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Mondo Marvel #13 - June 1963

A column article, Mondo Marvel by: Paul Brian McCoy

Lucky Thirteen!

Actually this installment lives up to all the bad stuff you hear about the number thirteen, as this was the most painful batch of Marvel Comics I've had to wade through yet.

I mean, really, when the Ant-Man adventure is the best of the best this week, you know things are bad.

And it doesn't help that R. Berns (Robert Bernstein) is tackling scripting duties on three out of five titles. His over-writing isn't quite as bad this week, but I get the feeling that's only because he was speeding through his work and didn't give it the time he might have with a smaller load.

Although, to be fair, his Thor adventure is partially inspired by the real-life Sino-Indian War. Whether that was Stan's idea or his, who knows. But it's a step up in Berns' approach to these comics. Even if he and Stan do think "radio-activity" is magical. And that "radioactive" is hyphenated. As far as I can tell, it hadn't been hyphenated since around 1904.

Anyway, even Lee and Kirby disappoint this time around. It doesn't really help that the FF are fighting a guy who sits and thinks all the time and his big monster with an all-purpose orifice for a face. How could that go wrong?

The big surprise this week is the arrival of H. E. Huntley, otherwise known as Ernie Hart. Hart was brought into the Super Hero fold after spending many years working on Atlas' "funny animal" comics (he created Super Rabbit – no, I don't know who that is, either), and brings just the right touch of bombast and hucksterism to his narration. His dialogue, on the other hand, could use some reining in.

Plus, he did some research before sitting down to script a story about a guy who talks to ants. Speaking of Pym, this week also sees the introduction of Marvel's second female Super Hero, Janet Van Dyne, The Wasp!

She's sassy, spunky, and knows what she wants in a man!

Apparently, she wants a man with slight mental problems and the urge to implant insect DNA into her shoulders and forehead.

Women!

But first, we must dive into the dreck. I'll try not to stay too long.




June 1963
Tales of Suspense #42
Plot: Stan Lee
Script: R. Berns (Robert Bernstein)
Pencils: Don Heck
"Trapped By The Red Barbarian!"

 



First up, we have Iron Man taking on the Commies.

This isn't really much of a surprise, as Tony Stark is a world-class Capitalist, so who better to counter the evil propaganda of the Reds? Not that there's really any propaganda being addressed here.

In the Marvel Universe, Communism is evil. That's all there is to it.

The citizens of Communist countries are victims of their cruel overlords, who are barely above savages themselves. Take the Red Barbarian, for instance. He's essentially a barbarian, as his name implies. He's a drunken, gluttonous idiot who has his henchmen murdered is they tell him things he doesn't want to hear. But in The People's Republic of Wherever, he's the big dog with bad hair and worse teeth.

But he's not even the real threat this issue. The real problems come from the enigmatically named villain, The Actor. He's a guy with the weird ability to push his face around and make himself look like anyone he sees. It's kind of glossed over without a lot of thought, but just imagining him in action gives me the willies.

He manipulates his face to make himself look like other people. Exactly like other people. For example, in a matter of moments he goes from looking like an ordinary fellow to mimicking the Red Barbarian, pudgy nose, sloping brow, gap teeth and all. Which means that somehow he pushed and prodded his face into that form, shifting bone, fat, and cartilage into new places.

Ugh! My stomach just fluttered thinking about him shoving his teeth apart to give him the Red Barbarian's distinctive poor denture-work.

Utterly horrifying, but treated like its just an amazing gift.

I suppose he could be an early appearance of a Mutant in the Marvel Universe, before Lee had really developed the idea. It's only three months away from the launch of The X-Men, so maybe the idea was gestating.

It doesn't really matter, though, because he's dead by the end of the story. Which is a good thing for Stark, since The Actor discovered his secret identity. I guess saving that information for a rainy day when it could benefit him was a bad idea on The Actor's part. Information don't stop bullets, I'm afraid.

This story is a mess from the beginning. Apparently, the Iron Man armor runs out of juice much to quickly to be all that effective. Hell, he has to swing away on a rope after the opening scene (capturing Commies for the government), because he doesn't have enough power to fly.

He swings away on a rope.

Then he demonstrates a new weapon he's developed: A disintegrator ray. The most disturbing part? While selling its benefits to the military, Stark casually drops that if enlarged, his ray could easily disintegrate an entire fleet of enemy battleships or even a great metropolis!

What the hell?

I don't think I like Tony Stark anymore.

Don Heck's art doesn't do the story any favors this time around, either. It's not bad, but it isn't up to the standards of his previous work. All of the characters look as though they were inked directly from layouts, rather than full pencils, as they have a sketchy, unfinished look.

Not the best example of anyone's work this time out.




Strange Tales #109
Plot: Stan Lee
Script: R. Berns (Robert Bernstein)
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inks: Dick Ayers
"The Sorcerer and Pandora's Box!"

 



Next, we get another extremely forgettable Human Torch adventure, as once again, a strange, middle-aged, neighborhood bachelor with a mysterious nickname and a huge house, gets pwned by the flaming teen. The only thing missing is bizarre facial hair, although The Sorcerer (not to be confused with the other strange, middle-aged, neighborhood bachelor with a mysterious nickname and a huge house) does have some mighty hairy knuckles.

In fact, he has some pretty gnarly looking hands, in general.

He's also a bit of a crank, chasing kids out of his yard with his huge dogs, which is what inspires the Human Torch to cross his path. Johnny Storm was out minding his own business, doing good deeds like putting out a fire (that a fire-fighter casually mentions would have killed a lot of people since they "probably couldn't rescue them all in time") and turning flood waters into steam, when he stops The Sorcerer from chasing kids off of his property.

Was it extreme? Sure. But the dogs were on leashes and the kids were trespassing. Johnny decides to teach him a lesson and threatens to keep him trapped in his house with a wall of flame unless he lets people traipse through his yard unimpeded.

Having no option, The Sorcerer agrees, but vows revenge, since he is, he claims, a real sorcerer. Believing him to be a kook, Johnny laughs it off and flies away, probably to go impose his teen-aged ideas about property and the law.

But when The Sorcerer gets his gnarly old hands on Pandora's Box, he uses the evils trapped inside to do his bidding. Because, you know, Circe, the greatest sorceress of ancient times, used her magic to put all the evils back in the box, contrary to all the myths and stories. It seems a Greek exporter, not realizing what he had, shipped it to The Sorcerer with a bunch of other Greek artifacts.

And being a "real" sorcerer, The Sorcerer figures out how to open the magically sealed box and control the evils inside. That Torch will "suffer a thousandfold" for humiliating him.

But first, he'll use the evils to get rich, naturally.

Kirby turns in another pretty standard job on art, making the bad guy just as hideous on the outside as he is on the inside. The evil imps that live in Pandora's Box are nice designs, reminding me of creepy puppets mostly.

Other than that, there's not much to say about this one. Although Berns' script isn't too bad this time out. But with what plot he was given to work with, there's not much good that could have come of it. The dialogue inches toward sounding natural, but is still hampered by stilted sentence structures and over-narrating.

Surprisingly, he doesn't seem too interested in actually using narrative captions for much more than scene changes and minor descriptions. I think that would probably improve the narrative flow of his scripts and keep all that exposition out of the mouths of the characters and into a narrative voice where the formalized structures would be more acceptable.




Journey Into Mystery #93
Plot: Stan Lee
Script: R. Berns (Robert Bernstein)
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inks: Dick Ayers
"The Mysterious Radio-Active Man!"

 



Which brings us to what is probably Berns' best work to date on a Marvel Super Hero title. It's still not great, but it's a step up.

The story opens on the border between India and China. That's Red China to you and me. Dr. Don Blake is there as part of an American medical aid mission taking place during the Sino-Indian War of 1962. While in the real world, the active conflict took place in just over a month or so, from October through November of '62 and from what I can gather, didn't involve the United States either arming or advising, in the Marvel Universe the war was still going on and Blake seems to imply that Americans are serving as military advisers and supplying weapons to the Indian army.

Maybe I'm reading that wrong, but that's what it sounds like to me.

The actual conflict was actually took place during the Cuban Missile Crisis, which China used as "cover" to ensure that the U.S. and Russia would be pre-occupied elsewhere and wouldn't interfere.

It's little touches like this that make the Marvel Universe so interesting.

It doesn't matter if the details are correct or whether or not America had a hand in India's defense. In the Marvel Universe, America would undoubtedly provide any support that was needed to fight the spread of Communism. Because Communism is Evil. No two ways about it.

So while the actual conflict was short-lived thanks to the harshness of the terrain (and other factors), in the MU, Thor is on hand to help out and drive the Communist Chinese back across the border. And he steals all their tanks while he's at it, giving them to the Indian army to use against the Reds.

This provides the Chinese with the motivation needed to develop a threat that can challenge Thor's might. And it comes in the form of a chunky, Chinese scientist named Chen Lu. He exposes himself to small doses of radioactivity over a length of time, building up an immunity (?), and then basically turns himself into a living bomb with the ability to control his own level of radioactivity.

He dials it down to avoid contaminating those around him, but can crank it up to melt bullets, machinery, or anything (or anyone) else he wants to destroy.

Somehow, he also gains the ability to use radiation to glow blindingly bright, deflect Thor's hammer, absorb lightning bolts, and induce hypnotic trances.

Hmmmm.

Anyway, the Radio-Active Man (with a hyphen) shows up in New York and challenges Thor to a battle. For some reason that I can't quite figure out, Lee and Berns have this happen while Dr. Blake is in the middle of a dangerous operation and can't respond. So as hours pass and Thor doesn't show up, the citizens of New York start wondering if Thor's a coward.

It doesn't seem to have anything to do thematically with the story, unless the purpose is just to reinforce how quickly public opinion changes when it comes to the Super Heroes. No matter how many times Thor has saved the city, if he's late once, he doesn't get the benefit of the doubt.

Or maybe it's a subconscious reaction to the fact that if Thor didn't make New York City his base of operations, most of the violence and destruction that has hit the city would never have happened. Sure, it's a good thing he's there when aliens try to invade, but when super-powered magicians, evil Norse gods, or walking Communist bombs threaten the city, it's because they're targeting or have some relation to Thor.

Anyway, the story is pretty simple but then loses steam as we get to the end. The Radio-Active Man tells a hypnotized Thor to toss his hammer away, but he tosses it too far and Radio-Active Man has to go look for it. Of course, he's gone for more than a minute and Thor transforms back into Blake, breaking the hypnotic spell. Luckily, all the people who were gathered around watching the battle also disappear in under a minute, so no one discovers Thor's secret identity.

Then Blake is able to build an x-ray type device that can search a ten mile area allows him to locate his hammer.

Hmmmm.

Anyway, the hammer is at the bottom of the Hudson River under 80 feet of water. Scrawny Don Banner then doffs his clothes and dives in, swimming down, nearly drowning, until he finds and grabs his hammer. Then in only three panels he flies back to the city, confronts Radio-Active Man, and whips up a whirlwind to whisk him back to Red China.

When he lands, he's traveling so fast that he explodes like a nuclear bomb, much to the dismay of those dirty, evil Commies.

And how could we end a Thor adventure without Nurse Jane mooning over Thor's exploits in the newspaper and Dr. Blake making a pithy comment; this time it's "we can't all be heroes."

I'm very disappointed with the direction Thor is going. The Radio-Active Man actually started out as an interesting idea and seemed to be more than a one-dimensional Commie threat, but then it all just fell apart. There doesn't really seem to be any motivation for Thor's actions and adventures and there's no real attempt to give either character much personality. Not even Kirby's art can save these stories.

Although, maybe I'm expecting too much from stories about a long-haired Viking who hits people and things with a big hammer.




Tales to Astonish #44
Plot: Stan Lee
Script: H.E. Huntley (Ernie Hart)
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inks: Don Heck
"Ant-Man and the Wasp vs. The Creature from Kosmos!"

 



Speaking of motivations, suddenly the undersized adventures of Hank Pym, Ant-Man, suddenly gain a modicum of poignancy.

In a development I was never aware of, the good Doctor Pym was married at one time. His wife was the daughter of a prominent Hungarian scientist and both she and her father were former political prisoners. Unfortunately, in one of the most ill-advised vacation trips imaginable, the beautiful Maria Pym wanted to return to Hungary to revisit her childhood haunts.

Once there, though, Pym is knocked unconscious and Maria is shoved into the back of an ominous looking car, only to be found an hour later, murdered with a note pinned to her body from the dirty Commies who killed her, saying that "this is what happens to those who attempt to escape from behind the Iron Curtain."

Harsh.

And guess what? Hank goes a little crazy, vows to track down the killers, and ends up "on the verge of" having a nervous breakdown and being locked up in a Hungarian jail. Luckily a friend got him released and sent back to America, where he dedicated his life to shrinking down to the size of an ant and fighting crime.

It seems the ant fixation is due to a saying Maria's father used to have (he was murdered at the same time when his lab was bombed back in America): "Go to the ants, thou dullard." That's a misquote, actually. Turns out the real saying is from Proverbs and instead of "dullard" it should be "sluggard." But I guess that's okay, since Pym quotes it correctly later in the story.

Anyway, holy crap! That's a boatload of character work that was suddenly just tossed into the mix with no warning.

Even better, Pym's sad reminiscing and moaning about always being alone, leads not to a romantic fixation on his most trusty ant companion, but to the belief that he should find a partner to carry on his work if he's ever killed in the line of duty. Waitaminute! Was that a thematic motivation for a narrative development?

Holy crap!

Enter Janet Van Dyne, daughter of a prominent scientist and Maria Pym lookalike. Which would be cool, except for the little fact that she's "not much more than a child." In fact, when they leave, Pym moons a little, thinking, "So much like Maria! If she were not such a child..."

Yikes!

So within the space of five pages, suddenly Henry Pym has motivations, inappropriate desires for a young girl, and a brush with previous mental illness. All done with a narrative voice that, while a little awkward and stilted in the dialogue, works really well in the narrative boxes, giving the events a grander, somewhat tragic touch that suddenly makes Pym seem much more like a hero and less like a loser mental case.

Ernie Hart for the win!

And we haven't even gotten to the real threat of the issue and the interesting pseudo-science that goes hand-in-hand with it.

It seems that Dr. Van Dyne was working on a device to detect signals from intelligent life in space. I guess nobody told him about all the alien invasion attempts that Earth has had over the previous year. Go figure.

Anyway, he ends up coming into contact that while looking like a melted dough boy with fangs, is described in much more Lovecraftian terms in the narration. Not only is this viscous, flowing, malevolent thing monstrous, it's also an alien criminal who used Van Dyne's machine to escape its prison and now plans on enslaving humanity.

Best yet, is that just looking at the monster is "almost more than human eyes can bear" and he is able to kill Doctor Van Dyne just by staring at him.

This is pretty freaking horrifying, and is easily the best Ant-Man story so far.

And it doesn't end there. Jan finds her dead dad and in a panic, calls Pym.

Pym essentially tells her to stop pranking him and hangs up on her.

!!!

It's not until the ants tell him that Van Dyne was murdered that he believes it. So he grabs his ant gear and catapults himself across town to Van Dyne's lab.

On a side note, this is the first time that Pym's contacting the ants and telling them to form into a cushion for his landing is done before he actually launches himself, giving the ants the time to gather. It's amazing how just this little pacing issue makes the horrific image of a giant pile of writhing ants slightly easier to accept.

It's still a stupid way to get around, but at least Hart is trying to make it work; that is greatly appreciated around these parts. It doesn't matter if the science is bad, really, in stories like this. What's important is that the writer takes the time to at least give lip-service to respecting the audience and makes an attempt to ground it in reality.

With the attempt, it becomes science fiction, no matter the quality. Without the attempt, it becomes escapist fantasy where there's no internal logic to the story. That's a huge distinction when it comes to my enjoyment of a work. Consistency is another thing I'm looking for, but more on that later.

Meanwhile, back in the story, Ant-Man is impressed with the enthusiasm Jan shows for revenge and offers her a job as his partner. After that it's a quick jaunt to the lab for the injection of "specialized insect cells" that will cause wasp wings and antennae to sprout from Jan's body whenever she shrinks.

And Pym is not crazy, how?

There's not much that two tiny insect-sized people could really do when confronted with a gaseous, fluid creature the size of a building, so here's where the plot kind of goes out the window. However, it is bolstered by the fact that someone, either Lee or Hart, did a little research and found out that ants have a chemical called formic acid in their venom. The creature turns out to be formed entirely of formic acid. Pym discovers this, thanks to his friends, the ants, and concocts an antidote.

Like I said, it's not a great idea, but it's an idea that comes from doing a little bit of research into how ants actually work. No honey pits in this story.

But since it is Ant-Man, we can't have him doing the logical thing like, confronting the monster while man-sized. Even though they load up the antidote into shotgun shells and fire them into the beast with a regular old shotgun, Hank and Jan let hordes of ants carry the gun and ammo across town to where the monster is tearing down buildings left and right. What drives me crazy about this, is that they're both standing there, human-sized before deciding it's time to go fight the monster.

How long does it take a pack of ants to haul a shotgun and a box of shells across town? Longer than it takes a human to walk, or take a cab? I'd bet it is.

Then we get shots of tiny Ant-Man hugging the trigger of the shotgun against his entire body, rather than fire it like a normal human being, as he fires into the alien, dispersing it in moments. Then, in the excitement of winning, tiny Hank and tiny Jan embrace and celebrate, but then he feels dirty and wrong, as he should, and declares their emotional displays improper. But he's blushing, so she knows he liked it.

I can't imagine the costume leaving much to the imagination, either.

With that said, however, I'm thinking that The Wasp might just be what this story needed. So long as she doesn't become a waste of time and space, like Sue over in FF. But where Sue doesn't have anything to prove, with both Reed and Namor panting over her, Jan really wants to impress Hank. She wants him to see her as an adult. A desirable, sexy adult.

So she's got some motivation for being proactive. Plus, while her power is decidedly more weird than Sue's, and a little less blatantly metaphorical, she already has more personality.




Fantastic Four #15
Writer: Stan Lee
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inks: Dick Ayers
"The Mad Thinker and His Awesome Android!"

 



I hate to tear this one up, because it looks really nice. Kirby clearly spent a lot of time on this issue; there's much more attention to detail and more realistic backgrounds and settings than the other books he illustrated this month. But this story is just utter shite.

It's just filled with nonsensical moment after nonsensical moment. On the first page, Reed summons the team together by firing the 4 flare into the sky, and since that means there's an imminent threat, the gang all drops whatever they're doing (Sue's getting her hair done, Johnny's on a date, and Ben's trying to find the Yancy Street Gang so he can kick their collective ass) and comes running. Turns out the "emergency" is that Chief of Police called to alert them that crime leaders from all across the country were meeting in New York for some reason and the Fantastic Four should keep an eye out for trouble.

Reed should have invented text messaging for this sort of thing.

But when the gang complains about being interrupted, Reed says he didn't want to be interrupted either, since he had created uni-cellular life in the lab! Sure, the thing he holds up is clearly a multi-celled organism, but we can't expect Lee to know what he's talking about when he scripts this thing, right?

The villain of the piece is The Mad Thinker. Well, that's what he's called in the title. The criminals he's organizing call him The Thinker, which is probably the right move on their part. Why be insulting, after all, when this guy's trying to think you all into a new tax bracket.

Well, they get to move into a new tax bracket. The Thinker wants to be crowned king and wear a kingly robe and wave a kingly scepter while being driven around in a convertible. What is it with FF villains and their desires to be made kings? At least The Thinker's fantasy doesn't involve a FF-drawn chariot like The Puppet Master's fantasy.

Anyway, the story can be summed up in a couple of sentences. The Mad Thinker thinks he's outthunk everyone and causes the FF to split up. By the time they figure out they preferred sitting around in their high-rise with no worries in between world-shaking threats to working for a living (in the movies (Sue), in the circus (Johnny), on the wrestling circuit (Ben), or at General Electronics (Reed)), The Thinker has taken over their headquarters and turned it into a deathtrap. Luckily, Reed has a fail-safe device that shuts down all of his technology if the mailman pushes a particular button.

Seriously.

That's how this thing ends, with Mr. Lumpkin pushing a special button that trips a circuit that shuts down all of the tech The Thinker had co-opted. Then Ben grabs him and they call the police. The end.

Oh! I almost forgot his Awesome Android. More nonsense is what that is.

The Thinker took Reed's one-celled (multi-celled) lifeform, tinkered with it, and created a ten-foot tall behemoth with a featureless sock puppet for a head. Well, I guess since it's featureless, you can't really call it a sock puppet. It looks like a sock.

At least Kirby had to good sense to make its single orifice a horizontal slit rather than a vertical one, so that when it blasts out gale force winds from his head hole it doesn't look quite so sexual and disgusting. Oh yeah. And it can mimic powers for some reason, allowing it to become as strong as Ben. But luckily its got an off-button under its right arm.

And Reed knows this because The Thinker followed Reed's plans when making this obscenity.

Between Tony Stark casually suggesting the disintegration of entire cities full of Commies and Reed Richards casually creating life in his lab, I'm surprised that something horrible hasn't happened in the Marvel Universe yet. If the good guys are genocidal with god-complexes then what hope does this world have?

Or maybe it's just bad writing.

Finger's crossed.

Hey, is this the first time the Baxter Building was named?




Ugh. That kind of hurt my brain.

Next month should be better. Doctor Doom returns, as does Egghead, Loki, The Wizard and Paste Pot Pete. Tony Stark has female trouble, and Spider-Man meets the mysterious Doctor Octopus. Plus, Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos liberate a concentration camp and we also meet the Sorcerer Supreme, Doctor Strange.

How could that go wrong?

Wah-Hooo!

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