Wednesday, February 10, 2010

History of the Marvel Universe: October 1964, part 1


The Mole Man is back—this time he’s “kidnapping” New York City one block at a time, sinking each block down into his subterranean kingdom. His captives include Sue and he uses her to force the rest of the Fantastic Four to back off while he conquers the world.

After a near-fight with the Avengers to keep them from charging in and endangering Sue, Reed whips up a detection device to pin-point her exact location underground. Then Johnny burns a tunnel down to her and sets her free. Soon, the entire FF is on the scene, battling Mole Man and his army of Moloids.

It’s a good issue, with Jack Kirby giving us some cool-looking super weapons invented by Mole Man. It’s also neat to see the other New York-based super-group show up—as one would expect them to when entire city blocks are vanishing.

It’s marred a little by an unbelievably contrived ending. Sue is badly hurt in the final battle and rushed to the hospital. But the only doctor who can perform the operation needed to save her life is now an escapee from prison.

BUT WAIT!!! The fugitive shows up, turning himself in so that he can save Sue’s life? Why? Well, because he just happens to be Sue and Johnny’s long-lost father!!!

One of the strengths of the Marvel books was introducing real-life emotions and problems into the characters. But here, Stan and Jack stumble a little too far into soap opera territory to make their plot twist generate any true emotional reaction from the reader. But it’s still a good issue overall.


I love this issue. It has a feel to it similar to the screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s. If a superhero movie had ever been directed by Frank Capra, it would have been something like this.

It’s actually difficult to give a succinct plot summary—there’s so much stuff going on. Betty and Liz are still getting catty with each other over Peter. Flash Thompson is starting a Spider Man Fan Club, but doesn’t want let Puny Parker join. Aunt May is still trying to fix Peter up with that still unseen “nice Mary Jane Watson.” Spidey looks publically foolish when he mistakes some actors filming a movie scene as real criminals. Then he has to watch Johnny Storm get swooned over by eager autograph-seekers. Attempts to protect his secret identity leads to more misunderstandings with Betty, leaving her convinced that he likes Liz best. And so on. It’s a truly funny story from start to almost finish.

It does get serious at the end, though. The climax comes when the Green Goblin attacks Spider Man at the first Fan Club meeting. The Human Torch is there also and joins in the fight (accidentally blocking a chance for Spidey to web the Goblin). But when Spidey learns that Aunt May has had a heart attack, he leaves the battle abruptly, making it look like he chickened out. The Goblin then manages to make his own getaway. It turns out May is going to be all right, but only Flash remains convinced that Spider Man is still a good guy. Everyone else now thinks he’s a coward.

The segue from comedy to drama is very smooth, while the Goblin vs. Spidey and Torch battle is yet another example of Ditko’s skill in that area. All in all, a really satisfying read.


Johnny and Ben both get into a snit when a couple of Life Magazine reporters show up to interview—not them—but Reed and Sue. So when the Sub Mariner is reported as heading towards New York, the two decide to handle it on their own and prove they’re worth an interview as well.

They meet Namor at sea and pretty much battle him to a draw. Dick Ayers does the art and choreographs a nifty fight sequence. Namor eventually retreats, muttering that he’s been lied to and he won’t fall for that again.

Lied to about what? Well, it turns out that Reed had convinced him to meet and talk peace. But Johnny and Ben’s attack un-convinced him in a hurry.

This is actually one of the strongest stories in Torch’s Strange Tales run. It nicely highlights his antagonistic but ultimately real friendship with Ben and the irony of the two doing more harm than good because they were jealous of Reed and Ben adds the sort of human touch that (unlike the climax of this month’s FF) really does generate a sincere emotional response from the reader.

In the meantime, Baron Mordo has managed to capture the Ancient One and now goes after Dr. Strange. Strange pretends to retreat while they toss spells at each other, but he’s actually searching for the Ancient One. The fight travels halfway across the world before Strange finds his mentor in some ruins atop the Himalayas, confined in a glowing magical sphere.

Strange makes a stand there and pretty much just beats Mordo down through more powerful magic.

Some of Steve Ditko’s best work was on Dr. Strange. His visualizations of the spells used by Strange and Mordo are as cool as they are bizarre, but he still manages to organize those visuals in such a way that we are able to follow the action of the story without any confusion. The Doctor Strange stories are really hitting their stride now and they’ll only be getting better.

That’s it for this week. Next time, we’ll look to see what Thor, Iron Man, Giant Man and the Hulk are up to in October 1964.

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