Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

It’s been 12 years since the Silver Age began — well, if you’re in August, 1968

Which is the point I’ve reached in my Silver Age reread. One of my reasons for starting it was to see how much things changed over the course of the Silver Age. If you’ve been following along, you’ve seen plenty. DC flourished with new heroes and new ideas for established characters. Marvel debuted. Marvel improved. Batman got a New Look. Then, earlier in ’68, we got another game changer, when Marvel finally ended its distribution deal with DC comics.

Using DC’s distributor kept Marvel on the spinner racks for all the years it was a niche company churning out monster books and Patsy Walker, with Stan Lee the only writer on staff. The Marvel method of having artists plot the stories began because Lee couldn’t meet his deadlines writing everything by himself.

By 1968, Marvel was successful. The staff had grown. The Saturday morning cartoons adapting Marvel’s comics had made the company much more profitable. Marvel no longer needed to depend on DC, which freed them from the limit on the number of comics they could publish each month. By August, we’re seeing the effects.

One effect, of course, is that superheroes rule. When the Fantastic Four debuted, Marvel’s other offerings that month included five monster anthology books, two Westerns, two romance anthology books, Linda Carter Student Nurse and Millie the Model. In August of ’68 Marvel has 18 books out, still including Millie the Model and The Rawhide Kid
— plus two war books, Sgt. Fury (and the Annual) and Captain Savage and His Leatherneck Raiders.There’s also the parody book Not Brand Ecch (which I never found funny) and the Marvel Collector’s Item reprint book. Everything else was new superhero stories.
Expanding the line didn’t require coming up with a bunch of new series like Captain Marvel.  All Marvel had to do was break up the anthology books carrying two superheroes per issue. Tales of Suspense became Captain America and Iron Man. Tales to Astonish became Sub-Mariner and Hulk. Strange Tales became Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Dr. Strange (splitting Strange Tales proved the one misfire as neither series lasted long on their own — though I don’t know if staying together would have saved them).

With added pages Marvel’s had to add creative staff. They already had Gary Friedrich and Roy Thomas working regularly on various books. Now Archie Goodwin is writing Iron Man instead of Lee, delivering an excellent run I’ll blog about down the road. Regrettably Gene Colan stuck with Daredevil and Johnny Craig took over the art on the Golden Avenger. He wasn’t as good.

Goodwin also wrote one issue of Hulk, which seems to be going through some sort of backstage drama — the next few issues alternate between Lee and Friedrich as scripters. It’s a shame Goodwin didn’t do more as he’s the first writer to give Betty Ross a personality other than “weepy love interest.” Or given the Marvel method, maybe artist Marie Severin came up with it and Goodwin was cool with the idea.

Not only that, Goodwin gives us the first loyal Russian who isn’t evil. As my friend Ross Bagby pointed out to me years ago, Cold War Russian characters in fiction are never motivated by things such as patriotism or loyalty; good Russians defect, leaving only evil people behind. Here one Colonel Brevlov shows up and captures the Missing Link in the middle of a Clash of Titans, snaring the Hulk into the bargain. Brevlov shows himself patriotic but also decent, reluctant to hurt the Hulk as it’s not part of his original mission. At the finish, he’s been ordered to destroy the Hulk but if he does, it’ll kill an innocent kid as well. Buy next issue to see what happens!

Doom Patrol writer Arnold Drake, newly fired from DC (I’ll be blogging about that soon too), co-wrote X-Men #47 with Friedrich, flying solo on subsequent issues. As Drake was the DC writer best able to mimic Stan Lee’s style, I figured he’d be a natural when I saw him in the credits.

Alas, not so. In the previous issue, the FBI split the X-Men up after Professor X’s death. In this issue, Iceman and the Beast battle the Maha Yogi AKA their former foe the Mad Merlin. It’s flat, uninspired and Drake’s usual flair for dialog is gone.

Amazing Spider-Man continues thriving under the Stan Lee/John Romita team. I love this splash panel—

—though I think Romita makes the Vulture look too buff, rather than the old creep of Ditko’s design.

By contrast, Kirby’s enthusiasm for Fantastic Four seems to be dimming (though of course, the book may improve again). It’s a routine battle between the FF and the ever-uninteresting Psycho-Man while Galactus frees the Silver Surfer from Earth long enough to find him an alternative planet to feed on. The logical aftermath would be restoring the Surfer to his herald duties — Galactus clearly needs him — but instead, Big G stashes him back on Earth. After all, how could the Surfer get to lecture humanity on morality if he weren’t hanging around us?
The Silver Surfer series was one of the things killing Kirby’s enthusiasm for staying at Marvel. The Surfer was 100 percent his creation — Lee never claimed otherwise — but here we have Lee writing him and John Buscema drawing him. Plus his origin as Norrin Radd of Zenn-La was completely foreign to Kirby’s concept that he was an artificial being formed by Galactus. I’ve no idea how Kirby would have handled a Silver Surfer series but for Lee it was a chance to use the Surfer as his mouthpiece, delivering constant speeches about man’s inhumanity man and oh, the suffering!Lee could make moral points effectively, for example writing about the Sons of the Serpent and their white-supremacist crusade. Taking a Stan’s Soapbox and working it into a story? Not so effective.Thor #155 shows the book is still on the rebound from its slump a year ago.  The story involves the unstoppable Mangog smashing through Asgard’s defenses. His mission: draw the Odinsword and bring on Ragnarok. Odin’s in his restorative Odinsleep, Loki’s in charge, Thor and the Warriors Three are on the front lines. Great reading except we have Sif once again kept out of the action.
If all Stan and Jack let her do is keep the home fires burning, they might as well have stuck with Jane Foster.

Daredevil meanwhile maintains its consistency as a mediocre comic with great Gene Colan art. In #43, DD busts a thief stealing radioactive isotopes. The radiation interacts with the radiation that rendered him blind years earlier, driving Daredevil so nuts he tries to beat up Captain America. Even for a hero vs. hero story, it’s bad.

The romantic plotlines in the series have devolved into a complete mess. The Matt/Karen/Foggy love triangle ended a few issues earlier when Foggy started dating someone else. Only it didn’t end in the “Karen, I’ve met a girl …” way, Lee and Colan write as if they forgot being in love with Karen was Foggy’s main character trait for four years straight.

Then Matt decides to let Karen leave rather than make a move because he can’t let her risk the danger and peril that would come with being Mrs. Daredevil. I find it oddly amusing Lee can’t come up with better than the same cliche excuse Superman gave over and over for not marrying Lois.

That said, I do like the fact whenever Matt thinks about why he can’t give up his alter ego, it’s never the Spider-Man “I can’t risk an innocent person being hurt because I did nothing.” No, it’s that he’s a fricking adrenalin junkie who loves the acrobatics, the action, the danger, the punching that come with being Daredevil. It’s a nice character detail and one that’s been consistent in Lee’s dialogue. It fits with Matt’s sheltered childhood; whether or not Lee thought of it this way, it comes off as enjoying the boyhood scrapes Matt never experienced as a boy.

It still doesn’t save this issue.Speaking of forgetting, Roy Thomas does his share of it in Avengers #55. He forgets that Dane Whitman already told the Avengers he’s not the evil Black Knight; there’s no reason for them to assume he’s a villain He also seems to forget the Radioactive Man is Chinese and unlikely to be tossing off quips like “So much for our three Rover Boys here.” The Thomas/John Buscema issue is fun to read, but those are some sloppy mistakes. Perhaps the responsibility of writing full-length stories each month for Sub-Mariner and Dr. Strange is stretching him to the limit.

So that’s Marvel in ’68. Next up, comics outside the Big Two.

#SFWApro. Art by Carmine Infantino, Stan Goldberg, Dick Ayers, Jack Kirby, Jim Steranko, Marie Severin, Don Heck, Werner Roth, John Romita x2, John Buscema x2, Kirby x3, Buscema again.




    1. Emphatically not. Some of the Epic volumes include parodies (e.g., a Not Brand Ecch sendup of Cap in a Captain America collection); I’ve tried reading them but they’re no funnier than I found them at the time.

  1. Peter

    I just read some of those Lee/Colan Daredevil stories for the first time… yeah, they are generally quite bad with great art. I do think every 6 or so issues there is 1 really strong story, but the hit to miss ratio is not favorable.

    I read Kirby’s Thor for the first time relatively recently and indeed, Mangog is a great piece of comic art. The Galactus origin that follows is also quite cool. I found the book to sadly go far downhill shortly afterwards when Marvel imposed an edict against multi-issue stories. The art had never been better (consistent Bill Everett inks!) but Kirby’s enthusiasm seemed to nosedive.

    The OG Silver Surfer series remains a sentimental favorite of mine. The Buscema art is inspired and I do think that, while the moralizing can get monotonous, there are some unique plots and it does read a lot differently than most contemporary Marvel comics. The total incongruity with Kirby’s concept bothers me slightly, but the book still interests me.

    1. The Galactus origin was another snapping point for Kirby. His involved the Watcher, using his original concept he was completely unique. Lee pointed out a “Tales of the Watcher” story established he was one of many. Too bad because the Galactus story really started strong.
      Bill Everett’s alcoholism screwed up a lot of his Silver Age work — at least that’s why I assume he kept working in brief spurts on various books, then disappearing.

  2. DarkKnight

    I wonder what happened to Arnold Drake at Marvel because I consider his and Bruno Premiani’s Doom Patrol to be the best comic DC published in the silver age. Maybe it was just a cultural difference.

    Even though Daredevil is probably my favorite Marvel hero, most of his sixties and seventies run is mediocre at best. I always wondered what could have been if Wally Wood stuck around for more than just a handful of issues.

    I know this might be heresy but I always preferred Buscema’s rendition of Silver Surfer over Kirby’s.

    1. Le Messor

      Sometimes people are better at writing high-concept team books than low-concept solo books (and vice versa).

      I always have mixed feelings about Kirby. His sense of design is amazing, and his imagination moreso; but his posing and staging is clumsy, and his people are always kind of blocky.
      Still, I can see how he was such an influence on comics ever since.

    2. I’m a huge fan of his DP work too. It’s the only Silver Age book I eventually acquired an unbroken run of.
      I know Gardner Fox struggled with the Marvel Method where the artist did most of the plotting. Perhaps Drake did too. I’m hoping subsequent issues of his X-Men get better.

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