Is it all getting rather tiresome? The same four series reprinted in the same order with the same cover format showing the covers of the issues in which the stories first appeared except that the Wasp bursts out of the cover of Tales to Astonish because her story was not featured on the cover. Déjà vu all over again? Stan may have thought so. This is the last issue with this covers-on-cover format. Still, it’s the stories themselves that count and this issue not only brings us Spidey’s first battle with Kraven the Hunter but an early Thor-Loki battle and the Human Torch combatting the bizarre Painter of a Thousand Perils.
About that cover… we’re back to the ASM cover being the same size as the other covers (well, okay, it’s a little bigger) but it gets top billing, perched above the other three, which are placed so snugly next to each other that blurb placement is at a premium. This requires the Thor story blurb to sit perched to the right of the Spidey cover with a long, curving arrow pointing to the appropriate cover. A very awkward placement and a sure sign that the format has reached its end. (The Wasp’s blurb tells us that the story is “tossed in to show you how much harder we try!!” using the same Avis Rent-A-Car slogan we got last issue with the cover blurb, “Anyway, you’ve gotta admit we try harder!” Even Stan is wearing down under the pressure. Assuming Stan is writing these. At this point it could be Gary or Roy.)
More proof comes on the inside front cover greytone page. “What ever happened to those swingin’ Spidey sagas of a few years ago?” Stan asks, “And how about those colossal classics of yesteryear featuring Thor, the Human Torch, and the Wasp? They’re all right here just waiting for you to enjoy them again and again…and again…hooo boy!” You think this is someone tired of touting reprints? Sure sounds like it. The credits on the page list “Stan Lee: the Mind Behind Marvel!...Roy Thomas: the Sage Behind Stan!...Gary Friedrich: the Rapscallion Behind Roy!” My favorite, though, is “Flo Steinberg: the Twitter Behind the Typewriter!” Since this doesn’t mean what it would mean today, you have to wonder what Stan had in mind. This definition of twitter? “Talk in a light, high-pitched voice.” I hope it’s not this one: “Idle or ignorant talk.” And let’s not forget the last name in the credits list: “Irving Forbush: the Enigma Behind the Enigma.”
The greytone illustrations for the stories are only in the correct order if you start at the upper left and go counter-clockwise. The captions present us with the full titles of each story as opposed to the condensed versions last issue. The first shows Kraven shackling Spidey (with some shadows expanded and some motion lines added) from page 16 panel 2 of that story. The second shows the Painter aiming a gun at the Human Torch (with his left hand repositioned and, again, some motion lines added) from page 7 panel 2 of that story. Next is the gypsy from the Wasp’s story holding a box as seen in page 2 panel 2 with the head of the Wasp from page 1 panel 3 perched over the gypsy’s right shoulder. Finally, it’s Thor inside the mechanical sea serpent’s mouth from page 6 panel 5 only with his right arm repositioned so Mjolnir is held up instead of sideways, with the serpent’s teeth extracted so you can’t tell where Thor is standing and, of course, some motion lines added. Why no picture of Thor facing Loki? Well, there sort of isn’t one in the whole story.
Let’s begin with Kraven the Hunter! from Amazing Spider-Man #15, August 1964. It’s the first appearance of Kraven and the second appearance of Chameleon. “When it comes to classic Spidey battles, this one is hard to beat. Kraven is never as formidable as this again until, perhaps, the Last Hunt. The nerve punch, the potion that makes Spidey’s hands shake, the chain link net, the jungle drums, the magnetic ankle and wrist clamps…it’s hard to believe that Kraven ever became a laughingstock as a villain when you look at this.” That’s what I said when I reviewed this story. I also gave it five webs.
Up next is The Human Torch is Destined to Become the Still-Life Victim of the Painter of a Thousand Perils! from Strange Tales #108, May 1963. This one has a Stan Lee plot but a script by R. Berns, which was the pen name of writer Robert Bernstein (who was also, if you can believe Wikipedia, a “playwright and concert impresario, notable as the founder of the Island Concert Hall recital series which ran for 15 years on Long Island.”) The artwork is not farmed out this time with pencils-inks by Jack Kirby and Dick Ayers.
It begins with an odd little symbolic splash. The Painter, his paintbrush poised to put the finishing touches on a canvas, looks out at the reader and says, “Looks like a painting of the Torch’s finish, doesn’t it? But that’s the eerie part of it…it’s not just a canvas picture! It’s the real thing!” The painting shows the Torch being threatened by the other members of the Fantastic Four but the Invisible Girl is drawn with the dashes that denote her as invisible while the Thing and the Torch talk to each other. So, did the Painter draw the Invisible Girl as dashes or did he “draw” her invisible with Jack Kirby using his artistic license? And are the Thing and the Torch really talking within a canvas or did the Painter merely draw in the word balloons? And since the Painter is talking to us, does that mean he knows he’s a drawn character on a comic page? I can’t think about this stuff too much longer. I’m starting to see trails.
Crime in the “big city” is taking a beating both from the police and the Human Torch. A gang of machine gun-toting hoods rob a “big charity masquerade ball” but the Torch is in attendance and defeats them by creating “flamin’ scissors” to cut open their bags of loot, then encircling them with smoke rings. A police lieutenant tells Torch, “The crooks in this city…should realize by now, with you helping the police, they haven’t a chance!” “[I]f crooks weren’t stupid, they wouldn’t be crooks,” replies Torch, adding, “But I’m not kidding myself! Sooner or later, some other kookie character bent on gaining power or undeserved wealth will try to erase me from the picture! And who knows? Maybe next time my luck will run out and he’ll succeed!”
The next day, Wilhelm Van Vile arrives at “at the Uptown headquarters of gangster chief “Scar” Tobin.” Wilhelm is a “counterfeiter the Torch caught but who busted out of jail last week.” (If you’re wondering where Torch’s capture of Wilhelm appears, it is later on in this story in a flashback.) Scar isn’t happy to see him. He knows the cops are looking for Wilhelm and “since you always had a reputation for carelessness, you’ve probably left a trail they’re following to my place.” He orders his “gorillas” Nick, Sam, and Eddie to throw Wilhelm out. But Wilhelm pulls out a set of paints and a palette and begins painting on Scar’s wall. “At lightning speed,” Wilhelm paints “a three-headed gorilla with six arms.” He then issues “telepathic orders to the painting to throw you three gorillas out!” Immediately, the painting comes to life and attacks the goons until Wilhelm induces it to disappear. When Scar supposes that the Painter hypnotized them all, Wilhelm paints another goon, Mike, holding a “16-inch Naval cannon.” The cannon appears in Mike’s hands but is too heavy for him to hold. It falls through the floor and all the succeeding floors below them in the building. Scar is sure “the cops will swarm up here and get us!” The Painter paints them all on a magic flying carpet and, next thing they know, they are flying over the city in just that way.
As they travel, Wilhelm tells his story. (This is that flashback I was talking about.) He recalls that he tried to forge famous paintings but was too careless. (And that’s putting it mildly! As one cop tells him, “You forgot to give the Mona Lisa a smile and you colored the Blue Boy green!”) After a three-year prison stint, he became a counterfeiter. When he tries to pass a five-dollar bill at a bookstore, the teenager behind the counter notices that Lincoln has short sideburns on the bill. Wilhelm pulls a gun on the kid and takes him to his hideout where the kid reveals himself as the Human Torch and captures the whole gang. But Wilhelm digs a tunnel in prison and escapes. Underground he comes upon a “mural on the wall showing aliens from some other planet soaring into space leaving Earth behind.” The palette and case containing the paints sits on the floor in front of the mural. Wilhelm “can tell the age of the picture from its style,” since he apparently knows the stylistic periods of artists from outer space, and determines that it is “about a million years old.” He theorizes that “something in the sealed atmosphere of this cavern preserved the mural to this day” and it did the same for the paints and the brushes. He then has absolutely no trouble deciphering the “hieroglyphic writing on the wall” which tells him that the paints have magical properties…”Whatever the artist illustrates with the pigments comes to life and under the complete command of the artist.” He further theorizes that the “aliens traveled through space by painting their voyages to and fro! But something must’ve happened to them before they left the cavern! Maybe some prehistoric creature got them!” Which sounds good except the mural shows the aliens flying away from Earth so doesn’t that mean they flew away from Earth? And if they did then why didn’t they take their paints with them? Okay, so the story has some holes in it but it’s a cool concept isn’t it? Traveling through space by painting the voyages? I could go for that. Just then, the cavern starts to collapse. Wilhelm takes a brush and paints himself passing harmlessly through the ground to the surface. He is amazed to find that he paints at lightning-speed and further amazed to find himself passing “through sheer rock” to the surface.
His story told, Wilhelm informs Scar that he plans to be the King of Crime. He knows he can destroy the Torch anytime he wants but decides “I’ll amuse myself by driving him mad with worry and fear.” (That always works! Nice thinking, Wilhelm!)
The next day, the Torch gets the word that a jewelry robbery is “taking place on the corner of Main and Seventh Streets.” (I thought we were in Manhattan until that Main Street comment. Now, I don’t know where in the heck we are.) When he shows up, he finds Scar and his gang escaping in a Fastasticar-like vehicle. As he pursues, giant fire hydrants surge up out of the ground and douse him, just as the Painter is painting it. The Torch loses his flame and falls to earth. Scar and his boys escape. As soon as they do, the fire hydrants disappear.
Scar and the boys are thrilled with the loot they’ve stolen but Wilhelm calls Scar a “numbskull.” He paints “millions in precious metals and stones” which fall off his canvas. But as soon as the gang grabs them, they disappear. Having demonstrated that he can make them rich whenever he likes, Wilhelm returns to his obsession; ways to plague the Torch.
The next day, mechanical monsters at a seaside carnival come to life. When the Torch battles them, they disappear but the sand rises up and buries him. Wilhelm is painting all of this, of course. Scar tells him, “Why don’t you settle for that and get your revenge over with!” but Van Vile has “a more perfect finish for him.” Back at the beach, the sand disappears. The Torch thinks “there’s something familiar about these supernatural occurrences.”
The following morning, Wilhelm creates his masterpiece; “the other three members of the Fantastic Four attacking the Torch in an asbestos-lined cell.” Suddenly, this cell rises up around the Torch and the Invisible Girl, Mr. Fantastic and the Thing appear. They throw a grenade at the Torch and exit the room out a door (that was not painted by Wilhelm, as far as I can tell). The gang hears the news of the Torch’s death on a transistor radio but, immediately after, the Torch himself flies in and melts Van Vile’s magic paints. He tells Wilhelm that it was a painted image of the Torch that was killed by the grenade, an image the Torch painted the night before after he figured out that Van Vile was behind the whole scheme, tracking him down, and discovering the paints. When Wilhelm asks him how he knew he was behind these events, the Torch tells him, “Because they all had one thing in common…carelessness.” He noticed that the fire hydrants had no nozzles and that the beach “lacked litter baskets.” Even the FF were painted wrong. They “had no number 4 on their costumes.” Torch surrounds the depressed Wilhelm with a flaming frame. “You will soon sit like this in a state penitentiary cell, a forlorn portrait in misery who framed himself with a slight assist from a humble artist in crimefighting who signs himself, the Human Torch.”
Okay, granted none of this really works and none of it is consistent. These are the various paintings that Wilhelm composes:
And here are the reasons why the Torch is reminded of Wilhelm Van Vile’s carelessness:
Having said all that, I love this story. It’s a wonderfully wacky early-60s Marvel tale with an odd little concept and some great Kirby early-FF art. I give it five webs.
(By the way, though he seems like the epitome of a one-shot villain, the Painter appears again in Web of Spider-Man #74-76, March-May 1991. How is he able to use his powers when the Torch destroyed all of his paints? You got me but that’s one of the last things you’ll wonder about if you read this ridiculous story.)
Next is The Gypsy’s Secret!, from Tales to Astonish #55, May 1964. The Wasp tries to get Hank Pym’s attention but he is wrapped up in a lab experiment. He tells Jan to “buzz off.” Jan tells Hank that “even if you find what you’re looking for you may not be satisfied.” She has a story to tell that illustrates the point. “Looks like I’m a captive audience,” says Hank, “Okay, you gorgeous little pest, guess I can use a break.”
Jan tells of a gypsy named Gorko who knows the “secret of true alchemy” with which he can turn lead to gold. But Gorko isn’t interested in riches. “For I desire only to sustain myself while I carry out my fateful task…while I journey throughout the land searching…searching for the only thing of importance to me!”
Gorko’s wagon gets stuck in the mud and he seeks help at the castle of Baron Radzik. When the Baron finds out that Gorko has gold to pay for any assistance, he threatens to arrest the gypsy for stealing. Gorko is forced to admit that he created the gold through alchemy and Radzik demands the secret. When Gorko refuses, Radzik throws him into his dungeon. At that, Gorko agrees to reveal the secret but tells Radzik “the formula is too complicated for me to remember! I must take you to my home where I have it written down!” The Baron agrees and Gorko leads him to his wagon. Once they enter, the bars of a cage drop down around Radzik and a starship flies out of the now-collapsed wagon. Gorko tells Radzik he is taking him home, as promised but his home is “in the Ninth Galaxy.” He then removes his human mask to reveal a green face with no nose, a wide mouth, big eyes, and a little green tuft of hair on his head. “I was sent to Earth to capture a human specimen for our interplanetary zoo,” Gorko says, “but it was difficult to find one who would not be missed on Earth! And then, luckily, I met you! Selfish, ruthless, a mortal over whose loss none will ever shed a tear! But don’t worry, I’ll give you the alchemist’s formula as I promised, although it won’t do you much good! Because, you see, on my world, gold is the commonest and therefore most worthless of all metals!” (I suspect the other reason the formula will do the Baron no good is that he will be caged in a zoo.)
Jan wraps up her tale with the moral that “a person can get what he’s after and still be unhappy, just like the Baron.” Hank tells her the story has convinced him to give up his experiment. Jan hopes this means he’ll take her for dinner but Hank wants to get right to work trying to “discover the ancient formula for turning lead into gold.” He tells Jan to “Scat!” and that he’ll see her tomorrow. “They warned me there’d be days like this!” Jan says to us as she looks out of the panel.
As these five page tales go, this one is better than most. There are hundreds of these “some seemingly powerless human is actually an alien from outer space” stories (complete with the guy removing a rubber mask to reveal his true face underneath) but this one has a double (or triple) whammy. Not only is the gypsy an alien but he is an alien of his word. He is indeed bringing the Baron “home” and he is indeed going to give the Baron the formula when they get there. Only home is in the Ninth Galaxy and the formula creates a metal that is worthless on his home planet. Don’t bother asking why a civilization would create a formula that produces a worthless substance. Don’t bother asking, “If he’s from the Ninth Galaxy, what are the first Eight?” These are Silver Age “mystery” stories. Roll with it. The Wasp bookend segments are an imperfect fit in this series…essentially just a way to continue publishing horror tales in the dawning age of the super-hero…but this one has a fun little twist. Though Hank is just kidding about trying to find the formula to turn lead into gold…isn’t he?
The art is unremarkable, Hank is annoying and chauvinistic but the story is kind of fun. Three webs.
We finish with The Day Loki Stole Thor’s Magic Hammer from Journey Into Mystery #92, May 1963. Again R. Berns scripts using Stan’s plot. (It’s an R. Berns festival!) Joe Sinnott, known mainly for inking, contributes the full art.
Loki, God of Evil, is chained to a rock in Asgard as punishment for his latest transgressions. You may recall that Loki was confined to Asgard last issue when he imparted increased powers to Sandu but I can’t remember if he was chained to a rock and I’m not going to dig out the issue to find out. Neri, handmaiden to Frigga (called “Fricka” here), tells Heimdall that “Loki must remain [chained] on Odin’s orders till the end of time!” (Yeah, good job, Odin.) Loki sure isn’t thinking he’s going to be chained till the end of time. He’s plotting “vengeance on Thor!” (And he looks really angry and nasty while he’s doing it.)
Meanwhile, on Earth, three jewel thieves enter Don Blake’s office. One of the thieves got shot twice in the stomach during a robbery and needs Blake’s expert surgical skills. The crooks figure to kill Don after the operation but he fakes them out by essentially yelling, “Look over there!” Actually, he says that Thor is helping the police in tracking them. When one scoffs at him, Don says, “”It’s no laughing matter, my friend! Thor’s entering the room now!” The crooks turn to look, Don slams his cane on the floor, and Thor appears. He quickly captures the thieves, uses surgical tape to attach them to the gurney on which the operation took place (one poor slob gets taped underneath, facing down), then attaches the gurney to Mjolnir. He throws his hammer and it arrives at a prison with the three crooks.
What does that event have to do with anything? Nothing. But without it the story would be a few pages short. Anyway, the next week, Thor travels to Norway where he’s agreed to appear in a film. In one scene, he flies in to defeat a sea serpent that is menacing a Viking ship. In another, he creates a thunderstorm to save the “good Viking village” from “a fleet of wicked Vikings.” Thor himself flies in with the camera to film the storm. Finally, he hurls his hammer at a mountain “causing an avalanche to bury the villainous Viking village.” Now, Loki has watched all of this from his rock. He knows that “Thor’s hammer is made of the same magic mineral as [his] chains, the metal uru.” Loki uses his magic to snatch Thor’s hurled hammer and guide it so that it smashes his chains. Loki is freed and Mjolnir stays with him, “clinging magnetically to the debris of chains it shattered!”
Loki decides that he has a better chance to defeat Thor in Asgard (apparently he doesn’t yet know that Thor becomes Don Blake if he loses Mjolnir for sixty seconds) so he puts the thought in Thor’s head that he should contact Odin. I rather think Thor would have done this regardless since his hammer has mysteriously disappeared and he does know that he’ll become Don Blake in one minute. Odin appears to Thor but cannot solve the problem of the missing hammer (he couldn’t just look around Asgard, specifically around Loki?). He tells Thor that this perplexing mystery “requires the combined power of all the gods!” (Next, the combined gods are going to help me find that shoe that ended up under my bed.) What appears to just be a big image of Odin appearing before Thor reaches out with a large hand and grabs the Thunder God. “Since your hammer cannot now take you through the segments of time and space,” he says, “I shall transport you to Asgard myself!” (I don’t think you’ll see this method used ever again.) Thor, while traveling in Odin’s hand, thinks, “What a stroke of fortune! When Odin appears on Earth, time stands still so I shall not turn back to Dr. Blake,” which is another rule that I don’t think was ever mentioned again. “Once in Asgard,” he continues, “I can remain Thor indefinitely.”
This is exactly what Loki wants. He again uses his powers to plant a thought, this time in the minds of the combined gods. (Actually, I think Loki pumps up his ego by pretending to implant thoughts that the gods would have come up with anyway.) Odin tells Thor that the gods “offer this advice [that] your hammer must somehow have returned to Asgard” but since we only see Odin plus one guard in the background it looks like Odin has just been making up this “combined gods” business. Following this amazing deduction, Odin still can’t be bothered to cast a glance around Asgard himself. He tells Thor to go search for it. “Unfortunately, we cannot help you with your quest, for we are each burdened with thousands of tasks of our own,” he says, “but we all wish you success.” This is about the lamest excuse ever served up in comics and only serves to increase my suspicion that Odin made all of this up on his own.
So, Thor searches and stumbles, all unaware, into Loki’s forest. Loki, hiding nearby, enchants the “obedient trees” into attacking Thor who punches away at them but feels like he “cannot withstand such odds” without his hammer. So, he knocks down one of the smaller trees with a karate chop, then uses a vine to tie a branch to part of the trunk, creating a wooden mallet with which he destroys the other trees. R. Berns seems to have sensed the flaw in this concept (it isn’t his plot, after all) so he has Thor think, “Thank the gods I selected timber of much tougher grain than the lumbering brutes attacking me!”
Watching nearby, Loki curses his luck. “I forgot how powerful Thor is, even without his magic weapon,” he thinks. Really, Loki? You forgot that Thor is powerful? Everybody in this story seems far denser than they ought to be. As if to underscore that, Thor doesn’t catch on until Loki ignites the wooden hammer from a distance. “My weapon is burning up as if by magic,” he thinks, and this makes him think something along the lines of, “Hey wait, magic! Loki knows magic! Maybe Loki has something to do with this! I mean, I’m in his forest and everything!” Well done, Thor.
Remembering that Loki is supposed to be chained to a rock near the Rainbow Bridge, Thor heads in that direction. Loki tries to stop him by transforming some passing clouds into dragons. Trapped up against a rock, Thor uses his super-strong index finger to carve a hammer out of the stone. He knocks most of the dragons silly, then throws the hammer at the last dragon. After it knocks the creature out, it flies off toward the Rainbow Bridge. Thor realizes that there was uru in the stone from which he made the new hammer and that it is magnetically attracted to Mjolnir. He follows and finds the two hammers together sitting on top of Loki’s chains. Learning that Loki is free, Thor summons the other gods and they track down and recapture the God of Evil. (They also take two panels to recap the story’s events, as if we too have gotten denser than we ought to be.) Loki is recaptured, Thor journeys to Earth and Don Blake returns to his practice where a squeamish patient getting his reflexes tested tells him, “You could hurt a guy with that rubber hammer!” “Don’t worry, Mr. Jones,” says Jane Foster, “Dr. Blake is very experienced in using a mallet!!” “Jane honey, you don’t know the half of it,” Don thinks.
Pasted onto the bottom of this story is a new note, reading, “More great thrills of yesteryear in our next magnificent Marvel Tales! Thou shalt not miss it! We have spoken!” as, on the opposite page, “Another Marvel Masterpiece” advertises Thor #143, August 1967 as if Stan wanted to remind us what a good Thor issue looks like.
All right, so the story’s not all that bad. By early Thor standards, it’s actually pretty good. It does have Loki as the villain rather than the Carbon Copy Men from two issues ago or the Demon Duplicators or Mad Merlin from upcoming issues. (We’re still five Thor issues away from consistently interesting super-villains and over 20 issues away from consistently first-rate storytelling.) The main problem is that everyone seems so relentlessly dumb. Much of this comes from the fact that, at the time of this story, the gods’ characters and abilities had not been clearly mapped out. But at the time of this Marvel Tales (which, as seen, is the time of Thor #143) those traits are clear enough to make this story look silly in comparison. Oh well, you’ve got to credit Stan for reprinting these early stories rather than hiding them. I’ll give it three webs.
A pretty good issue with a nice mix of early Marvel Age action and oddness. One of the best Kraven the Hunter stories ever, the wonderful weirdness of the Painter of a Thousand Perils, Loki snatching Thor’s hammer and, er, the Wasp!
It all averages out to four webs.
Next: Back to Brecch. With Spidey vs. Gnat-Man and Rotten.