X, the Thing That Lived!”, “Grottu, King of the Insects!”, “The Threat of Tim Boo Ba!”, or sometimes simply: “The Blip!”, “The Glop!”, or “Zzutak!”
These were some of the stories that made up the Golden Age of Marvel Monster Comics. Drawn by creators who would later usher in the superhero era, these genre stories monster and sci-fi stories have retained a cult following for their twist endings and stunning artwork. They featured giant monsters on the rampage, tales of planetary exploration, and occasionally more psychological twist-ending stories and meta-narratives.
By the late 1950s, the publishing company which would come to be known as Marvel Comics was seriously struggling. The moral panic that gripped America thanks to Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent in 1954, leading to the rise of the industry’s self-censorship with the Comics Code Authority, had resulted in the cancellation of the company’s popular crime comics. And thanks to a combination of business missteps and bad luck, publisher Martin Goodman was by the late ‘50s forced to turn to competitor DC Comics for distribution of his own company’s line. DC agreed, but with the caveat that only eight comic mags could ship each month — forcing the cancellation of a number of titles and the dwindling of the company’s freelancers.
Cannily, the company turned to a bi-monthly publishing schedule which allowed for a maximum of sixteen titles to run throughout the year (and greater flexibility for chasing the latest fads in popular tastes), but there was no getting around the fact that the company had hit hard times. (These comics weren’t even published under the Marvel banner, which wouldn’t become a consistent brand until 1963 — instead, the company underwent a series of changing names during this period, from the generic Magazine Management to Atlas Comics and more).
With titles like Tales to Astonish, Strange Tales, Tales of Suspense, and Amazing Adventures, the monster comics had clear narrative precursors: the short stories of some of Stan Lee’s favorite writers O. Henry and Edgar Allan Poe, the horror and sci-fi tales of EC Comics (filtered through the censor of the Comics Code Authority, which banned vampires, zombies, and werewolves but was fine with aliens and giant beasts), and of course the Cold War-era popularity of creature features — Universal’s monsters were off-limits due to the Code, but The Blob, Them!, The Day The Earth Stood Still, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and --on television -- The Twilight Zone provided ample fodder for Lee’s imagination. One of the artists on these monster stories later recalled the sociocultural context of the time and how they influenced the stories:
"If you remember back to the 1940s and ‘50s, the imagination of the world was fascinated with reported sightings of flying spacecraft and the unknown effects of radioactivity," wrote Jack Kirby in the 1994 *Monster Menace #3 reprint. "What kind of life existed on other planets? Were they non-human? Would the effects of atomic radiation or scientific experiments create a non-human creature? Perhaps, monsters having human characteristics could be mutated in the laboratory. Those were the questions of that period. Comics explored these avenues, and monsters became a part of them."*
To create these tales, then-editor and writer Stan Lee turned in 1958 to a new and a returning pair of talents: Steve Ditko, part of the first generation of fans-turned-comics creators, and veteran artist Jack Kirby. Other creators, handling inking and, more rarely, penciling duties, included talents such as Dick Ayers, Don Heck, Joe Sinnott, Paul Reinman, Sol Brodsky, George Klein, and Russ Heath; most of whom would stick around for the dawn of the Marvel superhero era). While Lee, Kirby, and Ditko sometimes signed their names to a cover or title page (actual credits wouldn’t come until later), the rest of their collaborators were entirely uncredited and, for most of history, their contributions have been forgotten.
While Lee was the editor and scripter for most of the stories, there remains -- as usual when it comes to the origins of Marvel Comics and given the exploitative labor practices of the day-- disagreement about exactly which creators did what. A little-known fact is that the monster comics predated the “Marvel method” (which probably began around the time of Fantastic Four #1) in which Lee would add dialogue and script after the artwork was completed (effectively turning artists into co-writers and later leading to lawsuits and fights over credits). The monster comics were created differently; while Stan Lee has historically been given sole credit for these comics, in actuality Lee would hand off a plot outline to his brother, Larry Lieber, who described the creative process for the stories:
"”Stan made up the plot, and then he'd give it to me, and I'd write the script. Tudor City had a park; and when it was nice, I'd sit there and break the story down picture by picture. I was unsure of myself just sitting down to write a script. Since I knew how to draw, I'd think, "Oh, this shot will have a guy coming this way... this shot we'll have a guy looking down on him," and later I'd sit at the typewriter and type it up. After a while, I'd just go to the typewriter. I would follow from Stan's plot.”
The talented creators between these genre mini-masterpieces had varying assessments of their own work. “I was probably the ultimate, quintessential hack” during this period, Lee recalled dismissively. “By the early 1960s, my urge to quit the comic book field had become stronger than ever. The various monster stories that made up the bulk of our production at that time were beginning to pale for me, and probably for the readers, too.”
Kirby gave a withering assessment of the comics in 1975, saying that “I was given monsters, so I did them. I would much rather have been drawing [Westerns]. But I did the monsters. We had ‘Grottu’ and ‘Kurrgo’ and ‘It.’ It was a challenge to try to do something—anything—with such ridiculous characters.” And he later frankly acknowledged the element of commerce behind chasing fads: “They made sales, and that’s always been my prime object in comics. I had to make sales in order to keep myself working. And so I put all the ingredients in that would pull in sales. It’s always been that way.”
It’s true that the stories were created at a break-neck pace (Lieber recounted that Kirby could draw six pages of the monster comics in a single day, enough for a complete story) and that they operated firmly within genre constraints — yet there was also an intangible element of creative magic in many of them. They proved important for the development of many of the creators involved: the grand scale of the narratives allowed for an elevated, faux-epic narrative style in a way that Westerns and romance comics did not, a tenor which would become Lee’s signature. Editorially, Lee had the opportunity to try out innovations that would become key to building up his own mythology: some of the monster comics included occasional editor’s notes, letter’s pages, and reader’s polls; often creators signed their names to a cover. Sometimes stories — especially Ditko’s — featured meta narratives about Lee and his artists themselves — precursor to the illusory image of the Marvel Bullpen Stan Lee would will into existence. All of these nascent elements, expanded, would come back and help build up Marvel as a brand.
The artists involved too honed their trademark styles, replete with all their individual quirks, from Ditko’s penchant for bizarre hand gestures, bulging eyes, and a sense of dread that was palpable to Kirby’s mono-chrome, low-angle close-ups of character’s faces and his beautifully illustrated, stunning splash pages. Many were masterpieces of artistic narrative storytelling.
These comics set up the superhero age in other, more specific ways — Ant-Man actually making his first appearance in one of the monster comics; tales featuring a couple of monstrous characters named “Hulk” before the more famous, incredible one; a Ditko story featuring characters that looked identical to Uncle Ben and Aunt May; an early story of mutants, over a year before the X-Men, amusingly featuring a Peter Parker lookalike; monsters later recycled as the first Thor villains; Doctor Droom as a precursor to Doctor Strange, who was given an identical origin story; ordinary men transformed into monsters, like the Thing; and later, characters like Groot and Fin Fang Foom who were brought back into the Marvel universe and have since made their debut in other media.
Fantastic Four #1, with its rampaging monster on the cover, could have been mistaken for one of these stories, and the final issue of Amazing Fantasy features the debut of a new character, Spider-Man — providing a neat hand-off from the monster era to superheroes. (Re-read Spidey’s debut appearance and you’ll see the monster era’s penchant for the twist ending in the way the robber’s face is obscured for two pages, making the reveal all the more shocking). The post-modern sense of irony and tragedy that was at the heart of the origins of the new generation of superheroes — entirely absent from the earliest Marvel heroes — came directly from the monster comics. The difference was that, with an ongoing series, we now saw what happened after the shocking twist ending.
Troublingly, though, the monster stories could not help but reflect the geopolitics and prejudices of the period’s Cold War context, and in so doing sometimes veered, subtly or otherwise, into racism and stereotypes. Most egregiously, in a sequence that is utterly painful to read today, one recurring character, Doctor Droom, was transformed from a white man into someone bearing a caricature of stereotypical East Asian features. Whenever characters featured other nationalities, from Asia, to East Europe, to Latin America, the characters were crudely depicted, veering into exoticism, Orientalism, and Noble Savage stereotypes.
But while these shortcomings are difficult to overlook today, the monster tales were overwhelmingly used to share a message of peace. In a story familiar to readers of Watchmen, for example, Tales of Suspense #21 featured a story about global powers coming together to stop an alien menace, leading to a resolution of Cold War tensions and prospects for world peace. Many stories functioned as morality tales showcasing what Lee saw as humanity’s prejudices, lashing out against outsiders. Often, as in Frankenstein (another favorite of Lee’s), it was humans, not the creatures and beasts they feared, who turned out to be the real monsters. Describing this dynamic, in 1990 Kirby offered a much more generous assessment than he had a decade and a half earlier:
”I always enjoyed doing monster books. Monster books gave me the opportunity to draw things out of the ordinary. Monster books were a challenge — what kind of monster would fascinate people? I couldn’t draw anything that was too outlandish or too horrible. I never did that. What I did draw was something intriguing. There was something about this monster that you could live with. If you saw him you wouldn’t faint dead away. There was nothing disgusting in his demeanor. There was nothing about him that repelled you. My monsters were lovable monsters. I gave them names—some were evil and some were good.”
Guilt and self-sacrifice were recurring themes in many of these narratives. These ranged from the story of Torr in Amazing Adventures #1, where a man nobly stands trial because telling the truth about his alleged crime would imperil the earth, to John Cartwright, the hero of Tales of Suspense #28, who is thought a traitor by a world that never realizes he made the ultimate sacrifice to save humanity from an alien menace.
It’s this combination of pathos and human tragedy — usually packed into five short pages — along with the artwork from legends at the top of their game, that makes these comics so unexpectedly readable today and has resulted in their status, decades later, as cult classics. And, not insignificant, I’ll admit, is the fact that it simply doesn’t get better than names like “Tim Boo Ba,” “Toor,” “Manoo” — and so many others.