The true story of life at Marvel Comics in the glory days of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee


Illustration for article titled The true story of life at Marvel Comics in the glory days of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee

In this excerpt from Sean Howe’s new book Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, we delve deep into the glory days of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the mid-1960s.

In 1966, Martin Goodman moved his expanding comic-book operations out of the cramped offices at 625 Madison, just down the block to 635. Goodman stayed behind with his magazines; from now on, Stan Lee would have a little more room to breathe, a little less attention from the boss.

Marvel’s old address continued to run in the letter columns, to confuse the overzealous kids who’d started showing up and trying to sneak by Flo Steinberg to meet their heroes. (Lee stopped taking the elevator, where he might be stuck with nutty fans; now he bounded his lean frame up the stairs every day.) They wouldn’t have been treated to much of a spectacle anyway, certainly nothing like the madcap Bullpen that Lee had planted in their imaginations, but there was, at last, a real staff. John “the Mountain” Verpoorten, a pipe-smoking, art-school-educated, six-foot-six bear of a man who collected 16 mm films, and Morrie Kuramoto, a Japanese- American, chain-smoking health-food advocate who’d been one of the 1957 layoff casualties, were hired to help with production.

But even as Marvel was growing bigger, and ever more popular, DC Comics was still on top. The writing was consistently professional, and the artwork-Gil Kane on Green Lantern, Carmine Infantino on The Flash and Batman, Timely alumnus Mike Sekowsky on the Justice League of America, Curt Swan on Superman-was polished and elegant. But to Marvel readers, the personalities of the DC characters were interchangeable, their lives static and flat. Neither charge was entirely true: Aquaman and the Flash both got married, and Superman’s lachrymose longings for Krypton carried a real weight. Still, most of the DC world seemed earnestly homogeneous, rendered with polite draftsmanship that radiated a kind of complacency.

Although they were, in truth, charming and inventive in their own right, they couldn’t hold a candle to the blend of humor and pathos and grandeur that Lee, Kirby, and Ditko had concocted.

The suit-wearing editors at DC discussed Marvel in their meetings, and finally decided that it must be the crude artwork, and the bad puns, that the kids liked. There’s no accounting for taste, they grumbled, and tried to get hip by pasting so-called go-go checkerboard patterns at the tops of each comic. Instead of Lee’s snappy “Bullpen Bulletins,” DC instituted a news update page called “Direct Currents” that might as well have been written by accountants. They introduced a “New Look” version of the dying-on-the-vine Batman, replacing horrendous alien-invader stories with horrendous self-parody that Susan Sontag, in The New York Times, singled out as a textbook example of “low camp.” It was Marvel gone wrong, with only Stan Lee’s puns and none of his heart: Spider-Man had Aunt May, and so now Batman got an Aunt Harriet, but instead of familial drama there was only arch, idiot-savant modishness.

Marvel was still scrappier, with a faster-growing fan base. Marvel was more Mets than Yankees, more Rolling Stones than Pat Boone (whom, in fact, DC had immortalized in a comic book); it was the Pepsi Generation challenger to DC’s Coca-Cola giant. Where Marvel had the interest of Fellini and the editor of Existential Psychiatry, DC had the songwriters of Bye Bye Birdie staging It’s A Bird, It’s A Plane, It’s Superman! on Broadway.

But DC also had Batman. More specifically, they had Batman, star of ABC-TV, an instant Top 10 Nielsen hit, which caused the sales of the comic book to suddenly increase multifold, the first comic book in years to break the one-million-copies mark. New episodes of the show ran an unprecedented twice a week and precipitated a merchandising bonanza, a windfall in junky plastic tie-ins.

The new, campy version of the Batman comic had attracted Hollywood’s attention; DC’s very failure to re-create the Marvel style resulted in its biggest hit. Martin Goodman might have wished he’d waited a little longer to sell the rights to his own characters-but for a magazine publisher whose comic books were a fraction of the business, it was all gravy anyway. Marvel’s own success had already catalyzed other publishers to trot out superheroes, and now Batman translated into a popularity surge for everybody in the again-growing field.

Much of the new competition employed exiles from Marvel itself: in addition to the Tower Comics books edited by the disgruntled Wally Wood, by 1965 the field also included Archie Comics’ imitatively titled “Mighty Comics Group” line, created by Superman co-creator (and former Strange Tales writer) Jerry Siegel, and Paul Reinman, the Timely artist who’d inked much of Kirby’s early 1960s Marvel work. Mighty Comics tried to have it both ways, with covers that were actionable mimicries of Marvel and a tone as groan-inducingly dopey as Batman’s. “Dig their crazy costumes-marvel at their stupor deeds!” read the cover copy on a paperback collection of Mighty stories, titled High Camp Superheroes. “Some will say this book is so bad it’s GREAT.” Charlton Comics’ more straight-faced new “Action Heroes” line was home to Steve Ditko, who eventually used the platform to introduce the Question, a right-wing vigilante unfettered by Stan Lee’s pesky moral relativism.[1] And Harvey Comics hired Jack Kirby’s old partner, Joe Simon.

With news of Simon’s “Harvey Thriller” line in the works, Martin Goodman told Lee to leap into action. “I came in one day,” said Kirby, “and Stan said, ‘Martin says we have to add more books.’ They were afraid Al Harvey, who had pretty good distribution, was going to crowd them off the stands.” In the space of a week, Lee and Kirby came up with a misfit group of heroes called the Inhumans and a handsome black hero called the Coal Tiger. But it turned out that DC, which still controlled Marvel’s distribution, wouldn’t allow Goodman to publish the extra titles anyway. So the new characters were set aside until they could be worked into the Fantastic Four, as players in what would be the most adventurous stories that Marvel had ever attempted.

The Marvel heroes populated every corner of the world. The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Daredevil, and the Avengers were based in New York City; the X-Men made their home in nearby Westchester County. The Hulk wandered the southwestern United States; Iron Man went to Ire- land, battled a Norwegian menace, and visited Vietnam. There was a cavalcade of alien visitations, and Doctor Strange could always be counted on to visit the astral plane. But now Lee and Kirby would really push the boundaries, revving up the mythological grandeur of the Marvel Universe. Kirby freed his inner Edith Hamilton by supplementing Thor’s modern-day adventures in Journey into Mystery with “Tales of Asgard,” in which Norse gods vied for power among themselves. It wasn’t just the awe-striking powers that made these stories operatic. There was also the classicism of the narratives-quests for mystical objects, preparations for battle-and themes of duty, heritage, and mortality that seemed wholly unrelated to the alien-punching stories from the newsstand competition. Before now, superhero comics weren’t about approval from your king father-that was strictly Shakespeare. Now, in the Marvel version of things, Thor always had to answer to angry dad Odin, and his chief nemesis, Loki, was also his half brother-an enemy-sibling dynamic that would be repeated with characters in The X-Men and the Fantastic Four.

Journey into Mystery may have been the most explicitly mythological of the Lee and Kirby books, but the stories in Fantastic Four were becoming more philosophical, and more ceremonious, with every issue. In the mid– 1960s, the psychodrama of the First Family of Marvel Comics reached new levels. For more than six months, Ben Grimm, the Thing, stalked around in a sustained rage, still unable to accept the permanence of his mutated state. Reed and Sue Richards, Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Girl, followed their nuptials with icy tension, as Reed became more and more withdrawn, obsessed with his scientific pursuits. And everything converged when Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, fell under the spell of doomed love for a doe-eyed beauty named Crystal. It turned out she was a member of the Inhumans, the strange-powered family of exiled royalty who lived hidden in the Swiss Alps but had come to New York City pur- suing one of their own, a runaway.

The Inhumans were like nothing that had come before. Their intentions were ambiguous, and their bodies-one had earthquake-inducing hooves, another tentacle-like hair, another gills and fins-verged on the grotesque. Black Bolt, their leader, had a voice that literally shattered the earth around him-and so he remained mute. Lockjaw, the family pet, was a massive mustachioed dog with antennae.

With the introduction of the Inhumans, it was suddenly apparent that the Marvel Universe was infinite, that there could be whole civilizations in every corner of the entire cosmos: as each issue tumbled into the next, picking up momentum, expanding the cast, the grand space opera absorbed forgotten characters and established the relationships between them all. Overlapping with the Inhumans adventure was the threat of Galactus, a twenty-foot-tall humanoid alien who wore purple headgear and drained life from entire planets for sustenance, his arrival heralded by a sterling, speechless being on a flying surfboard-the Silver Surfer- who scouted ahead like an angel of death. The Fantastic Four returned from their latest adventure to find a red-skied New York City in flames, its screaming citizens dropping belongings and falling on one another as they wandered through empty intersections. Even the FF’s old enemies, the shape-shifting alien Skrulls, were shown panicking in their space- ships far away. The Watcher, a cosmic deity sworn to observe the galaxies but never interfere, was dusted off from early issues; understanding the threat of Galactus, he broke his oath and offered assistance to the heroes. There was the sense that something big was coming, something scary, something secret-something that didn’t belong in comic books.

Illustration for article titled The true story of life at Marvel Comics in the glory days of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee

Kirby, no longer satisfied with air-cars and gamma rays, introduced Atmo-Guns and Matter Mobilizers and Elemental Converters. The Watcher sent the Human Torch into the Negative Zone, an unexplored realm of antimatter, to retrieve a weapon called the Ultimate Nullifier. Lee and Kirby knew better than to explain these concepts in great detail. Readers couldn’t possibly understand; even the heroes themselves couldn’t process what was going on. The Silver Surfer, the Watcher, Galactus- they were all bigger than the helpless Fantastic Four, who were relegated to sitting on the sidelines. The Watcher commanded them to show humility: “Stand and observe! Try to fathom the cataclysmic forces which have been unleashed!” Two years before 2001: A Space Odyssey, before the cinema could hope to approach the psychedelic imagination, the Human Torch emerged from an epiphanic trip in the laser-light show that was the Negative Zone, the Ultimate Nullifier finally in hand, but stricken with something like cosmic trauma, stammering in shock: “I traveled through worlds . . . so big . . . so big . . . there . . . there aren’t words! We’re like ants . . . just ants . . . ants!!!”

The Fantastic Four nervously brandished the exotic weapon, and the conscience-stricken Silver Surfer turned against his master, but Galactus was more annoyed than intimidated. He agreed to spare the planet in exchange for the surrender of the Ultimate Nullifier and casually sentenced his former messenger to imprisonment on Earth. (“I remove your space-time powers! Henceforth, the Silver Surfer shall roam the galaxies no more!”) The devourer of planets finally departed, but it didn’t feel like a clean triumph for the heroes, just a loss of innocence. Letter-writers wiped their brows, caught their breath, tried to reason it out: clearly the Galactus saga was a justification for Vietnam, with Galactus as the Viet Cong, the Fantastic Four as South Vietnam, and the Silver Surfer as America . . . right? Lee responded with wry, expert deflection: “Two’ll getcha ten that our next mail contains a whole kaboodle of letters from equally imaginative fans who are utterly convinced that Galactus represented Robert McNamara, while the Silver Surfer was Wayne Morse- with Alicia symbolizing Lady Bird!”

He had a point: it was beyond metaphor. And it wasn’t just Fantastic Four that could no longer be reduced to Joseph Campbell schematics or English Lit 101 symbolisms. Suddenly almost everything in the Marvel Universe was reaching some kind of critical juncture, a point of no return. Nick Fury’s modern-day S.H.I.E.L.D. adventures in Strange Tales merged with Captain America’s missions in Tales of Suspense as the he- roes teamed against high-tech organizations like A.I.M. (Advanced Idea Mechanics) and HYDRA[2] for a kind of sci-fi paramilitary feedback loop. Here, too, science bounded forward at a dizzying, almost alarming rate-even the flurry of good-guy gadgets like Life Model Decoys carried dis- concerting post-atomic associations of that which humanity is not ready to harness. A.I.M.-which consisted of shady industrialists outfitted like futuristic beekeepers-created the Super-Adaptoid and brandished a talisman known as the Cosmic Cube (“The ultimate weapon! The ultimate source of power! The only such artifact known to man-which can convert thought waves-into material action!”), which fell into the hands of the Red Skull, who’d just reemerged from the rubble of the Führerbunker after two decades. All you could pray for was to have the Orion Missile, or the Matter Transmitter, on your side.

Thor encountered a simultaneous crisis. The thunder god’s own name finally replaced Journey into Mystery as the title of his comic, but-as if in ironic commemoration-the “Tales of Asgard” story tucked in the back of the latest issue featured a nightmare vision of Ragnarok, the end of the world. Ragnarok was presented in a sort of premonition-daydream sequence, but it was assuredly an outcome that could not be avoided, a fait accompli: “As chaos and carnage envelop the realm; as a fury akin to madness sweeps the very soul of Asgard; there are those who crumble beneath the strain-who join the ranks of the forces of evil. . . .” Fire and devastation unfolded over two issues, depopulated panels given over to fallen swords, steel-beam crosses, and smoking debris. The prophecy was staved off, but there was the nagging knowledge that this was only a temporary stall from “that which no force in all the universe can prevent.” Galactus, the Cosmic Cube, and Ragnarok were all closing in on the skies, a conspiracy of doom. Armageddon was nigh.

It was at this eschatological juncture that Steve Ditko’s last Amazing Spider-Man and “Doctor Strange” stories were finally published, months after Ditko’s actual departure and thus carrying the import of a last will and testament. A conflict between Strange and his rival Dormammu, which had extended over an unprecedented seventeen issues, came to an apocalyptic climax of its own, as Dormammu held hostage a cosmic entity known as . . . Eternity. Once again, planets shook, stars screamed, and our hero narrowly avoided insanity. “No human mind can retain the things I have seen!” Strange proclaimed. “Already, the memories begin to fade. . . .” In the final panel, the Sorcerer Supreme turns his back and takes leave of the extradimensional battle site to return home, “his greatest battle won.” With that, Ditko was gone from Marvel.

Carl Burgos and Joe Simon, now in their fifties, watched from the sidelines. As the initial twenty-eight-year terms of Marvel’s initial copyrights on the Human Torch and Captain America approached expiration, creators Burgos and Simon consulted lawyers and prepared to wrest back ownership of the heroes upon which Marvel had built its comics empire.[3] While the paperwork was completed, they also saw another way to stick it to Goodman: they’d roll out pointedly competing comic books.

Burgos teamed up with Myron Fass, who’d drawn stories for Timely in the early 1950s and was now a publisher of sleazy magazines, in a gambit to snatch the Captain Marvel trademark. To Goodman’s chagrin, the name Captain Marvel had never been his property-it had belonged to Fawcett in the 1940s and 1950s, until the settlement of a DC Comics suit that claimed that the caped and flying character of Captain Marvel infringed on its Superman. The Captain Marvel name had been abandoned along with the character, and now Fass pounced, knowing he’d get a reaction from Goodman. Burgos’s new version of Captain Marvel was, like his old creation the Human Torch, a red-costumed android; if Marvel didn’t get the message, Burgos also soon introduced a villain named Dr. Doom. The comic, launched in early 1966, bombed, but when an irritated Goodman offered six thousand dollars for the copyright in July, Fass refused.

Burgos was also at that time pursuing legal action against Marvel Comics over the Human Torch copyright. Then, one day in the summer of 1966, his daughter, Susan, watched as he destroyed every trace of his Marvel Comics career-which had to that point been hidden away from her. “I never saw his collection until the day he threw it all out. I just happened to be in the backyard this summer day and there was a whole pile of stuff in the yard. I took as many of the comics as I could carry back to my room, like they were some treasure. He came in and demanded that I give him my comics. . . . I got the impression that he either lost the case or something else had happened pertaining to it.” Again Burgos withheld details from his daughter, but over the years she learned the source of his ire. “I grew up believing that he came up with this fabulous idea,” she said, “and that Stan Lee took it from him.”

In fact, Burgos’s claims may have never made it to court; his dark ritual on that summer day may have instead been reaction to a new Marvel comic book. In early August, Lee and Kirby’s Fantastic Four Annual #4 featured Burgos’s original Human Torch, battling the new teenage Human Torch and the rest of the Fantastic Four. Cover-dated October 1968, it appeared exactly twenty-eight years after Marvel Comics #1-in other words, exactly as the initial twenty-eight-year copyright was expiring. The original Torch had been revived just long enough to ensure their copyright claim-only to be killed again, pages later. “Well, let’s face it,” mused the Thing when Burgos’s creation had been extinguished, “ya win a few . . .’n ya lose a few!” Lee had Johnny Storm, the last Human Torch standing, eulogizing his fallen predecessor this way: “He tried to defeat me . . . and yet, I can’t find it in my heart to hate him!”

Burgos quietly registered some copyright claims in 1967 that went nowhere, and then disappeared from Marvel’s radar entirely. In the early 1970s, artist Batton Lash tracked down Burgos and asked the veteran for advice. But Burgos had left comics behind for good, and advised Lash to stay away from that “terrible field” as well, citing his own disappointment over the Human Torch. “If I’d known how much trouble and heartbreak the Torch would bring me,” he told the young artist, “I would never have created him.”

Joe Simon, meanwhile, was about to pursue a copyright claim of his own, on Captain America. Captain America had been-along with Iron Man, Thor, Sub-Mariner, and the Hulk-one of five characters announced for the Marvel Super Heroes animated show.[4] By the spring of 1966, as the series began production, there was already a bonanza of licensing in place: paperbacks, LPs, model kits, costumes, buttons, pins, trading cards, board games, T-shirts and sweatshirts, toys, and stickers. “We’ve had movie offers for just about all our characters,” Lee bragged. Simon would file suit against not only Goodman’s Magazine Management, but also Krantz Films (distributor of the cartoon show) and Weston Merchandising (which had developed Captain Action, a figure that included Captain America paraphernalia).[5] Simon, a businessman as well as an artist, was a greater legal threat than Burgos. He’d kept extensive records-including the original sketches he’d done of Captain America in 1940.

As he had with the Human Torch, Goodman took measures to reestablish Marvel’s ownership of Captain America. Fantasy Masterpieces, a double-sized title that had run reprints of 1950s Atlas stories, suddenly shifted gears and re-presented Golden Age Captain America. But the credits-“art and editorial by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby”-were removed.

Kirby protested, but he was in a tough spot. “Simon said he created Captain America,” Goodman told him. “He wants the copyright and it looks like you’re out.” Goodman offered a deal: if Kirby would side with Marvel in the dispute, the company would pay him an amount to match any future settlement with Simon. On July 12, 1966, Kirby signed a deposition describing the creation of Captain America. “I felt that whatever I did for Timely belonged to Timely as was the practice in those days. When I left Timely, all of my work was left with them.”

As Simon plotted his next legal move, he continued editing superhero books for Harvey Comics, best known for such little-kid fare as Casper the Friendly Ghost and Richie Rich. Happy to poach from Martin Good- man, he commissioned work from Marvel artists Dick Ayers and George Tuska; he also hired Wally Wood.[6] He recruited newer talent as well: at a Manhattan comic convention, he approached an artist with James Dean hair and a million-dollar smile and invited him to Long Island to help create characters. I want to compete with Marvel, Simon told the artist.

The artist’s name was Jim Steranko, and he was the twenty-seven-year- old art director at a Shillington, Pennsylvania, ad agency. If there weren’t a trail of newspaper clippings to confirm it, one would never believe what Steranko had packed into his early years. He was born into poverty, with a father who struggled to support his family by gathering bootleg coal, digging homemade mines, and taking serious risks in unsafe, rickety shafts. The young Steranko, obsessed with the danger and claustrophobia of his father’s daily routine, dedicated himself to the art of escape. By the age of sixteen, he was putting on Houdini-like public performances, showing off to local police that he could escape from their jails. He also slipped out of straitjackets, leg irons, handcuffs, safes, and vaults.

Other performances were less thrilling to the local authorities: The teenaged Steranko began stealing an arsenal’s worth of guns and a small parking lot’s worth of motor vehicles. In February 1956, Steranko and a partner were arrested for the thefts, committed throughout eastern Pennsylvania, of twenty-five cars and two trucks. (He was careful to avoid criminal activity in his hometown. “None of the things we did were done in

Reading, maybe one or two. I stole a submachine gun in Reading, but that was all.”) They burglarized gas stations, but a sole, thwarted attempt at armed robbery-the victim sized up Steranko, realized he wouldn’t shoot the gun, and refused to hand over any money-showed the limits of his transgressive inclinations. By the early 1960s, Steranko had moved on to playing rock-and-roll guitar (his band shared bills with Bill Haley and His Comets), card tricks (he was nationally ranked and published a book), and fire-eating, before he finally settled into advertising.

Through it all, Steranko found constant inspiration in comic books. But for once, it seemed like instant mastery of a craft was beyond his grasp. He’d been turned away by Marvel in the summer of 1965, and now he regaled Simon with silly-named heroes like Spyman and Magicmaster. Steranko not only wrote the scripts and designed the characters; he also included elaborate diagrams that delineated the heroes’ powers. But Simon told him that he didn’t have the proper artistic skills to draw the stories. And so the prodigy went across town, to the very company that Simon had hired him to challenge.

When Steranko entered the Marvel offices in the summer of 1966, he’d just sold a pitch that very day for an animated series to Paramount Pictures, and had even more swagger than usual. He needed that swagger to get through all the proper channels: he didn’t have an appointment. Flo Steinberg called back to Sol Brodsky, who in turn sent Roy Thomas out to the reception area for the formality of humoring yet another amateur comic-book artist. The expected brush-off never happened. Thomas, im- pressed with what he saw, sent Steranko into Lee’s office. Lee was in his usual high-octane mode-as Steranko described it, “equal parts actor, editor, charmer, and showman.” The samples, he said, were crude. But there was something he liked about them.

“What’s that?” asked Steranko.

“Raw energy!” Lee practically shouted. He pointed to a rack of comics. “What would you like to do for us?” he said. “Pick one!”

Steranko walked out with an art assignment on “Nick Fury.” After a few months of drawing over Kirby’s layouts, Steranko was handed the reins-solely generating not just the art, but the scripts as well. For the first time since Wally Wood’s Daredevil #10 fiasco, Lee allowed someone else to write and draw everything in a comic. Jack Kirby, unsatisfied with his own lack of writing credits, took notice.

Stan Lee’s mind was elsewhere that summer. The Marvel Super Heroes cartoon was getting ready to air on dozens of television stations across the country, five nights a week, and so the show’s producer, Robert Lawrence, put Lee up in a midtown penthouse apartment, where after hours he scribbled extensive notes in blue pencil: We’ve got to let viewer know who Bucky IS! . . . Shapanka is a scientist-doesn’t use slang! . . . The final frame is weak! It was Lee’s first taste of showbiz, and he wasn’t going to let it slide.

When the show began airing, Lawrence accompanied Lee on a tour of college campuses. “The kids were unbelievable,” Lawrence marveled. “I think we spent three days at Chapel Hill with them. They’d stay up all night drinking beers, speaking to Stan Lee.” Esquire’s annual college issue featured the Marvel characters in a full-color, six-page spread, and reported that the company had already “sold 50,000 printed t-shirts and 30,000 sweat shirts, and it has run out of adult sizes of both.” College student fans weighed in for the magazine, proving they were digging what Lee and Co. were laying down: “Marvel often stretches the pseudo- scientific imagination far into the phantasmagoria of other dimensions, problems of time and space, and even the semi-technological concept of creation. They are brilliantly illustrated, to a nearly hallucinogenic extent.” Before long, Marvel Comics was selling ads for shaving cream and cars. Lee had even earned the respect of Goodman’s magazine editors. “For Stan Lee,” Mario Puzo inscribed in a copy of his latest novel, “Whose imagination I cannot hope to equal.”

Even as he was tending to the animated show, visiting campuses, and scripting a big chunk of the comics line, Lee was also, with Sol Brodsky, spending a lot of his energy shifting writers and artists around-this was the biggest stable of talent they’d had since the 1950s. (A nice side effect of the competition from Tower, Harvey, and Archie superhero lines was that Lee convinced Goodman that Marvel needed to raise page rates to keep their creative edge.) Roy Thomas-goateed now, with a Russian hat, alligator shoes, and a Nehru jacket-offered more writer recommendations, helping to relieve some of Lee’s burden. Thomas’s high school pal Gary Friedrich scripted westerns and war titles, and bumped the quality level of Sgt. Fury above anything Lee had done on the title. It quickly became, ironically, the book with the most explicit criticism of foreign wars, at a time when Lee’s characters were occasionally still spouting exclamations like “No one has the right to defy the wishes of his government! Not even Iron Man!”

Before long, Lee handed “Iron Man” over to another Thomas recommendation. Archie Goodwin, a bespectacled EC Comics fan, had graduated from cartooning school just in time for the collapsed comic-book economy of the late 1950s. He’d toiled in the art department of Redbook (where he’d rejected Andy Warhol’s portfolio, and then lectured Warhol about tracing other people’s work), and edited EC-like black-and-white horror publications for the infamously cheap and hot-tempered publisher Jim Warren. At Marvel, Goodwin scaled back the hawkishness of “Iron Man,” moving Tony Stark further away from Cold War antagonism and into the spy/technology milieu that had come to define Captain America and Nick Fury.

Thomas’s nose for talent helped enormously. But Lee remained the de facto art director, and maintaining the look of Marvel comics fell on his shoulders alone. Near the end of 1965, Lee had asked John Romita to feature Spider-Man in a two-part Daredevil story. Romita didn’t realize it at the time, but it was an audition to replace Steve Ditko on Amazing Spider-Man. When Ditko’s inevitable departure finally happened, the new team hit the ground running. Their very first issue together featured the shocking revelation that the Green Goblin’s secret identity was Nor- man Osborn, the wealthy industrialist father of Peter Parker’s classmate Harry Osborn. (Rumors circulated that Ditko’s refusal to go along with this dramatic plot twist had been the final point of contention between Lee and Ditko.)

Romita had preferred working on Daredevil. But he was a team player, a consummate professional happily wearing a crisp white shirt and tie every time he stepped into the office, and anyway he figured the stint was temporary. “I couldn’t believe that a guy would walk away from a success- ful book that was the second-highest seller at Marvel,” Romita explained to Thomas years later. “I didn’t know Ditko. I assumed he’d do what I would have done-he’d think about how he had given up a top character, and he’d be back. And I was sort of counting the days until I could get back on Daredevil.” Romita was conscientious about making it a smooth transition, copying Ditko’s style as best he could, even using a technical pen for the most faithful mimicry possible.

He failed at his Ditko impression. But Romita’s experience with romance comics had advantages. Peter Parker’s jaw strengthened, his hair moved into place, and he bulked up slightly. His next-door neighbor, Mary Jane Watson-whom Lee and Ditko had been coyly hiding in shadows for a year and a half-finally showed her face, and she was a gorgeous, sassy, raven-haired party girl. Gwen Stacy got even prettier; she and Mary Jane began competing for Peter’s attentions like they were go-go versions of Betty and Veronica. And everyone, even Flash Thompson, started smiling more. According to Romita, at first Lee admonished him for his glamorous-looking characters, for extinguishing Ditko’s moodiness. But before long, Lee himself was asking for changes to soften Peter Parker: longer hair, less of a square, jeans, boots, miniskirted girls all around him. He began dropping copies of Women’s Wear Daily on Romita’s drawing table, instructing him to incorporate the latest fashions. Any temporary concerns he had must have been assuaged by the sales figures-Spider- Man was selling better than ever.

Daredevil now belonged to Atlas alumnus Gene Colan, an anxious blond movie buff whom Lee lured back from a soul-crushing job making educational filmstrips. Colan’s moody chiaroscuro renderings gave the character a weight that hadn’t existed with Wood or Romita, and, more important, finally differentiated him from Spider-Man. Pacing wasn’t Colan’s strong suit-he had a dangerous habit of drawing breathtaking large-panel scenes, only to realize that he needed to cram the second half of the story into the final few pages-but for Lee, the gain in dramatic range outweighed the logistical headaches. In Tales of Suspense, Colan even managed to lend emotional heft to Iron Man, subtly changing the angles of the metal helmet’s eye and mouth openings into something resembling facial expressions.

Another Atlas veteran rejoining Marvel was John Buscema, who was gruff, fortyish, with a Robert Mitchum vibe. Like Colan and Romita, Buscema had thoroughly hated the Madison Avenue job he’d had in recent years. But he couldn’t help expressing, to almost comic effect, his indifference toward superheroes. He was more concerned with the human form and open landscapes than with colored costumes and gadgetry. He wanted to channel the ancient and fantastic, and hated “goddamn automobiles and skyscrapers”-fixtures, of course, in Marvel Comics.

Roy Thomas, who collaborated with him on The Avengers, was so taken with Buscema’s richly illustrative style that he tailored his scripts accordingly, resulting in a succession of mythological adventures for the Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, Hawkeye, and Goliath.

Unfortunately, Colan’s “Iron Man” assignment and Buscema’s Avengers had once belonged to Don Heck, one of the core artists of the early superhero titles. Heck was slowly eased from both, and shifted over to the mediocre-selling X-Men. Work was work, and he didn’t have strong feelings about which character he was drawing, but he could sense that something was changing. Heck, a longtime pro and illustrator of the prettiest women of anyone at Marvel, now sheepishly visited Jack Kirby at home and asked for drawing advice.[7] It was becoming clear that Marvel Comics could move ahead with or without any one individual.

Meanwhile, Jim Steranko enjoyed a luxury that Heck (and Kirby, and Ditko, and Wood, and everyone else at Marvel, for that matter) never did: he was already pulling down a lucrative full-time job outside of comics. Making comics essentially as a hobby meant that the financial compensation didn’t loom as large. He had no family to support, no children to spend time with. The work, and his romantic notions of the artist’s life, were everything. “I believe that happiness is nothing,” he told an interviewer. “I don’t think people were put here to be happy. I think if you decide to be an artist or a writer, you automatically accept the responsibility of being alone. However, after your 50 or 60 years are up you’ll be able to look back and see this output that you’ve done that will endure long after you’re gone, and will continue to fill the minds of millions of people.”

So he threw himself into experimenting with the form-slowly, at first, and then relentlessly. He followed Kirby’s lead with collage work, which he supplemented with the strobing and shimmying effects of cutting-edge Op Art. He approached his pages more like a designer than an illustrator, paying special attention to the functions of the panel grids and spatial shifts. Concentric circles, perspective-plane diagrams, and other geometric trickery conspired to make Nick Fury Marvel’s most psychedelic comic since Ditko’s Doctor Strange. Steranko reached back to Will Eisner’s Spirit and Johnny Craig’s EC horror comics for inspiration, and the futurist bent of the series allowed for high-tech toys on every page, rendered in the intensively elaborate Kirby style. But where Kirby had full-page drawings, Steranko had double-page spreads-and then quadruple-page spreads, for which you’d have to buy two copies and lay them together if you wanted to take in the full vista. There were nods to Salvador Dali, Eadweard Muybridge, Richard Avedon, and the films of Robert Siodmak and Michael Curtiz, and contemporary commercial artists like Richard M. Powers and Bob Peak. It was Positively Postmodern- ism, in the Merry Marvel Way.

The combination of knowing winks and dazzling, nearly mathematically perfect artwork betrayed a certain emotional distance, but Steranko’s work never devolved into camp. Nor did it sell tremendously. To a dedicated readership of gearheads, pot smokers, and art students, “Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.” was the apex of an art form. But despite a few token guest appearances from Captain America early on, Steranko’s world existed mostly on the side, sealed away from everything else.

Increasingly, that was how Jack Kirby felt he existed, too-“a lonely sort of guy.” No one would suspect this, of course. Every week he’d come into the office, enjoy a hero’s welcome, and chat up the newer Bullpen employees-Herb Trimpe, Stu Schwartzberg, Linda Fite-who gushed with admiration. He told the Merry Marvel Messenger that he and that “rascal” Stan Lee liked to “share ideas, laughs, and stubby cigars.” “Marvel’s been very kind to me and I like the people,” he told an audience at the 1966 New York comics convention. “I’ve been working there seven years and I’ve been very happy at it.” But privately, he was growing irritated that Lee was spending so much time on the college circuit while he was spending seven days a week at the desk in the one-window basement of his home, which he’d taken to calling “the Dungeon.” When new artists came to Marvel, they were handed a stack of Kirby’s books or, better yet, a stack of Kirby’s rough layouts over which to draw. He was, in effect, training others to keep him from becoming too valuable to the company. Kirby waited for Goodman to give him a piece of the earnings that his creations were generating. Lee threw up his hands and said that he couldn’t make those decisions. Goodman stalled.

“In the minds and hearts of those of us who have come of age intellectually in the psychedelic sixties,” William David Sherman and Leon Lewis rhapsodized in their 1967 survey Landscape of Contemporary Cinema, “SNCC supersedes the NAACP, Ramparts supersedes The New Republic, Sun Ra supersedes Duke Ellington, and all forms of expression from a comic book by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby to a performance by the Fugs become accessible as works of art.” Lee and Kirby continued turning out breathtakingly imaginative work, expanding the scope of the Marvel Universe and resonating with the zeitgeist via a menu of token liberal signifiers and general trippiness. Shortly before Fantastic Four #52 went into production, The New York Times ran an article about the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, a political party that had formed in Alabama under the leadership of Stokely Carmichael and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. The LCFO’s logo, a black panther, was so striking that reports began calling the group the Black Panther party. When Fantastic Four #52 hit the stands, the Coal Tiger-the African adventurer whom Lee and Kirby had kept in cold storage for months-had a new name.8 Even with the delay, the Black Panther still managed to make history as the first black superhero to reach a wide audience.

As with so many other totems of the late 1960s counterculture, Marvel trafficked in mind-bending sci-fi grandiosity. Out of costume, the Black Panther was an African prince named T’Challa who led the fictional country of Wakanda, not a Dark Continent noble savage but a scientific genius who impressed even the Fantastic Four’s Reed Richards. Forget gamma blasts and radioactive spiders; Marvel’s creations now reflected a growing interest in the collision of ancient civilizations and futuristic technologies. “As a preliminary to understanding the present, one must be capable of projecting one’s intelligence far into the past and far into the future,” Jacques Bergier wrote in The Morning of the Magicians, a million-selling volume of pseudoscience that kicked off a 1960s fascination with the idea that aliens had visited our planet and bestowed advanced technology. Given Kirby’s later dedication to exploring this idea, it’s likely that he was the one most responsible for threading it through Marvel’s adventures in the mid- and late 1960s. Thor arrived in the old-fashioned Eastern European country of Wundagore and met the High Evolutionary, a genetic scientist with a Faust complex who’d tried to create his own race (later, he’d clone life on a larger scale, fabricating an entire planet in the image of Earth). The Fantastic Four discovered an alien warrior race known as the Kree-who’d communed with the Incas in Peru, just like the ancient astronauts in The Morning of the Magicians-and confronted a golden Golem-like being named Him, artificially created by the mysterious enclave at the Citadel of Science. The Negative Zone kept opening up to reveal new psychedelic horrors, rendered by Kirby with rainbow prisms, hectagonal globes, and masses of black dots, sometimes accompanied by his increasingly experimental collage work. Every time a Marvel hero turned over a stone, it seemed, a new, energy-crackling mythology awaited.


[1] Ditko now had a free hand to insert Randian platitudes in his comics without Good- man and Lee’s interference. A sample, from Mysterious Suspense #1: “The greatest battle a person must constantly fight is to uphold proper principles, known truths, against everyone he deals with! A truth cannot be defeated!”

[2] “Cut off a limb, and two more shall take its place” was HYDRA’s pledge, a concise summary of guerrilla terrorism’s chilling power.

[3] In 1966 Bill Everett, who hadn’t worked for Marvel since the Daredevil #1 fiasco, was suddenly flush with work from Martin Goodman. He was first sated with a regular assignment on the Hulk (in Tales to Astonish); when Ditko departed Marvel, Everett was immediately offered work on Dr. Strange (in Strange Tales) and received a loan from Goodman that, according to Roy Thomas, “wasn’t going to have to be paid back, so he wouldn’t sue.”

[4] The rights to the Fantastic Four had been otherwise secured. Spider-Man was originally going to be a part of Marvel Super Heroes, but apparently Marvel and Grantay- Lawrence decided to save him for bigger things-after storyboards were drawn up, he was replaced by the Sub-Mariner.

[5] The side-by-side pictures of Sgt. Fury and Captain America on the back of Captain Action’s toy packaging were soon appropriated as anti-imperialist images in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1967 film, La Chinoise.

[6] Wally Wood, reportedly, was still stinging from his Marvel experience. He told stories-somewhat unlikely stories-about Stan Lee sitting on a file cabinet and lord- ing above freelancers while he threw their checks down to them.

[7] Syd Shores, the onetime Captain America artist, was supposed to relieve Kirby on the title in 1967, after a brief period of inking over Kirby’s pencils. But Lee was unsatis- fied with Shores’s Marvel Method attempts, and Kirby was once again put in the role of pep talker and mentor to his own peers.

[8] There may have been some internal hand-wringing about the Black Panther. The first version of the cover had shown the Panther’s black skin; the published version did not. Previews in other titles that month suggest Marvel couldn’t decide how much of him to show-or how to characterize him. “Don’t miss the mystery villain of the month!” read the ads, which blocked out the cover art. (Once Marvel committed to a policy of representing black characters, however, change came quickly. The cover of the following month’s romance comic Modeling with Millie proudly introduced a black British model named Jill Jerold to its cast.)


(Unless otherwise noted, all quotes are from author interviews.)

“I came in one day”: From Mark Evanier, “Jack FAQs,” Jack Kirby Collector 44, Fall 2005.

“wasn’t going to have to be paid back”: Jim Amash, “Roy Thomas Interview,” Jack Kirby Collector 18, January 1998.

“I never saw his collection”: Jim Amash, “The Privacy Act of Carl Burgos,” Alter Ego 49, June 2005.

“We’ve had movie offers”: Fantastic Four 50, May 1966.

“Simon said he created Captain America,” Joe Simon, The Comic-Book Makers, Vanguard, 2003.

“I felt that whatever I did”: Sworn statement from Jack Kirby, posted in “Marvel 
Worldwide, Inc. et al v. Kirby et al.-Jack Kirby’s 1966 Statement,” 20th Century 
Danny Boy, April 3, 2011.

In February 1956: “Admit Stealing 25 Cars in State,” Gettysburg Times, February 
6, 1956.

“None of the things”: Robin Green, “Face Front! Clap Your Hands, You’re on the Winning Team!” Rolling Stone 91, September 16, 1971.

“The kids were unbelievable”: Adam McGovern, “Marvel Man,” Jack Kirby 
Collector 41, Fall 2004.

“sold 50,000 printed t-shirts”: “O.K., You Passed the 2-S Test-Now You’re Smart Enough for Comic Books,” Esquire, September 1966.

“Marvel often stretches”: “As Barry Jenkins, Ohio ’69, Says: ‘A Person Has to Have Intelligence to Read Them,’ ” Esquire, September 1966.

shaving cream and cars: Leonard Sloane, “Advertising: Comics Go Up, Up and 
Away,” New York Times, July 20, 1967.

“I couldn’t believe that a guy”: Roy Thomas, “Fifty Years on the ‘A’ List,” Alter Ego 
9, July 2001.

Lee himself was asking for changes: “An interview with the Romitas,” Mike Harris, Comics Feature 22, December 1982.

Women’s Wear Daily: “Original Art Stories: John Romita,” 20th Century Danny Boy, October 21, 2010.

“goddamn automobiles and skyscrapers”: Roy Thomas, “An Avengers Interview-Sort Of-With John Buscema,” Alter Ego 13, March 2002.

“a lonely sort of guy”: “1966 Kirby Keynote Speech,” Jack Kirby Collector 43, Summer 2005.

“share ideas, laughs”: “Meet Jack Kirby,” Merry Marvel Messenger, 1966.

“Marvel’s been very kind”: “1966 Kirby Keynote Speech.”


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