Friday, September 05, 2014

Marvels: Strange Tales #117

"The Return of the Eel!" by Stan Lee & Dick Ayers
(February 1964)

I've expressed concerns before about the prison system in the Marvel Universe, but here's one I just can't get over. This issue starts off with the Eel getting out of prison. Johnny Storm assumes he must have broken out--particularly when he sees the Eel walking around in his old costume--but according to the prison warden, Eel has paid his debt to society, serving his sentence with time off for good behavior. But if you remember the Eel's introduction back in Strange Tales #112, this is a guy who stole a radioactive atomic pile and played a role in its detonation. During the Cold War, no less. This is the time when Marvel Comics still occur in real time, so we're talking five months in prison for the theft and detonation of nuclear material? That's... that doesn't seem right to me.

And then the Eel just walks around in his costume "for a lark," basically rubbing it in society's face that he's out and free. They even give the guy his old job back as caretaker at the aquarium in Glenville. He's out, he's free, it's like nothing happened.

Of course, then he returns to crime.

Stan & Dick try to set it up so that there's a tension where Johnny just knows the Eel is going to return to his thieving ways and everyone thinks he's being paranoid, but that lasts all of a page before the Eel just starts stealing jewels again. Johnny sets him up and nearly catches him, then spends a lot of time grumbling before Sue walks him through some of the clues. The final showdown takes place between the Eel and the Human Torch at the aquarium, which gives us some neat perspective shots and animal backgrounds.

Yeah, Johnny gets his ass handed to him. The Eel coats himself with--are you ready?--asbestos grease, then gives Johnny a big bear hug. Johnny can't flame on, and it turns out he's pretty bad at defending himself without his flame. (Too bad Stan forgot--forever, apparently--that Johnny was once able to defeat the Sandman with his superior strength due to the heat he stores in his muscles or something.)

Things get a little hardcore when the Eel tries to feed an unconscious Johnny to those sharks there, but Johnny wakes up at the right moment and spills the drum of asbestos grease that any aquarium would have laying around and trips up the Eel, saving the day and, I guess, his reputation for just knowing who's evil.

Mixed bag as a story, but Dick Ayers' art is fab and the fight scenes are kind of fun. A bit of a groaner on the script.

Stray observations:

:: This being a Stan Lee comic, Sue Storm's biggest concern this issue is that Johnny not flame on in the house, because he might singe the curtains. Are they not made of asbestos? Literally everything else in the world seems to be! Asbestos is probably just laying around in the streets. Just grab it and give everyone you know cancer! As a prank! Free unattended radiation and asbestos for everyone!

:: In the Eel's first appearance--which you may remember was written by Jerry Siegel--Stan must have wanted Jerry to make more of the Eel's name and eel-like powers. So there's a whole page where the Eel essentially tells the audience that he can run a current through his costume to use electric powers like the electric eel does.

"The Many Traps of Baron Mordo!" by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko

Baron Mordo's quest is to force the Ancient One to reveal all of his secrets and then kill him, and as we've seen, the thing standing in his way is that Doctor Strange will always be there to protect the Ancient One. So it's always interesting to see what Mordo comes up with to try and take Strange out of the picture.

This time, he creates a replica of Doctor Strange's house, then uses that to cast a spell over the actual house. When Doctor Strange next enters his home, the home disappears to some unknown dimension where there's no gravity. Slipping into his astral form, Mordo is able to use another spell to trap Strange's astral form in an escape-proof ethereal dome.

Strange now taken care of, Mordo confronts the Ancient One, pretending to be repentant and begging forgiveness. But as soon as he gets close enough to conquer the Ancient One, Strange's astral form appears! How did he get out of the dome? Easy: through the bottom.

Doctor Strange literally traveled through the core of the planet itself to escape Mordo's trap and warn the Ancient One.

This. Comic. Is. Amazing.

The Ancient One has given Strange a ring so he can face Mordo in his astral form, and in the subsequent battle, Strange defeats Mordo and throws his evil spells back at him, then returns to his home to brood and await the next battle.

I love these moody Doctor Strange stories so much. I'm not sure I'm looking forward to the inevitable jump in page count, just because these short stories with Ditko's art and his command of small panels are such treasures. It'll be a different era, that's for sure. For now, I'm enjoying the hell out of these.

Next Marvels: The Mandarin!

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