Lee & Ditko & Orlando & Rockwell: the Multiple Car Crash of TALES TO ASTONISH #61

I think it’s no great secret that for a good portion of its run, the Ant-Man/Giant-Man strip in TALES TO ASTONISH was troubled. Struggling, really. More so than any of the other Marvel characters of that era, Hank Pym’s series, borne out of a one-off fantasy story, was retooled and reworked far more often than any other super hero strip of the era, and was eventually folded and replaced with a series starring the more popular Sub-Mariner. It also seems clear that Giant-Man became a venue in which editor Stan Lee could occasionally try out new contributors that he hoped would evidence a handle on the Marvel style of storytelling he and his collaborators were finding success with elsewhere, and so be added to the regular body of creators who were turning out the magazines. As the line continued to expand, it was necessary to find additional people who could carry some of the burden, as it was clear that Lee and Kirby and Ditko couldn’t do it all.

Sometimes this worked out great, and somebody new was added to the fold. But far more often, especially in the very early days of Marvel, the result wasn’t as pleasant, and the creator in question wound up contributing just a few jobs before the work dried up for them. And every once in a while, a story fell apart so badly that studying it becomes an interesting archaeological expedition all its own. Such a tale is the Giant-Man story from TALES TO ASTONISH #61. As you can see from the credits box (which has clearly been typeset at the last minute and pasted over the original credits which would have appeared in that space, apart from Stan Lee’s) editor Lee explains that another artist was supposed to draw this Giant-Man story, but events beyond their control forced that creator to bow out, leading to Steve Ditko and George Roussos (under his Marvel pen name of George Bell) jamming the story out at the last minute in a hurry. This is, strictly speaking, not the whole truth. But to parse what actually went wrong on this Giant-Man adventure, we need to go back to the beginning.

As I mentioned, in this era Stan Lee was actively looking for new artists who could take on the rigors of working Marvel style–which is to say, drawing up a particular story based on only a short conversation or a hastily-composed page of notes. In essence, what Lee was looking for were artists who were themselves strong plotters and who didn’t mind crafting most if not all of the story plot themselves while in the act of drawing it. One of those he intended to try out was Dick Rockwell. As announced on the letters page of FANTASTIC FOUR #31 (and confirmed more broadly in issue #25 of Jerry Bails’ fanzine the Comics Reader), artist Dick Rockwell would be working on the Giant-Man story in ASTONISH #61. Rockwell had a long career as a newspaper adventure strip cartoonist, where he ghosted work for many, many years for Milton Caniff on STEVE CANYON, among others.

At this late date, nobody seems to remember what it was that prevented Dick Rockwell from doing this Giant-Man story. When asked about it later, he had no recall of ever being approached by Stan Lee for work, though he clearly had been. Perhaps it was a dispute over page rates–Marvel back then was notoriously cheap. Alternatively, Rockwell could have been piled with work from Caniff or somebody else at that point, work that was likely better paying. But however it happened, Rockwell was off of TALES TO ASTONISH #61. In the book’s inaugural letters page, while not mentioning Rockwell by name, editor Lee spins a longer yarn about the pitfalls this particular Giant-Man story ran into, and why the old timer artist they had promised would be working on it had failed to appear. But what Lee is actually doing here is leaving out a big portion of the tale. Because after Rockwell and before Ditko and Roussos, there was another artist at work on this story–one whose efforts can still be seen on the final pages if you know where to look for them.

So who really drew the Giant-Man story in TALES TO ASTONISH #61? The first artist on the boards, whose work was heavily reworked later by Ditko and Roussos at Lee’s direction, was Joe Orlando. Orlando was one of the famous artists of the EC group in the 1950s and he would go on to a long career as an editor and one of the strongest voices at DC in the next few years. But in 1964, for a couple of months, he worked for Stan Lee and Marvel Comics. It turned out not to be a good fit. Orlando first came on picking up DAREDEVIL with the second issue, after the first was plagued with delays due to artist Bill Everett. Orlando only wound up doing three issues of DAREDEVIL and this Giant-Man story before departing Marvel. When I spoke to him about this period decades later, specifically about his work on DAREDEVIL, Orlando told me that the problem lay with the Marvel method of doing stories. He said that he and Lee would talk through a story idea, he would go back to his studio and pencil a portion of the job, say 5 pages, and bring them into the office for Lee to go over them. But as Lee would look through them, he would get different ideas as to how the story should progress–ideas that would require Orlando to do a lot of redrawing, and often to throw out entire completed pages. He was exaggerating a bit for effect, but he told me that on those three DAREDEVIL issues he wound up drawing close to 30 pages an issue to complete 20 page stories–and that none of those additional pages were paid for.

So what appears to have happened in this instance is the same thing. Lee brought in Orlando in a pinch after the situation with Dick Rockwell disintegrated, he and Orlando talked through the story plot and Orlando went away and penciled the story and brought it in. And then–here’s how Mark Evanier related it in a letter to Fred Hembeck:

Stan didn’t like the way he’d plotted the story. He demanded that much of it be redrawn, not because the art was bad but because he [Stan] wanted different actions in the panels. [Orlando} said he wouldn’t do this without more pay. Stan said he couldn’t pay him more. [Orlando} quit and never worked for Marvel again.

So Stan turned to Ditko, who DIDN’T draw 10 or 12 pages over the weekend. He REdrew about a third of the story, leaving or altering panels by [Orlando]. Look at the story again. There are plenty of panels there that Ditko had nothing to do with. Ditko never laid out pages that way in his entire career.

Roussos probably did ink the story in a few days…but that was almost the norm for Roussos. He was very fast.

The original art for this story would seem to bear this theory out. It is positively covered with white-out and changes, and instructions in the panel borders. Additionally, all of the lettering was done as paste-up, which signals to me that the story was being lettered on vellum overlays at the same time that the art boards were being reworked and inked, because the deadline was so close. You can see on this last page, for example, that there had been some manner of Next Issue caption at the end–possibly one extolling the greatness of Orlando’s work–that was eliminated and replaced. Additionally, figures had limbs moved or changed, backgrounds were extensively altered or eliminated–it also looks like that ending with the Android walking off away and off a pier was a complete change from whatever Orlando had plotted.

What does it all mean? Well, if nothing else, it demonstrates the inherent inequities of the Marvel methodology, especially when practiced as loosely as Lee was using it here. Later writers such as Roy Thomas would provide written plots that were much more detailed–they didn’t leave anywhere near as much of the plotting in the hands of their artistic collaborators. But Lee, working with Kirby and Ditko and eventually Wally Wood and John Romita, was happy to let the artists carry the ball. Plotting was never the portion of the job that he was interested in to begin with–he felt that the real secret to Marvel’s success was the characterization and humor that he added when he dialogued. This all worked out all right for the most part with Kirby and Ditko, at least for a time, but it’s a system that was virtually designed to be rife with accumulated ill-feelings, as the artists were expected to do more of the work without a commensurate increase in pay. Especially as Marvel began to grow and become successful, these resentments eventually led to the departures of all but Romita.

4 thoughts on “Lee & Ditko & Orlando & Rockwell: the Multiple Car Crash of TALES TO ASTONISH #61

  1. I like the note at the top of page 16: “What happened, Stan ? left out something?? Could you letter it please? Art” [Simek]. And Stan supplied the missing word “hurls” for the caption in panel 3. I guess a few things got mixed up in the scramble to get the issue to the printer on time.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “This all worked out all right for the most part with Kirby and Ditko, at least for a time, but it’s a system that was virtually designed to be rife with accumulated ill-feelings, as the artists were expected to do more of the work without a commensurate increase in pay. Especially as Marvel began to grow and become successful, these resentments eventually led to the departures of all but Romita.”

    Well…yes and no. Ditko was receiving plotting credit when he left…though it is difficult for us to say how much of his pay covered this aspect. Kirby had the ‘Lee/Kirby’ credit when he left…and according to at least one Evanier interview his pay included his plotting input (and was relatively generous for a comic book artist, or the average American for that matter).

    But there were indeed ill feelings , and they did relate to the method in some way, including differing ideas on how stories or characters (such the Silver Surfer) were handled. Having said that, in his last article on the matter Ditko appeared to be saying that he left Marvel simply because he didn’t like doing all that work for a person (Lee) who wouldn’t talk to him (and this didn’t stop him meeting Lee again in the 90s to seriously consider working together on Ravage 2099.

    It is probably worth noting too, that many artists are on record as enjoying the Marvel method with Lee – including Dick Ayers, Don Heck, Gene Colan , Marie Severin and John Buscema.

    Liked by 2 people

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