Friday, 25 October 2013

The Exploitation of Dr. Doom and Spider-Man

When I reviewed The Amazing Spider-Man #4, I compared the recent Spidey story lines to wrestling matches in that they are essentially pair ups of outrageous characters going up against a no-holds-barred vigilante. Up until then this thematic had worked to create great comic yarns. This time, it did not and this failure is surprising. It is surprising because the antagonist chosen is the well established, fan favourite, Dr. Doom. This issue proves that action for the sake of action, while superficially entertaining, ends up being empty when the reader wises up to the scheme. 

In September 1963 Marvel was crossover mad. They had just risked it all by teaming up mediocre solo performing lines like Thor, Ant-Man and Iron-Man into the Marvel answer to the Justice League: The Avengers. Spider-Man was not invited to that party as his line was the top selling title. This popularity was astounding considering lines like Fantastic Four and Journey Into Mystery had triple the amount of stories and The Amazing Spider-Man was comparatively young. Spider-Man struck a core with readers. To capitalize on that popularity, Stan Lee thought it a good idea to combine the most popular villain (at the time) with the most popular superhero. The stunt makes sense on paper but when reading through the issue it doesn’t pan out. Probably, because the exploitation is so transparent. 

The story begins so well! 

Peter Parker is dealing with jibes and barbs from Flash Thompson while we, as the reader, are privy to the knowledge of Pete’s alter-ego. This knowledge touches the part of every nerd’s heart that yearns to be secretly powerful in the face of bullying. Suddenly, an armoured figure appears over a screen, depicting the schoolyard theatre, suggesting that there is something larger then this teenage drama. Dr. Doom is far worse then any bullying red headed, sweater clad, ‘cool guy.’ Alas, that’s the end of plausibility and excitement for this issue because absurd Lee ‘science’ begins from this point on. Doom, wanting to reach out to Spider-Man because he still smarts from the last encounter with the Fantastic Four and needs a friend, uses the energy waves that are supposedly emanated from spiders to contact Spidey. The idea that any character can just tap into an energy to communicate with any creature is absurd! If anybody can do it, then Ant-Man is negated to being just a really small guy. The whole idea smacks of laziness and convention. 

Lee’s laziness continues when he has Doom offer friendship to Peter then turn around and attack him. Doom is many things but unhinged is not one of them. Historically, it is Doom’s logical calculations that have made him a formidable foe. This irrationality is out of character and serves to leave the resulting conflict empty and without tension. These two characters are going through the motions, albeit very entertaining and well drawn motions. Ditko’s artwork far outreaches the work of Jack Kirby and ably constructs a rich, colourful environment. 

Flash’s accidental capture is the most interesting part of this issue.

The Wasted Flash Thompson moment. 
Thompson gets his hands on an identical Spider-Man costume and attempts to ambush the unsuspecting Parker. Flash believes that Pete is the worst type of coward; afraid of literally everything. The ambush fails and he ends up the prisoner of a very inexplicably angry Dr. Doom. Another irrational moment brought to you by a bastardized Dr. Doom. How can an armour clad Dr. Doom capture a neon red spandex wearing superhero in the middle of a New York road without being seen by anybody?  Certainly not a great plan. The only thing missing from the plan is a baby sans lollipop. This mistaken identity could have been a great twist but is never capitalized on.

What a wasted opportunity. Imagine the story possibility with New York thinking that Spider-Man was the jerky red head jock Flash Thompson. The anger that would have overtaken Pete would be legendary. 

There is much criticism against comics as an important medium. Many believe they are empty, sensationally written, pulp literature. We as comic nerds know otherwise, but when hastily written story lines like this come about, it is very difficult to make the case for the literary significance of Superhero comics. Action, while entertaining, means nothing when character is sacrificed for explosions and ‘what if’ scenarios. What a shame that the two most legendary and 3 dimensional characters of the Marvel Silver Age were sacrificed to sell a large amount of issues. 

Rating: 2 out of 5

Pros: The Art, Spider-Man’s sardonic quips to a rarely tested Dr. Doom and canonicity. 

Cons: Improbable and poorly thought out motivation. Questionable logic. Dr. Doom’s out of character irrationality without explanation. The coincidental nature of the whole issue. 

 Upcoming Review: “The Living Bomb” (Strange Tales #112 Sept 1963)

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

The First Avengers Team and Marvel Hierarchy

The Story I read: “The Coming of the Avengers” (The Avengers #1 Sept, 1963)

Even the cover feels reverential.
It occurred to me today that my readers on the Marvel wikia are in the dark as to the reason I decided to launch this journey through the complete Marvel comic universe. As my blog followers are already aware, I am an avid DC fan and write often for a lot of fan blogs on DC related topics, particularly Hellblazer. Recently, I became interested in some of the work of Marvel, namely the additions to X-Men, which stirred in me a want to become more familiar with the Marvel Universe as a whole. Not knowing where to start, I plunged into the full comic library and began to write reviews for each one. That was 72 issues ago. 

If there is checkpoints in this quest, the premiere of the Avengers would be the first. It is this moment that a loose knit group of ragtag characters became beings that inhabited a whole far reaching world. Sure, there had been crossovers before this, but they always seemed to be special events that were often hastily written exhibitions stemming from fan requests. This issue, however, is the moment that showed Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and the other Marvel creatives wanted to construct a vast comic gallery that would be able to compete with the massive and older DC counterpart. Reading this story felt almost like a religious moment; if comic fandom could be considered such. 

This story reveals a glimpse into how the Silver Age Marvel world works. On the face of  this, it is a caper flick, not unlike The Dirty Dozen. A group of rag tag Superheros come together to defeat a common enemy.

 Thus enters the Incredible Hulk. 

...Wait a minute. The antagonist is actually Loki. Never mind that, neither Ant-Man, Wasp, or Iron-Man can pose any threat to the trickster god so only Thor confronts him. The rest pursue the supposed villainous Hulk only to find out that he is not such a bad guy. He’s just a circus performing monster who was the victim of an Asgardian plot. I waster 20 pages on this? Is not every Hulk story to date?

This is the problem of Hulk and probably the reason for his lack of success in the period; he is too believable as the villain. He is a selfish, violent monster, who is out for his own survival. Not to mention he is a malady to Bruce Banner. Hulk is difficult to spin as a legitimate hero, for he lacks humanity and a moral code, the two prerequisites for a superhero. It is telling that the Disney Marvel film franchise has had such trouble translating the character to film, till Joss Whedon of course figured it out by making Jekyll and Hyde one: “I’m always angry.” - Says Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce. In the Silver Age, Hulk was not the result of rage as depicted in modern Marvel but is a character that bares more resemblance to Jekyll/Hyde. Perhaps, it was pages devoted to Thor’s solo adventure that happened proper development for Big Green. 

Thor’s contribution to this story bares more similarity to an issue of Journey Into Mystery then as a team up with the Avengers. The moment he found out that Loki had a plot to capture him he flew away to Asgard to fight. The three others duked it out on Earth. This is not the actions of a team mate. There is no group cohesion in this story and I blame it on haphazard writing. The group comes together out of happenstance which results in a themeless issue. Weirdly, this is not the case with the film, which was vaguely inspired by this plot, because of the creation of the S.H.I.E.L.D. assemblage. 

I felt empty at the end of what should have been a fantastic experience. 

I also wonder why it was these five characters that were chosen to be a part of the first Avengers crew. It makes sense that Dr. Strange is not included as he has only had two stories devoted to him by this point and frankly they were very odd. I doubt Stan Lee intended the good Doctor to be a common fixture. The Fantastic Four, though creatively mentioned in the story, have really nothing to do with the creation of the Avengers. This is strange as some time has been spent making the Four (particularly Jonny Storm) the flag ship line. Perhaps, their was a fear that the Four’s egos, the topic of my last review, would over power these less established characters. I for one would have enjoyed a Tony Stark comic lashing of Thing. I know it will come in the future. 

Overall, this is a very messy issue with some really great action with Hulk, and some brilliant use of Ant-Man and Wasp, also some wonderful art by Kirby. Yet, there is an absence of Iron-Man, wasted focus on Rick Jones and his Teen Brigade, and confusion as to the plot. I give this one a 3 out of 5. I flirted with a lower mark but it felt sacrilegious as this Issue is so important and a gamble of an undertaking. This makes the endeavour as a whole, respectable.  

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Cold War Xenophobia and The Fantastic Four

The Story I Read: “A Skrull Walks Among Us!” (Fantastic Four #18, Sept 1963)

The Super-Skrull in action.
When I first saw the title of this issue, I held out little hope for a good story as the dreaded word ‘Skrull’ was in the title. The Skrulls made an earlier appearance in the Fantastic Four (issue #2) and it is etched into my mind as a hokey pathetic story that had all the wrong kind of camp. With expectations low, I dove in and, happily, I was surprised. This issue, while no means Earth shattering, is a hilarious little romp that plays with the major weaknesses of the Four. Namely, their egos.

Skrulls are pathetic looking creatures that are reminiscent of frogs and strike me as a fairy tale remnant of the penny dreadfuls Marvel used to create in the Golden Age. Stan Lee attempts to shake that reputation by coming up with a very smart plan for them to beat the Four at their own game. The masters of ‘Skrulldom’ create a Super-Skrull that possesses all the Four’s individual powers in greater quantities. It is established the Skrulls possess some sort of malleability so they seem to create this Super-Skrull in some earlier experiment not discussed. When the fun begins I didn’t care much that I had no clue how the Super-Skrull was created. The fight begins and as is standard Fantastic Four battle strategy each character launches themselves individually to face the extraterrestrial villain. One by one they are all predictably defeated and run back to the penthouse to come up with a new strategy. The plan turns out to be to fool the Super-Skrull into a live burial.  Long story short, they team up, fool the ‘ultra-Frog’ and leave him to die in a hole.  If it weren’t for all the laughs this would be a terrible story. 

Campiness aside this story does have an interesting theme; a theme that has reared its head countless times in these issues. Aliens seem to invade Earth on the regular. Ignoring the fact that highly idiotic normal folk continue going on with their simple lives pretending aliens do not exist and gods aren’t tossing their hammers around New York, it’s astounding that every alien race seems to come to Earth in a petty attempt to destroy superheroes and not, you know, rape the Earth of its resources or resettle the planet. What does this say about the mindset of the 60s sci-fi reader and writer? There is a belief prevalent in which every foreigner and alien wants to destroy the American way of life. This is an expression of Cold War xenophobia which permeated the Red mad West of the time. These stories open a glimpse to the anxieties of the common bread eating full blooded 60s American. Their lives were not all about going to the department store and getting an ice cream float. While they were happy, perhaps the happiest in American history, they lived under the constant threat of dominance and destruction from the Soviets (real or invented, it’s what they believed). It is the duty of every American super hero therefore to destroy or torture anything that doesn't belong. I’d love to see a positive alien force in one of these issues  because the invasion story line is really getting tired. 

As I mentioned before, there is some great moments of humour in this issue. The Four go on a hilarious shopping trip that descends into chaos when they become bombarded with fans.  I laughed as each character in their own way escaped what must surely be a burden to public personalities. The metahumour is many times the best part of the Fantastic Four. By this point Fantastic Four have almost become parodic; less like a series and more like a comment on comics as a medium. 

The art is improving. Detailed backgrounds have become de rigueur and there is a cleanliness to action that was not there even two issues ago. Jack Kirby’s Reed Richard’s facial features have become soft and it looks like he is attempting to shave some years and harshness off his formerly forbidding persona. Maybe in an effort to make the relationship between Reed and Sue more believable. 

This issue is a 3 out of 5. A mundane storyline with a great sense of humour and not a lot to moan about. I remain curious as to the future of the buried Super-Skrull.   
A Cartoon Showing the Irrational Fear of Communism

The Beast Within Captain Kirk (My Trek Through Trek - Part V)

What we’re watching: “The Enemy Within” Episode 4, Season 1 of TOS (October 6, 1966)

My Rating Out of 5 Tribbles: 3 Tribbles that think they are “THE CAPTAIN OF THE SHIP!” 

My After Episode Thoughts: “A brilliant performance that places Shatner in the pantheon of the acting gods.”

Pros: Shatner’s performance, Epic moment in McCoy history, did I mention Shatner’s performance?

Cons: Spock’s supposed logic, Sulu’s B-Plot, the chauvinism, the damned dog in an alien suit!

Shatner Giving IT ALL HE'S GOT!
If there was any doubt that William Shatner is one of the most important and special actors in television history, this episode should put all of them to rest. From the opening moment when we see Beast Kirk materialize on the transporter deck, his presance is astounding.  The way he uses his eyes and physicality to embody his alter-ego’s predatory nature is no easy feet for any actor. Kirk’s two sides are clearly set up as opposites and there is not a lazy moment in which we can see this conceit. His two characterizations are grabbed by the throat and he forces the watcher to believe that his personality has literally split in two. 

William Shatner raves aside, this episode is sadly ‘run of the mill’ and backward. The sexism of the last episode is still frighteningly present. At one point Beast Kirk attempts to rape the unsuspecting Yeoman Rand in a scene that is unsettling and ahead of its time in brutality. The result is a moment that is very unusual for the largely melodramatic television of 60s. A moment of real fear. Grace Lee Whitney who played Yeoman Rand says in her memoir that to achieve the right kind of brutality for the scene Shatner slapped her to catch her off guard. Bill is truly a man that goes into these things full throttle and I wonder if that kind of conduct would be tolerated in this day. 

After this frightening moment the crew allows the Captain interrogate Rand after she accuses him of attempted rape. The prospect of a suspected rapist interviewing the victim is an unpalatable idea and dates the episode horribly. The final dialogue of the episode, uttered by Spock, further serves to paint the show with a chauvinistic brush. Spock suggests to Rand that Beast Kirk had some desirable qualities for a mate. This strikes me as an extremely insensitive and barbaric comment. Trekkers might attribute this up to Spock’s coldly logical nature. I, however, believe it is the result of dated chauvinistic writing, and it really put me off my overall experience. 

Further, I question Spock’s logic in this episode. Usually his logical explanations are entirely on the mark, but in the case of this episode, I am not sure. When Kirk denies the misdeeds that are perpetrated by Beast Kirk, Spock arrives at the conclusion that there must be an impostor aboard the ship. Is this really the most logical answer? Is it not more logical, that with the example of all these crew member's accusations, Kirk maybe lying? No character ever entertains that idea. This seems like a missed opportunity narratively. 

Then again, the episode only had so much time to cover the main story as a lot of screen was wasted on a distracting B-plot. Crew members are freezing on the planet and cannot return to the ship because the transporter is down. In later episodes this conundrum would be fixed by a shuttle bay, but this is still early in the series so no one obviously thought of this yet. The B-Plot only serves to distract from the far more interesting core plot of Kirk’s issues. 

There are two fantastic moments that occur in this episode and they served to etch themselves into Star Trek Lore.First, there is a poor dog in an alien costume that is tossed from character to character. It is the most distracting prop/character I think I have ever seen. The stuffed carcass that later doubles for him would have served better then a nervous canine covered in rainbow fluff. Nevertheless this canine’s performance is iconic and is a running gag in Trekkerdom. Second, this is the first episode in which McCoy explodes toward Jim that something is dead

This was the best they could do?

When it happened I actually applauded. It was like the feeling the Wright Brothers must have had at Kitty Hawk. 

What a wondrous moment! 

All problems aside, this episode remains the moment Shatner stepped out from space oddity to the mythological titanic force that he became known for. I am happy I witnessed it but sad it was in a terrible episode. 

Thursday, 17 October 2013

The Power of Legend: Thor vs. Merlin

Story I Read: "Defying the Magic of Mad Merlin" (Journey Into Mystery #96 Sept 1963)

I am now a good way into the early mythos of Thor and many questions are beginning to flood my mind. Of the many niggling ones, one over arcing macro query haunts me every time I read Mighty Thor. That question is: what is the nature of an Asgardian? Are they aliens as later comics attest, other dimensional beings or Gods and therefore divine? Thankfully this story begins to expand upon the difference between the legend and actuality. 

Certainly not the Merlin of Disney
Stan Lee presents us with two characters, that are quite well known throughout literature, and attempts to subvert our understanding of them. In the comics thus far, we have already come to know one of them, Thor, and have only vaguely heard of the other, Merlin. The Norse Thor is the benevolent and sometimes wrathful thunder god; an oxymoronic character, but show me a religious icon that isn’t. His religious self is infallible and unable to be faulted. Marvel’s Thor however, speaking from only what has been offered in Silver Age Marveldom thus far, is a heightened being that is in no way divine. In this story we learn that he needs to breathe. This seems like a self evident idea but serves as a kind of revelation considering  he does occasionally venture into space without the aide of oxygen. We learn, here, that Thor can hold his breath for a long time. Lee successfully busts this god’s divinity with this one idea and puts him on a playing field that is equal to the other mortal superheroes with which he shares Earth-616. He is not omnipotent and therefore able to have other nemeses other then his own kind. 

When Merlin vacates his sarcophagus in 1963, we are presented with a second character that not only equals Thor in his supernatural powers, but also, what is more important, in his legend. Merlin, up to this point in literature, the 60s the being time of the renaissance of T.H. White and the popularity of the musical Camelot, is often depicted as a kind and wise magical sorcerer that prompted the mythical King Arthur to ascend and found the throne of England. Lee on the other hand depicts him as a malevolent Machiavellian wizard who uses human puppets to consolidate his “master plan,” which appears to be world domination. What a fantastic idea and wholly creative. Not only does this story call Merlin’s oft-believed motivations into question, it also suggests that there is nothing magical about his composition but that he is a human mutant, like the Fantastic Four or Spider-Man. Some suggest he a maybe a forerunner to the genetic mutants of X-Men. I’m not sure the back story presented here backs up that claim. Not to mention Uncanny X-Men is still very far in the Silver Age future and the idea of mutants in that sense is not yet present in Marveldom. I think the conjecture of the creation of Merlin as the first genetic mutant and therefore the basis for his later X-Men appearances is the work of over zealous fanboys.   

The subversion of Legend vs. Reality is further used in the climax of the story. Thor usually beats his non divine enemies by using brute strength or some fancy hammer play. A strategy like this against Merlin is easily shot down, literally. After this failure, Thor, instead uses his dubious human identity, Dr. Donald Blake, to fool Merlin into thinking that Asgardians are omnipotent and can change into any form they see fit.  This not only brings the mad wizard to prostrate in surrender it what it more important plays with the power of icons. Thor’s possible and largely unsubstantiated divinity defeats Merlin. Thor’s reputation is more mysterious and ancient than Merlin’s so it causes the wizard to doubt himself. Thor’s legend is stronger. What an idea. 

I know I spend many of these reviews harping on the hasty and often poorly thought out writing of Stan Lee but do not assume that these criticisms come from a disrespect for the father of Marvel. Sometimes he writes stories like these that show the far reaching literary power that comics can possess. This one is a 5 out of 5. It is an essential read that explains the difference between Marvel and DC. Whereas DC is all about the legend, Marvel is all about the reality.  This story has far reaching impact and should be on all essential reading lists. 

Saturday, 12 October 2013

The Authenticity of Spider-Man

Story I Read: "Nothing Can Stop The Sandman" (The Amazing Spider-Man #4 Sept 1963) 

It says a lot that back in Amazing Fantasy, when Peter Parker made his debut, the first thing he decided to use his new found powers for was as a professional wrestler. Since then every one of his later issues were match-ups: Spider-Man. Vs. The Vulture, Spider-Man Vs. Doctor Octopus, Spider-Man Vs. Invaders from outer space.  Spider-Man’s villains up to this point concoct no complex or unintelligible plot to bring down the young superhero, they merely challenge him and a great match ensues. These characters face off in the arena of New York and it is fantastic. 

Ding Ding! Round 4! Spider-Man Vs. Sandman. 

Flint Marko makes his first sandy appearance in this one and he catches Pete in the middle of a teenage quandary.  As we have learned up to this point in Spidey’s very short career, Pete’s success at defeating his nemeses is directly proportional to how much turmoil is going on in his teenage life. At this point, Pete is up to webbing in teenage turmoil. He has a date with calmly Liz who seems to be head of the cheerleading squad or some A crowd. In classic Flash Thompson cruel fashion she’s doing it out of charity. Pete doesn’t notice for he’s obsessed by how he can defeat the vastly more powerful Sandman and forgets his once in a lifetime chance with the Queen Bee. This is what I and no doubt the countless fans in this period love about The Amazing Spiderman. He is the one character that truly embodies the Silver Age Marvel mandate to bring reality to the Superhero comic. Whether its Pete’s inability to resew his costume after Sandman rips his mask or his preemptively hasty and therefore illegal take down of some suspicious characters outside of a jewelry store, everything about this issue feels authentic and realistic. 

Honourable mention the Dr. Kildare reference. 

Spider-Man's Revenge!!!! Take that Triple J!
This issue isn’t all roses. The failures all generally lie in the two antagonists. Sandman’s origin story of escaping a prison and then getting exposed to a radioactive test is a tad wild and out of step with the rest of the mythology being created. The two other villains presented up to this point in the comics, came from a place of heightened reality, Vulture was a skilled robber who used gliding technology to enhance his abilities and Dr. Octopus was born out of science gone too far. Spidey’s origin story is similar. Sandman’s on the other hand results from happenstance and the evils of weaponization. It makes much more sense in the mythology of Hulk. It also is essentially the same origin story of the Hulk of this period. Something about Flint Marko seems lazy but this laziness does not hamper the progression of the story and this issue remains a wildly entertaining ride. 

The other antagonist, J. Jonah Jameson, continues his absurd vendetta against Spider-Man. He even believes that Sandman and Spider-Man maybe the same man. Why doesn’t New York realize that J. Jonah Jameson is bat shit crazy?

Looking at this issue as a whole it is very much in a different league then the other work of this period. It is human, fresh and wildly entertaining. Not even the much more established Fantastic Four can compete with Spider-Man. No wonder these issues flew off the shelf. Looking at this issue in competition with only Spider-Man it is somewhere in the middle. It has great moments of charm but it is rather simplistic in plot and characterization. The art is also as detailed as Silver Age comics get. 3 1/2 out of 5.  Had the character of Sandman been more explored, it would have received a higher score. 

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Anthony Stark's Fake Cleopatra

Story I Read: "The Mad Pharoah" (Tales of Suspense#44 Aug 1963)

In 1963, the world was Cleopatra and Ancient Egyptian mad. This was not because of some crazy dance move that reminded folks of Egyptians walking. No, it is was because the King and Queen of Hollywood, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, were preparing to star as history’s most famous lovers in what would turn out to be one of the most expensive flops in history. That ill fated movie was Cleopatra and this film would spur an obsession with all things Coptic. This obsession even trickled its way into the Marvel universe. 

When I first saw the title page of the Iron Man story in Tales of Suspense #44 I nearly tossed the article away and moved on to, surely, what would be a more fulfilling story. Alas my conscience got the better of me. I felt like I was violating some impossible code I had sworn to myself so I resigned to my sofa to plunge in. As the first few panels careened by I was enjoying the charm of the story. Tony is whisked away to the sandy dunes of Egypt to join in on an archaeological dig a where he finds that things are really tough to see through a stone wall. Never fear, Iron Man happens to be on vacation in the Sahara so he stops by to use his laser cutters to get through the four thousand year old wall. Yes, this story once cost 12 cents. 

With every passing issue the facade of Tony and Iron Man is getting weaker and weaker. Even the editors are beginning to notice as there is one of the worst examples of strained dialogue occurs when Tony attempts to explain why Iron Man happens to be on the dark continent. There is certainly some meta humour here. I hope. It is reminiscent of the strained excuses Torch cooked up to his friends which were later proven to be futile. We are nearing the breaking point I can feel it. 

Sadly these charming little quirks are the best part of the story. On page 5, Tony is waving goodbye to his doctor friend when suddenly Hatap appears and drags him back in time. This happens out of nowhere and I had to reread it many times because the switch is so abrupt that I thought a panel was missing. Anyway,Tony gets sucked back in time to Ptolemaic Egypt to help Hatap defeat the siren of the Nile. This is where things get really confusing. 

History teaches us that Cleopatra and Marcus Antonius staged an outright revolution against the ruling Caesar Augustus which caused them to be besieged by the Roman forces. This revolution culminated in the sea battle of Actium and the deaths of the couple. In Iron Man’s history however the Romans seem to be besieging Cleopatra in her palace.  This never occurred. She was involved in a civil war with her brother but this was aided by the Romans under the command of Julius Caesar and she was only a young girl. She’s a full grown woman here. Its almost as if the writers (Stan Lee again) had not the most basic knowledge of one of the most well known stories in history. This invented history frustrated me to no end because when Iron Man ultimately weighs the battle in her favor it happens in a situation that never occurred. Yes, I accept that this is fantasy, I mean time travel and all, but it frustrates me because it is so far from history. There was a great possibility here of a fantastic time travel yarn that could have far reaching effects on the future Marvel universe but it turns out to be a weak, pointless, unintelligible story.

Stan should have gone to the theatres to see how he got an extremely well known story way off. Cleopatra would have sold one more badly needed ticket. What a wasted issue. 1 out of 5. 
Sitting through this melodramatic wankfest is far more worth doing then reading this issue. 

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Fantastic Four Fascination: A Review of Fantastic Four #17

Story I Read: The Fabulous Fantastic Four "Defeated by Doctor Doom" (Fantastic Four #17 Aug 1963)

Fantastic Four can be used as a kind of metronome for the Marvel universe. It was the first serialized superhero comic of the Marvel Silver Age and therefore most of what is invented, was later applied to the other heroes. In this issue there is not only firsts in story telling but also in the narrative. This issue is a direct sequel. That is not to say this is the first issue that is shaped by past events, many publications recall their individual histories and mythologies, but it is the first issue to continue an arc established by another directly preceding issue. Doom is still at large having broken out of Micro-Atomica and the Four are looking to end that threat.

The Four are different in this one. The group dynamic is much different then even in the last issue. That abusive tension that used to permeate the group, especially the relationship between Torch and Thing, is gone, replaced with a campy yet witty joshing. Torch is no longer punishing Thing for his looks. They now tease each other like brothers. How absolutely charming. 

Charm, however, doesn’t run through the group. With joviality and camaraderie flowing throughout the penthouse Reed looks all the more like a stick in the mud. He is cold, standoffish and unpleasant to the other members of the group. Fantastic is certainly no leader. The glimpse at this side of Reed serves to make his character quite compelling. To have such an unpleasant man forced to be the brains of a group of rag tag and juvenile superheroes is a fascinating choice. A counter to the unpleasant aloofness of DC’s Bruce Wayne. Marvel likes to tout its heroes as existing in the ‘real world.’ Reed parodies the unpleasant arrogance of that DC character and is in turn not afraid to be unlikable, whereas Bruce still has streak of desperation to be liked. It is wonderful to see the characters so raw like this and especially in the whitewashed Silver Age. 

This idiotic contraption!
When the dialogue is really good, it becomes extremely easy to buy the sometimes tough to swallow Silver Age science. Though not even wildly funny dialogue can save gross oversteps in logic. Reed attempts to find Dr. Doom by creating a detector that only looks for human flesh covered in steel. Clearly this is a problem as every welder would suddenly become a mortal enemy to the Fantastic Four. Something utterly campy like this could kill a well thought out plot if it weren’t for Torch’s self referentialism. He makes fun of Reed’s idea and even points out the fact that the detector would not be in anyway accurate. A brilliant moment that shows even Reed can be wrong sometimes. 

There are other moments of hasty writing. For instance, Dr. Doom’s flying automaton plot is not as well thought out as I’d like. Reed looses a degree because one of the elevated plush toys appears flying above him. Why would someone lose a degree because a flying robot appeared above him? This makes no sense. Perhaps, Stan couldn’t think up a better way the robot might interfere with Richards’ life. 

The plot, however hokey and incomplete, manages to spin a new angle on Doom. It isn’t just enough for Doom to execute the Four, he also wants to destroy their reputation. A fascinating motivation. There is a compelling glimpse into the tortured mind of Victor. Doom turns to a mirror and bemoans his deformity, exclaiming “he wishes he understood humanity.” This is where the meat of the story really is. 

Dr. Doom’s plot to destroy the Fantastic Four stems from his feeling of being outsider. Doom’s a metal bound man who is wildly intelligent and equal to Mr. Fantastic in his cleverness but is also marginalized because of his looks. Although this is derivative of deformed vice stock character, a character that is prevalent right on back to Shakespeare’s Richard III, it adds a long lasting dimension to a character who until now had been painted with the broad evil brush. There is also a parallel with the Thing. These two are in the same position. Ben feels marginalized as well because of his stony facade. Yet he has Alicia who loves him just for being him. Alicia is the catalyst of the whole revenge plot and it is out of Dr. Doom’s jealousy that he kidnaps her. Would Ben be Dr. Doom without Alicia? He certainly becomes irrational when she is captured and has to be reigned in by Torch. 

On top of all this detailed expansion on the Doom, Thing dynamic: Sue Storm does something! She saves the day in the final act though her powers still seem largely pointless. Let’s recognize a stride when their is one and this one is a stride. There’s even a point being made about the role of women. Thing’s irrationality nearly is the downfall of the Four. His love for Alicia leaves the Four vulnerable and infighting starts when Thing’s sorrow and worry over the kidnap get the better of him. Irrational love, as a weakness, has often been a theme in Fantastic Four. Sue constantly brings the team to danger when she allows her feelings for Namor over come her. The triangle with Reed has often been a moment of contention within the Four. Men can also can be irrational and the irrationality of Thing is far more dangerous and violent then any moment with Sue. Is love impossible for a superhero? Another theme that will rear its head many times in later Marvels.  

There’s many fascinating and great things about this story but it is not without it’s faults. Jack Kirby’s art is still really simplistic and vague, but why moan about it yet again? Torch’s powers are still totally out of control. Now he not only has the power to create fire doubles but also exact doubles of other people and objects that are not built of fire. He can make perfect copies of Sue Storm or Thing. How does this make sense? Leaving all these things aside this story is a solid 4 out of 5. A really great early Fantastic Four story. No bones about it.  

Monday, 7 October 2013

I Blame, Michael Caine.

The Cockney Bastard

Recently I read Michael Caine’s second memoir. His sequel to the first one he wrote in 1992 thinking his career had gone the way of the dinosaur. I find it marvelous that Michael is one of the few actor’s who was lucky enough to find a resurrection in his career. Just when he thought that the leading man, for which he was famous, was no longer within his grasp, life slapped him on the back and told him to quit whining and get back in front of that camera. Having read both memoirs it’s clear that this is a common theme in his life.  Continuance. Just when things look bleak, life slaps you in the face and says continue. I hope life does the same for me. 

At just about the same time I resigned the leafs of his book to the abyss that is my shelf collection; I lost my day job. Now this job was nothing special, a banal activity to give me a little mula to pay the landlord for my moldy underground shit box, so it was not an emotional loss at all, but it did cause a kind of crisis. Now I had no excuse to stay in Toronto. You see I had always felt kind of out of place in that city. All the stylish folks with their skinny jeans and handle rim glasses seemed to stab their disdain into my chest every time I walked through the cracked streets of downtown. It was like they could tell that my clothes didn’t fit and the body underneath was somehow wrong. I don’t mean wrong in the sense that a malformed beast is wrong. I just mean out of place like a salt shaker on a gourmet chef’s dinner table. I felt useless in the city and, what is more important, that it had no use for me. 

Being cast out from a job I hated and without theatrical prospects; I decided to call it quits. No more was I going to force myself to buy into the ‘Toronto store’. I was going to get rid of the junk I had accumulated through years of stupid struggle and launch into the larger world to find myself, yet again. I have done this many times. Myself seems very tough to find.

Was this a good choice? The jury is still out on that one. I have seen no better theatrical prospect, I have felt even more inadequate in that realm. I know that I am suited for it yet still it feels like French to me. There are moments when the stage feels like second nature and there are moments where it feels like I am a fish swimming up stream. The mantra I have been quoting in my head has been from the example of Michael. Survive. 

You see throughout his life, in the acting realm, he was beset by people who pegged him as this or that. Some called him too feminine to play butch, others called him too erudite to play working class; an utterly absurd claim as he comes from one of the most poverty stricken lives I have ever read about and I am an avid reader of Dickens.  All through this, though, Caine repeated: Survival is key. 

It’s really the only important thing in any artistic life; living with art and not allowing life’s pressures to crush you into a slave. Speaking as someone who suffers the creative journey there are many terrible things that you must contend with. They join conference every night and form demons that haunt you. Demons that sit on a panel that judge you for existing. The key is to survive their nightly trials and just continue marching into that great yonder sunshine; hoping one day to find an oasis that will sustain you.

One sentence that sticks out for me in his long busy life: “Just survive and soon you’ll be the last body in the room and all the jobs will come to you no matter if you are right for them or not.”

Though I am a vehement Atheist as anyone with two eyes, ears and knows me, will tell you, there is one valuable thing to take away from the many legends of the religious. That is the idea of tribulation. A prophet goes through many tests to prove his faith. Sadly, in their existence, this “faith” is in something that is absurd. Never minding that it should be admired in a roundabout way. My faith in coming success, no matter how far, bears striking similarity to these zealots. I know if I remain persistent and send out my cover letters and applications, someone, somewhere, will return and allow me to jump from my life’s motorbike to their minivan. 

A depiction of journey of the artist. 

I blame Michael Caine for causing me such an outlook that keeps me from being satisfied with the mundane. I cant work at a banal job or troll the bars for my future spouse because to me it is my self actualization that needs to be recognized above all else. I cannot feel fulfilled by existing only to exist. I am surviving to create and enrich. 

Curse you, Caine! You cockney bastard.       

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Micro-strides and Micro-worlds: A Review of Fantastic Four #16

Story I Read:  "The Micro-World Of Doctor Doom" (Fantastic Four #16 July 1963)

Those of you who have read my past reviews will have noticed the amount of poor writing I have encountered recently. As it is still quite early in the construction of the Marvel universe and it has still not been fully decided if these characters are all going to exist in the same universe some characters, naturally, are all over the place. The Fantastic Four on the other hand are usually the most structured and canonically sound. It’s obvious Stan and others seem to want to create a structured mythology for the quartet. By this time Sub-Mariner had made many appearances and Doctor Doom was well established as the archenemy. There had been three crossovers as well: two with Spider-man and one with the Hulk. The campy quartet of heroes can usually be depended on to have passable, detailed and sometimes enlightening writing. This story in the spectrum of FF is somewhere in the middle. Not too astounding but not Incredible Hulk level ineptitude either.   

Until now in the stories of FF, the narrative had largely been linear, meaning beginning at the beginning. In this issue however epic structure is employed and thus the action begins in  the middle. Torch enters the penthouse to find his partners “shrunken to the size of toys.” After some shock and awe by the Storm boy they all regain their normal size. The story hits the ground running and immediately wets my appetite for mystery. 

Shrinking seems to be a favourite mechanism of the early Four having been used at least three other times in prior tales. Otherwise, in Marveldom up to now, changing size had also been the favourite theme of Hank Pym, so naturally this lends for a perfect opportunity for a cameo. Sadly his cameo feels empty. He shows up to give Reed an enlargement serum and this makes no sense as Reed has already used his own version of shrinking juice. Somehow Richards is bowled over by the idea of a chemical that can play with mass. Perhaps it is still too much to ask for canonicity in a world that paints every character with a broad brush. That brush’s work is most obvious in the female characters. 

To find broad strokes look no farther then the women. Princess Pearla of the Micro-Atomicans is a vacuous piece of property traded between Doom and Torch. Sue Storm not only refers to the three other members of the Fantastic Four as “her children,” she doesn’t even consider herself part of the team just an invisible tag along. She too has a moment of vacuous writing when upon seeing Ant-Man for the first time, promptly falls in love with him. I look forward to the moment my Marvel journey takes me out of the socially inept early 60s. 

Excitingly not all social and sexual mores are backward in this one. The relationship between Alicia and Thing is really blooming. Ben exclaims that she “loves him for him.” It is heartwarming to see an attempt at writing a compelling woman, though I am sure it’s more a crass joke about the ugliness of Ben Grimm. Only a blind girl could love Thing. The weird abuse hurled at Thing from his three partners may explain some of his sour mood. The Four can be really dysfunctional. 

Look at all that BLUE and also black fog.
Also dysfunctional in this comic is the art. In contemporary Marvel publications, some drawn by Jack Kirby himself, detailed backgrounds have begun to appear. In this one, however, the bland blue background is back whether in New York or Micro-Atomica. Perhaps Jack’s hand doesn’t have the stamina to detail a 22 page issue. Maybe Marvel doesn’t have the cash for all the ink. Whatever the reason, in Stan’s stories, there always seems to be a thick fog beyond the action.

Whatever fogginess is present in the art there are great strides in the style of action presented. Clearly Stan is attempting to experiment in story structure, however at times narrative seems to get in the way of the whole issue’s arc. The amount of flashbacks really hamper the progression of the tale from the barn burning beginning to the petering retreat and disappearance of Doom. When the Micro-Atomicans make their debut not enough time is given to explaining how their existence really works. I spent most of the story wondering if they were still in the same plain of existence being really small or in some parallel universe. The hampering quandary in my mind was negotiating clear locations of two planets within the sparse floor of Reed’s lab. Is there a full universe on the floor of Reed’s laboratory? I’m still confused. I’d except that idea if only someone had have made it clear. 

Dr. Doom, luckily, is extremely clear in his motivations for tyrannizing these small people. All the hate stems out the events in Fantastic Four #10. Not only is Victor clear and well fleshed out. The idea that a former events have a bearing on the present is astounding and harkens for great things to come!

For experimentation, Alicia and Thing, and a story that feels more like a tale and not just a series of obstacles for heroes to overcome, I award this story with a 3 out of 5. I won’t give it a higher score because of the sloppiness in structure, sexism and shoddy art.  

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Sloppy Story Telling: A Review of Journey Into Mystery #95

The astounding thing I have discovered as I journey through the Silver Age Marvel comics is the bipolar nature of the quality of these stories. Those of you who read my last review of Tales of Suspense know that that story was wildly terrible because of it’s disregard for furthering the development of Tony Stark. This story of Thor follows that model. 

In a former article about Thor I noted his similarities to DC’s Superman. One of the major issues with that Kryptonian has always been his power and the fact that the balance between him and his villains is often tipped extraordinarily in his favour. This is because of his vast powers and the villain’s mortality. Thor suffers the same issue.  Contemporary comics heroes, like Iron Man and Spider-man, often fight mortals who use their own ingenuity. Thor on the other hand needs a threat that is equal to his abilities, which are supernatural, meaning he needs an equally supernatural threat. Of course, this need is amply balanced by Loki, but his adopted brother cannot always be the antagonist. We can all agree it would get boring. 

Stan Lee in this story answers this conundrum by creating a great villain who is Thor himself. Well, not Thor himself but an equal evil duplicate. This I have no problem with. I find it interesting as it opens: up the question how do you defeat your exact equal? A fascinating and frightening idea. The problem I have with this story is how the duplicate comes about.

I understand in this early period of the Marvel Universe it was still unclear to the creatives if they wanted to establish a world in which all the hero’s share or individual worlds following their own streams. It therefore makes sense that canonicity in geographic location and macrocosmic influence are uncertain. However canonicity of character should at least be adhered to. It has been established in many former Thor stories that Dr. Don Blake (Thor’s absurd and unclear alter-ego) is a mild mannered General Practitioner MD. In this story Stan Lee establishes him as an MD who also invented an android and is preparing to announce the invention of artificial intelligence. This comes out of left field. Since when did the good doctor have an interest in AI? Where did he get his knowledge of “advanced robotic engineering?” Most importantly why is he suddenly at the forefront of this field. This makes absolutely no sense and is purely something created just to explain the connection between Don and Zaxton. I am sure in the next Thor, none of this will ever be mentioned and Dr. Blake will go back to treating patients quietly. 

This lack of thought is further shown in the reason for Thor’s presence at the
Apparently This Android Was Created by Blake
demonstration. He’s only there to open a safe. I kid you not. He is a glorified stage hand. 

Though the battle between Thor and his duplicate is thoroughly entertaining as most battles in Thor are, the narrative conveniences and disregard for canon really make one wonder why any of this happened in the first place. 

There are some clear changes going in the conception of the god as well. Don only occupies 3 panels. The creatives are clearly tired of that human drama and create a convenient Asgardian weather trauma just to cameo them in for entertainment. The soap opera with Jane is also given the back seat treatment. Thor saves her in one panel out of nowhere however we are not given a back story nor the location of her entrapment. She’s an after thought. It is sloppiness like this that cheapens the really exciting moments. That’s what I can say of my Marvel experience thus far. Sloppy. 

This story is 2 out of 5. An exciting story mired by the sloppiness in narrative and the inexplicable convenient malleability of the Dr. Don Blake character.  

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Review of Tales of Suspense # 43: The Netherworld of Stark and Silver Age Sexism

What we are reading: Iron Man Vs Kala, Queen of the Netherworld- Tales of Suspense#43
The Spandex Iron Man

When reading through the Silver Age establishment of the Marvel universe you get to see both the very illuminating stories that set up beloved characters and the utterly atrocious, politically backward hogwash, which permeated the comics and the zeitgeist of the period. This Iron Man story is the latter. 

Before jumping into the negatives of this story let’s examine the one positive: the Atlanteans make their first appearance in this one. They are, in later arcs, subterranean threats that are in many ways apocalyptic. Here, though, their motives are flat and really not examined thoroughly. They want to take over Earth because they are angry that a geological event sank their empire. Let’s get revenge on humanity which runs volcanos or something. I don’t know. Even the one positive makes little sense. That being said, this story is a mess. Not only because it espouses backwards Sixties morals but because arc-wise, it has none.

The story begins at Stark Industries in the middle of a wind tunnel test. The tunnel stops working and turns the station into a veritable hurricane. Stark calls down and explains luckily by happenstance Iron Man is visiting the factory so he can save the windblown scientists. It is flimsy excuses like this that no doubt caused Anthony and Stan to strip the facade later.  It’s an excessively obvious and convenient piece of writing; so unintelligent a moment that it doesn’t even pass as charming camp.

After this minor incident of blowhardism at the wind tunnel, Tony climbs into his spandex iron suit and gets sucked into the center of the Earth. Sidebar: The Iron suit in this one is actually depicted as a spandex body suit. It’s stupidity like this that shows you Jack “I don’t care for plausibility” Kirby is back at the artistic helm. When Tony arrives in the in the centre of the Earth he and his spandex iron suit are embroiled in a hastily thought out thousand year old plan to take over the surface. We soon find out that Supreme General Blaxu resents taking orders from the female ruler Kala. Tony concurs  and he flies her off to the surface where she sees her complexion age in seconds. Iron Man tells her that if she wants her beauty she should stay underground. She does for “what is a women without her beauty.” 

This story is disgusting. A female leader that cares so much for her looks that she abandons her long held goal and just to nail another has to be one grossest example of female stereotype. Just to nail another peg into the chauvinist coffin Tony tells Blaxu to marry Kala so that she has proper guidance.

 ‘Women can’t lead, young Marvelites. They need a man.’ 

No wonder Sue Storm can’t get a shred of decent dialogue.

I know chauvinism has always been a part of Tony Stark, as he is a millionaire playboy with the face of Errol Flynn after all, but in later stories he is usually offset with a strong female to take him to task. It also may be unfair of me to judge a story written in a vastly different time by the ethics of today, but the sad thing is, that even under all the sexism this story is poorly constructed and frankly worthless. Nothing feels connected and no character really sticks out a vital or interesting. It feels like hastily written filler. 

At least Jack Kirby has started to draw backgrounds. That’s a plus.  

0 out of 5.