Well, here we are once again, making our way through Marvel Comics’ 1960s output, month by month. One thing I’m finding out (the hard way) is that these comics, while psychologically more simple than contemporary fare, are packed to bursting with plot and dialogue. These comics just take longer to read than books released today.
That’s not necessarily a good or bad thing.
What it is is time-consuming and not always a good example of time well spent, as we’ll see with most of this week’s titles.
The Fantastic Four provides a new spin on Marvel’s usual alien invasion story, while The Human Torch gets his own series. Sort of. He gets an ongoing spot, plus the cover, in Strange Tales this month, and it’s really not all that. Ant-Man returns to face down the Communist threat once more, and the cast of Thor expands dramatically.
Honestly, though, some of these books are simply a chore to get through at times, particularly when there are actually things going on in the world that are demanding attention, like the election protests in Iran. I have to admit, I’m very distracted by this, and had a hard time getting this column together because of it.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that this column seems a bit trivial and useless in the shadow of current events.
But then, so does a lot of the stuff people spend their time obsessing over on the Internet and in everyday life.
And on that positive note, on with the show!
Fantastic Four #7
Writer: Stan Lee
Pencils: Jack Kirby
“Prisoners of Kurrgo, Master of Planet X”
If the title of this one didn’t make it plain, the Fantastic Four are dealing with another alien threat this month, but there’s a nice twist this time around. Instead of having to stop an alien invasion, Kurrgo, Master of Planet X, needs their help to save his planet, so we get an interesting little story where Reed finally gets to take center-stage and actually save the day.
Otherwise, though, this issue marks a drop in quality from the previous few issues. I suppose that’s not surprising, really, given the high standards established by the introductions of the Sub-Mariner and Doctor Doom, and their subsequence team-up, but I wasn’t really expecting some of the sillier aspects of this issue.
For example, we open with a chapter mostly devoted to the team bickering and goofing around while Reed tries to get them all motivated to go and receive an award from Congress. Maybe I’m just a jaded bastard, but I did not find any of this sequence endearing or even amusing. It was just silly. Their anxieties aren’t serious, and Sue’s, in particular, is just demeaning.
Anyway, long story short, Kurrgo needs Reed’s big brain to save his planet from impending destruction (or save his people, anyway), so rather than ask for help, he sends his robot helper to Earth. Once here, he uses alien technology to first turn everyone on the planet against one another, then to focus all that hatred and rage on the Fantastic Four. Then, with everyone on the planet hating and hunting them, the Fantastic Four will have to leave Earth for Planet X.
Makes sense, eh? Ah, aliens. Your ways are mysterious and inscrutable.
This allows for some fairly nonsensical moments as Ben picks up a wall and then slips behind it, replacing it with apparently no sign that it had been manually dislodged, shifted, and returned. Or maybe the raging just made the army oblivious. And then Ben pops up through the street in a somewhat surreal scene. Did Kirby just take that panel off, or what?
Once on Planet X, we discover that Kurrgo is kind of a dick, but Reed helps anyway, since now their lives are at risk, too. Since Planet X only has two spaceships (?), Reed creates a shrinking gas that will shrink the entire population of the planet, allowing them to all fit in one rocket and escape the rogue planet hurtling through space toward them.
Not a horrible plan. Reed also gives them a cannister of antidote, so that once they find a home on a new planet, they can return to their normal size. Here’s where the plot thickens. Kurrgo decides to keep the antidote for himself, so he can rule supremely over a population of tiny, tiny people (and they were kind of puny to begin with).
Unfortunately, he gets caught in an earthquake and isn’t able to get to the escape rocket on time while carrying the antidote, and he is left behind to die. That’s what he gets, really.
But get this. There was no antidote. Reed lied to them, tricking them into just shrinking themselves down and launching into space. They’re now stuck the size of ants and Reed could care less, because “They’ll all be the same size, and in this vast universe of ours, one’s size is only relative anyway!”
What a dick.
Not only is that just a horrible, and possibly genocidal, thing to do to an entire race of people, the logic is flawed. Yeah, size is relative and they’ll be equally tiny with each other, but unless they happen to find a tiny planet, they’re going to be ant-sized wherever they end up.
Anyone remember The Micronauts? Yeah, they were all about the same size, relative to one another, but when they came to Earth they were tiny. If they didn’t have their tiny technology, things would have been even worse for them. The ex-citizens of Planet X don’t get to take tiny tech with them.
Hell, I don’t even know how they plan to fly and land their rocket. Surely they can’t work the controls themselves. Maybe they have robots who do that for them.
Anyway, in what is essentially a forgettable story, albeit one where Reed finally gets to shine, however accidentally genocidal that light may be, we do get a couple of interesting developments. The first being that the FF’s position as celebrities is fairly well established.
I mean, the characters try to fall back on their established personality defects as excuses not to go to the ceremony, but Lee seems to be emphasizing how these are becoming more and more like affectations rather than the social disorders they seemed to be when the series began.
There’s still the bickering and the sniping back and forth between Johnny and Ben, but now it’s taking on the form of practical jokes rather than trying to kill each other. I suppose this was inevitable and it’s not a bad development. But while it makes the charac
ters more likeable, it also diminishes the tragic qualities.
And speaking of tragic qualities, it’s been a while since Ben randomly changed from his rocky form to human and back again. Have Lee and Kirby decided to drop that plot twist? This is the fourth issue since it’s happened, and Ben has definitely become more comfortable in his rocky skin.
Kirby also draws Ben a little more humanized this issue. There are times when he doesn’t seem so much rocky as spongy. It allows for more personality in his expressions, but takes away from the monstrous look that has been his defining visual element. This is a good thing from a marketing perspective, but I’m not sure if I approve from a story-sense.
Regardless, at least Ben’s still the only one with any common sense, warning them not to go to Planet X in the first place. Of course, when the rest of the team decides to go, he tags along anyway.
The second, and most important development in this issue, is the way the people turn on the Fantastic Four. Granted, they’re prompted and manipulated by alien technology, but I’m not talking about the specifics of the plot so much as the thematic reoccurrence of this hostility.
We see, once again, that the Marvel Universe is a dangerously neurotic and paranoid place. The use of mass hostility against the super-powered contingent looks to be a fundamental element in how this world has been built. Lee has built up a world where popularity and social acceptance can disappear in an instant, naturally or unnaturally. The silly introduction then works on a thematic level, even if it doesn’t ring true to me, to emphasize this fact.
Don’t get comfortable. As soon as you do, the mob will come, demanding your head.
Plot: Stan Lee
Script: Larry Lieber
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inker: Dick Ayers
“The Human Torch!”
This is really getting to the point where it’s just not funny anymore. Who’s the Human Torch dealing with in his first ever solo adventure? It’s not aliens, so it has to be Commies.
I really don’t know where to begin with this story.
Even though the Fantastic Four are celebrities who receive fan mail at their New York headquarters in the Baxter Building – where it was assumed they also lived – and just this month are receiving an award from Congress in a televised ceremony, this new series of adventures in Strange Tales is almost like some sort of alternate universe. In this series, no one knows who the Human Torch is, except for four of Johnny Storm’s old buddies, who are conveniently out of the picture (the four of them graduated high school last year (?) and now one is in the army, two are away at college, and the fourth is working in Chicago) and now it seems that Johnny is living with Sue on the outskirts of Glenville and finishing up high school.
Well, okay. For the moment, lets just go with it. Apparently, Lee seems to think that the original ideas and character presentation that everyone is a fan of with The Fantastic Four isn’t needed here. Here, we’re just going to embrace cliches and force a series of ridiculous events where Johnny has to cover up his identity as the Torch when lives are at stake. At least six people nearly die while Johnny thinks up “creative” ways to keep his identity a secret.
And just when I thought it couldn’t get any more awkward and poorly thought-out, The Thing shows up to lend a helping hand. Of course, he’s in disguise, with his overcoat, slouch hat and sunglasses. I guess he tapes the sunglasses to his head because, remember, he has no ears.
And then, the villainous Destroyer, who’s trying to stop the construction of an amusement park by targeting its tallest rides, turns out to be a Communist spy. You see, the tall rides would allow people to see where the Red Sub was surfacing at the spy’s private beach.
Yes, the Communist spy has a private beach. How’s that? Why because he’s the publisher of the local newspaper, of course. Nothing like sewing a little Red Paranoia amongst children by having the people in charge of local media portrayed as traitors and attempted-murderers.
At least in Scooby Doo cartoons, when the villain is unmasked at the end, there was almost always some sort of monetary gain involved. Here, it’s just the Marvel Universe version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, only without the clever metaphors. Here, you just can’t trust anyone. Anybody could be a Commie. And they would rather kill you and spread their propaganda than do just about anything else.
I can only assume that this series serves no purpose whatsoever beyond trying to get kids to fork over their 12 cents because the Human Torch is a fan favorite character over in The Fantastic Four. It makes sense, really.
With this, and last month’s shift in Incredible Hulk to making Rick Jones the central character (aside from the big Green Robot, of course), Marvel seems to be trying to appeal directly to their fans by making the most relatable (at least in age) characters the protagonists. But to be quite honest, Rick Jones isn’t really a distinct enough personality to carry The Incredible Hulk, and this version of The Human Torch isn’t really the same character the fans have been enjoying.
Peter Parker, as Spider-Man, is really the only teen character that Marvel has introduced that seems to have enough depth of character and personality to actually headline a comic and make it w
orth reading. But where is it?
In the issue of Amazing Fantasy where he debuted, Stan Lee presented a letter to the readers, declaring a change in format with the comic, and promising that Spider-Man was going to be the star attraction, but nothing has come of that so far. Granted, it’s only been two months since Amazing Fantasy #15, but this isn’t boding well for what’s to come.
I guess I’m just impatient.
Plot: Stan Lee
Script: Larry Lieber
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inker: Dick Ayers
“The Challenge of Comrade X”
It’s a Commie double-feature this month as not only does the Human Torch have to deal enemy spies, Ant-Man takes on Comrade X, the Commies’ best espionage agent. And mixed-in with the general Red Fear that Lee and Lieber are trafficking in, we also get an even more fundamentally paranoid twist at the end of this adventure.
If you thought having the newspaper publisher be a Commie spy was dangerously suggestive, just wait until you get to the gender-bending finale of this story. Not only can’t you trust the media, but you can’t even be sure that the people around you are actually the sex they seem to be.
Yes, I did just give away the ending at the beginning of my write-up. Get over it. Spoiler alerts aren’t required after a work’s been around for 47 years, right?
Anyway, social faux pas aside, here’s the skinny. The Commies (all of whom dress like 19th Century Cossacks) want Ant-Man’s shrinking technology (which has been converted from a liquid to a gaseous form, a la this month’s Fantastic Four), and send Comrade X to get it. Comrade X lays a trap, catches Ant-Man in a glass box (?), then threatens him with watered down DDT, before the Coast Guard show up to arrest him/her.
The main problems with the story aren’t so much the near absence of plot, as they are just fundamental problems with the character of Ant-Man.
While we get the interesting idea that Ant-Man has a network of ants scattered all across the city, keeping their eyes out for trouble so they can relay the information back to Pym, it’s an idea that isn’t really executed very well.
I mean, come on. In order to get across town quickly, Pym has a mini-catapult installed in his wall? He launches himself through the air all the way across town and has ants pile up to form a cushion for him to land on? To then get across town again to where Comrade X is hiding out, he rides his ants? How long does that take?
All of this is just to maintain the conceit that he’s able to shrink. For someone as smart as Pym is supposed to be, shouldn’t deciding when to shrink be just as important as being able to shrink in the first place? Take a cab where you need to be, dude, then shrink down and kick Commie butt. It’s more efficient.
I was also a little put off by the fact that Ant-Man slips into a woman’s car and then hides in her purse just so he can pop up in her hotel room “mysteriously” a few panels later. That’s a bit on the creepy side, isn’t it? Luckily, rather than being disturbingly stalkerly, it turns out while in the purse he discovers the rubber mask that the woman wears when pretending to be a man. A Communist man.
But at least she’s attractive. Pretty spies are the most dangerous spies, after all.
I also don’t really know what to make of the whole “trapping Ant-Man in a little glass box” plan. Pym goes through a torturously complicated series of ant-moves in order to knock the box into the floor, breaking it. Couldn’t he just grow man-sized and bust out? I suppose that might kill some ants in the process, but how many are killed by swatting and stamping when they attack a Commie en mass? Surely hundreds.
But I guess it’s better for a Commie to kill ants than it is for the guy in the ant suit.
All in all, I’m just not digging this whole Ant-Man scene. Sure he’s cool when he’s inside a complicated lock, manually working the tumblers in order to get a bank vault open and free the bank robbers who’ve accidentally locked themselves in. I guess. But when his big move at the climax of the main story is to untie Comrade X’s shoestrings under cover of darkness and trip him, you just have to ask yourself how long they can keep trying to make this character feasible.
Plot: Stan Lee
Script: Larry Lieber
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inker: Dick Ayers
“Trapped By Loki, The God of Mischief!”
The strongest entry in the Marvel Canon this month is easily Thor’s battle with Loki. Not only does it introduce another classic Marvel villain, but it focuses on expanding the Marvel Universe in interesting and exciting ways.
Sure, Nurse Jane still does nothing to advance the representation of women in comics, but hopefully that will improve as the world develops. This time out, she isn’t even referred to by name and all she does is moon over both Thor and Loki.
And, yeah, the story isn’t much to write home about: Loki comes to Earth to mess with Thor and is defeated. The end.
But the strength of the story is in how it effects the rest of the Marvel Universe. With this issue, we are not only introduced to Loki, the Norse God of Mischief, but we also get glimpses of Asgard and a number of other gods.
The story actually begins in Asgard, establishing it as existing “beyon
d our segment of time and space” and connected to Earth via Bifrost, the Rainbow Bridge. In Asgard, Loki is imprisoned inside a tree and condemned to stay there until, due to his plight, someone sheds a tear. He’s been in the tree “for ages” and has gained some control over his prison. He is able to make a leaf fall from the tree as the god Heimdall approaches, striking him in the eye and causing his eye to tear up.
This is loophole enough for Loki to free himself from his prison, and his first order of business is to seek revenge against Thor. We don’t really need to go into the magical battle that follows, although the whole idea that Thor has to swing his hammer around in order to fly causes him quite a bit of trouble. I don’t think that’s going to last long, unless Lee and Lieber really want to hamstring the character.
Interestingly enough, Thor doesn’t recognize Loki at first, and even once Loki changes into his Asgardian clothes and Thor does recognize him, in his head, Thor still seems to be filtering the experience through Dr. Don Blake’s consciousness. What he knows of Loki is known through his familiarity with Norse mythology, not first-hand experience.
This makes for an intriguing dichotomy. Clearly we are being presented with an Asgard and a race of gods who exist outside of our conception of Time and Space. And they’ve been around for eons, visiting the Earth over the years. Loki says as much. In the end, once Loki is defeated, Thor gets rid of him by hurling him bodily back into Asgard, where he is deposited before a crowd of gods, including Tyr, Baldur, and Odin, the King of the Gods and father of Thor, himself.
But back on Earth, Thor seems to have little or no conscious knowledge of them or Asgard, even though just a panel earlier he knows where he’s sending Loki. There’s something strange going on with Thor’s sense of self-awareness. Sure he says, while hypnotized, that it is Odin’s will that no one but Thor handle his hammer, but it doesn’t seem to really register with the character once he’s free of the trance. And even though the mere appearance of Loki should cause some sort of intellectual dissonance, it doesn’t.
So just what is going on here?
Who is Donald Blake and who is Thor? This mystery, along with the opening up of the Marvel Universe to Extra-spacial settings are the most interesting developments Marvel has come up with so far to me.
Clearly we’re not dealing with a Captain Marvel situation, although it does echo that relationship between the Big Red Cheese and Billy Batson. Here we’ve got a character, Thor, with a newly established history that stretches back through the ages with an entire set of family and social relationships that he doesn’t seem to be aware of consciously. At the same time, he seems to mostly have Don Blake’s awareness when he’s Thor, although for brief moments he will slip into Thor’s personality and access knowledge only Thor could have.
Whether or not these complications are intended, and I’m not entirely convinced that they are, they make Thor the most promising character in the Marvel Universe at the moment. Especially when contrasted with a largely ineffectual, but extremely lucky, Fantastic Four, a newly dumbed-down Hulk, and a guy who can shrink and talk to ants.
Okay, it’s time to get back to obsessing over the Iranian elections. Next time we have a better slate of issues as Thor heads to the future, the Fantastic Four meet the Puppet Master, the Hulk gets another status quo change, and the Human Torch and Ant-Man continue to have fairly meaningless adventures. Can’t win them all, eh?
See you in two weeks, True Believers!