Saturday, April 30, 2016

Marvel's Superheroes in 1963: Fan Reaction

Continuing my look back at a very early fanzine, Hero, the fourth installment focuses on another Point of View article, with commentary by fans Bob Butts, Buddy Saunders and Al Kuhfeld. Rick Weingroff supplies the questions to the trio, which focuses on the newly christened Marvel Comics Group and their superhero features.  

A little background: publisher Martin Goodman's superhero revival was less than two years old when Hero # 2 was mailed out to fans in May of 1963. Lee and Kirby's Fantastic Four started the ball rolling and was one of their best sellers. The FF was soon followed by The Incredible Hulk (which failed to achieve adequate sales and only ran six issues), "The Mighty Thor" (in Journey into Mystery); "The Astonishing Ant-Man" (in Tales to Astonish); "The Human Torch" (in Strange Tales), "The Invincible Iron-Man" (in Tales of Suspense) and The Amazing Spider-Man. With six super-heroes either starring in their own comic book or as the lead feature in a fantasy title (The Avengers - mentioned in the article, and The X-Men, would follow in three months), more than half of Goodman's comic book output now consisted of costumed heroes. These colorful characters were seized upon by young fans (and a selection of older readers) who not only read the stories, but had strong opinions on their content.



Goodman's comic book division had a number of designations over the years: Timely, Atlas, and, since 1961, a simple "MC" on covers. In 1940s' house ads and editorials Stan Lee coined the term "Marvel Comic Group", but it did not appear with any degree of consistency. Lee resurrected the name (using the plural "comics") in May,1963 dated comics, creating a brand that survives into the present day. The corner symbol was another method of shaping a visual identity. Conceived by Steve Ditko, head shots or full figure character drawings appeared on the upper left corner of every Marvel comic, an elementary solution to the problem of being recognized on overcrowded newsstands, where the entire cover might not be legible. Jack Kirby pencils; Steve Ditko and Dick Ayers inks, Artie Simek letters, Stan Goldberg colors, Stan Lee copy; house ad from Fantastic Four # 14, May 1963. 

Steve Ditko was singled out as a special talent who brought a distinct personality, mood and look to Spider-Man. Marvel's unique coloring was also noted in the article, although the creators identity was largely unknown, since he was not credited on splash pages (Lee did mention him often in the letters pages). In this early period Stan Goldberg likely colored the entire line and brought a darker look to the stories with his use of grays and browns. Stan Lee story; Steve Ditko co-plot/art, John Duffy lettering, Stan Goldberg colors, Amazing Spider-Man # 2, May 1963.

Ditko's villains cast an aura of menace unlike anything seen in a typical DC protagonist. Doctor Octopus' visual appearance is a cross between a demented Roy Orbison* and a maniacal Moe Howard (of The Three Stooges, for you youngsters reading this). Amazing Spider-Man # 3, July 1963. 

*Thanks to Fearless Frank Mastropaolo for the offbeat observation. 

Stan Lee plot; Ernie Hart script, Dick Ayers art, John Duffy letters, Stan Goldberg colors, Strange Tales # 110, July 1963.

Stan Lee plot, Ernie Hart script, Don Heck art, Artie Simek letters, Stan Goldberg colors, Tales to Astonish # 45, July 1963. 

Stan Lee plot, Robert Bernstein script, Jack Kirby pencils, Don Heck inks, Artie Simek letters, Stan Goldberg colors, Tales of Suspense # 43, July 1963.  

Stan Lee plot, Robert Bernstein script, Jack Kirby pencils, Dick Ayers inks, Ray Holloway letters, Stan Goldberg colors, Journey into Mystery # 93, June 1963.

The Human Torch, Ant-Man, Iron-Man and Thor were in general the least popular superheroes among the round-table participants. In every instance Stan Lee supplied the plots, but other writers, including Ernie Hart and Robert Bernstein, wrote a full script. While the writers Lee employed were capable, they often produced stories that were typical superhero fare, lacking the personality, characterization and humor that Lee brought to the FF and Spider-Man. Iron-Man and the Human Torch garnered the harshest comments, citing lack of drama and poor villains, and, in Iron-Man's case, an unappealing costume to boot, which would be rectified in a few months. 

Lee was busy writing all the western and teen-humor titles, including Kid Colt Outlaw and Millie the Model, but in a few months, apparently concerned with their inherent failings (through either the fanzines, letters, or more importantly, poor sales) he took command, co-plotting and writing the dialogue for all the hero features. With Jack Kirby and Don Heck aboard, Lee quickly turned Thor and Iron-Man around creatively; the Torch and and Ant-Man were more problematic, though.They sauntered along for a time but were eventually ousted from their slots. 

Stan Lee script, Jack Kirby co-plot and art, Steve Ditko inks, Artie Simek letters, Stan Goldberg colors, Fantastic Four # 13, April 1963.

The Fantastic Four was clearly appreciated by all the fans questioned; they enjoyed the stories, recurring villains such as Sub-Mariner and Dr. Doom and the characters interaction. The Thing was a favorite; an atypical hero in both appearance and demeanor. He was described by Bob Butts as "the most original character to come along in two decades."  While there was some disagreement of the heroes constant bickering, which a few felt would become tedious, they found the FF's exploits as being less convoluted than the typical Justice League of America plots. 

Buddy Saunders, who contributed to the above discussion, also articulated his praise of  Lee and Ditko's Spider-Man in the letters page of issue # 3.    

Although fans differed in their preferences, Marvel's fresh approach appealed to them because it was an alternative to DC, whose stories often followed a prescribed formula. Marvel's heroes offered a greater variety in characterization, human interest and a strong dose of humor. Additionally, some of their better villains, such as Sub-Mariner and Dr. Doom, had actual motivations for their behavior. 

Hero ended after a four-issue run, with the Point of View column appearing in every issue and was overwhelmingly praised by the fan community as an exciting approach to discussing comics. Publisher Larry Herndon remained an active participant in fandom; in that same year he joined with two other like-minded individuals from his home state of Texas, Buddy Saunders and Howard Keltner (dubbed "The Texas Trio"). They co-published Star-Studded Comics, where they wrote and drew their own original superhero stories. Many talented fans contributed, including Biljo White and Richard "Grass" Green; Sam Grainger and Jim Starlin were two artists who graduated to impressive careers in professional comics. Star-Studded was a popular fanzine that continued into 1972, running for nearly ten years.  

In the early 1970s Herndon wrote a handful of stories for Jim Warren's black and white horror magazines.  Above is the splash page from "Buffaloed", illustrated by veteran John Severin, from Creepy # 62 (May 1974).    

Looking through the eyes of a young, enthusiastic and talented group of fans from the distance of 53 years is intriguing. One can't help but be impressed by their efforts; unpolished, certainly, but bursting with energetic fervor. It echoed a similar, virtually simultaneous development with a different set of teens who were meeting up, forming bands and practicing in their basements (later dubbed Garage rock). Both were deeply inspired by their passions and sought to create something of their own. As editor and publisher of Hero Larry Herndon achieved those results.     

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Marvel Heroes: A 1963 Review

Hero # 2, Spring 1963 (my issue is post-dated May 25th) had a circulation of 150 copies. Buddy Saunders cover art.  

In my previous two posts I examined Hero # 1, focusing on a few choice articles from that obscure fanzine. The second issue continues to investigate Marvel Comics' early superhero line-up as it was slowly finding its way; stumbling in places, but developing from month to month. Richard Weingroff, a knowledgeable fan, once again leads off the issue with his observations on that fascinating period. 

Let's look back to a distant, and - for many of us of a certain age - dreamlike moment in time, when wide-eyed kids gazed in anticipation at the wire-bound comics waiting to be placed on sale by their local newsdealer. Alongside long-running favorites such as Action Comics, Jughead  and Uncle Scrooge they stumbled upon a few unusual surprises, including Tales of Suspense # 39 and The Amazing Spider-Man # 1.                 

Weingroff's article focuses primarily on the more recent Marvel superheroes, with passing reference to the older veterans, Fantastic Four and The Incredible Hulk (the title had been cancelled with the sixth issue - then on sale - although Weingroff was likely not yet aware of that development). The author explains that at the time his article was written Iron-Man had just debuted (in Tales of Suspense # 39), which would line up with Marvel comics published through early February, 1963. 

"Sandu, Master of the Supernatural!", Stan Lee plot, Larry Lieber script, Joe Sinnott art, Terry Szenics lettering, Stan Goldberg (likely) coloring, Journey into Mystery # 91, April 1963. 

 Weingroff displayed a knowledge of comics history beyond the current period, noting Joe Sinnott's work for Atlas in the 1950s (on myriad war, western, crime and horror/mystery stories). Sinnott's art was praised over Jack Kirby's, who the author felt was overworked and often turned out a rushed job. Sinnott illustrated five Thor stories before he bowed out, becoming increasingly occupied with assignments for Treasure Chest, a long running comic book distributed exclusively to Catholic schools. Kirby was too busy initiating new titles to pencil Thor full time in the early years; Sinnott, Don Heck and even Patsy Walker artist Al Hartley awkwardly took the reigns when deadlines necessitated. Kirby returned to full-time service late in 1963 (Journey into Mystery # 101, dated February 1964) spearheading a nearly seven year run. With Stan Lee, Kirby transformed The Mighty Thor from an average hero into one of the most imaginative and popular characters in the Marvel line.    

"Spider Man", Stan Lee plot; Ditko co-plot and art, Jon D'Agostino lettering, Amazing Spider-Man # 1, April 1963. The "Amazing" sub-title was retained from the comic where the character originated. 

When sales figures were calculated on the final issue of Amazing Fantasy publisher Martin Goodman discovered he had a hit, and it didn't take long (eight months, to be exact) for Spider-Man to return to the stands. In an atypical move Goodman decided to throw caution to the wind and place Spider-Man in his own comic book, without the safety net of an anthology title (Tales of Suspense, Strange Tales, Journey into Mystery and Tales to Astonish could easily change content and continue with a different feature). In the recent past only the Fantastic Four and The Incredible Hulk were deemed worthy of a comic book devoted entirely to their adventures; while the Hulk initially failed, Spider-Man went on to rival, and later succeed the FF as their best selling title

Weingroff had an acute awareness of Spider-Man's possibilities, calling him the best of the new heroes and singling out Steve Ditko (whose earlier work on Captain Atom was acknowledged) as a key component, in particular pointing out his unique costume design and distinctive style. The author appreciated Lee's characterization and understood that the heroes powers were less important than the need to flesh out story lines in future issues. I suspect he was pleased with the results.  

       Splash page to the Human Torch strip, from Strange Tales # 106, March 1963.  

Dick Ayers replaced Jack Kirby as artist on the "Human Torch" feature beginning in Strange Tales # 106, a character he had drawn in his original incarnation a decade earlier. The weak plots and lack of character development that Weingroff pointed out continued to plague the strip; not even Lee's later addition of the Thing as co-star helped (four months later an unusual character conceived by Steve Ditko inconspicuously occupied the back pages of Strange Tales. Dr. Strange was undoubtedly superior to the lead feature). After 34 episodes the problematic Torch series was snuffed out (pardon the pun) and "Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.EL.D.", inspired by the popularity of secret agents from James Bond to The Man from Uncle, took its place (beginning in Strange Tales # 135, August 1965), creating a more balanced and entertaining product.      

"Vengeance of the Scarlet Beetle!", Stan Lee plot, Larry Lieber script, Jack Kirby art, Dick Ayers inks, Artie Simek letters and Stan Goldberg colors, Tales to Astonish # 39, January 1963. 

Ant-Man lived in the unnoticed world beneath out feet. His quaint tales had a certain charm, even though his early stories never reached their potential. One can only wonder what Lee and Kirby could have done with the character if they worked solo on the strip, co-plotting as they did on the FF, instead of the fully written Lieber script (from a Lee plot) and Kirby only providing pencils.   
Although Weingroff found DC's Atom to be more impressive plot wise than Ant-Man, he nevertheless thought the concept of Pym controlling ants was fascinating and felt it was Kirby's best work of the period. At the time he wrote the article Don Heck had just taken over the art, with Kirby filling in from time to time. In the months to come Lee constantly tinkered with the strip; Henry Pym was soon given a female partner and his powers were reversed, turning him into a Giant-Man, but bigger isn't always better. His spot was eventually taken over by one of Timely's earliest successes, "Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner". Giant-Man soon returned as a supporting character in The Avengers - with yet another overhaul - including a more dramatic name, Goliath, and a redesigned costume.     

"Iron-Man is Born!", Stan Lee plot, Larry Lieber script, Don Heck art, Artie Simek letters, Stan Goldberg coloring. Tales of Suspense # 39, March 1963.

Weingroff's thoughts on Iron-Man's premiere were hopeful, although his reaction to the heroes bulky uniform was negative. As we'll see in our next segment, he was not the only fan who felt that way. Stan Lee took notice of fans grievances (and possibly weak sales figures); Iron-Man's appearance altered slightly over the next year until Steve Ditko came up with a more exciting (and definitive) design.

Weingroff's article was not without criticism; he was very much aware of similarities with past heroes, particularly when it came to their powers, but realized there was only so much one could innovate in that area. Overall he found Stan Lee's line refreshing for their differences and realized their potential. Surprisingly, Jack Kirby was not praised to the degree one would have expected; Steve Ditko, Don Heck, Dick Ayers, Joe Sinnott and Larry Lieber, however, were acknowledged in a positive manner. 

Marvel's gestation period had an unpredictable, seat of the pants feeling, contrasting sharply with the structured organization of publishers such as National and Dell. Goodman's new line of heroes would elicit both praise and continued scrutiny from a growing and enthusiastic fan audience. We'll read more of their diverse views in the next installment.