Saturday, February 6, 2016

Fireside Chats #1 - Origins Of Marvel Comics!


As our saga opens the force that has become Marvel was just one more rag-tag comic book publisher on the skids and beholding to its competition to maintain even a minor toehold in the market which regularly suffered booms and busts. Martin Goodman's company had been around since almost the very beginning with hits like the Human Torch, the Sub-Mariner, and most especially Captain America. But since those halcyon war days it had been feast or famine as the company mined every genre which caught fire over several decades. Due to a disastrous deal the company was extremely limited and dependent upon National Periodicals to get any space on the shelves. Superheroes were just the next thing, alongside parody, fright, western, and war comics. Another niche that Marvel (called Timely and Atlas in earlier times) wanted to get a morsel of. And that's where this tome begins from the reflective vantage point of 1974.


If you're a fan of "Stan's Soapbox" then you'll find his writing in this book at once familiar and frustrating. Familiar in that Stan's distinctive persona shines through as he uses the pronoun "I" insatiably, and frustrating in that he shifts topics paragraph by paragraph (sometimes sentence by sentence) and constantly calls attention to the writing itself. He establish a friendly rambling gait, but not one without plenty of diversions as whatever hits his mind hits the page. I don't know how many drafts of this book there were, but the text has the feel of none at all.
 


After some obligatory backstory about the Golden Age Timely material and identifying the competition (he mispells "Charleton" by the way), Stan tells the now familiar yarn of how the Fantastic Four resulted from publisher Martin Goodman (Stan's uncle) noticing that DC's Justice League of America was selling above average. In hopes of capturing a bit of that wave he ordered a super-team be made. But according to Stan, he himself was growing weary of comics and so used the new book to fulfill some aspirations he had to add true drama and character to comics as was readily available in most other mediums. Stan gives us the sense that he didn't really care if it failed, since he himself was out the door anyway.


He enlists Jack Kirby, back at Marvel producing monster comics (Fin Fang Foom, Googam, etc.) and had Jack follow a synopsis to produce the first issue which debuted the Fab 4 (Mr.Fantastic, Invisible Girl, the monstrous Thing, and a revived -- kind of-- the Human Torch). The team eschewed costumes (though they'd have them by issue three) and confronted a villain -- the Mole Man-- intended to evoke some sympathy with readers.


Clearly it worked. The second offering is Fantastic Four #55 which shows us a mature team (drawn in a more mature Jack Kirby art style) confronting the "menace" of the Silver Surfer, trapped on Earth after helping to stave off the threat of Galactus. The Marvel Universe is a much richer place since the FF debuted, full of all sorts of menaces and associates for the team.


According to Stan The Incredible Hulk was launched in response to fan letters which came pouring in about the Fantastic Four. Again Jack Kirby is tapped to handle the art chores.


Stan says here that he was at a loss for a second feature until he imagined crossing Frankenstein with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. We read about the failed attempts to color the Hulk gray but weirdly no mention is made of the fact that The Incredible Hulk was deemed a financial loser and was cancelled after six issues.


A reader unfamiliar with the more detailed history of Marvel would imagine since we get the later Hulk issue by Herb Trimpe that the feature had continued unabated for the intervening seven years. This particular issue of Hulk is a real favorite of mine, as it features a clash with Sub-Mariner, the Hulk's co-star in the Tales to Astonish run which the numbering of the comic continues. It was a homecoming of sorts for the Prince of the Deep.


Then it's Spider-Man. Though the Ant-Man preceded Spidey in the order of creation and ran successfully in the pages of Tales to Astonish long after The Hulk had been cancelled, he is ignored in this volume, rating nary a mention. Instead we get the behind-the-scenes origin of Spider-Man and as we learn it goes all the way back to the pulps and the notorious Spider, the Master of Men. Stan says this nasty grim hero made a big impression on him and he was the inspiration for the teenage hero Lee had long wanted to fashion. Amazing Fantasy was chosen as the place since Lee indicates they had no prospect the hero would be successful. (This is a recurring theme - nothing left to lose so why not.)

The selection of Steve Ditko as the artist gives a nod to his ability to draw the everyman, a skill that Jack Kirby lacked as his heroes all aspired to the ideal. Translation - Kirby's people were handsome and Ditko's people were ugly.


The second story this time features Stan's favorite Spidey artist John Romita and I have to say this issue is a fave of mine too. The Shocker is one of the sleekest villains every created, I love his quilted costume though his powers have always seemed weird.


Journey into Mystery #83 and Thor are up next and Jack Kirby gets some due as the artist able to realize the grandiose qualities of the story, but the meat of Stan's essay here is dedicated to his brother Larry Lieber (and why they have different names) and how Lieber was critical to a burgeoning cache of comics all written by the same guy.

(The fact Jack Kirby was drawing most of them seems to have slipped his mind.) Again Stan suggests that Thor developed from the urging of fans in letters to the Bullpen, and I've no reason to doubt it. It seems clear though that without the desperation of no choices and without the constant urging of "thousands" of fan letters there would have been no Marvel.


The later effort in this instance gives us a good look at Thor's universe some six years later and we meet Balder and Sif as well as get a glom at some truly magnificent Kirby artwork. Stan remarks that at this point he was writing the book and had added the  psudeo-Shakespearean dialogue of the Asgardian gang. It's hard not to notice that this is definitely the reminiscence of a man who focuses on words.


The final hero showcased in this first edition is Dr.Strange, who doesn't rate any a cover mention in his debut in Strange Tales #110. Stan tells us that the old Chandu the Magician radio show had a big influence on him and so we get the occult world  of Doctor Strange.


Stan remarks that Doc Strange had his origin told some six months after his debut and both stories are presented in this volume. Since they are both short that's no great thing really, but it's made to seem so.


Absolutely no mention is made of artist Steve Ditko and his collaboration on Doc Strange, save when he is lumped in with many others as Stan sets up the last comic entry in the book by Marie Severin, a rather forgettable story alas. Space was a factor I suspect or we'd have had a stronger entry here.


It's a bit strange (pun intended) to end on this character, but that's what we get. Stan clearly wrote about the "origin of Marvel Comics" from his own perspective, and that perspective is that of a writer. He mentions artists and even offers them praise of a sort, but seems clearly to not apprehend that Doc Strange succeeded not so much because of the alliterative nature of his incantations but because of the eye-opening artwork of Steve Ditko. Likewise Jack Kirby is lauded, but Stan doesn't really seem to suggest that he's anything special other than a talented artist among many others, and certainly not a co-creator of anything we've just seen.

Stan's epilogue gives a shout out to many of the Bullpen of the day who were getting Marvel to the masses and Stan suggests there is more to come.


And there is as next week we encounter Son of Origins.

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18 comments:

  1. I loved this book, and have to say I thought Stan's writing had a Marvellous (pun intended) charm that carried the reader with him all the way. My main beef with it is the corner page numbers being clumsily excised from the art, and some less than stellar retouching in places. I suppose the reason Stan seems to focus on the writing is because it was mainly that which was different in the early mags compared to their competitors. Kirby and Ditko had been around forever and their art on these stories looked as it had always done; however, the characterization, brought about mainly by the dialogue and captions, is what marked the difference between Marvel mags, the competition - and, even, previous Timely/Atlas/Marvel books. Just a shame they got the Dr. Strange section out of sequence in the 1st edition. (Er, may I suggest 'beholden'?)

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    1. I'm far from a Stan hater, but I think you're cutting him too much slack in this instance. Stan comes across to me as a skillful writer who had a very successful bag of tricks which struck a nerve with an audience ideally suited to get his shtick. It worked wonderfully, but I don't get the sense that Stan ever really understood what the magic was or why it clicked.

      The addition of worldly woes to the lives of superheroes is a great gimmick, but it's not all that Marvel was about. The rough and tumble of Kirby's artwork was a different way of seeing the world compared to the neat precision of DC and Ditko's street level art resonated with a realism unusual in the time. Stan didn't seem to grasp that, or if he did, he didn't take the time to incorporate it into his look back at the origins of the comics in question.

      For a reflection the first volume of Origins seems to weirdly lack a real sense of perspective, historical or otherwise. But that has never been Stan's motif, a guy solidly in the moment.

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    2. I think he must have known, Rip, because he repeated his bag of tricks enough times to show that he was aware of the formula. As far as Kirby's artwork goes, in the early issues of FF, it was pretty much the same as he'd been doing for years (great as it was, but it was nothing new), and Stan obviously recognized the attraction of Ditko's art for him to turn Amazing Fantasy into a Ditko showcase.

      I think Stan realized that most people who'd buy the book would do so for the strips themselves, which is why he didn't go beyond a cursory mention of the historical side of things. And, going by the fact that I wasn't left with a sense of wanting to know more, I'd venture it was the right approach.

      I think it has to be remembered that whenever Kirby was left to give an account of how things were in his career, he tended to whitewash Joe Simon and Stan right out of the picture. (And Ditko, being a recluse, didn't talk much about his career at all.) Kirby's Wood-inked art in Challengers of the Unknown was better than the first three or four issues of FF, so it obviously wasn't the defining factor in the mag's initial success. That was down to the bickering between the characters, and Stan was mainly responsible for that.

      But one without the other? Who can say for sure?

      My view is that it was a book written by Stan Lee, from the point of view of how he experienced things, so why shouldn't he be the hero of his own version of the story? That's the approach that Jack always took.

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    3. I see your points, and as I say I don't come at this as a Stan hater by any means. I rather think that Stan's presentation of things from his own perspective is unusually myopic given his role as leader of the Bullpen. Marvel was a success for lots of reasons, no less the writing of Stan but the "origins of Marvel Comics" which is the title of this tome suggests a broader perspective.

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  2. Wow, Stan sure is high on himself. It certainly sounds bordering on delusional that Stan thinks he is solely responsible for Marvel's success. Does he mention the Marvel method? Was it common knowledge when this book came out or was it a secret?

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    1. Not I suspect for the people this book was targeted for, book buyers. Stan has worked hard in more recent years to fix these early errors in presentation but it's an impression which is hard to overcome.

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  3. It has been documented in quotes by the Man himself that Ditko brought Dr. Strange to him fully conceived, and we've all heard the story of how Stan wasn't aware of the existence of the Silver Surfer until he saw the character appear on the penciled pages. That's why this book is as much mythology as the comics themselves and why it's so frustrating. The cover stories have been told so many times they have been refined into a glib shorthand that sounds a bit too perfect. It seems reasonable that Stan should decide to make a protagonist based on Frankenstein or inspired by the Spider, but at this point we can't be sure, and probably neither can he.

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    1. Stan never claimed to have created the Surfer 'though, and always admitted to being surprised when he first saw him. The fact that he provided Norrin's backstory entitles him to a creator credit I'd say, as that's the character that the reading public is familiar with.

      As for that quote, I've never seen it, but I've seen the one in which he says "'twas Steve's idea." However, that could merely mean that it was Steve's idea to do a strip about a sorcerer. Dr. Strange seemed to be not much more than a reworking of Dr. Droom - right down to the origin, so visuals apart, it was really nothing new.

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    2. Look for the Silver Surfer in the next installment.

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  4. I got into this same discussion about Dr. Strange not too long ago over at Marvel in the Silver Age. Kid, were you there, too? I think one of the points I was making was about how drastic an improvement was made by Ditko both on Strange and in Astonish's Hulk strip. It's true that the broad outlines of the origin story which came four months after the debut was a cliche even back then and I don't doubt Stan had input on that. Everything else about the character and series are so much more intricate and unique compared to Dr. Droom, you have to notice that the main difference is the presence of the artist. One of the qualities of Steve Ditko seems to be that he has been known to plan the path of his characters well in advance and has a gift for organizing his worlds fairly deliberately. I'd contrast that to the way Kirby worked, which was brilliant, but he just seemed to be possessed like a visionary prophet. I still love what Stan did for me as a kid, but sometimes I think his creators were well beyond his understanding, making him try to fit ground-breaking concepts into a box he could understand. A big example is taking a cosmic alien angel like the Silver Surfer and turning him into a silver-plated man of flesh who pines after his lost girlfriend.

    So what constitutes an "origin" in this context? At the very least, all of this stuff has to pass through Stan, so you could say nothing happens without him. And his was the voice that helped give those comics their identity. But I would add that the origin of Marvel itself (as opposed to individual characters) is as dependent on the vision of a few brilliant artists/plotters/conceptualizers who did a lot of the heavy lifting.

    At the end of the origin of Droom, the old Lama transforms him with the touch of his hand. When the story was reprinted in Weird Wonder Tales, Droom says "My mind! It's as though I've awakened from a deep sleep!"

    But this has been changed from the original dialog in Amazing Adventures #1, where Droom's reaction is "My eyes! They're becoming slanted! And I've a--a moustache!" This is the mark of a writer trying to keep up with an artist, though it's still one of my favorite transformation scenes of all time.

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  5. Yup, I was there too, Russ. Thing is, at the end of the day, I feel obliged to recognize that it was Stan's input that elevated what were competent and entertaining tales with great art to even greater heights. After all, Kirby and Ditko, when on their own, always did great art and good stories, but none of them were classics in the way that their collaborations with Stan were. You say that Jack and Steve (and others) did the 'heavy lifting', but that's only because Stan's input seemed deceptively simple - some might say superficial. However, whatever Stan added to the mix, it was the secret ingredient that gave the end result its flavour. Had Stan not been involved with these tales, I doubt the characters would've had the same success and longevity that they did. Stan helped bake the cake that was Marvel, but he was also the icing on it.

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  6. I think it was a whole combination of things that made Marvel a success. Ongoing stories, More relatable heroes/newer heroes, Marketing, Marvel was "hipper" and Stan made readers feel like they were in a cool club, and of course the art. But I don't think anyone was questioning whether Stan was an important part in the mix. He was! But I think the issue is, due to the Marvel Method where the artists did all the art first it really seems disingenuous for Stan to claim he wrote anything. They had idea meetings and he made suggestions, but the artists created the stories and Stan filled in the dialogue. For Stan not to explain this in a history of the comics creation is completely misleading and I'd argue criminal.

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    1. I'd say the word criminal is a bit strong, especially as Stan DOES refer to the way he and Jack worked in the book's first chapter. However, I think the real problem is one of perception. Stan usually suggested a basic plot and talked it over with the artist, which means that you're not quite accurate when you say that "the artists did all the art FIRST". Sure, the artists added a lot and probably even changed things, but by the time it landed back on Stan's desk, he'd probably forgotten what it was supposed to be about. (He was a busy man remember.) The margin notes were guides to Stan, and to remind him what was going on. Stan then dialogued the pages, occasionally sticking close to some margin captions, but more often than not doing his own thing. As it was Stan 'creating' the characterization through his scripting, I believe he genuinely thought he was the 'writer'. However, there's an early interview where Stan says about Jack (something like) "He's the writer of the thing (FF mag) as much as I am!", so I don't think it was ever his intention to rob anyone of their due credit. And you're right, it was a whole combination of things that made Marvel a success, but, like I said, Stan (when combined with these other things) was the magic ingredient that made everything gel. In my view anyway.

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    2. Well if he explained the writing process in the book that's one thing. I thought that Rip had said that he didn't explain the Marvel method in the book.

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    3. I have to come to Dave's defense here. The famous "Marvel Method" was very poorly explained in this volume and never named. Stan hardly makes mention of the artists and when he does they are always carrying out his instructions. I get that's the way he felt about and I really don't doubt that's the way he remembered it, but as we know now it was the way it was. Stan said different things at different times, but in this book which purports to offer up the "origin" of not only the heroes but how they came to be he unduly understates the role of his collaborators.

      To be frank, and I said as much in the original review, I think the flaw here is that Stan is writing the text for this first volume from the hip, as he did much of this kind of thing. The style and haphazard twists and turns of the yarns suggest that he was just typing and thinking at the same time. I visualize him having the stories for the reprint volume in front of him and having been given the order of publication proceeded to write up a little bit for each, just pulling it out of his ass as he went. Deadlines probably dictated he knock it off swiftly and so he didn't have a chance most likely to bounce anything off others, such as Roy Thomas, who might've been able to give him some perspective.

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    4. Correction: "as we know now it was NOT the way it was"

      See what happens when you shoot from the hip and pull it out of your ass. Oops.

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    5. I dunno, Rip, I think Stan's description of what became known as the Marvel method, while brief, is pretty accurate: "...we had a uniquely successful method of working. I had only to give Jack an outline of a story and he would draw the entire strip, breaking down the outline into exactly the right number of panels replete with action and drama. Then, it remained for me to take Jack's artwork and add the captions and dialogue, which would, hopefully, add the dimension of reality through sharply delineated characterization."

      What must be remembered, I feel, is that the stories are included and the artwork can therefore speak for itself, so it's only natural that, in the text, Stan focuses on his part in the proceedings. Also, I feel the title of the book is meant somewhat as a pun. It includes the origins of Marvel Comics' first wave of superheroes, so it's called 'Origins of Marvel Comics'. It had enough of the historical backstory to satisfy me - I learned all I really needed to know (and probably more than I cared about) in regard to Timely, Atlas and Martin Goodman. The selling point was the origin stories - that's why most readers bought the book - Stan's prose was extra, and why shouldn't he indulge his own involvement a little?

      Whatever its faults, I still think it's a great book for what it was, although I agree it was probably written on a tight schedule, which probably shaped its text content to some degree. I have the impression (from something I read in the early '70s somewhere) that, originally, Marvel's intention was just to release a King-Size Special containing reprints of the stories before it metamorphosed into an actual book.

      As Stan himself said: "I'm not about to tell you too much about those early days. This book would have to be twice the size. Besides, if this one sells well I've got to save something for Volume Two."

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    6. I agree that the book sold because of the comic book stories contained therein. The Stan stuff is an afterthought, and it shows. He does much better in the next one.

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