Monday, June 27, 2011

August 1962: The Coming of Spider-Man and Thor!

Amazing Fantasy #15

Our Story

Peter Parker, the big brain of Midtown High, is ignored and mocked by everyone but his beloved Uncle Ben and Aunt May. The lonely teen attends a science lecture and is bitten by a radioactive spider. Feeling a bit queasy, he exits the auditorium and is almost run down by a group of joy-riding teenagers. To avoid becoming roadkill, Parker leaps high onto the side of a building. He soon learns that the dying spider had transferred its super power to the teen. The excited Peter Parker looks for ways to cash in on his new-found strength, finding it in a local wrestling match. A TV producer in the audience offers the youngster a shot at super-stardom and Peter gets to work on his costume, whipping up wrist bracelets that shoot liquid cement and a spider costume.

But the sudden fame goes right to the kid's head and the sweet wallflower becomes an arrogant jerk overnight, culminating in an incident in which he stands idly by as a crook is chased by a police officer. When the cop asks why Spider-Man took no action, the new hero claims he only looks out for Number One.

Then one night, after a show, Parker arrives at home to find that his Uncle Ben has been gunned down in a burglary and the killer is trapped in a local warehouse. Suiting up, Spider-Man heads to the warehouse and captures the killer, only to find that the man is the crook he let run by him earlier. It is then that Peter Parker learns that "with great power there must also come — great responsibility."

Peter Enfantino: Though condensed and hurried, this is perhaps the greatest origin story ever written for a Marvel character. It still dazzles all these years (and revisions) later. Ditko's art is perfect for the geeky Parker and would get even better over the next few years in the regular title. It's hard to picture this strip drawn by Jack Kirby, the artist originally slated for the title.

John Scoleri: Hang on a second—did I just read a Marvel Comic that didn't pull a giant monster out of its hat? While I agree Ditko does a masterful job with the Spider-Man costume right out of the gate, I found the sardonic grins of Aunt May and Uncle Ben are sporting in every panel they appear quite unsettling. You'd think the Joker snuck over from DC to gas the Parker household.

PE: An Amazing Fantasy #16 was planned (it would have featured the second adventure of The Amazing Spider-Man) but scrapped when the Spider-Man character drew so much fan mail and received its own title (to appear in March of 63). In 1995-96, Marvel published a mini-series of Amazing Fantasy issues #16-18 filling in "the blanks" between the events of Amazing Fantasy #15 and The Amazing Spider-Man #1. The three issues were written by, in my opinion, the best of the "new breed" of comic writers, Kurt Busiek, who seems to have read and ingested every comic book ever written. Busiek was also responsible for some of the best comic books published in the 1990s-2000s, including Marvels, a run on The Avengers, and his own creation, the Watchman-esque Astro City (which I liked much more than Watchmen, so sue me).

JS: Not to nit pick, Stan, but spiders are arachnids, not insects. And for the record, the remainder of the stories in this issue, "The Bell-Ringer," "Man in the Mummy Case," and "There are Martians Among Us!," are all standard Lee-Ditko filler. Which makes it all the more impressive that they came up with something so groundbreaking with Spider-Man, the first Marvel comic to receive our Golden Shield award for distinguished comic storytelling.

Journey Into Mystery #83

Our Story

Dr. Donald Blake, vacationing in Norway, is chased into a cave by aliens made of stone. There he finds a secret passageway containing a gnarled hunk of wood resembling the cane Blake must use to get around. When he strikes the wood against the cave wall, the cane becomes the hammer of Thor. When Blake holds the hammer, he becomes The God of Thunder. When he releases it, his frail human form (and the cane)  returns. The stone men are no match for the power of Thor and his whirling hammer and soon board their ship, scotching their plans for the domination of Earth.

JS: And just like that, we're right back to Lee/Kirby rock monsters from space. 

 PE: The first installment of Thor is barely a skeleton of a story, fragmented from other sources: the dynamic of the cane/hammer and Blake/Thor reminded me quite a bit of Captain Marvel (the 1940s version rather than the 60s Marvel hero) and the stone men are hardly more than sketches borrowed from an issue of Tales to Astonish or Tales of Suspense (or, for that matter, one of the back up sf stories included in Journey Into Mystery). It would be a few issues before the proper mythology we've come to know through the years would begin to peek through. We know nothing about Blake's life. Why is he so frail? Why is he vacationing alone and why does he look and sound so miserable? "Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor" is an interesting inscription on the hammer itself. So, why is Don Blake worthy of the power? What is the definition of worthy? If Don Blake has the power of Thor, does the real Thor have to sit down and take a breather somewhere up in Asgard? Or does Blake physically become Thor? And if so, where does Donald Blake "go" when this transformation is complete? All complex questions for a 14 page story, I'll grant you, but the story would have evoked enough interest in me if I'd picked it up from the newsstand in 1962. I'd be back for installment two.

JS: Personally, I think Blake gets the costume and instant hair growth as he's infused with the spirit of Thor. Regardless (and not just because of the recent film), I must admit I'm anxious to learn more about this character that I have so little personal history with.

Jim Barwise: And we have the famous last panel which has “THORR” written with the two r’s. One of the things that makes the character in these early issues less defined than we expect of him is the lack of the Shakespearean dialogue we’d come to love (or maybe hate for some): “What sound doth now assail mine ears?” (one of my faves), etc.  Don Blake likewise transforms later on into a less frail character. The Stone Men look a little like distorted versions of the Thing with no pants on (the latter comment according to the astute eyes of my 6-year old son), but they succeed in the early going in being scary, pretty effective against the background of the Norwegian village. I don’t have an original of this one, so my reprint has the Stone Men as green on the cover; I don’t know if this was the case on the original? Maybe they stole the Hulk's initial skin.  Nice cover still.

Also this month

Kathy #18
Life with Millie #18
Patsy and Hedy #83
Patsy Walker #102
Rawhide Kid #29
Strange Tales #99
Tales of Suspense #32
Tales to Astonish #34

Science Fiction writer Paul Marshall discovers there is "A Monster at My Window!" (Tales to Astonish #34) after a night of nightmare-filled sleep. At first thinking it a hallucination form working too hard, Paul soon discovers that, yep, there's "A Monster at My Window!" The goliath breaks in the apartment and chases Paul to the roof. There, it tells him what it wants: the writer is to pen a series of adventures centering on friendly aliens. Once the world is infatuated with friendly critters from space, his planet (located in the "sixth dimension") will begin their invasion. Paul calmly tells the giant he has no problem writing the stories but the aliens will resemble, you guessed it, invaders from Paul's planet. Paul is a giant lobster from a far away star system (not the sixth dimension). This is one of those crazy little fillers where the second half of the story belies the first. Why would Paul spend the first six pages having nightmares about invasions and running from space versions of Tor Johnson if he was a deadly alien himself? Yep, you're right. It's just a Lee/Kirby comic book story. Enjoy it for what it is. #34 would be the final issue of Tales to Astonish in the anthology format (following in the footsteps of this month's Journey Into Mystery). A short story or two would still be featured in each issue but the bulk of the story pages will be given over to Marvel's tiniest superhero. If the science fiction/giant monster story wasn't exactly dead at Marvel yet, the Gamma Rays were aimed at its heart.

A barroom was probably where this silly slice of Cold War hysteria was crafted!
The next entry in the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby Commie Series is "The Day Before Doomsday" (Strange Tales #99), wild and wacky Republican  propaganda form the 1960s (not that there's anything wrong with that!) and pretty much assures me of one thing: distribution of Marvel Comics to the USSR was not high on Lee/Kirby's priority list. America's brainiest scientist, John Peterson, defects to Moscow to help the Russians win the Cold War by building the perfect defensive weapon: a dome completely covering the city (well, all but the missile windows). When the dome is complete, Peterson asks the Russians if he may push the button that launches the missiles at the US. The Commie crumbs laugh and put John on the first jet back to the US, tossing the scientist out of the plane to parachute back to a treason trial. Well, not so fast. As the countdown runs to 0 and the missile button is pushed, all of the United States (and the USSR as well) are amazed to see Moscow tear itself from its country and hurtle towards space. The crafty Peterson, working as an infiltrator for our diabolical military devised a way to make all of Moscow a rocket ship. The Pentagon boys have a larf as they note that "now the commie warlords will fly through space through all eternity!"

Well, "The Man in the Anthill" was a huge success, why not "The Man in the Beehive!"  (Tales of Suspense #32). The tale if Lucius Farnsworth, who has a way with the bees, it seems. His loving touch elicits not only barrels of honey (making him "the richest beekeeper in the state!") but waves of jealousy from his comrades-in-hives. One B-man in particular has had his fill of failure and decides to rob Farnsworth's home safe. Caught in the act by Farnsworth, the nebbish finally finds out the true secret of The #1 Beekeeper in the State: hypnotism! Turns out Farnsworth is a mutant and his specialty is shrinking humans to the size of bees (he never does explain why the bees would like him more when he's their size but no matter...), which he demonstrates. Life in a beehive is hell for a human. Kirby and Ayers provide the art.

Kirby and Ayers also provide the fireworks for "The Trail of Apache Joe" (Rawhide Kid #29). Rawhide is promised a pardon by a dying sheriff (pay attention that "dying" part as Rawhide shore didn't) if he'll track down and bring in the mangy varmint known as Apache Joe (who doesn't appear to be an Indian, by the way). Our second most popular Marvel outlaw nabs Joe and heads back to town only to find the sheriff has died and a new lawman in office, one who doesn't cotton to deals with alleged killers. Rawhide Kid just gets out of town with his hide intact.


  1. I always liked Thor. I did not go to see the new movie because I could not accept the alter ego being a long-haired blond biker dude instead of frail Dr. Don Blake!

  2. Yeah, there are some changes to the mythology in the movie, Jack. Some good, some not. Jane Foster actually looks like she might have a brain (and she's Natalie Portman to boot) and today's audiences have a different definition of the word "lame." But overall, I really enjoyed Thor (the movie) and it made me immediately want to jump into the comics history of the character. The CGI didn't take me out of the story as so many of these big blockbusters do (I thought the Destroyer fight scene -- though short -- was well-handled). The humor worked. My enthusiasm for the film might also have to do with the fact that the last couple Marvel movies I saw (Iron Man 2 and Spider-Man 3) were very...well, lame!

  3. Jack and Peter- I had anxiously awaited this movie for a long time, and went in not expecting too much, probably so as not to be disappointed in the event it was a lemon. Chris Hemsworth won me over as Thor after a bit. I didn't expect him to. Natalie Portman played the Jane character well despite some of the changes to her character; she looks better and better as she gets older. They carefully set up a hint of future rivalry between Jane and Sif. I'd have to say Tom Hiddelston as Loki played his part best of all- delightfully evil! I think the THOR movie may have benefitted from the failures of some of the earlier Marvel films. My main disappointment would be the absence of Balder the Brave.

  4. This was quite a month for Marvel. Thor and Spider-man. You're right Peter, Spidey's origin still reads well today. I remember having a hardcover book called Origins of Comics (maybe I'm just thinking of Stan Lee's Origins of Marvel Comics, but I don't think so) that had a reprint of the first issue and a later issue, of many of the comic heroes that became classics. As I recall it featured Marvel and D.C. characters. This would have been in the seventies, and I lost the book a long time ago, so maybe I dreamt it up...