From Monsters to Superheroes

Fantastic Four #4

In 1962 when Fred Hembeck was nine years old he puzzled over the cover of Fantastic Four #4 (a Jack Kirby creation, shown  above). A superhero fan, Hembeck thought he knew the difference between good guys and bad guys: Olympian figures like Superman, Wonder Woman, the Flash were on the side of justice while twisted freaks like Braniac, Lex Luther, and Gorilla Grod were the villains. (Batman was the odd man out: a law-and-order stalwart who looked like a shadowy thug). On the cover of the Fantastic Four comic book, it was hard to distinguish between the good guys and bad. Everyone looked gnarled and angry. Who was that orange rock-like figure: a monster or a hero? (It was in fact the Thing, a testy, avuncular, and self-pitying superhero).

Young Hembeck’s puzzlement was an early sign of the cultural shift that Marvel comics was starting to introduce. Moving beyond the Apollonian heroes of the 1930s and 1940s, the creative team of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko introduced an vast array of characters who were half-heroes and half-monsters: the Thing, the Hulk, Spider-man, Dr. Strange, the X-men, the Inhumans, and the Silver Surfer. Surely part of the appeal of these characters was that they didn’t look as squeaky clean as Superman or Wonder Woman; their warped and disturbing appearance hinted at the fact that they possessed a more complex moral nature that went beyond simple derring-do.

The deformed form of these characters came from an easy-to-discover source. Before launching their superhero line in 1961, the main creators of Marvel comics had spent several years working on monster and horror stories. In comic books like Tales to Astonish and Amazing Adventures, they did a whole host of Godzilla-knock-offs such as Moomba, Torr, Sspero, and Monsteroso, giant reptilian creatures that were constantly smashing buildings and trying to take over the world. (A vague Cold War fear of the exotic hangs over these stories; these creatures are often shape-shifters that can hide by passing as regular Americans, just like communist spies).

A huge heap of these tales are now available in the Amazing Fantasy Omnibus, an expense ($75) deluxe volume that reprints 15 issues of a comic book series that, like the monsters it chronicled, was constantly changing form, going from the title Amazing Adventures (issues 1-6) to Amazing Adult Fantasy (7-14) to Amazing Fantasy (15). (The title Amazing Adult Fantasy was a genuine marketing misstep: most of the readers of the series were kids and they were confused as to whether they were allowed to buy a comic book with a vaguely pornographic title). The early stories in the series were mainly Kirby-drawn monster tales but by issue #7 the predominate mode is Ditko-illustrated mystery stories, mostly fantasies with a twist ending in the Twilight Zone tradition. The last issue of the series features the first appearance of Spider-man, thus completing the transformation from monsters to superheroes.

While anything featuring Kirby and Ditko art is worth a look, it has to be said this is very much a book for hardcore fans with antiquarian tastes. Dopy and even dim-witted, the stories are mainly interesting as Ur-texts (to use a scholarly term). They contain in embryonic and primitive form many of the key elements that would later be more fully developed in Marvel’s famous line of superhero comics. More than a few of the characters and plots would later be recycled. Dr. Droom, for example, is a trial run for Dr. Strange. Monstoroso turns out to be a giant misbehaving child, a plot rehashed in a Fantastic Four story. The hypnotist-turned-criminal and the statues-that-come-to-life are also prototypes for future stories.

But the way these comics prefigure the Marvel universe isn’t just a matter of a few plotlines and characters: there is also the overall feel of monsters and menace. Reading these stories, it’s clear that Lee, Kirby and Ditko took the villains of their earlier work and turned them into heroes. That was a shrewd move based on the recognition that monsters are not just symbols of evil but also characters that evoke sympathy and fellow-feeling. There’s a real pathos to classic monsters like the Frankenstein creature or King Kong.

It was the genius of Marvel comics to realize that there is something heroic about sci-fi monsters. When the Hulk tears apart a city, part of us thrills at the destruction and venting of rage. Fear and pity, seemingly so far apart, actually go hand in hand. The fearsome can evoke our empathy for its lonely strangeness; the pitiful provoke fear at its abject, non-normative condition. (The Marvel superhero comics didn’t just borrow from monster and mystery comics. They also took many plots from romance comics as well as other genres. In some ways, the appeal of Marvel comics was that they didn’t stay within genre boundaries but mixed-and-matched different narrative traditions).

The early monster stories also shed light on the vexed question of who was responsible for writing the early Marvel comics. Stan Lee was of course the writer listed but it’s clear that the artists Kirby and Ditko came up with the plots. Lee’s main role was to write dialogue and act as an impresario, a showboat that called attention to the books through his over-sized editorial personality.

The cartoonist Seth once made an interesting point about the early Marvel monster comics.  The Kirby stories and the Ditko stories have completely different plot structures. The Kirby tales often feature a manly narrator whose nagging wife is putting him down; at the end of the story he helps defeat a monster, which convinces the wife that he’s not so bad. (It’s hard not to read these stories and think that in early 1960s, Kirby’s wife must have been ragging the cartoonist for drawing monster comics for a bottom-of-the-barrel publisher). The Ditko stories are almost all morality plays about retribution: some jerk misbehaves and gets his at the end (very similar to the Spider-man plots and the later political allegories Ditko did when he came under the influence of Ayn Rand). Kirby is all about the need to prove manliness in the face of a hostile world; Ditko’s favorite theme is cosmic vengeance, with the morally flawed getting their just desert.

The art perfectly matches these competing visions. Kirby’s Darwinian worldview comes through in his broad and expansive pen-work, with figures hurtling from one panel to the next in reckless succession, often grappling and punching each other with desperation. Ditko, by contrast, devotes his energy to his characters faces, creating a rogue gallery of morally-defective types. A cruel practical joker wears a grin of idiotic self-satisfaction, a communist dictator has the sneer of a coward enjoying his power to bully, and a corrupt businessman is endowed with an appropriately toad-like visage. Ditko is also a master of mood, so his morality stories take place in a convincingly creepy universe, shadowy places like castles and old factories where evil deeds are plotted (and punishment is swiftly executed). Kirby is all about action and survival, Ditko mood and morality.


Reading these stories, it’s clear that Stan Lee wasn’t really a hands-on writer. He was pretty much a figurehead from day one. But his role as a figurehead was important. He was the guy that came up with the goofy titles and eye-catching headlines. Amazing Adult Fantasy #9 for example carries two contradictory messages on the cover: “THE TERROR OF TIM BOO BA!” is the title of the lead story but the cover also reassures readers that this is “THE MAGAZINE THAT RESPECTS YOUR INTELLIGENCE!” (Thankfully, Lee’s hyperbolic hucksterism was humanized and tempered by its tone of shared knowingness, a wink at the readers not to take his salesman’s spiel too seriously).

Towards the tale end of the series Lee started running a letters page as a way of creating a fan base (a marketing strategy that would pay off when Marvel became primarily a superhero publisher). In Amazing Adult Fantasy #13 there is one particularly effusive letter from “Joan Boocock of Newcastle, England” which says the story “Where Walks the Ghost” is “the most heart-tugging tale I’ve ever seen in comics!” When I first read it, I thought the letter was odd. How many English girls would have been reading Amazing Adult Fantasy in 1962? Then suddenly it occurred to me: Joan Boocock is the maiden name of Stan Lee’s wife, who was born in Newcastle and married the writer in 1947. The letter was an inside job, a plant. So even at that early date, Lee was engaging in some sly self-praise.

Reading the Amazing Fantasy Omnibus is like looking at a very early silent film, where all you see are a few flickering figures jerkily shamble around. Everything is crude and primitive but you can also make out the basic components that would lead to greater things in the future.

(The cover for Fantastic Four #4 is by Jack Kirby; that of Amazing Adult Fantasy #9 by Steve Ditko.)

2 thoughts on “From Monsters to Superheroes

  1. Jeet, I think that once you find some good prints of very early silent projected at the right speed, you’ll be amazed at how much you can see of them.
    When one sees “flickering figures jerkily shamble around”, then one is not seeing a good print projected correctly, and one needs to complain.

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