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Authors: Sean Howe

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N
one of this impressed the guys at Magazine Management, who couldn’t understand all the sudden attention being paid to so much kids’ stuff. When Marvel fan Federico Fellini, in New York to promote
Juliet of the Spirits
, swept into 625 Madison Avenue to meet Stan Lee,
Men
magazine editor Mel Shestack scoffed that Lee didn’t even know who Fellini was; years later, Shestack insisted that the director had quickly lost interest in Lee and cottoned instead to the more colorful magazine editors, who were themselves like “living comic books.”

Such condescension was the norm. “They were always making jokes about us. They’d come in and giggle,” remembered Flo Steinberg. “Mario Puzo would look in and would see us all working on his way to the office and he would say, ‘Work faster, little elves. Christmas is coming.’ ”

In truth, the magazines were still Martin Goodman’s bread and butter. “The big sellers were the men’s magazines,” said Ivan Prashker, another editor. “It wasn’t the comic books. The guys who worked at the men’s magazines all thought Stan Lee was a schmuck.” In the fall of 1965, Roy Thomas recruited fellow Missourian Dennis O’Neil to work as Marvel’s second editorial assistant; within a matter of weeks, one of the magazine editors tried to enlist O’Neil in a scheme to dose Stan Lee with LSD. “He was going to supply a sugar cube of acid,” said O’Neil. “My mission, should I have chosen to accept it, would have been to drop it into his coffee.” O’Neil, a self-described “hippie liberal rebel” who had been lectured by Lee for wearing a T-shirt depicting a cannabis plant to the office, nonetheless declined.

I
n
Amazing Spider-Man
, Peter Parker graduated from high school, and broke up with the
Daily Bugle
’s Betty Brant, the first girl who’d been kind to him—he realized she could never be happy living with a constantly endangered crime-fighter. He went to college, where he met Gwen Stacy, Harry Osborn, and Professor Miles Warren—all of whom would become significant characters.

All of this happened without Steve Ditko and Stan Lee speaking to each other.

The communication gap was one of the first things that Roy Thomas learned at his new job. After Ditko dropped off an issue and announced that he was headed home to work on the next one, Thomas made a joke: Oh, really? There’s going to be another one?

“I was just kidding him, but Sol pulled me aside and said, ‘Listen, you have to be careful what you say to a guy like Steve, because he’ll be going home on the subway and suddenly start thinking if you meant anything by that, or know something he didn’t.’ Everyone was walking on eggshells about the situation. How Stan always knew never to be out there when Steve was there, I don’t know.”

Even when they weren’t speaking, they managed to disagree. When Lee added a caption to
Strange Tales
trumpeting, “This series was voted ‘Most Likely to Succeed’ (By Stan and Steve),” Ditko objected that he hadn’t been part of any voting process, and so Lee changed it to “(By Stan and Baron Mordo).”
*
Ditko’s continued devotion to the principles of Ayn Rand, and his desire to fill his comics with references to those principles, didn’t make things any smoother. Ditko took the Randian term
looter
and named a villain after it; he took the idea that men “must deal by trade and give value for value” and had Peter Parker demand “equal value trade” from J. Jonah Jameson. It was a relief to see Parker stick up for himself, but he also began acting like a bit of a creep. He used passive-aggressive behavior to end his relationship with Betty Brant, and when he came upon campus protesters in
Amazing Spider-Man
#38, he told them off. “Another student protest! What are they after THIS time?” he seethed. When a letter-writer from Students for a Democratic Society called Lee out on it, he scrambled to make nice. “We never in a million years thought anyone was gonna take our silly protest-marchers seriously!”

A
t the end of 1965, when a reporter named Nat Freedland visited the Marvel offices for a three-thousand-word profile for the
New York Herald Tribune
, he found Lee in an unusually candid mood. “I don’t plot
Spider-Man
any more,” he said. “Steve Ditko, the artist, has been doing the stories. I guess I’ll leave him alone until sales start to slip. Since Spidey got so popular, Ditko thinks he’s the genius of the world. We were arguing so much over plot lines I told him to start making up his own stories. He won’t let anybody else ink his drawings either. He just drops off the finished pages with notes at the margins and I fill in the dialogue. I never know what he’ll come up with next, but it’s interesting to work that way.”

Freedland was impressed with Lee. He painted him as an “ultra-Madison Avenue, rangy lookalike of Rex Harrison” responsible for tripling the comics’ circulation to 35 million copies a year, selling 40,000 memberships to the Merry Marvel Marching Society, and inspiring 500 fan letters a day. Freedland depicted Lee wearing out his eyes from reading fan mail and fretting over the choice of exactly the right sound effect for a page of
Fantastic Four
#50. Charmed by Lee’s self-deprecating quips and Fellini anecdotes, the reporter barely made mention of Martin Goodman, and skimmed over Ditko’s contributions, referring to Spider-Man as Lee’s masterpiece—“the most offbeat character he could think of.”

Freedland arranged to sit in on one of Lee and Kirby’s Friday morning plotting sessions—and his timing couldn’t have been better. They were hashing out the
Fantastic Four
, which was approaching a firing-on-all-cylinders peak, tying together the subplots they’d been weaving for months.

“The Thing finally beats the Silver Surfer,” Lee pitched to Kirby, as Freedland jotted notes. “But then Alicia makes him realize he’s made a terrible mistake. This is what the Thing has always feared more than anything else, that he would lose control and really clobber somebody.” The effusive Lee gained momentum as he went forward, with Kirby simply interjecting with nods and
right
s and
ummh
s. “The Thing is brokenhearted. He wanders off by himself. He’s too ashamed to face Alicia or go back home to the Fantastic Four. He doesn’t realize how he’s failing for the second time. . . . How much the F.F. needs him.”

Freedland cut to Kirby, “a middle-aged man with baggy eyes and a baggy Robert Hall-ish suit. He is sucking a huge green cigar and if you stood next to him on the subway you would peg him for the assistant foreman in a girdle factory.”

“Great,” Freedland quoted Kirby as saying, in a “high-pitched voice.” “Great.”

Many months later, when an account of the Thing’s fight with the Silver Surfer finally emerged, Kirby had changed it, and expanded it, significantly. It appeared as the coda to a grand space opera, a brew of existentialism and high adventure for which he had done the heavy lifting—despite his perpetual freelancer status, Kirby not only generated plots with Lee but was also the primary force when it came to designing characters and pacing stories. By now he was, in a sense, the director of the films they made together, composing each shot and driving the narrative with the momentum of his images. “I don’t see him for a week,” Lee told one interviewer. “He comes back a week later and the whole strip is drawn. And nobody knows what I’m going to see on those pages. He may have come up with a dozen new ideas, you see. . . . Then I take it, and I write it, on the basis of what Jack has drawn. He’s broken it down to continuity for me. He’s drawn the whole thing, actually. I put in the dialogue and the captions. So he doesn’t know exactly what I’m going to write, what words I’m going to put in their mouths. I don’t know what he’s going to draw.” In fact, the Silver Surfer, who had yet to debut at the time of Freedland’s article, was wholly Kirby’s creation, a surprise to Lee when the completed pages arrived.

Occasionally when Kirby came into the office, he and Romita would catch a ride home to Long Island with Lee. Romita would crawl into the back of Lee’s Cadillac and listen while Lee and Kirby discussed plots. As the convertible dodged in and out of Queens Boulevard traffic, they would volley ideas, each oblivious to the other.

“It’s almost like I was watching Laurel and Hardy,” Romita said. “These two guys are in the front, two giants, and Jack is saying, ‘Well, Stanley, what are we going to make the kid like? Is he going to be a wizard? Is he going to be a genius? Is he going to be super-powered, or is he going to be a normal kid in the midst of a crazy family?’ Stan would say, ‘Well, let’s try this,’ and ‘Let’s try that.’ So Stan would go off on a tangent and Jack would be talking about what he thought should happen. Jack would go home and do what he thought Stan was expecting. And when Stan got the script, I could hear him say, ‘Jack forgot everything we were talking about!’ And that’s what led to making slight changes in Jack’s stories, because Stan was under the impression that Jack had forgotten what he said.”

E
arly in the morning of January 9, 1966, Stan Lee got a phone call from Roz Kirby. The
Herald Tribune
story was out. “She was almost hysterical,” he said, “and she shouted, ‘How could you do this? How could you have done this to Jack?’ ”

When Lee finally got his hands on the article, he said later, he could understand her outrage. “She had every right to be upset. About four-fifths of the article was about me, and made me out to be the most glamorous, wonderful human being that ever lived, and the very last few paragraphs were about Jack and made him sound like a jerk.” Lee pleaded his innocence to the Kirbys.

Before long, the credits on
Fantastic Four
and
Thor
regularly read “A Stan Lee and Jack Kirby Production.” There would be no more “written by Stan Lee” on the Kirby books. Tempers cooled, but Kirby would remember the slight for the rest of his life.

S
hortly after the
Herald Tribune
piece appeared, Ditko dropped off his pages with Sol Brodsky and announced that when he finished his current assignment, he would not be doing any more work for Marvel Comics. Brodsky rushed into Lee’s office to tell him, but Ditko had made up his mind. He even wrote a letter to the still-bruised Jack Kirby, encouraging him to join him in the exodus. Kirby, though, had a wife and four children to support. He couldn’t leave the steady gig at Marvel, not yet.

“I
’ve had theories advanced by other guys in the office,” Lee said later of speculation as to what was causing Ditko such consternation. It wasn’t, apparently, just the fighting about plots. “Letterers who said he hated me putting in sound effects. Sometimes I would add speed lines to his artwork and he hated that. He thought I was doing too much dialogue or too little dialogue. Maybe he felt . . . I don’t really know.”

Another time, though, Lee hinted at an altogether different kind of tension. The
Herald Tribune
article, published three days before the premiere of the
Batman
television show instigated a mainstream revival of superhero interest, broke the news of Marvel’s expanded merchandising plans, including the forthcoming Grantray-Lawrence show. “In the works are plastic models, games, a Spider-Man jazz record and a television cartoon series.” Someone was about to make a lot of money, it seemed, and it wasn’t anyone who sat at a drawing board. When Lee asked Ditko, years later, if he would return for one last Spider-Man story, Ditko replied, “Not until Goodman pays me the royalties he owes me.”

Visiting Princeton University for a speaking engagement in March, Lee sheepishly announced Ditko’s departure. “We’ve just lost the artist who does Doctor Strange, Steve Ditko,” he managed, before groans, boos, and hisses drowned him out. “I feel as badly about it as you do. He’s a very peculiar guy. He’s a great talent, but he’s a little eccentric. Anyway, I haven’t spoken to this guy for over a year. He mails in the work, and I write the stories and that’s the way he liked to work. One day he just phoned, and he said, ‘I’m leaving.’ So this is the acid test now, because he was such a popular artist. I
think
we’ve managed to find people to replace him, where those boos will change to a chorus of cheers.”

3

 

I
n 1966, Martin Goodman moved his expanding comic-book operations out of the cramped offices at 625 Madison, just down the block to 635. Goodman stayed behind with his magazines; from now on, Stan Lee would have a little more room to breathe, a little less attention from the boss.

Marvel’s old address continued to run in the letter columns, to confuse the overzealous kids who’d started showing up and trying to sneak by Flo Steinberg to meet their heroes. (Lee stopped taking the elevator, where he might be stuck with nutty fans; now he bounded his lean frame up the stairs every day.) They wouldn’t have been treated to much of a spectacle anyway, certainly nothing like the madcap Bullpen that Lee had planted in their imaginations, but there was, at last, a real staff. John “the Mountain” Verpoorten, a pipe-smoking, art-school-educated, six-foot-six bear of a man who collected 16 mm films, and Morrie Kuramoto, a Japanese-American, chain-smoking health-food advocate who’d been one of the 1957 layoff casualties, were hired to help with production.

But even as Marvel was growing bigger, and ever more popular, DC Comics was still on top. The writing was consistently professional, and the artwork—Gil Kane on
Green Lantern
, Carmine Infantino on
The Flash
and
Batman
, Timely alumnus Mike Sekowsky on the
Justice League of America,
Curt Swan on
Superman
—was polished and elegant. But to Marvel readers, the personalities of the DC characters were interchangeable, their lives static and flat. Neither charge was entirely true: Aquaman and the Flash both got married, and Superman’s lachrymose longings for Krypton carried a real weight. Still, most of the DC world seemed earnestly homogeneous, rendered with polite draftsmanship that radiated a kind of complacency. Although they were, in truth, charming and inventive in their own right, they couldn’t hold a candle to the blend of humor and pathos and grandeur that Lee, Kirby, and Ditko had concocted.

The suit-wearing editors at DC discussed Marvel in their meetings, and finally decided that it must be the crude artwork, and the bad puns, that the kids liked. There’s no accounting for taste, they grumbled, and tried to get hip by pasting so-called go-go checkerboard patterns at the tops of each comic. Instead of Lee’s snappy “Bullpen Bulletins,” DC instituted a news update page called “Direct Currents” that might as well have been written by accountants. They introduced a “New Look” version of the dying-on-the-vine
Batman
, replacing horrendous alien-invader stories with horrendous self-parody that Susan Sontag, in
The
New York Times
, singled out as a textbook example of “low camp.” It was Marvel gone wrong, with only Stan Lee’s puns and none of his heart: Spider-Man had Aunt May, and so now Batman got an Aunt Harriet, but instead of familial drama there was only arch, idiot-savant modishness.

Marvel was still scrappier, with a faster-growing fan base. Marvel was more Mets than Yankees, more Rolling Stones than Pat Boone (whom, in fact, DC had immortalized in a comic book); it was the Pepsi Generation challenger to DC’s Coca-Cola giant. Where Marvel had the interest of Fellini and the editor of
Existential Psychiatry
, DC had the songwriters of
Bye Bye Birdie
staging
It’s A Bird, It’s A Plane, It’s Superman!
on Broadway.

But DC also had Batman. More specifically, they had
Batman
, star of ABC-TV, an instant Top 10 Nielsen hit, which caused the sales of the comic book to suddenly increase multifold, the first comic book in years to break the one-million-copies mark. New episodes of the show ran an unprecedented twice a week and precipitated a merchandising bonanza, a windfall in junky plastic tie-ins.

The new, campy version of the
Batman
comic had attracted Hollywood’s attention; DC’s very failure to re-create the Marvel style resulted in its biggest hit. Martin Goodman might have wished he’d waited a little longer to sell the rights to his own characters—but for a magazine publisher whose comic books were a fraction of the business, it was all gravy anyway. Marvel’s own success had already catalyzed other publishers to trot out superheroes, and now
Batman
translated into a popularity surge for everybody in the again-growing field.

Much of the new competition employed exiles from Marvel itself: in addition to the Tower Comics books edited by the disgruntled Wally Wood, by 1965 the field also included Archie Comics’ imitatively titled “Mighty Comics Group” line, created by Superman co-creator (and former
Strange Tales
writer) Jerry Siegel, and Paul Reinman, the Timely artist who’d inked much of Kirby’s early 1960s Marvel work. Mighty Comics tried to have it both ways, with covers that were actionable mimicries of Marvel and a tone as groan-inducingly dopey as
Batman
’s. “
Dig
their crazy costumes—
marvel
at their
stupor
deeds!” read the cover copy on a paperback collection of Mighty stories, titled
High Camp Superheroes
. “Some will say this book is so bad it’s GREAT.” Charlton Comics’ more straight-faced new “Action Heroes” line was home to Steve Ditko, who eventually used the platform to introduce the Question, a right-wing vigilante unfettered by Stan Lee’s pesky moral relativism.
*
And Harvey Comics hired Jack Kirby’s old partner, Joe Simon.

With news of Simon’s “Harvey Thriller” line in the works, Martin Goodman told Lee to leap into action. “I came in one day,” said Kirby, “and Stan said, ‘Martin says we have to add more books.’ They were afraid Al Harvey, who had pretty good distribution, was going to crowd them off the stands.” In the space of a week, Lee and Kirby came up with a misfit group of heroes called the Inhumans and a handsome black hero called the Coal Tiger. But it turned out that DC, which still controlled Marvel’s distribution, wouldn’t allow Goodman to publish the extra titles anyway. So the new characters were set aside until they could be worked into the
Fantastic Four
, as players in what would be the most adventurous stories that Marvel had ever attempted.

T
he Marvel heroes populated every corner of the world. The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Daredevil, and the Avengers were based in New York City; the X-Men made their home in nearby Westchester County. The Hulk wandered the southwestern United States; Iron Man went to Ireland, battled a Norwegian menace, and visited Vietnam. There was a cavalcade of alien visitations, and Doctor Strange could always be counted on to visit the astral plane. But now Lee and Kirby would really push the boundaries, revving up the mythological grandeur of the Marvel Universe. Kirby freed his inner Edith Hamilton by supplementing Thor’s modern-day adventures in
Journey into Mystery
with “Tales of Asgard,” in which Norse gods vied for power among themselves. It wasn’t just the awe-striking powers that made these stories operatic. There was also the classicism of the narratives—quests for mystical objects, preparations for battle—and themes of duty, heritage, and mortality that seemed wholly unrelated to the alien-punching stories from the newsstand competition. Before now, superhero comics weren’t about approval from your king father—that was strictly Shakespeare. Now, in the Marvel version of things, Thor always had to answer to angry dad Odin, and his chief nemesis, Loki, was also his half brother—an enemy-sibling dynamic that would be repeated with characters in
The X-Men
and the
Fantastic Four
.

J
ourney into Mystery
may have been the most explicitly mythological of the Lee and Kirby books, but the stories in
Fantastic Four
were becoming more philosophical, and more ceremonious, with every issue. In the mid–1960s, the psychodrama of the First Family of Marvel Comics reached new levels. For more than six months, Ben Grimm, the Thing, stalked around in a sustained rage, still unable to accept the permanence of his mutated state. Reed and Sue Richards, Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Girl, followed their nuptials with icy tension, as Reed became more and more withdrawn, obsessed with his scientific pursuits. And everything converged when Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, fell under the spell of doomed love for a doe-eyed beauty named Crystal. It turned out she was a member of the Inhumans, the strange-powered family of exiled royalty who lived hidden in the Swiss Alps but had come to New York City pursuing one of their own, a runaway.

The Inhumans were like nothing that had come before. Their intentions were ambiguous, and their bodies—one had earthquake-inducing hooves, another tentacle-like hair, another gills and fins—verged on the grotesque. Black Bolt, their leader, had a voice that literally shattered the earth around him—and so he remained mute. Lockjaw, the family pet, was a massive mustachioed dog with antennae.

With the introduction of the Inhumans, it was suddenly apparent that the Marvel Universe was infinite, that there could be whole civilizations in every corner of the entire cosmos: as each issue tumbled into the next, picking up momentum, expanding the cast, the grand space opera absorbed forgotten characters and established the relationships between them all. Overlapping with the Inhumans adventure was the threat of Galactus, a twenty-foot-tall humanoid alien who wore purple headgear and drained life from entire planets for sustenance, his arrival heralded by a sterling, speechless being on a flying surfboard—the Silver Surfer—who scouted ahead like an angel of death. The Fantastic Four returned from their latest adventure to find a red-skied New York City in flames, its screaming citizens dropping belongings and falling on one another as they wandered through empty intersections. Even the FF’s old enemies, the shape-shifting alien Skrulls, were shown panicking in their spaceships far away. The Watcher, a cosmic deity sworn to observe the galaxies but never interfere, was dusted off from early issues; understanding the threat of Galactus, he broke his oath and offered assistance to the heroes. There was the sense that something big was coming, something scary, something secret—something that didn’t belong in comic books.

Kirby, no longer satisfied with air-cars and gamma rays, introduced Atmo-Guns and Matter Mobilizers and Elemental Converters. The Watcher sent the Human Torch into the Negative Zone, an unexplored realm of antimatter, to retrieve a weapon called the Ultimate Nullifier. Lee and Kirby knew better than to explain these concepts in great detail. Readers couldn’t possibly understand; even the heroes themselves couldn’t process what was going on. The Silver Surfer, the Watcher, Galactus—they were all bigger than the helpless Fantastic Four, who were relegated to sitting on the sidelines. The Watcher commanded them to show humility: “Stand and observe! Try to fathom the cataclysmic forces which have been unleashed!” Two years before
2001: A Space Odyssey
, before the cinema could hope to approach the psychedelic imagination, the Human Torch emerged from an epiphanic trip in the laser-light show that was the Negative Zone, the Ultimate Nullifier finally in hand, but stricken with something like cosmic trauma, stammering in shock: “I traveled through worlds . . . so big . . . so
big
. . . there . . . there aren’t words! We’re like ants . . . just ants . . .
ants
!!!”

The Fantastic Four nervously brandished the exotic weapon, and the conscience-stricken Silver Surfer turned against his master, but Galactus was more annoyed than intimidated. He agreed to spare the planet in exchange for the surrender of the Ultimate Nullifier and casually sentenced his former messenger to imprisonment on Earth. (“I remove your space-time powers! Henceforth, the Silver Surfer shall roam the galaxies no more!”) The devourer of planets finally departed, but it didn’t feel like a clean triumph for the heroes, just a loss of innocence. Letter-writers wiped their brows, caught their breath, tried to reason it out: clearly the Galactus saga was a justification for Vietnam, with Galactus as the Viet Cong, the Fantastic Four as South Vietnam, and the Silver Surfer as America . . . right? Lee responded with wry, expert deflection: “Two’ll getcha ten that our next mail contains a whole kaboodle of letters from equally imaginative fans who are utterly convinced that Galactus represented Robert McNamara, while the Silver Surfer was Wayne Morse—with Alicia symbolizing Lady Bird!”

He had a point: it was beyond metaphor. And it wasn’t just
Fantastic Four
that could no longer be reduced to Joseph Campbell schematics or English Lit 101 symbolisms. Suddenly almost everything in the Marvel Universe was reaching some kind of critical juncture, a point of no return. Nick Fury’s modern-day S.H.I.E.L.D. adventures in
Strange Tales
merged with Captain America’s missions in
Tales of Suspense
as the heroes teamed against high-tech organizations like A.I.M. (Advanced Idea Mechanics) and HYDRA
*
for a kind of sci-fi paramilitary feedback loop. Here, too, science bounded forward at a dizzying, almost alarming rate—even the flurry of good-guy gadgets like Life Model Decoys carried disconcerting post-atomic associations of
that which humanity is not ready to harness
. A.I.M.—which consisted of shady industrialists outfitted like futuristic beekeepers—created the Super-Adaptoid and brandished a talisman known as the Cosmic Cube (“The ultimate weapon! The ultimate source of power! The only such artifact known to man—which can convert thought waves—into material action!”), which fell into the hands of the Red Skull, who’d just reemerged from the rubble of the
Führerbunker
after two decades. All you could pray for was to have the Orion Missile, or the Matter Transmitter, on your side.

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