Wednesday, August 19, 2009

History of the Marvel Universe: January 1964, part 3


This issue starts out with several pages that amount to a pretty shameless plug of Marvel’s other superhero books. Concerned about the Hulk, Iron Man uses an “image projector” to send a holographic image of himself out to contact other superheroes for information. This provides us with cameos of the Fantastic Four, Spider Man and the X-Men.

They’re fun cameos, though. In each case, everyone is so busy then can’t do more than vaguely promise to let Iron Man know if they hear anything about the Hulk. Spider Man, who’s busy webbing up a half-dozen thugs, simply snaps “Do I tell you MY troubles? I’ve got my hands full right now!” Professor X is snippy because Iron Man’s appearance interrupts a Danger Room session. As I said last week, I’ve got no problem with plugs and crossovers like this as long as they’re entertaining.

Anyway, all this leads into an extremely action-packed issue. The Hulk, by now, is pretty upset with the whole human race and not even Rick Jones can calm him down anymore. The Avengers engage in a running battle with the big green guy in the Southwestern desert. Then Prince Namor, who is himself still rather annoyed with humanity, contacts the Hulk and suggests a team-up. The two tussle with the Avengers in and around an old World War II base at Gibraltar.

The battle is pretty much a draw until the Hulk turns into Bruce Banner at a (for him) inconvenient moment. Banner runs off before anyone can get a look at him. Alone now, Namor is forced to retreat himself.

Both the major fight scenes are great from start to finish, with most of the participants getting their own individual Moments of Awesomeness along the way. I know I often sound like a broken record when I say this—but Kirby simply was a master at presenting exciting and tactically logical action scenes.

The characterizations are handled nicely as well. It’s made clear that the Avengers would rather talk to the Hulk than fight, but he’s just not in the mood for that anymore. We’re reminded that Rick Jones is still wracked with guilt for his role in the accident that caused Banner to change into the Hulk. And the interaction between Hulk and Namor (they dislike each other, with each of them convinced he’s using the other for his own purposes) is also interesting.

X-Men #3

Gee whiz, there’s a lot of evil circuses in the Marvel Universe. We saw the Ringmaster and his Circus of Crime in an issue of the Hulk some months back. Now we find yet another circus in which the performers are willing to turn to villainy at pretty much the drop of a hat.

It all starts out when Professor X telepathically senses another mutant. This turns out to be the Blob, an enormously obese circus sideshow guy who can’t be moved or hurt as long as his feet are firmly planted on the ground.

The X Men get him to come back to the school, but he turns down an offer to join the group. Here’s where the story gets a tad wonky. Professor X is shocked—SHOCKED I SAY—that anyone would actually exhibit free will and turn down his offer to join up. He then rather casually decides to wipe Blob’s memory of the X Men to preserve their secret identities. I don’t think the good guys are supposed to be that weak on basic ethics, Professor.

Oh, well, the rest of the story is great, with yet another remarkable Kirby fight scene. Before his memory can be wiped, the Blob busts away from the X Mansion and returns to the circus, recruiting his fellow performers to attack the X Men. The battle that follows, with the X Men fighting a variety of acrobats, sharp shooters and animals on the lawn of the mansion, is exuberant and exhilarating.

It all comes to an end when the professor, using a hastily-built machine designed to enhance his power, wipes the memory of the whole incident from both the Blob and his allies. They all return to a normal circus life.

Despite the sloppy characterizations and motivations, the wonderful X-Men vs. evil circus battle makes this an enjoyable story. Also, it’s in this issue that the Beast’s personality is transformed into the multi-syllabic but witty scientist we’ve come to know and love. He’s got some great dialogue scattered throughout the issue (“Allow me to introduce myself. I am, to my sorrow, called the Beast. Although I admit it’s a most unwarranted cognomen for one as scholarly—as refined—as I fancy myself to be.”) He’s on his way to being the most consistently entertaining character in the book.

That finishes up January 1964. In February, Spider Man, Iron Man and Giant Man all add new members to their respective rogue’s galleries; The FF, Thor and the Human Torch stage rematches against old villains; and Dr. Strange gets trapped outside his own body (something that will become a disturbingly common problem throughout his career).

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