Saturday, 29 July 2017

Marvel's other Fab Four

MY ABSOLUTE FAVOURITE MARVEL CHARACTER back in the mid-1960s was Captain America. I've already written several posts about Cap, so I probably don't need to go into that any further here ... but when he took over as leader of the team at the end of Avengers 16 (May 1965), you could say it was one of my best moments in comics.

Stan set quite a challenge for himself. How to take Marvel's best-selling team book, and replace the A-list heroes Thor, Iron Man and Giant-Man with three B-list villains. It worked out much better than anyone expected ...
It all kicks off while Cap is polishing off Baron Zemo in South America, his fellow Avengers are reflecting on what they'll do now that Zemo's minions are in custody. The Wasp suggests that now's as good a time as any to take a vacation ... right at that very moment, Iron Man's old foe, Hawkeye, invades the Avengers Mansion looking to apply for membership to the super-team. The timing is opportune (and not a little convenient) and within a minute or two The Avengers are accepting Hawkeye into their ranks without the barest hint of a security check.

Just as the core members of the team are discussing the idea of some time off, former Iron Man villain Hawkeye shows up looking to join. Without the slightest whiff of suspicion, they accept his application.
Click image to enlarge.
"The next day", Iron Man goes in search of Prince Namor, The Sub-Mariner, and offers him membership in The Avengers. The ruler of Atlantis turns him down, saying that until his differences with the surface world have been resolved, he cannot ally himself with any humans.

Though the Avengers had fought The Sub-Mariner in the past - Avengers 3 (Jan 1964) - Iron Man realises that the new team will need some heavy-lifters, and Namor seems to fit the bill.
Despite this set-back, half a world away, another pair of villains are weighing their options and wondering if the time hasn't come for them to redeem themselves. Quicksilver and his sister Scarlet Witch had last appeared in Strange Tales 128 (Dec 1964). That had been one of the Marvels caught up in the grand distribution snafu of 1964, so at the time, I didn't get an opportunity to read that story. If I had, I'd have known that these two unwilling henchmen of the mutant Magneto had been looking for a way to free themselves from Magneto's dominion and had approached the Fantastic Four for help.

From Strange Tales 128 (Dec 1964) - Quicksilver and The Scarlet Witch desperately look for someone to help free them form the clutches of master mutant Magneto, a despot who will stop at nothing until he has enslaved or destroyed human-kind.
In typical madcap Marvel style, The Torch and the Thing misunderstand the two young mutant's motives and a big battle ensues. The 12-page story doesn't really amount to much dramatically, with Pietro and Wanda resolving to return to Magneto, as he's less bad than the humans. So it's a little surprising that, just a few months later, they're living a peaceful life of retirement in what looks like the Swiss Alps.

Stan offers a quick potted history of Pietro and Wanda for any Marvelites who may not have read any X-Men comics. I was certainly aware of the two and the Evil Mutants' loss was the Avengers' gain, as far as I was concerned.
Still looking for some way to make amends for their former lives, the pair decide to write to The Avengers to see whether they may be considered for membership. And again, without the slightest suspicion, The Avengers accept the two youngsters into their ranks without the slightest hint of prejudice. I guess I didn't question it in 1965 because I knew that Pietro and Wanda were more victims of Magneto than true villains. In retrospect, this all seems like series of all-too-handy coincidences, but to my eleven-year-old self, it was just the scariest transition I could have thought of. Even then I could see that Iron Man, Giant-Man and Thor were the power-core of the team. Without them, how could these newcomers stand up to the likes of The Executioner and the other Masters of Evil?

The other challenge here was that all these decisions were being taken without the involvement of Captain America. How was he going to react to find out that his team-mates had decided to take a break, and recruit a bunch of novices as replacements, in his absence?

Even though Captain America was, at that point, the newest member of the Avengers, with the departure of Thor, Iron Man, Giant Man and The Wasp, he naturally jumped to the head of the queue in seniority. And though he never sought the role of leader, it was thrust upon him, nevertheless. And this made for a great situation as far as the drama was concerned.

The last page of Avengers 16 had Iron Man, Giant-Man and The Wasp in a back room of the Avengers Mansion, sombrely preparing to take their leave. Stan highlights in the dialogue that Thor is elsewhere - in a place beyond the comprehension of we mere mortals - undergoing the Trial of the Gods.

With Thor already departed to face his ordeal at the Trial of the Gods (see the house ad from Avengers 16 above for the issue of Journey into Mystery that tells that tale), Iron Man, Giant-Man and The Wasp, prepare to leave the Avengers Mansion for the final time. Click image to enlarge.
So Giant-Man and the Wasp head off into an uncertain future, the cancellation of their own strip in Tales to Astonish just four months way. And Iron Man switches to Tony Stark and drives away in his limo, his thoughts suggesting that he'll never see his old Avengers companions again. Was Stan already planning the demise of Giant Man, and looking to take Thor in a more mythical, less-Earthbound direction? In the end it didn't turn out that way, but it does appear to have crossed Stan's mind at this point.

Just Captain America and three second-rate villains stand between mankind and the menaces that lay ahead. The team's only hope ... to find The Hulk and somehow convince him to re-join their ranks.
But it wasn't all doom and gloom. As sad as I was, in the summer of 1965, to see Marvel's big guns leaving the team they had made great, there was the anticipation of my favourite hero taking Marvel's most powerful super-group into a new and challenging future. The anticipation and trepidation for both the team and the audience was tangible. Even as a kid I was wondering how these new Avengers would be able to cope with the threats that lay ahead. The one hope that seemed to glimmer in that uncertain future was ... the Hulk.


THEN THERE WERE FOUR

The first adventure for the new team was "Four Against the Minotaur", in Avengers 17 (Jun 1965). Right from the first page, it was obvious that Stan was going to be taking this book in a completely new direction. As Cap addresses his new charges for the first time, Stan telegraphs the dissension in the ranks with Hawkeye's and Quicksilver's thought balloons.

The first order of business for the new team is to find a way to replace the raw strength of Iron Man and Thor. Captain America lays out his strategy in the face of open hostility from both Hawkeye and Quicksilver. The actual plot of the issue, with Mole Man luring The Avengers into a trap, is mostly unmemorable.
Only The Scarlet Witch seems prepared to give the battle-hardened Captain America the benefit of the doubt. But all that's quickly forgotten when a large robot crashes through the wall of the mansion, bringing a message from its master: "You'll find the Hulk in the desert". Hawkeye suspects they'll be heading into a trap but Cap, playing a hunch, leads the team to the spot where The Hulk helped them battle the Lava Men a year earlier (Avengers 5, May 1964). Of course, it is a trap, and the waiting Mole Man unleashes a giant Minotaur on the quartet. As the battle rages, Quicksilver is separated from the others and is captured by the Mole Man's subterranean minions.

Interspersed throughout the story are vignettes of The Hulk battling The leader. Stan's captions explain that these scenes are happening in Tales to Astonish 69, on sale the same month as Avengers 17, and less than a mile away ... Stan helpfully includes a house ad for Astonish 69, so we all know what to look for at the newsstands.
It doesn't take long for the team to despatch the monster and find Quicksilver. Realising he's severely outmatched, the Mole Man decides to cut his losses and sends the superheroes back to the surface. So the Avengers (sort-of) triumph, but leave the desert without ever catching a glimpse of The Hulk.

Overall, it's not a bad first outing for "Cap's Kooky Quartet". For me, the dramatic tension between Captain America and the other would-be alpha-males in the team was more interesting than the rather lame and un-menacing Mole Man. This scenario would continue to play out over the next few stories, with Stan getting more of a grip on where he wanted to go with the book with each passing issue.

And I, for one, preferred Don Heck's take on the artwork. Compared to Kirby's solid, dependable style, Heck's seemed a bit more modern and a bit more dynamic. His version of Scarlet Witch was much prettier than Kirby's - we all know that even at the age of eleven, I was very keen on raven-haired bad girls - and he conveyed the speed of Quicksilver (and that of Hawkeye) better than Kirby did. I wasn't mad on Dick Ayers inks on Heck's pencils. I always thought Heck's art needed a lighter touch, and that didn't describe Ayers. But that minor niggle aside, I was one happy Avengers fan.

Avengers 18 (Jul 1965) was another one-off tale with a new - though never to be repeated - villain. Stan trotted out his favourite bad-guys of that era, The Communists, and crafted a story about a small asian nation dominated by communist tyranny in the form of the formidable Commissar.

Stan Lee uses the quiet opening scene of this issue to give readers more of an insight into Captain America's fears and dreams. Later in the series Cap's character would be more fully explored by Roy Thomas.
The opening page of the story has Captain America, sitting alone in the Avengers Mansion, pondering his place in this new 1960s world he's been dumped in. Stan had alluded to this in the earlier Captain America solo story in Tales of Suspense 59 (Nov 1964), where had Cap sitting alone in the Mansion looking over old scrap books. Here, he takes the opportunity to expand on this and further define Cap's character, as a man trying to find his place in a world he doesn't fully understand. Cap's thought balloons reveal that he's applied to Nick Fury's counter-intelligence unit - perhaps it's so secret that even Cap doesn't know it's called S.H.I.E.L.D. - though it's not made clear whether this would be in addition to, or instead of, his role as leader of The Avengers.

But all this is forgotten when a call comes in from Radio Free Sin-Cong in South-East Asia, and Cap assembles the other Avengers in a mission to help the oppressed people escape from Communist rule. Not unreasonably, Quicksilver wants to know why a crime-fighting outfit like The Avengers would get embroiled in foreign regime change, and though I never thought of it at the time, Pietro does make a compelling point. Surprisingly, it's Hawkeye who fights Cap's corner, saying that if The Avengers oppose injustice, "Well, when liberty's threatened, justice goes down the drain."

Stan's oft-repeated theme for this period of The Avengers is that the team is always stronger than the individuals. Here it's demonstrated when each of the Avengers is defeated by The Commissar one-by-one, but when they act together, they come out on top.
So, The Avengers fly straight to Sin-Cong and straight into a trap. Sticking strongly to his theme for this incarnation of his super-team, Stan has his heroes separated and The Scarlet Witch captured. This allows the villainous communist ruler of Sin-Cong, The Commissar, to force Cap, Hawkeye and Quicksilver to fight him one by one. Of course, singlely, each in turn is defeated. But Cap turns the tables when he tells The Commissar that he hasn't truly beaten The Avengers until he can defeat The Scarlet Witch.

Of course, Cap has a plan, and instructs Wanda to concentrate on the Commissar's assistant, Major Hoy. And strangely, the words in the caption box on the last panel of page 19 have always stuck in my head over the decades since I read this book: "Gracefully backing away from the onrushing giant, Wanda softly murmurs ..." Maybe it was because the idea that feminine gentleness can prevail in the face of male brute force was pretty new at the time, especially in comics, that it struck me as such an unusual turn of phrase. Whatever the reason, this firmly established Scarlet Witch as a vital and powerful member of the team.

The start of a run of two-issue adventures, I'd argue that this diptych is the best tale of the "Cap's Kriminal Krew" period - iconic teamwork, self-sacrifice and another bad guy trying to muscle entry into The Avengers. And how about that great "floating heads" cover?
Of all the seven stories that make up this period of The Avengers, the tale of the Swordsman in Avengers 19 and 20 (Aug & Sep 1965) is probably my favourite. It crystalised the teamsmanship of the group and revealed the untold origin of Hawkeye, going some way to explaining why he wasn't fond of taking orders.

The Swordsman tries to join The Avengers pretty much the same way that Hawkeye did ... he just breaks into the Avengers Mansion and waits till someone challenges him. In this case, it's Pietro and Wanda. After a brief battle, it's Wanda that wins the day and knocks the intruder unconscious. Cap runs a check on Swordsman and discovers he's a wanted criminal in several jurisdictions around the world. Moments later the Swordsman escapes, and when Cap tells Hawkeye about their unexpected visitor, it seems that Hawkeye knows the intruder ... very well, as it turns out.

Avengers 19 reveals the origin of Hawkeye for the first time - and it's a good one. The Swordsman makes the perfect mentor for Hawkeye, and Stan is able to expand on the idea that Hawkeye never intended to be on the wrong side of the law, as first described in Tales of Suspense 57.
Also progressed this issue is the sub-plot about Cap trying to join Nick Fury's counter-intelligence organisation, named by Stan in one of the footnotes as "S.H.I.E.L.D.", though it's apparent that Cap still doesn't know too much about it. And it's this that allows The Swordsman to lay a trap for Captain America, via the coincidental interference of HYDRA agents.

The memorable cliffhanger for this issue has a bound and helpless Captain America made to "walk the plank" by the swashbuckling Swordsman ... then launching himself into space to prevent the remaining Avengers surrendering. It's a pretty awesome example of self-sacrifice and confidence in one's team-mates that had me literally open-mouthed with astonishment back in that autumn of 1965 ... but that was nothing to how I felt when I saw how Cap got out of the death-trap just a month later.

Avengers 20 had one of my all-time favourite action scenes - the rescue of Cap by his often-disgruntled team-mates. It's not just a clever action choreography, it's the emotional context Stan had put it in during the months leading up to this, with both Hawkeye and Quicksilver thinking that Captain America is a has-been and that they would be more worthy leaders.
Within a split-second of Cap's jump, the remaining Avengers  take action ... in a fast-paced sequence, Quicksilver uses his super-speed to slow Cap's fall, Hawkeye cuts Cap's bonds with a well-placed arrow and Scarlet Witch causes a girder to fall beneath Cap so he can land on it, still dozens of storeys above street level. It's a tour-de-force action sequence, worthy of Kirby at his best, but pulled off spectacularly by Stan Lee and Don Heck. Of course, within a few pages, Hawkeye and Quicksilver would be back to bickering again ... it's too good a dramatic device to end with just one rescue.

Then Stan adds a strange twist. Just as The Avengers are about to capture The Swordsman, he shimmers and disappears, snatched away by The Mandarin. The arch-villain adds some technology to The Swordsman's sword and using a holographic projection of Iron Man, fools The Avengers into accepting Swordsman as a member, his mission - to plant a bomb that will destroy The Avengers.

The Swordsman demonstrates he's not all bad, when he double-crosses The Mandarin - probably not the smartest idea - and tries to disable the explosive device he's already set in the Mansion.
But villain though he may be, The Swordsman has more honour than to resort to this kind of sneak attack to defeat an enemy, and tries to disarm the bomb that he's hidden in the Avengers Mansion. Discovered by Captain America in the act, a fight ensues and the Swordsman escapes. It is an inconclusive kind of ending, but it does establish The Swordsman as an Avenger, an idea Marvel would return to much later in the series.

Though there would be other great adventures in this run - as well as a few surprises - this story arc was, for me, the period's finest hour. Even so, the next chapter was pretty good, too, featuring the return of an old foe and the introduction of another longtime Marvel villain.

Cover art on these two issues was by Jack Kirby and Wally Wood. On Avengers 22, the floating heads - a longstanding Jack Kirby trademark - were actually paste-ups: Hawkeye from Suspense 57 and Wanda and Pietro from Strange Tales 128.
Avengers 21 & 22 (Oct & Nov 1965) gave us a new inker, in the shape of Wally Wood. Wood's fine-line inking style was far better suited to Don Heck's feathery pencils and the result was much easier on the eye.

As pointed out by The Kid (see Comments, below), Jack more than once made errors drawing even his own character's costumes. Here, on the cover of Avengers 21, Cap sports an "A" on his chest. Someone spotted it later when the art was reprinted on Marvel Triple Action 15 (Nov 1973) and the mistake was corrected.
Issue 21 opens with Hawkeye once again losing his temper after being told what to do by Captain America. Just as the whole thing is about to dissolve into a pitch-battle between the two, Quicksilver intervenes and gives Cap a dressing down for not acting more like a leader. We then cut-away to Baron Zemo's South American hideaway. One of his henchmen, Erik Josten, Injured and down to his last ammunition, is digging his way into Zemo's underground lab. There he finds the equipment Zemo used to create Wonder Man, back in Avengers 9 (Oct 1964), a year earlier. Watching from afar is The Enchantress and, seeing an opportunity, offers Josten the chance of Wonder Man powers if he'll help her defeat The Avengers. Thus Power Man and The Enchantress embark on a plan to defeat The Avengers without engaging them in direct battle.

In Avengers 21, the team find themselves on the wrong end of a conspiracy to make them appear as if they've gone rogue. Of course, it's all down to the machinations of the evil Enchantress and her new strong-arm henchman, Power Man.
By fooling The Avengers into fighting non-existent, illusory foes, The Enchantress makes it appear that The Avengers have gone on a destructive spree. At the same time, Power Man publicly foils a robbery, making it seem to Captain America that Power Man's the robber. So when the police show up, Power Man is hailed as a hero and Captain America looks like the bad guy. The issue ends with The Avengers being ordered to disband, giving the readers another great cliffhanger.

More than the previous issue, the hand of Wally Wood is evident here. The figures, especially Wanda's, are very typically Wood in style. The page that introduces the Circus of Crime looks like the work of neither Heck nor Wood ... perhaps heavily re-drawn by Marvel staffers?
Issue 22 picks up the action straightaway, with Hawkeye and Quicksilver both blaming Captain America for their current plight. So bad is the situation that the three newcomers decide to leave and make their own way in the world ... without Cap. And the scene ends with Captain America seemingly giving up the fight and himself leaving the Mansion.

Unable to find any work, the three Avengers take jobs with The Ringmaster and his Circus of Crime, without realising who their new employers really are. But when The Ringmaster reveals his criminal plans, the Avengers give the renegade circus performers a good pasting. Incredibly, when the police arrive, the Ringmaster accuses The Avengers of attacking him and once again, The Avengers are fugitives.

Just when it seems that there's no way out, Stan manages a genuinely surprising twist. Then, as the final battle has victory slipping away from The Enchantress, she deserts her ally Power Man, leaving him to face the consequences of their failed plot alone.
By way of recap, Stan gives us a page that paints a dark picture. The Avengers are hunted fugitives and The Enchantress has won. Iron Man, Thor and Giant Man are too busy to help. The situation really does seem beyond saving ... but in a clever plot twist, Captain America manages to record a confession from Power Man. Then all Heck breaks loose as the three other Avengers show up and turn the tide of the battle. Realising that her revenge on The Avengers has come to nothing, The Enchantress takes her leave ... and Erik Josten has nothing left to fight for.

All through these adventures, Stan has cleverly walked the line between the rivalry of the three alpha male personalities in the team and their almost contradictory underlying loyalty to The Avengers and each other. It's a sort of a return to the themes he was exploring in the earliest issues of Fantastic Four, where he had Reed Richards and Ben Grimm vying for the role of leadership and for the affections of Sue Storm. As the FF evolved, those early ideas faded away. But with no Jack Kirby on The Avengers to influence the direction of the book, Stan had a freer hand to explore some of those inter-team conflicts he'd tried to pursue earlier.

It does come a little bit out of left field, and seems at odds with Cap's stated position that he is duty-bound to hang in there as leader until Thor, Iron Man or Giant-Man return to relieve him, but it certainly guaranteed that I wasn't going to miss the next issue of The Avengers ...
So, the final surprise in Avengers 22 is that after months of carping a criticism - largely coming from Hawkeye, Captain America decides he's had enough. Though the Avengers are now in the clear and are reinstated as heroes in the eyes of the public, Cap tells the rest of the group that he's done with being the team's "straight man" and leaves. Does he really mean it? Probably not, but it was a heckuva cliff-hanger for my 11-year-old self ...

There's still another three adventures to explore in this run of the title, but I'll leave that until next time ... when The Avengers meet Kang (again), Dr Doom and Attuma - three A-list villains that will test the mettle of our heroes even further.

Next: Big things ahead for The Avengers


Friday, 16 June 2017

Daredevil: Hooray for Wally Wood

THE VERY FIRST DAREDEVIL comic I ever saw - around Easter 1965 - was Daredevil 5 (Dec 1964), with its striking Wally Wood cover and interior art. It was also Wood's first work on the title, and for Marvel, taking over from his old EC colleague and occasional inker Joe Orlando.

Daredevil 5 was Wally Wood's first work for Marvel since the four stories he'd done for Atlas around the middle of 1956, shortly after the tragic collapse of EC Comics, and uncredited pencil job under Colletta inks for Love Romances 96 (Nov 1961), coincidently the same month that Fantastic Four 1 came out.
At the time I was mesmerised by the idea of a blind superhero and - not knowing Wally Wood from Adam - Stan's cover blurb trumpeting the arrival of "the brilliant artistic craftsmanship of famous illustrator Wally Wood" completely passed me by. This may not have been the first time Stan puffed up an artist on the cover of one of his mags, but he'd never done it with this much hyperbole before.

However, as much as I loved the very idea of Daredevil, I wasn't mad about Wally Wood's art in this issue. Admittedly, at the time, I certainly wasn't aware of the brilliant work he'd done on the EC science-fiction titles, but my sensibilities were more in line with the work of Kirby, Ditko and Heck, and this new guy, with his tiny figures and crowded pages, just wasn't ticking any boxes for me.


WHO IS WALLY WOOD?

Wallace Allan Wood was born in Menahga, Minnasota on 17 July 1929. As a child he devoured the great newspaper strips, like Flash Gordon, Prince Valiant and Terry and the Pirates. In love with drawing, he once dreamed he found a magic pencil that could draw anything. Wood graduated from high school in 1944 and enlisted in the Merchant Marine. In 1946, he transferred to the US Army Airborne 11th Paratroopers and was posted to occupied Japan. After demob in 1948, Wood found work as a waiter, and lugged his bulging portfolio around New York, trying to get drawing work from any publisher who'd let him in the door.

Wally Wood
Wood's luck began to turn when he met John Severin in a publisher's waiting room in October 1948. Wood visited the Charles William Harvey Studio where Severin was working and was introduced to Charles Stern, Will Elder and Harvey Kurtzman. Learning that Will Eisner was looking for artists, Wood hurried over and was hired on the spot to draw backgrounds on The Spirit. The following year, Wood became an assistant to George Wunder, who'd taken over drawing Terry and the Pirates.

A George Wunder Terry and the Pirates daily from 1949. This would have been the period that Wood was working as one of Wunder's assistants, inking backgrounds and perhaps lettering.
Also during 1949, Wood got a foot in the door at Fox Publications, doing lettering on romance comics. He quickly graduated to backgrounds, then inking. Towards the end of 1949, Wood was contributing illustrations to the pulp magazines Six-Gun Western, Fighting Western, and Leading Western, for Trojan Publishing's Adolphe Barreaux, as well as getting actual comics work from Fox. His first Fox art was a ten-page story, "My One Misstep", in My Confession 7 (Aug 1949). More stories followed in My Experience, My Secret Life (he did his first Fox cover for issue 23) and My Love Affair.

While at Fox, Wood turned his hand to any kind of comic ... romance, classics and crime.However, it wasn't long before his varied work for Fox caught the eye of other publishers in the field ...
Pretty soon, Wood was branching out into other genres, doing comedy (Judy Canova), crime (Martin Kane, Private Eye) and jungle (Frank Buck). "For complete pages, it was $5 a page ... Twice a week, I would ink ten pages in one day," Wood later recalled in a 1981 interview for The Buyers' Guide. It was inevitable that others would notice Wood's talent and with new art partner Harry Harrison, Wood started contributing art to the blossoming EC comics - at first on Pre-Trend titles like Modern Love 5 (Feb-Mar 1950) and Saddle Romances 11 (Mar-Apr 1950), and on the very earliest New Trend titles, starting with Crypt of Terror 18 (Jun-Jul 1950) and Weird Fantasy 14 (Jul-Aug 1950).

Wally Wood's first work for EC was good (Weird Science 5, Jan-Feb 1951), but within a few short months, his art style transformed into something phenomenal (Weird Science 13, May-Jun 1952). And at the very same time, his old boss, Will Eisner, hand-picked Wood to take over the art on The Spirit (27 Jul 1952) for a brilliant (but ultimately unsuccessful) attempt to update the strip for the Space Age.
Very, very quickly, Wally Wood went from being a jobbing artist to a master craftsman. The speed of his improvement was simply astonishing. And even more incredibly, despite the ever-increasing amount of detail in his pages, he turned out art faster and faster. He would be one of Harvey Kurtzman's go-to artists for the new MAD comic (which would become vitally important later on in his career), where he'd craft pitch-perfect parodies of the great comics strips he'd loved as a kid, like Superman, Terry and the Pirates, Flash Gordon and Prince Valiant. And in his spare time, he managed to find time to draw a couple of classic comics for Avon ... 

Even while working almost flat-out for EC Comics, Wood moonlighted at Avon, producing high-adventure, science fiction and horror stories with equal ease. The quality never faltered ...
By mid-1952, Wood was working exclusively for EC, earning a princely $50 a page (by contrast other publishers were paying $15-20 a page). For the May-June 1952 issues alone, he contributed:
  • seven pages to Two Fisted Tales 27
  • cover and seven pages to Shock Suspenstories 3
  • a six-pager and an eight-pager to Weird Fantasy 13 
  • a cover plus an eight-pager and a six-pager to Weird Science 13
  • And, of course, four weekly eight-pagers for The Spirit newspaper strip. 
That's 76 pages - pencils and inks over an eight week period ... 38 pages a month ... all of it finished to an incredible standard. No artist today could complete with that schedule. Wood was like an unstoppable machine. 

His value to EC was cemented by Editor Al Feldstein, who wrote a love-poem to Wood, "My World", illustrated by Wood himself, which ran in Weird Science 22 (Nov-Dec 1953)

No other artist at EC was treated with the level of respect that Wally Wood enjoyed. His work got better month-by-month and Wood ultimately became the star of his own strip in the last issue of Weird Science.
In his mid-twenties, Wood was having the time of his life. He was earning an eye-watering amount of money. His work jags lasted for days until he collapsed at his drawing board. His marathon art sessions were fuelled with alcohol. But he was young and his body could take the extraordinary punishment.

Even when EC crashed and burned in 1955, after the the Comics Code killed the horror books, and Bill Gaines' attempts to do the sanitised New Direction books (including Aces High, Extra, M.D. and Valor) failed, there was still MAD. Gaines turned his comedy comic into a 25c magazine, raised the page rates even higher than they were on the EC colour comics, and for the next ten years, Wood cruised straight on as MAD's star artist, winning "Best Comic Book Artist" two years in a row at the 1957 and 1958 National Cartoonists Society Awards. But even that wasn't enough ...

For about 12 glorious months, Wally Wood inked Dave Wood and Jack Kirby's Sky Masters newspaper strip, selected for the job - no doubt - because of his stints on the Weird Science/Fantasy comics for EC and of course "The Spirit on the Moon" for Will Eisner.
In 1958, Jack Kirby asked Wood to join a space-oriented newspaper strip project as inker. The strip had begun life as "Space Busters" devised by Kirby and scripter Dave Wood (no relation), but they'd been unable to find a home for the strip. Early in 1958, DC editor Jack Schiff was approached by an agent, Harry Elmlark, who was looking for a syndicated space strip for the newspapers. Kirby and Dave Wood showed Schiff Space Busters, but he wasn't that impressed. But he did encourage Kirby and Wood to take another swing at it, very likely offering some ideas of his own. The project morphed into Sky Masters of the Space Force and that was when Kirby asked Wally Wood to ink the strip.

In the late 1950's, Wally Wood was still MAD's busiest artist, and was creating gorgeous illustrations for science fiction market-leader Galaxy. It was probably the very pinnacle of his career. But trouble was just around the corner ...
By this time, Wally Wood was working almost exclusively for MAD, but was also providing high quality illustrations for men's magazines and science fiction magazines like Galaxy. It all went well for a while, but then Kirby had a falling out with Schiff over payments and the whole thing turned legal. So Wally Wood left them to their squabbles - and dumped Challengers of the Unknown, which he'd also been inking over Kirby - and once again concentrated on his MAD work and his science fiction illustrations. But as the 1950s drew to a close Wood was feeling restless and a bit put-upon. He was suffering from chronic headaches and was drinking ever-more heavily to dull the pain. This, coupled with the crash of Sky Masters, led to him becoming tetchy and in 1964, as his art was beginning to suffer, MAD rejected one of his strips, Wood's first rejection since around 1950. Making matters even worse, the editor who rejected his art was Al Feldstein, the same guy who'd written "My World" ten years earlier. Feeling crushed, Wood phoned the editorial offices and quit MAD.

Artist Russ Jones, who'd been assisting Wood at that time recalled in a later interview, "MAD sent Woody a rejection slip on a comic strip lampoon, and it about killed him. Yes, the job was covered in liquid paper, but it was great compared to what Bob Clarke produced. I think the guys at MAD were just kidding around, but it backfired! I stood rooted when Wally called Bill Gaines and quit. Poor Bill ... he called many times to try and talk Woody back ... but no go. Poor Wally ... he threw out his biggest client. The whole affair was sad. No winners."

For Monster World 1, Wood wrote and drew an adaptation of the 1932 Universal horror, The Mummy. The next issue of the magazine continued the Mummy adaptations, but Wood was conspicuously absent, turning the work over to assistant Russ Jones and former EC stablemate, Joe Orlando.
With all his bridges burnt, Wood had nowhere else to go, so he returned to four-colour comics, first working for the lowest payers in the field, Charlton, on war books like D-Day 2 and War and Attack 1 (both Fall 1964), then a quick eight-pager for Warren's Monster World 1 (Nov 1964) - an adaptation of the Universal horror movie The Mummy, with assistant Russ Jones. It was at this low ebb that Wood - probably on Joe Orlando's advice - turned to Stan Lee for work and was assigned Daredevil. And that's why Stan was trumpeting the arrival of Wood on Daredevil as though it were the Second Coming ...


THE ARTIST WITHOUT FEAR

With his second job on Daredevil - issue 6 (Feb 1965) - Wood seemed to have a better grasp of what Stan Lee was looking for, but for my money, the pacing was still off. Too many pages in the story are covered in speech balloons, making me think Wood hadn't devoted enough space to the character exposition that Stan liked to include in his books. On the other hand, the action sequences were very well thought-out. Wood had wisely cut back from the amount of detail he would have included in his EC science fiction strips, rendering his fight scenes in a clean, spare style that far better suited the material.

Wood's work on Daredevil 6 was a slight improvement over the previous issue, but the civilian scenes were still way too wordy and the fight sequences, while well crafted lacked variety.
But something wasn't quite right. It was as though Wood didn't get the Marvel way ... Was he just phoning the work in? Probably not, though long-time collaborator Dan Adkins said of that period, "[Wood] got the highest rate in the industry. $200 per page at MAD magazine where he was the most popular artist. When he quit MAD magazine and went over to Marvel Comics, Marvel's starting rates at the time were $20 per page to pencil and $15 per page to ink. Out of respect to Wally, they paid him $45 per page to pencil and ink, but not the bonus money he was looking for."

When viewed as single units the Daredevil pages looked, well, same-y. Where Kirby or Ditko would mix long-shots and close ups depending on the needs of the scene and the emotion to be conveyed by each panel, Wood framed everything at the same distance.

Some time later in his career, I wasn't able to determine when, Wally Wood created the legendary 22 Comic Panels That Always Work ... but I wasn't seeing any evidence of that thinking in Wood's Daredevil stories.
The story itself united two b-class villains - The Ox from Amazing Spider-Man 10 & 14 (Mar & Jul 1964), and The Eel, last seen battling The Human Torch in Strange Tales 117 (Feb 1964) - with a new villain, Mr Fear, whose "fear gas" can turn anyone into a nervous wreck. It's an interesting idea, pitting The Man Without Fear against Fear itself ... but what should have been a definitive clash of opposites ends up being a fairly pedestrian filler issue. Fortunately, the title would move up a gear with the next issue.

Daredevil 7 (Apr 1965) was where Wally Wood took hold of the character and began to make Daredevil his own. First, he redesigned DD's costume, using the devil part of the character's name to inspire a more streamlined approach, and giving the hero a satanic look.

Daredevil 7 introduced a new costume for DD and demonstrated that the hero's will was almost as powerful as The Sub-Mariner's sea-born super-strength.
Next, Wood's story breakdowns and page design seemed much more confident. Yes, he was still using sequences of mid-distance shots for most of the fight scenes, but there was a much more concerted effort to mix up the long-shots, close-ups and splash panels.

The plot has Sub-Mariner return to the Surface World to bring a civil lawsuit against the air-breathers for depriving his people of the right to live on land. And he decides that Nelson & Murdock are the lawyers for him. But the attorneys tell him that there's no one to sue, as no individual, company or nation represents the entire human race. So Namor decides that causing a bit of mayhem and getting arrested will get him his day in court. This part of it sounds very much like a Lee plot device.

No sooner has The Sub-Mariner surrendered himself to the police and is arraigned for his crimes than word reaches him that the craven Warlord Krang has instigated a rebellion against Namor in their native Atlantis. The Sub-Mariner decides the needs of his realm are more pressing than his legal case against the humans and leaves the jail as though the bars were so much cardboard. The final battle, in which a hopelessly out-matched Daredevil fights Namor until he passes out, pretty much defined the hero's character for the next couple of decades.

But already, Wood was feeling he was being taken advantage of. The Marvel Method used by Stan, which worked pretty well for his other artists at this time, was rankling Wally Wood. He felt that he was doing at least half Stan's job without getting the credit or the payment that he deserved. Later, in an angry editorial in his self-published Woodwork Gazette, Wood described an editor he called Stanley, who "came up with two surefire ideas... the first one was 'Why not let the artists WRITE the stories as well as draw them?'... And the second was... ALWAYS SIGN YOUR NAME ON TOP... BIG."
Here's something interesting ... Wood's original layout for Daredevil 7 page 4. You can see that Stan has asked for changes and the finished art is slightly different from the first pencil rough.
Nonetheless, Wood sucked it up and carried on as, at this point in his career, he didn't have that many options open to him. 

Daredevil 8 (Jun 1965) introduced a new villain who, though a little bonkers, I always quite liked ... The Stilt-Man. It was also the second cover in a row to feature a newspaper headline as a way of explaining what was going on. Maybe Wood wanted that to be a thing, but it didn't pan out, or perhaps it was just coincidence.

Daredevil 8 gave us a cut-away plan of Daredevil's billy club. Later in the issue, it's also revealed that Daredevil's cowl contains sophisticated radio equipment to monitor police wavebands. Later in his career, Daredevil's powers would let him do that without the need for electronics. During the battle, Wood gives us some nice images of Stilt-Man towering above the city skyline.
The story has Matt Murdock engaged by a scientist who says his invention has been stolen by his employer. But as Murdock investigates the claims further, it becomes apparent that whoever has the invention is also The Stilt-Man. No prizes for guessing who the real baddie is ...

At the same time, Stan (I'm sure it was Stan) is planting seeds, suggesting that it might be possible to restore Matt's vision. In fact, Karen Page is shown suggesting that Matt consults an eminent Boston eye specialist, Dr Van Eyck. But Matt is reluctant, fearing it may compromise his powers, and Karen gets angry with him and storms out. And this sets up the situation for the next issue ...

Daredevil 9 drafted in Giant-Man artist Bob Powell to help Wally Wood by doing finished pencils over Wood's layouts. I'm not sure how that helped Wood, given that he was still (to his mind) co-writing the comic without credit or payment. The tale itself is fun, pitting Daredevil against knights in armour, a common Wood trope.
Some changes were in effect with Daredevil 9 (Aug 1965). Even though Wood was a proven speed-demon, he's assisted on this issue by Bob Powell, with whom he'd worked on the notorious Mars Attacks gum-card series. Powell had also stepped in when Joe Orlando found himself unable to work with Stan Lee on the Giant-Man strip a few months earlier.

The plot contrives to send Matt Murdock, at Karen Page's instigation, to a European dictatorship, run by an old college acquaintance of Murdock's Klaus Kruger, the Duke of Lichtenbad, whence eye specialist Dr Van Eyck has emigrated. Once there, Daredevil is caught up in a peasants' revolt and battles Kruger's palace guards, who are all togged up in medieval armour. It's quite a fun issue, and I was always a sucker for knights in armour ...

Issue 10 brought more changes in the creative duties. With Wood increasingly disgruntled with Stan Lee's way of working, Stan credited Wood with writing as well as drawing the story, with Bob Powell providing layouts. But the way Stan did it only served to enrage Wood further.

It seems likely that Wood was agitating behind the scenes to be given proper credit as co-writer on the Daredevil comic. And with this issue he gets his wish. Continuing his fondness for cutaways, this time round Wood gives us a diagram of The Organizer's headquarters.
The intro of the splash page of the issue says, "Wally Wood has always wanted to try his hand at writing a story as well as drawing it, and Big-Hearted Stan (who wanted a rest anyway) said okay. So what follows next is anybody's guess. You may like it or not, but, you can be sure of this ... it's gonna be different!" It's not the most gracious announcement I've ever seen, but there's another caption box at the end of the story that might give further insight into Stan's tone.

Apparently, after campaigning to be credited with writing Daredevil, Wood declined to script the second half of the story, leaving Stan to sort out the plot threads as best he could. "Now that Wally got writing out his system," says Stan's closing caption, "he left it to poor Stan to finish next issue. Can he do it? That's the real mystery! But while you're waiting, see if you can find the clue we planted showing who the Organiser is! It'll all come out in the wash next issue when Stan wraps it up. See you then!" So I can begin to see why there might be some growing acrimony between Stan and Wally. It's likely this is the point where Wood had told Stan that he was quitting

All that aside, Daredevil 10's not half bad ... there are a few stylistic differences, but broadly Wood does a pretty good job of making the characters all sound like themselves. And with Bob Powell doing the layouts, there's much more variety in the framing of each panel. 

The plot has a mysterious character, The Organizer, recruiting a quartet of crooks and giving them animal costumes and powers to carry out a series of crimes. They are Cat-Man, Frog-Man, Bird-Man and Ape-Man. Given Stan's penchant for animal-themed villains, I suspect he may have had something to do with the casting. Curiously, though there is an Ape-Man featured as one of The Owl's henchmen in Daredevil 3, Ape Horgan, this one appears to be a different person, Monk Keefer. Even more confusingly, the Cat-Man character in this tale has the civilian name of Townshend Horgan. Was he intended to be a relative of the first Ape-Man? Or did Wood (and Stan) just get a bit muddled with their characters' names? It's the sort of continuity glitch that Roy Thomas would obsess about fixing in Marvel's later years.

There's further dissension in the letters column. One reader, Larry Brown, complains that Daredevil is turning into Gadget Man and that "all these gadgets detract from the credibility." In the response, Stan says, "Want us to let you in on an inside squabble, Larry? Sturdy Stan agrees with you - he is also opposed to so much gadgetry. But Winsome Wally really digs those hoked up appurtenances, and - being Wally's the guy who has to draw them, Stan went along with him. But we'll see how the future mail goes." Thus were the battle lines drawn. There probably wasn't any walking back from this point.

We probably shouldn't be that surprised to see Stan taking potshots on the Daredevil letters page. He must have been pretty ticked off with Wally Wood. And while it's not like Stan to be anything other than gentlemanly, he couldn't have been best pleased at Wood's attitude, considering Stan likely saw himself as trying to help out an artist he admired who was going through a bad patch. And given the circumstances, Wood's tetchiness is not that surprising either, as from Wood's point of view, Stan was getting him to co-write the comic - perhaps more than co-write - take all the credit and pay him just $45 a page. After all, at MAD they gave him full scripts and paid him $200 a page.

Daredevil 11 was plotted and scripted by Stan, pencilled by Bob Powell and inked by Wood. In the circumstances, the most surprising thing is that Wood stuck around long enough to ink the story at all. In the event it's not a bad issue, and benefits from some of Powell's characteristic touches, like the cinematic four panels across the top of page 17 (above right).
Daredevil 11 (Dec 1965) left Stan trying to finish a story begun by Wally Wood. He actually does a pretty fair job, though at times there looks to be a bit to much text on the page. The pacing of the hectic story is much helped by Bob Powell's layouts and pencilling, as he is more adept at bringing variety to the panel framing than Wood had been. 

The issue closes with Matt announcing he's taking a leave of absence from Nelson & Murdock and Stan announcing that next issue there'll be new villains and a new artist, though he give no hint as to who either might be.

Meanwhile, though Wood had inked this issue of Daredevil, he had already planned his escape route. A former Archie Comics editor, Harry Shorten, had approached Wood during 1965, trying to recruit him for a new venture, Tower Comics. Tower Publications had been a publisher of erotic and science fiction paperbacks from 1958, established by one of the co-founders of Archie Comics, Louis Silberkleit, and now, seeing the success of Marvel, wanted to get into the comics business. Wood called Shorten's offer "a dream set-up. I created all the characters, wrote most of the stories, and drew most of the covers. I did as much of the art as I could... But it was fun."

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents 1 (Nov 1965) was the first of the Tower Comics line. Much of the interior art was by Wood, and it betrayed the same limitations I saw in his Daredevil work, with nearly every panel being framed as a mid-shot. Most of the scripting in this issue was by Len Brown, though Wood co-scripted the Dynamo story in the back of the book.
Wood hired old colleagues from his EC days - Al Williamson and Reed Crandell - to help out with the art, and commissioned his own wife Tatjana Wood to colour the covers. He created the characters T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, NoMan, Menthor and Dynamo. Pretty soon, Gil Kane, Steve Ditko, George Tuska and Mike Sekowsky joined. Scripts were by Len Brown (who had worked with Wood on Mars Attacks and had helped conceive the THUNDER Agents), Larry Ivie and Wood himself. And the comics were mostly 25c, 64-page giants.

The only problem was ... the stories were just dull.

Tower Comics lasted from 1966 to 1969, when distribution problems cause Tower Publications to fold the line.


NOW WHAT?

To me it seems quite apparent that Stan was angry and disappointed with Wood's behaviour. It was highly unusual for him to contradict or criticise any of his team in print, but he did - however mildly - with Wood. You can see that, for Stan, the prospect of Wood joining the Bullpen was a big event. Though as my esteemed fellow Marvel blogger Nick Caputo mentioned in the comments last time, Stan did namecheck artists on Marvel covers before this, I think we can agree that line on the Daredevil 5 cover, "under the brilliant artistic craftsmanship of famous illustrator Wally Wood", goes a bit beyond the customary Lee hyperbole.

Add to this that many have said that Stan would often give work to those who needed it, whether Stan (or Marvel) needed it. There's a story that one day during the 1950s, Marvel publisher Martin Goodman found a stack of "inventory" stories that Stan had commissioned to help out freelancers financially, but hadn't published. Goodman got angry and told Stan he had to stop commissioning until the backlog was used up. In the early Sixties, Stan had given Joe Siegel, creator of Superman, work scripting Human Torch stories for Strange Tales, but that hadn't worked out so well. By 1968, it was getting hard for Siegel to find work, so Stan hired him as a proofreader in the Bullpen.

What would the Sub-Mariner solo strip in Tales to Astonish have looked like if Wally Wood had drawn it instead of Gene Colan? And why wasn't Everett asked to draw Sub-Mariner? After all, he created it. Or had he blotted his copybook (at least temporarily) with his deadline issues on Daredevil 1?
Stan probably saw Wood as being in a similar situation in the late summer of 1964, right after Wood had recklessly quit MAD magazine. So he gave the guy a job. This wasn't just charity. Stan knew a legendary artist when he saw one. And not only did he want Wood drawing Daredevil, but legend has it that he was going to give Marvel's new Sub-Mariner strip to Wood as well. In his Alter-Ego magazine, Roy Thomas said that, “Wally was slated to go from Daredevil onto the then-up-coming Sub-Mariner solo series in Tales to Astonish [#70, Aug. 1965].”

So it must have stung that Wood was so disgruntled with Lee and Marvel from the get-go, and by the time Wood quit, I'm fairly sure Stan wasn't that sorry to see him leave.

However, in the end, it didn't work out so bad for Stan and Marvel. The very next issue of Daredevil featured the art of John Romita - albeit over Kirby layouts - and that association worked out pretty well over the years.

Next: The Fab Four