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Marvel Mayhem: Playing Catchup

A while back, I stumbled across one ambitious comic fan's attempt to put the entire chronology of the Marvel Universe in a reading order. From Fantastic Four #1 up to modern day. As a lad who grew up on a steady diet of DC, I decided to tackle the order and broaden my comic horizons.

It's been a while -- too long -- since I put up an installment of reviews. Let's catch up, shall we?

26. Journey Into Mystery, Issue #87
Publication Date: December, 1962
Writer: Larry Lieber
Artist: Jack Kirby

I tell ya, if there weren't aliens... and there weren't Communists... the Silver Age would have had many fewer options for villains. Why, we would've had to see Doctor Doom in every one of these comics... remind me why that'd be a bad thing?

These Thor stories have been, so far, the most consistent of the ongoing titles. Nothing fancy in terms of storytelling, and the artwork continues to range from very good to great. This installment also did a nice job using the “60 seconds or Thor turns back into Don Blake and his pizza's free” weakness as a strength.

Rating: 3 out of 5 – Entertaining

27. Tales To Astonish, Issue #38

Publication Date: December, 1962
Writer: Stan Lee & Larry Lieber
Artist: Jack Kirby

Much like the issue of Strange Tales where Human Torch goes against The Wizard, we see our respective hero facing a villain with supposed supreme intelligence – Egghead, the former military scientist turned mafia hitman. Egghead uses his extreme IQ to study up on ants... and then hatches a plan to, in his words, appeal to the greed and vanity of ants.

Oh... Oh Egghead... You're gonna have a bad time...

The tightest and most entertaining of the Ant Man stories yet.

Rating: 3 out of 5 – Entertaining

28. Amazing Fantasy, Issue #15

Publication Date: August, 1962
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Steve Ditko

Here we go. Business... is about to pick up. Spiderman is on the scene and while this issue has some of the same Silver Age tropes (radioactivity! That magic cure-all...) there's just something different about this issue. Maybe it's hindsight, but I don't think it is. The entire presentation of Spider-Man and his alter ego sets this apart from the rest of the main characters introduced thus far in the Marvel Universe. Think about it... you've got the Fantastic Four, well-known celebrities... Hulk, a super-strong indestructible juggernaut whose alter ego is a brilliant scientist... Ant-Man, another brilliant scientist... Thor, a legitimate god... and now throw into the mix a geeky teenager.

The story flies by like a modern comic. High praise. We also get our first taste of true pathos in this chronology, with the death of Uncle Ben. That had to floor readers who just picked this up off the shelves. And while there were some elements of this origin story I had either forgotten or was unfamiliar with, given the explosion in popularity of this character, this reads more like a fable than a comic book to me.

This is one of those comics that is history in the genre as it unfolds. Required reading.

Rating: 5 out of 5 – Excelsior!

29. Amazing Spider-Man #1

Publication Date: March, 1963
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Steve Ditko

Marvel announced a couple months back this series was coming to an end. This is where it all began.

More good stuff here, and we pick up pretty much right where we left off. The Parker household's running short on money, so Spidey does another performance only to find it's tough to cash checks as a masked man. We're also introduced to J Jonah Jameson, who would fit PERFECTLY in today's political climate. Spidey even saves his test pilot son and ol' Triple J still finds a way to spin it against the web slinger.

The backup story was even stronger, with the villain a master of disguise named The Chameleon, and Spidey going to the Baxter Building to try to join—and eventually, fight with—the Fantastic Four.

Many of the key tenets of the Spiderman mythos are established here, whether it's J Jonah Jameson's first appearance, the fact he usually ends up getting screwed over in some fashion even when he saves the day, or his family's money trouble. Already more character development through two appearances than most of the other members of the Marvel Universe have gotten in their entire runs.

Rating: 4 out of 5 – Very Good

30. Incredible Hulk #5

Publication Date: January, 1963
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Jack Kirby

Wow, is that an ugly cover. As much as I like the Hulk, this initial run of his has been pretty rough and it's self evident why it got the hook after only six issues. Part of the problem is that Kirby seems to draw Hulk differently in every single issue. Hulk also acts differently every issue—with his speech ranging from complete sentences and thoughts to the grunting “Hulk smash” type of speech pattern to now mimicking the Thing in this issue. Even the way Hulk transforms changes, with it triggered first by the change from day to night, and now by purposely blasting himself with gamma radiation.

The other part of the problem is the wild shifts in relations between the characters with no rhyme or reason. Thunderbolt Ross had no use for Bruce Banner in the early issues (milksop!) but now he's counting on the scientist to concoct a way to nab the Hulk. Betty, all of a sudden, is in full-fledged love with Bruce. Oh, and at the end of the first story, Betty—who never apparently thought to question why Banner's assistant is cavorting in the underworld with Hulk—gets amnesia and forgets everything that happens. Said assistant, teenager Rick (aka the most annoying character in the current Marvel Universe) makes this diagnosis. Very medical.

The second story seems like a generic superhero Silver Age yarn—much like Thor's trip to the banana republic in his second installment. A couple of amusing bits here. Take your pick between Hulk traveling via airplane to go against General Fang, or Hulk dressing up as the Abdominal Snowman. They also save this from a 1 rating.

Rating: 2 out of 5 – Mediocre

31. Journey Into Mystery #88

Publication Date: January, 1963
Writers: Stan Lee & Larry Lieber
Artist: Jack Kirby

Loki apparently does the Asgardian equivalent of smoking weed—pouring sap from a sacred tree on some “strange leaves” then setting it ablaze. Rather than get a craving for Funyuns or waffles, this allows Loki to see whatever he chooses... in this case, Thor, who's been captured by the Commies in his prior issue. Loki sees Thor transform into Don Blake and, thus, learns the secret to his power and forms a plan to stop Thor. This automatically makes Loki the smartest villain yet in the Marvel Universe.

After outsmarting Thor to lay down his hammer and putting a force field around it to prevent Blake from picking it up again, we devolve into some Silver Age cheesy goodness. Take your pick between Loki turning all the cars on a street into candy, or Thor using a badminton net to vanquish Loki after he transformed into a pigeon to try to escape.

There's some schlock there, but this remains the most consistent of these early Marvel titles. Stories that are well-paced and are easy to read. Good art. Just a lot to like, and it's making Thor one of my favorite characters in the canon.

Rating: 4 out of 5 – Entertaining

32. Strange Tales #104

Publication Date: January, 1963
Writers: Stan Lee & Larry Lieber
Artist: Jack Kirby

Marvel Film execs. I have found the new franchise villain for Phase Two. His name... is Paste-Pot Pete!

You heard me. Pete, who's wearing a floppy purple hat that would fit either a hipster or a Renaissance Faire actor, shows up to rob a bank and declares that “Paste is the supreme weapon!” He's right. I think we all remember when Saddam Hussein was hoarding glue in Iraq. Not only does he use paste, he can shoot it with pinpoint accuracy. He even built a specially designed Paste Cannon (patent no doubt pending) that he uses to jack a missile. Of course, the cover boasts the paste is “fireproof” and it totally isn't. Still, he gives the Torch quite a run.

I feel a little deprived we didn't get an origin story to learn just WHO Paste-Pot Pete was. I wanna see him as a little kid with a glue stick and a dream who decided to adopt a life of crime.

Maybe that's just me, though.

There's a lot of crap in this Torch spin-off but this one falls in the “so bad it's good” category.

Rating: 3 out of 5 – Entertaining

33. Fantastic Four #10

Publication Date: January, 1963
Writers: Stan Lee
Artist: Jack Kirby

Dr. Doom makes his third appearance in the Marvel Universe, and produces a rather sound scheme, to be fair. What really makes this issue work is the character development, though. You've got the continued development of the relationship between Thing and Alicia. You've got mention of Sue's turbulent relationship with Sub-Mariner. And the first couple pages are strong, reminding the reader that the Fantastic Four aren't inscrutable, enigmatic mysterious figures. They're well known celebrities... except when Human Torch is in his spinoff, of course.

After some identity switching fun, order is restored. But there's a point that comes up in this issue that continues to bother me. Calvin and Hobbes fans remember that the little boy and his tiger enjoyed a game called Calvinball where they were allowed to change the rules as they saw fit. Torch's powers are cut from the same cloth. If there's a problem that develops, his powers can fix them. Produce a flame without heat? No problem. Make a copy of himself? How about two? Use his heat and flame to burrow a tunnel under the earth? Yup. And... create heat mirages of things that just happen to be in its near proximity.

We also see a cameo by the writer and artist of the title as a plot device—yes, really.

Yeah, there were some issues.

Rating: 2 out of 5 – Mediocre

34. Tales To Astonish #39

Publication Date: January, 1963
Writers: Stan Lee & Larry Lieber
Artist: Jack Kirby

It's been mentioned in previous installments... that bugs freak me out. So knowing that the antagonist of this issue was a giant beetle with an insect army... yeah. Less than enthralled. Said beetle ends up with human-level intelligence thanks to that timeless plot device (radiation!) and now he's out to take over the world. Insect on insect combat ensues. Think Braveheart. But with bugs. Order is restored. The beetle is de-radioactivized (that's a thing, apparently). And we can move on to a better title.

Rating: 2 out of 5 – Mediocre

35. Strange Tales #105

Publication Date: February, 1963
Writers: Stan Lee & Larry Lieber
Artist: Jack Kirby

Lots of action in this issue, as the Torch goes against the Wizard for the second time. It all ends up one big game of Calvinball, as I explained in the FF #10 review.

Rating: 2 out of 5 – Mediocre

36. Journey Into Mystery #89

Publication Date: February, 1963
Writers: Stan Lee & Larry Lieber
Artist: Jack Kirby

I think as we move forward “Calvinball” is going to be the way I refer to superheroes who develop new powers out of thin air to solve predicaments. Case in point... Thor throwing his voice super-ventriloquism-style in this issue.

One of the weaker Thor issues yet, with a flashback and some wheel-spinning characterization EXCEPT for Jane Foster fantasizing about working for Thor, both polishing his hammer (I know...) and ironing his cloak. I thought she goes too far by trying to cut his hair, though. Thor'd be all, “Don't change me, woman!”

Rating: 2 out of 5 – Mediocre

37. Fantastic Four #11

Publication Date: February, 1963
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Jack Kirby

Two stories in this one. The first one's a meta-filled tale that's basically used to answer reader mail, while rehashing their origin. Pretty much skippable, but there is a little bit of character development.

The back half story is a breezy little tale with the antagonist an alien called the Impossible Man who's able to change himself into anything at the blink of an eye – to the annoyance of the FF. Hmmm, what's the matter, Human Torch? You don't enjoy going against someone who's able to use newfound powers on a split-second notice to solve whatever problems he faces? What's that like?!?

Rating: 2 out of 5 – Mediocre

38. Tales To Astonish #40

Publication Date: February, 1963
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Jack Kirby

The Ant Man titles seem content to use the same plot devices over and over and over. Once again we've got a Scooby Doo style villain playing out (it was Mr. Miller ALL ALONG!!!). At least this one's fairly well executed and the art's good. Enjoyable battle between Ant Man and the Hijacker set in and around a truck engine.

Rating: 3 out of 5 – Entertaining

39. Strange Tales #106

Publication Date: March, 1963
Writers: Stan Lee & Larry Lieber
Artist: Dick Ayers

The biggest accomplishment here is that we finally resolve the ridiculous “secret identity” premise of this spin-off, probably the most nonsensical recurring plot point in the Marvel Universe to date.

Another lame Silver Age villain (his power... acrobatics!), and the plot is really thin.

Rating: 2 out of 5 – Mediocre

40. Strange Tales #107

Publication Date: April, 1963
Writers: Stan Lee & Larry Lieber
Artist: Dick Ayers

The Human Torch is fast becoming the most unlikable character in the Marvel Universe. Once again, we've got a dose of teenage angst from young Johnny, who decides to go after Sub Mariner solo to prove himself to the rest of the group.

Namor suddenly sounds more like a dock worker than the Prince of Atlantis. “Sonny”? “Pal”? And, like all Torch antagonists, he's got access to a supply of asbestos. I guess all these villains are going to end up with cancer in 20 or 30 years.

More than half of the issue is devoted to a fight between these two superpowered characters. There's a minor outbreak of Calvinball on both sides (Torch is no longer vulnerable to water? Namor can suddenly lose his powers? News to me) but this is a fast-paced and action-packed installment.

Rating: 3 out of 5 – Entertaining

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