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The lost origins of Marvel

We are now at 1961 in the Monsterbus. This is when Kirby created "Marvel Comics" as we now know them. I will blog about each detail when I cover each issue, but here is a quick overview. If this seems one sided, or overly critical of Kirby's editor, I refer the reader to my book, The Case For Kirby.

Timeline

The exact dates don't matter except as a memory aid, an easy way to remember the stories and how they were changed. If any reader can prove beyond doubt that the dates and events should be different then I will happily update the blog. But this is really about the stories.

1960: planning

We have seen in the Monsterbus how Kirby was trying longer stories, and characters who would be suitable for serial adventures.

Early 1961: all the major characters

In early 1961 Kirby went to Goodman with an armful of presentations. This included; the FF, Spider-Man, the Hulk, the X-Men, Ant Man, Iron Man, Sgt. Fury, Thor, and perhaps other characters. Kirby had been prepping the presentations for some time and brought all of it in. Goodman then proceeded to bring it all out over a period of three years.[1] 
All the characters were similar to previous Kirby characters (see The Case For Kirby).

April 1961:[2] the first ten issues were planned

'The Challengers not far from his mind, Kirby approached the task... Kirby followed the Challengers premise to work up setting, premise, and character personalities all in one day, the character designs the next. Kirby showed Lee his work and they spent the rest of a day working out the plotting for the first ten issues.'[3]

Oct 1961: sales figures are in. Start phase 2!

Reliable sales reports always took a few months to come back. Goodman waited to see the good sales figures, then approved the second title, the Hulk. Hulk 1 was published the same month as Fantastic Four 4.

Feb 1962: definitely a hit!

By issue 6 Goodman made the Fantastic Four a monthly title. This was a big vote of confidence, as Goodman was strictly limited in the number of titles his distributor would allow him to ship every month (hence most titles were bi-monthly).

April 1962: Lee ruined everything

All this time Kirby was building up a dark, cosmic story: the characters were hated by society, and usually ended up in space. But Lee preferred upbeat, simpler stories, and would edit Kirby's dialog accordingly. This conflict seems to have come to a head with Fantastic Four issue 8: it appears that Lee had a meeting where he told Kirby to make the stories lighter in tone.[4]

This was a disastrous move, because it undermined the story so far, and threatened sales.[5] It appears that Kirby wanted to make a statement of how angry he was, and how stupid it was to make villains happy-smiley: Kirby drew an oversized out-of-place grin onto the villain in every frame.[6]

About ruins

The word "ruined" may seem strong, but a ruin is literally the damaged remains of a building. Kirby was crafting a magnificent building, a single structure (the stories flowed into each other) with many rooms (subplots and angles) for all ages to explore.

After Lee's edits the building still stood, but it was damaged so that some rooms were now inaccessible. Again I refer the reader to my book, The Case For Kirby. It examines the example of issue 1, a story about the atom bomb, and how it makes monsters of us all. Lee's dialog removed the central plot and most of the book's depth.

May 1962: Lee took the credit, and the money

In Fantastic Four 9 (and other comics with the same cover date) Lee began to call himself the "writer".  And, of course the "writer" gets the writing pay. The comics show more Lee influence: until now the team were outcasts, distrusted by the authorities and often hated by the public. But in a final picture that looks awkwardly tacked on, they had to become popular movie stars.[7]

June 1962: Kirby was not happy

This month was supposed to see issue 6 of The Hulk. Lee had been ruining Kirby's Hulk stories as well,[8] but Lee calling himself the writer was the last straw. Kirby submitted a Hulk story that appeared to show a prototype of Funky Flashman, the Stan Lee parody. Lee rejected the story, and Kirby stormed out, tearing up the entire story and dumping it in the trash. He left the Hulk and the series (after a quick fill in by Steve Ditko) had to be cancelled. This month's issue of the Fantastic Four also has numerous digs at Lee (I'll make that its own new post some day).

July 1962: Kirby took on less work

This month saw the first new Fantastic Four plot, after the initial ten issue plan was sabotaged. This plot can be read as a savage attack on Lee's new direction (and hence a reminder of who was really writing the book).

But Kirby's life did not revolve around Lee, so after making his point he settled down. From here on, Kirby simply took on less work from Lee, and accepted Lee's edits when he had to. Looking back, fans noticed a dip in story quality (e.g. fewer big new characters, and existing characters didn't have their best stories).

April 1963: Lee allowed Kirby more freedom

Lee enticed Kirby back to take on more work by letting him do a serious strip aimed for older readers: Tales of Asgard. Marvel's greatest era started here.

How Tales of Asgard Changed Everything.

And the rest is history

Lee continued to ruin the stories by changing the dialog, but now that Kirby was allowed more freedom the sales increased. This made Lee busier and busier, so he could make fewer and fewer changes. So by 1965 the titles reached their creative peak.

But Lee continued to take the writing credit, and his edits still occasionally ruined a good story. One such edit was the final straw[9], and Kirby started to hold back his best ideas. Fans now look back and see that the flow of great new characters stopped. Kirby was planning the next stage of his career, but that's another story.

Notes

[1] Steve Sherman, via Patrick Ford. Sherman was Kirby's assistant (while Kirby was working at DC), and co-writer with Kirby of the original Captain Victory and Silver Star screenplays.
[2] it might be a little earlier. Dates are six months before cover date. A comic written in April would typically be on sale in August, and cover dated November.
[3] Ray Wyman, in The Art of Jack Kirby. Patick Ford wrote: 'THE ART OF JACK KIRBY' has always been my favorite book on Kirby. The primary reason for that is a lot of it is based on hours of interviews with Kirby which were taped by Ray Wyman." I the quote, Wyman assumes that Lee must have contributed ideas to the Fantastic Four, but a close examination of the book shows that all the original ideas are from Kirby.
[4] There is no evidence for planning meetings for other issues (as the first ten issues were pre-approved), but for issue 8 there is a document where Lee puts his understanding of the story in writing. Why now? If we ignore the dialog and just compare the art to the previous issues, it covers the same theme as the previous issue: robots and mind control. So the Puppet Master is either an alien  or somehow connected to them. In this context, the girl with the glazed expression is probably a robotic puppet. But Lee's dialog, and the typed synopsis, makes no reference to aliens, and the girl becomes the Puppet Master's human step daughter: her glazed expression is explained by her being blind.
[5] For big sales, stories need a lot of conflict. Making everything happy and gentle reduces conflict.
[6] I cannot prove that is the reason for the strange mouth, but look at it: it is far wider than a human mouth, and not like Kirby's normal monster mouths either. It just looks wrong. As if Kirby is plastering it over an otherwise serious character, to make a point.
[7] Judging by the art, the Hollywood scenes were about the contrast between the team (struggling, unpopular) and the life of the rich and famous. Making the team movie stars undermines this. Kirby's title, "the end of the Fantastic Four", may reflect his frustration at them losing their edge.
[8] Fans have often noted that the early Hulk seems seems all over the place with no clear direction. But a look at the art without the dialog shows a clear direction, that was destroyed by Lee's dialog. I'll blog about that another time. But here is one example: issue 3 is where the Hulk gains more powers (including flight) and the series becomes literally and metaphorically a vehicle for Rick Jones and his alienation. But Lee's dialog removed the power of flight, which removed the significance of the development. Rather than a developing exploration of alienation, Lee's dialog edits turned the series into a random sequence of mindlessly hitting things.
[9] Fantastic Four 66-67, "him". It was supposed to be about well-intentioned scientists and the human race being judged, but Lee's dialogue made it about one dimensional heroes versus villains.

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