I originally wrote this article to support the History of Marvel Comics show that the NerdVana Podcast recorded on Saturday, June 8, 2013. What a task: outlining the entire history of the Marvel Universe, from the very beginnings of Timely Comics, to the horror stories of the Atlas Era, to the rise of heroes during the Silver Age, to the current multimedia subsidiary of Disney known as Marvel Entertainment. We could have gone in any number of directions, and as I suspected we would, upon meeting that symbolic fork in the road we followed both directions. You can hear for yourself beginning here: http://www.nerdvanapodcast.com/Episodes/Nerdvana-S01E14a.mp3 To prepare, I reviewed back issues and critical commentary to discern those episodes that shine most brightly throughout Marveldom, and indeed that company has given us an impressive number of memorable occurrences. Roy Thomas, for example, penned the epic “Kree-Skrull War” arc that ran in Avengers (Volume 1) #89 -97. An adaptation of another industry changer, Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s “Days of Future Past” that first appeared in Uncanny X-Men #141 and #142 has graced the silver screen. Many are the blockbusters, the moneymakers that inspire creative projects in various media, commentary, spin-offs, and which never will be forgotten, especially now that they’ve been reprinted and reprinted again in the trade compilations that have become so widely available.
As a longtime reader, I remember passages from Marvel that might not but should survive the ages, passages that entertained and inspired reflection, but that haven’t been selected for reprint collections. I’d chosen five such cases for discussion on that show, each presenting an element that reveals some aspect of character or circumstance that, whether one realizes it or not, potentially changed the path of continuity, and I say only “potentially,” because, damn it, we’re in danger of overlooking their importance.
Captain America Lifts Mjolnir
Odin’s enchantment inscribed on to the face Mjolnir, the hammer of Thor, resonates throughout the history of Marvel Comics and reads like Excalibur defining Arthur as the One True King: “Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of Thor.” Over the decades, a handful of characters have taken turns at swinging the hammer while the rest of us couldn’t dream of even nudging it along the ground. These honored few include Beta Ray Bill, Jane Foster, Eric Masterson, Rogue, Storm, Conan the Barbarian, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Odin himself. And so I wonder: just what does it mean to be “worthy?” What does it take to lift that mystic mallet, something the Hulk himself couldn’t manage?
In 1988, the answer came from Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz, the writer and the artist of Mighty Thor #390, at a moment when Thor finds himself dog-piled by a horde of demon soldiers and separated from Mjolnir. Suddenly Captain America, at that time operating as “The Captain,” scoops up the weapon in question and swats away the invading forces before returning it to Thor. The story ends with Thor noting the importance of the occasion and how the two heroes now are linked as those chosen to wield sacred Mjolnir.
Why shouldn’t Captain America be worthy? Since his reappearance in Avengers (Volume 1) #4, writers such as Stan Lee and Steve Englehart successfully had evolved him from the Golden-Age soldier sticking it to Adolf into the solid moral core of the Marvel Universe, the man who twice walked away from his heroic identity when retaining it would have meant betraying his ideals. We’re in the presence of no government tool or callow patriot. Beyond doubt, Steve Rogers is the real deal, who even during a period when he foreswore his red, white, and blue costume and shield still had what it took to raise Mjolnir from the ground. Years later, he temporarily would rebel against the injustices depicted in the Civil War, leading to his temporary death. Most likely, fans don’t much discuss the events of Mighty Thor #390, because it occupies a few pages in a so-so story with nothing-special art. Regardless, let us not forget that these few pages delivered an important instance in the history of Thor and Captain America, teaching me at least what it means to be worthy.
Update: Since this article first appeared, Marvel Entertainment has released Avengers: Age of Ultron which contained a scene where each Avenger tried lifting Mjolnir. When Captain America takes his turn, he manages to jiggle the hammer a bit, alluding perhaps back to the episode I discuss above – not so forgotten after all, maybe.
Second Update: If you’ve seen Avengers: Endgame, then you know how this moment has played out in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The Death of the Ancient One
We’re familiar with Stephen Strange, the venal surgeon whose hands were damaged irreparably in an auto accident. Destitute, he travels to the Himalayan retreat of the Ancient One, rumored to possess the power to cure his condition. But what condition does the master cure? After determining his worthiness, the Ancient One puts Strange through a course of training that leads him toward becoming a master of the mystic arts and eventually the Sorcerer Supreme, he who protects the Earth dimension from magical danger. Doctor Strange first appeared in Strange Tales #110, dated July 1963. Ten years later, after endlessly battling supernatural threats and interdimensional breaches, finally he obtains the title Sorcerer Supreme. Readers learn that Strange achieved in decades what had taken the Ancient One centuries to obtain, beginning back when he was just Yao from the village of Kamar-Taj. Even with an enviable aptitude it still took decades. Surely Batman would nod in appreciation of such discipline and patience, as would Shang Chi, Doctor Fate, Hawkeye, or any other hero who has trained hard to become the best.
What finally happened to bring the good doctor to the point of graduation? Co-written by Steve Englehart and Frank Brunner with art by Frank Brunner, Marvel Premiere #10 from September 1973 stands as one of my favorite comics ever and tells how nothing less than the death of the Ancient One, brought about by Strange himself, will stop the demon Shuma-Gorath from invading Earth through the Ancient One’s mind. In a sequence that presages the sacrifice of Obi Wan Kenobi or the passing of Yoda in the Star Wars films, the Ancient One transcends his physical existence to become one with Eternity, the essential nature of the universe itself. As he departs, the Ancient One passes on his exalted mantle to Strange. Readers must remember this development not only for the stirring writing and art, but because of the sense of something earned. Strange put in his time — no bolts of lightning or lab accidents for him, but power gained through worthiness and discipline.
Update: I now anxiously await Doctor Strange, set for release on November 4, 2016, with Benedict Cumberbatch portraying Strange. I’m intrigued that Tilda Swinton is playing the Ancient One, but I see where this will become controversial. Will the movie reflect the events I’ve outlined above? Probably not entirely, but at least the makers more than likely will give nods in that direction. Oh, I cannot wait!
Dr. Doom’s Mother Leaves Hell
Dr. Doom, arguably the greatest super-villain of all time: the super genius, the scarred despot of Latveria, the armored terrorist bent on world domination, the . . . mama’s boy? Victor Von Doom was born into a traveling tribe of Zefiro Roma, derogatively known as “gypsies.” His mother, Cynthia, practiced magic, and sold her soul to Marvel’s devil figure, Mephisto, for power, so when a Latverian soldier later killed her, she went straight to Hell. Young Victor vowed he’d learn magic and science to free her from this fate.
Indeed, the machine Von Doom was developing at Empire State, the one from that historic moment when Reed Richards tries to point out the computational errors Doom had made, would have been a trans-dimensional teleportation device for opening a door into Hell had it not exploded and set Victor on the road to becoming Doctor Doom. Years later, Doom gained his opportunity to free his mother, as recounted in Triumph and Torment, a one-shot graphic novel issued in November 1990, starring Doctor Doom and Doctor Strange.
Roger Stern and Mike Mignola remind readers that ascending to Sorcerer Supreme is not only difficult to achieve, but difficult to retain. Periodically, the Vishanti, a trio of magical deities, summons Earth’s magic users to combat for the title. Of course, Strange finishes first, while Doom takes second place. However, the second-place finisher always earns the right to ask the winner for a favor. Rather than world conquest, Doom asks Strange to help him free his mother from Hell, which in many ways constitutes a task more daunting than global domination.
Each Midsummer’s Eve, Doom had retreated to his castle in Doomstadt, opened a portal to Hell, and battled demons in vainly attempting to free his mother. Now with Strange at his side, we see the depth of Doom’s torment, as upon meeting his mother’s soul the proud monarch drops to her feet weeping like a wounded child. Stern, by this point famous for his excellent writing in the Avengers, and Mignola, who later would gain fame for Dark Horse’s Hellboy, reveal aspects of Doom that distinguish him from other villains. One cannot imagine the Red Skull caring for his mother’s soul. Probably he would have sold her to Mephisto before she’d found the opportunity to do it herself.
In the end, Doom’s mother does leave Hell, but not like you might suspect. The whole is an exercise in style, grace, betrayal, human folly, and wonder. Why this graphic novel, this crucial exploration of Doom’s psyche, has gone out of print defies explanation. I demand a reissue — now!
Update: Marvel has granted my wish! In 2013, they released a reprint edition including The long-out-of-print Doctor Strange and Doctor Doom: Triumph and Torment, plus Doctor Strange (1974) #57 and material from Astonishing Tales (1970) #8, and Marvel Fanfare (1982) #16 and #43.
Dr. Octopus Could Have Saved Invisible Woman’s Baby
Consistently, I’ve erred when paraphrasing the events of Fantastic Four #267 to friends. Always I give the benefit of the doubt to Doctor Octopus, wrongly crediting him for saving Susan Richards. I forgive myself, however, given that Byrne successfully brings readers to empathize with the pitiful condition of this villain’s life. After rereading the story, I’m now straight on the facts and, as I was with Stern’s depiction of Doctor Doom, impressed with the complexity Byrne adds to Octopus.
The story begins with Reed Richards consulting the most prominent scientists in the Marvel Universe hoping to save Susan Richards, in labor with their second child, a mutant whose powers are placing both her and her mother in mortal danger. Walter Langkowski, one of the scientists present, urges Richards to seek out the only man with the specific expertise for the job at hand, Doctor Octopus — uh-oh.
Richards approaches Octopus in his prison cell and addresses him as Dr. Octavius, the true identity buried beneath the damaged psyche born in the accident that deformed both his body and mind. The ploy works, and Octavius agrees to help. On their way to Susan, however, Octavius sees an image of Spider-Man on a billboard and relapses into Octopus. Richard must fight him, and the baby dies during the delay.
I want to remember Octavius as having saved Susan Richards, but not the baby. It turns out neither situation is true, but both could have been true if Octavius had remained stable and not reverted to Doctor Octopus. For less than an hour, we see the personality buried beneath the damaged criminal.
Update: For a while, Doctor Octopus inhabited the body of Spider-Man, a situation since resolved with Peter Parker back in the driver’s seat. Look up the volumes collecting this period to see how Octopus as Spider-Man might or might not have measured up to the Octavius we see too briefly in Fantastic Four #267.
The Arrival of Howard the Duck
Marvel Comics in the late 1960s and 1970s developed into a breeding ground for creative excellence. Jim Steranko forever elevated comic-book art to the avant-garde with his efforts on Nick Fury. Frank Brunner intensified the surreal imagery that Steve Ditko had established in Doctor Strange to psychedelic levels, and Doug Moench and Paul Gulacy brought a martial-arts/espionage ambience to Master of Kung-Fu after the exit of co-creators Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin. Englehart produced a wonderful line of story arcs for Captain America and the Avengers, my favorite of which, “The Celestial Madonna Saga,” provided my introduction to Marvel Comics. Starlin then redefined outer space in Captain Marvel and Warlock, both vehicles for the “Thanos Cycle” which have influenced the film Guardians of the Galaxy. A host of horror comics – for example, Tomb of Dracula, Ghost Rider, and Marvel Spotlight featuring Son of Satan sprang up after the Comics Code Authority loosened its rules in 1971. Finally, among all this innovation arrived Howard the Duck.
In 1973, writer Steve Gerber and artist Val Mayerick brought the cigar-chomping waterfowl to Earth in Adventure into Fear #19, when that title featured the bizarre adventures of the swamp monster called Man-Thing. Thanks to Thog the Nether-Spawn and his shifting of the Cosmic Axis, Howard fell from Duckworld to our reality dominated by what he terms, “hairless apes.” Marvel released the first issue of Howard the Duck in 1976, and the tone throughout read more underground than mainstream.
Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, Howard reigned as a satirical outlet for politics and humanity in general as he ventured forth, trapped in a world he never made. Gerber often used Howard to poke fun at the comic-book medium and at Marvel Comics itself, especially when Howard adopted the personae of “Iron Duck” and the “Master of Quack-Fu.” Students on college campuses nationwide transformed Howard into a cult hero. In Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, Sean Howe relates how students at one university besieged the visiting Stan Lee with questions about the duck of the moment. Lee, who hadn’t been in Marvel’s offices for a while, answered, “Howard who?”
Who? The Howard who ran for President of the United States as the candidate for the All-Night Party, who faced villains such as the Space Turnip, Doctor Bong, and my favorite, Hell Cow. Once upon a time, I nearly named a family pet “Howard the Duck,” a decidedly strange name for a cat. I went with “Adam Warlock,” which did less to ease my family’s anxieties. Comic fans during this era loved Howard madly, and felt bitterly disappointed in the 1986 film that greatly weakened his bite.
Today younger fans can experience experience Howard through reprint collections. I urge them to do so, as the film fails to capture the true feel of the Howard phenomenon, beloved now and forever for challenging boundaries and kicking asses.
Update: I hope that Howard’s cameo at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy will inspire his renaissance. In 2002, Gerber brought his creation to the Marvel Max imprint, and in 2015, Chip Zdarsky and Joe Quinones crafted a five-issue series, but let’s make more happen!