Life In A Four Color World column on FANTASTIC FOUR, 2003

Discovering Marvel

When I was young, I didn’t like Marvel comics.

There are a couple of reasons for this. In my early comic book reading days, I’d sampled a number of Marvel titles on occasion. And none of them did anything for me—in fact, I often found them ugly and awful, a far cry from the Julie Schwartz-style heroics that I had been enjoying over in the DC line. The Marvel books seemed harsher somehow, with scratchier artwork. Every issue seemed to end in a cliffhanger—and worse, the cliffhanger moment was almost always the cover image, so if you’d been enticed by the notion of finding out how the hero survived such jeopardy, you were out of luck until the next issue came out—and finding that next issue was an uncertain proposition in the early ‘70s before comic book shops.

I can specifically remember at least three Marvel issues that I owned during this time. I’ve gone back and reread ‘em all since then, and at least in one instance my opinion has changed. But overall, I was probably selecting the wrong books (though during this period there wasn’t a whole lot of real merit in the mainstream Marvel titles.) So I read Thor #233, a Gerry Conway story illustrated by John Buscema and inked by Chic Stone. Stone’s thick, broad inks removed a lot of the subtlety from John’s work, and the story, in which Loki led the legions of Asgard against Thor and a battalion of army soldiers while Odin was amnesiac as an itinerant farm worker, wasn’t exactly a grabber. And it ended with the two armies about to clash. And I read Captain America #183, deep in the heart of Steve Englehart’s Nomad storyline in which Cap gives up his patriotic identity, which is then adopted by a young kid named Roscoe. Except I didn’t know any of that going in, so when the Red Skull showed up to crucify Roscoe atop a tenement in Harlem, I thought this was the real Captain America who’d been killed. Frank Robbins’ Milton Canniff-inspired artwork didn’t help my reading experience either—Robbins is something of an acquired taste, especially on super heroes, and while I liked him on Invaders some time later, I never warmed to his work on Captain America. And I read Marvel Team-Up #16, which pitted Spidey and Captain Mar-Vell against the Basilisk, and ended with Marv trapped in a giant diamond, being drawn to the center of the Earth in yet another cliffhanger. Gil Kane’s artwork moved all right, but it was scratchily inked by Mike Esposito, who somehow made it all look muddy.

So, three strikes and you’re out. I studiously avoided Marvel comics from this point forward, and actively decried them (in the exact opposite of the Marvel Zombies of the ‘80s and ‘90s—to my mind, Marvel sucked). Had he lived long enough to see it, my father would have gotten endless fun out of needling me about eventually working for Marvel, as he did when I eventually became a Marvel convert. For about five years, my only contact with Marvel books was Superman Vs. The Amazing Spider-Man, which was too momentous a happening for me to pass up, and the odd issue of Amazing Spider-Man or Marvel Tales that my brother bought, or that had been recovered by my house-painter uncle on one of his jobs. I was more than happy following the simpler, cleaner DC comics—everything from Superman and Flash to Secret Society of Super-Villains and Shazam.

But eventually, it became impossible to avoid the Marvel characters. I kind of backed into it. It started with me purchasing Jules Feiffer’s The Great Comic Book Heroes, which reprinted an assortment of golden age stories, including one each of Captain America, the Human Torch, and the Sub-Mariner. I skipped over these stories when I first read the volume, and it wasn’t until some time later that, for whatever reason, I went back and actually read them. The second volley came in Jim Steranko’s Steranko History of Comics Vol. 1, which contained chapters on both Captain America and the ‘40s Timely line as a whole. I was interested in the material on the DC books (and the early cover reproductions), not Marvel stuff (or pulp magazines and adventure comic strips), so I didn’t read those sections for quite a while either. But at some point, there was a day with nothing better to do, and I ended up digesting those unread passages in both books. And reconsidering whether I might have been using too broad a brush to tar a whole company with. Because I found that I liked the Human Torch story in GCBH, and decided to go in search of more.

The place my search took me was to the local Genovese drug store. Genovese was a chain on the East Coast. It’s still around today in some areas, though the Genovese that was near to where I live now was just bought out by Eckhart’s. But in the late ‘70s, Genovese had a magic bin of comic books. I’d prowled through it in the past, coming up empty save for an errant issue of Action Comics—everything in the bin was Marvel. I had no idea at the time, but I’ve since been able to work out that since these books were all months out of date, and came in to refill the bin haphazardly, they were in all likelihood illegal affidavit returns, copies that were supposed to have been destroyed by the local distributor (who got credit for all of the destroyed books) but which had instead been sold off to the Genovese chain. And Genovese was selling them six for a buck (five for a dollar once the cover price went up to 30 cents).

It was a magic treasure trove of comics, and digging through it over the months as I explored various Marvel titles is one of my strongest comic book related memories. I’ll still have dreams from time to time of coming across a Genovese that still has such a bin, and rifling through it, finding all sorts of wonderful old comics that I’ve never seen before.

But on that particular day, I was interested in the Human Torch. From the Marvel Team-Up I’d read, I knew that the character was now a member of the Fantastic Four. So routing through the huge bin, I ended up pulling out copies of Fantastic Four #177, 178 & 179. They were all about a year old at that point (the next new issue that would reach the stands a few weeks later was FF #187). I can recall reading them on the floor in my living room, my body half-under the coffee table in the center of the room. This was my first foray into the Marvel Universe proper, and it was an enjoyable one.

The story in FF #177-178 concerned an attack on the team by their evil counterparts, the Frightful Four. The frightful ones capture the FF, then hold them for ransom by the city of New York—all the while interviewing recruits for their fourth member (the position having been recently vacated by Thundra.), including the Osprey (who had no powers—but if the bad guys could just give him some…), the Texas Twister (who wanted a guaranteed salary) and Captain Ultra (who passed out in the presence of open flame, making him not the best guy to go up against the Human Torch). In the end, the opening is filled by the rampaging Brute, who was really the Reed Richards of a parallel world—and though the Frightful Four are vanquished, the Brute succeeds in casting the real Mister Fantastic into the Negative Zone and taking his place among the FF. This subplot continued into #179, in which the Thing and guest stars Tigra, Thundra and the Impossible Man battled an android dispatched by the Mad Thinker.

These comics were a lot of fun—and even when writer Roy Thomas didn’t explain the character set-ups all that clearly (it would be issues before I was able to figure out that Reed Richards was Mister Fantastic), they moved along with deliberate speed and more than a little humor. They were very entertaining. Best of all, the first two books were penciled by George Perez, who even then was one of the best super hero artists in the field. Joe Sinnott’s masterful, clean ink line didn’t hurt matters either (though #178 was inked by Dave Hunt, who did a decent job).

I wanted more. And so I went back to Genovese to pick up copies of that other Fantastic Four title I’d seen—and it was there I hit the mother lode. Because what I emerged with was Marvel’s Greatest Comics #58-60, which reprinted a trio of FF tales by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Lee and Kirby are indisputably one of the greatest teams in the history of comics ever, and that quality shined through in these slightly-truncated reprints. I’d encountered Kirby’s work earlier, on DC titles like Kamandi, but I hadn’t much cared for it there—the scripting was weird, and the ink line made things look “harsh” somehow. But in MGC, with the springy scripting of Stan to back him up, and with Joe Sinnott adding his trademark polish, the King’s work shined. There was more imagination, more kooky concepts, more razzle-dazzle in those three comic books than anything I’d read before. And the personalities of the individual characters really shone through.

b]Fantastic Four[/b] immediately became my favorite comic book (and the only Marvel book I was buying for some time, an exception to my anti-Marvel stance which would eventually be added onto) and the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby era of FF remains my favorite comic book run of all time. Which is why eventually getting to edit Fantastic Four was not merely a highlight of my professional career, but a privilege and a sacred responsibility.

It is, after all, the World’s Greatest Comic Magazine.

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