There is an often-told anecdote about the early days of Marvel and what inspired that era of creativity. I believe it was first widely shared publicly in the pages of ORIGINS OF MARVEL COMICS, though Stan Lee may have shared it during his college lecture circuit tours earlier. And it goes like this.
By the early 1960s, Stan Lee was feeling restless and trapped in a go-nowhere job. He’d been toiling for publisher Martin Goodman for close to two decades, grinding out hundreds of comic magazine stories of indeterminate quality. Now, with the business in a slump thanks to the implosion of Goodman’s distributor, future prospects for gainful employment seemed dim, and Lee was looking for some other job with more of a future. One of his big complaints was that he was forced to churn out stories that weren’t very good, that he felt were beneath him, because that’s what the boss wanted. And supposedly, one night as he complained to his wife Joan, she told him, “Why don’t you try to do a comic magazine the way you think it ought to be done?” Stan wanted to quit anyway, so if Martin Goodman fired him, it wouldn’t be any skin off his nose. And this would let him get the whole thing out of his system. So inspired, Stan went back to work and, with Jack Kirby, came up with the Fantastic Four. And so history was made.
It’s a really good story, and one that hardcore Jack Kirby supporters dispute ever happened–in their view, Kirby came up with practically everything and Lee simply took the credit for most of it. But I think there’s more to that story than might initially meet the eye–but I suspect that it maybe didn’t have as much to do with FANTASTIC FOUR as with another title released at virtually the same time.
Over the years, Lee made no secret of the fact that, while Kirby was his most popular adventure artist and his bread-and-butter, Lee’s favorite collaborator (at least after the passing of his long-time partner Joe Maneely) was actually Steve Ditko. Lee thought Ditko’s work was a cut above, and he relished the opportunity to do the more intellectual and introspective five-page stories with him that brought up the rear in all of then-Marvel’s suspense magazines. In fact, on a couple of occasions, Lee even cover blurbed those stories with credits, something that just wasn’t typically done in that era, when even story credits were often frowned upon. Clearly, Lee had a strong affinity for these tales.
So when Martin Goodman came to Lee and told him to begin working on a new super hero team title (based on the sell-through of the early issues of JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA) Lee took advantage of the moment to make a change to another title at the same time. In order to make time in his schedule for FANTASTIC FOUR, Kirby needed to step away from doing the main story in AMAZING ADVENTURES, another in te number of suspense books the firm was putting out. Lee took this opportunity to try something new. He rechristened the title AMAZING ADULT FANTASY and filled it cover to cover with short fantasy stories produced by himself and Ditko. The book was clearly to be aimed at a more discerning audience–everything from the addition of the word ADULT to the title to its slogan –“the Magazine That Respects Your Intelligence” screams this.
FANTASTIC FOUR and AMAZING ADULT FANTASY were virtually sister titles. They even share a common logo treatment. And in a rare case of in-house advertising, they also shared a house ad that ran in a number of titles, linking the two as exciting new fantasy titles cut from the same cloth. The ad ran concurrent with FANTASTIC FOUR #3 and AMAZING ADULT FANTASY #10 (its fourth issue.)
Unfortunately, AMAZING ADULT FANTASY didn’t find enough of an audience. In a bit to keep the title alive, Lee chose to debut Spider-Man within its pages, intending for that character to be the new lead feature in the magazine. But fast-on-the-trigger Martin Goodman canceled the book wit #15 anyway–an act that he’d regret, and de facto reverse once he saw the sales figures on that final Spider-Man led issue.
So here’s what I think: I think the essence of the Joan Lee story is true, but that it applied to either both FANTASTIC FOUR and AMAZING ADULT FANTASY equally, or it was really the inspiration behind AAF. As people ave talked about elsewhere, those early issues of FANTASTIC FOUR don’t quite seem on a par with the best of either Lee or Kirby’s work, and it wasn’t until a few issues later–once sales began to be tabulated, perhaps? –that it starts to feel as though greater effort is being expended on the book (although, as we’ve covered here previously, there was plenty of work being done on those early issues.)
I think Lee’s attempt, at Joan’s urging, to do a comic magazine exactly the way he wanted to led to AMAZING ADULT FANTASY–which, unfortunately, was a commercial failure. But by the time it reached the end of the road, Lee had other successes he could focus on. And I think, over time, in the retelling, the story of Stan’s wife inspiring him just became cleaner and better by omitting the failed AMAZING ADULT FANTASY from it. One win and one loss isn’t really as inspiring an outcome.