Avenging The Fantastic, Part 9: The Secret Origin of Dr. Don Blake!

And we’re back—in a bold new direction! (Well, technically not bold, but 60s Marvel and hyperbole do go hand in hand.) As the Marvel Comics Universe continues to evolve, so must this column. I’m playing around with the format a bit, but one thing remains the same: We’re continuing the read-through of as many Avengers and Fantastic Four–related Marvel comics as possible!

Books Read

Fantastic Four #56-73; Thor #141-159; Tales to Astonish (starring the Hulk) #92-101; Incredible Hulk #102; Strange Tales (starring Nick Fury and SHIELD) #150-168; Tales of Suspense (starring Iron Man and Captain America) #89-95; Avengers #36-50; years spanned: 1967-68.

A confession

Lifelong Marvel fan though I am, I must confess I’ve entered into a bit of a slog here. By this point, Marvel has grown confident in its house style. The books have hit a comfortable rhythm, which was no doubt great for young fans at the time, but it doesn’t hold up so well against modern adult sensibilities. Dialogue is over-written. Captions explain more than they need to. And while everything is still brimming with wonderful imagination, it doesn’t feel as special as it did when most of the characters were making their debuts. And that makes perfect sense—these books weren’t built for long, multi-year narratives. They were disposable entertainment kids would get into for a few years before moving on to other hobbies.

But that’s just story-wise. Art-wise, however…


A broader palette

Jack Kirby dominated the art scene in the beginning and helped launch most of these characters. As this is a visual medium, Kirby deserves as much credit as Stan Lee for introducing these characters the right way. He had a kinetic, larger-than-life style that particularly suited the Fantastic Four and Thor, which he continued to illustrate in this batch of issues.

But other notable artists had begun emerging with their own distinct styles that suited the books they were assigned to.
Tales_of_Suspense_Vol_1_89Jim Steranko, as both writer and artist, infused new life in the Nick Fury series in Strange Tales, bringing a cinematic sensibility to the stories. For example, ST #167 devotes a four-page spread to a single panel that’s jam-packed with action—that’s about as wide-screen as comics can get. He also gets a tad psychedelic here and there.

Over in Iron Man’s series in Tales of Suspense, Gene Colan drew with a more down-to-earth style that’s appropriate for a superhero who’s all tech and no natural super-powers. You get the sense that Colan’s characters are moving more like people than cartoons.

John Buscema gave The Avengers a suitably dynamic style, full of expressive faces.

All these gentlemen had a tremendous influence on the medium. I admit, talking about artistic composition isn’t my strong suit, so, to borrow from the great Levar Burton, don’t take my word for it…check out the images I’ve included in this post.

The Revolving Door of Avengers Mansion

av49hThe Avengers’ ranks were beginning to swell up, with Hercules joining Captain America, Goliath, Wasp, Hawkeye, Quicksilver, and Scarlet Witch. Plus, Black Widow tagged along with the team awhile and nearly became a member. And potential recruit (and indeed, future Avenger) Black Knight was introduced in #48. But a misunderstanding sent Black Knight running off in a tizzy at the end of his first appearance. Black Widow quit both the superhero and the spy games for now. Captain America resigned from his super-heroic life (more on that below). Magneto lured Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch back to the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants (back in the day when bad guys owned their evilness…reclaiming the pejorative, I guess?). And Hercules found his way back to Olympus. This leaves us with only Hawkeye, Wasp, and Goliath—and Goliath’s powers aren’t even working properly (must be Tuesday).

a4originalA Tale of Two Human Torches – Fantastic Four Annual #4

Interesting little bit of trivia: the Fantastic Four’s Human Torch is not the first Human Torch, just the first one who’s actually human. Back in 1939, the image of a fiery character graced the cover of Marvel Comics #1. This was a combustible android named the Human Torch, and he was one of the company’s most popular characters throughout World War II, right along with Captain America and Namor the Sub-Mariner.

So naturally, it was past time for Stan Lee and company to dust him off and have him fight the new Human Torch.

Fantastic_Four_Vol_1_58The Best of This Bunch – Fantastic Four #57-60

This storyline is the highlight of this batch of issues—almost by default, given the weak competition, but it truly is a fun time, a prime example of big ‘60s-style Marvel action. Doctor Doom steals the Silver Surfer’s incredible cosmic power and now has the raw physical might to match his towering ego—until that very ego leads to his downfall, of course.

“But wait! I just remembered one thing—! Reed has a portable metabolism accelerator back at his lab! If anything can snap Ben out of it—that oughtta do it!” –Human Torch, as if he could possibly forget a portable metabolism accelerator and its practical battlefield applications, in FF #58

The Kree Are Coming, the Kree Are Coming! – Fantastic Four #64

This issue is notable for the first mention of the alien Kree, whom viewers of the Agents of SHIELD television series have been hearing about for a while now. Mr. Fantastic, Invisible Girl, and the Thing encounter an ancient Kree sentry that had been dormant on Earth for ages. It comes to life, and, once again, big 60s-style Marvel action ensues. Meanwhile, Johnny Storm falls further in love with Crystal (of the Inhumans), though their moment is interrupted by a giant teleporting dog. The things you’ve gotta watch out for in the MU…

Fantastic_Four_064-p11-p1“Just do as I told you, girl! And don’t question my orders! This isn’t your husband talking—it’s Mr. Fantastic—the leader of the world’s greatest team—!” –the ever-modest Reed Richards

“I have not seen, nor heard from the Kree for untold ages! Perhaps the supreme race is long-since dead—or perhaps they are just departed—to return again—some day!” –the sentry

Cue ominous music. And yes, the Kree do start coming. The next issue introduces Ronan the Accuser (the nonentity villain in the otherwise excellent Guardians of the Galaxy movie).

Justifying Don Blake – Thor #159

Some readers may have been wondering why, out of all the Asgardians, Thor alone had to be saddled with a mortal alter ego. The answer arrives at long last, and—no surprise—it resembles what we saw in the first Thor movie.

Thor needed to learn humility, so Odin sent him to Earth as Don Blake, a medical student with an injured leg and no memory of his life as Thor. He also sent down Mjolnir so Blake would find it when he was ready. This mirrors the movie, where Odin sought to teach the same lesson, but rather than creating any new identity, he simply banished Thor to Earth with his memory intact but without any godly powers.

The bigger difference, though, is the movie’s banishment of Thor is part of a clear character arc. This explanation of the Don Blake puzzle feels like an afterthought.

It makes sense that Stan Lee would want to give a superhero as powerful as Thor a weakness that could put him in genuine peril, and having a mortal alter ego—one he’d revert to if he was separated from his hammer for more than sixty seconds—would accomplish that.

But as the series fleshed out Asgard and the many supporting characters who inhabit the mythical realm, and as the series spent less and less time on Don Blake, any Blake appearance started feeling out of place. Why would a god like Thor bother with such an identity, especially after he wasn’t allowed to date Jane Foster? (Sif has been proving herself a much better romantic interest for him, by the way.)

Stan Lee came up with a great answer, one with a very mythological feel—the god who must learn humility. But now that the character is aware of the fiction of his double life, the question comes boomerangs back: Why bother?

Incredible_Hulk_Vol_1_102Let’s Try This Again – Incredible Hulk #102

The Hulk gets promoted back into his own solo series, picking up the numbering from Tales to Astonish, which he had been sharing with Namor and, earlier, Giant-Man. Hulk’s first solo series lasted six issues, none of which hold up especially well. This “first” issue doesn’t have much to boast about either.

The final two issues of TTA, respectively, saw the Hulk mind-controlled by the Puppet Master to do battle against Namor, and manipulated by Loki to attack Asgard and Thor’s buddies, the Warriors Three. Issue #102 continues in Asgard, and rather than capitalize on the exotic locale or exploit the fish-out-of-water scenario, Hulk basically just fights some trolls after the Enchantress interrogates Bruce Banner about her beloved Hercules, whom he knows nothing about.
Also, the Warriors Three meet with some mystic to learn about the Hulk’s origins so new readers can get caught up to speed. This was back in the day when most copies of Hulk #1 had long since been thrown in the garbage, so the flashbacks served a practical purpose at the time. It’s kind of like when television shows had clip episodes full of old scenes that weren’t likely to air again. For the modern reader, however, direct flashbacks that add no new details become pages to skim past.

So far, the Hulk just isn’t working as a solo character, which mirrors his situation in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. His pre-MCU film was an ambitious flop, and his more successful second outing nevertheless remains one of the weakest MCU films to date. He’s at his best when creating difficulties for other Marvel characters to deal with. This isn’t to say that he can’t work as viable solo character—just wait until writer Peter David gets his hands on the title in the 1980s—but the Hulk sure is slow reaching his potential.

TOS95CapA Captain in Love! – Strange Tales #95 (Captain America)

“How does a fella propose—to someone he knows only as—Agent Thirteen?” –Steve Rogers, while on his first real date with Agent Thirteen.

Geez, Cap, I know you spent decades on ice and probably feel like you’ve got to make up for lost time, but damn, the Sentinel of Liberty makes up his mind fast. Or love is just instantaneous in the MU (like with the Human Torch and Crystal’s whole obsessive-love-at-first-sight storyline in Fantastic Four). But go ahead – ask her to marry you before you ask what her name is.

Agent Thirteen (whom we met in the Winter Soldier film) had enough sense to turn him down, primarily because of her sense of duty toward SHIELD. But the whole thing inspires Captain America to quit so he can take time to figure out who Steve Rogers truly is.

It all feels like it’s coming out of nowhere…but that’s how things rolled in those days. They burned through plot fast and furiously, developing ideas and running with them.

So what if it’s rushed? It’ll still be fun to see how it plays out. Probably quickly, I’d wager.

To Be Continued…

Will Steve Rogers reclaim his rightful role as Captain America? Will Thor finally realize what a waste of time Donald Blake is? Will the Hulk figure out how to be interesting? Will the 60s ever end? Tune in a few weeks from now for more Marvel-ous mayhem!