Tag Archives: comics

[June 7, 1962] Third-rate (the State of Marvel Comics)

[Famed comics expert Jason Sacks returns with a not-unmixed appraisal of the current state of Marvel Comics – in particular, evaluating the raft of new heroes they’ve unleashed on the universe.

Jason is not a man to mince words, you’ll see…]


by Jason Sacks

Tiny Marvel Comics is at it again. Less than a year after comics’ shoestring publisher launched the rough-and-tumble Fantastic Four, Marvel has expanded their offering of new action heroes. In fact, when I visited Spencer’s Drugs in beautiful Snohomish, Washington this Tuesday, I found three premiering costumed characters with adventures to consume. I’m happy to say these offerings are more entertaining than Archie Comics’s dull Adventures of the Fly and Adventures of the Jaguar, but they are nowhere near as entertaining as most of the comics published by National.

If you remember from my last visit to Galactic Journeys, I described how Marvel is an upstart company, mostly presenting giant monster comics for bratty young children while their larger counterparts National and Dell dominate in terms of both sales and quality. A longstanding rumor has it that Marvel is even distributed by the same company that has partial ownership of National, and that parent company limits editor Stan Lee’s small enterprise to no more than eight titles per month.

Heretofore, most of Marvel’s male-oriented offerings have been either of the giant monster or cowboy variety. For example, the May number of Tales to Astonish offered A Monster at My Window – a giant-headed green monstrosity instead of a Peeping Tom – while the same month’s Strange Tales offered an orange variation of the same idea called Mister Morgan’s Monster. Meanwhile, Rawhide Kid and Gunsmoke Western offer adventures similar to Maverick or The Rifleman.

After a rocky first few issues, in which scientific concepts were handled in haphazard manners and artwork by Jack Kirby was loose and awkward, Marvel’s Fantastic Four seems to have settled into a pleasantly fun beat. In the February issue, Lee and Kirby revived the classic Sub-Mariner, last seen about five years ago in a short-lived revival of his classic comic from the 1940s. The new yarn presented a delightful revival of the Sub-Mariner/Human Torch battles from the pages of the happily-remembered Marvel Mystery Comics. In FF #4, the hep, young Human Torch finds a down-and-out Sub-Mariner living on skid row. That then triggers a delightful epic tale in which Lee and Kirby return the former king to Atlantis, where he is reunited with his subjects. Namor also falls in love with Sue Storm, the distaff member of the Fantastic Four. Though he is defeated quickly, the revived Sub-Mariner seems an ideal adversary for the Fantastics.

That is, if the new villain Doctor Doom, who premiered in the April issue #5, doesn’t take that role first. This man in the iron mask has a connection with Mr. Fantastic, the leader and scientific genius of the Fantastic Four, and their relationship gives the story much of its fuel.

If Marvel gives the rest of their books this level of care and attention, they may be able to carve out a small niche on the stands next to the super-popular Dell and National lines. My spies at the circulation houses tell me that many Dell Comics, as well as National’s Superman line, often sell over a million copies per month while Marvel’s line sells barely a quarter of them. If Dell is Coca-Cola and National is Pepsi, then Marvel is more like Royal Crown Cola, a pleasant flavor that barely registers on most peoples’ attention spans.

As I mentioned, three new costumed characters premiere this week from Marvel. Amazing Fantasy #15 debuts Spider Man, while Tales to Astonish #35 marks The Return of the Ant Man! and Journey Into Mystery #83 presents a bold take on the Norse God Thor.

One has to wonder why the obsession at Marvel with many-legged creepy crawlies. Does Archie’s The Fly sell so well that Marvel feels the need to jump into the marketplace for heroes based on multi-legged critters? People, especially girls, hate spiders, so why would anybody would want to read the adventures of a spider man. My sister is terrified of spiders so whenever one of those eight-legged monstrosities ends up behind the icebox, my father always has to kill it. Why would my sister or anybody else want to read the story of a boy with spider powers?

Especially when that boy, Peter Parker by name, is such a nebbish? As Lee and artist Steve Ditko portray Parker in his debut, the boy is a bespectacled scientific genius, hated by his fellow high school classmates and living a cloistered life with his elderly aunt and uncle. Though he attends a public school, young Parker wears a suit and tie and attends a giant scientific exhibit of radio-activity, at which he is bitten by a radioactive spider. You have to give Lee credit for smartly using the scourge of our time to create the background for this hero.

Unfortunately, Lee then takes his debuting hero down a low road when he becomes – of all things – a pro wrestler. Parker puts on a mask and confuses an almost mindless pugilist. This shows the depravity and low levels that Lee is willing to put his characters through. Rather than having his hero nobly take up the hero’s game, as would happen in a DC Comic, Lee has Peter Parker don an absurd red and blue costume (with a full head-cowl – nobody loves full head cowls) and fully embrace a career as a wrestler.
Tragically, Parker’s greed gets the best of him, as his Uncle is killed by a robber who he easily could have stopped. After a quick battle, the hero discovers his failure, and this first appearance ends on a depressing down note.

This blatant rip off of Batman’s origin is the icing on the cake of this lame and frustrating story. There are many markers here that this Spider Man will never take off as a hero, from this unappealing civilian character, drawn by S. Ditko as a complete loser, to the unappealing storyline around professional wrestling, to the awful costume and the lack of a good villain. Any attentive observer of comic books has to question why Lee and Ditko believed this character would have (eight) legs that would stick to readers’ hearts.

Even the comic he appears in shows that Marvel understands Spider Man is a loser: this comic was titled Amazing Adult Fantasy for its previous several issues and presented fantasy tales slightly better than Marvel’s normal pablum. This month, Marvel removed Adult from the title in a tacit implication that these stories are for kids only. Next time they can remove the word Amazing as well. Give me an issue of National’s Challengers of the Unknown or Sea Devils over this pap any day.

Also appearing this month is another hero inspired by creepy-crawlies. This hero, who Marvel hopes will attract a buzz, is Ant-Man. (Incidentally, recent Marvels have also featured a giant scorpion and the story The Man in the Bee-Hive; has editor Lee been studying for an insect-keeping examination?)

Though ants are loved even less than spiders, at least the origin of Ant-Man makes more sense than the Spider Man story. As presented in Tales to Astonish #35, Ant-Man is simply a scientist who discovers a special formula to shrink himself, which triggers an adventure that could have come from the outstanding 1950s flick The Incredible Shrinking Man.

See, scientist Henry Pym has developed both a shrinking formula and an anti-radiation formula. The Commies thus want to kidnap Pym to gain his knowledge of the anti-rad ability so they can safely launch a nuclear war. Pym fights back, donning a flashy red suit as the Ant-Man. Of course he defeats the baddies in the end. The story has some effective scenes – there’s a great moment in which stinger ants crawl up a commie’s leg and defeat him – but this story is only marginally more successful than the one introducing Spider Man. At least it stars a more conventional leading character, since a brilliant scientist is inherently much more interesting than a sad teenager who dresses as a spider. In any event, this Ant-Man is much less interesting than the brilliant Atom (one of Julius Schwartz’s proud publications) at National Comics – and his name is silly, too.

Thor, premiering in Journey into Mystery #83, is the best of these three premiering heroes, but that’s like comparing a Perry Como song to a Bobby Vinton song. I’d rather be listening to The Loco-Motion and reading National Comics than Vinton and Marvel, but when you have to listen to music, Vinton will do.

Marvel’s reborn Thor is the Norse god reborn in the body of frail doctor Donald Blake, “helpless without his cane”, who journeys to Norway for unknown reasons and becomes enmeshed in a battle with the rocky green Stone Men from Saturn. The Stone Men resemble the statues from Easter Island and are the same old hokey Marvel monsters, but this new hero seems like he could be an up-and-comer.  The uncredited artist – who seems to be the same man who drew the adventures of Ant-Man – delivers a dynamic tale that uses storytelling that’s different from the clean lines I’m used to seeing in the pages of The Flash or Green Lantern. The approach is bold and intense, with frequent use of blackout panels.

Of course, the storyline with the stone men from Saturn is a typically rotten Marvel storyline, still another kiddie kreation of giant monsters battling to destroy the Earth. This terribly cliched plot would have fit comfortably in previous issues of Journey into Mystery. Hopefully Marvel will bring the whole background of Norse mythology into this comic and allow readers the chance to see Loki, Odin and the amazing Asgard. Hopefully, too, Marvel will rectify their coloring mistake and color Thor’s hair red, as it should be.

Mark my words: June 5, 1962, will be a date that is quickly forgotten when someone one day writes the history of comic books in America. Thor might be remembered by a few, but you can bet your bottom dollar that this Spider Man will be quickly forgotten. Thankfully I was able to pick up this month’s issue of The Flash this week to wash the awful taste out of my mouth.

[Mar. 14, 1962] State of the Art (Marvel Comics: May 1962)


by Gideon Marcus

With just three weeks to go before I attend the comics-themed science fiction convention in the Los Angeles area known as “Wonder Con,” I think it’s high time for an update on what’s going on in the world of Marvel Comics.  As I related earlier, Marvel (formerly Atlas) seems bent on rebuilding a stable of superheroes to complement their line-up of Westerns and Model mags. 

Last year saw the introduction of the Fantastic Four, which is now up to issue #4.  More on them later.  This month, the new superbeing is The Incredible Hulk.  I hesitate to use the word “hero” since The Hulk doesn’t seem to be a good character, at least, not yet.

Dr. Bruce Banner is a brilliant physicist, in charge of development of the “G Bomb.”  This device doesn’t seem to do much expect shoot out a burst of gamma rays.  In the Marvel universe, this appears to cause unpredictable (but non-deadly) instant mutations. 

As the countdown for the first test approaches, a young man drives out onto the test grounds.  Banner, a man of conscience, races out to help him.  The doctor’s treacherous assistant, a Soviet spy, activates the bomb anyway, and Banner takes the full brunt of the blast.

This turns Banner, at least temporarily, into a Mr. Hyde-type character.  He is possessed of incredible strength and an implacable desire to destroy.  The Hulk (so named by a terrified soldier) still retains some human intellect, but he does not know that he was originally a human scientist.

It turns out that Banner’s transformation is tied to the day/night cycle.  As the sun dawns, The Hulk reverts to his original form.  For at least twelve hours a day (more, at the poles!) Banner is himself.

Of course, no supercreature exists in a vacuum.  There is a fundamental corollary of Newton’s 3rd Law in the comics universe.  The Hulk’s nemesis is a deformed Communist supergenius: The Gargoyle!

There’s not much of a fight here.  Gargoyle incapacitates The Hulk and his sidekick (the rescued youth)

But in the flight back to Russia, the gray beast becomes Banner again.  The scientist uses his terrific brain to revert the Gargoyle, who was created with radiation, too, to human form.  This robs him of his superpowers, but lets him die… a man!

I leave it as an exercise for the reader whether it is better to be ugly and gifted or comely and unremarkable.

Inside this issue of The Hulk, there was an ad for two other Marvel mags.  They just happen to ones I’m already inclined to pick up, so I’ll give you a peek in them, too:


“The Magazine that Respects your Intelligence” and “The one that doesn’t!”

Marvel goes in for anthology mags.  Amazing Adult Fantasy is essentially watered-down The Twilight Zone.

For instance, the self-aware vignette about the fellow who gets taken to Mars and ends up in a zoo (like that The Twilight Zone episode with Roddy McDowell, q.v.).

Or jokey bit about how Stan and Steve come up with ideas…

Or the one about the Castro lookalike who is killed by the plague after shooting down the American plane that was coming to (not) Cuba with the cure…

Or the title piece about the fellow who breaks the time barrier and comes back to a frozen Earth…

You decide whether or not these stories respect your intelligence.

Over in Fantastic Four, The Torch has a tiff and leaves the group.  Collateral damage ensues:

That’s just the B plot.  The A plot introduces a new supervillain, though he doesn’t seem all bad.  It is Namor, the Sub-Mariner, who first appeared back in a Marvel predecessor mag back in 1939!  He has lost his memories and is residing in a skid-row rehabilitation house.  But the Forceful Four coax his memories back, and the Lord of Liquid vows revenge for humanity’s ravaging of the seas.

But first, he takes a detour down Lovers’ Lane…


Honestly, I think she’s better off than with Reed, destroyer of motorcycles, diminisher of women.

Can Namor be defeated?  Do we even want him to be?  You’ll just have to read the magazine and find out!  It’s probably worth your time just for all the beefcake (fishcake?) this issue features…

See you in the funny papers!

[Nov. 28, 1961] Friendly Competition (The Case for National Comics)

Erica Frank and I have both extolled the virtues of superhero comics; I pumped Marvel while she was a National fan.  Now, famed comics expert Jason Sacks weighs in, mostly to tell us that Erica’s taste is far better than mine.  He’s probably right…


by Jason Sacks

Several weeks ago, the Traveler posted a short, mostly complimentary review of the new Marvel Comic The Fantastic Four. He liked the comic’s heady mix of fact and science fiction, as well as its inclusion of a female character in its cast.

That review troubled me because it praises material I consider to be second rate. Marvel is, unfortunately, a schlock-house. Several years ago Marvel specialized in Twilight Zone-style twist-in-the-tail yarns (which the Traveler discussed in 1959). Recently, though, Marvel’s output has descended into juvie monster stories. The Fantastic Four #1 is not much more than a full-length version of those same moribund tales with the addition of derivative super-powers. The ugly art from Jack Kirby only makes things worse. He should go back to drawing love comics and leave heroes alone. I can confidently say Jack Kirby has no future in costumed-hero comics.

A look of the covers of any month’s releases from this second-rate publisher proves this point.  The enormous monster on the cover of The Fantastic Four#1 is similar to the titanic creature featured in nearly every other Marvel book released recently. The outrageous Monsteroso from the October Amazing Adventures #5, the Mohawked Brutto in the October Tales of Suspense #22, and the ridiculous green giant Fin Fang Foom in that same month’s Strange Tales #89 all fit the same general template.


the Marvel monster who wears shorts!

These Marvel creatures are all bites from the same rancid apple. They represent a juvenile collection of clichés and ridiculousness barely suited for even the most dilapidated drive-in.

Conversely, industry leader National Comics is delivering truly outstanding science fiction comics. In comics like The Flash, Green Lantern and the new Atom a team of talented creators deliver tales that combine fiction and fact in ways that should make people like John W. Campbell smile.

I beg a little indulgence as I tell you about the fascinating Mr. Julius Schwartz, the editor of those comics. Schwartz is one of the leading lights of older style science fiction fandom and pro-dom. In fact, he was a pioneering fan. With Forrest J. Ackerman and Mortimer Weisinger (himself an editor at National, on the Superman titles), Schwartz co-published one of the first “fanzines,” The Time Traveler, in 1932. That mimeographed masterpiece caught the eyes of fans and pros alike. In it, the writers and editors praised the writing of many of the greatest writers of the field while also presenting fiction by aspiring pros.

A rare copy of the fanzine that started the career of the brilliant Mr. Schwartz, Time Traveler. Note future National Comics editor Mortimer Weisinger is also listed on the masthead, as is the famous “pro-fan” Forrest J. Ackerman.

That ‘zine caused a small sensation among fans and professionals. It led to all three men moving into the field full time. Schwartz opened the Solar Sales Service agency, where he represented writers such as Howard Philips Lovecraft, Alfred Bester and Ray Bradbury. After a decade as an agent, the owners of All-American Comics tapped Schwartz to join their staff as an editor on their line of super-heroes including Green Lantern, Dr. Mid-Nite, Hawkman and The Flash. As he gained experience at All-American, and as AA merged with National Comics, Schwartz moved into science fiction comics. He established himself there as a notable editor on such brilliant sci-fi titles as Strange Adventures and Mystery in Space. Those latter two series were perhaps the finest sci-fi comics published since the amazing E.C. Comics disappeared in 1954.

Schwartz brings his same passion for science fiction to his editing of super-hero comics. He also evokes fond memories for longtime fans. The great editor mines for creative gold in places that revive memories of the past while evoking the jet age in which we live. He has set to work reviving the names of some of the members of the much beloved Justice Society of America (moribund since 1951). As part of that effort, our man Schwartz has delivered to readers sleek new versions of such revered names as the Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, and (his latest revival) The Atom.

On “The Atom”, Schwartz collaborates with writer Gardner Fox (a veteran of such magazines as Amazing Stories and Weird Tales) and artist Gil Kane. The background of our new hero has a solid foundation in the same sorts of ideas you might discover each month in the pages of Worlds of If.

The Atom is scientist Ray Palmer (named after the editor of such notable publications as Amazing Stories, Imagination and Other Worlds). He is a researcher at Ivy University investigating matter compression as a means for fighting overpopulation. Palmer has a breakthrough and finds he is able to shrink matter. In typical style, when he sets aside his research to indulge in a little fun, Palmer finds himself in an emergency. To save himself and his girlfriend, Palmer uses the shrinking ability and discovers he has amazing abilities. I anxiously await the second part of Palmer’s saga next month in Showcase #35.

Ray Palmer represents the destiny of America as an outgrowth of scientific discovery. Green Lantern represents our aspirations in space. As President Kennedy reminds us, America will be going to the moon and beyond in the next century. If that is true, I want our astronauts to be like Hal Jordan. He is a test pilot who has no fear. Jordan is ready to battle whatever evil comes his way – even in the far future.

In his September/October issue number 8, Jordan travels into the 58th century. The residents of that long-away century draft Jordan to become the leader of their great society.


Green Lantern travels into the far future to fight these surprising beasts

In fact, Green Lantern is already a member of another great society. Hal discovered in Green Lantern #6 (May/June 1961) that he is the member of a kind of extraterrestrial police force led by a group calling themselves the Guardians of the Universe. That idea seems ripped right from the pages of many classic pulp magazines, but with a modern twist. With sleek art by Kane, this series has rocketed to the top of many fans’ reading lists.

While The Atom and Green Lantern present some of the smartest sci-fi action comics of all time, Schwartz’s crown jewel has to be The Flash.

This new Flash takes his cue from the much-beloved 1940s Flash. As with Green Lantern, however, this is a modern Flash tailored for Baby Boom readers. The new Flash is crewcut cop Barry Allen, who donned a sleek red suit to become the fastest man alive. Since moving into his own solo comic in 1959, The Flash has presented some delightful science-oriented tales. That has included clever descriptions of friction, atomic cohesion and even the theory of continental drift. Each of these adventures have been drawn by Carmine Infantino, a brilliant cartoonist uniquely equipped to deliver sleek, delightful line work.


The cover to the brilliant “Flash of Two Worlds”

The story par excellence, the chapter that shows Schwartz’s incomparable intelligence, is The Flash #123, the September 1961 issue. That month, the creative team pulled off an idea I never expected to witness: the chance to see Barry Allen and Jay Garrick racing alongside each other. Though Barry imagined the original Flash was just comic book star, he actually was able to meet his idol.

How did Barry manage that amazing trick?

Through one of the cleverest ideas I’ve ever come across: parallel worlds.


an explanation of parallel worlds

Parallel worlds! What a clever concept. This idea is a brilliant revelation for a reader such as me. Imagine a counterpart of yourself, the same but deeply different, existing in a dimension vibrating at a different frequency from ours. Imagine how their experiences would vary from yours, and how their world might contain subtle changes.

This clever, innovative idea struck me like a revelation. For us long-time readers of comics this seems a clear signal that the revival of the august Justice Society of America may be coming soon. That means we could witness Green Lantern and the Atom meet their counterparts. It also means the possible resurrections of classic heroes in new guises. If the Atom can be revived, how long will it be before we see Black Canary, Dr. Fate, even The Spectre?


Left to right, Mr. Schwartz, writer Otto Binder and editor Raymond Palmer.

Yes, my friend the Traveler can celebrate that badly drawn kid stuff over at tiny, decrepit Marvel. National Comics is the place to find brilliant science fiction in comic book form. Drop your dime for some of the comics edited by Julius Schwartz and tell me if you don’t agree.

[November 24, 1961] In Brightest Day, In Blackest Night (Alter Ego Fanzine #3; Fall 1961)

Here’s a treat!  Our Copy Editor, Erica Frank, is not only a demon at formatting manuscripts, but she is also an avid follower of our rich fan culture.  She now takes up the quill for her first article for The Journey – I think you will be as glad that she did so as I am…


by Erica Frank

For some reason, comic books often aren’t considered science fiction, even though they’re full of aliens, time travel, futuristic weapons, genetic mutations, and villains with the goals and technology to destroy the planet, who have to be thwarted by heroes with fantastic powers and specialized training. There is no Hugo award for comic books, and comic book authors and artists are not usually asked to be guests at science fiction conventions. Many people, however, consider comics a perfectly valid medium for fantastic stories that touch on universal themes.

Around every medium of science fiction/fantasy, you’ve got Fanzines.  Fanzines are amateur magazines published to discuss those stories and themes; they are generally available for the cost of postage and sometimes a small charge to cover printing. You’ve probably heard of or even read a few sf zines, but did you know that comics also have zines?  Now you do…and many of them are well worth keeping an eye on.

For instance, Alter Ego, a new comics-themed fanzine, got its start earlier this year; it’s now on its third issue. Jerry Bails, the main editor, noted in the first issue that publication was likely to be irregular. As is the case with many amateur publications, production may slow down after the initial rush of enthusiasm fades. Currently, it has a mimeographed print run of over 300, and is available for 50 cents in coins or stamps, with unfolded “collector” copies available for a few cents more to cover the cost of the special envelope.

Issue 3 focuses on Green Lantern, a superhero of National Comics fame, with a couple of side articles and the obligatory letters column. Like many classic characters, he had a heyday in the 1940s, disappeared, and returned to print recently.  Alter Ego #3 includes a retelling of Green Lantern’s origin story by George Paul and two related articles from different authors; they discuss the history of the original Green Lantern from the 40s and what’s similar and different in the modern version. The issue also includes a parody comic, Bestest League of America, and an overview of the mid-40’s cinematic adventures of Captain America, which I may cover in a later column.

The original Green Lantern’s power came from his ring, which was powered in turn by a lantern fashioned from a strange green metal, formed from the remains of a meteor which crashed to earth in China. Astute readers will recognize this a rather clichéd way of indicating “exotic, untraceable origin” – because it was expected that none of the comic’s readers would have any relatives in or from China, who might wonder exactly when and where such a meteor supposedly fell.

By means of many years of handwaved history, it eventually found its way into the hands of Alan Scott, a railroad engineer in the United States, who made a ring from part of the metal. Touching the ring to the lantern activated it for 24 hours, making him “immune to metal” (presumably, that means “from damage caused by,” rather than “unable to touch”) and able to fly at “the speed of light” and walk through walls. Alan then acquired a costume with a mask and cape, which is the sartorial trend of super-beings in comic books, and devoted his life to fighting crime and dispensing justice.

Green Lantern’s oath to his ring is perhaps as famous as his costume and history:

“In brightest day, in blackest night, No evil shall escape my sight.  Let those who worship evil’s might Beware my power–Green Lantern’s light!”

The first article, And then there was light—the light of the Green Lantern, is by the editor of the fanzine, J.G. Bails. He points out that the 40s version of GL had a “magic lamp,” with many obvious similarities between him and the traditional Arabian story of Aladdin. Presumably, modern children are more interested in scientific terminology than fantasy themes, so the lantern is now a “power battery.” The original GL was more powerful, melting bullets in mid-flight, but was vulnerable to certain tricks based on metals. The new lantern, by comparison, has a sharp limitation: its powers do not work on anything yellow, a nonsensical feature that is sure to be exploited by many super-villains while being ignored in more mundane encounters.

Bails goes on to discuss GL’s first appearance in 1940 and charter membership in the Justice Society, and considers whether other, less-prominent heroes would’ve been just as popular if they had gotten the same front-page editorial support. M. C. Gaines, Sheldon Mayer, and Whitney Ellsworth of DC Comics all had a hand in making Green Lantern one of the most well-known comic book heroes, along with Martin Nodell’s art and Bill Finger’s writing. Bails gives a solid history of the character and the people who’ve helped bring him to life.

The next article, New Lamps for Old by Roy Thomas, goes into more detail about the differences between original and new Green Lantern. He speaks, or rather writes, with a bit more inflection. Some words underlined for emphasis, and his love for the character is obvious – along with his disappointment at many of the changes.

The character’s had a complete overhaul recently. He is no longer an engineer but a pilot, Hal Jordan, who was given the lantern by a dying alien. (China is apparently not distant enough anymore, with movies like this month’s Flower Drum Song making it clear that the “exotic east” is peopled by, well, people, not mystical sorcerers armed with prophecies and meteor metal.) Our GL is no longer the only fellow with a power ring; he’s now part of an interstellar “Green Lantern Corps,” many of whom are not remotely human-like. They function as a kind of “interplanetary United Nations” and patrol the galaxy with their don’t-call-it-magic green light powers.

The villains and sidekicks have also gotten an overhaul; many old favorites are gone. Thomas misses them but is intrigued by the newer Sinestro, a former Green Lantern (of the new variety) gone bad. He wraps up the article with an upbeat tone; he’s happy to await what the future will bring.

Alter Ego makes it clear that comic books, just like Astounding, Galaxy and the other mags, can contain rich storylines and complex characters. And just like any other science fiction literature, comics occasionally fall back on cheap gimmicks or stereotypes in the interest of telling an exciting story on a deadline. The critical analysis and review in comics fanzines can help mature readers spot the clichés while they share their enjoyment of the iconic characters and dramatic stories.

[Oct. 7, 1961] That’s Super!  (Marvel Comics’ The Fantastic Four)


by Gideon Marcus

There’s no question that we are in the Space Age.  Our headlines are dominated with space flights, the movies feature missions to the Moon and invaders from other planets, and our comic books incorporate the very latest scientific discoveries delivered from beyond our planet.

Not that comics employ the most rigorous application of science, but it’s the thought that counts.  If you follow my column, you know that I am an unabashed fan of these junior pulps.  Call me a kid if you like, but I dig these mags.  The Westerns, the romances, the science fiction anthologies.

But what I fondly remember from the War Days are the superhero comics.  Though Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman are still around, it seems caped crusaders have fallen out of vogue with the populace.

Until now…

The other day at the local newsstand, a new comic book caught my eye.  It was a brand new one from Marvel Comics, the spiritual successors of Atlas Comics, which went under late last decade.  Called The Fantastic Four, and brought to us by the creator of Captain America (Jack Kirby), it features the first superheroes I’ve seen in a long time – four, in fact!  We are introduced to the quartet in media res on their way to answer a call to assembly: Sue Storm, who can turn invisible at will; her brother, Johnny Storm, who bursts into flame and can fly; Ben Grimm, a hulking, orange rocky beast; and Dr. Reed Richards, who possesses the power of extreme elasticity.

Whatever crisis they may be meeting to fight, it’s hard to imagine anything more destructive than this team, which manages to demolish just about everything in their way!  Once they are all together, we are treated to an expository interlude in which we learn how these four formerly normal humans became super.  They had been an ordinary set of astronauts out on an investigatory mission into orbit.  There, the savage radiation of the Van Allen Belts suffused their bodies, altering them irrevocably.  Upon their return to Earth, their powers manifested. 

They quickly determined that they must use their powers only for good (the above-described collateral damage notwithstanding).  Each chooses names appropriate to their talents – Sue becomes “The Invisible Girl,” Johnny dubs himself “The Human Torch,” Ben ruefully takes on the moniker of The Thing… and Reed Richards, for no apparent reason other than his expanded ego, chooses “Mr. Fantastic.” 

The story proceeds from there, introducing the Fantastic Four’s first villain: the Mole Man.  This sinister subterranean has developed complete control over the beasts beneath the Earth as well as a suite of advanced technologies; these allow him to terrorize almost any point on the globe with impunity – at least until the Fantastic Four arrived to put paid to the menace.

I note several points of interest.  First, the featuring of the deadly belts of radiation girdling the globe, which are quite real (though they likely won’t have quite the same effects on humans as shown in the comic).  Second, I was happy to see a woman member of the team.  Of course, her talent is already shared by most of her gender – that of being invisible.  On the other hand, it’s nice to see a female character who, by definition, cannot be objectified for her appearance!  Third, I liked the rationale for the Mole Man’s powers – plunged into the lightlessness of the Earth’s interior, he developed acute senses to replace his vision, much like the cave-dwelling humans of Daniel Galouye’s recent book, Dark Universe.

The Fantastic Four #1 is not great art by any means, but I enjoyed it.  It took me about 24 minutes to read, cover to cover.  At a cost of 12 cents the issue, that’s a half cent per minute of entertainment — more expensive than a book, but cheaper than a movie.  I’d say it was worth it!

Next up – a report from Seattle’s latest science fiction gathering!

[Nov. 21, 1960] I aim at the Stars (but sometimes I hit London)

If the United States is doing well in the Space Race, it is in no small thanks to a group of German expatriates who made their living causing terror and mayhem in the early half of the 1940s.  I, of course, refer to Wehrner von Braun and his team of rocket scientists, half of whom were rounded up by the Allies after the War, the other half of whom apparently gave similar service to the Soviets. 

I don’t know if the Russian group is still affiliated with the Communist rocket program–I don’t think so.  Last I heard, they had all been repatriated.  But bon Braun’s group is still going strong.  Until last year, they worked under the auspices of the Army, but now they are employed in a civilian capacity by NASA.  Their giant Saturn project is the backbone of our nascent lunar program.

Of course, the fact that an ex-Nazi is playing such a pivotal role in our space program may not sit well with some.  Perhaps to address this concern, the rather hagiographic movie, I Aim at the Stars has been released.  Interestingly, it’s not quite so sympathetic as it might have been.  Von Braun is played as a rather soulless figure, unconcerned with the political ramifications of his work.  He cares only about his rockets.

Or as a math student from the Bay Area has sung:

“Don’t say that he’s hypocritical.
Say instead that he’s ‘apolitical’.
‘Once the rockets are up, who cares
where they come down. 
That’s not my department,’
says Wehner von Braun.”

A special comic book was made for the movie and handed out at some of the premieres.  I’ve gotten my hands on one of them, and having been given permission to reprint, my editor is reproducing it in its entirety for those of you who won’t make it to the flicks to enjoy Curt Jurgens do a rather good job of not looking at all like Wehrner von Braun.

Enjoy!

The Funny Papers (Tales to Astonish and Tales of Suspense; 5-05-1959)

What?!  The Traveler is reduced to buying comic books?  The same fellow who reads Fantasy & Science Fiction, like so many prominent intellectuals do?  Surely you jest!

Well, I couldn’t resist.  I pass these lurid covers at the grocery every week, and I decided it was time to plunk down two bits and see what all the fuss was about.  Actually, I bought them at a second-hand store, since I wanted to start at Issue #1 of the titles I’d selected. 

What did I pick?  Tales to Astonish and Tales of Suspense by publishing newcomer, Marvel Comics (which, I understand, is a sort of descendant of Atlas Comics).  I chose these two titles because they are billed as science fiction/fantasy anthologies, and if I’m happy to read science fiction “juveniles” and watch drive-in dreck, surely comic books aren’t beneath me. 

Astonish was a fun 15 minutes of entertainment, about at the level of the B-movie flicks.  The headliner story, We Found the Ninth Wonder of the World, features a scientist whose hobby is making overlarge sea creatures (with exactly the same proportion as their unaltered originals–the square-cube law need not apply!) And… that’s about it.  I’m not quite sure why a biggish sea turtle counts as the “Ninth Wonder of the World,” but it does make for a fine title.

The next vignette (I know the Secret of the Poltergeist!) is a silly tale about a poltergeist debunker who turns out to be a poltergeist–his scientific explanations are designed to allay the suspicions of the owners of afflicted homes.  I guess ghosts just like to add insult to injury.  The clever bit is that the sadistic spook has to rack his brain to come up with plausible answers.  Did you know ghosts can sweat?

I didn’t really understand the next story, I was the First to Set Foot on… the Mystery Planet! I think that a rogue planet ends up flying close to Earth, spraying our planet with radioactive oil.  I’m not certain why this is the greatest of the effects this interloper has on the Earth (one would think massive tides would be a far bigger concern), and the punchline, that the inhabitants of the other planet are robots who use the oil as lubricant, doesn’t make a lot of sense.  On the other hand, the subplot is that the protagonist, who has a deep-seated prejudice against robots, learns to confront and conquer his bigotry.  A rather high-minded and laudable tale for any medium these days.

In the last tale, I Foiled an Alien Invasion!, an alien race plans to invade the Earth by hiding out two-dimensionally on a series of billboards.  The plot is foiled because it is possibly the dumbest plot in the history of alien invasions since Wells’ Martians forgot to wear face-masks.  Dig that crazy future car from 2008, though!

—–

Suspense’s cover was more overtly science-fiction themed, so I saved it for second, expecting a better treat.  I was not disappointed.

The first story (The Strangers from Space!) features an alien ship silently, menacingly approaching the technologically advanced Earth of 2000 A.D.


Of course that’s where the world’s capital will be!

Our first instinct, naturally, is to destroy the vessel, but one clear-thinking fellow manages to stop us from shooting as the spaceship lands.  It turns out that the ship’s crew look perfectly human, and the Earthers feel sheepish about judging a race before seeing it.  But the sting in the tale’s tail is that, after the aliens leave, we learn they really do look shockingly different, and they only adopted the disguise to avoid being slaughtered.  Humanity just can’t handle anything that looks too different, they surmised.

I’m sensing a strong anti-prejudice theme from Marvel. 

I rather liked the next story, I Dared Explore the Unknown Emptiness!, too.  500 years from now, the Earth is over-populated to the gills (a concept that is very popular these days), and humanity has invented its first faster-than-light drive to find a second Earth to export people to.  Instead, the crew of the new starship find nothing but hostile or over-crowded planets.  They take the discovery philosophically, however, resolving to solve Earth’s problems back at home rather than exporting them elsewhere.  Horace Gold would have rolled in his grave at this panel, though (and he’s not even dead!):

The Day I Left My Body wasn’t much.  A prisoner being held for murder gets shot in a jailbreak.  In a near-death experience, he briefly possesses a defense attorney and leaves the lawyer with a geas to get the prisoner off.  Unfortunately for the prisoner (who is shown to be an unrepentant jerk), the attorney works too hard to exonerate his client, turning in an exhausted, lackluster performance in court that results in the prisoner’s conviction.

He Fled in the Night follows the story of an 18th century clerk who leaves it all for adventure on the South Seas.  The punchline?  His name is Robinson Crusoe.  A slight story, but the art and style was nice.  I’d like to see more in this vein.


I feel something of a kinship with this fellow, sometimes…

Last, but not least, was the enjoyable vignette, Prisoner of the Satellites!  Aliens zap the Earth with a ray that enfolds its victims, living and inanimate, in a field that shrinks them into infinite smallness.  This is the first stage in an attempt to unhinge humanity, making us ripe for conquest.  It turns out, however, that cosmic rays reverse the effect (why not?), and the aliens leave, beaten.

So ends my first toe-dipping into the world of comics since I stopped collecting Detective Comics as a kid.  I appreciate Marvel’s subversively progressive message, and while the science isn’t exactly top-notch, it wasn’t bad for 48 pages of art and word-balloons.  I think Suspense is the better magazine, but that’s partly personal preference.  I’ll have to buy a copy for my friend, Carl McIlwain, a student of Dr. Van Allen who helped design the cosmic ray detectors on some of our recent satellites; I’m sure he’ll get a kick out of it.

Back to the printed word next week!  I hope you’ll all stay tuned in to this frequency. 

P.S. I’d like to give a special, public hello to some friends I made at the book store while perusing the stacks: Jake, Matt and Chris!  And, of course, Carl.

(Confused?  Click here for an explanation as to what’s really going on)


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