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 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. 

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.
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.
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 arrive to 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's 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) 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.

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. This would save a cent or two on each subscription copy Marvel 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