Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Doom, Don Heck, the Thing and More: Marvel in 1964

As part of my Silver Age reread I got to Fantastic Four Annual #2 and is it ever a game-changer.

It’s the issue that gave us Doom’s backstory as a genius Roma boy with a knowledge of sorcery as well as science. It also established him as monarch of Latveria. Next to his genius, that became his greatest asset in later stories. The FF can’t jail him or imprison him because of diplomatic immunity (which isn’t as big a get-out-of-jail-free card in real life as in fiction, but hey). No more need to have Doom apparently die, get lost in space or shrink to subatomic size at the end of a story — just have him skulk off back to Latveria.

But what struck me rereading is a passing statement about his early days, when he scammed the rich and powerful with a mix of technology and magic. The statement being that he never keeps the money but gives it to the poor. There’s no explanation why — because he doesn’t care about the benjamins? To build support among the common people for when he takes over Latveria? — but it leaves me thinking there’s a great What If in this detail. Doom becomes a hero but an anarchist, Robin Hood-style hero, dedicated to casting down and humiliating the powerful rather than ruling over them.

Fantastic Four #30 is interesting because it has Diablo, in his debut, playing similar games. Using his alchemy he performs miracles, but they’re all temporary — only unlike Doom he does keep the money. He also recruits Ben by turning him halfway to human, offering him a full cure down the road. In a nice touch, Reed can’t believe that Ben would walk away from the team unless he was mind-controlled and reacts accordingly, only gradually realizing Ben’s allegiance to Diablo is sincere. It’s the kind of fallible characterization that made Marvel stand out back then.

However it’s a major shift in Ben’s characterization. Not long after meeting Alicia, Ben finally got over his hangups about being physically a monster. Unlike so many comic-book disabled and freak characters, he no longer obsessed over finding a cure. Alicia loved him as the Thing, that was good enough.

Now, suddenly, he’s desperate for a cure again. Specifically so that he can marry Alicia, even though she’d be happy to marry a pile of orange rocks. I could see Ben having a change of heart once Diablo showed a cure was possible but the story reads as if Ben never stopped wanting to be normal. Presumably Stan and Jack figured they could mine more melodrama out of Ben if he stayed angsty, but they could have handled the backpeddling better. Or not backpedaled at all, thereby saving us years of listening to Ben bemoan his outcast state over and over.

Moving away from the FF, Tales of Suspense #58 has an absolutely delightful opening. Kraven and the Chameleon are sneaking back into the U.S. after being deported in Spider-Man #15. By total coincidence, they discover they’ve wandered into an Iron Man story, at which point Kraven demonstrates that a man in armor can’t match the jungle-honed skills of Kraven the Hunter! Wait, sorry, that’s wrong — Kraven gets his butt kicked.

I find the sheer randomness of the crossover quite entertaining; the rest of the story not so much. It’s another hero vs. hero with the Chameleon impersonating Cap to trick Iron Man into fighting him. Worse, Cap spends a lot of the issue shrugging this off — oh, Iron Man can’t really be attacking me, it must be some Avengers initiation prank, like a frat hazing! I can only guess it’s another Marvel method foul-up with Stan trying to come up with dialog that will work with Don Heck’s images.

Speaking of Heck, Avengers #9 confirms a Heck trick I’ve noticed for a while. After Simon Williams gets the powers of Wonder Man he spends two pages demonstrating them — not by pulling off a robbery or committing crimes, just by flying around or smashing things on Zemo’s estate. It’s something Heck’s had villains in Iron Man do too. Sure, any time you have a new villain you want to demonstrate their powers but in most stories we see them in action, not in dress rehearsal. Knowing Heck was uncomfortable cowriting the stories, I suspect this was a way to give himself a page or two that didn’t require any real plot.Then we have Thor. Journey into Mystery #109 has Thor and Magneto lock horns. It’s not a bad story but it’s really odd that neither Thor nor Magneto have apparently heard of each other. I like the fact they misidentify each other — Magneto naturally assumes Thor is a new mutant on the scene — but they could have done that even if Magneto recognized Thor from the news (“God? A clever pose to hide his mutant powers!”).

Of course the previous issue has Dr. Strange guest star and it doesn’t even mention that Strange battled Loki just a month earlier. For that matter Don Blake doesn’t recognize Stephen Strange, formerly one of the world’s greatest surgeons (this month Blake is once again a gifted surgeon himself; in a couple of months he’s back to GP work). However we do get a shot of Strange’s sanctum as envisioned by Jack Kirby, much more lavish than Ditko usually draws it.Despite my nitpicking and the tedious recycling of Hero Fights Hero (or at least Argues With Hero) Marvel had a strong year. It’s no longer a bunch of “meh” material (though it still has that — it’s jaw-dropping how many Daredevil plots hinge on someone randomly picking Murdock & Nelson out of the phone book) kept afloat by Fantastic Four and Spider-Man. I still love the Silver Age DC stuff, but I enjoy Marvel much more now than I did as a kid.

#SFWApro. Art by Kirby.


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