Wednesday, June 3, 2009

History of the Marvel Universe: September 1963, part 1


Loki comes up with yet another plot to avenge himself on Thor. This one involves making it look like the Hulk tried to wreck a passenger train, with the idea of getting the Hulk and Thor into a fight.

Not even the Hulk’s friend Rick Jones is sure the big green guy is innocent. So Rick and the Teen Brigade radio the Fantastic Four for help to bring the Hulk in—either to subdue him or prove he’s innocent.

The FF can’t come—Reed explains they’re wrapped up on another case (I doubt Stan Lee was overly worried about continuity in this much detail, but this actually works out. They were busy dealing with the Super Skrull in their own book and there's a point in the story where they would have been back at the Baxter Building to take Rick's radio call.). But Thor, Iron Man, Ant Man and the Wasp do answer the call.

This leads to some great Jack Kirby action stuff. Iron Man, Ant Man and Wasp fight a running battle with the Hulk, starting in a circus big top (where the Hulk is posing as a mechanical man in order to hide out) and then moving on to a Detroit auto factory. In the meantime, Thor has deduced that Loki is behind all this and returns to Asgard to fight his evil half-brother. Kirby’s art really shines here—especially a few panels in which Thor has to engage in a sort-of wrestling match with the creepiest looking Troll ever designed.

When Thor finally defeats Loki and proves Hulk’s innocence, the fighting comes to an end. At Wasp’s suggestion, the five heroes decide to remain together as a group, calling themselves the Avengers. Even the Hulk joins up, stating “I’m sick and tired of bein’ hunted and hounded. I’d rather be with you than against you.”

Of course, Hulk’s tenure won’t last long before everyone realizes he’s not much of a team player. But it’s a strong first issue with some great fight scenes.

It's interesting to compare the Avengers to DC's Justice League of America. Both books feature the teaming up of superheroes who also appear in their own solo books. Both are very well-written, but there is a notable difference. Gardner Fox, who was writing the JLA, did very plot-oriented stories, with little effort to give the characters individual personalities. The ability to generate clever plots was Gardner's main strength as a writer and those early JLA stories are still entertaining to read today.

The Avengers would be much more personality-driven right from the get-go. The various heroes would grow into very individual (if sometimes broadly defined) characters, much more so than the JLA did until later in the 1960s. And their personalities would often be the main driving force for some of the stories.

The Avengers differ from the Fantastic Four in a key way as well. The FF is definately a family and their interpersonal relationships reflect this. The Avengers, though, are (in very rough terms) more like an elite military unit. The members respect and usually like one another, but the team dynamic is very different.

X-MEN #1

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had a busy month. They turned out a fine FF story and gave the Avengers a worthy premiere. Now they toss a whole bunch of brand-new super heroes into the Marvel Universe in yet another strong debut.

The background for the X-Men is clever and engaging. It also gives a reason for introducing more super powered beings into the world without having to come up with individual origin stories. It seems that there are a growing number of mutants in the world—people simply born with strange powers.

Wheelchair-bound Charles Xavier (Professor X) opens a school to train young mutants to use their powers for good. These are the original X-Men: Cyclops, Angel, Beast, Iceman and Marvel Girl. He intends for them to protect mankind from evil mutants.

And before you know it, an evil mutant turns up. Magneto uses his magnetic powers to take over a nuclear missile base. The X-Men manage to defeat him and free the base from his control, but he escapes them in the end.

It’s a strong story with lots of good action. We’re introduced to the X-Men while they are training in what will eventually be called the Danger Room. This allows us to get a grip on both their powers and personalities while having fun watching them avoid traps and spar with each other.

The fight with Magneto is also quite good. The villain employs his magnetic powers to gain control over a variety of captured army weapons, while the X-Men work effectively together as a team.

There’s a few interesting details to note as well. Bobby Drake—the Iceman—has a snowy look to him in these initial appearances. It’ll take 7 or 8 issues before he finally gets the smoother (and more visually pleasing) look we’re used to. And Hank McCoy—the Beast—has a gruff personality very similar to Ben Grimm. Stan and Jack soon realize he’s too much of a carbon copy of Ben, though. Before long, he’ll morph into the wise-cracking scientist we know and love today.

That’s it for September. It was a great month for Marvel, with several very strong stories; the introduction of several important villains; the formation of the Avengers and a chance to meet the X-Men.

Next time, we’ll take a look at a couple of the 1963 annuals before moving on to October 1963. Spider Man and the Human Torch will be teaming up for the first of many times, while the Fantastic Four will be doing battle with the Sub Mariner yet again.

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