Saturday, May 16, 2020

Best and Worst of the Complete Marvel Reading Order #6

Best and Worst of the Complete Marvel Reading Order #6

Best - 981: Thor (1966) #160

Honestly, there is only one thing I need to say about this short arc.  Ego vs. Galactus...
'nuff said.

Ok, not really, because there is so much more to this.  This is the first time you really see the catastrophic cost of Galactus' appetite.  We see a whole civilization made homeless by the World Devourer, the Wanderers, driven nearly insane by their sorrow and desperation.  

They are really fun, and in the end Ego gives them sanctuary on his own surface.  They should have been a cool continuing thing in Marvel.

But we don't hear from them again until 1981, when John Byrne comes along and in a throw away panel is like "oh, yeah, Ego ate them all after Thor left. Psych!"  Uggh, John Byrne.  He only has excellent or horrible ideas, and sometimes its hard to tell which predominates.

Worst - 755: Daredevil (1964) #41

So, the phrase "The Death of Mike Murdock" is one I longed to read by this point.  Seriously, Mike Murdock...he had to die.  Cue the Dixie Chicks...Goodbye Mike Murdock.

(Man I love that song)

In case you didn't know, "Mike Murdock" was this inane alter-ego of Matt Murdock's, allegedly his brother, that he came up with because...honestly, I have no idea.  I've repressed the memory.  But by this point everyone thinks that "Mike Murdock" is actually Daredevil because people in Daredevil comics are dolts in 1968.  It was a horrible idea, and finally they were correcting it.

But trust Roy Thomas to screw up what should have been a celebratory moment.  First of all, there is the "Unholy Three", the Ani-Men, unimaginatively named Ape-Man, Bird-Man and Cat-Man.  
Here we see them having a hard time kidnapping Foggy Nelson.  Masters of Evil they are not.  Masters of Vaguely Unsettling, maybe.  Are they the worst Marvel villains ever?  Not even close, but they are certainly in the most boring top 20.

And we also have the Exterminator.  Who is the Exterminator, you ask?

That's right, you get it.  Nobody cares who the Exterminator is.  He is simply a placeholder taking up the "Villain" space in the vague script outline Lee handed Colan while both were facing the deadline for printing this story while hungover from martinis the night before.

So we have Daredevil fighting who cares villains to get rid of a who cares plot idea.  Whatevs, Marvel.  I guess you met the printing deadline.

Best - 997: Fantastic Four (1961) #91

So, let's get this out of the way first.  It seems impossible that Stan Lee wrote this without at least subconsciously remembering the Star Trek original series episode "A Piece of the Action".  You know the one...

This three issue arc has an identical premise; an alien world where the locals emulate American gangster movies.  However, in this case, Ben Grimm = Captain Kirk, Skrulls = Aliens.  If that doesn't make you say "you have my attention", I fear you have no soul.

The first issue is the only that is truly 5 stars, but the whole arc is such great fun.  It has little touches of brilliance, like this sequence of Ben struggling and failing against the gangster Skrull's Neuro-Ray...

and also great new characters, like Torgo!

and wonderfully goofy bits, like this Skrull biplane vs. Skrull Model T truck bit...

The basic plot-line is essentially "Gladiator with Skrulls in it" with the rest of the FF trying to figure out where Ben has been kidnapped to.  Its not rocket science, but Kirby is at the top of his game.  The down side in the 2nd two issues is that the coloring seems off, dank and muddy.  There is no colorist credited, so maybe Kirby was trying to do everything?  Also, even I have limits to goofiness, apparently...

I just feel sorry for that poor guy. 

Worst - 896: Not Brand Echh (1967) #12 [F Story]

You know how Mad magazine is supposed to be funny, but really is just boring and inane?  Well, Not Brand Echh made Mad look like it was written by Terry Pratchett and P.G. Wodehouse in a rare time-travelling pairing of sparkling wit.

I would never have read it if it weren't for the fact that some clever dick at Marvel decided it would be fun to have Hawkeye reading the magazine's parody of the Avengers ("The Revengers"...get it? Get it? *nudge* "The Revengers"?) inside the context of the actual Avengers.  So this little bit of annoying meta-fiction ends up in the Order due to the arcane inclusion criteria.

So, rather than subject you to any element of this awful farce, I give you this wonderful page of advertisements from 1968.  This is perhaps the most "super-hero comic book" page I have ever seen, because it captures the essence of reading comic-books back then more than the actual story and art ever could.

I mean, holy crap, what a crazy bunch of stuff.  How many homes were destroyed by that "New Ram Jet Engine Burns Gasoline" ad?  How many budding neo-Nazis got their very first Iron Cross from the "Famous German Medals" ad?  What the hell is pictured in that "Ugly Blackheads Out in Seconds" ad?  Can it even be legal?  How many nerds looked at the "Hercules Wrist Band" and thought "this...this is what I need to make my way in a dangerous world.  This is how I will prove my worth to the girls and the bullies in my school.  Nothing will stop me with these super-cool wrist bands!"  Which, actually, is a line from an Aquabats song, come to think of it... 

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Best and Worst of the Complete Marvel Reading Order #5

Best and Worst of the Complete Marvel Reading Order #5

Best - 901: Fantastic Four Annual (1961) #6

Let me get the one problem with this story out of the way; Sue Richards doesn't appear enough in it.  Of course, she is literally in labor for most of it, so that's not that surprising.

But that really is the only problem.  Otherwise, this is Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four perfected.  The story is packed full of emotion, excitement and drama.  Annihilus makes his first appearance as the primary antagonist...

But the real drama arises because the guys of the FF have to find some kind of cure for Sue and baby, before the cosmic energy that infuses her kills them both.  It has pages like this...

And that's just a taste, Kirby outdoes himself drawing action in this, page after page of thrills.  And also, this...
51 years later, and I think that is still in the top 10 2 page splashes in the history of super-hero comics.  

Thankfully, *half century old spoiler alert*, they are successful in their quest...

I could go on and on about this one, I love it so much.  I literally choke up in places, it is so powerful for me.  If you only ever read one comic book printed between 1960 and 1970, I highly suggest it is this one.  

Worst - 900: Captain Marvel (1968) #6

Captain Marvel has only been going for 6 issues, and already it is meandering and repetitive.  There is supposed to be this tension between Mar-vell's status as a Kree agent, and his growing relationships with humanity, but really its just dull.  If Mar-vell's boss, Yon-Rogg, had been portrayed as someone actually competent, just alien and uncaring about humanity, then maybe it would have worked, but he is just portrayed as a petty tyrant, which in turn makes the Kree Empire itself seem petty.  

But the worst sin here is how poor Carol Danvers, in only her seventh appearance, is handled...
Seriously, did they just make Carol say "eeeek"?  Say what you want about retcons in general, but the transition over time of Carol Danvers from relatively meek damsel in distress to the bad-ass you see in the recent film and current comics is one of the best retcons Marvel ever did.  

As I mentioned earlier on the Avengers, Don Heck is also a big problem here.  I mean, consider this page...

Its just...goofy?  Think about how well Kirby would have drawn the same action.  Look at how the figures in the lower right are not reacting in the slightest to what should be a terrifying sight.  Big letters spelling BAWHOOM! and CRRRACKK! are not enough to make this page exciting.  

Many boring comics have been published by Marvel but its the distance between the potential it has versus the actual execution that puts this into the Worst.

Best - 926: Doctor Strange (1968) #176

Remember all that disrespect I gave Gene Colan in that last few posts?  Well, here is where I don't take it back, but give it some nuance. I think Gene Colan was good when two factors were present.  First he had to be interested in the subject matter.  He likes gloomy and gothic, he likes showing off weird panel shapes, he likes drawing characters and their expressions.  Second, he needs a good inker.

All those factors come together in this Doctor Strange story.  I mean, compare this page...
To that action art from Daredevil in my other posts.  Its hard to believe its even the same artist.  With Daredevil it was like he was absent mindedly doodling to fill page space.  Here he has put real thought and attention to detail into depicting the story.  

Or consider this page:
I had complained earlier that Colan couldn't be bothered to fill in the panels, but here that is not a problem at all.  Each panel is fully executed, a little irregularly shaped window into the world of the story.  (I wonder how much of this was actually filled in by Tom Palmer at the inking stage?)

The plot in this story is perfectly fine, the Sons of Satanish interesting and dangerous as villains, and Cleo (albeit in damsel-in-distress mode) is fun as an alien sorceress lots in NYC.  But its really Colan and Palmer on the art that elevate this story to 5 stars.

Worst - 931: Incredible Hulk (1962) #105932: Incredible Hulk (1962) #106933: Incredible Hulk (1962) #107934: Incredible Hulk (1962) #108  

This four story run of Incredible Hulk, all of them 1 star duds, is worth commenting on as a group, because they demonstrate the main problem with Hulk in these early stories; if you never let him stop fighting, never let him stop running, you eventually run out of interesting things to say and start spinning your wheels. 

It doesn't help that the art is awful.  Look at the figures in this panel from #107...
How is it that in a completely drawn medium those figures being thrown from the vehicle by the Hulk still look like stunt men doing very poorly planned and executed wire work in a very cheap Hong Kong film from 1981?  Its a problem throughout this section of Hulk, as neither Marie Severin nor Herb Trimpe seem to be able to get anything right in terms of believable character motion.  I mean...what the heck is going on here?

I can't tell if the Hulk is fighting the pink guy (whose name is, for reasons I simply cannot be bothered to go into, Missing Link) or if they are doing some particularly acrobatic Lindy Hop steps...

Oh, and the Mandarin shows up, so that we can make sure we get some racial stereotypes covered as well.  Why does the Mandarin show up?  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯  I just re-read it and I really can't figure it out. The plot of the Incredible Hulk at this point is like it was created by one of those only barely trained machine learning algorithms instead of actual human beings.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Best and Worst of the Complete Marvel Reading Order #4

Best - 683: Tales of Suspense (1959) #94 [B Story]

I'm honestly not sure what more can be said...except...


Oh how I love MODOK.  He is simultaneously ludicrous and disturbing, a weird mix of body horror and slapstick. 

The lead in stories to this in ToS 92 and 93 are four stars each, so its a great story arc overall.  AIM as an organization was introduced a few years earlier, but this arc is where they become the classic crime science gang we all know and hate.  Also Agent 13 (aka Sharon Carter) is cool, if a bit damsel in distress-y. 

But mostly...MODOK.  Between Ego the Living Planet and MODOK Lee and Kirby were exploring the limits of super-villain ideas and then pushing them out, I think further than had ever been pushed.. 

Worst - 626: Tales of Suspense (1959) #91 [A Story]

I have an incredibly high tolerance for comic book science, but if Stephen Hawking had ever read the first and second pages of this Iron Man story, I think his IQ would have dropped so far that cosmology would have suffered beyond repair.  In other words, don't read this story, cosmologists! 

Not only that, but we go immediately from the bad science description to a racially stereotyped propagandist's Cuba for...reasons?  I guess they got tired of monstrous strong men being from New York and decided they could earn brownie points with the comics code by making him Cuban and making Castro look like an oaf?  

Also, remember in that last post where I said Gene Colan had a hard time with action?  Yeah, still has that problem.

At least he is filling in the panels a bit.  

That pretty much sums up early Iron Man; bad science and stupid propaganda and weak action.

Best -776: Captain America (1968) #100

Ignore the Avengers in the background, this story is all about Captain America, the Black Panther, and Agent 13 (aka Sharon Carter).  And of the three, Cap is the least impressive!

First, Agent 13.  Remember above where I said she was a bit "damsel-in-distress-y".  Well, not this story...  

For example...
What's really in the briefcase, Agent 13?  Oh, yeah, a FLAMETHROWER!

Flamethrower briefcase, that's just the way S.H.I.E.L.D. rolls, Zemo.  Agent 13 gets to be what you want her to be in this one; super-competent badass spy.  

And, of course, T'Challa, the Black Panther...

This story started two issues earlier in Tales of Suspense #98, and throughout the whole story there is never any doubt in the mind of the reader that the Panther is Captain America's equal.  They have different strengths, of course, but after the expected "super-hero meet cute" of a brief fight in #98 they immediately fall into an easy partnership built on mutual respect and shared virtue.  This panel is a great example...

Cap and T'Challa trade off taking the lead throughout the story, each one maximizing their strengths.  Its a cool dynamic, and it really makes the story.  

One publication note: this title actually continues on from Tales of Suspense, which ended at #99, dropping Iron Man.  There was a single Iron Man/Sub-Mariner issue, that completed the Tales of Suspense and Tales to Astonish titles, and then all of Captain America, Iron-Man, Sub-Mariner, and the Hulk had their own books.  Which leads me to... 

Worst - 687: Tales to Astonish (1958) #95 [A Story]

Oh, Dorma, I'm really worried about you...
Dorma, the love interest for Namor in these early stories, is a good character.  I find her interesting.  But her love for the paranoid monster that is Namor is simply inexplicable.  He isn't noble, he is arrogant. He isn't powerful, he is brutal. With a better writer, this would be Shakespearean tragedy in the making. With Roy Thomas and Bill Everett, it's just painful.  

Speaking of Bill Everett, he could actually do good work.  On Doctor Strange he does great things.  But here, with a character he is well known for, he is flat and uninspired.  For example, look a this page:
I could care less what is happening on that page.  Characters are moving around, and there are a lot of words, but not one spark of creativity.  

That being said, I think this story demonstrates a very important element of Marvel comics, especially ones this early.  Marvel comics have always been, first and foremost, a product.  As a product, they need to be created on time and delivered on time.  Regularity was far, far more important than creativity.  I read somewhere, I can't find it now, that one reason so many comics in the '70s and '80s were written by Bill Mantlo (who will show up in the Worst, just wait and see) was because he was absolutely the Rock of Gibraltar in terms of reliability.  He NEVER was late on a script, ever.  And, you know what, I respect him for that.  It might not be a virtue in a comic writer I would care about as a reader, but reliability and punctuality are virtues nonetheless, and I can see how they would be the most important virtues if I were a comics publisher.

So I think this story is just a case where a tight deadline on the script and the art meant that neither Roy Thomas nor Bill Everett were bringing their A game (which was usually at best a C+ game anyway, let's be honest).  They needed to fill pages, and they did it.  The book got printed on time and shipped to all the drug stores, newstands and barber shops of America.  That's what mattered. 

Oh, and also...the Plunderer is just the worst.  He is an excellent example of a super-villain who is simply not a super-villain.  You can put a cape on him and goofy white tights...

But in the end he is just this rich guy who is a pirate. Super-villains don't need to have super-powers, I mean, look at the Joker!  But they need a personality and some kind of schtick with staying power.  The Plunderer is just a schmo.