Chris Peruzzi is a comic book superhero historian who is passionate about how today's comic book heroes are the new mythology for America.
I really love the Marvel Universe. The Marvel Universe mythologies started with characters made back in the forties and went from the golden age through the silver age right to the modern age. They are the most vibrant fictional universes ever made. In terms of size and scale, they beat out the Star Wars universe, the Harry Potter Universe, Doctor Who’s Universe, the Tolkien Universe, and the Star Trek universe combined. The stories have been amazing and the movies made today are incredible.
That said, there were some really stupid stories told back in the day. What can you expect? When you have a whole bullpen of authors working passionately on each character and crafting a whole bunch of winning storylines, there are bound to be a few clunkers in there. It’s just statistics. No one bats a thousand.
I know there are kids who just started reading comics because they saw the Avengers in the theaters and think they've read terrible plots because they’ve read a bad Brian Michael Bendis story once, but trust me, you haven’t seen anything yet.
There were some villains out there that made such elaborately complex plans only to be foiled by their own hidden incompetency that if you listen carefully you can hear a sad trombone in the background.
And that’s what they are—blunders. They forgot to dot an “i” or cross a “t,” and something terrible blew up in their face much like the way Victor Von Doom’s first experimental trip to the netherworlds did. Reed Richards told him to double-check his work, but would Von Doom listen? Noooo.Von Doom was just one lab accident away from being a supervillain. So, let’s begin with the masters—Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.
The Skrulls' First Invasion
You know who the Skrulls are, right? This is Marvel 101. Back when the Fantastic Four were still renting space at the Baxter Building from Walter Collins, and back when Willie Lumpkin was still their mailman, the FF encountered their first alien menace—the Skrulls.
The Skrulls are a race of shapeshifting aliens that just love to conquer worlds for their Emperor. Earth seemed to be an awesome place for a new colony of Skrulls to set up a base and infiltrate leaders at the highest levels. The only problem was these four pesky, super-powered Earthlings that seemed to be getting all of the right media attention. Can’t have that.
So the scouting party of four Skrulls decides to launch a negative public relations campaign against the Fantastic Four. Of course, their attempts at discrediting the FF go awry and the scouting party is caught by Reed Richards and the gang.
Reed sees this is going to be a lingering problem and takes the Skrull’s ship back to the Skrull throneworld to meet with the Skrull Emperor. Reed shows the emperor a few clips from a poorly made science fiction B-movie that featured gigantic monsters wreaking havoc on Earth. He told the emperor that the monsters in the film are actually the Earth’s champions and if the Skrulls invaded Earth they’d have to face them. The Emperor was terrified by this and decided not to invade.
The only outstanding issue was the scouting party still on Earth. The scouts knew if they returned to the Skrull world in failure, they’d be executed. What Reed did was have the Skrulls hypnotized to believe they were cows and left them at a field called King’s Crossing.
Reed naturally assumed that the Skrull-cows would live out their days peacefully doing cow things for the rest of their lives.
These were the days where Reed Richards was the answer man and took a lot of really huge risks. There are a bunch of huge question marks regarding the repercussions of his solution—which I will address. But you may need to ask how stupid the Skrulls were for falling for such a terrible ruse.
Trouble at King’s Crossing
This has more to do with things that eventually bite heroes in the ass. When the Skrulls realized they’d been duped, they were really pissed. So much so that they bioengineered a special warrior to take care of the bastards who tricked them—hence the Super Skrull was born.
For those of you who don’t know who the Super Skrull is, he’s a Skrull who can simulate each of the members of the FF’s powers. What’s more, he can use these powers simultaneously. The Super Skrull has been a perpetual thorn in the side for the Fantastic Four ever since. But the Super Skrull wasn’t even the worst part of Reed’s screw up.
Strange things were going on at King’s Crossing. Strangers who wandered into the town disappeared. No one noticed until a friend of Johnny Storm’s girlfriend made a panicked call to the Fantastic Four.
It turns out that turning four Skrulls into cows isn’t a good idea at all when you consider the purpose of cows. Cows are milked and when that doesn’t happen, they’re made into hamburgers. It seemed that the people of King’s Crossing were drinking a healthy dose of “Skrull Milk” that doesn't do the body good.
The milk turned the population of the town into “lacto-Skrulls” which allowed the people who drank that milk to turn into monsters whenever they wanted. These farmers became militaristic and turned anyone who came into town into one of them.
Reed Richards eventually neutralized the lacto-Skrulls and the “Skrull Milk”, except for one truckload that had gotten out of the town on a delivery. There was also a matter of the poor bastard Skrull scout that got made into hamburger (one or two of the four were taken back during the Kree-Skrull War as documented in the Avengers).
The people who ate that Skrull meat were later made into the Skrull Kill Krew—a band of vigilante metamorphs dedicated to ending the Skrulls' threat on Earth.
Yes, I know. I said that I’d talk about villain screw-ups. I had to mention this because this screw up was so monumentally bad for a hero to do that the damage was worse than what a villain could envision.
The level of arrogance and disrespect on Richards' part was such a huge insult to the Skrull royal family to have four Skrull warriors changed into stupid bovine creatures that they swore terrible vengeance. The creation of the Super-Skrull was only the first one. Many more of these Super-Skrull warriors with the powers of the Avengers and X-men were also made.
This also set up the chain of events that eventually led to the Skrull secret invasion that replaced Marvel heroes and villains throughout Earth with Skrulls so perfectly that no one could detect them for years. It also eventually led to the death of Janet Van Dyne, the Wasp.
The Red Skull’s Cosmic-Cube-Fueled Caper Is Undone by Captain America Wearing “Mud Makeup”
For those of you who don’t know who the Red Skull is, he’s a Nazi holdover and was, at one point, Hitler’s second in command.
There are two things that make the Red Skull really dangerous: his scheming mind and his incredible cruelty. When you put a cosmic cube in his hands, it’s a freaking nightmare. Oh, and by the way, that is the excuse Marvel gave behind the Steve Rogers “Hail Hydra” storyline. The Red Skull got his hands on a cosmic cube again and retroactively made Rogers a Hydra agent in the past.
Back when Jack Kirby decided to quit working on Captain America to make room for artists like Gene Colan, John Bucema, and John Romita, Sr., the Red Skull lacked what is commonly known as imagination.
After getting his hands on the Cosmic Cube, the Red Skull toys with Captain America by putting him in some nightmarish scenarios including sending him to other dimensions and shrinking him to the size of an insect to break him.
That wasn’t good enough.
The Skull is then inspired to do the old cosmic-cube-reality-defying-body-swap-ploy between him and Cap. He even rubs a little salt in the wound by doing it around Sharon Carter and revealing that Cap (as the Skull) is the bad guy. This is scheme #47 in the supervillain hackneyed play book. Switch bodies, cause trouble within the hero’s life, and steal his girlfriend and teammates. Yadda, yadda, yadda… yawn.
The last thing he does is transport Captain America (still as the Skull) to a desert island where his group of Exiles can hunt and kill him.
Fortunately for Cap, he’s on an island that has 1) Sam Wilson and 2) clay-like dirt.
Here’s what Stan Lee wants us to swallow. First, that the Red Skull would reveal his face to anyone. What’s the use of having a mask that terrifies all your henchmen if you’re going to take it off in front of them and reveal that you’re just a guy in a mask? Second, Steve Rogers is so star-spangled awesome that even as a man trapped in the Red Skull’s body that he can use common clay dirt to disguise himself with almost Lon Chaney like expertise.
Cap changes his facial features and colors his hair with a bit of magic dirt. His rationale was that he might need a disguise in case any of the Skull’s henchmen recognize him.
While on the island, he meets Sam Wilson and he trains him to be a world class fighter-vigilante and gets him to make a falcon identity with his fresh correspondence course quality skills.
Together they get off the island and then are whisked away by the Red Skull’s god-like power. The Skull, who is now back in a body similar to his own, sees that Cap’s spirit is still not broken, decides that he wants to actually face Captain America and toy with him a bit more.
He restores Cap to his original body just in time to see the cosmic cube melt in his hand.
Can anyone tell me the point of any of this? Yeah, we got the Falcon out of the deal, but did anything really happen?
The Dread Dormammu Is Defeated When Doctor Strange Decides to Be a Nice Guy
The Dread Dormammu is a magician of incredible power. While he’s in his dark dimension, he’s all powerful and rules it with an iron fist.
When he decided that staying in the dark dimension of Faltine just wasn’t good enough was when the trouble began. He wanted to go conquer the Earth dimension and do that. The news of this panicked the Ancient One who knew in his heart of hearts that he was too old to face him again.
Stephen Strange volunteered to face him instead.
The thing we know about Doctor Strange at this point is that he was just not a match for the Dread Dormammu. The Dormammu has more power in his little finger than Strange had in his entire body. There was no way for Strange to win without cheating – and that’s something that Strange just doesn’t do.
With no real help from anyone, Doctor Strange faced off against the Dormammu in mortal magical combat. The fiery dark lord was shrugging off all of Strange’s attacks as if they were made by a pissed off toddler. Meanwhile, in the middle of this combat, the Dormammu was using energy resources reserved to protect the realm from “The Mindless Ones”.
Eventually, the barrier keeping the Mindless Ones out of the living space of the Faltine people fell. The Dormammu stopped fighting to attend to the barrier problem. The problem was that he’s used too much energy against Doctor Strange to make a new barrier. Doctor Strange saw that and used his amazing amulet to bathe the Dormammu in new energy to fix the barrier.
The Dormammu was furious because as he needed help in protecting the realm, he was now in Doctor Strange’s debt. Strange was declared the winner of the battle.
That’s it. That’s how Strange won. He won by not being a dick.
The Space Phantom Causes Chaos and Discovers Asgardians Can’t Be Duplicated
I’m going back to Avengers #2 for this - it's another classic Lee/Kirby.
The original Avengers were the Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, Ant-Man and the Wasp. In their premier issue, Loki escaped from Asgard and decided to cause trouble for Earthlings by tricking the Hulk into accidentally destroying a bridge in a comedic mess that could only be written by Stan Lee or Charlie Chaplin.
Of course, the confusion and craziness of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta ensued and all the members fought each other before realizing it was Loki who caused all the problems. And from that zany wackiness, Earth’s mightiest hero team was born.
The story goes: a problem caused by a bad guy, heroes come and yell at each other, they fight each other, they discover who the bad guy is, beat him, and then they go home.
Guess what happens in Avengers #2.
Substitute Loki for the Space Phantom and you have pretty much the same story. Only as these were the early days of Marvel, you have to make sure you have Jack Kirby draw the Hulk with only three to four toes. Why? Gamma radiation is strange and unknown. It also gave the Hulk the ability to speak like an idiot from Brooklyn.
The plot is as follows.
The Space Phantom came to Earth for who knows what reason and decided that he wanted to demonstrate how awesome his powers were. His powers duplicate people and things and when he does that he sends the original into Limbo until he switches off to someone else. After going after an innocent civilian to show the reader what he does, he did the same thing to the Hulk. From there he went about causing disruption and miscommunication amongst the Avengers by swapping himself out with several members of the team.
The story concluded when he did it to Thor and BOOM! His power backfired on him and sent him into Limbo. Why? Well, apparently he could only do his swap trick with humans and not Thor – which made absolutely no sense because he swapped shapes with an actual wasp while fighting the Wasp.
The story ends with the Hulk pissed off because he realized the entire team hated and mistrusted him and he quit the team after the second issue.
The first time I read this story as a child I seriously thought I was having a stroke. It made no sense and when it ended I found myself asking the empty air, “What the hell just happened?”
This one really wasn’t easy. As I said, statistically, bad stories happen.
It’s easy to read the early stories of Marvel Comics and find fault with Stan’s stories. He was paving the foundation to what would be an immense universe of continuity. When you look at George Lucas and his Star Wars films as far as continuity, Stan Lee is batting Hank Aaron numbers in comparison.
The problem is that sometimes it takes a grown up mind to actually see how silly and inconsistent some of these stories are. When you read these as a kid, it’s natural to assume that you just don’t understand how things work and the fault lies with your lack of intelligence. Never for a moment does the young reader think that the writing is bad. Why? Kids don’t know bad writing really exists. They only know what’s enjoyable and what’s not.
And that’s the thing. As bad as the stories mentioned are, they are enjoyable to kids and young adults because it’s mindless. Stan Lee knew his audience. There were times he wanted to write things that were sort of sophisticated. There’s a reason why he named the magazine that spawned Spiderman “Amazing Adult Fantasy”. The “adult” part of that wasn’t lost on children of that time. These were things that were perhaps a little too weird for kids.
A teenager gets bit by a radioactive spider and finds out that he can change his life when he sees that he has weird powers. Spiderman wasn’t meant for children at the time. Spiderman had real problems, sophisticated enemies, and got punched up a lot. Try and show those early stories drawn by Steve Ditko today to children.
And what child would understand the concept of astral projections along with other worldly mystical dimensions as the ones drawn in Doctor Strange? None. These weren’t stories about Superman and a fifth dimensional imp that could only go away if you made it say its name backwards. They were stories about man playing in God’s domain and paying the price for his stupidity and arrogance.
When the market began to change, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby wrote different stories. Their stories had to do with a group of superheroes beating the hell out of bad guys. With the simplicity of these stories came a new expectation from the market.
Make a story with action. The reader doesn’t want to think too hard.
© 2016 Christopher Peruzzi