Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Monsters at my Wndow or Why the Pre-Hero Monsters Matter

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.   
"Spragg, the Living Hill", Journey into Mystery #68, May '61. Lee/Lieber story; Kirby pencils; Ayers inks. I close out with a sentimental favorite. I envision Spragg as a claymation movie, destined to put the box office numbers of Avengers, X-Men and Thor to shame! (and I'm probably the only one who feels that way!)


Martin O'Hearn said...

Nick, charm is exactly the word for these stories.

Lefisc said...

Nick, have you no shame? Publicizing your book like this? Do you ever see any else do that? Would Mike Vassallo post on T and A about his book? Would Blake Bell? Would you ever see me point out that my book is available at http://comicbookcollectorsclub.com/essential-marvel-age-reference-project/(Paypal accepted). Well!!!!

Jacque Nodell said...

Your last two posts have been right up my alley, Nick! Congratulations again on the Masterworks intro! I definitely think the scientist as hero is a key element of these stories and add a nice juxtaposition to the monsters themselves. I have much more to say about the scientists, but you'll have to wait for my book for that! :)

Lefisc said...

Nick brings ups some wonderful points, and it is easy to see Ditko coming into his own. Notice in the TTA Vol 4 Ditko is even mentioned on the covers and on splash pages. Marvel, here, is beginning to get away from the Monster at the doorstep (or window).

But one of the most interesting thing is in the Post Office requirement page that appears with a text story. TTA is already selling over 180,000 comics a month, a pretty good amount, so there were some very interested readers before the switch to super-heroes.

When Kirby dopes his sympathetic monster, later perfected with the Thing and the Hulk, I often see a pattern set down by De Briefer’s Frankenstein monster which was done for Prize comics. If you read those stories, you will see several “hulk” situations, where the monster is not evil but is provoked into violence by humans.

Also, note that there is a fear of technology in many of these stories, typical of a time when nuclear bombs threatened the world. But there is also hope that progress will lead us out of bad times. Note that the stories, even in the same issues, bounce back and forth between those concepts.

And there is one Ditko story about a robot posing as a man, that certainly gives you pause even today.

Nick Caputo said...


First of all, I have no shame, you should know that. I mean come on, I'm a member of the Yancy Street Gang! The context of the times is always important in analyzing these stories, and the mixed feelings of fear and hope regarding science and the future is evident.

Jacque, I'm glad you're enjoying these posts. I look forward to your analysis of these monster stories in the not too distant future.

Rob Imes said...

Hi Nick,

Nice post. I do think that the monster comics (I prefer to think of those comics as "fantasy comics," since not all involved large Kirby-style behemoths) are more important and worthwhile than generally acknowledged by fans.

The element of irony and tragedy is a strong aspect to these stories which was carried over into the Marvel superheroes. Some unlikely person in one of the fantasy tales might be responsible for saving the entire earth, just like how Don Blake, Peter Parker, Bruce Banner, etc. were unlikely heroes. Also the world might never know that the earth had been saved by this unlikely person, and so it was with the heroes.

One of my favorite Marvel monster stories is one of the first ones I read, "Mister Morgan's Monster," which was reprinted in Weird Wonder Tales (#10? #12?) circa 1974. A Kirby/Ayers-drawn tale, it shows how a hulking muscular figure (a robot actually) has been ordered by his human master to remain hidden in a cave. Aliens attempt to kidnap the robot since he is the one thing that can stop their invasion, but the robot is insistent on trying to avoid disobeying his beloved master. When the aliens disperse and the robot is found outside the cave, the humans are unaware of his loyalty to humankind and that they have been saved by him. Even his master thinks that the robot has betrayed him, and that his work has been a failure. The final panels show a close-up of the robot's face with a tear running down his cheek (if memory serves!). This sad, ironic, tragic ending recalls the ending of the first Peter Parker story, with its tragic, ironic ending. These stories certainly gave the reader something to think about.

Also, these stories elevated the common man, who were its heroes. The people who defeated the hostile monsters or alien menaces were ordinary Joes thrown into extraordinary circumstances. The Marvel Age took this idea further, and the reaction of the populace was often noted. This "person on the street" aspect has been lost over the years, as the Marvel universe has developed its own norms which are quite different from our own world now, and so that real-world perspective has been lost, as things become more and more unreal.

Nick Caputo said...

Hi Rob,

Thanks for the kind words and interesting comments. Mister Morgan's Monster was a fine story, reprinted in Weird Wonder Tales # 10. It's actually one of the first fantasy stories I recall when it was first reprinted in Fantasy Masterpieces # 11. I've even decided to update my post, adding a scan of the last page from the original story.

Pat said...

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.

There was a similar dichotomy in the alien stories, both in Marvel and on TV (The Twilight Zone, for example). Either the aliens were deceptive fiends pretending to be friendly, or they were peaceful pals who were turned off by the suspicion of the Earthlings. Of course, the former type of story tended to reinforce the latter's prejudices.

Pat from Silver Age Comics