"More or Less... the Return of the Molecule Man!"
Steve Gerber-Sal Buscema/Jack Abel
NOTE: An upfront apology from me (Doug) on some of the art samples. I used the Iron Man dvd-rom, and for some reason when I convert the .pdf files to .jpg files, sometimes there are distortions in the proportions of the panels or pages. Count me as technologically inept in this regard!
Doug: Isn't it just a bit of comic book karma when comments are made concerning the prowess (or lack thereof) of a particular artist, and then said artist turns up on the creator list the very next week? You'll notice today's inker is none other than Jack Abel; Karen and I had discussion of him last week in our review of Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes #233. I'm sure an evaluation will again be made today concerning his embellishment of Our Pal Sal. And what of scribe Steve Gerber? You have to think, just looking at the conglomeration of characters on the cover above that this tale could be right in "Baby" Gerber's wheelhouse. We shall see.
Karen: I can already tell you, just glancing through this book, that the art is not going to make me get warm fuzzies, and it's all due to Mr. Abel. But I'll soldier on. I should note however that I did pick this title up off the spinner rack as a kid.
Doug: Perhaps without saying, you could have guessed that this story would begin in the swamps of Florida. What maybe you wouldn't expect is that Steve Gerber would basically use this Iron Man Annual as a further platform for expanding on his ideas that you could have found on display in the Man-Thing monthly (and the various Giant-Size issues as well). Sure enough, on my first reading of this material I sort of felt like I'd come late to a party. I've never been a follower of either Steve Gerber or the Man-Thing -- both hallmarks of Marvel's Bronze Age, and you'd get no dispute from me. However, in my limited interests and with my limited budget as a 10-year old I just never crossed those paths almost-40 years ago. Anyway, Tony Stark has come to the Everglades to see the remnants of "Omegaville", a village of geodiscs run in a completely "green" fashion. Stark is meeting with a Dr. Marshall and his assistant Paul. Stark decides to back the project that will rebuild the site, which was destroyed by a man named Yagzan (Giant-Size Man-Thing #1 -- here we go!). Witnessing this meeting is the Man-Thing himself, formerly known as Ted Sallis. While on site, Tony spies a skeleton in the reeds. Paul tells him that it was the body of a fellow named Yagzan, who was the leader of a group called the Entropists and who protested the building of Omegaville. He had gained supernatural powers and had fought the Man-Thing, only to be reduced in the end to a petrified skeleton.
Karen: I too had read only a few Man-Thing books and like you had a limited familiarity with the character and his mythos. So much of what was laid out here was completely new to me. The name "Yagzan" rang a bell during this read through though. I realized that I encountered the revived Yagzan in Marvel Two-in-One #42 and #43 about two years later! Nothing ever really disappears in the Marvel universe. And doesn't Stark look like a real stiff here? Again, nothing like Robert Downey, Jr! The general public would be so surprised.
Doug: I agree. You know, when you ran the post about jerks, Tony Stark should have been near the top of many commenters' lists. However, I don't think he got much attention. This Bronze Age Stark is indeed a far cry from the Stark of Civil War or even the Marvel films.
Doug: The Man-Thing saunters off into the swamp, where he is halted by the sight of three children playing. One is dressed as Spider-Man, a young lady portrays Iron Man, and the third is claiming to be the Molecule Man and even bears a staff remarkably similar to the Molecule Man's weapon. We soon find that the red stick in question is indeed the depowered staff of the MM. Or is it? As the children play-fight, the rod is knocked into the water. No one of course wants to wade in to get it, so tomboy Cynthia decides to fetch it. While in the slimy swamp she stumbles, but righting herself displays the red staff. At that same instant an alligator enters the water, but is halted by the Man-Thing! The large lizard is no match for the protector of the swamp. But Cynthia, running for her life now, races right into a small pool and disappears. The Man-Thing shuffles over to the water and waits -- but the girl does not emerge. Her playmates, horrified at what they've witnessed, race home for help. A search for her body ensued, and despite the casket at the funeral, it was never found.
Karen: It's interesting to note that Man-Thing's intense dislike of fear directs him towards where the girl is facing the alligator, and he momentarily hesitates, uncertain which of the two to attack! Ah yes, a true 70s comic. The whole scene with the kids could have come right out of a cheap flick like "Legend of Boggy Creek."
Doug: Weeks later, the work on the biodomes is proceeding rapidly. Stark is in town to supervise, and that means his bodyguard is along, too. Iron Man suits up when some mysterious mace-like orbs appear in the sky, and upon closer inspection he finds that they are lethal -- the spikes detach, and operate as heat-seeking missiles! Iron Man's superior quickness is no match for the explosives, and he causes many of them to detonate harmlessly. However, upon completion of that act, the maces turn to smiley-face balloons! IM ponders the situation momentarily, and notices a crowd has gathered on the ground. In typical Stark bravado, he assumes they are there to thank him. Uh, wrong. A rotten tomato upside the helmet clues Stark in that these guys a) aren't a bunch of country bumpkins, and b) don't necessarily want him around. The dispute is interrupted quite suddenly, though, by a geyser of asphalt. Something is most certainly amiss in Florida's Everglades area...
Karen: It's definitely a Gerber story, what with the weapons turning into smiley-face balloons. And how about that local tomato-hurler, and how he feels about Iron Man? "He talks jes' like one o' them press secretaries!" What a hoot!
Doug: Additionally, one might ask why that tough was carrying a tomato in the first place?
Doug: The eruption had lifted Iron Man and his assailant -- the fella who threw the tomato -- into the air. But when the force stopped, they fell, and hard. The local guy landed on his back and shoulders, fracturing his skull and indeed dying. Iron Man used his boot jets to save himself, but the people aren't happy with him. He chooses a wise strategy by exiting the scene. Later, Stark has coffee with some of the men associated with the geodome project. They inform him that the area is quite conservative, not prone to change, and is quite suspicious of the progressive building project. Stark asks if there is anyone with his finger on the pulse of the community, someone who could get him "in" with the townsfolk. He's directed to the local jail, where a former DJ is incarcerated for having protested local book burnings. Hey, in that regard, the German writer Heinrich Heine once said, "Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings." I think of that every time I hear of a book burning, whether it was back in May of 1933 or about 10 years ago when Harry Potter books were burned out West. Anyway, Stark and Richard Rory visit for several minutes. Stark describes what's recently happened, and Rory suggests that it sounds like the work of the only super-villiain Citrusville had ever seen: the Molecule Man! Moments later, Stark is in his limousine and starts a video call to Avengers Mansion. The Vision obliges Stark's request and patches him through to the Baxter Building, where he hopes to ask Ben Grimm about his tussle with the MM and Man-Thing. It's no go, says Reed Richards, but Stark is able to get confirmation that the Molecule Man did indeed die during Ben's adventure in Florida.
Karen: I found it kind of surprising that Iron Man not only didn't save the jerk, but seemingly makes no attempt to do so. I suppose Gerber was trying to move the story in that direction, building animosity between the town folk and Iron Man, but it's interesting that he wasn't drawn as making an effort to rescue the guy. Although I never read much Man-Thing, it's not surprising that Gerber incorporated political and social issues into the stories. He pretty much did that with all of his work. I did laugh a bit at how Richard Rory was drawn - that long hair was rather girlish looking, with the little flips at the ends!
Doug: Why did I think the name "Richard Rory" was so familiar? I could not place either the name or the look, but had a real sense of deja vu while reading that part of the story. As I said, I was never a Man-Thing reader, but I'm wondering if the name came up in one of the Mighty Marvel Calendars or somewhere.
Doug: We then cut back to the swamps where Cynthia had perished. Suddenly the pool into which she submerged begins to bubble, and from its depths emerges the little girl, still wearing her Iron Man costume and still grasping the staff she'd carried. But this is not Cynthia who rises -- instead, it's the Molecule Man in possession of her body! Once out of the water, MM tests his powers, but notices that he feels strange. Crafting a mirror from wood, MM sees that this body needs a little... work. Using his ability to control anything with molecules, he alters Cynthia's body and grows to adult-size. However, in spite of his increased mass, he retains certain... feminine attributes. This is going to be a struggle, and indeed it is -- Cynthia isn't going to let go of her body! Witnessing all of this is the Man-Thing, whose empathic nature has drawn him back to the pool. Molecule Man turns a log into a jet-propelled bicycle, and uses it to jet off to Cynthia's home. The Man-Thing follows, at his sloggingly-slow pace. The Molecule Man enters "her" home, much to the shock and horror of Cynthia's mother. Outside, and a few hours later, Tony Stark's limo driver reels with a shock of his own at a shambling mass of muck stepping into his path. There's no avoiding the Man-Thing, and the limo crashes into the beast.
Karen: The hyper-muscled Cynthia -- really drawn as a man's body with breasts -- was a pretty disturbing sight then, and still is now. I wonder what Sal Buscema thought about it when he was drawing it?
Doug: Good point -- I had a head-scratching moment when that scene first played, as I was taken aback at what they were going for. The limo driver banged his head on the the windshield and passed out, so it's Iron Man who emerges from the back seat to confront the swamp creature. Shellhead uses a repulsor blast at Man-Thing's feet and a hand point back toward the swamp to try to cajole the creature to leave the area. Yeah, right. Despite the Man-Thing's mushy state of being, he still packs a wallop and sends the Golden Avengers sprawling. Righting himself, IM again tries to subdue the creature with repulsor blasts; they go right through. So, running out of options, a frontal assault is the next attack option. Yuck -- Iron Man becomes fully engulfed in muck. Brushing it all off of himself, Stark thinks that there is really only one option left and removes a small capsule from a compartment in his shoulder -- a cryogen bomb, liquid nitrogen that freezes the Man-Thing where he stands. That should do it! But, as fate would have it -- and in a comic book, Fate always wins -- Iron Man just happens to have battled the creature right in front of Cynthia's house. A house which now transforms into an emerald palace right before IM's eyes!
Karen: Tony is amazingly fast changing into his armor, in the back seat of his limo no less! His attempts to get rid of Man-Thing were pretty funny. Man-Thing's cohesiveness seems to vary quite a bit. When the limo hits him, he seems pretty solid, yet at other times things go right through him. He's sort of like a mucky Vision. And how about that cryo-capsule Shellhead had in his shoulder compartment? That's almost as good as carrying shark-repellent on your utility belt!
Doug: Was Stark still using the collapsible armor that fit in his briefcase at this time?
Doug: Inside the palace, the Molecule Man has created a throne for him/herself and taunts Cynthia's mother from this perch. Apparently domestic relations between Cynthia and her parents were never tip-top, and Cynthia uses her newfound powers to take some revenge. She turns her mother into a doll, and promises that her dad will get the same treatment when he gets home. But there's a struggle taking place, between the Molecule Man who wants full control and Cynthia who doesn't want to give in. There are some very strange scenes here, of the Molecule Man punching him/herself in the face, and writhing on the floor while choking him/herself. Quite bizarre fare. Iron Man, sensing this may be the work of the Molecule Man, punches his way into the palace. But he gets in on the schizophrenic mania that's taking place. The Molecule Man wants to attack; Cynthia has always held Iron Man as her favorite among super-heroes. MM finally decides to leave. This affords Iron Man the opportunities to a) check on Stark's chauffeur, and b) remove the Man-Thing (still frozen) to his home swamps.
Karen: The Molecule Person (as Gerber refers to him/her) is highly conflicted, and I don't know that I ever got to see anyone punch themselves in the face before in a comic. You know, it seems to me that this story would have fit a lot better in the Defenders than with the uptight Iron Man! They had foes like the Headmen; this wouldn't have phased them at all!
Doug: Perfect! The Headmen! Weeks later (we're not immediately told why there's been a lull in super-baddery from the Molecule Man), Stark and the other stakeholders hold a press conference to officially open the refurbished Omegaville. But as the media and noted environmentalists have assembled, suddenly a huge skeleton comes tottering on the scene. We're told that it's Yagzan's skeleton (what, no one removed the crazy thing over the past several weeks/months??), and it's grown to around 20 feet. Stark uses the distraction to change into his fighting togs, but is knocked back by the creature, which has obviously been enhanced. So is Stark's armor, and a double-repulsor blast to the joints of the skeleton bring it down. Iron Man remarks that it would be just like the Molecule Man to show up again on the day the biodomes open -- yet no one knows why that comment would be true. But true it is, as suddenly a short distance away Cynthia emerges from a pool of water -- in a vegetable-like state. Paul rushes to her, but is kicked away by the newly-emergent Molecule Man! All those weeks of quiet? It's taken that long for the Molecule Man to drive Cynthia's will down. Iron Man steps in, and the MM discards a doll -- the doll that is Cynthia's mom.
Karen: I had the same reaction as you did: why was Yagzan's skeleton still around?? I guess we'll never know the answer to that one. I found the idea of the tiny, talking Mom doll incredibly creepy.
Doug: Iron Man attacks, but is met with a blast from MM's control rod. He's transmuted to a being of iron, and frozen in place. But as the Molecule Man gloats, the Man-Thing has arrived and grabs MM's hand from behind. Shocked, the Molecule Man attempts to recoil -- and you know what that means: whatever knows fear BURNS at the touch of the Man-Thing! The rod is separated from the Molecule Man, which ends the enchantments -- the Molecule Man's essence reverts to the rod, Cynthia's body falls to the ground, the doll becomes Cynthia's mother, and Iron Man is returned to his normal state. But as fate (there's that Fate thingie again!) would have it, a passing snake attacks the rod and is possessed by the spirit of the Molecule Man! As the snake isn't the smartest critter on the planet, the Molecule Man is in complete control, and ruthless. He attacks Iron Man to kill, and Iron Man is forced to strike and dodge, hit and run, until he can get close enough for a solid shot at the snake-man's face. The rod is again dislodged from the Molecule Man's grip.
Karen: The snake part really seemed unnecessary -Gerber even writes, "We've still four pages to fill," so I think he was doing some hustling here. The snake man was pretty silly.
Doug: Iron Man held the control rod long enough for the Molecule Man to exert his influence, but Stark resisted mightily, taunting his assailant and telling him that if he couldn't fully possess a 10-year girl how did he think he could take down a full-grown adult trained in fighting super-baddies? But the Molecule Man brings IM to his knees, until the Man-Thing grabs the rod from Shellhead's hand. And what now? The Man-Thing is bereft of a mind -- at least any sort of mind advanced enough to be controlled. And with that set of circumstances, the Molecule Man was defeated. The swamp creature simply turned, control rod in mucky mitt, and sauntered back into the Florida jungle. Iron Man tried to rise to his feet, but was drained from even that short battle of wills. The dignitaries and project managers rally to Iron Man's side, as do Cynthia and her mother (wait, didn't the girl physically drown?). Paul tells Iron Man that he's not sure just what happened, but that it was pretty scary. Iron Man simply replies, and tells everyone that he's going to need some time to sort out this adventure.
Karen: Iron Man's mental struggle with MM was well-drawn. Having Man-Thing unknowingly save him was also done well. Overall I thought this was a pretty average story. I just didn't really get into it. Part of it was the art, but I also felt a lack of interest in the plot. Maybe if I'd been a regular reader of Man-Thing it might have meant more to me.
Doug: I thought this story was OK -- not great, just OK. It could have easily been published as a 2-issue crossover between the Iron Man and Man-Thing monthlies, but that being said it did have some of the characteristics of an Annual -- self-contained story, guest-starring hero, and multiple battles. As I said at the top, it seemed as if Steve Gerber was using this to tie some loose ends from his Man-Thing scripts -- nothing major seemed to be added to that mythos, and Iron Man would be no worse for the wear for having been included here. And now to Mr. Jack Abel. I don't know that he did Sal any favors on this job. The art is pretty solid Sal-fare. But it just seemed that there were times when the figures were a bit stiff, and some of the embellishment on faces (in particular) seemed a bit soft and feathery. Overall, not bad at all, but just not polished as a Joe Sinnott, Terry Austin, or Bob Layton would have turned in (is that even fair to compare anyone to those three?). Now all this being said -- had I purchased this back in my 10th year, I'd probably have been one happy little dude. I definitely would have come to this book with a sense of awe and wonder, and that's the way it should be!