Marvel Comics in the 1960s: An Issue by Issue Field Guide to a Pop Culture Phenomenon
by Pierre Comtois
Potential thwarted, true believer! With a front cover emblazoned with the promise/tease “Field Guide to a Pop Culture Phenomenon” and a back cover strewn with snaps of Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Stan Lee, and Barry Windsor Smith, one would be forgiven for expecting a tome full of history and insider gossip of the Marvel offices/braintrust during their first, and most important, decade of comics production. A decade that saw the gradual shift of the company away from horror and Western titles to full-on superhero action, the creation of Spider Man and the Fantastic Four, Steve Ditko’s acrimonious departure from Marvel, Jim Steranko’s brief splash, the blooming and decay of the Jack Kirby-Stan Lee creative partnership, need I go on? Their week was your year, and so their decade would be… well, y’know.
Unfortunately, that’s not what this is about. The premise, though somewhat of a let-down initially, is intriguing. Comtois touches on the creative personalities who drove the so-called House of Ideas early on, with page-long capsule biographies on names mentioned in the first paragraph as well as the likes of Don Heck, Gene Colan, Marie Severin, and John Romita. The bulk of the book, however, is a selection of (according to Comtois) epochal Marvel issues/titles presented chronologically that (also according to Comtois) best represent the evolution of Marvel Comics. Comtois breaks down the first ten years of Marvel into three phases — the early formative years, the years of consolidation, and the grandiose years — and then describes the comics that best epitomize each phase of Marvel. He chooses the obvious titles that you pretty much have to (Fantastic Four 1, Avengers 3, etc), but I find his more idiosyncratic choices (Daredevil 42, Tales To Astonish 70) make for more interesting reading. While it’s somewhat diverting to play armchair quarterback with Comtois’ choices and revisit the classic Marvel canon, the writing does leave much to be desired. Sometimes I feel like I’m reading a particularly hyperbolic Marvel letters page from the ’70s. Comtois takes weirdly disjointed (and copious) potshots at DC (“You wouldn’t read this in the Distinguished Competition”), cheerleads nearly every issue as “a classic,” seems to have an axe to grind against Jack Kirby, and continually restates his organizing thesis in the manner of an academic paper. Despite that, I do hope his promised book on ’70s Marvel comes out just so that I can read discussions of Dracula and Steve Englehart’s Captain America.