Wednesday, September 30, 2009

History of the Marvel Universe: April 1964, part 1


Just like the cover blurb says--it's the Battle of the Century. The Hulk/Thing throwdown is one of the most exciting and expertly presented fight scenes that have ever graced a comic book. The Hulk is stronger, but the Thing has the advantage in agility and brains. The fight rages across New York City, into the Hudson River and ends atop the George Washington Bridge. Jack Kirby gives us one of his best-ever efforts here--the entire issue literally drips with pure cool.

There's some neat character moments scattered throughout the issue as well. It all begins with Reed trying to get Ben to drink a formula that he (Reed) stumbled upon by accident and might not be able to reproduce. Reed's sure it will cure Ben of being the Thing. But Ben impetuously knocks the formula aside, destroying it, because he's not sure that Alicia will still love him if he changes.

I love Reed's angry reaction to this: "You mule-headed nitwit! It isn't your ridiculous appearance she loves... it's you! Though I can't see why!"

Not long after, Reed falls critically ill--having picked up a rare viral infection as a result of his experiments to cure Ben. Soon after, the Hulk arrives in New York, looking to smash the Avengers for daring to replace him with Captain America. But the Avengers aren't around--they're out in the Southwest looking for the Hulk!

Johnny and Sue are both knocked out in the initial skirimish, leaving Ben on his own against the big green guy. This leads to the fantastic fight that makes up the meat of this issue. It ends with the Hulk briefly knocking out Ben, but the hero pulls himself up and stomps off for a rematch. That will occur in the next issue.

Here's a couple of small but fun details that are worth noting:

1) Poor Stan Lee gets Bruce Banner's name wrong in this issue, calling him "Bob" Banner instead of Bruce. But we'll forgive him--remember the Hulk wasn't appearing regularly in his own book at this point and Stan was churning out an awful lot of scripts every month. And the mistake was later retconned anyway--we eventually learn that Banner's full name is Robert Bruce Banner.

2) I know I shouldn't make too much fun of those occasionas when a normally well-written comic book has a dumb moment, but this is a classic. We get a brief cameo of the Avengers looking for the Hulk. They come across some crates strewn along the highway, left there earlier when the Hulk tossed them out of a truck to make room when he "hitched" a ride. But all the Avengers know is that there's some crates scattered across the road--they don't know how they got there. Or do they?--Captain America sternly announces "This can only by the work of the Hulk." Yeah, right, Cap. No mere human can drop boxes on the road like that.

But even with a small mistake and one bit of awkward dialogue, FF #25 is still a classic--it would easily make any reasonable Top Ten superhero fight scenes list.


Apparently, the prison term for taking over a nuclear facility is a light one--less than a year of real time (and what must have been just a few weeks in "comic book time.") has passed since Dr. Octopus committed this particular crime, but he's already due to be released. I don't know who he had for a lawyer, but it must have been a good one. ("If the artificial arms don't fit, then you must acquit!")

Spidey figures Ock will soon be up to no good again, so he comes up with a way of keeping track of the good doctor. This is the first appearance of the Spider Tracer, which Spidey will use quite often throughout his career. Eventually, the tracers will be keyed into his spider-sense. But this first time, he uses a small receiver to track the signal.

Doc Ock's path soon crosses with Betty Brant, who is being forced to help out some gangsters to protect her n'er-do-well and spineless brother Bennett. Bennett's into the mob for a fortune in gambling debts and some thugs are threatening to rearrange his kneecaps unless Betty helps them out. No one ever explains exactly why an established mob needs Betty's help, but what the hey. The overall story is strong enough to allow us to overlook this plot hole.

So Peter follows Ock and Betty to Philadelphia, where Ock is being paid to bust a mob leader out of jail. This leads to yet another great fight scene (not on the same level as Hulk vs. Thing, but still pretty nifty) in which Spider Man faces off against a bevy of mob gunman and Dr. Octopus aboard a tramp steamer. It ends with the mobsters caught, Ock escaping and Bennett Brant taking a fatal bullet to the gut. But this at least frees Betty from being forced to help the crooks.

Along with Fantastic Four, Spider Man continues to provide the best combination of strong chracterizations and great action. They continue to be the two best books that Marvel is producing at this time.

Normally, we include a Strange Tales review at this point, but as more and more Marvel superhero books pop up as we progress farther into the 1960s, I've been forced to rearrange things a bit. We'll save Strange Tales for a couple of weeks, when we also get to the premiere of a brand-new hero. Next week, we'll take a look at Thor, Iron Man and Giant Man.

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