Saturday, 17 October 2015

From Horrors to Heroes

AS THE DAYS of Marty Goodman's Atlas Comics drew to a close in the late 1950s, the publisher was casting around for the Next Big Thing. Locked in to a draconian distribution contract with arch rivals DC Comics, Goodman was limited to a tight eight titles per month and if he needed to launch a new title, he was forced to cancel an existing one. So, feeling that mystery and science fiction was the next big thing Goodman decided to launch three new comics to complement the existing Journey into Mystery, World of Fantasy and Strange Tales titles. The new books were Strange Worlds, beginning in December 1958 and replacing the cancelled Navy Combat, and Tales of Suspense and Tales to Astonish, both debuting in January 1959, replacing the cancelled Homer the Happy Ghost and Miss America.

Journey into Mystery and Strange Tales had been around since the twilight of the Golden Age and changed in content according to Martin Goodman's take on his customers' tastes. So they began as horror titles, then briefly transformed into science fiction books. World of Fantasy was a 1956 late-comer.
The first few issues of these new books mined the same science fiction vein as their predecessors - flying saucers, alien invasions and men in spacesuits - probably because Martin Goodman had noticed the sudden wave of science fiction movies, from Destination Moon (1950) to Forbidden Planet (1956), that proliferated during the "Atomic Age", and finally in 1958 decided to do something about it. 

The new titles, Strange Worlds, Tales of Suspense and Tales to Astonish began during Martin Goodman's brief infatuation with science fiction themed stories. Suspense 1 had spacemen on the cover and Astonish 1 lifted a scene from King Kong. Not sure where the Strange Worlds cover is coming from ...
But within a few months, Goodman did a bit of an about-face and decreed that all their mystery/sf comics should feature giant monsters on the covers, monsters that looked as much like Godzilla as possible. This meant that, starting with the August and September 1959 issues, the six Marvel fantasy anthology titles began their runs of creature features - though Strange Worlds and World of Fantasy were cancelled as of the August 1959 issues.

Strange Tales was the first of the Marvel Comics to go Monster, with the August 1959 issue. The following month, Journey into Mystery also went down the giant creature route.
For the next couple of years, Stan had Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko churn out uninspired copies of the Japanese Toho monster characters like Mothra and Rodan. So generic was this type of comic that even as late as 1966, kids at my school were referring to Marvel's superhero books as "monster comics".

And the same month Journey into Mystery cover started cover-featuring monsters, so did Tales of Suspense and Tales to Astonish. Small world, isn't it?
Yet, these titles must have been doing fairly well as, in mid-1961, Goodman decreed that the line should have another monster title and Two-Gun Kid went on hiatus to allow Stan to slip the monthly Amazing Adventures into the schedule. While this new book may have looked like another monster book, the one new wrinkle was that Stan and Jack craftily introduced a continuing magician character called Dr Droom, whose adventures ran until issue 6, when he disappeared without explanation, and the title of the book became Amazing Adult Fantasy.

Goodman was limited to just eight books a month. He increased his reach by publishing 16 bi-monthly comics. Still, when he wanted to launch a new title, he was forced to cancel an existing one. So with the debut of Amazing Adventures, western fans had to say goodbye to Two-Gun Kid. At least temporarily, until it was reinstated 18 months later.
At the end of 1960, Journey into Mystery, Strange Tales and Tales to Astonish became monthlies, with Tales of Suspense also going monthly in January 1961, effectively increasing Marvel's line to 10 books a month. Then in September, Goodman added Linda Carter, Student Nurse to the line without cancelling anything. Either Goodman had renegotiated his contract with DC's Independent News, or they didn't notice. So he followed up by launching Fantastic Four as a bi-monthly in November 1961, making Marvel's output 11 comics per month, a total of 17 different titles.

Linda Carter 2 came out the same month as Fantastic Four 1. The only comic I have from November 1961 is Gunsmoke Western 67, which I paid £3.50 for on eBay last year. Doubt I could get an FF1 for that price, eh?
Reader reaction to Fantastic Four 1 was immediate and loud. Realising they were on to something, Goodman gave Stan the greenlight to add more superheroes, put The Incredible Hulk on the schedule and published issue 1 in May 1962, though it looked for all the world like just another Marvel monster book. This was followed just a couple of months later by the first appearances of Spider-Man (in Amazing Fantasy 15, Aug 1962) and Thor (in Journey into Mystery 83, Aug 1962). But Stan was only just beginning his roll.

At machine-gun pace, Stan brought out these new super-heroes right on the heels of Fantastic Four. Goodman responded by immediately cancelling Amazing Fantasy. Within a year The Hulk would also be cancelled.
There must have still been some kind of Independent News cap on how many titles Marvel could publish, because the company didn't put all of these new characters in their own books straight away. Between spring and autumn of 1962, someone must have put the brakes on because after The Incredible Hulk, all new characters were appearing in the lead slots of the existing fantasy comics. It's a trend that would continue in the latter half of '62.

But earlier in the year, Stan had noticed a particularly strong reader reaction to a fantasy story he'd published in an issue of the company's best-selling fantasy book,Tales to Astonish. The story was "The Man in the Ant Hill" (Astonish 27, Jan1962). Stan thought there was something there. Coincidently, he'd do a similar story in a later Tales of Suspense, "The Man in the Beehive" (Suspense 32, Aug1962). In later tellings of the Marvel legend, Stan and others have claimed that both stories were try-outs for a new insect hero to see which readers preferred, but given the gap between the publication dates of the stories and the fact that Ant Man appeared in costume the month after the "Bee-Man" tale, that now looks like a case of revising history to make for a better back-story.

Legend has it that Stan tried two different takes on an insect man style hero - Ant Man and Bee Man. But looking at the timings of these, that doesn't look so likely as the publication of the first costumed Ant Man tale was right on the heels of the alleged Bee Man trial ... and we know the comics must have had at least six weeks between press day and on sale.
A couple of months later, the same month that Fantastic Four 7 came out, The Human Torch was awarded a solo series in Strange Tales, starting with issue 101 (Oct1962).

The addition of Human Torch solo stories to Strange Tales was probably Marty Goodman's idea, as he'd always wanted Stan to revive the class Golden Age Timely heroes. Stan resisted for the most part, but had to throw Marty a bone occasionally.
The line-up was expanded early the following year when, bowing to reader reaction, Goodman reinstated Spider-Man, awarding him his own title and, the same month, Stan added Iron Man to Tales of Suspense.

Realising his mistake, Goodman had Stan rustle up the Amazing Spider-Man as a new book, first using up the left-over stories from the cancelled Amazing Fantasy. Then the last of the fantasy books was taken over by superheroes when Iron Man debuted in Tales of Suspense 39.
Then, with the sudden and swift cancellation of The Incredible Hulk, a new slot opened up, so Stan and Jack whipped up Sgt Fury and His Howling Commandos, and put the series out under its own title in May 1963, as there was no generic war book left in the Marvel Line to be hijacked.

The Hulk's own book was cancelled in March 1963, but just six months later he was back as The Avengers' most unstable member. The character lasted just three issues before he was replaced with a revived Captain America. By comparison, The X-Men struggled as a title for over ten years until it took off after a makeover by Len Wein and Dave Cockrum in 1975.
It only remained for Stan to give Marty what he'd wanted right at the start - a Marvel version of DC's Justice League of America - by banding all the existing solo Marvel characters together into a super-group, The Avengers, and throwing another complementary team-book featuring all-new character The X-Men and the Marvel line was pretty much set.

Stan and Jack - with a little help from Steve Ditko - would refine the mix over the next eighteen months or so, but the basic structure was now in place ...

THE RETURN OF CAPTAIN AMERICA

As I noted in an earlier post on this blog, one of the first Marvels I ever saw was Tales of Suspense 64 (Apr 1965). Though I quite enjoyed the Iron Man story with the Golden Avenger battling Hawkeye and the Black Widow (again, apparently), it was Captain America that really captured my youthful imagination. The first aspect that amazed me was that there were superheroes during World War 2. At that time I had no inkling of the "Golden Age"of comics and had assumed that superheroes had started some time in the early 1960s, just a year or two before I started reading them. It hadn't occurred to me that Action Comics was up to issue 323 by this time and that that would have taken, oh, at least 27 years to notch up that number of monthly comics. But then I was only ten.

The key difference between these two comics that came out the same month is that in the first, both Iron Man and Captain America are in clear and present danger. With the Superman cover, the big Blue Cheese is in no danger at all, facing merely the minor inconvenience of having to change his secret identity ... a bit like moving house for the rest of us.
The next thing that impressed the daylights out me was that Cap didn't actually have any super-powers. Granted, he was like an Olympic athlete and then some, but he was still just an ordinary human being, who couldn't fly or bounce bullets off his chest. Even at the age of ten, I could understand the concept of courage. It was around then that I resolved to be a non-powered superhero, too.

And while I was waiting for that ambition to come to fruition, I began to track down as many comics with Captain America in them as I could. But it wasn't until quite a bit later that the whole picture of Cap's life came into focus.

As I say, I had no inkling of the comics that Marvel and DC published during the 1940s, so it came as a bit of a shock when I learned later that Captain America actually had been around during WW2. But his first "appearance" in the 1960s had been as a kind of tryout in an early issue of Strange Tales, featuring the Human Torch of Fantastic Four fame.

The Captain America in Strange Tales turned out to be The Human Torch's old enemy, The Acrobat in disguise. But reader reaction must've been positive, because Stan lined up the real Captain America for his own slot in Tales of Suspense by guest-starring him in issue 58.
Granted, I didn't see this comic till a little later, but it kind of supports my theory that while Stan, Jack and Steve were trying to create a whole new approach to superhero comics, Marty was there in the background asking why Stan wasn't using The Sub-Mariner, The Human Torch and Captain America as lead characters.

I didn't see any copies of Tales of Suspense 58 or 59 around during my youth, as these were victims of the great Marvel / Thorpe & Porter dispute at the end of 1964, which resulted in the October and November Marvels not being distributed through newsagents in the UK, though I did catch up with them later.

When I did finally track down copies of these issues, I found the battle issue a little disappointing. I'd enjoyed Don Heck's art on earlier Iron Man stories just fine, but I wasn't mad on his version of Captain America. However, Tales of Suspense 59 made up for all that. Here was Cap, in all his Kirby-esque glory.

Captain America! In Tales of Suspense! Drawn by Jack Kirby! It was the best thing
that had happened in my life up to that point.
The other big change for the Marvel books that month was that Journey into Mystery, Strange Tales along with Suspense and Astonish, all gained letters pages. But I hardly noticed. All I could care about was my newfound obsession with Captain America and that I now had a source of Kirby-drawn stories. Imagine how I felt when I discovered that Cap was also in The Avengers, also drawn by Kirby. But I'll talk more about that next time.

Next: Captain America in the House (of Marvel)