Celebrating the Unpopular Arts
 

Mutants and missiles, selfish heroes and a crisis: more stories from 1963

In one of my previous Silver Age posts, I pointed out that in July, 1962, Stan Lee used a Circus of Crime in two different books. A year later, I stumbled across another example of Stan cannibalizing his own plots.

On sale in July of 1962 we have the famous first encounter between the X-Men and Magneto —— in which Magneto uses his power to attack a U.S. missile base and send the missiles haywire.

Over in Journey Into Mystery another mutant, the “Mad Merlin,” was trying the same thing. After thawing out of suspended animation he uses his mighty mutant psi-powers to disrupt a missile launch to demonstrate his threat level. It looks like Stan once again stole from his own work (or Jack’s, depending who plotted that issue) to give cowriter Robert Bernstein a plot for the issue. Then again, as the missile plays a smaller role than in X-Men, Stan thought he could expand on it for Magneto’s debut.

Next, I want to look at a couple of noteworthy character moments. In Amazing Spider-Man #5, Dr. Doom tries sweet-talking Spider-Man into an alliance. When Peter says no, Doom of course decides Spider-Man Must Die. He subsequently traps the web-slinger, unaware it’s Flash Thompson in a Spider-Man costume.

When Peter realizes what’s happened, his reaction is pure glee. Doom’s bound to kill Flash, which means he’ll never bully Peter again! A second later, Peter realizes he can’t live with that, but even thinking it for a second is startling. Entirely believable, given that Peter’s a teen who has to put up with Flash’s shit every day, but it’s still a shock coming from a superhero. It was touches like that that made Marvel’s rep back in the day.

The Ant-Man’s series didn’t have any of those little touches. Tales to Astonish #47’s “Music to Scream By” was a dull, uninspired story in a string of uninspired stories (even when Kirby drew Ant-Man, it was a pale shadow of Gil Kane’s dynamic visuals on The Atom). Nevertheless, this one stuck in my mind because it has Jan, a big jazz fan, dragging Hank Pym out for an evening of cool music.

So help me, I think it’s the only character trait anyone gave the Wasp in the Silver Age that didn’t revolve around her gender (e.g., flirting, pining for Hank, worrying about clothes or makeup etc.).

Turning to DC, we have the incredibly cool two-parter that brought together the Justice League of America and the Justice Society, newly out of retirement, to fight a “Crisis on Earth-One” —— and a “Crisis on Earth-Two.”(this was, by the way, the first time the two worlds got the One and Two designations. And Earth-One was still referred to as “our” world).

It’s an amazingly entertaining, spectacular story. But more than that, it was tantalizing. We wouldn’t see the JSA again until the following year, and then another year-long break. Having their appearances rationed made them ten times as exciting to me as a kid, Plus, of course, each story usually brought a new JSAer out of retirement: Starman and Dr. Midnite in the next two-parter, Johnny Thunder in the third, then Sandman. In an era when looking up obscure characters online or buying trade paperback collections was impossible, seeing these lost figures of the past was just soooo cool.

Returning to Marvel, the Journey Into Mystery following the Mad Merlin yarn shows why Lee and Kirby are better remembered than Lee, Robert Bernstein and Joe Sinott. The Lava Man’s not a particularly good foe (though Loki kibbitzing the fight is great) but the whole story crackles with an energy that “Defying the Magic of … The Mad Merlin” lacks. Part of that is Kirby’s art, but it’s also Lee’s characterization.

We’ve had several issues of Don Blake bemoaning he can’t hit on his employee because of his bad leg (“my disability makes me unworthy of love!” is a cliché that goes back a long way). In this story he decides he will speak his love to her, but as he’s also Thor, he asks Odin if he’s down with that. Odin, of course, thinks his boy marrying a mortal is the worst idea he’s ever heard. Alas, though Don loves Jane, she can never be his!

It’s melodramatic, but part of the Lee/Kirby magic is that they made melodrama look good. Unfortunately, their handling of Jane has not aged well: frustrated with Don’s refusal to seduce her, she quits and goes to work for a lecherous sexual harasser — oh, sorry, I mean a Real Man who’ll treat her as a woman wants to be treated. It’s a sour note in a story I otherwise enjoyed.

To wrap up this post let us turn to Avengers #1. One of the advantages of rereading the Silver Age month by month is that I pick up on things that would otherwise slip by me. Reading reprints of the first Hulk series reminded me how Lee and Kirby desperately flung soft reboots at the wall, trying to find a winning formula (as Tom Brevoort discusses on his blog): Banner changes to the Hulk by night! He’s mindless, controlled by Rick Jones! He has Banner’s brain! He changes by ray machine! None of it worked; Brevoort says the Hulk was almost cancelled with #3 instead of #6.

With that relatively fresh in my mind it’s easy to see the Hulk’s appearance here as another reboot. While we see the other Avengers in the secret identities, there’s no mention of Bruce at all; even Rick Jones, Bruce’s devoted sidekick cum lab assistant, doesn’t bring him up. There’s no reason given why Bruce has transformed into the Hulk and gone jumping around the desert. So perhaps Lee and Kirby thought dropping that angle would make Hulk more marketable? I wouldn’t be money on it, but I think it’s possible.

#SFWApro. JLA covers by Mike Sekowsky, Spider-Man by Ditko, everything else by Kirby.

10 Comments

  1. Alaric

    “So help me, I think it’s the only character trait anyone gave the Wasp in the Silver Age that didn’t revolve around her gender (e.g., flirting, pining for Hank, worrying about clothes or makeup etc.).” In TtA #51-56, there was a series of science fiction stories told by, and (in-story) created by, the Wasp. I think it’s too bad that her love of science fiction, and imaginative ability to come up with stories, were forgotten later. Also, in some TtA issues, and during her initial period with the Avengers, she was often shown as having considerable knowledge of technology (mostly used to sabotage opponents’ weapons and stuff), a trait that was mostly forgotten when she rejoined the Avengers later. So, I think she actually was shown as having other traits, even if they were easy to overlook given how over-the-top the ‘generically female” traits were written, and even if they were completely forgotten later.

  2. Le Messor

    “it’s Flash Thompson in a Spider-Man costume.
    When Peter realizes what’s happened, his reaction is pure glee.”

    I just read some Proverbs this morning about exactly that – not gloating over your enemy’s misfortune.

    Oh, and SF Debris (fairly) recently ran a series on the Hulk, and he talked about how each issue was a soft reboot. (Not in those words.)

      1. Jazzbo

        I’ve been reading Essential Hulk Vol 1 the last couple of weeks, and it’s pretty amazing how much they kept retooling things and how long it is before some things that now seem like pretty standard Hulk characteristics pop up. For several issues into the Tales to Astonish run both Banner and the Hulk changed into the other when they got too excited. So Hulk would start reverting to Banner in the middle of a fight. I’m pretty sure it TtA #70 the first time Hulk says anything about the madder he gets the stronger he gets. That’s years after Hulk’s introduction. It is really surprising they stuck with the character and kept trying to make him work.

        1. Revealing Bruce Banner is really the Hulk might count as one of the retool/reboots. It was incredibly forced — the military apparently kill the Hulk with Banner’s super-secret T-ray so Rick gives up the secret. But a-ha, the T-ray was a Time Ray so Hulk’s just transported to the future for a bit (where he fights the Asgardian Executioner, who’s leading an alien invasion force because, reasons) then comes back and learns his cover’s blown.

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