Here we are once again, gathered together to take a fresh look at the origins of the Marvel Universe, as it developed, month by month. I’m your humble guide, Paul Brian McCoy, and we have a fairly light month ahead of us, particularly after the March 1963 onslaught we covered last time.
But before we get to that, I just want to say a HUGE “thank you” to my good buddy, Robert Travis, who was kind enough to spend some time putting together the new logo for the column. It’s so much better looking than anything I was imagining that I just can’t stop bragging about it.
I feel all grown up, now. Like a real column.
Many, many thanks, man. I couldn’t be happier.
Now back to business.
It’s another Kirby-light month, as the King gives most of his attention to Fantastic Four, but also provides pencils for this month’s Iron Man adventure, but not the inks. Last month’s penciler, Don Heck, provides the finishes this time around.
Unlike last month, however, everyone seems up to the task of maintaining the Mighty Marvel Quality that we’ve come to expect over the past year’s worth of books. On the art, anyway. Storywise, we’ve still got some floundering around to do. There are a few notable moments in this batch of books, but they’re really few and far between.
All of which is to say that this will probably be a fairly short column.
Let’s see, shall we?
Journey Into Mystery #91
Plot: Stan Lee
Script: Larry Lieber
Art: Joe Sinnott
“Sandu, Master of the Supernatural!”
In my rush to dismiss last issue as a complete waste of time and space, I forgot to mention one thing of note. Dr. Don Blake was going to tell Nurse Jane Foster that he was really Thor.
I know. How could I forget to mention that?
Well, because it happened over the course of two panels, and honestly, the book was so hard to look at I just skimmed over it a second time and forgot all about it.
Until I started reading this issue, that is.
Once again, Blake is pining for his nurse, but notes to himself that Odin has forbidden him to reveal his identity to anyone. Being the king of the Norse gods, Odin doesn’t seem to feel the need to explain himself, so on the surface it could be seen as just another contrivance of the genre, assuring that Thor has to maintain the dual identity, like other Super Heroes of the time.
However, I prefer to read it as another clue in the mystery of just how Thor and Blake function as identities. We’ve seen a lot of slippage back and forth between their consciousnesses as sometimes Thor thinks and reacts as Blake, and at other times Blake is able to accomplish feats like changing the weather or has knowledge of Thor’s experiences and relationships before he found the cane/hammer.
I’ve argued that there appears to be something funny going on, as the two identities don’t seem to be as distinct as they first seemed to be. Odin’s demand for secrecy could be another hint that something strange is going on. We can assume that there’s a reason for the secrecy and it’s not just Odin’s whim. What that is, we don’t really know yet.
It’s also curious that Thor, while clearly having access to Asgard, doesn’t really spend any time there, instead spending his time performing acts of heroism on Earth (when he isn’t in his Doctor Blake form). Is there also some significance in the fact that Blake is handicapped?
The contrast between the two personalities is strong for the most part, but I’m wondering if there’s more of a connection between the two than we’re being led to believe. I mean, really, where does Thor go when Blake is out and about? Why can Blake communicate with Odin and manipulate the weather when he has to?
More on that later, I assume.
Loki returns this issue, sort of, while Lee and Lieber forge another connection between their version of Thor and the mythological figure. The story opens with Odin contemplating Thor’s magical Belt of Strength, letting us all know that if Thor needs it all he has to do is ask. It’s also a pretty clumsy way of letting the reader know that Thor’s going to need some added strength this issue.
Loki, although still banished from Earth and confined to Asgard, is still able to use his magic to increase the powers of a carnival psychic named Sandu a thousandfold. And being the excellent judge of character that he is, Loki is proven correct that as soon as Sandu realizes his power, he goes all black hat with it, robbing banks and threatening the U.N.
The magical Belt of Strength is called for when, after being knocked unconscious, bound with chains, and then buried beneath a building, Thor awakens weakened and unable to break the chains.
Thor can’t break some chains so he has to ask Odin for help?
The only real explanation for this that I can think of has nothing to do with the internal logic of the story. The only reason for this ridiculous plot point is to create that link between the Marvel version of Thor and the mythological version. He doesn’t need the belt in order to get out from under the building. His hammer allows him to burrow a tunnel out without even damaging the building. But when the Valkyries bring him his belt he can suddenly break the normal, everyday chains that were holding him down.
Essentially, this whole adventure serves only to establish that Loki can still be a threat from Asgard, and that we can and should expect elements of the Norse myths to make their ways into the Marvel Universe in much the same way characters and situations from the Timely/Atlas days do (as we’ll see in this month’s Strange Tales).
Joe Sinnott’s art is much more polished than Hartley’s last issue, with very nice character work and well designed backgrounds and layouts. The only shortcoming is with the design of Odin, who lacks the regal power of Kirby’s design. If he wasn’t identified as Odin in the narration he could have been just any dirty Viking.
No offense to Vikings, of course.
The story is forgettable, but thankfully, we don’t have Blake winking at us in the final panel this time around. Instead, we get the much more satisfying shot of Loki vowing revenge. I wish something would be done about the whole, “If I can’t touch my hammer for 60 seconds, I change back” idea. It’s used more as a gimmick than as a real story element, more often than not.
Although I suppose that thematically and symbolically we could craft an argument that the weakness serves to represent the emasculation of Thor when he changes back to Blake. But, honestly, give
n the way it’s structured into the stories, the symbolism could more easily be read as representative of the psychological empowerment that comes from the handling and manipulating of one’s phallus. The transformation from powerful god to frail, sickly mortal (as well as from war hammer to withered stick), is pretty blatantly suggestive.
Not touching one’s hammer for a minute makes one weak? Keeping one’s hammer in one’s hand makes one virile and strong?
No pun intended, but I’m not going to touch that one any more this week. We can chat about it in the forums.
Plot: Stan Lee
Script: Larry Lieber
Art: Dick Ayers
“The Master of Flame vs. The Monarch of the Sea!!”
So after last month’s stunt by the Torch (“quitting” the team to “trick” The Acrobat into revealing his true scheme and getting shot in the process), this month, the FF decide not to include Johnny while working on notes for next month’s Fantastic Four comic.
Okay, not only is that some cold shit on Reed’s part, but again this month we’re getting reinforcement of the idea that the Marvel Universe is the world of the readers. Not only are the myths true, but our comic book heroes are giving notes to Marvel’s creative teams.
I love that this is part of the monthly routine for the Fantastic Four. I’m also pretty entertained by how little respect Johnny gets in this book. Not only did the rest of the team snub him, openly and sarcastically, but later in the story, when his flames die out and he’s forced to land on a random ship at sea, he’s mistaken for a stowaway and forced to swab the deck.
You see, in order to be taken seriously, Johnny decides to fly out over the ocean and challenge the Sub Mariner to combat. Because, as Johnny says, “What a great battle that would be! Fire against water! Two of the world’s basic elements!”
Does anyone else hear Stan Lee’s voice when reading that line?
Of course, this battle isn’t a new idea at all, having originally taken place in 1940’s Marvel Mystery Comics #8 and #9. Sure, that was a different Torch, but who did you think Johnny was modeled on?
What this does, though, is cement the historic ties that the current Marvel Universe had to the stories and concepts of Timely Comics’ earliest publications. And coming on the heels of last month’s first ever Marvel crossover event (the Hulk’s appearance in Fantastic Four #12), it’s also a callback to Timely’s first ever crossover.
Both of these elements go a long way toward creating the impression that the Marvel Universe had been around far longer than it really had, fostering the sense of legacy and tradition that DC clearly had, while providing the fresh energy of Lee and Company’s new takes on the concepts.
Other than that, it’s another fairly forgettable Torch adventure.
Although there’s also another bit of intriguing psycho-sexual symbolism that could be read into this text, along with Lee and Lieber’s penchant for throwing vaguely homoerotic villains at their teen hero. I mean, Johnny wants to prove he’s a grown-up by beating up the sexy, mostly naked object of his big sister’s affections?
Before we move on, there’s something else I wanted to mention. This is missing from the Essential Fantastic Four Volume 1 collection, but in the original comic, this story ends with an editorial note saying, “Nautical Namor has since lost his power to imitate the characteristics of fish – But, otherwise, he’s mightier and more marvelous than ever!”
This is after both using electricity (like an electric eel, get it?) against Johnny and puffing up his body to about three times its normal size (like a puffer fish, get it?). I have to say I fully approve of this editorial mandate. Sounds like somebody read over this issue before it went to press and realized just how silly a power it was.
Isn’t smelling like fish enough power for any man?
Plot: Stan Lee
Script: Larry Lieber
Art: Don Heck
“The Voice of Doom!”
Nope, not that Doom.
Thirty-two years before Garth Ennis would give this power to Jesse Custer, another J.C., Jason Cragg (who did you think I meant?), had the gift of mind-controlling gab. But rather than do anything high and mighty with it, Cragg used his abilities to ride trains and demand steak dinners for free.
Clearly he wasn’t thinking big enough.
So he stands on a box and starts making speeches about how Ant-Man is evil and should be arrested or run from the city, and with his radioactivity-induced vocal powers, people listen. It’s only Ant-Man’s cybernetic helmet that keeps him immune from Cragg’s commanding voice.
After a brief flirtation with mind-control suggested suicide, Ant-Man succeeds in giving Cragg microbe induced laryngitis, but not before he tricks the con-man into declaring Ant-Man a friend of the people.
On the plus side, there’s the art of Don Heck.
I’m falling in love with Heck’s character work. The expressions and body language of the people milling about in the backgrounds are excellent, as is the idea of having Cragg become more flamboyant and grow a beard as he travels around scamming people.
The only question I have is, what’s up with that top hat? It looks like it was added after the fact
, since it’s a one-dimensional black cut-out of a hat perched precariously on his head throughout the story. I mean, I can accept that Cragg would wear a top hat, but I would also expect Heck to draw it with three dimensions. You know, like everything else in the story.
Heck didn’t draw him wearing a dildo hat or something, did he? Any information about this art choice would be appreciated on the boards, folks.
Plot: Stan Lee
Script: Robert Bernstein
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inks: Don Heck
“Iron Man Versus Gargantus!”
Apparently you’re nobody in the Marvel Universe until you stop an alien invasion single-handedly. And you get bonus points if there’s a secret robot involved.
You see, the last time this race visited Earth, Neanderthal’s ruled the planet, so the aliens figured they’d zip on home, build a robot that looked like a Neanderthal, then zip back and use it to conquer the planet. It just took them longer than anyone expected, I guess. About eighty thousand years too long according to Iron Man.
Oh well. The best laid plans and all that, eh?
This is actually a decent story, written by Robert Bernstein (credited as R. Berns), the writer most known for establishing the Aquaman origin and mythos for DC from 1959 through 1961. He also co-created Congorilla, so more power to him.
He does a good job scripting some believable dialogue and crafting interesting motivations for Iron Man’s change from drab Iron Gray to flashy Super Hero Gold. Although one has to wonder about the rationale that decides that the way to stop scaring children and ladies is to make yourself shiny. And gold.
I guess everyone likes gold, right? Stark is a multi-millionaire. He knows this stuff.
We also have it firmly established that Stark is isolated from others thanks to his constant need to wear the Iron Man breastplate. It’s an interesting idea, introduced last issue with his origin, but one that doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny. I mean, in a world with ridiculous technologies, aliens, gods, magicians, etc., it seems like a good heart surgeon wouldn’t be that hard to find.
If anyone ever disputes that the inking makes the art, just show them the differences between Kirby’s art when he inks his own work, when Dick Ayers inks him, and when anyone else inks him. I’ve mentioned before how different the art seemed on The Incredible Hulk when Ditko was inking, making Hulk look like a frighteningly evil potential rapist; well, Heck inks Kirby here and guess what? It looks a lot more like a Don Heck comic than a Jack Kirby comic.
Sure the layouts are Kirby, and a couple of the panels focusing on the Neanderthal couldn’t be mistaken for anyone else’s work, but Heck dominates and subdues Kirby’s pencils, making me wonder if the pencils in this case were just layouts.
Anyway, it looks pretty good. The characters look like Heck characters, and I’ve already discussed how much I like his work (after only a couple of issues), so that’s about all I have to say about that. Next issue, Dick Ayers inks Kirby’s pencils and suddenly it looks like the Kirby we all know.
Writer: Stan Lee
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inks: Steve Ditko
“The Fantastic Four versus The Red Ghost and his Indescribable Super-Apes!”
And now, the highlight of the month as The Fantastic Four jump-start their second full year of stories.
Yes, even with “Indescribable Super-Apes” this is a top-of-the-line issue of The Fantastic Four. In fact, the Super-Apes are part of what make this one delightfully, maybe even excessively, fun.
And did I mention that they’re Communist Super-Apes?
How can you not love that?
You can really tell that Fantastic Four is where Lee and Kirby’s hearts are. The art and storytelling is working at a much higher level than pretty much every other title Marvel is publishing at this time. Amazing Spider-Man is good so far, but this is the jewel in the crown. The ideas are flying fast and furious as each issue just crams as much story as possible into its pages.
This month we open in the aftermath of a huge explosion in Reed’s lab and the rest of the team are afraid that he’s buried under the burning rubble. He’s not, of course, but it’s a dramatic opening shot that effectively creates that sense of panic by placing the visual focus on the flaming machinery that takes up the majority of the panel, obscuring Johnny, Sue, and Ben in the background.
As it turns out, this was a test of a new rocket fuel that Reed hopes will allow America to beat the Reds to the moon.
Now, this is 1963; it had been six years since Russia started sending dogs into space and less than two years since the U.S. had sent Ham, the chimpanzee, into orbit, beating Yuri Gagarin into space by just a little over two months. Alan Shepard entered space 23 days later, and John Glenn became the first human to orbit the Earth in February, 1962.
Lee and Kirby do here what science fiction authors have always done, and take the recent news and scientific advances to inspire their creativity.
This is so much better than Namor as a movie executive, I can’t tell you. It’s topical and exciting, springboarding from the adventure that was available and inspiring to kids (and adults) at the time. This is the good stuff, right here, folks.
But Reed isn’t the only one trying to get to the moon. At that very same moment, behind the Iron Curtain, Ivan Kragoff is also planning a moon trip. But instead of a normal crew, he’s trained three apes, a gorilla, a baboon, and an orangutang, to help him pilot his ship.
Why apes? Everything’s better with apes. You know that.
But a moon landing isn’t Kragoff’s only plan. He’s also built his rocket from “transparent ceramic plastic” with no shielding in order to maximize his, and his apes’, exposure to the Cosmic Rays that gave the F.F. their abilities.
If ever there was a time when telling their stories in their own comic books would come back to bite the Fantastic Four on the ass, this was the one.
Needless to say, the Commies all get amazing powers. The gorilla is super strong (duh!), the orangutang has “magnetic” powers, and Kragoff can become intangible, but the best of all is that the baboon, a vicious little bastard to begin with, can change shape, disguising himself as anything he wants.
Is that a rock? No, it’s a screeching, tearing, biting, mass of near-rabid simian leaping at your face.
But as if that weren’t enough for an adventure, Lee and Kirby throw in the mysterious Blue Area of the Moon: a crater containing the ruins of a long-dead civilization that somehow maintains a layer of oxygen capable of sustaining life. These ruins are filled to the brim with mind-bending technologies that humans can barely begin to comprehend.
Most humans, that is. Reed Richards is slowed down for a minute or two before figuring out how to jerry-rig weapons from the junk lying around, because, you see, this becomes the battleground as the Fantastic Four take on The Red Ghost and his Indescribable Super-Apes.
But wait! There’s more!
Who should appear, but a representative of a near-omnipotent race of beings called Watchers, whose job is to sit back and observe everything that happens in creation.
Yes, Lee and Kirby did just kind-of, sort-of introduce a stand-offish God to the world of the Fantastic Four. An all-seeing, all-knowing being sworn not to interfere in world events, but watching all the same. Yeah, God’s an alien.
And how do the Fantastic Four overpower the Reds? How do you think? With good old American FREEDOM, that’s how, thankyouverymuch. The Super-Apes get a taste of freedom and turn on their evil, Communist oppressor. Like Sue says, “they are like the Communist masses, innocently enslaved by their evil leaders.”
There really are times when I wonder if Lee was working for the government.
Sorry to spend so much of this on plot summary, but this is one of those books where I don’t even want to go into why it’s great. If you can’t see what makes this an amazing piece of work just from the description, then there’s no hope for you. This issue is the quintessential Fantastic Four comic.
And it’s got Steve Ditko inking Kirby’s art. Sure, Ditko’s inked Kirby before, but this is the best so far, completely capturing the Marvel Style to present action in what will come to be called The Mighty Marvel Manner.
This is an early high point for the series.
And there you have it, folks: April 1963 wrapped up in a big bow with a shiny new logo on top!
Stop by the forums to let me know what I left out, what I was too hard on, and what I treated with kid gloves. And if you’re too young to know what “kid gloves” means, then Google it for Pete’s sake! That’s what the Internet is for, after all.