MARVEL MYSTERIES: The Hidden History of the House of Ideas

Jack Kirby self portrait
Jack Kirby self portrait
Credit: Jack Kirby

Today, we think of mighty Marvel Comics as just that—mighty.

But back in its earliest days, it was a fledgling publisher, distributed by its chief rival (!), flailing about and trying to make a mark.

And when every day at the office is triage, not everyone takes the time to write down the history. That’s why many bits of the early days of Marvel have the hint of legend about them. Many mileposts are fuzzy, and many bits of history are known to few people, if anyone at all.

Here are a few, including this first one, which the world might be hearing about for the first time.


TWO MONTHS AFTER FANTASTIC FOUR #1, MARVEL RELEASED NO COMICS IN OCTOBER, 1961

Credit: Zach Pennington

The Marvel Universe kicked off on August 8, 1961 with Fantastic Four #1. Around the new FF, a usual slate of titles such as Millie the Model, Tales of Suspense, and Gunsmoke Western were doing their thing. But a mere two months after FF #1, there were NO new Marvel comics for the month!

We’re all very familiar with comic book cover dates, and we should be equally familiar with the mirage that they are. They’re more accurately “pull dates.” FF #1 came out in August, but had a November cover date, as that’s when a new issue should be reaching stands. Newsstand vendors would “pull” the old issue in November, and a new FF should have been arriving to replace it.

So cover dates are not ship dates. The Library of Congress tracks ship dates on periodicals, and the folks at Mike’s Amazing World of Comics mirror those historical dates on their website. There were plenty of Marvel offerings that shipped in September and November, 1961, but check the record—none in October! Here’s what happened:

Credit: Zach Pennington

August, 1961 was a five ship-week month. Marvel had a healthy slate of 17 titles that month. September was a double-ship month, with two issues of Strange Tales, Tales of Suspense, and Tales to Astonish all hitting. Marvel was limited at the time by their distributor to eight books a month—which they chose to implement as 16 bimonthlies—and October was likely a “cool down” month in which Marvel got back in line with (or closer to) the distributor guidelines.

“Typically in those days, Marvel only released books on two weeks out of the month, and it looks like in this case the first release date [for October] wound up being at the very tail end of September,” says Marvel SVP and Executive Editor Tom Brevoort. “It looks to me like the September 28th-shiping titles were actually the ones earmarked for October release, and for some reason they only did one ship week this month.”

The comics business—not just Marvel’s business—was slipshod in those days. Despite the fact that Marvel was supposed to be under that 8/16 title count restriction in 1961, Marvel’s Publisher, Martin Goodman pushed the envelope wherever he could (see charts). “Martin was a hustler, and hustlers hustle,” Brevoort says.

But even though Goodman was pushing everywhere, strangely and likely due to a vagary of the calendar and ship dates, a nascent Marvel had no new comics out for the month of October, 1961.
 

AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #1 AND #2 WERE SUPPOSED TO BE AMAZING FANTASY #16 AND #17

Credit: Marvel Comics

Seven months later in the ship month of June, 1962, the FF were joined by Marvel’s newest superhero, Spider-Man. Spidey made his debut in Amazing Fantasy #15 in an 11-page story filled with origin and tragedy. Three backup stories rounded out the issue. It was the final issue for the title.

It was still the early days of Marvel superheroes. Marvel had debuted the Incredible Hulk in March of ’62, and even test-ballooned Hank Pym (not yet Ant-Man) in September 1961’s Tales to Astonish #27. Only FF and (sometimes) Hulk were getting book-length stories, as most Marvel books were of the Amazing Fantasy or Tales to Astonish variety—a lead feature followed by a backup or two.

And that was also the plan for Spider-Man.

“Spider-Man was supposed to be a running thing in Amazing Fantasy,” Tom Brevoort says. “Martin canceled the book, but kept the character.”

Sure enough, when Amazing Spider-Man #1 hit in December, 1962, it featured a 14-page lead story bolstered by a new 10-page Spidey backup. ASM #2 followed the same pattern.

“That’s the reason there are two stories in the first two issues of Amazing Spider-Man for what looks like no good reason,” Brevoort says. “Those two stories were there for what was planned for Amazing Fantasy #16 and #17, but they were too long to combine into the same issue. So Stan reached out to [artist Steve] Ditko, and they did the Chameleon story for the back half of #1, and the Tinkerer for the second half of #2.”


THOR WAS SUPPOSED TO BE A ONE-AND-DONE

June, 1962 was a magic month at Marvel. The mighty Thor (or maybe Thorr, who knew?) also made his debut, in Journey into Mystery #83. And even Marvel didn’t know this would become another ongoing superhero concern.

“The first Thor story was produced as a one-off, the pilot for a series,” Brevoort says. “At the last minute, they decided to continue with it as a full-on series.”

Copies of the original art show a final panel asking readers to write in if they’d like to see more Thor. But the actual published version proudly proclaims that “Thorr the Mighty, the greatest new super-hero of all time, will appear regularly in Journey into Mystery!”

Curiously, Marvel misspelled “Thorr” in the final panel, even after getting it right everywhere else in the story. Marvel knew its heroes were starting to click, even if it couldn’t spell them right every time.


WE KNOW JOE SINNOTINKED THE FIRST THOR STORY BECAUSE OF LUNCH

Stan Lee and Marvel Comics were amazingly progressive when it came to issuing credits. When many publishers weren’t crediting anyone, or maybe a writer or penciler at best, Marvel was crediting talent right down the letterer and the colorist. But alas, this practice didn’t start until about September of 1962. Woe be unto the creators of the first appearance of Thor in June, 1962.

The Thor story in Journey into Mystery #83 contained no credits at all! Jack Kirby’s art is easy to spot, and Stan Lee wrote profusely in 1974’s Origins of Marvel Comics about the book’s writers—Lee plotted it, with Larry Lieber scripting. But the inker remained a mystery until a fortunate lunch in 1991.

“It happened completely by accident,” Tom Brevoort says. “Joe came by here for his ‘retirement’ lunch. After lunch, I mentioned I was putting together the first Thor Masterworks volume, and he said, ‘Oh, by the way, I inked that first Thor story. There’s no credit on it, but I did it.’ He wasn’t looking for money, or even for a credit, but as soon as he said it, I looked back at the art, and it was so apparent. How could I have not known that was Joe’s inking? Once you’ve got the piece of information, you can immediately see the style.”

Brevoort refers to Sinnott’s “retirement” jokingly, as at age 91, he’s still a prolific artist. But circa 1991, Marvel erroneously credited the Journey into Mystery #83 inks to Dick Ayers, largely because Ayers was inking so much of Kirby’s output at the time.

“Marvel previously credited it to Jack Kirby and Dick Ayers,” Sinnott says. “But I told Tom, ‘You know, I inked that. I inked the cover, and I also inked the cover to Journey into Mystery #84.’ He was surprised and promised me that I’d get credit going forward.”

Joe Sinnott retirement party photo courtesy Tom Brevoort/Marvel Comics.<br> FRONT ROW: Barry Dutter, Ralph Macchio, George Roussos, Tom DeFalco, Joe Sinnott, Jack Abel, Al Milgrom<br>BACK ROW: Tom Brevoort, Bob Budiansky, Nel Yomtov, Mike Rockwitz, Mark Gruenwald, Carl Potts, Virginia Romita, Renee Witterstaetter, John Romita
Joe Sinnott retirement party photo courtesy Tom Brevoort/Marvel Comics.
FRONT ROW: Barry Dutter, Ralph Macchio, George Roussos, Tom DeFalco, Joe Sinnott, Jack Abel, Al Milgrom
BACK ROW: Tom Brevoort, Bob Budiansky, Nel Yomtov, Mike Rockwitz, Mark Gruenwald, Carl Potts, Virginia Romita, Renee Witterstaetter, John Romita
Joe Sinnott retirement party photo courtesy Tom Brevoort/Marvel Comics.
FRONT ROW: Barry Dutter, Ralph Macchio, George Roussos, Tom DeFalco, Joe Sinnott, Jack Abel, Al Milgrom
BACK ROW: Tom Brevoort, Bob Budiansky, Nel Yomtov, Mike Rockwitz, Mark Gruenwald, Carl Potts, Virginia Romita, Renee Witterstaetter, John Romita


THE X-MEN AND DAREDEVIL WERE SUPPOSED TO BE THE NEW SPIDER-MAN AND FANTASTIC FOUR

Credit: Marvel Comics

Picture these early days of Marvel. Superheroes are new again, and things are starting to click. What’s the easiest thing to do? More of what’s working.

“By mid-1963, Martin [Goodman] basically said, ‘I want another Fantastic Four, I want another Spider-Man.’ That’s what’s selling; the bread and butter,” Tom Brevoort says. “And that’s what X-Men and Daredevil are intended to be. And if you look at the first issues in particular, that’s really what you see.”

Marvel sold it hard. The X-Men #1 cover proclaims that the book is “In the sensational Fantastic Four style!” Daredevil works even harder, with a #1 cover that asks “Remember when we introduced Spider-Man? Now we continue the Mighty Marvel tradition with Daredevil!” The FF also make a cover appearance (even though they don’t appear in the book at all!) and the Thing makes a guest-star appearance in #2.

The similarities are more than cover-deep. Bullpen Bulletins of the day announced the new solo hero with “His name is Daredevil, and we believe he will have the same human appeal that Spider-Man has!”

“The X-Men were a team, in identical costumes, more of less the same kind of mix as the FF,” Brevoort says. “Even the cover is similar with all the characters showing their powers. Daredevil was supposed to be another Spider-Man, a hero at kind of ground-level, cracking wise and swinging over the city and fighting bad guys. That’s why those two books exist.”

Roy Thomas was an early comics historian, and joined Marvel in July, 1965 as Stan Lee’s first assistant editor under the Marvel banner. He sees the genesis as the same, and even goes a step deeper.

“Goodman wanted a new solo hero and a new group,” Thomas says. “The funny thing is that X-Men is actually FF crossed with Spidey—a group of heroes all of whom have teenage angst.”


OKAY. AND AVENGERS EXISTS BECAUSE DAREDEVIL WAS LATE!

Credit: Marvel Comics

The X-Men and Daredevil were supposed to debut at the same time. The X-Men made the date on July 2, 1963. Daredevil did not. So a new assemblage was called upon.

Avengers exists because [Daredevil artist] Bill Everett had a drinking problem and a day job at a greeting card company, and they didn’t have the book done on time,” Tom Brevoort says. “They had the press time reserved, and in those days, if you had the press reserved, you were going to pay regardless if you printed anything or not.”

A mad dash ensued. Stan Lee brainstormed, and made a call to Jack Kirby. They did a team book, with all pre-existing characters, and even a pre-existing villain in Loki to minimize prep time.

“And if you look at Avengers #1, it looks like it was inked in about five minutes,” Brevoort says. “All due respect to Dick Ayers, but that was because it was running late right from the jump. It was there to replace Daredevil.”

Slapped together at the last minute, Avengers #1 shared that same July 2, 1963 ship date with X-Men #1.

And Daredevil #1 was still a mess behind the curtain. Bill Everett is credited as both the penciler and inker, but Sol Brodsky and Steve Ditko pitched in with a large amount of uncredited inking and even background penciling on the first issue.

The pain even seeped through into Bullpen Bulletins, Stan’s always-sunshiny page of Marvel news. Bulletins items told readers that “Putting that thing out was like a comedy of errors…We missed our first deadline…We did the cover over a zillion times! Some day we may write a book about all the problems involved.” Daredevil #1 eventually limped on to stands on Feb. 4, 1964, seven months late.

Part of the long delay was probably building some buffer time so that future issues wouldn’t run late. Sure enough, Bill Everett lasted just one issue, and Joe Orlando was installed as the artist for Daredevil #2-#4.


STAN LEE WANTED TO DO TWO BOOKS ‘HIS’ WAY. ONE AND HALF WORKED.

Again, the story is legend: The Marvel age of comics started when Stan Lee, after 22 years in the business, was worn out. He was going to quit comics, fed up with the fact that his publisher, Martin Goodman, wanted rote fare aimed at a school-age crowd. Stan’s wife, Joan, encouraged Stan to try just one book his way, with greater depth and characterization, and the Fantastic Four was born.

But Stan did another book “his way” well.

Amazing Adult Fantasy was, in many ways, very much a companion piece to FF. The title started with a six-issue run as Amazing Adventures, but in August 1961, the same month that FF #1 hit, it morphed with a new title.

Lee wrote in 1974’s Origins of Marvel Comics that he was looking to “upgrade the stories as much as possible” in AAF. He aimed the shocker, twist endings at a more adult crowd. Lee knew what he was trying to accomplish with the FF, and he tried to accomplish the same in Amazing Adult Fantasy. The books were promoted together in house ads, and even had the same type treatment in the logos.

“Sol Brodsky designed that Fantastic Four logo,” says Roy Thomas, speaking of Marvel’s longtime production manager. “Probably not that exact lettering; that was probably Artie Simek or someone. But he was very proud of that.”

And Amazing Adult Fantasy turned out to be something to be proud of as well. The “adult” format didn’t click all too well, so title changed once again, becoming plain ol’ Amazing Fantasy for its 15th and final issue, an issue that just happened to contain the first ever appearance of Spider-Man.

Cover dates and ship dates graphs by Zach Pennington

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