Thursday, December 04, 2014

Marvels: Tales of Suspense #53

"The Black Widow Strikes Again!" by Stan Lee, Don Rico & Don Heck
(May 1964)

Tony Stark's latest invention is an anti-gravity device that he's basically built accidentally. Oh, he was trying to create one, but out of frustration he arranges the circuits in random order. The device works successfully, but Tony drops it and the wires fuse together, so he can't analyze the patterns, he doesn't remember the formula, and he can never replicate the device. So he's got one anti-gravity device that he can sell to the Army.

While Tony's demonstrating the device to a general, a hiding news photographer grabs a picture and rushes off to leak the news, which our old friend Nikita Khrushchev reads about in the USSR. And so, hiding in a place called Pittsville, does Madame Natasha, the Black Widow.

She's still hiding in America, afraid to return to the Soviet Union after her failure last issue to recover Professor Vanko. But now he worms her way back into Tony's good graces with ease, manipulates him into giving a demonstration of the device, and steals it rather easily. She uses it to rob jewels before contacting Khrushchev himself and offering him the device in exchange for her safe return to the Soviet Union. She goes about destroying Stark plants with the device while Soviet agents come to meet her. But the Soviet men who come for her take the device away and try to take over her operation.

Tony just happens to be flying by in his Iron Man armor when one of the red agents, Stansky, is trying out the device by lifting a car into the air. Iron Man picks the car up and throws it into the building where Natasha is hiding, Natasha uses the device on Iron Man, then destroys the entire building, then lifts a mountain and fights off tanks until Iron Man finally uses a proton electric charge to destroy the anti-gravity device. He saves the Soviet agents, but Black Widow gets away again.

I've never read any of these older stories with Black Widow, and I'm very interested to see how this character, something of a cliche and a rip-off of the Dragon Lady from Terry and the Pirates (you can see Myrna Loy or Gale Sondergaard playing the character in an old movie), turns into the action heroine we all know and love.

Stray observations:

:: This is the second of two issues scripted by Don Rico under the pseudonym "N. Korok."

:: Only one issue after Anton Vanko's heroic sacrifice, and we've all moved on a little too easily for my tastes.

:: "Like all Americans, he is sympathetic, and therefore weak!"

:: Pepper Potts spends all of her page time angry that Madame Natasha can turn Tony's head. This character barely registers for me so far.

:: After Madame Natasha steals the device, there's an editorial declaring Tony's loyalties to the country in doubt. Every time one of his projects get stolen or ruined, someone's saying that Tony's sabotaging the American defense effort on purpose. That's a lot of paranoia. This has happened at least three, maybe five times now.

:: "You saved us! I... I do not understand!" "That's the trouble with you commies! You just don't dig us!"

:: Iron Man is definitely taking top billing these days. The cover still says "Tales of Suspense," but now, underneath, in bigger and bolder letters, it says "featuring the power of IRON MAN."

Not as good a story as last issue, to be honest--you can tell by my rather unenthusiastic synopsis that I'm not so into it. But in the next one, the Mandarin comes back, so hopefully we'll get something exciting.

Normally I skip the "Tales of the Watcher" stories, but this one does bear on the Marvel Universe itself, so here's a little bonus...

"Tales of the Watcher: The Way It Began" by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber & Paul Reinman

In this story, we find out more about the Watcher, his people, and his mission to observe.

Long ago, "aeons before the birth of your world," the Watcher's people lived in peace and harmony, in floating cities. Their high morals and advanced intelligence had done away with war and theft, and their scientific knowledge had eradicated all disease on their world, giving them a virtual immortality. (Quick question: wouldn't this eradication of disease then mean that the Watcher couldn't produce antibodies, thus making him fatally susceptible to each disease he encounters on an alien world?)

The Watchers have it so good that the Watcher's father, Ikor, proposes that they go out into the cosmos and share their knowledge with other people, traveling as beings of pure energy after absorbing antimatter isotopes. Their first stop is a planet with the wonderfully skiffy name Prosilicus, a relatively primitive world. The Watcher teach the Prosilicans about nuclear energy, and then leave them to observe a multidimensional eclipse, something that happens only once every billion years.

When the Watchers return to Prosilicus, its civilization has been wiped out, and few Prosilicans remain alive. Those that still live admonish the Watchers for their "gift," which was used to fight a nuclear war. Ikor then vows never to give enormous power to people who aren't advanced enough intellectually to use it wisely, rather creating something like the Prime Directive in Star Trek, a policy of non-interference and observance.

And that's why the Watcher only watches, and cannot interfere in events.

Stray observations:

:: It's worth noting that we've only seen the Watcher interact with the Marvel Universe twice, and he interfered both times--once in the fight between the Fantastic Four and the Red Ghost on the blue area of the moon, and again to warn the Fantastic Four about the power of the Molecule Man.

:: This story, scripted by Larry Lieber, frames the Watchers as the oldest beings in existence in the Marvel Universe... at least as far as we yet know.

:: The Watcher himself remains unnamed, and will not be named until 1975. We also don't know the name of his people based on this story. I assume they weren't originally referred to as Watchers. In fact, they aren't now; I'm only referring to them that way. I don't think we've ever learned what these people are called.

I have to say, I like that we've gotten some background on what the Watcher is all about, but the tone of this story is so much of its time. Here come the white guys with their knowledge, only to realize they must hoard their knowledge away from the primitives, lest the primitives destroy themselves with it and the white guys feel guilty, because the primitives just aren't smart enough to handle knowing stuff like the white guys are.

One way to read it, is all.

Next time: the return of the Human Top.

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