Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Misc. Comics Graded (the Project Continues)

[More eulogies for mildewed comics trashed from my collection. Now, I'm using reprint titles instead of "pretending" I had copies of the original stories.]

Marvel Tales #10 (Sept. 1967). "Kraven the Hunter." Grade: B-. Reprinting Amazing Spider-Man #15, plus an early Thor tale, a Human Torch tale from Strange Tales, and a Wasp-narrated back-up from Tales to Astonish. The tales are decreasingly good, from a Lee/Ditko classic, to good-looking Kirby art, to a typical Tales to Astonish pre-superhero alien tale (with the Wasp tacked on as a framing device), to an early Thor tale that falls extremely flat (R. Berns, an obscure early writer for Marvel, treats Thor's hammer as his central motif and reduces it to a gimmick, while Sinnot's art has none of Kirby's later sense of mythology).
Marvel's Greatest Comics #24 (Dec. 1969). "Death of a Hero." Grade: B+. Lee and Kirby not quite at their Fantastic Four-best. Hurt mostly by the then-new inking of Chic Stone. Lee shows how he earned equal billing with Kirby for dialogue, as the death scene at the end really makes the story. It's hard to imagine a battle between Iron Man and Attuma of Atlantis being so bland, but Lee and Heck pull that off next. The Watcher tale is Tuska's first silver age art for Marvel and looks to have been inked by him as well in an almost Wolverton style. Lastly, Ditko shows what he can do on a Dr. Strange tale, making it look spectacular even without the aid of any major villains. Plus pin-ups!
Marvel's Greatest Comics #26 (April 1970). "A House Divided." Grade: A-. Lee and Kirby are at their best here when they're playing the Thing for laughs, such as having him try on a Beatles wig or having him stub his "pinky toe" in a tantrum. Lee also understood the importance of continuity, having Sue startle a taxi driver while invisible (like in FF #1) and referring to captured skrulls (from FF #2) and Dr. Doom's time machine (from FF #5). The story, though, is weak, with Gideon's "master" plan to have the FF kill each other too dependent on coincidence and lucky misunderstandings, and Gideon's morale reversal at the end seems entirely unconvincing. Following that is an Iron Man story that starts out pretty good, with Count Nefaria forcing Tony's gambling addicted cousin Morgan into trying to trick Tony into thinking he's gone crazy. Compare this to a Lee-scripted story, using Mysterio or Dr. Faustus to explore the hero's psyche. Here, guest writer Al Hartley adds a very DC-like twist where Morgan's scheme to make Tony think he's seeing aliens backfires because he really does see aliens! And they're green men from the moon named after cheeses! Hey, that's okay, because the next story is an A+ Kirby masterpiece, one of the first Captain America stories from Tales of Suspense. Hard to believe this confident inking is from the same Chic Stone whose inking looked so feeble on Kirby just a short while ago. Last is another Lee/Ditko Dr. Strange story, part of the classic Eternity saga, in which Dr. Strange has to fight the traps guarding the Ancient One's mind. Pretty cool idea (it came from Ditko -- cited as plotter).
Mighty Thor Starring in Marvel Spectacular #15 (June 1975). "This Battleground Earth". Grade: A. Reprinting Thor #144, Colleta on Kirby still looks good to me. The Enchanters are formidable foes for Thor and their battle is full of creativity. Not sure how Odin forsaking the power of the rest of the pantheon also drains the rest of the pantheon. Wouldn't it give them power back? Ah well. We even get the Warriors Three in a back-up!
Mighty Thor Starring in Marvel Spectacular #17 (Sept. 1975). "If the Thunder Be Gone." Grade: A. My first Thor comic book. The Circus of Crime are such colorful foes. The Golden Bull is an intriguing Biblical infusion, nicely complementing Thor's inherent paganism. Odin continues to be the worst parent ever.
Mighty Thor Starring in Marvel Spectacular #18 (Oct. 1975). "The Wrath of Odin." Grade: B+. Is Odin nuts? He forgives Loki constantly, turns his "omniniscient" eye away from his every transgression, yet he watches Thor, Balder, and Sif like a hawk and punishes them for any little thing. Who's the supervillain here? The back-up feature, concluding the Harokin mini-saga, is great, with Harokin being escorted into Valhalla in a sequence that just drips with genuine mythology.
Marvel's Greatest Comics Starring the Fantastic Four #84 (Jan. 1970). "Our World -- Enslaved." Grade: B+. Magneto has taken over Atlantis' army (apparently Namor's generals are incredibly subservient, or just battle-hungry) and used them to attack New York City. Somehow, all this takes place over hours without a single casualty. Romita Sr. and John Verpoorten do dismal justice to following up Kirby on art chores. Redeeming this issue is a very telling appearance by then-President Nixon, unsure of who the enemy is but determined not to lose, and the ending itself. Magneto's unwillingness to stop using his magnetic power, even to free himself from Reed's magnetic inversion cone, perfectly demonstrates the limitation of being a villain and unable to change one's self for the better. Reed gives a great mini-speech at the end about how Earth will know peace when every man calls his fellow man brother -- maybe a little cheesy, but you can tell Lee believes it.
Invincible Iron Man #77 (Aug. 1975). "I Cry: Revenge." Grade: B. My first Iron Man comic book. Arvell Jones' ridiculously bad art starts ominously with a worm's eye view of the Mad Thinker's crotch and doesn't get much better. The Iron Man/Yellow Claw battle is good, imaginative, and clearly the highlight of the issue, though it is interesting to learn that the Black Lama has been working behind the scenes for the last two years' worth of Iron Man issues. I suspect this whole "War of the Super-Villains" story arc was set up to make new villain Firebrand into a major player, but since he was never used since until killed off, it's pretty obvious that letting him beat Iron Man when his armor was almost out of power doesn't make him a better super-villain.
Invincible Iron Man #113 (Aug. 1978). "Horn of the Unicorn." Grade: B-. I didn't follow Iron Man closely between '75 and '78, but apparently a lot of goofy things were happening. Jack of Hearts had been following Iron Man around like a sidekick until page 4 of this issue. Reminescent of Superman's robot stand-ins, Tony had been using a Life Model Decoy to protect his secret ID (an LMD is a synthetic copy of Tony's body, but with a brain of limited programmed thoughts, which should raise a lot of ethical issues that are ignored here). And then there's Tony's romance with Whitney, the former villainness Madame Masque, which is not only weird because their relationship is so public and yet raises no public concern, but because he kisses her through her gold face mask. The identity of the "Other" is pretty obvious from the silohuette for anyone who knows his Iron Man foes. Artwise, Rubinstein's tight inks, which usually help any artist, can't seem to rein in Trimpe's bad handling of faces. And the worst offense of all is dumping Jasper Sitwell as a supporting cast character, Iron Man's best supporting cast member from the '60s. But the Unicorn's upgraded costume is impressive and the fact that he's both crazy and dying make him an interesting villain, bumping up this issue's grade.
Invincible Iron Man #114 (Sept. 1978). "The Menace of ...Arsenal!" Grade: A+. So hard to throw out! The guest-artist is Keith Giffin and this early work of his might be his best ever. Why did Marvel let him go over to DC?? In this issue, we get to see the Avengers working together -- including two of my favorites, Yellowjacket and the Beast. The Unicorn's rematch with Iron Man is bumped up a notch, taking place in Avengers Mansion and against most of the team. But the real thrill here is Mantlo's ultimate creation -- the robot Arsenal. The mysterious robot surprise attacks the Avengers and takes down a whole bunch of them before they know what hit them. Maybe Wonder Man is taken down a little too conveniently so Iron Man can shine, but it's hard to complain about an otherwise note-perfect battle. Luckily, I didn't have long to wait until the Arsenal story was resolved in the best Avengers Annual ever.
Invincible Iron Man #115 (Oct. 1978). "Betrayal". Grade: C. So we went from one of the best Iron Man issues ever to this, and how bizarre that, back in '78, going from Giffin to Romita Jr. on art chores was a downgrade -- but that's how young Romita Jr. was then and how unpolished his art skills were until the '80s. And we go from a powerhouse like Arsenal to the Ani-Men, goofy mercenaries who can barely hold their own against Tony without his armor. A lot of this issue, though, is turned over to summarizing the Unicorn's history. And was anyone really surprised to see Madame Masque go bad again?
Invincible Iron Man #124 (July 1979). "Pieces of Hate." Grade: B+. Mantlo is, for better and worse, gone from Iron Man and Michelinie and Layton have begun their classic stint together. Bethany is Cabe is already Iron Man's best romantic love interest ever, practically rescuing Iron Man from Melter, Whiplash, and Blizzard with her diversion and beats Whiplash herself (though it makes Whiplash look like a wimp). Her interest in Tony and lack of respect for Iron Man is realistic and yet surprisingly novel. Awful dark ending, though, when Justin Hammer causes the Iron Man armor to kill an ambassador.
Doctor Strange: Master of the Mystic Arts #15 (June 1976). "Where There's Smoke." Grade: A-. Englehart, Colan, and even inker Tom Palmer were at the top of their game back here, producing a truly mature body of work with Dr. Strange. This is a slice of life issue, but with Dr. Strange that cant' be boring. Homeless man James Mandarin inventively forces Dr. Strange to take him in by attempting suicide on his doorstep. Wong goes to a convenience store and has to confront whether he is a bad Asian stereotype, serving as Strange's servant (and answers such concerns most capably). Addressed, but not resolved here, is whether saving the world with magic powers makes Dr. Strange a messiah. Less convincing is Dr. Strange and Clea's inability to cope everything on Earth was a recreation made by Eternity, especially since Clea is from a magical universe where strange things would normally happen. And, at the cellular level, don't we all die and get replaced every day?
Doctor Strange: Master of the Mystic Arts #16 (July 1976). "Beelzebub on Parade." Grade: A. Clea plays helpless hostage while Satan unintentionally helps Dr. Strange do some soul-searching. Still well-written.

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