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


THE JACK KIRBY INTERVIEW

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:


Title
1960
1961
1962
Tales of the Unexpected (DC)
192,000
195,000
180,000
Star Spangled War Stories (DC)
169,000
205,000
195,000
Tales to Astonish (Marvel)
163,156
184,895
139,167
All Star Western (DC)
154,000
180,000
Cancelled
Tales of Suspense (Marvel)
148,929
184,635
126,140
Kid Colt Outlaw (Marvel)
144,746
No figures
No figures
Space Adventures (Charlton)
110,166
No figures
No figures
Unusual Tales (Charlton)
No figures
136,414
No figures
Strange Suspense Stories (Charlton)
No figures
No figures
127,740

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?
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.

Next: Something less controversial



Saturday, 25 August 2018

Iron Man: Rivetting Stuff

IRON MAN'S THIRD ARMOUR REDESIGN in fifteen months was, in my view, a bit of a backwards step. I thought Steve Ditko's makeover for the first Red-And-Yellow suit, in Tales of Suspense 48 (Dec 1963), was brilliant - no improvements needed. But just six months later,  Don Heck redesigned the armour - or more accurately - the headpiece - yet again, this time giving Iron Man a line of rivets down his face.

The four faces of Iron Man, from Tales of Suspense 39, 43, 48 and 54. That's quite an evolution in a little over a year. And I'm actually not mad about the Don Heck "Rivet-Face" version. Was Heck just trying to come up with something that was easier to draw? Or did Stan think this was an improvement?
I think the design change Iron Man's faceplate was supposed to be a surprise to readers, the cover blurb certainly gives that impression. But for whatever reason, the Marvel production department included the upgraded mask on the corner box figure of Iron Man on the cover of Tales of Suspense 54 (Jun 1964).

"Wait till you see Iron Man's new protective head mask!" shouts Stan's coverline for Tales of Suspense 54. But of course, we didn't need to wait ... we just had to glance at the top left of the cover and see the new faceplate in the Marvel trademark box.
"The Mandarin's Revenge" is a bit misleading as a title for the story inside. Stark does indeed meet The Mandarin in this adventure, but not until page 7 of the 13-page story. And no revenge is actually meted out. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Pentagon officials are concerned that Stark's observer missiles, deployed over Vietnam to track enemy troop movements, are falling out of the sky like flies. They blame Stark for supplying faulty technology. Yet Stark knows there's nothing wrong with the missiles. They're being brought down by some Sinister Force. And there's only one person in that part of the world that could be responsible. The Mandarin.

Someone's knocking Tony Stark's "observer missiles" out of the sky ... and it doesn't appear to be Dr Doom. Only one way to discover the culprit. Go to Vietnam and knock on a few castle gates.
It is a little surprising that the US military will allow their most valuable weapons manufacturer to jaunt over the border - illegally - into China to face a dangerous saboteur without an escort, but let's not dwell on that. Stark's plan to allow himself to be captured in his civilian identity might just work.

Inevitably, Stark is grabbed by The Mandarin's guards, who foolishly try to open his attache case and get a face-full of sleep gas for their troubles. Stark changes to Iron Man and crashes through a wall and advances menacingly towards The Mandarin - the Mandarin's rings can't stop Iron Man, the despot's electrical devices can't stop The Golden Avenger, not even The Mandarin's "karate" kicks can stop Iron Man. Swords, rockets ... no dice. In the end it's unbreakable steel bands that trap Iron Man and leave him helpless until the next instalment.

I strongly suspect this splash page was Heck's pitch to Stan to change the faceplate of the Iron Man armour. For surely only Heck would want to get rid of the Ditko-designed mask that Stark was wearing up till this point and replace it with this easier-to-draw version.
There are a couple of other interesting things about Iron Man's first two-part adventure, other than the fact of The Mandarin being old Shellhead's first recurring villain. The first is that after Steve Ditko's three pages introducing Iron Man's new-look armour back in Tales of Suspense 48, Heck doesn't spend even one panel on Stark re-designing his Iron Man helmet. He leaves Stan to explain it away in a bit of dialogue.

It's almost as though either Don Heck decided to change Iron Man's helmet himself - though that does seem unlikely, as Stan was a pretty tough editor - or Stan simply forgot to direct Heck to include a scene of Stark re-designed the armour's headpiece, and had to fudge the transition in the dialogue.
Then there's Stark's sudden interest in Pepper Potts. Up till this point, Pepper has been portrayed as having a bit of a schoolgirl crush on Stark and he's at best mildly amused by it, and reacting by engineering dates for her with Happy Hogan. Yet in this story, out of the blue, he acquires a romantic interest in his secretary. Stan would build on this as time went by, but this is where we saw it first.

After fifteen months of dating supermodels and actresses like a stoat, Tony Stark suddenly and inexplicably develops a romantic interest in his freckly secretary Pepper Potts. It's a little at odds with his established character, but romantic sub-plots seemed de rigeur for Stan's superhero books around this time.
Another first in this story is Iron Man referring to the blasts he projects from his hands as a "Magnetic Repellant" ray. He's used the repellant power of magnetism before, starting with issue 48 of Tales of Suspense, but the concept had always been less focussed - Iron Man used a hand-held device in ToS48 and radiated magnetic waves from his armour to break his fall in ToS49. After ToS54, Stan would refine this quite quickly in the more familiar Repulsor ray, and have Stark share the technology with other Marvel good guys like SHIELD, where the Repulsor rays were used in Nick Fury's flying Ferrari and later in keeping the Heli-Carrier aloft. 

Iron Man called the blasts from his gauntlets a "Magnetic Repellent". This would morph quite quickly into the now-familiar Repulsor ray, and Stark would later modify his armour's jet boots to use Repulsor technology rather than the less efficient jet fans.
The story closes with Iron Man helpless at the hands of the Mandarin, all trussed up with steel bands and refusing to beg for mercy. "I'll show you how an American faces death! I'll show that nothing can shatter the faith of a man who fights for freedom!" thinks Iron Man to himself, with steely resolve. And the readers would have to come back next month to find out how Iron Man escapes for [spoiler!] escape he will.

Tales of Suspense 55 featured one of those symbolic covers - a bit like X-Men 4, which came out a couple of months earlier - where the villain was show as a giant, looming menacingly over the hero. We all know that The Mandarin isn't actually thirty feet tall, don't we? Except this time, we'd be wrong ...
Tales of Suspense 55 (July 1964) gave us the 13-page second part of The Mandarin's Missile Crisis, titled "No One Escapes the Mandarin". The story picks up exactly where we left off last time, with Iron Man trussed up in The Mandarin's "unbreakable steel bands". The resolution to this inescapable death trap is a bit of a cop-out, brokered via the Mandarin's ability to see Stark's face beneath the Iron Man helmet. "Why are you smiling?" asks the Fu Manchu wannabe. "Because I know something you don't know," smirks Iron Man back at him.

Not only can The Mandarin see Iron Man smiling beneath his metal mask, but he can also apparently grow to thirty feet in height (as depicted on this issue's cover). Yet despite all these tricks, The Mandarin is not a match for Iron Man, giving lie to the story title, "No One Escapes The Mandarin!"
Iron Man then continues, "Why shouldn't I smile? While you waste time with me, Anthony Stark has probably found out where you keep your anti-missile missiles - and he could be destroying them this very minute." It doesn't occur to The Mandarin that Iron Man could be lying, and he hurries off to find out what Stark is up to, giving Iron Man the respite he needs to free himself. Iron Man follows and, discovering where The Mandarin controls his missile-snatching technology from, destroys the controls and recovers his missiles.

At the end of the story, Pepper seems a bit too happy to see Tony Stark and Happy is none-too-happy about it. Stan is still developing this new love triangle on the book and it'd be a few issues before he found the right note.
When Stark gets back from his adventures, he finds that Happy has struggled, in his absence, to keep Stark Industries on an even keel. And Stark's interest in Pepper hasn't diminished ... even Happy notices and remarks on it.

Since the beginning of the Iron Man series in Tales of Suspense, the page count has risen and fallen almost randomly. Click on the graph above to enlarge.
Interestingly, the final caption box announces that the page count on the Iron Man stories will be increased to 18 pages from next issue. However, this isn't really a new idea. The story-length on the Iron Man tales had risen and fallen all the way through the series. Once Captain America became a regular in Suspense, there wouldn't be room for 18-page Iron Man tales, but this wasn't something Stan saw coming at this point.

And right on the heels of the main story, there's a handy three page guide to Iron Man, presumably for late-comers. As I've mentioned before, Marvel Comics were gaining sales during this period, and many readers were late to the party. Stan has mentioned more than once that in the early days of the Marvel superhero comics, there was a large upswing in fan letters, many of which were asking for back issues. And in the later letter columns, Stan would regularly remind readers that the Marvel offices didn't have space to store supplies of their earlier issues.

"All About Iron Man" does what it says on the tin ... provides a condensed guide to Iron Man's powers, the Tony Stark identity and supporting cast in just four pages. Stan would include a similar guide to Giant-Man two months later in Tales to Astonish 59.
There are a couple of examples of Stan providing catch-up features for readers who were less familiar with Iron Man and Giant-Man than they would have been with Superman and Batman during 1964. I can't recall such features in Journey into Mystery or Strange Tales, but this sort of "How it works" piece would also be a feature of some of the Marvel annuals. And the Marvel Tales and Marvel Collectors' Item Classic titles were a more organised attempt to provide back-story for readers who'd missed the initial Marvel issues.

Oh, and Tales of Suspense 55 was also the issue in which Don Heck (or maybe Stan) got rid of the little row of rivets down the centre of Iron Man's faceplate.

"Iron Man has never been more exciting, or more dramatic, than in his never-to-be-forgotten battle with The Uncanny Unicorn!" Yes he has, Stan. On many occasions.
It was interesting that Stan decided to up the story-length in Tales of Suspense 56 (Aug 1964) ... for if ever there was a villain that deserved five pages less, it was The Unicorn.

There are elements to the story that are great. The opening scene in which Stark blows a gasket because he's tired of being cooped up in a metal chest plate has a ring of truth to it. Then, when he decides to be a selfish twat (for a change of pace), Happy Hogan is hospitalised and Pepper is kidnapped by the villain, The Unicorn. Stan also includes a flashback in which we see that The Unicorn's "Power Horn" was created by Ivan Vanko, The Crimson Dynamo, which is a neat bit of fledgling continuity.

For me, Tales of Suspense 56 is the least memorable of the 1964 issues - mostly because The Unicorn is such an uninteresting villain ... mediocre powers, sketchy backstory and no sign of any real motivation for battling Iron Man. I'm thinking deadline crisis filler issue; how about you?
As for the Unicorn himself ... well, he's just a bit dull. The costume is clunky and his power is a bit limited. The idea that he can only direct the force beam in his headpiece by turning is head would be handicap enough, but the rigid neckbrace approach to the costume means that he would have to turn his whole body to direct the power beam. Not the best design to come from the otherwise great Don Heck, and definitely not deserving of the allotted 18 pages. Luckily, the following month's Suspense was a big improvement, and introduced an important new supervillain.

It does seem likely that Stan had some considerable confidence in his new character judging by the multiple images on the cover and the tone of the cover-copy. This is also the first Don Heck art on a Suspense cover for quite some time, after a long run of Jack Kirby-pencilled covers.
Tales of Suspense 57 (Sept 1964) featured the return of the deadly Soviet agent The Black Widow, and this time she had a new ally. We first see Clint Barton - unnamed in this story - as a sideshow marksman, failing to impress the Coney Island crowd. Witnessing Iron Man preventing a fairground ride accident, Hawkeye decides that he too can have adulation if he becomes a superhero. But his first case, a botched jewel robbery, ends with him mistaken by police for the robber and forced to flee. 

With his deadly aim and trick arrows, Hawkeye made for an unusual villain, in that he really wanted to be a superhero. But circumstances conspired against him, and he ended up in the thrall of the beautiful but deadly Black Widow, who set him against Iron Man for her own purposes. Any similarity to DC's Green Arrow is purely coincidental.
By no small coincidence, the glamorous Black Widow is driving past at just the right moment and helps Hawkeye escape the cops. And that's pretty much the end for our Hawkeye, as he falls under the alluring spell of the Red spy and becomes entangled in The Widow's plot to exact her revenge on Iron Man.

Whether it was the increased page count, or a flair for the dramatic on Don Heck's part, this story included some rather large frames, at a time when most Marvel pages consisted of six or more panels per page ... even Jack Kirby's. How about the neat way Heck's layout in page 17 above shows cause and effect in the first two panels. Pretty cool, eh?
There follows an eight-page battle in which Hawkeye's trick arrows almost get the better of Iron Man and it's Hawkeye's coup de grace on his armoured foe that catches The Black Widow in an explosion, and renders the beautiful Russian spy unconscious. Just when he has Iron Man beaten, Hawkeye scoops up the woman he loves and gets the heck out of Dodge. 

Hawkeye must have been a hit with readers because just about as soon as he could, Stan would bring the maverick archer back, along with The Black Widow, in Tales of Suspense 60, just three months later. But first, Iron Man had the obligatory Battle Issue to deal with.

Tales of Suspense 58 (Oct 1964) would be the last to feature Iron Man as the star attraction. Starting with Suspense 59, he'd share the spotlight with fellow Avenger Captain America, a run I've covered in an earlier blog entry. But first, in the time-honoured tradition of Marvel superhero mash-ups, the two would have to slug it out in an epic-length story ... well, it seemed epic-length to me back in 1964.

It's hard to describe just how excited I was to see this comic advertised in the other Marvels of the period. I wouldn't track a copy down until 1966 or so, but it wasn't for lack of trying. My copy (above) you can see is a pence edition, so some did make it through the T&P blockade.
Tales of Suspense 58 (Oct 1964) was a pretty important one for my ten-year-old self. It was a tricky one for me to get hold of back in 1965, as it was one of the issues caught up in the Great Thorpe & Porter Distribution Snafu of 1964. I would later track down a copy after I'd already read the later Jack Kirby Cap stories in Suspense, so at the time, I wasn't mad about Don Heck's version of Captain America.

Again, Don Heck is using big panels on the page to maximise the impact of the battle scenes. I also really liked the way Sam Rosen rendered the Captain America logo in a Stars-and-Stripes motif, something that wouldn't be adopted on the Suspense covers until some time after the Captain America series started.
The plot's a little contrived ... After their defeat in Amazing Spider-Man 15, Kraven the Hunter and his partner-in-crime The Chameleon sneak back into the U.S. only to be apprehended by Iron Man. The Golden Avenger drags Kraven off to jail, but fails to notice The Chameleon skulking in the shadows. Out of the blue, The Chameleon gets the idea to impersonate Captain America and foment a battle between Iron Man and the real Cap. If I had to choose another hero to trick Iron Man into fighting (for no good reason), I'd probably choose Thor, who'd have a better chance of beating the armoured guy ... but then Thor wasn't going to be co-starring in the next issue of Suspense, was he?

It all comes out in the wash, though, when fellow Avenger Giant-Man shows up to explain to Iron Man that he's been fighting the real Captain America and not an impersonator as he'd first thought. It quite key that it was Giant-Man who does the big Reveal as he was busy the same month over in Tales to Astonish, having his own Battle Issue with another Avenger, The Incredible Hulk.

And for the first time since the beginning of Don Heck's work on Iron Man he's inked here by Dick Ayers, an embellisher I've never thought terribly well-suited to Heck's fine pencils. I'm guessing this was to free up some of Heck's time for taking over as penciller on The Avengers with issue 9 (also Oct 1964), where he was inked by Ayers as well, but for what it's worth, I've always preferred Heck inked by Heck.

From Tales of Suspense 59 onwards, the page count of the Iron Man stories would drop back down to 13 pages, with the Captain America solo stories - drawn by Jack Kirby - taking up the remaining 10 pages of story space. I couldn't have been happier, as I've always rated Cap as my all-time fave Marvel character, especially when illustrated by his co-originator, Jack Kirby.

Tales of Suspense 59 was one of those Marvel issues denied to UK readers because of the dispute between Martin Goodman and Thorpe & Porter distributors. It would be a few years after 1964 before I'd find one of these, but it's a milestone issue and one of my all-time favourites.
I'll take a look at the Iron Man stories in the "split" Tales of Suspense another time, as I wouldn't want Iron Man to outstay his welcome here.


Next time I want to return to the earliest days of Marvel Comics. I was reading my old chum Kid Robson's blog in which he revisits the old Stan versus Jack and Steve issue. I was astonished at how many readers still cite the Jack Kirby interview in Comics Journal 134 (Feb 1990) as hard evidence of Stan Lee's "perfidy". So I want to take a closer look at the interview to assess how much of it is reliable testimony.

Next: Follow the Money!




Sunday, 22 July 2018

Iron Man: A Red and Yellow Future

IRON MAN'S GOLDEN ARMOURED RUN ENDED with the November 1963 issue of Tales of Suspense. Stan Lee had realised that his grand superhero adventure of the early Silver Age was in danger of foundering. He'd started drafting in some old Atlas alumni to (re)build to same sort of operation he'd presided over during the Atlas years. But the stories, by former Atlas and Charlton staff writer Ernie Hart and Atlas and DC scripter Robert Bernstein, seemed flat and lifeless compared to Stan's own writing efforts and they had to go.

Tales of Suspense 47 was the final outing for Iron Man's golden armour, a design pretty clunky even by 1963's standards. Even while Don Heck was trying to make the armour lighter and more manoeuvrable in the interior art, Kirby continued to draw the same clumsy tank-like armour on all the covers. Small wonder Lee brought in Ditko for the makeover (and mentioned it on the cover).
In taking over the writing of the Marvel b-titles, Stan also brought a little something extra to each book. In Strange Tales, he added Dr Strange as a regular feature; in Tales to Astonish, Stan changed Ant-Man to Giant Man; in Journey into Mystery he added Tales of Asgard as a secondary feature; and in Tales of Suspense, he had Ditko design Iron Man a new, red-and-yellow armour. He also added Tales of the Watcher as a back-up strip, but I barely even noticed that.
In anticipation of the changes he was planning on Iron Man, Stan needed Steve Ditko. I think he saw Don Heck as a capable storyteller, but not a designer. The Kirby look for Iron Man wasn't working - at least, not for Stan - so he went to his next best designer. He moved Don Heck temporarily off Iron Man onto Thor and suspended Strange Tales' Dr Strange for a couple of months to free up Ditko's time for Iron Man.

The Melter is an interesting foe for Iron Man, but I don't think Stan made it clear enough that the melting beam liquifies iron (and only iron) without raising the temperature. Also, I'm not seeing a great deal of Steve Ditko art here, as Heck's style is overtaking any Ditko pencils.
For "Iron Man Battles the Melter", it doesn't appear to me that Steve Ditko contributed more than the barest of layouts. I don't think Ditko was responsible for The Melter's costume either. It has the distinct look of a Heck design. And, of course, it was business as usual with the clunky yellow armour. Kirby's cover depicted Iron Man without a chin again, though in the interior art, Heck (presumably) has given the Golden Avenger's helmet a distinct curve into the neck. It does look better, but even as a kid, I wondered how Stark got the helmet over his head.

Though Kirby's "chinless" Iron Man looked more like a robot, it did make sense from a practical point of view. Don Heck's version, though sleeker and more modern-looking, does make you wonder how Stark got his head through the helmet's narrow neck hole.
There's some other nice touches in the story's art. Heck renders a couple of panels in silhouette. I'm pretty sure it was Heck, as I don't recall that was trick Ditko used in any of his Spider-Man or Dr Strange art.

Is Don Heck the inker just saving himself some time by blocking in the figures in Ditko's pencils in black ink? Or was this a deliberate design decision by Ditko. I'm leaning towards the former.
Also apparent in this issue is how Happy Hogan and Pepper Potts have a bit more to do. Stan gives them quite a few lines of dialogue and even begins to refine the relationship between them.

Compare and contrast: the introduction of Happy Hogan and Pepper Potts as scripted by Robert Bernstein in Tales of Suspense 45, and, on the right, Happy and Pepper as dialogued by Stan Lee in ToS47.
But best of all is Stan Lee's peppy script. The dialogue is just so much better here than it was in the Robert Bernstein issues. Stan's humour and grasp of characterisation shine through and though there isn't much to choose between the content of say, the Happy-Pepper verbal jousting, Stan just does the whole bickering schtick so much better, but also in a good-natured way.

Even at the end of this tale, Stan wasn't giving anything away about what lay ahead. But big changes were coming to Iron Man in the very next issue.

The cover gives away the big surprise inside this issue ... Iron Man gets new-look armour. It's one of the few times the two versions of the armour have appeared in the same comic and on the same cover.
Tales of Suspense 48 (Dec 1963) was quite a landmark issue. Not for the first time, Stan overturned a Kirby design that wasn't, for whatever reason, working for Stan. In my view, Lee was right to get rid of the heavy, lumbering Kirby-designed golden armour. It was a 1959 Cadillac for a 1963 world - big and heavy and energy-inefficient. Having Steve Ditko do the work made sense. He'd redesigned Kirby's original drawings for Spider-Man to make the character sleeker and less bulky, it made sense to see if he could do the same thing for Iron Man.

The New Iron Man Battles the Mysterious Mr Pain - Stark's newest foe is a classic piece of eccentric Ditko design, looking more like a Dr Strange villain than someone Iron Man should be fighting. What is the point of the pointy head-dress?
The villain, Mr Doll, has taken some flack from fan circles for being anything but "a truly different super-villain". Some have compared him to The Fantastic Four's Puppet Master, but in fact the two have quite different powers. The Puppet Master uses his puppets to mind-control his victims while Mr Doll - originally called "Mr Pain" - uses his doll to cause harm to his victims in much the same way as a Voodoo houngan. He's not the best supervillain Stan's ever come up with, but he's not the worst either. Mr Doll would probably have been more interesting as Mr Pain. It's a much darker idea, and there has been some speculation that the name change was enforced by the Comics Code, though there's no confirmation of that which I could find.

Only Steve Ditko would spread a scene of Iron Man putting on his armour over three pages ... and only Ditko could make it work. Despite the slightly unsuitable inking of Dick Ayers, this is still a milestone moment in the development of Marvel Comics. And this version of the armour is still my favourite.
But the key reason to use a villain who's powers depend on using the hero's likeness against him is to catalyse the change in Stark's Iron Man armour. Stark reasons that if he alters his Iron Man appearance, Mr Doll's powers won't work against him. It's pretty flawed as far as the logic goes. Stark has already seen Mr Doll alter his magic doll to switch the pain from millionaire victim Charleston Carter to Iron Man. Nevertheless, the side benefit is that the new armour is lighter, stronger and, most importantly, far more modern-looking than the golden version. This armour, with its distinctive hinged faceplate with pointy "bat-ears" is easily my favourite of the red-and-yellow armours. Just why Stan allowed it to be changed just a few issues later is anyone's guess.

Jack Kirby doesn't quite get Ditko's design for Iron Man's new armour. Here, the hinged faceplate is drawn as though it's actually part of the  headpiece, again begging the question, how would Tony Stark put the Iron Man helmet on?
Stan used Tales of Suspense 49 (Jan 1964, on sale 8 Oct 1963) to showcase Iron Man's new abilities and give a high-profile plug to his new team book The Uncanny X-Men. In fact, he gives The X-Men the lion's share of the action, devoting a third of the story's 18 pages to Professor X and his band of merry mutants. The trigger for the tale is The X-Men's Angel flying into a danger zone above one of Stark's factories where a nuclear explosion is about to detonate. Quite why he wants to detonate an atomic device in one of his own weapons facilities isn't explained. 

Flying along, minding his own business, The X-Man Angel blunders into Tony Stark's atomic explosion. But the biggest mystery for me isn't, "Why is Tony Stark carrying out nuclear tests in a built-up area?" but rather, "How does Iron Man know The Angel's a youngster?"
Because radiation is the cause of everything in these early Marvel stories, this time the nuclear energy turns The Angel bad, at least temporarily. So Iron Man spends the rest of the issue chasing Warren Worthington around the skies over upstate New York. And when The Angel quits the X-Men to go join the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants (who wouldn't appear in The X-Men for another two months), Professor X doesn't seem able to discover what The Angel's problem is, despite his not-inconsiderable telepathic powers.

Who's bad? It's funny what a bit of exposure to radiation can do: give you super-powers, take your super-powers away, make you evil ... the list is endless.
Iron Man finally has to engineer a death plunge from several miles up in order to snap The Angel out of his evilness. The story ends with The Angel recovering from his bout of bad behaviour and saving Iron Man at the last second. Everyone parts friends with The Angel assuring Iron Man that "if you even need help ... no matter how deadly the trouble ... call on me ... call on The X-Men". Yet, when The Avengers desperately needed to find the Hulk  later the same month in Avengers 3 (Jan 1964), Professor X - unchallenged by the Angel - is curtly dismissive of Iron Man's request for help.

Avengers 3: When the superteam have to find The Hulk, Iron Man approaches each of the other Marvel superheroes looking for aid. Despite The Angel's promise in Tales of Suspense 49, The X-Men are no help at all. (Thanks to George Chambers for the heads-up.)
That promise was aa distant memory by the next time Iron Man encountered the mutant team, in X-Men 9 (Jan 1965), but at this point in Marvel history, Stan and Jack weren't letting pesky continuity get in the way of a good superteam battle.

X-Men 9 (Jan 1965): Not only does The Angel forget his promise to Iron Man provide help whenever asked, he doesn't seem to remember Iron Man either - though in all fairness, Iron Man doesn't seem to remember The Angel. They all just want to have a Kirby scrap, for no apparent reason.
All's well that ends well, and everything was safely back to normal in time for X-Men 3 (Jan 1964, on sale 5 Nov 1963) and for Tales of Suspense 50 (Jan 1964, on sale 12 Nov 1963), which featured a brand-new villain.

In the back-end of Tales of Suspense 49 was another Marvel cross-over, unheralded on the cover. Stan began framing some of his old-school fantasy tales with a narration by The Watcher ("by special arrangement with the Fantastic Four magazine.") What seems especially strange is that Stan had prefaced the Iron Man story in this issue with the editorial message, "The Angel and The X-Men appear in this story through the courtesy of the editors of The X-Men magazine! The Avengers are depicted briefly on these pages by the spacial arrangement with the copyright owners of The Avengers magazine!" So what was Stan's point here? He's making it seem as though The X-Men and The Avengers are published by different companies, despite the fact that by this point all Marvel Comics were labelled as "Marvel Comics" in the cover corner box. So he wasn't fooling the readers. It's an odd conceit, and I cannot fathom a reason for it.

Omnipotent intergalactic demi-god The Watcher waves cheerily to the reader before relating an inconsequential tale of the passive conquering of the human race by alien called the Sneepers. He then breaks his own code of non-interference by urging the humans not to allow this avoidable disaster to come to pass. I think I'd have preferred "Tales of Happy Hogan".
The first Watcher tale, "The Saga of the Sneepers" is barely distinguishable from the pre-hero five-pagers Stan was filling Tales of Suspense with before Iron Man and, back in the 1960s, I'd gloss over these with barely a second glance. This one has a plot by Stan and script and pencils by Larry Leiber, with George Roussos (as "G. Bell") finishing up on inks.

The first of Iron Man's truly memorable opponents was The Mandarin, a bargain basement imitator of Fu Manchu, The Mandarin followed in the footsteps of such knock offs as Wu Fang and Marvel's own Yellow Claw.
Tales of Suspense 50's "Caught in the Clutches of The Hands of the Mandarin" - despite being one of the more tautological story titles of the period - did introduce an enduring villain to the Iron Man cast. Okay, he was a low-rent Fu Manchu, but the gimmick of the rings was pretty cool. Where DC's Green Lantern had one all-powerful ring, The Mandarin had ten! I mean, what chance would Iron Man have against that?

Despite being seriously out-gunned by The Mandarin, Iron Man somehow manages to temporarily disable the warlord and escape China with his life. There would be other, more challenging battles ahead.
Iron Man gets involved when the CIA asks him to investigate a Chinese warlord The Manadarin, who is feared even by the Red Chinese government. Without really knowing what he's up against, Stark blunders straight in and is almost immediately at the mercy of the self-styled descendant of Genghis Khan. Overall the battle is inconclusive and though Iron Man temporarily defeats The Mandarin, he barely manages to escape in time to rendezvous with his CIA pickup plane and the irritated Mandarin lives to fight another day.

The tale runs a shortened 13 pages and I have to wonder if there was a reason for that, since the Iron Man stories had been 18 pages since issue 47. Certainly by ending the story in such an inconclusive way, it seems Stan had designs on bringing the Mandarin back, even at this early stage. And, of course, that would turn out to be the case. And it's great to see the great Don Heck back on pencils and inks, as the story looks once more like classic Iron Man. Certainly Ditko's input on the previous issues was invaluable, but I don't think I'd have liked to see him continue on the title.

Stan and Don also contrive to change Pepper Potts' appearance to make her more of a glamour girl than she was when first introduced. It's not beyond possibility that this was Heck's idea, as the artist was especially known for drawing attractive women characters.
Also in this story, Stan gets Don Heck to give Pepper Potts a makeover, making her far prettier. I suppose this was to make for a more convincing love triangle between Stark, Pepper and Happy ... not that it was ever convincing in the first place. Because of the shorter Iron Man story, the issue is rounded out with two fantasy tales; "Them!", a fourth wall tale in which a man believes he's being hounded by fictional characters, but turns out to be a fictional character himself, and a Tales of the Watcher "Journey's End" in which a nerd finds paradise on a hidden alien planet.

It's strange that Stan chose his two best sellers to advertise in Tales of Suspense 50. Wouldn't it have made more sense to try to bolster the lower-selling anthology titles like Journey into Mystery?
Also included for the first time, two full-page Marvel house ads for Amazing Spider-Man 9 and Fantastic Four 23 (both Feb 1964, on sale 12 Nov 1963), titles that were selling significantly better than Tales of Suspense's 188,000 copies a month average?

"The Scarecrow! What strange power does he possess?" shouts Stan's cover line for Tales of Suspense 51.  The answer is, "None!" Unlike Batman's eponymous foe over at DC Comics, this Scarecrow doesn't actually scare anyone, being an escape artist turned cat-burglar with no actual power at all.
Tales of Suspense 51 (Mar 1964) featured a decidedly unmemorable villain, especially when compared to The Mandarin. The Scarecrow is a bottom-of-the-bill vaudeville escape artist (did they still even have vaudeville by 1964?), Ebenezer Laughton (using the stage name "Uncanny Umberto"), who gets a great idea to turn to crime. So he steals a costume and three trained crows and sets himself up as a costumed second-story man. What isn't explained is how Laughton manages to contact the Communist Cuban authorities in order to sell them the secret plans he's stolen from Tony Stark.

A genuinely forgettable story, and mercifully brief at 13 pages ... with one bright spot, where Pepper Potts gets rid of one of Stark's snooty girlfriends, with a view to landing a date with Stark herself.

Stan's characterisation of Pepper Potts is straight out of a 1963 coffee commercial, but at least he was making an effort to portray a feisty, strong female character, even if he wasn't quite there yet.
It's probably not terribly politically correct by today's standards, and Stan's handling of the character is a little condescending, and owes more to Millie the Model than it does to the mainstream Marvel superhero style of storytelling, but these tales are a product of their era and should be taken within that context.

The issue is rounded out with another Tales of the Watcher and a five-page fantasy tale, also written and drawn by Larry Lieber and embellished by the decidedly eccentric Matt Fox.

Tales of Suspense 51 was Matt Fox's last inking job for Marvel, working over Larry Lieber pencils. He dropped away as the fantasy tales were phased out of the fantasy titles. His style would have been especially unsuitable for the kind of superhero stories Stan was publishing.

WHO THE HECK IS MATT FOX?

Matthew Fox was born in 1906, making him one of the older artists working for Marvel's predecessor Atlas Comics during the 1950s. Fox had earlier enjoyed a stint as a cover artist on the classic pulp magazine Weird Tales, from 1943 to 1951. 

It wasn't just Fox's comic art that was eccentric, his cover paintings for the legendary Weird Tales also featured some extremely odd-looking aliens.
By the end of the 1940s Weird Tales was struggling and Fox was getting fewer cover painting commissions, so he found other work, starting with a five-page strip for the Atlas title, Adventures into Weird Worlds 10 (Sep 1952). He also contributed some Weird Tales style covers to Chilling Tales (Youthful Comics) before concentrating most of his efforts on Atlas.

Matt Fox's comics career was patchy. Considering how little work he actually did for Atlas/Marvel and other publishers, he wouldn't have been able to live on so few jobs. It's been said that he also worked in advertising, but I haven't been able to uncover any further details on that.
At Atlas, he provided finishing art for just 21 stories between 1951 and 1958, his final Atlas tale appearing in Journey into Mystery 49 (Nov 1958). He dropped out of sight for a few years, returning to Marvel with art for the story, "The Man Who Wouldn't Die" in Journey into Mystery 93 (Jun 1963). He would ink another 16 short fantasy tales for early 1960s Marvel anthology titles, his last work appearing in Tales of Suspense 51 (Mar 1964).

While Matt Fox may have had his fans, by virtue of the sheer quirkiness of his work, Larry Lieber - whose pencils Fox often inked - wasn't one of them. "I hated his stuff because I struggled with drawing," Lieber told Roy Thomas in an interview for Alter Ego, "and I was trying to make the drawings look as real as humanly possible, and I had a tough time. I remember I once had Don Heck inking me on a five-page western, and I remember saying, 'My God, he's good at making my stuff look better than it is,' and he was. Matt Fox - if my stuff was a little stiff, he made it even stiffer; he made it look like wood cuttings!"

Matt Fox died in 1988.


BACK TO IRON MAN

Tales of Suspense 52 (Apr 1964) was a considerable improvement over issue 51, featuring the return of one of my favourites, The Crimson Dynamo, and the introduction of an important Marvel character who would go on to enjoy a long career and a fascinating backstory - The Black Widow.
How can this be? Didn't The Crimson Dynamo reform at the end of his last appearance and count Tony Stark as a friend and ally? All is not what it seems in this issue of Tales of Suspense.
It was established at the end of Tales of Suspense 46 that Ivan Vanko, The Crimson Dynamo and former Soviet saboteur, switches sides and goes to work for Tony Stark. And that would have worked out just fine if the Russians hadn't decided to assign notorious spy The Black Widow to assassinate Venko for daring to defect. And while they're at it, they can just take out Tony Stark and his "bodyguard" Iron Man, as well.

There's a lot of sound an fury in this story, but essentially, we meet the Black Widow who fails to destroy the defector Ivan (The Crimson Dynamo) Venko, and is forced to flee for her life, hunted by both the American and Russian authorities.
With her ox-like "assistant" Boris, Madame Natasha fetches up at Stark's factory and manages to bluff her way into a meeting with Stark. Oddly, Stark doesn't seem in the slightest bit suspicious of this unknown Russian woman who looks like a movie star. In fact, Stark acts a little bit creepy around her, uttering howlers like, "If there's a moon out, lady, you'll find out how I feel about you, too!" Meanwhile, as Tony acts like an amorous schoolboy, Boris snoops around the factory and finds Venko. He quickly subdues the defector and delivers him to a nearby Soviet submarine, then returns to the factory and puts on Venko's armour. His disguise fools Iron Man and Boris is able to defeat the Golden Avenger and also bring him to the Russian submarine. But Iron Man revives and rescues Venko. There's a final showdown at the factory, and Venko sacrifices himself to defeat The Boris Dynamo. The Black Widow, having failed her communist masters, escapes to an uncertain future in the confusion.

Stan Lee must have liked the idea of The Black Widow quite a lot, because she returned the month following her initial appearance to menace Iron Man and Tony Stark anew, this time with a stolen anti-gravity device. Also, Stan had the masthead altered to reduce the size of "Tales of Suspense" and enlarge the Iron Man lettering. Perhaps with a view to changing the title of the book at some point?
The next issue of Tales of Suspense, 53 (May 1964), is pretty much Part Two of the story, "The Black Widow Strikes Again!", this time scripted by veteran Atlas editor Don Rico, probably helping Stan out of a deadline crunch.

We know Madame Natasha - The Black Widow - is a bad girl, because she smokes ... with a long cigarette holder! And Tony Stark becomes as dumb as a rock around her.
The story is every bit as chaotic as the last one, but that's not a negative. There's loads going on in just 13 pages, but the central plot revolves around Madame Natasha trying to redeem herself with the Soviet government by stealing Tony Stark's anti-gravity device. Little does she know that the treacherous Russians have no intention of forgiving her. Much floating hardware later, the device is deactivated by Iron Man's "Proton Gun" and poor Natasha is back to square one.

My only real quibble with this issue is the way Tony Stark acts out-of-character towards Madame Natasha. It's already been well-established that Stark allows only the shallowest relationships with the women he dates because of his critical heart condition (and probably also because he has to wear a metal chest plate that would raise questions the moment he took his shirt off). Yet here he is, his tongue hanging out like a randy labrador just because The Black Widow is beautiful? I don't buy it.

Stan might have made it work if he'd explained, perhaps in some thought balloons, that Stark was especially drawn to her by some factor other than her looks. But that probably wasn't his intention, as he'd later give Madame Natasha a different love interest that would be instrumental in her changing the course of her life.

But that's a story for next time, when I cover the remainder of the Iron Man red-and-yellow solo stories.

Next: Move Over Iron Man!