Friday, 30 November 2018

Collectors' Item Classics from Marvel

BACK IN 1981 I SOLD ALL MY MARVELS. It was for a good reason, though I won't go into that here. But I cannily felt that surely the worth of all this fading newsprint couldn't possibly go any higher and I divested my holdings.

My entire comics collection - I had just about every Marvel from 1959, apart from Fantastic Four 1 - was put under the figurative hammer for whatever I could get for it. For my Amazing Fantasy 15 I got £75. It's an interesting story how I acquired that comic. 

This is all I have left of my original Marvel Comics collection - a few blurry pictures taken while I was trying to figure out how to use a new camera I had. The Hulk 1 was especially tatty, as I'd picked it up in a second hand shop about twelve years earlier.
Back in 1971, I'd been fortunate enough to go on a school trip to the United States. While on a homestay in Connecticut, I chanced across a small store with a single comics spinner rack. All they had was about ten copies of Conan the Barbarian 1 (Oct 1970). Why it was still sitting on the spinner rack almost a year after its release is anyone's guess. I'd seen DC's Anthro a couple of years earlier and decided I didn't like 'caveman comics" so I bought just the one copy of Conan the Barbarian 1

For some reason, my addled teenage brain thought that Marvel's Conan the Barbarian was the same genre of comic as DC's Anthro. I didn't really like stories about cavemen and mammoths so I passed up the chance of ten copies of Conan 1 for 15 cents a piece at the time.
A few years later, just as the fanzine scene was getting underway in the UK, I placed an ad in Doug Gifford's Thing magazine, looking to plug the gaps in my Silver Age Marvel collection and offered up for trade my near-mint Conan 1, still a pretty rare comic in the UK at the time. Someone offered me a vg copy of Amazing Fantasy 15, so I took the deal.

Anyhow, during the 1990s, I was working at 2000AD - headquartered in the Bloomsbury area of central London. Not far away was GOSH Comics, so I'd wander down there in my lunch hour to pick up my copy of Comics International and to have a prowl through the inexpensive back issues on offer. I started amassing a neat collection of Charlton comics, precisely because they were cheap and had cool, neglected characters like Captain Atom and Blue Beetle, all drawn by Steve Ditko.

During my time on 2000AD, I cultivated a taste for quirky, non-corporate comics. Charltons were definitely quirky and, at that time, cheap - they could be picked up for about £3.50 each. Pretty quickly, I had complete runs of Captain Atom and Frank MacLaughlin's JudoMaster. Still love that costume.
Because I'd become interested in Martial arts during those years, I also started to pick up copies of Charlton's JudoMaster. Then it wasn't long before I acquired a set of Paul Gulacy's run on Marvel's Master of Kung Fu. I was in full-on collecting mode again. At the time, I didn't think it was feasible to go after Marvel Silver Age comics as they had increased mightily in value in the twelve years since I'd sold my original collection. So I started seeking out period reprints of those comics ... and of course, my eye first fell on Marvel Tales and Marvel Collectors' Item Classics.


In the very early 1960s, DC's Dark Overlord Mort Weisinger hit on the idea of reprinting old stories in a bumper-sized comic and selling it for more than double the price of a regular comic. With no expenditure on new material, these comics must have been a cash-cow for DC. So it wasn't long before Marvel's Publisher Martin Goodman thought of the same idea himself.

The earliest of Marvel's reprint 25c comics aped the style of the DC Annuals - composite covers featuring scenes from the stories inside. But where the DC books were 80 pages with no ads, Marvel's were 72 pages with ads. Not content with just chiselling the creative people who worked for Marvel, Goodman also chiselled his customers.
I had missed the earliest of the Marvel 25c comics, so Marvel Tales Annual 1 (1964) - with its cover-to-cover origin stories - was always one that I had coveted back in the day. I wouldn't track down a copy until around 1990.

But in 1965, it had become apparent to Goodman and his editor Stan Lee, that many Marvel fans wanted to read the earlier stories they'd missed. The steady stream of requests for back issues must have been some sort of a clue, so in 1965, Stan made more of a concerted effort to make the formative adventures of Marvel's key characters available ... and make some easy money for Marvel in the process.

The second Marvel Tales reprinted the first issues of The Avengers and The X-Men. The first issue of MCIC re-presented Fantastic Four 2 and Amazing Spider-Man 3. The Journey into Mystery Annual contained an all new Thor story and reprinted JiM 85, 93, 95 and 97.
A second Marvel Tales Annual came out, along with a Journey into Mystery Annual. And curiously, Stan added Marvel Collectors' Item Classics to the lineup - this one positioned as a "King-Size Bullpen Book" and with a decidedly different cover style. Instead of scenes from the stories inside, MCIC featured the actual covers of the interior reprints. From that point on, that would be the style for the next couple of years of Marvel's main reprint books.

I had owned most of these reprint collections first time around, but in the 1990s, they were an ideal resource for me to see many of my favourite stories, more or less exactly as they originally appeared. I've not done a side-by-side comparison, but I don't recall these early Marvel Tales and MCIC reprints as having any obvious changes from the originals ... like lettering corrections or different colour schemes.

But as I gathered more an more of these issues, I started noticing that they had slowly begun to deviate from just reprinting the original comics. At first it was the inclusion of the occasional unpublished pinup (as detailed in my last blog entry). Then, for reasons lost in the mists of time, the reprint's original cover artwork was replaced with new art.

The first issue this happened with was Marvel Tales 12 (Jan 1968). Just an issue before, the cover format of Marvel Tales had changed to focus on the original Amazing Spider-Man cover art by Steve Ditko. But for whatever reason, Stan didn't think Ditko cover for ASM17 was suitable, so had the art department (ie, John Verpoorten, according to GCD) put together an amalgam of two different covers.

I don't think there's anything wrong with the cover art on Amazing Spider-Man 17, although you might argue that the Spidey figure is a little small. Nonetheless, Stan (or possibly Roy) ordered that the art department fudge together a new cover illo for Marvel Tales 12 by enlarging the Spider-Man image and dropping in the Green Goblin from ASM39. I'm not entirely sure it works, are you?
For the next couple of years, Marvel Tales trundled along, reproducing the original Steve Ditko Spider-Man covers, although with some alterations to fit the 25c book's different cover format. Then, beginning with the May 1970 issue, Marvel Tales inexplicably ran a series of new covers.

In the middle of 1970, Marvel Tales featured a short run of new covers by Marie Severin - apart from issue 29, which had art by Sal Buscema. No one knows why this came about. With Marvel Tales 30, the covers returned to using the original Romita drawn covers from Amazing Spider-Man.
Then it was back to reprints as usual ... quite what motivated this isn't clear. There's certainly nothing wrong with the Ditko covers that go with the stories. Unless someone thought that the older Ditko art didn't reflect the then-contemporary look of the character under John Romita. In which case, it'd have been nice to have new John Romita covers for those issues. In case you might find it useful, here's a handy-dandy guide to what was reprinted in the first few issues of Marvel Tales ...

(in Journey into Mystery)
Human Torch
(in Strange Tales)
(in Astonish)
Marvel Tales 1
Marvel Tales 2
Marvel Tales 3
Marvel Tales 4
Marvel Tales 5
Marvel Tales 6
Marvel Tales 7
ASM Ann 3
11, 12
Marvel Tales 8
Marvel Tales 9
Marvel Tales 10

Marvel Collectors' Item Classics had a shorter run under that title than Marvel Tales. The four-miniature-cover covers ended with issue 11 and the title switched to reprinting the original Fantastic Four cover art as the main cover image. Except for issue 12 (Dec 1967), which had a weird hodge-podge of Kirby art drawn from various sources. Have fun trying to identify where they come from ...

This was the only issue of Marvel Collectors' Item Classics that didn't use original cover artwork from any of the reprinted comics inside - Fantastic Four 17, Iron Man from Suspense 52, Dr Strange from Strange Tales 121 and nine pages of Incredible Hulk 6.
With issue 22, Marvel Collectors' Item Classics drew to a close. It was just too much hard work to mention the comic by name, so Stan sensibly continued the numbering with the more modestly labelled Marvel's Greatest Comics, which sort of fitted with the top-line text on every Fantastic Four comic - "The World's Greatest Comics Magazine".

For the first four issues, Marvel's Greatest Comics just used the Kirby FF covers for the issues it was reprinting. Then - at around the same time that Marvel Tales briefly switched to puttting new covers on the old reprints, MGC started the same practice. Starting with Marvel's Greatest Comics 27 (Mar 1970), we got new cover art by Jack Kirby for two issues (probably some of the last work he did for Marvel before departing for DC). Marvel Greatest Comics 29 (Dec 1970) was a bit of an anomaly, as it reprinted two out-of sequence FF issues - 12 and 31 - then it was back to the in-sequence Fantastic Four reprints with FF 37 and 38 behind an all-new Sal Buscema and Marie Severin cover. And for anyone interested, here's a run-down of which early Marvel issues were reprinted in the first 11 issues of Marvel Collectors' Item Classics (the ones with the tiny cover repros on the front).

Amazing Spider-Man Dr Strange
(in Str. Tales)
(in Astonish)
Iron Man
(in Suspense)
FF Ann 1 1 (part)
MCIC 1 2 3 36
MCIC 2 3 4 37
MCIC 3 4 110 40 3
FF Annual 2 5
FF Annual 3 6
MCIC 4 7 111 41 4
MCIC 5 8 114 42 4
MCIC 6 9 116 43 5
MCIC 7 13 117 44 5
MCIC 8 10 118 45 2
FF Annual 3
MCIC 9 14 119 46 2
MCIC 10 15 Unpublished pinup 47 2
MCIC 11 16 120 51 6

I didn't collect Marvel Tales or Marvel's Greatest Comics much past the point where the cover price dropped to 20c and we got 36 pages instead of 68 ... or even 52. Even though this was the point where Roy Thomas again began commissioning new cover art for the reprint books.

The above Marvel's Greatest Comics covers are by Gil Kane (34), John Buscema (35), Sal Buscema (36) and Gil Kane (37). Not a bad artist among them. So how come their art just isn't as good as Jack Kirby's original covers?
Thinking about it now, it probably really did have something to do with bringing the look of the reprint titles in line with how the character's contemporary adventures looked under Marvels new star artists John Romita and John Buscema. Yet even those these covers were by Marvel's best and brightest 1970s artists, they just didn't compare with the original covers drawn by Jack Kirby and John Romita five or six years earlier.

This batch of Marvel's Greatest Comics covers are by Sal Buscema (38), Jim Starlin (39), Sal Buscema (40) and Jim Starlin (41). I'll grudgingly admit I really like the Starlin art, but there was no way anyone was ever going to draw a better cover than Jack Kirby's original for Fantastic Four 51. Ever.
But don't take my word for it. Take a look for yourself. I've compiled the newly-drawn reprint books' covers alongside the original issues' covers. Try telling me the earlier artworks aren't more striking and impactful.

Meanwhile, over on Marvel Tales, the new cover art was supplied by Gil Kane (34 and 35), John Romita (36) and Sal Buscema (37). Seems that not even John Romita can match John Romita's original cover art from Amazing Spider-Man 51. I wonder why Marvel Tales missed out on reprinting Amazing Spider-Man 50?
Even stranger, the Marvel Tales issues were reprinting the John Romita era Spider-Man stories by this time. So I really can't see why you wouldn't use the original covers, as Romita was also still drawing covers for the 1972 era Amazing Spider-Man comics.

This final batch of four Marvel Tales reprints has covers by Sal Buscema (38), John Buscema (39) and Gil Kane (40 and 41). So it looks like John Romita had given up trying to complete with his own earlier work and left the field clear for others to flounder in. As much as I love Big John Buscema's work, it's just not a very good cover ...
Yet despite these minor carps, Marvel Tales and Marvel's Greatest Comics - along with their other reprint-y stablemates - offered me an terrific opportunity to have reading copies of all these classic Marvel stories at exceptionally cheap prices. Really, no one wanted this stuff during the 1990s and you could pick it up for pennies.

These days we have stacks of wonderful reprints of classic comics from just about every era in every high street bookshop, all printed on lavish glossy white paper.

But it's not the same, is it? These stories were meant to be read on newsprint and for the most part, the classic 1970s Marvel reprint books are your best opportunity to experience these stories properly ... without breaking the bank.

Looks like I'm all out of room for now, so I'll have to leave my look at the remaining Marvel reprint titles - Marvel Double Action, Triple Action and Super Action - for another time.

Next: Secret agents and super spies

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Marvel Masterwork Pin-ups

AT THE DAWN OF MARVEL COMICS, back in 1961, Editor Stan Lee must have known he had a big hill to climb. He presided over a comic line that had once been the largest in the business, and was now one of the smallest. This wasn't due to Lee's poor handling of the comics, but a direct result of publisher Martin Goodman's unsound business decisions.

In 1957, Goodman had decided to close down his own Atlas magazine distribution company and  strike a deal with the third party distributor American News to get his publications to the stands. Just months later, American News went out of business, leaving Goodman's magazines, including the comics, with no route to the newsstands. In the end, Goodman was able to do a deal with arch-rivals Independent News (distributors of DC Comics), but was forced to accept an eight titles per month cap on his comics line.

At the beginning of 1959, the old Atlas Comics company was limping along, using the few artists who'd stuck with Stan through the lean years. No sign of brash newcomer Jack Kirby on any of these Jan 1959 titles.
This left Stan to soldier on with a severely curtailed line of titles, mostly in the monster, western and teen humour genres. And as the 1950s drew to a close, serial copycat Goodman ordered Lee to come up with a superhero team to go up against DC's successful Justice League of America comic.

Lee turned to his newest star artist Jack Kirby and together the pair concocted The Fantastic Four - a strange and different kind of superhero comic in which the main characters didn't wear costumes, didn't have secret identities and didn't like each other very much. Presumably so as to fly under the DC radar, Stan had Kirby make the new comic look not-much-different to the oddball monster titles  the former Atlas - by-then known only by the mysterious "MC" box on the covers - was publishing at the time.

The same month that Fantastic Four 1 came out, November 1961, Marvel companion titles like Amazing Adventures and Strange Tales didn't look very much different, with their giant monsters dominating the covers and the subdued colour palettes.
But even at this early stage in the rise of Marvel Comics - before the letters columns, before Stan's friendly informal tone - Stan gave the fans something the other comics didn't have. Pin-up pages. And to demonstrate that Stan knew exactly who the comics's most popular character was, he published a full page pin-up of The Thing in the second issue of Fantastic Four (Jan 1962).

The very first ever Marvel Masterwork Pin-up (though they weren't called that at the time) featured Marvel Comics' most enduring character, Ben (The Thing) Grimm; pencils by Jack Kirby, inks by George Klein.
And this was extra editorial material. Other MC comics of the same month each featured 23 story pages, as did Fantastic Four 2, but Stan threw in the pin-up as an additional bonus. And it wasn't to be the last time ... over the next two issues, Jack Kirby would pencil up two more pin-ups - The Human Torch in Fantastic Four 3 (Mar 1962) and Mr Fantastic in Fantastic Four 4 (Apr 1962, the first monthly issue).

The remaining male members of the Fantastic Four were honoured with pin-up pages in the next issues of The World's Greatest Comics Magazine. Johnny (The Human Torch) Storm in FF3 and Reed (Mister Fantastic) Richards in FF4; pencils by Jack Kirby, inks by Sol Brodsky. Note the teaser for The Incredible Hulk lettered below the Mister Fantastic pin-up.
Tellingly, readers would have to wait until the following year for a pin-up of the fourth member of the quartet, when a pin-up of Sue Storm, The Invisible Girl, finally turned up in Fantastic Four 10 (Jan 1963). It's hard to tell now why Stan didn't think the readers wanted an Invisible Girl pin-up. Lee would later make the effort to make his female characters more than just secretaries to the heroes, but this early in the game I don't think the idea had occurred to him.

It seems very strange to me that Stan would make readers wait nine months for a pin-up of the remaining Fantastic Four member The Invisible Girl). Did he not think she was an important member of the team? Did he think his predominantly boy readers didn't want a pin-up of a girl? Pencils by Jack Kirby, inks by Dick Ayers.
The next issue would feature a pin-up of Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner. Was this because Stan was positioning Namor as a possible love-rival to Reed Richards for the affections of Sue Storm? 

Interestingly, the story length in this issue was 22 pages, so the Namor pin-up was making up the standard 23 pages - no bonus here. The following issue, Fantastic Four 12 (Mar 1963) had 23 pages and no pin-up. But it did have The Hulk, though. With Fantastic Four 13 (Apr 1963), the story length would drop to 22 pages, which would be the standard page count - with a few variations - until Fantastic Four 30 (Sep 1964).

Finally, a pin-up of the entire team. It looks to me like there may have been some art department bodging of Sue's face, as this doesn't really look like Kirby's version of the character. Pencils by Jack Kirby, inks by Dick Ayers.
It would take Stan until Fantastic Four 15 (Jun 1963) to commission a pin-up of the whole team together. Annoyingly, my own copy of this issue has the pin-up missing, an occupational hazard for collectors when it comes to Marvel Comics of the era. I can honestly say that I've never torn a pin-up from a comic, not even back in the 1960s when I was a pre-teen. Obviously, some folks just don't respect art ...

The readers apparently did and must have responded to Stan's campaign of pin-ups in Marvel's burgeoning line of superhero titles. The following month, July 1963, Stan included pin-ups in three separate, non-FF, Marvel titles.

It makes sense to have Cyclops as the first pin-up in X-Men as he's the leader. And the Spider-Man pin-up is cool piece of Ditko art, though perhaps a little more light-hearted than I would have expected from Ditko. The Pepper Potts pin-up makes almost no sense in light of the prevailing style of Marvel pin-ups to date, but the most sense by the more widely accepted definition of a pin-up. 
There was a Steve Ditko drawn Spider-Man pin-up in Amazing Spider-Man 3, a Cyclops pin-up (pencils by Jack Kirby and inks by Chic Stone) in X-Men 6 and, rather strangely, a Pepper Potts pin-up (pencils and inks by Don Heck) in Tales of Suspense 55, though that may have been just Stan acknowledging that Heck drew really pretty girls.

After Stan's first tentative steps in this direction back in July 1964, Marvel made a bolder effort to include pin-up pages across the range of titles, all except for the poster X-Men 8, these were now officially carried the logo "A Marvel Masterwork Pin-up", which suggests that the X-men one may have been processed through the art department before the others.
A few months later, Stan went all-out with a veritable blitz of posters. The November 1964 issues of The Avengers, Journey into Mystery, Sgt Fury and The X-Men all had pin-ups, though the regular story page count of 21 pages also dropped to 20. Captain America was the featured pinup in Avengers 10, pencilled by Jack Kirby and inked by Sol Brodsky. Thor was the subject of Journey into Mystery 110's pin-up, pencilled by Kirby and inked by Chick Stone. Sgt Fury was featured as the pinup in Sgt Fury 12, pencilled and inked by series artist Dick Ayers and The Beast was the star of X-Men 8's pin-up. Unlike the other "Marvel Masterwork Pin-up" logos, which sure looks like it was lettered by Artie Simek to me, the lettering on The Beast pinup is by Sam Rosen ...

I don't know if it's a coincidence, but these issues and the Marvel Comics that immediately followed them were all caught up in the Great T&P Distribution Snafu of 1964, and as a consequence have traditionally been tagged as "rare" or "scarce" in the UK.

For the December 1964 issues Stan commissioned these pin-ups of the heroes of Daredevil (Daredevil, of course), Rawhide Kid (Rawhide Kid, natch), Strange Tales (The Thing) and Tales to Astonish (The Hulk) ...
The following month, December 1964, Stan packed in even most poster pages, commissioning pinup art for Daredevil 5, Daredevil on a tightrope pencilled and inked by Wally Wood; Rawhide Kid 43, Rawhide Kid, pencilled by Jack Kirby and inked by Sol Brodsky; Strange Tales 127, The Thing, pencilled by Dick Ayers; Tales of Suspense 61, Iron Man, pencilled and inked by Don Heck; Avengers 11, Kang the Conqueror pencilled and inked by Don Heck; Fantastic Four 33, Sub-Mariner pencilled by Jack Kirby and inked by Chic Stone; Journey into Mystery 111, Loki, pencilled by Jack Kirby and inked by Chic Stone; and Tales to Astonish 62, The Hulk, pencilled by Jack Kirby and inked by George Roussos.

... The remaining December 1964 Marvels had pin-ups of villains from The Avengers (Kang), Journey into Mystery (Loki) and Fantastic Four (The Sub-Mariner).
And yet, Stan still wasn't done. The following month, January 1965, he'd commission new poster art for yet more Marvel titles. It was like he was on a mission to cram in as many pinups as possible with leftover budget money from 1964. He even drafted in the Big Gun artists: Jack Kirby pencilled pinups for Fantastic Four 34 and X-Men 9 (both with inks by Chic Stone).

The Fantastic Four pin-up is a bit of a strange one ... not the best composition that Kirby's ever done. Perhaps it was prepared for some other purpose. The Marvel Girl is much more of a traditional pin-up, as are the two Ditko posters.
Steve Ditko pencilled and inked pin-ups for Amazing Spider-Man 20 and Strange Tales 128 (Dr Strange). Marvel's other stalwart artists weren't left out either, with Dick Ayers and Sol Brodsky pencilling and inking a pin-up for Two-Gun Kid 73, Jack Keller turning in a pin-up for Kid Colt Outlaw 120, Carl Burgos and Chic Stone proffering the art for the Giant-Man and Wasp pin-up in Tales to Astonish 63, and Don Heck drawing an Iron Man pinup in Tales of Suspense 61.

This clutch of Masterwork pin-ups are a bit second tier, lacking the kind of punch that Jack Kirby would normally bring to his pin-ups. Nonetheless, it's good to see that even the western titles rated pin-ups, drawn by the regular artists on the strips, Jack Keller and Dick Ayers.
Then, just when we were thinking that surely Stan and the Bullpen must be running out of steam by now, there was another tranche of pinups in the spring of 1965. This was probably the last few that Stan was trying to squeeze in.

The two Ditko pin-ups are top notch, first class examples ... Stan could always rely on Steve to knock it out of the park. The Wally Wood pinup for Daredevil looks for all the world more like an audition for the Sub-Mariner strip, which Stan had ear-marked for Wood before he departed Marvel.
So readers were treated to two more Steve Ditko Spider-Man pinups in Amazing Spider-Man 21 (Feb 1965) & 23 (Apr 1965), and a Wally Wood Sub-Mariner in Daredevil 7 (Apr 1965). And then, suddenly, it was over. Practically overnight, the Marvel Masterwork Pin-up series ground to a halt. Except ... not quite.

It might have seemed like Stan still had a few pinups left in a drawer somewhere, because a couple of years later, some pin-ups turned up in random places that suggested that might be the case.

The two pin-ups from Marvel Tales 7 were salvaged from sketches that weren't intended for that purpose. The Steve Ditko Dr Strange in Marvel Collectors' Item Classics 10 was almost certainly a purpose-drawn pin-up left over from the 1964 group of pin-ups.
In the Marvel reprint books Marvel Tales 7 (Mar 1967) and Marvel Collectors' Item Classics 10 (Aug 1967), there appeared three pages of artwork all dressed up in Masterwork Pin-up livery. The two in Marvel Tales look like recycled sketches that were likely done for something else and Stan had two pages to fill in that issue. The Spider-Man is a Ditko, but appears to be printed same size as the original art. Fellow Marvel blogger Nick Caputo identifies this as a Ditko drawing given out to fans in the early 1960s. Nick has suggested that the Thor pinup is by Marie Severin, possibly over a Jack Kirby pencil sketch.

The Dr Strange pin-up had been produced by Ditko back in late 1964, some time before he left Marvel. This one must have sat in a drawer somewhere for almost two years before someone dragged it out, dusted it off and used it to fill a page in the reprint book.

For all that, the question remains, Why did Stan commission twenty pinups in the final months of 1964, then abruptly stop? I think the answer lies in the editorial page counts of the Marvel books of the period. In the first half of 1964, the editorial page count of Fantastic Four ran to 22 pages of story, plus letters pages. With issue 31 (Oct 1964) the story page length dropped to 21 pages. And by issue 33 (Dec 1964) it had gone down to 20. It does look like Stan was dropping in the pinups to cushion the blow to readers. Or perhaps he'd been told by Martin Goodman to reduce the story page count, but already had some longer stories in production when the edict came in, and had to use pinups to pad the shorter story issues.

I guess we'll never know for sure, as none of the interviews from those present at the time that I've ever seen have alluded to the page counts of those old Marvel books.

During his run on Fantastic Four in the 1980s, John Byrne would use Stan's Marvel Masterwork pin-up idea to evoke a sense of the Silver Age - and not without some success, I'm happy to admit.
Of course, there would be other Marvel Masterworks pin-ups after these throughout the 1970s and 1980s - many of which were original art - hidden away in reprint and western comics. Check out Nick Caputo's blog for a comprehensive rundown of later, obscure pin-ups.

And of course the Marvel Annuals were a bonanza for pin-up fans, but I'll cover those in a separate post, some other time.

In the meantime, as I've probably missed a couple, please feel free to list any missing original pinups from the Silver Age Marvels in the comments section below.

Next: The Mighty Marvel Reprint books

Thursday, 11 October 2018

Stan Lee in a Post-Fact World

IF YOU'VE NEVER READ THE JACK KIRBY INTERVIEW in The Comics Journal 134 (Feb 1990), you really should. It's the basis for most of the unfounded vitriol heaped on Marvel Editor and architect Stan Lee over the last 28 years, and many Kirby supporters view it as the literal truth. But is it the literal truth? I really don't think so ...

For over thirty years, fans have argued over who created what in the Marvel Universe
... but does it actually matter?
Yet, it takes only the most cursory search of the internet to find an abundance of comments from some of Kirby's more extreme followers who take every word of that interview as gospel ... this despite even interviewer Gary Groth admitting that "some of Jack's claims may have been exaggerated."

The further effect of that interview was to polarise Jack Kirby's and Stan Lee's camps, a rift which seems to have deepened right up to the present day. And neither side wants to shift their position an inch.

I really don't know why - after all this time - I should be surprised by that. There has been much talk in the Meejah about how we live in a post-fact world, as evidenced by those who cling to their beliefs - despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary - and the devaluation of the advice of experts. The blame for this has been laid squarely at the door of Steve Bannon and his "alt-facts" strategy that put Donald Trump in the White House.

Is Donald Trump the hapless victim of a manipulating Steve Bannon?
But I don't think that's true. I think the tendency of some folk to believe their emotions rather than their intellect has always been there. As far back as 1721, erudite satirist and thinker Jonathan Swift opined, "Reasoning will never make a Man correct an ill Opinion, which by Reasoning he never acquired" ... or as it's more often written, "You cannot reason people out of positions they didn’t reason themselves into."

So, the theory goes, once someone has an opinion in their head, it's nigh-on impossible to get them to change their mind. And facts be damned. Which, admittedly, we are seeing more and more of these days.

That probably means the rest of what I have to say here will mostly fall on deaf ears and is essentially a waste of my time. But I really do have to take issue with some of the comments Kirby made in that interview nearly thirty years ago, because some of the assertions just don't correlate with the known facts


When Gary Groth steers Jack Kirby towards the subject of the creation of the FF back in 1961, Kirby replies with "I came in [to the Marvel offices] and they were moving out the furniture, they were taking desks out — and I needed the work! I had a family and a house and all of a sudden Marvel is coming apart."

Now that probably makes for great copy from interviewer Gary Groth's point of view, but his responsibility as a journalist would have been to challenge every bit of that assertion. For example, Jack turned up at the Marvel Offices and they (who?) were taking the furniture out. Presumably, this was a weekday ... I've worked in office environments all my adult life, and never once have the facilities team ever moved or removed furniture while the staff were in the office. Risk of accident. You wrangle office furniture at weekends when there's no staff or visitors to have a desk dropped on their foot.

And Marvel was coming apart? Timely/Atlas/Marvel had indeed suffered earlier business setbacks. The first identifiable crisis was in 1954, when Wertham's shenannigans shut down several major comics companies - Fawcett and EC were the biggest - and damaged the sales of many more. Marvel Publisher Martin Goodman didn't blink. He streamlined the comics division company by firing staff - or actually making Stan do it - and cutting his page rates. The major part of his business, the magazines or "slicks", marched right on making way more money than the comics ever did. Stan commented in his memoir Excelsior!, "I remained in the office. I was like a human pilot light, left burning in the hope that we would reactivate our production at a future date. Martin needed someone who would be able to get things going again when the time came." And, of course, after a year or so the time did come.

The second time Goodman's comics line suffered a setback was when he closed his own distribution company and went with American News, a company that itself closed down a few months later, leaving Goodman without distribution on all his publications. But he didn't fold his business, he simply did a deal with Independent News Distribution. IND happily distributed all of Goodman's magazines, but limited his comics to eight titles a month, so as not to compete with their own DC Comics. And still the comics line soldiered on.

So even if Marvel was in financial difficulties in 1961, Goodman - a veteran survivor of the publishing business - would have cut the page rates, or survived on inventory or just gone all-reprint ... anything to milk every last cent out of the comics until it was impossible to make any more profit. Then he'd have sold Captain America, Human Torch, Sub-Mariner and the cowboys to DC or Charlton and Millie the Model to Archie and carried on with his slick mags, Male, Stag and others.

It's well documented that during the late 1950s and early 1960s, Martin Goodman's "slick" magazines made considerably more money than the comic books ... yet Goodman doggedly continued to publish comics, sticking with the genre through thick and thin.
Yet, for all that, it didn't appear that Marvel was having any financial problems during 1961. A quick trawl around the internet will bring up sales figures for US comics during the early 1960s. These are the figures printed in the Statement of Ownership panels in the comics, required by federal law, so we can be sure they're accurate.

What these figures show was that during the first years of the 1960s, on either side of the time that the Fantastic Four was created, Marvel was doing about average to low sales figures. Not as good as Dell and some DC titles, but better than Charlton and other DC titles. Here's a sample:

Tales of the Unexpected (DC)
Star Spangled War Stories (DC)
Tales to Astonish (Marvel)
All Star Western (DC)
Tales of Suspense (Marvel)
Kid Colt Outlaw (Marvel)
No figures
No figures
Space Adventures (Charlton)
No figures
No figures
Unusual Tales (Charlton)
No figures
No figures
Strange Suspense Stories (Charlton)
No figures
No figures

So there's no evidence at all to suggest that Martin Goodman was on the point of shutting Marvel Comics down for business or for any other reasons. Certainly Stan's never mentioned it in any of his accounts of the period, and that's surprising. For it it were true, and Stan's efforts had brought Marvel Comics back from the brink, then you'd think – if he is as much of a credit-hog as Jack paints him – he'd be quick to point that out to anyone who'd listen. Yet, while he's described the troubles Atlas went through in 1954 and 1957, he's never mentioned the post-Atlas, pre-Marvel incarnation of the company having money problems.

At the end of Jack's claim about Marvel imminently going out of business he adds a very strange remark. He says, "Stan Lee is sitting on a chair crying. He didn’t know what to do."

It's pretty unlikely that Stan would have been that upset even if Martin Goodman was going to close down the "MC" (pre-Marvel) line. He had enough side projects on the go that he wouldn't have been unemployed. He'd published more than a few magazines and books on his own during the 1950s and had two syndicated newspaper strips - Willie Lumpkin with Dan DeCarlo (Dec 1959 to May 1961) and Mrs Lyon's' Cubs with Joe Maneely (Feb 1958 - Dec 1958).

After the tragic death of artist Joe Maneely in July 1958, Stan tried to carry on with Mrs Lyon's Cubs with Al Hartley, but the strip foundered and was discontinued towards the end of 1958.
To give Jack the benefit of the doubt, it's plausible that he could be speaking about 1957, when Goodman's unfortunate business decision resulted in his comics line being curtailed to eight titles a month. Conflate that with the death of Joe Maneely a few months later - a loss which is generally acknowledged to have hit Stan personally and very hard - and there may be some grains of truth in Jack's statement, but there's not necessarily any cause-and effect.

Of the monster comic stories Goodman was publishing in the MC era, Jack says, "I always enjoyed doing monster books. Monster books gave me the opportunity to draw things out of the ordinary." Yet in an earlier interview for the New York 1975 Comic Art Convention Handbook, Jack said, "I was given monsters, so I did them. I would much rather have been drawing Rawhide Kid. But I did the monsters… we had Grottu and Kurrgo and It… it was a challenge to try to do something – anything – with such ridiculous characters."

Aside from obvious the contradiction around whether Jack liked drawing monsters or not, I mostly include these two quotes to highlight Kirby's own admission that he was "given" monsters to do. Which supports Stan's claim that Goodman wanted monsters to capitalise on the success of Godzilla. On that basis, it's not implausible that when Goodman saw that the monsters had run their course, he instructed Stan to develop some superheroes, like DC's successful Justice League of America book.

The earliest monster cover at MC was Strange Worlds 3 (Apr 1959). It would be a few months before the other pre-Marvel fantasy comics started ploughing that same Kaiju furrow, beginning with Strange Tales 70 (Aug 1959) four months later, then Journey into Mystery, Suspense and Astonish. My analysis would be that Martin Goodman noticed better sales on the first monster cover and instructed Stan to put monsters on all the fantasy books' covers.
When asked how Stan and he collaborated on the monster stories, Jack snaps "Stan Lee and I never collaborated on anything! I’ve never seen Stan Lee write anything. I used to write the stories just like I always did." Jack doesn't even allow that Stan wrote the dialogue. "I dialogued them. If Stan Lee ever got a thing dialogued, he would get it from someone working in the office."

Again this isn't corroborated by others who were working at MC at the time. Joe Sinnott described working with Stan Lee during this period. "I'd bring the story back on Friday and he'd give me another script. I never knew what kind of script I'd be getting. Stan had a big pile on his desk, and he used to write most of the stories himself in those days. You'd walk in, and he'd be banging away at his typewriter. He would finish a script and put it on the pile. Sometimes on his pile would be a western, then below it would be a science fiction, and a war story, and a romance."

If Stan did indeed get someone else to dialogue any of Kirby's stories, this would have been mostly likely during the 1964 (so, later) period when he tried to get first Larry Lieber, then Robert Bernstein and Ernie Hart, to write the scripts. And we know how that turned out.

Again, I want to give Jack the benefit of the doubt here and suggest that Kirby may well have written dialogue onto his artwork, but as he (by his own admission) never read the final published comics, he very likely didn't realise just how much of a contribution Stan was making to the stories.

Here's a random page of Stan Lee's dialogue from Fantastic Four 64 page 2 ... compare with a page of Jack Kirby's unedited dialogue from Forever People 1 page 6.
I would also question Jack Kirby's understanding of what writing actually is. I covered it in more depth in an earlier blog post, but essentially Jack seems to think that plotting the stories is the same as writing them. He says as much in numerous interviews through the decades from the 1970s to the 1990s. A typical example of that  was an answer Kirby gave to Will Eisner in a 1982 interview about how the Lee-Kirby stories were created. "Stan Lee wouldn’t let me fill in the balloons," said Jack. "Stan Lee wouldn’t let me put in the dialogue. But I wrote the entire story under the panels."

Except that the plot is definitely not the entire story. What makes a story work or not work is the way the characterisation is presented. And that is done through the dialogue. If Stan wasn't letting Jack add the dialogue, it was because Stan had very firm ideas about how the characters' personalities should be depicted. And in my view, that makes Stan's contribution a vital part of the writing process. And none of that is at odds with what Stan has always said in interviews. Kirby plotted and drew, and Stan dialogued. And that's what made the Marvel stories special.

If you want to understand the difference between Stan Lee dialogue and Jack Kirby dialogue, then simply place a copy of Fantastic Four alongside a copy of Forever People and see for yourself. 

And, of course, there's many examples of pages Jack drew during the Silver Age that Stan rejected or had done over because he didn't agree with the direction Jack had taken in a story. So I don't think there's any denying that Stan steered the course of the Marvel books.

A little bit further on in the interview, Jack describes how he created the Hulk. "The Hulk I created when I saw a woman lift a car. Her baby was caught under the running board of this car. The little child was playing in the gutter and he was crawling from the gutter onto the sidewalk under the running board of this car — he was playing in the gutter. His mother was horrified. She looked from the rear window of the car, and this woman in desperation lifted the rear end of the car. It suddenly came to me that in desperation we can all do that — we can knock down walls, we can go berserk, which we do. You know what happens when we’re in a rage — you can tear a house down. I created a character who did all that and called him the Hulk. I inserted him in a lot of the stories I was doing. Whatever the Hulk was at the beginning I got from that incident."

I've already looked at this claim in an earlier post and I don't think there's anything to be gained from rehashing that here. But my main issues with this statement are:
  • The "mother lifts car" story is a popular urban myth. I heard it from my mum back in the early 1960s.
  • The science is shaky. Most scientists agree that adrenaline doesn't deliver a boost large enough or quickly enough to allow feats of superhuman strength.
  • Jack didn't bring the rage element to The Hulk, Steve Ditko did in the Tales to Astonish run, though there's a mention of rage triggering the Hulk's strength in Astonish 59, a story scripted by Stan Lee and pencilled by Dick Ayers.
Kirby's next claim is more contentious. Talking to Groth about Spider-Man, Jack says, "I created Spider-Man. We decided to give it to Steve Ditko. I drew the first Spider-Man cover. I created the character. I created the costume. I created all those books, but I couldn’t do them all. We decided to give the book to Steve Ditko who was the right man for the job. He did a wonderful job on that."

I've also covered the creation of Spider-Man in an earlier entry in this blog, and concluded that Jack had little to do with the version of Spider-Man that eventually was published. There is a story about Joe Simon and CC Beck coming up with an unsuccessful character pitch title "The Silver Spider" that later morphed into The Fly (aka, Flyman) for Archie Comics, and Kirby mentions that he pitched Joe Simon's Silver Spider to Stan, in a 1982 interview with Will Eisner:

"It was the last thing Joe and I had discussed. We had a strip called, or a script called, The Silver Spider. The Silver Spider was going into a magazine called Black Magic. Black Magic folded with Crestwood and we were left with the script. I believe I said this could become a thing called Spider-Man, see, a superhero character. I had a lot of faith in the superhero character, that they could be brought back, very, very vigorously. They weren’t being done at the time. I felt they could regenerate and I said Spider-Man would be a fine character to start with. But Joe had already moved on. So the idea was already there when I talked to Stan."

If Jack did pitch a version of Joe Simon's concept - which eventually became The Fly - to Stan then wasn't he just representing the work of others as his own? And some have pointed to the published Amazing Fantasy 15 cover as "proof" Kirby designed Spider-Man's costume ... but Barry Pearl reminded me that, in fact, Steve Ditko drew the first (though rejected) version of AF15's cover.
Steve Ditko refutes Jack's claim telling Alter Ego magazine in 2000, "One of the first things I did was to work up a costume. A vital, visual part of the character. I had to know how he looked ... before I did any breakdowns. For example: A clinging power so he wouldn't have hard shoes or boots, a hidden wrist-shooter versus a web gun and holster, etc. ... I wasn't sure Stan would like the idea of covering the character's face but I did it because it hid an obviously boyish face. It would also add mystery to the character."

Now that doesn't make Stan's claim to have had the idea for Spider-Man himself true, but Ditko's assertion doesn't contradict Stan's, nor does it support Jack's claims. And certainly, the known facts about Joe Simon, C.C. Beck and Jack Oleck creating The Silver Spider for Harvey Comics pretty much discredit Kirby's claims to have actually created any part of Spider-Man.

But as I said at the beginning of this piece, we seem to live in a world where facts count for nothing and only opinions matter, at least to those who hold them.

Mark Twain once said, "It's easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled", or words to that effect. And that seems more true today than ever. But I do think it's a shame that many who believe Kirby's statements in The Comics Journal interview to be the literal truth seem also compelled to try to destroy Stan Lee. I'm not sure why. I'm pretty certain Stan never did anything to them.

I get that Jack was angry at the way he felt he'd been treated by Marvel during the 1960s and 1970s, but his anger towards Stan Lee was simply misdirected.

It wasn't Stan Lee's actions that caused Joe Simon and Jack Kirby to quit Timely Comics back in 1942. It was a dispute with publisher Martin Goodman after Goodman's accountant Maurice Coyne told Joe Simon that Goodman's was loading all the company expenses against Captain America Comics. Furious at being cheated out of their royalties, Simon and Kirby made plans to exit Timely to go over the National (DC). They started working on material for National publisher Harry Donenfeld while finishing Captain America 10. Joe's then editorial assistant Stan Lee figured out that the pair were working on material for National. Shortly after, Simon and Kirby were confronted by Martin, and his brothers Abe and David, and were fired for disloyalty. Kirby always suspected Lee of informing on him, though Joe Simon never did.

After a dispute over promised royalties on Captain America Comics, Simon and Kirby quit Martin Goodman's Timely Comics and went over to Harry Donenfeld's National Publications (DC). Their last Timely work appeared in Jan 1942, their first DC work was cover-dated Apr 1942. Kirby wouldn't return to Marvel for 15 years.
And it wasn't Stan Lee who wrote that profile for the New York Herald Tribune that made Stan out to be the driving force behind Marvel and Jack to be like the "assistant foreman in a girdle factory". It was reporter Ned Freedland. No newspaper ever gives the subject of an interview the opportunity to edit the text before publication, yet Jack believed that Stan had manufactured the whole thing to make Jack look bad. And that's pretty unreasonable. John Romita later said in an interview in the Comic Book Artist fanzine that there was "no reason to run Jack down. Stan had the position; he didn’t have to fight Jack for it. I don’t think Jack ever wanted the editorial position; if he wanted credit, he deserved credit. Stan used to give him credit all the time."

It wasn't Stan that denied Jack his rightful credits. Far from it. Stan pioneered credits in comics and always was effusive in his praise of how much Jack (and others) contributed to the stories, while other companies expected their writers and artists to labour in anonymity.

I'm saddened that Jack Kirby reached the end of his life feeling such bitterness towards Stan Lee, when it seems to me he was angry at the wrong person. There's a long list of people who could bear more of the blame for robbing Kirby of his due than Stan.

I love Stan's work and I believe that without Stan, Marvel would never had enjoyed its massive success during the 1960s and overtaken DC in sales. It wasn't just the characters and the stories, it was the whole package - the tone of the editorial, the "club" feel to Marvel that Stan created (all by himself!), the melodramatic hype. I've written about that extensively elsewhere in this blog.

Most tellingly - and this can't be stated often enough - the dialogue in the Fantastic Fours of the period is identical in style to the scripting in both the Steve Ditko and the John Romita Spider-Mans. For me that's more than enough evidence that Stan scripted the books and was responsible for crafting the personalities of the characters, a far more important aspect than either the designs of the characters' costumes or the plots of the stories.

But I also loved the works of both Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. Both contributed enormously to the success of Marvel Comics during the company's Silver Age. But they didn't do it alone.

It's also important to remember that Jack Kirby wasn't the only artist working at Marvel during those formative years. Don Heck was the first artist on Iron Man and a hugely important contributor to the other early Marvels, along with Dick Ayers, Gene Colan and John Romita.
For me it really doesn't matter who did what in the creation of these marvellous comics characters that were so much part of my childhood. I didn't care then and I don't much care now.

The fact is that Stan and Jack created the Fantastic Four. Stan and Steve created Spider-Man. Stan, Larry and Jack created Thor ... well, you get the idea. It's impossible to understand, and irrelevant to focus on, the minutia of what aspects of which character were created by which writer or artist 57 years later.

What I loved about Marvel Comics as I was growing up in the 1960s was the way the characters talked, as well as the friendly tone of the letters columns and the Bullpen pages. I liked the artwork too, but it was that tone, the voice of Stan Lee, that separated Marvels from all the other comics.

Contemporary fans might think that the editorial swagger Stan brought to the books sounds corny and overblown now, but it wasn't in 1965. It was magical.

And that was all the work of Stan Lee.

Post Script - 12 Nov 2018. I didn't actually know Stan Lee, but it felt like I did. His characters were an integral part of my childhood, and the mildly liberal messages embedded in his stories influenced my own worldview as I grew into my teens. Later, I worked at Marvel UK during the 1980s and Stan visited the offices several times. He always remembered my name and which mags I edited, and that made me wonder if his memory was as bad as he always claimed. Later still, it was Stan again that inspired me to move from editing to writing, so it's no exaggeration to say that without Stan, my life would have taken a very different path. Godspeed, Stan ... thanks for all the Strange Tales and Amazing Adventures.

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