Monday, July 20, 2015

50 Summers Ago: Amazing Spider-Man Annual # 2

Fifty years ago comic book stores didn’t exist. Instead, you could saunter over to the neighborhood newsstand, candy store, luncheonette or various other establishments to purchase the latest comics. If you followed any of Marvel’s output, letters pages and house ads would have announced the upcoming Annuals which appeared every spring/summer, a time chosen specifically to coincide with children being off from school. The reasoning was that they'd have a few extra quarters to spend while taking a family vacation or sitting under a tree with a coke on a lazy afternoon.

In that long ago summer of 1965 Amazing Spider-Man Annual # 2  leaped off the racks, falling into the hands and back pockets of many a youth. 

The understated simplicity of Ditko’s cover included what would become an iconic Spider-Man image; the full-figure pose was used as the corner symbol on the monthly Amazing Spider-Man title years after he was gone. The bold coloring, likely by Stan Goldberg, compliments Ditko’s images. Spider-Man’s red/blue costume contrasts perfectly with the yellow background, purple logo and red/orange/white captions and corner box. Sam Rosen’s attractive lettering completes the picture.   

 In “The Wondrous Worlds of Dr. Strange!” Steve Ditko brought together two of his signature characters. Although this was a Ditko plotted tale (with Stan Lee dialogue and editing) it is possible the Annual may have been discussed months in advance, when Lee and Ditko were still communicating with each other (according to Ditko sometime before Amazing Spider-Man # 25 Lee stopped talking to him. To learn more about Ditko's side of the story I urge everyone to purchase The Four Page Series # 9, which can be ordered here):

Ditko has stated that he was against using guest stars, his contention being that it undercut the effectiveness and individuality of a superhero:

Everyone used from another hero’s story-world prevented us from focusing on, creating and developing our own unique story-world of characters and villains like Dr. Octopus, Electro, Kraven, etc. And it affected S-m’s own cast—JJJ, Betty, Flash, Aunt May—such as Johnny Storm’s (HT) relationship with Peter and his classmates, etc. All outside, other inclusions robbed us of our unique potentials.”

Steve Ditko, A Mini-History “Guest-Stars: Heroes and Villains”, The Comics, Vol 14, No. 7 July 2003 

Ditko avoided this problem by choosing not to use any of the supporting characters (even Spider-Man fails to appear in his civilian identity of Peter Parker) setting the tale apart from the monthly continuity. Ditko explained his reasoning, speaking specifically about the Annual in one of his essays:

“A line has to be drawn for what is acceptable and not acceptable for a character. (I even had magic limits on Dr. Strange. Amazing Spider-Man Annual # 2 (1965) featuring Dr. Strange, was, as an annual should be, a special event. It does not necessarily have to connect with the monthly adventures. And Spider-Man was already long undercut with space aliens.)” 

Steve Ditko, A Mini-History 1 “The Green Goblin”, The Comics Vol 12, No. 7, July 2001 

Ditko's compositional skills, cityscape and seedy characters come to life on this page. The vertical panel is particularly effective. 

 Spider-Man enters the wildly imaginative dimensions Ditko created in Dr. Strange. For you youngsters out there, there was a time you could ride a bus for 15 cents, but you had to have change - and Metro Cards didn't exist!

The plot centers on a sorcerer named Xandu, who seeks power by acquiring a magic wand, one half which is owned by Dr. Strange. Two dimwitted thugs fall under Xandu's spell and assist him in his quest (what better way to involve Spider-Man?). Despite the odd nature of the tale, Spider-Man remained in character, cracking jokes while being flung into another dimension (one of Lee’s best lines: "It's gonna take more than a 15 cent bus ride to get to Forest Hills in New York"). 

Dr. Strange discovers Spider-Man's presence during his mystic battle with Xandu in the last panel of page 15, building up the stories drama.   

 The more mature Dr. Strange leads the confrontation, with Spider-Man backing him up.   

Ditko set parameters. Throughout most of the story Spider-Man and Dr. Strange were unaware of each other, fighting on different fronts. The heroes did not “meet” until the final panel of page 15 and appeared in only 13 panels together. They combined forces against Xandu in the final confrontation, the older, wiser Dr. Strange leading the fray. This would make sense following Ditko’s logic of what makes a successful team, citing Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.    

“The more the unequal status is perceived and valid, the better the results as a team operation” 

Steve Ditko, A Mini-History 6, Spider-Woman/Spider-Girl”, The Comics Vol  13, No. 5 May 2002 

Ditko's two unique heroes have a brief conversation before going their separate ways. The lettering on the word "friendship" is not by Sam Rosen, meaning the original word was replaced. Since this blog is titled "Marvel Mysteries and Comics Minutiae" I have to ask, what could it have replaced?

Ditko juggled the discordant elements of Spider-Man and Dr. Strange in a way that retained the integrity of both strips. Mood and color (likely supplied by Stan Goldberg), detailed buildings and arcane images, all combined to unusual effect. 

While not as expansive as the first Annual, where Ditko was given more pages to play with (41 as opposed to 20) this story was considerably more offbeat, and the brief interaction between Ditko’s heroes was memorable. It was the last time Ditko included a guest-star in his Spider-Man and Dr. Strange stories. 

Reprint of the splash page from Amazing Spider-Man # 1, March 1963. Lettering by John D'Agostino under the pen name "Johnny Dee". D'Agostino's career included work as artist, inker and colorist. D'Agostino lettered many of Ditko's stories for Charlton in the 1960s. Ditko's expressive hands showing emotion is at the forefront of this page. 

The "space aliens" Ditko referred to in the quote above was also reprinted in the Annual, originally presented in Amazing Spider-Man # 2, May 1963, "The Uncanny Threat of the Terrible Tinkerer!" Stan Lee plot and dialogue; Artie Simek letters. Although Ditko is correct that the sci-fi  elements, offshoots of Lee's Tales to Astonish and Journey into Mystery plots, are out of place in Spider-Man's world, the artist still invests energy and a quirky atmosphere to the yarn.   

While Ditko drew an exciting splash page (and included vignettes of Spider-Man's cast) Dr. Doom was too powerful a character to "realistically" confront a teenage hero. Characteristically for Ditko, Spider-Man doesn't defeat Doom; he flees when the Fantastic Four show up. Reprinted from Amazing Spider-Man # 5, October 1963.   

Amazing Spider-Man Annual # 2 had one drawback from the previous years effort; it (along with Marvel's other 1965 dated Annuals) included reprints in lieu of special features. A let-down, although to be fair a number of fans, yours truly included, did not own the original comics and greatly enjoyed seeing them. The 1964 Amazing Spider-Man Annual had 72 interior pages of all-new material (with only the inside front, inside back and back covers consisting of advertising);Annual 2 featured 70 pages of story and art (two house ads for the Marvel line and MMMS products were included). Either due to time constraints or cost cutting the opening 20 page tale was followed by reprints from Amazing Spider-Man #'s 1, 2 and  5. As good as Ditko’s earlier work is,his style grew considerably in a very short time;there is greater confidence in storytelling, composition and inking in his 1965 output.  

 Following in the footsteps of the first annual, the Gallery of Spider-Man’s Foes continued, including five full page pin-ups of Spider-Man’s rouges gallery up to the current period. Ditko’s mastery of pen and ink is evident in every line, and his clean, precise inking is a joy to behold.

While The Ringmaster was originally a Simon and Kirby villain, dating back to Captain America Comics #5 (August 1941), revised two decades later by Lee and Kirby in The Incredible Hulk #3 (September 1962), Ditko developed and created most of the rouges gallery, including the Clown and Princess Python, one of Ditko's more attractive females. Lettering by Sam Rosen.  


The Crime-Master was one of Ditko's non-powered criminals who fit perfectly into Spider-Man's world consisting of sinister gangsters, 
threatening back alleys and lonely docks. The two-part story in Amazing Spider-Man #'s 26-27 (July-August 1965) which also featured the malevolent Green Goblin, remains a true classic. Copy by Lee; lettering by Sam Rosen.

Amazing Spider-Man Annual# 2 was the last produced by Steve Ditko. In less than a year he would quit the company, never to draw his two signature characters again. The stories Ditko produced with Stan Lee in a four year period on Spider-Man and Dr. Strange are not just a nostalgic romp; many stand out as superior work woven by a master craftsman. It is an accomplishment that stands the test of time.  

The last caption in Amazing Spider-Man Annual #2 (reprinting Amazing Spider-Man #5) included new copy likely written by Stan Lee. One aspect of Ditko's work that is often ignored is his ability to create humorous situations. Peter Parker's bemused expression was one aspect of the character's personality that brought the character to life; a refreshing change from the cardboard heroes that permeated comics in that period.      

Monday, June 8, 2015

A Journey Begins

Memory is often unreliable, and piecing together a moment from forty five years ago can be a struggle. I'm confident that it was a weekday when I stopped in a luncheonette with my Mother after shopping on Knickerbocker Avenue. I grew up in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn and candy stores, newsstands and luncheonette's were familiar sights. Staring at me from a spinner rack filled with paperbacks was a brightly colored book sporting a Superman logo, bat-symbol and familiar comic book "sound effects" lettering, the title in bold red: All In Color For a Dime

I don’t recall the particulars, maybe I had recently received money from relatives, since I find it hard to believe I cajoled my Mother to part with a whopping one dollar and fifty cents – a considerable sum to give a 10 year old – especially since finances were tight in our household. Somehow or other I left that store with a book that I still have in my possession – one which began my lifelong interest in the history of comics.  

 My copy, with loose front and back covers and inset pages has survived numerous moves for 45 years. I didn't see the original hardcover edition until many years later, but at $ 11.95 I doubt even my older brother John would have been able to afford it!

All in Color for A Dime was my first real introduction to the “golden age” of comics. I had some concept of an earlier era, dating back to the first time I saw one back in 1966. Marvel began reprinting the early Simon and Kirby Captain America stories beginning in Fantasy Masterpieces # 3 (June 1966). I was with my brother John when he picked up the following issue in a candy store down the block from my Grandparents house in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn.

 Fantasy Masterpieces # 4, August 1966. Jack Kirby penciled and inked the main image, surrounded by scenes from the interior stories. This comic book was one of the earliest I recall seeing on the newsstand. Marvel Tales # 4 was probably bought that same day by my brother John. Fantasy Masterpieces also included my introduction to pre-hero Marvel monster/fantasy fare.   

In comparison to Kirby's then current output on Fantastic Four, Thor and “Captain America” his 1940s art had an archaic, unpolished feel, pointing to a long ago, mythical time. In those days remnants of previous decades were all around us; television regularly showed movies from the 1930s and 40’s including the Universal monsters; radio and vaudeville showmen such as Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Jimmy Durante, George Burns, Groucho Marx, George Jessel and many others appeared on talk and variety shows; children were entertained by the comedy of Laurel and Hardy, the Little Rascals, Abbott and Costello; serials appeared every day on children’s programs such as Chuck McCann (Flash Gordon; King of the Rocket Men; The Crimson Ghost)  along with decades old black and white cartoons: Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Woody Woodpecker, Popeye, Mighty Mouse, Heckle and Jeckle, Betty Boop, Farmer Alfalfa, Ko Ko the Clown, Scrappy. The sights and sounds of the 1960s were intermingled with the fascination for an earlier era.   

Singer, pianist and master of Malaprop Jimmy Durante. His career dated back to vaudeville, Durante was a perennial on radio and a familiar face on television in the 1960s, appearing on talk shows, guesting on variety programs like Hollywood Palace and even headlining a musical/comedy series.

While Marvel reprinted the adventures of Sub-Mariner, Captain America and the Human Torch, National Periodical Publications (DC) occasionally presented an early tale of Superman and Batman in their 80 page giants. Even Archie, under their Mighty Comics imprint, often made reference of their earlier superhero era, reviving some characters in Mighty Crusaders, Fly Man and Mighty Comics Presents. The majority of interest, though, was in the present era. 

    The introductory page whets the readers appetite for what is to come.

All in Color for a Dime opened a door to a fascinating era when comic books were just beginning, revealing many of the field's pioneers. I learned more about both familiar characters (Superman, Batman, Captain America, Spider-Man) and complete mysteries such as Captain Marvel; companies including Fawcett, Hillman and EC and background on psychiatrist Fredric Wertham and the 1950s Senate investigation that changed the industry. Eleven chapters focused on costumed heroes and the people behind them, written by an array of enthusiastic, articulate and noteworthy authors including Ted White, Bill Blackbeard, Don Thompson, Dick Lupoff, Ron Goulart, Harlan Ellison, Richard Ellington, Tom Fagan, Jim Harmon, Chris Steinbrunner, and a name even I was familiar with from his scripts for Marvel, Roy Thomas. 

Each chapter began with an introduction to the author. Many were known in the fan community, or would become prominent in later years. Co-editor Dick Lupoff wrote a chapter detailing the fascinating story of Fawcett comics and the origins of Captain Marvel, which, at one point, was the best selling comic book in the 1940s (his chapter, like many in the book, originally appeared in the science-fiction fanzine Xero). Lupoff's essay revealed that Captain Marvel was no longer published due to a lawsuit instituted by National over the Captain's perceived plagiarism of Superman. The sprawling court drama ended with Fawcett eventually losing and settling out of court. Captain Marvel and his assorted titles would cease publication. The real world was a little more complicated than the clear cut good and evil exploits of Captain Marvel.     

One of sixteen color pages included in the book was the cover to Marvel Comics # 1 by the then-unidentified Frank R. Paul.  

Don Thompson, who co-edited with Lupoff, wrote the chapter of Timely's "Big Three" (Human Torch, Sun-Mariner, Captain America) providing an overview of the Timely/Atlas/Marvel era. It was the first time I discovered characters such as the Young Allies or the name of Kirby's partner and co-creator of Captain America, Joe Simon. Thompson, together with his wife Maggie, produced one of the early fanzines, Comic Art, followed by Newfangles. The pair later became columnists and co-editors of the long running news/adzine The Buyers' Guide (later titled Comics' Buyers Guide).

 In "The Spawn of M. C. Gaines" Ted White wrote about the origins of Superman and Batman. There I learned the names of Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and discovered how involved writer Bill Finger was in Batman's early stories. White has had a long and versatile career as writer/publisher of science fiction fanzines and editor of book compilations; author; musician and music critic.   

Roy Thomas wrote about the other Fawcett heroes, including Spy Smasher, Captain Midnight and Bulletman. The only image in the book of Captain Marvel (and his alter ego, Billy Batson) was a reproduction of a house ad for Gift Comics. Aside from his prolific career in comic books, Roy continues to contribute to my knowledge of comic book history in his long running fanzine, Alter Ego.

 One of my favorite chapters was “The First (Arf, Arf) Superhero of them All” by Bill Blackbeard. From my earliest days I was enraptured by the animated adventures of Popeye, watching him on Captain Jack McCarthy’s kid show on WPIX, Channel 11 every day. At a young age I didn’t distinguish between the Fleischer, Paramount or King Features cartoons, but later grew to appreciate the imaginative, surreal, urban Max Fleischer black and white Popeye shorts as being superior to the rest. I had seen and possibly had a copy or two of the Dell/Gold Key Popeye comic book, but had no knowledge of the comic strip. Blackbeard’s essay revealed the origins of Popeye and his creator, E. C. Segar. It was a revelation to me, opening an interest in the comic strip exploits of this offbeat and truly funny character whose malapropisms, basic good nature and love of “aminals” was translated in Fleischer’s animated cartoons.

Bill Blackbeard was an important figure in the study and preservation of comic strip art. His books, essays and, perhaps most importantly, herculean efforts in saving the comic strip from destruction cannot be understated. You can read more about Bill Blackbeard here:

All in Color for a Dime was followed by an array of eye-opening publications. In the next few years my brother John’s Christmas and Birthday gifts to me included Superman from the 1930s to the 1970s; Batman from the 1930s to the 1970s and the Steranko History of Comics Vol’s one and two. In the pages of those books I discovered many names instrumental to the beginnings of comics including Bill Finger; Will Eisner; Jack Cole and Lou Fine, to name a very few. 

In 1971 Crown books published two hardcover books featuring reprints of classic material from National/DC's archives. The Batman collection included an introduction by E. Nelson Bridwell, editorial assistant, writer and editor at DC. The author noted Bill Finger's often hidden contributions to the genesis of Batman at a time when Bob Kane often received all the credit. Cover art by Carmine Infantino and Murphy Anderson.

The first fanzine I purchased was The Comic Reader # 92, dated December 1972. It featured news and information on Marvel, DC, Charlton, Gold Key and Warren (including cover reproductions and publication dates); movie and media news, fanzine reviews and articles. Editor Paul Levitz soon turned his talents to a long career at DC as writer/editor and later executive positions including a stint as president and publisher. Alan Kupperberg cover art.     

Two years later I discovered the world of fanzines when I noticed a small image in the window of a used bookstore in Ridgewood, Queens (where I had recently moved to). Back in those long ago days stores were not often covered with metal gates and you could actually view there wares. My brother John and I were familiar with its claustrophobic interior filled with books, records, magazines and, of course, old comics. We were also acquainted with the proprietor, Pat, having journeyed there from time to time in search of old treasures. It was a Sunday and the store was closed (in that period most stores were closed on sundays) but the following day I returned and bought The Comic Reader # 92, the first of what would be many fanzines I would buy over the decades. There I learned further information on comic books both old and new, read interviews with writers and artists and was hooked by a sense of youthful enthusiasm that was infectious.   

Flashback # 7 reprinted Pep Comics # 1 (January 1940). Published by Alan Light, who also spearheaded the news/adzine The Buyers Guide for Comics Fandom, these reprints consisted of thick cover stock and black and white interiors. Irv Novick cover art. From the collection of John Caputo.   

As I got a little older and could afford it I returned my brother’s generosity, buying him comic book related gifts (which, of course, I got to read too!). They included Alan Light’s Flashback series, which reprinted entire issues of golden age comics in black and white. In an era when there weren’t many reprints available this was a big deal. Still in my brother's collection, titles include Human Torch # 5 (reprinting the Torch-Sub-Mariner scuffle); Captain Marvel Jr. # 1; Special Comic # 1 (Hangman) and Pep Comics # 1 (featuring the Shield), the latter two Archie/MLJ titles; I may have picked them because none of the material had ever been reprinted. I recall John and I being amused by one of the back-up features, Sgt. Boyle. Accustomed to war heroes with rugged names like Sgt. FURY, Sgt, ROCK and Captain SAVAGE, Sgt. Boyle didn't quite compare. Other gifts included Horror Comics of the 1950’s, a sampling of EC comics' outstanding work, The Comics by Jerry Robinson and (I believe) The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics by the aforementioned Bill Blackbeard, a massive tome that included examples of many obscure comic strips.   

My exploration through comic book history is an ongoing and continually fascinating adventure. In the past few decades I’ve been able to write about comics and their creators in fanzines such as Comic Book Marketplace and Alter Ego, essays in Marvel Masterworks collections, captions in Taschen’s 75 Years of Marvel Comics book and, of course, here on this blog.

In his recent book If These Walls Could Talk major league pitcher and broadcaster Jim Kaat summed up his love of baseball history:        

“…I still consider myself a student of the game. I’ve never lost my curiosity or love of baseball. My eyes are always open to something new. A question is always poised on the tip of my tongue…”   

Kaat could just as easily have been speaking about film, art, music, poetry…or comic books. 

Friday, May 29, 2015

Don Heck's Pre-Superhero Art 1952-1962

Don Heck is recognized in fan circles for his contributions to Marvel's early superhero line, in particular "Iron-Man" (in Tales of Suspense) and The Avengers, but his style, greatly influenced by the craftsmanship of master cartoonist Milton Caniff (of Terry and the Pirates fame) was often at odds with the overwhelming, massive figures and fantastic stylizations of Jack Kirby, whose shadow loomed large.

Heck held his own at Marvel in their early days, "batting" third in the lineup after Kirby and Ditko. Dick Ayers, the fourth player in that era, while corralled to draw superheros on occasion ("Giant-Man"; "Human Torch") became identified with the long running war title Sgt. Fury. By 1966 fellow Timely-Atlas veterans John Romita, Gene Colan and John Buscema returned to the fold, followed by newcomers Jim Steranko, Barry Smith and Neal Adams. These artists had a stronger feel for the dynamics of superhero fare, leaving Heck in the role of utility player, filling in wherever he was needed. This led to frustration for the talented artist, and his better efforts appeared (often unnoticed) in genres unrelated to superhero fare. Heck's virtues blossomed in more character driven situations, romance and mystery being two such examples. Heck's fluid line (particularly when he inked his own pencils), lush brushwork and superior pacing, coupled with a flair for drawing ordinary people served him well over the course of four decades.This post will focus on his seminal, pre-superhero work, circa 1952-1962. 

War Fury # 1, September 1952, Image from Comicbookplus, where you can see the entire story (and many other Don Heck covers and stories)

Heck started out working in production for Harvey comics in 1949. It wasn't until 1952 that he had the opportunity to draw his first comic book story, working for editor Alan Hardy at Comic Media. "The Unconquered" is Heck's first published story, although he recalled "Harrigan's Hat", which appeared in the following issue, as the first story he drew (due to scheduling issues it's possible the earlier story saw publication after this one. The art in Harrigan's Hat looks less assured than "The Unconquered"). The splash page indicates real talent, and it's evident that Jack Davis (who was then drawing for the popular EC comics line) was an influence on Heck's faces and figures. 

                 "Hot Steel!" Danger # 4, July 1953. Image from comicbookplus.

Although some of Heck's early art for Comic Media are journeymen efforts he rapidly picked up the craft and language of a comic book page, grasping the language of the medium, particularly page composition, pacing, camera angles and characterization. The splash panel of "Hot Steel" is an example of Heck's powerful use of blacks; the two bottom panels focus on setting and people. 

                            "Witch Girl!" Weird Terrors # 10, March 1954.

Heck drew primarily for Comic Media from 1952-54, focusing on genre stories for their crime, western, romance and horror titles. The splash to "Witch Girl" combines a mood drenched opening scene with four panels showcasing a bevy of beautiful women. 

"Crash in the Alps", Ken Fitch script; Don Heck art, Danger # 8, March 1954. Image from comicbookplus.

Heck shows an affinity for presenting the elements as an integral part of the story, a talent that cartoonists as diverse as Chester Gould and Gene Colan excelled at. The splash panel depicts blinding snow and places the antagonist (and in effect the reader) directly into the story. 

                                       Danger # 11, August 1954.

Heck's covers for Comic Media in the early 1950s were poster-like compositions, drawing the reader in and telling a story with startling simplicity. 

 "Intrigue", Danger # 9, May 1954. Image from comicbookplus.

An interesting group of characters, use of montage and a pretty woman. While some of Heck's earliest attempts at drawing woman were unexceptional, he soon mastered the art of rendering attractive females, a talent that served him well throughout his career.

After Comic Media closed its doors in 1954 Heck found work at other companies, including Toby, Charlton and, notably, for Martin Goodman's Atlas line. Under editor Stan Lee, Heck's illustrations and storytelling became more confident. Heck's range and versatility was a boon to Lee; his artwork appearing across the line in war, western, crime, mystery, jungle and romance stories. Below are just a few examples of his unique artistry.

           "Rookie Cop" Police Badge # 479, issue # 5, September 1955. 

Despite the numbering (which was likely continued from a cancelled comic) Police Badge # 479 was a one-shot title that followed the exploits of rookie cop Jim Hudson. Don Heck illustrated two of the three stories featuring the policeman (the third story - and the cover - was drawn by artistic powerhouse Joe Maneely). Heck's ability to compose a page, particularly the middle tier sequence, is one of his great strengths. It would have been interesting to see Heck continue on this strip, but the exploits of patrolman Jim Hudson came to an abrupt end after this issue, never to be seen again (unless he HAS been revived and I'm unaware of it. If so, I'm sure someone more knowledgeable than me about post 80's Marvel will clue me in).

            "The Defeat of Colonel Yeng", Battle # 44, January 1956 

Heck drew many war stories, lending his talents to the genre over the years, from War Combat in 1953 to Captain Savage in 1969. Heck's portrayal of men in combat was peppered with personality. 

Page 3 of the untitled opening "Torpedo Taylor" story from Navy Combat # 7, June 1956. 


  "Get That Sub!", the second "Torpedo Taylor" story in Navy Combat # 7, June 1956  

"Torpedo Taylor" headlined Navy Combat from 1953-57, a character Heck was assigned to and drew every story of. Almost. Heck completed the splash page of a Torpedo Taylor story he was working on but was informed to go no further - publisher Martin Goodman was not buying any new work for the foreseeable future. The story was later completed by Joe Maneely and appeared in Navy Combat #18 (August 1958). Heck, along with most creators, were laid off for a period of time, but was called back by Lee in July 1958 and became a Lee regular. Heck did exceptional work on Torpedo Taylor, adding detail and craft to the depiction of submarines and underwater adventures.   

          "Is There No Man for Me?", My Own Romance # 73, January 1960

This panel of a couple walking down a quiet street is indicative of Heck's impeccable artist's "eye". Much like a set designer, his use of scenery such as the expansive tree and the picket fence creates a warm, romantic mood.

             "If Love Be Blind!", Love Romances # 85, January 1960

The little touches in Heck's romance stories are delightful. The woman walking the dog in panel two and the cheerful police officer add an impeccable sense of charm to the tale.  

             "Incident in the Rain!", Love Romances # 102, November 1962 

Heck's use of silhouette in panel one perfectly compliments the woman's dialogue, emphasizing the characters loneliness. With little background details Heck's emphasis is on the protagonist. Heck's romance art was always top-notch and he would return to the genre in the late 60s and early 70s for both Marvel and DC. 


 "The Fastest Gun Alive!", Stan Lee script, Gunsmoke Western # 63, March 1961 

 "To The Last Man!", Stan Lee script, Gunsmoke Western # 68, January 1962

Don Heck was very much attuned to the trappings of the western genre,blending all the elements with unerring ease: scenery, attire, setting, character types - all add to the storytelling. Although Heck was rarely given lead features to draw (Kid Colt, Outlaw; Rawhide Kid; Two-Gun Kid) his five page fillers were almost always worthwhile additions to the total package. 

"The Deep Freeze", Carl Wessler script, Journey into Mystery # 37, August 1956 

                   "Rocket Ship X-200", Strange Tales # 69, June 1959

                    "Nightmare!" Tales of Suspense # 16, April 1961

Don Heck's pre-hero fantasy stories are often overshadowed by the towering monsters Jack Kirby created month after month, or the evocative, detailed renderings of Steve Ditko, but many of his mini-thrillers are imaginative efforts that deserve attention. Heck had the ability to use the tools of his trade - particularly black ink - to drench a tale in darkness and create a feeling of menace. Like many of the better artists of his era, Heck could effortlessly transition from the lighter tales of romance to the darker shadows of fantasy fare. 

              "I Can See Tomorrow!", Tales to Astonish # 5, September 1959 

It was often the smaller moments in Don Heck's stories that pointed out how observant an artist he could be. The above panel is a perfect example. The protagonist is a small figure in a "long shot" that encompasses a city street. In the foreground are two women chatting on a stoop. Heck's superb composition enhanced what could have been an average close-up. While the two women are superfluous to the story (they have no dialogue balloons and were probably not even in the script directions) their presence adds a special cadence by being part of the urban neighborhood. 

While Heck's art in later years became looser and often weakened or mangled when inked by others, when given the chance Heck continued to do what he did best: bring everyday people - and a part of himself - to his cartooning.  

              "..I always liked regular stories. I like people." Don Heck 


Saturday, March 28, 2015

John Romita's first fanzine interview ?

The Web-Spinner was an early fanzine primarily devoted to the output of Marvel comics, a company which brought a new sense of energy to the field. While many young buyers were satisfied with reading the adventures of their favorite heroes, another segment took that enthusiasm to a higher level. Those fans decided to write, draw and produce their own publications, mailing them out to other like minded individuals. There is a raw quality to many of these fanzines, but also, quite often, a degree of intelligence, creativity and pure fun that shines through. Edited by Mike Appel, The Web-Spinner was noticed by the Marvel staff and included letters of approval from corresponding secretary Flo Steinberg and new editorial assistant Roy Thomas. Their fifth issue (undated; likely spring 1966) featured an interesting article on John Romita, perhaps the first time any of his thoughts were recorded in the fan press.

Romita first worked for Marvel from 1951 to 1957, drawing war, western, crime and horror genre stories, along with features Captain America, Western Kid, "Greg Knight" and "Jungle Boy". He was laid off in 1957 when publisher Martin Goodman drastically cut his comic book division - a result of his distributor going out of business (known by comic book aficionados as "The Atlas Implosion"). Romita found work at National/DC, drawing stories exclusively for the romance line. In 1965 Romita returned to Marvel, at first inking but soon taking over the art on Daredevil from the departing Wally Wood. At the time of this article Romita was working at Marvel for less than a year and was recently assigned the reigns of Amazing Spider-Man when Steve Ditko quit (judging by Romita's comments he was likely working on Amazing Spider-Man # 41 at the time). While hardly an in-depth discussion, this peek into a specific point in Romita's career by a teenage fan reveals a few surprises, which I'll discuss in greater depth below.

On page one of Bob Sheridan's article, "Rambling with Romita" the artist makes a revelation that I believe has heretofore been unknown. Bill Ward apparently pencilled a few pages of Amazing Spider-Man to help Romita out on a deadline. This was not an unusual occurrence in comics; assistants (or ghost artists) often did uncredited work in both comic books and comic strips.

Bill Ward was a comic book artist dating back to the early 1940s, working for Fawcett, ACG, Feature Comics and Quality, notably on Blackhawk. Ward is also noted for creating Torchy, a comic strip featuring a sexy blonde, produced while he served in the Fort Hamilton Army base in Brooklyn, New York during World War II. The strip was soon syndicated to Army papers throughout the world. Torchy later became a feature at Quality comics and received her own title for a period in the late 1940s. In the 1950s and beyond Ward began working for Abe Goodman at Magazine Management (the parent company of Timely/Atlas/Marvel) on digest mags such as Humorama, where he illustrated one panel gag cartoons focusing on his specialty, sexy women. His other major account was for Cracked magazine, where he drew humor features for many years.

Bill Ward's statuesque Torchy blended sex and humor, as seen on this splash page from Torchy # 4, May 1950. Image from 

Since Ward continued to work on Goodman's digest mags in the 1960s (including an episode of Pussycat, a Little Annie Fannie styled strip that appeared in Male Annual and Stag Annual and later reprinted in a one shot magazine in 1968), it's logical that he was available to assist Romita. From what I gather by Romita's comments Ward worked on Amazing Spider-Man # 41, dated October 1966. After closely examining the art I suspect Ward contributed to the five page fight sequence with the Rhino (pages 13-17). As Romita noted, he touched up some of Ward's art (and may have provided breakdowns). Below are examples of a few pages from that sequence, all with inking by Mike Esposito.

Page 13 is the beginning of the Rhino sequence, and may be where Ward  started assisting Romita. Panels 1 and 6 look awkward by Romita's standards, although the other panels may have been revised by Romita.  

Page 15 opens with a large panel that captures a sense of Jack Kirby inspired dynamics that Romita excelled in. The figures of the Rhino in panels 2-3 and Spider-Man in panel 3 are stiff and lack the smooth line that typified Romita's style.

The last three panels on page 16 employ cartoony figures, ala the "Jack Davis style" Romita refers to in the article. 

In my estimation page 17 is a clear indication of another hand involved in the art. The awkward position of the figures (particularly panels one and two); the characters appearance and the linework differ from Romita's clean and stylish pencils. Again, Romita may have provided Ward with a rough pencil breakdown to work from, but the overall art is choppier than usual.

Page two of the article is worth a close examination, as Romita speaks of his predecessor on Spider-Man, Steve Ditko. It's important to note that his observations on Ditko are second-hand, likely based on conversations with either office staff (Sol Brodsky; Marie Severin; Roy Thomas) or directly from Stan Lee, who, like many that collaborate in creative fields, often view their situations through entirely different prisms. What is most revealing is Romita's statement that it was Ditko's idea to make Norman Osborn the Green Goblin, explaining that he "drew the mags so that Osborn HAD to be the Goblin". This corresponds with Ditko's later accounts that appeared in issues of Robin Snyder's newsletter:

 “I even used an earlier, planted character associated with J. Jonah Jameson, he became the Green Goblin.” Steve Ditko, the Green Goblin, Robin Snyder’s the Comics, July 2001

Stan Lee's account differed greatly: 

 “The ultimate bone of contention was a recurring villain called the Green Goblin, whose identity had always been hidden. When it became time for the long awaited unmasking Lee recalls that Ditko said ‘it should be somebody they’ve never seen before, just some person’. Lee, on the other hand, felt that a startling revelation had been promised. ‘Every reader in america is going to think we’re crazy. They’ll be angry. It’s got to be somebody, Lee said. Ditko left without drawing the story.” Les Daniels, Marvel, Five Fabulous Decades of the World’s Greatest Comics, Abrams, 1991.    

In numerous interviews over the years Lee's declaration about an "argument" with Ditko over the Goblin prevailed, but its possible his memory scrambled together other disagreements with Ditko (the artist had earlier villains such as Electro turn out to be "somebody they've never seen before") or he may have made up a colorful, melodramatic story that was often reported as official comic book history.


                                           Amazing Spider-Man # 37, June 1966

Ditko's penultimate issue of Amazing Spider-Man pointed suspicion directly to a man who had been appearing as a background character in Jameson's men's club for many issues, often in stories that also featured the Goblin,who Lee named Norman Osborn. His son Harry, a fellow student at Peter Parker's college, is seen in panel two.    

"I planted the GG’s son (same distinctive hair) in the college issues for more dramatic involvement and story line consequences" Steve Ditko, The Ever Unwilling, Robin Snyder’s the Comics, Mar 2009.

The importance of Romita's quote from 1966 is that it corresponds with Ditko's later pronouncement that he had plotted the stories from the beginning with a specific character in mind, using the ongoing mystery as a motif that would eventually come to a crescendo. Ditko left before he completed those plans, leaving Lee to unmask the Goblin and devise a backstory in Romita's first two issues (Amazing Spider-Man #'s 39-40). While the characters identity would have been the same under Ditko, the plotline would undoubtedly have differed dramatically.

In later years Romita often parroted Lee’s statements; understandable given that he was not directly involved in the situation and had likely long forgotten the original circumstances. But in the pages of an obscure fanzine produced by young, enthusiastic fans we are privy to an off the cuff, unassuming and revealing conversation at a time when creators were still taken aback that anyone cared. As comic book conventions grew in the mid-1960s and beyond that all changed; by 1975 Marvel ran their own convention and interviews may have been more reserved and tempered by company policies. Whatever the case the Web Spinner article is a look into an unpretentious, charming and historically important period of comic book history.     

For a more detailed account read my article "The Urban Myth of Lee, Ditko and the Green Goblin" in Ditkomania # 82, Oct 2010 (a fine fanzine which you can purchase through publisher Rob Imes)  


On the last two pages Romita discusses many topics, including the upcoming Marvel Super-Heroes cartoon, the Batman TV show (which he could finally watch in color - a big event in that period - note the new set that the author helped him carry in), his former employers, National/DC and Jack Kirby. His admiration for Kirby is obvious, as is his disgust for editors who didn't appreciate his monumental talent.

 The Marvel Super-Heroes cartoon Romita discusses arrived on television screens in September of 1966. The animation was crude and barely animated, but it did utilize the art and (truncated) stories from Marvel comics. I still have a soft spot for the series, perhaps because I was at just the right age to be enthralled by these characters coming to life in my living room each night. Ad from Amazing Spider-Man # 43, December 1966. Art by Jack Kirby, Gene Colan and Marie Severin; inks by Chic Stone, Vince Colletta, Jack Abel and Don Heck.      

As a boy John Romita was inspired by Jack Kirby's artistry. In the 1950s he drew Kirby's co-creation, Captain America, molding together two of his greatest influences; the lush brushwork of master cartoonist Milton Caniff with Kirby's powerful imagery. In 1965 Romita had the opportunity to work with the master on a number of occasions. Here Romita provides finished art over Kirby layouts on a Hulk story. The work speaks for itself. Tales To Astonish # 77, March 1966. 

John Romita worked at Marvel for decades, as artist, art director and "go-to" guy. His clean, distinctive line, superb sense of storytelling and exceptional, poster like cover art drew readers in and sold comics month after month. On a personal level Mr. Romita is a true gentleman who loves talking about the business and celebrating the work of his peers. Now retired, Romita's work continues to be studied, respected and, most importantly - enjoyed.     

Special thanks to Fearless Frank Mastropaolo for his insight - and for keeping me on my toes!