Friday, March 23, 2012

Golden Age of Marvel Comics Vol.2 review:

 When I reviewed Golden Age of Marvel Comics Vol. 1 a short while back, my biggest complaint was how the stories reprinted therein weren’t bad so much as already easily accessible for hardcore Golden Age enthusiasts (and really, who else is going to be in a race to snatch this stuff up?). At the same time, the stories were baffling for the uninitiated since there were no origin stories or even “exemplary” stories chosen for the characters (I always try and review things objectively, as if I weren’t a comics fan). All in all, it hardly gave a good impression of Marvel’s Timely/Atlas era.
 So here we have Golden Age of Marvel Comics Vol. 2. Not only does this correct all of the faults of the first volume by offering up more obscure stories, showcasing origins and rarities (like the one-shot Red Raven Comics #1), but it shows that Timely could easily hold its own when you compare “era” anthologies. This volume offers just as much fun as anything in DC’s The Greatest Golden Age Stories Ever Told. Also, and I’ve mentioned this before, but for years this volume (which is still out of print) was impossible for me to find online (even on the Boob-haven itself; or in comics stores. When I finally snagged a copy in 2008; it was one of the few comics-related acquisitions I’ve obtained that I felt genuinely proud of, and considering all the hype I had built up for it, I wasn’t disappointed in the least.
 But enough yammering about me, it’s time to yammer about the stories:
Human Torch in “The Human Torch” from Marvel Comics #1: Kids in 1939 sure got their money’s worth when buying the first issue of Marvel back in 1939 (it sold so well that it was reprinted the next month), not only is the Sub-Mariner origin story a classic, the Human Torch’s debut isn’t bad either. It reflects Timely’s pulp/horror sensibility quite well.
 A scientist named Horton creates an artificial man who bursts into flame when exposed to open air, which he dubs “The Human Torch”. The press and a local “Scientist’s guild” (was that a real thing?) unite to force Horton into destroying his creation. Instead, Horton has the Torch buried alive in a steel tube and encased in concrete. However, some oxygen leaks in and the Torch is released, he runs around the city, unintentionally spreading death in his wake. The Torch jumps into a pool owned by a crime boss/mad scientist named Sardo, who decides to use our hero for an arson scheme. Things aren’t going to go well for him…
 If Sub-Mariner was inspired by Greek mythology and H.P. Lovecraft’s horror stories about race-mixing and sea monsters, then The Human Torch was an answer to Universal’s Frankenstein films, specifically the last two that had come out (Bride of and Son of) in that they focus just as much on the warring attempts by two factions (Horton & the Police VS Sardo= Frankenstein family VS Pretorious in Bride and Ygor in Son) to control the Monster/The Torch than on the artificial monster himself. Horton’s constant flip-flopping from a father figure to a heartless twit is interesting, and it’s cool how Sardo, who seems at first glance to be a typical mob boss, is actually a methodical scientist who is apparently quite wealthy already. He would have made an interesting recurring foe.
 The Torch himself is rather interestingly characterized as well; he can speak in full sentences and is apparently well-educated enough to understand what a ‘racketeer’ is, but he also displays childish qualities; being entertained by the sound of a fireman’s bell, being tickled when he’s sprayed with water, and taking a sadistic, but childish glee in burning Sardo’s house down. It’s definitely one of the most interesting depictions of an artificially created being that I’ve seen in comics. I also like how writer/artist Carl Burgos doesn’t shy away from depicting how (unintentionally) destructive the Torch is to civilians.
 This story has some plot holes (how did Sardo intend to recapture the Torch after his first arson scheme without a glass tube?) and some silly moments (a judge just lets the Torch off with a laugh after all of the destruction he’s caused), but all in all it holds up rather well. Carl Burgos’s art is crude even by Golden Age standards, but he’s a decent storyteller, which is what should count in the end. Surprisingly intelligent and entertaining. 4.5/5.
 The Fiery Mask in “The Fantastic Thriller of the Walking Corpses” from Daring Mystery #1: This was Joe Simon’s first superhero story, and as I’ve said before, it’s awesome. Zombies. Giant vultures. Giant green-skinned mad scientists. Death rays. The lamest wisecrack in comics history. A hero who defeats a horde of giant vultures by blowing a gust of wind at them with his breath. What more could you ask for? 5/5.
 The Red Raven in “The Red Raven” from Red Raven Comics #1: Perhaps it’s because he was the first Marvel hero to get his own title (even though this was his first and last appearance in this era), but something about The Red Raven has led countless writers to revive him. Here’s where the “legend” begins:
 A jumbo jet crashes during a storm, but it lands on a floating island in the sky inhabited by bird people. The king of the bird people decides to raise the only survivor, a young child, and he grows into a strong young man. The man goes to America, seeks employment, but gets into a brawl at an unemployment line, which somehow catches the attention of a criminal mastermind named Zeelmo, who has driven the country into poverty by stealing gold, who then tries to recruit him. Our hero gets offended by Zeelmo, and instead attacks him. Zeelmo then has our hero dropped into a room which spews out “aging gas”. Our hero switches to the identity of The Red Raven, escapes (somehow unaffected) and kills Zeelmo. Zeelmo’s successor (who has the annoying habit of saying “Ah Ha Ha” all the time) then hunts him down, but the Red Raven goes back to his island, where he is given a device that can seek out and summon gold. Red Raven then poses as a scientist in order to attract the attention of Zeelmo’s successors. Then he uses the device the bird people gave him to summon the gold from it’s vaults and drown the villains.
 Clearly, this story is an elaborate commentary by Joe Simon about the great depression: Red Raven represents the proletariat. Zeelmo is meant to represent the evil bourgeoisie bankers and businessmen who have drained the economy, forced people out of jobs and pitted them against each other in the quest for work (Red Raven’s fight with the homeless man), and has caused the premature aging of a whole generation (symbolically represented with his age gas). However, even though Red Raven kills Zeelmo, the villain’s organization continues on with a new leader, symbolically representing that no matter how many evil businessmen we expose, someone will always take their place. In the end, the villains are buried alive by their own obsession; gold, just as how the pursuit of money has ruined so many people in real life.
Scrooge McDuck never has this problem

 …Or maybe it’s just a silly comic book story that I’m having fun with by reading things into it because I’m drunk. Still, despite the gaping holes in the plot (If Red Raven has so much trouble finding employment, how does he set himself up overnight as a respected scientist? And how/why does the Age Gas wear off?), it’s fun, and Louis Cazeneuve’s art looks an awful lot like that of a young Jack Kirby. 3.5/5.
 The Vision in “Enter: The Vision” from Marvel Mystery Comics #13: A scientist named Enoch Mason creates a “dimension smasher” in order to find a way into the spirit world, which he believes is simply another dimension. Unfortunately, he gets held up in the middle of his experiment by some mobsters working for a loan shark called “Brains” Borelli (one of the greatest mobster names I’ve ever read in comics). Simple greed over unpaid loans would have sufficed for Borelli’s motivation, but instead Borelli is given another motivation which, well, just read it:
                Man, a world where big, dumb guys get picked on by nerds? Sign me up.
Borelli’s goons take Mason and the other scientists hostage, but enough of a link has been established with the spirit world that the smoke from a thug’s cigarette summons up Aarkus the Vision, who promptly freezes a thug to death by touching him. Then, in a very Spectre-like scene, our hero kills another thug simply by growing to giant size and staring at him. The rest of the story involves Aarkus taking out the rest of the mob, albeit in a less dramatic (and even humorous) fashion.
 Kirby is obviously going for a “horror” feel here, but his overuse of cross-hatching simply makes the art look dirty, and some of the more humorous moments kill the atmosphere, there’s also a weak attempt to set The Vision up in a secret identity. Nevertheless, the whole idea of an otherworldly being that appears out of nowhere to aid the innocent if there’s smoke in the air is just awesome. This story also establishes that The Vision only appears in his true form to those who are about to die, which is a neat idea, but was dropped after this story. Too bad.
 I also have to wonder though if the whole idea of “scientist summons bald, shape-shifting, green-skinned alien being with large head to earth and leaves him semi-trapped” inspired DC’s Martian Manhunter, whose weakness, oddly enough, was smoke and fire. One thing is certain though; Joe Simon & Jack Kirby must have liked the idea of setting up a superhero origin in a laboratory where an experiment multiple people are witnessing gets sabotaged, as it would be the origin for a more enduring character; some captain guy… 4/5.
 Captain America and Bucky in “Case No.1: Meet Captain America” from Captain America Comics #1: Well, whaddya know? It’s that very captain guy I was thinking about! Do I really need to summarize this one up? I think I’ll just comment on what sticks out to me besides the obvious and tired jokes about how slapdash Bucky’s identity is, etc.:
 -This universe’s version of FDR must not read the papers much:
-What’d I tell you? Same set-up as the first Vision story:
-The name “Steve Rogers” is not used during the origin sequence. For all we know, “Steve Rogers” could be meant to be interpreted as a code name.
 This story is more interesting during the set-up (the curio shop scene is nice and moody) and the origin sequence than it is when Cap actually shows up in costume, and because he doesn’t speak much or seem to have any kind of background, we don’t really get to know him. Part of me would like to see this lack of characterization as clever writing; making him the faceless embodiment of America as a whole and not an individual, but more likely than not it was because of the page count. I’m glad they included the origin, but there are tons of great Cap stories from this era they could have gone with instead. Still, it’s much better crafted than almost anything else at the time, the artwork is superb in most panels, and all in all, it’s hard to fault a classic piece of Americana like this. 3.5/5.
 Hurricane in “Murder Ltd.” From Captain America Comics #1: Whoooeee. This is more fun than the actual Cap story from that first issue. The Hurricane is actually the Greek god Mercury (Or is he? He is described as being the son of Thor!), who battles the forces of evil here on earth, his archenemy being Pluto, god of evil (portrayed as a typical devil character here). Our hero seeks out a mobster named “Piggy” Perroni and tries to infiltrate his mob so he can be led to Pluto, who has been posing as a rich socialite named Sayden (say it fast). He does away with Perroni anyway, simply because he insults him, then he crashes one of Pluto’s costume parties.
 This story is basically plotless apart from the overall goal of Hurricane fighting Pluto, but it’s so full of well-timed comedy (particularly the scenes with two disbelieving cops) and surreal bits (Hurricane takes the wings from his costume that enable him to fly and places them on the side of a taxi to make it go faster) that I just fell in love with it. I really like the “Masque of the Red Death” ambience on display when Hurricane crashes the party, and while Hurricane is portrayed as a hero, the story still shows him to be vain and mischievous, just like the actual Greek gods. All in all, it reminds me very much of Thorne Smith’s book Night Life of the Gods, which is likely what inspired this whole set up.
 Or was it? In Red Raven Comics a few months earlier, Kirby had written and drawn a story called “Mercury in the 20th century” that utilized the same concept; Mercury battling a Satan-like Pluto on earth (I have fond memories of reading that story’s reprint in Marvel Super Heroes #14). Of course, that story would have been impossible to maintain as a continuing series, since Pluto is revealed to be Hitler AND Mercury defeats him and ends the war in it (something which definitely wasn’t happening in real life), so I can see why they changed the character’s name and toned down the scope of the storyline. It’s still clear that the whole idea of mythological figures in the present day appealed to Kirby, as Thor later showed.
 Also, “Piggy Perroni” is my new favorite name for a comic book mob boss. You can have your Falcones, Fisks, Maronis, Trasks and Whales; all of ‘em pale in comparison to the Pig. Hey, Marvel! I want a 12 issue mini-series focusing on a gang war between Piggy Perroni and Brains Borelli! 5/5.
Tuk the Caveboy in “Stories from the Dark Ages” from Captain America Comics #1: A young boy, one of the only humans alive in a world drawn by Jack Kirby, embarks on a great quest, crossing paths with intelligent animals and shaggy beast-men.
 No, this isn’t Kamandi, this is Tuk the Caveboy. On one hand, I was glad to see a non-superhero story included in here, on the other, I really don’t care for prehistoric adventures. Nevertheless, I read on, and found this quite enjoyable. An old, one-eyed Neanderthal named Ak lays dying, but he imparts onto his adopted human son, a young boy named Tuk, that he comes from a race of humans who were banished from the land of Attilan (which I’d like to think is the same place from the Inhumans stories from Fantastic Four). Tuk ventures forth, and befriends another human named Tanir. And then the story ends.
 Damn! Right when it was getting interesting! I actually regret selling my GA Captain America Masterworks edition now, because I want to read more of these. 4/5.
Namor the Sub-Mariner in “The Sub-Mariner Smashes a Nazi uprising” from Marvel Mystery Comics #26: The alien queen Jarna (who can breathe underwater but looks human), an old enemy of Namor’s, tricks him into falling into the hands of Nazis who have set up an underwater base.
 Plot wise, that’s it really. After that set-up, the rest of the story is nothing but violence, name-calling, woman-beating, and characters screwing each other over and switching allegiances at the drop of a hat. Stan Lee would later return Namor to the regal speaking style he displayed in his first appearance, and logically, that is how Namor should talk. Still, as weird as it is seeing Namor using American slang in these stories, it just somehow works. Besides, Everett still communicates Namor’s arrogance to the reader perfectly. You wouldn’t mistake him for any other comic book hero.
 Anyway, you just can’t hate a story where the hero actually falls for the old “look behind you” ruse and tosses around insults like “You dang dummy!” and “German jerks!”. At one point, the dialogue is composed of nothing but insults for two whole pages. As usual, Everett’s art shines, the elegant, fine-lined art contrasting hilariously with the grade school dialogue. I could read this all day. 5/5.
  The Whizzer in “Origin of the Whizzer” from USA Comics #1: Yes folks, this is the infamous Flash rip-off character that got his power from mongoose blood. I just….just…yeah. Even if the story sucked, that single fact automatically propels this story to the top of the heap.
 But you know what? It’s actually a fairly entertaining, if standard “avenge my father” story, although here it’s slightly more interesting because the Whizzer’s father was framed for murder by mobsters and then died on his own. Al Avison’s art is well above average for the time. I can see why he would replace Simon & Kirby on Captain America. The art reproduction on this story is a bit hazy, but not bad.
 Still, regardless of any aesthetic merits….mongoose blood.
Even the mongoose is dumbfounded

 The funniest part of all about this? The whole “mongoose blood powers” thing wasn’t even original! It had actually been done in a pulp story (which sadly, hasn’t been reprinted) a few years earlier. I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry over the fact that some comic book writer apparently thought that that was a good enough idea to rip off. 3.5/5.
 Namor the Sub-Mariner in “The Fox’s Smuggling Racket” from Marvel Mystery Comics #27: Namor decides to go to Washington State to see what mischief he can get into (seriously, that’s his motive) and finds out that local “brushmen” (people who work in the fur trade) have been out of a job because someone has been stealing fur cargoes so they can sell them tax free. Namor investigates and finds out that it’s the work of a gangster named the Fox (whose appearance is indeed vulpine). Mayhem ensues, and as usual Everett’s artwork shines.
 This story is a bit of a precursor to the 1950’s Sub-Mariner stories in that Namor is acting as a detective and a friend of us surface people, and is also shown to care about the little guy. This story also distinguishes itself from other fur hijacking stories (my god, fur trading and phony psychics must have been the boom industries of depression-era America) in that it has a character (the Fox) who functions as a sort of supervillain and finds a way to make use of its hero’s powers (the Fox is using miniature submarines and missiles).
 What’s most interesting is Namor’s characterization. He may be a friend to humans (at least, the allied ones), but it’s still clear that he partakes in these missions simply because of an inherent love of violence. When he told Betty Dean in Marvel Mystery Comics #3 that he didn’t care whose side he was on, he meant it. In the book Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book (a fascinating, if often condescending book), writer Gerard Jones described these early Sub-Mariner stories as “a romance of superhuman violence without good guys or hope of a happy ending, a supreme Irish barroom fantasy”. Couldn’t have said it better myself. 5/5.
 The Human Torch & Toro in “Carnival of Fiends” from All-Winner’s Comics #1: The Chinatown committee decides to throw a festival to raise funds for China, but Japanese agents headed by a guy with a Hitler mustache named Matzu sneak in and try to sabotage it. The Human Torch and Toro investigate, and narrowly avoid getting hypnotized and made into slaves.
 Unremarkable, but the art is so rushed that you can’t really say that the depictions of the Asians are offensive since their faces are given so little detail. I also love how, of the two Human Torch stories featured in these volumes that have Toro in them, both have sequences where Toro gets hypnotized by the villains and the Torch has to punch him out to bring him to his senses. 2.5/5.
 Captain America & Bucky in “Case of the Hollow Men” from All-Winner’s Comics #1: One of the most famous non-Red Skull Cap stories from the Simon & Kirby run, this one has everything: Nazis, sabotage, a red-hooded super villain called “The Lord of Death”, indestructible hobo zombies, and ends with Bucky giving Hitler a raspberry over the phone. There are plenty of jokes I could have made about this story, but this guy already beat me to it. I also could have read something into the fact that all of the victims of the villain in this story are homeless people (a similarity this story shares with the Fiery Mask story), but as far as reading class conflict subtexts into 1940s comic book stories about zombies go, I already did enough of that to last me a lifetime this Halloween.
Oh yeah, during my quest to hunt down a copy of this volume, I managed to locate a “Collector’s Edition” special devoted to Cap from 1995, which featured a reprint of this story (along with an in-depth look at Greg Theakston’s restoration process for old comics, an interview with Joe Simon and one of the few genuinely funny “Let’s imagine if this superhero was real” parodies that I’ve ever come across). The work there was fine, but I have to admit I prefer the darker color scheme used in this printing. 5/5.
 The Black Marvel in “The Order of the Hood” from All-Winner’s Comics #1: Man, All-Winner’s Comics #1 and Cap #1 are for this volume what Marvel Mystery Comics #42 was to the previous. Still, this is a fun story. A group of criminals called “The Order of the Hood” go on a (surprisingly small-scale) crime spree throughout the country, apparently driving from Colorado to Los Angeles overnight. Only Dan Lyons aka The Black Marvel can stop them.
 *Whew* Two stories featuring villains in red hooded robes in a row. I’m going to make a contribution to Marvel continuity and assume that the Lord of Death from the Captain America story was a rogue member of this organization. Like I said, the villains in this story seem surprisingly small scale (they intend to get the government to pay them a million dollar a year in order to make them stop, but they don’t seem to be much more than a bunch of costumed bank robbers), but this story also has what may be the first moment in comic book history where the villains plot to execute the hero on live TV (well, what passed for TV in the 40s).
  A comic book milestone, perhaps? 3.5/5.
 The Vision in “Cult of the Shark God” from Marvel Mystery Comics #23: One of my primary reasons for pursuing this volume was just so I could read this story. I first read of it in The Jack Kirby Collector #13 back in the 90s, and let me tell you, stories which feature evil sharks with Hitler-haircuts are a surefire way to make me want something and pursue it obsessively. This one didn’t disappoint.
 “The ominous, rhythmic, booming tom-toms echo in the jungle night, as the weird rites of the Zambiji tribe are held in the light of a full moon” begins our tale, as some natives carry off one of their own, who is bound hand and foot, to a lagoon. The poor guy is sacrificed to a giant walking shark with arms and legs and hair named Kai-Mak. Soon an elderly explorer and his daughter fall into the cult’s hands and are about to be sacrificed, but the smoke from the ceremony summons Aarkus (who is always willing to help elderly scientists and their daughters, it seems) and he does battle with Kai-Mak.
 This one is just too good to last. Sure it’s silly, the natives never receive any punishment, and Kai-Mak goes down too easily, but it works. Moody, exciting and featuring a kickass villain (inspired by A.E Van Vogt’s The Sea Thing, perhaps?), this is the kind of thing comic books were made for. Now that Aarkus is back in the Marvel U, I want to see Kai-Mak brought back for a re-match. Maybe Namor and Tiger Shark could join in. 5/5.
 The Fin in “The Magic Cutlass” from Comedy Comics #9: The aquatic awesomeness continues with this yarn by Bill Everett. Lt. Peter Noble, the superhero called the Fin, finds a magic cutlass that’s impervious to harm, gets kidnapped by a press gang working for the Nazis, and mayhem ensues.
 As with most Everett stories there’s little plot to speak of, but the art, the action and the far from savory protagonist makes it wildly entertaining. Actually, I take that part about the “unsavory protagonist’ back, because the Fin seems like a nice enough guy, with far more of a sense of humor and righteousness than Namor. He still has badass moments like this, however:

 Quite a lot for “Comedy” comics, huh? Re-reading this story, I find that I like the Fin a lot. Too bad he was never a big hit. This strip is a fine combination of the super hero, swashbuckler and sword and sorcery genres, and really has potential. 4/5.
 Citizen V in “V Battalion” from Comedy Comics #9: Citizen V, a superhero who operates as a resistance fighter overseas, leads a rebellion, but gets captured by the Nazis. While he can escape easily, he soon finds that if he does, the Nazis have dire plans for their prisoners…
 A pretty generic “hero fights the Nazis” story, but I do love the idea of a superhero who acts as a figurehead for an entire revolution, more of a symbol than a man. He’s sort of like a war-time Robin Hood. Also, as is usual with most second-rate patriotic superheroes, he has far more in common with modern depictions of Captain America than modern Cap has with his Golden Age counterpart.
 It’s an interesting story in some ways, because this is basically a war story that only qualifies as a superhero story because of the hero’s costume, but it goes on a little too long. 3/5.
 So while this volume may not go out with a bang exactly, it sure as hell made for a fun ride. This is what I think of when I think of the Golden Age; ruthless heroes who were men’s men, wigged out plots, stream of consciousness pacing, Nazi-bashing, lingering depression-era angst, and an ambience of surrealism and novelty that modern comics just can’t generate. While there are more characters and stories I’d have liked to have seen featured (the Black Widow, the Challenger, Blue Blaze), I really can’t complain. If the first volume had cut some of the crap out, and been combined with the stories in this volume, we would have one huge volume of awesome. Hell, I wish Marvel had still cranked out a few more of these (like say, a volume completely devoted to the 50s hero revival, or the various female characters like Sun Girl, Namora, Miss America), but they didn’t. Some things are too good to last, I guess.
 As a whole, I can’t recommend this volume enough. 5/5. Worth the hunt.
 Oh, by the way, did I mention this book has an introduction by the Hammer-slammer himself, Mickey Spillane? You know you want this.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Essential Hulk Vol.1 review

  Collects Incredible Hulk #1-6 and Tales to Astonish #60-91.
 Note: For my St. Patrick’s Day post, I couldn’t make up my mind whether to post a handful of horror comics stories featuring leprechauns and banshees, or whether I should post the first appearance of the Green Goblin. Meh, too obvious, so instead I decided to post a review of Essential Hulk Vol.1 that I wrote up some time ago. He’s the most famous green character in comics, after all, and yes, I’m well aware of the irony of posting about a character because of their color, when it’s a black and white volume.
 When Silver Age Marvel fans are asked to name their least favorite series and character Marvel did at the time, chances are that it’s usually the Hulk (personally, I’d name the X-Men, but don’t let the fanboys hear that). I can see why, as the Hulk’s first series was cancelled after six issues, the Hulk was then relegated to villain of the week status after that, and then became the double feature with one of Marvel’s least popular heroes. Also, until Herb Trimpe came along, he never had a stable artist. There were also so many changes to who and what the Hulk is that writers are still sorting it all out.
 But, you know what? Although there is quite a bit of a disjointed quality to these stories at times, they have a raw, primal feel at their core that is hardly ever broken once it gets going. I know that I say that about a lot of comics, but here this feeling seems quite sincere. Except for DC’s Enemy Ace, I don’t think any mainstream comic of the time had such an existential bleakness as some of these stories do. The reason for this seems to be because Stan Lee wasn’t writing about a hero here; he was writing about a monster.
 Before they turned to superhero comics, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko had spent the better part of the early Silver Age turning out what Lee would later call “Groo and Mongor” stories, featuring giant monsters with bizarre names. Many of these monsters received sequel stories and generally took up the majority of the page count of the comic they appeared in. They may not have been breaking sales records, but clearly something must have clicked with fans. The Hulk seems to have not been conceived as a super hero series at all, but simply an extended monster story, designed to see if monsters were still the “in” thing and if the sales of Fantastic Four hadn’t been a fluke. I mean, what monster fan in the early 60s could resist a comic featuring a monster based off of Frankenstein’s Monster, Jekyll & Hyde, the Wolfman (in the early stories, Banner became the Hulk at night and reverted at dawn) and the Amazing Colossal Man? (Or possibly the Beast of Yucca Flats?) These early Hulk stories try to be many things and to combine many genres, and for the first two issues at least, “superhero” isn’t one of them.
 It’s true that the first two Hulk issues feature villains such as the Gargoyle and the Toad-Men, but it’s clearly the Hulk who is the real threat here: He brutalizes the teenager Rick Jones (who is indirectly responsible for Banner becoming the Hulk) and is only stopped from killing him by the rising sun, he contemplates stealing the Toad-Men’s weaponry so that he can conquer the world himself, and corners Bruce Banner’s love interest Betty in a scene which looks suspiciously like the set up for a rape. It’s Bruce Banner who is the hero here, the Hulk is a villain who complicates things for him, and any good the creature might do is purely unintentional.

 Toad-Men and Cold-War paranoia aside, these first two issues hold up extremely well because of the claustrophobic sense of dread on display. Even in the third issue, where Banner becomes stuck as the Hulk and Rick Jones gains control over him due to a psychic link, using him to fight villains like the Ringmaster, the menace of the Hulk overshadows everything else, and because the psychic link is broken whenever Rick falls asleep, this creates an even greater sense of tension, because Rick has been sleep-deprived for days, and is going to have to sleep sooner or later…
 Damn that’s dark.
 Even afterwards, after the Hulk is restored to being Bruce Banner again, and Banner begins using a ray machine to turn himself into a more intelligent (if abrasive and thuggish) version of the Hulk to fight crime, the tension never lets up, because it’s clear that the Hulk is simply more cunning than he was before, but not necessarily a hero. His constant threats of turning on Rick or humans in general could be read either as playfulness akin to Ben Grimm or Wolverine’s, or it could be read as something more sinister. There’s even the disturbing suggestion (which a lot of later writers have gotten mileage out of, notably Peter David) that Banner enjoys being the Hulk, and that he does retain his intelligence and personality, with his constant references to “milksop Banner” when in Hulk form simply being him justifying the things he does as the Hulk by disassociating himself from them. There’s a chilling moment when Banner decides to turn into the Hulk just because he sees another man making time with Betty, the guy turns out to be a villain named Tyrannus, but Banner had no way of knowing that.
 After the Hulk’s own series was cancelled, he was later featured as a backup in Tales to Astonish. This is where the Hulk starts becoming both more in line with what most people perceive the character as (This is when Banner starts to transform into the Hulk whenever he gets angry), and when the Hulk himself starts becoming more of a sympathetic, childlike anti-hero. There are some pretty incongruous moments of humor in these stories, but the tension is still well-maintained, and the addition of two new antagonists spices things up. The first is Major Glenn Talbot, who becomes Banner’s rival for the affections of Betty, while simultaneously trying to figure out what the reasons are for Banner’s constant disappearances (he thinks Banner is a spy). The other is the Leader, another victim of Gamma radiation who has just as much brains as the Hulk has brawn, and has delusions of turning the world into a utopia. Unlike other comic book villains, the Leader seems genuinely competent and collected, and one gets the sense that he’s been planning his schemes for a long time.
 But Lee still recognizes that the main element of suspense and terror in these stories should be the Hulk himself, and although the Hulk is being portrayed as more childlike and innocent, he’s still motivated simply by survival and the desire to prove that he is the strongest, not by any altruism. This holds true even when Lee repeats the plot element of the Hulk gaining Banner’s intelligence and acting as a sort of superhero. There’s a chilling scene where a captive scientist in Russia tries to befriend the Hulk, but the Hulk brushes him off. The scientist is then killed by the red army, and the Hulk, even though he barely knew and completely ignored the man, suddenly goes berserk and acts as if he had always known and treasured the man, shouting “They kill Hulk’s friend!!!” for pages and pages. There’s also a great bit later on where the Hulk saves a city and is commended for his efforts, on the verge of being pardoned by the president, but his own temper and inability to recognize friend from foe does him in long before the villain named Boomerang manipulates him into lashing out at the crowd.
 Any series that makes it’s “hero’ this unpredictable and dangerous has to be appreciated. Some people have criticized the Hulk series for glorifying violence, saying the Hulk is simply escapism where people can watch a man attack people who piss him off with no consequences. There’s none of that here, as who on earth would want to escape into this world?
 While the Hulk’s unpredictability and Banner’s tragic plight are the main driving forces, the other members of the supporting cast are surprisingly deep for the time. Rick Jones, who could easily have been obnoxious comedy relief, comes off as a great identification figure for readers who don’t necessarily want to spend their time rattling around in Banner’s head, he’s just a teenager with little to no family ties (except for an aunt we see only once) who wanders about aimlessly, carefree, but gets caught up in a nightmare and tries to assuage his own guilt by trying to befriend the Hulk and help Banner cure himself, even though he knows jack about science and his attempts to reach out towards the Hulk each narrowly avoid ending with him being slathered across the pavement.

 Betty is your typical long-suffering, impossibly loyal love interest, but what separates her from others is that she cares more about the hero’s alter ego than his super persona, and really, who can blame her? When Banner’s secret is exposed, her disbelief that her love could be the same monster she is terrified of, then her attempts to reach out to the man beneath the monster, and finally her mixture of revulsion and hope as she realizes the futility of her efforts, is stunningly well-handled for the time.

 Glenn Talbot, the major sent to investigate Banner, in contrast to later portrayals of him as a jealous, raving lunatic, is portrayed as a heroic, self-sacrificing man whom even Banner admires. He’s just doing his job, and has every reason to suspect that Banner is more than he appears, and of course, he’s right. When he pressures Rick to learn the Hulk’s secret, he doesn’t interrogate and torture him, but acts fatherly towards him. He isn’t even shown to distrust Banner because he has a dislike of “nerds”, as he is shown to be welcoming towards another scientist. Even the evil Leader and Tyrannus have moments of pathos.
 While I wouldn’t say that these Hulk stories are immune from typical Silver Age silliness, there’s a great deal less than you’d expect, and even the worst of it is still overshadowed by the somber tone of the series. One wonders why the Hulk’s strip wasn’t published in Tales of Suspense instead, as these stories have the most direct continuity and tension of any of Marvel’s series. Art wise, this volume is a mixed bag, with pretty much every Marvel artist (one story is credited to “the entire Marvel bullpen) of the time putting in both their best and worst efforts. The most striking work is by Bill Everett, who, even at his worst, has a boldness of line and a sense of composition that even Kirby lacks.
 I give this volume a straight-up 4.5/5.
 Now if you’ll excuse me, ‘tis St. Patty’s day, and I have to go have my annual drunken film nerd argument with my friend Stu about who was the hotter chick in a movie about leprechauns: Janet Munro in Darby O’ Gill and the Little People or Jennifer Aniston (back when she had meat on her bones) in Leprechaun. Pass the Bailey’s.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Essential Thor Vol.1 Review:

 You know, while it can often be a pain to slog through early entries of a series before the writers figured out what they wanted to do with it, or where they found a formula but it didn’t fully tap the potential of the series, there’s something to be said about reading those early stories and contrasting how things were with what they became.
 These early Thor stories are quite amusing for that reason. See, while Thor would later be turned into a quasi-Sword & Sorcery strip (which it remains to this day), that’s not how things were originally. While stories that feature awesomely powerful heroes fighting mundane villains can often be dull (believe me, I know), it’s somewhat refreshing to read Thor stories from an era where he was just as likely to fight aliens, gangsters, commies and super-villains as he was quasi-mythological deities. There’s a story where Thor battles an ordinary (and wounded) gangster at a construction site that is more suspenseful than it has any right to be. I’m sure that if these stories were written during the Golden Age it would quickly grow tiresome seeing stories like that, but in the Silver Age, where supervillains were the norm rather than the exception, that isn’t the case.

 There’s a real variety to these stories at first, the origin story could easily be a typical Atlas monster story for the first few pages. Even the obligatory anti-communism stories are fun. One such story, where Thor takes on a Castro-like dictator, successfully avoids the “mighty whitey” trope by having Thor be one of many components who help to bring down the tyrant’s downfall, and makes it clear that the rebel army is perfectly capable on their own. Another story, where Thor’s alter ego Dr. Don Blake is kidnapped and taken to a fortress in Russia, is pretty simple plot-wise, but manages to hold one’s interest because of the Universal horror-like atmosphere on display, with crumbling castles, dungeons, laboratories with an operating table that people get strapped to, and torch-lit hallways.
It's Alive!!!

 Perhaps that’s why these stories work; they successfully manage to make the presence of a super hero seem special in Jet Age America, even when facing outlandish (but mundane for comics) villains like aliens and commie mad scientists. Don't get me wrong, I like the stories set in Asgard, and it’s always nice to see characters on their own turf and matched with equal opponents, but sometimes, when it’s something as operatic as a mythological super hero, it all just gels together and overrides any sense of wonder. For example, read too many of the later 60s Thor stories in a row (where the focus was entirely on Asgard and omnipotent villains like Ego, Mangog, and Galactus), and your head will start to ache.
 Another reason that these stories work is because we have a human identification figure in the character of Don Blake. Admittedly, Blake is not much of a character himself, but he’s convincing as a Joe Average who suddenly gets super powers and is having the time of his life. Besides, I just love the idea of a disabled man who works as a doctor, a healer, but can turn into a fearsome warrior who commands the storms, with his weapon disguised as a walking stick (sort of like Daredevil, in some ways). A common complaint about these early Thor stories is that Blake takes too well to his newfound powers (which would necessitate the retcon that Blake really was Thor all along), but it’s clear from the first story that Blake is simply remembering things he learned about Thor while reading books about mythology (and who is to say that Norse myth in the Marvel Universe isn’t vastly different from Norse myth in the real world?).

 Blake also shows memories of World War II and Korea, and even mentions an ‘accident” in childhood that led to his disability, implying that he was a real man with a backstory long before he discovered Thor’s hammer. Also, to be frank, I just find it far more interesting that a man could be deemed worthy of wielding a god’s powers because he’s earned it through years of nobility and strength of character, and he clearly shows this, investigating an alien invasion unarmed and alone, trying to stand up to villains even without his powers (but not stupidly so) and trying to entertain his patients and use his powers to help them. I find that far more human and inspirational (for personal reasons) than “Oh, he was Thor all along”. The hammer’s inscription says “Whosoever wields this hammer—if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor”, not “Okay Thor, here’s your hammer back”.
 Blake isn’t without his faults and foibles as well. He sometimes lets his immense power got to his head, and at one point, throws a hissy fit as Thor that actually raises the ire of other members of the Avengers because of how close it comes to threatening bystanders. He’s also hilariously lax about his secret identity. Also, for a good chunk of the volume, Thor speaks without his quasi-Shakespearean dialect, but when he does, he is still written as being Don Blake in a different body. One could assume that he intentionally starts speaking with “thees” and “thous” and behaving arrogantly simply because it’s fun and he can get away with it. Sometimes Thor comes off in these stories as simply being a bland boy scout like Superman, but moments like that re-inforce that he’s not someone you would ever want to piss off.
 That’s the good stuff this volume has to offer, but it’s still early Silver Age Marvel material, so there’s plenty of silliness on display. Don Blake’s relationship with his nurse Jane Foster is one of the most genuinely unhealthy and creepy relationships in comics. He pretends not to love her so that he can keep her around for eye candy, hoping one day he’ll get the courage to ask her out, while she wants to baby him because she feels sorry for him because of his disability, then she completely loses interest in him when she sees Thor. If you think that sounds bad, that is when the relationship is written well, because it sometimes flips back and forth as to whether Jane prefers Blake or Thor. Other times, Jane openly berates Blake and says she wishes she could work for Thor because he’s a “real man” (she has fantasies about Thor where she literally polishes his hammer. Do I even need to describe what that symbolizes?) and calls Blake a "coward". Yeah, honey, mock the disabled man who aids the sick and suffering, has operated on a man at gunpoint, has volunteered courageously for government projects like acting as bait for spies and volunteering overseas to help refugees. Bitch. A later plot point that comes up is that Odin refuses to let Thor marry Jane because he sees her as unworthy of him. While Odin is a pretty unpleasant piece of work in his own right, I’d say he was right on the ball with that one. Natalie Portman’s Jane in the movie really was an improvement.
 Also, something I’ve noticed is that, even though he’s simply an MD, Don Blake is not immune from what I’ve come to call “Reed Richards syndrome”, which is when comic book scientists are depicted as being experts in every field of science, no matter what their specialty is, even though Blake isn’t even a scientist. At first this is believable, like in a story where he pretends to be working on a germ warfare project for the government (it’s the same story where he sets himself up as bait for spies). He is shown treating viruses and such, so it’s reasonable to assume that an ordinary medical doctor like him could have skills in germ warfare, but later this becomes ridiculous, with Blake creating an android and a cerebro-like tracking device! Oh, Silver Age. It’s become common to blame Stan Lee for stupid mistakes like this because he supposedly just wrote dialogue and misinterpreted what the artists (the “real” writers) intended, but very clearly in instances like these, silly shit like Blake creating androids was fully intended by the artists.
 Oh, and a recurring gimmick is that if Thor lets go of his hammer for more than 60 seconds, he will return to being Don Blake. At first this makes for some genuinely suspenseful scenes, but later on, the amount of things that are accomplished in those 60 seconds becomes truly ridiculous. Time must move slower in the Marvel U.
 Even the (debatably) infallible Jack Kirby has a few memorable screw-ups, like what happens to Don Blake’s clothes when he transforms back and forth from Thor; regaining hats he visibly lost earlier, wearing completely different clothing from what he previously had on, gaining and losing glasses, and damaged clothing suddenly getting repaired. Oh, well, it’s magic, it doesn’t have to make sense. Then again, if magic trumps all, why does Loki disguise himself with a rubber mask when he is established in his first appearance as a shape-shifter? Eh, he’s Loki.

 Speaking of Loki, while I’ve praised recent attempts to give the villain depth, I must say that there’s a giddy joy in watching him wreak havoc for no reason in these stories. Sure, he talks of taking over the world for all the typical villain motivations, but when he’s not plaguing Thor, it becomes clear that he has no goals other than just random mischief. He turns cars into ice cream, makes a hypnotized Thor tip over the leaning tower of Piza with his finger, lets animals loose from their cages and generally is just…kind of a dick. Odin should have just sent Loki to some enemy planet no one cared about and let him annoy them for all eternity.

 Some of the other villains are fun too; Mr. Hyde and the Cobra, while not yet having evolved into the bickering, camp gay stereotypes they both later would, are still pretty funny with their constant arguing over who is the more dangerous. It’s actually somewhat jarring to see that Hyde is depicted here as a scientific genius, since almost all modern stories I’ve read with him just treat him as a big brute. That’s an aspect they should bring back. There is even a direct reference to the original Stevenson story, with Hyde instinctively terrifying passerby without doing anything. Hyde actually gets set up to be second only to Loki as Thor’s main nemesis, but his relationship with Cobra drains all the menace from him. Another villain, called the Grey Gargoyle, also boasts one of the lame-brainedest origins I’ve ever seen, although that same story boasts a memorably eerie scene where a plane lands with all of the passengers found turned to stone. Finally, one of the volume's few female villains, the Enchantress, proves that Kirby really could draw women well if he felt like it.
Behold, the bufoonery of Hyde & Cobra

 Artwise, this volume is pretty strong. Kirby is stellar, especially in the first few stories. Joe Sinnott, while occasionally lax on anatomy and panel composition, is a fine substitute for Kirby, and really has fun drawing deranged facial expressions. Don Heck draws a lousy Thor, but his storytelling abilities and his superb drawings of the supporting cast and villains make up for it. Only the art by Al Hartley is truly bad, with almost Liefeldian-ly bad anatomy and some of the lousiest character designs I’ve ever seen. All of the rest of the stories are done by Kirby and inked by Chic Stone, with the “Tales of Asgard” back-up features inked by Vince Colletta. Curiously enough, the much maligned Colletta’s work is more striking, creating a far more unearthly and mythological feel than anything else in the volume.
Fun fact: Colletta could be quite good.

 All in all, while early Thor was hardly Marvel’s best series in the 60s, this volume is an amusing enough page-turner and I really had no trouble getting through it. While I wouldn’t recommend it to people looking to get into comics, or people looking to get into Thor comics (especially not any kids who saw the recent movie), it’s a fun enough diversion for Silver Age fans, as well as Thor fans who want a change of pace. I’ll give it a solid 4/5.