STRANGE TALES #119; April 1964; Marvel Comics Group; Stan Lee, editor; featuring the Human Torch in "The Torch Goes Wild!" and Dr. Strange in "Beyond the Purple Veil!" (I don't own the original comic, so this review is based on the black and white reprints in ESSENTIAL DR. STRANGE, Vol. 1, and ESSENTIAL HUMAN TORCH.) On the cover by Jack Kirby and George (Roussos) Bell, Torch is flying above a screaming, brick-throwing mob of people as the Rabble Rouser, a mustachioed, vaguely Hispanic-looking character, wields a strange wand which sends a cloud of evil energy toward the Torch. An inset blurbs, "Another Great Feature-- Dr. Strange in Beyond the Purple Veil!" (It's illustrated by an image of a bubbling test tube, which doesn't seem to have anything to do with the Doc story inside, or most any Doc story.)
Review by Bill Henley I wasn't reading Marvel comics regularly when this issue first came out-- I didn't become a true Marvelite until late 1965 or 1966-- but I do remember picking up this issue and being intrigued by the Dr. Strange story and even by the "Rabble Rouser" Torch yarn. As always in ST at this time the Torch story had the lead spot and more pages, but I'm more interested in reviewing the Dr. Strange story so I'll start with it.
"Beyond the Purple Veil" story is "conjured up by Stan Lee... illustrated by the strange sorcery of Steve Ditko... lettered at midnight by Artie Simek!" (Did Marvel pay Simek so little that he had to keep working past midnight in order to make a living?) The opening caption promises us, "Another journey to the shadowy world of black magic and strange enchantment... in the mystic Marvel manner!" On the splash page, Doc is sending his amulet beam to pierce a cloudy barrier in the middle of which a giant purple gem hangs, while on the other side an ominous armored figure lurks in shadows! Artie Simek isn't the only one working late, as Dr. Strange struggles against sleep in order to complete his latest mystic mission. Holding a large purple gem enclosed within a spherical crystal container, he muses, "Can't stop now-- not until I learn all the secrets of this sinister gem! Though it looks the same as many valuable gems, this object in my hand is far different from any other gem found on Earth!" Meanwhile,a pair of common, garden-variety burglars find a window left open in Dr. Strange's sanctum sanctorum, and climb inside looking for loot. "This place ought to be a cinch to rob!", says one of them as they observe the many strange objects found in Dr. Strange's opulent residence. But then, Dr. Strange's keen senses detect the presence of the burglars, and he renders them immobile with a mystic spell. But then, concluding that "You are not worthy of my time or talents! I shall dispose of you in the quickest manner!", Doc sends them floating through a solid wall and dumps them on the street outside, taking no further cognizance of them. One of the thieves is amazed not only at Doc's magical powers but that "he doesn't even call the cops!" The other thug draws a fallacious conclusion; "He must be on the lam, like US! He CAN'T call the cops! That means we can tackle him AGAIN! We won't hafta worry about being arrested! But NEXT time, we'll be more CAREFUL!"
The next evening, Doc gives the faithful Wong the night off and then settles in to "spend the rest of the evening in solitude, meditating and studying my ritualistic incantations!" But the two thieves are already lurking on the scene, and they rejoice that while Doc is shut up in his study, they will have free run of the rest of the building! And the item that first catches their eye is the large purple gem, which they judge to be worth a "cool million". The more timid of the thieves "has a funny feeling there's something wrong with that hunk of ice," but the leader sneers, "The only thing wrong is that I gotta share the take with YOU! C'mon, grab it!" They do grab the gem and run, but a mystic alarm is set off in Dr. Strange's mind, and he sends his "ethereal self" (also known as his ectoplasmic or astral self) to check what is amiss. Discovering the purple gem missing, Doc is highly alarmed and sends his ethereal self out over the city to hunt down the perilous jewel. He spots the gem in the hands of the two burglars at their hideout -- "The FOOLS! They don't realize what they're HANDLING!"-- but by the time Doc can reunnite with his physical self and travel to the thieves' hideout, the gem is there, but the thieves themselves are gone, leaving only a puff of purple mist behind! For the purple gem is no mere bauble, but a "bridge between dimensions-- a means to enter the dread PURPLE DIMENSION from our own world!" And now, as the mystic protector of humanity, Dr. Strange has a dread obligation. "Even though they are enemies of society, my oath provides that I must aid ANY and ALL humans-- I dare make no exceptions! So, I must go AFTER them--! By the power of Dormammu, let me enter the Purple Dimension-- no matter WHAT the danger!" (Evidently Doc didn't know at this point that he was dabbling with the Dark Side by invoking the power of Dormammu.)
Arriving in the Purple Dimension, Dr. Strange spots the two mortal miscreants trudging along in a long procession of slaves held by the master of this realm! Upon spotting another human intruder, the commander of the guards sends two guards to capture Doc, but our hero brushes them aside by raising his arms and uttering an incantation (again invoking Dormammu along with the "mighty Vishanti"). Seeing that they cannot handle Doc by themselves, the guards bring him to meet their master. The figure sitting on an ornate throne introduces himself; "I am AGGAMON, the all-powerful! I can sense why you have invaded my domain! But you cannot have the two you seek! NONE may ever return from this world, where all live just to serve me!" Dr. Strange warns Aggamon that he has mystic power to match the overlord's; "I am Doctor Strange, master of black magic! (Hmmm... maybe he is, if he's getting some of his power from Dormammu.) You would do well not to defy me!" Offended by Doc's peremptory tone, Aggamon offers a guided tour of his purple realm where his slaves from other dimensions toil endlessly to collect the gems he loves. "In a thousand years, no one has ever escaped the Purple Veil!" But Aggamon recognizes that Dr. Strange himself could be "the most treasured captive of all" and offers him a deal. He will release the two humans back to Earth, if Dr. Strange will become his captive in their place! "They are unworthy of such a sacrifice! But I promised the Ancient One that I would aid ALL humans! I must not betray that trust!" And so Doc accepts Aggamon's offer. As the two thieves are wafted through the Purple Veil back to Earth, one of Aggamon's guards fastens a set of shackles around Dr. Strange's outstretched wrists.
But as Aggamon boasts of his triumph, Doc points out that "I promised to take their place as a captive! I made no promise to REMAIN a captive!" And a beam from his amulet melts the shackles. Sweeping Aggamon's non-magical guards aside "as seeds before the wind," Dr. Strange challenges Aggamon to one-on-one mystic battle. Aggamon sends the purple beam of his "jeweled demolisher beam" to meet the brighter beam of Doc's amulet, and it is a stalemate as each beam meets the other and neither can penetrate farther! In a striking series of Ditko-drawn panels, we see the battle continue over hours, as the two beams each grow weaker and fainter, and the two sorcerers also grow weaker, each slowly slumping to the ground. "As the hours creep by, both antagonists feel the very life essence drain from their bodies, as they realize that BOTH are doomed, unless one surrenders first!" Aggamon demands that Doc be the one to surrender in order to avoid "certain death". But Dr. Strange replies, "IThe choice is also YOURS, Aggamon! I do not fear death! Let us see if YOU can face it as unflinchingly as I!" And Aggamon is the one to break, "I must not die! I surrender!" Aggamon urges his victorious foe to leave his dimension-- "May I never behold your hated countenance again!"-- but before doing so, Doc sets up a spell that will leave Aggamon permanently weakened unless he releases all his captives. Arriving back on Earth, Doc muses, "Aggamon was stronger than I! He could have held out longer! But his own COWARDICE betrayed him!"
Some time later, Dr. Strange is hailed on the street by a police officer who reports that "a couple of petty crooks" have just given themselves up, mumbling something abou the good Doctor saving them behind a purple veil. Doc replies, "Pay them no heed, officer! Who can fathom the senseless rambling of the criminal mind!" But when the cop mentions that the two thieves have said "they want to serve time, pay their debt to society and go straight", Doc muses with gratification, " The ways of fate are inscrutable indeed! I feared I was risking my life in vain, and yet, because of my struggle, two humans have been put upon the right path!" He vows to keep the Purple Gem and to be ready if ever again danger calls him to cross the Purple Veil!
In this Ditko Dr. Strange story, Doc risks himself to save two criminals despite their "unworthiness". A similar scene appeared in at least one early Spider-Man story, issue #12, in which Spidey risks his life to save Dr. Octopus from a fire that the villain started. But a few years later, when Ditko started creating new heroes who were inspired by his new Ayn Rand-ite ideals-- Mr. A for fanzine publication and the Question for Charlton-- he made a point of writing scenes for both characters in which the heroes REFUSED to rescue crooks who had put themselves in danger, maintaining that it made no moral sense to sacrifice themselves to save the guilty. On the other hand, there was also a Mr. A story in which the hero, exemplar of absolute good symbolized by whiteness (not in a racial sense-- Ditko was one of the first people to include good-guy African-American characters in comics) welcomes a genuinely reformed ex-crook back into the brotherhood of "white", telling him that having fully chosen "white", he no longer is tainted by "gray" nor has to feel lingering guilt for his "black" past. And, possibly in defiance of Rand's strictures against any kind of self-sacrifice, the Question and Mr. A were willing to risk their lives for other people if they considered the others to be innocent and so worthy of the effort.
The other story in this issue of STRANGE TALES was "The Torch Goes Wild, Featuring the RABBLE ROUSER, a truly DIFFERENT kind of super-villain!" (maybe not all that different, though, as we shall see). The story is written by Stan Lee, drawn by Dick Ayers and lettered by Sam Rosen-- no "cute" credits on this one. As the story begins, the Torch flies low over a crowd of people on the city streets, frightening and endangering them by the proximity of his flame. Why is the Torch acting in this uncharacteristic manner? Onlookers exchange various theories, apparently gleaned from superhero gossip mags. Maybe the Torch is upset because his on-and-off girlfriend Doris Evans has thrown him over for another guy. Maybe he's been told he can't play football for his high school because his flame might endanger the other players. Maybe he's upset because the other Fantastic Four members went off on vacation and left him behind to attend school. Or maybe he's angry because his arch-rival Spider-Man is getting more publicity for his exploits! Whether or not the Spider-Man theory is true, the Torch is about to learn how it feels to have a nemesis whipping up fear and fury against him among the general public. Spidey's nemesis is J. Jonah Jameson, but here the JJJ role is being played by the Rabble Rouser, " a man with a powerful voice and a talented tongue! A man able to sway ihs listeners... to arouse them... to INFLAME them!" And here he's inflaming his listeners against the youthful master of flame, telling people that the Torch is liable at any moment to turn from the side of the law to crime, that he is a bad influence on children and teenagers. Nor is his voice his only weapon. Having whipped the crowd up to a suitable level of fury, the Rabble Rouser wields a "will-sapping ray" to keep them at a fever pitch!
At the otherwise deserted Baxter Building (apparently it's true about the rest of the FF going on vacation) the Torch muses that maybe he's overreacting, but the Rabble Rouser's attacks are really getting under his skin! When Spider-Man shows up offering friendly advice-- "I'm an old hand at having people PAN me, so I thought I could give you some tips on how to keep it from getting your goat!"-- Torch drives him away with his flame, even though he later realizes that "old Web-head" really was trying to help. Shortly afterwards, the Torch is accosted by a policeman, who warns him that City Council has passed an ordinance forbidding him to flame on without written permission from the mayor! (I don't think you can have an ordinance that only applies to one person. Presumably if other characters like the original Torch and Toro, DC's Firestorm and Fire Lad (of the Substitute Legion), etc., showed up in New York during this time, they too would be under the ban.) And now the Torch has had enough; "If that's how you treat a fella who's risked his life dozens of times for the law, who needs it? I'll go somewhere ELSE, where I'm appreciated!" And he renders himself liable to arrest by flaming on and flying away. Now his only choice is to go into exile in the most dreaded realm of all... worse than the Purple Dimension, the Negative Zone, or Latveria... New Jersey!
And as the Torch flees ignominiously, the Rabble Rouser glories in his victory in his secret lab. No mere "street corner soap box fanatic" is he, but an "undercover Red agent" , tasked to use his "mesmerizing wand and persuasive voice" to confuse the American people into thinking their friends are really foes and vice versa. And if he succeeds in this mission, "I too shall be rewarded with a position of power... I might even become another Castro!" (If he's supposed to be a Cuban agent, that would explain his vaguely Hispanic look.) Having tested his power on the Torch, the Rabble Rouser gives another speech denouncing Prince Nagamo, visiting representative of a loyal ally of America. (The name sounds like the ally nation is Japan, though like Cuba, it is not explicitly named. If so, the Rabble Rouser probably wouldn't have too much trouble whipping up subliminal hatred of Japan. When I was a kid, my mother was still bitter about Japan because of WWII and Pearl Harbor, wihch at that time were only twenty-odd years in the past..) Then the Rabble Rouser checks out his secret weapon, a "Red prototype sub-surface vehicle built to operate in New Yorbutk's vast subway system!" He notes in passing that the vehicle was "used by another", and, according to an editor's note, the previous use was in FANTASTIC FOUR #21. Rabble Rouser plans to use the vehicle to kidnap Prince Nagamo.
This brings up one of the odder features of this Torch yarn. I don't know the whole behind the scenes story, but apparently this Torch story was originally plotted and maybe even drawn as a return appearance for the Hate-Monger, the villain of FF #21. Not only does the Rabble Rouser use the same vehicle the Hate-Monger did, but his modus operandi is much the same and even his "mesmerizer wand" looks the same as the one the Hate-Monger used. But apparently Stan Lee decided at the last minute not to use the Hate-Monger again. Possibly he thought it was awkward that the original Hate-Monger, who was a Hitler lookalike (or possibly HItler himself) wound up dead at the end of the FF story.
Anyway, while cooling his heels and the rest of him in New Jersey, the Torch decides that he's not cut out to be a fugitive and defy the law. He will return to New York, ask pardon, and refrain from using his forbidden flame. While waiting for a bus, he does flame on one finger to aid a cigarette-smoking passerby who asks for a light, but then apologizes for the "reflex action". Johnny Storm is distracted by the "excitement" happening nearby, which turns out to be crowds gathering for Prince Nagamo's state visit. But he keeps his resolve not to flame on-- even when the Rabble Rouser's sub-surface vehicle pushes up from underground and the villain seizes Prince Nagamo! This only puts Johnny in further bad odor with the crowds, who accuse him of being a slacker, unwilling to use his flame power to save Nagamo and prevent a foreign policy disaster. Meanwhile, the Rabble Rouser gloats that he has neutralized the Torch, and since the rest of the Fantastic Four are out of town on vacation, no one can stop him! (Never mind Spider-Man, the Avengers, Daredevil, etc. etc...)
Fortunately, the mayor of New York is one of the dignitaries attending Nagamo's visit, and he gives Johnny legal permission to use his flame again! Whooping in triumph, the Torch flies into the New York subway tunnels in pursuit of the Rabble Rouser, tracking his vehicle by the scent of its rocket fuel. But as he reaches the sub-surface vehicle and ponders what to do next, Rabble Rouser spots him and fires up the craft's rocket engine to fry the Torch. Our hero's only chance is to turn his own flame to a maximum in order to negate the rocket flames. In a scene vaguely similar to the mystic duel in the Dr. Strange story, the Torch's flame overcomes that of the rocket engine, but the Torch himself is left weakened with flame exhausted, and the Rabble Rouser is able to grab him for use as a second hostage! As the RR points his mesmerizing wand at our hero, the Torch finds that he is yet unable to flame on again. Fortunately, the Rouser's other prisoner takes a hand-- a hand reaches out to knock the wand out of RR's grip with a karate blow, and it is the hand of Prince Nagamo. Torch thanks Nagamo and tells him he can handle the bad guy from here, but he may be speaking too soon! He is still unable to flame on, and it comes down to a hand-to-hand fight between Johnny Storm and the bigger, heavier Rabble Rouser. Johnny figures his training will trump the RR's greater size and weight; "Mister, you're talkin' to a guy who spends his time sparring with the Thing and Mr. Fantastic!" Nonetheless, the Rabble Rouser is able to pick Johnny up and throw him to the other side of the subway tunnel. But this turns out to be part of Johnny's plan; he is now within reach of the Rabble Rouser's own mesmerizing wand! He grabs the wand and uses it on its owner, ordering the RR to abandon his work as an enemy agent and become a loyal American. "I don't know how long the effect will last, but at least he's defeated for NOW!" The grateful Prince Nagamo offers to use his influence to get City Council to pardon Johnny for his previous use of flame and defiance of the police. With his flame returning, Johnny uses it to melt the mesmerizing wand so that it cannot again fall into the wrong hands and be misused. (I'll bet the CIA wasn't too happy about that. I'm sure they could have found uses of their own for the wand.) Soon, by order of City Council, the Torch is again free to use his flame at will, and he flies off to the sound of crowds who are again cheering rather than jeering him. And to complete the happy ending, Johnny is reunited with the fickle Doris Evans, who confesses that "I only dated that other boy to make you jealous! But now that I see what a TEMPER you have, I'll never do it again!"
This Torch story wasn't exactly a classic. (I don't think any of the STRANGE TALES Torch stories approached classic status, unless maybe the one where Johnny Storm finds out that everybody in town knows about the "secret identity" he was trying to maintain in the early ST stories, but they were too polite to mention it.) But it, like the Dr. Strange yarn, did make an impression on me when I first read the comic as a kid. I was still pretty new to Marvel, and used to the DC heroes who were stainless public idols. The idea of a hero who was hated by the public-- and fallible enough to deserve some of the opprobrium-- was new and exciting.