Friday, May 25, 2012

Development of the Marvel Method

While we have certain facts that point to when Stan Lee began working Marvel Method with a few artists, there are questions as to when it was fully initiated throughout the line. I've done a great deal of research on this over the years and have documented my findings here.

The earliest known proof of the Marvel method in print is Stan's plot synopsis for Fantastic Four # 1. Evidence points to Lee working this way earlier, most likely with Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko (and possibly earlier with artists such as Joe Maneely). Kirby had done a few earlier stories for Lee in 1956 and 1957, but began working steadily in late 1958 on war, romance, western and fantasy stories, all short stories in anthology titles. The stories were likely plotted by Lee and written by Larry Lieber, although some may have been written by Kirby (more on this on an upcoming Blog post).

The first ongoing character Lee worked on with Kirby was the revamped Rawhide Kid, beginning with issue # 17 (Aug 1960). While largely overshadowed by the popularity of Rawhide Kid, Lee also teamed with Kirby on another long-running western hero, Two-Gun Kid (replacing John Severin), for two issues of his title (Two-Gun Kid # 58 & 59, Feb & Apr 1961) as well as concurrent stories in Gunsmoke Western. The title was cancelled based on earlier sales figures, but a revamped Two-Gun would return a year later, again by Lee and Kirby. Lee probably began providing plots for Kirby around this time period, as he was quite aware of Kirby's talents and experience. Another reason this makes sense is because Steve Ditko, who began working for Marvel in 1959 on a regular basis, has noted that he never received a full script from Lee, and worked from a synopsis on the 5 page fantasy stories. If Lee trusted the younger Ditko to work in this manner early on, would he not do the same for Kirby, whose track record went back two decades?

As early as 1964 Lee discussed his working method in an interview in the fanzine Crusader:

"The way I do it now, I write the story in synopsis form, and then give it to
the artist. He pencils the drawings, and I get it back again. Then, I write the words above the panels, and these are eventually lettered in."

The next question is: when did Lee initiate his other artists to the Marvel method, and here there are some interesting roads that point to its development and growth. Lee's two main artists in the early 1960s besides Kirby and Ditko were Dick Ayers and Don Heck. Heck, unfortunately is no longer with us, although we do have some interviews to give us a clue. Dick Ayers is an invaluable resource, as he has kept records of his work. Ayers recalls that he first worked Marvel method on a Two Gun Kid story, "The Bronc Buster" which appeared in Two-Gun Kid # 63, May 1963 cover date.

"The Bronc Buster!" Two-Gun Kid # 63, May 1963 Job # X-143- Ayers' first story drawn from Lee's plot synopsis.

Ayers explained in a 1991 interview in Comic Book Marketplace:

"The first one I had came on the Two-Gun Kid, a story called 'The Bronc Buster' or something, where this guy's at a rodeo. It was a little short story. He said "here, try this", and he gave me a paragraph for a synopsis. Bingo, it worked great!"    

Connecting the dots, this points to another method that Lee was using. TGK # 63 happened to be the first issue Ayers drew, taking over the job from Kirby. Since Lee was likely plotting the Two-Gun Kid stories with Kirby, he must have figured it was important for Ayers to learn as well, since Lee was increasing his writing output, taking over the hero strips in the anthology titles from writers Robert Bernstein, Ernie Hart. Jerry Siegel and Larry Lieber.

It is not know if Lee fired Bernstein and Hart (Lieber was moved to writing and drawing short stories), but it is possible Lee may have been disappointed with the results, even though he supplied plots to the writers. Fan were increasingly voicing their enjoyment of the stories Lee was writing with Kirby and Ditko. Fanzines were also taking notice, and it is possible sales were weaker on the anthology titles featuring Thor, Ant-Man, Human Torch and Iron-Man (very likely on Ant-Man and Iron-Man, judging by the cosmetic changes to both characters).  In a short period of time Lee took over the writing of all the anthology hero features, but he would not have been able to double his output without providing all his artist with a plot synopsis instead of a full script.

Don Heck's initiation is speculative, but judging from the published books, it appears that Lee thought the best way for Heck to learn the dynamics and pacing of storytelling was to have him first ink Kirby's pencils. He did this in Journey into Mystery # 97. In the next issue Heck penciled and inked the Thor feature, with script by Lee (Nov 63).

"The Human Cobra!" Don Heck's first Thor story, Journey into Mystery # 98 Nov 1963

This occurred five months after Ayers initiation. It also appeared the same month that Lee gave the Human Torch assignment to Ayers, taking over from Kirby (who he had been inking on the strip).

"The Sandman Strikes!" Ayers first Human Torch story with Stan Lee, Strange Tales # 115, Dec 1963 

It makes sense that Lee had both men take over around the same time. Concurrently, Steve Ditko filled in on Iron-Man, revamping that character, designing a new sleeker outfit. Whether Heck was moved over to Thor temporarily, or if Ditko was meant to continue on Iron-Man is unknown, but, as we shall see, it appears that Lee was positioning his artists to work on the increasingly important hero strips.

Heck had some very interesting comments about the changes in a Comics Scene interview:

What happened was....Stan got rid of a bunch of writers. I know why
he got rid of one of them. I was doing an Iron Man  story, and in the first 10 pages, Iron Man wasn’t even in the story! Stan was a little upset, and I can’t
blame him. Because Iron Man wasn’t in there, I had to draw him in a few panels as a thought balloon, so at least the character would be shown.”
Heck was not originally enamored of Lee’s about working from a synopsis, I said, ‘You’re crazy!’ He said, ‘Don’t worry, you can do it.’ I took Lee’s plots over the phone, tape recording them for later playback. “I would put the whole thing together with all the pictures and send it in,” Heck explains. “When I got it back and read it, I said, ‘Gee, it works fine. It’s great.’ “
In another interview with Rich Howell Heck was more specific:

HOWELL:: When did Stan start the synopsis system with you?

Heck: I don't think he started with me as early as some of the others up there. I believe about 1962. It could have been 1963. I'm sure Kirby was doing stuff from a synopsis a lot earlier than that.

Heck's 1963 date coincides with the Thor story, which would have appeared on stands around Sept 1963, and drawn up a few months earlier. 

Ayers took over Giant-Man from Kirby beginning in Tales to Astonish # 52 (Feb 1964), the same month that Heck returned to Iron-Man in Tales of Suspense # 50. Coincidence? Lee knew he was going to need Ayers and Heck to work on strips Kirby was unable to, and this is the month that it appears to have solidified.

"The Black Knight Strikes!" Ayers first Giant-Man, Tales to Astonish # 52, Feb 1964. Job # X-553 (job numbers are important as they give an idea when the stories were in production. While there is no number on the Iron-Man story that appeared the same month, the back-up stories do have #'s: X-526 and X-535 - very close to the G-M job number.   

"In The Hands of The Mandarin" Possibly Don Heck's first Iron-Man story with Lee, Marvel Method. Tales of Suspense # 50, Feb 1964. 

As Lee's workload grew in late 1963, including new titles such as the Avengers and X-Men, everyone was probably initiated into the method, including Jack Keller, Stan Goldberg and Al Hartley (around this time the teen humor comics, including Millie, Patsy Walker, Modeling with Millie and Patsy and Hedy were revamped, focusing on more dramatic stories).

Stan Goldberg had this to say to Jim Amash in Alter Ego:

"..things started exploding at Marvel, and Stan needed to cut some corners at his end so he could come up with new ideas. That’s when he developed the “Marvel Style” of writing stories, where the artist did most of the plotting and he did the dialogue. He didn’t trust too many other writers, and this
was a good way to keep control of the stories."

With all the artists working from a plot synopsis, Lee was able to dialogue every title, a prolific output which pretty much continued until Roy Thomas was able to relieve the strain late in 1965. While the Marvel method took time to grow and develop, it enabled an amazing array of stories commandeered by Lee. While some artists did not adapt as well as Kirby and Ditko - born storytellers - (including some very talented artists such as Bob Powell) those who did, including Gene Colan, John Romita and John Buscema, crafted an array of imaginative comics that have made their mark in the industry.                     

Monday, May 14, 2012

Jack Kirby's interpertation of Spider-Man

Since my post on the cover to Avengers # 11 received its share of interest I thought I'd follow up with a look at how Jack Kirby drew Spider-Man, as witnessed on a number of early Marvel covers. Kirby did not easily adapt to drawing Spider-Man; Steve Ditko's costume design was unique, with its webbing pattern and full face mask - and Kirby rarely got the details right. Some of those errors even appeared uncorrected on covers.

Strange Tales Annual # 1, 1963. Kirby pencils; Sol Brodsky inks?; Artie Simek lettering; Stan Goldberg colors. 

I started out with the above cover since I noticed the circular webbing motif in the background is similar to the design on Avengers # 11. Stan Lee often designed covers with the artists, so this may be an instance where he decided to use the same idea on the Avengers cover a year or so later. As we can see, there are a number of instances where Kirby differentiated from Ditko in his interpretation of Spider-Man. Spidey's webbing is drawn in the standard manner, notably on the belt and feet; the left foot in particular has lines that are completely wrong. The boots are smaller than Ditko's version and the spider on the chest is noticeably absent. Kirby does include the underarm webbing and presents an overall acceptable rendition, although devoid of the unique characteristics Ditko brought to the character.

Ditko's original cover to Amazing Spider-Man # 10 was rejected, probably by editor Stan Lee, although publisher Martin Goodman may have made the call. I would speculate that perhaps the Big Man being positioned in the foreground was thought to be too prominent, with Spider-Man a smaller figure. Also the previous cover had Spider-Man in a defeated position and it may have been thought to look too similar. The unpublished cover would surface on various foreign reprints and Marvel eventually showcased it in Marvel Tales and other publications. The above image is from the back cover of The Official Marvel Index to the Amazing Spider-Man # 2, May 1985.       


The published cover to Amazing Spider-Man # 10, March 1964. Ditko-drawn Enforcers; Kirby pencils (and possible inks) on Spider-Man; Artie Simek lettering; Stan Goldberg colors. 

Ditko's second take on the cover was also partially rejected. This Kirby drawing of Spider-Man which appeared a few months after the Strange Tales Annual, is interesting, since it has Spidey in a side view. On the published cover Ditko's Enforcers remain, closing in on a Jack Kirby Spider-Man. You'll notice that Kirby's Spidey face mask is flat, with no definition of a nose. Ditko's S-M mask is more realistically rendered and outlines the facial structure underneath. Kirby remembers to draw the spider on the chest here (unless someone else added it) but makes the ankles very thin, and the webbing on the glove pointing to the Enforcers has lines going all the way to the fingers. The glove holding the webbing has lines drawn in the correct manner, so it may be that whatever Ditko originally drew was finished by Kirby from that point. Thus far, Ditko's S-M figure has not surfaced, and remains a mystery.

A close-up of the corrected hand. You can see a difference in the more fluid line on the fingers. 

Ditko's Spidey - close-up from the cover to Amazing Spider-Man # 21, Feb 1965.

I thought it would be interesting to compare a Ditko Spider-Man figure/pose with Kirby's. As mentioned, Ditko's mask looks like it has a nose whenever there is a side view. Ditko's musculature is more realistic, and his webbing design is fluid. His Spider-Man looks thinner and younger, while Kirby's is bulky and stiff. There is quite a difference between the two interpretations.


Tales To Astonish # 57, July 1964. Kirby pencils; Sol Brodsky inks; Sam Rosen letters; Stan Goldberg colors. 

On the cover to Astonish Spidey is swinging through the air on his web, which looks more like a net or rope than Ditko's slinkier version. In every drawing, including the interior stories Kirby penciled, Spidey never shoots his webbing with his index fingers like Ditko's; Kirby has the hero making a fist instead. Once again, the webbing design on Spidey's costume is off-kilter, looking like a series of U's on his arm (and it covers his entire arm). The spider design on his back is also missing. 

Kirby's Dr. Strange image from the cover of Strange Tales # 126, November 1964, undoubtedly based on Ditko's interior story pages. Inks by the great Chic Stone; Sam Rosen lettering; Stan Goldberg colors.  

Noting the differences between Kirby and Ditko's versions of Spider-Man is in no way meant to denigrate Kirby - only to illustrate how diametrically opposed they were stylistically. Ditko, for instance, had a very hard time drawing the Thing; his rocky brick-like exterior appeared to confuse Ditko's design sensibilities . Nevertheless, there were occasions where both men were able to do acceptable work on each other's characters. I always thought Ditko did a fine job on the Human Torch, while Kirby's Dr. Strange cover vignettes in Strange Tales (which were often based on a Ditko interior story/scene) and guest appearances, while not perfect costume-wise, had a charm of their own. The individual imprints of Kirby and Ditko are unmistakable; a testament to their artistry and a constant source of delight and fascination.         


Sunday, May 13, 2012

Avengers # 11 Cover Mystery

A Few weeks back I looked at some of the interior corrections on The Avengers by Jack Kirby. This time around I thought it would be interesting to examine the cover to The Avengers # 11, which appears to have a number of artistic hands involved in its creation.

Avengers # 11 cover, Dec 1964

This cover has been a puzzle to me for many years. I have no doubt that the Thor, Iron-Man and Cap figures are pencilled  by Jack Kirby and inked by Chic Stone, the usual cover team in this period. Kirby's figure work and poses are evident, as is Stone's bold inking. Giant-Man, Spider-Man and possibly the Wasp are another matter.


Close-up of Giant-Man figure, by Ditko & Stone?

Examining the Giant-Man figure and the way the body is positioned, I suspect Steve Ditko drew the figure, possibly replacing a Giant-Man drawing by Kirby that Stan Lee didn't like. Minor alterations took place before the cover was published, as can be seen here.

Ad for Avengers # 11, as seen in Fantastic Four # 34

There was a slight alteration to Giant-Man's hand, facing up in the ad and straight in the published cover. The hand in the ad look's very much like a Ditko pose. The Wasp figure is very small, but her pose makes me suspect that Ditko also corrected/redrew her as well.

Close-up of Spider-Man figure. Ditko and Stone?

We now come to the most interesting figure on the cover, Spider-Man. There are a number of areas that are worth pointing out. This is clearly not a Kirby illustration, although he may have pencilled an initial Spider-Man figure which was either discarded or worked over. Kirby never, ever drew Spidey's mask and eyelets as accurately as is seen here (most artists that drew Spider-Man in this period, including Don Heck and Dick Ayers, had trouble following Ditko's web-lines, mask,  and costume design) . Kirby rarely remembered to draw the spider in the chest area or the webbing on the fingers or gloves correctly. There are some areas that are in error, though. The belt doesn't seem to be connected to the upper part of the costume, a mistake Kirby often made. Still, the rest of the costume is rendered correctly, including the web lines on the costume. 

My theory is that Kirby originally drew a Spider-Man figure that Stan was unhappy with and asked Steve to revise or redraw the figure, which was finished by Chic Stone. It is possible that Ditko followed Kirby's original design, ie positioned him in the same manner, but judging by the lack of definition and uninked spider and eyelets, Ditko may have loosely pencilled/outlined the Spider-Man figure, with Chic Stone completing the inking. Having observed some of Ditko's pencils in this period, it is evident that Ditko filled in a lot of the blacks in the inking process. I can see Stone's sharp line on Spidey's left leg and boot. It would also account for any mistakes that occured, as Stone was not familiar with inking Spider-Man.     

As was often the case, Stan Lee tinkered with covers up to the last minute, making changes both big and small. Sol Brodsky and Marie Severin did correction work (and I'm not certain if Giant-Man's face wasn't tinkered with by someone other than Ditko) but when folks like Kirby or Ditko stepped into the office, it was not unusual to have them fix up art.  Aside from the slight alteration on Giant-Man seen in the FF ad, I've never seen any stats of this cover that are different that the published cover. It would certainly be interesting to see Kirby's unaltered cover, but like Amazing Spider-Man # 10, which has a Kirby Spider-Man mixed with Ditko figures, the original covers may forever remain a mystery.        

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Pencil and Ink

There is something of a very personal nature in the ability of an artist to take up pencil and brush and bring images to life on a piece of paper. It appeals to me a in way that superhero movies, with all their special effects and spectacle, as entertaining as some of them are, cannot compete with. The individual vision of those creators that particularly touched me growing up: Kirby, Ditko, Lee, Wood, Colan, Steranko, Thomas and many others, brought forth a world of imagination that I could explore in my living room, poring over the artwork and digesting the words. The colors and letters were also a part of that tactile experience. It is  unique and can't be duplicated in the midst of a crowded movie theatre. With a comic you have the ability to stop and admire a panel, concentrate on a scene and appreciate it in your own time. There are no interruptions, aside from ads that you can easily pass over.

When I look at the work of Jack Kirby, I see an individual with an imagination that constantly spread out to the stars and beyond, yet always had a human quality. His work drew me in through his characters, his storytelling and the unending enthusiasm and energy he brought to each page. Steve Ditko did the same in a decidedly different manner. He has the ability to present a world and characters more down to earth than Kirby's, yet, like Kirby, he can invent situations and develop stories that open the imagination. Ditko's characters were more flesh and blood than Kirby's, more vulnerable physically, although Kirby could make you sympathize with a guy made out of orange rocks. These pen and ink figures continue to fascinate me, but it is always because of the artists behind the pencil. Stan Lee contributed greatly by bringing a personality to the characters, by making them interesting and getting the reader to care about their problems. It was, again, a personal touch of the writer that connected very strongly with many people.

Fantastic Four # 8, Nov 1962. Jack Kirby pencils; Dick Ayers inks

Amazing Spider-Man # 1, Mar 1962, Steve Ditko art.

It is interesting to observe that the characters and themes of those early Marvel stories have attracted the consciouness of the public, although the comics themselves are of marginal interest. Will the children of today ever experience the joy of those Kirby and Ditko comics, and if they do, will they hold their attention? Perhaps, like the pulp heroes of the past, the only way they can survive will be through different mediums. In the 21st century movies, cartoons, video and computer games may be the primary venue where a trace of those characters will survive. Crumodgeon (or anachronism) that I am, I'll cling tenaciously to the images on paper. To me they remain a vital, creative and special form of expression.