Mondo Marvel #18 - October 1963A column article, Mondo Marvel by: Paul Brian McCoy
Hey there, gang!
This is the last installment of Mondo Marvel for quite a while where Stan Lee farms out his scripting to other writers. Starting next time, it'll be all Stan, all the time! As a matter of fact, Kirby and Ditko will also begin taking on the majority of art chores as well, streamlining the creative powers and allowing for a much more integrated Marvel Universe, where stories can begin crossing over and events in one title can have repercussions in another.
It's the beginning of the Marvel Universe Proper, and will set the stage for Marvel to really begin breaking ground in what can be done in the format.
But before we get to that, we still have a few stories to get out of the way.
Most of these stories actually do a good job of setting the stage for Lee's imminent takeover, introducing characters and situations that he'll be able to run with and flesh out over the coming months.
It's just too bad there's such a childish view of women on display.
But these early Marvel comics really weren't a great place for female characters. At least not in the superhero comics. The women in the Marvel Universe seemed to be trapped in the romance comics characterizations, even when they had powers and flew into combat alongside the men.
Sure, the audience was mostly young boys, but as the letters pages are starting to demonstrate, even young boys want to see more interesting women in their comics. It'll take a while for this to filter in, but we'll actually see this conflict play out in the narrative of Thor over the next few issues.
But more on that next time. For now, let's get ready to jump into Mondo Marvel: October 1963!
Tales of Suspense #46
Plot: Stan Lee
Script: R. Berns (Robert Bernstein)
Pencils: Don Heck
Finally! The last adventure of Iron Man scripted by Bernstein! After this issue (for the foreseeable future, anyway) Stan Lee takes over full writing duties and hopefully that'll mean better stories. Well, N. Korok (Don Rico) does the scripting for issues 52 and 53 (which, incidentally, will feature the return of The Crimson Dynamo and the introduction of The Black Widow), but other than that, it's all Lee's show starting next month.
This time, it's the introduction of Professor Anton Vanko, the world's foremost expert on electricity. Once again, Nikita Khrushchev makes a cameo appearance, making him Tony Stark's most consistent nemesis so far. Khrushchev sends Vanko, in the electricity-manipulating armor that Vanko developed, to America to ruin Tony Stark.
There are a couple of interesting elements this time around, especially since in this issue we've abandoned the "Ladies Love Stark" theme that tends to undermine the narrative possibilities of the character. Not that we can't enjoy some Stark Love Time. It's just that so far he hasn't really been involved with any "realistic" female attention.
No, an Underworld Queen and Cleopatra do not count.
Anyway, The Crimson Dynamo adopts the standard Marvel Villain Approach to Introducing Himself, and interrupts a missile test. After Iron Man rescues the passengers of the missile (a manned missile?), Vanko switches to his secondary tactic: Destroy Stark Industrial Plants.
This introduces the first interesting element. It seems that the United States is so dependent on Stark Industries for fulfilling its defense contracts, that once Stark plants start exploding (at least ten of them worldwide), the good old Marvel Universe paranoia kicks in and the United States government starts wondering if Stark isn't sabotaging his own plants in order to sell the country out to the Commies.
If you ever needed a clear example of the difference between Marvel's world and DC's, there it is.
So not only does Stark need to stop Vanko to save his own livelihood (he's going to go bankrupt if his plants keep exploding and he loses his government contracts), he's also got to deal with the implication that he might be a Communist traitor. Let me just say that again. The biggest Capitalist American War Profiteer in the country is immediately suspected of being a Communist agent when HIS OWN BUSINESS BEGINS SELF-DESTRUCTING. Nice.
Another interesting development here is the fact that Iron Man convinces The Crimson Dynamo to defect by lying to him and claiming that Khrushchev was planning to murder him upon his return to behind the Iron Curtain. It turns out that Khrushchev was intending to have him shot, however Stark didn't know that.
Is a lie still a lie when it turns out to be accidentally true?
Visually, I love the design of Vanko's armor. It's big and bulky with lots of crazy-looking coils and a stylish, featureless facemask, all painted bright red. It's a nice compliment to Stark's bulky golden armor that establishes a consistent stylistic look to the technological possibilities of the Marvel Universe at the time.
I love these awkward-looking designs and won't really be happy with a new Iron Man armor design until we get around to the Ultimate Universe version forty years later.
Plot: Stan Lee
Script: H.E. Huntley (Ernie Hart)
Art: Don Heck
Speaking of awkward-looking designs, this issue we meet The Porcupine; a brilliant American scientist who creates a suit of armor made up of quills that fire all variety of things, from projectiles to gas pellets.
The story is weak, and it's the last adventure before Stan Lee takes over the scripting here, too. I have high hopes for this title, much like I do for Iron Man's adventures, and this is kind of a sorry way for Hart to go out. When your heroes beat the villain by spraying him with concrete but still allow him to escape, it's not a great story.
The only interesting thing about this one is how it functions as a contrasting viewpoint to Iron Man's take on the brilliant scientist. Over there, the scientist is used by the Communist government to attack the US (and Stark) but switches sides when he realizes that his own success has made him a target by his leader. In America, on the other hand, The Porcupine is a brilliant scientist, but is underpaid and feels he doesn't get the respect he deserves, so he turns to a life of crime.
I guess it's hard out there for a scientist in the MU. Unless you're independently wealthy, there seems to be a good chance that you're going to use your inventions for evil, or at least to benefit your own pocketbook. You know, the Capitalist way.
Maybe the worst part of the issue, though, is the interaction between Hank and Jan. If we ever needed an example of just how poorly women were represented in the early Marvel Universe, this one's a keeper. From the opening panel where they're flying over an Army Ordnance Plant and Jan just wants to think about "all the glamorous, eligible males who must be working there," to the closing panel, where because Hank doesn't have a ring to give her (out of the blue!) she pouts and says, "I hate you!" To which Hank replies, "Like I always say... you can't please a female!"
Ha ha ha! Cue laugh track.
Seriously, this is some insulting shit.
Plot: Stan Lee
Script: Joe Carter (Jerry Siegel)
Art: Dick Ayers
And if that's not enough sexist female characters for you, this issue of Strange Tales introduces Johnny Storm's new ball-buster girlfriend, Doris Evans. The main theme of this issue is also, "You Can't Please A Woman."
This is also the last issue for quite a while that has a writer scripting from Stan Lee's plots. Jerry Siegel does his duty and introduces Doris as the only real member of the supporting cast who isn't part of the Fantastic Four, but this is really a sad excuse for a story, otherwise.
The threat here is Plantman, a gardener who, thanks to his scientific experimentation and a stray lightning bolt, gains the ability to control plant life. Meaning, of course, that he can tell trees to uproot themselves and attack each other or make plants who've "witnessed" safes being opened actually work the combination locks themselves.
There's an interesting similarity to this month's Ant-Man and Wasp adventure, in that the villain escapes (this time thanks to a hollow tree) and Johnny ends the issue lamenting that when women are concerned, "You... can't win!!"
Yes, that's two exclamation points.
I can't help but think that maybe Lee was having some troubles at home this month, since this seems to be a recurring theme. I don't want to get too personal here, since I prefer to just focus on the work and not the psychologies of the creative teams, so I'll just let it go at that.
But it's strange that two issues in the same month end with the male leads whining about how women can't be understood or pleased.
Writer: Stan Lee
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inks: Don Heck
Stan the Man is back on Thor, folks. Oh. Waitaminute. He was never actually the writer of Thor at all, was he? Plotter, sure. But Thor has been mishandled by his scripters from the very beginning. Lieber had his moments, but I'm now almost entirely convinced that any complexity regarding the Mind Sharing between Thor and Blake was accidental.
In fact, lately there really hasn't been any distinction between the two personalities and now that Lee is in full control of the character, there doesn't seem to be any indication that it's a timeshare. Blake and Thor essentially are the same character, with Blake being a disguise for Thor, rather than being a separate entity.
So with that out of the way, I'll try not to harp on strange narrative glitches and read more depth into them.
Because Lee, with Kirby in tow, are taking Thor in a different direction than I had hoped. The emphasis here is on Nurse Jane Foster and Thor/Blake's overwhelming, bordering on obsessive, love. What makes this interesting, especially in comparison with the other big unrequited love story going on at the moment (Hank and Jan), is that Jane is at least being taken seriously.
Sure, she's all moonie-eyed over Blake, but she's not taking his wishy-washy crap anymore. She's moving on. It's the man in this relationship who is the hopeless romantic. Lee also wastes no time in complicating the relationship, as Thor petitions his father, Odin, for permission to marry Jane.
Odin is appalled, to say the least. Without even considering it, Thor's petition is denied. And if that wasn't enough, Jane quits to go work for another doctor. A doctor who happens to be a "wolf" who's "always trying to date" her. And if that wasn't enough, Jane admits that she knows Blake wants to ask her to marry him, and she's AFRAID SHE'D SAY YES TO A MAN TOO WEAK TO SPEAK HIS MIND!
Damn, that's hard-ass.
So she leaves him for this other doctor.
Loki takes this opportunity to send a Lava Man to attack the surface world while Thor's distracted. Why a Lava Man? Who knows. But it provides Kirby with a good opportunity to draw an extremely creepy villain who is actually an interesting match for Thor's own elemental powers. And even better, he's representing an entire race of Lava Men who live in the bowels of the Earth. Guess where we'll see these folks again.
This is the first time in a while that we really get to see Thor cut loose in battle and Lee demonstrates what writing Thor should be like. Thor was "born for battle!!" His "limbs ache to smash and shatter!!"
Now that's what I'm talking about.
First time in the batter's box in full control, with Kirby at his side, Lee knocks it out of the park. There's a nice balance between the soap opera romance elements and the all-out combat.
And then, as if Blake wasn't in a bad enough place emotionally, at the end of the story Jane shows up to rub his nose in it. When the Lava Man attacked, Doctor Andrews got her to safety, while Blake was, um, distracted.
He just can't win.
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inks: G. Bell (George Roussos)
"Tales of Asgard"
But this is what I've been waiting for.
Lee and Kirby are about to start taking a few pages each month to explore the history and mythology of Thor in "Tales of Asgard." Not only is this an opportunity to flesh out Thor's supporting cast, it also serves to develop the cosmology of the Marvel Universe.
What's so interesting about this is that from the very first page, they make it clear that what they're going to be doing is exploring Heroic Legends. There's no real attempt to make these Asgardian stories universal or complete. These are the stories, as filtered through the Marvel Universe, of the Norsemen: The Vikings.
It seems that in the Marvel Universe, Vikings are fearless, stout-hearted warriors of great courage and daring. No mention of raping and/or pillaging. Which is, I suppose, understandable.
Anyway, the most interesting thing is that Lee very clearly makes a point about the origins of the Norse myths. He states in no uncertain terms that the Norsemen "chanted the legends of Asgard around their campfires" and that they "created heroes and gods and demons which still fire the imagination of men!"
This may be another of those moments where I'm reading more into it than I should, but then again, maybe not.
Lee is obviously drawing a direct comparison between the myth-making of the Norsemen and the myth-making of Marvel Comics. If having a Norse god as one of the main heroes in their comic repertoire wasn't clear enough, Lee and Kirby are casting themselves as the myth-makers of a new generation. And this series of short pieces seemed designed to hammer that point home (no pun intended).
The rest of this installment is a laying out of the basic cast and conflicts of the Norse myths. We have the good gods, The Aesir, fighting throughout the ages with the evil Frost Giants. After introducing the concept, we then go back to the beginnings of time and see the fire demon Surtur, waiting for the end of the world.
We see the birth of the first and greatest Frost Giant, Ymir, as well as a gigantic magical cow who provides sustenance to the giant for ages. Then, from out of the ice rises the first of the Aesir. Where does he come from? From out of the ice, silly. Don't ask questions like that.
His name is Buri, by the way. Buri then finds a wife (somewhere) and they have a son named Borr. Years later, Borr married and had three sons, one of whom was named Odin! He and his unnamed brothers set a ring around the Earth and the magic tree, Yggdrasill grew to spread its branches over the planet "and protected it while awaiting the coming of man!"
How's that for epic?
Not only does this story establish a Creation Myth for the Marvel Universe, it implies that this myth was created by man. In the Marvel Universe, so far, the only story with any religious significance to be told is the Norse creation; and those myths were created by warriors, for warriors.
Now this all works very nicely inside the ongoing narrative of the Marvel Universe, where Lee and Kirby also exist, creating comics that chronicle the adventures of superheroes. But it also sets up a very satisfying religious cognitive dissonance with the reader who might happen to dwell on it.
Not that this is a direct refutation of religion as a man-made phenomenon, but it's more along the lines of a demonstration of how powerful storytelling is, and how a good enough story can have real-world effects. Because if the Norsemen of the MU invented their gods, and those gods now actually walk the Marvel Earth, then the religious stories of the real world can also be treated as both mythology and truth. We can accept the concept that human beings created our mythologies, but also that those stories were so powerful that their real-world effects can't be dismissed.
More on this subject, later, I'm sure.
Writer: Stan Lee
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inks: Dick Ayers
Meanwhile, in the final Lee and Kirby collaboration of the month, our heroes have a very interesting experience that will effect their lives for quite a while. We don't see it yet, but we will.
This story has some nice twists and turns to it, as Reed discovers that in ancient Egypt there was an irradiated plant that could cure blindness. Therefore, in order to give Alicia the gift of sight, he convinces the others that they should return to Doctor Doom's castle and use his time machine to travel to ancient Egypt and find this plant.
That's all well and good, but there's something strange about this period in Egypt's history; there are a few years from this period that are strangely unaccounted for in any way.
Guess why! Because the Pharaoh, Rama-Tut, is the time-traveling ancestor of Doctor Doom! That's why!
And when the FF show up and find out who he is, they put a stop to his subjugation of Egypt. But not before he overpowers them with his future tech. In fact, if it wasn't for the fact that working as a slave on board an Egyptian ship exposes Ben to the heat of the workday sun, which in turn triggers his transformation back into his human form, which in turn allows him to break the mind control the Pharaoh has them all under, the Fantastic Four would have died in Egypt.
This raises an interesting time travel point, the same point I mentioned when it turned out Ben was actually Blackbeard the Pirate back in Fantastic Four #5. Since the Pharaoh had already been defeated in the present, as verified by the lost years, this makes a strong case for determinism as opposed to free will.
Of course, at the same time, Rama-Tut (the only name we're given) should have had foreknowledge that his reign in ancient Egypt wouldn't last long. Either he just didn't know, or perhaps the knowledge had been lost by the year 3000. It's a point that's not clarified.
This sort of paradox didn't come up when Thor traveled to a similar future (although that was only 300 years from now, rather than the year 3000) where there was no more wars and peace reigned. But that's because Thor's antagonist, Zarrko, didn't stay in the past (our present), instead only stealing a bomb and then traveling back to his own time to rule.
By staying in the past, Rama-Tut becomes a part of the historic record, present by his conspicuous absence. Since there's no mention or discussion of alternate timelines developing, we can assume that at this stage in the development of the Marvel Universe, we're really only dealing with one future. A future which, oddly enough, is a Utopian one.
Within the next 300 years, Earth will be completely at peace and aside from a few glitches here and there, will still be at peace in the year 3000. This is remarkably hopeful for a world that in the present is wracked with paranoia, nuclear threats, and constant alien invasions.
One might go so far as to suggest that the heroes of the Marvel Universe, like those in the heroic legends of the past with their fundamental conflict between good and evil, play a part in moving us toward a Utopian state of being where good is predetermined to eventually win out.
Deep stuff, eh?
On a lighter note, there's an interesting letter to the editors in this issue, written by a young man named Steve Gerber. Gerber was 19 years old and a big fan of Namor, declaring issues 4, 6, and 9 to be masterpieces. He also wasn't shy about criticizing the issues he didn't care for (13 and 15, in particular).
His letter prompted the following reply: "Steve would be a great letter writer if he wasn't so shy about giving opinions!" Nine years later, in 1972, Steve would be hired by Marvel and go on to write some of the best comics of the Seventies and beyond.
Story: Stan Lee
Art: Steve Ditko
Last but not least, or at least not absolutely least, is my least favorite issue in the Amazing Spider-Man run so far. I'm really kind of amazed at just how many times putting Doctor Doom in a story just makes the quality drop.
So this time Doctor Doom decides he needs an ally to defeat the Fantastic Four. You know, because it worked so well with Namor at his side. He figures Spider-Man might do the trick, since J. Jonah Jameson's smear campaign is working in full effect. Spidey refuses, naturally.
The smear campaign is countered somewhat by an almost universal teen fanbase who refuse to believe anything bad that Jameson says about Spidey. I say almost universal because Peter Parker uses this opportunity to distance himself from his alter-ego by dissing Spider-Man in public.
This then triggers a plot twist that really just does nothing for me. Flash Thompson dresses up as Spider-Man in order to jump out from behind a fence and scare Peter, but he's captured by Doctor Doom, who thinks he's the real Spider-Man, and then used as a hostage to force the Fantastic Four to surrender.
The real Spidey shows up, fights Doom to a standstill before the Fantastic Four arrive, which prompts Doom to flee like a little schoolgirl. The end.
Not much of a story, but the real highlights are subtle and in the backgrounds. For example, Jameson's secretary, Betty Brant, sticks up for Pete in Jameson's presence, which suddenly makes Pete realize that she's kind of hot. And while that's an interesting development, what's even better about this scene is the rant that Jameson goes on.
It's a rant that exposes him for what he truly is. He animatedly explains that he's only in it for the money. The more he attacks Spider-Man in print and on television, the more papers he sells. He has no real interest in the truth and exists only to make money. I'm pretty confident in saying that I imagine this was a point Ditko wanted to make clear to the reader.
There's also a very nice panel when Peter is informed that Flash has been captured by Doom while impersonating Spider-Man. Ditko uses the split-face approach, with the left side being Peter's face, but the right side being the Spider-Man mask, as Pete contemplates letting Flash die at the hand of Doom.
Seriously. He fantasizes briefly about the FF not capitulating to Doom's terms and so long as he keeps out of it, "Flash Thompson will never bother Peter Parker again!" The grin on his face is positively chilling. However, the thoughts coming from the Spider-Man half of his face disagree. He acknowledges that he can't let anything happen to Flash, and his better half wins out.
It's a nice little visual trick to represent how being Spider-Man is making Peter Parker a better person.
That, combined with Betty Brant calling Pete "wonderful" at the end of the comic, help to drive home the idea that Peter's life isn't really centered on his high school experiences. Nor is it the same as his teenage peers.
Peter's matured and is existing in two worlds while the rest of his schoolmates are still stuck in adolescence. Three worlds, I guess, if we include his life as a superhero. But at the moment, I think the most important point is the way Pete's developing a life outside of school. Even if it does put him face to face with the realities of capitalism and exposes him (and us) to the way truth becomes a commodity in the media.
Sorry to go all serious on you there. It's just nice to see some real philosophical and political issues being raised by these comics, whether they are intended (as in Amazing Spider-Man) or not (as in "Thor" and Fantastic Four).
That's all for this week! Come back next time for a heaping pile of comics goodness as we get the return of Doctor Strange, the second issues of both The Avengers and The X-Men, Ant-Man takes on a new identity, and lots more exciting action in the Mighty Marvel Manner.
Until then, Wah-hooo!