Monday, May 19, 2014

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. 

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