Saturday, January 31, 2015

BAB Firsts - Marvel and DC: Side-by-Side in 1970

This post was originally published on February 2 2011


Doug: Welcome, everyone, to a 16-part (yep, the longest to date!) series that will take a year-by-year look at what the Big Two were doing throughout the Bronze Age. Using the books you see in the logo above (read our reviews of the Marvel Chronicle and DC Comics: Year-by-Year) Karen and I will not only be reporting on the various goings-on both in the publishing and four-color worlds, but you just know we'll be adding a two-cent comment here and there. So buckle in and enjoy the ride -- we're anticipating some revelations, epiphanies, and downright expose's along the way! And a note: all information used in this series will derive from the two books exclusively; however, images we post may be from other sources.

Doug: I don't think comics historians mark the year 1970 as the beginning of a new age of comics for no reason at all. I was surprised when I began to pen my portion of this first installment at just how many watershed or almost-watershed events took place as the '60's gave way to the '70's. For example, at the House of Ideas the X-Men received their cancellation notice and Captain Stacy lost his life at the tentacles of Dr. Octopus. The Distinguished Competition may have pulled the biggest coup, though, with the acquisition of the talents of the King of Comics, and as the critically-acclaimed series "Hard Traveling Heroes" debuted in the pages of Green Lantern #76. Let's take a closer look at the year 1970, when the Kent State shootings took place, cigarette ads were banned on American television, Elvis visited Tricky Dick in the White House, Jimi Hendrix died, and the north tower of the World Trade Center was completed.
Doug: The first quarter of 1970 was a bit of a ho-hum at Marvel. Outside of the aforementioned cancellation of our Merry Mutants, about the biggest things going were a balked wedding between Bruce Banner and Betty Ross (Incredible Hulk #124), and the introduction of Sunfire in X-Men #64 (which, by the way, features Don Heck pencils so heavily under the influence of Tom Palmer's Adamsian inks that I actually liked it!). DC Comics countered with a little relevancy in Teen Titans #25, as our heroes have a hand in a fatality that will eventually drive them out of their colorful costumes, and the acquisition of the license to produce comics based on the Hot Wheels line of toy cars.

Karen: I always wonder what might have been if X-Men had not been canceled -or consigned to reprint-land. The book had actually improved so much, with the Thomas-Adams era. Of course, if those two had stayed on and the title had continued, we might never have seen the all-new, all-different team!

Doug: I agree -- it's one of those wonderful "what if?" questions. Funny, isn't it, that you could probably argue that the Avengers was Marvel's premier team book in 1970; I say that only from the standpoint that the FF were in a state of decline (OK, maybe "in stasis" is better...) creatively. And if I believe all the publicity, solicitations, etc., the Avengers is again Marvel's premier team book. But what a ride the X-Men had in the intervening 30+ years!

Doug: Someone at Marvel must have been pacing us, because the period from April-June offered up only a brief return to publication of
Captain Marvel (2 issues, then kaput again for another two years), and the introductions of Richard Fisk (Amazing Spider-Man #83) and Arkon (Avengers #75). However, across the street DC dropped the bomb with the previously mentioned Green Lantern #76 by the all-star creative team of Dennis O'Neil and Neal Adams. Launching a new era for DC, the elder company now worked very hard to emulate what Stan Lee had been doing for years at Marvel -- bring some real-life situations, causes, and politics to the four-color world. As an extension, in Teen Titans #26 the young heroes threw away their colorful costumes and entered a world of crime-fighting as civilians. And the second quarter didn't just fade into summer -- no, instead DC greeted the end of the school year with the introduction of Man-Bat in Detective Comics #400 (again by O'Neil and Adams).
Karen: Things were definitely starting to change at stodgy DC. The arrival of pros like Adams gave DC much needed fresh blood. Of course in a few years, we would see many of Marvel's young talents cross over to DC and bring their newer style with them. It was a necessary change for them; they had become seen as "the establishment" and had lost much of their appeal, at least to older readers.

Doug: I think DC's continued power in the hands of its editors, as opposed to its creators, only softened their status quo. While we did see some "Marvelizing", overall (at least in my opinion) DC still lagged waaaaay behind Marvel in terms of top art talent and dynamic writing.

Doug: July brought us the 100th anniversary issue of the
Fantastic Four, the first comic from the Marvel Age to reach that lofty plateau completely on its own. The end of the summer brought back the split books, as Amazing Adventures #1 (the Inhumans and the Black Widow) and Astonishing Tales #1 (Ka-Zar and Dr. Doom) hit the stands. But ominous clouds were brewing, as (gasp!) the final Jack Kirby-penciled FF and Thor (#101 and #179, respectively) stories went on sale. After that, it would be six years before the King returned to the House of Ideas. But Marvel's loss was DC's gain, as we'll see later. July saw DC introduce The Unknown Soldier in Star-Spangled War Stories #151 by the immortal Joe Kubert.
Karen: By this time much of Kirby's magic seemed to have dissipated. His frustrations with Marvel and Stan Lee are now well-known. I don't think it's any surprise to state that his work during this time period at Marvel was pretty uninspired. For that matter, much of Lee's writing -as we've discussed recently -also seemed to be slipping. It was time for a new generation of creative talents.

Doug: Quarter #3, otherwise known as autumn, is generally depressing to young comics readers, as the school desk beckons. Apparently neither Marvel or DC felt all that inspired, as Westerns brought about the only news -- the introduction of Red Wolf (created by Roy Thomas and John Buscema) in Avengers #80 and DC's return to the genre with All-Star Western #1.

Doug: As the temperatures dropped, the spinner racks must have been heating up. Talk about going out with a bang! Marvel staged perhaps one of the biggest marketing coups of the coming decade when it licensed Conan the Barbarian and introduced him to comics readers in October in the pages of Conan the Barbarian #1 by Roy Thomas and Barry Smith. The sword-and-sorcery genre continues to the present, and although Marvel no longer holds the license, Conan and his cast are alive and well 40 years later. November saw the death of Captain Stacy in Amazing Spider-Man #90. But it was DC that made perhaps the biggest noise in the comic book industry when Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen #133 was published with Jack Kirby credited as the writer and artist. This was Kirby's entry point for his return to DC after decades at Marvel, and the launch pad for what would become his "Fourth World" saga. The next issue of Jimmy Olsen saw the introduction of Darkseid, and the wheels were set in motion for major changes at the Big Two!

Karen: I don't think Marvel knew what they had with Conan; from what I've read, the fans didn't quite know what to make of it either, and it took some time to become the mega-hit it was destined to be. But it's hard to think of Marvel in the 70s and not think of Conan. He was everywhere, particularly on the merchandise that was flowing out of the House of Ideas by the mid-70s. DC certainly didn't recognize what they had with Kirby's Fourth World. It would take another generation for that flower to blossom!


J.A. Morris said...

I generally like Kirby's 'Fourth World' stuff, but I don't feel it lends itself to multiple readings like other 70s comics sagas(Kree-Skrull,Secret Empire,the Arrow/Lantern cross country journey,etc).
Darkseid is certainly one of the greatest villains(in any medium) of the 20th century,but Kirby's dialogue makes it hard to get through. Same goes for his 70s return to Marvel stories.
So I don't tend to dwell too much on the "what if Kirby stayed" idea.

In any event, FF#100 is one of the weakest "milestone" issue stories I've ever read. Mad Thinker,Puppet Master and a bunch of robots? Please.

Inkstained Wretch said...

Doug, Karen,

I know the figures can be hard to find, but to the extent that you can your series should note what was selling in those years. The 1970s was the decade that Marvel began to outsell DC, which had been the market leader up to that point.

I found this chart very illuminating. In 1969, DC had 7 of the top ten selling comics, all of them Superman/Superboy or Batman titles. Marvel had only 1, Spiderman.

Look further down the chart though and you'll see that Marvel had 9 of the top 40, to DC's 12. Marvel was laying the groundwork for the next decade with the Fantastic Four, Thor, Avengers, Captain America and the Hulk all building readerships.

It's amazing to think the X-Men was canceled when it was the #26 seller, moving 235,000 copies a month. It was outselling Flash and Green Lantern at the time!

It's no wonder DC faltered in the early 70s. It just didn't have the depth in its catalog of titles that Marvel had.

Fred W. Hill said...

Geez, based on that chart, the Avengers wasn't only selling about 4,000 more copies than the X-Men and Daredevil was outselling both of them in 1969. In 1970, my family had just moved back to the U.S. after spending about 3 years in Japan (from April 1967 to December 1969). I turned 8 that year and was on the verge of becoming a Marvel junkie, although it wouldn't be until 1973 that I really started collecting. I missed DC's early steps to modernize itself as overall DC titles still seemed to stodgy to me, although I did like their mystery/weird science titles. Marvel, however, had managed to wed soap opera elements to their superhero titles in a way that reeled me in. I grew to love those characters and wanted to see what would happen to them next -- not just whatever villain they were struggling against, but what was going on in their personal lives as well. Spider-Man in particular had so much tragedy and drama. Hard to say whether the X-Men could have maintained the momentum Thomas & Adams got going or if they would have fallen back into lackluster stories and art. Maybe the X-Men could have held on until supercharged by an inspired artist/writer, as with Daredevil with Frank Miller.
As for Kirby's departure to DC, aside from a watershed moment in comics history, it should also have called attention to the shameful way the industry treated its creative talent. Of course, I'm sure most fans were unaware of the real reasons Kirby abandoned Marvel, especially as there was no Comics Journal at the time to provide the inside scoops. Still it must have been a jolt to Marvelites who had an image of a happy, loving Bullpen churning out 4-color wonderment for their devotees. Oh, yeah, and in the same year that the Beatles announced their breakup! Whether in pop music or comics, fans couldn't count on things staying the way they were. Well, except perhaps that Archie would continually be pulled in opposite directions by Betty & Veronica.

Edo Bosnar said...

Good observations about Marvel's handling of the Conan franchise: Roy Thomas probably didn't realize it at the time, but I think he almost single-handedly engineered a revival of the entire Howard fantasy opus that arguably made it more popular than ever before.

david_b said...

I really didn't know how to handle the question, other than what's already been mentioned here..

Marvel did develop significant depth by virtue of it's basic approach to it's characters and idiosyncracies, and by the time the 70s came about, readers were looking for a change from the sanitized funny papers. The Bullpen was poised, ready to respond.

Their readership had blossomed in the 60s, and when they marched off to collage, Marvel came with.

Kudos to Edo on his comments on Conan. Not a genre I'm particularly interested in, but it was an essential move which opened up the fantasy world, most predominately in artistry in the 70s.

Fred W. Hill said...

One of my younger brothers was much more interested in the sword & sorcery novels than I ever was, but I did collect Conan from about '77 to '83, long after Barry Smith had left, but at least I mangaged to get several issues of his run. Big John Buscema was great, but I really loved Smith's art. Some of the best he'd ever done, and hardly seems like the same artist who did such horrid Kirby swipes in X-Men & Avengers just a couple of years earlier.

ColinBray said...

I was born in 1970 so always think of comics before this year as being genuine pre-history. While my aspiration is eventually to own all Marvel/DC comic released between 1970 and about 1986 I haven't yet read many comics from 1970.

But I do get the feeling (much commented on) that 1970 sees the real beginning of the wave of fan-creators started by Roy. Also that both the art and writing share a certain darkness and uncertainty about the new decade in contrast to the day-glo mid 60s.

Oh, and The Avengers were really good in 1970 :)

Humanbelly said...

Being able to attach one image- the cover of Avengers #80- to a particular date (well, summer 1970)unlocked a flood of memories for me and got them all kind of grounded in context w/ each other. Nice! 9 years old, finished third grade, KOA campground in New Mexico, en route to California (and Disneyland) in an uncanny prototype of National Lampoon's Vacation (wondering if somehow the writers were following us??), night as hot as BLAZES, spinner rack in the camp store & my Dad uncharacteristically saying "sure, go ahead and get a comic".

And now I know for sure-- that was the summer of 1970!

It was years-- years-- before I procured the wrap-up to that cliff-hanger Red Wolf issue. But boy, Avengers really was a fine comic at that point, yes.

1970 was still kind of the '60's, though, wasn't it? The Beatles break-up was sort of the loud last-call shout-out, but I think cultural historians think of the "Sixties" as holding on until about 1972, when Nixon's 2nd election and then Watergate kind of took over all of our brains. And while we do have the death of Capt Stacy in Spidey, the infamous Drug Issues are still a number of months down the road (as well as in GL/GA-- isn't that correct?)-- which is something that still makes me think 60's more than 70's.

I've. . . I've lost track of what our original question was. . . so sorry!

Redartz said...

Great story, HB! Sadly, I doubt they still have spinner racks in camp stores...

Summer 1970 holds a specific memory for me, as well: involvi,g the aforementioned Spiderman #90. I recall buying and reading this comic, and being staggered by Captain Stacy's dramatic last moments. Can't recall if it was the story's impact or what, but this would be the last Marvel / DC comic I would buy for 4 years . I got started on Archie for awhile, but basically forgot about comics until my best friend in 8th. Grade reintroduced me (and boy, stuck with me then). Long story short, Amazing Spiderman 90 is a personally meaningful book in more ways than one ...

Garett said...

Wow, Lois Lane at #4 for 1969 comic sales! She was also up in the top 10 from 1965-69. I've never read a full Lois Lane comic, just browsed through for the art.

Garett said...

If you look at the Shazam awards for 1970-75, DC did very well versus Marvel.

Conan with Barry Smith and Roy Thomas won for Marvel, while DC won with Adams and O'Neil on Green Lantern/Green Arrow, Wrightson and Wein on Swamp Thing, and Simonson and Goodwin on Manhunter. Interesting to see that Jack Kirby won a special award for his Fourth World series in '72, so even though he didn't get to finish it, he was given recognition at that time.

The Prowler said...

What's hard, at least for me, about looking back is the way memories tend to jumble all together. The Beatles break up becomes this "touchstone" moment for many of the Sixties kids because that was a HUGE group during that time. But, IIRC, didn't Cream also break up, and the Yardbirds? Which break up had the biggest impact on music in the coming decade?

Kirby's departure from Marvel was meaningful but that ending also opened many new doors. But what changed, really, for the industry? I know little to nothing about DC, but after Kirby's arrival, were they still doing one and done stories? Was that still their modus operandi? Marvel was still doing a mix of arcs and single issues. There was still layered storylines within each issue.

I think I may be getting lost in HB's camp ground? That rock does look familiar.......

("More human than human" is our motto).

J.A. Morris said...

Hard to believe it's been 4 years since I posted that comment at the top. I still feel the same way about all that stuff.

Doug said...

I think that's the neatest thing about these "classic" posts (OK, reruns...) -- those of you who've been around a long time and continue to be regulars have gone through a whole lot of reading and conversing with us!

And we are really grateful.


Redartz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Humanbelly said...

Y'know, one of the issues of Lois Lane that I distinctly remember (and I went and looked its details up) is #106, the "I Am Curious (Black)" issue, where Lois lives for 24 hours as a black woman. REALLY remember her directly asking Supes if he could marry her in this body. . .and he was unable to answer her (wow!). Oh, yeah, it was heavy-handed as all get-out-- but y'know, it was surprisingly unflinching for a comic book that came out in. . . yep, 1970.


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