Jan 21, 2021
Homicidal steam shovels from outer space: Tales to Astonish #21
The Agony Booth’s Bizarre Silver Age Comics series has been going on for ten years now (with some admittedly long gaps in there), and you may have noticed one thing every installment so far has in common: They’re all about DC Comics.
We’ve never covered anything from Marvel Comics in this series, which is not to imply Marvel didn’t publish its fair share of Silver Age crap. It’s just that in the grand scheme of things, Marvel’s missteps during this era were mostly forgettable, and the forgivable early mistakes of a company that was just beginning to revolutionize the superhero genre, and none of it comes close to the unadulterated insanity that was going on over at DC at the time. Nothing exemplifies this better than these blog posts that imagine the adventures Marvel’s characters would have endured had they been published by DC in the Silver Age.
But still, if you look long and hard enough, you can find some Marvel comics that were pretty damn goofy, especially if you’re looking at stories that don’t necessarily involve superheroes.
Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, before the big superhero revival began, Marvel Comics was just a scrappy minor player formerly known as Atlas Comics that was publishing plenty of horror comics, war comics, westerns, romance comics, and a whole roster of interchangeable sci-fi anthology titles like Tales of Suspense, Journey into Mystery, Strange Tales, and Tales to Astonish, all of which were primarily focused on giant monsters of either the atomic-powered or space alien variety. These titles were primarily written by Stan Lee (and Stan’s brother Larry Lieber) and penciled by Jack Kirby, so a lot of elements from these stories (along with a few of the characters) would be reused later on after the two established the official Marvel Universe.
The monsters introduced during this time had onomatopoeia-like names that mostly sounded like euphemisms for throwing up: Rorgg, Torg, Orrgo, Klagg, Oog, Moomba, Sporr, Hulk (actually, two monsters had the name prior to the Green Goliath), Glop, Zzutak, Bombu, Goom, Googam (son of Goom), Spragg, Gorgilla, and Rommbu all graced the pages of these comics, along with the one Lee/Kirby giant monster to have somehow attained major name recognition today, Groot.
Long story short: The original Groot was a tree monster (who, like so many of his monster compatriots, came from “Planet X”) hell-bent on conquering mankind. He was destroyed at the end of the issue—by termites, no less—but was revived in the 2005 mini-series Nick Fury’s Howling Commandos. Groot then went on to join a newly revamped Guardians of the Galaxy, and it’s this lineup that was eventually made into a feature film. And I doubt that in the wildest dreams of Stan Lee or Larry Lieber or Jack Kirby, they ever envisioned people would be buying Groot action figures over fifty years later.
But Groot isn’t the only giant monster from Marvel’s early days to get reintroduced into the Marvel Universe proper. A lot of Marvel writers over the decades clearly had affection for these old stories and occasionally found ways to slyly work the monsters into modern continuity. But then in 2017 came the company-wide crossover event Monsters Unleashed! (itself named after a ‘70s horror magazine briefly published by Marvel) which brought back Gorgilla, Goom, Rommbu, Orrgo, and a whole host of other Lee/Kirby monsters to face off against the combined might of Marvel’s superheroes.
It’s easy to see why the original monster comics are still so fondly remembered; there’s a charming sense of fun and innocence about them, just like the similarly themed sci-fi B movies of the same period. But I have to say, once you sit down and start reading more than a handful of these stories, it quickly becomes clear they nearly all followed the same mind-numbing formula.
Generally, it would be a one-off tale about a giant creature (usually an alien, and more often than not from the aforementioned “Planet X”) on a mission to conquer humanity. Usually, the creature has been accidentally summoned by the hero, who tends to be a nerd or a loser subjected to massive amounts of ball-busting from his wife, girlfriend, kids, or classmates. The creature appears on Earth and shows off its incredible powers, which typically include hypnotism, and the ability to make an entire city hover in mid-air.
Despite these abilities, the alien creature would usually resort to simply commanding humans to implement its plans for world domination. And then things would nearly always end with the alien being defeated by something lowly and unexpected, highlighting the hubris of the creature and allowing our hero to finally prove himself to all those who bullied him.
Tales to Astonish #21, cover dated July of 1960, introduces “Trull the Inhuman” in a story that follows this template to the letter, but even by the standards of Lee/Kirby giant monster books, the villain in this story is hilariously nonthreatening. Let’s just say Trull quite conspicuously was not one of the giant monsters to see a revival in Monsters Unleashed!
The story begins with an alien rocketship crashing in the remote jungles of Africa. The sole occupant of the ship is a helmeted humanoid who dies in the crash, but the narration informs us he comes from the “Delta Centurius Galaxy”, where beings are able to “separate their life essence–their personality–from the confines of their physical body!”
The pilot’s “life essence” then floats away into the jungle, promising that once it finds a new body, the people of Earth will tremble in the presence of “Trull, the Mighty!!”
But before we get to that, we learn the narrator is a guy named Phil, who’s currently on a ship bound for Africa. In flashback, we’re told that Phil was once an engineer who designed a large suspension bridge and supervised its construction. Unfortunately, at the ribbon cutting ceremony, the bridge completely collapsed, which is surely a reference to the Tacoma Narrows Bridge which opened on July 1, 1940 and fell into the Puget Sound four months later.
Also here, we see another quirk of these stories; frequently we’ll see characters talking in one panel and then the next panel will suddenly and bafflingly cut to a vantage point from orbit, with word balloons shooting up from the surface of the earth. It’s like Kirby thought the kids would get bored if he didn’t throw in something spacey every few pages.
In the aftermath, Phil is wracked with guilt, which he expresses to his “girl” Gloria. Eventually, Phil decides to hang it all up and give up on his bridge-building career. And Gloria, the loving, understanding partner that she is, immediately calls him a “coward” and says, “I’ve no longer any intention of marrying you! Good-bye!”
And I should note that the women in these early Marvel stories are so often depicted as shallow, mean-spirited harpies that it makes me seriously wonder what was going on in Stan Lee and/or Larry Lieber’s marriage at the time.
Nevertheless, Phil now turns to “designing useful machines”, including a cherry red steam shovel for a big construction job in Africa. Take a good look at it, folks. You’ll be seeing a lot more of this thing.
The guys doing the job want Phil to accompany them to Africa to test the steam shovel, but to Phil’s dismay, Bart Hanson, the foreman of the construction project, is now engaged to Phil’s ex Gloria, and all three of them are stuck together on a boat heading across the Atlantic. And I have to say, this sounds like the premise for one really bad romcom.
We see Gloria with her new man, and they seem to be quite the delightful couple.
As soon as they get to Africa they’re menaced by an elephant, as so often happens in Africa, I guess. For more evidence of what a prize this Bart guy is, he tries to whip the animal into submission, until Phil steps in.
Man, that second panel is just a beauty. I think I’m going to do whatever it takes to bring the pejorative “milksop” back into the common parlance.
Oh yeah, remember that disembodied alien essence floating through the jungle, looking for a new home for its consciousness? Well, you’ll never guess where it ends up!
That’s right: our characters are soon to cower in fear before a sentient steam shovel. And as ridiculous as this concept is, Lee/Lieber weren’t the first to come up with it. In fact, they most likely ripped off the idea of construction equipment getting possessed by disembodied evil from Theodore Sturgeon’s 1944 short story “Killdozer!” In the story, workers in the South Pacific accidentally open an ancient temple belonging to a long-lost civilization, releasing a being of pure energy that inhabits a bulldozer and begins killing the workers. The story was later made into the 1974 TV movie of the same name, which believe it or not I’ve actually seen, but the less said about it the better.
Unaware of what just happened, Phil climbs into his steam shovel and fires it up. He suddenly realizes that the machine now has a mind of its own. The African natives immediately freak out and run off, saying the thing is a “devil giant”. Bart then memorably calls Phil a “sniveling mollycoddle” (I’m putting that on the “to revive” list, right after “milksop”) and suggests he deliberately sabotaged the steam shovel to ruin the project and drive a wedge between Bart and Gloria. And then the machine begins to speak to them.
In “part 2” of this story, he declares his name is Trull, and Trull immediately wants the three of them to become his “slaves”. When they hesitate, Trull digs his “immense jaws” into the ground and shows them who’s boss.
And you know, I’m not sure what the top speed of a steam shovel generally is, but I’m thinking a monster that can be escaped by walking away at a brisk pace doesn’t make for the most intimidating nemesis.
As slaves, Phil and Bart and Gloria are compelled to bring Trull samples of minerals and plants, which he then uses to build his own TV set, which looks like something out of The Flintstones.
Then Trull the steam shovel begins hatching a plan, which inexplicably involves releasing “special pollen” in New York to cause “incredible vegetation” to overrun the city. And then once he’s finished, um, growing some really big plants, he’s going to use “gamma anti-matter ray” to shrink down all the military’s weapons. Here’s a tip, Trull: next time you’re explaining your plans for world domination, lead off with the stuff about destroying the military.
Also, this panel randomly includes a rabbit. I guess it’s for scale.
Trull promises the three humans that he will “wage war against your civilization”, and he’ll primarily do this by getting them to build a rocketship armed with “the deadliest weapons Earth has ever seen”. But he’s not going to start on that until tomorrow at dawn, because our boy Trull needs his sleep.
That night, the three humans try to figure out a way to foil his plan, and hit upon using a “short wave transmitter” to send out an emergency call. Sadly, they have the grave misfortune of reaching some extremely British guys who completely laugh at the notion of a “living steam shovel” and dismiss them as “madmen”.
So much for that plan, apparently, because they don’t try to contact someone else. The next day, they continue to do Trull’s bidding, until suddenly Gloria freaks out and tries to flee, only to trip (of course she does) and find herself about to be run over by Trull. Given Trull’s cruising speed, I’m thinking she has enough time to get up, dust herself off, and maybe smoke a cigarette or two and still safely get out of Trull’s way, but naturally she needs to be saved. Her new man Bart shows himself to be totally useless in this situation, so it’s up to our hero to rescue Gloria himself.
Phil commandeers Trull’s controls and “jams” them long enough to save Gloria. Trull quickly recovers and comes after them, but then the humans are saved when that elephant, apparently recalling Phil’s kindness earlier in the story, charges in to deal with Trull himself.
And so the Mighty Trull, destroyer of worlds, and would-be ruler of Earth, is defeated by an elephant cracking his engine cylinder, which lets out all the steam. Trull releases his jizz-like consciousness again, and we’re assured that when he finds another body, he’ll have “learned his lesson” and won’t try to subjugate humanity again.
And with that, the story’s over, other than the expected reconciliation between Phil and Gloria. It seems Gloria is so moved by Phil saving her life that she’s realized Bart is the one who’s really a coward, and she asks Phil if he’d like to get back together. And for the first time in this story, something truly unexpected happens: Phil says that “the answer’s ‘no’…”
I was positive this story would end with the couple falling in love again, like in so many of these giant monster stories, so color me shocked. It’s a surprising amount of maturity for a dumb kid’s comic about a killer steam shovel.
And that’s that, and the Earth was safe from a gigantic alien would-be conqueror, at least until the next issue.
Six issues later, Tales to Astonish featured a one-off story called “The Man in the Ant Hill”, about a scientist named Henry Pym who shrinks himself down and gets terrorized by ants. And then Marvel would undergo a major shift in its editorial direction, and Pym would return in issue #35 wearing red and blue tights, fighting crime, and calling himself the “Ant-Man”, and the rest is history.
Just like Marvel’s other sci-fi titles, Tales to Astonish became strictly a superhero comic, featuring the Ant-Man in every issue. Later, the series would feature a Hulk story backed up by a Sub-Mariner story in every issue, until finally ending with issue #101, with the new Incredible Hulk series picking up the numbering starting with 102.
But Tales to Astonish is mostly remembered as the comic where Ant-Man got his start, and it even garnered a name-drop in the 2015 movie.
But remember how I mentioned the Sturgeon short story “Killdozer!” and how it was made into a TV movie in 1974? Well, guess who published a comic book adaptation around the time the movie aired?
And so it all comes full circle. In the movie, the killer bulldozer is construction yellow, like, you know, an actual bulldozer, but here it’s colored the same bright shade of red as Trull the Mighty, which can’t be a coincidence. And having seen the incredibly dull TV movie, I decided to take a look at this comic, assuming I’d be able to tear into it, but it actually turned out to be a decent bit of sci-fi horror. I guess the general concept can be executed well when not in the hands of writers who had 18 other similar stories to crank out that month.
Remarkably, Tales to Astonish #21 wasn’t the last anyone would see of Trull. After being forgotten for almost fifty years, and wisely so, Trull made a reappearance in the 2009 miniseries Ghost Riders: Heaven’s on Fire (and you know a comic sucks when it’s named after a KISS song from their shitty hair metal days). Trull is still a steam shovel here, but he has a totally different color, suggesting that after his spirit was driven from his previous host, he decided to take up residence in… another steam shovel.
Trull shows up in this comic with virtually no explanation, attempting again to conquer the Earth, and is defeated two pages later when one of the Ghost Riders hits him with a tree, whereupon Trull’s consciousness jumps into a chainsaw, which gets crushed under the Rider’s boot.
Despite this violent end, Trull shows up again in the 2016 anthology series Civil War II: Choosing Sides, where he’s randomly discovered by Marvel’s post-battle cleanup crew Damage Control. He’s somehow a steam shovel again, but now he’s “Trull the Unhuman” with a U, since “Inhumans” have since become a totally different thing in the Marvel Universe. And this time, instead of trying to conquer humanity, he’s creating a “family” out of some of Damage Control’s smaller steam shovels.
The story is pretty silly and disposable, but I did get a good chuckle out of how Trull basically admits what a lame villain he is.
Eventually, Damage Control decides to make Trull their spokesman (spokesshovel?) on social media.
But it seems that still wasn’t the end of Trull; Marvel released a line of kids’ novels called Marvel Monsters Unleashed to coincide with the 2017 crossover event, which were apparently trying to repackage the Lee/Kirby giant monsters for a junior audience. One of those books is titled When Trull Attacks! But it doesn’t seem to have much to do with the Trull of the comics, as there’s a possessed sports car on the cover. Sorry, but when it comes to Trull, give me Steam Shovel Trull or GTFO.
And with that, you now know more than any sane human being should ever know about Trull the Mighty.