Wednesday, December 28, 2011

April 1965: Can a Marvel Villain Really Die?

Daredevil 7

Our story

Prince Namor sits on his Atlantean throne and hears Warlord Krang demand another attack on the surface-dwellers. Sub-Mariner agrees to present their demands to the human race. Namor travels to New York and bursts into the law offices of Nelson and Murdock. He tries to hire them to sue humanity but they tell him it’s a fruitless case.

Namor then wreaks havoc across New York, figuring that he will be captured and brought to trial. Daredevil, dressed in his snazzy new all-red costume, gives chase. They fight on land and under the sea; Daredevil is beaten but Subby spares him, admiring his valor. Namor then gives up and allows himself to be jailed, hoping for a trial and a forum.

Justice is too slow for the Atlantean, though, and he breaks out, leading to another long fight with the Man Without Fear. Subby wins again and departs to quell Krang’s rebellion. Murdock and Nelson are happy to lose him as a client!

Dorma gets my vote for
babe of the month!
Jack: Despite Wally Wood’s flawless draftsmanship, this story is a bit . . . wooden. Daredevil is really no match for Sub-Mariner.

MB:  If I remember my vintage Mad comics correctly, a gag graffito there read, "When better drawrings are drawrn, they're drawrn by Wood," and his artwork in this issue—introducing DD's trademark devil-red suit—is a revelation after a steady diet of cartoony Ditko and hit-or-miss Kirby/inker combos.  Setting aside the intrinsic implausibility of Namor thinking he could sue the entire surface world, the story is a corker as well, reminding me of a much later issue in which Energizer Hornhead took an even worse pounding from the Hulk but refused to throw in the towel.  It's interesting that Subby uses the phrase "puny humans" just four months before he starts sharing space in Astonish with Greenskin, who made it his own, and amazing to note the respect afforded to DD by the various, shall we say, establishment figures, a level of acceptance that Spidey could only dream of! 

Subby's lawyer told him to wear a suit to court.

JS: I'm glad to see DD don the red duds. Now things just feel right.

Jack: Where are all of the rest of the Marvel Super Heroes while Namor destroys New York? In another dimension? Poor Daredevil has to go it alone!

PE: I love how (COINCIDENCE ALERT!!) Subby heads into town looking for a lawyer and, in a town stifled with ambulance chasers, inadvertently picks Matt Murdock out of a shoebox. Who'da thunk? From the dopey scenario of Namor suing the human race to the sight of Daredevil using a TV antenna to propel himself onto a low-flying plane, I don't think this was advertised on the splash page as having come from the House of Ideas. I know this is a strip about a blind man turned masked hero, but there has to be some grounding in reality now and then. The sight of DD letting go of the plane high above the streets and "calculating" where a traffic light is located below goes far beyond science fiction into another genre: comedy

Eenie Meenie Miney...

More romance pap!
Jack: I must have missed some explanation, because I can’t figure out why Sub-Mariner has different-colored skin than the rest of his undersea people, not to mention wearing way fewer clothes! No wonder Sue Storm faints when she sees him.

PE: Krang is just Loki spelled sideways. The relation between Namor and Dorma is a much-needed shot in the arm for Marvel romance. No "I wonder if she loves me" here. this guy's the real Chauvinist deal! I wonder if Atlantis gets the football games on Sunday.

The Amazing Spider-Man 23

Our Story

In his bid to become "king of the mobsters," The Green Goblin is aiding the police in bringing down Lucky Lobo's gang. Once Lucky's in the pokey, The Goblin will ease into his throne atop the underworld. The Green Menace even has Spider-Man wondering whether his old foe has gone straight until Spidey follows The Goblin into Lucky's den, where he find he's been set up. Lucky confesses to the wall-crawler that The Goblin only wants to take over his racket and everything seems to be a little clearer for our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.

Wertham would have a field day with this nose
PE: The Goblin is still a happy go lucky villain, along the lines of the pre-1970s Joker, with no trace yet of the insanity that will manifest itself in years to come. A reader of Spidey at the time might view The Goblin as just another costumed criminal (indeed, a second-tier foe at that) since there's nothing abnormal in the way he goes about his business. He's still just Stan Lee's answer to The Joker.

Jack: I thought the subplots with Aunt May and Betty Brant were more interesting than the main story this time around.

PE: The continuous blows to the head suffered by Spider-Man must be causing Peter Parker to have lapses of memory. He was around when Ned Leeds headed off to Europe several issues ago and he also knew Betty was dating Leeds. Now Parker (or Stan) acts like he was never with the program. So sad. What's worse is that this can only mean a resuming of the "does she love me, I wish he loved me" that we've been able to avoid for several issues. Well, I just hope Peter can straighten things out with Pepper Betty. Love stinks!

MB: The Goblin (looking a little more elfin, to my eyes, than in later years) is already showing himself to be one of Web-Head’s most persistent foes, and it’s always fun to see garden-variety gangsters in the mix along with super-villains.  This issue not only epitomizes the banter that, I believe, helped set Spidey et alia apart from their Distinguished Competition back in the day—along with woes like the wet-costume thing—but also provides a payoff when Gobby grouses, “Blast you!  You talk so much, you get me all confused!”  Worth the price of admission alone, though, is the scene where Spidey casually webs himself into a room and calls Aunt May to let her know he’ll be late.  Per a certain Mr. Lee, “Who says this isn’t the Marvel Age of Comics?”

PE: I believe the same outfit that helps The X-Men with titling fight maneuvers ("execute J-3/2+7= 46hike")  assists the police department with their highly secretive plans of attack ("Alert the Special Forces Squad! Follow Operation R for Raid!").

PE: Steve Ditko's sudden problems with the human face are still around but not so glaring this issue. Betty's eyes and nose are still completely out of whack (see panel to the left) but she at least looks human, if not attractive. If I didn't know better, I'd say Ned Leeds had already come back and was roughing Betty up.

Jack: As I was reading this issue, I kept thinking that Ditko draws the Goblin much better than he draws humans!

JS: Maybe we're giving Steve too much credit. Maybe the Goblin was supposed to look like a normal human, too...

PE: I like the climax to this adventure. The Goblin runs out of toys in his magic bag at the same time Spidey's web-shooters run dry. The wall-crawler decides to throw caution to the wind and make a death-defying leap at The Goblin while the maniac is flying away on his scooter. Bad decision. And while we're on the subject of the scooter, there's a strange situation going on in one of the first panels of this issue: The Goblin is seen talking to Lucky in the mobster's hideout, scooter attached to his feet. Can he walk with that contraption around his ankles and, if he tries, will he shuffle like a guy with his trousers down?

Jack: I think he hops.

PE: On the letters page, future outre monster artist Pete von Sholly discusses the similarities in plots "in issues 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 9, 12, 13, 15, and 17: Spider-Man would fight the villain, be seemingly defeated, go and attend to his Peter Parker activities for a while, and go back to beat the villain." Very observant, little Pete! Also on this page comes a letter suggesting that Spider-Man is 1/too powerful, 2/ "becoming too normal (ugh)" now that he doesn't have as many problems, and 3/ losing his identity as Peter Parker. The letter-writer suggest that if Marvel follows his suggestions, the title will improve "to the highest degree." When he grows a little older (13 years older to be exact), 13 year-old James Shooter will be able to take his suggestions and ram them down the throats of anyone working at Marvel when he becomes their editor-in-chief.

Strange Tales 131

The Thing and The Human Torch

Our Story

The Torch and the Thing happen to be driving onto a New York City bridge when a support cable snaps; their presence on the scene allows them to repair the cable and avoid any loss of life. The bridge failure was no accident, however. It was part of a plan carefully worked out by the Mad Thinker to rob a bank! He develops a metallic bowling ball that he will use to defeat Johnny and Ben. Planting the Bouncing Ball of Doom at a newly constructed dam, the Mad Thinker has it attack our heroes and nearly destroy the dam, but in the end the Torch and Thing use their powers to destroy the gizmo and save the day.

PE: I love how the Thinker is always wrong when it has anything to do with our heroes. As I've commented about this sixth-tier villain before (and I'm sure he could tell you right now that I'll say it again in the future): if he's so good at predicting the future, he'd know a prison cell or a pole vault into outer space or being zapped into neurons or whatever Stan has awaiting him at the climax is what's gonna happen. He just doesn't take that one extra calculation that a real "Thinker" would. It is amusing that he pulls the old "Is that a crack in your new dam" trick on the structure's architect (all alone atop the dam with no guards!) to avert his attention. Quick "thinking"! Dam security must be a new concept.

Jack: The Mad Thinker later got a job with the US Dept. of Homeland Security.

PE: I'll 'fess up. Usually when I research the villains while writing for MU, I check Wikipedia as it's a good source for factoids. After reading this "adventure," I looked up the "evil bouncing bowling ball of The Mad Thinker" and honestly cannot tell you its next appearance in the Marvel Universe. The only good thing I can say about this sty-ready slop is that the countdown to the end is now 3.

Jack: Reading this and reading Giant-Man this month really demonstrate the importance of the inker. Bob Powell inked by Dick Ayers looks terrible, but Bob Powell inked by Vince Colletta looks pretty sharp. This leads me to some thoughts about Jack Kirby, which I'll get back to soon after I pull out an old issue of The Comics Journal.

PE: As a funny aside, we professors notice things as Monday morning quarterbacks that the audience in 1965 might have possibly overlooked. In just about every letter column in April 1965's titles, a letter writer mentions how hilarious Marvel's Monsters to Laugh With magazine is and asks why doesn't Stan hype it more often? For the most part Stan seems to want to divert attention from the 'zine and give us the old "well, we're very proud of that magazine but we're here to talk about our comic titles, aren't we?" jive. If he doesn't want MTLW mentioned, don't print the letters. The pessimist in me points out that Stan actually had several writers conjuring up "Letters to the Editor" missives and several of those got published. I would assume that 95% of the "fans" raving about the nuances in the storytelling of The Thing and The Human Torch were actually phantoms. Mailing certificate here states that Strange Tales was selling an average of 214,800 copies a month in 1964.

Jack: Thus proving yet again that quality and sales figures do not go hand in hand.

Dick Ayers, please come home. All is forgiven.

Doctor Strange

Our Story

Dressed in civilian garb, Dr. Strange races through the streets of Hong Kong, fighting Mordo’s minions when he can’t avoid them. He manages to board a plane and get out of town before he is spotted.

MB:  Stan and Steve keep the tension simmering with this exciting chase through Hong Kong.  The narrower focus—on both a single city and a single question, i.e., will Doc be able to buy some time to regroup?—makes for a refreshing change of pace from our previous installment.  We savor more of Mordo’s wraiths, Doc’s fisticuffs, and his multiple-body illusion (this time with a twist), while getting the very cool sense that all of this mystic jazz goes on right under the metaphoric noses of an unsuspecting populace.  “Back, you carrion!”  Wow…

JS: I was enjoying the fugitive on the run aspect of this tale, and then when Strange hid in the cargo box I thought it started to fall apart. Okay, fine, Strange gets on the plane. And sure, one of Mordo's spirit henchmen gets on the plane. But when suddenly we've got an army of spirit henchmen following the plane? And Strange escapes by changing his spirit form outfit? If I pretend he got away by making it to the plane, this chapter of the larger tale is much more palatable.

Jack: If anyone else whiles away their Sunday evenings watching The Amazing Race, this Dr. Strange episode must have seemed awfully familiar!

Fantastic Four 37

Our Story

While making plans for their upcoming wedding, Sue Storm informs Reed Richards that she just can't go on knowing that the Skrulls responsible for her father's murder (back in FF 32- Pesky Pete) are still cruising the solar system unpunished. Coincidentally, the aforementioned scoundrels are, at this moment, stirring up trouble in another galaxy. Reed convinces NASA to loan him a rocket ship and the Four head off for Skrull Planet to bring the bad guys to justice. When they land in Skrullville however, they find that they've mysteriously lost their powers and are taken before Morrat, the warrior Skrull responsible for the death of Dr. Storm. Morrat is planning to overthrow the King of Skrulls and rule over the entire planet.  Through some advanced trickery, Reed is able to win his team's skills back and thwart the plans of the treacherous Morrat. During the battle, the warrior is killed in friendly fire and Sue gets her pound of flesh. On to the hair salon!
PE: That Reed is one heck of a romancer. You take a girl flowers but you don't tell her you just took them out of a vase in the living room! I appreciate saving a buck like the next guy, only don't 'fess up to it.

Jack: Is this the first great issue of FF? Great Kirby art, great dialog, great story--best Marvel comic I've read in awhile!

PE: Though I yield to no one in my respect for you, Professor Jack, I must disagree. This comes off as just another in the seemingly endless string of unimaginative yarns falling off the Marvel conveyor belt. Though I have no doubt greatness is on the horizon, we ain't there yet (in my humble opinion). Piggy-backing on your question about Namor and his skin color (in Daredevil 7), why does Morrat look so much different than his Skrull brethren? And why would he name such a cool-looking weapon a "Demolo-gun"? New ability for The Torch alert! Johnny can create a "vacuum spout" with his flame that can transport his teammates from one place to another without so much as a singed hair. I'd like to be a fly on the wall when he first tests these abilities out. 

MB:  I’m flummoxed that after almost 40 issues, Kirby doesn’t have a consistent look for the FF, assuming it’s he rather than Chic Stone who is having the off day here.  On page 4, panel 3, Ben resembles Quasimodo, with one drooping eye, and in a half-dozen panels on that page and the following one, he looks like he could be six different characters.  The story is rather pat, yet if nothing else, it reminds us that Reed is not only a brilliant scientist but also a masterful tactician, saving the four with his clever Br’er Rabbit routine regarding the use of the power-ray.

PE: Even though King Skrull is indebted to the Four for saving his daughter's life and vows never to attack earth again, I'm not buying it. All it'll take is a slow day in the Marvel Bullpen to break this truce.

The Avengers 15

Our Story

Tired of hanging out in the jungle playing ping pong with the natives, Baron Zemo decides it's high time to re-assemble his Masters of Evil and attack the titular super-group. Zemo has his goons kidnap Rick Jones to lure Captain America to his base while the remaining Avengers have their hands full fighting The Enchantress, The Executioner, and the recently sprung Melter and Black Knight. Eventually, Cap gets his long awaited revenge on Zemo (for killing pahdna Bucky Barnes way back in WWII) when a misfired ray beam from Zemo's own weapon buries the Nazi under a ton of rubble. Cap is left to ponder whether revenge is a dish best served cold.

PE: We get a montage of Avengers leaving through the back door, assimilating themselves into society. Curiously, our narrator tells us that only Captain America has no need to hide his true identity. This over a panel of Rick Jones commending Cap for the bright idea of hiding his shield in an artist's portfolio bag. On the matter of secret identities, I'm still not sure why The Avengers hide their secret identities from each other. It makes no sense. They trust each other to fight side by side but not enough to call each other by name?

JS: Yeah, I had to re-read that a few times myself. Of course, despite his changing into his street clothes, he's no sooner climbing streetlamps and jumping across the hoods of moving cars...

PE: Zemo grouses that he's waited long enough to attack The Avengers again. Long enough? By Marvel time and space continuum standards, he's waited a whopping two or three weeks (or since issue 10). Furthermore, he's attacked the group three or four times in just a couple Marvel-time months. Time for a rest. Looks like he'll get it. 

JS: It must suck to adjourn a meeting, see some criminals on your way home, and then have to call an emergency meeting. Fortunately Cap, Thor and Iron Man don't have to do much to get into costume.

PE: Since when do The Enchantress and the Executioner have to take a cab? Two powerful immortals like these and they're reduced to hailing on a corner? What's next? Loki's wand breaks down and he has to ride a ten-speed to a battle with Thor? And what cabbie in his right mind would stop for them? Steve Rogers (in his civvies) swings from light post to light post, attempting to keep up with the duo. I wonder why he didn't just catch a ride on a low-flying plane as Daredevil would do. The sorcerer's intuition of The Enchantress' alerts her that Cap is in pursuit. It wasn't the guy jumping from car hood to car hood in the traffic behind them?

PE: Holy coincidence!
Cap: By the way, where's Rick Jones?
The Avengers, startled by a loud engine-like noise, rush outside, only to find Rick Jones being sucked into the stratosphere by a passing jet (ostensibly, not executing the Daredevil maneuver). Rick Jones, at that moment, is cursing Cap for bringing Rick's name up in a conversation. 

JS: Was anyone else hoping that Giant-Man was going to throw Cap at the airplane, and not just his shield? I guess we'll have to wait for the New X-Men before we see a fastball special.

MB:  Surprisingly, despite the number of characters and events crammed into it, I found this issue rather blah, with the less-is-more effect extending to the artwork:  of the three credited illustrators (Kirby layouts, Heck pencils, Esposito inks), only Heck truly makes his presence known, and as in Suspense, it's a shame the inker didn't leave his work looking more finished.  Zemo's so-called Masters of Evil seem like a whiny, disorganized lot, and the less said about seeing the Executioner and the Enchantress tooling around in an automobile, the better.  Cap's impromptu and somewhat unlikely South American jaunt felt rushed, as did Zemo's death, while the perfunctory invocation of Bucky ignored the dramatic possibilities of juxtaposing his and Rick's respective plights...but hey, it's just a comic book, right?

PE: Rushed is a good word for the climactic battle with Zemo. Tacked-on would be a phrase I'd use as well. We're girding for a no-holds-barred fight to the finish and in the end it comes down to Zemo being blinded by the glare off Cap's shield and firing wildly (he's been blinded so badly he aims at the sky?). An avalanche of rocks stifles the deadly threat of Baron Zemo. Doesn't seem so deadly now. Guy can't even shoot straight. Evidently, unlike other Marvel villains, this guy stayed deceased. Oh, he'll appear in a variety of flashbacks in the years to come and his son will continue his dad's good work several years later (Captain America and the Falcon 168, December 1973), but this guy's one dead Nazi.

JS: Really? I wouldn't have thought  for a second that he was actually dead.

PE: I like the part where the authorities are taking no chances with The Melter and The Black Knight. True, they've left them with their costumes and, I assume, their powers intact so as to "study" them but why would you keep the both of them locked in one cell? Wouldn't  you separate the dastardly duo? And while we're on the subject of curious events, can someone tell me how The Wasp got from the bad guy jet to the good guy jet?

JS: I think when you're dealing with The Melter and The Black Knight, you don't have to worry too much about their combined powers being much of a threat.

Jack: Giant-Man grows to 100-foot size in order to land on two buildings, then says "Uh oh! They see me!" when the Executioner and the Enchantress spot him! Guess he thought no one would notice a 100-foot tall guy in a red and blue suit . . .

JS: I wonder how many innocent civilians were killed when Giant-Man knocked down buildings in his pursuit of Rick Jones. 

PE: Have we yet heard just how high this guy can grow? Are his abilities akin to Reed Richards? He can stretch just as far as the artist and writer want him to stretch, no further? I was thinking maybe he should just grow another 1000 feet and catch the plane in his palm. Did you know that when he grows to 100 feet, his eyes get comparably better? Someone will have to explain that to me. I flunked science.

Tales to Astonish 66


Our Story

As he works on the television antenna, Giant-Man is informed by the Wasp that there is a woman in the newspapers that can also change the size of objects. That woman is named Madam Macabre. At her lair, the Madam’s powers are showcased. She has a lackey dwarf named Gogo that makes little figurines for her that she can make grow or shrink. In a flashback, we learn that the Madam’s life was saved when she was a kid by the super-villain, the Mandarin. He took a liking to her, paying her way through college. She instructs another henchman to deposit one of Gogo’s miniatures, a tiny wall-enclosed trap, at the Art Museum. Madam Macabre goes to Giant-Man’s pad and meets with him after telling the Wasp that she can wait outside. She offers Giant-Man a partnership, which Big Hank wisely turns down. Knowing that Hank’s biggest weakness is Jan, they send the Wasp a phony ticket and invite her to the art museum. Once she arrives, Jan is easily subdued and used as bait to catch Giant-Man. Hank heads over to the museum where he is also caught, while in ant form, inside the small-walled trap that the henchman had deposited earlier. Jan escapes, allowing Giant-Man and herself to defeat the criminals. Madam Macabre’s power is revealed to be a wig with electronic controls that makes Gogo’s miniatures grow in size.

Tom: This was a bit of a weird one, even for a Giant-Ham fable. Professor Bradley is the expert on the Mandarin. Are you familiar with this Madam Macabre? I can’t seem to recall her in any of the future Iron Man comics I’ve read.

MB: I see “macabre” is defined as “having death as a subject; dwelling on the gruesome; tending to produce horror in a beholder,” apparently having nothing to do with the villain of this tale, which ranks high on the Implaus-o-Meter even for a Gi-Ant-Man outing. Whether caused by mystic passes or microcircuits, her power to alter the size of inanimate objects is tough to swallow, as is the fact that it just happens to complement Hank’s ability with living things. Oh, if only the Mandarin were more than a mere marketing gimmick!
Jack: The story was OK, but I thought the art was pretty good, which would make it excellent for a Giant-Man story. Bob Powell's layouts reminded me of something from an old Spirit section, and the draftsmanship was pretty crisp. 

Tom: At the end of the story, the Bullpen says that this one was dedicated to the fans that said the Wasp did not do enough. So basically this issue just had her get put down even more by Hank, and also, for the zillionth time, being defeated and abducted. Same old, same old.

The Hulk

Our Story

The Hulk is just getting done being patched up by his new scientist buddy that he met last issue in a dreaded foreign communist country.  Suddenly, from out of the shadows, the Commandant shoots a proton beam at the Hulk.  The scientist throws himself into the beam’s path, sacrificing his life so that the Hulk will live on to fight for freedom.  Seeing his new friend killed causes the Hulk to go on a rampage.  He smashes buildings, trying to find the Commandant, but is so filled with rage that he transforms back into Bruce Banner and passes out.  Meanwhile, back in the United States, General Ross and Talbot come to the conclusion that Banner must have defected to the communist country.  Betty is in tears as she can’t believe that her love, Bruce, would ever turn traitor.  The Leader is also shown behind the scenes observing what is transpiring.  He decides to wait things out and to see what develops before taking any further action.  Bruce wakes back up and turns into the Hulk after he is attacked by the communist country’s military.  The Hulk smashes a couple of planes as the story ends. 

Tom: This was kind of a stop and take a breather story to move the plot along. I liked it, but it must have sucked to have been a Hulk fan back then, to have to wait so long for a full story to come together. Plus, you got Giant-Ham wasting half an issue’s pages each month also.

Jack: Hulk gets mad, changes into Banner. Banner gets mad, changes into Hulk. It's not good when the highlight of the story is a few panels of the Leader sitting around thinking.

Tales of Suspense 64

Iron Man

Our Story

When her parents are kidnapped by (COMMIE ALERT!!) her Kremlin bosses, The Black Widow has no choice but to travel back to America to destroy Iron Man. To achieve that goal, she tracks down her old boyfriend, Hawkeye, who's testing some new arrows out in his apartment. Hawk almost doesn't recognize Natasha since she's been given a sexy new uniform jam-packed with oddly familiar accessories (sticky boots to cling to walls and a strong line that shoots out from her wrist and enables her to swing 'round town) but, being he's a sucker in love, he immediately agrees to aid the comely wench in her pursuit of Shell-Head. The dastardly villains don't play fair, kidnapping Pepper and Happy and issuing  their demand to Tony Stark: send Iron Man or find a new supporting cast. Unfortunately for the duo, they are no match for Iron Man and, after a brief tussle, Black Widow and Hawkeye once again limp off, licking each other's wounds.

PE: Hmmm. Able to stick to walls. Nylon rope that shoots out of her wrist. Could The Black Widow be Spiderwoman Mach I? Does her face mask adhere with sticky stuff? Rubber bands? Is it like one of those dollar-store pair of sunglasses? What keeps the dang things from falling off?

PE: Another filler story where nothing happens that hasn't already happened in a past issue. Tony Stark's staff is once again in peril, he saves the day, and the two second-tier villains escape to fight another day. Well, they'll be fighting bad guys another day. Which brings up an interesting dilemma: Stan will have a lot of 'splaining to do since he's got Hawkeye joining the Avengers next month! I can see the character becoming a hero after a little villain downtime but from attacking Iron Man one month to joining his team the next? Well, as always, I'll keep an open mind. The Black Widow will join Hawkeye in The Avengers in a couple years. Stay tuned.

MB:  I’ll always welcome an appearance by the Widow, and especially Hawkeye, no matter which side they’re on.  While this get-up is a far cry from Tasha’s future Emma Peel-style catsuit, it’s nice to see her in some sort of uniform, complete with spider-like abilities, and it’s a cool touch that she designed her mask to mirror Clint’s. Between Hawkeye’s early villainous stint opposite Shellhead and soon-to-be glory alongside him as a mainstay of the Avengers, Heck is the artist I think of most readily in connection with Clint, although it’s a shame that Chic Stone doesn’t provide his pencils with better definition here.  Was there ever a more misnamed character (presumably ironically) than the lugubrious Happy Hogan?  “Happy and Pepper” always reminds me of Felix Unger’s ditty, “Happy and peppy and bursting with love.”

Jack: The Jaye P. Morgan episode!

Captain America

Our Story

The strange pairing of Sando and Omar has all of Broadway buzzing. Omar provides the predictions and Sando projects them into his crystal ball for the audience to see. Lately, the predictions have all been to the detriment of the U.S. Army. This catches the interest of Captain America and Bucky, who investigate the stage duo. Turns out Sando is actually Nazi Colonel Wolfgang Von Krantz, using Omar as a pawn to stir American panic. With the help of beautiful but mysterious Agent Thirteen, Cap and Bucky bring the curtain down on Sando and his gestapo henchmen.

PE: This all-night stop at the Motel Six (a rest between great stories I hope), coupled with the weak Iron Man story make this one of the least readable issues of the IM/Cap era (I hope). Logic goes right out the window several times throughout the story. Why bother going to all the trouble of putting on a Broadway show to cause panic when the actual acts of terrorism they predict will cause turmoil enough once the news hits? But, putting that quibble off to the side for a moment, does Sando/Von Krantz come in every night, run his illusion and then hope Omar won't spill the beans during the day? 

MB:  A palatable and yet unremarkable wartime tale that is nonetheless noteworthy for its introduction of Agent Thirteen and first Silver Age identification of Sergeant Duffy by name (unless I missed something in his Howlers guest-shot).  Speaking of names, I’m sure it’s difficult enough for Private Steve Rogers to maintain his secret identity, but does nobody notice that Cap’s teenage sidekick and Ft. Lehigh’s mascot are both named Bucky?

PE: Unremarkable is a spot-on description, Professor Bradley, but at least Kirby shows up with another winning art job. Many would rank The Fantastic Four as Kirby's crowning glory but I'd argue these early Caps (as opposed to the abysmal "comeback" in '76) could very well nudge those into second place.

Jack: How about the Mister Miracle/New Gods/Forever People/Jimmy Olsen comics? That was some pretty sustained good Kirby art (DC? Shame on you, Prof. Jack! Discussion of Mighty Marvel only please :>-PE).

PE: The mailing certificate lists Tales of Suspense as selling approximately 207,190 copies average of each issue in 1964.

Jack: Outsold by Strange Tales!

Journey Into Mystery 115

Our Story

We start where we left off last month: Loki has kidnapped Jane Foster to Asgard, knowing Thor will follow him there. Advantage Loki: in Asgard his sword and spells put him on more of an even footing with Thor’s superior strength. A baffled Jane looks on at the battle, until Odin brings the combat to a halt. While he doesn’t fall for Loki’s lies, Odin doesn’t condone either the meaningless battle, or Jane Foster being in Asgard. Tired of the discord between his two sons, Odin announces a solution…the Trial of the Gods. Begging forty-eight hours in which to take care of the menace of the Absorbing Man before the trial commences, Thor returns Jane to Earth, granting her forgetfulness of her trip to Asgard. In the meantime Crusher Creel has found a country estate, broken in, demanding the frightened inhabitants to “get him some grub.” The police and reporter Harris Hobbs are close on his trail, and Thor barely gets there by the time they realize where ‘Sorby is holed up. Hobbs bravely offers to go in first, taunting Creel to draw him outside, where the police respect The Avengers “A-1 priority”, and let Thor tackle him first. The battle with Loki was pretty tame compared to this, as the Absorbing Man can handle anything Thor throws his way: rocks, trees, flames, even an Uru Hammer. Cunning finally wins the day, as Thor creates the presence of helium by spinning his hammer at “cyclotronic speed,” and Crusher Creel can’t help but become a wisp of gas, floating ever higher in the atmosphere.

Going back in time to more youthful days, Tales Of Asgard has Loki sowing his seeds of evil, allowing Ghan the storm giant to escape the vengeance of Thor and his fellow Asgardians, thus securing a future ally.

JB: Finally we have a main story clearly superior to the Tales Of Asgard! It sounds like we all agree on the Absorbing Man as a first class villain; is this a first for Marvel University? 

Jack: Maybe it's just the Christmas Spirit talking through me, but I thought this was a great Thor story! The Absorbing Man is one heck of a villain, and the pacing was really fast. Going back and forth from Asgard to Earth made for an exciting tale, and there was none of the Jane Foster-Don Blake romance to slow things down. Tamam Shud indeed!

JS: I'll pile on to the accolades for this one, and add that for the first time in a while that I put down the current issue anxious to pick up the next!

PE: I'll believe a man can fly. I'll believe two Asgardian gods fight it out to the death. I'll believe a man can absorb the elements but I'll never believe Jane Foster can use the word "pawn" in a sentence. That impossibility aside, this is a very good thriller. I think many times during the 1960s, Stan could paint himself into a corner with these villains and heroes who are unstoppable forces. Usually, he'll call on a lame deus ex machina to get him out of a jam. Here he dispatches The Absorbing Man in a very believable way (although I do question why it took Thor so long to use a weapon he had at his disposal the entire time), leaving the door open for a return visit. My fellow professors are right, Crusher Creel's a great villain. Aside from Loki, this could be the best foe created for The Mighty Thor. He's certainly held up over the years and he'll be back in a few months.

JB: Jane doesn’t seem too overwhelmed by the amazing sights of Asgard. Maybe it would have been better for her future chances to become an immortal if she could have remembered what she saw here and had a chance to absorb it. No pun intended…

MB: Those who hate continued stories are out of luck, because this one both begins (almost literally, as Thor claws his way up the ramparts) and ends with cliff-hangers, but action-lovers will be in their glory as Thor sequentially squares off against Loki and then the Absorbing Man. “Absorbing” is the operative word for Stan’s script, while Frankie Fray—who, as in Suspense, has traded off with Chic Stone inking Kirby’s pencils—gives a good account of himself. So, too, do reporter Harris Hobbs and “average business executive” John, who display considerable moxie by standing up to Creel, in spite of John and his wife, Ann, being given the most clich├ęd dialogue imaginable. And, for those who can’t get enough of The Big L, “Tales of Asgard” treats us to more of Loki’s misguided youth. Jane looks mighty hot asleep, I must say (she certainly looks more intelligent without a thought balloon over her head!-PE).
JB: I’m with you on Frankie Ray’s inks, Mathew. This issue looks great. Put the cover of JIM# 114 last month with the bulk of the story this month, and you might have the best issue yet, at least in terms of battle. As you say Pete, a plausible way to deal with ‘Sorby’s defeat, for a foe just as powerful as Thor.

Also this month

Modeling with Millie #38
Monsters to Laugh With #3
Patsy and Hedy #99
Patsy Walker #120
Rawhide Kid #45


Jack: Another boring Sgt. Fury tale with art by Dick Ayers. Professor Peter, are you sure this series was good at some point?

Even in a war comic!
PE: Well, Jack, I have to tell you that of all the titles we cover this is the most disheartening at the moment. The not-so-gradual decline of Sgt Fury and His Howling Commandos continues with "While the Jungle Sleeps" (#17), an uninteresting story horribly illustrated by Dick Ayers and Vinnie Colletta. Here we're presented with a jungle full of cliches that forces me to ask the question: should we even bother reading and critiquing this title anymore? Seriously, I ask those out there who may be interested. We stopped noting the westerns several months ago when we realized that there was no originality present and the expanded superhero line-up began draining our reading time. Here, we're faced with the same thing. Fury doesn't impact any other title in the Marvel Universe and, unless there's an outcry, coverage of the title will be discontinued as of the next issue.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

King Size Special! Marvel Collectors' Item Classics #7

An Interview with Pierre Comtois
by Peter Enfantino

As related when we began this blog, I was compelled to create Marvel University after coming across a book called Marvel Comics in the 1960s, a fascinating look at the high points in Marvel's first decade, by Pierre Comtois. This was followed up a couple months ago by Marvel Comics in the 1970s. Both come highly recommended and can be purchased at TwoMorrows  or Amazon. Pierre was kind enough to answer a few questions for our readers.

MARVEL UNIVERSITY: How long have you been collecting comics, Pierre?

PIERRE COMTOIS: I'm in my mid-50s and have been hooked on comics and Marvel Comics in particular, since I was 9 years old when I first laid eyes on Amazing Spider-Man #14. At the time, an older kid in the neighborhood was buying comics and I used to look through his stack when I spotted him reading them in his yard. I showed interest and he promised to take me up to the store where he bought them. That drizzly day finally arrived, and with a quarter begged off my mother, we went up to Hovey Square Variety and I bought that copy of Spidey and my best friend bought Journey Into Mystery #105; we never looked back!

MU: What led to the books you wrote?

PC: I always had it in mind to write a book about comics since I was in high school. In those days, there weren't very many reference sources so I used to clip out every article I came across to use for background info when finally got around to writing the book. Fast forward to around 1985 when I briefly owned and operated my own comics store. Business was slow to non-existent so I passed the time writing my first piece about comics. It was for the old Amazing Heroes magazine for a regular feature it used to have called "10 of a kind" or something. In this case, I wrote an article called "10 Silver Age Marvel Keys" that featured the earliest proto-type of the entry system that my Marvel books eventually used. That article was refused so I tried again, this time with "10 Silver Age Marvel Continued Stories." That was rejected too.

MU: You clearly identify four "phases" in 1960s Marvel. Can you explain this theory?

PC:  I began to see a pattern in Marvel's books that I later divided into four parts and called its Early Years, Years of Consolidation, Grandiose Years, and Twilight Years. With that in mind, I shuffled the entries I already wrote, filled them out with another 10 or 20 and combined them into a single article that I submitted to the Comics Buyers Guide. It was accepted and finally saw print in 2000. But seeing it in cold print, I was left unsatisfied. I wanted to flesh it out more. That opportunity didn't come until I found the Silver Age Marvel Comics Cover Index site on the internet. Noticing it had nothing in the way of textual material, I contacted the webmaster, Nick Simon, and asked him if he'd be willing to post my entries on his site. He agreed and so I began writing new entries to fill out what I'd already written and he began posting them. It wasn't until deep into the Twilight years that it suddenly occurred to me that the project could easily be turned into a book! 

MU: Is that where Towmorrows comes in?

PC:  I stopped posting new entries on the site, finished the project, and began shopping it around to publishers. It was accepted by an outfit out of Oregon that specialized in coffee table sized books, arrangements were made with Marvel to use cover images, and things began to proceed well until disaster struck the publisher: their distributor went out of business, soon followed by the publisher itself. I was pretty bummed out about that. Eventually, though I proposed the book idea to John Morrow at Twomorrows Pubs and he agreed to publish the book if I could get Marvel to let us use images of inside pages of the comics discussed not just covers (the publisher thought Marvels covers had already been used too often and wanted my book to be unique). The problem was, up to then, Marvel never agreed to give anyone such access for nothing, not even to Roy Thomas! So I contacted Marvel's legal dept and after some back and forth, I was able to get permission to use inside pages of their comics for my book. That sealed the deal with Twomorrows and the rest is history!

MU: Was there ever a point where you thought of covering every single issue of each decade?

PC: That was my original intention when I began writing the entries for Nick Simon's site: I envisioned writing an entry for every single silver age Marvel book (barring series that I had no interest in such as Sub-Mariner and the Hulk). But before I ever got around to doing that, the project became a book. Of course, when I thought of doing them all, I wasn't writing entries in the exhaustive length I ended up doing. That was a process that developed gradually over time. When I thought of doing every single book, I had in mind capsule sized entries of only a few lines each. But the project got away from me!

MU: Have you a third volume planned?

PC: Originally, the two books that are available now were supposed to be a single volume. They were only divided by the publisher for reasons of length. So a third volume was never contemplated. Although there were plenty of good comics that I continued to buy through the 1980s, I didn't feel as strongly about them as I did the silver and bronze ages. My original intention in writing the books was to avoid covering the books I didn't like so that I didn't have to be critical of certain artists and writers. My philosophy was that if I couldn't say anything good about anyone not to say anything at all. 

MU: You're a lot more forgiving than the professors over at Marvel University!

PC: Over time however, I was forced to make exceptions. 

MU: I'm not sure I could slog my way through Marvel of the 1980s. 

PC: If I did an 80s book that would have any pretense of thorough coverage of the era, I'm afraid I'd be forced to say critical things of quite a number of creators, something I don't really look forward to. But if I did, I hope what I say can be understood by readers as being said from as completely objective a point of view as possible. The same approach I took to the 60s and 70s books. That said, the publisher has expressed interest in a 1980s volume but whether it happens or not will be up to Marvel in giving us the same latitude with illustrations that they did for the first two volumes.

MU: We here at Marvel University have had quite a lot of fun tearing down the legends that are Hank Pym, The Gi-Ant Man and Johnny Storm, The Human Torch, but you've informed me that you not only do you have a defense for Big Hank but that you've actually read those stories 8 or 9 times each and lived to tell about it. Mr. Comtois, what can you say in your defense?

Hank Pym tells Professor Peter to kiss his big blue behind
PC: Lol! I know that over the years, especially since the infamous Saturday Night Live skit in which Ant-Man was mercilessly ridiculed, it has become the fashion to look down upon the character (pun intended), but such an attitude has always made me angry! Not only does Ant-Man have probably the best costume of any super-hero (as the Jack Kirby design first appeared in Tales to Astonish #35) but one of the most intriguing set of powers. Not the kind of hero who'd fit in with cosmic adventures or battles with Galactus (although a clever writer could make such scenarios work), Ant-Man was best used against Commie spies and gangsters as he was in his early adventures in Astonish. Those street level Lee/Leiber/Kirby stories are little known gems of tightly plotted action and mystery. Kirby in particular was really good in presenting the forced perspective of an ant sized hero (that I think would be totally eye popping on the big screen!) The only real criticsm I can make of those early stories was that Lee failed to give Hank Pym some personality, supporting characters, and problems a la Spidey. He tried to correct that when he brought in the Wasp who I thought slowed down the stories rather than helped. Janet Van Dyne would have been better in strictly the girlfriend role rather than partner which left no tension between the characters. 

MU: You feel that the turning point was the switch from Ant to Gi-Ant?

PC: Making Ant-Man Giant-Man was a stroke of genius adding a whole new dimension of action to the character. Now he could take on straight super heroes as well as saboteurs and the like! Perhaps what has added to the disdain that Ant-Man/Giant-Man has had over the years is the artists he's had. Don Heck was a good follow up to Kirby while he inked himself...the only problem was that Lee wrote stories for him that were more fantasy oriented than street level or even super villianesque. Later, Dick Ayers drew some stories and you can forget they're even being visually entertaining. Nothing against Darlin' Dick but he just didn't have it when it came to super heroes. Later, the Giant-Man strip was plagued by a series of unimaginative artists (with the exception of Steve Ditko) until it was ignominiously canceled in favor of that undersea boob, Sub-Mariner! But still, those Lee/Leiber/Kirby early issues of Ant-Man, the Kirby drawn intro of the Wasp, the two part Kirby drawn origin of Giant-Man, and all those Kirby covers can't be beat! I urge anyone to take a second, kinder look at those early stories and defy them not to be entertained by them! In the meantime, bring on the long rumored Ant-Man movie!

MU: Overall, what was the best comic title Marvel published?

PC: The Amazing Spider-Man for its multi-dimensional lead character, it's galaxy of supporting characters (each of whom was pretty interesting in their own right), its colorful, seemingly endless array of villains, it's dynamic Ditko art followed by the more tame but no less beautiful Romita contributions which was likely more appropriate for the next stage in Peter Parker's life, and finally, the strip's overall ability to connect with the youthful readers of the 1960s. Next would be the FF of course, but although that strip featured an unparallelled stream of new concepts and characters, it's overall structure and characterization was nowhere as deep as they were in Spidey...the FF just didn't connect as easily with the problems and issues faced every day by its readers. That said, how can you really choose between Spidey, the FF, the Avengers, DD, X-Men, Thor, Cap, Dr. Strange, Agent of SHIELD, or Iron Man in the silver age? They're all great!

MU: What was the worst?

Bruce Banner displays disdain for Pierre's choice for worst comic series
PC: At the risk of hurting somebody's feelings, I'd have to say the Hulk. Very two dimensional character with a limited pallet of the kind of stories you can tell. That said, Lee and Ditko showed how it could be done when the second series began in TTA...namely with a strong cast of supporting characters. Lee began to lose his grip on the character late in the TTA run and by the time the Hulk got his own strip, forget it. So if I had to say the worst, it would have to be the Hulk after he got his own book.

MU: Can you steer our readers to a handful of Marvel's Greatest Comics?

PC: Most of the ones I cover in my books! There are simply too many only to list a handful. The Spider-Man turns coward three parter in #s 17-19; the Galactus trilogy in FF #s 48-50 and #51; the Sons of the Serpent two parter in Avengers; the Willie Lincoln story in DD #47; Thor vs the Hulk in Journey Into Mystery #112; the "Let There Be Life" story in FF Annual #6; the Don Heck drawn fight between Iron Man and Titanium Man in Suspense; the origin of the Red Skull in Suspense; Dr. Strange's quest for Eternity in Strange Tales; I could go on and on!

MU: As the seventies drew to a close, did your interest wane or did your tastes change?

PC: My interest in comics has never waned, it's just comics themselves that have disappointed me. The steam started to run out of Marvel in the 1980s despite some really good stuff that kept cropping up here and there. By then, my interests had begun to expand a bit so that I started looking at other company's stuff such as DC. By the 1990s, there was virtually nothing left to bother with so I began going back to reassess different things that I never bothered with in years past. Stuff like DCs mystery mags. Meanwhile, for Marvel mostly and DC to a lesser extent, the new century has been a virtual wasteland making the silver and bronze ages shine all the brighter.

MU: I've not read the entire seventies book, but I hit some highlights throughout and noticed, as I said on the blog, that you seemed disillusioned with the path Marvel was taking as the decade wore on. You mentioned Frank Miller's violence against women. Any other instances?

Would you trust this man with your superhero?
PC: It's not that I was disillusioned, at least at the time, in Miller's violence toward women...he didn't invent that, it was part of the pop culture scene of the time and worse today I might add. At the time, I was as excited as anybody else about what Miller was doing on DD. But as the years passed and "grim and gritty" began to take over comics in general, I became sick and tired of it all. What was fresh and original when Miller was first doing it, had become banal and ubiquitous resulting in a shrinkage of comics readership and the alienation of younger readers. Comic shops today are frequented mostly by adults buying mostly adult oriented comics. Few kids read comics today. And why should they? There's nothing there to interest them. I knew the end had come when Marvel threw out the Comics Code. With no guardrails, comics have more often than not swerved off the road into the ditch. Entropy had set in. Continuity has been abandoned. Characterization is practically non-existent. Sub-plots and continued stories have been abandoned in the interests of making sure stories are self contained so as to make it easier to reprint in the form of graphic novels.

MU: Did you collect other comics at the time as well? DC? If so, 

PC: I began to pay attention to DC late in the 1970s when Kirby left Marvel to go to DC. I was ultimately disappointed in his projects there and forgot about DC until Mike Kaluta drew the that was an excellent book! From that point, I started checking out first issues at DC and by the 1980s, when many of Marvel's best creators had migrated over, I became an avid fan of Wolfman and Perez's Teen Titans and Giffen's Legion of Super-Heroes and Justic League titles. I began to check out various independent companies too such as Valiant before discovering the horror stories of Bruce Jones that sent me scurrying to find more of them in back issues of House of Mystery etc. 

MU: did you give thought to a similar project involving DC?

PC: No, I never even considered writing a similar book on any other company but Marvel.

MU: What happened with the original cover to the 60s book? I saw the original proposed cover and it was a great idea. Were you disappointed with the finished cover?

PC: Marvel nixed the original cover objecting to the depiction of too many of its iconic even objected to the use of the FF font in the title. That forced the publisher to fall back on other ideas including one I had and preferred, which was a collage of contemporary imagery from the 1960s. That turned into the six panel grid the book ended up with that was sort of reminiscent of a comics page. I preferred that than the original cover with the Marvel stuff on it. It was the publisher's idea to super impose a blank outline of a generic super hero believing that the cover needed something more to signal to a casual browser what the book was about. He got the idea from a cover of a Thor comic that featured a similar outline of Galactus. The covers have been universally panned by readers and fans alike but except for the blank figures, I prefer the covers adorned with the contemporary images...but I guess I've been outvoted on that one!