Wednesday, May 30, 2012

History of the Marvel Universe: October 1969


Whether or not the concept for this story arc was lifted from a Star Trek episode, this issue is more fun than a barrel full of Tommy Guns.

Ben’s been kidnapped by a Skrull slaver and brought to another planet. Once there, he discovers a replica of a Prohibition-era big city populated by mobsters—one of whom buys Ben for use in gladiatorial combat.

Of course, these mobsters are Skrulls (and their Tommy Guns are high-tech blasters).  Ben learns that a mobster had been captured by a slaver during the 1930s. The Skrulls on this planet liked the style and language of that era, so adopted it as their own. 

Ben being Ben, he vocally objects to being a slave and does as much physical damage as he can, but his strength is being sapped by the collar he’s wearing, so for the moment he’s helpless.

The issue ends with Ben meeting Torgo, the killer robot he’ll eventually face in the arena, while back on Earth Reed has deduced his friend has been captured by Skrulls.

The whole thing is a visual and story-telling delight. I’ll bet Kirby had a ball drawing this one—a sense of pure fun literally shines from each panel.

Alien shape-shifters play-acting as Capone-era mobsters while staging gladiatorial combats with various alien monsters and robots. In lesser hands, this might have been a fun but incredibly silly story. But in the hands of Lee and Kirby, I think it might actually score a perfect 10 on the Bogart/Karloff Coolness scale. All those diverse and apparently contradictory elements are blended together into a perfect comic book smorgasbord.


I’ve talked before about how skilled Stan Lee was in sandwiching short character moments into action sequences without interfering with the pacing of the action. This time out, though, he didn’t have to worry about that. The whole issue involves a three-way battle between Spidey, the Human Torch and the Lizard.  When we do break away for a moment, it’s simply to set up young Bobby Connors rushing from his home to the scene of the battle, desperately hoping to somehow help his father.

It’s a great fight scene. Spidey wants to stop Lizard without the Torch, because he doesn’t want to hurt Doc Connors or give away Connors’ secret. The Torch honestly sees the Lizard as a threat that has to be stopped at all costs to protect innocent lives—and he’s perpetually ticked off at Spider Man and confused by the webslinger’s interference and insistence that he (the Torch) back off. 

There’s a particular aspect to John Buscema’s art here that mirrors something Romita also did during many of Spider Man’s battles.  He’s careful to include a panel every page or two that gives us an upward or downward pointing perspective—something that vividly reminds us that this battle is taking place on skyscraper rooftops high above the actual ground. It’s an effective technique: adding another degree of tension to his already magnificent fight choreography.

Anyway, the issue ends when Spider Man is able to get the Lizard away from the Torch, then dose him in a dehydrating chemical that turns him human again. This brings the fight and the story arc to a satisfying conclusion. We'll miss Romita while he's gone, but John Buscema’s first two issues prove he’s up to the task of using visuals to tell a great story.

THOR #169

Thor listens as Galactus recounts his origin, then Odin zaps Thor back to Earth.

That’s pretty much it.

Well, no it’s not. Though I have a few complaints about this issue, it does present Jack Kirby with yet another opportunity to go cosmic and provide super-awesome visuals. And Galactus’ origin is a good one: Eons ago, the paradise planet of Taa was being wiped out by the Creeping Plague. Unable to find a cure, a handful of survivors launch themselves into their sun, determined to go out in a blaze of glory.

But one of them isn’t killed. Instead, he’s mutated into something with god-like powers and an insatiable hunger for energy.

Later on, it would be retconned that Galactus’ homeworld was a part of the universe that existed before ours, making him the last survivor of that reality.

This is all pretty cool stuff, but I spend so much time praising Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, that I’m going to complain about them this time around with a clear conscience.

Problem #1: Thor doesn’t do anything but listen. He’s the hero of the book, but just sort of sits there until his daddy sends him home.

Problem #2: Odin’s purpose in having his son track down Galactus isn’t really adequately explained. Odin listens in on the big guy’s explanation, then just says “Galactus’ time has not yet come” before sending Thor back to Earth. Is it that he’s decided Galactus is not an immediate threat to Asgard? It comes across more as a deus ex machina than a sensible plot twist.

Problem #3: As I said last issue, this criticism is a little unfair because I’m whining that Lee and Kirby didn’t write the story I wanted them to write, but what the hey: THEY DIDN’T WRITE THE STORY I WANTED THEM TO WRITE! Thor’s journey is set up to be an epic quest. But he finds Galactus almost immediately, listens to him for a few minutes, then goes home. Gee whiz, Jack and Stan, don’t send the God of Thunder into deep space unless you’re going to let him have a deep space adventure!

Anyway, back in New York City, the Thermal Man is on a rampage. The cops, Balder and the Warriors Three are all getting their collective butt handed to them. But Thor is back and ready to join in the battle.

That’s it for October 1969. Next week, we’ll jump over to the DC Universe for a look at the origin of the real Supergirl. Then, in two weeks, we’ll examine November 1969, as Ben fights for his life in a Skrull arena; Spider Man adds another villain to his Rogue’s Gallery; and Thor goes up against a wonking big robot.

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