Friday, September 12, 2008

Marvel Team-Up Prototypes: Girl Trouble, part 1

Amazing Spider-Man #62 (July 1968)
Stan Lee/John Romita/Don Heck/Mike Esposito
“Make Way For… Medusa!”

Doug: We thought it would be a good idea to take a look at some Amazing Spider-Man issues, and what better way than to explore some stories that led to later Bronze Age-goodness in the pages of Marvel Team-Up. Before the Marvel Age, the company was known for test-marketing concepts in the pages of their less-famous magazines, for trying out characters under other names, or even in slightly different circumstances than what we’d later become used to, etc. In this next series of blogs, we’re going to check out Spidey’s encounters with Medusa, the Black Widow, Quicksilver, and Iceman. This first issue that we’re going to critique is reprinted in Essential Spider-Man Volume 3, the mid-70’s classic from Fireside Books The Super-Hero Women, and The Amazing Spider-Man DVD-ROM (which I used for this reading).

Doug: Before we really get into the meat and potatoes of the story itself, I wanted to highlight a couple of the oddities and/or points of interest included in this issue. My main focus here is the Mighty Marvel Checklist, typically in this period found near the back of the book. ASM #62 spotlights an encounter between our hero and a solo Madame Medusa, and upon closer inspection a youngster in 1968 who liked this story might have felt compelled to run down to the local drug store and snatch Marvel Super-Heroes #15 – also featuring the beautiful Inhuman (and rendered by Gene Colan) – off the spinner rack. Another Inhuman, Triton, guest-starred in Sub-Mariner #3 – could this month have been an overall try-out for the Inhuman series that would later launch in the pages of Amazing Adventures? Also of note is a teaser on this same page for Marvel’s larger-sized The Spectacular Spider-Man B&W magazine. Stan mentions it in his Bullpen Bulletins, and there is also a full-page ad for it a few pages later. This is extra-significant in regard to ASM #62, as one of the foreshadowing plot devices in this issue shows a very disturbed Norman Osborn, who can’t seem to shake images of the Green Goblin and a mysteriously unmasked Spider-Man. This leads directly into Spectacular Spider-Man #2, which was in color and, sadly, was the last issue of the series. By the way, Spectacular Spider-Man #2 predated the famous “drug issues” of Amazing Spider-Man #’s 96-98 and contains a very psychedelic drug scene. One more thing, and I found this to be very funny: in between story pages 18 and 19 is an ad for an 8x10 autographed glossy of The Man himself, “suitable for framing, or pinning on your dart board!” Classic tongue-in-cheek Marvel humor – the ad, though small, has many more laughs. All for a buck plus 25 cents postage and handling…

Karen: Doug, I agree with you regarding this issue (and Sub-Mariner also published that month) as being try-out issues for an Inhumans series. Unfortunately, I just don’t think they have ever worked in their own title. They add some spice to other books they have appeared in, and are a nice addition to the Marvel Universe. But so far I don’t think anyone has made them work. Although they are still trying! We had Inhumans mini-series in 2007, and a Secret Invasion Inhumans book is on the stands as I write this.

Sharon: I agree…the Inhumans seem better suited as guest stars—at least, back in the Silver Age. Apart their visual appeal, they really weren’t very developed as individuals. There were interesting, tragic aspects to Black Bolt (his power, voice, relationship with his brother), but the others were basically ciphers. Triton would be trotted out to appear with Namor. There was the Crystal-Johnny romance that had started off as a Romeo-Juliet sort of thing…but once the physical barrier to Attilan was destroyed, she became assimilated into human society so there was absolutely no tension or interesting angle to their relationship. And there was Lockjaw, an inspired visual creation. But the others were, for the most part, one-dimensional. Medusa’s strong personality did a one-eighty degree turn when she returned to the Inhumans in #45; she became bland and prone to inconsistent handling (as in ASM #62). And Gorgon and Karnak were one-trick ponies. Maximus had the most exciting personality out of the bunch!

Doug: Amazing Spider-Man #62 has a gorgeous cover illustration featuring Spidey in the clutches of Medusa’s tresses. Set on a white background, the image is striking and supports my strong opinion that John Romita can flat-out draw women. His faces are always beautiful, and his proportioning of the female form, unlike today’s fanboys-turned-aritsts, is always practical and tasteful. Don Heck is credited as the “delineator” in this issue, so I guess that makes him the penciller? Nowhere did I really feel like Heck was exerting any of his own influence on Romita, who we should perhaps suppose did the lay-outs? Unlike Heck’s own pencils, which by 1968 had become stiff, his faces very gaunt, Heck seems to give us only a darkening of Romita’s actual roughs (again, I’m only assuming what’s gone on, based on a suggestion by Sharon in a conversation from another time). The only other time that I can recall when Heck seems undetectable on the page is X-Men #64, in which his pencils are buried under Tom Palmer’s inks to the point that the graphics look more like Neal Adams than anything Heck ever produced on his own. In regard to the design of Medusa’s costume, I can’t recall a time before, nor after, where she was drawn in this green/light green outfit.

Sharon: Note how vague the credits are—“Another Titanic Triumph by Smilin’ Stan Lee and Jazzy Johnny Romita.” Here, that means Romita did the rough pencils/layouts--which is tantamount to “plotting”- -hence the co-starring role with editor Stan. Heck, who is credited as the “delineator”, had to fill in (finish) the pencils already laid down by Romita. It became apparent that Romita was no speed demon like Kirby or John Buscema; so Stan had Romita do only the roughs thinking it would help Romita out time-wise (since JR didn’t have to turn in a finished product). But in terms of saving time, it may have been a wash because then Stan would have Romita go over Heck’s work and make corrections- - such as Mary Jane’s face, which had to look a certain way. Mike Esposito supplied the inks, using one of his pen names, “Mickey Demeo”—he also used the name “Joe Gaudioso” on occasion.

Sharon: By the way, by not doing the full pencils, Romita was freed up to do corrections/touch ups on other artists’ work (when directed to do by Stan). Unlike most of the other artists, Romita was on salary--it was the only incentive Stan could give him to come to Marvel- -so Romita functioned as a de facto art editor (in addition to getting paid on a freelance basis for his penciling). Some time later, Romita was officially given the art director position.

Sharon: And yes, it was a striking cover: Medusa's tendrils are in keeping with the tentacle motif that appeared on many ASM covers from that time.

Karen: No doubt about it, Romita Sr. probably drew the prettiest women of the Marvel Silver Age. They are all curves – just beautiful, flowing figures. It reminds me of a comment Romita makes in the documentary, “Searching for Steve Ditko”. He said that when he followed Ditko as the artist on Spider-Man, he tried to emulate his style as much as he could, but he couldn’t help drawing good-looking characters! This is why all the girls are gorgeous, and Peter Parker went from being a scrawny nobody to a well-built, handsome lad.

Sharon: Yes, Romita has frequently mentioned in interviews that he really tried, but he was incapable of drawing Peter as anything less than muscular and handsome! His version of Peter really changed the whole concept and tone of the Spider-Man comic. Evidently the new look was very popular, as within months of Romita taking over Spider-Man became Marvel’s top seller.

Karen: To me, Medusa’s green costume looked like a precursor to Jean Grey’s X-Factor uniform, with the X across the chest. Wonder if this issue influenced that look?

Sharon: The 1980s Jean Grey X-Factor costume…yep, it’s virtually identical to what Romita designed here. Scott wore a version, too (in blue and yellow)…but damn, Jean really started to look like Medusa’s lost twin in the 1980s (the coloring, the masks, etc.)! Take a look at Jean in, say, the X-Men Inferno or X-Tinction Agenda arcs; not only the costume but her hair has become distractingly massive. Granted, this was 1989/1990 when big hair was the norm, but with Jean it just seemed to be more exaggerated than with most other female characters.

Sharon: Back to ASM #62 and Medusa: I wonder why Romita felt the need to redesign Medusa’s costume for this one shot—though he kept the Kirby designed gloves and boots. The only other time I’ve seen this Romita Medusa design used was in Alan Davis’ wonderful 2007 mini-series: “Fantastic Four: The End.”

Sharon: I'm reading this ASM story in the black and white Essentials, but I recall in the original ASM comic her hair was colored orange (like Crystal and Jimmy Olsen) and not her usual tomato red (like Jean Grey and the revamped Black Widow as she appeared in 1970). If this hair color change was deliberate, the only thing I can think is that in ASM, the tomato red hair color was reserved for Mary Jane…sort of like in the old Hollywood pictures, you couldn’t have two platinum blonde actresses in a movie—one of them would have to appear with “mousy brown” hair.

Doug: The story itself is a good example of Stan and John’s Silver Age collaboration. Stan’s dialogue proves to be predictable; there’s the usual teen angst between Peter, Gwen, Harry, and Mary Jane, J. Jonah Jameson is at his bombastic best, and the plot device Montgomery G. Bliss is a send-up of a Harvey Korman-type character from the old Carol Burnett Show. John’s storytelling is well-paced, and his figure work is as expected in this era. The plot, however, is somewhat formulaic – heroes meet, misunderstanding takes place, heroes fight, everything’s OK by the end of story page #20. But then, that was the beauty/bane of the later Marvel Team-Up and Marvel Two-In-One books – the chance to see two characters who might not normally be between the same pages, even if the guest-star was often a B- or even C-lister.

Karen: Really, this is a forgettable story, only notable for the appearance of Medusa. It’s your typical “Super-heroes have a misunderstanding and fight, then figure out they are not enemies” shtick. It really doesn’t make a lot of sense – Medusa is in New York to see how people react to her, so she can tell Black Bolt whether they can join humanity? I didn’t think they had much interest in leaving their own little world. The art however, is quite nice.

Doug: I thought Medusa was written a little out-of-character. She really seemed to be the victim of hormones gone awry – very edgy, distrusting, prone to violent reactions. Her early years, most notably in the pages of Fantastic Four showed her with a varied personality. The Inhumans’ mistrust of other peoples was well-documented. I just felt this story was an ambling exploration of Medusa’s moods (although happiness was never on display). Hardly the depiction of noble royalty she might have been shown as.

Karen: Medusa comes off as a complete jerk. Very imperious, always referring to herself in the third person, throwing a tantrum at the modeling shoot – this is not her proudest moment. I think we can probably attribute this to being a “rush job” on Stan’s part – it just seems like little thought was put into the story.

Sharon: “Imperious” is the perfect word for how she’s written here and it’s out of character given the time period and character development up until that time. Her character is much truer to form in the Marvel Super-Heroes #15 Medusa story (on sale the same month as Spider-Man, though who knows when in continuity the MSH story is supposed to have occurred--from what I have read, it was an inventory story). The MSH artwork by Colan and Vince Colletta is utterly sublime artwork—their depiction of a flashback scene of Black Bolt freeing his people from the dome is, if anything, superior to Kirby’s original rendering in terms of power and drama. Archie Goodwin scripted the MSH story and did a great job capturing Medusa’s essence. Medusa rejoins the Frightful Four hoping to find a cure for Black Bolt’s muteness. It’s in fact a love story of the sort you’d find in 1940s Hollywood movie: she’s the reformed bad girl who is sacrificing her virtue to help her lover. And the deus ex machina ending is an absolutely fitting coda; it’s rhapsodic.

Doug: Overall, the book was a nice table-setter or try-out for Spidey teaming with other characters from the Marvel Universe. It was a done-in-one, although there were references to previous issues and, as stated above, foreshadowing as a way of promoting future books. I found it a mostly fun and completely predictable, if not memorable, read. No damage done and a fair contribution to the historical record as the Silver Age began to segue into the Bronze Age.

Sharon: As my esteemed colleagues Karen and Doug have noted, not one of Marvel’s better efforts. This Spidey issue seemed like filler, featuring a strained premise resulting in a predictable “misunderstanding.”

Sharon: Some closing thoughts on this “team up” issue: The Inhumans had just wrapped up as a back up series in Thor (a month earlier) so yes, as Karen and Doug have said, it's probable that this story, the MSH story and the Triton appearance in Subby’s book were meant as a lead in to an Inhumans series or book in 1968 (they also appeared in Fantastic Four #82-83 later in 1968, but alas, still no Inhumans book…) For some reason, the project was shelved, possibly due to Marvel’s realization they had “over-expanded” in 1968 (when Cap, Subby, Iron Man, et al., received their own mags). At any rate, in 1969 Stan felt compelled to explain the delay in his Soapbox; astonishingly, the continued absence of an Inhumans book was attributed to Marvel switching to new printers (don't ask...). Finally, after much ado, in 1970 the Inhumans appeared in Fantastic Four #99, and it was this issue that served as Marvel’s “lead in” to them receiving their own feature a couple of months later in Amazing Adventures.

Sharon: Prior to ASM #62, Spidey and Medusa had never had any interaction, though if you take a look at Fantastic Four #36 you’ll see he just missed bumping into her (and the rest of the Frightful Four)! Also, check out the cover of Fantastic Four Annual #3 (Reed and Sue's wedding): Spidey and Medusa are adjacent to each other (Medusa does not actually appear in the story).

Doug: Those examples aside, it does just crack me up how these characters bump into each other at the most opportune (or inopportune as the case may be) moment.

Karen: As a kid growing up in California, it really bothered me that ALL the superheroes were in New York! Sure, it allowed them to interact more often, but what was the rest of the country? Chopped liver?

Sharon: By the way, was Medusa--who made her debut in Fantastic Four #36, cover-dated March 1966--inspired by DC's Spider Girl, who'd appeared in the Legion story in Adventure #323, cover- dated July 1964? Spider Girl's power: her long hair, which she could (as she described it) "expand into a web" to ensnare foes. Alas, the poor girl couldn't control her hair all that well, so she was denied LSH membership…and in later years was shown to have joined the Legion of Super-Villains.

Doug: Regardless of what’s been said off and on through the years, someone at Marvel was reading DC (probably a copy boy – that was his main job) and vice versa. Even today, there are ideas coming out from both companies that can be directly attributed to what’s come before from the competition.

Sharon: Also, in ASM #62, a passerby remarks that the magnificent Medusa “makes Raquel Welch look like a boy!” Well, good looks obviously run in the Amaquelin family because back in Fantastic Four #45 Johnny said of Crystal “she makes Dorrie Evans look like a boy!” (also written by Stan and evidently a very common expression of appreciation back then, at least to Stan). What a line. By the way Dorrie was Johnny’s then-paramour and had appeared regularly in the Torch's Strange Tales feature, but she was only occasionally mentioned in the FF’s stories themselves (and doesn't show up in the FF book until 1973's FF # 134).

Doug: Yeah, those kinds of comments are a little grating on the nerves. And particularly when you cite two examples of the same line! But, since Stan was writing virtually everything Marvel, I’ll give him a pass. But it’s still not a good line…

Sharon: And in that same sequence, when Medusa says she merely wishes to walk among humans as an equal, a black cop replies: “There’s no law against that, lady.” This was 1968, folks, and we weren’t too far removed when there were laws against that. Along those same lines, a tragic coincidence was that ASM #62 was released in April 1968, mere days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Doug: Early morning, April 4, shot rings out in the Memphis sky…


Skydragon said...

"what’s been said off and on through the years, someone at Marvel was reading DC (probably a copy boy – that was his main job) and vice versa."

This is very true. Once Romita was guest in a comics convention in Italy, and asked to tell a few stories from his Silver Age days. He said that the new authors arriving at Marvel from DC would tell Stan how the DC bosses and editors were reading and reading the Marvel books, attempting to understand what was making them so succesfull, but couldn't get it. Stan then decided to leave "false hints" behind to confuse them even more.

Regarding the story, I read it a few months ago and wasn't too impressed, which was disappointing because I usually like the stories where Spidey meets/fights other notorious Marvel characters/heroes.

Finally, on Romita, it's a common editorial note in the books in Italy to remember how Stan was unhappy with the way Ditko would draw MJ in the test pages, saying she wasn't attractive enough. So he kept leaving her face in the shadows (usually covered by something or cut out of the page) until Romita took over and draw the sexy, good looking MJ Stan wanted.

Dr. Pym said...

I like this idea! :D I especially will enjoy reading you guys review the Quicksilver issue, which is one of my favorites!

I agree that it looks like Stan was certainly trying out the Inhumans, and seeing how readers would react to them guest starring in so many books at the time... considering how long it took for them to get their own book (Under the "Amazing Adventures" banner no less,) I'll assume that they weren't received much at first. I tend to agree that they don't work as a solo series. I feel the same with Namor, Silver Surfer and Hulk, which I'm sure I've posted comments/discussed about in another review you guys did! The Inhumans just... don't feel like they could carry a monthly book. How long would it take for the well to run dry? After awhile you'd need to have random guest stars to freshen up the book!

Sharon is very much correct in that they weren't really developed much, before Medusa guest starred in this mag. Out of all of them, I think Crystal was the only one to ever be fully developed, and that's only because she was Johnny Storm's love interest! And I still love Lockjaw!

I agree with Doug in that Medusa looks SO pretty on that cover! Definitely very different from what I've come to picture her as... she looks very pretty! And I've always thought Don Heck was a mediocre artist at times. Sometimes I thought he was phoning it in! I only ever really liked his work on The Avengers... his version of Janet in Tales to Astonish looked iffy sometimes! Romita on the other hand, made his female characters look very attractive, Gwen Stacy especially! I'd ask her out in a second if she had gone to high school the same time I had! ;)

Interesting info about John being the only salaried artist, Sharon, I never knew that!

Yeah, this story is pretty obviously a vehicle to push Medusa, just like Quicksilver's issue of Spidey, and The Black Panther's appearances near the end of Tales of Suspense. I also agree that Medusa acts very out of character... another piece of proof for the vehicle theory!

Love the plot to that Marvel Superheros story, Sharon! I'll certainly look for that one!

Just to add onto that "printer" story. I remember reading that Stan had stated that the new printer had meant that they had to work faster, which to me makes no sense at all! Why get a new printer when all it does is add more stress? Hmm... Stan couldn't have been lying, could he have? ;)

Ahhh Karen, one thing that I loved most about Marvel mags is that they took place in New York! Growing up in New York, and being only an hour and a half of a train ride away from New York City, it made everything feel close to home to me!

Just to get a little off-topic, it's spooky to imagine that the book came out at the same time as MLK's death... what a sad day in history that was.

WONDERFUL review and post guys, this is in my opinion your best yet! I can't wait for more to come!

DLW said...

Thanks very much for the kind words -- both of you! Hopefully, as you said Doc, we're sort of evolving around here and the blog is getting better with time. It's a fun process to create these missives, and we're happy to entertain!

Skydragon said...

I wondered how you make them actually?
Initially, I thought one would post the first message, the other would edit and add his/her part and so on, but this last post was complete from its first apparition. Do you e-mail each other and then paste it together and post?

Sharon said...

Thanks for the feedback, guys!

Dr. Pym: I didn't say that Romita was the only salaried artist--I said "Unlike most of the other artists...", meaning Kirby, Ditko, Colan, etc. There were others like Marie Severin and Herb Trimpe who were originally on board to do production work, and they were probably on salary as well.

But at the time (at Marvel and DC), it was the norm for the artists to be hired on a freelance basis and to receive a "pay per page" rate (and their work belonged to the company). So Romita received payment for his penciled pages plus a regular salary--it was the only way Stan could compete with the salary Romita would have received from an advertising job. (Severin and Trimpe pobably received additional payment for their penciling too.)

Check out the TwoMorrows Romita book "John Romita..and All That Jazz!" for a great overview of Timely and Marvel, the Bullpen, and Romita's various duties at Marvel. Stan obviously had a lot of faith in him.

DLW said...

Do you e-mail each other and then paste it together and post?

You are correct, sir! One of us writes a review of the book, leaving enough wiggle room for original ideas from the other two bloggers. After all three of us have made our rebuttals/contributions, we often send it around again for any last-minute additions. We serve as each other's editors for content, accuracy, etc. It's really been a good system, and we have traditionally been able to stay about 4 weeks ahead of our posting schedule.

Alas, life does get busy sometimes, and I think we are about to enter a period when the blog may be updated only every 10 days rather than once a week. Hopefully (if that happens) the content will be good enough to keep everyone checking back in with us!!

Skydragon said...

It's an interesting method... unique as far as I know. Blogs are usually run by one person only, or at least there are individual entries. Great team work guys, worthy of the Avengers! :D

Karen said...

Thanks Doc and Skydragon for your kind remarks. As Doug said, our blog reviews have evolved and become a very synergistic affair - typically Doug initiates the conversation, Sharon provides detailed historical perspectives, and I, uh, hmmm - I add the covers! It's been a lot of fun and I'm glad we can share with you folks.

Sharon said...

The ever-modest Karen downplayed all the work she does putting this together and making sure it's transcribed and formatted correctly. And Doug and Karen provide such great that by the time I add my two cents, it's easy for me to piggyback off them--and I should add they very generously allow me to go off on tangents!

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