BHOC: MARVEL SUPER-HEROES #20

This was yet another back issue that I picked up during my first trip to the Batcave, the very first full-on comic book specialty store that I had ever been in. I was drawn to this issue for a single, specific reason: somewhere in my travels, I had learned that this issue reprinted the 1950s revivals of the Timey Trio of key heroes from the Golden Age: Captain America, the Sub-Mariner and the Human Torch. Having come to Marvel by way of the 1940s versions of these characters and already being fascinated by comic book history, this was a easy purchase for me. Unfortunately, whomever had owned my copy before it got to me had gone through the reprinted stories and scissored certain figures and panels totally out of it–a fact that wasn’t apparent when I bought it, and which elicited howls from me in the car ride home.

MARVEL SUPER-HEROES had begun its publication life as FANTASY MASTERPIECES, a title reprinting old pre-hero Marvel monster stories and the like. It eventually began including Golden Age tales of the early Marvel characters–the one issue I owned up to this point included Torch, Subbie and Cap adventures–before even later changing its title and running a new story at the front. MARVEL SUPER-HEROES was a bit of an experimental title, a book akin to DC’s SHOWCASE where assorted concepts could be tested out for 20 pages or so to see if there might be enough interest to launch a series. Apart from Captain Marvel, whose launch was the whole reason for the switchover from FANTASY MASTERPIECES, none of the features debuting in the run of the book went on to anything immediately–though a couple of them eventually led to bigger things a few years later.

Having realized at a certain point that Doctor Doom was as popular as any number of super heroes then headlining their own strips, somebody, presumably editor Stan Lee, decided to test the waters for a Doom series. One imagines that his thinking was akin to what happened with the Sub-Mariner, who had already made the transition from villainous anti-hero to leading man. It seems like the story ran into troubles along the way, though. Initially, Larry Lieber plotted, scripted and penciled the first half of this story before suddenly having to bow out for some reason. Roy Thomas and Frank Giacoia were drafted in to finish up the work, with inker Vince Colletta inking the entirety of it to give it a more uniform overall look.

For all that it was a bit of a haphazard job, the story actually turned out pretty well. Lieber expands on the origin of Doctor Doom as related in FANTASTIC FOUR ANNUAL #2 by introducing his childhood love, Valeria–yes, the same Valeria that the second Richards child was named after, and the character that Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo had meet a horrifyingly memorable end under my oversight. That’s what you get for cutting holes in my comics. The story involved the Fantastic Four’s foe Diablo attempting to forge an alliance with Doom and using Valeria as a bargaining chip. This goes badly for him as you might expect, and he winds up exiled to a lifeless Earth in the distant future. Doom walks away no happier, as Valeria rejects him when he refuses to turn away from the path of conquest and villainy. I don’t know that a regular Doctor Doom series was really viable at this point, but this story makes a strong case for trying one.

After the wrap-up of the Doctor Doom adventure, the reprints began. First up was a bit of a palace-cleanser, a short four-page Sub-Mariner adventure written and drawn by his creator Bill Everett. During the 1950s revival, Everett serialized a number of these short tales exploring the early days of his water-breathing protagonist, as he discovered himself and learned about his powers. Everett was one of the very best talents of the Golden Age, so this story still looked good and read well in 1978–and it does today as well. But it was just the beginning.

As mentioned at the start of this piece, the back half of the book reprinted the entirety of YOUNG MEN #24, in which Marvel, then Atlas, attempted to bring back their key heroes from the 1940s. This happened at the tail end of 1953, and is events were initially ignored by the later Marvel books that also resurrected these characters. But eventually, diligent continuity-minded writers would make some sort of sense of it all. The first story was devoted to the Human Torch, illustrated by the great Russ Heath–the only Torch story he ever drew and one of the relatively small number of super hero strips he worked on. Even in 1953, Heath was head-and-shoulders above most of his contemporaries in terms of his skill level. For some reason, the splash panel was redrawn by the Torch’s creator Carl Burgos, who was working for Atlas as something of an Art Director during this period. The story revealed that the Torch had been overcome by criminals and buried in the Yucca Flats in Nevada–where the detonation of an Atomic Bomb test woke him up. In his absence, his partner Toro had been brainwashed by the Communists–shades of the Winter Soldier! By the end of 9 pages, the status quo had been restored, never to be mentioned again during the remainder of the brief revival.

But 9 pages was a positive luxury as compared with Captain America, who received only 6. Those pages were illustrated by a young John Romita, still heavily influenced by his idol, Milt Caniff. Once again, the splash page image was redone for some reason, this time by Mort Lawrence. In the story, Captain America and Bucky had retired after the War, disappearing from public life in favor of their civilian roles as schoolteacher Steve Rogers and his pupil Bucky. But when the Red Skull shows up again out of nowhere, this time working with the Reds because they were the source of virtually every ill in 1953, Cap and Bucky suit up once again and confront him at the United Nations building, cleaning his clock. Nobody seems to stop and wonder how Bucky can still be a schoolkid if he fought in World War II ten years earlier–comic books were a bit less sophisticated in those days.

Finally, it was Namor’s turn–once again handled by his originator Bill Everett. And he used the simplest and most direct explanation for the Sub-Mariner’s disappearance of any of them: Namor had simply gone back to his undersea people. His old friend Betty Dean is able to contact him, however, and she summons him when a plague of ships going missing proves too daunting a mystery for the conventional authorities to get to the bottom to. Namor shows up in a full three-piece suit before stripping down for action, and he’s able to wrap up this mystery and return to his heroic life in all of 8 pages.

The issue closed with this full-page promo for an all-new character who would be making his bows the next month. Sadly, though, this never came to pass–with #21, MARVEL SUPER-HEROES went back to being all-reprint. Reportedly, Martin Goodman didn’t think science fiction was a saleable concept, and so he spiked the proposed Starhawk series when he realized that was what it was. The story was never completed, though the existing pages have been reprinted hither and yon over the years. Somebody ought to bring this guy back, maybe.

10 thoughts on “BHOC: MARVEL SUPER-HEROES #20

  1. Is the cover a pic of the issue you actually own or one off the net? I only aske because it has a 2 shilling UK price stamp on it! It’s always a cover I remember as there is something about it that just makes it stand out. I might have to dig it out and have a flick through again sometime.

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  2. Did that Starhawk have any connection to the Starhawk Steve Gerber came up with in the original Guardians of the Galaxy? Different costume and seemingly different premise, but the duality aspect and the name seem to be similar.

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  3. Thanks for posting about this comic, Tom.
    It seems to be rather special in a way which hasn’t attracted any attention before now AFAIK.
    Your extracts from the Doom strip show an unusually extensive use of zip-a-tone by Colletta, specifically on Doom’s armour. (This comes very soon after your recent post about Colletta’s 1950s SF story done of Craftint Doubletone board.)
    In the past I’ve noted only the occasional panel where Colletta used zip-a-tone on e.g. Odin’s armour.
    I dug out my own Marvel Super-Heroes 20, and Vince really goes to town with the tone here, not only on Doom’s armour but on several backgrounds too. On the armour the zip-a-tone is mainly colour-free, just black and white, but here and there colour dots are printed over it. Also, in many panels the armour is coloured not with zip-a-tone but with the usual Y2R2B3 composite grey colour (25% yellow, 25% red and 50% blue).
    Sometimes a darker grey zip-a-tone tint is tried and it really doesn’t print very well. Most of the lighter tint looks great!
    As we know, Colletta was generally known as a very fast inker. Unless he had an assistant do it, this amount of tone work would have slowed him down considerably.
    Overall I wonder if this was done as a deliberate experiment with the zip-a-tone(s).
    I also note that the Starhawk ad at the back used halftone greys on newsprint, which was also highly unusual (more common on the glossy cover stock, of course).
    Pure coincidence or not? Part of the experiment?
    Generally of course both Marvel and DC avoided all black dots on their newsprint interiors.
    (Kirby’s photocollages being a notable exception.)
    And after MSH 20 I don’t recall any great use of zip-a-tone elsewhere.
    Maybe it wasn’t felt to have been a very successful experiment.

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    1. I wonder if the zip-a-tone may have been added by Roy Thomas? I recall something that “Rascally Roy” wrote about adding it to some book he had written (and now I forget which one), so might it be possible that he added this over Colletta’s inks?

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      1. Wow, thanks Bill, that is a really intriguing possibility… you mean Roy might have added the tone himself?
        Not that difficult to do, but not normally a writer’s job, of course.
        It did occur to me that Marvel’s production department could have done it after Colletta finished and turned in the ink job.
        I hope we can find out more about this!
        Tom, or anyone else, are you in touch with Roy?

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  4. I enjoyed your blog up until the point you referenced Waid’s story having Doom kill Valeria, thus severing all ties to the fully formed, three dimensional character that Lee and Kirby had evolved in Fantastic Four Annual #2.

    It is the worst destruction of a character since Roy Thomas thought scripting Ben Grimm as a casual racist in Fantastic Four #126 was a good idea.

    Other than that, thanks for your story.

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