Of all of the early Marvel super hero titles, it must be said that STRANGE TALES was the one that seemed to be running on fumes the earliest. The title would get a little bit of a pick-me-up once Doctor Strange became a regular feature in its back pages, but before that, one gets the sense that editor Stan Lee wasn’t all that wild about featuring the Human Torch in solo adventures, and that neither he nor any of the other folks working on the series gave it a whole lot of creative effort. Rather, STRANGE TALES became a place where Lee could road test prospective writers, to see if they might be able to capture the spirit that was making the new Marvel style go, so that he could lighten his workload somewhat. Pretty much nobody was able to do so until Roy Thomas turned up in 1965–but that didn’t keep Lee from trying along the way.
The Human Torch story in this particular issue is credited to Joe Carter, though Stan maintains that the essential plot was his creation, as he always would. Joe Carter had a good reason for using a pseudonym, as he was actively working at DC/National at the time for editor Mort Weisinger–and Weisinger certainly would have fired him if he knew that Carter was moonlighting for the competition. So who was Joe Carter? None other than Superman’s co-creator Jerry Siegel. Siegel was about at the point where he was prepared to take another run at recapturing the rights to his world-famous creation (an attempt that wouldn’t pan out) and so he was lining up work for himself at other publishers in anticipation of what would happen when DC found out about his efforts. For his part, Lee gave Siegel work, but it really didn’t work out. Siegel’s version of the Lee style was tin-eared, it read almost like a parody of Lee’s dialogue. Years later, when Siegel worked for Archie Comics on their Mighty Comics line, his emulation of the Marvel style was precisely that. He had learned from the master.
The story was illustrated by Dick Ayers, a real workhorse in the early Marvel days. His penciling style was always a bit idiosyncratic, lacking the dynamism and inventiveness of Jack Kirby. On the Torch strip in particular, all of his teenaged characters seemed to be much older–Johnny Storm was chiseled like a leading man, and his new girlfriend Dorrie Evans, introduced in this issue, comes across likewise as a full-grown adult. Ayers pretty much designs the new villain in this issue, the Plantman, based on Jack Kirby’s cover. Kirby had left most of the details of the costume obscured, so Ayers needs to fill in the blanks. What he comes up with is a guy in a slouch hat and trench coat with a bandanna mask–hardly the most impressive visual ever seen in comics. For all that, though, Ayers work was always solid and dependable, even if it wasn’t especially exciting.
The story is typical of early Marvel hero adventures not plotted by Jack Kirby, but it’s even more silly than usual. The Torch has a new girlfriend, Dorrie Evans, whose wealthy father fires their gardner for dinking around with an invention that he claims will allow him to increase the intelligence of plants and make them do his bidding. The thing doesn’t work, until it’s miraculously struck by lightning. And then, the gardener adopts the guise of the Plantman to first get revenge on the man who fired him, and thereafter dominate the world. The Plantman’s gizmo doesn’t so much make the plants smarter as it makes them ambulatory and anthropomorphic in a manner that defies all logic. But it makes him a formidable opponent. When he frames Dorrie’s father for his initial crimes, the Torch vows to bring him to justice and restore his girlfriend’s good name.
This he does, ultimately by using his flame to dry up the moisture within the plants, causing them to wilt away. But the Plantman himself eludes capture by hiding in a tree (!!!) and there’s an intimation that he’ll come back again in the future–which, indeed, he would. Meanwhile, Johnny’s big difficulty with Dorrie is that she doesn’t like him as the flamboyant Torch, she’d rather he just be plain old Johnny Storm. But surely the exoneration of her father has changed her opinion, right? Wrong! At the story’s end, Dorrie laments the fact once again that her boyfriend insists on lighting himself ablaze and soaring through the air. This would become her running bit throughout the rest of the series, until she disappeared at about the same time the Human Torch solo strip did, making only scattered small appearances since then.
The thirteen page Human Torch lead story was backed up with a pair of five-page one-off fantasy tales of the sort that used to fill the pages of the magazine. The first is by Larry Lieber, inked here once again by the overpowering linework of Matt Fox. Lieber and Fox was a combination that readers either loved or hated, there was no middle ground. Lieber himself is said to have hated it, feeling that his work was being buried under all of Fox’s relentless cross-hatching. Anyway, the story is about an alien called Shanng, whose ship is soon to crash-land on Earth. He radios ahead about his distress, and all of the countries of the Earth greedily await his landfall, hoping to be able to gain access to whatever super-scientific secrets he may possess. Annoyed by the greed of the Earthlings, Shanng cloaks his vessel once it alights, making it seem to be simply an ordinary hill. And he never makes contact with anyone, content to remain in his ship until the human race has matured enough to not misuse his gifts. I’m certain he’s still in there today.
The real winner in the issue, as usual, is the final story, illustrated by Steve Ditko and dialogued by Stan Lee. Ditko’s hypnotic and slightly off-kilter artwork was a perfect fit for these short little creepy vignettes. The stories themselves were seldom memorable, but Ditko’s images would stick with you. This one’s a little bit less attractive than usual, as it appears to have been inked by George Roussos, uncredited. Anyway, it’s about a shoe repairman who fancifully tells children that little elves help him with his work. When he gets sick, he has to borrow money from a loan shark to pay for his operation–but thereafter he’s under the loan shark’s thumb, forced to generate more and more money for the goon. In the end, though, the loan shark discovers that the tiny elves are real, and what’s more, he’s shrunk down and put to work for the old shop-owner.
7 thoughts on “WC: STRANGE TALES #113”
Can’t disagree with anything you say here— although I think Dick Ayers was doing a very solid poor man’s Kirby, at least on the pages you’ve shown here. That close-up on Plant Man on page 10 is great! (And I wouldn’t be surprised if it was inspired by some classic movie, because I know Dick loved ’em; Hell, the leading men he drew almost always looked like Humphrey Bogart!)
But what really caught my eye is the second to last panel on page 13— where Dorrie is called by her full name Doris— just so “Joe Carter” could have Johnny think “Never thought I’d see the DAY DORIS would adore the Torch!” I bet Joe was pretty proud of that clever little nod to the singer Doris Day. I know i wou,ld have been!
That cover copy needs work. The menace of *wet dew* (redundant) is not exactly terrifying. The sap of some plants can in fact be pretty nasty, that might be a reasonable threat. Or just leave it to the imagination what the plants are using to attack.
Doris’s shtick here does sound a lot like the wife of “The Web”. But though it’s played for laughs, I think she actually has a point. It’s somewhat like dating a motorcycle patrolman and e.g. having him arrive for a date by riding a loud attention-grabbing motorcycle right up to you. Some personality types would reasonably be annoyed at that – park the noisy motorcycle down the street, come into the house in a more respectable manner.
The original cover was published in the UK and shows the balloon was altered to add the “wet dew” to better explain the threat to the Torch. Also notice the art was revised slightly, particularly the evil trees with faces, which I actually like! https://www.comics.org/issue/332550/cover/4/
I think rather the US version is the original and the one you posted is revised for the reprint.
In this case, I believe the copy on the UK version is the legitimate pre-revision version.
Nick, thanks, that’s very interesting. The UK version seems to me a much better cover, with a classic “monster” feel to it. The faces of the bushes manage to convey some amount of creepiness. I wonder if revision was a Comics Code demand, where someone proclaimed the original cover was too scary for the tiny tots. Then the “wet dew” might be a kind of work-to-rule protest, poking fun by turning danger into the most harmless thing possible. Otherwise something like “poison sap” would have been more perilous. That’s even halfway reasonable, since even if the Torch evaporates it with his flame, the result puts him right in the middle of a toxic gas cloud.
Pat, the US cover is definitely a revision. The bush nearest the Torch, has what was its hand next to the Torch’s knee, entirely removed. And the dialogue of the Torch reads better and is better laid out in the UK version.
This was actually the very first Marvel comic I ever bought. (Marvel wasn’t getting very good distribution on Staten Island, where I grew up, apparently.) I was intrigued by the flaming red guy on the cover…and really fell in love with the image of his leaving a trail of flame as he flew.