Wednesday, June 17, 2009

History of the Marvel Universe: October 1963, part 1


This is another of my favorite issues—imaginative in both plot and visuals, with some important characterizations tossed in as well.

Reed’s been doing some research into Egyptology and thinks he’s stumbled on to evidence that an ancient Pharaoh had a cure for blindness. That means Ben’s girlfriend Alicia might be cured.

They make use of Doctor Doom’s time machine to head back to ancient Egypt. Almost immediately, they’re attacked by Egyptian soldiers. They’re making short work of these guys when a mysterious ray hits them and drains them of their powers and strength.

The Pharaoh Rama-Tut, it turns out, is a time traveler from the year 3000. Bored with the universal peace mankind had achieved, he traveled to the past to find adventure. (An origin story similar to the Tomorrow Man—a villain Thor had fought back in Journey into Mystery #86.) He traveled back to Egypt in a time machine disguised as the Sphinx and made himself ruler.

With his ray gun keeping the FF under his control by sapping their wills, he puts the three males to work as slaves, then prepares to marry Sue.

This leads to a super-nifty plot twist: Ben is working as a galley slave and the hot Egyptian sun temporarily turns him human again and frees him from the effect of the ray gun. Ben immediately jumps into action-hero mode, escaping from the galley and sneaking into the palace to snatch the ray gun away from Rama-Tut before he reverts to the Thing again.

The ray gun releases the good guys from Rama-Tut’s control and they play some cat-and-mouse with him through the high-tech interior of the Sphinx. Eventually, Rama-Tut gets away in a time traveling escape pod.

Sue finds the radioactive material that cures blindness, but they discover too late that Doom’s primitive time machine won’t transport anything radioactive. They lose the cure for Alicia on the journey back to modern times.

This issue is extraordinarily entertaining on several levels:

1)Kirby’s visuals are exceptional—the fight scenes; the Egyptian setting; Rama-Tut’s future tech; it all looks incredible.

2)The idea that the FF is going on this incredible adventure not because the world is threatened, but simply to help a friend.

3Showing Ben to be a capable and intelligent hero even when stripped of his super powers.

4)The suggestion that Rama-Tut might be Doctor Doom’s ancestor—or even Doom himself. It’s not really important to this story, but it opens some fun plot opportunities for future stories.

5)Ben’s sense of humor has really developed and is constantly reflected in his dialogue. Also, the last panel, when he tells the others he’ll never forget that they risked their lives to help Alicia, is honestly touching.

Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful issue.


While the Fantastic Four is busy time traveling, their arch enemy is tussling with Spider Man.

Doctor Doom, still licking his wounds from his recent defeat, takes note of all the bad publicity Spidey gets and tries to use this to get the webslinger to join forces with him. Spidey refuses and thus gets on Doom’s bad list.

Soon after, schoolyard bully Flash Thompson dresses in a Spider Man costume as a joke on Peter, figuring “puny Parker” will be scared silly if Spider Man suddenly appears in front of him. But Flash is kidnapped by Doom, who thinks he’s the real Spidey, before he can carry out his joke.

That leaves Peter with the annoying job of rescuing the guy who always bullies him at school. In the ensuing fight, Spidey does pretty well against Doom, but the armored villain proves to be too powerful. Only the timely arrival of the Fantastic Four saves Peter. Doom escapes to fight another day.

The story’s general premise and “mistaken identity” plot twist are both a little weak, but the Spidey vs. Doom fight is yet another strong, entertaining action sequence. And the idea that Spider Man could fight with skill and intelligence but still not quite defeat Doom is an appropriate and “realistic” touch.

Some other details of note: Peter takes note of J. Jonah Jameson’s pretty secretary Betty Brant for the first time. His willingness to risk his life for someone he hates is a great indication of Peter’s basic decency. J.J.J. is described as the publisher of both Now Magazine and the Daily Bugle. (Though the magazine will hardly ever be mentioned again.) And Flash Thompson (who loathes Peter so much) is established as Spider Man’s number one fan.

Something else that should be mentioned. Between Steve Ditko’s work on Spidey and Dr. Strange AND Jack Kirby’s work on the FF, we’re being given some of the consistently best fight scenes that have ever appeared in comic books. Both these men had many strengths as artists, but one strength they definitely shared was their ability to give us superhero battles that unfold in an exciting and logical manner. We always understand what’s going on. We can grasp the tactics being used and we can always tell where the various combatants are in relation to one another. These fight scenes aren’t just random panels of character whacking away at each other, but follow their own patterns that make sense in context to the superpowers and super-technology being used. They are exuberant and spirited examples of fine comic book art.


In fact, Thor’s battle with the Lava Man in this issue is yet another example of Kirby’s great fight choreography. It’s not quite as awesome as the FF’s battle against Rama Tut, but it’s still awfully good.

The issue actually starts with Dr. Blake moaning about being in love with the mortal Jane Foster. When he asks Odin’s permission to marry her, the All-Father pretty much just tells him to forget about it. In the meantime, Jane gets sick of waiting for the apparently weak-minded Dr. Blake to confess his love and quits her job, going to work for another doctor.

Loki sees that Thor is despondent and calls up the Lava Man from beneath the surface of the Earth. This leads to the aforementioned cool fight scene, in which Thor eventually manages to force the villain back to his subterranean world.

There’ll be more on Thor/Blake’s love life in the next issue, but the really important part of this issue is the first “Tales of Asgard” story. This series-within-a-series starts with a five-page synopsis recounting the birth of the original Norse Gods. It’s an opportunity to let Jack Kirby really go to town with some truly inspired visuals. “Tales of Asgard” will run as a back-up feature in Thor for something like four years—epic storytelling in five-page doses that will represent some of Kirby’s finest work.

Next week, we’ll visit with Iron Man, Ant Man and the Human Torch to finish up October 1963.

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