Saturday, February 13, 2016

Fireside Chats #2 - Son Of Origins!

With the second volume in the famous Fireside books series about Marvel we get a more complete reading experience from Stan "The Man" Lee as he lays out the beginnings of some more of the companies famous creations. Unlike the first 1974 volume Origins of Marvel Comics , Son of Origins published in 1975 feels like Stan had either more time or took more care in the telling of the real world origins of the superheroes who defined the company's identity.

Stan's strong and friendly persona is still very much in evidence as he continues to write with the winsome vigor that was infused in his famous "Soapbox" entries.

It's 1963 and the Stan begins with the The X-Men. At this point in 1975 the X-Men had been one of Marvel's few failures, a comic from the hands of Stan and Jack Kirby which had not held onto its audience sufficiently to warrant an ongoing comic. Of course this would soon change as a new team would become the darlings of the industry and redefine Marvel in the last half of the decade, but at this moment they seemed an odd choice to begin.

Stan does a much better job this time in sharing the stage with Jack Kirby (who he always calls "Jolly" in these books) and nearly attributes actual elements of the creation to the great artist. The book was originally to called "The Mutants" but Stan says the publisher Martin Goodman (Stan's cousin by the way) thought the title was a bit unusual for the younger audience he imagined still dominated his comic buying audience. So a new title was needed and Stan came up with "X-Men", a much better and exceedingly more memorable name.

The story turns a bit serious as Stan tries to put the creation of Iron Man into some historical context. Vietnam in 1975 was roundly seen as the toxic quagmire which had needlessly torn the country apart, a war of relative choice which was pressed with deception and far too many casualties.

But when Tony Stark, munitions maker and debonair playboy was dreamed up the war was far less unpopular and so a worthy spot it was thought to couch the origin of Marvel's "Golden Avenger" from Tales of Suspense. Stan says inexplicably that Tony Stark was to his knowledge the first rich businessman playboy in comics and I cannot doubt he speaks the truth, but it indicates he knows nothing of Bruce Wayne, a mild oversight to say the least. For the first time we read the name of Don Heck and he gets some neat kudos as does Larry Lieber who took over scripting the debut adventure.

We get a second look at Iron Man, the updated version. I suppose it was to show the hero as he looked at the current moment and not merely as the gray hulking version which began the series. The installment though is a weird one since while we do get some choice Gene Colan artwork the story ends on a bit of cliff-hanger.

The Avengers get the nod next, and to set it up Stan has to rectify his oversight from the first volume and fill in the reader on Ant-Man and the Wasp. Actually little is revealed here that would qualify as news. The Avengers was a title begun in response to fan calls for the heroes to team up.

Jack Kirby is called in to handle the chores since he was the artist in charge of most of the members in their home titles. I've always thought The Avengers shows off the weird dichotomy at Marvel which had two distinct divisions, the work by Kirby and the work by Ditko, both ostensibly written by Stan. But we see here that none of the character overseen by Steve Ditko make the cut in this  book. No Spidey and no Doc Strange.

Now comes a book about which Stan seems to really have something to say. Daredevil was created to grab some of the popularity of Spider-Man and rather failed to do it by most measures. As much as I think Stan sometimes overstates his role in the creation of some of the earlier heroes which owe a great deal to their artist co-creators, I think DD is much more a Stan production. Bill Everett was brought aboard to give us the origin tale which weirdly lacks the Marvel luster, though it's a fine looking comic nonetheless. This book feels out of place. DD of course is wearing the fighting-gear inspired costume which would soon enough be replaced when Wally Wood took over the character and really brought the true Marvel magic, albeit briefly.

The second story for Daredevil is a true favorite of mine. One of Stan's best stories with some delicious artwork by Gene Colan and inker George Klein.

This story is ideal for a collection of this sort, a full-bodied one-off with dynamic graphics and some of Stan's best writing. Stan had a great knack for creating dialogue. I always took that for granted until some years ago I was struggling through some of  the early work of Roy Thomas (a great plotter) and found his dialogue downright tedious, especially when compared to Stan's. That's Stan's great flair, being able to make the characters sound somewhat like heightened overly dramatic but realistic people of a kind.

With the next origin story we get another flashback to one of Marvel's earliest successes, but not one of the superhero type. Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos had been a big sales success, bringing the exotic Marvel energy to the classic war comic.

Kirby's art and experience infused the book with a wildness that really set it apart from the perhaps slightly more profound war yarns from Charlton and DC. Nick Fury though was a character with heft and Stan, wanting to take advantage of the spy craze of the mid-60's, used good old Nick as the centerpiece of a whole new feature dubbed Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Supreme Headquarters International Espionage Law-enforcement Division) was very nice blend of spy work and marvel method. For the first time really in the series I think Stan probably got the evolution of the series correct, according himself and artist Jack Kirby the proper credit. He for the first time seems to speak of them as co-creators.

But then we get to the Watcher and things get very murky again.

Stan mentions that The Watcher was introduced in Fantastic Four #13, a side character who evoked a lot of interest. So much so that he shows up again and again.

What Stan seems to have forgotten is that Tales of The Watcher was a regular back-up feature in Marvel's comics, most notably Tales of Suspense. We get the notoriously enigmatic Watcher relating different sci-fi yarns, functioning as a Marvel Universe Rod Serling-of-sorts. Eventually the stories begin to be about The Watcher himself.

We learn the origin of the Watcher's mission in a story properly called "The Way it Began..." by Larry Lieber on script and art with Stan getting a plot credit. Strangely it's this story that Stan revised slightly and retold in the debut issue of Silver Surfer with new art by Gene Colan and Syd Shores, but for some reason Stan has completely forgotten about the earlier incarnation. To his credit here, Stan does go out of his way to laud artist Gene Colan and if you look a the whole of this trade you find a lot of great Colan artwork.

The final story in this second volume of origins is one of the best, the origin story of the Silver Surfer. And here Stan does himself proud by I think accurately relating just how the Silver Surfer came to be. He talks about how he and Jack were working up new FF stories and searching for villains when they came up with Galactus. Now I'm willing to give Stan some credit here, though I doubt he had much to do with the nuts and bolts of the Galactus. By this time Jack was throwing in stuff which he and Stan never discussed (the Inhumans a prime example) and the Silver Surfer is the most famous example. Stan says the character just appeared in Jack's pages and they figured out together what to make of him.

Stan also says that it was Jack's schedule which precluded a Silver Surfer series, though where it would've have appeared is anyone's guess. It wasn't until Marvel was able to get out of its distribution deal with National that they could expand and when that happened they did it with gusto and the Silver Surfer was first on the list in a whopping twenty-five cent extravaganza. Jack was by this time retreating, creating no new features, and so that's why Stan went to John Buscema and Joe Sinnott. Whatever the reason it was a great success, at least critically. Stan always seemed to have a greater understanding of how the Surfer might connect to the audience. Jack always spoke of him in remote terms and I suspect didn't really grok at all what Stan saw in the character.

And that closes the second Fireside book. In so many ways this is a better and tighter volume than its predecessor because it seems clear that Stan had more time to collect his thoughts and write more carefully. It's not perfect by any means as there are errors, but overall this one seems to fulfill the promise this series suggested at the time, to really give us a sense of how the heroes of Marvel came to be.

One question though. Why is the Scarlet Witch on the cover? She ain't in the book at all, not even a little bit, not as a member of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants nor as an Avenger. Makes me think that at some point another Avengers story might have been slated but got cut. 

Next time we examine the Marvel baddies.

Rip Off


  1. Why's the Scarlet Witch on the cover? 'Cos a little glamour's always a good thing, Rip - especially when punting a book. (Okay, it's got Marvel Girl, but one broad on each side of the cover balances it up.)

    One of the major drawbacks of the book is that some of the origin tales are reproduced from exceedingly bad proofs. I suspect that they used foreign reprint proofs in some cases, and restored the English dialogue using stats from actual published comics. Foreign languages often require more words than English does, and many of the caption boxes and speech balloons have been extended, thereby obscuring portions of the art. The only other reason I can think of is that the proofs were so bad that there was art drop-out and whoever was charged with fixing the stats took the easy way out, merely extending the boxes and balloons instead of restoring the art.

    Incidentally, there IS a difference (or was at the time) between Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne. In the early '60s, Bruce was perceived as being simply a millionaire playboy who'd inherited his father's money, whereas Tony, to use Stan's words in the book, was "a wealthy and successful businessman", with "holdings and interests in every part of the world". Of course, this was later introduced into Wayne's background, but it wasn't a feature of his life at the time. That probably explains why Stan wasn't thinking of BW when he came up with TS (whose name was created by Larry Lieber, who scripted the tale as you know).

    Also, Martin Goodman was married to Stan's cousin Jean, so he was really Stan's cousin-by-marriage, not his uncle. It was Stan's uncle Robbie (Solomon, I think) who hired Stan at Timely without Martin being aware of it at the time. Apparently, Martin was surprised when he saw Stan was working there.

    Another interesting post, Rip - well done.

    1. Appreciate the kind words and the corrections. As for the Scarlet Witch, it's not a complaint, especially as she's so lovingly rendered by John Romita, but just a curiosity.

      One thing about the Masterworks program is that so much of the great old work has been cleaned up for reprints. Once they have it in good shape it's a snap to reprint it over and over, which they sometimes do.

      Rip Off

  2. This does seem a more interesting collection, but let's take a moment to contemplate how much creative work was done by Jack Kirby with Stan. (I suspect it was Kirby's contribution that helped bring the X-men into this volume.) Daredevil was set to premiere first, but fell behind schedule and was switched with X-men. Steve Ditko helped finish Everett's backgrounds, a little slice of history that isn't mentioned.

    Speaking of which, you touched on Marvel's being limited by its distributor. Mark Evanier (who'd be my choice to write the history of comics,since he's talked to everybody) has written on that:

    Martin Goodman was always pushing hard on Independent News for a better deal and sometimes would (temporarily) order Stan to prepare changes in the lineup or new titles. The Inhumans and Black Panther were both created to spin off into their own books pretty quickly. A few years before it actually happened, Goodman wanted to split up the double features like Tales to Astonish and give some characters like the Hulk their own books. This once involved the Hulk's slot in Astonish being filled by a new series about the Silver Surfer. It looks like the Surfer story that was prepared to be in Astonish ended up in Fantastic Four Annual #5.

    At this point Marvel was on fire and new solo stories of the Inhumans, Panther and Surfer might've been more powerful than what happened later on with these characters. I vastly prefer Kirby's Silver Surfer to what he was turned into, even with some beautiful art. It would've been cool to see these sorts of details show up in Stan's history; at the very least, it makes for a richer story.

    In the universe we ended up in, though, the Fantastic Four became a truly mind-boggling comic, largely because of the continued presence of characters like the Inhumans, the Black Panther and the Silver Surfer. It seemed like the most creative and groundbreaking superhero series in comics for a while there. Maybe restraining Kirby from giving all he had to give at once produced a more distilled, more potent vision.


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