Wednesday, September 28, 2011

History of the Marvel Universe: 1967 Annuals


Poor Alicia Masters. Her studio apartment gets trashed yet again; this time because a component for a villain’s super-weapon was accidentally delivered to her.

That’s just one of several extreme coincidences that drive this story along, but there the sort of coincidences that are common in a comic book universe and---if the story is entertaining—they are coincidences we are willing to accept.

And it’s lucky this story is entertaining, because not only does the FF become involved due to a henchman mis-reading an address label, but the villain’s secret headquarters just happens to be on a Caribbean island owned by the Black Panther. An island that the Inhumans just happen to be stopping at.

Anyway, the villain is Psycho-Man. He’s not a top tier bad guy at all, but he is one of the many Marvel supercrooks who are quite capable of carrying an occasional story. His visual design is striking and his origin is pretty unique.

He comes from a sub-atomic world that has an over-population problem, so he’s decided to conquer Earth to get room to expand. The being we see in the story is actually a robot body housing a microscopic being.

That’s a cool concept, of course. Though, when you think about it, the whole invasion plan seems unnecessary. Since Psycho-Man’s world is sub-atomic, couldn’t they all just move into a Petri dish in Reed’s lab and have enough room for generations of expansion?

 Anyway,  Psycho-Man has a mind-ray that can induce crippling fear, doubt or hate. He also has three henchmen of the sort that Jack Kirby was so good at creating: Live Wire is a cowboy with an electric gun and lariat. Shellshock’s gun fires small guided rockets, while the Slavic-looking Ivan has a solar gun that fires blinding light. In other words, they are that unique brand of individualized secondary characters that Jack could probably create in his sleep.

So, Ben, Johnny, the Inhumans and Black Panther all end up fighting these henchmen, then go up against illusions representing their greatest fears. But Gorgon’s shockwaves are able to dissipate the illusions and Psycho-Man is defeated.

But wait! Why weren’t Sue and Reed there? Because Sue’s gonna have a baby!!! She’s begun what—in real life time—will be the longest pregnancy ever.  

So Sue doesn’t come along because she can’t put her baby at risk. That’s understandable. Reed doesn’t come along because… um, because… well, apparently Reed is now completely whipped.

All making fun aside, this is a good, solid story with a nifty blend of different heroes, existing mostly to let Jack Kirby show off his visual awesomeness. But the little character bits that define the Fantastic Four are still very much present.

There’s also a back-up story featuring the Silver Surfer, something that I assume was to promote or test the waters for his upcoming solo series. (This story is drawn by Kirby—the fact that he would NOT be drawing the solo series or receive credit for creating the series is one of the important factors that led to him leaving Marvel.)

The Surfer runs across Quasimodo, the living computer used by the Mad Thinker in the previous annual. In an act of pity, the Surfer creates a body for the lonely computer. But that doesn’t work out well. Quasimodo, after all, is short for Quasi-Motivational Destruct Organ, which basically means he starts to wreck stuff. After a brief struggle, the Surfer converts Quasimodo into a statue.

We’ll eventually take a look at a few issues of the Surfer’s book, which contained some wonderful John Buscema art and a number of strong stories, but there’s a few elements in this story that highlight a major weakness in the Surfer’s character. Stan Lee and other writers would use him as an outsider looking at the human race and often pointing out our flaws.  That’s fine by itself, but there are times when the Surfer comes across as a self-righteous jerk. For instance, he has a run-in with some duck hunters in this story and whines “In all the universe, only here do wanton beings slay innocent creature in the name of sport.”

Well, I’m sorry, Surfer, old man. First, you can eat a duck. Second, you live in a universe populated by the Skrull and the Kree and the Toad People and the Brood (well, I grant we haven’t met the Brood at this point) and gosh-darned Rock Men from Saturn, all of whom regularly act in bloodthirsty and aggressive ways. Humans actually look pretty good in comparison to those guys.

The Surfer’s a great character and an important addition to the Marvel Universe. And, as I said, using him as a outside observer of mankind is a great idea. But that aspect of his character was sometimes overwritten. Just give the poor duck hunters a break and move on.


This annual gives us an always-welcome Spidey/Torch team-up. And they face a villain team-up: The Wizard and Mysterio have joined forces to destroy their respective arch-enemies.

It’s actually a trap that Johnny should have seen coming, since Namor once did the exact same thing to lure the Fantastic Four into danger. The villains form a movie studio and cast both the Torch and Spidey as stars of a film, positioning the heroes so that they can drop the hammer on them.

I guess I’m in a nitpicky mood this week, because I have yet another nitpick. The Torch, of course, has no secret identity, so paying him for a film role is no problem. But Spidey was briefly in show business at the beginning of his career, but his manager was never able to pay him because SPIDER MAN CAN’T CASH A CHECK!!! 

That issue simply isn’t raised here. In fact, in years to come, it’s a problem that only comes up when the plot demands it. There are times when Peter earns money as Spider Man without any apparent tax or legal difficulties at all. Then there are times when Peter gets dumped on for exactly these reasons. It all seems to depend on the writer.

But if that had been the worst inconsistency the Marvel Universe ever suffered, it wouldn’t be in the mess it is today. The story itself is a great one. The various traps and threats used by the villains are pretty cool and the banter between Spidey and the Torch is as fun as ever. And Stan Lee doesn’t forget that Peter is good at science stuff, using this to allow him to outsmart the bad guys in the end.

That’s it for the annuals. Next week, we'll join Superman and a bunch of stretchy guys for an unusal adventure. In two weeks, we’ll look at Marvel Comics regular issues for November 1967, in which Ben Grimm falls into a trap; Aunt May shows poor judgment when taking in a border; and Thor commits a felony or two.

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