Thursday, 12 September 2013

From Regular Reader to Committed Collector

GROWING UP ON A SOUTH-EAST LONDON council estate might seem like a bit of an urban nightmare to some readers of this blog. But it really wasn't. The Milne Estate in Woolwich was quite genteel in comparison to the kind of sink-hole estates depicted in today's television shows and movies. For example, vandalism just didn't happen. We kids were all all too afraid that our families might be evicted if we committed such a senseless and selfish act. Besides, if any of us had been spotted daubing graffiti and our parents (or parent) got to hear of it, we'd be battered to within an inch of our lives.

Growing up on a council estate, we had no sense of hardship - quite the 
opposite. It was a community. We lived in the top left flat, 30b.
The up side was that we all had loads of mates to play with. The area itself was a wonderland for any child because Woolwich had suffered major damage during the war as the Nazis tried to bomb the Arsenal to rubble and, of course, there was a lot of collateral damage. Entire streets of houses were reduced to ruins or worse and less than twenty years after the end of the conflict, hardly any clearance or rebuilding work had started. But we had all these highly dangerous - and hugely adventurous - playgrounds.

The local kids would turn bombed-out house into dens,
where we'd hang out with our mates and read and swap comics.
(Hue and Cry, © 1947,  Ealing Studios)
Against this background, some kids collected Monkees bubblegum cards, some kids built go-karts out of old prams, some kids climbed trees and hung rope swings. And some did all of that. Me, I loved comics. In particular Marvel Comics. Back then, in 1965, the readiest supply of Marvel Comics was the corner newsagent, and I used to range far and wide throughout the SE18 postcode, looking for new sources for my favourite comics. My nearest supplier was in Kingsland Parade, the newsagent right next to Woolwich Church Street.

I had already decided that Captain America was my favourite character and set about tracking down as many books starring my hero as I could. The next item I was able to find was the second part of the story I began reading in my first Avengers comic,  with good old CA right there, almost as large as life, on the cover.

Avengers 16 (May 1965) would have been on sale in the UK during the summer of 1965, just as I was turning 11 years old. I wasn't sure why there were so many supervillains on the cover, but I'd find out soon enough ...
This issue was an experience of highs and lows for me. At the end of the story, after the comprehensive defeat of the Masters of Evil, some of the Avengers decided they needed a rest. Iron Man and Giant-Man elected to take leaves of absence and, with Thor exiting (off-camera) to take part in The Trial of the Gods (Journey into Mystery 116, Jul 1965, covered in my last post) the hunt was on for replacement members. By happy coincidence, former Iron Man foe Hawkeye was looking for a new gig after his love Black Widow was wounded in battle and taken into custody by the Soviets. No sooner did he turn up at Avengers Mansion than he was sworn in. Then in far-off Europe, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, who had previously battled the X-Men under the dark influence of Magneto (more on that next post), read of the Avengers membership drive in a local Swiss newspaper and decided to write an application letter. No email in those days, you see.

So Captain America returned from his fateful battle with his arch-enemy, Zemo, to find that not only were there three new Avengers on the team, but also that he was in charge of them. And it doesn't take him long to discover that he doesn't especially enjoy his new management position. Then Iron Man and Giant-Man (prodded by The Wasp) take off and leave Cap to it. Thanks, guys ...

Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver remark on how different
the atmosphere here is compared to their last team gig.
I'm pretty sure the real reason Stan Lee wanted to do this was because, although he was sole writer on the books by this time, even he was having trouble keeping track of where his characters were in any given month. The letters pages were peppered with comments from readers like, "If Thor is battling The Executioner in New York in Avengers, how come he's also doing the Trial of the Gods in Asgard?" So Lee moved his big stars out of the team and confined them to their own strips. The only flaw in this theory is that just two months later, Giant-Man and Wasp lost their spot in Tales to Astonish, so there wouldn't have been these types of conflicts if Hank and Janet had carried on as Avengers.

With Captain America, it was less complicated. The Tales of Suspense stories had Cap in a WWII setting while he led the Avengers in the present. I still wasn't sure how Cap could be in his twenties in 1944 and the same age in 1964 - but that conundrum would be answered in due course. Issue 65 of Suspense came out the same month as Avengers 16. And there was Captain America taking the lead slot on the cover battling The Red Skull and his nasty Nazi henchpersons. And it's a great story - what's not to love about The Red Skull?

The split-cover design of these former mystery tales 
anthologies must have been murder for the artists.
But it was the Iron Man tale that grabbed my attention in this instance. The new red-and-yellow Iron Man battles his clunky old Golden Avenger persona. How can this be? It's not that mysterious. Just three-time loser Weasel Wills finding Tony Stark's attache case containing his Iron Man armour during a burglary and stealing it. Stark has to use his original armour to take on the impostor. But it was quite a thrill to see the two Iron Men slug it out in a knock-down, drag-out brawl. Aside from that, I liked the fact that Stark had his own life, marred though it was by his heart issues. Worried that he might not live very long, he avoided getting romantically involved with his secretary Pepper Potts and stepped aside to see if she might make a go of it with Happy Hogan, the Stark chauffeur. In the following issues, all sorts of complications ensued and I'd find myself skipping over the fight scenes to see how Stark was going to resolve his latest emotional crisis.

A classic split-cover drawn by Jack Kirby
and inked by Frank Giacoia.
In Tales of Suspense 66 (Jun 1965), Stark has to risk Happy quitting when he assigns Iron Man to test a prototype miniature sub, to avoid risking Happy's life. This leads to all kinds of problems, the least of which is a pitch-battle with the Sub-Mariner's enemy, Attuma. After defeating the blue-skinned megalomaniac, Iron Man returns to the surface, only to find that Happy has left and that the Senator in charge of the sub's government appropriations committee is pretty ticked off with Stark. It's pure Stan Lee storytelling and mirrors the sort of private life complications that Peter Parker was having to deal with over in Amazing Spider-Man.

The Captain America story reveals to us the origin of the Red Skull. It's the story of how a nobody - we never see his real face - is chosen at random by Der Fuehrer to be the living symbol of Naziism, an Axis counterpart to our red-white-and-blue hero. The tale ends with the evil Skull brainwashing Cap to be ... a Nazi. Too horrible to contemplate. 

As Ben Grimm would say, Wotta revolting development
this is. Cap under the control of The Red Skull.
The letters page in this issue mentions that Tales of Suspense 63 featured the origin of Captain America, so I made a mental note to track that one down as soon as possible. But I also noticed a strange anomaly in this issue. The Marvel house ads that I looked forward to so much for the miniature cover repros were not in colour.

Now what was this all about? Did Stan think that
leaving the colour out might save a few bucks?
More likely, it was a deadline issue ...
The May cover-dated Avengers 16 also had house ads without colour, albeit with a slightly different arrangement of covers, so it could well have been down to some kind of time restraint in the production department. Needless to say, I didn't enjoy the mono ads half as much as I loved the colour ones. Later on, as I came to understand how this kind of four colour printing worked, I did wonder if those house ads were individually coloured using the hand separation method or whether there was some photographic way of reducing the original full size separations down to the smaller size.

With the next issue of Avengers (17, Jun 1965) the team were off on their first proper mission. Locate the Hulk and get him to rejoin. Captain America is putting the newcomers through a training exercise when an over-sized robot walks through the wall of Avengers Mansion to deliver a message about The Hulk. Without waiting to hear the whole message, they quickly disable the automaton, possibly a bit prematurely. Nonetheless, the robot's message tape is still functional and the team learn that The Hulk can be found in the desert. And far away, beneath the desert, The Mole Man gloats about the trap he's leading The Avengers into.

The first real mission for the new Avengers lineup was to track 
down the Hulk and persuade him to return to the team ...
Over the course of the next few pages, The Avengers engage in a battle with one of Mole Man's legion of monsters, The Minotaur, defeat the Mole Man and are shot up to the surface when old Moley doesn't like the way the fight is going - all without realising that The Hulk was just a few hundred yards away fighting his own battle against the Leader - as seen in Tales to Astonish 69 (Jul 1965), Stan's footnote tells us. It's not the best Avengers tale. It certainly looks like Don Heck was just beginning to find his way with the Marvel Method of storytelling. He starts with an uncharacteristic splash page that shows a scene from the main story, something that Kirby would never do and that you'd be more likely to find in a DC comic. Some of the pacing seems rushed, and some of the Hulk scenes look like they were swiped from Kirby art. But the book, and Heck's storytelling, would get better.

By this time, I was becoming more and more curious about earlier issues of Marvel Comics. References to The Hulk being an Avenger were making me wonder what I had already missed, so I set off on a quest to track down older issues, while keeping up to date with the current output by haunting the local newsagents. I knew of some kids in the area who had what I termed "classic" Marvels. Issues with numbers in the single digits. So I determined I would discover what they wanted and make some kind of trade. A friend told me he knew someone with Avengers 3 (Jan 1963), so I knocked on this kid's door and asked him if he was willing to do a swap. I can't remember what he wanted, but I'm pretty sure it was about three or four comics. I don't think I would have parted with Marvels, so it's likely he got a few Supermans or Adventures in the trade.

The first "classic" Marvel Comic I ever owned,
traded from a local kid for several DC comics.
And I had my first real "classic" Marvel. Rushing home to read the comic, I noticed that The Hulk was right there in the cover corner box, as well as featured large on the cover, so he must have been in the team. 

So it was true ... The Hulk was an Avenger.
Inside the book, there was just one tantalising reference, on page 2, to the fact that The Hulk quit The Avengers last issue. Darn. Now I was going to have to find Avengers 2. As with the mission in issue 17, this earlier team also set out the find The Hulk, to prevent him doing too much damage while at large. So Iron Man contacts the FF, Spider-Man and even The X-Men in an effort to get a lead on The Hulk's whereabouts, without success. But it's Rick Jones who is the key to The Hulk's whereabouts.

At this point, The Hulk was still an ill-defined character. There was still no clear logic behind his transformations or his personality as The Hulk. Though I wasn't aware of them at the time, the original run of six issues of The Incredible Hulk offered a different change method and Hulk persona with each issue. Sometimes the Hulk was mute, sometimes he talked like The Thing. Sometimes he changed at nightfall, sometimes Banner bombarded himself with rays from a gamma machine. It was all a bit ... badly thought-out. And if, as Kirby claims, he was responsible for these characters, then he plainly failed with The Hulk, the first of the early Marvels to be cancelled.

The Hulk in Avengers 3, drawn by Kirby, was definitely the Kirby Hulk. He has the same speech patterns as The Thing. He changes both spontaneously and using the Gamma Machine. But is also susceptible to being controlled by Rick Jones. He thinks, he reasons and he's a bit crafty.

Though he speaks about himself in the third person, something later 
versions would also do, this Hulk seems more like Fantastic Four's Thing ...
Finally, he spontaneously changes back to "Bob" Banner, deserts his "partner" Sub-Mariner and dives off the Rock of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean Sea to escape. 

Stan took some stick for mis-naming Bruce Banner "Bob"
in two panels this issue. He explained it away later by claiming
that Banner's name was really Robert Bruce, but he was fooling no one.
The issue was one of the longest Marvel stories of the period - at 25 pages three pages longer than Avengers 2 and two pages longer than Avengers 4. With no ads and no letters page, Lee and Kirby had 25 pages to work with and the result was early "widescreen" Marvel. The story seems more epic than any of the other Marvel tales of the same time period - the extra space allows for more exposition of both Sub-Mariner and the Hulk, as well as scenes with the Teen Brigade and with the main heroes. And the pacing seems more leisurely ...

By the end of the story, the Avengers are down a member, have a new enemy in Prince Namor and a savage Hulk is still at large. A great day's work for your average Marvel super-team. Within a few issues the page-length would drop, until by Avengers 10, the team had the standard 20 pages to work with, and while these stories were fun too, they didn't have the big budget feel of Avengers 3.

Not long after this, I managed to scare up a couple of really early issues of Fantastic Four, but I'll leave that story until next time ...

Next: Two "classic" Fantastic Four Comics and exploring second-hand shops

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