Continuing a look back at my first exposure to a number of rock ‘n’ roll acts and superheroes (or other denizens of print or periodical publication), some of which were passing fancies, and some of which I went on to kinda like. They say you never forget your first time; that may be true, but it’s the subsequent visits–the second time, the fourth time, the twentieth time, the hundredth time–that define our relationships with the things we cherish. Ultimately, the first meeting is less important than what comes after that. But every love story still needs to begin with that first kiss.
This was originally posted as part of a longer piece. It’s separated here for convenience.
Make mine Marvel?
In early 1966, I was six years old, and a de facto DC Comics fan. I didn’t know about different comic book companies, but the Batman TV series made me a voracious superhero enthusiast. The superdoers I knew were pretty much all DC characters: Batman and Robin, Superman, The Metal Men, and Superboy. I think my comics reading at the time may have stretched to include the grizzled, battle-weary World War II soldier Sgt. Rock (in an incongruous meeting with The Viking Prince) and humor comics like Gold Key‘s The Flintstones and Harvey‘s Hot Stuff and Casper The Friendly Ghost. This would change and expand as the year wore on. And somewhere in there, I also discovered Marvel Comics.
Marvel was both a veteran and an upstart publisher in the early ’60s. It had been in the comics biz since the 1939 publication of Marvel Comics # 1, cover-featuring the debut of The Human Torch. The company had done well in the ’40s, with the Torch, The Sub-Mariner, and Captain America, but had slid to lower-tier status in the ’50s. In 1962, legend has it that Marvel’s boss Martin Goodman heard DC’s Jack Liebowitz boast during a golf game about how well DC was doing with superhero comics again, particularly with a new super-team book called Justice League of America. Desiring a piece of that super-success for his own marginal comics line, Goodman then directed his wife’s cousin, Stanley Lieber, to create a superhero team for Marvel.
Stanley Lieber had been working for Goodman for almost as long as Goodman had a comics line. Lieber wrote, Lieber edited, and Lieber probably swept the office on occasion. His first published story was a text piece, “Captain America Foils The Traitor’s Revenge,” in 1941. Lieber felt that comics work was demeaning, and didn’t want to sully his name by association with this seedy medium. Hoping to some day become a respected novelist, Lieber used a pseudonym for all of his comics work. To this day, though, no one has read nor even heard of novelist Stanley Lieber; but we all know Marvel Comics’ Stan Lee.
Lee basically ran Goodman’s comics line (variously called Timely, Atlas, and eventually Marvel) from the mid ’40s on. As superhero stories fell out of fashion, Lee churned out Westerns, romance, horror, teen humor–anything that might find a place on the fickle newsstand. The line shrunk. The staff shrunk. The assignments for freelancers all but disappeared. But Lee was still there. One presumes he wasn’t thrilled with the fact, but Lee was still there. And he was still there in ’62, when Goodman gave the command to concoct his own Justice League.
Is the story of the golf game that inspired the Marvel Age of Comics fact or fantasy? It may not matter. As we learned from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, when the legend becomes fact, print the legend. Lee had his orders. And Lee even had a super power at his disposal: he had artist Jack Kirby. It’s no slight against Lee to suggest that Kirby may have been the single most important creator in the history of American comic books; Kirby’s talent and boundless imagination leaped off every page he ever crafted. Working with Joe Simon in the ’40s and ’50s, Kirby co-created Captain America, The Newsboy Legion, Stuntman, Boy’s Ranch, The Boy Commandos, The Fly, the genre of romance comics, and that’s not even a thumbnail c.v. After Simon and Kirby split up, Kirby continued working and creating. His vibrant visual style added impressive zing to the generic monster stories Lee was slapping together for Marvel’s Strange Tales and Journey Into Mystery. Together, Lee and Kirby would make magic. Together, Lee and Kirby would create the Marvel Universe.
Although it’s easy to get carried away with (deserved) praise of Kirby, it’s important to also celebrate how integral Stan Lee was in this partnership. We weren’t there, so we’ll never really know how much work Lee did, nor how much was pure Kirby, but one suspects this whole lightning-in-a-jar of the Marvel Age of Comics couldn’t have occurred without both of them working at the top of their game. Neither Lee nor Kirby could have done it alone, nor would it have been the same with, say, Stan Lee and Carmine Infantino, nor Jack Kirby and Gardner Fox. Marvel was the House of Ideas that Stan and Jack built.
And it started with The Fantastic Four, the superhero team Lee and Kirby created to answer Martin Goodman’s decree. Although much of The Fantastic Four‘s dynamic was immediately reminiscent of Kirby’s previous work on his creation The Challengers Of The Unknown at DC, Lee’s dialogue added a whole other level of seeming verisimilitude. Unlike the monster stories and other disposable strips Lee had been generating, Lee was engaged and energized by writing The Fantastic Four. The spark ignited. The book sold. Success! Success breeds a demand for more. Lee and Kirby accommodated.
The Incredible Hulk! The Mighty Thor! The Amazing Spider-Man, created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko (though Kirby claimed at least partial credit, and that’s another one we’ll never really know for sure)! The Invincible Iron Man (creation assigned to Lee, his brother Larry Lieber, Kirby, and underrated artist Don Heck)! The hits just kept on coming. Uniting Thor, Iron Man, The Hulk, and Ant-Man and The Wasp finally gave Goodman his own Justice League, with the coming of The Mighty Avengers. Captain America was revived, both as an Avenger and as a companion strip to Iron Man in the split book Tales Of Suspense. More! MORE!
And yeah, I was oblivious to all of that.
As near as I can determine, my first Marvel was Tales To Astonish # 80, cover-dated June 1966. It was probably a book that one of my older siblings picked up. Like the above-mentioned Tales Of Suspense, Tales To Astonish was a split book, shared by The Sub-Mariner and The Hulk. The book fascinated me in ways I had no way to articulate. It was…busier than the Superman and Batman stories I’d seen, denser, maybe grittier. Even as I write these words, I also recall the claustrophobic art style of DC’s Wayne Boring on Superman and Lois Lane (a 1965 Lois Lane 80-Page Giant is the earliest comic book I remember reading), so maybe I wasn’t really as unprepared for Marvel art as I thought. But man, this still seemed different.
The first story in this issue starred The Sub-Mariner in “To The Death!,” pitting Prince Namor against an undersea behemoth controlled by his arch-enemy, the evil Warlord Krang. Grinnin’ Gene Colan‘s pencils (inked by Dazzlin’ Dick Ayers–Smilin’ Stan Lee had a flair with credits) were simultaneously smooth and dirty, and the image of just the behemoth’s grasping hands, clawing at the ocean’s floor as the creature sinks finally into a deadly quagmire, made a permanent impression on this six-year-old. The second story was no less striking, as The Hulk was kidnapped by his foe Tyrannus, who looked positive creepy as a dying old man depicted by Kirby and Bill Everett.
Well. I was hooked.
As a kid in 1966, long before there were any such things as comics shops or the direct sale market, you could never be sure you weren’t going to miss the next issue of any given title. Adding to this frustration, Marvel stories were almost always Continued Next Issue!, not done-in-one like most DCs. But I did get Tales To Astonish # 81, and I found it equally gripping. I didn’t get another issue until spying # 84 on the spinner rack at a grocery store in Aurora, Missouri while on vacation that summer. The cover image of Namor wearing an open trench coat, running while discarding his disguise, grabbed me, reminding me of Clark Kent changing into Superman; Namor didn’t have a secret identity, but I wished he did. I could only buy one comic book that day; I had my choices narrowed down to this one, Batman # 184, and Justice League Of America # 47, and my mother told me to buy the Batman and be done with it. I picked up the Tales To Astonish within a week or so after that, at a small store in nearby Verona, Missouri. I didn’t get that issue of JLA until many years later.
So that was my gateway to Marvel Comics. That same summer in Missouri, my sister Denise and cousin Cheryl returned from a walk with a copy of The Avengers # 13, a comic book from early 1965, but any book you ain’t read yet is a new book. With that, Marvel fully joined DC in my comics cosmology. This new appreciation was immediately reinforced by the debut of The Marvel Super Heroes, a syndicated package of (barely) animated adventures starring Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, Sub-Mariner, and The Hulk on a rotating basis. The cartoons aired daily in Syracuse on WHEN-TV Channel 5, as part of the kids’ show, Jet Set.
Marvel continued to enthrall me throughout the rest of the ’60s. I saw no reason for specific brand loyalty–I read and enjoyed DC, Marvel, Gold Key, Harvey, Charlton, Archie, Mighty, Dell, even the short-lived King Comics line–but there was something particularly invigorating about Marvel, something irresistible in the carefully-crafted illusion of camaraderie created and nurtured by Smilin’ Stan Lee. In the ’70s, I began to identify myself more and more as a DC fan; the reasons why may be subject for a future blog someday. Nowadays, following a brief period where I was buying more Marvels than DCs, the pendulum has swung back to my familiar ratio of more DCs to Marvels.
But I still love Marvel, too. I love the characters, I love the history, I love the tapestry woven all those years ago by Stan and Jack, and Steve Ditko, and Larry Lieber, and Don Heck, and Bill Everett, and Dick Ayers, John Buscema, Roy Thomas, John Romita, Steranko, Neal Adams, and so many others. The House Of Ideas was a very, very, very fine house.