This was another book that came my way in my Windfall Comics purchase of 1988. As I’ve mentioned before, the common factor that all of the books in this assortment had was that they were all Silver Age books, but none of them were keys in any way. So while the chunk of STRANGE TALES issues that I got included a bunch of issues, it didn’t include the return of Captain America in #114, special guest-villain the Sandman (and origin of Doctor Strange) in #115 or the fight between the Torch and the Thing in #116. So this was the next issue in the stack, which was still perfectly fine for me–especially at the bargain price of 33 cents.
This was about the point where editor Stan Lee began to do all of the scripting for the super hero titles by himself rather than using the less important strips–Thor, Iron Man and Ant-Man as well as the Human Torch–as a tryout ground for prospective new writers. He hadn’t yet found anybody who could emulate his own style to his satisfaction and thus lighten his load, and so he thought it wise to consolidate the entirety of the Marvel approach under his scripting pen. While there’d be an occasional attempt after this, it wasn’t until Lee came across Roy Thomas that he found somebody who could take on a decent portion of the line and be depended upon to execute the assignments in the manner Lee felt was needed.
The Torch stories had also expanded to fill a full 18 pages now, crowding out the last of the one-off fantasy tales and making STRANGE TALES a super hero title through and through. The story this time out featured the return of the Eel, a somewhat lackluster villain introduced a couple of issues earlier. But it was easier to bring a bad guy back than it was to invent a new one, and Lee was trying to build up a regular coterie of foes for the Torch just as he and Ditko were doing over in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. The Eel would continue to be a regularly recurring lesser villain across the Marvel line for decades. The story opens with the sort of bit that Lee loved: The Torch hears on a radio broadcast that the Eel has been released from prison and flies out to confront him–but despite wearing his costume, he hasn’t committed any further crime, and so it’s the Torch that takes a dressing down.
Of course, the Eel is planning another crime wave, but for the opening portion of the story, the Torch can’t get any proof that he’s the one behind a string of high-profile thefts. Even once he does manage to catch the Eel out, the villain is able to elude him using a specially modified helicopter. Johnny Storm is frustrated and stymied, but his sister Sue observes that the Eel’s copter had pontoons, indicating that it lands on water. Following up on that clue, the Torch is able to locate the vehicle and his foe–but the Eel has taken the precaution of coating his costume with “asbestos grease” which not only somehow blocks the heat of the Torch’s flame but also makes him unable to combust on his own. Without his powers, the Torch is no match in a punch-out with his bigger foe.
House ad time! The X-Men were beginning to establish themselves as something greater than just another take on the Fantastic four as their personalities grew more refined issue by issue. Here in their third outing, they were battling the Blob, who’d continue to bedevil and orbit the team to the present day.
Back at the story, the Eel intends to dump his unconscious enemy into a shark tank and be done with him. But Johnny comes to before he can be thrust through the opening in the floor, and he’s able to cause the Eel to fall into a similar eel tank instead by spilling a barrel of asbestos grease in his path. The torch intercedes before the Eel can be permanently injured by his aquatic namesakes, and he leaves him for the authorities to mop up. And a silly gag with the rest of the FF buying the Torch a fish tank wraps up the story. It’s still relatively pedestrian work–Dick Ayers is no Jack Kirby, either in his plotting power or the dynamics of his pages–but still half a step up from what the strip had typically been like up until now.
The real draw of STRANGE TALES to the insiders who knew about it was the Doctor Strange back-up stories illustrated by Steve Ditko. Strange was only beginning to get cover billing at this point, and within an issue or two, he’d be depicted on upcoming covers rather than simply being mentioned. Ditko’s Doctor Strange was one of the best-looking features in the early Marvel era, combining the quirky creepiness of Ditko’s one-off fantasy stories with a super-heroic character whose world and outlook separated him from all others. There had been plenty of other magician characters before this, but none of them has been quite so plausible or quite so relatable as Doctor Strange.
It was still early days for Doctor Strange, but if the series had a weakness, it was an overreliance on Baron Mordo as an omnipresent enemy. He was the villain in practically every story, which began to become repetitive after a while. In this one. Mordo traps Strange within his own Sanctum so that he can strike at their mentor the Ancient One without Strange’s interference. But Strange is able to escape Mordo’s trap in his ectoplasmic form–and the Ancient One is able to give him a handy and plot convenient one-use magic ring that will permit his astral essence to battle with all the power of his physical form. So Mordo is once again driven off and Strange’s Sanctum recovered, but the two know they will meet again on some other day. It’s far from the best Doctor Strange story, but it does look really great.
4 thoughts on “WC: STRANGE TALES #117”
Even an average Lee/Ditko Dr. Strange story is exceptional in my book. I can’t say I think of him as particularly relatable in that era but that doesn’t hurt my love for the strip any.
The figure of the Eel on that cover has always looked to my eye more like Ditko than Kirby.
Yeah, the Grand Comics Database says the Eel figure is by Ditko. Good eye!
I like your analysis. Did not really care much for the Human Torch story after reading a few early STs. As a fan from the 1960s, I enjoyed the FFs because of mixing the team’s incompatoble personalities which remarkably produces an enjoyable chemocal reaction. Somehow a solo torch does not do that for me even when the other members of the FF made guest appearance….you are right…a different dynamics when we have someone other than Kirby. When purchasing the ST, then, i typically skip to the backup story.