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for Monday, April 23, 2007

Marvel 1966

A friend recently sent me one of the coolest gifts I've ever received and it came as a complete surprise to me. He was reducing the amount of stuff he owned in preparation for a move to a smaller house and decided Casa Isabella would be a good home for his bound volumes of every super-hero comic book distributed by Marvel Comics in 1966. I was speechless when I opened the boxes.

Such a gift clearly demanded more of me than simply rereading these treasures. So, most every Monday from here until I reach the final 1966 issues of these comics will be a MARVEL MONDAY, special editions of this column in which I write about the comics so cherished by my 14-year-old self. To add to the fun, I'll also cover as many of Marvel's non-super-hero comics from the year as I can get my hands on.

I'll be going week by week, a schedule made possible because of the incredible scholarship found at the Marvel Comics Group 1939-1980 website:

The website tracks the titles in the order they showed up on newsstands. It's one of my favorite comics research resources and I recommend it to anyone who shares my interest in comics history. Check it out today!


What was going on in the world at the start of 1966?

It was roughly five years past the Cuban Missile Crisis, four years since the death of Marilyn Monroe, and three years since the assassination of President Kennedy. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act had been passed and the United States was first becoming involved in Vietnam. In 1966, China would announce and begin its "Cultural Revolution."

Marvel Comics published 13 comic books in January, 1966. The first seven hit the newsstands on January 4, the remaining six on January 11.

On January 4, actor Ronald Reagan announced his intention to seek the Republican nomination to run for governor of California. The popular TV western Rawhide would air the final episode of its seven-year run. In Petticoat Junction, Shady Rest Hotel owner Kate Bradley (Bea Benaderet) battled rural postmasters to recover an ill-advised letter.

The WABC All American Radio Survey for the week showed "The Sounds of Silence" by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel claiming the #1 spot, followed by "We Can Work It Out" by the Beatles and "Turn! Turn! Turn!" by the Byrds.

It was a good week to read comic books.

Was there ever a bad week?

Thor 126

THOR #126 [March, 1966] made official what had been the case for years; this was not Journey Into Mystery featuring the Thunder God, it was Thor's comic book all the way. Despite the delicate inks of Vince Colletta, Jack Kirby's up-close shot of Thor duking it out with Hercules made for an incredibly powerful cover. The sight of a distraught Jane Foster, placed so perfectly between the combatants, added an emotional note to the scene.

The inside front cover hawked a "Polaris Nuclear Sub" for just $6.98. It was said to be over seven feet long, big enough for two kids, and fire rockets and torpedoes. I'm hoping these fearsome weapons were sold only to wholesome American kids.

"Whom The Gods Would Destroy" devoted almost every shot of its 16 pages to this "long-awaited clash of titans," pausing only for scenes of the bipolar Odin bouncing between pride in Thor and anger over Thor's disobedience. The recap of the previous issue was Stan Lee wonderfulness:

Another mighty Marvel instant resume:

Hercules has come to Earth! He's got the big eye for Thor's chick!

Goldilocks is bugged, but good!

So, they're fighting it out!

There! That's as painless as we can make it!

The credits are fun, too. Lee is "The Literary Lion!" Kirby is "The Pencilling Pussycat!" Colletta's "The Delineating Dragon!" As for Artie Simek...

"The lettering looks it!"

I always wondered how Simek and the other letterers felt about being the punch line of such comical credits. I wish I had thought to ask them during my time at Marvel.

Nobody drew big-city fights like Kirby. A double-trailer gets crushed between Thor and Hercules. The brawling gods fall through the pavement, battle on the roof of a subway train, and then smash a demolition site...all while expressing major man-respect for each other in their thoughts.

Odin fixes the fight by taking away half of Thor's strength in mid-battle. But, since he can't bear to do this himself, he loans his "Odin-Power" to an advisor named Seidring the Merciless to do the deed for him. What could possibly go wrong there?

(I know, but I'll save it for when I write about THOR #127 in an upcoming column.)

Hercules wins the fight and gets a Hollywood deal. The crowd mocks the fallen Thor - "From where I sit, his thunder sounds more like a shaky squeak!" - but Jane professes her love for Goldilocks. However, a shamed-by-defeat Thor walks away from her. A remorseful Odin speaks to Jane from Asgard and tells her to go to his valiant son. I never liked Odin.

In the final panel, a "special bullpen note" warns us to not even try to guess what will happen next issue. Clearly, Odin was a bad influence on them.

After a few pages of novelty ads ("X-Ray Specs" for a dollar, a giant talking clown for $1.25, and other wonders) and the Marvel Bullpen Bulletins page, which I'll discuss in detail next Monday, we get "The Summons!" It's a five-page "Tales of Asgard" chapter by the same guys who did this issue's lead story.

On some quest I don't remember, Loki has been captured by Ula, the queen of the flying trolls. Ula, Uma. Uma, Ula. Thor swoops down in his summer shorts - the color got left off his leggings on the title page - to rescue Loki. Odin zaps the flying trolls from afar and orders his boys and their shipmates to return to Asgard to face the true menace which is not, as one might expect, a certain All-Father who hasn't been taking his meds.

The issue's "The Hammer Strikes" letters page doesn't include any familiar names or notable letters/responses. It's not quite a full page because...where else was Marvel gonna put that "Statement of Ownership, Management, and Circulation"?

The average print run of JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY was 377,663 with that number changing to 463,975 with the issue published nearest to the filing date.

The total average paid circulation was 231,904, which went up to 290,400 with the issue published nearest to the filing date. Of those copies, mail subscriptions accounted for, respectively, 740 and 975 copies. Looking at IC's "Top 300 Comics" sales estimates for March, 2007...

...only Captain America #25 is likely to sell as many copies as this 41-year-old issue of Thor. In all fairness, Thor cost 12 cents back in the day, and that issue of Cap's book is priced at $3.99.

X-Men 18

On its cover, THE X-MEN #18 [March, 1966] shows Iceman going mano-a-mano with Magneto and clearly getting the worst of it. But Bobby Drake holds his own during the 20-page "If Iceman Should Fail...!" by Stan Lee, Werner Roth (credited as "Jay Gavin"), Dick Ayers, and Artie Simek. The cover was drawn by the Roth/Ayers team over a Jack Kirby layout, though there are those who believe Kirby also pencilled the Magneto figure.

Stan Lee had his usual fun with the credits:

A fair story by: Stan Lee

Adequate art by: Jay Gavin

Tolerable inking by: Dick Ayers

The world's greatest lettering by: Artie Simek

(Marvel's birthday boy of the month)

In the previous ish, the Iceman had fallen ill and been taken to a hospital. At the X-Men mansion, Magneto, unseen until the end of said previous ish, skulked around and took down the rest of the team one-by-one. He put them in a balloon and sent them soaring up into the oxygen-shy reaches of the Earth's atmosphere. Since the X-Men believed Magneto to be a prisoner of the Stranger on another world, he had the element of surprise on his side.

The early pages of the story are filled with pseudo-scientific gobbledygook. Magneto uses "magnetic attraction" to hypnotize the Angel's visiting parents. He uses his "matchless power" to build a mutant-making machine, to analyze and duplicate the Worthingtons' cells, and to start creating mutants to do his bidding and conquer the world. No more seeking out real mutants for him. Free will is such a bother, don't you know?

If you can get past the science gibberish, the issue is pretty good. Through sheer force of will, or, if you prefer, the "counter ego" he claims to possess, Charles Xavier manages to free his mind from the device Magneto placed on him. He then revives Jean Grey, Beast, Cyclops, and Angel. He figures out how to spring them from Mag's death-balloon. He sends a long-distance telepathic message ordering the slowly recovering Iceman to protect the Angel's folks and to toss an icy monkey wrench into Magneto's machinery. The action may not be Kirby-powered, but it's exciting and it features the heroes using their brains. For a long time after this issue, Iceman was my favorite teen mutant.

Magneto faces the entire team, but he still has the upper-hand in the fight...until the Stranger comes a'calling. Summoned by the "most powerful thought projection" ever attempted by the Professor, the big scary alien has come to reclaim his specimen. Magneto cuts and runs. This would be the last Marvel readers would see of him for a few years.

The happy ending has the Worthingtons, who have no memories of their close encounter of the mutant kind, sitting down to dine with Xavier and his students. The next issue blurb promises:

A new type of foe!

A new type of story!

A new type of action!

But the same ol' Marvel magic!

'Nuff Said!

My educated guess is that Stan had no idea what the next issue would be when he wrote this blurb. However, by the end of the two-page letter column, he was ready to share this with us:

NEXT ISH: Anything can happen - and probably will! You're gonna meet a brand new, completely different, completely off-beat super-villain! Stan and Jay cooked this one up while driving home from work the other night - in the middle of a traffic jam - with horns honking all around - and everybody yelling and screaming! But, all the commotion turned out to be a blessing in disguise - how else could they ever have come up with a masterwork of evil menace such as - the Mimic?? It's all action - all thrills - all yours - next ish! 'Nuff said!

Also worth noting from this "Let's Visit the X-Men!" column is a letter from Yuta Funasaka of Tokyo, Japan, writing about how he translates Marvel's comics from his friends and asking Marvel to send more of their issues to his country. The big-hearted Bullpen responded by sending this loyal reader a complimentary subscription to the title.

Daredevil 14

Reading DAREDEVIL #14 [March, 1966] for the first time in well over a decade put curious thoughts in my head. "If This Be Justice!" was the final chapter of a three-issue story that took DD from New York to the Savage Land and England. I didn't recognize this at the time, but penciller John Romita (cover and interiors) had a Milton Caniff influence to his work. In later years, I would become well acquainted with and a huge fan of Caniff's "Terry and the Pirates" and "Steve Canyon" newspaper strips with their great globe-trotting adventures. My curious thoughts:

What would Daredevil had become if, in 1966, the book had played to that Caniff influence? Would Matt Murdock have lent himself to that kind of rootless adventure, where one issue might see him in England and the next in Japan or the Middle East? Given my tendency to over-research my stories, I'd never be able to write such a Daredevil title on a regular basis, but I think I would very much like to read it.

[Remind me to tell you sometime about an equally extreme idea I once had about Ben "the Thing" Grimm. Or, better still, pitch it to Marvel.]

This issue opens with Daredevil and guest-star Ka-Zar diving away from a high-velocity rifle grenade as it explodes. Ka-Zar's down for the count and, aside from a truncated courtroom outburst, doesn't do anything of significance. Except inherit a fortune when DD brings the Plunderer, Ka-Zar's evil, horribly costumed brother, to justice. The 20-page story is written by Stan Lee, pencilled by Romita, inked by Frank Giacoia (as "Frankie Ray"), and lettered by Artie Simek.

Daredevil comes off a little like James Bond in a costume in this story. The Plunderer's plan to conquer England by using his vibrating ore to destroy all metal weapons would not have been out of place in an 007 movie. Little is made of DD's blindness and the only lawyer-type thing he does as Matt Murdock is call his partner Foggy Nelson asking him to hop on a plane and cross the Atlantic to defend Ka-Zar. Karen Page seems to be on hand mostly for the sake of the awkward lawyer-secretary-lawyer romantic triangle that never really worked for me. Not then, not now.

I don't want to knock the story. It's well-written with some of the best art to be found in any Marvel comic of the era. But it didn't have the explosive power of Thor #126, or the rough excitement of The X-Men #18.

The "Let's Level With Daredevil" letters pages are notable for such Lee classics as "See why we claim Jazzy JOHNNY ROMITA is the greatest thing since bubble gum?" and describing next month's issue as "so jam-packed with the mighty Marvel blend of action and drama it makes War and Peace seem like a Saki shorty!" In between these outbursts, a California mother asks for complete-in-one-issue stories so that she, her husband, and their four kids can keep them straight. Another reader thinks all Marvel titles should switch to bi-monthly frequency to allow more time for deliberation and thus make the already-superb comics even better. The anonymous letter-answerer quips that the reader wants the company slogan to be "Make Mine Marvel, but not so often!"

Tales to Astonish 78

TALES TO ASTONISH #78 [April, 1966] billed Sub-Mariner and the Incredible Hulk above its barely there title logo. The two alternated on the covers. This issue, it was Prince Namor falling under the power of the Puppet Master as pencilled by Gene Colan and inked by Vince Colletta. Inside, Colan was going by the name "Adam Austin," though it would've been a clueless DC editor, indeed, who couldn't have discerned that the new Marvel artist was the same guy drawing war and romance stories for them.

As the 12-page "The Prince and the Puppet" opens, Sub-Mariner is facing down Henry Pym (formerly Giant-Man), head of a scientific mission that has unwittingly done severe damage to Namor's kingdom. Also on the scene is Pym paramour Janet van Dyne, who, as the Wasp, was also a member of the Avengers. A quick-on-the-trigger soldier accidentally shoots an oxygen tank, a fire breaks out, and, in the resultant chaos, the Puppet Master takes control of Namor's mind. Pym is clearly shook. Why else would he utter this immortal piece of dialogue:

The flames must be kept from reaching the inflammable equipment in the hold!

With Subby heading for the "mainland," the Wasp shrinks to flying size to warn the authorities, though there's no possibility of her getting to shore before Namor.

Unfortunately, we must leave the wonderful Wasp at this point...But, those of you fortunately enough to obtain copies of Avengers #26 can learn of the fantastic menace she encounters during her not-to-be-completed flight! (Another admittedly unabashed Marvel ad!)

Such cross-continuity was becoming more common in the Marvel Universe, but the prospect of the Wasp - and maybe even Giant-Man - rejoining the Avengers was pretty exciting to me.

In New York, the Puppet Master commands Namor to rob a bank. Subby returns with non-negotiable bonds, worthless to the villain. Showing a further lack of vision, the Puppet Master sends Namor out to rob the exact same bank, a bank now protected by heavily armed National Guardsman. As the story ends, Namor is ordered to battle the soldiers to the death.

"The Prince and the Puppet" was written by Stan Lee, pencilled by Colan, inked by Colletta, and lettered by Artie Simek. I hadn't yet learned to appreciate Colan's style, though that would come in time and as I saw him paired with more suitable inkers.

Between the issue's two stories, readers were offered a chance to buy the "Incredible Hulk Swinging Sweat Shirt" for a mere $2.98 plus shipping. The front of the Jack Kirby-drawn shirt showed the Hulk walking forward in a menacing manner with a rope in one hand, framed by the slogan "Here Comes the Incredible Hulk". On the back of the shirt, the Hulk was walking away ("There Goes the Incredible Hulk") and we could now see the rope was pulling a wooden rabbit on wheels. I bought several Marvel Comics shirts back in the day, but I could never bring myself to buy this one. It was too bizarre for my somewhat serious teen-age sensibilities.

The 10-page "The Hulk Must Die!" was a deadly serious exercise in pseudo-science. When the Hulk returns from a distant future, he is lured into a trap and sprayed with a "pore gas" that blocks all oxygen from his body. Unconscious, he's imprisoned in a deep pit and kept from escaping by "anti-matter elements" that act as bars and somehow don't blow up the entire Southwest when the Hulk tries to break through them.

The Hulk's captor is Zaxon, a pipe-smoking military scientist who works in the field of "organic energy." Wearing an Iron Man-style armor suit, Zaxon plans to drain the Hulk's incredible energy into a machine whose power will be infinite and with which Zaxon plans to rule the world. The tale ends with the scientist blasting the Hulk with his device.

I confess Stan Lee's joyless story didn't do much for me when I first read it. It still doesn't. But what stuck with me, though I wasn't sure at the time if I liked it or not, was the teaming of Jack Kirby (layouts) and Bill Everett (finished art). The amount of detail Everett put into the visuals was staggering. I had liked his art on Daredevil #1 quite a bit, but this was different. It's 31 years later and I'm pretty sure that I like it, but there's no question that it fascinates me as much now as it did then.

The "Mails To Astonish" column doesn't run a full page, but it does have a note from the Phi Delta Theta Fraternity of Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, extending an invitation to the Hulk to become an honorary member of the fraternity. Hulk chug!

The Statement of Ownership, Management, and Circulation shows Tales To Astonish selling about as well as Thor. The average print run was 368,525 and, for the issue nearest to filing date, it was 430,735. Total paid circulation averaged 224,346 with 480 subscriptions, which went up to 265,135 with 735 subscriptions for the issue nearest to filing date.

Thanks for spending part of your day reading this long-winded edition of TOT. My next "Marvel Mondays" will cover the remaining Marvel issues which hit the stands on January 4, and, hopefully, do so in more succinct fashion.

Look for it on Monday, April 30, followed by a regular TOT on Tuesday, May 1, and a new batch of "Tony Polls" questions. See you then.

Tony Isabella

<< 04/13/2007 | 04/23/2007 | 05/01/2007 >>

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Zero Tonys
ZERO: Burn your money before buying any comic receiving this rating. It doesn't *necessarily* mean there's absolutely nothing of value here - though it *could* - but whatever value it might possess shrinks into insignificance before its overall awfulness.

ONE: Buy something else. Maybe I found something which wasn't completely dreadful in the item, but not enough for me to recommend it when there are better comics available. I only want what's best for you, my children.

TWO: Basic judgment call. I found some value, but not enough to recommend it. My review should give you enough info to decide if you want to take a chance on it. Are you feeling lucky today, punk? Well, are you?

THREE: This denotes something I find perfectly respectable. There are better books out there, but I wouldn't regret buying this item. Based on my review, you should be able to determine if it's of interest to you. Let the Force guide you.

FOUR: I recommend anything earning this rating. Unless you don't like the genre, subject matter, or past work of the creators, I believe you'll enjoy this item. Isn't it uncanny how I can look right into your soul that way?

FIVE: Anything getting this rating is among the best comicdom has to offer. You should buy/read this, even if the genre/subject matter doesn't appeal to you. It's for your own good. Me, I live for comics and books this good...but not in a pathetic "Comic-Book Guy" sort of way.

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