Marvel Tales #16

Background

We’ve come to the end of the four-issue run of Marvel Boy stories. They never had any particular order to them, jumping from Marvel Boy #1, December 1950 for two stories to Astonishing #5 August 1951 for two stories with none of the stories in between. (Marvel Boy becomes Astonishing with issue #3.) There are Marvel Boy stories in #6, too. Almost none of these skipped stories get reprinted until Marvel Masterworks: Atlas Era Heroes, 2007. By Astonishing #7, Marvel Boy is forgotten as the series becomes all-horror.

Have any of these stories been worth reprinting? I gave 4 webs to the first one, two webs to the second, and one-half a web to the third. I sense a trend.

Meanwhile, the Human Torch stories meander along while the Thor stories start to hit their stride. And then there’s Spidey, of course. Shall we?

Story Details

  Marvel Tales #16
Summary: Human Torch, Marvel Boy & Thor Backups
Reprints: Amazing Spider-Man (Vol. 1) #21
Reprints: Astonishing #5 (Story 2)
Reprints: Strange Tales (Vol. 1) #113
Reprints: Journey Into Mystery #102

The cover is pretty much the same as Amazing Spider-Man #21, February 1965 except that the Human Torch’s flame path has been altered and the path of some fireballs have disappeared. Also gone is the billboard behind which the Beetle hides. Spidey’s position is shifted, necessitating a second fireball coming at him and moving the Beetle closer to him. The shadows that make the original cover so moody are gone making the whole thing rather mundane. One of the cover blurbs says, “You’ll wanna save this ish till doomsday (at least!)” but I think you’d be better off saving the original.

There’s more greytone fun in the frontispiece. Let’s go clockwise from top left. The Spidey illustration takes page 17 panel 6, cuts the Spidey figure and combines it with the Spidey from page 18 panel 3. The Thor drawing is from page 7 panel 4. Marvel Boy is from page 4 panel 2 of his story. The Torch illustration is the most creative, combining the Plantman from page 11 panel 4, the uprooted tree from page 11 panel 5 and the Torch from page 11 panel 6.

You know the drill. A quick look at the previously-reviewed Spidey story, then on to the others whether we care about them or not. Where Flies the Beetle…! is from Amazing Spider-Man #21 and I love this story. When I reviewed it, I said, “It's not your typical issue of Amazing Spider-Man. In fact, it's almost as if the Torch feature from Strange Tales has taken over the book. There isn't much in the way of subplots and Spidey's regular supporting cast is virtually non- existent. And you know what? It is just the change of pace that we needed. Spidey and the Torch are still great together in this absolute romp.” And I gave it five webs.

Now, what about Marvel Boy? He’s in a five-page feature called The Serpent Strikes! which is again from, as the story last issue, Astonishing #5, August 1951.

A newspaper headline reads, “Dangerous serpent escapes from zoo! Citizens warned to be on the alert for rare poisonous snake known to be vicious and deadly!” I think “rare poisonous” is more than enough to alert the citizens. We don’t need to add the “vicious and deadly” part. The next day, Bob Grayson, who is an insurance investigator as well as Marvel Boy, is having lunch with some friends. They tell him that the rare snake slipped “into the head zoo-keeper’s house last night” and killed him in his sleep. Later, Bob’s boss assigns him the case, though he assumes it to be an accidental death. At the zoo, Bob finds the homicide police. (And an elephant in a very small cage.) The sergeant does not appear to know his secret ID (“Hi, Grayson”) but the lieutenant sure does (“Howdy, Marvel Boy”). The lieutenant tells him that there was “no possible way for a snake to get out of…cages glassed in” so he suspects murder. Bob notices an Indian girl, dressed in a sari, standing over by the snake case, making herself obvious. The lieutenant says, “She was the last person to leave the reptile building when the keeper locked up, but she cleared herself when we questioned her.” It would be nice to have details as to how she cleared herself since she turns out to be guilty (I think???) but no details are forthcoming. Bob goes to talk to her and she says, “Zese lovely animals are sacred in my country! And zey never attack people who are pure in spirit and pure in body!” Suspicious, Bob follows her when she leaves, walking right in to her home and finding a room filled with crates of poisonous snakes, “case after case of raw eggs” (“Doesn’t she eat anything but eggs?”), and a book “written in the language of India opened to a page dealing with ancient and primitive serpent cults!” But no sign of the girl. Didn’t Bob just follow her home?

The next day, the lieutenant arrives at Bob’s place, just as Bob is changing into his Marvel Boy outfit, to tell him “two more zoo officials died in their sleep last night…same poison!” Marvel Boy has a plan. He tells the lieutenant to inform the newspapers and radio stations that Marvel Boy is going to “destroy every single serpent” at the zoo, starting tomorrow and that tonight he is “sleeping in the head zoo-keeper’s house.” He even, apparently, uses the bed in which the zoo-keeper died. That night, a snake slithers under the door and strikes but Marvel Boy eludes it. He blinds it with his “light-jewel” and leaps on it as it slips under the door again, breaking its back. When he opens the door, he finds the Indian girl lying on the floor, holding her back. They play a game of “is she or isn’t she” when Marvel Boy says, “Are you hurt? Are you hiding that snake under your sari?” and she says, “I’m all r-right! And you…you know I’m not hiding it!...That was a ghastly thing you did…crushing that – that sacred idol!” He allows the girl to crawl away and he calls the lieutenant, as he watches her struggle along on her hands and knees outside. (Pretty dang heartless, MB.) He tells the lieutenant “you’ll find your murderous snake – quite dead – outside the reptile building.” When the police arrive, they find a dead snake and the sari but no Indian girl. Marvel Boy tells them, “I don’t believe you’ll ever find her, lieutenant! You see, this particular snake was smuggled out of India – stolen from a cult of serpent-worshippers who believe that this type of snake has the power to – change itself into a woman at will!!! Perhaps the Indian girl had ideas of freeing all the snakes in the zoo, and murdering all the zoo-keepers for revenge – or – was the girl actually a serpent herself??? I wonder if we’ll ever know?” Yeah, Marvel Boy stepped on a snake and the woman ended up with a broken back, then the snake was found dead with the woman’s sari next to it but…how will we ever know???

It’s not much of a story but its very oddness and its refusal to accede to a solution that stares us right in the face appeals to me. Forget Marvel Boy’s cruelty and the room full of snake crates and raw eggs and the elephant in the tiny cage and the way the Indian girl somehow cleared herself even while guilty. I’m giving it two webs.

As I said above, we’ve come to the end of Marvel Boy’s time in Marvel Tales. As I said in my Marvel Tales #13, March 1968 review, “He returns in Marvel Super-Heroes #19, March 1969, reprinting a story from Astonishing #6, October 1951 only to disappear again. After that, none of the other 50s stories are reprinted until Marvel Masterworks: Atlas Era Heroes #1 in 2007. When he next appears in regular continuity, he has become the crazed Crusader in FF #164, November 1975 who destroys himself with his quantum bands in FF #165, December 1975. (When does the jewel become quantum bands? Let me know, somebody!) Wendell Vaughn then takes over the quantum bands to become the hero Quasar. The Crusader is eventually retconned to be an unstable duplicate of Marvel Boy, allowing the character to return as a hero and appear in Agents of Atlas.”

The Coming of the Plantman!, from Strange Tales #113, October 1963 is, like last issue, plotted by Stan and written by Joe Carter, which is a pseudonym for Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel. Dick Ayers is the artist. The story begins with the Human Torch flying down to meet his girl friend Dorrie Evans at her house. It’s a double Dorrie issue as she appears in the Spidey story, as well. So does her house, as Spidey fights the Beetle in her yard, then smashing into her living room. There, in spite of that damage, her father never appears. Here, even as Dorrie dresses Johnny down for indulging in “those freakish stunts of yours,” her father argues with his gardener, Sam, for “fooling around with that crazy invention of yours” instead of cutting the grass. Sam’s invention looks like hedge clippers with a mini-flashlight wedged between the blades. He tells Dorrie’s dad that “I’m positive flowers have intelligence! I’ve spent years trying to increase their IQ.” (And Dorrie’s dad has the nerve to call this a “crazy invention” and a “fool gadget.”) Mr. Evans has had enough. He fires Sam who vows revenge. Eavesdropping, Johnny decides that Sam is “a creep” but figures it’s none of his business.

Johnny wants to fly Dorrie to his Corvette but Dorrie insists that they take the bus. (Why didn’t he drive his car right to Dorrie’s house?) Once at the car, Johnny sarcastically asks if he can drive faster than five miles an hour. Dorrie replies, “Of course! What a shame a nice boy like you is the Torch! If only you’d stop flaming on and settle down!” Johnny counters with “That’s like asking Elvis Presley to stop singing!” and Dorrie says, “I can take Elvis’ dreamy singing a lot easier than your nightmarish flaming on! Don’t you know ‘Flaming Youth’ went out with the ‘Roaring Twenties’!” Huh? Let’s look that up. Wikipedia says, “Flaming Youth is a 1923 book, controversial in its time, by Samuel Hopkins Adams. The novel was adapted into the silent movie Flaming Youth in 1923. In his retrospective essay ‘Echoes of the Jazz Age,’ writer F. Scott Fitzgerald argued that Adams' novel persuaded certain moralistic Americans that their young girls could be ‘seduced without being ruined’ and thus altered the sexual mores of the nation.” Okay but is this something a Strange Tales reader would recognize in 1963?

Johnny doesn’t get how Dorrie can be so down on his Torch abilities. He reflects that all sorts of girls love him as the Torch and that, if he followed Dorrie’s wishes and never flamed on again, the other girls wouldn’t have anything to do with him. But, if he really wants to be with Dorrie, then he shouldn’t care if the other girls don’t want him, should he?

That night, Sam is out in his yard, trying to increase the IQ of a tree when lightning strikes his “crazy invention.” Yes, it’s one of those “one-in-a-million freak accident[s]” that seem to happen all the time. The lightning makes his gadget work. It not only increases the IQ of plants but it makes them obey him. To prove it, he shoots it at two trees and orders them to fight each other. They do. They even get rudimentary faces. Dubbing himself the “Plantman,” he decides to get revenge on Mr. Evans. He dons a green trenchcoat and green hat, looking like the Shadow, goes to the jewelry store at which Mr. Evans is manager and, with the help of the plants in the store, robs the safe. (“That safe must have been opened in front of you many times! Now, you open it for me!” he orders some azaleas.) Then he plants (heh) Evans’ watch in front of the opened safe, having broken the watchband so it looks like it fell off as Evans committed the robbery. The watch is inscribed “To Daddy, Happy Birthday, Love Dorrie” and this seems to be enough. The police arrive at the Evans house soon after, accusing Mr. E. of the crime. When Johnny finds out, he vows to clear his name.

The next night, the Torch flies by the jewelry store. For some reason, he has waited a full day until he investigates and, for some reason, the Plantman is hanging out at the store, expecting Johnny to show up. He brags to the Torch that, “I framed Evans!” Which seems to defeat the point of actually framing Evans. Then he uses his gadget to order some plants to dump their dew on Johnny, extinguishing his flame. (These plants have a lot of dew.) He orders other plants to bring their roots up to trip Johnny, then tells some weeds to wrap around him, creating a “weed straitjacket.” Then, rather than finishing the Torch off, he orders the plants to release him after he has left. If this is supposed to scare the Torch off, it doesn’t. Mostly, it embarrasses him.

The next day, the Plantman shows up in Central Park and declares it his headquarters. He has added a green kerchief that he uses to cover his entire face except his eyes, really making him look like the Shadow. He orders the plants to drive the people out. Thorns and poison ivy do the job. The Plantman captures a park guard and tells him to “tell the mayor that unless he surrenders the city to me at once, I’ll have my plant-allies tear down City Hall.” While waiting for a response, it all goes to Plantman’s head. “First, I’ll conquer New York!” he thinks, “Then city after city…and finally…the world!” But that’s not all! “Today, Earth! Tomorrow, the stars!!” (I’m pretty sure there aren’t any plants on the stars.)

Hearing about the ultimatum on the radio, the Torch flies to City Hall and asks the mayor to let him fight Plantman first. In Central Park, the two face off. Plantman begins his assault with a “leaf storm.” Johnny fends it off, saying, “Whaddya expect me to do, Plantman, beg you to leaf me alone?” Next, the Plantman orders a tree to uproot itself, jump in the air and land on the Torch. (Why is it that I can buy into Plantman ordering these plants to do all these things but I can’t buy that a tree can uproot itself and leap in the air?) The Torch burns right through the tree but the Plantman sics damp seaweed on him. It seems to come out of a bunch of buckets. Did Plantman lug all this seaweed up from the ocean to Central Park? No. As he tells the Torch, “I borrowed them from a marine exhibit just for you.”

The seaweed does its work and Johnny’s flame goes out. The Plantman pelts him with acorns and fruit. Then he starts to topple a big wooden vat filled with water onto Johnny. (Where did he get that?) In a last ditch effort, Johnny summons all of his flame into his hand and “launches… [it]… skyward.” The plants begin to wilt because the “intense heat is evaporating their moisture.” Panicked, the plants all attack the Plantman “because of the increased intelligence you’ve given them, they realize you got them into this fix!” A couple of branches reach out, grab the gadget and tear it apart.

Then, somehow, Johnny loses sight of the Plantman, allowing him to hide in a hollow tree. “I’ll build another plant-control device and destroy you if it takes the rest of my life,” vows the Plantman, “and next time, my plan will be foolproof.” And Stan adds a Marvel Tales-exclusive note here that says “Wanna bet? Looks like Planty hasn’t read ST #113 wherein he got decidedly clobbered by our blazin’ buddy!” The only trouble is this is the story from ST #113. The Plantman returns in Strange Tales #121, June 1964 which is reprinted in Marvel Tales #23, November 1969.

Johnny heads back to Dorrie’s place where she thanks him for clearing her dad but still wishes he “could conquer [his] mad desire to keep flaming on all the time!” The Torch flies off, deciding, “”You can’t win!!”

I know, I know, it’s a ridiculous story but most of the early 60s Marvel stories are. This one is dopier than some…that lightning bolt making the gadget work, that azalea knowing the combination to the safe, that tree that uproots itself and jumps on the Torch, that big wooden vat filled with water that the Plantman thinks he will topple over with a lever (how did he even get it there?)…but it all somehow works for me. Except, what about the Plantman hanging around the jewelry store the next night hoping the Torch will arrive, what about the plant drenching the Torch with dew, what about the hiding place in the hollow tree? I know, I know, I can’t help it. Maybe it’s the cool green outfit the Plantman has that looks like the Shadow, maybe I just like the idea of intelligent plants. I’m giving it three and a half webs.

Slave of Zarrko, the Tomorrow Man! from Journey into Mystery #102, March 1964 continues the Mighty Thor story from last time which began Stan and Jack’s run of JIM/Thor issues lasting, uninterrupted, until Thor #177, June 1970. Already, last time, you could see glimpses of what becomes one of the greatest runs in comics. That continues here, as Kirby starts to flex his muscles with some imaginative machines.

We begin with a two-page recap of last issue. Odin has cut Thor’s power in half because he opposes Thor’s love for Jane Foster. (Thor thinks, “My love for her will never die!” which doesn’t turn out to be true.) Seeing an opportunity, Loki looks into the Well of Centuries and locates Zarrko the Tomorrow Man in the 23rd century. He restores Zarrko’s memory and Zarrko heads to the 20th century, bringing along a huge robot that Thor, with half his power, cannot defeat. Zarrko threatens to “pillage the entire 20th century” unless Thor comes with him to the 23rd century as his slave. As Zarrko puts it in the recap, “If you return to the 23rd century with me, and help me conquer my own future world, then I promise to leave this century and cause no more harm here!” but this is not what Zarrko said last issue. Instead, he said, “If you give me your word to return to the 23rd century with me and do my bidding.” Nothing about doing his bidding until he conquers the 23rd century. This is crucial because this difference is the key to the story’s resolution. In any event, Thor agrees, Odin is appalled, Zarrko and Thor travel to the 23rd century and you’re up to date.

Their first stop is Zarrko’s home where they are served by his robo-servants. It seems like pretty fancy digs for someone who, as we were told last issue, was working as a “lowly clerk” but maybe everyone in the 23rd century lives like this. Zarrko tells Thor that he must “use the power of your hammer to subdue the populace into complete submission to my will.” He tells Thor, “There are no weapons in this enlightened age – no police forces! With you fighting for me, none can resist me!” They start by smashing the “central control mechanism” of the moving sidewalks, sending people flying all over. You’d think there’d have to be people hurt by this, if not killed, but, hey, Thor gave him his word so what’s a little murder? Next, “remote control airborne delivery vehicles are suddenly smashed from the sky, as if by magic!” (Does this mean that Stan and Jack invented the Amazon drone?) Then, “highly sophisticated robots which perform menial tasks, suddenly find their electronic guidance systems not operating correctly.” Traffic robots go crazy “causing traffic jams, panic, and a general slowdown of all the vital services which a civilization needs if it is to survive.” But, apparently, no injuries or fatalities.

Zarrko and Thor then stroll down the street. (Actually, I guess it’s not a street since all the traffic has been in aircars.) Zarrko brags to everyone that Thor is his slave and that they have caused all the turmoil. The techni-guards confront them. Stan tells us “Although the world of the 23rd century has no official police force, because there is no crime, they do have uniformed techni-guards, whose duty it is to protect the machines which serve mankind.” By the time we get to the next panel, Stan seems to have figured out that there is no need to protect machines if there is no crime and the purpose of the techni-guards changes as Zarrko says, “Those instruments you hold are not really weapons! They are meant only to control defective machines!” Oh, okay.

Zarrko orders Thor to destroy the instruments. He does so by harnessing “the alpha particles from the atmosphere” and shooting them out of his hammer. (Ah, yes. The old alpha particle trick.) Zarrko decides that Thor has been “too gentle” with the guards and orders him to subdue them. Thor uses his hammer to hypnotize them into submission, rather than cause any harm. “It’s not quite what I mean, but it will do…for now,” says Zarrko.

He and Thor head to the World Council building. There, he tells the Council that he wants to know “where the master machine is hidden! The one supreme machine which gives” the Council its orders. Zarrko figures that “once I put that machine under my command, the world is mine!” First, this seems like a bad governmental set-up. They have a machine that is hidden somewhere giving orders to the Council. If the Council only obeys the orders of a machine than why bother to have a Council? One guy could do that. Second, just because the machine would now be giving the orders to Zarrko, that doesn’t mean he’d rule the world. The orders still have to be implemented. The Council and the people could just ignore Zarrko’s orders, couldn’t they? It’s never very clear.

The Council refuses to tell where the machine is. Zarrko threatens them with Thor but decides to give them an hour to decide. Before they leave, Thor leaves a slip of paper on the Council’s desk. It seems like this will be really significant (maybe Thor’s plan to defeat Zarrko for which he needs the Council’s help?) but it isn’t really. The Council decides to act and they unleash the “maximum security octo-robot” on Thor. Again, why do they have this robot if there is no crime? It doesn’t matter. It’s the first of some really cool Kirby machines in this story. With his power halved, Thor has trouble with the octo-robot but defeats it. With that, the Council gives in. One member says, “We shall give you the location of the master robot which controls the planet!” So now it’s a “robot” instead of a “machine” and it “controls the planet” rather than just giving orders. Zarrko picks up on calling it the “master robot” and says he will rule the World Council once he controls the robot. Apparently, this is how it works because the Council member bows and says, “If you succeed in gaining control of the master robot, the whole human race will have to serve you, Zarrko.” Again, it seems like bad planning.

Zarrko and Thor fly to a remote island; the location of the master robot. After they land, Zarrko is back to calling it the “master machine.” He has Thor smash open a metal door that blocks a cave entrance but a C-Bomb bursts out at them. “C being short for cell! For this bomb is an actual instant-prison!! Nearing its objective, it bursts open, forming itself into an unbreakable prison cell within split seconds!!” It is another great Kirby device and it traps Zarrko and Thor underneath, increasing the gravity to pin them down. Thor uses all of his strength to lift his hammer and destroy the C-Bomb. The two men enter the cave to see a room with a huge grid on the wall showing locations all over the world. Machinery is all around it. This is the master machine and, planning to “set the main circuit to take orders only from me,” Zarrko now declares himself “master of mankind!” “Then I have kept my word,” says Thor, “I have given you mastery of the 23rd century.” And having kept his word, Thor now declares that he is “free to battle you!” However, as I mentioned, this is only true if this issue’s “if you return to the 23rd century with me, and help me conquer my own future world” is correct, rather than last issue’s “if you give me your word to return to the 23rd century with me and do my bidding.” So, what happened here? Did Stan and Jack write themselves into a corner and have to cheat? Did they figure kids wouldn’t remember what happened last time like the movie serials hoped that kids wouldn’t remember what happened the previous week? Did they figure kids threw their old comics out so that they wouldn’t be able to check?

In any event, Zarrko is prepared for Thor to turn on him. He uses the master machine’s nifty power gun to attack Thor, following that up with another cool Kirby weapon, the “electronic refrigerato-beam” that he had “all ready.” But “all ready” from where? He didn’t bring it in with him. He uses it to freeze Thor’s hammer. But Mjolnir shakes off the ice and returns to Thor’s hand. Zarrko threatens to throw a switch that can send “beams of pure force to any place on Earth” or even into the “stratosphere causing vital space stations and satellites to plunge helplessly back to Earth!” I have no idea how he knows all of these “master machine” devices work or even where to find them. I also have no idea how Thor knows that, if he rubs his “hammer head along the ground, picking up vast amounts of natural energy,” that this will free the master machine from Zarrko’s control because I have no idea how Zarrko gained control by just standing there.

Anyway, the machine defends itself by encasing Zarrko in “a ball of semi-solid energy matter.” Thor says, “Did you think that a master machine which governs Earth would only have one defense weapon at its deposal?” No, it had that power gun and the electronic refrigerato-beam and the force beams that could destroy any place on Earth or in the stratosphere but why does it have any of these things if there’s no crime?

A “scout ship of the World Council” arrives and takes Zarrko away. The Council member who gave Zarrko the location of the master machine is with them. He assures Thor that Zarrko “shall be kept in a maximum security area” (which they have, even though they have no crime). Are you wondering what Thor’s note to the Council said? It asked them to let him handle Zarrko himself. Yeah, kind of a letdown.

So, Thor heads for home, traveling through time by swinging his hammer “at exactly twice the speed of light.” (!) As he heads home, Odin tells Loki that Thor “did not fail,” since they apparently watched the whole affair even though they weren’t looking in the Well of Centuries. Odin seems pleased with Thor again but still hasn’t given him his power back. Loki storms off, angry at his failure and thinking, “Sooner or later, I shall defeat the accursed Thor! And when I do – it will be forever!” Stan, however, adds a Marvel Tales note that says, “Maybe so – but it’s been several years since this titanic tale was told – and Goldilocks is still kickin’!” And it’s been over 50 years since that and Thor is still kickin’ although you can’t really call him “Goldilocks” anymore.

What about Zarrko? He shows up next in Marvel Team-Up #9, May 1973, versus Spidey! Check out Scott Knudsen’s review!

And what about this story? Well, it’s hard to overlook the big cheat, not to mention the inconsistencies (if the 23rd century has no criminals then why have a techni-guard and why does the master machine have defenses?) or the goobledygook (how exactly does the machine rule the council so that Zarrko can rule the world by ruling the machine?) and those things have to bring the rating down. But it’s also such a harbinger of great things to come via Kirby’s elaborate machines and the multi-issue storyline and the co-mingling of plotlines what with Loki continuing his scheming and Odin halving Thor’s power because of his love for Jane Foster that it has to be rewarded. Call it three webs.

General Comments

It’s an interesting point in the Marvel Tales run. We’ve seen the last of the Atlas tales as the Thor stories soon expand their pages. (By Marvel Tales #28, October 1970, both Thor and the Torch will be gone, by Marvel Tales #33, February 1972 the series becomes all Spidey.) We are seeing the framework of a great series forming as the Thor stories blossom along with their expansion. The Torch stories continue to spin their wheels in mediocrity as we see why the series eventually gives way, in Strange Tales to Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD. So, here in one issue, we can see the end of Marvel Boy-style storytelling, the limping along of soon-to-be-defunct Human Torch-style storytelling and the start of Marvel’s 1960s flowering with Thor and, of course, Steve Ditko firing on all cylinders in Spider-Man.

Overall Rating

Plus there’s some pretty good stories this time. Five plus two plus three and a half plus three divided by four…let’s make it three and a half webs.

Footnote

We’ve left Spidey unconscious for far too long. ASM #65 is next!