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[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!

[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!

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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