STRANGE TALES #118 was another book that I got in my Windfall Comics haul of 1988. By this point, it was a decidedly secondary title in the expanding Marvel line, not really possessing the spark of any of the other series of the era. This was really down to the lead Human Torch feature. While the Torch had been a strong headliner in the Golden Age, his early Silver Age adventures felt like a bit of an afterthought, especially without the imagination of Jack Kirby backing them up. Of far more interest were the short Doctor Strange back-ups, whose popularity had grown enough to where he warranted a small cover appearance. Doc was really the draw here, especially as envisioned by his co-creator Steve Ditko.

The Human Torch strip was the birthplace of a number of villains who would go on to have an extraordinary lifespan across the Marvel Universe, characters such as the Beetle Paste-Pot Pete (who changed his name to the Trapster once he started fighting the Fantastic Four proper) and the baddie of this story, the Wizard. The Wizard had started off as just a smart guy, a public figure who was disgruntled that his feats were being overshadowed by those of the Torch, and so set out to prove himself the flaming teenager’s master. By this time, however, he had gone full-on super-villain, and in this story he devised what would become his signature piece of apparatus: his Anti-Gravity Flying Disks.

The Wizard uses his new invention to break out of prison, and he fantasizes about how he’ll use it to make himself rich. But he decides that once he’s done so, he’ll need to adopt a new identity for himself, and so he sets out to impersonate his old enemy, the Torch. This isn’t the first time he’s done this–he did the same in his first appearance some months earlier. But without much effort, the Wizard is able to pose as a TV Promoter who wants the Torch to do a charity show for bedridden orphans. The performance will be broadcast to the via closet-circuit television. Thus, the Wizard prompts Johnny Storm to use up his flame during the performance, and then easily captures him. Not the brightest bulb, our Johnny. There’s an editorial note in a balloon in the third panel above that looks to me like a lettering mistake, that it was intended to be a separate caption at the bottom as was the usual style, but Sam Rosen wound up putting it into the balloon and nobody fixed it.

Quick pause for a Marvel house ad, this one promoting only a single other title. Somebody must have been pretty excited about the return of the Porcupine.

Disguised as the Torch, the Wizard then goes to Johnny’s home and captures his sister, the Invisible Girl. He seals the pair up in a fireproof billboard sign advertising matches, then heads to the Baxter Building to let Mr. Fantastic and the Thing know that he and Sue are going away on a sudden vacation. Despite the fact that there’s still enough air in their prison for the Torch to generate some flame, he and Sue can’t seem to find a way out of the trap–but Johnny is able to summon his teammates by replicating their danger flare with his last bit of flame. Reed and Ben swiftly break their buddies out of the Wizard’s prison, but the Torch insists on facing the criminal alone. As this is his solo series, everybody goes along with this recklessness.

The Torch races to his home, catching the Wizard there unawares. The criminal attempts to pull a weapon on him, but the Torch simply melts it. As the two battle, the Torch’s overused flame begins to die out, and seeing his opportunity, the Wizard attempts to make his escape by using his anti-gravity device to propel him into the stratosphere where the Torch will not be able to follow. Unfortunately, his controls get stuck, and he continues to rise uncontrollably towards the airless void of space–not such a smart guy after all. And that’s a wrap. As you can see, it’s not much of a story, it’s sort of dumb, the characters do stupid or foolish things, and Dick Ayers’ artwork is thick and unattractive. This was hardly upper-echelon material, you know?

In contrast to that, the Doctor Strange feature was growing more polished with time and more sophisticated in mood and storytelling. It had been expanded from five pages to eight, which allowed for somewhat more involved stories. And nobody was better at representing sorcery and making it look mysterious and unsettling than Steve Ditko. In this adventure, the Master of the Mystic Arts is drawn to Bavaria, where the inhabitants of a small town are being possessed by otherworldly spirits.

Pause for another house ad, this one touting TALES OF SUSPENSE and its headliner, Iron Man, who had been given a facelift not long ago in the form of a redesign. That’s one of the things about these early marvel books, whenever anything was a bit weak or not living up to its potential, editor Stan Lee and his team tinkered with the formula in an attempt to create a more successful end product. Mind you, Iron Man here looks as if he could take the Scarecrow without even breathing hard–I don’t know that I’d be gasping in wonder at him.

Back in Bavaria, Doctor Strange has been able to seek out the invaders and battle their leader in a duel of powers. While the alien entity encases himself in a protective shell, it proves to be no match for Strange’s powerful spells, which melt it away. Having overcome his foe, Strange exiles the invaders back to their own home dimension once more. The whole thing is sort of creepy, and while Strange himself has the upper hand pretty much throughout the entire story, it’s nevertheless a compelling read thanks to Ditko’s bizarre visuals.

4 thoughts on “WC: STRANGE TALES #118

  1. Oh god, the Scarecrow. Who better to challenge Iron Man than a contortionist with a few trained crows?
    For me the Torch using his flame as if it were Green Lantern’s ring — constructs like a lasso, a saw, a whatever, that don’t catch things on fire — is the oddest part of that mess of a series.


    1. Scarecrow’s origin is a lot like Hawkeye’s. They both saw Ironman and were inspired to utilize their stage acts to one up him… and to work with communist spies.
      The Torch, Ironman, Antman/Giantman, and Daredevil sure seemed to pull the short straw when it came to their rogues gallery compared to Spider-man, FF, Thor, and Doc Strange. Although I guess Spider-man and Torch swapped the Sandman and the Beetle back and forth.


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