Hitting 50: Jimmy Olsen vs. Captain America in 1965

To my eye, there’s little if any difference between Marvel and DC Comics today, but in 1965 the difference was fairly pronounced.  Two books on the stands in April of that year, DC’s Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen and Marvel’s Tales Of Suspense, provide a good example of what I mean.jimmyvscap
The mere fact that DC even published a book devoted to the likes of Jimmy Olsen, a lowly “cub reporter” and goofball sidekick to Superman, is testament to the company’s then-dominance of the comics industry, albeit a dominance already beginning to erode and soon to slip irretrievably away.  Superman in 1965 was the 800-pound gorilla of the superhero crowd; having conquered television, cartoons and radio, and proving a merchandising cash cow for DC, he was featured in numerous monthly and bi-monthly comic titles plus various spin-offs, all of which sold like hotcakes, so why not a book for that hanger-on Jimmy as well?

Meanwhile, just down the street, rival Marvel Comics was making waves with its stable of unconventional, even oddball superheroes.  By 1965 the “House of Ideas” was at the crest of a four-year hot streak where almost every new character and concept it introduced met with success.  And yet during those early years, Marvel’s line of books was decidedly smaller than DC’s, in part because of an odd arrangement where DC actually controlled the distribution of Marvel comics.  So it was that while a mere sidekick like Jimmy Olsen rated his own book at “too big to fail” DC, Marvel A-listers Captain America and Iron Man had to share space in a single title, Tales of Suspense, itself a leftover from the “sci-fi/horror” period that preceded the superhero revival.

So, let’s look at April ’65.

Jimmy Olsen #85 features three stories, starting with “Love Me, Love My Beast,” in which a beautiful girl from outer space lands in Metropolis and takes a fancy to Jimmy.  Unfortunately, so does her “pet,” Gnor, a huge, shaggy creature led around by the girl (Shara) on a leash.

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Jimmy is chosen to be Shara’s guide and companion on Earth, which suits him fine until he realizes that wherever Shara goes, Gnor goes, too. Though creepy (and one suspects, smelly), Gnor has the seemingly magical ability to make “wishes” come true, which leads to all sorts of “funny” mishaps.

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Eventually, Jimmy’s sort-of girlfriend Lucy Lane goes to warn Shara to keep her hands off “her man,” but finds Shara near death in her spaceship.  Fading fast, Shara admits she is not a real girl but an android, and that Gnor is draining her life energy from her via the “leash” around his neck.  Since Shara’s nearly out of energy, Jimmy’s been selected as Gnor’s next “owner”/victim…and he’s already holding the leash.  Of course Jimmy’s the last one to figure this all out, so Lucy Lane and Superman work together to get him off the hook.  Disguising himself as crackpot inventor Professor Potter, Superman “accidentally” exposes Jimmy to an “age accelerator” that leaves him aged and nearly without energy, so Gnor instinctively transfers his “leash” to the most energy-filled person in the room, Superman.  This turns out to be a bad move, as Superman has too much energy, and, unable to handle the super-transfusion Gnort blows up.

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Note that this outcome was Superman’s intent all along, reminding us once again that Superman never, ever kills…except when he does.  I still haven’t figured out why they made Shara an android, though.  I can only imagine that an editor somewhere thought it would be too traumatizing to kids if a real, live girl were to die in the story, but if she’s really just an android, then who cares if her energy is almost gone?  All she has to do is recharge her batteries and everyone’s happy, right?

Story number two is “The Adventures of Chameleon-Head Olsen,” which I reviewed in detail on my old Superman site.  Here’s the gist: Jimmy is given a potion that allows him use the shape-changing powers of Chameleon Boy, but he only manages to drink enough to change his head.  If that concept sounds funny to you, you’re the target audience of writer Jerry Siegel, who seems determined to single-handedly bring back Vaudeville with his ham-fisted puns and dopey sight gags.

Finally, in “King Olsen’s Private Island,”  Jimmy saves the life of an eccentric sea captain who’s discovered a new, if tiny, island and has had himself declared its ruler/owner.  When the captain is later lost at sea, Jimmy is named in the will as the island’s new owner.  In the Daily Planet helicopter, Jimmy takes Lois, Lucy and Perry White with him to check the place out, and finds, among other things, an underground treasure room full of golden artifacts. Based on this sudden change in social status, Jimmy declares himself king of the island and orders everyone else to leave.

When Lois and Lucy return a few days later expecting Jimmy to have come to his senses, they find the opposite is true.

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Superman returns from a mission in space and tries to talk some sense into Jimmy, but his “pal” forbids him to set foot on the island, launching kryptonite at him with a catapult.  Around this time, the “dead” sea captain emerges from the ocean and reveals himself to be a space alien.  It turns out he only pretended to be a human sea captain so he could “will” the island to Jimmy, knowing Superman would eventually come to visit and thus fall into a trap: One of the golden artifacts in the island’s subterranean treasure room is made from Gold Kryptonite, which will take away Superman’s powers forever.  Luckily, Jimmy noticed the object weighed far too much to be made of Earthly gold and, based on that one clue, figured out the whole convoluted plot.  So he only acted like a jerk as part of his master plan to save his pal.

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So, to recap:  Jimmy alienated all his friends so they would tell Superman he was being a jerk, so Superman would come to the island, so Jimmy could launch a bunch of kryptonite rocks, which Superman would be sure to verify the atomic structure of using his super vision. And of course Superman would decide to inspect the ONE rock that Jimmy wrote a message on.  A microscopic message. Written with…um…a microscopic Sharpie?  Or something.  Because all of that makes more sense than simply going back to Metropolis and meeting Superman when he returns to Earth and checks in at the Daily Planet…which is the first thing he does, by the way…and saying, “Hey, Superman, don’t go to that new island, because there’s gold kryptonite there.”  Okay…

So anyway, that’s what’s happening at DC this month in 1965.  Meanwhile, over in Tales of Suspense #67, Captain America rates a mere 8 pages to Jimmy’s 24, and is relegated to the back of the book, surrendering the front spot, and 60% of the cover, to Iron Man.  We join the Sentinel of Liberty mid-way through a three-part tale revealing the origin of Nazi super-villain the Red Skull.  Page one throws us into the middle of the action as Cap trains with a crack team of Nazi agents in preparation for a top secret mission.

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That’s right, I said trains with Nazis. At the end of the previous chapter, Cap was brainwashed by the Red Skull to serve the Axis powers.  Now he’s conducting a practice run for the assassination of a high-ranking American military official.  Oh, Cap, say it ain’t so!

Meanwhile, Cap’s sidekick Bucky is stuck in a P.O.W. camp, where the Nazis have obligingly let him keep on his costume and mask but otherwise are making life miserable, as Nazis will do.  Bucky and his fellow prisoners are dragged out before a firing squad but find it’s just psychological warfare, as the Germans have loaded their rifles with blanks.  You know, just to keep everyone in a state of terror and hopelessness.  Except Bucky’s no dummy, and realizes that if the Germans’ guns aren’t loaded, they’ll be…well… a lot easier to beat (Oops.  “You said this plan was foolproof!  Shultz, you dumkopf!”)

Bucky may not get the press Robin does, but he proves why he’s comics’ baddest sidekick by pulling no punches.  Batarang, nothin’. Here, have a hand grenade!

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Tickled with his triumph over Captain America, the Red Skull takes the brainwashed hero to meet Der Fuhrer himself.  In a neat sequence, Lee and Kirby show Hitler as a sniveling coward, intimidated by his own lacky the Red Skull and mortally terrified of Cap.  When he tries to slip in a sucker punch, we get proof positive that Cap can beat Hitler even in his sleep.

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Cap and the Nazis parachute to their mission of murder.  At the last minute, Cap’s willpower keeps him from killing his assigned victim, but the Nazis force him to follow through.  Or do they?  We’ll have to tune in next month to know for sure.

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So to recap; 24 pages of fake-outs and vaudeville gags with Jimmy Olsen versus 8 pages of non-stop action and mayhem with Cap.  Both books feature “out of character” behavior as a plot hook, but Jimmy’s just pretending to be a jerk as part of a complex hoax, leading the reader to wonder merely (if they care at all), “gee, why is he being such a jerk THIS month?” whereas Cap has been brainwashed into betraying his core beliefs, missing a chance to wring Hitler’s neck and…perhaps…committing a traitorous act of murder.  Only one approach generates suspense.

Granted, in 1965 DC was putting out more creative plots and stylish artwork in books like Green Lantern and the Flash, but in a way I think it’s more revealing to compare what the companies were doing in these “lower tier” books.  DC is happy to stick with formula and tradition, churning out stories that could just as easily have appeared ten years earlier (indeed, there is the distinct feeling that Jimmy Olsen is routinely assembled using “inventory” material of indeterminate age), while Marvel is more “in the moment” and improvisational, adopting the old Hertz slogan of “We’re number 2 so we try harder.”  As a result, both Cap and Iron Man will eventually spin out of Tales of Suspense into their own solo books, while Jimmy’s sales will slide steadily downhill until, in 1970, he gets a major revamp courtesy of, ironically, Jack Kirby.  Not that this will help much, either.

Anyway, that’s what was on the stands in April ’65, the year I made my debut on planet Earth.  Obviously my comic reading days were still a few years away at this point, but I suspect if I’d been able to plunk down 12 cents on one of these books, it would’ve been Jimmy Olsen, in spite of everything.  I was a square from Day One.

 

Hitting 50: Yours Truly

djr71ishIf you were a kid in the 70s’s, you might have seen a TV show called Space: 1999.  If you weren’t, it’s likely you never heard of it.  It was dark and gloomy and generally slow-moving, with two stars who managed to be technically famous without being particularly charismatic, Martin Landau and Barbara Bain.  Still, the model work was pretty good, and during those years where Star Trek was off the air with no guarantee it would ever be back, and Star Wars was still a wild notion in George Lucas’ head, it provided a fix for young sci-fi junkies like my younger self.  Of course as soon as Luke and Han showed up, it pretty much vanished from pop-culture memory.

Anyway, I still remember watching the first episode, where John Koenig (Landau) travels to the Moon to take over as Commander of Moonbase Alpha, and thinking, “Wow, it’d be cool to work on the Moon.  But will I even be alive in 1999?”  After doing the math in my head, I decided, “Yeah, but I’ll be really old.”  Like, 35.

Now I look back and somehow, incredibly, 1999 itself has become the ancient past.  (Still no Moonbase, though.  What’s up with that?)  That’s the weirdest part of getting older; realizing how long ago things happened that still feel like yesterday, or at most last year.  Twenty-three years since the Berlin Wall came down?  Thirty-two years since I graduated high school?  How is this even possible?

Most days now when I get home from work I turn on MeTV in the kitchen while I’m prepping dinner for the kids and listen (keeping my eyes on my work, lest I cut a finger off) to shows like “Emergency” and “CHiPs” and “MASH,”  shows I grew up on…the newest of which has been off the air for more years than my younger self could imagine even living.  At every commercial break I hear ads for medic-alert bracelets, phone plans for seniors, hearing aids and funeral planning services, and I say to myself: “They think only old people are watching this channel.”  And then I realize, “Maybe they’re right.”

Then, there’s the “classic radio” stations, playing things like Billy Idol, The Police and The Go-Gos, which means the 80s now qualifies as “classic” (read: “antique”). What?  Doesn’t “classic rock” mean Jefferson Airplane and Creedence Clearwater Revival?  And of course it won’t stop there: The next phase comes soon enough, when 80s music fans transition from “old but still buying stuff” to “too old to bother marketng to” and “classic” is redefined as 90s stuff like Nirvana and Pearl Jam (we’re already getting there).

That’s depressing stuff if you let yourself dwell on it.  Luckily, I have three young kids at home to keep me young, or at least too busy to dwell on how young I’m not.   Between scouts and dance and hopscotch matches, and with so many conversations revolving around My Little Pony and Minecraft, I don’t have time to feel old.  When I first became a dad at 38, I thought, “Wow, I’m going to be really old when my kids get out of high school.” But like the TV and radio stations, I find I have a sliding rule for defining “old.”  Thirty-five seems a lot younger to me now than it did in 1975, and hey, 50 is the new 40, right? Just ask any 50-year old.

Anyway, I’m pretty cool with hitting the half-century mark yesterday. And if I do say so myself, I’m holding up pretty well. But I still would’ve preferred a job on the Moon.

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Hitting 50: The Super-Moby Dick of Space

adventure-332Even though I wouldn’t lay eyes on it until it was reprinted in the early 70s, the bizarre tale of the Super-Moby Dick of Space fist hit newsstands in March of 1965.  When I finally did get around to reading it, it left a whale of an impression.  Ahem.

This tale was probably my introduction to the Legion of Super-Heroes, the 30th Century club of super-powered, teen-aged champions of justice.  As one might expect when dealing with a team of teens, the strip was full of emotional drama drawing on themes of alienation, romantic longing, betrayal, rejection and hurt feelings.  But there were also surprisingly darker forays into profound loss and death.  For instance, Triplicate Girl could split into three copies of herself until the story where one of her selves was killed, necessitating a name change to “Duo Damsel.”  On another mission, founding member Lightning Lad was struck dead and stayed that way for several months, before being resurrected in a cycle that would come to define comics in the 70s and beyond, but was still fairly novel (if not pioneering) at this early stage.  As the years went on, other Legionnaires would die and stay dead, enough of them that their memorial statues would eventually fill a somber wing of the Legion clubhouse.  Compared to serving in, say, the Justice League, being in the Legion was a very dangerous proposition.

Here in Adventure Comics #332, poor old Lightning Lad gets the short of the stick again, losing an arm in a nod to “Captain Ahab’s” lost leg.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  The story opens with a space-going ore ship attacked by an enormous creature.  In a typical example of Silver Age DC dialog that turns even the most casual utterance into ponderous exposition, one of the crew says, “That colossal space-beast! No one has ever seen anything like it before!”

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While tooling around in his Legion cruiser, Lightning Lad intercepts a distress call from the survivors of the attack and races to the scene.  Zapping the creature with his lightning powers, he finds his own bolts reflected right back at him, only with an added tinge of poison.  His right arm takes the bolts full on, then grows painful and turns green (never a good sign).  The surgeon/scientist called in to help him is forced to amputate Lightning Lad’s arm to save his life.

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Waking to find his arm replaced by a metallic prosthesis (apparently 30th-century medicine has regressed somewhat since Steve Austin’s bionic heyday), Lightning Lad vows to find the Super-Moby Dick and kill it.  As this would constitute a violation of the Legion’s code against killing, his fellow heroes race to find the beast first and neutralize its threat in a non-lethal fashion.  Superboy goes first, but has to retreat when he finds the creature is exuding Kryptonite radiation (naturally).  Then it’s up to Ultra-Boy, a personal favorite of mine due to the novel nature of his powers: basically he has all the powers of Superboy, but he can only use one at a time.  So it is that to use his super-strength against the Super-Moby Dick, he has to turn off his invulnerability, meaning he needs a space suit to survive in the vacuum of space.

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Note artist John Forte draws the creature smaller here than at the start of the story.  This is one of the many quirks of Forte’s art; objects and characters change scale constantly to suit his needs.  Here it’s a more dramatic difference than usual, as “Moby” goes from the size of an aircraft carrier to that of a crosstown bus.

When Ultra-Boy, too, fails in his solo mission, it’s time for an organized assault.  Lightning Lad claims the right of leadership based on a Legion by-law that says the member most familiar with a threat should lead the team that faces it.  But for him, it’s very much personal.

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Now we veer a bit into “Caine Mutiny” territory as the Legionnaires begin to fear for Lightning Lad’s sanity, with his growing obsession turning him into a tyrant.  Pursuit of the creature takes the team to a populated asteroid where the humanoid inhabitants have mineral-based flesh, making them likely snacks for the metal-eating Super-Moby Dick.  Superboy and Colossal Boy sneak off to try their own assault on the beast, but fail at the last moment as Lightning Lad arrives to chew them out and scares off Moby with the noise of his rocketship.

Finally, the team has had enough and holds a formal meeting to remove Lightning Lad from command, but while the others meet, he sneaks off and confronts the creature alone.  The other heroes arrive just in time to see him launch a lightning-powered attack, this time with his electrical bolts greatly amplified by a device in his new metal arm.  Under this onslaught, however, the Super-Moby Dick is not killed, but instead is reduced to tiny size, and Lightning Lad reveals this was in fact his true intent.  It turns out that in an exchange neither the team nor we readers were allowed to witness, the doctor who gave LL his new arm, and who has been traveling with the team this whole time, confessed he was responsible for this whole sorry mess, having performed an experiment on a tiny ore-eating creature that increased it from harmless lizard-size into full-on Godzilla proportions.

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Of course, Lightning Lad couldn’t just TELL his teammates that he intended to shrink, not kill the beast, because then where would we get our drama?  In retrospect, this is probably the most interesting aspect of the whole story: the fact that the central concern is not so much the threat to life and property posed by the Super Moby Dick, and how to stop it, but rather the disturbing prospect that Lightning Lad may have lost his marbles.  This is because more than most — and arguably any — DC comics of the period, the Legion of Super-Heroes revolved around relationships, or more specifically the constant fear that relationships will be shattered; friendship ended, love lost, “that old gang of mine” broken up.  And as this example shows, generating all that angst often meant straining credulity with highly contrived and implausible plot twists.  It’s also interesting to note that the main focus of the Legion here is less “how do we get rid of this monster” than it is “how do we keep Lightning Lad from killing it?”, which strikes me as fairly progressive for the time.

Not that any of that mattered to me when I first read it.  No, what stuck with the young me was the powerful image of that reptilian, winged “whale” with the angry face, flying around and eating everything in sight (and the fact that it was drawn in Forte’s bizarre, cartoony style just made it more creepy, not less).  That, and the disturbing loss of Lightning Lad’s right arm; “not a hoax, not a dream,” this was a very real maiming of a core character, and a change to the status quo (well, at least for a couple of years, until a scientist found a way to grow the kid a new, living arm).  Interestingly, considering how unhinged it left him at first, Lightning Lad is pretty laid back about his lost arm by story’s end.

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The writer for this story was Edmund Hamilton, my favorite Superman writer of the Silver Age and author of numerous great science fiction short stories and novels.  He may have been onto something, as Melville’s Moby Dick would prove highly adaptable to science fiction in general and Star Trek in particular.  In the Original Series episode “The Doomsday Machine” a haunted and deranged Starship captain loses his own ship to a mechanized space leviathan and nearly sacrifices the Enterprise, as well.  In “Obsession”, it’s Captain Kirk’s turn to play Ahab as he chases a cloud-based creature through space while his crew begins to wonder if he’s gone off his nut.  And in the film, The Wrath of Khan, the titular villain not only quotes Melville’s novel but does so in a way that suggests he understands and accepts that he’s playing the Ahab role, pursuing an obsession that will probably — and indeed eventually does — lead him to ruin.  (His last words, directed at Kirk, are a quote from the novel: “…To the last, I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart, I stab at thee; for hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee.” ) A generation later, on a later iteration of the Enterprise, Captain Picard’s bloodlust toward the Borg is only cooled when someone compares him to Ahab.  Realizing to his horror it’s an apt comparison, Picard quotes another passage (“And he piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the rage and hate felt by his whole race. If his chest had been a cannon, he would have shot his heart upon it.“)

Obviously the epic nature of the Moby Dick tale is a perfect match for space opera, and the Legion of Super-Heroes milks it pretty thoroughly here.  All in all, it was a pretty powerful introduction to the Legion, and the probable genesis of my long-lasting fascination with the team , despite — or maybe because of — those utterly daft images of a grumpy-faced fish-lizard, flying through space on little, red bat wings.

Hitting 50: Wally Wood’s Daredevil

dd7Fifty years ago this month, fans of Marvel Comics’ Daredevil (assuming there were any) found a surprise on the cover of issue #7: a whole new look for the world’s greatest blind superhero courtesy of artist Wally Wood.

Daredevil had been launched the year before in a fairly obvious attempt to duplicate the huge success of The Amazing Spider-Man, and indeed the new book was kind of, sort of like the one headlined by the celebrated wall-crawler, only without the cool costume, memorable villains, exciting artwork, interesting plots, sense of humor or general spirit of innovation.  It was, in a nutshell, a sorry mess of a comic that hobbled along for four uninspired issues before the reigns were handed to plotter/artist Wally Wood, a terrifically talented veteran of EC Comics and past collaborator with Jack Kirby on DC’s “Challengers of the Unknown” and the “Sky Masters” newspaper strip.

For his first two issues, Wood did what he could with Daredevil’s original costume, which, like the rest of the feature, was a half-hearted affair; yellow tights with black trunks, boots and gloves and up top — just to ruin anything close to a clean design — a black wife-beater emblazoned with a capital letter “D.”  You know, for “Daredevil.”  A devil’s-head or some other demonic symbol would’ve been more eye-catching, but in 1964 maybe it would have also been controversial.  Anyway, a pair of horns on Daredevil’s yellow cowl were a nod to the “devil” angle.  The eyeholes, meanwhile, were solid black, threatening to ruin the one thing DD did have going for him; a rock-solid secret ID as a blind attorney.

Yellow isn’t often chosen as the predominant hue for superhero costumes, and this one showed why.  Indeed, in Daredevil’s case it makes no sense on any level.  It isn’t a color anyone really associates with “devils” and considering the character is billed as “The Man Without Fear,” it seems totally counter-intuitive to dress him in the one color that’s synonymous with cowardice.  However, in a way the outfit did make sense in that you could easily believe a blind man put it together.

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Upon his arrival with issue #5, Wood immediately began tweaking the costume, rounding off the gloves and the wife-beater’s collar and changing the chest emblem to a pair of interlocking D’s.  With issue #7 he went whole hog and gave Matt Murdock the first real break he’d ever had, streamlining the entire outfit in head-to-toe crimson, removing the extra lines created by the old trunks and tank top and creating a sleek new form that finally reflected the nimble, gymnastic nature of the character while also providing the vaguely satanic connotations his name had always suggested.

I don’t want to give the impression that an attractive costume is all it takes to make a character work, or indeed that the only thing wrong with Daredevil up til now had been the artwork.  But with Wood at the art board, things finally began to fall into place; Matt Murdock and his love interest Karen Page looked glamorous and elegant, people began moving naturally, even gracefully, and places and objects became more solid and real.

Just to give an indication of how dire things had been, consider this pre-Wood sequence from Daredevil #2, wherein our hero takes on a ring of car thieves with a…well, let’s say unique battle plan.

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That’s right, with a truck bearing down on him at top speed, Daredevil somehow stretches a tire around a car engine, lifts said engine, lies down with the engine on his chest and uses the tire like a giant rubber band to launch the engine at the truck. Keep in mind Daredevil’s only super-powers are a heightened sense of smell, hearing, taste and touch and a “radar sense” that lets him detect objects around him in much the way a bat uses its “sonar.”  There are never any claims he has super-strength, but even if he did, this maneuver is strictly the stuff of Bugs Bunny cartoons.   If an eight-year-old included this sequence in a homemade comic, it’d be cute, but here it’s just pathetic (besides, what 8-year-old would draw that poorly?)

Admittedly, things weren’t always THAT bad, but this sequence symbolizes the lack of attention or effort given to these early issues.  The general impression is that Daredevil’s being ignored in favor of big guns like The Fantastic Four and Spider-Man; his creative team seems to be just churning out a by-the-numbers comic without any emotional or mental involvement whatever, sometimes apparently not even sure which character they’re working on and what exactly he can and can’t do. Once Wood arrives, the dramatic improvement in art alone reassures us that finally someone actually cares.

So anyway, after two issues of fighting forgettable menaces like The Matador and Mr Fear, things are ramped up considerably in Issue 7 with the arrival of Prince Namor, aka the Sub-Mariner.  Aside from a comedic cameo by the Fantastic Four in issue 3, this is the closest thing to an “A-Lister” we’ve seen in these pages yet.

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In one of those kooky plot points typical of early Marvel, Namor’s decided that before simply taking over the surface world by force, he’ll try filing a legal claim, suing the entire human race.  So he picks a law firm at random and ends up, naturally, at the offices of Nelson and Murdock.  Matt and Foggy try to explain to Namor the impossibility of his plan, so Namor decides there’s one sure way to have his day in court: trash the city until he’s arrested and brought before a judge.  Daredevil tries to stop him, but Round 1 does not go well, and it’s only through the good sportsmanship of Namor that our hero avoids death by drowning.

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Namor does get his day in court, but the wheels of justice grind slowly and the Atlantean prince isn’t famous for his patience.  Soon enough he escapes court custody and gets back to his campaign of mayhem, and the U.S. Army is mobilized to battle him on the streets of New York.  Knowing such a conflict could lay waste to much of the city and lead to untold casualties, Daredevil convinces the troops to give him a chance to stop Namor first.  And so the decidedly lopsided contest resumes for a couple more rounds, with Daredevil using brainwork and acrobatic skills to avoid being demolished by Namor’s superior strength, while employing any weapon at hand (including a fleet of construction vehicles and heavy machinery) to deliver blows which Namor shrugs off with ease.  At one point, DD lassoes Namor but gets more than he bargained for when the Sub-Mariner takes flight, leading to this interesting tactic that brings him back down to Earth.

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This was where I first learned that those little ankle wings were what gave Namor the power of flight.  It’s one of those examples of kooky Golden Age “logic” they usually tried to avoid mentioning in the Marvel Age.  Anyway, as the fight goes on longer than Namor ever imagined possible, he alternates between angry irritation and a growing, grudging respect for this hopelessly outclassed opponent who nonetheless just refuses to give up.  When Daredevil tries one last desperate gambit, jolting Namor with live electrical wires from a broken lamppost, the Sub-Mariner is only briefly dazed, but DD goes down for the count.

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Finally, out of respect for his opponent’s valor, Namor avoids further conflict with the surface world’s military forces and returns to Atlantis, putting off his vengeance for another day.

One of the cool things about Marvel heroes is that they were allowed to lose from time to time, and in my opinion it never worked better than it does here.  Daredevil never has a chance against an opponent of Namor’s might, but that doesn’t stop him from giving everything he has.  Finally we’re getting something to hang our hats on, some indication of what it is that makes Daredevil special.  Up ’til now, he’s been doing pretty much what any non-powered hero could do (except for that bit with the engine) and the only “hook” has the “irony” angle: “I wonder what they’d say if they knew a blind man was doing this!”  Now we see that what defines Daredevil is his indomitable will, his refusal to ever give up.  Being the “Man Without Fear” doesn’t mean he’s never scared, it means he never lets his fear stop him from doing what he knows must be done. It’s a trait he’ll call upon frequently as he pursues a career as an essentially non-powered player in a game made for supermen, gods and monsters.   Here, Daredevil’s “mere mortal” status is what brings him (very painful) “victory”: if he’d had super-strength or other powers, the fight would’ve dragged on and torn up the city and the outcome still would have been in doubt.  As it stands, he takes one for the team (or the city, anyway), and finds the one way to make Namor stand down.

This brings up another neat angle of the Marvel Age:  if you substituted any two other characters in this scenario, it might have all played out very differently, but Daredevil and the Sub-Mariner have very distinct personalities that drive the story in the direction it’s meant to go:  Matt Murdock is a man of courage and will, and Namor is a man of nobility and honor, and mixed together this is what results.  By accenting the clash of wills and personalities rather than muscles and powers, the story is elevated to something more interesting than a comparatively “even” match between Namor and, say, the Hulk.  For Marvel, the problem has always been “how do we find a way to pit two heroes against each other without one of them ending up the loser?”  This story remains their most elegant solution to that quandry: Daredevil wins by losing.

Which is not to say that everything is honkey-dorey from here on in.  The next issue brings us another D-List villain, the infamous Stiltman, then we get a two-parter with the combined “might” of Ape Man, Cat Man, Bird Man and Frog Man (!) and then Wood is gone.  The art will reach a few more high points later at the hands of John Romita and Gene Colan, but the stories will rarely be any great shakes, and for the most part DD will labor on as a mediocre also-ran until Frank Miller shows up in the early 80s, bringing a mix of Eisner-esque storytelling techniques, Mickey Spillane toughness and kung-fu, ninja hi-jinks to finally elevate our hero into the big leagues.  Still, it’s hard to imagine our boy Matt lasting that long without the boost he got from Wally Wood at this crucial, early stage.

 

 

 

Hitting 50: Strange Tales #131

Well, I guess it happens to all of us sooner or later (if we’re lucky):  this is the year I hit the big 5-0.  No doubt the AARP literature is already on its way to my mailbox.

st131Rather than count the lines on my face and the gray hairs on my head, I figured it might be more fun to examine other things hitting 50 this year, and since comics are never far from my mind, they’d seem as good a place to start as any.  This month, I’ll look at Strange Tales #131, bearing an April cover date but actually on newsstands in January, 1965.

The official “star” of the book is the Human Torch, who as the presumed fan-favorite member of the Fantastic Four had been spun off into his own feature.  Soon enough and for decades to come, he’d be overshadowed by the actual fan-favorite, his team-mate Benjamin J. Grimm, aka the Thing.  On the cover of this issue, Ben and Johnny take on the awesome evil of…The Mad Thinker?

Trust your instincts, it’s about as boring as it sounds.  Frankly, the Torch’s strip was pedestrian at best and not my area of interest here (In a few months, it’d be shelved to make way for superspy Nick Fury).  However, relegated to the back of the book was the infinitely superior Dr. Strange, which is where I’m focusing my attentions today.

As Master of the Mystic Arts, Stephen Strange straddled the divide between Strange Tales’ origins as a showcase for tales of the supernatural and its later transition to superheroics.  Decked out in primary hues and constantly moving from frying pan to fire, Dr. Strange checked off several of the requisites for the superhero genre, but there was much more at work here than your typical spandex-clad fisticuffs; this strip owed just as much to H.P. Lovecraft’s pulps, German expressionist films and, visually, the paintings of Salvadore Dali.

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As primarily a DC kid, I never totally warmed to the “feet of clay” heroes at Marvel, but Dr Strange was the exception.  Originally a supremely gifted but utterly heartless surgeon, Strange suffered an accident that stripped him of his surgical skills and personal fortune and reduced him to a wandering bum in search of a miracle cure.  What he eventually found was a new sense of purpose and calling that completely reversed his entire personality, turning him into a selfless servant of humanity.  It was a powerful story of redemption and personal transformation and one of my favorite origins of all time.  My only regret is that when they finally get around to the Dr Strange movie, they’ll find all that good stuff’s already been strip-mined by other superhero films:  arrogant, egocentric jerk gets in touch with his inner hero (Iron Man, Green Lantern, Green Hornet) after an arduous quest to Tibet (Batman Begins), etc.  But Dr Strange did it best.

In this particular issue, Strange is on the run from his old nemesis Baron Mordo, who has somehow amped up his own sorcerous powers to incredible new levels (we will learn that he’s being lent power from the far more formidable Dread Dormammu) and has dispatched an army of unearthly wraiths and human spies to scour the globe in search of our hero and their mutual teacher, the Ancient One.

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This storyline runs for several issues and remains one of my favorites despite, or maybe because of the fact that the usual formula is shaken up.  Strange’s awesome costume — his scarlet cloak of levitation, blue tunic and mystical amulet the Eye of Agamotto — are AWOL as Strange disguises himself in a blue suit and hat, while the Dali-esque vistas of alien dimensions give way to the Earthly streets of Hong Kong.  Strange himself, vastly outnumbered and not even sure exactly what it is he’s up against, is strictly on the defensive throughout, surviving by his wits and cunning.

When human spies spot our hero, the extra-dimensional wraiths ramp up the search in Hong Kong, passing through walls and floors, ships and cars while mere mortals carry on their everyday lives, oblivious to the drama unfolding around them.

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One of the recurring themes through the Dr Strange strip — at least in these early Stan Lee and Steve Ditko days — is that the forces of magical evil are around us all the time, with only the courage and skill of Stephen Strange standing between us and a fate too horrible to imagine.  In fact, it’s often not entirely clear whether menaces are literally invisible or whether they’re so bizarre and mind-blowing that our brains simply refuse to register them.  Anyway, the neat part is that Strange is fighting this war under our noses, and never looking for thanks or recognition.  Indeed, on the few occasions when people do twig to what’s going on, he’s sure to wipe their memory of the whole episode.  This was one of the appeals of old spy movies for me — the idea that high-stakes battles are being fought all around us without us noticing — and here it serves to underscore Strange’s personal transformation from a selfish lout who prizes personal rewards and recognition over charity and compassion, into a selfless messiah who labors on humanity’s behalf without thought of reward.  In fact, many regard him as “that magician kook in Greenwich Village”…and that’s fine with him.

This is an aspect I’d love to see explored in the Dr Strange movie: spectacular action scenes unfolding around (and through!) unsuspecting bystanders, and a complete lack of acknowledgement from the public that he’s done anything at all. At the very least, I don’t want to see Avengers-style mayhem with folks running in panic as giant demons knock over buildings and stomp cars.  That would be missing the whole point.

Arguably the most memorable visual in this story comes as Strange is making his getaway on a passenger jet and one of Mordo’s spies discovers him (hey, “Wraiths On A Plane!”).  Like air travel doesn’t make me nervous enough, already.

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Here we get a (colorless) glimpse of Strange’s normal costume as his astral self separates from his physical body to do battle with the wraith.  This was a common stunt in the Ditko days, and it’s interesting that his “magic suit” has a “spirit” while his street duds do not.  Logically it would just be Strange himself who has an astral self (not his clothes), but you couldn’t exactly have a naked hero floating around in a 1965 comic.  Anyway, banishing (destroying?) the wraith, Strange, still in astral form, realizes he wouldn’t look all that different from the other wraiths with a slight change to his costume, so he disguises himself as a baddie and waves off  the others, allowing him to escape on the plane.

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And so our hero lives to fight another day.  The serial has a couple more installments to go, but that’s all we get here in January, 1965. Not that I’m complaining: there’s more packed into these ten pages than you’d get in three issues of a modern comic.

Verdict?  Stephen Strange is still looking awesome 50 years on, with just a dash of gray at the temples and despite that pencil-thin, Ronald Coleman mustache that was already two decades out of date in 1965.  Off and on, other writers and artists would treat Strange and his fans to other awesome adventures, but on the whole he never topped his glory days at the hands of Stan and Steve.  I’m looking forward to seeing what Marvel can do with the guy on screen.  Casting Benedict Cumberbatch was a good first step; he can do heroic, he can do “selfish egomaniac” and he’s probably got the best voice in the biz for uttering phrases like “By the Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth!”