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."

MORE TALES TO ASTONISH

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?