Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Summer Reading: Marvel Comics from the Beginning

Thanks to what I believe to be one of the best apps available and one of the best deals out there in Marvel Unlimited, I have decided to take on a very cool summer reading list: the first 30 years of the Marvel 616 comic universe in what I can best deduce as the correct order.  This is something that I would never have the monetary means to achieve without the Marvel Unlimited app I’m running on my tablet but with the app I’m able to personally take in the original Marvel universe as it unfolded in the words of Stan Lee for $70.  Can’t beat it and I really hope that DC picks up the idea soon.
As I pour through the comics I will probably take some breaks from continuity and read some of the newer Marvel Now titles that I’m enjoying on the same app: for my money Mark Waid’s Daredevil is as good a book as there is out there right now and I’m also enjoying Hawkeye, Captain Marvel and a few other titles as well as catching up on The Inhumans while also reading my paper copies of the books I’ve subscribed to.  But the chance to go back to 1961 on my tablet and see the genesis of my favorite fictional universe is just too damn cool. As I go I’ll update with what will probably be a collection of random thoughts mixed into some longer, coherent threads about what is unfolding. 
 That thread starts with the original Marvel comic: Fantastic Four #1, volume 1 which tells the origin of the super-team and faces them off against the legendary villain, Mole Man.  Okay, he’s hardly legendary, in fact, he may be the lamest villain yet and his base on Monster Isle, from where he attempts to destroy the entire “atomic” arsenal of the world so his monsters can help him rule, is pretty lame as well, but he’s not the point.
 This is where we first meet Reed Richards, Ben Grimm and Sue and Johnny Storm and it is also the introduction of super-powered people to the general population of the comic universe and the reaction to them through the first couple of books is one of fear and uncertainty and that idea is an important one and a common thread throughout comic book movies today such as The Avengers and Man of Steel. 
The Fantastic Four, as we learn in a flashback sequence,  gain their powers when their space journey runs them straight through some pretty underexplained “cosmic rays” which alter each of them differently at the molecular level with Ben Grimm getting the worst of it by being changed, seemingly permanently, into the brick/rock-like Thing.  Reed Richards, THE genius of the Marvel universe, becomes the uber-stretchy Mr. Fantastic, his fiancĂ© Sue Storm gains the ability to become invisible and her precocious brother, Johnny, gains the ability to say “Flame On!” and turn into the Human Torch, literally a being of flame who, now lighter than air, can fly and burn at temperatures hot enough to melt just about anything.
Reed assembles the team by firing a flare gun that makes a nifty number 4 in the sky.  Once they meet he gives them the low-down on the machinations of Mole Man, who is tunneling from his base on Monster Isle to all the stashes of atomic weapons and destroying them using the horde of assorted beasts under his control. Using some good tracking skills the team locates the base, each of them does his/her thing and, as a team, they beat Mole Man, supposedly burying him forever and saving the world from his terrifying rule.  Keep in mind, at the time, the Fantastic Four are THE only super-powered humans on the planet.
I was surprised to be introduced to the Skrulls in issue #2.  I know the Skrulls well, I know how important of a role they play in the Marvel universe, but I did not expect their inclusion in the universe to have come just 2 issues into it.  But here they are, the shape-shifting alien race, come to conquer Earth, but not before discrediting and destroying the Fantastic Four.
The Skrulls fear the powers of the team and know they must get them out of the way before they can rule our planet. Their plan is to impersonate each member of the group and do something awful or criminal while in disguise so in order to take away the good name of the FF and, eventually, have them locked up…and that is exactly what happens.  However, each member of the group uses his/her power to escape lock-up and then, go after the Skrulls.  
After Johnny grabs the attention of the Skrulls the team assembles to defeat them.  Reed then decides to lead the team to the Skrull mother-ship under the ruse that they ARE the Skrulls.  Once there  Reed tells the leader of the Skrull invasion force that the humans are too powerful, the FF too great and that the only option is that the Skrulls reatreat while they stay behind to distract them during the escape.  Terrified, the Skrull leader buys the story and retreats, leaving 3 defeated Skrull soldiers on Earth.  What of them?  Well, Reed hypnotizes them and makes them turn into cows…but they will be seen again!!! 
The next book on my list was Tales to Astonish #27 which gives us the story of The Man in the Ant Hill: our introduction to scientific genius Hank Pym who will become The Astonishing Ant-Man!  There’s not much to this story.  We meet Pym and see that he is mocked by the scientific community for his dalliances in what they believe are silly experiments, but Pym tells them he will prove them wrong, they will see, bahahahahaha etc, etc.   
What is it that Pym is going to use to give them their come-uppance?  His growth and shrinking serums, of course.  After safely shrinking a chair and then restoring it to its natural size, Pym does what any scientific genius would do: proceed straight to a human trial…on himself.  The shrinking serum works, of course, but I’ll be damned if he didn’t leave the growth serum up on the table which is too high for him to reach now.  You know these genius-types often forget the details otherwise there wouldn’t be room for adventure. 
 After inexplicably running outside, being attacked and then saved by ants, Pym gets back to his office, walks into the serum and is returned to normal size.  Soon after, when he meets with those same bully scientists, Pym concedes that they are right and he is a fool…but we all know better.  We’ve seen the origin of Ant-Man, one of the founding Avengers. 
This iteration of Ant-Man is different from the one I know well…I’m used to Pym Particles and I wonder where they will come into play.  Serums and pills are cool and all, but next to Reed Richards’ genius is Pym’s and his particles are just the tip of the iceberg.  I look forward to seeing his genius explored and altered as I go. 
From there I read Fantastic Four #3 in which the team fights the hypnotic villain, Miracle Man…this was a pretty lame issue but it does introduce the Baxter Building and the Fantasti-car which are two staples of FF lore.  
Through 3 issues of FF I can see a lot of threads under development with which I am familiar and that even made it into the two FF movies.  The feud between Johnny and Ben, Ben’s huge struggle with how different he is from the others because he cannot control his powers, and even the cute trench coat costume…speaking of costumes, the group does get their traditional outfits in issue 3 thanks to Sue’s high-end design skills but, as we all know, Ben don’t like his none and prefers to trot about in his draws. 
The fifth book in my reading order came as a surprise to me as I hadn’t realized how early this character was introduced: The Incredible Hulk #1!  The Hulk is, by far, my favorite Marvel character.  Something about uncontrolled rage fuelling mass destruction speaks to me…I can’t be sure why. 
For the third time in three new characters, we are introduced into yet another genius, another doctor.  This time it is gamma-radiation specialist, Bruce Banner.  We meet him in the midst of testing his gamma bomb for the military, represented, of course, by General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross, the arch-enemy of the Hulk for the past 40+ years. Things are going well and the test is underway, when teen Rick Jones drives his car into the testing site on a dare.  Banner sees this and runs to his aid, entrusting that the Soviet-spy in the room, Igor, will pause the test until both men clear the area…alas, this is not to be, but Banner was able to shove Rick to safety before absorbing the full impact of the gamma rays.  
Banner somehow survives, General Ross is pissed, his daughter, Betty Ross, is concerned and Rick Jones is obligated with some sort of Gungan life-debt to Banner…things are good, until night fall.   That’s right, the original catalyst of Banner’s transformation into the rage monster is night fall!  So, night falls, Banner Hulks out and breaks out of the cell he and Jones had been held in. 
 Of course, Jones tags along with the huge monster and follows him back to Banner’s lab where they find Ruskie Igor searching for the secret sauce recipe. Igor shoots the Hulk, Hulk  tosses him about but soon, when the sun’s rays hit the Hulk, he transforms back to Banner just in time for the cops to hit the scene and arrest Igor. 
Interesting couple of things here: the original transformation of the Hulk are caused by night and day, not anger.  I’m not sure when the anger issues will be introduced but I feel it will be a welcome change.  I get the Jekyll-Hyde monster references, but the whole concept of Banner trying to control the beast is one of my favorite things about the Hulk and that would be lost if it was kept as something that was controlled by the sun and moon.  Second thing of interest: after being shot as the Hulk, we see Banner is injured.  I prefer the completely indestructible version of the Hulk…the one in which he won’t even let Banner get hurt.  But, as I said, I look forward to the evolution of these characters.  It’s one of the reasons I’m so excited to undertake this reading project. 
  The remainder of the issue sees Hulk hunted by the army and by Soviet monster, the Gargoyle, another product of nuclear testing…another scientist turned monster. He wants to capture the Hulk, learn his secrets and make an army of Hulks so the USSR can rule the world...right up until he remembers the hates the USSR for making him a monster, discovers the Hulk can change back into a man, that the man is a genius who can help him and decides to give up his genius and send Banner and Jones back to the US in exchange for reversing the process that created the Gargoyle.  Banner bombards him with radiation and “cures” him and the ex-Gargoyle makes good on his word and sends Banner and Jones back to America…how Rick Jones, a teen-age orphan, ended up in Communist Russia without a passport will likely be explored in further issues.
As of now that’s where I’ve gotten to in my reading. The writing and artwork of the original 60s books are much different than what we see today, obviously.  I, for one, appreciate the work that Lee and Kirby did, given they were pretty much the only two writing and penciling, but I am also happy to see how far comics have come that we have so many talented writers and artists working on the books.  Although I know where the universe is headed I am very excited to keep reading and see just how it gets to be the one that I know today.  I know that soon I’ll see the introduction of a very different Iron Man, Spider-Man and the X-Men.  I’ll keep reading and writing about it…check back in for more.