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July 08, 2012

Spider-Man at 50: The strange tale of ‘Amazing Fantasy’

Posted in: Comics

amazing fantasy 15 a grim moment Spider Man at 50: The strange tale of Amazing Fantasy

A key panel from “Amazing Fantasy” No. 15. (Marvel Comics)

These are days of silver and gold for Spider-Man. This week he returned to the silver screen in director Marc Webb’s “The Amazing Spider-Man” and next month he celebrates his golden anniversary — it will be 50 years since “Amazing Fantasy” No. 15 introduced a character who would become the gold-standard creation of the silver age.

The new film takes its title from a slab of Marvel bedrock: “The Amazing Spider-Man” was the name of the series that began in 1963 with No. 1 and is now closing in on issue No. 700. But what was the deal with “Amazing Fantasy”? How did the 15th and final issue of a series with something of tin-bucket heritage end up with a holy grail character that would revolutionize comics and define the Marvel brand of melodrama? It’s an elusive question, in a way, because that No. 15 glows so bright that the previous 14 issues  is a deep, dark shadow for most collectors.

amazing adult fantasy 71 Spider Man at 50: The strange tale of Amazing Fantasy

“Amazing Adult Fantasy” No. 7 (Marvel)

The title kept changing names, for one thing, which is never a good sign. The creative team at Marvel’s soon-to-be-famous House of Ideas was looking for anything that might stick. “Amazing Adventures” for its first six issues, the title switched to “Amazing Adult Fantasy” for the next eight (and no it wasn’t that kind of adult fantasy). Like a weary con man, after No. 15 the series stopped using aliases, put its hands up and went off to the long-box penitentiary; visiting hours are silver age boxes on top of rickety card tables at conventions.

But that final issue — wow, what a way to go out. The cover had three words just below the title: “Introducing Spider Man.” There wasn’t a hyphen but, far, far stranger was the absence of any exclamation point at the end of the phrase. Wait, are we sure Stan Lee wrote this?

It’s amazing (yes, the word of the day) how much of that first Spider-Man story by Lee and Steve Ditko echoed in the character’s core portrayal as he leaped across media — comics and animation,  video games and live-action TV, even a Broadway show. The elements are so familiar but so revolutionary at the time: The bite and the burglar,  the web-slinging and wall-crawling, the friends and the family, the angst and the bullies, the death and the tears, the power and the responsibility, etc.  Think how different it was from DC Comics where, sure, Bruce Wayne might struggle to lift a gorilla wearing a bomb but at least he knew his checks would never bounce.

In those days, DC felt as dangerous and daring as Pat Boone. The company of Metropolis and Gotham City even gave Boone his own insipid comic book title in August 1959, but revolution was already in the air; that same month an early lineup of the Quarrymen played at the opening night of the Casbah Coffee Club in Liverpool, England. The Quarrymen would become the Beatles, who were called the Fab Four and, hey, doesn’t that sound kind of like the Fantastic Four? Marvel and the Beatles each represented energy, generational crackle, irreverence and, eventually, cosmic aspiration. Superman was Elvis, made strong by the yellow sun (or the yellow label of Sun Records) but not keeping tune with a new generation’s heroic ideal.

martin goodman Spider Man at 50: The strange tale of Amazing Fantasy

Martin Goodman (Reuters)

Where did Marvel come from? The golden age, it turns out. The 1960s comic-book company we call Marvel had existed since the late 1930s under a publisher named Martin Goodman (who died 20 years ago this month in Palm Beach, Fla.). Goodman produced a wide variety of periodicals – pulp magazines, paperback books, comics, crossword puzzle books, girlie magazines, you name it.  The comic book arm of Goodman’s empire was initially known as Timely and went by the moniker Atlas in the 1950s. The name Marvel first appeared in the early 1960s, at roughly the same time the company began publishing stories featuring some newly created superheroes – the Fantastic Four, Ant-Man, the Hulk, Spider-Man and Thor. Marvel was also publishing comics representing other genres, notably westerns (Two-Gun Kid, Rawhide Kid and Kid Colt, Outlaw), teen comedy (Patsy Walker, Millie the Model) and horror/sci-fi anthologies.

That last category, horror/sci-fi anthologies brings us to “Amazing Fantasy.” Well, actually, it brings us to its first incarnation, since the series changed its name almost as often as Henry Pym. “Amazing Adventures” and its six-issue run (cover dates June 1961 to November 1961)  presented bombastic four-color equivalents to B-movies. There were tales of rampaging giant monsters and alien invasions, as well as slightly more atmospheric stories built around haunted houses, cursed relics, time-travelers and a parade of human schemers who ran smack into the brick-wall folly of their ways. (We should mention that “Amazing Adventures” also contained a proto-superhero called Dr. Droom, who appeared in issues 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6, but there isn’t enough space to discuss him in detail here. Another day, Droom, another day…).

amazing adventures 1 Spider Man at 50: The strange tale of Amazing Fantasy

“Amazing Adventures” No. 1 (Marvel Comics)

The stories in “Amazing Adventures” were written by Stan Lee and/or his brother Larry Lieber (Larry didn’t shorten their shared surname as his elder brother had done) and illustrated primarily by Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko and, occasionally, by Don Heck or Paul Reinman. When the title debuted with an issue cover-dated June 1961, Marvel was already producing four other monthly titles with virtually identical formats and personnel. The quartet have names that chime with meaning and memory for silver age readers: “Strange Tales,” “Journey Into Mystery,” “Tales to Astonish” and “Tales of Suspense.”

Those titles all were well underway too — “Journey Into Mystery” launched in summer of 1952 and “Strange Tales” had begun a full year before that — so why would Goodman add the fifth anthology comic in 1961? Goodman must have thought the youth interest in horror and sci-fi was still ticking up. The American sci-fi film had taken on new contours over the previous decade as jet age ideas were marinated in Cold War fear and served with a side of Sputnik envy: “The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms,” “Them!,” “The Blob,” “Forbidden Planet” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and space junk such as “The Giant Claw” and “Teenagers From Outer Space.” Some U.S. theaters were also showing early Japanese sci-fi films from Toho Studios, such as “Godzilla, King of the Monsters!” and “Rodan! The Flying Monster!”

American television audiences, meanwhile,  were adjusting their rabbit ears to catch Universal Studios “Shock!” package, an archive of 1930s and 1940s monster movies made available to local TV stations in 1957. The following February,  Forrest J. Akerman’sFamous Monsters of Filmland” arrived and would in short order establish itself as the beloved crypt keeper of pop culture’s fake blood districts (and the career guidance counselor for several generations of key filmmakers).

amazibg fantasy Spider Man at 50: The strange tale of Amazing Fantasy

“Amazing Fantasy” No. 15

No matter the stars or signpost that potentially pointed to his path, Goodman’s hand-drawn map was wrong on this one. Sales of “Amazing Adventures” were insufficient to keep the title going in its original format. Apparently, the market couldn’t support a fifth Marvel shovel digging into the same genre ground.

In November 1961, Marvel Comics made two changes to its lineup. The first issue of “Fantastic Four” was released and (like a flare gun signal shot above New York) it announced that the new shop was in the old business of superheroes. After years covering every corner of the comics field,  the duo of Lee and Kirby(who had worked together at Timely when Kirby was a big fish in a little publishing pond and Lee was the kid who lettered pages and ran out for sandwiches) may have subconsciously made costumed collages of other comics genres. Consider that the F.F. and the Marvel creations that followed could look like the monster from a horror comic; bicker and brawl like the saloon rivals in Old West tales; swoon, fret and sob like lovers in romance comics; battle the ancient men (and gods) of myth from adventure stories; and hold their own in any cosmic conversation from the sci-fi’s lab-coat crowd.

Oh, and the other change was, “Amazing Adventures” died — and donated its organs (and numbering) to “Amazing Adult Fantasy,” picking up with issues No. 7 and lurching on to No. 14 (December 1961 to July 1962). Sporting a square slogan — “The Magazine That Respects Your Intelligence” — “Amazing Adult Fantasy” downsized its commitment to  giant monsters and closed its page borders to all the alien armies that were waiting for their turn to destroy (or enslave … or remodel) Earth.

stanleespiderman Spider Man at 50: The strange tale of Amazing Fantasy

Stan Lee co-created Spider-Man and scores of Marvel characters in the 1960s and 1970s. (Bob Chamberlin/Los Angeles Times)

The emphasis turned toward tarot topics with the occult and folklore riffs. And, unlike its peerage, “Amazing Adult Fantasy” exclusively featured the work of just one artist, Steve Ditko, who typically handled both the penciling and inking tasks. His line work was clean, elegant but also odd and somehow unsettling. It perfectly suited the subject matter, and Ditko produced some of the best work of his career in the pages of “Amazing Adult Fantasy.”

hulk at 50 Spider Man at 50: The strange tale of Amazing Fantasy

HULK AT 50: A LOOK BACK

Unfortunately, these changes weren’t enough to keep the title afloat. One problem, explained by adolescent fans in published letters to the editor, was the “Adult” in the title — imagine how many mom noses crinkled with sour suspicion at the sight of that loaded word in the title? No surprise, the hexed tales of “Amazing Adult Fantasy” gave up the ghost in mid-1962 as Marvel was more engaged by the idea of cracking the code of superhero franchises.

“Tales to Astonish” No. 27 (January 1962) laid the groundwork for Ant-Man while the first introduction of “The Incredible Hulk” as a series (May 1962) didn’t inspire much green movement in the marketplace (after six issues the plug was pulled on the beta version of the gamma monster, but he’d be back in a big way and relatively soon).

As far the series that had been “Amazing” this and “Amazing” that?

On the way to oblivion it gave new life to the adjective and, 50 years later, a hero who still sticks.

– Tom Nordlie and Geoff Boucher

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