Retirement is the perfect time to think back and reflect on your life. One of the constants in mine has been comics. It was a large part of my childhood, followed me into adulthood (the definition of which may vary from person to person, especially me), and even, eventually, became a defining point in my career in a way I couldn’t have ever planned or foreseen.
In Part 1 of “My Life in Comics: The Wonder Years,” I wrote about how comics were a part of my early life and how on one fateful, rainy, summer day in 1961, Fantastic Four entered my life. The success of that first issue in a new series of comics by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby begat a whole line of new superheroes in the 1960s, heroes who would go on to become some of the most popular fictional characters in the world, spawning a whole series of blockbuster movies and reaching brand new audiences far beyond those of the four-color page.
Fantastic Four became the flagship title of the Marvel Comics Group in the early 1960s, reinvigorating a publishing house that had been in existence—at least comics-wise—since 1939 and the first publication of Marvel Comics (soon to become Marvel Mystery Comics). Two seminal Marvel characters were born in that first issue: the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner. At that point in time, Marvel was called Timely Comics, which became Atlas Comics in the 1950s and, finally, Marvel in the 1960s.
And that’s where I come in. My older brother, Rick, and I (well … mainly Rick … he had the money) were buying the Marvel monster books when Fantastic Four debuted in August of 1961 (cover-dated November). It looked like just another of the monster books, all of which included a tiny, stacked MC in a box on the cover. The FF quickly fell in step with other superhero books, though. They gained costumes and a not-so-secret headquarters (the Baxter Building) in the heart of New York City. Sub-Mariner returned as a lost anti-hero raging against the human race, but also pining for Sue Storm, the Invisible Girl of the fantastic quartet. Dr. Doom was introduced as the arch-nemesis of the FF, and Lee and Kirby were off and running.
The early success of the Fantastic Four spurred Lee and his stable of artists to create more heroes. First out of the gate was The Incredible Hulk, a man-monster that fit in neatly with the other “MC” monster books. Jack Kirby drew the first five issues, but neither he or Lee knew what to do with Bruce Banner and his big grey—soon to be green forever and ever—alter ego. The Hulk bounced around from raging behemoth to cocky bully to learned scientist trapped in a monster’s body. The Hulk was grey; then he was green. Banner became the Hulk at night; then a machine controlled his changes. Plodding through six forgettable issues, Lee and Kirby (with an assist from Steve Ditko) finally gave up the ghost and retired the Hulk, who would go on to make a later comeback. But more Marvel heroes were coming.
Ditko was up next in the batting order with the Amazing Spider-Man, followed by Thor, Ant-Man, an FF spin-off series featuring the Human Torch (soon to be joined by the ever-loving Thing), Iron Man, Dr. Strange, Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos, the Avengers, the X-Men, the return of the Golden Age Captain America, Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., Captain Marvel, and so many more. It was proudly proclaimed to be the Marvel Age of Comics by none other than Stan “The Man” Lee, and I was wrapped up in it all, floating along on this tidal wave of creativity, showcasing superheroes with real world problems, differentiating their books from the Distinguished Competition.
Another thing that separated Marvel from everyone else? The corner box. Someone at Marvel came up with the idea for a formatted box in the upper left corner of each book, with tiny vignettes of the characters in each book, “Marvel Comics Group,” and the price (12 cents!). This tiny bit of inspiration made the Marvel books stand out on increasingly-crowded newsstands, where books were often placed on top of each other with only a tiny sliver of the cover peeking out at shoppers. The corner boxes are one of my fonder memories of this era, a kind of real-life badge of honor: “Marvel Comics: Accept No Substitutes.”
We still bought DC comics (Superman, Batman, Justice League, Flash, Green Lantern, etc., etc., ad infinitum), but I didn’t enjoy them as much as the Marvel books. When the Batman TV show hit it big in 1966, other companies jumped on the superhero bandwagon; we bought those, too. T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents was a particular favorite of mine, with great art by Wally Wood (and Ditko, Reed Crandall, and Gil Kane). Dell’s lame line of monster superheroes (Dracula, Frankenstein, and Wolf Man) with horrible (pun intended) art fell apart quickly. Harvey’s “Thriller” line had concepts from the likes of Joe Simon (co-creator of Captain America) and Jim Steranko’s first forays into comics, but the heroes were lame (Bee-Man, Spyman, Tiger Boy), although they did score a hit—with me, at least—with their reprinting of Simon and Kirby’s Fighting American and Will Eisner’s The Spirit. Even Archie got in on the action with “Pureheart the Powerful” (Archie Andrews as superhero), plus their own line of absolutely abysmal “Mighty Comics” titles, which revived the MLJ characters (the Shield, the Web, the Comet, et al) from the Golden Age of Comics, with stories by Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel and terrible art by former Marvel inker Paul Reinman.
But Marvel was a publisher apart, on a whole different level than all the rest. It was the genius of Stan Lee, really … but not as a writer. I’m in the camp that believes the artists—Kirby, Ditko, Romita, etc.—did the bulk of the plotting and pacing of the stories—the heavy lifting, if you will—even if Stan came up with the springboard for each (“Let’s have Dr. Doom be the villain this issue, Jack.”). Lee’s true genius was in his promotional skills, his world-building of Marvel both fictionally (all the stories take place in the same “universe,” and all the heroes know each other, but don’t necessarily like each other), and in real life: His creation of a giant clubhouse that appreciated the fans and made them feel like they were a part of something bigger. DC’s letter columns with their stodgy “Dear Editor” opening lines, called up a vision of exactly what the company was at that point in time: A bunch of old farts who came to work in their white starched shirts and black ties each day and produced stories for children. Marvel’s down-to-earth Stan the Man and Jolly Jack and Sturdy Steve and John Ring-a-ding Romita were your pals, your comrades-in arms, your storytellers who knew what you wanted. The Marvel Age of Comics was a remarkable creation in and of itself, one that inspired total fealty to the line. Betcha can’t just read one!
And that was the world I lived in in my formative years, from around the age of 6 in 1961 until the age of 15 in 1970, when Kirby left Marvel to move over to DC Comics (still called National at that point in their evolution). I firmly believe the Marvel Age of Comics ended the day Jolly Jack walked out the door at Marvel. But for those nine or so years, my life was one of twice-weekly trips to the newsstand, piling up multiple books each trip, bringing them home and basking in them. The best times were during the summer months, with school out and warm, sunny days, plus the added joy of Marvel annuals (my favorite all-time comics are those wonderful “72 Page Specials” that cost 25 cents and appeared each summer). I’d buy a stack of books, come home, sit out on the back porch with a tall, cold glass of Coca-Cola (always in our adonized steel tumblers, where the condensation made the outside slippery), with a pack of Tastycake Peanut Butter Kandy Kakes chilled to perfection in the fridge, and the salty bite of a Tom Sturgis pretzel that complimented both the chocolate Tastycake and the cold, crisp taste of Coke.
Those are my idyllic days of youth, the ones I cherish, the ones I remember the most. I will always equate them with the Marvel Age of Comics, an age that inspired a lifelong love of comics and had a lasting impact on my life.
Look for Part 3 of “My Life in Comics—The Fanzine and Convention Years” coming soon …
Part 3, please