Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Marvel Masterwork Pin-ups

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next: The Mighty Marvel Reprint books




8 comments:

  1. Regarding the Thor pin-up, it's by Jack Kirby from the cover of J.I.M. #105, but the face has been redrawn, possibly as Nick suggests, by Marie Severin. You've put your credit in the wrong place for that Cyclops pin-up, Al - it most certainly wasn't pencilled and inked by Steve Ditko. Incidentally, the Loki pin-up comes from the cover of J.I.M. #92, and has had part of his right arm and his legs just below the boots added by someone, possibly Dick Ayers.

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    1. Meant to say, the Susan Storm pin-up is framed and on my wall, but it's the version that appeared in MWOM back in the '70s.

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    2. Good spot on the Thor pin-up. I missed that completely. And I've corrected the Cyclops art credit above. Thanks, Kid R, as always for your contributions! (Is it me, or has Sue Storm got a really long arm in that Jack Kirby pinup?)

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    3. No, it's not you, Al - I've always thought so too. Maybe Reed's stretching power rubbed off on her to some degree. Jack's Spidey on the cover of AF #15 also has an arm that's too long.

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    1. Those pin ups were very exciting to see at the end of those book, it’s a shame they don’t make them that much anymore. You think that is where they got the name for the Marvel Masterworks book collections?

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    2. Very cool look at the role "pin up art" played in the way comics presented themselves. To the extent that I thought about the disappearance of pin-ups at all, I probably assumed they were a casualty of increased advertising, in-house or otherwise.

      Thanks for the overview, since I hadn't seen some of these.

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    3. Gene Phillips If you’d want to see more of these pinups, they are in the collected editions i.e. Masterworks, Epic Collections, and Omnibus. If they’re not in their respective issues, they’re most likely in the back of the book

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