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 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.