The Promethean Age (The Last War in Albion Part 41: Marvel Comics)


This is the first of an unknown number of parts of Chapter Seven of The Last War in Albion, focusing on Alan Moore's work on Captain Britain for Marvel UK. The omnibus for this chapter is not quite ready yet, and I'll post it next week.

The stories discussed in this chapter are currently out of print in the US with this being the most affordable collection. For UK audiences, they are still in print in these two collections.

Previously in The Last War in Albion: Alan Moore and Alan Davis had a vibrant and popular creative partnership in 2000 AD on the D.R. & Quinch strips, but the roots of their collaboration go back to 1982 and their work together for Marvel UK...

"The Promethean age had been announced; the time of men as gods who bore fire in the palms of their hands had come." - Grant Morrison, Supergods

This is hardly surprising for what was, by the time of D.R. & Quinch, a well-honed creative partnership. Moore and Davis had been working together since June of 1982 when Moore, having made his bones on the Star Wars and Doctor Who titles published by Marvel UK, was given the reins of Marvel UK’s Captain Britain, at the time an ongoing series in the monthly anthology Marvel Superheroes. Davis had been drawing Captain Britain for the comic since September of 1981, where he made his mainstream debut illustrating a script by Dave Thorpe that served as the character’s first appearance in that title. But the history of the character stretches back considerably further.

Figure 307: Uncanny Tales, one of the many
pulp magazines published by Martin
To understand the nature of Captain Britain as a character it is necessary to understand Marvel UK, which in turn requires an understanding of Marvel Comics. The company originated out of the broader publishing portfolio of Martin Goodman, born Moses Goodman in 1908 to Lithuanian immigrants to the United States. Goodman’s family was large and poor, and Goodman had to drop out of school in the fifth grade to enter the workforce, and finally started traveling the country as a teenager, riding the rails and staying in hobo camps throughout the Great Depression. Eventually he returned to enter the publishing industry, rising through the ranks at Eastern Distributing Corperation, and then jumping ship to form his own company, Newsstand Publications with Archie Comics cofounder Louis Siberkleit. In 1934 Newsstand Publications went bankrupt when their distributor went under, leading Silberkleit to depart the company, but Goodman managed to convince creditors that he could turn the company around, which he proceeded to do.

Goodman’s business model was based on trend-surfing. He changed the insignias on his titles regularly, creating different lines to house different sorts of books, and was ruthless about pushing out clones of successful titles. The bulk of his magazines were pulps in the classic model: All Star Adventure Fiction, Ka-Zar, Two-Gun Western, Uncanny Tales, and, in a title that Goodman would use later to more success, Marvel Tales. In 1939, he added a comics line to capitalize on the success that National Publications was having with Action Comics. Timely Comics launched with Marvel Comics #1, which featured debuts of a variety of superheroes: the android Human Torch, Bill Everett’s Namor the Sub-Mariner, and a costumed detective named the Angel.

Figure 308: Joe Simon and Jack Kirby's
creation of Captain America kickstarted
Timely Comics' business, although Simon
and Kirby were not well remunerated for their
The comics sold adequately, but were not quite the hits that Goodman had hoped for. That came at the end of 1940, when writer Joe Simon and artist Jack Kirby created Captain America, a superhero designed with the simple and direct goal of providing thrilling superhero adventure stories about fighting the Nazi menace, turning the Siegel and Shuster formula of colorful action adventures towards a jingoistic patriotism that proved lucrative. But Goodman turned out to be pinching more than just a visual and literary style from National Comics, who famously bought Superman off of Siegel and Shuster for $130 (roughly £1300 today) before making billions of dollars off of the property, and was taking all of the losses that Timely was accruing against profits on Captain America, thus avoiding having to pay Simon and Kirby as much in royalties. 

Understandably displeased with this, Simon and Kirby began renting a cheap hotel room near the Timely offices and used their after work and lunch hours to develop characters to try to sell to DC Comics, a sister company to National, who offered them a $500 a week deal. Goodman had given Simon and Kirby a seventeen-year-old assistant by the name of Stanley Lieber, an aspiring writer who emptied Simon and Kirby’s ash trays in between writing the text pieces that were needed to get magazine postal rates on Captain America under the Americanized pen name under which he would become famous: Stan Lee. Lieber had gotten the job through classic nepotism - he was Goodman’s wife’s cousin, and his mother had used her family connections to get him a job at Timely after he was fired from a job manufacturing trousers. Lieber eventually figured out that Simon and Kirby were working on a side project during lunch, and insisted on tagging along. 

Figure 309: Tessie the Typist was one of
several non-superhero books overseen
by Stan Lee.
Displaying the cronyist tendencies that would eventually bring him to great heights in the comics industry, Lieber promptly ratted out Simon and Kirby, resulting in their being summarily fired and Lieber being promoted to editor, still using his Stan Lee byline. After a break where he enlisted in the army, where, after a period in the Signal Corps, he got put in charge of writing training material and posters for the military. When he returned to Timely in 1945, it had largely moved away from superheroes towards a more diverse pool of comics, reflecting the post-War decline in popularity of superheroes that eventually decimated National/DC’s line to where, of their large pool of superhero characters, only Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman still had titles. Lee oversaw a massively productive department that worked on funny animals, girls’ comics like Tessie the Typist and Millie the Model. By the end of the decade, Goodman's company wasn’t even publishing any superhero books, although Captain America’s name remained on Captain America’s Weird Tales despite his lack of any appearances in the comic. 

Lee rang in the 1950s doing Goodman’s dirty work again, firing the entire comics department after Goodman discovered that Lee had stockpiled finished comics without publishing them, which Goodman reasoned meant there was no reason to be paying writers and artists for new comics. Goodman took the occasion to rebrand the line from Timely Comics to Atlas Comics, with the ever loyal Lee still in charge of the line. But just a few years later the line was decimated again after Frederic Wertham, a pop psychologist, raised a moral panic about the corrupting influence of comics that resulted in a popular backlash and the shuttering of most of the industry. This, combined with the collapse of Goodman’s distributor in 1957 forced Goodman to seek distribution with Independent News, a company owned by DC Comics, which thus stipulated that Goodman could only publish eight titles a month. Goodman promptly took a vacation in Florida and left Lee to fire the entire staff for the second time in a decade, which, of course, he did.

Lee kept the comics line running with a variety of generic anthologies with titles like Tales to Astonish and Journey into Mystery, all of them based on a fairly generic formula where issues would open with a monster story drawn by Jack Kirby, who came back to work with Lee when other work dried up, a couple of Twilight Zone knockoff twist ending stories, and a more surreal closing story penned by Steve Ditko. But the line was a minor part of Goodman’s business, and Lee was rapidly finding himself on the fringes of the company. All of this changed, however, in 1961.

Figure 310: DC Comics' creation of the
Justice League of America spurred Marvel
into creating an imitator.
As legend tells it, Martin Goodman played a golf game with Jack Liebowitz, his counterpart at DC Comics. DC had, following the moral panic of the mid-50s, made a steady return to superhero comics, viewing them as natural and wholesome replacements for the crime comics that had been particularly targeted by Wertham and his followers. In 1960 DC launched Justice League of America, a comic that put their most popular superheroes together on a single team, and found considerable success with it, a fact he supposedly imparted to Goodman during this alleged golf game. In any case, whether he was tipped off by Liebowitz or just noticed the sales figures himself, Goodman proceeded to assign Lee the task of creating a knockoff title. 

Lee’s title was called The Fantastic Four, featuring art by Jack Kirby. Indeed, it is easy to understate the importance of Jack Kirby to the comic. Lee was responsible for writing almost the entirety of the Atlas line, and his approach to this, later refined into the so-called Marvel Method, was to delegate a lot of the writing to artists. Lee would write a plot synopsis, sometimes an exceedingly vague one, and the artist would proceed to work the details out, with Lee adding dialogue or, at times, simply revising the artist’s dialogue. This is especially important for The Fantastic Four, a comic where the grotesquery of the characters is part of the premise. Featuring a new version of the Human Torch, the monstrous orange rock man the Thing, the Invisible Woman, and Mister Fantastic, whose body could stretch and deform at will, the team was based as much on circus sideshow acts as anything, making them tacit mirrors of the first issue’s villains, a legion of monsters controlled by the evil Moleman. Kirby provided classic design for all of it, giving the book a strange and uncanny kineticism.

Figure 311: Although Lee and Kirby
departed significantly from the formula
Justice League of America with The
Fantastic Four
, it is notable that the Kirby's
cover to the first issue borrows its
composition from DC's book.
This sense of energy was matched by Lee, whose writing featured a level of distinct and vibrant characterization that had not previously been seen in superhero comics. This was in many ways a very low bar to clear - Alan Moore has sarcastically described Lee’s writing by saying that he looked at a field of one-dimensional comics characters and “had this huge breakthrough of two-dimensional characters” - but the fact remained that unlike the Justice League of America, which featured a team of largely interchangeable square jawed heroes, Lee’s team of freaks had a creative spark that was liberating. Mister Fantastic was a noble-hearted and at times ponderous scientist, while his girlfriend, Susan Storm, was a hapless housewife. Her brother, Johnny Storm, was a loudmouth and (literally) hotheaded youth, while Ben Grimm, the Thing, was a furious beast perpetually on the seeming edge of losing his shit and smashing everything in sight.

The approach was a hit, and Goodman’s comics imprint, now renamed once again to Marvel Comics, quickly began spinning out clones, killing lower selling titles like Teen-Age Romance to make room for The Incredible Hulk. other existing titles like Journey into Mystery and Tales to Astonish acquired superhero-based lead features. Lee saw to it that the titles maintained a clear sense of identity based largely on his own skill at self-promotion. With the third issue of The Fantastic Four the title was boldly proclaiming itself “the greatest comic magazine in the world!!” and boasting of the issue’s status as a “great, collectors’ item issue.” Thor’s debut in Journey into Mystery #83 was tagged as “the most exciting super hero of all time,” while Iron Man’s debut in Tales of Suspense #39 was “the newest, most breath-taking, most sensational super-hero of all,” with a cover that made sure the reader knew it was “from the talented bull-pen where the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Thor and your other favorite super-heroes were born.” This image of the Marvel Bulpen was central to Lee’s jovial public persona, and in the tenth issue of The Fantastic Four Lee and Kirby tore down the fourth wall entirely, having Doctor Doom show up in Lee and Kirby’s studio demanding to see Mister Fantastic. 

Figure 312: Membership in the Merry Marvel Marching
Society included a pin that was described as being "designed
to look great when worn next to your Phi Beta Kappa key."
Inside, the comics were just as chatty, with Lee using captions to directly address the reader - the first page of Spider-Man’s debut story, for instance, asks the reader, “Like costumed heroes? Confidentially, we in the comic mag business refer to them as ‘long underwear characters’! And, as you know, they’re a dime a dozen! But we think you may find our Spider-Man just a bit… different!” This false camaraderie with the reader, with the ludicrous claim that information that was plastered on the first page of a national publication was in some way confidential, helped give Marvel both a distinctive brand identity and, just as important, gave the sense of Marvel as a subversive and cooler alternative to DC’s line. This was reflected in a growing engagement with adult fans, particularly college students, with Lee setting up the Merry Marvel Marching Society, a Marvel fan club, which forty thousand people shelling out a dollar for a membership.

With the exception of Spider-Man, which was drawn by Steve Ditko, all of the Marvel titles were originated by Jack Kirby, with other artists being brought in later. Kirby was both a staggeringly productive workhorse and astonishingly versatile in character design. Famously, Kirby rarely recycled characters out of the belief that it was faster to just design a new character than to reference what he’d done before, and his design work was integral to the success of the line. But, as is the norm in the history of the American comics industry, credit was hard to come by. Lee, enmeshed as he was in the corporate structure of Marvel, had all sorts of perks, but Kirby’s work was freely exploited and built on by others while he never got more than a standard freelancer’s check. Towards the end of the decade, Kirby agreed to testify against Joe Simon in a lawsuit over the copyright to Captain America in exchange for Marvel giving him a payment of equivalent size to any settlement Marvel reached with Simon. By this time Goodman had sold the company, and the new boss, Sheldon Feinberg, proved less than magnanimous, offering Jack Kirby a derisive contract that led to Kirby finally leaving the company in March of 1970. 

By this time Marvel had largely moved to a second generation of talent, with Stan Lee taking on fewer and fewer writing responsibilities, even though his name was plastered all over the branding, and was looking for new things to try, dabbling with underground comics, a return to horror, while finally managing to unseat DC as the largest comics company in the US via a brutally duplicitous move involving colluding with DC on a price increase from twenty to twenty-five cents and then pulling out of it while giving the newsstands a better cut of profits, resulting in DC’s more expensive comics being shoved to the margins of the racks. As part of this corporate expansion, Marvel decided to look into foreign markets, specifically the United Kingdom. [continued]


Eric Gimlin 6 years, 9 months ago

Oh, this is going to be a fun chapter!

My "favorite" (if that's the right word) of Goodman's tricks to avoid paying Simon & Kirby Captain America royalties: he actually gave away the movie right to the company who made the serial, figuring the free publicity was worth it.

I'm seem to recall Lee has denied being the one who ratted out S&K to Goodman, and at least one of them is on record as saying they believed his denial. I'm not saying it's something that Stan wouldn't have done, just that at this point he would either admit to it or say he didn't remember.

Marvel did have one semi-superhero book at the end of the 40's, VENUS. I absolutely love what I've been able to find of the series. Take a mythological character like Thor a decade and change too early, convert them into a roughly superhero mode, then throw them into any genre you think might sell that week other than superhero and print it. The results are completely bonkers.

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Nathan P. Mahney 6 years, 9 months ago

I've heard much the same thing regarding Lee ratting out Lee and Kirby. It's possible that he did it, but I've never seen it confirmed for certain.

The whole piece does seem fairly down on Stan Lee, but I must admit that that Alan Moore quote is a corker.

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Nathan P. Mahney 6 years, 9 months ago

Of course, that ought to say 'ratting out Simon and Kirby' above. Years of typing Lee and Kirby together has given me a reflex reaction.

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BerserkRL 6 years, 9 months ago

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elvwood 6 years, 9 months ago

Great timing! I was just talking to my children about the history of Marvel Comics yesterday, and realised how little I really know. This has started to fill that gap in an entertaining way. I've also just reread the Alan Moore Captain Britain stories, fairly randomly. Thanks.

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BerserkRL 6 years, 9 months ago

it is notable that the Kirby's cover to the first issue borrows its composition from DC's book

I'd never noticed that before!

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Froborr 6 years, 9 months ago

Nor had I--but the minute I saw the cover in the context of a post about Marvel, I though, 'Huh. That looks astonishingly like Fantastic Four #1." And sure enough.

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David Anderson 6 years, 9 months ago

Although as a composition, Kirby's is in almost every way an improvement. (The JLA cover is only superior in the respective positioning of the woman hero.)

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timber-munki 6 years, 9 months ago

Me neither.

Wasn't the first super hero comic Moore read an early UK reprint issue of Fantastic Four that Moore's sister picked up for him when he was off school sick. He'd described a comic with a group of pepole dressed up in blue costumes (meaning DC's Black Hawks) and the subesquent Lee & Kirby story blew his mind.

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timber-munki 6 years, 9 months ago

I'd suggest Sean Howe's Marvel Comics: The Untold Story for a decent behind the scenes story, doesn't feature any Marvel art as they would only release the rights if he didn't say anything negative about the company.

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ferret 6 years, 9 months ago

Looking forward to this chapter immensely - although at this stage I have nothing to add!

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Jesse 6 years, 8 months ago

his girlfriend, Susan Storm, was a hapless housewife

Were they or weren't they married at this point? I can't remember; either way, the phrase should be revised.

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John 5 years, 10 months ago

Yes, the phrase should be revised, as Sue was Reed's girlfriend for the first 43 issues. However, the essence of his comment rings true. Back in the early days, Sue Storm was often portrayed as a hapless female, either being held hostage and/or in need of being saved by the men on the team.

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John 5 years, 10 months ago

Yes, the phrase should be revised, as Sue was Reed's girlfriend for the first 43 issues. However, the essence of his comment rings true. Back in the early days, Sue Storm was often portrayed as a hapless female, either being held hostage and/or in need of being saved by the men on the team.

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