Mondo Marvel is back, baby!
Not that we went anywhere, of course. But we’re back for another week of exploring the developing Marvel Universe through all of its highs and lows. And believe me, the highs are pretty high this week, but the lows are damn low.
For the first time, someone other than Lee and Lieber shoulders a chunk of the scripting (other than Robert Bernstein/R. Bern’s debut last month), and it doesn’t go well.
Oh my, does it not go well.
Larry Lieber is not the greatest of scripters, to be quite honest. But maybe it’s because he’s Stan Lee’s brother, or maybe it’s because he just has a feel for the Marvel Method, I don’t know, but I’m missing his hand on the tiller this month. Bernstein may be a fine writer in his own right, but this month, he seems to have lost his handle on just how to put these scripts together.
It’s probably no accident that his worst work is on comics drawn by Kirby, as by this point, I’m pretty sure that Lee and Kirby are freestyling it for the most part; teasing out plots that are drawn with little interference from the scripter.
It seems that way because the scripts are clumsy and amateurish.
Bernstein doesn’t seem to trust the audience to follow the story unless he holds their hands through to the end. And boy do the comics suffer for it.
Hopefully he’ll get a grip on the Marvel style quickly, since he’s on the schedule for about six months of Thor and Iron Man adventures.
On the plus side, though, this month brings us more strong installments of The Fantastic Four and The Amazing Spider-Man, as well as introduces one of the best Marvel titles yet, Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos.
I wasn’t sure whether or not to include Sgt. Fury in the readings for this column, but when I found out that Reed Richards has a guest appearance in a few months, as does Captain America and some of his adversaries, I figured that this is a vital component in the development of the Marvel Universe.
I also am really looking forward to writing about Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., so if I’m going to include Marvel espionage in the column, I guess I need to cover the introduction of the character, as well.
Anyway, that’s enough of my rambling. Why don’t we get on with it, eh?
Tales of Suspense #41
Plot: Stan Lee
Script: R. Berns
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inks: Dick Ayers
“The Stronghold of Doctor Strange!”
So, as I mentioned last time out, Robert Bernstein was a writer who’d been in comics for nearly twenty years and was most “known for establishing the Aquaman origin and mythos for DC from 1959 through 1961” before scripting last month’s Tales of Suspense #40. It was a pretty good story; nicely paced, with effective dialogue and motivations.
This month, Bernstein, attributed as R. Berns, gets the opportunity to script not only Iron Man’s adventure in Tales of Suspense #41, but also the Human Torch in Strange Tales #108 and Thor in Journey Into Mystery #92.
Boy was that a mistake.
I don’t know if it’s the fact that he’s working from plots by Lee and Kirby (and Sinnott) rather than writing scripts on his own or what, but these three comics are the worst-written books from Marvel so far. Maybe left to his own devices, Bernstein could have done some innovative and interesting work, like he did with Aquaman across town. Or maybe there was something going on behind the scenes, since he leaves comics completely in 1964.
I don’t know and don’t want to speculate about it.
All I know is that these comics stink. The writing is awkward and exposition-heavy, often unnecessarily explaining things that are made clear by the art. It’s almost as though Bernstein doesn’t trust the reader to be able to follow the story unless walked through it, step by step.
You may be familiar with another Marvel character named Doctor Strange. This ain’t him. The Master of the Mystic Arts doesn’t debut for another couple of months (and in another title, sharing Strange Tales with the Human Torch). And although they share similar tastes in cloaks, albeit this Doctor prefers an entirely purple ensemble as opposed to the blue and red of the more famous Doctor, there’s really no connection to the two.
This Doctor is criminal genius with enhanced electrical energy of his mind (thanks to being hit by lightning) who is able to manipulate Iron Man into breaking him out of prison. His plan is to control the world with the threat of his “S Bombs” (whatever those might be), so that the daughter that he’s neglected all her life can find a rich husband.
Of course, she never asked for any of this, and rejects her father’s gifts without question.
This is a very forgettable story filled with poorly imagined moments (such as when, depleted of all power, Iron Man is able to recharge his armor in an instant by holding two flashlight batteries???), along with, as I mentioned, A LOT of bad, over-writing.
Although, to be fair, Bernstein seems to have introduced what will become a classic Iron Man trope here, as someone uses a vaguely defined technology or power to control Iron Man. Sure, he’s basically hypnotized this time, but how many times in the future will Iron Man lose control of his armor, finding himself helpless to stop himself from committing one criminal act or another.
So, all the way back in 1963, we can see the need for firewalling one’s technology to avoid malware and hacker attacks.
Kirby’s art is serviceable, but you can kind of tell that his heart is elsewhere this month.
Plot: Stan Lee
Script: R. Berns
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inks: Dick Ayers
“The Painter of a Thousand Perils!”
But even half-hearted Kirby beats the socks of most artists, and in this month’s Human Torch adventure, he takes a shot at sloppy, careless artists.
Yes, Van Vile. I’m comfortable with blaming that on Bernstein, along with the bad
Essentially, Van Vile was sent to prison because he was a sloppy counterfeiter and left Abe Lincoln’s sideburns off his fake five dollar bills. He was caught by the Human Torch, who, for some unexplained reason was apparently working undercover at a bookstore, waiting to be passed some funny money. When he points out the money is fake, Van Vile kidnaps him, taking him back to the gang’s hideout, where the Torch then burns up all the evidence and traps them in a circle of fire until the cops arrive.
Now he’s back for revenge and he’s got magic paint that he found in a cave.
The paints allow him to paint super fast and photo-realistic, and whatever he paints springs into reality; things like giant fire hydrants, flying carpets, three-headed six-armed gorillas, and a fake Fantastic Four. But he’s sloppy, you see, and leaves off pertinent details that allows the Torch to figure out that strange things that are appearing to mess with him and then mysteriously disappearing are the work of that sloppy counterfeiter he busted some unspecified time in the past.
Not only that, when the fake FF kills the Torch, it turns out that Johnny had slipped into the badguys’ hideout without anyone noticing the FLAMING MAN AT THE EISLE PAINTING A DUPLICATE OF HIMSELF. You see, the fake FF killed the fake Human Torch.
I won’t bother thinking too much about the weird morality of creating what are for all intents and purposes, living, breathing entities that are then erased from existence with the wave of a hand. If the only way Johnny could tell the FF were fake was because they didn’t have 4s on their uniforms, they must have been pretty damn believable.
But they’re not real, so when they “die” it’s not real either, right?
Plot: Stan Lee
Script: R. Berns
Art: Joe Sinnott
“The Day Loki Stole Thor’s Magic Hammer!”
Bernstein’s third painful intrusion into the Marvel Universe this month focuses on an adventure that takes place almost entirely in Asgard. That’s gotta count for something, right?
The title says it all. Loki steals Thor’s hammer. Thor returns to Asgard to look for it. While there, he keeps making substitute hammers to fight Loki’s evil, living trees and a big, snarling dragon. Then he finds his hammer. The end.
There are only a couple of items of note from this adventure. The first is, if you’re a criminal who’s been shot, word on the street is to head to Doc Blake’s office. Sure this gets a frail doctor interacting with criminals that Thor can then bust, but come on. Does he have a sign advertising special criminal rates?
Secondly, we have Thor acting and providing special effects for a Viking “Sea Disaster” film being filmed in Norway. He even does some camera work, taking the camera into the eye of a huge storm where “no human cameraman can go.” The proceeds for his contributions go to charity, or so he claims, but then Loki steals his hammer mid-shoot and we never get back to this part of the story.
How weird would it have been if the director looked like Kenneth Branaugh?
He doesn’t. But wouldn’t that have been weird?
Anyway, the last bit of interesting detail from this story is that Heimdall is back and with a speaking part this time. For those of you who don’t remember, Heimdall is the guardian of Bifrost, the Rainbow Bridge linking Asgard to other realities. We’re also introduced to Neri, the handmaiden to Fricka, Queen of Asgard, as a fairly contrived way of establishing that Loki is just around the corner, chained to a big rock.
You see, at first Heimdall refuses to let Neri pass, since she could be Loki in magical drag. Hmmmm. Now there’s an idea.
Anyway, she’s not, and Loki is chained up (instead of wandering around free like he was last issue). He uses Thor’s magical hammer (still unnamed) to escape but accomplishes pretty much nothing. Then Odin, Heimdall, and Fricka show up to cart him off to another, probably just as useless, imprisonment.
And then we get another one-panel wink to the reader about Doctor Blake being experienced with using a mallet as he tests a patient’s reflexes.
Sinnott’s art is functional and clean. He tells the story well, although everyone just seems a little generic. And apparently, if you’ve got a large nose, you’re probably evil in Thor’s world.
Is there any way to just skip ahead five months to when Lee takes over full writing duties and we also get the Lee/Kirby “Tales of Asgard” back-up feature? I really want to skip ahead.
Plot: Stan Lee
Script: Larry Lieber
Art: Don Heck
“The Mad Master of Time!”
This month’s Ant-Man story is a tale of age discrimination and the love of a grandfather for his grandson. Simultaneously, it’s a story of an old scientist who gets fired from his job and goes a little crazy with shame and builds a ray that can speed up or reverse the aging process.
He’s too old to work at the company that fires him, so he’ll make everyone old!
Ant-Man serves pretty much no purpose in this story, except to remind us all how useless he really is. While ant-sized, the crazy old man shoots him with his aging ray and takes away his helmet. Old, feeble Hank Pym is then placed in a flower pot for safe-keeping.
A flower pot.
Not a high-security prison somewhere. He’s just tossed in a flower pot.
And he almost can’t escape since he can’t call his ant friends for help.
Luckily he remembers he can grow back to normal human size and escapes.
Also luckily, the old man realizes the error of his ways when he ages his grandson by accident. You know, after he’s turned his aging ray on a city street, aging countless people into instant decrepitude.
I guess crackpot scientists have to stick together.
Don Heck’s art is good, although his old people don’t look all that old. Unless their actually elderly people to begin with.
I’d like to know why there are so many panels with just flat black inking blotting out all detail. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to it; just sometimes Heck inks the crap out of a panel. Is he covering mistakes? Is he rushing the work?
Some panels, most, really, have a nice variety of line weights and subtle line-work providing a variety of textures and shading. Then some panels are mostly flat black.
I just don’t know.
Writer: Stan Lee
Art: Steve Ditko
“Duel to the Death With The Vulture!”
“The Uncanny Threat of The Terrible Tinkerer!”
Now this is more like it.
In our first story, Pete figures out a way to make enough cash to pay Aunt May’s rent for a year and buy her the “newest kitchen appliances [she] ever drooled over” while doing battle with a creepy old man in a flying suit. Then, in the second story, Pete stops an alien invasion and does battle with a creepy old man who makes strange devices.
Or is it a creepy old man, after all?
Technically we’ve had five total stories about Spider-Man so far and if I were to try to pull out recurring motifs, I’d say that secret and hidden identities is one major focal point, as is generational conflict. Although the generational conflicts, particularly in this issue, are more symbolic than substantive.
We also get a nice balance of brains and brawn in Spidey’s methodology. Against the Vulture, it’s Pete’s ability to figure out what powers the old man’s flying suit and develop a counter technology that really drives the conclusion. And it’s Spidey’s brawn that’s in play as he physically assaults a group of aliens, causing a fire and destruction of their equipment, and thereby prompting their quick retreat from this planet, never to return again.
I’m seriously curious about what makes aliens so hot to invade Earth. The Fantastic Four took on the Skrulls in their second issue. The Hulk fought the Toad Men from beyond Saturn in his second issue. Thor fought aliens in his first appearance, and Iron Man stopped an invasion his second time out. It took Ant-Man seven adventures before aliens were involved, albeit they were from another dimension rather than another planet, just like The Human Torch’s alien opponents from his third solo adventure. And now, again in a second issue, aliens are discovered by accident and repelled by the daring-do of our hero.
Earth must be seriously attractive for some reason.
Also, it seems that all alien races are somewhat stupid, as well, turning tail and fleeing at the first sign of resistance. It’s a wonder they conquer any other planets.
Or perhaps it’s some sort of hazing ritual to enter a galactic fraternity.
I guess we’ll never know.
Spider-Man’s spider senses are a little more defined in this issue. Whereas in the first issue they were a little more vague and all-powerful, this time out, Lee and Ditko seem to be trying to ground them in a little more realism. He senses changes in the air and strange electrical impulses rather than having what are essentially psychic powers. It’s a distinction that I like and hope they continue to emphasize.
This issue also marks the first appearance of the trademark Ditko, “Half Peter/Half Spidey” face as Pete picks up on the aliens’ electrical equipment. It’s a nice touch that also works symbolically to emphasize the idea that Spider-Man isn’t a separate persona from Peter Parker, but is the “real” Peter finally coming out. This is also reinforced by Pete’s comments about feeling almost undressed without his Spider-Man costume on under his street clothes.
Or it could be the beginnings of some kind of psychosis?
Either way, it serves to really drive home the idea that Pete is thriving on his secret life in ways that he’s never experienced before. And with a paying, yet freelance, job lined up, he’s a bit more confident and secure in who he is. He’s even back-talking Flash Thompson this issue, calling him a fat head in the first adventure and in the second actually telling him that he shouldn’t be ashamed to be a “dumbhead,” since he “was just born that way”!
He then leaves before the “angry Flash Thompson can think of a suitable retort.”
This is also after being chosen to be a special research assistant to the famous electronics expert, Doctor Cobbwell. Although to be quite honest, I’d be hesitant to sign up for “weekend research” at the home of a someone named “Cobbwell” if you know what I mean.
Maybe it’s just me, but it really does seem like there’s an undercurrent of threatened sexual abuse in these stories of teen boys. The Marvel Universe is a dark and threatening place, after all.
Writer: Stan Lee
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inks: Dick Ayers
“The Merciless Puppet Master!”
Unless I’m misremembering (which is entirely possible – stop by the message boards and correct me if so – hell, stop by the message boards anyway!), this is the first Marvel Comic to actually continue on directly from the conclusion of the previous issue. Issue 4 and issue 6 both continue close on the heels of the previous issues, but this time we are picking up almost minutes from last month’s conclusion as the Fantastic Four return to Earth after their adventure on the moon.
Interestingly enough, each of the three stories that have followed closely have all involved Namor, too. I don’t know if that’s relevant or not, but that’s the case.
Anyway, I suppose that Lee and Kirby couldn’t just let it pass without comment that America had won the race to the moon in the pages of The Fantastic Four (although I’m pretty sure The Red Ghost would dispute the record on that), so we pick up the story as the gang is coming in for a landing in New York. The eyes of the world are on them as television crews record the landing and throngs of fans wait anxiously to get their hands on Reed and the others.
Reed has a fan club that lusts over him.
A fan club with national chapters of “nutty females” who nearly come to blows trying to get to him first as he exits the space ship.
The Marvel Universe really is a strange place.
So I was reading this issue and it all seemed very familiar. Then, after a bit of research I figured out that this issue is the basis for 1977’s What If? #1, entitled “What if Spider-Man Joined the Fantastic Four,” which is where I’ve read a version of this story before. In that version, since Spider-Man joined the team, Sue became more and more of a background character and when The Puppet Master uses his power to control Namor, which is the main plot of this issue of The Fantastic Four, she ends up leaving the team to live under the sea.
Of course, here she chooses to stay with the FF, but it’s a pretty pivotal moment in the history of the team as Reed realizes that he’s got to step up his game with Sue or he could lose her. After all, when given the opportunity to choose between the two, she says Reed has her loyalty, but her heart is undecided.
This issue is also a little special for the fact that our main villain, The Puppet Master, is never revealed to the team. Sure, they get a sense that he’s probably the one who’s controlling Namor, but they don’t know for sure and thought he was dead. In fact, if it weren’t for the coincidence of Ben hurling Namor’s giant squid through the roof of Namor’s lair, and then said squid attacking The Puppet Master’s submarine, Namor wouldn’t have been freed from the mind control.
Is that a subtle thematic point about hidden, even subconscious, motivations and surface distractions? Could be. I choose to read it that way, regardless.
This is another very strong issue of The Fantastic Four that is really only marred by more institutionalized sexism. Not only do we get a soldier unable to hold back the horde of “nutty females,” and Ben thinking to himself how he’s never seen a female who could keep her mouth shut long enough to be rescued from her underwater prison, but Sue’s role in this adventure is pretty much that of a trophy to be stolen and claimed. Sure, ultimately the choice of whether or not to stay with the team is hers and hers alone, she really chooses not to choose.
She remains almost entirely passive, acted on by others or simply playing the damsel in distress role. Speaking of which, Ben brings Alicia along for the ride, for some unknown reason. She also does nothing but stay quiet and out of the way while the action takes place around her.
Is there some added symbolism in the fact that Alicia is blind and Sue can’t be seen? That’s something to think about. Although Alicia is actually a bit more active in that she at least demands to be included and actually produces works of art on her own. Sue really doesn’t do anything but clean up after and take care of the boys.
Writer: Stan Lee
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inks: Dick Ayers
“Seven Against the Nazis!”
Although Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos isn’t a superhero title, I’m including it in my readings due to Nick Fury’s central role in the modern Marvel Universe. I don’t know how in-depth these write-ups will be, since they aren’t directly related to the construction and expansion of the MU, but I’ll try to give every issue some attention; at least as much as the painful to read stuff.
From what I understand, this comic was spawned from a bet between Lee and his publisher, Martin Goodman that the Lee-Kirby style could make a book sell even with the worst title Lee could devise. So, after coming up with the ridiculously long title for a World War II comic to be launched amongst all the upstart Superhero comics, Lee and Kirby dove in.
The first thing that jumps out about this title is the ethnic and racial make-up of the Howling Commandos with an African-American soldier named Private Gabriel Jones (even though the U.S. armed forces were not in real-life integrated until after the war, in 1948), a Jewish soldier named Private Isadore “Izzy” Cohen, and former actor, Italian-American Private Dino Manelli (apparently modeled after Dean Martin). Along with them, we have Southern boy Private Robert “Rebel” Ralston, Private Jonathan “Junior” Juniper, Corporal Thaddeus Alolysius Cadwallander “Dum Dum” Dugan (a former circus strongman), and commanding the elite unite of US Army Rangers stationed in England, Sgt. Nick Fury.
I’m not sure what other mainstream comics in 1963 had black or Jewish characters playing prominent roles. If you know of any please stop by the boards and let me know. And I don’t mean in the racist caricature side-kick roles.
Granted, sometimes it’s hard to tell that Gabe is black, given the coloring glitches throughout the issues. Sometimes he’s as white as any other character, while other times he’s as gray as the Hulk was in his first appearance. Hopefully this is an issue that will get fixed as the series moves on.
Another impressive element of this comic is the fact that it launched as a stand-alone title with no other stories sharing its pages. I’m pretty sure this was Marvel’s first fling with World War II, while Charlton Comics had staked a substantial claim to the subject matter during the Fifties and DC titles like G.I. Combat and Our Army at War (both of which launched in 1952).
It’s fairly obvious that Kirby’s interests this month were mainly in Fantastic Four and Sgt. Fury. The art in both is exciting and energetic, blowing the doors off of every other Marvel b
ook on the stands this month. Heck and Sinnott do good jobs on their titles, but one look at these two books and you can see why Kirby was King.
And the story in this first issue is practically bursting off the page with violent adventure. We don’t actually see dead people, but this is war, people, and the Howling Commandos rarely take prisoners by the look of it. Whether it’s Fury himself machine gunning through the viewport of a tank before shoving a live grenade in, or other members of the squad opening fire on a line of advancing Nazi soldiers, they don’t hesitate to kill the bad guys.
This comic is crammed full of plot twists and narrative beats. There’s enough story in this one issue to easily fuel a feature-length motion picture, and there are enough vividly distinct characters to inspire years worth of stories.
When this is combined with the references a few months ago to Reed Richards and Ben Grimm’s tours of duty during WWII, Lee and Kirby have easily and successfully added yet another layer of heightened realism to the Marvel Universe. The war, having been over for just under 20 years at the time of this publication, was still fresh in the mind of America and was a source of narrative inspiration and obsession for comics readers as well as most other audiences for popular entertainment.
The story, the Howling Commandos are dropped behind enemy lines in order to rescue the leader of the French Resistance who happens to know when D-Day is scheduled, is more concerned with energy and movement than with historical accuracy. Make no mistake, while the Howling Commandos have no super powers, they capture the manic imagination of the rest of Marvel’s Superhero milieu perfectly and easily hold their own.
And with that, all but three of the lynchpins of the Marvel Universe to this day have been introduced. All that’s left is the debut of The Wasp next month, Doctor Strange in two month’s time, and then Captain America just about a year from now.
With any luck, I won’t have gone mad before reaching that point.
Check into the message boards to let me know what you think about this week’s line-up! See you folks there!
And in the immortal words of Nick Fury, “Wah-Hoooooo!”