Monday, October 13, 2014

Film to Comics: Introduction

The comic book industry has relied on licensing from other media since its inception. Early comic books were repackaged versions of comic strips. The comic book came into its own as a medium separate from the newspaper strips that spawned the format by the late 30s. 

Throughout the medium’s history, comic books were published that featured popular concepts from an comprehensive array of media. This included film, radio, television, novels, short stories, toys, corporate mascots, comedians, animation, comic strips, video games, pop music, opera, theater, and poetry. 

In most cases the stories of characters from other media in the comic books were not adaptations. The tales featured new adventures and stories of pre-existing characters. The most successful example of this would be Donald Duck, where the seeds of the Disney short features flourished under the guidance of cartoonists such as Carl Barks and Don Rosa. Creators such as these expanded the core concept well beyond what was achieved in a 7 minute animated short. More typically in media transliteration, the new material retained little inspiration from the source. An example of this it the Gold Key Twilight Zone comic, which used the licensed concept as an umbrella under which to package strange and spooky short stories which featured only the thinnest of connection to Rod Serling's anthology program. 

Next stop, up ahead.. a teddy bear with flippers..

Most comic book tie-ins were safe, bland, by-the-numbers adventures that in no way indulged in significant universe building. The comic book series Mr. District Attorney was not conceived as a series of tales to be interpolated between episodes of the long running radio and TV series. This is not to say that these types of books failed to have creative merit, but from the 30s through the 60s a licensed book was often as much a marketing tool as it was an independently successful creative endeavor. 
There were certainly many journeymen cartoonists, writers, and artists that made their unique mark on all sorts of comics, including those already mentioned. In other cases, licensed comic books could act as a jumping off point for up and coming creators. The publishers that made most use of these licensed of comics found themselves creating a safe and steady work environment for artists that were better suited for genres outside the ever increasing market share that super heroes held.

By the end of the 1960s Marvel was beginning to pull ahead of DC in market share. Marvel was focused almost exclusively on their energetic and dynamic super hero line of books guided by concepts created earlier in the decade by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko. 

Not everything Marvel published did was a roaring success, but books such as Spider-Man and Fantastic Four were gaining new, more mature audiences and resonating with readers well over the age of 12. Due to distribution agreements, Marvel's output was very focused, and was limited in the number of titles a month they could release. 

DC during the end of the 1960s had a strong core, and had been experimenting with new ideas. Despite a lot of efforts in a number of genres, none surpassed established successes like Batman and Superman. Their forays in licensing were limited to very few examples. Most notably, Bob Hope and Jerry Lewis both had series through DC/National that ran through the entire decade of the 60s. 

The secondary publishers of the late 60s and early 1970s included Harvey, Charlton, Gold Key/Western, Archie, Warren, and several lesser-known entities. 

Harvey and Archie were committed to children’s comics which featured well known characters that originated with the publishing imprints. Harvey was home to Caspar, Hot Stuff, Wendy, and Richie Rich. Archie was home to the eponymous all American teen, Betty, Veronica, Sabrina, and Josie and the Pussycats. In the case of these two publishers, the work was often adapted into animation and other media, but the reverse was incredibly rare. One of the few exception was the Archie imprint Spire, which featured Christian themed stories, often delving into biographic tales about such well know born-agains as Watergate figure Chuck Coulson and musician Johnny Cash. 

Warren was going after a much older crowd with a line of rough and tumble black and white horror magazines, which included Vampirella, Eerie, and Creepy. There was a very close relationship between Warren and films thanks to their flagship title, Famous Monsters of Filmland. Although they had a mail order arm that sold a wide variety of genre film merchandise, they never published an adaptation of an existing film. 

Charlton was a trend follower, and through quantity often compensated for what they lacked in quality. Charlton's motto was to keep the presses running, and they did so by publishing comics from every known genre including western, war, horror, romance, sci-fi, hot rod comics, TV tie-ins, and action heroes. They produced few film adaptations, most notable of which are Gorgo and Konga adapted by Steve Ditko in the 1960s. 

© Steve Ditko and Joe Gill

Gold Key/Whitman had something different from these other companies. They inherited the Disney license. This meant they were the one publisher with the ability to easily carry on the decades-long tradition of movie adaptations. Disney ensured their films received adaptations in comics since the mid-1950s through a long-standing agreement with Dell publishing. Most of these adaptations, featuring classics such as Shaggy Dog and National Velvet, were published under the umbrella title Dell Four Color. Some were done as one-shot issues, unattached to a series as is the case with Mary Poppins. As the license moved to Gold Key a slightly different approach was taken. Beginning in 1970, there would be a single series, Walt Disney Showcase, wherein all of the film adaptations would live. The series was not exclusively movie tie-ins, but all of the Disney film comics from 1970 through 1979 were published as a part of this series.  

Who are.. what are.. THE BOATNIKS!!!

What other publishers attempted movie adaptations? Although no other publisher had a long term licensing deal with a film distributor, many gave it a shot. In an early non-Disney effort, DC offered up issue 43 of their Showcase Presents anthology to Doctor No in the early 60s. It was a reprint of the UK adaptation of the novel, and marketed here as a film tie-in. The word Bond appears in a word balloon and not even in bold. Barely a blip on the radar, and one of the very few pre-1970 efforts for this type of tie-in. 
Can you feel the beat Mr James?

By 1970 there was a serious contender for number one comic company that was looking to expand very, very rapidly once their distribution network allowed for it. The publisher needed material- and fast. They began looking to licensing deals, pubic domain material, reprints form the company's early years, as well as drawing on the creative energy that a bunch of adult comics fans breaking into the industry could bring to the company. 

Marvel was expanding quickly, and getting into the movies seemed like a good idea. 

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

FIRESIDE PART 5: The Mighty Marvel Jumbo Fun Book

Pneumonia. It’s not uncommon, and I had it in 1978. I was 7. My Mom was allergic to penicillin, and fortunately I was not. I was diagnosed on the 3rd floor of the amazingly mid-century pediatrics clinic on Eastern Parkway in Louisville, KY. 

The funny thing with pneumonia is that, at 7, not only can you not spell it, but you don’t feel sick. 

I was directed to stay prone or, at the least, sitting for a full week. Mama picked up my first Fireside marvel boo for me to get me through. Every child of this era that had any kind of illness and still reads comics into the 20-teens has this story. It’s the tale of the thing they got when they were sick. 

What astonishing book am I holding out on? The most embarrassing comic of all: The Mighty Marvel Jumbo Fun Book. 

It’s not exactly a comic book.There are very few panels of sequential work. It’s not exactly a history, or an art book. however, there are several pages that work to demonstrate varied art styles and how they relate to commercial art’s portrayal of various characters. It’s not a how to book, but there are opportunities to learn basic drawing skills. It’s all that plus much, much more. Crosswords, trivia, word search, puns, mazes, word jumbles, and a lot of material that really is aimed at an adult collector of Marvel’s output. Considering that I was 7, and some of the material required an adult budget I’d say the book was appropriate for ages 7-47. 

Some of the more esoteric games include “Conan’s Monster Farm”. At 43, I have not read any more Conan that I read at 10, which is to say nearly none. Yet the child for whom this is intended is expected to be able to identify 7 monsters culled from the first 100 issues of the comic. 

A page with 14 word balloons where the goal is to ID the speaker? Beyond ‘Crom” and It’s Clobberin’ Time!!”there are few “gimmes” in this quiz.

Still, I loved the book. For instance, it taught me that there were different artists drawing different comics. It game me a sense of history. I had only read 3 or 4 Hulk comics, but to discover that there were 6 artists that had drawn the character was fascinating. In 1978 I likely guessed 0 of them. Now? I got 5. Somehow, the book holds up. 

Some characters at the time were 100% new to me. Howard the Duck, Wolverine, and even Daredevil were unusual. Supporting characters like Professor Bong remained obscure until I was well into my 20s. 

I’m not sure when this book left me and moved on to another child. I suspect it was when my Mama was dating someone in 1980, and his son was getting into reading. I think a lot of the books from my younger years were passed on. So much of this book failed to make sense, but I still loved it. 

So, imagine my surprise when I found a copy for $12 last month. I had passed on copies ranging from $40-$125 on eBay recently. The alleys and avenues it opened up from my childish map of the world. It was pretty amazing. 

So much of this book was deeply ingrained. So many first encounters with different ideas, artists and characters. The puzzles undoubtedly worked to reinforce the memories. The Power Man Page? Why is Luke Cage such a favorite of mine, when I didn’t read a comic with him as the lead until 2001? Why is the SpiderMobile so iconic, when my first issue of Amazing was 2 years later? 

Checking it out now, there is also a lot that I enjoy now, that I was ignorant of then. Deathlok, Man-Thing, Tomb of Dracula. For the serious collectors, there are early appearances of Wolverine and Guardians of the Galaxy. 

It’s an incredibly campy, silly, infuriating book. Regardless, it got me through the sickest week of my young life. I still remember running in circles around the rom when Grandma wasn’t looking and Mama was at work. 

Could I tell the difference between the Ditko, Byrne, Romita, and Infantino Spider-Man? maybe. Can you?? 

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

FIRESIDE: Part 4: The Superhero Women

The Superhero Women was a very honest effort to demonstrate that Marvel had a wide variety of female characters, every bit as innovative as their male heroes and villains. 

Unfortunately, in 1977 that just was not the case. It didn’t stop me from loving the book as a child, but as an adult, it is an uncomfortable document of missed opportunities and a reflection of how much farther comics culture had to go to feature strong female characters written with sincerity. 

The breakdown of female Superheroes in 1977: The seducer, the girlfriend, the rape fantasy, the sister, the pseudo-villain, the jungle queen, the spin off. There were incredibly few women in comics that failed to meet on of these criteria. Some of these characters had true strength. Efforts were made by a mostly male creative team to make them have some kind of resonance. Some started out weak and improved over time. 

The book starts out in a very unusual place. Unlike the preceding volumes, few of the women in the volume began with a first issue or ever achieved a solo feature. They were, often, secondary. Kicking off the volume with Medusa, weird wife with living hair of the Inhumans, was a little strange. As the Inhumans had a series, and the concept was most closely associated with the Fantastic Four, it became stranger still that the tale herein was from a Spider-Man comic. 

The plot is pure Silver Age. Medusa is being tricked into posing as a hair spray model. The queen of an ancient race as hairspray model. Think about that. The story was probably included in part because John Romita draws lovely women. It’s barely a step up from some of the Lois Lane/Superman shenanigans of the 60s. 

The perfect follow up to that bit of fluff is, of course, the first issue of Red Sonja, She Devil with a Sword. Spun out of Conan, Sonja’s deal is that she wears a metal bikini, and if you defeat her in combat, you’ve got a sex slave for the night. I did warn you about rape fantasies. Anyway, this story is actually a pretty good mystery by Warren alum Bruce Jones paired with great art by Frank Thorne. Red hair count so far? Two for two. 

The Invisible Girl is next. This is actually a pretty funny issue of Fantastic Four, doing some “day in the life” bits. The first 8 pages are all humor, with the Thing scaring off a Mah Jong club that’s come up to the FF’s suite in the Baxter Building to complain about the noise. Sue Richards (The Invisible Girl) turns Thing invisible while he scares the biddies off with some silly props. The next 14 pages are devoted to an adventure that faces them against the Mole Man. Sue saves the day with a new found use of her invisibility powers- the ability to generate a force field and move objects. Two hundred issue late her code name would be changed to the Invisible Woman by John Byrne. A Lee/Kirby joint. 

Ms. Marvel was a kind of spin off of Captain Marvel. Not the SHAZAMMY one, the Marvel one. Trademark fight. Don’t ask. Anyway, she started out with a real honest to Sappho first issue. The story featured tough as nails newspaper reporter Carol Danvers who would occasionally black out and go do super lady stuff as Ms Marvel. Only the first issue is printed here, so who knows how that turned out for her. Later in 2014 Marvel is reprinting the series, so I suppose I will finally discover if Carol has a blood sugar thing, or if she’s just flaky. Bonus: since the Marvel Universe is pretty NYC-Centric, her boss is JJ Jameson, employer-nemesis of Peter Parker. If you are dying to know, Gerry Conway and John Buscema created this one. 

As no female villains made it into the previous “Bad Guys” volume, one slips in here. Hela, goddess of death faces Thor in a Lee/Buscema outing. This seems to be done concurrently to their Silver Surfer collaborations. The proof? This bit of Asgardian dialog from Hela:

“Thou wouldst DIE to save thy beloved? Sif asked if Hela had e’er known love— and now I answer NAY! But, at LAST I know what it doth mean! Not even DEATH (that’s you lady) may crush it!” Drama at its finest!

The Cat #1 really is a standout in this volume. It features a leotard-clad hero named the Cat: college student by day, hero by night. The spectacular part? It is written by Linda Fite and drawn by Marie Severin. Let that sink in. Actual female cartoonists. It was another decade before a woman wrote or drew Wonder Woman at DC. So, good job Marvel. This story has all the action and melodrama of your standard Marvel comic of the 70s, with really great art and solid writing. Alas, the series only lasted 4 or 5 issues. The character was soon brought back as were-woman Tigra, thus fulfilling the “sex-object/furry fetish” motif. 

The Wasp started as a lab assistant turned mirror-image of the lead of Ant-man. The pair also were founding members of the Avengers. Their history has been.. complicated. In the beginning, they were just two science geeks fighting commies and Atlas monster rejects in the space of 10 pages a month. Harmless non-sense. Lee and Kirby did the chapter here, but Leiber and Heck were the regular team. Bonus info: the Wasp did have a solo feature where, as a candy-striper, she would relate monster tales to hospitalized kids. In later years she was a fashion designer, a punching bag, and the head of the Avengers. 

 Lyra the Femizon. I don’t know where to start. This volume was ostensibly aimed at kids. The story here, in glorious black and white, was a part of Savage Tales Magazine #1. It featured “adult” tales in the fantasy/action genre/ Sword and sorcery. Nipples were visible. Cat fighting, amazonian wrestling, and general lesbianic mayhem were present. It was one of those “there’s only one dude in a society of women” deals. He, of course, is a traitor, and we get post coital guilt murder. My inner 7 year old was surely impacted by this on some level. As I was raised by 2 women, I can only guess that the lesson involved castration. 

Shanna the She-devil, not to be confused with the earlier She Devil With a Sword, is a red head. Shanna eventually is romantically paired with Marvel’s Ka-zar, who is a rip-off of Tarzan making his comics debut in Marvel Comics #1 in 1939. There is also Sheena Queen of the Jungle from the 40s. Some fat guy is selling cocaine, and there is a leopard. She's unique, in that the "obvious romance" of her and Ka-Zar came later, so in this appearance she's a strong independent female dispensing jungle justice. Carol Sueling wrote it. It's the only other female name in the credits. Shanna wears a leopard pelt, and has a pet leopard. That’s fucked up. Vince Colletta inked it, so you can’t tell Ross Andru drew it. 

The volume ends as strangely as it began. Spider-man facing off against a character typically associated with another character. Black Widow in this case, who generally showed up in Daredevil and who debuted in Iron Man. This is pre-Daredevil, and in this tale Natasha is a full-on red-headed seductress anti-hero. The fight ends with her gloating about what a pussy Spider-Man is- until he gets his game back and leaves because the whole dame fighting thing is beneath him. She mulls him over for a page or so in her bathrobe, and decides she’ll be alone forever.

Final red head count? Four. 

And that’s it. the best female characters 1977 had to offer. 

Chris Claremont was already starting to change that, but but the X-Men hadn’t really generated any female solo tales yet. Spider Woman and She-Hulk were still in the near future. In fact, i would guess that the array of female characters that happened at Marvel between 1978 and 1982 may have been the result of the weakness of this volume. Admittedly, not all of them attained the ideals of the New Feminism, but it was an improvement. 

Next? Superhero Battles: 240 pages of beat downs. 

FIRESIDE Part 3: Bring On The Bad Guys

At this late date I am uncertain as to which volume of the Marvel Fireside series was the first one to be gifted to me. I think the most likely candidate was 1976’s Bring On The Bad Guys. The third volume in the series focused on the arch-nemesis of the Fantastic Four, Silver Surfer, Doctor Strange, Thor, Hulk, Spider-man and Captain America. 

This volume is, in many ways, stronger than the origin-focused volumes that preceded it. Stan Lee selected the most powerful conflicts between the core Marvel heroes and their most popular and best known villains. 

The first chapter starts with what is arguably Marvel’s best, most well-rounded and complex villain, Dr. Doom. The stories collected here, Fantastic Four #5 and Fantastic Four Annual #2 are two powerful stand-alone stories. 

At the time I read, and re-read these as a child, I was captivated by the complex relationship between Doom and College rival Reed Richards. Reed, being the hero, just wanted to befriend Doom, whom he saw as an intellectual peer and potential collaborator. Doom was overwhelmed by petty jealousies, and insecurity masked by intellectual overcompensation and egotism. 

The earlier of the 2 stories came at a time when the only other Marvel Age comics were the first 2 issues of Hulk. It really went far to set the tone of the complexity and nuance that Lee and Kirby were striving for with their creations. It was also the first big break from the Atlas Era template of heroes fighting monsters and aliens. Sci-fi tropes, such as time travel, were present but FF #5 was an action based story rich with a sense of menace and pathos. Doom seems unstoppable, with an ability to nullify the FF in their own headquarters, send them through time to seize pirate booty, and foil them at every turn. 

In the end, of course, Reed and team out-think the new menace. However, the reader is left with a sense that this villain would return again- relentlessly, until he finally won the day. 

The second story stands as what is possibly my favorite Lee and Kirby collaboration. In what was then a daring move, the second Fantastic Four Annual featured Dr. Doom’s origin as a key feature. The tale went far beyond the typical “something bad happened and turned a guy from the wrong side of the tracks to a life of crime”. Astonishingly, this story was a mere 12 pages that followed Doom from a hard life of persecution as a member of a traveling gypsy community through the ascension to rightful monarch of his Latverian homeland. 

As a young man he masters the occult. As an adult, he heads to American and masters science. An accident, which he wrongly blames on Reed, leads to Doom’s face being scarred in an explosion of his own making. After the botched experiment, he flees to the far East and re-embraces mysticism. Monks fashion an iron armor for him, complete with a sinister metal face plate. Doom’s sense of ego pride, and mania result in him demanding the still hot metal be placed directly on his face before the it has cooled. If his face wasn’t already scarred, it certainly was now. 

Strange Tales 126 and 127 debut Ditko’s dread Domammu, duke of a dark dystopian devilish domain daunted daringly by Dr. Strange. The tale initiates what some have argued to be the first serialized graphic novel. It is certainly a case of Ditko, abetted by scripter Stan Lee, stretching the medium and really going to new places of proto-psychedelia with the art form. It's nearly unbelievable that Ditko never sampled drugs, and rejected the occult. His vision of unseen worlds is second to none. 

Thor 112, 113, and 115 detail the origin of Thor’s favorite anti-hero half brother Loki. Origin? They’re gods. Dude was born as the god of “super-mischief”. Anyway, the history of the two brother’s strife spends two chapters on the brother’s boyhood, and wraps up with a present day tale where Thor combats the Absorbing Man. True fact: this Thor story is the basis for the villain and the fight scene at the end of Ang Lee’s Hulk film. Seriously. 

The Red Skull is next for a bit of revisionist history. Captain America debuted in 1940, before Pearl harbor. he was soon found kicking the living shit out of all kinds of Nazi agents, including the Red Skull. Post-war the patriot’s sales slowed down, and the series was finally cancelled in the 50s. When Kirby and Lee were expanding the Marvel line, they decided to revive Captain America in Avengers 4. The character proved popular, and soon he had his own feature again in the pages of Tale to Astonish. 

The early stories were period pieces, and this is where we finally discover the secrets of the Skull. The true highlight of this story is Skull and Cap in a jail cell. Cap is tied to a chair, and the Red Skull sits in a char turned backwards,  facing his prisoner, The Skull casually leans over the chair back as he tells his tale. In one amazing moment, the Captain mouths off and is summarily bitch-slapped by the Skull, who quickly resumes his tale. Needless to say, Cap doesn’t suffer many more Nazi backhands before breaking free and kicking ass. 

Just as crucial in the history of Marvel’s villains, were the remarkable Amazing Spider-Man 39 and 40. These issues immediately followed the 38 issue Lee/Ditko run with John Romita stepping in for Ditko as artist. The two part epic finally revealed the identity of the Green Goblin, and found him discovering Spider-Man’s true self as well. As much as I prefer Ditko’s run to just about any series published, Romita and Lee are in perfect sync on this one. Stakes are high, and the story is a thrill even today. 

One of the classic villain super-hero tropes is that of a hero facing their equal number. In Hulk’s case, that was a tough one. Still, by 1967, Lee knew a good plot when he saw it, and introduced the Abomination. Drawn by Gil Kane, the Abomination was a Soviet spy who bathed himself in gamma rays. It transformed him into a reptile skinned Hulk-like monster. Being the Hulk, they done beat on each other for 20 pages before the dirty commie lost. The book’s cast of military antagonists actually changed their tune after Hulk defeated the creature, at least for one issue. 

Dormmamu suggested the lord of a demon realm. By the time the Silver Surfer was in full swing in the late 60s, Marvel took a risk on a full on devil. Mephisto debuted as a classic representation of a moody tempter of good men. The story, drawn by John Buscema, features a misunderstood Surfer being tempted by Mephisto, with estranged love Shalla Bal as the prize. The best part is Mephisto and Shalla in a spaceship. 

Shalla Bal: A space ship! But— Why?? Surley you have the power to traverse any distance with but a thought!
Mephisto: My reasons are my own. Mephisto moves in devious ways. 


This book is truly one of the most consistently solid collections of work collected from the 60s. It’s got a lot of great character work, classic stories, and amazing art. There’s really not a weak tale in the bunch, despite my occasional jokes.

So what's next? The Superhero Women. Feminism would never be the same. 

Monday, May 19, 2014

FIRESIDE Part 2: Son of Origins

The success of 1974's Origins of Marvel Comics lead to a follow-up volume in 1975. Cleverly named “Son of Origins of Marvel Comics (by Stan Lee)” featured the second wave of Marvel’s 1960s heroes. Roughly all the highlights from 1965-1968. 

The cover went for the “hero pose” dynamic, as opposed to volume 1’s “sprung from the metaphorical hands of God” approach. Jean Gray, Silver Surfer, Daredevil, Iron Man, Scarlet Witch, Nick Fury, and the Watcher all face off against the sinister 9 year old fascinated by the contents. 

The personal pedigree of this one is a little different than my relationship to volume one. It was interesting, I would flip through it, but the characters on the cover were much more B-list from my 1978-ish point of view. I had never read the X-Men, so Jean Gray, particularly the 60s version, was meaningless. Scarlet Witch didn’t scream Avengers. I had never seen a Daredevil comic. Silver Surfer was something I knew to be beloved but hard to find. Nick Fury popped in and out of the Marvel universe, with SHIELD fighting Godzilla for most of my formative years. I really didn’t like Iron Man. The Watcher was bald and dressed like John Belushi. 

I’ve owned this Fireside books volume twice. A beat down copy I found at Half Price Books about 10 years ago, which I sold in 2009 was my first crack at it. The second, much more gorgeous copy, came in a boxed set with volume 1, which I previously wrote about. In part 1. Obviously. 

I picked the boxed edition up in March 2014 for $35 (coupon!) and could not be happier with the set. The boxed version has random printings stuffed together in a Grandma friendly Birthday package. I have no doubt many of these were under a lot of Christmas trees before Star Wars destroyed literacy. 

My interest in this volume is much higher than it was in the late 70s. Iron Man has never been a favorite outside of the film iterations. However, Daredevil was my favorite Marvel character for the bulk of my teen years. Nick Fury has risen to the top tier of my interests since my 30s started and I finally read the complete Steranko run. Silver Surfer is a beautiful and sublime character when done right. Weirdly, I read more comics with the Watcher between 1980 and 1985 than any other character in this book. He was the lead in What If.. an alternative history comic from Marvel. Essentially, the Watcher was Rod Serling, and took the reader through such gripping tales as “What If.. Phoenix had Not Died, What If… Gwen Stacy Had Not Died, What If…. Elektra had Not Died.. What If.. Marvel Stopped Murdering Strong Women. 

Unlike volume 1 not every character gets 2 stories. The X-Men, at this time still on the cusp of a revival, only get the first issue reprinted. There is no “New X-Men” to mine here. Just Lee and Kirby’s initial war of Homo Superior on Homo Superior violence. 

Iron Man is still rooted solidly in the Viet Nam war in his first appearance. I was explaining to a very attentive 9 year old this weekend that the timeline slid upwards to keep the characters at the same age. I used Iron Man as an example to explain why Slade from the Teen Titans had a Korean wife. Anyway- the Cong here are colored a sickly pale yellow. The war was still wrapping up when volume 1 was being put to bed, so I am sure there was little thought given to adjust the color wheel a notch to lessen the insult of the racist pallet here. Iron Man is only 1 of 2 characters to get a second story outside the debut issue. The second story is drawn by Gene Colon, who also draws the second Daredevil tale. 

The Avengers debut is a fun and silly story, and not as epic as the film. In this one, Hulk is not recruited by the badass super-spy Black Widow he is instead rescued from a circus while found juggling elephants. Freak shows were still going on in 1965, and I guess there is some realism there. For that matter, many of the X-Men villains appeared around this time as part of a side show. Like the X-Men, the Avengers only get one story. odd, as it was a popular book at the time. 

Even more strangely, the cover-featured Scarlet Witch didn’t debut until X-Men 3 or 4, and joined the Avengers in issue 16. She is on the cover, despite being absent from this book. To take this one step further, the slipcase shows Captain America. He is in neither volume contained therein. His first 60s Marvel debut was Avengers 4, which is not reprinted in Origins or Son of Origins. 

Daredevil, AKA lawyer Matt Murdock,  debuts in a colorful circus costume in the first issue of his series. The tale is masterfully drawn by Bill Everett. As much shit as the movie caught, Daredevil is, when it is good, Marvel’s best book. About 12 of the character’s 49 years met that level of excellence. Nearly 25% of the character’s history. Some would even put that number higher. An example of this is the second story “Brother Take My Hand”. It is a two in one combo of proto-ADA and NAACP white liberal guilt filtered through the super hero metaphor. An excellent tale of DD befriending a blind black vet. The moving story is drawn by the always incredible Gene Colon. 

Nick Fury is huge now. He appears everywhere, from film, to cartoons, to live action TV. In the late 60s he was a revitalized version of a war comics character. Redone with a coat of Man From UNCLE colored paint, Nick Fury out bad-assed James Bond. If you have only seen the Marvel movies, you assume he was a Shaft-inspired black man from day one. 

Fury was tough-talking, cigar chomping, rough, gruff, super-spy, one-eye, leather wearing, gadget-having, bad ass mother fucker from day one. He was also white as Wonder Bread. He started out drawn by Kirby, and featured all the spy accoutrement that was due a international secret agent in 1966.  All we get in this book is the first issue. It features a red flying car (Lola to you TV fans) and Life Model Decoys (Patton Oswald’s character) that can sub for you when a death trap is just way too inconvenient for your spying lifestyle. 

As this assemblage of B characters winds down, the Watcher fits in the penultimate slot. His story is so tied in with the Fantastic Four, and he is a character of such Deus Ex Machina that it is tough to perceive him as anything other than a plot device. Lee and Colon attempt to deliver an origin story, and do give him an interesting history. Marvel is reprinting this character’s solo run later in the year, and I can say I am looking forward to getting the whole story. 

The book finishes out with Lee’s personal favorite, the Silver Surfer. The first issue of the comic, already quite collectable in 1975, is reprinted here. It is a double length story, so essentially functions as 2 comics. John Buscema draws Kirby’s creation, and starts off what is Marvel’s second cult book following Ditko's Dr Strange. The Surfer was cancelled after 18 issues, and gained more mystique as a result.

That’s it for the core of Marvel’s 1960s origins. The Fireside line continued on after this, following a couple of different paths. There were two more anthology volumes, covering Villains and Women. From there, solo volume started to be released. The second direction was non-fiction. Puzzle books, how to draw, a fitness tome, and a cookbook were all original works. lastly, and speaking of original works, Kirby and Lee teamed up for the last time on what was one of the very first original graphic novels. 

I’ll be writing about all of these in the weeks ahead. 

FIRESIDE Part 1: Origin of Marvel Comics

Marvel released what may be the prototype of today’s “graphic novel” in 1974 through a collaboration with Simon and Schuster’s imprint Fireside. 

The inaugural volume in what turned out to be a successful series, was titled “Origins of Marvel Comics by Stan Lee.” The cover showed two hands banging away at a typewriter as Marvels’ core characters flew up and away from the book’s modest title. Human Torch, Sub-Mariner, Spider-Man, Hulk, Thor, Dr. Strange, and Thing all sprung from the mind of the singular Lee, at least according to the cover. 

Opening the thick volume, one sees a reiteration of the cover’s claim with Lee listed as sole author. The book is dedicated to Stan’s wife and child. The next page contains a reimagining of Genesis with Marvel taking the place of God. This bit of pretension is the first place the idea of a comics Artist is suggested. 

A Prologue follows, bearing the first whiff of Lee’s hyperbolic word fantasia. Page 13 brings the reader to the first real content, a brief recollection by Lee on the creation of the first “marvel Age” comic, the Fantastic Four. Here Lee, outside of contractual obligations, bears witness to the history of Marvel, and acknowledges the contributions of Joe Simon, Martin Goodman, Mickey Spillane, and of course, the man without whom Lee was merely a typist, Jack Kirby.  

To be fair, the Fantastic Four collaboration was a perfect synthesis of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s strengths. Although there were times that there was a struggle for dominance in the collaboration, the final outcome made for near-perfect comic books for almost 9 years. 

Each character’s chapter features 2 issues. Typically the first issue, and then one that was a more fully realized version of the raw promise demonstrated in the initial offering. In this case, Marvel’s first volley into the super-hero world, FF #1 is followed by #55 which features Kirby’s creation the Silver Surfer in combat with the Thing. The second story is from the middle of what is generally considered the best stretch of the book (roughly issues issues 35-70) and highlights how Lee and Kirby refined the book and reached ever outward from the rough hewn monster comic beginnings of the feature. Crude inking is replaced by the slick line of Joe Sinnott. Kirby is using collage to relate impossible space-scapes, truly pushing the boundaries of the art form. Stan’s dialog is in full flower, each word dripping with Wagnerian import. 

The Hulk is next in line, again following a plurality of punchy pontification from Lee. Issue 1, another raw pseudo-monster comic leads the chapter. The tragedy of the Hulk/Banner Hyde and Jekyll dichotomy is present, but not fully evolved. In the original the Hulk was even grey, but recolored in his familiar jade hue here to prevent confusion. 

The second part skips ahead a little farther than Fantastic Four did, all the way to issue 118. Here, the Hulk is in combat with Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner in a spectacular underwater brawl, energetically illustrated by 70s Hulk mainstay Herb Trimpe. Lee pens this slugfest, and continues to develop an interesting pattern in the book. So far the “villains” of the second stories are also known as heroes, and in the first two cases are the subject of chapters in later books in the series. 

The Amazing Spider-Man is nest up, and receives a lengthy intro praising the differences between Kirby and the incredible Steve Ditko. Ditko picked up the Spider-Man assignment after Kirby’s work was deemed “too heroic” for what Stan had in mind. Apocryphal or not, Ditko has a deft touch with communicating the average man on the street. Following the well know Spider-Man debut from Amazing Fantasy 15, the follow up skips to Spider-Man 77, drawn by the second Spider-Man artist, John Romita Sr. Featuring the Shocker, Stan forgoes continuing with he anti-hero pattern. In part it may be due to the fact that Spider-Man rarely tangled with other Marvel heroes in any issues penned by Lee. Ever the loner, Peter Parker generally kept to himself. 

Superman is best known as mild-mannered nebbishy reporter Clark Kent, nerd by day, God by night. Kirby and Lee took this one step further with Thor. Lame Dr. Donald Blake’s walking stick transforms him into the living avatar of a true God with one click on the pavement. SHAZAM-like, lightning strikes bestowing godhood.  His nurse, Jane Foster, is a bit more sympathetic as a potential love interest than Lois Lane. However, she is still struck a bit by prejudice against Blake’s bum leg. The first story, Thor (spelled Thorr in a famous typo) shows off Marvel’s roots by following the trend of doing combat with aliens leftover from Marvel’s life as a monster/alien short story publisher. Stone Men from Venus are the alien du jour here. The later story, from issue 145, occurs in the midst of a long run of Asgard based adventures. Epic visual storytelling by Kirby nearing his 60s peak. As with Superman, at this point Thor is spending more time with his god-brethren than on Earth. There is even a hint of Shazam, with the Warriors Three stepping in for the 3 Lieutenant Marvels. 

This selection of stories ends with a real oddity. Dr. Strange is so much Ditko’s vision, that both stories here are drawn by him, No “later/better” version to be had. Secondly, The Dr. did not launch with an origin tale. The first story was followed five months later by the origin. Those are the two tales featured here; The pieces from the anthology book Strange Tales, issues 110 and 115. Dr Strange has never been Marvel’s most popular character, falling under the umbrella of cult favorite. Ditko enthusiasts, myself included, swear by him. The art is creepy, proto-psychedelia, as much an exploration of psychic space as Kirby’s work is of cosmic space. 

This book did a few things unseen before. First, it created the first ongoing anchor into bookstore market. The volume was released at the crossroads of Baby Boomer nostalgia, and the first wave of comics as outsider artist for intellectuals. Similar books from the time focused on Batman, Superman, or general surveys of the history of comics. Most were riding nostaligia. This was the first one to really look forward at the same time as it was looking back Marvel was still very much a market presence, and all of the characters focused on here were still seeing monthly chapters published. 

The market has a third audience, of course, Kids. These comics were just as relevant and dynamic in 1974 as they were in 1961. They were easy choices for young parents to make, often times reflecting a parent’s own fond memories of a recently passed youth. These somehow thrived in the bookstore market, despite the sharp decline in birthrate from 1972-1978. At $8 a pop, the series wasn’t just attracting 9 year olds, although we did long for every volume. They were present in bookstores through about 1980, and were always browsed through on every trip I made to any bookstore until they slowly vanished. Some volumes made it home with me. Others turned up on Holidays from Grandma, Santa Clause, or Mom.

I did not own a copy of Origins of Marvel Comics by Stan Lee until March 2014. I first saw it in a bookstore that my Mom’s old high school boyfriend took my to around 1976 or so.  I don’t recall the name of the shop, but remember seeing the book laying in a short stack of 2 or 3 on a table. The store soon closed and became “The Pop Shop”, a boutique soda store. They still make it in Canada. 

Michael, the high school friend, was on crutches. Forever. Swimming pool accident. It took him what seemed like hours to get out of his van. I was too small to help. By the time he got in there I thought I was going to die looking at that book. Even though it didn’t go home with me that day, it certainly made an impression. It was most likely my first exposure to real Kirby and Ditko. I didn’t care that Stan took the cover credit. The cover was a wonder, promising me 240 pages of unrelenting creativity. 

Nearly 40 years later, I can say it delivers exactly that.