Since the Marvel Masterworks –Atlas Era Tales To Astonish Vol 4 comes out this week, which includes my essay on those stories (and I hope you’ll all go out and buy it, since it’s a worthwhile book. I've included a link to the Marvel Masterworks site for a better look).
I thought it would be a good time to discuss the importance of what some consider “silly monster stories”, with little meaning in the scheme of things to the Marvel Superhero explosion. Having studied and collected these comics for many years, including the original comics in their sequential order, I’ve concluded that they very much affect the future Marvel Comics Group. In terms of plotting, creative teams and concepts they became the clay which would slowly mold itself into a new era, one that took not only elements of the monster story, but those of romance, westerns and teen humor. What Lee, Lieber, Kirby, Ditko and the rest did was transform bits and pieces of their stories into another format. With the formation of the Fantastic Four in 1961 the scientist hero of the monster stories, as well as the monster, became integral to the new superhero tales.
|"Vandoom", Tales to Astonish # 17, Mar '61, Lee/Lieber story; Kirby pencils; Ayers inks|
The “sympathetic monster” was not a new idea. It had appeared in literature for a long time, in tales of the Frankenstein monster, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, later becoming the fodder of countless movies, where a larger audience consumed them. The creation of the Thing might be considered an act of either genius or desperation, but this crossover character, reminiscent of the monsters that stampeded through the pages of Strange Tales, Tales to Astonish, Tales of Suspense and Journey into Mystery on a monthly basis, struck a nerve with its audience and became the most popular character in the Fantastic Four. While most of the Pre-Hero monsters were amoral fiends, there were a number of stories that featured a creature that was feared or misunderstood, and sometimes blindly hated due to his appearance. The Hulk was another direct descendent of this scenario, and although the monster-hero that took a while to find his footing, he eventually achieved a lasting popularity.
|"Zuttak" Strange Tales # 88, Sept '61; Lee/Lieber story; Kirby pencils;Ditko inks|
As a company Marvel took time to develop. They were not an overnight success, although the FF became one of their top selling titles. All the early strips were outgrowths of the pre-hero monsters and held a great debt to them. Henry Pym began life as a scientist-hero in a one-shot monster story, but went on to develop a costumed identity as the Astonishing Ant-Man. Scientists played an important function in the early Marvel Hero era. Reed Richards, Henry Pym, Bruce Banner, Tony Stark, even Peter Parker (who was a science major), were all invested with knowledge that they used to further their goals, or the goals of their country. Scientists in the pre-hero era were either involved in the creation of a monster, or helped to destroy them. Many were heroes, some scoffed at or mocked, but usually not heralded by the public at large. At best, their girlfriend had a greater respect for them. In the Marvel age many of the heroes also quietly performed their good deeds, with little recognition, or often outright distrust and anger. Spider-Man exemplifies this attitude.
|"Goom!" Tales of Suspense #15, Mar '61; Lee/Lieber story; Kirby pencil; Ayers inks|
The inventiveness and imagination of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko were very much in the forefront of the Pre-Hero era. In radically different ways both men imbued their stories with a personal drive that few could compare to. Kirby, with his massive, overwhelming, destructive monsters, and Ditko, with his more intense and personalized vignettes, achieved a balance, with the work of Heck, Sinnott, Ayers and Reinman complimenting them.
|"Something Lurks Inside", Tales to Astonish # 10, July '60. Steve Ditko's nightmarish creatures|
While reading many of these stories in one sitting betrays a repetition in style, tone and plotting, it is important to realize they were produced on a deadline, meant to entertain a young audience that gobbled up monster stories, especially in the theatres and TV. They were not designed to be consumed in one gulp, or analyzed over 50 years later. It is all the more intriguing that these tales of monsters and heroes continue to hold a charm and solidity. One of the reasons seems to be the visceral joy that Kirby put into his figures. One can’t help but smile at some of the outlandish, destructive monsters he continued to envision month after month, story after story. While some were repetitive in look, many had a personality that only Kirby could bring to life.
|"X", Tales To Astonish # 20, June '61; Lee/Lieber story, Kirby pencils; Ayers inks|
Lee, plotting and editing, with brother Lieber scripting, came up with offbeat names that held the reader’s attention, from Spragg to Zuttak. This enthusiasm made its way into the superhero tales, with an added layer of personalities, characterization and ongoing storylines an audience could relate to.
|Mister Morgan's Monster, Strange Tales # 99, Aug '62. Lee/Leiber script; Kirby pencils; Ayers inks|
Since my first encounters with these monsters in the pages of Fantasy Masterpieces, to the reprint titles of the 1970s (Where Monsters Dwell, Where Creatures Roam), to my quest of collecting the original issues, I’ve always found the monster era to be a source of fascination - the stepping stone to the Marvel heroes - and a fun place to visit from time to time.
|"Spragg, the Living Hill", Journey into Mystery # 68, May '61, Lee/Lieber story; Kirby pencils; Ayers inks. I close out with one of my favorite monsters, who I still think would look great in claymation.|