This was the second of the pair of issues of MARVEL COLLECTORS’ ITEM CLASSICS that I bought on my trip to Heroes World with my grandparents. It was the last issue of the magazine–the following issue, its title changed to the moch zippier MARVEL’S GREATEST COMICS, though its contents remained the same: a Fantastic Four story, an Iron Man story, a Doctor Strange story, and something else short to fill in the remaining pages with. In 1969 when this book was first published, reprint comics such as this were the only way for latter day fans to experience those early Marvel classics outside of running across some affordable back issues out in the wild somewhere.
So let’s take a closer look at what this particular issue had to offer. We open on a Fantastic Four story that first saw the light of day in issue #30 of their own series. As with yesterday’s entry, Jack Kirby’s pencils were inked here by Chic Stone, who would perform this service for around a year circa 1964, and whose finish is really synonymous with Kirby’s work during this time. It features the first appearance of the villain Diablo, a character that neither Lee or Kirby thought much of after the fact–there’s an anecdote about Kirby being asked who the worst villain he’d ever come up with was and mentioning Diablo by name, after which he was shown the latest issue, in which the character was again bedeviling the FF. But still, even Lee and Kirby’s lesser efforts have some value to them, and this adventure is a solid bit of entertainment.
The Fantastic Four are vacationing together in Transylvania of all places, and the Thing is mentally drawn to a sealed tomb in an old castle. There, his enormous strength releases Diablo, the Alchemist, who had been sealed within for his crimes 100 years earlier. Diablo turns the Thing into his loyal servant by promising to cure him of being a monster–as a gesture of good faith, he makes the Thing seem more human, and this is enough to get him to turn against this three partners and protect Diablo. But the Alchemist has a desire for power, and his chemical concoctions are all only temporary, so it isn’t long before the FF go to war with the small army he’s assembled. The Thing eventually returns to the side of the good guys once Diablo’s potion wears off, and he winds up sealing the villain back up inside the airless tomb where he first found him. This was meant to take care of Diablo for all time, but he’d return in a scant five issues, despite Lee and Kirby’s lack of enthusiasm for him.
ADDITION: It turns out that I had occasion to write about the original printing of this story today as well, so for those who may be interested, that write-up can be found at this link:
Over in the Iron Man story, ol’ shell-head is still dealing with the same problem he was facing two months ago: he’s trapped in his life-saving armor full time thanks to an injury he’d sustained. But this tale brings that problem to a premature and somewhat-unsatisfying end, as the Armored Avenger builds a special booster pack for his chest plate which allows him to finally shed the remainder of his armor and rejoin the world as Tony Stark once again. After this being such a big issue for several releases, the ease with which this happens makes it all a bit of an anticlimax, I’m afraid. In conjunction with artist Don Heck, scripter Stan Lee had created more interest in the Iron Man feature by focusing more heavily on soap opera-style serial plots, often involving the tragic cost Tony Stark pays for being Iron Man. So while that wrap-up was a bit of a damp squib, the effort overall had been worthwhile.
Once the business of Tony Stark being disappeared has been wrapped up, the rest of the story focuses on a saboteur who is causing havoc at the Stark International plant. This Phantom turns out to be a disgruntled employee of Stark’s, who feels like his efforts have been overlooked by the industrialist. Hey, it’s not like he could have stepped out of his armor to acknowledge you in the past couple of months, Dr. Birch–give the guy a break! Once exposed, the Phantom isn’t nearly a match for Iron Man, and the whole matter is swiftly wrapped up. But in Tony Stark’s absence, feelings have begun to develop between his two closest associates, Happy Hogan and Pepper Potts–so despite the fact that he himself has the hots for Pepper (not that he can ever tell her so when his injured heart could give out at any moment and yadda yadda…) a lonely Tony Stark must watch them drive off together in a car that he loaned them while he is left in solitude. Really, this element of longing and loss was what made the Iron Man stories begin to work a bit better.
The third spot in the book is occupied by a one-off bit of filler: the very first story to feature Henry Pym, later the Ant-Man. It had been done as another of a million disposable one-off fantasy adventures in the pages of TALES TO ASTONISH, but as a desire to move further and further into super hero material took hold at Marvel, Lee and Kirby and Larry Lieber brought the character back, transitioning him into a long-running B-list super hero. In this first story, he’s an arrogant and possibly deranged scientist who winds up testing his own experimental shrinking formula on himself, and who finds himself besieged by danger after he falls into an ant hill. At the end of the story, Pym pours his serum down the drain–one can only imagine what other creates it may have come into contact with and reduced sharply in size once it entered the water table.
Mid-story, there’s a time out for the latest Marvel Bullpen Bulletins page. I don’t think Stan was still writing these himself, apart from his Soapbox column–the language feels more like an approximation of Lee’s style to me than the genuine article. I loved coming across pages like this in the back issues I bought, as it gave me some insight into what other comics were coming out back then that I might one day like to read. So Lee’s decision to introduce such a page was indeed canny, even years after the fact.
And buried in the back of the book was another installment of Doctor Strange, this one the second chapter of a long-running serial that would last for something like a dozen chapters all told. Much as with Iron Man, Lee and Ditko had worked out that telling their stories in serialized fashion allowed them to tackle larger subjects, and also permitted more room for characterization. This Strange sequence is a fondly-remembered epic, in which the evil Baron Mordo has allied himself with the dread Dormammu to increase his mystic power far beyond dr. Stange’s. Accordingly, the Doctor is on the run across the world, forced to flee for his life and remain one step ahead of Mordo’s dangerous assassins. This is all in the service of keeping Mordo distracted from attacking Strange’s teacher, the wizened Ancient One, but it also had the additional benefit of putting Strange on his back foot a bit–where it was his wits and his courage that carried the day more often than simply his sorcerous skill. As the underdog, Doctor Strange was a lot more interesting. Ditko’s visuals were also becoming more trippy and expansive throughout this period, and the serial format gave him more opportunities to cut loose with larger images of fantastic realms and bizarre spellcraft.