Monday, 19 December 2016

The Best Marvel Annual: Amazing Spider-Man 1

THE IDEA OF A COMICS ANNUAL isn't an especially new one, not even at the beginning of the 1960s when DC published Superman Annual 1 (Aug 1960). The earliest annual I could find in US comics was Archie Annual 1 (1950). By the time that was published, Archie had been established as a leading comics character for almost a decade. It must have seemed like a good idea to other comics publishers because pretty quickly, other annuals started appearing on the newsstands.

During the 1950s, the concept of comic annuals was an interesting novelty. Where the UK comics market had had annuals for years, it took quite a few years before the American publishers caught on.
Click image to enlarge.
Tales of Terror Annual 1 was published in 1951 by EC, though unlike the Archie Annual that contained 116 pages of new material, canny Bill Gaines just stitched four coverless issues of assorted EC comics into a new cover. A year after that Dell Comics put out Tarzan's Jungle Annual 1 (1952), featuring 96 pages of all-new material, drawn mainly by Jesse Marsh ... and with that just about every other publisher started spitting out annuals on every topic imaginable.

Then, the beginning of the 1960s, DC's dark overlord, Mort Weisinger, put a Superman Annual on the schedule. Though it had no cover date, the 80-page comic carried "1960" in the indicia, and was likely on sale in the summer of that year, probably to capitalise on the approaching school holidays. But sadly, there was no new material here. The only bone Uncle Mort threw the readers was, no ads.

With so many stories in the back-catalogue to draw from, the Superman Annuals were more often than not themed affairs - for example "Adventures in Time, Space and on Alien Worlds" and "The Superman Family on Krypton".
Superman Annual 2 (1960) followed just five months later, on sale in November ... so not really an annual, then. This second issue followed the same format ... about 80 pages of reprint material with no ads. These books must have sold well, because pretty quickly, DC was putting out a whole range of Annuals, mostly published more than once a year, featuring Lois Lane, Batman and The Flash, in that order.

The idea of publishing annuals quickly spread beyond the influence of Superman Editor Mort Weisinger, and Batman's Jack Schiff and Flash's Julius Schwartz also got a look-in. Strangely, there was no Wonder Woman Annual, as there was certainly plenty of back-catalogue to choose from. And neither Green Lantern nor Justice League made the Annual cut, probably because there wasn't.
So it was that Marvel publisher Martin Goodman, ever on the look-out for a bandwagon to hitch up to, came up with the striking idea of publishing annuals himself. What was a bit of a surprise was that Marvel's first annual was all-new material, more so when you consider that Millie the Model had been running for almost 20 years at this point.

Millie the Model had first appeared in 1945 as a standard teen humour comic, but quickly evolved into something much better when Dan DeCarlo took charge of the look. Eventually, DeCarlo was lured away to bring the same look to the smash-hit series Archie, as was his Millie successor, Stan Goldberg.
Millie the Model began in 1945, created by Marvel staff writer artist Ruth Atkinson, though she was quickly succeeded by Ken Bald and Mike Sekowsky. Starting as a kind of "career-girl" comedy comic, it became broader as it went along, evolving into a more straightforward slapstick comedy title - except for the middle 1960s when for about four years it was re-purposed as a straight romance book. Spawning several spin-off titles, including A Date With Millie (1956), which becomes Life with Millie (1960), which in turn becomes Modeling with Millie 1963), and Mad About Millie (1969), the series was one of Marvel's most dependable money-makers, enjoying art by Dan DeCarlo (from 1949-1960), before he went on to become one of Archie's premiere artists, and later Stan Goldberg. And if that weren't success enough, supporting characters Patsy Walker, Hedy and Chilli also got their own series.

Marvel's first two annuals (which truly came first is now lost in the mists of time) couldn't have been more different - teen humour aimed primarily at a female market and mild horror from the Marvel fantasy titles.
Perhaps because of the success of the character, Stan had a plentiful supply of inventory material to drop into The Big Millie the Model Annual 1 (on sale July 1962). Certainly that would fit with Martin Goodman's reluctance to spend money on new material if he didn't have to. He did not authorise new stories for Marvel second Annual, though. The Big Strange Tale Annual 1 (on sale July 1962) simply reprinted stories from Marvel's other fantasy anthology titles; Journey into Mystery, Tales of Suspense, Tales to Astonish and, of course, Strange Tales.

Marvel expanded its Annual offering for 1963, adding the highly-regarded Fantastic Four Annual to the lineup. The FF title was Marvel's most ambitious project to date, as it featured an all-new 37-page story, "Sub-Mariner versus The Human Race" by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, a six-page back-up story co-starring Spider-Man, 14 pages of pinups and a three-page feature about the FF. Stan also threw in a reprint of the first half of FF1, too. 
These 25c comics must have been a big success for the fledgling Marvel Comics, as the following year, Goodman put out second issues of Millie the Model Annual (all-new material, on sale July 1963) and Strange Tales Annual (new material plus reprints, on sale June 1963), and added a Fantastic Four Annual (mostly-new, on sale July 1963) for good measure.

Many pundits cite the first Fantastic Four Annual as the best Marvel ever put out, but my vote would go to the new title that debuted the following year ...

THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN ANNUAL 1

By the time Marvel published their first Spider-Man Annual, the character had been running for almost a year-and-a-half in his own title. Amazing Spider-Man Annual 1 (on-sale June 1963) was cover to cover all-new (the FF Annual published the same year was padded out with a reprint of FF 5), featuring Marvel's longest single story yet, 41 pages of "The Sinister Six", along with a solid set of back-up features (and no ads, save the inside and back covers), all by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko.

Nobody made Spider-Man look "spidery" the way Steve Ditko did. The white background makes for a clean and compelling design and even though the logo colouring style (also used on the previous year's Annuals) is a design car-crash, it somehow conveys the idea that this magazine is something special. The only slight flaw is the giant red text box that obscures the Sandman.
The main story is one of my all-time favourites ... Dr Octopus, still smarting from his defeat at the hands of Spider-Man in ASM 11 & 12 (Apr-may 1964) just a few weeks earlier, escapes from jail and persuades five former Spidey villains - Electro, Kraven the Hunter, Mysterio, Sandman and The Vulture - to band together to help each other defeat their most hated enemy. That's pretty much a role call of every Spider-Man villain since the title began. The only ones missing are The Chameleon (in hiding), The Terrible Tinkerer (lost in space) and The Reptile (not really a villain, in the traditional sense). [Edit: Of course, I meant to type "The Lizard" - but if I changed it, then D.D.Clegg's comment below wouldn't make sense.]

Lee and Ditko include effective vignettes of Peter (Spider-Man) Parker's life, focussing on the sorrow of his Aunt May at the senseless death of her husband at the hands of the then-unnamed burglar - it's Peter's guilt over this that leads to the loss of his super-powers.
In the first five pages, Stan and Steve have recapped events for newcomers, showing Spider-Man's feud with newspaper publisher Jonah Jameson, Peter Parker's relationship with his classmates (and in particular Flash Thompson) and Peter's guilt over the death of his uncle Ben. They've also managed to squeeze in brief cameo appearances by The Mighty Thor and Dr Strange. And on the sixth page, Spider-Man mysteriously loses his super-powers.

With the scene set, Dr Octopus now unveils his plan - though it's not without one flaw, which can only be an oversight of editor Stan not supervising writer Stan closely enough. The villains draw lots to decide the order in which they will fight Spidey (having already dismissed the idea of fighting him as a team). Doc Ock then tells them that he's written a location on each card that will make the best of each villain's special abilities. However, we've just seen the baddies drawn random cards, so how could Ock know which villain would be assigned which location. But it's only a minor lapse in logic, and the story quickly moves on before we've had a chance to spot Stan's mistake.

Worrying about her nephew's distracted mood, Aunt May resolves to visit Betty Brant to see whether the two are having romantic troubles. But right outside the Daily Bugle building, both Betty and Aunt May are kidnapped by Octopus, who's aware that Spider-Man fought once before to protect Jameson's secretary. The Vulture delivers the villains' demands to Jameson - Spider-Man must fight them in turn or Betty Brant will pay the price. How can Spider-Man battle such powerful villains with no power of his own? Thus was the tension cranked up to breaking point ...

Lee and Ditko's economical storytelling moves the plot along at a clip. In the space of a couple of pages, Jameson witnesses Betty Brant and Aunt May's kidnapping, an ultimatum is delivered and we get two cameo appearances - the Fantastic Four and Captain America. Amidst all the drama, I especially like the small detail of Jameson's necktie draping over the window-ledge as he cranes out the window to see who's abducting his secretary and Parker's aunt.
With no other choice, Peter must become Spider-Man and face his foes ... so he sets off the the first location, Tony Stark's electrical plant, where Electro is waiting for him. Crawling under the fence like an ordinary teenager, Spider-Man finds his first adversary. But when Electro hurls an electric bolt at the young hero, he evades it with ease. He'd never really lost his powers, he just believed he had ... Regrouping, Spider-Man uses Peter's science know-how to formulate a plan. Using copper wires to ground himself, he's immune to Electro's power and can safely get close enough to kay-o the baddie.

Full-page splash panels in the middle of a story were a rarity in 1964, but here Steve Ditko serves up a stoater. Even though any school boy will tell you that being grounded when in contact with electricity will kill you (while rubber-soled shoes will save your life), the power and drama of the image more than compensates.
It's a great moment, and we can overlook the shaky science that suggests Spidey grounding himself with wire would keep him safe from electric shock when just the opposite is true. But let's not dwell on that ... let's just pause for a brief cameo from Iron Man before moving on to the next battle - with Kraven the Hunter. Well, it's not so much a battle ...

The battle with Kraven is far from conclusive, but it makes sense that if Spidey can just grab the card from the Hunter and make off, then that's what he should do. Great full-spage image, though.
With time pressing in, Spidey wisely doesn't waste time waltzing around the World's Fair site with the shaggy braggart. He simply nimbly evades both Kraven and his two pet leopards, snatches the vital card bearing the location of his next fight and makes off. We do get another brilliant battle splash page from Ditko, though.

The Human Torch's cameo appearance is a little more extended than those of the other Marvel characters. The X-Men in the above page isn't technically a cameo, as this isn't the real X-Men but actually just robot duplicates.
With Spidey safely past his second challenge, we're treated to a nice little vignette between Web-Head and The Human Torch. Driven by his need to get to his next rendezvous, Spidey is not in a chatting mood, but quaintly, the Torch only wants to see if Spider-Man can use any help. It's a nice quiet moment before the next round of action, and though the two have had a feud on the go since they first met, Stan takes a moment to let us know it's a friendly one. But before the battle continues, Lee and Ditko also give us a cute scene with Aunt May completely misinterpreting the situation and being charmed by Doc Ock's "good manners". It would be the start of an ongoing gag, which turned into a nightmare when, in Amazing Spider-Man 54 (Nov 1967), Dr Octopus becomes Aunt May's lodger, then in ASM 131 (Apr 1974) almost manages to marry her.

Lee and Ditko had already given us an X-Men cameo earlier in the story, so we should have realised that these X-Men were phonies. Check out the flames where "Cyclop's" eyebeams have struck - betcha missed that first time round, right?
There's no time to lose, though, as the plot powers on to take us to Spider-Man's next confrontation with one of Doc Ock's allies - Mysterio. The master of special effects doesn't tackle Spidey directly ... he's happy to send robot copies of The X-Man to do his dirty work. Ditko cleverly has "Cyclop's" eye-beam leave a burning scar wherever it strikes, which should be clue enough that he's not the real thing. Stan makes no comment about it in his script, so it's possible that it's just a mistake on Ditko's part, with him just not realising that Cyclops power is a force beam, not a heat beam.

If Ant-Man can talk to ants, why can't Spider-Man talk to spiders? You can't fault Jonah's logic. But before we can think abouut it for too long, Spidey is up to his elbows in sand ... and Ditko gives another startling splash page.
The juggernaut plot rolls on, taking Spidey to his next battle with the formidable Sandman ... but first, there's a neat bit of comedy with J. Jonah Jameson talking to a spider, thinking the message will be relayed to Spider-Man. Then it's full tilt again the Sandman. By this point in Marvel history, Sandman had swapped from being a Spider-Man villain to being Human Torch's nemesis. Stan Lee would stick to this path by inducting Sandman into the Frightful Four the following year, and this would be Sandman's last hurrah against his original enemy. This time Sandman outwits himself by trying to trap both of them in an airtight cell ... but Spidey proves to have the better lungpower and Sandman passes out from lack of oxygen. This leave just Spidey's penultimate foe, the Vulture, to defeat ...

The lead-in to the battle has Jameson raging that every other paper in town is carrying the story of Spider-Man's battle with The Sinister Six, while The Bugle has missed out, Betty and May enjoy a nice cup of tea with the charming Doctor, while Spidey is forced to give up his web-shooters before fighting his winged adversary ... and how about that splash page?
However, Lee and Ditko never lose sight of the sub-plots and in a single page that's a masterclass in storytelling economy, we get caught up on what's going on elsewhere before we're launched into the battle with the Vulture. The aerial battle has a real sense of danger and is probably the best action sequence in the Annual, but inevitable, the Vulture is defeated and it only remains for Spidey to tackle Doc Ock and free his girlfriend and his aunt. 


Doc Ock's final deathtrap for Spider-Man is a doozy - The idea of Spider-Man fighting for his life underwater would be a peril that Lee and Ditko would revisit a couple more times, most notably in ASM 29.
Doc Ock's goldfish bowl deathtrap is almost the end of our hero, forcing Spider-Man to fight his enemy in an enclosed space where his spider-powers are diminished. But despite the menacing situation, Spidey prevails once more by using his brain, which is my favourite aspect of these early Spider-Man stories.

Stan gamely keeps the running gag about Aunt May thinking that Dr Octopus is a "poor man who's having trouble with his arms" and that Spider-Man is "so villainous looking. Not at all as pleasant as that well mannered Dr Octopus". The final scene with the villains bickering in a jail cell rounds the story out perfectly.
And when Spider-Man finally finds Doc Ock's captives, Betty is pleased to see him, but Aunt May reacts with, "So that's Spider-Man ... What a perfectly ghastly outfit!" I found it a hugely satisfying story when I finally tracked down a copy probably some time in 1966. But the actual story - exciting and well-told though it was - wasn't the best bit of the Annual for me. Because among the obligatory pinups (of which there were many) and few throw-away features explaining how Spider-Man's mask worked (Puh-lease! I'd figured that out by the time I was 12!), there was brilliant feature about how Stan and Steve wrote and drew an episode of Amazing Spider-Man.

For me, this was the gold of the comic. An actual demonstration from Steve Ditko on how he draws the Spider-Man comic strip. While Stan's script probably depicts his character perfectly, it would years before I realised that Ditko was not as happy-go-lucky as Stan's script portrays him.
This was the first time I had any kind of understanding of how comics worked. Yet here was a step-by-step instruction on how Steve Ditko drew one of my favourite characters. That three-page strip was worth the 6d (2.5p) I'd paid for that Annual in the second-hand shop where I undoubtedly found it.

Who knew that the artist first roughed out the page in pencils? Or that he then went over the graphite lines with a brush? Dipped in black ink? The bonus was Stan's funny dialogue. He made it sound like those Marvel guys were having the most wonderful time. And it's also telling that Ditko seemed happy enough to draw this script up, so he probably couldn't have objected to it that much at the time. Of course later, I'd come to realise that Steve Ditko had become a bit of a curmudgeon, who probably took himself way too seriously ... but that was years in the future, and even that would never diminish the unconditional love I had for the artist's work. That brilliantly unique art-style eventually displaced Jack Kirby's in my affections, so you can imagine how I felt when Ditko moved on and John Romita took over ... oh wait, I wrote a blog entry about it once.

The credit for the cover of Spectacular Spider-Man 1 says, "painting by Harry Rosenbaum, pencils by Johnny Romita" - but that's not quite accurate, is it?
The final point I wanted to make was that among the pinups in that Amazing (Spider-Man) Annual was a cool, upside down image of Spidey, crawling head first down a wall. It struck me that I'd seen something similar just recently. And of course I had. It was in the very last entry in this blog, where I covered the 1968 Spectacular Spider-Man magazine.

All in all, despite the majesty that is the first Fantastic Four Annual, Amazing Spider-Man Annual  1 still edges just in front as my favourite Marvel Annual - both then, and now.

Next: The Human Torch solo stories


Sunday, 27 November 2016

Marvel's First Magazine - The Spectacular Spider-Man

MARVEL COMICS WAS NEVER Martin Goodman's primary publishing interest. He had started up in the 1930s as a magazine publisher after first working as a circulation manager at Eastern Distributing Corporation, under future Archie Comics founder Louis Silberkleit. 

When Eastern went out of business in 1932, Goodman joined several other investors, including Silberkleit, and founded Mutual Magazine Distributors as part owner, and was appointed editor of Mutual's sister company, Newsstand Publications Inc. Goodman's first publication for Newsstand was Western Supernovel Magazine, cover dated May 1933. The second issue was re-titled Complete Western Book Magazine, dated just two months later. The new publishing company quickly added further pulp magazines to its lineup, including All Star Adventure Fiction, Mystery Tales, Real Sports, Star Detective, the science fiction magazine Marvel Science Stories and the jungle-adventure Tarzan knock-off Ka-Zar.

Martin Goodman quickly established his publishing philosophy - look at the newsstands, see what other houses were publishing then launch a copy. Rinse, repeat.
In 1934, Mutual filed for bankruptcy, leaving Newsstand Publications in the lurch, Newsstand was unable to pay its printers and the company's assets were seized. Silberkleit decided it was prudent to abandon ship, but Goodman convinced the printers they'd have a better chance of getting their money if they allowed Newsstand to continue trading. Now as the sole owner, Goodman pulled the company back into profitability, and within a couple of years had moved to better offices in uptown Manhattan. "If you get a title that catches on," he told the trade magazine Literary Digest, "add a few more, and you're in for a nice profit." With Goodman, it was all about providing disposable entertainment as cheaply (to him) as possible. "Fans aren't interested in quality," he concluded. 

Goodman's company didn't really have an identity. He'd publish each title under a different company name - Margood Publishing Corp, Marjean Magazine Corp and so on. That way, he could make sure that if one title ran into trouble, its misfortunes couldn't affect the rest of his publishing line. It was a practice he'd continue well into the 1960s.

As the 1930s wore on, sales of the fiction pulps were declining and there was a new fad gaining traction with kids at the newsstands ... comic books. National were having a great success with their costumed characters Superman and Batman, and Goodman, ever willing to jump on a bandwagon, contacted comic strip packager Funnies Inc and had them put together material for a 64 page book, Marvel Comics. The comic's first printing, cover dated Oct 1939 sold out its 80,000 print run in a week. Goodman immediately reprinted Marvel Comics 1 with "Nov" overprinted on the cover and this time sold out the 800,000 print run almost as quickly. 

Martin Goodman's first foray into comics, Marvel Comics 1, was a ripping success, and continued on a monthly schedule as Marvel Mystery Comics from issue 2. The publisher in the imprint was given as "Timely Comics" though that identifier would rarely appear on any of Goodman's comic covers.
With a major hit on his hands, Goodman then quickly lured Funnies Inc editor Joe Simon away and set up what would come to be called Timely Comics. Daring Mystery Comics 1 (Jan 1940) quickly followed, then the Jack Kirby-drawn one-shot Red Raven Comics 1 (Aug 1940), which flopped and was quickly re-tooled as Human Torch 2 (Fall 1940).

With Marvel (Mystery) Comics a success, Goodman followed up as quickly as he could, according to his own established publishing philosophy, with Daring Mystery Comics and Red Raven, which morphed into a solo title for The Human Torch with issue 2.
Yet for all the initial success Goodman was having with his comic books, the pulp sales were in freefall, and Goodman began to transform the magazine part of his business into a low-end, traditional magazine publisher, putting out puzzle books, sports and movie fan mags, cartoon digests and "men's interest" magazines.

Through the 1940s, Goodman lavished far more attention on his magazines, or "slicks" as they were referred to, which he saw as far more reputable than the comics. Yet most of those publications are now lost in the mists of history. It's been very difficult to uncover any information on these magazines, beyond their subject matter.

The first issue of Popular Digest was cover-dated September 1939, just one month ahead of Marvel Comics, and was published by Timely Publications. Coincidence? I think not.
One of his early magazines was a Readers' Digest knock-off called Popular Digest, the first issue of which was dated Sept 1939 and carried a strap-line of "Timely Topics Condensed" and was published by one of Goodman's shell-companies, Timely Publications, though the cover identifier Goodman was using around this time was Red Circle Magazines

But Goodman's most successful magazines - Stag and Male - were, ironically, a good deal less respectable than his comics line. 

The origins of Martin Goodman's Stag magazine began here in January 1942, with this adult cartoon magazine. However, this was nothing like Esquire magazine of the same period, so it seems likely that Goodman cancelled this after one issue and re-launched Stag as an Esquire clone the following month.
Stag had begun in 1942 in response to the far more successful (and still extant) Esquire magazine. Goodman was always one to follow trends rather than to create them (as documented in umpteen other posts on this blog) and launched his version Stag in direct response. Or rather almost. The first issue of Stag was more of a compilation of cartoons from other magazines, printed on bulky pulp-style paper. But the following month, Goodman transformed the magazine and tried to publish something closer to the formula of Esquire.

An editor called J. Alvin Kugelmass brought the idea of imitating Esquire magazine on a much lower budget to Goodman, and the publisher - ever vigilant for a bargain - jumped in with both feet.
Putting the two magazines side-by-side seems pretty damning. Though Stag was printed on much cheaper paper than Esquire, and used much lower profile contributors, there can be little doubt that Goodman was trying to cash in on the same market ... if I were less charitable, I might say he was trying to pass-off Stag as an Esquire stablemate.

Where Esquire had Vargas pinups, Stag used Peter Driben. Though I'm a fan of Driben's work - later made much more famous on tame 1940s and 1950s girlie mags like Titter and Wink - he's certainly not in the same class as Vargas.
But this new version of Stag didn't last either. After an internal scandal at Martin Goodman's company, where editor J. Alvin Kugelmass had been endorsing freelancers cheques to himself and cashing them, Stag shut down for a couple of months and returned as The Male Home Companion, for a single issue in October 1942.

A few years later, with sales on Goodman's comic line declining, Writers' Digest for August 1948 carried an announcement that Goodman was about to re-launch Stag magazine, with Stan Lee as editor. However, the plans fell through due to "distributor trouble" and the following year, another re-launch was announced, this time with Bruce Jacobs as editor.

Stag was the market-leader in the slightly shadowy world of "men's interest" magazines. Starting off as a straight adventure magazine in the late 1940s, it had transformed into a more "spicy" style of men's fiction by the late 1950s, often mixing Nazis and sex on its covers. By the 1970s the title had pretty much become newsstand porn.
Stag's subsequent success would launch a whole raft of what would come to be referred to affectionately as "men's sweat" magazines - a kind of cross between spicy pulps and coy girlie magazines. Completely by accident, Goodman had actually started a trend, and Stag and its other companion magazines would enjoy considerable success until the late 1960s, when market forces would compel Goodman to transform his line of men's mags into soft porn publications. 

Coming very much from a pulp tradition, artists Mort Kunstler and Earl Norem were two of the most prominent artists of the Men's Sweat magazine genre, often including pretty racy, fetish-themed material into their newsstand-displayed covers.
But in its heyday, Stag, along with stablemates Male and For Men Only, enjoyed the contributions of writers like Bruce Jay Friedman, Mario Puzo and Mickey Spillane, and artists like Norman Saunders, Earl Norem and Mort Kunstler.

As an impressionable lad of 11 or 12, I recall seeing issues of Stag and Male at the newsstands I would haunt while looking for Marvel Comics around 1963 and 1964. Despite the siren-call of the lurid cover art, I'd never pluck up the courage to pick one up and look inside, fearful that the proprietor would shoo me away if I were to show too much interest in these forbidden publications. So the contents will forever remain a mystery.

Many years later, in an original art catalogue from US art dealer Tony Dispoto, I came across the above black-and-white interior illustration, attributed to Man's Life magazine. I don't think it was a Goodman title, but it does give some indication of the content of these mags. The cover line from this September 1956 issue, "Weasels Ripped My Flesh" was appropriated by Frank Zappa as the title of one of his albums.
But for all that, it's as well to remember that Marvel's late Sixties and early Seventies foray into comic magazines was likely inspired by these slightly eccentric magazines.

IT'S SPECTACULAR, ALL RIGHT ...

Back in 1957, when Goodman had found himself without a distributor, he was forced to go cap-in-hand to DC Publisher Jack Liebowitz and submit to a draconian eight-titles-a-month deal in order to get his comics on the stands. Though Liebowitz's Independent News allowed Goodman to add a few extra titles across the ten-year contract, Marvel was still only publishing 14 titles a month at the end of 1967. By the beginning of 1968, after Kinney National Company bought out DC Comics and Independent News, Marvel was finally freed up to expand its line of comics, and Goodman set about expanding his anthology titles Strange Tales, Tales of Suspense and Tales to Astonish into six titles. A year later, Independent News went out of business and both Marvel and Saturday Evening Post owner Curtis were sold to Perfect Film and Chemical Company, so it made sense for Curtis to distribute Marvel's comics.

The first sign that something was up was when the three anthology titles were each given over to one of their co-stars, changing their titles so that Astonish, Suspense and Strange Tales all disappeared.
But we readers didn't know any of that stuff. Oh, sure we knew something was happening with Marvel, but back then, I was just excited about additional, new Marvel Comics ... it didn't even occur to me that Marvel seemed to be doing better. Though the transition wasn't that smooth, because the same month that Hulk and Captain America took over Astonish and Suspense respectively, Stan had an 11-page Iron Man and an 11-page Sub-Mariner tale parked in the slightly odd Iron Man and Sub-Mariner.

The existence of this title has always puzzled me. I've never understood why it was needed, when Stan could have just launched Namor and Iron Man in their own books the same month as Hulk took over Astonish and Cap took over Suspense.
I've always wondered why it was done that way. Did the Suits decide that launching the two brand-new titles, Iron Man and Sub-Mariner couldn't be done at the same time as Hulk and Captain America? That wouldn't make any sense, as in effect Hulk and Cap were just continuations of Astonish and Suspense, not additional titles. Or did Stan just miscalculate, and get his story-lengths in a muddle? I guess we'll never know ...

1968 was a bumper year for Marvel house ads. Each announcement was more exciting that the previous one. But for UK fans, we would be disappointed over how hard the Spectacular Spider-Man mag was to find in the newsagents. I had more luck with Silver Surfer 1.
The first inkling I had about Marvel's aggressive expansion plans was when I stumbled across copies of Iron Man and Sub-Mariner 1 and Iron Man 1 in a small newsagent in Wemyss Bay in Scotland, in the summer of 1968. While I wasn't that mad about IM&SM1, I though the first issue of Iron Man was a very wonderful development, as I was a massive fan of Gene Colan at the time (still am) and the thought of 20 pages of Colan Iron Man at a time was beyond fantastic.

Incredibly, that tiny newsagent is still there in Wemyss Bay. I haven't been there for fifty years, but I'm very happy that one of my essential childhood haunts is still alive and well.
And as the Marvel explansion unfolded, there were more and more wonderful comics coming out. Jim Steranko's SHIELD comics deserve an entire blog post to themselves. Sub-Mariner and The Incredible Hulk in their own comics was okay. I hadn't been a great fan of Namor, though the John Buscema artwork was sublime. Kirby's Captain America title was great, of course, but then Cap was always my favourite Marvel character. And the Dr Strange book was also terrific. But in the house ads in those books we saw that there was even better things to come from Marvel, notably the Silver Surfer book (which also deserves its own posting). But the really intriguing thing was that second Spidey book, The Spectacular Spider-Man.

The fully-painted cover and the grey-tone interior artwork were a revelation to me, as I'd never seen a comic like that before. And it was full magazine-size rather than the smaller 10x7 inch comic size.
It wasn't  all that obvious from the house ads just what we could expect. I wouldn't have noticed the 35c cover price in the ads, and it wouldn't have meant much to me if I had. And though I didn't track down a copy of the comic until a couple of years later, when I did finally find one I was pretty blown away. Where American comic readers might have been a bit disappointed that it was in black and white, that didn't bother me one bit. The skilful grey wash-tones more than made up for it. And that cover ... wow - a painting! I thought it was just incredible.

A couple of years earlier, someone had given my younger brother an illustrated Walt Disney storybook, but the pictures were full colour paintings of Mickey and Donald on a caravan holiday. I used to love those illustrations. Perhaps they were even by Carl Barks, but it's such a long time ago I can't be sure. The Spectacular Spider-Man cover was even better, because that was an oil painting of a super-hero - something fans may take for granted today, but back in 1968, it was nothing short of revolutionary.

Though it was based on a John Romita drawing, the execution of the cover painting was by Harry Rosenbaum. Little is known about Rosenbaum beyond his work for some of Goodman's men's magazines, and his later cover paintings for a couple of the Skywald mags put out by Sol Brodsky during his temporary split from Marvel Comics in the early 1970s.

The usual Spider-Man supporting cast are all present and accounted for, with Jonah Jameson and Captain Stacy featuring large, as well as Gwen, Mary Jane and Harry Osborne. The villain is a Frankenstein monster type, controlled by villainous mayoral candidate Richard Raleigh.
The inside of the book was also pretty impressive. The story was mammoth length, at 52 pages, allowing for some spectacular six-page fight sequences by John Romita, and some great character scenes by Stan, featuring the usual supporting cast of Spider-Man. Further, Stan appears to have consciously pitched the story at an older readership, by not using a costumed villain, but rather a corrupt politician who uses a strength-enhanced monster to create chaos for his own nefarious purposes.

In 1964, Jim Warren added a comic magazine - Creepy - as a companion to his successful horror movie magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland. I had been aware of FM from about 1963 or so, and had even acquired the occasional copy, expensive though they were, but hadn't seen either Creepy or Eerie.
The reality was that independent publisher Jim Warren had been in this space for a couple of years already, aiming his own black and white mags, Creepy and Eerie, firmly at an older readership, with a horror anthology format that wasn't a million miles away from the classic EC Comics of the 1950s. But all that was lost on me, as I wouldn't come across these Warren comics until much later in my teens.

Once again, the house ad for Spectacular Spider-Man 2 (Nov 1968), really didn't do the John Romita cover art justice, though this time the interior story was printed in four-colour comic book style, and ran to a mammoth 58 pages.
But for Stan, the experiment couldn't have been successful, because when the second issue of Spectacular Spider-Man (Nov 1968) came along, it was with four-colour interiors and a familiar costumed super-villain, The Green Goblin.

This time the cover art was a solo Romita oil painting, which wouldn't have been clear to readers from the house ads that ran in the regular Marvel comics. Dynamic though it might be, I suspect the inclusion of the garishly-costumed Green Goblin might have been too juvenile an approach for the magazine's intended older audience.
With the expanded space, Stan had encouraged John Romita to make the artwork, well, spectacular. So there were fewer panels on a page, with more full-page splashes dotted throughout the story. The supporting characters were once again in evidence, but I couldn't help feeling that this wasn't the direction Stan had envisaged for his magazine-size Spider-Man comic. 

The Interior of the book - Romita layouts, Jim Mooney pencils and Frank Giacoia inks - wasn't vastly different from what readers could see in the regular Amazing Spider-Man comic, just with more pages and bigger panels on the page.
It was hard to see a difference between this story and what was going on in the regular Amazing Spider-Man title. If anything, the tale told in Spectacular Spider-Man 2 seemed to be simply marking time, as we end the story in exactly the same situation that we began it - with Norman Osborne back to his amnesiac state, oblivious that he'd ever been The Goblin and that Peter Parker was really Spider-Man. And there less of a feel that Stan was pitching this at an older audience than the regular comics.

The story in Spectacular Spider-Man 2 seemed quite decompressed compared to the regular Amazing Spider-Man comic, with bigger panels and more full page splashes ... yet the material wasn't really much different from the 12c comic, which makes me now think that either Stan wasn't sure where to pitch this or was getting mixed messages from his publisher.
I have no idea whether this was Stan's idea or if Goodman had imposed this package and approach on Stan in an effort to get better sales, but I think it was the wrong strategy and led to the magazine's cancellation.

PUSSYCAT - A MARVEL ANOMALY

Right around the same time that Marvel were trying out the magazine format, Martin Goodman felt the time was right to experiment with a completely different kind of comic magazine. The Adventures of Pussycat had been running in five-page comic strip instalments in some of his men's magazines, like Stag, Men and Male, and had been written by Stan Lee, Ernie Hart and Larry Lieber and drawn by Wally Wood, Jim Mooney and the legendary Bill Ward. The strip was a low-budget riposte to Playboy's successful 1962-1988 "Little Annie Fanny", by Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder. Goodman had his magazine staff pull together nine episodes and shove them into a 64-page mag, the identical format to the first Spectacular Spider-Man magazine.

Behind a Bill Everett painted cover was 64 pages of reprinted comic strip from Martin Goodman's slightly seedy men's adventure magazines of the 1960s. Drawn mostly by Jim Mooney and Bill Ward, some of the episodes were written by Stan Lee, but the bulk were scripted by Larry Lieber.
It's doubtful that the trial was a success, as only the one issue ever appeared, though the character would continue in Goodman's men's sweat mags until the early 1970s, so it's not like there wasn't the material available.

MARVEL MAGS OF THE 1970s

The commercial failure of these three magazines at the end of the 1960s made Stan and Marvel shy of trying to compete with Warren's comics for quite some time. Right around the time that this was happening, Goodman was in the process of selling Marvel Comics to Perfect Film and Chemical Company, so it's quite possible that he hadn't considered a line of Marvel Comics magazines as a sustainable venture. He may well have just been piling on some product to make Marvel's portfolio of publications appear more attractive to prospective buyers. Then again, it's likely that negotiations with Perfect Film would have been rattling along from the early part of 1968, and that Goodman's comics mags had nothing to do with that.

After a three-year hiatus, Marvel once again attempted to get a toehold in the monochrome comic mag market, with the launch of Savage Tales, cover dated May 1971. The featured Conan story offered us teenage readers some coy nudity, gorgeously illustrated by Barry Smith.
By 1971, Goodman was halfway out the door at Marvel, and with the success of Robert E. Howard's Conan character in the Marvel colour books and Stan's ascendency to Publisher, Marvel took another swing at the black-and-white mag market with the introduction of the slightly racy Savage Tales, cover dated May 1971. 

Besides the cover-featured Conan the Barbarian, the mag also gave us an equally titillating Ka-Zar story by John Buscema, a post apocalypse macho fantasy Femizons drawn by John Romita, a "blaxploitation" story, Black Brother by Denny O'Neil and Gene Colan and the first appearance of Man Thing by Gerry Conway and Gray Morrow (coincidently on sale the same month as DC's House of Secrets 92, which debuted the character Swamp Thing, creation of Gerry Conway's then-roommate Len Wein). But still Marvel struggled with the format. 

It would take another couple of years before Marvel mounted a serious attack on Warren's domination of the black-and-white comic magazines market. Aimed squarely at the horror-fan readers of Creepy and Eerie, Marvel's mags mined the same material in a slightly more sensational way.
The second issue of Savage Tales (Oct 1973) wouldn't come along for another two-and-a-half years, featuring mainly Barry Smith's Conan and a few reprints. And by this time, Marvel had already launched Dracula Lives (Apr 1973), Monsters Unleashed (Jun 1973), Vampire Tales (Jul 1973) and Tales of the Zombie (Aug 1973) in an all-out assault on beachhead Warren ...

Next: The Best Marvel Annual

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Marvel's First Mystical Hero - Dr Droom

THIS TIME, I've asked my old friend and former 2000AD colleague Kid Robson to contribute a guest entry for this blog. We both share a love of early Marvels, especially those written by Stan Lee, and as The Kid had mentioned Droom in one of his earlier comments on this blog, it seemed natural to ask him to offer a few words about Dr Droom and his spiritual successor Dr Strange. Thank you, Kid ...

"Twas Steve's idea..." said Stan Lee about Dr. Strange in a letter to Jerry Bails in 1963. However, it's interesting to ponder just what gave Steve the idea to do a strip about a 'Master of Black Magic' (later changed to 'Mystic Arts') in the first place.

The origin of Dr Strange wasn't revealed until the character's fourth appearance, in Strange Tales 115 (Jul 1963) - he hadn't appeared in Strange Tales 112 and 113. It has been speculated that this episode was drawn much later in the series run - perhaps the ninth story, as it's markedly different in style from the Dr Strange adventures on either side.
Ditko had been the inker on the origin of Lee and Jack Kirby's strip, Dr Droom, and it's legitimate to wonder whether the artist may have been inspired (consciously or not) by this earlier character, whose genesis is remarkably similar to that of Stephen Strange. That would explain the subject matter, but not Ditko's seeming lack of interest in revealing the origins of the good Dr S, who, in his very first adventure, is plunged straight into an encounter with Nightmare, his "ancient foe". Stan merely adapted Droom's beginnings to fit the origins of the protagonist he was initially going to call Mr Strange, not Dr, but his input into Strange's backstory, as well as his characterisation via dialogue, plus his mood-setting expository captions, fully justifies his description as co-creator of the strip in my view.

After all, without Lee, all you have is a magician who gets involved in some quirky adventures (Ditko's wonderful art notwithstanding); with Lee, you have character motivation, mystical sounding incantations, and a sense of drama, dynamism, and danger as only he could deliver.

On the other hand, Dr Droom's origin was told in the very first appearance of the character. Like Strange, Droom was the student of a Tibetan lama, unlike Strange, Droom was summoned to his role as a mystic mage, and was selected because his compassionate nature.
That's not to downplay Steve Ditko's plotting and art, though - it's just that he wasn't much of a scripter, as his later self-penned stories for other companies starkly demonstrates. His plot ideas, however, were often brilliant. Case in point: Who can forget the 12-part saga of Dr Strange on the run from a Dormammu-enhanced Baron Mordo, surely one of the most spectacular sagas of the Silver Age? However, while Strange's origins are lifted from Dr Droom's, the strips are not really that similar when more fully compared. In fact, Droom (who debuted in Amazing Adventures 1 in June 1961) soon gets sidetracked from the world of the occult, as his subsequent adventures (2, 3, 4 and 6) have him encountering aliens from under the sea, different dimensions, and other planets.

In his origin, the Tibetan Lama who gives him his powers declares "You are now the nemesis of all occult powers that are sinister and corrupt!" However, in his third outing, after defeating an alien from Saturn called Zemu, he declares, in answer to what made him suspicious of his disguised (as a human) foe, "It was his boast of having real magic powers!" He goes on, "I, of all men, know that real magic does not exist! All is illusion! All is fantasy!"

In Amazing Adventures 2 (Jul 1961) Dr Droom investigates the disappearance of an ocean liner and discovers it has been abducted by the sub-marine inhabitants of Atlantis, who bear no resemblance to Prince Namor or his people.
Any way you look at it, that seems like a complete turnaround. There's a certain 'sameness' to Droom's tales, and his chief mystic power seem to be nothing more than hypnotism. It's therefore hardly surprising that he was quietly retired into comic book limbo for over ten years after only five stories.

So, despite similar beginnings, the two series have only a superficial resemblance to one another. Interestingly, when Dr Droom passes the Lama's tests of endurance, his eyes become 'slanted' (to use the terminology of the times), as an Oriental appearance is supposedly more suited to his new role in life. 

No political correctness in sight here - Dr Droom's skin colour and features are altered to better match his new role as a master of the mystic arts.
Dr Strange on the other hand, is first drawn as an Oriental, but in the flashback origin segment of his fourth appearance, is clearly Caucasian. Had Ditko intended for Strange's facial features to have been changed by the Ancient One, as Droom's had been altered by the Lama? If so, Lee never refers to it in his scripting, and by Strange's tenth appearance, any hint of him being Oriental has disappeared. 

The Droom adventure in AA3 (Aug 1961) pits Droom against another magician, who turns out to be an alien from the planet Saturn, using advanced science to simulate mystic feats.
Droom himself disappeared with AA 6 (he was absent from 5), as the mag changed its name to Amazing Adult Fantasy for the next eight issues, with 'Adult' missing from 15, the mag's final ish. (In which The Amazing Spider-Man made his debut - as if you frantic ones didn't already know!) 

In case you were worried about him, Dr. Droom reappeared in the '70s (first in reprints, then as a guest star in other titles), but was rechristened Dr Druid to avoid confusion with a Latverian Doctor with a similar name. He even became a member of The Avengers for a while in the late '80s.

However, let's not skirt around the controversy that you 're all wondering about. Didn't Stan Lee claim to have created Dr Strange in his 1974 book Origins Of Marvel Comics? How does that gel with Steve Ditko's assertion that he plotted and drew the first Dr S tale without any input from Stan? 

Amazing Adventures 4 (Sep 1961) had Droom combat alien invaders once again, this time convincing the extra-terrestrials that a construction site wrecking machine was a sentient lifeform. For a magician, Droom wasn't doing a whole lot of magicking ...
I don't think Stan was deliberately lying in his '74 account, and besides, he doesn't explicitly state that he created the Master of The Mystic Arts, although he does sort of suggest it by neglecting to mention that Steve brought the first episode in to him off his own bat. (Although it's always possible that Stan had first suggested a new strip to Steve about a magician. He says as much in later interviews, claiming it was because he remembered Dr Droom and wanted to do a similar strip.) 

In 'Origins' he reminisces about listening as a kid to a radio show called Chandu, The Magician, which had a gong with a resounding 'Bonnnggg' in the intro, then says "Anyway, Steve Ditko once again took up the art chores while I penned the words, and before you could say 'Who needs it?' Dr Strange was born. He was a magician, and if ever we do his stories on the radio, you'd better believe he's gonna have a gong!" (No radio show alas, but we now have a big-budget movie instead.) 

I think Stan's vagueness on the matter is probably down to his poor memory, rather than him trying to deliberately misdirect credit away from Steve, as, had he been a liar as some of his detractors prefer to believe, he'd surely never have admitted to Jerry Bails in 1963 that he hadn't come up with the idea himself.

Amazing Adventures 6 (Nov 1961) has Droom's fifth and final appearance (he wasn't in AA5) ... and in this story he is - yet again - battling an alien menace that is stealing houses. It was probably this lack of focus that led to the character not clicking with readers and after this, Stan quietly abandoned the character.
Anyway, regardless of who did precisely what, Dr Strange as he first appeared to the comics-reading public was the joint result of Stan, Steve, and Dr Droom, so all three deserve our undying thanks. And I'm sure Benedict Cumberbatch feels the same as he looks again at the cheque he received for bringing Marvel's Mystic Master to life on the big screen. When last seen, Dr Droom/Druid was heard mumbling, "It's not fair! It should have been me up there! It's an injustice it is!"

Now how do I wrap this up? Ah, what the hell, I can't stop myself - "May your amulet never tickle!"

NEXT: THE SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN