Sunday, 16 April 2017

More DC Comics I Liked in the 1960s

IN THE FIRST HALF OF THE 1960s, I had been an avid follower of Flash, Green Lantern and The Justice League of America. I'd even been known to stray into the world of Superman and the other Mort Weisinger-edited titles. But all that changed when I discovered Stan Lee's Tales to Astonish and The Avengers. From that point on, I would dismiss DC's titles as "kids stuff" and scorn other kids who were still reading them. And I stuck steadfastly to that opinion until 1968, when DC began publishing some titles that caught my eye. 

First it was Beware the Creeper and The Hawk and the Dove, both drawn by Steve Ditko, who'd left Marvel in a huff a couple of years earlier. But then I'd begun noticing other titles, particularly Secret Six, from Marvel's arch-rival and my opinion of DC began to soften a little.

I really don't know why I picked up the first issue of DCs The Secret Six (May 1968) from a newsagent spinner rack. The cover is a bit uninspiring, and you wouldn't know until after you'd bought the comic that the cover is actually the first page of the story.
Also around this time, I was enjoying some imported American tv shows, like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964 - 1968) and The Invaders (1967 - 1968) ... but a new programme on the schedules really captured my imagination - Mission: Impossible (1966 - 1973).

The classic Mission Impossible team - (back row) Barney Collier (Greg Morris), technical expert; Willy Armitage (Peter Lupus), strong man; (front row) Rollin Hand (Martin Landau), illusionist and makeup expert; Cinnamon Carter (Barbara Bain), international model; Jim Phelps (Peter Graves), leader.
Most will be familiar with the premise of Mission: Impossible after the success of the movie franchise which improbably cast Tom Cruise in the role of Ethan Hunt, a character not seen in the 1966 tv show. Every episode, the leader of the IM Force would receive a tape recording of instructions, from a never-identified person, offering him a task that no other government agency had been able to tackle. The details were delivered in a clipped voice, but did not constitute a direct order. For example:

"Good morning, Mr. Phelps. The man you are looking at is Alex Cresnic, one of the world's largest dealers in heroin. Recently, Cresnic made his biggest deal. He bought the entire heroin crop of an Asiatic country and smuggled it into Marseilles, where he plans to wholesale it to his major buyers. In order to get enough financing for such a big operation, Cresnic took in a partner. His name is Mark Walters, head of the Numbers Bank in Miami. The mission, Jim, should you decide to accept it, is to prevent Cresnic and Walters from selling their heroin and put them out of business permanently. As always, should you or any of your IM Force be caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions. This recording will self-destruct in five seconds. Good luck, Jim." (S2, E1: "The Widow")

Then smoke would pour out of the tape recorder and Jim Phelps set about selecting the team for this mission. One of my favourite capers was "The Numbers Game" (S4 E2, 1969) where the IM Force convinces a deposed dictator there's been a nuclear holocaust in an effort to stop him invading his former country. But there were many fantasy-oriented episodes, with phoney spiritualists, fake cryo-feezing and false fountains of youth. All in all, it was pretty much tailor-made for this 14 year old comic fan.


IMPOSSIBLE MISSIONS OF THE SECRET SIX

I can't now recall whether I saw Mission: Impossible on tv before I picked up the first issue of Secret Six or after. I kind of think it was after, because I had been so taken with the premise of that new DC comic ... it seemed so fresh and original.

The setup of the Secret Six is strikingly similar to Mission: Impossible. Six experts in their fields - each with a shady past - are blackmailed into serving a mysterious, hooded character called Mockingbird. Each mission is righteous - none of the team are called upon to do anything immoral, though occasionally their actions may border on illegal - but it's always in the promotion of justice.

Most of the first issue is spent introducing the team, who all bear more than a passing resemblance to tv's Impossible Missions Force, or IMF as they're called in the show.

It's not subtle, but this scene does introduce us to the Secret Six team quickly and efficiently, using just about a single page to give the reader all the information they need.
King Savage is a movie stuntman, similar to tv's Willy Armitage strongman character. Crimson Dawn (yep!) is the Secret Six's Cinnamon Carter. Carlo di Rienzi is the comics version of Rollin Hand's illusionist aspect. Dr August Durant is the team's scientist, the equivalent of Barney Collier. Lili de Neuve is a high-end beautician and makeup whiz, who I'd say was fullfilling the other half of the Rollin Hand role. And Mike "Tiger Force" Tempest is an ex-heavyweight champion, who could also double for the IMF's Willy Armitage strongman character.

The big surprise, uncovered as they gather together for the first time, is that their mysterious leader is actually one of them. This shocking bit of news is delivered by August Durant, which made me immediately suspect him of being Mockingbird.

This is the comic's equivalent of the Mission: Impossible self-destructing tape, where the point of the mission is explained. What isn't explained, at least not at this stage, is where Mockingbird gets his (or her) information.
The rest of the plot has the team instructed to tackle the problem of Zoltan Lupus, an formerly wealthy figure, who feels that oxygen should not be free and has invented a plane with a giant hoover attached that sucks the oxygen out of the air. The Secret Six's mission, should they choose to accept it (oh, wait ... they have no choice) is to penetrate the ex-millionaire's impenetrable island fortress and ensure that the weapon fails to function during a scheduled demonstration for prospective financiers.

Of course, Zoltan's plan is thwarted and the Six escape the island in a pilfered motor launch, ruminating over the identity of Mockingbird and wondering how long this situation is going to go on for.

Once the team has been established, it cleared the way to fill all 23 pages with actual plot. Secret Six 2 (Jul 1968) has one of the most striking covers of the entire Silver Age and still one of my favourites to this day. There's probably an entire blog post to be written about Nick Cardy, one of the mostly unsung geniuses of the 1960s and 1970s and, likely, someone's already written it. I may even do a post on Cardy myself one day, but for now let's stick to the subject.

What made Nick Cardy such a terrific artist was that he was also a great designer. This arresting layout and colour scheme immediately grabs the attention. It's very much an image of the times, very "Pop-Art" and on that level, I think Cardy was every bit as influential as Jim Steranko.
"Plunder the Pentagon" was plotted by series creator E. Nelson Bridwell and again drawn by Frank Springer. Old Charlton Comics lag Joe Gill was drafted in to do the dialogue. I don't think the issue reads any better or worse than the last one, which written by Bridwell on his own. Perhaps it was a deadline thing ... more likely it was newly-ensconced, former Charlton editor Dick Giordano's suggestion.

GIORDANO - RENAISSANCE COMICS MAN

Richard Joseph Giordano began freelancing at Charlton Comics in 1952, pencilling mostly romance, racing and western comics like I Love You (1955 - 1976), Hot Rods & Racing Cars (1951 - 1973), and Billy the Kid (1957 - 1983).

Some of Giordano's earliest cover art for Charlton Comics: Space Adventures 3 (Nov 1952); Lawbreakers Suspense Stories 13 (Jul 1953); and Haunted 15 (Feb 1954). Even at this point in his career, Giordano's clean line and dynamic layout style is evident.
Around 1965, Giordano became Managing Editor at Charlton, under long-serving Executive Editor Pat Masulli. Giordano's first project in his new role was to supervise the revival of Charlton's dormant superhero line as the "Action Hero", reinstating Captain Atom (with new art by Steve Ditko, after a short run of reprints), Peacemaker (drawn by Pat Boyette), JudoMaster (by Frank MacLaughlin), Thunderbolt (by Pete Morisi), as well as a revived Blue Beetle and The Question (both by Steve Ditko).

During his stint as Charlton editor, Giordano saw the success Marvel was having and instigated a line of super-hero books for Charlton, drawing on old favourites and creating new titles.
The new Charlton superheroes were only moderately successful, and by the end of 1967 were cancelled. However, during this (for Charlton) fertile period, Giordano had discovered and recruited talent like Jim Aparo, Denny O'Neill and Sam Grainger. And once the superhero revival was all done, so was Giordano. He left Charlton around the end of 1967, and accepted vice president Irwin Donenfeld's offer to join the staff of DC comics as an editor, taking over Teen Titans, Aquaman and a stable of other titles from George Kashdan and Jack Miller, with the May 1968 cover dates.

At DC, it seemed that Giordano had joined at an interesting time. I'd like to say that it was Giordano who'd brought in interesting artists like Nick Cardy and off-beat series like Deadman, but they were already in place when he was hired. Not quite sure where Young Love fits in, but I love the Jay Scott Pike cover.
Though I hadn't realised it at the time, I was an instant fan of Dick Giordano. I had taken a shine to his two Ditko titles at DC - The Creeper and The Hawk and the Dove - because they were Ditko, and thought Deadman in Strange Adventures was pretty good, too. It would be neat and make for a better story if I could have credited the brilliance of the Nick Cardy-drawn series Aquaman and Teen Titans to Giordano, but the fact is that Cardy had been involved in both series pretty much since their inception. 

Johnny Sheffield and Peggy An Garner starred in a series of low-budget Bomba movies during the 1950s. Just why the DC comic bills the character as "TV's Teen Jungle Star" I couldn't say. There's no evidence of a Bomba tv-series around 1968. Perhaps the films were showing on a loop on Saturday mornings in the US at the time.
Bomba was a strange choice. The character, a Tarzan Junior, had appeared in a successful series of books by "Roy Rockford", a house pseudonym of the book packager, Stratemeyer Syndicate. The film rights were picked up by poverty row studio Monogram and the 12-film series featured Tarzan's "Boy", Johnny Sheffield, in the title role. In 1968, I could have cared less about jungle characters.

Giordano had been handed Blackhawk at a weird time in its run, with issue 241 (Jun 1968). A year earlier, there had been an ill-advised attempt to turn the team into superheroes. Sales had been sinking and doubtless, the DC editors had looked at the burgeoning success of Marvel and their own superhero books and thought, "Hey, why not?"

Seemed like a good idea at the time - The Blackhawks were transformed into superheroes for the last year of their run. Not even Dick Giordano could save them.
Giordano quickly put a stop to all that nonsense, and returned The Blackhawks to their traditional blue uniforms in issue 242. But it was too little, too late and the title was cancelled with the following issue, 243.

The real odd-one-out in the stable is Young Love. Perhaps Giordano requested it, or perhaps it was thrust upon him. Whatever happened, Giordano decided to at least try to make the title his own.

The early Young Love covers were pencilled and inked by Jack Kirby. Then the covers sported photos for a large part of the run, presumably to make the comics look more like "real" magazines. The last part of the run featured many covers by Rip Kirby artist John Prentice.
Young Love had been one of the original pioneers of the Love Comic genre, started by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby back in the late-1940s for Crestwood's Prize Comics imprint. The title lasted under the team (Kirby left during the title's 1956 - 1960 hiatus) until 1963, when Prize went out of business and sold its remaining romance titles to DC. It was around that time that the Simon-Kirby partnership split up, though the two would continue to work together on occasional projects up until about 1960 or so.

Pretty quickly, Dick Giordano took over drawing the covers of Young Love (and of other DC romance titles) and overhauled the title's cover logo.
When Giordano took over Young Love, he first compiled a reprint issue in the 80-Page Giant format to give himself some breathing space, then took over drawing the covers himself. Within a few months, he'd redesigned the cover format, bringing a modern-looking logo and introducing an ongoing serial, "The Life and Loves of Lisa St Clair".

Over the next few years, Giordano introduced new titles like Date with Debbi (1969 - 1972), The Witching Hour (1969 - 1978) and Windy and Willy (1969), and took over editing the newly revamped House of Secrets (1969 - 1978) and the long-established romance title Secret Hearts (1949 - 1971). But by the end of 1970, Giordano was feeling constrained by the "lack of editorial opportunities" and left DC staff to become a freelance artist.

He'd go on to be the inker of choice for DC's super-penciller Neal Adams, though he contributed fewer inking jobs to the classic run of Green Lantern-Green Arrow than you'd think, just six of the 14-issue run.

Giordano returned to DC in 1983 as Managing Editor, was promoted to Executive Editor and remained with the company until 1993, when the untimely death of his wife - Marie Trapani sister of Sal - hastened his decision to return to freelance inking part-time.

It can't be a coincidence that the only DC books I'd countenance reading in 1968 were all edited by Giordano, even though I didn't know it at the time. And it was probably the hand of Giordano - as much as Steve Ditko - that brought me to the Charlton Action Hero line of the mid-1960s, albeit almost thirty years after the event.

Giordano died on 27 March 2010, but his influence on the industry has lived on long after him. He was an important figure, not just to the comics business but to me too, both for his editing skills and for the brilliant comics he illustrated with Neal Adams.

HOUSE OF SECRET

So with the introductions of the characters out of the way, and new scripter Joe Gill on board, Secret Six 2 (Jul 1968) was free to concentrate on the intricate caper-plot, which more than ever resembled an episode of Mission: Impossible.

The first part of the story in Secret Six 2 sets up the situation and has Durant plan how the team will solve the challenge facing them. The middle section reveals some background information on Durant and how he came to serve Mockingbird. The back half of the story has the team solve the problem in an ingenious way.
The Six are tasked by Mockingbird to sell plans for the top-secret aircraft the XB-107. But first they have to steal the plans to make enemy agents believe they have them. Then they'll sell fake plans to the agents and secretly return the real plans. With me so far? So Carlo and Lili walk brazenly into the Pentagon, disguised as a high ranking army officer and his secretary, accompanied by Dr Durant. Their chance discovery by a passing security man means they have to fight their way out. But it turns out that the military intelligence people knew the foreign agents were after the plans, and switched the real plans for fake plans. So Carlo and Lili snatched fake plans. So where, asks Durant are the real plans? Why right here in my drawer says the intelligence guy. Except they're not. In all the confusion, the enemy agents filched the real plans. Reviewing recent newspapers, Durant discovers that Soviet spy Nikolai Shokolov recently entered and left the US making him the prime suspect. The Secret Six resolve to go after him and retrieve the real plans. And we're not even halfway through the story.

I think it was this level of complexity that made me a fan of the title very quickly. I had to read the story a couple of times to figure out exactly what was going on, and that added up to Value for Money, to me.

The second half of the story reveals how Dr Durant came to be infected with a lethal virus and how Mockingbird supplies the drug which keeps the virus at bay. Did Mockingbird administer the virus in the first place? Why doesn't anyone else have an antidote? Is Durant even telling the truth?

In the end, with Shokolov distracted by Crimson's undeniable charms, the team manage to switch the real plans for the fake plans, which Shokolov then delivers to his Soviet masters. Needless to say, it doesn't end well for Shokolov.

This would be the formula for the series. Each issue would feature an impossible mission, and highlight the story of one of the team.

Secret Six 3 sported some pretty good artwork by Jack Sparling. The pages above feature what looks like Neal Adams-inspired layouts. Page 21 I especially like, as I used to own the original art for this page. Can't remember now whatever happened to it.
Secret Six 3 (Aug 1968)  saw a change of artist. Frank Springer was gone and in his place, reliable DC regular Jack Sparling was providing the art. I don't think I noticed the artist change at the time, and even now I think Springer's and Sparling's art styles are quite similar. However, I do think Sparling was paying attention to the rise of young artists like Neal Adams and was striving to make his art as dynamic. Look especially at the scan of Page 21 of SS3 above. That fore-shortened figure diving across the lower panel is quite Adams-like.

The story opens with each of the team surviving attempts on their lives. After speculating that one of the attempts may have been faked, the six decide to pair up, so each can keep an eye on the other. But that doesn't help, as Mike Tempest is abducted by The Mob under the very nose of stuntman King Savage. The team bust Mike out of the cell he's being held in and leave the disguised Mob heavy Hanrahan in his place. The Mob take Hanrahan out to be shot instead of Mike ... and as they do, the police show up and arrest the baddies, all except the Big Boss, who gets away.

Then we learn a bit about why the Mob wanted Tempest. It seems the ex-boxer didn't throw a fight when the Mafia wanted him to, and the gangsters want payback. And just as Tempest's story comes to a close, the Mafia Boss pops up brandishing a machine gun. There's a big fight and the Bad Guy gets his just desserts.

This plot is a little more straightforward than preceding issue's. By this point, the team seem to have accepted that one of their number is really Mockingbird, but when I traced it back, that view was just a theory expressed by Dr Durant in SS1, though there's no evidence to support that view. In the context of the story, it's just pure guess work, yet here we are two issues later and the team seem to have taken the idea as fact.

There's a bit of discussion about this development on the title's new letters page, "Listen to the Mockingbird". One reader suggests that Mike Tempest can't be Mockingbird because he was seen responding to Mockingbird's call on his wrist videophone. Another reader thinks it'd be a good idea to have one of the team killed on a mission and have a new member join. Dick Giordano's response to this is that then the rest of the team would know that the new member can't be Mockingbird, but I don't agree. It's not been demonstrated by any evidence that Mockingbird is one of the team. This discussion would continue ...

Secret Six 4 would be the last outing for the classic circular logo. The story fills in King Savage's biography and sends him to China to free the man who tortured him from the communist authorities.
The fourth issue of Secret Six (Nov 1968) has the team dispatched to China to liberate a double agent, General Pao, from a Red Guard jail. While Lili's applying makeup so the team can pass as Chinese, we get a flashback telling how King Savage was captured and tortured in Korea and gave away everything he knew to the communists. But Mockingbird was able to free him and Savage returned to his own lines a hero. When the team eventually reach the prison, we discover that General Pao is the same man who tortured Savage ten years earlier.

Not my favourite issue, but I was enjoying Jack Sparling's art. John Edmond Sparling was born in Winnepeg, Canada in 1916, making him 52 when he was drawing Secret Six. His parents moved to the US when Sparling was a child. Around 1940 (sources vary) Sparling created the newspaper strip Hap Hopper, with writer William Laas. Sparling worked on the strip until 1943, when he was succeeded by Al Plastino. Sparling's next newspaper gig was Claire Voyant, which lasted five years, with some of the strips being collected in comic book form.

By the early 1960s, Jack Sparling was getting steady work from the DC editors, both fill-ins and regular series work, in the shape of Eclipso in House of Secrets.
For the next 20 years, Sparling freelanced for just about every comic book company, pencilling and inking in just about every genre  - Warfront and First Romance (Harvey), Tell It To The Marines and Danger Is Our Business (Toby), Gabby Hayes (Charlton) and various movie adaptations for Dell's Four Color series in the 1950s. Then in the early 1960s, Sparling fetched up at DC, drawing short stories for the anthology titles like Strange Adventures and House of Secrets, for which he also drew the ongoing Eclipso series, and even Green Lantern.

Secret Six 5 allows the glamorous Crimson to take centre stage, playing a pivotal role in the takedown of Johnny Bright, and at the same time revealing how she came to be in the thrall of Mockingbird. I'm not sure why the logo was revamped, removing the distinctive spotlight circle which I'd quite liked.
Secret Six 5 (Jan 1969) draws inspiration of sorts from The Prisoner of Zenda ... a character called Johnny Bright has filched the crown jewels from a small European country called Graustania, and there's a danger that if the coronation doesn't go ahead there could be a communist takeover or, worse, the Basil Rathbone-like Archduke Otto might usurp the throne. The team are dispatched to recover the baubles. It turns out the Bright is the cad that married Crimson for her money and left her flat, back when she was frumpy Kim Dawn.

This allows Bridwell and Gill to give us the origin of Crimson, probably the most interesting of the Secret Six team. Raised as a dowdy kid by a military father who wanted a son, she was trained in sport and martial arts by her father. Trying to break away from his stern influence, she met and married chancer Johnny Bright, who stuck around until the money ran out, then ditched her. Mockingbird picked her up, delivered her to Lili, who turned chubby loser Kim into the international supermodel Crimson.

Of all the six, I think Crimson/Kim has the weakest reason to be bound to Mockingbird. Her big fear is that her family will find out she's Kim. And then what? Disinherit her? Didn't that already happen? OK, tell her off, then? Send her to bed with no tea? If Crimson were an internationally successful model, she's be pretty much beyond the reach of her family anyway, as she'd have her own funds, so her family has no hold over her. But why carp?

Secret Six 6 puts ex-movie star Lili de Neuve in the spotlight, for all the wrong reasons. The sub-plot with Crimson distracting villain Marcel Valory with her, er, charms doesn't really contribute anything to the plan, but is perhaps just in there so Jack Sparling can draw her in a bikini.
Secret Six 6 (Mar 1969) highlights Lili's story and makes her the centre of this issue. For the second time in her life, Lili finds herself framed for murder. Her arch enemy and the woman who stacked fake evidence against Lili first time round, Jeanne Gaultier, is murdered at Lili's spa, and all the evidence point to her. So the team take it upon themselves to investigate and help Lili out, this time without direct orders from Mockingbird. It doesn't take the Six long to figure out that the guilty party must be Gaultier's current paramour, Marcel Valory. They then devise an elaborate scheme to make Valory think that Jeanne is still alive, tricking him into confessing in front of an audience of hundreds. And Lili is off the hook again.

And on the subject of Mockingbird's true identity, there is a response, to a letter from future DC staffer Carl Gafford, on the letters page that says, "Remember, it was Doc, and no one else, who said Mockingbird was one of the group. There really hasn't been any documented proof that this is really so!" This just made me strongly suspect that the creative team probably hadn't actually decided who Mockingbird was, even at this point.

Secret Six 7 allowed Carlo di Renzi some closure after the murder of his wife and the near-fatal injury of his son at the hands of The Syndicate. But it failed to bring the series to a satisfactory close.
Secret Six 7 (May 1969) was the final issue.This meant that the sixth member of the team, escape artist and magician Carlo di Renzi was afforded his moment in the limelight. The Mafia is still looking for Mike Tempest, and kidnap Carlo so they can torture him and make him reveal where Tempest is. The thug who's been sent after Mike is Mario, a professional hitman from the old country, who was responsible for the death of Carlo's wife and the crippling injuries of his son. Carlo manages to contact the Six via his wrist vidphone and the team put a plan in motion to put a stop to the Syndicate once and for all.

And then, with that, the run of Secret Six was over. The last page bore no trailer for the next issue, simply a small "The End". While other hands would resurrect the series years later, there can be no doubt that it wouldn't be the real Secret Six.

The identity of Mockingbird would be revealed 20 years later in Action Comics Weekly 629 (6 Dec 1988), in a story written by Marty Pasko. I haven't read it. And even if I had, I wouldn't see it as the true resolution of the story that had been started (and never finished) by E. Nelson Bridwell and his collaborators Joe Gill, Dick Giordano, Frank Springer and Jack Sparling. For, in my mind, that Mockingbird would just be an impostor.

For the time being, that would end my brief flirtation with DC comics of the 1960s. It would take a few years and the release of Marvel's Conan before I'd once again take a look at any comics from Marvel's rivals. In the early 1970s, I'd notice DC putting out books like Green Lantern-Green Arrow, Swamp Thing and The Shadow ... but that's a story for another time.

Next: Daredevil and other Disabled Defenders




Sunday, 19 March 2017

Strange Tales: Here's the Thing ...

WITH STAN LEE taking a much more active hand in Marvel's anthology titles during 1964, following his first revamp of Strange Tales, Journey into Mystery, Tales to Astonish and Tales of Suspense in the last couple months of 1963, it became apparent as 1964 wore on that Stan wasn't quite happy with the B-team titles quite yet. Starting with Strange Tales, he would further evolve those mags with more radical changes, the first of which was introducing the "split-cover" idea.

Doctor Strange had been appearing in Strange Tales beginning with a couple of appearances in issues 110 & 111, then returning as a permanent back-up in 114 (Nov 1963), the first to see Stan scripting the main Human Torch feature. But the magician was nowhere to be seen on the following Strange Tales covers - aside from a cameo on issue 118 - until June 1964's Strange Tales 121

Strange Tales 121 sported Marvel's first regular "split cover" format - the idea wouldn't be rolled out to the other anthology titles until the end of 1964.
That issue brought back The Plant Man as an adversary for The Torch - not the strongest of villains - and had him spraying The Torch with acorns for the "jeopardy cover". The story relied on some of the more familiar cliches from earlier stories - The Torch getting doused with water so he can't Flame On and a scene with Johnny telling the Fantastic Four not to interfere as he has to do this on his own. When Johnny does defeat The Plant Man, he does it with the help of The Thing, who trashes the plants holding Torch's girlfriend Doris Evans captive, opening the way for the villain's capture. It's all a bit by-the-numbers and not up to Stan's usual standards.

Behind the second split cover, the three former Doctor Doom henchmen embark on a scheme to defeat the FF one-by-one and use asbestos ropes and sheets to douse The Torch's flame and imprison him. But once Johnny escapes and dries off using his handy all-body dryer, he gives them a darn good hiding.
Strange Tales 122 (Jul 1964) saw the return of Doctor Doom's henchmen, Yogi Dakor, Bull Brogin and Handsome Harry (I don't think they had a team name at this point) from Fantastic Four 23 (Feb 1964), though Stan references FF22 in error all the way through the Torch tale. In that Fantastic Four story, Doom uses the three underlings to distract the FF and when their mission is done, he banishes them to a handy parallel dimension. At the beginning of Strange Tales 122Stan tells us that the three were transported back to earth when Doom drifted away into the stratosphere and lost his hold over them. 

In FF 23, Doctor Doom recruits three common crooks and enhances their natural abilities to make them the nemeses of each member of the FF. Bull Brogin is the Thing equivalent, Handsome Harry's hearing is heightened so he can track The Invisible Girl and Yogi Dakor is made impervious to flames. They're a kind of precursor to the The Frightful Four.
Inexplicably, the three villains are still loyal to Doom and resolve to defeat the Fantastic Four, this time one at a time, so that Doom will be proud of them ( I'm guessing they don't realise Doctor Doom doesn't do gratitude). Not surprisingly, they decide to tackle The Human Torch first. Using asbestos props, they capture the Torch - a little too easily, in my opinion - lock him in a handy caravan, then set off to capture Johnny's sister, Sue. While they're away, Johnny's unable to burn through the asbestos ropes that bind him, so he just generates billowing smoke. The fire brigade are called and they free the trussed-up Torch.

The Torch quickly catches up with the villains, who are waiting for Sue Storm at Johnny's house. He makes pretty short work of the baddies and, once they're under wraps, it only remains for Johnny to get told off by Sue for making a mess of the house and for The Torch to plug Fantastic Four 28 ("on sale now") before bringing the last solo Human Torch adventure to a close.


ENTER ... THE THING

I couldn't have been the only one who though these Human Torch tales were a bit ... well, lacklustre ... because, starting with the very next Strange Tales, Stan added The Torch's team-mate The Thing as a regular guest star, though the announcement on the cover was quite low-key.

The lead story in Strange Tales 123 introduced new characters and concepts ... and a new artist. The lead story added The Thing as a regular team-up partner for The Torch, it also introduced a new villain The Beetle, who would go on to menace other Marvel heroes - notably Spider-Man. And the "new artist" was Carl Burgos, who had created and drawn the original Human Torch in the 1930s and 1940s.
It must have been a "Why didn't I think of this sooner" moment for Stan. It was pretty evident from the Fantastic Four character-dynamic that the constant bickering between The Torch and The Thing was one of the key attractions of that book. That kind of "friendly enemy" characterisation could be traced back to the good-natured rivalry between Ham and Monk in the Doc Savage novels of the 1930s, though I wouldn't be surprised if someone could name earlier examples.

Though Doc's companions, Ham and Monk, were always at each other's throats, they'd often find themselves in tight spots together ... and woe betide anyone who picked on one of them while the other was present. (Click to enlarge, if you want to read the text.)
Strange Tales 123 (Aug 1964) also introduced a new super-villain, The Beetle, whose arrival coincided with the first appearance of Carl Burgos as artist on the Silver Age Human Torch. Of course, Burgos had created, written and drawn the original Human Torch, cover-featured on the very first issue of Marvel Comics, who had gone on to star on the covers and in the interiors of almost the entire run of Marvel Mystery Comics, from 1939 to 1949.

Though the Marvel Mystery covers were almost all drawn by Alex Schomberg, Burgos continued to write and draw the Human Torch stories until he was drafted in 1942. After the war, Burgos got into advertising and only returned to comics with the 1950s Atlas superhero revival.
I hadn't realised it until I dug out my copy of Strange Tales 123, but it's likely that the oddball appearance of The Beetle is all down to the design sensibilities of Carl Burgos. There isn't another Marvel villain that looks quite so ... well, odd. I wasn't mad on Burgos' version of The Thing. He'd drawn Ben a bit like a gorilla with orange hide ... far from the chiselled look of the character in the concurrent Fantastic Four 29.

In FF 29, Ben Grimm looked quite different, drawn by the dream team of Jack Kirby and Chic Stone, the stone-like look of The Thing already well established.
The Beetle would go on to become a Spider-Man villain, appearing in Amazing Spider-Man 23 & 94, as well as battling Daredevil in issues 33 & 34 later in the 1960s.

After his ill-advised goofy clown costume in his first couple of appearances, Paste-Pot Pete was given a sleeker costume in Strange Tales 124, though it would be a few months before he'd change his name to The Trapster.
With Strange Tales 124 (Sep 1964), Ben Grimm became an official co-star with The Torch, and the pair were up against future Frightful Four member Paste-Pot Pete once more. However, Stan and Dick Ayers gave the villain a makeover, with a more serious-looking costume and a more menacing colour scheme. After his appearance in Avengers 6 (Jul 1964), helping free New York from Baron Zemo's deadly super-adhesive, Pete was parolled. But instead of doing something useful, he tries to scheme his way through a battle with Torch and The Thing, inevitably coming off second best.

Stan's dialogue is entertaining as always, as he opens the story with a fun argument between the two pals, but I'm still not convinced by Dick Ayers' take on The Thing.

The Torch and The Thing are more interested in scrapping than in being interviewed by two Life magazine reporters (who look a lot like Larry Leiber and Jack Kirby) - until they hear that the Sub-Mariner is heading for Manhattan, and decide to fight him instead of each other.
Strange Tales 125 (Oct 1964) sported a Jack Kirby cover and an A-list supervillain foe. It also had The Torch and The Thing make a complete mess of the situation, something that's become very familiar in comic stories these days, but at the time was quite unusual.

When The Torch and The Thing's feuding is interrupted by a couple of reporters from Life magazine looking for an interview with Reed and Sue, Ben and Johnny are ticked off that they're not the interview subjects and throw the reporters out. Then, seeing on TV that The Sub-Mariner is approaching Manhattan, the two stop fighting and decide to show Reed and Sue who the real stars of the team are by battling Prince Namor themselves.

What the pair of nincompoops don't realise is that Namor is on his way to New York to attend peace talks, brokered by Reed Richards, and the duo's bombastic battling of the Sub-Mariner simply ensures that Namor will never trust the surface people again.

At the time, we comic readers could never imagine such a thing would happen in DC's world. Flash and Green Lantern never made mistakes like that, and the only way Superman would ever mess up that way is if he was under the influence of Red Kryptonite, or it was an elaborate hoax to dissuade Lois Lane he wasn't Clark Kent after all.

Weirdly, this issue also contains part one of "The Message", one of the obligatory text stories that were appearing in most of the Marvel Comics of this period. But though the footnote promised part two would appear in the next issue of Strange Tales, it never did, and this was the last time a text story - or more properly, half a text story - would appear in the title.

Over in the other anthology comics, the last text story in Tales to Astonish was in issue 57 (Jul 1964). In Tales of Suspense, it was issue 58 (Oct 1964). And in Journey into Mystery, it was issue 108 (Aug 1964). All four titles gained letters pages after the text stories stopped, except for Astonish, where readers had to wait until issue 61 (Nov 1964) to see their letters printed.

In this version of a familiar plot, The Thing escapes the Puppet Master's control when he reverts to his human form, "due to the unbearable tension", of fighting the mind control. Elsewhere in the issue, Marvel advertise four tantalisingly out-of-reach (for UK readers) issues, then on-sale.
Strange Tales 126 (Nov 1964) was essentially just a re-hash of the Torch story from issue 116. The Puppet Master takes control of The Thing and turns him against his own best friend. This version threw in The Mad Thinker for a bit of variety, as the two had teamed up previously to battle the FF in Fantastic Four 28 (Jul 1964).

And though my own copy of ST126 has the familiar Thorpe & Porter "9d" stamp on the cover, this issue was one of those that suffered from the spotty to non-existent distribution caused by the great T&P price hike snafu of 1964, that I've written about here before. So this issue's house ad - "4 More Marvel Masterpieces" - featured four Marvel Comics that were nigh-on impossible to find in the UK at the time, though I have seen copies of Astonish 61 with T&P price stamps, so some copies did make it over here.

On the plus side, there's the first letter column, "Strange Mails", which includes a letter from Paul Brackley of Hornsey, London, right here in the UK, who rates Strange Tales as his fourth favourite Marvel comic, and tells us he's moving to Australia. I wonder if he kept reading Marvels ...

This trio of covers established Chic Stone as the regular inker over Kirby pencils - though Strange Tales 128's cover was inked by Sol Brodsky, in a rare (for this period of Marvel) art contribution.
For the remaining three issues of Dick Ayers' run on the Human Torch stories, the artist is credited - at least at the Grand Comics Database - as having co-plotted the stories. Strange Tales 127 (Dec 1964) had a slightly off-beat story where The Torch and The Thing are behaving like spoilt six-year-olds, telling Reed Richards that they can manage fine without him. So Reed tells them they're free to take on some cases on their own. The very first thing that turns up in an invitation to a race - which itself is a bit odd - that turns out to be a trap set by a mystery villain. Though the plot seems a bit contrived, I think I was more bothered by Reed's out of character reaction to Johnny and Ben's bad behaviour.

I like the story in Strange Tales 128 (Jan 1965) better, if only because it featured two of my favourite characters at the time - Quicksilver and The Scarlet Witch. And The Thing's status as a co-star is further cemented by his addition to the cover's Marvel Comics corner box.

And Strange Tales 129 (Feb 1965) featured the return of the criminal team no one cares about, now named the Terrible Trio. The former henchmen of Doctor Doom - Yogi Dakor, Handsome Harry Phillips and Bull Brogin - break out of jail and cook up another doomed scheme to trap Torch and The Thing.

After three issues, Stan must have realised that this material wasn't firing on all cylinders, at least not creatively. Yet in 1964, of all the Marvel anthology titles, Strange Tales was outsold only by Journey into Mystery, which was a de facto Thor comic anyway. So I think Stan wanted to give it one more try before he re-thought the title.

Stan wisely emphasised Dr Strange on this Strange Tales cover, as the Torch-Thing team-up story inside is daft, to say the least. Interesting to see a Kirby-Stone take on the Master of the Mystic arts, though.
With Strange Tales 130 (Mar 1965), Stan replaced Ayers as artist on the Torch and Thing stories with Bob Powell, who was also taking over as Giant-Man artist in Tales to Astonish the same month. Powell was, in my opinion, a better storyteller than Ayers and I looked at the reasons for that in my Giant-Man postings last year. But his approach to the Torch and Thing stories seems to be more of a cartoony, comedy style ... at least for this story. Perhaps this has something to do with the "funny incident" nature of the tale, where Johnny and Ben take their dates to a Beatles concert and end up foiling a box-office robbery, but in truth, the style wasn't toned down much for the next adventure.

With this issue, Bob Powell supplies the cover art as well ... the result is that the cover image is much more effective than the story it's selling. The only way I think this could have been marginally improved is if the inset of Dr Strange had been left out.
Strange Tales 131 (Apr 1965) featured the return of The Mad Thinker. The villain was never one of my favourites, and even from his first appearance in Fantastic Four 15 (Jun 1963), I thought he was more annoying than menacing. I can see where the idea had come from - computers were just entering the public zeitgeist and were seen as almost magical machines that could extrapolate uncanny predictions from available data - but beyond that, the character had no, well, character.

The story in Strange Tales 132 was a little muddled, probably the result of a last-minute scripting job by Warren writer-artist Larry Ivie. It's never really clear what the rogue scientist, Professor Jack, is up to. But the highlight is The Thing being given the undercover name of "Josiah Verpoorten" ... though John Verpoorten wouldn't officially work for Marvel until 1967, he must've been known, at least to Ivie, in 1965, as it's too much of a coincidence to have The Thing named for the six foot six, 290 pound inker-turned-production manager.
The Torch and Thing story in Strange Tales 132 (May 1965) sported a new writer, Larry Ivie. Even though Stan had been plainly unsatisfied with his previous attempt to farm out the scripting chores on some of the secondary Marvel titles to seasoned pros, here he was getting a Marvel outsider to pitch in with scripting.

My suspicion is that this was more of a scheduling crunch than a serious attempt to palm the Strange Tales writing off onto someone else. And Stan makes mention of my chief criticism on the story in the letters page at the back of the book, when he asks the readers, "can you figure out exactly what our Torch and Thing story was all about? We have to admit it had up pretty confused! We read it over and over again and never could quite understand what the villain was really after." That must have stung Ivie, who was after all just helping Stan out of a deadline jam, and was a seasoned pro in the comics biz, contributing writing and art to Castle of Frankenstein, publishing his own mag Monsters and Heroes and providing script and art to the Warren titles Creepy and Eerie. Sometimes Stan could be a little careless of other people's feelings ... 

Johnny and Ben can be forgiven for not recognising The Puppet Master in this story, but isn't it odd that Alicia wouldn't recognise the sound of her own step-father's voice?
Strange Tales 133 (Jun 1965) trotted out another villain that, by that time, I'd grown a little bored with. When Johnny and Ben are dragged - by Doris Evans and Alicia Masters - to an art exhibit featuring incredibly lifelike mannequins, they fail to recognise the "artist", who has altered his appearance so he no longer resembles a ventriloquist's dummy. 

Can anyone explain why Stan and/or Jack thought it was a good idea to depict the Puppet Master as a puppet, rather than as a puppet master? It's bugged me for decades ...
I could never understand the rationale behind Kirby's depiction of The Puppet Master, back in Fantastic Four 8 (Nov 1962) ... did Jack just have a thing for comedy villains (Paste-Pot Pete, I'm looking at you)? Or did Stan have something to do with it?

I guess we'll never know the real reason for Stan's decision to give up on The Human Torch series in Strange Tales. The sales on the title were strong and growing from 1964 to 1965. But the stories weren't inspired. By definition, the plots had to be a kind of Fantastic Four "lite", with none of the epic sweep that Stan and Jack were putting into the parent title. Then there was the issue of continuity. Stan had already removed the big hitters from the Avengers comic because of the difficulties of having Thor battle Zemo in The Avengers, yet be undergoing the Trial of the Gods for three months in his own comic. In fact, while Johnny and Ben had lost their superpowers in Fantastic Four 39-40 (Jun-Jul 1965), they were merrily battling The Puppet Master and Kang, fully powered-up, in Strange Tales 133-134.

This final tale was pencilled by Bob Powell and inked by Wally Wood. Over in the Daredevil title, Wood was getting help from Powell with his artwork, so there looked to be a strong synergy between the two artists.
So it was that Strange Tales 134 (Jul 1965) marked the end of the Human Torch series - and ironically, it ends on a bit of a high-note, with a tale that felt much more like an FF story than the majority of the Torch run. And it had the additional bonus of being inked by Wally Wood, who always brought a degree of finesse to any artwork he was involved in. The plot has The Watcher task The Torch and The Thing with travelling back in time to prevent future villain Kang from defeating Merlin the Magician, taking control of Camelot and altering the course of history. As with all time travel stories, there are plot holes you could drive a truck through, but the overall impression is that this a big story to end the run on.

In the issue's letter page, Stan is taken to task by reader Richard Willis for allowing the lead strip to descend into a mixture of comedy and foul-up, then Stan uses the opportunity to announce big changes for the coming issue, which would remain for the moment a surprise.

The August issue of Strange Tales would see Johnny and Ben replaced by another Marvel character who was usually busy elsewhere. But this version of Nicholas Fury would be a C.I.A. colonel who's offered the role of running a mega-intelligence organisation, S.H.I.E.L.D. answerable only to the United Nations.

The same month, Giant-Man's position in Tales to Astonish would be usurped by Prince Namor, The Sub-Mariner. Interestingly, Daredevil 7 (Apr 1965) was designed as a dry run to see how Wally Wood would handle the character, as Stan wanted him to draw Namor's series in Astonish. But Wood reportedly hated the Marvel method of working and wanted full story credits for his work, something that Stan was reluctant to give. In another example of Marvel irony, not two years after that, Stan allowed artist Jim Steranko full writing credits on Nick Fury Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. when he took over with Strange Tales 155 (Apr 1967).

Funny old world, isn't it?

Next: Shhh ... it's a secret!




Sunday, 12 February 2017

More Strange Torch Tales

IN THE EARLY DAYS of Marvel, Stan Lee hadn't been quite so protective of the characters as he would later become. I believe, even in 1962 and 1963, he saw Marvel as no different to Atlas. It was just comic books, not the great American novel. But by the end of 1963, that was beginning to change. In the last entry in this blog, I included a table showing how Stan had farmed out the script-writing of the early (B-team) Marvel stories to diverse hands, including his brother Larry Lieber, Ernie Hart, Robert Bernstein and the great Jerry Siegel - but was less than satisfied with the results.

I say "B-team" here, but it's worth noting that Stan didn't assign the Western and Millie scripting to anyone else. I can only guess, but I'd suggest that the super-hero revival was very much in its early days, and Stan didn't want to entrust proven money-makers to writers unfamiliar with the established Marvel house style. Also, Stan had been burned a couple of times in the past, commissioning work from freelancers only to have to "fire" them on publisher Martin Goodman's orders shortly afterward.

So it was that in November 1963, Stan took back the scripting chores on Thor, Iron Man, (Gi)ant-Man and The Human Torch. It's also interesting that Stan also took the opportunity to give each of these features a bit of a shakeup.

November 1963 brought across-the-board transformation of the secondary Marvel titles, with new approaches, new costumes and new powers. It was the first recognisable step in Stan Lee's evolving plan to bring all the Marvel tales together into one giant tapestry.
The Thor strips in Journey into Mystery had been a bit directionless. The first eight issues had the benefit of Jack Kirby art, but while Lieber's scripting was professional and workmanlike, it didn't have Stan's sparkle. Lee was probably relying too heavily on Kirby to prop the title up ... and when Kirby was assigned to other jobs, with Journey into Mystery 89 (Feb 1963), then it all started to go wrong. With JiM 97 (Oct 1963), Stan stepped in, establishing emotional conflict by having Odin forbid Thor's love affair with Jane Foster, and introduced Tales of Asgard as a back-up strip, firmly establishing Thor as the God of Thunder, not just some doctor who found a magic stick.

Similarly, with the Iron Man feature in Tales of Suspense, Lee took over scripting from Robert Bernstein, replaced Don Heck temporarily with Steve Ditko and paved the way for the complete redesign of Iron Man's Armour in Suspense 48 (Dec 1963).

The biggest change - literally - was over in Tales to Astonish. With Lee's taking over of the writing came the startling transformation of Ant-Man into Giant-Man in Astonish 49 (Nov 1963).

And in Strange Tales, Stan marked his return to scripting of the Human Torch stories by re-introducing the greatest of Marvel's heroes. Captain America ... well, kind of. It was an old villain, the Acrobat from Strange Tales 106 (Mar 1963), pretending to be Captain America. 

Captain America and The Human Torch had appeared together on the earliest All Winners covers, as well as on All Select covers, and had both even cameoed in the first issue of Young Allies (Sum 1941), but All Winners 19 (Fall 1946) was the first time I could find where they'd actually appeared in the same story together.
But where better than a Human Torch story than to bring back Marvel's top hero of the 1940s? Even though the original Human Torch and Captain America had appeared rarely together during the Golden Age of comics, there was a natural resonance between the characters, given their history.

Because, even in 1963, Stan must've seen Strange Tales 114 as some kind of a milestone, he assigned Jack Kirby to draw the Human Torch story. The most noticeable effect here was that the super-stunts The Torch pulls in this episode are much more imaginative than how he'd been using his flame power in the previous instalments, very likely the doing of Kirby.

"The Human Torch Meets Captain America" does read like Jack Kirby had input into the plotting of the issue, as the Torch's flaming deeds have a bit more pizzazz about them than in the previous, Dick Ayers-drawn stories.
The tale opens with The Human Torch honing his flame powers by flying through an intricate maze, similar to the kind of obstacle course that The Angel was using over in sister comic The X-Men. Then, hearing that legendary superhero Captain America is billed to appear at a local motor show, Johnny and his pals find themselves in the middle of a heist, as two crooks steal a "priceless antique racing car". Johnny gives chase and stops the getaway by melting the road ahead. But Captain America turns up and tries to take over the capture of the crooks himself. 

There does seem to be a small disconnect between Stan's plot and Jack execution here - The Torch has melted the road so, logically, the grey gloop the car's sinking in would be molten tarmac. Yet Stan's dialogue balloons have The Torch referring to it as "mud".
Later in the story, the same two crooks escape jail and make a run for it in another stolen sports car. But this time, The Torch slices the tyres from the wheels with a flaming scythe, which should save the authorities the expense of having to re-surface another local highway.

All-in-all, it's a fun story ... and an important one in the development of Marvel, given the five extra pages the tale is allowed. Kirby's input is valuable, as he brings a more imaginative interpretation of Stan's story and demonstrates with ease that he's a notch above competent and workmanlike artists like Dick Ayers when it comes to telling an interesting story.

Pitting The Human Torch against Spider-Man villain lays the foundations for the introduction of The Frightful Four, over in Fantastic Four 36, just 15 months later, when two other Torch villains - The Wizard and Paste Pot Pete - join forces with the mysterious Madame Medusa.
The next issue of Strange Tales, 115 (Dec 1963) pit The Human Torch against a villain originally associated with Spider-Man, but who would become a deadly foe of the Fantastic Four. With Jack Kirby's attention on Tales to Astonish 50, Fantastic Four 21 and X-Men 3 at the time, Dick Ayers was back pencilling and inking - Grand Comicbook Database gives Ayers a co-plotting credit as well. There's a couple of nice touches in the story. At first Sandman's not interested in fighting Johnny. He's waiting for a better opponent - Spider-Man - to come along. So Johnny disguises himself as Spidey and waits for Sandman to come to him.

I'm not completely convinced by the way The Torch defeats Sandman. I can't recall another occasion when Johnny has super-strength right after his flame is doused, but it's the only way to explain how a skinny dude like The Torch can heave the much heavier and tougher Flint Marko above his head ... perhaps a case of Dick Ayers drawing it and Stan having to explain it in the dialogue balloon.

A few months after this issue came out, Marvel would line up new co-stars for the Tales to Astonish and Tales of Suspense titles by having the incoming characters - The Hulk and Captain America - battle the incumbent stars - Giant Man and Iron Man. No such intention here though, as The Human Torch fights The Thing after a bit of deft mind control from The Puppet Master.
Strange Tales 116 (Jan 1964) was the first story to feature The Thing in a major way. Ben Grimm had appeared in earlier Strange Tales Torch stories, but mostly in cameos, not actually taking part in the main plots. OK, you could argue that The Thing had a featured role in Strange Tales 106, where Johnny first meets The Acrobat, but that was more as a member of the Fantastic Four than as a solo starring appearance.

"In the Clutches of the Puppet Master" features the return of you-know-who, who's plotting revenge against his old foes The Fantastic Four by mind controlling Johnny to hit on Alicia and so start a fight with Ben Grimm. Essentially, it's just a device to engineer a battle between these two friends ... and though The Torch and the Thing would later become regular co-stars in Strange Tales, it doesn't seem like the idea had occurred to Stan yet, as immediately after, Ben Grimm goes back to the occasional cameo in the title.

In the Dick Ayers-inked issues of Fantastic Four (the panel on the left is from FF18), The Thing was drawn like his skin was reptilian, "Dinosaur-hide" if you like. This look persisted until George Roussos took over the inking, with FF 21 (Dec 1963), at which point his hide took on the "blocky" look that would come to define the character (centre panel). The way The Thing was drawn in Strange Tales 116 looks as though Roussos was trying to alter the Ayers dinosaur-hide version to bring it into line with how Grimm was being portrayed over in Fantastic Four.
What is most interesting about this issue is the way that The Thing is portrayed on the cover, pencilled by Jack Kirby and inked by George Roussos (working as "Geo. Bell"). The result is much more in keeping with the later, blocky version of The Thing. On the inside of the comic, it looks quite a lot like Ayers was pencilling the "dinosaur-hide" Thing and that Roussos was trying - not too successfully - to ink Ayers pencils to look like the version of The Thing that was appearing over in Fantastic Four.

The cover to Fantastic Four 18 (Sep 1963) is the earliest depiction of The Thing as having angular blocky skin that I could find. And the above Kirby pencil art for a rejected Fantastic Four cover shows The Thing in all his blocky glory.
Even more interesting, for a comic geek like me anyhow, is that this didn't just suddenly happen with the change of inker. If you take a look at the cover of Fantastic Four 18 - pencilled by Kirby and inked by Paul Reinman, you'll see the blocky version of The Thing on the cover, yet the dinosaur-hide version inside the comic. This shows that Kirby was drawing the blocky version of The Thing and Dick Ayers was inking the pencils to conform to the earlier reptilian Thing. And if there's still any doubt, take a look at the uninked pencils for a rejected cover for Fantastic Four 20, above. Was this all just due to the way Dick Ayers inked it, or was Stan asking Ayers to throttle back on the blockiness for continuity's sake? We'll probably never know ...

Aside from the creepy villain, The Eel, Strange Tales 117 didn't have a whole lot to recommend it. The Eel would pretty much disappear after this, surfacing only for a final appearance in X-Men 22-23.
Strange Tales 117 (Feb 1964) was another issue I remember reading not long after it originally came out, around the spring or summer of '64. I wouldn't have be very familiar with the Marvel Comics at this time, and I recall thinking that The Eel was an especially creepy villain. Over in the DC Comics I'd been used to up until this point, they'd never have put a villain in a full-face mask like this. And eels are pretty unpleasant to look at, aren't they? 

Granted, this picture was taken a long time before I used to stand outside Manze's, but it gives an idea of how big the shop window was - and the staff were able to open it from inside as it was configured as a sash window.
Not far from where I was brought up in Woolwich, South East London, there was a Pie & Eel shop, Manze's, long-gone now. But whenever I'd go past, I'd stop and watch in fascinated horror as the eel-man would deftly prepare the live eels for a customer by first cutting off their heads, then slitting them along the belly to gut them, then cutting them up into bite site chunks. Of course they were alive when the process started, wrapping their bodies around the eel-man's arm as he severed their heads.

All the Eel really had going for him was a trick one-man helicopter. It's quite surprising that Johnny took 14 pages (one page more than the normal 13 pages allotted to these Torch tales) to despatch him - which he does by dumping him in a large tank of electric eels. Talk about irony.

In retrospect, I'm not crazy about the idea of having Reed and Ben rescue The Human Torch and his sister. I think it would have made for a more effective tale if Johnny had figured his way out of the trap himself. However, an interesting point for detail nerds is that the miniature anti-grav device pictured here is identical to those The Wizard used again the FF as leader of the Frightful Four, more than a year later.
Strange Tales 118 (Mar 1964) featured the return of the Wizard, who breaks out of jail with his tricky anti-gravity devices. He dupes Johnny into demonstrating his flame till it runs out, then imprisons him. Then once again impersonating The Torch, the Wizard tricks Sue Storm and traps her too. Once he's captured Johnny and Sue, he almost convinces Reed and Ben that the siblings are taking a holiday, but Mr Fantastic and The Thing free The Torch so he can set off after The Wizard. It all goes horribly wrong for the villain when he loses control of his anti-grav device and floats on up to the stratosphere.

Not a bad issue but The Wizard's still quite a long way from the version of the character who would defeat the Fantastic Four as the leader of the Frightful Four in Fantastic Four 38, some 14 months later ...

The Human Torch vs The Rabble Rouser has all the earmarks of a filler issue. The rushed artwork and recycled plot make me think that there was some kind of emergency in the Bullpen and Stan and Dick had to pull off some kind of miracle to make deadline. But I guess we'll never know for sure.
Strange Tales 119 (Apr 1964) appeared to be a bit of a filler issue. It's like there was a deadline problem and Stan and Dick had to come up with a story in a hurry. The villain here, Vitold Niyazov, aka The Rabble Rouser, is quite similar in abilities and intention to Jason Cragg, who battled The Ant-Man a year earlier in Tales to Astonish 42. Cragg had used his mesmerising voice to turn the public against Ant-Man, while Niyazov uses a small hand-held device to achieve the same ends.

Also, the artwork looks very hurried and not up to Dick Ayers' usual reliable standards, leading me to think that it may well have been rushed into production as a replacement for a rejected story or perhaps some lost artwork. Look at the two close ups of The Rabble Rouser in the scan of page 10 above. Does that look rushed to you? One theory I've heard is that this story may have been intended as a sequel to The Hate Monger tale in FF21 - both stories feature the same rocket-powered burrowing device - so this might account for the Rabble Rouser closeups looking rushed, as the story may have started off featuring a revived Hate Monger.

Look at these Marvel key issues, advertised in Strange Tales 119. FF25 is one of my all-time fave Marvel Comics, along with Avengers 4 ... but then there's X-Men 4 as well. You'd have to be a very lucky Marvel fan to own all of those issues today ...
And for some reason there was no text story in this issue. Goodman insisted on two page text stories in his comics so that they would qualify as "magazines" and thus be eligible for printed matter postage rates, saving himself a cent or two on each subscription copy he mailed out. The non-story pages are filled with an unprecedented four house ads ... though I always enjoyed seeing what other comics were on sale that month. You have to admit, it was a pretty impressive line-up in April 1964.

With Jack Kirby providing the pencil art for this story, Strange Tales 120 stood head and shoulders above the issues on either side. Even though the baddie, The Barracuda, was a little lame, Stan and Jack crafted a compelling and exciting tale, full of twists and turns.
However, after a disappointing issue or two, Stan bounced back with a classic tale pitting Fire against Ice in "The Torch Meets Iceman" in Strange Tales 120 (May 1964), which I already looked at way back near the beginning of this blog. Admittedly, the Jack Kirby art didn't hurt, either. Was Stan just trying to boost sales on the X-Men comic by featuring Bobby Drake? It doesn't really matter, as the story is the most enjoyable Human Torch tale we'd seen in quite some time, despite the inclusion of a weak villain, the pirate Barracuda.

There's many thrills, traps and escapes packed into the story's meagre 14 pages, but Stan and Jack work together like a well-oiled machine and you can see how much better the pair are together than they are separately right here in this tale.

After this, the title would settle down into a well-worn groove for a couple of issues until Stan livened things up by including a certain, bashful, blue-eyed Mr Grimm as a regular co-star.

Next: The Thing joins the party