Sunday, 9 February 2020

Exposed: Myths of Marvel's Silver Age - Part 1

BACK IN THE EARLY 1960s, Marvel comics was a small publishing house that no one really cared about. After some back luck and at least one disastrous business decision during the 1950s, owner-publisher Martin Goodman, who was married to Stan Lee's mother's niece, was presiding over a company that had definitely seen better days.

But before I get too deeply into that, let's first pause to expose one of the minor myths of Marvel - that Stan Lee got his job because he was related to Martin Goodman. 

It wasn't publisher Martin Goodman who got Stan Lee his job at Timely (later Marvel) in 1941, but Stan's Uncle Robbie Solomon, who was also Goodman's brother-in-law.
In fact, Stanley Martin Leiber (I'm pretty sure the "Martin" was a coincidence) was largely unknown to Goodman. It was Stan's uncle, Robbie Solomon, who secured an interview for Stan with then-Timely editor Joe Simon - and probably pressured Simon to hire young Leiber - that resulted in Stan working for Goodman. So Stan's claim, in his biography Excelsior - The Amazing Life of Stan Lee, that "Martin and I had never had much to do with each other before I started working at his company" is probably true. "My first day on the job at Timely, Martin seemed surprised to see me," Stan continues. "He sounded puzzled as he asked me, 'What are you doing here?' I didn't know if Robbie had neglected to mention that I had been interviewed and accepted by editor Joe Simon, or if Simon himself had forgotten to tell him."

Joe Simon has disputed that story, for example, when interviewed by Mark Evanier at the 1998 San Diego Comic Convention. "That story can't be true. We only had three offices and a bunch of [Goodman's] relatives in the building." But then later in the interview, Simon make an interesting throwaway comment. "[Goodman] had all his relatives around him. He had Uncle Robbie there, taking care of Uncle Robbie."

That says more to me about how Stan ended up working for Goodman than anything else. It seems pretty certain that it was Robbie Solomon who got Stan the job. Goodman may well have not known about it. Because "Uncle Robbie was taking care of Uncle Robbie." As in, he was taking care of his own family, not Goodman's.

That Stan Lee worked directly for Editor Joe Simon has given rise to another Marvel myth - the idea that Stan Lee ratted on Simon and Kirby's moonlighting at DC during 1941, leading to the Captain America creators being fired from Timely. But first, some background. 

When Martin Goodman first got into comics with the prophetically titled Marvel Comics 1 (Oct 1939), he had used a comics "shop" run by Lloyd Jacquet, First Funnies Inc. Jacquet was also contracted to supply all the material for Marvel Mystery Comics and sister magazine Daring Mystery Comics. A third magazine, Mystic Comics, used material supplied by Harry Chesler.

For reasons unknown, Marvel Comics became Marvel Mystery Comics after its first issue. In short order, Martin Goodman added Daring Mystery Comics and Mystic Comics to the lineup. But neither enjoyed much success and were marked by irregular publication and constant lineup changes.
With Goodman wanting more, Jacquet assigned Simon to write and draw a Human Torch knock-off The Fiery Mask for Daring Mystery Comics 1 (Jan 1940). Goodman liked the character and invited Simon over to the Timely offices for a chat. Goodman asked Simon what Jacquet was paying him. When Simon replied, Goodman said he’d pay more for Simon to create original, selling concepts for Timely. So Simon started freelancing for Timely. In December 1939, Simon answered an ad in the New York Times and became the editor at Fox Features Syndicate, while continuing his freelance work for Funnies and Timely. He began working with Fox artist Jack Kirby on a Funnies project for Novelty Press, Blue Bolt. In the spring of 1940, Simon quit Fox and joined Timely as Editor, bringing Kirby with him. I explain all of this to show that working for more than one company at a time was considered normal in the early days of comics.


Another bit of important background. At the end of 1939, a couple of months after the release of Marvel Comics 1, MLJ published Pep Comics 1 (Jan 1940), featuring the first appearance of a red-white-and-blue super-hero The Shield. MLJ was co-owned by Maurice Coyne, Louis Silberkleit (Martin Goodman's first business partner in publishing), and John L. Goldwater, and would later morph into Archie Comics. Maurice Coyne is the name to watch, here.

MLJ's The Shield was the first superhero to dress up in the America Flag. Created by Harry Shorten (who would later edit Tower Comics in the 1960s) and Irv Novick, first appearing in Pep Comics 1 (Jan 1940). A later issue of Pep Comics - issue 17 (Jul 1941) - would debut a hero called The Hangman.
Back at Timely Comics, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby began to churn out material for Goodman's comic range, their key characters being Red Raven and all the backup features in Red Raven Comics 1 (Aug 1940), Marvel Boy in Daring Mystery 6 (Sep 1940), The Vision in Marvel Mystery 13 (Nov 1940) and, of course, Captain America and Bucky in Captain America Comics 1 (Mar 1941).

With Captain America Comics, Joe Simon had negotiated a better deal for Kirby and himself. He got Goodman to agree that Simon and Kirby would get 25% of the profits of Captain America Comics. For the first few issues, Simon and Kirby broke their backs to make Captain America the best comic they could, and their efforts were rewarded when sales rose to over one million copies. After Captain America 6 (Sep 1941) came out, pitting Cap against a villain called The Hangman, MLJ's John Goldwater, already smarting because Captain America was far outselling his own Pep Comics character The Shield, considered Timely's Hangman to be an infringement of his own Pep Comics hero, The Hangman, and threatened Goodman with a lawsuit. Goodman placated Goldwater by promising to never use The Hangman again. And that appeared to be the end of the matter.

However, is a strange turn of circumstance Maurice Coyne, who also worked as Martin Goodman's accountant at Timely Comics, drew Joe Simon aside, not long after the Hangman incident, and told him that Goodman was piling Timely expenses against Captain America Comics, so such an extent that the million-selling title wasn't showing a profit. And that Simon and Kirby were unlikely to get their 25%.

With the enormous success of Captain America Comics, Goodman capitalised by putting out further vehicles for Captain America ... All Winner Comics, USA Comics and Young Allies, all edited, written and drawn (to some extent) by the Simon and Kirby team.
Simon was furious, especially given that other Timely titles, USA Comics, All-Winners and Young Allies also featuring Captain America were selling near to a million copies a month too. So he put out feelers to National Comics publisher Jack Liebowitz, to see whether he and Kirby could jump ship. Liebowitz was delighted and quickly agreed to Simon's price of $500 a week, way more than the $85 and $75 Joe and Jack were getting from Goodman.

Simon and Kirby quickly rented office space and began working on concepts for National on their lunch-hours and in the evenings. But office junior Stan Lee began to get curious about where Simon and Kirby were disappearing off to and followed them one day. Realising they moonlighting on other projects, Stan pitched in to help, continuing as their gopher of the side project as well as in the Timely office. They swore Lee to secrecy and continued to work on concepts for Liebowitz.

Then one day, at Timely, Simon and Kirby were confronted by Goodman family members, including Robbie Solomon, who accused them of working for other publishers behind their backs. I'm not sure why this would have upset the Timely management so much. Moonlighting was pretty normal in these first, formative days of comics. Martin Goodman had actually asked Simon to moonlight for Timely while he was still at Funnies Inc. So the idea of Simon and Kirby moonlighting for another publisher while they were working at Timely surely couldn't have been a surprise.

Simon and Kirby were fired from Timely, but were forced to finish the current issue of Captain America first (10, Jan 1942), putting the date of the incident early to mid-September 1941.

A lot of people knew about Simon and Kirby's plans to move to National, but Simon recounts that Kirby always suspected Stan and that he commented, "Next time I see that little son of a bitch, I'm gonna kill him." (He didn't.) I'm not even sure why Kirby was upset. He and Simon were planning to leave Timely anyway. And even if Stan did tell the Goodmans - and there's no evidence that he did - they were his family, and Simon and Kirby weren't.


So with no evidence other than Kirby's general irritation with Lee to back it up, it seems as though the idea of Stan being responsible for Simon and Kirby leaving Timely in 1941 is a myth.


Was 1960s Marvel limited to eight titles a month?

This one is neither simple nor straightforward to answer. It's true that in the wake of the Great Atlas Implosion of 1957, Martin Goodman was forced to ask National publisher and rival Jack Liebowitz to distribute his Magazine Management publications, including the comics. As part of the deal, the comics were indeed limited to eight titles a month. That much is true. But it's not the full story. 

The popular myth is that Marvel limped through the 1960s with just 16 titles until it came time to renegotiate the contract with Independent News in 1967 and suddenly, with one bound, Marvel was free. But I looked at the Marvel line-up from 1957 to 1967 and the truth is a little bit different.

Westerns must've been struggling as the 1950s ended. Goodman cancelled Wyatt Earp, a title that began in 1949 and replaced it with the Archie Comics style My Girl Pearl (itself a revival of a 1950s title). Monsters were good business though, as Strange Tales and Tales to Astonish were promoted to monthly.
Yes, it is true that in the early days, Goodman was forced to cancel one title if he wanted to launch a new one. But that rule was eased as early as 1960 when, by the end of the year, the line had expanded by switching Strange Tales (with 78, Nov 1960) and Tales to Astonish (with 12, Oct 1960) from bi-monthly to monthly. Wyatt Earp with issue 29 (Jun 1960) was cancelled, its slot taken by My Girl Pearl 1 (Aug 1960). So Marvel was publishing nine titles a month.

1959 1960 1961
Odd months Even Months Odd months Even Months Odd months Even Months
Gunsmoke Western
Journey into Mystery
Kid Colt Outlaw
Love Romances
Mille the Model
My Own Romance
Tales of Suspense
Tales to Astonish
Battle
Patsy & Hedy
Patsy Walker
Strange Tales
Strange Worlds/Kathy
Two-Gun Kid
World of Fantasy/Date with Millie
Wyatt Earp
Gunsmoke Western
Journey into Mystery
Kid Colt Outlaw
Love Romances
Millie the Model
My Own Romance/Teen-Age Romance
Strange Tales
Tales of Suspense
Tales to Astonish
Battle/Rawhide Kid
Date/Life with Millie
Kathy
Patsy & Hedy
Patsy Walker
Strange Tales
Tales to Astonish
Two-Gun Kid
Wyatt Earp /My Girl Pearl
Fantastic Four
Gunsmoke Western

Journey into Mystery
Kid Colt Outlaw

Love Romances
Millie the Model
Linda Carter
Strange Tales
Tales of Suspense
Tales to Astonish
Teenage Romance
Two-Gun Kid/
Amazing Adventures

Journey into Mystery
Kathy
Life with Millie
My Girl Pearl/Amazing Adventures
Patsy & Hedy
Patsy Walker
Rawhide Kid
Strange Tales
Tales of Suspense
Tales to Astonish
8 slots 8 slots 9 slots 9 slots 12 slots 10 slots

By the end of 1961 Goodman had added Fantastic Four and Linda Carter as bi-monthlies. Two-Gun Kid and My Girl Pearl were cancelled, to be replaced by the monthly Amazing Adventures, leading to a net increase in titles to ten on even months and 12 on odd months.

Another long-running western comic Two-Gun Kid  was a casualty in 1961, cancelled with its 59th issue, making way for another monster title, Amazing Adventures. My Girl Pearl also went, but Linda Carter - Student Nurse was put on the schedule.
In 1962, Amazing Adventures became Amazing (Adult) Fantasy and motored right on as a monthly, until August's issue 15, when it was cancelled and Fantastic Four took over its monthly slot, with issue 6. Much has been made of the conflict between Stan Lee's editorial text in Amazing Fantasy 15, promising that Spider-Man would be the lead feature in future issues, and Stan later saying that he put Spider-Man in the magazine because he knew Goodman was cancelling it. They can't both be true. Given the timing of the cancellation and Fantastic Four's increasing sales, it seems to make the most sense that Goodman was winding up Amazing to clear the way to make FF a monthly. After all, he could always change his mind later, couldn't he? Similarly, with Fantastic Four doing so well, I think Goodman asked Stan for another superhero title, so he cancelled Teen-Age Romance (with 86, Mar 1962), making way for Incredible Hulk as a bi-monthly in May. The result was there were no net gains in 1962, with Goodman continuing to publish 12 comic titles one month and ten the next. Oh, and Two-Gun Kid returned in November.

Martin Goodman cancelled Teen-Age Romance with its 86th issue. That's a pretty good run for a general romance book. He still had Love Romances in that genre. The burgeoning Fantastic Four was moved to a monthly schedule with issue 6, but Amazing Fantasy was a casualty.
The following year 1963 maintained the number of titles, but there a few casualties. Sales of Incredible Hulk were disappointing, so Goodman cancelled it, and Stan Lee and Jack Kirby came up with Sgt Fury and His Howling Commandos as a replacement. 

I'm starting to see a pattern, here. Goodman apparently gave a title a year to prove itself. If it didn't make good sales, it was gone. Just like The Incredible Hulk, cancelled after six disappointing bi-monthly issues. In its place, a reliable war-themed book, Sgt Fury, but done in Lee and Kirby's successful Fantastic Four style.
Gunsmoke Western headed for the last round-up and its slot was taken by new team-book The Avengers. To accommodate the other team book Lee launched that year, The X-Men, Marvel's last love story anthology Love Romances called it a day.

1962 1963 1964
Odd months Even Months Odd months Even Months Odd months Even Months
Amazing Fantasy
Fantastic Four
Gunsmoke Western
Journey into Mystery
Kid Colt Outlaw
Linda Carter
Love Romances
Millie the Model
Strange Tales
Tales of Suspense
Tales to Astonish
Teenage Romances/Incredible Hulk

Amazing Fantasy/Fantastic Four
Journey into Mystery
Kathy
Life with Millie
Patsy & Hedy
Patsy Walker
Rawhide Kid
Strange Tales
Tales of Suspense
Tales to Astonish

Fantastic Four
Gunsmoke Western/Avengers
Incredible Hulk/Sgt Fury
Journey into Mystery
Kid Colt Outlaw
Linda Carter/Amazing Spider-Man
Love Romances/X-Men
Mille the Model
Strange Tales
Tales of Suspense
Tales to Astonish
Two-Gun Kid
Fantastic Four
Journey into Mystery
Kathy
Modelling with Millie
Patsy & Hedy
Patsy Walker
Rawhide Kid
Strange Tales
Tales of Suspense
Tales to Astonish
Amazing Spider-Man
Avengers
Fantastic Four
Gunsmoke Western
Journey into Mystery
Kid Colt Outlaw
Mille the Model
Sgt Fury
Strange Tales
Tales of Suspense
Tales to Astonish
Two-Gun Kid
X-Men
Amazing Spider-Man
Fantastic Four

Journey into Mystery
Kathy/Daredevil
Modelling with Millie
Patsy & Hedy
Patsy Walker
Rawhide Kid
Strange Tales
Tales of Suspense
Tales to Astonish
12 slots 10 slots 12 slots 10 slots 13 slots 11 slots

By 1964, Goodman was adding even more titles, sometimes increasing his slots by making the more successful bi-monthly titles monthly ... For example, the teen humour title Kathy was cancelled with issue 27, a respectable run for that kind of book. In its place came Daredevil, originally scheduled to launch alongside The X-Men and The Avengers

Even making Kathy a little bit less like Archie and a little bit more like Millie the Model couldn't save it, and it was axed with issue 27 (Feb 1964). Daredevil would have launched in 1963 - probably the month before or after The Avengers and X-Men, but Bill Everett struggled to get back into the swing of things and the book ran almost six months late.
The Avengers went monthly with issue 7. Meanwhile, Sgt Fury increased frequency in August Modelling with Millie went monthly in September, Millie the Model stepped up from bi-monthly in October, giving the Millie franchise an impressive four titles, including the two bi-monthly spin-offs Patsy and Hedy and Patsy Walker.

Goodman had started sneaking in reprint 25-centers, under the guise of them being annuals. In fact, the first two Marvel Tales were designated annuals on the cover, but that pretence would be dropped the following year. And when the titles proved successful, Goodman did his usual trick of copying his own success and canned poor old Patsy Walker to make way for another low-budget reprint book, Fantasy Masterpieces.
1965 remained quite stable for Marvel. Modelling with Millie dropped back to bi-monthly for the first half of the year, but was again monthly from the summer onwards. In December, X-Men went monthly, pushing Marvel's title-count by the close of the year to 15. Patsy Walker's final issue was 124 (Dec 1965). That would be replaced in 1966 by the bi-monthly Fantasy Masterpieces. Other reprint titles had been sneaking in on an irregular basis. They too would go on the schedule ...


1965 1966 1967
Odd months Even Months Odd months Even Months Odd months Even Months
Amazing Spider-Man
Avengers
Fantastic Four
Journey into Mystery
Kid Colt Outlaw
Mille the Model
Sgt Fury
Strange Tales
Tales of Suspense
Tales to Astonish
Two-Gun Kid
X-Men
Amazing Spider-Man
Daredevil
Fantastic Four
Journey into Mystery
Kathy
Modelling with Millie
Patsy & Hedy
Patsy Walker
Rawhide Kid
Strange Tales
Tales of Suspense
Tales to Astonish
Amazing Spider-Man
Avengers
Fantastic Four
Journey into Mystery
Kid Colt Outlaw
Marvel Tales
Mille the Model
Sgt Fury
Strange Tales
Tales of Suspense
Tales to Astonish
Two-Gun Kid
X-Men
Amazing Spider-Man
Avengers
Daredevil
Fantastic Four
Fantasy Masterpieces
Journey into Mystery
Marvel Collectors Items
Mille the Model
Modelling with Millie
Patsy & Hedy
Rawhide Kid
Strange Tales
Tales of Suspense
Tales to Astonish
X-Men
Amazing Spider-Man
Avengers
Daredevil
Fantastic Four
Kid Colt Outlaw
Marvel Tales
Mille the Model
Not Brand Echh
Sgt Fury
Strange Tales
Tales of Suspense
Tales to Astonish
Thor
Two-Gun Kid
X-Men
Amazing Spider-Man
Avengers
Daredevil
Fantastic Four
Fantasy Masterpieces/Marvel Superheroes
Marvel Collectors Items
Mille the Model
Modelling with Millie/Not Brand Echh
Patsy & Hedy/Ghost Rider
Rawhide Kid
Sgt Fury
Strange Tales
Tales of Suspense
Tales to Astonish
Thor
X-Men
12 slots 15 slots 15 slots 16 slots 15 slots 16 slots

In 1966, the reprint books Marvel Tales and Marvel Collectors' Item Classics became regular bi-monthly titles. Journey into Mystery became Thor (with the same numbering) so that doesn't really count as a cancellation and launch. The number of titles was further bumped up by Daredevil becoming a monthly as well.

Daredevil and X-Men were last two Marvel super-hero titles to make the switch from bi-monthly to monthly. In 1966, the only bi-monthlies Goodman still had were the untested Fantasy Masterpieces, along with other two 25c reprints Marvel Tales and Marvel Collectors' Items ... the westerns Kid Colt Outlaw, Rawhide Kid and Two-Gun Kid ... and Patsy and Hedy.
But 1967 was where it became really crazy. The Independent News contract was coming to a close and Marvel comics were gaining sales in leaps and bounds. In addition, IND - along with parent company National Periodical Publications (better known as DC) - were bought out by Kinney National, a cash-rich company with lots of car parks. Where DC sought to curb Marvel via their pointless restrictions, the new Kinney management soon tumbled to just how much money they were making distributing Marvels. It was in their own best interest to try to keep Goodman happy, because for the first time in ten years, he didn't really need them any more. With his sales figures, he could probably strike a deal with any distributor he chose.

Perfect Film owner Martin Ackerman also owned Curtis Circulation, who counted two of America's biggest selling titles in their portfolio. He was obviously keen to add rising star Marvel Comics to his line-up and would buy Marvel, if that's what it took.
It's not very clear what happened next. It does appear that Goodman revised the terms of his distribution deal with Kinney/IND towards the end of 1967 - the tenth anniversary of having to go cap-in-hand to DC's Jack Liebowitz to get his comics on the newsstands. This allowed him to release more titles and would have been part of Goodman's plan to sell Magazine Management. The more titles he was publishing, the higher price he could get for his company. And I think this is the point where Goodman decided to give the co-stars of his anthology titles their own comics.

In retrospect, it looks like the first seed of Goodman's expansionism was sowed here, with a tentative new war title, Captain Savage and His Leatherneck Raiders, a spin-off from the Sgt Fury title. The title was cover-dated Jan 1968, but actually went on sale on 9 Nov 1967.
Some critics have said that this decision was the beginning of the end for Marvel. Saleswise, the company was doing terrifically well, overtaking DC Comics in total copies sold, at 50 million a year. Expanding the stories in the split titles from 11 pages a month each to 20 pages put a big strain on Stan and the Bullpen and the quality inevitably slipped. But the point is Martin Goodman didn't care! He was aiming to sell the business, not make great comics.


After Captain Savage, Goodman next tried a new costumed character in the pages of Marvel Super-Heroes (in reality, a re-named Fantasy Masterpieces). Initially published to secure the name and prevent others trademarking a superhero with "Marvel" as part of his name, the character would be part of the 1968 Marvel explosion.
And sure enough, in 1968, it was revealed that Goodman had been in talks with Marty Ackerman to sell Magazine Management to Perfect Film and Chemical. Ackerman was also negotiating with Curtis Circulation, which distributed Saturday Evening Post and Playboy among others, around the same time. So adding Marvel Comics to that acquisition would have made for a very attractive deal.

Goodman's expansion began more aggressively at the beginning of 1968. Tales of Suspense became Captain America with issue 100 (Apr 1968, on sale 2 Jan); Iron Man and Sub-Mariner were put in a holding book, on sale the same day; Tales to Astonish was renamed Incredible Hulk with issue 102 (Apr 1968, on sale 9 Jan); Iron Man and Sub-Mariner then graduated to their own titles, cover-dated May 1968 (on sale 1 Feb).

Tales of Suspense and Tales to Astonish were the first of the Marvel anthology books to be expanded. I was delighted to be getting 20 pages of Kirby Captain America every month and I also couldn't get enough Gene Colan Iron Man ... imagine my disappointment a few months later.
Relentlessly, Marvel kept on going ... Captain Marvel was awarded his own title a week later, also cover-dated May 1968, on sale 8 Feb; June cover-dated additions were Doctor Strange and Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD, both on-sale 1 Mar. The big surprise was Silver Surfer's own new title, cover dated Aug 1968, on sale 1 May. It was a brilliant, if expensive, time for Marvelites.

Captain Marvel was one of my favourites, as I was a major Colan fan. And when Gene took over Doctor Strange, the title really came to life for me. Steranko's SHIELD comics were a delight, but he couldn't sustain the pace and Buscema's artwork on Silver Surfer was just sublime.
The net result was that Stan Lee's top artists were stretched thinly across the range. Jack Kirby would continue to draw Fantastic Four and Thor, and his 11 page Captain America assignment would go up to 20 pages monthly. Sixty pages a month would be tough sledding, even for speed-demon Kirby. Gene Colan would continue with his 20-page Daredevil gig, but his Iron Man would go from 11 pages to 20, and he also had 20 pages of Captain Marvel to draw. He only lasted four issues on that title. Stan would look to Colan in the next few months to take over Doctor Strange, so he also dropped Iron Man with issue 2 - which is where I lost interest in the title. John Buscema would take over Sub-Mariner art from a revolving door of artists -  including creator Bill Everett, Werner Roth and even Gene Colan - while continuing to pencil The Avengers - he would add Silver Surfer to his workload a few months later.

1968
Odd months Even Months
Amazing Spider-Man
Avengers
Captain Marvel
Captain Savage
Daredevil
Doctor Strange
Fantastic Four
Incredible Hulk
Iron Man
Kid Colt Outlaw
Marvel Superheroes
Marvel Tales
Mille the Model
Nick Fury
Sgt Fury
Sub-Mariner
Thor
Two-Gun Kid
X-Men
Amazing Spider-Man
Avengers
Captain Marvel
Captain Savage
Daredevil
Doctor Strange
Fantastic Four
Incredible Hulk
Iron Man
Marvel Superheroes
Marvel Tales
Mille the Model
Nick Fury
Not Brand Echh
Rawhide Kid
Sgt Fury
Silver Surfer
Sub-Mariner
Thor
X-Men
19 slots 20 slots

But it wouldn't be long before the cracks began to show ... by the beginning of the year, Kirby would relinquish Captain America to Jim Steranko for three glorious issues before Stan began musical artist chairs on the title. For the two following months, John Romita and John Buscema each took a swing at Cap before Stan settled on Gene Colan, who provided pencils from issues 118 to 137. Doctor Strange fared a little better. After a shaky start with Dan Adkins artwork, Colan took over that one too and powered Marvel's Master of the Mystic Arts through the next 11 issues ... but in May 1969 the title dropped to bi-monthly (along with Captain Savage) and was cancelled with Doctor Strange 183 (Nov 1969). For me that was a terrible development, as it was one of my favourite Marvel titles at the time.

On the SHIELD title, Steranko managed 1 - 3 and 5 before quitting, when Stan hired veteran Frank Springer as a substitute. My 14 year-old self wasn't impressed. The title limped along till the end of 1969, when it was cancelled with issue 15 (Nov 1969). And 1969's final casualty was Captain Marvel, suspended as of issue 19 (Dec 1969). But by that time, Goodman had sold Marvel Comics to Marty Ackerman for $15 million, so he didn't care. Ackerman didn't care either, as he'd paid Goodman far less than what Magazine Management was worth.

In the very next entry in this blog, I'll look into the prevailing wisdom that:

  • Marvel overtook DC in sales in 1971 with their on-again off-again price hike
  • Stan Lee invented the "Marvel Method" of creating comics
  • Stan Lee was fed up with kids comics so he came up with Fantastic Four.



Next time: More musings on Marvel Myths



Thursday, 9 January 2020

Marvel's Weird One-Shots (or, Hey ... where's issue 2?)

THE SECOND HALF OF THE 1960s was a strange time for Marvel Comics. Stan Lee had established a strong line of comic books by 1966, and was less restricted by distributor Independent News' eight-titles-a-month rule. With a roster of 20 titles, many of them monthly, Martin Goodman was also sneaking in Annuals (which seemed to be exempt from the distributors' monthly limit) and some puzzling one-shots.

I have no recollection of when I first saw Marvel Super-Heroes 1 (Oct 1966). And back when I was twelve, it never occurred to me to question why a comic was published. I'm sure I would have thought it was simply a companion magazine to the other giant comics I loved so much, Marvel Tales and Marvel Collectors' Item Classics. Expensive though they were at 1/6, almost double the price of a regular comic, they provided me and many other Marvel latecomers easy access to the earliest Marvel stories. I think at the time I had already picked up Avengers 2 and Daredevil 1 from one of the second-hand shops I haunted, so for me the big draw with MSH1 was the reprint of the Golden Age Human Torch and Sub-Mariner battle from Marvel Mystery Comics 8 (Jun 1940).

The casual observer would be hard pressed to know why Stan Lee had put together a comic that reprinted the first issue of Daredevil (then a little over two years old) along with the second issue of The Avengers (Avengers 1 had been reprinted in Marvel Tales 2 the year before).
Ever since reading in Fantastic Four 4 (May 1962) that there had been Sub-Mariner comics in the 1940s, I'd been intrigued to know what they were like. And here was Stan showing us not only some pages from the Golden Age of Comics, but also his first text story from Captain America 3 (May 1941). 

To be honest, the Golden Age was a bit of a disappointment to my 12 year old self. Even at that age, I could grasp the historical importance, but I thought the actual comic strip was crudely drawn - I mean, I thought I could have done better myself - and was badly written. Not like the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby tales I was reading in the contemporary Marvels. And from there on, I never really warmed to the comics of the 1940s.

None of this explains, however, what the point of Marvel Super-Heroes 1 was. Despite promising in the small print that the title would be published quarterly, the second issue never appeared. And I didn't find out the answer to that until fairly recently. Because what we fans couldn't know was that Marvel publisher Martin Goodman had ordered Stan Lee to get a comic on the newsstands called Marvel Super-Heroes to promote the forthcoming September 1966 release of the syndicated Marvel Super-Heroes tv show.

Here's one of the ads that ran in Marvel comics for the Marvel Super-Heroes syndicated television cartoon show. No sign of Daredevil here. I wonder what Stan was thinking ...
So the comic came out in July 1966 (in the US), to promote a show that debuted in the autumn of 1966 on American television and because the comic didn't even carry an ad for the show, we had no way of knowing in the UK that the two had anything to do with one another. Stan didn't even explain the connection in the Bullpen Bulletins page for October 1966, when he announced the MSH comic. 

From Stan's wording here, it does sound like Marvel Super-Heroes was planned as an ongoing title, but its slot was taken by Fantasy Masterpieces, which eventually underwent a title change to Marvel Super-Heroes anyway. Click on image to enlarge.
This could have been because Martin Goodman didn't want any info about the forthcoming tv show leaked too early. Stan plugged the show in the very next Bullpen Bulletins page in the November cover-dated issues. Then, a year later, Marvel would change Fantasy Masterpieces, a title reprinting mostly Golden Age and Atomic Age Marvel characters, into a comic that would showcase new characters under consideration for their own titles. Stan called it Marvel Super-Heroes.

The first try-out in the newly revamped Fantasy Masterpieces was for Captain Marvel. There would be more, but only the above Kree warrior would go on to have his own series from 1968 to 1979, which would cement the reputation of Jim Starlin as a top writer-artist and give us Thanos as a major Marvel villain.
During the negotiations for the Marvel Super-Heroes show, Martin Goodman had held back Spider-Man and Fantastic Four from consideration, because I suppose he figured he could get a better deal for those characters if the 1966 Super-Heroes show did well. It must have worked, because in 1967, Marvel announced that network ABC would be screening Spider-Man and Fantastic Four cartoons as part of their Saturday morning show, "Hannah-Barbera's World of Super Adventure". The Fantastic Four cartoon was produced by Hannah-Barbera, and I'm presuming this made for better quality of animation than the low-budget, limited animation we got with the Marvel Super-Heroes show. I'm saying "presume" because I've never seen any episodes. That's right, the series was never screened in the UK and wasn't released on DVD, as the Hannah-Barbera catalogue is owned by Warner Brothers - who probably don't want to be promoting Marvel characters in competition with their own DC properties.

This ad appeared in the November-dated Marvel comics during 1967 (which would have been on sale in August), though the cartoons were mentioned in the Bullpen Bulletins page in the October-dated Marvels.
The Spider-Man half of the hour slot was produced by Grantray-Lawrence and wasn't much better quality animation than that of the MSH show they had also produced. I wrote a little about the show in an earlier blog, so I won't rehash that here ... but as with Marvel Super-Heroes, Martin Goodman hatched a plan to promote both Marvel Comics and the Marvel cartoons with a special one-shot mag, America's Best TV Comics 1 (Nov 1967).

Though it wasn't branded as such, the comic was produced by the Marvel Bullpen and featured - front and centre - a severely edited Spider-Man story (reprinting just ten story pages from Amazing Spider-Man 42) and another ten pages from Fantastic Four 19.

Though not branded as such, America's Best TV Comics was certainly a Bullpen Production, mostly under the watchful eye of key Marvel production man Sol Brodsky. There's evidence of Paul Reinman, Frank Giacoia and Bill Everett art inside.
The rest of the comic was filled out with a Casper the Friendly Ghost reprint, and some specially commissioned strips featuring George of the Jungle, Journey to the Center of the Earth and King Kong, by various members of the Marvel art staff. Sixty-four pages of comics for 25c ... and no ads. And no Beatles, probably due to contract issues, or perhaps the fact that the cartoon feature Yellow Submarine was either under way, or about to start production, and the loveable Moptops were keeping their options open. I'm pretty sure this wasn't distributed in the UK, and I picked up my copy at a London Comics Convention some time in the late 1970s.

I bought this comic off the spinner rack in 1967 and it was worth every penny of the 1/6 price tag. Not only did Daredevil battle six of his most dangerous enemies across 39 pages of story, there were cracking back-up features about DD, all illustrated by the brilliant Gene Colan.
Around the same time, Marvel prepared another one-shot, the Daredevil Annual 1 (Sep 1967). OK, technically an Annual isn't a one-shot, but in all fairness the second (all-reprint) issue didn't appear until 1971 - well outside the fabled Silver Age of comics and therefore in my book doesn't count!

The comic essentially tried to invoke the same magic as the frankly fabulous Amazing Spider-Man Annual 1 from 1964. And to be fair, with the incredible Gene Colan artwork it almost managed it. The main story was a rattling good read at 39 pages of all-new Gene Colan art, and at the time Colan was my absolute favourite Marvel artist. Backing that up were 16 pages of pinups and behind-the-scenes explanations of how DD's billy club works, and like that.

The pinups in the Daredevil Annual were pretty darn good. The Daredevil pinup was iconic and as a 13 year-old, I was especially taken with the portrait of Karen Page ... Colan always did draw gorgeous girls.
Beyond the comics it published in 1967, Marvel was affected by other big changes in the industry. The first was that National Periodical Publications (it didn't officially change its name to "DC Comics" until 1971) was bought by Kinney National, a car park company that had money to invest. They would later also buy Warner Brothers-Seven Arts. This was important to Martin Goodman's operation because National Periodicals also owned Independent News, the company that distributed Goodman's magazines and comics ... and it was National's Jack Liebowitz who maintained the limiting stranglehold over the number of titles Marvel could put on the newsstands.

I can't be sure, but it seems pretty likely to me that someone at Kinney looked over the sales figures of Marvel and thought, "Why the heck are we limiting these guys? They could be selling millions more comics for us if we just let them!"

As mentioned at the end of my October 2019 post, according to the audited ABC magazine sales figures, by the beginning of 1967, Marvel was beginning to edge in front of DC in sales. So it's likely that the bean-counters at Kinney removed the restrictions, paving the way for Marvel's expansion at the end of 1967 and into 1968, beginning with the Marvel anthology titles Tales to Astonish, Strange Tales and Tales of Suspense.

For years I wondered why Martin Goodman structured the expansion of the anthology titles the way he did. I've laid out a plan of the 1968 expansion in the below table so you can see at a glance how Suspense, Astonish and Strange Tales were converted to single character titles.


Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
Captain America - - - 100 101 102 103 104 105 106 107 108
Doctor Strange - - - - - 169 170 171 172 173 174 175
Hulk - - - 102 103 104 105 106 107 108 109 110
Iron Man - - - - 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
Iron Man & Subby - - - 1 - - - - - - - -
Nick Fury - - - - - 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Strange Tales 164 165 166 167 168 - - - - - - -
Sub-Mariner - - - - 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
Tales of Suspense 97 98 99 - - - - - - - - -
Tales to Astonish 99 100 101 - - - - - - - - -

In April, Tales of Suspense was retitled Captain America and Tales to Astonish became The Incredible Hulk. Now to my 13 year old way of thinking, Marvel should have put Iron Man and Sub-Mariner immediately into their own titles. But Martin Goodman was likely much more savvy when it came to newsstand distribution, so he held the Iron Man and Sub-Mariner titles back a month. I'm now guessing he did that so as not to stretch the pocket money of his young customers too thin in a single month.

However, that would have left Marvel readers without an Iron Man or a Sub-Mariner story in April 1968 ... so Goodman simply put a new comic on the schedule ... the one-shot Iron Man and Sub-Mariner 1.

Iron Man and Sub-Mariner 1 had wall-to-wall Gene Colan art, so that was an excellent reason to buy it ... also the stories continued right on from Tales of Suspense 99 and Tales to Astonish 101.
Unfortunately for Editor Stan, both the Iron Man and Subby tales were right in the middle of a story arc, so it wasn't possible to do a special Iron Man/Subby battle or team-up issue along the lines of Tales to Astonish 100 (Feb 1968). This also makes me suspect that Goodman's decision to expand the three anthology titles into six comics was likely quite a sudden one. So Stan had to find a way to continue the storylines and yet still fit in with Goodman's staggered launch approach for Sub-Mariner, Iron Man, Doctor Strange and Nick Fury Agent of SHIELD.

This was how Stan announced the expansion of the Marvel line in the early months of 1968 ... a little cryptically, it's true, but it's not hard to guess what would be happening after the appearance of Iron Man and Sub-Mariner 1. Stan's also talking up Not Brand Echh and the forthcoming Captain Marvel title.
And he did that by cramming two 11-page instalments of the Iron Man and the Sub-Mariner story arcs into one regular-size comic mag. The following month, both characters would get their own titles ... but for comic readers in the UK, the spotty distribution meant that I picked up both IM&Subby 1 and Iron Man 1 (May 1968) off the same spinner rack at the same time.

Later the same year, I came across the 68 page giant Tales of Asgard 1 (Oct 1968). This simply packaged up the "Tales of Asgard" back-up strips from Journey Into Mystery 97 - 106 in a double-sized 25c package. I'm really not sure what the point of that was ... the back-up strip had been chopped out of Thor's ongoing comic with issue 145, replaced in Thor 146 with The Inhumans. When that mini-series came to an end, the main Thor strip was expanded to 20 pages to fill the comic. Was Stan - or possibly Martin Goodman - testing the waters to see if the readers wanted "Tales of Asgard" back? Certainly, Thor was the best-selling of the former anthology titles (averaging 295,000 copies a month during 1968, compared with the next best-selling, Astonish at a tad under 278,000).

As promising as the cover was, Tales of Asgard was just a bunch of reprints from the old Journey into Mystery comics of the early 1960s. What a shame Jack Kirby didn't get to do a full-on epic length version of Ragnarok, instead.
Whatever the reason, the comic remained a one-shot (it was billed that way in the mag's indicia), and we wouldn't see "Tales of Asgard" again for a very long time.

That same month, Marvel published the first Hulk Special, another mag that wouldn't have a second issue - at least not for several years, and all-reprint, at that. (Edit - Kid Robson has pointed out that the second Hulk Special did appear just a year later. It just seemed a lot longer to my tweenage self.)

I never get tired of looking at this ... one of Stan's less-successful editorial decisions was getting Marie Severin to redraw the Hulk's face on Jim Steranko's overnight cover art he did for the Hulk King-Size Special 1 when Dan Adkins couldn't deliver the job to deadline.
I won't go too much into the content of Hulk King-Size Special 1 (Oct 1968), as I covered it in some detail both in the "Messing with the Cover" entry in this blog and in the more recent Inhumans entry, just a couple of months back. The story was a mammoth 51 pages, a record I believe for a single story at the time, which left little room for any back-up features. Also, that job kept penciller Marie Severin away from the regular monthly Hulk title, opening the way for newcomer Herb Trimpe to take over, a strip he would later become inextricably linked with.

And that was pretty much it for Marvel one-shots in the Silver Age. As the 1960s drew to a close, and Martin Goodman was edged ever-closer to the door by Marvel's new owners, Perfect Film and Chemical, the company aggressively expanded the line, looking to crowd DC Comics and other competitors off the newsstands, stretching themselves thin and compromising the quality of the content in the longer term ... but that's a story for another time.

Next: Exposed - Myths of the Marvel Silver Age