It’s alive! Alive!
Face front, True Believers! After far to long away from the mighty maelstrom that is Mondo Marvel, I’m back!
After 25 straight (almost) bi-weekly columns, I’ve been gone much longer than I had anticipated. For what it’s worth, here’s a short list of what’s been keeping me away:
- Anger at Marvel Corporate for killing True Believer Tuesdays
- A hernia operation that made sitting at the computer for extended periods a horrible trial
- A looming depression that I blame mostly on conflicting work schedules with Dr. Girlfriend
- I’m a lazy sod
So far I’m batting .500 in dealing with these issues, so I guess it’s time to leap back into the fray. I’ll leave discussion of which .500 has been dealt with to the online gossip-mongers!
Anyway, for the uninitiated and those who’ve just forgotten because it’s been so long, I’m Paul Brian McCoy, and Mondo Marvel is my month-by-month journey through the formative years of Marvel Comics, one book at a time. After twenty five columns, we’ve made our collective ways up to June 1964.
So without further ado (just what is “ado” anyway?), here’s Mondo Marvel!
After last month’s gigantic super-crossover with nearly every other major character in the Marvel Universe, this month opens with a bit of cheesecake art as we find out what goes on inside Reed’s pliable head (when he’s not thinking up some new crazy tech, of course).
Unfortunately for Sue, Reed decides to project an image of her lounging in a bathing suit for the rest of the team to ogle as he tests his “Thought Projector Helmet.” And thus we are introduced, in only a slightly sexist manner, to the thematic conflict of this issue: Sue.
Yes, once again Sue is going to serve mainly as a plot device to motivate both Reed and Namor into action.
At least on the Sexist Scale, Reed just fantasizes about Sue in partial undress. Namor is an actual Peeping Tom, spying on her with his mysterious Atlantean technology. In fact, he’s so obsessed with her that his plan to make her his Queen is met with such derision that his last few remaining followers abandon him, leaving him alone, brooding, and determined to win Sue’s heart.
Then, in a snazzy suit, hat, and shades, Namor waltzes into Fantastic Four Headquarters, beats the crap out of Johnny and Ben, then demands twenty-four hours in which to woo Sue. He gets that off on the right foot by knocking her out with sleep gas before she can say “yes” or “no,” then keeping her in a cage at the bottom of the sea while he pleads his case.
And when Reed finds out what happened, he has a fit of testosterone-induced rage and sets out to beat the snot out of Namor on his own.
There’s really no in-plot reason for this, other than to provide an opportunity for Ben and Johnny to have to find Namor on their own. Which, in turn, provides Stan and Jack and opportunity to pull another Marvel character into the light of the shared world of the MU.
Johnny decides to summon Doctor Strange for help.
No reason, really. He doesn’t even know if Strange is real or not.
But he leaves huge flaming letters in the sky, asking for Doctor Strange’s help, and before too long, Strange arrives in ghostly, ectoplasmic form.
Sure, he just serves as another plot device, providing information and instant teleportation trasnport to and from Atlantis, but at least this is confirmation that the Doctor Strange adventures are part of the ongoing world-building that Lee and the others are carrying on.
This means that now, the MU has officially expanded into the multi-dimensional realms that Lee and Ditko have been conjuring and exploring, allowing for the opening up of the mystical elements of those stories for access by other characters, and vice-versa.
The integration of Thor’s world into the MU through his membership in The Avengers was previously the biggest MU expansion, and this one will have repercussions just as intriguing and entertaining for years to come.
And that’s really the only important thing this issue brings to the table. Although we do find out that Reed is ready to put a ring on it, if only Sue would stop toying with his emotions and come right out and admit that she loves him. You know, when she’s not saying it to stop Namor from pounding on him some more.
Hey! It’s the return of one of Johnny’s lamest villains!
Look! He’s made his plant-controlling ray even stronger!
Maybe I should just stop bothering with this title unless there’s something interesting to say.
While that’s probably a good idea, I’ll keep torturing myself, and vicariously you, dear readers.
In case you’ve forgotten the ludicrous origin of Plantman, we get a full-page recap of his first appearance. In a story that is only about thirteen pages, if I counted correctly. But at least now he’s back stronger and plantier than ever.
Johnny seems to have learned a lesson from Reed this month and demands that the rest of the team back off and let him take on Plantman himself. And let’s be honest. If he can’t handle Plantman, then he isn’t really worthy of being included in The Fantastic Four.
Also like Reed, when push comes to shove, he is more than willing to rescind his demands of solo adventuring and accept help from the gang. These boys are wishy-washy.
Well, if this story establishes anything, it’s that Johnny’s Rogue’s Gallery is kind of lame.
And ugly people are more likely to be villains.
Finally, Doctor Strange shares the cover! Sure, he’s been mentioned on the cover for a bit now, but this month, we actually get a picture!
And guess what? It’s for the return of Baron Mordo!
They really need to start branching out, although if he can be fooled into believing a recording on a phone is a real person (especially after he just magically surveyed the globe in search of mystical threats), maybe it’s not a good idea to let him play outside the kiddie pool.
Then, when his astral form was out getting punked by a weird recording device that looks like it’s part Victrola, Mordo nicks his body. And remember, if his ectoplasmic form is separated from his physical form for more than twenty-four hours, it’s curtains for the good Doctor.
Storywise, yet again, there’s not much going on here. The real enjoyment of this issue comes form Ditko’s art and visual plot
As usual, Ditko’s use of shadow is superb, creating an ominous mood from the very first panel. Mordo in particular, benefits from this effect. He is, in nearly every panel, bathed in darkness. Except, of course, for the astral projection battle that climaxes the story.
Again, Ditko captures the extremely otherworldly nature of Marvel Mystical Combat in two fight sequences – the first in the skies above the city, and the second in the wax museum of the title. The second is particularly effective, as with the absence of backgrounds, the panels are reshaped inside their borders by the black magical effects appearing out of heavy smoke, accompanied by dark maroon and flame-like colors.
Those panels just feel dangerous.
I’m afraid I have to agree with Mordo’s closing hostile rant, where he declares that Strange’s refusal to finish him off will be his undoing. I appreciate the moral stance that Strange is taking (and understand the editorial restrictions of the time), but forcing Mordo to “ponder the uselessness of an evil life” assumes that Mordo is vulnerable to ordinary moral considerations.
Clearly he’s not.
I don’t see how, somewhere down the line, Strange could possibly regret showing mercy, can you?
It’s another new issue of Amazing Spider-Man, so it’s another classic villain introduction! This time out is Mystero. I’ve always had a soft spot for a villain who uses movie special effects tricks to commit his crimes.
Unfortunately, the plot of this issue has been used so many times already that there’s almost no excuse for it. We have the traditional “Spider-Man’s Committing a Crime” opening, followed by the usual “Common Man on the Street Debates Whether or Not Spidey’s Evil” scene.
But all is not lost. Lee and Ditko provide a couple of nice twists that help to freshen what could be a stinker of a story. For example, Mysterio shows up at the Daily Bugle offering his help as a costumed vigilante. And of course, J. Jonah Jameson jumps at the chance to promote him, which provides Lee and Ditko with another opportunity to humiliate the newspaper publisher.
My favorite bit, though, is the fact that Peter Parker, rather than assuming someone is yet again using technology to duplicate his powers and impersonate him, wonders if maybe he isn’t developing a split-personality. This leads to a classic Spider-Man moment as he then shows up at a psychiatrist’s office to be treated.
Fortunately, Pete realizes that he’d end up revealing his secret identity if he wasn’t careful, so he opts for a more “physical” treatment.
At the same time, we get a subtle slam on psychiatry as the first thing that runs through the doctor’s head is how famous he’ll become if he treats a “mysterious super-hero who’s a mental case!”
As with this month’s Doctor Strange adventure, the real highlight of the story is Ditko’s fight sequences. Whether they’re scenes of Spider-Man getting the crap beat out of him in a dense cloud of smoke, or the knock-down, drag-out fight across a film soundstage, the action is smooth and visceral.
Your eyes practically roll across the page.
Smooth and visceral are not words I’d use to describe the art here, though.
With that said, though, Joe Orlando and Vince Colletta do a good job grounding the story in realism, although their Thing is awkward-looking and out-of-place – although I suppose it could be argued that the art perfectly suits the scene and Ben should appear awkward and out-of-place in a lawyer’s office.
Regardless, the entire scene is strained, particularly by Ben’s “instant welding” of the broken door by just squeezing the two halves back together. The ticker tape parade as the Fantastic Four cruises their Fantasti-car through the city is pretty silly, too, except as a form of visual shorthand establishing the “team as celebrities” motif.
It’s not a motif that adds anything here, though.
Orlando is an interesting choice on art after the Marvel debut of Bill Everett last issue. I guess Everett’s deadline problems kept him from continuing on the title. That’s too bad, but Orlando, with inks by Vince Colletta (with his first Marvel Super-hero work, though he’d been penciling and inking since the Fifties), does an admirable job in his place. It’s nowhere near as good, but is still effective.
Interestingly enough, Orlando was an assistant to Wally Wood in the early 50s, which I’m sure played a part in Wood’s arrival on Daredevil‘s art duties with issue #5.
Anyway, the most interesting part of this issue is the range of settings. We have scenes in a garage, an office, amongst sci-fi machinery, in a rocket, in outer space, during a cross-town horse ride, in a helicopter over New York, and a grand finale in a crowded theater.
That list of settings sort of sums up the plot, as well. This issue is mostly designed to integrate Daredevil into the Marvel Universe proper. Not only do we have the guest appearances of the Fantastic Four (as they hire blind lawyer Matt Murdock to look over their lease and examine the property – really?, but the villain of the piece is Electro (who debuted in Amazing Spider-Man #9).
At first Electro seems like an odd choice for a Daredevil villain, since there are no real thematic ties to the character or any hastily established history between the two. Daredevil just stops a car theft ring that turns out to be in the employ of Electro. It’s not until we remember that even before gaining his powers, Electro was a selfish, self-aggrandizing bastard.
As such, he’s essentially the exact opposite of Matt Murdock in every way.
This issue, however, falls short when it comes to storytelling. While I appreciate the novelty of the blind hero who can fight and travel across town far more effectively than those with sight, the excessive narration as his internal monologue explains how his powers are working is a bit overwhelming, hampering the relative fluidity of the art.
Fluidity isn’t really the right word, though. The art is effective, but lacks movement. It’s a classic-style that seems a little out-of-place in the Marvel line-up, but is appropriate to the character.
These early Iron Man stories are really struggling to find a focus. It looks like, at least for now, they’ve dropped the gender focus for Stark’s villains (although the Black Widow is still prominent) and are focusing more on ideological conflicts.
And The Mandarin is one of the most interesting of these conflicts
Whereas last time The Mandarin showed up there were some subtle implications that the biggest difference between he and Stark was the way they handled their employees, with Stark valuing individuality and conflicting opinions (to an extent), while The Mandarin was all about the Iron Fist and a Master/Slave relationship to his minions.
That was a pretty tasty, and politically interesting, dynamic, if I do say so myself.
This time out, we’ve got a fundamental difference of political philosophy and attitudes towards international relations.
I have to say, the initial problem that gets this story started is not one I can really fault The Mandarin for. Stark-designed U.S. government spy rockets are dropping out of the sky for no discernible reason. It turns out that the reason is The Mandarin. His reaction is politically justified, though. We’re the ones getting our hands caught in the cookie jar.
Then, in order to stop The Mandarin’s stopping of our spying, Tony Stark heads into China to confront him.
Is any of this sounding legally dubious to you?
After busting into The Mandarin’s headquarters (breaking and entering, anyone?), we then get a physical battle between the characters, however only The Mandarin is taking the offensive.
Iron Man’s entire combat strategy is dangerously passive-aggressive and doesn’t really reflect well as a metaphor for American political/military attitudes towards The East. How dare a sovereign nation react with hostility toward our spying! If they weren’t doing something bad, they shouldn’t care if we peek in on them, right?
Iron Man’s constant defensive posture also seems to be representing a distinct political stance, where passivity in the face of aggression is deadly. Even if the aggression is triggered by our own actions.
It’s a bit of a sticky political wicket.
But that’s all sub-text. The actual plot ends with a cliffhanger very similar to what we’ll see in this month’s Thor adventure, with Iron Man captured and about to be killed. What’s interesting here is Stark’s sudden sense of his own mortality.
This provides a nice contrast to his attitude at the beginning of the story, where Stark is practically giddy when thinking about how awesome all his cool stuff is. He’s happy he’s got an underground tunnel that cost a fortune (who built that for him, anyway, and what happened to them?); he’s happy he redesigned his helmet; he’s happy he made his armor flexible; he even has fun skating down his tunnel’s awesome passageways.
He’s practically giddy just enjoying being rich and smart.
However, when faced with death the first thing that crosses his mind is regret for treating Happy and Pepper like crap before he left. This is a slight echo of some of the other relationship issues that we’ll see further on in this month’s column, where Tony has earlier admitted to himself that he’s actually jealous of Happy’s attentions towards Pepper. This, because he feels he has to deny himself his feelings for her because of his duties, the possibility of death, etc. etc.
Same old, same old, for the men of the MU.
But this moment of human weakness doesn’t last long, as this chapter ends on an ideological note. In the final panel, Iron Man thinks to himself, “I’ll show how an American faces death! I’ll show that nothing can shatter the faith of a man who fights for freedom! Somehow, even in defeat, I’ll be victorious!!”
This is thought over a long shot of The Mandarin’s headquarters while the silhouette of a wolf howls at the moon in the foreground.
That’s just strange. Or noble? Or something?
It seems there’s something in the air this month.
A romantic something, that is.
A horribly negative, emotionally stunted romantic something, anyway.
First Reed buys Sue a ring, then doesn’t give it to her, and now Hank has similar designs on Jan. But, also like Reed, Hank puts his plans of marriage proposal on hold because his lady isn’t blatantly obvious in her affections for him.
Jan’s a flirt, as we all know. Because of her flirting with another man, Hank gets depressed, tears the curtains off of the windows, throws the engagement ring across the room, then, in an instant bout of depression declares that he has no time for relationships between his scientific experiments and his crime-fighting duties.
He even specifically shifts the blame to his membership in The Avengers for not having the time for romance.
Hank is pretty clearly mental.
Luckily, at the end of the story, Jan almost gets Hank killed. She then declares her love for him in a guilty monologue after believing that she’s responsible for getting him killed. Which she is.
But Hank feels reaffirmed and they end the story vowing that there’ll never be anyone else for either of them.
There’s no mention of the engagement ring, though.
Oh yeah. I almost forgot. They fight a generic villain called The Magician. He seems to have magical powers, but it might just be hypnosis and traditional magical slight of hand gimmicks. There’s really no explanation offered, although he does have a bad-ass trained bunny rabbit that is really only a threat because our heroes are so tiny.
The Magician is clearly destined for greatness.
From the look of things in the MU, when it comes to relationships, hardly anyone is happy. The women flirt or act interested, then refuse to commit, and the men are hesitant to admit their feelings until the tensions and anxieties are explosive. And usually someone has to almost die before anyone tells anyone else how they feel.
Can you tell these were written by one man in the early Sixties?
Continuing that theme, Dr. Don Blake and Nurse Jane Foster are no different. Both are head over heels in love with one another, but neither of them is willing to admit it. In fact, the level of denial at work here is so powerful that Jane doesn’t even notice when Blake transforms into Thor while she’s in the same room with him.
I suppose she was looking out the window along with the villains of the piece, The Cobra and Mister Hyde. Nobody noticed the flash of light or any noises as Thor suddenly appears in the room and Blake disappears. I’m pretty sure Thor smells different, too, but that’s just a guess.
He probably smells cleaner, by the looks of him.
Like a cool breeze.
Anyway, romance aside, the main thrust of this issue is the revenge plan by Mr. Hyde and The Cobra – although to be quite honest, The Cobra is fairly useless. Hyde is both the brains and the brawn of the operation. Cobra usually just slinks around, creeping people out and threatening civilians.
The high point of the issue for me is the development of an interesting piece of tech by Mr. Hyde. He creates a machine that, when pointed at a per
son and fired, displays in the air the target’s entire life backwards from the moment he or she is hit by the beam. This Time Reversal Ray can show one’s entire life back to the moment one was born.
It’s kind of an awesome idea.
However, as can be expected by super-villainous types, the moral, ethical, and/or psychological benefits of the device are ignored. They plan to shoot Thor with it so they can find out where he hangs out and then attack him at their leisure when he least expects it.
Unfortunately, since Thor transforms into Dr. Don Blake (and vice-versa) the Time Reversal Ray only rolls back Thor’s past to the last time he transformed from Blake.
This raises another interesting theoretical point. It seems that Thor drops out of Space-Time if this machine actually does what it’s supposed to do. Thor and Blake are two distinct entities, even though they share a consciousness. I don’t think it can really be ignored anymore, although I’m sure it will be.
The rest of the story is just a few fight scenes and (surprise!) another cross town chase. The story is a two-parter, and we get the standard Thor cliffhanger ending: he’s confronted by the villains and he’s lost his grip on his hammer. If he doesn’t touch his hammer in the next sixty seconds, he transforms back into Blake and his secret is revealed. He’s also most certainly murdered quickly and brutally.
What will happen next month?
For the second month in a row, we get a spotlight on Heimdall. This time, though, we get a look at a moment where, as the title reveals, Heimdall failed.
When your guardian watchdog fails, it’s a pretty serious lapse in security and this means that a tiny, magical spy, a Vanna (an air spirit) is commanded by Queen Nedra of the Storm Giants to become the breeze, enter Asgard, spy on them, and report back. But even though Heimdall can’t see the Vanna, he still senses that something is up and reports his anxieties to Odin.
Odin, being the All-Father, easily spots and captures the air creature, but what he does with it, we don’t actually see. I doubt that it’s pretty.
As with all of these “Tales of Asgard,” the real strength of the work is the narrative simplicity of Lee and the visual confidence of Kirby. The stories aren’t supposed to be complex epics, but instead are snapshot portraits of the world of Asgard and links to the traditional Norse folk tales as translated through the Pop sensibilities of Marvel Comics.
As such, these are some of the strongest work Marvel is producing. If only we could get an entire book like this. I don’t know how they would translate to longer narratives, to be honest. For what it’s worth, I think these are the comics that I’m enjoying the most, aside from the Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos comics.
An interesting point to make note of is the way Asgard is characterized.
I’ve mentioned it before, I think, but with the Thor film gearing up for release, it’s worth mentioning again. Marvel’s Asgard is not the Asgard of the Norse myths. They’re related, but they’re definitely not just translations of the myths.
These Asgardians are Kirby version of gods. We don’t get a lot of detail about the architecture of Asgard, as the city us usually seen either in extreme close-ups inside rooms or on streets, but it looms in the background as a science fiction wonderland. We’re not talking simple stone and mortar constructions, but bizarre, futuristic cityscapes.
The contrast between the setting and the style of dress and weaponry is wonderfully discordant and creates a sense of timelessness that suits the Marvel Universe well. Even their weapons, once we move to more powerful fare than swords and hammers, is pure sci-fi.
In this issue we see a huge cannon that is part medieval monstrosity and part future war machine.
Kirby is firing on all cylinders with these “Tales of Asgard” and I can’t wait for the time when we can get longer form stories in these settings.
And that, kiddos, is how we do it Downtown.
I really don’t know what that’s supposed to mean. I’m in an air-conditioned room with the curtains pulled, sipping on a Red Stripe. I guess that’s how we do it upstairs.
Hit me up on the message boards and feel free to give me crap for taking so long to get back on the horse.
Until next time, Wah-Hoo!