Saturday, 31 January 2009

The Old Order Changeth!

Avengers #16, May 1965.
(By Lee, Kirby & Ayers)

Well, here we are then, the first in what will become a very regular event in the Avengers, the "changing of the guard" issue. Common as muck now, back in the day this must have been a bit of a puzzler for the readership, who'd got used to the adventures of Marvel's Mightiest Heroes, and the Wasp. Off we go.

Our story picks up where the last one left off, with the Avengers polishing off the battered remains of the Masters Of Evil. Here they are.

That there, folks, is the Melter (with the stripy tights), the Black Knight (with the horse), the Executioner (with the skirt), and the Enchantress (with the Executioner). They are unaware that the reason Captain America is missing, is because he's in South America, dropping a large number of rocks on the bad guys' leader, Baron Zemo.

So confident are the Masters of their ability to win the day, that they stand around while Thor twirls his magic hammer; never a good idea.

With the Masters of Evil beaten, and with Cap stranded in South America, the remaining Avengers (Thor having shot off to take care of some private business) meet to decide what to do next. Go rescue Cap, you say? Guess again.

What, just like that? Where's your gumption? Your fighting spirit? Or has Tony Stark had a meeting with his accountants, and found out just how much it's costing to keep his Superfriends on the payroll?

Before the Avengers can make good on their plan to abandon Captain America in the Amazon and retire, they receive a mystery visitor. A visitor who leaves only one clue: an arrow. Wonder if Iron Man can work out who it is...

Hawkeye then spins a sob story about how he's just been misunderstood this whole time, a pawn of the Black Widow and her commie masters. Then he does a trick shot with his arrow. And then the Avengers hire him on the spot. Somehow, I'd have expected the interview process to be more formal. At my work, it takes three months of credit checks, police checks, and god knows what other checks, to even get in the door, and these guys are giving Hawkeye the keys to Avengers Mansion with barely a twenty-second chinwag? Some might say they're being indecently hasty in their rush to retire.

Having hired a two-bit hood to replace them, they next move onto a would-be world conquerer.

I mean, what?!? At this point, the Avengers have only fought Namor a couple of times, but he's gone toe-to-toe with everyone from Daredevil to Spider-Man, and recently led an invasion of New York! Sixties superheroes presumably didn't worry so much about public relations. Ah well, perhaps after he's conquered the surface world, he'll be ready to join up.

Who's next?

Yes, it's everyones' favourite members of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, taking a relaxing time after the dissolution of their gang of villains (in this month's X-Men #11) I don't know what I like more, Quicksilver's sensible yet stripy jumper, or that they feel the need to get changed into their super-togs before deciding to try for membership in the Avengers.

Odd though, wouldn't you really expect them, if they've finally gotten the oppoortunity to join the forces of good, to hang out with their old pals, the X-Men. Or is that speciesist, to think that way. In fact, it's odd to see them contemplating signing up at all, given this exchange, less than a month ago, in that self-same X-Men #11:

Anyway, let's move back to New York, where the Avengers are announcing their latest recruit:

On the one hand, it's comforting that the team actually have some sort of official screening process. On the other hand, it's a bit disconcerting that the Feds didn't pick up on Hawkeye having spent the last few months working with a commie spy. Not to mention that the assembled ladies and gentlemen of the press don't have anything
to say about it. Perhaps part of the American Dream is the crimes of supervillains and mutant terrorists are just never mentioned again, once they've apologised. Like so:

Quicksilver, the fastest man alive, proceeds to race Tony Stark's chauffeur through the streets of New York, and perhaps unsurprisingly, he wins. Which is enough for both him and his sister to get a seat at the big table.

No sooner have the new members settled in, then Captain America finally gets back from South America. Without so much as a "where the hell was my lift home?", Cap welcomes the chaps who'll be joining the team.

Ever get the feeling you've been shafted, Cap? Rick's worked it out, he's smart enough to realise that Paste-Pot Pete and the Vulture would have got a job, if they could pass the qualifying test: showing up.

Anyway, with the new team assembled, it's time to meet the people...

Good question, Hawkeye, although I can't but notice that you don't even mention the Wasp. It was tough being a woman in the sixties, huh?

So there we have them: Cap's Kooky Quartet. As anti-establishment as their predecessors were Republican, things are going to be a mite different round Avengers Mansion from now on...

Saturday, 17 January 2009

The Coming Of The Scorpion!

Amazing Spider-Man #20, January 1965.
(By Lee, Ditko, and Sam Rosen)

Thanks to the wonders of Marvel Tales reprints, this was one of the earliest Spider-Man books that I read, back when I was a nipper. And what a book it is! This book represents Stan and Steve at the height of their combined power, and is as close to perfection as you'll read in a Marvel comic. But don't take my word for it. See for yourself.

Our tale picks up with Peter Parker being stalked by a mysterious stranger, who hasn't reckoned on Pete's Spider-Sense...

I can't get enough of Kirby's "spooky" art. Look at those bags under Peter's eyes; too many late nights?

Meanwhile, whilst Peter Parker's being followed all over town, let's see what's happening at the Daily Bugle, shall we?

Say, that gives JJJ an idea, and before you can say "I have a bad feeling about this", he's got another wacky scheme to bring down Spider-Man.

Our mystery man goes to see his equally mysterious employer, and, hey, whaddaya know?

Yeah, it's a bit of a con, but hey, as reasons for having Peter Parker go, at least it makes sense, reminds us that JJ is a piece of work, and shows us that Mac Gargan is a man who doesn't ask questions. Or an idiot. Possibly both.

Doc Stillwell has some interesting ideas about scientific progress. I'm sure what farmers and botanists are crying out for is fish that can climb trees. Fortunately for Stillwell's bank balance, Jameson has money to burn, and a burning urge to create animal-themed super-powered vigilantes.

I'm not sure what's more odd, that the test subject has to have his head shaved before he can get super-powers, or that neither he nor the mad doctor give any thought at all to the "powers affecting your brain" thing. Actually, the thought that I'm not sure what's more odd, is itself more odd than either of these two things.

Yes, folks, you read that correctly. J. Jonah Jameson, the man who thinks that a brillo-pad haircut and the Hitler moustache is a sensible look, is going into costume design. Stand by...

Well, let's face it, we've seen worse. Although since JJJ intends the Scorpion to be a hero, it's a bit worrying that he's chosen to use a secondary, rather than a primary, colour.

Meantime, what's our hero up to?

He's busy bird-dogging a potential rival for Betty Brant's affections. Ned Leeds, eh? Something tells me we'll be hearing more about that young man later.

Anyway, finally getting into his Spider-suit, our hero goes to confront Jameson, and the Scorpion takes his chance. Soon, our protagonists are beating seven bells out of each other, whilst JJJ watches and gloats.

Meanwhile, in the land of mad science...

I'm oddly reminded of an episode of The simpsons where Dr Hibbert makes reference to being able to detect an "evil gene". Presumably, Dr Stillwell has access to the same evil detection device? Or all scorpions are evil? Or Stillwell's lost the plot? Or all of the above?

Anyway, while Stillwell sets off to undo his mad plan, the Scorpion has made short work of our hero. Time for the old evil gene to kick in.

The Scorpion sets off on a one-man crime spree, whilst Jameson gnashes his teeth in impotent fury. But wait, here comes Doc Stillwell, to save the day.

RIP Dr Farley Stillwell: a surprisingly good climber, but a disappointingly bad aim.

Meantime, Spidey has picked himself up off the floor, and is back for a second go at getting himself killed by the newest supervillain in town. And speaking of the Scorpion, Lee and Ditko give us a neat insight into his mind.

As if these three panels weren't enough to make this the best comic we've looked at so far, we follow up with the very next three panels, which take us into the mind of J. Jonah Jameson.

I mean, this isn't like 90% of the comics of the time. Lee and Ditko aren't just going through the motions here, they are really going for it. Comic creators of today should be made to study this issue, and at least some of them should be beaten to death with a rolled-up copy of it.

Enough of my gushing. After taking another beating from the Scorpion, Spider-Man is pretty much down and out, but his attempt to get his breath back is interrupted, as the Scorpion, realising that JJJ can tell the cops his secret identity, decides to go confront his former sponsor.

That's a boy, Jonah, do the right thing for all the wrong reasons. So, things are looking bad for JJJ - until Spider-Man shows up to save the day.

Spidey takes down the Scorpion, and leaves him for the cops, leaving Jameson to ponder on the irony of the situation. I bet JJ'll be changing his mind about Spider-Man from now on.

Oh well, maybe not. Anyway, the book ends, as all Spider-Man books should end, with our hero getting no credit for the situation, and his Aunt May fussing over his unexplained (to her anyway) bruising. Folks, if this isn't the perfect Spider-Man issue, then I'd like to know what is.

Thursday, 1 January 2009

The Trail Of The Hulk

So, as of October 1964, the Hulk was back headlining a book, albeit as a jobshare with Giant Man. But where has he been, in the 19 months since his own title was cancelled?

Pretty much everwhere, that's where. Don't believe me? Well, let's see. Having defeated the Metal Master (in Incredible Hulk #6), the Hulk had some good news:

The great green ungrateful sod promptly vanished for a while, before Loki decided to use him in his latest scheme to destroy Thor (a story we've covered already), a scheme which results in the Hulk teaming up with the heroes he was supposed to be fighting.

He doesn't hang round long, though, as the Space Phantom sets the Avengers against each other.

Having stomped off, the Hulk, or at least his alter-ego, shows up long enough to make a non-appearance in Tales of Suspense #49:

Hunted by his ex-pals, the Hulk continues to hang around New Mexico, where, as already detailed, he fights the Avengers, teams up with the Sub-Mariner, and invades Gibraltar.

Hopping back to New Mexico, and his trusty underground cave, he Hulk takes a snit because the Avengers have replaced him with Captain America, and promptly (in FF #25) starts trashing New York. This brings him to the attention of the Fantastic Four, particularly the Thing:

And then the Avengers show up to take down the Hulk. Cue one of the less successful super-team team-ups:

After an epic battle (which takes two issues to resolve, compared to the seven issue mini-series and seven or eight tie-ins it would take these days), the Hulk escapes from his foes, and heads back to New Mexico, back to the welcoming arms of his significant others:

Banner and the Rosses put in a guest appearance in Avengers #5, in which the Hulk fights his old pals once again, and inadvertantly helps them defeat the invasion of the Lava Men.

The Hulk next shows up in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man #14, as an surprise guest star - well, it's a surprise to Spidey anyway, even if the appearance is showcased on the cover.

Spidey soon shows him who's boss.

Or not. Somehow the Hulk manages to avoid killing Spider-Man and vanishes again. But his fight makes the papers, which draws the attention of his old team-mate, Giant Man, who decides to track him down, in Tales to Astonish #59:

Taking advantage of the battle, General Ross decides to polish off the Hulk once and for all - with an atomic missile. No, really.

No surprises, he survives, and as a reward, he gets his own comic, courtesy (for the moment, anyway) of Lee and Ditko. And we were poised for purple-trousered action..!