PE: It's tough to read this initial effort without thinking about where the road takes these characters. It's a solid story save all the "sometimes even superheroes don't get along" in-fighting that, thanks to Fantastic Four, I've had up to here. A lot of solid dialogue here as well. This is not your average Marvel superhero comic book. It's got a message to deliver (one that flies right in the face of the usual Stan/Jack "can't trust them stinkin' commies" diatribe), one that I'm not sure was really absorbed by its target audience.
PE: I've never read these particular comics, as X-Men was never my cup of tea (even when it took off in the mid-70s) but I enjoyed the first two films and I'm looking forward to having the blanks filled in for me.
The next day at the New York Museum a team of scientists are baffled at how perfectly Merlin has been preserved. Conveniently they leave the tomb alone to discuss the mystery and, therefore, don’t see Merlin “wake up.” Actually the occupant of the tomb is a mutant, possessing powers such as telepathy, levitation, and teleportation -- which to the ancient peoples of King Arthur’s time, seemed like pure magic.
Merlin’s plan was to fake his own death and to be awoken from his self-imposed comatose state when the air from the opening of his tomb would revive him. His intention is to show the world his “magic” and to become the real power behind the 1963 government. Merlin sets his plot in motion by changing the course of an experimental missile at Cape D’Or. After Thor interferes and puts it back on course, Merlin, perceiving Thor as a threat to his plan, appears at the White House and challenges Thor to a battle.
Ironically it is Loki who tips off the Thunder God to the fact that it is Merlin who set the missile awry. Thor wastes no time in appearing at the White House to take Merlin up on his challenge. Neither a missile of the Washington monument or bringing to life the statue of Abraham Lincoln can stop Thor. He changes into Don Blake gambling that Merlin will believe that it is only one of endless forms Thor can transform into. Convinced that his own sorcery is no match for the Thunder God’s power, Merlin agrees to return to his crypt and put himself into a coma for another thousand years.
JB: This Thor story is a lot of fun, although Merlin suffers a similar defeat as villains such as Loki and Sandu before him. Next month marks some important changes in the development of Thor. Stay tuned!
Trapped on The Isle of Silence, evil Loki hatches a plan to lure his half-brother Thor back to Asgard to do battle but actually starts the engine that becomes the world's greatest super-group, The Avengers! When Loki manipulates The Hulk to do some major damage, the green-Skinned Goliath is blamed once again by his human tormentors, Rick Jones smells a rat and sends an SOS to The Fantastic Four. Loki intercepts the plea and sends it to Don Blake. The lame doc isn't the only alter ego to get the message. Iron Man, Ant-Man and The Wasp all hear Rick Jones' call to arms and come to help pronto.
Meanwhile, hiding out from the authorities, The Incredible Hulk is disguised as Mechano, the circus clown robot in a traveling three-ring. Once the super-heroes gather at the circus, a battle royale ensues. Each superhero tries to talk sense into The Hulk (by first trying to beat his brains in and then insisting they're "only trying to help" the big lug), but he's not buying what they're selling.
Up in Asgard, Thor has his hands full with the scheming Loki who throws killing vines, silent trolls, and erupting volcanoes at the Thunder God but the Mighty one at last emerges triumphant and heads back to earth, Loki in tow, to explain his half-brother's treachery to his comrades. The five heroes decide to join forces to combat evil (and bad villain names) as The Avengers!
PE: I'm not sure I understand Loki's plan. He wants to lure the Thunder God back to Asgard to fight him so he has the half-wit Hulk accidentally destroy a train trestle so that Thor will hunt down the Green Goliath?
JS: Who'd have thought that Rick Jones' Teen Brigade would be the instigating force behind the creation of The Avengers.
PE: How did The Hulk manage to pass himself off as a robot to his circus bosses? And where did they "find" him? I need answers now.
JS: This reads a bit like every other Thor story with an overabundance of cameo appearances. It's all a bit contrived to get all the characters into the same room at the end and declare themselves 'The Avengers.'
PE: Carrying over the inanity of the Ant-Man strip, a "lone ant" notifies Ant-Man of a really strong robot working at his circus: "Bzzzz, Wow, there's a big green clown carrying a cage of elephants and tigers... bzzzz. Is this our guy? Roger!" Ant-Man then has millions of ants dig directly beneath Hulk/Mechano so that the big clown will sink! These are fast-acting ants.
PE: As with The Fantastic Four, we're given a very weak first issue compared to what we know will transpire in years to come. Ludicrous events, reconstituted dialog, and weak heroes (Ant-Man and The Wasp?) saddle a ho-hum storyline and so-so artwork by The King. In my opinion, The Avengers' "Golden Age" is several years off, when Roy Thomas rescues the book from mediocrity and infuses it with a life and character. That's for another day's blog though.
Tales to Astonish 47
Taking a night off after busting up a diamond robbery, Henry Pym and Janet Van Dyne aka The Astonishing Ant-Man and the equally Wondrous Wasp, take in a hot-blowing trumpet man known as Traco. After the show however, Traco decides his pay is for the birds, man, and robs the theater manager. The tiny terrors take the musician down to the ground with a nasty sting from The Wasp. The manager promises not to press charges as long as the now-unhip blow-master takes a ride on a silver bird to India and stays pat. Not such a good idea since India is home to The Great Ghazandi, a world-famous horn-blower and sorcerer who can hypnotize a cobra with one blow of his trumpet. Ghazandi teaches Traco all he knows and the humiliated trumpet man heads back to the US with an evil plan: he'll blow his way to a radio appearance (you know what I mean) and hypnotize all of New York, leaving the populace helpless while he loots and pillages. This sounds like a job for The Fantastic Four. But they're busy with The Super Skrull so the job will have to get done by the two smallest heroes in the Marvel Universe. Good luck with that.
JS: Ladies and Gentemen, the Zanti Misfits!
PE: Holy coincidence! Henry and Janet are told the story of the great Ghazandi, a "mystic and scholar of ancient phenomena" at the beginning of our adventure and, wouldn't you know it, the thieving trumpeter, Trago, happens to seek out the very same mystic after being banished to India. Zounds! The Marvel Universe was very small in 1963. And, while I'm on the subject of The Great Ghazandi: I never imagined a trumpet to have a hypnotizing effect on anything, let alone a king cobra.
JS: What's with Don Heck's art in this issue? Granted, I'm reading the Ant-Man B&W Essentials, but this had the look and feel of those DC Mystery Books you're always raving about.
PE: Writer H. E. Huntley's dialogue is on the money for 1959, ding-dong daddy-O, but really gone fat cat by 1963. It's hard to believe the generation before mine actually talked like this, yo.
JS: Dude just wants to swing...
PE: Another dastardly, powerful villain done in by wasp stings and the itchiness brought on by ant-bites. When the Marvel heroes got together for a beer on weekends, were these two even invited?
JS: See The Avengers (elsewhere this month)!
PE: Another dreadful Ant-Man story to throw on the fire and keep you warm during a cold winter night. A bit better (but definitely lacking in the original story department) was "The Smiling Gods." Unfortunately, the professors here at the University don't have the time or space to discuss the back-up stories in Strange Tales, Tales of Suspense, and Tales to Astonish. By this time, Strange has gone to a superhero double-feature (and the other two titles will soon follow) and so the science fiction shorts, once a good chunk of Marvel's output, see their heyday coming to a close (only to see a resurrection by Marvel in the early 1970s). But I still read these 5-pagers now and then when they look interesting. Stan Lee and Larry Lieber provide what little story there is to "The Smiling Gods" but it's Lieber's and Matt Fox's striking art that stands out in this long-forgotten piece. Fox contributed 11 fine covers to the Weird Tales pulp in the 1940s and worked his magic on plenty of pre-code horror strips for Marvel. His art looks a lot like that of Basil Wolverton's and, equally, must have been an influence on more than a few underground artists teething on mainstream comics in the early 1960s. Why the hell not give the main strip to Fox? Was his style so radical that kiddies would have been put off by it? Maybe so. Lieber and Fox would team up again this month in Tales of Suspense with the even more Wolverton-esque "I Come From Far Centaurus."
Tales of Suspense 45
After a mishap at a racetrack, Tony Stark is pulled from burning rubble by one Howard "Happy" Hogan, a former boxer turned Good Samaritan. Out of gratitude, Stark offers the job of chauffeur to Hogan. Happy happily accepts. Later, Stark, as Iron Man, discovers Professor Shapanka attempting a robbery from the Stark Vault. He lets the professor go but banishes him from the Stark facility. The professor vows revenge via his experimental immortality serum, which allows Shapanka to transform himself into a giant icicle.
PE: Professor Shapanka proposes ice-suspended life just months before Marvel's most famous popsicle is thawed out in Avengers #4.
JS: An issue that can't get here fast enough, in my opinion.
PE: A peculiar story this. Most of its running time is taken up with introductions of "Happy" Hogan and "Pepper" Potts, a rundown of Iron Man's abilities, and the explanation of the Nutty Professor's experiments. There's also several panels devoted to "Just wait until I get my frozen mitts on Anthony Stark. I can just picture it now!" imaginary action. Not much room for the real action. In fact, Frost is dispatched via a handy dandy "miniature furnace" affixed to Iron Man's belt. Psshew, that was close!
JS: Lest we go a month without another classic character revelation! I do hope that they ditch the rocket roller skates...
PE: Iron Man's Rogue Gallery of Crappy Fourth Tier villains continues with Jack Frost (who narrowly misses being dubbed "The Walking Snowman" by a terrified passerby). Prison must not have reformed Shapanka as more than a decade later he'd return to menace Iron Man with a new suit and moniker (Blizzard, Iron Man #86, May 1976).Three years later (in Iron Man #123), he joined forces with two other lower-tier bad guys, The Melter and Whiplash (whose stock only went up slightly with a screen appearance in Iron Man 2) and has been seen here and there since. I don't see Jack/Blizzard lighting up silver screens any time soon.
JS: Are we sure that's not Bobby Drake of the X-Men moonlighting as Jack Frost?
PE: I must admit to being confused. Is "Kitty" from Page 8 in reality "Pepper" or are these two separate characters? I assume the hard-working R. Berns may not have had a proofreader looking over his shoulder.
JS: Until now...
JS: No, and once again his initial powers are described in such a way that he's darn near invincible.
PE: Our first look at Betty Brant, who hopefully does not do shooters with Jane Foster on a Friday night. And our first hint at a high school crush: Liz.
JS: It seems like Ditko put extra effort into making Liz stand out in every panel she was featured in.
JS: Unsung highlight of the issue—catching JJJ with his pants down.
JS: Somehow I doubt that.
JS: How is it there seems to be no end of this flaming dreck? At least the kids reading Strange Tales back then got the benefit from the back-up stories, that almost assuredly had to be better than these, right?
JS: To me it still feels like he's doing his best Chester Gould...
JS: I noticed that in an ad in The Avengers for Sgt Fury, they likened it to a team book a la The Fantastic Four. Particularly interesting in that here we are, almost 50 years later segregating it from the superhero titles of the day.