Friday, February 17, 2012

Golden Age of Marvel Comics Vol 1 review:

 I’ve made my admiration for Quality Comic’s Plastic Man and The Spirit clear, and I’ve devoted a lot of words to Golden Age DC, but I have to say that for me, the most intriguing Golden Age publisher was Timely; the company which would become Atlas and then Marvel. Why? Well, because of all the major 1940s comics firms, Timely had the biggest “pulp” sensibility. While most other comic book publishers seemed to be influenced by newspaper comic strips and “hero” pulps like Doc Savage and The Shadow, Timely seemed to be more influenced by Poverty Row horror films and magazines like Weird Tales (which for the record, featured recurring heroes, like Jules De Grandin and Robert E. Howard’s various characters). In fact, Timely began as a pulp publisher and put out some of the sleaziest magazines of the era. It was inevitable that this background would give the company’s comics output a much more morbid flavor than was the norm. I spent many a happy hour reading reprints of Timely and Atlas stuff as a teen from Marvel’s reprint titles like Fantasy Masterpieces and Marvel Superheroes. Even though a lot of those stories were censored (yes, my friends, even in the 60s, the cancer known as Political Correctness was rotting this country away), the comics still had a grim, nasty, sometimes ghoulish atmosphere. I loved it. Those stories were a gateway to a past I’d never had.
 Flash forward to the late 1990s, when I heard Marvel was putting out a collection of their Golden Age stuff. I was stoked! It would mean getting to see old Timely stories with better art reproduction, better paper, and better color. It was also a cheap trade paperback, which is a lot better than having to buy Archive editions for $50 each. It seemed like such a sweet deal! I could relive those past days all over again, which now really were part of my youth.
 I certainly did get to relive my old memories alright, because except for one or two stories, ALL of the ones reprinted in this volume were ones I’d already read in those reprints! Marvel just reprinted the same stuff all over again like a bunch of cheapskates! I mean, I knew they would reprint some of the same material they had before (in fact, I was hoping they would because that would mean I wouldn’t have to bother my old reprint books), but this really made me mad. They also prominently feature the heroine Miss America on the cover, while no stories of hers are reprinted.
 Even worse, except for arranging the stories in chronological order, there was no rhyme or reason in their story selections. I mean, it’s a sampler book, so I don’t expect cohesion or narrative flow to a bunch of random stories in an anthology (like a certain idiot Amazon reviewer), but at least try to include “representative” stories! For example, we have the Human Torch-focused segment of the famous story arc where Namor and the Torch first met, as well as a later team-up between the two, but we don’t get to see any solo Human Torch stories from the same era. Another example of the book’s laziness; they include a Captain America story which was never reprinted before, which is good, but it’s from an issue they’d already reprinted another story from in the past (in an issue of Invaders)! Do the people at Marvel just have that one issue lying around in their vaults that they randomly decide to reprint stories from when the well runs dry????
 Oh well, here are the stories:
 Sub-Mariner in “The Sub-Mariner!” from Marvel Comics #1: Not only is this the only origin story reprinted herein, it’s also one of the most frequently reprinted Golden Age stories I’ve ever seen. That’s fine though, because of all the classic superhero origin stories that double as first appearances, this is easily the best. Prince Namor the Sub-Mariner was the first true comic book anti-hero, and he took it to extremes that are shocking even today. Some would call Batman the first comics anti-hero, and yeah, Batman would kill villains and defy the police, but so would Superman (to a lesser extent, especially in the killing part). Bats had nothing on Sub-Mariner, whose goal was to wipe out the human race. Hell, Namor verges away from just being an anti-hero, and instead borders on being an outright villain protagonist! The interesting thing about this was that, rather than other comic book series of the time with villains and monsters as the title characters (like The Claw and Dick Briefer’s Frankenstein), Namor wasn’t just a title character who disappeared into the background while the real protagonist took over to thwart his schemes (like Bulldog Denny in Frankenstein or Daredevil in The Claw), he really was the focal point, the one who the reader followed and through whose eyes we experienced the stories. That’s quite an innovation for the time.
 Namor also wasn’t just a cardboard villain either; he was a mama’s boy doing what he thought was right, which was killing the surface people for destroying his undersea kingdom. The story begins with Namor slaughtering two innocent divers, then wrecking their ship and apparently killing all hands. It’s funny how Namor’s arrogance has been a lasting character trait, even more so in stories where he’s a hero, but here he seems almost childlike; a dangerous, destructive child, yet here he’s more brutal than even today’s comics would allow. It’s a fascinating dichotomy. The big kicker is that Namor himself is half-human and his mother knows full well that what the humans did was an accident, so his “cause” has no real justice, but he goes about it because he’s a good boy, and because he just enjoys killing things.
 This isn’t a super-hero story; this is almost a full blown horror story, dark fantasy at least. The sequence with the divers alone would make for a great opening for a horror movie. Speaking of horror, it’s pretty clear that Gardner Fox wasn’t the only Lovecraft fan writing comics in this era. This story absolutely reeks with Lovecraftian overtones; a monster born of an interracial coupling, fishlike people with bulging eyes, and monsters who are antagonistic towards humanity but are shown to have positive traits just the same (like the Yithians from The Shadow out of Time). The full-blooded fish people we see in this story could pass for refugees from Innsmouth, rather than just humans with blue skin and pointy ears as later comics would depict them. Even Namor’s mother, who is attractive enough to seduce a human male, is still seriously creepy-looking; in fact she’s selected to meet with the humans simply because she comes close to looking human, and it’s implied that she’s unique among her race because of this.

 Pretty disturbing stuff for a comic book story from 1939, huh? Bill Everett’s beautiful, craft-tinted art also helps the story hold up immeasurably well. In a better world, this guy would be ranked up there with Kirby and Eisner by fans. This story may have been reprinted to death, but it sure as hell deserves it. Great way to start the volume. 5/5. A genuine classic, which is why I’ve written so much about it.
 Human Torch in untitled from Marvel Mystery Comics #8: The Sub-Mariner’s on the rampage in New York, and the Human Torch races to stop him. Okay, you know what? I take back what I said, this story does have a reason for being reprinted, as it can be read as a direct sequel to the first Sub-Mariner story (provided that you ignore the appearance of Namor’s love interest Betty in this story), and leads into Torch and Namor’s epic battle, which was one of the first crossovers in comics. Sadly, it still feels out of place as the rest of that story isn’t included here, plus, and I say this again, we learn nothing of the Torch in this story except that he has fire powers and is a good guy. I can see someone unfamiliar with Marvel picking this book up, and being baffled. Thus, this book fails as a sampler. The story itself is okay, mostly Torch just flying around helping the victims of Namor’s rampages. Nothing special. It is amusing how much the story makes of people’s reactions to the Torch, as well as some pretty horrific understatements by the characters. Tantalizing, but frustrating. 3/5.
 Human Torch and Sub-Mariner in “Fighting Side by Side” from Marvel Mystery Comics #17: Namor and the Torch team up to fight a joint plot by the Nazis and Japanese to establish a tunnel beneath Alaska. This is pretty amusing, and better than most other monotonous stories of the time where heroes fight Nazis, mainly because the villain’s scheme isn’t too implausible, there’s some pretty amusing banter with the villains and Namor and the Torch spend most of their scenes bickering like an old married couple. It also cracks me up just how swiftly the Torch decides to trust Namor without ever inquiring why he is suddenly acting benevolently towards humans, before we’ve reached the 10th page, they’re already being called “pals”.
 Also, even when he’s acting heroically, Namor still can’t help but love to beat the shit out of cops.
 Old habits die hard.
 The art is really rushed on this one, with even Everett’s work looking tired, but it’s still fun. 3.5/5.
 Captain America in “An Ear for Music” (misidentified as “Horror plays the Scales” from the same issue) from Captain America Comics #7: The Red Skull returns with a plot to kidnap a general, meanwhile, Steve Rogers and Bucky star in a play set in the 1890s. No question why this was chosen, as it features Cap’s archenemy. Sadly, it’s the worst of the Red Skull’s three appearances during the original Joe Simon & Jack Kirby run, although it’s still an okay read. The splash page is wonderfully eerie and has a giant sized Skull playing a flute while towering over Cap & Bucky. Sadly, not much is made of this gimmick in the story itself (apart from a scene where he kills an old henchman of his while playing Chopin’s “funeral march”).
 This was during a period where the Red Skull was less a Nazi mastermind and more of a gaudy criminal who engaged in sabotage. He was also horribly incompetent in most of these stories. It would have been wiser to have gone with the story from #3, where he goes on a killing spree worthy of the Joker and lynches two Cap and Bucky impostors.
 Poor story to represent the villain with, but at least it’s a fairly decent look at Cap himself and his supporting cast. 3/5.
 The Vision in “The Book of Sorcery” (untitled in this book) from Marvel Mystery Comics #25: Aarkus the Vision is one of my favorite Golden Age heroes, and seriously deserves a reprint collection all his own. Like The Spectre (whom he has many similarities with) his stories went up and down from being mind-bendingly weird and beautiful to drab and pathetic. I just love the concept of a supernatural being that pops out of nowhere every now and then to punish evil, just because there’s smoke in the air. 
 A college teacher named Zagnar who lectures on metaphysics gets called out for it by the dean and goes mad. Zagnar then uses a book of spells to control the weather and plague the local town with floods. We feel no sympathy for Zagnar, because not only does he quit his job voluntarily (rather than being fired), but because most of the characters in the story seem to believe him, thus making his attack on a whole village pointless. Oh well, it’s still fun watching the mayhem that ensues as well as the showdown between The Vision and Zagnar, which climaxes in a fairly impressive fight scene. Only real downside to this story in terms of entertainment value is the art by Jack Kirby, which is really muddy and rushed. Oh well, I’m sure one of Kirby’s fanboys out there will find some way to retroactively blame Stan Lee for that. 4/5.

 Captain America in “The Cobra Ring of Death” from Captain America Comics #22: A bunch of politicians begin dropping dead in public, always during the most dramatic part of their speech. It turns out to be the fault of a ring shaped like a cobra that each man has been given, which releases a poison when they clench their fists. A fairly unremarkable story, but good fun. What makes it interesting is the sympathetic portrayal of a Jewish refugee who gets forced into acting as a fence for the villains. One step forward…
 There’s also a giant black man named Toto who the villains use as their muscle. He’s depicted as a violent, inhuman savage. Two steps back… That said, I have to laugh at any story which attempts to make a guy named Toto into a threatening villain. Even when this was published, the name “Toto” probably conjured up visions of the dog from The Wizard of Oz rather than anything else. I have to wonder if this scene was intentional:
Toto knows a lot about dogs.
 Sub-Mariner in “Terror of the Boiling Sea” from Marvel Mystery Comics #42: The Nazis’ new plan to destroy allied ships involves boiling the sea-water until the hull-plates buckle. Only Namor can stop them. This is a surprisingly taut and exciting story. Even though Namor had been reduced to yet another patriotic superhero by the time of this story, his sadistic streak still remains. Nice to see some characterization. The real fascination with this story though, lies in the art of Carl Pfeufer. His depiction of Namor might be the most grotesquely awful/awesome I’ve ever seen. Even Rob Liefeld would say “Dude, that is not how anatomy works” looking at this.

 It’s only a matter of time before someone at Fantagraphics publishes a book celebrating Pfeufer as some kind of misunderstood genius now. 4/5.
 The Angel in “Quarantine for Murder” from Marvel Mystery Comics #42: The Angel was a fairly generic pulp-style crime fighter, who stuck around as one of the most prominent heroes of 40s era Timely simply because publisher Martin Goodman liked him. All of the Angel stories I’ve read have been hit or miss. This one is an okay, if standard, story involving a Nazi spy plot. The art by Gustav Schrotter is energetic and loose, if unspectacular. The high point of this story is seeing the villain unmasked…and he turns out to be someone we’ve never seen before, but it’s treated like some grand revelation. 2.5/5.
 The Destroyer in “The Beachhead Blitz” from All Winners Comics #12: The Destroyer is assigned to deliver plans to some French resistance fighters, but ends up getting captured by Nazis. There’s a twist however, regarding the plans. The Destroyer is a cool-looking, menacing character (although his striped pants spoil the effect) who wouldn’t look out of place in grim n’ gritty comics from the 90s. This story never really comes alive, but there’s a flow to it, probably because of Mike Sekowsky’s art, which is uneven, but has a charm all its own, being reminiscent of woodcuts. It’s far better than his loose, all-over-the-place Justice League work.
 Another cool thing about this story is how it’s plot, with the Destroyer undertaking military missions overseas, helping resistance fighters and seeing battlefield combat, is far closer to modern depictions of Captain America than any of the Cap stories I’ve read from this era. A fitting story to mark the end of the 40s stories in this volume. 3/5.
 Marvel Boy in “The Deadly Decision” from Astonishing #5: With this story, we enter the 50s, and see the return of Bill Everett. Sadly, while it’s interesting to see the mish-mash of the two great 50s paranoia inducers; aliens and commies, the story sucks, and the art by Everett is purely pedestrian, although Marvel Boy’s girlfriend is pretty hot. This is some of the most convoluted, plotless nonsense I’ve ever read. Not only does the “Deadly decision” not play a part at all, but the vast majority of the story is just exposition, with key events happening off-panel. There’s constant reference to Marvel Boy’s “youth patrol” group, but we never see them. This was a pretty shitty choice to showcase Marvel Boy with. This panel sums this whole non-story up:
 Pure crap, with only some okay Everett art to redeem it, and even he isn’t that good. 1/5.
 Venus in “Tidal Wave of Fear” from Venus #18: Venus started as a romantic comedy series about the adventures of the goddess in modern times, then it became a superheroine series, then a fantasy adventure, then horror, sometimes all in one issue. I recently bought the Marvel Masterworks edition, and the stories are insane. This particular story doesn’t even include the Venus logo, and could easily be mistaken for a story from some horror anthology comic if it wasn’t for some passing references to Venus’s supporting cast. Venus’s powers don’t even come into play at all.
 That said, this story is pure Bill Everett awesomeness. While still somewhat loose, and not indulging in the fine detail that was his trademark, the master is very much on form. The story itself involves a series of houses which are being built near the sea by the same firm, and each one of them has been destroyed by tidal waves or coastal floods. Venus investigates, and finds that it’s the work of Neptunia, the daughter of Neptune, who after seeing her father’s undersea kingdom destroyed by atomic blasts, has decided to kill as many humans as possible by building beach houses and then hurling waves at them. Maybe it’s just because I live in a beach house, but the sheer unbridled sadism of this creeps me out. It definitely makes Neptunia the best villain in this volume so far. And hey, a villain with a motive is always nice.
 The most interesting aspect of this story though, is that Neptunia is basically a female version of Namor (when he’s in one of his more villainous moods), and her motive is actually identical to what would be his Silver-Age motive in Fantastic Four. One wonders if Stan Lee read this when bandying about for ideas. Hell, Neptunia even looks like Namor.
 Okay, now I want to see a retcon where it’s revealed that Neptunia IS Namor in drag. There have been dumber retcons. 4/5.
 The Human Torch in “The Return of the Human Torch” from Young Men #24: Finally, a solo Human Torch story, and it doesn’t disappoint. Not seen for years, The Human Torch blazes in on some gangsters, and after overcoming their special “Solution X-R”, turns them over to the cops. Years ago, the same mobsters covered him with the solution, then buried him alive, then sold his sidekick Toro to the commies. The Torch also retells his origin; he was a living flame genie created in a test tube by a kindly scientist during World War II, who immediately told him to fight the Nazis (Torch apparently tracked down Hitler immediately afterwards and burned him to death). The Torch lay dormant after being buried alive, but was recently freed by atomic testing, with greater power. Torch then heads over to Korea, and rescues a brainwashed Toro. They then fight a mob boss. It’s awesome.
 Russ Heath’s artwork is beautiful, and the way the story crams so much plot into just nine pages is impressive. My only problem isn’t the story itself, but that it was included when so much of it depends on familiarity with Torch’s sidekick Toro, who, because this volume never reprinted any earlier Torch stories with Toro in them, you’d never have known that Toro even existed unless you had prior knowledge of the character. The story’s retelling of the Torch’s origin is also pretty unfaithful to the original story from 1939, but that’s okay, one could chalk it up as muddled memories (I mean, my memory wouldn’t be perfect after being reawakened by an atomic test after four years of suspended animation). Besides, you gotta love a story where the hero just casually mentions that he killed Hitler like it was no big deal. Funny how the most awesome bit of Hitler-bashing in the whole volume comes from a story published after WWII. 5/5.
 Captain America in “Back from the Dead” from Young Men #24: The Red Skull shows his henchmen some footage of Captain America from during WWII, and they sigh in relief that he’s gone now and no one can foil their new scheme, which is to take the UN hostage. Meanwhile, history teacher Steve Rogers tells his students the story of Captain America. All of them dismiss it as a fairy tale, which causes Bucky (now Steve’s student for some reason) to throw a fit. While Steve tries to calm Bucky down, the news reports that the Red Skull has returned, and so Steve and Bucky put their old costumes on and prepare to battle the Skull once more.
 Man this story is filled with plot holes: How could a high school class, filled with students who were alive when Captain America was a major figure during WWII, dismiss him as a fairy tale? Why isn’t Bucky older? Oh well. Also, Cap’s fight with the Skull has to be the most anti-climactic in comics history. 3.5/5.
These kids would grow up to become Holocaust deniers.

 Sub-Mariner in “The Sub-Mariner!” from Young Men #24: Several ships mysteriously begin disappearing in the South Pacific, so Namor’s old girlfriend Betty Dean decides to contact him to help solve the mystery. Namor obliges, and a gem of a story unfolds involving undersea alien robots, all of this beautifully depicted by Bill Everett. Only problem? This story is too damn short!

 All of the moral ambiguities of Namor’s old stories are gone, and while his villainous past is touched upon, it’s quickly dismissed. Everett is playing Namor as a straight up friend of humanity now; he doesn’t even seem abrasive or arrogant. So yeah, he’s pretty much Aquaman. Still, the relationship between him and Betty is surprisingly warm, and the cool robot villains definitely liven things up. Everett’s 50’s Sub-Mariner stories wouldn’t stay as light-hearted as this, but they are often regarded as the high point of Marvel/Atlas’s brief hero revival. After reading some from the “Atlas Era Heroes” Masterworks, I can totally see why, as this is easily the best superhero art of the 50s along with Carmine Infantino’s Flash work. 5/5.
 Captain America in “Captain America turns Traitor” from Young Men #26: A commie spy who has been posing as a science teacher at a college asks Captain America, The Human Torch and Sub-Mariner to give a lecture on how to spot communists (why would a science teacher be organizing this?). This is actually just a plot to inject Captain America with a serum which makes him become sympathetic to the communist cause. The spy talks Cap into carrying out sabotage, while Bucky reluctantly tags along, trying to talk sense into Cap. You won’t believe what this story’s twist is, as it actually makes Cap seem even more deranged than if he actually had been turned evil by the serum.
A balanced view of the enemy? Horrors!!
  While this story has some good character moments for Bucky as he watches his friend turn traitor, but still tries to talk sense into him, it’s as paranoid and jingoistic as it gets. It’s because of stories like this which are why so many people think Cap is a redneck ultra-nationalist bible-belt moron and an insult to real soldiers. Marvel later revealed that this 50s Captain America was actually an impostor who literally believed that he was Steve Rogers, and he gradually became insane and paranoid, eventually becoming a villain called The Grand Director. Unlike a lot of comics retcons that are used to reveal characters as impostors or to turn them evil, this story has plenty of evidence to back the later Grand Director stories up. I’d like to think that’s why it was included, but the real reason was probably because it features Namor and the Torch in cameos, making it the only “crossover” of the era. 3.5/5.
 The Black Knight in “The Vikings” from Black Knight #2:
 This is probably the most unique story in the volume, as it isn’t a super hero story so much as a medieval adventure. The Black Knight was a prince named Sir Percy who posed as a cowardly fop, and battled the enemies of King Arthur’s court at the behest of Merlin. In this story, he battles some Vikings who kidnap his love interest. It’s amusing to see a story where the villains are the same guys who worshipped Thor; one wonders how he would have reacted if he’d been present in this story. I also like how the Vikings are shown to have their own code of honor, and aren’t really cardboard villains, even saluting Black Knight after he defeats them. The real appeal of this story though, is Joe Maneely’s artwork, which actually looks like something that would have been drawn in medieval times with a quill pin. A gem. 4/5.
 Jimmy Woo in “The Microscopic Army” from Yellow Claw #4: The Yellow Claw was Atlas’s answer to Fu Manchu, but what made the series stick out was that the hero of the stories; FBI agent Jimmy Woo, was also Chinese. In this story, Jimmy Woo foils a plot by the Yellow Claw to create a microscopic army, and shrinks himself to do battle with the Claw’s henchmen. It’s only 4 pages long, and not really all that interesting. Still, it has some nice Jack Kirby art, which is probably why it was reprinted. Meh. 2.5/5.
 So how does Golden Age of Marvel Vol 1 stack up against DC’s Greatest Golden Age Stories ever told volume? Not very well. However, that’s not because of the overall quality of Timely/Atlas’s output, but just because of Marvel’s laziness about what to reprint. If the editors had been willing to dig a little deeper, reprint some stories that had never been reprinted before, spotlighted some more obscure characters, provided some background for those more obscure characters (I can see someone who’s never heard of these characters opening this volume up and being baffled) and increased the page count, we would have an excellent volume.
 Thankfully, the second (and last) volume of this Golden Age of Marvel series does just that, and is a very good collection. Ultimately though, I can’t say whether I’d recommend this volume to a beginner, or a longtime fan. I give it a 3.5/5 for trying, as there’s only really one bad story, but only a few genuinely great ones.

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