Wednesday, September 9, 2009

History of the Marvel Universe: March 1964, part 1


FANTASTIC FOUR #24


This is a fairly minor issue in the FF canon, but it’s a fun one. An alien creature shows up in Times Square, exhibiting the power to do… well, pretty much anything. But everything he does (changing a lamp post into a giant flower, send an oversized top spinning down the street) seems to make no sense at all.


Reed pretty quickly deduces that the alien is an infant—a pretty much all powerful being who might very well destroy the Earth just by being overly playful or by throwing a temper tantrum.


But Reed saves the day, rigging up a deep space communicator to find the little tot’s parents in the nick of time.


Two things of interest. There are general similarities between this episode and the orginal Star Trek episode “The Squire of Gothos,” which would air only two or three years later. Probably a coincidence, but an interesting one.


Also, the ship the alien parents use looks almost identical to the Martian ships used in the original movie version of War of the Worlds, made a little over a decade earlier. Was Jack Kirby watching that one on TV just before doing the art work for this issue? Or is it just another coincidence?




SPIDER MAN #10


A masked criminal mastermind known only as the Big Man is taking over the various gangs in New York City and pulling off a series of spectacular robberies. Helping him are the Enforcers, a trio of thugs who will become a minor but fun part of Spider Man’s rogue’s gallery. Fancy Dan is a sharp-dressing little guy who’s an expert in judo; Ox is an over-sized muscle man; Montana is a cowboy hat-wearing lasso expert.

Anyway, Peter Parker uses himself as bait to draw out the bad guys by publicly claiming to have figured out the Big Man’s real identity. This gets him kidnapped and taken to the Big Man’s hideout, where the criminal is conveniently meeting with the bosses of the various mobs he now controls. This leads to an extended fight scene in which Spider Man must hold off the Enforcers and a horde of Red Shirt mobsters until the police arrive to round ‘em all up.


It’s a fast moving and well-plotted issue with some really nifty fight scenes. There’s a nice red herring in that Peter for much of the issue suspects J. Jonah Jameson of being the Big Man. The twist at the end revealing the Big Man’s true identity is a good one.


Adding to the enjoyment of this issue is the continued character development among the supporting cast. Betty, who turns out to owe a loan shark some money, flees New York because she’s afraid Peter will get hurt trying to protect her. (That’s something that will be resolved in the next issue.) Peter’s high school nemesis, Flash Thompson, once again reluctantly shows a virtuous side when he accompanies Liz Allen to visit Aunt May in the hospital. Later, he shows concern over Peter potentially being in danger. In early issues, Flash had pretty much functioned as the high school bully stereotype, but Stan Lee seems determined to give everyone in Spider Man’s cast a little depth.


The best part of the issue might be J. Jonah Jameson’s rant about why he hates Spider Man so much, secretly acknowledging that the superhero is “brave, powerful and unselfish! The truth is—I ENVY him!... But I can never climb to his level. So all that remains for me is to try to tear him down…” It doesn’t make J.J.J. terribly admirable, but it certainly does humanize him.


STRANGE TALES #118


The Wizard escapes from prison and immediately plots his revenge on the Human Torch. His latest shtick involves miniature anti-gravity discs—something that will actually become his primary weapon for the rest of his career.


Anyway, he kidnaps Sue and Johnny, but Johnny manages to signal Reed and Ben to rescue them from their prison. At first, it seems like this issue will basically become a short FF story, but then Johnny flies off to confront the Wizard alone.


The two enemies have a battle and Johnny gets the upper hand. (And gets a great line of dialogue: “Mister, my near-nova flame can melt anything—except a chick’s cold heart.”) The Wizard uses an anti-gravity disc to escape, but the thing malfunctions and apparently carries him up into airless space and certain death. But even Johnny is acknowledging in the last panel that villains often seem to survive certain death and return to vex the heroes yet again.



Meanwhile, Dr. Strange has detected some supernatural shenanigans in a small Bavarian village, where inter-dimensional aliens are possessing the population as a precursor to invasion.


The good doctor pulls off a pretty neat-o trick to catch one of the aliens, leaving his unoccupied body out as possession-bait while he waits in ambush nearby in his ethereal form. After getting some helpful information from the alien he catches using this trick, he then crosses over to the next dimension and goes mano-0-mano against the alien’s leader. It’s another short but memorable story, with Ditko designing some gosh-darn creepy lookin’ bad guys.


That’s it for this time. Next week, we’ll continue with March 1964 when we look in to see what Thor, Iron Man and Giant Man are up to.

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