Sunday, 31 December 2017

Thor: The Wilderness Years

THE EARLIEST THOR STORIES have always been associated with the grand art of Jack Kirby. But it wasn't actually that way. While the first seven issues of Journey into Mystery that featured the Thunder God were drawn by Kirby, these tales had none of the epic sweep the Silver Age version of the character is remembered for. Thor would battle Commies and gangsters and we'd rarely see more than tantalising glimpses of Odin and the fabled realm of Asgard. Then all too soon, Kirby was off the title, re-assigned by Editor Stan Lee to other more pressing projects, like the epic first Fantastic Four Annual (Oct 1963), as well as new titles X-Men and The Avengers

Working over a plot by Stan Lee and a script by Larry Lieber, Al Hartley turned in his only superhero story of the Silver Age, "Trapped by the Carbon Copy Man". The result was less than legendary.
Another artist had to be found for Journey into Mystery 90 (Mar 1963, on sale January) ... and for that task, Stan selected Al Hartley.

The tale begins with Dr Don Blake resolving to tell his nurse, Jane Foster, that he is really The Mighty Thor and that he loves her. This would be an ongoing sub-plot for the first few years of the Thor strip. Stan seemed to want a romantic undercurrent - usually an unsuccessful one - in every title he wrote. As a ten-year old I found this a little tiresome. The Reed and Sue relationship I didn't mind, as they were a couple from the get-go. Even Hank and Jan were all right, because they too quickly became an item. But could I have been the only one who thought it was a bit creepy that Professor X was secretly mooning over Jean Grey in those early X-Men issues?

Al Hartley's art in Journey into Mystery 90 is a real anomaly, and has all the hallmarks of a rush job. The main figures seem crude and cartoony and the backgrounds are sparse and often absent altogether.
Just as Blake is about to reveal his true identity, Thor's father Odin intervenes and forbids him to say any more. But when Blake goes out to walk it off, he finds all kinds of strange behaviour. Cars driving on the sidewalks, polkadot bridges and advertising posters pasted over apartment windows.

The explanation for the madness is that aliens with designs on conquering Earth have substituted duplicates for important decision-makers (and Jane Foster) in an effort to make the Earthlings confused and frightened and so easier to conquer. Yes, I thought was was a bit lame, too. So Blake offers to betray Thor to the aliens - much to the captured Jane Foster's horror - then turns the tables by giving the aliens a darn good thrashing.

It's probably the least of the early Thor stories, not helped by an especially hokey script and the inappropriate artwork of Al Hartley

WHO THE HECK IS AL HARTLEY?

Henry Allan Hartley, born 25 October 1921 in New Jersey, was the son of Congressman Frederick Allan Hartley. His father, said Hartley in a later interview, "encouraged me. He knew I wanted to draw from the time I could hold a crayon ... My father wanted me to pursue my own dreams and never attempted to steer me in any other direction."

Hartley drew for his local newspaper while still in high school, and sold a Western comic-book story to the pulp publisher Street & Smith. When the Second World War broke out, Hartley enlisted in the Army Air Corps and flew 20 missions as a B-17 bomber pilot over Europe.

On leaving the Service in 1945, Hartley began looking for work as a cartoonist, and quickly landed work with Stardard Comics, drawing his first regular assignment, "Rodger Dodger" in Exciting Comics 51-67 (Sep 1946 - May 1949), gag strips like "Zippy" and "Henry" in Fighting Yank, and a range of short humour strips for America's Best Comics. Hartley also produced art for Ace Comics and ACG.

Al Hartley went quickly from one and two-page fillers for Standard Comics, to six-page stories for Ace Comics and ACG, before landing at Timely Comics, where he produced work in many genres for Stan Lee.
It wasn't long before he found work at Timely Comics, as Hartley related to Alter Ego magazine: "I'd developed enough of a reputation that it wasn't difficult to get a job at Timely in 1949. Stan Lee knew my work and hired me. When I started working with Stan, he wrote most of my stories, although I later wrote all of my own stories. We did all kinds of genres: war, Westerns, detective, science-fiction - you name it. We’d take a theme, and I’d illustrate the story. There were no typed scripts, just a very loose plot line. It was my job to draw the story with as much excitement, surprise, and suspense as I could. Then, Stan would write the dialogue. It's hard to put a time frame on it, but I'd guess we started working that way in the mid-1950s."

After a couple of covers in 1954, Al Hartley became the main artist of the Patsy Walker titles in 1956, supplying covers and interior art for both Patsy Walker and the companion spin-off Patsy and Hedy.
By 1953, Hartley was working almost exclusively on Atlas' burgeoning line of romance comics, like the long-running Love Romances, Girls' Life and Love at First Sight. Then in 1954, he produced his first work for the title he would be most associated with, Patsy Walker, a cover for the September issue, 54. But it would require another two years of toiling across the Atlas range before Hartley started drawing regularly for the Patsy Walker titles, starting with the November 1956 issue of Patsy Walker 67.

Under Al Hartley, Patsy Walker lasted 58 issues, and Patsy and Hedy running even longer at 61 issues. Hartley also wrote and drew the 1966 Marvel curiosity, Patsy Walker's Fashion Parade, an annual-size collection of one-page items showing Patsy in a range of different outfits.
Patsy Walker lasted until 1965, and its companion title Patsy and Hedy ran until 1967. Once the Patsy Walker books were cancelled, Hartley began working for Archie Comics. Shortly after, he became a committed Christian and founded Spire Comics, specialising in religious themed comics. He also entered into a deal with Archie owner John Goldwater to licence the use of the Archie characters in his Spire comics.

How Hartley ended up drawing the Thor strip in Journey into Mystery 90 is anyone's guess. Even Hartley couldn't remember. "Superheroes weren't really my forte," he told Alter Ego. "I don't recall the circumstances that led me to draw that story. At that stage of the game, I was mostly doing work that I was more comfortable with, mostly teenage and humor stories." 

Al Hartley: 25 October 1921 - 27 May 2003
Al Hartley was by no means a bad artist. Quite the opposite. He may not have preferred drawing superhero tales, but it's plain from his 1950s output for Atlas Comics that he could turn his hand, successfully, to any genre. While we'll never know the true circumstances behind the Hartley-drawn Thor story, it's likely that Stan needed a rush art job while he cast around for a replacement for the departing Jack Kirby. "Trapped by the Carbon Copy Man" has all the characteristics of a filler story, probably plotted, scripted and drawn in days. My best guess is that Stan's selected artist also had a tight deadline and Stan worried he wasn't going to make it, so commissioned this fill-in "just in case". After all, as I noted last time, Stan and the Bullpen weren't making history here, they were just making 12c comics.

In the end, though, the replacement artist Stan settled on was an interesting choice ...


THOR MK 2

Journey into Mystery 91 (Apr 1963) gave us the Thor tale, "Sandu, Master of the Supernatural", plotted by Stan, scripted by Larry and pencilled and inked by Joe Sinnott. In it, Loki increases the power of a sideshow mind-reader, Sandu, so that he can levitate and teleport any object. Advised by Loki, Sandu separates Thor from his hammer and, binding Thor with chains, buries him beneath a building. Thor only escapes when a deus ex machina, in the shape of Odin, sends two Valkyrie bearing Thor's magic Belt of Strength, enabling Thor to escape and defeat Sandu.

At the darkest point in Thor's battle with Loki's lieutenant Sandu, Odin despatches two Valkyrie to deliver Thor's Belt of Strength to help him escape from a seemingly inescapable death-trap.
As with earlier stories, the events here further cement Don Blake's real identity as Thor, son of Odin, as the monarch of Asgard has no qualms about sending Thor the Belt of Strength when his son's defeat seems imminent. Sandu's not the greatest villain, resembling in many ways the Miracle Man of Fantastic Four 3 (Mar 1962), but as the puppet of Loki, he'll do.

As an artist for Thor, Sinnott's not a bad choice from Stan's point of view. He's reliable and has a long association with Stan and Marvel Comics, going right back to the early 1950s. And of course, he'd become Marvel's premiere inker from 1965 on, providing consistency across Marvel's flagship titles as pencillers came and went.


WHO THE HECK IS JOE SINNOT?

Joe Sinnott was born on 16 October 1926 in Saugerties, New York. One of seven children, his father ran a successful cement manufacturing plant. Joe enlisted in the Navy in 1944 and served in Okinawa, driving a munitions truck. He was discharged in 1946 and worked for three years driving a cement truck for his father. In 1949, he enrolled in the Cartoonists and Illustrators School.

One of his instructors was Tom Gill, who asked Sinnott to assist on a range of Dell western comics. "Tom was paying us very well. I was still attending school and worked for Tom at nights and weekends," said Sinnott in a later interview. "We'd do the backgrounds and the figures, but since they were Tom's accounts, he'd do the heads so it looked like his work. I did this for about nine months. It was great learning," he said, adding, "I can never have enough good to say about Tom Gill. He gave me my start." Sometimes pencilling, sometimes inking, Sinnott would work with Gill on the early Atlas titles Kent Blake of the Secret Service and Red Warrior.

One of Joe Sinnott's early Atlas jobs, here inking over the pencils of Tom Gill for the second issue of Red Warrior (Mar 1951).
While still at the Cartoonists and Illustrators School, Sinnott wanted to branch out on his own so he approached Stan Lee separately and was put to work straight away. "I'd go down to the city on Friday," Sinnott told The Jack Kirby Collector, "and Stan would give me a script to take home. I'd start on Monday morning by lettering the balloons in pencil. Then I'd pencil the story from the script and ink it and leave the balloons penciled. I'd pencil a page in the morning, and ink it in the afternoon. I never burned the midnight oil; I'd start work at 7:45 in the morning, and I'd work until about 4:30 in the afternoon. I always figured if you couldn't make a living in eight hours a day, you shouldn't be in the business. 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. You never knew what you were getting, because he always took it off the top. And you were expected to do any type of story."

Three of Joe Sinnott's rare covers during Marvel's Atlas years. However, his interior art output was prodigious ... in excess of 1300 pages of pencilled and inked art from 1951 - 1957.
For the next six years, Sinnott would pencil and ink more than 250 stories for Atlas, in every genre - war, western, horror and crime -  contributing interior art to the company's mainstream titles like Marvel Tales, Battle Action, Wild Western, Spy Thrillers ... though very rarely covers. 

When the Great Atlas Implosion of 1957 hit, Sinnott had to find other work. "I was up to $46 a page for pencils and inks," said Sinnott, "and that was a good rate in 1956, when the decline started. I was down to $21 a page when Atlas stopped hiring me ... Stan called me and said, 'Joe, Martin Goodman told me to suspend operations because I have all this artwork in-house and have to use it up before I can hire you again.' It turned out to be six months, in my case. He may have called back some of the other artists later, but that's what happened with me."

Joe Sinnott during his Atlas Comics heyday, in the mid-1950s
During those lean six months, Sinnott took on any commercial art job going - record covers, billboard art, Charlton comic strips and even ghosting for DC Comics artists, before Stan called him back to resume work on the fledgling Marvel Comics. And with the January 1959 Marvel comics, Joe Sinnott was off and running again, pencilling and inking his first cover for Journey into Mystery 50 (Jan 1959).

On his return to Marvel in 1959, Sinnott seemed to pick up where he left off, pencilling and inking a variety of stories for the fledgling Marvel. Then, just as suddenly, he stopped and worked almost exclusively for Charlton, pencilling for Vince Colletta's inks.
Over the next year, Sinnott was back knocking out pencils and inks on four and five page stories for Stan Lee's mystery, western and war comics. Then he stopped working for Marvel and concentrated on his Charlton work for the next two years, till the end of 1961. I couldn't uncover a reason for this.

It would be two years before Sinnott returned to Marvel. His first inking job over Jack Kirby pencils during this period was for the Strange Tales 94 (Mar 1962) story, "I Was a Decoy for Pildorr: The Plunderer from Outer Space", though he had also inked the earlier "I Was Trapped By Titano the Monster That Time Forgot" in Tales to Astonish 10 (Jul 1960).
Then slowly, he began pencilling stories for Stan Lee again, starting with Gunsmoke Western 62 and Tales to Astonish 31 (both May 1962). He had also inked - over Jack Kirby pencils - Fantastic Four 5 (July 1962) and Journey into Mystery 83 and 84 (Aug - Sep 1962). "Before Stan called me to ink Jack on Fantastic Four 5, I never knew the Fantastic Four existed," Sinnott later recalled." I lived up here in the Catskill Mountains, and I never went down to the city at that time. Everything was done by mail and I didn't know what books were coming out, even. Stan called me up and said, 'Joe, I've got a book here by Jack Kirby and I'd like you to ink it, if you could. I can't find anybody to ink it. I was dumbfounded by the great art and the characters. I had a ball inking it. I remember when I mailed it back, Stan called me. He said, 'Joe, we liked it so much, I'm going to send you number 6.' But I had committed myself to another account at Treasure Chest ... and this was a 65-page story I was going to have to do on one of the Popes." This would have been "The Story Of Pope John XXIII, Who Won Our Hearts", in Treasure Chest vol 18, 1 - 9 (Sep 1962 - Jan 1963).

It was just a few months later that Joe Sinnott took on his short run, pencilling and inking the Thor stories in Journey into Mystery 91 - 96. "At the time, the rates at Marvel were terrible," recounted Sinnott, "and I was really rushing my work. Not that I wasn't trying my best at Marvel, but I did the best I could with the limited time we had. My main account artistically was Treasure Chest. Looking back I wish I'd done better work on Thor, but at the time it was just another job, and I certainly didn't think the character was going anyplace. At the time, I was probably penciling and inking one page of Thor a day, doing three or four pages of romance for Vince Colletta, and squeezing in some Archie after supper."

It was those poor rates that would keep Sinnott out of Marvel until the tail end of 1965, when he began inking Kirby in earnest with Fantastic Four 44 (Nov 1965).

AND BACK TO THOR

Journey into Mystery 92 (May 1963) presented an Asgard-heavy story, once again drawn by Joe Sinnott, but Lee had engaged DC writer Robert Bernstein to script the tale under the pen-name of "R. Berns" (though I can't imagine that fooled any of the DC editors).

"The Day Loki Stole Thor's Magic Hammer" is almost entirely an Asgard-bound tale, with guest appearances by Odin, his wife Frigga and Heimdall, guardian of the Rainbow Bridge. Oh, and Loki's the bad guy.
Stan's plot has Loki contrives to escape from his enchanted "uru" chains by attracting Thor's hammer with magical magnetism, reasoning that the hammer - made of the same material - will shatter the bonds. This leaves Thor to battle a succession of mystical menaces, hurled against him by Loki, without his hammer and, in typical DC style, Thor fashions first a hammer of wood, then a hammer of stone, as weapons of defence.

Joe Sinnot turns in a workmanlike job with the art, but Bernstein's script creaks badly at several points and has the inescapable odour of one of those Silver Age Superboy scripts that he'd been writing for Mort Weisinger. So much so that I wonder how much of a plot steer Stan had given him.

It's Stan's old friends the Communists again, this time making themselves all radioactive and hypnotising Thor to toss his hammer away ... it's not actually explained why Thor's hammer doesn't immediately return. There quite a neat scene at the end where Don Blake has to dive to the bottom of the Hudson River to retrieve the hammer, though.
Journey into Mystery 93 (Jun 1963) was a bit of a change of pace. Despite the art team of Jack Kirby and Chic Stone, the story had no Asgard at all and instead concentrated on a scientific menace, The Radioactive Man, a Red Chinese scientist who turns his body into a living atomic pile. Exactly why Kirby was assigned the art on this story in the middle of the Joe Sinnott run has been lost in the mists of time. It's unlikely it was deadline problems, as Sinnott has always been very clear about his methodical working habits. It's unlikely it was a pencilling "lesson" for Sinnott set by Stan, else he'd have had Sinnott ink it - and Stan wouldn't have been using Jack that way this early in Marvel's development.

It's a workmanlike story that seems separate from the Thor adventures on either side of it, as it doesn't in any way advance the development of the Thor concept. And Bernstein's scripting is a little careless. In one scene he has Thor, hypnotised by the Radioactive Man, throw his hammer away. Of course, the enchanted mallet should return under its own power, but it doesn't. Turning back to Don Blake, our hero invents a TV scanner to trace the whereabouts of the hammer, even though Blake is a medical doctor not an electronics expert.

The plot device of having Thor struck on the head to cause his personality shift is just the kind of story Mort Weisinger was commissioning over at DC Comics. I have no idea why Stan thought this would be a better approach for Thor what what Larry Lieber had been doing.
With Journey into Mystery 94 (Jul 1963), Sinnott was back, along with Loki and Asgard. Again scripted by Bernstein, this story had Loki cause Thor to be struck on the head by his own hammer, causing a personality shift that makes Thor evil. The two brothers then team up to cause havoc in Midgard, ultimately confronting the United Nations to demand the surrender of Odin. But second blow on the head restores Thor to normal and Loki is recaptured. It struck me as I was reading this that it scanned like a DC Comics story of the same period, hardly surprising since Bernstein had scripted almost exclusively for DC from 1957 onwards.

In "The Demon Duplicators" Thor battles standard issue mad scientist Prof Zaxton, who creates an evil duplicate of Thor, with two hammers. 
Journey into Mystery 95 (Aug 1963) trod a similar path to the previous issue. While Sinnott's art was workmanlike, the Robert Bernstein script used to time-honoured cliche of the hero's evil duplicate. Prof Zaxton is demonstrating Dr Don Blake's new android before an invited audience, with the aid of Thor. We know Zaxton must be evil because his name starts with a Z. Due to a mistake by Zaxton, the android announces he's malfunctioning and will explode within seconds. Only Thor's quick thinking prevents a catastrophe, as he flings the android high into the sky where it detonates harmlessly.

When Thor transforms back to Dr Blake and returns to his office, he finds Zaxton has arrived ahead of him and is holding Nurse Foster hostage. Zaxton demands that Blake help him modify his duplicating machine so it can replicate living creatures, specifically humans. But when Blake changes to Thor to try to stop Zaxton, the crazy scientist duplicates Thor, and a battle ensues. But because the evil duplicate isn't worthy to possess the power of Thor, the original defeats him relatively easily. The payoff is that Zaxton duplicates himself to confuse Thor, but the original accidentally perishes, leaving the good duplicate to carry on.
In another contrived Robert Bernstein scripted story, we see a magic battle over Washington DC, a cameo appearance by Robert F. Kennedy and the denouement where Thor scares Merlin into surrender by transforming from his Thor identity to Dr Don Blake.
Joe Sinnott's last issue as Thor artist would be Journey into Mystery 96 (Sep 1963), a tale which pits Thor against the magician Merlin. Archeologists have discovered the tomb of Merlin and have shipped the sarcophagus to the U.S. to put on display in a museum. But when they open the coffin, they're surprised to see Merlin looking as though he were asleep rather than dead. In fact he is only asleep and soon revives to begin menacing America, beginning with sending a rocket off course. Thor soon catches up with Merlin in Washington DC and the two engage in a magic duel, until Thor demonstrates his "superior" magic by transforming back to Dr Blake. The terrified Merlin surrenders and goes back to sleep in his coffin.

I told the story of how Stan replaced Larry Leiber as scripter on Journey into Mystery, Strange Tales and Tales to Astonish with Robert Bernstein and Ernie hart, and later admitted to Larry that he'd been wrong, in an earlier post, so I won't rehash it here. But suffice it to say that Stan had become pretty disillusioned with his hired-gun scripters by mid-1963 and with the October and November issues of the anthology titles, took over scripting Iron Man, Ant-Man, Human Torch and Thor himself, and gave each of them a boost in the form of a new gimmick in the process.

So the October issue of Journey into Mystery would see the return of Jack Kirby for one issue, to set up Don Heck as regular penciller, Stan Lee taking full control of the writing and the introduction of a Kirby-drawn back-up feature, "Tales of Asgard", which would feature the adventures of Thor alongside his fellow gods, away from the realm of men. 

But that's a story for next time ...

Next: What the Heck is going on with Thor?



5 comments:

  1. Regarding Al Hartley, apparently he redrew the blonde's face on the splash page of Spidey's first appearance in Amazing Fantasy #15. As for the Thor story Al drew, I pointed out the 'loopy lapse in logic' in the plot over at my blog a few years back. You might find it interesting - but then again, maybe not. Joe Sinnott used quite a few Kirby swipes on his Thor strips, again covered on my blog. As for YOUR blog, another well-researched and informative article, Al. Well done.

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    1. You're right about the Xartans not taking on ALL the characteristics of whatever they're impersonating. As you hinted at, they could have all simply changed into Thors and ganged up on our hero. But then, maybe they just didn't think of that ...

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  2. You are absolutely right about Hartley rushing out the story due to deadline issues. Stan Lee wrote about it in a letter to Jerry Bails in 1963, explaining that it wasn't Hartley's "cup of tea" but he pinched hit in an emergency. Here is the line: http://themarvelageofcomics.tumblr.com/post/16306907460/a-letter-written-by-stan-lee-to-super-fan-dr
    Marvel's staff was very small back then, so whoever could help out usually did. Ditko helped Stan out in a pinch a number of times, for instance, on Giant-Man, the first issue of Daredevil and inking a few stories, likely at the last moment. Dick Ayers once told me he came into the office a few times just to help out on deadlines (he almost exclusively worked at home) so everyone got the job done. one way or the other.

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    1. Excellent piece of corroborating evidence, Nick! I'm astonished at how good my guesswork was :-) There's some other nice snippets of information in that letter to Jerry Bails, so I'd urge any followers of this blog to take a look. Thank you for the link, Nick ...

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