Saturday, December 4, 2010


  • Journey Into Mystery #83
  • Amazing Fantasy #15

Journey Into Mystery #83
Plot: Stan Lee
Script: Larry Lieber
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inker: Joe Sinnott
"The Stone Men From Saturn!"

Wow! This is an interesting debut for a number of reasons. Not only does Earth seem to be such prime real estate that we're a favorite target for alien invasion (this is Invasion Attempt #3 for this year, and the second in two months!), but it also introduces a very interesting element to the Marvel Universe: Gods. That's plural. Oh sure, Thor's the only god to show up this issue, but there's an entire Norse pantheon that, by extension, is just waiting in the wings.

But more on that in a moment. I find it intriguing that Marvel's most traditional "Super Hero" is the Norse God of Thunder. There's no ambiguity about his morality practically from the moment he first appears. He's a good guy, through and through. The contrast between this character and the Hulk is shocking, really. Especially since there are some basic similarities in the way Lee and Kirby have designed the characters.

Both characters are wimpy types, although where Dr. Bruce Banner is just kind of a nerd, Dr. Donald Blake is a crippled medical doctor. They both have heroic streaks when it comes right down to it, but Dr. Blake doesn't fare as well as Banner has so far. Upon discovering that aliens are invading the Earth, rather than being able to do anything to stop them, Blake is immediately spotted and hunted down. While hiding in a cave, he finds an old, gnarled stick that he uses to try to lever a boulder out of the way, so he can escape. He's too weak to do it, and in frustration hits the stick against the rock, and presto! The transformation begins (calling to mind similarities to Fawcett Comics' Captain Marvel, who hadn't been published since a 1953 copyright suit was brought against them by DC comics)!

Unfortunately, there's not much more to the story than this, really. Once the transformation occurs, Thor discovers how his powers work, and aside from incredible strength (and gorgeous flowing hair), it all seems to boil down to hitting things with his hammer.

He hits the ground and causes storms and/or his transformations to and from Thor, he has a 60 second limitation on how long he can be separated from the hammer before automatically changing back into Dr. Blake, and if he needs to get somewhere in a hurry, he can use his magic hammer to fly.

Well, he doesn't really fly. In one of the silliest ideas I've ever seen in a comic, Thor "flies" by throwing his hammer and then hanging on, allowing the hammer to drag him through the sky. It's pretty ridiculous.

All in all, there's not a lot to this story. Lee provides the plot this time around, and the scripting is actually being done by his brother, Larry Lieber, and there's not much to say about it. This story seems designed to just provide an introduction to the characters of Thor and Dr. Blake, and that's pretty much it.

What makes it interesting is the personality differences between the two characters. Unlike the Banner/Hulk Reason/Passion split (or Good/Evil, if we want to take it that far), the difference here is more of degree than anything else. Dr. Blake is vacationing alone in Norway (which is where this story takes place) when we first see him, and though he has to use a cane to walk, he is wandering around the Norwegian countryside without hesitation. And when he hears a rumor of Space Aliens, his first impulse is to go check it out; again, alone.

He clearly has a heroic streak in him, despite what some may see as a physical limitation. It's only when he's trapped, cornered in a dark cave, that we see some of his desperation and fear. But even then, as soon as a possibility for escape arises, he leaps at it without hesitation. Once transformed, we find out that only someone "worthy" of the power of Thor can even hold the magic hammer, so any doubts we may have about Blake's character are laid to rest.

There's an exuberance to Thor's dialogue that makes him seem like the transformation is purely a physical one. He has no memories as Thor and isn't sure what he can do or how to do it. At the same time, after a brief moment of doubt during the transformation, he seems to intuitively figure out everything he needs to know. This raises one of two options: either it's just a writing shortcut (this is only a part of the complete issue, after all) in order to save valuable pages, or there's something a little more mysterious about the transformation. It could be read to imply that the personality of Thor is what's coming out, although it's definitely being filtered through Blake's consciousness.

That's an interesting distinction that ties back in to the overall concept of Thor actually being a Norse God. It was just last month in the MU that we were introduced to the idea that magic may be real, thanks to the background of Doctor Doom, and now, one month later, we get a manifestation of magic as well as a glimpse into a higher level of reality. This is kind of daring. In a roundabout way, Lee has introduced religion to his world, but not in the way one might expect.

Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, etc. have yet to be even hinted at in the Marvel Universe. In fact, Lee has gone out of his way so far to stay focused on purely secular subjects in the form of relying on Rationality, Reason, and Science (usually in the form of Atomic Weaponry, of course). When a problem arises, these are the tools brought to bear on it. But with Thor now on the scene, a spiritual element is automatically added, even if it isn't directly addressed. Hell, it might never be addressed, but as a reader in a predominantly Christian nation, the concept of a Pagan God as a Super Hero is one that might trouble and offend a portion of the audience.

Is this why Lee backs off from the actual writing for the first time? Is he covering his ass in case parents start protesting? I don't know. Again, being the reader I am (an atheist with anarchistic political leanings), I like it. It also does something similar to what the introduction of Namor did in Fantastic Four #4: it ties the Marvel Universe in with a broader field of cultural reference. If Thor exists in the MU, then we can assume that the Norse Myths are true here. If the Norse Myths are true, then what other mythic characters can exist in this framework? I'd say any and all of them. What, then, does this mean for the religious figures that the readers believe in and worship? How does this impact on monotheistic readers, in particular?

Intellectually, all of these questions create a deepening of the Marvel world that, if dwelt upon, could and/or should cause a reader to reflect upon their own religious beliefs. It's not the intended result, I'm sure, but it's an interesting one that is reinforced by Marvel's insistence that these stories take place in "our" world, too. This blending of fiction and reality is really the most innovative element that Lee has introduced to any of these comics. It's a foundation that allows the characters and stories to resonate more than other books being published at the time.

So while this story in particular isn't all that great, I have to applaud the introduction of Thor to the Marvel Universe. It's another daring, and challenging, addition to the Marvel conception of heroism.

Amazing Fantasy #15
Writer: Stan Lee
Illustrator: Steve Ditko

This is probably the most widely known origin story at Marvel, so forgive me if I cut to the chase with this one.

In sharp contrast to most of the other characters introduced so far to the MU, Spider-Man seems to be Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's attempt to more directly appeal to the fans of Johnny Storm, who, while maybe the most active and successfully utilized character in the Fantastic Four, is still part of the group and surrounded by adults. Spider-Man is a teenager on his own. And boy, is he ever.

This is the first new Marvel character to not be launched with the art of Jack Kirby defining them and the difference is like night and day. The bombast and sometimes almost crazed energy of Kirby's work helps to establish and maintain the larger than life aspects of The Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, and Thor's adventure in Journey Into Mystery, and are well-suited to those stories. Spider-Man, while cut from a similar cloth as those characters, is really something different, and Ditko's more realistic (although still very stylized) artistic approach sets this comic apart.

Ditko is able to bring a more grounded look to Peter Parker and the supporting characters that helps make them relatable and believable, once again emphasizing the "outside your window" approach to storytelling that Marvel has brought to the game. But it is with the costume design that Ditko outdoes himself. The full-body leotard and full-face mask are bizarre and unique. I really can't think of another character with a look even similar to this in 1962.

And thanks to Ditko's style, we are presented with a hero who isn't a musclebound, traditional Super Hero. He actually looks like a high school student, even in full costume, swinging around New York. Plus, as many observers have pointed out, part of the appeal of the design is that it could be anyone under the mask, which makes it much easier for the reader to imagine themselves taking part in this escapist fantasy.

But another element that makes this special is that it's not just "escapist fantasy" as we might normally think of it. Lee and Ditko have made questions of fate and personal responsibility the core themes of the story, even while it seems guilt and financial desperation are the most prominent surface motivations for the character.

In all of the Marvel Comics released so far, there's a strong link between the ideas of Fate and Responsibility, from the Fantastic Four choosing to disregard safety and steal their rocket ship, to Bruce Banner running out on that bombing range to save Rick Jones. Even with Thor, it's the choice of Dr. Donald Blake to go searching for the aliens that leads him to the cave where he finds Thor's hammer. The question is, as always, were these actually expressions of Free Will and Responsibility or were these characters Fated to act as they did?

It's a fundamental question of the Existential Experience, and while it's not really dwelt upon in the Fantastic Four and Thor stories, it come into play a little in the relationship between Rick Jones and The Hulk. Even though Hulk has tried to murder Jones almost every time he's seen him so far, Jones remains loyal to the Banner part of him; he owes Banner his life in the most literal sense and chooses to thrust himself into harm's way on the basis of that bond. It's a heroic choice that we, as readers, would like to think we were capable of making.

With Spider-Man, it's a little different and much more believable. When he discovers his powers (thanks again to the mighty Atomic Radiation that is at the heart of nearly every Marvel origin so far), his first impulse isn't to fight crime or adopt some noble role as mankind's protector against giant monsters, aliens, and Commies. His first impulse is make some money and live life not as the bullied and insulted science nerd he's always been, but to be a celebrity.

This is yet another nice touch that Marvel brings to their comics, setting them apart from the rest of the crowd. Peter Parker has real urges and needs. Almost like the Mole Man back in Fantastic Four #1, he's been pushed around all his life, and if it weren't for his connection to his family, his Uncle Ben and Aunt May, he could easily have ended up just like the Mole Man. The fact that Peter's an orphan immediately adds a layer of complexity to the character and his relationships.

It's what makes Uncle Ben's murder all the more tragic.

Again, Peter's response to the news is not the heroic or noble one. He wants revenge. He's going to go beat the crap out of the guy who killed his uncle, plain and simple, and make sure he doesn't escape the police.

This is a place where Ditko's costume design again comes into play, helping the scene really work. Not only can the readers project themselves into the action, the costume is just kind of creepy and unnerving. Especially when the guy wearing it is clinging to the wall and leaping around like a monster. Think about that. Remember the first time you saw Poltergeist and how freaky it was when Jo Beth Williams was sent rolling/sliding up the wall? Or how about the pilot for Supernatural and how unnerving it was when the camera pans up and Sam and Dean's father sees their mother pinned to the ceiling by unseen forces? Granted, in both of those scenes, the characters are up on the wall and ceiling against their will, but how many vampire movies have you seen where the the room seems clear at first glance, but that's only because NOTHING HUMAN SHOULD BE CLINGING TO THE WALLS!

People forget just how bizarre seeing Spider-Man in real life would be. He defies the laws of physics and the mere act of clinging to the wall above our heads sets him apart as inhuman; as a monster. That's another narrative benefit of Ditko's costume design as well as the contorted poses he places Spider-Man in. It all serves to both disassociate the character from normal people and at the same time allow accessibility to the imagination.

Ultimately though, when he pulls off that mask and we see the tears and the guilt, everybody who has been imagining themselves as the Super Hero suddenly are placed in the targets of those emotions, too. That may be the most successful part of the creation of Spider-Man and helps explain the ongoing popularity of the character. Like Bambi or Old Yeller or Dumbo in the Disney canon, Lee and Ditko have made gut-wrenching grief an integral part of the emotional experience, creating an extremely visceral connection between the audience and the character.

This is the moment when Marvel Comics really defined themselves to me. All of the stylistic choices Lee and his collaborators made made Marvel distinctive, fresh, and exciting, like nothing else on the stands at the time. But it's with Peter Parker that the physical and psychological frailties of the other characters coalesce into something emotionally powerful and new. At the same time, the idea of Fate seems to get tossed aside in favor of Personal Responsibility and Free Will, as Stan Lee coins the phrase that has become the hallmark of the heroic ideal: With great power comes great responsibility.

No comments: