But here’s the thing: comic books are very rarely scary, and comic books featuring giant monsters even less so. I would venture to say actually never. More often, they are either played for laughs or played as variations on straight superheroics. You’ll see both on display here this month, starting with the 1974 Marvel comic Astonishing Tales #24, a showcase title that in June of that year featured It! The Living Colossus!
If you’ve ever read Stan Lee’s Origins of Marvel Comics (someone borrowed my copy decades ago and never returned it), you know that before the Marvel age started with the publication of Fantastic Four #1, Marvel published mainly monster stories featuring beasts with names like Orrgo, Googam (son of Goom), and Stan Lee’s apparent favorite, Fin Fang Foom.
So in 1973, Astonishing Tales started a storyline which revived one of the monsters from the pre-Marvel age, It! The Living Colossus. In the original stories, It! was a huge statue built by a Russian sculptor which was used as a temporary body by a visiting extraterrestrial. But in the new feature, the statue was inhabited by the mind of crippled special effects man Bob O’Bryan, and what had been a rampaging monster character had morphed into a gigantic superhero.
Issue #24 was the last appearance of It! in Astonishing Tales. “Five Claws of Death” was scripted by Tony Isabella, pencilled by Dick Ayers and Larry Lieber, and inked by Vince Colletta. Colletta, as I’ve mentioned before, has never been one of my favorite inkers. Dick Ayers was an old Marvel hand who had inked a lot of Kirby’s early Marvel work, including the original It! The Living Colossus story, and he manages to make everything look vaguely Kirby-ish here. Co-penciller Larry Lieber (Stan Lee’s brother) also specialized in swiping Kirby’s style. So the issue looks like a muddy tribute to those old monster books, capturing Kirby’s blockiness and awkward poses, but not his dynamic layouts or raw excitement.
The story opens with the Colossus watching the departure of the invading aliens he had defeated last issue with the help of, guess who, Fin Fang Foom. But no sooner does he turn around than the Colossus is attacked by that same Fin Fang Foom, being mind-controlled by the evil Dr. Vault, who is dying of a degenerative disease and wants to claim the Colossus’s body for his own.
And because this was early 1974, less than a year after the release of Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon, martial arts was a huge media fad. Therefore Fin Fang Foom, an ancient Chinese dragon, is also an expert martial artist.
The fight is interrupted by the arrival of cops who distract Fin Fang Foom long enough for the Colossus to escape into the ocean. Finding an underwater cave, Bob O’Bryan relinquishes control of the statue and returns to his own crippled body. And just in time…
It should be noted that the dude’s pink body in that one frame is not a printing error or colorist’s mistake. He apparently is actually wearing a pink leotard and tights, his costume for the TV series he works on. A few minutes later, Diane Cummings, O’Bryan’s “estranged fiancee” shows up and professes her undying love for O’Bryan. However, he has apparently decided to be a total jackass to her in order to keep her out of danger or something. Like that ever works.
Anyway, this gives us a chance for a two-page flashback that consists of art panels lifted directly from the Colossus’s previous appearances, a budget-saving measure that makes this the comics equivalent of a “clip show.”
Meanwhile, in an effort to lure the Colossus out, Fin Fang Foom attacks a Chinese New Year parade on Hollywood Boulevard.
I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a comic book that so precisely captures the moment that it was produced. Grauman’s Chinese Theatre was sold to the Mann Theatre’s chain in 1973 and renamed Mann’s Chinese (it has since reverted back to the original name). Between that and the “Enter the Dragon” caption, you know this has to be 1973-1974.
There is another big battle, which the Colossus is losing, when Fin Fang Foom is zapped by some power lines and Dr. Vault loses control of the beast, leading to this idiotic wrap-up.
Wow, that Fin Fang Foom has some crazy artistic skills to be able to draw such a perfectly identifiable caricature of Dr. Vault by scratching his claw in pavement. And how exactly does he silently convey his previous mind control? It’s like they were running out of panels, so they punted.
Overall, the story was a disappointment, but it showed potential. One of the letter writers this issue compares the It! stories to a “late-late Friday night monster movie with two-month commercials” (a phrase he’s so proud of he repeats it later in the letter). And that’s part of the campy fun. As Fin Fang Foom is attacking the parade, for instance, there’s a replay of the scene in Harryhausen’s Beast from 20,000 Fathoms where the cop shoots at the monster with his pistol, which unfortunately gets the monster’s attention. But between the blocky artwork and the layer of Marvel talkiness that gets laid over everything, the good parts of the story are muted and the bad parts magnified.
This marked the last appearance of It! The Living Colossus for six years, until he was brought back to battle the Hulk in 1980. Astonishing Tales introduced a new character the next month, who continued for the rest of the book’s run. His name was Deathlok the Executioner.