Sunday, 12 February 2017

More Strange Torch Tales

IN THE EARLY DAYS of Marvel, Stan Lee hadn't been quite so protective of the characters as he would later become. I believe, even in 1962 and 1963, he saw Marvel as no different to Atlas. It was just comic books, not the great American novel. But by the end of 1963, that was beginning to change. In the last entry in this blog, I included a table showing how Stan had farmed out the script-writing of the early (B-team) Marvel stories to diverse hands, including his brother Larry Lieber, Ernie Hart, Robert Bernstein and the great Jerry Siegel - but was less than satisfied with the results.

I say "B-team" here, but it's worth noting that Stan didn't assign the Western and Millie scripting to anyone else. I can only guess, but I'd suggest that the super-hero revival was very much in its early days, and Stan didn't want to entrust proven money-makers to writers unfamiliar with the established Marvel house style. Also, Stan had been burned a couple of times in the past, commissioning work from freelancers only to have to "fire" them on publisher Martin Goodman's orders shortly afterward.

So it was that in November 1963, Stan took back the scripting chores on Thor, Iron Man, (Gi)ant-Man and The Human Torch. It's also interesting that Stan also took the opportunity to give each of these features a bit of a shakeup.

November 1963 brought across-the-board transformation of the secondary Marvel titles, with new approaches, new costumes and new powers. It was the first recognisable step in Stan Lee's evolving plan to bring all the Marvel tales together into one giant tapestry.
The Thor strips in Journey into Mystery had been a bit directionless. The first eight issues had the benefit of Jack Kirby art, but while Lieber's scripting was professional and workmanlike, it didn't have Stan's sparkle. Lee was probably relying too heavily on Kirby to prop the title up ... and when Kirby was assigned to other jobs, with Journey into Mystery 89 (Feb 1963), then it all started to go wrong. With JiM 97 (Oct 1963), Stan stepped in, establishing emotional conflict by having Odin forbid Thor's love affair with Jane Foster, and introduced Tales of Asgard as a back-up strip, firmly establishing Thor as the God of Thunder, not just some doctor who found a magic stick.

Similarly, with the Iron Man feature in Tales of Suspense, Lee took over scripting from Robert Bernstein, replaced Don Heck temporarily with Steve Ditko and paved the way for the complete redesign of Iron Man's Armour in Suspense 48 (Dec 1963).

The biggest change - literally - was over in Tales to Astonish. With Lee's taking over of the writing came the startling transformation of Ant-Man into Giant-Man in Astonish 49 (Nov 1963).

And in Strange Tales, Stan marked his return to scripting of the Human Torch stories by re-introducing the greatest of Marvel's heroes. Captain America ... well, kind of. It was an old villain, the Acrobat from Strange Tales 106 (Mar 1963), pretending to be Captain America. 

Captain America and The Human Torch had appeared together on the earliest All Winners covers, as well as on All Select covers, and had both even cameoed in the first issue of Young Allies (Sum 1941), but All Winners 19 (Fall 1946) was the first time I could find where they'd actually appeared in the same story together.
But where better than a Human Torch story than to bring back Marvel's top hero of the 1940s? Even though the original Human Torch and Captain America had appeared rarely together during the Golden Age of comics, there was a natural resonance between the characters, given their history.

Because, even in 1963, Stan must've seen Strange Tales 114 as some kind of a milestone, he assigned Jack Kirby to draw the Human Torch story. The most noticeable effect here was that the super-stunts The Torch pulls in this episode are much more imaginative than how he'd been using his flame power in the previous instalments, very likely the doing of Kirby.

"The Human Torch Meets Captain America" does read like Jack Kirby had input into the plotting of the issue, as the Torch's flaming deeds have a bit more pizzazz about them than in the previous, Dick Ayers-drawn stories.
The tale opens with The Human Torch honing his flame powers by flying through an intricate maze, similar to the kind of obstacle course that The Angel was using over in sister comic The X-Men. Then, hearing that legendary superhero Captain America is billed to appear at a local motor show, Johnny and his pals find themselves in the middle of a heist, as two crooks steal a "priceless antique racing car". Johnny gives chase and stops the getaway by melting the road ahead. But Captain America turns up and tries to take over the capture of the crooks himself. 

There does seem to be a small disconnect between Stan's plot and Jack execution here - The Torch has melted the road so, logically, the grey gloop the car's sinking in would be molten tarmac. Yet Stan's dialogue balloons have The Torch referring to it as "mud".
Later in the story, the same two crooks escape jail and make a run for it in another stolen sports car. But this time, The Torch slices the tyres from the wheels with a flaming scythe, which should save the authorities the expense of having to re-surface another local highway.

All-in-all, it's a fun story ... and an important one in the development of Marvel, given the five extra pages the tale is allowed. Kirby's input is valuable, as he brings a more imaginative interpretation of Stan's story and demonstrates with ease that he's a notch above competent and workmanlike artists like Dick Ayers when it comes to telling an interesting story.

Pitting The Human Torch against Spider-Man villain lays the foundations for the introduction of The Frightful Four, over in Fantastic Four 36, just 15 months later, when two other Torch villains - The Wizard and Paste Pot Pete - join forces with the mysterious Madame Medusa.
The next issue of Strange Tales, 115 (Dec 1963) pit The Human Torch against a villain originally associated with Spider-Man, but who would become a deadly foe of the Fantastic Four. With Jack Kirby's attention on Tales to Astonish 50, Fantastic Four 21 and X-Men 3 at the time, Dick Ayers was back pencilling and inking - Grand Comicbook Database gives Ayers a co-plotting credit as well. There's a couple of nice touches in the story. At first Sandman's not interested in fighting Johnny. He's waiting for a better opponent - Spider-Man - to come along. So Johnny disguises himself as Spidey and waits for Sandman to come to him.

I'm not completely convinced by the way The Torch defeats Sandman. I can't recall another occasion when Johnny has super-strength right after his flame is doused, but it's the only way to explain how a skinny dude like The Torch can heave the much heavier and tougher Flint Marko above his head ... perhaps a case of Dick Ayers drawing it and Stan having to explain it in the dialogue balloon.

A few months after this issue came out, Marvel would line up new co-stars for the Tales to Astonish and Tales of Suspense titles by having the incoming characters - The Hulk and Captain America - battle the incumbent stars - Giant Man and Iron Man. No such intention here though, as The Human Torch fights The Thing after a bit of deft mind control from The Puppet Master.
Strange Tales 116 (Jan 1964) was the first story to feature The Thing in a major way. Ben Grimm had appeared in earlier Strange Tales Torch stories, but mostly in cameos, not actually taking part in the main plots. OK, you could argue that The Thing had a featured role in Strange Tales 106, where Johnny first meets The Acrobat, but that was more as a member of the Fantastic Four than as a solo starring appearance.

"In the Clutches of the Puppet Master" features the return of you-know-who, who's plotting revenge against his old foes The Fantastic Four by mind controlling Johnny to hit on Alicia and so start a fight with Ben Grimm. Essentially, it's just a device to engineer a battle between these two friends ... and though The Torch and the Thing would later become regular co-stars in Strange Tales, it doesn't seem like the idea had occurred to Stan yet, as immediately after, Ben Grimm goes back to the occasional cameo in the title.

In the Dick Ayers-inked issues of Fantastic Four (the panel on the left is from FF18), The Thing was drawn like his skin was reptilian, "Dinosaur-hide" if you like. This look persisted until George Roussos took over the inking, with FF 21 (Dec 1963), at which point his hide took on the "blocky" look that would come to define the character (centre panel). The way The Thing was drawn in Strange Tales 116 looks as though Roussos was trying to alter the Ayers dinosaur-hide version to bring it into line with how Grimm was being portrayed over in Fantastic Four.
What is most interesting about this issue is the way that The Thing is portrayed on the cover, pencilled by Jack Kirby and inked by George Roussos (working as "Geo. Bell"). The result is much more in keeping with the later, blocky version of The Thing. On the inside of the comic, it looks quite a lot like Ayers was pencilling the "dinosaur-hide" Thing and that Roussos was trying - not too successfully - to ink Ayers pencils to look like the version of The Thing that was appearing over in Fantastic Four.

The cover to Fantastic Four 18 (Sep 1963) is the earliest depiction of The Thing as having angular blocky skin that I could find. And the above Kirby pencil art for a rejected Fantastic Four cover shows The Thing in all his blocky glory.
Even more interesting, for a comic geek like me anyhow, is that this didn't just suddenly happen with the change of inker. If you take a look at the cover of Fantastic Four 18 - pencilled by Kirby and inked by Paul Reinman, you'll see the blocky version of The Thing on the cover, yet the dinosaur-hide version inside the comic. This shows that Kirby was drawing the blocky version of The Thing and Dick Ayers was inking the pencils to conform to the earlier reptilian Thing. And if there's still any doubt, take a look at the uninked pencils for a rejected cover for Fantastic Four 20, above. Was this all just due to the way Dick Ayers inked it, or was Stan asking Ayers to throttle back on the blockiness for continuity's sake? We'll probably never know ...

Aside from the creepy villain, The Eel, Strange Tales 117 didn't have a whole lot to recommend it. The Eel would pretty much disappear after this, surfacing only for a final appearance in X-Men 22-23.
Strange Tales 117 (Feb 1964) was another issue I remember reading not long after it originally came out, around the spring or summer of '64. I wouldn't have be very familiar with the Marvel Comics at this time, and I recall thinking that The Eel was an especially creepy villain. Over in the DC Comics I'd been used to up until this point, they'd never have put a villain in a full-face mask like this. And eels are pretty unpleasant to look at, aren't they? 

Granted, this picture was taken a long time before I used to stand outside Manze's, but it gives an idea of how big the shop window was - and the staff were able to open it from inside as it was configured as a sash window.
Not far from where I was brought up in Woolwich, South East London, there was a Pie & Eel shop, Manze's, long-gone now. But whenever I'd go past, I'd stop and watch in fascinated horror as the eel-man would deftly prepare the live eels for a customer by first cutting off their heads, then slitting them along the belly to gut them, then cutting them up into bite site chunks. Of course they were alive when the process started, wrapping their bodies around the eel-man's arm as he severed their heads.

All the Eel really had going for him was a trick one-man helicopter. It's quite surprising that Johnny took 14 pages (one page more than the normal 13 pages allotted to these Torch tales) to despatch him - which he does by dumping him in a large tank of electric eels. Talk about irony.

In retrospect, I'm not crazy about the idea of having Reed and Ben rescue The Human Torch and his sister. I think it would have made for a more effective tale if Johnny had figured his way out of the trap himself. However, an interesting point for detail nerds is that the miniature anti-grav device pictured here is identical to those The Wizard used again the FF as leader of the Frightful Four, more than a year later.
Strange Tales 118 (Mar 1964) featured the return of the Wizard, who breaks out of jail with his tricky anti-gravity devices. He dupes Johnny into demonstrating his flame till it runs out, then imprisons him. Then once again impersonating The Torch, the Wizard tricks Sue Storm and traps her too. Once he's captured Johnny and Sue, he almost convinces Reed and Ben that the siblings are taking a holiday, but Mr Fantastic and The Thing free The Torch so he can set off after The Wizard. It all goes horribly wrong for the villain when he loses control of his anti-grav device and floats on up to the stratosphere.

Not a bad issue but The Wizard's still quite a long way from the version of the character who would defeat the Fantastic Four as the leader of the Frightful Four in Fantastic Four 38, some 14 months later ...

The Human Torch vs The Rabble Rouser has all the earmarks of a filler issue. The rushed artwork and recycled plot make me think that there was some kind of emergency in the Bullpen and Stan and Dick had to pull off some kind of miracle to make deadline. But I guess we'll never know for sure.
Strange Tales 119 (Apr 1964) appeared to be a bit of a filler issue. It's like there was a deadline problem and Stan and Dick had to come up with a story in a hurry. The villain here, Vitold Niyazov, aka The Rabble Rouser, is quite similar in abilities and intention to Jason Cragg, who battled The Ant-Man a year earlier in Tales to Astonish 42. Cragg had used his mesmerising voice to turn the public against Ant-Man, while Niyazov uses a small hand-held device to achieve the same ends.

Also, the artwork looks very hurried and not up to Dick Ayers' usual reliable standards, leading me to think that it may well have been rushed into production as a replacement for a rejected story or perhaps some lost artwork. Look at the two close ups of The Rabble Rouser in the scan of page 10 above. Does that look rushed to you? One theory I've heard is that this story may have been intended as a sequel to The Hate Monger tale in FF21 - both stories feature the same rocket-powered burrowing device - so this might account for the Rabble Rouser closeups looking rushed, as the story may have started off featuring a revived Hate Monger.

Look at these Marvel key issues, advertised in Strange Tales 119. FF25 is one of my all-time fave Marvel Comics, along with Avengers 4 ... but then there's X-Men 4 as well. You'd have to be a very lucky Marvel fan to own all of those issues today ...
And for some reason there was no text story in this issue. Goodman insisted on two page text stories in his comics so that they would qualify as "magazines" and thus be eligible for printed matter postage rates, saving himself a cent or two on each subscription copy he mailed out. The non-story pages are filled with an unprecedented four house ads ... though I always enjoyed seeing what other comics were on sale that month. You have to admit, it was a pretty impressive line-up in April 1964.

With Jack Kirby providing the pencil art for this story, Strange Tales 120 stood head and shoulders above the issues on either side. Even though the baddie, The Barracuda, was a little lame, Stan and Jack crafted a compelling and exciting tale, full of twists and turns.
However, after a disappointing issue or two, Stan bounced back with a classic tale pitting Fire against Ice in "The Torch Meets Iceman" in Strange Tales 120 (May 1964), which I already looked at way back near the beginning of this blog. Admittedly, the Jack Kirby art didn't hurt, either. Was Stan just trying to boost sales on the X-Men comic by featuring Bobby Drake? It doesn't really matter, as the story is the most enjoyable Human Torch tale we'd seen in quite some time, despite the inclusion of a weak villain, the pirate Barracuda.

There's many thrills, traps and escapes packed into the story's meagre 14 pages, but Stan and Jack work together like a well-oiled machine and you can see how much better the pair are together than they are separately right here in this tale.

After this, the title would settle down into a well-worn groove for a couple of issues until Stan livened things up by including a certain, bashful, blue-eyed Mr Grimm as a regular co-star.

Next: The Thing joins the party



Sunday, 15 January 2017

Strange Tales: The Human Torch solo stories

IT'S FAIRLY WELL RECORDED that at the beginning of the 1960s, when Marvel publisher Martin Goodman instructed editor and head writer Stan Lee to kick off a superhero team comic to cash in on the success DC was having with Justice League, he wanted to revive Timely's Golden Age characters The Human Torch, Captain America and The Sub-Mariner.

The Human Torch had been the headline character in Marvel's first ever comic, Marvel Comics 1 (Oct 1939). When Stan was ordered to create a new superhero team book in 1961, Goodman wanted to re-use the Timely characters, but Stan went with The Fantastic Four, likely including The Human Torch to appease Goodman.
And if Stan had just meekly followed that order, it's doubtful that we would have a Marvel Comics today. At best, the company would probably have ended up as a curious footnote in the history of comics, and not the creative powerhouse it evolved into during the 1960s.

As good as Stan's instincts were, he did take a few mis-steps along the way. No shame in that. We learn only from our mistakes. The Incredibe Hulk was discontinued after just six issues, though the character would pop up as a guest star here and there until a new approach and a new home could be found for him. And Ant-Man too would struggle to find an audience during those formative years.

I actually enjoyed the exploits of both characters as a kid reading those books around 1963-1964, but I found it a bit inexplicable that The Human Torch enjoyed such a long run in Strange Tales.

Though I wouldn't have known it as the time, the lead Human Torch story in this early issue was during the period Stan was trying to hire in experienced scripters. This one was written by Superman co-creator and industry legend Jerry Siegel. Even so, his expository dialogue does squeeze Ayers' art literally into a corner.
Click on Image to expand.
I'm fairly sure that the first Strange Tales featuring the Human Torch I saw back in the early 1960s was issue 112 (Sep 1963), probably a year or so after it came out. The first of two stories written by Jerry Siegel, the issue was a good introduction to the character, as it established many strong plot points in its 13 pages. First there's the Spider-Man style sub-plot with tv commentator Ted Braddock attacking The Human Torch on air for being a hot-headed show-off ... not without cause, I have to say. The main plot has The Eel stealing a high-tech gadget from a scientist that turns out to be a miniature nuclear power supply. Just why a scientist is constructing a hazardous nuclear device in a populated area is never explored. The Torch goes after the Eel, runs into The Thing (see above page scan) and recovers the atomic device. But his troubles aren't over. The Torch's "flame molecules indicate the atomic pile will explode in a split second from now" and he flies the device into the stratosphere to contain the explosion with his own body. After that foolhardy but brave act, tv's Ted Braddock relents and decides The Torch is a hero after all, restoring the status quo.

Dick Ayers was inking Kirby's pencils on Fantastic Four at the same time as he was drawing The Human Torch in Strange Tales, so was the ideal artist (after Kirby) to be providing art for this FF spin-off. The first two panels are Ayer's art on The Human Torch. The third is an Ayers-inked panel of Kirby pencils from FF18, for comparison.
Yes, it is a little corny, and probably not how Stan would have scripted the same tale, but Dick Ayers' art is very good indeed here and it's very obvious he's doing his best to capture the spirit of Kirby, including typical "Kirby's Kast of Kharacters" shots, some strong action splash panels and good pacing. The only slight weakness, I was going to say, is Ayers' portrayal of The Thing. I've always thought that no one draws Ben Grimm as well as Kirby. But when I checked Fantastic Four 18, which came out the same month as Strange Tales 112 and was also inked by Dick Ayers - and it seems that Dick was drawing the Thing exactly as Kirby was ... or perhaps it was Ayers' inking that defined The Thing's look at the time.

The Lee-Ditko fantasy back-up story in Strange Tales 112 is a really good one, and the house ads for key first issues and equally important debut superhero annuals was very much a bonus for this newly-minted Marvelite.
Strange Tales 112 is rounded out with an absolute gem of a Lee-Ditko fantasy story, a pretty neat Larry Lieber-Paul Reinman sci-fi story and two great house ads for landmark Marvel comics. Weirdly, this issue didn't have Dr Strange. The character had first appeared in Strange Tales 110, with a follow-up adventure in ST111. He was missing from Strange Tales 112 and 113, so I had somehow stumbled across an anomalous patch of Strange-free Strange Tales.

But after this issue, I would go back to the beginning of the Torch run and start to amass a complete set of Strange Tales, plugging the gaps with the Marvel Tales reprints.


IN THE BEGINNING WAS KIRBY

When I began to back-fill my collection and got to read the earlier Strange Tales, a couple of major differences between the Torch in the Fantastic Four comics and this solo version became very obvious. The first was that plotter Stan and scripter Larry Lieber had tried to re-engineer the character so that he could have a secret identity and operate incognito in the small American town of Glenville where he was living. This made no sense to me as it was obvious from the Fantastic Four comic that the FF all lived in the Baxter Building, and that the public was well-aware that Johnny Storm was The Human Torch.

The story in Strange Tales 101 was a pretty daft, portraying The Human Torch as a superhero with a secret identity and having the villain revealed as "Charles Stanton, publisher of the town's newspaper. I can hardly believe it!" ... straight out of a Scooby-Doo cartoon.
Even dafter is Johnny explaining on the first page of Strange Tales 101 (Oct 1962) that, even though the townsfolk know Sue is Invisible Girl, no one knows he's The Human Torch. Really? They don't suspect Sue Storm's brother Johnny is the Human Torch? OK, if you say so ...

The only explanation I can think of is that Stan was trying to pitch these stories at a younger readership, who probably didn't read Fantastic Four. But even that is a bit shakey. Why would anyone think it was a good idea to pitch a character, whose power is to set himself alight, to small kids? And at this point, Fantastic Four was only up to issue 7, and wasn't yet exploring the slightly more grown-up themes that would start around the time of The Hate Monger story (FF21, Dec 1963), so I'm not convincing even myself, here.

The front cover of Strange Tales 102 almost seems to suggest that the Torch story is a back-up rather than a star attraction. Inside, The Wizard impersonates The Torch in order to discredit the young hero, a storyline that couldn't have been unfamiliar to comic readers of any age, and one that Stan would return to often.
Strange Tales 102 (Nov 1962) was a bit of an improvement. It introduced a major Marvel character, The Wizard, who would later go on the lead the Frightful Four and defeat the FF on a couple of occasions. The whole secret identity thing was hardly mentioned, though there is a scene where the Wizard douses Torch's flame, and Kirby draws the Torch's figure with his head still obscured by flames. But overall, there's more of a sense of menace here, with The Wizard portrayed as a smart and resourceful foe.

Interestingly, though the plot includes the cliche of the villain impersonating the hero to turn the public against him, the technology The Wizard uses to imitate The Torch's flame is not so dissimilar to the flame suit Reed builds for Johnny in Fantastic Four 39 (Jun 1965), after the team have lost their powers at the hands of ... The Wizard.

Strange Tales 103 (Dec 1962) gave us a Torch story that more resembled Stan's fantasy yarns than it did his superhero stuff. Check out the brazen Valeria (daughter of the despotic Zemu) using her feminine wiles on the hapless guard to effect Johnny's escape. That'll be the end of his career as an evil hench-person.
The next issue had an altogether more whimsical story, as its title "Prisoner of the 5th Dimension" might suggest. Again written by Lee/Lieber and drawn by Jack Kirby, the story seems to mesh together plots of two standard Stan Lee fantasy stories and tosses The Torch into the mix. The first plot is that of an alien disguised as an old man, scaring people away from an area so the aliens can invade. The second plot is the hero being transported to an alien world (in this case the 5th Dimension), then being helped by the beautiful daughter of the despotic ruler.

The Human Torch exhibits some powers that he doesn't seem to have over in the Fantastic Four comic. In this tale he can burrow through the earth using his flame power and create a tornado. He also manufactures a smoke screen and does skywriting (in neat block capitals that are almost as good as Artie Simek's) ... but I'm fairly sure I remember him pulling those stunts in the FF book, as well.

It's hard to say which aspect of Strange Tales villain Paste-Pot Pete is more ridiculous - his name or his costume. I doubt any of the parties involved would be able to remember why they portrayed him this way, but from this perspective, it doesn't seem to make any sense.
Strange Tales 104 (Jan 1963) was on sale the same month as Fantastic Four 10, and introduced a character who would go on to join forces with The Wizard and menace the FF in Fantastic Four 36 (Mar 1965). In these early appearance, Paste-Pot Pete was a depicted clownish figure, despite his criminal tendencies. Why Jack Kirby thought it was a good idea to draw him in a comedy artist's outfit, I really couldn't say. Perhaps Stan intended Pete to use his crazy appearance to make the police think he was harmless, until it was too late. Or maybe he was originally intended simply as a comedy antagonist (like Superman's Mr Mxyzptlk, also a denizen of the 5th Dimension), and somehow scripter Larry Lieber didn't get the memo.

To be honest, back in 1964 or 1965 when I would have first seen this story, it didn't much bother me, but now it just seems downright daft.

Strange Tales 105 was a catalogue of dodgy science ... I wouldn't have been convinced by the idea of the Torch stopping a shell from an artillery gun with his heat, however intense. The kinetic energy doesn't dissipate just because the metal's melted. The molten slag would still plough through his body at speed.
Strange Tales 105 (Feb 1963) featured the return of The Wizard, just three issues after we last saw him. Clearly a big fan of the Silver Age Lex Luthor, The Wizard has been behaving like the model prisoner until he could get assigned to the prison pharmacy. The using the available "harmless chemicals" he concocts a "serum" to "burn through the strongest substance" and makes a big hole in his cell wall. Panicky guards turn up and charge through the gap in pursuit of The Wizard - only he's hiding behind the cell door. He then calmly leaves through the front entrance.

Holed up in his hideout, The Wizard then issues a challenge to The Torch. Impulsively, The Torch rushes off to confront his enemy - on the foe's home ground. Which seems like an awful big strategic mistake to me (Sun Tzu, 10.25).

So, The Wizard's stronghold is a huge underground system of traps and weapons. Where did he get the field-gun he shoots The Torch with? Or the asbestos-lined chamber where he traps the Torch. How much did all this cost? And most importantly, who built it?

This is a sample of the books Martin Goodman published the same month as Strange Tales 105. Still only identified by the "MC" box on the cover, no Marvel Corner Box yet, and still pretty bland stories that don't really compete with DC's slick professionalism. The only ray of sunshine here is Fantastic Four. The story in issue 11 was kind of fun, probably Stan's first use of humour in a straight superhero tale, with the Impossible Man being more exasperating than menacing.
Even though the credits say that Stan was plotting, the story does scan like the sort of thing DC were publishing at the same time. Larry Leiber has said that he provided full scripts to Kirby around this time, indeed that Kirby was unhappy if he didn't get a full script. Still, this was early days for Stan and Marvel. Amazing Spider-Man 1 wouldn't come out until the following month. So I shouldn't complain simply because Stan hadn't found his editorial voice yet ...

The two big revelations for Strange Tales 106 are that Johnny's neighbours were just kidding on that they didn't know he was The Human Torch, and that The Acrobat is really a super-villain, not a super-hero. Ayers' pages are serviceable, but don't quite have the polish here that Jack Kirby's have.
The next issue, Strange Tales 106 (Mar 1963), saw series inker Dick Ayers take over as penciller as well. A character shows up on Johnny Storm's doorstep, offering his acrobatic skills and a partnership to The Torch. They'll form a new team called "The Torrid Twosome". Catchy. Of course, it's a scam and it doesn't take long for The Acrobat to show his true colours. The Fantastic Four come along at the end and save the day.

The most interesting this about this story is that Stan ditches the ill-advised attempt by the Torch to have a "secret identity". It's revealed that everyone in town knew Johnny was The Human Torch, but didn't let on, out of respect for Johnny's privacy.

Dick Ayer's work on pencils is pretty good. Individually, the panels are a fair attempt at the Kirby style, but the page layouts don't have The King's flow or design sense. 

It is a bit of a classic cover, pencilled by Jack Kirby, but the story inside Strange Tales 107 is a little disappointing. Johnny is again displaying hitherto unknown powers, as is Namor and the whole battle feels just a little unimaginative. Sub-Marine would get the epic battle he merited in the Fantastic Four Annual 1, on sale just three months later. Marvel Mystery Comics 8 had the first half of the epic 1940s Torch-Subby battle.
I don't know if Stan felt the title needed a bit of a boost, but Strange Tales 107 (Apr 1963) brought out the big guns and featured The Sub-Mariner as the foe. It's a bit reminiscent of Marvel Mystery Comics 8 & 9 (Jun & Jul 1940), where the Human Torch and Sub-Mariner strips were combined for an epic 44-page showdown. Sadly, this Torch vs Subby battle wasn't that epic. It had Sub-Mariner displaying the abilities of sea creatures, though he never again used these powers. And it had The Torch flying underwater with his flame on. His claim that he was using his super-nova flame fooled no one, it was just a daft idea.

For the next few issues, Stan sidelined Larry Lieber and had a revolving door of different scripters, working over Stan's plots with Dick Ayers art. The results weren't great.

Despite the presence of Kirby on pencils, the Torch stories in these issues weren't any better than what had come before. In fact, I thought the scripts of Robert Bernstein were less effective than Larry Lieber's work
Strange Tales 108 and 109 (May-Jun 1963) were scripted by Robert Bernstein ("R. Berns"), who had started in the 1940s, working for both DC (Green Lantern) and Marvel (Black Rider & Wild Western). In the 1950s, Bernstein scripted for DC (GI Combat & Our Army At War), Quality (Blackhawk & Dollman) and EC (Psychoananlysis & Shock Illustrated). As the 1960s approached, Bernstein found himself working under the baleful eye of DC's Dark Overlord Mort Weisinger, writing scripts for Aquaman and Superboy in Adventure Comics, Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen, and even Superman. So scripting for Stan Lee over at Marvel was a risky business for him. So much so that one wonders why he didn't come up with a better disguise than "R. Berns".

For Stan he scripted the Thor feature in Journey into Mystery 92-96, Iron man in Tales of Suspense 40-46, as well his Strange Tales work.

Curiously, for Strange Tales 108, Kirby was back, though the story still had that pre-Marvel goofiness about it. The baddy is an artist who paints pictures that come to life and menace The Torch. Stan is still getting the plotter credit, so we can lay this one at his door. Bernstein's script was serviceable enough, though it lacked even Larry Leiber's little inspired touches.

Kirby also pencilled Strange Tales 109 ... though some of the panels look very much like they've been redrawn by other hands. Bernstein's script makes a better effort to emulate Stan's freewheeling, slang-laden style but the plot, with a suburban sorcerer using Pandora's Box to carry out crimes, lacks spark.

Strange Tales 110 was memorable for teaming The Wizard and Paste-Pot Pete for the first time. These two would go on the form the backbone of the Fantastic Four's most dangerous foes, The Frightful Four, and be directly responsible for defeating Johnny and his team-mates just two years later. Oh and it had the first Dr Strange story, too. Strange Tales 111 ... not so memorable.
With Strange Tales 110 and 111 (Jul-Aug 1963), Bernstein was out and Ernie Hart was in. Hart had been an editor at Timely during the 1940s, had scripted for Charlton during the 1950s and was drafted in by Stan Lee to write Strange Tales and Ant-Man in Tales to Astonish 44-48 under the pen-name "H. E. Huntley". His stint on The Torch lasted just two issues.

Issue 110 brought back both The Wizard and Paste-Pot Pete, teaming them up for the first time, in anticipation of their later Frightful Four alliance. Kirby was gone again, replaced on the art by Dick Ayers. And, as with the stories scripted by Rober Bernstein, Hart's dialogue is sort of serviceable ... but with the Wizard uttering lines like "You're fellow after my own heart. I'll join you gladly, Paste-Pot Pete, in such a delightful endeavour!" you have to wonder what on earth editor Stan Lee was thinking. 

Strange Tales 111 pit The Human Torch against The Asbestos Man ... the most surprising aspect of this is that it took Stan so long to figure out that the natural nemesis of fire is the ultimate flameproof substance. Hart turns in another competent but uninspired script and Stan must have thought so too, because after just two issues, Ernie H. was sent on his way, and Stan drafted in another scripter in an effort to pep the title up.

Industry legend Jerry Siegel had been the writing half of the team that created Superman, arguably the character responsible for single-handedly keeping the comics industry going thought the good times and the bad. It's impossible to over-estimate just how important a figure Siegel is in the history of US comics and how much of a debt anyone who's ever worked in American comics owes him. That said, Jerry made some ill-advised choices during his long career and by the early 1960s was having to beg at Mort Weisinger's table for the few crumbs he needed to survive. It's says a lot for Stan that he gave the guy some writing work at Marvel, even though he probably knew that Siegel wasn't really going to turn in the kind of script Stan was looking for.

The Torch's newest foe, The Plantman looks, for some reason, like The Shadow. The next time he appeared, less than a year later, he would be wearing his more familiar "foliage leotard".
Strange Tales 113 (Oct 1963), with the scripting credited to "Joe Carter", wasn't a terrific improvement over issue 112. The Plant Man was an okay villain, and the story did introduce Doris Evans, who would feature as Johnny's girlfriend for a lot of the Silver Age, but again the story lacked the level of humanity and humour that we knew Stan could provide.

By this time, it seemed that Dick Ayers had given up trying to imitate Jack Kirby and was drawing the strip very much in his own style. I suspect Stan had something to do with this. It's fairly well established that Stan didn't really want artists to draw like Jack Kirby. He just wanted them to try to capture Kirby's sense of movement and storytelling - which is what I think Ayers was trying to do here. I did find a quote from Ayers himself on the subject in a 2014 Comics Journal interview: "One day I came in to Stan, and gave him a story," said Ayers . "It was a Western and I had inked it just the way Jack penciled it, and he took it and said, 'If I wanted somebody to ink like Kirby, I could get him off the street! I know you with your brush, you can do anything. So add to it!"

And with this issue, Stan's grand new-script-writers experiment was over. He'd tried out several and all were found wanting. Robert Bernstein, Ernie Hart and Jerry Siegel - all experienced comics guys - seemed unable to capture the Stan Lee lightning in a bottle.

This is what the scripting map at Marvel looked like between August 1962 and November 1963, when Stan took over scripting pretty much the entire Marvel line, and inventing "The Marvel Method" to cope with the workload:

MonthJourney into MysteryStrange TalesTales of SuspenseTales to Astonish
Aug 1962Lieber---
Sep 1962Lieber--Lieber
Oct 1962LieberLieber-Lieber
Nov 1962LieberLieber-Lieber
Dec 1962LieberLieber-Lieber
Jan 1963LieberLieber-Lieber
Feb 1963LieberLieber-Lieber
Mar 1963LieberLieberLieberLieber
Apr 1963LieberLieberBernsteinLieber
May 1963BernsteinBernsteinBernsteinLieber
Jun 1963BernsteinBernsteinBernsteinHart
Jul 1963BernsteinHartBernsteinHart
Aug 1963BernsteinHartBernsteinHart
Sep 1963BernsteinSiegelBernsteinHart
Oct 1963LeeSiegelBernsteinHart
Nov 1963LeeLeeLeeLee

You can see that most of the Marvel anthology characters started off being scripted by Larry Lieber from Stan Lee plots. Lieber admits he didn't think too much of the superhero stories Stan was bringing in during the early Sixties. "Thor was just another story," Lieber told Roy Thomas for Alter Ego magazine. "I didn't think about it at all. Stan said, 'I'm trying to make up a character,' and he gave me the plot, and he said, 'Why don't you write the story?"

Stan had been teaching Larry the rudiments of comic writing even before this, as Lieber had written many fantasy tales for the pre-hero Marvel anthologies. "Before the superheroes," Lieber told blogger Danny Best, "Stan was teaching me to write. Now he had never taught anybody else to write so he didn’t know how well somebody learns or doesn’t learn or, he didn’t know how to compare me to anybody else. All he knew was I didn’t write as well as he did.

"He wasn't always the most patient person and I had problems [writing] the dialogue and he said, 'Why did you say that? You could have said it this way, or this way or that way,' and I’m realising, yeah, I didn't think of it that way or this way.

"So at any rate finally I think at one point he got a little exasperated and he said, 'I’m going to hire some of the old pros.' He remembered writers from the past. He still gave me work, he didn't want to take work away, but we were putting out a few more books.

"So he hired somebody and then the next week when I came back to him he said, 'Larry, you know something, you’re no good, but you're better than these other guys.' So that was my first victory ... if you want to call that a victory, right? The others are worse than me."

I know I used the above quotes in the Rise of Giant-Man blog entry but I think they're worth repeating here in the light of the pattern you can see in the above table. Stan had to go through that journey in order the realise that only he could deliver the characterisation and feel needed to produce the kind of stories he envisaged for Marvel.

It was this realisation that lead directly to the intertwining of the plots of the whole line of Marvel comics and Stan's method of giving his artists the bare-bones of the plot and leaving them to fill in the details.

Next time, I'll look at the first few Human Torch stories Stan scripted after the failure of his "new-script-writers" experiment and consider whether Stan's Human Torch stories were any better aligned with the Fantastic Four comic than these early tales had been.

Next: More Strange Torch Tales


Monday, 19 December 2016

The Best Marvel Annual: Amazing Spider-Man 1

THE IDEA OF A COMICS ANNUAL isn't an especially new one, not even at the beginning of the 1960s when DC published Superman Annual 1 (Aug 1960). The earliest annual I could find in US comics was Archie Annual 1 (1950). By the time that was published, Archie had been established as a leading comics character for almost a decade. It must have seemed like a good idea to other comics publishers because pretty quickly, other annuals started appearing on the newsstands.

During the 1950s, the concept of comic annuals was an interesting novelty. Where the UK comics market had had annuals for years, it took quite a few years before the American publishers caught on.
Click image to enlarge.
Tales of Terror Annual 1 was published in 1951 by EC, though unlike the Archie Annual that contained 116 pages of new material, canny Bill Gaines just stitched four coverless issues of assorted EC comics into a new cover. A year after that Dell Comics put out Tarzan's Jungle Annual 1 (1952), featuring 96 pages of all-new material, drawn mainly by Jesse Marsh ... and with that just about every other publisher started spitting out annuals on every topic imaginable.

Then, the beginning of the 1960s, DC's dark overlord, Mort Weisinger, put a Superman Annual on the schedule. Though it had no cover date, the 80-page comic carried "1960" in the indicia, and was likely on sale in the summer of that year, probably to capitalise on the approaching school holidays. But sadly, there was no new material here. The only bone Uncle Mort threw the readers was, no ads.

With so many stories in the back-catalogue to draw from, the Superman Annuals were more often than not themed affairs - for example "Adventures in Time, Space and on Alien Worlds" and "The Superman Family on Krypton".
Superman Annual 2 (1960) followed just five months later, on sale in November ... so not really an annual, then. This second issue followed the same format ... about 80 pages of reprint material with no ads. These books must have sold well, because pretty quickly, DC was putting out a whole range of Annuals, mostly published more than once a year, featuring Lois Lane, Batman and The Flash, in that order.

The idea of publishing annuals quickly spread beyond the influence of Superman Editor Mort Weisinger, and Batman's Jack Schiff and Flash's Julius Schwartz also got a look-in. Strangely, there was no Wonder Woman Annual, as there was certainly plenty of back-catalogue to choose from. And neither Green Lantern nor Justice League made the Annual cut, probably because there wasn't.
So it was that Marvel publisher Martin Goodman, ever on the look-out for a bandwagon to hitch up to, came up with the striking idea of publishing annuals himself. What was a bit of a surprise was that Marvel's first annual was all-new material, more so when you consider that Millie the Model had been running for almost 20 years at this point.

Millie the Model had first appeared in 1945 as a standard teen humour comic, but quickly evolved into something much better when Dan DeCarlo took charge of the look. Eventually, DeCarlo was lured away to bring the same look to the smash-hit series Archie, as was his Millie successor, Stan Goldberg.
Millie the Model began in 1945, created by Marvel staff writer artist Ruth Atkinson, though she was quickly succeeded by Ken Bald and Mike Sekowsky. Starting as a kind of "career-girl" comedy comic, it became broader as it went along, evolving into a more straightforward slapstick comedy title - except for the middle 1960s when for about four years it was re-purposed as a straight romance book. Spawning several spin-off titles, including A Date With Millie (1956), which becomes Life with Millie (1960), which in turn becomes Modeling with Millie 1963), and Mad About Millie (1969), the series was one of Marvel's most dependable money-makers, enjoying art by Dan DeCarlo (from 1949-1960), before he went on to become one of Archie's premiere artists, and later Stan Goldberg. And if that weren't success enough, supporting characters Patsy Walker, Hedy and Chilli also got their own series.

Marvel's first two annuals (which truly came first is now lost in the mists of time) couldn't have been more different - teen humour aimed primarily at a female market and mild horror from the Marvel fantasy titles.
Perhaps because of the success of the character, Stan had a plentiful supply of inventory material to drop into The Big Millie the Model Annual 1 (on sale July 1962). Certainly that would fit with Martin Goodman's reluctance to spend money on new material if he didn't have to. He did not authorise new stories for Marvel second Annual, though. The Big Strange Tale Annual 1 (on sale July 1962) simply reprinted stories from Marvel's other fantasy anthology titles; Journey into Mystery, Tales of Suspense, Tales to Astonish and, of course, Strange Tales.

Marvel expanded its Annual offering for 1963, adding the highly-regarded Fantastic Four Annual to the lineup. The FF title was Marvel's most ambitious project to date, as it featured an all-new 37-page story, "Sub-Mariner versus The Human Race" by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, a six-page back-up story co-starring Spider-Man, 14 pages of pinups and a three-page feature about the FF. Stan also threw in a reprint of the first half of FF1, too. 
These 25c comics must have been a big success for the fledgling Marvel Comics, as the following year, Goodman put out second issues of Millie the Model Annual (all-new material, on sale July 1963) and Strange Tales Annual (new material plus reprints, on sale June 1963), and added a Fantastic Four Annual (mostly-new, on sale July 1963) for good measure.

Many pundits cite the first Fantastic Four Annual as the best Marvel ever put out, but my vote would go to the new title that debuted the following year ...

THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN ANNUAL 1

By the time Marvel published their first Spider-Man Annual, the character had been running for almost a year-and-a-half in his own title. Amazing Spider-Man Annual 1 (on-sale June 1963) was cover to cover all-new (the FF Annual published the same year was padded out with a reprint of FF 5), featuring Marvel's longest single story yet, 41 pages of "The Sinister Six", along with a solid set of back-up features (and no ads, save the inside and back covers), all by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko.

Nobody made Spider-Man look "spidery" the way Steve Ditko did. The white background makes for a clean and compelling design and even though the logo colouring style (also used on the previous year's Annuals) is a design car-crash, it somehow conveys the idea that this magazine is something special. The only slight flaw is the giant red text box that obscures the Sandman.
The main story is one of my all-time favourites ... Dr Octopus, still smarting from his defeat at the hands of Spider-Man in ASM 11 & 12 (Apr-may 1964) just a few weeks earlier, escapes from jail and persuades five former Spidey villains - Electro, Kraven the Hunter, Mysterio, Sandman and The Vulture - to band together to help each other defeat their most hated enemy. That's pretty much a role call of every Spider-Man villain since the title began. The only ones missing are The Chameleon (in hiding), The Terrible Tinkerer (lost in space) and The Reptile (not really a villain, in the traditional sense). [Edit: Of course, I meant to type "The Lizard" - but if I changed it, then D.D.Clegg's comment below wouldn't make sense.]

Lee and Ditko include effective vignettes of Peter (Spider-Man) Parker's life, focussing on the sorrow of his Aunt May at the senseless death of her husband at the hands of the then-unnamed burglar - it's Peter's guilt over this that leads to the loss of his super-powers.
In the first five pages, Stan and Steve have recapped events for newcomers, showing Spider-Man's feud with newspaper publisher Jonah Jameson, Peter Parker's relationship with his classmates (and in particular Flash Thompson) and Peter's guilt over the death of his uncle Ben. They've also managed to squeeze in brief cameo appearances by The Mighty Thor and Dr Strange. And on the sixth page, Spider-Man mysteriously loses his super-powers.

With the scene set, Dr Octopus now unveils his plan - though it's not without one flaw, which can only be an oversight of editor Stan not supervising writer Stan closely enough. The villains draw lots to decide the order in which they will fight Spidey (having already dismissed the idea of fighting him as a team). Doc Ock then tells them that he's written a location on each card that will make the best of each villain's special abilities. However, we've just seen the baddies drawn random cards, so how could Ock know which villain would be assigned which location. But it's only a minor lapse in logic, and the story quickly moves on before we've had a chance to spot Stan's mistake.

Worrying about her nephew's distracted mood, Aunt May resolves to visit Betty Brant to see whether the two are having romantic troubles. But right outside the Daily Bugle building, both Betty and Aunt May are kidnapped by Octopus, who's aware that Spider-Man fought once before to protect Jameson's secretary. The Vulture delivers the villains' demands to Jameson - Spider-Man must fight them in turn or Betty Brant will pay the price. How can Spider-Man battle such powerful villains with no power of his own? Thus was the tension cranked up to breaking point ...

Lee and Ditko's economical storytelling moves the plot along at a clip. In the space of a couple of pages, Jameson witnesses Betty Brant and Aunt May's kidnapping, an ultimatum is delivered and we get two cameo appearances - the Fantastic Four and Captain America. Amidst all the drama, I especially like the small detail of Jameson's necktie draping over the window-ledge as he cranes out the window to see who's abducting his secretary and Parker's aunt.
With no other choice, Peter must become Spider-Man and face his foes ... so he sets off the the first location, Tony Stark's electrical plant, where Electro is waiting for him. Crawling under the fence like an ordinary teenager, Spider-Man finds his first adversary. But when Electro hurls an electric bolt at the young hero, he evades it with ease. He'd never really lost his powers, he just believed he had ... Regrouping, Spider-Man uses Peter's science know-how to formulate a plan. Using copper wires to ground himself, he's immune to Electro's power and can safely get close enough to kay-o the baddie.

Full-page splash panels in the middle of a story were a rarity in 1964, but here Steve Ditko serves up a stoater. Even though any school boy will tell you that being grounded when in contact with electricity will kill you (while rubber-soled shoes will save your life), the power and drama of the image more than compensates.
It's a great moment, and we can overlook the shaky science that suggests Spidey grounding himself with wire would keep him safe from electric shock when just the opposite is true. But let's not dwell on that ... let's just pause for a brief cameo from Iron Man before moving on to the next battle - with Kraven the Hunter. Well, it's not so much a battle ...

The battle with Kraven is far from conclusive, but it makes sense that if Spidey can just grab the card from the Hunter and make off, then that's what he should do. Great full-spage image, though.
With time pressing in, Spidey wisely doesn't waste time waltzing around the World's Fair site with the shaggy braggart. He simply nimbly evades both Kraven and his two pet leopards, snatches the vital card bearing the location of his next fight and makes off. We do get another brilliant battle splash page from Ditko, though.

The Human Torch's cameo appearance is a little more extended than those of the other Marvel characters. The X-Men in the above page isn't technically a cameo, as this isn't the real X-Men but actually just robot duplicates.
With Spidey safely past his second challenge, we're treated to a nice little vignette between Web-Head and The Human Torch. Driven by his need to get to his next rendezvous, Spidey is not in a chatting mood, but quaintly, the Torch only wants to see if Spider-Man can use any help. It's a nice quiet moment before the next round of action, and though the two have had a feud on the go since they first met, Stan takes a moment to let us know it's a friendly one. But before the battle continues, Lee and Ditko also give us a cute scene with Aunt May completely misinterpreting the situation and being charmed by Doc Ock's "good manners". It would be the start of an ongoing gag, which turned into a nightmare when, in Amazing Spider-Man 54 (Nov 1967), Dr Octopus becomes Aunt May's lodger, then in ASM 131 (Apr 1974) almost manages to marry her.

Lee and Ditko had already given us an X-Men cameo earlier in the story, so we should have realised that these X-Men were phonies. Check out the flames where "Cyclop's" eyebeams have struck - betcha missed that first time round, right?
There's no time to lose, though, as the plot powers on to take us to Spider-Man's next confrontation with one of Doc Ock's allies - Mysterio. The master of special effects doesn't tackle Spidey directly ... he's happy to send robot copies of The X-Man to do his dirty work. Ditko cleverly has "Cyclop's" eye-beam leave a burning scar wherever it strikes, which should be clue enough that he's not the real thing. Stan makes no comment about it in his script, so it's possible that it's just a mistake on Ditko's part, with him just not realising that Cyclops power is a force beam, not a heat beam.

If Ant-Man can talk to ants, why can't Spider-Man talk to spiders? You can't fault Jonah's logic. But before we can think abouut it for too long, Spidey is up to his elbows in sand ... and Ditko gives another startling splash page.
The juggernaut plot rolls on, taking Spidey to his next battle with the formidable Sandman ... but first, there's a neat bit of comedy with J. Jonah Jameson talking to a spider, thinking the message will be relayed to Spider-Man. Then it's full tilt again the Sandman. By this point in Marvel history, Sandman had swapped from being a Spider-Man villain to being Human Torch's nemesis. Stan Lee would stick to this path by inducting Sandman into the Frightful Four the following year, and this would be Sandman's last hurrah against his original enemy. This time Sandman outwits himself by trying to trap both of them in an airtight cell ... but Spidey proves to have the better lungpower and Sandman passes out from lack of oxygen. This leave just Spidey's penultimate foe, the Vulture, to defeat ...

The lead-in to the battle has Jameson raging that every other paper in town is carrying the story of Spider-Man's battle with The Sinister Six, while The Bugle has missed out, Betty and May enjoy a nice cup of tea with the charming Doctor, while Spidey is forced to give up his web-shooters before fighting his winged adversary ... and how about that splash page?
However, Lee and Ditko never lose sight of the sub-plots and in a single page that's a masterclass in storytelling economy, we get caught up on what's going on elsewhere before we're launched into the battle with the Vulture. The aerial battle has a real sense of danger and is probably the best action sequence in the Annual, but inevitable, the Vulture is defeated and it only remains for Spidey to tackle Doc Ock and free his girlfriend and his aunt. 


Doc Ock's final deathtrap for Spider-Man is a doozy - The idea of Spider-Man fighting for his life underwater would be a peril that Lee and Ditko would revisit a couple more times, most notably in ASM 29.
Doc Ock's goldfish bowl deathtrap is almost the end of our hero, forcing Spider-Man to fight his enemy in an enclosed space where his spider-powers are diminished. But despite the menacing situation, Spidey prevails once more by using his brain, which is my favourite aspect of these early Spider-Man stories.

Stan gamely keeps the running gag about Aunt May thinking that Dr Octopus is a "poor man who's having trouble with his arms" and that Spider-Man is "so villainous looking. Not at all as pleasant as that well mannered Dr Octopus". The final scene with the villains bickering in a jail cell rounds the story out perfectly.
And when Spider-Man finally finds Doc Ock's captives, Betty is pleased to see him, but Aunt May reacts with, "So that's Spider-Man ... What a perfectly ghastly outfit!" I found it a hugely satisfying story when I finally tracked down a copy probably some time in 1966. But the actual story - exciting and well-told though it was - wasn't the best bit of the Annual for me. Because among the obligatory pinups (of which there were many) and few throw-away features explaining how Spider-Man's mask worked (Puh-lease! I'd figured that out by the time I was 12!), there was brilliant feature about how Stan and Steve wrote and drew an episode of Amazing Spider-Man.

For me, this was the gold of the comic. An actual demonstration from Steve Ditko on how he draws the Spider-Man comic strip. While Stan's script probably depicts his character perfectly, it would years before I realised that Ditko was not as happy-go-lucky as Stan's script portrays him.
This was the first time I had any kind of understanding of how comics worked. Yet here was a step-by-step instruction on how Steve Ditko drew one of my favourite characters. That three-page strip was worth the 6d (2.5p) I'd paid for that Annual in the second-hand shop where I undoubtedly found it.

Who knew that the artist first roughed out the page in pencils? Or that he then went over the graphite lines with a brush? Dipped in black ink? The bonus was Stan's funny dialogue. He made it sound like those Marvel guys were having the most wonderful time. And it's also telling that Ditko seemed happy enough to draw this script up, so he probably couldn't have objected to it that much at the time. Of course later, I'd come to realise that Steve Ditko had become a bit of a curmudgeon, who probably took himself way too seriously ... but that was years in the future, and even that would never diminish the unconditional love I had for the artist's work. That brilliantly unique art-style eventually displaced Jack Kirby's in my affections, so you can imagine how I felt when Ditko moved on and John Romita took over ... oh wait, I wrote a blog entry about it once.

The credit for the cover of Spectacular Spider-Man 1 says, "painting by Harry Rosenbaum, pencils by Johnny Romita" - but that's not quite accurate, is it?
The final point I wanted to make was that among the pinups in that Amazing (Spider-Man) Annual was a cool, upside down image of Spidey, crawling head first down a wall. It struck me that I'd seen something similar just recently. And of course I had. It was in the very last entry in this blog, where I covered the 1968 Spectacular Spider-Man magazine.

All in all, despite the majesty that is the first Fantastic Four Annual, Amazing Spider-Man Annual  1 still edges just in front as my favourite Marvel Annual - both then, and now.

Next: The Human Torch solo stories