Lee & Heck & Hartley: The Misguided Mix-Up of TALES OF SUSPENSE #67 & #68

The early days of the Marvel Age of Comics, it must be said, were a pretty ramshackle and fly-by-night period. For all that these comics in general have come to be regarded as timeless masterpieces in certain circles today, at the time they were being produced, they were still largely no more than a way to keep food on the table for the assorted creators who worked on them. Especially as the line began to take off and the amount of work to be done grew exponentially, mistakes and errors would occasionally creep into the finished books. This happened so often that editor Stan Lee often fessed up to it, pleading mea culpa and even institutionalizing the concept of the No-Prize as a way of rewarding those eagle-eyed readers who spotted a mistake in a Marvel book. This self-effacing quality was one of the things that made the Marvel titles so charming–they were at once aggressively boastful but at the same time quick to cop to their own flaws and foibles. But some mistakes are larger than others.

It all starts simply enough in the pages of TALES OF SUSPENSE #67. In that issue, in the Iron Man story, Shell-Head goes in pursuit of his employee Happy Hogan, who quit the company and ran off to Ireland. While there, the armored avenger faces a coordinated attack from a number of his deadliest foes. But his battle, it turns out, is all a dream. It’s the work of a villain who calls himself the Dream Master–but that’s not the only name he’s known under. In an early panel in the story, we are told that the Dream master is actually Count Nefaria, the deposed leader of the criminal Maggia, who had been beaten by the Avengers a month or two earlier. He’s adopted the new identity of the Dream Master to get his revenge on the Avengers, starting with Iron Man. And he’s using a machine of his own devising to project deadly dreams into the mind of Iron Man in an attempt to kill his red-and-gold armored foe while he sleeps. This, of course, doesn’t work. Iron man fights back, even in his dream, the Dream Master’s machine blows up, seemingly obliterating him, and Happy Hogan returns to employment at Stark Industries. A happy ending all around. Noting amiss so far, right?

The problem becomes apparent with the release of the next issue, though. The Iron Man story in TALES OF SUSPENSE #68 wasn’t scripted by editor Stan Lee, but rather by longtime Marvel teen humor artist Al Hartley. Harley appeared to have a desire to segue into the more stable world of the super hero books–he drew one early Thor story that I’ll probably cover at some point–and Lee was in this period actively looking for other writers who could deliver a good approximation of his own style to ease some of his burdens. Harley’s story picks up where the preceding tale left off, with Happy’s return to Stark International. But elsewhere, in Monte Carlo, Tony’s ne’er-do-well cousin Morgan Stark has gotten himself into debt with Count Nefaria and the Maggia. In order to make good, Morgan is dispatched with an image-casting device with the intention of using it on his cousin Tony, having him declared insane, and then taking over the lucrative Stark International himself. This, of course, doesn’t work, for perhaps the dopiest and most coincidental of reasons. Yes, Tony Stark does fall victim to the illusion that an alien saucer has landed in a remote clearing, and yes, the authorities think that he’s going off his rocker. But then an actual alien saucer sets down there, disgorging a pair of hapless extraterrestrial bad guys for Iron Man to fight. With this proof (and the corroborating testimony of Morgan, whom Iron Man found in the area, naturally) Tony’s mental health is pronounced sound, and Morgan has to crawl back to Count Nefaria in shame, hoping that the Maggia leader doesn’t have him eliminated for his failure.

Okay, so what happened here? I don’t have any evidence in particular, but I don’t think it’s too difficult to see how this all came about. First off, it should be mentioned that both of these stories were drawn by Iron Man’s regular artist of the period, Don Heck. There’s no job number on either story, but it seems likely that he drew these two stories in sequence, possibly with another assignment or two sandwiched in between them.

So I think this is a case where editor/scripter Stan Lee made a typical goof, albeit a large one. Examining the two stories closely shows that the Count Nefaria who shows up in TOS #68 is the spitting image of the version Heck had previously drawn in AVENGERS #13. The Dream Master, however, while he also possesses facial hair, looks markedly different. So i think it’s clear that the Dream Master was intended to be a totally new villain entirely, and not Nefaria at all.

I’m guessing that during the period of time in which Don Heck was drawing the Iron Man story intended for TOS #67, Lee and Al Hartley had a conversation about the story that he was brought on to do for TOS #68. The two men worked through the basic plot, with Morgan Stark and Count Nefaria and the illusion-casting machine. And Hartley went away to write up either the plot outline or the full script that would be delivered to Heck. (It’s also entirely possible that Heck plotted both of these stories largely himself, and all Hartley did on the TOS #68 one was dialogue it–that wouldn’t be out of whack in terms of the way they’re credited; in fact, this may be more likely.)

Anyway, Heck eventually turned in the pages for TALES OF SUSPENSE #67 and Lee took them home to script. Looking over them, he must have recalled his conversations with Hartley (or Heck) about the Count Nefaria story, and assumed that the Dream Maker with his dream-casting machine was Count Nefaria with his illusion-casting device. And so he wrote the story that way. Without another editorial presence in the office, there wasn’t anybody to point any of this out to him before the stories went to print. In later years, it’s possible that somebody like Roy Thomas might have caught the error in time to prevent it from seeing print. And Hartley likely didn’t know anything at all about the earlier story–he scripted the TOS #68 tale exactly as it was plotted.

In the grand scheme of things, this isn’t a huge crime or anything. But it is sloppy as hell, and it does illustrate just how off-handed a lot of the work was on these early stories, which is part of why it’s so difficult to discern who might have contributed what ideas to which story–everybody was paying so little attention to specifics that one story was mistaken for another here IN REAL TIME, as both were being produced.

Next to this, referring to the Hulk’s alter ego as “Bob Banner” for a number of stories seems positively benign.

2 thoughts on “Lee & Heck & Hartley: The Misguided Mix-Up of TALES OF SUSPENSE #67 & #68

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