May 08

Comics: A Beginner’s Guide: Old Superhero Comics: Marvel

The Brown Wedge9 comments • 2,163 views

There’s a limited amount of pleasure to be had in the really early superhero comics (1938 onwards), but there was a real leap forwards in the early ’60s, thanks to two people at Marvel comics – and no, I am not including Stan Lee in that.

Jack Kirby

Kirby had been working in comics since the late ’30s, and had co-created Captain America back then. When Marvel heard that DC’s new superteam book, the Justice League of America, was selling well, they decided to create one. It was a slightly rough job, and not a lot of thought went into the early issues, but the Fantastic Four was a huge hit, and Kirby created lots more characters – the Hulk, the Avengers, the X-Men, and lots more, and he also revived Cap and others. He brought a power and excitement to superheroes, indeed to comics, that had never been seen before, and for several years he created most of what has sustained Marvel for nearly 50 years, and defined the style of superheroes ever since. I don’t know if there has ever been someone with as fertile an imagination, in any field, and to have sustained such standards for so many years, working at such a fast pace (much, much faster than any other modern Western artist), makes it even more extraordinary.
Steve Ditko

Marvel’s other leading artist at the time was a different kind of creator, with art more lithe and agile, and often slightly sinister. This suited Spider-Man very well, and this title defined much of the soapy approach that was new to superheroes, and continues today (and Stan Lee was certainly a contributor to this). He created lots of great villains and stories in his 40 issues on Spidey (including two annuals), plus another great series in Dr Strange, and some of the most memorable images and sequences ever in comics.

Stan Lee

First off, there is every reason to believe he created none of these characters, nor did he write the stories: he took the stories, already drawn and written, and changed the words on the page. This was an important task, since neither Ditko nor Kirby was a great wordsmith, but he also created a house style of matey, almost-hip talk that drew fans in and made them feel a part of Marvel in a way that they couldn’t at DC, their bigger and more established rival.

Marvel has produced lots of big, cheap, B&W reprints of their classic comics. The first five Fantastic Four volumes (#3 has the material most beloved by fans, including first appearances for Galactus, the Silver Surfer, the Inhumans and the Black Panther (the first black superhero)) and the first Avengers collection have much of the best of Kirby, but any of the volumes where he is the main artist are well worth having. The first two Spider-Man collections and the first Dr Strange have most of the best Ditko. Also well worth a look: Essential X-Men 1, all the Thors, the first couple of Captain Americas. My old overview of some Essentials.


  1. 1
    Tom on 30 May 2008 #

    The most interesting thing I read about Stan Lee, in that Gerard Jones book, is that when he got the job at Timely or Atlas or whatever it was called back then, he didn’t like comics: he thought they were dumb and silly. And I think his big double-edged contribution to Marvel, and to comics, was to turn this disdain into a stylised, ridiculous hyperbole, which was a wink to the reader not to take this shit too seriously (and at the same time a comfort to the reader that these guys were smart and knew what they were doing). He was incredibly lucky of course that he had two actual geniuses to provide genuine usable seriousness, so his ridicule and the seriousness formed a kind of once-in-an-industry feedback loop and increased the reach and intensity of the comics being created.

    Marvel has ever since been a natural home for creators who you get the impression think – deep down, maybe subconsciously – that they’re slightly too hip for the materials they’re working with.

  2. 2
    Al_Ewing on 31 May 2008 #

    On the other hand, that self-conscious hipness is becoming actual freshness in the hands of Fraction and Brubaker, while DC are reknowned for being bogged down in self-importance – something that worked in their favour with the big ‘important’ projects of the eighties, giving them extra weight and cachet while Marvel floundered with the Dazzler Graphic Novel etc, and is presumably more useful to an epic grandmaster like Morrison than Marvel’s ‘ordinary joe’ heroic persona, but drags them down in other areas (cough COUNTDOWN cough).

  3. 3
    Tom on 31 May 2008 #

    Oh totally, when it works it really really works. The one huge exception to my little rule is Claremont and the X-Men, who were Marvel’s commercial motor during the 80s and 90s, and I’ll be really interested to see how Fraction handles them.

  4. 4
    DJ Punctum on 1 Jun 2008 #

    The thing that always puzzled me about Ditko (well, one of several things) is why all his male characters look like Sid James. And there must be something deeply symbolic about his trademark “half faces” (i.e. when facing forward you see only half the face of the character) at the border of each panel.

  5. 5
    Lennie on 2 Jun 2008 #

    DC – to many words.

  6. 6
    Martin Skidmore on 2 Jun 2008 #

    I don’t quite get the last comment, but it may be worth noting that I’ll be putting up a DC companion piece soon, maybe even tonight.

  7. 7
    DV on 2 Jun 2008 #

    I’m looking forward to the DC one… partly because I know so little about DC, apart from Superman and Batman.

  8. 8
    Martin Skidmore on 3 Jun 2008 #

    These are short pieces, so don’t expect to learn a lot! It’ll go up tonight.

  9. 9
    Gary Sweeney on 26 Aug 2009 #

    This brought back so many memories that I forgot about. I didn’t realise the originals gave birth to the newer characters.

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