Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Pre-hero Marvels

"Pre-hero Marvels". Now there's a totally esoteric term that only a die-hard comic book fan could decipher.

What it refers to are comic books published by the firm known as Marvel Comics before they started doing super-hero books. Until roughly 1961, with the publication of the FANTASTIC FOUR #1, Marvel was earning its place on the newsstand shelves by putting out science-fiction, fantasy, horror, western, and quasi-romance comics. Superhero comics, which had been very popular some years before, had fallen into the doldrums and Marvel wasn't publishing any superhero titles. That was reserved almost exclusively for DC Comics which was still doing okay with its long-time mainstays Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, etc.

But calling them "pre-hero Marvels" isn't even quite correct itself. For Marvel Comics wasn't--technically speaking--even called Marvel Comics in the very early 1960s. It had first appeared as a company called Timely Comics, then became Atlas Comics during most of the 1950s. After that, it went through a series of varying corporate names until, finally, settling on Marvel Comics when they returned to publishing superhero tales.

When I was a kid I enjoyed the pre-hero Marvel titles. It wasn't because of the stories, really, which were derivative in nature and which were also pretty much retreads every issue. The stories were largely either straight up monster tales pitting a regular guy against a huge monster who was either supernatural or an alien or a mutant. The regular guy would always defeat the giant monster by the end of the story. Some stories were riffs on old pulp tales that had been copied, the comic book editor fairly sure that the offended writer was either dead or wasn't reading comic books.

So it wasn't the stories themselves, really, that attracted me.

What floored me then, as now, was the artwork. And most of the artwork for those late 50s and very early 60s Marvel monster comics was created almost exclusively by Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko with occasional stories being done by the likes of Don Heck and Dick Ayers. All during the early history of Timely/Atlas/Marvel, the editor-in-chief (Stan Lee) would corral one or two artists upon whom he came to depend as the workhorses that kept the company in the black and Lee with gainful employment. This was his main task--making sure his uncle (who owned the company) was happy enough with the bottom line to keep the presses going and Lee's paycheck regular. This was not easy to do, and the company had come close to being closed down several times. It was only Lee's ability to keep an ear to the ground to detect what was popular enough to sell on the stands that provided Marvel with the impetus to remain profitable.

So for a number of years, Marvel's bread-and-butter were the sci-fi, fantasy, and horror titles being produced solidly and with great imagination by Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. These books, since they were the ones printed just prior to Marvel's breakout superhero titles, are known today as the "pre-hero Marvels".

Since I loved them as a kid, they satisfy my need to have items of nostalgia around me as I get older. Plus, I think they're good investment quality collectibles. And I've been picking them up as I can over the past months.

Here, then, are two of my recent purchases:

Amazing Adventures #2. This title later went on to become Amazing Adult Fantasy, which went on to become the Amazing Spider-Man.

Amazing Adventures #6. The final Silver Age appearance of Dr. Droom, who was, arguably, Marvel's first superhero.

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