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!