Sunday, 27 November 2016

Marvel's First Magazine - The Spectacular Spider-Man

MARVEL COMICS WAS NEVER Martin Goodman's primary publishing interest. He had started up in the 1930s as a magazine publisher after first working as a circulation manager at Eastern Distributing Corporation, under future Archie Comics founder Louis Silberkleit. 

When Eastern went out of business in 1932, Goodman joined several other investors, including Silberkleit, and founded Mutual Magazine Distributors as part owner, and was appointed editor of Mutual's sister company, Newsstand Publications Inc. Goodman's first publication for Newsstand was Western Supernovel Magazine, cover dated May 1933. The second issue was re-titled Complete Western Book Magazine, dated just two months later. The new publishing company quickly added further pulp magazines to its lineup, including All Star Adventure Fiction, Mystery Tales, Real Sports, Star Detective, the science fiction magazine Marvel Science Stories and the jungle-adventure Tarzan knock-off Ka-Zar.

Martin Goodman quickly established his publishing philosophy - look at the newsstands, see what other houses were publishing then launch a copy. Rinse, repeat.
In 1934, Mutual filed for bankruptcy, leaving Newsstand Publications in the lurch, Newsstand was unable to pay its printers and the company's assets were seized. Silberkleit decided it was prudent to abandon ship, but Goodman convinced the printers they'd have a better chance of getting their money if they allowed Newsstand to continue trading. Now as the sole owner, Goodman pulled the company back into profitability, and within a couple of years had moved to better offices in uptown Manhattan. "If you get a title that catches on," he told the trade magazine Literary Digest, "add a few more, and you're in for a nice profit." With Goodman, it was all about providing disposable entertainment as cheaply (to him) as possible. "Fans aren't interested in quality," he concluded. 

Goodman's company didn't really have an identity. He'd publish each title under a different company name - Margood Publishing Corp, Marjean Magazine Corp and so on. That way, he could make sure that if one title ran into trouble, its misfortunes couldn't affect the rest of his publishing line. It was a practice he'd continue well into the 1960s.

As the 1930s wore on, sales of the fiction pulps were declining and there was a new fad gaining traction with kids at the newsstands ... comic books. National were having a great success with their costumed characters Superman and Batman, and Goodman, ever willing to jump on a bandwagon, contacted comic strip packager Funnies Inc and had them put together material for a 64 page book, Marvel Comics. The comic's first printing, cover dated Oct 1939 sold out its 80,000 print run in a week. Goodman immediately reprinted Marvel Comics 1 with "Nov" overprinted on the cover and this time sold out the 800,000 print run almost as quickly. 

Martin Goodman's first foray into comics, Marvel Comics 1, was a ripping success, and continued on a monthly schedule as Marvel Mystery Comics from issue 2. The publisher in the imprint was given as "Timely Comics" though that identifier would rarely appear on any of Goodman's comic covers.
With a major hit on his hands, Goodman then quickly lured Funnies Inc editor Joe Simon away and set up what would come to be called Timely Comics. Daring Mystery Comics 1 (Jan 1940) quickly followed, then the Jack Kirby-drawn one-shot Red Raven Comics 1 (Aug 1940), which flopped and was quickly re-tooled as Human Torch 2 (Fall 1940).

With Marvel (Mystery) Comics a success, Goodman followed up as quickly as he could, according to his own established publishing philosophy, with Daring Mystery Comics and Red Raven, which morphed into a solo title for The Human Torch with issue 2.
Yet for all the initial success Goodman was having with his comic books, the pulp sales were in freefall, and Goodman began to transform the magazine part of his business into a low-end, traditional magazine publisher, putting out puzzle books, sports and movie fan mags, cartoon digests and "men's interest" magazines.

Through the 1940s, Goodman lavished far more attention on his magazines, or "slicks" as they were referred to, which he saw as far more reputable than the comics. Yet most of those publications are now lost in the mists of history. It's been very difficult to uncover any information on these magazines, beyond their subject matter.

The first issue of Popular Digest was cover-dated September 1939, just one month ahead of Marvel Comics, and was published by Timely Publications. Coincidence? I think not.
One of his early magazines was a Readers' Digest knock-off called Popular Digest, the first issue of which was dated Sept 1939 and carried a strap-line of "Timely Topics Condensed" and was published by one of Goodman's shell-companies, Timely Publications, though the cover identifier Goodman was using around this time was Red Circle Magazines

But Goodman's most successful magazines - Stag and Male - were, ironically, a good deal less respectable than his comics line. 

The origins of Martin Goodman's Stag magazine began here in January 1942, with this adult cartoon magazine. However, this was nothing like Esquire magazine of the same period, so it seems likely that Goodman cancelled this after one issue and re-launched Stag as an Esquire clone the following month.
Stag had begun in 1942 in response to the far more successful (and still extant) Esquire magazine. Goodman was always one to follow trends rather than to create them (as documented in umpteen other posts on this blog) and launched his version Stag in direct response. Or rather almost. The first issue of Stag was more of a compilation of cartoons from other magazines, printed on bulky pulp-style paper. But the following month, Goodman transformed the magazine and tried to publish something closer to the formula of Esquire.

An editor called J. Alvin Kugelmass brought the idea of imitating Esquire magazine on a much lower budget to Goodman, and the publisher - ever vigilant for a bargain - jumped in with both feet.
Putting the two magazines side-by-side seems pretty damning. Though Stag was printed on much cheaper paper than Esquire, and used much lower profile contributors, there can be little doubt that Goodman was trying to cash in on the same market ... if I were less charitable, I might say he was trying to pass-off Stag as an Esquire stablemate.

Where Esquire had Vargas pinups, Stag used Peter Driben. Though I'm a fan of Driben's work - later made much more famous on tame 1940s and 1950s girlie mags like Titter and Wink - he's certainly not in the same class as Vargas.
But this new version of Stag didn't last either. After an internal scandal at Martin Goodman's company, where editor J. Alvin Kugelmass had been endorsing freelancers cheques to himself and cashing them, Stag shut down for a couple of months and returned as The Male Home Companion, for a single issue in October 1942.

A few years later, with sales on Goodman's comic line declining, Writers' Digest for August 1948 carried an announcement that Goodman was about to re-launch Stag magazine, with Stan Lee as editor. However, the plans fell through due to "distributor trouble" and the following year, another re-launch was announced, this time with Bruce Jacobs as editor.

Stag was the market-leader in the slightly shadowy world of "men's interest" magazines. Starting off as a straight adventure magazine in the late 1940s, it had transformed into a more "spicy" style of men's fiction by the late 1950s, often mixing Nazis and sex on its covers. By the 1970s the title had pretty much become newsstand porn.
Stag's subsequent success would launch a whole raft of what would come to be referred to affectionately as "men's sweat" magazines - a kind of cross between spicy pulps and coy girlie magazines. Completely by accident, Goodman had actually started a trend, and Stag and its other companion magazines would enjoy considerable success until the late 1960s, when market forces would compel Goodman to transform his line of men's mags into soft porn publications. 

Coming very much from a pulp tradition, artists Mort Kunstler and Earl Norem were two of the most prominent artists of the Men's Sweat magazine genre, often including pretty racy, fetish-themed material into their newsstand-displayed covers.
But in its heyday, Stag, along with stablemates Male and For Men Only, enjoyed the contributions of writers like Bruce Jay Friedman, Mario Puzo and Mickey Spillane, and artists like Norman Saunders, Earl Norem and Mort Kunstler.

As an impressionable lad of 11 or 12, I recall seeing issues of Stag and Male at the newsstands I would haunt while looking for Marvel Comics around 1963 and 1964. Despite the siren-call of the lurid cover art, I'd never pluck up the courage to pick one up and look inside, fearful that the proprietor would shoo me away if I were to show too much interest in these forbidden publications. So the contents will forever remain a mystery.

Many years later, in an original art catalogue from US art dealer Tony Dispoto, I came across the above black-and-white interior illustration, attributed to Man's Life magazine. I don't think it was a Goodman title, but it does give some indication of the content of these mags. The cover line from this September 1956 issue, "Weasels Ripped My Flesh" was appropriated by Frank Zappa as the title of one of his albums.
But for all that, it's as well to remember that Marvel's late Sixties and early Seventies foray into comic magazines was likely inspired by these slightly eccentric magazines.

IT'S SPECTACULAR, ALL RIGHT ...

Back in 1957, when Goodman had found himself without a distributor, he was forced to go cap-in-hand to DC Publisher Jack Liebowitz and submit to a draconian eight-titles-a-month deal in order to get his comics on the stands. Though Liebowitz's Independent News allowed Goodman to add a few extra titles across the ten-year contract, Marvel was still only publishing 14 titles a month at the end of 1967. By the beginning of 1968, after Kinney National Company bought out DC Comics and Independent News, Marvel was finally freed up to expand its line of comics, and Goodman set about expanding his anthology titles Strange Tales, Tales of Suspense and Tales to Astonish into six titles. A year later, Independent News went out of business and both Marvel and Saturday Evening Post owner Curtis were sold to Perfect Film and Chemical Company, so it made sense for Curtis to distribute Marvel's comics.

The first sign that something was up was when the three anthology titles were each given over to one of their co-stars, changing their titles so that Astonish, Suspense and Strange Tales all disappeared.
But we readers didn't know any of that stuff. Oh, sure we knew something was happening with Marvel, but back then, I was just excited about additional, new Marvel Comics ... it didn't even occur to me that Marvel seemed to be doing better. Though the transition wasn't that smooth, because the same month that Hulk and Captain America took over Astonish and Suspense respectively, Stan had an 11-page Iron Man and an 11-page Sub-Mariner tale parked in the slightly odd Iron Man and Sub-Mariner.

The existence of this title has always puzzled me. I've never understood why it was needed, when Stan could have just launched Namor and Iron Man in their own books the same month as Hulk took over Astonish and Cap took over Suspense.
I've always wondered why it was done that way. Did the Suits decide that launching the two brand-new titles, Iron Man and Sub-Mariner couldn't be done at the same time as Hulk and Captain America? That wouldn't make any sense, as in effect Hulk and Cap were just continuations of Astonish and Suspense, not additional titles. Or did Stan just miscalculate, and get his story-lengths in a muddle? I guess we'll never know ...

1968 was a bumper year for Marvel house ads. Each announcement was more exciting that the previous one. But for UK fans, we would be disappointed over how hard the Spectacular Spider-Man mag was to find in the newsagents. I had more luck with Silver Surfer 1.
The first inkling I had about Marvel's aggressive expansion plans was when I stumbled across copies of Iron Man and Sub-Mariner 1 and Iron Man 1 in a small newsagent in Wemyss Bay in Scotland, in the summer of 1968. While I wasn't that mad about IM&SM1, I though the first issue of Iron Man was a very wonderful development, as I was a massive fan of Gene Colan at the time (still am) and the thought of 20 pages of Colan Iron Man at a time was beyond fantastic.

Incredibly, that tiny newsagent is still there in Wemyss Bay. I haven't been there for fifty years, but I'm very happy that one of my essential childhood haunts is still alive and well.
And as the Marvel explansion unfolded, there were more and more wonderful comics coming out. Jim Steranko's SHIELD comics deserve an entire blog post to themselves. Sub-Mariner and The Incredible Hulk in their own comics was okay. I hadn't been a great fan of Namor, though the John Buscema artwork was sublime. Kirby's Captain America title was great, of course, but then Cap was always my favourite Marvel character. And the Dr Strange book was also terrific. But in the house ads in those books we saw that there was even better things to come from Marvel, notably the Silver Surfer book (which also deserves its own posting). But the really intriguing thing was that second Spidey book, The Spectacular Spider-Man.

The fully-painted cover and the grey-tone interior artwork were a revelation to me, as I'd never seen a comic like that before. And it was full magazine-size rather than the smaller 10x7 inch comic size.
It wasn't  all that obvious from the house ads just what we could expect. I wouldn't have noticed the 35c cover price in the ads, and it wouldn't have meant much to me if I had. And though I didn't track down a copy of the comic until a couple of years later, when I did finally find one I was pretty blown away. Where America comic readers might have been a bit disappointed that it was in black and white, that didn't bother me one bit. The skilful grey wash-tones more than made up for it. And that cover ... wow - a painting! I thought it was just incredible.

A couple of years earlier, someone had given my younger brother an illustrated Walt Disney storybook, but the pictures were full colour paintings of Mickey and Donald on a caravan holiday. I used to love those illustrations. Perhaps they were even by Carl Barks, but it's such a long time ago I can't be sure. The Spectacular Spider-Man cover was even better, because that was an oil painting of a super-hero - something fans may take for granted today, but back in 1968, it was nothing short of revolutionary.

Though it was based on a John Romita drawing, the execution of the cover painting was by Harry Rosenbaum. Little is known about Rosenbaum beyond his work for some of Goodman's men's magazines, and his later cover paintings for a couple of the Skywald mags put out by Sol Brodsky during his temporary split from Marvel Comics in the early 1970s.

The usual Spider-Man supporting cast are all present and accounted for, with Jonah Jameson and Captain Stacy featuring large, as well as Gwen, Mary Jane and Harry Osborne. The villain is a Frankenstein monster type, controlled by villainous mayoral candidate Richard Raleigh.
The inside of the book was also pretty impressive. The story was mammoth length, at 52 pages, allowing for some spectacular six-page fight sequences by John Romita, and some great character scenes by Stan, featuring the usual supporting cast of Spider-Man. Further, Stan appears to have consciously pitched the story at an older readership, by not using a costumed villain, but rather a corrupt politician who uses a strength-enhanced monster to create chaos for his own nefarious purposes.

In 1964, Jim Warren added a comic magazine - Creepy - as a companion to his successful horror movie magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland. I had been aware of FM from about 1963 or so, and had even acquired the occasional copy, expensive though they were, but hadn't seen either Creepy or Eerie.
The reality was that independent publisher Jim Warren had been in this space for a couple of years already, aiming his own black and white mags, Creepy and Eerie, firmly at an older readership, with a horror anthology format that wasn't a million miles away from the classic EC Comics of the 1950s. But all that was lost on me, as I wouldn't come across these Warren comics until much later in my teens.

Once again, the house ad for Spectacular Spider-Man 2 (Nov 1968), really didn't do the John Romita cover art justice, though this time the interior story was printed in four-colour comic book style, and ran to a mammoth 58 pages.
But for Stan, the experiment couldn't have been successful, because when the second issue of Spectacular Spider-Man (Nov 1968) came along, it was with four-colour interiors and a familiar costumed super-villain, The Green Goblin.

This time the cover art was a solo Romita oil painting, which wouldn't have been clear to readers from the house ads that ran in the regular Marvel comics. Dynamic though it might be, I suspect the inclusion of the garishly-costumed Green Goblin might have been too juvenile an approach for the magazine's intended older audience.
With the expanded space, Stan had encouraged John Romita to make the artwork, well, spectacular. So there were fewer panels on a page, with more full-page splashes dotted throughout the story. The supporting characters were once again in evidence, but I couldn't help feeling that this wasn't the direction Stan had envisaged for his magazine-size Spider-Man comic. 

The Interior of the book - Romita layouts, Jim Mooney pencils and Frank Giacoia inks - wasn't vastly different from what readers could see in the regular Amazing Spider-Man comic, just with more pages and bigger panels on the page.
It was hard to see a difference between this story and what was going on in the regular Amazing Spider-Man title. If anything, the tale told in Spectacular Spider-Man 2 seemed to be simply marking time, as we end the story in exactly the same situation that we began it - with Norman Osborne back to his amnesiac state, oblivious that he'd ever been The Goblin and that Peter Parker was really Spider-Man. And there less of a feel that Stan was pitching this at an older audience than the regular comics.

The story in Spectacular Spider-Man 2 seemed quite decompressed compared to the regular Amazing Spider-Man comic, with bigger panels and more full page splashes ... yet the material wasn't really much different from the 12c comic, which makes me now think that either Stan wasn't sure where to pitch this or was getting mixed messages from his publisher.
I have no idea whether this was Stan's idea or if Goodman had imposed this package and approach on Stan in an effort to get better sales, but I think it was the wrong strategy and led to the magazine's cancellation.

PUSSYCAT - A MARVEL ANOMALY

Right around the same time that Marvel were trying out the magazine format, Martin Goodman felt the time was right to experiment with a completely different kind of comic magazine. The Adventures of Pussycat had been running in five-page comic strip instalments in some of his men's magazines, like Stag, Men and Male, and had been written by Stan Lee, Ernie Hart and Larry Lieber and drawn by Wally Wood, Jim Mooney and the legendary Bill Ward. The strip was a low-budget riposte to Playboy's successful 1962-1988 "Little Annie Fanny", by Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder. Goodman had his magazine staff pull together nine episodes and shove them into a 64-page mag, the identical format to the first Spectacular Spider-Man magazine.

Behind a Bill Everett painted cover was 64 pages of reprinted comic strip from Martin Goodman's slightly seedy men's adventure magazines of the 1960s. Drawn mostly by Jim Mooney and Bill Ward, some of the episodes were written by Stan Lee, but the bulk were scripted by Larry Lieber.
It's doubtful that the trial was a success, as only the one issue ever appeared, though the character would continue in Goodman's men's sweat mags until the early 1970s, so it's not like there wasn't the material available.

MARVEL MAGS OF THE 1970s

The commercial failure of these three magazines at the end of the 1960s made Stan and Marvel shy of trying to compete with Warren's comics for quite some time. Right around the time that this was happening, Goodman was in the process of selling Marvel Comics to Perfect Film and Chemical Company, so it's quite possible that he hadn't considered a line of Marvel Comics magazines as a sustainable venture. He may well have just been piling on some product to make Marvel's portfolio of publications appear more attractive to prospective buyers. Then again, it's likely that negotiations with Perfect Film would have been rattling along from the early part of 1968, and that Goodman's comics mags had nothing to do with that.

After a three-year hiatus, Marvel once again attempted to get a toehold in the monochrome comic mag market, with the launch of Savage Tales, cover dated May 1971. The featured Conan story offered us teenage readers some coy nudity, gorgeously illustrated by Barry Smith.
By 1971, Goodman was halfway out the door at Marvel, and with the success of Robert E. Howard's Conan character in the Marvel colour books and Stan's ascendency to Publisher, Marvel took another swing at the black-and-white mag market with the introduction of the slightly racy Savage Tales, cover dated May 1971. 

Besides the cover-featured Conan the Barbarian, the mag also gave us an equally titillating Ka-Zar story by John Buscema, a post apocalypse macho fantasy Femizons drawn by John Romita, a "blaxploitation" story, Black Brother by Denny O'Neil and Gene Colan and the first appearance of Man Thing by Gerry Conway and Gray Morrow (coincidently on sale the same month as DC's House of Secrets 92, which debuted the character Swamp Thing, creation of Gerry Conway's then-roommate Len Wein). But still Marvel struggled with the format. 

It would take another couple of years before Marvel mounted a serious attack on Warren's domination of the black-and-white comic magazines market. Aimed squarely at the horror-fan readers of Creepy and Eerie, Marvel's mags mined the same material in a slightly more sensational way.
The second issue of Savage Tales (Oct 1973) wouldn't come along for another two-and-a-half years, featuring mainly Barry Smith's Conan and a few reprints. And by this time, Marvel had already launched Dracula Lives (Apr 1973), Monsters Unleashed (Jun 1973), Vampire Tales (Jul 1973) and Tales of the Zombie (Aug 1973) in an all-out assault on beachhead Warren ...

Next: The Best Marvel Annual

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Marvel's First Mystical Hero - Dr Droom

THIS TIME, I've asked my old friend and former 2000AD colleague Kid Robson to contribute a guest entry for this blog. We both share a love of early Marvels, especially those written by Stan Lee, and as The Kid had mentioned Droom in one of his earlier comments on this blog, it seemed natural to ask him to offer a few words about Dr Droom and his spiritual successor Dr Strange. Thank you, Kid ...

"Twas Steve's idea..." said Stan Lee about Dr. Strange in a letter to Jerry Bails in 1963. However, it's interesting to ponder just what gave Steve the idea to do a strip about a 'Master of Black Magic' (later changed to 'Mystic Arts') in the first place.

The origin of Dr Strange wasn't revealed until the character's fourth appearance, in Strange Tales 115 (Jul 1963) - he hadn't appeared in Strange Tales 112 and 113. It has been speculated that this episode was drawn much later in the series run - perhaps the ninth story, as it's markedly different in style from the Dr Strange adventures on either side.
Ditko had been the inker on the origin of Lee and Jack Kirby's strip, Dr Droom, and it's legitimate to wonder whether the artist may have been inspired (consciously or not) by this earlier character, whose genesis is remarkably similar to that of Stephen Strange. That would explain the subject matter, but not Ditko's seeming lack of interest in revealing the origins of the good Dr S, who, in his very first adventure, is plunged straight into an encounter with Nightmare, his "ancient foe". Stan merely adapted Droom's beginnings to fit the origins of the protagonist he was initially going to call Mr Strange, not Dr, but his input into Strange's backstory, as well as his characterisation via dialogue, plus his mood-setting expository captions, fully justifies his description as co-creator of the strip in my view.

After all, without Lee, all you have is a magician who gets involved in some quirky adventures (Ditko's wonderful art notwithstanding); with Lee, you have character motivation, mystical sounding incantations, and a sense of drama, dynamism, and danger as only he could deliver.

On the other hand, Dr Droom's origin was told in the very first appearance of the character. Like Strange, Droom was the student of a Tibetan lama, unlike Strange, Droom was summoned to his role as a mystic mage, and was selected because his compassionate nature.
That's not to downplay Steve Ditko's plotting and art, though - it's just that he wasn't much of a scripter, as his later self-penned stories for other companies starkly demonstrates. His plot ideas, however, were often brilliant. Case in point: Who can forget the 12-part saga of Dr Strange on the run from a Dormammu-enhanced Baron Mordo, surely one of the most spectacular sagas of the Silver Age? However, while Strange's origins are lifted from Dr Droom's, the strips are not really that similar when more fully compared. In fact, Droom (who debuted in Amazing Adventures 1 in June 1961) soon gets sidetracked from the world of the occult, as his subsequent adventures (2, 3, 4 and 6) have him encountering aliens from under the sea, different dimensions, and other planets.

In his origin, the Tibetan Lama who gives him his powers declares "You are now the nemesis of all occult powers that are sinister and corrupt!" However, in his third outing, after defeating an alien from Saturn called Zemu, he declares, in answer to what made him suspicious of his disguised (as a human) foe, "It was his boast of having real magic powers!" He goes on, "I, of all men, know that real magic does not exist! All is illusion! All is fantasy!"

In Amazing Adventures 2 (Jul 1961) Dr Droom investigates the disappearance of an ocean liner and discovers it has been abducted by the sub-marine inhabitants of Atlantis, who bear no resemblance to Prince Namor or his people.
Any way you look at it, that seems like a complete turnaround. There's a certain 'sameness' to Droom's tales, and his chief mystic power seem to be nothing more than hypnotism. It's therefore hardly surprising that he was quietly retired into comic book limbo for over ten years after only five stories.

So, despite similar beginnings, the two series have only a superficial resemblance to one another. Interestingly, when Dr Droom passes the Lama's tests of endurance, his eyes become 'slanted' (to use the terminology of the times), as an Oriental appearance is supposedly more suited to his new role in life. 

No political correctness in sight here - Dr Droom's skin colour and features are altered to better match his new role as a master of the mystic arts.
Dr Strange on the other hand, is first drawn as an Oriental, but in the flashback origin segment of his fourth appearance, is clearly Caucasian. Had Ditko intended for Strange's facial features to have been changed by the Ancient One, as Droom's had been altered by the Lama? If so, Lee never refers to it in his scripting, and by Strange's tenth appearance, any hint of him being Oriental has disappeared. 

The Droom adventure in AA3 (Aug 1961) pits Droom against another magician, who turns out to be an alien from the planet Saturn, using advanced science to simulate mystic feats.
Droom himself disappeared with AA 6 (he was absent from 5), as the mag changed its name to Amazing Adult Fantasy for the next eight issues, with 'Adult' missing from 15, the mag's final ish. (In which The Amazing Spider-Man made his debut - as if you frantic ones didn't already know!) 

In case you were worried about him, Dr. Droom reappeared in the '70s (first in reprints, then as a guest star in other titles), but was rechristened Dr Druid to avoid confusion with a Latverian Doctor with a similar name. He even became a member of The Avengers for a while in the late '80s.

However, let's not skirt around the controversy that you 're all wondering about. Didn't Stan Lee claim to have created Dr Strange in his 1974 book Origins Of Marvel Comics? How does that gel with Steve Ditko's assertion that he plotted and drew the first Dr S tale without any input from Stan? 

Amazing Adventures 4 (Sep 1961) had Droom combat alien invaders once again, this time convincing the extra-terrestrials that a construction site wrecking machine was a sentient lifeform. For a magician, Droom wasn't doing a whole lot of magicking ...
I don't think Stan was deliberately lying in his '74 account, and besides, he doesn't explicitly state that he created the Master of The Mystic Arts, although he does sort of suggest it by neglecting to mention that Steve brought the first episode in to him off his own bat. (Although it's always possible that Stan had first suggested a new strip to Steve about a magician. He says as much in later interviews, claiming it was because he remembered Dr Droom and wanted to do a similar strip.) 

In 'Origins' he reminisces about listening as a kid to a radio show called Chandu, The Magician, which had a gong with a resounding 'Bonnnggg' in the intro, then says "Anyway, Steve Ditko once again took up the art chores while I penned the words, and before you could say 'Who needs it?' Dr Strange was born. He was a magician, and if ever we do his stories on the radio, you'd better believe he's gonna have a gong!" (No radio show alas, but we now have a big-budget movie instead.) 

I think Stan's vagueness on the matter is probably down to his poor memory, rather than him trying to deliberately misdirect credit away from Steve, as, had he been a liar as some of his detractors prefer to believe, he'd surely never have admitted to Jerry Bails in 1963 that he hadn't come up with the idea himself.

Amazing Adventures 6 (Nov 1961) has Droom's fifth and final appearance (he wasn't in AA5) ... and in this story he is - yet again - battling an alien menace that is stealing houses. It was probably this lack of focus that led to the character not clicking with readers and after this, Stan quietly abandoned the character.
Anyway, regardless of who did precisely what, Dr Strange as he first appeared to the comics-reading public was the joint result of Stan, Steve, and Dr Droom, so all three deserve our undying thanks. And I'm sure Benedict Cumberbatch feels the same as he looks again at the cheque he received for bringing Marvel's Mystic Master to life on the big screen. When last seen, Dr Droom/Druid was heard mumbling, "It's not fair! It should have been me up there! It's an injustice it is!"

Now how do I wrap this up? Ah, what the hell, I can't stop myself - "May your amulet never tickle!"

NEXT: THE SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN


Monday, 31 October 2016

Some DC Comics of the 1960s I did like

BY THE BEGINNING OF 1968, I was a confirmed Marvelite. I devoured every word Stan Lee wrote and had only contempt for the offerings of DC Comics, especially given the bad taste the Batman TV show had left. But as I approached my fourteenth birthday, some NEW comics appeared in the newsagents that caught my attention. And incredibly, they were DCs.

As noted in an earlier blog entry, I had been a big fan of Steve Ditko's version of Spider-Man and had been hugely disappointed when he left the title and Marvel. At the time, I wasn't aware of his work at Charlton Comics on Captain Atom, though I do remember seeing reprints of some of those stories in Alan Class' British black and white reprint comics. So when I came across a copy of Showcase 73 (Apr 1968) in a local newsagent, with the instantly recognisable Ditko cover, I plonked down my shilling without a moment's hesitation.

The first appearance of The Creeper in Showcase 73 (Apr 1968) marked the return of Steve Ditko to big company comics. But as good as the comic was, it just wasn't Spider-Man.
Once I got the comic home and started to look through it, I could see that though this was definitely Steve Ditko artwork and that the character had the same kind of kinetic dynamism that Spider-Man had had on Ditko's watch, but ... there wasn't anything bad about the comic but is wasn't quite as good as Spider-Man had been. At the time, I had no idea why that was. As a thirteen year old, I didn't analyse any further than whether I liked something or not, and although I kinda liked The Creeper, it wasn't exactly firing on all cylinders. But any Ditko's better than no Ditko, right?

What I hadn't known at the time was that Amazing Spider-Man had been drawn twice-up ... the original artwork was literally twice the size of the printed page, so the original art boards measured about 12" x 18". That changed in 1967 ... DC's Murphy Anderson began working at a smaller sizer - 10" x 15" because he preferred it, and the company's production department realised that they could get four comics pages to a single sheet of film, instead of the two they had been mounting. And because that saved everyone money, 10 x 15 became the new standard. Many of the old school artists - Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby and Ross Andru - struggled to come to terms with the new size, and much of their art of the period shows a discernible downturn in quality.

Many artists of the era, who had been used to the large-size 18 x 12 art boards, struggled to adapt to the new smaller size, and this shows in the greater abundance of large panels in the work of artists who had packed their earlier work with more, and more detailed, panels.
So Ditko wasn't just knocking out his Creeper artwork, it was only that he didn't have enough room to create the kind of detail and sweep he'd been getting into his Spider-Man stories.

Though the story carried no credits - DC weren't quite ready to go there yet - there was a text page headed, "Meet the Men Behind the Creeper" towards the tail-end of the book. In it, just four short paragraphs - about quarter of the page - were devoted to Steve Ditko. And his only quote was, "I never talk about myself. My Work is me. I do my best, and if I like it, I hope somebody else likes it, too."

Ditko's collaborator here was identified as Don Segall, "who wrote the dialogue for The Creeper." So, as with Spider-Man and his Charlton work, Ditko essentially plotted the stories he was drawing, and probably created the character solo. The late Don Segall, who also had some modest success as a script-writer of tv shows during the 1970s, was not the creative force that Stan Lee was and so while the dialogue for The Creeper was serviceable, it didn't jump off the page the way it did in the Marvel Comics of the same period.

It's established here that Prof Yatz' device renders Ryder's Creeper costume invisible, but later in the story, when he switches to Ryder, he appears in his street clothes.
The plot does bear some Ditko fingerprints. When tv host Jack Ryder attacks a liberal anti-violence crusader on air, he's fired, but almost immediately hired by the station's head of security Bill Brane. Assigned to track down some commies who are planning to kidnap government scientist Prof Yatz, Ryder follows a lead and tries to crash a costume party. He buys a box of odd and ends from a nearby fancy dress shop and puts together a car-crash of a costume, with a red furry cape and a green wig. The silhouette isn't a million miles away from Spider-Man villain, Kraven the Hunter. But while snooping around at the party, Ryder is spotted by the bad guys and is stabbed in the ensuing scuffle. This is actually pretty radical for a 1960s comic, though it didn't occur to me at the time. It's surprising that this got past the Comics Code, even though the stabbing in only mentioned in the dialogue rather than being explicitly portrayed in the illustrations.

Ryder discovers Yatz' hiding place and tries to get the Professor away. But with his strength failing because of his wounds, Ryder's in no position to help anyone. Yatz is able to inject Ryder with his "Instant Healing Serum", and conceal his miniature camouflage device into Ryder's open wound. It's this device that will allow Ryder to switch instantaneously from his Creeper identity to his civilian one.However, as Yatz tries to burn his notes, the bad guys start shooting again and the Professor takes a bullet. Ryder just has time to fight his way through a gaggle of bad guys and escape into the night. But rather than heading for safety, Ryder snoops around some more until he stumbles across the bad guys, who've holed up in a nearby garage. The finale is an epic eight-page fight scene in which Ryder beats the tar out of the gang and eludes the police in his civilian identity.

There are similarities between Spider-Man and The Creeper - both are wanted by the police, both swing around the city rooftops, both win fist-fights against impossible odds and both wisecrack while they fight. No doubt, DC thought they were getting their own version of Marvel's wall-crawler, but Ditko has never been one to simply re-hash old ideas and the character took a bit of a left turn when he was awarded his own title just two months later.

Steve Ditko included some more details about The Creeper's abilities in the first issue of his own magazine - the Professor's serum gave him, "the agility of a cat, the stamina of an elephant and bullet-quick reflexes". And a weird side-effect of the camouflage device was that it made the Creeper costume appear to be part of Ryder.
There was no way DC's accountants could have know what the sales were on Showcase 73 before the decision was taken to put The Creeper his own book. Beware The Creeper 1 (May-Jun 1968) was still plotted by Ditko, but this time, the dialogue was provided by Dennis O'Neil, a young writer who had also come over from Charlton Comics. Credited to "Sergius O'Shaugnessy", O'Neil's dialogue has more than a passing resemblance to the tone of the Marvel Comics of the same era, and the villain of the piece strongly resembles the Spider-Man villain, The Looter, but however hard he tried, O'Neill's dialogue just doesn't have the heart that Stan's does. The Creeper's civilian identity comes across more as a hard-boiled private eye, and in the scenes of Jack Ryder's daily life, the dialogue is simple and declarative, moving the plot forward, never dwelling on the characters' feelings the way similar scenes are portrayed in the Spider-Man comics of the Ditko period. It seems as though after the Marvel experience, Ditko was more interested in the action, devoting 11 of the issue's 23 pages to knock-down, drag-out fighting, all of which seem more kinetic, more chaotic, than the fight scenes in Spider-Man.

This an interesting idea that was never fully realised ... because, unlike Ditko's regimented nine-panel grids in his Spier-Man tales, The Creeper pages are more varied, occasionally with diagonal panel borders, so I wondered if this wasn't intended to be a reflection of The Creeper's state of mind. The maniacal laugh - lifted, some might say from Batman's Joker - hints of ominous side-effects of Prof Yatz's untested serum. I wonder where Ditko would have taken the character if it had lasted more than just the seven stories ...

Still, at the series unfolded, Ditko would continue fleshing out the supporting cast, adding pain-in-the-butt TV station weather girl Vera Sweet, who's always requiring rescuing, and further new characters with each issue of the ongoing series.

In his first appearance, the villain Proteus silences a former ally who seems set to betray him, right in front of The Creeper. This would set up a battle that would continue for the rest of the comic's run.
But it was with Beware The Creeper 2 (Jul-Aug 1968) that the concept really began to take shape. For this issue introduced the dough-faced Proteus ... a villain with no face of his own, who could look like anyone. Over this and the next four issues, The Creeper would pursue Proteus in all his guises without ever really understanding what the fight was about.

The cover's a real classic, with its kaleidoscope of eyes swirling around The Creeper, though the interior art is a little more subdued, with fewer fight pages. That kind of works, because Proteus is more a villain of the mind than of the fist. During the course of the story, Proteus impersonates The Creeper, Bill Brane and in one memorable scene, Vera, armed with a flame-thrower! That fights ends with Jack's apartment block burning to ground and apparently killing Proteus in the process ... but we readers know better.

I'm really not sure what the thinking was behind this page ... DC Comics promotional piece? An homage to the roundly detested (by me)  Batman tv show? A calamitous attempt by Ditko at humour? We'll probably never know. And since when was DC Comics a purveyor of "Pop Action"? Even more wrong-headed than Stan's ill-fated 1965 renaming of Marvel comics as "Pop Art Productions".
This issue also contained one of the oddest pages I've ever seen Ditko draw. Whether is was Ditko's idea, or whether it was an editorial edict is lost in the mists of time, but it looked more like a DC House ad than a story page, and may well have been intended for exactly that purpose.

This issue of Beware The Creeper must surely offer Steve Ditko's most dynamic and action-packed artwork ever. The battles with the strange costumed criminals are dizzying in their breathlessness.
There was a bit less Proteus in Beware The Creeper 3 (Oct-Nov 1968), which results in much more fist action - 12 pages of it in this issue. As The Creeper, Jack Ryder shakes down some thugs known to work for Proteus, trying to get information on Proteus' true identity. He trails Vera Sweet - who's mysteriously become a serious investigative reporter - to a remote island where a gang of wildly costumed goons are terrorising the locals. It turns out that the island is a haven for criminals, hiding out from the law, many of whom include the very thugs The Creeper was interrogating at the beginning of the comic. Needless to say, The Creeper is drawn into several running battles with the thugs, but severely trounces them all.

Beware The Creeper 4 was marginally more sedate than the previous issue. This time out The Creeper is back battling his bete noir, Proteus, which results in a more cerebral, less punchy story.
With issue 4 of The Creeper (Dec 1968 - Jan 1969), we were back in the fight with Proteus. AS might be expected from a villain who seldom takes a direct approach, there is significantly less fisticuffs this time round. Proteus is mainly operating via a network of stooges, a bit like Spider-Man's Crime Master character, so The Creeper is frustrated in not being able to engage directly with hhis foe. In three separate sequences, The Creeper faces off against a fake swami and his henchmen, a motorcycle punk and his gang and finally against the mute bodyguard of shady diplomat Bulldog Bird, Sumo, who is critically injured in the encounter - but not before the man-mountain reveals that both he and Proteus know that Jack Ryder is The Creeper.

The artwork on the last few pages of the issue look rushed, as though Ditko was struggling with the deadlines - but by this point he was also pencilling and inking The Creeper's sister series The Hawk and the Dove (about which more later).

Beware The Creeper 5 ended with Proteus revealing his true face to The Creeper - though not to us readers. We'd have to wait until the next issue to find out what Jack Ryder already knew.
Beware the Creeper 5 (Feb-Mar 1969) had Jack Ryder finally come face-to-face with Proteus. But bucking the established trend, Ditko this time piled on the action, devoting 10 pages to The Creeper's battles first with the mysterious Bulldog Bird, then with Proteus himself, ending with the cliffhanging defeat of The Creeper by the issue's end, as depicted on the issue's cover.

But for the first time, the cracks are becoming apparent. Editor Dick Giordano mentions on this issue's letter's page that Steve Ditko is "ailing of late" and that former Dell inker Mike Peppe had been drafted in to finish up over Ditko's pencils. A month or two previously, Ditko had given up working on The Hawk and the Dove, handing over to Gil Kane to draw the series from the third issue on.

The Creeper 6 was the last issue of the Silver Age series. Ditko provided pencils for just the first half of the book, leaving Jack Sparling to complete the story. The cover was by DC stalwart Gil Kane.
Issue 6 (Apr-May 1969) was the final outing for The Creeper, and for Ditko on the strip. In fact, he only pencilled the first 11 pages, leaving the final half of the book to Jack Sparling to draw. Mike Peppe's inks try to bring it all together, but though Sparling was a great artist, he wasn't Steve Ditko.

The issue features the conclusion of the story begun in Beware the Creeper 5, and ends - apparently - with the death of Proteus. The Creeper manages to free himself from the deathtrap Proteus left him in last time. Meanwhile, Proteus has impersonated the State Governor to order the city evacuated in the face of rising flood waters so his henchmen can rob and loot at will. But Jack figures out the plan and arrives in time to thwart Proteus' plan.

The second half of the story - all drawn by Sparling - is an epic-length battle as The Creeper tries to prevent Proteus destroying a nearby dam with nitro-glycerine and ending with the villain plummeting from the top of the dam in a screaming death plunge.

There was no letters page in Creeper 6, so readers were left twisting in the wind a bit, unaware that the series had been cancelled.

Left to right: Remington "Rip" Cord, with his good friend Jack Ryder, aka The Creeper; TV weather girl Vera Sweet, The Creeper's Lois Lane; Jack's boss Bill Brane restraining Ryder; the faceless enemy, Proteus.
In case you've not read Beware the Creeper, I'm not going to reveal who Proteus is. In fact, in later incarnations of the Creeper, some doubt was thrown on Proteus' true identity, suggesting that the revelation in Creeper 6 was a red herring.

There must have been some plan to revive The Creeper at DC Comics during the mid-1970s - they sure seemed to put a lot of effort into bringing the character back.

The Creeper would turn up the following decade in a few DC comics, guest starring with Batman in Detective 445-448 (Feb/Mar - Jul1975), co-star with his inspiration The Joker in the third issue of the villain's own title (Sep 1975), then in a solo adventure with art once again by Steve Ditko in First Issue Special 7 (Oct 1975). Finally, there would be a short series by Marty Pasko and Ric Estrada in the back of Adventure Comics 445-447 (May - Sep 1976), after which DC largely gave up on The Creeper for a while.

The Creeper starred in a short series of three six-pagers in the back of Adventure Comics when that title was arguably teetering on the edge of cancellation with third string DC character Aquaman in the lead slot.
The Creeper was an interesting experiment by DC. I don't know that they were trying to capture the Marvel lightning in a bottle as such, but by bringing Dick Giordano over from Charlton Comics, where he had worked with Ditko on Charlton's line of Superhero comics, including Captain Atom, Blue Beetle and The Question, perhaps they were certainly at least trying to do something new beyond the familiar machinations of old-school DC-ers like Mort Weisinger and Jack Schiff.


The Hawk and the Dove - a Creeper Coda

Around the same time that Ditko was conceiving and drawing The Creeper, the management at DC were trying to find him something else to do to occupy his free time. According the GCD, there are a couple of different versions about how the project came about. DC Publisher at the time Carmine Infantino has said he came up with the idea and gave it to Steve Ditko to develop. But Editor Dick Giordano "came in as editor right in the middle of The Hawk and the Dove story in Showcase. Steve Ditko already had the rough plot worked out. Steve Skeates worked from that plot and came up with a script."

While the artwork was very good, the overall concept of The Hawk and the Dove was repetitive and dull, and altogether too shouty.
According to Steve Skeates, "It was created by committee." As he went on to explain in an interview in The Comics 9 (Sep 1997), "Carmine came up with the title. Outside of that I can't remember who created what ... I wrote a plot which Dick approved. Then I wrote a full script, which was given to Steve. In pencilling it up Steve took out scenes he didn't like and extended scenes he did like. Then, I added dialog and captions to these new extensions."

To be honest, I really only bought the book at the time for the great Steve Ditko artwork, which was every bit as good as what he'd been doing in The Creeper. But the stories were not so good, and the constant arguing over the same issues between the two brothers got very wearing very quickly. Once Steve Ditko left and Gil Kane took over the art chores with issue 3, I had lost all interest and moved on to other things.

I hadn't realised, back in the 1960s, that these Ditko titles, and another comic I really enjoyed at the time The Secret Six, were all edited by Dick Giordano, who had been an editor at Charlton Comics since the 1950s and joined DC around late 1967. According to Giordano himself, his move to DC was brokered by Steve Ditko, who had remained friendly with Giordano since they had worked together at Charlton, beginning in the 1950s.

I'll cover Giordano and The Secret Six in a future blog entry.

NEXT: MARVEL'S FIRST MYSTIC HERO