Mondo Marvel #14 – July 1963A column article, Mondo Marvel by: Paul Brian McCoy
Welcome one and all to another installment of Mondo Marvel! I'm your host, Paul Brian McCoy, and I'll be guiding us on a journey through Marvel Comics' (cover-dated) July 1963 Superhero releases.
If you're reading this, though, you probably already know what's in store, since we've hit the six month mark. That's a lot of reading and writing, and lately the reading has become a bit of a chore. I don't know what was going on in the Marvel Bullpen, but Stan Lee hasn't been very focused on these books.
Oh sure, Fantastic Four has been fairly consistent in its high quality, but when it stumbles, it stumbles hard. And the adventures of Thor, The Human Torch, and Iron Man have been forgettable at best (although Thor started strong). The scripting by Robert Bernstein on Iron Man and Thor hasn't helped, although Ernie Hart's arrival on scripting duties for Ant-Man and The Human Torch has helped those stories. Somewhat.
But nothing really compares to the comics that Stan Lee scripts himself, which this month expands to four titles: Fantastic Four, Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos, Spider-Man, and the new short feature, "Doctor Strange" which now shares Strange Tales with The Human Torch.
We've got a lot to look at this week, so let's just jump right in, shall we. I'm not sure if this would be the deep end or the shallow end. It's intellectually shallow, but threatens with the depth of its inanity.
Regardless, here's the worst of the lot, building up to the best stuff of the month.
Tales of Suspense #43
Plot: Stan Lee
Script: R. Berns (Robert Bernstein)
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inks: Don Heck
"Iron Man Versus Kala, Queen of the Netherworld!"
First, a comment on the art.
Kirby is truly the most distinctive visual artist working in mainstream comics at this time. All you have to do is look at the machinery, the set design, and the costuming of Kala and her soldiers to know, without hesitation, that Kirby penciled this book. It's gorgeous. Particularly with Heck's inks bringing a touch more realism to the character work than we normally get with Kirby.
It's a winning combination.
Unfortunately, it's like polishing a turd.
A big, sexist turd.
I don't know if this is on Lee's plot or on Bernstein's scripting, but this is about the worst representation of women in the Marvel Universe to date. I mean, this isn't the passive, almost unobtrusive sexism of The Fantastic Four, which is bad enough, or the immature, childish sexism of the Wasp's adventures with Ant-Man.
Kala is the queen of the Netherworld, whose entrance is a mysterious tunnel that is and isn't there. She's a righteous bitch, "beautiful and vain," with generals who balk at serving under a woman. She's impetuous and demanding, willing to invade the surface world regardless of the wise and noble General Baxu's doubts. If it weren't for the interference of the marital-aid-looking Iron Man, she would doom her entire people to death with her incompetence; because, you see, when the people of the Netherworld reach the Surface World, they nonsensically begin to rapidly age.
Iron Man takes Kala to the surface and she turns into a crone. Sorry, a hideous, "old hag." When faced with this, she wants to stay in the Netherworld forever, where she'll always be young and beautiful. As Iron Man says to her, "You may be cruel and ambitious, but you are not stupid." Then Iron Man installs General Baxu as king so that he can rule wisely alongside Kala, after politely declining her offer of marriage himself.
Then he goes home and struts around with women on his arm, making other men jealous, playing "New York's biggest wolf!"
Apparently, Iron Man's main threats are Commies, aliens, and uppity women who need taming.
I won't spend too much more time on the fact that Kala's main weapon is a distintegrator ray (which withers its targets into nothingness), or the visual of Iron Man grabbing her from behind before flying her up through the "nice, wide shaft" he gouges out with his nuclear-powered clippers that penetrate both glass and rock "like butter."
The story itself, even if it wasn't sexist, isn't very interesting as it rehashes Iron Man's origin in a pretty clumsy and inconsequential way. Tony Stark is captured by the villains in order to make them weapons. He "agrees" in order to access a lab where he makes a new Iron Man suit and proceeds to kick everyone's asses before going home to make sweet love to whomever he pleases.
That's just how Tony rolls.
I almost forgot. The Netherworld is apparently long lost Atlantis.
I wonder what Namor thinks about this? Sure, he hasn't come out and said that he's Atlantean yet, but we're all thinking it, right?
Wait. Is Namor from Atlantis or is he gay? What was I talking about?
Plot: Stan Lee
Script: R. Berns (Robert Bernstein)
Art: Joe Sinnott
"Thor and Loki Attack The Human Race!"
If it wasn't enough that Bernstein brought the passive sexism of the Marvel Universe to the surface with Iron Man, this month he also brings back one of the more disturbing recurring themes of the Marvel Universe: that the heroes are not to be trusted.
This time out, Loki has a plan to bend Thor to his will. Not in a rehashed way, like the time he hypnotized him in order make him drop his hammer and change back into a human. This time, Loki's plan involves hitting Thor in the head, right on "the chromosomatic gland which determines and changes personality!"
I know I said last time that I appreciate attempts by authors to at least try to posit explanations for what's going on in their science fiction and fantasy stories. It means that they're trying to take it seriously enough to not just throw anything in with no explanation. The explanations don't always have to be good or believable, so long as they show some imagination.
And there's a long history of stories where someone gets hit on the head and they forget who they are or suffer a personality change.
With all that said, this really is weak. Not only does Bernstein apparently not know what chromosomes are or how they work, but he also doesn't know what glands are or how they work. I suppose he was thinking that chromosomes determine who we are biologically, so a chromosomatic gland might effect... um... if personality is caused by chemicals in... er...
Nope. Can't do it. Can't figure out where he pulled this crap unless it was by opening a medical dictionary and picking a word at random.
And what the hell would Loki, an ancient Norse god of mischief, know about the biological make-up of the human brain and how personality is formed.
Heh. I guess he didn't know anything at all about it, eh?
If you're going to invoke pseudo-science, you need to do it appropriately. This is nonsense.
And guess how Thor gets his personality back? Yeah, the rest of the Norse pantheon, disguised as delegates of the United Nations (!?!) hit him in the head with his hammer again. Is this some sort of veiled metaphor about the threat to America by Communism and what damage a Communist United States would be to the world community?
Nah. It's just a bad story.
But what about all the damage Thor did while under Loki's influence? Not only did he threaten his own father, but he causes disasters all around the globe. Hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, and more. He also physically destroys the Taj Mahal, the Eiffel Tower, a pyramid, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Panama Canal, and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Loki threatens to use his magic to cause chaos, but at least he doesn't do it.
Thor just devastated the entire planet and no one can stop him from doing it. The Fantastic Four are nowhere to be seen. Forget about Ant-Man. I guess this happened while Iron Man was putting a woman in her place in the Netherworld. Luckily, Thor promises to repair all the damage he did and the Norse gods promise to wipe everyone's memory, so it all ends up okay. Thanks, magic! You don't have to make sense.
Can I just repeat this? They mind wipe the entire planet.
This comic has no bearing on anything in the Marvel Universe at this point. It may as well not be a Marvel comic. And the quality of the storytelling is completely in the toilet at this point.
Plot: Stan Lee
Script: H.E. Huntley (Ernie Hart)
Pencils: Don Heck
"The Terrible Traps of Egghead!"
Huntly's scripting is becoming more natural, and his narrative voice is perfectly suited for Marvel's comics. I'd love to see him working on Thor instead of Ant-Man, since his bombast might help elevate those stories like it does here.
Of course, the story is still crap, but at least it's crap with gusto!
This month we have the return of the Ant-Man's nemesis, Egghead, who has finally regained his senses after being outsmarted by ants months ago. From his dirty bed on the Bowery, Egghead befriends a couple of criminals and promises to make them rich - once they take care of Ant-Man, of course.
His last plan, the bucket lined with flypaper, may have been stupid, but surely this time around he's got a real work of criminal genius planned, right?
As the cover shows, the big plan this time is to sick an anteater on Ant-Man. Actually, that's the back-up plan. First he tries to feed Ant-Man to an iguana. He gives Ant-Man a pin to use as a lance and tells him to fight his "dragon" just like the knights of old. Luckily, Ant-Man's lance-work is deadly and he impales and kills the innocent iguana.
That's when Egghead breaks out the anteater.
But remember, Ant-Man has the strength of full-sized human, so he lassos the anteater and tosses it at the bad guys. Sure, he could have grown to his normal size and not been threatened by either the iguana or the anteater, but where's the logic in that?
Seriously, Ant-Man deserves a nemesis like Egghead. They deserve each other.
And what about The Wasp? She's a captive for most of the story, being unable to find the hole in the top of the maze-like wasp's nest she's "trapped in." Seems that without Ant-Man to guide the way, she forgets she can fly.
She does do more damage to the bad guys than Ant-Man does, though. She grabs the pin that Ant-Man used as a lance and keeps jabbing people until they give up.
Then Egghead gets away.
We end with Jan getting a stern lecture from Hank about working as a team, while she thinks about how much she loves him. Why can't he tell how passionate she is for him? How awkward this must be, since Jan's only barely legal and looks just like his dead wife. What would people say if he started dating her. Can't she be satisfied with dressing up and playing superhero with him?
Then Egghead vows revenge from his "hideaway," promising that his next trap will be different and one "no human can escape!"
Maybe it'll be a jelly jar with holes punched in the lid.
Plot: Stan Lee
Script: H.E. Huntley (Ernie Hart)
Art: Dick Ayers
"The Human Torch Vs. The Wizard and Paste Pot Pete!"
Story: Stan Lee
Art: Steve Ditko
"Doctor Strange, Master of Black Magic!"
Talk about your "mixed bag."
First up we have another return of old villains, this time another "super genius" and a guy who shoots paste at you. Johnny Storm kind of deserves his nemeses, too. If you can't outsmart a teen-age boy then you have no business considering yourself a "Wizard." Paste Pot Pete is perfectly named. What else should he call himself?
Anyway, after wasting four whole pages of a thirteen page story lounging on his bed like a schoolgirl, reminiscing about his past victories while flipping through his scrapbook - where he keeps pictures of his villains and clippings about his adventures - we find out what The Wizard and Paste Pot Pete have been up to lately.
Why is it that when Sue keeps a picture of Namor around it's because she's got a crush on him, but Johnny's snapshots of The Wizard and Paste Pot Pete are because he's keeping records of his adventures. I can't be the only one sensing the sexual tension in these stories, can I? There's not another more closeted character at Marvel.
Anyway, in yet another recycled plot line this month, The Wizard uses his old Human Torch disguise while he and Paste Pot Pete (I just like typing his name over and over again) hide out at The Wizard's house. You know, because the police would never imagine he'd return to the same place he's been captured the past two times.
While The Torch dodges The Wizard's traps and figures out how to escape, Paste Pot Pete's only real job seems to be shooting his goo onto Johnny's feet in pointless attempts to hold him in place. He essentially just hangs out while The Wizard tries to spring death trap after death trap on Johnny.
Not much of a team-up, really.
Not much of a story, really.
Should I be bothered by the "If I'm lucky like this again, I'll shoot myself" ending?
Luckily, the back half of this issue is devoted to the introduction of Doctor Strange! Well, half of the back half, anyway.
Now I seem to remember seeing Stan Lee interviewed somewhere, and he said that Ditko came up with this creepy sorcerer character, that Lee then scripted, but I can't find that interview anywhere at the moment, so let's just leave the who-created-Doctor-Strange question for another time. Maybe one of you, dear readers, can find a link to something somewhere that gives more information.
In the meantime, lets take a look at the character's introduction.
Doctor Strange isn't mentioned on the cover at all. As far as anyone picking the book up cold could tell, this was a Human Torch comic, even though there were always two short back-up features along with a prose piece or two in every issue. This issue ends with Lee and Ditko pairing for a moody story of the supernatural that is perfectly at home with the rest of the back-ups in Strange Tales. There's really nothing here that indicates that this story specifically takes place in the Marvel Universe. It's only in hindsight that we can really include Doctor Strange as part of the superhero explosion at Marvel.
What we have here is a five-page short about a businessman being haunted by nightmares. He goes to the mysterious Doctor Strange for help. Being the Master of Black Magic, as the title says, Strange enters the man's dreams and discovers that he's being haunted by guilt over ruining people in business, robbing them and getting away with it. He tries to kill Doctor Strange to keep him from revealing his secret, but Strange's magic stops him.
That's really about all there is to the story, however, in these five pages we are also introduced to The Master, Strange's elderly Asian mentor whose place Strange will someday take, and Strange's "ancient foe," Nightmare, the ruler of the Dream Dimension. We also get concepts like astral travel and Strange's magical amulet with its hypnotizing eye.
All in all, there's more actual story in these five pages than in just about all of the Human Torch stories published to this point.
This is also the first time that we don't start a story with the main character's origin. We're just plunked down into this dark and creepy world where magic is real and threatening (unlike the anything goes "magic" of Loki) and relationships and rivalries have been going on for ages.
This sort of approach was typical for the throw-away back-up features in Marvel's horror and science fiction comics at the time, which leads me to believe that initially, at least, Doctor Strange wasn't intended to interact alongside the rest of Marvel's superheroes, instead being just an interesting horror story; one among many.
But there is all that extra detail, isn't there? It lends credence to the idea that Ditko had an idea, drew up the five page story with some plotting ideas by Lee, and it ended up being just too fertile an idea to leave alone.
Ditko's art is central to creating that interest in the reader.
Earlier I said that Kirby was the most distinctive artist working for Marvel at the time, and I stand by that. But Ditko is starting to give him a run for his money. You can tell that he's giving this story everything he's got, as opposed to some other back-ups that he's done. For example, our opening panel starts the story in the middle of the night, during a rainstorm, outside a window. We then move inside as a tortured man forces himself awake and then, with trembling hands, lights a cigarette. The flames from his match light his face, throwing heavy shadows and helping to make him look haggard and clearly frightened.
Even though Ditko is sticking to the basic nine-panel page structure (with only a couple of extra panels slipped in here and there, he moves our point-of-view around, uses close ups and extreme long shots, and just about every trick in the illustrator's handbook to construct a five-page narrative loaded with information. The actual words on the page are almost unnecessary.
The representation of Strange's astral body leaving his meditating corporeal body is a very nice design touch, contrasting with the heavy shadows of the world around him by avoiding all but the most basic line work. And there are strange patterns and textures appearing in the backgrounds of nearly every panel, which help to create a vaguely unsettling mood (another effective subversion of the nine-panel page grid), as does the shadowy figure of Nightmare.
This story jumps out at the reader in a way that nothing else we've talked about this month does, and it's almost entirely because of Ditko's craft. Sure Lee reused the Doctor Strange name he'd used on an Iron Man villain a couple of months ago, and scripted the story, but there's not a lot on display other than the visual elements and the seeds of narrative ideas.
As we'll see in the weeks to come, the Lee/Ditko team, while not nearly as proficient as the Lee/Kirby pairing, is just as impressive.
Story: Stan Lee
Art: Steve Ditko
"Spider-Man Vs. Doctor Octopus!"
This is what you get when both creators are actively engaged in the characters and situations of the text without letting their enthusiasm get the better of them (I'll talk about that in a minute, when we get to Fantastic Four).
The real strength of this series so far is the focus on Peter Parker's personality development and how he reacts to each issue's conflicts. This isn't the Fantastic Four, where everybody but Ben just accepts and loves what they are, while Ben fusses and complains (until he finds a girl that likes him, anyway). Granted, those early FF issues spent some quality time on Ben's inability to really cope with his change.
But aside from that, every other character just takes their powers and abilities in stride without too much reflection.
Not so, Peter Parker. We already saw last time how Pete was becoming more aggressive, practically without even realizing it. His reactions to Flash's taunts are a good gauge for where he is psychologically at any given moment, as we see this issue.
But before that, we are introduced to Spidey's latest antagonist, Doctor Otto Octavious, also known as Doctor Octopus by his co-workers at the U.S. Atomic Research Center on the outskirts of town. Doctor Octopus is interesting and fairly unique among the other super villains in the Marvel Universe so far in that he doesn't start off as a bad guy. He's not a criminal running around robbing banks and he doesn't have a conveniently unexplained hatred of our hero. He also isn't an alien, a Communist, or an uppity woman. He's "the most brilliant atomic researcher" in the country and he's invented a set of robotic arms he can wear to work on radioactive materials and chemicals without endangering himself.
In fact, he's one of the first, if not the first, of the Marvel villains with an origin story practically identical to those of the heroes. Like The Hulk, The Fantastic Four, and Spider-Man before him, Doctor Octavious has a mishap with radiation, but instead of coming out of the experience as a hero, he suffers brain damage. Brain damage and the inexplicable fusing of his robotic arms to his body.
That's pretty much three strikes for a fat guy with extra thick glasses and a bowl-cut.
For the first time since the introduction of The Mole Man, we've got a villain who's also a victim, sharing some of the sympathetic elements of our protagonists. At the same time, it's also the first time that we see without qualification that our villain is insane.
He's also another Spider-Man villain to take his identity from the animal kingdom (like The Chameleon and The Vulture before him). It'll be interesting to see if this is a recurring element in Spider-Man's adventures.
Anyway, Spidey is experiencing a psychological peak as our story begins, relishing his powers and lamenting the lack of any villainous challenges. He's cocky and arrogant, reacting much like we saw him reacting during his origin story, before Uncle Ben was killed. It's a realistic and believable representation of a geeky teenage boy coming into this sort of power.
All it takes is a good ass-whupping by Doc Ock to bring all of that confidence crashing to the ground. That's really the main point of the story. Pete becomes overconfident relying on his physical prowess over non-powered opponents and gets schooled, loses his confidence, and nearly gives up superheroing for good. Ironically, it's the advice of the cocky and always annoying Human Torch that inspires Pete to get back on the horse.
It also inspires him to not just use his brawn, but to think about what he's doing and develop a plan that involves more than just jumping in fist first. This is probably the purest example of what a Spider-Man story is all about.
Ditko's art is a little more simplified than his work on Doctor Strange this month, with lots of empty backgrounds keeping the focus on the bodies and the action. Which makes sense, really. This story isn't about the mood. It's about Spider-Man, front and center.
The fight sequences are very nicely orchestrated as Spidey twists and turns, trying to avoid the swooping and swinging mechanical arms of Doc Ock. This comic makes for a good contrast with Kirby's bombastic action. Where Kirby's work explodes off the page, Ditko's is more graceful and fluid.
I also should mention just how unnerving it is when Doc Ock is traveling using his robotic arms as limbs. Almost as unnerving as seeing a human being clinging to walls like an insect.
Ugh. The world of Spider-Man is a creepy place.
Script: Stan Lee
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inks: Dick Ayers
"The Micro-World of Doctor Doom!"
And here's what I was talking about when I mentioned letting the enthusiasm get the better of the creative team.
Not only do we have the dramatic return of Doctor Doom, but we have a guest appearance by Ant-Man, in what I can only imagine is a desperate bid to make him seem more cool. Unfortunately, it's at the expense of the limitations of his powers in his own stories.
Or, if it's not a limitation, it's not an extreme to which Lee and his collaborators ever pushed the character.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. If you remember the last time we saw Doctor Doom, he was shrinking to a subatomic size, the victim of the weapon he'd intended to turn on the Fantastic Four back in Issue 10.
Well, just like the time (another rehashed plot alert!) Doom was cast off into space "never to be heard from again," Doom crash lands in a peaceful kingdom that he is able to manipulate and, this time, actually conquer. This time the kingdom is a subatomic medieval world rather than alien, although there's really not much difference considering how they're used. And apparently their world just floats freely throughout the Baxter Building. But somehow Doom can effect and communicate with the FF no matter where they are.
The story really doesn't even try to adhere to some sort of internal logic. Hell, Horton Hears a Who makes more sense. At least there, the tiny world was in one place and Horton had to actually be right up on it to communicate. Lee and Kirby's subatomic world can be accessed from anywhere one might shrink.
If you couldn't guess, Doctor Doom is able to use his smarts to create the technology needed to shrink the FF, as well as monitor them, from his tiny kingdom. Luckily, before he can put his plans into effect, Reed decides to consult with Ant-Man about the team's seemingly random shrinking over the previous few days.
Random shrinking that each member refused to mention to the others because they figured no one would believe them.
They're the Freaking Fantastic Four! Why wouldn't anyone believe them?
I hate that sort of stupidity, where the characters behave irrationally in order to further the plot. It's very annoying.
Almost as annoying as trying to understand Ben's reaction to being shrunk. Embarrassed, he hid in Reed's Guinea Pig cage.
About the only positive thing about the story is that for once, Ant-Man doesn't land in a pile of ants when he catapults himself across town. Instead, he lands on the backs of two flying ants, riding them like a chariot. It's about time he figured out a better way of transport, especially since he was able to give The Wasp wings that actually work.
Anyway, once Doom has the FF shrunk down and in his power, he then shrinks them a little more, to make them easier to capture and hold. He's got a bit of a one-track mind when it comes to his death traps, doesn't he?
That's when Ant-Man reveals that he doesn't just shrink down to ant-size, but can go full-bore sub-atomic. Now, The Atom, over at DC could do this for a while. He was introduced in 1961 and was shrinking down to travel through telephone lines while Pym was developing his high-powered catapult.
I suppose he doesn't have his full-sized human strength when he's subatomic, either, since the tiny knights overpower him pretty easily. Actually he doesn't really accomplish anything at all. He's captured before he can do anything and then Sue rescues him.
How useless are you as a superhero when The Invisible Girl has to rescue you?
Pretty damn useless.
As is most of this story.
But at least Doctor Doom escapes in the end and is back on the loose in our full-sized world. Not sure why he never just went home before this. Oh well.
At least the Fantastic Four got the opportunity to stop a group of interplanetary slave-traders who were flying to this sub-atomic planet to buy the FF as slaves.
Too bad the Micronauts didn't show up. It was before their time, I guess.
Story: Stan Lee
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inks: Dick Ayers
"Seven Doomed Men!"
This is where Lee and Kirby really shine this month.
Again, it's not so much a World War II comic, as it is a Pop Culture Action Extravaganza using World War II as a backdrop. Once again, Lee and Kirby pack enough story into these pages to fill an extra-length feature film. And stylistically, they're pretty far ahead of the curve with this comic.
The closest thing I've experienced to the non-stop War action without any real attempt to place the work in the context of the actual War, is in film. Even comics like G.I. Combat or Our Army At War over at DC were more interested in realism and adventure. Lee and Kirby throw realism out the window and crank up the violent action. It wouldn't be until the late sixties that films would start to echo this approach with experiences like Kelly's Heroes and The Dirty Dozen. If you saw Inglourious Basterds you saw the spirit of this comic up on the screen.
This time out, The Howling Commandos, after barely surviving a suicide mission to destroy a Nazi U-boat pen off the coast of an occupied French town, are thrown immediately into another death-defying mission to destroy a supply of heavy water that the Nazis are using in their atomic bomb development. If The Howling Commandos can't derail the Nazi A-bomb program, the Allies could lose the war!
I can't see how Lee and Kirby can keep up this sort of storytelling, but so far so good.
In the process of destroying the Atomic Bomb program, the Boys also end up liberating a concentration camp. How d'ya like that?
And of course, before it's all over, out heroes are stealing weapons and machine-gunning Nazis like there's no tomorrow while their uniforms and/or prison clothes tatter and disappear. I don't think Nick Fury, excuse me, Sgt. Fury, can come out of an adventure without exposing his manly chest.
If Johnny Storm could only get some pictures of Fury for his scrapbook, he'd never leave his room, no matter how stupid his villains were.
This is the sort of energy that should be pumping its way into the adventures of Thor and Iron Man. If the Fantastic Four could maintain this energy level without collapsing in on itself with nonsense science and a sheer absence of logic, I'd never stop reading it.
How weird is it that the comic that most captures the "anything goes" spirit that marks Marvel Comics as different from, and in my opinion superior to, the other books on the racks doesn't have superheroes or crazy science or aliens or Commies or uppity women in it at all.
Between Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos and The Amazing Spider-Man, Marvel is laying the groundwork for what mainstream comics can accomplish with narrative and subject matter.
That wraps another month's worth of action in the Mighty Marvel Manner. And just wait to see what's on the horizon. Next time we have a short month, but then we get two of the biggest debuts yet.
You probably know what they are, but I don't want to get too far ahead of myself.
Anyway, Marvel is getting ready to really take off. We're almost to the point where every month brought between seven and nine stories. I think my fingers may just fall off.
As for this batch of books, come on by the message board and let me hear your opinions. Am I being too hard on these books? Am I not being hard enough on them? Let me know!