Sunday, September 5, 2021

Matthew Bradley's Superhero Grab Bag #1


Issue #1
by Professor Matthew Bradley

Introduction:  A Day Late and a Super-Hero Short

Welcome to another series of irregular (in every sense) posts, inspired by the confluence of two recent events, one of them a memorial gathering on Sunday, July 25—the day before what would have been his 55th birthday—for our fallen friend, Professor Tom Flynn.  In attendance were the surviving members of the MU faculty’s ex-Penguin USA (PUSA) wing:  (l-r)  Professors Gilbert Colon, Joe Tura, Bradley, and Chris Blake, whose actual 55th birthday it was.  Hosted by Tom’s incredibly gracious brother, Tim, and sister-in-law, Suzanne, the event was an opportunity for his friends and family to celebrate his rich life and legacy, especially since his sudden passing near the start of, although not from, the pandemic had deprived us all of the usual elements of closure.

Naturally, his steadfast devotion to MU came up more than once, reminding me what a joy it was to revisit my extensive Marvel collection and contribute to this blog on a regular basis until we’d finished its formal curriculum in February 2017, even if the workload was at times crushing.  By a curious coincidence, while working on an article for a future issue of the print version of bare•bones (also brought to you by the usual suspects), I was reacquainted with Comic Rack, the program some of us use to store and open files of Marvel and other publications.  There, I saw the files that our august Dean Peter Enfantino had generously sent me on CD long ago to fill the relatively small number of holes remaining in my collection, many of which—for various reasons—remain unread today.

I wasn’t in on the ground floor of MU, and at the time I dipped my toe in the water, access to my collection was limited, so my earliest contributions were sporadic at best.  Looks like my historic first solo post ran on 10/9/11, although I’d already been commenting for some time and, as early as 9/28/10, weighed in on Dean Pete’s “Return of the Original Captain America” post on b*b’s “e-zine” counterpart.  As I recalled, of the 98 issues (other than long runs of Tales of Suspense and …to Astonish, about which more another time) he’d sent me, most arrived when they’d been covered already, leaving them with no immediate practical application, but memory’s a funny thing, and I’ve now discovered that a little more than half were indeed pressed into service then.

That still leaves a fair number (44, if anyone’s counting) of Silver Age issues to which I’ll be devoting ex post facto coverage in these posts, which are intended merely to supplement, rather than to supplant, the fine work of my colleagues back in the day; this is simply an opportunity for me to play catch-up with my own take on them.  This inaugural post will be the most deserving of the “grab-bag” moniker, as it happens to include a few random issues of multiple titles, while each of the remainder will group 4-7 issues of a single strip, although even those will frequently not be contiguous. I envision one devoted to Daredevil (c. 1965-6), two to Fantastic Four (c. 1963-7), one to Journey into Mystery/Thor (c. 1965-7), and three to X-Men (c. 1966-8).

Amazing Spider-Man #57 (February 1968)  

“The Coming of Ka-Zar!”

Written by Stan Lee; penciled by John Romita and Don Heck; inked by Mickey Demeo [Mike Esposito]

Ironic that this issue is “co-featuring Zabu the savage, sensational saber-tooth,” since Tom, a man who loved his cats (as we do chez Bradley), had a wonderful one named Sabretooth when I met him.  First, poor Spidey has to get his head together, having lost his memory while defeating Doc Ock last time out, but amnesiac or not, some things never change:  as rain pelts his rooftop refuge, he observes, “I’m probably the original Hard-Luck Charlie!”  As he catches 40 winks in the rafters of Grand Central, Aunt May is sick with worry over Peter’s disappearance, and before she can phone Harry for an update, her own roommate, Anna Watson, finds her collapsed and calls Dr. Bromwell; meanwhile, John Jameson defends his decision not to try to capture Spidey.

And Zabu didn't even have to wear a mask!

Fortunately not our august
Dean Paste-Pot.
Unpersuaded, JJJ learns that Lord Kevin Plunder (aka Tarzan-clone Ka-Zar) has flown into JFK with Zabu in tow for a confab about the estate with his lawyer, some ambulance-chaser named Murdock.  Jonah pits the na├»ve jungle lord against “a dangerous, deadly menace,” and the cross-cutting continues as snoopy Harry, finding a Spidey tracer on the floor of Pete’s closet, draws the wrong conclusion:  that he’s been kidnapped by…himself!  Hearing a radio report that John is on his side, Spidey seeks him out in search of intel, wondering why the missing freshman’s name is so familiar, while Bromwell opines that his safe return would be the best medicine; Spidey finds John with the latter’s new ally, Captain Stacy, whose daughter Gwen bursts in to accuse Spidey.

Spidey laments, “We’re not getting anywhere,” perhaps sensing that a MARMIS (Marvel Misunderstanding- Dean Pete) is overdue, and leaps out the window, as does Ka-Zar, who “borrows” a rope and grappling hook before tracing his scent from GCT to the Bugle, where Spidey unwittingly hopes the paper’s “morgue” may aid his memoire.  Preying on his amnesia, JJJ is seconds away from tricking him into unmasking when Ka-Zar bursts in, shattering both the window and the prior panel average of six per page.  “Jazzy John Romita’s” pencils, finished by “Dashin’ Don Heck” and embellished by “Mickey Demeo” (Mike Esposito), show ol’ Kev appearing practically to leap off the paper (interestingly, Spidey’s flinching pose atop that three-panel page looks positively Ditkoesque) and it’s game on.

"You imbecile, not now Cato!" --J. Clouseau

Finally free from scene-change-induced whiplash, we savor a long-awaited donnybrook, with K-Z praising “truly a worthy foe” (recalling Kraven the Hunter, thrown into the mix when Spidey visits the Savage Land in #103) who “might have made a fitting friend…”  It carries them into Central Park, “his type of terrain,” where Spidey, out of web-fluid, is outnumbered when Zabu escapes his “tightly-locked hotel room…sens[ing] the grave danger,” and propels him to the bottom of the lake.  Having recognized his opponent’s innate nobility, and knowing that Zabu’s unsought intervention has placed an asterisk on the victory anyway, Ka-Zar fishes out our water-logged—presumably still amnesiac—arachnid and proclaims, “The battle has ended…forever!”

Avengers #7 (August 1964) 

“Their Darkest Hour!”

Written by Stan Lee; penciled by Jack Kirby; inked by Chic Stone

So quickly was Jack Kirby succeeded on this strip by Heck (the next issue would be his last with full pencils), who for me defined the look of the Assemblers, that despite his creating the group with Stan Lee, I always find seeing the King’s work in these early issues a little jarring.  Stan is wasting no time deploying his footnote-provided context for the Marvel Universe, immediately citing Shellhead’s blowing off an Avengers’ alarm in the same month’s “Iron Man [i.e., Tales of Suspense] #56”—leading to this issue’s “special board of inquiry session”—and the recent attack by the Executioner and Enchantress on Thor in Journey into Mystery #103.  In double-barreled judgments, IM is suspended from assembling for a week while Odin banishes the E & E to Earth.

The gang's all here.

The Executioner is stripped of helmet and ax before they’re kicked down Bifrost with clashing agendas:  he hopes he’ll still outshine “the weak mortals” to win her heart, while she has the hots for Thor; trouble ahead, but Loki, who’d pulled their strings, is thrilled they’ll imperil his foster brother.  No sooner has the Enchantress opined that they need an ally to clue them in on Earthly ways than she spots a headline about Zemo’s escape after the Avengers defeated the Masters of Evil.  Done mopping the floor with wrestlers for his daily workout, Cap explodes at Rick Jones when he finds and tries on Bucky’s old outfit, still haunted by his death at Zemo’s hands, and the baron himself is visited by the E & E’s astral projections in a secret Amazonian jungle kingdom.

He readily agrees to seek joint revenge on Cap and Thor, who soon see Giant-Man and the Wasp off on a New England entomological investigation, then go their separate ways.  Cutting through Central Park, Cap and Rick are approached by Hans Grubervelt, Zemo’s “repentant” ex- #2, who reveals his location, but it’s a masked Executioner, luring Cap into a trap—with Rick eating his dust—and isolating Thor.  Summoned by a “strangely haunting call,” the unwary thunder god is enthralled with spell and potion by the Enchantress, who convinces him the Assemblers are his enemies; meanwhile, bailing out over the Amazon, Cap repurposes his ’chute for protection from a gas-filled missile, slashes free with his shield and hits the ground running to fend off the locals.

With friends like these...

"If only I had a pillow"
Eluding them lands him in a big-game trap, while Thor summons the Pyms back, ambushing and shattering their jet copter with Mjolnir; Hank is forced to overtax himself by growing to 40 feet to shorten his fall, with a news report prompting IM to enter the fray, sentence be damned.  Jan’s buzzing distracts Thor until Shellhead arrives, yet although the Executioner gloats from a nearby rooftop, his partner frets over Zemo’s progress, and her long-distance effort to seal the pit with a cave-in merely provides Cap—protected by his shield—with a rocky “stairway” exit.  Scattering Zemo’s men with a “giant flexible vine” (looks like a tree to me) before they can deploy a vibra-gun, Cap levels his palace with it, hitching a ride on the getaway plane with his shield’s magnets.

The breather enabling him to return to a mere 12 feet, Hank assists IM, who breaks the spell with reflected sunlight, leaving the Avengers, uhm, reassembled as all parties converge with Zemo’s arrival.  Although Cap smashes his windscreen, the Executioner leaps aboard to stun and eject him, but Thor uses Mjolnir to create “an all-consuming space warp” that transports the fleeing ship and the unholy three within it to…who knows where?  Lots of moving parts, feeling at times like a jumble of misplaced JIM/TOS pages, but Stan orchestrates—as Jack and Chic delineate—the action nicely; of historical interest, the lettercol’s “Special Announcements Section” heralds the solo Hulk strip’s debut in Tales to Astonish #60, after he and co-star Hank cross paths in #59.

"Well, if I can't cause mayhem,
I'll just -- dance!"

Avengers #9 (October 1964)

“The Coming of the…Wonder Man!”

Written by Stan Lee; penciled by Don Heck; inked by Dick Ayers

As much as I adore the arc in which Gerry Conway et alia resurrected Simon Williams (in every sense), starting in #151 and crossing over with Bill Mantlo’s woefully underrated Super-Villain Team-Up, I’d never before had access to “the” Wonder Man’s origin story, marking Don’s debut as penciler.  After last issue’s Kang interlude, an obsessed Cap is seeing hallucinations of Zemo, who is “hovering helplessly between the sixth and seventh dimensions” with the Executioner and Enchantress; the latter’s spell returns them to Zemo’s jungle kingdom to hatch Plan B.  For this, they offer penniless inventor Simon—driven to embezzlement to avoid bankruptcy after “Tony Stark’s latest inventions made your patents worthless”—wealth, power, and a shot at vengeance.

"...if you want something
done, ask a woman."
-- M. Thatcher

Beefed up by the “most powerful ionic rays ever assembled in once concentrated area,” he’s now a bullet-proof “living engine of destruction,” and will join the Avengers to strike from within; it does not get by the Executioner that his partner, who seems to get hot pants for everyone but him, “has never looked at me like that!”  Having given him Giant-Man’s strength, fists rivaling Mjolnir, a rocket-belt, and Cap’s battle skills, Zemo ensures Wondy’s loyalty:  the rays are fatal sans weekly injections of an antidote.  Days later, a staged payroll robbery gives the Assemblers the return bout they craved, interrupted by Wonder Man, and after “driving off” Zemo et al., he claims to be the baron’s unwilling guinea pig, seeking help to find the cure for his “rare disease.”

"Ah, puny humans --gotta love 'em."
It all goes south (American) when Wondy returns to Zemo’s H.Q., luring the Avengers into yet another trap with a false radio report that he’s been “recaptured,” but being forced to bring Jan as bait makes him begin to question his allies’ m.o.  As all parties converge—the men assembling via no fewer than three separate modes of transportation in this pre-quinjet era—he sucker punches Thor, more comfortable showing his true colors, and at first single-handedly holds his own, knowing his injection depends on victory.  Yet as the Asgardians help Zemo tip the balance decisively in his favor, and he prepares to execute his defeated foes, Wonder Man asks himself, “they tried to help me when I came to them!...Is life so dear—that I’d pay such a price for it??”

So that's what they did
before the internet

He moves the boulder trapping Thor in a pit, which had separated him from his hammer for the crucial 60 seconds, effecting the change to Don Blake; unseen amidst the chaos, the lame medico retrieves Mjolnir—which, in a notable gaffe, did not revert to Don’s walking stick.  With Thor’s reappearance, the jig is clearly up for Zemo & Co., but it’s a pyrrhic victory as the baddies escape once more, with the Avengers narrowly avoiding a booby trap, and Wonder Man, absent the antidote, dies a hero’s death.  I probably haven’t seen a lot of Silver-Age lettercols, so I’m realizing that the “Special Announcements Section” (here occupying 75% of the second page, and bruiting the start of Cap’s solo strip in TOS #59) is a precursor of the Bullpen Bulletins Page.

"It has not been in vain." -- F. Unger

Up Next:
A heapin' helpin' of
the Man Without Fear!