1976 was a pretty good year. I was ten, buying four-colour Marvel comics voraciously; the American monthly comics (rather than just the UK weekly reprints) which were printed in runs for the UK market, being cover-priced in pence rather than cents (no idea if this meant the comics were/are worthless to collectors). It was the Bicentennial in America, something the comics were full of and which almost felt like a holiday/event for me too. Jack Kirby was drawing Captain America, full of patriotic Stars n’ Stripes and I almost felt more American than British (and of course the four-colour Anerica of the comics was a world away from living on a Council Estate in the Black Country in 1970s Britain).
Jack Kirby being back at Marvel was a big deal over the pond but I didn’t understand why, but I was loving his work on 2001: a Space Odyssey and The Eternals and the Black Panther, fantastic comics that exemplified all that was marvelous about Marvel, especially to a ten year old. It was also the year the film Logans Run came out, a film I would not see for a few years but I read the Marvel comic adaptation, which was really exciting and better than the movie, as it would turn out. Had great art by George Perez as I recall. His name is an indelible part of my childhood reading all those comics he drew for Marvel – I think he also worked on The Avengers comic and several others. Of course 1976 was the year of Howard the Duck running for president.
It was a long hot summer that year in the UK; we had a huge drought and terrible water shortages, but for a ten-year old lad it was fantastic, no rain, lots of play. The kids in my street had a fad for go-karts that summer and our parents built us go-karts; invariably deathtraps, really. Batman re-runs were on television that year and the kart my brother and I had was painted black and we called it the Batmobile. My Dad was no engineer and it was a shaking, rattling accident on over-sized pram-wheels just waiting to happen, which was a tad ironic- a lad up the street, Stuart, had a go-kart that was built like a tank, a beast of a wooden kart it looked like it would last forever, but we had an accident in it late one evening racing down a steep alley near our school entrance and he lost some of his teeth (it was the same alley down which I would later break my arm skateboarding, but that was another craze in another year). His go-kart of course was in better shape than he was. If he’d had the crash in our Batmobile it would have been in pieces everywhere, but our Batmobile actually lasted the summer, somehow, and whenever I think about the Adam West show, my thoughts often turn to that rattling Batmobile and I wonder that it didn’t kill or maim me.
So why do I write about 1976? Well, two things really. Partly it’s because I watched the Bradley Cooper/Lady Gaga film A Star is Born yesterday, which triggered a conversation regards the two earlier film incarnations from 1954 and 1976 neither of which which I’ve seen (I didn’t even realise there was an original 1937 film until I checked). My mother-in-law recalled the 1954 film starring Judy Garland very well, but other than a song I think all I remembered of the 1976 film was a review of the 1976 version commenting on the dire hands of megalomaniac star Barbra Streisand and producer boyfriend Jon Peters ruining it. The new version thankfully isn’t the disaster that 1976 film apparently is, I’ll perhaps post a review soon (A Star is Born perhaps isn’t the usual kind of film I’d watch, but it was Claire’s birthday yesterday…).
But as usual, I digress. The other thing that has me reminiscing about 1976 is that I recently read a fascinating book by Sean Howe, Marvel Comics- The Untold Story, which for an old Marvel kid like me, proved to be a sobering read, confirming all sorts of tales and comments I’d read/heard over the years. When you’re seven or ten or thirteen, you don’t care about the real-world stories behind the comics, you’re just loving the comics, but it’s pretty shocking in places what went on behind the scenes. It would make for a brilliant movie, but I doubt Marvel Studios would be keen on seeing that in multiplexes- which is a pity, it’s a very human story behind those four-colour daydreams of my childhood.
The crux of the issue is what became known as ‘the Marvel Method’ which I assume infers that those DC comics that I never read were created in some other way. How Marvel did it, was that Stan Lee, usually attributed the title of creator and writer of the comics, assigned plot summaries to artists like Jack Kirby (Fantastic Four) or Steve Ditko (Spider-Man) and they would go away to plot and pencil the comic. When this artwork returned, Lee would then write dialogue over their work. Now, when I was kid reading those UK reprints of the 1960s Spider-Man, I always assumed Lee wrote the stories in detail and that Ditko just drew what Lee thought up- but of course this was far from the truth. In penciling the layouts and pages the artist was responsible for the pacing of the narrative and the details of the heroes battles with the bad guys. Indeed, pretty much the whole actual story beyond the rough plot outline from Lee. In the case of the Fantastic Four, Jack Kirby got increasingly disheartened by being given what he saw as insufficient credit. In one often cited example, an increasingly sidetracked Lee (remember he was writer/editor of the majority of the Marvel line) gave Kirby the premise “the Fantastic Four fight God” and Kirby came back with the classic saga of Galactus the World Eater and the Silver Surfer, characters who went on to become major figures in the Marvel Universe, in an epic story that still gives me tingles thinking back on it (it’ll be a great movie one day, no doubt).
Like Kirby, Ditko (something of an odd character himself, truth be told) got into an increasingly bitter feud with Lee over his work on the title and left the Amazing Spider-Man comic and Marvel altogether – Ditko’s run on the comic regarded as the classic defining run of the comics history. Lee of course would continue to be considered the creator of Spider Man and the web-slinger would go on to make Marvel a fortune, and millions for the film studio when the later films came out… but not for Ditko.
Kirby had long battles with Lee and Marvel for recognition of his own work in creating stories and characters, and this long-running saga is infamous in the industry. Marvel treated artists as ‘work for hire’ and held that their art was owned by the company- by the late 1960s it became increasingly obvious that the real value of the artwork wasn’t actually in the comics but was in the licensing and merchandising of the content of the comics, revenue that Marvel earned but the artists didn’t. Kirby fought for years to get his artwork back, seeing it used on tee-shirts and toys and other merchandise and himself not earning a dime. Disney later bought Marvel for $4 billion and would go on to make billions of dollars from a line of movies based directly on Jack Kirby’s work of the 1960s.
The thing that struck me most though from reading the book- whatever the details of his creator credentials, it’s clear that Stan Lee saw the future for Marvel’s roster of superheroes, and it resided in Hollywood, and the movies we watch today. He spent years out in LA trying to get studios onboard with making films of Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four etc. All of the 1970s, pretty much, and into the 1980s. The studios just didn’t get it. Ironic, now, considering how much the Marvel Studios output is dominating the movie industry (news broke this past weekend that Avengers: Endgame may finally have surpassed Avatar at the global box office and become the biggest film of all time). I suppose that film technology had to catch up with the wild four-colour fantasies of those Marvel artists. But Stan Lee saw it. For years he just couldn’t sell it. He must have felt so vindicated after all those years when they took over the world’s cineplexes.
Sean Howe’s book is a great read and I recommend it to anyone even mildly interested in the real history of Marvel and its creations. For readers of those comics, especially those of the 1960s and 1970s, the book is essential reading.