Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Marvel Masterwork Pin-ups

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next: The Mighty Marvel Reprint books

Thursday, 11 October 2018

Stan Lee in a Post-Fact World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that was all the work of Stan Lee.

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

Next: Something less controversial

Saturday, 25 August 2018

Iron Man: Rivetting Stuff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next: Follow the Money!