Tuesday, June 10, 2014

FIRESIDE PART 5: The Mighty Marvel Jumbo Fun Book

Pneumonia. It’s not uncommon, and I had it in 1978. I was 7. My Mom was allergic to penicillin, and fortunately I was not. I was diagnosed on the 3rd floor of the amazingly mid-century pediatrics clinic on Eastern Parkway in Louisville, KY. 

The funny thing with pneumonia is that, at 7, not only can you not spell it, but you don’t feel sick. 

I was directed to stay prone or, at the least, sitting for a full week. Mama picked up my first Fireside marvel boo for me to get me through. Every child of this era that had any kind of illness and still reads comics into the 20-teens has this story. It’s the tale of the thing they got when they were sick. 

What astonishing book am I holding out on? The most embarrassing comic of all: The Mighty Marvel Jumbo Fun Book. 

It’s not exactly a comic book.There are very few panels of sequential work. It’s not exactly a history, or an art book. however, there are several pages that work to demonstrate varied art styles and how they relate to commercial art’s portrayal of various characters. It’s not a how to book, but there are opportunities to learn basic drawing skills. It’s all that plus much, much more. Crosswords, trivia, word search, puns, mazes, word jumbles, and a lot of material that really is aimed at an adult collector of Marvel’s output. Considering that I was 7, and some of the material required an adult budget I’d say the book was appropriate for ages 7-47. 

Some of the more esoteric games include “Conan’s Monster Farm”. At 43, I have not read any more Conan that I read at 10, which is to say nearly none. Yet the child for whom this is intended is expected to be able to identify 7 monsters culled from the first 100 issues of the comic. 

A page with 14 word balloons where the goal is to ID the speaker? Beyond ‘Crom” and It’s Clobberin’ Time!!”there are few “gimmes” in this quiz.

Still, I loved the book. For instance, it taught me that there were different artists drawing different comics. It game me a sense of history. I had only read 3 or 4 Hulk comics, but to discover that there were 6 artists that had drawn the character was fascinating. In 1978 I likely guessed 0 of them. Now? I got 5. Somehow, the book holds up. 

Some characters at the time were 100% new to me. Howard the Duck, Wolverine, and even Daredevil were unusual. Supporting characters like Professor Bong remained obscure until I was well into my 20s. 

I’m not sure when this book left me and moved on to another child. I suspect it was when my Mama was dating someone in 1980, and his son was getting into reading. I think a lot of the books from my younger years were passed on. So much of this book failed to make sense, but I still loved it. 

So, imagine my surprise when I found a copy for $12 last month. I had passed on copies ranging from $40-$125 on eBay recently. The alleys and avenues it opened up from my childish map of the world. It was pretty amazing. 

So much of this book was deeply ingrained. So many first encounters with different ideas, artists and characters. The puzzles undoubtedly worked to reinforce the memories. The Power Man Page? Why is Luke Cage such a favorite of mine, when I didn’t read a comic with him as the lead until 2001? Why is the SpiderMobile so iconic, when my first issue of Amazing was 2 years later? 

Checking it out now, there is also a lot that I enjoy now, that I was ignorant of then. Deathlok, Man-Thing, Tomb of Dracula. For the serious collectors, there are early appearances of Wolverine and Guardians of the Galaxy. 

It’s an incredibly campy, silly, infuriating book. Regardless, it got me through the sickest week of my young life. I still remember running in circles around the rom when Grandma wasn’t looking and Mama was at work. 

Could I tell the difference between the Ditko, Byrne, Romita, and Infantino Spider-Man? maybe. Can you?? 

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

FIRESIDE: Part 4: The Superhero Women

The Superhero Women was a very honest effort to demonstrate that Marvel had a wide variety of female characters, every bit as innovative as their male heroes and villains. 

Unfortunately, in 1977 that just was not the case. It didn’t stop me from loving the book as a child, but as an adult, it is an uncomfortable document of missed opportunities and a reflection of how much farther comics culture had to go to feature strong female characters written with sincerity. 

The breakdown of female Superheroes in 1977: The seducer, the girlfriend, the rape fantasy, the sister, the pseudo-villain, the jungle queen, the spin off. There were incredibly few women in comics that failed to meet on of these criteria. Some of these characters had true strength. Efforts were made by a mostly male creative team to make them have some kind of resonance. Some started out weak and improved over time. 

The book starts out in a very unusual place. Unlike the preceding volumes, few of the women in the volume began with a first issue or ever achieved a solo feature. They were, often, secondary. Kicking off the volume with Medusa, weird wife with living hair of the Inhumans, was a little strange. As the Inhumans had a series, and the concept was most closely associated with the Fantastic Four, it became stranger still that the tale herein was from a Spider-Man comic. 

The plot is pure Silver Age. Medusa is being tricked into posing as a hair spray model. The queen of an ancient race as hairspray model. Think about that. The story was probably included in part because John Romita draws lovely women. It’s barely a step up from some of the Lois Lane/Superman shenanigans of the 60s. 

The perfect follow up to that bit of fluff is, of course, the first issue of Red Sonja, She Devil with a Sword. Spun out of Conan, Sonja’s deal is that she wears a metal bikini, and if you defeat her in combat, you’ve got a sex slave for the night. I did warn you about rape fantasies. Anyway, this story is actually a pretty good mystery by Warren alum Bruce Jones paired with great art by Frank Thorne. Red hair count so far? Two for two. 

The Invisible Girl is next. This is actually a pretty funny issue of Fantastic Four, doing some “day in the life” bits. The first 8 pages are all humor, with the Thing scaring off a Mah Jong club that’s come up to the FF’s suite in the Baxter Building to complain about the noise. Sue Richards (The Invisible Girl) turns Thing invisible while he scares the biddies off with some silly props. The next 14 pages are devoted to an adventure that faces them against the Mole Man. Sue saves the day with a new found use of her invisibility powers- the ability to generate a force field and move objects. Two hundred issue late her code name would be changed to the Invisible Woman by John Byrne. A Lee/Kirby joint. 

Ms. Marvel was a kind of spin off of Captain Marvel. Not the SHAZAMMY one, the Marvel one. Trademark fight. Don’t ask. Anyway, she started out with a real honest to Sappho first issue. The story featured tough as nails newspaper reporter Carol Danvers who would occasionally black out and go do super lady stuff as Ms Marvel. Only the first issue is printed here, so who knows how that turned out for her. Later in 2014 Marvel is reprinting the series, so I suppose I will finally discover if Carol has a blood sugar thing, or if she’s just flaky. Bonus: since the Marvel Universe is pretty NYC-Centric, her boss is JJ Jameson, employer-nemesis of Peter Parker. If you are dying to know, Gerry Conway and John Buscema created this one. 

As no female villains made it into the previous “Bad Guys” volume, one slips in here. Hela, goddess of death faces Thor in a Lee/Buscema outing. This seems to be done concurrently to their Silver Surfer collaborations. The proof? This bit of Asgardian dialog from Hela:

“Thou wouldst DIE to save thy beloved? Sif asked if Hela had e’er known love— and now I answer NAY! But, at LAST I know what it doth mean! Not even DEATH (that’s you lady) may crush it!” Drama at its finest!

The Cat #1 really is a standout in this volume. It features a leotard-clad hero named the Cat: college student by day, hero by night. The spectacular part? It is written by Linda Fite and drawn by Marie Severin. Let that sink in. Actual female cartoonists. It was another decade before a woman wrote or drew Wonder Woman at DC. So, good job Marvel. This story has all the action and melodrama of your standard Marvel comic of the 70s, with really great art and solid writing. Alas, the series only lasted 4 or 5 issues. The character was soon brought back as were-woman Tigra, thus fulfilling the “sex-object/furry fetish” motif. 

The Wasp started as a lab assistant turned mirror-image of the lead of Ant-man. The pair also were founding members of the Avengers. Their history has been.. complicated. In the beginning, they were just two science geeks fighting commies and Atlas monster rejects in the space of 10 pages a month. Harmless non-sense. Lee and Kirby did the chapter here, but Leiber and Heck were the regular team. Bonus info: the Wasp did have a solo feature where, as a candy-striper, she would relate monster tales to hospitalized kids. In later years she was a fashion designer, a punching bag, and the head of the Avengers. 

 Lyra the Femizon. I don’t know where to start. This volume was ostensibly aimed at kids. The story here, in glorious black and white, was a part of Savage Tales Magazine #1. It featured “adult” tales in the fantasy/action genre/ Sword and sorcery. Nipples were visible. Cat fighting, amazonian wrestling, and general lesbianic mayhem were present. It was one of those “there’s only one dude in a society of women” deals. He, of course, is a traitor, and we get post coital guilt murder. My inner 7 year old was surely impacted by this on some level. As I was raised by 2 women, I can only guess that the lesson involved castration. 

Shanna the She-devil, not to be confused with the earlier She Devil With a Sword, is a red head. Shanna eventually is romantically paired with Marvel’s Ka-zar, who is a rip-off of Tarzan making his comics debut in Marvel Comics #1 in 1939. There is also Sheena Queen of the Jungle from the 40s. Some fat guy is selling cocaine, and there is a leopard. She's unique, in that the "obvious romance" of her and Ka-Zar came later, so in this appearance she's a strong independent female dispensing jungle justice. Carol Sueling wrote it. It's the only other female name in the credits. Shanna wears a leopard pelt, and has a pet leopard. That’s fucked up. Vince Colletta inked it, so you can’t tell Ross Andru drew it. 

The volume ends as strangely as it began. Spider-man facing off against a character typically associated with another character. Black Widow in this case, who generally showed up in Daredevil and who debuted in Iron Man. This is pre-Daredevil, and in this tale Natasha is a full-on red-headed seductress anti-hero. The fight ends with her gloating about what a pussy Spider-Man is- until he gets his game back and leaves because the whole dame fighting thing is beneath him. She mulls him over for a page or so in her bathrobe, and decides she’ll be alone forever.

Final red head count? Four. 

And that’s it. the best female characters 1977 had to offer. 

Chris Claremont was already starting to change that, but but the X-Men hadn’t really generated any female solo tales yet. Spider Woman and She-Hulk were still in the near future. In fact, i would guess that the array of female characters that happened at Marvel between 1978 and 1982 may have been the result of the weakness of this volume. Admittedly, not all of them attained the ideals of the New Feminism, but it was an improvement. 

Next? Superhero Battles: 240 pages of beat downs. 

FIRESIDE Part 3: Bring On The Bad Guys

At this late date I am uncertain as to which volume of the Marvel Fireside series was the first one to be gifted to me. I think the most likely candidate was 1976’s Bring On The Bad Guys. The third volume in the series focused on the arch-nemesis of the Fantastic Four, Silver Surfer, Doctor Strange, Thor, Hulk, Spider-man and Captain America. 

This volume is, in many ways, stronger than the origin-focused volumes that preceded it. Stan Lee selected the most powerful conflicts between the core Marvel heroes and their most popular and best known villains. 

The first chapter starts with what is arguably Marvel’s best, most well-rounded and complex villain, Dr. Doom. The stories collected here, Fantastic Four #5 and Fantastic Four Annual #2 are two powerful stand-alone stories. 

At the time I read, and re-read these as a child, I was captivated by the complex relationship between Doom and College rival Reed Richards. Reed, being the hero, just wanted to befriend Doom, whom he saw as an intellectual peer and potential collaborator. Doom was overwhelmed by petty jealousies, and insecurity masked by intellectual overcompensation and egotism. 

The earlier of the 2 stories came at a time when the only other Marvel Age comics were the first 2 issues of Hulk. It really went far to set the tone of the complexity and nuance that Lee and Kirby were striving for with their creations. It was also the first big break from the Atlas Era template of heroes fighting monsters and aliens. Sci-fi tropes, such as time travel, were present but FF #5 was an action based story rich with a sense of menace and pathos. Doom seems unstoppable, with an ability to nullify the FF in their own headquarters, send them through time to seize pirate booty, and foil them at every turn. 

In the end, of course, Reed and team out-think the new menace. However, the reader is left with a sense that this villain would return again- relentlessly, until he finally won the day. 

The second story stands as what is possibly my favorite Lee and Kirby collaboration. In what was then a daring move, the second Fantastic Four Annual featured Dr. Doom’s origin as a key feature. The tale went far beyond the typical “something bad happened and turned a guy from the wrong side of the tracks to a life of crime”. Astonishingly, this story was a mere 12 pages that followed Doom from a hard life of persecution as a member of a traveling gypsy community through the ascension to rightful monarch of his Latverian homeland. 

As a young man he masters the occult. As an adult, he heads to American and masters science. An accident, which he wrongly blames on Reed, leads to Doom’s face being scarred in an explosion of his own making. After the botched experiment, he flees to the far East and re-embraces mysticism. Monks fashion an iron armor for him, complete with a sinister metal face plate. Doom’s sense of ego pride, and mania result in him demanding the still hot metal be placed directly on his face before the it has cooled. If his face wasn’t already scarred, it certainly was now. 

Strange Tales 126 and 127 debut Ditko’s dread Domammu, duke of a dark dystopian devilish domain daunted daringly by Dr. Strange. The tale initiates what some have argued to be the first serialized graphic novel. It is certainly a case of Ditko, abetted by scripter Stan Lee, stretching the medium and really going to new places of proto-psychedelia with the art form. It's nearly unbelievable that Ditko never sampled drugs, and rejected the occult. His vision of unseen worlds is second to none. 

Thor 112, 113, and 115 detail the origin of Thor’s favorite anti-hero half brother Loki. Origin? They’re gods. Dude was born as the god of “super-mischief”. Anyway, the history of the two brother’s strife spends two chapters on the brother’s boyhood, and wraps up with a present day tale where Thor combats the Absorbing Man. True fact: this Thor story is the basis for the villain and the fight scene at the end of Ang Lee’s Hulk film. Seriously. 

The Red Skull is next for a bit of revisionist history. Captain America debuted in 1940, before Pearl harbor. he was soon found kicking the living shit out of all kinds of Nazi agents, including the Red Skull. Post-war the patriot’s sales slowed down, and the series was finally cancelled in the 50s. When Kirby and Lee were expanding the Marvel line, they decided to revive Captain America in Avengers 4. The character proved popular, and soon he had his own feature again in the pages of Tale to Astonish. 

The early stories were period pieces, and this is where we finally discover the secrets of the Skull. The true highlight of this story is Skull and Cap in a jail cell. Cap is tied to a chair, and the Red Skull sits in a char turned backwards,  facing his prisoner, The Skull casually leans over the chair back as he tells his tale. In one amazing moment, the Captain mouths off and is summarily bitch-slapped by the Skull, who quickly resumes his tale. Needless to say, Cap doesn’t suffer many more Nazi backhands before breaking free and kicking ass. 

Just as crucial in the history of Marvel’s villains, were the remarkable Amazing Spider-Man 39 and 40. These issues immediately followed the 38 issue Lee/Ditko run with John Romita stepping in for Ditko as artist. The two part epic finally revealed the identity of the Green Goblin, and found him discovering Spider-Man’s true self as well. As much as I prefer Ditko’s run to just about any series published, Romita and Lee are in perfect sync on this one. Stakes are high, and the story is a thrill even today. 

One of the classic villain super-hero tropes is that of a hero facing their equal number. In Hulk’s case, that was a tough one. Still, by 1967, Lee knew a good plot when he saw it, and introduced the Abomination. Drawn by Gil Kane, the Abomination was a Soviet spy who bathed himself in gamma rays. It transformed him into a reptile skinned Hulk-like monster. Being the Hulk, they done beat on each other for 20 pages before the dirty commie lost. The book’s cast of military antagonists actually changed their tune after Hulk defeated the creature, at least for one issue. 

Dormmamu suggested the lord of a demon realm. By the time the Silver Surfer was in full swing in the late 60s, Marvel took a risk on a full on devil. Mephisto debuted as a classic representation of a moody tempter of good men. The story, drawn by John Buscema, features a misunderstood Surfer being tempted by Mephisto, with estranged love Shalla Bal as the prize. The best part is Mephisto and Shalla in a spaceship. 

Shalla Bal: A space ship! But— Why?? Surley you have the power to traverse any distance with but a thought!
Mephisto: My reasons are my own. Mephisto moves in devious ways. 


This book is truly one of the most consistently solid collections of work collected from the 60s. It’s got a lot of great character work, classic stories, and amazing art. There’s really not a weak tale in the bunch, despite my occasional jokes.

So what's next? The Superhero Women. Feminism would never be the same.