Wednesday, November 6, 2013

December 1972 Part One: The Defenders Meet H. P. Lovecraft!

Conan the Barbarian 21
“Monster of the Monoliths”
Story by Roy Thomas
Art by Barry Smith and Dan Adkins, Craig Russell, Val Mayerik & Sal Buscema

With a Turian arrow embedded in his shoulder blade, Conan washes up on Makkalet’s shore after deserting Prince Yezdigerd’s warship — the black-maned barbarian is quickly captured. When he awakes the next day, the youthful Cimmerian discovers that his wound has been tended to. Summoned before King Ennatum, Queen Melissandra and the wizard Kharam-Akkad, Conan is offered a deal: freedom if he journeys with Captain Khurusan and two other Makkalet soldiers to the kingdom of the Queen’s father and asks for assistance against the Turian seige. Before they ride off, the Queen gives Conan a rune-covered armlet for protection. Two weeks into their quest, the riders come across an old hermit and his beautiful daughter standing before the huge black monoliths of Xuthltan. Suddenly, Ennatum knocks Conan unconscious and murders everyone else, including his fellow Makkalet soldiers. When the Cimmerian rouses, he finds that he is to be sacrificed to a monstrous toad creature for the greater good of Makkalet. Conan sheds his bonds but the slimy monstrosity gives chase. Luckily, the warrior soon realizes that the frog demon is attracted to the armlet given to him by Queen Melissandra. He removes the cursed jewelry and tosses it to the surprised Khurusan: the toad terror devourers him and disappears into a cloud of black smoke. Conan mounts his horse and rides off, determined to keep his word and complete the mission. -Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn: This is the first episode of the Makkalet story arc actually inspired by a Robert E. Howard tale: “The Black Stone,” first published in the November 1931 issue of Weird Tales. As with most of Roy’s Howard adaptations, the original didn’t feature Conan, instead introducing the mad poet Justin Geoffrey. Supposedly, the story is a tribute to Howard’s pal Lovecraft but I couldn’t tells ya. So far, “Monster of the Monoliths” is also the weakest installment of this interesting arc. This could be the least action-packed Conan issue to date, and while the toad demon is significantly loathsome, it’s probably the weakest Conan monster yet. The multitude of inkers doesn’t help either: Smith’s foundations are fine but the varying embellishment styles are a distraction. At the time, Craig Russell and Val Mayerik were newbies working in Adkin’s Ohio studio — according to Wikipedia, this is Mayerik’s first published comics work. Robert E. Howard, Howard the Duck. Hmmm. I will say that the cover offers an iconic image suitable for framing. A nice twist that the noble savage decides to forge on after he is betrayed. Doubly sweet, since I’m suitably invested in the storyline and want to see it through. Alas, next issue will bring no continuing satisfaction. 1973 starts on a rather sour note.

Scott McIntyre: With all the "embellishers" listed in the credits, one would think Barry Smith's influence wouldn't be recognizable, but there's still plenty of his style evident. All of these artists came together to create a really coherent vision. It all looks lovely. The story isn't anything special and it was one of the few times I struggled to get through a Barry Smith Conan. However, I had to laugh out loud when Conan tosses his enemy the armlet, leading to his death. Sweet.

Mark Barsotti: The round-robin inking doesn't serve the art, as Prof Tom notes. We get some Smith Conan, some Val Mayerik (P. 17, panel 4) Conan, and get annoyed at the difference. The rush-job was likely the result of Barry (Windsor) Smith's on-going deadline struggles, and he'd soon leave the factory production model of monthly comics. The brooding, Hamlet-like King and flirty, bright-eyed Queen Melissandra are likeable, even though they send Conan on a one-way mission as sacrifice to a Frog-God. Loved the ruin-inscribed twin monolith altar. Froggy the Gremlin, not so much. Roy's script ("In those grisly eyes are mirrored all the unholy things and vile secrets...") hauls all the monster-mash water; barely-inked Froggy neither disgusts or terrifies, unlike Smith's normal creepy-crawlers. Again Deadline Doom's likely to blame. Not sure I buy Conan's decision to complete the mission for his would-be murderers, save he's more honorable than they. The end is muted, not heroic or terribly satisfying, but more mature as Thomas continues to shade the character.

Astonishing Tales 15
Ka-Zar in
"And Who Will Call Him Savage?"
Story by Mike Friedrich
Art by Gil Kane and Tom Sutton

Leisurely walking the streets of New York City with Zabu, Ka-Zar hears a cry for help, and he and the sabretooth battle a bunch of drug peddlers roughing up a rival junkie. After a run-in with the police, they meet back up with S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Bobbie Morse. Cut to bad guy The Pusher, who vows to take control of the rackets and shows off by beating up his own men. Bobbi and Ka-Zar find Vinnie, the same “poison-seller” who escaped earlier, and some goons are trying to make off with the still-recovering Dr. Calvin. They capture the goons and race the now-relapsed Dr. Calvin to the hospital. There, the junkie Ka-Zar had saved is brought in dead, which leads the livid jungle lord to make off with Vinnie to try and get some information. He lets him go, then tails the lying Vinnie to The Pusher’s pad, where KZ bashes in with “hurricane fury”! A brutal battle with The Pusher causes the ceiling to collapse, but KZ saves “rat” Vinnie and brings him back to the cops, only to find out his real name is Percy Ronald Calvin—the son of Dr. Calvin! [Wait, what???]—Joe Tura

Joe Tura: "Yay! It’s Ka-Zar in the Concrete Jungle" screams the splash page and it’s great news for all of us! Well, not so much. Certainly not an awful tale, and better than a reprint like last time, but really not so hot either. First off, the new creative team of Friedrich and Kane/Sutton isn’t completely up to snuff. Kane drew a decent KZ back in Amazing Spider-Man when he was patrolling the Savage Land, but here in the rough streets of NYC it’s sub-par, even the incredible abs of our hero. Same goes for cuddly Zabu, whose anatomy looks off at times. The rats on the splash page look pretty realistic, though!

Peter Enfantino: Nothing to do with Ka-Zar but there are a couple of fascinating tidbits to discuss concerning Marvel behind-the-scenes at this time. In Stan's Soapbox, The Man alerts MZs that plans are afoot to release "in one giant-sized library edition, the actual ORIGINS of Marvel's greatest superheroes. And if you wanna know how big and jam-packed it'll be, here's a heavy hint: it'll probably cost a dollar - and it would be a bargain at twice the price!" The Comic Reader #89 (September 1972) adds: " is being targeted for Christmas ( no guarantees though) and it will contain 100 or more pages of reprints on the order of those in Marvel Tales Annual 1, Amazing Fantasy 15, et al). The book will probably be in color, but the actual physical format is still under discussion. It might, for instance, even end up as a bookstore item." Indeed it did, the following year, hit book shelves as Origins of Marvel Comics, the first in a series of trade paperbacks published by Fireside. The series reprinted key first appearances of the Marvel heroes, with each strip introduced by Stan (who good-naturedly accepted full credit for everything ever created everywhere), and was popular enough to garner several sequels. Check out my commentary on Fantastic Four below for the other interesting biz.

Joe: The script finds KZ a little too angry, even though he’s battling the drug trade, which is not the worst thing. The longhaired lord seems to hate everything about the city, from the “most foul odors” to the “ugliness of stone-and-steel boxes”. Geez, next time try Jersey! Some classic lines (for the wrong reasons) include “Ol’ Vinnie—you ain’t made for cat food!”; “Out of the way, Buster Crabbe!”; “Soon we will be among the other steel-traveling bugs!”; “Belt jungle-boy some street knowledge!”; and my favorite: “Urg…Even Ka-Zar’s stomach twists at your driving, Bobbi!” And the plot twist at the end, with the one bad guy who Ka-Zar just happens to see through the whole issue, just happens to be Dr. Calvin’s son? Boy oh boy.

The Avengers 106
"A Traitor Stalks Among Us!"
Story by Steve Englehart
Art by Rich Buckler, George Tuska, and Dave Cockrum

Captain America arrives at Avengers Mansion to find the Vision wallowing in self pity because the team left him while he was brooding over not being able to feel love. Suddenly Rick Jones arrives to show Cap that he can become Captain Marvel, which makes Cap freak out and imagine he was in a battle with Hydra that neither he nor Rick remember having. While the others search for Quicksilver, Hawkeye falls into a trap and Cap is at the old cemetery where he and Rick defeated Madame Hydra to find the meaning of the imaginary battle. He suddenly has another vision of he and Rick penetrating Hydra's lair in a gutted tenement in Manhattan. When he comes back to normal, he races to see if such a building exists. Back with the rest of the team, Hawkeye attacks the Panther and the lights go out. A second later they come back on and Hawkeye is confused, but now Iron Man is trying to kill his teammates. Finally it is revealed the force behind this confusion is the Space Phantom who has teamed up with the Grim Reaper!
-Scott McIntyre

Scott: This issue starts off strangely, first with the Vision's right leg being freakishly long. Then Cap non-chalantly starts talking about the other Cap he just defeated in his own mag, which comes off very forced. Then, out of nowhere, Rick Jones barges in and becomes Captain Marvel for no other reason than to show off to Captain America. He "changes back" after Cap freaks out. So, did Mar-Vell decide to cut his few hours off early or can Rick control the change from the Negative Zone now? And after the events of the Kree-Skrull War, wouldn't Cap already know about this? The Vision's sulking is far from interesting.

Matthew Bradley: In his first Marvel credit, “permanent inker”—for three issues—and future X-Men legend “Dynamic Dave” Cockrum (1943-2006) brings some continuity to this patchwork; Tuska’s characteristic dentition is in evidence, but Cap looks conspicuously fine in page 7, panel 2 and page 15, panel 2 (left).  Neo-scripter Englehart, who racked up experience with the Frankenstein routine in Cap’s own book last month, is definitely channeling Roy by bringing back the Space Phantom after a mere 104 issues.  The story behind this story, which centers on deadline-plagued new father Buckler, and may shed some light on the seemingly contradictory footnotes in #105 and Marvel Team-Up #5, is almost as long as the story itself (per the lettercols of #109 and 110).

Peter: Boy, the contrast between the near-perfect Avengers art of Rich Buckler and bucktooth yokels scribbled out by George Tuska is jarring! There are a couple of spots here where I'd swear Neal Adams was thrown into the mix as well (check out those panels below). No, the problem I have is with the script, which is meandering and confusing as all get out. I'm sure we'll find out what the hell the quasi-flashback is all about eventually. My highlight of the issue, very surprising this, was the unveiling of the tenth-tier villain at the climax. If there was an 11th-tier (Marvel University Rule Book, Page 195, paragraph 23: "Yea, there shall be no tier lower than 10"), surely The Space Ghost Phantom would rule the roost but the reveal came as such a surprise to me that I couldn't help smiling, lousy bad guys be damned. As I recall, we're about to head into some fun stuff.

Scott: The other plot is okay, but not every engrossing. The return of the Space Phantom is pretty cool if only for nostalgic reasons. It's not like he was the greatest villain of all time, but he sure is weird looking. The Grim Reaper is still an over the top douche, but I'll be interested in finding out how and why they teamed up. The art is great, with Buckler inked by Tuska, who is a fantastic inker! That is his calling, not his crappy cartoon pencils. Oh, and once again, the cover scenario never happens.

Matthew: “[I]t was decided that [Rich’s] first book with Steve…would be supplimented [sic] with pages by George Tuska…Steve worked out a story with Rich—but then it was decided that, to gain even more time, that story would actually go into #106, and a [John Buscema] fill-in…would go into #105.”  The Tuska pages had been created with Stan for Captain America #114 way back in June of 1969, “but then Mr. Lee decided to take a new tack with that strip, and so had Johnny Romita draw a completely different saga.  The Tuska story went on the shelf…until we figured we could insert it into The Avengers to back Rich up, and did. It then fell to Stainless Steve to combine two different storylines into one tale” (reverse-engineering #105 to remain consistent with #106).

Captain America and the Falcon 156
"Two Into One Won't Go!"
Story by Steve Englehart
Art by Sal Buscema and Frank McLaughlin

Now in costume and ready to end this charade, Cap, Falcon and Sharon escape the plane's cargo hold and enter the cockpit to face the 1950's Cap and Bucky. They fight and the plane crash lands in the ocean. A misfiring Atom Blaster hits a Coast Guard cutter, sinking it. Fake Cap and Bucky take their leave as the real Cap and his posse save the sailors, promising to meet for the final battle at the Torch of Friendship in an hour. Once there, Sharon and Falcon handle Bucky, who is taken down by Falc's righteous fist. The two Cap's have their showdown, which turns even more brutal when real Cap explains that he is indeed the original Captain America from the 40's. Realizing he has betrayed his hero, fake Cap snaps and is put down fast by the real Cap, ending this soul searing conflict. -Scott McIntyre

Scott: Amazing! A fantastic ending to an incredibly good storyline. Englehart really delivers the goods in what could have been a quick and disappointing wrap up. Instead, it all feels organic with everyone having moments to shine. Falcon and Sharon are at their best here with Falc having to deal with Bucky's racist comments and his bashing the kid in the face is a wonderfully cathartic moment. The four panel progression as he sails into Falcon's punch is a beautiful touch and feels like film in slow motion. Great action sequences abound and the Cap vs Cap fight is exciting and personal. What real Cap tells the fake is left for us to imagine, which was the right way to go. The other guy's reaction is what was important and when he wigs out he is put down by "the Ultimate - the ONLY - Captain America!" Glorious!

Mark: I won't bother with minor distractions like where Bad Cap comes up with the "atom blaster" he whips out early in the story, but get right to the Big Picture and the question of why, having read this arc several times over the years, it always fails to have a lasting impact. I'm not playing contrarian when I say, yeah, great premise, historic even, knitting together different Timely/Marvel eras with a poignant saga of heroes gone bad while shining light on the social ills of Eisenhower-era America, but my reaction at the end remains: that's it? After a scheduled smackdown between Cap and Bad Cap (in a public park, audience gathered), Steve finally tells of "his life in the 30's and '40's," convincing his doppelganger that he's the genuine star-spangled article, but what should be the most emotionally-riveting moment of the entire tale takes place off-screen. Where's the money shot, Steve?

Mathew: Yes, Virginia, there is someone who inks consecutive issues of Cap, as McLaughlin proves with Sal’s power-packed pencils…but what’s up with Sharon’s orange legs?  Although there’s some admirable ass-whuppin’ going on here, what I appreciate even more is the ringing endorsement that puts the shaky Cap/Falc partnership back on its firmest standing since Day One, and most of all the way in which Stainless has taken such command of the character so fast.  However uncomfortable Cap may be with the resolution of his existential identity crisis, it leaves us—and, we hope, him—with a renewed sense of who, and what, and why he is, unlike Stan’s latter-day whiny mope; not for nothing does Dean Enfantino rank this tetralogy so highly.

Scott: The art is flawless and even the one page catch up with Muldoon wasn't that annoying. I did find it funny that he and his pal ripped Steve's apartment to shreds and then he says "put everything back the way you found it." Um, you should have mentioned that sooner. Some cops!

Mark: Gotta mention the tag-team takedown when Sharon tosses Bad Bucky into the Falcon's avenging fist, a series of panels highlighting Sal Buscema's crisp, clean style. He was never dynamic like Kirby (who was?), flashy like Steranko, gorgeous like Adams or (Windsor) Smith, or as good as his brother, but those are all giants. Sal's excellent but a cut below, right at the top of second tier comic artists. A dark laugh on P. 11, when a local cop wonders "if androids have legal rights in Florida." Some things never change, way down south in Dixie. Speaking of not changing, the only effect learning the truth has on Bad Cap is to further unhinge him, before he's promptly cold-cocked and hustled back into cold storage. Real Cap is left brooding that Bad Cap "could have been me," but I don't buy it. Steve Rogers wanted to beat the Nazis, BC just wanted to be a star. It took more than a Super Serum to make Captain America and more than a lack of "Vita-Rays" to make a villain. After a dazzling 99 yard drive, Englehart fumbles on the goal line by denying his characters and readers any such affirmation, instead wrapping us in Liberal Early-'70's Collective Guilt. "In a very real way," Caps thinks, "I'm responsible for all the evil he's done." No you're not, Steve. No you're not.

Peter: Stainless shows a little bit of the hand he'll be playing in the near future with Cap's speech to his evil twin: "You think I'm a traitor? Grow up, fella -- time's have changed! America's in danger from within as well as without! There's organized crime, injustice, and fascism -- or wouldn't you recognize that?" Add to the mix a Vice President who would soon resign in scandal and, oh yeah, that Tricky Dicky fella, and Steve will have fuel for his personal fire for years to come. We'll be the better for that, at least in the compelling storytelling department. Despite what my colleagues might think, I do have a few nits to pick here. The continuing use of The Falcon's on-and-off Urban slang is just as annoying here as it was when lesser scribes were transcribing Cap's adventures. I know he's black, the colorist was kind enough to clue me in, but calling Sharon "momma" and Cap "white man" just comes off clumsily. Was Steve instructed to add that extra bit of urbanization to hoist sales? And what happened between page 2 and 3? Are we missing some dialogue? Page 2 ends with the plane landing in Miami Beach and Faux-Cap exclaiming that it was "the closest big city I could get to" and page 3 has Real-Cap tearing through the cockpit yowling "And so are we, mister!" The worst thing I can say about this final chapter of The Best Comic Book Story of All Time is that it is the final chapter. I would have loved to see "The Other Cap" translated to the big screen but the chances of this story being adapted are nil so fans will just have to take heart in the fact that this story surely influenced Ed Brubaker when he created Winter Soldier for Captain America  in 2005. Very rarely will you find me recommending any comic book published after the mid-1970s but this one is a keeper and will hit the multi-plex next summer as Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Can't wait!

Daredevil and the Black Widow 94
"He Can Crush the World!"
Story by Gerry Conway
Art by Gene Colan and Tom Palmer

Damon Dran, who originally set in motion the creation of the power globe that became Project Four, has now absorbed the nuclear-level power into his own body. He grows in size and energy each moment, as he heads towards the center of San Francisco. His plan: to control the world by making the rest of humanity his slaves. Daredevil and Danny French barely escape his path, and Dran keeps true to his course. DD and DF make their way back to the mansion where the Black Widow and Ivan are just debating their return. They discuss tactics, as the police and military find their weapons useless against the “Indestructible Man.” Matt and Natasha head to the scene of the battle, Ivan and Danny soon follow. While they can at best slow down the giant for a few minutes, it is Danny who comes up with the answer. Although the globe protects Dran from harm, the globe itself, which hovers beside him, is vulnerable. French uses a spear-like piece of wood to shatter the globe, and the result is first the loss of power, then the collapse and demise of Damon Dran. Unfortunately, Danny French’s efforts have cost him his life too, as he speaks a few last words to Natasha. -Jim Barwise

Jim Barwise: Somehow, another power-transformed human into a growing giant possessed of great power isn’t the storyline I’ve been waiting for. We do wrap up the whole story of Project Four, and Danny gets to redeem himself, if only to himself and Natasha, but Damon Dran hasn’t gained much personality with his power. Daredevil might be the most visually consistent Marvel mag, even with changing artists in its early issues, and that always helps, but a new storyline will be refreshing.

Mark: More fine, fluid Gene Colan art? Check. More sexual & workplace tension between Mattasha? Ditto. Kid Conway delivering another denouement God-awful enough to make you think Doc Wertham was right? Nope. Maybe it's grading on a curve after the Assassin/Killgrave/Mr. Fear fiascos, but the takedown of the Indestructible Man (he of the Something About Mary hair-care products) works pretty well. Granted, you have to accept that no shrapnel from all the tank shells and small arms fire hit the floating red energy globe that's IM's Achilles heel, leaving it to Danny French's lucky javelin throw to save the day, but since it leads to a redemptive Noble Death, sure, why not? Now we can all put Project Four behind us, far behind us, a shred of dignity still intact.

Matthew: It’s pretty sad when the best thing I can say about this issue is that it puts a decisive period at the end of another rambling early-Conway Hornhead plotline (if that’s not too redundant), one slightly more satisfying in all respects than the Mr. Kline/Assassin fiasco; then again, what isn’t?  And it’s not a good sign when your villain—who, thank God, won’t be seen again for another 11 years—is the namesake of a really bad Lon Chaney, Jr. movie, which is setting the bar at almost subterranean levels.  That said, Colan and, in this limited context, Palmer continue to maintain their usual high standards with the artwork, notwithstanding the allegedly Indestructible Man’s most demonic attribute, namely his electrostatic-discharge hairdo.

The Defenders 3
"Four Against the Gods"
Story by Steve Englehart
Art by Sal Buscema and Jim Mooney

Dr. Strange is convinced that in another dimension, the barrier of Galactus wouldn’t hold true, and is sure he (with Namor and the Hulk) can lead the Silver Surfer to Zenn-La, to reunite with his beloved Shalla-Bal. Not finding themselves where Stephen Strange had expected them to be, instead the Defenders are in the realm of the Nameless One, where the girl named Barbara (who had sacrificed herself to save Strange months back) is imprisoned by poles of ethereal force. He and the Surfer combine their powers to release her. Before they can all return to the place where they entered this dimension, a maelstrom arises, sucking them into a black void. The Surfers board isn’t affected by the vortex, and it appears to be their means of escape, until they see the women they love, all trapped in the poles of ethereal force. It is an illusion of course, conjured by the Nameless One, who now appears with three heads (Barbara’s too, having been willing to join her captor rather than face eternal loneliness). The odds seem against them, but when the creature is positioned by the poles, they snare him in energy bonds. Barbara should be free of her captors, but seems to have gone mad; had she learned to love her prison? When they return to our dimension, they discover that they are back on Earth. Any sense of direction in the other realm were useless, thus they are no nearer to free space than before. The Surfer flies off in disappointment. -Jim Barwise

Jim: The combination that makes up the Defenders is indeed the key to its intrigue. The characters are so different I almost feel like I’m watching a cartoon that’s tried to put too much together, except that it seems to work. Egos get checked at the door (for a few minutes here and there anyway) as they work together to do what’s needed. The dimension hopping here is colourful (figuratively as well as literally), and I didn’t find the events to be too predictable. Whatever happened to Barbara we don’t exactly know, but will she return to her human self again? Poor Surfer…

Matthew: Although they have much to recommend them, I’ve never liked these early issues as much as I expected or wanted to, despite the presence of my beloved Sub-Mariner (and, as the lettercol reminds us, finding foes for such a power-heavy group could be tricky, especially with the Surfer now, as it were, on board).  This issue is no exception:  it’s got cosmic grandeur, rock-solid Buscema/Mooney artwork, a Roy-worthy picking up—to say the very least—of his plot thread about the imprisoned Barbara Denton Norriss, and yet...  I think my biggest beef is with the continued strife between Doc and the Hulk, probably because by the time I first read these stories, I was already accustomed to the collegial tone that was such a big part of the later issues.

Peter: At the risk of being labeled "#1 Englehart Fan" instead of "Fair-Minded Dean Pete" this issue is one heck of a corker. I only read a few issues of The Defenders (I believe they were well down the road in the run) and I hated everything about the title. This script has so much going for it: Strange's inability to beam the boys to the right part of space and time; that creepy Lovecraftian triple-headed demon (exactly how is Barbara's head attached to the body of her "mate" since it seems to float in air behind them?); and the final calamity where the poor Doc can't seem to do anything right. Not only does Barbara lose her marbles (after Strange realizes that the once-sweet chick actually dug laying down with demons) but The Surfer ends up back on earth rather than on his home planet. Sheesh, the poor guy just can't catch a break. Unfortunately, Stainless leaves the group pissed-off and heading in different directions yet again, ostensibly to re-group yet again next issue. Perhaps not The Defenders but The Dented Fenders? Very cool cover, by the way. It might be a cheat but at least it doesn't give away the Barbara shocker up front. 

Matthew: This has engendered some rumination on the nature of our “non-team,” and what distinguishes it from Marvel’s other super-groups.  The FF is a family, the X-Men are students, and the Avengers, for lack of a more precise analogy, are like a sports team, given our obsession over their ever-changing line-up and group dynamics, yet when I think of the Defenders, I think of the Hulk’s friendships with “Magician,” “Sword-Girl,” and “Bird-Nose” (more on the last two as we roll along).  They were a lot like my #2 band, Talking Heads, in their respective heydays:  other players came and went, but four core members defined the group, and Stainless Steve will get us three-quarters of the way there in our very next issue as the old boys’ club comes crashing down.

Doc Savage 2
"Master of the Red Death!"
Story by Steve Englehart
Art by Ross Andru and Ernie Chua

Doc’s plane is shot down in Hidalgo, and the republic’s president rushes to the scene, grateful to find survivors.  Secretary of State Don Rubio Gorro escorts them to another plane, warning that revolution is brewing, and Doc resumes the search for his father’s inheritance in the fabled Valley of the Vanished.  Red-fingered Mayans, like the ones in New York, ambush them upon arrival, but hostilities cease at King Chaac’s command.  Chief Morning Breeze and his Red Fingers warrior clan voice disapproval of outsiders but Chaac overrules them.  He decrees that he will honor an old agreement made with the senior Savage: if judged worthy in thirty days, Doc will be welcome to ancestral gold under the condition that a third be put in a trust for the Mayan people, a fifth for Hidalgo, and the rest to “further your father’s work of relieving the oppressed and righting wrongs.”  When Morning Breeze abducts Doc’s crew, the Man of Bronze fakes their deaths in order to smoke out the mastermind.  Morning Breeze has been publically demonizing Doc, who in turn charges the chieftain with murder.  With a “Hocus pocus abradochus!  Alikazam!,” Doc “magically” resurrects the Fab Five from the Pit of Vipers.  They personally accuse Morning Breeze, and the Mayans hail Doc their “messenger from the gods.”

The Face of... Fear?
In a pyramid, Morning Breeze and the Son of the Feathered Serpent plot.  The chief makes it clear he does not believe his master is the god Kukulcan’s son, but only a man whose patronage will help him marry Princess Monja and steal Chaac’s throne.  His master demands only the valley’s gold to finance revolution, charging Morning Breeze to loose “the Red Death.”  Doc recognizes this as the disease that killed his father and, with Monja’s help, enters the pyramid forbidden to outsiders to take water samples and mix an antidote.  Morning Breeze’s revolutionist lies convince the healthy Mayans that Doc and his allies poisoned the people, but they turn against the warrior clan when Doc cures the dying.  The Son of the Feathered Serpent shoots the cowardly chief for fleeing.  Doc and this “Master of the Red Death” battle atop the pyramid, and in the end the false god plunges to his death.  Doc unmasks him as Don Rubio, declares his father avenged, and is judged worthy by Chaac.  With work to do, Doc declines the tearful princess’ invitation to stay and rule by her side.  Thanks to the gold, “Many a human fiend will rue the day he pitted himself against...this Bronze Man and his friends of iron.” -Gilbert Colon

Gilbert Colon: Early mention of Quetzalcoatl raised hopes of seeing the winged serpent swoop down on the streets of New York as it did in Larry Cohen’s movie Q, but this issue moves the action from Manhattan to Central America (another “unique locale” from Lester Dent’s master formula).  In retrospect, by covering less than one-third of the novel, issue #1 stayed too long in Manhattan setting up the Hidalgo adventure.  At the same time, that issue’s Bullpen Page predicted “half the fun...will be seeing how Messrs. Englehart and Andru got the fershlugginer plot into the space allowed,” and get it in they do. 

Peter: I believe I noted during last issue's discussion that I read quite a few of the original adventures (actually the Bantam paperbacks) when I was a kid and most left me on the edge of my seat. A pretty good achievement considering those tales had been written three or four decades before. Those purple prose cliffhangers worked where these four-color drudges don't.

Gilbert: Accusations that Marvel tried to turn the Fabulous Five into a Fantastic Four are best left to those who have devoured the 180 or so Doc Savage novels, but one thing seems sure  - “ the comic-book compression gives short shrift to their unique personalities, try as editor Roy Thomas and Englehart might.  Hulk-like Monk gets his time in the sun, as well as some riposte and repartee with Ham, but other than the use of Johnny’s trademark exclamation “superamalgamated,” the bunch remain mostly broadly-sketched background players.   

Peter: Maybe this is one of those characters (like The Shadow) that just doesn't translate to comic books well but the narrative, which should keep us guessing at every turn, is nothing but a grind. Stainless does as good a job as he can but (as Gilbert notes) squishing a 130-page novel into 40 comic pages will result in the loss of something. Here, it's character. Andru and Chua are all wrong for this strip, which needs a dynamic hand like Steranko or Adams (even Rich Buckler would be an improvement) to bring this legendary hero to life.

Gilbert: If the first two installments visually alternate uneasily between the 1930s and the 1970s, it is because Marvel at first “decided to bring Doc up to date” before “confess[ing] another Mighty Marvel Change-of-Mind” and, in a wise move, gradually “moved the whole crew back to the tumultuous era they belong in” because they “just looked too good among their original milieu.”  Retaining period settings wherever possible ought to be standard policy when adapting original pulp and superhero tales since classic characters, placed in their proper time and surroundings, so powerfully embody their eras.  

Peter: I thought it pretty classy that Roy admits that mistakes have been made in re: the time setting. This was a tough nut to crack evidently. Unfortunately, they never actually achieved the cracking.  

Gilbert: Whatever its occasional shortfalls, some of which can be ironed out along the way, the series is still a good introduction to “the FIRST superhero of ’em all,” and Marvel deserves kudos for taking its source material (the same Lester Dent novel, incidentally) far more seriously than the George Pal film fiasco of 1975.  

Peter: Put that way, Gilbert, you have a very strong argument!

Fantastic Four 129
"The Frightful Four -- Plus One!"
Story by Roy Thomas
Art by John Buscema and Joe Sinnott

Returning from their battle with the Mole Man, the members of the Fantastic Four are tired and grouchy. The Human Torch then makes an announcement: he’s leaving the team permanently, to join Crystal in the Great Refuge! Reed tries to stop him, but Johnny was prepared for this and gets away in the team’s NASA missile. When he gets to the land of the Inhumans, he finds it has a crystal dome around it. A few bird-like members attack him, and he feigns defeat so they will take him inside their city. Johnny’s plan works, but he is shocked to see that it is Black Bolt, not Maximus, who has orchestrated this attack. Back at the Baxter Building, Agatha Harkness appears in her astral form, telling the F.F. that events requiring her full attention necessitate that they pick up their son Franklin. When Reed decides he’d rather work in the lab, Sue storms off. Ben decides to go see Alicia, but gets diverted en route when an apparent cry for help is a trap. The Frightful Four are the culprits, but Medusa is on Ben’s side. They seem to be keeping the bad guys under control until the newest baddie makes her entrance—Thundra, a red haired, giant fighter of a woman. She sees Ben as her target, someone who can test her power. The tide turns, and Ben and Medusa are soon down for the count. -Jim Barwise

Jim: The Frightful Four were never one of my faves, mainly because of the weaker personalities of the Wizard and Trapster (who couldn’t hold a candle to our own Paste-Pot Pete!). So when we see Medusa is on Ben’s side, it’s a welcome relief, and the introduction of their new member, Thundra is a surprise. More interesting: what’s up with Agatha Harkness? What about Johnny’s choice to leave the team? And Black Bolt…?

Matthew: Yes, I know that domestic disharmony can make for good drama (hey, it worked for Bergman), yet as one who cherishes his 25-year marriage and has always been fond of Reed and Sue, I find it disheartening to see the division in the Richards family, which will get far worse before it gets better.  Thundra, conversely, is a character about whom I have no strong feelings or memories; it’s cool to see a woman tough enough to deliver such a “murderous blow” to Ben, but I believe her arrogance was pretty one-note.  Major points to the Buscema/Sinnott Dream Team for their depiction of all the action featuring the Frightful However Many—and a Galactus-sized demerit to Roy for putting that damned “comix” in the tagline when he took over.

Mark: To the highlights, Kato! Roy Boy, after riffing on FF #1 for three months, (thought-helmet origin replay, followed by first villain Moley's doomed romance), ups his game and adds to the FF's rogues gallery with Thundra, seven feet of bad-ass red-headed fury, whose most prominent accessory (besides her biker chain) is the hood ornament from a '63 Caddy Super-Glued to her forehead. While I did/still/will always miss Kirby's FF, John Buscema's Thundra is a lot more feminine than the women in Jack's contemporary New Gods books over at DC, who tend to look like Soviet weightlifters in drag. The Big T packs a right cross that drops the Thing in a "name-your-own-sound effects" panel. I was gonna defer to our own noted authority, Prof Joe, but WTH, let's go with "BLAH-SLAMMO!"

She can kill with a smile
She can wound with her eyes
Peter: Rascally Roy, the new voice of the FF after all them years with Stan, comes up with something new to start this adventure off: one of the Torch's patented (read: cliched) hissy fits over the long lost Crystal. This, after we've experienced yet another of Reed's physical and mental exhaustion scenes. So is this why we needed a new voice? What the heck is a "pack of scared conies"? Shouldn't it be "The Frightful Four - Minus One -Plus One"? I'll be the first to admit though, despite the avalanche of cliches and head scratchers (how is it that Medusa's hair is so long it can catch Ben Grimm way up in the sky?), this is a solid action-filled read and I'm jonesing to fly through the second chapter. Love that panel of steamin' mad Sue Storm stormin' out the door, hurling expletives, like a dock worker, over her shoulder at her dimwit genius hubby.

Scott: Now FF turns a corner into my least favorite era: the troubled marriage arc that lasts far too long. To be fair, more than three issues would have been too long. Not much pleasant reading here: Sue and Reed fight, Johnny is a douche and Thundra appears with the Frightful Four. The art is good, but the story just doesn't grab me. Marvel's First Family is more effective when they stay together. This separation crap is already boring. Ugh, this is going to be a long ride.

Mark: The Frightful Four return, Sandman back in Ditko-era green sweater, but the red-hair Amazon steals the show. Medusa pops up out of nowhere to help Ben battle the anti-FF, while Johnny, hot and horny, splits for the Great Refuge for some quality time with Crystal, setting the stage for my supreme moment of comic Existential Angst, just a couple months down the road. Stay tuned, kids. And bring a hankie.

Peter: According to the aforementioned Comic Reader #89, rumors were fast becoming reality and Jack Kirby was heading back to Marvel after less than two years at DC. As TCR editor/publisher Paul Levitz (future President of DC Comics!) relates: "As it stands today (Sept. 1) as I go to the printer, Jack is still working for National and will be until his contract expires in two years. However had I written this story a week ago it might have said that Jack was at Marvel. The true story behind this is: a/ long; b/ impossible to get completely and factually, and c/ mostly none of anyone's business." More interesting and, more to the point, indicative of how bad things were going for Jack and his failed experiments over at DC, was this paragraph: "The only comments for print were: Roy Thomas: 'We'd like to see Jack back here, of course, and he would probably do mostly pencilling." Carmine Infantino: 'In the hypothetical instance that he did leave, we would probably keep publishing the titles that he is doing now.'" Not exactly a stern"no" to the rumor, Carmine. I wonder if, had the blockbuster jump actually happened in '72 rather than '75, The King would have returned to his signature title and Big John bumped to another. Of course, when Jack did come back, it was to Captain America and the glory days were in the rear view.

The Amazing Spider-Man 115
"The Last Battle!"
Story by Gerry Conway
Art by John Romita and Tony Mortellaro

Hammerhead busts into Doc Ock’s Westchester HQ, sending the sinful scientist to safety behind a steel door where he attacks with laser beams and his henchmen gas the attacking goons. Spider-Man wakes up from being belted by a vase by Aunt May as Hammerhead busts through the door, but Ock is able to slip away and meet May, where he cuts the phone cord to keep her from calling the police. Meanwhile, Gwen goes to the Bugle to find Peter, and ends up heading towards Westchester with Robbie Robertson and Ned Leeds in tow. Spidey bashes his way through Ock’s men, but is beaten by Hammerhead (who claims to have stolen something from Ock’s control room), then the metal-meloned mobster drives off just as Gwen, Robbie and Ned arrive and call the cops. Reeling from his ulcer and stomach muscles being injured, Spidey uses sheer will to get back up, when Doc Ock and Aunt May show up! During the battle, Ock professes love for May, which causes Spidey to reach his boiling point! Losing control, he beats Ock to submission—until Aunt May pulls a gun on him! As she pulls the trigger, the approaching sirens distract her, and Spidey slips out a window. A quick change into Peter, and he gets the news that the captured Ock has asked Aunt May to stay on as housekeeper, and she accepts, knowing it’s time for her to let Peter be his own man. Whew…..
-Joe Tura

Joe: The first thing you notice about this issue is the cover. (Most obvious comment in the history of this blog. Ever.) Not only does it once again eschew the framed style of most Marvel covers in ’72, and not only does it feature stupendous Romita scribblings, but it also includes the ridiculous shot of Aunt May pointing a gun at Spidey! What the??? Geez, let’s hope the insides are a little less insane, no matter how well-drawn….And it is! In fact, it’s “The mind-boggling conclusion of the greatest action-epic in this, the Marvel Renaissance!” OK, maybe Gerry is exaggerating a little, but it is a solid wrap-up.  Great fight scenes, drawn to perfection as only the Jazzy one can, backed by a script that moves along nicely, with everything making sense, even May pulling a gun. No matter how hokey that panel might appear, and how soap opera-like, it’s a moment of character development for May, something that we haven’t seen probably ever. Of course her accepting Ock’s job offer will lead to no good whatsoever, but if that means the tentacled tyrant returning, it’s fine by me. I know, I know, careful what I wish for, you’re all saying by the water cooler …

Mark: Lot of rock'em-sock'em action as Doc Ock and Flathead's gangs battle it out, paint-by-numbers style. Spidey, still in cheap eye-showing-stolen-from-a-costume-shop mask (the best bit of this whole arc), takes an ulcer-aggravating gut-shot from Flathead's flat head, and for the second consecutive ish is in mortal peril from a .45, this time brandished by Merry Maid Aunt May. After failing her marksmanship exam, she tells Pete - in what's meant to be a last page jaw-dropper - that she's staying in Westchester to dust test-tubes even after her employer, the disarmed Doc, is hauled off to the pokey. Lucky for Ock the 70's legal system didn't have a 17 strike rule.

Scott: A really good conclusion to the Hammerhead/Doc Ock/ Aunt May arc. It's tremendously satisfying and the final twist at the end is sublime. And considering Ock and May's history, it makes perfect sense. The supporting cast of Gwen, Ned and Robbie finding May's location was also refreshingly logical. These guys are investigative reporters, so they would have to be good at digging up info.

Matthew: It’s rare to see a reprint cut with as much disdain for the reader as in Marvel Tales #94, where—with the head-snapping suddenness only a missing page creates—we are wrenched from mid-conversation into an entirely different one in an entirely different locale between two entirely different characters, sans transition, as though it were supposed to be one continuous exchange.  I thought a page was out of sequence, like last time, but no.  Even before the seismic shock of #121 (I can’t believe it’s so close), Gerry clearly liked to shake things up, yet I didn’t care for the May-to-Otto convergence even back in Stan’s day.  Romita’s art looks a bit cramped and muddy, although the latter can possibly be blamed on the crappy reprint as well.

Peter: Weak climax to a pretty good arc. There just seems to be a lot of running around and threatening but nothing of substance. I did like the playful jab at The King when one of Ock's goons remarks that Hammerhead's henchmen are carrying antiquated weapons: "Where'd they think they are, anyway -- in the days of the mob?" By the way, how could Robbie Robertson possibly jump out of his chair in excitement when he sniffs a great story out of May Parker hiring on as a maid? Slow day at The Bugle, is all's I have to say. Well, I'll also say any Spidey-tale that makes May a central part of the story is doomed to failure.

Scott: Spidey dealing with a battle injury and the crappy mask also adds to the mix. Once Doc inadvertently pushes Spidey's buttons and causes him to snap, it's a great moment. If not for May getting the pistol from somewhere (we never saw her scoop it up from anyone), Spidey would have beat Ock to a pulp. Finally a cover is not a cheat and the get-out is well done. The art is sublime, really some of the best Romita ever. This issue is a winner all around.

Mark: Gerry Conway, still settling in the Big-Chair of Marvel's top title, nudges the characters slightly forward while wrapping up a gang war in workmanlike fashion. Hammerhead still ain't an inspired baddie and a steel-melon doesn't make him a credible threat to Ock or the Web-Slinger. Jazzy Johnny's in the dock, too. The otherwise great art doesn't disguise the fact Hammerhead looks like a bad Dick Tracey villain, right down to the hockey-puck nose. It's a rare character design that Romita crapped out on. Hey, nobody bats .1000.

Joe: Good to see kindly Doc Ock is still spouting angelic words towards people such as “dolt”, “abysmal stupidity”, “imbecile”, “vermin”, etc. What a guy! I mean, May sees something in him, so he can’t be all that bad. Must be the way he fills out that green jumpsuit. Or the way he has with words. “Slander and calumny!”

Peter: Obviously, Professor Joe "I never met a sound effect I didn't like" Tura was napping during this issue as he makes no mention of comicdom's strangest ever: "BUNCH!" Try imagining that sound.

There's been a lot of discussion since we began MU about the release schedule of certain titles. Thanks to a recently acquired stash of The Comic Reader (an essential tool in those pre-internet days), we can present you an example of a typical Marvel release schedule. Obviously, this doesn't include all of Marvel's titles as some of them were bi-monthly and this was their "skip week," but we think this still gives a good indicator of what went on sale when. From the pages of TCR #88, August 1972 (all December cover-dated):

Titles on sale 8/29/72
The Incredible Hulk 158
Daredevil 94
Iron Man 53
<- Kid Colt Outlaw 165
Millie the Model 199
Chili 20
Monsters on the Prowl 20
Wyatt Earp 31
Supernatural Thrillers 1
Shanna the She-Devil 1

Titles on sale 9/5/72
Thor 206
Sub-Mariner 56
Amazing Spider-Man 115
Avengers 106
Marvel Triple Action 8
Captain America 156
The Outlaw Kid 13
Doc Savage 2

Titles on sale 9/12/72

Harvey 6
Rawhide Kid 106
Conan the Barbarian 21
Marvel Tales 40
Astonishing Tales 15
The X-Men 79 ->
Combat Kelly 4
Hero for Hire 4
Gunhawks 2
Fear 11

Titles on sale 9/19/72
Journey Into Mystery 2
Warlock 3
The Defenders 3
Our Love Story 20
Fantastic Four 129
Jungle Action 2
L'il Kids 9
Marvel Spotlight 7
Sgt. Fury 105


  1. Professor Scott, just to clarify: Tuska did not ink Buckler's pencils on this issue of THE AVENGERS. He penciled the flashback pages that were cannibalized from the aborted CAPTAIN AMERICA #114, and then Cockrum apparently inked the entire patchwork quilt (quite well indeed).

    Professor Mark: Glad you like my "Mattasha" moniker!

    1. Interesting. Color me chagrined. Either way, the inking was quite good and I didn't notice a great disparity in styles. Tuska was still better at inks than his Hannah Barbera pencils. ZOINKS!

  2. Professor Matthew,
    In re: "Mattasha": I only steal, er, quote from, the best. And I'm looking forward to me and Paste Pot (Dean P) having a vigorous discussion and/or bar fight over the "Bad Cap" arc when we get together later this month in that little slice of Tea Party paradise known as Arizona...

  3. Prof. Mark, no doubt the sound effect of Thundra smashing Benjy G. would be "BUNCH!"

  4. There are reasons to think that "The Black Stone" is one of Robert E. Howard's Professor John Kirowan stories -- the Hungary setting, Justin Geoffrey, etc. -- and one of those reasons is "the monstrous toad-thing." In "The Thing on the Roof," narrated by either Kirowan or his protégé John Conrad (both occult adventurers), there is the Temple of the Toad housing the "peculiarly repulsive ... crimson toad-carved jewel Tussmann called the Key." ("Dig Me No Grave," narrated by Conrad, mentions "the Grymlanns of Toad's-heath Manor.") Both "Thing" and "Dig," incidentally, were adapted by Marvel (in Chamber of Chills #3 and Journey Into Mystery #1 respectively).

  5. Somebody should do a Sunday Special on those.

  6. I for one would love to see a Conan issue set on Counter-Earth.

  7. Yes, the coming issues of Fantastic Four will lead to a very long marital separation. While some may not like it, others will. The story line does create considerable drama and does allow us to see that the Fantastic Four can survive quite well with a change in membership.