Saturday, January 1, 2011


  • Fantastic Four #10
  • Strange Tales #104
  • Tales to Astonish #39
  • Incredible Hulk #5
  • Journey Into Mystery #88

Fantastic Four #10
Writer: Stan Lee
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inks: Dick Ayers
"The Return of Doctor Doom!"

Welcome to the weirdest issue of Fantastic Four yet.

Now we've already talked about moments where Marvel Comics have been incorporated into the narratives that Lee and Kirby were putting together, with Johnny Storm reading the first issue of The Incredible Hulk and recognizing Namor from the comics. I've treated this as a unique occurrence, but according to some internet research, it's not so unique. Apparently across town at DC, the idea that there were comics being written about the characters that were being read by the characters was old hat.

For example, the Barry Allen Flash read comics about the Jay Garrick Flash, making their crossover in "Flash of Two Worlds!" (The Flash #123 – Sept. 1961) a bizarre experience for both the characters and the reader. It wouldn't be until May 1968's The Flash #179 that Earth Prime would be introduced and The Flash would interact with writer/editor Jules Schwartz.

Well, back in January 1963 Marvel busted this concept wide open and in this issue we are introduced to Lee and Kirby, the writer and artist of The Fantastic Four.


That's right. The comic that you're reading is, in a single storytelling stroke, turned into a postmodern exploration about the nature of reality.

Well, not really, but it could be.

You see, the Fantastic Four have licensed their images to Marvel Comics and Lee and Kirby consult with Reed on a regular basis to create, and have official approval, of the comic's stories. And not only that, but on the wall of their studio hang sketches of Ant-Man, The Hulk, and Thor. I'd assume that The Incredible Hulk isn't officially licensed, but I suppose Ant-Man and Thor might also consult with the guys.

But just having Lee and Kirby appear, and revealing that Reed works with them on story ideas, isn't what pushes this over into the realm of postmodern narrative. The structure of the story itself does that.

You see, the story opens with four pages of crap. Yeah, you heard me. The first four pages are awful. Whether it's Johnny forgetting to flame off, even while he's taking note for Reed (with flame-free hands), the fact that the "nuclear lock mechanism" on their door jams, Reed having to restrain Johnny from burning through the lock because of "how sensitive the nuclear device is to heat," Johnny figuring out how to concentrate his flame so much that "it burns without heat," or any of the interactions the team has with the public on the next page as they rush to respond to Ben's Flaming Four Signal.

Although these social moments are interesting in that we get a glimpse of what life is like for the team – they're mobbed like celebrities and even accidentally cause car crashes and chaos.

And it was all just to get a look at Alicia's new dolls, based on FF villains.

We do get a brief moment of Reed trying to talk to Sue about her attraction to Namor. He thought they had "an understanding" and she doesn't want to talk about it since she's not sure of her feelings. Tough luck there, Reed.

But then we get the breath knocked out of us as the scene shifts to Lee and Kirby's studio and the narration tells us that what we've been reading is as far as they had gotten into the story before Doctor Doom showed up at the Marvel Offices! So the rug of reality has just been yanked from under our feet, dear readers.

What we'd been reading was the comic. The same comic that Johnny might read later. Now we're in the real world of the creative team. And just to make sure that we're completely discombobulated, it turns out that they're surprised to see Doom more for the fact that they thought he was dead in space. Like they wrote and drew in Fantastic Four #6.

My mind is officially blown.

Because here's the thing. Apparently, the comics we've been reading are not the Marvel Universe, but our Universe. The comics they read are the comics we read. The stories that Reed works out with Lee and Kirby are apparently versions of their reality, but not their reality. What we're reading is a comic book world that is one step removed from the reality of the characters we're reading about. In this narrative construct, the Fantastic Four live in New York, although you probably don't believe they're real (neither do some of New York's citizens in the comics), and co-create the comics we read about them, providing ideas for stories, some of which are, apparently, versions of "actual events" like the supposed death of Doctor Doom.

All this is making me want to go read Unstable Molecules again. You know, the 2004 Eisner Award winner by James Sturm and Guy Davis, about the "real life" inspirations for the characters in The Fantastic Four?

Oh yeah, the rest of this issue has Doctor Doom returning with some alien mind-swapping talent he learned from some egg-headed people who saved him and brought him home. He swaps bodies with Reed but his plans to kill the team don't work because he doesn't have Reed's heroic character.

It makes me wonder what the story would have been like if the "real" Doctor Doom were the one doing the licensing and co-plotting with our creative team.

Strange Tales #104
Plot: Stan Lee
Script: Larry Lieber
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inks: Dick Ayers
"The Human Torch Meets Paste Pot Pete!"

So my first reaction is, what the hell is a "Paste Pot"?

My second reaction is, is Paste Pot Pete gay?

I only ask that because when he's introduced, Lieber's script describes him as "flamboyant," which is sometimes a codeword for being homosexual. You know, Liberace wasn't gay, he was flamboyant.

Not that it makes a bit of difference one way or the other, really.

Anyway, from what I've been able to figure out, a "paste pot" was slang for the glue containers with the brush attached to the underside of the lid, commonly used in newspaper production for the cutting and pasting of sections of newsprint before sending the rough copy off for final typesetting and printing.

I think.

So that's probably the inspiration for this character: The art supplies sitting around the studio.

Not sure about the inspiration for that costume though. Is that a camouflage clown suit and a purple beret?

You know, he's flamboyant.

On the plus side, he's neither an alien nor a Communist (although he does try to steal a missile). This story is "notable" for one other moment, I suppose. In the final confrontation between the Torch and Paste Pot Pete, Pete is nearly out of paste, having only enough for one more shot, and Johnny apparently feels a surge of testosterone and becomes extremely threatening for a panel or two.

Almost like he's daring this flamboyant criminal to shoot that paste right into his face.

I'm just saying.

Moving on...

Tales to Astonish #39
Plot: Stan Lee
Script: Larry Lieber
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inks: Dick Ayers
"The Vengeance of the Scarlet Beetle!"

So the Scarlet Beetle is a regular beetle that was dosed with radiation, giving him human intelligence and cool glow. This glowing, super-smart (to other insects) bug decides that mankind has ruled this world as a stumbling, demented, child-king long enough! And as his empire crumbles, my precious Scarlet Beetle shall rise as his most fitting successor!

Waitaminute. Sorry. That's Vincent Price's monologue from Alice Cooper's song "Black Widow."

My bad.

But this is almost the same thing. Radioactive bug with human intelligence declares war on humanity and gets all the other bugs to help. Except for the ants, of course, who are loyal to their leader, Ant-Man. What? He's their leader this month instead of the allies they were last month?

All kidding aside, this isn't a bad Ant-Man adventure, even though it does include all the worst bits of what's come before: the Ant-Catapult, the pile of ants landing cushion, and best of all, the honey ants.

In an interesting twist, the Scarlet Beetle gets his hands, um, pincers (?) on Pym's size-change gas canisters, growing to the size of a human. Unfortunately for him, he's not much of a threat at any size once we get past his organizational skills, and tiny Pym is pretty easily able to get the giant bug shrunk back down to normal size.

There's also a nice bit at the end where Pym has clearly made the conscious decision to capture and "cure" the Beetle rather than just step on him and end his reign of terror quickly and efficiently. Philosophically this makes me wonder if this an example of Pym showing respect for all life (in general) or if it's a question of since the Beetle is intelligent and self-aware, killing him would be immoral?

It's an interesting question, but it doesn't really get a lot of attention.

We also finish the story on an odd note. Since the police never realized that Ant-Man was on the job, protecting the world and all that, the final panels of the story focus on police officers wondering if Ant-Man was afraid to do anything or possibly even in league with the insect attackers.

Very strange.

Hey look! Honey Ants!

The Incredible Hulk #5
Script: Stan Lee
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inks: Dick Ayers
"Beauty and the Beast!"
"The Incredible Hulk vs. The Hordes of General Fang!"

We once again get two stories for the price of one this month, although neither story is all that great.

What we do get, however, are a handful of little moments that work well enough as plot points and a passing comment that expands the Marvel Universe a little more.

I'll concentrate on the passing comment, since it's the most interesting. Our first story, "Beauty and the Beast," has absolutely nothing to do with the fairy tale story it references. Instead, an immortal fellow living underground captures Betty Ross to use as leverage to stop the army from fighting back when he moves to take over the surface world. The Hulk and Rick Jones follow them underground and put an end to his plans.

There's not much to it, but the villain, Tyrannus, has an intriguing origin story. It seems he was banished to the center of the earth centuries earlier by Merlin the Magician himself, and he's maintained his roguish good looks and youth by drinking from the Fountain of Youth. Yeah, that one.

This is another one of those probably off-hand lines that Lee threw in the script without thinking too much about it, but what it does is establish Merlin as an actual historical figure in the Marvel Universe. Sure, it doesn't rally make this story all that interesting, but it does provide a narrative hook for future ideas while providing the seed for adventures set in the mythic past. If Merlin was around, then who else might have been? King Arthur? Morganna? The possibilities unfold and expand the Marvel Universe in another very interesting way.

I like.

The second story is essentially more Hulk vs the Commies, but it has an interesting element that we haven't seen yet in the Marvel Universe. While most of the time we see either Soviet Communists or the South American variety, General Fang is Communist Chinese and he's moving his troops into Tibet (although it's not called Tibet specifically) to capture the holy city of Llhasa (which is the most holy city of Tibet).

Sure, in our world this happened quite a few years earlier, but apparently, in the MU, Tibet is still the home of the Dalai Lama and the people of Tibet are still a peaceful people looking to the outside world for support against the intrusion. What they get is the Hulk.

Last month, Lee and Kirby revamped the Hulk yet again, giving him Banner's intelligence but with the violent, brutish edge of the original, villainous Hulk. This month continues that characterization, as Hulk wants to do the right thing, but finds himself getting more and more pissed off at the rest of the world.

Sure, he saves Tibet (dressed as the Abominable Snowman for a portion of the conflict), but at the end of this adventure, and the conclusion of the battle with Tyrranus, he ends up threatening all of mankind.

It puts fans of the character into an odd situation. We want him to be heroic and we thrill to scenes of him battling evil armies and generally being a hero, but at the same time, it's as if the character himself doesn't buy into the role that Lee and Kirby are trying to force him.

Oh, and those cool little moments I mentioned? We see Hulk dolled up in gladiator gear for the first time ever this month as he is forced to fight in Tyrannus' gladiatorial arena. Hulk also plans on using mythology to scare the Chinese army by dressing as the Abominable Snowman. Yeah, it's silly, but he's thinking and planning. He also disguises himself in order to board a plane for the flight to China.

That one doesn't work out so well.

I'm really enjoying the Hulk as a huge bastard who's trying to be a good person angle. It's not going to last long, you can tell.

Journey Into Mystery #88
Plot: Stan Lee
Script: Larry Lieber
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inks: Dick Ayers
"The Vengeance of Loki!"

Is it just me or is this series much more interesting when Loki shows up?

But, to be clear, while it's interesting, there's still not a whole lot going on in the world of Thor. Which makes it cool that this time we spend a little more time in Asgard, following Loki around as he fumes and plots his revenge on his brother, the Thunder God.

Essentially, Loki has been grounded by his father, Odin, but figures a way to sneak out and cause some mischief. He figures out that if Thor doesn't have his hammer in his hand for 60 seconds, he changes back to Dr. Don Blake.

The most intriguing part of this is how Loki reacts when he witnesses Thor's transformation. He says that when Blake touches the hammer, he "changes back to his accursed true self!"

So if Thor is the true self, where does that leave the good doctor?

Also, this month, Nurse Jane gets a last name! That's Nurse Foster if you're nasty.

The characterization of Loki here is strange. For a God of Mischief, I suppose the things he does once Thor is temporarily out of the picture are genuinely mischievous. However, they're more like the mischief of a child than a character that is borderline Evil. I mean, turning cars in candy and ice cream? That's not evil. That's kind of great.

I guess the mischief comes later with all the tummy aches he causes.

Also, he seems to have a graphic artist's eye with his mischief. Last time it was turning people into negative exposures. This time he turns people into blanks – two dimensional outlines with no details. It's actually pretty freaking creepy, and we never see those people changed back, so hopefully that's just something that happened off-camera.

And one bit of mischief actually turns out to be a great, heroic moment. Some Commies are testing a powerful atomic bomb, but that wacky Loki turns it into a dud at the last moment. Now those Commie pilots have to go face Nikita as failures! Poor guys.

I have to admit, the plan to capture Thor's hammer in a force field, thus forcing the transformation back to Dr. Blake is a pretty good idea. However, Blake's plan to trick Loki into removing the force field is something that I would have thought of when I was in kindergarten. Use a mannequin to trick Loki into dispersing the force field to verify that the hammer is still there, then jump out from behind said mannequin and grab the hammer?

Now that I think about it, though, maybe that's kind of cool in its own way.

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