Wednesday, October 10, 2012

History of the Marvel Universe: October 1970


The first ever Kirby-less issue of Fantastic Four is illustrated by John Romita, Jr.  Romita will be around for four issues, then John Buscema will take over as the regular artist for an extended run.

And that’s just fine. Jack Kirby will, of course, always be missed. And I don’t know if any artist drawing the FF has ever succeeded in making them look as cosmically cool as did the King. But Romita and Buscema are at the top of the “great artists” list as well, so the book will continue to look great.

Though there still seems to be some sloppy plot construction going on. Stan really seems to have forgotten—as he apparently did last issue—that Atlantians other than Namor can’t breathe while out of water. Once again, though, the black-and-white reprint I own of this story might be giving me a false impression.

Oh, well, aside from that, the story flows along nicely. Magneto is still trying to convince Namor to attack the surface world. Reed talks to President Nixon and gets permission to try to negotiate with Namor before our military takes action.

But Magneto is still using his powers to secretly manipulate weapons and equipment, managing to get Namor and the FF into a fight.

After playing “behind-the-scenes manipulator” as long as possible, he kidnaps Dorma and Sue, intending to force Reed and Namor to play along while he uses the Atlantian military to wipe out mankind.

I will say that the dialogue during this storyline is sometimes a little heavy-handed. Stan seemed to be on a peace-and-brotherhood kick while writing this story. This is fine in of itself—peace and brotherhood are good things to kick about. But it really doesn’t need to be expressed in dialogue such as Reed telling his infant son “You deserve something better than—War!” Gee whiz, Reed, he’s just a baby. That tone of voice is just gonna scare the little guy!


Peter’s personal problems continue to pile up. He’s concerned that Doc Ock actually survived last issue’s plane crash, so he’s determined to track down the villain. So when Randy Robertson asks him to participate in a protest against air pollution, he declines. Randy accuses him of selfishness and stalks off.

Which brings up something I notice while reading this month’s FF and Spider Man. I’ve realized that Stan Lee wasn’t just on a peace-and-brotherhood kick. He was, by golly, on an all-encompassing social responsibility kick.

I’m taking a wild guess here—remember that I do the Marvel Universe reviews with little or no research beyond reading the issues in order to judge them purely on their own merits—so this is an uninformed shot in the dark:  By 1970, Marvel had nearly a decade of success in making comics more intelligent, with more internal continuity and complex characterizations. That meant that there were a much higher percentage of older readers than there used to be—especially among college students.

I think this might have touched Stan’s social conscious. He was thinking seriously about ways to make the stories he was writing more important than just escapist entertainment, so started looking at ways to comment on the important issues of the day.

Sadly, this often got expressed in heavy-handed dialogue. That was the case in this month’s FF and it’s the case here. Of course, Stan often wrote over-the-top dialogue, but his skill in shaping empathetic characters usually made us accept such dialogue regardless. But this time, for instance, Robbie Robertson sees Spidey swinging by and tells an angry Jonah Jameson “Cool it, mister. He’s not hurting half as much as that pollution up there.”

Mr. Lee, I know it is often said of your dialogue that “no one really talks that way.” But for heaven’s sake, man—NO ONE REALLY TALKS THAT WAY!  We get it. We get it. Pollution is bad. Thanks for letting us know.

Gee whiz, I’ve spend far too much time complaining about this—because this really is a good issue. It’s the start of a truly classic arc that will see an important character die.

It’s illustrated by Gil Kane, who will be doing the three issues after this as well. Regular Spidey artist John Romita will be doing the inking. Kane is another of the greats—Marvel really was blessed in regards to its available pool of artists in 1970. Kane never drew an uninteresting panel in his life. He catches the personalities of the regular characters and he’ll give us one of the best Spidey/Ock fights in recorded history.

Because Spidey goes looking for Ock, who actually wants to be found so he can finally crush the wallcrawler. The ensuing rooftop fight runs for 11 pages, with Kane weaving Ock’s tentacles in and out of each panel in a way that makes them seem truly menacing.

In the end, Spidey is distracted when he prevents a water tower from crashing down on bystanders, which allows Doc Ock to get the drop on him and toss him off a roof.

So I forgive Mr. Lee for beating us over the head with the evils of air pollution. He and Gil Kane gave us one of the best fight scenes ever. It’s enough to make you want to pollute more if it results in this sort of quality graphic storytelling.

That’s if for October. Next week, we’ll study the behavior of Kryptonian primates. Then, in November 1970, we’ll finish off our regular look at the Fantastic Four while Reed and Namor whine about their ladies being held hostage; while someone in Spider Man’s cast of characters gets dropped from the book like a ton of bricks.

That will be the last post I title “History of the Marvel Universe.” We’ll continue to follow Spider Man through the Death of Gwen Stacy storyline, so we’ll be with him for awhile. But calling it a history of the whole universe has become too much of a stretch.

We will never leave the other members of the Marvel Universe behind forever—we’ll always be back to look at specific issues or story arcs from time to time. We’ve also got quite awhile to go on our look at the Weisinger-era Superman stories.

I’m always open to suggestions about what to review. Quite some time ago, someone suggested a look at the Charlton heroes. At the time, I didn’t have the source material handy. But we have since acquired an Archives volume of some of those stories at the library where I work, so I’ll make a point of reviewing a few issues. Let me know what else you’d like me to cover.

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