Wednesday, October 12, 2011

May 1964: Cross-Over Time!

Fantastic Four #26

Our Story

Continuing his heated battle with The Hulk from last issue, The Thing is learning very quickly that his green foe seems to grow stronger as he fights. Alas, the same cannot be said for Ben Grimm. Luckily, help arrives in the form of his three teammates. Reed is fighting a deadly virus and Johnny is recovering from his solo battle with The Hulk, so there's not much in the way of reinforcements until The Avengers show up on the scene. The new supergroup (now fronted by Captain America) still feel responsible for The Hulk's latest rampage and they'd like to talk a bit of sense into the big lug. He's not listening. Despite several lapses in superhero etiquette, the two teams manage to form one powerful dynamo against Greenskin.

PE: Acting the usual hothead he is, Johnny Storm flames on inside a hospital, ostensibly frying his roommates in their beds. What hospital stocks asbestos bandaging?

JS: Though not reported, several hundred people were killed on the train when Hulk defied physics and stopped it dead in its tracks.

PE: Time and again this issue we're reminded that too many cooks in the kitchen spoil the meal. The FF and Avengers constantly stumble over each other in battle while Hulk stands off to the side and laughs at them. My laughter followed when we're treated to a two-page burst of panels displaying Giant-Man accidentally stumbling into Sue Storm's invisible field, Mister Fantastic lassoing Iron Man instead of The Hulk, and Thor's hammer finding The Thing rather than the green goliath. Really, Stan, we get the picture. But, no, he's not finished. A few panels later, the two groups are fighting over who should go after The Hulk. Time for something novel: a team that gets along.

JS: I was less amused by the Three Stooges slapstick encounters. By the second panel, it was too much. And lo, the dead horse beating continued.

PE: The first of the multi-title and issue crossovers that would soon make Marvel famous, this storyline continues in this month's Avengers.

JS: Please tell me it gets better...

Tales of Suspense #53

Our Story

After a respite of, well actually no respite at all, Iron Man's most deadly female Russian super-spy nemesis, Natasha Romanova, aka The Black Widow, returns to America to attempt to get back into the good graces of her (COMMIE ALERT!!) Russkie boss. Using her female charm, she steals Tony Stark's brand new Super Anti-Grav device (so top secret that Stark himself doesn't have the formula) and prepares to head back to the motherland. Not quite trusting his chief spy, The Black Widow's boss sends his henchmen to assist her in destroying Iron Man and, once the hero has been vanquished, robbing Fort Knox. Iron Man thwarts her plan but The Black Widow manages to escape yet again.

PE: Tony Stark, super-genius brain, lets his little head do the thinking yet again. How is it that these superhero types can be so dumb? Later we find out that Tony was playing possum to find out what The Black Widow was up to. Yeah, right.

JS: Blame Heck's art. If Black Widow looked like Kirby's Sue Storm, do you think Stark would give her the time of day? It's a nice change of pace that Widow starts off without the normal ever-growing arsenal of super powers, nor a fancy costume. Welcome to the real world? Except for the tin man, of course.

PE: I've a feeling Don Heck was more rushed than usual this issue as there are a plethora of panels with no backgrounds. Seemingly, Tony Stark works in furniture-less rooms with blue wall paint and white floors.

JS: I've seen much worse by others. Frankly, I'm more forgiving of that when the art that is there looks good (as it does here).

PE: Several lapses in reasoning here: At one point, Tony Stark stops to ponder "how strange it is" that he's come to depend upon his armor to keep him alive. Strange in what way? He crafted the suit to keep him alive in the first place.

JS: If you were building a suit to keep you alive, wouldn't you run it on something other than batteries that need a constant recharge?

PE: Also, does Iron Man toss a car at a high rise building? I hope he checked to make sure there was no one around below (or in the car itself!). An entire building falls on Shellhead and his special miniature armor transistors enable him to lift the structure off himself. If he's got that kind of strength, who needs Thor or Captain America in The Avengers?

PE: There are two other Suspenseful Tales this issue: the first, an enjoyable sf/alien invasion tale by Lieber and Bell called "The Omen"with an ironic twist in its finale; and in "The Way It Began" we find out how the race of The Watchers came to be all-seeing but no-intruding. It's a fine piece of writing by Larry Lieber and, like "The Omen," has a nice ironic turn of events to cap its story.

The Amazing Spider-Man #12

Our Story

Doctor Octopus has returned after a very short hiatus. The mad genius is convinced that he can no longer continue his winning ways without looking over his shoulder for Spider-Man every minute. He kidnaps Betty Brant and lies in wait for our human arachnid. Peter Parker, meanwhile, is struck with a nasty virus that has affected his super powers. Nevertheless, he confronts Ock in an amusement park where the Doc makes short order of him, climaxing the slaughter with an unmasking in front of J. Jonah Jameson and Betty Brant. Fortunately for our hero, everyone concerned decides that it's just Peter Parker trying to help his sweetie in her time of need. Furious, Doctor Octopus storms away but swears he'll get that no-good Spidey yet.
He wastes no time concocting another plan, this time involving escaped zoo animals, but that plan, much like all his others, is for naught. A rested and re-invigorated Peter Parker dons his costume and puts the beat-down on Doc Ock in a fiery climax.

PE: I'm not sure I follow Doctor Octopus' motivation in this story. He's committing several crimes, not for the lucre but to draw out Spidey. Ock's reasoning is that he can't be a successful criminal as long as Spider-Man is around. Huh? How about committing the crime and going back into hiding as most criminals do?

JS: Where's the fun in that. Wasn't it in the M. Night Shamalamadingdong movie that Mr. Glass described his existence as a supervillain tied to the existence of a superhero? Basically, without Spider-Man, Doc Ock's life would be boring.

PE: When Doc Ock invades Jonah's office and takes Betty Brant hostage in front of Peter and JJJ, it brings up an interesting moral dilemma, one that several other heroes, before this adventure and after, have to face. Do you sacrifice the life of an individual (in this instance, Betty Brant) by not displaying super powers, so that you safeguard your secret identity? Not sure I'd be able to rein in my muscle if the woman I loved were being crushed in metal tentacles, alias be damned.

JS: Peter, you're my hero. But clearly you're not a Marvel Superhero. Have you learned nothing from Peter Parker? Doc Blake?  Tony Stark? Besides, it will be years before super villains start killing off girlfriends, right?

PE: I had to wonder what else was in that Extra edition Jonah had to publish besides the plea to Spider-Man. Were there extra ads to generate more dough for the JJJ empire? The latest box scores? Would it simply be a one-page "special edition" that ostensibly only Doc Ock and Spider-Man would buy? I really need to know these things.

JS: Our 'animals on the loose' interlude served no purpose other than suggesting that perhaps Spider-Man didn't need a title of his own just yet.

PE: Unlike last issue where nothing really happened but happened really slow, this adventure is a corker. The unmasking of Spider-Man is built up perfectly. Stan and Steve throw seeds down in our introductory pages and let the ideas grow into something that feels completely natural rather than the standard "dream" or "cheat" unmasking tale. We can feel Ock's anger and disgust that this kid thought he could fool a genius. Brilliant!

JS: And yet not for a second does anyone believe he's Spider-Man. How about the costume, folks? Does it look like a cheap knock-off he had his Aunt make for him?

PE: Such a cynic, Professor John! Well, even you won't be able to complain about the triple-shot of iconic Spidey villains about to be unleashed on the Marvel Universe. Stay Tuned!

The X-Men #5

Our Story

From their outer space headquarters, Magneto and his Evil Mutant brothers continue to plague the X-Men and their near-comatose leader, Professor X. Cracks seem to be showing in the villain team however when Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver face off against their boss. Seems Magneto had promised never to harm another mutant and he's vowing to go back on his word now. Luckily for Magneto, The Toad and The Mastermind have no problem disposing of X-Men. A dazzling dispute aboard the flying rock climaxes this tale of adventure and danger.

PE: We get another "day in the danger room" but at least this one's a bit different. Scott (Cyclops) Summers is accidentally locked into the room and finds himself facing the workout of The Beast. A much better display of what goes on in the Danger Room than the usual gymnastics and team disagreements. In a nice finish, Cyclops decides that it would be to his advantage to just open up his glasses and destroy the obstacle hurled at him.

JS: As I mentioned before, I do love the sleazy looking Mastermind. While this is in part due to the role he'll play in the future, there's something particularly creepy about the guy in the trench coat, considering the rest of the Brotherhood are all dressed up in silly costumes. And he conjures a wacky creature, I assume from his own twisted imagination. Good stuff!

PE: It's nice to know that in the early Marvel Age, the Villain superteams quarrel almost as much as the good guys.

JS: Fortunately, theirs lacks some of the pointless bickering we've become used to. As you noted above, it's interesting to see Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch turning against Magneto, particularly knowing their history that will be revealed over time.

PE: We get our first look at Magneto's headquarters. Very impressive, it's a huge building built into an asteroid hovering above the earth. I've got a few question concerning the erection of this great hidey-ho (yeah, he can control metal but a building in an asteroid above the earth?) but it's great to look at, compliments of King Kirby. A good installment in the early X-Men saga, marred only by a silly final reveal (we learn that Dr. X was not hurt last issue, he was merely playing possum to see if his pupils could act on their own). I've said it before and I'll doubtless say it again. Kirby looks like he was shifting into third gear on his stationery ten-speed. His other-world dazzle and depth is on display all through this story.

JS: I think the Professor was just saving face. After vaulting head first into the wall last issue, and being migrated near-comatose at the start of this one, who are you going to believe?

PE: The title gets its first letters page, "Let's Visit the X-Men" (hereon referred to as "the letters page"). Mary Ann McClain of Royal Oak, Michigan swings for the fence in her first foray into fandom by letting Stan and Jack know that "You may be conceited but you sure can write good stories and your artwork is the best!" Damning praise indeed. In the announcements section, Stan exclaims that letters pages will also appear in The Avengers and Sgt. Fury.

Journey Into Mystery #104

“When Giants Walk The Earth”

Our Story

At the advice of Loki, Odin journeys to Midgard (the Asgardian name for Earth). His purpose: to assert his dissatisfaction in person with Thor for his continued love of mortal Jane Foster. Having been infused by Odin with a portion of the all-father’s power to rule Asgard in his absence, Loki plans to see to it that he never has to give up the throne. The god of mischief frees Skagg the storm giant and Surter the fire demon, both of whom had been imprisoned by Odin in ages past, and will be eager to seek revenge. Heimdall overhears Loki’s plan to send these deadly foes to Earth, and summons Balder the Brave to warn Thor and Odin. Balder arrives in time, and Odin uses his power to bring time to a halt and transport humanity to another dimension so as not to be witness to or victims of the battle to be. Balder shatters Skagg’s war club, but the giant dispatches Balder with a titanic funnel of ocean water. Surter enters the fray, knocking Thor into the ocean. Balder and Thor reach shore safely, as Odin causes the ocean bottom to soften and Skagg begins to sink. Surter uses his flame to harden the ocean bottom to rock, thus rescuing his ally. While Skagg keeps the Asgardians busy, Surter journeys to the North Pole to melt the polar ice cap and cover the continents with water. Watching from afar, Loki reinforces Skagg’s power, and Odin is exhausted by the time the Asgardians finally defeat the storm giant. Thor’s only hope in catching Surter in time is to use Odin’s sword to wield its great power, and hurtle Surter into space, where the magnetic force of a huge asteroid imprisons the fire demon once again. Returning Skagg to his prison of an eternal circle of flame, and resuming time as it was, Odin takes Balder and returns to Asgard, where he banishes Loki to serve the trolls until further notice.
The Tales Of Asgard relates to us how Heimdall won the role of Guardian of the Rainbow Bridge, with his sight and hearing that can cross the universe.

JB: We’re treated to the new cover logo this issue, with “The Mighty Thor” becoming the dominant words over Journey Into Mystery. Finally next issue JIM will be a full eighteen pages for the main story

PE: Was Stan setting up Odin as a villain in these early tales? It seems that way. He spends most of the time whining about Jane Foster becoming his daughter-in-law (which, when I think of it, is something to complain about) and seeking council from his evil son, Loki.

JS: I thought it was a nice twist for Odin to go to Earth, and while knowing that gave Loki an opportunity to do no good, things got wrapped up rather quickly (a single panel for Loki's punishment?).

JB: Will Odin never learn? He’s so blinded by his determination to rid Thor of Jane Foster that he listens to Loki again! But once the story is underway, it’s fantastic to see father and son put their differences aside and battle two foes worthy of their power. Odin can bring time to a halt and transport the entire human race elsewhere, but a little while ago (JIM # 95) he couldn’t even cause it to rain on the crops of Asgard—this is more like it!

PE: The quality of romance in this issue makes me want to go back and read all those issues of My Love Romance that I've been skipping.

JS: Sure you have. I think you're reading them, and just ashamed to be writing about them...

PE: We learn in this issue that, according to Thor, aside from Odin, only "Odin's son can wield... the sword of Odin." Does that go for Loki as well?

JS: I'm sure that if it moves the plot forward, it's likely to be an announced power soon.

PE: Despite the fact that Odin is alerted to Loki's treachery and he believes Thor to be brave and handsome and really cool, I get the feeling that, like a TV sitcom, we'll start back at square one next issue with Odin bemoaning his son's love for a mortal and Loki, with a gleaming smile, taking advantage of his father's obvious memory lapses. There's no real sense of going from Point A to Point B.

JS: I'd be curious what the standard practice was back in the day.  Were folks following these titles month to month? Or whenever they could find it on the newsstand?

PE: Tales of Asgard presents the story of how Heimdall became the guardian of Asgard. Heimdall's always been a favorite Thor character of mine and it was nice to see him play a substantial role in the summer blockbuster film (as portrayed by the brilliant Idris Elba).

JB: Herald the return of Balder the Brave, whose look is somewhat consistent hereafter. Balder develops into a character of interesting ethical dilemmas over the years, as we’ll see. Sadly, he wasn't in the new Thor movie. I agree with you Pete, about Idris Elba's performance as Heimdall.

Strange Tales #120

The Human Torch

Our Story

The Torch is hanging around with the FF reading the paper and remarking that he'd like to meet The Iceman, from The X-Men, who is described by a reporter as a frozen version of the Human Torch. Meanwhile, the Iceman is bored and lonely, so he decides to take a boat tour around New York City to meet some swingin' teen chicks. On the boat in disguise as Bobby Drake, he hits on Doris Evans, but Johnny Storm tells him to beat it. Pirates board the ship, intent on robbing the passengers. Led by The Barracuda, they battle The Torch and The Iceman, who actually cooperate and seem to respect each other. They manage to defeat the pirates and The Iceman scoots away without even a goodbye.
Jack: This Torch installment was a big step up from last issue's Rabble Rouser tale. The Kirby art is not bad either, after a steady diet of Dick Ayers.

JS: Okay. Technically speaking, it's a step up from Rabble Rouser. But it's a long way from that to 'good.'

Jack: I was surprised that Johnny and Bobby did not find some contrived reason to dislike each other. Johnny is pretty mature for a change.

JS: Someone get Spider-Man on the horn! And Rick Jones' Teen Brigade!

Jack: By the way, Peter, Iceman's guest appearance is through courtesy of X-Men magazine.

JS:  Can I just say how thrilled I am that Iceman finally lost his booties?

Dr. Strange

Our story

A TV news reporter decides to spend a night in a haunted house to prove that it's not haunted. Dr. Strange hangs around with the crowd outside to see what happens and decides to intervene when the reporter gets in trouble. Using his magic powers, Dr. Strange gains entrance and frees the reporter, who has been trapped in a mystic realm. It turns out that the house itself is alive, having come here from another space-time continuum to observe us. Dr. Strange banishes the house and it disappears, much to the surprise of the crowd outside.

Jack: This story is just plain dopey and reminds me of an earlier Strange Tales filler where a spaceship that everyone thought was empty turns out to be the alien itself.

JS: I thought we were on track to find out the only thing haunting the house was Doc Strange's spectral form.

Jack: Dr. Strange must be bored--instead of shoving his way through the crowd he calls on The Omnipotent Oshtur to make the crowd part before him. Come on, isn't he a New Yorker? Start shoving!

JS: I still find the least of the Doc Strange tales far superior to the best of the Torch tales.

The Avengers #5

Our Story

After a battle royale with The Hulk (see Fantastic Four #26 this month), The Avengers decide they need a little time to themselves and split up to do what heroes do in their spare time: train, invent military weapons, and explore anthills. The group's downtime doesn't last long though as a mysterious sound wrecks havoc across the Southwest. Convinced that the menace must be Hulk-related, The Avengers Assemble. Meanwhile, Bruce Banner is doing his best to get to the bottom of a mountain that has suddenly appeared in the middle of Thunderbolt Ross' test site. Turns out the sound and the mountain both emanate from the Lava Men (last seen in Journey Into Mystery #97-Pernicious Pete), rulers of the Earth's Core (though The Mole Man might have something to say about that). There's a really explosive chunk of rock the boys are trying to foist onto the surface world before it blows and they figure they'll take over the world when the dust settles. Add the sudden reappearance of The Hulk and you have one busy group of superheroes.

PE: How many Lava men are named Molto down there? Think about it. That's like one of us with the name Huma.

JS: Except I don't know a single person named Huma.

PE: I'm not buying that Captain America would invite Rick Jones along on these deadly missions. I realize that he's obsessed with the kid because he reminds him of Bucky but Rick hasn't been trained and would just get in the way. Why aren't the other Avengers raising this point? And while we're on the subject of Captain America: we haven't really had a chance to discuss the man in stars and stripes. Everything about Cap, to me, seems realistic (well, you know, in a comic book way) except that magical shield. I can accept that maybe, like a boomerang, it can make a circle and somehow find its way back to Cap but what about when the shield makes three or four pit stops along the way, knocking out villains and disturbing rock formations, and then finds the hand of Captain America, even when he's not standing in the same spot he was when he let it fly? A little too much for me to believe even amidst lava men and super groups with worthless members like The Wasp! I love Cap anyway, don't get me wrong. One of my favorites. I'm just asking.

JS: I'm actually okay with the super shield's antics. Write it off as a Stark Industries invention. I was concerned that the Cap was doomed once he got 'cinderized.'  I guess if you can survive being frozen for decades, you can survive just about anything.

PE: Betty Brant continues to vie with Jane Foster as dimmest female bulb in the Marvel Universe. Her boyfriend, Bruce Banner disappears from sight when The Hulk shows up, she finds Banner later in the desert wearing the same purple pants that the Green Goliath wore and all she can do is curse that stinkin' green slob for messin' with her man!

JS: Save those complaints for his own book. This is The Avengers, not Many Loves of The Avengers. I do have a bit of a problem when you get an entire super-team at ground zero during an explosion, and other than being scattered about, not a single casualty among them.

PE: On the brand-spankin' new letters' page ("All About the Avengers"), Alan Weiss makes his first contribution to The Avengers. A decade later, he'd be contributing pencils to Captain America, Iron Man, and The Avengers as well. At the time, Weiss had no idea he'd be drawing his favorite title but he certainly had opinions as to who was the best Marvel hero: Sub-Mariner.

Tales to Astonish #55

Our Story

Giant-Man, his partner, The Wasp, and a handful of their fan club members are viewing "old newsreels" of their battles with The Human Top, musing that it's lucky he's still in jail. Coincidentally, across town, The Top stages a jailbreak, robs a bank and then manages to steal a supply of Hank Pym's grow-bigger pills. Suddenly The Human Top is the Humongous Top.

PE: Wouldn't it be great, just once, if our heroes are thinking how they were beaten to a standstill by Doctor Doom and thank the lord he's still in the pokey when Mister Hyde breaks down the door? Really, in most of these adventures, if the costumed crimefighter would just not linger on his golden battles, he'd have a lot more free time on his hands. Same thing with Reed Richards while I'm off topic. Don't invent a matter-anti-particle dust beam ray because, nine times out of ten, the same day you'll have to use it!

JS: When you're going up against the Human Top for the 1st, 3rd, 5th or 20th time... it becomes clear that the writer doesn't have much left to say. Hard to believe that this is the same Stan 'The Man' whose creations are still kicking butt and taking names 50 years later.

PE: I still shake my head when I think of a fan club for Giant-Man. I mean, I can understand Iron Man, Cap or Thor. But a guy who can shrink or get big but really can't do anything else? I'd rather join The Human Top fan club if I'm pushed.

JS: I think those members just wanted to get closer to Wasp.

PE: Just for kicks, it seems, Giant Man becomes really giant and jumps out his window, trying out some new acrobatic moves. Only trouble is, the panel that "heroic" Dick Ayers draws is a bit confusing and it appears that Hank Pym has taken a bigger dose of the pill than he should have. Look out for those pedestrians, Hank!

Compliment or complaint?
PE: Our large hero arrives at the bank to find a milling crowd. Not wanting to step on any of the panicked bank customers, he does the most sensible thing: he takes a super-small shrink pill and races in between their feet. That's what I'd do, rather than shrink to Normal-man size and comfortably walk into the bank. The added challenge of avoiding a squishing keeps me far from boredom. As Professor John brilliantly hypothesized in a previous lecture, the continual swallowing of big pills, then little pills, then normal pills, sometimes several in a few panels, has to be screwing up Hank Pym's system. I've not read too many Marvel Comics published since the 1970s, but I wouldn't be surprised if a writer like Neil Gaiman or Grant Morrison concocted a tale where Hank Pym's system revolted against him, ala David Cronenberg's The Fly. Hey, the fact that I'm actually finding something of interest related to Hank Pym is a revelation. The only thing keeping me reading this strip (outside of duty) is turning the corner now and then to some sheer idiocy (this issue being the fast-munching termites that soften up a roof just in time for The Top to fall through)!

JS: I think you're losing your mind. It's all duty.

PE: Three time up to bat and three times the Human Top strikes out against the extremely mediocre powers of Giant Man and The Wonderful Wasp. Perhaps he should try Thor or The Hulk next time?

Also this month

Kid Colt Outlaw #116
Millie the Model #120
Sgt Fury and His Howling Commandos #7
Two-Gun Kid #69


"The Court-Martial of Sergeant Fury" (Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos #7) continues the string of well-written and intricately drawn war stories by Stan and Jack. Fury finds himself under the command of a boyhood acquaintance (the kids were anything but chummy) when he snaps and attacks the lieutenant. The reasoning behind the incident is lost to Nick as he seems to have a bout of amnesia after a mortar goes off near him. The officer brings Nick up on charges of insubordination and Fury faces a court-martial trial. With the exception of the rushed, pat ending, this is another gripping story with the best dialogue in comics at the time.

The Two-Gun Kid faces the strongest and most orneriest cuss he's ever met: "The Bad-Man Called Goliath" (#69). Able to tear wooden tables in two and rip jail bars from their windows, Goliath terrorizes the town, crushing both Two-Gun and Boom Boom beneath his mighty paws. Once the town is under his control, Goliath decides to take a wife. Coincidentally it's lawyer Matt Hawk's girlfriend, Miss Nancy Carter who Goliath takes a shine to. Since Matt Hawk moonlights as Two-Gun Kid, we know this unholy betrothal will not come to pass. Still, there are some tense moments in our climax when the big ox tries to kill Two-Gun by tossing a lantern at him and setting a blaze. Caught in the fire, Goliath is saved by our gunslingin' hombre hero but, alas, the smoke and fire have left the giant blind. In a priceless final panel, we see our blind behemoth stumbling off into the sunset, ostensibly with enhanced smell, touch, and hearing.

Hell of a kick!
Meanwhile, our favorite misunderstood outlaw, Kid Colt, rides into the sparsely-populated town of River Bend and faces "Doctor Danger and The Invisible Man" (Kid Colt Outlaw #116). For some reason, the Doctor has decided he wants to become sheriff of River Bend and his "invisible pard" will help him attain that goal through fear and intimidation at the polls. It's finally revealed, in a bloated expository sequence, that Doctor Danger is a paroled ventriloquist with a knack for making magnets do impossible things. The reveal is idiotic since we witness a scene where the Doctor is alone, save his see-through mate, and yet carries on a conversation with the invisible gunfighter. What, no panel to explain that the Doctor has lost his marbles? Stan Lee continues to show his hand as far as the westerns go: he's plum out of ideas for tales of range wars and dirty deputies and feels the need to inject science fiction and superhero elements into his oaters. Time for some new writers, I think. I won't peek but I have to say that, since the western titles went on for more than a decade longer, either the new blood eventually showed up or these little ditties got more outlandish by the year.

Don't forget to tune in to Matthew R. Bradley's "Snapshots" this Sunday morning!

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