this page on-line 21 Sept 2004
Editor's Note: The following piece is part of an expanded version of Pierre's article "The Four Fantastic Phases of Silver Age Marvel" which featured in the Sept 2000 issue of that excellent publication Comic Book Marketplace, also known as CBM. Without the constraints of the printed medium, we're able to present this fuller version. You might like to compare the two! - Nick
Author's Note: Regular visitors to this site will be familiar with the four phases of Silver Age Marvel's development described here, as they continue to serve as the theoretical basis of this writer's collaboration with Gregorio Montejo in our In-depth Reviews column. I first dreamed up the idea of dividing Silver Age Marvel's development into four phases in the early '90s, just before the completion of the original of this article around 1994. - Pierre
Part III: The Grandiose Years
Marvel Comics' Silver Age stretched across at least ten years (1960-1970) and over that time developed from the self-contained, single issue stories common in the industry, to longer tales involving mature subjects and more complex themes. Dividing the company's progression over this period into four phases allows for a clearer understanding of how editor Stan Lee, aided by his stable of artists, moved from one phase to the next. Although far from proven, it's the contention here that in the first phase, the early, formative years, Lee was not working according to any plan beyond approaching super-heroes in a more realistic way. It was in the second phase, the years of consolidation that he became conscious of themes he'd inadvertently raised in the first. Using such literary tools as the continued story and crossovers, he extended these new ideas to all the company's heroes and in the process created a multi-textual shared universe. In the grandiose years to be considered here, with the foundation of the Marvel style in place, Lee would pursue a deliberate sense of humanism, adapting his comics to the spirit of the times (the 1960s) which resulted in comics written and conceptualized in such a way as to appeal to adults as well as children. Furthermore, it seems that in the first two phases, Lee was firmly in the driver's seat, directing the course of his entire line of new books while infusing them with doses of 'reality' in the form of characterization, continuity and real world problems. In the third phase Kirby, driven by a vision fully awakened to the new way of doing comics and freed somewhat from the editorial hand of Lee (whose increased recognition outside the company's offices prevented him from giving complete attention to his comics), became the active force behind the full flowering of Marvel's evolution into the grandiose phase. With the freedom given by stories that could be continued from issue to issue for as long as the plot demanded, strengthened by the use of a shared, coherent, self-contained universe, and imbued with a semblance of realism, Marvel was now able to take its readers either to the ends of the universe in cosmos spanning adventures or to the streets of New York City to experience the anguish of drug abuse, racism and environmental pollution. The resulting mix would change comics forever.
1) What, a reprint to lead off the most important, most influential, and perhaps most fertile period in comics' nearly sixty-year history? There are no clear demarcation lines dividing the four phases of Marvel's development, only the more problematic overlap of themes and ideas as each title in the company's line evolved at its own pace. But in casting about for some sign, some visible evidence of the shift in Marvel's fortunes there couldn't be a more handy example than Marvel Tales Annual # 1 (1964). First, with barely two, maybe three years of super-hero comics production under its belt, the release of this jumbo, 72-page book seemed to indicate a steady rise in the company's readership. Furthermore, part of that demand probably grew out of the fact that Marvel's heroes were all part of a shared universe and more importantly, possessed individual backgrounds that continued to develop over time. When new readers began buying Tales to Astonish for instance, they would eventually discover that Giant-Man had once been Ant-Man (who didn't have the Wasp to whisper sweet nothings to!) How did the change from one to the other come about? Or that Iron Man had once sported a dull-gray robotic look before his newer, more up to date red and gold armor. New readers, which the company was constantly attracting, needed to be brought up to speed! And so this issue's collection of somewhat edited reprints of the origin stories of Spider-Man, Hulk, Giant-Man, Thor, Iron Man and Sgt. Fury. A second, and perhaps even more significant element in this book was the utterly unique addition of a two page spread featuring photos of the Marvel bullpen. Almost from the start, Lee had included credits for the creators of his comics which included the writer, artist, inker and even letterer. No other comics company (with minor exceptions) had ever done that before. Coupled with a friendly, open editorial voice used on letters' pages, upcoming news items and self-deprecating copy on the covers of his books, Lee managed to create a rapport with readers unique in comics (save perhaps for the EC comics line of the 1950s which was still a far cry from the intense loyalty Marvel would instill in its fans). To millions of readers, Lee himself became as familiar to them as their own teachers, scout leaders or perhaps even their parents. Soon, they wanted to learn more about Lee's extended "family" - 'adorable' Artie Simek, Jack 'King' Kirby, 'sturdy' Steve Ditko and even 'fabulous' Flo Steinberg, Lee's secretary! Without giving away too much personal information, Lee obliged over the years with details dropped here and there and in particular, with this issue's photo feature putting faces to such names (which had become familiar to every Marvel fan, even by 1964) as artists Jack Kirby, Don Heck, Dick Ayers, Joe Orlando, inkers Paul Reinman, Chic Stone, Vince Colletta and letterers Sam Rosen and Artie Simek. Pictures even included those for Flo Steinberg, the subscription department's Nancy Murphy and the company's college 'campus representative' Debby Ackerman! Of course, a cigar-smoking Stan Lee was also represented (significantly, in second place behind publisher Martin Goodman!) looking sporty in a jauntily-cocked fedora. These were also the months which saw the launch of Marvel's first fan club, the MMMS (Merry Marvel Marching Society) and soon, its first, infamous foray into television animation. So in a development that was far from cut-and-dried but whose elements were being eagerly identified and embraced by an ever growing readership, this issue of Marvel Tales can serve as a convenient signpost of things to come: the end of the period of consolidation as Lee prepared to launch his line of now successful comic books into their most fecund period, the most remarkable in the whole history of comics.
2) Another signpost on the road to the grandiose years was Journey Into Mystery Annual # 1 (1965) which featured the first meeting of Thor and Hercules. Appearing as the regular Thor series was still in the final months of the more fun Years of Consolidation (when the inking of Chic Stone over Jack Kirby's pencils was still what defined the look of Marvel's books at the time), "When Titans Clash" was actually nothing less than a full-length episode of the Tales of Asgard feature that had been appearing in the back of the regular Journey Into Mystery title since that book's issue # 97. Like those stories, the action takes place at an indeterminate time, but obviously before Thor had learned his lesson in humility for which Odin had banished him to earth in the guise of crippled Don Blake. But the most important thing that separates this story from the series' regular run was the inking over Kirby of Vince Colletta. Although Colletta had been assigned to work over Kirby's pencils for Tales of Asgard almost since its beginning, up to now, he'd not yet contributed to the regular Thor strip. This story here, more than any other, probably cemented him in Lee's mind as the perfect inker to take over the regular Thor feature from the soon-to-depart Chic Stone. Sure, his work on Tales of Asgard had given those stories the epic, antique feel they demanded, but it was here, for the first time, that Colletta's hair-thin, detailed inking style (that seemed devoid of large areas of black, used to give figures weight and heft but that was also an artistic concept yet to be fully explored by the time of the Middle Ages, an era whose crude woodcuts most reflected the art style needed by the Thor strip) captured the elusive quality of otherworldly drama that the strip would increasingly demand as Lee and Kirby took it away from the everyday world of super-villains to a mythic plane where the forces of evil were on a far more gargantuan scale. Despite the serendipity of the two men's styles, Colletta would later be criticized, with good reason, for compromising Kirby's artistic vision by eliminating much of the detail that the artist put into his work. Be that as it may, what Colletta chose to keep, he rendered in such a way that showed off aspects of Kirby's art that no inker before or since has ever been able to reproduce. In this issue's story for example, where Kirby has chosen to lay it out in big, quarter page panels, Colletta outlines the bulky figures of Thor and Hercules in thin, scratchy lines that reflect more accurately the original look of the penciled art than heavier blacks would have done. With Lee's use of wording that convincingly suggested what the high-flown language of the gods might have sounded like, the team's combined effect gave fans the feeling that they weren't reading just another comic book story, but an adaptation of actual legend. Even the story's setup seemed vaguely legendary: wasn't there an old story about two stubborn characters encountering each other from opposite ends of a bridge and, each refusing to yield to the other, end up fighting over it as a point of honor? Robin Hood and Friar Tuck maybe?
3) As the years of consolidation drew to a close, Lee seemed to take stock of everything that'd been accomplished since the advent of the FF. From their beginnings, he'd been the writer of the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, the Avengers and X-Men, and Sgt Fury. Now, as the growing popularity of Marvel's hero titles became more important to the company, he'd begun to take over the scripting chores on the remaining strips too: Thor in Journey Into Mystery, Giant-Man in Tales to Astonish, the Human Torch in Strange Tales. Next, he dropped the last remnants of the company's five page mystery stories and replaced them with new hero strips such as Captain America, Dr. Strange and a revived Hulk. But when taking over the writing of some of the older features failed to strengthen them, Lee adopted more draconian measures. Thus, in the final months of the years of consolidation, Giant-Man was replaced in Astonish by a new Sub-Mariner strip and the Human Torch feature in Strange Tales was dropped in favor of an entirely new concept: Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., which debuted in Strange Tales # 135 (Aug 1965). Obviously an attempt to take advantage of the interest at the time of anything to do with spies was a motivating factor in its creation (the James Bond films were an international success and were followed by a legion of imitators on both the big and silver screens). On the other hand, the idea was a natural as a starring vehicle for Nick Fury whose present day position as an agent for the CIA had already been established as early as FF # 21. Lee, as he'd done in the past, assigned Kirby to kick-start the series and together, the two not only dreamed up some of the wildest concepts any spy series could have (life model decoys or LMDs, a souped-up Porsche 904 that made Bond's XKE look like a kiddie car, and an impossible, giant, flying 'heli-carrier' headquarters!), but in Hydra, also provided SHIELD with the most perfectly-realized and long-lasting group of international bad guys this side of Bond's Spectre (as a matter of fact, they were a lot better!). Unfortunately, Kirby was only on the strip for its first installment and although John Severin performed good service on the next few chapters (with Kirby himself providing layouts), the strip would suffer from a parade of less successful efforts by a number of artists until the arrival of Jim Steranko sixteen months later. Not to be forgotten, # 135 also includes the latest chapter in an ongoing Dr. Strange serial as the master of the mystic arts finds himself on the run from Baron Mordo and the minions of the Dread Dormammu. Lee and Ditko by this time had the good doctor down pat with Ditko especially fine penciling, inking and plotting the feature (for which he was, as with Spider-Man, getting credit on the splash page) filling it with hypnotized figures, phantom wraiths, fog-bound mansions and portals to other-worldly dimensions, all as Dr. Strange ranges the globe in search of the mysterious 'Eternity!' Comics didn't come any better than this!
4) The same month as the SHIELD strip began in Strange Tales # 135, the Sub-Mariner received his own berth in Tales to Astonish # 70 (Aug 1965). A number of factors seemed to set the stage for Namor's own solo adventures. Gaining steadily in popularity since his first silver age appearance in FF # 4 and in the process being freed at last from the romantic triangle formed between himself, Sue Storm and Reed Richards, the sea prince had since fallen more solidly into the camp of super-heroes rather than super-villains. And like the Human Torch, Namor had also had a strong popular background during the 1940s which may have, in Lee's considerations, further enhanced his potential as a headliner. Unlike most of the company's other strips however, Kirby wouldn't be called on to set the tone for the new feature. As usual, he supplied the cover, but the insides sported the art of Adam Austin, a newcomer to the Marvel bullpen (although not necessarily to the company itself, having done some work for it in the 1950s). Austin (as any alert comics fan was sure to notice due to his distinctive style), was really Gene Colan who would later go on to do yeoman service for Marvel, especially in its twilight years which he virtually dominated. The choice of Colan to do the art, proved serendipitous as his fluid, even rubbery figure work went well with depictions of Namor's underwater world. Again, Vince Colletta was assigned to do the inking and like his work on Thor, added weight and power to Colan's figures while his work on all the various subsea monsters Namor would combat over the course of the series was especially good. Meanwhile Lee, slowly learning the value of tailoring his scripting style to particular strips, gave the whole feature an air of royalty and grandeur from Namor's all too frequent outbursts of "Imperius Rex!" to his depiction as an aloof monarch with much too high an opinion of himself. With the substitution of the Sub-Mariner for the Giant-Man strip, Astonish now featured the unique pairing of two of Marvel's strongest hero-villains. Both strips were written as serials but where Namor's would unfold in the form of a quest with the hero directing his own actions, the Hulk merely reacted to whomever (whether the Leader or the military) forced their attentions on him. Here, drawn by Kirby (who'd taken over the strip from Ditko in # 67), the action follows the Hulk's escape from the evil Leader who wastes no time in hatching another scheme to earn a quick billion dollars from the Soviet Union in exchange for destroying the US missile base where Bruce Banner is stationed! Like Strange Tales # 135, a reader couldn't get a better deal for 12 cents than a book like this!
5) Whether anyone knew it or not, the Grandiose Years began in earnest here, with Fantastic Four # 44 (Nov 1965) and the opening chapter of the Inhumans saga. In fact, it's unclear from this issue whether Lee or Kirby themselves knew the full extent of what they were doing. For instance, although it was a neat idea to reveal that Madame Medusa, the female member of the Frightful Four, was actually a member of a hidden civilization of super-powered beings, the personality (and looks!) of Gorgon (who's hunting Medusa down to forcibly return her to the great refuge), was seemingly out of character in light of the true state of affairs in Attilan (which would be revealed in later issues). The problem might lie in the working relationship between Lee and Kirby. In the early, formative years, Lee had written full scripts including complete plot, script and maybe even directions for layout from which Kirby then drew a story. As time passed and Marvel moved into its years of consolidation, the collaborative method changed giving Kirby more control over story direction. This was the beginning of the 'Marvel method' in which Lee would provide Kirby with a bare plot (perhaps hashed out in personal story conferences or over the phone), allow him to fill in the gaps and then supply the script himself upon receipt of the artwork. Still later, perhaps around the period of this issue, Lee may have provided Kirby with even less direction. The result was an increasingly loose plot structure that Kirby would take longer and longer to resolve. Where some stories had once become two-parters in the years of consolidation, they now became, in the grandiose years, long and rambling. Stories, sometimes composed of more than one plot unfolding at the same time, began to stretch across four or more issues, sometimes it seemed, they never really ended, merging as they often did from one to the next. And far from reining Kirby in, Lee, seeing that the process didn't hurt the bottom line, began to adopt the style for himself, producing multi-part epics with other artists on strips such as Daredevil and Spider-Man. In any case, the rambling, endless plotlines seemed to have had their beginnings as far back as FF # 38 (which featured the Frightful Four's defeat of the FF), the subsequent loss of the FF's powers in # 39, the Thing's resignation and recruitment by the evil FF in # 41 and the fight between the two groups leading up to # 43. With the escape of Medusa and her appearance this issue on the run from Gorgon, the Inhumans saga would evolve into the Galactus trilogy with # 48, conclude in # 50 and have an epilogue in # 51 before the strip began its next multi-part cycle. Also of significance this issue was the arrival of Joe Sinnott on the inks. Replacing the parade of inkers that had worked on the strip since the departure of Chic Stone with # 38, Sinnott added the power and grandeur to Kirby's pencils that had only been suggested by others. Like Colletta's work over Kirby on Thor, Sinnott's particular inking style would prove a perfect match for the hard edged, science fictional worlds inhabited by the FF. These elements, the multi-part epic, once petty villains transformed into awe inspiring menaces, Kirby and Sinnott's dramatic, powerful artwork combined with Lee's penchant for melodrama and word-craft all combined to create the 'grand style' that would characterize the creative zenith of Silver Age Marvel.
6) Following the previous issue's action, things in Fantastic Four # 45 (Dec 1965) get even more complicated! Remember how it seemed that Gorgon was a kind of bad guy sent to bring back Medusa into the Inhuman fold? Well, it turns out that all he wanted to do was to return her to the arms of her family who are in turn, hiding out from someone called the Seeker. The Seeker, (who's doing the real hunting down), works for the insane Maximus, who's seized the throne from Black Bolt, the rightful ruler of Attilan. Thrown from power, the royal family has fled into the outer world of humans only to be pursued by agents like the Seeker. All of this would be revealed over the next couple of issues, but in the meantime, Lee and Kirby didn't seem to be quite on the same page in "Among Us Hide…the Inhumans." Complicating matters further, is the (wholly unnecessary!) presence of the Dragon Man, a creation of FF villain Diablo. Revived in the preceding issue, the FF ended up caught between Dragon Man and Gorgon. They manage to stop Dragon Man but lose Medusa in the process. This issue, the team spends half its time trying to figure out what to do with Dragon Man while Johnny goes for a walk (in the meantime, over at state prison, the remaining members of the Frightful Four ponder escape…). The long arm of coincidence strikes when Johnny comes across a mysterious girl with strange elemental powers who mistakes him for one of the Inhumans. It turns out she's a member of the royal family and introduces him to her relatives: Medusa (her sister!), Gorgon, Karnak, Triton (her cousins) and Lockjaw (her dog!). Of course, Medusa (who doesn't seem very angry at being returned to a group she was desperate to avoid last issue) recognizes him. Escaping, the Torch signals for the rest of the FF who come riding to the rescue on Reed's new airjet-cycle ("It's a stripped-down whirlybird! It's a turbo-powered racing car! It's a flying bicycle! Whatever it is, I don't believe it!") The issue ends in a cliffhanger as Black Bolt, the final member of the Inhumans, makes the scene.
7) The mayhem continues in Fantastic Four # 46 (Jan 1966), "Those Who Would Destroy Us" as the FF clash for the first time with the Inhumans. Here we learn that besides being the most powerful of the group, Black Bolt dare not utter a single whisper lest the sound of his voice destroy everything around him, that Karnak possesses some kind of super-karate skill allowing him to shatter any object with the slightest blow of his hand, that Triton is a kind of Creature from the Black Lagoon who cannot survive away from water without protective clothing, and that Gorgon can cause earthquakes simply by stamping his hoof-like feet. Crystal, the girl who first led Johnny to the Inhumans, controls the elements of fire, air, earth and water. Even her dog Lockjaw, has a special power: traveling between dimensions! Captured later by the Seeker (along with Triton), the FF learn that the Inhumans had their origin far back in earth's history. They were normal humans once, but had themselves genetically altered to acquire super-powers. Those powers were needed to protect them against the more primitive and more numerous humans who feared them because of their superior civilization. Removing themselves from mankind, the Inhumans built a hidden city in the Himalayas (or was the Andes? Lee couldn't seem to make up his mind!) called the Great Refuge. But all that came later in the book, after the Inhumans escaped from the FF and the Seeker had broken in to the Baxter Building and taken Dragon Man (whom he mistook for a fellow Inhuman). It was when the FF followed the Seeker's trail to his hideout that they were captured. But things don't stay that way for long, as Dragon Man breaks free, smashing Triton's water tank and leaving the Inhuman gasping for breath on the floor!
8) By all rights Fantastic Four # 47 (Feb 1966), "Beware the Hidden Land" should've been the climactic chapter of the Inhumans saga. But it wasn't. A perfect example of both the ongoing evolution of the continued story during the Grandiose Years and Lee's loosening grip on the plotting of the book, the Inhumans storyline wouldn't end at the conclusion of this issue as any reader would have had a right to expect (after all, the coming attractions blurb on the letters page said that something called 'Galactus' was coming), but right smack dab in the center of the next! It was a blurring of plot lines that would in effect make the next twenty or so issues of the title a single, long-running but loosely connected story. In fact, some of its elements even reached back to the events of the Frightful Four/Dr. Doom stories of issues 38-43! But that's ancient history as this issue, the FF find and invade the Great Refuge! First though, they have to take time out to save Triton's life and keep Dragon Man from destroying New York. Meanwhile, Lee and Kirby still seem confused…last issue, we saw the Inhumans vanish in a panic, fearful of being captured by the Seeker (who is hunting them down with the express purpose of sending them back to Maximus, right?) But here, we see them arrive inside the Great Refuge as Medusa says "We're safe at last! In the Great Refuge where we belong!" Huh? If they had nothing to fear in returning to the Great Refuge where Maximus reigns as king, why were they acting so fearful in the previous two issues? Then there's this from a flunky of Maximus: "Gorgon has recaptured Medusa, as you commanded!" Huh? Sure, Gorgon looked like one of the bad guys in FF # 44, but then he brought Medusa back to where the royal family was hiding as if he was on their side. But if he was working for Maximus all along, why would the others let him know where they were? Now we learn that besides seizing the crown, Maximus wants Medusa to marry him. And what does she say to this preposterous demand? "None may refuse a royal command!" So much for superior civilization! To top off this whole confused mess, Black Bolt just reaches out, takes the crown from Maximus and places it on his own head followed immediately by Maximus' servile acceptance! If that was all there was to the problem of the usurpation, why did the royal family flee in the first place? One thing was for sure, the state of royal affairs among the Inhumans made bad PR for monarchy over democracy! While all these affairs of state are going on, in drops the FF as Crystal dashes into Johnny's arms (and after what was seen of the government of the Great Refuge, who could blame her?) But as the Inhumans and the FF argue, Maximus slips off to activate his deadly atmo-gun…
the next eight issues…