Wednesday, September 7, 2016

"First Family" - The Men Who Created Marvel

Although Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko are rightfully regarded as the primary creators of the Marvel Universe, they were far from the only important people who worked on the comics in those early days.  The following is a series of short biographies of the men who worked on Marvel's first superhero comics of the 1960s, detailing their lives up to that point. 

Martin Goodman: Moe Goodman was born in 1908, and it wasn't until later in life that he would adopt the name Martin.  His parents were both Russian migrants, and Goodman was the oldest of thirteen recorded children.  The family lived in a number of homes in Brooklyn while Goodman was growing up, and during the Great Depression he apparently travelled the country, living in hobo camps.  In late 1929 he was hired to work for the circulation manager of Eastern Distributing Corps, and eventually he rose to the position of manager himself.  Eastern went bankrupt in 1932, so Goodman partnered with a number of other investors to form Mutual Magazine Distributors, and was also made editor of another magazine publisher, Newsstand Publications.  He helped to churn out a number of pulp magazines, with titles such as Marvel Science Stories and All-Star Adventure Fiction.  In 1939, with the popularity of comic books on the rise, Goodman contracted studio Funnies Inc. to create material for a comic to be known as Marvel Comics #1, published by his newly formed Timely Publications.  The comic was a hit, and Goodman directed Timely as its publisher, riding the superhero craze until it died out, then following every other trend that came along.  The company, later popularly known as Atlas Comics, was mostly successful under his leadership (though it could be accused of favouring quantity over quality), until Goodman's disastrous distribution deal with American News Company.  American News, which had a virtual monopoly on newsstand distribution in the US, was found guilty of restraint of trade not long after Goodman signed with them.  The company was liquidated, leaving Goodman with no choice but to sign a deal with Independent News, a distribution company owned by chief rival National Comics (later known as DC).  Atlas was forced to reduce its output drastically.   Around the same time1, Goodman apparently opened a closet door in the Atlas offices and discovered pages and pages of unpublished inventory stories.  He ordered editor Stan Lee to stop paying for new stories until the backlog had been used, a process which took around a year.  Goodman was still the publisher of Atlas (soon to be renamed Marvel Comics) in the early 1960s, and his decision-making, for better or worse, would be pivotal in the formation and development of the Marvel Universe.

Stan Lee: Born Stanley Martin Lieber in 1922, the man who would go on to be the face of Marvel Comics spent most of his youth aspiring to write "The Great American Novel".  He grew up in various houses in Manhattan, but his family was far from rich: his father worked as a dress-cutter, but was rarely employed during the Great Depression, and during his teen years Lieber shared a room with his brother while their parents slept on a fold-out couch.  Lieber graduated high school at age 16, and held down all manner of jobs as a teenager: obituary writer, sandwich deliveryman, office boy for a trouser manufacturer, and theatre usher.  His big break came in 1939, when at age 17 his uncle Robbie Solomon landed him a job as an assistant at Timely (Solomon was the brother-in-law of Martin Goodman).  Lieber's work at first consisted of odd jobs such as refilling inkwells, proofreading and fetching lunches, but he still had ambitions to be a writer.  His chance came in 1941, with a prose story in Captain America Comics #3 entitled "Captain America Foils the Traitor's Revenge".  Wanting to save his real name for more literary work, he signed the story with a pseudonym: Stan Lee.  Lee soon graduated to scripting actual comics, and later in 1941, when Timely editor Joe Simon was fired over disputes with Martin Goodman, he was installed as the interim editor.  He showed a natural aptitude for the job, and remained in that position for decades to come; his only break was during World War 2, when he enlisted and served in the military as a "playwright", creating training manuals and propaganda.  His most famous work during this time was a poster warning the troops about the dangers of venereal disease, with the slogan "VD? Not me!"  Upon his return Lee resumed his duties as Timely's editor and art director, and gradually he also became the head writer.  By the early 1960s he was still in that role, though perhaps less enthusiastically now that he was approaching forty, and had yet to begin his "Great American Novel".
Jack Kirby:  Even by the early 1960s, Jack Kirby was regarded as one of the finest creative minds in the industry.  Born Jacob Kurtzberg, Kirby grew up in a poor family on the Lower East Side.  His rough-and-tumble childhood involved being a member of a street gang, but it didn't stop him from learning to draw.  Kirby taught himself by tracing the comic strips from newspapers, and he was a fan of such artists as Milton Caniff, Hal Foster and Alex Raymond.  He left school to pursue his artistic ambitions at age 14, but was rejected by the Educational Alliance (an institution that offered classes to Jewish Americans on a variety of subjects), reportedly for drawing too fast with charcoal.  Later he enrolled at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, but left when it became apparent that he was expected to spend a great deal of time on each single project.  As Kirby put it, he didn't want to work on any one project forever, and instead he "intended to get things done".  In the mid-1930s he spent a brief time working on comic strips with the Lincoln Newspaper Syndicate, and an even briefer time in animation with Fleischer Studios.  Later in that decade he produced work for various comics and magazines under a number of pseudonyms, but it wasn't until he met Joe Simon in 1940 that his career took off.  They spent most of that year working for Fox Feature Syndicate, before jumping over to Timely Comics.  There they co-created Captain America, and became two of the most popular and prolific creators in comics.  Kirby became Timely's art director, but soon there were pay disputes between the pair and Martin Goodman.  Simon and Kirby began doing work for National (later known as DC Comics) while still working for Timely.  Stan Lee was among those who knew that this was going on.  When Martin Goodman found out he fired Simon and Kirby, the latter of whom was convinced that Stan Lee had ratted them out.  Simon and Kirby had a fruitful career at National, where they created the Boy Commandos and Manhunter, and revamped the Sandman.  Kirby enlisted and fought in World War 2, where he almost lost his legs to frostbite.  Upon returning home he resumed his partnership with Simon, and the two went on to create the first ever romance comics, a genre that would be very popular throughout the 1950s.  Flush with success, Kirby and Simon launched their own comics company, Mainline Publications.  Mainline only lasted a year, and by the end of it Simon and Kirby's relationship was strained; Simon went to work in advertising while Kirby continued in comics, freelancing for National and Atlas (the former Timely) and also illustrating a newspaper strip, Sky Masters of the Space Force.  In the late 1950s, after Atlas was forced to cut back its line, Kirby became one of its primary artists, producing from 8 to 10 pages a day.  Most of his work was on sci-fi and monster stories, which were fun, if a little formulaic.  It would have been reasonable at the time to believe that Kirby's best work was behind him, that he was a spent creative force.  The next decade, however, would see some of the greatest creative achievements of his career.

Steve Ditko: Born in 1927 in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, Ditko became a fan of comics at a young age.  Influenced by the works of Will Eisner, as well as Jerry Robinson's work on Batman, his talent for illustration blossomed during junior high.  Upon graduation he immediately enlisted in the military, and served in postwar Germany, but he did not allow his artistic skills to fade.  Not only did he spend time drawing cartoons to send back to his family, but he also drew comics for an army newspaper.  After he was discharged Ditko moved to New York, where he studied at the Cartoonists and Illustrators School under his idol Jerry Robinson.  Robinson often invited industry professionals to speak to his class, and one of those professionals was Stan Lee.  This was almost certainly the first time that Lee ever saw Ditko's work.  Ditko didn't begin his career at Atlas, though.  Instead he found work as an inker at the studio of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, followed by a lengthy stint working for Charlton Comics (where he co-created the super-hero Captain Atom).  His career was put on hold for a year when he came down with tuberculosis, but upon his recovery he began drawing for Atlas, and freelanced with them up through the early 1960s.  His output was mostly twist-ending sci-fi and suspense stories, in titles such as Strange Tales and Amazing Adventures, often in collaboration with Stan Lee.  By late 1961 his work had become popular enough that Amazing Adventures was renamed Amazing Adult Fantasy, and dedicated exclusively to Ditko's stories alone.

Larry Lieber: Stan Lee's younger brother may be the most unsung pioneer of the Marvel Universe.  Born in 1931, about eight years after Stan, Larry Lieber spent most of his childhood moving back and forth between Manhattan and the Bronx.  He attended George Washington High School, where he showed a great interest in art and drawing.  Larry was only 15 (or 16, accounts vary) when his mother died, and he went to live with Stan and his wife, Joan, but for unknown reasons the arrangement was an unsatisfactory one.  Larry soon left to make his own way, working as a messenger for the New York Times, and in the studio of comic letterer Sam Furber.  Eventually he went to work for Timely as an art assistant on the magazine side, while also spending his nights studying at the Pratt Institute Art School.  His first credited comics work as an artist was in All True Crime #44, published in early 1951.  Later that year he began a four-year stint in the Air Force, serving during the Korean War, but when he returned he went right back to Timely (now Atlas), mostly pencilling and writing romance comics.  After the distribution disaster of 1957, and the downsizing of the Atlas line that followed, Lieber was brought in by Stan Lee to help him with the writing load.  In the early 1950s and late 1960s, Larry Lieber was Stan's right-hand man, and if an Atlas book published during that time wasn't written by Stan, it was probably written by Larry.

Don Heck: Though Heck's work is not as well known as that of Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby, he was one of Marvel's most important artists of the early 1960s.  He was born in Queens in 1929, and as a teenager he learned to draw through correspondence courses and art classes at Woodrow Wilson High Vocational School, as well as a community college in Brooklyn.  In 1949 he found work at Harvey Comics, repurposing newspaper strips into comic form (Joe Palooka and Terry and the Pirates being the most notable of those that Harvey published).  In 1952 his colleague Allen Hardy broke off to form his own comic publishing company, Comic Media, and Heck was invited to work for him as an artist.  During that time he met Stan Lee, although that meeting was almost purely by chance.  A colleague of Heck's named Pete Morisi took his own portfolio to the Atlas offices, looking to find work.  Some of Heck's pages were in Morisi's folder, and Lee kept going back to them.  Morisi called Heck over, and Heck was hired as a staffer by Stan Lee in September of 1954.  He spent a few years on staff at Atlas, mostly working on war and western comics, but he was let go when the company purged its staff after the distribution debacle of 1957.  Heck spent a year drawing model airplane views for Berkeley Models, but in late 1958 he was rehired when Lee began restructuring Atlas.  Most of his work in the late 1950s and early 60s was on suspense, western, and some romance comics, and he was one of the mainstay artists at Atlas.

Dick Ayers: Ayers, born in Ossining, New York in 1924, was probably Marvel's most important inker of the early 1960s.  His first published work came while he was serving in the Army Air Corps in 1942, a comic strip called Radio Ray that appeared in a military newspaper.  After the war he did some work with Dell Comics that went unpublished.  Following this he studied under Burne Hogarth (famous for his work on the Tarzan newspaper strip).  Joe Shuster (co-creator of Superman) would occasionally visit Hogarth's school, and Ayers soon found pencilling work in Joe's studio.  From the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s Ayers worked with a number of publishers, including Magazine Enterprises, Prize Comics, and Charlton.  He started freelancing with Atlas in 1952, and in the late 1950s he began his association with Jack Kirby, with whom he would become a frequent collaborator.

Stan Goldberg: Goldberg is rarely mentioned when talking about Silver Age Marvel, and as such it's difficult to find details about his early life.  He was born in the Bronx in 1932, and graduated from the Manhattan School of Industrial High Art.  In 1949 he began working as a colourist for Timely, and was promoted to manager of the colour department two years later (where he coloured not just interiors, but also the covers of every comic Timely/Atlas produced.  He worked in the Atlas bullpen until 1957 (when most of the staff were unceremoniously fired), and went freelance in 1958 while also studying storyboarding.  He started doing freelance work for Atlas again in the early 1960s, and went on to become their primary colourist for most of that decade.

Paul Reinman: Reinman was born in Germany in 1910.  His Wikipedia entry says that he started drawing at age three, which hardly seems like a banner achievement, but by his early twenties he was creating pen-and-ink drawings of buildings such as the Rashi Synagogue.  He emigrated to New York in 1934, and his first job was as assistant to a designer of neon signs.  Later on he designed matchbox covers, posters, fashion drawings, and package designs.  Eventually he got some work doing art for pulp mags, then comic book work with MLJ (later known as Archie Comics).  His first confirmed work was for Timely in 1940, in Human Torch #2, cover-dated Fall.  Most of his work in the 1940s was done with MLJ, where he co-created the superhero called "The Fireball".  After that he moved over to All-American (a company that later merged with National to form DC), where he became the primary artist for the original Green Lantern, and also worked on such characters as the Atom, Starman, Wildcat and Wonder Woman.  He worked sporadically for Atlas in the 1950s, and later in the decade became a frequent inker of Kirby's work in Marvel's sci-fi and monster anthologies.
Artie Simek: Artie Simek was born in 1916, but it's difficult to determine exactly when he started working in comics due to the lack of credits at the time.  He was on staff at Timely in the 1940s as a letterer, but his first credited work didn't come until 1957, in a National book: World's Finest #91.  His first Atlas credit came two years later in 1959, in Kid Colt #83.  Despite rarely receiving any credit, he was Marvel's primary letterer in the late 1950s and early 1960s, working on almost every book they produced.  Interestingly, though perhaps irrelevantly, he was noted for his ability to play the spoons.

Sol Brodsky: Born in 1923 in Brooklyn, Sol Brodsky determined at an early age that he wanted to be a cartoonist.  He started by sweeping floors at MLJ, and by 1942 he had his first confirmed comics work with Holyoke Publishing.  In the same year he began his long association with Timely/Marvel, pencilling a few short humour strips.  Brodsky served in the Army Signal Corps in World War II, and afterwards returned to freelancing.  He began inking regularly for Atlas in the early 1950s.  When Martin Goodman in 1954 sacked Marvel's entire comics staff except for Stan Lee (the first time, and not the last), Lee contacted Brodsky with an offer to be his production assistant.  Brodsky held this position until 1957, when once again Goodman sacked his comics staff.  After this Brodsky tried to start his own publishing company, but failed to find an investor.  He went on to become the editor of Cracked magazine (a Mad knock-off) in the early 1960s, and while working on that publication continued to do freelance inking for Marvel.

1. I had some trouble sorting these events out, as there are varying accounts. The distribution deal with American News definitely happened in 1957, but the story about Goodman finding inventory stories in the closet is harder to pin down. Many accounts have it taking place in 1954, but I have seen it lumped in with the distribution debacle of 1957. I'm more inclined to believe the former, and to write off the latter mix-up to faulty memories and the passage of time.

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