Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Fox, Lee, Kirby: Writing in the Silver Age

Once Marvel began publishing superhero comics in the Silver Age, the differences between the Marvel and DC styles firmed up quickly. Most of the DC stories I remember fondly give me colorful action with tight, clever plots. With Marvel, it’s the character bits and the intense, emotional melodrama (I know the word has negative connotations, but when done right, it’s awesome). 

That’s not the only difference, of course. Marvel developed an image that was very different from DC, and the artistic differences were striking (I can see them, I just can’t analyze them — I’m not an art guy). But for the purpose of this article, I’m looking at the writing differences as expressed in two 1962 tales, one from each company. I think they showcase DC and Marvel’s respective strengths well.

For DC, it’s Justice League of America #10 and 11 (while they don’t make a big thing of it, it’s definitely a two-part story) by Gardner Fox and Mike Sekowsky. Outside of Silver Age fans, I don’t think Fox gets as much acclaim as he deserves; his JLA stuff gets dismissed as “team splits into three, then regroups at the end” as if that was all the effort he put into it. Sure, it was a formula (though not one he used every single time), but good Silver Age writers worked creatively within a formula. Case in point, these two issues.

We open “Fantastic Fingers of Felix Faust” as that sorcerer, in his debut, commands the prehuman demons Abnegazar, Rath and Ghast to bestow their powers on him. Felix tells them he’s been obsessed with magic ever since he learned about his fictional namesake Faust, but the demons turn him down. He’s summoned their spirits but their bodies remain imprisoned by the Timeless Ones, little blue-skinned immortals (I’m not the only one who thinks they were the Guardians) who defeated the demons millennia ago.

To give Faust their powers, the demons must be free physically, which requires recovering three magical escape talismans they created before their defeat. That’s impossible as the Timeless Ones sealed these McGuffins away, watched over by forces no mortal could defeat. Faust, of course, suggests a team that could do it; the demons then guide him in a spell to enslave the League, manifested by his transformed fingers (this is one cover-first story where the image fits smoothly into the narrative).

Now we get to the stars of the book, in the middle of what they assume is the issue’s A-plot. The Lord of Time — apparently a criminal who’s mastered time travel, not the visitor from the future he’d become in later stories — has plucked warriors from across time to loot for him so the Leaguers are busting heads and taking names. As they touch various items linked to the demons’ spell—

they’re transported to Faust’s side, forced to obey. They successfully recover the talismans, but needless to say they thwart Faust anyway. Oops, not entirely: he finished enough of the spell the demons will emerge from their prison a century from now. With no JLA to stop them, is the Earth of 2062 doomed?

Relax, the League’s on the case. In “One Hour to Doomsday” the Lord of Time flees into the future to collect a set of super-weapons that can destroy even the JLA. The League follows, takes him down and heads home, only to run into a barrier in 2062 that knocks them out of the time stream. The three demons are busy unmaking time to restore the primeval Earth they called home; while they’re annoyed at the League disrupting the ritual, they aren’t terribly troubled. With their powers it’s simple to turn the heroes into mist, bottle them, then resume the enchantment. In one hour, the world as we know it will cease to exist.

Green Lantern finds a way to free the team, but they still face the problem that the demons are far too powerful for a direct attack. Ah, but their preferred method of spell-casting involves targeting the victim by name. What if the JLA trade identities so that naming them in the spells don’t work? They agree it’s a good trick but can Aquaman fake Superman’s powers well enough to fool the demons? Can Flash pass himself off as a Green Arrow-class archer? Can Wonder Woman successfully pose as the Martian Manhunter?

Well of course they can. But watching them find ways to pull it off is an absolute treat, never mind that they’re yes, splitting into three teams in the process. Needless to say, we end with the demons and the Lord of Time successfully imprisoned, but watching the story reach that inevitable end was a pleasure.

Marvel: Fantastic Four #9. Can it really be “The End of the Fantastic Four?” (by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, natch). Well no, but once again it’s a pleasure seeing how they achieve victory.

At the start it sure looks like the team’s finish. The FF are broke: they can’t afford their skyscraper headquarters (not yet named the Baxter Building), their Fantasticars or any of Reed’s lab equipment. They’re going to need day jobs. This has been done before, in 1945’s “The Batman Goes Broke,” but this is different. In the Batman story Bruce Wayne gives up his fortune to reimburse investors after an embezzler bankrupts one of his companies. Here, Reed screwed up, pure and simple.

Ben doesn’t let him forget it and Reed doesn’t take it well.

At Marvel’s worst, stories had heroes yelling at each other for no reason other than to fill pages. This bit, however, feels extremely real. Reed knows perfectly well he’s wrong, but he isn’t very happy having his nose rubbed in it. Despite this scene, though, Ben — consistently surly in the first few issues of the book — rises to the occasion. After he walks out on the team, his new friend Alicia Masters convinces him that he’s not the kind of guy who’d abandon them; inspired, Ben returns to face whatever’s coming alongside them. As my friend Ross says, Alicia’s a disability stereotype — being blind she can see past Ben’s looks and recognize his inner nobility (in the following issue she senses Reed’s noble mind trapped inside Doctor Doom’s body)— but this scene works for me.

Of course there’s still the money problem to deal with, but wait! A movie studio has offered them a cool million if they’ll play themselves in a movie. They fly out to Hollywood and discover the producer is Namor, using sunken treasure to underwrite the film. It could be a trap, but they need the money …

Spoiler: it’s a trap. And while the emotional drama of the story works great, the plotting develops holes as the trap closes. First Subby pits Reed against a cyclops on an isolated island. Okay, no problem, Namor seems like a guy who could know about mysterious, monster-ridden islands. But then he sends Johnny to film scenes in Africa, involving a savage tribe with a potion that makes them fireproof. And this makes perfect sense because … Namor has a treaty with some random African nation? And they really, really hate people who have superpowers based on fire? In fairness, the lack of explanation wouldn’t have bothered me at all when I was a kid, but it does stick out now.

And then there’s the clash of titans between the Thing and the Sub-Mariner. It’s a great fight, full of Kirby’s usual dynamic energy — but why resolve it by having a lightning bolt strike the Thing and turn him human again? Why not have Namor keep him under water until he passes out or something a little less deus ex machina?

Namor saves Sue for the last, telling her that with the rest of the team destroyed, she has no reason not to join him and be his queen. Sue, understandably, is not down with this plan, but Namor isn’t worried about trivialities like consent. It’s not a scene that ages well, nor does Sue forgiving him at the end (he lives by his own code! They can’t judge him, even if he did try to kill them!).

Despite the flaws, it’s easily the best, most intense story Lee and Kirby had done so far. They’d surpass it in the future, but at this point it’s a high note.

I don’t want to exaggerate the differences. Marvel turned out some great plots and DC had some intensely melodramatic tales (“Robin Dies at Dawn,” anyone?). A lot of Larry Lieber’s writing felt like third-rate DC at best. That said, I can still see how Marvel and DC were heading in different directions

#SFWApro. Art by Sekowsky (JLA) and Kirby (FF)


  1. Edo Bosnar

    Marvel boy that I am, I always preferred the melodrama of Marvel’s books over DC’s output in the Silver Age/1960s. The DC stories from that period that I’ve read never bored me, but the Marvel stuff just sticks in my memory more – esp. something you touched on here, the dysfunctional family dynamic of the early FF.
    That said, I have to say that of Marvel’s ‘flagship’ titles of the early 1960s, I’ve always liked Spider-man more than the FF.

    Otherwise, it’s been awhile since I’ve read FF #9, and it strikes me now that it took almost 30 years for someone to again make use of the idea of Namor as a deep-pockets surface-world financier.

    1. Spider-Man and Dr. Strange with Ditko top Fantastic Four for me.
      At the other extreme we have Ant-Man, which is neither particularly well-plotted or (pre-Wasp, which is where I am in my Silver Age rereading) very dramatic at all. And Kirby’s art doesn’t compare to the Atom’s dynamic acrobatics.

  2. Le Messor

    Huh, I actually have Justice League 10 & 11. (In reprint, of course – the same one you and Greg H mention, methinks.)

    “They agree it’s a good trick but can Aquaman fake Superman’s powers well enough to fool the demons?”
    Am I misremembering, or did they present these in the opposite way? So we, the readers, didn’t know why the name magic didn’t work on Superman, then found out it was really Aquaman?

    “Marvel developed an image”
    Uh, no, that didn’t happen ’til the 90s.

    … I’ll show myself out.

  3. Jazzbo

    I’m a much bigger fan of the Marvel style over DC, especially in the Silver Age. I have to be in just the right mood to read a Silver Age DC super hero title.

    But that writing style works a lot better for me if it’s a war or mystery or western book. I’ll read Silver Age DC war books pretty much anytime, and I’m not as big of a fan of Marvel’s limited war and western book output of the time. Hadn’t really realized that before now.

    1. I read a Marvel Masterworks collection of the early Nick Fury stuff and it was almost parodic between the invincible Howlers and the dimwitted Nazi villains. Though I’ve been told it picked up a lot later, when Gary Friedrich started writing.
      That said, the only DC war book I’ve ever been into was Enemy Ace.

  4. Early Marvel here very much depended upon who the artist/writer/plotter was. If it was Kirby or Ditko as a./w./p. you were generally in safe hands (no one’s perfect in those deadline crunching days, like that Torch v African tribe sort–of snafu Fraser pointed out). However if it was Lieber/Ivie/Al Hartley, etc on one or more of those tasks, watch out. Many of those Giant Man, Iron Man, Thor and Human Torch tales without Kirby veered from mediocre to terrible – mainly the latter – and made a strong case for Kirby’s role as chief Marvel creator/plotter in the eternal ‘who did what’ debate. Ditto with stuff by Ditko and Wood.

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