Wednesday, August 3, 2011

What Made Marvel Different?

Over at Timely-Atlas Yahoo Groups there has been an ongoing discussion on whether Stan Lee was aware of his competition at DC, how closely he copied their characters and how it affected Marvel's line-up. Of course Stan was aware of the competition, as was Publisher Martin Goodman, but no matter how influenced they were, in the final analysis it is the differences - not the similarities - that made Marvel stand out.   

Marvel in the 1960's was completely different from DC (and their other competitors) in so many ways. Their covers used darker tones; more grays, purples and gradations, courtesy of colorist Stan Goldberg. Stan Lee's cover copy was flamboyant and melodramatic, but he added self-referential touches and humor that connected with his audiences ("If you don't like this comic, you might enjoy Millie the Model").


Journey into Mystery # 106, July 1964. Jack Kirby pencils, Chis Stone inks, Sam Rosen letters and Stan Goldberg coloring.

Lee's playful cover copy set the tone for Marvel's distinct personality. 

Strange Tales # 122 July 1964 Kirby pencils; Sol Brodsky inks (and likely alterations); Ditko Dr. Strange vignette. Lee copy.

The art was rougher and less polished than the clean-cut look exemplified by Curt Swan and Carmine Infantino at DC. Their style had a suburban feel; the streets were immaculate; houses and lawns perfect. Even their villains looked dapper and less threatening. Kirby and Ditko's world was distinctly urban. Marvel's heroes fought in the streets, rooftops and alleyways of New York, where garbage pails, fire hydrants and tenements existed and water towers loomed high above. An apt comparison would be to movie studios of the 1930s and 1940s. DC echoed the elegance of MGM; Marvel the rough and tumble features of Warner Brothers. 

The FF creep through the grungy side streets of New York (Yancy Street was a recurring gag in the series; The Thing had grown up on the block and the "Yancy Street Gang" were his unseen foils) Jack Kirby depicted these scenes from first hand experience, having grown up on the Lower East Side. Dick Ayers thick brush strokes perfectly accompanied Kirby's pencils. Fantastic Four # 20, November 1963.

Speaking of Warner Brothers, William Wellman could have directed a scene like this! Mobsters, cops and piers as Ditko brings aspects of crime thrillers with impeccable skill. Amazing Spider-Man # 27, August 1965.  

The Flash races through squeaky clean, picture-perfect streets; a jarring contrast to Kirby and Ditko's age-old buildings and cracked pavements. Carmine Infantino pencils, Joe Giella inks, Flash # 130 August 1962.

Marvel's characters looked nothing like the clean-shaven heroes that populated DC, Dell or Archie; the Thing, the Hulk, Spider-Man, Thor, Sgt. Fury were a ragtag bunch: faces concealed, long haired, a pair of monsters, some in ripped shirts and pants - hardly a conservative looking group. What Stan, Jack and Steve did was take surface elements of the traditional superhero and refashion them, creating a harder-edged product.

Growing up in the 1960's I had the opportunity, thanks to my older brother John, to read comics from a variety of companies:DC, Gold Key, Tower, Archie, Charlton - I never confused one product with another (even Archie's Mighty Comics line, which tried very hard to mimic - some would say outright confiscate - Marvel's look, didn't fool me at 6 years old). We did read more Marvel's product on a steady basis, attracted by the ongoing stories, sharp writing and superb storytelling. Lee, Kirby and Ditko were the core group, but Wood, Romita, Colan, Buscema, Heck, Ayers and an array of others contributed to a special moment in the world of comics. They were different not because Martin Goodman followed competitors sales figures and asked for similar titles (something he did throughout his life as publisher), but due to the creativity and individuality of the creators working for him. Without them, Marvel's line would likely be a footnote in comics, recognized only by the few interested in such minutiae.                 


Lefisc said...

Nick wonderfully pointed out the differences in the creators, but the editoral poiclices of the companies were very different and that allowed the differeances too! In the 1960s, there were two ways to go for serious comics: DC, whose comics were geared towards young people, with simple stories, characters that didn’t develop, drawn by artists like Curt Swan whose characters and stories were simple, posed and static, showing no motion or emotion and he became the “house style” of the time. Joe Simon would write in his autobiography, "The editors at DC…wanted everything to look "their way." ... They had what we called very tight technique...You could have twenty artists do a character or a series, and it would all look as if it had been drawn by the same artist."
Then there was MARVEL, whose characters and stories were dynamic and complex, like nothing a young reader ever saw before, inspired, mostly, by the minds and artistry of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko.
After reading Kirby and Ditko, I could no longer go down Swan’s way.
Kirby’s and Ditko’s impact on comics were so great that any essay on them must seem incomplete. They just outstanding, innovative, incredibly inventive and prolific and such an important foundation of not just the MARVEL UNIVERSE, but for all comics and their different genres.


e said...

Another great post Mr. C.
I spotted something in Strange tales 122 the other day, and I thought of you: check out page seven, panel four of the Torch story. That ain't Rosen's lettering, and I bet you Dick and George didn't draw that panel either. Looks like a last-minute story change by Stan. What do you think?


Nick Caputo said...


The panel may well have been redrawn, although the lettering is only partially changed by another hand. "seems that" ...and "Because you know I have won" is not by Rosen, so Stan probably revised the copy at the last minute, Its been reported that he was picky and made changes at the last moment, so the corrections could be by Sol Brodsky or Stan himself.