Lee & Kirby & Ayers: The Strange Case of STRANGE TALES #119

This is a sort of an odd situation, as I haven’t even completely worked out an operating theory on just what was behind the decisions I’m about to lay out for you all. So this is still a bit of a puzzler. But it concerns a significant change that was made to the lead story in STRANGE TALES #119 in the midst of its production. Why this change happened, I cannot quite say, though I’ll offer a few theories along the way. But I think the underlying concept here is undeniable.

The Human Torch feature in STRANGE TALES was a decidedly second string affair by this point. It was a series that was being done every month, but not a whole lot of special effort was being put into it, especially as compared to a FANTASTIC FOUR or an AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. The Torch’s solo adventures tended towards the silly for the most part, and the Torch would wind up facing both a series of home-grown enemies that were introduced here as well as a number of villains recycled from other titles, such as the Sandman or the Terrible Trio.

The text indicates that the Rabble Rouser is imagining himself as Castro, but those Nazi salutes tell a different story.

The Torch story in STRANGE TALES #119 introduces the threat of the Rabble Rouser. This unsubtly-named villain is a Communist agent who uses his mesmerizer wand to turn the Torch’s home town of Glenville against him. They even pass an ordinance forbidding the Torch from turning on his flame within the town limits–I said these stories were a bit silly, didn’t I? But really, the Rabble Rouser is out to grab power for himself.

Here’s the thing, though: I don’t believe the Rabble Rouser started out as a new villain at all. I am convinced that when this story was plotted and drawn, the antagonist was a foe who had previously battled the Fantastic Four in the pages of their own magazine just a few months prior. Like the Rabble Rouser, he employed a very specific sub-surface craft to travel through the Earth. And like the Rabble Rouser, he used his technology to stir up hateful anti-American sentiments among the population, bringing them over to his side.

Those of you who are familiar with the FF’s early rogue’s gallery have already put this together. I’m speaking of the Hate-Monger, the villain of FANTASTIC FOUR #21. He turned the FF against one another with his Hate Ray and attempted to take over a small country until he was ultimately foiled by Nick Fury (no longer a Sergeant and not yet an Agent of SHIELD) and the FF. And he was unmasked as Adolf Hitler in an ending that smacks of Jack Kirby–though Stan chose to blunt it a little bit by adding in a bit that this may have been one of the Nazi Fuhrer’s many doubles.

So the question here, really, is What Happened? How did the Hate-Monger transform into the Rabble Rouser? And why did it happen? To say nothing of when? Taking a close look at the story in STRANGE TALES #119, it looks to me as though the lettering and copy hasn’t been extensively rewritten, which implies that the decision to make these changes happened after the story had been plotted and penciled by Dick Ayers but before Lee scripted it and it was lettered, and before Ayers had inked it. So my guess is that the changes to the art were made by Ayers as he was inking the final strip, after getting his marching orders from Stan.

The Rabble Rouser has really weird hair and insane eyebrows and a huge, bushy mustache–as though Ayers is trying to cover something up. Something like Hitler’s face, perhaps. On the final page of the story, there are two panels at the top which seem to have been modified the least, and in which you can see the face and features of Hitler (or a Hitler look-alike) pretty clearly, despite Ayers’ alterations. This becomes even more obvious if you look at how Ayers depicted Hitler in the contemporaneous SGT FURY stories he drew–at least on this page, they look alike apart from some crude additions.

So what was behind this decision to rework the Hate-Monger into the Rabble Rouser? Hell if I know. But based on the notion that this change happened at the scripting stage, it’s unlikely to have been a Comics Code problem (unless somehow the Code had complained about FANTASTIC FOUR #21 after it had gone to print.) It’s possible that Lee received some other negative feedback about the Hate-Monger story, from letter writers perhaps, and decided to adjust this similar follow-up tale. It’s also possible that publisher Martin Goodman mandated the change–maybe he was uncomfortable with FANTASTIC FOUR #21 when he eventually saw it. None of this prevented Lee and Kirby from featuring the Hate-Monger in the Gallery of Villains in the FANTASTIC FOUR ANNUAL, though, or kept the character from coming back to battle Nick Fury again in later years. So I really don’t know. But Lee is so concerned about the connection that he won’t even mention the Hate-Monger by name in connection with the two editorial notes, instead having the Rabble Rouser refer to him solely as “Another”. Dick Ayers, though, may have been a bit miffed about having to make these changes, as the new face he gives to the Rabble Rouser is so absurd and specific that it still feels like a rubber mask the villain is wearing.

6 thoughts on “Lee & Kirby & Ayers: The Strange Case of STRANGE TALES #119

  1. Or maybe Stan got almost to the production phase before realizing that Adolf Hitler might be a bit below his pay-grade rallying the volk to…pass an ordinance against Johnny flaming on within one podunk town’s boundaries. I also love the “happy ending” of Johnny bringing the girlfriend, um, parsley I guess, and her perky vow never to look at another man or provoke Johnny’s temper…now THERE’s something to right an ordinance about!

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  2. Up front, let me say that I consider Lee one of the great editors in the history of comic books and one of the great scripters, at least by the 60s on.
    That said, here Lee failed as a writer is that he was a lame plotter. He was no Kirby when it came to ideas and concepts (and I’d say, at least in the superhero genre, Kirby had no superior; others may be as good, no one was better).
    So, yeah, I can see Lee coming up with a lame sequel to the Hate Monger story when the mail on FF 21 coming in and spooked him. (I started reading FF with 18 and I remember finding it underwhelming; also didn’t like Roussos’ inking.) (Which raises a long time mystery to me: Kirby was an incredibly tight penciler; can’t understand why sooo many inkers had trouble inking him faithfully.)
    As for what certainly looks like last minute work on the Rabble Rouser, I wouldn’t presume it was Ayers who made the changes. Could have been Brodsky (he was the entire production department at the time, no?) or even Lindy Ayers or one of the kids while Dick went on to the next gig. Or maybe he stuck with a fast brush for a rush job. No time to waste switching tools.

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  3. It’s sort of weird to imagine Adolf Hitler, infamous square mustache and all, just casually hanging around unmasked on the streets of Glenville, Long Island, starting up anti-Human Torch rallies. That seems overly conspicuous.

    Then again, given the intelligence of the average inhabitant of Earth Marvel, most people would probably have written it off as a nutty publicity stunt…

    https://www.cbr.com/marvel-comics-publicity-stunt-advertising-stunt/

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