Wednesday, October 19, 2011

History of the Marvel Universe: December 1967


Ben is in a killing rage, determined to destroy his best friend and the closest thing to a family he has.

It’s pretty much non-stop action in this one. We discover that the villain responsible for brainwashing the Thing is the Mad Thinker. And while Ben fights the rest of the FF, the Thinker is free to rummage around the Baxter Building and study Reed’s stuff. He stumbles across the entrance to the Negative Zone.

In the meantime, the fight against Ben has left the Baxter Building and spread out into the city proper. It’s a great fight, made unique by the fact that Reed, Johnnie and Sue are trying to stop Ben without hurting him, while HE’S not holding back on deadly force.  The authorities join in and a barrage of fire from jet planes set a condemned building on fire. Ben, temporarily separated from his opponents, manages to slip away. His brainwashing is still in full effect and Ben thinks “I got all the muscle I need—to finish off the FF forever!”

By the way, Reed has deduced that the Thinker is responsible and sends out the cops to search the villain’s old hideouts.

It’s fast-paced but well-constructed storytelling throughout the issue, with both actions and dialogue remaining true to the characters.

I do want to take note of a common cliché used in Marvel comics throughout the 1960s. This fight, like so many others before and after it, just happens to end up taking place atop a condemned building. Unless the action was planned out by the writer and artist to include a threat to innocent bystanders, this was the conceit used again and again to set that problem aside. Reading these books through in order makes it a very noticeable cliché as well.

But, ya know, I’m not really bothered by it. It was a quick and easy way to allow the characters to get to the good stuff—cool fight scenes. Yes, New York City sometimes seems to be made up of 80% to 90% condemned buildings, but this issue is a strong example of why this is a harmless and necessary cliché.

Jack Kirby could have easily choreographed a fight scene in which the heroes had to protect innocent lives, but there was a dramatic necessity to concentrate our attention on just the main characters. So yet another condemned and empty building turns up. The result is a superb action sequence with a lot of strong emotion behind it. That’s more than a fair trade.


Boy, the last couple of months have been bad ones for the mental health of superheroes. Thor had been hypnotized by the Ringmaster, Ben has been brainwashed into a killing machine—and now Spider Man has amnesia and thinks he’s an arch-criminal.

How did that happen? Well, Spidey’s mad because Doc Ock had endangered Aunt May. He’s also worried that May’s insurance won’t cover repairs to the huge gaping hole Ock left in her house.

So Spidey’s zipping about town, beating up henchmen and unsuccessfully trying to get a line on Doctor Octopus. Meanwhile, Ock attacks a military convoy carrying the Nullifier, the secret weapon he tried to steal two issues ago.

He gets the weapon and, determined to do the unexpected, takes it to its original destination at Stark Industries. He uses the ray to shut down the factory (including phones and weapons), thus taking over the place.

I’m not sure this plan makes sense, since he’s not exactly keeping his presence at his chosen hideout a secret. But Ock’s always been a little on the whacky side, so I’ll buy it.

Spider Man guesses his plans and attacks him at Stark’s factory. During the ensuing fight, Ock hits Spidey with the Nullifier ray…

…which apparently nullifies Peter’s memory. With no idea of who he is, he accepts Ock’s explanation that he’s a henchman.

I appreciate that this is a plot twist that was clichéd even in 1967, but it’s a great issue, nonetheless, with little moments for the supporting characters thrown in between action scenes. We get Gwen and Mary Jane snipping at each other over Peter, Harry getting more and more aggravated with Peter’s odd habits and an example of Robbie Robertson being willing to nonchalantly stand up to Jameson.

And the action is cool—both Ock’s assault on the convoy and his fight with Spider Man are strong examples of John Romita’s talents at handling action.

(Side note: How lucky was Stan Lee to have first Kirby and Ditko followed by Romita do do his action scenes? Those three men are arguably the top three strongest comic book fight choreographers in the genre’s history. They are inarguably among the top ten.)

The amnesia arc will run through the next few issues and, clichéd though it might be, it will be handled well.

THOR #147

Odin is the all-powerful ruler of Asgard. He’s also, from time to time, an idiot.

He calls Loki back from Limbo and forgives him again, trusting him not to again act with malice and murderous intent. 

Yes, Odin is an idiot. I really think it might have been better for Stan and Jack to come up with ways for Loki to keep escaping from Limbo and other prisons other than have a supposedly all-wise ruler repeatedly make the same stupid mistake.

Anyway, Loki immediately heads for Earth and bails Thor out of prison. (The Circus of Crime has escaped, while Thor—back in his right mind—surrendered to the cops.) Once out in the streets, Loki starts beating the snot out of his de-powered brother.

There’s a point in the fight, by the way, where Thor voices a concern for innocent bystanders. Where’s a handy condemned building when you really need one?

Anyway, Sif and Balder defy Odin to come to Earth and help Thor. I’m assuming they didn’t just tell Odin that Loki was misbehaving because… well, because Odin’s an idiot.

He’s an all-powerful idiot, though. Mad at all four Asgardians currently hanging out on Earth, he sends down a bolt of lightning. I’m assuming it’s meant to spell out in the skies over New York something in the nature of “Odin’s an idiot,” but we’ll have to wait until next issue to find that out.

Actually, I’m being unfair to this issue. I do have trouble with Odin’s attitude towards Loki and think it comes across too much as a convenient plot contrivance, but both plot and characterizations are otherwise strong. I like that Thor cooperates with the police and goes to jail simply out of respect for the law. I like the portrayal of Sif and Balder’s loyalty to Thor. Not surprisingly, I love Kirby’s visuals. Taken as a whole, the issue is representative of the strong storytelling we usually find in the pages of Thor.

But, gosh darn it, Odin IS AN IDIOT!!!!

That’s it for 1967. We’ll open 1968 with the FF fighting both a friend and a powerful android, Spider Man teaming up with Doctor Octopus and Thor adding an important member to his rogue’s gallery.

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