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SILVER-AGE FLASHBACK: Tales of Suspense 91 (July 1967)

June 3, 2002

Before diving headfirst into this week’s review, there are a few developments that I felt are worth mentioning. So without further ado (and in the style of the MMMS days gone by…):

ITEM: I’m presently writing a New York Superhero Syndicate (NYSS) prose story that will address the tragic events of 11 September from what I hope is a “realistic” point of view (i.e., if super-heroes did exist as I’ve described them in such stories as the s.h.o.p. and The Broccoli Agenda, how would their lives and the lives of the adversaries they fight have changed in the wake of the terrorist attacks?). I had wanted to present the first installment of this tale today, but it is still very much a work in progress, and I would rather it “be right” than simply “be.” I would rather complete the story first on paper, making certain that I haven’t trivialized 11 September or the characters and events depicted in the tale I’m developing. Long story short, it ain’t quite ready for publication.

ITEM: I’m two pages away from having the art boards completed for the first volume of Altercations. I’ll be adding some of the new pages to this site soon, honest to God, really! But first I plan on getting good and drunk and having a bit of a celebration once the final two pages are finished later this week. Now a few comments about a Silver-Age classic:

During his five-year run in the pages of Tales of Suspense (TOS) (issues 39 to 99), the invincible Iron Man met many a foe; most notably, perhaps, were the Mandarin, the Black Widow, and (for my money at least) Whiplash. The star-spangled avenger Captain America became the magazine’s permanent back-up feature in or around issue 59. Thus, for several years, did Cap and Iron Man tales appear each month until 1968, when the magazine’s title was renamed Captain America and shellhead was given his own series. Because they shared the spotlight in TOS each month, their adventures tended to be rather short (much like the stories in Strange Tales, a magazine that was shared by Dr. Strange and Nick Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D., as well as Tales to Astonish which was shared by the Hulk and the Sub-Mariner). As one might imagine, stories often continued from issue to issue in order to tell a tale of substance. Occasionally, however, the stories were self-contained, as was the Iron Man tale in TOS 91, “The Uncanny Challenge of The Crusher!”

Our story opens with genius inventor Tony Stark marveling at his latest accomplishment, a centrifuge machine that could build up “the greatest gravity force ever harnessed!” Tony engages in a fascinating conversation with “Squeakie” the lab rat before placing him into the strange device. Meanwhile, far away on a tropical isle, a scientist named Issimo is making a discovery of his own: Edible undies (I’m joking of course). He works under armed guard and demands to speak with “el presidente.” Upon discussing his new liquid discovery with his country’s leader (who looks much like a Cuban dictator once involved in a missile crisis), Issimo is led into a room at gunpoint (the gun being held by el presidente no less!). The paranoid militant leader refuses to drink the serum Issimo has created and instead insists that the man of science drink it himself, which he does, causing him to grow in size and mass and to announce quite unabashedly, “Now you face the mightiest man alive! Now you stand in the presence of…the Crusher!” Bullets cannot stop him. Cannon fire is like so much rice thrown at a wedding. Yet an agreement is reached between leader and crusher:

El presidente convinces the Crusher to “go to America…and destroy the one known as Iron Man.” Upon completing this task, el Presidente promises to make him a general (though he issues this challenge hoping Iron Man will defeat this new giant). However, Crusher has plans of his own: “He theenks I weel be bested by Iron Man…I shall finish the Americano…and then, el presidente weel be next!” This, of course, leads one to wonder why Crusher is even willing to travel the many miles by boat to America if he plans on overthrowing his leader as soon as he returns to his own country. But we were, after all, in a much kinder, gentler, and sillier era of comic book publication.

Iron Man, meanwhile, hears a radio warning that a “strange being” is headed toward New York. Despite the warnings in which the public are “strongly [urged to] stay indoors,” Iron Man elects to simply continue with his experiments rather than investigate the unknown entity approaching the Big Apple. The Crusher, meanwhile, reaches Stark Industries posthaste. As the factory begins to shake, Crusher appears and a slug-fest Marvel-style commences. Crusher is quite large at this point, probably twice the height of our armor-clad hero, and proves quite the immovable force. Iron Man realizes that the means of defeating Crusher is close at hand: the portable centrifugal force ray he’s recently developed. The weapon causes Crusher’s weight to triple and the steel floor upon which he’s standing begins to collapse (an indication that Stark was, perhaps, importing sub-grade steel from a foreign country, allegations that might make for an interesting flashback story [though probably not, and I digress]). Iron Man proclaims, “[The centrifuge machine] worked on another rat earlier—so I figured it would work on you!” Sadly, Tony seems to have forgotten the sir name of his beloved Squeaky, referring to him instead as a common “rat” no better than the villainous Crusher who continues to sink further and further into the sub-grade steel floor. Just how low will he go? Pretty far, actually. He becomes “too heavy for the surface of Earth itself to bear his weight” and if you can determine what that means you are a smarter Marvelite that me. The story ends with Tony and his friends, Happy and Pepper, looking at the hole in the floor as Tony busily welds it shut. I guess the moral of the tale is, not everyone lives happily ever after (or, you live by the crush, you die by the crush).

The second feature in this issue starred Captain America against his quintessential adversary the Red Skull in a heartbreaking story entitled “The Last Defeat.” This story is the final chapter in a multi-chaptered story arc, but readers are brought up to speed with a quick summary (something terribly lacking in many of today’s comics, if you will permit me to editorialize but a moment): The Red Skull was going to annihilate New York (see next paragraph for diabolical plan), but Captain America vowed to be the Skull’s slave for 24 hours if he would only spare the beloved metropolis and its citizens. The Skull concedes, but his first order as Cap’s master is quite devious. He commands the star-spangled crime fighter to announce to the world that the Skull is his master (the Skull had a means of momentarily gaining control of the airwaves, naturally). Because that act took approximately 3 minutes, we are left to wonder how the Skull utilized his “mastery” over Cap during the next 23 hours 56 minutes, because on page 2 of the story we find that “We are well into the 23rd hour!” I would like to imagine the Red Skull had Cap do menial tasks—shine his boots, cook his food, change the sheets on his bed, read passages of Alice in Wonderland to him--but we can only wonder since the events of those crucial 23+ hours are denied to us. Perhaps this would prove fodder for a writer at the House of Ideas--then again, perhaps not.

Now, the Red Skull has previously proven his ability to place an entire city—a city the size of Manhattan no less—into a huge bubble and lift it into the air. One would think that that would be enough to prove his mastery over the world. Alas, it is not. The Skull reveals to Cap that he is really after “the XPT-1—the world’s newest atomic submarine” (Little wonder, given that the XPT-1 was known for its easy maneuverability, quadraphonic speakers, and driver-side airbags.) As his last command he demands Cap reveal the coordinates of the hidden sub. Cap, a man of his word, acquiesces and divulges the sub’s coordinates to the Skull. However, because he’s not the most trusting sort, the Skull subjects Cap to a lie detector chair that also doubles as a murder module—he learns that Cap had been honest, then sets the death chair into motion. Cap frees himself of the death trap and is quickly in pursuit of his red and green adversary. The Skull manipulates his hoovercraft to the location of the atomic submarine and hypnotizes all on board into obeying his every word. He then orders the sub to surface. Cap boards the surfaced sub, unaware that the crew have been hyp-no-tized. He manages to fight his way to freedom against the drone crew and quickly adjusts “the reactor’s energy output…to cancel out the skull’s hypnotic control!” (You figure it out.) The crew reverts to their former selves, but believe Cap is attempting to sabotage the sub (remember, the world thinks Cap is a traitor in cahoots with the Red Skull). The Red Skull, unaware that the crew is no longer under hypnosis, orders the men to abandon ship. He announces, “first, I destroyed Captain America, who gave his life in a vain effort to save you—and next, the XPT-1 shall be mine!” The men quickly realize that they’ve been duped and so work with Cap, following his orders to abandon ship. They leave the XPT-1 and board the Skull’s hoovercraft (Cap, FYI, was dressed in sailor attire to appear inconspicuous—though he did continue to wear his mask, go figure). The hoovercraft pulls away a distance as the Skull contemplates which city he shall nuke first. Inside the sub, the Skull hears a sudden warning from Captain America, telling him to abandon the sub. He explains that the XPT-1 is but an experimental ship that was on its final mission to be destroyed (it was common practice in the United States to detonate experimental nuclear submarines in the middle of the ocean during the 1960s). The Skull is convinced he can reach the timing device (in the 45 seconds that remain before detonation). The sub explodes; while over the hoovercraft’s radio the sub’s skipper has reported to shore what happened. “You’ll be more of a hero than ever when you get ashore,” Cap is told.

Cap’s closing monologue seems more appropriate now than it did, perhaps, in 1967 so I present it herewith in its entirety: “I’m no more a hero than any man who fights for justice, and freedom, and brotherhood! So long as we cherish liberty--so long as the bitter weed of tyranny can never take root upon our shores—then all of us are heroes—and, the dream which is America will long endure!” Unfortunately, tyranny did take root upon our shores last year, and we as a nation must work together, and trust in our government’s leaders, to ensure that those roots are destroyed and are never again allowed to touch the soil of our home land. And some people say that comics don’t make ya think.

Special thanks to Paul D. Storrie for his pulse-pounding eye for accuracy!

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