Saturday, July 5, 2014

The Making of a Marvel Masterworks Introduction: Tales of Suspense Vol. 4

As the sun began to rise on the Marvel Age of Comics we could see the Atlas era in its shadows. The super-heroes had arrived and the anthology comics were fading in the horizon.

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past
....T.S Eliot

Am I unstuck in time?

That is what I thought when I got the call from Marvel asking me to write the introduction to the Marvel Masterworks Tales of Suspense Volume 4. And without a doubt, it’s all Tony Isabella’s fault.  But first:

“In my beginning was my end:” My “fandom” began when my mother brought home an early Challengers of the Unknown comic. I was addicted.  My Aunt Gussie and Uncle Leon owned a candy store so I could take home any comic and use her store as a library. I read everything. Even Casper. They do not have candy stores in New York like this anymore.  These stores had a soda fountain and you bought only candy, newspapers, magazines and cigarettes. There were no lottery tickets or snack foods. Stores like this expanded into “luncheonettes" but they were replaced by Fast Food Restaurants, Ice Cream stores, and large Drugstores.

Those were wonderful years for new comic book readers like me.  I had no knowledge of what had gone before. Back then, the super-hero stories were popular, but so were the anthology stories, stories that contained no recurring characters. The same was true on TV, The Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, Playhouse 90 and so many other shows with no recurring characters. There was such a variety of comics and publishers.

Dell and Western published Boris Karloff and the Twilight Zone comics, respectably. To a young reader, these comics were virtually identical, with just a different face for the narrator.  Dell and Western were not regulated by the Comic Code and could have slightly stronger stories, but still safe for children.

Charlton had similar comics, but were not represented well in my neighborhood. Their fantasy/mystery titles included Strange Suspense Stories and Unusual Tales. These stories had less shocking endings. If I had space in my introduction it would have been fun to compare those stories especially the ones done by the same artist but for different publishers.

It seemed that all the comics came from one distributor. That is, all comics came in the same delivery. The bundles would have dozens of titles, not safely packed in boxes, but wrapped with copper wires which often wrinkled the issues.

Marvels were slightly smaller, always darker and even had a different smell from the DCs. We think too hard about how the comics were placed and replaced on the stands.  These people were not rocket scientists and did not care as much as we think. When a new batch came in, it was not major surgery about putting them into the racks.  There might be 150 titles a month coming in and only 50 spots.  The dealers took out whatever comic looked older, less selling or had the earlier date and replaced them with new comics.  In my mind, DC was the sole competitor to Marvel, but I was wrong.  Dell and Harvey competed in the stores for shelf space. No shelf space, no sales. I think we lost the suspense comics because Fin Fang Foom could not compete with famous names including Superman, Batman and Spider-Man just to get on the stands.

DC had My Greatest Adventure, Mystery in Space, House of Secrets, Tales of the Unexpected and a few more. The DC comics had varied tones and different points of view, and were more often about an adventure than morality, so their endings were not as surprising or shocking. And as we got into the 1960s the DC comics would often have recurring heroes, including Adam Strange, Space Rangers, Tommy Tomorrow and many others taking over the lead story.

The stories that appeared in Marvel’s  Tales of Suspense, Tales to Astonish, Journey into Mystery and Strange Tales (and yes, Amazing Fantasy) were written and drawn by the same people so that it seemed that it was one comic book that was coming out weekly. The stories were often about morality, even in abstract sci-fi settings, so the endings often left you shocked, smiling, laughing, or all three.  And they finally stopped giving Jack Kirby stories about machines and rocks mysteriously coming to life and threatening people. Certainly, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko were coming into their own, but Don Heck and Dick Ayers, and many others, also produced some of their best work. Sadly though, those two often get lost in the shadows.

When I was in the hospital during one terrible winter Stan Lee and his secretary Flo Steinberg sent me a batch of comics. That was really the start of my book and why I kept all my Marvel comics. (I didn’t have the room to keep them all!)  I then started writing about them as a big fan letter back to Stan. Little did I know we take the 40 years to finish.

So the stories that I read then would be the subject of what I would right now. I was unstuck in time.

By the late 1970s, I had all but given up on comic book reading. The creative people I knew Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Jim Steranko, had stopped producing them and Jim Shooter was taking Marvel into a different direction.  By the time Roy Thomas left Marvel there was nothing left for me. So instead of looking forward I looked backwards. I picked up the old EC comic reprints and eventually the Golden Age DC and Marvel Archives and Masterworks.

25 Years Later: Enter: Tony Isabella
Tony from Crazy #1
I had never attended a comic conn or been in any internet “chat room.” But when I was forced to retire I wondered if this would be a good time to take my notes and finally finish my book on Marvel. I had seen in the stores the Justice League Companion, The Fawcett Companion and felt that if someone put out a Marvel companion that it wasn’t me I’d feel rotten. I emailed a few famous comic book people just to ask of this idea was feasible. No one responded.

No one except Tony Isabella.

I was a total stranger but you could never tell that from Tony’s tone in his writing to me. I showed him what I done. Tony was nothing but generous and constructive with both his time and knowledge. He gave me great advice and information and he encouraged me greatly to continue. He then pointed me to online sites filled with comic book historians and collectors who could help me with the book. It was great fun to get a long e-mail from Tony describing how the Defenders followed a Marvel formula or what was the original ending was                                                                   intended to be for his Ghost Rider arc.

After posting and e-mailing, Michael J. Vassallo (a.k.a. Doc V), Nick Caputo, his brother John and I arranged to meet at a New York comic conn. We sat and talked for six hours. Then we stood and talk for a few hours more.  We became good friends and remain so to this day. Including Tony, of course, we called ourselves, “The Yancy Street Gang.”
Most of the YSG with Joe Sinnott and son.

Through the various sites, which Tony suggested, Marvel had asked people to contribute scans of comics and other items which they didn't have at hand. I volunteered and helped out whenever I could. My name appears in a few Marvel Masterworks as a contributor and as a reference in the Jim Steranko and Dick Ayers intros. (And I should have been mentioned in the Captain America Omnibus).
Corrected Captain America Omnibus credits

After many volumes of the Marvel Super-Heroes, the Masterworks released Tales to Astonish Volume 1, with non-super-heroes stories hat appeared beginning in 1958. Stan Lee wrote the introduction and we all thought he’d present some great information about that era. He didn't.

Stan obviously saw a need to promote the book to Marvel fans used to super-heroes. He writes,

“Here’s another treat for you. Instead of the usual superhero saga which Marvel is famous for, there’s first helping of genre delights will tap into a rich vein of monster, crime, horror, Western and many unclassifiable classics to come.”

And later writes “Hey, how about those titles?”  Stan does a great job promoting and describing what’s in the book, but does not give any insight into the creation of these stories. Stan even mentions that he doesn’t know who the writers were and I suspect, didn't do much research.

It was Mike’s initiative that gave him the big breakthrough.  Mike is an authority on the history of Timely and Atlas. He loves to learn and discuss this era, placing it in the business and publishing context of its time. He also enjoys publicizing the artists and writers of that era, including people such as Allan Bellman, who were not well known. Mike got in touch with his Marvel and suggested that the next introductions be of greater substance and less promotion. Marvel agreed and asked Mike to do the introduction to Tales of Suspense #1. The intro was so well received, Mike was asked to do several others including Battlefield, which is my favorite. I learned so much from that intro.  As we got to the later issues Mike suggested to Marvel that they have Nick Caputo and I do the introductions to the later books.  Nick had already done an outstanding piece on Don Heck that appeared in the first Iron Man Omnibus.

So that’s how Marvel knew me. I was very happy that they asked me about this era. I lived through it and I enjoyed it.  In some of the early Marvel Masterworks and DC Archives, the introduction writers were celebrities and obviously not involved with comics. It was often painfully obvious that they were not familiar with the stories and were seeing them for the first time. It showed. One author even complained about the quality of the stories he was promoting.

Well, Marvel called and asked if I’d write an introduction, five pages, to Tales of Suspense Volume 4.  I wanted to write ten pages, but after we discussed payment, five pages were all I could afford to pay for. After reading on-line posts and such, I see some people think that Marvel then instructs their contributors on what to write.  Not so. They knew that I wanted to write about the stories and the people who told them I was sent a contract to sign and discovered that after all these years, I would become “work for hire."  

Let me show you the contract:

That’s all I can show you. There is actually a confidentiality agreement in the contract. However, Marvel was completely helpful, friendly and cooperative. There were no problems at all. NONE! (Do you violate the confidentiality agreement if you mention that you can’t mention  the confidentiality agreement  because of the confidentiality agreement?)

The book would contain the anthology stories that appeared in Tales of Suspense issues 32-48 and 50-54. I was disappointed to learn that there would be no room for the Tales of the Watcher stories and they would appear in another volume entitled “Marvel Rarities.”  Although I will NOT be writing the intro to that, Marvel came to my house to take pictures of items that will be used in that book!

Marvel sent me a complete set of the stories from the book as black and white stats. I have put up scans of a few.  If you look at the bottom of the pages you can see the date they were generated. While I had the original color comics the stats looked great and the actual book, in color, was outstanding.

I had the opportunity to learn about how hard they work to get the best available images for these editions, often redoing what was done before. We got into detailed discussions of how tedious and difficult the reproduction process is when you want to do it right.  And I got to learn how other famous companies take “shortcuts” when they reproduce some comics.

Nick had been asked to write the introduction to the Atlas book before mine, the Tales to Astonish Volume 4. Nick likes to write about the artists, who were often not just unappreciated but uncredited during this time.  Being much older than me, Nick wrote about the Monster Age of Comics and called his piece, “On the Shoulders of Monsters.” When I wrote my book, I had included a chapter entitled “On the Shoulders of Atlas,” obviously a pun, about this period of Marvel. I decided to use it as my title here, obviously connecting it to Nick’s.

I knew and loved these stories and I loved the storytellers. Kirby, Heck, Ditko and so many others were not just illustrators to me, they were storytellers.  I wanted to capture the fun, the drama and the comedy of these stories, as well as the creative people behind them. The difficulty I had was that these were generally 5-7 page stories and you did not want to give away a surprise ending.  Or even a surprise beginning.

Themes like Old Times

I understood that many people would see these stories as belonging in a different era so I thought it would be proper and informative to discuss their themes in their context of their time.

In the late 1950s, America was being enveloped in technology. This technology was already eliminating jobs. Marvel picked up on this theme. You saw that in many stories, often by Jack Kirby, where machines gained intelligence or “thinking” robots were created. Scientists were often predicting “smart” machines that would completely replace human workers. The fear of technology The Revolt of the Robots,” drawn by Paul Reinman, shows what happens when artificial intelligence is smart enough to create even newer artificial intelligence. This has become required reading for Cylons.” If you recalled, Cylons turned on their creators too! This concept bothered and even scared people.
was something only sci-fi authors wrote about. I wrote, “

Science also gave us the space age. In the early 1960s, we looked to the stars and for the first time we were really going there. So many stories explored what was out there. Back then, the concept that man may not be alone in the universe also bothered people and therefore made great tales.  And if we can go to them, will they be coming to us? Or for us. DC comics often presented the adventure of space travel, while Marvel displayed the apprehension.

Nuclear weapons were new and frightening and now the Soviet Union had them. Feeding back into our nation’s fears the first rockets were not designed to carry men, but to carry bombs, atomic bombs anywhere in the world. That also became the focus of many stories, including the origin stories of the Fantastic Four and the Hulk.

It is never good to be too rich or too greedy at the beginning of any Steve Ditko story. No one else created as much emotional impact in his storytelling.” More than Dell or DC books of the time, morality was a theme in the Marvel stories.  As a young person (and I hesitate a bit to admit this) Steve Ditko could make me feel so uncomfortable. He added so much mood and atmosphere to his stories that they were often unsettling.  

It took a bit of time, but I learned to love and look forward to Ditko's work, I think I needed to get a little older.  And he did my favorite story from this era:  "The Gentle Old Man."

As a student and researcher I wanted to verify many things that I had heard and read about the creation of these stories. So I spoke to Larry Lieber, who wrote and drew many of them. Larry could not be more generous, kinder or more interesting.  I didn’t just learn, I was also able to confirm.  Larry did say, “I was not writing for posterity.”  Well, he was and didn't know it.

I got to ask Stan Lee how he came up with names like “Wommelly” and “Skrang.” Stan said, “I gave those names of our heroes and villains a great deal of thought—because I feel character names are extremely important. Sometimes I’d spend more time trying to find just the right name for a character than I spent on the plot itself!”


Absolutely none: EXCEPT SPACE!!!!!!! Space is always the biggest censor.

There were ideas I wanted to present and elaborate on but couldn't because I only had five pages. While I thought that these stories were the best of their time, I wanted to discuss the only group of stories that rivaled and even surpassed, in both story and art, these Marvel Tales: The EC comics of 1950-1955. Created before the Comics Code, the EC stories were certainly more graphic and at times horrifying. EC’s morality tales, tales of Southern justice and discrimination were stronger and more powerful but existed in a world before the Comics Code. That would have been an important issue: how would these Marvel stories have been different if there was no code? But I would need a lot more space. Also, many of Marvel’s artists, including Don Heck and Steve Ditko, worked for Dell, Gold Key, Western and Charlton and yet their finished products often looked very different. That too would have been interesting discussion to include.

After I submitted the introduction, Marvel had a few suggestions. First, I went over my word limit and they suggested where to cut (sob, sob). Generally, it was lines that could be easily deleted without changing the meaning of a paragraph. For example, when I mentioned Dick Ayers I originally wrote, “He lives in Westchester, just down the road from Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Children.” Also, I used the heading “I Sing the Kirby Electric!”  but it took too much space. (That comes from a Poem by Walt Whitman and a story by Ray Bradbury that was adopted into a Twilight Zone episode. All entitled, “I Sing the Body Electric!) And in discussing names, I had to delete: “What’s in a moniker? A rose by any other name will still give you hay fever!”-- Benjamin J. Grimm.

I had written that I liked Artie Simek’s lettering on these stories more than the lettering done in the Dell comics. Marvel asked me to elaborate on  how Artie was different. I briefly mentioned Marvel’s limitation on the number of monthly titles back then. This was something Nick and Mike elaborated on in their intros so I did not go into that in depth.  But Marvel suggested that each introduction should stand on its own so I enlarged that section.

When Marvel tried to return to these stories in the late 1960s and early 1970s in “Tower of Shadows,” “Chamber of Chills” and “Chamber of Darkness” among others, they never were able to recapture the spirit of these tales. Marvel also tried to emulate the EC comics and not their own when they added a narrator.

I was surprised at the great fulfillment I felt when I approached my essay's conclusion. “In my end was my beginning” wrote T.S. Eliot.  I truly was unstuck in time. I got to return to a wonderful era.

I had great sense of sadness and loss I had when I had finished writing.  These stories are gone forever and so are many of the people, Heck, Ayers, Reinman and Fox,  who did their best work on stories without the super-heroes.

That sense of loss continues as I see both Marvel and DC slowing down, even eliminating, the Archives and Masterworks of this incredible era. For the second time, we are losing these stories. Sometimes you don't know what you have till it's gone.

Months went by and then I received a copy of the book in the mail. As exciting as that was, it is even better to go into a comic book store and see it on the shelf. These wonderful Masterworks are both reminders of what had gone before and the foundation for what was to come:

So now, the Marvel Age begins and it is being brought in on the shoulders of Atlas.

If a goal of the future is to preserve the past, then Marvel succeeds here. These graphic short stories were always fun, but I now regard them as little treasures. If this is the first time you are reading these stories, I envy you. Thanks to these Masterworks, we can all look back and marvel.

  • (Just kidding:
    About me paying Marvel
  • Nick is younger than me)

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Marvelmania Catalogs: 1969 and Beyond

It’s 1969 and Marvel has more than tripled its circulation in the last eight years, going from 20 million comics years to over 60 million comics.

The M.M.M.S. has gotten over 50,000 membership requests. And so the next step was to successfully merchandize their characters. So, in glorious color, the Marvelmania catalog was released.  Or maybe it just escaped, offering poster decals and games.  Soon another catalog would follow.  That one promoted the new Marvelmania monthly, which didn’t last too long.

But I thought you’d like to see the catalogs.

In case you can't read it, here is what the letter says:

Dear Marvelmaniac,

Unless you're the type who reads his catalogs backwards, you've probably spent the last few hours looking over what shall soon prove to be just the beginning of what MARVELMANIA has to offer. By now, you've probably drooled yourself dry, so
let's talk about all that you've seen so far...It's nothing! That's right, we said nothing...compared to what's coming. All this is a start--hopefully a good start to what shall soon prove to be the greatest thing to happen to comic books since the staple! MARVELMANIA is here to serve you and the many items depicted in this promulgated prospectus are just the first in a series of projects carefully calculated to please you out there in Marvel-Land! And why? Because you're like us. Even though we've never met, if this cat­alog has found its way into your mitts, we have something in common: A love for the cornucopia of concoctions of Stan Lee and his Bullpen. Like us, you've probably desired posters and decals of Marvel heroes and other items which are a logical progression from reading these masterworks. We now are in a position to comply with these wishes, so all you have to do is to tell us what you want. If it's possible, we'll do it!
Each item herein has been designed with the serious fan in mind. Our Roster line, f'rinstance, is comprised of drawings done especially for ­and printed by the finest process feasible. And if you think they look good in the catalog--those reproductions don't begin to do justice to what you'll soon have up on your wall! (or ceiling, if you lie down a lot!) Why do we use the finest glossy stock poster paper available? Because we know you fans wouldn't have it any other way! We offer you no catch-penny gim­micks--You're too precious to us to be lost so easily. We want you to think of MARVELMANIA as a firm working day and night to offer what you out there want. That's what it's all about!

Many people who will be reading this catalog have not yet joined up with us, and if the above paragraphs have expressed even one-tenth of our sincer­ity, those non-believers will be dying for their membership kits now, so we interrupt for a minute to bring you this commercial...
Membership is still open ( and will be as long as the goodies hold out!) and may be had from the usual address for $1.75 plus 25c postage. (Canadian and European orders add 50c, please.) The complete kit features a giant poster reproducing a Captain America cover, a sheet of our decorative decals and a jumbo Hulk-decal, your surprise membership card designed in all its four-color glory by Jack Kirby, a copy of this very catalog, and a surprise or two--All packed in a nifty tube which can be used as an ultra-disposable snorkel. We now return you to our regularly-scheduled letter...

The aforementioned contents are only material things, of course. There is no way, nor should there be a way we can advertise spirit. Most impor­tant is this club...a club which strives to involve itself in activities for the good of the community and the general membership. Already, our participation in the Marine Corps Reserve's TOYS FOR TOTS campaign has be­-un this series and what we're capable of in the future will lift us even higher. We feel that the participation of the entire membership is imperative in these plans and we seek to instill some enthusiasm in you--As much as our limited vocabulary will permit. We also, however, feel both an obligation and a need to offer everyone a chance to participate. The cold statistics boil down to the more members, the more strength the club has. You members out there will have this enthusiasm, we'hope--And we won't be ungrateful. For instance, if you get a friend to join up (which should be just about as hard as showing him your kit!) and, with his order, he gives us your address--we'll send you a piece of MARVELMANIA Mad Money described on the opposite page. We won't forget those who help us.

The big support, though, comes in your ideas. We hope that what we of­fer you in this catalog meets with your approval. If it doesn't--If any item doesn't meet with your approval--we hope you'll let us know and if enough people share your feelings, it won't be in the next catalog. And if you have an idea for a new club activity, product, or contest--let us know! We aim to please. We are especially proud of our posters. In the past, super-hero posters were either "pop-art" (Ugh!) or small pictures blown up to fuzzy proportions with little or no backgrounds on the cheapest paper available...We strive to break that tradition. Our decals shall, we hope, prove to be a veritable necessity for the well-equipped Marvelite's note­book, lunch box, car, bike, and any other place you can think to stick 'em! The buttons? Well, when you've got it, flaunt it--And when you're a merry Marvel reader, let the world know! And if someone asks you who you're voting for for mayor, just watch the expression on their face when you pull out a Dr. Doom button! The stationery kit kicks off what we hope shall be the biggest pen-pal program ever. As strange as it may seem, we're just about selling friends...Or, at least, you'll make friends easy with our stunning stationery! Once again, everything is full-color because we know you wouldn't have it any other way! Our art kit is directed at all you budding Rembrandts. We give you the rare chance to test and develop your skill by inking and coloring such greats as Kirby, Steranko, and Buscema. And as if that weren't enough, we've tossed in a host of self-portraits (including that mystery one) done by your Bullpen buddies especially for you! At last, but certainly far from least...our Marvel plastic pool pil­lows are still available. Everyone who bought one agrees that they're fuY to lie on, fun to play with, or just plain the nuttiest conversation piece that ever brightened up a den or playroom!

You say you want bonuses? Step right up, ladies and gents--Our Marvel Mad Money on the opposite page returns a 42 cent coupon to you with every order of $1.25 or more. (Not good on membership kits--sorry!) This makes it pos­sible for those of you with lots of wall space to get all eight posters by buying only six for $7.50 (+ postage) and getting the other two on us with the six pieces of Mad Money you'll get. And the first one hundred copies of each poster will be autographed (unless you request otherwise) by the artists themselves! This means getting King Kirby to sign 400 posters, but no sacrifice is too great for you merry men! Moreover, here's a special bonus for members only--On all orders over $5.00, just enclose 50 cent handling charge and we'll pay the postage plus any additional handling! Nifty, huh?

So, whatcha waiting for? If we haven't convinced you by now, it's hopeless and if you're breathing, we want you along! (Zombies need not apply!) MARVELMANIA INTERNATIONAL is on the move and we want everybody along! So face front, friends--That may not be where it's at, but that's where it's going to be!

P.S. So that we can get to work on new things right away, we'd appreciate it if each and every one of you would fill out the enclosed questionnaire and send it back to us as soon as possible!


And the letter here reads:

Dear Marvelmaniacs,

With this catalog, all previous lists and ads become obsolete. We have revamped. our line as part of the never-ending effort to provide exactly what you members want, based mainly upon your mail. Every suggestion we have received has been read and considered by members of our bloodshot staff and many of them have been incorporated into this catalog. Some old items have been dropped and new ones added.

On the opposite page, assuming the printer put every­thing in the proper place, you will see our new membership kit which shall serve as a permanent introduction to new members. Its contents have been considered carefully to properly welcome new members aboard and to familiarize them with the club and its objectives. Appropriately, we have placed the club magazine next in our catalog, for that is our continuing link with you, the members of this club and it is through this magazine that the club operates and makes addition to being a darn good magazine, as well. [The editor insisted we put that line in there!]
The remainder of the catalog is chock-full of the many Marvel-oriented goodies which are not available anywhere else and are produced for the enjoyment of Marvel fans everywhere. Your response to these items will determine whether or not they will continue in our line or be dropped in favor of other things.

Any suggestions or comments you may have will be, as always, welcomed.

This catalog also offers you the rare opportunity to test you Marvelility. Quickly look it over and then record your reactions...If your eyes bug out and you get goose bumps looking at the posters, you're a first-class Marvel fan. If your palms tingle and you feel like running around the block to cool off, you're really a Marvel Fan. If you go absolutely berserk over the Art Kits and models, and jump up on a chair to sing the theme song from the Spider-Man T.V. show, you're a Marvelite Maximus...In other words, you're our kind of guy. Of course, you may just get mildly ecstatic, but there are some people who won't get excited about anything!

So stop reading and start leafing through our [As the boys in the shipping room call it...] promulgated prospectus and go, go, go!