Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Captain America: The Sixth Avenger

AROUND 1964 I discovered Marvel Comics and almost immediately abandoned the DC Superman, Green Lantern and Flash books I had been reading up till that point. In early 1965, I came across a copy of Tales of Suspense 64 (Apr 1965), which featured the wartime adventures of Captain America, a character who immediately became my all-time favourite superhero. Around the same time - probably the same month, given the cover dates - I found a copy of Avengers 15 (Apr 1965), which starred Captain America working with his fellow team members in a contemporary setting, looking not a day older. How was this possible? My ten-year-old brain was confused.

Much later, when I'd back-filled my small collection of Marvel Comics a little, I was able to figure out what was going on.

The revived and revised Human Torch appeared in the first issue of Fantastic Four. The Sub-Mariner made his Silver Age debut a few months later in FF4. Martin Goodman also had Stan spin The Human Torch off into his own series in Strange Tales, beginning with issue 101 (Oct 1962).
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had begun the Marvel Age of Superheroes by revamping one of Publisher Martin Goodman's 1940s properties, The Human Torch, and co-starring him with the rest of the Fantastic Four in the first issue of their self-titled magazine in November 1961. A few months later, in Fantastic Four 4 (May 1962), Lee and Kirby revived Prince Namor, The Sub-Mariner, as a villain for the FF to fight. It only remained for Stan to find a way to bring back Captain America and he'd put an end to Goodman's requests to revive all of the major 1940s Timely characters.

Stan was right to be wary. Captain America was very much a character for the time, born on the eve of America's involvement in the Second World War, Cap was depicted on the cover of his debut comic socking Hitler on the jaw. After the war drew to a close in 1945, the nation seemed to lose interest in patriotic superheroes - well, actually in all superheroes - and Captain America's sales declined quite rapidly. So finding a way to bring back a character that the comics-buying public had given up on in the late 1940s and who no longer had a purpose now that Nazi Germany was two decades in the past wasn't going to be easy.

The dying of Timely heroes was a sad affair. Captain America's own title turned into a horror comic that lasted one more issue. His final battle was against The Red Skull in Captain America's Weird Tales 74 (Oct 1949). The Human Torch's last appearance was in Marvel Mystery Comics 92 (Jun 1949), and Sub-Mariner's own title died with issue 32 the same month.
Casting around for somewhere to park Captain America, Stan figured that Strange Tales was the most appropriate place, but hedging his bets, had Jack Kirby draw up a tale for ST114 (Nov 1963) where one of Johnny Storm's old enemies, The Acrobat, disguises himself as Captain America and carries out robberies. Even the Torch is fooled right up till the last moment, when he yanks "Cap's" mask off.

Someone must've messed up, because Captain America is shown throughout the story wearing red panties, just like Superman. And if you look closely at the cover, you can see he was coloured that way there too. Stan must've blown a gasket when the cover proof came in and had someone patch over the erroneous pants on the blue film, resulting in purple pants (solid cyan over solid magenta) ... not quite as bad as red, but still wrong.
The final caption box owns up to the fact that Stan was trying out the character to see what readers thought. Fan reaction must've been positive because, a few months later, Captain America turned up in The Avengers 4 (Mar 1964), as a replacement for the increasingly unstable Hulk. It's actually a pretty good tale, and interestingly, uses the Sub-Mariner as the catalyst for Cap's return.

Behind the iconic cover is an epic 23-page tale that describes how Captain America came to be revived by The Sub-Mariner and inducted into The Avengers, who'd become his family for the next ten years.
Prince Namor escaped The Avengers at the end of issue 3, and now fetches up in the Arctic, where he needlessly bullies a band of Inuits who are minding their own business and worshipping their frozen god. The Sub-Mariner flings the idol into the sea, where it thaws out and is brought on board the pursuing sub of The Avengers. The idol turns out to be famous WWII hero, Captain America ... and he's still alive.

You can tell that Stan hasn't really got the measure of the character yet, as most of his dialogue sounds stilted and unnatural. "I am not lucky enough to forget forever ... to forget that I was once the man the world called ... Captain America!" he says moments after waking up from a coma. Of course, if he'd just woken up from a coma, and had no reason at this point to know that twenty years had passed, then his claim is slightly odd. And then, "I've no need of tricks!" intones Cap. "Test me! Try to conquer me!" He sounds more like a robot than a man of the 1940s.

Cap then reveals that, back in the final days of the war, he and Bucky were trying to stop a saboteur's explosives-laden drone plane taking off. The pair make a daring leap to the plane, but Cap loses his grip and the plane explodes, killing his young sidekick. That must've been some leap, because the heroes start somewhere in the European Theatre of Operations and Cap hits the water off the coast of Newfoundland. But why quibble? Cap sinks into the icy sea and the lowered temperature maintains him in a state of suspended animation until The Avengers fish him out in 1964.

Jack Kirby's action scenes in Avengers 4 are as dynamic as always, but you kind of get the impression that Stan's heart wasn't really in the scripting, or that he hadn't got a handle on the character at this point.
Then, there's a bit of shennanigans with an alien turning the Avengers to stone at the request of Namor, but they're rescued by Cap, and then the new Avengers finally tackle The Submariner who, yep, manages to escape again.

The idea of an alien who turns folks to stone and who has been mistaken for the legendary gorgon, Medusa, is a plot device right out of Lee's earlier fantasy stories - "Call Her ... Medusa" from Journey into Mystery 96 (Sep 1963) is just one example.

Interestingly, Namor doesn't seem to recognise Captain America, though you'd have thought that, given they were 1940s contemporaries, they'd have at least known about each other, even if they'd never met - but weren't they in the All-Winners Squad together (All-Winners Comics 19, Fall 1946)?

Captain America is the undoubted star of Avengers 4 and, as you might expect, he has the lion's share of the action. He's instrumental in figuring out what happened to the "missing" Avengers and in tracking down the sunglasses-wearing character who fired a strange weapon at his team-mates. Once the other Avengers are restored, the team goes after Namor and though each has a moment of combat with the Sub-Mariner, it is Cap who frees hostage Rick Jones moments before an earthquake forces Namor to return to the depths.

The inker's not credited on Avengers 4 ... I'd always assumed it was Paul Reinman, as that's who'd inked the issues on either side which didn't look much different, but the Grand Comicbook Database gives the inker as George Roussos. Either way, I wasn't that keen on the inks, thinking they looked rushed and messy. I'm sure George Roussos had his fans but I wasn't one of them.

Captain America's very next appearance was briefly in Fantastic Four 25 and more fully in FF26, where he and the Avengers found themselves in a scrap with the FF over who had first dibs on The Hulk.

These two comics were heavily advertised in the other Marvels of the day and were both on my "must-get" list. When I did manage to track down copies, I wasn't in the least disappointed.
The tale pretty much carries straight on from Avengers 4, and was probably more about Stan consolidating the Avengers and Captain America as part of the Marvel Universe. Strangely, the first contact between the Avengers and the FF is when The Human Torch and Captain America have the first skirmish on page 13, yet no mention is made of the pair's first "meeting" in Strange Tales 114. It seems odd that Stan missed the opportunity to have Cap speak a line like, "You're up against the real thing, this time, sonny!"

It really is a great Marvel event, featuring 80% of the company's main characters in one adventure. Giving the tale two issues meant that the storytelling felt uncramped and satisfying and it remains to this day one of my all time favourite Marvel tales. There are a couple of minor niggles. Stan still hadn't really found The Hulk's voice yet, and in many panels he talks a bit like The Thing. And the resolution, where Rick Jones drops an "emergency gamma-ray treated capsule which Banner gave me months ago" into the Hulk's mouth and the Hulk, transforming back to Banner, falls into the Hudson River does seem a bit unimaginative - or perhaps too imaginative - and seems like a Jack Kirby plot-point. Inking is once again by George Roussos (as "George Bell") and is, if nothing else, consistent with the previous Avengers issue.

Jack Kirby adds a montage of The Avengers with both The Hulk and Captain America present, even though up to this point they haven't appeared together in the team and it's even debatable whether Bruce Banner would be aware of Cap as an Avenger. But Kirby partially redeems himself with this fabulous two-thirds page panel of the living rock being forced up to the surface world by the Lava people.
Avengers 5 (May 1964), which came out the same month as FF26, continues The Hulk storyline and also brings back Molto the Lava Man and his underground race from the Thor tale in Journey into Mystery 97. The Lava Men are trying to get rid of a weird growing rock which threatens to engulf their subterranean kingdom by forcing it on the surface people. Thor's former enemy Molto counsels against this, but his people refuse to listen. And we all know where that's going to lead.

Iron Man enters the earth below the Living Rock and encounters the Lava People. He tries to reason with them, but they attack him. Thor intervenes and demands to speak to their ruler. But an impasse is reached when the Lava Men explain that Thor striking the Living Rock will only cause more damage. In the meantime another group of Lava Men attack Captain America triggering a further skirmish, with Iron Man and Giant Man getting involved.

Meanwhile, not far away Banner transforms into the Hulk, then comes across the Avengers and attacks them. Thor attempts to halt the Hulk with his hammer, but a sneak attack by the Lava Men's leader with a radioactive weapon causes Thor to transform back into Don Blake ... and now the Avengers no longer have the raw power to destroy the Living Rock. But the team find a way to taunt the Hulk, so that his massive fists strike the Rock in the exact spot to trigger an explosion that destroys it.

The issue also included a new letters column in which future comics artist and inker Alan Weiss writes to say how he prefers "George Bell's" inking over Paul Reinman's. So that shows how much I know.

As Cap bonds with his new team-mates and gets all depressed about the fate of Bucky, we're introduced to the villain responsible for the death of Cap's young partner. Zemo is a man given to walking all over his fellow man (literally) and immature temper tantrums. Already I dislike him.
Avengers 6 (Jul 1964) is a bit of a landmark, for two reasons. It's the first monthly issue, which means sales must have been very good right from the get-go, and it's the first time the Avengers face a team of super-foes. We open with Captain America demonstrating the transistor-powered magnets that Iron Man installed in his shield. This was probably an attempt to bring the character more "up-to-date", but the idea was quickly jettisoned, as revealed last time when I covered Tales of Suspense 62 (Feb 65, just seven months after Avengers 6).

This issue also introduces Baron Zemo and retrospectively adds him to Marvel history as a main foe for Captain America, and in Sgt Fury 8 (Jul 1964) as a wartime adversary for Fury and his Commandos. It's revealed that Zemo is the saboteur responsible for the exploding plane that killed Bucky and now, surviving in exile in the Amazonian jungles, the ex-Nazi is ready to bring the fight to Captain America once more.

Also in Avengers 6, we get the origin of (the masked) Baron Zemo and a return grudge match between Cap and the man responsible for the death of Bucky. The same month, Zemo turned up (twenty years earlier, sort of) in Sgt Fury 8 - without the magenta mask.
So the villain recruits a bunch of second-banana villains to help him battle his way through the Avengers to get to Cap, saying to his henchman, "You must find three people for me, if you value your life!!" though Stan doesn't explain how Zemo's henchman will be able to get them to work together. 

First to show his face is old Giant Man foe The Black Knight, who's flying around the city on his winged steed spraying Zemo's mysterious Adhesive X everywhere, bringing traffic to a halt and causing chaos. Next, defeated Iron Man villain The Melter does pretty much the same, but first melting the guns of any police nearby. Then Thor's old enemy Radioactive Man arrives, also squirting the nasty superglue all around. After a bit of pushing and shoving, The Avengers hit on the idea of asking Paste-Pot Pete for help, reasoning that his expertise in glues and adhesives might also extend to solvents. Pete strikes a deal for an early release and the Teen Brigade are dispatched to switch Zemo's Adhesive X for Pete's super-solvent.

But it's Captain America that comes up with the plan to defeat Zemo's super-powered allies. They'll simply switch foes. So Thor battles The Black Knight, Giant Man and the Wasp tackle Radioactive Man and Iron Man takes on The Melter ... oh, wait a minute ... that wasn't part of Cap's plan. It only remains for Captain America to give Zemo a pounding and the tale can draw to a close.

The inking here was by Chic Stone, one of my own personal Silver Age favourites. Though not quite as inspired as the work he was already doing on the Fantastic Four comic, notably issue 30, which came out the following month - probably because Stone was getting Marvel out of a deadline disaster here - the work is still crisp and fresh and in my opinion far better than the inking work we'd seen so far on this title.

However, Stan seems a lot more confident with Cap's voice in this story, and we already see the guilt-laden side of his personality, blaming himself for the death of Bucky and unable to move on from the trauma, yet motivated by a sense of duty to continue the fight regardless of his own feelings. It's a take on Cap that would continue for the next decade and a half and would be further explored by Roy Thomas in much later Avengers issues.

At the beginning of Avengers 7, the Executioner and The Enchantress get kicked out of Asgard for ganging up on Thor in Journey into Mystery 103. So they seek out their next career move with Baron Zemo, even though he's hardly an equal opportunities employer.
Of course, Zemo was back in Avengers 7 (Aug 1964), along with new allies The Executioner and The Enchantress who'd previously battled Thor in Journey into Mystery 103 four months earlier. Even though Zemo was supposed to have been tear-gassed in his escape craft and picked up by the police at the end of last issue (albeit, off-camera), here he is, back in his South American hideaway, abusing the natives like nothing ever happened.

The driving incident for the plot of this issue is when Thor is hypnotised into drinking a magic mind-control potion by the wiley Enchantress. You'd think Thor would be a little more cautious around that woman after The Last Time. But, no, in he blunders and gulps down the brain-altering brew like it was Vimto or something. With his head suitably re-arranged, Thor now sees his follow Avengers as demons and picks a fight.

After knocking back The Enchantress' Love Potion Number 9, Thor gets all discombobulated and thinks his Avengers pals are scary monsters and super-freaks ...
But though it's full of sound and fury, the battle between the Avengers seems a bit by-the-numbers, compared to the attention Stan and Jack lavish on Captain America this issue. No fewer than six pages - more than a quarter of the story - is taken up with establishing Cap's character and following his feud with Baron Zemo.

Once again, Captain America is driving the storyline of this issue of Avengers. There's a fun sequence at the beginning where Cap hires a bunch of wrestlers as sparring partners, then he has a mope about Bucky and snaps at Rick for trying on Bucky's old costume.
And is it just me, or is the splash page of this issue inked by someone other than Chic Stone? Looks more like Paul Reinman's inking. Of course we know that very often back in the day, Stan would want art re-drawn as it came in, so it's possible that the figure of Cap was redrawn, or even added in by another artist before press-day.

Looking back on this today, this doesn't look like Chic Stone work, particularly Giant Man's face and the inking on Cap's figure. Or maybe someone did a last-minute touch-up.
Avengers 8 (Sep 1964) is a change of pace. Stan and Jack leave Zemo alone for a moment and introduce a new menace, Kang, a diabolical scientific genius from the future who may or may not be either related to Dr Doom or actually be Dr Doom.

It's a little surprising that Stan didn't have this cover re-drawn. You'd think he'd argue that you can't see Kang clearly and The Avengers are crowded into a quarter of the cover. When he shows up inside, Kang looks a tad fey. And, interestingly, it's the Teen Brigade that save the day.
The character first appeared in the guise of Rama-Tut, the time-travelling antagonist from the story in Fantastic Four 19 (Oct 1963), and then turned up in the Fantastic Four Annual 2 (1964) where he rescues Dr Doom, floating in space after his last defeat by the FF. Trying to return to his own time, Kang overshoots by a few centuries and crashlands in a barbaric and desolate future. Quickly tiring of ruling a dying world, he decides to time travel to the 20th Century and conquer Earth ... which is when he runs in to The Avengers.

The team seems a bit chaotic in its battle against Kang. Their powers have little effect against him, then they're all captured, leaving only The Wasp and Rick Jones and his pals to free the others and defeat Kang.

It all seems a bit rushed and I wasn't wild about the Dick Ayers inking here, either. I get that Marvel was running to tight deadlines - goodness knows I've had my own share of producing strips to a deadline on the weekly comic 2000AD - but even so this issue does seem a bit ramshackle. That same month, Kirby had also drawn Fantastic Four 30 (a gorgeous art job with Chic Stone, covered in an earlier blog entry), Journey into Mystery 108, X-Men 7 and 37 pages of story plus five pinups in Fantastic Four Annual 2 (all also Stone, so no wonder he didn't have time for Avengers 8). And Dick Ayers also pencilled the 18-page epic Giant Man/Hulk battle in Tales to Astonish 59, so they were all probably stretched a little thin.

Though Avengers 9 dredged up Zemo once again, his new creation Wonder Man was an interesting, if short-lived, character. The machinery used to give Simon Williams "Wonder" powers would come up again in Marvel legend in the origin of long-time Avengers villain Power Man.
Avengers 9 (Oct 1964) was the first issue to be pencilled by Don Heck, who would go on to have a long association with the title, supplying most of the art up to issue 40. Here we again had Ayers on inks, unfortunately not the best fit for Heck's art. I always enjoyed Don Heck most when he inked his own pencils.

I wouldn't see this issue until quite some time after it was published as it was another of the books caught up in the big Marvel/Thorpe and Porter distribution snafu of late 1964. Zemo returns (again!) as the main villain, only this time, instead of finding allies to join him, he creates one. He offers convicted white collar criminal Simon Williams the opportunity to acquire super-powers and join him to get revenge on Tony Stark's "bodyguard" Iron Man and his Avengers team-mates. The catch is, the process that gives Williams "Powerman" powers will also kill him in days unless an antidote is administered. So, Zemo, Executioner and Enchantress stand by as Wonder Man infiltrates The Avengers and sets them up for betrayal. Of course, Williams has a change of heart at the last moment and sacrifices himself so The Avengers may live.

The Marvel house ad in Avengers 9 showed some of the other Marvel mags we weren't able to get in the UK because of the importers not distributing the October and November titles in the newsagents here.
But once Kirby was no longer supplying the art (and plotting or co-plotting, if indeed he was), then the Avengers stories became fairly routine. Avengers 9 was entertaining because of the unusual concept of Wonder Man as a villain-turned-hero, but otherwise, Jack Kirby was sorely missed.

Avengers 10 (Nov 1964) was also a difficult issue to find in the UK, and when I did finally track down a copy, it turned out to be not one of my favourites. The plot has Zemo (sigh) ally himself with another time-travelling tyrant, Immortus. This new fellow kidnaps Rick Jones and holds that over Captain America to force Cap to bring the other Avengers to him. He then pits them against warriors from different eras of history.

Between Thor's disappearing tights and the hokey ending where The Enchantress cancels the entire shameful episode out of existence, this was one of the weakest instalments of The Avengers of the early era.
The issue does bear the earmarks of having been rushed. Besides the plot not being the best-thought-out story in that run of early Avengers, there seems to be some problems with the colouring, as Thor's blue leggings come and go from page to page, and he's depicted more than a few times with bare legs. The ending is weak, as well ... with her team-mates facing certain defeat, The Enchantress turns back time so that the whole Immortus episode never happened.

Avengers 11 (Dec 1964) brought back Kang as the main villain. Fashioning a robot duplicate of Spider-Man using the technology of his ancestor Dr Doom, Kang sent it back in time to lure the Avengers into a trap. The cover art is misleading on way too many levels. For a start, Iron Man isn't in the story at all - he's busy trying to convince his supporting cast over in the same month's Tales of Suspense 60 that he didn't murder Tony Stark and has requested a leave of absence from The Avengers. And the "Co-starring Spider-Man" line isn't exactly true. The real Spider-Man appears for only a couple of pages at the tail end of the tale.

Avengers 11: Even with the addition of Chic Stone on inks, I didn't think Don Heck had really gotten a grip on the Marvel style of action. He wouldn't really come into his own as the definitive Avengers artist until after Thor, Iron Man and Giant Man left.
And there's definitely something weird going on with the cover art. Over on Nick Caputo's blog, there's a detailed examination of this cover and Nick explains his thinking behind the credits he assigns. But I also have a couple of thoughts to add to Nick's careful dissection. Nick thinks the Spider-Man figure is an addition, pencilled by Steve Ditko inked by Chic Stone, and he is very likely correct as Mr Caputo has a great eye for this kind of thing. To me it's certainly evident that, no matter how much I love Stone's inking, he really doesn't get Spider-Man at all. When you look at the Spider-Man figure in detail, there are many problems with it. The mask is drawn incorrectly. The border round the mask's eyes is left open for colour instead of being solid black, as is the Spider chest-emblem. Often pencillers will leave areas of black as outlines and just mark them with a small "X" to indicate to the inker to fill them in ... maybe the penciller (Ditko) forgot, or thought he would be inking it. But it's quite surprising that Stan's eagle eye didn't catch this snafu. And I'm not mad about the background webbing, either, where Chic Stone inked in the circular pencil guidelines when he should have erased them.

Here, I've taken the liberty of correcting the mistakes on the Spider-Man figure on the cover of Avengers 11. The eye detail on the mask has been blacked in (on the right), along with the chest emblem. And the weird blue highlight on the front of the mask has been recoloured yellow to match the other highlights on the costume. And I've gotten rid of some of the circular guide lines on the webbing in front of Spidey's face that Chic inked instead of erasing (If you look closely, you can see the compass hole in the centre of the webbing).
Click on the image to enlarge it.
The other small niggle is with Stan's scripting. Five month's earlier, in Tales to Astonish 57 Jul 1964), the villain Egghead had engineered a fight between Giant-Man and Spider-Man. In that story, there was quite a bit of dialogue around the idea of wasps and spiders being natural enemies, so Janet Van Dyne was quite hostile towards Spidey. In Avengers 11, there is much the same kind of conversation when "Spidey" shows up, yet no one mentions that Giant-Man and Spider-Man had battled months before, not something you'd think Hank Pym would easily forget. Perhaps this contributed to Stan's decision to remove the "heavy-hitters" from The Avengers ...

But in the end, because the plot basically "cheats" and doesn't really give us "Spider-Man meets The Avengers", what should have been a terrific issue ends up feeling a little bit "meh!". The whole concept of Spider-Man trying to join The Avengers - with this same line-up, even though Iron Man and Thor had been replaced by Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver by that point -  would be done a lot better two years later in Amazing Spider-Man Annual 3 (1966).

Avengers 12 (Jan 1965) gave us a break from the machinations of Kang. The story opens with Giant-Man getting an alert from his ants that there is great danger underground. Giant-Man summons the rest of the Avengers ... but his colleagues seem annoyed to be called in on the say-so of some ants. This is pretty unlikely, as these heroes have been through a lot together and you'd think by now they'd have learned to trust each other. So having Thor flouncing off in a huff because he has "more pressing matters to attend to" doesn't really ring true. I can't think what could be more important as Thor was between adventures, and in his own title that month was battling The Hulk in a flashback to the events of Avengers 3.

Behind the terrific Kirby and Stone cover is another odd tale which looks like Stan still didn't have a handle on how this comic should run. Weirdly, The Red Ghost shows up in the last act of the story for no good reason that I can see. And Thor's own title that month was a flashback to The Hulk battle in Avengers 3.
A few pages later, The Avengers have a change of heart, but before they can set off to find Hank Pym to see if he needs any help, they're attacked by a squad of The Mole Man's subterraneans. Just as The Avengers prevail, the subterraneans vanish in a wisp of smoke, and the Avengers set off to find Giant-Man. They invade the Mole Man's kingdom, free Giant Man and defeat the underground hordes. 

Captain America again had a couple of good scenes. It is he that tries to get Iron Man and Thor to listen to Giant-Man's warning, and it's Cap who prevents a robbery and retrieves vital components for Iron Man's burrowing device. But I'm still not sure what The Red Ghost was doing in there. 

Dick Ayers was back inking Don Heck for this issue, though I have to say, this was a much better job than he did on Avengers 9.

Jack Kirby (with the help of Chic Stone) shows everyone how it should be done, when The Avengers guest-star in X-Men 9 (Jan 1965).
The same month as Avengers 12, the team also make an appearance in X-Men 9, pencilled by Jack Kirby and inked by Chic Stone. Presumably, Stan was trying to goose the sales of the mutant book by including the more successful Avengers as guest stars. It's not much more than a walk-on, really, as The Avengers track some unknown evil to distant Bavaria. It turns out to be X-Men foe Lucifer and after the obligatory skirmish, The Avengers leave Prof Xavier's young heroes to fight their own battle with Lucifer.

The evil Count Nefaria (that's him on the cover, looking like a demented keyboard player) makes America believe The Avengers have turned traitor and soon they're hunted by the US military ...
Dick Ayers would return as inker on Avengers 13 (Feb 1965), an issue which at least gave us a new villain - Count Nefaria - and a new criminal organisation - The Maggia - as antagonists ... which may or may not have been influenced by James Bond's Ernst Stavro Blofeld and SPECTRE. The smooth Count lures the Avengers to his castle under the pretext of a charity event, then produces holographic duplicates of the heroes, which he then sends to the Pentagon to declare war on the US. Now hunted as traitors, it doesn't take The Avengers too long to figure out who's behind the plot. So they take the battle to Nefaria. But in the final skirmish, The Wasp is wounded and the issue, unusually, ends on a cliffhanger, with Janet Van Dyne's life in the balance.

With Avengers 14, Stan brought back Jack Kirby to produce layouts for Don Heck to work over. This would continue for three issues until Stan was happy with the title's level of storytelling. The splash page straightaway looks better for Kirby's input.
I reckon Stan couldn't have been any more pleased with the last few issues of The Avengers than I was. Don Heck is a great artist, but on these early issues, he struggled to deliver his best work. So Stan got Jack Kirby to provide layouts for The Avengers 14 (Mar 1965). And in a bit of a departure, Lee credits himself with the plot, Kirby with layouts (underlining that this isn't a Jack Kirby story) and handed the scripting job off to brother Larry Leiber and the previously unknown "Paul Laiken", obviously a pen-name. There were probably reasons for the alias, but then Stan goes and gives it all away on the letters page by revealing that 14 pages of script were by Larry Leiber and Larry Ivie ... Ivie was perhaps better known as a writer for Jim Warren's Creepy and Eerie, though he contributed scripts to Tower Comics during the latter half of the 1960s as well.

The plot has Thor in a race against time to secure the services of Dr Svenson of Norway who is the only one who can save The Wasp's life. It's the least he can do after how mean he was to Giant-Man just two issues previously. But when Thor grabs the reluctant doctor and flies him back to America, it turns out that Svenson is an alien impersonator. The Avengers' only chance to save The Wasp is to find the rest of the aliens and, hopefully, the real Dr Svenson. Our heroes manage to track the Kallusians to their hidden base in the Arctic. It turns out the aliens are hiding from their enemies on Earth and Dr Svenson is helping them willingly. But The Avengers force the Kallusians to leave Earth and face their hunters in outer space so our planet is not destroyed in the inevitable war when the enemies of Kallu catch up with them. The Wasp is saved ... but we never find out what happened to the Kallusians.

The next few issues of The Avengers I covered in an earlier post. And I'll leave my favourite period of The Avengers - when the lineup changed to Hawkeye, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, lead by Captain America - for another time.

Next month I want to take a look at some of the earliest appearances of Marvel characters on television, starting with ... Captain America.

Next: Marvel Superheroes on TV!

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Captain America: A Man Out of Time

CAPTAIN AMERICA was one of the first Marvel Comics heroes I discovered back in the hazy days of 1965. I'm not sure what it was that fascinated me about the character - his star-spangled costume, his embodiment of the American Dream, the fact that he was not Super but just an ordinary man.

Even in the mid-Sixties, we were exposed to a great deal of American culture here in the UK, through movies, television and our reading matter. My feeling was that home-grown comic papers like Beano and Beezer were for small children, but the brash and colourful US imports were for older kids like myself. And of course, they were more expensive which, like designer goods today, made them more aspirational.

These early Marvels would have first been on sale in the UK in mid-1965, around the time of my eleventh birthday. Compared to the straight-arrow Justice League of America the Marvel characters seemed wilder and just a little more dangerous.
I've covered my earliest encounters with the fledgling Marvel comics in earlier blog entries, but it's worth mentioning again that the character that first caught my eye in those formative years was Captain America. And in the summer of 1965, I resolved that I was going to save (we didn't call it "collecting" back then) all the Captain America comics I could get my hands on. But as it was quite a while back now, I can't really remember now what order I found these issues in, so as with my recent Spider-Man coverage, I'll just examine each issue of Tales of Suspense in order.


After the Battle issue of Tales of Suspense 58 (Oct 1964), the first issue of Suspense to feature Captain America in his own strip was issue 59 (Nov 1964). This was one of the Marvels caught up in the great Thorpe & Porter import snafu of late-1964 that I reported on in an earlier blog. So the issue didn't make it into UK newsagents, at least not so as you'd notice. So I wouldn't get my hands on a copy of this comic until sometime in the 1970s.

Marvel used the idea of a Battle Issue to introduce the incoming superhero strip in the anthology titles - so Iron Man battled Captain America in Tales of Suspense 58, though Don Heck's Cap was only adequate. A couple of months earlier, Giant Man had battled The Incredible Hulk in preparation for ol' Greenskin's solo series which would begin in Astonish 60.
Looking back on ToS59 now, the Captain America story feels very much like it was was plotted and drawn by Jack Kirby, then handed to Stan for dialoguing. The reason I think this is that there's no characterisation going on and next to no motivation for the bad guys to invade the Avengers Mansion. The closest we get to seeing Cap depicted as a real person is when he has a flick through an old scrapbook of his wartime exploits with Bucky - though trying to imagine Captain America sitting down with a pot of paste and a stack of newspaper clippings is pretty difficult. When did he make the scrapbook? Was it frozen in the ice-block with him? Or did he put in a safe-deposit box against the time he was thawed out? This kind of detail wouldn't have been neglected if Stan had been plotting the story, so that's why I'm blaming this on Kirby's storytelling carelessness.

When the Captain America solo strip kicked off in Tales of Suspense 59, the artwork by Kirby was outstanding, but the story felt very thin on the ground. Some gangsters invade the Avengers mansion and have a big fight with Cap. That's it.
The following issue wasn't a massive improvement. The Captain America story, again pencilled by Kirby with great inks by Chic Stone, featured essentially the same plot. This time the antagonists are a group of assassins despatched to kill Cap while he's giving a demonstration of his fighting skill to an invited audience, but once again - in a great Kirby action sequence - the "weakest" Avenger mops them up with ease. Rick Jones also gets a little ass-whupping action, as a sort of substitute Bucky, but without the wisecracks. It's worth mentioning here that Cap is still using the magnetically-powered shield given to him by Iron Man in Avengers 6 (July 1964).

In Tales of Suspense 60, the Captain America strip was more of an incident than a story. A group of thugs sent by Baron Zemo takes the place of Cap's sparring partners during a public demonstration and get their asses kicked. That's it.
Tales of Suspense 61 was a bit of a change of pace. Captain America shows up in Vietnam to rescue a POW, Jim Baker, the younger brother of a soldier who'd once saved Cap's life in Europe during WW2. The Viet-Cong are led by The General, a huge sumo wrestler. Aside from the fact that sumos are Japanese, it's a better story for Cap than what we've seen so far in this title. But it still lacks a bit of substance.

Even though the Captain America section of Suspense 61 featured a change of locale - Vietnam, in this case - it was still just an incident, where Cap shows up, kicks some commie butt and departs.
The same month that ToS61 came out, Captain America guest-starred in Sgt Fury and his Howling Commandos 13 (Dec 1964), one of my favourite comics of the Silver Age. Looking back on it now, it's not hard to see why. Behind a great Kirby/Stone cover, there's a neat little scene at the beginning of the story where Nick Fury and Pamela Hawley are enjoying tea in a pub (yes, it seems unlikely, and even less likely that a pub would have uniformed waitresses, but Stan's still an American, despite professing to being an Anglo-phile and actually being married to a Brit). One of Fury's fellow tea-sippers is Pvt Steve Rogers. When platoon bully Sgt Bull McGiveney shows up, he picks on Rogers and pushes him around a little, before Fury intervenes.

As soon as I saw this comic advertised in the Marvel house ads, I just knew I had to track it down. Captain America. Bucky. Fighting alongside Sgt Fury. In World War II. How could it not be brilliant?
Later on in the story, Fury and Rogers meet again on a Nazi train transporting slave workers to help dig a tunnel to Britain (so, probably in France, then). When Fury and the Howlers start to bust up the Nazis' project, Captain America and Bucky show up and pitch in. There's a couple of great pages of Kirby/Ayers action (the first Kirby Fury since issue 7) before the heroes make their escape and we're treated to a fun epilogue with Fury recuperating in one hospital room while unknown to him Steve Rogers/Captain America recovers in the very next room.

Sgt Fury 13 certainly felt a lot more substantial than the 10-pagers that were running in Suspense at the same time. With a whopping 23 pages to play with here Lee and Kirby were able to craft a much more satisfying tale, despite Cap having to share the stage with Fury and his Howling Wotsits.

Kirby's art is superb here. The big frame with Captain America being held by the convicts at the top of a page 4 perfectly captures the controlled power of Cap ... only Kirby could have pulled this off so effectively.
But after the widescreen spectacle of Sgt Fury 13, the return to 10-page incidents in Tales of Suspense 62 felt like a bit of a let-down. In this episode, Cap is giving (yet) another demonstration of his fighting prowess, this time inside a prison. What he doesn't realise is that the "warden" is actually the leader of a bunch of escaped convicts that have taken over the penitentiary - and they want to use the electronics in Cap's shield to open the complex outer doors. Of course, a big fight breaks out and Cap gives the convict horde a severe slapping. By the time reinforcements show up, Captain America has the situation safely in hand. The epilogue has Cap revealing that he's taken the electronics out of the shield because they upset its delicate balance, and the real warden telling Cap that the outer doors can be opened by simply speaking the words, "Captain America".

Looking back on it now, this seems about the lamest tale of the bunch so far. It's like neither Stan nor Jack actually knew what to do with the character. But then Stan must have realised that too, because at the very tail end of the letters page, we're told that Captain America strip is taking a new direction ... "It's gonna be a new type of tale, the first of a new series". It was, as well.

The origin of Captain America has been retrofitted a few times in the years since 1965, but this version is the most straightforward telling of the tale, if a little wordy, and as a bonus, we get the origin of Bucky, as well.
I remember seeing Tales of Suspense 63 for the first time - a fairly tatty copy in a second-hand shop - sometime in early 1966, I think. My first thought was that I would finally find out how Captain America could be a young man both in the 1940s and in the 1960s. (Remember, I'd seen ToS64 a year or more earlier and I was already aware of Cap's adventures as an Avenger). Part of me was a little disappointed when all I got was a ten-page origin story set in the forties with art by Jack Kirby and quite a lot of scripting from Stan. No explanation of how Cap had weathered the twenty years from 1944-1964 without ageing. That was annoying.

As far as the plot points are concerned, the origin of Captain America in Tales of Suspense 63 is identical to the original origin, way back in Captain America Comics 1.
That said, it's a rattling good read and actually two-and-a-half pages longer than the original story from Captain America Comics 1 (Mar 1941), though that's mostly because it tacks on an incident at the end showing Cap and Bucky busting up a bunch of Nazi saboteurs landing from a submarine, then destroying the sub (and presumably the crew inside it) with the saboteurs' own explosives. The final caption pledges that "each following issue of Suspense will feature a new adventures of Cap and Bucky based on their World War Two exploits." But that wouldn't be quite true ...

I mentioned Tales of Suspense 64 in the very first entry of this blog ... it was one of the first Marvel Comics I ever saw. It's hard to describe how I looked upon Iron Man versus Hawkeye and the Black Widow and the rather eerie tale of Captain America and Bucky battling clairvoyant Nazis at the time. I'd been used to the clean-cut adventures of the DC super-heroes up till that point and this new approach was an entirely different experience. As Nick Caputo pointed out in one of his first blog posts, the Marvel tales felt altogether grimier, and closer to real life than the artificial and squeaky-clean landscapes that Flash and Green Lantern inhabited. For me this made the Marvel landscape seem all the more familiar to me, despite New York being three thousand miles away from the south-east London district I was living in at the time. DC's suburban backdrops, all manicured and neat, seemed a long way away from where I lived.

The Captain America story from Tales of Suspense 64 was a straight re-telling of a story from the very first issue of the 1941 Captain America comic ... Stan added the explanation of Sando's crystal ball which was missing from the original version.
But about those promised all-new stories of Captain America set during WWII ... they may have been new to me at the time, but as The Kid reminded me in response to an earlier post, the Sando and Omar story was a re-telling of the second tale, by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, in the now legendary Captain America Comics 1. So similar are the two that Stan probably shouldn't have taken a "writer" credit on the re-telling.

The plot has a couple of variety performers, Sando and his mute "psychic" assistant Omar, predicting disasters from a theatre stage to bewildered audiences. Each of their predictions comes true ... hardly surprising as they are simply part of a nest of Nazi saboteurs. Presumably, the theatrical performances are intended to demoralise the American public. Captain America and Bucky investigate, discover the secret behind the plot and break up the gang with the help of government operative, identified as Betty Ross in the 1941 version, but Agent Thirteen in the 1964 story. Confusingly, there would be an Agent Thirteen in Cap's 1960s life, but that's a story for another time.

The original version of the tale, which appeared in Captain America Comics 1, was scripted and drawn by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, one of their first jobs as the in-house creative team of Timely comics, as Marty Goodman tried to wean himself off depending on Funnies Inc for his supply on new comics material.
The Special Announcements Section at the end of the Tales of Suspense 64 letter page told us next issue we could expect "the most famous villain Captain America ever fought - a villain whom the older readers will remember, and who is just a legendary name to our younger fans." Not to me, he wasn't. I'd never heard of The Red Skull.

When I did eventually find a copy of Tales of Suspense 65, I was more excited about the prospect of the old golden-armoured Iron Man fighting the newer red-and-yellow version ... but once I got to the Red Skull story, it turned out to be a lot better than I expected. It all begins when a high-ranking army officer is murdered by a weird Nazi agent in a red skull mask. Police are baffled about the cause of death and Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes decide to take a hand as Captain America and Bucky. Cap rescues Bucky and demolishes the Skull's henchmen, but the Skull himself escapes. Next day, Rogers and Barnes are on guard detail during a demonstration of a new plane designed by the head of the Maxon Aircraft Corp. Right under the noses of the military, the plane is sabotaged. That evening the General Curtis is murdered by the Red Skull. But the fracas attracts the attention of Captain America and he manages to defeat the Skull. Pulling the mask from the Nazi agent he's shocked to see the face of aircraft designer Maxon. Taking advantage of Cap's surprise, Maxon makes his escape.

The re-introduction of The Red Skull in ToS65 was a pretty big deal, thought I didn't know it at the time. The character would go on to eclipse Baron Zemo, who'd started out as Cap's main nemesis during the 1960s.
The storytelling here is a bit confused. Is the fake "Maxon" actually The Red Skull? Doesn't seem likely, because Cap says that "Maxon was eliminated by the Nazis and replaced with a lookalike, which indicates that this was the Maxon lookalike, disguised as The Skull. Yet, as he escapes, "Maxon" shouts, "The Red Skull is never without a waiting escape route.

The likeliest explanation is that Kirby plotted and drew the tale, using the original comic as a reference, then handed it over to Stan for scripting, who in turn, struggled to make sense of Jack's ramshackle plot. Not even Chic Stone's smooth inking helped. And when we look at the Red Skull story from Captain America Comics 1, it turns out that The Red Skull - who dies at the end of the tale - actually is Maxon, a man turned traitor for the promise of the post of Minister of Industry when Hitler conquers the USA. Yet, Simon and Kirby would revive the character in issue 7, indicating that Maxon was only an impersonator, though that plot point really isn't made clear in Suspense 65.

The earlier telling of the story seemed to work a bit better, probably because Simon & Kirby hadn't originally intended using the character again and were happy to have him revealed as Maxon, then killed off at the end of the tale. The popularity of the character must have caught them by surprise.
Tales of Suspense 66 strayed from the re-telling of old stories from Captain America Comics 1. Stan and Jack gave us the all-new Origin of the Red Skull. I might be wrong, but I'm fairly sure that the character's beginnings were never portrayed in the original 1940s Captain America comics. It's not a bad tale, either. The story begins with Captain America bound and at the mercy of The Red Skull. As the Skull gloats over his helpless foe, we learn how an un-named nebbish chances to be in the same room with Adolph Hitler one day at the beginning of WWII. Hitler capriciously decides that he can make the perfect Nazi out of this nobody and gives him the mask and costume. The Red Skull quickly takes to his new role as Hitler's Head of Terror and pretty soon starts getting ambitions of his own. The story ends with Captain America, in a drug-induced trance, under the full control of his arch-enemy.

With Cap captured and Bucky missing, The Red Skull reveals the secret of how he rose to prominence in Hitler's Nazi Party. The story ended with a brainwashed Captain America prepared to assassinate, the leader of the Allied Forces in Europe.
The ten-page story seems to hang together better than the adaptations from Captain America Comics 1 in Suspense 63-65 do. Perhaps that's because it's not an adaptation. Further, perhaps it's because with ToS66, Stan was actually plotting the stories instead of (I'm guessing) leaving Jack to revise the plots from the older stories by himself, then just adding the dialogue afterwards. The next issue would continue in this direction.

Tales of Suspense 67 has The Red Skull gloatingly deliver the mind-controlled Captain America to the Fuehrer. Hitler orders The Red Skull to have Cap carry out his "mission" then kill him. So, leading a squad of Nazi commandos, Cap parachutes into London and breaks into the home of the highest ranking US general in the European Theatre of Operations ... and apparently pulls the trigger.

The Red Skull introduces Adolph Hitler to his new BFF - Captain America. The Nazis then have Cap assassinate the highest ranking US Commander in Europe. We can only watch, horrified, as Cap pulls the trigger of his borrowed Luger.
As with the previous episode, the storytelling here is a lot smoother that the Golden Age adaptation had been. Lee's script and Kirby's art seem to mesh more fully, and the inking of Frank Giacoia (under the fake name "Frankie Ray" - he was still working for DC at the time) is almost as perfect as Chic Stone's.

Just like the old cliffhanger serials, Tales of Suspense 68 began with a resolution to the dreadful situation at the end of the previous episode. It was a bit of a cop-out, to be honest. A kind of, "with one bound, Cap was free." Stan and Jack ask us to believe that the brainwashing of Captain America was complete - but not complete enough. At the crucial final reckoning, Cap is unable to pull the trigger on the general. Then the story veers off in a different direction, with Cap chasing down a Nazi agent who manages to get his hands on an allied secret weapon, "Project Vanish", and the plotline becomes a little conventional again in the process.

Oh, wait a minute ... seems like Captain America had second thoughts about shooting the general at the behest of his Nazi controllers and switches back to the side of the good guys at the last moment. Not Stan and Jack's finest moment in their long partnership.
The final WWII era story, that began in Tales of Suspense 69, was never one of my favourites. A drawn-out three parter, the first episode was drawn by Kirby/Ayers and the final two by George Tuska over Jack Kirby layouts. I know Tuska is highly regarded in some quarters and certainly his long track record is worthy of respect, but then, as now, his artwork never really rose above the "slightly cartoony" and for that reason, never appealed to me. So this is the point that I lost a bit of my enthusiasm, at least for Cap's solo stories.

George Tuska continued on the Captain America strip until Tales of Suspense 74, and as a result my interest in the title waned in direct proportion. The Iron Man stories benefited from the introduction of a new penciller, "Adam Austin", who brought a modern, metallic sheen to the character. There were a couple of fill-in stories in ToS 77-78, drawn by John Romita just before he picked up the reins on The Amazing Spider-Man, then Kirby was back and kicking some serious butt in Tales of Suspense 79, and Captain America began his long association with Nick Fury and SHIELD ... but that's a story for another time.

Next: Leading the Avengers

Saturday, 17 October 2015

From Horrors to Heroes

AS THE DAYS of Marty Goodman's Atlas Comics drew to a close in the late 1950s, the publisher was casting around for the Next Big Thing. Locked in to a draconian distribution contract with arch rivals DC Comics, Goodman was limited to a tight eight titles per month and if he needed to launch a new title, he was forced to cancel an existing one. So, feeling that mystery and science fiction was the coming trend Goodman decided to launch three new comics to complement the existing Journey into Mystery, World of Fantasy and Strange Tales titles. The new books were Strange Worlds, beginning in December 1958 and replacing the cancelled Navy Combat, and Tales of Suspense and Tales to Astonish, both debuting in January 1959, replacing the cancelled Homer the Happy Ghost and Miss America.

Journey into Mystery and Strange Tales had been around since the twilight of the Golden Age and changed in content according to Martin Goodman's take on his customers' tastes. So they began as horror titles, then briefly transformed into science fiction books. World of Fantasy was a 1956 late-comer.
The first few issues of these new books mined the same science fiction vein as their predecessors - flying saucers, alien invasions and men in spacesuits - probably because Martin Goodman had noticed the sudden wave of science fiction movies - from Destination Moon (1950) to Forbidden Planet (1956) - that proliferated during the "Atomic Age", and finally in 1958 decided to do something about it. 

The new titles, Strange Worlds, Tales of Suspense and Tales to Astonish began during Martin Goodman's brief infatuation with science fiction themed stories. Suspense 1 had spacemen on the cover and Astonish 1 lifted a scene from King Kong. Not sure where the Strange Worlds cover is coming from ...
But within a few months, Goodman did a bit of an about-face and decreed that all their mystery/sf comics should feature giant monsters on the covers, monsters that looked as much like Godzilla as possible. This meant that, starting with the August and September 1959 issues, the six Marvel fantasy anthology titles began their runs of creature features - though Strange Worlds and World of Fantasy were cancelled as of the August 1959 issues.

Strange Tales was the first of the Marvel Comics to go Monster, with the August 1959 issue. The following month, Journey into Mystery also went down the giant creature route.
For the next couple of years, Stan had Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko churn out uninspired copies of the Japanese Toho monster characters like Mothra and Rodan. So generic was this type of comic that even as late as 1966, kids at my school were referring to Marvel's superhero books as "monster comics".

And the same month Journey into Mystery cover started cover-featuring monsters, so did Tales of Suspense and Tales to Astonish. Small world, isn't it?
Yet, these titles must have been selling fairly well as, in mid-1961, Goodman decreed that the line should have another monster title and Two-Gun Kid went on hiatus to allow Stan to slip the monthly Amazing Adventures into the schedule. While this new book may have looked like another monster book, the one new wrinkle was that Stan and Jack craftily introduced a continuing magician character called Dr Droom, whose adventures ran until issue 6, when he disappeared without explanation, and the title of the book became Amazing Adult Fantasy.

Goodman was limited to just eight books a month. He increased his reach by publishing 16 bi-monthly comics. Still, when he wanted to launch a new title, he was forced to cancel an existing one. So with the debut of Amazing Adventures, western fans had to say goodbye to Two-Gun Kid. At least temporarily, until it was reinstated 18 months later.
At the end of 1960, Journey into Mystery, Strange Tales and Tales to Astonish became monthlies, with Tales of Suspense also going monthly in January 1961, effectively increasing Marvel's line to 10 books a month. Then in September, Goodman added Linda Carter, Student Nurse to the line without cancelling anything. Either Goodman had renegotiated his contract with DC's Independent News, or they didn't notice. So he followed up by launching Fantastic Four as a bi-monthly in November 1961, making Marvel's output 11 comics per month, a total of 17 different titles.

Linda Carter 2 came out the same month as Fantastic Four 1. The only comic I have from November 1961 is Gunsmoke Western 67, which I paid £3.50 for on eBay last year. Doubt I could get an FF1 for that price, eh?
Reader reaction to Fantastic Four 1 was immediate and loud. Realising they were on to something, Goodman gave Stan the greenlight to add more superheroes, put The Incredible Hulk on the schedule and published issue 1 in May 1962, though it looked for all the world like just another Marvel monster book. This was followed just a couple of months later by the first appearances of Spider-Man (in Amazing Fantasy 15, Aug 1962) and Thor (in Journey into Mystery 83, Aug 1962). But Stan was only just beginning his roll.

At machine-gun pace, Stan brought out these new super-heroes right on the heels of Fantastic Four. Goodman responded by immediately cancelling Amazing Fantasy. Within a year The Hulk would also be cancelled.
There must have still been some kind of Independent News cap on how many titles Marvel could publish, because the company didn't put all of these new characters in their own books straight away. Between spring and autumn of 1962, someone must have put the brakes on because after The Incredible Hulk, all new characters were appearing in the lead slots of the existing fantasy comics. It's a trend that would continue in the latter half of '62.

Earlier in the year, Stan had noticed a particularly strong reader reaction to a fantasy story he'd published in an issue of the company's best-selling fantasy book,Tales to Astonish. The story was "The Man in the Ant Hill" (Astonish 27, Jan1962). Stan thought there was something there. Coincidently, he'd do a similar story in a later Tales of Suspense, "The Man in the Beehive" (Suspense 32, Aug1962). In later tellings of the Marvel legend, Stan and others have claimed that both stories were try-outs for a new insect hero to see which readers preferred, but given the gap between the publication dates of the stories and the fact that Ant Man appeared in costume the month after the "Bee-Man" tale, that now looks like a case of revising history to make for a better back-story.

Legend has it that Stan tried two different takes on an insect man style hero - Ant Man and Bee Man. But looking at the timings of these, that doesn't look so likely as the publication of the first costumed Ant Man tale was right on the heels of the alleged Bee Man trial ... and we know the comics must have had at least six weeks between press day and on sale.
A couple of months later, the same month that Fantastic Four 7 came out, The Human Torch was awarded a solo series in Strange Tales, starting with issue 101 (Oct1962).

The addition of Human Torch solo stories to Strange Tales was probably Marty Goodman's idea, as he'd always wanted Stan to revive the class Golden Age Timely heroes. Stan resisted for the most part, but had to throw Marty a bone occasionally.
The line-up was expanded early the following year when, bowing to reader reaction, Goodman reinstated Spider-Man, awarding him his own title and, the same month, Stan added Iron Man to Tales of Suspense.

Realising his mistake, Goodman had Stan rustle up the Amazing Spider-Man as a new book, first using up the left-over stories from the cancelled Amazing Fantasy. Then the last of the fantasy books was taken over by superheroes when Iron Man debuted in Tales of Suspense 39.
Then, with the sudden and swift cancellation of The Incredible Hulk, a new slot opened up, so Stan and Jack whipped up Sgt Fury and His Howling Commandos, and put the series out under its own title in May 1963, as there was no generic war book left in the Marvel Line to be hijacked.

The Hulk's own book was cancelled in March 1963, but just six months later he was back as The Avengers' most unstable member. The character lasted just three issues before he was replaced with a revived Captain America. By comparison, The X-Men struggled as a title for over ten years until it took off after a makeover by Len Wein and Dave Cockrum in 1975.
It only remained for Stan to give Marty what he'd wanted right at the start - a Marvel version of DC's Justice League of America - by banding all the existing solo Marvel characters together into a super-group, The Avengers, and throwing in another complementary team-book featuring all-new character The X-Men and the Marvel line was pretty much set.

Stan and Jack - with a little help from Steve Ditko - would refine the mix over the next eighteen months or so, but the basic structure was in place ...


As I noted in an earlier post on this blog, one of the first Marvels I ever saw was Tales of Suspense 64 (Apr 1965). Though I quite enjoyed the Iron Man story with the Golden Avenger battling Hawkeye and the Black Widow (again, apparently), it was Captain America that really captured my youthful imagination. The first aspect that amazed me was that there were superheroes during World War 2. At that time I had no inkling of the "Golden Age" of comics and had assumed that superheroes had started some time in the early 1960s, just a year or two before I started reading them. It hadn't occurred to me that Action Comics was up to issue 323 by this time and that that would have taken, oh, at least 27 years to notch up that number of monthly comics. But then I was only ten.

The key difference between these two comics that came out the same month is that in the first, both Iron Man and Captain America are in clear and present danger. With the Superman cover, the big Blue Cheese is in no danger at all, facing merely the minor inconvenience of having to change his secret identity ... a bit like moving house for the rest of us.
The next thing that impressed the daylights out me was that Cap didn't actually have any super-powers. Granted, he was like an Olympic athlete and then some, but he was still just an ordinary human being, who couldn't fly or bounce bullets off his chest. Even at the age of ten, I could understand the concept of courage. It was around then that I resolved to be a non-powered superhero, too.

And while I was waiting for that ambition to come to fruition, I began to track down as many comics with Captain America in them as I could. But it wasn't until quite a bit later that the whole picture of Cap's life came into focus.

As I say, I had no inkling of the comics that Marvel and DC published during the 1940s, so it came as a bit of a shock when I learned later that Captain America actually had been around during WW2. But his first "appearance" in the 1960s had been as a kind of tryout in an early issue of Strange Tales, featuring the Human Torch of Fantastic Four fame.

The Captain America in Strange Tales turned out to be The Human Torch's old enemy, The Acrobat in disguise. But reader reaction must've been positive, because Stan lined up the real Captain America for his own slot in Tales of Suspense by guest-starring him in issue 58.
Granted, I didn't see this comic till a little later, but it kind of supports my theory that while Stan, Jack and Steve were trying to create a whole new approach to superhero comics, Marty was there in the background asking why Stan wasn't using The Sub-Mariner, The Human Torch and Captain America as lead characters.

I didn't see any copies of Tales of Suspense 58 or 59 around during my youth, as these were victims of the great Marvel / Thorpe & Porter dispute at the end of 1964, which resulted in the October and November Marvels not being distributed through newsagents in the UK, though I did catch up with them later.

When I did finally track down copies of these issues, I found the battle issue a little disappointing. I'd enjoyed Don Heck's art on earlier Iron Man stories just fine, but I wasn't mad on his version of Captain America. However, Tales of Suspense 59 made up for all that. Here was Cap, in all his Kirby-esque glory.

Captain America! In Tales of Suspense! Drawn by Jack Kirby! It was the best thing
that had happened in my life up to that point.
The other big change for the Marvel books that month was that Journey into Mystery, Strange Tales along with Suspense and Astonish, all gained letters pages. But I hardly noticed. All I could care about was my newfound obsession with Captain America and that I now had a source of Kirby-drawn stories. Imagine how I felt when I discovered that Cap was also in The Avengers, also drawn by Kirby. But I'll talk more about that next time.

Next: Captain America in the House (of Marvel)