Wednesday, March 11, 2009

History of the Marvel Universe, April 1963: Part 1


This has always been one of my favorite comic books stories—it’s full of extraordinarily imaginative visuals of spacecraft, alien cities, strange creatures and sci-fi gadgetry, all drawn by Jack Kirby at his prime as an artist.

It’s got a strong story as well. Reed’s developed a rocket fuel that will get the FF to the moon ahead of the Russians. At the same time, though, Ivan Kragoff (Russia’s top rocket scientist) is also getting ready to launch his own rocket. And he has a secondary plan as well—to expose himself and the three trained apes he’s using for a crew to cosmic rays, thus gaining superpowers just as the Fantastic Four did.

That part of the plan works. Kragoff gains the power to turn intangible, while his apes respectively gain the powers of super-strength, shape-changing and magnetic manipulation. Thus the Red Ghost and his Super Apes enter the FF’s growing rogue’s gallery.

The two rockets land in the “mysterious blue area” of the moon, which turns out to be the ruins of an ancient alien city—still equipped with an atmosphere. From here, the story turns into a duel between the American and the Russian super-beings to see who gets to claim the moon.

There are a number of elements to the story that deserve mention:

a) I’ve already mentioned the cool visuals. This issue is great fun to simply look at.
b) The action scenes are done very well. Both Reed and Kragoff make use of the alien technology scattered about the city, adding to the variety of superpowers that already exist amongst all the characters. It all makes for some wonderful fight scenes.
c) Ben has pretty much finished morphing into the gruff but humorous guy that makes him so appealing. His sense of humor is on display all through the story (stuffing Reed into a test tube when Reed suggests going to the moon without the others; using one-liners like “If that means we gotta use our brains, then the Torch better stay behind”). He also openly expresses concern for Reed at one point when it looks like Reed’s in danger. He’s obviously reached a point where he does feel like one of family.
d)Sue gets to use her invisibility usefully at one point—AND she gets to use her brains and escape on her own after being captured.
e) We are introduced to the Watcher—the incredibly powerful alien who is just supposed to observe everything without ever interfering. He’s a great concept for a character and he will, of course, be popping up again in the future.
f) The origin of the alien city is never explained, but leaving it a mystery works really well in a dramatic sense. It won’t be for many years (in an issue of the Avengers, I believe) until we find out that that it was built millennia ago by the Kree, an alien race that we haven’t yet met at this point in Marvel history.


Through a radioactive accident, a radio announcer gains the power to use his voice to control others—everyone believes everything he says completely and without question. To test this power, he turns the populace of the city against Ant Man, turning the tiny hero into a fugitive. (Ant Man’s cybernetic helmet keeps him immune from the voice power.)

Ant Man eventually gets the better of the villain by infecting him with laryngitis. This rather unusual tactic—and the fact that the bad guy doesn’t wear a costume (he wears a top hat and an old-fashioned frock coat), make this story kinda interesting. But once again, Ant Man remains adequate at best.


Gee whiz, mental control of populations is popular this month. While Ant Man is battling this threat in his home town, the city of Granville is being mind-controlled by an alien robot Neanderthal.

But before we get to that, we get a few pages providing us with some background details for Iron Man’s ongoing series. We get a reminder that Tony Stark is a brilliant inventor and we’re told he has to wear his chest plate all the time to keep his injured heart beating, plugging the plate in to a wall socket from time to time to keep it powered.

We also get a few pages showing us that Iron Man has done some super-heroing between issues, so he’s already known to the general public. This was the same thing that was done with Ant Man after his debut issue. The Fantastic Four also became famous between their first and second issues. I suppose it was just the most convenient way to establish the characters’ place in the Marvel Universe in order to get on with the stories. It works perfectly well in terms of sound story construction, so it was in retrospect a good idea.

Also, when Tony’s armor scares a little kid at one point, he decides to paint it gold and hopefully make it less scary. The original clunky design stays around for the time being, though.

Any way, after all this is out of the way, Iron Man investigates Granville, whose citizens have built a wall around their town and cut themselves off from the rest of the country. Tunneling into the place, Iron Man finds a mind-controlled mob ruled over by Gargantus, a giant Neanderthal with a hypnotic gaze. But Gargantus turns out to be a robot, sent here by yet another set of aliens bent on world conquest. What is it that makes Earth so valuable, anyways? It seems like every single alien race out there wants to subjugate us!!! Though many of the individual stories involving alien conquest are good, it is a trope that Marvel was in serious danger of over-using in these early years.

Next week, we’ll take a look at Thor and the Human Torch to finish up April 1963.

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