Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

“My letter’s on the fan page!” Silver Age Marvel Comics on Earth-616

So as I described in my last post about the comic-book industry in comic-book worlds, Stan Lee in the 1950s was writing war, horror and Patsy Walker comics for Marvel and probably yearning for something more challenging.  The Incredible Hulk wasn’t it:  according to Marvel Comics: History of the Marvels Stan launched this book, based on eyewitness accounts, even before Fantastic Four. To his readers, however, it was just one more monster book. It folded after two issues (and as Marvel didn’t know Bruce Banner’s secret, Jack Kirby undoubtedly drew a less memorable cover for #1).

DC, meanwhile, was kicking butt with its new line of reimagined Golden Age superheroes. Martin Goodman undoubtedly pushes Stan to come up with a concept, but whatever ideas he and his team — including not only Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko but Charles Bentley — came up with, Goodman didn’t bite. Then Stan got a call from S-M Studios, mentioning that they were making a Fantastic Four film. As Marvel had been so successful with real-life superheroes back in the 1940s, the studio was keen on having them do a licensed FF comic book.

Stan must have jumped at it. The FF were super-celebrities who’d defeated the Miracle Man, Mole Man, Sub-Mariner and Doctor Doom. They were, at the same time, regular folks with no secret identities — heck, it was common knowledge the team had just run out of money. Lee must have had the feeling he could do something different with them, and Goodman would have seen the potential (“A licensed Fantastic Four comic could be bigger than Patsy Walker!”).

When it came out that S-M Studios was just a scheme by Namor to trap the FF (presumably the studio employees who arranged the deal didn’t know this), Stan told the heroes he wouldn’t insist on them honoring the deal. The FF, of course, weren’t going to leave them in the lurch, so the series went ahead. It didn’t hurt that Johnny was a huge fan of Kirby’s Golden Age work on Captain America. Plus Reed, as a later story revealed, was concerned that his friends never see themselves as freaks, so making them popular heroes was a win.

And so was the comic book. Comic-book day for us nerds now was nothing like the crowds that lined up waiting eagerly for each issue of Fantastic Four. Lee and Kirby were celebrities; in 1978 Stan got to guest-host Saturday Night Live.

The stories were a mix: based-on-truth accounts some issues, made-up supervillain adversaries in others. Undoubtedly the FF skipped over some of the more painful moments in recounting their adventures to Stan, such as Ben Grimm abandoning the team in Fantastic Four #5 to become a pirate. This approach would go out of fashion by the Bronze Age: in FF #176, when Kirby suggests Roy Thomas and George Perez just make up a story (the FF were on Counter-Earth and out of touch), Stan flatly rules that out.

Once the comic became a hit, Lee had the green light from Goodman to actively solicit more partnerships. The Avengers agreed, and Jarvis (according to Captain America #310) provided summaries of their adventures. Marvel’s Spider-Man comic was based more on eyewitness accounts, like Earth-One DC Comics’ true-crime approach (which presumably explains why Peter never saw any licensing money). I’m guessing Lee would have done the same with the X-Men, and I don’t know he’d have bothered with Dr. Strange at all: there weren’t that many eyewitness accounts of his exploits and Strange wouldn’t have been interested in a licensing deal. Possibly Dr. Droom was Marvel’s attempt to fictionalize the crazy stories Stan and Steve Ditko had heard about Strange.

It’s quite possible some of these series, like the Hulk’s, weren’t as successful as in our world. Even given readers would have thought of Spidey as a real person, it’s hard to imagine a book which can’t include his tangled personal life would grab as many readers. Even so, they did well enough that Marvel was the king of the industry. When Stan Lee decides Nova isn’t cool enough for a Marvel series (Nova #5), Nova laughs to himself at the idea of trying another company — Marvel just had no competition! They probably still held the dominant position in the middle-1980s (whatever books they were actually selling then), when Steve Rogers went to work for them as an artist.

The Marvel Universe’s sliding time scale, unfortunately, throws a major wrench into all this. On Earth-616, the current superheroic age began 15 years ago with the FF’s origin; Ben Grimm, Reed Richards, Tony Stark and Frank Castle saw action in the long-running Sin-Cong War rather than WW II or Vietnam. I’m guessing Stan Lee, Jack Kirby (and John Buscema, Roy Thomas, etc.) of 616 have been similarly time-shifted.

That means Jack Kirby on Earth-616 wasn’t around to work in comics in the 1940s and never became the dominant influence he was here.. Marvel in the Silver Age must have remained a second stringer or found success writing about the First Line and the Blue Marvel. Either way the comics experience would be very different, and less exciting, for comics fans on 616 than us here.

I originally thought this would be the last post in this blog series, but there’s two more issues I want to cover. First, how much does the general public on Earth-616, Earth-One, etc. actually know about superheroes? Second, just what are the ramifications of publishing unflattering stories about metahumans, particularly villains (“Stan Lee, I am Loki — and I would have words with thee!”).

#SFWApro. Bottom illustration by Paul Neary, all else by Jack Kirby.



  1. Le Messor

    I just want to comment about the title of this article.
    I fairly recently got my hands on a copy of Teen Titans Spotlight #15 (The Omega Men); it has a letter on it from one Fraser Sherman.
    Two of the other letters on that page reference a letter (in #11: The Brotherhood Of Evil) from one James P. Macquarie.

    I’ve been wondering ever since if that’s your first ‘appearance’ together. 🙂

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