This issue of STRANGE TALES was another book that was in that long box of about 150 Silver Age comic books that I bought in 1988 for $50.00. As the Marvel super hero line began to expand, certain strips tended to stagnate. They also got used a lot of the time as a place to try out potential new writers and artists whom editor Stan Lee hoped might be able to work in the Marvel style that he was using. The Human Torch feature was clearly one of these. Almost from its launch, it was inevitably secondary to FANTASTIC FOUR, where Johnny Storm’s most crucial adventures took place. But even though it would last for another twenty-some issues, by the time that this issue came out, it was already a lesser effort.
To a great degree, this reduction in emphasis came down to Jack Kirby no longer drawing (and plotting) the strip. Bereft of his enormous imagination, Lee and his cohorts were left to soldier on as best they could. Dick Ayers became a regular artist on the feature, no doubt in part because he had been inking Kirby on FANTASTIC FOUR and it was assumed that he knew the characters and the manner in which Lee wanted them depicted. The writing on this issue is credited to Joe Carter, but that was a pseudonym being used by a much more storied creator, albeit one that was never quite able to get in synch with the demands of the Marvel approach.
You see, Joe Carter was really Jerry Siegel, the creator of Superman, moonlighting from DC/National Comics. Siegel had had a contentious relationship with DC for decades at this point, and while he was back selling stories to cruel editor Mort Weisinger, he’d be filing suit for the rights to Superman again not too long after this. Accordingly, he was looking around, trying to find other sources of income before the gravy train at DC dried up for him. Lee apparently hired him on to do some proofreading, and also tried him out on a couple of stories. But very much in the manner of his later campy Mighty Comics stories for Archie/Radio Comics, Siegel’s Marvel tales are stilted and forced–they read more like a parody of a Marvel book than the real thing. Take that opening splash page. If you had illustrated the same page with the Fly or Steel Sterling, it would have fit in perfectly in the Mighty Comics line. But not quite so well at Marvel.
Quick pause here for a house ad for AVENGERS #1–we wouldn’t want to miss it, after all!
Editor Lee is credited for the plot to this story, but it reads to me as though, whatever conversation they may have had about it, Siegel went away and delivered a full script for Dick Ayers to work from. The wild shifts from drama to dopiness feel like his work of the period. The Human Torch is facing pushback from the public, thanks to TV commentator Ted Braddock, who thinks that the Torch is an egotistical show-off (a charge that it’s difficult to refute.) But there are bigger problems in store for our young hero: a new villain, the Eel, has inadvertently made off with a miniature atomic pile (!!!). What’s more, unbeknownst to the Eel, if he doesn’t activate a certain switch on the thing, the atomic reaction going on inside of it is going to build to a critical mass, and the city will be wiped out in an atomic explosion. In order to restore his good name–and to prevent everybody from dying, too, of course–the Torch tracks down the Eel and succeeds in getting the thing away from him. But it’s about to detonate, so the Torch flies it high up into the atmosphere, where it can explode harmlessly. Apparently, there isn’t any fallout to worry about or anything–whew!
For anybody wondering why I suspect that this story was done full script, this insane panel provides a clue. There’s no reason why Ayers would have drawn a tiny Thing head in an otherwise empty panel, not is Siegel likely to have written the Gettysburg Address here were he simply working from the artwork.
The Torch’s gambit succeeds, but he himself is injured by the detonation and the radiation. Mister Fantastic catches his lifeless form as it plummets to the Earth, and he’s hopeful that a new ray he’s developed can restore Johnny to health. As people around the city wait for word on the Torch’s prognosis, Braddock broadcasts a change of heart about the Torch. And, of course, Johnny comes through with flying colors–so much so that he’s out of the hospital in the space of a panel or two. And that’s it! The story isn’t at all concerned with anything approximating realism, and all of its emotional content is canned. It’s easy to see why Siegel wasn’t the answer to Lee’s need for additional scripters. The Marvel books were attempting to pitch their material slightly older than the Weisinger titles, so while Siegel was a perfect fit for Superman, he never quite clicked with the Marvel books.
The back of the book contained a pair of stand-alone fantasy stories. After debuting Dr. Strange two issues before, Lee and Ditko give the character a rest until #114. Having heard that Ditko sprang the first Dr.Strange story on Lee fully drawn, I do wonder if he had maybe come in with both stories at least laid out, and that’s why this test period was a two-fer. Anyway, this Lee/Ditko short is again probably the best thing in the issue. It’s a potboiler in which a ruthless and unscrupulous dealer in gems swipes the largest gem in existence from the hands of a colossal idol–only for the idol to come to life and pursue him in the final panel. It’s really Ditko’s atmospheric handling of the material that makes this story memorable. Just look at that splash page (effectively colored, presumably, by Stan Goldberg.)
Quick pause for another house ad, this one for this year’s big Annuals, the first FANTASTIC FOUR ANNUAL and the second STRANGE TALES ANNUAL, which co-featured Spider-Man. (Spider-Man is spotlighted on both covers, a sure sign that the character was generating some heat, even this early.) And also, a quick plug for X-MEN, which doesn’t have art–making it perhaps more likely that it was conceived and started after AVENGERS.
The final story was both written and drawn by Larry Lieber, Stan Lee’s younger brother, though again here, Lee credits himself with the plot. It’s not much of a plot either way. A space pilot who’s been on service in space for a year stumbles across an exact replica of his home town on a remote planet, including all of the people. There’s one person he doesn’t recognize, though, and this fellow tells him the truth: this world is a wish fulfillment planet, and it’s his own longing for home that has created these replicas. As the town fades into nothing, the astronaut is confused–he’s never seen this man before, how could he have dreamed him up? And the guy replies that he dreamed up the astronaut in order to stave off his own loneliness. As he does so, the astronaut fades into nothingness. The whole thing doesn’t make a heck of a lot of sense, but that was typical for the kinds of fantasy tales that populated comic books back then.