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!


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