Marvel Turned Horror Into A Super-Hero Gold Mine

by Thomas Tuna

All fans of Marvel Comics know the mega-group as a super-hero wonderland. But that wasn’t always the case. In the 1950s and early ’60s, Marvel (born Atlas Comics) was dealing primarily in tales of suspense, adventure, science-fiction and (yes) horror.

The group’s four main anthology titles–Journey Into Mystery, Tales Of Suspense, Amazing Adult Fantasy and Tales to Astonish–dazzled readers with original fantasy tales for years. These titles may seem familiar since they soon introduced the likes of Thor, Iron Man, Spider-Man and Ant-Man. But, all these books began their runs with stories more suited for the pages of the classic EC Comics.

The first Journey into Mystery series was a horror-fantasy anthology book cover-dated June 1952. Joe Kubert, who would go on to become a legend for DC Comics, drew the story “The Hog” in Journey into Mystery 21 (January 1955). And Issue 23 was the first to be approved by the Comics Code Authority, which led to restrictions on horror comics.

The popular alien Xemnu–a huge, furry alien monster–first appeared in Journey Into Mystery 62 (Nov. 1960). The character reappeared in issue 66 (March 1961) and was renamed Xemnu the Titan in Journey into Mystery 69. Beginning with issue 83 (Aug. 1962), the title starred the Norse god Thor, and the anthological stories, by now primarily science-fiction, gradually diminished.

In addition, a second Journey into Mystery ran 19 issues (October 1972-October 1975). The title was one of four launched by Roy Thomas, then Marvel’s editor in chief, to form a line of science fiction and horror anthologies which included Chamber of Darkness and Tower of Shadows. But the day of the super-hero had arrived,, and this Journey Into Mystery incarnation became a reprint title by Issue 6.

Tales of Suspense, launched with a January 1959 cover date contained science-fiction, mystery and suspense stories written primarily by Stan Lee and his brother, Larry Lieber, with such artists as Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and Don Heck. But, by Issue 39, Lee and Heck unveiled Iron Man and the title was never the same. Originally, the Iron Man stories were either 13- or 18-pagers, with the balance of the book devoted to science fiction and fantasy stories.

Amazing Adult Fantasy and its retitled final issue, Amazing Fantasy, was published by Marvel from 1961 through 1962. The earlier issues featured stories drawn by the Big Three– Kirby, Heck and Ditko–and highlighted many stories by Lee and Ditko with quirky, twist endings. The cover of the comic carried a unique motto: “The magazine that respects your intelligence.” Lee in 2009 said these “short, five-page filler strips that Steve and I did together” were “placed in any of our comics that had a few extra pages to fill.”

Of course, the final 1960s issue, Amazing Fantasy 15 (cover dated Aug. 1962), introduced Spider-Man to a breathless world. This issue’s lead feature was written and drawn by Lee and Ditko (of course), although Lee rejected Ditko’s original cover art and had his pal Kirby pencil a cover that Ditko inked.

That leaves Tales To Astonish, which was introduced with a January 1959 cover date. The book featured science-fiction, mystery and suspense stories written primarily by Lee and his brother, Larry, with Kirby, Ditko, Dick Ayers, Heck and Paul Reinman handling the art chores. One such story, “The Man in the Ant Hill”, in Issue 27 (Jan. 1962), introduced Henry Pym, who would return eight issues later as Ant-Man.

Following his one-shot story in No. 27 (Jan. 1962), Pym now sported a cybernetic helmet and red costume and used size-changing technology to debut as the insect-sized hero Ant-Man in Issue 35 (Sept. 1962). The series was plotted by Lee and scripted by Lieber, with penciling first by Kirby and later by Heck and others. Anthological stories continued to appear as backups until Tales to Astonish became a “double” super-hero book in 1964, featuring the adventures of Giant-Man and the Hulk.

And so, comic books featuring fantastic tales of horror and science-fiction led the way for the super-hero barrage of the 1960s. And longtime fans are forever grateful for those anthologies and for the imaginations of those creators who paved the way.

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