Saturday, July 05, 2014

Marvels: Fantastic Four #21

"The Hate-Monger!" by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & George Roussos
(December 1963)

21 issues in, and the Fantastic Four can still be incredibly unstable. Tensions are always running high, and flare-ups occur easily. This issue ignites those tensions with a little help from the Hate-Monger.

The Hate-Monger is holding a rally in New York, which steams Ben so much that he's literally shaking the Baxter Building with how hard he's punching that gigantic steel punching bag of his. (Once again, I really hope the FF just rent that entire building. I can not imagine what it's like to have an office or apartment there.) The Hate-Monger dresses like some kind of medieval Klansman and has followers who look like Nazis with torches. He's railing about how America needs to drive out foreigners, which the FF call out as an un-American sentiment. Ben gets so mad he trashes Hate-Monger's grandstand.

But the Hate-Monger blasts the FF with his hate-ray, and those tensions leap to the top and the Four turn on each other. Ben and Reed particularly have a lot of buried resentment, I assume stemming from the accident that gave them their powers. They go at each other instantly, though Sue and Johnny don't slack, either. They're all fighting each other at once, which culminates in Ben literally tying Reed to a fire hydrant and then stretching him back like a rubber band, planning on using Reed's body to slingshot Johnny into the air and probably all the way to Newark, except that Sue unties Reed and lets him snap back into Ben, besting all three of the men before they all go their separate ways.

Reed heads back to the Baxter Building and finds his old war buddy, Nick Fury, waiting to see him. Just as Reed appeared in Sgt. Fury #3, Fury's here to cement the connection of that comic to the modern Marvel Universe. In fact, there's even a callback to one of the panels I particularly liked in that issue.

Nick Fury is with the CIA, and that's why he's come to see Reed. Apparently the US government is trying to aid a democracy in South America, the Republic of San Gusto, but now there's a revolution. Looks like, through Fury, Uncle Sam is calling on the Fantastic Four to help protect the democratic government. Boy, this is really of its time, isn't it? Fury tells us the government has been "pouring billions into San Gusto to make it a showplace of democracy," and immediately I wondered if we destabilized a regime, armed rebels to topple it, and are now trying to hold out against insurgents.

Reed heads off to San Gusto alone, while Fury stays behind to egg the others into going after Reed. Everyone's still feeling the effects of the hate-ray. It becomes a race to San Gusto; Reed in the pogo plane, Fury and the others in the passenger ICBM, and the Hate-Monger in a sub-surface missile that Stan assures us is totally possible.

There's some great stuff with Reed fighting rebels (including, as always, the guy who thinks things are haunted), and then he's captured by the Hate-Monger. He's been bouncing his hate-ray off the moon, and plans to bathe the entire world in it in. Apparently, this little coup in San Gusto is a test run for the Hate-Monger, much like the Spanish Civil War was a test run for Hitler.

Luckily, Fury and the rest of the FF show up, and we even get one of these:

WAH-HOO!

The FF get pills that cure their hate-ray exposure (just go with it), and Sue grabs the Hate-Monger, messing up his shot so that he blasts his own men in the hate-ray; the rebels then turn on the Hate-Monger and gun him down.

Now, the cover of this issue promises a bombshell shocker and asks us not to reveal this issue's big twist, but since it's been 51 years, I'm going to let the cat out of the bag.

Here's the secret identity of the Hate-Monger, true believers.

Reed is quick to say that we can never know if this was the real Adolf Hitler, or one of the many doubles he supposedly had. But the symbolism is pretty powerful. I feel like a lesser comic would make this reveal feel cheap, but coming from WWII vets Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and with Nick Fury in the room, and the fact that this issue only appeared a mere 18 years after Hitler's death, this story earns it. They're using Hitler--and Hitler in a Klan hood, basically--as the ultimate symbol of hate. Think about what was happening in America in 1963. Not only was the Vietnam War ramping up, but here at home, George Wallace was elected governor of Alabama on a pro-segregation platform. The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing happened not long after this issue hit the stands. And soon after that, President Kennedy was assassinated. That summer, Medgar Evers was murdered.

So here, Stan and Jack aren't just spinning an exciting yarn. They're pointedly saying that we're keeping Hitler alive by engaging in hatred at home.


Stray notes:

:: During some downtime, Johnny throws flaming darts at a picture of Spider-Man, while Sue tries on wigs and imagines being a movie star. (Though, if you remember, she did try that once and didn't like it at all.) "If they ever want to film a sequel to Cleopatra and Liz Taylor is too busy..."

:: I can't tell if Sue got a new 'do, or if it's just the difference in George Roussos' inking.

Either way, looking sharp. I like that her hair changes like, you know, a person's.

:: I love that Nick Fury is introduced to us by brawling with security in the Baxter Building. You just can't take the rowdy out of that guy. Also, no eye patch yet. Not sure when that comes in.

:: I wonder what every nation thinks whenever the Fantastic Four launch that ICBM. That's got to be stressful, right?

:: In the letter column, Stan reproduces some glowing words from the South African fanzine The Komix, Jerise Newton of Plocerville, California, wants Thor to be more like the original mythological god, and Stan plays off a complaint about the story titles not always matching the story title advertised on the cover with "What OTHER mags give you TWO titles for the price of one?" Stan also quips (to Paul Moslander, moderator of The World of Comics) that Vince Edwards, TV's Dr. Ben Casey, could play Dr. Strange, since both men never smile. Meanwhile Mrs. P. Piccirillo, a 53 year-old grandmother (of 13 grandchildren!), is lovingly named Marvel's oldest fan (in answer to a 31 year-old man who felt maybe he was too old to be into comics), and Don Markstein (of Toonepedia) praises Marvels' never-mentioned Western comics (Stan jokes that he can't remember the names of any besides Two Gun Kid).

Stan also plugs GB Love's Rocket Blast zine, promises more Dr. Strange, promises new powers for Invisible Girl in the next issue, thanks the FF fan clubs out there, and pushes a couple of humor mags he's written (You Don't Say! and More You Don't Say!).

This was a great issue of Fantastic Four, and a great issue to have as my 100th Marvels post. Just because why not, I'm going to do what I did back in my 50th and give you my 20 favorite Marvel stories. That time, I gave you my favorite 20 so far. This time, here are my favorite 20 since then! So, from the last 50 of these posts, here we go:

1. "Sub-Mariner Versus the Human Race!" (Fantastic Four Annual #1)
2. "Nothing Can Stop the Sandman" (Amazing Spider-Man #4)
3. "Seven Against the Nazis!" (Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos #1)
4. "Spider-Man Versus Doctor Octopus" (Amazing Spider-Man #3)
5. "The Coming of the Avengers!" (Avengers #1)
6. "Face-to-Face with... the Lizard!" (Amazing Spider-Man #6)
7. "A Skrull Walks Among Us!" (Fantastic Four #18)
8. "Defeated by Doctor Doom!" (Fantastic Four #17)
9. "Tales of Asgard" (Journey Into Mystery #97)
10. "Dr. Strange, Master of Black Magic!" (Strange Tales #110)
11. "The Hate-Monger!" (Fantastic Four #21)
12. "The Return of the Vulture" (Amazing Spider-Man #7)
13. "7 Doomed Men!" (Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos #2)
14. "Marked for Destruction by Dr. Doom!" (Amazing Spider-Man #5)
15. "The Human Torch Meets... Captain America" (Strange Tales #114)
16. "The Space Phantom" (Avengers #2)
17. "The Micro-World of Doctor Doom" (Fantastic Four #16)
18. "Tales of Asgard: Odin Battles Ymir, King of the Ice Giants" (Journey Into Mystery #98)
19. "The Creature from Kosmos!" (Tales to Astonish #44)
20. "Face-to-Face with the Magic of Baron Mordo" (Strange Tales #111)

Yeah, I'm digging Spider-Man just as much as the FF now. Those two are still the strongest, and Fantastic Four still feels like the leader of the Marvel Universe. Let's see what comes in the next 50 issues! Let's start with the next comic up...

Next Marvels: Thor meets the most dramatic super-foe of the year! Well, that's what the cover says, anyway...

Friday, July 04, 2014

Fourth

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Marvels: Amazing Spider-Man #7

"The Return of the Vulture" by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko
(December 1963)

One of the things that has consistently delighted me in the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man is that Stan & Steve have been able to raise the stakes. Anything that can be done to make Spidey desperate and his enemies powerful enough to get *thisclose* to beating him only pulls in the reader harder and makes the suspense more taut.

For example, in this issue, the Vulture becomes Spider-Man's first returning villain. Back in issue #2, Spidey defeated the Vulture by inventing an anti-magnetic inverter which shut down Vulture's magnet-powered wings. Since then, Vulture's been biding his time in prison, being such a model prisoner that he's been made a trustee and given access to the machine shop... where he makes himself another flying gizmo (as one of the bewildered guards puts it) and simply flies away. Soon enough, he's back on the street robbing jewelers with a new Vulture costume.

Here's where Stan & Steve subvert our expectations: Peter immediately puts on his Spider-Man costume and heads out to face the Vulture the same way he did before... and it doesn't work! The Vulture has prepared for it, corrected the flaw that Spidey's device exploited before, and even lulls Spider-Man into a false sense of triumph before seizing the upper hand and literally dropping Spidey out of the sky. Peter winds up with a sprained arm for his trouble and walks home, licking his wounds. His reaction? "Zowee!"

So now we have an injured Spider-Man facing a Vulture who can't be easily defeated. It's just a great touch, because I have read comic books in the past where a villain returns and causes havoc and the hero just suddenly remembers, oh yeah, this is how I defeated that guy the last time!

This all comes to a head in the offices of the Daily Bugle, where Peter is trying to sell a picture to J. Jonah Jameson. The Vulture comes bursting in to rob the payroll, and while he and JJ are yelling at each other, Peter slips out and gets into his costume, webbing his arm closer to his side. Their fight is epic and hilarious, because they end up fighting all through the building while Jameson chases after them, urging Spidey to stop fighting before they wreck the whole place. ("My ledgers! My files! Look what you're doing!") There's even the seemingly-requisite guy who thinks the building is haunted! Even with Stan & Steve throwing Spider-Man into seriously deadly situations (at one point, Vulture almost drops Spider-Man right into the crushing rollers of the printing press itself), hero and villain are throwing insults and wisecracks at each other. It's marvelously enjoyable!

Although Spidey claims to have it all planned, he ends the fight with what really feels like a last ditch gambit: the Vulture pulls Spider-Man out of the building and high, high above the city, preparing to drop him again from an even greater height. Spider-Man responds by webbing up Vulture's wings, pinning them to his body, so they end up dropping together. Spider-Man hastily constructs one of his web parachutes and they glide to the ground, bickering the whole way down.

Peter's confidence at an all-time high, he ends the day by webbing J. Jonah Jameson's mouth shut and then getting cozy with Betty Brant.

And so we end an excellent issue with the promise of more to come, setting the stage for what will be Peter's first romance. (The one that most fans seem to forget about!)

I have to admit, I've never thought of the Vulture as one of Spider-Man's best nemeses, but both stories we've seen with him so far have been pretty tops. I like the familiarity and comfort of the returning villain, and the adversarial-yet-hilarious relationship they have with each other. This issue was fun as hell, and I kind of can't wait for ol' baldy to come back. It just makes me sorry that we never got Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 4 featuring the Vulture... That series of movies needed some real closure.

Stray observations:

:: Equipment check!

I love little explanatory panels like this. This is as good as a Kirby diagram.

:: One of my favorite bits in this issue is when Vulture is simply testing his wings and is spotted by a news helicopter. In order to evade it, he does some fancy maneuvering and then ducks into a window, winding up, quite by accident, in a jewelry showroom. Never one to waste an opportunity, Vulture simply pulls out a .45 and robs the place. Serendipity.

:: One of many homages Sam Raimi made to the original Lee & Ditko comics:

Peter's arm probably doesn't hurt as much as your words, Aunt May!

Peter tells her he broke his arm playing volleyball, which all the other kids find a pretty laughable excuse. Aunt May--finger angrily wagging--exacts a promise from Peter that he won't play anymore. Poor guy! Betty Brant, for her part, doesn't believe anyone could sprain their arm playing volleyball.

:: Spidey to Jameson: "Aw, go slide down a barbed-wire fence!"

:: "The worst thing about being Spider-Man is changing clothes a zillion times a day! Oh, well... it keeps me out of the pool room!"

:: The letters page features another complimentary letter from Paul Gambaccini, who once had hated what Marvel was putting out. He (very lightly) disparages the books of "your competition," and Stan asks that readers don't do that in their letters. Sidney Wright of Worcester, MA, wants Spidey to get a girlfriend, and Larry Rothenberger of Wausau, Washington, thinks Spider-Man should be able to talk to spiders the way Ant-Man talks to ants. (Quips Stan: "And we suppose you'd like to see Iron Man talking with pieces of iron?") Fans also want Dr. Octopus to return, for Spidey to never have a sidekick, for another run-in with the Human Torch, and still have wildly varying opinions on Steve Ditko's artwork.

Interestingly, citing the work of putting it all together, Stan asks the readers what they think about discontinuing the letter column and just letting Fantastic Four be the central location of all Marvel fan letters.

:: I'm kind of tickled that this--my 99th Marvels post--features the Vulture, because the last issue that featured the Vulture, Amazing Spider-Man #2, was my 49th Marvels post! The 50th was an issue of Fantastic Four. Which brings us to...

Next time: Nick Fury guest stars in Fantastic Four #21 in my 100th Marvels post!

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Y Is for Yarrow

I've always wondered what this flower was called in the back of my mind, but never thought to look.

When I was four, my family moved to Woodridge, Illinois. It was a lot different then. Today, it's built up with office parks, four-lane roads, and a major tollway going through it. When I was a kid, there was a lot of forest area and dirt roads. There were a lot more animals around then, and I spent a lot of days with my friends playing in the woods among the wildflowers and tall trees. We were near a small lake and there was a lot of almost swamplike area with milkweeds and cattails and gigantic anthills and occasionally we'd see otters and foxes and pheasants and deer prints. It was a great world to be in as a little boy; by the time I hit junior high, most of that was long gone.

That's part of why I appreciate living in DeKalb right now. It's starting to get built up, too, but there's still a sense of wildlife, both flora and fauna. My wife and I saw a groundhog crossing the road here, and there was the one time I rescued an alligator snapping turtle. There was the peregrine falcon that slept on my balcony, and the bat that got into our apartment one night during a sudden storm. And there's a whole bank of wildflowers that I've noticed a family of rabbits has made a home in right near my apartment door. We can go over to the lagoon and see muskrats swimming around. Hell, we even had a black bear running around here a couple of weeks ago. Should be interesting to see what happens when the cougars start getting pushed out west of here...

Seeing the yarrow just brings back a lot of feelings for a different time. It's sad to see every place getting so built up, but there's a lot of farmland out here, so it won't totally go away. I like it here, and I really hope things don't get to that four- and six-lane road point. Traffic's bad enough as it is with all of those college kids. I'm pretty much at my limit for how urbanized I want the area where I live to be.

[picture via]

ABC Wednesday

Film Week

A review of the films I've seen this past week.

THE LITTLE PRINCE (1974)
Stanley Donen directed this Lerner & Lowe production of Antoine deSaint-Exupery's beautiful novella. It's a mixed bag, but it had some things in it that I really liked. Honestly, I think songs are unnecessary, though a couple of them are nice, and you can tell that the filmmakers wanted something more lavish than what they came up with. Some scenes really get the lovely, quiet quality of the source material exactly right, and Steven Warner, the boy playing the Prince, is really quite charming in the role. But... I don't know, sometimes it felt like everyone was more or less falling in love with him, and that was a little disturbing. I get what everything represents, but... I don't know, I felt there were unintended implications. A disconcertingly tan Bob Fosse, as the snake, is the embodiment of sleaze, doing a dance that feels as much like a seduction as it feels like Every Bob Fosse Move: The Motion Picture. Gene Wilder is quite lovely as the fox, even though he song really sends the message that he's just falling in love with this boy. (The character in the book is pretty much thought to be deSaint-Exupery's young lover, who was a woman in real life.) I go back and forth on it, but ultimately it's the kind of mess I tend to like, because there's good stuff here that almost outweighs the stuff that holds it back (the sequence with the Prince visiting other worlds on his way to Earth is remarkable). Frankly, that kind of thing ends up being weirdly fascinating to me. So either **1/2 or *** stars. Your mileage may vary, but I've never pretended a review is anything but subjective.

THE PURGE (2013)
The premise--that on one night a year, all crime is legal, in order to cleanse people of their aggressive tendencies--seems dopey at first, but the film raises some interesting implications; most notably, that such a night would be used as a means to eliminate the poor. The film has a lot of ideas about class structure and violence that are very interesting; unfortunately, it doesn't really know how to say them, and uses them mostly as a backdrop for an exploitative home invasion thriller. It's not a badly made movie at all, and I appreciate that it's quite lean. It's actually very intense and suspenseful. But it's also disturbing how it puts the audience in the position of rooting for the family being attacked. It makes the violence committed on their behalf quite satisfying, so in the end it's a movie that's critical of violence that leaves you rooting for some of the violence. The movie has a chance to make a point at the end, or to turn the thrill the audience feels at "righteous" violence back at it, but it doesn't do any of that. It's in that **1/2 range for me; well-made and genuinely suspenseful, but it backs out of the moral/ethical questions it raises in favor of an action plot.

TOKYO GODFATHERS (2003)
A special, lovely animated film about three homeless people who find an abandoned baby on Christmas Eve and decide to track down and confront the baby's mother. It's shamelessly sentimental and built on a series of coincidences--it firmly falls on the "miracles happen at Christmas" side of these kinds of movies--but it doesn't feel cheesy or unearned, because the film also acknowledges the kinds of suffering homeless people are put through by society, and what we do to ourselves when our pain becomes unbearable. Part of what makes it so touching (and funny) is that it's ultimately about love and having a pure heart in a world where reality can be harsh and brutal. (Though that said, I didn't appreciate the homophobic slurs that get thrown around.) ****

THE LEDGE (2011)
A potboiler love triangle that gussies itself up as a tedious debate on the merits of atheism and the stupidity of faith. Charlie Hunnam is a strident atheist making strident points about his atheism to the religious Patrick Wilson who makes religious judgments and talks about the importance of religion. It annoys Hunnam so much that he resolves to charm away Wilson's wife, Liv Tyler. The message here is so muddied, and I think the filmmakers fall on the side of balance rather than one extreme or the other, so, agnosticism, I guess? The problem is, for much of the picture, we're clearly meant to be on the side of Hunnam, whose arrogant, grief-based atheism is painted as more thoughtful and noble and understanding than Wilson's arrogant, grief-based religious feelings. Sadly for them, Wilson's belief in a guided universe actually starts to sound less judgmental and more reasoned, so the movie overcompensates by having him go full-blown crazy. Meanwhile, Liv Tyler is stuck in the middle, a prize for them both to win, each trying to conquer her body, mind and soul, with seemingly no capacity to make decisions for herself. And also there's some nonsense with Terrence Howard as a sterile cop. *

THE COUNSELOR (2013)
A crime suspense thriller that is neither suspenseful nor thrilling. Cormac McCarthy wrote the screenplay, so everybody talks in parables instead of saying what they mean. As structure, it's frustrating; you know everything that's going to happen just by the way the characters are played, and, through stories, everyone more or less tells you right away how the whole thing is going to play out. But taken on their own, some of the stories are really good, even though none of it works as a coherent whole. Michael Fassbender is a lawyer who goes in on a drug deal that goes bad, and is targeted by a Colombian cartel that just assumes it's his fault. There's no reasoning with anyone about it, and every time he goes to someone for help, it's just more philosophy and parable. This guy can't even go and buy a diamond ring to marry Penelope Cruz with, without hearing a long story about diamonds that's a heavy-handed allegory for the film's themes. It's especially frustrating because Fassbender's character is so passive; things just happen to him, and he moans about it, but he's trapped in a series of consequences. Also stymieing the film is that Ridley Scott as a director is generally all flash and no substance, so the words don't always connect (and some of his visuals are just thuddingly obvious), and Cameron Diaz, in a key role, is giving us definitive proof that although she can memorize dialogue, she can't convey feelings with it or, you know, act. (And she's attempting some weird accent at the same time.) But some of it is so fascinating. It's like there's a good, weird, mysterious, dreamlike movie in there somewhere, it's just in the hands of a director who doesn't know what to do with it, and actors that are hit or miss with the material. I feel like, in the hands of a better, less realistic filmmaker, it could have been the most brilliant thing. But here, I was about forty minutes in before I even knew what was happening. **1/2

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Happy Birthday, Liv Tyler

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Meshach Taylor 1947-2014

Merits of Mannequin aside, I saw it a LOT when I was a kid, and Hollywood Montrose was a seminal childhood character. And I used to watch Designing Women, too. I remember that surprised my Grandma at one point. He was on my TV a lot as a kid, and I'm sorry to hear about Meshach Taylor passing away. Peace and blazing light, Meshach.

Song of the Week: "Across 110th Street"

There's just nothing like soul music. This is one of my favorite songs. RIP Bobby Womack.