Comics : Strange Tales (Vol. 1) #156

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

This review was first published on: 2008.

Background...

It is my intent with "From the Beginning" to try to give a sense of the experience of reading these comics during the time they came out. I have occasionally presented personal experiences but what I haven't much mentioned is Marvel Comics' place in the culture and/or counter-culture of the time. This is partly because I am not writing sociology and partly because I was a kid back then so I didn't experience much of this. But even as comics seem to have entered their pop culture renaissance these days with the proliferation of book store available trade paperbacks and acclaimed movies like Spider-Man and Iron Man, this corporate success is nothing compared to the grass-roots phenomena of the 1960s. To some, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and others were not just comic book creators but hip infiltrators of the establishment using their position to preach peace, love, and magic to the masses. In a visit to any head's pad at the time, you would likely see Marvel Comics. And the most popular Marvel in these circles was Strange Tales with its seemingly subversive pro-drug psychedelic emanations. In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe writes that "[One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest author Ken] Kesey is young, serene, and his face is lineless, and round and smooth as a baby's as he sits for hours on end reading comic books, absorbed in the plunging purple Steve Ditko shadows of Dr. Strange attired in capes and chiaroscuro, saying, "How could they have known this gem was merely a device to bridge dimensions! It was a means to enter the dread purple dimension-from our own world!" Nowadays, Iron Man may be raking in big movie bucks but forty-some years ago, Dr. Strange was influencing the leader of the Merry Pranksters to new psychedelic heights on the bus called "Furthur". In terms of social impact, there is no comparison.

By the time Strange Tales #156, May 1967 came out, the psychedelic movement was in full swing but Ditko was long gone from Dr. Strange (departing after Strange Tales #146, July 1966). Stan was soldiering on with Marie Severin contributing some wondrous weird Dr. Strange art. As good as it still was, the strip was no longer the reason to buy Strange Tales. Doc had been overtaken by its companion, "Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD", which started out as a jumper onto the spy bandwagon, hoping to ride the James Bond and Man From UNCLE mania except that Jack Kirby quickly made it so much more, then passing it along to Jim Steranko who imprinted it so strongly with his distinct artwork and graphic design that it is almost entirely on the strength of this short run that Steranko is still lauded today. Add Marie's art on Doc and Strange Tales became a pacesetter of modern graphic art; one of the essential comic book reads of the time.

This particular issue features a one-panel Spidey appearance in the SHIELD story, giving us the excuse to review it. Which is nice because it also features a big shock ending that is still remembered today.

In Detail...

Strange Tales (Vol. 1) #156 (Story 1)
May 1967 : SM Cameo
Summary: Spider-Man Cameo
Editor:  Stan Lee
Writer:  Jim Steranko
Pencils:  Jim Steranko
Inker:  Jim Steranko
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Articles: Daredevil, Doctor Strange, Human Torch, The Wasp

The cover is an eerie Marie Severin Dr. Strange piece in which an intent Doc (his face streaked with shadow) gestures over a smoking cup out of which emerges a hairy beast with his back to us clad in a torn tunic and chains; with maces instead of hands; with a long flowing forelock on top of his head. One blurb says, "Introducing Zom!" and that sounds pretty cool but even though Doc is on the cover and gets first billing in the logo, the Nick Fury story is first.

The Tribunal

Written, drawn, inked, and colored by Jim Steranko, "The Tribunal" is so steeped in a running storyline from previous issues that starting to read it here is like dipping your toe into the water and falling right into the deep end. Since Spidey barely appears, I'm not going to go back too much into previous issues. Instead, we'll rely on Steranko's opening captions: "Nick Fury confined to quarters under armed guard! ("For bungling the Q-Ray test and allowing Autofac to be destroyed" we're later told. To boil it all down, Autofac is an "ultra-computer." In Strange Tales #154, March 1967, Autofac tells Fury and his pals that the Supreme Hydra is Laura Brown. But we learn in Strange Tales #155, April 1967 that Autofac has been monkeyed with by Professor Anton Trojax, creator of the Q-Ray, who is secretly a Hydra agent. He tries to kill Fury by tying him to Autofac and setting a silent "aphonic bomb." Fury escapes but Autofac is destroyed. Trojax also tries to use the Q-Ray against Fury. It is also destroyed.) The Supreme Hydra (disguised as Agent Bronson) about to escape from the heli-carrier with the critically-ill Laura Brown!" That's good enough.

The splash page shows a deck of the heli-carrier containing the Dyna-Soar, "a vastly improved modification of the saucer ship equipped with all our latest weapons and a vortex beam for emergency escape" while Earth floats in space in the background. So the heli-carrier is actually out in space, an ability little-used (if used at all) in stories since then. (Actually, these days it seems like the only thing the heli-carrier can do is crash.) The Dyna-Soar is turned over to the Supreme Hydra in his Agent Bronson disguise. The agent who turns the ship over to "Bronson" hits us with two pop culture references in one word balloon. "No little old lady from Pasadena will ever own anything like this!" he says, "It's like the man says, We Try Harder!" ("The Little Old Lady From Pasadena" is a Jan and Dean song, in itself a take-off on the used car salesman line that "this car was owned by a little old lady from Pasadena" implying that it was barely driven. In the song, the little old lady is a demon roadster. It appears that Steranko is referencing the salesman's line rather than the song but I couldn't resist including it. "Go granny, go granny, go granny, go!") ("We Try Harder" was the slogan for Avis Rent-a-Car, the perennial #2 in the biz behind Hertz' #1.) The Supreme H gloats to himself over his deception and thinks over how he is soon to unleash "the Parable of Doom!" on the world.

In the heli-carrier's medical center, doctors look over the comatose Laura Brown and wonder if she is the Supreme Hydra as Autofac said. This possibility makes sense since Laura's father Arnold Brown was Supreme Hydra (or so he thought) beginning in Strange Tales #135, August 1965. But Laura is dying, "it will take a medical miracle to save her" and with most of the heli-carrier's medical equipment ruined in "the blast which destroyed Autofac" her only chance is on the Dyna-Soar with Agent Bronson. Oh-oh.

So Laura is loaded into the Dyna-Soar and "Bronson" blasts off. Immediately after that a "delayed blind-impulse arson bomb" goes off in Nick Fury's quarters, causing so much damage that the heli-carrier is forced to reduce altitude. Dum-Dum Dugan, Gabriel Jones, and Jasper Sitwell stand outside Fury's destroyed room and realize no one could have survived the blast.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Hydra arrives at Hydra Island, "a metropolis of evil" in the Pacific Ocean "enclosed in an impenetrable dome". The Hydra forces open the "hydra-bubble" so the Dyna-Soar can fly in. Disembarking, the Supreme Hydra tells his lackeys that Laura is not ill but "under the influence of the death-sleep". He orders them to give her the antidote so that she can be prepared for... The Tribunal. But Nick Fury is on the Dyna-Soar as well, having suspected "Bronson" since Strange Tales #153, February 1967, page 11 panel 2 according to the footnote. (Let's take a look at the panel: Fury says to Bronson, "When I saw ya leap into action against them Hydra hoods, I couldn't help thinkin' of the days when I was ramroddin' a commando squad back in the Big One! You ain't exactly a babe in arms – were you in on that little free-for-all?" Bronson answers, "Why yes! As a matter of fact, I too was in a commando squadron," which is a really cool clue because it happens to be true. Fury replies, "I kinda had me a hunch you might'a been!") The footnote further states that Fury really got suspicious when Bronson "slipped up by callin' the Dreadnought by name before [Fury] mentioned it to anybody" in Strange Tales #154, March 1967, page 12 panel 1, and, yep, there he is doing it. So Steranko did a very nice job setting this all up. Anyway, after the Supreme Hydra leaves the ship, Fury grabs two lackeys and knocks their heads together, then skulks around Hydra Island. Back in his Hydra garb, the SH brags about killing Nick with a bomb, then he broadcasts all over the world using the "universal communicator", saying, "Hear me, Citizens of the World and learn the penalty carried by a verdict of guilty. Aboard the SHIELD fortress is a weapon capable of releasing billions of germs into the Earth's atmosphere! Should we rule against Laura Brown, the weapon will be unleashed and a deadly plague will blanket the Earth! And to any who would attempt to de-activate the weapon, I say do not dare to interfere! For the approach of any object to the heli-carrier will trigger an instant explosion of the weapon! The world now stands helpless before the Death Spore but there is an alternative! Any nation that surrenders within one hour will be spared provided it pledges total loyalty to the hordes of Hydra! I have spoken! Hail Hydra!" Steranko gives us five narrow panels of various super-heroes listening to this message. Panel one shows the Fantastic Four but panel two is the reason why we're reviewing this issue. It features Thor, Daredevil, and Spider-Man. (Panel three has Captain America, Hawkeye, and the Scarlet Witch. Panel four has the original X-Men with Professor X. And Panel five has Iron Man, Hulk, the Wasp, and, hmmmm, I guess that's Goliath.)

Having given his nasty little speech, the SH dons an "epiderm-mask machine" to get rid of the false face of Bronson and return to his real appearance. Fury tries to stay hidden but gives himself away to a Hydra division so he's forced to take them on, beating them all, of course. "You jokers musta took your boxin' lessons from Mickey Mouse!" he says. Then he puts on some spy goggles that see through walls and learns that the SH has changed his face. But before he can see what SH now looks like, he is shot in the back with a stun-pistol. Fury is taken to the Tribunal. He wakes up encased in the alpha-tron, surrounded by rows of Hydra agents stacked up to the ceiling of a large domed room: the Tribunal. And he sees the face of the SH. It is his old enemy from Sgt. Fury and the Howling Commandos (originally from Sgt. Fury and the Howling Commandos #5, January 1964 to be exact). Baron Strucker! The Tribunal pronounces Fury guilty. Strucker sentences him to "death by alpha particle exposure" in the alpha-tron, then tells Fury this will "cause a sixty-minute delayed detonation of the death spore in the belly of the heli-carrier and "Hydra will rule the world"!

Umar Walks the Earth!

The Doctor Strange story has no Spidey appearance but let's take a look at it anyway.

The evil Umar, sister of Dormammu has come from the Dark Dimension to Earth. She appears in the air above Times Square and wipes out (Banishes? Vaporizes?) all of the human who have the nerve to stare at her. The Ancient One has sent Dr. Strange away "to a far distant universe". Doc doesn't know the reason but he complies. From across the dimensions, the Ancient One leads Doc to a rostrum with a big vase on it. It is at the top of a platform of stairs with vases and lamps on all the steps. Doc recognizes the vase as the Amphora. The A. One tells him that "the truly monstrous Zom" is within, imprisoned by the power of Eternity. Only Zom can defeat Umar, says the Ancient One but "the uncontrollable cure may prove more deadly than the malady itself".

Back on Earth, Umar tracks down Doc's Greenwich Village home. She mystically realizes that Doc is not home but vindictively casts a spell that obliterates the building with Doc's servant Wong still inside! Then she uses the bolt of bedevilment to slice through the Earth and attack the Ancient One in Tibet. "The mountain opens beneath my feet!" says the AO, "I am being drawn below to her!"

Meanwhile, Doc has used his amulet to fend off the different guardian spirits that emanate from the other vases and lamps and has reached the vase housing Zom. He mystically destroys it and Zom emerges. He looks much as he does on the cover with the maces for hands and the chain but he's about three times Doc's size and also has wrap-around shades covering his eyes that Doc calls "a crown of blindless" though that's a typo for "crown of blindness". Doc also tells us he is "chained with links of living bondage." Even so, he prepares to destroy Doc as soon as he emerges. In other words Zom is one powerful and scary dude. Zom starts destroying stuff but Doc stands up to him, telling him to remove his "crown of blindness" (getting it right this time) "so that you may behold the one who faces you."

At the same time, the AO is in the center of the Earth, being drawn to Umar. He uses his power to resist and challenges her to a battle at a place of his choosing. Umar agrees and the two meet at Stonehenge, "site upon which [the AO] once humbled...the dread Dormammu". Umar starts whupping up on the Ancient One and he can barely protect himself. Doc appears but Umar is not impressed, bragging, "Though you are a master in your own right, compared to Umar you stand disarmed and helpless." But then Zom materializes behind Doc. "He pursued me here, intending to make me his victim," says Doc of Zom "but I gambled on one thing. If I could lead him to you, he would attack the one who claims to have the greatest power." Sure enough, Zom attacks Umar saying, "It was your brother Dormammu who bound my hands with the chains of living bondage before Eternity imprisoned me." Umar cannot match Zom's power so she flees back to the Dark Dimension, the only place she is safe from him. She vows to never again leave her home. Earth is safe from Umar but Zom snaps the chain of bondage and declares, "The mighty Zom must ever have his victim! Since the female has vanished all others who face me must prepare to die!" And Doc wonders, "If Umar herself fled before him in abject terror, then how shall we prevail?"

So, two cliffhangers. What happens next?

SHIELD: In Strange Tales #157, June 1967 Fury uses a 60 second invisibility pill to escape, takes on all of Hydra by himself, then tackles Strucker who wears the powerful Satan Claw. It looks like the end for Fury but in Strange Tales #158, July 1967 he uses his belt like a whip to yank the Satan Claw off Strucker's hand. With Strucker unconscious, Fury puts him in the epiderm-mask machine and changes the Baron's face so he looks like Nick Fury. Attacked by Hydra who think he's Fury, Strucker flees and crashes into the alpha-particle reactor cube of the alpha-tron, which kills him. Meanwhile Fury, disguised as Strucker escapes with Laura Brown. A more-than-satisfying conclusion that uses elements successfully seeded into the story as it barreled along. Of course, Strucker isn't dead. All the best villains never are. (Though some, like Norman Osborn SHOULD BE, but that's another story.)

Dr. Strange: In Strange Tales #157 Doc and the Ancient One battle Zom. The Ancient One appears to die and passes his power to Doc. (He's not really dead at this point. It isn't until Marvel Premiere #10, September 1973 that he really dies or becomes one with the universe or whatever he does when Doc must destroy the Ancient One's ego in order to defeat Shuma-Gorath.) As the AO is fading into the stone of Stonehenge, he only has the strength to say "the forelock." So Doc mystically severs Zom's enchanted forelock. This "wakened the sense of evil which had slumbered for ages in the bosom of the mystics of mankind" and summons the Living Tribunal who banishes Zom and declares the Earth must be destroyed. Needless to say, in Strange Tales #158, Doc prevents this. You may recall, in the recent "World War Hulk" issues, Doc conjures up and incorporates the power of Zom, which taints him badly and doesn't bring victory against the Hulk anyway. So, Zom lives on. Oh, and Wong's okay too.

In General...

There isn't a better representative in comics of the psychedelic, pop art, op art sixties than Strange Tales and this issue is a definitive example of the series. Jim Steranko's SHIELD series is overwritten but his artwork, a unique merging of Kirby and Wood with thick inking shadows and vibrant colors, can't be beat. At this time Steranko was doing everything but the lettering and this kind of auteur tour de force is rare in the world of comics. Put it in or near the category of Kirby's Fourth World, Eisner's Spirit and Kurtzman's Two-Fisted Tales. The full page illustration of Fury hiding from Hydra on page eight is suitable for framing and the double page finale revealing Strucker as the Supreme Hydra is one of the best moments in Marvel history. You can't get much better than this. The Dr. Strange story is almost as strong. By this time, Stan was a master of the 10-page roller coaster ride story. At his best (here in Strange Tales but also in Tales to Astonish and Tales of Suspense) Stan manages to resolve the previous issue's crisis and introduce an even greater crisis all in one story. It's the Saturday movie serial approach to comic book writing, working on all cylinders. How could you even think of missing the next issue when the stories are constructed with this technique? This story is particularly good at defeating last issue's menace and ending with a greater menace because it requires Doc to free the greater menace in order to defeat the lesser menace. (Stan does this again in the next issue when Zom is succeeded by the Living Tribunal.) It is a page-turner of magic and action and it ends far too soon. Which is exactly what it's supposed to do. Marie Severin is one of the most underrated artists in comics. Known mainly for her caricatures and humorous work, she proves in her Doc pages to be a powerful artist of mood, magic, and action. Check out the nuances of facial expression for Wong on page 4, panel 1, Umar on page 4, panel 4, the Ancient One on page 9, panel 2 and Doc throughout the book. Look at the power erupting from page 6 panel 3 when Doc blows open the vase imprisoning Zom. Look at the description of Zom and think about how silly it sounds, then look at Marie's Zom and see how menacing he is, particularly on page 7, panel 1 (perhaps the best panel of the story) in which he towers over Strange preparing to strike while Doc prepares a spell to defend himself. Menace, strength, anger, resolve, determination, and magic, all in one panel.

Overall Rating...

In case you couldn't tell from the last paragraph, I'm giving Strange Tales #156 five webs. The only negative is that you need issues before and after to get the full effect of the stories. Or maybe that isn't a negative after all.

Footnote...

Next: At last! Back to Amazing Spider-Man!