As I wrote in this space back in May, in 1970 my younger self bought the first two issues of Marvel Comics’ new double-feature title Amazing Adventures upon their release — but then skipped the next two. Half a century later, I can’t recall what my decision-making process was (and the vagaries of distribution being what they were at the time, it’s entirely possible that I never saw AA #3 and/or #4 on the stands). But I’d guess that I simply wasn’t all that crazy about what I’d found in #1 and #2. Even though I liked the Inhumans a whole lot, and was an admirer of Jack Kirby’s art (I was also a fan of his plotting, of course, if only unconsciously, since I didn’t yet comprehend the extent of the King’s creative contributions to his collaborations with Marvel editor/scripter Stan Lee), the two-part tale that inaugurated the Inhumans feature, written as well as drawn by Kirby, didn’t feel like essential work. At the time he produced these stories, Kirby was on the verge of unleashing a tremendous amount of pent-up creativity with his “Fourth World” project for DC; but, as with a lot of his other material for Marvel at the end of his monumental ’60s tenure at the publisher, his heart didn’t really seem to be in this stuff.
As for the title’s second feature, the Black Widow — she was more of an unknown quantity for me, anyway. Besides the obvious fact that this was her first solo strip, I had at this point read very few of her earlier appearances in Avengers and elsewhere, and had little to no investment in the character. Despite the reliably fine draftsmanship of John Buscema on her first two installments (with John Verpoorten inking Buscema’s pencils), I didn’t find enough there to hook me and bring me back.
With issue #5, however, came creative changes in both features which significantly increased the title’s appeal for me — although these changes weren’t at all obvious from the cover, which had been produced by the same team of Buscema and Verpoorten who’d done the art for the first two Black Widow strips. I’m guessing that I probably clued in to what was happening in Amazing Adventures courtesy of this Mighty Marvel Checklist item, which appeared throughout Marvel’s line in December, 1970:
However, if I hadn’t yet seen that item by the time AA #5 showed up on the spinner racks, then I figure I must have picked the comic up in the store and flipped to the first page:
…and that would have sold me, right then and there. Roy Thomas, Neal Adams, and Tom Palmer — the same trio that had given us a short but memorable run on X-Men in 1969 — reunited on Marvel’s other team of set-apart super-humans created years earlier by Kirby and Lee? Sign me up, please.
I’m not sure that young comics fans of the present era, who’ve inherited a multi-varied stylistic landscape shaped by several generations’ worth of artists reacting to the respective influences of Jack Kirby and Neal Adams (if sometimes at a second or even a third remove), will ever be able to fully appreciate the literal aesthetic shock experienced by readers in 1969 or 1970, of seeing characters who’d been designed by Kirby — whose style leaned heavily towards the exaggerated and expressionistic — rendered for the first time by the much more illustrative and photorealistically-inclined Adams. Not that one artist’s approach was superior to the other’s — I’ve never been of the opinion that “more realistic” equates to “better” in comic-book art, or vice versa — but the stark differences in how these two giants separately achieved their levels of excellence could, and still does, generate its own special delight when a specific work allows for direct comparison between the two, as this one does.
Adams’ art was enhanced here, as it had been on X-Men (and would be on Avengers as well, in about eight months time), by the inking of Tom Palmer, one of the finest embellishers in American comics. But his most essential collaborator on the Inhumans feature (as, again, on both the earlier X-Men and the later Avengers) was writer Roy Thomas, whose storytelling sensibilities seem to have been a good fit for his own.
In this story’s opening panels, Thomas’ script picks up on a long-running if intermittent theme in Inhumans stories — their desire to be accepted among ordinary humans, so that they don’t feel compelled to remain forever hidden in their Great Refuge of Attilan, which lies nestled in the Himalayas:
Readers had last seen Maximus the Mad in Inhumans #2, when his plot to set his royal kindred against their pals the Fantastic Four had gone awry, and he’d been captured. Unfortunately for both Medusa and her just-departed husband Black Bolt (and before too very long, just about everyone else in Attilan, as well), their cousins Gorgon and Karnak are skeptical that Max’s current status really is for the “best”, suspecting that their ruler has something much more fatal in mind for his errant sibling. And hey, even if Maximus is just as malevolent as he is maniacal, the guy’s still family, y’know? Thus, despite Medusa’s protestations that the mysterious cylinder holding Maximus must surely be an instrument merely of confinement, or even healing, Gorgon feels compelled to wonder aloud if its true purpose is, rather, murder…
This page provides us with our only glimpse this issue of the water-going Triton, my own personal favorite member of the Inhumans’ headlining cast back in the day. His cameo leaves the elemental Inhuman, Crystal, as the only member of the Royal Family unaccounted for — which is interesting in and of itself, as Crystal had left the Fantastic Four in New York City to return home to Attilan just three months before, in FF #105. Why neither she nor her mode of transportation for that journey — the Inhumans’ teleporting family dog, Lockjaw — play a part in this storyline is a mystery not to be cleared up until the following September, in FF #117. (Just in case you’re curious, instead of bringing Crys and himself home, Lockjaw had accidentally teleported them both into the far future, where they were immediately captured by the alchemist Diablo. Oops.)
That night in Attilan, Karnak sneaks into the dark chamber where Maximus’ cylinder is housed, only to discover he’s not the only one who’s had that idea:
Meanwhile, some 6000 miles away, in the city we’ll eventually be informed is San Francisco (where it really shouldn’t be night at the same time it is in Attilan, there presumably being about a fifteen hour time difference between the locations* — but never mind)…
Black Bolt quickly (but non-fatally) dispatches the would-be warehouse thieves, then turns to the boy Joey, who is still lying where he fell when his uncle Roscoe struck him:
Joey considers taking off and leaving this nameless stranger to his fate, as he knows his uncle would do — but then he remembers what his dad would do, and — despite not feeling all that great himself — manages to drag Black Bolt’s unconscious body far enough out of the middle of the sidewalk that he at least won’t be in danger of being stepped on.
Meanwhile, back in Attilan…
Yikes! Now there’s a cliffhanger for you. Newly gifted with the power to blank out minds (and at a distance of six thousand miles, no less) Maximus presently seems to have the upper hand in Attilan, while in San Francisco, Black Bolt appears poised to unwittingly wipe out most of that city. Of course, this whole dire situation is dependent on a narrative contrivance that has Black Bolt, who’s always been portrayed as a responsible and competent leader of his people, taking off for a solo mission halfway across the world without telling any of his trusted family members what he’s just discovered about his brother Max. (And speaking of that solo mission — how the heck was BB planning to “find a place for us… amidst the mistrustful humans“, to quote Medusa from page 2, when he wouldn’t even be able to strike up a conversation with anyone he might encounter wandering the Bay City streets? The entire endeavor doesn’t seem to have been thought out very well, to say the least.)
But, if you’re willing to look past the implausibility of just how we got here (and in 1970, my thirteen-year-old self probably never even gave it a second thought), it’s a great set-up for dramatic storytelling on at least two fronts — and that’s exactly what Thomas and Adams (with some help from fill-in scripter Gerry Conway in #7) would deliver to readers over the next three issues of Amazing Adventures. Regrettably, both creators would leave the book before completing their Inhumans storyline; fortunately, however, they’d eventually manage to tie off most of the remaining loose ends in Avengers, of all places, as part of the classic “Kree-Skrull War” saga. But, that’s a discussion for another day, and another post.
Moving on to the comic’s second feature: As I’ve already noted, I was relatively indifferent to the Black Widow around this time. This issue’s installment managed to catch my fancy a bit more than those that had appeared in the first two issues of Amazing Adventures, however. That was due in large part to the changes in the strip’s creative lineup since I had last checked in — and the changes that those new creators had brought with them, in turn:
Gene Colan and Bill Everett had actually come on board with issue #3, taking over the art chores in the midst of the Gary Friedrich-scripted, Young Lords-inspired storyline that had begun in #1 and finally wrapped up for good in #4. Roy Thomas, on the other hand, was new to the strip with this issue, just as he was to the Inhumans.
As will be confirmed on the next page, the burly, mustachioed gent in the green turtleneck is Natasha Romanoff’s chauffeur, Ivan, a character first seen in AA #1. In that appearance, as well as in subsequent ones, he’d come across as a standard-model professional driver, calling the Widow “Madame”, taking her where she wanted to go, and otherwise staying out of her way. Only his Russian name gave any indication that he might have any deeper connection with his employer, the former Soviet spy turned superheroine. But as hinted at in this opening scene, and elaborated on in those to follow, Roy Thomas had a larger and more interesting role in mind for Ivan.
Once the young would-be bridge-diver decides to come along quietly, Ivan drives the two of them back to the Widow’s apartment building. Along the way, he picks up a miniature radio transmitter and makes a call…
In a 1999 interview with Jon B. Cooke for Comic Book Artist Special Edition #1, comics writer and historian Mark Evanier observed:
At that time [the early 1970s], there was a little bit of a fetish going on in comics where all the heroines were suddenly taking showers… All of a sudden, after years of strenuous fight scenes, all of the super-heroines suddenly found it necessary to take showers in their comics. It was just a little exploitation thing and everybody was a little horny about it.
In May, 2020, Jim Thompson, co-administrator of the “Comic Book Historians” Facebook group, used this very Evanier quote as the basis for a series of posts showcasing showering Seventies superheroines — and guess what Thomas/Colan/Everett page was Exhibit A?
But then, what else could it be? This is a page seared into the memories of (cis, male, heterosexual) fans of a certain age. Indeed, it’s the first thing that came to my mind when I myself initially read that Evanier interview** (coincidentally, just a month or so prior to Jim’s Facebook post); for that matter, it’s usually the first thing that comes to my mind whenever I think of the Black Widow strip in Amazing Adventures, period.
Look, I was thirteen years old, OK? Moving right along…
Ivan’s backstory would be revealed gradually over the years and decades to follow — and like that of many another long-running supporting character in comics, it would eventually pick up a number of contradictions. (In Ivan’s case, the problem would be exacerbated by the need to adjust both his and the Black Widow’s personal histories within Marvel’s “sliding timescale”, as the Soviet Union, central to both characters’ origins, receded further and further into history in the real world of Marvel’s readers.) But in the original version, at least, Ivan Petrovich had first met Natasha Romanoff in 1942, during the siege of Stalingrad, when Natasha’s mother saved her daughter from death by dropping her from the balcony of a burning building into the arms of a passing stranger. That stranger, Ivan, had immediately taken on the role of protector and father figure to the orphaned little girl, remaining involved in her life as she grew to adulthood and became a spy. When Natasha decided to defect to the United States, Ivan had supported her decision, and later joined her there.
Most of these details weren’t revealed until Daredevil #88 (June, 1972), in a story scripted by Roy Thomas’ successor on that title as well as on “Black Widow”, Gerry Conway. It’s difficult to know how much of this history Thomas had in mind when he gave Ivan his upgraded role (and more interesting personality) in AA #5, but Conway’s narrative was certainly consistent with the hints of a long, close relationship, beginning with Natasha’s childhood in Stalingrad, that Thomas drops over the course of this 10-pager.
The other thing worth noting about Ivan’s upgrade is that it seems to have been at least loosely based on Willie Garvin, a character featured in the Modesty Blaise newspaper comic strip created in 1963 by author Peter O’Donnell (writer) and Jim Holdaway (artist). Like Ivan, Willie functions as the confidant of and right-hand man to the younger adventuress who’s the real star of the show; in both instances, the relationship between the headlining heroine and her male sidekick is close, but devoid of romance or sexual tension.
This was a pretty workable setup for the Black Widow in her solo strip, in my opinion, giving Natasha someone interesting to talk to and play off of, as well as allowing the feature’s writers to explore the Widow’s unusual and mysterious background without overloading the stories with internal monologues and flashbacks. Unfortunately, much of the concept’s utility was inevitably reduced when Ms. Romanoff lost her solo spot, and resumed hanging around regularly with other costumed folks — Daredevil, to begin with, then the Champions, then the Avengers (again), and so on. After all, who needs a burly chauffeur for added muscle, when Hercules has your back?
(That said, I wish Marvel had just let Ivan retire gracefully, instead of deciding to turn him into an unhinged villainous cyborg who had a secret sexual longing for the woman he’d known since she was a small child [eww]. I’m generally a big fan of Paul Cornell’s writing, but I’d just as soon the story he gave us in the 2009-10 miniseries Black Widow: Deadly Origin had been left untold.)
Our nameless young friend explains that he is in fact from Utah, having abandoned “the small town scene” in pursuit of “global villages… new life-styles on the Lower East Side…” Arriving in the Big Apple alone and without contacts, however, he’d soon found himself sleeping on park benches. When a stranger offered him a place to stay, he didn’t feel he could refuse — despite his benefactor’s odd get-up and demeanor:
The Astrologer is an obvious “Fagin” type, whose avowed predilection for the pseudoscience from which he takes his name doesn’t seem to go much further than his claim to plan his crimes “by the stars“. But it does allow our storytellers to give the villain of their piece an appropriately comic-booky codename and costume. (And if the choice of astrology for a bad guy theme seems rather random — well, astrology was enjoying a special vogue during this era, as signified by the popularity of such cultural products as the hit song “Aquarius” [from the musical Hair] and the best-selling book Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs.)
Twice in this story, including in the third panel above, Thomas uses “raps” as a slang term apparently meaning “friends” or “colleagues”; I can’t recall ever seeing or hearing the word used this way anywhere else.
But even as Ivan takes on the thugs in the stairwell, Natasha and her charge hear strange sounds coming from above — and our heroine remembers that while only her own private elevator comes to the 22nd floor, the building’s public elevator does go to the roof. “Be right back,” she tells her new friend, and then…
An unexpectedly bleak ending — and one which pretty much ensured that “And To All a Good Night…” was never going to get reprinted in a Marvel Christmas anthology. (UPDATE, 12/12/20: Over on the “Marvel Comics Fans 1961-1986” Facebook group, Foster H. Coker III has just now helpfully pointed out that this story in fact was reprinted, just four years later, in the Marvel Treasury Special, Giant Superhero Holiday Grab-Bag. My apologies for the error, and thanks to Mr. Coker for the correction [as well as to reader “Shining Knight”, whose similar comment, received a few minutes after Mr. Coker’s, is posted below]. Though, still… I mean, talk about your many moods of Christmas…)
The Astrologer storyline would play out over the next two issues; and, as it progressed, readers would see Natasha Romanoff becoming more and more concerned that she was somehow responsible for all the deaths that had taken place in her life — including not just the the two boys at the end of issue #5’s installment, or the Astrologer, who would meet his demise in the climax of #7, but even her late husband, the original Red Guardian, who’d died several years earlier in Avengers #44 (Sept., 1967). Along the way, there’d be still more creative changes for the short-lived feature, with both Gene Colan and Bill Everett being replaced by Don Heck and Sal Buscema in #6, while Gerry Conway would take over for Thomas as scripter with #7. Issue #7 would also find Everett returning as inker, now embellishing Heck’s pencils, while Thomas himself returned to script #8’s installment over a Conway plot.
But to read more about that story — the last Black Widow story that would appear in Amazing Adventures — as well as about Thomas and Neal Adams’ final Inhumans outing, you’ll need to check back in this space come next June. So mark your calendars, and I’ll see you then.
*UPDATE, 12/13/20: In the time since this post originally went up a day ago, Blake Stone (over on the Masterworks Message Board at CollectedEditions.com) has done the math and figured out that, in December, there would actually be a 1-to-2 hour window when it could be dark simultaneously in Nepal (representing the Himalayas) and San Francisco. As soon as I can figure out how he did it, I’m going to go back in time to offer Mr. Stone a No-Prize on Thomas and Adams’ behalf.
**For the record, Mr. Evanier made his comment in the context of discussing a page in Jack Kirby’s Mister Miracle #6 (Jan.-Feb., 1972) which featured Big Barda in the bathtub; and no, I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to wait a year for that one.