Friday, July 6, 2018

Steve Ditko, Marvel and Beyond

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.” Atticus Finch, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

One day a man will ring your doorbell and offer you CELEBRITY! He will offer you fame and fortune and recognition. He will fight your battles for you and gear up the troops to go after your perceived enemies.

And all you have to do is give him everything you have…your privacy, your intimate moments, your private thoughts, your old artwork, your new artwork and details from events fifty years old. You’ll be expected to show up at conventions and sit and autograph comics that someone will sell tomorrow on EBay and sit in on panel after panel examining your work from fifty years ago and dismissing what you are working on now.

There are those who accept the offer love the money and attention, but then complain about the lack of privacy and the wave of criticism.

Those who don’t take it are called eccentric, outsiders, has-beens and hard to work with. With their subject out of the limelight, people can write newspaper articles and books saying outrageous things that bring publicity onto themselves knowing their subject will not bother to respond. They will tell you that they tried to get Ditko to cooperate with them, but it is never unconditional. They want something from him: his opinions, his personality and most of all his approval. They will have people who never meet him, write about him, make claims about him and, by keeping him out of it, they seem to validate their own absurd remarks. This is not journalism; in fact, it is not even common sense.

Some people’s work speaks for itself. In the world of serious comic books no one’s works speak speaks more for itself than Steve Ditko’s.

The Marvel Age of comics was built on Jack Kirby’s creativity, Steve Ditko’s ingenuity and Stan Lee’s continuity. Jack Kirby gave wonder to the Marvel Universe. Steve Ditko gave it awe. Kirby externalized the quest for knowledge, Ditko internalized it. On a journey to the Infinite, Kirby took us to the outer reaches of the universe. On a journey to find Eternity, Ditko took us into the minds of the Ancient One and Doctor Strange. In Doctor Strange’s first adventure in Strange Tales #110, Ditko introduces us to Nightmare, a villain that personifies an anxiety that we all share. Ditko places us in another dimension, one that exists in all of us, where the laws of physics are not relevant or even observed. Soon, this will be developed into the intangible home of Dormammu and all that follow. The Hulk is a great example of Ditko recognizing what made a character work and what didn’t. When Kirby introduced him, his change was caused by external factors, dusk and dawn and later a machine. Ditko’s Hulk changed for an internal issue, uncontrollable anger. This made The Hulk unique among comic book characters and disturbingly compelling. In a small but meaningful way, we are made to examine the question of “control” and how its loss can lead to unwanted consequences. Ditko also changed the character of Bruce Banner. Kirby’s Banner worked for the government and built bombs; Ditko’s Banner ran away from the government and then tried to prove himself loyal.

The Rawhide Kid, in August 1960, had a similar origin to Spider-Man, which would come in August 1962. A teenager, Johnny Bart, was raised by his Uncle Ben and gained great ability as a marksman. Bad guys kill his uncle and Johnny adopts a new identity, Th­­­e Rawhide Kid, to track them down. Because the Kid is a vigilante, the good guys as well as the bad go after the new hero. The saga of Spider-Man also uses all these concepts. Heck, without Ditko Spider-Man could have turned out to be another Ant-Man!

o a child in and of the 1960s, at first glance, the sight of a human looking like an insect walking up walls did not seem unique. Simon and Kirby had presented The Fly, who could scale sheer vertical surfaces, for Archie Comics in 1958. To say that Spider-Man was connected in any way to the Fly is silly. But to say that Ditko didn’t learn from reading those stories would be just as misleading. Some of the poses that Spider-Man has in the early issues are not dissimilar from Kirby’s in The Fly.

I was introduced to Ditko by his short, five-page stories in Amazing Fantasy, Tales of Suspense and other Marvel anthology titles. I quickly learned that it did not bode well for someone if they were too rich or too greedy and appeared on a Ditko splash page. Of course, it was always to be their own actions that caused their bad endings. And we often saw their reaction to that.

Ditko, who never worked from a finished script at Marvel, took an outline by Stan Lee and created a unique mood, style and story line for one of the greatest characters in fiction. Not just in comic book fiction, but popular fiction. No one else created as much emotional impact in his an effect often due to his expert pacing.
Ditko made Spider-Man complex and compelling. It was truly a one-of-a-kind artistic achievement. Like Clark Kent, bespectacled Peter Parker worked for a great metropolitan newspaper and was interested in a co-worker. But that’s where the similarities end. Parker was a character no one had seen before. To Peter Parker it wasn’t a day-job. He didn’t punch in every day. Betty Brant was not a co-worker.  She worked at the place where Peter sold his pictures. The emotional threads that Ditko wove into the story arcs were powerful and unforgettable and you never, ever thought the stories were anything like Superman… or anything else. The interactions Parker had with the cast of characters Ditko introduced made the reader identify with him and have complete empathy for the character. That’s right; you rooted for a creation of pen and ink. When things seemed to work out with girlfriend Betty you felt good and when trouble arose between them you got concerned. When they broke up, it didn’t just break Peter’s heart, it broke yours, too.

Unique to the comics of that time, Peter Parker’s girlfriend, Betty, had a terrible family history. Her worthless, criminal brother, Bennett, owed money for gambling and Betty is forced to borrow money from the mob. She is first attacked by the Enforcers and later, confronted by Doctor Octopus.

J. Jonah Jameson also had a unique vendetta against Spider-Man. In issue #10, J.J.J. admits that although he has money and promotes causes he was jealous of Spider-Man, who risked his life to save people, getting nothing in return; he just wanted to do the right thing. This was complex thinking for a 1960s comic. These were mature concepts, not seen in comics since the Comics Code had been implemented in 1955.
I was too young when Doctor Strange debuted in Strange Tales #110 and I didn’t fully appreciate it. The world therein was askew and the characters didn’t look right. Then one rainy day years later, I reread all of his published adventures (midway through to the Eternity saga) and realized its brilliance. Ditko showed that comics were not just for kids but for adults. Doctor Strange’s powers did not come from cosmic rays, freak lightning bolts, or radioactive insects. His power was knowledge and how to use it. He read, he studied and he practiced his profession. Strange reads the book of Vishanti in Strange Tales #120 (May 1964) to find a solution. He then visits a haunted mansion to eliminate its ghosts. This is the last time a New York City doctor ever made a house call.

When Doctor Strange appeared in Strange Tales #110, I figured Ditko was reworking the magician idea that we had seen in comics with such as Mandrake and Zatarra. He  reimagined them just as he did with The Hulk and Iron Man. I just assumed that Ditko wanted to re-work Doctor Droom, the mystic hero that appeared in Amazing Adventures #1, who was drawn by Jack Kirby and inked by Ditko. I was wrong. We know now that Steve plotted and drew it out and then gave it to Stan. The series started off a bit slow, but interesting, as a five-page filler.

Stan Lee wrote (The Comic Reader #16, 1963) “Well, we have a new character in the works for Strange Tales, just a 5-page filler named Dr. Strange. Steve Ditko is gonna draw him. It has sort of a black magic theme. The first story is nothing great, but perhaps we can make something of him. T’was Steve’s idea; I figured we’d give it a chance, although again, we had to rush the first one too much.” 

Doctor Strange graduated from filler to being the first double feature of the Marvel Age because it was brilliantly done. When the segment grew to ten pages, it allowed stories to become more complex and characters to be developed.  In fact, the 170-page story (starting in Strange Tales #130) remains a highlight of complexity, emotion and storytelling of the Marvel Age. It became one of the most memorable story arcs of the era and it helped usher in the concept of longer stories, which has evolved into the graphic novel. Doctor Strange was a brilliant character, magical and mystical, with no real history. As his collections have been released in Masterworks and Essentials, I have suggested to people NOT to read Strange Tales #115, the Origin of Doctor Strange, until they have finished the other stories.

Unlike many other comics Doctor Strange does not have a backstory; no parents, friends and no baggage. Peter Parker had an uncle and aunt and had lost his parents, Superman came from another planet. Doctor Strange just showed up, just him and The Ancient One. They were just there. (Somehow, this seemed fitting for their world. Things just happened, there was no long and convoluted explanation, which comics often had.)

Throughout the years, there have been discussions, among comic book fans, on the influence of Stan Lee on the origin of Doctor Strange. In the origin story, the only glimpse we see of a history, we see that he was once a skilled but arrogant surgeon who injured his hands. He learns the mystic arts and seeks redemption for his past life and acts. Redemption was a very common theme in most of Stan Lee’s works. Daredevil, Thor, Iron Man and so many others sought redemption. This includes Peter Parker. Stan Lee mentions in the letter’s column in Strange Tales #115, that fans felt that an origin story was necessary. My only disappointment with Doctor Strange is that the final chapter of Ditko’s epic seventeen-issue story arc, in Strange Tales #146, “The End at Last!,” leaves one with the impression of having been rushed. He was leaving Marvel and must have felt that he owed the fans a conclusion and could not leave without one.

Ditko seemed to be the “go to” guy at Marvel. Ditko was aware of what comics were out there and what was working and what was not. It seemed to me that if something wasn’t working right, they brought it to him to fix. Ditko was able to understand the fundamental nature of the character and even if he changed things, Ditko kept its essence. Ditko took Iron Man out of a bulky, heavy costume and made him into the sleek, colorful jet-setting modern playboy.

Ditko’s work on The Hulk was frankly incredible. He took an character whose own book had failed and made him interesting and compelling. Jack Kirby had said that he had modeled The Hulk after the Frankenstein monster. The Hulk behaves very much like that monster and is treated very much the same: an innocent haunted and hunted by people. At first, the Hulk seemed more like the Wolf Man because he turned into an uncontrolled creature at night. The first five issues lacked consistency.

It was also hard to like Bruce Banner because, like Tony Stark, he was a weapons manufacturer, a brilliant bomb maker, and a bit of a dweeb. (Whereas Clark Kent and later Spider-Man pretended to be meek and mild, Banner was.) In Avengers #3, Banner turns into the Hulk when he is calm and sleeping and back to Banner when he gets upset. When Dick Ayers drew the Hulk (in Tales to Astonish #59, the issue preceding The Hulk series) we see that the cause of Banner’s transformation is simply high blood pressure. The heck with gamma rays… had he stayed away from salt he would have been okay.

Ditko gave the Hulk his anger management issues. By introducing Major Talbot he not only gave Banner an adversary but he also gave him a motivator. Talbot accuses Banner of being a communist or at least working with them. To prove that he is not, to prove that he is a loyal American, Banner now continues his research to make more weapons. We don’t feel that he is doing this absent of consequences, but he is doing it to show that he is loyal. Also he is showing himself that while part of him may be destructive, he is also a worthwhile person, not inventing anything for personal gain, but for the good of his country.

In contrast to Doctor Strange, Spider-Man had a detailed back story. This indicates that Strange’s lack of one was deliberate, for even when the stories became longer, his past was not addressed. Spidey suffered great consequences from not stopping that burglar. He lost his uncle and his aunt lost her husband. Their finances were destroyed for years.

In the era of Batman and Dick Tracy where villains were misshapen, grotesque, and often looked like their evil names, Ditko took a more unsettling route. His villains look like normal people, they weren’t overly ugly with distorted features although some did wear masks. Most of his villains, the Green Goblin, the Crime Master, Mysterio, Electro, the Sandman and even the Enforcers, looked human, but menacing. So the real villains in Spider-Man’s world could be your neighbors.

Steve Ditko kept a chart on his wall that clearly outlined the Spider-Man story line for the next three or four issues. To Steve Ditko, criminals were little men, almost faceless like Frederick Foswell, in Amazing Spider-Man. One of my favorite stories is the “Man in the Crime Master’s Mask!” (issues #27-28) This was a two-part story that had me guessing for 40 pages. It’s a brilliant concept: A whodunit with a high-powered villain being someone no one even knew, and therefore no one would suspect. Years later, when I would hear these strange rumors that Ditko left Marvel over a conflict about the identity of the Green Goblin, I would also be told that Ditko wanted it to be no one we had ever seen. Ditko would never do that. He would never repeat a theme that he had just done a year earlier. For example, in issue 36, Norman Osborn, while holding a rifle, threatens to go after some people. I think that was a clue
In Eye Magazine, 1966 Stan said:  “I don’t plot Spider-Man any more. Steve Ditko, the artist, has been doing the stories. I guess I’ll leave him alone until sales start to slip. Since Spidey got so popular, Ditko thinks he’s the genius of the world. We were arguing so much over plot lines I told him to start making up his own stories. He won’t let anybody else ink his drawings, either. He just drops off the finished pages with notes at the margins and I fill in the dialogue. I never know what he’ll come up with next, but it’s interesting to work that way.”

There have been many articles and references over the years regarding Ditko and his identification with Spider-Man and Doctor Strange. Well, he did name Doctor Strange, Stephen didn’t he? Many assume that Ditko identified with his heroes. If so, did J. Jonah Jameson, a cheap, penny-pinching publisher who insisted that all stories be written from his point of view, represent Martin Goodman or Stan Lee or an amalgam of both? Of course, if this is true, does that make Flo Steinberg the model for Betty Brant, J.J.J.’s secretary and Parker’s first girlfriend?

J.J.J. was to become a direct threat to Spider-Man. Earlier, J.J.J. worked in the background to encourage villains to stop Spidey. This changed with issue #25. This was the first time J.J.J. became the actual face of a villain when he manned the Spider-Man seeking robot. Perhaps Ditko felt that was just what Goodman and Lee were doing. But Stan Lee and Steve Ditko had stopped talking to each other about one year before Ditko left Marvel. Ditko would draw the pages and send, or bring, them in for Lee to add his dialogue.

By issue #35 (Apr 1966), Peter Parker is deserted by friends, threatened by unseen enemies and feeling isolated. Steve Ditko was plotting the books by himself and there is none of Lee’s exuberance or optimism in the character or the stories.

If there was any regret in Spider-Man for me, it was the way his graduation and entrance to college took place. It was common in comics to have change without really having change, to give the appearance that something is new and different but it kind of stays the same. When Parker went to college, it changed the scenery but it really didn’t change his environment. He still had Flash Thompson in his classroom, antagonistic as always and blonde Liz Allen was replaced by blonde Gwen Stacy. Ditko probably did not want this change because he did not want to lose his characters, so he kept them despite the change in locale from high school to college. What, for instance, was Flash Thompson, in college on an athletic scholarship, doing in the same science and chemistry classes as (science major) Peter Parker? No one held his ear to the ground to sense what the fans were thinking more than Stan Lee. Comic books had begun losing their adult male audience in 1945, when WWII ended. Now, on college campuses, Marvel was getting them back, as evidenced by Esquire’s choosing Spider-Man and the Hulk as two of the people who counted on campus in 1966 Stan Lee wanted to keep his characters relevant and popular in this new market.

In 2015, in the Robin Snyder/Steve Ditko Four-Page Publication, Mr. Ditko clearly explains why he left Marvel in Nov. 1965. It had nothing to do with The Green Goblin.

Steve Ditko: “I always picked up pages from Stan, he’d tell me about anything to change, add, etc.” Until one day, he continues, “I went to the Marvel office. Silent Sol (Brodsky) handed me the pages to ink… NO comment about anything. I left with the pages. I inked the pages, took them in, Sol again took the pages from me and into Stan’s office — came out saying nothing — and I left…. I always wrote down any ideas that came to me about the supporting characters, any possible, usable story idea. At some point after they had been dialogued and lettered, I got my original, penciled pages back and inked them. That became our working system on S-M and DS. One day I got a call from Sol. The next S-M annual is coming up.… I asked myself, “Why should I do it?” Why should I continue to do all these monthly issues, original story ideas, material, for a man who is too scared, too angry over something, to even see, talk to me? some point, I decided to quit Marvel.”

In 1975, Stan said in the Fantasy Advertiser:
"Steve was a very mysterious character. When he first started he was the easiest character we ever had to work with. I used to think that if everybody was as easy to work with as Steve, it would be great. I would call him in the middle of the night with an emergency ten-page script and Steve would bring it in the very next day without a complaint. He was just beautiful.  But, little by little, he became tougher and tougher to work with. After a while he’d say to me, “Gee, Stan, I don’t like those plots you are writing for Spider-Man.” So I’d say okay, because I couldn’t have cared less, Steve was so good at drawing stuff, I said, “Use your own plot, I’ll put the dialogue in.” So he’d do his own, and I’d switch them around, and I’d put the dialogue in and make them conform to what I wanted. Then he’d say “I don’t like the sound-effects you’re putting in.” So I told him to use his own, I didn’t mind. I’d bend over backwards to accommodate him, because he was so good and the strip was so successful. But it was like Chamberlain giving in to Hitler, the more I appeased him, the harder he got to work with. Finally, it reached the point where he didn’t even come up to the office with his artwork —he’d just mail it in. Then, one day, he said he was leaving. You now know as much about it as I do. What bothered him, I don’t know.... He’s another guy I’d take back in a minute, but I have a feeling he’d be impossible to work with."

Ditko influenced many artists, but none could ever recreate his world, try as they might. Ditko was an essential, irreplaceable part of the foundation of the Marvel Age. He was able to take a concept or character, new or old and develop it into something completely fresh and different, even unrecognizable from its first germ of an idea. I will remember him and miss him  for that. 

Friday, June 29, 2018

Harlan Ellison: His Marvel Age of Comics

As a child of the Marvel Age and the Silver Age of Comics the last few years have been difficult as we have lost so many of the people we so admired.

We have just lost Harlan Ellison, the writer on the edge of forever, on June 27, 2018. His association with Marvel during the Marvel Age produced some unforgettable stories. Now is a good time to share them.

In 1971 Harlan wrote an outline for a two part Avengers/Hulk tale. The story appeared in Avengers #88 and was continued Incredible Hulk #140. His outline for this tale was published in Marvelmania #4.  

Here is the complete outline of that story.

SPLASH PANEL shows the Hulk caught between the poles of a specially-rigged trap powered by the magneto generators of Boulder Dam. He is being bombarded by millions of volts of electricity. Thunderbolt Ross and his corps of army engineers have lured the green behemoth to the dam where they have pinned him in a barrage of current--[much in the manner the Thing was killed], in hopes the assault—enough to slaughter an army of rampaging Visigoths—will stun him long enough to put him in a newly-designed crypt filled with coma gas. Then, effectively immobilized, the Hulk will be transported to a testing ground where he will be kept unconscious until a cure has been effected to turn him back, once and for all, to Bruce Banner. The crypt was designed by Tony Stark and Reed Richards, working in conjunction with Professor Xavier.

It’s working! Screaming in impotent rage, the Hulk struggles feebly in the grip of raw energy cascading over him. And as Mr. Fantastic and Tony Stark look on with Professor X, gauging the possibilities of finally saving Bruce Banner from the living coffin of flesh wherein he has been trapped for so many years, we cut away to: The Avengers, hot on the trail of a menace so great they cannot even speak his name without fearing dread. They are stalking through swamp-land...shrouded in mist, eerie, compelling... on a nameless atoll near Easter Island. Looking for a decayed and ancient idol, an icon of a lost civilization: key to a subterranean strong-hold of the decimator whose very existence on the planet is more deadly than a thousand hydrogen bombs. They push onward and, finally, in the heart of the steaming night swamp they stumble on it—a statue so grotesque and monstrous it brings them to a halt. And we cut back to:

          The Hulk, pinned in a torrent of lightning. As the electricity takes its toll and the Hulk sinks down senseless, the great crane-machines move in, to lift him into the coma crypt. But as they lumber forward, as they wait for the instant the electricity ceases its crackling work, the Hulk suddenly becomes transparent, wavers in their sight, and... vanishes. Winks out of existence. Cut to the underground eyrie of a bizarre new villain, Syklop; half-human, half-creature of a long-dead race, he is the menace being even now stalked by The Avengers. And as we first see him, first dwell on the eldritch horror of his single bee-faceted ruby eye, his strangely structured body, we see the Hulk suddenly appears in the crystal receiving portal of a weird machine.
Syklop runs through his background and his purpose at this meaningful moment like a damned soul telling its beads for the final, agonizing time: his race had lived in the bowels of the Earth eons before even apes had walked the land. But they had fallen into disrepute with the dark gods they had worshipped, and they had been put to eternal sleep. For millennia they had dwelled in that starless night of empty dreams; until Syklop had been called up from slumber by the dark gods, who had promised him if he could tap a new source of power for their failing energy demands, they would release his race—who would then with ease recapture the world for themselves. And so, with the aid of ancient sciences and regimens even the most advanced human scientists would call sorcery, Syklop has located a source of power, limitless power, that if he can only tap, he can save his race from eternal sleep and certain destruction. That power source: The Hulk.

          Now, with the Hulk stunned, lying semi-conscious in the portal of the great machine he has used to disassemble the green giant’s atoms and reassemble them here...Syklop knows his theory was correct: the only way to uncover the secret of the Hulk’s incredible power is to compress the atoms of that green form so the molecular structure can be better studied under the analyzers of another of Syklop’s herculean machines.

          But to do this, the Hulk must be reduced in size and must be shrunk and compressed. He transfers the Hulk to the other machine, and the shrinking ray begins to bathe green behemoth in a ruby glow. Syklop knows he must be careful, and not shrink the creature too much.

 But even as he works his ancient science on The Hulk, The Avengers crash into the subterranean laboratory. A fight ensues, in which Syklop must struggle for his life against the massed power of The Avengers assembled. While so doing he is unable to watch the progress of the shrinkage of the Hulk, and in mere moments the Hulk has been reduced and compressed so much, he becomes invisible, shrinks down and down and down until he is hurled into a sub-atomic, sub molecular universe that exists in a mote of Down, down, down until he emerges, gigantic in another world. And is shrunk down more and more until he stands astraddle two continents, a Colossus of Rhodes from another universe. The shrinking continues rapidly and the Hulk soon becomes smaller than the average size of a creature in this sub-molecular universe, but...

          Cut back to Syklop’s subterranean laboratory, where the horror representative of that sleeping race of monsters manages to reach the machine used to assemble and disassemble atoms. He turns the ray on The Avengers and they blink out of existence-appearing suddenly... with their memories wiped clean of anything even remotely connected to Syklop...on the downtown express platform of the IRT 7th Avenue Subway... turning and looking and confused at how they got there as...Syklop dashes to close off the shrinking ray.

          Realizing he has sent his one hope of success to another universe, Syklop begins making preparations to follow the Hulk to that infinitesimal space. But to do that he has to revamp the ray so it will shrink him to a size larger than the size the Hulk must have now become, and bring them both back at a pre-set time. It will take time to make such changes, and while Syklop bends to his intricate chore...

          Now he is dwarfed by the feather-topped trees, he is smaller than the diamond rocks striated with onyx, he is tinier than the lumbering, lupine beast snuffling at him through the underbrush. But he is still the Hulk. And as the saber-fanged wild wolf-thing spies him and leaps at him, the Hulk grabs at one of the protruding razor-sharp teeth, rips it loose from the creature’s mouth, and impales the wolf-thing through the throat on its own tooth.

          He hears the shrieks of people in terror and gives one mighty leap that carries him above the waving feather-fronds of the trees. Casting about in mid-leap, he sees a city of pink and blue stone, and from that city comes the massed sound of a populace under siege. He hurls himself through the air and lands with a crash just outside the gates of the magical little city, where he sees a rabid pack of saber-toothed wolves like the one he has just slain, attacking the walls. And he sees that the people, who are small and green and quite beautiful are ill equipped to stave them off. He identifies with them: they are his size, they are his color, and he has no love for the wolves.
 He wades into the beasts, using his behemoth power to scatter them and frighten them. He grabs two of them by their tails and ties the tails together; then, using the wolves as a Gaucho would use a bola, he spins them overhead, around and around, finally hurling them far off across the horizon. One after another he crushes the wolves, hitting one so hard he drives him deep into the ground.

 Finally, when they are dispersed, the gates of the city open and the people stream out. They seem, at first, to be attacking (to the dim brain of the Hulk), but they are so lovely, so friendly, he holds his blows for a moment and they lift him to their shoulders, carry him into the city, and there they make the Hulk their king!

 The queen, Jarella, is obviously taken with the Hulk and she orders the Pantheon of Sorcerers to devise a way by which the Hulk can learn their language. Torla, the head sorcerer, a kind of Merlin-like man, works a spell (that in this universe is science, not magic) that not only gives the Hulk the gift of speech as they speak it, but somehow clears the befogged brain of the behemoth, and for the first time in many months he can think rationally, not as the rampaging killer he has been.

 The Hulk calls the court in session and confronts Visis with the charges, and the assassin turns evidence against his master. Everyone expects the Hulk to kill Visis right there in the throne room. But this is a new Hulk, one whose mind has been cleared by Torla’s magic/science. And he merely orders Visis to gather his goods and his supporters and leave. He is banished.

 The Queen and the court cheer the Hulk for his humanity, and they declare they want him to stay with them forever. The Hulk’s heart is full, for the first time he knows love and joy and...

 An enormous shadow falls across the glass dome of thr throne room. Then a monstrous hand crashes through the glass and huge fingers grab the Hulk in an unbreakable grip. He is lifted up, out of the castle, into the sky. In the grip of Syklop!

As Jarella and Torla and his subjects watch in horror, King Hulk is lifted away and up and up and up. Then, in the clutch of that ghastly eldritch creature who stands like a mountain above their land, they see Syklop laugh his terrifying laugh of triumph and... They both grow so enormous they vanish from the sub-molecular universe.

          Jarella is bereft of her love, and the people have lost their king. But what of the Hulk?

          He reappears in Syklop’s laboratory, but before the monster can sedate the Hulk, the effects of Torla’s sorcery wear off, and the Hulk goes on a rampage, demolishing the lab. Then, before Syklop can stop him, he batters his way through the very walls of the underground lab, through the earth, and leaps into the sky.

          Syklop’s equipment in ruined. He must start over again, if he can. But even before he can contemplate such an alternative, one of the Dark Gods appears to him, even more terrifying in its shadowy outlines than Syklop himself. And the Dark God intones, “You have failed”!

          For the first time in his existence, the Hulk is happy. He seems at home! These green people love him, want him, need him as their King. And for the first time a beautiful woman loves him, not Bruce Banner but him, the Hulk. Only Visis, the pretender to the throne, hates him, and plots to have him killed.

          One night the men of Visis descend on the Hulk as he sits staring out at the multi-colored star sky of this nameless little world in a dust mote. He is attacked but easily manages to drive them off, in the process grabbing one of the assassins who tells him it is Visis behind the plot.

          The Hulk calls the court in session and confronts Visis with the charges, and the assassin turns evidence against his master. Everyone expects the Hulk to kill Visis right there in the throne room. But this is a new Hulk, one whose mind has been cleared by Torla’s magic/science. And he merely orders Visis to gather his goods and his supporters and leave. He is banished. The Queen and the court cheer the Hulk for his humanity, and they declare they want him to stay with them forever. The Hulk’s heart is full, for the first time he knows love and joy and... An enormous shadow falls across the glass dome of the throne room. Then a monstrous hand crashes through the glass and huge fingers grab the Hulk in an unbreakable grip. He is lifted up, out of the castle, into the sky. In the grip of Syklop!

          As Jarella and Torla and his subjects watch in horror, King Hulk is lifted away and up and up and up. Then, in the clutch of that ghastly eldritch creature who stands like a mountain above their land, they see Syklop laugh his terrifying laugh of triumph and... They both grow so enormous they vanish from the sub-molecular universe.

          Jarella is bereft of her love, and the people have lost their king. But what of the Hulk?

          He reappears in Syklop’s laboratory, but before the monster can sedate the Hulk, the effects of Torla’s sorcery wear off, and the Hulk goes on a rampage, demolishing the lab. Then, before Syklop can stop him, he batters his way through the very walls of the underground lab, through the earth, and leaps into the sky.

          Syklop’s equipment in ruined. He must start over again, if he can. But even before he can contemplate such an alternative, one of the Dark Gods appears to him, even more terrifying in its shadowy outlines than Syklop himself. And the Dark God intones, “You have failed”!


          Syklop’s screams as the Dark God takes his revenge And what of the Hulk?
      Leaping through the sky, a dim memory of happiness still fading from his fogged brain, he remembers a tiny green Queen and a time of joy. And he soars away into the distance, trying to find a place he can never find again, not even understanding that the world and the life he seeks are forever denied him, locked in a mote of dust clinging to his garments.

          Once again he is the homeless, brutal Hulk.

Harlan was to contribute to the Avengers again, in issue #101, 1972.

The story begins with a chess match and the plot unfolds like one. One man becomes the focal point of all history and he inadvertently threatens the world. Leonard Tippit is given super-human powers by the Watcher to kill five people who would have been the parents of the children that will cause the end of life on Earth. The Avengers battle him and they are aided by the overseeing Watcher.

“Five Dooms to Save Tomorrow!” 

          In 1973 Marvel published two issues of a digest magazines under the title, Haunt of Horror. Harlan had a story entitled Nova published.

The artwork is by Walt Simonson.

OOPS! Marvel misprinted the last two pages and had to reprint them in the next issue, correctly!

Just a small postscript:
Harlan's characters were not forgotten and were used in some of the best Hulk stories of that era. Here is the splash to Incredible Hulk #172.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Sense of Wonder: Bill Schelly’s Odyssey

First, this is not a review of Bill Schelly’s new book, Sense of Wonder. I want to write about this wonderful book because it captures the spirit of MY reading, following and even leaving the world of comics.  And then coming back.

I want your help!!! In the comments section, I hope you will take the time and tell us your story of what brought you into this realm.

Comic collecting is autobiographical. Bill Schelly’s Sense of Wonder demonstrates that perfectly.  Comic collecting is not just a hobby; it somehow becomes part of our DNA, a necessary component of our life.

It is also true that, like many of us, Bill cannot let go of this subject. His first Sense of Wonder: A Life in Comic Fandom” was published in 2001. This is a totally different book. It’s twice the size and has a very different perspective.  What remains of the original is strongly rewritten. Honestly I enjoyed the first one so much that I was anxious to read the second.

Schelly: “Understanding the lure of comic fandom—or any kind of fandom, from Star Trek to Doctor Who—might be difficult for those who don’t feel its pull. Even those of us who have been a part of such a group don’t often think about our reasons for joining in. We’re doing what comes naturally to us.”

It has often surprised me, the commonalities that readers have.  Bill recalls his trip to Chicago, in 1960, when he was eight years old. His parents, hoping to keep him occupied, bought him his first comic, Superman Annual #1.  His father complained that it was a costly 25 cents when comics were supposed to cost a dime! Bill read it endlessly! And he carried it with him for the next decade or two or maybe more.    


Ironically, when DC republished this annual in 1998, Mike Carlin, seemed to have Bill in mind

Let me go off on a Bender here, or at least a Binder, Otto Binder.  Six of the stories in the Superman Annual, and most famously “The Supergirl From Krypton,” were written by Otto Binder, who would have a great influence in Bill’s life. Bill writes, “In 2000 there weren’t any book-length biographies of comic book writers or artists, what I call “true bios… I was discussing this on the phone with Roy Thomas one day…“Someone should write a book about a comic book writer,” he said. “For instance, Otto Binder,” Bill replied. “The Otto Binder biography was the first book I wrote in my freshly finished basement office, a much larger space than I’d had upstairs.”

So, in some ways Bill had carried Superman Annual #1 with him, always.

Bill wrote: “I would gradually come to understand that the colorful characters whom I met on that 1960 vacation would be with me in one form or another for the rest of my life. Like the train that carried me across America, the hobby that grew out of my love of comics would be the vehicle that would take me to a new world of dreams and endeavors.”

Well, my experience was totally different!!!! J We were travelling to New York, in 1959, when I was eight years old and my parents bought me my first comic, World’s Finest #102, which featured “The Caveman from Krypton!” 

I knew Superman from the TV show and I knew Batman. I was introduced to Tommy Tomorrow and the world of science fiction. In reading Bill’s story, I wondered how many parents bought comics just to keep their kids quiet. Just like Bill, and just like many addicts, the first samples of our addictions were free!  With my aunt owning a candy store that sold comics, mine were freer than most.

But the most important event in my collecting came about 1964, when I spent a summer in the hospital due to foot and leg problems. I wrote a fan letter to Marvel and in return received a box full of comics and a letter signed by Stan, Flo Steinberg (Stan’s secretary) and the gang.  Until then, my hospital world was black and white; now it was in color.  Please don’t tell me that the Marvel super-heroes were fiction and they never really saved anyone. That summer they saved me.

At the New York Comic Con in 2005 I went up to Flo while everyone else went up to Stan. I told her how they had sent me a box of comics when I was in the hospital in 1964. I knew it was she who sent it because I called Marvel to thank them, way back then. (You could do such things in those days…) We became friends and she asked to see the actual letter. When I showed her (what? You think I’d lose a letter from Marvel Comics?), she said, "I knew it!  I wrote it and Stan signed it!”
I asked a few people about their first comics:

Roy Thomas: My late mother used to tell me that I spotted some comic books on the newsstand at Jones Drug Store in Jackson, MO, when I was maybe four, in early 1945--if not sooner.  But I've no idea what comic she first bought for me--probably something with Superman or Batman.  She'd read them to me, and until I learned to read them for myself I thought they were Souperman (getting his power from soup) and Badman and Robber (a couple of crooks, clearly, since they wore masks).  Sometime in the next few months I discovered ALL-STAR COMICS and its heroes like Hawkman and Green Lantern.
Mark Evanier: I have no idea what my first comic book was...probably something Disney, probably something issued before I could read.  I do not remember a minute of my life when I not only didn't have comics but I didn't have more than anyone else I knew.
My first comic book of a super-hero variety was Action Comics #250 (two issues before the advent of Supergirl!) and the cover story was Superman and "The Eye of Metropolis" written by Bill Finger and drawn by Wayne Boring.  It was followed by a Tommy Tomorrow story drawn by Jim Mooney and a Congorilla story drawn by Howard Sherman.
Today, it seems like a pretty ordinary issue, but at the time, it was one of the most exciting things I'd ever read.  I especially liked the Superman story which wasn't all that different from the Superman I knew from the George Reeves TV show.
I got hooked and immediately began hitting the local second-hand book shops which sold old comic books for a nickel apiece, six for a quarter.
Naturally, I only bought my comics in multiples of six.  Within three months, I must have had a collection of Superman and Batman comics that exceeded 500 -- and of course, given my age and the newness of it all, those were among the 500 best comics ever done, except for the issues of Wonder Woman.

Tony Isabella: My mother and other adults would read comic books to me. I kind of sort of think these were funny animal comics and not from the major brands like Dell or DC.

I wanted to eliminate the middle man, so to speak, so I taught myself to read from comic books. I was reading on my own before anyone knew I was reading on my own. Someone realized I could read and told my very surprised mother.

The first comic books I bought for myself were Superman and/or Casper the Friendly Ghost because I knew them from television. I don't recall specific issues.

Bill Schelly: “There’s no doubt that Amazing Spider-Man #7 was the first Marvel comic book I bought, as well as my first exposure to the art of Steve Ditko. His unique style of drawing faces, positioning the figures, and composing the panels impressed me from the start….Ditko quickly became a personal favorite, along with Jack Kirby.”

Again, I had a similar beginning with Marvel. I realized that I was a Marvel fan with issue #8 of Amazing Spider-Man, with Ditko’s compelling and yet unconventional art. His world was darker, it often seemed “wet” as after a rainstorm and the stories didn’t always have a happy ending. Spider-Man would win, but Peter Parker would lose. 

Kirby’s Fantastic Four #19, “The Prisoners of the Pharaoh,” also drew me in. Only in the Justice League of America did DC have full-length stories, whereas Marvel had them everywhere. There was not just action and excitement in Fantastic Four #19, but there were emotions of disappointment and even sadness. The heroes even failed in their prime mission. And I felt Ben Grimm’s grief.

As Bill’s story unfolds, he explains his growing love, and infatuation with comics. Through his eyes we learn of the history of fandom and fanzines: “The first was for a ’fanzine’ called The Rocket’s Blast-Comicollector (RBCC for short). The second was for the RBCC Special #1 featuring a long article on Timely (Marvel) Comics… The first ones I received after RBCC were Yancy Street Journal (devoted solely to Marvel comics), Batmania (dedicated to the Dynamic Duo), and Fighting Hero Comics.”

This sort of fandom goes back to the 1930s with magazines such as Fantasy Magazine, published by Julius Schwartz, who would become an editor at DC.

These fanzines, including Alter Ego by Jerry Bails and Roy Thomas, encouraged a young Bill to create his own fanzine, “… I carried the copies of Super-Heroes Anonymous #1 to the mailbox on the corner, opened its metal mouth, and shoved them in, five at a time. The moment gave me a tiny shiver. They weren’t ‘mine’ any more. I had released them to the wider world… For better or worse, we were publishers.”

Bill, of course, also wrote a few letters to the comic book editors.  Here is one from Creeper #3:

I wrote letters also.  Here are the postcards I recieved alerting me to their publication:

Bill establishes a fact that is very important, and one I emphasize in my own book. We were not born knowing the history of comics, or who created what. This was a series of mysteries that we had to solve.  And producing his fanzine opened the door to a world of discovery: “The truth is, I wasn’t alone. I had become a member of a brotherhood. After Super-Heroes Anonymous appeared, I began receiving mail from dealers, fanzine editors, writers, artists, and collectors. This even meant getting an original Captain America poster from Jack Kirby!!!”

Avid comic book readers tend to be literate and read a lot.  Bill, for example, loved the James Bond books of the 1960s and read all of them. Well, so did I.  I loved the adventure and excitement and how Ian Fleming drew out his characters.  I guess that was something we also found in comics.  Again, like many of us, Bill writes that his, “TV favorites were The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Secret Agent, and the spy comedy Get Smart. Well, I not only watched those also, but in later life, got the DVDs.”

Just a few of my Bond books....

As with so many others of that era, Bill’s journey brought him to Jules Feiffer’s The Great Comic Book Heroes (1965), which had a huge influence on young comic book fans. “This book had a tremendous effect on me, not only because it gave me an opportunity to read a number of the best Golden Age stories, but also because it validated my continuing interest in comics. It was as if the book said to adults, “It’s okay to like comics.”

In presenting the history of fandom and fanzines, Bill discusses concepts I shared. What drives us to collect, what drives us to bond with people we have never met, and what keeps us going. He doesn’t draw many conclusions, but puts out many ideas that will make you think.

It’s fun to read Bill’s encounters with comic book celebrities, such as a young Jim Shooter in the mid 1960s, who was writing the Legion of Super-Heroes at the time. “Everyone watched as Jim Shooter created a beautiful pencil drawing of Iron Man smashing through a brick wall. (Remember, he was still working exclusively for DC Comics.) As far as I can recall, this special fanzine never saw print.” And years later Shooter didn’t recognize Bill at a comic convention.

Bill’s contact with famous artists did not always run smooth, as we see in his interactions with Steve Ditko. Bill once published a Mr. A story on pink paper. Ditko responded, “I was shocked and dismayed that you printed a cover featuring Mr. A, whose credo is that there’s only black and white with no shades of gray, on colored paper. It goes against the whole basis of the character. It should have been printed in black ink on white paper only. Why is it that I get burned every time I do something for the fan press?” That last sentence tells a lot about Ditko’s perception of the fan press. But Ditko is also a forgiving man and once again will contribute to a fanzine by Bill.

Vince Colletta is a controversial figure in comics, equally admired and disdained.  Trying to break into comics, Bill showed him and Julie Schwartz his own artwork. Colletta, after criticizing Bill’s art, also said something revealing: “I’m no great talent, but the main thing is, I get the work done on time.”

In speaking to Jack Kirby about the characters he was famous for, Bill said to him: “In your mind, they must be very real to you.”  Kirby gave a revealing reply, “No, they actually exist,” he responded. “I know them intimately.”

As Bill traces the history of fanzines, he tells an interesting tale about Fredrick Wertham, author of Seduction of the Innocent, who subscribed to one of bill’s fanzines and wrote to Bill: “I find the whole phenomenon of fanzines to be very interesting indeed. Here are hundreds or perhaps thousands of teenagers and young adults who are working mightily to produce magazines simply as a form of their own creative expression. This seems like a positive, healthy activity that merits study.”
Bill is kinder in regards to Wertham than I am.

You see, I like girls. I always liked girls. In fact, for much of my youth, I thought about girls all the time. Girls did not mix with comics, they didn’t like them and they often didn’t like the guys who read them, so I hid my comics and learned not to talk about them. I even gave up comics in 1977 because the cost of a comic hit a high of 35 cents (even more for annuals and the Marvel magazines) and I needed that money for dating!!!!

I bring this up because of my research into the history of comics.  In the 1960s, there were VERY few books out discussing the history of comics and none discussing the history of comic books.  So I used the microfilm library, of old newspapers and magazines, in school to find the history of comics in articles.  All microfilmed roads lead to the 1954 hearings on comics, led by Senator Kefauver, who did his best to associate comics with Juvenile Delinquency, rape and homosexuality (his term). So for the first time I read the name of Fredrick Wertham, whose Seduction of the Innocent linked comic book reading, especially of Batman and Robin, to homosexuality. Now, I was only ten or eleven years old and wasn’t even sure what this meant.

Here are Wertham’s actual words: “Several years ago a California psychiatrist pointed out that the Batman stories are psychologically homosexual. Our researches confirm this entirely. Only someone ignorant of the fundamentals of psychiatry and of the psychopathology of sex can fail to realize a subtle atmosphere of homoerotism which pervades the adventures of the mature "Batman" and his young friend "Robin." Male and female homoerotic overtones are present also in some science-fiction, jungle and other comic books.
The Batman type of story may stimulate children to homosexual fantasies, of the nature of which they may be unconscious. In adolescents who realize it, they may give added stimulation and reinforcement.
A typical female character is the Catwoman, who is vicious and uses a whip. The atmosphere is homosexual and anti-feminine. If the girl is good-looking she is undoubtedly the villainess. If she is after Bruce Wayne, she will have no chance against Dick. (Bad choice of words, I would say. - Barry)

So, Batman and Robin were gay? Huh? I liked Batman and Robin.  And I liked girls. And I couldn’t understand how reading Batman made me not like girls. A few years later, I especially liked Catwoman, especially when played by Julie Newmar!) And Batgirl! (Yvonne Craig), too.  My feelings toward girls had nothing to do with what I read. If I had to think about it, I’d have to say that’s just the way I was born. What the hell was this idiot doctor talking about? I didn’t need comics to give me impure thoughts about women. I had them already just from noticing how soft and pretty girls could be. Wertham, however, went both ways on this.  Comics either made you gay or a rapist. And we know from his notes, now in the Library of Congress, that he made up many of his observations, let alone his conclusions.

At a young age then, I assumed the same must be true for gay people; they are born that way. If we had a choice, in 1960s America, we would all be born white, male, six feet tall, Christian, and straight because those people had the best opportunities. (Think Mad Men.) Bill happens to be gay (and yes, he did like Batman and Robin). Yet, despite our differences when it came to whom we wanted to take to the prom, Bill, too, was drawn into the universe of comics. 

Could it be that we each found relief and comfort in the fantasy world of comics? In its imagined world, the good guys always win; the bad people get what is coming to them. If all else fails, rebooting gives you a second chance to get things right. As a child Bill seemed especially vulnerable to neighborhood bullies. I had the same problem because of my limp. In comics, disabilities are overcome. Take a look at Captain Marvel, Jr., Daredevil, Don Blake, Professor X, Dr. Strange, Nick Fury, and even Ben Grimm, The Thing.

Comic books got us through the tough time of burgeoning adolescence. They helped us by showing how a hero behaved nobly despite all odds, by demonstrating over and over that heroes can’t help being who they are, and that as much as they might like to, they can’t turn their backs on what they are.

One thing Bill was not able to overcome was the harsh reactions to his work by the aforementioned Colletta and Schwartz and even Jim Warren of Creepy and Eerie fame. That was hard to read because you empathized with Bill’s desire to get into the business he so admired.

              Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!
Both Bill and I had a long sabbatical from comics that began at the same time, about 1974. At this time, comics had lost a lot of their Golden and Silver Age creators and DC and Marvel were bought by corporations whose sole interests were how much money could be got out of them. We both came back, but concentrated our efforts not on modern comics but on those that we remembered. Bill’s previous books include one on comic fandom and in this present volume, he tells entertaining stories of his researches for his books on Harvey Kurtzman, Joe Kubert and Little Lulu. We both used our retirements to concentrate and write about what we loved.  Encouraged by the great Tony Isabella, I finally finished my “Marvel Age Companion” and have done work with Taschen. (“75 Years of Marvel” and “The Marvel Age of Comics)”

When I was writing my Sense of Wonder memoir, I happened to be listening to an interview with Pulitzer Prize winning playwright John Patrick Shanley, and found his words meaningful. He was being interviewed about his autobiographical play Prodigal Son. The interviewer asked him, "What do you get out of sharing your life with audiences?" Shanley answered, "I think that we don't really want to be alone. I think that society is a central part of the human experience. When we go through all of the things that we go through ... we look around and see that those are things that we are not going through alone in a vacuum, and that's a real solace. And I write plays to get that solace and give that solace."

Similarly, I wrote Sense of Wonder to evoke in the reader his or her own memories and feelings and experiences, as a member of comic fandom, as an aspiring artist or writer, as a member of a minority group (gay or whatever). It's not an ego thing, it's about sharing what it is to be a human being--Bill Schelly

Once again, I'd like to thank Carl Thiel for his help on this blog. Here is his story, what's yours?

The first comic book I remember reading belonged to my cousin, who was six years older than I. The book was Superman Annual #7 (1963), celebrating the Silver Anniversary of the Man of Steel. The length of the book was an impressive 80 pages and the sense of history therein, with its cover illustration of a silver statuette prominently celebrating 25 years of Superman, even to my eight-year-old mind, was profound.

I regret that I wasn't aware of the beginning of the Marvel Age, but I was six in 1961; I wouldn't see an issue of The Fantastic Four for two years. I recall reading Amazing Spider-Man #3 (July 1963) with the multi-armed villain Doctor Octopus on the cover. I would have to wait until the earlier stories were reprinted in order to experience them. And I mean EXPERIENCE for reading a Marvel comic after 1963 WAS an experience. The art and story-telling was dynamic; the story moved!

Here's just one example: For a hero who couldn't fly, Spider-Man spent a great deal of time in the air, swinging on his web across the rooftops of the city or twisting his body as he dodged the blows of a villainous gang.

The first comics that convinced me I was reading something radically different from the competition were Avengers #3 (Jan 1964) and Fantastic Four #26 (May 1964). The Avengers cover called out accurately: "THIS is the issue you've been waiting for!!" and yes, it was. Here was a world I didn't know existed. (What the heck, I was eight years old!) A world of troubled heroes and angst-ridden romance all mixed together in the synoptic view of Stan Lee. Both Avengers #3 and FF #26, coincidentally, featured the Incredible Hulk who was not a villain but rather a conflicted antagonist. I didn't know that he had had his own short-lived magazine until I got further involved. (The introduction of Marvel Collectors' Item Classics and other reprint titles in the mid-sixties would provide a welcome opportunity to actually read these early stories.) And both issues, not so coincidentally, were drawn by Jack Kirby.

What impressed me the most were the fight scenes. Whereas fight scenes in a DC comic lasted all of half a page, a fight in a Marvel comic could take up half the book. In fact, the fight between the Hulk and the Thing that opens FF#26 had begun in the previous issue (which I had not seen) and WAS SUSTAINED with other heroes joining in for almost the entirety of the present one. Add the sympathy and the drama of Mr. Fantastic's illness; the heroes getting clobbered but getting back up and rejoining the fray; Captain America (who I wanted to be); even the Wasp buzzing inside the Hulk's ear to distract him -- all these scenes imbued me with a sense of excitement about the medium heretofore unknown.

I know we're talking comic books here, but Marvel seemed to place their heroes in situations that were somehow less ridiculous than DC. DC's stories were static, like a situation comedy TV show; no matter what went on in one episode, the next began as if nothing had happened. There was almost no continuity from year to year, let alone month to month. Marvel routinely featured stories spread over more than one issue which allowed for ample character development. They fell in love and broke up. (For real!) We (and I think I speak for most readers) came to care about the characters.

It would still take me another year after experiencing the wonders of FF #26 until I began buying all of Marvel's super-hero titles every month. 1965 was my banner year. I would turn 10 and comics became my life until girls discovered me at the age of 17.