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 hulking monster with the enormous mouth might look like the Cookie Monster on steroids, but Kirby's creatures were distinctive and had a charm all their own.|
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 and the Hunchback of Notre Dame, later becoming fodder for 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 few stories that featured a creature that was feared or misunderstood, and sometimes blindly hated due to his appearance. The Hulk was another direct descendant of this scenario, and although the monster-hero took a while to find his footing, the Hulk eventually achieved a lasting popularity and pop culture icon.
|"Zuttak" Strange Tales # 88, Sept '61; Lee/Lieber story; Kirby pencils;Ditko inks. Another unusual looking Kirby monster, with the meticulous inks of Steve Ditko adding definition and atmosphere to Kirby's pencils.|
As a company Marvel took time to develop. They were not an overnight success, although the Fantastic Four 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 society. Scientists in the pre-hero era were either involved in the creation of a monster, or helped to destroy them. Many were outsiders, scoffed at or mocked, and often unheralded by the public. At best, their girlfriend's had a greater respect for them. In the Marvel age many of the heroes also quietly performed their 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. Another orange-skinned creature with a huge mouth, but his skull like face, small eyes and bat wings differentiate him from others of his ilk.|
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 matched. Kirby, with his massive, overwhelming, destructive monsters, and Ditko, with his more intense and personalized vignettes, achieved a balance. Backing them up were craftsman such as Don Heck, Joe Sinnott, Dick Ayers and Paul Reinman.
|"Something Lurks Inside", Tales to Astonish # 10, July '60. Steve Ditko's nightmarish creatures and anxiety stricken characters achieve a striking mood reminiscent of Rod Serling's Twilight Zone TV series (1959-1964) which was then on the air.|
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 and meant to entertain a young audience that gobbled up monster stories, especially in the movie theaters and on 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 their own in terms of craft and charm. One of the reasons is the visceral joy that Kirby put into his figures. One can’t help but smile at some of the outlandish monsters he conceived month after month, story after story. While some repetition was to be expected, given the nature of a monthly publication schedule, more often than not Kirby batting average was phenomenal.
|"X", Tales To Astonish # 20, June '61; Lee/Lieber story, Kirby pencils; Ayers inks. Innocent bystanders running in fear through the streets was a standard, although restrictions by the Comics Code Authority kept violence to a minimum.|
Lee, plotting and editing, with brother Lieber scripting, came up with offbeat, goofy and weird 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 story lines. .
|Mister Morgan's Monster, Strange Tales # 99, Aug '62. Lee/Leiber script; Kirby pencils; Ayers inks. An example of the misunderstood, heroic character that would typify the later Marvel costumed heroes.|
I was first attracted to these stories as a child when they were reprinted first in the pages of Fantasy Masterpieces, and later in titles such as Where Monsters Dwell and Where Creatures Roam. This eventually led 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.