“The Golden Age of Comics is ten.”
I originally heard the adage as “The Golden Age of Comics is twelve” as well as “The Golden Age of Comics is when you discover them.”
As far as I was concerned, it’s ten. That’s how old I was in 1964, where every month seemed to burst with great and wonderful comics. It may have been a golden age for me, but comics historians would come to regard it as “The Sliver Age of Comics” . . . and, in 1964, it was in full swing.
My parents didn’t mind that I read comics, but if I brought home a bad report card, I couldn’t read or buy new comics until my grades improved (in fact, I couldn’t even read the old comics; my father would tie them up in a neat bundle at the beginning of every school year and put them in the attic, way out of my reach. I wouldn’t have access to them until that glorious last day of school!).
Unfortunately, the fall of 1963 yielded a poor report card, so the sanction was enforced. That meant I missed the comics that went on sale from late November, ’63 to mid February, ’64.
I know, I know, you feel the pain.
I did “buckle down” on my schoolwork and I did significantly better when report card time came around in February. The sanction was lifted and I could buy comics again (but my old ones stayed in the attic until June). And it was not a moment too soon. There was one comic I had to have–and it had just hit the stands: Fantastic Four #26.
I was aware that it was part two of an epic story that began in the previous issue. I had a friend who bought FF #25 and from what I could ascertain (he wouldn’t let me read it, but was “generous” enough to show me highlights of the story. What a guy, eh?), the story certainly lived up to the cover hype as “A Marvel Super-Spectacular.” Here’s what I was able to glean: The Hulk runs amok in New York, looking for The Avengers. The FF try to stop him, but the team is hobbled; Reed falls dangerously ill, while Johnny’s flame and Sue’s force fields are no match for the green-skinned juggernaut. And to make matters worse, The Thing gets the crap beat out of him by The Hulk! New York is under siege as The Hulk threatens to destroy the city unless The Avengers surrender to him! But they are nowhere to be found!! As today’s lingo would have put it: OMG!!!
What a time to have a comics-purchasing embargo.
But the story would be concluded “next ish.” Now I had to do better in school . . . I was determined to read the conclusion first hand, no matter what! I did, and it was worth the wait. Was it ever!
“The Avengers Take Over!” screamed the title page. The Avengers– Thor, Iron Man, Giant Man, The Wasp and a newcomer (at least to me!), Captain America– finally return to New York to deal with The Hulk situation. The Fantastic Four, however, have no interest in stepping aside so quickly. Despite their defeat and weakened state, they have licked their wounds and are ready for a rematch.
The Hulk proves to be a formidable opponent. The Fantastic Four and The Avengers collide, much to The Hulk’s advantage. However, saner heads prevail as the two super teams compare notes and join forces to stop the green-skinned brute. The final confrontation is on a construction site, high above the Upper East Side. Wow!
Up until then, superhero comics just weren’t done this way. Heroes are defeated and then another set of heroes come in to mop up? And then they argue about who’s going to get dibs on the adversary? Unheard of!
Jack Kirby’s art is the star here; not for nothing he is often referred to as “King Kirby.” His penciling is a force of nature– for lack of a better term! Kirby’s Hulk, hellbent on revenge, is truly menacing and unpredictable. No one drew action scenes like Jack Kirby, but he really shined when he depicted the relentless determination and courage of Ben Grimm. In the face of being no match for The Incredible Hulk, The Thing doesn’t hesitate to try to save his city from destruction.
Kirby’s visceral artwork is complemented by Stan Lee’s antic dialogue. Not only did he succeed in the tricky balancing act of giving equal time to nearly a dozen superheroes, Lee straddled the fine line between melodrama, gallows humor, and repartee (I don’t think anyone wrote better banter than Stan Lee!). Glibness aside, Lee’s copy excelled when he stressed the urgency of the heroes’ challenge, brilliantly visualized by Kirby.
Even the inks by George Roussos (using the nom de plume George Bell), which, in my opinion, usually didn’t do Kirby’s pencils justice, did not hinder the art here. Rather, Roussos’s rough-hewed inking gave the story an edge, adding grit to the bombastic street battle and raw urban carnage.
Talk about satisfying reads! I had no doubt that Fantastic Four was “the world’s greatest comic magazine.” And all that, for twelve cents? Truly, a golden age!
That was fifty years ago. Interestingly, the title to FF #26’s story proved to be prophetic: The Avengers did indeed take over. They are now international stars, thanks to Joss Whedon’s 2012 blockbuster movie. Fantastic Four, once Marvel Comics’s flagship title, has taken the superhero team backseat to not only The Avengers, but The X-Men as well . . . who were created as Marvel’s own knockoff of the Fantastic Four!
It was also fifty years ago when The Beatles arrived in America and took the country by storm (hey, I remember seeing them on the Ed Sullivan!). I recognize and acknowledge the cultural milestone, of course, but, with all due respect, I’ll always associate the time with another Fab Four, the ones who took up residence in the Baxter Building, somewhere in midtown Manhattan, the city they helped to save from The Hulk, that February in 1964.