The Silver Age version of The Flash is credited as the superhero that started the chain reaction of new superheroes that have dominated the comic book scene since 1957. DC had massive successes with The Flash, then Green Lantern in 1959, followed by the Justice League of America in 1961. 1961 is also the year that Marvel decided to throw their hat in the superhero ring. To say they’ve been successful is something of an understatement!
With DC’s successes Marvel Comics decided the time was ripe to move away from the horror and sci-fi genres and get into superheroes with gusto. Jack â€œKingâ€ Kirby would be on hand as artist for most of Marvel’s epochal forays into the superhero genre, but Stan â€œThe Manâ€ Lee would play a part in each and every one.
1961 was the year that Marvel launched their first new superhero concept with The Fantastic Four. As characters the F.F. were revolutionary at the time, and so well conceived that they are as appealing and contemporarily viable today, as that they were more than 40 years ago when they launched.
1962 saw the debut of another character, that for all of the success that the F.F. has had, has truly become an icon that has risen far above his comic book roots. Spider-Man first appeared in Amazing Fantasy #15 in August of that year. Spidey’s rise to popularity has taken him to a level that, in my mind, has only been reached by two other comic charactersâ€”Superman and Batmanâ€”where he must be considered one of the most widely known characters in all of pop culture!
The launch of Amazing Spider-Man and Fantastic Four began a chain reaction that swept through the entire industry, raising the bar for all other characters and changing comic books forever. So, travel with me now, if you will, as I recount the Silver Age period of two of the greatest concepts in comic book history.
THE FANTASTIC FOUR
The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby set the precedent for lengthy collaborations with their work on Fantastic Four. The duo worked together for the first 104 issues of the series, uninterrupted. What you see in any of the FF books today is because of the work of Lee and Kirby. They defined the four titular characters and the myriad villains and supporting players that the book has produced. Not to mention creating an all-new type of comic that featured more realistic relationships and a group of heroes that (gasp) did not hide their affairs from the world behind secret identities.
I’m not going to waste a lot of time recounting just who is in the Fantastic Four. The team is made up of Reed Richards (known as Mr. Fantastic), who with his elastic powers and brilliant mind goes far beyond any scientist we’d seen before. His love interest, who would later become his wife, is Sue Storm (Invisible Woman), who’s more than just a damsel in distress, as she has the power that her name suggests. Sue’s brother Johnny (Marvel’s second Human Torch) is the volatile and often infantile member of the team. Last, but not least, is Ben Grimm (Thing), Reed’s friend who although turned into the unattractive giant of rock, is really the soul of the team with his massiveâ€”literally and figurativelyâ€”heart.
In the debut issue of Fantastic Four these imaginauts, as they have become known, embarked on a space flight Reed’s design. The flight could have been a tragedy as they were exposed to cosmic rays, which instead of killing them granted each their signature powers. This idea of journeying off into space of their own volition seems a bit hackneyed in this day and age, and it’s easily understood why Marvel has changed this aspect a great deal in their new series Ultimate Fantastic Four. Yet, that is only aspect of the F.F. that I’d call hackneyed!
Villains that have stood the test of time are one main feature of the Kirby/Lee F.F. run. Dr. Doom was introduced in Fantastic Four #5 and has become the epitome of everything that the Fantastic Four fought against, and today is one of the biggest villains the Marvel Universe still offers. His feud with the F.F. is a personal vendetta that has seen Doom match intellect with Reed and brawn with the other members. Anytime Doom is involved in an F.F. story there is an additional buzz of excitement. He, like the F.F. is another all-time great creation we can thank Lee/Kirby for!
Cutting Edge Creativity
It seems that Lee and Kirby’s collaboration could do no wrong with Fantastic Four. As the years moved on they introduced another level of hero/villain to the Marvel stable, the â€œCosmicâ€ powered characters. With the additions of Galactus, Silver Surfer, and The Watcher there was an entirely new bent for the Marvel Universe characters to engage in.
When Sue Storm and Reed Richards married in 1965 (Fantastic Four Annual #3) it signaled a major change for characters of the comic, and something that was quite new to the medium. Lasting change has never been a cornerstone of the industry, especially in the Silver Age. Kirby and Lee actually topped themselves in 1968 (Fantastic Four Annual #6) when the Reed and Sue had a child named Franklin. These were permanent changes and enhancements to the family structure of a book that has thrived on that family connection.
There have been times over the past 40 odd years that it appeared the F.F. were seeing other real changes that would hold for all time. Yet, the fact that Franklin Richards, after nearly 40 years is still just a â€œlittle guyâ€ shows where most of that changes has gone.
The â€œappearance of changeâ€ or a return to status quo, have always been the order of the day in comics. There have been times when it looked like change could never be rescinded, but in the comic industry very few characters haven’t returned to their status quo. The F.F. remains one of the lords of Marvel’s Kingdom and they’re never going to change. Of course, would you really want them to?
THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN
Does whatever a spider can!
Spider-Man made his debut in Amazing Fantasy #15 in 1962. After the success of Fantastic Four, Marvel began shifting gears from other genres and going-for-it with a superhero stable of characters. Amazing Fantasy was cancelled with the 15th issue, but there was such a demand for the last character to grace its pages, that early in 1963 Amazing Spider-Man was born.
Peter Parker was a nerd that didn’t have many friends. While taking in the sites at a local Science Fair, Peter was bitten by a radioactive spider and a great metamorphosis began. A metamorphosis that was a lot like puberty, only with long underwear, wall-crawling, a couple of smoking hot chicks, and spiders!
The origin of Spider-Man and his mantra of, â€œWith great power, comes great responsibilityâ€ are well known staples of the character. His stumbling teenage self was easily relatable to most youths of the time, and is the reason that so many people have latched onto the character through the years. Peter Parker was further heightened as a character by becoming a tragic figure, because he shirked the responsibility his powers brought, thus causing the death of his Uncle Ben.
On Amazing Spider-Man Stan Lee collaborated with another comic legend, Steve Ditko. The pair worked on the book together until 1966. However, Stan Lee’s time on Amazing Spider-Man was much longer. His monumental run Included issues 1-100 as well as a brief return from issue 105-114. Just about every key aspect of Peter Parker’s life you read and enjoy today found its roots during Stan Lee’s run.
The book took a slightly more believable path than most comic books of the time. Peter Parker was unpopular with his schoolmates, and had to take a job as a photographer to help his Aunt May make ends meet. Stan Lee proved his mettle with Spider-Man by always keeping the book about the characters instead of an action centered series. Sure there were great superhero confrontations, but the characterization is the reason this is seminal work.
Pain and Pleasure â€“ Spidey style
Amazing Spider-Man #14 saw the debut of the character that would become Spidey’s greatest nemesis, The Green Goblin. Stan Lee was a major innovator of the time allowing subplots and storylines to progress over the course of months and even years. It wasn’t until issues 38 & 39, under the auspices of a new penciler, and yet another legend, John Romita Sr., that Lee unveiled that Norman Osbourne was the secret identity of the Goblin.
Whenever I talk about heroes and their respective stable of villains, three always come to mind. DC’s Batman and Flash, and of course Spider-Man have the greatest villains. One way I like to measure a hero’s rogues is whether or not I feel the villain could carry a film as the main adversary. Spidey may top all other characters in that regard. Obviously we’ve got the main villains of the first two feature films, Green Goblin and Dr. Octopus (Amazing #3). Other villains from the Stan Lee era on the book that would make good film fodder are Electro (Amazing #9), Mysterio (Amazing #13), Lizard (Amazing #6), Sandman (Amazing #4), Kraven (Amazing #14). All of these characters would make a meaty prime villain in a Spidey film, and they’re all from the earliest days of the series. Sure a few of these guys would need a strong second around with them, but still, they are all strong villains which Stan Lee introduced to us and have stood the test of time.
Stan Lee was not only adept at creating villains though. He introduced myriad supporting characters over his tenure on Amazing Spider-Man. Most of which are still around in one form or another. J. Jonah Jameson, Flash Thompson, Mary Jane Watson, Gwen Stacy, and May Parker all were staples of the series during the Silver Age.
Stan Lee added to fantastic love interest for Peter Parker in the second year of Amazing Spider-Man. Although she would only be seen in obscured shots until issue #42, Mary Jane Watson made her debut in issue #25. Mary Jane’s aunt, Anna, and Pete’s Aunt May attempted for some time to get the two kids together. Unfortunately in one sense, and very fortunately in another, Peter met Gwen Stacy in issue #31, which kept Pete and M.J. apart for a long time.
Peter’s romances with both Gwen and M.J. are two of comic’s legendary pairings. Peter and Gwen would be together on and off until her death in issue #121 (written by Gerry Conway). The Green Goblin’s murder of Stacy and Spidey’s retribution the following month is the stuff of comic legend as well. Peter and M.J.’s romance took off not too long after the death of Ms. Stacy–although none of this paragraph should really into our work here, as it occurred in 1973 (technically the â€œBronze Ageâ€ of comic history). We’re talking greatness here, though, so what the hell!
Through the 60’s Peter continued to grow as a character. The character that left the decade was discernibly different than the one that started out the decade. Over that time Peter graduated High School and started going to college. As I mentioned, the 70’s saw the deaths of Gwen and The Green Goblin and the 80’s saw him tie the knot with M.J. The Spider-Man/Peter Parker character has grown some since moving into the 90s, but things usually move back to the status quo (i.e. Death of Aunt May, and Spider-Clone Saga). The last few years have seen more than a few changes again, though (i.e. Aunt May finds out Peter’s secret). As a whole though, nothing will match Stan Lee’s stories from the 60’s into the 70’s or Gerry Conway’s time on the book for world shattering change with the character.
I found this to be the most difficult column that I’ve written for Near Mint Memories so far. How exactly do you talk about Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four and lend anything new to the volumes that have been written? Most any comic fan knows their origins, villains, and the prime moments in their creation and history. I really hope you’ve found this look somewhat informative.
If you have any suggestions for future columns send them along!
The Reading Rack
Let’s make this really simple.
Essential Fantastic Four: Volumes 1-3 are available, featuring more than half of the stories that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby produced.
Essential Spider-Man: Volumes 1-6 are in print and feature every last one of Stan Lee’s stories with the character and beyond into the epochal Death of Gwen Stacy/Green Goblin time period. It’s all there, and the books are only $14.95 U.S. eachâ€”you just cannot go wrong.