Sunday, 24 September 2017

Marvel: The Rise of the Cover Blurb

BACK IN THE 1960s, comic publishers didn't have marketing budgets. There was nowhere for them to advertise their comics, except for in other comics. The only method they had available to them was to print way too many copies and try to get them in front of their customers, by dumping them onto the newsstands in great numbers. "Returns" of 50% weren't unheard of and, indeed, was considered normal. 

This newsstand comics rack was what the Summer 1949 (cover-dated August) comics industry output looked like. Click on the image to expand it, and you'll see titles like Crime Does Not Pay, Superboy, Crime Patrol, Millie the Model and a whole bunch of Classics Illustrated.
These "returned" comics would have the cover title logos torn off and sent back to the wholesalers for credits against the next issue. The mutilated returned comics were then supposed to be trashed, but many newsdealers simply put them out for sale again at 5c.

Newsvendors would tear the cover logos from unsold comics and send the logos back to their wholesalers to receive credit against future issues. They were then supposed to destroy the "unsolds" but invariably would offer them to customers at half price. Many of these mutilated comics have survived to the present day, though are considered to grade at "Poor" by most collectors.
So, all a publisher could do to get kids to pick up their comics off a spinner rack was to make the cover as attention-grabbing as possible. There were as many approaches to this as there were publishers and while the up-market guys like DC Comics would often show a modicum of restraint, some of the bottom feeders were anything but subtle.

DC's approach, from the 1940s right through to the 1960s, was to come up with an interesting - sometimes misleading - cover scenario, then write a story around it. Very often, they'd include explanatory speech balloons to tell the prospective customer what was going on, even if the cover art made that abundantly clear. EC, on the other hand, almost never used speech balloons, and rarely added cover lines. Dell/Gold Key didn't have any cover lettering at all on their sumptuously painted covers. And some poverty-row publishers would put the most outrageous and grisly art possible on their covers, which ended up causing huge problems for the whole industry by 1954.

A sample of comic covers, dated the year I was born. Harvey, also publishing Casper and Little Dot in the same period, took a pretty extreme approach with their horror comic covers. DC opted for the dramatic scenario with explanatory speech balloon, while Atlas (Marvel) followed EC's lead and offered situation covers with restrained, if any, cover text boxes.
Over the course of their history, Marvel Comics would try many approaches to the way they designed their covers, as publisher Martin Goodman, a notorious trend-follower, would regularly change his mind about what made a "selling" cover.

During the Golden Age of the 1940s, comics would sell between 200,000 and 400,000. Some individual titles would do even better. Superman was selling over a million copies a month in the early 1940s, Action Comics (the original home of Superman) was selling about 1.5 million copies during the post-war years and Whiz Comics (featuring Captain Marvel) topped that with sales of 2 million. In 1939, we know that Martin Goodman printed 80,000 copies of Marvel Comics 1 (Oct 1939) then, when that sold out almost immediately, went back to press to print another 800,00 copies, at the same time overprinting the cover date with "Nov".

The DC Comics of their formative years were restrained to the point of underselling. Where the later Superman titles would be a gab-fest of unnecessasry speech ballons and Ira Schnapp (beautifully) lettered text boxes, these 1940/41 comics were clean, allowing the strong image to sell the book.
The earliest DC Comics just let the cover image do the talking, avoiding speech balloons, and shrieking text boxes telling you what was happening inside the comic. It was a remarkably restrained approach, but it did seem to be the norm for the era.

The Marvel Comics from the same period aped the DC's by not using balloons or coverlines, but instead of DC's strong single images, the Timely books were a maelstrom of lurid and chaotic action. This probably came from Martin Goodman's history as a pulp publisher, but Alex Schomberg's hyper-kinetic covers were very much a forerunner of Jack Kirby's exaggerated action style that would later define the peak years of Marvel's 1960s output.

Just like their more affluent cousins over at DC, the Golden Age Timely Comics avoided text on their covers ... but by contract, every square-inch of the cover space was crammed to bursting with frenetic action, often with the Timely characters depicted at a larger scale than the foes they were fighting.
Though dialogue balloons on comic covers weren't unknown during the 1940s, they were uncommon. Other publishers were prone to adding more in the way of shouty cover lines to their publications. The anthology titles published by companies like Quality, Fawcett and Nedor didn't have the instantly recognisable heroes that DC and Timely had, so would tell prospective readers about the stories they could expect to find inside their books.

The other publishers sort of followed DC's and Timely's lead and didn't overload their covers with text, but did tell customer what the comic contained. These covers from Quality, Fawcett and Nedor are all from November 1942.
Then, as the Second World War drew to a close, DC's Action Comics began including speech balloons on the covers. None of the other DC titles followed that lead immediately, but inevitably, someone further up the food chain must've issued an edict, because with the April and May 1951 cover dates, just about all DC covers became speech balloon gab fests, establishing the over-explanatory style they became famous for.

Blah, blah, blah ... in the spring of 1951, DC's covers all suddenly sported expository speech balloons on every cover - describing the situation to prospective customers whether the cover image needed it or not. It would set the tone for DC Comics for almost two decades.
Strangely, at the same time, Atlas publisher Martin Goodman, was roundly ignoring DC's lead and putting out his comics with a unique and distinctive cover style.


COMIC COVERS - ATLAS STYLE

Unlike DC Comics' heroes, the Timely characters struggled after World War II. It's true that by the end of the 1940s, DC's non-Superman/Batman titles folded or were turned into western books, but the core of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman marched right on. Captain America, Human Torch and The Sub-Mariner - positioned, as they were, very much as the nemeses of the Axis Powers - had no one to fight when the real world hostilities ended. So the core titles were either cancelled, or morphed into horror comics, following EC's New Trend line.

The Timely line of comics ground to halt in mid-1949. Captain America was a horror comic for its last two issues. The Human Torch's and Sub-Mariner's own titles were cancelled and the characters' original home, Marvel (Mystery) Comics, became Marvel Tales, another horror anthology.
It took Goodman a year or so to sort out what he wanted to do with his comic line, now that the superheroes were gone. In the end he concentrated on his girls' comics (Millie the Model and Patsy Walker), his western comics  (KId Colt and Two-Gun Kid) and his horror titles, lead by the new incarnation of Marvel Mystery Comics, Marvel Tales.

While the Western and girls' (and war) comics rolled on, Martin Goodman must have noticed the sales on his horror titles were growing, so ordered editor Stan Lee to come up with more titles. It seemed like Goodman couldn't get enough horror, and by 1951, the renamed Timely comics was pumping out horror titles under its new Atlas Comics imprint. In order of publication, these were:
  • Amazing Mysteries 32-35 (May 1949 - Jan 1950)
  • Marvel Tales 93-159 (Aug 1949 - Aug 1957), was Marvel Mystery Comics
  • Suspense 1-29 (Dec 1949 - Apr 1953)
  • Adventures into Terror 43-44 (first two issues), then 3-31 (Nov 1950 - May 1954), was Joker
  • Journey into Unknown Worlds 36-59 (Sep 1950 - Aug 1957), was Teen Comics
  • Mystic 1-61 (Mar 1951 - Aug 1957)
  • Astonishing 3-63 (Apr 1951 - Aug 1957), was Marvel Boy
  • Strange Tales 1-100 (Jun 1951 - Sep 1962)
  • Adventures into Weird Worlds 1-30 (Jan 1952 - Jun 1954)
  • Mystery Tales 1-54 (Mar 1952 - Aug 1957)
  • Spellbound 1-34 (Mar 1952 - Jun 1957)
  • Journey into Mystery 1-82 (Jun 1952 - Jul 1962)
  • Uncanny Tales 1-56 (Jun 1952 - Sep 1957)
  • Menace 1-11 (Mar 1953 - May 1954)
  • Men's Adventures 21-26 (May 1953 - Mar 1954), was war comic of same title
  • Strange Stories of Suspense 5-16 (Oct 1955 - Aug 1957), was Rugged Action
  • Strange Tales of the Unusual 1-11 (Dec 1955 - Aug 1957)
  • Adventure into Mystery 1-8 (May 1956 - Jul 1957)
  • World of Suspense 1-8 (Apr 1956 - Jul 1957)
  • World of Fantasy 1-19 (May 1956 - Aug 1959)
  • World of Mystery 1-7 (Jun 1956 - Jul 1957)
  • Strange Worlds 1-5 (Dec 1958 - Aug 1959)
  • Tales of Suspense 1-38 (Jan 1959 - Feb 1963)
  • Tales to Astonish 1-34 (Jan 1959 - Aug 1962)
  • Amazing Adventures 1-6 (Jun - Nov 1961)
  • Amazing Adult Fantasy 7-14 (Dec 1961 - Jul 1962)
Probably because these titles were the backbone of the company during the early 1950s, Stan Lee gave them a bit more attention than the other genres, quite rapidly evolving a unified cover style for the titles. This would consist of one main cover image, then smaller images down the left-hand side depicting scenes from the other stories in each (anthology) issue. It was the nearest thing to a house style Atlas had during the 1950s, which Lee was probably responsible for. 

At this point in the company's history, Lee was Art Director as well as Editor-in-Chief, and so was very hands-on when it came to designing the covers, though he would lean heavily on production man Sol Brodsky. As Lee told Marvel Age magazine in 1985, "Sol and I were the whole staff of Atlas Comics. I bought the art and scripts and Sol did all the production. My job was mainly talking to the artists and the writers and telling them I wanted the stuff done. Sol did ... the corrections, making sure everything looked right, making sure things went to the engraver and he also talked to the printer. He was really the production manager. And then little by little we built things back up again."

Later, Stan would offer Jack Kirby the post of Art Director - Kirby refused - and John Romita would step up in 1973 and be responsible for, among other things, designing all Marvel's covers.

No sign of any restraint here - the Atlas Comics covers -f 1951 - 1952 were awash with  blurbs and speech balloons, in some cases so much that there was hardly enough room for the art. Click picture to enlarge.
Yet, this would only last for a couple of years before being phased out in favour of single image covers with far less text.

By 1954, the Atlas covers used far fewer words and no speech balloons at all. The cynic in me wants to say that Martin Goodman was trying to save on lettering costs, but the fact is cover lettering was done by in-house staffers, supervised by the genial Artie Simek.
The reasons for this will never be known, but it's likely that Martin Goodman - often months or years behind a trend - saw the EC Comics covers on a newsstand and ordered Stan to make the Atlas covers look like that.

This style would persist until the Great Atlas Implosion of 1957, when 60% of the Atlas titles were cancelled because of Martin Goodman's bad distribution decision. Lost in the mellee were: Adventure into Mystery, Astonishing, Journey into Unknown Worlds, Marvel Tales, Mystery Tales, Mystic, Spellbound, Strange Tales of the Unusual, Uncanny Tales, World of Mystery and World of Suspense, as well as a whole slew of western, war and humour titles.

Atlas, no longer called "Atlas" would limp along with with just eight titles a month for the next few years, with no discernible changes to the cover format, starting with the below titles.

Odd Months Even Months
Gunsmoke Western Battle
Homer the Happy Ghost Navy Combat
Kid Colt Outlaw Patsy and Hedy
Love Romances Patsy Walker
Marines in Battle Strange Tales
Millie the Model Two-Gun Kid
Miss America World of Fantasy
My Own Romances Wyatt Earp

But as the next couple of years rolled by, and Stan's star artist Joe Maneely died in a tragic underground accident, Stan began to re-think his approach.

Fresh from a legal dust-up with DC senior editor Jack Schiff, Jack Kirby washed up in the former Atlas' offices, looking for work. Steve Ditko was already there, and Stan's as-yet unnamed line of comics began to take on a new shape and a new editorial direction. The horror books, emasculated by the Comics Code and pale shadows of their former (already mediocre) selves, looked to monster and sci-fi movies of the 1950s for their inspiration and were soon featuring gigantic menaces like "Monstro", "Zog" and "Rro", mostly drawn by Jack. Ditko continued to follow a gentler path, and turned in more humanistic, often sentimental, tales that would spotlight moral issues like greed and betrayal, with titles like "Revenge of the Wooden Woman" and "One Look Means Doom".

Most of the pre-hero Marvels went for a big monster image by Jack Kirby and a screaming cover blurb that featured the monster's (often nonsensical) name. Most didn't have speech balloons, but occasionally there would be some dialogue lettered on the cover. The above are from mid 1961, around the time that the cryptic "MC" started appearing on the covers.
By the beginning of the 1960s, many of the stories in these "pre-hero" Marvel Comics appeared to take a lead from the "true confessions' style slick magazines Goodman was publishing at the same time, sporting titles like "I Opened the Door to Nowhere" and "I Brought the Roc to Life".

But in August 1961, Martin Goodman introduced a game-changing comic, Fantastic Four. As I've noted elsewhere in this blog, the first Marvel superhero comics did their level best not to look like superhero comics. Marvels were being distributed by the DC-owned Independent News Distributions (indicated by the "IND" on Marvel covers of the period) and I'm pretty sure Martin didn't want to annoy DC's Jack Liebowitz by appearing to be publishing competing superhero books.

The earliest superhero efforts from Marvel looked for all the world to be no different from the monster books. The FF wore street clothes, The Hulk actually was a monster and Thor's costume was not that of a traditional superhero. Even Spider-Man was completely different in look to any of DC's characters.
But very quickly, Goodman got a lot braver, and Stan gave the FF costumes, and rapidly added more superheroes to the remaining monster books. May 1963 saw the introduction of the unique Marvel corner box, and by the end of that year, the mystery stories were all but replaced by superheroics and the Marvel Empire began its rise.

Later in 1963, Marvel took a more upfront approach to the way they presented their superheroes on their comic covers. Costumes and action were to the fore, though there was still little consistency when it came to putting dialogue on the covers or not.
Later on the same year, Stan began to talk about the "Marvel Age of Comics" on the covers. Starting with some of the August 1963 covers, Stan placed a fairly discreet box that read, "Marvel Comics Group ushers in the Marvel Age of Comics". But over the next few months, these blurbs got bigger and bolder, so that Amazing Spider-Man 6 (Nov 1963) had a bold line in bright green along the bottom of the cover that said, "The Marvel Age of Comics is Here". 

This move coincided with Stan taking over the scripting of the lead strips in the anthology titles. Except I don't think it was a coincidence. I think it was a determined effort on the part of Stan to take control of the Marvel Universe, and prevent the fledgling Marvel from descending into the kind of directionless mess that Atlas became just before the Great Implosion of 1957.

And by the end of 1963, the speech balloons on Marvel covers had largely faded away. The last balloons on covers were Journey into Mystery 99 and Amazing Spider-Man 7 (both Dec 1963), the January 1964 issues of Strange Tales (116), Tales of Suspense (49), Fantastic Four (22) and Tales to Astonish (51). After that, Stan would let his hyperbolic blurbs do the talking and that's the way things would stay until mid 1970, when the balloons began to creep back ...

In mid-1963, Stan Lee brought his Marvel hyperbole to the covers, adding claims that this was "The Marvel Age of Comics" to much of the Marvel line. These would evolve over the next few months to become a standard component of Marvel's covers.
The big challenge that faced Lee (and Kirby) in the mid-Sixties though was, How do you ensure all your superheroes get a fair shake and your customers can find them easily on the newsstands? Especially if the titles of the books didn't change from Strange Tales and Journey into Mystery. The answer was simplicity itself. Just put two covers on the front of the comics.

As each of the former mystery books began to showcase two superheroes, Stan had his artists draw two images for each cover. He had used the idea before, not only on the occasional mystery book, but also on the earliest Fantastic Four and Spider-Man comics.
For a glorious period, between March 1964 and the end of 1965, Stan would split the covers of the former mystery books and present two awesome images on each cover, trumpeting the extra-value "two stories inside" nature of the comics. It was around this time (February 1964) that speech balloons were finally banned from Marvel's covers, a move which certainly made the Marvel books appear a lot less juvenile than their rivals'. 

Barely 18 months later, Marvel stopped splitting the covers between the two strips inside and started to devote alternating covers to the characters inside. Whether sales or aesthetics drove this is unknown. Then, just as Marvel stopped the practice, other lesser publishers began to imitate it.
Maybe Martin Goodman or Stan didn't think the dual covers were helping sales, because as 1966 began the anthology books started alternating their stars on the covers. And that would be the status quo for the next two years when, in 1968, the anthology books literally split, like amoeba, and all the anthology characters got their own titles. Then, in 1971 Marvel introduced the "frame cover ...

The change in cover format introduced in 1971 did away with the familiar and well-loved Marvel Corner Box, and brought in solid-colour frames around the comic's cover artwork. I can see why this may have been a good idea from an editorial and marketing pint of view - no consecutive covers would have the same dominant colour - but I wasn't wild about it as a teenage fan.
With the November 1971 cover-dated issues, publisher Goodman made some big changes. He upped the page count across the board to 48 and raised the price of Marvel’s comics from 15c to 25c. And in the process, the cover format was completely re-vamped. Out went the familiar Marvel corner box and in came the idea of framing the cover art with a solid colour border. This allowed the art department more control over choosing suitable background colours to set the titles’ logos against. And in addition, a top bar was added to each cover, tagging it as a Marvel Comics Group publication in bold 24pt type.

Then, in an even more astonishing turn-around, the following month the page counts of all Marvel titles dropped back to 36 pages and the price was reduced at 20c. Whether it was the intention or not, arch-rivals DC Comics were completely wrong-footed. They’d raised the page-count and cover price in line with Marvel’s. But as publishing companies bought their printing time and paper months ahead, DC had no choice but to stick with the bigger, more expensive mags, while Marvel undercut them on the newsstands.

The “frame” covers must have been a success for Marvel as they were used, with little change, for the next couple of years. It had the advantage of making the Marvel books instantly recognisable on the newsstands and allowing the art department to ensure that the individual covers were all given distinct colour schemes from month to month. 

1960s vs 1970s - The over explanatory DC covers of the sixties were replaced with a more grow-up approach in the seventies. Speech balloons didn't disappear altogether, but the were used less to explain the obvious and more for dramatic effect. It didn't help. Marvel had already overtaken them ...
Though it wasn't the defining feature of Marvel Comics, the company's approach to cover design had far-reaching effects, both for Marvel, and for the industry as a whole. Eventually, DC would follow suit and banish the childish Mort Weisinger style covers where speech balloons described what was plainly apparent from the cover art. But for them - by then - it was too late, and Marvel had leap-frogged them in sales and were the new market leaders.


Next: Marvel Goes Mythical


Wednesday, 23 August 2017

A big change for Cap's Kooky Quartet

BACK IN 1965, as I was beginning my life-long association with Marvel Comics, my favourite title was The Avengers. Not the "classic" Avengers line-up of Thor, Iron Man, Ant-Man, Wasp and The Hulk, but the smaller, less-showy group, affectionately dubbed "Cap's Kooky Quartet" by the fans.

When Iron Man, Giant-Man and The Wasp decided they needed a break - after the epic war against Zemo and his "Masters of Evil" in Avengers 15 & 16 (Apr - May 1965) - the founding Avengers recruited ex-villains Hawkeye, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch as replacements then departed, leaving Captain America in charge, a role that was never sought but rather thrust upon him. 

It's all smiles in the final panel of Avengers 16, but challenging times would lie ahead for Captain America and the small band of former super-villains that now made up The Avengers.
This lineup lasted for just seven adventures over 12 issues, but the drama of Captain America trying to lead the small group of strong-minded newbies was often more compelling than their battles against a diverse assortment of super-menaces. From Avengers 17 to 22  (Jun - Nov 1965), covered last time, the inexperienced team faced an increasingly powerful array of foes. With Avengers 23, the Quartet's mettle would face its sternest test ...

Kang the Conqueror had first battled the Fantastic Four, back in FF19 (Oct 1963), in the guise of the bogus Pharaoh, Rama-Tut. Though at this point "Rama-Tut" admitted he was from the 25th Century, he didn't reveal his true identity. Even in his second substantial appearance in Fantastic Four Annual 2 (on sale, 2 Jul 1964), when he rescued Dr Doom from an eternity of floating helplessly in space, the pair speculated that they were related, or possibly the same individual.

Stan has always had trouble spelling "Pharaoh" - first on the cover of Tales of Suspense 44 (Jun 1963), then on the cover of FF19 (Oct 1963). That aside, "Rama-Tut", initially claiming to be from the year 3000, may or may not be a descendant of Dr Doom - which assumes that Doom will have offspring. I just can't picture the despotic ruler of Latveria changing nappies at any point. Click image to enlarge.
It wasn't until his appearance as Kang the Conquerer in Avengers 8 (Sep 1964 - on sale, 7 Jul 1964), that the true picture began to form. After his encounter with Doom in the 20th century, "Rama-Tut" tried to return to the year 3000, but overshot and crash-landed in the year 4000. He quickly took control of this savage, desolate future and became overlord of the warring tribes. Quickly tiring of ruling these war-ravaged lands, he resolved to travel back to the 20th century and conquer a cleaner, greener world.

Despite claiming to be from the year 3000 in Fantastic Four 19 and Avengers 8, in FF Annual 2 and in his later appearances, Kang would say he was from the 25th Century. The above scans are from a later collected Avengers trade, and the original mis-spelling of "Pharoah" has been corrected.
There's a couple of small problems with this scenario. The first and most glaring error is that it's highly unlikely that Kang's ancestor/alter-ego Dr Doom would sit idly by while Kang tried to subdue a contemporary Earth. After all, ruling the world is top of Doom's bucket list. The second is it's quite extraordinary that Kang would travel back to invade our era without at least an honour guard of his future barbarians. You'd have thought his ego would have demanded it.

It proved to be his undoing as, alone, he turned out to be no match for The Avengers and, his weapons ineffective and his battlesuit in tatters, he was forced to flee back to the future. A few months later he would concoct a cockamamy plan to defeat the team in Avengers 11 (Dec 1964) with a robot of Spider-Man. Stan missed a trick here by not emphasising that robots were also a specialty of Dr Doom, thus reinforcing the link between the two, but it's just a minor niggle. What Kang needed was a far more epic vengeance plan, worthy of the character's potential.

Avengers 23 & 24 marked the third appearance of future warlord Kang the Conquerer in the title. This one features battling barbarian hordes, an imperilled princess and the three remaining Avengers fighting for their lives in the future without their leader Captain America.
All of this brings us to the return of Kang in Avengers 23 & 24 (Dec 1965 & Jan 1966). Issue 23 opens with the three remaining Avengers bickering among themselves, but mostly blaming Hawkeye for driving Captain America away. We get a quick glimpse of Cap, in his Steve Rogers identity, getting himself a job as a training partner for a boxing champion in upstate New York. But while that's going on, Kang is laying his plans to strike once again at The Avengers. Believing the team are at their most vulnerable without the leadership of Captain America, Kang decides now is the time to strike and lays a trap to abduct Hawkeye, Quicksilver and Scarlett Witch. The plan does sound a slightly odd note in that Kang doesn't remark that these Avengers have done him no personal injury. It was Thor, Iron Man and Giant-Man - along with Cap - who thwarted his plans twice before.

From the opening scene of Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch blaming Hawkeye for the sudden departure of Captain America, through the fragmented battles in Kang's future stronghold to the closing scenes of Kang's barbarian hordes gathering to invade the tiny kingdom ruled over by the Princess Ravonna, Avengers 23 gives us the most "widescreen" adventure in this run of issues.
Nonetheless, the three newest Avengers are trapped and dragged unconscious into Kang's future, where they're placed in giant specimen jars as bait to lure Captain America into a snare. Next we meet Princess Ravonna, whose kingdom is targeted for conquest by Kang. The despot has offered to reprieve her land if the Princess will only agree to marry him. Meanwhile, back in the 20th century, Cap hears that The Avengers are missing and races to help. Unaware that aid is on the way, the three captured Avengers escape their glass prisoners through Wanda's hex power and give battle to Kang's soldiers. Hawkeye and Scarlet Witch are quickly recaptured. Only Quicksilver escapes to continue the fight. And it's then that Captain America reaches the Avengers Mansion and issues a challenge to Kang.

With Ravonna overhearing Cap's challenge, Kang has no choice but to accept and brings Cap into the future. Though he initially beats Cap and Pietro, Hawkeye and Scarlet Witch arrive and the Avengers Assemble to sort out Kang once and for all. But Kang outsmarts them and signals his armies to begin the invasion of Ravonna's kingdom, leaving the readers once again teetering on the precipice of a cliffhanger.

For me, what was most interesting part of this issue was the way Kang was depicted as desiring something other than all-out conquest. It would be hard to imagine Dr Doom showing mercy to a region he wanted to invade simply because he was sweet on the ruler. And though this part of the story would show Kang simply trying to conquer the Princess Ravonna in the same way he had conquered countless planets before, this softer side to his character would play out more fully in the second and concluding part of the tale.

Adventure turns to tragedy as Kang finds mercy for the first time through his genuine love for the Princess Ravonna. Yet even the combined powers of Kang and The Avengers cannot prevent Ravonna from becoming collateral damage.
Avengers 24 opens with a slightly odd situation. Inside Ravonna's kingdom: the Princess, her father and their loyal but heavily outnumbered troops; The Avengers; and Kang. Outside the kingdom, Kang's hordes, mounting an overwhelming attack against the stronghold's meagre defences. Yet, even though it looks like the Avengers might prevail by capturing Kang, he escapes them by unleashing a cloud of poison gas and fleeing in the confusion.

Now with no leverage against Kang's invading hordes, Ravonna's generals want to surrender. But Cap gives a stirring speech, shaming the generals into fighting to the last man. Though Ravonna's troops put up a valiant fight, the invaders are soon in control of the citadel anyway and even The Avengers cannot hope to stand for long before such hopeless odds. And so Cap, Hawkeye and Scarlet Witch are dragged, bound, before Kang. Only Quicksilver remains free. Still Kang is interested only in the Princess. Again he demands that Ravonna agree to be his wife, but is interrupted by one of his commanders, Baltag, who says that according to his own rules Kang must execute all defeated leaders. The other generals all agree, and suddenly Kang is facing dissension in the ranks. His only choice now, if he is to save Ravonna, is to ally himself with The Avengers against his own troops.

With such forces arraigned against them, Kang's former followers have little chance and the battle is soon won, with Kang pledging to release Ravonna and her kingdom. But the final twist is that Baltag, still at large, tries to shoot Kang but hits Ravonna, who has thrown herself forwards to shield Kang, just as The Avengers are returned to their own time.

I'd not read this story for a few years and was a little surprised at how complex the tale is. I had forgotten how Stan had humanised Kang by giving him a genuine love interest, which I thought was pretty unusual for the time. Also, Avengers 23 marked John Romita's first work for Marvel Comics since the 1950s. The exact circumstances of how Romita returned to Marvel are related in another blog entry. Working over Don Heck's pencils, Romita turns in workmanlike, if a little blocky, delineation on the first 20 pages of the story. Many faces in the story have little Heck left in them, compared to those inked by Dick Ayers in the following issue. It was the only Avengers Romita inked in this period as he was immediately taken off the assignment and put to work on Daredevil, covering the sudden, though not altogether unexpected, departure of Wally Wood.

The next issue would line up Dr Doom as an adversary for the Quartet, which seems an odd choice, seeing as we've just had two issues of a Doom-related villain.


UNDER DOOM'S DOME

I've never really liked Dr Doom as an antagonist for anyone other than the Fantastic Four. Amazing Spider-Man 5 (Oct 1963) had the first appearance of Doom outside of an FF title, and that was my least favourite of those early Spider-Man stories. 

The thing is, with Doom and the FF it's personal. His sole driving ambition is to prove he's better than Reed Richards - in fact, Stan tells us that on page 2 of Avengers 25. Beyond that, he's really not a bad fella. He rules Latveria as a benign dictator ... the citizens may not have much freedom but they are, for the most part, well taken care of. So pitting him against The Avengers isn't really an ideal fit.

Though Stan spends a page having Doom rehash his links with Kang in a slightly forced soliloquy, he doesn't suggest at any point that Doom is aware of The Avengers' recent battle with Kang, which is odd, as in the last panel of the previous issue, we see Doom overhearing Cap wondering whether they'll ever know the fate of Kang and Ravonna.
"Before I battle the Fantastic Four again, I must fill their hearts with fear," says Doctor Doom, as the tale opens. "And what better way to do so than by defeating another super-powered team, such as The Avengers, with the greatest of ease." That's all the rationale we get. When we cut to Avengers HQ, we're treated to another scene of Hawkeye giving Cap a hard time, which in turn makes Cap question what his purpose is beyond just being Captain America. A few days later, Wanda receives a letter from Latveria telling of a long-lost aunt. Of course, the readers are yelling, "No, don't go to Latveria!" But The Avengers seem blissfully unaware of just who runs that comic-opera european state.

Political incorrectness aside, Doom's kindness here will later be tested when he has the choice of saving the child's leg or keeping The Avengers prisoners.
Even as they arrive, The Avengers are arrested by Latverian police, accused of being spies. However, no jail can hold The Avengers and, even as they escape, their every move is being watched by Doom, who raises a dome over Latveria, trapping all inside.

On the streets, Doom's subjects quickly turn on The Avengers, so they're forced to track Doom to his castle. The confrontation is a bit by-the-numbers and all they manage to do is damage Doom's armour and escape into the countryside. Even as they do, a delegation of villagers shows up, with the child Doom was kind to earlier, asking that the dome be opened long enough for the child to leave for America where he is to receive specialist treatment that will allow him to walk again.

Hearing of the child's plight, The Avengers return to Doom's castle to force him to raise the dome. There's another couple of pages of battle and The Avengers destroy Doom's controls opening the dome so they can escape.

"Enter ... Dr Doom!" is probably the weakest of the Quartet tales, but luckily, Stan had some significant changes in mind, starting the very next issue ... with the return of The Wasp.

But before that I want to look at an aspect of Marvel's history that I don't think anyone else has mentioned ... 


THE MYSTERY OF THE PASTEL SPEECH BALLOONS

In many of the pre-hero Marvel comics, it was quite common for the colourist - mostly Stan Goldberg, I believe - to add a yellow tint to the caption boxes in the stories. This kind of made sense, because it created a visual separation between the narrative captions and the dialogue balloons, which remained untinted.

The yellow tint on the caption box was very common in pre-hero Marvels. This scan is from the Jack Kirby-drawn "Menace from Mars" story in Journey into Mystery 52 (May 1959).
Now and again, we'd see a speech balloon that had a colour tint on it, though this was used to indicate a different tone to the dialogue, for example a voice coming through a radio, or someone shouting. And very occasionally colour would be added to a speech balloon if it was sitting on a white background, so that it wouldn't get lost, floating in a sea of white. At least, that's my guess.

In these closing panels from the Kirby tale "The Day Before Doomsday" in Strange Tales 99 (Aug 1962), colourist  Stan Goldberg has added a yellow tint to the speech balloons in the first panel, presumably so they'll be more visible against the white background.
But sometime during the rise of the superhero stories at Marvel, the tints on the balloons got to be pretty much random. Try as I might, I cannot see a pattern to the layout of the balloons on some pages.

Two panels from "In the Clutches of the Puppet Master" from Strange Tales 116 (Jan 1964). The first panel has a pink tint on The Things's speech balloon, the second panel has yellow tints on both balloons - so it can't be to separate The Thing's dialogue from The Torch's.
It seemed that Stan Goldberg was just dropping tints on speech bubbles randomly. If it had been consistent, even within the same story, it might have been easier to fathom. But where radio balloons might be tinted pink in one story and not at all in another, sometimes the colouring on the balloons would vary even within the same page.

In this short sequence from Avengers 16 (May 1965), The Sub-Mariner's first speech bubble is untinted, but his second has been coloured yellow. The radio bubble coming from The Avengers' sub has a pink tint, but the radio balloon of Namor's reply has no tint. I do not know what the colourist was thinking of.
It's not in the least important in the grand scheme of things. In fact it's probably the most trivial of all the trivia I've covered in this blog. Mostly, I'm just curious to know if anyone else have ever noticed this and whether they've ever managed to see a pattern or a purpose to this most Marvel of practices, which died away during 1966 as mysteriously as it had arrived.

Was this a directive from Stan Lee, or was Stan Goldberg just trying to keep things interesting on the page? We'll probably never know ...


AND BACK TO THE AVENGERS

Avengers 26 & 27 (Mar - Apr 1966) would be the last of the Quartet story arcs. It featured Attuma - another old Fantastic Four foe - who was making another attempt to attack the surface world, this time with a tidal device that would submerge the continents above.

With the Attuma story-arc, Stan siezes the opportunity to re-introduce an old character - The Wasp - and have her act as the catalyst to bring The Avengers into the fight.
The tale begins with the now-familiar scene of Cap gathering the other Avengers in the Mansion, this time to demonstrate an important messaging device given to them by Tony Stark. As usual, Hawkeye is behaving like a six-year-old and this time it's Quicksilver who gets annoyed. A moment later, the pair are at each other's throats and Captain America intervenes as the peacemaker. Hawkeye still flounces out in a huff, though.

Elsewhere, aboard a damaged scientific research vessel, Henry (Giant-Man) Pym and Janet (The Wasp) van Dyne are trying to put out a fire caused by the sudden invasion of Prince Namor, The Sub-Mariner (Tales to Astonish 78, Apr 1966). Thinking Namor is on his way to attack New York, The Wasp has to fly there to warn The Avengers. But on the way, she's captured by Attuma. The big blue despot has no idea who Janet is, but decides to hold her anyway, in case she's a spy for the surface people.

Captured and presumed helpless by Attuma, the Wasp is treated to a complete run-down of exactly how the villain plans to conquer the surface world - which is probably more for the reader's benefit than Janet's.
Janet manages to free herself by shrinking to wasp-size and radios The Avengers for assistance. With Hawkeye still absent, Cap, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch race to Janet's aid. But as they approach Attuma's vessel, The Avengers' jet is grabbed from the air and brought on board the giant sub. The Avengers battle valiantly, but are eventually subdued by Attuma's forces. Then, in time-honoured super-villain tradition, Attuma insists on fighting the Avengers himself, to show his followers just how alpha mer-male he is.

This wasn't be the first time these Avengers had to face an opponent who's stronger than they are. Attuma wasn't quite an A-list villain, as he lacked the personality of, say, Doctor Doom, but he was pretty popular with Stan at this time.
Just as the battle is going against the Avengers, Wanda directs her hex at the very structure of the sub and the hull begins to break apart. The three Avengers are trapped behind a sealed bulkhead as it begins to fill with seawater. Meanwhile, back in Manhattan, Hawkeye arrives at the Mansion to find it deserted. Unable to remember how to operate the message machine, he tries to jog his memory with Tony Stark's "Subliminal Recall-Inducer". And as his sinks into unconsciousness, a sinister figure gains entry to The Avengers' HQ.

The way the Avengers storyline dovetails into the guest appearance of Hank and Jan in Tales to Astonish is pretty neat, and that kind of synchronisation would only be possible as long as Stan was writing all the titles. Tying it all together was the Sub-Mariner's nemesis, Attuma. Never quite gaining the stature of Namor himself, Attuma made many appearances in mid-1960s Marvel comics. Debuting in Fantastic Four 33 (Dec 1964), the Big Blue Meanie tried many times to take over Atlantis from the Sub-Mariner (whom he didn't consider aggressive enough) and to threaten the surface world with all-out war. Attuma would menace Giant Man in Tales to Astonish 64 (Feb 1965) and battle Iron Man in Tales of Suspense 66 (Jun 1965).

What is slightly more interesting abut this issue of The Avengers is that Stan would weave in a parallel story featuring Hawkeye and the Mysterious Villain we see in the last panel of Avengers 26.

In the space of a few pages, Hawkeye defeats "mystery villain" The Beetle, borrows an aircraft from the Fantastic Four and discovers Quicksilver floating in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. When the four are reunited, it's pretty much the end of the road for Attuma. The Beetle, though, proves to be a different level of threat altogether.
The Mysterious Villain turns out to be former Human Torch and Spider-Man B-list baddie, The Beetle. Probably one of Marvel strangest super-foes of the period, The Beetle was designed by Golden Age Human Torch creator Carl Burgos, which might account for the slightly clunky but oddly appealing appearance of the character. In Strange Tales 123 (Aug 1964) Abner Jenkins invented a battlesuit consisting of plate steel wings which enabled him to fly. Even as a 10 year old, I was pretty cynical about the aerodynamics involved in that concept. The Beetle would go on to fight Spider-Man in Amazing Spider-Man 21 (Feb 1965)) and, later, Daredevil in Daredevil 32 & 33 (Oct - Nov 1967).

After a three-page battle, Hawkeye subdues the Beetle and learns from the message left by the other Avengers last issue that they need his help against Attuma. And at Attuma's attack sub, things aren't going tremendously well for The Avengers. Things take a turn for the worse when Quicksilver is ejected from the sub by one of Attuma's foot soldiers. Rising to the surface, the unconscious Quicksilvers awakens to find Hawkeye standing over him. The two set out to find Attuma's sub and their fellow Avengers. Meanwhile, Captain America plays the old "Your doomsday machine is a fake, Attuma" card. Dopey Attuma falls for it and explains how his tide machine works, giving Hawkeye and Quicksilver enough time to crash their craft through the side of Attuma's sub ... and all heck breaks loose.

The story closes with Attuma's sub exploding after Cap sabotages the tidal machine and The Avengers return to their HQ to find The Beetle has apparently revived and escaped. All of which leads us into the story that will signal the end of an era for Cap's Kooky Quartet.

The opening of Avengers 28 unfolds at breakneck pace, as Stan gets the story under way with minimum of fuss. Though we still have Cap and Hawkeye bickering, it seems that the archer's attitude to the team leader is mellowing. Then on page 3 we're introduced to the true villain of the piece, The Collector.
Avengers 28 (May 1966) was a landmark issue on many levels, but the biggest surprise was the return of a superhero who'd been in limbo for almost a year. The first three pages of the issue establish that The Wasp is missing and that scientist Henry Pym needs The Avengers' help to finding her, revealing that he is actually Giant-Man. Captain America and Hawkeye have another run-in, but this time Hawkeye is markedly less aggressive and accedes to Cap's authority, setting off to fetch Henry Pym with the most muted of grumblings. Then we cut to The Wasp, who it trapped at insect-size in a tiny glass bottle.

Stan's footnote on page 2 explains that we witnessed The Wasp's escape in Avengers 26, but we actually didn't. We witnessed her radioing The Avengers from Attuma's super-sub and that was the last we saw of her. Stan covers that minor mistake with a thought balloon from The Wasp, recalling that she made it to Avengers HQ before losing consciousness. Her captor is The Collector (who would play a part in the much later 2014 Guardians of the Galaxy movie).

Something that puzzled me was The Avengers not knowing that Giant Man was scientist Henry Pym. From all those Tales to Astonish stories I read, it seemed to be no great secret that Hank was also a superhero. When the Giant-Man fan club visited Pym's lab and Janet Van Dyne was present, human-size and unmasked, it never occurred to me that Hank's identity was supposed to be hidden from the public. 

Even as Hank arrives at Avengers HQ, the voice of The Collector is heard coming over the radio, ordering the team to go to a certain location if they want to see The Wasp again. At first the team are reluctant to accept Hank as Giant Man until he can give a demonstration of his powers. The catch is that after years of excessive stress on his body, Hank can only grow to 25 feet, where he must remain for 15 minutes before it's safe to return to normal height.

In the back half of the story, there's a bit of scientific gobbledygook about Henry Pym not being able to stay at his single giant size - 25 feet - for more than 15 minutes. We don't learn the significance of that until the last page, when Hank gets stuck at 10 feet while shrinking and lapses into a coma.
Of course The Avengers, plus the newly renamed Goliath, blunder straight into a trap and are easily over-powered with anaesthetic gas, and awaken trussed up like Christmas turkeys. It's not hard for Goliath to free himself, using his growing powers, then in turn break the shackles holding his team-mates. The Collector scuttles away and The Avengers give chase, but run into The Beetle, instead. Hank is left behind and has his own (huge) hands full when he encounters The Collector. Using "magic beans" from his collection, The Collector summons two giants, who are giving Hank a hard time until Wanda intervenes. The giants despatched, Hank grabs The Collector and forces him to reveal The Wasp's whereabouts. The Collector threatens to shatter her glass prison unless the Avengers surrender. Though Quicksilver manages to snatch the glass phial from The Collector, the wily villain still manages to escape using a handy "temporal assimilator" to transport himself and The Beetle away and out of danger.

The closing scene has Hank try to shrink to normal size, but after staying too long at 25 feet, he collapses unconscious, stuck at 10 feet. And that cliffhanger is where Stan leaves the readers ...

I remember seeing this on the spinner rack when I had just turned 12. I had enjoyed Giant-Man was sorry to see him leave the team back in Avengers 16. So you can imagine how happy I was to see this cover. And if that's a Don Heck costume design for Goliath, it's one of his best. Great cover, great issue.
For my part, I was very excited to see Giant-Man return to The Avengers, despite the change in name and costume. Hank Pym was one of the first Marvel characters I had encountered a couple of years earlier and I always had a soft spot for Giant-Man. I think Stan must've liked the character too, certainly enough to bring him back into the Marvel mainstream after a relatively short absence.

For the preceding 11 issues of The Avengers, Stan had produced an interesting, quirky arc of stories that showed you didn't need the ability to knock down buildings with one hand to be an Avenger. It was a bold and clever move, because as much as kids enjoyed stories of super-powered heroes doing impossible things, it was also refreshing and engaging to see (almost) normal people taking on super-powerful baddies and winning, despite seemingly impossible odds. After all, isn't that what every hero - real or imaginary - is supposed to do?

It hadn't occurred to me at the time, I can now see that Stan was hoping to turn Hank Pym into the Ben Grimm of The Avengers. Where the dynamic had worked so well in the earliest Fantastic Four stories, Stan figured that he could use this book as a vehicle to explore some of those ideas further. But by issue 35, Stan was turning the title over to Roy Thomas and Goliath was given back his power to shrink to ant-size in a low-key scene on page 17 of that issue.

Luckily, by Avengers 35 (Dec 1966) Hank had been experimenting with a "Molecular Space Transformer", which has given him the ability to once again shrink to ant size. Incoming scripter Roy Thomas certainly understood the value of a deus ex machina.
Over the next year and a half of The Avengers, the line-up of Captain America, Hawkeye, Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch, Goliath and The Wasp would remain pretty stable - for 17 issues - with just Black Widow as a frequent guest star, until Hercules officially joined in issue 45.

I will take a look at that period of the team, but I'll leave that till another post and another time.

Next: We've got you covered