[June 7, 1962] Third-rate (the State of Marvel Comics)

[Famed comics expert Jason Sacks returns with a not-unmixed appraisal of the current state of Marvel Comics – in particular, evaluating the raft of new heroes they’ve unleashed on the universe.

Jason is not a man to mince words, you’ll see…]


by Jason Sacks

Tiny Marvel Comics is at it again. Less than a year after comics’ shoestring publisher launched the rough-and-tumble Fantastic Four, Marvel has expanded their offering of new action heroes. In fact, when I visited Spencer’s Drugs in beautiful Snohomish, Washington this Tuesday, I found three premiering costumed characters with adventures to consume. I’m happy to say these offerings are more entertaining than Archie Comics’s dull Adventures of the Fly and Adventures of the Jaguar, but they are nowhere near as entertaining as most of the comics published by National.

If you remember from my last visit to Galactic Journeys, I described how Marvel is an upstart company, mostly presenting giant monster comics for bratty young children while their larger counterparts National and Dell dominate in terms of both sales and quality. A longstanding rumor has it that Marvel is even distributed by the same company that has partial ownership of National, and that parent company limits editor Stan Lee’s small enterprise to no more than eight titles per month.

Heretofore, most of Marvel’s male-oriented offerings have been either of the giant monster or cowboy variety. For example, the May number of Tales to Astonish offered A Monster at My Window – a giant-headed green monstrosity instead of a Peeping Tom – while the same month’s Strange Tales offered an orange variation of the same idea called Mister Morgan’s Monster. Meanwhile, Rawhide Kid and Gunsmoke Western offer adventures similar to Maverick or The Rifleman.

After a rocky first few issues, in which scientific concepts were handled in haphazard manners and artwork by Jack Kirby was loose and awkward, Marvel’s Fantastic Four seems to have settled into a pleasantly fun beat. In the February issue, Lee and Kirby revived the classic Sub-Mariner, last seen about five years ago in a short-lived revival of his classic comic from the 1940s. The new yarn presented a delightful revival of the Sub-Mariner/Human Torch battles from the pages of the happily-remembered Marvel Mystery Comics. In FF #4, the hep, young Human Torch finds a down-and-out Sub-Mariner living on skid row. That then triggers a delightful epic tale in which Lee and Kirby return the former king to Atlantis, where he is reunited with his subjects. Namor also falls in love with Sue Storm, the distaff member of the Fantastic Four. Though he is defeated quickly, the revived Sub-Mariner seems an ideal adversary for the Fantastics.

That is, if the new villain Doctor Doom, who premiered in the April issue #5, doesn’t take that role first. This man in the iron mask has a connection with Mr. Fantastic, the leader and scientific genius of the Fantastic Four, and their relationship gives the story much of its fuel.

If Marvel gives the rest of their books this level of care and attention, they may be able to carve out a small niche on the stands next to the super-popular Dell and National lines. My spies at the circulation houses tell me that many Dell Comics, as well as National’s Superman line, often sell over a million copies per month while Marvel’s line sells barely a quarter of them. If Dell is Coca-Cola and National is Pepsi, then Marvel is more like Royal Crown Cola, a pleasant flavor that barely registers on most peoples’ attention spans.

As I mentioned, three new costumed characters premiere this week from Marvel. Amazing Fantasy #15 debuts Spider Man, while Tales to Astonish #35 marks The Return of the Ant Man! and Journey Into Mystery #83 presents a bold take on the Norse God Thor.

One has to wonder why the obsession at Marvel with many-legged creepy crawlies. Does Archie’s The Fly sell so well that Marvel feels the need to jump into the marketplace for heroes based on multi-legged critters? People, especially girls, hate spiders, so why would anybody would want to read the adventures of a spider man. My sister is terrified of spiders so whenever one of those eight-legged monstrosities ends up behind the icebox, my father always has to kill it. Why would my sister or anybody else want to read the story of a boy with spider powers?

Especially when that boy, Peter Parker by name, is such a nebbish? As Lee and artist Steve Ditko portray Parker in his debut, the boy is a bespectacled scientific genius, hated by his fellow high school classmates and living a cloistered life with his elderly aunt and uncle. Though he attends a public school, young Parker wears a suit and tie and attends a giant scientific exhibit of radio-activity, at which he is bitten by a radioactive spider. You have to give Lee credit for smartly using the scourge of our time to create the background for this hero.

Unfortunately, Lee then takes his debuting hero down a low road when he becomes – of all things – a pro wrestler. Parker puts on a mask and confuses an almost mindless pugilist. This shows the depravity and low levels that Lee is willing to put his characters through. Rather than having his hero nobly take up the hero’s game, as would happen in a DC Comic, Lee has Peter Parker don an absurd red and blue costume (with a full head-cowl – nobody loves full head cowls) and fully embrace a career as a wrestler.
Tragically, Parker’s greed gets the best of him, as his Uncle is killed by a robber who he easily could have stopped. After a quick battle, the hero discovers his failure, and this first appearance ends on a depressing down note.

This blatant rip off of Batman’s origin is the icing on the cake of this lame and frustrating story. There are many markers here that this Spider Man will never take off as a hero, from this unappealing civilian character, drawn by S. Ditko as a complete loser, to the unappealing storyline around professional wrestling, to the awful costume and the lack of a good villain. Any attentive observer of comic books has to question why Lee and Ditko believed this character would have (eight) legs that would stick to readers’ hearts.

Even the comic he appears in shows that Marvel understands Spider Man is a loser: this comic was titled Amazing Adult Fantasy for its previous several issues and presented fantasy tales slightly better than Marvel’s normal pablum. This month, Marvel removed Adult from the title in a tacit implication that these stories are for kids only. Next time they can remove the word Amazing as well. Give me an issue of National’s Challengers of the Unknown or Sea Devils over this pap any day.

Also appearing this month is another hero inspired by creepy-crawlies. This hero, who Marvel hopes will attract a buzz, is Ant-Man. (Incidentally, recent Marvels have also featured a giant scorpion and the story The Man in the Bee-Hive; has editor Lee been studying for an insect-keeping examination?)

Though ants are loved even less than spiders, at least the origin of Ant-Man makes more sense than the Spider Man story. As presented in Tales to Astonish #35, Ant-Man is simply a scientist who discovers a special formula to shrink himself, which triggers an adventure that could have come from the outstanding 1950s flick The Incredible Shrinking Man.

See, scientist Henry Pym has developed both a shrinking formula and an anti-radiation formula. The Commies thus want to kidnap Pym to gain his knowledge of the anti-rad ability so they can safely launch a nuclear war. Pym fights back, donning a flashy red suit as the Ant-Man. Of course he defeats the baddies in the end. The story has some effective scenes – there’s a great moment in which stinger ants crawl up a commie’s leg and defeat him – but this story is only marginally more successful than the one introducing Spider Man. At least it stars a more conventional leading character, since a brilliant scientist is inherently much more interesting than a sad teenager who dresses as a spider. In any event, this Ant-Man is much less interesting than the brilliant Atom (one of Julius Schwartz’s proud publications) at National Comics – and his name is silly, too.

Thor, premiering in Journey into Mystery #83, is the best of these three premiering heroes, but that’s like comparing a Perry Como song to a Bobby Vinton song. I’d rather be listening to The Loco-Motion and reading National Comics than Vinton and Marvel, but when you have to listen to music, Vinton will do.

Marvel’s reborn Thor is the Norse god reborn in the body of frail doctor Donald Blake, “helpless without his cane”, who journeys to Norway for unknown reasons and becomes enmeshed in a battle with the rocky green Stone Men from Saturn. The Stone Men resemble the statues from Easter Island and are the same old hokey Marvel monsters, but this new hero seems like he could be an up-and-comer.  The uncredited artist – who seems to be the same man who drew the adventures of Ant-Man – delivers a dynamic tale that uses storytelling that’s different from the clean lines I’m used to seeing in the pages of The Flash or Green Lantern. The approach is bold and intense, with frequent use of blackout panels.

Of course, the storyline with the stone men from Saturn is a typically rotten Marvel storyline, still another kiddie kreation of giant monsters battling to destroy the Earth. This terribly cliched plot would have fit comfortably in previous issues of Journey into Mystery. Hopefully Marvel will bring the whole background of Norse mythology into this comic and allow readers the chance to see Loki, Odin and the amazing Asgard. Hopefully, too, Marvel will rectify their coloring mistake and color Thor’s hair red, as it should be.

Mark my words: June 5, 1962, will be a date that is quickly forgotten when someone one day writes the history of comic books in America. Thor might be remembered by a few, but you can bet your bottom dollar that this Spider Man will be quickly forgotten. Thankfully I was able to pick up this month’s issue of The Flash this week to wash the awful taste out of my mouth.

7 thoughts on “[June 7, 1962] Third-rate (the State of Marvel Comics)”

  1. Thanks for warning us about the duds. (Though I don’t see me even trying something called Spiderman); and I hope to learn, sometime, what happened to the Human Torch and Sub Mariner.

    Better luck for us all next post.

  2. I suppose I can understand wanting to create a hero who initially rejects the idea and uses his powers for his own enrichment, but I’m not sure this is the best way to go about it. On top of everything else, Peter Parker seems rather whiny, which is not a good feature for a hero, super or otherwise. The whole time you were describing Ant-Man, I kept thinking, “This is just The Atom.” Thor might have some potential. At the very least it seems more original than Marvel’s other offerings. I can’t say for sure, but some of the Thor art reminds me a little of Jack Kirby. He is at Marvel these days, but you’d think they’d credit him if he were the artist.

  3. Hmmm, interesting take on the new “superheroes”. I agree about Ant-Man (boring) and Thor (why introduce a reborn Norse God then have him fight aliens from a gas giant?), but I have to respectfully disagree about Spider-Man.

    I like the fact that he’s a nebbish, and that he’s a bit selfish; it’s more realistic. I mean, what would most of us do if we suddenly got super-powers? We might not take up bank robbing, but I think we’d at least try to get on Sullivan.  I think Peter Parker is relatable because he’s imperfect, unlike Batman or Superman, who represent an unattainable ideal. Spider-Man got his powers by accident, which (in theory) could happen to anyone. It’s what he chooses to do with the powers that makes him special; I hope this wasn’t just a one-off and we get to see more adventures from this everyman hero.

    As for National having more exciting characters at the moment … you’re probably right. What Marvel needs is to debut a few more heroes and put them together in a team book, like Justice League. They could call it … The Defenders!

    1. I read National, and I have to say, they’re not any better than Marvel.  Also, I take umbrage at Parker’s back-story being the same as Batman’s.  It’s completely different — Bruce Wayne couldn’t have stopped the death of his parents, whereas Parker’s selfishness directly let to the death of his father-surrogate.

      But then Jason and I don’t see eye to eye on many things comics related…which is why I welcome his input.  Variety is the spice of life, right?

  4. I lost interest in comics many years ago but remained a fan of the art of Hal Foster, Alex Raymond and in particular the great Al Williamson. So when Marvel came along I was put off by the ‘blocky’ art style , not the stories.

  5. Marvel’s printer went out of business, so they went hat-in-hand to National, who deigned to let them use their printer – as long as they agreed to not compete (limit to 8 titles a month).

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