The early Marvel titles are filled with all manner of mysteries, large and small. The greatest of these concern who among the various contributors were they key creative minds behind the success of the imprint–and that’s a conversation that I don’t think is ever going to abate, given that every faction has their own favorites to whom they are partisan, and nothing will deter them from their worldview–whether that worldview espouses the greatness of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko or whomever.
But once again, that’s not really what we’re going to be talking about today. Here, I want to examine a much more minor mystery, and to connect a few dots. My speculation here may be correct, or it may be way off the mark–so many years after the fact, it’s difficult to tell. And a good portion of that is the fact that these early Marvel books were simply being pulled together rapidly by a skeleton crew of creators who were looking to put food on the table and had no conception that anybody might be thinking about this stuff half a century later. So things that matter to the hardcore comic book historian weren’t of any great import to those in the thick of things.
In any event, AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #8 includes a short back-up story in which Spider-Man meets and battles the Human Torch and the rest of the Fantastic Four. What’s notable about this story is that it wasn’t drawn by ASM’s regular illustrator, Steve Ditko, but rather by the FF’s mainstay Jack Kirby. (Ditko did ink the story in question.) And looking at this and thinking about it, it’s a very odd choice to make eight issues into the run of ASM. And while it was promotable on the cover, it meant that Ditko’s lead story had to be shorter than usual. So what was the deal here?
My suspicion, thinking about this, was that this story began its life intended for another home, and it only wound up in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #8 in order to use it, to burn off the inventory. If this was the plan, it explains why and how Ditko’s lead tale could be the appropriate number of pages shorter, and how the story could be plugged on the cover–Ditko always did his ASM covers last.
So where was SPIDER-MAN TACKLES THE TORCH intended to run? And why did it wind up getting bumped to ASM #8? He’s my theory.
The biggest clue I had was that the story was only 6 pages long–shorter than a typical HUMAN TORCH solo adventure in STRANGE TALES, shorter than most of the stories being produced at this moment, in particular the super hero tales. But there was one other 6-page story that fit both the timeframe and the bill–and that’s the short Spider-Man meets the Fantastic Four story in FANTASTIC FOUR ANNUAL #1.
FANTASTIC FOUR ANNUAL #1 had been prepared a number of months earlier, at around the time of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #4. As part of his larger promotional campaign for the burgeoning Marvel line of characters, editor Stan Lee chose to spotlight Spider-Man in this oversized issue of his best-selling series. Even on the preliminary, unused cover, Spider-Man is called out prominently–and his figure was even increased in size at some point before the decision was made to use a different piece entirely.
The story that actually runs in FANTASTIC FOUR ANNUAL #1 is a weird one. It expands on the drive-by first meeting of Spidey and the Fantastic Four from AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #1, adding additional action and incident into it in order to fill out the space. Throughout it, Jack Kirby is forced to incorporate Steve Ditko’s original page compositions, as this new story is meant to fit in and around the cracks of the earlier one. That’s a weird thing to ask Kirby to do–Jack was always more about coming up with new stories than revisiting old ones, in particular a story that he had nothing to do with.
Looking at the two stories side-by-side, it’s clear that the one from AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #1 came first. Some of Kirby’s choreography on the later story doesn’t quite add up properly (Reed being freed from Spidey’s web by an otherwise-calm Thing and them stretching himself into a wall to hold an irate Thing back, for example.) And really all the story does is to create more action in that earlier encounter. And I suspect that’s the key to why it was done.
Here’s what I think happened.
Stan wanted to do a story spotlighting their new character Spider-Man in the Annual, and Kirby went off and plotted and penciled the six-page tale that would become SPIDER-MAN TACKLES THE TORCH for that purpose. In the meantime, Lee began to get feedback on AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #1–whether this came in the most obvious form of the fan mail that he was soliciting, or in-person reactions from fans he encountered, or a mix of the two, I couldn’t say. But in whatever form it came, the message got back to him that the readers felt that they had jobbed out the Fantastic Four in ASM #1 in order to make Spider-Man look cooler–there was no way that a scrawny runt like Spider-Man should be so easily able to take on the entire Fantastic Four!
So when Kirby brought in the pages for the FF ANNUAL, Lee told him about a change-of-plans. Rather than the new story that Kirby had drawn, Lee wanted to take that earlier encounter from ASM #1 and expand it into a full 6-page battle epic, one that would show the full array of the Fantastic Four’s abilities while still maintaining Spider-Man’s victory. This, he hoped, would placate the fans. Taking a copy of that story from ASM #1 with him (probably in the form of a printed copy of the book) Kirby proceeded to draw the replacement story for FF ANNUAL #1. Ditko was brought in to ink it, to help preserve the look of Spider-Man and the consistency (as he would also do for the longer Human Torch/Spider-Man team-up in STRANGE TALES ANNUAL #2 at around the same time.)
Later, wanting to use the six pages Kirby had drawn rather than simply discarding them, Lee decided to script them to run in an issue of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. Again, Ditko would ink the pages. It’s possible this coincided with some greater demand on Ditko’s time, which would have made the loss of six pages a boon rather than a hardship. But it’s just as likely that it’s just a decision that was made regardless. It’s pretty clear that SPIDER-MAN TACKLES THE TORCH was scripted as a Spider-Man story, even though Spidey plays more as the antagonist in it. The original art board mark-ups also match those of the lead story in ASM #8, so if this was the case, the story was never labeled as part of FF ANNUAL #1, it was simply put to the side.