STRANGE TALES had been a long-running suspense/monster series that transitioned into becoming a super hero title as the Silver Age got under way. But it was a lesser Marvel title, especially at the early part of that transition, and so back issues were relatively plentiful and relatively affordable when compared with FANTASTIC FOUR or AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. I got a number of them in my Windfall Comics purchase of 1988, this one being the oldest issue of the lot. The headline feature was the Human Torch, spun off from FANTASTIC FOUR with the assurance that he was a popular enough character on his own to be able to support a title. And, indeed, the original Human Torch had done just that all throughout the Golden Age, so it seemed like a safe bet. But the series was clearly treated as a lesser priority, a place where editor Stan Lee could test out prospective scriptwriters to see if they could tap into the ethos of the Marvel style that he’d hit upon and was developing across the nascent line. Stan had little success in recruiting other writers on a long term basis until Roy Thomas showed up in 1965.
The script in this particular issue is credited to H. Huntley. This was a pseudonym for Ernie Hart, a cartoonist who had worked for Marvel on and off going back to the 1940s and the Timely era. Hart was an established professional with decades of experience, and so it’s no wonder that Lee turned to him to help out. But his copy was a bit still and stilted, old-fashioned in its approach. It didn’t connect with the same snappy zing of Lee’s Marvel Comics. The art on the feature had been handed over to Dick Ayers, who was also then inking Jack Kirby’s pencils on the main FANTASTIC FOUR series, and so was closely familiar with the characters. Ayers possessed a rough, raw brush line and a quirkiness in his compositions that couldn’t match the power of Kirby’s pages. This was definitely the B-team being sent in, the back-benchers.
In these comics, asbestos was often treated as a miracle substance, totally impervious to flame. So it was an obvious idea to create a villain for the Torch who would clad himself in asbestos and thus be rendered impervious to the teenager’s flaming powers–never mind the heat. The Asbestos Man is Professor Orson Kasloff, a criminal scientist who is looking for an easy score and who offers his services to the mob after witnessing the Torch take down a gang of jewel thieves. He’s also a middle aged man with a bald pate and a strange moustache–there was a constant theme of old versus young that ran in both this Human Torch strip and in Spider-Man. Anyway, the Asbestos Man challenges Johnny Storm in the most direct way possible: he sends a letter via the U.S. Post Office to Johnny’s home in Glenville. The letter itself is made from a thing sheet of asbestos, because of course it is–Kasloff has one shtick, after all. He’s also thorough: not content to wait for a response to his mailed challenge, he follows up by calling the Torch on the phone and winding him up. Why he didn’t just do that and save himself the two days of waiting for the Post is anybody’s guess–Kasloff does indicate that he’s inexperienced at crime, which is why he seeks out the expertise of genuine underworld figures.
From here, the story plays out about as you might expect. In their first match-up, the Asbestos Man outfights the Torch, who can’t figure out how to use his powers effectively on a burn-proof man. Given that johnny didn’t typically go around burning people, you wouldn’t think this would represent so much of a challenge. Depressed, he slinks home while the Asbestos Man crows about his victory and the other members of the Fantastic Four wonder if they should come to the Torch’s aid.It’s Sue who gives Johnny both the kick in the pants needed to get him up off the mat and the idea of using his flame indirectly against the Asbestos Man–about as obvious a strategy as there could be. With renewed spirit, the Torch seeks out his foe and clobbers him. The whole thing reads like a Golden Age story, to be honest, and you can see why the Human Torch strip swiftly became troubled, one of the failures of the early Marvel team, and one that would be overhauled and then discarded in the months to come.
STRANGE TALES was still an anthology series, so after the 13 page Human Torch adventure we got a pair of shorter 5 page features. The first was a generic science fiction suspense story both written and illustrated by Larry Lieber. But what makes it of note is the inking of Matt Fox. Fox inked a number of Lieber’s short stories at this time, and he had a hyper-detailed style. He employed a ton of hatching and cross-hatching to achieve a different look. It was a divisive approach as far as fans were concerned (and reportedly, Lieber wasn’t fond of the results either.) But it definitely helped this story to stand out. The story is incredibly dumb, concerning itself with a super-computer that gains self-awareness and threatens to take over the Earth. But it’s undone when an organ grinder’s monkey inadvertently unplug it–something that the finest minds on Earth failed to think of.
The final story is the best thing in the issue. It’s the second adventure of Doctor Strange. We know that Steve Ditko conceived the character and brought the first story to editor Stan Lee fully penciled, as a new idea that could be folded into STRANGE TALES rather than the one-off twist ending stories they had been doing. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that this second story was prepared the same way, and possibly at the same time. Lee agreed to try out Doctor Strange, but after these two stories, the series went away for a couple of months so that he could gauge reader interest. Apparently, there was enough enthusiasm for the character that it picked up again a couple of issues later. So the fact that there were two tryout stories make me think that perhaps Ditko came in with the both of them.
This story introduces Strange’s greatest rival, Baron Mordo, although his history with Strange is only hinted at–Strange wouldn’t get an origin for another couple of months. Mordo strikes at his former teacher, the Ancient One (here still known only as The Master), which brings Strange to his aid. Strange and Mordo fight a battle in their ectoplasmic spirit forms, and Strange triumphs by locating Mordo’s physical body and tricking his spirit into reuniting with it. This feels like a bit of a cheat given the “rules” of magic that would develop in the strip, but it was early days and so you just need to deal with it. Ditko fills every page with nine small panels, but his sense of design and grasp on the eerie is already in evidence. It’s a good looking feature, and it’s not surprising that the readers of STRANGE TALES liked and supported it.