Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Marvel in 1965: As good as the legend says

Rereading the Silver Age the past few years, I finally appreciate why so many people revered Marvel back in the day. Not that I disliked Marvel myself but I was (and remain) a DC fan. As a kid I couldn’t see why anyone thought Marvel was the better company.

For the first two or three years after Fantastic Four #1 I don’t think they were. Sure, the FF, Dr. Strange and Spider-Man were terrific but Giant-Man? The Human Torch? Sgt. Fury? Or for that matter, the early years of Thor, Iron Man and the X-Men.

By 1965, though, Marvel’s surged way past the level of those early years. Reading the various series inividually in reprint, I’ve often noticed that after a couple of years or so, the quality shot up, like Stan Lee and his various collaborators had suddenly figured everything out. Reading the Silver Age month by month I can see much of that improvement happened in 1965. By the end of the year, Marvel lives up to its rep.

The worst stuff — the formulaic monster stories, Giant Man, the Human Torch’s solo strip — is gone. The Fantastic Four and Thor are in the middle of long story arcs where one plot or character bit flows seamlessly into the next (as I mentioned a while back, it’s like what Chris Claremont would do with the X-Men a decade later). X-Men hits the peak of its early years with the debut of first Juggernaut, then the Sentinels. Captain America’s adventures are a quantum leap beyond the stories of his early Tales of Suspense run, where he did nothing but beat up uninteresting thugs.

Over in Spider-Man, Peter graduates high school and starts college, a revolutionary development in a decade when kid protagonists stayed eternally young. The year ends with one of Spidey’s most intense plots: Aunt May’s dying because a blood transfusion he gave her has caused radiation poisoning, the Master Planner has stolen the drug that offers May her one shot at life and Peter’s very, very angry. The arc ends with the classic issue in which Peter, buried under what looks like three tons of debris, lifts it all off to recover the drug and save Aunt May.

Dr. Strange meanwhile spends most of the year fleeing from Mordo, whose power has been amped up courtesy of Dormammu. The strip is one of my favorites from the Silver Age but this run is even better than Lee and Ditko’s previous work.

Not everything reaches that level. Daredevil in 1965 is still “meh.” Namor’s love Lady Dorma is one of Lee’s worst-written women. The Hulk strip does itself in with erratic plotting. At the end of 1965 we have a good story where the Leader sends the Hulk — temporarily with Bruce Banner’s intelligence — to steal something from the Watcher (who interestingly seems to be the only inhabitant of his homeworld, reflecting, I presume, Kirby’s view he was one of a kind). When Hulk returns to his usual stomping ground and supporting cast, General Ross unleashes the terrible T-gun——which they use despite not knowing what it does. Which is to hurl Hulk into the future because it’s a time gun! Your tax dollars at work, people!

Hulk eventually winds up fighting the Executioner, who’s leading an alien army (no explanation given) to conquer future Earth. Back in the present, Rick decides Bruce is dead and reveals his secret identity, which maybe was the  point of sending Hulk away? Unlike the Lee/Kirby work on Thor and the Fantastic Four, none of this fits smoothly together.

Lee’s melodramatic style and slightly self-mocking hype are part of Marvel’s appeal but they fall flat sometimes too. Describing the bad guy’s super-weapons in breathless terms works fine when the bad guy’s Kang the Conqueror and he’s packing futuristic super-tech. Not so much when its Warlord Krang using what amounts to a sliding door — oh, sorry, it’s a defenso-wall! Which is like calling a gun an attacko-weapon.That said, nobody could make hype engaging like Lee; several DC writers and editors are trying but they don’t have the same knack.

On top of which, there’s the sense that all Marvel’s books, good or mediocre, are tied together, part of one overall epic. DC couldn’t make a sprawling line that includes Flash, Ultra the Multi-Alien and Lois Lane, all under multiple editors, fit together; Marvel was small enough that Lee could pull it off.Nothing captures this better than the original Big Crossover, the third Fantastic Four annual. It’s the wedding of Reed and Sue and everyone, even Patsy Walker, is either invited (unlike many later weddings it appears the guest list is much more than their superhero friends) or hanging around to catch glimpses of the wedding of the season. Doctor Doom kicks off the long tradition of evildoers wrecking superhero weddings by activating a “go kill the Fantastic Four” ray that sends old foes and new enemies their way. Fortunately, the superheroes are already there—— and things get wild. The story ends poorly, with a Watcher ex machina resolution — Uatu breaks his vow to help Reed find a super-weapon that saves the day — but it’s still an impressive achievement. Refreshingly brief compared to today’s Big Events, too: the same story in 2022 would take at least four issues of every Marvel book to tell.

DC still has my heart but 1965 Marvel has my highest respect.

#SFWApro. Sub-Mariner art by Gene Colan (as Adam Austin), everything else is Kirby.


  1. Le Messor

    I’ve read quite a few Silver and Golden age stories that feel very simplistic; they seem to be made for kids, and to talk down to them.
    I can see how Marvel started to bring in a bit of sophistication – it’s why the Bronze age is my favourite; comics got a bit more sophisticated without being all ‘grim and gritty’ (90’s) or “realistic” or cynical.

    Also, you touched on one of my pet peeves here – whenever there’s a wedding or a funeral in fiction, the guest list is there for the audience, not the characters. (eg: Northstar was at Rick Jones’s wedding. I don’t think they’ve ever even met. Or what looked like the original cast of A Nightmare On Elm Street at a funeral in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, even though they probably hadn’t seen Heather in 20 years.)

    1. That bugs me too, though I think the FF Annual avoided it. It’s clearly a big society wedding, with lots of guests besides the superheroes (some of whom show up in their civvies because that’s how the team knows them).

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