Monday, December 26, 2011

The Bullpen Develops

From what I've been able to gather, historically speaking, about Martin Goodman's overall publishing business is that it was almost always marginally profitable. And since his nephew, Stan Lee, was in charge of running the day-to-day operations of that publisher, it was his job to ensure that the bottom line was in the black and that it stayed that way as often as possible.

I've also read that Goodman constantly held the very real threat of corporate dissolution over Lee's head. If he couldn't make a decent profit from the business into which they'd both ended up, then Goodman would close down his company, sell off the intellectual assets of same, and retire. This would have left the young and ambitious Lee out in the cold. He'd always been at the editorial helm of the company and the roof over his head, the food in his stomach, and the clothes on his back depended on keeping Timely/Atlas/Marvel/etc. on an even keel.

By the late 1950s Goodman's company was basically one that published comic books. The day of the adventure pulp was gone and the corporation was almost exclusively sustained through comic books. And since there were not many chances to merchandise the dormant superheroes that lay within the Goodman vaults, it was left increasingly to Stan Lee to figure out how to keep the titles selling in enough numbers to maintain Goodman's position on the newsstands.

The pressure to accomplish this must have been maddening.

As I've touched on previously in my brief essays, Lee was a careful and adaptable editor. He would scan the publishing world to see what was moving and do his best to copy it. Under his ministrations, Marvel/Atlas was NEVER an innovator. Not once in all the days of his work through this period did Goodman's company set the standard or create a wave. Lee was forever peering over his neighbor's shoulders to see what they were doing right and aping it.

Thus, in the very late 50s and into 1960 he had his formula down. He had three reliable artists producing most of his work. Jack Kirby would produce almost all of the cover art and--what seems to me--roughly half the artwork of the science-fiction and horror comics that were keeping the company floating and Martin Goodman relatively happy. Steve Ditko followed closely behind Kirby by offering up some of the covers and his share of the interior artwork and stories. Don Heck, a very under appreciated journeyman comic artist was the third part of this able triumvirate that Lee had set up to run the company smoothly.

As Marvel's sales continued to stagnate despite this clever and successful combination of talent, the stories flowed out of the Marvel offices. All the while, Lee cast his net wide, trying to figure out how to increase sales and keep his uncle happy. What he didn't know was that he had the basic die cast. Kirby and Ditko especially were primed to produce the most amazing eruption of creativity the comic book business had witnessed since its great days of the war years. Sitting in the fertile imaginations of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko was the basis of the most profitable comic book company to emerge from the Silver Age of comics. The Marvel Universe was stirring behind the gates of Kirby's and Ditko's minds, waiting to be unleashed. DC Comics providing the impetus by reviving the almost dead superhero genre, and Stan Lee was just the man to copy it.

And he had his bullpen ready.

The menace of METALLO! Descending to Earth by way of the legendary skyhook! Kirby could knock out a great cover like this without even breaking a sweat.

Another typical story of this era of Goodman's company. Kirby would produce his three-part opening story, hand it in to Stan Lee who would concoct one of his goofy names for the monster. GOOGAM! I'm sure it's ready and waiting to be optioned as merchandise and films! Maybe a cartoon! (But Jack Kirby won't get any credit, and his heirs will be left empty-handed.)

Over the years, Marvel vacillated between covers with word balloons and those without; those sparse with balloons and those pregnant with them. This one seems unique. Just one word balloon, but very text-heavy for a comic from this period.

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