Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Marvel 1965: a shared universe, a man-fish, a pointless engagement

My Silver Age reread is up to June 1965 at this point and the Marvel Universe is definitely a thing.

It’s not like Stan Lee and the rest of the bullpen originated continuity between different books. By 1965 we’d seen Flash and Green Lantern team up, Adam Strange meet the Justice League, Hawkman and Atom join forces and so on. The end of Justice League of America #23 works in a reference to the Atom’s recent battle with Dr. Light.

That said, I can’t recall DC doing anything like Journey Into Mystery #116 or Avengers #16. The latter story, which appeared first, is the one in which “The Old Order Changeth,” with the entire team quitting (though Thor may not have realized it) in favor of the Kookie Quartet lineup. The story references Thor leaving because he’s undergoing the Trial of the Gods in his own book; we also have Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch hopping over from X-Men and Hawkeye from Iron Man’s Tales of Suspense strip.

#116, the aforementioned “Trial of the Gods,” does it even better. Loki, not having been played onscreen by Tom Hiddleston, is still an unscrupulous shit. He cheats during the ordeal. which, being set in a barren wilderness comes off like an Asgardian Survivor.

He also cheats outside the trial: oh look, Thor, the Enchantress and Executioner having escaped your allies in Avengers #16, they’re now threatening Jane Foster. That doesn’t distract you does it? You’re not losing your focus or anything?

Back on Earth, one of Rick Jones’ Teen Brigade buddies spots the Asgardian duo and desperately tries to get help for Jane. The Avengers, however, are busy changing the old order. Daredevil passes by but he’s hunting the Sub-Mariner (Daredevil #7). The FF can’t help as they’re being “Defeated By the Frightful Four” in Fantastic Four #38. The scenes create the feeling that yes, all these books do take place in one universe and mostly in one city. It still thrills me all these years later.

The connections aren’t perfect. To explain Hawkeye showing up without the Black Widow, a whole lot turns out to have happened since they fled Iron Man a couple of months earlier: Natasha’s Red masters hunted her down and tried to kill her for failure; she survived but barely; Hawkeye dumped her in a hospital and hasn’t been to see her since because it causes him So Much Man Pain. I imagine I would have swallowed that as a kid; as an adult I want to slap Clint.

Then there’s Rick Jones. Avengers #17 shows him still with the team at the time of Tales to Astonish #69, yet over in TOS he’s been hanging out with Bruce Banner for around six months. But that’s a typical enough continuity error for comic that I don’t think it detracts from the overall impressive shared world the Bullpen were building.

Another part of continuity, though I doubt Lee was thinking of it that way, is how villains jumped from hero to hero much more frequently than at DC. As early as Amazing Spider-Man #5, Peter Parker found himself fighting Doctor Doom. Iron Man ran into the Chameleon and Kraven the Hunter in Tales of Suspense #58 (as I’ve mentioned before, watching Kraven discover his jungle skills are ineffective against Stark Industries technology is a lot of fun). However the appearance of Attuma in three different books in less than a year feels less like continuity and more like Stan thought he’d be the next big thing.

Having debuted in Fantastic Four #33, Attuma then takes on Giant-Man in TOA #64, then Iron Man in TOS #66 (some months later, he’d battle the Avengers too). Possibly with Sub-Mariner getting his own strip in TOA to replace Giant-Man, Stan thought Attuma could fill Namor’s role as Militant Undersea Conqueror. Maybe someone ran out of ideas and just went “new Attuma story!” when asked about the next issue. It doesn’t work for me either way; Attuma’s not a dreadful villain but he’s not a terribly interesting one either.

Speaking of Iron Man, the arc that started in 1964 has wrapped up by “now” and just as blandly as I remembered. As described in the earlier post, a chestplate malfunction leaves Tony terrified that if he tries removing the other parts of his armor he’ll suffer a heart attack. He opts to stay Iron Man until he can think of a way out of this situation, which requires Shellhead telling Happy and Pepper that Mr. Stark’s fine, no honestly, nothing to worry about, just accept I’m now running the company. They find this somewhat suspicious even before the Mandarin apparently kills Tony. Just where was his vaunted bodyguard that he let this happen?

In #63, this plotline finally concludes, and it’s an anti-climax. Tony solves his wardrobe malfunction by installing a more powerful transistor in his armor. Seriously, that’s all it took (and yes, I know transistors aren’t power sources in themselves, but on Earth-616 apparently they work differently). Then he has to explain his death, which proves easy too: Hi Pepper, hi Happy, gosh did you say I’m dead? I didn’t know because I became engaged and spent time on my girlfriend’s family’s yacht without any news media. Funny, huh?

This has the added advantage that it takes Tony off the market so, he hopes, Pepper will start dating Happy at last. It might even have been interesting if Tony had then had to back up his words — where is he going to get a fiancee to keep up the masquerade? Instead, it’s treated as a handwave: nobody brings it up after that issue and Pepper goes back to mooning over her supposedly engaged boss. I’m guessing the Lee/Heck team couldn’t come up with a better solution to the situation (not the first time they’ve ruined a cliffhanger) but that’s not an excuse.

Curiously, although Tony/Pepper/Happy is the same set-up as Matt/Karen/Foggy in Daredevil — hero can’t speak his love aloud because his buddy is into the woman and hero won’t get in the way — it doesn’t work at all. Maybe it’s because Pepper never breaches secretarial etiquette where Karen is all but shouting “Take me, Matt, my nipples explode with desire!” Or because she’s more fun in her snarky exchanges with Happy than anything she’s ever said to Tony. Or because I know Happy/Pepper (Happer?) is going to win out (at least for the immediate future) so I’m not invested (though that doesn’t have any effect on my enjoyment of Don Blake/Jane Foster). Either way it’s a romance I could do without.

I could also do without Senator Byrd, a supporting character who debuts in the Attuma story. Byrd is a type of character we’ll see more and more in the years to come, someone who’s only role and personality trait is hating the star of the series. Despite Tony’s string of accomplishments, Byrd refuses to believe an international playboy can build anything the U.S. government needs, so he constantly gripes about how he can’t wait to cancel all Tony’s Pentagon contracts. At the same time we’re told Byrd is really a good man and a worthy senator, much the same way the Hulk series kept telling us Major Talbot was a good man when the story says otherwise. Much as I dislike the way Lee and Ditko wrote J. Jonah Jameson he’s a complex literary character compared to Byrd and later versions of the same character type.

#SFWApro. Covers by Kirby

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