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Category Archives: The Dollar Box

Reviews of Marvel and DC Comics with an original cover price of one dollar or less.

The Mighty Thor: Mjolnir’s Song

Longbox Graveyard #172

Thor: Ragnarok is in theaters this week, and the movie looks a treat, full of Hulks and gods and laughs and action. Mostly, it looks … big.

But no matter how big this film may be, it can’t be bigger than this Thor story from thirty years ago …

Welcome to the Dollar Box, where I review comic book treasures with an original cover price of a dollar or less! For this installment I wanted to do something big … and you don’t get much bigger than Thor #380, where every page is a full-page shot!

Thor #380, Walt Simonson

The year was 1987, and Walt Simonson was nearing the end of his run on Thor. And not just any run — for my money, Simonson’s Thor is in the discussion for the finest comics run of all time. I’ve already enthused about the first issues of Simonson’s era over at Longbox Graveyard (in two parts — ONE, and TWO), but with this issue we are in Simonson’s late innings, and the shadows are beginning to lengthen. Simonson had ceded his pencilling duties to Sal Buscema after issue #368, but like one of his Norse heroes, the master returned to the page for one last epic adventure with the God of Thunder, doubtless feeling some pressure to top the stellar work he had done before. The result was this “all-splash page” issue of Thor, an attempt to tell a big story with the biggest possible images.

Thor #380, Walt Simonson

And this is a big story. Thor battles the Midgaard Serpent … the mythological, world-girdling wyrm destined to slay Thor at the end of time. Thor has always been a book heavy with mythological overtones, and never moreso than in Simonson’s run. When Thor takes to the field of battle against the Serpent, it is with the full, crushing awareness that this is a battle he cannot win, and that his death at the fangs of the Serpent — followed by the destruction of the Earth that he loves — is his inevitable fate.

But what makes heroes into heroes is how they face their doom, and defy the fates, and that is what we have in Thor #380. Weakened by Hela’s curse, and sustained only by his magic armor and the power of his mighty hammer, Mjolner, Thor faces long odds in this battle. The Serpent is well aware of Thor’s sudden mortality, and also knows that this strange circumstance may free him of the doom that binds him to Thor — if he can kill this godling now, weakened as he is, then he might re-write his own fate. After all, he, too, is destined to die on the last day in battle with Thor.

Big stakes, big pictures, and big storytelling, and it works (mostly), not so much as a stand-alone issue, but as a victory lap for the end of Simonson’s long run on this title. Telling a story in this format is epic, but not ideal. A comic story needs images of differing sizes to operate at best efficiency. When all panels are the same size, they are afforded equivalent visual weight, working against the emotional pace of a story. The absence of conventional panel structure is especially acute when showing rapid action, such as when Thor is swallowed by the Serpent, then bashes his way back out through the monster’s teeth, a sequence better suited to two panels than two pages. But as a once-in-a-lifetime event — and especially as a punctuation mark for Simonson’s stellar run — it is fun to see storytelling on this epic scale.

Thor #380, Walt Simonson

There’s that word again — epic. “Mjolner’s Song” is epic in more ways than one. Tying the whole thing together is an “epic” in a literal sense. Storytelling captions narrate Thor’s battle the way some skald might tell it in the mead hall. These captions serve to heighten the mythological import of the conflict, while at the same time offering juxtaposition for the dialogue of our combatants, who can be charmingly flippant at times.

Thor #380, Walt SimonsonIn the end this is a confident and fearless issue that echoes the confident and fearless approach Simonson took to his run on Thor. Throughout his time on the book, Simonson boldly reinvented the rich legacy of the stories and characters that had come before, and embraced the magical weirdness of his subject matter — Simonson confidently and unapologetically gave us talking serpents and heroes who were simultaneously bound by their fates yet also self-aware enough to note that they have an infinite capacity for stupidity!

Thor #380, Walt Simonson

In the end, it is that “capacity for stupidity” that may provide the most important secret sauce of all for these kinds of broad-shouldered, super-heroic tales. Simonson was a master at telling Silver Age stories in a modern style. He kept what worked of all that had come before, ignored what didn’t, and cheerfully reinvented comic book storytelling, leaving us work that still resonates three decades later. Since these stories were printed, Thor has gone on to become a major movie property (thanks in no small part to the foundation Simonson laid down during his tenure), but even the finest effects Hollywood can muster can’t lay a finger on the battle Simonson gives us here.

It’s big, it’s loud, it’s fun, and it may even be infinitely stupid … but it is also an example of what comics do better than in any other form of fiction. In the end, it is tales like “Mjolner’s Song” that keep us reading and collecting this unique art form. This issue is well worth tracking down, either in original form, in one of Marvel’s many reprints, or online (in it’s entirety) thanks to my fellow blogging pal, Mars Will Send No More!

Thor #380, Walt SimonsonSO BE IT!

This column originally appeared at Stash My Comics.

 

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Swamp Thing: Dark Genesis

Longbox Graveyard #153

Halloween is a month away, but all of October is Monster Month for me, and to kick things off I offer an especially timely Dollar Box column, where I look at single-issue comics stories with an original cover price of a dollar or less. This month is all about swamp monsters, and while Swamp Thing isn’t the first of his kind (that would be The Heap), and not even the first muck monster from the Big Two (as Marvel’s Man-Thing debuted several months earlier), Swamp Thing is certainly the most famous and best-realized of all the the many fiends stalking the four-color funny book bogs.

Swamp Thing #1, Bernie Wrightson

Originally appearing in a short story in House of Secrets #92, Swamp Thing made his first full-length appearance in somewhat altered form in 1972’s Swamp Thing #1. The product of a close collaboration between writer Len Wein and artist Bernie Wrightson, Swamp Thing is one of the greatest creature designs in all of comics. With his craggy brows and half-skull face, Swamp Thing is perched on the edge of uncanny valley, with a visage by turns soulful and monstrous, the perfect mask of torment for forlorn man-turned-monster Alec Holland.

portrait_70

Later creators — including luminaries like Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Mark Millar, Brian K. Vaughn, and Scott Snyder — would develop Swamp Thing into an elemental champion at the center of a complex and expansive comics cosmology, but the original Wein & Wrightson version of the character is simplicity itself. Tasked with creating a bio-restorative formula by the government, scientist-couple Alec and Linda Holland retire to a remote swampland laboratory, where they are immediately menaced by thugs intent on stealing their knowledge. One thing leads to another, and before long a bomb has gone off and a flaming Alec Holland has plunged into the muck, only to rise as the avenging muck monster, Swamp Thing!

Bernie Wrightson & Len Wein, Swamp Thing #1

This is a taut and effective horror comic, strongly-written by author Len Wein and lent an extra layer of creepy by the uncredited letterer, who employs drippy caption boxes to good effect. Perhaps that letterer was artist Bernie Wrightson, who put his stamp on every other aspect of the book, creating a swamp-gothic look on the fly — a world of shadowy locales that are still perfectly detailed, and populated with heavy-featured thugs rendered with such skill that you don’t recognize the degree to which the art uses comic exaggeration until you’ve read the book two or three times.

Bernie Wrightson & Len Wein, Swamp Thing #1

Wrightson would go on to become one of the most celebrated artists in the medium, but he was largely unknown when Swamp Thing debuted … and what a debut it is. This is a mature work with a rare balance of style, mood, character, and storytelling.

Bernie Wrightson & Len Wein, Swamp Thing #1

It’s also a simple story, as befits the best origin tales, setting the table for stories to follow by introducing the main characters, and establishing our (anti) hero’s all-important powers and foibles. Of interest to fans of later incarnations of Swamp Thing (or readers more familiar with the minimally-sentient Man-Thing), this version of Swamp Thing is fully aware of what he is.

Bernie Wrightson & Len Wein, Swamp Thing #1

Alec Holland’s scientific mind instantly comprehends what has happened to him, and there is a minimum of mooning around and identity crisis before Swamp Thing gets down to the business of revenge.

Bernie Wrightson & Len Wein, Swamp Thing #1

And that’s the long and short of it, really — in “Dark Genesis” we have a bare bones Silver Age horror comic, an on-the-rails story that could pass for a one-and-done entry from EC’s Tales From The Crypt. Swamp Thing’s many complications and evolutions would come later, and it is a testament to the solid foundation laid down by Wrightston and Wein that this most basic muck monster is still surprising and delighting us forty years later. I personally revere Alan Moore’s 1980s reinvention of this character, but there’s also room in my collection for this simpler version of Swamp Thing, an effective and eminently memorable character in its own right. You won’t find this 20-cent comic in dollar boxes any longer, but affordable reprints are readily available, should you wish to familiarize yourself with the original adventures of this greatest of the swamp monsters! (A digital version of the story was also available for free direct from DC Comics at the time of this writing).

Lein Wein & Bernie Wrightson, Swamp Thing #1

(And if you want even more Swamp Thing, check out my review of the rest of the series, here!)

This article originally appeared at StashMyComics.com.

NEXT MONTH: #153 First Cut

Fantastic Four Annuals #1-3

Longbox Graveyard #151

Welcome back to The Dollar Box, my irregular feature where I review single-issue comic stories with an original cover price of a dollar or less. To help dispel the stench of the most recent Fantastic Four film misfire, I thought I’d take a look at the Fantastic Four Annuals of the Stan Lee & Jack Kirby era. This column looks at the first three Annuals, with a review of Annuals four through six to follow at a later date.

While modern Annuals would sometimes seem little more than jumped-up fill-in stories, the early Marvel Silver Age Annuals were a delight, featuring bonus-length feature stories, original back-up tales, reprints of relevant issues from the past, and page after page of pin-ups highlighting adventures or enemies from the year gone by. The art might sometimes look rushed (with these Annuals amounting to the thirteenth or fourteenth issue that had to be drawn in a twelve-month period), but this was offset by the sheer size of the story that you got for your quarter, and the big, must-read events at the center of the best issues.

Fantastic Four Annual #1 (1963)

Fantastic Four Annual #1

One of those must-read events was front-and-center in the first Fantastic Four Annual — the Sub-Mariner’s attack on the human race! Newly restored to his throne, Subby doesn’t waste any time before throwing his weight around, delivering unreasonable terms to the Fantastic Four, to the effect that surface men must have nothing further to do with the sea, on pain of conquest! Reed relays Namor’s terms to the United Nations, but it doesn’t take long for everything to go pear-shaped, and the invasion is on.

Namor’s troops conquer Manhattan without firing a shot. Perhaps the New Yorkers were overawed by Jack Kirby’s imaginative underwater war machines …

Fantastic Four Annual #1, Stan Lee & Jack Kirby

I always thought that the coolest thing about Subby’s undersea legions were the bubble helmets full of seawater that they wore, so they could breathe on land. It’s such a wonderfully ridiculous idea — literal fishbowls for helmets. Unfortunately for the Sub-Mariner, Reed instantly divines the weakness of this scheme, and concocts a device that evaporates their helmet water from a distance, putting paid to the invasion.

Fantastic Four Annual #1, Stan Lee & Jack Kirby

After that, it’s all downhill for the Sub-Mariner. The invasion is doomed, and when Subby shows compassion for Sue Storm, his own subjects turn on him, leaving the Sub-Mariner abandoned in his palace, a king without a kingdom.

The Sub-Mariner’s invasion of New York sounds like a dynamite idea for a story, but it doesn’t quite come together here. More space is devoted to scene-setting and getting our heroes out to sea in a cruise ship than to the invasion itself, and Dick Ayer’s inks look hurried and muddy in places (over what may well have been hurried pencils from Jack Kirby). If the story had lived up to that splash page, this would be an all-time classic, but the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

But I do have some favorite moments, like Nikita Khrushchev banging his shoe on the table while Reed informs the U.N. of the Atlantean threat …

Fantastic Four Annual #1, Stan Lee & Jack Kirby

… and Subby being Subby …

Fantastic Four Annual #1, Stan Lee & Jack Kirby

… and one of the pinup features (of which there are several!), where we learn that Reed’s hair turned white at the temples because of some unspecified terror when helping Allied prisoners escape from the Nazis. Was that story ever told? I have to know.

Fantastic Four Annual #1, Stan Lee & Jack Kirby

There’s also a backup story: a sort of remastered telling of Spider-Man’s first encounter with the Fantastic Four, originally shown in two pages by Steve Ditko in Amazing Spider-Man #1, but here expanded into a fight scene of several pages by Kirby that is just … OK.

While laps better than any Fantastic Four movie, this first Annual is the weakest of the Kirby era — big concepts that are just adequately executed, earning a Longbox Graveyard score of 6/10.

Fantastic Four Annual #2 (1964)

Fantastic Four Annual #2

The second Lee/Kirby Annual outing is a considerable improvement over the first, featuring the origin of Doctor Doom, in the first of two new Doom stories in this volume (to go along with another reprint, and a great new batch of pin-ups).

We are introduced to the future Doctor Doom when he is still a boy, howling for revenge after his father — a Gypsy healer — is killed by a vengeful noble after the elder Doom failed to heal the royal princess.

Fantastic Four Annual #2, by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby

Doom takes the revenge business seriously, learning sorcery after discovering his mother was a witch. Grown to adulthood, Doom plays tricks on the cruel nobles of Latveria, stealing them blind or humiliating them by selling them enchanted treasures that backfire on their owners. He becomes a thorn in the side of the ruling class — a kind of Romani Robin Hood — and when he is caught and put before a firing squad, we get our first glimpse of the kind of high-tech robotic shenanigans that would prove Doom’s trademark through the years.

Fantastic Four Annual #2, by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby

(How Doom becomes a high-tech robotic genius working from out the back of a Gypsy wagon is not addressed!)

I liked this nearly-heroic Doom … he could be cruel, but his victims were crueler still, and as an orphan Gypsy in a hostile land, Doom was an underdog (almost) worth rooting for. But Doom’s odious nature would soon assert itself. Winning a scholarship thanks to his scientific prowess, Doom leaves his home behind, and when he returns, he will be a very changed man.

No sooner does he land in the United States for school than Victor Von Doom becomes Victor Von Dick. His megalomania in full bloom, Doom wants nothing to do with the good-natured Reed Richards, who makes every effort to befriend the brilliant Doom.

Fantastic Four Annual #2, by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby

Doom is expelled from school when a lab experiment nearly blows up the school (and definitely blows off Doom’s face). Doom, through twisted logic, blames his failure on Reed Richards, and does what any self-respecting supervillain-in-training might do — he sets off to Tibet to learn the black arts, and forge armor and a mask that will let him project a frightening image to the world that did him wrong.

Fantastic Four Annual #2, by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby

Who needs a college diploma? Only Doom is qualified to confer a doctorate on Doom! In short order, Doom returns to Latveria and becomes its ruler, leading to the wonderful ironclad despot that we know and love today.

The “back-up” story is anything but — the return of Doctor Doom and his latest diabolical plot to destroy the Fantastic Four!

The tale commences with Doom’s rescue from outer space, and a tongue-twisting face-to-face with Rama Tut, who may (or may not) be a future version of Doctor Doom. Or something.

Fantastic Four Annual #2, by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby

The whole Doom/Rama Tut thing made my head hurt when reading Bronze Age tales, and it is oddly reassuring to see that things were just as muddled in the Silver Age!

Doom’s plan hinges on luring the Fantastic Four to lower their guard during a reception at the Latverian embassy. With Doom believed dead, our heroes see nothing sinister in this set-up, which is an acceptable bit of storytelling chicanery, especially when it affords us the opportunity to watch Ben Grim cut up the dance floor with a Margaret Dumont-style grand dame.

Fantastic Four Annual #2, by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby

Doom’s plan is to set the Fantastic Four against each other, spiking the “fruit juice” served in champagne glasses at the embassy, then spurring the hallucinating heroes to beat the tar out of each other. Doom’s scheme is well on its way to success, when Doom unaccountably undermines himself by gazing at his face in the mirror. It’s a wonderful bit of melodrama, but it really makes no sense in the context of the story, and lends credence to reports that Stan Lee & Jack Kirby were sometimes not on the same page when plotting/drawing/writing these stories.

Fantastic Four Annual #2, by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby

Doom’s plan quickly unravels, and the villain is put to flight. The denouement is notable largely for confirming that Reed Richards is the world’s dumbest smart guy …

Fantastic Four Annual #2, by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby

That kind of exchange was common for Reed and Sue in the Silver Age, when it seemed that Stan Lee was constitutionally incapable of writing female characters — Sue Storm, the Wasp, and Karen Page (among others) were all doormats and feather-heads on Lee’s watch. But you take the good with the bad, and this story has far more good than bad. Besides, who can resist the ridiculous machinations of … Doom!

Fantastic Four Annual #2, by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby

Overall, Annual #3 is a great little romp — fast-paced and action-packed — and the Fantastic Four are never better than when battling their arch-nemesis, Doctor Doom. Your Longbox Graveyard score: 8/10.

Fantastic Four Annual #3 (1965)

Fantastic Four Annual #3

You can judge the quality of a hero by the villains he fights, and you can especially judge the standing of a hero by the quality of bad guys that attack their wedding! Remember when the Circus of Crime attacked the wedding of the Wasp and Yellowjacket? I rest my case!

For Marvel’s wedding of the century — between Reed Richards and Susan Storm — nothing less than an attack by practically every villain in the Marvel Universe would do. In a plot orchestrated by Doctor Doom, villains from the Fantastic Four’s past (and even villains they had never before met) were mobilized to strike at our heroes on their day of joy.

Fantastic Four Annual #3, by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby

The bulk of this story is a parade of heroic cameos and chaotic fighting in the streets of Manhattan. If you ever wanted to see Kirby’s original X-Man battle the Mole Man, then here is your chance. You also get Thor vs. Super-Skrull, Daredevil vs. the hordes of Hydra, and Hawkeye vs. Mr. Hyde. It’s like a superhero Wrestlemania!

With the fisticuffs finished, the blessed moment arrives …

Fantastic Four Annual #3, by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby

a nice bit of meta-story, as Stan and Jack can’t get into the wedding!

It is a silly story, but with the star power on display it should be a great one. Unfortunately, that reckons without considering a menace greater than any that assaults the Fantastic Four in this tale — Vince Colletta’s inks! With trademark indifference, Colletta renders much of Kirby’s pencil work inert and amateurish, which is a real shame, as this single issue might otherwise be the go-to guide for Kirby’s rendition of nearly every character Marvel has. It’s still a fun book, but with better inks it might have been so much more, reflected in my Longbox Graveyard score of 7/10.

All three of these Annuals carried a cover price of twenty-five cents, but of course they will set you back a lot more than that now. Still, with the original run of the Fantastic Four so completely out of reach, collecting the first Annuals is a worthy alternative for fans wishing to own a little Silver Age Marvel magic. You’ll pay hundreds of dollars for an Annual in superior condition … but that beats the thousands that the first issue of the series itself will set you back.

Share your memories of these first three Fantastic Four Annuals in the comments section below, then join me later when I finish my review of the Lee/Kirby FF Annuals!

NEXT MONTH: #152 Dark Genesis

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