As the back issue marketplace for certain key old comic books began to truly heat up in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and sums undreamed of were beginning to be demanded for and gotten for comics of a relatively recent vintage (comics that are in much greater supply than the Golden Age books that were a part of the original boom in back issue prices) dealers began looking for different ways to spike the numbers and the return on material that was otherwise inconsequential in terms of the creation of the nascent Marvel Universe. One of the ideas that somebody hit upon and promoted in a big way was the notion of prototypes.
The idea behind prototypes is pretty simple and honestly not really that fanciful. When they had been working on the monster and suspense stories prior to the beginning of the Marvel Age in FANTASTIC FOUR #1, Lee and Kirby and Ditko and the rest had used a number of names and ideas that they would recycle for characters and stories for the new super hero titles. This was nothing new–the suspense and teen humor/romance books would recycle plot concepts every couple of years like clockwork. There wasn’t any great need to constantly be innovating 100% because the audience at the time was considered to be turning over every three years or so–so if the story you were regurgitating was four years old, nobody was apt to notice.
The thing is, when you actually examine the stories in question, these prototypes typically have very little in common with the characters who would later carry the same names in the Marvel Universe. So yes, there were three or four stories about different creatures called the Hulk (one of whom, Xemnu, was even brought into the Marvel Universe as an antagonist for the more-familiar Hulk and his Defenders friends) but none of them were markedly the same as the series to come. Thorr was a giant stone monster, not a Thunder God, and Magneto was the same, not a mutant villain at all. All this really showed was that Lee and Kirby and Ditko and everybody had certain names and ideas that they had an affinity for, and would keep recycling. (There is an actual Hulk prototype story, but it doesn’t use the Hulk name–which is probably why it took dealers a long time to locate it.)
One of the more storied of these prototype adventures was this short 5-page suspense story produced by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko for STRANGE TALES #97. It’s perhaps noteworthy in that it carries a cover date of June 1963, just two months before the cover date on AMAZING FANTASY #15 in which Spider-Man made his debut. The story concerns a wheelchair-bound girl named Linda Brown, who lives with her guardians named Uncle Ben and Aunt May.
Over the years, some have tried to claim that these are the same characters that we meet caring for Peter Parker in that first Spider-Man adventure, but a close look at the story (especially in its original printing, as seen here) disproves that idea. Even though they are both drawn by Ditko, this Ben and May look markedly different. May is clearly younger than her Marvel Universe counterpart, and Ben has a different body type altogether, and sports a moustache. Now of course, if some creator really wanted to, they could force these dots to connect–but nobody ever has (apart from one in-joke in an issue of SPIDER-MAN CHAPTER ONE by John Byrne)
The reality is that these characters all began life as just types, and Lee and Ditko and the other creators in their orbit were apt to return to certain character types again and again. Those depictions are present all through the formative Marvel stories for this reason. Additionally, there were certain names that stuck in Lee’s mind–one of the reasons why so many girlfriends in those early Marvel days are named Betty. This story in STRANGE TALES #97 is an amusing curiosity, and a nicely told tale, but it isn’t anything more than that–and it certainly isn’t worth paying a premium price for, regardless of what certain dealers would try to get you to believe.