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)


  1. Barry, you must have far too much stuff in your house. Purely out of the generosity of my heart, I'll relieve you of some of it so that you have more room to move around. Send me about half of your comics and books right away. Am I a great guy or what? Oh, and nice article. I'd have told you sooner, but I don't want to make you big-headed.

  2. Very well done Barry. I especially enjoyed the part about the local candy/drugstore. We were very lucky in late 50s and early 60s to have locally owned stores like that who had room for a 10 or 12 cent comic. I myself bought almost all my early comics in local drugstores/soda shoppes. It was in the seventies when they began to disappear I began getting them at 7-Elevens and other similar stores. Now you have to go into a comic shop to get them unless you are lucky and see an Archie Digest on an endcap as you check out at the grocery store. Thanks for comic remembrances. -- Bob

  3. Bob,

    We were lucky. Those little stores even had the “cell” phones of the day: Pay telephones. We run in when we had to make a call, pick up some candy and a comic and say hello to the people who ran the store….they knew us. We’d step in when it began to rain and didn’t buy that much, but weren’t chased out. It gave us a sense of neighborhood.

    By coincidence, a friend moved to my old neighborhood last year, 108th Street in Forest Hills, NY, not far from where Peter Parker lived. I walked the four blocks (eight in total when you count both sides of the street) just to see how the world has changed. I had seven stores to buy comics and perhaps twelve to get newspapers. Now there are none for comics and maybe two or three for newspapers, which are fading too.

    If I wanted to sit down at a counter and have a soda or malt there used to be a dozen, now there are none. You can get them, but Baskin Robbins, Dairy Queen, McDonalds etc gives you nowhere to sit. This is one diner left. The delis have been replaced, mostly by fast food. Of course the book stores, TV repair, shoemaker, Men clothing, toy and hobby, music stores, bagel places (where they actually made the bagels) are all gone. Even the “real” ice cream stores are gone.

    Are things better now? Well, overwhelmingly for me yes. “But life is made of small comings and goings and for everything we take with us there is something we leave behind.” And I have left a bit too much behind. Not just those great comics, but the places that sold them.

    1. I often feel sad when I remember the great shops of my childhood that no longer exist. They were places of great familiarity that were each almost a 'home-from-home' to me. To realise now that I can never revisit them (except in memory - or in some cases, old photos) is a rather sobering thought.

  4. Great article, Barry. I'm only sorry I never got a chance to write one of these intros. I love those old Marvel monster comics...especially the Lee/Ditko mini-masterpieces. The only comics I can think of that were told as simply and powerfully were the war comics that Harvey Kurtzman wrote and illustrated himself!

  5. Always great to read about a subject by someone who actually knows what they are talking about!

  6. Thank you so much for this lovely walk down memory lane. These comics were my fodder when I was growing up; I weep to think I had the #1 edition of every one of the current Marvel heroes we now take for granted... I could have put my grandkids through college with my collection. How fondly I remember perusing the pages of stories about Tim Boo Ba (my all-time favorite) and The Mask of Morgumm, among hundreds of others. I will certainly look for these anthologies as they become available.