Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Jay Maeder, Comics Interview with Stan Lee, 1974

I was deeply saddened to read about the passing of Jay Maeder in yesterday’s Daily News. He was most famous in the comic book world for being the last author of the Little Orphan Annie, I had personal contact with him on another matter.

I have collected a lot of articles regarding the creators of the Marvel Universe and in 2008 Roy Thomas asked if he could reprint some in Alter Ego. They were ALL out of copyright, but I wanted to get the permission of the original authors and have payment sent directly to them and not to me. There were other authors involved, including Norman Mark, and they were all generous.

I tracked Jay down and he was nothing but generous and a pleasure to work with. He was also surprised that anyone would be interested in publishing an old article and he would get some (very little) money for it.  It was a wonderful experience.

He was a very nice guy.  He passed at the age of 67.

Comics Feature: STAN LEE: 1974

By Jay Maeder 

There are probably worse things to be than the wildly celebrated king of the comics. I imagine you rather enjoy being Stan Lee
It wasn’t always this way, I must admit. In the first fifteen years or so that I was the head writer and editor at Timely and Atlas, I remember, my wife and I would go to cocktail parties and somebody would say, what do you do, and I’d say, oh, I’m a writer. Really? What do you write? And I’d start getting a little nervous and I’d say, uh, magazine stories. Really? What magazine? And I knew there was no way of avoiding it, and I’d end up saying comic books, and suddenly the person’s expression would change . . .oh. . . isn’t that nice . . . and walk away, you know, looking for some television or radio or novelist celebrity. That’s all changed now. I go to places and I’m held up as one of the more interesting celebrities . . . and people go over to the playwrights, you know, and say hey, I want you to meet Stan Lee, he’s the head of Marvel Comics, he made up Spider-Man. And I must say I’m very happy that this has happened. It’s like achieving one of my goals, because I remember I wrote an editorial, it must have been a good fifteen years ago, and I said one of our main objectives would be bringing some additional measure of respect to comics, that I would consider myself and our company successful if we found a way before we were through this vale of tears to elevate comics in the minds of the public. So that if somebody said, I write comics, or I draw for comics, that people would say, hey, really? Tell us about it. And not say, a grown man like you? You know what I mean? So from that point of view I’m very happy now.

How did you get where you are?
Sheer accident. I never wanted to be a writer particularly. As a kid I joined the WPA Federal Theatre, I wanted to be an actor. But there wasn’t enough money . . . and I always loved advertising and the closest I could get to it was I found a job writing copy for a news service, and then I started writing obituaries for people who were still alive, and I was writing publicity releases for the National Jewish Tuber-culosis Hospital in Denver. All of which was pretty depressing. A million things, you know. I was an office boy for a trousers company, I was an usher at the Rivoli Theatre. Anyway, they had a contest at the Herald Tribune, an essay contest, which I won three weeks running, and whoever the editor was at the time called me and asked me to stop entering the contest. And he asked me what I intended to be. I was just out of high school, you know, and I said, well, I don’t know, an advertising man or an actor or a lawyer or something, and he said why don’t you be a writer? Coincidentally I learned of a job that was opening up at Timely Comics. They needed a gopher. Timely Comics then had Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, and they had just sort of created Captain America, and they were doing the Human Torch and Sub-Mariner, and I came in, and before I knew it- they had me writing Captain America and they had me doing some editing . . . Shortly thereafter Joe and Jack left, and I was like the only guy there and the publisher asked me if I could fill in as editor until he found someone else. And he never found anyone and I’ve been there ever since.

I never thought of it as a permanent job. I never particularly wanted to be in the comic book business and I always figured, hey, this is great, I’ll stay here a year or two or three until I make some money and then I’ll go out and be a Hollywood director or I’ll write the Great American Novel. And for years and years I stayed in the job, never thinking of it as my permanent career. For years this went on. And I was too dumb to realize, hey, this is what you’re doing, Stan, this is it. I always had this feeling of temporariness. And business got bad and we had to fire a lot of people...I was left with a skeleton crew, which consisted mostly of me. And we were living at Timely under the conditions where every few years there was a new trend. We’d be very big in westerns and suddenly the western field dried up and we had to find a new trend, and we’d be doing a lot of superheroes and then there was a lack of interest in superheroes so we had to find a new trend...and we’d do romances or mysteries or funny animals. Whatever. And there was no...I mean, I’d write one as well, or as badly, as another. It never made a difference to me what type of thing we were doing. The Code was no problem to me. We never put out books that I felt were too violent or objectionable. They certainly weren’t sexy. I never had trouble putting out books that would be acceptable to whoever had to accept them. So when this period came around, it was just like another new trend. Okay, we’ve got to drop the so-called horror stories and now we’ve go to find something else to do. And we did. We came out with...I don’t even remember what we came out with, but I assume we found something.

The whole Atlas thing... this was not the greatest period the comics have ever known...

Atlas is into the journey into unknown world thing, you know, you and Kirby and Ditko are doing variations on the Japanese monster film, Fin Fang Foom and all this...and somewhere in here you start dreaming about a whole different approach, and what I’m asking is this: was this an accidental thing or did you guys sit down and very deliberately create a revolution.
Both. It was accidental and I did it deliberately. What happened was, like I say, I’d been thinking it was a temporary job, you know, I’m waiting till I’ve saved up enough money so I can quit and go do something else. And my wife said to me one day, Stan, when are you gonna realize this is permanent? And instead of looking to do something sensational in some other field, why don’t you make something sensational about what you’re doing? I mean, you’re writing, you are something really good. Well, of course, up until then I had always done mostly what the publisher wanted. As you mentioned, it was not a glorious period for the comics. Certainly not for our company. And our publisher, who also published other types of books—movie books and crossword puzzle books and so on, the slicks—by this time he had left the comics pretty much in my hands. He didn’t have any tremendous interest. They weren’t doing all that well and he wasn’t that much concerned, I suspect. And coincidentally my publisher walks in one day and he says, you know, Stan, I just realized, I was looking at some sales figures, and I see that National Comic’s Justice League seems to be selling pretty good. That’s a bunch of superheroes, Stan, maybe we ought to form a team of superheroes. Maybe there’s a market for that now.
So all three things came together: my wife telling me why don’t you do something good, the fact that I was able to do almost anything because the publisher wasn’t that much on top of what we were doing, and the fact that he wanted a superhero team.
So I figured okay, I’ll do it as I’ve always done it, I will do as he says and give him a superhero team. Only this time I’m going to make it totally different from anything before. As different as I could make it. I figured, I’m sick of stories where the hero always wins and he’s always one hundred percent good and the villain is one hundred percent bad and all that sort of thing. So I figured, this time I’m going to get a team of characters who don’t hew to the mold. Fighting amongst themselves...the Torch wants to quit because he’s not making enough money. The Thing wants to get out because he’s not getting enough glory and he thinks Reed Richards is hogging all the headlines. Occasionally a crook gets away or beats them up. They’re evicted from their skyscraper because they can’t pay the rent because Reed Richards invests all their reward money in stocks and the market takes a nosedive...I tried to do everything I could to take these super-powered characters and in some way to make them realistic and human. To have them react the way normal men might react if those normal men happened to have super-hero powers.
And then I carried it forth with Spider-Man. So he’s got the proportionate power of a spider, or whatever. Isn’t it still conceivable that he might have halitosis or fallen arches or dandruff or acne? Mightn’t he have problems with money? Does it follow that just because he’s Spider-Man all the girls are gonna love him?
I tried to figure how many fallible features I could give Spider-Man. Almost all of our characters. Iron Man with his weak heart, and the fact that he’s a munitions maker and a capitalist and people hate him and think he’s a fascist. And Captain America who felt he was an anachronism because here he is a big patriotic figure at a time when patriotism really isn’t in vogue...And I suddenly realized I was enjoying what I was doing. I could have been writing movies: I was worrying about characterization; I was worrying about dialogue...When I wrote Thor I had him speaking in a semi-Shakespearean manner. Everybody told me I was crazy. They told me that no little kid is going to read stories whose characters say thing like get thee hence, varlet! And I said the hell they won’t. Well, Thor became one of our most popular characters, and I used to get letters from college kids who’d say I’ve been reading Thor and I’ve just noticed that you’re actually writing in blank verse, the meter is perfect, it scans, and they started discussing it in class and so forth...and I’d get letters from kids who were doing term papers on the origins of Doctor Strange’s incantations and they’d say, well, it’s obvious from my research that you’re basing this on old Druid writings. Which was nice to know, considering I’d never read old Druid writings...So I felt I was doing things that hadn’t been done before. I was able to get away with it because nobody was really paying very much attention.
I tried to introduce style. Heretofore nearly all the stories had been done, ours and the competition’s, in the same style...the caption would say “therefore” or “the next day” or “meanwhile”...that was the extent of the captions. I tried to write captions that said something. I tried to develop an informal breezy method of communicating with the reader. We inaugurated the Bullpen Bulletin Page, kind of a club page, where we brought the reader into our little circle and made him a friend rather than just a fan or a reader...

Your instincts are in advertising and promotion...
Funny you should say that, I was just thinking about that the other night. Thinking back, the whole thing was treated like an advertising campaign. The catch phrases, like “Make Mine Marvel” and “Face Front” and “Excelsior”...I did it unconsciously, but it all was in the direction as though, I guess, as though I was building a product. I wanted to make Marvel Comics a product that people...would love.

It probably has a lot to do with the general frame of mind of the industry in that doldrums period...because, you know, you’re telling me that your wife is saying to you, well,..look, Stan, how come you don’t try to do something good. Because the implication here is that this is something that just never occurred to you
 .Well, that’s right. See, I was always thinking that the good things I did would be done outside of comics. Because what the hell good can you do in comics? You know.
So if I’d get an idea for a story, I’d never say this would be great for Captain America, I’d say, hey, wouldn’t this make a great movie, I’m gonna make a lot of it. Someday when I have a chance I’ll do a screenplay. So finally she said do something good in comics. And that really had not occurred to me.
Luckily and coincidentally, it began to happen at a period of time when a spirit of informality was pervading society...

Yeah, Marvel did to comics, I think, pretty much what the Beatles did to music, and of course we’re talking about approximately the same period of time. It was a pretty creative period in general. You must have felt really swollen with fertility.
Yeah. It’s true. It was a very exciting period. And the best thing about it, it hasn’t ended. I think I have the same feeling of excitement at this moment that I had fifteen years ago.

Just how much have things changed? What are your current readers expecting from Marvel?
 They’re expecting us to be in the forefront. If there are innovations they expect Marvel to come up with them. We try not to let them down...I think there’s a feeling of quality. We’ve sort of become known as the Rolls Royce of the comic book industry. They expect our artwork to be a little better, our stories to be a little better...I don’t know that we always succeed, but we’re surely always trying.
The change in our position now...the only problem is our own success has made it difficult to continue the way we’re going, because we’re putting out so many books...And a lot of it is a personal problem of mine: it’s hard for me to turn down...if we have an idea for a book that I think is good it’s hard for me to say, well, look, we don’t have the time to do it, we don’t have enough men to do it, let’s forget it. Because I figure, no, it’s a good idea, and the time is right, we’ll find a way to do it, we’ll get another artist...And we have such a tremendous workload now that, unlike other people in other fields, our problems are never knowing what to do. We know the stories to do, we know the artwork we should be using, we know what the reader wants. We never have the problem of, my God, what if they stop liking our stories, what if we’re doing the wrong things...We think we know the right thing to do, but it’s hard to find the time to do it.

And this is a recurring criticism of the Marvel Group is some segments of the fan press. That it spreads itself too thin.
And they’re right. But for every one that criticizes us for that, there are fifty others who say why don’t you guys put out more science fiction, why don’t you guys give us more...anything, you know. And we always try to satisfy them and we always try to satisfy our own enthusiasm.
What we should do as we add new books is drop old ones, but from a business point of view, even our worst selling books are making fairly good money. And you simply cannot drop a property that is making money, when other companies are just looking for anything that will show a profit.

Who is your market? Who reads Marvel?
Our market is not the same as our competition’s. There are books for younger kids, like the Archie group and the Harvey group...Our closest competition, the DC line has pretty much our market but I don’t believe, and they might deny this, I can’t speak for them, I think we have far and away the largest older audience, and by older I mean of college age and in many cases older than college age. I do a lot of lecturing on campuses probably a minimum of twice a month, and I usually lecture to very large and enthusiastic audiences. In fact, I would say I’m probably one of the most in demand college lecturers today.
The incredible thing about it is here we are one form of media that not only seems to appeal to older people but we still have as many younger readers as any other comic book group, if not more. We seem to have luckily found the way to produce a product that can be enthusiastically enjoyed by kids from the age of six to twelve and also enjoyed and appreciated by one of the most sophisticated and hardest to please groups in the world, which is the high school and college kids. So I’m very proud of that. I would think that’s one of our biggest successes.
Well, I don’t want to sound smug. Sure, I have great feelings of satisfaction but there’s a lot that I think we’re doing wrong. I’ve been trapped into, as I say, I think I made a mistake somewhere by having so many books, and I don’t know what the answer is to that, it’s frustrating. I don’t have time to personally supervise every one the way I did years ago. You remember I told you this company published other magazines as well, the slicks, well, I’ve been made publisher of those too. I don’t have a minute to turn around. And I wish there were more hours in the day because some things aren’t being handled as meticulous as I would like to do them.
Which brings us to something that is bound to be a fairly big item in the fan press...Yeah.And, okay, a couple of years back you moved out of the editor’s chair, and it was widely believed at the time that Roy Thomas was your heir apparent.

He isn’t in that editor’s chair anymore, and apparently you will be devoting more of your energies to the day to day editorial product, more so that you have been in the last couple of years.

What’s going on up there?
Well. Roy...who I think is just one of the most talented guys that...we have been so lucky to have had him all of these years...he’s made it possible for me to go on to somewhat other duties and still feel secure for the comics...but...for one reason or another, Roy felt that he’d rather spend more time writing. I think Roy...I don’t know how you’re going to write this, and I don’t know how to word it so it will sound you move higher in the executive level here, it involves getting more involved the business area. And there are certain decisions made in business that sometimes go against the grain creatively but which have to be lived with. And I’m aware of these things and Roy...would fight them. Quite a bit.
And I just felt there was getting to be almost a political problem. Not between Roy and me. But just, I felt Roy was spending, I think Roy felt this too, he was spending so much time having to worry about conflicts between the business end and the creative end. And so forth. We sort of decided that it might be better if Roy just...he’s going to still be an editor, he’ll still edit the books he’s doing. And he’ll be editor emeritus, so to speak.
And I felt also, maybe it is better for me to get back into this as much as possible, because Marvel in the beginning had been so much a, well, I don’t want to say a one-man operation, but...I just think maybe it’s easier if I’m a little closer on top of everything.
And I have a feeling I’ve said this wrong and I’m going to hate the way you write it.

Well, corporation politics are interesting...I’m not sure to what extent, though, that...
Please don’t make it sound like I’m knocking the corporation.

Yeah, I understand that you’re not. I think we’re going to need to deal bluntly with the circumstances of the resignation. Was it entirely voluntary on his part?
I think it was, yes. I mean, Roy and I are very friendly. He’s going to be working exclusively for us. It’s just...he’ll be able to devote himself purely to the creative end. He’ll not have to be bothered with all the matters of company policy, you know, at the business level.

Because it’s been common rumor in the fan press for a while that Lee simply hasn’t been very happy with the directions the line had taken. The thing with, you know, there was a story about Stan Lee picking up a copy of Thor after not having seen it for months, and...
 I remember Brancatelli writing that. He wrote many things that weren’t know, you’re faced with these things, and what you can do, I don’t have time to write refutations. I had picked up a magazine, that was one instance out of thousands of instances, I’m always picking up the magazines and I was usually always saying hey Roy, Jesus, I just looked at the FF, what a great story, you never-told me about that plot, it’s sensational...I just picked up this, where did you get this artist, he’s the best on I’ve seen...One day I picked up a Thor and I said, hey, you know, a few of these words, the sentence structure seems to be a little bit different...I don’t even remember what I disagreed about. I said, I have the feeling he’s a little off the track here, and I wanted to mention it, we spoke to the writer and...I mean, it was an absolutely nothing incident.

Would it be fair to say that, inasmuch as you are planning to return to closer control of the day to day product, that there was, to one degree or another a feeling on your part that things were off the track?
No, I just feel that it needs probably needs one person who would be able to have the...correct overview. And I think, at the moment, I’m the logical person.
You see, we had so many books it was virtually becoming impossible for Roy to edit them. If you’re producing fifty books a month, how the hell can you edit them if you’re one person. There ain’t even time to read them. After a while an editor becomes almost a traffic manager...I really don’t think that editorially we had gotten off the track. And I’m not saying this politically. Don’t forget, I was always in editorial control, I was always determining what books we would put out and what the style would be. I would oversee the covers. And Roy would discuss with me any major policy changes if the storylines were going to take unusual directions.
But I left the actual editing and art direction to Roy. And I was perfectly happy, the books were absolutely in the direction I wanted them to be. Had they not been I would have changed them. Because it’s much too important a business, and too personal a business, for me to allow the books not to be the way I feel they should be.

In any case, you’re going to be taking a firmer stance at the helm, and the question is what’s going to happen now at Marvel in ways that the Marvelite will find apparent?
I don’t think there’s going to be much difference. We have some very good other editors. We have Marv Wolfman who’ll be devoting himself to the black and white books mostly. We have Len Wein, who will be devoting himself to the color comics mostly. We have John Romita who I’m going to be working with closely.
And we still have Roy, who’s going to be writing most of our important books and who’s going to be available to consult with me just about all the time. He’ll be doing Conan, probably the Fantastic Four, will be his choice, whatever books he wants to do. I’ll give him that option, certainly.

Will you be doing any writing at all?
I would love to, but at the moment it doesn’t look as though I’m going to have time. The one book I’ve been wanting to bring back, the Silver Surfer...I keep delaying it, because it’s one character I don’t want to bring back unless I can write him myself. And...I don’t know, it looks like I just get busier and busier. There are screenplays I’m supposed to be writing, that I’ve committed myself to, and I keep putting those off because I don’t have time. And I have a feeling we’ll have to do a sequel to the book, the Origin of Marvel Comics, and I don’t know when I’m going to write that.

What are Marvel’s top selling titles today?
Spider-Man is still our biggest character. And Conan is very big. The so-called vampire, werewolf, that particular field, whatever you call it, that’s doing well. The kung fu has done fantastically well. The beautiful thing is that the difference between our top-selling books and our just regular books isn’t very great. Virtually everything we’re doing is doing well. I have the feeling that Cadence Industries is really totally delighted with the progress of Marvel.

The success you’ve had with the vampire material is interesting in its own right, because it wasn’t so many years ago that you couldn’t produce something like that. Do you think the code will loosen up any more?
Not really that much more. You know, we’re still always conscious that we’re producing a lot of books for very young kids. I don’t see how it can loosen up much more. But by the same token the Code has to be reasonable. If any little kid six years of age can go to movies and see pictures that are just one bloodbath after another and can watch things of that sort on television hour after hour...apparently it’s the feeling of the Code that it’s very silly not to allow even the mention of the name “vampire”...But I think that, compared to most of the other things that kids are exposed to, our books are still rather tame.

Why did Jack Kirby leave Marvel?
Oh...I don’t even know the real reason. I suspect that Jack just felt maybe like I felt after all those years, I wanted to do something different...that he wanted to do his own thing. The first few years of his career, so many things said by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby...I suspect he woke up one morning and said, gee, all these years everything has said by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and he probably wanted to prove how good he is on his own.
I know we never had a fight. We got along beautifully. I have the utmost respect for his ability and I wish he’d come back.

There was talk, at the time of the trilogy folded, that he was in fact returning to Marvel.
Yes. I’d met Jack once or twice and told him I’d like to have him back and he seemed very interested. But the last time...I don’t know. Jack is a rather personal person. He keeps things to himself. I dont know what his plans are at this point.

What’s your competition doing that you enjoy?
I don’t want to sound like the kind of guy who isn’t up on what’s happening in the field but I simply, in the past six months, haven’t had time to look at their books. I look at the type of books they’re putting out...the sixty cent books and the twenty cent books and so forth, but I haven’t really read anything of theirs.
And I wonder what predictions you might have on what effect the new Goodman line will have on the market.
Oh, I’d be very surprised if it has much of an effect. I think it’s reached the point where there isn’t much that can happen...We’re by far the biggest selling company now and have been for quite a while. The only thing that could really hurt us would be ourselves. If we start slackening in our own efforts to produce good material. If we start getting careless. But it would be unlikely that any external source could affect things too much.

The last area I’d like to discuss is the economy. Publishers, like everyone else, are caught up in the inflationary spiral... just how bad are things? What is the outlook? How will Marvel deal with the problems that there are?
I think that we’re really in a pretty good position. The biggest problem, of course, is the increase in the price of paper, the price of printing...when we get a printing raise, in one fell swoop that means a quarter of a million dollars more or somewhere in that neighborhood each time the price is raised. But basically I think we’re in a pretty good spot. We have our audience, we think we know what our audience wants, we seem to have the staff to provide it, and we hope that we’re bright enough and alert enough to move with the times. We’re always trying to anticipate problems. We try to build cushions into our budgets to provide for them.
I worry a little. I wonder after a while if the. economy itself goes sour how long people will be able to afford to spend money on the higher and higher priced publications, not only comics but all of them.
However, I must say that so far there seems to be no diminution of sales. And I really don’t expect that the comic book field will change that radically, because I think there’s always going to be a market for color comics. Because they’re still one of the cheapest and apparently most satisfying forms of entertainment. Luckily, even in a recession, people want to be entertained, they want to take their minds off things. And one of the things that Marvel gives them is entertainment. Just sheer basic entertainment.

And I’m rather hoping that people will always have a quarter or a half dollar or whatever in their pockets for a few hours of entertainment.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

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

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

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

Am I unstuck in time?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No one except Tony Isabella.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let me show you the contract:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Themes like Old Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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