Saturday, August 30, 2008

1st Appearance: The Legion of Super-Heroes (Adventure Comics # 247, April 1958)

Adventure Comics 247 Legion
Adventure #247 (1958) Three strikes and you're out, Superboy!

Doug: As the Legion of Super-Heroes celebrates 50 years in print (albeit in many different versions), I’d like to reflect briefly on my relationship to the team over the past four decades. The first issue I can recall owning was Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes #210, circa 1973. That means the team was only 15 years old when I stumbled upon them. As a youngster I was very much drawn to the “kid” characters; sure I liked the “adult” comics like the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Batman, etc. But I had a fascination with the Teen Titans, the Legion, Marvel’s Nova, and Kid Flash flying “solo” in the Secret Society of Super-Villains. These were just school aged kids like me. Despite the tremendous feats that they could perform, I somehow found it easier to relate to them and looked forward to each and every adventure I could grab at the local newsstand.

But for some reason I just could never get into Superman comics. I guess he was too powerful for my tastes. Having begun to experience Marvel and all of their heroes’ Achilles heels and personality flaws, Superman was to me too perfect, and the different colors of Kryptonite were too silly. But Superboy… Superboy was different. He was a kid like me, and boy – were his friends cool! And, how about those costumes?? Even as an 8-year old there was a sexiness to the Legion. I didn’t know of Dave Cockrum at the time, as Mike Grell was “my” Legion artist. But I think those of us who grew up in the 1970’s are forever in Cockrum’s debt for those far-out and groovy costumes he designed! Who can forget Phantom Girl’s pigtails and bellbottoms? How about Saturn Girl’s swimsuit, or Cosmic Boy’s gravity-defying “cover-up”? Great (although certainly dated!!) stuff…

I recall the first time I saw the Legion in their classic outfits. At a flea market I had come across the reprint series “Legion of Super-Heroes”, which re-presented several classic tales in four issues. I thought – “Ugh… how primitive. These costumes are nothing like what we have today!” But I was intrigued, now fully aware that there was quite a backstory to the team. I began to search for older issues of Superboy and Adventure Comics. The large Limited Collector’s Edition #C-49 (reprinting Adventure Comics #’s 369-370) was and still is a treasure to me. Incidentally, the cover to that LCE doubles as the cover art to the recently-released Legion of Super-Heroes: 1,050 Years of the Future trade paperback. The Legion was taking on a new life due to my discovery of its rich history.

Karen: I started reading Legion around the same time as Doug; the first issue I can recall was Superboy 195, with Wildfire (or ERG-1, as he was originally called). To me the Legion was appealing for a few reasons. One was the teenager angle; another was the outer space adventure; and finally, it was ‘forbidden fruit’, as my family was staunch Marvel fans. So I actually kept my Legion books a secret for a little while!

But Legion was the title that introduced me to the DC Universe, and made me realize that DC wasn’t so bad; in fact, they had a lot of good books! It opened up yet another comic universe for me. Despite all the iterations (mostly needless, in my opinion) the Legion has gone through, I still have a special fondness for the team.

Sharon: I have always loved the Legion. After I discovered Marvel and its far superior comics, I basically stopped reading DC comics—except for the Legion in Adventure (and later, Action). And if you’ll permit me to boast a bit, I even had a couple of letters published in Adventure.

Karen: Wow, Sharon, that’s very cool! Do you recall the issue numbers? My Adventure collection is limited, but I’d love to see those letters.

Doug: Let’s discuss the very beginning of the Legion, in Adventure Comics #247. I really don’t recall when I first read this story; I’m sure it was in the pages of one of DC’s reprint giants during the latter 1970’s. For this discussion, I’ve used both the aforementioned Legion of Super-Heroes: 1,050 Years of the Future tpb and the Legion Archives, Volume I. I did the cross-reference primarily for coloring comparisons – I’ll make reference to this later.

To begin, I much prefer the cover depiction of the Legionnaires to the interior. I am speaking specifically of the names on the front of the youths’ costumes. That seems really silly to me, for someone to run around with their name stitched on the front of their clothing. In addition, while Al Plastino’s interiors are fine and certainly indicative of the pencils of the day, for my money you just can’t beat Curt Swan!! I just felt there was a truly youthful air about the faces on the cover. The Legion kids really did look like they were in that 12-13 year-old age range. Maybe that’s too young, but the cover gives that impression. Also of note at the beginning of this tale is DC’s Silver Age policy of a splash page that isn’t really a story page, but serves almost as a “second cover” – another grab for the potential buyer. However, while it might be true that not every cover actually contained elements of the story within, these splash pages always did.

Karen: Ugh, yes the names on the costumes are just so dorky. I think it’s another sign that the books definitely were aimed at a much younger audience. I agree about Curt Swan’s art: it looks very simple and unadorned now, but it has a classic feel to it (and I love how his Superman looks big!)

Sharon: Surprisingly, the original costumes do have the classic “chevrons”- -but having the names displayed on their chests is too much, as both of you have stated. Not to mention the placards describing their powers (“super thought-casting”). Well, as you mentioned, since the target audience was kids, I guess everything had to be spelled out—literally.

The costumes’ coloring is jarring. Okay, Cos has his familiar pale pink (at least for his shirt), but Saturn Girl and Lightning Lad—excuse me, Lightning Boy—just look so strange. With the red and yellow costume, Garth looks like Sun Boy!

As for the art, Curt was the man. He gave a very classic look to the Legion, especially when inked by George Klein. When I think of the Legion, I think of them as depicted by the Swan-Klein team. Klein was also the definitive John Buscema inker, IMO.

Doug: As to the story itself: it’s so dated now, so stuck in the 1950’s… but I just love it! It’s cute, quaint, and dare I say – wholesome? So unlike what is on the stands today. But, while I would not presume to say that this story would sell were it issued now, I would say that its elements of feel-good, happy ending, and a little mystery easily solved would be a welcome respite from today’s anti-heroes and blurred morality. But I digress…

Specifically in regard to the 1950’s elements: the Legion’s time bubble is interesting in comparison to other means of time travel in the comics, notably Marvel’s Dr. Doom time platform. Both are means to an end, but an interesting visual contrast nonetheless. I also liked the scene at the soda fountain, the lecture hall (didn’t they have any sense that one day students would learn from podcasts?? Ha!), and the tongue-in-cheek reference to Jules Verne’s “Around the World in 80 Minutes” – things that original buyers of this comic could certainly relate to.

Sharon: Without a doubt the story (like much of DC at the time) is geared toward a very young audience (and one that would “recycle” after five years as kids outgrew comics). The notion of belonging to a “club” is very appealing to kids. And the dialogue is ultra-expository, to ensure the story is clear enough for young readers (“when I clap my hands, I produce lightning!”)

Karen: I really have to remind myself of the year (1958) and the audience that this book was aimed at, because it’s a pretty simplistic, even nonsensical story. For the benefit of folks who have never read it, let me recap: Saturn Girl, Cosmic Boy, and Lightning Boy (not Lad yet) come to Smallville and invite Superboy to try out for their super-hero club. They compete in tests against him and all three beat the boy of steel. The poor kid is nearly in tears (!) when they reveal it was all a test to see how he’d handle defeat – I guess, they really just say it was an initiation test! I’m not sure what message they were trying to get across to kids – treat your friends like crap and then later tell them it was all a test? It’s not the most likeable presentation of these new characters.

Sharon: Superboy sure is super-sensitive. His whining, his shame (“How will I ever tell them in Smallville I flunked the Super-Hero club?”), his tears—give me a break!

Karen: well, that’s no surprise; it seems like over the last few years I see Superman crying on almost every cover!

Doug: The main body of the first Legion story is somewhat typical DC formulaic storytelling. If anyone has had the opportunity to read the Legion’s second appearance from Adventure Comics #267, it has a similar plot device. Superboy (and other DC characters of this era) is just used and abused. I guess it was the only way the authors could figure to have their heroes seem as less than gods – to just be mean to them!

I mentioned above that I referred to a second version of this story, in order to compare the coloring. On page 11 of the story, after Superboy has been accepted to the ranks of the “Super-Hero Club” – nowhere within the story are they referred to as the Legion, something I found very odd – there are other kids present in the room. The young green fellow (and yes, he’s green in any version I can get hold of) can be no one other than Brainiac-5, and it certainly looks as though Mon-el is standing behind him. While it would be some time before these characters would be introduced as we know them, this was a nice bit of historical continuity for me to discover. I only wonder if later creators were aware of this.

Sharon: The kid certainly looks like Brainy: blond hair, pale green skin, and even the purple utilitarian costume! (I am basing this on the version that appears in the Legion of Super-Heroes: 1,050 Years of the Future trade paperback Doug mentioned.)

Karen: Since Mon-El didn’t appear until 1961, I think that may just be a case of coincidence, or maybe the colorists on the reprints were having fun. I’d assume the same with the Brainiac 5 (it’s taxing my memory, but wasn’t he the tenth recruit or so?).

Sharon: As far as I know, Brainy joined the Legion in a Supergirl story that is just as simplistic as this one. Check out Action Comics #276, cover date May 1961, “Supergirl’s Three Super Girl-Friends.” For the record, the gal pals are Saturn Girl, Phantom Girl, and Triplicate Girl. Supergirl is bemoaning her lack of friends (male and female) until the Legion trio shows up. They invite her to reapply for membership (she’d been rejected before—don’t ask why—but if you’re really curious, see Action #267, August 1960). Anyway, she meets Brainiac 5 and thinks he looks an awful lot like—gasp!—Brainiac (why, just because of the green skin??). Brainiac 5 proves he’s nothing like the evil 20th century villain and he wins her heart. Brainy and Supergirl are both inducted into the Legion and he asks her to stay in the 30th century and “be my girl.”

But there’s more! She returns to the 20th century and runs into Jerro the mer-boy. So at the story’s end, Supergirl is now super-happy because not only does she have three new girlfriends, she also has not one but two boyfriends—though of course as Linda Lee, the poor girl can’t tell anyone! (Incidentally, this “classic” was written by Jerry Siegel.)

Boy, in these stories there seems to be awful lot of emphasis placed on being popular…

Doug: I read a discussion on a message board not too long ago concerning whether or not first appearances should be required to be origin stories. While the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide lists this book as both the first appearance and origin, it certainly isn’t the origin we know. Where’s RJ Brande? Nowhere in these pages. Really, all Cosmic Boy says is that they are a club with members who each have a different power. So, for the purposes of introducing these characters (which I understand were considered throwaways), I guess that mission was accomplished. How they got together would be a story for many days… in the future!

Karen: Yes, it’s interesting just how much of a non-origin story this first appearance is. Since it revolves around Superboy, they probably didn’t feel the need to explain the hows or whys of the kids getting together. It doesn’t seem like they planned to ever bring them back; I believe it was all due to positive reader response. Sharon, do you have any info on that?

Sharon: You’re right, Karen, the Legion proved to be popular with readers (kids) so the team made repeat appearances (Superboy, the Superboy feature in Adventure, the Supergirl feature in Action) until it was given its own series. Editor Mort Weisinger did try to create a “Superman Universe” and mythos…he liked having a stable of core characters and concepts throughout his books (Superman, Superboy, Adventure, Action, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, etc.). So when a character or concept sparked some interest (spikes in sales, or letter feedback), he would run with it.

The Legion didn’t get a proper origin story until ten years after their 1958 debut, in Superboy #147 (which was an 80-page Giant, devoted to the Legion, cover date June 1968). In addition to reprint material, this issue contained new material, a story about how the founders—Cosmic Boy, Lightning Lad, and Saturn Girl—met R.J. Brande and how the Legion was formed. The talented (and IMO, underrated) E. Nelson Bridwell wrote the story.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Incredible Hulk #1 (May 1962)

Incredible Hulk
Lee and Kirby's The Incredible Hulk #1

Incredible Hulk #1

Doug: Let me get this out of the way up front: I really don’t care for the Hulk. That’s not to say that I haven’t read some good Hulk stories through the years. But overall, I can count on one hand the number of issues of “The Incredible Hulk” I’ve purchased. He makes a great guest-star; a tragic hero/villain, if you will. But a solo Hulk has never really put a hold on me. If you want an honest opinion, I think that’s why various creators through the years have made him gray again, smart, dumb again, normal-acting, put him in space, and even made him red. And don’t get me going on the whole psychology of it all…

Karen: I’ve always felt that the Hulk works best either as a guest-star, or when he has a very strong supporting cast.

Sharon: As a kid I was never a Hulk fan, either; he just seemed like a standard monster to me, and I wasn’t into monsters. But as I’ve matured and (hopefully) grown wiser, I have a greater appreciation of the Hulk character and its implications. What a rich character! Among other things, the Hulk saga represents the fear of losing control and being at the mercy of uncontrollable forces, both internal and external…a pretty powerful story. Also, though a comparison with the Thing seems obvious, there’s really a world of difference between the two and it’s all based on character, a Marvel specialty that was evident even back then. Ben Grimm was permanently stuck as the Thing, but he retained his personality; Banner regularly reverted to his human form but when he changed to the Hulk, his personality was altered. I have no doubt that the intellectual Bruce would have been able to cope with Ben’s situation; after all, Banner’s mind was his strong point.

Doug: I used 1974’s Origins of Marvel Comics as my source material. I also consulted Marvel Masterworks, Volume 8, which features The Incredible Hulk 1-6; both contain Stan Lee’s commentary prior to the reprints.

Not having opened Origins in literally decades, I was shocked to see, and read, that The Incredible Hulk #1 had been reprinted with the Hulk colored green! The cover art depicting him as gray was preserved, but Stan commented that when the book originally sold the color separations were all wrong. At times the Hulk was a dark gray, at other times he was much lighter. There were panels where he had a reddish tint to him, at other times he took on more of a deeper purple hue. So, since one of Marvel Masterworks’ claims to fame is color recreation, I got out that version of the story to see how it was colored. What I suspected proved to be true – the colors weren’t necessarily recreated but were instead corrected. The gray is very even throughout the tale and the only “strangeness” that occurred to me was the purple “highlighting” of the Hulk’s hair.

Karen: I also used “Origins” as my source. The first thing I noticed was how striking the cover was. It really felt a lot like an old Grade B sci fi movie poster – “Is he man or monster or…is he both?” You just don’t get stuff like that anymore.

Sharon: The cover is in keeping with the sci fi/horror comics Marvel was publishing at the time. Take a look a FF #1’s cover (published 6 months prior to Hulk #1), which also features a monster…and for that matter, FF #2’s cover showcases the alien Skrulls, with the Thing front and center. Remember, Marvel was just beginning to get back into the superhero genre; the Hulk was only the second such attempt since the FF...that is, unless you count Henry Pym’s appearance in Tales to Astonish #27 (January 1962), though he didn’t adopt the superhero name and garb (Ant-Man) until TTA #35 (September 1962).

Doug: As to the story itself… Having the luxury of reprints of the first six issues, I was struck right away that Kirby’s Hulk in #1 looked very different than what was penciled in #’s 2-5 (the final issue, #6, was penciled by Steve Ditko and is QUITE a departure from anything Jack had done – Ditko’s Hulk was almost ape-like). The initial Kirby Hulk had many similarities to Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein monster. This is important, as Stan states in both of my sources that his love of that film and of Karloff’s portrayal of the Monster as a tragic figure was a primary influence. He also, by the way, mentions Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”. Kirby’s Hulk evolves through the rest of his brief run, however, into a much more savage, angry, even bestial creature. It’s the latter Hulk, full of anger, that today’s fans would identify with. The Hulk I grew up with (guest-starring throughout the Marvel Universe as well as in the pages of The Defenders) was certainly more sympathetic, and even funny at times (in a butt-of-the-joke type of way).

Karen: My ‘childhood Hulk’ was also the dumb, childlike Hulk, and I have a soft spot for that characterization, even though I do think it was tiresome at times. Again, it was Hulk’s interaction with his cast, or with his fellow Defenders, that I really enjoyed. It’s interesting to see how the character’s personality has changed over time. In the early issues, as well as the current Hulk persona, he’s depicted as dangerous and not at all nice. In fact, I would consider the current Hulk an anti-hero or outright villain. I think I prefer the idea that while the Hulk is dangerous, it’s Banner’s innate goodness that prevents him from being a real monster.

Sharon: The ambiguity surrounding the Hulk is genius…hero, villain, or--as I like to categorize him--anti-hero? The Hulk debuted at the same time as Namor was re-introduced (in FF #4): two premiere anti-heroes. Interestingly, they both went on to headline Tales to Astonish later on.

Doug: The story is divided into five chapters. The first chapter introduces a pantheon of characters that would become staples of the Hulk mythos for years to come: Bruce Banner, General “Thunderbolt” Ross, Betty Ross, and Rick Jones. This same chapter also serves as the origin of the Hulk. It’s somewhat formulaic, and contains perhaps the major theme that ran through Marvel origin stories during this period of the Cold War – radiation. Think of the early Marvel Universe… the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Daredevil, the X-Men, and the Incredible Hulk all owed their abilities to some type of accident involving rays of some sort, radiation poisoning, etc. I think right off the bat a great comparison involving the plots of this story and Fantastic Four Annual #2 (the origin of Dr. Doom) is evident. When Igor begs Banner to let him check the calculations for the gamma bomb launch, Banner scoffs at him. The scene is repeated two years later in the pages of FF Annual #2 with Reed Richards imploring Victor von Doom to accept assistance on some similar calculations. Of course, in the Hulk’s origin the bomb goes off and Banner is forever changed (although Banner’s math had no effect on the detonation, unlike the events that befell Doom).

Karen: Probably the single most notable element of the story to me was the fact that Banner seemed so arrogant, at least when dealing with Igor. It immediately made me feel somewhat negatively towards him, although he still appeared heroic when he went out to save Rick from the explosion.

Sharon: It’s a nice touch that Igor seems to be a sympathetic character initially; at the time, all “Reds” were evil (at least, that’s how Stan wrote them in the early 1960s) so this was a pleasant surprise. But Stan reverted to cliché and I was disappointed when Igor showed his true colors. Also, the tale is notable because it introduces Rick Jones, who would prove to be one of the most enduring characters in the Marvel Universe (his crowning Silver Age moment occurring years later in Avengers #97, in the twilight of the Silver Age). Here, he has no special abilities powers or costume so he’s sort of the antithesis of the teenage sidekick (prevalent in the Golden Age) that Stan famously hated.

Doug: Chapter 2 sets up what would become the modus operandi of subsequent Hulk tales – in essence the book becomes a superhero version of “The Fugitive”. The Hulk is being hounded by the military, he unwittingly exacts revenge on Igor for betraying Banner and creating the Hulk, and learns that he is indeed Bruce Banner. Chapter 3 is more of the same, and introduces the romance angle to the story with a little sexual tension between Bruce and Betty.

Sharon: “The Fugitive”—what a great comparison, Doug! While there are elements that are unintentionally hilarious--the Hulk reverts back to Banner, and miraculously his tattered clothes shrink too; the “Top Secret Report on Gamma Ray Bomb” plans taped to the bottom of beaker—there are lots of great touches throughout the story. Look at Banner’s body language when facing General Ross the first time in the story; Banner seems to cower a bit in the face of an overtly aggressive “hawk” like Ross. Bruce’s breakdown, in the presence of Betty and Rick, was handled very well. Rick’s disgusted reaction to Betty and Bruce was priceless.

Doug: Another theme that ran through many early Marvels involved the Red Scare that was so prominent in Americans’ minds in the 1960’s. In Chapter 4 Igor is revealed (like with that name we couldn’t have figured it out ourselves – sheesh!) to be a Red spy and even radios behind the Iron Curtain with a “sub-miniature transistor short wave sending set” glued to his thumbnail!! He sends a message that “the Gargoyle” must be alerted to the existence of the Hulk. What comes next is pretty silly – the Gargoyle states the he must either slay the Hulk or take him prisoner to show the world his might (say, how many folks even know that these two guys are around??). In Chapter 5 he ends up shooting the Hulk with some kind of mind-slave pellet and takes him back to the USSR. There the Hulk transforms back to Banner, the Gargoyle deduces Banner’s secret and then breaks down because he (the Gargoyle) apparently can never look normal. Banner offers to assist him and the story ends happily from there, if in a tragically heroic way for the Gargoyle. A nice touch near the end of the story is a portrait of Nikita Khruschchev on the wall.

Karen: I have to say, I feel that the Gargoyle angle really derailed this story. Everything up to that point is fine – we have the explosion, the transformation, the hunt for the Hulk – that all works. But then out of nowhere comes this needless focus on the Gargoyle, and his nasty communist bosses. Banner cures him and suddenly he becomes a red-blooded American, decrying his Soviet ways – it feels like the book was suddenly highjacked by another story.

Sharon: The story was very compressed (as was the style back then) and the Gargoyle bit did seem tacked on, but I actually didn’t mind its inclusion. It provided an interesting contrast: the Gargoyle would rather be “normal” and die, whereas Banner is “abnormal” and alive. While it may have been obvious, I think the Gargoyle character was a good way of underscoring one of the main themes.

Doug: Overall, this book was OK – not a bad origin story for the time it was written, and typically steady art and dialogue from Kirby and Lee. If I can get back to Stan’s commentary for a second: In both sources I used for this critique, Stan is consistent in his claim that he came up with the idea for the character and Jack came up with the visuals based on Stan’s descriptions. Hence, Stan created the Incredible Hulk with Jack merely giving him a 2-D life. I would urge all readers to pick up an issue here or there of The Jack Kirby Collector, which is of course somewhat skewed toward Jack’s defense in the creative process. My opinion on any “he said/she said” situation is that the truth is somewhere in the middle – this is surely one of those cases.

Karen: I think this is the weakest of origin stories for the early Marvel characters. The structure is awkward, and the ending is unsatisfying. That being said, I do think the idea, of a monstrous anti-hero, was inspired – particularly when you consider what the Distinguished Competition was putting out at the time. I found Stan Lee’s commentary in “Origins” to be very telling of the Lee-Kirby relationship, or lack of, at that point in time (1974). He really does imply that the entire concept for the Hulk (as well as most of the other characters) was his doing. While I have tremendous respect for Stan, it’s become more apparent over the years that these really were collaborative efforts; the ‘Marvel Method’ required it.

Sharon: Jack did some great work here; I could really feel Banner’s anguish and confusion, Rick’s initial flippancy and then concern for Bruce, Betty’s compassion and fear, etc. The expressions throughout were telling and of course the action scenes could not be better—the story moved a great pace. I also loved the three panels at the bottom of page 14, when darkness is literally and figuratively falling on Banner’s face. Kudos to the King.

Karen: The new “Incredible Hulk” film came out this summer, and I thought it was very well done. The film is something of an amalgam of the comics and the old TV series, but they seem to have picked up on the best elements of both. I enjoyed seeing more of the Marvel Universe on the big screen; between this film and the excellent “Iron Man” movie which also opened this summer, we are starting to get a cohesive Marvel universe – although it seems to be edging a bit more towards the Ultimates Universe than the “regular” MU. But regardless, the “Hulk” movie was thoughtful, action-packed, and had very nice performances. I would rank “Iron Man” as the better overall movie, but “Hulk” is definitely a fun flick and another step in the right direction for Marvel movies.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Doug says: Hey, dude... nice chapeau!!

You see hats all the time – sometimes for practical reasons, other times they are fashion accessories. Some hats are designed with functionality in mind, others just scream, “Hey, look at me!!” I’ve even seen lately in a media piece that men past the age of around 24 shouldn’t wear baseball caps! Jack Kirby, the King of Comics, was known for many things over the course of his career, but was designer of haute couture one of them?

Let’s start with the God of Thunder, Thor himself. Thor’s helmet has a simplicity to it – a plainness, if you will. Until you get to the wings on the sides. Of what purpose are they? And what are they made of? Are they really feathers? Or are they some type of silver ornamentation? Is the helmet functional? Does it protect him should a blow of some sort get past the mighty Mjolnir? And isn’t it a fashion faux pas that it doesn’t match the color of anything else he’s wearing? Oh, and one more thing: you ever notice how strange a baseball player looks the first time you see him with his cap off? Thor’s like that for me. Just doesn’t look right. He might as well be nekked…

Staying in the family tree, let’s have a look at Thor’s wicked half-brother Loki. Loki’s dome is usually covered with one of two headpieces – the standard long-horned lid and the more ornamental deal with the short horns or the “flying F’s” on the sides.

You know, when I’m watching those Africa shows on Animal Planet or whatever, I just once want to see some water buffalo stick it to an attacking lion. I mean, what are those horns for if not to give somebody the business? Same thing with Loki’s main helmet. That thing has got to hinder him getting through doors, turning to speak to someone… So there must be some reason to run around with that deal perched atop his cranium. And how about the weight pulling you forward? A chiropractor’s dream, if you ask me. The smaller version seems to be more ceremonial, but not nearly as imposing. I’ll admit – goofy as the long-horned version looks, I much prefer it. And with really long horns, like John Buscema would draw it (see above).

Next up on Mr. Blackwell’s list is the All-Father himself, Odin. Wow. A peak inside this guy’s closet would be simply overwhelming. Furs and feathers, but fashion probably wouldn’t complete the triad I’m afraid. Kirby seemed to pull out all of the stops when giving the Omnipotent One his headgear. Many have discussed Kirby’s imagination often being confined or limited – he never seemed to let that happen when drawing Odin. I recall many a Thor (by Kirby as well as his successors) where Odin’s entrance was almost always after a page-turn, no doubt for the shock-value his clothes would bring (speaking of shock value, you have to seek out Journey Into Mystery #116 for Odin in a bathrobe, furry cap, and slippers!) as well as the “presence” he always brought to a page.

While still under the title Journey Into Mystery, Kirby provides a look at a really interesting hat worn by Odin. It has a couple of Texas Longhorns framing a large bird (see below, right). It looks sort of like some hunter took his two best trophies and decided to turn them into a wardrobe accentuation. The most curious aspect, though, is that a few issues later the All-Father is wearing the same hat, but the bird is obviously moving! Wow! Finally, a chapeau that’s good-looking and functional!

Other good-looking hats show up on the heads of Seidring the Merciless, the Queen of the Flying Trolls of Thryheim, Karnilla the Norn Queen, and of course Hela, Goddess of the Underworld.

Karnilla (thanks to -- cool-looking dragon-lid, babe!!:


And, although not an Asgardian, how could we leave out one of our favorite Kirby big-domers – Tana Nile of the Rigelians! I am totally digging the wild hairs she’s sportin’ on the outside of her helmet!!

Anyone need an interstellar tuning fork? The Big G is your man…

Kirby made a major distinction amongst his immortals; the one major difference between the pantheons living in Asgard and living on Olympus is that the Greeks seem to eschew headwear. Apparently, as Don Henley once sang, “The Greeks Don’t Want No Freaks!”

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Tales of Suspense 39: Iron Man!

Tales of Suspense 39-Iron Man

Tales of Suspense #39 (1963) Who? Who? Who? You know who!

Karen: Since Iron Man has recently made a splash as a blockbuster movie, we thought it might be fun to go back and read his origin story, from Tales of Suspense #39. As Stan Lee says in his introduction to the tale in Son of Origins of Marvel Comics, the character of Tony Stark was quite different from previous Marvel creations. First, he was a millionaire businessman and jet-setter, as well as a scientific genius. Stan used Howard Hughes as his inspiration, and it shows. Second, Iron Man would have an origin steeped in real world politics, which was also quite unusual for that time. It was 1963, and America was already active in Vietnam. Stark would provide the military with his ‘transistorized’ weapons, to defeat the communists. The Americans were the good guys and the Viet Cong were the bad guys. It was all very cut and dried.

Sharon: Tony looks like a swarthier Errol Flynn: classically handsome…Marvel’s most conventionally handsome, glamorous male at the time. He wasn’t wan or timid like Peter Parker, Don Blake, or Bruce Banner; or bordering on dull like Reed Richards or Hank Pym.

Karen: Yes, Stark was portrayed as a handsome, desirable man. He had that whole “women want him, men want to be him” aura. I think really he was the only Marvel character who was shown as living a glamorous life.

Doug: DC at the time was more likely to publish comics with presidents or celebrities; additionally, their science fiction comics dealt mostly with obscure outer planets rather than the Red Menace.

I, too, read this story from Son of Origins of Marvel Comics. I recall getting it for Christmas the year it came out (1975). A friend of mine had obtained the book some days before, and was telling me about the contents. I vividly recall him saying over the phone, in regard to the cover illustration of ToS #39, “Who? Who?? WHO?”

Sharon: The “Who? Who? WHO?” on the cover—classic. I imagine it was similar to cover copy Marvel (in its Timely/Atlas incarnation) used for its 1950s monster books, but it was probably never used as effectively as it is here!

Doug: I thought it was odd in the preface that Stan commented on how there’d never been a rich businessman as a super-hero before. Ummm – Bruce Wayne? Oliver Queen (Silver Age version)? Maybe Stan meant that Marvel had never done such a character before; that was just strange to read those words.

Sharon: Iron Man allowed Marvel to create the Avengers (six months later). In 1961 Martin Goodman had urged Stan to create a JLA book years; and the result was--famously! --the Fantastic Four (since the fledgling Marvel didn’t have a stable of heroes with which to populate such a team book, Stan’s solution was to create a team from scratch). A couple of years later, Marvel finally had enough heroes to produce a JLA-type team, with Iron Man being the final piece in the puzzle. Of the original Avengers, only the Wasp came after Iron Man (she was introduced in the June 1963 issue of Tales to Astonish), but clearly she was seen just as an adjunct to Ant-Man back then. Once Iron Man was created, six months later Avengers #1 debuted, with a September 1963 cover date.

Karen: The whole premise of Stark building the armor is based upon the shrapnel that is “inching its way” towards his heart. He builds the armor both to keep himself alive and to use as a weapon against his captors. This is Stark’s tragic quality, which all Marvel heroes had to have. One thing that struck me as I read this was how Iron Man was portrayed almost like a movie monster – he certainly comes across more like Frankenstein than Superman!

Doug: The recently-released movie really played this element of the story well. I did think the way they portrayed the hole in Stark’s heart was pretty gross, though! Your analogy of the “Mach-1” suit as Frankenstein is spot-on – I felt the same way, that there was a terrifying quality to the suit. And it makes sense that it’s just a drab, well – iron color! The creators didn’t try to make as believe that out in the jungle there was any shiny red or gold metal laying around!

Sharon: I haven’t seen the movie yet but in regards to the comic book, I love how bulky and crude the armor is—and that’s exactly how it should be, given the circumstances under which it was created.

Karen: I think that is another appealing and somewhat unique aspect to the Iron Man character: the continual evolution of his suit. In the early issues, we go from the bulky dull grey to bulky gold suit, then a huge jump to the streamlined suit. There were minor variations on that suit (ex. the 70’s nose!) for some time. Then when Bob Layton came on board, we got to see a huge variety of suits, many of which were special-purpose: the deep space suit, Hulk-buster suit, stealth suit. It all makes sense, when you’re dealing with a man who is the number one innovator in technology.

Doug: A big kudo to Dashing Donnie Heck (as per Stan) for the artwork in this story. While I have maligned Heck elsewhere for the decline in his skills toward the end of his career, he is really quite good in this story. To be honest, I wish he’d done the art on the Avengers from the get-go; while I certainly appreciate Jack Kirby, for me it was Heck who epitomized the look of the early years of the Avengers.

Sharon: I’m a huge Heck fan; his line is sharp and angular, and he could move a story along. While he had misgivings about doing the Iron Man feature (he was used to working from full scripts and wasn’t sure he could handle the Marvel Method), I feel he was more than adequate for the job (and he would just get better as he illustrated more of Shellhead’s adventures). He does a good job conveying that Tony’s a thinking man. By the way, Kirby created the original Iron Man armor (for the cover) and Heck felt relieved that he—Heck—didn’t have to come up with the character design. Of course, later Ditko redesigned the armor and made it sleeker—again sparing Heck the odious task of creating a look for Tony’s armor!

Doug: I also like that the Iron Man suit doesn’t appear to display super-strength at this early point. Yes, Stark’s able to lift the file cabinet “stuffed with rocks” off of him, but he doesn’t propel it through a stone wall or anything magnificent like that. If I’m not mistaken, when he uses the suction cups to stick himself to the ceiling (pretty strong cups!! 200-pound man + the weight of the suit???), he leaps up but doesn’t fly. If you look at the soles of the boots, they are rugged – there are no propulsion jets as we’ve come to know and love.

Karen: In comparison with the Iron Man film, I would say they do an excellent job of incorporating the important elements of the story into the film. Obviously, we couldn’t have the Vietnamese as villains, so we have vaguely defined Middle-Eastern terrorists instead. But the set up and pay off is the same. Stark is injured, builds the suit with the help of an ally, and then trashes his captors. I think the film gives us a much more layered Tony Stark, as we see an arrogant, selfish man become aware of what harm his creations have done. We see him develop a conscience, all while he perfects his armor. I thought the film perfectly captured that Marvel spirit of the flawed hero.

Doug: Agreed. I also agree with your assessment of Stark’s character in the film, but I think it’s a composite of the many eras of Stark through the years. With the ever-present alcohol throughout the film, I would guess that “Demon in a Bottle” will be a plot device in the sequel. As Rhodey said (as he eyeballed the Mach-2 suit), “Maybe next time.”

Sharon: Looking forward to seeing the film!
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