Saturday, September 27, 2014

Marvels: Strange Tales #118

"The Man Who Became the Torch!" by Stan Lee & Dick Ayers
(March 1964)

"Recycling" is the theme of this issue of Strange Tales. In our first story, the Wizard returns. I like the Wizard; he's probably my favorite solo Human Torch villain. But his grand plan in this story is to impersonate the Human Torch. He's already done that once. Come on, Wiz, you're a genius. Don't just repeat yourself.

There are other recycled elements, too. I don't know if Stan just doesn't realize he's doing it (he's scripting so many damn comics) or if Dick Ayers doesn't realize or if no one really thinks it matters. It's just a little bit of a drag because I feel like I've seen most of this already. The Wizard escapes prison by building an anti-gravity disc in the prison workshop; we've seen the Vulture do it, and a one-off villain called Doctor Strange even upped the stakes on that by building a transmitter to hypnotize Iron Man into flying him out of a prison.

The Wizard's idea is to disguise himself as a TV producer, have the Torch put on a show demonstrating his powers, tire the Torch out, capture him, take his place, and try to conquer the Fantastic Four. He knocks out Sue pretty easily (sigh, of course), but Reed and Ben prove too wily, and Johnny is able to signal the group from his prison: inside a billboard for cigarettes. Credit here, that's something we haven't seen yet.

But, alas, even the Wizard's finish feels familiar. His plan foiled--his plan to use more flying discs to rob banks and then eventually, like, battleships--he grabs his one flying disc and floats away... and floats and floats, off into the sky. The disc has malfunctioned and the Wizard can't shut it off. And the Human Torch just kind of lets him go, off beyond breathable air. He plays it like it's too late to save him, but it comes off more like a bit of "Eh, bad guy gone, whatever."

Will we see the Wizard again? I imagine so.

Stray observation:

Dick Ayers' Reed Richards looks like Michael Landon. It totally makes up for how his Wizard doesn't look like the creepy, stooped, arrogant John Carradine caricature that Jack Kirby drew.

"The Possessed!" by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko

Read that panel and you'll see why I also didn't care much for this issue's Doctor Strange story. This is the first time I haven't really cared for a Doctor Strange story, probably because having Strange deal with an interdimensional alien vanguard seems like a sudden tone shift. And, like many elements of this issue's Human Torch story, we've seen it already.

Everyone has fought alien vanguards already. The Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Thor, Ant-Man and the Wasp, the Human Torch solo, and even Spider-Man (where it seemed even more out of place). Aliens are always testing somewhere, studying humanity, etc. And almost everyone has tangled with aliens from other dimensions. The Marvel Universe is so crowded with alien races and dimensions already that it's just getting routine. There are so many common elements that have become tropes. Is Doctor Strange going to start facing commie spies, too? Gangsters? An underground kingdom? Travel through time? How many more cliches can we ram another character into?

I get it. Everything can't be facing off against Baron Mordo over the soul of the Ancient One (although I'd love to see more and more of the Nightmare World), but this just isn't the kind of supernatural weirdness I want to see get built up in this title. I understand that the common coin of the Marvel Universe is science fiction; even Thor comes off much more as a science fiction title than a fantasy one. And I know there are Comics Code restrictions on supernatural elements. But this just doesn't work.

To Stan and Steve's credit, they try to tie it in. Doctor Strange is called to a mountain village in Bavaria because there appears to be a mass case of supernatural possession going on. And the art is at times wonderfully moody and spooky, of course, because this is Steve Ditko.

And even if it's just aliens, Strange battles them as he would Mordo: with spiritual forces at his command, astral projection, and intense mental strength.

But in the end, it's just another alien story that hits all the same notes, drops the aliens out of nowhere, and sends them right back out. It's a sturdy trope at this point, but not really what I want out of Doctor Strange. I hope next issue we're back to the truly weird.

Stray observation:

I do love the design of the aliens. Too bad we'll probably never see them again somewhere else. I love Ditko's aliens as much as I love Kirby's monsters.

Next time: Iron Man vs. the Scarecrow.

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