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Marvel Mayhem: The Beginning
I can't remember a time during my formative years when I didn't read comic books. And while the old collection (yes, I still have most of it) has a healthy dose of Marvel I was always more of a DC Comics kid -- thanks in large part to a certain pointy-eared Caped Crusader. Then I went to Comic-Con last year and fell back into the hobby. Even then, the Marvel Universe seemed like some great unsolvable Rubix Cube. I figured there was a way to get into it, but I just had no idea where to begin.

Then, a few weeks ago, I stumbled across the project of a saintly fellow named Travis Starnes, who is currently attempting to put together a comprehensive continuity of the entire Marvel Universe, going all the way back to Fantastic Four #1 and assembling a definitive reading order.

I was immediately intrigued. This list, while still incomplete and ongoing, appealed to me both because of the sheer amount of work involved ... and because I have my own obsessive tendency when it comes to hobbies.

And so, armed with a Marvel digital subscription (which at $5/month for unlimited reads I heartily recommend for every comics fan) ... I decided to tackle this massive reading order, and chronicle my thoughts on each issue here at Gonzogeek.

Here's a summary of what I've read so far.

1. Fantastic Four, Issue #1

Publication Date: November, 1961
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Jack Kirby

Get ready to see those two names quite a bit because through the formative years of Marvel's existence as a superhero entity they carried almost the entire creative burden. Kirby's art still holds up as quality work more than five decades later; he's a legend, for Pete's sake.  

One of the first thing that's striking when perusing these Silver Age books is the sheer number of panels per page. On one two-page spread, there were 18 panels combined. Eighteen! Today, it's almost the polar opposite with several books adopting the splash-page-every-three-pages mentality. 

Then there's the dialogue. If you'd ever like to see people's thoughts written out, in detail, as things happen around them, the Silver Age books are your cup of tea. 

Most comic geeks worth their salt know the origin story of the Fantastic Four. A space flight through a radiation belt leaves all four astronomical travelers with a different metahuman skill set. What's interesting about this first issue is that Ben Grimm/The Thing has a very different characterization and manner of speaking. It's weird to see blue-collar Ben speaking the King's English, turning phrases like "Bah! I cannot delay!" I was waiting for "Privy and forsooth, the hour for thine clubbering has come nigh!" But it didn't happen, and soon we're back to Grimm's blue-collar ways.

The structure is also kind of a mess. There's two flashbacks in the middle of the issue and another that can only be described as a flash sideways.

Still, I was reading through history -- in digital form, mind you, and the read is still pretty entertaining. It helps that the main antagonist, the Mole Man, is presented as an actual human with flaws and foibles. That ... and you really can't go wrong with a Silver Age comic that features three-headed dragons, subterranean monster armies and a place called Monster Isle.

Rating: 3 out of 5, Entertaining


2. Fantastic Four, Issue #2

Publication Date: January, 1962
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Jack Kirby

I didn't realize the Skrulls dated back this far in Marvel history, but here they are in what will be a common theme in these early books -- an alien race deciding to invade Earth. One can only wonder why they didn't try for a planet that wouldn't resist so much. I hear Venus is nice this time of year ...

Lots more action here, and some 60s campy shenanigans that provide at least three unintentional comedic moments while the Skrulls are posing as members of the FF, and getting the world's authorities on their trail. I can understand people being mad when the Not-Thing destroys an oil platform, and not-Invisible Girl steals a $10 million platform. Not-Human Torch, meanwhile... melts a statue. And this leads police to want to shoot on sight? I guess people really cared about their sculptured art back then...

Rating: 3 out of 5, Entertaining 


3. Fantastic Four, Issue #3

Publication Date: March, 1962
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Jack Kirby

Some historic stuff happening here, which makes up for a pretty awful story. This marks the debut of the "Fantasticar", and the FF's penthouse headquarters. 

The rest? Kind of a hot mess. Human Torch quits the team at the end of the issue because he thinks The Thing is a jerk. In the process, Torch fails to acknowledge his own inner jerkiness. The villain is a dude called the Miracle Man, a magician who turns bad, and the climax of his conflict with the FF reaches new depths of lameness. It turns out his entire act was the result of mass hypnosis, which is halted only when a a solar flare shot off by the Torch stops his ability to hypnotize others -- permanently, according to the esteemed scientific brain Reed Richards. 

This isn't the first time screwball science is used to wrap up an issue.

Also ... Reed Richards uses his stretchiness to fill in for a flat tire, which is funny every time you look at it. 

Rating: 2 out of 5 -- Mediocre


4. Incredible Hulk, Issue #1

Publication Date: May, 1962
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Jack Kirby

The debut of the Hulk. This character's really grown on me since getting back into comics as a grown up so I was interested to see his origin.

More Silver Age screwiness. Whether it's the interesting word choice - mild mannered Bruce Banner is referred to multiple times as a "milksop" or Thunderbolt Ross telling Betty to stay out of "man's talk." 

The premise of the Hulk is also completely different from the one we've come to know so well. Banner's changes into the Hulk are triggered by nightfall, rather than his mood. I did like the villain here, the Gargoyle, who much like the Mpleman in Fantastic Four #1 deals with his own angst over living with disfigurement. In the end, Banner uses radiation (that homespun cure-all) to remove the Gargoyle's disfigurements, and he returns the favor by blowing up the Russian base -- and himself with it. One can only wish that Banner's plucky teenage sidekick Rick had gone up in the blast as well.

Rating: 3 out of 5 -- Entertaining


5. Fantastic Four, Issue #4

Publication Date: May, 1962
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Jack Kirby

More history is made here, as Sub Marier rejoins the Marvel Universe after his original run in the funny books of the 1940s. Human Torch also busts out his "Flame On" phrase for the first time, and the Fantastic Four officially relocate to New York City after spending the first issue in somewhere called Coast City and the following two in an undisclosed metropolitan location.

So much Silver Age cheesiness to choose from here. Whether it's Reed Richards asking the crew of a passing helicopter if they'd seen any sign of a flaming teenager flying by, or Torch using his powers to give the amnesiac Sub Mariner a SHAVE AND A HAIRCUT, or The Thing strolling into the belly of a giant sea monster with a nuke strapped to his back. 

The climax of this issue was a real downer, as Torch simply whips up a human tornado (I prefer this kind), that scoops up Sub Mariner and the carcass of the recently exploded-from-within sea monster and dumps them in the ocean. Lame.

Rating: 3 out of 5 -- Entertaining


6. Incredible Hulk, Issue #2

Publication Date: July, 1962
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Jack Kirby

Looks like the Toad Men -- the second invading alien race so far -- shopped for their clothes at the same place the Skrulls did. 

This story was totally disjointed, to say nothing of the horrible name of Toad Men for an alien force. Do they even have toads on other planets? And if so, would they still be called toads and not something more alien sounding like "kerblatzes"? And, if the Toad Men are the superior species on their homeworld as their technology indicates, why would they refer to themselves as toads? And, if the Toad Men are in fact so superior, why can't their ruler afford to get himself a decent pair of pants? 

After the Toad Men launch their attack,. Thunderbolt Ross spends the rest of the issue trying to chase down the Hulk. Nice priorities, dude. 

Screwball science comes to the rescue of planet Earth, as Bruce Banner fires a gamma ray cannon at the Toad Men's mothership that reverses their magnetic polarity and sends the ship careening out of control into space forever. Apparently, gamma cannons can do that. That's a thing.

Rating: 2 out of 5 -- Mediocre 


7. Fantastic Four, Issue #5

Publication Date: July, 1962
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Jack Kirby 

The debut of Doctor Doom! Also... pirates! Now we're talking. Throw in bacon and beer and it'd include most of the things I love most in this world.

Not only does this issue establish the first truly iconic villain in Marvel history, you've got time travel, two separate pirate battles, and The Thing wearing a fake eyepatch and pirate costume. 

If you can look at a picture of The Thing wearing a fake eyepatch and don't smile... I'm pretty sure you have no soul.

There's also a nice meta bit early on, with Torch avidly reading a Hulk comic.

Rating: 4 out of 5 -- Very Good 


That's all for next week. I'll be back with another installment, which will include the debut of Thor. 
Posted in: Gonzo
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