Saturday, October 10, 2015

Countdown to Halloween: Jack Kirby's Monsters! Night Ten: I've paid my dues / Time after time / I've done my sentence / But committed no crime

Cover of Strange Tales #98 (July 1962), pencils by Jack Kirby, inks by Steve Ditko, colors by Stan Goldberg, letters by Artie Simek

The Champion came down to Earth
He was lookin' for some guys to hit

Splash page of "No Human Can Beat Me!" from Strange Tales #98 (July 1962), plot by Stan Lee (?), script by Larry Lieber (?), pencils by Jack Kirby, inks by Paul Reinman, colors by Stan Goldberg, letters by Ray Holloway (?)

He challenged humanity so hard
Our heads from our bodies split

He beat us all at wrasslin'
Tossin' every guy outta the ring

He knocked a baseball outta Yankee Stadium
To Long Island with just one swing

He challenged the greatest weight-lifter
By picking up his stand

He golfed eighteen straight holes in one
And not one ball into sand

He climbed the mightiest mountains
In just one leap and hop

He beat us all at every game
From checkers to Gnip Gnop

But then a guy named Johnny
Made the Champion start losin'

He said 'Don't come back, you son of a bitch
Earth's the best there is at snoozin'.

If you're, like me, a fan of the Ever-Lovin' Blue Eyed Thing, this tales probably reminds you of one of the great comics of the eighties, Marvel Two-in-One Annual #7, in which Cosmic Elder the Champion of the Universe challenges all of Earth mightiest heroes to a boxing match:

Page from Marvel Two-in-One Annual #7 (1982); script by Tom DeFalco; pencils by Ron Wilson; inks by Bob Camp, Mike Esposito, Frank Giacoia, Dan Green, Armando Gil, and/or Chic Stone; colors by George Roussos, letters by Jim Novak

But it's only Mister Grimm who can go the distance in the ring, round after round.

The Thing brings into four-color life that famous saying by Winston Churchill:

"Never, never, never give up."

Alongside with Superman vs. Muhammad Ali, it's one of the greatest comic book boxing stories of all time.

And it ends in a draw.

So, remember, in the words of Mister Charles Daniels: Johnny said, "Devil, just come on back if you ever wanna try again, I done told you once, you son of a bitch, I'm the best that's ever been."

365 Days of Star Wars Comics, Day 283: Hey, Jar Jar Binks! What's your favorite eighties Scottish soft rock band?

Panels from Star Wars Episode I: Queen Amidala one-shot (May 1999), script by Mark Schultz, pencils by Galen Showman, inks by P. Craig Russell, colors by Lisa Stamp, letters by Vickie Williams

Wait a sec, Padmé...what's hidden up his butt?

Friday, October 09, 2015

Countdown to Halloween: Jack Kirby's Monsters! Night Nine: Planet X has pink air / All the trees are red / No one ever dies there / No one has a head

When I pointed out the other day the sheer infinity-approaching numbers of Atlas Era comic stories whose titles were in the third first person, I wasn't kidding. Check out the stellar lineup on this cover. Those are three really great personal points to put on your resumé! You have to have been kept pretty busy to do all those things, 'specially in 1959. Also: hey, big furry pink pot-belly teddy bear!

Cover of Strange Worlds #3 (April 1959), pencils by Jack Kirby, inks by Christopher Rule, colors by Stan Goldberg, letters by Artie Simek

Meet Cynthia Adams, journalist in an age when miniskirts really were a vital cornerstone of serious journalism. You can tell she's a career newspaperwoman because she doesn't have time of her own for kids. Oh, heaven help the working gal.

Splash panel from "I Was Face to Face with the Creature From Planet X!" in Strange Worlds #3 (April 1959), script (?) and pencils by Jack Kirby, inks by Christopher Rule, colors by Stan Goldberg, letters by Artie Simek

In what must be the futuristic equivalent of "Lane! Get down to the Civic Center and cover the flower show! And take Olsen with you! And don't call me Chief!", Cynthia has taken on the hard-hitting, fact-finding, cheese-and-9onion-flavored touch news assignment of reporting on a monster in a cage. Please note that at no time does she take photographs, holograms or selfies with the monster. She's just gonna write a story about it. Pulitzer Prize material, indeed! Ralph Pulitzer, that is.

"Origin unknown," the sign on the big-ass plexiglass case proclaims. "Discovered and captured on Planet X." Well, I'm pretty sure that's your origin right there. So hypnotic, so compelling is looking at a big furry monster at the end of this book in a cage in a museum that Cynthia completely loses track of time, loud announcements that the zooseum is closing, and the security guard trying to push her out the door. She's stuck in overnight! Yes, Ben Stiller is Cynthia Adams in Night at the Museum 26: This Guy's Hairier Than Robin Williams!

He'll only come out at nights / The fat and fuzzy type / Nothing is new / I've seen him here before / Watching and waiting / Ooh, he's sittin' with you / But his eyes are on the door Yep, it's a big breakout for our fuzzy oversized friend fiend, who apparently was waiting for just such an occasion to shatter his shatterproof dome and explore the museum on his own. He'll be heading to the gift shop to pick up some souvenir pencils, right after he attacks the soon-to-be-late Cynthia Adams! Even more exciting than this story originally promised: posthumous Pulitzer!

Yes, in a Lee/Kirby story where a man was the protagonist, he would have figgered out a way to hold off the Creature from Planet X, using science! Cynthia: is lucky because the big galoot faints one panel after he starts to attack her. Well, hey, that's progressive, isn't it? T'was beauty made the beast swoon! And, as it turns out, there was absolutely no danger at all. Now there's a muckraking story for Cynthia to write up for the Daily Universe! Headline: "I Was Face to Face with the Creature from Planet X and Nothing Happened Because He's a Big Swooney-Pants and I Was in No Danger Whatsoever! I wonder if that's really the story she told her nephews. "Aw, Aunt Cindy, that story sucks!"

We never get to glimpse the Creature's hometown of X-Ville, Planet X in the story, but we do actually know that not only he came from it, but a handful of other Marvel/Atlas monsters as well. Why, even the polysyllabic prototype-ur-version of the most popular member of the Guardians of the Galaxy (sit down, Rocket) hailed from Planet X! And he was king of Planet X! I didn't vote for him.

Panel from "I Challenged...Groot! The Monster from Planet X!" in Tales to Astonish #13 (November 1960), plot by Stan Lee (?), script by Larry Lieber (?), pencils by Jack Kirby, inks by Dick Ayers, colors by Stan Goldberg, letters by Ray Holloway

What the Lonely Planet Guide to Planet X will also tell you: it's the homeworld of Goom! He is the Thing from Planet X, as opposed to being the Creature or the Monarch. Good to know they have a well-balanced social strata.

Splash page from "Goom! The Thing from Planet X!" in Tales of Suspense #15 (March 1961), plot by Stan Lee (?), script by Larry Lieber (?), pencils by Jack Kirby, inks by Dick Ayers, colors by Stan Goldberg, letters by Artie Simek

Of course, where ever Goom hangs his hat, so too does his son, Googam! Mrs. Goom absolutely refused to let Goom call him "Goom, Jr.", but Goom privately refers to him as "G.J." anyway. Goom gave Googam those little red underpants for his twelfth birthday! And he's been wearin' 'em ever since.

Splash page from "Beware of Googam, Son of Goom!!" in Tales of Suspense #17 (May 1961), plot by Stan Lee (?), script by Larry Lieber (?), pencils by Jack Kirby, inks by Dick Ayers, colors by Stan Goldberg, letters by Artie Simek

There is also intelligent talking killer plant life on Planet X, challenging Goom for the title of "Thing." This is clearly another fine example of Hodgkin's Law of Parallel Planetary Development, considering its obvious physical resemblance to a Venus Fly Trap, a Triffid, and Spy vs. Spy.

Splash panel from "The Thing from Planet X" Tales of Suspense #3 (May 1959), pencils and inks by Steve Ditko, colors by Stan Goldberg (?), letters by Artie Simek

What? Another type of alien life form from Planet X? Yep! Basketball-headed Kurrgo, one of the earliest foes of the Fantastic Four that Reed didn't turn into a cow also is from Planet X! He's very critical of the primitive Earth, and yet he's the one with a black-and-white television. His lazy susan hors-d'oeuvre-platter-serving technology, however, is lightyears beyond ours.

Splash panel from Fantastic Four (1961 series) #7 (October 1962), script by Stan Lee, pencils by Jack Kirby, inks by Dick Ayers, colors by Stan Goldberg, letters by Artie Simek

Kurrgo also shows up in the only Fantastic Four screen adaptation that matters, the 1967 Hanna-Barbera cartoon version! Paul Frees as the Thing for the win, baby!

Fantastic Four: "Prisoners of Planet X" (October 14, 1967)

Even Magneto Xorn Magneto that guy from the Grant Morrison run of X-Men has a certain je ne sais quoi with Planet X! Magneto was fond of naming his homes after letters. Asteroid M, Planet X, Studio Apartment with Shared Bathroom Q...he's lived in 'em all.

Double-page spread from New X-Men (2001 series) #147 (November 2003), script by Grant Morrison, pencils by Phil Jimenez, inks by Andy Lanning, colors by Chris Chuckry, letters by Rus Wooton

So if the X-Men have been to Planet X, that means, via the Laws of Crossover Earth, that the Star Trek crew with the worst logo have been there as well. Even the giant green floating head of either Professor X or Captain Picard fully recommends you spend your vacation on Planet X rather than Risa! Risa: nobody goes there anymore; it's too crowded.

Does Planet X accept house calls? Well, certainly they're no stranger to having Doctors pop in.

Page from "Famine on Planet X" in Doctor Who Annual 1979 (September 1978), writer and artist unknown

And perhaps inspiring them all, the original space cadet, Tom Swift, is familiar with the alien world known as Planet X, which is not as cool as the Mushroom Planet, but then again, what planet is?

But I think that the only Planet X that really matters, and the only portrayal that has given it justice, is in the serious, 1953 hard-science, real-world pre-NASA documentary film which depicted Planet X in all its raw, true glory. Even if it is a bit challenging to get to.

from Merrie Melodies: "Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century" (1953), story by Michael Maltese, directed by Chuck Jones

In practical terms, though, navigating to Planet X couldn't be easier. You can find it just past Planets U, V, and W.

It's pretty clearly marked; you can't miss it. Just look for where Iron Man's girlfriend lives. Or, as the old saying goes: X marks the Potts.

It goes without saying that I'm disappointed there wasn't a Planet X series during Secret Wars, which would have merged all the various Planets X into one monster-filled, Atlas-flavored smashstravaganza. The Creature! Groot! Goom! Googam! Kurrgo! Plant Guy! The Movie Star! And the rest! All hitting each other in the face in outer space! (Hey, I think I just came up with the above-the-title tag line.)

Planet X! (echo: x-x-x-x-x-x-x)

Today in Comics History: The world's greatest detectives ignore an obvious clue that the Riddler did it

Panels from "When the Earth Blacked Out!" in Strange Adventures #144 (September 1962), script by John Broome, pencils and inks by Murphy Anderson

365 Days of Star Wars Comics, Day 282: Meanwhile, in downtown Tokyo, Gamera is attacking the city

Two-page spread from Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens: Shattered Empire #1 (November 2015); script by Greg Rucka, pencils and inks by Marco Checchetto, colors by Andres Moss, letters by Joe Caramagna
(Click picture to Twentieth Century Fox CinemaScope™-size)

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Countdown to Halloween: Jack Kirby's Monsters! Night Eight: The Beetle Who Said He Was Bigger Than Jesus*

Hey hey we're the Beetles
And people say we beetle around

Whoops, wrong pop group.

Cover of Tales to Astonish #39 (January 1963), script by Stan Lee, pencils by Jack Kirby, inks by Dick Ayers, colors by Stan Goldberg, letters by Artie Simek

For all the Fin Fang Fooms and Xemnus and Rombii that manage to survive the Monster Age and move into the Marvel Age, brushing shoulders with Thor, Wolverine, and Chipmunk Hunk, there's dozens of monsters who just couldn't cut the mustard to make it into the big 616. Alas, poor Lt. Broccoli, Roller Ghoster, and Ting Tong. You just weren't good enough to eventually face off against the Hulk, the She-Hulk, or Teen Hulk.

And then there's this schlemiel.

Splash page from "The Vengeance of the Scarlet Beetle!" in Tales to Astonish #39 (January 1963), plot by Stan Lee, script by Larry Lieber, pencils by Jack Kirby, inks by Dick Ayers, colors by Stan Goldberg, letters by Artie Simek

Ant-Man! The hero so important Stan Lee passed him off to his brother to write. Ant-Man! The only one of the monster mags-turned-superhero anthology headliners who didn't get his own series in the late sixties. Ant-Man! He has the powers of the ants! The same ants, in fact, who alert him to danger when they're not busy appearing in Raid commercials. Dangers like...this! Yep, Batman had a Bat-Signal. Ant-Man has bugs.

This scarlet beetle is aptly named The Crimson Cootie! Naw, I'm just kiddin' ya. He's called the Scarlet Beetle. And since his plans were so contingent upon growing to enormous size using Ant-Man's patented Pym Particle gas, it's a pretty good thing Ant-Man is the one who stumbled across the Scarlet Beetle in the first place. Good thing he didn't run into, say, Giant Man first. Oh wait, that would have worked too. Okay, good thing he wasn't facing the Wasp. Darn it! I guess the S.B. woulda gotten big any way.

And so the Scarlet Beetle unleashes his inhuman (well, literally) army upon the word! Termites tear down the telecommunications systems! World leaders are poisoned by itsy-bitsy spiders! And…uh…bugs carry away crates of dynamite right behind the back of Beetle Bailey. And with that name, he's the one G.I. who might have been sympathetic to their cause! Also: the Scarlet Beetle breaks into your local newscast.

I'd like to think, however, that in the Marvel Universe, they're always prepared for just such a television station interruption.

Natch, the ants remain faithful and obedient to their human master, the Ant-Man! (Which is kind of creepy on the natural scale if you think about it.) He orders them to fetch DDT to use against the Scarlet Beetle's men insects. Whoa, Hank, that's hardcore. I kind of thought there were some sort of Geneva Antvention rules about the use of a chemical weapon so deadly it will wipe out both sides. Eh, what does he care? He's Ant-Man!

An Ant-Man story that has a climatic battle among giant-sized toys? That'll never be realistic! Incidentally, I like how the Scarlet Beetle has put Hank Pym's belt around himself. Why does a beetle wear a belt? To hold up his ants.

Around about this time Captain America or Iron Man or Daredevil would have been dragging this insect irritant down to the police station, or, failing that, put them up for the weekend in the local Roach-tel California. ("Bugs check in, but they can never leave.) What does Ant-Man do? He puts the Beetle in a balloon. Y'know, just for fun I like to imagine that it's Michael Douglas doing all this crazy stuff. Hey, two-time Academy Award-winner Michael Douglas...put a big beetle inside a balloon! Haw!

And then he just lets him go. Good work, Dr. Pym. No wonder the last two frames are about how the public thinks you're completely useless.

The Scarlet Beetle next appears in 1972's Iron Man #44, but thanks to the magic of chronological ret-continuity implant, his next historical appearance in the Marvel Universe is in 1996's Untold Tales of Spider-Man, where a freshly-bitten Peter Parker squares off against our favorite red roach. Thanks, Kurt Busiek, for helping us laugh at Scarlet Beetle, again!

Panels from Untold Tales of Spider-Man #12 (August 1996), script by Kurt Busiek, pencils by Pat Olliffe, inks by Al Vey and Pam Eklund, colors by Steve Mattsson, letters by Richard Starkings

Now, a quick jump back to '72, where the Scarlet Beetle returns, feistier than ever, once again setting the insect world against the human world. Also, apparently, he's a mutant. Ah, that finally explains all the issues of Wolverine and the X-Men where Scarlet Beetle is hanging around in the back of the classroom scribbling "S.B.+O.M." in his Mead® Square Deal® Black Marble Composition Book. Sadly, all of the other mutants used to laugh and call him names.

Panels from "Armageddon On Avenue A" in Iron Man #44 (January 1972), script by Roy Thomas, pencils by Ross Andru, inks by Mike Esposito, letters by Jean Izzo

Wow, if that guy thinks this is the end of the world, wait until Earth-1610 crashes into the planet. Kinda puts a few bugs into perspective, doesn't it? And proving you can't teach an old bug new tricks, Scarlet here tries to take over the world using the exact same trick he used in his first appearance: stealing the Pym gas. I like to think that he actually just missed the dramatic look and stylish lines of that snazzy belt, though.

Scarlet Beetle is defeated the way all good insect villains usually go out: trodden under the sole of the shoe of a guy who was trying to burn down his own business for the insurance money. Man, what a cliche! If we've seen that story ending once we've seen it a milltimes!

So there ya go. the Scarlet Beetle: dead. Until he wasn't anymore. (gestures dramatically) Comics!

Panels from West Coast Avengers #34 (July 1988), script by Steve Englehart, layouts by Al Milgrom, finishes by Mike Machlan, colors by Paul Becton, letters by Janice Chiang

And did I mention this time there's a whole hive of Scarlet Beetles, and they're working for a Communist dictator? Because that's what you do when you seize ultimate and total control of a country: bring in the giant red bugs. Incidentally, if you ever wondered what Vision's weakness is, it appears to be fighting insects. Ah, that explains all the times that Scarlet Witch would tie him down to the ground and pour honey all over his body! Um, I think. Possibly not.

Oh, wait. He can just use his super-forehead power beam on them. So, pretty much like every other enemy Vision fights, huh? He renders them irrelevant! Also: dead.

But, as the career of Ringo has taught us anything, it's that you can't keep a good beetle down. When he next returns, it's to beetle-devil the new Ant-Man, Scott Lang, by forming a super-villain team of his own, starring Bug-Punisher! Insectiron Man! Wolveroach! (©1981 Dave Sim) And many other Steve Ditko-pencilled background figures. Meet the all-new, all-different Mighty Antvengers! Unless this splash panel is some kind of crazy nightmare. Which, in fact, it is. The events in this panel do not occur in this comic book, folks!

Splash page from "Amazing Fantasy" in Amazing Spider-Man Annual #24 (1990), script by Tony Isabella, pencils and inks by Steve Ditko, colors by Bob Sharen, letters by Rick Parker

Cool, it's a Kirby monster drawn by Steve Ditko! You don't get that too often. Steve's taken such care to preserve the Kirbyosity of the original appearance that he's homaged the first two panels of Kirby's story (top) in his own style (bottom).

Oh, the Beetle's back and you're gonna be in trouble / Hey-la-day-la, the Beetle's back! Incidentally, he's still claiming to be a mutant. You know, Beetly, you can insist and argue all you want that you're a mutant and it's still not gonna increase your sales. Look at what happened when Cloak and Dagger were being promoted as being mutants. Their book still got cancelled! Plus, it's an insult to all true mutants. I think what I'm saying here is be what you are, not what you aren't.

Whew! It was just a dream.

Or…was it?

Yes. It was.

So, let's see how carefully you've been paying attention. Later, when She-Hulk is attacked by giant robotic insects, who do you think is behind it?

Panels from The Sensational She-Hulk #60 (February 1994), script by Scott Benson and Len Kaminski, pencils by Pat Olliffe, inks by Steve Montano, colors by Glynis Oliver, letters by Brad Joyce

Could the villain be the Locust? Black Tarantula? The Human Fly? Could it be Swarm, the Nazi Made of Bees? Nope, sorry! Those are all terrible guesses. It's the Scarlet Beetle.

And then She-Hulk kills him by swatting him with a newspaper.

We haven't seen exoskeleton or setae or the Red Beetle since then, even though he threatened to have his own four-issue miniseries during Secret Wars entitled Scarlet Fever. But the actual only sighting, if'n you can call it that, is a transcript of his disastrous local-cable debut, interviewed by Defenders supporting cast member Dollar Bill! Warning: may read like fan fiction.

Text page from Marvel Monsters: From the Files of Ulysses Bloodstone and the Monster Hunters one-shot (November 2005)

And so, as Bob Dylan famously sang

That's the story of the Scarlet Beetle
Got pinned in a book by a collector's needle

*To be fair, the Scarlet Beetle only claimed he was taller than Jesus.