Everybody knows how it goes: Golden Age in the 40s, Silver Age in the 60s, Bronze Age in the 70s. But it’s all much more complicated than that. Your Major Spoilers (Retro) Review of Astonishing #3 awaits!
Writer: Bill Everett/Hank Chapman
Penciler: Bill Everett/Bill La Cava
Inker: Bill Everett/Bill La Cava
Letterer: Bill Everett
Editor: Stan Lee
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Cover Price: 10 Cents
Current Near-Mint Pricing: $1400.00
Previously in Astonishing: DC fans may remember the story of how the Justice Society of America disappeared circa 1951, thanks to the meddling of the House Unamerican Activities Commission, but what you may NOT know is that this story was created as a retcon to explain the cancellation of the Justice Society’s comic in the spring of that year. The post-war years of the 1940s took a toll on superhero comic sales, with other genres taking root as more popular with comics readers. (The JSA’s ‘All-Star Comics’ was relaunched as ‘All-Star Western’, for instance.) Nowhere was this more apparent than at Marvel/Atlas/Timely Comics, where publisher Martin Goodman was always ready to embrace the trends of what was selling. Astonishing #3 is in fact sort of a first issue, as the first two appeared under the title of the main character, Bob “Marvel Boy” Grayson. Presumably, sales for the superhero book were not what Goodman had hoped for, so the book was repackaged to appeal to readers of EC-style uncanny tales, as seen with our lead feature.
Thanks to his day job as an insurance investor, Bob Grayson is sent to investigate a strange coincidence: Two unexpected deaths of rich elderly folk with the same beneficiary, one Omar Khayam Rasch. (Ugh.) Bob investigates (in FULL COSTUME), discovering Omar to be the head of a strange cult. Weirdly, Bob tries to scam him (again, in FULL COSTUME) into believing that he’s just a poor boy
who needs no sympathy easy-come easy-go who has nothing to his name but an insurance policy places by his deceased father. There’s some unpleasant quasi-racism to be had in these pages, as well, as Rasch explains that Allah needs him to build a better temple, offering a toast to his newest acolyte. A toast filled… with POISON!
Thanks to the sudden appearance of Marvel Boy’s vengeful ghost sends our would-be swami running into the night… right into the arms of the police!
Whatever he does to resemble a ghost (it’s never explained, but his powers traditionally do involve light from his Uranian wristbands) is the only superhuman element to this particular tale, making it feel like it was reworked from a story without any superhero elements at all, the better to catch those who enjoyed tales of the uncanny and possibly arcane. The second story in this issue is an outer space tale, revealing that Bob’s family back on Uranus is still alive and once again making it seem like the creators were desperately seeking a new target market.
That is followed by a four-page horror tale (one that’s actually pretty good, to be honest), a text crime story and the final Marvel Boy tale in the book. This last is the only one that feels like a traditional superhero story, but even it has elements of the true crime genre, ala Hillman Comics ‘Crime Does Not Pay.’
If you’re keeping count, that’s five different genres of story in one issue, counting the ‘Red Scare’ elements and assuming that Marvel Boy’s costume alone counts as “superhero.” It’s clear that Marvel/Atlas, notorious for cranking out whatever genres of comics were selling, is trying to see what would make this title stick. Marvel Boy continued appearing in the book through issue #6, with horror/suspense taking over the book and carrying it into 1957, running more than sixty issues. Astonishing #3 is an interesting study in trying to figure out the sales market by throwing the kitchen sink at readers and hoping they bite, with some excellent art by Bill Everett and a couple of interesting story points earning 3 out of 5 stars overall. These strange 50s hybrid books always make for fun reading, if only to imagine editors trying to weld together romance and western or horror and funny animals to create the perfect sales beast.