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The marvel age
The 1960's

The burst of creativity that led to the modern Marvel Comics began in 1961. A torrent of ideas seemed to rush through the pages of the company's publications as the concept of the super hero was reworked and revised, reshaped and revitalized. Ultimately, a veritable renaissance was achieved. A virtual army of new characters sprang up in the 1960's and became giants in the field; their combined strength turned a moribund industry around. With characteristic hyperbole, but also considerable accuracy, editor Stan Lee dubbed this period "The Marvel Age of Comics." In fact, the term has been adopted by comic book fans all over the world and is still used today to describe the 1960's.

In creating The Fantastic Four and the ground breaking books that followed it, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby established that the personalities of the heros rather than the plots, should be of paramount importance. The Fantastic Four acquired their amazing powers after their experimental rocket passed through a storm of cosmic rays. The Fantastic Four dazzled readers with their oddball personalities, but the manner in which they were brought to life was even more of a break through. Most comic books had been created from scripts prepared by writers and editors. The words came first, and usually the artists were given instructions on how to divide the stories into pages and panels. With an accomplished professional like Jack Kirby, Lee knew that he would receive powerful pages even if he gave the artist nothing more than a synopsis, which was all he provided for the first issue of Fantastic Four. When the drawing came back Lee added dialogue and captions. The results were so splendid that Kirby and Lee never worked any other way again.

For their second super hero, Lee and Kirby came up with another monstrous figure, who was inspired by the success of The Thing, and also by the comic books like Tales to Astonish. The result was The Incredible Hulk (May 1962). The fear of radiation was a theme that recurred throughout the early 1960's, and again, radiation was the gimmick that provided The Hulk with his uncanny powers. The original Hulk story depicted the first test of a new "gamma bomb" invented by a scientist named Bruce Banner, who was exposed to the blast through the machinations of a Communist spy working under the transparent alias "Igor." The spy was a throwback to bygone days; eventually such conventional devices were abandoned in favor of more imaginative plot developments, but Igor was tolerated because his presence served to turn Banner into the Hulk.

By 1962, Marvel was on a roll. The little company was bursting at the seams, and was beginning to feel constrained by the deal with DC that allowed only eight Marvel books to be distributed per month. As a result, the next round of super heroes made their first appearances not in new publications, but as features in the already existing "monster" comics, which had now outlived their popularity. In August 1962, The Mighty Thor took the stage in Journey Into Mystery #83. A typically flawed modern Marvel hero, Dr. Don Blake walked with a limp and used a cane until he discovered the long-lost hammer of the ancient god Thor. Its power changed Blake into the virtually omnipotent Thor, complete with armor, helmet and golden locks. In the early 1960's the super heroes were popular, but they were coming out only once every two months. Lee had enough time to work on the plots, but he turned the detailed scripting to Thor over to his brother Larry Lieber. The results were good, but the tiny Marvel crew was just too busy to give him the attention he deserved. More effort was being expended on another new super hero, one who would eventually become the company's best known creation, and ultimately its informal corporate mascot as well.

The first Spider-Man story was originally intended as no more than a one-shot experiment, and almost didn't get into print at all. "Martin Goodman didn't want to publish it", recalls Stan Lee. Goodman was convinced that readers would find the subject of spiders distasteful. Fortunately for all concerned, a comic book called Amazing Adult Fantasy was about to be canceled due to faltering sales. For the occation, the comic book reverted to ist original title of Amazing Fantasy, an appropriate amendment since Spider-Man was to be the most important adolescent super hero in comics.

Spider-Man was the hero and the teenage helper rolled into one; he was his own sidekick. Marvel's first editor, Joe Simon, theorized that kid companions like Captain America's Bucky were important because they gave the protagonist someone to talk to; Spider-Man talked to himself. In his first apperence he mused aloud, but subsequently Lee adopted the device of the thought balloon with its characteristic bubbles. Spider-Man, despite the fact that he was not originally intended to star in a series, became the epitome of the radical innovations that characterized The Marvel Age. Lee used him to challenge the very concept of the super hero. Spider-Man was neurotic, compulsive and profoundly skeptical about the whole idea of becoming a costumed hero. The Fantastic Four argued with each other, and the Hulk and Thor had problems with their alter egos, but Spider-Man had to struggle with himself.

In the origin story (August 1962), Peter Parker is a bookish, bespectacled high school student, isolated and unpopular. He lives with his Aunt May and Uncle Ben. While attending a science exhibit, Peter is bitten by a spider that has accidentally received a dose of radioactivity. As a result, Peter acquires the agility and proportionate strength of an arachnid. This story, with its challenge to comic book cliches, created an unexpected sensation. Months later Marvel got the sales figures, and that issue of Amazing Fantasy was one of the best selling Marvel ever had. However the usual months of creative and production work leading to publication kept Amazing Spider-Man #1 from appearing until March 1963.

Seeming to pluck ideas out of the air as major new characters appeared, Stan Lee showed something like vision when he chose the country of Vietnam as the setting for the origin of Iron Man (Tales of Suspense #39, March 1963). In 1963 comparatively few Americans were intrested in Vietnam, but before long the war being waged there would become the most crucial and controversial event of the 1960's. For Lee, the setting may have been merely expedient, enabling him to introduce the Communist villains he still employed with some regularity. Later, he had second thoughts about his somewhat simplistic treatment of the Asian nation's problems. Yet Ironman was a character whose very premise demanded political intrigue.

By September 1963 it was easy enough for Marvel to fulfill Martin Goodman's 1961 wish that his company could publish a comic book as jampacked with popular super heroes ad DC's Justice League. By late 1963, Marvel had super hero stars to spare, and some of them were joined together to form a new super hero group called The Avengers. The original Avengers were Iron Man, Thor, The Hulk, and Ant Man, along with his female partner the Wasp. Including the antisocial Hulk in the group was an odd choice, even for a company that made a specialty of character conflict. He quit in the second issue, but returned in the third to battle the remaining Avengers with the help of the traditionally testy Sub-Mariner.

The X-Men, a comic book series featuring a very different sort of super hero group, made its debut simultaneously with The Avengers in September 1963. Stan Lee had originally wanted to call the team fo teenagers The Mutants, but Martin Goodman felt the name might baffle young readers, so Lee came up with X-Men, which had a nice hint of the unknown about it. The leader of the team was Professor Xavier, a wheelchair-bound telepath who ran a school for gifted youngsters who were all secretly mutants. Feared by ordinary people, The X-Men were nonetheless in training to protect humanity from a gang of evil mutants headed by the sinister Magneto.

As the Marvel style continued ot develop, the characters and stories became more and more complex, until not even an entire comic book had enough pages to contain a single adventure. For example, X-Men #4 concluded with a cliff-hanger that went unresolved for two months. Some readers wrote in to complain, suggesting that the serials were merely an artificial marketing device, but the majority found extended narratives to their liking. Gradually, cliff-hangers became the norm. It was yet another Marvel innovation that has become standard in the industry.

Dr. Strange, an unusual hero who soon developed an enthusiastic cult following, achieved prominence by creeping up on it. Initially conceived as a one-shot in the back of Strange Tales #110 (July 1963), Dr Strange subsequently appeared and disappeared from the pages of the comic book that had given him his name. This seemed only proper since, after all, he was a magician. By 1964 his adventures had begun to show up on a regular basis, sharing the pages of Strange Tales with The Human Torch.

Casting about for another super hero with a different problem to overcome, Lee hit on the ultimate drawback for a crime fighter. Drawing upon the idea that the blind are compensated by a heightening of their senses, Lee invented an accident involving radioactive material that left attorney Matt Murdock sightless, but so sensitie in other ways that he could hear heartbeats and read newspapers with his fingertips. This was the only break the character got; his strength and speed were actually no more than those of a trained athlete.

Daredevil #1 (April 1964) presented the debut of the blind hero. The name had been used before, for a character introduced by Lev Gleason Publications but abandoned years earlier, and Lee reasoned that it was particularly appropriate for his new "Man Without Fear." Another name from bygone days became associated with the first issue when Bill Everett came on board to draw the story. The creator of the 1939 Sub-Mariner had been working as a commercial artist in Massachusetts, but Lee managed to lure him back to New York and Marvel. Everett soon moved on to other characters, and the red and yellow costume that Everett created of the original Daredevil cover was changed by artist Wally Wood to simpler red tights. The more devilish new costume is the one that ultimately lasted.

The peak of activity during the Marvel Age occurred in 1968. Sales were reported at 50,000,000 copies annually. As a result, the characters who had been allotted only half a comic book were launched in their own titles: The Incredible Hulk, The Invincible Iron Man, Dr. Strange, The Sub-Mariner, Captain America and Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. In fact, Marvel was so confident that a year earlier, in 1967, it had launched Not Brand Echh, a monthly comic book devoted to spoofs of the company's own heros. These parodies were frequently written and drawn by the original creators of the characters, but one of the mainstays of the series was Marie Severin, a gifted caricaturist who had worked for years on Marvel's production staff. One of the first women to gain prominence as a comic book artist, she also depicted the adventures of super heroes like The Hulk and Dr. Strange.


Stan Lee tried a couple of experiments while things were hot: for example, he put a high twenty five cent cover price on the unusually long first issue of The Silver Surfer (1968). Beautifully drawn by John Buscema, this comic book represented an attempt to upgrade the medium with a serious character of whom Lee had grown very fond. A month earlier, Lee had put Marvel's most popular hero into a magazine size, black and white format: The Spectacular Spiderman. Unfortunately, its failure after only two issues was an omen of things to come.

In the fall of 1968, with Marvel apparently at its peak, Martin Goodman sold the companies he had started in 1932. The buyer was Perfect Film and Chemical Corporation, which soon changed its name to Cadence Industries. Within the Cadence structure, all of Goodman's publishing enterprises were grouped under on company name, Magazine Management, and Goodman continued as president and publisher. Superficially, nothing had changed.

By 1969 it was evident that Goodman had picked his time wisely, however, for the entire comic book industry was experiencing a slump. One obvious reason was an increase in the price of an average issue from twelve cents to fifteen cents. In 1969 that represented enough of a jump to discourage many young customers. The slump also represented a natural swing of the pendulum. Business had been on the rise at Marvel for almost a decade. Now the boom was over, and some insiders blamed the comic book companies for expanding too fast and spreading themselves too thin.

For the first time in years, Marvel was dropping titles instead of adding them. Not Brand Echh and Dr. Strange were amonge the first cancellations; perhaps the biggest disappointment for Stan Lee was having to drop The Silver Surfer , the philosophical super hero.

One title, The X-Men , hung on by its fingernails. Working with writer Roy Thomas, a young artist named Neal Adams infused the group with new life. Even this superior series of stories did not exactly save the The X-Men , but instead of being canceled, the title was continued after March 1970 with reprints of old issues. Someone at Marvel must have looked into a crystal ball and seen that The X-Men was destined to one day become the most popular comic book series published in the United States.

 


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