Greetings, True Believers! Welcome back to Mondo Marvel, where I, your humble narrator, take you through the development of the Marvel Universe by reading and commenting on every single super hero comic Marvel produced through the Sixties.
Yeah, I know. Crazy, eh?
It’s a huge job, but somebody’s got to do it. Okay, nobody really has to do it, but I said I’d do it, and to be quite honest, it’s damned fun. And with the easy availability of pretty much every one of these old comics in cheap, black and white Essential collections, it’s easy for you to read along with me if you so desire.
Well, except for Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos, anyway. Those are only available in two Marvel Masterworks collections at the moment, but if any Sixties comics were worth that treatment, Sgt. Fury is the one.
You know, if you ask me.
But back to Mondo Marvel!
This week we arrive at the end of 1963, our first full year of monthly comics action in the Mighty Marvel Manner. After starting 1962 with just The Fantastic Four being published bi-monthly, we end the year with a monthly slate of between six and nine ongoing titles, all set in the same Marvel Universe (with Sgt. Fury obviously being set in the Forties, but still being part of continuity).
We’ve seen the development of just about any kind of story you can imagine, from pure Science Fiction, to romance, to war, to teen action, to the mythological origins of the universe and mankind. It’s been kind of awesome.
And as we hit the end of the first full year of Marvel, Stan Lee has taken the reins on all of the characters rather than farm out their scripting to other writers. I suppose it could have just been greed on his part, but regardless, it allowed for the real integration of ideas and narrative themes that helped to make the Marvel Universe a complex, and fairly organic, place to tell stories.
And as the roster of characters and relationships have developed, we’ve seen a sharp decline in the old, reliable Alien Invasion and Dirty Commies storylines. Oh, they’re still there, but they’re no longer an every month kind of thing.
What is happening every month? I’m glad you asked.
To find out, just keep reading Mondo Marvel!
Fantastic Four #21
Writer: Stan Lee
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inks: George Bell (George Roussos)
Not only do we have a villain who’s secret identity is so surprising that the cover actually asks us not to spoil it, we’ve also got the first modern day appearance of Nick Fury, now Col. Nick Fury of the C.I.A. But don’t worry, he may be a colonel now, but he still loves to fight, talk trash, and get his shirt torn to shreds before everything is said and done.
This is maybe the first time that a Marvel comic has overtly confronted social issues without using a metaphor like “mutants” or whatever, and it works pretty well. Sure, it’s a little preachy here and there, but Stan the Man was never known for his subtlety.
And speaking of subtle, that secret identity of The Hate Monger? Hitler.
Oh yeah, Stan went there.
Sure, he hedges it with the suggestion that this could be a double for Hitler, or maybe just someone who looks like Hitler, but you and I both know that this is Hitler.
The most interesting thing about this story, to me, is the way that The Hate Monger is portrayed. The FF are frustrated when the story begins, because even though this Hate Monger guy is running around stirring up hatred, there’s nothing they can do about it, since he isn’t breaking any laws. This really pisses off Ben.
As you might expect, the Hate Monger turns his Hate Gun on the gang and they turn on each other. But there’s no cliché struggling to overcome the hatred and winning through the power of their love for each other. Nope. They hate each other and it’s going to take the ingesting of an antidote to bring them back to normal.
My favorite part of the whole story is Fury, though. We haven’t really seen Fury like this in Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos. This is a conniving, manipulative Fury that is constantly planning and using his wiles to get people to do what he wants them to. He doesn’t just go in swinging, anymore. But when he has to, he’s downright eager to put his boot in somebody’s ass.
I don’t know if it’s just me or what, but Roussos’ inks for this issue are about as close to pure Kirby as I’ve seen in a while. There’s no prettying up of the faces or smoothing out of the lines. Roussos lets Kirby’s blocky energy come through with inking that sometimes looks like it was done with magic markers.
I mean that in a good way, though.
There are times when it’s hard to tell that Kirby actually did the pencils for a comic. This is not one of them. Roussos lets Kirby be Kirby and we’re all the better for it.
Writer: Stan Lee
Art: Dick Ayers
Stan continues to build up the rivalry between the Human Torch and Spider-Man with this story, as the Torch takes on Spidey’s nemesis, The Sandman. It’s aggravated by the fact that Sandman doesn’t consider Johnny to even be a threat and dismisses him to go find and confront Spider-Man.
I like the way they’re doing this and how it helps create a sense that the Marvel Universe isn’t all one big happy family. A lot of these folks just don’t like each other and not only does that make for a fresh change of pace from other comics of the time, it also provides at least some rationale for the standard Marvel team-up formula: heroes meet, fight, make-up, then beat their enemies together.
If everybody knows and likes each other, then that’s one bit of drama that just doesn’t work. But when characters are just waiting for chances to punch each other in the face anyway, it’s all good.
Anyway, this is the first of two stories this month where one of Spidey’s old villains break out of prison and come looking for him. This time, though, Sandman isn’t looking to rob any banks or do any other villainous things. He just wants to find Spider-Man and kick his ass.
The fight is a nicely orchestrated one, as Sandman tries to use a building’s fire extinguishers against Johnny, only to have them turned against him. Then, with Johnny too wet to flame on and Sandman too wet to change shape (he’s a bit muddy), it turns into a fistfight. Luckily, Ben’s been teaching Johnny how to rough and tumble, and Reed’s been teaching him judo and karate.
Because, remember? Reed’s a judo expert.
But beyond a few little flourishes like that, this story is wrapped up fairly quickly, with Spidey making a brief appearance at the end, once Johnny’s already captured Sandman. There’s not a lot more to talk about, except this story is one of the first times that we get a specific chronological placement of the issue in relatio
n to other Marvel Comics.
In the beginning of the story, Reed tells Johnny that the rest of the FF can’t go find Spider-Man because they’re busy writing up a detailed report of the Molecule Man adventure which happened in last month’s issue of The Fantastic Four. So we can assume that this story takes place before this month’s FF adventure.
It doesn’t really mean anything, but it’s nice of them to throw a bone to the continuity wonks out there.
Art: Steve Ditko
“Doctor Strange: The Origin of Dr. Strange”
This time around, the good Doctor is given eight full pages as we finally find out just how he became the Master of Mystic Arts. We also find out that, despite Ditko’s illustrating Strange to look vaguely Asian, he’s actually a white guy who’s a bit of a money-grubbing douche.
As you probably know, Dr. Stephen Strange was a brilliant surgeon, but he was only interested in making money. Then, after a near-fatal car accident, he suffered nerve damage to his hands and could no longer perform surgery. Being too proud to consult or be anything less than the best in his field, he ends up in the Bowery, where he hears rumors of The Ancient One, a mysterious magic man who can cure anyone.
Long story short, Strange finds the old man, discovers that his current student, Baron Mordo, is a bad man, and ends up not only believing in magic, but volunteers to be The Ancient One’s new pupil. It’s good stuff from start to finish, and we end with the realization that the Ancient One knew Mordo was evil, but was keeping him close in order to keep an eye on him. We also find out that this all took place years earlier, which is a nice idea.
It allows Lee and Ditko to take a different approach than has been used with the other Marvel heroes so far. This is the first time we have a comic following a character who is already established in his own narrative development. It helps to make Strange a bit more mysterious and accomplished, but also means that he’s not going to be allowed the growing pains of other characters.
He’s already almost fully developed with an unseen history and gallery of rogues. This could end up hurting the character over time, since we’re almost always going to be playing catch-up. Maybe. We’ll see.
One interesting thing is how all the magic used so far is being called “Black Magic.” There doesn’t seem to be a distinction between types of magic, so in this story we have both Mordo and The Ancient One calling on a being called the Dread Dormommu to aid them. If they’re going to be calling on bizarre entities for aid, surely those entities are going to start choosing sides, right?
Again, we’ll have to see how this develops.
Story: Stan Lee
Art: Steve Ditko
I think I like this issue better than the introduction of The Vulture. To be honest, neither is really that interesting to me. I’ve just never really cared much for a scrawny old man flying around in a green body stocking.
Call me crazy.
Anyway, the best parts of this issue have practically nothing to do with the actual super villain conflict, although having Pete hampered by a sprained arm does help to make The Vulture’s threat more credible. But really, the only reason the old man is dangerous is because Pete completely under-estimates him.
How dangerous can he be when Spidey beats him with one arm almost literally tied behind his back?
What’s really nice about this issue is that Ditko and Lee take another step or two forward in watching how having these powers is effecting Peter Parker’s self-image and personality. He’s having a harder and harder time taking the constant harassment by Flash, and quite frankly seems to be just a gun cabinet key away of going all Columbine.
Luckily, outside of the school things are shaping up and Betty Brant is proving to be more and more interested in Pete’s flirting. This issue ends with the two of them huddled behind a desk together, and Pete actually slips an arm around her and suggests she lean her head on his shoulder. It’s an odd little ending that serves as an effective counterpoint to just how annoying Pete’s school life is.
If there was ever an accurate representation of just how crap high school is for people who aren’t peaking yet, this is it.
Writer: Stan Lee
Pencils: Steve Ditko
Inks: Dick Ayers
This is really just a variation on the Puppetmaster, as Mr. Doll is a guy who uses a doll with moldable features to control the people it is fashioned to resemble. Only instead of the radioactive clay the Puppetmaster uses, Mr. Doll gained his powers and abilities in Africa. Which explains the African art decorating his hide-out, I guess.
It doesn’t actually explain his costume, though.
The one thing I’ll say about that is, you can tell at a glance that Ditko did the design.
Speaking of which, this issue debuts Iron Man’s sleeker new armor – also a Ditko design. This, along with a few panels in this month’s Amazing Spider-Man, is one of the first times we really get a costuming sequence. In both stories, the transformation from civilian to superhero are used to explain just how their gadgets work.
With Spidey it’s quick and over in a few panels as he makes sure his web-shooters and camera are ready for action. With Iron Man, however, it’s a full three-page sequence designed to provide a foundation for believability. And as long as you can accept the whole concept of ultra-thin armor that when not magnetized is practically a cloth, then it works pretty well.
I also like how Lee and Ditko make the new streamlined armor more than just a style change. It looks like I’m not the only one getting tired of Tony Stark using up all his breastplate’s power and stumbling home to plug himself into the wall. Stark decides, after what is essentially a near-death experience, that the big, bulky armor is too hard on his heart. He needs armor that is lighter and won’t put so much strain on both his body and his batteries.
Unfortunately, this design change is more interesting than any of the supporting cast. Happy and Pepper are quickly becoming one-dimensional cliches, and Tony Stark isn’t much better.
It would be nice to see this character develop into something more.
Writer: Stan Lee
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inks: Steve Ditko
We begin in a strange place this month. With the villain.
It seems that a young boy named Dave Cannon had a special skill. He could spin around at great speed. He’s not called a mutant, but his gift is pretty superhuman. It’s too bad that he’s a bully who used his speed-whirling to engage in petty theft. Luckily, the police were too smart for him.
But over the years he became worse and worse, becoming a super villain before there were any active super heroes. We know this because according to the newspaper headlines, he’s been burglarizing places since at least 1959, but in the year or two since super heroes made the scene, nobody’s come across him.
Thanks to a message from the ants, Giant-Man and The Wasp set out to capture the Human Top.
Really. The Human Top? He spins really fast?
I can’t help but think that this whole story is all about making Hank Pym feel bad about himself. There’s a subtle change in Pym since he started growing to giant-size. He’s more confident, cocky, even. He doesn’t even want to bother with The Human Top because he considers him just a routine criminal, rather than any real threat.
Which, when you look at The Human Top, is a pretty natural reaction. He really looks more like The Human Onion than a human top.
But when Hank springs his trap, The Human Top makes him look like a giant, clumsy fool, stumbling around in traffic, running into lamp posts and business signs. Hank actually causes more destruction during the chase than the Human Top’s haul is worth.
Realizing how useless he was, Hank decides he’s got to increase his own speed and reflexes, so he whips up a batch of chemical energizer and chugs it without a second thought. And I don’t think it’s just a forerunner to Red Bull. Then he has Jan work a training top while he runs and jumps around trying to catch it.
That’s his “training.”
Finally he catches it, but then it slips away and gets a crazed look in his eyes and says, “I need just a few more weeks of intensive training…” But Jan doesn’t have the heart to tell him that she was only running the training top at half speed.
Yes. Hank is a loser. Even when he’s larger than life.
I’m pretty sure that Lee is really setting him up to overcome the odds in the second part of this story, but for now, Hank’s pretty disappointing. And yes, you read me right. This story’s a two-parter. And not in the one complete adventure that picks up with another adventure right where this one leaves off. We’ve seen that before.
This is an actual cliffhanger ending that will pick up in the next issue. This has some pretty interesting implications in how Marvel will begin telling stories across the entire line. This is a break from the regular flow of time in the MU, as normally each issue takes place in something fairly close to Real Time, with months and years passing for the characters close to how they pass for the readers. Having an issue pick up moments after the previous one hasn’t been standard operating procedure, even if it’s happened more than a couple of times.
If this spreads across more Marvel titles, we could be seeing the beginnings of much larger scale storytelling. Breaking the story in two, as Lee does here (and in the Thor adventure below), means allowing more time for plot and character development. It also means the introduction of a more fan-oriented mode of narration.
By this I mean that so far, for most of these characters, while there are elements of continuity from issue to issue, aside from The Fantastic Four and The Amazing Spider-Man, everyone else has been having stand-alone adventures. New readers could pick them up at any time and get a complete story in one sitting.
If the stories begin spreading across the issues, it means that readers are going to either have to keep up with the story from month to month or risk falling behind. It means that Lee is starting to write for a different audience than he might have been for some of these titles.
I think this is an experiment to see how the heavier use of continuity and multi-issue storylines effect the readership of the smaller books and characters. If the fans react favorably to the larger scale of these stories, we can most likely expect to see more multi-part stories that begin moving beyond the limitations of the single issues.
That’s kind of exciting.
Writer: Stan Lee
Pencils: Don Heck
And speaking of exciting multi-part stories, here’s the second experiment.
Rather than just borrowing element of a classic literary character, this time Stan decided to pretty much just grab the whole enchilada with the introduction of new villain, Mister Hyde. Calvin Zabo was a bit of a crook, but pretty much the definition of small time. He would get jobs with doctors and then once he was on the inside, rob them.
He figured that Dr. Don Blake would be an easy target, but Blake was having none of it and refused to hire him. I guess Zabo shouldn’t have put all those folks he robbed on his resume. I’m pretty sure that’s interview mistake Number One.
Anyway, Zabo didn’t handle the rejection well and became obsessed with getting even with Blake. That’s right. He couldn’t handle being turned down for a job by the guy he was planning to rob, so he vows revenge.
That’s a bit unhinged, if you ask me.
As if to prove how unhinged he was, Zabo then goes to his lab (???) and, inspired by the classic tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde whips up a batch of strange potion, chugs it, and proceeds to transform into the hideous, but man-monster Mister Hyde. Not only does he have the strength of twelve men, he’s also much more devious and filled with hate for humankind.
Okay. All that’s pretty par for the course, really.
The interesting thing is that Hyde realizes that he has different fingerprints than Zabo did, so whatever crimes he commits, he’ll be practically untraceable when he changes back to Zabo. With that little element, he becomes an interesting thematic contrast to Thor.
Except it doesn’t really go anywhere. I can see what Lee was intending to do, but, with this story at least, Hyde doesn’t really develop into a dark, flip-side of Thor. But it’s an okay start.
Thor, meanwhile is still pressing Odin to allow him to marry Jane. It’s getting to be a bit annoying and Thor is starting to come off as a petulant teen. I’m about ready to write off that whole storyline, to be quite honest. However, Lee introduces an new idea this month.
It seems that Odin has the power to make mortals immortal. So if an ordinary human exhibits the qualities that Odin is looking for in a god, he can choose to grant immortality and power to that human. Sure, he’s never done it before, but Thor sees it as a loophole in the whole “gods can’t marry humans” rule that Odin is being such a stickler about.
This story is also the first half of a two-parter, and it allows us to spend more time than usual with our villain, getting to know him a little bit more and allowing for a more complex, multi-faceted approach to the
Hyde/Thor conflict. We end with Hyde on the loose and Thor apparently going bad and robbing a bank (in much the same manner that Hyde’s been robbing places, curiously enough). It’s pretty obvious where this is heading, but it’s a nice use of the cliffhanger ending, regardless.
Just think of what Lee could do with Thor and a huge, multi-issue canvas to work on. I hope this experiment is successful, not only for the possibilities of seeing bigger and better stories, but also to watch how the format change effects the development of the fan community. It’s kind of the sequential narrative form of getting your customers hooked with a sample of your drug, then stringing out their addiction in order to maximize your profits.
But on a less cynical note, it also means that Lee is beginning to see and incorporate the knowledge that his audience is made up of older readers, as well as the young kids that were the original target. One of the justifications for not only the relative simplicity of the comics, but for the constant retelling of what’s come before, was the idea in editorial that the readers were dumb kids who couldn’t keep up with bigger stories spread out from month to month.
Looks like that idea might be beginning to change.
Pencils: Jack Kirby
“Tales of Asgard: Surtur the Fire Demon”
Once again, “Tales of Asgard” is really where you need to be if you want to see the pure epic of Lee and Kirby breaking the mold like they’ve done with Fantastic Four and Sgt. Fury. This time it’s all about world-building, though. In these short, practically dialogue-free, pieces, Kirby is really in charge, illustrating massive battles and crafting an origin story not just for their characters, but for humanity itself.
This adventure, like last month’s, takes place before human beings existed on Earth. Upon hearing that the Trolls have joined Surtur, the Fire Demon, to rebel against Asgard, Odin grabs his sword and goes to kick some Troll ass. Once that’s done, he moves on to Surtur, a gigantic monster that lives in a sea of lava.
It’s all very exciting and immediate, with large panels filled with action and practically bursting with creative energy. Plus, we get the secret origin of The Moon, too. Surtur launches a huge chunk from the center of the Earth up into orbit, then finds himself trapped there, raging around in the bowels of the planet, providing heat and energy, trapped until he finds a way to appease Odin.
This is also the origin of the Rainbow Bridge that links Asgard and Earth (Midgard), as Odin needed a quick way to get down to the planet and spring his trap.
Oh yeah, it’s also the origin of Odin’s magical, winged horse, a gift from Surtur in an attempt to get back on Odin’s good side.
I can’t get enough of these quick, done in four pages and a splash stories. They really shine in comparison to the soap opera antics of the Thunder God in the main stories, and I hope their stylistic approach begins to find its way into the rest of the Thor narrative. I’m pretty sure that this is the influence of Kirby more than Lee, though.
So until Kirby comes back regularly to Thor, I don’t really expect to see it happen.
How about that, True Believers! We made it through another month of action and adventure, intact!
Next time we tackle the start of a new year, as 1964 begins. What new mysteries and amazing develops does the new year hold? You’ll just have to wait and see… um… to find out what happened forty six years ago.
Aw, you know what I mean.