Wednesday, February 27, 2013

March 1970: Sons of the Serpent Unmasked!

The Avengers 74
Our Story

After his capture, the Black Panther has now apparently gone criminal. The remaining Avengers must capture him or risk being named as accomplices in his crimes. They split up and search the city. Meanwhile, T'Challa is actually a prisoner of The Sons of the Serpent, who put an imposter in an identical costume. Ideological opponents Dann Dunn and Montague Hale engage in more verbal race warfare, which comes to blows on national TV (an event that doesn't seem as shocking today - thank you, Jerry Springer). The Sons of the Serpent stir up more racial trouble on TV and while they blather on and on, the Avengers locate their HQ (apparently tracking the signal, but nobody really explains it) and it is discovered the Sons have two leaders. Once unmasked, we see them as (gasp!) Dunn and Hale! They only feigned bigotry to start a race war which would (somehow) lead the two of them to ultimate power. 

SM: The first thing one notices when picking a comic is the cover, naturally. Marvel has had good, great and downright awful covers before and since. The cover to this issue of The Avengers is laugh out loud funny to me. Just the fact that Yellowjacket, he who can get flying insects to catch him, is in danger of falling to his death, with Goliath just a few feet away with those huge hands of his. Worse, it conveys nothing about the story inside, which is (for the most part) a lot more important and mature than this drawing lets on. The "best part" is that this scene never really happens in the book. It's Goliath who falls and the guy calling the cops, then aborting because it's too late to save Yellowjacket ("Never mind, police - there's a dead guy outside, but you don't care about that"), is hysterical, but never appears. It's a misguided cover that really distracts from the whole point. Would readers really think Yellowjacket is doomed? There's no mention at all of the Sons of the Serpent and the tensions they raise. This makes it one of the worst covers in a while.  

PE: The Rascally One's social commentary is spiced with images such as The Panther, wearing chains, screaming, "I shall be free!" so it's easy to sneer at the politics but the alternatives, strong men in underwear fighting giant gorillas or finding themselves married to leprechauns, helps me cut the then-young man some slack. It's not easy to transport yourself back to 1970 (when I was a mere nine year-old Marvel Zombie) and relive the racially explosive tension of the time. It's just difficult to believe it really was like this (and, many would say, remains to this day): an obvious bigoted hatemonger with a highly rated TV show (as opposed to the veiled bigots like... well, you know who I mean). For my money the strongest moment in this classic saga is the single panel of the two engineers arguing over the merits of their boss. I must admit to being completely surprised by one half of the secret identiry of the leader of The Sons of the Serpent.

SM: The drama escalates to a fever pitch as racial tensions explode into violence. The rest of the team goes in to help the Panther, who is unmasked on TV (this is not mentioned as being terribly important other than the issue of his race). Before all of this gets going, however, we're treated to a few pages of the public's reactions to the individual Avengers as they go on a search. It's actually pretty hilarious how many people diss these guys, bringing them down to Earth. I love how poor Hank has to hear someone say that two of his signatures will get him one of Cap. Meanwhile, over in Cap's mag, he's considered by the public to be a greater square and has-been. No wonder Pym went nuts later on.

MB: And a big Marvel University-style “Welcome back!” to John Buscema, relieving sibling Sal (who will fill in on #78) for a year-long stint that marks his last extended run on this book until #255 in 1985.  I was a little dubious when I saw Tom Palmer’s name, for as much as I admired his work with Colan on the late, lamented Dr. Strange, I didn’t think he was an ideal fit for Adams on X-Men, but must admit I have no immediate complaints.  Roy wraps up the current Sons of the Serpent storyline effectively, although I was surprised to see all of this speculation as to whether the Black Panther was indeed black; am I the only one who remembers that in his first four issues, the Panther sported a partial face-mask that left the question in no doubt whatsoever?

SM: Do I sound like a broken record by saying the art is fantastic? What a beautiful book this was. I was bummed, however, by the wrap up of this story for three reasons; a) it could have gone on longer and b) the villain's actual plot is vague at best and c) the unmasking of the leaders of the Sons of the Serpent was, frankly, a cop out and something I'd expect more from Stan at the end of his tenure. All of a sudden, two opposite sides of the color line weren't rally fighting. It was all a ploy, which does nothing to resolve the actual issue. The reveal took me by surprise because I wasn't expecting anything so clichéd and disappointing. Had they been two other people who manipulated the views of Dunn and Hale, making them look into their own hearts and reconsider their hatred, then it would have had some value. As it stands, they're two guys who don't care about race, which is ironic being they are the villains! The average guy can't stop being racist, but these two villains can? Something's a little screwy in the Marvel Universe. This could have been an amazing story, but in the end, Roy fell back to a tired "Hate Monger" style cliché ("Zoinks, it's HITLER!"). It doesn't hammer home the pointlessness of racism hard enough, not after all that build up.

Captain America 123
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In a hidden lair, Supreme and Scorbo are putting the final touches on the training of their gain. A flunky mouths off and Suprema bests him with one Karate blow, as she is (for one panel only) the greatest master of the martial art "of all." She also, she claims, has the power of witchcraft to bend the will of anyone she chooses. Her plot is to become the greatest master of crime in the country. First stop: take over the organization run by Aces Wilde (no seriously). She goes on a massive spree, finally deciding her crowing moves should be the takeover of SHIELD itself! Somehow deducing that SHIELD agents wear UD cards that can be detected within a few hundred feet, she locates Dum Dum Dugan. Thanks to Suprema's powers, he spills Fury's location: with Captain America at the weapons testing range. She arrives with her goons and immediately takes over. Cap, however is immune, even though his shield is pelted by some strange energy beam. After making a break for it, Cap checks a hunch at the Daily Bugle's back issue section and Tony Stark's super computer and finds out that Suprema and Scrobo are simply master hypnotists with a device which can amplify their powers. He jams their signal, beats them up and leaves them to Fury's tender mercies. 

SM: Stan, my God, you're killing me. "Aces Wilde"? Why, because he plays cards? If my eyes rolled any higher, they'd get stuck in my skull. Suprema and her cohorts start out as a decent idea for a menace, before the reveal of her powers turns her into the Ringmaster of Crime - with boobs. Here's the thing: if she is so powerful that guys like Nick Fury will instantly drop trou for her and give her the keys to SHIELD, then why does she even need a team and henchmen? Why go through all that training when she could sashay up to anyone and rob them of their will? Except, of course, for Cap, who happens to position his shield at just the right angle to avoid falling under her evil spell. Hypnotism is too thin a power to be that dangerous, but back in those days it was a Super Magic "Flap-Your-Arms-and-Cluck-Like-a-Chicken" power. The simple truth is, if you don't want to be under hypnosis, then you can't be hypnotized. Even if you are willing, sometimes it doesn't work. Trust me, I've tried it and I'm still overweight.

MB:  Dud follows dud as the flailing Stan Lee, the misplaced Gene Colan and the wasted Joe Sinnott serve up another reminder of why, despite my affection for the character of Cap, his own mag has never been one of my long-term favorites.  With her color-coordinated green goon squad, Suprema looks like a poor man’s (or, more accurately, that of some guy from debtors’ prison) Madame Hydra, whose karate skills are mentioned once and then forgotten, and whose alleged power of witchcraft isn’t even developed enough to be a proper red herring.  For a pair of carny has-beens to take over “the most powerful secret fighting force in the nation” with such ease is embarrassing…and did somebody else slip in that picture of JJJ in page 18, panel 3?

SM: On the bright side, there's isn't as much Steve Rogers whining about his life in this issue, just a panel or two. The thing is, as annoying as it is, Peter had pointed out last time, Steve's bitchery will add up to some amazing stories when Steve Elgelhart takes over the book in a few years (although what he does to Nick Fury is maddening - those will be fun reviews). Until then, it's something to endure. Cap going through the Daily Bugle morgue and JJJ's crabbery were the best part of the book. Does it really cost money for Cap to flip through some old articles? Even if not, Jameson would still try to wring a few bucks out of him. Lovely! The 'Cap Endurance Test" does not include the artwork, as Gene Colan and Joe Sinnott once again deliver the goods. I'm not crazy about SHIELD's skin tight, low V-neck leotards, but whatever.

PE: I found nothing outlandish about Cap leaving the battle to search old Daily Bugle advertisements for a pair of ex-performers who may or may not have been going by the names of Scarbo and Sister. Stupid, maybe, like the rest of this one-shot nonsense, but not outlndish. I assume the goons were wearing stormtrooper helmets to shield them from the ultra-sonic hypno-beam? Much more interesting is letter writer A.F. Garbolevsky's explanation for Captain America's adventures during the time our hero was on ice. A.F.'s theory is fairly close to the scenario Steve Englehart will cook up in a few years time (minus the mental illness angle). The "Let's Rap With Cap" feature continues to be the most interesting and thought-provoking of the Marvel letter columns.

Oh... just... get... over... it!
SM: I have to pause and comment on my crushing disappointment on Cap's book at this point in the run. I absolutely loved his Tales of Suspense yarns; they were short, scrappy pieces rushing to keep the 10-12 pages exciting. Even when the stories were multi-parters, the individual issues were lean and fun. However, like a few other titles, once the characters graduated to their solo titles, something was lost. Sure, the Steranko issues (all three of them) were great, but for the most part, this is a lot like when The Twilight Zone went from a half hour to an hour for one season. The magic was gone and instead of quick tales, we get meandering stories and pages filled with soliloquy. Thor became epic, Iron Man turned out pretty good and I generally liked The Hulk, but Cap really didn't gain much other than a page count. Thankfully, the book would turn around shortly, but up til now, it's been a slog. It could be worse, I guess. In an alternate universe, Giant Man got his own book. Pass me my cyanide pill.

Daredevil 62
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Matt Murdock gets an anonymous tip that a crime is going to occur at a local movie theater but the thugs who rob the joint are just bait for Daredevil (whom the tipster expected Matt to call) to meet the new kid on the block. The “kid” calls himself Nighthawk, and he fancies himself to be Daredevil’s replacement. Popping up out of nowhere he slyly gives DD a shot that makes him dizzy, then proceeds to save the day. It doesn’t take long for the public to turn its back on our hero after a few more nights like this one; who needs Daredevil when Nighthawk crawls out of the shadows? Said foe (?) is actually Kyle Richmond, a young tycoon who dreams of a life with some purpose commensurate to his wealth. He found it in an alchemy book (he later learned it was left by an alien called the Grand-Master) that gave him the formula to increase any natural abilities he had when the moon was out. Daredevil appears resigned to his fate, but he has a counter plan of his own. Disguising himself as a common crook, he gets “caught” by Nighthawk, whom he then calls a glory-seeker rather than a law-abider. All of this is being radio broadcast so the people on the street below can see that Nighthawk isn’t the hero he pretends to be. 

JB: Stupid question perhaps, but is this a Gene Colan cover? It still looks great, just a little different to my eye. Roy’s script is sharp and funny compared to Stan’s recent work, and the whole Nighthawk persona is a blast. A couple of the panels of Kyle Richmond look a little like (actor) Bruce Greenwood to me.

NC: If Karen’s so mad at Matt, how come they’re smooching when Foggy comes in? Nighthawk didn’t seem like a super-villain to me as much as a wanna-be hero for all the wrong reasons.

MB:  Having introduced Nighthawk in Avengers #69, Roy gives him a new opponent and expands upon his Batmanesque origin; this issue was reprinted as a back-up feature (shorn of three pages) in Giant-Size Defenders #5 to give fans of everyone’s favorite “non-team” a look at his nefarious past.  It’s ironic that this actual future hero resorts to the old super-villain-pretends-to-be-heroic bit, which has been done many times, but the gimmick with which Roy resolved it, i.e., Nighthawk never turning in those hoods he busted, was a satisfying variation on the theme. Meanwhile, Gentleman Gene is obviously the artist to draw a character who flourishes at night, with Shores continuing to provide solid support as we do our best to tune out selfish Karen Page.

SM: Does the Orange Julius reference count as Product Placement? Not a bad issue, actually. I found Nighthawk to be a lot of fun and look forward to a return entanglement. I wonder if Gene Colan planned to kill him at the end. If not for the captions, it really could look like he fell to his death in the path of the subway. That, actually, would have been far too grim an ending for a lightweight villain such as this guy. Fun, yes. A real threat? Nah. Karen sucks (years before her character turned to porn...) and makes no sense. She wants Matt to give up being DD and "wants the man I fell in love with!" You mean...Daredevil? It's not like she was around before he gained his abilities. The art, again, is superb.   

Fantastic Four 96
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With Reed dropping Sue off to do some shopping, Ben alone in the Baxter Building, and Johnny at an auto rally, the time is ripe for the newest “master plan” of the Mad Thinker: to replace the F.F. with android replicas. When “Johnny” returns from the rally, he renders the Thing unconscious, having ambushed the real Torch with an ice-ray earlier. Sue, out shopping, is replaced by her double, and the Thinker calculates for his Reed replacement that Mr. Fantastic will drive by at the exact moment his android waits for him. The Thinker had previously built a secret elevator in the Baxter Building when the team was in Europe fighting Dr. Doom, and he heads there to celebrate his triumph. Too fast however, as the Reed android who arrives turns out to be the real thing, having had the skill to overcome his doppelganger. Reed figures out where Ben is unconscious, awakens him, and the two of them regain control of the homeland, handily defeating their doubles and freeing the others.

JB: I’m not sure if the Mad Thinker has ever had a good storyline (maybe creating Quasimodo). No one could predict exactly what’s going to happen to the second; there are simply too many variables that could go wrong. Certainly the issue looks like the ‘70’s, with Sue’s hip getup and Reed’s boat of a car, but that doesn’t help much. The Thing facing off with “himself” looks pretty cool, and the cover’s not bad, but I still can’t help feel we’re in a time of transition here.

Why don't all villains pull this trick?

MB:  I believe I’m not the only faculty member who finds the Mad Thinker’s “In 43 minutes and 12.5 seconds, I shall sneeze” routine tiresome, because even setting aside the “X factor” that usually upsets his timetable, as Reed does with his well-placed left here, there’s just no way any computer, however sophisticated, could make such accurate predictions without the kind of data that would never be included in its programming.  That said, having the FF face off against android duplicates should have been good for at least two issues—and, by the way, how much does Kirby’s Thinker not resemble that guy who showed up with his Triumvirate of Terror in Avengers #39?  Typical that this mag in particular would not lend itself to single-issue stories.

SM: Agreed, this could easily have been a two parter, with the androids taking over, but this was Stan "Let's Do Single Issue Stories" Lee and Jack "one foot out the door" Kirby. Jack's lack of enthusiasm is obvious in the art and the plotting. As much as the book lost something when Kirby left, I'm still looking forward to the return of epic stories in the post King issues. The Gabriel/Overmind/Bad Ben run is actually gonna be a lot of fun. But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves.

PE:  I love how Johnny Storm's android enters a room after Ben has reduced a book to dust and says "Hey! That's real groovy, blue eyes! But what do you do for an encore?" and then proceeds to talk like a robot through the rest of the scene. He'd definitely fool a good friend like Ben. How The Mad Thinker knows exactly what street Reed will drive down next or which department Sue will be in is a puzzler indeed. But even crazier is that The Thinker had access to the Baxter Building long enough to build a secret shaft so that he could sneak in when he wanted! The other problem with The Thinker (the first being the "upset timetable" as mentioned by Professor Matthew) is that he seems to be one of those dopey bad guys who exists only to defeat a superhero. What does he do between Mad schemes? Crossword puzzles? Volunteer at a food bank? And what would happen if he finally got his jalopy over that speed bump and the Four were in his rear view mirror? Banks and jewelry stores might be a bit of a comedown. If you're going to be a super villain, you need a plan. 

SMThis issue is a decent enough time passer, but the inks drive me nuts. Nobody else but Joe Sinnott should be doing this book with Kirby. Prof. Pete, that plot point about the Thinker having enough time to make renovations had me laughing pretty hard myself. He could bypass all of Reed's super sophisticated security and instead of taking all he needed in the apparent months the FF was tolling around elsewhere, he decided to add a sun room and a pool table. I mean, did he do all the construction himself or did he hire guys? Were they union or scabs? Was a big rubber rat standing outside the Baxter Building lobby while the work was being done? I suppose he could have had the androids do it, but who did he know how long the FF would be away? Is the FF HQ really that easy to screw with? No wonder Reed was willing to live in the Mole Man's prefab tumor house. I agree that the Mad Thinker is a repetitive and yawn inducing villain. Why does he have to rely on prediction? A guy with such massive brain power could have any M.O. I actually liked his earlier appearance when he turned Ben against the team for four issues. That was great until he fell back on his usual shtick again. Of course, Reed "upsets the timetable" and wins the day. You'd think the Thinker (get it? - ugh) would be smart enough to remember "the human factor" is "unpredictable." Although, since it happens so often, why doesn't he factor that unpredictability in since it's pretty damned predictable now?

The Incredible Hulk 125
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A wandering Hulk frightens off two teenagers, smashes their car, and passes out along a beach.  He turns back into Bruce Banner in time to hear a nearby radio giving the news that a comet is heading towards earth. Wasting no time, Banner meets up with Major Talbot at a military base and volunteers to fly a rocket that equipped with a nuclear missile. While his mission is a success and he destroys the comet, it is revealed that The Absorbing Man was using the comet as a way to get back to earth (he was previously thrown into outer space by Odin). Once Banner sees the Absorbing Man, he turns into the Hulk and the fight is on!  As they crash land on earth, the two bruisers duke it out along a mountainside.  It's a fairly even battle as the Hulk has trouble figuring out a way to defeat this tricky foe.  The Absorbing Man actually wins the brawl when he absorbs the Hulk's own strength, causing the green brute to lose consciousness.  His victory is short lived though.  As he picks up a hunk of a mountain to bury the Hulk with, The Absorbing Man accidentally soaks up the strength of Bruce Banner, whom the Hulk had reverted back in to.  Unable to hold up the mountain slab, the story ends with the bad guy being buried underneath it, while Banner walks away safely.  

Tom:  I liked this one a lot.  The Absorbing Man is an underrated villain that always makes for an interesting protagonist.  His powers are no joke despite his strange name.  Good to see The Hulk actually get defeated when he is always portrayed as such an unstoppable powerhouse.  The ending had a nice twist with the Absorbing Man losing in the end more to bad luck and not paying attention than by The Hulk's strength.  

MB: I see we’re already back to this being a total Thomas/Trimpe production, and for his part, Roy seems on average to be a bit better than Stan at handling these one-offs (of course, this issue’s ominous fadeout promises some kind of a continuation, but you know what I mean).  The Absorbing Man is an excellent heavy in general and a good opponent for the Hulk in particular, one whom Roy brings back in an interesting way while leaving enough room in which to bust some heads.  The writers probably spend as much time as the heroes do figuring out how to get rid of old Crusher—not that any fate he suffers is likely to be permanent—yet Roy shows some inventiveness there as well; throw in a judicious supply of subplots and we’ve got an issue.

PE: Hard to believe The Absorbing Man has been MIA since Odin made him a space castaway all the way back in  Journey Into Mystery #123 (December 1965).  In my mind, Absorby has always been a resident of that grey area between First Tier and Second Tier Villain that housed such stalwarts as The Scorpion and The Sandman, never getting quite the exposure a real First Tier Baddie got. But I'll take an Absorbing Man adventure over one starring Dr. Doom any ol' day. The Hulk title itself seems to be a never ending circle (I'm not positing a new opinion, I know, and may just be stating the obvious): Hulk on the run from Thunderbolt; Hulk changes into Banner, does something good for mankind and receives the respect of Thunderbolt again; some evil baddie comes along and forces Banner/Hulk to do something that Thunderbolt doesn't agree with; Hulk on the run from Thunderbolt. Trimpe's art on Greenskin is getting closer to the version I grew up with as a wee lad (hereafter referred to as "the definitive version"). I love how the General is leaning into the panel, reprinted above, as if he's on camera.

SM: Trimpe is back and he brought the Absorbing Man with him. When I was a kid, I picked up all the Hulk issues I could find, new and reprints. The TV show was going strong and I was a huge fan. As much as these tales hold a lot of sentimental value for me, it's pretty obvious that nostalgia colors my opinion of these issues. There is really no actual content to this installment; it's just another superhero/villain party with fighting and threats but ultimately no conclusion to the yarn. You could cut this issue out of the run and miss absolutely nothing. It's enjoyable on its own level, but compared to some of the other socially conscious stories occurring in the Marvel Universe, the Hulk was pretty light weight reading. The art is typical Trimpe (no inker?) and merely "okay." The scripting was on auto pilot. Still, I consider it a better issue than this month's Captain America.

The Invincible Iron Man 23
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Iron Man brings to justice the crew that smuggled the Titanium Man into New York Harbor, and while visiting Janice’s grave is observed by the Mercenary, whose quarry is expected to seek help from him or Stark.  Sure enough, Cheryl Porter reveals that her husband was a member of that very crew, and that she has been targeted for warning Tony, so he takes her to his mountain lodge for protection.  The Mercenary interrupts an attempt on Tony’s life by Vincent Sandhurst, whom he shoots and leaves for dead, but enters the cabin only to find Iron Man waiting, tipped off by a device that detected his bug in Tony’s car; subduing Iron Man, the Mercenary disguises himself as Tony to deceive Cheryl, only to be shot by the dying Sandhurst.

MB: The trouble starts with the cover, whose focal point appears to be our hero’s ass, and which is cluttered by not only dialogue balloons but also an unusual—and superfluous—slab o’ narration.  The Mercenary is a boring villain with a costume to match, a singularly ugly color scheme, and facial features that bring out the goofiest in Tuska’s style.  Even the usually reliable Goodwin seems to have been affected by the Single-Issue Syndrome:  the Mercenary’s high-tech soliloquy on page 4 brings back unwanted memories of Bulls-Eye in the final issue of Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., although I admit I did like the final twist of Vincent Sandhurst killing (and being killed by, neatly tying up another dangling plot thread) the guy he thought was Tony Stark.

SM: Our story begins with IM sort of avenging the death of Janice Cord (who dies in 1969 according to her tombstone), by tackling the guys who brought Titanium Man to the states. Did Tony ever consider turning a repulsor ray on himself for not immediately taking Janice to the hospital when she was injured? Sorry, I'm gonna be a real dick about this, but I still hate that Tony just let her die while he went off to not even capture the guy who killed her. This was simply bad writing and it ruins every reference to Janice afterward. To me it would be as if Spider-Man let Gwen fall all the way to the water while he decided tacking the Goblin was more important than saving her life. She still died, but at least he tried. There's no excuse for Tony Stark. Had he scooped her up to fly her to help, but was attacked before he could get very far, then it would have been fine - and even more tragic. He would have failed to save her even though he tried. This is preferable to not giving it a shot. Anyway….

PE: Archie missed a golden opportunity to finally give the Marvel Universe a villain named The Beaver. Dig those crazy chompers on The Mercenary! I thought it was an interesting gimmick to feature the "splash" page on your cover (the text is continued from cover to inside "splash"). The intro, with Shellhead furiously knocking out the ship in revenge for the death of Janice Cord, reminded me of the fabulous prologue to Diamonds Are Forever. Nice twist ending despite the implausibility of Sandhurst crawling all the way to Tony's cabin and dispatching The Mercenary before the assassin could carry out his hit. 

SM: Our newest villain is a gun for hire, a mercenary. His name? The Mercenary. Okay, I could live with this (I lie), but what really kills it for me is his ridiculous costume. Does a merc really need one? And if he needs a mask, does it have to be this awful, bat-eared thing? Bad enough he goes to the trouble of lining up Iron Man in his sights before saying "ha! Just kidding!" On top of this , he has to look like a clown. Yeah, I know, Blah blah blah, cartoony faces, hate the art, but the mouth on this guy is kiddie time. Honestly, the story is okay, but I can only go so far with this under Tuska's pencils. Don Heck can't come back fast enough. How often do you hear that?

The Silver Surfer 14
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The Silver Surfer stops a pair of meteors from colliding and destroying Earth.  In doing so, the Silver Surfer gets hit by a stray rock and plummets to the ocean floor. He wakes up with a heck of a headache and flies in a haze close to land. Meanwhile, a young boy, Henry, is chastised by his father for worshipping comics and the superheroes within.  He is sent to his room where he witnesses the Silver Surfer flying by his window! Spiderman swings at the end of his web . . . right on to the bottom of the Silver Surfer’s board!  Spidey wants down, but the skeptical Surfer thinks it is a trick.  A scuffle ensues.  They land on Henry’s  apartment building.  Both the webbed crusader and the Silver saviour are thought of by humanity to be villains, so the army is sent in to protect the city. Spidey quickly realizes he has been unfair to the Silver Superhero and the fact that the humans did not attempt to hurt him when he was weakened gives our hero new hope for humanity.

NC:  I was in awe of the Silver Surfer enough that to bring in the mundane (sorry Spidey fans) angsty teenage Spiderman just seems wrong.  The strength and kindness of the Surfer seems more evolved and untouchable – it just doesn’t mix with the regular, everyday super guy.

Fred Wertham, father

SM: Was there a point to this issue? What was it? Humanity may be okay after all? Spidey has a temper? Even teachers like Marvel Comics? It's all wind up and no pitch and the Surfer really sounds like Stan on his Soapbox about man's inhumanity to man - except for when there's hope when humans don't take the opportunity to kill. I guess this is all in response to Viet Nam, but the preaching is getting thick in his mags.  

MB: Given Big John Buscema’s run on Amazing Spider-Man, it must have seemed a no-brainer on one level to pair up the stars of what were recently his two super-hero books.  On another level, though, it’s off the WTF chart, and I’m not sure if I was glad or sad when the story ended just as it seemed to be getting started; I mean, I know Spidey’s a tough guy and all of that, but a dude with The Power Cosmic who flies through the hearts of suns would wipe the floor with him in five minutes.  It’s disappointing that anyone as frequently misunderstood as Spidey felt no empathy for the Surfer until it was too late, and on top of that, I’ve always found the idea that the Marvel super-heroes and Marvel Comics themselves exist in the same universe to be a tough sell.

The X-Men 66
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After calling together the good thoughts of people worldwide during their harrowing battle with  Z'Nox, the not so dead after all Professor X, maestro of mutants is comatose. The only clue to his salvation comes in an offhand reference to The Hulk, so a Hulk-hunting our merry mutants go. Needless to say the green giant isn't so jolly, but they are able to knock him back to his Banner self, just long enough to confirm the Prof and the Scientist had exchanged notes on all things Gamma. When the Army shows up with their requisite tanks, the big green guy retunrns and no sooner hops away. While the US Army's military might is turned the other way, the X-Men sneak away from the scene in search of The Hullk. After stumbling in his secret lair, Warren grabs the nearest gizmo not nailed down, and the next thing you know it's pointed at the Professor's noggin. He wakes up just in time to wave goodbye to the handful of readers that stuck it out for 66 issues.

MB: After this issue, our merry mutants follow in Nick Fury’s footsteps by first going on hiatus (until December), and then returning in reprints until their successors’ debut in 1975.  One could do a lot worse than entrust their swan song to the erstwhile Avengers team of Thomas, Sal Buscema—who was perhaps warming up for this story with last month’s Incredible Hulk—and Grainger; although we feel the pain of Adams’s departure, this crew certainly allows the original X-Men to go out on a high note, without any major plot threads dangling.  Once again, Roy gets to do a cross-over between his books, with an ingenious link joining Xavier and Banner, and it’s nice to see things more cordial with Lorna and Alex, despite the unresolved triangle with Bobby.

PE: Gosh, if that pesky Hulk would just stand still and listen for a few seconds, all this fighting would be avoided. It must have been hell for Stan to see one of his favorite creations go belly-up, just as an artistic hypo had been injected into its vein via Neal Adams and Roy Thomas. Had Werner Roth and Arnold Drake remained in place, I'd have celebrated its demise with a glee rivaling that of the fireworks I launched when The Torch and Ant-Man bit the dust. Of course, from our Monday Morning Quarterback Chair, we know the best was yet to come from this title. Just not for another five years.

JS: In all fairness to The Hulk, there's less fighting with him than the standard internal bickering. With Lorna the greenhead hanging around, there's another dame to argue over. Just one of the many things I won't miss when the remasterd X-Men return. Considering how things played out, I'd love to know why they bothered to bring the big X back, only to put him back on death's door an issue before the hiatus. I think Scott said it best in the splash page (right).

SM:  And so it ends...for now. Their final new issue until they return as "All New and All Different," the X-Men's title wraps up with a tussle with the Hulk. It's startlingly mediocre, from the Sal Buscema/Sam Granger art, through the paint by numbers story. Since they were going out, you'd think something more substantial would be tackled, other than a bland fight along with Iceman being a prick. We'll eventually get to the book's return, but I'm frankly surprised they kept the title in print even with back stories. It's been a bumpy road and thankfully the best is yet to come.  

The Mighty Thor 174
Our Story

Distracted by a trio of flickering lights, Thor is temporarily struck down by a hypno-stun ray. The culprit responsible is missing scientist Jasper Whyte, who has set in motion a plan that will show his peers who ridiculed him that they were out of line. He has devised a “control beam” that he uses to sap half of the unconscious Thor’s strength, which he infuses into a robot invention he calls the Crypto-Man. Thor comes to, feeling weaker, and returns to Don Blake’s office, where he is greeted, ironically, by the mother of Jasper Whyte, who thinks Blake may know something of his whereabouts. He doesn’t, and when a call to the police reveals that the Crypto-Man is wreaking havoc on the streets, it’s Thor to the rescue. Whyte is alongside to gloat, and when the Crypto-Man is headed into the sewers for the city’s atomic power complex, Thor reminds Whyte of his mother. In a last moment change of heart, Jasper uses his control beam to stop his creation, succeeding, but finishing himself in the process. Thor’s power returns, and later Dr. Blake praises Whyte’s heroic end to his mother.

JB: Crypto-Man, Thermal Man, Doomsday Man… a few similarities? Actually this wasn’t a bad little story, although you can really feel the absence of Jack Kirby’s imaginative input; Stan Lee seems to be ready to pass on to his editing role that was more characteristic of the 1970’s. The resemblance here that is quite obvious is to issue #141, of Thor’s own title. A man whose mother laments the loss of her son, the last minute heroics of said son to die setting something to rights, and the Crypto-Man himself, who looks more than a little like Replicus. The single-issue stories having proven sorely lacking, Thor returns to a continued (and more fitting) storyline next month—the 170’s aren’t without some highlights.

MB:  I thought I remembered the Crypto-Man returning years later as an opponent for the Hulk in the early 200s, and sure enough, there he is, resurrected by Len Wein in Incredible Hulk #205 (November 1976), another one-shot that appears to be his swan song.  He doesn’t have too much of a personality, but since he’s basically just a glorified robot, that’s not surprising; I can’t imagine how his creator, Jasper Whyte, was able to develop technology that would be effective against an Asgardian target.  His eleventh-hour concern for the safety of his mother reminded me of Fantastic Four #86, in which Dr. Doom suddenly experienced remorse when he believed he had doomed the citizens of Latveria, only to have Sue’s force-field save them from an explosion.

PE: As with Fantastic Four, I can't help the sneaking feeling that Jack was mean and pissed off and wanted no part of Marvel these months before he left. There's nothing here resembling the classic run of Thor issues we've seen the previous couple of years. An amazing number of silly coincidences this time out as well. Not the Thunder God's finest hour.

SM: I have to agree with you guys, this is far from the heights Thor used to reach. Jack Kirby is on autopilot in a way we've never seen, His work resembles his later 70's art more and more. Huge panels, no details, everyone looks as if they're carved in stone. This title is a chore to get through. Funny how I find the FF, done by the same guys at the same time, to be much more entertaining.

Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner 23
Our Story

As he swims about the ocean depths, Namor comes across an unusually large pack of Killer Whales swimming together.  Upon closer inspection, he meets a monstrous humanoid that appears to be half man and half whale.  Calling himself  'Orka,' the brute attacks Namor and leaves him for dead.  Namor follows Orka to a strange underwater sea lab that hundreds of whales are swimming to.  Once inside, Namor finds his old enemy Dr. Dorcas, along with Krang the Conqueror.  Before Subby can attack, Dorcas reveals that he has Lady Dorma, along with some of his other loyal subjects, held captive. The two villains relate that they teamed up after coming across each other while stealing gold from ship wrecks.  Krang allowed Dorcas to experiment on Orka, whom at the time was just a loyal but dumb henchman of his. After a prolonged battle with Orka, the monstrous villain gets the upper hand on Namor and delivers him to Krang, who has decided the perfect way to both humiliate the Sub-Mariner and gain power in Atlantis is to parade our hero in chains through the streets.

Tom:  Orka is just missing that small intangible 'something' that keeps him from being a classic villain.  He's got the size, name, and strength but maybe it's his outfit that is lacking?  Whatever it is, he still makes a decent addition to Namor's growing rogue's gallery of underwater villains.

MB:  Orka is one of those villains for whom I freely admit a soft spot, and I can tell you precisely why:  because the first time I saw him was in Avengers #149 (July ’76), written by Steve Englehart and drawn by George Pérez, who could probably have made the Big Wheel look good.  As rendered here by Severin and Craig, he seems a little less formidable, but he remains a heavy hitter no matter how you slice it, and it’s nice—for the reader, if not for Namor—to know that Doc Dorcas is still churning out super-villains (“From the makers of Tiger Shark!”).  In fact, the Dorcas/Orka/Warlord Krang alliance, however shaky, constitutes a true Axis of Evil, one that gives Subby a real run for his money, and I’m delighted to see that Tiger Shark is on tap next ish.

The Amazing Spider-Man 82
Our Story

Peter Parker sits pondering all the perils of his personal life; until he’s shocked by the arrival of Anna Watson and Mary Jane, back in NY to help take care of ailing Aunt May. This frees Pete up to try and give his finances a jolt, which he needs for Flash’s big going-away party. With no crimes/photo ops in sight, Pete/Spidey tries another outlet and heads to the local TV station, where he offers himself up as a talk show guest to get some buzz and earn some quick cash. Suddenly, a cable shorts out but new Electro-ician Max Dillon saves the day and turns off the juice, happy his power still works and that Spider-Man is around so he can exact revenge. After hearing some high-voltage editorializing from J. Jonah Jameson, Dillon decides to hit the publisher up for some money in exchange for unmasking the wall-crawler on live TV. Consoled by Gwen, and with a clean costume in tow, Spidey appears on the talk show, but before he has a chance to make an impression, Electro strikes! Shock bolts and webs fly in an electric battle, until our hero manages to short-circuit the villain, leaving both the studio, and Peter’s overall morale, in shambles.

JT: I must have owned the Marvel Tales reprint of this mostly solid issue, because I don’t remember The Bullpen Bulletin page claiming “Stan and Johnny have decided to go back to the Web-Swinger’s original style of story picturization, and also to put more emphasis on Peter Parker’s private life, as so many of you have requested.” Um… great! Just what we want, more moping, less action! Plus, even bigger news from the Bulletin—they're going to use more periods instead of exclamation points! Well, it’s about time. Now Pete can moon over his problems internally without having to yell! Honestly, the late sixties/early seventies slang is pretty forced in the beginning of this ish, or is that just me looking back 40 + years later as an old man? Page 2 is a crazy cliché-fest. And what the heck is a “shrinker”? Isn’t it “shrink?” Who abbreviates "head-shrinker"? Crazy Queens kids with their made-up words…I see Brooklyn’s own future Spider-man scribe J.M. De Matteis (writing as Marc) gets in a few words in defense of Hobie Brown in the letters page, aggravating half the faculty I bet. As far as our story, I feel sorry for MJ, who comes across as trying too hard, but that’s just my redhead bias talking. Great insults from Dillon towards JJJ—“brillo-head” is inspired. Love the two-panel Laundromat scene, one of my favorite Spidey scenes ever actually. The art? Another John Romita classic, including the magnificently moody second panel on page 3. Best of all, another mention for the Web Dummy! Yay!

SM: I also had this issue in the Marvel Tales reprint and always loved it. Not because of any real amazing storytelling, but because the art is freaking fantastic. This is some of my favorite Spidey art and Romita proves, once again, he was the premier artist for the book. Spidey gets his ass handed to him, but still comes out kind of on top. I actually don't mind spending extra time on Peter's personal life. He's the only Marvel character with a decent supporting cast, and seeing that cast relegated to a single page or a few panels is a waste. So, if we can see more Harry, Flash, JJJ, Gwennie and the rest of them, more power to them. I give Parker more of a pass on the whining than Cap because he's a kid. Kids are overdramatic over the smallest things. Cap was just grating. I actually found Peter's moping over being too broke to deserve Gwen to be touching. I used to feel the same way when I was a young 'un and wouldn't ask out some girls because I really couldn't afford to take them out. I probably missed out on some nice times, but that's what being a dumb teenager is all about, right? Gwen's declaration of love in spite of Pete being a "schnook" is really nice and one of the reasons I crushed on her so hard. Gwen was hot and cold and could turn on a dime when it came to Parker, but scenes like this are great. I wish there were more of them.!
PE: It's time to play Spin the Marvel Story Wheel again: J. Jonah Jameson will use a/ The Scorpion, b/ The Spider-Smasher, or c/ Electro to bring Spidey down. And it lands on Electro this time out. Marvel's new one-issue story policy forces the climactic tussle into a three-page anti-climax and we're left with nothing but a self-doubting and self-pitying Peter Parker once again. Does it just feel like we were at this exact point last issue? The only new idea here (I think) is the idea of Spidey having to brave the dangers of a laundromat. The fact that our hero has to do his own washing now and then is the kind of slice of life we used to see in the Ditko days. I hope this title starts picking up soon (wink wink).

SM: Yeah, it is "spin the plot" time and why JJJ isn't in jail by now is a puzzlement. He's constantly skirting the law by hiring thugs to kill Spider-Man, or willfully putting people in danger to set up these stunts. How many Electros, Scorpions or Spider-Slayers does he have to bankroll before someone gets wise to his involvement? I enjoyed the "floating heads in boxes" splash page because it does indeed call back to the classic Ditko period. However, I wonder what logic Parker is using to blame himself for not getting along with Flash Thompson. I mean, Thompson was always a douche, so whose fault is it really? And does Thompson ever go on active duty? Seems like he's on furlough a lot.

MB: “The biggest news of the month is that Jazzy Johnny Romita will be penciling Spider-Man once more,” states a Bullpen Bulletin.  “Stan and Johnny have decided to go back to the Web-Swinger’s original style of story picturization, and also to put more emphasis on Peter Parker’s private life, as so many of you have requested….[This] marks the beginning of still another plateau of greatness…”  Said “picturization,” with Mooney holding steady on inks, evidently translates as “smaller panels,” which was very much a hallmark of the Ditko era.  This indeed allows Stan to cram in more of that Spidey soap-opera stuff we love so well, although he also provides a perfunctory climax, which is a little vexing with a villain as venerable as Electro.

Make sure to tune in on Sunday when Professor Matthew has an X-tra Special Sunday Treat for all of us!

Also this month

Captain Savage and His Battlefield Raiders #19 (last issue) ->
Chili #11
Homer the Happy Ghost #3
Kid Colt Outlaw #144
Mad About Millie #9
Marvel Super-Heroes #25
Marvel Tales #25
Millie the Model #180
My Love #4
Peter the Little Pest #3
Ringo Kid #2
Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos #76
Tower of Shadows #4
Where Monsters Dwell #2

Once a staple of the Marvel Comics Group (and before that, Atlas), the war comics genre had all but dried up by 1970. DC still somehow found success with their various titles (due, no doubt, to the stellar writing provided by Robert Kanigher) but the other major companies found that most of their success came from the super guys in tights. 1970 would see the final issue of Captain Savage and His Battlefield Raiders as well as the (impending) reprint/new material see-saw that Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos would become. Scholars will argue that kids could switch on the television set if they wanted to learn about war but I'd offer up the controversial opinion that we were just tired of the cliched battle tales and unfulfilled character development that these books had devolved into. It can't help that whatever deep meaning the writers hoped to pass on to the youngsters could only be strangled by a Code that forbade depicting the horror and effects of combat. Having said that...
The final issue of Captain Savage and His Battlefield Raiders finds the good Captain mourning the loss of his wife and kids, not due to death but to his love of service and duty. Hoping to lose himself in his work, Savage has himself assigned to a submarine running recon in enemy waters. The sub stumbles onto a Japanese fleet and Savage must contend not only with his failure as a husband and father but also with the rugged Captain of a Japanese battleship and the mutinous former Captain of the very sub he's been given command of. Though preachy (which seems to be the new go-to word for 1970 Marvel Comics), writer Mike Friedrich instills his Savage with very humanistic qualities and realistic wartime problems. Once the butt of jokes by Marvel University Professors near and far, Dick Ayers' art has never looked better but that may be due to a heaping helping of John Severin inking. On the letters page we get the usual "Hitler never fired a Walther ppk so where's my No-Prize?" nonsense but we're also treated to some very spirited discussion on the reasons for America's entry into The Big War.