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By Tom Ward

Fantastic FourAs the summer starts to wind down and the kids get ready to head back to school it looks like superheroes and animated films ruled the box office with Iron Man 3 taking the top spot.

For the past decade or so Marvel Entertainment, a Walt Disney Company subsidiary, has been churning out blockbuster movies one after another with a variety of superheroes that were first created decades ago. The advanced technology that is available today for filmmakers has allowed these colorful heroes to come alive leaping off the pages of our favorite comic books.

All of these magnificent tales were dreamed up by the great Stan “The Man” Lee and his bullpen of amazing artists back in the 1960s. I was curious about how Stan and gang over at Marvel were able to jump start what appeared to be a sinking ship back in the late 1950s and early 1960s. I had heard some stories about the dire situation that Marvel found itself in so I was excited when a friend of mine lent me his book to read called  Marvel Comics: The Untold Story.

It chronicled the history of Marvel Comics and I was particularly intrigued about a tiny section of the book that briefly talked about a golf game that took place back in 1961. According to apocryphal legend, in the spring of that year Jack Liebowitz (publisher of DC Comics) got together with Martin Goodman (publisher of Marvel Comics) for a friendly round of golf. It was during this fateful day on the links that the fortunes of Marvel Comics future would turn, changing the face of comic book history forever.

Be careful what you brag about

During the round Liebowitz supposedly bragged to Goodman, telling him how well things were going for their company ever since they put together a super group called the Justice League of America (featuring well known characters from the DC lineup like Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Green Lantern). This dynamic combination turned out to be a surprise hit for DC Comics, generating big sales.

During this period of time Marvel publisher Goodman’s philosophy was to follow the trends in their comic book titles. At the time westerns were very popular, however if romance was selling, “do more romance” was the credo. They were publishing five teenage romance stories along with four westerns, four monster/suspense titles and one war comic book per month.

So when Goodman got home he got in touch with his editor-in-chief Stan Lee and told him to create a new series of superheroes by stealing the DC idea. It turns out Lee had been through this before with Goodman and wasn’t interested in recycling old heroes from the 1940s. Stan told his wife Joanie that he was going to quit. She ended up talking him out of it by saying, “Just do it the way you want. Work your ideas into the comic book, what are they going to do, fire you?”

Well Stan got to work and said, “It took a few days of jotting down millions of notes, crossing them out and writing down a million more. I finally came up with four characters that I thought would work well together as a team. I then wrote an outline containing the basic description of the new people and somewhat off beat storyline and gave it to my most trusted and dependable artist the incredibly talented Jack Kirby.”

Making history

The first issue of the Fantastic Four hit the newsstands on August 8, 1961. It was unlike any comic book superhero team anyone had ever seen before dealing with the internal issues of a dysfunctional team. At the time a typical superhero comic book had an infallible hero who was the physical embodiment of virtue, who guarded his secret identity fearlessly and usually had a girlfriend that was in love with his alter ego. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby wanted their characters to be real people who argued among themselves and made mistakes.

Also, they wouldn’t be wearing colorful costumes or masks to hide their identity. It took a few months after the Fantastic Four came out to realize through their sales figures that they had a massive hit on their hands. Beginning in 1962, their office was overwhelmed with a flurry of fan letters all singing the praises of the Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic), Sue Storm (Invisible Girl), her brother Johnny (Human Torch), and Ben Grimm as (The Thing).

The group’s popularity exploded beyond anything they had ever seen before and the fans were clamoring for more hero titles. In the past, most fan letters were complaints about missing staples in the magazine or mis-spellings, but with the emergence of this new group there was no turning back for Marvel. Soon they unveiled their next creation called The Incredible Hulk (a green skinned Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde type character). Then The Mighty Thor made his first appearance in Journey into Mystery. Ant-Man came next in Tales to Astonish, followed by perhaps the most iconic of all the Marvel Comic book stars, The Amazing Spiderman, in June of 1962 in Amazing Fantasy issue #15. By the end of the year he had his own comic book title. After that Marvel’s touch was golden, adding more legendary heroes like Iron Man, The Avengers, X-Men, Daredevil and many others to their expanding Marvel Universe.

I thought I would contact a friend of mine who had a front row seat to all the action going on at the time working for Marvel Comics starting all the way back in 1950 when it was called Timely Comics. What better guy to get a first person account of the situation than ask Joltin’ Joe Sinnott, who was and still is an extremely gifted artist and inker for Marvel and recent inductee into the Will Eisner Comic Book Hall of Fame?

Never had a doubt

I asked Joe about those tough times at Marvel and if he thought they would recover. Joe recalled, “I never really thought things would have gotten that bad. I never believed they would go out of business or belly up entirely. Stan was a real innovator ,always trying new trends like back when we did war books, then there was a science fiction trend. Stan was a big movie watcher and if a new movie came out that was successful Stan would have us do a book similar to it,” Joe said.

“Stan’s mind was always working and he was a great short story writer,” he said. “I just couldn’t ever see Stan getting out of the comic book industry. I do remember that Martin Goodman asked Stan to dig up some of the old titles they had owned for years like Captain America, Human Torch and Sub Mariner. Stan put out a couple of Captain America books and about three months later when the sales reports came in they indicated that the sales were pretty good.

“It’s always been my contention that those books were the start of the Superhero trend for Marvel,” Joe said.

He added that he didn’t doubt the story about the DC publisher and Goodman golf course tale, but knew when the Fantastic Four came out that was their first new superhero title in years. “Once it was evident that our superheroes were a hit and here to stay it was a great run for all of us at Marvel in the 60s, 70s and 80’s,” he said.

I asked Joe if he thought there was a rivalry between Marvel and DC. Joe said, “I personally never felt like there was a rivalry with DC. I remember DC used to call me up and ask me to come over and work for them. They told me they would pay me more for my work than Marvel, which is funny because they didn’t know what Marvel was paying me.

“Stan would tell me, ‘Whatever they were going to pay you I’ll match it and get you more.’ This was a common practice in the industry and this kind of thing went back and forth with artists a lot. I never wanted to leave Marvel because I liked all the books we were doing back then. When we got going with all our new superheroes titles DC couldn’t compete with our characters. As a matter of fact, they started copying our lettering and style.”

During my discussion with Joe we agreed that no matter what transpired during that golf game between Liebowitz and Goodman it obviously woke up a sleeping giant within Marvel. Just like in the comic books, when a radioactive spider gave Peter Parker his powers as Spiderman, or cosmic rays which bombarded the Fantastic Four making them a super group.

Perhaps the advent of a little golf ball helped energize and transform all those dormant superpowers of creativity that Stan and the guys at Marvel already possessed, unlocking all those marvelous characters that we have come to embrace. What is known is that Stan Lee and his Marvel Bullpen responded to the challenge by unleashing a powerful message that resonated throughout the industry.

I told Joe it reminded me of the story when golf legend Lee Trevino once said that it was unwise to awaken a sleeping bear (a reference to golf superstar Jack Nicklaus whose nickname was the Golden Bear). As Joe and I were ending our phone conversation he told me that the character he still enjoys drawing after all these years is The Thing’from the Fantastic Four.

I laughed when I told Joe it’s kind of ironic because every time The Thing was about to do battle with villains he would shout, “It’s clobberin’ time!” Well, That’s exactly what Marvel did to its competitors back in the 1960’ and that trend continues today on the silver screen as the hits keep on coming.

Tom Ward can be reached at www.teetimewithtom.com.

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