Friday, June 20, 2014

Marvels: Strange Tales #114

"The Human Torch Meets... Captain America" by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Dick Ayers
(November 1963)

From out of the Golden Age of Comics, it's the return of Captain America. Well, kind of. I'm going to go ahead and spoil it all right here by telling you this isn't Captain America; it's an impostor.


We first meet "Captain America" at an antique auto show. He's the announced guest--no one seems to know why he's been out of action for nearly a decade--but he leaps into action to capture a couple of car thieves. Johnny Storm tries to back him up as the Human Torch, but makes a mess of things. Cap takes an immediate dislike to the Torch and his brash ways. In true Johnny Storm fashion, he takes this as a signal that this Captain America must be a fraud. I mean, how could someone not absolutely love the Human Torch, you know? (He doesn't actually say this, but we all know he's thinking it. He really, really needs constant adoration.) The final straw for him is when his girlfriend, Doris Evans, who if you remember hates that Johnny is a superhero, starts swooning over Captain America.

But Johnny's right about this Captain America--he is a fraud, breaking thugs out of jail and (you probably guessed it) going on a bank robbing spree. The Torch and Captain America meet in a battle that goes from rocket ship to sporting goods store to the open road, and which is wonderfully laid out by Jack Kirby and Dick Ayers. The art in this story is fantastic; so far in our Marvels series, I don't think anyone inks Kirby's pencils as well as Dick Ayers. I don't want to overly detail it, but in brief: it's excellent. The crowning moment for me was the goofy pleasure from seeing Captain America take a bow, brace it with his feet, knock a mop in it, and shoot the Human Torch right in the face with the mop, dousing his flame.

That's easily the funniest thing since that time Thor flew straight into the side of a building.

But Torch gets the upper hand, of course, and upon unmasking Captain America he discovers: the Acrobat! With his mustache shaved off! Johnny specifically mentions this in case some continuity-obsessed little snot can't work out for themselves that mustaches are, in fact, voluntary and entirely removable! Nice try, Acrobat! You lose!

But, Johnny wonders, what ever happened to the real Captain America? He pulls out his copy of Captain America Comics #1 and wonders if Cap will ever return... and Stan Lee asks readers to write in and tell him what they think! Yes, Stan admits, this story was just a test to see if readers would be excited by the possible inclusion of Captain America in the Marvel Age of Comics.

I think we all know what the response to that was!

Stray notes:

:: Captain America's been dormant since 1954. After first appearing in Captain America Comics #1 in 1941--created by Joe Simon & Jack Kirby--he became one of Timely's three mainstay, flagship characters, alongside Carl Burgos' Human Torch (the robot one) and Bill Everett's Sub-Mariner, who both first appeared in 1939 in Marvel Comics #1. They were very popular during the war, but their popularity--especially Cap's--began to fall in the second half of the forties.

Captain America, without the threat of the Axis Powers and fifth columnists, had a hard time fitting into the mystery stories and Martian invasion tales they tried to put him into. With horror comics gaining in popularity, his comic was retitled Captain America's Weird Tales. It was canceled an issue later; an issue that Cap didn't even appear in. By 1949, it was over for Captain America. All of Timely's super hero comics were canceled and replaced with romance comics.

In 1953, Captain America and his sidekick Bucky returned to comics in Young Men #24, drawn by John Romita, alongside Bill Everett's Sub-Mariner and the Human Torch, now drawn by Russ Heath. Timely had become Atlas, and they really tried to bring back those characters for a little while. 1954 saw a new solo title for each of those characters, but they didn't last through the end of the year. Captain America only published three issues of the revived series. Those Captain America stories of the 1950s, which were mostly about Cap fighting the "Communist hordes" (and which are pretty awful and offensive when read today) were later retconned to show that they weren't the actual Cap and Bucky; they were two men in the costumes working for the US government and only pretending to be the originals. Officially, Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes disappeared in 1945.

Obviously, seeing the success they'd had with a reimagined Human Torch and a returned Sub-Mariner, the next logical step was to bring back Captain America. Something Marvel would do with great success.

:: When Captain America does return for real, the costume will be slightly re-colored. Red shorts? Why did that happen? Doesn't it look jarring? Cap always had blue shorts. In the 1954 revival, they were black.

:: This story is slightly longer than usual: 18 pages instead of 13. They've experimented with this on and off, but this is the time when it sticks. This is also the last issue with a text story. From here on, for some time, it'll be an 18 page Torch story and a 5 page Dr. Strange story.

Which brings us to...

"The Return of the Omnipotent Baron Mordo!" by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko

After taking a bit of a break to check the reader response, Dr. Strange stories are back in Strange Tales. As in the previous story, the villain here is Baron Mordo. He lures Strange to the London castle of the late Sir Clive Bentley, where Strange finds himself imprisoned by the smoke of enchanted candles. It takes all of Strange's mental strength to send out a mental call and hypnotize someone to come and snuff out the candles.

The person who responds is Victoria Bentley, the daughter of the late Sir Clive. Dr. Strange can tell that she has a latent talent for sorcery. When Baron Mordo returns to gloat over Strange, he, too, senses Victoria's latent powers. The two have a mental battle with one another which Strange wins, and Victoria asks to be trained in the mystic arts. Dr. Strange says that it's not safe for her to develop her powers as long as Baron Mordo lives, but promises that one day her training will start.

According to Marvel Wiki, she doesn't appear again until Strange Tales #160. Empty promise, or...?

Stray observations:

:: The Master is now referred to as the Ancient One.

:: The art in this story is cleaner. The designs are still the same, but the art is more fluid and the inks are more refined. Dr. Strange isn't as rail-thin as he was in his earlier appearances, too.

Steve Ditko seems to have opted to give the series a clearer line style than before. It looks great. The other stories looked great, too. I can't wait for the whole thing to get really, really weird again. (We'll be returning to the Nightmare Realm soon.)

This has been the most satisfying issue of Strange Tales that we've talked about so far. I especially can't wait for more of Dr. Strange. It's going to be weird to see him cross over with the rest of the Marvel Universe for the first time. I have no idea when that happens, but wherever they want to go with this guy, I'm hooked.

Next time: the mysterious Melter.


Roger Owen Green said...

I often find the Stray Notes the most interesting. True here with the history of Captain America and the other Timely heroes. said...

the thing I like, is that Johnny's mag shows Cap 2b none other than Steve Rogers...imagine that snafu...and much lie when he Met Sub-Mariner...