Saturday, January 1, 2011


  • Fantastic Four #8
  • Incredible Hulk #4
  • Journey Into Mystery #86
  • Strange Tales #102
  • Tales to Astonish #37

Fantastic Four #8
Writer: Stan Lee
Pencils: Jack Kirby
"Prisoners of The Puppet Master

This month we get a bit of a throwback to Ben Grimm's earlier characterization, as he gets pissed and storms out, apparently quitting the team. Of course, it doesn't last, but it's good to see that Lee and Kirby haven't forgotten that one of the things that made Ben so interesting was his psychological reaction to being the monster of the group, as well as his tenuous grip on his temper. For a few issues now, he's been a pretty confident and clear-thinking fellow, and, for me anyway, was beginning to lose what made him special.

You see, Reed's working on something secret and Sue and Johnny are trying to keep Ben from knowing what it is. This, of course, sets Ben off and after some roughhousing with The Torch, Reed breaks them up and Ben storms out. It's an effective reinforcement of Ben's mental issues, and provides a nice opportunity for the introduction of Alicia, the blind step-daughter of the FF's newest villain, The Puppet Master. And could she be a possible love-interest for Ben? Hmmmmm. Perhaps.

It probably doesn't hurt that she looks enough like Sue that with an FF costume and a wig, even Johnny and Reed mistake her for Sue.

The Puppet Master is an interesting villain, being able to carve little puppets out of radioactive clay which then allows him to control whomever the puppets are modeled after. As usual, he has dreams of world domination. Not quite as usual, his fantasies involve dissolving the U.N., feasting while world leaders serve as waiters, and making the Fantastic Four pull him around in a chariot. But, ultimately, he trips over Alicia and falls out of a window, apparently dying. But did he just fall, or did he fall because he dropped the puppet he carved of himself dressed as a king? Who cares, really?

The important thing is that Alicia likes Ben, even though he's a craggy rock monster. Sure, it's a bit of a cliche now, but we're talking about a comic aimed at children and written in 1962, about a man who's been on the edge of losing his mind to suicidal despair for quite a while now. So it doesn't bug me. Ben deserves some happiness and here it seems he might be due some.

But nothing's ever easy in the world of comic book soap operas, is it? That secret that Reed was working on? It's a formula that can change Ben back into a human form, for at least as long as he stays doused in the stuff. Once it dries off he changes back, but the rub is that Alicia kind of likes him better in his rocky form. I'm not sure what that says about Alicia's own psychological problems, but there you have it.

Ben can finally become a normal human again, at least for short, controlled times, just as he meets a hot girl who likes him better as a monster. Is this the comic book version of ladies getting interested in a guy as soon as he puts a ring on his finger?

The rest of the issue is made up of the Fantastic Four stopping a massive jailbreak, orchestrated by The Puppet Master. It's a big job and really requires a lot of work on the part of every member of the team, as one would expect. Interestingly enough, this isn't the only jailbreak this month. A very similar event occurs over in The Human Torch's solo adventure, but to far less interesting and responsible ends. But more on that in a bit.

This isn't a great issue of The Fantastic Four, but it does have a couple of big moments that will hopefully pay off down the line with more complex and interesting storylines. I like the way Lee and Kirby are planting narrative seeds as they go, and are allowing them to develop and return as plot twists and character moments months later. It gives The Fantastic Four a densely plotted feel, that helps deepen the experience of the developing Marvel Universe.

We've yet to see any characters crossing over into each other's titles, yet, though (aside from the appearance of an Incredible Hulk comic being read by Johnny a while back). I have a feeling that once that starts happening, all the disparate threads that are making up the Marvel Universe will start pulling tighter to, hopefully, create an even more satisfying reading experience. Of course, there's always the possibility that things will just get hopelessly convoluted and tedious, but I have faith.

It also doesn't hurt that there's really only one guy masterminding the building of the entire world. If there's going to be trouble, it will probably occur when more writers jump into the mix. The question is, how long can Stan Lee keep producing this much work on a monthly basis? I'm sure it helps that Kirby is essentially co-plotting everything so far. But the two of them can't keep this up forever.

The Incredible Hulk #4
Writer: Stan Lee
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inker: Dick Ayers
"The Monster and the Machine!"
"The Gladiator From Outer Space

We get two stories again this month, as Lee and Kirby finally hit on a version of The Hulk that I can fully get behind. The first story, "The Monster and the Machine!" is fairly light on plot, but what we get is another dramatic change in the Hulk's status quo. At the beginning of this story, we get a glimpse of a new government weapon designed to capture The Hulk, but it's kind of an aside, just letting us know that Thunderbolt Ross is still out there, still hunting him. The main thrust of this story is that, apparently, during his spare time, Dr. Bruce Banner built a machine designed to bombard him with a controlled dose of Gamma Radiation. The goal of this is to either cure him, or at least allow him some sort of control over the change.

Well, with Rick Jones at the controls, and not really knowing what he's doing, the Do-Good Robot version of Hulk gets strapped in and dosed. The dose is a little high, but it works. The Hulk transforms back into Banner, but it hits him pretty hard and he's too weak to walk, having to be pushed around in a wheelchair. But success is success, right?

Sort of.

Banner realizes that if he can tweak the machine a little more, then maybe he can have the best of both worlds: The Hulk's body and Banner's mind. And it works, too. Sort of.

He's smart, but he's a bit of a roughneck. In fact, Rick's immediately worried because while he seems to have Banner's mind, "he sounds fiercer -- crueler! He still seems -- dangerous!" And he is. But he definitely wants to do the right thing now, rather than conquer the world or kill Rick in cold blood, so surely it's a step up however you cut it.

But this is the Marvel Universe, after all, so things aren't fated to work out quite so simply. For some reason, people don't automatically embrace the gigantic, green monster who's saving them by doing massive property damage. Granted, when one is rescuing a family from a burning building, there's going to be property damage, but maybe ripping the entire side of the house off and tossing it into the distance is a little too aggressive. But then again, maybe not.

Anyway, after weeks of rampaging destruction, is it any wonder that the rescued family don't just automatically embrace the big bastard? Is it any wonder that the local deputy opens fire when he seems Hulk lurking around a destroyed house and screaming family? Not really.

On their way back to their hideout, Hulk bitches and gripes about people and is short-tempered with Rick, but doses himself with Gamma Radiation again to change back to Banner before going to sleep. Rick is pretty open with Banner about not really trusting him in his Hulk form, and while he doesn't come right out and say it, Banner's nervous too.

This is a twist I really like. Of course, I enjoyed the murderous monster Hulk, who was also intelligent enough to plan out his actions, just without any conscience. So Lee and Kirby have figured out a way to give us an intelligent Hulk, who's still aggressive and rough-edged, without the attempted murders every issue. He's still not a clear-cut Super Hero, but he at least wants to do good things now.

So, in the second story, what's the first official good thing he does? Fight Commies, of course. Commies disguised as an Alien Invasion. It's the best of both worlds!

Really it's not much of a plot either. Commies land, disguised as a giant alien named Mongu, who challenges Earth's mightiest warrior to meet him in the Grand Canyon to do battle for Earth. The newly smart Hulk charters a jet (???) and he and Rick zip out to face him. He reveals himself to be a Russian in an oversized suit, a bunch of soldiers swarm out of the ship and Hulk fights them. The end.

But it's not really the end. The story itself, again, is negligible, but it does a good job of reinforcing two things. First, even when The Hulk does a good thing, like defeat a Commie plot, the military and the media will come together to undermine it. Here, the papers announce the military's theory that Hulk was working with the Russians to manipulate the American people into thinking he was a hero. As usual in the Marvel Universe, the newspapers are more interested in printing hysterical propaganda and promoting the hunting down of super-powered beings, than in researching and printing the truth.

At least the publisher isn't a Commie in this comic.

The second point that this story drives home is that the process of turning Hulk back and forth from Banner is a dangerous one that is wearing on Banner's body. It looks like something bad is building up, and I'd be worried about the amount of Gamma radiation that Banner is exposing himself to. If he was getting a massive reading from Geiger Counters when he changed before, one can only imagine how radioactive he's becoming with each successive dose.

Journey Into Mystery #86
Plot: Stan Lee
Script: Larry Lieber
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inker: Dick Ayers
"On the Trail of The Tomorrow Man!"

How about this for a contrast. Over in Incredible Hulk, our hero is an immensely-powerful being who is being hunted by the military and treated like a monster. Here in Journey into Mystery, Thor, who is also an immensely-powerful being, is helping the military test their weapons of mass destruction while being admired by men and lusted over by women. Some guys have all the luck.

But that's not what I wanted to talk about. Not really.

What really catches my attention with this issue, is that for the first time since the Marvel Universe sprang into being, we get a glimpse of what the future holds, and for a world where paranoia and hostility is the norm, things look surprisingly good.

The future is a world of peace and contentment where war has been abolished, along with all weaponry. Now, while I'm sure that sounds nice to all you peaceniks out there, things aren't as peachy as they seem. This is three centuries from now, so perhaps there's some provision for the constant stream of alien invaders that we've seen so far, but nothing to curb the rise of just one evil genius. Zarrko is his name, and world domination is his game. But in a world of no weapons, what's a genocidal, megalomaniac to do?

Why, build a time machine, of course!

Once this is done, Zarrko travels back to 1962 and pilfers a Cobalt Bomb. Luckily, Thor was on the site, about to let the army set the bomb off right next to him in order to test "a human's physiological reactions" to the explosion. I'm not sure how Thor's reactions would actually compare to an ordinary human's, but I guess we'll just have to assume that the scientists have thought this through and don't just enjoy blowing things up. Although I'm sure that's part of it.

Anyway, the military figures out that Zarrko must have come from the future (in a pretty specious leap in reasoning, if you ask me), and Thor sets out to track him down and get the Cobalt Bomb back. With the help of Odin, he travels through time, does battle with giant robots, and ultimately gets the bomb back, but not before Zarrko, when confronted with a no-win situation decides that he's going to destroy the world rather than give up.

That's some hard-ass shit right there.

Anyway, there are a couple of very interesting elements to this story. Not only does this serve as a cautionary tale about the dangers of disarmament, we get another fairly straightforward example of how Time Travel works in the MU, only instead of going into the past (like in Fantastic Four #5) we get a taste of meddling with the future. If you remember, when the FF went looking for Blackbeard's treasure, it turned out that Blackbeard was Ben all along, and his treasure was actually captured by Ben and the boys (before being scattered across the bottom of the sea, of course).

The implication is, then, that the past is vaguely set, and attempts to go back and manipulate things end up being self-corrected. Of course, one experiment doesn't set this idea in stone, and it might very well change as the MU continues to develop, but from our fixed temporal position in "1962" it looks like the past is loosely set. But what about the future?

When Zarrko slips back in time to snatch the Cobalt Bomb, just like the FF were supposed to snatch Blackbeard's Treasure, he succeeds and, for a few months, at least, rules his time period with an iron hand. Until Thor shows up and sets things right, so to speak. In this case, it looks like Thor himself is the force of self-correction. Zarrko's attempt to manipulate time in order to upset the status quo becomes an aberration that in the process of correction nearly destroys the world.

Technically, Zarrko's snatching of the bomb has no real effect on the history of the world up until his own time, since he doesn't return to a vastly different world. When he gets home, the world is still weaponless and filled with extraordinarily passive people who, honestly, were just waiting to get stomped all over. So we're dealing with a single, continuous timeline rather than a branching one with alternate futures.

This is an interesting way to go, but kind of expected. It's the simplest approach to telling a time-travel story, and really just treats time as a physical dimension where items can be moved around without really effecting much. We'll have to see how long this can be maintained. It'll be interesting to see if there's any attempt to begin fitting new stories about the future into one timeline, or if Lee will be willing to introduce the idea of alternate timelines and parallel realities.

We've already gotten a glimpse of a world that exists outside of space and time, with the introduction of Asgard last issue, which brings me to another interesting point that is raised this month, this time with Thor's psychology. I've already talked at length about how Lee and Lieber have a complex mixture with Dr. Don Blake and Thor both co-existing in Thor's head, and with Thor occasionally slipping into Blake's head without a physical transformation taking place.

With the introduction of Asgard, Loki, Odin, and other Norse gods last issue, this got even more complicated as it firmly grounded the idea that Thor exists on his own as a separate entity from Blake. Therefore when Blake transforms, what we get is Blake's mind dominating, but Thor's mind influencing. Blake hasn't had any conscious knowledge of Thor's life, history, or relations, but intuits this information without overtly realizing it.

This time, though, Blake doesn't seem to be anywhere to be seen. And when Thor needs to travel to the future, the first thing he does is find a mountaintop and summon Odin to ask for permission and guidance. He refers to him plainly as his father and Odin asks him an interesting, if somewhat hypothetical question: "Hast thou forgotten, my son? Thy hammer has the power to spin faster than light -- to enter the fourth dimension of -- Time!"

Note that Odin speaks using archaic thees and thous. This is a clear deviation from the way Thor speaks, except for one instance; on the previous page, he calls on Odin for assistance in "the plight of thy eldest son." This formality didn't manifest during last issue's interactions with Loki and are an interesting verbal signal of increasing complexity in the relationship between Thor and Blake. In fact, Blake only turns up in the final panels this time around, and it's to provide an opportunity for Nurse Jane to compare Blake and Thor in her head, and for Blake to kind of condescendingly mock her in private.

I'm really liking the way these stories are unfolding. Thor's adventures are definitely my favorites so far, although the Fantastic Four are pretty consistently good, too. But when The Fantastic Four is bad, it's really bad.

Strange Tales #102
Plot: Stan Lee
Script: Larry Lieber
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inker: Dick Ayers
"Prisoner of the Wizard!"

This issue begins with a recap of The Human Torch's previous adventure, captured on camera and played at the theater as a newsreel. Even though there were clearly no cameras anywhere close to the action last time. Okay. It's a silly conceit, but I'll let it go, mainly because it helps to reinforce the idea of the Fantastic Four as celebrities, even when they are acting on their own.

Our villain this time out is only known as The Wizard, and he's armed with "the world's greatest brain!!" He's a genius inventor/chess master, who apparently thinks that after all of his accomplishments, the only challenge left for him is "to defeat The Human Torch!" No other reason than that, it seems. Somehow, outsmarting a teenager who can burst into flames will rank as his "ultimate achievement" rather than, oh, I don't know, curing some disease, or using his brains to help humanity.

There's not much to the story, really. The Wizard tricks Johnny into coming back to his house and asks him to pose for a picture. Hmmmmm. Nothing creepy about that. Luckily, The Wizard doesn't want to rape Johnny; he only wants to impersonate The Human Torch and ruin his reputation. That was a close one.

So we get another story where the citizenry and law enforcement fear and mistrust our hero. The Wizard robs a bank, busts a bunch of criminals out of prison, demands a toll in order to allow cars to cross a bridge, and in a throwback to the second issue of The Fantastic Four, melts a statue. The twist this time, he also sky writes, "Down with law and order" just in case anyone missed that "The Human Torch" has turned evil. Or maybe The Wizard built a satellite dish that catches TV broadcasts from the future and he hates legal dramas and/or Dick Wolf.

Yeah, that was pushing it, I know. But I'm trying to find something interesting to say about this story, so give me a break.

So yeah. All in all, this is a pretty slight story with at least one huge loose end. In the end, when Johnny tricks The Wizard into giving up the evidence that proves he was impersonating The Torch (for some reason he took pictures of himself getting into his Torch costume and flaming on), the police arrest him, but there's nothing at all about all those convicts that escaped earlier. It kind of makes me wonder if there's supposed to be some sort of implied connection between this adventure and The Fantastic Four story this month.

Clearly this is a different jailbreak, but the Johnny Storm of this comic is also a vaguely different character from the one in The Fantastic Four every month. I suppose an argument could be made that this is some sort of Pocket Universe, existing alongside the regular Marvel Universe, linked in major ways, but operating independently and with looser editorial controls. Or it could just be sloppy and poorly thought out. I can't decide.

On a more interesting note, however, I was just joking earlier about the child molester vibe that The Wizard was giving off, but the more I think about it, the more creepy it really is. The way Kirby draws The Torch, it's fairly clear that he's not an adult, and The Wizard's preoccupation with convincing him to come visit him at his extravagant bachelor pad is decidedly strange. As is the emphasis on taking The Torch's photo and then spraying him in the face with a strange chemical substance. There's also an element of fetishism to the way The Wizard has photos of himself in compromising positions that lead to his downfall.

I'm not saying that The Wizard is a pedophile. I'm just saying it's a strange subtext.

The Marvel Universe is a creepy place. Especially with the way Kirby is designing the looks of the villains. The Wizard is a seriously disturbed-looking gent.

Tales To Astonish #37
Plot: Stan Lee
Script: Larry Lieber
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inker: Dick Ayers
"Trapped By the Protector!"

Well this is just awful; easily the worst Marvel book I've read so far during this project.

What, you want more info? Okay. The Protector is a huge guy running a protection racket on all the jewelers in town. He's big, he's strong, and he's got a big disintegrator gun. Except he's not really big, he's not really strong, and the gun doesn't really disintegrate anything. But more on that in a minute.

Ant-Man is just a dumb concept. There's absolutely no reason for him to shrink in this entire story, and he only puts himself at a disadvantage when he does. Last time out, I commented on what a stupid idea his catapult was, and this time we get actual proof that it's an idea that needs rethinking.

The fact that he's relying on frighteningly large piles of ants to cushion his landings is not only unreliable, but damned inconsiderate. The first time he uses the catapult this time, the mound of ants that he lands on is grotesquely huge that anyone seeing it would be horrified. It's easily a couple of feet deep and amassed on the awning of The Protector's latest victim. And not only that, in order to get there in time to save him, the ants swarm across town, past apartment windows and up and over cars (rather than under them), in a massive insectoid stream that makes me squirm and itch just looking at them.

The second time Ant-Man uses his catapult, his target street is too crowded with people, so he can't hit his ant hill. Instead he has to look for an alternate landing spot at the last minute. Luckily there's an empty baby carriage handy that he's able to target, and from there he hops down into the pants cuff of a random gentleman who just happens to be leaning casually next to the empty baby carriage. Why there's a guy loitering next to an empty baby carriage on a crowded city street, I don't know. I have a feeling Lee and Lieber don't know either.

Because Ant-Man is a tiny superhero, The Protector is then able to thwart him with a squirt gun. A squirt gun that he steals from a passing child. A child's toy almost defeats our hero, washing him into the sewers. Well, he would have ended up in the sewers if it weren't for the fast action of his ant slaves, who are able to maneuver a lollipop stick across the sewer grate, allowing Ant-Man to catch himself.

Which is a much better plan than just growing back to human-sized, right?

In order to find out more about The Protector, Ant-Man's next move is to rent a jewelry store, get threatened, and then have his ants follow The Protector back to his headquarters: a vacant old tenement building. And when Ant-Man arrives, The Protector vacuums him up with an ordinary, everyday vacuum cleaner, trapping him in the vacuum cleaner bag.


Luckily, The Protector doesn't know that Ant-Man is as STRONG AS AN ORDINARY SCIENTIST! When his back is turned, Ant-Man punches a hole in the bag and escapes. Yes. He is strong enough to punch a hole in a paper bag! He then turns on a fan, blowing the dust and dirt from the torn bag into The Protector's eyes, blinding him until the police arrive.

And then, like an episode of Scooby Doo, The Protector is revealed to be jeweler who was robbed in the beginning, only instead of being small and feeble, he's wearing "platform shoes and mechanically controlled rods and springs," allowing him "to perform feats of strength!" And his disintegrator gun? It just shoots a cloud of smoke, and while nobody's looking he grabs the jewels and replaces them with sand.


Even though we see a half-disintegrated jewelry case earlier in the story.

This story is just insultingly dumb. If the Ant-Man adventures don't get better soon, I'll be tempted to just list them here without really discussing them. Not only are the stories simplistic and utterly ridiculous, they're just not very well thought out. For example, why does Ant-Man need to ride away at the end on the back of an ant? That's stupid. Not only will it take forever for him to get anywhere, but he's riding off into a crowded street. He could be stepped on and killed at any moment. It's reckless and idiotic. I thought he was supposed to be smart.

But I guess that's what you get when you super power is to make yourself very, very small. It's a crap power and Ant-Man is a crap hero.

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