Sunday, December 25, 2011

King Size Special! Marvel Collectors' Item Classics #7

An Interview with Pierre Comtois
by Peter Enfantino

As related when we began this blog, I was compelled to create Marvel University after coming across a book called Marvel Comics in the 1960s, a fascinating look at the high points in Marvel's first decade, by Pierre Comtois. This was followed up a couple months ago by Marvel Comics in the 1970s. Both come highly recommended and can be purchased at TwoMorrows  or Amazon. Pierre was kind enough to answer a few questions for our readers.

MARVEL UNIVERSITY: How long have you been collecting comics, Pierre?

PIERRE COMTOIS: I'm in my mid-50s and have been hooked on comics and Marvel Comics in particular, since I was 9 years old when I first laid eyes on Amazing Spider-Man #14. At the time, an older kid in the neighborhood was buying comics and I used to look through his stack when I spotted him reading them in his yard. I showed interest and he promised to take me up to the store where he bought them. That drizzly day finally arrived, and with a quarter begged off my mother, we went up to Hovey Square Variety and I bought that copy of Spidey and my best friend bought Journey Into Mystery #105; we never looked back!

MU: What led to the books you wrote?

PC: I always had it in mind to write a book about comics since I was in high school. In those days, there weren't very many reference sources so I used to clip out every article I came across to use for background info when finally got around to writing the book. Fast forward to around 1985 when I briefly owned and operated my own comics store. Business was slow to non-existent so I passed the time writing my first piece about comics. It was for the old Amazing Heroes magazine for a regular feature it used to have called "10 of a kind" or something. In this case, I wrote an article called "10 Silver Age Marvel Keys" that featured the earliest proto-type of the entry system that my Marvel books eventually used. That article was refused so I tried again, this time with "10 Silver Age Marvel Continued Stories." That was rejected too.

MU: You clearly identify four "phases" in 1960s Marvel. Can you explain this theory?

PC:  I began to see a pattern in Marvel's books that I later divided into four parts and called its Early Years, Years of Consolidation, Grandiose Years, and Twilight Years. With that in mind, I shuffled the entries I already wrote, filled them out with another 10 or 20 and combined them into a single article that I submitted to the Comics Buyers Guide. It was accepted and finally saw print in 2000. But seeing it in cold print, I was left unsatisfied. I wanted to flesh it out more. That opportunity didn't come until I found the Silver Age Marvel Comics Cover Index site on the internet. Noticing it had nothing in the way of textual material, I contacted the webmaster, Nick Simon, and asked him if he'd be willing to post my entries on his site. He agreed and so I began writing new entries to fill out what I'd already written and he began posting them. It wasn't until deep into the Twilight years that it suddenly occurred to me that the project could easily be turned into a book! 

MU: Is that where Towmorrows comes in?

PC:  I stopped posting new entries on the site, finished the project, and began shopping it around to publishers. It was accepted by an outfit out of Oregon that specialized in coffee table sized books, arrangements were made with Marvel to use cover images, and things began to proceed well until disaster struck the publisher: their distributor went out of business, soon followed by the publisher itself. I was pretty bummed out about that. Eventually, though I proposed the book idea to John Morrow at Twomorrows Pubs and he agreed to publish the book if I could get Marvel to let us use images of inside pages of the comics discussed not just covers (the publisher thought Marvels covers had already been used too often and wanted my book to be unique). The problem was, up to then, Marvel never agreed to give anyone such access for nothing, not even to Roy Thomas! So I contacted Marvel's legal dept and after some back and forth, I was able to get permission to use inside pages of their comics for my book. That sealed the deal with Twomorrows and the rest is history!

MU: Was there ever a point where you thought of covering every single issue of each decade?

PC: That was my original intention when I began writing the entries for Nick Simon's site: I envisioned writing an entry for every single silver age Marvel book (barring series that I had no interest in such as Sub-Mariner and the Hulk). But before I ever got around to doing that, the project became a book. Of course, when I thought of doing them all, I wasn't writing entries in the exhaustive length I ended up doing. That was a process that developed gradually over time. When I thought of doing every single book, I had in mind capsule sized entries of only a few lines each. But the project got away from me!

MU: Have you a third volume planned?

PC: Originally, the two books that are available now were supposed to be a single volume. They were only divided by the publisher for reasons of length. So a third volume was never contemplated. Although there were plenty of good comics that I continued to buy through the 1980s, I didn't feel as strongly about them as I did the silver and bronze ages. My original intention in writing the books was to avoid covering the books I didn't like so that I didn't have to be critical of certain artists and writers. My philosophy was that if I couldn't say anything good about anyone not to say anything at all. 

MU: You're a lot more forgiving than the professors over at Marvel University!

PC: Over time however, I was forced to make exceptions. 

MU: I'm not sure I could slog my way through Marvel of the 1980s. 

PC: If I did an 80s book that would have any pretense of thorough coverage of the era, I'm afraid I'd be forced to say critical things of quite a number of creators, something I don't really look forward to. But if I did, I hope what I say can be understood by readers as being said from as completely objective a point of view as possible. The same approach I took to the 60s and 70s books. That said, the publisher has expressed interest in a 1980s volume but whether it happens or not will be up to Marvel in giving us the same latitude with illustrations that they did for the first two volumes.

MU: We here at Marvel University have had quite a lot of fun tearing down the legends that are Hank Pym, The Gi-Ant Man and Johnny Storm, The Human Torch, but you've informed me that you not only do you have a defense for Big Hank but that you've actually read those stories 8 or 9 times each and lived to tell about it. Mr. Comtois, what can you say in your defense?

Hank Pym tells Professor Peter to kiss his big blue behind
PC: Lol! I know that over the years, especially since the infamous Saturday Night Live skit in which Ant-Man was mercilessly ridiculed, it has become the fashion to look down upon the character (pun intended), but such an attitude has always made me angry! Not only does Ant-Man have probably the best costume of any super-hero (as the Jack Kirby design first appeared in Tales to Astonish #35) but one of the most intriguing set of powers. Not the kind of hero who'd fit in with cosmic adventures or battles with Galactus (although a clever writer could make such scenarios work), Ant-Man was best used against Commie spies and gangsters as he was in his early adventures in Astonish. Those street level Lee/Leiber/Kirby stories are little known gems of tightly plotted action and mystery. Kirby in particular was really good in presenting the forced perspective of an ant sized hero (that I think would be totally eye popping on the big screen!) The only real criticsm I can make of those early stories was that Lee failed to give Hank Pym some personality, supporting characters, and problems a la Spidey. He tried to correct that when he brought in the Wasp who I thought slowed down the stories rather than helped. Janet Van Dyne would have been better in strictly the girlfriend role rather than partner which left no tension between the characters. 

MU: You feel that the turning point was the switch from Ant to Gi-Ant?

PC: Making Ant-Man Giant-Man was a stroke of genius adding a whole new dimension of action to the character. Now he could take on straight super heroes as well as saboteurs and the like! Perhaps what has added to the disdain that Ant-Man/Giant-Man has had over the years is the artists he's had. Don Heck was a good follow up to Kirby while he inked himself...the only problem was that Lee wrote stories for him that were more fantasy oriented than street level or even super villianesque. Later, Dick Ayers drew some stories and you can forget they're even being visually entertaining. Nothing against Darlin' Dick but he just didn't have it when it came to super heroes. Later, the Giant-Man strip was plagued by a series of unimaginative artists (with the exception of Steve Ditko) until it was ignominiously canceled in favor of that undersea boob, Sub-Mariner! But still, those Lee/Leiber/Kirby early issues of Ant-Man, the Kirby drawn intro of the Wasp, the two part Kirby drawn origin of Giant-Man, and all those Kirby covers can't be beat! I urge anyone to take a second, kinder look at those early stories and defy them not to be entertained by them! In the meantime, bring on the long rumored Ant-Man movie!

MU: Overall, what was the best comic title Marvel published?

PC: The Amazing Spider-Man for its multi-dimensional lead character, it's galaxy of supporting characters (each of whom was pretty interesting in their own right), its colorful, seemingly endless array of villains, it's dynamic Ditko art followed by the more tame but no less beautiful Romita contributions which was likely more appropriate for the next stage in Peter Parker's life, and finally, the strip's overall ability to connect with the youthful readers of the 1960s. Next would be the FF of course, but although that strip featured an unparallelled stream of new concepts and characters, it's overall structure and characterization was nowhere as deep as they were in Spidey...the FF just didn't connect as easily with the problems and issues faced every day by its readers. That said, how can you really choose between Spidey, the FF, the Avengers, DD, X-Men, Thor, Cap, Dr. Strange, Agent of SHIELD, or Iron Man in the silver age? They're all great!

MU: What was the worst?

Bruce Banner displays disdain for Pierre's choice for worst comic series
PC: At the risk of hurting somebody's feelings, I'd have to say the Hulk. Very two dimensional character with a limited pallet of the kind of stories you can tell. That said, Lee and Ditko showed how it could be done when the second series began in TTA...namely with a strong cast of supporting characters. Lee began to lose his grip on the character late in the TTA run and by the time the Hulk got his own strip, forget it. So if I had to say the worst, it would have to be the Hulk after he got his own book.

MU: Can you steer our readers to a handful of Marvel's Greatest Comics?

PC: Most of the ones I cover in my books! There are simply too many only to list a handful. The Spider-Man turns coward three parter in #s 17-19; the Galactus trilogy in FF #s 48-50 and #51; the Sons of the Serpent two parter in Avengers; the Willie Lincoln story in DD #47; Thor vs the Hulk in Journey Into Mystery #112; the "Let There Be Life" story in FF Annual #6; the Don Heck drawn fight between Iron Man and Titanium Man in Suspense; the origin of the Red Skull in Suspense; Dr. Strange's quest for Eternity in Strange Tales; I could go on and on!

MU: As the seventies drew to a close, did your interest wane or did your tastes change?

PC: My interest in comics has never waned, it's just comics themselves that have disappointed me. The steam started to run out of Marvel in the 1980s despite some really good stuff that kept cropping up here and there. By then, my interests had begun to expand a bit so that I started looking at other company's stuff such as DC. By the 1990s, there was virtually nothing left to bother with so I began going back to reassess different things that I never bothered with in years past. Stuff like DCs mystery mags. Meanwhile, for Marvel mostly and DC to a lesser extent, the new century has been a virtual wasteland making the silver and bronze ages shine all the brighter.

MU: I've not read the entire seventies book, but I hit some highlights throughout and noticed, as I said on the blog, that you seemed disillusioned with the path Marvel was taking as the decade wore on. You mentioned Frank Miller's violence against women. Any other instances?

Would you trust this man with your superhero?
PC: It's not that I was disillusioned, at least at the time, in Miller's violence toward women...he didn't invent that, it was part of the pop culture scene of the time and worse today I might add. At the time, I was as excited as anybody else about what Miller was doing on DD. But as the years passed and "grim and gritty" began to take over comics in general, I became sick and tired of it all. What was fresh and original when Miller was first doing it, had become banal and ubiquitous resulting in a shrinkage of comics readership and the alienation of younger readers. Comic shops today are frequented mostly by adults buying mostly adult oriented comics. Few kids read comics today. And why should they? There's nothing there to interest them. I knew the end had come when Marvel threw out the Comics Code. With no guardrails, comics have more often than not swerved off the road into the ditch. Entropy had set in. Continuity has been abandoned. Characterization is practically non-existent. Sub-plots and continued stories have been abandoned in the interests of making sure stories are self contained so as to make it easier to reprint in the form of graphic novels.

MU: Did you collect other comics at the time as well? DC? If so, 

PC: I began to pay attention to DC late in the 1970s when Kirby left Marvel to go to DC. I was ultimately disappointed in his projects there and forgot about DC until Mike Kaluta drew the that was an excellent book! From that point, I started checking out first issues at DC and by the 1980s, when many of Marvel's best creators had migrated over, I became an avid fan of Wolfman and Perez's Teen Titans and Giffen's Legion of Super-Heroes and Justic League titles. I began to check out various independent companies too such as Valiant before discovering the horror stories of Bruce Jones that sent me scurrying to find more of them in back issues of House of Mystery etc. 

MU: did you give thought to a similar project involving DC?

PC: No, I never even considered writing a similar book on any other company but Marvel.

MU: What happened with the original cover to the 60s book? I saw the original proposed cover and it was a great idea. Were you disappointed with the finished cover?

PC: Marvel nixed the original cover objecting to the depiction of too many of its iconic even objected to the use of the FF font in the title. That forced the publisher to fall back on other ideas including one I had and preferred, which was a collage of contemporary imagery from the 1960s. That turned into the six panel grid the book ended up with that was sort of reminiscent of a comics page. I preferred that than the original cover with the Marvel stuff on it. It was the publisher's idea to super impose a blank outline of a generic super hero believing that the cover needed something more to signal to a casual browser what the book was about. He got the idea from a cover of a Thor comic that featured a similar outline of Galactus. The covers have been universally panned by readers and fans alike but except for the blank figures, I prefer the covers adorned with the contemporary images...but I guess I've been outvoted on that one!


  1. A very interesting intervew! It's nice to get the perspective of someone who's been through all of the Marvels already and survived.

  2. Interesting too, to see Pierre's take on Marvel, and other comics, into the 1980's and beyond. I stopped buying the THOR title in the late 80's, and when I look at the new comics now, I do find them difficult to relate to, and very serious. The era we're doing is much more fun!

  3. Jack!

    You've got a good point there. It's nice to know we may be able to come out of this with our sanity intact. Although you read Pierre's defense of Ant-Man so...

  4. For my money, the blog should be extended to the end of the '70s, but no further.

  5. Professor Bradley!
    There is not one iota of a chance that this blog would extend past midnight December 31. 1979. Fear not. If I had my way, it would end at the exact point that Kirby came back to Marvel. I'm not saying that was the cause of the downfall (nor am I saying there was not a thing worth looking at in the 80s -- there was Miller's Daredevil and... ulp! -- it just so happens that, for me, the bridge collapsed when Kirby took Cap over in 76.

  6. Well, I can't judge Kirby's entire run of the Captain in the 1970's, because I haven't read them all. But one issue comes to mind as being terribly disappointing, and that's Captain America #203.

    You Professors all seem to agree with Mr. Comtois. As the youngest of the staff, my perspective is a little different. While fun, many of these 1960's issues are to me, very dated. They can't compare in entertainment to what was published in the 90's. Am I right? Am I wrong? Both. Here's my theory: Everyone seems to fondly remember the comics as being better before they gave it up. And let's face it, as you get older, things such as rent, car payments, and booze money eventually takes precedent over buying comic books.

    I first started collecting (at least moving beyond picking up one or two a month at the convenience store) Marvel and D.C. back in 1987. After the 90's, as the new millennium began, they just didn't seem that good anymore, but I had also had more important things going on in my life that made comic reading not very exciting. So maybe, everyone's opinion of their favorite era of story telling has more to do with when they first had a big love for the genre. I dunno, you tell me?

    In my humble opinion, the best era was the 90's, followed by the 70's, because the sheer amount of titles just provided more entertainment then the 80's, which would be next, followed by the 60's. As for the new millenium? I've read some good stuff. A comic shop is only a few blocks away from my cave, so I'll go pop in every once in awhile. The best part of this era, is that many villains are given their spotlight for adventure such as Marvel's the Taskmaster, Green Goblin, Mr. Hyde, and D.C.'s Lex Luthor, Joker and the Flash's Rogues Gallery.

    Of the few comics I do buy nowadays, they usually highlight the super-villains. Something about their antics seems more intriguing then the heroes.

  7. Tom:
    Interesting thoughts... I think a lot of what I still love as an adult are the things that I read/saw at an especially impressionable age. Like these 1960's comics, or a show called "The Outer Limits" to name a couple...

  8. I also agree that whatever you happened upon at an impressionable age is likely going to stick with you the longest.

    I didn't really get into comics until the 80s, and to me discovering 'classics' was finding the Byrne/Claremont X-Men, and Shang-Chi Master of Kung Fu. To be honest, with those titles as reference points, it's tough to appreciate a lot of the more subdued artistic styles that were common in the 60s. Sure, all of John Byrne's characters basically look alike (male and female), but there's something about them that I find much more engaging than Steve Ditko's characters.

    And I'll even throw Tom a bone by admitting there was good stuff published in the 90s (heck, Sandman remains one of the greatest comic books of all time), but by sheer volume there was a much higher percentage of crap published then than there was anytime prior.

  9. John-

    I was going to disagree with you over the 90's producing the most crap out of all the decades, but then I had a flashback of me buying all those stupid Marvel hologram covers for titles that I didn't even like! They should have left that gimmick after the one Silver Surfer issue. Then it would have been fine.

    As for the decades, I guess it's all subjective depending on how the writers have taken your favorite characters over the years. To me, the Thing's Marvel Two-In-One years were his best. It also depends on your tastes for the various talents that make up an issue or series long run. Some people I knew, were put off by a certain artist, while me personally, could get past sub-par artwork if the story was good enough. Also, in the 90's, I couldn't agree with you more when it came to Marvel. I did think that the 90's, for D.C., was definitely one of their better decades. They did come up with some great stuff over at Vertigo after all.

    Out of curiosity, what did you think of Marvel's Star Wars run? That is to assume you've read them all.


    Too bad all creations in television, serial novels, movies, or comics didn't have The Outer Limits Magic.

  10. Neil Gaiman's Sandman is a great example of something great out of the 90s. Of course that is so good, I often don't think of it as 'just' a comic.

    I have read all 107 issues of Marvel's Star Wars run, which definitely had its ups and downs (yes, more downs). I was never a fan of Carmine Infantino's art, although I did enjoy some of the stories from his era. We got good stuff from Al Williamson and Gene Day, and for my money the greatest Star Wars comic artist was Tom Palmer. There are some great stories from issue 50 through the early 60s, although your mileage may vary. :)

  11. John-

    I've only read about 20 issues in the series. I wasn't particularly impressed by most of them. I think I gave up buying them after purchasing the issue that had the green rabbit alien on the cover.

    However, I must say that issue #29 was pretty awesome. A dark, stand alone tale that featured Darth Vader taking on a cyborg mercenary. Not sure if you liked that one, but if there were any other issues that come to your mind, that were similar to that story, please let me know!

  12. Tom -

    Here are my favorites (and I'll admit upfront to even enjoying the Seven Samurai rip-off (issues 7-9) that featured the big green rabbit).

    Issue 28: A Han/Chewie story with (pre-slug) Jabba the Hutt (which I enjoyed despite it being illustrated by Infantino)

    Issue 50: A flashback story with Han Solo prior to the release of Return of the Jedi

    Issue 60-63: The fan favorite Shira Brie arc

    Issue 68-69: A two part arc with Mandalorians illustrated by Gene Day