Mondo Marvel #9 - February 1963A column article, Mondo Marvel by: Paul Brian McCoy
Welcome to the latest installment of Mondo Marvel, the bi-weekly column where I, Paul Brian McCoy, take a look at Marvel's Super Hero comics in chronological order from November 1961 until December 1969 (or until I have a nervous breakdown along the way)!
This week we've arrived at February 1963, which, if it's notable for anything, it's that this was the last "small" month of Marvel releases ever.
We only have four titles to look at this week, three of which are anthology books with our stories only taking up about a third of the issue. But starting in March 1963 Marvel began to up their output dramatically. By the end of 1963, we'll be looking at nine comics per column most of the time.
Luckily, there should be quite a few books that really aren't doing much and won't require much of a write-up. Which I'm sure you, dear readers, will be thankful for.
There are only so many times I can complain about the silliness of Ant-Man.
But we'll talk more about the future of the Marvel Universe next time.
This week we've got a pretty forgettable line-up, so forgive me if I don't spend a whole lot of time on most of it. Fantastic Four has some interesting moments that deserve attention, but we could practically skip all the rest of this week's books.
But I won't.
Because I'm mentally ill.
But it's going to be a short, and probably fairly humorless, column anyway, so settle back, pop open a cold one, and get ready for February 1963!
Fantastic Four #11
Writer: Stan Lee
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inks: Dick Ayers
"The Impossible Man!"
"A Visit With The Fantastic Four!"
The opening story is mostly fluff. The Impossible Man, a nameless alien from the planet Poppup, arrives on earth for a vacation. He's got the ability to instantly "evolve" into any form, making him the most powerful being on the planet. Because, you see, he can change into anything he wants and is virtually impervious to harm. Just don't ask where the water came from when he turned into a giant water balloon and douses Johnny.
"I'm mortified," indeed.
Luckily, the Impossible Man is a bit of a dork who just wants to be entertained.
Reed uses his super brain to figure out that if they just ignore him long enough, he'll go away. So everyone on the planet is told to ignore him, and, sure enough, he goes away.
And that's that. It's an amusing little story, but doesn't really seem to have any point other than to provide mindless entertainment. That's not a bad thing, but I expect more from "The World's Greatest Comic Magazine!"
Luckily, the back-up story is much more interesting. It provides a look into the life of the FF, as they answer their fan-mail. Apparently, this was a way for Lee and Kirby to address a number of questions that fans had without just responding to them on the letters page.
While most of the story is more innocent fun (the gang interacting with some young fans, jokes about the amount of mail they get and the introduction of their postman Mr. "Lumpy" Lumpkin, a gag gift from the Yancy Street Gang for Ben, sampling a new formula to turn Ben human for a little while, plus a retelling of their origin), we do get some more serious, and interesting, information.
The gang breaks the fourth wall and tells the story of how Reed and Ben first met and became roommates in college, as well as how they both served during World War II. Ben was a marine fighter ace over Okinawa and Guadalcanal while Reed worked behind enemy lines helping the Underground for the O.S.S.
This is broken off a bit early when Reed starts talking about the girl he had back home waiting for him, and Sue asks him to skip that part of the story since she's still got conflicted feelings about Namor. Reed, for once not being a dick, apologizes and promises not to mention it again until she makes her decision once and for all.
That's when we get to the really revealing part of the story. Sue becomes upset because many fan letters, disturbing letters, are saying that she doesn't contribute enough and the team would be better off without her.
This prompts some crying from Sue and a stern lecture to the readers from Reed where he compares her role to that of Lincoln's mother (?), who, you know, didn't help him fight the civil war, or split rails, or battle his enemies (?), but made him the man he was regardless. Then, as if that weren't enough of a backhanded compliment, he goes on to point out two examples where Sue helped out. First, when she tripped some Skrulls during their fight, and second, when she freed them from Doctor Doom.
You know, two examples from the second and fifth issues of the series. Nothing from any of the other nine.
After that, Ben gets upset and changes back to his rocky form and Sue realizes that she's been feeling sorry for herself. It's Ben who deserves comforting, being a monstrous freak and all.
Then we find out that it's Sue's birthday and the boys throw her a surprise party, letting her know that she's their favorite partner, no matter what those snot-nosed brats and their disturbing letters might say.
These two vignettes bring attention to two elements of the Marvel Universe that we've mentioned a little but haven't really dwelt upon. The first is the passing of time in the MU.
By fixing Reed and Ben historically as WWII veterans, Lee and Kirby have established a very specific timeframe for these stories. For readers in 1963, World War II hadn't been over for twenty years yet, and making two of our heroes decorated veterans establishes their ages pretty concretely. Even if we assume they were both just 18 when America entered the war (which is generous, given the accomplishments they've just been attributed), that puts them both at approximately 39 years old.
We'll just forget for a moment that Johnny says he was rooting for Ben during his college football days, which would make Johnny well into his twenties instead of around 18 and still in high school. (Actually, on the letters page of this issue, their ages are noted as late thirties for Reed and Ben, twenties for Sue, and 17 for Johnny. Interesting.)
Anyway, it's a fairly bold move to fix the characters so specifically to the time period. DC Comics had a pretty flexible concept of time in their books, given that their biggest characters had been published since the Thirties. It's not until the establishing of their multiverse that chronological inconsistencies are addressed, and even then, time becomes a fast and loose topic that isn't really addressed directly.
I'm curious to see how Marvel deals with the passing of time now that they've done this.
The second issue raised here is the role of women in the MU. So far, Sue is the only female hero in the line-up, but even with her powers and her prominent position in the company's flagship book, the letter-writers are right. She's a fifth wheel and usually plays the role of captive rather than having any sort of pro-active part in the adventures.
The other women in the MU are far worse off when it comes to their characters, as we'll see in a minute with Thor's obsessed Nurse Jane.
I'm pretty sure Lee and Kirby were thinking that girls weren't their target audience, that's what the romance comics were for, after all, right? But surely after a year of publishing these titles and after getting enough fan mail that they'd address Sue's role on the team directly in this issue, they have to start thinking about making her more central to the stories.
We're still four months away from the introduction of The Wasp to Ant-Man's adventures in Tales to Astonish, and if memory serves me, she doesn't fare too well either. But we'll discuss that when the time comes.
For now, I'll just end it with the hope that sometime soon, Lee and Kirby figure out a way to make Sue a stronger character. How long is it until they decide to give her a power upgrade? It can't come soon enough.
Plot: Stan Lee
Script: Larry Lieber
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inks: Dick Ayers
"The Return of The Wizard!"
You know, after going out of their way to say Sue isn't a fifth wheel and that she actually does contribute to the stories, it seems odd that Lee, Lieber, and Kirby would, in that very same month, produce this practically worthless story where Sue is a fifth wheel who contributes absolutely nothing to the story. In fact, all she does is worry and fret, before promptly getting herself captured.
Hell, Johnny even jokes about how useless she is at the end of the story, and gets a pillow tossed at him in return.
On the plus side, the Wizard returns and without any of the creepy pedophilia subtexts of his last appearance. Instead, he's just obsessed with Johnny because he outsmarted him. So after escaping from prison and hopping a train back to town (!), he goes straight to his empty mansion, only to have the police show up shortly thereafter.
But with his Electromagnetic Force Field on, no one can get in. Of course, he can't get out either, but he doesn't seem concerned. Really, all he's concerned with is challenging the Human Torch to a duel.
An absolutely pointless duel to "decide who is the greater man!"
Johnny shows off a few new uses for his flames, like making a flame-saw that he uses to cut a hole in the ceiling, making a flame-catapult to launch a bomb to a safe distance, and a flame-lasso to keep The Wizard under control until the police can arrest him and take him away.
The lasso, I can buy, since if Johnny can control flame, it's not too much of a stretch to imagine him controlling a stream of fire that could hold someone in place. But why make a saw instead of just burning through the ceiling like a blowtorch. I get that it's a cute visual, but it's really pretty stupid.
Not as stupid as making a machine made of flame, with moving parts and enough mass to actually catapult a heavy object with enough force to bust it through the roof of the Wizard's mansion. And it's sure lucky that the bomb doesn't just go off when it smacks against the ceiling.
Johnny isn't Green Lantern. This is just an example of how limited they really are with Johnny as a solo lead character.
He's perfectly fine in The Fantastic Four, but here, it's just tedious and silly. There's no real motivation for anything that happens month after month, and nothing seems to have any repercussion on anything else happening in other Marvel titles.
And just wait until you see next issue's villain.
It's just sad.
Plot: Stan Lee
Script: Larry Lieber
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inks: Sol Brodsky
"The Day That Ant-Man Failed!"
And speaking of sad, we now turn our attention to Ant-Man.
Remember The Protector from a few issues back? The jeweler who said he was being threatened, but turned out to be faking it, dressing up in a costume, and threatening other jewelers? Well, this issue we have The Hijacker. And guess what? The businessman who keeps getting robbed by The Hijacker, turns out to be faking it, dressing up in a costume, and robbing his own armored trucks.
This story is almost exactly the same, with only minor variations. Instead of a special suit, The Hijacker has special knock-out gas he picked up from his time living with Indians in Peru.
This issue is a waste of time.
Although in one funny moment, Ant-Man's catapult over shoots his target and he almost smashes into the brick wall of a building instead of landing on his comfortable, yet grotesque, giant pile of ants. For just an instant, I thought that this story was going to be about Ant-Man failing to stop the bad guy because of how silly his whole concept is.
But he doesn't really fail in the story. Even though at the end of last issue, everyone thought he had let them down, it's not mentioned or even referenced. He does fake appendicitis to make everyone think he'd failed them, but that was just to lure out The Hijacker.
This comic, like the Human Torch stories in Strange Tales are just cynical money grabs. They're barely even trying to tell interesting stories, and if it weren't for the other stories in every issue, there's no way I'd say these were worth the 12 cents they were charging.
Plot: Stan Lee
Script: Larry Lieber
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inks: Dick Ayers
"The Thunder God and the Thug!"
How's that for the most generic cover in Marvel's history up to this point?
It's another light month for Thor, too. The main story involves a wounded criminal boss kidnapping Dr. Blake and forcing him to remove a bullet from his shoulder. Then Thor shows up and beats everyone up. The Thug escapes, however, and after showing his girlfriend what a jerk he really is, gets captured by Thor and sent to prison.
With that said, though, there are a couple of amusing moments and yet another, probably unintentional, muddying of identities between Thor and Blake.
We spend a few panels seeing what Nurse Jane's Thor fantasies are like, and they're extremely domestic. She wants to iron his cape, give him a nice, respectable haircut, and polish his hammer.
That's not a sex joke. I swear.
Thor also fools some people by dressing up a mannequin to look like him and then tossing it through the sky, making them think Thor was flying off toward the ocean and allowing him to slip into Dr. Blake's office and transform. The best part of that is that he doesn't just steal the mannequin, he also uses their material to whip together a Thor costume in minutes flat, along with hammer and winged helmet.
Another funny moment is when Blake can't transform into Thor and stop the mobsters from freeing The Thug from police custody, without revealing his identity to Jane. When she laments that the mobsters have escaped, Blake tells her not to worry. The police will handle it. But in his head, he's thinking, "But Thor would have done plenty if you hadn't been here!"
That's kind of an interesting little window into the psychologies of these creators yet again, this month. First it was defending Sue Storm as a beneficial and useful character while making her absolutely useless in another title, and now Jane hampers Thor's efforts while also getting captured and held hostage.
We're going to need to see some strong women in the MU pretty soon or this is going to start to look even worse.
Meanwhile, back on the "who's the real me, Thor or Don Blake" front, while captured by the mobsters, Blake has his can taken from him. Since without his cane he can't transform into Thor, he's in a bit of a pickle. However, he reasons that while he doesn't have Thor's body, he still has Thor's brain, and with some concentration is able to send a distress call to Odin.
It's seriously making me wonder just how much of Doctor Don Blake there really is in there. Knowing what we know of future developments in this area, I'm starting to think maybe this was the game plan all along. If it is, then this is the most subtle piece of writing going on in Marvel comics. If not, then it's an incredibly fortuitous mistake.
Well, that's another week down. Only almost seven more years of comics to go!
Hopefully with the expanded publishing output that's on the way, more variety will mean more interesting stories. Right? That's how it works?
Next month looks pretty interesting as we finally get the arrival of Steve Ditko and The Amazing Spider-Man and Iron Man, with art by Don Heck, debuts in Tales of Suspense. The Incredible Hulk ends its short run with art by Ditko, but never fear, Hulk shows up in Fantastic Four threatening to destroy them all! On the down side, though, Thor, Ant-Man, and the Human Torch all stay mediocre and have guest artists subbing for Kirby.
So Kirby's only published work in the Super Hero titles this coming month is going to be Fantastic Four. That's a little odd, isn't it? Was he sick? Did he just need a break? What's the deal, gang? He's back on most of his titles in a couple of months, so what's the story here?
Stop by the message boards and let me know what was going on with The King. Oh, and what you thought of this week's stories. Sorry about the lack of humor this time out, but some of these comics are really wearing me down. It's okay when they're so bad they're funny, but when they're just bad, it hurts.
Ah well. At least I'm not a monstrous freak.
Watch it, you!