Tag Archives: jason sacks

[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.

[Nov. 28, 1961] Friendly Competition (The Case for National Comics)

Erica Frank and I have both extolled the virtues of superhero comics; I pumped Marvel while she was a National fan.  Now, famed comics expert Jason Sacks weighs in, mostly to tell us that Erica’s taste is far better than mine.  He’s probably right…

by Jason Sacks

Several weeks ago, the Traveler posted a short, mostly complimentary review of the new Marvel Comic The Fantastic Four. He liked the comic’s heady mix of fact and science fiction, as well as its inclusion of a female character in its cast.

That review troubled me because it praises material I consider to be second rate. Marvel is, unfortunately, a schlock-house. Several years ago Marvel specialized in Twilight Zone-style twist-in-the-tail yarns (which the Traveler discussed in 1959). Recently, though, Marvel’s output has descended into juvie monster stories. The Fantastic Four #1 is not much more than a full-length version of those same moribund tales with the addition of derivative super-powers. The ugly art from Jack Kirby only makes things worse. He should go back to drawing love comics and leave heroes alone. I can confidently say Jack Kirby has no future in costumed-hero comics.

A look of the covers of any month’s releases from this second-rate publisher proves this point.  The enormous monster on the cover of The Fantastic Four#1 is similar to the titanic creature featured in nearly every other Marvel book released recently. The outrageous Monsteroso from the October Amazing Adventures #5, the Mohawked Brutto in the October Tales of Suspense #22, and the ridiculous green giant Fin Fang Foom in that same month’s Strange Tales #89 all fit the same general template.

the Marvel monster who wears shorts!

These Marvel creatures are all bites from the same rancid apple. They represent a juvenile collection of clichés and ridiculousness barely suited for even the most dilapidated drive-in.

Conversely, industry leader National Comics is delivering truly outstanding science fiction comics. In comics like The Flash, Green Lantern and the new Atom a team of talented creators deliver tales that combine fiction and fact in ways that should make people like John W. Campbell smile.

I beg a little indulgence as I tell you about the fascinating Mr. Julius Schwartz, the editor of those comics. Schwartz is one of the leading lights of older style science fiction fandom and pro-dom. In fact, he was a pioneering fan. With Forrest J. Ackerman and Mortimer Weisinger (himself an editor at National, on the Superman titles), Schwartz co-published one of the first “fanzines,” The Time Traveler, in 1932. That mimeographed masterpiece caught the eyes of fans and pros alike. In it, the writers and editors praised the writing of many of the greatest writers of the field while also presenting fiction by aspiring pros.

A rare copy of the fanzine that started the career of the brilliant Mr. Schwartz, Time Traveler. Note future National Comics editor Mortimer Weisinger is also listed on the masthead, as is the famous “pro-fan” Forrest J. Ackerman.

That ‘zine caused a small sensation among fans and professionals. It led to all three men moving into the field full time. Schwartz opened the Solar Sales Service agency, where he represented writers such as Howard Philips Lovecraft, Alfred Bester and Ray Bradbury. After a decade as an agent, the owners of All-American Comics tapped Schwartz to join their staff as an editor on their line of super-heroes including Green Lantern, Dr. Mid-Nite, Hawkman and The Flash. As he gained experience at All-American, and as AA merged with National Comics, Schwartz moved into science fiction comics. He established himself there as a notable editor on such brilliant sci-fi titles as Strange Adventures and Mystery in Space. Those latter two series were perhaps the finest sci-fi comics published since the amazing E.C. Comics disappeared in 1954.

Schwartz brings his same passion for science fiction to his editing of super-hero comics. He also evokes fond memories for longtime fans. The great editor mines for creative gold in places that revive memories of the past while evoking the jet age in which we live. He has set to work reviving the names of some of the members of the much beloved Justice Society of America (moribund since 1951). As part of that effort, our man Schwartz has delivered to readers sleek new versions of such revered names as the Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, and (his latest revival) The Atom.

On “The Atom”, Schwartz collaborates with writer Gardner Fox (a veteran of such magazines as Amazing Stories and Weird Tales) and artist Gil Kane. The background of our new hero has a solid foundation in the same sorts of ideas you might discover each month in the pages of Worlds of If.

The Atom is scientist Ray Palmer (named after the editor of such notable publications as Amazing Stories, Imagination and Other Worlds). He is a researcher at Ivy University investigating matter compression as a means for fighting overpopulation. Palmer has a breakthrough and finds he is able to shrink matter. In typical style, when he sets aside his research to indulge in a little fun, Palmer finds himself in an emergency. To save himself and his girlfriend, Palmer uses the shrinking ability and discovers he has amazing abilities. I anxiously await the second part of Palmer’s saga next month in Showcase #35.

Ray Palmer represents the destiny of America as an outgrowth of scientific discovery. Green Lantern represents our aspirations in space. As President Kennedy reminds us, America will be going to the moon and beyond in the next century. If that is true, I want our astronauts to be like Hal Jordan. He is a test pilot who has no fear. Jordan is ready to battle whatever evil comes his way – even in the far future.

In his September/October issue number 8, Jordan travels into the 58th century. The residents of that long-away century draft Jordan to become the leader of their great society.

Green Lantern travels into the far future to fight these surprising beasts

In fact, Green Lantern is already a member of another great society. Hal discovered in Green Lantern #6 (May/June 1961) that he is the member of a kind of extraterrestrial police force led by a group calling themselves the Guardians of the Universe. That idea seems ripped right from the pages of many classic pulp magazines, but with a modern twist. With sleek art by Kane, this series has rocketed to the top of many fans’ reading lists.

While The Atom and Green Lantern present some of the smartest sci-fi action comics of all time, Schwartz’s crown jewel has to be The Flash.

This new Flash takes his cue from the much-beloved 1940s Flash. As with Green Lantern, however, this is a modern Flash tailored for Baby Boom readers. The new Flash is crewcut cop Barry Allen, who donned a sleek red suit to become the fastest man alive. Since moving into his own solo comic in 1959, The Flash has presented some delightful science-oriented tales. That has included clever descriptions of friction, atomic cohesion and even the theory of continental drift. Each of these adventures have been drawn by Carmine Infantino, a brilliant cartoonist uniquely equipped to deliver sleek, delightful line work.

The cover to the brilliant “Flash of Two Worlds”

The story par excellence, the chapter that shows Schwartz’s incomparable intelligence, is The Flash #123, the September 1961 issue. That month, the creative team pulled off an idea I never expected to witness: the chance to see Barry Allen and Jay Garrick racing alongside each other. Though Barry imagined the original Flash was just comic book star, he actually was able to meet his idol.

How did Barry manage that amazing trick?

Through one of the cleverest ideas I’ve ever come across: parallel worlds.

an explanation of parallel worlds

Parallel worlds! What a clever concept. This idea is a brilliant revelation for a reader such as me. Imagine a counterpart of yourself, the same but deeply different, existing in a dimension vibrating at a different frequency from ours. Imagine how their experiences would vary from yours, and how their world might contain subtle changes.

This clever, innovative idea struck me like a revelation. For us long-time readers of comics this seems a clear signal that the revival of the august Justice Society of America may be coming soon. That means we could witness Green Lantern and the Atom meet their counterparts. It also means the possible resurrections of classic heroes in new guises. If the Atom can be revived, how long will it be before we see Black Canary, Dr. Fate, even The Spectre?

Left to right, Mr. Schwartz, writer Otto Binder and editor Raymond Palmer.

Yes, my friend the Traveler can celebrate that badly drawn kid stuff over at tiny, decrepit Marvel. National Comics is the place to find brilliant science fiction in comic book form. Drop your dime for some of the comics edited by Julius Schwartz and tell me if you don’t agree.