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.
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 Larry 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), it all started to go a bit wrong. With JiM 97 (Oct 1963), Stan stepped in, establishing emotional conflict by having Odin forbid Thor's love affair with Jane Foster, and introducing 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 the scripting came the startling transformation of Ant-Man into Giant-Man in Astonish 49 (Nov 1963).
And in Strange Tales, Stan marked his return to writing 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.
So 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. This was almost certainly due to the influence 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.|
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.
The next issue of Strange Tales, 115 (Dec 1963) pits 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.
(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.
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.|
|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.|
|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.|
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.
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 ...
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 ...|
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