Marvel Tales is slowly working its way to being that book that reprints single issues of Spider-Man. In that spirit, the cover is essentially a reprint of the ASM original. And this is the point where the greytone frontispiece disappears, replaced by a standard comic book ad (“Famous Name Prizes or Cash…from Olympic”). The cover blurbs are different than the original, though. “Captured by J. Jonah Jameson” on the ASM #25 cover is replaced by “Spidey vs. JJJ.” And we’re not at those single-issue Spidey stories yet. The other blurb says, “Plus: The Human Torch and the Immortal Might of Thor! Who Says Three’s a Crowd?” Well, eventually they will be.
The issue begins with Captured by J. Jonah Jameson! It’s from ASM #25, June 1965 and I said, “The first spider-slayer story is undeniably the best,” and “Sturdy Steve's first credited plotline is as good as it gets,” giving it five webs.
So let’s move on to the Thor story. It is When the Grey Gargoyle Strikes! from Journey Into Mystery #107, August 1964 and it is by Stan and Jack, getting more and more into their Thor groove.
But, first, there’s an “Another Marvel Masterpiece,” using the full page on Not Brand Echh #13. Do you get a sense of desperation about that? And do you get the feeling I’ll be reviewing it soon?
Stan feels like he’s really got a good Thor story here. First, he tells us to “settle back in a comfortable chair…and please don’t read this if you’re in a hurry…because you’re really going to enjoy this one.” Then, he tells us that, “We think you’ll flip over our newest sinister star…the Grey Gargoyle!”
The story begins with Dr. Donald Blake, in his office, once again obsessing about Jane Foster. He wants to marry her but Odin has forbidden it. Not only that, but Jane thinks Don Blake is a coward who betrayed Thor to the Cobra and Mr. Hyde a couple of issues ago. Thinking Jane has left for the day, he transforms into Thor only to have Jane walk in. To protect his identity, Thor pretends that he is there to confront Don about his betrayal but Jane defends Don, telling Thor that “Even though he’s not heroic as you…he’s good…and kind…and…I can’t help myself…no matter what he’s done…I love him!” Thor leaves and flies over Manhattan with joy, yelling out “She loves me! She loves me!” He does a loop-de-loop around an airplane that soon lands at JFK Airport. One man gets out. When the steward asks where the other passengers are, the man says, “You will find them inside.” And the steward does find them inside. They’ve all been turned to stone.
As he rides in a cab, the man falls into a thoughtful flashback. He is Paul Duval, “an unknown young chemist in Paris,” working for some institute. He is one of those guys who thinks he is taking “orders like a mere lackey” and is “meant for greater things” but he’s incompetent enough to screw up the mixture on which he is working and he is careless enough to accidentally spill some on his right hand. He soon finds out that his hand has turned to living stone, that he can turn the rest of himself into living, moving stone by touching the rest of his body and that he can turn others into unmoving stone by touching them. He also learns that his “stone spell” lasts one hour. (Although Stan later forgets this and the story depends on the stone spell lasting 24 hours.) Armed with this power, he steals from stores and banks by turning proprietors and guards to stone but he soon hungers for something greater. Then, he reads an article in the Paris Post (which apparently publishes an English edition) with the headline, “Thor’s Hammer Flattens Cobra and Mister Hyde in Running Battle” and he decides to come to New York to “steal Thor’s power of immortality!” Now, why in the world does he think he can steal Thor’s immortality with his stone power? Who knows? But he concocts this idea that Thor’s immortality comes from his hammer. “Somehow,” he thinks, “I must win it from him!”
When the cab driver gets him to “the center of town,” Duval rewards him by turning him to stone. He claims to do this because he hopes to attract Thor but he’s also stiffing the cabbie of his fare. Of course, the plan works, because Thor happens to fly past an open window where the man inside is listening to the radio. “Bulletin!” the radio announcer says, “Authorities are mystified over a planeload of stone passengers which landed a few minutes ago at JFK International Airport! And, just seconds ago, a stone taxi driver was found at the corner of 53rd and Madison.” Thor flies to the site, finding two cops (one of whom is named Charlie) carrying the frozen cabbie. (He must be heavy in that stone form. Those two cops must be in excellent condition.) One cop says, “What nut would dress a stone statue like a cab driver, and put him in a taxi??” but the arriving Thor thinks the cabbie is “too lifelike.” Thor uses his Avengers authority to take the stone cabbie off the cops’ hands to take it to Don Blake “for detailed examination.”
At the office, Don summons Jane and tells her “admit no patients for the rest of the day.” But wasn’t Jane going home? Didn’t Stan tell us on page two that “The last patient has departed?” So…is this all happening the next day?
Don uses his stethoscope on the “statue” and hears a faint heartbeat. Jane comments that he’s like the people at the airport who have all turned back to normal. Don believes the cabbie will turn back soon too. He’s “similar to a man who’s been in a deep freeze and is starting to thaw out!”
Back at his hotel room, Duval puts on a costume and starts calling himself “the Grey Gargoyle,” since he wants notoriety and because it’s cool. But, while still in his Duval form, he watched where Thor took the cabbie and located Don Blake’s office (which must be very close to 53rd and Madison for Duval to keep track). He turns himself into his stone form and shows up at Don’s window. “Wha??” says Don, “Another stone figure! But you can move! You’re different!” The Gargoyle makes an airplane out of a piece of paper on Don’s desk, then touches it “to the exposed palm of my hand,” turning it to stone. Don brilliantly deduces, “you’re the one responsible for turning those people into stone figures!” What tipped you off, Don?
Realizing he must become Thor to combat the Gargoyle, Don makes a run for it and gets to the elevator. He goes up to the roof but the Gargoyle trails him, only to find Thor there instead. And he immediately blurts out his plan. “Thor! It’s you! Now to seize your hammer and destroy you!...once I possess your enchanted hammer, immortality shall be mine!” Thor lets him have the hammer by throwing it at him, essentially knocking the Gargoyle off the building and all the way down to the ground. There, the Gargoyle runs to a gas station, called “Marvel Oil.” (Convenient. There aren’t all that many gas stations in Manhattan, are there?) He strikes his stone hands together. “They’ll act like flint, causing the gas fumes in this service station to ignite!” The explosion occurs just as Thor arrives, blowing him away from his hammer. The Gargoyle grabs it but discovers that he cannot lift it. Thor recovers from the explosion and starts to grab his hammer away but, when he does, the Gargoyle touches him, turning him to stone.
Just then, the police show up with flamethrowers since “flame can turn stone to lava.” They throw flame but the Gargoyle is too fast for them and escapes. (Let me get this straight…he wasn’t fast enough to catch a lame Don Blake when he ran… “the valiant Doctor manages to make it to the elevator before the heavier, slower Grey Gargoyle can reach him”…but he’s fast enough to elude flamethrowers?) Left behind, Thor’s stone figure topples over and his hammer strikes the ground, turning him back to Don Blake. “When my physical self changed – when my entire nuclear and molecular cell structure was altered – the stone spell also faded into oblivion!”
Don returns to his office. He doesn’t dare turn back into Thor because then he will be stone again. The problem is that, according to Don, the Gargoyle’s spell lasts 24 hours. Now, there’s no way 24 hours have passed since Duval showed up on that plane. He took a cab directly from the airport and turned the cabbie to stone. Then he showed up to battle Thor while the cabbie was still stone. And yet, Jane said that the people in the airplane had all turned back to normal. Plus, the Gargoyle (and Stan) already told us that his spell lasts one hour. So maybe, what with being turned to stone and all, Don has lost all track of time.
Don contacts a “friend who manages a TV newsreel company” and gets him to lend him a “3D type projector” that they have Tony Stark alter so that it projects a realistic image of Thor. The newsreel guys mount it on a “fast-moving motor cycle” that Don drives around town, hoping to attract the Gargoyle. He succeeds and when the Gargoyle sees “Thor,” he wonders, “how did the spell wear off so quickly?” (Since this 3D projector setup had to take more than an hour, the Gargoyle now also thinks his spell lasts 24 hours.) Don drives through the streets, making it seem as if Thor is trying to avoid the Gargoyle and Jack gives us an overhead shot that shows that all of these Manhattan streets are empty of traffic.
On the rooftops, the Gargoyle pursues the Thor image, “unaware of the motorcycle speeding below,” even though it’s the only vehicle on the road. The Gargoyle grabs a cornice off a roof and hurls it at “Thor” but Don manipulates the image so it looks like “Thor” evades it. “Now,” he thinks, “I’ve got to take the offensive.” So, he has the Thor image hurl his hammer at the Gargoyle. (The hammer image separates from the image of Thor. That Tony Stark is a genius!) This is just what the Gargoyle wants. He reaches up to grab the hammer and it goes right through his hands before returning to “Thor.” The Gargoyle smells a rat. “How did Thor remain in the air without holding his hammer?” he wonders. (Good question, but he has done that before, hasn’t he?) The Gargoyle looks down and finally spots Don on the cycle, recognizing him. He leaps down through the roof of the only other vehicle that has shown up on the street; a milkman’s truck. Commandeering the truck, the Gargoyle drives after Don who drives right off a pier into the Hudson River. The Gargoyle can’t stop in time and his truck crashes into the pilings, throwing him out and into the river. Don finds his way to a ladder on the pier but the Gargoyle is too heavy and (yes, I’m going there) sinks like a stone. “The Grey Gargoyle finally found the immortality he wanted…at the bottom of the sea,” says Don. (Which brings up the question…does the Gargoyle breathe when he’s in his stone form?)
The next day, Thor visits Don Blake’s office. Jane is there with the cabbie who is back to normal. The cabbie wants to thank Don, who is now a hero. Thor looks at a newspaper headline that reads, “Daring Physician Rids City of Grey Gargoyle Menace” and smiles. He has not only gotten rid of the Gargoyle but of the image of Blake as a coward. “Then, without another word, the Mighty Thor, his heart singing, turns and hurls himself into the blue!!”
The Grey Gargoyle returns only six issues later (in Journey into Mystery #113, February 1965) when he is dredged up from the Hudson by a “nearby museum” who think they’ve found “one of the great discoveries of our age.” Since he’s been down there for months (a workman says, “This stone statue you found must have been laying in the river for months!”), I guess that means he doesn’t have to breathe in his stone form. We won’t see that story in Marvel Tales because it is, instead, reprinted in Thor Annual #3, January 1971. By the way, the Gargoyle has met Spidey on occasion, beginning with Marvel Team Up #13, September 1973, co-starring Captain America.
We’re still in early Marvel territory where dopey things tend to happen, such as Don driving around with a special camera on a motorcycle to convince the Gargoyle that Thor is flying around, but this is a still a first-rate story. The Gargoyle is a well-conceived character with a unique super-power and he’s a formidable opponent for Thor. I like how Thor’s anger at the sight of the Gargoyle trying to lift his hammer causes him to be careless and be turned to stone. I like the notion that Don Blake can’t change back into Thor without becoming stone again (even if the length of time of the Gargoyle’s “spell” is muddy in this issue). And I like that Don is the hero here, resolving the subplot of Jane thinking he’s a coward. It isn’t long before the Thor series gets even better than this but this one is pretty fun. I’m giving it five webs.
Our Human Torch story, The Man Who Became the Torch! by Stan and Dick Ayers, is from Strange Tales #118, March 1964. So, what happened to the story from Strange Tales #117, February 1964, “The Return of the Eel?” Well, maybe the opening line from the synopsis on www.comics.org will give us some idea: “Having served his time, The Eel is released from jail, but Johnny's suspicious because he left prison wearing his Eel costume.” Yeah, it sounds pretty bad to me, too. So bad that it’s not reprinted until Essential Human Torch #1, in 2003.
It’s no secret who the villain is in this story, since the title is followed by “Featuring the Return of…the Wizard!” Eventually, the Wizard becomes a major player in Marvel comics but at this point, he has only been seen a few times, and all in Human Torch Strange Tales stories. He last appeared in Strange Tales #112, September 1963 (which we saw in Marvel Tales #15, July 1968 and he wasn’t even the main villain. He was in prison, offering his help to Johnny against…guess who?...the Eel, but the warden turns him down.
Our story begins with Johnny Storm going through his odd Human Torch training when three teens show up and ask him to go bowling. It turns out he’s the captain of their bowling team. (There’s some Marvel trivia you can use to amaze your friends!) Johnny agrees to join them but first he has to “create a flaming bull’s eye” and fly through it. (Of course he does.) One of his friends asks him why he needs all this practice. “The city’s peaceful enough! There’s no one left for you to battle,” he says. (We must still be in Glenville, not Manhattan.) Johnny replies that, “Old villains never die, they just come back when you least expect ‘em!” Case in point: the Wizard, who is still in jail, but not for long. He has made use of his genius in the prison workshop. First, he calls for a guard who rushes into the cell. The Wizard blows a sleeping potion in the guard’s face; potion that he made “grain by grain” over a period of weeks. (It doesn’t seem to occur to the Wizard or the guard that the potion wouldn’t have done any good if the guard hadn’t rushed into the cell instead of staying outside and keeping it locked.) Then, he puts on the unconscious guard’s uniform. He has “studied the art of disguise in the prison library (probably not a good thing to have in the prison library) and he covers his beard and takes on the guard’s appearance by using actor’s putty that he made from melted crayons. (They have crayons in prison?) Due to his disguise, the Wizard gets to “the top of the outer wall.” There, he straps on his “latest and greatest invention,” an anti-gravity disc that allows him to fly away. He makes it to a tree, then hops from tree to tree to escape. He tells himself, “once I’m safe in my hidden lab, I’ll improve this self-flyer” and he thinks so much of his invention that he goes through three panels of imagining how “no crime will be impossible for me to commit,” and how he will eventually become, as Leonardo DiCaprio said in “Titanic,” the KING OF THE WORLD!!! Then, he backtracks from his previous plan to go to his hidden lab. “But my hideouts have been discovered before…I must be safe long enough to finish my self-flyer. And what better hideout is there than another person’s identity!” Uh, okay.
It’s a few days later and Johnny is still practicing flight maneuvers. His sister Sue comes out and tells him he’s gotten mail from a TV studio that wants him “to give a one-man exhibition for charity over closed-circuit TV!” “Yippee!,” says Johnny, “I may become the Captain Kangaroo of the teenage set!”
Now, when this invite mentions closed-circuit TV, it is not talking about video surveillance but a system in which a TV station would send a signal to particular places. In this case, the cameraman claims that it is being beamed “to the children in orphans’ homes.” Johnny doesn’t find it unusual that the cameraman is the only person in the studio and he gladly does all sorts of tricks until he exhausts his flame. And, with that, the cameraman reveals that “these aren’t real TV cameras! They merely generate a beam of pure white energy, strong enough to render any normal human unconscious!” (Why didn’t he use it on Johnny right away rather than have him do all those stunts?) The cameraman removes his disguise to reveal himself as the Wizard but Johnny is already flat-out unconscious. Wiz then puts on a copy of Johnny’s FF costume, uses “soft skin putty” to change his face and puts on a blond wig. Declaring that he has put Johnny “where you can never get free,” the Wiz uses his anti-gravity power and a “cold-flame unit” to fly off as the Human Torch.
So, just a moment here. It’s one thing to steal someone’s identity in order to have privacy to perfect an anti-grav unit but why impersonate someone as famous as the Torch? And where did he put the Torch, anyway? Not in one of those hideouts that tend to get discovered, right? We’ll find out later but, once we find you, you have to wonder how he hefted the Torch (and later Sue) all the way there without being seen. All in all, it seems like a pretty bad plan. The next step, as I just alluded to, is to ambush Sue Storm with sleeping gas so he can “live in their house as I please in perfect safety.” So, he keeps them captive in the Storm house where no one is going to find them? No, he doesn’t do that. Instead, he declares this to be “the Wizard’s greatest triumph,” which is pretty sad.
He’s not done with this stupidity. While we get a two-panel introduction to an ad for “Smith’s Safety Matches” on the roof of a Times Square building, the Wizard flies to the Baxter Building to make sure the rest of the FF “don’t start getting suspicious.” Of course, there isn’t a better way to make Mr. Fantastic and the Thing suspicious than this senseless visit in which Wiz tells Reed that he as a cold to conceal his inability to perfectly mimic the Torch’s voice. He also tells Reed and Ben that he and Sue are sick of “this togetherness bit” and want to “go tto some sunny resort and forget the Fantastic Four even exists.” Reed tells him to go ahead and, instead of going to “some sunny resort,” he goes back to the Storm house where Reed could probably tell that somebody is home if he chose to check.
The Wizard is too much of an idiot to think of this. Instead, he gloats about how he can “outsmart anybody!” He succeeds in miniaturizing his anti-grav device which sends him into another 3-panel fantasy; this one about how he’ll be able to lift houses and battleships but coming back to the same point as the last one: he’ll be KING OF THE WORLD!!!
This leads to more gloating about how he got his revenge on the Torch and how Johnny and Sue will “spend their last hours without even suspecting where they really are.” Just then, Johnny and Sue regain consciousness in a confined space, where Sue worries that “the Wizard isn’t likely to leave any loopholes,” only she shouldn’t know that the Wizard is behind this. There isn’t much air in the prison but there’s enough for Johnny to create a small fireball. It can’t penetrate the walls because they “are completely asbestos-lined” but it can float around the space, searching for an air opening. When it flares up, Johnny knows that is where the air is trickling in. (This is all nonsense, of course, but so is the flaming 4 he’s about to create.) It turns out it is only a pinhole that caused the fireball to flare up, “so tiny that the Wizard never even suspected it was here” but now that Johnny has found it, he puts his finger over it and concentrates, forcing “my last remaining bit of flame through the pinhole and have it form a symbol in the outside air.” The symbol is the flaming 4 that summons the FF. Reed and Ben see it since, apparently, the Baxter Building is not far from Times Square. Yes, Times Square, because the Wizard has placed Johnny and Sue inside the Smith’s Safety Matches advertisement. (Why else would Stan and Dick show it to us earlier, right?) And since the ad is on a rooftop for everyone in Times Square to see, you have to wonder how he managed that.
Reed and Ben soon arrive and rescue Johnny and Sue. (“Next time you decide to take a vacation, Johnny boy, try the seashore!” says Reed.) So, here is the FF reunited with the Wizard still at large and Johnny flies off to tackle him alone.
Fortunately for the Wizard, he’s got the TV on and he learns of Johnny’s escape from his trap. He has designed a gun that will fire his anti-grav pellet and he plans to shoot the Torch so that he’ll go off “on a one-way journey into space.” The Torch arrives, flying in through a window and the Wizard asks him to go outside so he can send him “into the blue,” and Johnny agrees (!) Once outside, the Wizard thinks his pellet will withstand Johnny’s flame but the Torch turns on his “near-nova flame” as the Wizard shoots and the pellet melts. Surrounded by flame, the Wizard escapes by using his last anti-grav disc, shooting up into the air. Johnny pursues so the Wizard sets it to full power and Johnny has to give up. But the device gets jammed and the Wizard can’t descend. Instead, he has “reached the section of the sky where there is no air to breathe.” So much for the Wizard…but while Johnny thinks the Wiz is finished, “with a brain like his, who knows?”
Who knows, indeed? The Wizard not only returns but takes a big leap in his career, in his very next appearance, forming the Frightful Four in Fantastic Four #36, March 1965. So, how does he survive? Well, in that FF issue, we learn that the Sandman and Paste Pot Pete have escaped prison and hijack a “low-flying jet.” They spot a figure floating in the air and recognize it as the Wizard. They rescue him and there’s three-quarters of the Frightful Four right there.
This story isn’t as silly as the Puppet Master tale reprinted last time in Marvel Tales #19 but it still has its inanities. For a genius, the Wizard is as dense as a stump. (Reed isn’t much better.) If he wants a quiet place to work on his anti-grav discs, then he should pick a quiet place instead of capturing Johnny and Sue and moving into their house. If he wants to get rid of the Torch, then he should get rid of the Torch and not put him in some Times Square billboard display that he apparently put up there himself just for that purpose. (How did nobody see this?) But never mind all that. I’m still trying to picture the Wizard melting all those crayons in the prison laboratory and wondering how Johnny has time to captain the bowling team. Two webs.
Last time we had five webs + five webs + one-and-a-half webs. This time we have five webs + five webs + two webs but it’s going to come to the same thing. Call it four webs.
I could repeat my Overall Rating comments from last time. Then, I said, “With the great Spidey and Thor stories, the sub-par Torch story is just a bonus” only this time it’s a slightly better bonus. We’re in the midst of some great Ditko Spideys. Thor still has some ups and downs but it’s getting there. And the Torch? Well, you’re not buying this comic for the Torch. Enjoy the inanity!
Next: It’s the last issue of the series (until 2018, that is). Not Brand Echh #13!