Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Alternate Versions

Okay, Marvel fans, you'll have to bear with me for a while, cause this one is freaking crazy. While flipping through websites looking for material on Iron Man's past, I made a really bizarre discovery. I'm sure someone else has pointed this out somewhere before, but I've never seen it, so I'm passing it on.

But first, a brief (perhaps not-so-brief) history lesson. In the late 50's and early 60's, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were working for Atlas Comics (soon to be Marvel) riding a fad of monster books. Stan Lee has mentioned how much fun he had doing those books, featuring creatures with names like Kraa and Goom and Monstrollo and (of course, you knew I had to say it) Fin Fang Foom. But, you say to yourself, how many of those books were they really doing? I mean, sure they did some monster books, but were they really that significant?

Roll over to Coverbrowser and look at the books of the time, like Tales to Astonish and Tales of Suspense and you realize, yeah, they were actually shoveling those out by the metric ton. And looking at those covers, I realized I was seeing the seeds of the Marvel Universe being planted.

Number one is the obvious stuff, like issues of Journey Into Mystery featuring a monster named Hulk a year before the debut of the Fantastic Four. Other hero and villain names were also presaged, like the Molten Man-Thing and Sandman and Vandoom, He Who Made a Creature! (presaging the FF villain Doctor Victor Von Doom in name if nothing else, about whom more later)

But more than that, you can see that when Marvel introduced its heroes, it made sure to hedge its bets by keeping one foot in the monster genre.

Fantastic Four was the first of the Marvel superhero books. The cover of the first issue was dominated by a standard giant Kirby monster, with the four heroes small in the frame surrounding him. The adventure inside featured the Mole Man attacking the surface world with his army of monsters. And not only did the Fantastic Four wear no standard superhero costumes, but they were all rather monstrous in their own ways (Mister Fantastic stretching into weird shapes, the Invisible Girl reminiscent of horror movie staple the Invisible Man, the Human Torch a mass of living flame, and of course, the Thing).

In issue two, the heroes battled the monstrous alien Skrulls, and fended off their invasion by scaring them away with Kirby monster comics (literally--they showed the Skrull leaders the comics panels and said they were photographs of actual monsters--the Skrulls fled, because aliens are stupid). I don't remember the villain in issue three, but issue four featured an attack on the surface world by the Sub-Mariner commanding an army of sea monsters. In the July issue, number 5, the Fantastic Four were introduced to their most fearsome foe of all, the nefarious Doctor Doom, a mad scientist who wore an iron mask to hide his disfigured face (click the pic for a larger version).

By that time, Marvel had introduced its second superhero, The Incredible Hulk, featuring a man who turns into (guess what?) a super-strong monster. And during this period, the other Marvel titles, like Tales to Astonish, Tales of Suspense and Journey into Mystery, were still featuring the standard collection of monster tales.

In Aug. 1962, Journey Into Mystery introduced Thor battling (what else?) the monstrous Stone Men from Saturn. Meanwhile, a character named Spider-Man appeared in Amazing Fantasy #15. For the first time, there were no monsters in a hero's debut story; then again, Amazing Fantasy was being canceled anyway, so they probably figured why bother? A month later, Ant-Man appeared in Tales to Astonish, battling both human foes and monsters over his first few adventures, to be joined soon by the Hulk, after his own book was canceled.

The last gasp of the Marvel monster fad was in Tales of Suspense in Feb. 1963. The next month, Iron Man debuted in its pages, with nary a monster in sight. And a couple of issues later, the Marvel logo began appearing on the company's covers. The superheroes had taken over; the Marvel Age had officially begun.

But here's the thing which caught my attention: while looking through all the covers of Tales of Suspense preceding Iron Man's introduction, I saw a very familiar face. Issue #31 of Tales of Suspense, cover-dated July 1962 (the same month that Doctor Doom made his debut in Fantastic Four #5), featured on its cover "The Monster in the Iron Mask." Look at this cover image and see if anything looks familiar.

Even the color scheme is the same. Either Kirby was obviously so proud of this design, he used it twice, or else he was so insanely busy he didn't have time to do another design and literally recycled it almost whole.

Either way, now you know the rest of the story.

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