Wednesday, August 31, 2016

"It Wasn't That Long Ago--But It Was A Different Time" - A Brief History of Marvel from 1939 to 1961

Martin Goodman had a knack for following trends.  The son of Russian immigrants, and the eldest of thirteen children, he had spent much of his young life during the Great Depression travelling the USA and living in hobo camps.  In 1929 he got into the magazine business, and within three years he had risen to the position of editor with Newsstand Publications.  In 1939, however, he saw a growing trend that was to make him his fortune.

Comic books were on the rise, particularly those featuring costumed heroes.  Foremost among them was Action Comics, published by DC1, which featured Superman.  Depicted on the front cover of his first appearance lifting a car over his head while wearing a colourful strongman's outfit, Superman was many times more powerful than an ordinary person, and he caught the public's imagination like nothing in comic books ever had before.  He was the first super-hero, though far from the last.  A wave of brightly clad imitators appeared in 1939, and Martin Goodman was quick to seize his opportunity.  He formed his own company, Timely Publications, and hired comic book workshop Funnies Inc. to produce his first comic.  The result was Marvel Comics #1.

Marvel Comics featured the debuts of a number of super-powered characters.  The Human Torch, created by Carl Burgos, was an android whose skin would burst into flame upon contact with air.  His intentions were good, but he spent most of his first story rampaging through New York, melting everything he passed by.  Namor the Sub-Mariner was the creation of Bill Everett.  Namor was the prince of undersea Atlantis, and he was far from heroic.  His first act in the story is to murder a pair of American deep sea divers, and from there he declares war on the surface world.  In many ways he was the anti-Superman, a powerful being alien to our society who wanted nothing more than to tear it down.

There were other heroes in addition to Namor and the Torch. The Angel was a costumed crimefighter with no special powers.  Ka-Zar was a shameless Tarzan knock-off.  But it was the Torch and Namor that were the biggest hits.  Marvel Comics #1 sold out of its initial print run of 80,000, and the second printing sold a whopping 800,000.  Martin Goodman had made it.

Never one to miss an opportunity, Goodman started building his own in-house staff, hiring Funnies Inc. writer-artist Joe Simon as his editor. The line flourished under Simon, and although Timely's comics were often crude in comparison to what was being produced by other publishers, they made up for that lack of polish with an unbridled sense of anarchic glee.  The difference can best be summed up by a comparison between the first time two Timely characters crossed over, and the first time characters from DC's stable met.  When DC launched the Justice Society of America in All-Star Comics #3, featuring the Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman and more, their first meeting involved the characters sitting politely around a table, taking turns to tell stories about their adventures.  When the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner met for the first time, it was a no-holds barred slugfest which resulted in the flooding of the Hudson Tunnel and the destruction of George Washington Bridge.

Simon, while working for Funnies Inc., had already befriended an artist by the name of Jack Kirby.  Kirby had grown up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and was essentially self-taught.  He and Simon had already collaborated on stories before, but their next collaboration was to be their greatest.  Together they created the patriotic hero Captain America, who was seen punching Hitler in the face on the cover of his first appearance, about a year before America entered the second World War.  Though Simon and Kirby received death threats from Nazi sympathisers, there was no chance that Captain America was going to be cancelled: its first issue sold nearly a million copies.

With the comics growing more and more successful, the Timely staff grew, and one addition to that staff was a 17-year-old kid named Stanley Lieber.  Lieber was the nephew of Goodman's brother-in-law, and was given a job as a gofer: refilling ink-pots, getting sandwiches, proofreading, and whatever other odd jobs needed doing.  Lieber's true ambition, though, was to write the Great American Novel, and within a few months he wrote his first story for Timely, a text page called "Captain America Foils the Traitor's Revenge".  He wrote the story under a pseudonym: Stan Lee.  The newly-christened Lee worked his way up the ranks, and when Joe Simon and Jack Kirby left Timely to work for DC, Lee was promoted to editor-in-chief.

As the second World War ended, the popularity of super-heroes began to decline, and other genres grew to replace them.  Goodman had a policy of following whatever genre was popular at the time, and pushing out as much content as possible while it was still turning a profit.  Timely flooded the comic racks with cartoon animal, romance, western, crime, horror, and war comics, riding each craze until it burned out, then moving on to the next one.  The comics may have been made as cheaply as possible, but they were still selling.

The good times were not to last, however.  The first blow came in 1954, when psychiatrist Fredric Wertham published Seduction of the Innocent, a book which asserted a definite link between the violent imagery in comics and delinquent behaviour in children.  This led to senate hearings, and a widespread suspicion of comic books.  Timely (by this time known commonly as Atlas Comics) banded together with a number of other publishers to form the self-policing body known as the Comics Code Authority, but the damage had already been done.  Comics would rarely see the same level of acceptance and sales as it had before Wertham's witch-hunts.

In 1956, Goodman decided to stop handling the distribution of his own comics, and began distributing through American New Company.  This turned out to be a disastrous move, as within the year American News was sued by the Justice Department for monopolistic practices, and went out of business.  Goodman had no other option left to him but to seek distribution with Independent News, who just so happened to be owned by Goodman's biggest rival: DC Comics.  Independent News agreed to carry the Atlas line, but only on the condition that Atlas would be restricted to publishing eight titles a month.

Through all of this Stan Lee remained as editor, and it was under him that the down-sized Atlas line was re-focused.  Lee gathered a small team of artists, including a returning Jack Kirby, old hand Don Heck, and newcomer Steve Ditko, and concentrated on putting out the best books he could.  Westerns and teen humour books aimed at girls were the mainstays, but the most interesting work was appearing in books such as Journey Into Mystery and Strange Tales.  In those books Kirby was crafting tales of giant monsters full of wild imagery, and titles such as "Spragg the Living Hill".  Steve Ditko was creating odd, often anxiety-ridden sci-fi and fantasy tales with twist endings.  They were by no means setting the comics field alight, but the synergy between Lee, Kirby and Ditko was growing.

Meanwhile, DC Comics had rediscovered the super-hero.  In 1956 they revived their Golden Age hero the Flash, this time with a sci-fi slant, and had a good deal of success.  In 1960 they created the Justice League of America, which united all of their most popular heroes in one team, and this book was even more successful.  So successful that, as legend has it, a top DC executive boasted to Goodman about it during a game of golf.  Whether the story is true or not, the result was that Goodman went to Stan Lee, and told him to create a new super-hero title.

Goodman's knack for following trends had struck again.  But this time, it was a trend that would not burn out after a few years, or even a few decades.  This was something else, something that would last for over half a century, with no end in sight.  This was the beginning of the Fantastic Four, and the birth of the Marvel Universe

1 DC, much like Marvel, had a number of different names throughout the Golden Age of Comics, such as Detective Comics Inc., National Comics, and National Periodical Publications. For ease of reference, this article will refer to them as DC throughout.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

"But What Does It All Mean?" - The Purpose of the Blog

The Marvel Universe is big.  Really, really big.  Just taking those comics published after 1961 into account, it's made up of well over 20,000 individual stories, and those are just the super-hero titles. Add in westerns, sword & sorcery, romance and the myriad other genres included in the Marvel Universe and things get even more out of control.  Needless to say, reading them all would be a huge undertaking.

My plan for the blog is not just to read them all, but to provide detailed indexes as well.  It's something I've wanted to do for a long time, but the sheer scope of the project has left me stymied.  The problem isn't just the number of comics involved, but the number of comics still being published every month.  I could write an entry for Fantastic Four #51, say, but there's no telling when another comic will come along and reveal something new pertaining to that issue, necessitating that I go back and revise what I'd already done.  I'd spend more time keeping track of this stuff than I would writing new entries.

My original plan was to do the comic write-ups only taking into account the comic in question, and any issues published before it.  So if I once again use the example of Fantastic Four #51 (hey, it's a great comic), my initial entry on it wouldn't have taken into account anything published after that date.  With each new comic I added I would have gone back and revised the older posts, and I was also planning on doing a series of books.  It was a serious undertaking, and well beyond the scope of a simple blog.  Hell, it was way beyond the scope of one person's lifetime.

So I'm going simpler.  I'll write up detailed entries on the comics, starting with Fantastic Four #1.  I'll try to include as much information as I can, on the issue in question and any connections it has to other comics in the Marvel Universe.  I'm not going to be as rigid about it as I was in my original plan, though, and I won't be going back to revise anything.  I'll just do the best I can at the time, and keep moving forward.

Why Fantastic Four #1?
Technically  speaking, the Marvel Universe was born in 1939, with the publication of Marvel Comics #1 (the first appearances of both the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner, among others).  But those aren't the comics people think of when they think of Marvel.  The birth of Marvel as we know it came in 1961, with Fantastic Four #1, and the many super-hero comics that followed.  Marvel in the 1960s brought a new maturity to super-hero comics, and a level of inter-connectivity between its various titles that had never been seen before.  That's where my interest lies.  And to be honest, I just don't want to read all of those comics from the 1940s; most of them aren't very good.

What Comics Will Be Included?
Over the years Marvel has constructed a mostly cohesive universe made up of tens of thousands of stories.  To my mind, every comic they've ever published takes place in Marvel continuity, unless it's specifically excluded, or contains something that rules it out definitively.  The westerns count.  The romance books count.  I even count Marvel's Star Wars comics: they do take place, after all, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

For the purpose of this blog, I have to be a bit more discerning, because I can't cover everything.  The books I'm going to deal with are those specifically set in the Marvel Universe, beginning with Fantastic Four #1.  In the beginning, that will mostly be the super-hero books, but later will branch into a number of different genres.  If a title is specifically set in the MU, and published after Fantastic Four #1, I'll cover it.

There may be some comics that, while they technically meet all the criteria for inclusion, I will be leaving out.  I'm thinking here of Millie the Model and Patsy Walker, who are a part of Marvel continuity, but whose stories have no bearing or relevance to anything on the super-hero side of things.  The number of titles they appeared in, and the lack of relevance to anything super-hero related, means that I'll only cover them tangentially.  The westerns are another genre that I'll probably steer clear of, again due to volume and lack of interest.

Regarding the super-hero comics of the Golden Age (the 1930s to the 1950s), I'll cover any that are reprinted in a comic published post-1961.  I'm happy to do entries for them as they come up, I just don't want to have to deal with to decades worth of them before I get to the stuff I really want to write about.

How Long Will I Be Doing This?
With the number of comics set in the Marvel Universe, and the rate that they are still being published, I could do an entry a day for the rest of my life and I'd only be scratching the surface.  I know this is an impossible task, but I don't care.  I'm just going to plug away at it, get as far as I can, and not stress out about it.  I'll cover what I cover.

So that's the blog, and what I plan to do with it.  I should be back soon with a quick history of Marvel Comics up to 1961, followed by some short bios of the most important Marvel creators at the time.  Then it's on to the real meat, and the place it all began: Fantastic Four #1.

Monday, August 29, 2016

"And From That Moment The World Would Never Again Be The Same" - The Beginning

It begins in 1982, with a boy.  He's almost four years old, but it's not important who he is, or where he lives.  His mum has taken him shopping, as she does every Friday afternoon.  He's standing in front of the magazine rack at the newsagency, and while he's not important, and where he lives is not important, what he holds in his hands will become very important to him.

The cover is mostly black.  The boy recognises Spider-Man from the television.  Spider-Man is about to punch someone, which is strange, because Spider-Man never punches anyone on TV.  Behind him, silhouetted in a door frame. is a man wearing a strange vest and buccaneer boots, with a pistol in each hand.  He's saying something, but the boy can't read the words.  He knows they're important, though.  He begs his mum, and is allowed to take it home with him.

He can't read the pages inside, so he looks at the pictures instead.  He sees Peter Parker, Spider-Man's alter ego, singing with a lot of old people.  He sees a strangely dressed man riding a flying bicycle, and shooting flames at Spider-Man with his umbrella.  He sees that the silhouetted figure from the cover is an old man, with grey hair and a wrinkled face.  Spider-Man is turned into an old man as well, for a little while.  The boy can't read the story, but the images make him feel uneasy.  There's something strange and unfathomable here.  This is for me, he thinks.  This is for me when I'm older.  He pulls out a red texta and scribbles over all of the faces.  And every Friday, when he goes to the shops with his mum, he buys another one.

It begins in 1939, with a magazine publisher.  He is 31 years old.  His name is Martin Goodman, he works in the McGraw Building on Manhattan's West 42nd Street , and he has just published his first comic book.  On the cover is a man made out of flame who is melting through the door of a bank vault to pounce on a criminal.  Inside this comic, the flaming man runs amok in New York, torching everything he comes near, while elsewhere in the book two deep sea divers are murdered by a strange undersea prince with wings on his ankles.  Martin sells a lot of these comics, and decides to make more.

It begins again in 1991, with the same boy.  He is twelve years old, and it's still not important who he is, or where he lives.  He has just finished reading a stack of comics that he borrowed from a friend.  In those comics a bald man just had his legs shattered in psychic battle with an entity representing all of man's darkest urges.  A man with knives coming out of his hands just fought another man who can throw exploding playing cards.  I'm going to read these forever, he thinks.

It begins in 1961, with a writer.  Or is it an artist?  Nobody is quite certain.  One of them is 38, the other is 43.  Their names are Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and they work on Madison Avenue in Manhattan.  They have just created a new comic book.  The cover is dominated by a huge green monster, and looks like a lot of the other comics they have collaborated on.  The inside is different, though.  On the inside, four people fly a rocket into space where they are bombarded by mysterious cosmic rays.  They return to Earth with with fantastic powers.  One can stretch bis body to amazing lengths, and another can turn invisible.  One can burst into flame, just like a certain character from 1939.  The last becomes a monster, and is consumed with bitterness and rage.  Stan and Jack keep making these comics, because it's their job.  Very soon, it will become something else entirely.

It begins with one story, and with thousands of others.  It spans from 1939 to the present day, and from before the birth of the universe until its myriad endings.  It may be the largest, most complex fictional creation of all time.

This is the story of the Marvel Universe, and how it unfolds, year by year, and issue by issue.