I’ve seen different bits and pieces of this story told in assorted places, but I cannot recall anyplace where the entire sequence of events was laid out in a single recounting, so I thought that was worth doing.
In the spring of 1963, with the super hero titles that his firm had been producing doing good business and growing his company, Marvel publisher Martin Goodman made a deal with his distributor Independent News to add two more titles to his output. This is noteworthy for a couple of reasons. First off, Independent News was the distribution arm of National Periodical Publications, better known today as DC Comics, the big cheese player in the field by 1963. Some years earlier, Goodman had made a disastrous decision to shut down his own distribution network, Atlas, to sign on with American News, then the largest distributor in periodicals. But American was the subject of anti-trust lawsuits and went bankrupt almost immediately, leaving Goodman without a way to get his product to market. Ultimately, he was able to make a deal with Independent News, who were more interested in Martin’s assorted magazines than they were his comic book line.
Independent News took Martin on as a client, but they imposed some limitations on him. Most importantly from our point of view, they limited him to only 8 comic book releases a month. The reason for this is that Goodman had a history and a reputation for following any trend and absolutely flooding the marketplace with knock-off publications. He’d make a quick buck, then switch to something else when the audience grew tired of whatever trend he was following. This would cause havoc to rival publishers, and IND. didn’t want to deal with it. So Martin got 8 slots, which he used to put out 16 bimonthly books. This is how things stood at the start of Marvel, where FANTASTIC FOUR became a 17th title in the mix–either because Goodman got permission or because he didn’t and simply tried to sneak one more series through the pipeline. In order to launch a new book, Goodman had to kill an existing series. This tended to make him quick on the trigger, and is one reason why INCREDIBLE HULK was cancelled so swiftly. (In point of fact, Jack Kirby related at one point that INCREDIBLE HULK had been cancelled by Goodman even earlier, with #3, but the book got a short-lived reprieve thanks to fan letters from college students.)
In any event, with his sales booming, Goodman sought and received permission to expand his line by two releases. And he knew exactly what he wanted those two books to be. Summoning editor Stan Lee, Goodman told him that for the summer of 1963 they’d be adding two titles to their production, and that he wanted them to be knock-offs of their two most popular and profitable titles, FANTASTIC FOUR and AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. This is how Goodman typically operated–if he had a title that was working, he’d create a few clones while sales were hot and clean up in the short term. He wasn’t looking for innovation, he was looking for profits. Goodman was the boss, so Lee had no choice but to follow his directive.
For the FANTASTIC FOUR copy, Lee reached out to Jack Kirby–a no-brainer since Kirby was both drawing and largely plotting FANTASTIC FOUR at this point, along with the bulk of the line. The title they came up with was X-MEN. There’s no way of knowing whether Kirby had any of the ideas for X-MEN in his pocket when Lee approached him, or whether they were worked out in concert. But in any event, it was skinned so that it looked and felt like FANTASTIC FOUR. Its team of super heroes all wore identical costumes in the mode of the FF, one was a thick-armed strongman in the manner of the Thing (though his personality would quickly evolve to become more erudite within a few issues) and another was the Human Torch in reverse. Their first antagonist, Magneto, also owed something of his visual to the FF’s nemesis Doctor Doom. Finally, the first two covers made the connection overt by proclaiming the new series to have been produced IN THE SENSATIONAL FANTASTIC FOUR STYLE!
For the AMAZING SPIDER-MAN copycat series, Goodman had an even more precise idea. He’d become aware that the trademark to the Golden Age character Daredevil had been allowed to lapse, and so he wanted to pick it up–Daredevil having been one of the more successful characters during the Golden Age. In this instance, Lee first reached out to Steve Ditko concerning the assignment, telling him that he could either just do the classic Golden Age version of the character or come up with something new using the same name. But Ditko wasn’t interested and turned down the assignment. One gets the sense that he was a bit unhappy with the notion of Goodman stealing ownership of the original character–which adds a bit of a greater wrinkle to AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #16, which wound up being a showcase for the new Marvel Daredevil character and which Ditko drew and at least co-plotted.
Undaunted, Lee went to Jack Kirby. Presumably, needing to keep up with all of his existing assignments (including the added burden of that year’s big FANTASTIC FOUR ANNUAL), Lee felt that Kirby was too busy to draw the new strip–or perhaps Kirby told him as much, though that seems to be at odds with Kirby’s work-ethic and can-do spirit. Either way, Lee did get Kirby to conceptualize a version of the character and work up a concept drawing. This wasn’t quite the version of the costume that was used, but it would become the foundation for it, and would wind up published both on the cover of the first issue and on the opening splash page. Kirby also originated the idea of Daredevil having a billy club as a weapon, and may have been involved in originating other aspects of the series.
At this point, Lee reached out to an old pro who hadn’t been a part of his stable since the implosion of Goodman’s Atlas line in 1957, but who could certainly handle a new feature. This was Bill Everett, who had years earlier conceived the Sub-Mariner. Everett had left comics at this point, and was working a day job at a greeting card company. Lee inveigled him into taking on the new series. In conceptualizing the character, Everett was inspired in part by his daughter Wendy, who had been born legally blind. So Everett began working on the first issue, working nights and weekends after his day job was finished. And that’s where things went off the rails.
Everett was never the fastest artist in the world to begin with, and he just didn’t have the time needed to produce DAREDEVIL in a timely fashion. In addition, there appear to have been birthing pains on the strip. Looking at the original art, you can see all sorts of places where pages and panels were cut apart and rearranged, areas extended and changed. Even the lettering was redone–Everett lettered the first portion of the book in his own distinctive lettering style, but at a certain point the choice was made to go with Sam Rosen, and so Rosen was called upon to reletter the opening portion of the book, his new lettering was statted and pasted over Everett’s on those pages.
(Not to be unkind, but because it may be relevant; Everett was also a habitual heavy drinker during this time, and that may have played a role in his not being able to keep to his DAREDEVIL deadlines.)
In any event, a crisis point was approaching. Back in those days, when you booked printer press time for a magazine, you’d pay for it whether or not you printed the mag in question. So, having booked the press time for DAREDEVIL #1, something needed to fill it. This wasn’t as simple as just shifting some other existing title into that slot, since DAREDEVIL was a new book added to the schedule–all of the existing titles had time for their printing already slotted in. Additionally, for whatever reason, Lee didn’t pull the job away from Everett and try to get somebody else to complete it. Reportedly, Martin Goodman always had a fondness for Everett so that may have played a role in this decision.
Whatever the case, Lee needed to come up with an entirely new book, and quickly, so he reached out once more to Jack Kirby, and together they originated THE AVENGERS. The trick here with AVENGERS #1 is that it only uses existing elements–while teaming the characters up is new, AVENGERS #1 doesn’t add any other new characters or ideas into the mix. The villain is Loki, who’d been well-established over in the THOR strip. (Spider-Man and Doctor Strange were both left out of the mix. I’m presuming this is at least partly because they were Ditko characters, and not as familiar to Kirby.) So Kirby could dive into the first issue directly, without needing to ruminate on it much, and could turn it around rapidly. Dick Ayers inked AVENGERS #1, and it’s far from the most polished job Ayers ever did over Kirby’s pencils, so no doubt he was moving quickly as well.
X-MEN #1 and AVENGERS #1 both came out on the same day, July 2, 1963. And DAREDEVIL #1 was rescheduled for later on in the year. But that’s not quite the end of the story. For, even with the additional lead time, Everett couldn’t quite get the first issue completed in time or to Stan Lee’s satisfaction. And this time, either he turned in what he had done and said that he just couldn’t do it or Lee called the work back into the office and turned to the people around him to help pull it together into an issue that they could ship and print.
Reportedly, Steve Ditko and Sol Brodsky both pitched in on the final book, inking background, doing production work and generally finishing up whatever Everett had left undone. That appears to include the cover–both it and the splash page use Kirby’s original design sheet figure, which has been inked by Everett and modified so that the costume matches what Everett had done through the rest of the issue. I’m not certain who drew the Spider-Man figure on the cover–it could be Everett, but somehow it doesn’t look like his work to my eye. Everett did do the Fixer and his goons in the main image and the vignettes of Matt, Karen and Foggy in the side bar–the Fantastic Four headshots were cribbed from the corner box of their series and were by Kirby as well. Possibly Everett left this box empty to do just this, but it’s also possible that he penciled in the FF as well as Spider-Man and Lee just didn’t like the way they looked there and substituted copies of Kirby’s version. On the splash page, Brodsky drew in a crude skyline behind Kirby’s Daredevil figure and a vignette of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #1 was added as well, to further reinforce the idea that this new character was very much like the popular wall-crawler.
ADDITION: Will Murray points out that the Sue Storm head on this cover isn’t Sue Storm at all. It’s a Millie the Model head, with the hair slightly tweaked, and not by Kirby at all.
In any event, DAREDEVIL #1 eventually made it on sale on February 4, 1964, more than six months late and some time after X-MEN and AVENGERS #4 had both been released. It may also have been another title that Martin Goodman snuck onto his schedule–he’d arranged to add to two titles, X-MEN and DAREDEVIL, but he’d first put out X-MEN and AVENGERS then straggled DAREDEVIL behind them. It’s possible and maybe even likely that this shell game let him get away with one super hero title more than IND had bargained for, and if they eventually became aware of the deception, this may have been a factor in them continuing to keep Goodman bottled up on the number of super hero titles he could release for the next several years.