Saturday, January 1, 2011


  •  Fantastic Four #9
  • Strange Tales #103
  • Tales to Astonish #38
  • Journey Into Mystery #87
Fantastic Four #9
Writer: Stan Lee
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inks: Dick Ayers
"The End Of The Fantastic Four!"

This is a valiant effort that ultimately falls short of working, mainly because of the absurdity of the plot.

The Fantastic Four are bankrupt after Reed, the smartest man in the world, makes some bad financial decisions and invests all of their money in the stock market. In events eerily familiar these days, the market crashes and the team ends up selling off all their cool gadgets, being evicted from their headquarters, and temporarily breaking up. These folks have such a hard time staying together. Seems like whenever there's any hardship, somebody flies the coop.

This time out, it's Ben who quits. He ends up hanging out at, his "friend," Alicia's apartment until she guilts him into going back to be with the team. I'm sure it had nothing to do with the damage he had to be doing to her ordinary human plumbing.

Her apartment's plumbing, I mean, you dirty children.

Anyway, in what may be the absolute worst diabolical plan ever concocted, Namor decides to take advantage of our destitute heroes and buys a movie studio with the sole intention of getting the FF to star in a movie about themselves, for which he promises them a million dollars, that is really a series of death traps. Once the boys are all killed, then surely Sue will accept his hand in marriage, right?

Men. We just don't understand women.

Hopefully this story didn't inspire any young impressionable boys to murder their romantic rivals and the families of the girls they wanted to impress.

Anyway, as you can probably guess, the worst plan ever concocted doesn't work, and Namor ends up shelling out a million dollars to the gang while the film becomes a hit so huge they don't have to worry about money ever again. For now, anyway.

While this story is pretty dumb, I have to give props to Lee and Kirby for again doing a lot of work to make the Marvel Universe feel like the world the readers are living in. At one point, Reed even wistfully remarks that comic book characters have it easy, never having to worry about money. And the meta-fun doesn't stop there. Once in Hollywood, Kirby makes sure to let us see a number of television and film stars milling about SM Studios.

Heh. I suppose with a studio name like that, the FF are lucky Namor was only trying to kill them. Or perhaps there's an underground fetish film making the rounds that no one will speak of. There are lots of S&M possibilities with this team if you think about it.

I'd recommend not thinking about it.

The execution of the story is filled with little moments that don't work (Johnny answering the door to get the mail while fully flamed-on), are just silly (Namor's appearance in a striped suit, with ascot, puffing on a cigarette in a long cigarette holder), absurdly convenient plot short-cuts (Thing is struck by lightning during his fight with Namor, which changes him back to human, for some reason, just long enough for Namor to knock him out - he returns in rocky form just a couple of pages later), and a frankly unbelievable conclusion (we've all seen Fantastic Four films and know how crap they are).

Along the way we also get a little bit of insight into Namor's psycho-sexual make-up. Not only does he think that defeating all of Sue's friends and family, possibly killing them, will make him attractive to her, but when she refuses to marry him, he decides to take her forcibly; to "defeat" her as he's done the others.


Then the "barbarian" grabs her, manhandles her, and seems to really enjoy her struggles. He likes a woman with spirit, after all. Only the timely arrival of the rest of the team keeps the scene from getting really ugly, although it's ugly enough as it is.

The disturbing part is that Sue doesn't hold it against him. Hell, she even says that if Namor hadn't lied to her, she might have married him! Then, after the attempted rape, or at least attempted molestation, she jumps between the boys and Namor just like she did in Fantastic Four #6, stopping them from giving him a good ass-whupping.

And while her rationale that they've never ganged up on anyone before just isn't true, she does get Namor to own up to the million dollar payoff and the production of the movie.

She also rationalizes Namor's actions as being understandable since he "lives by a different code" and "whatever he did -- he did for -- love!" That's just mental, right there. Was Sue abused when she was younger? Is she just so desperate for affection after hanging out with Reed all the time, that she can overlook the threat of sexual violence?

It's an unpleasant moment in the development of the Marvel Universe, that's for sure. But then again, it is another moment that makes the MU seem more like the world outside our windows. It would be interesting to see someone put together a series that retells these stories without white-washing the psychological subtexts.

Strange Tales #103
Plot: Stan Lee
Script: Larry Lieber
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inks: Dick Ayers
"Prisoner of the Fifth Dimension!"

Hooray! We finally get a halfway decent Human Torch solo story!

And how does that happen, pray tell?

By mostly ignoring all the stupid changes to the status quo that have made the foundations of these stories so shaky to begin with. Sure, we start off with another "straight from Scooby Doo" scenario where houses in a new housing development are mysteriously sinking into the ground overnight while a crazy, old local is warning people about "Swamp Demons!"

Actually, this would make for a pretty standard Dr. Who scenario, too, wouldn't it?

Anyway, long story short, The Torch stops an alien invasion. But at least time Lee goes to the "alternate dimension" invasion idea, which, in the MU is downright fresh and exciting. Once again, Lee and Kirby (with Lieber in tow) expand the Marvel Universe in an interesting direction, and, in what seems to be a theme this month, we get a nation overthrowing its corrupt, tyrannical leader.

This is a pretty basic idea. A hero from another world shows up and becomes the inspiration for some sort of Underground to rise up and take their freedom from their warlike leader. At least it's pretty basic these days. In Marvel's 1962 this is revolutionary, no pun intended.

Sure, we had Thor helping to start a revolution in San Diablo back in Journey Into Mystery #84 (see the link, above), but that was pretty low-key and he left all the actual fighting to the people with a real stake in the outcome. Here, Johnny is on the front lines, taking down tank brigades, destroying super weapons, and then signaling the rest of the populace that it's time to rise up.

He also meets a young hottie along the way, which is always a good way to get a teenage boy interested in politics.

Visually, this is a pretty well-designed world. So well-designed, in fact, that (if I may break the rules here for a moment) some of these looks are very reminiscent of what will be Atlantean designs sometime in the future of the Marvel Universe.

Plot-wise, we get some of the usual Marvel weirdness: Giant magnets that somehow attract people, trapping them; Johnny creating a super tornado; and Reed Richards being kind of a dick. But even though it's not terribly groundbreaking, it does open this world up in another direction, similar to the introduction of Asgard, which exists beyond space and time.

I have to hand it to Lee for yet again finding a way to make a story about a potential alien invasion interesting.

Tales to Astonish #38
Plot: Stan Lee
Script: Larry Lieber
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inks: Dick Ayers
"Betrayed By The Ants!"

I'm going to try really hard not to just bitch about the stupidity of this character this time. Sure, if he just grew man-sized he'd be much more effective as a crime-fighter, rather than bouncing around in his spring-boots, making the bad guys miss him and punch suits of armor. You know, maybe the proposed Ant-Man film being planned by Edgar Wright isn't wrong-headed to emphasize the comedic elements of this character.

I'll let pass the silliness of Ant-Man lassoing a bad guy around the wrist and then being able to swing him around like a toy before tossing him across the room. And when the criminals are amazed that such a tiny fellow has such strength, and he thinks to himself how they don't know he has his normal human strength, I'll try not to mention that swinging a man around is a super-human feat that Hank Pym wouldn't be capable of.

Those are too obvious.

I'll also try not to complain about the plan of super genius, Egghead, to use hand-bellows to blow Ant-Man into a box lined with flypaper. How could that fail, right?

Instead, I'm going to try to look at the brighter side of this issue's adventure.


Well, ah...

Okay, Egghead is an interesting idea for a character. He's a disgraced government scientist who was accused of trying to sell state secrets to foreign governments. For a change it's not Commies we have to worry about, but straight-up Capitalists.

You see, Egghead is all about the money. For enough money he'll do just about anything. And while the end result doesn't seem like he's giving this "Capture the Ant-Man" plan his full attention, he does study "documentary" footage of Ant-Man "in the wild," and even goes so far as to figure out how to talk to ants just like Pym. Apparently, Egghead is really just suffering from a blind spot.

And that blind spot is The Psychology of Ants, my friends. The Psychology of Ants.

Egghead tries to enlist the aid of the ants, using them to set Ant-Man up to be captured. He says he will free them from their oppressor and then they will be Ant-Man's masters, rather than the other way around.

But, of course, ants aren't like people. They're mindless drones who live to do the bidding of others.

Um, I mean, they consider themselves allies in Ant-Man's war on crime, not his slaves. If only Egghead had found a group of rebel ants, already out to overthrow Ant-Man's reign of terror.

I could probably work up a little examination of this as a critique of naive Liberal support of oppressed peoples around the world, with Egghead playing the role of outside agitator, using slogans of liberation and freedom to further his own self-interest and egoism.

Or maybe something about the corruption of scientific study by the forces of capitalism.

Or maybe we could discuss it as a simple morality tale about a brilliant man who let his love of material wealth ruin him, driving him mad and penniless in the Bowery.

This adventure also takes an interesting narrative turn, as nearly the entire story is told from the villains' points of view. That, in itself, makes this story superior to any of the previous Ant-Man stories. The less time we spend being confronted with the absurdity of that character, the better off we are.

Plus, Kirby and Ayers' art looks pretty good. The villains are all very nicely designed, each with a distinct look and visual personality. In fact, they may actually be based on actors from the early sixties, but I don't know. They look vaguely familiar, and he was clearly also working with likenesses in The Fantastic Four this month, too. Kirby's staging is also very nice, something I usually overlook in these columns.

The stories may be dumb, but they look good. Kirby moves our perspective around a lot, even giving scenes of people standing around talking a more dynamic feel. We also get a handful of inspired Kirby machinery designs; not to the extent that we may get in Fantastic Four, but nicely intricate in their own right.

I like the way that Egghead's Ant Communication Device appears to be based on metal detecting technology. It's a nice touch that adds some believability to what is a scientifically retarded set of narrative ideas.

My only artistic complaint is the design of Egghead himself. There's nothing really threatening or imposing about a schlubby bald guy with a huge head. Kirby usually designs villains who, if we're supposed to clearly know they're villainous from the outset, are a touch grotesque. Not quite to the extreme that Batman's Rogue's Gallery is horrifying, but ugly and unpleasant.

Egghead, however, is just silly-looking. At least until he ends up mumbling in the Bowery, that is. With some stubble (he doesn't seem to actually be able to grow a beard, poor guy) he looks a little more seedy and less like a target for ridicule.

Journey Into Mystery #87
Plot: Stan Lee
Script: Larry Lieber
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inks: Dick Ayers
"Prisoner of the Reds!"

This is one of those stories where you just wonder what the point of it all is.

In case you didn't notice the title, there, we are dealing with Commies again. But this time, we don't even have a particular Commie bad guy to focus on. The threat is vague and generalized, with no single Commie being the clear leader or mastermind - regardless of what the cover might lead you to think.

There's really not much to this one. Loads of scientists are disappearing after leaving notes explaining how they've lost faith in the American Way and are running off to "behind the Iron Curtain to serve the Reds!" Of course, no one would serve the Reds of their own free will. The scientists are being hypnotized, told to write their notes, and then they're loaded onto a plane only to wake up in a dungeon.

In a dungeon.

In the Marvel Universe, all Communist countries are still living in the Nineteenth Century, stylistically.

Luckily, Dr. Donald Blake has a friend who's an army general, and he persuades said general to let him be a decoy to lure out the Reds. Then, when he knows what's what, Blake will turn into Thor and kick some Commie butt. Not that the general knows Thor will be involved, but he signs off on it anyway. Because nothing sounds safer than letting a frail doctor with a bum leg do your spying for you.

Which he does.

And the moral of the story? That "even in a slave nation, the spirit of freedom never dies!" That's spoken by a heavily mustachioed fellow in a peasant hat and rounds out our Viva La Revolucion theme month.

But don't get distracted by that vaguely inconsequential message of "hope" kids! We end with Nurse Jane (still no last name) mooning over daydreams of Thor, and Blake mooning over daydreams of Jane.

The only thing interesting about this whole story is the fact that in that last panel, Blake fantasizes about telling Jane that Thor loves her. Not that he loves her, but Thor loves her.

Is that a psychological issue slipping out there? Is Blake so lacking in self-esteem that he can't even fantasize about revealing his feelings unless he's in his idealized alter-ego form? Or is it something deeper than that? Is Blake starting to identify himself as Thor? Again, he doesn't seem aware of the fact that Thor is a separate entity with his own life and history, independent of Dr. Blake's.

Or does he?

I realize that this is probably just sloppy writing, and that Lee and Lieber weren't setting out to create this kind of psychological depth, but then again, as Thor becomes more dominant in Blake's life, he seems to be finding himself pursuing more and more heroic situations as Blake.

Sure, he knows that he'll be able to just tap his cane and turn into Thor when things get really dangerous, but for someone who at times is characterized as unusually timid and frail, this is an interesting character development.

It's too bad it would be many years later before Alan Moore tackled this very subject in Marvel/Miracle Man.

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