Wednesday, July 22, 2009

History of the Marvel Universe: December 1963, part 1


The Hate-Monger, who wears a KKK-like uniform, is stirring up hatred and bigotry across the globe. It turns out he’s secretly using a “hate ray” to turn people against one another. Before long, he’s zapped the FF with the ray, causing the four now-former teammates to go at each other tooth and nail.

Fortunately, with the help of former Howling Commando Nick Fury, our heroes are given an antidote to the hate ray and manage to get the drop on the Hate Monger. Killed by his own men, the Monger turns out to be either Adolf Hitler or a double.

It’s a pretty good story—a little heavy-handed in its universal brotherhood morale, but filled with some nice bits of action. I especially like Reed’s brief but visually fun solo stint using his powers to sabotage anti-government rebels in a war-torn South American nation. The FF’s free-for-all after they get hit by the hate ray is also a lot of fun.

But the real treat here is seeing Nick Fury inserted into modern day Marvel continuity. His WWII-era Howling Commandos book had been around for some months now and had been selling well. (Supposedly, Nick Fury and the Howling Commandos had been created because Stan Lee had told his publisher he and Kirby could take a dumb or corny title and still turn it into a commercially successful book.) In 1963, it was possible for a WWII vet to be still be young enough to be an action hero and, in fact, Reed (who been an OSS operative in the war) had already guest-starred in an issue of the Howlers.

So Stan and Jack brought Nick into the present day, making him a colonel in the CIA. He’d soon be a regular part of the Marvel Universe, getting an eye patch (something that was eventually explained in a Howlers issue as being the delayed result of a war wound) and being placed in charge of SHIELD—an international spy organization.


The worst mistake a prison warden in a superhero universe can do is put an imprisoned supervillain to work in the machine shop. That never ends well.

But that’s where the Vulture ends up working, allowing him to snitch enough parts to build another flying device and escape over the prison walls. Soon, he’s back to his life of crime.

Spidey fights him once over the roof tops and—overconfident because he’d sent him to prison once already—loses the battle, ending up with a sprained arm. But it’s not long before he gets another chance when the Vulture tries to rob the Daily Bugle payroll.

This leads to a running battle through the Daily Bugle building that is laid out with Ditko’s typical skill at energetic and entertaining fight choreography. Spidey outsmarts Vulture this time and sends him back to prison.

And the issue ends happily for Peter Parker as well, giving him a nice romantic moment with Betty Brant. I think Lee and Ditko realized that they couldn’t dump on poor Peter every issue—that Peter had to have his good moments as well to keep the book from becoming a never-ending downer.


While the Vulture is putting in his second appearance in the pages of Spider Man, another Spidey villain—the Sandman—is popping up in Strange Tales.

When Sandman also escapes from prison, the Human Torch is asked to find Spider Man and send the webslinger after him. But that doesn’t sit well with Johnny. He figures anything Spidey can do, the Torch can do better.

So he wears a Spider Man costume to lure Sandman into battle. At first, it looks like Sandman has the upper hand. But when both combatants get caught underneath some water sprinklers, Johnny manages to turn the situation to his advantage and win the fight.

It’s a nice if unexceptional issue, notable mostly in that it continues to advance the Torch/Spidey feud a little farther.

Meanwhile, we finally get to find out where the heck Dr. Strange came from. And his origin is a really good one. Turns out the Master of Mysticism was once a talented but arrogant surgeon. When an accident left the nerves in his hands too damaged to perform surgery, his pride refused to allow him to accept what he perceived as a “lower” position of advising and consulting with other doctors.

Finally, he travels to the East to find the Ancient One, not really believing in magic but desperate to try anything that might cure his hands. When he redeems himself morally by helping the Ancient One against Baron Mordo’s treachery, he becomes the Ancient One’s apprentice, training for years to use magic to fight the supernatural evils that threaten the world.

It really is a great origin story, with Ditko’s art providing strong visuals throughout.

That’s it for now. Next week, we’ll finish off 1963 with a look at Thor, Iron Man and Giant Man.

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