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Comic Treks: Marvel Super Special #15 — Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Star Trek (Marvel) #1-3

Marvel Super Special #15. Cover painted by Bob Larkin.

Stan Lee wrote in one of his Stan’s Soapbox columns in the 1970s that Marvel had been very interested in getting the rights to do a Star Trek comic book, but that they were all tied up. Western Publishing and its Gold Key Comics line started publishing Star Trek comics in 1967 and retained the license throughout the 1970s as the show’s popularity soared in syndication and its fandom was in full blossom.

As with many things, the success of Star Wars changed the expectations for what a space property could be. George Lucas and company had targeted Marvel for a Star Wars adaptation and had to be pretty persuasive to get them to agree to the project. Of course, the Star Wars comic famously was a huge hit and all by itself propelled Marvel to profitability the year it came out. Its success spawned lots of imitations, with Marvel taking on Battlestar Galactica, adapting Close Encounters of the Third Kind and, of course, landing the rights to Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Gold Key’s rights ended so abruptly that there exists a script for the unpublished Star Trek #62 that can easily be found online (or here). Gold Key managed to stay in the licensing game with licenses for The Black Hole, which ran a mere four issues, and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, which ran what looks like 15 issues. But Gold Key’s more child-oriented approach to comic-book storytelling was not to survive much longer; the company closed down completely in 1984.

Marvel seemed the ideal fit for Star Trek, and there was no shortage of professionals on staff at the publisher champing at the bit for a shot at the title. Among them were artist Dave Cockrum, acclaimed artist on DC’s futuristic Legion of Super-Heroes title, co-creator of Marvel’s New X-Men, and working at the time, I believe, on staff at Marvel as a cover designer; and Marv Wolfman, who had parlayed his 1975-76 stint as editor in chief into a writer-editor deal. It was under this deal that Wolfman headed up the adaptation of Star Trek: The Motion Picture and the monthly comic book series that was to follow.

That seemed like an ideal team at the time for a top-tier comic book, especially when they were joined on inks by Klaus Janson, who had made a huge impact on comics as the finisher and inker on Frank Miller’s classic Daredevil run.

The Marvel Super Special series was an irregular line of color comics in magazine size, printed on nicer paper and selling for $1.50 and up. The first issue was an original The Beatles story and a big hit, but by the time it came to Star Trek: The Motion Picture, it became the line for projects like movie adaptations that could sell to fans of the movie that don’t normally read comics. Marvel Super Special #15 includes the complete adaptation of Star Trek: The Motion Picture as a single, 52-page story, along with supplemental material such as photos from the movie, an article on the Star Trek phenomenon, a glossary, and an interview with Jesco von Puttkamer, a NASA consultant on the production of the movie. The cover features a really nice painting by Bob Larkin. A facsimile edition of this magazine was published in 2019 by IDW in celebration of the movie’s 40th anniversary.

The Canadian paperback edition of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Cover by Bob Larkin.

As was the norm at the time, Marvel was looking for new markets for its comics. With Star Wars, Marvel had a lot of success not just reprinting the original issues, but also in repackaging them into new formats, which included treasury editions and a black-and-white mass-market paperback size edition. The same approach was taken from the start with Star Trek: The Motion Picture, with the Marvel Super Special edition coming out to coincide with the movie’s release, followed closely by the first issue of the regular Star Trek comic and a color mass-market paperback edition. All three featured the same content, with the regular comic book breaking the adaptation across three issues and the paperback edition reformatting the panels into a 144-page reading experience.

Production on the project was admittedly rushed. In a full-page article on the Star Trek comic series in Starlog #33 (April 1980), Wolfman and Cockrum admit to a difficult adaptation. Wolfman says he didn’t think much of the story and found the script inscrutable, making it difficult to do more than transcribe what they had received into comic book form. They had photo reference, but no idea what the effects – which were famously worked on until the very last minute — were going to look like. And Cockrum admits he had to work too fast, cranking out two pages a day, preventing him from giving the project his very best work.

Cockrum himself backs this up in an interview with Peter Sanderson in The X-Men Companion I, published in 1982 by Fantagraphics. Asked about his return to penciling X-Men in 1981 and which of the new issues was his favorite so far, Cockrum replied:

Sanders0n: Which issue is your favorite of the ones you’ve drawn, and why?

Cockrum: That’s hard to say too. I’ll tell you, in some respects I’m most pleased with #145, the first of my new ones, because it was like coming out of a tunnel into the daylight after the Star Trek crap and all that. I’m a Star Trek fan; I got the book because I asked for it, and there was nothing but garbage the whole time. [sighs]

Sanderson: Do you mean the stuff you did, or the writing, the limitations imposed by the Trek people?

Cockrum: No, no … For one thing, Klaus [Janson] and I don’t make a happy combination, I think. I like Klaus’s inking on other people but I don’t think it works on me. Most of the stories were dumb. The whole thing was a big flop, I thought …


Similarly, Marv Wolfman had this to say:

“The Marvel problem was deadlines. I had to write the entire adaptation of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which was 64 pages, in less than a month. And that was without knowing a lot of what was going on inside it because the first movie was so late in the working that we flew out to Doug Trumbull’s and John Dykstra’s studios in August and they had yet to design half the major things which would be in the movie which was being released in December. Also Marvel’s deadlines were ridiculously tight because of the release dates. Dave Cockrum had to draw faster than I think he’s ever had to draw in his life, and I had to write it faster.”

Marv Wolfman, Comics Feature #28 (1983), via tom Brevoort’s Marvel 1980s blog.

Covers on the comic book version were drawn by Steve Leialoha (#1), Cockrum and Janson (#2) and Bob Wiacek (#3). There was another version of the cover to #2 drawn by Terry Austin that uses the same basic concept as the published version. Austin’s version was included as a pinup in the final issue of this series, #18.

None of the covers is terribly effective.

Leialoha delivers a movie-poster like image that has decent likenesses of William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, but its images of Decker and Ilia are soft looking and do little to really sell the book. Cockrum and Janson’s cover to #2 is the best of the lot, extrapolating a much more dynamic image of the V’ger probe’s incursion on the bridge. The coloring kills it though, making it hard to even figure out what you’re looking at. And Wiacek’s cover is just an image of the Enterprise firing photon torpedoes; generic, and likely pulled together at the last minute to meet a deadline.

The adaptation itself is, overall, serviceable. It follows the general plot and tone of the movie rather well, despite being unable to rely upon Jerry Goldsmith’s iconic score. There are obvious attempts to give the art some technical flair via color holds. These work much better in the Marvel Super Special edition than in the regular comic book, which was printed on the then-standard newsprint. That said, there are a few spots where the newsprint edition looks better because of how the paper mutes some of the uses of more highly saturated tones.

The opening splash pages, from Star Trek #1, left, and Marvel Super Special #15.
A closer look at the difference in color brightness, via a color hold on page 2.

The magazine format’s nice paper and larger size also gives some clarity to the artwork that brings out the details and helps it look better. Janson is a formidable artist who has always produced good work quickly and to high standards, but his rough style is a mismatch for the clean and slick look of the movie. Cockrum does an admirable job re-creating the likenesses of the actors, though his work on that aspect is inconsistent. And Marie Severin does a fantastic job on the colors, though as you’ll see production didn’t always serve them well.

Two-page spread of the Enterprise leaving drydock, from Marvel Super Special #15.
The same spread from Star Trek #1. This version’s colors are more harmonious, but the art is muddier.

Coloring a book like this is yet another challenge, given the muted grays, whites, slate blues and faded oranges used for the costumes and sets in the movie. The original Star Trek series at least had variations in the colors of the uniforms with black pants and boots that offered contrast. This version just comes across as muddled, especially on the newsprint page over Janson’s sketchy inking style.

New splash page added to Star Trek #2.
A fuzzy inking job on Kirk.

Wolfman and Cockrum deserve credit for doing all they can to save the pacing and varying the visual storytelling enough to keep it from descending into complete boredom. I’d hate to see how some of the artists today would handle the endless discussions on the bridge and cruises through V’ger’s interior.

The comic book version adds new splash pages to issues #2 and #3 to catch up readers and provide credits for those issues. Nothing special, but it is two extra pages of art.

Artist Dave Cockrum did great hand gestures, keeping things visually less than completely dull.
V’ger revealed looks much better in Marvel Super Special #15, above, which brings out the detail in the art and the color.
It doesn’t translate very well to Star Trek #2.
Advert in Star Trek #2 for Star Trek: The Motion Picture action figures, toys and vehicles. I understand that students at the Joe Kubert School often drew these ads. And, boy, those toys are expensive for 1979!
Decker looks more like a Cockrum character here, while Ilia has a heavy Janson influence.
Splash page added for Star Trek #3.
Spock is caught in a color hold.
Cockrum’s chops just keep shining through, no matter how fast he had to draw. The likeness of Spock in the top right panel is great and the center panel’s action is all Cockrum, baby!

Much of the excitement surrounding the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture faded pretty quickly after its release. It was clear by Christmas 1979 that the movie wasn’t going to be a huge hit along the lines of Star Wars. It just didn’t tell the kind of story that inspired kids to play Star Trek and send their parents out to the stores in search of that great V’ger playset. (Although, if Roddenberry had his way, I’m sure the parents would be heading out to other kinds of toy stores to re-enact “forming friendships” in the bowels of the Enterprise … ugh.)

So with Marvel Super Special #15 coming out right around the movie, followed quickly in December 1979 by Star Trek #1, that puts the conclusion of the adaptation in February 1980 and the first original issue of the comic book in March 1980. By which time, the movie had already been largely ignored and forgotten, with everyone champing at the bit for the May release of The Empire Strikes Back (I know I was).

Add to that, the changes at Marvel and the restrictions that fans would soon learn applied to the book, and the new comic book series was already seriously behind the eightball.

But more on that next time.

FF Re-read: The Fantastic Four #11 (Feb. 1963)

“A Visit with the Fantastic Four” and “The Impossible Man”
Script by Stan Lee
Pencils by Jack Kirby
Inks by Dick Ayers
Letters by Art Simek

Another, much more successful experiment than the previous issue, this is a rare issue with two FF stories that is refreshing, fun and entertaining. Interestingly enough, Stan Lee writes in the intro to the second Marvel Masterworks volume of Fantastic Four stories that this issue was extremely unpopular at the time. Fans in particular disliked the Impossible Man as being too “silly” for so “serious” a comic book as The Fantastic Four.

Meet Willie Lumpkin, who Stan
played in his cameo in the 2004 Fantastic Four movie
This issue starts off with the behind-the-scenes story that Lee writes was inspired by the many fan letters Marvel had been receiving on the title. It has a lot of really fun little moments, starting with fans lining up at the newsstand to get the most-recent issue of the FF comic and a kid running down the street thrilled that his letter got published on the fan page. This great little story offers lots of fun bits, including the introduction of Willie Lumpkin and a lot of background on the FF themselves. 
That background offers some particularly interesting tidbits, including details of Reed and Ben’s service in World War II. This book has them in college together before the U.S. entered the war, so that would mean Reed and Ben would have have roughly been born in the early 1920s. That would have made them both about 40 in the comic – roughly the same age as Stan and Jack themselves were when they did this story. Not sure how old Sue’s meant to be, though she can’t be too much younger than Reed as it’s said they have known each other since childhood and grew up as next door neighbors. Johnny, of course, is supposed to be about 16, which makes it unlikely he cheered on Ben during his football years, as the story says. I also liked the detail of Reed having worked with the O.S.S. in the underground behind enemy lines in Europe, which is not a detail that had registered with me. 
Don’t dis Sue in front of Reed and Ben — you don’t want to make them angry.
Then there’s the best part of the story, which is the defense of Sue from the critical letter writers. For some reason, fans have always wanted Sue out of the book and I remember it still being an issue when I was reading the book in the 1980s. I like this idea of having the characters defend her, rather than Stan doing so in a letters column — it just has a bit more weight and is more effective at pointing out the idiocy of such comments. 
I suspect this story was pretty much all Stan’s idea — it’s light-hearted, heavy on the dialog and very character-centric. Maybe it was just an idea that didn’t lend itself well to the kind of blowout splash page that Kirby has done in the past, but it is a very well written and well drawn story that demonstrates just how far the comic has come in its short lifespan.
The Thing hanging off the side of the Fantasti-car
is perhaps the only panel in the second story I really like. 
The second story, introducing The Impossible Man, is a little more standard but still goofy enough to make it a good pairing with the first tale. The Impossible Man himself is fairly annoying — kind of an impish character similar to Bat-Mite or Mr. Mxyzptlk. And the way the story pans out isn’t exactly the most innovative thing ever put on paper. But, like the first tale, it does demonstrate the overall improvement in the book. There’s a lot more consistency in how the characters look from issue to issue, the dialog is better and fits better with the overall pacing and storytelling. The silliness of the Impossible Man is mitigated by this being a short, 11-page story — a full issue of this guy would have been way too much. 
Lastly, this issue wraps with a regal pin-up of the Sub-Mariner in his underground lair. It may also be of interest to note that this issue was previously presented with the stories in the opposite order in older editions of the Marvel Masterworks series. I think the order is significant in this case — the genial nature of the fan visit tale makes the Impossible Man story go down a bit more smoothly.
All in all, this is a surprisingly satisfying issue, and truly off-beat. I wonder if the reaction fans had been more positive, if we might not have seen more two-story issues and visits with the team from Kirby and Lee. 

FF Re-read: The Fantastic Four #10 (Jan. 1963)

“The Return of Doctor Doom!”
Script by Stan Lee
Pencils by Jack Kirby
Inks by Dick Ayers
Letters by Art Simek

They might have titled this story, “Lo, There Shall Come — A Stinker!” The previous nine issues all saw improvements of one kind or another, but this issue is truly weak in every respect. This issue is, in fact, so bad that all I can really do with it is do a quick run through and make some snarky comments about it, so here goes.
This issue begins with Reed trying to figure out how Sue’s invisibility power works, using a big machine that looks like a cross between a howitzer and a vintage camera. Far from Kirby’s best splash page, it’s made even weirder by the fact that the Human Torch is assisting Reed by taking notes while in full flame mode. It’s so odd, that it gets a mention in Sue’s dialog, just before the “4” signal appears in the sky and the trio assume Ben’s in trouble and rush off to help.
And it just gets weirder from there.

Someone needs to tell Reed nukes are
unsafe to keep around the house.

There’s a two-page sequence in which Reed, Sue and Johnny all rush to the scene of the signal that is perfunctory and embarrassing in just about every way. It starts with Reed  stopping Johnny from using his flame on a jammed “nuclear lock mechanism” because it’s so sensitive to heat. I’d love to know what was going through Stan’s head when he came up with “nuclear lock mechanism” and exactly how making a lock nuclear would be a benefit in any fashion. Especially since it doesn’t seem to work. Then Reed tries to stretch his arm under the door all the way to the Fansti-car hangar, only to instead get his hand all the way to the Pogo-Plane hangar instead. Exhausted, his arm snaps back to him like a rubber band.  

The trio finds Ben at the apartment of Alicia Masters, now officially dubbed Ben’s girlfriend in a caption, and find he just wants to show them the statues she’s made of their villains. 
Then we get to what I’m sure was the scene that most motivated this issue, as Lee and Kirby themselves appear for the first time in a Marvel story. Doctor Doom shows up at their studio and uses them Reed to a trap. Lee obviously loves this scene, giving himself some crackerjack dialog. Kirby, meanwhile, shows enough restraint to not even show his (or Lee’s) face in the scene. 
That’s the corner of Stan Lee’s head on the left. I wonder if Doom’s destroying one of the famous
FF ashtrays that was produced in the 1960s. And I still think Stan Lee needs to appear on Mad Men.

Having captured Reed, Doom recounts an unconvincing and rather silly rationale for his return from space. Having been last seen in issue six plunging into deep space, he found a race of aliens that are stereotypically very advanced yet totally naive. They hook up Doom with their body transfer technology and return him to Earth. Using the alien technology, he switches bodies with Reed. They fight and the rest of the FF show up and, naturally, help restrain the body of Doom and put him in a prison made of impenetrable plexiglass. 

Returning to Reed’s lab, Doom starts making — of all things — a shrink ray that he tests on some animals he stole from the zoo. He somehow talks the trio into thinking that the shrink ray is the answer to all their problems, though his explanation for why makes absolutely no sense. Of course, the ray won’t do what he says — instead, it’ll shrink the FF into nothingness. Nice.
Back in the cell, Reed of course finds a way to escape and goes to Alicia’s apartment. Sue just happens to be visiting and whacks him over the head. Ben and Johnny come over and they take the body of Doom with Reed’s mind back to the Baxter Building. 

Just thinking about how this might
work makes my head hurt.

Logic completely leaves the story as Johnny uses his power to project a heat mirage of a stick of dynamite being used at a nearby construction site into the lab. The Doom mind in Reed runs, while the Reed mind in Doom tries to save everyone. Convinced the mind switch is real, Doom is shocked enough that the switch somehow reverses itself. The FF then turn the shrink ray on Doom and he dwindles into nothingness.

The transfer is undone.
This is not Kirby’s most dramatic work

As you can see, nothing makes sense in this story and nothing of importance seems to happen. We learn little about Doctor Doom, and almost nothing happens among the FF either. Kirby’s art lacks the scope and innovation of recent issues, and Lee’s script only hampers any potential for salvaging anything decent. 

This reminds me of those lame clip-show episodes TV series used to do when they had no decent script and the season was ending and it was a lame way pad out the episode. Lee and Kirby are lucky that their lackluster handling of Doom in this particular issue didn’t undermine future stories that would secure his position as the series’ premier villain.

FF Re-read: The Fantastic Four #9 (Dec. 1962)

“The End of the Fantastic Four!”

Script by Stan Lee
Pencils by Jack Kirby
Inks by Dick Ayers
Letters by Art Simek

Another big leap forward for the series in a story that’s as off-beat as anything done in Fantastic Four previously.

There’s a lot to like in this story. I love the idea that the group loses its fortune on the stock market and has to sell everything off. Namor’s oddball idea of buying a movie studio and tricking the team into making a movie is just plain weird, but it gives Kirby in particular a chance to draw in some real-life movie stars. The fight between the Thing and Namor is particularly good, and the overall results are good enough to overcome some huge holes in the plot.

The cover to this issue is one of the best to date, giving a terrific tease for the story inside. Namor’s confident pose and the rundown Baxter Building, complete with broken and boarded up windows, are perfectly executed details. I also love the coloring — I don’t know if anything could properly recreate that lovely shade of reddish orange used for the background.

Page one of this issue — an excellent example of good comics.

Almost any class or advice on writing includes the point of beginning your story as late as possible, and the first panel of this issue is a great example of why. In a single page comprised of three panels, Lee and Kirby establish that the FF have lost their fortune, plan to sell all their possessions to pay their debt, and that Namor sees this as the perfect opportunity for revenge.

The second page is equally cool, as Reed tries to fend off a crowd of debt collectors and the heroes’ powers and personalities are set up for new readers.

Ben doesn’t play with dolls.

Alicia Masters returns in this issue as Ben’s “friend” when he takes a break from the FF and heads to her apartment. It’s not explained how she’s handling life after the death of her father in the previous issue. Their relationship is not stated as romantic, but it’s implied as she presents Ben with a gift of a white knight puppet doll. I find it hard to imagine that Ben ever played with dolls, so his acceptance of the gift is a sweet bit of characterization.

The movie idea is an interesting one, but it’s full of weird moments and plot holes, starting with the FF hitchhiking from New York to Hollywood in just a few days.

Jack Kirby does Bob Hope (and Bing Crosby) well enough to rival Dave Thomas.

S.M. Studios’ lot is packed with real life stars, including James Arness, “Miss Kitty.” Charles Bronson, Alfred Hitchcock, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin and Jack Benny. This sounds like an idea Lee would have come up with, but Kirby does a very nice job of making the stars identifiable. Lee has said many times he always wanted to be in the movie business and moments like Ben’s run-in with Jack Benny foreshadows the success Marvel found on the big screen thirty-odd years after this issue was published.

The reveal of Namor as the studio head is another interesting moment, as he’s shown wearing a green suit with a yellow ascot that would be very much in style today. He’s also smoking with a cigarette holder, which is an odd habit for an underwater king to have picked up.

Yikes. This is bad.

Lee and Kirby show they’re getting the balance right on this book between action and character, with a series of fun moments including Johnny blowing his advance on a cool car and riding around town with some hot chicks; Ben showing off at Muscle Beach; and Namor wooing Susan at a fancy nightclub.

The shooting of the movie is the strangest part of this story. For one, the locations make no sense. We’re told Reed’s shooting in the Mediterranean, Johnny in Africa and Ben on the beach near Hollywood. I like the way Reed uses his powers on an otherwise unremarkable foe. And there’s all kinds of wrong in Johnny’s sequence as he fights a tribe of primitive Africans who use a magic potion that makes them flame-proof. The fight itself is OK, but the portrayal of the Africans is just embarrassing. For some reason, the natives are colored with a kind of grayish-brown color in the Masterworks edition I’m reading. I don’t know if that was the color used in the original comic, but three’s all kinds of weird and uncomfortable in this segment.

Some thoughtful superhero action from Jack Kirby.

Namor’s fight with Ben, however, is easily the coolest part of this issue. The sight of Namor jumping up and down on Ben’s shoulders to drive him into the ground is cool enough. But then Ben gets hit by lightning and reverts for a moment (yet again) to his human form. Namor easily clobbers the human Ben and returns to claim Susan’s hand in marriage as his prize. Namor, obviously, knows nothing about women, as he’s surprised when she tells him there’s no way that’s ever going to happen.

So Namor and Sue then fight, with Namor pulling out all kinds of new powers from electric shocks to radar vision. The last panel of page 21 gives us what I think is the first real panel of Kirby crackle in this series, and it rocks.

When the three male members of the FF show up, Sue wins the day by defending Namor from her comrades and also demanding that he live up to his end of the bargain and pay them for the movie. He agrees, and once again walks off slowly into the ocean.

The final panel shows the triumphant FF attending the premiere of the movie, which can’t have been any good considering there was no script and the movie is in theaters only “weeks” later.

But the flaws in this story matter less than the overall tone and feeling of the tale, as the series is starting to really find its groove and get comfortable enough with itself to take some risks and experiment with some funky new ideas that no DC hero comic of the era would have attempted.

It only took about forty years for this scene to come true. 

FF Re-read: The Fantastic Four #8 (Nov. 1962)

“Prisoners of the Puppet Master!”
Script by Stan Lee
Pencils by Jack Kirby
Inks by Dick Ayers
Letters by Art Simek

Some of the formula that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had figured out for the title was starting to settle in at this point, with the opening argument between the Thing and the Torch being both familiar and executed very well. The argument this time begins when Reed asks Johnny to keep Ben out of his lab. Ben throws a temper tantrum worthy of a 2-year-old and storms off, followed by Sue.

While they argue, they spot the first act of the mystifying Puppet Master, who uses his ability to make people do anything he wants by making little puppets of them from radioactive clay and then making them act out his wishes in miniature play sets. His first act is to make an apparently random man jump from a bridge to his death.

So, yes, the Puppet Master is one of the silliest villains in all of Marvel. Nothing about his power makes sense. Neither does his oddball physical appearance, or the fact that he was married at one point to the mother of beautiful blind sculptor Alicia Masters.

Alicia is the most significant new element introduced in this issue, and she takes on a fairly major role in the life of Ben Grimm and in the Fantastic Four comic book. In this issue, we really don’t learn too much about her, other than that she looks a lot like the Invisible Girl and is blind. And in Stan Lee’s typical melodramatic fashion, the blind girls sees the man behind the rocky visage of the Thing and falls in love with him — just as Reed has made progress on a way to reverse the Thing’s transformation.

This guy is a few years too early for the Gwen Stacy auditions.

The plot gets quite silly. In addition to creating puppets, the Puppet Master can create giant robots and a mechanical flying horse that can outrace the Human Torch. There’s also a prison riot before a simple matter, uh, trips up the Puppet Master, who falls to his death very much like his first victim. That leaves Alicia behind to be consoled by the Thing.

Excellent compostions, lettering —
and no background, but who cares

Reading this issue for the first time in ages, Kirby’s art makes it seems better than it really is. Kirby’s work is more confident on this issue. He has a better grip on who these characters are and what they look like. At the same time, he’s getting better at drawing them using their powers and putting them into action sequences. The Thing in particular gets some nice sequences in which he gets to tear a huge armored door out of the wall and builds a cage around rampaging inmates. Kirby’s chapter splash pages remain particularly compelling, and its worth noting how well he composes these panels.

You can see Kirby get a better grip on techniques like this in this issue.
These three panels sum up a lot of the appeal of early Marvel comics, and shows a lot of heart.

I have no idea what the reaction was to this issue when it came out, but I would think it would be somewhat reassuring to see the quality hold in most areas because so many comics that start out promising hit a wall about eight to 12 issues in and never recover from it.

Excellent storytelling in just three panels! This sequence would fill an annual these days.

The last thing I’ll say is that the cover to this issue is surprisingly weak. It’s very cluttered and uses an unusual shade of orange (at least it’s orange in the Marvel Masterworks version and looks like orange on comics.org). It also has some of that line-thickening that happens when the stats of the original art get a few generations too removed from the original. For example, the issue number and the white copy at the top of the page just turn into block shapes without good definition. That’s a shame considering how much Masterworks cost to buy, but I don’t know how much Marvel could do to fix it without access to the original art or hiring an artist to do some touchup or a re-creation.

Another great splash panel that delivers a sense of both power and scale. 

The Fascinating, Frustrating Enigma of Steve Ditko

I love books about comics, the comic-book industry and the people who make comics. I wish there were a lot of them, because I think it’s worthwhile to document these events and people while we still can.

Which brings me to Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko (Fantagraphics, $39.99), in which author Blake Bell examines the life and work of one of comics’ greatest enigmas.

Almost anyone interested in superhero comics knows Ditko was the artist who co-created The Amazing Spider-Man and Doctor Strange with Stan Lee. Those who go a bit deeper will know that Ditko also created some cool characters at DC Comics in the late 1960s and 1970s, including The Creeper, Hawk and Dove and Shade, The Changing Man. A few more willl remember him for doing layouts on the cult 1980s Marvel series Rom, and a dedicated few will have perused Ditko’s independent creations such as Mr. A. But given that Ditko has refused to be interviewed or appear in public for decades now, little else is really known about this artist, who created some of the most unnerving and interesting comics in the medium’s history.

Bell does the best job of any attempt I’ve ever seen to bring together everything we know about Ditko’s life and work. The result is fascinating, frustrating and eventually presents a sad portrait of an immense talent that withdrew from the world and denied it of his work and himself of the audience, acclaim and success that was easily within his grasp.

Unlike Jack Kirby, Will Eisner and most of the artists that broke into comic books in the so-called Golden Age, Ditko always wanted to work in the field. He was part of the first generation of comic book fans, specifically seeking out work and a career drawing and writing stories like those they had admired as children and fans. Both the quantity and quality of Ditko’s early comic book work surprised me. The glimpses Bell offers of the 1950s stories for Charlton and the company that would become Marvel are fascinating and have a quality that makes the idea of tracking down the best of those tales very attractive.

Where the tale of Ditko’s career starts to go off the rails is in the early 1960s, when he starts subscribing to the philosophy of Objectivism as put forth by author Ayn Rand primarily in the novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. I got about as far into Rand  as I did with L. Ron Hubbard’s Mission Earth, and stopped reading the book before getting through even 100 pages of her preachy, boring and profoundly awful worship of fascist ideals.

The specifics of Rand’s philosophy aside, Ditko obviously found something in it that, at the very least, obsessed him. Obsession is a common theme with comics — fan is short for fanatic and everything about comics from the collecting to continuity to trivia to cosplay evokes some level of obsession. Whether there’s a direct connection, I doubt we’ll ever know because there are so few details about Ditko’s life, even in a book as relatively thorough as Bell’s.

To read about how Ditko’s strict adherence to Objectivism infected his work, of how he sought to inject Randian ideas into first Spider-Man and then series like Hawk and Dove, The Creeper, The Question, Blue Beetle and Shade and then walked away at the first sign of conflict is sad. It’s even sadder to see how much he pored into his Objectivist-inspired works like Mr. A while passing up repeated opportunities for commercial success at nearly every opportunity the moment they demanded even the slightest compromise of his ideals is even sadder.

It’s almost impossible to imagine, given what little we know, that Ditko hasn’t spent most of the last 40 or so years in the same studio with little to no contact with the outside world. No mention has ever been made of him having sustained a romantic relationship (though Will Eisner said in Eisner/Miller that Ditko has a son), or enjoying much of anything outside of ruminating over Rand or drawing comics. 

Could Ditko be a first-generation fanboy, an 83-year-old whose life was spent obsessing first over comics and later over a juvenile political philosophy that only makes sense within a self-imposed bubble? Is he that cut off from the world, that afraid of compromising even the slightest ideal that he’s completely shut himself off from the world around him? Is he happy with his life and his work? Or does he have regrets?

It’s not like Ditko has been completely silent, though he mostly has put his side of things out in letter and essays that disallow any kind of direct questioning. I was similarly annoyed and frustrated by Ditko’s lengthy essays in The Comics newsletters (passed on to me by Batton Lash shortly after I served as a judge for the Eisner Awards a few years back). He’s also written letters of protest to various magazines and writers, though he never makes himself available to answer questions. I found it odd that Ditko has no problem lambasting Stan Lee in writing but, according to an episode Bell recounts, got along famously with Lee at their last meeting to discuss a potential comics project sometime in the early 1990s. Does Ditko lack the courage to voice his convictions in a public forum, where he and his ideals can be tested and questioned?

I truly hope not, but it’s hard to argue that Ditko’s adherence to Objectivism hasn’t cost him dearly. He’s passed up chance after chance to continue to make comics with impact, that speak to and entertain a wide audience while bringing him more personal acclaim and financial success than he’s found doing his small-press rants.

Nothing would make me (and, I’m sure, Bell) happier than for Ditko to come forth and answer some of these questions. Unfortunately, that seems highly unlikely, leaving only the chance that some clues to his life and work will come to light only posthumously.

FF Re-read: The Fantastic Four #7 (Oct. 1962)

“Prisoners of Kurrgo, Master of Planet X!” 

Script by Stan Lee 
Pencils by Jack Kirby 
Inks by Dick Ayers 

While issue #6 is one of the best early issues of Fantastic Four, issue #7 is one of my least favorites. While the previous issue had a complete and compelling story featuring villains we’ve already met and care about, this was an episodic mish-mosh of old ideas and clichés that doesn’t add up to much. Despite those flaws, it’s not a horrible issue — it just feels like filler. Perhaps this had to do with the series going from a bimonthly to a monthly publication schedule, and Lee and Kirby had to crank this issue out quickly.

This one starts with Kurrgo, who’s the sort of character that populated a lot of the pre-hero Atlas series. An alien whose planet faces destruction from an asteroid on a collision course, he thinks the Fantastic Four can save his people.

Then we cut to the banter-filled intro of our heroes, who this time are quarrelling over a “government dinner” being held in their honor that no one except Reed is interested in attending. The strange reasons they all have for not wanting to go prompt even stuffy ol’ Reed Richards to roll his eyes in one panel. This sequence segues into a scene where Johnny takes a shower and Ben cranks up the hot water as a joke. Johnny flames on and turns the water to steam, setting off alarms. Reed uses his powers to check all the vents before he puts two and two together and realizes the junior members are horsing around again. Finally, they all head off to the dinner in the Fantasti-car, waving at folks on the road below. All this is a kind of fun character bit, though it also feels like definite filler and a scene that goes nowhere. It also lacks the polish similar scenes in the previous issues have.

When Kurrgo’s ship finally arrives, Lee and Kirby have a giant robot emerge using images ripped straight out of the classic movie The Day the Earth Stood Still. The plot gets even more weirdly complicated as the robot sends out a “hostility ray” that turns everyone on Earth against the Fantastic Four. The heroes themselves see the effect take hold in the midst of their “government dinner” with members of Congress and have to escape the Capitol building and get back to the Baxter Building. Kurrgo’s robot awaits them at their HQ and tells them the only way out is for them to go with him to Planet X and help Kurrgo save it. They agree, and head off into space.

Up to this point, Kirby’s art this issue is serviceable but lacking the impact that the previous issue did. The fourth part of this story, however, changes that with a great splash on page 15 with the Fantastic Four floating toward the ground in a futuristic city using and anti-gravity device of some kind. The splash for part 5 of this story is another great one that foreshadows the kinds of compositions and designs that would define Kirby’s amazing work in the late 1960s and 1970s.

The story remains a bit of a mess as the Fantastic Four meet Kurrgo for some exposition about how Planet X only has two spaceships and needs to save its 5 billion inhabitants from the asteroid that’s going to hit in 24 hours. There’s an obligatory and strange fight scene that ends as Reed agrees to help. The solution is a pretty good comic book plot twist, as Reed develops a shrinking ray to reduce the size of Planet X’s inhabitants to the point where they can all fit on a single spaceship, with the Fantastic Four free to return to Earth in the other. This works great for everyone except Kurrgo, who tries to keep a non-existent antidote for himself only as a way to enslave his people only to miss the flight and presumably die in the asteroid collision.

A lot of the ideas in this issue are interesting, but they aren’t well developed because the issue flits from one unrelated idea to the next too quickly to cohere into a solid narrative. The result is a story that’s underwhelming in comparison to the previous issue in particular, but still had some charm and wit for the casual reader.

This was one of the stories adapted with some significant changes for the first Fantastic Four animated series that aired in the late 1960s. I saw this episode of the show in reruns sometime around 1992 or 1993, just before I read the comic book version for the first time in the Marvel Masterworks edition. Based on what I recall of my reaction, that episode did little to improve on the comic book version.

FF Re-read: The Fantastic Four #6 (Sept. 1962)

“Captives of the Deadline Duo!”

Script by Stan Lee
Pencils by Jack Kirby
Inks by Dick Ayers
This issue sees a big improvement, as Lee and Kirby create a story that reads naturally and fills out the entire 24-page issue without resorting to the episodic chapters that marked the earlier issues. It’s also got some stunning artwork from Kirby, who seems to have become comfortable with the characters. Everything just clicks — the characters feel like they belong in this story and the way everything unfolds makes sense (at least in a story logic way) and the resolution is satisfying.
This issue starts off with a terrific splash panel in which Kirby draws New York City like a real place. The buildings have just the right amount of detail to sell this version of New York as a real city full of different types of architecture and the little details that make everything work from the water tower to the vents and the awnings. And it completely grounds and sells the entire scene, making the appearance of the Human Torch dramatic and believable.
I also like that Lee and Kirby fill the city with real people walking around, seeing this stuff happen and talking to each other about it. The reactions are varied and add to the believability of the story, even though it’s not really clear why Sue likes to hang out invisible in crowds.

The Baxter Building itself is impressively real in a way that few other comic book heroes’ headquarters were. The hapless mailman is a precursor to Willie Lumpkin, who shows up shortly as the building’s regular delivery man. Kirby delivers another cutaway of the Baxter Building, and does something simple that the book’s young readers must have loved: he made it completely consistent with the cutaway in issue #3. This is a slightly expanded version, but everything is in the same place and shows an attention to detail that few other comics at the time would have bothered with.

Lee varies up the introductory banter here, so instead of Ben and Johnny fighting we get Reed stretching across the city to visit a sick boy in the hospital. (As a complete side-note, Reed refers to the poor kid as a “shut-in,” which was the term that was used every week on Hockey Night in Canada when I was a kid. The commentators used to send out a special hello to the shut-ins and other folks who couldn’t get to the games in person but enjoyed the weekly broadcast.) Reed answering the boy’s question about the stretching of his costume is a nice touch, though I can easily imagine it being Stan’s way of settling the issue in some way to avoid having to answer the same question over and over. This also is the first mention of Yancy Street and the Yancy Street Gang, whose members take special pleasure in teasing and tormenting The Thing.
Kirby does some really nice acting in this issue, which is something I wish more comic book artists paid attention to. On page 6, you need no dialog to understand Ben’s anger, Sue’s sadness or that subtle little smile on Namor that conveys his enjoyment of swimming with the porpoises.
Doctor Doom, who appears to have dropped the shark theme for his aircraft, makes a surprisingly subtle entrance. He makes a logical plea to Namor, arguing that their mutual interest in eliminating the Fantastic Four is not typical supervillain behavior for 1962. Lee’s talent for dialog comes out strongly in the discussion between Namor and Doom, with Doom making a very compelling case. Kirby also nails it, giving Namor a cool elegance as he lounges in his shell throne that melts away under Doom’s argument to anger. All of this makes Namor’s character surprisingly sympathetic, as even the youngest reader surely had a sense that Doom would betray the deal in some way.

That’s emphasized by the next scene, in which Johnny discovers Sue’s hidden photograph of Namor and destroys it. It’s the kind of blockhead move that only a brother could get away with. Sue suffers a lot in later years of the series as the least developed character in the group, but in this issue she’s the most conflicted and interesting member of the group. Her conflicted feelings for Namor and her inability to put them into words works especially well with, again, Kirby’s excellent portrayal of her.

The entrance of Namor is another interesting scene as he challenges the Fantastic Four to accept his word that he’s a on a mission of peace. Sue, of course, buys it; the others refuse — and they’re right to not trust Namor despite their reasons for not trusting him being pretty off base.

The lifting of the Baxter Building into space, and pretty much everything that happens plot wise in space, should stretch plausibility more than it does. I recall a column former Marvel editor in chief Jim Shooter wrote in which he wrote that all buildings in comics had flat bottoms and the heroes had no problems before the Marvel Age brought some reality to the medium. Of course, in this story, the Baxter Building does have a flat bottom and it can be lifted as a whole into outer space. What’s really odd, though, is that the story still works and works really well. Plus, the splash panel of page 16 of the heroes looking down on Manhattan with the fighter jets flying underneath is, in a word, awesome.

It gets a little clunky in the next section, with the Torch’s flame failing in space. I do like the bit where Reed tries to grab Doom’s ship as Kirby spaces it out over five or six panels before Doom blasts him with a rocket. Namor’s leap to Doom’s ship is similarly cool, with Kirby zooming in on Namor’s face.

That it’s Namor, a nominal villain, who saves the day is pretty unusual for a comic of this vintage — the conventional wisdom of the time seemed to be that the hero was the star and he or she had to be the one who won the day. The Fantastic Four really do little to help Namor defeat Doom, who is last seen spiraling away into the void after ejecting from his ship. Namor even disposes of Doom’s grabber device and ship.
The last few pages are classic denouement. The Baxter Building is magically put back in place as though nothing ever happened, and the future of Namor — is he friend now, or still a foe? — remains more up in the air than ever.
Again, this is far away a big step forward in terms of Lee and Kirby finding a way to create big, exciting fantasy stories without chopping up the story into unrelated episodes and also in building a world and an ongoing storyline that’s bigger than any one issue.

FF Re-read: The Fantastic Four #5 (July 1962)

“Prisoners of Doctor Doom!”  
Script by Stan Lee 
Pencils by Jack Kirby
Inks by Joe Sinnot
Letters by Art Simek

One thing missing from The Fantastic Four until this issue was a good, original and unapologetic villain. And while today’s readers know for sure that Doctor Doom would go on to be the defining antagonist of the series, this first appearance only hints at what is to come from this character.

This issue is a very small step down from the previous issue. A lot of what happens in this issue falls back on some of the Atlas-style conventions that Lee and Kirby seem to be so intent on trying to escape.

We get our first look at Doctor Doom on the cover of this issue, which is nicely designed to convey Sue’s separation from the group but lacks the dynamism of the previous issue’s cover. The coloring also is weak — too much of that unusual gray shade that was common on Marvels of this era, plus the unusual choice of green for Doom’s mask and armor. I do, however, like the different colors for the word balloons.

Inside, Doom is introduced on the splash page playing chess with figures of the FF, with a couple of ominous-looking tomes titled “Science and Sorcery” and “Demons” perched nearby, along with a vulture of all things! Since it never came into play in the story, I always assumed it was a statue of a vulture. But Doom does have a pet tiger later in this issue, so maybe keeping exotic animals was part of the original idea for the character.

The Fantastic Four enter on page 2 with what is already becoming a typical intro scene with the Thing and Human Torch teasing and tormenting each other until a fight breaks out and Reed and Sue restrain them. It’s fun that Johnny is once again reading a comic in this issue. This time it’s a copy of The Incredible Hulk #1, allowing Lee the chance to indulge his penchant for self-promotion.

When Doom arrives, he throws a net over the Baxter Building and announces himself from a helicopter. I never noticed until re-reading this issue for this post that Doom’s helicopter is painted to look like a shark! That’s awesome.

What’s also awesome is that Reed explains Doom’s back story in a mere five panels! The emphasis in this retelling is on Doom’s interest in and talent for sorcery, which I never found as interesting as the idea that Doom is Reed’s equal in every way with darker, more selfish motivations.

It’s a good thing Lee explains all this so clearly, as Doom’s plan to take first Sue then the rest of the Fantastic Four hostage is rather silly. Even more strange is the idea that Doom needs the treasure of famous pirate Blackbeard badly enough that he has no choice but to send his enemies back in time to retrieve it. There’s a lot of holes in the plot, but it’s a good excuse to bring some pirates into the story, so it’s back in time we go.

 Every time I read this comic, I’m surprised to find that most of the really good stuff comes from the Blackbeard segment rather than the Doom part. Jack Kirby really should have done a pirate comic book because the way he handles the pirate action mixed with superheroes is pure fun. I especially love the Golden Age-style splash panel on page 14, with the Human Torch soaring into battle. And it’s no wonder the Thing wants to stick around — it really is the most fun he’s had in the series so far.

Reed’s trick is a bit dishonest — not that he should play fair with someone like Doom — but Doom’s original request is for the treasure, not the chest. To be fair, though, Doom does specifically ask for the chest on page 8 as he presses the button to send the trio into the past.

My next funky thought in re-reading this is that the cool sequence in which Doom returns Reed, Johnny and Ben has the characters doing what looks like a dance — it has to be “The Time Warp” — in the middle panel.  

Reed’s deception exposed, we start to get some cool stuff with Doom, who rolls out the first Doombot to get smashed to bits by the Thing. And again it’s the Invisible Girl who bails everybody out by taking advantage of Doom’s underestimation of her abilities to escape and free her colleagues.

Again the issue’s build up of steam seems to hit a wall as Lee and Kirby run out of room. So page 23 sees Doom abruptly escape via jetpack while Johnny’s power cuts out and prevents pursuit. I’m not sure how Johnny saved himself by grabbing that tree branch — Reed must have been too beat to do anything — but he does in time for a little heavy-handed foreshadowing about the next issue.

FF re-read: The Fantastic Four #4 (May 1962)

“The Coming of Sub-Mariner!”
Script by Stan Lee
Pencils by Jack Kirby
Inks by Sol Brodsky
Letters by Art Simek

A lot is happening in this issue, which improves significantly over the previous one in pretty much every respect.

Despite the cover, which is easily the best so far, the Sub-Mariner doesn’t show up until about halfway into this issue. I’d like to know if there were many fans who picked this up because they like Namor. At this point, he hadn’t been gone from comic book stands very long, having last appeared in a short revival attempt in the mid-1950s.

This issue starts off with Reed, Sue and Ben dealing with the departure of Johnny at the end of the previous issue, leading to a pretty effective page 2 recap of The Fantastic Four #3 that quickly brings readers up to date. I don’t know if Stan and Jack consciously decided to establish this kind of issue-to-issue continuity or if it just came about organically, but this kind of attention to details must have thrilled fans who took their comics seriously back in 1962.

The story’s weakest points come next as the FF searches for Johnny. It makes no sense for Sue to remain invisible while stopping for a soda other than that either Stan or Jack liked the idea of the guy freaking out at the mysteriously vanishing liquid. Plus, we’ve already seen this with Sue paying the cab driver in issue #1. Reed’s clumsy snatching of the motorcycle rider to question him about Johnny is equally nonsensical.

The story starts cracking when the Thing follows a hunch and finds Johnny hanging out at his favorite garage and instantly picks a fight with him. Again, there’s nice attention to detail as Lee uses the dialog to explain how Johnny’s control is so great that can use his flame to weld car parts without risking igniting the gasoline. The splash page to chapter 2 has the Thing lifting an old car over his head to drop on Johnny, evoking — maybe intentionally, maybe not — the cover to Action Comics #1.

The relationship between Johnny and Ben is surprisingly fully formed and involving even this early in the series, as exemplified not just by Ben knowing Johnny well enough to track him down but by Johnny realizing before Ben that his temporary return to human form is only temporary. Kirby does a great job on that sequence, putting some real surprise and joy on the face of the human Ben, and then finding just the right body language to convey his disappointment that it doesn’t last.

The story finally gets to the Sub-Mariner elements as Johnny heads to the “bowery” to hide out. Kirby’s establishing shot on this sequence is an odd one because he makes it look more like a foreign country than what I imagine a poor New York City neighborhood in 1962 looked like. Still, I have to give Kirby the benefit of the doubt given that he grew up in such a neighborhood and he would know.

I think it’s kind of funny that Johnny finds an old Sub-Mariner comic book in the flop house, which would suggest comics were popular with the downtrodden working class folks of the time.

There’s a great lesson in the last three panels of page 9 as Kirby shows the hirsute Namor defeating three attackers without showing Namor at all. Instead, we get consecutive images of the attackers being forced back by the power of his blows and it’s surprisingly effective.

Regarding the Torch’s “unmasking” of Namor, I’m not sure I’d want someone with a blowtorch for a finger using it to cut my hair — controlled or not.

After we catch up on Reed and Sue, who are still searching cluelessly for the Torch, Johnny drops Namor into the ocean and revives his lost memory. I really like the panels in which Namor strips off his surface clothes and revels in the moment — another really memorable Kirby moment in an issue full of them.

As with most of the early issues of The Fantastic Four, at some point the plot reverts to the monster genre that was popular at Marvel before the superheroes were revived. Here, Namor uses an ancient horn to awaken Giganto! and sics him on Manhattan, where the officials have time to completely evacuate New York City and deploy the armed forces — all in just three panels!

Realizing they’re overpowered, Ben steps up to play hero and straps a nuclear bomb to his back and walks right into Giganto’s mouth. This is where the story goes a bit off the rails in terms of believability, but by this point the whole thing has so much momentum going it just can’t be stopped. The splash panel on page 19 of the Thing shows off some of the excellent coloring that could be done even with the limited color palettes and poor quality printing of the era. The nuke goes off just as Ben escapes and the impact merely knocks him off his feet. Poor Giganto, however, is dead.

Back to the Sub-Mariner, Sue again uses her power to good effect by stealing the horn from Namor once he spills the beans that the horn controls the beasts. When he catcher her and she turns visible, he is instantly besotted with her — and she’s obviously somewhat interested in him. It’s all very soapy and pretty entertaining, though Sue’s character suffers a bit — especially later in the series — from her being pretty much the only woman in sight amid a bunch of crazy men. So of course all them — except Johnny — are in love with her and all Stan can think of for her to do is be all fussy and girly about the whole thing.

This is the point where Stan and Jack realize they’ve only got about a page left, and so they quickly have the Torch rather inventively creates a tornado that scoops up Giganto’s corpse, Namor and the horn and tosses them out to sea, where Namor swears revenge and the Fantastic Four talk it out amongst themselves in the last panel.

Overall, The Fantastic Four #4 is a lot of fun to read. It doesn’t all make sense when you think about and there are some rough spots, but things are moving so quickly and the cool stuff is so memorable that it just doesn’t matter.

Lastly, I’ve always found it interesting that fourth issues are quite significant in most Silver Age Marvel series. This issue re-introduced Namor, The Amazing Spider-Man #4 introduced Sandman, The Avengers #4 brought back Captain America, The X-Men #4 gave us the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, etc. That obviously wasn’t planned, but it does show how quickly Marvel was finding its footing in these series and then taking it to the next level with great results.

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