Bronze Age Beginnings

Monday, 25 April 2011

From out of the past! The lovely, lethal Asbestos Lady!

I was a complete sucker for Golden Age characters growing up; I think it was a mixture of miss-placed nostalgia, and the implied history/continuity of the heroes I'd only recently discovered. So, The Invaders, by Roy Thomas, was a nascent fan-boys dream. And regardless of what seems popular opinion, I absolutely adored the art of Frank Robbins; Robbins art perfectly captured the 'look' I expected of Golden Age characters and stories (at this point I'd only seen a few in the pages of Fantasy Masterpieces).

As you probably gather from the cover, this issue chronicles the never before revealed origin of Toro. Or, rather, a Roy Thomas' retcon. While I grew to, not hate, but certainly disdain retcons as I grew older, then I absolutely adored these secret histories and whatnot.

The Invaders are returning to England from various missions in the Third Reich, with a severely injured Toro in tow. This is a perfectly suitable, though slim, excuse for Roy Thomas to reveal the origin of the Human Torch's young ward - and what a mixed up origin it is.

Toro's parents used to work in various sciences, his father (Fred Raymond) being an expert in flame-proofing, and his mother (Nora) indulging in a spot of hazardous experiments with Radium.
You just know that isn't going to end well.

So, despite both becoming sick, they decide to marry and have a baby! Along comes Toro (named as such for reasons unknown, but I'm going to guess that they just wanted him to suffer), and they get progressively sicker until The Asbestos Lady turns up wanting Fred's help in her quest to further the criminal possibilities of asbestos (!) The Human Torch arrives to prevent Fred's kidnapping, and is then told all about the remarkable Toro who exhibits invulnerability to flames. Nora calls him a mutant (a result of their hazardous careers).

Sheesh! First they decide to have a kid when they both know they're dying, regardless of any possible complications (like a mutant gene), and then call him Toro into the bargain. He never had a chance. At least his mutant gene only made him flame-proof, eh?

Anyway, Fred gets a call telling him that Nora's only got a few weeks left, so sensibly he decides to take them all on vacation. Watch out for that tree trunk on the tracks, Fred.....too late. Toro survives the crash (because flames are his friend), and, erm, gets taken in by a kindly fire-eater couple from a passing Circus. They hide him from the authorities, because, you know, they want a son.

Now I know why Fred and Nora called him Toro - they were planning ahead for his future career in the Circus!

Then, one night, the Human Torch comes looking (because he's a bit lonely for his own kind - sorta), and his mere presence (and intense heat) causes Toro to burst into flame too.

And start calling the Human Torch, erm, Pappy.

Despite all the ridiculous elements, this comic exhibited the same charm I found so endearing when I was 12 years old. Roy Thomas knew he had a mountain to climb to try and make some sense of Toro, and he did what he could. Unluckily, if you come looking for the wonderful art of Mr Robbins, you'll be disappointed - the issue is drawn by Jim Mooney and inked by Frank Springer. They do a good job of capturing the existing feel of The Invaders, but lack Robbins' crazy anatomy.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Kool Kirby Avengers Kovers!

I never really got Jack Kirby during my early exposure to his art - reprinted in various Marvel UK titles - but just as The Avengers returned to UK distribution, Jack Kirby returned to Marvel and produced four covers for the team that I have some very fond memories of. There were nine in total, but only four were pure Kirby, the others featuring layouts by Al Milgrom, and one with some minor alterations by John Romita.

The first was #148 (cover date June 1976) and featured The Avengers getting their collective arses kicked by Marvel's stand-in Justice League of America, the Squadron Supreme. It is a classic example of Kirby's use of three planes to convey depth; the foreground with Golden Archer, Tom Thumb and The Amphibian looking at the middle-ground, with the focus on Hyperion holding a defeated Thor aloft while standing atop a crumpled mess of Avengers, and in the background, cheering him on, Cap'n Hawk, Doctor Spectrum and Lady Lark. It is a perfect example of an artist controlling the viewer's eye through composition, further enhanced by a very limited colour palette, predominant with the three primaries and a dash of the secondary's, against a stark white base. It was inked by Mike Esposito.

The second cover was #151 (cover date September 1976), and is a classic 'the old order changeth' image, inked by Dan Adkins.
Kirby uses pretty much the same composition here, the assembled Avengers candidates in the foreground looking at Captain America in the middle-ground, with Thor and Iron Man slightly behind him in the background. Again, the three primaries, red, yellow and blue are predominant, while the foreground characters are blocked out in a grey tone that emphasises the importance of the three primary characters against a white base.

Note the way that Thor and Iron Man are staring out, straight at you, the reader, challenging you to guess at the new line-up. How could you resist?

Issue #152, again inked by Dan Adkins, features the new line-up plus a surprise addition.The surprise addition of Wonder Man, along with the villain Black Talon, is, in this case, the focus of the foreground, while The Vision is in the solid middle-ground and The Wasp, The Scarlet Witch, Iron Man and Captain America are in the background. The Vision's placement is well judged, considering his importance to the story of Wonder Man.

The cover is dominated by the colour green, - one of the secondary colours - in the costumes of The Vision and Wonder Man, and the background. The Black Talon's costume has also had some red added to the blue, creating almost a purple hue in contrast to the strong blue that Captain America is wearing (highlighting his villainy).

The three-toned green background, while it doesn't allow the central image to 'pop', does create an atmosphere of mystery and suspense, suitable for a story involving a man dressed as a chicken raising a fallen 'hero' from the dead.

Last, but by no means least, is #157, either inked by Adkins or Joe Sinnott. This is probably my favourite of all four.

Again, Kirby uses the three planes, but they are much closer in relationship this time. He also brings the foreground up close and tight, featuring the fallen figures of Captain America and Iron Man,
 with the middle-ground taken up by the imposing lower third of the issue's mystery villain.

The remaining Avengers, The Vision, The Scarlet Witch and
Yellowjacket are scattered around in the background, The Vision's leg (and Wanda's arm) entering the middle-ground, and anchoring the imposing figure coloured in greys.

It is the predominant use of grey, on the legs of the Black Knight (Oops! Spoliers!), and in the slightly grey toned Captain America (against a cool blue base) that adds to the prevailing sense of menace. Who is this villain, and how did he defeat all The Avengers?

As I mentioned earlier, I never got Jack Kirby when I was younger, but these four covers alone were enough to fire my imagination and taught me to appreciate what made Kirby one of the best, if not the best, super-hero cover artists of all time.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Extra! The power of Attuma, Tiger Shark, Dr. Dorcas!

Every now and then I search eBay for Marvel Bronze Age and look for something I don’t have, looks interesting, and is cheap. I figure it's pot-luck, but if I’m not paying more than I would for a modern comic then I have nothing to lose (except maybe 20 minutes).

I have never understood the appeal of super-villain comics; how can you sympathise with serial-killers, megalomaniacs, terrorists and assassins? For that reason I’ve never bought a Wolverine comic or, when I was much younger, any comic billing itself as a Super-Villain Team-Up! Still, this was only £1.44 and features Namor, the Sub-Mariner. He may have gone all Avenging Son on us surface-dwellers once in a while, but I don’t think his heart was ever really in it. Plus, he’s wearing his Disco Leathers.

I am going to say up front – this comic was one white hot mess! As written by Jim Shooter for the December 1975 issue, we have the Amphibians, and Subby, held hostage on Hydrobase by three of the dullest villains ever, and Betty Dean (a very old Sub-Mariner supporting character) has just been killed by Dr.Dorcas (pronounced Dorkas I assume - if so, it’s entirely appropriate). 

Dr. Doom rescues Namor because he seeks some sort of an alliance (something to do with ruling the world together), and some sloppy writing painting Doom as a benevolent dictator. I’ve always hated that aspect of Doom – and it seems particularly galling in light of world events today. Anyway, Doom and Namor return to Hydrobase with a cunning plan, ending in Subby ‘accidentally’ killing Dorcas, and Doom very un-accidentally killing some poor wretch, a court jester type character who’d mocked Doom earlier. That he was called Saru-San is neither here nor there. 

I really want to jump all over Shooter’s abysmal script, but I am going to give him the benefit of doubt considering he must have been pulled in at the last minute to finish a Tony Isabella story (info gleaned from a Peter Sanderson LoC taking Isabella to task for #2). The comic was drawn by George Evans, a name unfamiliar to me, and a quick look at his Wikipedia profile explains why. Though he started his career in comic in 1940 at Fiction House, and also worked for EC, his Marvel work was limited to just a handful of issues in the 70s – none of which I’d ever read. The art on this issue was both efficient and uninspired, typical bog-standard Marvel fare. 

The next issue box teases a new writer, a new artist, and a new direction. Are there any Super-Villain Team-Up fans out there that want to recommend further reading?

Monday, 4 April 2011

Bronze Age Marvel covers: Tomb of Dracula #1

I'm going to be reviewing this one in the near future, but I thought I'd say a few words about this Neal Adams' cover now; and those few words are - Adams can't draw Dracula! Everything else works but Dracula himself looks wrong, like he'd been lifted from elsewhere and dropped in.

What really makes this a great cover, though, is the excellent logo; definitely one of the best during the Bronze Age.

I never read any of the US editions of Tomb of Dracula, instead my blood-sucking reading came from Dracula Lives which lasted 87 issues from 1974 to 1976. This particular cover was used on #4, but reversed, and it doesn't seem to work quite as well without the original logo or border.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Bronze Age Marvel covers: Spider-Man #101

Returning to the theme of favourite Bronze Age covers, Steve W of the fabulous suggested this one in the comments for Thor #337. It's a nice Gil Kane and John Romita Sr. composition, but it's Morbius' dialogue that clinch's the deal. What a cheek - the Disco Vampire calling Spidey a freak just because he's got a few extra arms!
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