Saturday, February 20, 2016
Fireside Chats #3 - Bring On The Bad Guys!
Bring On The Bad Guys is the 1976 entry into the Fireside book series which began with Origins of Marvel Comics in 1974 and was followed by Son of Origins in 1975, both of which looked at the origin stories of Marvel's various heroes. Now the focus shifts to the villains who in many cases are nearly as famous as their noble counterparts.
Stan "The Man" Lee is on board once again to supply the behind-the-scenes information. In the debut he was clearly in a hurry and the text was fractured and failed to really offer up a sound historical perspective on the debuts of Marvel's earliest heroes. In the second volume he did a much better job and in this third outing, you can tell Stan is running out of things to say, surprisingly. The truth is that creating a villain is a necessary evil (pun intended) and despite the wonderful variety of Marvel baddies their creation is almost always powered by the same impulse.
That impulse is seen first in Marvel's most famous bad guy Doctor Doom. Doom rises up in Fantastic Four #5 to face off against the Fab 4. In that story which introduces Doom we learn that he and Reed Richards know one another and in a brilliant move creates a character who blends science and sorcery and lives with a persistent mystery, what lies behind the mask. That first tale also introduces Doom's time machine, which has proven to be one of Marvel's most fruitful inventions, the source of a many great stories.
To his lasting credit, Stan really gives Jack "King" Kirby his dues in this one, describing well the process they used to create these comics and speaking of Kirby as a true collaborator. I don't know if Stan had gotten some criticism for his handling of these matters in previous volumes or what, but he sure does a much better job here.
Doom's origin is presented from the pages of Fantastic Four Annual #2, a rousing tale which as Stan suggests really has the feel of a classic Universal monster flick, movies I know the Kirby himself loved. Making Doctor Doom a dictator of his own country really gave the character the heft he needed to keep coming back in a wide variety of fashions.
The Dread Dormammu is next up. As Stan says, this character began first as a name, part of one of Doctor Strange's weirdo incantations. Then it was decided to give him form, and Steve Ditko gets proper kudos from Stan for coming up with an exceedingly memorable villain, fire-headed demon master of a dark dimensions.
Dormammu's two-part debut is presented from the pages of Strange Tales #126 and #127. Doc Strange was the back up at this time so the covers barely showcase the wonders inside.
Now Stan comes to Loki, a character of course he nor Jack Kirby created, but like Thor the product of ancient Norse myth. But Loki was always present in the Thor stories, his brother (like in the myths) and a constant thorn and rival for the Thunder God. It's in the pages of Tales of Asgard, the beautiful back-up feature which was more and more the result of Kirby's individual effort, that we find the old myth spruced up and modernized for inclusion into the Thor story line. The story takes several issues to unfold with some outstanding Kirby artwork beautifully inked by Vince Colletta. We also get a look at Loki and his sometimes ally The Absorbing Man battling Thor in a story from Journey Into Mystery #115, this one inked by Frank Giacoia. Great stories.
With the Red Skull, we for the first time have a character presented in the Fireside series which comes from the Timely Comics days (if you don't count the Human Torch). Neither Cap nor the Sub-Mariner had been featured in the series, but with the origin story of the Red Skull we finally get a glimpse of Cap at least. Subby did show up in the first volume when battled the Hulk. Now we get a really dandy Cap story, a trio of tales set during World War II form his series in Tales of Suspense #65-67.
In this one we discover the Red Skull is a nobody with aspirations who dedicates himself to the Hitler creed and becomes a mysterious assassin when he puts on the Red Skull mask. Stan talks about how the Skull's costume details were minimized to maximize the weirdness of the head. Stan also talks bluntly about how in the early days of Timely when he first showed up his bosses were Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, the men who created Captain America and the Red Skull. Stan does a pretty good job here of getting his history straight, at least as far as I can tell.
But with the Green Goblin, who is next up, things get a little less candid. According to the stories I've always heard, it was the identity of the Green Goblin which was the final straw in Ditko's decision to walk away from his famous co-creation Spider-Man. In keeping with his philosophy Ditko wanted the Green Goblin's true identity to be just a nobody, to point up the fact that evil wasn't the special province of melodrama but was a commonplace. Stan wanted the Goblin to be someone involved with Spidey's particular story and so he was revealed in this story to be Harry Osborne Sr., the father of Peter Parker's friend Harry. (Note: I am wrong on this point - see the comments section for the real story.)
So in Amazing Spider-Man #40 we learn how a lab accident the ruthless businessman loses touch with reality and becomes a split personality, one of which would become the villain the Green Goblin. Stan was clearly correct in this decision as the ongoing saga of the Goblin and Spidey has proven to be one of the most potent in all of comics lore. The story here is drawn by John Romita, who though he lacked the idiosyncratic style of Ditko was nonetheless a successful artist on the series.
Now we come to the one villain who I think doesn't deserved to be in this collection. Now I have nothing against The Abomination who debuted in Tales to Astonish #90 and 91 in a rousing story drawn by Gil Kane. But while this is a neat two-part adventure which fits neatly in the book, the villain from the Hulk's past who clearly deserves this place of honor is The Leader. The Leader was the Hulk's earliest true nemesis and being his opposite (brains magnified by Gamma radiation as opposed to brawn) the perfect ongoing foil for the Hulk. Why they chose the Abomination I do not know, but it's a clear slip up. Maybe there had been too many masterminds in the volume and they felt a simple slug fest was in order.
The book ends with a visit to Hell from Silver Surfer #3, specifically the domain of Mephisto. Stan writes that the Silver Surfer was the one character he really took seriously all the time and that writing the dialogue for the Surfer stories was very difficult for him. One reason was he wanted the Surfer to always sound elevated and the other was that he didn't want to mar the artwork of John Buscema. Stan does a really good job praising the artists in this volume and he does no less for Buscema here.
Mephisto was chosen since putting Satan directly into a comic seemed a bit much, though of course Marvel did a few years later when the monster wave hit. What the villainy of Mephisto did accomplish is to push further the religious symbolism of the Surfer and make his adventures more obviously near allegories. Stan clearly felt the Surfer stories were a cut above the other stuff Marvel produced, as much as he has clear affection for that work.
In Bring On The Bad Guys Stan does a really fine job of introducing the stories which are the real draw for this tome. The idea that characters write themselves is a theme he picks up a few times, though I confess I'm not sure I'm convinced by his examples. Writers and artists make choices in how they develop their characters and while it's a neat conceit to claim the characters somehow have their own power, it's not really the case.
Next time in the fourth and final volume in this series, we meet the Superhero Women.