Wednesday, April 29, 2009

History of the Marvel Universe: July 1963, part 2


Spidey has been taking out crooks and burglars without working up a sweat and starts wishing he’d come across an opponent who presents more of a challenge. But his first encounter with Doctor Octopus results in Doc Ock pretty much beating the snot out of him.

So Peter Parker has a crisis of courage, wondering if he ever dares put on his Spider Man costume again. A little later, though, the Human Torch gives a speech at Peter’s high school about never giving up. Inspired, Peter does indeed don his costume, taking on Doctor Octopus and this time winning the fight.

This is yet another great issue for a variety of reasons. First, it introduces us to another classic villain in Doctor Octopus. Artist Steve Ditko does a wonderful job choreographing the final fight scene. Peter’s mental crisis was believable for someone still brand new at the superhero game and perfectly in character for Peter.

It’s interesting that Peter’s first encounter with the Human Torch involves an inspirational speech. In the future, their occasional team-ups will involve trading insults and getting on each other’s nerves (making for one of the most consistently entertaining “friendships” in the Marvel Universe). Also, J. Jonah Jameson is suddenly the publisher of the Daily Bugle instead of (or in addition to?) Now magazine. I presume that Stan Lee and Steve Ditko realized that Peter’s news photographer bit simply made more sense if he was working for a daily newspaper with a constant need for new material.


Loki is up to his old tricks again. This time, he tricks Thor into bashing himself with his hammer in the exact spot to affect his “chromosomatic gland.” This changes Thor’s personality from good to evil. Thor and Loki team up, rampaging across Earth, destroying famous monuments and threatening to do more damage unless Odin surrenders Asgard to them.

Fortunately, Odin has that all-wise thing going for him and manages to arrange for Thor’s hammer to deliver a second whack on the “chromosomatic gland,” reverting Thor to normal. Loki is recaptured, the Asgardians repair all the damage and Odin wipes the memory of “evil” Thor from mankind’s memory.

It’s all just a little too silly, failing to maintain the suspension of disbelief that superhero stories require to really work. And that whole world-wide memory wipe at the end is just a little too much of a dues ex machina. All the same, it’s nice to see that the Asgardians are still playing more and more of a role in the stories as the series progressed.


We’ve gotta look at two stories from Strange Tales this time around.

First, the Human Torch: Two of his enemies, Paste-Pot Pete and the Wizard, team up to get revenge on Johnnie. They at first try to frame him for their crimes, then later lure him into a trap. Johnnie manages to come out on top, though.

Paste-Pot Pete’s visual design holds the story back a little. Until he changes his name and costume, he’s just not going to look that dangerous. But there is some fun interaction between him and the Wizard as he grows increasingly annoyed by the other villain’s pomposity and the story itself is reasonably good. There’s a nice bit that plays on the fact Johnnie doesn’t have a secret identity—when news reports seem to indicate that the Human Torch might be guilty of a crime, the other students at Johnnie’s high school begin to shun him. This series will never be noted for its characterizations, but it manages a very human moment this time around.

Second, we have Dr. Strange: The first Dr. Strange story doesn’t give us his origin. Instead, he’s already established in his Greenwich Village mansion, acting as the go-to guy for any one in danger from a mystical source. In this first story, he has to enter the dreams of a man being tormented by nightmares. Once “inside,” he encounters the being called Nightmare. Strange has to telepathically call upon his mentor, the Ancient One, for help, but manages to escape the dream world in the nick of time.

We’ll get Dr. Strange’s origin in a few months time, but this initial story really works better with a still-mysterious protagonist. Steve Ditko will prove to be the perfect artist for the series, providing wild designs for the extra-dimensional locations and creatures that Dr. Strange will be regularly encountering. It’s a strong start for what will be some very entertaining and imaginative tales.

That’s it for July 1963. August will see the Fantastic Four continuing their latest battle with Dr. Doom; Ant Man and Wasp will take their turn fighting off an alien invasion; Thor will fight an evil duplicate; Iron Man will do a little time traveling; Dr. Strange will fight Baron Mordo for the first time; and the Human Torch will battle yet another villain in a silly costume.

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