Celebrating the Unpopular Arts
 

Marvel Comics in late ’67: spies, mages, gods and mutants

Continuing from last week, my look at the state of Marvel in late 1967. First up, Strange Tales.

I’ve already gushed about Jim Steranko’s amazing art on Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD. I love Steranko tying the story in #160-161 to the blackout of 1965, a side effect of the Yellow Claw’s plan. Reviving that “sinister oriental” villain? Not so much, though admittedly he wasn’t anything worse than the norm for that era. Plus the cliffhanger between the two parts is not resolved well.

At the climax of #160, Captain America falls off the Statue of Liberty to his death. Isn’t it lucky the Fantastic Four are monitoring the New York skies for just that kind of event?Since when did they FF sit around watching for such things? But Steranko’s one of the few artists who can make me forgive plot problems; normally plot’s way more important to me than the images but in his case …

Alas, Nick’s co-star Dr. Strange has hit the doldrums bad. Marie Severin did good work in the Ditko style but the Jim Lawrence/Dan Adkins team that takes over next doesn’t have the knack. Where Steve Ditko showed Stephen winning by outthinking his foes, all these guys can do is have him win on raw power. Nowhere near as clever or interesting.

In Tales of Suspense, Gil Kane gave us a Captain America arc (which the Avengers stories covered last week alluded to) in which the Red Skull traps New York inside an energy bubble, levitates it, then threatens to drop it unless Cap swears to serve him for one day. The rest of the story completely ignores that the Red Skull has this ultimate weapon handy, making me wonder if Kane meant it as some kind of fake (“American swine, did you think those images were real?”) and Lee got it wrong. More likely they just screwed up.

This also shows the perennial problem in comics that what works once as a twist rarely works repeatedly. Show Professor X with one dark secret and you’re fine; as each new creator adds yet another dark secret the character is destroyed. Similarly multiple Red Skull stories show him with some doomsday weapon he set aside before the end of the war; after a few stories like that, it feels like Germany could have won if the Skull only used them sooner.Things pick up after that though as Jack Kirby reclaims the art. AIM, originally just part of the conspiracy of Them — which was, in turn, a front for Hydra— now rises from the ashes as its own organization (SHIELD destroyed Hydra forever in #158, ROFL, so there’s no competition). Too bad their creation Modok has proven powerful enough to take them over. Sharon goes undercover as a SHIELD traitor, proving herself the bravest and most capable of Marvel’s Silver Age love interests.Modok himself has been treated as a joke in the years since — I mean, look at that big head — but I think his debut is startling enough to make him work.

However the battle feels rushed, almost as if Kirby thought he’d have another issue to develop the story. Similarly, Modok’s explosive death in the last panel hardly lives up to his dramatic prediction it will go down in legend.Perhaps it’s another case of Lee telling Kirby to change the story at the last minute?

This story is also noteworthy for establishing, for the first time, that Cap’s shield is something special. We’ve seen it destroyed by the Living Laser, chipped by the Red Guardian, but now it’s suddenly so indestructible AIM’s scientists wonder if the metal is extraterrestrial (I have no idea if Lee and Kirby were planning that as a reveal or just spitballing). It’s a retcon that worked, given the shield’s only grown more iconic with time.

In #95, Steve tells Sharon they should both walk away from their adventurous lives and settle down; it’s Sharon who says no, on the grounds their love life doesn’t amount to a hill of beans as long as SHIELD needs her. Steve nevertheless hangs up his shield and reveals his identity. Even though it’s only a couple of months since “Spider-Man No More,” Lee and Kirby manage to make this feel true to Steve’s personality rather than a knockoff of the earlier story. I give them points for that, but then I take them off for the resolution in #96 — it’s an entertaining story but Steve retracts his decision to quit based on nothing but Fury telling him to put his big-boy pants on.

In the Iron Man side of the book we get another continuity touch: SHIELD agent Jasper Sitwell shows up as new security chief at Stark Enterprises. Much like his appearances in Strange Tales, he’s shown to be both rather nerdy and extremely competent, which works.

I’ve nothing much to say about Hulk I haven’t said recently. Namor, however, is stuck in an anemic plotline fighting the Plunderer, who continues his commitment to being much less interesting than his first appearance. Dorma meanwhile continues her commitment to being the worst love interest of the era: hearing a garbled version of the Plunderer’s conversation with Namor, she concludes the Sub-Mariner is selling out Atlantis (of course she would. She’s Dorma) and gets the city to exile him

I do however like the touch the Plunderer’s henchmen call him Lord Plunder even though Ka-Zar, his older brother, now holds the title. I’m sure it was the writers (Roy Thomas and Raymond Marais on different installments) not knowing or caring about such detail but I can buy Percival Plunder insisting that he’s still a lord and you’ll address him accordingly if you know what’s good for you.Thor, I’m afraid, is now giving Daredevil a run for its mediocrity. Following a battle with the evil Enchanters, Odin, without any provocation, once again denounces Thor for hanging out too much on Earth. When Thor isn’t docile enough to suit Daddy, Odin once again strips away his son’s power, except for the (considerable) strength he was born with. Turning back to Dr. Blake is out so to make ends meet Thor goes to work as a strongman in the Circus of Crime. The Ringmaster then hypnotizes him to steal a massive golden statue that will set the circus up for life.

Kirby and Lee are retreading the book’s old tropes here, and to much less effect than in Fantastic Four. And seriously, how could the Ringmaster find an ordinary circus strongmen capable of lifting and carrying a five-ton statue? It makes me wonder if my old theory was right that ordinary MU humans are superhuman by our standards. Or that the Ringmaster makes really stupid criminal plans.

I’m not sure what it signifies that with the issue shown above, the Inhumans became the backup strip rather than “Tales of Asgard.” To my surprise, the first story (Lee and Kirby) presents them as a lost civilization millennia in advance of their stone-age brethren, rather than a product of Kree genetic engineering. I was wondering if the Kree were a later retcon but no, Kirby introduces them into the origin in the following issue.Roy Thomas’s X-Men, with Werner Roth on the art (Don Heck replaced him for the issue above), has been running a long, ambitious saga involving a mutant terrorist group, Factor Three. Their goal: world conquest by plunging humanity into nuclear war (though as the X-Men point out that’s hardly a good deal for mutants either), followed by a mutant takeover.

Thomas’s work is a mixed bag. It’s nowhere near as tense and powerful as the run from #11-18 which gave us Juggernaut, the Sentinels and a great Magneto story. However Thomas does a much better job than Lee portraying the team as a tight-knit group of young friends, probably because he’s closer to their age. And to give Roy credit the Factor Three arc’s final twist — they’re aliens manipulating the evil mutants to do their dirty work — doesn’t feel like it came out of left field. That’s not something you can say with some of Gerry Conway’s future arcs or even some of Lee and Kirby’s.

#38 starts a backup series showing the team’s origin. People are already freaking out over Mutants Among Us even though evil mutants have yet to put in an appearance —— so where’d all this fear come from?

In any case, Charles offers his services to Fred Duncan, an FBI agent (who appeared in #2 as a government contact): instead of the FBI rounding up mutants, Charles will recruit and train them as a force for good. Curiously, Thomas’ script refers to all this taking place in the mid-sixties even though the team launched in 1963. An early example of the sliding timescale?

#SFWApro. Dan Adkins, Jim Steranko, Gil Kane, Jack Kirby x4, Gene Colan, Adkins, Kirby, Adkins, Werner Roth

3 Comments

  1. Le Messor

    I’m sure it was the writers (Roy Thomas and Raymond Marais on different installments) not knowing or caring about such detail

    Roy Thomas didn’t care about detail?
    Roy Thomas?

    (Raymond Marais, maybe; I’ve never heard of him.)

  2. Jeff Nettleton

    The Yellow Claw, in Steranko’s hands, feels less like the Fu Manchu ripoff he had been, in the 50s. The updated look helps. He comes across more as a Bond villain, who just happens to be Chinese. Better than a Dr No, though.

  3. Edo Bosnar

    Re: “Since when did they FF sit around watching for such things?”

    Since costumed heroes like Spider-man and Daredevil started swinging around the city; they wanted to have their backs in case Spidey’s web fluid ran out at in inopportune time, or Daredevil’s magic radar got futzed up by too much ambient noise and he misfired his grappling hook.

    By the way, that panel reminds me: Steranko really couldn’t draw the Thing very well (Neal Adams tended to have the same problem).

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