Wednesday, 21 August 2013

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

A HISTORICAL ASIDE

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AND BACK TO THE BLOG

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

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

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


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


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

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



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

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


THE VERY AMAZING SPIDER-MAN

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

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


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

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

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


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


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

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

Next: Exactly how many comics does Marvel publish anyway?



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