Sunday, 1 July 2018

Iron Man: The Golden Years

IRON MAN WAS MARVEL'S SEVENTH superhero series, debuting in Tales of Suspense 39 (Mar 1963, on sale 10 Dec 1962). Editor Stan Lee had taken to introducing his new cast of costumed characters in the existing monster titles, after Publisher Martin Goodman had been burned by the failure of The Hulk's own title earlier that year. Given how averse Goodman was to spending money unnecessarily - new titles had to be registered with the US Postal Service and there was a cost attached - he'd decreed "no new titles" until Marvel's new characters proved themselves.

Iron Man was originally coloured grey, presumably to make it obvious his suit was made of iron, but it didn't take Stan long to figure out that this would make the comic a bit drab ... so he did something about it in the following issue.
So after The Fantastic Four and The Hulk, Stan's new creations were assigned to the fantasy books: Spider-Man in Amazing Fantasy and Thor in Journey into Mystery (both Aug 1962), then The Human Torch in Strange Tales 101 and Ant-Man in Tales to Astonish 35 (both Sep 1962). By the time 1963 rolled round, the sales were improving on all the Marvel books, so Goodman gave the green light to reinstate The Amazing Spider-Man (in his own title), then add Sgt Fury, The Avengers, The X-Men and Daredevil to the roster.

The original spidermen, perched high above the New York City streets. By adding the hyphen, Stan made the expression different from its common usage and in the process created a term that could be trademarked.
What I'd noticed, even back then, was that Stan was using familiar terms for the names of his new superheroes. The expression "spiderman" was in common use in New York - it was the name given to the guys who worked on the skyscrapers, precariously working hundreds of feet above the Manhattan sidewalks. Thor, of course was already familiar to any schoolkid as the Viking God of Thunder. Daredevil was also a term in common usage, and "iron man" was often used to describe a particularly strong or tough sportsman.

Was Stan being especially clever by choosing names that were already familiar to his youthful audience, or was he just reacting positively when a familiar term he could use as a superhero name popped into his head? I guess we'll never know for sure, but it occurs to me that there's a pattern here and patterns are usually deliberate.

What I do know is that Stan, like any other creator, wasn't creating in a vacuum. Let's not get dragged in to another discussion here about who did what back in the early 1960s Marvel offices and allow that Stan, as editor, got to make the decisions about what characters were called, what they looked like and whether they were published or not. Probably with a bit of interference from Goodman. So it's extremely likely that Stan was getting inspiration from what he saw going on around him in magazines, newspapers and in movies and on television. I'm pretty sure he's said as much in various interviews.

The other thing he was consciously doing was building a line of super-characters who each had some defining flaw. With the Fantastic Four it was that they argued with each other - and with Ben Grimm in particular, it was that he just wanted to be human and not a monster. Spider-Man had the worst luck ever in his private life, dealing with bullying at school and caring for his sickly aunt, whose poor health was likely a result of the murder of her husband, Ben Parker. The Hulk was a tragic combination of Frankenstein's monster and Jekyll-and-Hyde, Daredevil's blind ... well, you get the idea.

So when it came to Iron Man, Stan took the idea of a man with a broken heart and combined it with the technology of the day to come up with something unique ...


THE MAN IN THE IRON VEST

One of the big health scares when I was a kid in the 1960s was poliomyelitis, more commonly known as polio. I knew at least one kid on our council estate who'd had it. It wasn't that rare to see children around 1963 wearing leg calipers as a result of the paralysis caused by polio. It was common in the United States too, with no less than President Franklin Roosevelt confined to a wheelchair by the disease.

Stan would have certainly been aware of polio, as it was common in the States from the beginning of the 20th century up until the US polio epidemic of 1952, and beyond.

An unknown polio victim from the 1950s with the characteristic leg-strengthening calipers.
In extreme cases, victims would experience paralysis of the diaphragm and would be unable to breath unaided. This lead to many spending some time in an Emerson mechanical respirator, colloquially know as an Iron Lung. These were terrifying, bulky devices that used external air pressure to deflate and then inflate the sufferer's lungs. Some spent years in such devices and a few companies tried to create less-cumbersome, more portable versions.

Some polio sufferers spent years trapped inside these devices, while the compression machinery did their breathing for them. Though it may seem barbaric by today's standards, the iron lung saved thousands of lives.
I think it's against this background that Stan came up with the idea for Iron Man and handed it to his brother Larry Lieber to script. The idea of damage to the lungs evolved into damage to the heart - a far more dramatic device - but the concept of mechanical help to keep vital physical processes running remained at the core of the idea.

Here's an immensely telling photo I came across while researching this post ... some attempts were made during the 1950s to create a mechanical respirator that wouldn't trap the victim in a hospital room for months or years. Does it remind you of anything?
Once the Unique Selling Point of Iron Man became his broken heart, Stan was able to introduce clever elements that highlighted Tony Stark's plight. For example, Stark was a millionaire playboy who dated an endless string of actresses and super-models, yet became unable to let any of them get close due to his terrible secret. The idea that his precarious health prevented him from pursuing the woman he truly loved - Pepper Potts - added another layer of drama to the mix. So much so that while reading the Iron Man stories as a kid, I'd often skip over the superhero battle sections to find out what was going to happen in Stark's civilian life.


GOING FOR GOLD

For his first appearance, in Tales of Suspense, Iron Man was coloured grey. I'm guessing this was an attempt by Stan to make it clear to his young audience that the character was indeed literally made of iron. Why he didn't go with a "knight-in-armour" metallic sheen to the suit we'll never know, but it might have more sense to make Iron Man's costume look like shiny metal rather that grey cardboard. Maybe it was something to do with the makeshift nature of the prototype ... but more on that later.

It would have made the character visually more appealing and dynamic if the colourist - probably Stan Goldberg - had made an attempt to colour Iron Man's suit as shiny metal, perhaps white with blue and black highlights, like the later Silver Surfer.
The story opens with a glimpse of the lifestyle of the rich and successful munitions manufacturer Tony Stark. These days, of course, armaments manufacturers are hardly heroes, but in 1963, during the early stages of the United States' involvement in the Viet Nam war, this probably didn't seem such a terrible idea to Stan. I mean, who'd have thought we'd still be talking about this stuff more than fifty years on?

With scant regard for Newtonian physics, Stan has Tony Stark create a magnetic device that can rip the door from a steel safe. Of course the reality is that the table the magnet's attached to would simply fly across the room, drawn to the safe by the magnetic attraction ... but let's not allow the scientific facts to get in the way of a good story.
When we first see Stark, he's demonstrating a high-tech device - a transistor-powered magnet - powerful enough to tear a safe apart from a distance. Transistors were the electronic miracle of the 1950s and 1960s. By the time I was reading comics, transistor radios had all but made valve technology obsolete. I'd had a transistor radio of my own in 1964 that I'd listen to Radio Luxembourg on, with its non-stop pop hits, then Radio Caroline, three years before the launch of BBC's Radio One.

The chestplate created by Tony Stark and Yinsen contains a wealth of technology designed to keep Stark's heart beating. The only thing that bothered me is where did they get the advanced transistors from, in the middle of the Viet Nam jungles?
Once the origin story gets properly under way, we find Stark in the Viet Nam jungles, witnessing a demonstration of the miniature mortars he's created for the US-backed South Vietnamese Infantry. But he's separated from his escort, blunders into a Viet Cong booby trap and is captured, wounded with shrapnel near his heart. Forced to work for communist bully Wong Chu, Stark contrives to create a transistor-powered suit of armour, aided by kindly elderly scientist Professor Yinsen. Yinsen gives his life to keep the communists away from Stark until the suit is fully charged then, look out, Wong Chu ... The armour has the added bonus of keeping his heart beating despite the shrapnel lodged in his chest.

Iron Man's first adversary wasn't so much a villain, more a monster straight out of all those fantasy tales that had been running in Tales of Suspense around this time. It was as though Stan hadn't quite decided on how to run his b-team superhero line. Having it scripted by Robert Bernstein, an alumni of the Mort Weisinger Superman titles, wasn't helping to create a unique approach, either.
With the pesky origin story out of the way, Stan could focus on developing the supporting cast and gallery of villains for his new iron-clad hero. And all-in-all he'd do a better job with Iron Man than he did with Ant-Man. But it would take a few issues to get going. Tales of Suspense 40 (Apr 1963) was a bit of a damp squib as far as the menace Iron Man faced. It was the time-worn plot device of invading aliens using a robot avatar to scare/test the population of Earth before getting their talons dirty. The plotting is credited to Stan Lee and it does have a similar feel to the earlier fantasy tales in Suspense. I didn't think there was anything wrong with Don Heck's and Larry Leiber's work on Tales of Suspense 39, but Stan must have had misgivings, as he got Jack Kirby to lay out his plot with a script by "R.Berns" - in reality DC comics hack Robert Bernstein. This would account for the weak resolution to the story, though it is notable for having the scene in which Tony Stark changes the Iron Man suit from grey to gold - I'm betting money that was a Stan Lee directive.

I've condensed several pages in the image above to focus on the thought process behind Stark's changing the look of his armour. Bernstein assigns credit for the idea to Stark's date, Marion. 
The first action sequence in the short 13-page story shows Tony Stark taking a date to the circus. Even at the tender age of ten, I thought this was a pretty cheap move for a multimillionaire, but it's just the kind of scenario a DC writer would come up with. As luck would have it, all the lions escape during the performance and Stark has to transform to Iron Man to save the day. However, the bystanders are shaken by the sight of a grim, grey iron-clad man and Stark makes a note-to-self to do something about softening the armour's appearance. At the end of the scene, Stark's date Marion suggests that gold would be a better colour for the armour and so Stark paints the dull grey suit a sparkling metallic yellow.

It's a seminal moment ... and such a good idea that I now wonder whether Stan hadn't planned it this way all along ... create the character with a dull, monsterish appearance then refine the look really quickly.
The rest of the tale tells how Stark goes looking for Marion and discovers that her home town has been taken over by a monstrous "neanderthal" man called Gargantus. It turns out that Gargantus is a robot drone controlled by aliens orbiting high above Earth. Iron Man uses his physics-defying magnets to rip the robot apart (in reality, the magnets would just fly towards Gargantus and stick to him) and scares the aliens off with the same weapon. The aliens don't seem to know any more about physics than scripter Bernstein does.

The defeat of Gargantus and his alien controllers is a lame plot device. Shaky physics aside, it just feels a bit lazy. A clever idea for the resolution of the story would have made it far more memorable ... though, as I've said before here, Stan and the Bullpen weren't making history here, they were just filling pages.
Overall, it's not quite there yet. The gold armour is a big improvement over the dull grey ... but I still wonder why Stan didn't go with a silver or chrome look. It would have been more appropriate for a character called Iron Man. Maybe he just wanted the character to pop on the newsstands and logic took second priority to that. The next issue wasn't any major improvement.

As good as Kirby's composition is here, his version of Iron Man's armour is heavy-looking and clunky. It doesn't have the feel of up-to-the-minute technology, even by 1963 standards. And Dr Strange is a pretty forgettable villain. Iron Man wouldn't really get interesting until Kirby was no longer contributing.
The next Iron Man tale, in Tales of Suspense 41 (May 1963), gave us a villain called Dr Strange. But the first half of the story is taken up with establishing Tony Stark as a man who can never love, due to his (literally) broken heart and demonstrating Iron Man's powers and explaining how they work.

Another montage from the story, with Stan emphasising again that due to Stark's heart-condition and his dual identity as Iron Man, he can never enjoy a proper Personal Relationship ... which begs the question, Is Tony Stark the world's only platonic playboy?
The rogue scientist villain, Dr Strange, is pretty unmemorable, and the plot device used here is that of Iron Man being mind-controlled to do bad stuff by the villain. Iron Man eventually breaks the mind control but his electrical systems are compromised by Dr Strange and it's left to Strange's "ungrateful" daughter to save Iron Man with a handy flashlight battery.

Looking at this final scene in the story, you have to wonder where Stan Lee the Editor was. That's an awful lot of dialogue crowding the drawings out of the page. At least a third of the over-explanatory text could be cut to make this a more streamlined read.
The laborious scripting is still by Bernstein, the art is again by Jack Kirby, but this time inked by Dick Ayers. I don't think it's a good combination for Iron Man and Ayers' inking in particular seems heavy-handed on this issue. There's no real flair to this material yet and the revolving door of Stark's dates does not yet constitute a supporting cast. Something else needed to happen to get the series up on its feet. Fortunately, Don Heck would be back next issue.

Though it's still Jack Kirby pencils - or more likely layouts - here, it's the inks of Don Heck that are starting to shape Iron Man into the definitive version of the character. It's a real pity about the stock communist villain.
I've made no secret of the fact that I'm a big fan of Don Heck. For me, his version of Iron Man is the defining one. And though it would take him a couple of issues to properly find his feet, he'd go on to create some interesting villains, as well as designing the series' supporting cast of Pepper Potts and Happy Hogan. Tales of Suspense 42 (Jun 1963) gives us the first all Heck art job since issue 39. But sadly Bernstein's script, featuring yet another communist bully-boy, doesn't give Heck much to draw. The convoluted plot has an impersonator-type bad guy, The Actor - not a million miles away from Spider-Man's Chameleon foe - offer to steal important secrets for an unpleasant communist called The Red Barbarian. He'll achieve this by impersonating Tony Stark. During the course of stealing the plans, The Actor chances to discover that Stark is Iron Man. 

Given that The Actor hasn't told any of his henchmen that Iron Man is Tony Stark, why are they telling Iron Man that The Actor impersonated him? The Actor impersonated Tony Stark. Editor Stan ... are you even reading this stuff?
Iron Man doesn't even appear until page 10, too late to stop The Actor's getaway. There follows some shenanigans with Iron Man intercepting - then impersonating - The Actor, to what ends I'm still not quite sure. All in all, just another muddled script from Robert Bernstein, with not enough Iron Man action. It does get better, though, I promise ...

Jack Kirby's cover design here is as strong as ever, with a powerful image of Iron Man front and centre, though there's no great sense of menace. I found it interesting that Kirby's version of Iron Man had no chin, while inside, Don Heck was drawing Iron Man's headgear as curving in under his jaw and into his neck.
Tales of Suspense 43 (Jul 1963) featured another familiar Lee-style plot, re-used from Tales to Astonish 41 and 49. The ruler of a hidden realm is abducting scientists to work on a super-weapon. In this case it's the beautiful Kala, who rules an underground queendom and has designs of conquest on the surface world.

So, if the Netherworlders civilisation is superior to that of the surface dwellers, why would they want to live on the surface, with its terrible weather, pollution, wars and mankind? And if you Netherworlders are all so smart, what do you need Stark's technology for?
When you think about all those Silver Age Marvel stories, it must be pretty crowded down there beneath the Earth's surface, what with the Moleman (FF1, Nov 1961), Tyrannus (Hulk 5, Jan 1963), The Lava Men (Journey into Mystery 97, Oct 1963) and now Kala and her subterranean hordes.

It's pretty good going, even for Tony Stark, to be able to recreate Iron Man's armour overnight, right under the unsuspecting noses of the Netherworlders. If I'd been scripting it, I'd made sure Stark brought his attache case with him.
Needless to say, Tony Stark outwits the ambitious ruler by agreeing to create a weapon, but instead building another Iron Man suit overnight. He makes pretty short work of the queen's soldiers and grabs her, clippering (!) his way to the surface to give Kala a taste of what life on the surface would be like. It's not to her liking.

I think we can all agree that Tony Stark is an engineering genius, but atomic powered scissors? Really? Robert Bernstein was responsible for some complete nonsense in these early Marvels.
"Kala, Queen of the Netherworld" is another journeyman effort by Robert Bernstein. The biggest surprise about Stan's brief "writers for hire" period in 1962/3 was that he put up with obviously sub-standard writing for as long as he did. The story did benefit from Jack Kirby's pacing, as he supplied at least layouts for Don Heck's finished art, but it creaks pretty badly.

Straight out of the ending of Lost Horizon (1937). When Kala leaves her idyllic underground kingdom and is exposed to the nasty surface air, it does nothing for her complexion. (BTW - note how Don Heck's given Iron Man a chin here.)
Sadly we still had another few issues of this material to wade through before we got to the good stuff. In the meantime, it was the Bernstein business as usual ...

Even though Queen Cleopatra is being dragged up into the air by a metal demon, she seems to be quite happy at the prospect. The original art had Cleo looking alarmed but, for some reason, Stan had her expression altered to a smily one.
Tales of Suspense 44 (Aug 1963) pits Iron Man against another iron-willed female ruler, this time the legendary Cleopatra, in the story "The Mad Pharoah" ... the notorious mis-spelling of Pharaoh is Stan's. The story tells how Tony Stark is called in to help with an archeological dig in Egypt. He recommends Iron Man's services to help excavate the tomb of the "Mad Pharoah", Hatap. 

In Tales of Suspense 44, Iron Man (with a chin) has some more digging to do, but this time uses a diamond tipped drill, a big improvement over the atomic scissors. He then makes short work of defeating The Mad Pharoah's armies and still has time to make Cleopatra, convincingly beautiful in Don Heck's art, fall in love with him. All-in-all, a good day's work for Tony Stark.
However, during the night, the revived Hatap kidnaps Stark and transports him back to ancient Egypt to help Hatap usurp the throne of Queen Cleopatra. Of course, as Iron Man, Stark has no such intention and joins the battle on the side of Queen Cleo. With Hatap dispatched it only remains for Stark to return to his own era, which is pretty easy as Hatap's magic simply wears off and Iron Man fades away to the 20th Century.

Here's an unaltered version of the ToS 44 cover, published by Alan Class in the mid-1960s in the UK. You can see that Cleopatra looks more scared here, and the lettering in the jaggy box is different from the US version. Click on image to enlarge.
It is one of the better stories in Robert Bernstein's run, though not by much, and Don Heck was really beginning to find his rhythm with this tale, turning in the finest job of his run on the title so far.

This would have been the first all-Don Heck cover for an Iron Man Tales of Suspense, but something must have gone wrong, because Stan had the production department cut up a stat of the first page of the Kala story from Suspense 43 and paste that in to this cover art. I'd love to see what Heck's original art might look like, but I guess we'll never know. I've included the source Kirby artwork below.
The big change in Tales of Suspense 45 (Sep 1963) was that Stan - I presume - decided that Tony Stark need a supporting cast. This made a lot of sense from a story-telling point of view as now Stark would have someone to talk to. And by introducing a male and a female assistant for the millionaire munitions manufacturer, there would be fun to be had from the inevitable love triangle.

The first 12 pages of "The Icy Fingers of Jack Frost" were devoted to introducing and establishing the personalities of new supporting characters Happy Hogan - an ex-boxer hired as Stark's driver/bodyguard - and Pepper Potts, Stark's already in-post but unseen personal assistant.
However, the villain was very weak and ranked pretty low on the originality scale as well. Fortunately, he didn't show up till page 12 and as I've said before, at the time I had more interest in Stark's civilian life than in his battles as Iron Man, so spending the first two thirds of the page count introducing Happy Hogan and Petter Potts was fine with me.

Here's the source of the Iron Man figure for the cover of Suspense 45 ... and just for fun, I've mocked up what the original artwork for the cover might have looked like if Heck's Iron Man figure hadn't been edited out. I kind of like it better ... click on image to enlarge.
The other big change is that the Iron Man story has been expanded from the 13 pages of previous issues to a colossal 18 pages in this issue. So despite the workmanlike scripts by Robert Bernstein, the character must have been proving popular enough with the readers for Stan to scrap one of the fantasy back-up stories to make more room for Iron Man. It would drop back down to 13 pages for just the next issue, then go back to 18 pages with Tales of Suspense 47.

Tales of Suspense 46 was by far the best of the Robert Bernstein stories, featuring the villain who would become friend and ally to Tony Stark and Iron Man, The Crimson Dynamo. The Kirby version of the Dynamo on the cover doesn't do justice to the way Don Heck drew him inside.
Tales of Suspense 46 (Oct 1963) had Robert Bernstein's last Iron Man story, and, in all fairness, he goes out on a high note, with the introduction of a terrific villain, The Crimson Dynamo, a communist counterpart to Iron Man. It begins when Soviet scientist Anton Vanko builds an electrically-powered suit of armour with the aim of defeating Iron Man and in the process humiliating the United States. But Russian premiere Nikita Khrushchev plans to allow The Crimson Dynamo to liquidate Iron Man, then kill Vanko to prevent him taking over the USSR.

The best thing about this story was Don Heck's terrific design for The Crimson Dynamo, my favourite villain of The Golden Years, but also the fact that rather than being sent home defeated and in chains, Anton Vanko is recruited by Tony Stark as a valuable addition to the US research programme.
After a series of mysterious sabotage incidents at the Stark plant, Iron Man gets to confront the culprit - The Crimson Dynamo - and battle him one on one. It doesn't take Iron Man long, courtesy of his superior armour, to trap The Dynamo, and convince him that the Soviets will kill him the moment he returns to Russia. The story ends with Iron Man and The Dynamo friends and Khrushchev hopping mad that he's been outwitted ... again.


WHO THE HECK IS ROBERT BERNSTEIN?

Robert Bernstein was born on 23 May 1919. Other than that, not much is known about the early life of this long-time comics writer. 

Robert Bernstein's earliest work in comics was sporadic to say the least. What he was doing for gainful employment between his text story for Fantastic Comics (1940) and his first comic script for Crime Does Not Pay (1946) is anyone's guess.
His earliest known work for a comics publisher was a two-page text story for Fox's Fantastic Comics 9 (Aug 1940), "Diamond Madness". Then after a six year gap, Bernstein scripted "Ghoul's Gold" which appeared in Lev Gleason's massively successful comic, Crime Does Not Pay 43 (Jan 1946). In the first half of 1946, Bernstein bounced around between comics companies like Fawcett and DC, picking up text story writing assignments wherever he could, then in the 1949, sold a string of comic scripts to St John's Hollywood Confessions and Teenage Romances comics.

Bernstein established himself as the main writer for the successful Marvel character The Black Rider at the beginning of the 1950s. So associated with the character was he, that even the Black Rider's appearances in other tiles, like Wild Western, were scripted by Bernstein.
By 1951, Bernstein was working regularly for Atlas, as lead scripter on Black Rider, and selling scripts to Spy Cases and Wild Western. In 1952, he began placing stories with the Quality Comics titles G.I. Combat and Ken Shannon, and Weird Thrillers, published by Ziff-Davis.

Bernstein began contributing scripts to Quality's Blackhawk title by the mid-1950s, then adding G. I. Combat and the EC title Psychoanalysis to his client list.
While Atlas' Spy Cases remained his main client, Bernstein landed some work with EC, writing for the New Direction title Psychoanalysis around 1955, and began contributing scripts to Quality's Blackhawk comic and to Robin Hood Tales. He stayed with Blackhawk when it transitioned to a DC title, and this gave him a foot in the door at the biggest and most successful comics company of the period. The other Quality comic that went over to DC G.I. Combat also used Bernstein's scripts, so pretty quickly, he was writing for Action Comics (Congo Bill/Congorilla), Adventure Comics (Aquaman and Green Arrow) and Lois Lane. He also wrote a couple of Superman stories, creating the villain Metallo, and a few tales for Superboy as well.

Few of Bernstein's stories were cover featured at DC in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but he did write one of my all-time favourite Superboy stories, "Superboy's Big Brother", which introduced Mon-El, drawn by George Papp in Superboy 89 (Jun 1961).
By the beginning of the 1960s, Bernstein was well entrenched at DC, but he still found time to moonlight for Archie Comics - writing scripts for The Fly and Adventures of the Jaguar.

Then at the beginning of 1963 Stan Lee, unhappy with the scripting work his brother Larry Lieber was doing on the Marvel b-titles, hired Bernstein to write Thor in Journey into Mystery 92 (May 1963), The Human Torch in Strange Tales 108 (May 1963) and Iron Man in Tales of Suspense 40 (Apr 1963). Bernstein's tenure lasted just eight months. The most amazing part is that it took Stan that long to realise that Bernstein (and Ernie Hart over on Tales to Astonish) were way worse than Larry could ever be. And it was at that point that Stan took over scripting the Marvel anthology titles himself.

Robert Bernstein contributed an incredible 14 scripts, most of them quite bland, to Marvel's second-tier titles during 1963. He was supposed to be a better option than Stan's brother Larry Lieber, but was unable to provide the spark that Stan was looking for. It's not as though Stan didn't give him ample opportunity, though. Finally, Stan bowed to the inevitable and took on the scripting job himself.
After Marvel, Bernstein would continue to work for Archie Comics and for DC until 1964 ... his last story was the King Superman tale for Action Comics 312 (May 1964), though a Jimmy Olsen story - possibly an inventory script - appeared in Jimmy Olsen 101 (Apr 1967).

Robert Bernstein's comics career stuttered to a halt around 1964. What he did after that is uncertain, but it's likely that his second career as a stager of classical music concerts was making him far more money than writing for comics ever could ... and he wouldn't have to put up with Mort Weisinger's abuse.
A keen fan of classical music, he founded the Roslyn Music Group, which offered soloist and chamber music recitals at Long Island University, giving Bernstein a second career as a music impressario.

Robert Bernstein (left) in 1965 with classical music cronies pianist Géza Anda (centre) and Jerry Schoenbaum (right), head of MGM's classical music division.
Robert Bernstein died of heart failure on 19 December 1988, at his winter home in Delray Beach, Florida, survived by wife Beverly and daughter Alison. He was 69.


THE END OF THE GOLDEN ERA

With the very next issue of Tales of Suspense, Robert Bernstein was out and Stan Lee took over the scripting of Iron Man himself. Lee also temporarily replaced Heck with Steve Ditko, in preparation for the sweeping changes he would be bringing to the series over the next couple of months ...

At the end of 1964, Stan moved some of his artists around, reassigning Don Heck to Thor for a few months and drafting in Steve Ditko to help with the changes Stan was envisaging for Iron Man. The character was to move into a very important revisionist period.
But all of that can wait time next time, when I take an in-depth look at Iron Man Phase Two.

Next: Red Metal, Yellow Metal ... Red Metal, Yellow Metal





Monday, 28 May 2018

New (Two-Gun) Kid on the Block: Kirby Takes Over

AFTER A BREAK of eighteen months, Two-Gun Kid was revived by the new creative team of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, as a replacement for the cancelled Amazing Fantasy. But this version of the cowboy hero was informed by a different sensibility. Where the original Two-Gun Kid had been a straight-faced cowboy hero, riding the range and righting wrongs, this new Kid was not only a different person - a lawyer, rather than the farming son of a sheriff-turned-rancher - but he had a secret identity, as well.

The origin of the Two-Gun Kid - Stan doesn't mention in the script how long it takes retired gunslinger Ben Dancer to train tenderfoot Matt Hawk from dude to death-dealer, but we can presume it's several months, at least. The mask, alias and costume are also Ben's idea, making Matt a wild west superhero. Click to enlarge.
Even though superheroes were relatively new at Marvel Comics in 1962, Stan Lee figured that superhero trappings were ripe for a revival, because he gave the new Two-Gun Kid a mask, and similar motivations to the super-characters over in Journey into Mystery, The Incredible Hulk and the latest addition to the lineup, The Amazing Spider-Man.

"The Beginning of the Two-Gun Kid", in Two-Gun Kid 60 (Nov 1962, on sale 2nd Aug 1962) starts with a clean-cut young man - Matt Hawk, Attorney at Law - arriving in Tombstone, Texas and being taunted for his soft, city ways by a group of local thugs. He's saved by the arrival on the scene of the town's teacher, Nancy Carter. Turns out one of the thugs is her step-brother Clem, who's fallen in with a bad crowd.

A few days later, the same gang of toughs start on another victim, the elderly Ben Dancer. Hawk is the only one who steps forward to help Mr Dancer, though he needn't have bothered. Their new victim, a retired gunslinger, has more of a taste for fighting back. After sending the bullies on their way with a few carefully placed shots, Ben Dancer decides that Matt will have to learn to handle a gun to stay healthy. So (Uncle) Ben teaches Matt everything he knows over the next few months and at the end of the training, reveals his plan for Matt. He'll hide his identity behind a mask and costume so that he'll be safer from ambitious would-be gunslingers looking to make a reputation for themselves. He'll become ... The Two-Gun Kid.

The origin of the Two-Gun-Kid series is told in two separate stories in TGK 60. With Matt's romantic interest Nancy Carter believing The Kid to be responsible for the death of her no-good brother Clem, a situation is set-up where Nancy hates The Two-Gun Kid but loves Matt Hawk.
With his work done, Ben Dancer decides he'll retire back east, and takes the stagecoach out of town. But Clem and his thuggish friends are watching and plan to rob the stage and kill old Ben at the same time. However, Matt is alerted that something is wrong when he sees Ben's riderless horse gallop back into town and dashes to the rescue as Two-Gun Kid. As he arrives at the overturned stagecoach, Ben is staring down the barrel of a Colt, moments from death. But some sharp shooting and little help from Ben sees the bullies disarmed and down. Perhaps unwisely, Matt allows Clem Carter to go free before the law arrives to take over, setting up the final showdown for another time.

Readers wouldn't have to wait too long for that final confrontation for, after a five page Stan Lee/Don Heck tale, "The Outcast", Two-Gun Kid returns in the final five-pager in the book to tie up the loose ends from the original tale. "What happened to make Nancy Carter say ... I Hate the Two-Gun Kid" is written by Stan Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby and begins with Nancy discovering Matt Hawk tied and gagged in his own law office. Matt's been robbed by a group of masked men. Even worse, the money belongs to Nancy, held by Matt for investment for Nancy and her worthless brother Clem's futures.

Nancy runs out to alert the sheriff, while Matt puts on his mask and Two-Gun Kid costume. He has recognised one of the bandits as Clem, and knows just where to find him. With the tracking skills Ben taught him, Two-Gun Kid quickly trails the robbers to their remote prairie shack hideaway. As the kid peers through the window, the thugs are arguing among themselves about the split of the cash and one thug draws and shoots Clem. The Kid bursts in, surprising the thieves and a fight ensues. One of the thugs tosses an oil-lamp at The Kid and the shack catches fire.

By the time The Kid has carried Clem from the blazing cabin, the erstwhile bandit has died from his gunshot wound. The sheriff's posse, alerted by Nancy, chooses that moment to show up, and takes The Kid for one of the bandits. Matt escapes easily, but when he returns to town, the sheriff has told Nancy that it was The Two-Gun Kid that killed her brother. And that's why Nancy Carter hates the Two-Gun Kid.

When Bennett Brant got himself mixed up with gangster Blackie Glaxton, Dr Octopus and a jailbreak attempt, Betty tries to help but is kidnapped by the crooks. Spider-Man tracks her down to Philadelphia and tries to free the Brants from the gangster's clutches. In the struggle, Bennett Brant is hit by a stray bullet and killed. Betty, of course, blames Spider-Man.. 
Stan would use exactly the same plot device in Amazing Spider-Man 11 a little over a year later, when Betty Brant believes that Spider-Man had something to do with the death of her brother, Bennett Brant.

With cover and interior art by Jack Kirby and Dick Ayers, Two-Gun Kid 61 featured an interesting two-page recap for any readers arriving late. The clever format showed the parallel lives of the rough-and-tough Kid and the slightly too fey persona affected by Matt Hawk in his civilian identity.
Two-Gun Kid 61 was cover dated January 1963, and was on sale 2nd October 1963. This issue was the first Marvel western comic where the reader really needed to have read the previous issue to fully understand what was going on. Stan was developing the character, issue-by-issue, in much the same way he would with the later super-hero titles. Again there were two stories featured in the comic, along with a two-page introduction to the character by Lee and Kirby, highlighting the sharp differences between Matt Hawk's two identities, and a helpful pinup page that diagrammed The Kid's costume and abilities.

The whole of the first 10-page story in Two-Gun Kid 61 is focussed on setting up then resolving this issue's cover scene. When the chips are down and Nancy is pointing a rifle at The Kid, is she able to pull the trigger to avenge the death of her no-good brother last issue?
The first tale, "The Killer and the Kid", has the Matt Hawk investigating a bank robbery where the teller, Will Webb, has been framed by the bank owner Jeb Snark. It doesn't take long for sharp lawyer Hawk to figure out what's going on, and with Snark a bit too eager to host a neck-tie party, Matt switches to Two-Gun Kid to prevent a lynching. The Kid fights off the unofficial posse long enough for the Marshall to arrive, and Webb is taken into protective custody until the trial. Once the trial gets under way, Snark is no match for quick thinking lawyer Hawk, and is quickly trapped into incriminating himself. Realising he's finished, Snark manages to grab a gun and escape the courtroom, setting the scene for the final confrontation.Snark seeks to outwit his pursuers by doubling-back to the courtroom, intending to shoot Hawk, but instead finding Two-Gun Kid. Just as the two square off, Nancy Carter appears holding a Winchester on both men. Will she save the Two-Gun Kid or kill him in revenge for the death of her brother last issue?

Unusually, "When the Apaches Strike" has a group of native American warriors attack Matt and Nancy for no apparent reason. In a longer tale, I'm pretty sure Stan would have come up with some kind of justification for the Apaches' anger, but here they are little more than a plot device.
The second story in the issue is a bit of a filler, and doesn't progress the Matt-Nancy-Kid triangle. Out riding with Nancy, Matt is in a tough spot when they're attacked by Apaches. Matt sends Nancy off to alert the Sheriff while he changes to Two-Gun Kid and defeats the angry native Americans. I'm not really sure why he has to change costume. With no townsfolk as witnesses, he could have just battled the Apaches as Matt Hawk, relatively sure his identity would be safe.

Two-Gun Kid 62 starts with The Kid complaining that the region of Tombstone has become just too tame for him lately. But the town doesn't need gun-toting bank robbers to disrupt the peaceful lives on the townsfolks. A bullying homesteading can do that just as well, as The Kid will find out.
Issue 62 of Two-Gun Kid was cover dated March 1963, the same month as Amazing Spider-Man 1, and would have been on-sale just before Christmas 1962. In the lead story, "Moose Morgan, Gunman at Large", Stan tackles the issues of bullying and education. It begins with Two-Gun Kid musing that the area is so peaceful, there's not much call for his services. Changing to his Matt Hawk identity, he discovers Nancy Carter crying in the deserted schoolroom. It seems that the kids haven't shown up for their lessons in days. Bullying blowhard Moose Morgan has set up a homestead in the Tombstone, Texas region with his son, Cal, and the pair are deliberately frightening the other children away from school. First Matt and Nancy try legal means and approach the sheriff for help. But  the law can only help if someone makes a formal complaint - surely Matt would know that - and none of the townsfolk are brave enough.

One the way back to town, Matt and Nancy come across Cal Morgan slapping a smaller boy around. Matt intervenes to stop the bullying, just as Moose arrives. The brutish farmer pushes Matt - unable to fight back for fear of blowing his cover - around until Nancy threatens to make a formal complaint to the sheriff. Later, Nancy calls a meeting of the school council to see what's to be done, but no one can help until Moose Morgan actually breaks the law.

Jack Kirby's fight scene in TGK62 is every bit the equal of his superhero battles. The first page uses a four-panel page to maximise the impact. This is immediately followed by a tighter nine-page grid, detailing the tussle, blow-by-blow. The pay-off is that The Kid then administers a darn good hiding to Moose's "tough" son, Cal ... a pretty satisfying pay-off to the tale for any kid that's ever been bullied. Stan definitely knew what he was doing here.
With all legal avenues denied, it seems that the only choice is for Two-Gun Kid to take a hand. There's a spectacular three-page fight in which The Kid subdues Moose, then literally turns Cal over his knee and delivers a thorough spanking to the bullying kid. These were more innocent times ...

The Kid then makes Cal apologise to Nancy, then take his father home. He cautions Cal to show his father respect, as he'll need the support of his son, now. The tale ends with Nancy telling The Kid he was wonderful, and the Kid defending his actions to the Sheriff, but pointing out that Moose has learned today that brute strength isn't enough, as there's always someone stronger. Only through education can a man be superior to another. 

It's quite the morality play, and Stan is again showing his liberal credentials, even in a b-project like Two-Gun Kid. In it, Stan has demonstrated that bullies never win, that a kid needs a decent role model to succeed in life, that education trumps everything and, finally, that even those twisted by anger and revenge, like Nancy, can realise they were wrong. That's a lot of ground to cover in a "simple" 13-page cowboy story.

"The Man Who Changed" is just a quickfire summary of how the lawyer Matt Hawk operates in his secret identity of The Two-Gun Kid. No frills, no supporting characters, no named adversaries. Just the mechanics of how the outlaw hero helps the law maintain order in Tombstone, Texas. 
By contrast, the second Two-Gun Kid tale in the issue is a little more light-weight. It's little more than an incident really. Matt Hawk is pleading a case before the judge when he hears a ruckus coming from outside and, through the courtroom window, spots a bank robbery in progress. He requests an adjournment, which doesn't please the Judge very much. Rushing outside, Matt is able to change to his Two-Gun Kid costume in his practiced ten seconds, takes care of subduing the six bank robbers, changing back to Matt Hawk and returning to the courtroom inside fifteen minutes. The story is not really anything more than the slenderest of introductions to The Two-Gun Kid for any newcomer readers - Nancy Carter doesn't even make an appearance.

And that would be the last issue for which Jack Kirby would provide the interior pencilling ... the same month, Kirby had pencilled:

  • Fantastic Four 12 (23 pages, plus cover)
  • Love Romances 104 (7 pages, plus cover)

and covers for:

  • Amazing Spider-Man 1
  • Gunsmoke Western 75
  • Journey into Mystery 90
  • Kid Colt Outlaw 109
  • Strange Tales 106
  • Tales of Suspense 39
  • Tales to Astonish 41

... a total of 39 pages of pencilling for the month. But, as I've mentioned before, Stan had Jack earmarked for other projects: the mammoth 57 pages (plus the cover) of new material for the first Fantastic Four Annual, another 18 pages (plus cover) in the second Strange Tales Annual, along with the first issue of The Avengers (22 pages plus cover) and the first issue of The X-Men (22 pages plus cover). Something had to give, so Stan took Jack off The Incredible Hulk, Strange Tales, Tales to Astonish and Two-Gun Kid to free up his time.

KIRBY OUT, AYERS IN

The May 1963 Two-Gun Kid, issue 63, had a Kirby cover, but the interior art was by Dick Ayers. Ayers had been inking the Kirby's pencils on the title from issue 58 (before the hiatus) to date. Stan probably figured that Ayers had a pretty good handle on the art by this point and had him take over the pencils.

Behind the unusual Jack Kirby comic strip type cover lurks 18 pages of Dick Ayers art. It's strong comic art, it looks quite similar to the art from the earlier issues and it tells the story well, but it's just not Kirby, is it?
While I have been a little skeptical of Kirby's claims around how much of the Marvel Universe he created on his own, it's impossible to fault his abilities as a storyteller. There's absolutely nothing wrong with Ayers artwork on Two-Gun Kid 63. You can analyse the pages from here to eternity, and it would be pretty much impossible to say why TGK 62 was so terrific and why TGK 63 is just a little ... well, flat.

In the back-up story, "The Bronco Buster" you can see that Ayers is trying to bring some Kirby-ness to the pencilling. The figure of Nancy in panel 5, page 2 in the above image might have been pencilled by Jack and there's a very Kirby-esque Kast of Kharacters in panel 5 of page 5, Click the image to enlarge.
I've looked over the art at length and I can see that Ayers is able, by this stage, to make a pretty good job of ghosting Kirby's style. He even uses some of Jack's trademark moves. But the storytelling just doesn't have the spark, the energy, of Kirby's work. I guess that's why Kirby is a legend and Dick Ayers is "just" a well-respected craftsman.

Kirby continued to supply the covers for Two Gun Kid until the middle of 1965. Fascinatingly, when Ayers took over, he had The Kid face a villain called The Panther ... in a black costume. I've included it above so you can compare for yourself. Look Familiar? Click the image to enlarge.
Stan would make sure that Kirby continued to pencil the covers for Two-Gun Kid (and the other western titles) for the next two years, and it wasn't until issue 77 (Sep 1965) that Ayers was allowed to begin pencilling covers for the title. And, like the interior art, they're okay and all ... but they're just not Kirby.

Is this just an odd coincidence? The panel on the left is taken from Two-Gun Kid 77 (Sep 1965), from a story called "The Panther Will Get You if You Don't Watch Out", scripted by Al Hartley and drawn by Dick Ayers. The panel on the right is from Fantastic Four 52 (Jul 1966) from a story called "The Black Panther", scripted by Stan Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby. So who actually created The Black Panther?
So while I may not have been the biggest fan of westerns back in 1965, when I was just beginning to come under the spell of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, perhaps if I'd read Two-Gun Kid, Rawhide Kid and Kid Colt, Outlaw I might've had a different view.

I'll take a look at Marvel's other early cowboy heroes another time, but I think it's time to get back to some Silver Age superhero shenanigans ...

Next: Man of Iron, Heart of Marshmallow