Wednesday, October 31, 2012

December 1968: The Fantastic... Five?

Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. 7
Our Story

Overwhelmed by superior numbers in a foreign embassy, Fury escapes through a window, but not before being injected with a drug that “induces a state of hyper-intense paranoia” and is fatal in six hours.  Knowing that standard emergency procedure is his only hope, Nick must reach the pick-up point for a scheduled 6:00 vortex-beam pick-up, yet cannot differentiate friend from foe, and ends up thrashing Gabe, Jimmy, and Dum-Dum when he mistakes them for Centurius, the Yellow Claw, and Baron Strucker.  Fury accepts the help of a missionary, against whom enemy agents he sees as Howlers Dino and Eric try to turn him, and is rescued by the vortex beam in time to be given the antidote and identify the doctor as a traitor.

MB: In my ongoing quest to give people the benefit of the doubt, I’m obliged to admit that Goodwin’s story is an imaginative one, with a script that executes his premise fairly well, and if he’d had an artist even approaching the caliber of Jaunty Jim (who, for the second and last time, puts a dress on a pig with his strikingly Dalíesque cover), this might have been a winner.  As it is, Springer’s efforts come off looking like nothing so much as cut-rate imitation Steranko, and additionally, it occurred to me while re-reading this issue that my overwhelming impression when I look at his work is of…socks.  Seriously, I don’t know if the guy had an ankle fetish or what, but check out the bottom of page 11 and especially the first and last panels on page 12 if you don’t believe me.

PE: Springer also has an affection for spinning circles as eyeballs, an effect that had me laughing out loud. Stan (or Roy) obviously sent a memo to Springer's office letting him know that, Steranko or not, this title be must be enjoyed by those dropping acid. It's lucky that, despite not being able to tell one person from the next, Fury is able to guide Sister Angela (of the All-Faith Mission) to the V-Beam pick-up. Astounding that the good Sister's car was able to make those hairpin turns on that mountain road, despite the fact no one was driving the dang thing! The annoying habit of being dropped into the middle of a Fury adventure and not being given enough information continues. I get the feeling that the powers that be wanted one-issue adventures and that's all. 

The Amazing Spider-Man 67
Our Story

Shrunken to six inches tall, The Amazing Spider-Man is terrorized by Mysterio's carnival of terror. Spidey must deal with the deadly hall of poisonous mirrors and the house of horrors before he discovers Mysterio's trick. The wall-crawler has been given a post-hypnotic suggestion and his nemesis has been projecting a giant vision of himself. Once he gets to the bottom of the illusion, our hero puts Mysterio in his place.

MB: Mooney is back, and this time, he’s sticking around for a while; the faces are still a little murky in the scenes with the supporting cast, but his style seems especially suited to Spidey’s atmospheric tussle with Mysterio.  Said tussle is handled extremely well on all counts—I might even call it a tour de force—even if I had to chuckle when Spidey thought, “He hasn’t allowed me a second to stop—to think!,” wondering if Stan had the same attitude toward the reader.  I’m not gonna claim that the story doesn’t seem a bit far-fetched in the final analysis, but for a guy who’s never been a big fan of Mysterio’s, I was pretty impressed, and this visually striking two-parter goes a long way toward helping to explain why he’s such an enduring villain.

PE: I was a little less enamored though, overall, it was a passable adventure. I still don't understand why these dumb bad guys waste their time trying to defeat their superhero enemies when they could be expending that energy using these elaborate tricks on jewelry store owners. Hit two stores really quick before Spider-Man gets on to you and then retire. It seems so easy. May Parker's doc is a hoot - he seems to be sure that Peter is responsible for all of his aunt's woes. In fact, Peter seems to be the only thing on the guy's mind. He'll probably end up being a super-villain someday. And why would Spidey exclaim "Why won't he give me a breather?" What super-villain looks at his watch and says "Yep, time for a rest!"? 

Doctor Strange 175
Our Story

After a pleasant walk in Central Park, Dr. Strange and Clea take a taxi to her new apartment, unaware that the Sons of Satannish have the duo in their sights. Gathering power from their master, the Sons attack the taxi, but the Master of the Mystic Arts heads off the attack by using his astral form. Clea is left alone at home while Dr. Strange returns to his Sanctum. Realizing that the cab driver knows where Clea lives and that his knowledge could be co-opted, Strange rushes to her door, but Wong has already led her out into the streets, ostensibly to protect her. They are accosted by muggers and Clea is pulled into an alley by one of the Sons of Satannish, who claims to be her friend.

Jack: If the Will Eisner influence was ever in doubt, just look at the first two pages of this story, which are as clear an homage to The Spirit as one can get. As for Satannish, it looks like he’ll be a major foe for Dr. Strange for a long time. Why call him Satannish? Is that because he’s like Satan, only not so much? Will we ever meet Godish? And for that matter, does Clea ever change her clothes? Does she have a closet full of the same outfit like Matlock? Why does she wear that giant pointy thing around her neck? Doesn’t she run into things with that? I know I would.

MB: I’ve said it before, and I’ll probably say it again, but Dr. Strange really seems to have made the transition from split book to solo title better than most, with the now stabilized Thomas/Colan/Palmer creative team consistently firing on all cylinders. So obviously, like those revered Thomas/Adams X-Men issues for which we’ve been salivating, it didn’t sell well enough to stave off cancellation. WTF? At any rate, Roy’s “opening skirmish in some fateful war” is no exception, filled with wonderful touches: Gene’s atmospheric opening in the sewers, recalling The Third Man; Asmodeus jockeying for power with Satannish; Clea’s fish-out-of-water woes; Strange’s on-again, off-again garb and frantic “The cab driver knows!”; the sinister cliffhanger.

Prince Namor, The Sub-Mariner 8
Our Story

It begins with an elderly lady writing down the day’s events in her diary. We next see Namor taking Betty to Diane Arliss’s apartment so she can take some of those pills that help her breathe out of water. Cops are after Namor because it looks like he is responsible for the falling death of villain Paul Destine. At Diane’s place, Namor reveals how a woman, before WW II, had convinced him to spare America and fight the Nazis instead. The authorities have recovered the helmet that Destiny had worn prior to his death. They want some heroes to transport it to Washington. The Avengers are contacted but are too busy. Luckily, the Thing has been sent by Reed Richards to carry out the task. Namor finds out and believes that the helmet must be returned to the sea, from whence it came, or it will destroy the human race. Not much for negotiations, Subby knocks over the Thing and runs off with the helmet. Of course, the Thing is not so easily stopped. The two heroes battle it out across the city. It’s a wild brawl that appears to be a draw until Namor smacks the Thing in the head with a live electrical box that renders the orange monster down for the count. Namor appears about ready to deliver a death blow before an old woman steps out from the crowd and orders him to stop before the whole city is ruined. Realizing that the battle is over, the Sub-Mariner flies off to the sea with the helmet. The old lady turns out to be the widow who befriended Namor all those years ago before the Second World War. Her name was Betty Dean.

Tom: I tell ya, this series is so good that I don’t even think an appearance from Ka-Zar could ruin it. A cool fight issue that also threw in some nostalgia, lest we forget how long Namor has been around in the comic book business. While the heroes’ misunderstanding battle scenario can get old in the Marvel Universe, I always just get the impression that the Thing and Namor simply don’t like one another.

MB: Funny, I was just saying we’d dodged an FF-related Marvel Misunderstanding bullet for Namor, when in fact all we’d done was to postpone it, but a Subby/Thing smackdown is surely worth the price of admission. This issue marks the Silver-Age debut of Betty Dean, the former policewoman who was Namor’s frequent companion during the ’40s, and would remain a significant supporting character for the duration of his current title. In Buscema’s magical hands, Namor continues to look as good as he ever has, but it’s interesting that although Big John would later rival King Kirby (in this writer’s opinion) in his depiction of the FF, he clearly hasn’t quite mastered the admittedly challenging knack of drawing the Thing; I guess practice makes perfect.

Captain America 108
Our Story

A SHIELD agent delivers the bad news to Captain America: someone has captured Sharon Carter. The good news is that she has a SHIELD tracking device on board and Cap is able to find her, held in a ramshackle building in New York. Her captor turns out to be none other than The Trapster, trying to get information on  Project: Fireball. Sharon swears she'll go to her grave before spilling the beans. Luckily for her, Cap shows up in time to rescue her from a paste worse than death and discovers the fourth-tier foe is only pulling a job for The Red Skull.  When Cap defeats The Trapster, he's in for another little surprise: the Sharon Carter being held is not his love but a SHIELD LMD. Out of the shadows comes the real Agent 13 and the couple have a little time to themselves while The Trapster escapes.

PE: Why would The Skull hire a screw-up like Paste Pot to do his dirty work for him if this Project: Fireball is so important? Sure, The Trapster is a dope but would even this thickhead be fooled by an LMD? And did he kidnap the real Agent 13 and she somehow smuggled her decoy in or did he nab the dummy in the first place? Too many questions. Babe or no, if my secret agent girlfriend were standing around watching me fight for my life without lifting a finger, I'd deck her.

Is there anything Tony Stark can't do?

MB:  After reading B.T.’s comment on the February 1968 post (which, due to the Professor Matthew Time Paradox, appeared less than a week before I write these words), I’m especially sensitive to the matter of Syd Shores’s inks, yet I have to say that without reference to Kirby’s unadorned pencils, they didn’t bother me this time around.  However, I was bothered—apparently more so than Cap, who had every right to be—by the abrupt, somewhat unsatisfying final twist.  I presume the theory was that if left in the dark, Cap would fight harder in the belief that Sharon was genuinely in danger, but it still seems like kind of a cheap shot; that said, while I don’t regard the erstwhile Paste-Pot Pete as an A-list villain, he appears well matched with Cap.

Captain Marvel 8
Our Story

A damaged Aakon freighter trying to land on the moon for repairs is spotted by the Helion; Yon-Rogg is wounded while leading the attack, so Mar-Vell takes command and withdraws before resuming his mission.  Investigating Dr. Lawson’s home, he finds evidence of great wealth, and the creation of a huge robot, before agents of the Organization that underwrote him to the tune of $12 million appear, skirmishing with Mar-Vell and plunging to their deaths as they flee.  Mar-Vell reveals some of this to Carol (whose romantic overtures Yon-Rogg gleefully shows to Una), learns from the robot assassin’s computer cards that Lawson assigned it to hunt and kill him as a test, and apparently destroys the “cybertron” after it has found Lawson’s plane.

MB: I’d love to give Drake credit for finally tackling the mystery of Walt Lawson (which, ironically, proves that Carol’s suspicions were correct, if for at least some of the wrong reasons), but things just go from bad to worse here, most notably in terms of the time sequence.  I don’t expect that the Marvel time elapsed would equal the nine months of real time since Yon-Rogg inadvertently shot down Lawson’s plane in Marvel Super-Heroes #13, but surely enough time has passed for it to make no sense that both the Organization and the robot are only now seeking him.  Also:  why would Mar-Vell jeopardize his cover by revealing any of this to Carol?  And why would he bear the real Lawson’s scent?  All that plus another self-repairing giant robot.  “Great Pama,” indeed.

"Eeeyaaa!" Suck it up and don't let the pain show!

PE: I thought I had misread the whole "here's what's going on" speech to Carol so thanks for reassuring me, Professor Matthew. I'm not sure if it's because Don Heck mostly avoids human characters this issue (a wise move) but the art was mostly passable and, in spots, darn right pretty decent. The story's a big fat yawn though. I've seen government workers move faster.

The Invincible Iron Man 8
Our Story

While Iron Man battles the newly-strengthened Gladiator and her Maggia henchmen loot Stark Industries, Whitney Frost (aka Big M, head of the Maggia) takes a stroll down memory lane. She wasn't always a cold-hearted mafia don-na. Once she was the daughter of millionaire Byron Frost, toast of the society pages, and sweetheart of the heir to a vast fortune. Then daddy died and the truth came out of the shadows like some sordid affair: she wasn't Frost's daughter but, in actuality, the daughter of Count Nefaria! The Count reveals that his plan includes Whitney taking over the Maggia but, wanting nothing more than a good husband, three swell kids, and a picket fence around her 100 acres, Whitney poo-poos any such future. Alas, her beau shows his true side when he dumps her like a sack of 1960s DC Comics and she returns, head down, to her father and his nefarious ways... At that, Whitney comes back to the present just as her boys blow Tony Stark's secret weapons vault and the battle between Gladiator and Iron Man spills over into Stark Industries. Will Shellhead overcome the shutdown of 90% of his weapons? Will Whitney Frost be able to fight off the advances of The Gladiator? Will Jasper Sitwell be heartbroken when he finds out that Whitney has been taking him for a ride? Most important of all, will Janice Cord ever be able to put aside the fact that Tony Stark is a coward and concentrate on his billions?

PE: I suspected that, given a bit of time, Archie Goodwin would nail down this superhero thing. It's been pretty shaky thus far but everything here (well, almost everything) represents a good, solid, entertaining comic book. I could do without the pop references to Jim Morrison and Rogers and Hammerstein (I swear Roy Thomas had a hand in this story) and Jasper's dopey mottos ("Don't yield, back SHIELD" has got to be retired), but they're blissfully few and far between. If I was a superhero and the fratamastats started failing on my armor, I'm not sure I'd call them out to my enemy as they fizzle. You might want to keep your lousy poker hand close to your chest. I only hope Shellhead has learned his lesson this outing and he won't be so casual in the future. Those SHIELD Life Model Decoys have been in some very questionable situations this month, ones that push even the boundaries of the Marvel Universe (see also Captain America #108).

MB: It’s a mystery to me why Iron Man doesn’t explain that his “employer’s” sudden exit enabled him to summon his bodyguard, which would not only prevent Janice’s thinking him a coward, but also make people less likely to conclude that they are one and the same.  That said, it’s nice to get the background of Whitney Frost, aka Big M, and interesting to note that although their backgrounds differ in many ways, Archie has made both of the strip’s current leading ladies exemplify the sins-of-the-fathers theme.  After their frequent use by Gene Colan in this strip and elsewhere, the irregular panel layouts are less of a novelty than they once were, but they do seem to lend themselves to and accentuate the action that remains Tuska’s strong suit as IM battles on.

The Mighty Thor 159
Our Story

His absence not having diminished his skill as a surgeon, Dr. Don Blake saves another man’s life with said abilities, and returns to the quiet of his inner office. Turning out the lights, lying down, he clears his thoughts of everything save for the mystery of …who he is. In a sleep-like state, he sees himself as Thor, but with his thoughts as Don Blake, returning to Asgard, greeting Heimdall, and seeking an audience with Odin, to find the answers he needs. His father acknowledges this need, and sets to provide some answers. Suddenly Blake is awake again, but with Odin’s presence in the room; he sees more memories of Thor’s youth. Brave, strong and noble, the young prince is nonetheless brash and arrogant, and does what HE feels is right, despite the consequences it may cause to others. Case in point #1: Thor pursues a deadly Birdbeast into Niffelheim, despite the truce Odin had arranged with the Storm Giants that neither would enter each others turf. Case #2: In a carousing, jousting room, Thor arm-wrestles a warrior named Gondolff, said to be unbeatable. All is in good fun until Volstagg carelessly knocks the table over, bringing accusations of a fixed match. Things get a little rough until Odin commands all to stop. Cut to Odin facing Thor, mountainside, where the All-Father tells his son he is lacking in nothing… but humility. Needing to learn what a god must know, Odin banishes Thor to Earth, to live the life of a frail mortal doctor named (guess who?) Don Blake, there to learn the lesson of serving others and being far less than all-powerful. In the present again, the riddle is clarified: Don Blake and Thor are one and the same, the former existing only as a different form of the latter!

JB: Overall a satisfying origin, though I believe in the future, things are explained as being a little more complex. Of course I have to say that it’s a simple way to explain the impossibility of the Jane Foster romance (Odin apparently had decided beforehand it would never work), but fair enough.  The arm wrestle with Gondolff is nothing but fun, but darn it, who would have won?  To this point in time it does put the pieces in place, making sense that Thor is the real deal. This being the case, what would have happened if the good doctor's life had ever been really in danger? Would his inner strength as Thor have saved him, or was he truly vulnerable in this state?

PE: This could very well be considered Marvel's first reboot in that Stan rewrites the six-year old origin of both the lame Dr. Don Blake and The Mighty Thor (one issue after re-presenting that origin!). I'm not sure I cotton to this particular turn of events and it's funny that I don't remember the tweak. I came to Thor much later but it's the original origin I've always known. Seems to me that Stan just got tired of all the letters to the editor asking for explanations on time and space and came up with a lazy answer. That's not to say it's a bad issue; far from it. It crackles along just like most of its predecessors. You can see quite a bit of this tale up on the screen in Kenneth Branagh's Thor when Odin banishes his son to earth. Branagh wisely sidestepped the Don Blake character altogether (other than a quick wink at the fans) as it was just too complicated to keep a viewer's interest and would have added quite a bit of length to the running time. The sequence when Odin (Anthony Hopkins) sends Thor (Chris Hemsworth) to learn humility is ripped virtually whole from this issue.

MB: So it seems that Dr. Donald Blake never really existed, except as a fictional persona who sprang full-blown from Zeus’s—excuse me, Odin’s—brow to teach his son some humility, after Thor broke the royal truce and trespassed in Niffelheim, the land of the storm giants.  Well, it certainly does clear up some of those long-standing questions in a fairly logical way, and if I’m not mistaken, this bears some resemblance to what was depicted in the Thor movie, which pretty much dispensed with the origin story from Journey into Mystery #83 that was reprinted last time. Making him a lame doctor was indeed an inspired way to achieve that goal, although it’s odd to think that at least indirectly, it led to Blake/Thor’s ill-starred romance with his nurse, Jane Foster.

The X-Men 51
Our Story

Now that Magneto has revealed that Lorna is his daughter, the fight for her soul (and body, in Iceman's case) begins. The X-Kids vote to take on Magneto but, without the leadership of Professor X, they quickly realize they're outmatched. After a vicious battle, the group heads back to base to lick their wounds. There, frustration gets the best of them and they fight amongst themselves (something they don't usually do). Iceman leaves in a huff. Meanwhile, a new villain has popped up... but that's another story.

PE: I'm not sure if Steranko's art inspired Arnold Drake to dig wayyyyyy down deep and come up with something that didn't smell like ten bags of manure outside the front door but I have to say this was the most entertaining issue of The X-Men since that goofy Frankenstein story way back in #40. There's no new ground broken but there's the germ of a good story buried under a lot of bad dialogue and a solid climax, ironically begun with the type of inner-squad skirmish that has been done to death in The Avengers and Fantastic Four. Bobby and Curt's kerfuffle  resembles one of those Major League Baseball showdowns that happens now and then - the player holding himself back and yelling "Hold me back or I'll kill the SOB!" - lots of threats, no action. You gotta love the X-Babies strategy for confronting the obviously more powerful Magneto: talk tough, attack, then get the hell out of Dodge before you get knocked on your asses. Bobby sure knows how to sweet talk a lady though, as when he calls Lorna Drake "a warm hunk of girl" and then gets that look of euphoria every icey mutant gets before having his first, um, popsicle. And who the heck is Erik The Red? For the first time since the first batch of issues, I can honestly say I'm intrigued by what will happen next.

JS: Interestingly enough, I too thought this was the best X-issue since, well, I can't even remember. And it starts off with a bang thanks to Steranko's awesome splash page.

MB: Obviously, my expectations for this issue were considerably lower than they’d been for the first half of the Steranko double-feature, so while he and our merry mutants don’t seem to be the inspired match I’d hoped for, I was able to appreciate some elements of the artwork a little better this time.  The splash page is more like the Steranko we know and love, and Cyclops—my favorite X-Man—fares best among his teammates, especially in page 3, panel 4; page 7, panel 5; and page 8, panel 1.  Drake’s dialogue is, alas, still the pits, often seeming out of character with the team established by Lee and Thomas, and it’s strange that the cover only illustrates the very last page, but at least the story is somewhat more straightforward here than in the past two issues.

JS: One of the interesting things about this issue is how it was plotted. Sure, the first few pages were filled with the standard internal X-squabbling while Magneto stood there tapping his toe waiting for the fight to begin, but once Cyke through the first blow it was non-stop for the next 10 pages. Unfortunately, lest you think you might have stumbled on a complete action-packed issue, they were hiding the bulk of the 'can't we all just get along' talk for the last few pages. If I was only willing to believe that the stories could maintain  even this level of quality for just a little while longer...

Daredevil 47
Our Story

Daredevil is in Vietnam to help entertain the troops. After his performance, he is introduced to a man named Willie Lincoln, who was recently blinded by a grenade after having saved his whole platoon. Daredevil gives him encouragement and tells him to look up Matt Murdock when he goes home to New York. A few months pass and Willie is back home, visiting his former place of employment, the New York Police Department. He is going on trial for bribery charges he was accused of before he went over to Nam. Karen Page, now working for another firm, recommends that Willie go see Matt Murdock under the condition that he doesn’t reveal that she was the one who sent him. At Matt’s office, Willie explains his story and how he was set up by a mob boss because he refused to go on the take. After their meeting, Matt follows Willie home in his Daredevil disguise. Sure enough, his instincts were right when he finds some thugs sent by the mob boss to take Willie down. Daredevil easily dispatches them and then it’s on to the trial. Using his cunning legal skills, Matt gets the witness against Willie to crack and admit that he was forced to testify that he saw Willie taking a bribe. Once Willie has been cleared by the courts, it doesn’t take long for some more thugs to be sent to kill him. Fighting in the dark at his office, Daredevil is able to beat up the thugs. Since it happened in complete darkness, the hoods believe that it was Willie who somehow was able to defeat them. This is what Double D wanted all along, figuring that the cowardly criminals would be too scared to continue coming after a guy who can still defend himself.

Tom: A surprisingly mature story for a Daredevil comic. While it’s not the greatest issue I’ve ever read by any means, as one who respects veterans of our United States military, it was a nice little tribute to the troops.

Tugging at the old heartstrings

MB: In Son of Origins, Stan calls this “a yarn of which I’m particularly proud….I was trying to really say something in this story, and to say it softly.” Admittedly, making Willie a vet and an ex-cop and blind and black and the namesake of Abraham Lincoln might appear to stack the deck in a somewhat unsubtle manner, but aside from that minor quibble, this issue definitely consolidates the progress made with the recent Jester trilogy. George Klein continues bringing out the best in whomever he is inking, be it Buscema or, in this case, Colan, and the overall level of quality in Stan’s little tale of “man’s inhumanity to man” is impressively high, with a moving script and excellent artwork deployed in the service of a story that remains just as relevant today.

Jack: Matthew, I agree with you. I love Daredevil and I was always a big fan of the O'Neil/Adams "social justice" stories in Batman and, of course, Green Lantern/Green Arrow. This is my kind of story!

The Incredible Hulk 110
Our Story

Ka-Zar wants the Hulk to change back into Bruce Banner so the scientist can help stop the machine that is affecting the earth’s weather. The Hulk wants nothing to do with Banner so he fights it out with Ka-Zar and his pet saber toothed tiger, Zabu. The denizens of the savage land are no match for the green goliath’s strength and he knocks Ka-Zar out. The Swamp Men come upon Ka-Zar and capture him to use as a sacrifice. We learn that a race of aliens visited the savage land long ago and left the golden machine that is now causing such havoc. They also left behind a giant monster statue with four arms, named Umbu. The monstrous blue statue comes to life once it senses that the Hulk has been tampering with the doomsday device. Umbu tracks down the Hulk and the two clash violently. As powerful as the Hulk is, he has trouble with Umbu, who seems practically indestructible—he has a wand that shoots disintegrating rays and he can shoot knockout gas from his person. It’s the latter that stops the Hulk and changes him back to Bruce Banner. Umbu ignores Banner as he goes off to check on the weather machine. Banner races ahead of him to the cave where he is able to take out the machine’s main power source, halting its reverse rotation of the earth’s axis. Umbu drops to the ground incapacitated as his power was connected to the machine. Meanwhile, Ka-Zar narrowly avoids being killed by the Swamp Men. He fights them off until they realize Umbu has been defeated and they all run away. Ka-Zar races back to the cave where he finds Banner dead, apparently a victim of the machine’s radioactivity.

Tom: As in previous Hulk issues, a science fiction twist with some aliens saves the series from the boring doldrums. One would have to assume that the Hulk took it easy in his fight with Ka-Zar, since a creature who can press 100 tons would surely be able to pop off this Tarzan reject’s head with the flick of a finger since he is merely a human, albeit a very strong and stupid one. My main gripe is with Umbu’s appearance. Compared to the earlier beasts that were created back in Marvel’s monster era, he looks quite pathetic. 

You know it's bad when Ka-Zar is the smart one.
MB: I’ll calm down and try to accept the Trimpe/Severin art (which to me still looks like trimpe/SEVERIN art) for what it is, while noting with interest that there seems to be a distinct familial resemblance between Johnny’s work here and sib Marie’s lengthy tenure on old Jade-Jaws. But as for Stan’s story, damned if it doesn’t seem for the most part like just a rehash of the previous issue, except for the dubious distinction of throwing Umbu into the mix. “Umbu, the Unliving, lives again!” Am I the only one bothered by that statement? And although Ka-Zar does bring this up (“The fight I fight is yours as well!! The devil machine will doom us all!”), seriously, what are the Swamp Men thinking of? Are they dupes, or just intimidated by Umbu?

The Avengers 59
Our Story

A new superhero named Yellowjacket breaks up a street crime and shows up at Avengers Mansion to request membership. He claims to have killed Goliath, so the Avengers try to beat him up, but he grabs the Wasp and kidnaps her, flying her off to his secret tree house retreat. He yells at her and then plants a big kiss on her lips before they head back to Avengers Mansion, where Jan announces that she is going to marry the yellow guy.

Jack: It stinks that we all know Yellowjacket is Hank Pym. If we didn’t know that, this might be a pretty neat cliffhanger. As it is, it seems kind of silly, especially with Hank as the unreliable narrator telling everyone about murdering himself. I’m sure Prof. Matthew liked the little Shrinking Man scene where the tiny Goliath was trapped in the spider’s web!

MB: I don’t think I’m raining on anyone’s parade by acknowledging that Yellowjacket is Hank Pym, not only because it’s been mentioned in this blog more than once, but also because, in retrospect, there are a fair amount of clues sprinkled throughout this issue. The reason I bring it up is that his obnoxious behavior, although essential to the story, is tough for a YJ fan like me to take, and must be regarded as a necessary evil. It’s interesting that Big John actually seems to draw Hank’s face a little differently when he’s in his YJ outfit, which of course makes no logical sense, and—again, with 20/20 hindsight—points up the fact that Jan, who has presumably shared his bed on more than one occasion, could not possibly fail to recognize Hank at such close range.

With outfits like this, it's no
wonder he started dressing
all in black.

Fantastic Four 81
Our Story

With Sue temporarily out of action as a full-time member of the Fantastic Four, Crystal sees it as the perfect time for the team to find a replacement –namely herself! Despite already sporting her self-designed new uniform, Johnny cautions her that she’ll have to prove herself first. Flaunting her elemental abilities and causing a bit of a mess is lesson one: learning to control her powers. Reed returns from the hospital to join the others and confirms the Torch’s words. The chance to prove herself comes sooner than expected, as the F.F.’s old nemesis the Wizard has developed a new set of Wonder Gloves, which he feels this time will prove him the master. His first demonstration is to evaporate the old gloves, still in the Baxter Building. This draws the hotheaded Johnny out in the open, as the Wizard had hoped. Soon the other three follow in the Fantasti-car (set for maximum maneuverability). The Wizard’s new gloves are indeed more powerful, complete with “pressure rays”and “miniaturized anti-grav disc rays.” He tosses a water tower (having depleted Johnny’s flame) at them like a missile; enter… Crystal. She advises them to lure the water missile over the river, where Ben punches it, sending it harmlessly into the water. Zeroing in for (he thinks) the kill, the Wizard gets a few shocks. First the Inhuman gal neutralizes his anti-gravity power, sending him for a rag doll ride through the air.  Grounded, he tosses a shock wave at them; Crystal sends a counter shock right back. Next, lightning, complete with smoke to choke him up, gives the others the chance to capture their foe. A pulled punch from the Thing knocks him—via a chunk of dock—into the river. Reed reaches down to pull him out, but the water-revived foe escapes. Point proven, welcome to the team girl!

JB: Even if the Wizard is something of a second-rate villain (with my apologies to his fans out there), like in F.F. #78, he serves the purpose of developing the real story: the induction of Crystal, for a time, into the team. I was surprised to see how easily, and actually, how well, she fit in here. The initial doubts of “my girlfriend is the perfect replacement” (though Johnny maturely cautioned her as such) are convincingly dispelled when the Wizard proves to be something of a humbug, and then escapes to face another day. Although it’s uncertain if the team intended for Sue’s retirement to be temporary or not, Reed sure accepted Crystal quickly. It was nice to see her display some of her powers more fully, finally.

"Pretty please with a cherry on top? I can do things Sue never could!"

MB:  Seeing the Wizard in gigantic splendor in that full-page shot led me to one of my more off-the-wall observations, which might otherwise have remained subconscious:  the fact that the colors of his costume match those of Galactus gives him a kind of reflected glory in my eyes.  At any rate, I’ve no idea when this brainwave struck Stan, but having Crystal—who at this point is pretty much a fixture in the FF household anyway as Johnny’s main squeeze—fill in for new mommy Sue is eminently logical; of course, big sister Medusa will later fulfill the same function.  I never thought of Crys as too much of a heavyweight, but there have admittedly been hints in that direction, and the Wizard’s well-timed assault gives her the chance to prove herself.

PE: And the presentation of Crystal as Sue's sub, it would seem, is the entire justification for this issue, complete with a "Bob, Bing, and the girls" final panel. The Wizard proves to be no more of a menace this time than the last, despite his proclamation of possessing "the combined powers of The Fantastic Four." Was that a plot point left on the cutting room floor? I don't recall Wiz turning invisible, bursting into flame, or condensing himself into a softball. The lull continues between classic arcs.

The Silver Surfer 3

Our Story

Poor Silver Surfer – again his drama starts with an example of how little trust he has from humankind.  He tries to ensure the girl who was injured by the Brotherhood of Badoon is safe and on her way to health.  He just manages to give her a healing cosmic power bolt in spite of attacks from the hospital staff.  Boy oh boy, does the Silver Surfer ever get angry – his voice changes, his eyes spew cosmic rays and he melts the guards’ weapons.  Norris Radd’s extreme disappointment in humanity and his anger take over and he vows vengeance with the excuse that the humans need to be taught a lesson.  He is very much in turmoil about his plan – to put a halt to the earth’s sources of power – ALL of them. The earth is engulfed in confusion, darkness and panic.  This attracts the attention of Mephisto – he can sense the disturbances on the earth and he is worried because he needs humanity to stay depraved and evil so that his ranks, when Armageddon arrives, will be numerous and unbeatable!  Mephisto quickly finds that Silver Surfer is the cause and he is relieved that the Surfer is a little less well-behaved than he used to be!  Mephisto is quite worried that if he doesn’t stop this action by killing Norrin Radd, the Silver Surfer will become merciful and convince humanity to be good. The scene shifts to Zenn-La and a still grieving Shalla-Bal. . . . I guess Mephisto had no problem figuring out the Silver Surfer’s weak spot.  The “Lord of Evil” appears to Shalla-Bal and threatens that if she doesn’t go with him she will never see her beloved again (well, not alive).  He whisks her away to a Zenn-La spaceship which confuses Shalla-Bal, but don’t worry, Mephisto has his reasons! On earth, the Silver Surfer feels guilt and remorse about his vengeful actions and he vows to make up for what he has done.  At the moment when the earthlings are feeling relieved because their world has gone back to normal – they notice an unfriendly U.F.O. approaching. The Surfer sees the spaceship too, quickly realizing that it is from his homeland!  Mephisto’s dastardly plan is working . . . much too well.  When nuclear weapons are discharged towards the ship, Norrin Radd pulls no stops in trying to save the unknown inhabitants of Zenn-La.  The spaceship crashes and the Silver Surfer finds the survivor is his lost love.  He heals her and promises her he’ll never leave her again, but Shalla-Bal quickly warns him that this was just an evil ploy.  Mephisto appears and tells the S.S. that he will die and then the dark lord vanishes with Shalla-Bal. Mephisto realizes that just killing the Silver Surfer is not enough.  He feels he needs to conquer the Silver Surfer and be served by the gentle Zenn-La native.  To Mephisto’s surprise, the Silver Surfer appears to reclaim his lady-love.  This makes Mephisto very very angry and he is also intimidated by Norrin Radd’s talents, benevolence and fearlessness.  Mephisto is so afraid of the Silver Surfer’s possible positive effects on the dregs of humanity that he feels the need to destroy and conquer the Surfer.  The satanic beast tries to persuade Norrin Radd with riches, three hot chicks (to replace Shalla-Bal), and a kingdom over a galactic empire  . . . but the Silver Surfer is not swayed. Mephisto then turns to violence – he turns rocks into beings that attack the Silver Surfer, but all that is needed is cosmic energy to fight back.  Then, Mephisto lets loose a large cloven hooved beast (pretty cool!) and although the Silver Surfer doesn’t want to harm the beast he feels he must.  A really neat dragon-like reptile is the next beast to attack and this time Mephisto has created a shield  -- however the Silver Surfer still prevails and Mephisto hates him all the more.  Norrin Radd basically calls Mephisto a wimp for not fighting for himself and using lackies instead and in response Mephisto sends a bunch of amoeba-like shapes that drain the Silver Surfer’s energy, will, and voice – but NOT his soul.  Mephisto then reduces the Silver Surfer to “a random thought” and places the hero into his evil brain, where he feels his evil will can overtake the surfer’s “goodness”.  BUT good prevails and the Silver Surfer resists – being let free because Mephisto begins to feel he may go crazy. The last ditch effort by Mephisto is to get the Silver Surfer to swear allegiance to the evil side or he’ll send Shalla-Bal back to Zenn-La.  Shalla-Bal says that their love will survive even without proximity to one another.  This was the Silver Surfer’s plan all along – to make sure Shalla-Bal was safe – even though it was gained at the cost of his broken heart.
Mephisto vows to be the downfall of the Silver Surfer sometime in the future.

NC:  I must admit, although I love the artwork mainly, I do think that the cosmic energy looks a bit like what I imagine a disease to look like – kind of red with black dots all over. I love this quote:  “You have been guilty of a grievous oversight – such as shielding the monster’s hide – while leaving him most vulnerable – deep within.”  Very human thing to do, is it not? The ending, which could have been corny, was rather touching and beautiful.  It was very very sad that they were not even allowed to touch each other’s hands before they were separated. If anyone is interested – take a look at the letters page - I thought the letter about the “Thilver Thurfer” was hilarious.

MB: I’m astounded at Buscema’s balance between quality and quantity:  this book being bimonthly but double-length, he’s drawing the equivalent of at least three titles per month, and although I’ve read that he preferred to ink his own pencils, he’s blowing me away regardless of inker on Avengers (Klein), Sub-Mariner (Adkins), and especially here (Sinnott).  Stan writes in Bring on the Bad Guys about how he didn’t want the villain to be too overtly Satanic, which—since little short of wearing a name tag could make Mephisto any more overt—is rather amusing. But he is indeed the perfect opponent for a hero who, per Stan, represents “all that is good [and] pure and unsullied in the human condition,” and Big John’s art just rises to these lofty ambitions.

Tales of the Watcher!

“Why Won’t They Believe Me?”

In this episode, the watcher is observing a man desperately trying to warn people of what he had seen in the woods . . .  A spaceship that had crash landed.  The character enters the ship – and he finds a ship’s log which he reads.  It tells a story of an invader who was going to transform himself into a human form.  If the humans were tricked, the aliens would attack, but if the trickster was caught, the aliens would stay away!  When the space ship entered our atmosphere the controls didn’t work and the result was the crash. The man realizes that since the alien isn’t in the ship, he must be loose among humanity.  He tries so hard to warn everyone:  people passing by, the police, the army, and, lastly, he gets directed to the space agency.  The receptionist at the space agency almost doesn’t let him in to talk to the Professor in charger (Professor Crater – ha!), but when the head man sees the log book he lets our main character in.  After our frightened man is let in to the office, the Professor closes the blinds, locks the door and pulls a gun on the poor man.  After stating that he doesn’t work for the alien, the man comes to the conclusion that the Professor is the alien and he curses his bad luck . . . But Professor Crater soon points out that he is not the alien and that the only one that could read the log book is the obvious culprit!  After the crash the man/alien lost his memory and in his panic managed to “catch himself.”

NC:  This comic is a lot of fun!  A bit predictable, but I loved the portrayal of this worried alien who was warning everybody about . . . himself.  Also, the disappointment that he showed when he realized that he had thwarted his own plans was palpable.

Also this month
Captain Savage and His Battlefield Raiders #9
Marvel Collectors' Item Classics #18
Mighty Marvel Western #2
Millie the Model #165
Not Brand Echh #11
Rawhide Kid #67
Sgt Fury and His Howling Commandos #61


By Professor Jack

The Top Ten Selling Marvel Comics of 1968

1. The Amazing Spider-Man
2. Fantastic Four
3. Thor
4. Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos
5. Tales to Astonish/ The Incredible Hulk
6. Avengers
7. Tales of Suspense/ Captain America
8. X-Men
9. Strange Tales/ Dr. Strange
10. Rawhide Kid

In a list of the best-selling comics of 1968, The Amazing Spider-Man ranked #12. The Top Ten selling comics in America for 1968 were:

1. Superman
2. Archie
3. Batman
4. Superboy
5. World's Finest
6. Lois Lane
7. Jimmy Olsen
8. Action Comics
9. Betty and Veronica
10. Adventure Comics

MAD Magazine continued its domination of the illustrated world, selling an average of 1.8 million copies an issue!

What? No Arnold Drake? We demand a recount!

Marvel Comics with cover dates in 1968 show a company growing at a rapid pace. January saw 14 comics published by Marvel; by December, that number was up to 20, having peaked at 22 in October. The loosening of restrictions by the distributor early in the year was the reason that Marvel could expand as it did. The expansion created opportunities for new writers and artists to work for the company, though the old standbys also increased their output.

The backbone of the comics remained the twelve cents a copy superhero titles that were published monthly throughout the year: Amazing Spider-Man, Avengers, Daredevil, Fantastic Four, Thor, and X-Men. Stan Lee was still writing all but two of those (Avengers and X-Men) but Roy Thomas was gaining experience and quickly became the second most prolific writer. Jack Kirby and Gene Colan continued to be the workhorses of the art department. All of the monthly superhero comics featured full-length stories except for Thor, which had five months of backups featuring the Inhumans, and X-Men, which featured backups about X-Men origins all year.

The three split books that had been monthly since before the Marvel Age began in November 1961 all came to an end in 1968. Strange Tales featured Nick Fury and Dr. Strange; after five issues it folded. Dr. Strange took over its numbering and kept right on going as a monthly; Nick Fury became a monthly as well but started with number one. Tales of Suspense had Captain America and Iron Man; after three issues it ended and Captain America inherited its numbering while Iron Man started fresh. Tales to Astonish had Hulk and Sub-Mariner; it also ended after three issues, with Hulk picking up the numbering and Sub-Mariner starting anew.

Captain Marvel, who appeared as the new story in Marvel Super-Heroes, was rewarded with his own monthly book, as was the Silver Surfer. There was also a one-shot issue of Iron Man and Sub-Mariner, presumably to use up remaining half-length stories.

War comics continued to be a monthly presence, with Sgt. Fury appearing all year and Captain Savage starting out bi-monthly but earning its monthly stripes after three issues. Westerns did not fare as well—while Rawhide Kid survived as a bi-monthly, Kid Colt, Outlaw and Two-Gun Kid each folded after two bi-monthly issues. Mighty Marvel Western debuted in the fall and saw two bi-monthly issues published; it featured reprints of stories about all three of Marvel's western gunslingers. In the humor category, Millie the Model continued to surge, starting the year as a bi-monthly but ending as a monthly. Not Brand Ecch also saw six bi-monthly issues in 1968.

Reprint comics were not as big a factor this year as they had been before. Marvel Tales and Marvel Collector’s Item Classics alternated months, while Marvel Super-Heroes published five bi-monthly issues that included new material with a different lead character each time.

Hard to categorize were the one-shot TV tie-in America’s Best TV Comics and the thirty-five cent, magazine-format The Spectacular Spider-Man, which managed to eke out two issues. King-Size Specials continued to appear in the summer, with one or two per month issued featuring Spider-Man, The Avengers, Fantastic Four, Hulk, Millie the Model, Sergeant Fury and Tales of Asgard, which reprinted backup stories from Thor.

All of the changes in 1968 made Marvel a very different company by the end of the year, one that focused on superhero comics more than ever before. It still could not match DC in sales, but it was a cultural phenomenon, with TV cartoons running daily and more and more books on the newsstands.