Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The Year Of The Pharaohs!

Time-travelling back to ancient Egypt has been used from time to time (ha ha--get it?) in Marvel's line of comics, but in 1963 the land of the Pharaohs' tourism industry must have been working overtime. Not only did Iron Man travel back to approximately 41 B.C. during the time of Cleopatra, but the Fantastic Four also made a journey back to Egypt to fulfill their own mission. And in each instance, there was an evil Pharaoh to deal with.

(Did you manage to spot the goof on one of these splash pages?*)

*Yes, the word "Pharaoh" is misspelled on the FF page; in fact, it's misspelled throughout the entire issue, including the cover. (See this post's BONUS! feature for related info.)

From the captions on both the issue's cover and its first page, it's made clear first thing that the "mad Pharaoh" in the Iron Man story isn't Cleopatra; instead, the man we want is introduced 2000 years later, during an excavation of an Egyptian burial site by an archaeologist who also happens to be a friend of Tony Stark. The tomb in question is that of the fictional King Hatap, who apparently wanted to reclaim the throne during Cleopatra's reign but whose forces were overwhelmed by her army. Before he was confronted in defeat, he was spotted drinking a vial of liquid, which everyone assumed was poison. But we're about to learn otherwise.

To save his friend some time and to expedite the efforts to locate Hatap's tomb, Stark suits up as Iron Man and brings his engineering resources to bear.

The mummy they find in the sarcophagus would seem to wrap things up (get it?)--until later, when it's discovered that the mummy has vanished and is assumed to have been stolen. And while the others conduct a search, Stark finds that Hatap's body has been a lot closer than anyone realizes.

Obviously Hatap's plan to recapture the throne depends on Stark's assistance, since Hatap has already clashed with Cleopatra's army and lost. As for Stark, he's forced to cooperate because of a sickness that Hatap, a practitioner of the dark arts, has caused to affect the entire camp of workers; yet we learn that Stark would have agreed to Hatap's demand regardless, as he considers the journey back to ancient Egypt as an invaluable opportunity.

Things don't look good for Hatap at this point, since he's lost the trump card he was depending on to help him defeat Cleopatra and regain the throne. (Though you have to love the fact that artist Don Heck still has mummy wrappings dangling from his extremities.) But now that Iron Man is at large, what's his plan? From what we gather so far, he seems to be focused on adventuring, having no scruples whatsoever about interfering in history, and with such curious logic: "Guess a man has to side with the underdog, even in the past!" It's disturbing enough that Iron Man is thinking about taking sides at all, since Cleopatra vs. the Romans has nothing to do with Hatap.  But at one time, Hatap was the underdog; given the chance, would Iron Man have fought for him?

Regardless, Iron Man routs the Roman legions, and afterward presents himself to Cleopatra (who, incidentally, would be the last of the ruling Pharaohs), informing her of Hatap's threat and formally lending his might to her defense.

Meanwhile, Hatap has managed to gather his army, though they now have a new threat to contend with--Iron Man, who only seems mildly concerned about using so much power against two armies despite the fact that he has no way to recharge his chestplate. Fortunately, that bulky suit carries a lot of accessories.

We can probably all agree that moving casters through desert sand at anything more than snail speed is impossible even for Iron Man; they'd more likely become mired down in it, jet engine or no jet engine. (It might be another matter if he had a few tires in that suit.)

One of Hatap's men raises an interesting point that everyone seems to be forgetting: Why doesn't Hatap bring his sorcery into play in his battles? Having your opposition's troops drop from sickness would be a pretty handy weapon for someone trying to usurp a throne. Instead, Hatap once again thinks of an expedient escape, though Iron Man has been keeping an eye out for such a development. And after Hatap is finished, Iron Man makes use of Hatap's mystic charm to return to his own time.

Just two months later, the Fantastic Four are planning their own journey back to ancient Egypt, on a special mission to help one of their own. The mission takes shape when Reed Richards follows up on a mystery he discovered during a recent visit to the Museum of Natural History:

Making use of Dr. Doom's time machine (a complex, sophisticated piece of equipment which can be operated by a blind sculptress--that Doom thinks of everything), the four travel back to the period when the unnamed Pharaoh in question was in power. Almost immediately, they're set upon by Egyptian warriors, which the FF begin to make short work of. But the surprise is soon on them.

Regaining consciousness in the throne room of the Pharaoh, the FF solve the mystery of how this blind traveller regained his sight--but what's equally interesting are the circumstances in how he came to lose it, having travelled back in time from the year 3000 by modifying a time machine created by his ancestor. (And three guesses who that would be?)

Regardless, the Pharaoh intends to keep the FF as his prisoners, and under his power thanks to his ray weapon. Consequently, he reassigns them to roles that make use of their abilities throughout his kingdom. The Thing is harnessed as a shipboard rower; Mr. Fantastic's shape shifting powers are adapted to serve in the campaigns of the Pharaoh's legions; while the Torch is a flaming, fiery court jester. The Pharaoh apparently is letting his arrogance override his good judgment; both the Thing and the Torch are wasted in such menial tasks, when their powers could be of far greater benefit to military operations.

As for Sue, she seems destined to be the Pharaoh's queen, though an unexpected development happens which will turn the tide back in the FF's favor.

(If the sun in ancient Egypt was "far hotter than that of twentieth century New York," you can only wonder at how the multitudes of Egyptians who toiled on ships and as bricklayers and construction workers survived in their daily labors. How would physicians of the time have regarded what would have been an epidemic of skin cancer?)

Ben later surprises Rama-Tut and confiscates his weapon, using it to free Sue who in turn uses it to free the Torch--as well as the Thing, now returned to his rocky state, while Reed is later located and subjected to the same treatment. With their will power returned, Rama-Tut as well as his warriors are no match for the FF--and in the melee, the Pharaoh bolts for the safety of his Sphinx, with the FF in hot pursuit. Eventually overcoming the various deadly traps within the Sphinx, the FF isolate the location of Rama-Tut within the core of the construct where the time machine is housed--and Rama-Tut decides to cut his losses and flee for good.

It seems like a happy ending is in store for everyone except Rama-Tut, as the FF prepare to return to their own time (assuming Alicia hasn't forgotten her training) and make use of the vial they set out to obtain. Unfortunately, an oversight has doomed that part of their mission almost immediately following their return.

You could argue that anything or anyone imbued with cosmic radiation would meet the condition that Reed blames for the mission's failure.  Still, in these early stories which often ended on a light note, it can only make the Fantastic Four more appealing to their readers in those moments when they prove to be as fallible as the rest of us.

To my astonishment, Marvel's digital department made a few adjustments to the original TOS cover.
Color variations aside, can you spot the three main changes?


George Chambers said...

Well, the only difference I can see is Cleopatra's expression... it's gone from downright giddy to being properly worried. One change I wish they had made would be to fix Iron Man having six fingers on his right hand, though!

George Chambers said...

Heh, heh... they fixed the spelling of "Pharaoh"! Kind of funny that no one at Marvel could spell that word right considering that Stan, Jack and many of the Bullpen were Jewish.

Comicsfan said...

Nice work, George, you got two out of three!

Anonymous said...

I noticed the mis-spelling of Pharaoh but Cleopatra is also speaking English so that's a goof too :D And where's Mark Anthony ? There was another Ancient Egypt story in Strange Tales when a mysterious woman turned up at Dr. Strange's house and it's revealed at the end that she is Cleopatra (she must have been sick of meeting superheroes from the 20th century).

Anonymous said...

Cleopatra must have gotten sick of meeting superheroes, and readers must have gotten tired of Cleopatra. But, at that time, there was a lot of hype surrounding the Elizabeth Taylor movie, and, evidently, Marvel wanted to jump on the band wagon.

Anonymous said...

Third change in the cover is the original blurb "See Iron Man dare to rescue Cleopatra..." is changed to "See Iron Man face-to-face with Cleopatra..." :)

Comicsfan said...

Right you are, Anon, that's indeed the third cover change. :)

Kid said...

Not only can I spot the three changes, CF, I mentioned them in a post on my own blog a good while back. (So where's my Blue Peter badge?) The spelling of 'Pharaoh' was corrected in the Iron Man tale when it was reprinted in Collectors' Item Classics #7, and also the early Masterworks volumes. However, the errors were restored in more recent Masterworks printings, in line with their quest for archival integrity, 'though they missed a couple of places. On the Iron Man splash page, the title has the mistake restored, but in IM's thought balloon, it's been overlooked and the corrected spelling remains. Same thing happened with the FF strip in a panel or two.

Comicsfan said...

Thanks for the info, Kid--how interesting! Where Marvel's digital product is concerned, I suppose it would be like substituting a cover of, say, Marvel Tales for its counterpart in Amazing Spider-Man and passing it off as the original (though that's clearly taking it to the extreme). I hope this turns out to be an isolated incident--there's nothing appealing about seeing a classic cover that isn't so classic after all.