Friday, March 07, 2014

Marvels: Strange Tales #111

"Fighting to the Death with Asbestos Man!" by Ernie Hart & Dick Ayers
(August 1963)

This month's villain is Professor Orson Kasloff, a scientist who feels that "a man of my scientific achievements and ability should be treated like a king! I should be rich as Croesus! But I'm not!" I feel like we're seeing a lot of these guys lately: jealous scientists motivated solely by greed. He's created a new solvent that can melt iron and steel on contact, and figures the best application for this amazing invention is to rob banks.

His problem? He's afraid of getting caught and needs to find criminals to do the physical work for him. But how do you contact the underworld? Well, as Kasloff ably demonstrates, certainly not by walking around dives asking people if they're members of the underworld. No, instead, like the Wizard before him, Kasloff thinks the thing to do is defeat the Human Torch. Then "I'll make the underworld come to me!"

Kasloff buys a castle on the outskirts of town. I'm genuinely interested: are there a lot of castles on Long Island? I only ask because (a) I really don't know and (b) this is the second one we've seen. Or it's still the first one, and it's on the market since the Sorcerer went to prison after his Pandora's Box crime spree. He makes himself a suit of asbestos, grabs a helmet and shield, and fashions a net of "skin-covered nitrogen strands," and is born as... THE ASBESTOS MAN! (Later, I presume, he'll be the Tragically Died of Cancer Complications Man.)

Asbestos Man actually sends the Human Torch a challenge in a letter that he mails to Johnny's house. If there's one thing we know from this series that Johnny can't stomach, it's being called a coward. He always has to rise to that challenge, even when the rest of the Fantastic Four tells him to ignore it and not go running after every crank. Johnny tries to burn the letter angrily, but it won't burn because it's made of asbestos. This thing is a miracle cloth; everything Johnny owns is already made of it.

The Asbestos Man, however, will not be ignored. Mere minutes after Johnny's started to calm down, Kasloff actually phones Johnny at home and challenges and taunts him further. So, despite the Asbestos Man not having committed any crimes, the Human Torch flies off to his castle to meet him, there's a brief fight, and the Asbestos Man drops him into the moat--in front of the press, no less!--and Johnny, humiliated, rushes back home.

He even lays down in bed and cries. Poor Johnny! (Dick Ayers' sad Johnny is right up there with Kirby's sad Ben.)

Well, the rest of the story unfolds according to the usual Human Torch formula. A gangster does come to team up with the Asbestos Man, Johnny broods, then Sue gives him a pep talk, and he rushes back to face the Asbestos Man (while Popeye music plays in the background, I always imagine) to reclaim his manhood. He uses his flame more creatively, trapping the Asbestos Man and cutting off his oxygen, and captures the guy and that's the end.

Stray observations:

:: "Fire!... The basic element! Yes, I can see where the underworld would fear the Human Torch! Their weapons would be powerless against him!" Someone could try a hose and a rifle shot a second later, but no one ever does.

:: Kasloff also dreams up ideas for an electronic pen that can perfectly reproduce signatures and a machine that would chemically produce the exact paper and ink needed to counterfeit money. He goes to an imaginary crime operation in seconds.

:: Ernie Hart's FF banter is much better than Robert Bernstein's. Although Reed's excuse to leave is pricelessly dorky: "Well, we're going to work on our income tax report."

:: Johnny looks up asbestos in his chemistry textbook (despite every cloth in his home being made of asbestos as per this diagram).

A little educational content for the kids.

:: I still love Sue's hair.

I love that, ever since she had her hair done a couple of months ago, it's been in that style. It's a little detail, but that kind of attention does go a long way in creating consistency. (Also, I think Ayers draws the hairstyle better than Kirby.)

It's actually an enjoyable story, it's just that the Torch's stories have gotten a little bit formulaic. Next month, we're getting two Torch stories by two different writers.

But now let's turn our attention to...

"Face-to-Face with the Magic of Baron Mordo" by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko

For the second Dr. Strange story, Stan and Steve introduce Strange's arch-villain, Baron Mordo, a former student of the Master's. Mordo wants the Master's most closely guarded secrets of black magic--the ones he's never told anyone else--so he astral projects himself to the Master's Tibetan castle and hypnotizes a servant into poisoning the Master's food. Mordo demands to know these last secrets, or else he will let the Master die from the slow-moving poison.

Dr. Strange, meanwhile, is performing black magic experiments (just go with it) and tries to contact the Master through his amulet. When the Master doesn't answer, Strange astral projects himself to the Master and sees Mordo there, hovering over the Master's dying body. Strange and Mordo fight, but Strange is able to use his amulet even in his astral form, so he heals the Master and then tricks Mordo into going back to his own body, ending the fight.

There's not much to this one as a narrative, but it's exciting and new. Baron Mordo is a villain with as much power as Dr. Strange, making him a formidable nemesis. This story and the last one are a great introduction to the concept and world of Dr. Strange, and now Stan Lee's going to sit back and see if the character takes off and the readers demand more. Due to the lag between press time and when letters start coming in, the next two issues of Strange Tales won't feature the character, so we'll check up on him again in Strange Tales #114. (It's worth the wait.)

Other observations:

:: Once again, I have to praise Steve Ditko's art. He does a lot over just five pages, conveying the story beats while making sure the action is precise and clear. The man's a master.

:: According to this story, if Dr. Strange is killed in his astral form, his physical body will also die. That makes last issue's appearance by Nightmare even scarier.

In the next Marvels: Iron Man's inevitable time travel story.


bliss_infinte said...

Great post, cracked me up a couple of times. I'm also dredging the iron man time travel story!

SamuraiFrog said...

With Stan plotting and/or scripting everything right now, I look at stuff like "X character finds underground kingdom" or "X character time travels" and think the extent of his plot must be "I'm busy prepping Avengers #1. Has Iron Man time traveled yet? Have him do that. Ancient Egypt." And that's the extent of it. The mental image at least makes those stories amusing. Still not good, but amusing.