You’ve gotta love what they did with the cover. The original ASM #19 (as you can see) featured Spidey in the center, the Human Torch on the left, the Sandman on the right, and the Enforcers below. This cover features the same Spidey and Torch Ditko drawings but replaces Sandman with Thor and the Enforcers with Marvel Boy to successfully present the stars of the four stories. And let’s face it. The yellow background looks better than the original dirty white. Now, are the stories any good?
Let’s begin with the black and white frontispiece on the inside front cover. The “Marvel Tales” logo and the credits are in the middle this time bracketed by the four stories. Clockwise from upper left, we have “Spider-Man in ‘Spidey Strikes Back!” with the drawing from page 16 panel 6; “Marvel Boy in ‘The Eyes of Death!” illustrated with page 3 panel 7 of that story; “The Human Torch in ‘The Asbestos Man!” with the page 5 panel 7 picture; and “The Mighty Thor in ‘The Master Plan of Mr. Hyde!” which combines the Thor figure from page 7 panel 4 with the Mr. Hyde figure from page 6 panel 5. Interesting that they created a collage to show Thor with Hyde when it’s the only panel on the frontispiece that shows a major villain from any of the stories.
The first story is Spidey Strikes Back from ASM #19. In my review of that issue, I wrote, “Spidey back in action, J. Jonah Jameson pounding on walls in frustration. Seven pages of Ditko-drawn action featuring Spidey fighting the Enforcers, the Sandman and various henchmen. You know me well enough by now.” That meant five webs, of course. I probably also should have mentioned how much I love the Ditko-rendered Enforcers and how it’s their last appearance until long after Ditko is gone. So, read this reprint and savor that once again.
Next up is Eyes of Death from Marvel Boy #1, December 1950. The scripter is unknown but the artwork is by Russ Heath as was the Marvel Boy story last issue.
The blurb at the beginning of the story says, “Marvel Boy meets his most dangerous enemy,” which isn’t saying much seeing as this is only his second appearance. And yet, somehow, between the first story and the second story in Marvel Boy #1, Bob Grayson has gone from just arriving on Earth to becoming a reporter for the Daily Monitor. He arrives at Professor Vance’s house for an interview. Mrs. O’Brien, Vance’s housekeeper, has neglected to wake the professor up from his nap so he rushes into his laboratory to mix some “precipitates” and causes an explosion. Because the experiment involved “Radium compounds! Advanced X-Ray research!” and because this is a 1950s comic book story, the explosion gives Vance x-ray vision. He quickly kicks Bob out and declares that his new power will make him “the richest man in the world!” Frankly, I don’t see how having x-ray vision will make you rich but, apparently, the way to go about it is to become a stage “mind reader” and call yourself the Great Video.
Weeks after the accident, Bob sees the masked picture of the Great Video at the theatre at which he performs and thinks he looks familiar. He buys a ticket. Inside he recognizes Video’s voice as Professor Vance. On stage, Video is telling people what they have in their pockets. One volunteer has jewels in his pocket. (I don’t know why you would volunteer to be on stage in a show like this if you have jewels in your pocket.) Now, in the weeks since he got his powers, Vance has, apparently, hired a couple of thugs. He sends them out to steal the jewels off the volunteer after the show. They do it in the alley behind the theatre. When Bob goes to the backstage door, he discovers the mugging, quickly “pops a uranium compound pill into his mouth” and becomes Marvel Boy. (It looks like he miraculously changes into his costume within a cloud of smoke…caused by the pill?) You may recall, from Marvel Tales #13 that Bob is given pills by his father that prevent the loss of his powers and keep him from dying. There is no mention of any pills that transform him “into that symbol of the Atomic Age…Marvel Boy!” Clearly, the details have not yet been worked out but they aren’t even consistent within the stories in the first issue.
Marvel Boy beats up the thugs and then grabs the guy with the jewels, figuring he’s no more honest than the thugs are. He’s right. The guy confesses. “I stole the rocks! I was killin’ time in da movies and then these guys maneuver him out here an’ start to beat me up!” These guys maneuver who out here? I think he means “these guys maneuver me out here.” And, granted Video is performing at a movie theatre but there is no movie going on so the crook wasn’t “killin’ time in da movies.” And even if you don’t care that it’s a show instead of a movie, why would you get up on stage and volunteer? Two cops turn up out of nowhere and arrest the guy.
Back in his dressing room, Vance notices that his dog is dead. (He has a dog?) Marvel Boy enters and notes that the dog has “died of x-ray burns!” Video realizes that “a prolonged dose of my x-rays can kill!” So, in other words, his eyes are emitting x-rays, which is why he can see through things. Somehow, I don’t think that would work. When Marvel Boy accuses him of being Vance, he denies it and stares at Marvel Boy long enough to weaken him. Marvel Boy passes out. “I am through with Vaudeville shows and trifling hold-ups,” he says, “I shall organize a gang of clever gunmen and cracksmen!” (It turns out that “cracksman” is actually a word. Or once was. It is a “burglar, especially a safecracker.”)
So, Video rounds up a gang and keeps them in line by staring at an elephant until it dies. (I assume he did not buy an elephant to demonstrate this but went to the zoo.) Now his men know what will happen to them if they cross him. And how does Video use his power to become rich? He can see inside a house to where the jewels are kept and can send his men to the correct spot. But they still have to break in to do this. They begin a crime wave. A newspaper headline tells us of the “Grant City Payroll Haul” and that the “Wonder Gang Gets $50,000.” So, now we know we’re in Grant City but how can the Great Video help with a payroll haul? “Yep, there’s the payroll inside that armored truck!” Okay, I suppose he also uses his powers to stare at the guards and knock them unconscious.
Still, the whole notion of using x-ray vision to become a master criminal is pretty ridiculous. Nevertheless, the police are stymied and so desperate that they will accept Bob Grayson’s idea to stop the gang. The police spread a story around the underworld of a safe containing one million dollars. When Video and his men show up to rob it, Marvel Boy strikes. He blinds Video with “an instantaneous burst of atomic light,” which is the equivalent of his light-emitting jewel from the first story, I suppose. He then socks Video so hard that he hits his head on the safe. Two policemen enter to help with the mop-up. Video tries to weaken them with a look but his powers have disappeared. “The atomic ray and the punch I gave him must have destroyed his x-ray vision!” says Marvel Boy, “He’s helpless! His vision is normal now!” And that is the end of the Great Video.
Except he returns in What If? #9, June 1978 in the story “What if…the Avengers Had Been Formed During the 1950’s?” This is the story that may or may not be in continuity and features the characters that eventually become the Agents of Atlas: Marvel Boy, Venus, the Human Robot, and Gorilla-Man. Oh, and 3-D Man. In that story, the Yellow Claw restores Video’s powers. You can read all about it at The Appendix to the Handbook of the Marvel Universe. That’s also where you can learn that Vance’s first name is Heathrow and that that was revealed in Captain America: America’s Avenger, 2011.
This story isn’t any dopier than the one presented in Marvel Tales #13 but, somehow, that one works for me and this one doesn’t. Perhaps it’s the abrupt transition of Bob Grayson into a reporter to whom the local police will actually listen. Perhaps it’s that Professor Vance seems to think that x-ray vision is the greatest power ever and the ridiculous ways he uses it. Perhaps it’s that a blast of light and a punch in the nose eliminate Video’s powers. (And isn’t the real villain of the piece Mrs. O’Brien for letting Vance oversleep so that he rushes his experiment?) On the other hand, the killings of the dog and the elephant are genuinely creepy and Russ gives Video these black-rimmed eyes that are a little unnerving as well. So, let’s call it two webs.
When I was a kid, all of the classrooms in school had asbestos blankets in them, to smother a sudden fire in case the teacher forgot to put out her cigarette or some kid spontaneously combusted. No one knew (or probably cared) about any cancer-causing properties. Asbestos was your friend! That is, unless your friend was the Human Torch. In which case, asbestos probably seemed like the perfect villain. The Human Torch Fighting to the Death with the Asbestos Man is from Strange Tales #111, August 1963. Stan came up with the plot and gave it to H. Huntley (a pseudonym for Ernie Hart, creator of Timely’s Super Rabbit) to script. Dick Ayers did the artwork.
Professor Orson Kasloff is the “foremost analytical chemist in the world today” but he is also an egotistical blowhard who thinks he “should be treated like a king” and “be as rich as Croesus.” In a fit of pique, he throws a vial of his new chemical into a metal sink and sees it melt the metal on contact. This makes him realize he “could easily melt the strongest bank vault ever built.” He tries to rob the company at which he works and runs for his life when he sets off a burglar alarm. Realizing that he needs partners who are actual criminals and know how to deal with things like alarms, he haunts “the criminal dives of the city’s slums, searching for the men he needs to foster his criminal career.”
That is all in a flashback later in the story, which begins with Kasloff witnessing the Human Torch rounding up “a gang of jewel thieves at Oak and Madison Streets.” (The Torch, you may recall, lives in Glenville with his sister Sue at this time. But a bystander says, “If it wasn’t for him, this city would have twice as much crime! He’s the best thing to happen here since the World Series!” which implies that the Torch is in New York except that the home of Sue and Johnny crops up later. Even Stan and Ernie seem unclear as to where Johnny lives in these stories.) Kosloff watches the Torch and gets an idea. Blackie Barker “King of the Underworld” (of Glenville?) also watches with one of his stooges (both look like Dick Tracy villains) and he is not happy. The jewel thieves the Torch has captured are a part of his gang.
So what is Kosloff’s idea? He figures if he can defeat the Human Torch then the Underworld will come to him. The first thing he does is to buy a castle on the outskirts of town (of course he does). He sets up a lab and gets to work. Deciding that the way to defeat the Torch is to nullify his flame, he makes a suit of “super-asbestos chemically made from chrysotile, calcium, and iron…my own exclusive formula!” He builds a “shield of iron to deflect the Torch’s potent fireballs” and a net “fashioned of skin-covered nitrogen strands.” It all sounds very impressive. He adds a gasmask of some sort and becomes the Asbestos Man.
“Two days later, at the home of Sue Storm and her teen-age brother,” Johnny gets a letter from the Asbestos Man calling him a coward and challenging him to a fight. (There was a time in these stories when Johnny worked very hard to preserve his secret identity. It was finally revealed in Strange Tales #106, March 1963 and Marvel Tales #8 that he never had a secret identity. He just thought he did! Everyone in town knew who he was. By this time, I guess, he figured that out since he doesn’t bat an eye about getting a letter addressed to the Human Torch.) The Thing and Mr. Fantastic are visiting and they tell Johnny not to accept the “challenge of every crackpot looking for cheap publicity” but then they leave with Sue because they have to “work on our income tax report.” “Glad I don’t have to work on that dull tax jazz,” says Johnny and I wish I could say the same. Johnny tries to burn the letter. When it doesn’t burn he realizes that the paper is made of asbestos. He looks “asbestos” up in the dictionary, even though he is familiar enough with it to have had all sorts of things in his bedroom made of asbestos back in Strange Tales #101, October 1962 (and Marvel Tales #3) “in case I have a nightmare and accidentally flame on while I’m asleep.” Here he learns that “Asbestos is the fibrous form of several minerals…hydrous silicates of magnesium, chrysotile, a fibrous variety of the mineral serpentine…calcium and iron…mined in rocks…synthetic forms.” This is getting to be quite a Chemistry lesson! (Also, I’m reminded that the costume of the villain, the Destroyer, from the aforementioned Strange Tales #101, looks an awful lot like Asbestos Man’s outfit.)
Just then, Kosloff phones and taunts him. He tells Johnny that he will publicly challenge him “until you are forced to admit your cowardice to the world or fight me and be defeated.” That does it. Johnny accepts the challenge. Kosloff tells him to “come alone to the old castle on Thorn Road” at ten o’clock. (I love all the details in this story. Not just any old castle! The one on Thorn Road! You know, so you don’t go to the wrong one.) Then Kosloff calls the press “so that the Underworld may read of the Torch’s defeat.”
The Torch goes up to the castle and encounters the Asbestos Man. He fires an “incendiary fire-stream” (the department of redundancy department) at the Asbestos Man who fends it off with what he calls his “asbestos shield” (except that he described the shield as “iron” earlier in the story). The Torch follows up with “all the fire power at his command…a powerful barrage of controlled heat” but the Asbestos Man shrugs it off, which he shouldn’t be able to do. Even if his suit is fireproof, it isn’t heat proof. If the Torch put all his fire power into his blast, he should roast Kosloff like a potato wrapped in foil. Finally, the Torch tosses fireballs at Asbestos Man who catches them in his nitrogen net. “Do you know what happens when nitrogen comes in contact with heat elements,” says the Asbestos Man, “They become veritable bombs.” He tosses them back at the Torch who is stunned by the explosions. The Torch conveniently lands on a trap door that Kosloff opens with a lever. Now, the Torch does say that his flame is getting weaker but he still should be able to fly away from the opening. He doesn’t. He falls into “a hidden moat filled with a chemical” designed to extinguish his flame. Suddenly, a reporter and photographer are there to witness the defeat. The Asbestos Man yells down at him, telling him about an exit from the moat. “Go, and remember the Asbestos Man is your superior! The one individual who can always defeat you…and, I might add, with ease!” (A line that no super-hero ever expected to hear: “The Asbestos Man is your superior!”)
Johnny heads home in disgrace. The next morning he learns that the Asbestos Man has freed the thieves he caught. At his castle, the Asbestos Man welcomes Blackie Barker who agrees to be his partner. Their first plan is to rob the Star National Bank.
Back at home, Johnny tells Sue about his defeat. She tells him that his mistake was in using his flame directly. “You can still beat the Asbestos Man,” she tells him, “but you can’t do it by a direct attack.” “Wow! What a chowder head I was!” says the Torch. He returns to the castle to find the Asbestos Man with Blackie. First, he melts the iron handle of the nitrogen net, then he melts the chain of a chandelier right above the Asbestos Man’s head. It drops on Kosloff. Then he melts the floor beneath the Asbestos Man’s feet so that he falls to the floor below. Finally, he surrounds Kosloff with flame, eating up all the oxygen around him. Unable to breathe, the Asbestos Man gives up. The police arrive to take everyone away and I suppose they’ve got the Asbestos Man for breaking the thieves out of jail but I’m pretty sure they have nothing on Blackie Barker.
Maybe Blackie isn’t arrested after all. While the Marvel Chronology Project lists only this appearance for him, there is a Blackie Barker entry on the Marvel wiki that claims he is in X-Men #19, Avengers #19, ASM #27, ASM #39, and ASM #75. Let’s look at these. In X-Men #19, April 1966, Calvin Rankin, the Mimic, socks Blackie, “the school boxing champ,” when they are both in high school. I very much doubt that Blackie Barker was in school at the same time as the Mimic, who is either a teen or in his early 20s at the time of this issue. In Avengers #19, August 1965, three seedy characters play poker and talk about how the Swordsman has put out the word that he’ll pay a thousand dollars to anyone “who can give ‘im a lead on how to trap an Avenger.” One of these guys is named Blackie but he doesn’t look much like Blackie Barker. The Blackie in ASM #27, August 1965 is one of the thugs holding onto Spidey as the Green Goblin orders them to remove Spidey’s mask. Not only does he not look like Blackie Barker but Blackie is a mob boss; it’s unlikely that he would be on stage holding Spider-Man. In ASM #39, August 1966, the Green Goblin stages a robbery with the express purpose of subjecting Spidey to a gas that dampens his spider-sense. The Goblin hires four thugs, one of whom is Blackie. It is Blackie who throws the gas grenade. Now, this Blackie may well be the Blackie from ASM #27 but it’s certainly not Blackie Barker. His look is all wrong and he wouldn’t work for the Green Goblin anyway, unless he had really fallen on hard times. The Blackie in ASM #75, August 1969 is, according to Spidey, one of “a couple of small-timers making book!” There’s no need to go any farther. Blackie Barker is no bookie. I’m very impressed that the wiki writer tracked down all of these guys named Blackie but it’s clear that they are no more Blackie Barker than they are Blackie Gaxton or Blackie Drago. The Marvel Chronology Project has it right. This story is Blackie Barker’s only appearance.
There is also a letter from Jim Shooter, of all people, in ASM #23, April 1965 in which he mentions that Spidey is “suspected of springing Blackie Barker” but, as I said in my review of that issue, I’m pretty sure he means Blackie Gaxton. (ASM #11, April 1964 page 9 panel 4, “Look! It’s Spider-Man!” “Maybe he’s the one who helped Blackie escape!” Blackie Gaxton, that is.)
If ever there was a character that screamed “one-shot villain,” it was the Asbestos Man. And that’s what he was…until Fear Itself: Home Front #6, November 2011. There, we learn that the Asbestos Man contracted cancer (not surprising) and now must carry around an oxygen tank. He confronts the Great Lakes Avengers who don’t want to get near his asbestos. Since Asbestos Man only wants to be remembered, Mr. Immortal promises to make him one of their top five bad guys if he surrenders, which he does.
If ever a story was dated, this is it. It’s hard to get past the craziness of making a costume out of asbestos from a 21st century perspective. But even assuming you read the story in the 60s and didn’t know of asbestos’ dangers, it is still a pretty nutty tale. A megalomaniac professor decides to turn to crime because he’s just to smart to work for anyone but he isn’t smart enough to know there will be burglar alarms. He decides to get help by creating a costumed identity and defeating the Human Torch. Oh, and buying a castle. (If he can afford the down payment on a castle, does he even need to turn to crime?) This all works because the Torch himself can’t think outside of the tiny little box he’s in. Until Sue gives him the most basic of advice. I can be pretty forgiving of these odd early Marvel tales but not this time. One web.
The Master Plan of Mr. Hyde is from Journey into Mystery #100, January 1964. It is written by Stan and illustrated by Don Heck. Jack Kirby returns next issue in JIM #101, February 1964 and stays on the series until Thor #177, June 1970.
You may recall that Thor robbed a bank last issue and the police were mobilizing against him. Now people spurn him and the cops shoot at him when they see him. Thor can’t figure it out. He overhears the police say that he robbed a bank. Thor knows he is innocent so he reasons that someone has impersonated him and the first person to come to mind is Mr. Hyde. (It must have been some disguise.) Thor decides to return to his office and change back to Donald Blake so that no one will get hurt in any battles with the police. As he flies off, he thinks back to his conversation with Odin about Jane Foster in which Odin promised to consider turning her into an immortal so that Thor could marry her, if she should prove herself worthy. (Something I neglected to mention in last issue’s review.)
Once Thor is back and returned to his Don Blake form, Jane finds him and reminds him that it is her birthday and he promised to take her out to dinner. Don thinks, “I had forgotten because of my problem as Thor,” but then lies right to her face, telling her, “I’ve been looking forward to it all week.” They go to the Ritz Terrace, “the most glamorous place in town.” Mr. Hyde, who is snooping around the corner, follows them there. He goes up to their table and holds them at gunpoint, ordering them out of the restaurant and into a car. No one at the restaurant objects, mainly because no one else appears to be at the restaurant! It turns out that the car is Don’s car. I didn’t know Don owned a car. (Why would Don own a car? He lives in Manhattan…and he’s Thor!) And I didn’t know they drove to the restaurant. Looked like they were going to walk there.
Anyway, Hyde sits in the back seat with Jane while Don drives. He guides Don to an old castle on a hilltop, which is his hideout. (Did he rent it from the Asbestos Man?) Don thinks, “”The fact that he lets Jane and me see his hideout is proof that he expects we’ll never be able to tell this to anyone.” I assume that means that Don thinks Hyde is going to kill them both. In spite of this, he still doesn’t become Thor, being more concerned with his secret identity than their lives.
In the castle, Hyde ties Don to a post, because all castles have posts. Hyde sets a time bomb and explains, “It is set to go off in exactly twenty-four hours! Only I know how to stop it from exploding! So, if anything happens to me within the next twenty-four hours, you are doomed, Blake!” And Don realizes that he doesn’t know where Hyde has put his cane. Without it, he can’t turn into Thor.
Hyde takes Jane to the East River Navy Yards. He tells her that he is going to steal a Polaris submarine. “I shall roam the seven seas like a King and you shall become my Queen,” he tells her. (That’s your big plan? To be Captain Nemo?) Hyde runs up and throws the guard into the water. (There’s only one guard for a Polaris sub.) Jane wonders if even Thor can beat him.
Back at the castle, Don realizes that his cane is behind him, just out of reach. He stretches and stretches until he finally reaches it. He pounds it on the floor, turning into Thor and easily breaks his bonds. Thor goes searching for Hyde as Hyde holds off the security guards by threatening to harm Jane. (So, there was more than that one guy.) One guard calls for help from the military who should have been there from the beginning seeing as the Polaris is a Naval sub.
As Odin watches from Asgard, Thor locates Hyde just as Hyde is forcing Jane Foster into the submarine. Hyde rips a piece of metal off the con tower and throws it at Thor. Then he enters the sub. Thor has no trouble ripping open the hatch and following into what looks like the roomiest sub ever built. Hyde attacks Thor who drops his hammer. Jane realizes that the bomb will go off in the castle if Hyde loses. Except that the bomb is set for twenty-four hours so all Jane has to do is tell Thor where Don is imprisoned (you know, if Don wasn’t Thor) after Thor beats Hyde and Thor could even go take a nap and still have plenty of time to rescue Don.
Instead Jane covers Thor’s hammer with some canvas (and who knows where she found some canvas). Of course, Jane doesn’t know that Thor turns back into Don Blake if the hammer leaves his hand for one minute. As it is, it looks like Thor will win without the hammer. A desperate Hyde pulls a gun and Thor realizes that he is about to turn into Don Blake. “Even without my hammer, I’m still the God of Thunder and the Storm,” he thinks. So, he uses his cape “to create a tornado within this small area” and I can guarantee you that he never does anything like this again. The wind blows the gun out of Hyde’s hand. It also obscures Hyde and Jane’s vision, which doesn’t make any sense to me at all. It’s just wind in a confined space. There shouldn’t be anything that is obscuring Hyde’s vision. Thor turns back into Don Blake and then crawls along the floor looking for his hammer.
Don finds the hammer. (“It was under this canvas!”) He turns back into Thor and stops the windstorm. Hyde runs for it. Thor tries to follow but Jane stands in his way. “You must let Hyde escape! If you don’t, Don Blake will die!” she says. Thor thinks, “I cannot tell her that I am Blake and I am safe!” Not to mention that the bomb won’t go off for twenty-four hours.
Hyde gets out of the sub and jumps into the water and….gets away! Thor doesn’t bother to follow! The guards now appear to be policemen. (The military never does show up.) They tell Thor that they now know that Hyde impersonated him. (But how do they know?) Jane tells Thor about Don and he promises to go to the castle to rescue him. (But does he really bother to go or does the bomb blow up the castle in 24 hours?) Jane wonders how Thor knows where the castle is. “I’m afraid that Thor will always be an enigma to me,” she says.
Odin has watched all of this and he isn’t happy. He tells Thor, “I saw her thwart your efforts to capture an evil-doer!! Petition denied! She is not worthy!” “Again I have lost the one I love most in all the universe!” says Thor, “Again my victory has a hollow ring!” Yeah, Thor, but it should really have a hollow ring because you didn’t bother to catch Hyde.
Mr. Hyde returns in Journey Into Mystery #105, June 1964 (since he wasn’t caught) where he teams for the first time with the Cobra. We’ll look at that story when we get to Marvel Tales #18, January 1969.
As for this story…What a disappointment. After the great set-up last issue, this one lands with a thud. Hyde rents a castle but then his lame plan (it’s his “Master Plan” of the title) is to steal a sub and become King of the Seven Seas. Jane doesn’t seem to understand that the bomb won’t explode for twenty-four hours, more than enough time for Thor to win and rescue Don. Thor doesn’t bother to dive into the water to catch Hyde who must be a clumsy swimmer, especially with all those clothes on. Then Thor decides the reason his victory is hollow is because Odin rejects Jane when his victory should be hollow because he didn’t have a victory. The guards call the military but they never arrive. The police somehow figure out that Hyde impersonated Thor with no evidence whatsoever. And nobody was in the restaurant! I’ve got to give this one web.
So what have we got? Five webs for the Spidey story but two webs for Marvel Boy and one web each for the Human Torch and Thor.
Let’s round it down to two webs.
Next: It’s back to the flagship with the end of the Brainwasher trilogy. It’s ASM #61!