Welcome one and all, to the March 1963 edition of Mondo Marvel, the bi-weekly column where I, your humble narrator, reads and comments on each and every Super Hero comic published by Marvel Comics, beginning with November 1961’s Fantastic Four #1 and ending when I drop dead from exhaustion or reach December 1969, whichever comes first.
This week we cover the thirteenth month of Stan Lee’s, Jack Kirby’s, and Steve Ditko’s group creation. This month, Kirby takes a break and Ditko finally returns to the Super Hero world, crafting the art for both The Incredible Hulk and The Amazing Spider-Man. Along with them, Kirby’s regular inker, Dick Ayers, does full art duties on the Human Torch’s adventure, Don Heck takes over Ant-Man and helps introduce us to the wonders of Iron Man, while Al Hartley does what he can with Thor.
Amazingly, for a comic book universe where every issue (but one) over the previous year was illustrated by the distinctive and dynamic Jack “King” Kirby, nearly the entire line maintains a very high artistic standard.
The only shortcomings are with Ayers and Hartley, and to be quite honest, Ayers doesn’t do a bad job. His work just lacks the flare of Kirby’s. And to tell you the truth, the less said about Al Hartley’s work on Thor this month, the better. In fact, I’m going to try to talk very little about this issue at all.
In order to give the artists more attention, I’m shuffling the reading order this week, grouping the titles by artist, and pushing the major events to the back half of the column.
It’s another weak month for most of the characters who don’t have their own titles, although the Human Torch story at least addresses one of the main problems I’ve had with the stories all along, and the introduction of Iron Man is nicely done on all levels. We’ll be getting through these titles fairly quickly.
And for the other titles, well, we say goodbye to The Hulk, but hello to Spider-Man, and, for the first time in the Marvel Universe, characters begin appearing in each others’ titles. And not just as comics that somebody’s reading. Lee decided to take the plunge this month and have The Fantastic Four appear in The Amazing Spider-Man #1, and (say hello again!) the Hulk appear in The Fantastic Four #12.
And with that, the Marvel Universe begins coming together.
So, without further ado, let’s get into March 1963, shall we?
Journey Into Mystery #90
Plot: Stan Lee
Script: Larry Lieber
Art: Al Hartley
“Trapped By the Carbon-Copy Man!”
The Xartans are coming! The Xartans are coming!
Led by the father/son duo of Ugarth and Zano, a shape-changing alien army from the planet Xarta decide that, for some unknown reason, Earth should be their next target of conquest. But instead of using their, quite frankly, massive fleet of space ships to dominate the planet like your typical alien warlords, they decide to take a different approach.
To overwhelm us with whimsy and silliness.
Really, Ugarth? Really, Zano? That’s your plan? Capture human leaders, replace them with your shape-changing agents, and then demand that cars should drive on sidewalks, advertisements should be plastered to the sides of buildings instead of billboards, that a bridge should be painted polka dot, and that doors aren’t allowed to be locked during “Trust People Week”?
This issue is a bit of a rehash of two previous Thor adventures (Thor’s debut battle against the Stone Men from Saturn and Loki’s mischief-making debut) with a healthy dose of the Fantastic Four vs. the Skrulls thrown in (right down to the disturbingly cruel final fate of the captured aliens). Missing is any character complexity and logic. And Commies. There are no Commies this month.
In addition, Kirby is gone and is replaced by Al Hartley. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m sure that Hartley was perfectly acceptable during his decade-plus run on Atlas/Marvel’s Patsy Walker franchise. And maybe his jungle adventures, westerns, and horror stories were well done, too. His character work with the average citizens of New York in this issue aren’t awful, although they do seem to be a bit rushed, particularly given the almost total lack of backgrounds in most of the story.
But Super Hero action is definitely not his forte.
This is the worst-looking comic Marvel has published up to this point, and I’m sure it’ll hold that title for years to come.
Just about every element of the look is awkward and sloppy. Musclebound men look more like inflatable suits, the spacecraft are extremely generic, and Dr. Blake doesn’t just look slight and weak; he looks downright malnourished, or maybe a little deformed with his huge head teetering on what is practically a stick-body.
On the plus side, Hartley is good with facial expressions, but that’s barely noticeable with all the other horrible work this issue.
The only thing that’s interesting about the story is that it essentially tells the tale of last year’s Secret Invasion, only without a shred of intelligence or seriousness. Not that Secret Invasion was that intelligent, but at least the Skrulls had a plan. The Xartans are the most ineffectual space warlords I’ve ever seen in print.
The thing that really makes me think this story could have played a part in the design of Secret Invasion is a technical one. When the Xartans change forms, they take on all the traits of that form, much like the Skrull sleeper agents and Super Skrulls in SI. When a Xartan turns into a Frozen Warrior, he can actually freeze things without subterfuge (unlike the Skrulls at this point in Marvel history, who had to use technology to simulate the Fantastic Four’s powers).
And when Thor convinces the captured aliens to change into trees at the end of the story, they literally become unthinking hunks of wood, growing in the park. If the Skrull Cows were allowed to come graze beneath their shade, this would be the creepiest park in New York.
And is anyone else getting tired of Thor stories ending with Dr. Blake looking out at the reader and practically winking while he makes a facetious comment about how feeble he is?
Plot: Stan Lee
Script: Larry Lieber
Art: Dick Ayers
“The Threat of the Torrid Twosome!”
What is it about Johnny Storm that attracts beret-wearing villains with questionable facial hair?
This issue finds Johnny propositioned by a mustachioed acrobat in a beret, who “convinces” him that Reed Richards is coasting on, and profiting from, Johnny’s talent. Interestingly, this issue provides the first of two moments this week where hot-headed teenagers try to wrangle a salary from Reed.
That Johnny asks for money and gets denied, makes his condescending response to Spider-Man later a bit disingenuous. Add to this, Johnny’s interactions with Rick Jones in Fantastic Four #12 (also this month), and Johnny seems to be a bit of a ass. He’s just not very likeable.
And he’s really just not very smart either, it seems.
Remember me bitching about how he’s a public figure and a celebrity, but is maintaining a “secret identity” as he lives with Sue, who everyone knows is The Invisible Girl, and how stupid the idea of his identity being hidden was? How he was endangering lives by having to come up with tricks to distract people while he Flamed On?
Well, apparently I’m not the only reader who found this absurd. This month we find out that everyone in town knows Johnny’s the Torch, but everyone looks the other way to humor him. Oh, they say they’re just honoring his desire for privacy, but you just know everyone thinks he’s an idiot.
Maybe that’s why his villains are so ridiculous, and why The Wizard is so obsessed with having been outwitted by him. If you were an egomaniac genius and the mentally challenged kid down the block kept tricking you and making you look like a fool, I suppose it could make you a little crazy.
But what about this story, you ask? Well, the villain’s called The Acrobat. He has a poncy mustache and does flips. Sure, Johnny says he was just going along with The Acrobat’s plan in order to lure him out and find out what he was really up to, but I don’t buy it. I’m not sure Reed does either.
Especially after Johnny takes a bullet. Seriously. If the gun didn’t jam, Johnny would be dead. Killed by a man named Carl who tumbles and thought “The Torrid Twosome” would be a good name for their team.
Is “Torrid” really the right adjective? Sure, it means hot, but it also means passionate. Is this another Torch villain with vaguely homoerotic undertones?
Dick Ayers takes on the full art chores this issue, after becoming known to Marvel audiences mostly as Jack Kirby’s inker, despite the fact that Ayers had been drawing comics since the Forties and created the original Ghost Rider (a horror-themed western adventurer created for the publisher Magazine Enterprises, who would later be retconned into the Marvel Universe after the character’s trademark lapsed).
Unlike Hartley, Ayers knows how to draw Super Hero action. His style is a little more polished and a little less energetic than Kirby’s, but still maintains what, up until this point, was essentially the Marvel Super Hero House Style. His backgrounds are effective, if simplified, and his facial work is impressive. The orchestration of the action sequences, again, while not as dynamic as Kirby’s work, is still effectively paced and laid out on the pages.
Unfortunately, this is still a series in search of a point. Hopefully, next issue’s appearance by The Sub-Mariner will liven things up a bit.
Plot: Stan Lee
Script: Larry Lieber
Art: Don Heck
“Prisoner of the Slave World!”
This month’s Ant-Man adventure is a short one, that, like this month’s Thor adventure, is mostly made up of ideas already used in other titles over the previous year. Someone is kidnapping scientists. The bad guy is a tyrant warlord named Kulla, from another dimension. Dr. Pym uses getting thrown into an isolated dungeon as the opportunity to change into Ant-Man and rescue everyone without revealing his true identity.
The most notable things about this story are 1)how short it is (a blessing, really), 2)that Ant-Man can communicate to other-dimensional insects with a simple wavelength adjustment and 3)control them, and 4)with their help Ant-Man murders Kulla.
Yup. You read that right. Not only does Ant-Man admit this issue to controlling the alien ants rather than allying himself with them, he uses them to fire a gun into Kulla’s back, killing him instantly. We can say it was self defense, since Kulla is just about to smash Pym with a mallet, but still, it’s a little harsh.
Don Heck steps up to the plate and provides the art for this issue (and will be the series’ artist for quite a while, although Kirby does return in a couple of months for the introduction of The Wasp). It’s not an entirely auspicious debut in Marvel’s Super Hero world, with some strange inking choices where some panels are very delicately lined, while others have huge swaths of black in place of shades or details.
The character work is very nice, though, and Heck’s realistic style is very effective when there are no inter-dimensional aliens on-panel.
For the third artist from the Atlas/Marvel bullpen to take hand-offs from Kirby this month, Heck’s work is the most impressive so far. Too bad it has to be on the waste of space that is Ant-Man.
Luckily his second appearance with the debut of Iron Man is much more successful.
Plot: Stan Lee
Script: Larry Lieber
Artist: Don Heck
“Iron Man is Born!”
Ah, that’s where all the Commies went: Vietnam.
We don’t really get a chance to get into the character of Tony Stark in his debut appea
rance, but we are given a shorthand version of who he is and what he does. He’s a millionaire American weapons inventor who’s the “dreamiest thing this side of Rock Hudson.” And there you have it.
He’s invented a transistor that is so powerful that it can increase the force of any device a thousandfold. We’ll just skip the technical details of this invention and group it with other Marvel Scientific Miracles like magnets that attract people and ants that secrete honey.
While in Vietnam inspecting the implementation of his new transistors, which allow American soldiers to carry mortars that are no heavier than flashlights, he stumbles across a tripwire booby-trap that kills the soldiers he’s with and nearly kills him. With a piece of shrapnel lodged near Stark’s heart and inching closer with each passing day, a “red guerrilla tyrant” named Wong-Chu, tries to trick Stark into making him weapons before he dies.
Long story, short; Stark escapes with the help of an elderly Vietnamese scientist who sacrifices his own life for the American.
There’s not a lot here to talk about, except for the fact that with the creation of Iron Man, Marvel has their own millionaire playboy Super Hero, just like the Distinguished Competition. But I find Tony Stark to be much more interesting than Bruce Wayne, if only for the fact that Stark’s heroism isn’t tied directly to childhood trauma and borderline mental illness.
I’ll talk more about this once the character begins to develop and we see how Stark functions outside of a Vietnamese prison camp.
Don Heck’s art is very well-suited for this character and concept. Yeah, I know, Kirby did the initial design of the armor and drew the cover, but Heck was in charge of the rest of the character designs. This is a place where his background in more traditional comic art suits the story perfectly. Kirby’s work can be too meaty at times, and Tony Stark, along with the bathing-suit beauties that flock to him, need a more realistic style to work well.
I mean, just wait until the third adventure, when Kirby and Ayers do the art. Stark looks like he’s retaining water.
But more on that in the weeks to come.
Script: Stan Lee
Art: Steve Ditko
“The Incredible Hulk vs. The Metal Master!”
And the first of Marvel’s new Super Hero series bites the dust.
I’ve been worried about this title since the first issue, wondering just how they thought they could market what is essentially a murderous villain as a hero. When they never really tried, I was comforted from a critical perspective, but not very hopeful of a long run. The constant personality changes and alterations of the status quo had to take a toll on the readership.
But I’ve not seen any numbers to back that up, so I could be completely wrong.
Not surprised to see The Incredible Hulk go, regardless.
This issue is notable for a few reasons. The most interesting is the fact that continued exposure to Gamma radiation is having strange effects on Banner. The transformations aren’t as neat and controlled as they should be. In one instance his body changes into the Hulk, but he keeps Banner’s head. Luckily he keeps a mask made from plaster molds of Hulk’s face around since he’s been studying his transformation.
This proves to be a little awkward when Hulk is knocked unconscious by the Metal Master (an alien with the power to control metal with his mind), and soldiers realize he’s wearing a mask. Luckily, when they pull it off, the change had finally completed and his face was Hulk’s. Which makes everyone wonder why he was wearing a mask in the first place, but they don’t dwell on it.
The second glitch in his transformations comes at the end of the story, when Hulk zaps himself in order to revert to Banner. Then nothing happens. Hulk has a bit of a panic attack and then later goes into a rage and begins destroying things in the lab, but then finds himself changing back to Banner.
The story ends with Banner and Betty openly romantically involved, much to Thunderbolt Ross’ dismay, and Banner hoping and praying that he doesn’t have to change into the Hulk again.
Again in this issue, we see just what makes The Hulk so interesting. While doing battle with the Metal Master, there’s a lull in the combat and the Metal Master offers a truce. He suggests that they team up and rule the planet. And for a minute, Hulk considers it. And what causes him to turn down the offer? The realization that he can conquer the world himself and doesn’t need any allies to do it.
There’s also another rather frightening moment after the military has captured the Hulk that he sees Rick Jones and, thinking Rick’s betrayed him, tries his best to grab him through the window of his cell, all the while ranting like a psychopath about how Rick will pay for squealing! Everyone’s gonna pay!
Luckily for the world, Hulk seems to forget about these threats once he’s escaped and transformed back into Banner.
Another interesting development that occurs this issue is that once Rick thinks Hulk hates him, he decides he wants to do something to help the world. He tries to enlist in the Army, but he’s too young. Then he meets up with some friends who have pooled their money to buy a ham radio.
With a communication network in place, Rick realizes that all the teenagers across the country with ham radios can form a network in order to do good deeds. Calling themselves the Teen Brigade, they are instrumental in Hulk’s eventual defeat of the Metal Master (thanks to their organizing the collection of supplies Hulk uses to create a giant fake gun that completely psyches out the alien).
If there was ever an exact opposite of Johnny Storm, Rick Jones is it.
For whatever reason, Kirby has dropped out of doing the art for this issue this month, too. In his place is Steve Ditko, who’s Super Hero work we haven’t seen since Spider-Man debuted in Amazing Fantasy #15 seven months prior to this.
Ditko’s work is, like most all the other fill-ins, the exact opposite of Kirby’s, with more emphasis on realistic character
s and a cleaner, more efficient narrative style. I like Ditko’s version of the Hulk a lot, as he seems more brutal and physically menacing as opposed to Kirby’s more monster-like approach.
With Ditko on art, the Hulk looks just plain evil. Like he’d just as soon rape you as pound you into jelly. Or maybe he’d just rape you into jelly.
Either way, he is far scarier under Ditko’s pen than under Kirby’s.
Writer: Stan Lee
Pencils: Steve Ditko
Inks: Dick Ayers
“Spider-Man vs. The Chameleon!”
Though The Incredible Hulk may be over and done with, The Amazing Spider-Man has arrived to take his place on the publication schedule.
Though it’s been about seven months since his debut, it appears that the fan reaction to Peter Parker and his radiation-induced arachnid powers was pretty strong. And I’m not surprised.
Like I said when discussing Amazing Fantasy #15, Spidey’s got it all, baby. Well, maybe I didn’t say just that.
But this is the character that epitomizes the mighty Marvel method of character construction. He’s a teen character with some of Johnny Storm’s hot-headedness and some of Rick Jones’ sense of duty and honor, plus he’s hampered by crippling doubts and personal anxieties. He’s a nerd with secret super powers. And they’re not a secret because of fears for family safety at this point; his identity has to remain a secret otherwise the police will arrest his ass and then Aunt May would die from the shock.
We get two stories this time out, the first a fairly simple one that establishes the status quo of the series. Young Peter Parker and his ancient Aunt May need money. Pretty simple, eh? Pete considers a life of crime, but rejects the idea because he’s not the criminal type, but mainly because of what it would do to Aunt May if was arrested. So he tries entertainment again, but for some reason this time around he can’t get paid.
I guess he was getting paid in cash in his origin story.
This time he tries to cash a paycheck made out to Spider-Man and the bank teller practically laughs him out of the bank. But it doesn’t matter much because newspaper publisher J. Jonah Jameson has a bone to pick with the costumed hero– er, I mean, menace.
The Hulk had the military out to get him, but it was understandable. He was a borderline psychotic with uncontrollable power who, at least once or twice, threatened to conquer the world or just kill and rape innocent people. Spidey’s just trying to get paid, and thanks to an unhinged media personality, finds himself not only wanted by the F.B.I., but feared and hated by the people of New York.
He can’t even get a break when he saves Jameson’s astronaut son from a fatal crash.
The second story introduces Spider-Man’s first real villain, The Chameleon. He doesn’t have super powers, but is a master of disguise and, like the Communist newspaper owner that the Human Torch foiled back in his first solo adventure (Strange Tales #101), he’s stealing government secrets to sell to the Reds hanging out in a submarine off the coast.
As with the Fantastic Four in a couple of their earlier adventures, Spider-Man is impersonated and framed for crimes he didn’t commit. It’s cleared up easily enough, but he still finds himself on the wrong side of the law. In fact, he practically has a nervous breakdown at the end of the issue because nothing seems to work out the way he wants it.
The highlight of the issue, however, is the appearance of the Fantastic Four.
This isn’t just a passing appearance on a comic book cover that Peter happens to be reading. This month marks the first real cross-overs in the Marvel Univers. Both here and in The Fantastic Four, Lee, Ditko, and Kirby start weaving together the continuity web that will make Marvel really stand out.
And not because no other publisher has done this before. Clearly that’s not the case. But it is rare for the interactions of characters from different titles to actually have some influence on how the characters continue to relate as the months pass.
Plus, as should be expected in a Marvel Universe where paranoia and fear are the groundwork for almost every social encounter, when the Marvel folks get together to team-up, they usually assume the worst right off the bat, and fight for a little while before taking a breather and talking things over.
Hell, we’ve already seen how the Thing and the Human Torch can barely ask each other what the weather’s like without taking a swing at each other.
It’s not so pronounced here as it is in The Fantastic Four #12, but it’s still the way the story works itself out.
You see, desperate for money, Peter Parker decides that surely the Fantastic Four would hire him. They’ve gotta have great pay and probably benefits. So after causing a fair amount of property damage, Spidey finally gets into their “private skyscraper headquarters” only to be met with violence.
They fight for a little while, but then Reed calms everyone down enough to find out what Spidey’s doing there. He asks for a job and is flatly rejected. Seems the Fantastic Four is a non-profit organization, and Johnny, who just this month tried the same thing in his solo adventure, cracks wise.
What I like the most about this cross-over is that is sets a very original tone for the way the Marvel Universe works. The FF and Spidey don’t team-up to solve a crime or to help someone in need. They interact in a way that is much more realistic and grows holistically out of the characters’ personalities and needs.
This is escapist fantasy, sure, but it’s more complex than what we see at other companies with other characters. It takes the personal lives of the characters into consideration and uses them to push plots forward more realistically.
I mean, really. If you suddenly found that you had super powers but were down on your luck and battling bad P.R., wouldn’t you try to snag a job with the highest profile super group in the world? I know I would.
Visually this book is all Ditko, all the time. It’s a refreshing look that stands out not only from Kirby’s defining work, but from all the other more traditional illustrators that stepped up this month. It’s nice to see Marvel’s second flagship title have
such a distinctly different look from its other flagship title.
Writer: Stan Lee
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inks: Dick Ayers
“The Fantastic Four Meet The Incredible Hulk!”
And speaking of which, here we go! The last book to talk about in the largest publication month in Marvel history so far.
Look at that cover. What else do you need to know?
If this month establishes anything at all about the Marvel Universe, it’s that the Fantastic Four is at the very center of whatever’s going on. When Spider-Man wants a job, he hits up the FF. When the military has exhausted all options when dealing with the Hulk, who do they turn to? You guessed it.
There’s an interesting study in contrasts with this issue as we see how the military runs a scientific project compared to the chaotic energy that the Fantastic Four brings to the scene.
Whereas the government weapons program is all about secrecy and clearance, control and order, the Fantastic Four are crashing through doors, wrestling with each other, and finishing other people’s projects just because they’re hanging around. It also can be seen as a contrast between Bruce Banner and Reed Richards in pretty much exactly the same way.
Reed’s flexibility, both metaphorically and physically, is his greatest strength, making him the leading scientific mind in the Marvel Universe. Banner, on the other hand, is all about control and release. When he’s ordered, he’s meticulously ordered, but when he cuts loose it’s pure and total devastation. I don’t know if this is a conscious contrast that Lee is making, but it’s a subtle and insightful one.
I wonder what could be implied about Henry Pym, using this analytic approach?
One could also make some sort of comparative argument about the different “family” structures in the two casts of characters. Banner and Rick have a strange bachelor father/son kind of relationship going (sort of like in The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, starring Bill Bixby –- hey! waitaminute!), while the FF at least play lip service to more traditional familial structures. But even there, the father figure is intellectual and aloof and the mother figure is basically a cardboard cut-out.
Neither grouping is really female-friendly, with the Hulk’s cast regulating Betty Ross to the sidelines as a worrying love-interest and perennial potential victim. Sue, on the other hand, is consistently treated like a part of the team on the surface, but she’s continually forced into a passive, stereotypical feminine role.
Even after last issue’s big, “Sue isn’t useless” diatribe against the readers, this month we get Sue feeling useless against the Hulk, and General Ross telling her that “a pretty young lady can always be of help –- just by keeping the men’s morale up!” Reed wholeheartedly agrees. How insulting. Something has to change.
Anyway, this issue’s basic scenario is this: the military is working on a special canon but something or someone destroyed it. The damage was so spectacular that General “Thunderbolt” Ross is sure the Hulk is responsible. Of course, he’s not. It’s the Reds with the help of a secret giant robot.
Yes, I said a secret giant robot. You can apparently hide just about anything out in the desert.
Anyway, the FF ride into town, there’s a fight, the true enemy is revealed, and everybody lives happily ever after. Essentially.
If these comics are supposed to make the reader feel comfortable and supportive of America’s military, they’re doing something extremely wrong. There are Communist spies everywhere, and the authorities are preoccupied with personal vendettas than with paying attention to the information available and doing the right thing. Real dangers are ignored and possible allies are vilified.
But I suppose that’s just endemic of the entire Marvel Universe, really.
The way the heroes interact during the cross-overs is actually just an actualization of all the rest of the paranoia and hostility that saturates this world. Of course when two super powered, hyper-masculine forces meet, they’re going to initiate violence before they try dialogue. They’re products of their environments. Literally, with all the radiation lingering about.
I probably should mention Kirby’s art in Fantastic Four #12, but to be honest, I don’t know what else to say about it. It’s Kirby working at the top of his game. Without all the other work to take care of this month, Fantastic Four looks as good as it ever has; maybe better.
Okay, that’s enough of my jibber-jabber. It’s time to turn out the lights and call it a night.
I tried to shorten it up and make it a little easier for you folks to get through, but I don’t know if it worked. I guess I took about the same amount of space to talk about a few more books this week, so I suppose that’s making some headway.
Be back in two weeks as we continue this borderline insane quest to read through and comment on all of Marvel’s Sixties Super Hero comics. And remember to stop by the message boards and let me know what I missed and what could use some work.