Deck Log Entry # 179 It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time (Part One)

As I mentioned once, a while back, I got into Marvel Comics late in the game.  Outside of glancing at an odd issue or two on the coffee table at my barber shop, I didn’t start reading Marvel in earnest until 1965.  One of the first things that struck me was that the “Marvel universe” was tighter in continuity and more cross-connected than what I was used to over at DC.  That meant I had some catching up to do.


Back in those prehistoric days of comics, the only way for me to get up to speed on what had gone before was to make several visits to the old comic shelves at the used-book store on Broad Street, in Elyria.  That, or pick up as many of Marvel’s reprint titles---such as Marvel Tales and Marvel Collectors’ Item Classics---as I could.  I managed to do a pretty good job of keeping up with the then-current Marvels and filling in the blanks at the same time.


With the mid-60’s Marvels as templates, I couldn’t miss that there was something raw about Stan Lee’s earliest super-hero output.  The art was cruder than what I was used to over at DC or even, from Marvel itself by then.  But rough as it was, it was enthusiastic---something you really couldn’t say about many of DC’s more polished artists.    I’ve never been a Jack Kirby fan, but there’s no denying the man delivered dynamism and impact like few other artists.  


I saw that slam-bang approach was a key quality in Marvel’s early survival.  It carried the reader head-long past obvious plot-holes in the scripts or story elements that didn’t quite gel.  Lee often referred to Marvel as “the House of Ideas”, and he meant it.  He was throwing stuff out as fast as he could think of it.  It’s a credit to the fertility of his imagination that many Marvel fans still associate those early character developments with its heroes over half a century later.


But not every inspiration was a good one.  Sometimes, I’d open up one of those early Marvel tales and discover a bit of business that caught me by surprise, something that I had never come across in the contemporary stories.  And there was a reason for that.


These were the ideas that didn’t stick.  And that’s what I’m going to talk about to-day.




Who, disguised as . . . ?


When Stan Lee jumped into the super-hero world, with Fantastic Four # 1 (Nov., 1961), he intended to toss out usual conventions of the genre.  No colourful costumes, no masked identities.  Acquiring super-powers could be a curse, and the heroes wouldn’t be a bunch of slap-on-the-back buddy-buddies.  As the series progressed, Lee capitulated to the notion of costumes (in the third issue; and they were more accurately uniforms, rather than costumes).  He held firm on his other deviations from the norm, though, giving them shading and refinement.  In exchange for his super-strength, poor Ben Grimm seemed permanently trapped in the monstrous form of the Thing.  The foursome often bickered, complete with all the lapses of verbal control and things that cannot be taken back that erupt in real arguments.


And, of course, the members of the Fantastic Four were public figures, their names and faces known to anyone who paid attention to the news.


These were still cornerstones of the series when I started reading it in the mid-‘60’s.  So imagine how it caught me off guard when I had the chance to read the Human Torch’s solo debut in Strange Tales # 101 (Oct., 1962) and discovered that the original idea was for the Torch’s civilian identity to be a secret.

It’s easy to conclude why Stan Lee decided to make the Human Torch the break-out star of the Fantastic Four.  One, the original Human Torch had been a headliner back in the Golden Age, so Lee was banking that the magic would still be there.  And, more important, this Human Torch was a teen-ager.  Lee was probably hoping to glom off the sudden popularity of his other teen hero, Spider-Man, introduced just two months before.


One of the sources of Spider-Man’s youthful angst, which so resonated with his readers, was his need to keep his true identity concealed.  Exposure would mean endless persecution from The Daily Bugle, probable arrest, and death to his poor old Aunt May from the shock.


Most likely that was the direction Stan wanted to take with the Human Torch.  But the obvious problem with insisting that the Torch had a secret identity was Lee’s refusal to use secret identities in Fantastic Four.  He tried to cover those tracks as best he could.  A scene in Fantastic Four # 4 (May, 1962), in which Johnny used his flame powers in front of four of his buddies forced the inclusion of the blurb from that first solo Torch tale, stating that his pals had been “sworn to secrecy”.


If having a secret identity had generated tension for the Human Torch like it eventually would for Spider-Man, then Stan might have gotten away with it.  Unfortunately, he turned responsibility for the actual scripts of the series over to his brother, Larry Lieber. As a writer, Lieber’s efforts were journeyman, at best; he lacked the spark for generating compelling character drama. Under his uninspired handling, Johnny Storm's secret identity became what Stan hated most: a conventional comic-book plot device.  And one that seemed especially ridiculous when, in the same month that Strange Tales # 101 hit the stands, the opening chapter of Fantastic Four # 7 (Oct., 1962) showed the F. F. members attending a Congressional banquet in their honour, with their faces and real names right out in the open to the press and the public.


Stan must have realised that he couldn’t defend such a bizarre fiction any longer (especially when he wasn’t getting any bang for the buck out of brother Larry’s scripts).  So, a mere six issues into the Torch’s run, the opening pages of Strange Tales # 106 (Mar., 1963) brought us this sequence:


As before, Larry Lieber was credited with the script, but the hubris in the explanation that the good people of Glenville knew Johnny’s identity all along sounds like pure Stan Lee to me.




“Back in my day, I actually had to throw this thing!”


In The Avengers # 4 (Mar., 1964), Stan revived the most famous of Marvel’s Golden-Age heroes, Captain America, explaining away his absence as a nineteen-year bout of suspended animation.  The end of the story saw the Living Legend of World War II joining the Avengers.


Perhaps the thinking was that with nary a super-power to call his own, Cap needed a bit of boost in order to carry his weight with the mighty Assemblers.  But whatever the reason, a mere two issues later saw the Star-Spangled Avenger being outfitted with peachy-keen new devices, courtesy of genius inventor Tony Stark.  “Sub-miniature transistors” inserted in the centre of Cap’s shield enabled him to control its flight through the air.  And powerful magnets sewn into his left gauntlet kept the shield perched on Cap’s arm whenever he wasn’t in the mood to bash someone with it.


Outside of the transistors’ beta test in that issue and an operational check of the magnets in the next, not much was made of this new addition until “The Army of Assassins Strike!”, from Tales of Suspense # 60 (Dec., 1964).  This was the second entry in Captain America’s solo series.  Here, we see the first operational use of Stark’s gizmos and they get quite a work-out, as Cap uses them to harass and interdict a swarm of killers sent by Baron Zemo to do Our Hero in.

To me, giving Captain America a minor upgrade didn’t seem so terrible an idea, but for some reason, Stan got a case of cold feet about it.  Two months later, Tales of Suspense # 62 (Feb., 1965) delivered “Break-Out in Cell Block 10”, in which Cap visits a state prison at the invitation of the warden.  What the Star-Spangled Avenger discovers too late is that an inmate, the Deacon, and his henchmen have replaced the real prison warden and staff.  The Deacon lured Captain America there in order to get his hands on Cap’s shield.  The brainy crook intends to make use of transistors in the shield to override the electronic locks securing the main doors of the prison.


After being relieved of his shield, Cap is tossed into a cell with the warden, who fills him in on the situation. A sneaky trick gets the cell door open, then after fighting off an army of thugs, Cap gets the drop on the Deacon and reclaims his shield.  In the meantime, the warden and the now-freed prison guards put an end to the uprising.


As a final kick in the pants, the Deacon learns his efforts were all for nothing because Captain America had removed Tony Stark’s transistorised gadgets from his shield; they were interfering with the disc’s delicate balance.


That was the end of Captain America’s gimmicked shield, but later, writer Roy Thomas was able to crank one last bit of hay out of the idea.  “Wanted: Captain America”, an obvious fill-in story appearing in Tales of Suspense # 87 (Mar., 1967), depicts the efforts of a criminal calling himself the Peerless Planner to steal Cap’s shield.  You see, ol’ P.P. didn’t get the memo; he still believes the shield contains sophisticated electronics.  And the stunts Cap performs with the shield don’t do much to disabuse him of that notion.  The No-Longer-Peerless Planner gets dragged off to jail, insisting the whole time that he could have beaten Cap, if he had just gotten hold of his “gadget-laden” shield.




“It’s either this, or I put Brooks Brothers on retainer.”


Another one of the comic-book conventions Stan Lee wanted to turn on its ear was the trope of the abandoned civilian clothing that would “magically” reappear.  It occurred all the time in Golden-Age and early Silver-Age stories and went like this:


Wombat-Man, in his secret identity, is strolling down a city street when he sees his arch-enemy commit a crime.  The hero dashes into a near-by alley, strips off his street clothes to his costume underneath, then leaps into action.  Over the course of eight pages, Wombat-Man is taken across town, over water, up in a dirigible, or some other great distance before he has his final showdown with his foe at some remote hide-out.  Then, after emerging victorious, Wombat-Man changes back to his civilian identity and walks away, leaving the arriving police and public none the wiser as to who he secretly is.


The unspoken question was, of course, how did the hero’s street clothes get from that city alley to wherever he was when he changed back into them?


On rare occasion, a super-hero actually dealt with such things, such as Superman’s super-compressible Clark Kent clothing.  And a fortunate few, guys like Thor and the original Captain Marvel, didn’t have that problem in their identity-changing.  But for the most part, the writers just hoped the fans would look the other way or get so carried along by the adventure that they wouldn’t notice.


But Stan the Man was going to be upfront about this occupational problem for super-heroes, and he thrust it upon the broad yellow shoulders of one of his newer creations---Daredevil, the Man Without Fear.


Early in Daredevil # 3 (Aug., 1964), Matt Murdock agrees to represent the unscrupulous businessman known as the Owl.  In order to make the bond hearing in time, Murdock changes to Daredevil in his office, then rooftop-hops it across town to the courthouse.  Since he will need to change back to Murdock, DD takes his “wrinkle-proof” lawyering duds with him, bound up in a tight ball.


Matt springs the Owl on a writ of habeas corpus, but gets left holding the bag the next day, when his crooked client fails to show up for his arraignment.  Trudging his way back to his law office, the counselor anticipates that his masked identity will have to take a hand in the matter, and he gets a sudden inspiration.


“I just thought of a way to improve the efficiency of my costume!  I’m going to design a hood for my shoulders . . .  then I’ll be able to fold my street clothes and conceal them under it so they’ll always be handy!”


After a one-panel reminder of the Matt-Karen-Foggy romantic sub-plot, Our Hero goes home and sews himself that new addition to his Daredevil outfit.

The hood remains in place for the rest of the tale, and it comes in handy when the Man Without Fear has to assume his Matt Murdock identity in the New Jersey Palisades, far from the Manhattan starting point of this adventure. 


When Daredevil appears with the hood in the following issue---# 4 (Oct., 1964)---it appears to have become a permanent accessory.  That is, until DD runs afoul of Killgrave, the Purple Man.  As the result of an accidental dousing of an experimental nerve gas, Killgrave possesses the power to command men’s wills.   When Daredevil confronts the Purple Man on a city street, the good news is, due to his blindness, he's immune to the villain’s power.


The bad news is:  the throng of pedestrians on the street aren’t.


Killgrave orders the crowd to attack the Man Without Fear.  Thanks to his lightning reflexes and amazing agility, he manages to avoid harm until he can swing free from the bough of a near-by tree.  Just as Our Hero does so, a hand reaches out from the mob and snags his hood.  He yanks himself loose, but the effort puts a small rip in the hood.  This forces DD to reconsider.


“I realize now that it’s too dangerous to keep my street suit hidden in that hood! “ he concludes.  “It’s too easy for an enemy to grab me . . . to slow me up!  And, if anyone ever found my street suit, they’d have a clue to my real identity!  So, the hood must go!”


And when Daredevil reappears in the story, three pages later, gone it is.


It had all the earmarks of a running gag---issue after issue of Daredevil trying out new methods of keeping his civilian clothes handy, only to find them unworkable, for one reason or another.  But when I checked the next two issues of the series, there was no further mention of the problem.  And by issue # 7 (Apr., 1965), DD had changed over to his more-familiar red costume.  The issue of what do to with his civvies was never raised, again.


I guess that meant, for the rest of the Silver Age, the alleys and rooftops of New York City were littered with tailor-made black suits.




“Edwin Carp’s got nothing on me!”


In Fantastic Four # 4, Stan Lee revived the Golden-Age character of the Sub-Mariner and returned him to his original conception as an enemy of mankind.


As one of the two principal foes of the Fantastic Four (the other was Doctor Doom, and he was just getting warmed up), Prince Namor was formidable, indeed.  He was nigh-on indestructible; his goofy little ankle wings enabled him to fly; and he was in the same strength-class as Thor and the Hulk.  Pretty much your all-purpose adversary.


Yet, for some reason, Lee didn’t think that was enough.


In issue # 6 (Sep., 1962) and “Captives of the Deadly Duo”, the Sub-Mariner teams up with Dr. Doom in a scheme to destroy the Fantastic Four.  They actually have Our Heroes on the ropes when, Doom being Doom, he betrays Namor, leaving him to die with the F.F.  Dismayed at the unannounced direction their evil plot has taken, Subby overtakes Doom’s space ship, but when he attempts to break into the control room, he finds the door locked and electrified.


Namor yells to the gloating Doom that he has the ability to absorb electricity and then, like an electric eel, discharge it.  He follows this up with a practical demonstration, sending a tremendous blast of lightning through the hatch, fricasseeing the villain in his armour and dissolving their partnership.


The Sub-Mariner resurfaces in FF # 9 (Dec., 1962), when he buys a film studio for the express purpose of luring a recently bankrupted Fantastic Four to its doom.  Well, actually, it’s only the male members of the F.F. Subby wants to knock off.   He has designs on the Invisible Girl, but when Sue attempts to evade his clutches by turning unseen, he easily detects her by taking on the radar-like sense of the eyeless cave fish.  Then, for good measure, “lover boy” shifts to eel mode and tosses a couple of electrical bursts her way.


And just in case it wasn’t clear, he also states for the record, “I have the powers of all the creatures who live beneath the sea!”


Fortunately, the other three FFers weren’t as dead as Namor hoped they were.  They show up just in time to keep Sue’s virtue from being sullied.


In Strange Tales # 107 (Apr., 1963), the impetuous Human Torch decides to tackle the Sub-Mariner on his own.  Since this showdown takes place in the middle of the ocean, you can guess how that turned out.  In his fight with the Torch, Subby adopts the abilities of the puffer fish, resulting in one of the most mocked panels in comics history.


Namor then delivers the coup de grace to his fiery opponent by falling back on his old standby---an eel-like electrical shock.


Johnny gives it another try in “The Sub-Mariner Must Be Stopped”, from Strange Tales # 125 (Oct., 1964), and this time, he brings the Thing along.  All they manage to do is piss the Atlantean off.  He pulls his patented electric-eel attack on the Torch, then flies away, leaving the Thing to see how long he can tread water.


That story, in which Johnny and Ben’s unprovoked attack made Namor the offended party, reflected a gradual change Stan Lee was making to the image of the Sub-Mariner.  Stan fanned the flickers of nobility shown by Namor in the past into a major character trait.  No longer was he a villain, out to exterminate or enslave us air-breathers. Increasingly, the regal prince of Atlantis sought non-violent ways to redress his grievances with the human race, as in Daredevil # 7.  Or at least come to some sort of peaceful coëxistence.


The Sub-Mariner was being prepped to lead his own series, starting with Tales to Astonish # 70 (Aug., 1965).  Part of that rehabilitation was dropping his power to mimic the abilities of sea creatures, which was probably seen as gratuitous.  (Or perhaps fans were still writing in, making fun of the bloated “puffer fish” Subby from Strange Tales # 107.)  No in-story references were made about it; Namor simply stopped imitating fish.  And, when I started reading Marvels in ’65, I had no reason to believe that he had ever done so.


A couple of years later, I picked up a copy of Marvel Tales # 9 (Jul., 1967), which reprinted the Torch-versus-Namor story from Strange Tales # 107.  An aftermarket footnote explained, “. . . Namor has since lost his power to imitate the characteristics of fish.”  Which was good to know, since it had only been a few months since I had discovered that he ever had the power to imitate fish.


As vague an explanation as that was, it was enough to put an end to it, for a Silver-Age maven like me.  But it wasn’t good enough for a couple of writers who came afterward. 


Most of the story “Defender of the Realm”, written by David Kraft and appearing in The Defenders # 52 (Oct., 1977), is taken up by a Namor-Hulk donnybrook which tears up a good portion of Manhattan real estate.  At one point, the Subster pulls his favourite fish stunt---zapping ol’ Jade-Jaws with about a million volts of eel electricity.  A helpful footnote informs the readers---most of whom had probably never heard of Namor doing such a thing before---that it goes ‘way back to FF # 6.


And John Byrne introduced a whole new generation of Prince Namor fans to his former fish powers when Byrne wrote and drew the Atlantean’s second shot as a headliner---Namor, the Sub-Mariner.  In issue # 18 (Sep., 1991), Subby dukes it out with the Super Skrull, who possesses all the powers of the Fantastic Four combined.


When the Super Skrull begins to get the worst of it, he attempts to outmanœuvre Namor by turning invisible.  It doesn’t work, though, for the same reason it didn’t work for Sue Storm when she tried the same thing back in FF # 9.


Clearly, the idea of the Sub-Mariner being able to copy the powers of fish was one that still had its fans.



* * * * *

Thanks for reading, guys.  Next time out, I’ll discuss my biggest surprise in going back and discovering those early Marvels.  It’s what I call:  a character in search of a format.

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I'm now thinking of the old comedy shtick where the cure for amnesia from a head injury was to whack them on the head again.

It was the only cure in those comedies.

In an episode of Fantasy Island a woman with amnesia asked Mr. Roarke to help her get her memory back. When she did she went back to being what she was before, a mean, nasty, hateful witch. Vaguely, she remembered that when she didn't know who she was, she had been happy, contented, and full of love. She hit herself over the head with something hoping it would turn her back into that person. The fun persona woke up wondering why she had a headache and vaguely decided she didn't care anymore who she used to be.

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