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.     


Booksteve said...

Fun stuff as always. In regard to your supposition that Stan Goldberg probably was doing all the coloring in those days, he told me yes, that was true as far as he remmbered it. I interviewed Goldberg twice about his Archie work and both times he seemed to prefer talking about his early Marvel work. I guess nostalgia was hitting him as he had, he told me, just spoken with Stan Lee. This was the period a few years back where Lee was going to be doing some work for Archie and I gathered that this led to one Stan contacting the other Stan for the first time in years.

Nick Caputo said...


I spoke to him about the coloring in that period and asked if perhaps Sol Brodsky stepped in to color if he wasn't able to. He said it was possible but didn't recall. The staff was so small circa 1961-63 that I can't think of anyone else who might have colored the books. Marie Severin stepped in circa 64-65 and she surely could have taken up the slack when needed.

maw maw said...

I'm intrigued that the panel thought so little of Jack Kirby, ranking him below Don Heck. Granted, Kirby was doing about 100 pages a month in those days, and he wasn't often getting good inking.

Nick Caputo said...

maw maw,

I was pretty surprised about their comments on Kirby, too. Most of it still looks pretty good to me, and as far as inking goes, at the time they were discussing the stories Kirby was inked by Dick Ayers, Don Heck and occasionally Steve Ditko, all terrific inkers over Kirby for my money.

Russ said...

It's hard to understand just how menacing the early Marvel Comics could seem because of such elements as the title lettering, which seemed almost deliberately crude compared to the meticulous DC line. The gloomy cover coloring was a strong factor, obviously, and there were some other striking choices made by Stan G that got my personal attention. On some of the early comics, he actually colored the word balloons, which may not seem revolutionary, but young kids can be very sensitive to color and it affected how I read the dialog. I got the impression that DC comics (which I still have great affection for) were often trying to get you to buy their comics through trick covers, some bizarre situation that they would find a way to weasel out of in the story proper. Marvels had a less intellectualized approach, with the emphasis on physical conflict. If the cover showed Martians destroying the earth or superheroes beating the daylights out of each other, that promise was kept within. Another big difference was that in DC comics, strong emotions seemed to be aberrant behavior. Jealousy was treated as shameful in Lois Lane comics; if Superman lost his temper, it was a hoax or the temporary effects of Red Kryptonite. In Marvel, tempers flared and so-called heroes considered crime and revenge as potential responses to their problems. In contrast to what else was on the newsstands, this was thrilling and a little frightening.

Nick Caputo said...


Great points. Like you I read and enjoyed many DC comics growing up, but I was more invested in the characters and sub-plots that kept me coming back and anticipating the next issue. At DC you could pick up almost any issue and didn't miss anything. Lee and company really created a niche that was unlike anything else at the time.