Today Panel Surfing gets to chat with the author of one of my favorite books on the history of Marvel Comics. Pierre Comtois wrote an endearing study of the early years of the Marvel Age in Marvel Comics In The 1960’s and discusses that book along with news of the sequel.
Jason Versaggi: Where did your passion for the source material of your book come from?
Pierre Comtois: Believe it or not, that’s a more difficult question to answer than you might think. The easy answer is that I grew up on them when I was a kid in the mid to late 1960s. An older boy in the neighborhood introduced me to Marvel comics around 1964…the first comic I ever bought was Spider-man #14…and I was hooked. After that began long years of trying to scrape enough money together to buy the 6 or 7 Marvels I wanted every month. At first it was the characters and the stories that grabbed me but as I became more discerning, I began to differentiate among the artists and soon, I could tell them apart and had my favorites. In high school, my tastes began to shift away from Marvel’s flagship titles to the more eclectic stuff led by Conan the Barbarian. As the years passed, my enthusiasm for the medium never diminished so that to this day I find that I enjoy rereading the comics in my collection as much as I ever did. However, my interest in the latest comics has slowed down since the 1980s and I find little these days that appeals to me the way comics did from the 1960s to the 1980s. My enthusiasm was such that I was still in high school when I first decided that I wanted to write a book about Marvel Comics. I’d written a paper for a psychology class about how comics weren’t just for kids anymore and that, I think, proved to be the catalyst. When I got the paper back from the teacher, every bit of white space on the title page was covered in his red ink scribblings gushing about my paper and promising a high grade for it! I got a vague idea then about maybe expanding the theme of that paper into a whole book. Not that things turned out that way, only that it was a catalyst.
JV: When were you first exposed to comics and more specifically Marvel?
Pierre: Although this neighborhood kid introduced me to Marvel, I recall that he had a stack of comics that included as many DCs as Marvels. Forget now if he recommended the Marvels over the DCs or if that was my own taste/choice…he probably did. Later, I had a cousin who loved comics too but was less discerning in his tastes. He bought everything from Thor to Sad Sack and I was able to catch up on titles like the Metal Men and Sgt Rock by borrowing stuff from him to read. One thing I did learn through that reading though was that DC didn’t do it for me!
JV: Were comics a big part of your youth and did they influence or foster a love of reading?
Pierre: When I was a kid, a lot of my time revolved around comics in one way or another. Specifically, I had to find ways to earn the money I needed to buy my favorite comics. I started by collecting returnable bottles and later walking a paper route to earn money I needed. At first I had a friend who was just as interested as I was but he soon got out of comics so I was left alone to scour my hometown on my trusty bike going from store to store looking for all the issues that I knew came out in a certain week. Although I’d developed an interest in reading before comics (I devoured the Tom Swift and Tarzan series, read a lot of books on WWII and my former comics reading buddy and I still shared an interest in science fiction) what they did was introduce me to new literary avenues to pursue such as Robert E. Howard from the Conan comic, Bram Stoker from Tomb of Dracula, or Sax Rohmer from Master of Kung Fu.
JV: I often say Stan Lee is the 1b to Walt Disney’s 1a for who had the greatest contribution to American Pop Culture. What similarities do you see between the two imagineers? What made Stan such a visionary in the medium and how did he create such non-story related significance with the fans?
Pierre: Stan and Disney make for an interesting comparison in that both created entertainment empires based on creations from their own imaginations. But I’m not sure if the comparison can go too far. Disney seemed driven by his desire to create and use the medium of film to give his creations as wide a venue as possible. Stan on the other hand, hasn’t struck me as being terribly interested in writing comics before the Marvel age. I think it was just a job to him before that. His real interest lay in more acceptable media such as book publication…this feeling of media inferiority seemed to stay with him even into later life when he absconded to Hollywood as soon as he could get away. In between of course, he helped to create the Marvel universe as we know it. Obviously he had the talent for it and his skill as an editor and art editor was an indispensable part of that success. However, a key factor in his success was a chumminess with readers and the ability of not taking what Marvel was doing too seriously, attitudes that he likely picked up from EC Comics. Stan emulated that making fans feel like they were part of a special club whose members were in the know.
JV: If Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko were the innovators of the Marvel Universe who were the most important artists doing the yeoman’s work? Who was next most indispensible to Stan in constructing the Marvel Universe?
Pierre: For the early years, that’s easy: Don Heck! But beyond those early years there were artists like John Buscema, John Romita, and Gene Colan who no doubt helped but I think, were less involved in outright innovation than Kirby and Ditko were. The real indispensable man was a writer, Roy Thomas. I think he even more than Stan, took this new Marvel universe seriously as a coherent, interconnected entity. Where Stan could be a bit lackadaisical about continuity, Roy made it an overriding concern. He wrote stories to fill gaps in the history as much as to entertain in their own right. He brought a serious, deliberate intent to keeping things straight where Stan may never have thought too much about it.
JV: Had he not died in that tragic train accident, would Joe Maneely have been one of the founding creators of the Marvel Age of Comics? Would his style have lent itself to this new universe?
Pierre: That’s hard to say, at least to my mind. His style was nothing like Kirby or Ditko’s. But if Heck could adapt then why not Maneely? But to me, his style seemed overly rendered, dark, and ultimately stiff. There didn’t seem to be too much attempt at breaking out of the six panel grid etc. So I don’t know how Maneely would have fit in. Maybe he would have been sidelined to the dying western comics or become mainly an inker.
JV: You examine nearly every major issue and story in the Silver Age of Marvel in Marvel Comics In The 1960’s. What were your top 5 favorite stories?
Pierre: My top five storylines were Amazing Spider-Man #s 17-19 because it encompassed everything that made Marvel so fascinating to a kid in the 1960s; FF #s 48-50 for the Galactus trilogy that opened up the Marvel universe to well…the whole universe!; FF #51 because it expressed all of the high flown ideals that were embodied in Marvel in the 1960s, it’s optimism about people and the country; Sgt. Fury #13 because it was an epic length but single issue story that perfectly captured Cap and Bucky with art and story by Stan the Man and King Kirby!; Avengers #32-33 because it featured Don Heck pencils and inks on a cautionary story that was quintessentially Marvel…something you’d never see the competition doing at the time; FF Annual #6: “Let There Be Life!” whose message again encapsulated Marvel’s values including that of respect for all human life, no matter how small or helpless. A message that seems wholly absent from today’s comics.
JV: A number of years ago Roy Thomas’ Alter Ego Magazine looked at what might have been had Jack Kirby continued to draw The Incredible Hulk past issue #6. Why do you think the Hulk failed to catch on with readers right away? What makes the character such an enduring creation today?
Pierre: I think it failed in those first six issues because neither Stan nor Jack had a clear idea of what to do with the character. His personality and behavior changed with nearly every story. Later, when Stan teamed with Ditko on the strip for Tales to Astonish, ground rules were established that gave readers points of reference that they could rely upon from issue to issue. Also, the serial format helped new stories progress naturally from previous ones. Aside from that, the character is such a limited one, I can’t for the life of me figure out why it has continued to be popular all these years!
JV: Who is your favorite Marvel character or title to come out of the 1960’s Marvel Age of Comics?
Pierre: Spider-Man. When I was a kid, I immediately identified with his loner status and his apparently endless list of problems! The strip also had many interesting supporting characters (including the Torch who was far more interesting here than he was over at the FF!), real world problems, colorful villains, and intricate plotting.
JV: In your book Marvel Comics In The 1960’s one of the Jack Kirby devices you took about is his use of the larger 4 panel page. What do you think is his most important contribution to the medium for advancing a story?
Pierre: In terms of Hollywood, Kirby was about 40 years ahead of his time. For example, today’s movies are shot and edited at a much faster pace than they were in the golden age of Hollywood. The viewer isn’t allowed to hardly catch his breath, pick up plot points, or get to know the characters before the action barrels along to a thrilling, often over the top FX laden climax. That’s all pure silver age Kirby who did the same thing. It was what differentiated his comics from those of Ditko or Heck say. Kirby’s characters were constantly in motion, his stories never stopped long enough for character development of sub-plots; they carried you along like a roller coaster to their final, furious conclusion!
JV: I have always had an affinity for some of the lesser known contributions to the Marvel Age such Sgt. Fury and the trio of Western heroes. What do you think about some of the unsung creators from this period?
Pierre: If you’re looking for some comment on unsung artists of the Marvel age I would point out the number of fill in artists who worked on the Giant-Man strip in Astonish. Dick Ayers and Bob Powell are two that come to mind. They weren’t very good…or at least not on super heroes, but I do have a soft spot for the relatively awkward jobs they turned on the strip. Or Dick Ayers and Carl Burgos on the Torch strip in Strange Tales.
JV: What can you share about your upcoming follow-up book to Marvel Comics In The 1960’s?
Pierre: It’ll be called Marvel Comics in the 1970s: An Issue by Issue Field Guide to a Pop-Culture Phenomenon and will follow exactly the same format as the first volume. It will cover what I’ve termed the twilight years that extend through the 1970s an era in which the flagship titles took a back seat to newer more offbeat features. Actually, the whole project was conceived as a single book but the publisher, TwoMorrows Pubs, decided it would have been too big so divided it at roughly the half way point which was the end of the grandiose years. The new volume will be available in May, 2011.
JV: Will there be a third installment of your study of Marvel Comics?
Pierre: No, this is it.
JV: Are you planning on ever tackling the Distinguished Competition?
Pierre: No. Besides not being very enthusiastic about the subject, I don’t feel I’m qualified.
JV: How have you come up with such great art and images for your books? Do you own any original comic art?
Pierre: All credit for the images has to go to TwoMorrows and its staff, particularly layout man supreme Rich Fowlkes who has been great to work with. I made up a dream list of the kinds of illustrations I’d like to see in the book from Marvel pages to historical photos and he’s bent over backwards to accommodate me. And if he can’t find what I want, he makes his own suggestions that usually turn out to be exactly what I would have picked. Unfortunately, I don’t own any original art…I’ve preferred to spend my hard earned shekels on buying the comics themselves! The new book though, will feature quite a few original art pages reproduced from the pencils.
JV: As we move further away from the printed comic book and more and more is available digitally to a wider, younger audience do you think that one day comics – especially the Silver Age Marvel canon – will be studied as a truly great contribution to our literary culture and break through the pop culture barrier?
Pierre: I used to think so but not so much anymore (see that high school psychology paper I mention above). I think it’s limited by the very nature of its format i.e. little pictures accompanied by word balloons. There was a brief instant of time in the 1980s with Frank Miller’s Batman Returns and Alan Moore’s Watchmen when it seemed the outside world was about to embrace comics as an art form suitable for adults, but that Prague Spring seems to have fallen by the wayside. Today, the comic stores are flooded with pretty much juvenile fare more suitable for youths but not for grownups. Silver age comics, particularly Marvel, I think will retain a certain pop culture cache, but beyond that, I don’t think anyone is going to take Marvel Zombies or Crisis VI very seriously.
You can keep up with Pierre online here and be sure to look for Pierre’s new book Marvel Comics In The 1970’s this May from TwoMorrows. Don’t forget to pick up the first installment Marvel Comics In The 1960’s now to get all caught up on the story thus far. Excelsior!