Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The Search for The Graphic Novel

My Search for the Graphic Novel


       “I would like to see the day when a novel is done in comic book form. I mean a real Kurt Vonnegut or Arthur Miller novel with magnificent illustration, printed on expensive paper, with a hard cover. It may not happen in my lifetime but I think that eventually comics will take their place next to novels, plays and poetry as an accepted form of literature….and I think they should be.” - Stan Lee, Celebrate 1976

            The first illustrated or “picture” stories were probably done in hieroglyphics, thousands of years ago and signed by Stan Lee. The term graphic novel, as it applies to the “long form comic book,” was coined in November 1964 by Richard Kyle in Capa-alpha #2, a newsletter published by the Comic Amateur Press Alliance. As with the term film noir, graphic novel is a term applied retroactively. We then tend to look for the elements that these stories have in common, rather than describing the genre by some definitive, unifying theory. A decade after the Comics Code this was the time when comics were being considered worthwhile literature again and deserving of a new name. We often arbitrarily establish a time frame based on a popular or successful selection or acknowledge a particular event that is considered the beginning of an era. 


 Classics Illustrated, which adapted novels into comics from 1941-1969, is not a factor in the graphic novel’s development although these stories should have been considered its logical first step. And so could have He Done Her Wrong! Milt Gross’s melodrama told entirely in pictures from 1930.

Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and many others, whose work matured during the early part of Marvel Age, were deprived of the chance to participate in the industry´s next evolutionary step. The graphic novel came into its own in the mid-1970s. These new “novels” were packaged and presented as actual books and as such would no longer be orphans at the newsstands once comic book stores began to flourish. By this time, Jack Kirby was outgrowing the comic book medium and seemed to be searching for something more complex and less collaborative. Kirby and other artists were creating stories that had great beginnings, good middles, but, being in a regular comic, could not have definite endings. How wonderful it would have been to have had Jack Kirby just create, with no monthly deadline, a 150-200 page novel, with old characters or new. Steve Ditko, in his 170-page story arc starting in Strange Tales #130 (Mar 1965), also seemed to be distributing a graphic novel into his ten monthly Doctor Strange pages. 

Caption: In Nick Fury, Agent of  SHIELD #3, Steranko brings a graphic novel look to comic books. No dialogue, no yellow boxes with explanations, just story.

Jim Steranko’s story, “Dark Moon Rise, Hell Hound Killin Nick Fury,Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. #3, was also a forerunner, showing the format, but not the length, of what could come. When Steranko created his first true graphic novel, Chandler, he had to find another publisher.

         Marvel was unprepared for either Steranko’s or Jack Kirby’s excursions into that area of publishing. When The Comic Reader #118 (May 1975), announced that “Jack Kirby … will be returning to work for Marvel,” it added that Kirby “was to work only on his creations, but the latest news has him drawing Captain America, a $1.50 Silver Surfer quarterly and another $1.50 quarterly based upon 2001: A Space Odyssey.” Although there were discussions of a quarterly, 80-page treasury-sized magazine, nothing came of it.

            In the mid-1970s Marvel’s creators were looking for something more than an episodic comic.  That is, comics, like TV shows had mostly been episodes in a series, each edition or each comic having a beginning, a middle, and an end. A novel does not have episodes, it has chapters that seamlessly build on previous chapters and they are not meant to exist separately as an episode can.

            This literary-type of development is apparent in Marv Wolfman’s and Gene Colan’s Tomb of Dracula, beginning in issue #8 (May 1973), and was to continue for six more years. The stories became more like chapters in a book. Kirby’s Eternals, in 1976, also seem to be approaching the format of a graphic novel.  Even the shorter series, such as Gullivar Jones that began with Roy Thomas and Gil Kane in Creatures on the Loose #16 (Mar 1972) and ended with George Alec Effinger and Grey Morrow five issue later, was more of a complete story (i.e., with a beginning and an end) than a succession of episodes as in a standard continuing series. This was developing in the subsequent Man-Wolf series, but Marvel let that series die suddenly without a conclusion.

            What is a graphic novel and what should we look for in one? We need to go back to the mid-1800s, when Rodolphe Tőpffer, a Swiss innovator of the comic strip, described the essential nature of a picture story:
             The drawings without their text, would have only a vague meaning; the text, without the drawings, would have no meaning at all. The combination of the two makes a kind of novel, all the more unique in that it is no more like a novel than it is like anything else.
 In 1837, Tőpffer published what many consider to be the first comic book, The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck (Les amours de M. Vieux Bois) which he wrote and drew. In America it was published as a newspaper supplement. 

            Tőpffer understood that the drawings and the text must be symbiotic. Some may dispute this, but it makes no difference whether the text is in balloons or at the bottom of the panel as Hal Foster did in Prince Valiant. What is important is that they are dependent on each other to tell the story.

In 1976, Bloodstar (Morning Star Press) gave us an early indication of what a graphic novel could be. The  cover described the book as “a science fiction/fantasy adventure in words and pictures.” In addition, “Bloodstar is a new, revolutionary concept—a graphic novel, which combines all the imagination and visual power of comic strip art with the richness of the traditional novel.” The book was illustrated and adapted by Richard Corben from "The Valley of the Worm," an original story by Robert E. Howard.

A graphic novel should be both graphic and a novel. The Oxford English Dictionary says that a novel is: “a fictitious prose narrative or tale of considerable length (now usually one long enough to fill one or more volumes), in which characters and actions representative of the real life of past or present times are portrayed in a plot of more or less complexity.” Therefore, a graphic novel should contain illustrations that help tell a longer, involved and complete story, standing alone. However, The Oxford English Dictionary defines the graphic novel as a “full length story published as a book in comic strip format.” It demotes “novel” to story and illustration to “comic strip” because that is the way we use this term. I do not know why some of their significance was lost when both words are combined.

            A graphic novel now often seems to be defined by how it is printed and how much it costs rather than for its artistic standard and other essential elements. Just as we draw a distinction between a TV show and a movie, we should recognize the difference between a fat, well-bound comic and a graphic novel. It seems as though every trade paperback is called a graphic novel. We must get away from that; it is the equivalent to calling a collection of short stories a “novel.” A graphic novel should be self-contained and not a “collected” edition of several short stories. However, like "The Watchmen" a graphic novel could first be published in a series of comics. Charles Dicken’s novels were originally serialized in monthly or weekly magazines such as Master Humphrey's Clock and Household Words in the mid 1800s. They were later reprinted in books, which were expensive at the time. So this procedure made his stories affordable to many readers.

            In the ongoing discussion of graphic novels, however, one publisher is rarely mentioned. Classics Illustrated was created by Albert Kanter in 1941 to present graphic adaptations of famous novels. For the next three decades, Kanter’s Gilberton Company adapted 169 books in comic book format and lasted until 1971, although no new titles were produced after 1962. Artists who contributed included Jack Abel,  Matt Baker,  Lou Cameron,  Reed Crandall, George Evans,  Graham Ingels,  Jack Kirby,  Gray Morrow, Joe Orlando,  John Severin, Joe Sinnott,  Al Williamson, and George Woodbridge. 

Although a pioneer in the field, Classics Illustrated was not the first to adapt famous novels. In the mid-1930s, DC (then called National) began to publish new material in their comic books, a medium which generally featured comic strip reprints. National’s first series was an adaptation of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, which began in New Fun Comics #1 (February 1935) and continued for more than two years, finishing in More Fun Comics #26 (November 1937). New Comics #4 (March/April 1936) began A Tale of Two Cities which finished in New Adventure Comics #25 (March/April 1938). Other novels "such as Stevenson's Treasure Island and H. Rider Haggard's She were adapted.. These comics adaptations looked very different from what they would become; they were more akin to illustrations with captions, properly not something Tőpffer had in mind back in 1843.

Many comic book historians believe that the modern graphic novel was born in 1950 with It Rhymes With Lust! by Arnold Drake, Leslie Waller and Matt Baker which was published by Archer St. John. It was described as a “picture novel.” Even in 1950, Arnold Drake saw the medium as one for adults:
As we worked with the comics form, we reasoned that for the ex-GIs who read comics while in the service and liked the graphic style of storytelling, there was room for a more developed comic book--a deliberate bridge between comic books and book- books. I… came up with the logo that would adorn the cover: a paintbrush and a pencil crossed over a book cover and the letters PN, for Picture Novels. What we planned was a series of Picture Novels that were, essentially, action, mystery, Western and romance movies ON PAPER. The trouble came when it was time to market it. There would be no space on the stands for this one odd-ball-product.


Arnold Drakes Layout

Drakes original cover design for "It Rhymes With Lust!"
      “I don’t think there is much question that “It Rhymes with Lust” was the first graphic novel. It wasn’t a stumbling, accidental creation. Les and I knew exactly what we set out to create. The fact that it was essentially a ‘B Film’ on paper, rather than the more sophisticated products that came 25 years later and called themselves ‘Graphic,’ speaks to the change in the readership over those years. The sons and daughters of the veterans who went to school on the GI Bill were a very different market than the one that Les and I dealt with back then. I have no idea what the first Picture Novel would have been had we had that broader, deeper audience.” Arnold Drake

             St. John published a second graphic novel, The Case of the Winking Buddha, but sales of both were weak and the line was discontinued.

            Comic books for people who were no longer teenagers are a good idea. In the beginning, comic books were marketed to young adults. In the 1940s that meant selling to the soldiers serving in WWII. In the 1950s, the crime and horror comics were largely aimed at adults, but because of the spill-over to younger readers, this caused the domino effect that created the Comics Code.

            Since the 1970s the term Graphic Novel has often been used to mean comic books for older people. This is because creators, publishers and readers have been trying to get away from the term “Comic Books,” a medium perceived to be for children since the Comics Code was introduced in 1955. Publishers use Graphic Novel to elevate collections of average comic book stories to make them sound like they were especially written for adults and to be one cohesive story.

Picto-Fiction from EC from Shock Illustrated 1956
In 1955, EC published Picto-Fiction which was inspired by Big Little Books. It was another example of illustrated stories, not novels, trying to reach an older audience. The 1960s gave us Eerie, Creepy and Bill Spicer’s Graphic Stories. These black & white magazine publications set the table for longer illustrated adult-targeted stories to come.

Let us not confuse the graphic novel with the format by which the novel itself was popularly known in the mid-nineteenth century. Take Charles Dickens, for example; many of his novels were first published as serials, chapter by chapter, in magazines. The same is true of Jules Verne in France. This approach to marketing novels was common at the time. If we keep this fundamental point in mind, then it is not very difficult to accept that Kirby’s pre-history of the graphic novel begins with Tales of Asgard which was introduced as a five-page back-up feature in Journey into Mystery #97 and ended four years and 49 issues later. 

Gil Kane would publish two stories that had great influence in developing graphic novel concepts: His Name is...Savage! (1968) and Blackmark (1971). 

The first, full, graphic novel that I read was Chandler: Red Tide by Jim Steranko in 1977. Like It Rhymes with Lust, it was a hardboiled detective story intended for adults. It was exciting and extremely well written, drawn and designed. It was illustrated in an “uncomic” book style and without dialogue balloons, like Prince Valiant. Like Lust, it had the look and feel of a film noir movie. Steranko’s pictures help depict the atmosphere, set the mood and compel the story.

Its look, form and subject matter have helped jump start the genre and obviously influenced the creators of Sin City and The Road to Perdition. Jim Steranko observed: “When the book appeared it was not embraced by the comic-book community because it didn’t have word balloons or captions.” In other words, it was not a comic book, it was truly a graphic novel. Red Tide´s content and style shows that it had been inspired by and evolved from It Rhymes With Lust! Steranko did not create the graphic novel, he merely perfected it.

      Byron Preiss, Chandler’s publisher: RED TIDE was an original, mass-market adult crime novel created to retail at American newsstands alongside hundreds of other paperback offerings…It supported its claim to be a graphic novel by adopting the use of continuous text and chapter breaks in traditional literary fashion, with all story pages featuring two panels, the size of which remained constant throughout the volume. Standard comic-book devices, such as captions and dialogue balloons, were not employed. The unique text-and-image format was used here for the first time. Rather than using typical comics’ storytelling, Steranko developed a narrative approach that mirrored the noir films of the 1930-40s and an illustration style that utilized both a hard- and soft-edged treatment (without an inkline or feathering) that approximated cinematic photography, a technique that took RED TIDE another step away from comics.


     Fiction Illustrated  also produced and packaged by Byron Preiss, had earlier published two books that might easily be mistaken for graphic novels. The first, Schlomo Raven by Tom Sutton, was a light-hearted detective novel. It had a style reminiscent of Will Elder’s work in Mad. A second book, Starfawn by Stephen Fabian, was a science fiction comic book for adults and was told in a traditional comic book style, complete with dialogue balloons. Both were quality projects, but were not really graphic novels. As Steranko described them, many of the long, glue-bound comics were “fat comic books.They did not tell a story as a  “fictitious prose narrative…in which characters and actions … are portrayed in a plot of more or less complexity.”

The year 1976 gave us Beyond Time and Again by George Metzger. 



Will Eisner’s A Contract With God (1978) is an enjoyable, absorbing tale that is a big step toward serious, adult graphic stories. It was written soon after the tragic death of Eisner’s own daughter. The term “Graphic Novel” appeared on the title page and on the dust jacket. It wasn’t long or detailed ; it was a graphic memoir.


Maus as it appeared in Marvel's Comix Book in 1975
Maus: A Survivor’s Tale
is a memoir by Art Spiegelman and is a great example of what a graphic novel can be. It tells the story of Spiegelman’s father who survived the Holocaust but he uses cats and mice as the central characters. In 1992, it won a Pulitzer Prize Special Award. An excerpt was reprinted by Marvel in a black and white magazine, Comix Book in 1975.

            But much of this happened too late for Jack Kirby. Kirby’s characters and stories were always too big for comics. From the beginning, his characters were bursting out of panels. Soon his stories would outgrow the single comic format, being continued not just in the next issue, but for several issues after that.


Kirby regarded his New Gods (in Amazing Heroes #100) as “the first comic book novel.” Five years later much of “Tales of Asgard” was evident in Kirby’s last Marvel opus, The Eternals, where the same deliberate care was taken in introducing, establishing and developing the various characters. Their realm was presented and their mission defined. Sadly, he then went off into a more familiar direction, with individual short stories with ambiguous plotting, making the story hard to follow. Here, we needed a conclusion but Kirby would not give us one.

The graphic novel, with its stand-alone type of story, would have created a conundrum at Marvel. DC had different worlds for each of its heroes back in the 1960s and incorporated their past by placing their older characters on different Earths, while Marvel kept everything in one universe. How stifling it must be for the creators to know that all their characters had to fit into a predetermined, commonplace world. Could Marvel have produced graphic novels, or comic series, with new characters in a separate universe? We have a hint with the Eternals which presented a very different version of the Earth’s history and introduced several new characters in its brief run. Years after they were cancelled, Roy Thomas placed them in Thor (issues #276-301) where he rewrote the creation of the Earth so that the Celestials could be included in the Marvel Universe. In Thor, Roy Thomas said, “It’s quite possible that, in a limited way, it was a mistake to let Jack Kirby create some of his alternate universes the way he did in the Eternals and elsewhere. But I think it would be a far greater mistake to let the characters languish forever on the outer fringes of the Marvel Universe.”

Lee and Kirby’s Silver Surfer (1977), a trade paperback, was a retelling of the events of Fantastic Four #48-50 but without the F.F. This project was originally intended to be a movie treatment. The later Death of Captain Marvel (1982) was praised for its storytelling and artistry. Both stories were wonderful and are proof that longer and more involved tales could attract an audience. Are the Silver Surfer and Captain Marvel stories graphic novels? The Silver Surfer story is not because it is really a reworking of three short stories and it is told in a typical, but entertaining comic book fashion. The Death of Captain Marvel is usually, and correctly, regarded as Marvel’s first graphic novel. It dealt with death in an adult manner that was removed from the typical comic book demise, albeit not without the comic book melodrama that goes hand in hand with any serious topic. It had a beginning, a middle, and a conclusion that is usually not found in comics.

            The Graphic Novel must take us to places we cannot go in a comic book. As our expectations mature we anticipate more. And given a free hand, Jack Kirby would surely have been the one to take us there. After all, he had already created the heavens and the earth. Twice!

“I took a comic book and folded it in half. Then I drew a two-page layout of a faked story, “One Man Too Many” and pasted it into that folded comic. After which I drew a cover: a nasty guy with gun in hand who’s just discovered his woman in another man’s arms. The fact that it was mounted on that folded comic demonstrated how easy the transition would be for a printer already set up to produce comics.” --Arnold Drake

Tales of Asgard: Marvel’s First Graphic Novel?

The Comics Code years may have been a dreary time for dedicated older readers. The Marvel Age of Comics served as a bridge, perhaps a Rainbow Bridge, to the graphic novel by providing longer and more complex stories with deeper characterizations. You see, in the beginning Jack Kirby created the heavens and the Earth and arguably, Marvel’s first graphic novel. He illustrated the earliest era of Asgard showing us how their warrior culture developed. Kirby showed the birth of Odin, his rise to power and the creation of life on Earth. We discovered the enemies of Asgard: the Storm Giants and Surtur the Fire Demon. We see the boyhood of Thor, his growth and maturation.   

            When he was first introduced in 1962, Thor worked the same ground as heroes before him. Lame physician Don Blake finds a stick that, when struck against the ground, turns him into Thor, an actual god, immortal and capable of vast powers. At first, Thor had familiar gimmicks and weaknesses and fought aliens, communists and crooks. His stories were earthbound and not presented on any grand scale. By late 1963, that would begin to change. The transformation started in Journey into Mystery #97 when Jack Kirby returned to the title after an absence of eight issues and gave Thor a back story with a five-page back-up feature entitled “Tales of Asgard.” Stan Lee has often said that the Tales of Asgard strip was all Kirby. This turns out to be Marvel’s precursor to the graphic novel. It starts like self-contained chapters in a book but swiftly converted into a continued story.

            Tales of Asgard gradually introduced Thor’s friends: Voltstagg, Hogun, Fandral, Heimdall, Balder and Balder’s sister, Sif. When Thor rescues Sif from Hela, Goddess of the Underworld, we learn that even immortals can die from her touch. This makes Thor vulnerable and therefore his adventures are not without risk. No longer does it seem that Doctor Blake becomes Thor, but Thor becomes Doctor Blake. In Tales of Asgard we see young Thor grow up, how Loki is adopted and how his evil is inborn. The themes of Tales of Asgard gradually infiltrate the lead story when Odin visits Earth and fights the Storm Giants in Journey into Mystery #104. Heimdall also appears in this story and his history is shown in that issue’s Tales of Asgard. Soon, all the major characters of Tales of Asgard will appear in the feature story.

            While the next few issues of the main story are earthbound, in Tales of Asgard, we learn the backgrounds of Balder, the Norn Queen and the Trolls. In issue #119 the stage is set for epic stories, both in the main feature and separately in Tales of Asgard. Here, the Warriors Three will accompany Thor on an epic odyssey. Stan’s dialogue (Thor’s “Old English” begins with this issue) and character development is important and memorable.

            This issue is also the end of the first “chapter” of Tales of Asgard’s graphic novel. Its early chapters reminded me of Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which introduced and established the characters and the environment for the author’s longer and epic Lord of the Rings trilogy. That’s what is done here. So when the big adventure begins, Kirby does not have to stop and fill in the blanks.

            After thirty-six episodes Kirby has developed Thor into the prototype of the modern super-hero. He has a family and a realm of his own. There is conflict between brother and brother and sometimes father and son. We shall see those elements follow through to the X-Men, Inhumans, New Gods and eventually the Eternals. In Journey Into Mystery #119, as Thor battles the Destroyer in the longer, fifteen-page lead story, Tales of Asgard begins a new chapter, one whose story lines, and new characters,  will be a major plot point through many issues: The Odinsword, its relationship to and the meaning of Ragnarok and the epic death of the gods. Again, these concepts are developed and are later layered into the main story.
Every so often, Tales of Asgard presented a stand alone story.  Here, Little Red Ridding Hood is retold.

            With Thor #145 (Oct 1967) after almost 50 issues and 245 pages, the voyage is over with Tales of Asgard. It was certainly graphic and, most certainly a novel as the OED would require: a narrative or tale of considerable length in which characters and actions representative of the real life of past or present times are portrayed in a plot …” The story line ends a bit abruptly, but not completely. A year later, in Thor #157-158, in one of the most brilliant stories of the Marvel Age, we learned that the character of Don Blake was always Thor; he was only briefly Don Blake! Marvel reprinted the original story from 1962, but with a foreword and a preface leading to a revelation that changed everything about the character. To teach his son humility and to have him grow wiser, Odin banished Thor to Earth to live as a mortal, with no memory of his true self, and made him handicapped, too. By making him a doctor, Blake is compelled to see suffering first-hand. Plot points from Tales of Asgard were completely woven into the stories of Thor #157-158 and all future issues. It was great fun and I was glad to be there for the whole experience.

In issue #136, Thor ends his romantic relationship with the mortal Jane Foster and begins a relationship with Sif, a goddess introduced in the Asgard series in issue #106. By this time, Kirby had established a world where Jane did not fit in. It makes even more sense now that we know that Blake did not become Thor, it was the other way around. Sif would accompany Thor on adventures in ways that Jane never could and, after visiting Asgard, never would want to. Odin became less of a prejudiced father, not wanting his son to date outside of his “kind,” but a concerned father who could foretell a bit of his son’s future. The Tales of Asgard series was a treat. It was some of Kirby’s best work and Marvel’s first graphic novel. It was treated as such when the entire series was collected in a trade paperback in 1978.

Big Thanks to Carl Thiel!


Thursday, October 24, 2019


            In his biography Sid Caesar tells his story about the origin of Caesar’s Hours (2003),
"In a sketch, Paul Douglas and I play scientists who send a termite into space and expose it to cosmic rays. As we retrieve the capsule, while I reach in to get the termite, it bites my finger. Moments later I develop an insatiable appetite for wood, ripping the arm off a chair and eating it... Two short years later, a young man named Stan Lee wrote a comic book about a teenager who gets bitten by a radioactive spider and develops remarkable powers. I assume Stan Lee was a fan of our shows. Although I can’t prove it, I suspect Larry Gelbart and Woody Allen may be indirectly responsible for the creation of Spider-Man
When we showed this to Stan he replied to us personally: “I seem to be in good company with Ditko, Gelbart and Allen! But, while I was a big fan of Sid’s and would never miss a show, I have absolutely no recollection of the termite from space. In fact, since they say he was exposed to cosmic rays, they might as well take credit for the F.F., too

Danny Fingeroth’s new book, "A MARVELOUS LIFE: THE AMAZING STORY OF STAN LEE is a Timely addition to Danny’s previous books, named below, and it starts a little earlier than the Sid Caesar show.

Danny's first Marvel credit in 1977.

I was eager to read the book because I so enjoyed Danny’s Superman on the Couch, Disguised as Clark Kent, and The Stan Lee Universe. I knew Danny’s take would be different from any others. First, Danny was not only a fan of comics, he was an insider.  He loved comics as a kid. He started out reading Popeye, the Sailor Man and graduated to the Superboy stories in Adventure Comics.  Believe it or not, it led to his first Marvel comic, Millie the Model, which was my first Marvel title, too! Danny and I (very separately) graduated to the Fantastic Four, with #4 being his first issue. (I started out with #1!)

Jim Salicrup wrote: While I read The Amazing Story of Stan Lee: A Marvelous Life, it’ll be like spending time once again with one of my favorite human beings of all time. Thanks, Danny! You have no idea how much that means to me. 

Thinking that comics were an interesting field to work, Danny interviewed at Marvel with Larry Lieber, Stan’s brother in late June/early July 1977. His first day working for  Marvel was July 18, 1977.

An Early Fingeroth Credit, What If #33, 1982

Danny was hired to be his assistant in Marvel's British Department. His counterpart in the UK was Neil Tennant, later one of the Pet Shop Boys music duo. Danny wrote many issues of Deadly Foes of Spider-Man and Lethal Foes of Spider-Man in the '80s and '90. He also edited or supervised hundreds of issues of the various Spider-Man titles in the '80s and '90s. His first credit was a co-editor credit (when Larry was on vacation) in a Captain Britain story in an issue of Super Spider-Man and Captain Britain (#245) in 1977.

I asked Danny when he first met Stan, “It's vague to me. He was just always there at the offices in 1977. You just saw him around. My guess would be that, at some point when Larry was on vacation, I probably met with him to get some British Marvel covers approved. But I have no memory of my first actual meeting with him.

Danny does a terrific job here of not just being the narrator of this story of Stan Lee, but a fair and honest mediator.  Let me explain.  There is no great mystery or scandal in the life of Stan Lee. He was not a Nazi, a drug runner or a TV talk show host. (Although Danny points out that he wanted to be.) The only controversy, really, is that many feel that Stan did not give enough credit to others for the work they did and Stan got too much acclaim. Danny brings this out thoroughly and well, mostly with events involving Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. Danny gives us the facts, often applying logic to the events and takes no sides, he just provide information.

Danny, in his preface, says something very important and true but sometimes is a bit sad for comic book fans.  That is, the public has recognized Stan Lee as the creator of these comics while others, especially Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, are not. Fair or not, it is a fact we have to accept.

If there is one thing repetitious about Danny’s book, it is the beginning. That is, almost all books about the great comic creators begins with Jewish immigrants coming from Europe who are desperately poor.

Danny traces Stan’s early life and how Stan winds up in a menial position at Timely Comics, being the office “gofer” for Jack Kirby and Joe Simon when he was just 17.  Kirby and Simon had created Captain America for publisher Martin Goodman’s Timely Comics (which we now call Marvel).  

Goodman was also related, as Danny explains, to Stan Lee in two ways: through a cousin and also an uncle. Simon and Kirby, after creating and supervising ten issues of Captain America secretly accepted work with Timely’s competitor, the company we now call DC. Somehow, Stan had learned about this. When Goodman found out about this, he fired the pair.  While Simon didn’t think Stan had anything to do with it, Kirby was convinced it was Stan who told Goodman.

To this day, many fans of Kirby hold this against Lee, who had said he never turned them in. While Danny didn’t take sides, I will. Stan was related and loyal to Goodman who gave him employment during the Depression, a hard time to find work even in 1940. Simon & Kirby were helping their competitors.  If I were Stan, I know I would have told my boss, my relative, to keep the  company I worked for going. Besides, it’s no great leap to see that Simon and Kirby’s work for the competitor would have been recognized the moment it was published, even if they had not signed it.

Let’s flash forward for a bit to the New York Comic Con in 2008.  I attended a panel on Timely and Marvel that featured Stan Lee, Joe Simon, Dick Ayers, Gene Colan and a few others. At the end I went up to Dick Ayers, who I was friends with.  I wanted to get an autograph from Stan on his 1947 book, Secrets Behind the Comics. As I approached, Stan Lee grabbed Joe Simon and gave him a big hug and whispered in his ear, “I have never had the chance to thank you. You taught me so much and I have used what you taught me throughout my entire career.”  I wrote that down immediately because I didn’t want to forget it. I know Stan intended it to be a whisper, but with both men near ninety years of age and their hearing diminishing, whispering can get quite loud!

Stan Lee’s first published work for Marvel was a two-page text story that appeared in Captain America Comics #3 (May 1941) entitled “Captain America and the Traitor’s Revenge.” At that time, mail subscriptions were very important to publishers and the Post Office required a publication to have a least two printed pages to be eligible for the lowest postal rates. Hence, the inclusion of two-pages of text in every comic book. Few people, if any, ever read those. Stan’s first comic script was the “The Red Skull’s Deadly Revenge,” which was illustrated by Al Avison in issue #16.  Danny outlines Stan’s life at Timely and the time Stan spent in the service.  And how they overlapped!

From MArvel Super-Heroes Annual #1 1966

From Captain America #16
The Destroyer was one of Stan's first assignments

I am going to be frank.  When reading the bios and history of the comics in the 1950s, there is always a large section of every book explaining the congressional hearings that led up to the Comics Code. This is material we’ve heard before; it’s repetitious and boring.

Not here.  Much to my surprise, Danny took a far different approach on this subject in his chapter, “The Psychopathology of Comic Books.” While outlining the events, Danny presents numerous quotes from the newspapers and the people involved and this becomes one of my favorite parts of the book.

Stan in 1967

For example, he quotes Judith Crist, who in 2008, was looking back on when she was a reporter for the Herald Tribune in the late 1940s. She remembered meeting Fredric Wertham.He was a very impressive man,” she wrote. “He was also very charming. We kind of kept in touch vaguely. I believe he sent me a copy of his collected essays or something. I think that he was a thoroughgoing ego test. He didn’t see very far beyond his own principles. (He was) Not a man that I worshiped  in any way but he did stick in my memory.”

Crist had an article published in the March 27, 1948 issue of Collier’s magazine. In it Wertham claimed, “the comic books, in intent and effect, are demoralizing the morals of youth. They make violence alluring and cruelly heroic. If those responsible refused to clean up the comic book market the time has come to legislate these books off the newsstands and out of the candy stores.  Wertham would further state, “the fact that child psychologists endorse comic books does not prove the healthy state of the comic books. It only proves the unhealthy state of child psychology.”

What makes this so interesting is that Danny flashes forwards over a decade to November 12, 1968. Stan is now on the Barry Farber radio show and he is on with a psychiatrist and educator, Dr. Hilde Mosse, who was a close associate of Wertham. The two were pitted against each other with her bringing up all those crazy ideas of the 1950s. Danny writes that after Marcy, in a dismissive and condescending tone, made some broad points about how children imitate of violent media, Lee fired back:
For the past 20 years, I have heard this particular speech. I have heard the same arguments, and the same answers. Dr. Wertham and his followers have never swayed from their point of view. If you had your way completely it would not be a healthier world. If there were no comic books, and if every television show with violence, were taken off the air, I do not believe the mental climate of this country would be improved one iota because other things which are far more serious within affected children even more, and there would be no relief in fantasy.
Mosse replied, in part comparing the super-heroes to Nazis: “They are exactly, exactly, but anyone who knows anything about what fascism stands for, what Nazi-ism stood for, they are the ideal that people had in the Hitler era.”

Jack Kirby returned to Marvel in the late 1950s. When Stan sought to revive the Rawhide Kid in 1960, he gave that assignment to Dick Ayres. A few days later Dick received a phone call from Stan saying that Jack Kirby insisted on doing the Rawhide Kid but Lee would have Dick ink it, so he would not lose a job.  Dick was proud of the relationship he had with Stan. As with Gene Colan, both men, freelancers, felt loyalty to Stan because he gave them so much work. Dick even kept a letter from him, framed in his office. Ayers was disappointed when Stan stopped writing Sgt. Fury.

You did a swell job inking Kirby’s Monstro story.
So, here’s the cover of that mag for you to ink also. It’s due this Friday, August 28 if possible, if not Monday will be okay.

I have enclosed another six page strip as well for you to ink it has a long deadline. I won’t need it until September 10. Of course if you send it to me sooner, that’s fine. But you needn’t rush. I’ll try to send you as much inking as I can. Don’t expect too much because we didn’t have that much. These 12 pages is an unusual situation. However does come along I’ll give you the first track at it. All best Stan.

We all know that the Marvel Age of Comics began in 1961 when Martin Goodman had Stan Lee and Jack Kirby create the Fantastic Four. In fact, using the Marvel method those two along with Steve Ditko would create some of the greatest comics ever produced.

There is a small controversy about how The Marvel Era all started. Martin Goodman heard that the Justice League of America was selling very well at DC. He then told Stan to create a superhero team. In later years Jack Kirby was to say he came up with this idea.

Stan and Fabulous Flo Steinberg 

It is really vague on who told Martin Goodman that the Justice League was selling well. Let us use logic. Who would know this information and who would be talking to Martin Goodman about circulation? Although Independent News, the distributor for Marvel comics, was owned by the parent company that owned DC they had the most to gain, and the most to profit, by telling Goodman what comics were selling well. So it was probably the distributor. But there could be two other sources. Another source could be the actual comic itself, in this case the Brave and the Bold where the JLA first appeared, which in October published the statement of circulation that’s needed for the post office.  Michael J. Vassallo, who is a contributor to this book, describes in  "The Secret History of Marvel Comics," how publishers had scouts looking at the newsstands to find out which of their comics was selling and probably their competitors. This was because it took six months to get results from the distributor and the publishers wanted to know immediately how well their comics were doing. The Justice League was copied in more ways than having a team of super-heroes.. Stan adopted their format.

  In that era, full length stories in comics were rare. Comics usually had two or three stories in them.  The Justice League had full length stories and chapters, a style adapted by Lee for the Fantastic Four. In 1961, Lee began experimenting with longer stories in his monster titles, expanding from 8 to 13 and occasionally 18-page stories. The latter was first seen in Tales of Suspense #14 (Feb. 1961) I Created the Colossus. While Lee would return to featuring four-stories per issue by mid-year this shows that he was looking to deviate from the standard format.
Michael J. Vassallo and Danny Fingeroth

Stan wrote an outline in the spring of 1961 and Lee and Kirby produced one of the greatest comic books ever.

Stan's outline for Fantastic Four #1

As the Marvel age exploded, Stan received more and more letters from fans, including me. Stan had learned from Bill Gaines the publisher of EC comics and was inspired by reading the Poppy Ott books by Leo Edwards that he can develop a closer relationship to his readers. No longer were letters printed that said “Dear Mr. Lee and Mr. Kirby.” That was changed to “Dear Stan and Jack.” He replied as if he knew the readers personally. He even sent out personal letters, as Flo Steinberg  told me were often written by her and signed by Stan

He added letter pages that often contained a special announcement section.
Special Announcements, October 1963 

 Soon that developed into the Marvel Bullpen Bulletins which also listed and publicized the other comics available. And, uncommon in comic books, Stan began an editorial section entitled, “Stan’s Soapbox.”
First Bullpen Bulletin, Oct./Nov. 1965
First Stan's Soapbox, June 1967

Roy Thomas said, “The Marvel Universe,” ...was really his (Stan’s) construct, far more than anybody else’s. He had the idea that this was a consistent world where all these people lived...”

By the mid-1960s there was a radical slogan, “Don’t trust anyone over 30!” This didn’t apply to Stan, everyone under 30 seems to have trusted him.

Danny explains how Marvel grew and artists such as Johnny Romita, Gene Colan and John Buscema, who had previously worked for Marvel, returned. Throughout the last half of the book Danny discusses the comings and goings of Steve Ditko, who first leaves Marvel in 1966. Danny shows that in the years ahead, both Stan and Steve would show both appreciation and resentment of each other in many ways. Stan, as Danny points out, did not understand exactly why Steve left. Stan did not ask Steve, but, years later, asked a few of Steve’s friends why that happened.

Some fans can be unduly harsh with Stan.  Danny brings up the controversy of who should get the credit for the creation of Spider-Man. In his heart, Stan always gave himself full credit. Here, Stan is wrong, but he is NOT lying.  He is telling the truth as he sees it. For me, Stan thought up the concept of a Spider-Man but it was he and Steve Ditko who created the finished and iconic character. Many of the same people who criticize Stan for this point of view will then say that the Silver Surfer is totally Kirby’s creation. While Kirby gave him form, Stan gave him substance and that is often dismissed with these critics.

Jim Salicrup: After answering several questions regarding the creation of Spider-Man and others, (at a convention in Madison, Wisconsin ) Stan was less kind in his references to his erstwhile boss (Martin Goodman)  than he had been for decades, referring to him as “my idiot publisher,” Stan suddenly went off-script, as he shared what he must’ve been thinking at that moment, “Y’know, it’s funny, back then I would’ve never imagined that one day I’d be in front of so many people like this, talking about what I was doing back then… That so many people would be interested in seeing me…” Again, realizing he expressed his wistful thoughts aloud, he quickly moved on, saying, “I don’t have a punchline for that, I was just thinking that it was funny, that’s all.”

In 1968, Marvel is bought by Perfect Film and Chemical for $14 million. As much as they wanted him, Stan, apparently, felt a bit like a new employee. Jack Kirby leaves Marvel in 1970 and heads over to DC when he could not successfully negotiate with the new owners. According to the New York Times at DC Kirby would make about $31,000 a year.
Stan Lee, at Carnegie Hall stage in 1972 headlining “A Marvel-ous Evening with Stan Lee"

Roy Thomas had told me: “The Incredible Hulk” wasn’t a book I particularly wanted to do, but when Stan said do it, I did it. I think he had just gotten bored with it. I could see his point.
After nearly 35 years Stan Lee was tired of writing and meeting deadlines. By 1972, Marvel had virtually tripled their titles from just a couple years before. They were now approaching 40 and that would prove a huge burden for the many editors that came after Lee.  In 1970, when Martin Goodman left, he expected his son Chip to become the new publisher. Stan let the owners know that he would quit if that happened and he is made publisher. But as Danny explains the corporate structure is far more complex than that and it is interesting to read. So Stan Lee does not follow the creative and parallel path of Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko. He moves perpendicular and up the corporate ladder to becoming publisher.  He left writing and editing behind.

The friction between Stan Lee and Jack Kirby really began, as Danny points out, in a Herald Tribune article from 1966. The reporter, who seemed never to have read a comic in his life, idolized Stan and put down Jack Kirby.

Nat Freedland wrote: “Lee arrives at his plots in sort of ESP sessions with the artists. He inserts the dialogue after the picture layout comes in. Here he is in action at his weekly Friday morning summit meeting with Jack “King” Kirby, a veteran comic book artist. A man who created many of the visions of your childhood and mine. The King is a middle-aged man with baggy eyes and a baggy Robert Hall-ish suit. He is sucking a huge green cigar and if you stood next to him on the subway you would peg him for the assistant foreman in a girdle factory.”  (Robert Hall, in the 1950s, was an inexpensive place to buy men’s clothes.)

Such a representation was difficult for Kirby to recover from, if he ever did.  When Kirby moved to DC, he created a character patently based on Stan named “Flunky Flashman” (for Mister Miracle #6, Jan-Feb 1972). The character was an egotistical, annoying parody of Stan Lee. It was truly offensive. Yet, four years later when Kirby’s contract at DC had ended and he wanted to come back to Marvel, Stan let him.

Roy Thomas in 2008: When (Kirby) came back in 1975, there were some people at Marvel that didn’t really want him back I understood. Stan called me and said, “Do you think Jack would wanna come back?” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Well, I’ve got a couple of guys around here *who are serious but the thing is they really don’t think I should let Jack come back.” I said, “Well, don’t let him write.” He said, “Well, I need him to write. If he’s gonna come back, he insists on writing.” I said, “Well, have him back and write.

A major part of Danny’s book is how Marvel comics were produced. What did the people do? What did they look for? What did Stan need from his creators?

 From Multiple 1960s Marvel Annuals, Bullpen Pictures

In 2002, I had dinner with Julius Schwartz, Carmine Infantino and Arnold Drake. These were retired businessmen and you never really felt that they were comic book creators. They discussed putting together a comic like I would discuss a conveyor belt producing cookies. They needed the ingredients in exact proportions. They didn’t care where they came from. Schwartz told me that the plot of the story was not important. What was important was the cover and the splash page—that’s what sold comics. The scripting and the plotting did not seem important to him. Arnold Drake agreed, he said that if he needed to sell a script because he needed the money he would first lay out a cover and the splash page of the story was not very relevant.

Stan and Carl Burgos appear in a Human Torch story in Strange Tales
I asked them what about Marvel, why did they think Marvel succeeded? The prelude pretty well ignored the question, with Schwartz waving his hand away. They certainly didn’t get Jack Kirby. Schwartz and Infantino told me that the Fourth World books did not sell and every issue sold less than the issue before. Whether or not this is true I don’t know. But Danny was able to draw a very sharp contrast about how Stan handled his artists and writers, so differently from that pair at DC.

 From “The International Journal of Comic Art”
Stan wanted to give his readers what they wanted and had no hesitation admitting that. About 2005, there were rumors going around that Percy, one of the Howling Commandos, was gay. This was impossible. Percy in the annuals was portrayed as being a ladies man owning Playboy type clubs in Great Britain. There was even an article published in “The International Journal of Comic Art” (Volume 14, no 1.) by Justin Raymond, subtitled, “Homosexual Masculinity in Sgt. Fury.” You can’t make this stuff up! Mr. Raymond writes and I quote: “Though there are seven Howlers, multiple frames reveal that there are only five beds in the room.” In the 1960s, the Comics Code would not allow even a hint of homosexuality. In fact, part of the reason the Code was created was to make sure there was no inference of homosexuality. The cares who created Percy and drew him for the first time thought this was ridiculous and called up Stan and asked how did this get started. Stan simply said to Dick, “Give the people what they want.They wanted Percy to be gay so he was gay.

The penultimate part of the book chronicles Stan’s journey into Hollywood which was not always successful. Stan was able to work with studios to produce numerous animated shows for Marvel, but he was not able to persuade the studios to make major motion pictures. Danny points out that he was known for bringing projects to studios that he knew they would not accept. In this era of big Spider-Man and X-Men movies people forget that the first Marvel hit was the movie Blade. The most interesting part of that is that it was a book edited by Roy Thomas, written by Marv Wolfman, and drawn by Gene Colan. Stan had nothing to do with it. But it was a hit.

Art by Gene Colan

Jim Salicrup: (At Wizard World convention in NY) Danny and I walked Ken (Bald) back to his table, and then we decided drop by Larry Lieber’s table to say hi to our mutual friend. We weren’t at Larry’s table for more than a few minutes when we were suddenly surprised by Stan Lee dropping by. From out of nowhere it seemed an army of photographers were taking a gazillion pics of Stan with Larry and Ken. Spotting awestruck Danny and me in the crowd, Stan suddenly insisted that we join him for this impromptu photo-op. Neither of us could ever say no to Stan, plus we’re both just as big a ham as he is! It all happened incredibly fast, and the next thing we knew, Stan and the  paparazzi  were gone. While we were both recovering from that unexpected brush with fame, it dawned on me that neither of us had thought to ask anyone to take pictures of us with Stan with our cellphone cameras. But Danny is nothing if not determined, and sure enough, he was able to track down one of the photographers and get us copies of our pics with Mr. Lee.

The last time I actually saw Stan, was at a convention in Madison, Wisconsin. Stan was being interviewed onstage by Max Anderson, while I was sitting in the audience next to Danny. It was the year before Stan passed, and not long after Joan had passed away. In fact, there was a short announcement before Stan came on requesting that to keep the mood upbeat and not to depress Stan, that the audience neither ask questions about Stan’s dear departed wife or offer well-intended condolences. I’m happy to say the audience complied, and it was a delightful, and highly entertaining Q&A with Mr. Lee. Despite his terrible personal loss and his failing health, he was still on—being the Stan Lee that the audience had come to see. Anyone who has been a fan of Stan’s since the 60s (and that has to be just about everyone reading Barry’s Blog!) has probably heard most of the questions and Stan’s answers countless times, but there were a few unique moments as well. Several children asked some silly questions, and Stan, bless him, did his best to provide entertaining answers. I don’t have a transcript, so I’ll try to capture the gist of what Stan said as best as I can. Here are a few exchanges that tickled me…

Fan: What’s your favorite milkshake?
Stan: Vanilla, of course!

Fan: What’s your favorite kind of wood?
Stan: I can’t believe I came hundreds of miles to be here to be asked what’s my favorite wood! (Stan couldn’t think of a suitable answer and was about to move onto the next question, when suddenly he had his answer:) I just remembered! It’s Biedermeier wood! We have furniture that’s made of Beidermeier wood, it’s great! Very expensive, though. That’s my favorite wood! (As Maggie Thompson later informed me, there’s no such thing as Biedermeier wood. Beidermeier was an influential German style of furniture design that evolved during the years 1815–1848. But, hey—close enough!)

Fan: What’s your favorite toothpaste?
Stan: (This was the most surprising answer of all from Smiling Stan:) I gotta make a confession—I don’t use toothpaste! I brush my teeth with hot water, but I don’t use tooth paste. Years ago, my dentist tried to get me to use a special toothpaste, and when I came back a for my next appointment about a month later, the Dentist’s assistant asked me if I was using that toothpaste. Well, as you all know I’m really good at lying… (Stan suddenly realized what he just said in front of this large audience, and quickly started to spin…) I mean, when it comes to unimportant matters such as toothpaste! So, I just said, of course I used that toothpaste! And the dental assistant said they could tell, because my teeth were obviously so much better, and that convinced me I didn’t ever need to use toothpaste!

Danny describes Stan’s last days, his outliving his beloved wife of 69 years, Joan, and presents comments of his passing. Working together with so many others, Stan produced some of the greatest comic books there will ever be. Their characters have been extended into television and movies and have made a great many people happy.

Jim Salicrup: For years, my routine after seeing Stan speak was to then run backstage and hang out with him a bit. But for the first time ever, I chose not to. I knew Stan was not in the best of health, and I decided that I wanted my last memories of seeing Stan be what I just witnessed onstage—Stan in top form, entertaining a large audience, making everyone feel special, and enjoying himself at the same time. Besides, I was beginning to feel selfish. I had known Stan at that point for 46 years, had on many occasions expressed my admiration, gratitude, and love for him, and now I thought, I should let those folks paying big bucks for an autograph or a photo-op, have their moments with Stan. I’ve certainly had mine.

There is another Marvel Age, but it is in heaven now.  Jim Mooney, Jack Kirby, Joe Simon, Jerry Robinson, Gene Colan, Dick Ayers, Gary Friedrich, Len Wein, Steve Gerber, Steve Ditko, Sol Brodsky, John Buscema, Joe Maneely, Don Heck, Syd Shores, Stan Goldberg, Marie Severin were all waiting for Stan, to get the next outline. Stan is now standing upon a cloud, motioning how the angels should be drawn.

 Jack and Roz’s granddaughter,  Jullian posted a message from her father after Jack Kirby was inducted as a Disney Legend in 2018. Let these be the last words:

This past Friday I had the honor of accepting the Disney Legends award on behalf of my father. Stan Lee, also receiving an award, very graciously and emotionally paid tribute to my father. I am mentioning this as, over the last two days, I have seen mean-spirited remarks about Stan Lee. Regardless of how you may feel about events that occurred years ago it is time to be done...