Because I was born at the right time to make me just the right age to start reading comics at the best time since they were invented. It was kismet! But I had to fight an uphill battle against social stigma, economic hardship, and the most formidable enemy of all…
My mom didn’t like comics. She had probably read the “news” stories before I was born connecting comics with juvenile delinquency. Both my parents were very simple, very frugal, and they were mildly disapproving of “worldly” influences of pop culture and such. She did not allow playing cards, you know, the kind with kings and queens on them. Neither of them drank. My mom’s worst vice was candy. She taught me to love circus peanuts, chocolate, those round pink mints with 4 x’s on them. It was against her wishes that I started to involve myself in training for my very future career. I was a pretty good student and went to a well-respected private college, took the pre-med program with a degree in Biology. Within a year of graduating, I was starting down the road to comic book “investing” and retailing. But, you may ask, how did it happen? Or why? Well, I’ll tell ya…..
When I started school in Iowa, I loved to hang out at the little grocery just a block away, but they didn’t have comics. I would help clean up the neighborhood to find bottles to bring in for the 5 cents deposit and buy a few baseball cards, but mostly candy and gum.
My dad was a preacher, and one of his responsibilities was to visit people who needed the counseling, the praying, or some kind of connection with someone that they may not have had through other avenues. That’s what some ministers do, anyway. After our move from one Iowa town to another, I was a new kid and didn’t have a lot of friends yet. He had a house call to make, and he brought me along, because there was a boy my age in the house, and he thought it would be good for both of us. I don’t remember who it was, and have only vague images of that day. The important thing was that he had comics, probably mostly coverless. I think this was the first time I had ever seen them, or at least noticed them. Much later, as a “professional”, I discovered that one of those comics must have been Strange Tales #89, with the story of “Fin Fang Foom”, a giant, orange, dragon-like monster with little Godzilla-fins for ears, and a long horse-like head. His body had the rough shape of a giant ferret or weasel – long, flexible spine, but short legs, and of course, scales, and only 3 fingers and a thumb.
And, inexplicably, he wore briefs.
The story tells us of a Chinese (patriotic) American man who sneaks back into Communist China and finds the monster deep in in a cave, under the spell of a long sleep. He brushes a leaf against the monster’s snoring lips. The monster speaks for the first time in eons, and is immediately grateful, but the man rejects his thanks, “realizes” he’s made a mistake and vows to put the monster back to sleep again. This enrages Foom. The man then leads him on a chase through the military assets of the Commies, which our fang-y friend is only too willing to destroy along the way in his mindless rage.
Unfortunately for the Western allies, our man can only stay away from him for so long, and so he leads him back to the cave. Foom graciously goes right back in and our guy is hiding in a narrow corridor that keeps him safe just long enough to brush Foom’s lips again and, wham, he’s sleeping like a baby for another 1000 years! Our hero conveniently knows another way out and also remembered to bring explosives along, so he blasts the entrance of the cave, sealing it forever. You see, it was all part of his plan.
Eight short pages of genius. Jack “King” Kirby drew this one, and probably 3 to 5 others that month, along with several other artists in the Marvel “bullpen”. But Stan “the Man” Lee wrote almost all of them. He cranked these stories out like the rest of us breathe. Three short stories per issue. Ten to twenty comics a month from 1941 until 1970. Coming up with 20 monsters a month is no easy feat, and fans and critics like to make fun of that era’s “monster of the month” with the made up names like “Groot, the tree that walks like a man!” or confessionals like “I Shrank Myself …. and was Enslaved by Ants” or whatever.
When we moved to southern Minnesota, my new friend Tom had some Marvel comics and so it began. I bought about 10 comics a month for about 3 years as a kid, and then abruptly quit, but I never got rid of them (after hiding them from Mom). Stan and Jack and the others were a factory of “horror”, Science fiction, humor, and westerns in the 50’s, but, strangely, left the superheroes (like Superman and Batman) to DC until they invented the Fantastic Four in 1961, and the Amazing Spider-Man in 1963. Marvel comics were full of “relevance”, and angst, and modern problems, perfect for the kids, the college students, and even adults, so they quickly became undisputed number one in sales. Stan started his rise to eventual Executive Producer-hood on the movies that made Marvel Comics’ characters household names in the last decade. Jack Kirby remained “just an artist” (he tried writing, but he was no Stan Lee) who was sort of written out of his own career by Stan and the owners of Marvel Comics. They had an uneasy relationship until his final years when fans and younger writers and artists demanded that he be given more credit and financial reward as his health waned.
One the first ones I bought, and to this day, one of my all-time favorites, was Spider-Man #31, the beginning of a 3-part epic commonly called the Master Planner series. By this time, Marvel comics were mostly full-length 20+ page stories in one issue, although they had evolved into soap-opera-like neverendingstories. In this episode, Spider-Man, as Peter Parker, finally goes to college and meets new friends, but he’s so absorbed by beloved Aunt May’s health, that he makes a very bad first impression, as usual. His one friend is an informant who works at the Daily Bugle, run by Spider-Man’s nemesis, the publisher, J. Jonah Jameson. This informant tells him “there’s going to be a robbery at the docks”, so of course he goes, because he can set up his remote camera and take pictures of himself stopping crime and sell them to the Jameson! It just happens that the robbery is planned by the “Master Planner”, a shadowy villain with plans to take over the world, of course, and the goods he wants happen to be “atomic equipment”. Spider-Man almost stops the theft, but the equipment drops into the river and disappears (or does it?). Oh well, another night’s “work” – back to fretting about his Aunt’s health.
You see, he was an orphan and his Aunt May and Uncle Ben had raised him. In his first story, a radioactive spider bites him, giving him his Super Powers, which he intends to cash in on by becoming a performer! In one scene, a policeman yells “Stop that man, he’s a thief!” , but Spider-Man has just finished a show and he is too busy counting his money, and even thinks “Hey, it’s not my problem'”. A few pages later (this story is in one of those 3×8 page “Amazing Fantasy” comics described, and pictured, above!) Uncle Ben is killed by a robber. Finally, too late, he finds his heart and soul, and vows to catch the villain, and as he does he sees it is the one he COULD HAVE STOPPED, and so he is tortured with guilt his entire life. This is not your average stopping-bullets-with-his invulnerable-skin kind of story, or How Can Superman keep his secret identity secret without a mask – AGAIN!
No, this is DEEP! It’s psychological. It’s RELEVANT!
Steve Ditko was the artist for every Spider-Man story for three years. He had drawn many of the monsters that populated Marvel comics in the 1950s and was the third man in the Studio’s heirachy. He was a strange, reclusive man, but singularly creative in his depiction of supernatural, impossible events and beings. One of my other favorite comics was Dr. Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts, where he really had a chance to open up and show his wild style, trying to depict spirits, spells, whatever magic looks like. Both he and Jack Kirby had a lot to say about the stories that were always credited to Stan Lee, but were really collaborative efforts when it came to plot and storyline. The ideas were a group effort, and Stan would write the dialog while the artists worked away with pencil and brush.
Back to our Spider-Man story, #32, “Man on a Rampage!”. Aunt May’s health is failing because she “has a radioactive particle in her blood”, which might be Peter’s fault, because he donated blood for her in issue #31! He visits his friend Dr Connors (who also happens to be super but that’s another story). Dr Connors tells him the ONLY thing that can save his Aunt is this rare serum that is only found in this one place, and that he has to hurry, she may die at any time. Dr. Connors is a research scientist, but apparently he plays a medical doctor in the comics! The Master Planner is only seen in silhouette. He is pissed at Spider-Man, and apparently has an infinite supply of minions that get in Spider-Man’s way. In fact, they have just stolen the very same serum that Spider-Man needs! Now Spider-Man is pissed! This installment finally ties the threads of the first one into a very tight knot – in the reader’s stomach!
Spider-Man threatens every criminal and underworld type he can find until someone gives him a lead about the hideout. He breaks into the MP’s lair, at the bottom of the Hudson River, where the MP reveals himself to be ….dun dun DUHHHH! Doctor Octopus, Spider-Man’s arch nemesis. There is a huge battle that damages the hideout, which starts to crumble under the water pressure, and drops a several-ton piece of complicated machinery onto our injured hero. As he looks up to see the mass accelerating towards him, he positions himself to occupy a niche that prevents him from being crushed, so he is left alive, injured, trapped, with the container of life-giving serum that will cure his Aunt just out of reach. The pain, the angst, the tension was unbearable, and I had to wait a whole month!
In one of the most famous visual sequences in comics, issue #33, “The Final Chapter”, opens with Spider-Man trapped by tons of metal, in agony, fretting about his poor aunt’s life hanging by a thread while her salvation lies just out of reach while the building is crumbling and the water is raining down. He talks himself out of self-pity and into heroic super-human (even for him) strength worthy of much stronger heroes, and with an inspired full page thrust, tilts the machine behind him proclaiming “I’m Free!” But there is no time for joy as the building collapses and the river rushes in, Spider-Man JUST grabbing the vial and clutching it to his chest while he rides the underground waterslide down the corridor and right into the clutches of the Planner’s men, again! More fisticuffs, as we “hear” his thoughts of desperation and resolve, until finally he is punching the air because everyone else is out cold in a heap on the ground. A quick jaunt to the hospital, where he drops off the serum and says “For May Parker” and runs away. He cannot tarry, because he is a wanted outlaw, and people misunderstand and fear him. But he’s still thinking, and goes back to take pictures of the Planner’s men to sell to Jameson, because he needs money to pay for May’s medical bills. Your basic happy ending.
There were many polls taken and personal top 10 lists published at the turn of the millennium, and I was surprised, but not really, that the “Master Planner” ranked very highly in most of them, often being “winner”, chosen as Best Comics Story ever written. I’ve also seen several articles written about the 50’s where the author also mentioned his or her affection for Fin Fang Foom as THE best representative of the “Classic Marvel Monster”. I’ve always wondered why did I just wander in to this world at the exact time that some of the best examples of the genre were created. If the first comic that I read had been Archie #143, with Betty and Veronica fighting over Archie for the 143rd time, would I have ended up a fan and store owner years later? Would I have voted for that as the greatest example of the “classic red-haired nerd with TWO hot girlfriends genre”? It would have stiff competition, because by then there were about 20 comics a month with the same plot: Archie, Betty and Veronica, Archie at Riverdale High, Jughead, Reggie. Archie’s Jokes (because the rest of them didn’t have any!), and on and on ad infinitum, etc. If I had bought the newest Batman and Robin fighting the Joker in a room full of giant props from a movie set instead of Spider-Man #31 at the corner drug store, would it have had the same effect? There are people who like that kind of Batman story (there is a bit of a following for the Batman-and-the-Giant-something genre!), but it rarely rises to the level of favorite story of all time on more than one person’s list. Being part of the baby boom and riding Marvel’s success is definitely part of it. If I had been born ten years earlier, at the time I was making life decisions, there would have been very little opportunity, and I would have been a LONELY pioneer in trying to open up a comic store at the same age. Ten years later, and I would have been one of hundreds, or thousands, who did exactly the same thing in the 80’s comics boom, which actually did happen all around me, the “veteran”.
The title of the first issue in this story was called “If This Be My Destiny…”. Stan Lee was never one to let modesty or reserve get in his way and such grand, overarching drama was present in almost every issue he wrote for that entire decade, probably 2000 or more stories! But in this one case, for yours truly, for better or for worse, the second part of that title was, So Be It!