Saturday, 6 August 2016

WAR: What Is It Good For?

WHEN I WAS in primary school, back in the early 1960s, I was surrounded by tangible evidence of the Second World War. In South East London, where I was growing up, much of the area we ranged across in our youthful travels was still decimated by the efforts of the Luftwaffe. Bombsites were everywhere and offered a wealth of adventure to fearless eight-year-olds who had no concept of the dangers of these precarious structures. Most of our leisure time was spent on the streets, playing-acting conflict (cops and robbers, cowboys and indians and, of course, war games) and imagination was our answer to the dearth of actual toys.

Bombed out buildings like this formed  playgrounds for us kids during the early 1960s. Every neighbourhood bore the scars of WWII and no one seemed to have the money to tear these accidents-waiting-to-happen down.
Some of us were lucky enough to own capguns, mostly in the six-shooter western style. The truly fortunate might have a rifle. Most of us just used sticks.

I had one of these capgun Lugers around 1962, though mine was in much better condition than this one. Having the gun was one thing, but affording to buy caps for it was quite another proposition.
One game I remember well I first came across while visiting my grandparents in Glasgow, probably around 1963 or so. The game involved a designated shooter who would lie in wait at the foot of a grassy bank. The other kids would all charge the shooter's position, whooping and yelling. The shooter would then shoot them down, one by one. The one who "died" in the most spectacular way would be chosen to be the shooter for the next round.

This was the grassy bank outside my grandparents' flat where we'd play the shooting game. It really doesn't seem to have changed much since the early 1960s.
I enjoyed that game so much that I brought it back to South-East London with me, where it became just as popular amongst the other kids on my estate.

When we weren't playing at war, we were reading about it in our British weekly adventure comics, watching it on television or seeing war movies at our local cinema, whether it was at a feature in the evening with our parents or with our mates at Saturday Morning Pictures.

Combat! was a long-running television show that focussed on the US military, and featured many top-name Hollywood actors, like Lee Marvin. Hogan's Heroes, on the other hand, saw the funny side of the Nazi POW camps.
Aside from history shows like All Our Yesterdays, the Second World War was also represented by fictional shows, both dramatic and comedic. Probably one of the best war shows was Combat! which ran from 1962 to 1967. But the one I remember best is Hogan's Heroes, which made the Nazi military holding American and Allied soldiers prisoners of war figures of fun. It wasn't a show I followed, but it did seem to be on the tv all the time during the 1960s.

The Longest Day featured an all-star cast and was one of the biggest box-office hits of 1962. John Wayne and Robert Mitchum represent the US forces, Sean Connery and Richard Burton showing the flag for the UK. Gert Frobe played a small role as a German NCO.
Hollywood film studios considered WWII something of a cash cow. Just between 1962 and 1964 there were over thirty English-language war movies released, funny and serious, including The Longest Day (1962), PT109 (1963) and Father Goose (1964).

There were quite a few comics from UK publishers that made the Second World War their chief topic. And many adventure and sports comics would also feature a variety of war stories. The tradition continues up to the present day, with 2000AD also featuring war stories like Rogue Trooper and Bad Company, both talking their inspiration from earlier earthbound conflicts.
And of course comics, both home-grown and US imports, were stuffed full of war stories. Some comics, like Victor, were dedicated to the genre, but war stories even turned up in sports comics like Tiger. And in the states, WWII had been a major subject for comics publishers pretty much from VE Day onwards.

Captain Hurricane in the Valiant wasn't my cup of tea, though I would occasionally read a friend's copy. Art in the main was by R. Charles Roylace, though the above example may well be by a fill-in artist. Pretty much all the war stories in the comics of the 1960s followed this format, some with more, some with less comedy content.
In British comics, the genre was pretty much defined during the 1960s by Captain Hurricane, who appeared in Valiant. Like most other WWII stories in the comics of the time, Captain Hurricane was full of comedic Germans, who shouted, "Gott in Himmel" and "Englisher schweinhund!" a lot. Every speech balloon, in fact. Mostly, no one was killed, just roughed up a bit. Stories would often end with Hurricane walking away from a pile of German soldiers, all with black eyes and cauliflower ears, dusting off his hands and congratulating himself on a job well done. These stories were not of great interest to me, and I must have only read a handful of Valiants all through my childhood.

Though they weren't publishing war comics, Timely books featured a lot of war in them. Unlike DC, Timely's heroes took on the Axis forces head-on.
I wasn't greatly taken with the war stories from the other side of the Atlantic either. For the most part it was the superheroes that caught my attention. Had I been aware of the earliest Marvel Comics, I would have understood that the first exploits of the Marvel Comics characters I would come to obsess over had their roots firmly in the events of World War II.

Unlike market-leader DC Comics, Timely seemed quite happy to let their superheroes tangle with Nazis and Japanese. Captain America Comics 1 (Mar 1941) famously had the hero socking Hitler on the jaw on the front cover several months before the US entered WWII. And the long run of Alex Schomberg covers on Marvel Mystery Comics featured an unbroken run of The Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner trashing both the German and Japanese forces for the duration.

One of the first, if not the first, identifiable war comic was Wings, from Fiction House. Others who tried war as a subject for an anthology comic failed and it wasn't until the beginning of the 1950s that Martin Goodman's Atlas had a success with War Comics.
Actual war comics, as a stand-alone genre, wouldn't come along for another couple of years, though there were a couple of early niche examples. Wings Comics, debuting at the end of 1940 and running 124 issues through to 1954, concentrated on air combat stories. And U.S. Marines came along in 1943, but only managed four issues, ending the following year. But it was actually Martin Goodman's Atlas Comics, under the editorship of Stan Lee, that really kicked off the war comic genre with, appropriately, War Comics 1 (Dec 1950). Once Goodman saw the sales figures on that book, he had Stan launch a fleet of war comics, including:
  • Battle 1-70 (Mar 1951 - Jun 1960)
  • Men's Adventures 9-20 (Aug 1951 - Apr 1953) continued from drama title Men's Adventures; continued as horror title Men's Adventures
  • Combat Kelly 1-44 (Nov 1951 - Aug 1957)
  • Man Comics 11-28 (Dec 1951 - Sep 1953) continued from drama title Man Comics
  • War Adventures 1-13 (Jan 1952 - Feb 1953)
  • Battle Action 1-30 (Feb 1952 - Aug 1957)
  • War Combat 1-5 (Mar-Nov 1952) continued as Combat Casey 6-34 (Jan 1953 - Jul 1957)
  • Battlefield 1-11 (Apr 1952 - May 1953)
  • War Action 1-4 (Apr 1952 - Jun 1953)
  • Men in Action 1-9 (Apr-Dec 1952) continued as Battle Brady 10-14 (Jan-June 1953)
  • Battlefront 1-48 (Jun 1952 - Aug 1957)
  • Combat 1-11 (Jun 1952 - Apr 1953)
  • 3-D Action 1 (Jan 1954)
  • Marines in Battle 1-25 (Aug 1954 - Sep 1958)
  • Navy Action 1-11 (Aug. 1954 - April 1956) continued as Sailor Sweeney 12-14 (Jun-Nov 1956) continued as once again as Navy Action 15-18 (Jan-Aug 1957)
  • Battle Ground (first four issues "Battle-Ground") 1-20 (Sep 1954 - Sep1957)
  • Marines in Action 1-14 (Jun 1955 - Sep 1957)
  • Navy Combat 1-20 (Jun 1955 - Oct 1958)
  • Devil-Dog Dugan 1-3 (Jul-Nov 1956) continued as Tales of the Marines 4 (Feb 1957) continued as Marines at War 5-7 (Apr-Aug 1957)
  • Navy Tales 1-4 (Jan-Jul 1957)
  • G.I. Tales 4-6 (Feb-Jul 1957), continued from humour title Sergeant Barney Barker
  • Commando Adventures 1-2 (June-Aug 1957)
Right on the heels of Goodman's War Comics 1 came Bill Gaines' Two-Fisted Tales 18 (Dec 1950), carrying on the numbering from EC's first run of Haunt of Fear (15-17), though Gaines' title wasn't a full-on war comic. Gaines would catch up the following year with Frontline Combat, which centred on both WWII and Korean war tales. Both books were edited by Harvey Kurtzman and more than any other comics, set the tone for quality war stories from that point on.

EC's Frontline Combat was the publisher's first war anthology. The earlier Two-Fisted Tales contained war stories but also had pirate tales and other boys' adventure subjects.
It's probably fair to say that the EC books were the inspiration for the DC war comics, mostly edited by Robert Kanigher, and often written by him too. All enjoyed long and successful runs, though again, it wasn't a genre I followed and I was mostly aware of these books through the house ads in the DC superhero comics I was buying.

The DC house ads of the 1960s were always appealing and none more so than the ads for Star Spangled War Stories, with their sensational stories of WWII infantrymen battling dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures in a hostile island environment.
The "golden age" of DC war books from from the early 1950s to the late 1960s, though many of the titles lasted longer:
  • Our Army at War 1-301 (Aug 1952 - Feb 1977)
  • Star Spangled War 3-204 (Nov 1952 - Feb/Mar 1977)
  • All-American Men of War 2-117 (Dec 1952 - Sep/Oct 1966)
  • Our Fighting Forces 1-181 (Oct/Nov 1954 - Sep/Oct 1978)
  • G I Combat 44-288 (Jan 1957 - Mar 1987), acquired from Quality Comics
One of the last of the successful DC war titles was Weird War Tales. Honourable mention should be given to Joe Simon and Jack Kirby's war anthology Foxhole which debuted in the middle of the 1950s war boom.
A later DC war comic that enjoyed a long run was Weird War Tales and I should make mention of Simon & Kirby's war title Foxhole which, while not the first, is certainly one of the highly-regarded war titles of the era.

Of all the war genre comics available to me during the early 1960s, the only title that even vaguely interested me was the dinosaurs vs G.I.s issues of Star Spangled War Stories. But for some reason I never read any of them as a kid. It wasn't until much later (last year, in fact) that out of curiosity I picked up a copy of the DC Showcase Presents collected volume and gave it a read. And a thankless task it was too.

Though I never read any DC war comics during their 1960s heyday, I always had an abiding curiosity about the War That Time Forgot series, and snapped up a hardback copy of the Showcase Presents collection when I saw it on Amazon for £0.80 ... I still haven't finished reading it.
These tales were clearly written with a transient young audience in mind. Scripter Robert Kanigher must have realised that few kids were loyal to any one brand or even title and would just buy comics whenever the covers appealed to them. And the DC circulation guys must have told him that covers with dinosaurs were always good sellers. As a consequence "The War That Time Forgot" is another concept-in-search-of-a-story. Each 13-page story had no continuing characters, workman-like art by DC's star war artists Ross Andru and Mike Esposito and an identical plot: Some US soldiers find themselves on an unnamed Pacific island where dinosaurs have survived. The entire story would be just scene after scene of giant reptiles trashing subs, tanks, jeeps and (mostly Japanese) soldiers. After reading three or four in the collected album I was losing the will to live.


During the last 1950s and early 1960s, Ross Andru (born Rossolav Andruskevitch) and Mike Esposito were DC Comics' go-to team for just about any series that needed to be delivered on time and drawn competently. 

Ross Andru was born into a musical family. His father had played the french horn with the Ballet Russe and the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra. Michael Esposito also was from a musical family - Esposito Sr fronted the band Ralph Perry and his Orchestra. Both had attended the Cartoonists and Illustrators School in New York under Burne Hogarth, after serving in WWII. Hogarth had singled Andru out in 1948 and gave him work assisting on the Sunday Tarzan strips. That last a couple of years until Hogarth left the strip.

Andru and Esposito were an editor's dream - hard-working sons of immigrant families
who drew fast and well and never missed a deadline.
It was around that time that the pair teamed up and began providing art for Key Publications' Mister Mystery, Standard's The Unseen and Joe Yank and Hillman's Western Fighters. But by 1951, they fetched up at DC Comics where they got to work on DC's burgeoning war comics, with their debut stories in All-American Men of War 6, Star Spangled War Stories 13 and Our Army at War 14 (all Sep 1953).

The team would be a mainstay on the war books for the next few years, often working over Editor Robert Kanigher's scripts. Then in 1958, a couple of years after DC had successfully reinvented Golden Age super-hero The Flash for a new audience, the company decided a makeover was needed for Wonder Woman and assigned Kanigher to the task. Kanigher turned to his most reliable art team and Andru and Esposito spent the next decade chronicling the adventures of the Amazon superheroine.

Andru and Esposito began drawing Wonder Woman with issue 98 (May 1958), Metal Men with Showcase 37 (Mar 1962) and finally The Flash with issue 175 (Dec 1967, though their first cover was 177, pictured above).
A few short years later, Robert Kanigher pitched an idea for DC's Showcase comic. The Metal Men was accepted and Andru and Esposito were once more drafted in to provide the art. The series was promoted to its own book and ran 29 issues with the same creative team. From there, Andru and Esposito took over The Flash from outgoing artist Carmine Infantino , who had been promoted to the position of DC's Art Director, then editorial director.

Though Mike Esposito regularly moonlighted at Marvel Comics during the 1960s, under the name "Micky Demeo" so as not to upset the notoriously prickly Robert Kanigher, Ross Andru would only turn in one job for Marvel during that decade, a fill-in issue for Amazing Spider-Man when it looked like regular penciller John Romita wasn't going to make deadline. In the end the fill-in wasn't needed and eventually saw print in Marvel Super-Heroes 14 (May 1968). A couple of years later, Ross Andru took over the regular pencilling job on Spider-Man, the majority of them inked by Esposito, and with Gerry Conway, created The Punisher.

In the 1970s, Ross Andru became Marvel's main Spider-Man artist, even working with Mike Esposito on Marvel Team-Up. Probably the crowning achievement on Andru's Spider-Man tenure was the high-profile DC-Marvel crossover, Superman vs The Amazing Spider-Man in 1976. 
In a 2010 interview, Gerry Conway said, "Ross Andru could place a character anywhere he wanted. He had a terrific sense of spatial relations; he could track a battle easily across rooftops, from panel to panel. He drew some great sequences where he maintained the same stationary background, a rooftop or a street, across an entire page, but move the characters from panel to panel. I know there are artists today who do that, but many of today's artists are figure-oriented. Space and context doesn't seem as important to them, whereas it was extremely important to Ross. He used to go around New York City taking pictures of the buildings so he could be accurate about where he put Spider-Man."

For all that success, I was never a fan of Andru and Esposito's work, finding it lacking in personality. But perhaps that's what endeared them to the DC (and later the Marvel) editors. Maybe their slightly bland style could fit just about any kind of series without them having to change the way they drew. And certainly no editor would even complain about an art team who always turned their work in on time.

Editor-writer Robert Kanigher pictured during the late 1940s.
Andru and Esposito's most frequent editor and scripter Robert Kanigher got into the comics business in 1941, contributing scripts to Fantastic Comics 15 (Feb 1941), Big 3 4 (Jul 1941) and Zip Comics 15 (Apr 1942). The following year he sold a script to Fawcett for Captain Marvel Adventures 29 (Nov 1943). In 1945 he began his association with DC Comics, which was to be his professional home for the next forty years. His first sale was a script for Wonder Woman in Sensation Comics 44 (Aug 1945), and it would be a character he would come to have a long association with, writing for the character from 1947 though to 1968. Kanigher would also write many Flash, Green Lantern and Hawkman scripts during the Golden Age of Comics. In 1956, it was Kanigher who was assigned by Julius Schwartz to write the first re-vamped Flash stories for Showcase, and Kanigher also created The Metal Men, who made their debut in the same title. Kanigher would also edit the main DC war comics up until he retired in 1968, then continue to write for those books for the next 20 years. 

Famously short tempered and overly-protective of his scripts, Kanigher would regularly lambast those he saw as transgressors. John Romita recalled of Kanigher in an interview, "He used to compliment me whenever he'd see me in the bullpen. 'Like the stuff ... like the stuff...' That was about the amount of conversation we had. Then one day we were in the elevator together, and he said, 'Like the stuff.' I, like an innocent fool... I used to do some adjustments to his pages. If he had a heavy-copy panel, I might take a balloon from one panel and put it in the next. Just because I was distributing space. I was so stupid and naive, I said to him, 'It doesn't bother you, does it, that I sometimes switch some of the panels around and move some of the balloons from one panel to another?' He started to chew me out in the elevator! 'Who the hell do you think you are, changing my stuff? Where do you come off changing my stuff? You don't know anything about this business!'"

Ross Andru died 9 November 1993. Mike Esposito passed 24 October 2010. Robert Kanigher died in 2002.


As far as war comics were concerned, it wasn't a genre I had much interest is as a ten year old, not until until later in the 1960s, when Stan Lee's makeover of Martin Goodman's comic line became Marvel Comics and Lee & Kirby brought a new character-driven dynamic to the otherwise standard superhero and adventure titles they were publishing. Stan and Jack set out their war stall in competition with DC's mighty five titles and at last got me interested in war stories. But Marvel's war comic wasn't so much a different take on war adventure tales as it was a social manifesto.

And that's what I'll be talking about in my very next blog entry ...

Next: Sgt Fury and his Howling Whatchamacallems!

Monday, 11 July 2016

Astonish: The Fall of Giant -Man

WITH THE ARRIVAL of The Incredible Hulk as Giant-Man's Tales to Astonish co-star in issue 60 (Oct 1964), the character now faced more of a struggle to stand out. The battle issue of Astonish 59 had been great fun but had been let down by the unsuitable artwork from Dick Ayers. I had always liked Ayers inking on the classic Kirby-drawn monster tales from the earlier issues of Astonish and its stable-mates Tales of Suspense, Strange Tales and Journey into Mystery. In fact many of the classic stories from those books had been inked by Ayers, like Fin Fang Foom (Strange Tales 89, Oct 1961), Spragg (Journey into Mystery 68, May 1961) and of course Groot (Tales to Astonish 13, Nov 1960).

Dick Ayers was the inker of choice for all those near-legendary Jack Kirby monster tales in the old pre-hero Marvel comics, but the Kirby magic failed to rub off on Ayers when he pencilled superhero series like Giant-Man.

DICK AYERS (1924 - 2014)

Richard Bache Ayers was born in Ossining, New York on 28 April 1924, and could trace his lineage back 13 generations to the original Massachusetts settlers of the early 17th Century. After selling some art to Dell Publishing that was never printed, Ayers began to study under Tarzan artist Burne Hogarth in 1947 at the Cartoonists and Illustrators' School in New York. Superman's Joe Schuster was one of the visiting teachers and eventually Ayers plucked up courage to visit the great man at his nearby studio. "He recommended me to Vince Sullivan, the publisher at ME, who let me try the Jimmy Durante strip," explained Ayers in a 1997 interview. "I submitted my work and got the job."

Dick Ayers first regular work was for ME in Jimmy Durante 1 (Oct 1948). He was then given The Callico Kid strip in Tim Holt, which later transformed into The Ghost Rider in the summer of 1950.
But the humour comics weren't selling so well, and the comic only lasted two issues. What was on the rise was the western genre. "From there I did The Calico Kid, who of course became The Ghost Rider." Ayers would pencil and ink Ghost Rider for the next eight years, but not exclusively. "By 1951 I had started doing horror stories for Stan Lee, about one a week," recalled Ayers. "The next year I started doing The Human Torch for the Young Men title." Ayers is misremembering here. According to the Grand Comicbook Database, Torch creator Carl Burgos pencilled and inked the Human Torch stories in Young Men. Ayers is credited with drawing the stories in Human Torch 36-38 (Apr 1954 - Aug 1954), though the GCD researchers note that Burgos re-drew the Torch figures throughout the stories. Ayers also drew the two Torch stories in Captain America 77 & 78 (Jul & Sep 1954).

Ayers first pencilled Human Torch story had all the Torch figures redrawn by creator Carl Burgos, but after that Ayers was off and running and also drew the Torch stories in Captain America ... Commie Smasher. Once the mini-superhero revival ended, Ayers moved back into western comics like Wyatt Earp.
Ayers' next regular pencilling job was on the Atlas title Wyatt Earp, beginning with issue 8 (Jan 1957). These early pencilling jobs were often inked by longtime Ayers associate Ernie Bache. The two had met at the Cartoonists and Illustrators' School and had been amused that they shared a name, though they weren't related.

Dick Ayers didn't really become known as an inker until he started working over Jack Kirby's pencils for Marvel at the very beginning of the 1960s. "The first work I did with Jack was inking the cover of Wyatt Earp. This was in October of 1959. Stan Lee liked it and sent me another job, 'The Martian Who Stole My Body', for Journey into Mystery 57 (Mar 1960)."

Dick Ayers' first inking job was over Kirby's pencils for the cover of Wyatt Earp 27 (Feb 1960). The following month Ayers inked a Kirby story in Journey into Mystery 57. Immediately after that Ayers was inking both cover and interior story over Kirby pencils in Tales of Suspense 8 (Mar 1960).
Around this time, Kirby's preferred inker Christopher Rule left comics. I haven't been able to find out why, just that his last recorded inking jobs were around the end of 1959. So it does look as though Stan deliberately switched Ayers over to inking as a replacement for Rule. Certainly within a month, Ayers was inking many of Kirby's stories and covers for the Marvel Monster books.

"Stan told me he was not hiring me to trace," recalled Ayers. "I was told to add, embellish. I did do one story just as it was in front of me, a Rawhide Kid. He said, 'I didn't ask for a damn love story. This is a Western!' He gave me a long lecture. He told me if there were only two figures in a panel, to add a background."

Dick Ayers became one of the mainstay inkers on Marvel's western titles, which were as successful as the superhero titles during the early 1960s.
Through the later half of 1960, Ayers was inking both monster stories and westerns, mostly over Kirby's pencils but also on Jack Keller's pencil work as well. "The one thing Jack (Kirby) couldn't draw was a six-gun. He couldn't draw a Colt .45; they were miserable. The handles were always wrong, and I'd have to redraw them. Sometimes I wouldn't erase the pencilled one and, in the printed comic, you'd see two, his and mine. Jack was a city boy, whereas I grew up in the country." 

After Marvel's first but unsuccessful superhero, Doctor Droom in Amazing Adventures, failed to catch on, Dick Ayers took over inking Fantastic Four with issue 6.
When Lee and Kirby tried their first recurring super-character Doctor Droom, in Amazing Adventures, Ayers was picked to ink the covers and the interior stories. Though Droom wasn't a big success, Lee and Kirby were on surer footing with the Fantastic Four title. And after a revolving door of inkers on the first five issues, Ayers became the regular embellisher with issue 6 (Sep 1962) and worked on the title right through to Fantastic Four 20 (Nov 1963).

Dick Ayers inked Jack Kirby's pencils for both cover and interior of the landmark war comic Sgt Fury and His Howling Commandos 1 (May 1963), then took over pencilling with issue 8. Ayers pencils were massively enhanced when veteran John Severin took over inking with issue 44.
But where Ayers would really come to shine was when he began pencilling Sgt Fury and His Howling Commandos with issue 8 (Jul 1964). He'd inked the first three issues, including covers, over Kirby pencils but was then been displaced by George Roussos (who'd used the pen-name George Bell). Roussos continued as inker for the next few stories, then there began a catalogue of inkers until issue 25 when John Tartaglione became more or less the regular inker. The series really became memorable when John Severin began inking Ayers' pencils, beginning with Sgt Fury 44 (Jul 1967) and running all the way through to issue 81 (Nov 1970).
Dick Ayers, pictured during the 1950s.
Ayers would also go on to revive his 1950s western character Ghost Rider for Marvel in the late 1960s, and provide pencils for pretty much the whole run of the Sgt Fury spinoff character, Captain Savage and His Leatherneck Raiders (Jan 1968 - Mar 1970). But as the 1970s drew to a close, there seemed to be less and less work at Marvel for the veteran artist, and by the 1980s, he had been more or less retired from Marvel.

For almost thirty years, Dick Ayers had been a mainstay at Marvel Comics, mostly due to the influence of Stan Lee. When things were looking tough for Marvel in the late 1950s, after Martin Goodman's less-than-genius decision to shut down his own distribution company, Atlas, work had been hard to find. "It was a real low-point," recalled Ayers. "Stan said, 'This is it, we'd better just abandon ship.' I went home and got a job at the Post Office, this was in late 1958. I called Stan back and told him I'd done as he said, found another job. He told me to wait, he'd find me more work. And he did: even during the toughest times Stan always found something for me. I did the job, mailed it off. He sent me back a little note, which I've kept. It said, 'Dick, I love ya!' He really liked my work."


But after nine issues of Giant-Man art in Tales to Astonish, it must have been plain even to Stan that Dick Ayers wasn't ideally suited to superhero work and issue 60 (Oct 1964) would be Ayers' last work on the strip.

The Giant-Man story in Tales to Astonish 60 opens with Hank Pym recounting the events that led to the death of his first wife Maria in Hungary years earlier. He goes on to battle gorillas in Soviet-branded romper suits.
Nevertheless, Ayers never turned in a less-than-serviceable job and his art on "The Beasts of Berlin" was no exception. The plot has Hank Pym learn that old friend Lee Kearns, who was Giant-Man's FBI contact back in Astonish 44, is being held behind the Berlin Wall, accused of spying. As Ant-Man, Hank enters East Berlin and frees his friend, foiling a communist plot to create an army of intelligent gorillas along the way. There's also a bit where Hank tells Jan what happened to his late wife Maria, making The Wasp think that Giant-Man isn't interested in her romantically. At 14 pages, Giant-Man is still very much the lead feature in Astonish. The Hulk section takes up only 10 pages, despite being drawn by Marvel star artist Steve Ditko.

Dependable Steve Ditko proved much better at drawing superheroics and was able to pitch in a very fast fill-in art job on Giant-Man when two other artists - Joe Orlando and Dick Rockwell - dropped out of contention.
The following issue, Tales to Astonish 61 (Nov 1964), saw Ditko step up to pencil the Giant-Man tale as well as the Hulk story. On the opening page of "Now Walks the Android", Stan explains that the new artist scheduled to take over Giant-Man from Dick Ayers was unable to, so Steve Ditko stepped in to "quickly pencil Stan's script while George Bell inked it seconds before deadline." What Stan doesn't tell you is that the story had actually been started by Joe Orlando, who had quit when Stan had asked him to make some changes Orlando didn't agree with. Stan then had lined up Dick Rockwell - nephew of famed American illustrator Norman Rockwell - to take on the regular pencils on Giant-Man and even went so far as to introduce the new artist on the letters pages that hyped the issue.

Dick Rockwell had been around comics all through the 1950s, working primarily for Lev Gleason on a range of his titles. Rockwell also freelanced for Charlton and Atlas, but in the mid-1950s was hired by Milton Caniff to pencil and ink secondary characters and backgrounds on the hugely successful Steve Canyon newspaper strip, as gig which lasted 35 years. in the late 1980s, Rockwell returned to comics, turning in a few freelance art jobs for DC Comics.
Rockwell had been an assistant to Milton Caniff on the hugely successful newspaper strip Steve Canyon, and had worked for Stan during the 1950s on several Atlas titles, so wouldn't have been unfamiliar with comic strips and deadlines. But for reasons that aren't clear, Rockwell backed out of the assignment at the last moment, and Stan had to turn to Marvel mainstay Steve Ditko. Even so, it's spectacularly honest of Stan to admit in print that it was a rush job born out of a production crisis, something that I venture no DC Comics editor would ever do. For a rush job, the result is pretty good. Ditko handles superhero action better than Ayers, so it was always going to be an improvement for me.

Stan's script brings back Egghead, not an especially effective villain, but Ditko's android is pretty creepy. Given the way the interior art for this issue was produced, and that Marvel covers were usually drawn after the interior art, it's interesting that Jack Kirby's cover art doesn't depict the face of the Android - probably because he didn't know what it looked like when he pencilled the cover art - he very likely had to draw it before Ditko turned in his eleventh hour art job.

As you might expect, Carl Burgos' art on the Giant-Man strip is a bit better suited to superhero action than that of Dick Ayers ... after all, he helped create the super-hero genre thirty years earlier when he drew The Human Torch for the first issue of Marvel Comics (Oct 1939).
Tales to Astonish 62 (Dec 1964) was one of those Marvel titles to get caught up in the great Thorpe and Porter distribution snafu of 1964. As with the previous issue, The Hulk seemed to take top billing on the cover, though his story was still at 10 pages, while the Giant-Man tale ran to 12. The new penciller on Giant-Man was Carl Burgos, a Golden Age veteran and the creator of the original Human Torch.

Stan's plot has small-time crook Second-Story Sammy accidentally discovering, then assuming, Giant-Man's secret identity and powers by simply putting on his costume. It's a little confusing because as I've already noted, Hank Pym hasn't really gone out of his way to keep either his or Janet van Dyne's activities as superheroes on the QT. Anyhow, it doesn't take The Wasp long to catch up with the bogus Giant-Man and even less time for her to realise this guy's a phoney. Hank sends one of his winged ants after the impostor. With Sammy captured and Hank's costume back with its rightful owner, it only remains for Hank to give the crook some "memory loss serum" he happened to have lying around and everything is back to normal.

Carl Burgos' pencils are a marginal improvement on Ayers' work, though the art does look a little old-fashioned. Here and there the layout is a bit unclear and Stan has to resort to explaining in captions what the readers should have been able to see for themselves in the artwork. And though Dick Ayers is credited as the inker on the splash page, Marvel expert Nick Caputo disputes that and identifies the inking as George Roussos' work.

Though the plot was recycled from an older Ant-Man story, Stan and Carl manage to include some new wrinkles. But it's still not in the same class as Marvel's A productions of the era.
The Giant-Man story in Tales to Astonish 63 (Jan 1965) was essentially a re-tread of the Ant-Man tale from Astonish 37. A masked crook is extorting money from local businesses and Hank Pym poses as a store owner himself to lure the baddie into a trap. Stan must have realised that Marvel readers have long memories, as he actually apologises on the letters page, saying, "We feel 'The Wrecker' was kind of a weak Giant-Man tale. We had originally scheduled another villain - a much more colourful one - but at the last minute, we learned that a competitor had used a similar one, and so we decided to change everything."

The artwork of Carl Burgos does look better this issue, aided no doubt by the always excellent inking of Chic Stone. Burgos manages to include some of those size comparisons that Stan has spoken of in interviews, where Ant-Man is placed next to huge everyday objects and Giant-Man is shown from low angles to emphasise his height. There's also a development at the end of the story, where Giant-Man kisses The Wasp, then, flustered, tries to claim he was only administering  mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. But we readers knew what was going on ...

At the time he scripted this Giant-Man story for Tales to Astonish 64, Leon Lazarus hadn't written comics for almost ten years ... which might account for why the captions and balloons are so text heavy.
Just a couple of months earlier, undersea blue meanie Attuma had battled The Fantastic Four and Namor to a standstill. But he returns in Tales to Astonish 64 (Feb 1965) with a new plan to conquer the surface world. Using a weird bubbling weapon, he captures a plane carrying Janet van Dyne. When alerted to Jan's plight, Giant-Man comes looking for the underwater menace and gives a pretty good account of himself. The story ends with Attuma defeated and promising not bother the surface people again, a promise not kept as he was back a few months later to menace Iron Man in Tales of Suspense 66 (Jun 1965).

Leon Lazarus, pictured the year he began at Timely Comics, in 1947. He was 27 years old.
Though plotted by Stan Lee, the scripting was credited to the previously unknown, and slightly phoney-sounding, Leon Lazarus. In fact, Lazarus started at Timely Comics in 1947 as a staff letterer, but within weeks began selling scripts to editor Dave Berg. He then joined the staff as an assistant to Don Rico, overseeing the letterers, including Artie Simek, and the proofreaders. By 1949, he was working for Al Jaffee on the humour titles, but in 1950 was let go by publisher Martin Goodman, in the first big implosion of the Timely comics line. However, Lazarus continued to freelance for the Atlas imprint, writing westerns for Stan Lee. When his scripting work dried up after the Atlas implosion of 1957, Lazarus turned his efforts to Goodman's magazine line, where he contributed fiction material to titles like Stag and Male. Lazarus came to write the Giant-Man script because Goodman, "... became concerned that Stan would have too much leverage over him, and he worried about what would happen if Stan ever decided to leave the company. Goodman wanted other writers as a back-up in case he needed them," Lazarus told Alter Ego magazine in a 2009 interview.

"Goodman told Stan to, 'Have Leon write stories'," Lazarus continued. "Stan called me and up and asked if I was willing to come in and work there again. I didn't want to say 'no' because I was working for Goodman's men's magazines, and didn't want to lose the account. I only did this one story, because I wasn't comfortable with the way Stan wanted writers to work with the artists, though I see now how right he was."

The pencils of Marvel newcomer Bob Powell brought a much-needed dynamism to the Giant-Man story in Tales to Astonish 65. By this point Powell had 25 years experience as a penciller, and it showed.
Tales to Astonish 65 (Mar 1965) introduced a new costume for Giant-Man ... or rather, an enhanced costume. By building additional cybernetic equipment into a new headpiece, Hank Pym gains the ability to grow and shrink things other than himself. The entire adventure happens in Hank's lab - there no super-villain threat here - but Stan's script, the art of incoming penciller Bob Powell and the finely-rendered inking of Don Heck more than makes up for it. It seems likely that with a strong creative team in place, Stan felt he could breath new life into one of his favourite characters. On the letters page, Stan notes, "We hope you'll send us your opinions of our new Giant-Man costume and artwork as soon as possible! Personally, we think it's a great improvement - but, as you're always telling us, who are we to have an opinion?"

Bob Powell was a tremendously experienced comic artist, beginning his career in the late 1930s on Fiction House's Jumbo Comics. He worked for Will Eisner during the 1940s and ME in the 1950s.
Bob Powell was an unfamiliar name to Marvel readers, but he was a veteran, having toiled for a variety of publishers during the Golden Age of comics, including Fiction House, Timely, Quality and Magazine Enterprises (ME). His earliest known work was in Jumbo Comics 2 (Oct 1938), where he drew the Charlie McCarthy humour strip. Powell then freelanced for Timely Comics and settled at Quality, where he contributed to Smash Comics and Feature Comics. When Will Eisner broke away from Quality to form his own shop, he took Bob Powell, Chuck Cuidera and Lou Fine with him. Powell drew Mr Mystic for Eisner's Spirit section newspaper giveaway.

Bob Powell, pictured during the 1960s.
After being discharged from the US Air Force after WWII, Powell began working for ME, where he pencilled Strong Man and Cave Girl, and for Harvey, for whom he drew many war, romance and horror tales, including Man in Black. Powell also worked on the art for the notorious gum card series Mars Attacks and Civil War News during the early 1960s. He would continue as Giant-Man's regular penciller, as well as the Torch and Thing stories in Strange Tales 130 - 135 and layouts for Daredevil 9 - 11, when Wally Wood refused to do the plotting part of the "Marvel Method".

Tales to Astonish 66 (Apr 1965) I covered in an earlier post, so I won't repeat myself here.

In this story, Powell does a good job of conveying Giant-Man's size compared to the world around him. I really liked the four-panel section where Giant-Man is straining to shrink after Supremor has stolen his power.
Tales to Astonish 67 (May 1965) pits Giant-Man against "The Hidden Man and his Rays of Doom". In this story, Giant-Man comes under attack from an alien, Supremor, who has the power to steal the knowledge and abilities using a weird green ray. He absorbs Hank Pym's shrinking power and comes very close to defeating Giant-Man, but for the intervention of Supremor's own kind, who have rules about conquering primitive planets. Bob Powell's pencils look especially good when inked by Chic Stone.

Though I've never really been a fan of Vince Colletta's inking, he does a pretty good job here over Bob Powell's strong pencils. The Human Top's new costume isn't any kind of improvement over his old "Human Turnip" uniform.
The Giant-Man story in Tales to Astonish 68 (Jun 1965) sees the return of an old enemy and Vince Colletta inking Powell's pencils. After his encounter with Supremor in the previous issue, Hank Pym is unable to shrink to Ant-size. And even his growing powers seem to be exacting a mighty toll on his body. So when Hank is attacked by The Human Top in a new costume and Jan is taken, Hank struggles to battle him at his larger size.

In "Oh Wasp, Where is Thy Sting" (runner-up for the corniest story title ever conceived by Stan), Giant-Man has problems with his shrinking powers at the beginning of the episode, but has miraculously solved the problem by the end.
Tales to Astonish 69 (Jul 1965) picks up where the previous issue left off, with The Wasp in the hands of the Human Top and Hank unable to shrink to ant-size. Unable to use a flying ant to track down his partner, Hank causes Jan's pet wasp to grow, and use the insect's mental connection with The Wasp to lead him to her. Unbelievably, his plan works and he walks unknowingly into The Top's carefully prepared trap. Giant-Man plunges into a concealed pit where The Top plans to freeze him solid. The Top activates the machinery and Giant-Man is encased in solid ice. But Giant-Man escapes and turns the tables on the Top, freezing him in his own trap.

When the police arrive, Giant-Man explains that he was able to survive by shrinking to ant-size. This does seem to be a mistake as it's fairly clearly stated at the beginning of the story that Hank is no longer able to shrink to ant-size. Is this an error by plotter Stan? Did scripter Al Hartley not understand the story correctly? I guess we'll never know ...

So, that was it for old High-Pockets. Stan had done the best he could, but readers just didn't seem to take to Giant-Man. The strip wasn't helped by its revolving door of artists, most of whom weren't best suited to superhero antics. And just when it looked like Stan was beginning to get the character back on track with Giant-Man's best penciller Bob Powell, he pulled the rug from under Giant-Man and canned the series.

Giant Man would appear in two further issues of The Avengers after Tales to Astonish 69, but the writing was on the wall for Hank Pym. It would be a year before Stan brought Hank and Jan back in The Avengers 28 (May 1966), and in the meantime, the front slot in Tales to Astonish was given to Prince Namor, The Sub-Mariner ... at which point I lost interest in the title.

Next: War ... what is it good for?

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Astonish: The Rise of Giant-Man

I HAVE A SPECIAL affection of the Marvel character Giant-Man, not least because he was the first ever Marvel character I came across in the winter of 1963/4. I was still in primary school and we'd been dragged off one cold morning to play football in Charlton Park, some distance from my school. I was never a fan of football, so I was more interested in a colourful American comic one of the kids had. The front cover showed a guy in a red costume trying to catch another green spinning guy, appropriately called the Human Top.

The first Marvel Comic I ever saw back in the 1960s. Kirby's bird's-eye view of the action meant it wasn't immediately apparent to me that the guy in the red costume was a giant, but I figured it out once I opened the book.
I leafed through the comic, noted that the red guy was called Giant-Man and could grow in size to about ten-foot tall, then handed the comic back. I pretty much immediately went back to my then-preferred DC comics - Flash, Green Lantern and the enjoyable Justice League and didn't think much about Giant-Man until quite some time later, when I discovered the Marvel version of The Justice League - The Avengers - and noted that Giant-Man was also a member.

So while others might see a corny name with a mediocre costume, for me Henry Pym was my gateway into the Marvel Universe ...


After getting more into Marvel Comics, I understood that Giant-Man had enjoyed a previous life as Ant-Man (covered in more depth last time), and set about finding copies of earlier Tales to Astonish, to get the full picture. And many of those Astonish comics featured further Giant-Man adventures, as well.

It seems to me looking back that Stan had a particular loyalty to the Henry Pym characters. He tried very hard to make Ant-Man work and, though sales on Astonish were probably the best of the fantasy anthology titles, Stan still didn't seem satisfied. He had given his brother every support as scripter on Ant-Man from the character's inception in Tales to Astonish 27 and 35 up to issue 43, then hired veteran Timely editor Ernie Hart to take over script chores. But Stan was to discover the problem with Ant-Man wasn't with his brother Larry.

"I had problems [writing] the dialogue," recalled Lieber in a 2007 interview, "and Stan said, 'Why did you say that? You could have said it this way, or this way or that way,' and I’m realizing, yeah, I don'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 they 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."

Ernie Hart scripted the remaining Ant-Man stories up to Tales to Astonish 48 (Oct 1963), and it's true, the quality did drop a little. Stan must've realised that having others script the stories resulted in comics he wasn't happy with ... and you know what they say about wanting a job done properly.

So with Tales to Astonish 49 (Nov 1963), Stan took over writing the main strip himself, put Jack Kirby back on pencils (keeping Heck on inks) and gave his pet character a big makeover. And it can't be a coincidence that over in Tales of Suspense the same month, Stan took over scripting of the main Iron Man feature from another veteran, Robert Bernstein, who was a mainstay of the Weisinger books at DC Comics.

Tales to Astonish 49: Stan's taking over the scripting of the Giant-Man strip results in much sharper dialogue and pacing that what we'd been getting throughout the Ant-Man run.
The plot of "The Birth of Giant-Man!" was pretty much a re-hash of the Ant-Man story in Tales to Astonish 41 (Mar 1963), "Prisoner of the Slave World", expanded to 18 pages. In both tales Earth scientists are being kidnapped by Aliens to build weapons. But the later story spends quite a bit of time explaining how Henry Pym enhances his powers so he can be Giant-Man as well as Ant-Man and almost relegates the angle with the alien teleporter, The Living Eraser, to a subplot.

Examining the artwork leads me to conclude that crediting Kirby with "Drawn by" is probably a bit generous. The finished art looks more like Heck's work than Jack's and if Kirby contributed anything beyond the simplest of breakdowns, I'd be very surprised. For me the biggest change here is that Stan is doing the full writing. His dialogue is much peppier than anything that came before and he very quickly focusses on exactly how he wants the characterisations of Henry Pym and Janet Van Dyne to go. Within a couple of pages, Stan has established a brighter, sharper relationship between Hank and Jan and the story just reads better than what has come before.

Giant-Man essentially retains the Ant-Man costume, but the headpiece changes. Stan gets rid of the Ant-Man helmet and replaces it with a sleeker, antennaed cowl. It's possible that Kirby drafted the changes, but I'd have thought Stan would still have been telling Jack what he wanted at this point in Marvel's journey. Stan also establishes that Pym's lab is in the Palisades in New Jersey (in Tales to Astonish 42, Larry Lieber had stated that Ant-Man lives in "Center City"), bringing the character into the same universe as the rest of the Marvel characters.

In and of itself, the story isn't much of an improvement over the Ant-Man material that had come before, but there is a definite flavour of how the character would develop.

Tales to Astonish 50: The Kirby cover sets the tone for the story. Giant-Man is too big and too clumsy to effectively battle a nimble and speedy opponent like The Human Top.
Tales to Astonish 50 (Dec 1963) was again scripted by Stan Lee, pencilled by Jack Kirby with (rushed, it looks like) inks by Steve Ditko. It's a much better story that last month's, due in no small part to much smarter action sequences by Kirby. The issue also introduces the first reasonably effective antagonist for Giant-Man - the mutant Dave Cannon who becomes The Human Top.

Stan expands on the chemistry between Hank and Jan adding more banter into the dialogue between them, which does make for a more engaging read. But Kirby makes a couple of mistakes, probably due to not being that familiar with how the characters had been developing in earlier issues of TTA. His first mistake is to draw The Wasp with wings at full size. It had been well-established in earlier stories that Jan only sprouts her wasp-wings when she shrinks to insect size, but here she is, standing in a lift with a member of the public. Nick Caputo has observed that Heck made some changes to The Wasp's face, but maybe there wasn't enough to time to fix Jan's wings.
Here's the Wasp with wings ... while she's at her normal height. Yet back in TTA44 Hank clearly states that her wings appear only when she shrinks to wasp-size.
The Human Top's costume (and name) is a bit goofy, but he's a smart villain who runs Giant-Man ragged in this first part of the story. That's right, this is the first two-part Hank Pym story. The first half of this tale ends with Giant-Man - having been made a fool of - trying to train himself to be faster.

Tales to Astonish 51: Jack Kirby's cover is good, but I'd have thought a low angle shot, looking up, would have emphasised Giant-Man's size more effectively. It wasn't immediately apparent to me when I first saw this cover in early 1964 that Giant-Man was supposed to be a giant.
Tales to Astonish 51 (Jan 1964) was also produced by the Lee and Kirby team, with Dick Ayers on inks. It doesn't look quite as rushed as the previous issue's story, though Kirby's still drawing the Wasp with wings at her natural height.

This issue also establishes the Giant-Man Fan Club that would show up in a few stories, but unlike Rick Jones' Teen Brigade, they didn't really contribute to the plot ... in fact Giant-Man seems to think of them as more of a nuisance than a benefit. And The Wasp gets a slight change to her mask ... Kirby gets rid of the old "pointy-head" helmet and replaces it with a simpler design.

Wasp's headpiece and antennae become a little more discrete in this issue.
With the aid of the police, Giant-Man seals off several blocks of Manhattan (we see the canopy of the Radio City theatre in the background of one panel) and waits for The Top to spin into the trap. With restricted space, The Top soon spins himself out, allowing Giant-Man and The Wasp to capture him.

Also in this issue, one of the back-up fantasy stories was turned over to The Wasp, who narrates the tale entitled, "Somewhere Waits a Wobbow" intended, I suppose, as a counterpart to the "Tales of the Watcher" feature, which began over in Tales of Suspense the same month. Both back-up features were scripted and drawn by Larry Lieber.

Tales to Astonish 52: As is frequent in these early Giant-Man stories, it's The Wasp who is the major catalyst in the story. Here, she sees The Black Knight before Giant-Man.
Tales to Astonish 52 (Feb 1964) introduced another strong villain, The Black Knight. The 18-page story opens with a three-page action sequence as Giant Man breaks up transaction between traitor Prof Nathan Garrett and a group of "red Chinese spies". Though Garrett is arrested, he skips bail and hides out in Europe where he spends his time developing a winged horse and some nifty weapons. He returns as The Black Knight to seek his revenge on Giant-Man.

With good teamwork, Giant-Man and The Wasp manage to defeat the Black Knight, but he escapes to fight another day. He would return a few months later as part of Baron Zemo's Masters of Evil, who would give Giant man and his team-mates a hard time in The Avengers 6 (Jul 1964).

In TTA49, Giant-Man's costume is essentially the same as Ant-Man's. But as soon at Kirby takes over drawing in TTA50, the solid black bands become three or four thin lines, a variation I never cared for. But in TTS52, Ayers makes the bands solid black, making for a stronger and more distinctive uniform.
One curious thing ... Dick Ayers, who drew this story, introduced a slight refinement to Giant-Man's costume. The "braces" that cross Giant-Man's chest became solid black in this story, though Kirby was still drawing the bands as four wispy lines on the front cover.

The five-page back-up feature is the Wasp narrating the tale, "Not What they Seem", written and drawn by Larry Lieber and inked by George Roussos.

Kirby is finally drawing the Giant-Man costume correctly on this cover. Inside, Dick Ayers does a passable job with the art, though it does look rushed, so the quality drop might have been due to deadline problems. He would soon be doing much more polished art over on Sgt Fury.
Astonish 53 (Mar 1964) featured the return of the best of the Ant-Man villain, The Porcupine. This time he infiltrates a chapter of the Giant-Man Fan Club and joins them on a visit to Giant-Man's downtown "combination gym and lab". The Fan Club don't seem to have any trouble getting into the building, and there's no security mentioned ... unlike, say, the Baxter Building, where Reed Richard's security devices keep all but the most determined villains out.

The Porcupine manages to trap The Wasp in his car and dose the members of the Fan Club with sleeping gas before engaging Giant-Man in hand-to-hand combat. He seems very spry for a man who appears to be about 50 years of age, diving out the window of Giant-Man's building and swinging to ground-level like a middle-aged Spider-Man. He then makes off with the captive Wasp and tries to coerce her into revealing Giant-Man's identity. But his real plan is to allow her to escape and track her to Hank Pym's New Jersey home. In the ensuing fight, The Porcupine grabs a handful of Giant-Man's size-changing capsules and swallows the lot, thinking he's going to become even bigger than Giant-Man. But they're actually shrinking capsules and the Porcupine dwindles away, presumably into the micro-world.

There's also a five-page back-up story with The Wasp telling a barely-interested Hank Pym the tale, "When Wakes the Colossus", with script and art by Lieber again and a nice inking job from Don Heck.

Tales to Astonish 54 (Apr 1964) was a bit of a filler issue. Giant-Man travels south of the border to Central America to take up against a bullish dictator called El Toro. However, the good news is that Don Heck is back on art chores and, as you might expect, he turns in a more-than-capable job.

At the request of the government, Giant-Man travels to Santo Rico to investigate El Toro's election fraud. Once there, The Wasp is arrested and Hank Pym is stuck at giant-size while trying to evade El Toro and his militia. Most of the story has Giant-Man running away from El Toro's men while his costume alternates between the "wispy braces" of early tales and no braces at all. It just seems like the character isn't getting the attention from the Bullpen that he needs in order to become more of a success. And the story runs just 13 pages, leaving room for two back up stories from Larry Lieber, one a standard fantasy filler with inks by Paul Reinman and another 'Wasp Tells a Tale", inked by Sol Brodsky. With the latter, The Wasp - in costume - is baby-sitting a girlfriend's son, who actually addresses her as "Aunt Jan" so I'm not really sure why she refuses to give up Giant-Man's identity in the previous issue while flaunting her Wasp alter-ego to her friends. And there's a punchline where Tommy asks Jan at the end why she doesn't have her Wasp wings at normal size. It all just seems a bit ill thought-out.

Giant-Man gets a new way of swinging into action and The Human Top grows to 12-foot tall to give him added menace.
Issue 55 of Astonish (May 1964) featured the return of The Human Top. The tale opens with another visit from the Giant-Man fan club. Jan is at full size and unmasked, so she can't be too worried about the kids recognising her as socialite Janet Van Dyne. Elsewhere, The Human Top escapes from jail and, for his first act of freedom, robs a bank. Hank swings into action using a spring-loaded pulley to lower himself to street-level, and sets off to track down the marauding villain ... but the Top finds Hank and Jan first and manages to snatch Giant-Man's belt and all his size capsules. The Top takes one of the capsules to grow to 12-foot, but fighting at that size proves tougher than it looks and the spinning menace is defeated again. The 18-page tale is pencilled and inked by Dick Ayers and is not bad, but still has the feel of a B-feature. And Giant Man's costume once more sports solid black "braces".

Tales to Astonish 56 (Jun 1964): It turns out that The Magician really is just a Mandrake knock-off, as he tries to use his greatest power - hypnotism - on Giant-Man. The Wasp defeats him by letting the "air"out of The Magician's escape-blimp (though she probably means Helium).
Giant-Man's next opponent was pretty poor, even by the standards of this series. The Magician is essentially just Mandrake the Magician as a bad guy. Stan wasn't the first to swipe the character, as DC had already used a Mandrake lookalike, Zatara, starting in Action Comics 1 during the 1930s and running through to 1950 in Action and 1951 in World's Finest. And in all fairness, Mandrake was just a fictional version of famous stage magicians like Howard Thurston (1869-1936), who pretty much invented the whole black tie and tails image, and Harry Blackstone (1885-1965), who followed in his footsteps.

In the 18-page, Dick Ayers-drawn tale, The Magician robs a charity function which Jan is attending. Alerted by the ants, Giant Man arrives too late at the party - The Wasp has already been captured by The Magician. Interestingly, the party's host, Sterling Stuyvesant doesn't seem to know who Giant-Man is. At a loss as to how to track down the Magician and rescue the Wasp, Giant-Man resolves to throw a (fake) society party to lure the villain to him. It's The Wasp who saves the day by letting the gas out of the blimp that The Magician is escaping in.

Guest-starring a better-selling character like Spider-Man was one of Stan's favourite ways to boost the profile of one of his lesser characters. First the two heroes would fight, then work together to defeat the bad-guy. This would be the standard plot line for almost every guest appearance, and the very premise of the later Marvel Team-Up comic. This adventure also established the long-running enmity between Spider-Man and The Wasp.
The guest-star in Tales to Astonish 57 (Jul 1964) was a sure indicator that the character just wasn't the success Stan was hoping for. Giant-Man's answer to Lex Luthor, Egghead, once more dusts off his communicator device that allows him to talk to ants. He sends a message out to the ants that Spider-Man is about to attack Giant-Man. The duped ants pass the message on and Giant-Man sends The Wasp out to locate Spidey (when he should have probably just asked the ants). But he's not sending her out empty-handed. Hank's created an air-power "sting" for her. Even at wasp-size the sting has a kick like a mule. It doesn't take long for Jan to locate Spider-Man and instead of reporting back to Hank, as ordered, she zaps Spidey with her sting. Though unhurt, he catches The Wasp in his web and, moments later, Hank is on the scene looking to squash a spider. The ruse is quickly exposed and Ant and Spider team up to tackle Egghead and his gang. It's a little bit by-the-numbers and isn't helped by the rough-and-ready Ayers art. And I really didn't like Kirby's "yellow spaghetti" webbing on the cover (though in all fairness Ayers draws it that way in some of the interior panels, too.)

The Wasp back-up tale is sort of interesting. Jan doesn't tell a story, but has a solo adventure where she defeats a jewel thief all by herself. The twist is at the end, Hank thinks she's just spinning one of her tall tales and doesn't believe her.

Despite a great Jack Kirby cover, this story, about Giant-Man fighting an enemy even bigger than himself, was one of the weaker stories in the series, using the old Stan Lee cliche of "advance guard of an alien invasion", that we'd seen dozens of times before.
Tales to Astonish 58 (Aug 1964) featured an villain who was even bigger than Giant-Man. Assigned by Captain America to investigate reports of a giant terrorising locals in Africa's Bora Buru region, Giant-Man and The Wasp arrive in the area only to have their plane destroyed by the monster, who calls himself Colossus. Our heroes take the monster on, but he proves too powerful, even for Giant-Man. However by combining their various powers, Giant-Man and The Wasp are able to keep the creature off-balance long enough to  paste him with a double haymaker. And when Giant-Man "vanishes" again by shrinking to ant-size, Colossus has had enough and flees in his flying saucer. It turns out that he's the advance guard for an alien invasion but decides that, as Earthmen are "magicians", they'd better call the whole thing off.

The big change in this issue is when Giant-Man announces that he's no longer reliant on swallowing his capsules to change size ... he can now become giant or ant sized by willing it. Stan doesn't give us an explanation for how that works, though it would later be explained by Roy Thomas that the years of taking the size-changing drugs had permanently affected Henry Pym's metabolism.

Here's Colossus again, misdrawn by Jack Kirby for old-time Iron Man villain Gargantus,
Tales of Suspense 40.
The only thing I couldn't figure is why the creature called himself Colossus. Surely on his own planet, his people would all be the same size as him ... and bizarrely, the giant would show up in an Iron Man story the following year, mistakenly substituted for Iron Man villain Gargantus.

The Wasp back-up tale is another solo adventure, with Jan tackling - and defeating - The Magician all by herself.

Tales to Astonish 59 was a battle issue, paving the way for the new Incredible Hulk strip that would begin in Astonish 60. Villain The Human Top tries to orchestrate a battle between Giant-Man and the Hulk and talks the military into detonating a nuclear warhead on American soil. Wonder what the President thought about that breach of protocol?
Tales to Astonish 59 (Sep 1964) was a companion piece to the same month's Tales of Suspense 58, a battle issue to introduce a new character to the comic. Henry Pym and Janet Van Dyne travel to New Mexico in search of the Hulk, unaware that they're being trailed by The Human Top. Hank tries to question Dr Bruce Banner about the Hulk's whereabouts, but is fobbed off. Banner sneaks off but soon transformed into The Hulk, now angry because he knows Giant-Man is hunting for him. The Top tries to pit The Hulk and Giant-Man against each other, then persuades General Ross to open fire on the town where The Hulk and Giant-Man are fighting.

Yet, for all The Top's machinations, it's The Hulk himself who saves the endangered Giant-Man. As the military fires a nuclear shell at where the two super-beings are fighting, the Hulk leaps upward to intercept the missile and hurl it away. The force of the explosion transforms the Hulk back into Banner and Giant-Main fails to find The Hulk to persuade him to re-join The Avengers.

Stan also included a five-page bonus feature, intended to explain Giant-Man and The Wasp to new readers, but it was probably too little too late. Giant-Man's days were numbered, as there was about to be a new (green) star in town.
Even though Stan was about to co-star The Incredible Hulk in Tales to Astonish, he seemed keen to remind readers who the true star of the comic was. He put together a five page feature that explains who Giant-Man is and what his powers are with art by series regular Dick Ayers and Paul Reinman.

Yet for all this effort, Giant-Man was never the hit Stan wanted him to be. He would limp along in Tales to Astonish for another nine issues before being dumped from the title he helped establish and ignominiously being replaced with the villain Namor the Sub-Mariner. Quite why this was has never really been explained, though Stan took a stab at it in a 2007 interview: "I loved Ant-Man, but the stories were never really successful. In order for Ant-Man to be successful, he had to be drawn this small next to big things and you would be getting pictures that were visually interesting. The artists who drew him, no matter how much I kept reminding them, they kept forgetting that fact. They would draw him standing on a tabletop and they would draw a heroic-looking guy. I would say, 'Draw a matchbook cover next to him, so we see the difference in size.' But they kept forgetting. So when you would look at the panels, you thought you were looking at a normal guy wearing an underwear costume like all of them. It didn't have the interest."

In the end, I think the real problem was that Stan just didn't have the time to spend on the character. He had his hands full with other titles that were doing better sales-wise, like Fantastic Four and Spider-Man, and anthologies that were generating more mail. Tales to Astonish actually sold better than Suspense and Strange Tales, but it probably wasn't generating the fan-letters the others were.

Tales to Astonish 60 was the start of a whole new period in the history of the title. I'll look at Steve Ditko's Hulk series in greater detail in another blog entry soon.
But whatever the reason, the introduction of The Hulk strip, drawn by Marvel's other superstar artist Steve Ditko, just put another nail in the over-sized coffin of Giant-Man. By the following year, it would all be over.

Next: The Fall of Giant-Man