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.