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.