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.  

Friday, March 27, 2020

Best and the Worst of the Complete Marvel Reading Order # 3

The Best - 596: Fantastic Four (1961) #61

Time to talk about my love affair with Benjamin Grimm, aka the ever-lovin' blue-eyed Thing.  I'm going to get biblical about it, albeit in a way that will likely make any theologians among you cringe.

Matthew 21:28-31 (World English Bible)
28 But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first, and said, ‘Son, go work today in my vineyard.’ 29 He answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind, and went. 30 He came to the second, and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I’m going, sir,’ but he didn’t go. 31 Which of the two did the will of his father?”
They said to him, “The first.”
Jesus said to them, “Most certainly I tell you that the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering into God’s Kingdom before you. 
Ben Grimm is the first son.  He complains and gripes and talks about how much he hates the job.  And yet, when the chips are down and the world is facing mortal peril, Ben Grimm is the guy who straps a nuclear bomb to his back and climbs literally into the mouth of the monster to save the day.  He sees what needs to be done, and he does it.  He always has your back, even when he thinks its a bad idea, but he'll make sure to tell you what a bad idea it is.  He PAYS for his heroism, in blood and cracked hide and shattered emotional health and moral injury and mockery, but he does it anyway.  That's why he is my favorite.

In this issue both Lee and Kirby in their respective ways nail the Thing.  Lee, give him classic dialogue, like these few panels...
"Dontcha even get a a coffee break in the blasted super-heroin' business??"  See what I mean, the first son.

But Kirby and Lee nail ALL the characters in this one.  They have really hit their stride.  They've done some good stuff so far, but counting FF Annual #1 in 1967 and 1968 they made five 5 star stories.  This story builds in a clear progression, the amount of danger facing them from Sandman as well as some out of control technology just increasing, each one of them having their moments of triumph and setback trying to get control of the situation.  The last five pages of this story are still some of the most thrilling pages in the Order; that sounds like hyperbole, but seriously...
Look at all that wreckage hitting Johnny in the face.  Look at all that green kirby krackle.  "KLASH!"  But the ending clinches it, as Reed is forced to enter the Negative Zone without any safety measures...
That last panel...the Thing is meant to be made of stone, but Kirby makes him so wonderfully expressive.  This is a truly thrilling story.  

The combination of both Plantman and Porcupine make this one of the worst stories in this period. That pair of pestilential pinheads pierces my peace of mind.

But this is really just a single example of the general dreary mess that is early X-Men.  Everything is flat; characters, art, drama, plot, dialogue.  Flat as a plank.  Look at this...
That's what passes for "action" in early X-Men.  

The Best - 617: Strange Tales (1951) #157 [A Story]

This time it isn't Doctor Strange...its Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.!

Jim Steranko has taken over both the writing and art at this point, and wow, does he pack in great stuff!  Baron Strucker!  Hydra Island!  The SATAN CLAW!  The Hallucination Cube!  

Some many great pages in this, its hard to narrow it down without making a mockery of "fair use" copyright provisions, but consider this page...

Steranko wrote 19 Nick Fury stories for Marvel by my count.  This is the high point.  His art gets better as the stories go on after this, but the stories get more muddled and confusing.   Its all good, of those 19 none are less than 3 stars, and nine are 4 stars.  This is the only one I gave 5 stars, though. 

The Worst - 594: Daredevil (1964) #26

Here is the thing about Gene Colan.  He was not a bad artist.  When he was doing the things he was good at, he was really good.  For example, look at this panel...
(Digression: Set aside for a moment the sickly grey skin tone of the prosecutor, that's not Gene Colan's fault.  In fact, its not until 1968 or so that African Americans have a consistently non-zombie healthy looking skin tone.  See this page: for an interesting discussion of early comics coloring.)

That's a pretty great panel!  The facial expressions, the directions of each character's gaze, the panel tells you what is happening in the scene before you even read the words.  Gene Colan is great at this kind of thing, I bet he did some fantastic romance comics and court-room dramas.  But then, they make him do action...
Colan can't even be assed to fill in the backgrounds, and he fills half the page with Daredevil just swinging around.  That's typical.  He just doesn't seem to care to tell a story in the action bits.

That's bad enough.  But Daredevil is also just a mess. No one has any idea what to do with him.  They keep throwing stupid villains at him, each one dumber than the next.  I mean, you would think Stilt Man would be the bottom of the barrel, but you haven't even gotten to the Masked Marauder and the Plunderer yet.  

Add that insult to the injury that this is during the period when inexplicably they decided that Matt Murdock should periodically don the guise of his fictional brother Mike Murdock and act like a total idiot in the most annoying fashion for pages on end, and you have the morass that is early Daredevil.  

Monday, March 23, 2020

Best and Worst of the Complete Marvel Reading Order #2

The Best - 435: Amazing Spider-Man (1963) #33

It seems fitting that the first full length story to get 5 stars is in "Amazing Spider-Man".  This story has all the stuff that is good about early Marvel in it.  First, Marvel isn't afraid to put its characters in what feels like serious mortal danger.  I mean, sure, super-heroes face dangerous stuff all the time, but Lee and Ditko make you feel it.  Spidey is straining to his limits, fighting exhaustion, on the ropes and near the edge of endurance.  For example, this iconic sequence...

This was the template for a scene in "Spider-Man: Homecoming".  I think an important touch to this sequence is the way the water keeps falling right on Spidey's head the whole time.  Its this extra piece of misery thrown in, but it also ties the whole page together visually, the vertical lines of the falling water guiding your eye down the page and giving you a kind of ruler to measure the distance Spidey has pushed up the wreckage on his back.  That kind of visual story telling is what I love the most about comic books, its not just the words and its not just the art its the marriage of the two in harmony which creates something far more than the sum of its parts.

Another iconic set of panels from this story...

Peter has triumphed, he has saved Aunt May through water, wreckage, and a platoon of Doctor Octopus's henchman.  He has succeeded through physical prowess and also through his own intelligence; its his insight that ensures the cure of Aunt May will succeed.  And you can see it in his hunched shoulders, his bowed head as he walks from the hospital, how close he was to failure.  

Another thing this story demonstrates is just how much story they packed in to a typical Marvel book back then.  Wow!  This one book would take 4 or 5 to cover in just 1990, let alone today.  

On the down side, oh man, Stan Lee liked to talk...

Ignore the information content in those panels and just soak in the the volume of words.  This early in the Order this still has some charm.  But by the time we get into the late '60s, there come moments where I feel like yelling at the creators "come on guys, show me, don't tell me!"   Lee is not even the worst culprit along these lines.  Trust me, just wait until we get to Gerry Conway...

The Worst - 367: Avengers (1963) #18

Early Avengers until 1968 or so is mediocre.  A lot of iconic villains are introduced, and its not without its charms, but it suffers from two elements.  First, the insistence in having all of the male characters act like testosterone fueled jerks most of the time.  I mean, even Captain America comes across as an ass, and don't get me started on Hawkeye.  The second is that Don Heck is just...not great.  He is serviceable, I suspect he was reliable in delivering pages on time, but he has no spark to him.  

But this story is the worst of the worst.  A racist piece of anti-communist propaganda masquerading poorly as a super-hero story.  I'm going to only put one piece of art from it here, because honestly much of it is just too offensive to copy over...
That's pretty much everything you need to know about this story.  

Also, I'm nearly certain that the Marvel Digital Unlimited version has been recolored, so the Asian characters do not have the original sickly yellow complexions.  But I could be wrong about that.  Its awful, 'nuff said.

The Best - 544: Thor (1966) #133 [A Story]

If you ever wondered "hmmm, who is this Jack Kirby of whom people speak, and why is he a thing, look no further than Thor #133.  Lee and Kirby are creating everything that is the Marvel cosmic sensibility in this comic from whole cloth.  I feel confident in saying there was nothing like THIS in a comic before...

I don't know, maybe something like Legion of Superheroes might have had stuff like this in the early '60s?  I suspect not.  This is where Jack Kirby always excelled to my mind.  He was a fine artist for character studies and conversations, but he was in his element when throwing mind-blowing weirdness at you.  

This whole story brings so many fun science-fiction elements into play.  Thor started out as a weird hybrid right from the first story, where he fights off the Stone Men from Saturn.  But this just shove in more.  Ego the Living Planet, with his every changing landscape and his anti-bodies.  The Recorder, an android reconnaissance device.  Its this mix of myth and space opera that is a defining feature of the Marvel Universe.  The fact that Norse gods trod the spaceways with interstellar empires, and that cosmic beings like Silver Surfer are plagued by Satannic stand-ins like Mephisto.  It all just goes into a blender and comes out as a tasty cosmic smoothie.

And there are pages like this...

I'm over 12,000 stories into the Order, and that is still in my top 5 full page panels.  It is only marred by that weird yellow narration box in the corner.  What was the point of that?  Like I said above, Stan Lee liked to talk.  Walt Simonson later did an excellent homage to this page on the cover of Thor #340...

Its stories like this that keep me reading the Order.

The Worst - 534: Tales of Suspense (1959) #83 [B Story]

"Enter, the Tumbler!"
Picture the scene.  It is Stan Lee's office in Manhattan, about 4 PM, late August or early September 1966.  Stan is putting on his coat and hat about to leave as Jack Kirby enters...

Kirby: "Hey Stan, where is the script for the November Captain America story in Tales of Suspense? I've been waiting for it."

Lee: "Jack, I can't be bothered with that right now, I've got to get a martini in me as soon as possible.  Just spin the wheel and do the whole 'Marvel Method' thing, would you?" Lee rushes out.

Kirby turns to the Wheel.  It's like the thing on "Wheel of Fortune", except around the edges are just random super-villain names.  He spins it, it clicks around and around, and then eventually comes to rest.

Kirby: "The Tumbler.  God*&#^$&*#.  I wonder if DC is hiring."

The true insult of this story is not that the Tumbler is a dumb character.  Its that only 7 issues earlier than this, they ALREADY introduced Batroc the Leaper.  Sorry, Batroc ze Leapair.  Batroc has the whole "acrobatic villain" thing nailed down, right?  Batroc is my boi, yo.  Ain't nobody comes in on Batroc's turf, is what I am saying.  Sorry, Tumbler, but the position has been filled.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Best and Worst of the Complete Marvel Reading Order #1

The first post in what may (if it keeps my attention) continue into the future.  I'm going to post about the 5 star stories I've found in the Order, and also 1 star stories that are roughly contemporaneous to them.  I'm not going to talk about ALL the 1 star stories because, good grief, there are so many of them.  

The Best - #72: Strange Tales (1951) #110 [C Story]

The very first Doctor Strange story!

I admit that on its own merits its maybe 4 stars.  Ditko is great in it, but he clearly is treating the character mostly as a standard "man of mystery" character, not the Sorcerer Supreme.  Also, as you can see in that panel above, for some reason Doctor Strange never has his eyes open.  Of course he doesn't need his eyes...

So it gets 5 stars mostly from giddy excitement about what is to come.

As an aside, you will find if this series continues that I truly love the Trapster, aka "Don't Call Me Paste-Pot Pete".  That's why the Human Torch story in this particular Strange Tales got more than 1 star.  But, one issue later...

The Worst - 77: Strange Tales (1951) #111 [A Story]

This is a stand-in for all the Human Torch stories in Strange Tales, although this one is particularly egregious.  That dialogue you see on the cover is pretty typical of the inanity one finds within.  Here is another example...
"You are blazing like an inferno, but it affects me not at all!"  Sure, whatever Asbestos Man, weird sentence structure dude.  Also, Sue Storm is awesome, and I love a beehive as much as the next person, but, really...
...that's just not the best look for her.

There is also this attempt to make it suburban by locating it in Glenville, Long Island.  I think maybe Stan Lee was hoping Johnny Storm could be a kind of suburban teen icon, sort of Archie with super-powers?  Except Johnny Storm is just a jerk, much more Reggie than Archie.

All these Human Torch stories in Strange Tales were awful, there is just no sugar-sugar-coating it. 

The Best - 115: Strange Tales (1951) #115 [B Story]

The Origin of Doctor Strange...
Was there really "an avalanche of requests"? Who knows?  But I'm glad anyway.  This story shows off many of Ditko's strengths.  For example, they way he depicts Strange's journey from arrogance to desperation in his face...
Like the very first Strange story in the last post, this one is really 4 stars on its own merits, it gets a +1 star boost from it being such an iconic and historic story.  

Its not as Orientalist as it could be but, yeah, its got some Orientalism in it. 

The Worst - 102: Tales to Astonish (1958) #48

There is so much bad, sexist writing of woman characters in Marvel comics, we might as well get started with it.
Eventually Janet Van Dyne aka the Wasp gets cool.   But back here in 1963, oh boy...  "I'd rather think about all the glamourous males working there!"  That's typical of how she is portrayed, ditzy, vain, man-crazy, whose sole purpose is to allow Hank Pym to show how rational and manly he is.  Its awful.  So many woman characters are treated in this fashion, it really only goes away in the late '80s, at which point it is replaced by the "powerful woman" who is "sexy" and has legs twice as long as her torso plus head and who always looks as if she is posing for some kind of avant garde Vogue magazine photo shoot.  But we'll get there, plenty of time for this sexist trope to settle in and get comfortable before we switch to a different sexist trope.

In and of itself that's 2 star stuff, it so common its easy to get used to it.  To get to 1 star we also need the Porcupine...
In the long history of goofy Marvel super-villains, this first version of the Porcupine has to be one of the goofiest.  That suit!  It looks like someone has made a coat from the fur of one of those Hungarian sheep dogs that have dreadlocks...

The suit has a random collection of capabilities, like liquid cement and smoke clouds and tear gas, but seems to be devoid of the one trait that porcupines actually have; sharp points.  Its nonsensical, and not in any good way.
Sexist writing plus stupid super-villain is a consistent recipe for 1 star stories in Marvel in the '60s and '70s.