Thursday, February 13, 2014

Marvels: Strange Tales #110

"The Human Torch vs. the Wizard and Paste-Pot Pete!" by Stan Lee, Ernie Hart & Dick Ayers
(July 1963)

This is the first Marvel issue to prove that teaming two villains together doesn't necessarily mean a thrilling issue. I mean, this isn't Doctor Doom teaming with Prince Namor. This is a couple of Human Torch villains wasting some time together scheming. The Wizard has been the Human Torch's best villain so far, and Paste-Pot Pete, I reluctantly admit, was also a decent thorn in Johnny's side. But being the top tier solo Human Torch villains is sort of like being the slickest operator in Duluth; the mere fact that you appear in Strange Tales means you aren't good enough to get into the majors. There's a reason these guys haven't cracked their way into Fantastic Four.

Basically, Paste-Pot Pete breaks the Wizard out of prison, they don't get along (Pete in particular resents the arrogant Wizard treating him like a lackey), they try to discredit the Torch by impersonating him and harassing millionaire Cyrus Cartwright, who just turns out to be the Torch in disguise, so they trap the Torch in a hall of mirrors where his oxygen is running out, but then he escapes and sends the bickering duo back to jail. Oh, and now Johnny has to stay up late to study for tomorrow's exam, because you should always end on something approximating a joke.

Larry Lieber, please come back.

Stray observations:

:: Today in overselling it:

Wow, that's really overselling it, even for Marvel.

:: This story spends four pages watching Johnny train and then flipping through his scrapbook basically to remind us who the Wizard and Paste-Pot Pete are, just to establish that they could be some sort of threat to the Human Torch. It's wasted pages, I think; the readers know Johnny by now, and the villains could have been better established in the story itself, which would have left time for something to really grab you. Even Dick Ayers' reliable art suffers from the compression of the story, because he has to draw smaller and smaller panels to pack it all in. It just passes right by.

:: There's a one-panel appearance by the Fantastic Four as Reed calls Johnny and offers some help, which Johnny rejects because "I'm not a baby!" Reed sure is fickle depending on who's writing him; sometimes he offers help, and sometimes he refuses it because Johnny has to learn how to be a man on his own or whatever excuse he has this month. How about some consistency on that bit of characterization?

But let's move on to the issue's third feature, which is the exciting debut of...

"Dr. Strange, Master of Black Magic!" by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko

Dr. Strange is the first hero in the Marvel Universe who doesn't feel at all like a traditional superhero. Even Nick Fury is like a larger-than-life version of a World War II soldier. Strange hearkens back to the Golden Age, when characters like the Spectre or the Green Lama were meting out justice, or Stan's acknowledged inspiration, Chandu the Magician. Though the opening narration identifies Dr. Strange as a superhero, this is Stan Lee and Steve Ditko doing horror comics again, and bringing Orientalism and Eastern mysticism back into comics, but through the prism of Marvel's superhero style. And, importantly, this is where the Marvel Universe's vast cosmology begins.

Our introduction to Dr. Strange comes via a man who is tortured with restlessness. He keeps seeing a bound, hooded, shadowy figure in his nightmares. He comes to Dr. Strange's Greenwich Village apartment to ask for help, and Strange agrees to enter the man's dreams, then goes into a trance and travels, in spirit form, to a hidden temple in Asia to visit his master, the Ancient One. The Ancient One tells him to rely on his magic amulet if there is danger.

That night, Strange enters the man's dream and confronts the bound figure, who reveals himself as the symbol of evil, who has come to torment the man for his misdeeds against a Mr. Crang. But Strange is suddenly set upon by an ancient foe, Nightmare, who will not let Strange return to his mortal form.

As this is happening, the man wakes up and, realizing Strange has heard Crang's name, pulls out a gun to shoot Dr. Strange, his body still in a trance. Strange's spirit sends out a call for help to the Ancient One, who acts through Dr. Strange's amulet and hypnotizes the man with the gun. Strange is then able to get past Nightmare and return to his body, where the man confesses that his nightmares must have been caused by all the men he'd ruined in business--the most recent being Mr. Crang. The man agrees to confess to his crimes.

This is a small story--only 5 pages--but it feels completely epic. We're in realms we've never really experienced in the Marvel Universe before, and it's very exciting and new. The excitement is palpable; Stan and Steve come across as really engaged in their work, and believe me, you can tell when Stan's just not feeling it. (Once again, I point you in the direction of The Incredible Hulk. Where do you suppose Hulk is these days? We won't see him again for a few months...)

Stray observations:

:: Steve Ditko is the perfect artist for this series. Even though the story's quite compressed and Ditko has to put in a lot of panels, he does a fantastic job with them, moving the story along and creating a lot of mood and character.

I love the surreal tone, the psychedelic weirdness of this whole thing and I'm excited to see more of it. (The story ends by promising us more of Dr. Strange next issue.)

This was a great introduction story, showing us the concept of our new hero in action. Stan and Steve will do that usual thing where they wait for positive reader response, but I promise it won't take as a long to get more Dr. Strange as it did to get more Spider-Man.

Next Marvels: Well, I guess Iron Man hasn't had an underground kingdom story yet, so let's do that.


bliss_infinte said...

Though Ditko's Spidey was great in it's way, I always felt he really shined on Doc Strange. Like you said, he really did get Marvel into other realms right out the gate and would expand upon it greatly way before Kirby would 'blow our minds'. Also, since he had a shorter format to work in, he was the first to extend his stories into multiple issue epics before Kirby took that cue. He's owed a lot for creating the foundation for the mid-sixties Marvel, not that Kirby didn't take that and run with it.

SamuraiFrog said...

My wife is reading a lot of these comics for the first time, and she told me the other day she feels like she can see a lot more of Ditko's influence in modern comics than Kirby's. I've been seeing other people say that, too. I think there's a sort of push right now to put Ditko on the same level as Kirby as far as his influence and importance in the medium, and I think there should be.