop up in these pages far more often than either television or radio - and recall their use in other notable stories, such as Namor's own movie studio in Fantastic Four #9, or the convoluted scheme involving the fake film shoot in the Green Goblin's first appearance, just three months earlier. It's no surprise that Stan would leave the publishing biz behind and move to California as soon as he reasonably could!

    The stage is set.

  • The main plot of the issue concerns Flash's decision to hold the first meeting of the Spider-Man Fan Club at the Avenue Dinner Club - complete with special appearance by Spider-Man! - and what happens when the Green Goblin crashes the party. Fortunately for the readers, what could have been a humdrum affair is actually pretty darn exciting! Critically speaking, this doesn't appear to be down to any one narrative strand, but rather because Stan & Steve have set up a bunch of different elements at the club, and then juggle our attention from one to the next, letting them all come into conflict with each other as they will. For instance, J. Jonah Jameson has requested the presence of Peter as Bugle staff photographer, but gleefully watches to see Spider-Man fail. Betty Brant has come with Jameson, but since she's been jealous of the attention Liz Allan has been paying to Peter, Pete doesn't want her to see him there (and especially under Liz's unasked-for affections). Johnny Storm's girlfriend Dorrie Evans is fed up with him always hogging the glory of others, and makes him swear not to steal the spotlight ... which puts him in an awkward position when he begins to wonder if the attack by the Green Goblin really is just part of the show, as the audience first thinks, or is instead all too real. The primary dilemma - that both Spider-Man and Peter Parker are expected to attend the same event - is obvious, and would certainly have fallen flat on its own, but is quite successful as the dramatic backdrop against which all the other concerns play out. Even the eventual Human Torch team-up adds to the thrills, which really indicates what an exciting and effective Torch solo strip might have looked like, rather than the bland effort we've consistently gotten in Strange Tales. And then, in the midst of all that, Peter receives the terrifying news that Aunt May has suffered a heart attack too! Readers of the time, upon reaching that last page, must surely have felt they'd gotten their money's worth, and then some.

    Of all the lame excuses Peter's had to use ... that might be the worst.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

183: Strange Tales #125

Strange Tales #125
July 9, 1964
  • Hey, it's the Sub-Mariner again! Which isn't anything especially newsworthy; after all, he's been appearing off and on since his reintroduction in The Fantastic Four #4, and was most recently seen just two months back in The X-Men #6. But we're now in the period when those appearances will become slightly more frequent, as his own ongoing strip is less than a year away. In this manner, Subby's trajectory kind of mirrors Stan Lee's approach to the Hulk after the monster's initial cancellation: Make sure to keep the character alive in the readers' minds, until he could figure out how to best utilize this hero/villain concept successfully.

    Aha!  This must be what the kids call ... "comedy".

  • On the other hand, the Human Torch strip hasn't felt particularly inspired in some time - possibly ever - and unfortunately, this revised "Torch and the Thing" version (now that The Rocky One is the ongoing, official costar) isn't actually new or improved. To be blunt, it mostly just feels padded, like Stan's out of ideas and is just phoning it in. The plot? After the pair drive off a couple of journalists for wanting to interview Reed and Sue instead of the two of them, they hear that Namor has been sighted off the coast. So they track down the Sub-Mariner and fight him, for no reason other than him being around (and, okay, past egregious behavior) ... and that's the story! Sure, there are some clever reveals at the end - but that just means that the only interesting parts come on the final page, and the previous dozen mostly encompass just mindless fighting and other meandering maneuvers. (Johnny & Ben spend an entire page reminiscing about the events of FF Annual #1, and Ben spends most of a page - in a story only 13 pages long! - towing the Torch & Subby, both unconscious, back to land.) The effect is a tale that feels utterly unengaging up until the very, very end - and then it's suddenly over.

    Regrettably, so did Stan.

  • In a frustrating bit of synchronicity, however, the Dr. Strange story feels similarly plotless. Baron Mordo has kidnapped and imprisoned the Ancient One, so our hero and villain both take to their astral forms and trade mystic blows all over the world, while Doc also searches where his Master has been stowed. And when Strange finds the place, he & Mordo fight some more. There's not much beyond that - and while Steve Ditko's rich visuals make this a marginally more interesting yarn than the preceding Thing / Torch story, it's not perfect; we've already seen Strange & Mordo battling in spirit form before, while the "fighting across global landmarks" device clearly recalls Thor & Loki's battle across the same, and questions raised early on (for instance: why did Mordo send his henchbeings to attack Strange when he knew they wouldn't be successful, and would only arouse the Doc's suspicions?) are never answered. Part of the problem may be that Baron Mordo has been designed almost from Day One as Doctor Strange's primary enemy, his Doctor Doom or Magneto ... but really, he just isn't very interesting. (At least not yet.) Fortunately, a new and more successful archfoe will make his first appearance next month!

    The preceding images of the Eiffel Tower and the pyramids of Egypt
    aren't nearly as compelling as this stark, crumbling ruin.

  • This is, perhaps, as opportune time as any to discuss the magical naming conventions found in this strip. At several points in every story, Doctor Strange or his sorcerous enemies will cite some magical being or force in their incantations, and it's usually a recurring name that we've heard before. (It's impressive that Stan can come up this mystic gobbledegook and mostly keep it straight from month to month; he must have been keeping notes.) For instance, here Mordo calls upon the "vapors of Valtorr" and "the hoary hand of Hoggoth", and the Ancient One has intriguingly been imprisoned via the "crimson circle of Cyttorak" - a mystic being who will become more famously associated with an X-Men villain, starting the following year. Granted, Stan doesn't always get it right: Readers know that Doctor Strange's "Eye of Agamotto" refers to the force that resides in the eye-shaped amulet clasped at the front of his cloak, but in this issue he enters his Chamber of Shadows (What a great name! Was that room ever referenced again?) in which, he says, "stands the all-seeing Eye of Agamotto!" The implication being that he's referring to the mystic globe stood in its center. A particularly enterprising fan could come up with reasons why this is not actually a mistake - and for all I know, some future writer may have noticed this oddity and crafted a tale to explain just that - but, as stated above, it's impressive enough that the famously improvisational Stan was able to maintain as much consistency of detail as he did. Finally, another name of note comes when he calls out, at the start of the story: "In the name of the dread Dormammu, begone!" It's not the first time he's invoked that name as a source of mystic power, and to date the entity has seemed as invocationally interchangeable as with, say, Oshtur or Munnopor. Starting next issue, however, that will no longer be the case....

    Baron Mordo?  Or Doctor Octopus?
    Perhaps it's Baron Octopus!

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

182: The Avengers #8

The Avengers #8  
July 9, 1964
  • Introducing Kang the Conqueror! In time he will go on to be one of the Avengers' greatest single villains, and quite possibly their primary archenemy. The Masters of Evil are certainly tops when it comes to team vs. team, and Ultron will arguably become their most fearsome returning baddie with a personal connection to our heroes literally built-in - but that won't occur for another four years. So Kang's arrival here is important, as the brand-new villains introduced thus far have included Lava Men (just a recooked version of the Mole Man's Moloids), shape-changing goofy-faced dude The Space Phantom, and ... Broccolli-head. In other words, we're rather overdue for somebody truly fearsome. Fortunately, you can tell from the outset that he's destined to be a classic: Groovy, alliterative name? Check! Impressively arresting visual design? Check! Now if he just happens to have any interesting abilities or an unusual back story, we may have something!

    Wh... Why on Earth do they have THOR on tech duty?!

  • Stan & Jack may have suspected that this villain had real potential. Rather than introducing him to our heroes with a humdrum arrival on the scene as per usual, the Avengers first hear that something is amiss via an emergency Pentagon alert regarding an approaching UFO. Once it lands, the hatchway doesn't immediately open, but instead sits immobile: Watching. Waiting. After an hour, it's been surrounded by the national security forces, and only after a nozzle protrudes from within to dispose of the army tanks does its master step out to greet the Earth in suitably dramatic fashion. The scenario is more than a little reminiscent of Klaatu's arrival in The Day the Earth Stood Still, to the extent that I wondered if Stan was deliberately cribbing ... but that film came out in 1951 - 13 years before! (Did movies get second releases back then, as much as a decade later?) Still, it is worth pondering from whence the Kang concept came. Sure, the idea of time travel had been popularized as far back as H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, and we've already seen the trope used by Stan himself in the past couple of years, via Dr. Doom's time machine, Zarrko the Tomorrow Man, and Pharaoh Rama-Tut. Speaking of which...

    As the Avengers meet Kang, Janet's "characterization" continues.
  • When Kang begins to divulge his back story to the Avengers, we're shocked to discover that his mystery identity alluded to on the cover is that of Rama-Tut! (In actuality, the readers are more shocked than the Avengers, who have likely never heard of the Pharaoh in question.) We'd last seen Rama-Tut in the pages of The Fantastic Four Annual #2, which just came out the previous week. That's actually pretty cool, and with hindsight makes Tut's appearance there, and the question as to whether he might be the past or future incarnation of another villain - which at the time seemed entirely unnecessary - to suddenly make a strange kind of sense. Whether intentional or a bit of genius improvisation, it almost seems like Stan has had a plan all along! So how did Rama-Tut become Kang then? Well, after dropping Doom off in the 20th century, the Pharaoh headed off towards his own time in the 30th. But due to a mysterious glitch, he overshot his mark by 1000 years and instead landed in the 40th century - which he soon conquered entirely and made his home. (Though that does bring another question to mind: Why the change from the 30th century to the 40th? Did Stan notice the setting of DC's Legion of Superheroes, and decide to leave the 30th to them?)

    Kang conquers.
  • In record time, the male Avengers find themselves captured, and the only ones left to free them are the Wasp, Rick Jones and the Teen Brigade! It's honestly a bit mystifying seeing the Teen Brigade get the spotlight as much as they do; they've appeared in nearly every issue, been instrumental in the team's formation, and their increased involvement here even ranks a shout-out on the cover. Stan clearly seems to think they're a concept the readers might respond to, perhaps in the same vein as Joe Simon & Jack Kirby's 1940s DC creation The Newsboy Legion - and yet, unlike the Newsboys, Stan consistently forgets to give any of the Brigade special talents, or unique traits, or even recurring names - anything that would make them actual characters, and not just the barest sketch of a concept. Still, despite their admittedly coglike sameness, they're nevertheless resourceful enough to break the Avengers out of captivity ... which is honestly more excitement than the Wasp gets, whose contribution is limited to flying to Hank Pym's lab to fetch his shiny new Stark-designed raygun, then flying back. Stan's heart is in the right place, but his execution is still lacking. Ah well: In another couple of years, the Teen Brigade will have faded into obscurity, while future decades will see Janet Van Dyne become a strong, rich and complexly-layered heroine. All she needed, really, was ... time.

    Thanks, Rick Jones!
    Now let's grab some RandomTeens.