Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Marvel's 1966 Specials

Starting in the spring of 1966 Marvel released its double-sized specials, timed to sell at what was considered a peak period for the comics industry. It was prompted by the belief that as the school year was winding down kids generally had more leisure time and additional spending capital (accrued by performing various entrepreneurial pursuits) during the seemingly endless summer. These expanded publications were originally called Annuals - an appellation most fans still commonly use. Beginning in '66 they were labeled "King-Size Specials."  I have no idea why the change occurred; perhaps publisher Martin Goodman felt children didn't understand what the word Annual meant (personally, I never struggled over the term.) Either way, they were supplements to Marvel's regular monthly titles. So, assuming the impulse was present, youngsters with spare change in their pockets could indulge in the delights offered by Marvel's summer extravaganzas. 

A look at the evolving design and titling of Marvel's Annuals. The format, as seen on the top example, remained the standard from 1961-63. The top banner and corner box were tweaked in the following three years. The middle tier initiated the "King-Size" wording to precede "Annual." The '66 version excised the word entirely in favor of "Special" (Lee and company couldn't even keep it straight - continuing to refer to them as Annuals on the Bullpen page!). In 1965 the corner box, which profiled the starring character(s) was supplanted with the proclamation: "72 Big Pages" or "More Pages! More Thrills!" (as an aside I should note that Lee used the phrase: "The World's Greatest Annual" on the cover of # 2, which I like so much that I'm thinking of re-titling "Marvel Mysteries and Comics Minutia"  to "The World's Greatest Comics Blog!")   

The 1966 line-up differed slightly from the previous year. Marvel-Super Heroes was a new addition taking the place of Marvel TalesThor Special # 2 continued the numbering sequence of 1965's Journey into Mystery Annual # 1 (see a detailed account below.) And one Special apparently was never published as such - but more on that subject later.

An explanatory note for the uninitiated (or, as Groucho Marx stated when he looked into the camera in the 1932 movie Horse Feathers: "I've got to stay here, but there's no reason why you folks shouldn't go out into the lobby until this blows over.") Thor's escalation in popularity grew in just a few short years - as seen by these cover examples. Thor began as the lead feature in Journey into Mystery # 83, August 1962. The title had a long history as a fantasy/monster/anthology comic. With # 97 "Tales of Asgard," debuted, focusing exclusively on the mythological gods in ongoing, five page stories. Short fantasy vignettes continued to appear as back-ups until issue # 104, May 1964. Since Thor was now appearing in both the opening and second feature it was finally decided that Journey into Mystery was an unnecessary title. The March, 1966-dated issue was now simply called Thor, with the numbering continuing from JIM (which probably had some collectors back in those days thinking they had to collect every Thor story dating back to JIM # 1!) Since I'm a completist (or obsessed - take your pick!) I'll note that Journey into Mystery was revived as a title briefly in 1972, returning to its fantasy roots. After writing this paragraph I'm having second thoughts about re-titling this blog: "The World's Greatest Comics Blog!" Perhaps "Journey into Minutiae" is more apropos!  

The release schedule amounted to two specials per month. June debuted Sgt. Fury and Millie the Model. While it might seem odd in retrospect, since Marvel's focus at that time was on super-heroes, other genres remained quite popular with a general audience. When Marvel initiated their Annual line in 1962 Millie was at the forefront (the other title being Strange Tales.) No new material was featured in her 5th excursion, likely due to time constraints. Although Millie had been around since the 1940s the series had recently undergone a transition from humor to dramatic, soap opera-oriented stories; therefore it was determined to reprint the type of features more in line with current sensibilities.  

Millie's Special was similar in appearance to Marvel's other 1966 publications. The only alterations were the top banner ("Queen " replacing "King") and the upper-left hand corner box that read: "More Pages! More Glamor!" Since Millie was not combating any super-villains or engaged in hand-to-hand combat with Nazis, it kinda' made sense! It's worth noting that advertising in Millie's Special catered specifically to girls' interests and differed from the toy soldiers and monster posters being sold between the pages of the testosterone-filled superhero and western heroics. Stan Golberg cover art (and likely coloring); Sam Rosen lettering.   

Millie was still quite popular in 1966, being featured in two titles (Millie the Model and Modeling with Millie) of which material for this special had been culled. Stan Lee story; Stan Goldberg co-plot and art; Sol Brodsky inks; Sam Rosen lettering and coloring likely by Goldberg.  

One aspect of Millie (and Marvel's other girl-oriented comics, including Patsy and Hedy) that appealed to its predominantly female audience - although boys also contributed - was the creative involvement afforded readers. Anyone so inclined could design clothing and dresses for the characters and be acknowledged in print. This was a staple of not just the feature pages, such as the one pictured above, but included throughout every story. On various occasions artist Stan Goldberg proudly recounted that, in later years, a number of fans approached him at conventions, explaining how they were inspired to pursue a career in fashion because of Millie's collaborative efforts.         

Also on sale June 9th in most US cities was Sgt. Fury Special # 2. In the space of a few years the war mag had become one of Marvel's best sellers. Roy Thomas, who had recently taken over the scripting of the monthly title from Stan Lee (beginning with # 27, five months earlier) did the honors here, accompanied by the regular artistic team of Dick Ayers on pencils and John Tartaglione on inks. The 25-page tale focused on an important date in history, June 6th, 1944, when the allied invasion of Normandy, codenamed D-Day, took place. 

The formatting of Specials, offering a new lead story backed up by two earlier tales, continued in the same vein as the previous year. A representation of SF # 11 was followed by the debut tale of "Nick Fury, Agent of Shield," then barely a year old, in the hope of getting fans of the war mag interested in his present-day secret agent capers which were currently appearing in Strange Tales.    

                             Sgt. Fury Special # 2. Dick Ayers cover art; Sam Rosen lettering. 

In the midst of intense bravado, Roy Thomas and Dick Ayers took a few panels to reflect on weightier issues via the thoughts of Fury, Percy and Gabe. John Tartaglione inks; Sam Rosen letters; Stan Goldberg colors? 

Stan Lee used the last page to promote both the monthly Fury title and Strange Tales.   

July saw the arrival of Thor Special # 2 in candy stores. Clocking in at 30 pages, it was the longest new-material work published in 1966. Page lengths in the Specials varied this year, likely based on scheduling and availability of the creative team. Also lacking were the extra features and pin-up pages that permeated the early Annuals (only a few were crafted the previous year.) 

Lee and Kirby presented a story which took place entirely in the realm of Asgard, with Thor fighting alongside Odin and his compatriots (Fandrall, Hogun and Volstagg) against the Destroyer. There was no sign of Thor's frail alter-ego, Dr. Don Blake, nor much need to deal with earthly concerns. At this point Lee and Kirby seemed comfortable creating a fantasy environment that fans reveled in.   

Thor Special # 2. Jack Kirby pencils; Vince Colletta inks; Artie Simek and Morrie Kuramoto lettering; Stan Goldberg colors? All covers featured vignettes previewing the reprinted stories. 

Jack Kirby's full page illustration of the Destroyer suggests the character's power, weight and looming threat to Thor and his companions. Vince Colletta inks.       

Marvel Super-Heroes also debuted in July, a title that effectively replaced Marvel Tales on the schedule. After the first two Annuals MT became an ongoing, bi-monthly series, featuring early tales of Spider-Man, Thor, Human Torch and Ant-Man. This special reprinted Daredevil # 1 (then just two years old) by Lee and Bill Everett; Avengers # 2 by Lee, Kirby and Paul Reinman and a Golden Age (aka 1940s Timely-era) battle between the original Human Torch and Sub-Mariner by Everett and Carl Burgos. Martin Goodman likely ordered the title as a tie-in to the syndicated cartoon debuting in September. While only three of the heroes featured in the Special (Thor, Iron Man and Sub-Mariner) would be starring on the TV show, it was probably important for Goodman to trademark the title and have it serve as a marketing vehicle for the entire line. 

Marvel Super-Heroes Special # 1 had a cover composed of interior art, thus saving expenses on paying for a new cover. Pencils by Bill Everett, Jack Kirby and Carl Burgos; inks by Paul Reinman, Burgos and Everett, with touch-ups likely by Marie Severin. Lettering by the ever-talented Sam Rosen and coloring (possibly) by Stan Goldberg.  

All the Specials (with the exception of Millie) included a Table of Contents on the inside front cover, a prominent area which was generally reserved for paid advertising. The artwork was taken from interior stories, with graytones and touch-ups by Marie Severin. While Lee often mentioned the office staff in the Bullpen Bulletins page, the extra space allowed him to give them further credit, including Sol Brodsky, Flo Steinberg and Denny O'Neil.       

At the conclusion of the first confrontation between the original Human Torch and Sub-Mariner, reprinted from Marvel Mystery Comics # 8, June 1940, an editorial note (signed "Stentorian Stan" but likely written by Associate Editor Roy Thomas) mentions the current incarnations of those characters. Art by Carl Burgos and Bill Everett.   

Also included in MSH was Stan Lee's first text story for Goodman's line, with illustrations by Jack Kirby.  

In August two of Marvel's best selling characters were given the spotlight. Amazing Spider-Man Special # 3 had the wall-crawler attempting to join the Avengers. This appealed to fans who enjoyed crossovers, although the plot was standard-fare and illogical (Peter Parker was a college student, so how could he possibly be available upon a moment's notice to assist the team?) Spidey was tasked to find the Hulk, but deliberately flunked the test when he discovered Bruce Banner's tragic circumstances. It was a fun story, especially for readers who loved the abundance of colorful protagonists, but there was another scenario that almost occurred. 

Amazing Spider-Man Special # 3. John Romita pencils; Mike Esposito inks; Sam Rosen lettering; Stan Goldberg colors?  

Spider-Man greets the Avengers but thankfully (in the 1960s at least) he remained a solo hero. Stan Lee script; John Romita co-plot-breakdowns; Don Heck pencils; Mike Esposito inks; Artie Simek letters and Stan Goldberg colors.   

In Steve Ditko's essay "Why I quit S-M, Marvel" (The Four-Page Series No. 9, September 2015) the artist explained: 

"One day I got a call from Sol [Brodsky, Marvel's Production manager]. The next S-M Annual is coming up. Okay."

"Why should I continue to do all these monthly issues, original story ideas, material, for a man [Stan Lee] who is too scared, too angry over something, to even see, talk to me? "

"At some point I decided to quit Marvel, S-M, DS [Doctor Strange]." 

That call from Brodsky would obviously have been in reference to the third Special. 

Steve Ditko had departed Marvel many months before Amazing Spider-Man Special # 3 was on-sale, but his work was represented via reprints of ASM #'s 11-12.   

A little background for those not familiar with the behind the scenes details. According to Ditko, Stan Lee had stopped communicating with him on storylines sometime around ASM # 25. For his last year at Marvel Ditko was solo plotting both Spider-Man and "Doctor Strange", with Lee supplying the dialogue and editing. For a freelance artist this could be a tenuous situation. 

No one knows what kind of story Ditko would have conceived, but I'd put my money on it being something unique and memorable. Working out the details on his own (Brodsky would have relayed how many pages were allotted) the likelihood of   guest-stars was practically nil. When Ditko began plotting Spider-Man solo, the Human Torch, The Hulk, Daredevil and other Marvel mainstays vanished. Lee enjoyed intermingling and cross-pollinating the line; Ditko believed a hero should be able to solve his own problems and cameos only weakened the vital role of supporting players and ongoing storylines. One can wonder, though, what a third Steve Ditko Spider-Man Special might have been...  

(to read my ruminations on Ditko's extraordinary Annual efforts you don't have to be tech savvy to find them. For the first post click here: and then click on the "feature post" on the right side for the second post)  

Fantastic Four Special showcased the premiere title in Marvel's line. The story featured the return of the Original Human Torch, including a look back at his beginnings. His inclusion was almost certainly a dictate from Martin Goodman, who wanted to secure the copyright. Carl Burgos created the popular hero for Goodman's first publication, Marvel Comics, in 1939. For nearly two decades Burgos plied his trade as an artist for Timely/Atlas and was their unofficial cover editor during the 1950s. He briefly returned to work for Lee in the 1960s, including a story featuring the Lee-Kirby Human Torch in Strange Tales, but in 1966 Burgos reportedly instigated a lawsuit for the rights to his creation.  In defiance Goodman countered by reintroducing Burgos' character in two of Marvel's Specials (the aforementioned Marvel-Super-Heroes and FF, as seen below) following-up four months later by reprinting early stories - and emphasizing the flaming android on covers in Fantasy Masterpieces, starting with issue # 7.    

FF Special # 4. Jack Kirby pencils; Joe Sinnott inks; Sam Rosen letters; Stan Goldberg

The two Torches meet. Little did fandom know the real fireworks behind the scenes. Stan Lee dialogue; Jack Kirby co-plot-art; Joe Sinnott inks; Sam Rosen lettering; Stan Goldberg colors. 

One of the special treats for many fans was the reprinting of Fantastic Four #'s 25-26, which detailed the team's battle with the Hulk. There was much drama, action and excitement to be had, as the FF fought valiantly against an unstoppable foe, with the Avengers coming aboard in the concluding chapter. Although the story was only a few years old, it spoke of an earlier era, and a time when back issues were hard to acquire. This gave the stories an almost mythical status, and neighborhood friends who had the original issues would be looked on in awe - those comics coveted as much as a rare coin or baseball card.       

Marvel's mighty misanthropes slug it out! For many kids of the era, the Thing-Hulk battle was more thrilling than the opening story. Stan Lee plot-dialogue; Jack Kirby co-plot-art; George Roussos inks; Sam Rosen lettering and Stan Goldberg coloring. Note the bottom promo for the Marvel Super-Heroes cartoon. 

While those were all the Specials published by Marvel in 1966, its not quite the end of the story.  A mystery takes shape in the form of a title that looks like every other Special...except that it's not. 

Kid Colt Outlaw, a long-running, popular western title, appears to have been slated for "King-Size Special" status. The September-dated issue, # 130 (on stands in June) is priced at 25 cents instead of the usual 12 cents, and the cover format is the same composition as the Spider-Man, Thor, and Sgt. Fury Specials. Which begs the question: was it intended to be a Special? And if so, why did it not appear as such?  The answer is open to speculation but may be quite elementary (to quote Sherlock Holmes.)

Kid Colt Outlaw # 130. Note the corner box identified as "Kid Colt Special," and the vignettes depicting scenes from the interior tales; in exactly the same style as the other 25 cent titles. Jack Keller art; Sam Rosen lettering; Stan Goldberg coloring ?

Martin Goodman had an agreement with his distributor, Independent News, which limited him to a set number of titles. In this period it alternated on a bi-monthly basis. For example, Marvel had 14 comics on stands in March, 1966 and 16 in April of '66. During the summer months, however, Goodman was allowed approximately 2-3 extra issues in order to take advantage of peak sales.  It is possible that Independent limited the number of 25 cent specials as well. In the two previous years, six Annuals were on the schedule; the same number as in 1966. I suspect that Goodman attempted to add a seventh and was denied; if so, the material prepared for the Special was easily shoehorned into the monthly title by making it a 25 center, but there is yet another puzzle.

Kid Colt Outlaw # 130 featured all-reprint material, including a look at how he came to be labeled an outlaw. Originally from KCO # 79, July 1958. Stan Lee story; Jack Keller pencils; Christopher Rule inks; Joe Letterese letters and Stan Goldberg colors.   

The following two issues of Kid Colt (# 131-132, November 1966; January 1967) were also double-length, 25 centers. Then, without fanfare, the title reverted back to standard format, with no mention of the change. It's possible that Independent News balked at Goodman producing another 25 cent comic, perhaps limiting him to three bi-monthlies (Fantasy Masterpieces, Marvel Tales and Marvel Collector's Item Classics). They might not have wanted more competition with DC's oversized titles. A minor mystery, admittedly, but one lost to the mists of time.      

This journey back to a period when comics and summer exploded in an almost magical kaleidoscope of exuberance is no doubt tinged with melancholy, particularly for those who lived through it, and were young. Nevertheless I believe many of these comics are worthy of continued discussion and analysis - which is a testament to the creators who envisioned them all those years ago.       

 To read all of Steve Ditko's Essays in the Four Page Series, including the complete text of "Why I Quit S-M, Marvel" go here:   








Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Behind the Shelves: Russ Johnson and Mister Oswald

In honor of Rob Stolzer's brand-new blog spotlighting the impressive work of Russ Johnson (look for it here: )
I've revised my tribute, which was originally posted on November 8, 2014. 

There are many famous comic strips and creators that have been justly celebrated, studied and collected: Milton Caniff (Terry and the Pirates); Chester Gould (Dick Tracy); Hal Foster (Tarzan; Prince Valiant); Alex Raymond (Flash Gordon); Harold Gray (Little Orphan Annie); Charles Schulz (Peanuts) to name but a few, but one strip sits in relative obscurity despite an extraordinary sixty-two year tenure. Why? Because that comic strip was buried inside a monthly retail magazine that catered to the Hardware business.

The cover to Forty Years with Mister Oswald, published in 1968 by the National Retail Hardware Association. 

The story of Russ Johnson is fascinating on many levels. Johnson was not only a talented cartoonist, but a businessman who took over ownership of his father's Hardware store and ran the operation for decades. His first hand experiences as a store owner were the gist for many stories he devised. 

 In the introduction Johnson recounts his father's encouragement over his childhood drawings and how he based the visual appearance of Mister Oswald on his father.  

What makes Forty Years with Mister Oswald such a worthwhile read is not only the reprinted strips, ranging from its beginning in 1925 to 1968, but Johnson's own personal story. Each chapter begins with Johnson sharing his thoughts on both the comic strip and his experiences in the Hardware business - from the depression era and World War II to post-war society and beyond.  

In Chapter 3 Johnson recounts his history in the hardware retail business, initially helping out his father and eventually making it a full time profession; a narrative that intermingles with his creation of Mister Oswald, a composite of both he and his father.

Johnson's wit and perception of people and their idiosyncrasies (particularly customers) comes through in many of his strips. The universality of these situations and characters made Mister Oswald far more than just a promotional piece for the Hardware industry.

In Chapter 13 Johnson relates the problems of doing business during wartime and losing employees who moved to different jobs when they returned to the homefront. There is a real sense of the times, although Johnson's cartoon illustrates his ability to find humor in every situation. 

Johnson satirized his entire cast of characters, from customers and employees to Oswald himself. 

 Anyone who has had issues with co-workers (and who hasn't?) can relate to the above two page strip!

Oswald's wife was an important component of the strip. As Johnson describes in Chapter 41: "Mrs. Oswald can be tender or domineering, solicitous or termagant, an inspiration or an exasperation." 

In Chapter 31 Johnson explains how the book was an opportunity to relate his experiences and not just publish the funniest strips, but in that mix there is a sincerity in both Johnson as creator and in his alter ego, Mister Oswald. In 1995 Rob Stolzer interviewed Johnson, this quote stood out in my mind:

 " I lived that strip. I carried a little book around with me all the time. My wife complained about me looking at the book every once in a while, because I was living with all those people all the time. All those make-believe people, all those employees, I was living with them. When we would go to restaurants, they were at the table with us. I think I had some pretty good ideas."

I'll end this on a personal note. In the late 1970's or early 1980's I saw an ad for Forty Years with Mister Oswald in The Buyers Guide for Comic Fandom, a weekly fanzine/adzine. I was aware of the strip because at the time I was working in a Hardware store located in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, New York. Jacobson Hardware was reminiscent of Mister Oswald and Russ Johnson's real life business in a variety of ways. Both were family businesses, and the storefront had the same design as the version pictured on the upper right side of the book cover! I began reading Mister Oswald when I discovered it in the trade magazine Hardware Retailer, which, of course, was always in the store. Being a aficionado of both comic books and strips I was immediately enthralled by Johnson's artwork and storytelling. There was a charm, simplicity and honesty in his work that rose to the level of the classic strips. And Johnson knew his stuff: jobbers, customers and co-workers were recognizable. My good friend Frank and I often worked together in the store and found ways to exasperate our boss Sid, much like Oswald's employees did. I sent a check out when I saw the book for sale and enclosed a letter to Mr. Johnson. I not only received a signed copy of the book, but the above personalized note. It's something I still treasure all these years later.

Johnson left the hardware business in 1953, but continued to produce Mister Oswald for Hardware Retailer, ending his run after 62 years in 1989. 

Russ Johnson passed away in 1995, at the age of 101.

You can read Rob Stolzer's full interview with Johnson here: 

..and for more samples of his work go here:

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Steve Ditko Potpourri

Originally published on September 30th, 2013, this is a revised and updated presentation. 

This time out I'd like to share some odds and ends by that master of the graphic form, Steve Ditko, including a few obscure but noteworthy efforts. 

The above piece was drawn specifically for the cover of Comics Buyer's Guide # 1214, February 1997, promoting the first issue of Strange Avenging Tales, which was published by Fantagraphics. Ditko creates a visual feast, employing a wash- 
tone effect to spotlight his creation, the Baffler. Ditko's agglomeration of images cascades around his central hero: faces, masks, words, barbed wire; silhouetted figures attempt mischief while the artist's working tools (pencil, pen, brush, eraser, ink bottle) frolic about animatedly. Most situations are connected to the interior stories, whetting the reader's appetite for what lurks inside the covers.    

Created by Jack C. Harris, with designs and artwork by Ditko, Substance was a character who became invisible with the aid of a device. The first issue appeared in 1990 for publisher Ray Zone. Ditko does an effective job with the 3-D technique, using depth perception to good advantage, enhanced by Ray Zone's expertise. In his introduction Jack C. Harris wrote about the concept:

"Substance came about from conversations with Steve Ditko about crime, justice, good, evil, etc. We supposed, if "illegal evidence" could be collected without active participation by the police, could it be used to bring about justice? After all, even if evidence is "inadmissible" it might still proclaim the truth. And isn't the truth the goal of every trial? Are truth and justice the same thing? Maybe, maybe not."  
Harris went on to discuss working with Ditko in the late 1970's and 1980's in his editorial capacity at DC on Shade, the Creeper (appearing in World's Finest) and various mystery and sci-fi stories. Harris later created Star-Guider for Western publishing with Ditko; it eventually saw publication in Robin Snyder's Revolver at Renegade Press. Harris explained:

"We prepared and shipped a slew of presentation packages featuring a half a dozen characters. I'm willing to bet there is at least one Harris/Ditko proposal deep in the files of every independent publisher."      

It's unfortunate that so many ideas were left floundering, especially at a time when independent publishers were plentiful. How many characters, ideas and stories  have fans lost out on seeing or being developed? Harris concluded:

"Steve and I drifted on to other projects. Then, a couple of years later, while walking in New York, lo and behold, there was Steve. We stopped, stood in the middle of a throng of passers-by and talked of old comics and new, of likes and dislikes. "Remember all those old proposals we did? Let's do some more'" I suggested. He agreed."

"That very night I went home and outlined Substance. With Steve's art in hand, in August, I headed for the San Diego Comic Convention to pitch the idea to the publishers in attendance. I got as far as Ray Zone's booth. Looking at the presentation piece both Ray and I said (simultaneously) "an invisible man in 3-D! Wow, what a concept!"     

An attractive, non 3-D image on the inside back cover of 3-D Substance # 1.

Included in the first issue were some of Ditko's 1950's Charlton covers along with a Crime and Justice story, adapted into the 3-D format by Ray Zone.    

Cover to 3-D Substance # 2. The villain of the piece, with those goggles, reminds me of Hambone, a character invented by Sandy Becker, who was a staple of New York City local children's television in the 1960's. For those of you who are not in my age category, do not reside in the US, or have NO idea what I'm talking about: Local stations once employed hosts in between cartoons such as Bugs Bunny, Heckel and Jeckel and Popeye. They performed skits, featured puppets and advertised for their sponsors. Sandy Becker was also a voice actor on radio ("Young Doctor Malone") and (here's the comic book connection, kids!) was the voice of Steve Rogers/Captain America on the 1966 Marvel Super Heroes cartoons. 

The inimitable Sandy Becker as "Hambone" See a resemblance?

Inside front cover, explaining Substance's powers.

A second issue of Substance appeared in 1991 featuring all-new material before the title faded away. It was an interesting strip, worthy of continuation, with or without 3-D techniques.

    This ad for Charlton's line appeared in fanzines, including the Comics Journal # 105 and Amazing Heroes # 82 in 1985. The figure in the middle, Static, was originally published by Eclipse Comics, moved to Charlton, and later collected and published by Robin Snyder. Charlton's hosts from their Ghost line appear in the background: The Mysterious Traveler, Dr. Haunt, Mr. L. Dedd, Dr. Graves, Winnie the Witch and Mr. Bones, all drawn by Ditko during his decades-long association with the company .  

I'll conclude with another Charlton ad, penciled, inked, lettered and likely written by Ditko, including his first and only interpretation of heroes Yang and Thane. Another rare, charming and delightful surprise was seeing Ditko's interpretations of characters catering primarily to a younger audience such as Li'l Genius, Timmy the Timid Ghost and Atomic Mouse! (all of which were then appearing in reprinted comics.) The ad spotlights a playful artist who clearly enjoyed the variety in Charlton's titles and could have illustrated anything with a sense of purpose and integrity to the material. This was a last ditch effort to promote the Charlton line, which - unfortunately - closed their doors in 1986.

I hope you enjoyed this look at a potpourri of Ditko's unusual efforts in the 1980's and 1990's. It points to a body of work that is endlessly fascinating and always worth investigating.      


Thursday, December 10, 2020

More Kirby War: Battle

Note: This post was originally published on November 30th, 2012. I was inspired to resurrect it (revising some content) with the express intention of directing aficionados of the war genre - and the Atlas line in particular - to a couple of noteworthy books. The first of those, Atlas at War! is an impressive undertaking, showcasing an array of talents, including Russ Heath, Don Heck, John Severin, Syd Shores, Gene Colan, Hank Chapman, Paul Reinman, Carl Wessler and Jerry Robinson. It was edited by Timely/Atlas historian (and my pal) Dr. Michael J. Vassallo, and reprints four of the Jack Kirby stories discussed below:

The Complete Kirby War & Romance quite specifically aligns with my piece, since it will collect the entirety of Kirby's war stories for Atlas/Marvel, from his initial effort in Battlefield to his seven issue run on Sgt. Fury (of course, all the Battle tales examined here will also be included in the anthology). I was honored to assist with research and source material for the Omnibus, but the person who deserves the highest accolades is editor Cory Sedlmeier. His herculean efforts and unwavering dedication to presenting the material as close to the original form as possible, while never seeking the spotlight, is admirable. In my estimation he has always exceeded expectations. 

You can pre-order the book (due on May 5th, 2021) on Amazon and other outlets:

FYI (and courtesy of Cory) the above image is the one that will adorn the Omnibus, not the one pictured on Amazon. 

I'd encourage everyone to add both titles to your bookshelves.          

And now, back to my regularly scheduled post:     

For my 50th post (I never thought I'd make it this far!) I will examine the 10 stories Jack Kirby crafted for Battle from 1950 until its final issue, dated June, 1960, capping its nearly 10 year run. In this piece I will delve into (pardon the blatant self-promotional reference) minutiae regarding Kirby's efforts in the genre, in the hope of encouraging others to seek out material worthy of recognition. In the past these comics were limited to hardcore fans, and then only those who could afford to purchase the originals. The above-mentioned prestigious editions will not only preserve the material, but allow for a wider audience in which future generations can study, appreciate and enjoy the work of an American original. 

Always a versatile and prolific artist, Jack Kirby was particularly busy in 1959, illustrating monster, western and romance comics for Editor Stan Lee. In that period he was assigned work on the war-anthology title, Battle. Based on a detailed reading it appears that Kirby scripted as well as drew a majority of the pre-1960 vignettes. There are many similarities in style, tone, word emphasis, phraseology, use of quotation marks and sound effects that are indicative of the Kirby method.      

"Action on Quemoy!" Battle # 64, June 1959, Jack Kirby story ?; Kirby pencils; Christopher Rule inks; Artie Simek letters. Job # T-266.

The opening narration echoes a Kirby tendency to employ a long paragraph of exposition (a stylistic tic observed in many of his 1970s scripted tales). There are other similarities, such as his use of sound effects. "WHAAM!" was a favorite, which appeared in his "Losers" stories some 15 years later. The tale centers on a lone reporter vying for survival in the midst of destruction, an ongoing theme of Kirby’s.  

On page 5; panel 2, the caption literally shouts at the reader with words in all caps:

“WE ARE STILL ALIVE!” shrieked the sound! WE ARE STILL FIGHTING!” cracked the fury! “WE ARE STILL FREE!” thundered the echoes of rumbling in the torn and twisted steel!”

The words read very much like Kirby's edited and written stories for DC and Marvel in the 1970s. 

"FIND 'EM -- CHASE 'EM -- BLAST 'EM!," Battle # 65, June 1959. Jack Kirby story ?; Kirby pencils; Christopher Rule inks; Artie Simek letters. Job # T-300.

If THAT isn’t a Kirby title, I don’t know what is! The opening employs Kirby’s terse style, and there are numerous uses of quotation marks throughout the story, beginning on the splash page (“Guided Missile Story”). Sound effects such as "WHAAAM" are used. This story is about the weapons of war and how they grow more deadly and sophisticated. Kirby’s interest in technology was ongoing.

An overhead shot adds significant drama to Kirby's splash page. 
"Ring of Steel!," Battle # 65, Jack Kirby story ?; Kirby pencils; Christopher Rule inks; Artie Simek letters. Job # T-341. 

 In Kirby’s second story in issue # 65 the threat of a tank attack rears its ugly head; a device that later surfaced in one of his "Losers" issues for DC. Kirby's narration is declarative and filled with trademark exclamation points. We again see the use of familiar sound effects. Hungarian freedom fighters battle against overwhelming odds, and Kirby somehow evades the Comics Code restrictions that demand a happy ending. The good guys DON'T end up victorious, although the character's bravery is evident.

"Submarine," Battle # 66, Oct 1959. Kirby story ?; Kirby pencils; Christopher Rule inks; Artie Simek letters. Job # T-411.

The history of submarines is the focus of this yarn, with the use of quotation marks in abundance. Kirby’s theme of asking the reader a question is also employed: "WHERE DID IT ALL START?,” as he transitions from the present to the past: images of a submarine commander segue to a depiction of a Viking at the helm of a medieval ship. We see this visual cue appear decades later in titles such as 2001: A Space Odyssey.

"The Invincible Enemy!," Battle # 67, Dec 1959. Jack Kirby story ?; Kirby pencils; Christopher Rule inks; Artie Simek letters. Job # T-453.

This story is worth studying in detail, due to evidence of the Comics Code Authority's heavy handed tampering. Kirby’s story centers on four soldiers preparing for an attack by Hitler’s elite corps. A close observation of the pages  confirms that Kirby originally had soldiers killed, although it appears there was a decree to conceal this in both copy and art. Beginning on page one a minor alteration appears; the opening paragraph has the word "veterans" re-lettered in a hand other than Artie Simek's, perhaps a substitute for "killers" or "butchers."

"The Invincible Enemy" Page 3

On page 3, panel one, the machine gunner is murdered, but the crudely lettered replacement copy ("...driving him back to another position") has him escaping. There are signs of art alterations on the right hand side, likely the area where Kirby had the soldier struck down. In the following panel, though, they forgot to white out his boots in the rubble, as can be seen on the lower right panel.

In panel 3 "Fights back" is crudely lettered, replacing more violent language.

Panel 6 has a crudely drawn puff of smoke (possibly added by editor Stan Lee) to obscure a dead Nazi soldier. "Wounded" replaces a word, perhaps dead or murdered.

"The Invincible Enemy" Page 4

On page four it appears that the corporal and sergeant have also have been killed, although the art and captions do not convey this.

Page 4, panel 1

  Large, hastily scribbled puffs of smoke are again used to hide dead bodies. The copy is obviously replaced in the last sentence:. "....he stares in disbelief at the SMOKE FILLED RUINS!." I suspect he was originally staring at his fellow fallen soldiers. Panel 3 also seems to be tampered with, probably deleting the body of the Machine Gunner. His weapon lies on the ground, the same one seen in page 1; panel 2.    

Page 5

Page 5, panel 5

At the conclusion the young replacement survives, taking out a tank. Other soldiers come along to assist him, although there is no mention in the narrative that they are his group, and they do not look like the men on page one. In panel 5 the word "DEFEATED" is substituted for another word, and the obligatorily puffs of smoke replace dead bodies.  

The final caption was modified, beginning with:  " enemy is invincible!.." Kirby's expurgated text surely focused on the harshness of war and its devastating impact. Kirby's depiction of a rookie overwhelmed by his experiences, but surviving nonetheless, is considerably weakened by the Comics Code, which depicts a war without casualties or consequences. As a private in the army during WWII, Kirby lived through such horrors and knew their reality.

"Sitting Duck!," Battle # 68, Feb 1960. Kirby story ?; Kirby pencils; Al Williamson inks; Artie Simek letters. Job # T-523.

This short story, wonderfully inked by Al Williamson, focuses on a Korean flyer. I'm not convinced that Kirby wrote the dialogue; although some of it evokes the usual Kirbyisms, none of the tell-tale signs appear: no bold words, sound effects of stylistic touches that I can discern. I suspect this was either heavily edited by Lee, or possibly a Lee plotted/Larry Lieber scripted story (the team that reportedly worked on many of the unsigned pre-hero monster tales).

   "Guard Duty!," Battle # 69, April 1960. Kirby pencils; Steve Ditko inks; Artie Simek letters. Job # T-530.

Steve Ditko’s superb embellishment adds crispness and moodiness to Kirby's pencils. Ditko’s inking was very much influenced by John Severin in this period, and his delineation over Kirby was impressive (further complimented by Stan Goldberg's coloring). This is another tale of a young recruit facing his baptism of fire, but the writing reads more like the Lee plotted/Lieber scripted stories appearing in the fantasy line. Around this period Kirby became heavily involved in drawing stories and covers for Lee's entire comic book line (minus the girl-teen humor titles) and his solo scripting chores seems to have tapered off.

"Doom Under The Deep!," Battle # 69, Kirby story ?; Kirby pencils; Joe Sinnott inks; Artie Simek letters. Job # T-600.

The  tale of a submarine crew facing the Japanese has a few Kirby tics, including the use of quotation marks, so this may have been scripted by Kirby and edited by Lee. This story is an example of an early Joe Sinnott-inked Kirby story. 

"A Tank Knows No Mercy!," Battle # 70, June 1960. Kirby pencils; Ditko inks; Artie Simek letters. Job # T-692.

This examination of Kirby’s Battle stories concludes with two stories that appeared in the last issue.

“A Tank knows no Mercy!” opens with a wordless pictorial, a choice that Kirby rarely, if ever, used on his own. The silent splash did follow the pattern of other Atlas fantasy stories, which leads me to suspect this was a Lee plotted/Lieber scripted tale. Ditko once again provides exquisite inking, and the art drips with atmosphere. The plot again focuses on the threat of a tank and a lone soldier protecting a family.

"A Tank Knows No Mercy!" page 3. Kirby's soldier slouching out of the panel border gives the panel a three dimensional effect. Ditko's meticulous inking adds further depth.

    “The Thick of Battle!” Kirby pencils; Joe Sinnott inks; Artie Simek lettters.  Job # T-707.

"The Thick of Battle!" features an early inking job by Joe Sinnott, who, in just a few years, would bring a lustrous sheen to Kirby’s pencils on The Fantastic Four. The tale involves the heroism of a linesman in the signal corps during the Korean war. Aside from the use of sound effects in a few panels (Kirby may have penciled those in while drawing) the story reads like a familiar Lee/Lieber tale. 

And so ends Kirby’s Battle run, consisting of ten stories and seven covers, an often- neglected part of the artist's oeuvre. Kirby's attempts at graphic realism, despite the heavy-handed, often corrosive presence of the Comics Code, focus on the turmoil, grief and atrocities facing individuals in the midst of madness. Derived largely from his personal experiences during World War Two, these slices-of-life would be repeated, dramatized and embellished by Kirby in Sgt. Fury, "The Losers" and countless comic books, in ways both obvious and subtle, throughout his extraordinary career.   

For a definitive history of Atlas War comics, including discussion of the above Kirby stories, go to Michael J. Vassallo's blog (That name sounds familiar...)