Friday, 30 August 2013

Still paddling in the unfamiliar waters of early Marvel Comics

SO IT WAS MID-1965. I was just coming up to my eleventh birthday and I was leaving the kids-stuff comics of DC behind and discovering the wonderful new world of Marvel Comics, masterminded by a cheery bloke called Stan Lee. I had found a character called Captain America that I thought was really cool, with his lack of superpowers, his natty spinning shield and his eye-catching Stars-and-Stripes costume. But it didn't take me long to figure out that this Marvel outfit had other titles and pretty soon, I'd found Fantastic Four and Spider-Man comics as well, and they were just good as the Captain America and The Avengers stories I'd read.

Back in the 1960s, comics companies had no advertising budgets, and there were no comic stores or fanzines or internet to keep customers informed of what other books the company was publishing. If you picked up a Fantastic Four comic and you liked it, the chances were you might be interested in X-Men as well. So the publishers would heavily cross-advertise their various titles in every other comic they published.

There was no doubt that DC, as the incumbent sales champions and most polished of the comics operations, had the best-looking house ads. Mostly designed by Ira Schnapp, the master letterer of most of DC Comics' covers, the DC ads were an object lesson in grabbing the customer's attention.


Veteran DC editor Mort Weisinger was responsible for the
copy, which was mostly pretty corny, but the text was elevated
by Ira Schnapp's impeccable sense of comics design.
Marvel's house ads were quite a bit less polished than DC's, but they did give a pretty good idea of what else was out from Marvel at the same time. Where Weisinger went for a more specialised approach, writing punchy, hard-sell copy, Stan Lee just wanted to bring all Marvel Comics to the attention of all Marvel readers. Every issue.

And here's a confession to horrify everyone ... when I was ten, I was so impressed with the Marvel House ads that I clipped the miniature covers out of those ads with a pair of scissors and kept them as a kind of "Wants List". Yup, I totally vandalised my comics. Many years later, I bought some old Tales to Astonish at auction. The vendor hadn't checked the books carefully and had graded them as fine. But when I received them, you guessed it, some idiot had clipped the cover repros from the Marvel house ads. In the interests of karma, I'd like to think that idiot was my ten-year-old self. I certainly deserved it ...


Maybe Stan's scattershot approach worked,
because Marvel's sales rose while DC were falling.
At the time, I couldn't know that Marvel Comics had been restricted to a handful of titles, distributed as they were by their own arch-rivals DC Comics. As I described in the last entry in this blog, in 1957 Marvel publisher Martin Goodman had been forced to enter a deal with arch-rivals DC Comics to get his books onto the newstands. The catch was that DC would only take eight titles a month. Goodman extended his reach by putting out 16 bi-monthly titles, but as he'd been publishing 50-60 titles up to this point, it seriously cramped his style. The restriction eased a little during the early 1960s, but mostly it meant if Goodman wanted to launch a new title, he'd have to cancel an existing one.

However, there was an up side to this restriction. It meant, that Stan was able to advertise just about his whole line of super-hero comics in any one issue of his books, just using two house ads with four covers apiece. This, coupled with Stan's strategy of aggressive and regular guest-starring of a character in another hero's title, meant that the readers very quickly became accustomed to buying the entire Marvel output every month, something you just couldn't afford to do with DC comics.

Wow ... even Millie the Model and the cowboy comics
made it into this house ad from
Tales to Astonish 66.
It also meant that at least until the mid-Sixties, Stan Lee was able to write just about every Marvel title himself. Which, of course, meant the style and the tone of voice was consistent across the range of product, something that DC with their scores of titles weren't able to manage.

Anyway, it was the advertising policies of, initially, DC Comics and later Marvel Comics that kept me (and no doubt thousands of other kids) informed of what other titles might be in the spinner racks that month. But not always ...

STILL DISCOVERING MARVEL COMICS

In the case of Daredevil, I first stumbled across an issue in a motorway services area. It would have been sometime in the early part of 1965. My family would almost certainly have been on the way to visit relatives in Scotland by car. Back then, not many families had cars and the motorways weren't the giant parking lots they are today.

With this level of traffic, it was no surprise that motorway
service areas were a treasure trove of "old" comics.
So you can imagine how pleased I was to discover a copy of Daredevil 5 in the newsagent at one of the few motorway pull-off areas between London and Glasgow. I must have read that issue a dozen times during the remainder of the journey. To my ten-year-old mind, it was a source of wonder that a blind man could be a superhero. And at that moment, Daredevil became one of my favourite Marvel characters - though this early in the game, Stan was still struggling a bit to know what to do with him.

Holidays in Spain were still two or three
years away for me in 1965, but a criminal
matador was an intriguing concept.
When I went back and had a look at Daredevil 5, I noticed some indications that perhaps artist Wally Wood was also partly responsible for DD's lack of a clear direction. After floundering for a couple of issues with a revolving door of artists (Bill Everett on issue 1, then a brief run of three with ex-EC artist Joe Orlando), Stan settled on Wally Wood, also an EC alumnus, as the permanent Daredevil artist. But even by this time, Stan had become accustomed to giving his artists the barest outline of the story and leaving the pacing them. That's fine if the artist is Jack Kirby. Even Dick Ayers and Don Heck had been working this way with Stan long enough to know what was required. But Wood was a newcomer to Marvel. He was likely unfamiliar with how Stan would spend as much time on his heroes' private lives as on their action antics. So Wood's pacing was a little off.

Daredevil 5 starts off with a three page action sequence to demonstrate to new readers how the character operates. Then there's a single page with Matt and Foggy in the law office to set up the rest of the plot. Ditko or Kirby would never have restricted this scene to a single page, as Stan needs a bit of room for character exposition. So page 4 looks like this:

Stan tries to squeeze two or three pages
of exposition into a single page.
It's a bit of a car-crash, looking for all the world like one of those EC pages that Wood used to work on where Gaines and Feldstein would have all the dialogue lettered onto the comic page first and make the artists fill in the gaps with drawing. There's more lettering than art here. The rest of the book is a bit better but when Wood got tired of Stan criticising his storytelling, he left Marvel and went to Tower Comics. It wasn't a great loss to Marvel. Much as I love Wood's work - his EC stuff and his Spirit pages are beyond brilliant - he just wasn't cut out for superheroes. As his later work on the Tower books demonstrated.

Another comic I must have picked up in a swap, because it was dated May 1964, was Strange Tales 120. Probably what drew me to the book was the Fantastic Four's Human Torch on the cover, fighting side by side with a human snowman. At this point I hadn't read any X-Men comics, so I didn't really know who Iceman was ...

Fire meets Ice - Jack Kirby's dynamic
cover is a cross-over between the
Fantastic Four and the X-Men.

Nice though the Jack Kirby art was in the lead story, it was the back-up story that stayed in my memory. Drawn by Steve Ditko, the Doctor Strange story in this issue was a lot like the short mystery stories that had dominated the title before Stan's super-heroes came along. The plot involves the magician investigating a haunted house, which was very close to home for my ten year old self. In south-east London where I grew up, we were surrounded by bombed out and derelict houses that still hadn't been demolished in the post-war years. More than one of them had a history of haunting attached to them by the kids in the area.

Doctor Strange heroic battles the mystic forces of the
haunted house only to discover its horrifying secret ...
So on that level, I had a real and emotional attachment to this story. The pay-off, which owed a lot to the formula Lee had developed earlier on the monster and ghost tales he did with Steve Ditko in Amazing (Adult) Fantasy, was at the time genuinely creepy. The shock ending is that the house isn't haunted at all. It's that the house itself is a sentient being.

... the house is alive and malevolent. And only Doctor Strange
has the power to force it to release its human captives.

It probably seems pretty corny now, but in 1965, I can tell you, it scared the bejabbers out of me and my pals. We didn't go near a derelict house for weeks after that story.

Thinking back on this tale and relying on my memory, I was sure that this was the first or second Doctor Strange story, as it featured none of Strange's main foes or supporting cast. I remembered that there were a few Strange stories before Marvel revealed how he became a magician, and my faulty recall was telling me that the Nightmare and the Baron Mordo stories came later.  So I looked for this story around issue 111 of Strange Tales. Funny how the memory can plays tricks on you ...

Doctor Strange was to become one of my favourite characters and would remain so until the present day. At his best illustrated by Steve Ditko's art, subsequent artists like Gene Colan and Frank Brunner did the character no disservice at all, and I still remember the later run written by Steve Englehart with reverence.

Another "vintage" item I stumbled across right at the beginning of my conversion to Marvel was Tales to Astonish 39. I'd already seen a later Astonish, featuring Giant Man battling the Human Top, the year before, but this one was a really old comic, in my eyes. The cover was very much part of Stan's plan to stay below the radar of DC's distributors by resembling one of early Marvel's standard monster books. The giant red insect dominates the scene with the "Astonishing" Ant-Man in the foreground, but very tiny - an occupational hazard for ant-men.

This doesn't look remotely like a
superhero comic - which is what Stan intended.
The plot wasn't really much different from those pre-hero monster tales. The Beetle is zapped with radio-activity, and gets intelligence. The growing really huge bit is when the creature snatches Ant-Man's growth gas and uses it all to make himself man-sized. Ant-Man is then stuck at his tiny size until he can defeat the Scarlet Beetle. But here and there in the story are the first signs of Stan showing you that the world may not idolise and trust super-heroes just because they're super-heroes. Where Batman and Superman would have police officers saluting them and politicians asking them to sort out some problem, in Stan's Marvel universe, the heroes would have no automatic endorsement from either the authorities or the public. In this story, the police speculate that Ant-Man is too frightened to tackle the growing insect problem. 

Taking Ant-Man's gas-cylinders, the Scarlet Beetle chucks
our hero down a hole and sets off to cause mayhem among
the humans ...
And when the menace is defeated, because they don't know of Ant-Man's involvement, the police wonder why there was no sign of Ant-Man. Of course the readers know that Ant-Man saved the day and the story also shows us that a True Hero doesn't wait around to take a bow ... already Stan's own moral values were coming out in his stories.

Restored to his normal size, Dr Henry Pym sets the little beetle
free to live out the rest of his several-week lifespan, while the cops
wonder why Ant-Man never showed up to do their job for them ...
Strangely, Ant-Man didn't really catch on. Stan's reasoning must have been, small boys love insects so here's a hero that works with the insects to battle commie spies and catch crooks. And that's quite sound reasoning. But it was right at the beginning of Lee's hero revolution and Ant-Man was an early experiment that didn't work. It even took me a while to connect the dots and realise that the Giant Man in issue 15 of The Avengers was the same character as the guy who fought the Scarlet Beetle. Eventually, Stan's search for the ideal comic book style would pay off, but that was still a way in the Tales to Astonish 39's future. In the meantime, I had more new Marvel characters to discover. Just round the corner were The X-Men and The Mighty Thor, both visualised by the equally mighty Jack Kirby.

Next: From Explorer to Fan to Collector

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Why were Silver Age Marvels so much better than Silver Age DCs?

SO ... IN THE FIRST HALF OF 1965, I had discovered Marvel Comics and thought they made DC Comics look like kids' stuff by comparison. But then I was ten years old and didn't have a clue why Marvel Comics seemed quite a bit more grown up. It's possible that now, almost fifty years later, and having worked as an editor in comics for something like fifteen years, I may have a better insight into why that might have been. But for the moment, I want to continue to retrace my first steps through my transition from a casual DC reader to a fully-formed Marvelite …

Now, this wasn't some kind of magical, overnight transformation. Through 1965, as I started to look for more of those cool Marvel Comics, I was still reading a smattering of DCs. In 1964, when I first discovered Marvel, one of the DCs that still stands out in my memory was an issue of World's Finest, issue 139, "The Ghost of Batman". It had one of those typical early Sixties DC covers that make you want to find out how this incredible scenario came about.

While we were happy to accept the
idea of costumed superheroes, the
concept of ghosts was plainly
preposterous.
My mum had given me a shilling to get something to eat. I can't remember the exact details, but for some reason she wasn't going to be at home when I got back from school, and I was supposed to buy myself a snack to tide myself over until she could get home and cook the supper. Of course, I spent ninepence of that money on this issue of World's Finest, because I really wanted to know how Batman could be a ghost ... my mum was not best pleased when she found out.

The other thing I was noticing in 1965 was ... girls. Although I was only ten, I was beginning to notice that some girls were prettier than others. This held true in the comic stories I was reading too. Probably the first woman in comics that struck me as attractive was Star Sapphire from the Green Lantern books.


"Star Sapphire" was the amnesiac alter-ego
of Hal Jordan's fiancee Carol Ferris, whose hatred
for Green Lantern was in direct conflict with her
love for test pilot Jordan.
Clad in a fetching purple leotard, Star Sapphire was a persona thrust upon hapless Carol Ferris, love interest of Green Lantern's alter ego Hal Jordan, by a bunch of slinky intergalactic feminists, the Zamarons. They wanted Carol to be their Empress, but first she had to defeat Green Lantern.

Maybe it was because Gil Kane drew her as an elegant, raven-haired beauty that caught my attention. Or more likely it was because she was a good girl forced to be bad. I may have only been ten, but I had quite sophisticated tastes.

Another example of good girls going bad was in the Legion of Superheroes story "Revolt of the Girl Legionnaires" in Adventure Comics 326. The premise was another of those Mort Weisinger covers that they'd evidently concocted before the story was written, then tried come up with an explanation for the ludicrous situation.

In the story inside, Superboy doesn't fly
overhead, eavesdropping. If he had,
maybe he would have thwarted the plot.
Legion stalwart John Forte wasn't the best artist in the DC stable, but that wasn't really the point. It was the depiction of the "good" girls of the legion using their - I'll say it - sexuality to trap the boy legionnaires that gave this story its frisson. And true to my form, it was the black-haired beauty Phantom Girl that I had eyes for. In the story, she takes Star Boy as her target and just when he thinks his luck's in ... it runs out.

So, the girls choose their targets and Phantom Girl
goes after Star Boy ...
There's some shenanigans around an exploding poisonous plant which Phantom Girl avoids with her intangibility power, while Star Boy makes himself heavy and sinks into the ground.



Phantom Girl gets to gloat evilly, destroy Star Boy's statue with a handy bazooka (adding vandalism to her list of misdemeanours) then she and the rest of the girls have a party where they gyrate in a most salacious manner. Yep, I did enjoy a bad girl back then.

Meanwhile, back at Marvel Comics, they weren't really doing any stand-out female characters. At least, nothing I was aware of in early 1965. It's difficult for me to remember the exact timeline of which Marvels came next, and there's every likelihood I might get some of this stuff in the wrong order, but the next significant Marvel Comic I remember around this time was Fantastic Four 36, cover dated March 1965.

OK, Medusa was pretty bad, but no one
could ever accuse Jack Kirby of
drawing a sexy female character.
Again, where DC Comics were all primary colours, the Marvels of the same period used greys, purples and maroons. In later years I've often wondered about this. It doesn't make a great deal of sense for Stan to have had the covers - and in many cases, the interiors - of the comics he edited coloured in such a subdued palette. I'd have thought the idea would have been to make the comic books stand out on the racks, so that potential readers would notice the covers and pick up the book. This was the approach that DC Comics took. It wasn't until later, when I read about how Marvel Comics came to be distributed by Independent Distributors, owned by DC, that a possible explanation occurred to me.

A HISTORICAL ASIDE

During the 1950s, Marvel Comics was known as Atlas, named for the distribution company owned by Marvel publisher Marty Goodman (Stan Lee's uncle by marriage). At the time, Goodman was publishing an incredible 53 comic titles, covering every genre - war, western, horror, romance, humour, funny animal and jungle. 


Strange Tales was one of the survivors of the great Atlas
implosion of 1957 - not many other titles weathered that storm.
Goodman's Magazine Management was also publishing puzzle mags, "men's" magazines, movie and celebrity monthlies and humour publications. In 1956, for some undisclosed reason, Martin Goodman decided to close down Atlas News Company and get his publications to the customers through distribution giant American News Company.

Very soon afterwards ANC, which owned and operated newsstands as part of its distribution business, found itself on the wrong end of a Justice Department investigation. The Justice Department concluded the company was in violation of federal anti-trust laws and ordered it to divest itself of its retail outlets. The immediate effect was that the boss of industry giant Dell Publishing, George Delacorte, decided he would look elsewhere for distribution services. Faced with the loss of their biggest customer and the costs of maintaining massive real estate holdings in New Jersey, ANC liquidated the company. And Martin Goodman was in real trouble.

After shutting down Atlas and doing a deal with ANC, Magazine Management periodicals and Atlas comics would cost the wholesalers and retailers more. So when Goodman needed help, no one was in a hurry to step up. He had to go to his arch-rivals DC Comics and ask them if they would distribute his publications through their Independent News Distributors

DC and IND honcho Jack Liebowitz threw Goodman a lifeline and agreed to distribute his books for him, but only eight comics a month, for fear of diluting his own line of DC Comics. In the space of a few weeks, Atlas went from 53 titles to 16, all the staff except for Stan Lee were let go and Lee had to stop commissioning new material until further notice.

The fledgeling Marvel Comics limped along with its 16 titles, publishing war, romance and monster comics under this arrangement until 1961 when Stan Lee stuck a toe in the superhero pool and tried out Martin Goodman's answer to Jack Liebowitz's best-selling Justice League of America - The Fantastic Four

The DC comic covers were designed to be seen from a distance.
Even at this size, you can pretty much see what's going on.
With Goodman's operation existing only by the grace of Liebowitz, the last thing he wanted to do was antagonise his distributor by horning in on DC's lucrative superhero comics line. So the earliest Fantastic Four comics featured lead characters who wore street clothes rather than costumes, while the comic itself appeared for all the world to be no different to Marvel's other monster books like Journey into Mystery and Strange Tales.

And Stan Lee's next superhero book The Incredible Hulk also looked very similar to Marvel's other monster titles. So it appears that Lee's plan was to keep his new projects under the radar of DC Comics, by deliberately staying away from the sleek, brightly coloured look of DC heroes like The Flash and Green Lantern.

Over the next 12 months, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko launched the foundation of the entire Marvel empire, building a solid following among readers and racking up sales. Before they knew what had happened Independent News had some major hits on their hands, so curbing Marvel Comics at that point would have made no business sense whatsoever.

AND BACK TO THE BLOG

So, for my introduction to The Fantastic Four I couldn't have picked a better issue than number 36. I had probably seen other issues of FF before this one, but this was the first that stood out in my memory. It was the start of a story that was to wind on for eight months until FF44. Other comics of the period, FF included up to this point, offered stories that lasted no more than a single issue. Many DC comics featured two or sometimes three stories in a single comic. For Stan Lee and Jack Kirby to run essentially the same storyline for 160 pages was unprecedented. Further than that, it sowed the seeds of the Inhumans saga that would kick off properly in FF44 and run on until FF47. This was heady stuff ...

FF36 introduced the mirror image of Reed Richards' family foursome - The Frightful Four. Their leader was The Wizard, a renegade scientist introduced in the earlier Human Torch solo story in Strange Tales 102. The second member of the evil FF was Paste Pot Pete, a comedy villain from Strange Tales 104. The third member was the Sandman. Originally a Spider-Man villain from Amazing Spider-Man 4, he turned up a couple of months later in Strange Tales 115, menacing ... The Human Torch. The fourth member was the mysterious and haughty Madame Medusa, a strange woman with weird living red hair. We'd find out more about her later.

The idea of villains being reverse versions of the heroes wasn't a new idea. DC Comics had been doing it for years. Flash had Professor Zoom, Green Lantern had Sinestro, Superman had Bizarro. But the Frightful Four were the opposite of the Fantastic Four in every way. The USP of the good FF was that they acted like real people. With the announcement of Reed and Sue's engagement that opens this issue, they were becoming a family. They had their differences and their arguments, but they still had each other's backs. The evil FF were just appalling characters. They clearly didn't like each other very much, they certainly didn't trust each other. They bickered and fought like Reed's team, but theirs was a mean-spirited bickering.


The Frightful Four are a pretty unpleasant people, boorish
and aggressive ... Medusa ditched the dominatrix
costume after issue 36 of
Fantastic Four.
Lee and Kirby cleverly opened the story with scene of Reed's FF at home, starting with the engagement announcement. We see Ben and Johnny arguing good-naturedly, but when a package that may be a bomb is delivered, Ben uses his own body to shield the others from the explosion, though it turns out to be a practical joke by the Yancy Street Gang. Immediately, the scene switches to the evil FF meeting up. By contrast, Pete and the Sandman are at each other's throats straight away, before their fight is broken up by The Wizard. The stark difference between the two groups is jarring. We, the readers, know which group we'd rather be part of.


With the Fantastic Four, the team are supportive of
each other and behave like a caring family ...
And the main plot hadn't even started ...

Around the same time, I picked a copy of Justice League of America 32 from a little newsagent on a street behind Woolwich Arsenal station. The Gardner Fox story in that comic, "Enemy from the Timeless World", was nothing like "Defeated by the Frightful Four". 



To begin with, there was none of the characterisation of the Marvel books in Fox's script. All the characters in JLA32 talked exactly alike. You could take any of the dialogue and put it any of the characters' mouths. Even in their own books, DC characters all talked alike. It was Stan Lee that pretty much created distinctive speech patterns for comics characters. And that was one of the magic ingredients that made Marvel's stories so different.

The other big difference between DC books like JLA32 and Lee's Marvel Comics was that the entirety of the Justice League story happened in a landscape that wasn't recognisable - a distorted version of the League Clubhouse, and there were no civilians to be seen. By contrast, all the Marvel books showed their characters constantly interacting with real people in a recognisable American cityscape, in the case of the FF ... New York.


THE VERY AMAZING SPIDER-MAN

For someone whose first exposure to US comics was the staid and starchy DC heroes, Lee and Ditko's Spider-Man was a revelation. It was completely unlike anything I'd seen before. I was familiar with Ditko's work and really liked it. His Marvel and Charlton stories were regularly reprinted in the British, black and white Alan Class comics. But Spider-Man was something altogether different.

The first issue I remember reading was Amazing Spider-Man 15. I must have swapped it with a friend, as it was quite a few months older than the other Marvel Comics I was picking up in the newsagents. The villain was unlike any other. For a start, he didn't actually commit any crimes. He just wanted to hunt the Most Dangerous Game - a man. Specifically a Spider-Man. Not realising he was being manipulated by dangerous spy, The Chameleon, one of Spider-Man's oldest enemies, he hunted and battled Spider-Man - more-or-less honourably - for the sheer sport of it.


Spider-Man's adversaries were a weird crowd
and Kraven the Hunter was no different -
Ditko's design-sense here is exemplary.

But all that was a bit beside the point. The part of Spider-Man's stories that grabbed the readers - me included - was the way the super-hero Spider-Man managed to do really well, a sixteen year old kid defeating really menacing villains who would happily kill him, while his real-life persona Peter Parker messed up just about everything he did.

In this issue was the first mention of Mary-Jane Watson, as Aunt May tried fix her nephew up on a blind date with her friend's niece. But Peter is too busy trying to court Betty Brant, while fending off the sort-of-unwanted attentions of arch-rival Flash Thompson's girlfriend, Liz Allen. A tangled web, indeed.


Peter's Aunt May constantly worries about her nephew,
because of how frail he is ...
Anyway, Betty's nose gets all out of joint when local airhead Liz Allen tries to make school bully Flash Thompson jealous by playing up to "Petey". She won't listen to his explanations and the issue ends with Pete unable to get a date with either girl. Even Mary-Jane begs off with a headache. Personally, I thought Betty was a bit high-maintenance ... which would turn out to be the case when I found out that in an earlier issue Betty blamed Spider-Man for the death of her criminal brother Bennett and berated Peter for being a thrill-seeker just like Spider-Man.


The issue closes with Peter's luck running true to form,
all bad, as he fails to get a date with Betty, Liz or even
the as-yet-unnamed Mary-Jane Watson.
In the next couple of months, I would read and save many more Fantastic Four and Spider-Man comics. But I hadn't forgotten the character that drew me to Marvel in the first place ... 

Before I turned my attentions seriously to collecting any Marvel Comics with Captain America in them, I had still to enjoy my first tastes of some of Marvel second-string characters. In my immediate future were my introductions to Daredevil, The X-Men and Dr Strange ...

Next: Exactly how many comics does Marvel publish anyway?



Tuesday, 6 August 2013

What's so special about the Silver Age of Comics?

"The Golden Age of science fiction is twelve."

Though that statement has been variously attributed to Isaac Asimov and Theodore Sturgeon, turns out it was credited by SF editor Terry Carr to his friend Peter Graham. But the fundamental truth of that is more important than who said it first. So for me, the best era ever in comics was my pre-teen years, in the early 1960s. I'd started off on the Weisinger and Schwarz edited DC Comics, which really were aimed at kids of 8-10. But then Stan Lee came along with his strange Marvel books. And I suppose that's what stopped me growing out of comics.

The first American comic I remember seeing was an early DC science fiction book. It was on the counter of a newsagent, somewhere in London. It had a couple of kids in a canoe and they'd hooked a green monster on their fishing line. I could only have been about five. Boy, I wanted that comic ... but my mum didn't approve of horror comics, so that was that.

The comic that caught my attention all those
years ago was this one, 
House of Mystery 96,
cover dated Jan 1960.
I'm sure there were other comic books, either borrowed from friends or read in the playground, but the next clear memory I have of US comics was a year or two later ... I don't know where I got it from but it was a copy of Tales of the Unexpected featuring a character called Space Ranger. It had one of those great concept covers of the period where the hero was shown in some impossible situation and the reader would be desperate to find out how it happened and how the hero got out of it. In my case it was neither, as I was largely unaware of these colourful American imports.

Tales of the Unexpected 76,
from Apr/May 1963
Still, these stories were completely different from the homegrown black and white weekly comics. Instead of shoeless footballers and animal adventures, we had spacemen that became fused with their alien foes. And it was these imaginative ideas that captured my eight year old attention.

Pretty quickly, I had left Lion and Valiant behind and focussed my efforts on finding more American comics. Exotic titles like Green Lantern and The Atom were on my shopping list. I managed to get hold of a coverless copy of Batman Annual 4. I read that comic, um, cover-to-cover dozens of times. My two favourites were "The First Batman", where Batman discovers his father had fought crime in a bat costume before him, and "The Man Who Ended Batman's Career", where Batman is inflicted with Bat-o-phobia and must assume a new identity - Starman - so the crooks wouldn't use his terror of bats against him.

I didn't see the cover of Batman Annual 4,
Winter 62/63, until many years later. My
copy was missing its cover.
I also have a strong memory of Flash 135, which came out around the same time. The story teamed Barry Allen with the nephew of his fiancee, Wally West. Wally had acquired similar powers to the Flash when Barry was explaining how the Flash received his abilities and lightning had actually struck a second time. 

I recently bought a copy of this April 1963
comic and had instant deja vu of how I'd
felt when I read it first time around.
DC Comics of the period was driven by just such implausible coincidences, but I was eight and didn't care. I think what left me slightly breathless about this story was the incredible alien cities drawn by Carmine Infantino and the haunting beauty of the female alien who befriends the youthful Kid Flash.


I thought the alien Ryla was the most exotic woman
I'd ever seen - though pretty soon she'd be replaced
in my affections by Julie Newmar's Catwoman.

Pretty soon, I was devouring the Superman family titles. Of course, I didn't know it at the time, but these books were all under the iron rule of Mort Weisinger. They were corny and the scene on the cover hardly ever quite matched the story on the inside ...

Weisinger's books tended to be a bit same-y
after a while ... which is why I was ready for
Stan Lee's Marvel Comics by 1965.

By the first half of 1965 I was getting a bit tired of the Superman books. I'd read a few Charlton hot-rod comics, which I quite liked, but someone at school had a copy of Tales to Astonish 51, which a bit different to any of the other comics I'd been reading.

Not prime Lee/Kirby, but still light years
ahead of what DC Comics was doing
around the same time.
I wasn't quite sure what to make of Giant Man. His superpower seemed quite straightforward. He got big. But there was something sombre, subdued about the heroes in this comic. Even though their costumes were primary red, the villain somehow stood out more than the protagonists. In retrospect, I think I now know why this was, but I liked the "twirly guy" enough to look for some more comics with that distinctive corner emblem.

Not long afterwards, I came across two more Marvel comics. Coincidently, both starred a hero who was to trigger my collecting mania for Marvel books - Captain America.

To kids growing up in early Sixties Britain, America was a fabulous land of plenty, where everyone was rich and the cars looked like spaceships. In Britain, everything was in black and white. Our television, most of our movies ... and our comic books. Everywhere were reminders that only a few years before, Britain had borne the brunt of the German bombing campaign. Southeast London, where I grew up, was littered with bomb sites. Not far from my house was an open emergency reservoir, about the size of a small swimming pool, designed to catch rainwater in case the bombing cut the water pipes in the area. It was a drowning just waiting to happen, but we didn't have Health & Safety back then. Heedless of the danger, we used to catch sticklebacks in that murky, green water. And of course the many bombed-out houses formed our principal playgrounds. Much of this background I would use for the second series of Luke Kirby that I wrote for 2000AD

So it was hardly surprising that my ten year old self found Captain America a symbol of progress and riches. I first came across the character when he and Bucky battled some fake mediums against a WWII backdrop.

I got a copy of this issue in early 1965.
Two heroes for the prices of one.
There was also a strip with Iron Man fighting two pretty gloomy villains, Hawkeye and Black Widow (who was purple, not black), but it was Captain America who had my attention. His stars-and-stripes costume and his cool shield were great, but it was the fact that he didn't seem to have any actual super-powers meant that ... yes, I could be Captain America when I grew up.

I also liked the idea of both the interior strips sharing the cover. DC Comics of the same period also had a second superhero story (Aquaman in World's Finest for example, and Elongated Man in Flash). but Marvel was doing something different. It was giving both strips equal billing - on the cover. They were letting you know right up front that you were getting twice as much adventure for your ninepence.

As with Tales to Astonish 51, the colouring in Tales of Suspense 64 was subdued. Although Iron Man and Captain America were all bright primaries, the worlds they inhabited and the villains they fought were all sombre secondaries - maroon, purple, grey. It wasn't much different in the next Marvel comic I found.

Avengers 15 caught my eye because front and centre, right there on the cover, was my new idol, Captain America.

Captain America, Iron Man and Giant Man
I sort-of recognised, but who were all these
other strange people?
The idea of a superhero team wasn't new to me. I'd seen and read a few Justice League of America comics - though at first I was amazed that the publishers didn't charge you more because there were more super-characters in the comic. But by this point I was able to put down my ninepence for the comic without the slightest twinge of guilt. OK, the drawing wasn't quite as good as in the first two Marvel comics. I wouldn't come to appreciate the craftsmanship of Don Heck until much later. And the book certainly wasn't as polished as the comics put out by DC, but it had an energy about it that spoke to my ten year old sensibilities. 

And again, as with Tales of Suspense 64, while the heroes did have fairly colourful costumes, the villains were quite subdued, favouring a secondary palette of purples, greys and greens.

The one thing that puzzled me about Avengers 15 ... Captain America was operating in a contemporary setting, alongside other heroes of the Marvel present, while in Tales of Suspense, he was still fighting WWII. There was an explanation, of course, but that had been in a much earlier issue of Avengers which I wouldn't read until much later.

I had found a new obsession. I was done with Civil War News gum cards and The Beatles. Now I was on a mission to collect as many Tales of Suspense and Avengers comics as I could get my hands on. There was just one problem ... my mum didn't approve of comics any more in 1965 than she had in 1960. I was going to have to do this in secret ...

Next - Why Silver Age Marvel Comics were better than DCs.