Friday, April 11, 2014

Marvels: Strange Tales #112

"The Threat of the Living Bomb!" by Stan Lee, Jerry Siegel & Dick Ayers
(September 1963)

This story's a bit of a mixed bag, honestly, but it's overall a winner with me.

Our story starts with the Human Torch hot dogging it over Glenville, showing off his flashy powers and genuinely confused as to why he's not getting the adulation and attention he thinks he deserves. It turns out that one Ted Braddock, a TV news commentator, has been turning everyone against the Torch, calling him a "glory-hungry nuisance" and accusing him of making "a mockery of law and order" by undermining the police with his flashy powers. I don't know why he's going after the Torch specifically and not the Fantastic Four as a whole, but it lends a surprising amount of realism and pathos to Johnny Storm.

If you remember, one of the things that I think is so interesting about Spider-Man is how he essentially creates his own problems by being so casually arrogant, like the universe is just smacking him down for his attitude. Here, the universe is doing essentially the same thing to Johnny Storm. What's worse is, he can't even defend himself against charges of grandstanding, since he spent the first two pages of this story doing just that! And even though the Chief of Police comes by during the broadcast just to tell Johnny that the Glenville Police really do appreciate his help, Johnny's stung by Braddock's criticism. He even goes to the TV station to talk to Braddock, but he gets so flustered and angry that he flames on in the studio, making himself look disrespectful and dangerous!

Every teenager--hell, every person has been caught up in moments like this before: being misunderstood, being derided, and everything you say to protest only makes you seem more the thing people think you are. You ever try to tell someone who thinks you're angry that you're not angry? You just look angry. It's frustrating, and you can just feel Johnny's frustration in this story.

Now, on top of that, the villain of the piece: the Eel.

I'm not sure why he's called the Eel, honestly. No visual motif. His hideout is in an aquarium, and he does have an electric charge that he can use if anyone grabs him. Also, he's slippery: some kind of goo on his costume. (This is the exact scientific nomenclature used in this story: "goo.")

As you can see, he's stolen Project X from a Professor Lawson. Project X is a miniature radioactive atomic pile. You know, just laying around in a science lab, like you always saw in 1963. The Eel has essentially armed a device which will explode, because science works in mysterious ways. It seems like he was irradiated, too, but then later it seems like he wasn't, but hey, it's 1963, no one knows that asbestos (which covers everything Johnny owns, wears, or sleeps on) causes cancer. People seem horrifyingly unaware of how radiation works in these comics.

When Johnny tracks down the Eel, they fight. It's exciting, but the Torch wins handily; the Eel has hidden the atomic pile device, but he gives up its location and Johnny manages to get it into the sky before it explodes. In order to stop the radioactive fallout, Johnny has to use his powers to absorb the explosion and literally draw it upwards into the upper atmosphere, where he basically goes nova and nearly kills himself.

What's really surprising about all of this is that there's genuine suspense. The creatives even manage to create suspense about whether Johnny lives or dies, mainly because everyone's reaction to his sacrifice and concern over his survival--from the townspeople's to the Fantastic Four's to Ted Braddock's, who takes back everything he said about the Torch--are played so sincerely. They treat it seriously, so it doesn't feel cheap or gimmicky. We really haven't seen stuff like this in these early Marvels so far.

It's a strangely powerful and affecting coda. And in Strange Tales, of all books!

Stray observations:

:: The script is credited to "Joe Carter," which is a pseudonym of Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel. The story reads a lot like a Superman story, too. Some of the dialogue is just excruciating, but Siegel's understanding of the Human Torch as a character is spot-on. I'm trying not to read too much into whether he may or may not have identified with Johnny's dilemma in this issue of being ridiculed and derided by the people he tries to protect. But he certainly was a laughingstock for a while when he tried to assert his rights over Superman, and having read Brad Ricca's Super Boys last year, it's on my mind while reading this.

:: Sample scientific dialogue from Professor Lawson:

Because what scientist worth his accreditation would pass up the chance to name it a "Transmito Device"?

All the dialogue is like that, by the way. So very many word balloons in this story, and how large they are! It makes the issue feel packed, though; it's only a 13-pager, but there's a lot of exposition and dialogue. Except for how hoary it all is, it doesn't actually detract from the visuals overly much.

Still, this kind of thing:

That is a lot of dialogue for one panel.

:: Dick Ayers, inking his own pencils, does some neat, dynamic work in this issue.

Like I said, a mixed bag, but overall a winner with me. Even some of the clunkier dialogue feels like a throwback to Siegel's earlier work, which I love (particularly the old Superman newspaper strips). Siegel's going to be around for just one more issue!

But first, next time: Iron Man gains an actual supporting cast.

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