Wednesday, February 18, 2009

History of the Marvel Universe: March 1963, part 1


In the first of two crossovers to appear in modern Marvel Comics this month, the FF are asked by General “Thunderbolt” Ross to come west and help catch whomever is sabotaging a new anti-missile defense system. Ross is convinced the Hulk is the saboteur.

Reed and the others fly west. At the army base, they meet Bruce Banner, who is convinced the Hulk is innocent. (Gee, how can he be so sure?)

The real bad guy—a Communist agent who’s using a big robot to replicate the Hulk’s strength—kidnaps Rick Jones to force the Hulk to attack the FF.

This leads to a really nifty fight scene, in which the Hulk seems about ready to clean the Fantastic Four’s collective clock before the real villain is revealed to all. As is typical whenever Jack Kirby is providing the art, the battle is beautifully choreographed with all the participants making good use of their respective powers. Even the setting for the action is pretty cool—starting in an underground tunnel, then bursting out into an ancient ghost town.

Anyway, the enemy agent is soon captured and the Hulk’s innocence is established. In the meantime, we get our first glimpse of the updated Fantasti-Car. The oversized bathtub is gone, replaced by the super-cool futuristic design we’re all more used to seeing. (In fact, Reed acknowledges in a line of dialogue that they had gotten many letters of complaint about the “flying bathtub” design and that Johnny had redesigned it in response to that.)

Also, unless I missed a previous reference, the FF’s HQ is identified as the Baxter Building for the first time.

All-in-all, a great issue. It’s fun to finally see the Marvel characters from different books begin to interact with each other. The Hulk/FF fight this time was fairly brief, but there’ll be a Thing/Hulk rematch in 1964 that will give us one of the coolest fights of all time.


Steve Ditko takes over as artist for this last issue of the Hulk’s original run. This time, he fights an alien called the Metal Master, who can mentally control all metal--moving it about, reshaping it and melting it.

This pretty much lets him take on the army in his attempt to conquer the Earth. He even manages to knock the Hulk out, who is then picked up by the army and tossed into a concrete bunker for safe-keeping.

But no one yet really appreciates just how strong the Hulk is and he bashes his way free. In the meantime, Rick has formed a ham radio network of teenagers called “The Teen Brigade,” which helps the Hulk come up with a plan to defeat the Metal Master. We’ll see more of the Teen Brigade in the future, mostly in issues of The Avengers.

It’s a pretty good story. Ditko’s artwork is jarringly different in style from Kirby, but he is also a skilled storyteller and the book is still fun to look at.

The story also continues to build on the Hulk’s inherently tragic situation. His changes back and forth from Hulk to Banner are portrayed as increasingly painful and difficult, while several of the plot elements highlight just how alienated the Hulk feels about always being hunted.

The whole flaw in this is still the fact that Banner is now controlling his transformations, using a machine to turn himself back into the Hulk when needed. Also, though the Hulk dislikes that “milksop” Banner, he willingly turns human again because he doesn’t want to “always be hunted—feared.” But giving Banner/Hulk this much control over the changes remains a mistake. All the elements for a great character are there, but won’t fully gel until the transformations become completely involuntary.

But that won’t be for awhile yet. The Hulk disappears from the newsstands for awhile after this issue. He’ll return again, though, helping to form the Avengers in about six months, then eventually going on to a more successful run in his own series about a year after that/


Earth scientists are being kidnapped by Kulla, a tyrant from another dimension, and forced to work building an “electro-death ray” so he can subdue his rebellious people.

Hank Pym is among those kidnapped. But kidnapping a superhero is rarely a good idea. He shrinks down, finds the right frequency for talking to inter-dimensional ants, then goes on the offensive.

This one is actually a lot of fun—artist Don Heck's designs for the various aliens and strange insects are pretty cool and the action flows nicely. There’s a great line of dialogue from when Ant Man is hiding in a guard’s shoe” “Whew! This guy must never wash his socks!”

As is usual, Ant Man still isn’t hitting the same heights of great storytelling we’re seeing in the Fantastic Four (and will also see in Spider Man this month), but it’s still a well-done little story.

March 1963 was a busy month for Marvel and it’ll take us a few weeks to work through everything. Next time, we’ll take a look at what Thor and the Human Torch are doing. Then, in two weeks, we’ll see the return of Spider Man and the premiere of Iron Man.

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