Saturday, 14 December 2013

From "Dear Editor" to "Face front, fearless ones"

BACK IN THE MID-1960s, when I first started reading comics, like other kids I was mostly interested in the stories. I'd always had a fascination with Science Fiction since my Mum had taken me to the cinema to see a re-release of Forbidden Planet (1956) when I was about six or so. The movie kept me up all night for weeks afterwards with nightmares about glowing disembodied eyes that roved the landscape at night destroying esoteric buildings like lighthouses. I'm sure Freudians could have a field day with that one ... but then I was only six years old.

To my six year old way of thinking, the Monster from the ID was the ultimate
in horror, though to most people today, I suppose it just looks like a
large Disney cartoon dog, which is pretty much what it is.
The other reason that same movie also caught my attention was because of Anne Francis as Altaira. I guess we don't need any Freudians to explain why that might have been ...

Anne Francis was certainly a lot prettier than the Monster from the ID ...
but at just six years old, I didn't do that much dreaming about her back then.
So it's no surprise that the first American comic that caught my eye featured a science fiction monster on the cover (see the first post in this blog).

But like any other kid of my age, patience wasn't a virtue I valued. When I got my hands on a new comic, I'd tear through the story at breakneck pace, giving scant attention to the other features and fillers in the magazine. I knew that I liked Marvel Comics better than the DC mags of the same era, but I hadn't really thought about why. Yet, the Spider-Man and Fantastic Four stories were better than the Batman and Superman tales. The Marvel characters talked more like real people and seemed to inhabit a world that looked quite like the world I lived in. But that was what started me reading the Marvel product. But it didn't explain what kept me reading Marvels well into my teenage years and up to the present day. I didn't figure that out until much later.

DCs were the first comics I was reading in the 1960s. The format of these books hadn't changed much since the 1940s - only the page count had dropped in an effort to maintain that 10c cover price. The typical Superman comic would feature as many as three Superman tales, often a single-page of little-known facts to demonstrate that comics were really quite educational, and a half (or full) page humorous strip by Henry Boltinoff, featuring Casey the Cop or Super-Turtle.

Henry Boltinoff (brother of DC editor Murray) contributed fillers like this 
Super-Turtle half-pager to DC comics through the 1960s and into the 1970s.
Not all DC comics had letters pages - for example, I have a copy of Blackhawk 170 which has no letters, but does have a one-page historical text piece about remarkable survival stories of World War Two. The letters pages there were, mostly in the Mort Weissinger-edited Superman Family books, pretty stodgy. They read like they'd been written by your English teacher, all a bit stiff and formal. There wasn't much real communication going on, no connection with the readers. 

This letters page features the results of the Great DC Contest (readers had
to count how many times the letters D and C appeared in issue 169 of

Superman) and four letters, apparently selected for their collective dullness.
The Editor's replies to readers were even duller than the letters selected for print. Small wonder, then, that I skipped over these tiresome text pages.

An aside - there's a great story in the second volume of Steranko's History of Comics. It tells how, sometime in 1943, Fawcett Comics editor Will Lieberson went into a barber shop and noticed a kid in the chair next to him reading a comic. A Fawcett comic. Lieberson smiled and listened as the kid read the comic out loud to himself, across the top two panels, skipping the lower two-thirds of each page. Lieberson leaned over to the kid and explained kindly that to get the best from the story, he should read all the way down the page before moving to the next. The kid stopped, looked Lieberson straight in the eye and said, "I know, but this way it's faster."

Back to the main subject - It was a tradition, in the comics published by Marty Goodman, that the magazines would always carry at least two pages of text material. As I understand it now, this was so the publications qualified for Second-Class postage rates, which meant Marty could mail at the subscriptions copies at a cheaper price, saving himself a cent or two per subscription copy. For that very reason, Stan Lee would be obliged to run a two-page text story in every book he edited from the 1940s right through to 1962, so that the comics qualified as magazines under the law. And it didn't have to be new material, so the text tales were recycled on a regular basis. Some Marvel books as late as Suspense 58 and Astonish 57 were still reprinting those text stories in 1964. I ignored those too.

Around 1962, though, Lee hit on an idea. His new superhero team book Fantastic Four was generating mail from readers. Stan is quoted in Ronin Ro's Tales to Astonish as saying, "We had never gotten fan mail, maybe one letter a year about some stupid subject. But all of a sudden we got fan mail from readers saying 'We love this [Fantastic Four] book', 'We can't wait for the next issue'. I knew we were onto something."

So Stan decided to use this sudden outpouring of reader sentiment to his advantage and introduced the Fantastic Four Fan Page in FF3 - as far as I can tell, the first lettercol in a Silver Age Marvel. The earliest FF lettercol I have in my meagre collection of comics is from FF5 ...
This Fantastic Four Fan Page, in issue 5 of FF, features a letter from a young
Roy Thomas. It also signs off with Stan's first use of the phrase, "Face Front!"
Not surprisingly, this early collection of fan letters wasn't really any different to what was going on in the DC books of the period. Each letter begins "Dear Editor" and Stan Lee isn't identified anywhere as being the author of the replies. Though there are faint glimmers of Stan Lee's personality in the replies to the letters - "Aw, Bill, don't be mad" and "Well, mebbe some day" - the letters themselves are quite unremarkable.

There was no letters page in Fantastic Four 6, but it was back in issue 7, and Stan managed to squeeze in a plug for Strange Tales 101 which featured the first solo outing for Johnny (Human Torch) Storm, and the word "Echh" makes its first appearance.

Although it's still early days, the readers' letters continue to focus on silly mistakes
made by the production team rather than any discussion of the content of the comics.
Issue 8's Fan Page contained an interesting letter that suggests the rest of the team stop addressing Ben Grimm as "Thing", a point I also picked up on in an earlier blog-post. Even as a kid, it struck me as bit callous that Reed, Sue and Johnny called each other by name yet insist on addressing Ben as "Thing". Given that the character was supposed to be sensitive about his monstrous appearance, the team couldn't be any more cruel if they tried. Stan explains that this is for the benefit of new readers who might not know why the others are calling a monster by the name Ben. But it wouldn't be long before the penny dropped for Stan and he began having the others refer to Ben as "Ben" ...

Fantastic Four 10's Fan Page was the first big step change to the Marvel voice. Stan kicks off the page by announcing that they've enough of that "'Dear Editor' jazz from now on" and that as he and Jack read every letter, they're changing the salutation of every letter on the page to "Dear Stan and Jack" to demonstrate how much friendlier this sounds. And of course, Stan was right ... it reads way better. Also, Stan here began to pepper the page with announcements about this and that - including Stan telling fans that the letters page would be a two-pager starting next issue, that Marvel didn't have any issues of FF1-9 to hand, so couldn't supply back issues, and that Amazing Fantasy 15 was a big success so there would be more Spider-Man tales coming in December 1962, which sounds about right for the on-sale date of Amazing Spider-Man 1 (cover-dated March 1963).

The Fantastic Four Fan Page from issue 10 was the first to include news items
about what was happening in the Bullpen and with other Marvel titles.
By the time issue 13 of Fantastic Four (Apr 63), came out, Stan was gathering his announcements and placing them in a block at the end of the Fan Page - a kind of embryonic Bullpen Bulletins. FF14 carried some notable announcements that must've had budding Marvel fans in a lather. The most visible of these was the inauguration of the iconic Marvel corner trademark emblem. I'll be devoting a future post entirely to the origins and history of this unique identifier.

This collection of announcements from Fantastic Four 14 revealed that a 
Fantastic Four Annual was in the works and that a new war comic, Sgt Fury
and his Howling Commandos, was due at the newsstands soon ...
But here Stan also mentioned that he reads every letter from fans and because of that, he's not able to have lettercols in the other Marvel titles, but encouraged readers to send their letters about Thor and Iron man to the FF Fan Page. Spider-Man, of course had his own letters page.

The Fan Page continued pretty much in this vein, with Stan releasing snippets of information about upcoming Marvel magazines, like the imminent Fantastic Four Annual 1 and Strange Tales Annual 2. Issue 16 mentioned the many letters they received congratulating them on the new trading name Marvel Comics Group, and the launch of Dr Strange in Strange Tales, and in FF17 Stan promised to bring back the Hulk somehow. The letters page for FF18 plugged the Annuals again, and announced the release of the first issues of The Avengers and The X-Men. One reader asked why Stan didn't print more flattering letters, he replied that he'd rather print controversial letters readers could argue about, the strongest signal yet that he considered the readers partners in this grand enterprise. When another reader asked who devised the idea for the cover corner emblem, Stan revealed that it was Steve Ditko who came up with it. And this column also featured the first use of the phrase, "The Marvel Age Comics", signifying the beginnings of Lee's tongue-in-cheek brand-aggrandisement.

This house ad from Fantastic Four 18 also mentions the "Marvel Age of Comics"
and plugs the newest team to appear in the ever-expanding Marvel Universe.
It's significant that the types of new book Lee and Kirby were putting out that this time were variations on the Fantastic Four formula. It's possible that Lee was serving Marty Goodman's agenda to put out the sort of comics he thought could compete with DC's uber-successful Justice League of America. But rather than just spit out clone books, Stan was careful to give each of these team books its own Unique Selling Point. 

Where Fantastic Four was a dysfunctional family (with Ben Grimm as the grumpy uncle), Sgt Fury was a kind of United Colours of Benetton, decades before anyone else thought of the idea. In this war book, Lee was able to give voice to his liberal world-view where people weren't judged on the colour of their skin or their racial origins. He was careful to include a black man, a jew and an Italian in the original line-up, but quite rightly didn't make a big deal of it. 

Certainly The Avengers were much more of a direct response to The Justice League. In this book, Stan just gathered all the available heroes (barring Spider-Man who had already been established as not being much of a joiner) and put them all in a single comic. But the X-Men was something different. By making his X-heroes mutants - essentially a science fiction version of a separate human racial type - he was able to bring his liberal beliefs into his comic stories. Something I've never had an issue with.

On the Fan Page in FF19, Stan shared a Bullpen in-joke. He explained that whenever Jack Kirby drew crowd scenes, the same faces would crop up again and again. The Marvel staff called them "Kirby's Kast of Kharacters". By bringing the readers in on the joke, he was engaging in classic team-building. He would go even further down that route in a few months but even here we can see that none of this was an accident. Stan knew exactly what he was doing, and he was doing it very well. 

"Kirby's Kast of Kharacters" from Fantastic Four 20. By comparison, here's a crowd scene from the
1936 Fritz Lang movie,
Fury, a film Kirby would almost certainly have been familiar with, though this
type of character imagery was common in pre-war Hollywood movies.
FF20 included a letter from "George R. Martin" (he only had one R at this point), who would later go on to write the acclaimed Games of Thrones series of novels. Martin praised Marvel for fitting "so much action into so few pages" - a quality all too sadly lacking in today's comics with their notoriously decompressed storylines.

By the time we get to FF21, the Special Announcements section is taking up a quarter of the Fan Page, mostly plugging the dozen other Marvel mags Stan is putting out.

This issue of Fantastic Four started a run of guest star spots that would run up to
issue 29, featuring The Avengers, Dr Strange, X-Men and The Watcher.
These Special Announcements would continue right up until FF37, with issue 32's section mentioning the MMMS for the first time. Issue 34 had the plugs for the other Marvels separated out into its own box and a letter from "George R. R. Martin" (there's that second R) complaining that the Special Announcements section had become just a plug-fest for all the other Marvel mags. Issue 37's lettercol had a note from letter-hack Guy H. Lillian III complaining about Stan shortening letter-writers' names in his replies: "For instance," writes Guy, "'Jackie boy' for Jack, 'Stevie' twice and 'Jer' for Jerry." In FF38, the Special Announcements are gone from the Fan Page, leaving only the Mighty Marvel Checklist. Issue 39 had Stan's first use of the catchphrase "Make Mine Marvel", and by issue 42, the Announcements are sneaking back in as separate items in yellow boxes dotted through the two-page lettercol. But this was only temporary ... in issue 45 of Fantastic Four, Stan included the first of what would become a Marvel institution for the next twenty years or so - The Bullpen Bulletin page.

Fantastic Four 45 was the culmination of Stan's mission. He'd made comics cool, cemented 
his reputation as a leader the youth looked up to and had a lot of fun in the process. 
The transformation was complete. In just three years, Stan Lee had taken Marvel Comics from an also-ran comic company grinding out formulaic stories and art to a pop culture phenomenon. Though some have tried to undermine Stan's claim to being the architect of Marvel, they're simply wrong. Yes, Kirby and Ditko helped Marvel's rise to market dominance with their imaginative plotting, but it was Stan who created the affable personalities for the Marvel characters and more importantly, wove the whole thing into a complete and fully realised package. It wasn't just the Marvel stories we were buying into here. It was a lifestyle and an aspirational brand. And it was this mature approach to branding and packaging that kept me reading Marvels way beyond 1965 and my eleventh birthday.

But of course, Stan wasn't done yet. For Marvel some of their greatest achievements were still ahead. Stan's liberal world-view wasn't yet fully communicated to his readers, and it was the next three years that would have a profound effect on me and shape my life, both in my own world-view and my professional ambitions. But that's a subject for another time.

Next: More Marvel Bullpen Bulletins ...


  1. Y'know, Al, you explained it all so clearly that I can't see how anyone could remain unconvinced that Stan was the architect of Marvel. Kirby's & Ditko's art was always what it was (excellent amd more), but they had their greatest success and recognition at Marvel when Stan was at the helm. A simple case of cause and effect, I think, if ever there was one.

    1. Yup ... total no-brainer. I am completely puzzled when some fans are unable to see there's a massive quality gap between The Fantastic Four and The New Gods. I don't want to minimise the importance of either Kirby of Ditko. I love everything they did at Marvel in the 1960s. But without Lee's guiding hand, they both later lost the plot.

      Here's a radical idea ... why don't we all just agree that it was the combination of Lee & Kirby and Lee & Ditko that created the sparks. It is possible that a team can be more successful than the individual members alone. How good would Laurel be without Hardy?

    2. Correct, I did a post saying that very thing about a year (or more) ago, called 'Stan, Jack or Steve - or was it all three?' What also amazes me about some diehard Kirby fans is that they can't seem to see the deterioration in his later artwork, which, to me, is painful to look at in some instances. (For example, the splash page to the unpublished 'The Prisoner' where No 6 has arms about 6 feet long.)