Comics : Marvel Tales #4

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This story is part of a Lookback Series: From The Beginning

This review was first published on: 2005.

Background...

Marvel Tales continues with Spider-Man, Human Torch, Thor and Ant-Man reprints featuring some really odd villains this time, showcasing the wonderfully eccentric nature of the early 60s Marvels. Or as it says on the cover, "Another vintage collection of super-spectacular sagas from the unforgettable, early years of this the Marvel Age of Comics!" which is exactly what I said only written in Stan-speak.

While Amazing #40 was on the shelves, MT was already reprinting the much-demanded classic Amazing Spider-Man #7, among other great tales. And if a lookback at a reprint doesn't convince you that SpiderFan is the most dedicated Spidey website around, I just don't know what will!

In Detail...

Marvel Tales #4
Sep 1966 : SM Reprint
Reprints: Amazing Spider-Man (Vol. 1) #7
Reprints: Strange Tales (Vol. 1) #102
Reprints: Journey Into Mystery #86
Reprints: Tales To Astonish (Vol. 1) #39
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Review

There's something about the yellow background on this issue's cover that really makes it stand out. Although it once again features reproductions of the four original covers to these stories making it little different from the other issues of the time, this is the Marvel Tales cover that always sticks in my mind. Working from top to bottom and then left to right (which seems to be the way we're supposed to do it since that is the order that the stories are in) we have the cover of Amazing Spider-Man #7, December 1963 accompanied by the blurb, "The Amazing Spider-Man trapped by the Vulture!" (I'm not sure that Spidey is ever actually "trapped" by the Vulture in this story but I'll keep the quibbling to a minimum.), followed below by the cover to Strange Tales #102, November 1962 which seems more interested in the science fiction shorts ("Who Needs You? The Astonishing Clash of Man vs. Robot!", "What was the dreaded Secret of the Hidden Planet?") than it does the Human Torch story, but is now blurbed with "The Human Torch imprisoned by the Wizard!" (Which does happen in this story.), followed up and to the right by the cover of Journey Into Mystery #86, November 1962 with the blurb "Mighty Thor helpless before the Tomorrow Man!" (Which sort of happens in this issue.), and finishing below with the cover to Tales to Astonish #39, January 1963, touting "The Astonishing Ant-Man human target of the Scarlet Beetle!" (Which is pretty much undeniable.) You'll notice that each issue follows in sequence from the issues reprinted in Marvel Tales #3, July 1966 except for the Thor series which skips from JIM #84, September 1962 to JIM #86. So what became of JIM #85, October 1962 which only happens to feature the first appearances of Loki, Odin, Balder, and Heimdall? Well, it was already reprinted in Journey Into Mystery Annual #1, 1965. Sorry about that, Marvel Tales fans!

The inside front cover again features a contents page done in grays. "Reprinted by popular demand!!!" it begins, ignoring the fact that the stories are reprinted in sequence, "Four comicdom classics of yesteryear featuring Marvel's vilest villains!" In the top left of four panels, Spidey is attaching some webbing to the Vulture's back while the blurb tells us, "The Vulture tangles with the Amazing Spider-Man!" (This is from page 19, panel 5 of the story and is cribbed right from the web-slinger's victory; not that you would necessarily know that from the drawing.) Bottom left shows the Human Torch flying away with two satchels filled with money (well, it's not really the Torch but we'll get to that when the time comes) above a caption reading, "The Wizard traps the fiery Human Torch!" (The scene is from page 9, panel four of the story.) Top right shows Thor fending off two missiles while we're told, "Tomorrow Man battles the Mighty Thor!" (This is from page 3, panel four of that story.) Bottom right shows Ant-Man shaking his fist at something, with the caption, "The Scarlet Beetle attacks the Astonishing Ant-Man!" (This from page 8, panel 2 of this tale.) You'll note that each blurb on the cover begins with the hero's name and ends with the villain's name while the blurbs inside begin with the villain's name and end with the hero's name. Very clever of Stan, don't you think?

The Return of the Vulture: I'm going to skip over the Spider-Man story as usual. (Psst! It's from ASM #7. Go to that Lookback and read all about it.) A quick glance at the contents assures me that there are no changes to the reprint and the colors are even accurate this time. When I did the original story, I noted that it was "Longer, stronger, funnier, more action- packed, more satisfying than the previous Vulture appearance" and I gave it 4 webs. That's what it still gets in reprint form as well.

Prisoner of the Wizard: The Human Torch story from Strange Tales #102 introduces us to the Wizard who is a much different character than what he later becomes. He even looks different: taller and thinner with very big ears and a strange elongated face. The splash page shows the Human Torch melting the door of a bank safe with his fireballs. The bystanders think he has "turned criminal" but the Torch can only think about how the "fools... suspect nothing" of the truth. Then the story begins for real on page two with a recap of the last issue defeat of the Destroyer, cleverly disguised as a newsreel shown in a movie theatre. Apparently the newsreel is shown at the end of the movie because the lights come up afterwards and people leave their seats. Some marvel at the greatness of the Torch while others spy the Wizard outside the theatre and recoil in awe. So the Wizard is not a criminal at this point but is famous as the man with the world's greatest brain. The Wizard has also watched the newsreel and decides to challenge the Torch just to test his powers. Wiz is already a pretty wealthy guy. He gets a ride home in a chauffeur driven limousine and his house must have cost him a lot of dough. It's futuristic in an early-60s kind of way (that means lots of glass and an escalator) and why not? After all, he designed it himself. When he enters, he stands outside a closet and a couple of robot arms remove his hat and coat. He goes to sit in his "air-chair", which looks like a cloud floating a foot off the floor and gazes at his press clippings. While he's doing that he reminisces about defeating both a "former chess champion and an electronic calculating robot" in chess. He also recalls performing "feats unrivalled by the greatest magicians" including one time when he was chained up, locked in a safe and dropped in the sea where he escaped by using a tiny saw powered by an atomic motor and a gas that expanded to burst the door off the safe. As far as the Wizard is concerned he only has one challenge left: "to defeat the Human Torch!" So he whips up a plan to do just that.

First step is finding the Torch since, you know, his identity of Johnny Storm is secret and all. The Wizard could just go to the Baxter Building for a visit or put an ad in the paper but no. He decides to build an atomic-powered giant-size drill inside which he can ride. He then announces that he is going to try to bore down to the center of the earth. Instead of really trying, though, he sabotages himself; trapping himself under tons of debris. He has let people believe that he has little air in the drill but actually has a supply that will last for weeks. Since the Wizard performed this stunt somewhere in the Torch's hometown of Glenville, he is pretty certain the Torch will come to rescue him and he's right. Johnny melts through the debris, burns through the drill, pulls the Wizard out and flies him to the surface. In front of the press, the Wizard shakes the Torch's hand and invites him to his house. There, the Wizard shows the Torch various inventions, putting him at his ease. Finally, the Wizard puts the Torch in the path of three gun-like devices. He tells Johnny that he wants to take a 3-D photo of him but when he pushes a button, the guns fire out a chemical solution instead.

Part 2: Wizard's Wiles!: The chemicals dowse all of Johnny's flame except the part covering his head, so his identity still isn't compromised. (It even looks like it wipes the "4" right off his uniform.) Holding a gun on his captive, the Wizard locks the helpless teen in a room lined with asbestos. Then he puts on a specially-designed costume that will burst into flame while protecting the wearer. He straps on a rocket motor so that he can fly. And, presto, just like that he can impersonate the Human Torch. The plan is to ruin the Torch's reputation by committing crimes in this disguise. Somehow this is supposed to prove that the Wizard is superior to the Torch but I don't quite see that. It seems more like just an excuse to rob a few banks.

This brings us to the splash page scene in which the Wizard melts into a vault and robs a satchel full of dough. This also brings us to the panel reproduced on the inside front cover showing "the Torch" flying away with his loot. Next stop: State prison where the Wizard melts the doors of the cells, setting all the prisoners free. Then he blocks a busy bridge with a wall of fire and tells the motorists they must pay a toll of a hundred dollars each to pass. Finally he melts a nearby statue and writes "Down with Law and Order" in flame in the sky.

Back at the Wizard's home, the chemical solution wears off and Johnny can flame on again. He increases his heat so much that he is even able to burn through the asbestos covering the wall. But when he gets out into the world, the police shoot at him and firemen try to bring him down with their fire hoses. Evading all of this, the Torch tracks down the Wizard who brazenly tells him that he knows he won't attack him since he "would never harm an unarmed man". (Well, he doesn't need to harm him to capture him, does he?) The Wizard proposes to face off against him back at his house in the evening. Johnny agrees but knows he must make a phone call first.

That evening, Johnny shows up at the Wizard's house. The Wizard has photos that show him getting into his special suit, proving he impersonated the Torch. He tells Johnny that the only way to get these photos from him is to use his flame to murder him or to flame off and fight man-to-man, which would allow the Wizard to see whom he really is. If Johnny does neither, the Wizard will toss the photos in the fireplace. Johnny tells him he has another option since he has "powers you don't even suspect". Gesturing significantly, he tells the Wizard that he has the power to move objects without touching them. Suddenly, the photos rise from the Wizard's hand and settle into Johnny's hand. Completely humiliated by this defeat, the Wizard does nothing as Johnny calls the police. When they arrive, they take a look at the photos and take the Wizard away.

After the Wizard and police are gone, Johnny's sister Sue Storm, the Invisible Girl materializes next to him. She is the one who received Johnny's phone call and she accompanied him in her invisible state. When Johnny pretended to have other powers, it was actually Sue who took the photos out of the Wizard's hand. The siblings leave the scene with Johnny moralizing, "The Wizard sure was a brain but he made the mistake of not realizing that no matter how smart a guy is, he can't ever think of everything.

As early 60s Marvel stories go, this is a pretty good one. The Wizard is nicely odd and eccentric. In fact, I like the character better as this wealthy, famous, odd-looking genius who can't stand to be upstaged rather than as the standard ill-tempered super-villain he becomes. The Kirby/Ayers artwork is fine with Jack excelling at the inventions: the air-chair, the atomic powered mini-saw, the atomic powered drill, and the Wizard's Human Torch costume. The story is marred by the usual early Marvel Age dopiness but it all fits together nicely and the ending works well. The Wizard, by the way, must have been immediately popular since he returns a few issues later in Strange Tales #105, February 1963 which means we'll see him a few issues down the line in Marvel Tales. Let's give this one four webs.

On the Trail of the Tomorrow Man!: Three hundred years in the future, "mankind has abolished war", which mankind often seems to do 300 years in the future. Everyone leads a peaceful contented life except for one ill- tempered bad apple; a scientist named Zarrko. He invents a time machine and then scans the past for a time when humanity possessed powerful weapons. The plan is to go back, get some, and then conquer his defenseless time period. When he sees the blast of an atomic bomb test in the 20th century, he knows that is the place to be.

Back in 1962, Thor is helping out with the U.S. military's latest experimental weapons tests. ("I'm happy to play a part in keeping the free world strong and secure against the forces of tyranny!" says Thor.) The Army guys fire a missile and then an anti-missile missile. Thor follows and pushes the anti- missile missile out of the way as he arrives at the missile first. (This is the panel used on the contents page.) The brass watch through binoculars and are happy to see that "this time" Thor only beat the anti-missile missile by "an instant". They have been using Thor's abilities as a measuring stick by which to improve their weapons. Now for the next test: Thor is wired up and stands next to a cobalt bomb. This way the Army can test a "human's physiological reactions" to an atomic blast. (Except Thor isn't really "human", is he... though he certainly acts like a nationalistic Red-hater in this story. And wouldn't a normal human just be blown to bits standing next to a cobalt bomb? In which case, what use are Thor's reactions?) The countdown begins but only gets to "five" when Zarrko's time machine materializes "out of empty space". Three panels ago, the bomb looked bigger than Thor but that was just perspective because now Zarrko jumps out of his machine and grabs the bomb which is about the size of a football and heads back to his time ship. Thor shakes off the wiring to which he is attached and throws his hammer at the time machine but too late. By the time the hammer arrives, it passes right through the disappearing time machine.

The military boys find a "fragment of metal" on the ground where the time machine stood. Since the machine faded rather than flew away, they theorize that it traveled through time and deduce that the thief must have come from the future "since there was no time-travel in the past". This prompts Thor to refer to his foe as "that Tomorrow-Man", thus giving Zarrko his sobriquet. Thor takes the metal fragment and flies to "a distant mountain range" where he summons rain with his hammer and calls upon Odin's help.

Part 2: Flight to the Future: Odin appears and Thor asks for help in journeying to the future; to the time "from whence this metal comes". Odin tells him to attach the metal to his hammer and then spin as fast as he can. A small tornado envelops Thor and he travels past 1965, 1972, 1991, 2013, 2086, and so on, arriving at the year 2262. But he overshoots by a month. All of the peaceful people there tell him that Zarrko arrived with the cobalt bomb, threatened to use it if he wasn't made ruler and the world gave in to his demand. Since then he has been ruling "like a tyrant". Thor assures everyone that he will get the bomb back and has a plan.

The next day, Thor brazenly marches toward the "great castle" of Zarrko. The Tomorrow Man sends his reluctant guards out to capture Thor (and the guards seem to know he is Thor. They call him by name.). They are thwarted by a strange figure concealed in a black robe who is strong enough to lift a tree and hurl it into their path.

When Thor arrives at the castle, Zarrko drops him through a trap door into a room of "magnetic mirrors". He turns the magnetism on and off on different mirrors which sends Thor hurtling around the wall and then the floor. But before he can knock Thor around any more, the mystical hammer flies through the air and smashes Zarrko's controls. That hammer has come from the man in the black robe who turns out to be Thor in disguise. The "Thor" in the mirror room is one of the 23rd century residents in disguise. (He not only has a phony hammer and a blonde wig but is wearing a duplicate costume that must have been sewn over night since Thor is still wearing his original costume under the black robe.) This, apparently, was Thor's big plan and it should be enough seeing as Zarrko's only weapon is the cobalt bomb, right? I mean, that's why he went back in time, right? To get a weapon since there aren't any in his time, right? Well, Zarrko pulls out a big, ugly gun from thin air and fires it at Thor. This is his delta-electron gun, which will send Thor "into another dimension from which you can never escape". (So, why didn't he just use this weapon to scare the world into surrendering instead of getting the cobalt bomb at all?) As Thor starts to fade into another dimension, he takes a deep breath and blows it out "with hurricane force!" Somehow this "pierces the dimension" and keeps Thor from fading away. However, Thor soon finds himself surrounded by the giant robots that used to be used as helpers in this century's laboratories. Zarrko has "converted them into [his] own private army" and he orders one of them to yank the hammer right out of Thor's hand. If Thor goes sixty seconds without his hammer he turns back into lame Dr. Don Blake so he must act quickly. He rips up the metal floor with his bare hands and finds a water pipe. He tears it open, allowing water to gush out all over the room. This water gets into the robot's mechanisms and short circuits them. With about a second to go, the one robot drops the hammer right into Thor's hand and the reversion to Don Blake is averted.

In the meantime, Zarrko has fled into a space ship with the cobalt bomb. He decides, "If I can't use the cobalt bomb to enslave the world, then I'll use it to destroy the world". As Zarrko flies away, Thor counters by calling up a lightning storm which buffets the space ship so severely that Zarrko can't get his hands on the bomb. Thor then flies up to the ship and creates "a suction of air" that knocks the space ship around until he jars the bomb loose. That's right. Somehow, Thor spins the space ship until the bomb falls right out into his arms. You think Zarrko left a window open or something? Thor seems to have no concern for Zarrko himself because he lets the space ship crash with Zarrko still in it. Zarrko emerges from the crash alive but has somehow lost his memory. Medical personnel arrive to cart him off. They tell Thor that they can heal his physical injuries but his memory will never return. (They're wrong about the memory, of course, but what do you expect with a split-second diagnosis blurted out before the patient is even examined?) The people of the 23rd century thank Thor for saving them and then he returns to 1962 with the c- bomb. (This time going past 2053, 2015, 2000, sometime in the 1980s which is partially obscured, 1974... Nixon resigns!... and home again.) Thor returns the bomb to the military but doesn't tell them the story of where he got it.

As Don Blake, Thor asks Jane Foster if anything happened while he was away. Jane razzes him for not knowing about Thor's rescue of the bomb and silently wishes she could work for Thor instead of Don Blake. But Dr. Blake has his own private moment. "I wonder if Jane will ever suspect that some of us read about the news while some of us are too busy making it" he says to himself... and to us.

This story may not seem like much nowadays but it is a definite improvement over the Thor story reprinted in last issue. In that sorry story, Thor was little more than Don Blake with super-powers and his opponent was a Fidel Castro wannabee. The transition of Thor actually begins in Journey Into Mystery #85 which is unfortunately skipped here but there is a glimpse of the expansion beyond standard super-hero in this story when Thor communicates with Odin. Still, he is a character in transition; acting as a test subject for the Army's missile tests, concocting a stupid early Silver Age plan to enter Zarrko's stronghold when he could just bust his way in, and shaking the bomb loose rather than going into the ship to retrieve it. This is part of its charm, of course, as is Zarrko's ridiculous weaponry. All in all, it's a pretty cool little early Marvel story and Zarrko makes enough of an impact to become an often-used super-villain. (He returns in Journey into Mystery #101, February 1964.) So again we're looking at four webs.

The Vengeance of the Scarlet Beetle!: Of all the odd villains in this issue, the Scarlet Beetle has got to be the oddest. He's not a costumed character like the Scarlet Witch or the Beetle. He is an actual scarlet colored beetle. The story begins with Hank Pym in his laboratory monitoring communications from his friends the ants. He can tell that "something strange and dangerous" is taking place so he changes into his Ant-Man suit, shrinks down to ant size and meets up with his insect pals. They lead him down a sewer to a spot where a scarlet beetle is communicating via mental telepathy. The beetle tells the ants (and Ant-Man) that he was just an ordinary bug until he was struck by radiation during an atomic experiment. This gave him "a brain which is the equal of any humans". Of course he wants to use that brain to make insects "masters of the world!" (This notion of various living creatures getting brainy and malevolent because of radiation is an old classic of the 50s and early 60s. My favorite of this type is "Save Me From the... Weed!" from Strange Tales #94, March 1962 in which a weed gets brainy and nasty from radiation; gaining mental powers that can destroy humanity. Until he is pulled from the ground by an overzealous gardener.)

Ant-Man takes this all very seriously. He knows that an organized insect attack could take over the world unless he, like Barney Fife, manages to "nip it in the bud". He makes a play for the Scarlet Beetle, only to be stopped by a swarm of bodyguard beetles. Ant-Man is knocked woozy, losing his cybernetic helmet in the process. The Scarlet Beetle takes advantage of this and steals the gas vials from Ant-Man's belt. He then releases the enlarging gas and makes himself as large as a human.

The bugs dump Ant-Man down a hole. Without his helmet, he can't summon his ants. Without his gas, he can't grow to normal size. He tries to climb out of the hole but the sides are too slippery and he tumbles back down again.

Up on the surface, the Beetle has control over every insect except the ants who remain loyal to Ant-Man. He orders the termites to chew through telephone poles, disrupting communication. He sends various bugs to steal boxes of dynamite from the 9th Armory right under the noses of the National Guard. He sends spiders to bite and incapacitate the mayor and other city officials. Accompanied by stinging bees, the Beetle crashes into buildings housing TV and radio stations and destroys them.

Ant-Man is completely helpless and is on the way to becoming a whiny basket case. Fortunately, his cybernetic helmet is still transmitting where it fell. It attracts the ants who use their "highly developed sense of smell" to track down their boss. Free again, Ant-Man and his buddies return to the surface where they find the Scarlet Beetle reduced to running around a park scaring the pedestrians. Ant-Man picks up a Popsicle stick, believing it will come in handy. Then he counters the Scarlet Beetle's "horde of beetles" by sending his honey ants against them. The beetles get trapped in honey and are neutralized. (So, now, wait. Honey ants? Are there ants who make honey? Isn't this just invented out of whole cloth?) Ant-Man takes a stand on the top of the park's water fountain. Grasshoppers attack him and... what do you know?... he finds a use for that Popsicle stick already. He presses it against the "water hole" of the fountain and causes a spray that knocks the grasshoppers back. While this is going on, a platoon of ants goes to a nearby store and steals a spray can of DDT (in these less environmentally conscious days). Soon all that remains between the ants and the Scarlet Beetle are the bees. But Ant-Man uses the DDT on them and the bees make a hasty retreat.

That leaves only the human-sized Scarlet Beetle who spots our hero and declares, "Ant-Man! Of all the humans, only you can thwart me! So you must be my first victim!" I really don't know why Ant-Man is the only human who can thwart the Beetle, particularly since he's just wandering around the park chasing people. Couldn't the cops grab him and cart him away? Ant-Man seems less equipped to deal with the situation than even some regular Joe on the street and he seems to prove this by jumping onto the shoe of a fleeing bystander and making his escape. Ah, but there's method to his madness. He has decided that he can't beat the Beetle out in the open. Instead he figures that a toy store is the perfect place for a fight. So, he leaps off the shoe and runs into the toy store. The Scarlet Beetle sees him go in and follows right after, crashing through the front door. Scaling the glass counter, the Ant-Man evades the Beetle by riding in a toy car (which he must have wound up in a hurry). Stopping by a toy knight, he takes the tiny lance from it and heaves it at the Scarlet Beetle. I don't know what the lance is made out of but it is strong enough to puncture the metal tank containing Ant-Man's reducing gas that the Scarlet Beetle is wearing on his belly. (Don't ask me why he bothers to strap these tanks on himself or even how he does it. Not that you'd know that he did it. There isn't a single panel showing the Beetle wearing these tanks until the moment that Ant-Man punctures one.) The gas envelopes the Scarlet Beetle causing him to shrink back to his original size. Ant-Man grabs him and imprisons him inside a deflated balloon. The ants drag the balloon back to the lab where Hank Pym counteracts the effects of the radiation, turning the Beetle into a normal bug again. Hank releases the beetle into the back yard since it wasn't his fault that he became radioactive and intelligent and malevolent. "It was just a strange quirk of fate" that seemed to happen in these early stories all the time.

You would think that that would be the end of the Scarlet Beetle but he shows up again in an Ant-Man back-up feature in Iron Man #44, January 1972. His powers return to him and he has Ant-Man on the ropes only to be crushed by the kerosene can of a guy (named Wilbur Grabowski) trying to torch his candy shop for the insurance. Poor Wilbur has never done anything right in his life and he gets caught by the cops during his arson attempt, never realizing that by squashing the Beetle he has just saved the world.

The Beetle next appears in another Ant-Man feature, this time in Amazing Spider-Man Annual #24, 1990 and illustrated by Steve Ditko but this appears to just be Hank Pym's dream. He survives the kerosene can, only to be stomped on by the She-Hulk in Sensational She-Hulk #60, February 1994. Finally even Spidey gets into the act when the Beetle is retconned into the web- slinger's past in Untold Tales of Spider-Man #12, August 1996. Not a bad list of appearances for a thoroughly ridiculous villain. But, hey, ridiculous or not, it's another entertaining read and worth another four webs.

In General...

As I said, four odd stories with four odd villains. They don't make them like this anymore and you can see why they don't... but sometimes I wish that they still did. As silly as the stories are, they are treated with tender loving care on all creative fronts; from the scripts that take all of these bizarre doings very seriously to the wonderful artwork that makes it all seem possible. Steve Ditko does the Spider-Man story, of course, while Jack Kirby and Dick Ayers collaborate on the other three tales. You can't get a better line-up than that in one 25-cent book. There is nothing close to this kind of collection today.

Overall Rating...

Silly, odd, bizarre, and definitely worth reading. Four webs.