Friday, 29 August 2008

The Coming Of The Avengers!

Avengers #1, September 1963
(By Lee, Kirby, and Dick Ayers)

So, what do you do when you've got a whole raft of superheroes kicking arse and taking names on a regular basis? Team them up, that's what! Taking a leaf from the Distinguished Competition, Stan and Jack decided to take their new generation of superheroes, Thor, Iron Man, Ant-Man, Wasp, and the Hulk, and shove them in a book together. Interesting to note that they chose not to crowbar Spider-Man into the title, establishing his outsider credentials early on.

But, you might ask, what mighty threat to bring together four of the most exciting heroes of the Marvel Universe together, along with Hank Pym? None other than Thor's evil step-brother, Loki, engaging in that well-known supervillain plot, "Hey, let's you and him fight!" Banished to a remote island for his latest scheme, Loki decides to use the Hulk to destroy Thor

Loki swiftly frames the green goliath, making it appear he attacked a railway line, almost causing a disaster. When news of this hits the papers, teen sidekick, Rick Jones, decides to enlist the Fantastic Four to help his big pal. But...

(Donald Blake is, as longtime readers know, the secret identity of the Mighty Thor!)

Thor races off to find the Hulk. However, Loki's cleverly guided radio transmission has gone awry.

Before you know it, every spare hero in New York has descended on the southwest United States, and a potential team-up is in the offing. Fortunately, Loki can always count on Thor being a jackass.

And where is the real Hulk? Glad you asked.

Apparently, the owners of the circus, in a world which constantly doubts the existence of the Hulk, are readily prepared to believe that a giant green robot with superstrength just happened to wander into town, and have swiftly hired "Mechano" to entertain the masses. Putting his stronger allies to shame, Ant-Man decides to take down the Hulk single-handedly, with only an army of ants to help him.

Needless to say, 10 million ants are no match for an angry Hulk, so the capture plan rapidly goes wonky. Iron Man decides to have a go, but...

Meanwhile, in a leap of comic book logic, Thor has fathomed that Loki is behind his trip to New Mexico, and has gone to confront him, not realising that this is part of Loki's plan.

That Loki's a cunning one, right enough, though why he didn't just post Thor a letter inviting him to come and visit him, I'm not sure. Anyway, to no-one's real surprise, Thor beats up the trolls, grabs up his brother, and returns to Earth, just in time to stop Iron Man and the Hulk beating seven bells out of each other. Shame.

As the heroes are about to go their seperate ways, Ant-Man makes the speech the readers have been waiting 22 pages to hear:

So there you have it. Loki's cunning ruse, intended to destroy his brother, ends up bringing about his own downfall, and giving Thor some new pals to play with. That there, folks, is hubris. Can't beat a good bit of hubris.

Master Of Black Magic!

Strange Tales #110, July 1963
(By Lee and Ditko, or Ditko and Lee, if you prefer.)

Today we look at the first appearance of Dr Stephen Strange, from when he was merely the star of a backup strip in Strange Tales, the Human Torch's feature-title.

As you see from the picture above, this is an unusual origin, in that it's not being drawn by Jack Kirby. Instead, the quiet man of Marvel Comics, Steve Ditko, who would conjure up some of his (and Marvel's as whole) weirdest stuff for this title, once Dr Strange gained co-star status. But for now, this is a simple five page strip, in which the good Doctor helps a man get over some bad dreams.

There's some lovely noir art going on here:

Yes, kids, that man there is smoking. Were this the eighties, that would indicate this man is a wrong'un. Were it being published today, the cigarette would have been clumsily whited out, cos Joe Quesada hates smoking. But, this being the sixties, there is no hidden message, no subtext, nothing.

Anyway, Dr Strange decides to pop into his client's dream and check out what's what. To achieve this, though, the Doctor must first pay a visit to his master, the (currently unnamed) Ancient One. It's astral time!

Bit of foreshadowing then from the old boy, you see? Also, a subtle hint for how this adventure will wrap up.

Dropping into a trance, Dr Strange enters the mind of his client, where he meets a sinister chained man...

But wait, that's not all! Not only does this tale see the first appearance of the master of the mystic arts, but it also features the premiere appearance of the master of evil dreams, Nightmare! Here he is, folks!

Believe it or not, Nightmare will never again be so scary as he is now. And over the years, he'll put in a lot of appearances, most of them lame.

So, whilst Dr Strange is astrally arguing with Nightmare, his client wakes up, realises that the Doc has learned his dark secret, and decides to kill him. God bless America and its easily obtained handguns..!

Facing certain death, and unable to dodge past the oh-so-scary Nightmare, Dr Strange cries like a girl to his master, who decides to intervene.

Returning to his body (leaving Nightmare cursing him in true Scooby-Doo fashion), the Doctor has a quiet word with his somewhat ungrateful client.

And there you have it. No origin story yet, that wouldn't come along until 1968, when Roy Thomas would deliver Strange's origin, but in five pages, Stan and Steve pretty much tell us everything we need to know about our hero.

The Origin Of Doctor Octopus, In Six Panels

Amazing Spider-Man #3, July 1963
(by Lee and Ditko)

This can't end well...

Cue 40 years of getting beaten on by Spider-Man...

The Creature From Kosmos!

Tales To Astonish #44, June 1963
(By Lee, H.E. Huntley, Kirby, and Heck)

You may think that in the sixties, the Marvel Bullpen chose to focus all their efforts on their burgeoning line of superhero comics. You'd be wrong. Come with me, reader, as we witness the first appearance of the winsome Wasp!

Lonely widowed scientist-turned-superhero.

Mysterious visitor, and a beautiful girl!

Unpure thoughts!

"My dad's dead! Must find new daddy-figure!"

Thank god this was the 60s, or we'd really be worried for Janet.

Having rashly blown his secret identity, I wonder what old Hank'll if she says no.

* Insert your own cheap gag here.

Watch out for those giant scissors, Janet!

Boy, 60s women really went for those stuffy scientist-types, didn't they? Was Marvel Comics sponsored by NASA?

"My wife's dead! Must find new, strangely similar, wife!"

Aw, how sweet. I bet they live happily ever after!

Meet The Howling Commandoes

Sgt. Fury #1, May 1963
(by Lee and Kirby)

Famously, Stan Lee bet his publisher that he could write a war comic in the Mighty Marvel Manner style, and that it would be a success, despite war comics being virtually a dead art. This was the result.

These, then, are the heroes of today's tale, led by Nicholas Fury, who would go on to be one of the most famous recurring characters in the Marvel Universe. At this point, though, he's just Sergeant Nick Fury, bad-tempered bastich in charge of a squad of hard-boiled heroes, who are fighting a lone battle against the Nazi hordes. Or something. Here he is now, interrupting his men as they take part in a mud-fight.

Our heroes make their way to France, to rescue a French resistance leader who knows when the Allies plan to launch their counter-offensive against the Third Reich. Their plane comes under attack, and the Howling Commandos bail out, making sure to save their pilot.

Touching down in occupied France, Sgt Fury and his men quickly find themselves some Nazis to kill. Even a tank won't stop these brave boys!

Escaping from the German soldiers, the Commandos hook up with the French resistance (recognisable by their cute little berets, naturally), and set off to rescue the captured resistance leader, Monsieur LeBrave (subtle naming there, Stan!), who is being tortured for information by the evil Nazis. Just to make it clear how important M. LeBrave's information is considered, Der Fuehrer himself phones up to do some shouting.

Fortunately, Sgt Fury and crew are on their way. Disguising themselves as farmers, the Howlers infiltrate the Nazi's fortress, and the rescue is on! Outnumbered by German stormtroopers, it's not looking good for Fury and his men, so it's down to the (strangely shirtless) sergeant to save the day.

With Fury apparently dead, the rest of the Howling Commandos, aided by the sultry Marie of ze resistance, manage to find the resistance leader, who, would you believe it, is Marie's father. However, it may be too late, as the Germans have them surrounded.

Yes, like all supervillains, the Nazis can't resistance an opportunity to gloat, and have painstakingly avoided killing any of the Howling Commandos. With the Gestapo threatening to kill them, will the resistance leader crumble and give up his vital information?

Our heroes manage to escape from the Nazi castle, and live to fight preposterous battles another day. Hooray!

The Voice Of Doom!

Tales To Astonish #42, April 1963
(by Lee, Lieber and Heck)

Not all super-villains are motivated by an insane desire to conquer the world, or by the need to seek revenge on the nearest hero to hand. Some, like today's villain, are spurred on by arrogance. Come meet The Voice!

His tale begins as he arrives in New York, armed with a dangerous soap-box, and proceeds to demonstrate his hypnotic voice.

And the origin of The Voice's powers? Our old friend radiation, transmitted into a struggling radio announcer's throat from a nearby atomic laboratory, giving him the power to convince anyone of anything. Some power, huh? Bet if you had such abilities, you'd use them to, say, have yourself declared Emperor of the World or something, right? Not our boy, though...

So, anyway, in a world populated by such titans as Thor, the Hulk, and Iron Man, the Voice decides to prove his mettle by picking a fight with the guy who makes himself very small and talks to insects.

With a go-getter attitude like that, it's no wonder this fellow, wouldn't be seen again for over twenty years. So, the good people of New York quickly form a lynch-mob, to hunt Ant-Man down. Unfortunately, he can make himself small, so they can't find him, but in the process of fleeing, Ant-Man loses his trusty cyber-helmet thing, which was the only reason that the Voice couldn't hypnotise him in the first place. D'oh.

You cad, sir! However can the Ant-Man get out of this calamity?

Answer: he can't. At least, not without help.

Not yet thwarted, the Voice decides to get himself some tv coverage, showing up at a news studio to make a broadcast to the world. Finally he's wising up, and can use his powers to conquer the world, right?


Yes, he's still determined to fix that pesky Ant-Man once and for all. Fortunately, this is America, and, unable to think of any other way to beat him, Hank Pym makes a quick stop at the Quik-Stop and picks gets himself a gun.

No sooner has the Voice retracted his statement, then he starts to lose his voice, and Ant-Man reveals that he's exposed him to a virus which causes laryngitis. Poor old Voice tries again to turn people against Ant-Man, but with his voice all croaky, no-one falls for it, and he's run out of town on a rail. And good riddance!