Wednesday, November 16, 2011

History of the Marvel Universe: March 1968


Reed and Sue have left town, leaving Ben and Johnnie up in the air about how to carry on. Fortunately, the world is soon in danger again, giving the two of them something to do.

It seems the Silver Surfer, disgusted by all us violent, bigoted humans, has come up with the dumbest plan ever. He’ll go on a world-wide rampage, forcing all the nations on Earthy to join together to fight him.

The Watcher pops into the Baxter Building to warn them, then pops off to stop the train Reed and Sue are on, telling them about the threat as well. Reed insists Sue stay behind and allows the Watcher to zap him back to New York.

That, by the way, pretty much ends Reed’s plans to take a leave of absence. There’s going to be several big threats coming in quick succession over the next several issues. Though Sue quite understandably and appropriately will sit the dangerous stuff out while she’s pregnant, Reed is back on the team just like that.

Anyway, Ben and Johnnie tussle unsuccessfully with the Surfer. When the army launches a super-missile called the Sonic Shark at the Surfer, Reed announces that it might actually kill the Surfer. The FF acts quickly to save their opponent’s life, though he’s been weakened by the experience. That brings him back to his senses, so the threat is ended.

Though the issue is as visually awesome as the rest of Kirby’s work on the book, the story is a little unsatisfying. There’s two reasons for this:

1)      The last issue ended with a dramatic announcement that Reed and Sue were leaving the team. I think it would have been fun to watch Ben, Johnnie and Crystal deal with threats without the resident genius.

2)      Also, the Surfer’s plan really is dumb and his motivation (and his abrupt realization that he was wrong) come across as contrived.

It’s not a bad story at all. But, as I’ve noted before, stories from the Lee/Kirby era that are merely good stand out dramatically because they’re not great.


Last issue ended with Spider Man getting dunked in the water and half-drowned. The shock of this cures him of his amnesia. Ka-Zar swings off to stop the cops from shooting Zabu and the amnesia story-line comes to an end.

By the way, we find out that if you’re a filthy-rich English lord like Ka-Zar, you pretty much have a free hand in destroying both public and private property. The cops will just shrug it off because they know you can afford to pay for it.

But there’s no rest for poor Spidey. Professor Smythe (who we met way back in issue #25) has built another remote control Spider Slayer robot. So the bulk of this issue pits Spider Man against the big robot in another fight to the death. Spidey uses both his superpowers AND his brains to destroy the robot.

In terms of pacing, this issue (despite a lot of action) is a breather between the Doc Ock arc that just ended and another long story arc featuring the Kingpin that will begin next issue. But it’s an entertaining breather and there are a couple of things about it worth pointing out.

First, there are several scenes featuring Peter’s friends at Aunt May’s sick bed, worrying about how long Pete’s been missing, as well as some moments centered around Captain Stacy and John Jameson. Stan Lee really had a knack for fitting these character bits into a story without slowing down the overall action. This issue is a particularly good example of this. 

Second, there’s the handling of J. Jonah Jameson. He’s at first eager to help Smythe in an attempt to capture Spider Man, but he’s horrified when he realizes the revenge-obsessed scientist is planning on simply killing the webslinger. Despite his hatred of Spidey, there’s a line Jameson won’t cross. It’s one of those occasional moments that lift him up from being comic relief or the resident pain-in-the-butt and present him as a more three-dimensional human being.

Finally, I love it that Spider Man finds out where Smythe’s lab is by looking him up in the phone book. That is a classic webhead moment.

THOR #150

Thor is apparently dead after his fight with the Wrecker, but it turns out he’s just mostly dead. Hela, goddess of death, shows up and Thor’s astral form leaves his body, but he declines to accompany her. He goes after the Wrecker, who is fighting an outmatched squad of police, but being invisible and incorporeal means he can’t do anything.

In the meantime, Balder and Sif pursue Loki to Karnilla’s realm. Balder has a really nifty fight against a gigantic warrior, but he’s soon captured along with Sif.

Karnilla pretends to befriend Sif, showing her that Thor has been defeated and is dying. Sif is quickly convinced that she must allow her life force to be put into the Destroyer armor.

It’s a neat plot twist, taking the story in an abrupt but satisfying new direction. The Destroyer takes down the Wrecker fairly easily. In the meantime, Thor has managed to reenter his own body, but he’s still weak. He sees the Destroyer and quite naturally thinks it’s even more of a threat than the Wrecker had been. The issue ends with Thor about to unknowingly attack the woman who loves him. This was what Karnilla and Loki planned all along, knowing that the violent nature of the Destroyer would make it fight back no matter whose life force is powering it.

As evil plans go, this one is really clever and seems worthy of the god of mischief.  I’ve been having a lot of fun with this story arc. Thor is a character that works best when he’s arrayed against cosmic-level threats like Ego, Pluto or Ulik. So, superficially, a story arc in which he’s been de-powered seems like a bad idea. But Stan and Jack have constructed a strong plot with great action and some truly emotional character moments.

And we get yet another example of good pacing within a story. The action switches smoothly back and forth from Earth to Karnilla’s realm without ever slowing down the plot.

That’s it for March. In April 1968, the FF fights a bunch of good guys; Spider Man saves Mary Jane for the first of many times; and Thor battles his girl friend without knowing it.

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