|This is the top ten selling titles for 1961, in chart order - not a Stan Lee title in sight.|
But that was about to change. Early in 1961, Marty Goodman had heard, possibly from DC publisher Jack Liebowitz (accounts vary), how well DC's new title Justice League of America was doing saleswise. The comic collected all of Schwartz's second string characters plus other DC third-rankers like Green Arrow and Aquaman and teamed them in book-length adventures. Goodman immediately ordered his editor Stan Lee to produce a copycat book starring his Golden Age big three - Captain America, Human Torch and Sub-Mariner. But at this point in his career, Stan had realised that Goodman's imitation tactics had created no boost to sales whatsoever, and that slavishly copying other publishers' ideas was getting Marvel nowhere. The story of how Lee - on the verge of quitting the business - was persuaded by his wife to do as Marty asked, but do it his own way is detailed in my previous blog entry. Stan gave Marty his supergroup, but included only The Human Torch in the line-up - and then took a chance and wrote what he would want to read if he were a comic buyer. The result would have an impact on DC's sales in just a few years.
In a different blog entry, I'd questioned why FF artist Jack Kirby - who claimed he alone had created and written the Fantastic Four stories - would put The Sub-Mariner in issue 4 when the copyright was likely held by Bill Everett. On reflection, one possible explanation might have been that Goodman hauled up Lee and demanded to know why The Sub-Mariner wasn't featuring in their new superhero team book. So Lee directed Kirby to include Subby in issue 4 so as to have something to show his publisher.
MUST BE DOING SOMETHING RIGHTThe comics business has never been an industry to spend money on advertising or marketing. Usually, they've just created a title, delivered it to the newsstands and crossed their fingers. And that had always worked just fine. KIds bought comics based on whether they'd heard of the character - Superman, Tarzan and Disney characters being the most recognised - or if their friends told them a comic was good. In 1960, the best-selling comics were Disney stuff, Tarzan and Superman, based on the sales figures reported in 1961. But as the 1960s progressed, something strange started to happen. The average sales of DC Comics went into freefall and Marvel's began a relentless upward climb. And all this by word-of-mouth.
Okay, not only word-of-mouth.
As big a threat to comics sales as television was, it had also proved to be a boon - sort-of. Comics have always been a source of material for both big and small screen entertainment. During the 1930s and 1940s, Hollywood constantly looked to comics - both newspaper strips and comic books - for characters to license. As early as 1936, newspapers' Flash Gordon starred in three successful movie serials, quickly followed by the similar Buck Rogers, Jungle Jim, Mandrake the Magician, Adventures of Captain Marvel, Batman, Captain America and Superman. As the serial era wound down, Hollywood found that television could make low-budget entertainment even cheaper, and some characters, like Jungle Jim and Superman switched to tv.
Starring George Reeves as Superman/Clark Kent, The Adventures of Superman made its debut in 1952, tightly controlled by DC comics and distributed via syndication rather than by the more common network method. Though production ceased in 1958, the show continued in syndication until well into the 1960s, and was the main factor in keeping the profile of the character and the sales of the main Superman comic title high. Even as late as 1967, Superman was outselling Amazing Spider-Man by almost two-to-one.
This process would be repeated in 1966 when the Batman tv show (I know, I know) increased the sales of DC's Batman comic by 100%. However, the effects on comic sales was much shorter lived for the Batman comic than it had been for Superman. By the third season, sales had dipped down almost to pre-tv show levels and by 1968, Amazing Spider-Man was outselling Batman.
However, even as early as 1964, the sales figures must have been making DC accountants feel uneasy. Marvel was already rapidly closing the gap on rivals DC and by 1965 had equalled DC in average sales. And that with just the 16 titles they'd been limited to by the draconian distribution deal Jack Liebowitz had forced Marty Goodman to sign in 1957.
Something had to be done. So DC did it. They gave us Go-Go Checks.
|Words fail me ...|
|Yes, there's Go-Go Checks. But nothing else had changed. The cover themes were as daft as ever, and were still driving (sometimes very awkwardly) the stories inside. Even at 11 I felt DC just didn't "get it".|
|The companies' flagship titles, the month that DC added Go-Go Checks. Marvel was offering us Fantastic Four vs Galactus and the Silver Surfer. DC had Superman changing into a dragon and scaring some college professors.|
The Go-Go Checks lasted from April 66 till July 1967 and all during that period, DC's top-selling comic stuck doggedly to the outdated and rather boring Weisinger-style stories. You could argue, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." But the formula was broke. DC just hadn't realised it yet.
By contrast, Marvel's whole approach could not have been more different. Certainly, Jack Kirby was responsible for much of the "sense of wonder" that permeated the Fantastic Four and Mighty Thor titles. But even Stan Lee and his Spider-Man collaborator John Romita were presenting far more interesting and mature situations for their hero than anything DC was doing.
|By contrast, the Lee-Romita Spider-Man title presented genuine threats and life-changing events for their most popular character. Readers were given a real sense that Spider-Man was in danger of physical harm.|
THE C LISTIn the mid-1960s, especially in the UK, us kids really only bothered with two types of comics - Marvels and DCs. Of course there were quite a few other companies, but DC had the big names and Marvel had Lee & Kirby. Archie was huge in the States, but never made much of an impact on us in Britain. It was just too, well, American for us. We liked the tall buildings, the cool cars and cops with guns, but the high school antics of Archie never appealed to me or to the kids I went to school with.
Archie Comics had tried - almost half-heartedly - to develop a line of superheroes as early as 1959, when they engaged Joe Simon and Jack Kirby to produce The Double Life of Private Strong and, shortly after, The Fly, forming the backbone of the "Archie Adventure Series".
|Although on the surface, The Shield appeared to resemble Captain America, the Golden Age character actually pre-dated Simon & Kirby's patriotic hero. This revamp, ironically by S&K, was more like Superman than Cap.|
Two months after the debut of Private Strong, Archie publisher/editor John Goldwater launched The Adventures of the Fly, with Simon & Kirby again providing the finished package. The Fly was in reality teenager Tommy Troy who finds a fly-shaped ring in his home's attic. Rubbing the ring, he transforms into an adult superhero.
The character started as a pitch to Harvey Comics back in 1953. In his book, The Comic Book Makers, Joe Simon described the genesis of the character: "In 1953, a year before the devastating Senate investigation into comics, I was visited by C.C. Beck, the artist behind the success of Captain Marvel. Beck told me that he owned the Ukulele Bar & Grill in Miami, Florida, and while tending the bar, often thought about doing another superhero. He offered to 'take a crack' at the business again, if I would come up with an idea for a new character and a script.
"Jack Oleck, my brother-in-law, who had been the number one scriptwriter for Simon and Kirby since the early days of Young Romance, had time on his hands. Oleck always had time, even if he turned out a script seven days a week. As always, he was anxious to join in a new venture."
|The first page of a Silver Spider script by Jack Oleck, discovered amongst papers in Joe Simon's apartment.|
|The origin of the Silver Spider, created by Joe Simon and C.C. Beck, scripted by Jack Oleck and drawn by Beck. The concept failed to sell to Alfred Harvey in 1953 and was shelved immediately afterwards. Jack Kirby had no involvement.|
In any case, Simon & Kirby stopped working on the title after The Fly 4, and Kirby gave his full attention to freelancing for Marvel. The writing on The Fly was taken over by Robert Bernstein and the art fell to John Giunta and later John Rossenberger, seasoned professionals all. Bernstein had been a staple at DC, scripting many first and second tier characters, like Superman, Jimmy Olsen, Congorilla and Aquaman. Stan also gave him a shot at Marvel where he wrote stories for Thor (Journey into Mystery 92-96), Iron Man (Tales of Suspense 40-46) and Human Torch (Strange Tales 108-109), though I thought those issues were the dullest of the early runs. Lee must have agreed, because he took back the scripting on those titles and Bernstein was gone. Giunta was known primarily for inking Superboy, Jimmy Olsen and Wonder Woman stories for DC. Rosenberger had drawn romance stories for DC and mystery stories for ACG. The remainder of the run on Adventures of the Fly was unremarkable and the series was cancelled in 1964.
The other title in the Archie Adventure Series was The Adventures of the Jaguar. The character's origin was remarkably similar to The Fly's. Zoologist Ralph hardy finds a "nucleon energy" (that's magic) belt in a hidden temple in Peru and on putting it on, is tranformed into ... The Jaguar. As the Jaguar he has all the abilities of the animal kingdom, multiplied by a factor of a thousand. With stories again created by Bernstein and Rosenberger, the comics didn't set the world alight, but still managed to stay on the stands from September 1961 until the 15th issue in November 1963.
|The Jaguar had an origin story that was suspiciously similar to that of The Fly's. Way too much reliance on magic artifacts and abilities that mimicked those of animals.|
Starting with The Fly, Siegel morphed him into Fly Man and pitched the writing style as a bad pastiche of Stan Lee, mixed with the hokiness of the Batman TV show, albeit nearly a year before the Caped Crusader hit the airwaves. To further beef up the appeal, Siegel included additional superheroes teamed up to help Fly Man battle The Spider, including Golden Age MLJ characters The Comet and The Black Hood, as well as a revamped version of The Shield ... and of course Fly-Girl - not to be confused with the later dance troupe that shot Jennifer Lopez to fame. At the end of the story, the heroes wonder if they should form a super-team called The Mighty Crusaders and continue to fight crime.
Of course ... they did. So much so that as well as starring in Fly Man's comic, The Mighty Crusaders got their own title. As with the Fly Man stories, art was by Paul Reinman. Reinman's notable achievements were a long run as artist on the Golden Age Green Lantern character, then contributing art for the fantasy, war and western tales in Marvel pre-hero titles for years, at the same time as freelancing for ACG. Later, Reinman would ink Kirby's pencils on Fantastic Four 18, 19 & 21, Avengers 3 & 5 and X-Men 1-5.
|The covers of the Archie Mighty Comics line went out of their way to look like they were published by Marvel. The story titles in particular tried to capture Stan's sense of melodrama.|
|At the end of its run, the format of the final issue Mighty Crusaders changed to feature just the one character, foreshadowing the run of Mighty Comics Presents that followed right on its heels.|
To give you a taste, here's a bit from Mighty Comics Presents 40, with The Web battling Iron Fist. Who actually has iron fists. Made of iron. The Web is enjoying a good fight with his enemy Iron Fist for reasons that are never explained. Then, Iron Fist's costume goes out of control and he asks The Web to help him. Like they're suddenly best friends.
|Pages 3, 4 and 6 from the first issue of Mighty Comics Presents. |
Read the extract and make up your own mind.
Finally, Iron Fist attacks John and Rosie and The Web honours his promise to his wife. Iron Fist is so upset that The Web won't fight that he gives up being a super-villain and leaves.
All of this portrayed with horrendous dialogue by the legendary Jerry Siegel.
It's hard to imagine what Siegel was trying for. Funny? It really wasn't funny. Satire? Satire should be cleverer. Other than Paul Reinman's workmanlike art, there just doesn't seem to be any talent going into these stories. In fact, it's a bit sad to see the great Jerry Siegel - the guy who wrote Superman, for goodness' sake - reduced to this. It's a bit like watching Bela Lugosi in an Ed Wood movie.
Mercifully, John Goldwater cancelled the Mighty Comics series with issue 50, cover dated October 1967.
SOME KIND OF TOWERING ACHIEVEMENTWally Wood had contributed the pencil art for Marvel's Daredevil, issues 5-8, (and by definition the plotting/pacing) but had been unhappy about either Stan Lee criticising his storytelling or Stan having Wood plot the stories while Lee took the payment and the credit. I kind of lean more towards Wood's lack of ability to work from anything other than a full script (as he did at EC), as his storytelling on Daredevil was quite weak. I'd also add that I don't think that Wood, brilliant as he was at EC science fiction, was very good at superhero action. For issues 9-11 of Daredevil, Wood inked over Bob Powell pencils.
So, after exiting Marvel, for whatever reason, Wood immediately teamed up with Len Brown and established the Tower line of comics featuring newly-created superheroes in an attempt to do what Stan was doing back at Marvel.
Len Brown had been a creative editor at Topps Chewing Gum from about 1959. In 1962 inspired, legend has it, by Wally Wood's cover art for Weird Science 16, Brown pitched an idea for a set of cards that would depict the Martian invasion of Earth.
|I liked the cover for Weird Science 16 so much that I asked artist John Ridgway to do a pastiche of it for the cover of Marvel UK's Transformers 2, when I was supervising editor on that title back in 1984.|
|The design influence of Wood's Weird Science cover can be seen on the design of the gum card Martians. The card set scandalised suburban America and Britain during the 1960s, due in no small part to Wood's subversive sense of anarchy.|
Wood had been casting around for a property he could offer to Tower Publications owner Harry Shorten. Shorten had been an editor for Archie/MLJ during the 1940s and in the 1950s had started his own publishing company, producing television magazines. Shorten wanted Wood to be managing editor for his new line of comics, but stressed that Wood would be strictly creative, and wouldn't have to do the boring officework part of the editor's role. When it became obvious that Wood couldn't handle the art by himself, Shorten brought in long-time Archie artist Samm Schwartz as a production editor to handle trafficking. Gil Kane, Steve Ditko, Reed Crandal, Chic Stone, Sal Trapani and others produced art and the series was off and running.
|The T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents title managed a respectable three year run, from Nov 1965 to Nov 1968, doing better than the Archie line of superheroes.|
I remember seeing the Tower comics at the time in 1965 and thinking that the art was nice but the stories were a bit boring. The scripts were written by Len Brown, Larry Ivie, Steve Skeates, Lou Silverstone, Bill Pearson and others. And none of these guys seemed to grasp what it was that made Lee's Marvel books different from the Competition, Distinguished or otherwise. The writing just has no pizzazz, no enthusiasm. It's hard to imagine anyone reading these stories and being entertained. I wasn't.
And I couldn't have been alone because after 1968. Tower Comics pretty much closed its doors and left the field to Marvel, DC and Charlton.
THE D LISTIn 1965, American Comics Group (ACG) decided that they too would have a crack at superheroes. The company had long published a handful of war, romance and mystery titles, but were best known for Adventures into the Unknown (1-174, Fall 1948 - Aug 1967, Forbidden Worlds (1-145, Jul/Aug 1951 - Aug 1967) and Unknown Worlds (1-57, Aug 1960 - Aug 1967).
Their first hero was Magicman, who appeared in Forbidden Worlds 125 (Jan/Feb 1965). As Tom Cargill, Magicman is the immortal son of the 18th Century magician Cagliostro and, joining the army to fight in Viet Nam, uses his magical abilities to combat evil ... well, communists. The series was written by ACG editor Richard Hughes and had gorgeous, clean-line artwork by Pete Costanza, who had drawn many Captain Marvel stories during the preceding two decades.
|The ACG heroes appeared at the beginning of 1965. Though not strictly a super-hero, Herbie's alter-ego The Fat Fury appeared around the same time as Magicman and Nemesis, so is not likely to have been just a coincidence.|
For most of its existence, ACG comics had concentrated on horror and mystery stories. During the comics purge of the 1950s, ACG had survived by severely toning down the horror elements. They didn't dip a toe into superhero tales until 1965, which suggests Hughes, or more likely publisher Ben Sangor, had noted the success of Marvel's heroes and thought ACG should have some costumed heroes of its own. Hughes had created The Black Terror for Standard during the 1940s, along with Fighting Yank and Pyroman, so he had a track record. However, some ACG fans weren't happy with the move. In response to a reader complaining about the inclusion of a recurring character in Adventures into the Unknown 161, Hughes replied that it was "simply a matter of business. The popularity of costume heroes was such that we just had to go in for them to some extent ... our readers were demanding them."
DC had been publishing superheroes continuously since Action Comics 1, so it's unlikely Hughes is referring to the popularity of Superman and Batman, which at this point was in decline. Yet if it was Marvel who'd inspired him to create Nemesis and Magicman, why do the ACG scripts read more like DC material than like Lee's hip, informal yarns? Tellingly, after the cancellation of its titles and the closure of ACG in 1967, Hughes went on to script Jimmy Olsen and Hawkman for DC.
I think if Hughes had been savvier, he could have used Magicman to take some kind of stance on the Viet Nam conflict, which formed a background for the character's stories. Using the setting as a kind of Hogan's Heroes comedy scenario is a missed opportunity at best, and faintly offensive at worst.
DELL'S KEY WASN'T SO GOLDEN, EITHER
The other player that tried to muscle in on Marvel's (and to an extent DC's) turf was comics giant Dell. Founder George Delacorte had been there for the birth of the American comic book. When he collected a bunch of newspaper comic strips and put them into the first recognisable comic book, The Funnies, in 1933, he created an entire industry. In later years, Dell concentrated on licensed material, publishing huge amounts of Disney and Warner Bros material from their animated cartoons, along with iconic fictional characters from pulps and radio, like Tarzan, Lone Ranger and Zorro. Their tv tie-ins were legendary and many cult tv shows had a Dell comic - Man from U.N.C.L.E, Star Trek and Twilight Zone to name just three.
And their own originated characters enjoyed massive sales. Turok Son of Stone (a native American adventure book) outsold most DC titles during the early 1960s.
But when it came to superheroes, Dell didn't enjoy such a sparkling success. Their first forays into super-powered shennanigans were bland enough ... Nukla made his first appearance in late-1965 and Superheroes almost a year and a half later in early-1967.
Nukla was really CIA spy and pilot Matthew Gibbs. While flying a mission over Communist China (surely a breach of some kind of international protocol), his plane is fired upon by the Chinese military and is instantly vaporised by the resulting nuclear explosion. We might argue that it serves him right, but he does gain the ability to reassemble his body through sheer force of will and can now perform amazing nuclear-powered deeds, provided he can first de-materialise his body into an intangible nuclear cloud. To be fair, Nukla wasn't terrible. But it wasn't great either. A bit like Captain Atom, without the great Steve Ditko artwork.
The Superheroes featured a team called The Fab Four (familiar, much?), teens who find themselves able to transfer their minds into four super-powered androids - El (laser, infra-red and x-ray powers), Polymer Polly (speed and heat resistance), Hy (hypersonics) and Crispy (cryogenics). Like Nukla, Superheroes was written by Joe Gill and drawn by Sal Trapani. But where Trapani's art on Nukla is neat and ordered, similar to the DC comics by Gil Kane and Infantino, the art on Superheroes is chaotic and messy. It looks to me like Trapani was trying to emulate the dynamic layouts of the Marvel comics but not quite pulling it off ...
Trapani was the brother-in-law of longtime Charlton inker and editor Dick Giordano, drawing science fiction strips for Charlton during the 1950s. In the 1960s, he provided art for ACG and Warren, and moved to DC, along with Giordano in the 1970s, finally fetching up as an inker at Marvel during the 1980s.
|Nukla isn't an especially bad comic ... it just isn't very good, either. The Superheroes, on the other hand, defies description of just how awful it is. And that's being kind.|
As bad as these Dell superhero titles were, they looked like literary gold compared to the next adventure offerings from the company. Dracula, Werewolf and Frankenstein were an attempt by Dell to turn the Universal Monsters into superheroes. It didn't work.
With scripts by Don Segall and art by Bill Fraccio and Tony Tallirico, these superhero adventure stories were cringingly bad, both in concept and execution.
|Just when you think it can't get any worse ... Dell tries to turn the Universal movie monsters into superheroes.|
Frankenstein was created in 1866 by a scientist known only as The Doctor, The Monster has superior intellect and the strength of 50 men. He lies dormant for 100 years below a castle outside Metropole City, until awoken by a convenient lightning bolt. To disguise his monstrous appearance Frankenstein puts on a rubber facemask and takes the name Frank Stone (sigh!)
Werewolf has Major Wiley Wolf (honest, I'm not making this up) crashing his aircraft in the Arctic Circle, developing amnesia and becoming like a wild animal, as he lives with a pack of wolves for six months in the Canadian wilderness. After being rescued, he resigns from the Air Force and joins the CIA, who train him to the peak of physical perfection and ... It's no use. I can't go on.
Don Segall had written for DC and Tower Comics was probably best known as the co-creator, with Steve Ditko, of The Creeper. By the 1970s, he'd moved into television, where he enjoyed a similar level of success as a writer and producer, contributing single scripts to shows like Diff'rent Strokes and Love Boat. Fraccio and Tallirico were a long-time double act who frequently worked under the collective name of Tony Williamson or Williamsune and enjoyed a long stint at Charlton Comics and later at Warren, contributing art for Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella. Their art was never great and they never aspired to be anything other than jobbing artists who would deliver competent work - when circumstances allowed - on time for a reasonable rate.
After the failure of these books, Dell pretty much stuck to its core strength of movie, cartoon and tv tie-ins until closing its doors in 1973.
WHAT IS SO HARD?
It's a good deal easier to figure it out with the benefit of hindsight, but it's still pretty incredible that so many smart, experienced publishing people were unable to see the obvious. The secret of Marvel's success in the 1960s wasn't really a secret at all. Stan Lee put it all out there on show, so with a little bit of thought, anyone could figure it out.
It wasn't just putting an eye-catching branding idea on the cover. Yes, Marvel had the trademark corner box on the cover ... but so did Mighty Comics, and look what happened to them. DC Comics tried their own version with the Go-Go Checks. But if that's the only change you're going to make, then that's not going to alter the direction of your sales figures.
It wasn't just publishing stories where the character had a glib line in dialogue. True, DC characters all talked like your humourless and slightly boring uncle, but Archie tried jokey dialogue with their Fly Man and Mighty Crusaders comics (admittedly bad jokey dialogue) and that didn't work either.
And it wasn't Jack Kirby alone. DC had had Jack Kirby both before and after Marvel - his runs on Green Arrow and Challengers hadn't been tours de force of sales and read just like any other DC comics of the time. And don't get me started on the "Fourth World" stuff. I wasn't a fan at the time, and re-reading those books more recently confirmed my worst fears. No matter what Jack claimed ... he couldn't write. I love him to bits as an artist and an ideas man, but a writer he was not. And in case you think it was the DC editors holding him back, just look at those early Archie Adventure Comics with his legendary partner Joe Simon.
No, what made Marvel Comics special was the Voice that Stan Lee brought to them. It was the way his characters talked, each with his own personality. Even if you couldn't see the pictures, you'd be able to tell if it was The Thing or Spider-Man speaking. It was also the way his characters reacted to the extraordinary circumstances they found themselves in - mostly with shock and surprise, just like we would if it were us. Even the innocent bystanders in Marvel comics often refuse to believe what was right in front of their eyes, claiming that an invasion of New York by Galactus must be some kind of advertising stunt, which is exactly how people in the real world would react.
And, as I've covered in detail in other entries in this blog, Stan sought to extend that real world informality to his letters pages and his Bullpen Bulletins.
It was all those factors, working together, that separated Marvel from DC, ACG, Archie and Dell. And it was the fact that Stan had talent as a writer, and had his characters drive the plots, that made his stories speak to the readers in a way they could relate to. Every other superhero series I've looked at in this entry did exactly the opposite. Contemporary comic characters like The Web, Superman and Dracula all sounded pretty much the same - no personality, no unique voice, no characterisation - and existed only because of the demands of the plot.
Today comic readers take characterisation for granted. Customers expect a much higher standard of writing than the companies were prepared (or able to) to offer during the formative years of the 1960s. So today, it's not uncommon to see writers of the caliber of Joss Whedon, Michael J Straczynski and Kevin Smith writing scripts for comics. But back then, there was only Stan, trying to raise the standards, all by himself. It just took the industry a decade to catch up with him, as first Roy Thomas, then other decent writers like Len Wein, Marv Wolfman and Tony Isabella filtered into the business, all heavily influenced by the work of Stan Lee.
Next: Superheroes on the 1960s screen