As I’ve previously related on this blog, I didn’t start buying Marvel comics on a regular basis until January, 1968 (though I’d bought my very first such issue almost half a year earlier, in August, ’67); therefore, I pretty much completely missed the era of Marvel’s original “split” books, Strange Tales, Tales to Astonish, and Tales of Suspense. Indeed, the month I became a full-fledged Marvelite was the very same month that Marvel rolled out Captain America and the Hulk in their brand-new solo titles, with Iron Man, Sub-Mariner, Doctor Strange, and Nick Fury soon to follow. It was a near miss, for sure; but it was a miss, all the same.
Still, even if I hadn’t experienced the old split book format firsthand, I knew what it was. So, I doubt I was more than mildly surprised (if that) to see Marvel bringing it back after an absence of more than two years with the premiere issues of Amazing Adventures and Astonishing Tales, both released in May, 1970.
The titles of both of the new books were retreads, of course. Astonishing Tales was just an inversion of Tales to Astonish, while Amazing Adventures called back to an anthology title Marvel had published from 1951 to 1962 (probably best remembered today for featuring the debut of Spider-Man in what turned out to be its final issue, the series having gone through two title changes by that point to finish up its run as Amazing Fantasy). But, if I recall correctly, my twelve-year-old self was a bit too dense (or perhaps too literal-minded) to perceive how the old TtA had been reworked into AT; and as for the original AA, my comics history knowledge was too shallow at that time for me to have ever heard of it (by that name, at least). So, as far as I was concerned, these were both brand-new titles.
Why did Marvel decide to revive the split book format in 1970? The historical record is a little murky, but the impetus seems to have been then-publisher Martin Goodman’s skittishness regarding rolling the dice on new titles, in the face of flattening sales across the line. He’d already dropped the axe on both Doctor Strange and X-Men not too long before this, and Captain Marvel and Silver Surfer were both poised to meet their imminent doom, as well. Goodman wanted to have replacement product on the stands, for sure; but he also appears to have wanted to cover his bets by launching four new features in half as many titles, under the assumption that if two out of the four were hits with readers, Marvel would be in good shape. (Conversely, if all four were hits, Marvel could simply add two more titles to the schedule, and would then be in ever better shape.) This decision seems to have been made after at least one of the features — “The Inhumans” — had already been cleared for its own individual title, and indeed after artist-writer Jack Kirby had already completed two book-length (i.e., 20-page) stories for it.
Both new titles premiered in May, 1970, and then proceeded to appear on an alternating bi-monthly schedule (Amazing Adventures #2 came out in June, Astonishing Tales #2 in July, and so forth). I didn’t get around to sampling Astonishing Tales until the third issue, so I’m going to reserve further comments on that series until this September; but, as I’m sure you’ve already gathered from the title of this post, I did buy Amazing Adventures #1. So, let’s have a look at that one.
As indicated by the two lead features’ billing on the book’s cover (whose left and right halves were drawn by Jack Kirby and John Romita, respectively), the issue opens with Jack Kirby’s “Inhumans”:
Marvel had been promising — or at least teasing — an “Inhumans” series for several years prior to the release of AA #1. It’s more than a little ironic, then, in retrospect, that these characters finally got their shot at the big time only when Kirby, their co-creator, was on the verge of leaving Marvel to go work for DC Comics — and also that their first few outings as headliners would be scripted as well as drawn and plotted by Kirby, rather than by his almost constant writing collaborator over the past decade, Inhumans co-creator (and, of course, Marvel editor-in-chief) Stan Lee. This wasn’t the first time Marvel’s readers had seen a “writer” credit listed for Kirby — he’d scripted a Nick Fury tale for Strange Tales #148 back in 1966, as well as a humorous backup story for Fantastic Four Annual #5 in 1967, and more recently had written and drawn two short stories for Marvel’s “mystery” (i.e., horror) anthology title Chamber of Darkness. But I hadn’t bought or read any of those comics — and so, the credit for Kirby as “Writer and Artist” was new to me.
Of course, Stan Lee’s name still came first, as editor (as it did for every other Marvel comic), and was printed as large as Kirby’s, so you might not even notice the difference between these credits and those in the latest issue of Fantastic Four — unless, of course, you’d read the previous month’s Marvel Bullpen Bulletins column, in which the anonymous writer (who may or may not have been Lee himself, but who was certainly working under his direction) made a point of making sure readers knew what was up. (Though I should note for the record that since I didn’t buy any comic books in April, I hadn’t seen this item, myself.)
According to Ronin Ro’s Tales to Astonish: Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, and the American Comic Book Revolution (Bloomsbury, 2005), when Lee told Kirby that he was too busy to script the “Inhumans” strip, Kirby refused to let Lee assign another writer, and so ended up doing the job himself. Most likely, this was because Kirby had had more than enough of other people taking a full writing credit (and corresponding pay) for stories for which he felt he had already done most of the writing. He might accept the situation while working with Lee, who was his boss (although the vast majority of Lee-Kirby collaborations had been carrying more ambiguous dual credits, e.g. “produced by” or “a presentation of”, for several years by this point), but not from one of Marvel’s other wordsmiths, such as Roy Thomas or Gary Friedrich.
The Inhumans had gotten their start in the pages of Fantastic Four, and had appeared there frequently over the years, so it’s entirely appropriate for the FF to show up as guest stars in this initial storyline.
To the best of my knowledge, AA #1 and #2 together represent the only time that Jack Kirby was able to write the final published dialogue for the quartet of heroes who were among his greatest co-creations.* (Kirby’s margin notes for his pencilled FF pages often included dialogue, it’s true; but Lee tended to revise what Kirby gave him, assuming he used it at all.)
The Fantastic Four’s appearance in this first half of Kirby’s 20-page story amounts to little more than a cameo; it ends after only four panels, as the Inhuman named Crystal (at this time, the FF’s fifth member) expresses her concern over her remote family: “Despite their powers — they fear the outside world –”
Over the next couple of pages, Kirby brings various members of the Inhumans’ Royal Family — the feature’s stars — onto the stage, and gives them each a chance to demonstrate their powers in action — beginning with Gorgon, then moving on to Karnak, and finally ending with the ruling couple, Medusa and Black Bolt:
This is probably as good a place as any to note that Kirby’s “Inhumans” pencils are inked (in this as well as in future installments) by Chic Stone, a veteran embellisher who’d been one of Marvel’s mainstay inkers for Kirby in the mid-1960s. While Stone’s stint on Fantastic Four ended before the majority of the Inhumans made their debut, he had been around for the introduction of “Madame” Medusa in FF #36, as well as for her subsequent appearances as a member of the villainous Frightful Four.
Having sent the contingent of Chinese soldiers fleeing back to their base, our protagonists return back to their hidden city in the “high Asian mountains” (presumably the Himalayas) — the Great Refuge:
With this scene, Kirby finally brings in the last of the series’ lead characters (and my personal favorite Inhuman as a kid), Triton. Intriguingly, he also depicts the silent Black Bolt’s inner musings (if only briefly) via a thought balloon — a surprising touch, as these had been eschewed by Stan Lee and others in scripting the Inhuman monarch’s previous appearances.
We now join the villain of our tale — Black Bolt’s brother (and would-be usurper) Maximus the Mad — as well as the group of underlings we might as well refer to as his “brotherhood of evil Inhumans”. Interestingly, as much as Kirby contributed to the basic conceptual framework of the Inhumans, neither he nor Stan Lee were involved in the creation of Maximus’ gang, who (with the sole exception of the flying Inhuman Aireo) were all introduced by writer Gary Friedrich and artist Marie Severin in Incredible Hulk Special #1(October, 1968). They were useful characters to have around, though, if only to give Maximus someone to rant out loud to, and Kirby and Lee had adopted them for use in their Inhumans-featuring two-parter that ran in Fantastic Four #82-83. It’s been suggested that Kirby picked up on these characters rather than create his own “evil Inhumans” for that story in part because he’d consciously decided not to create anything new for Marvel going forward, which may very well be true (although we’ll likely never know for sure); in any event, he seems to have been relatively casual in his attitude towards them, as evidenced by the fact that he has Maximus here refer to the half-humanoid, half-horsey Inhuman as “Centarius”, when that character’s name had earlier been established as “Stallior”,** and also, one page later, misnames Aireo as “Aeolus”.
The expository dialogue continues as Maximus converses with the leonine Leonus (spelled “Lionus” here) and tree-ish Timberius, before joining the aforementioned Aireo/Aeolus at their missile launch site:
As Maximus has predicted, Black Bolt is able to deal with the first deadly missile, by using his ” powerful repulsor force” to divert it into space, where it detonates harmlessly. But then…
Gosh, a “Made in U.S.A” inscription and the FF’s “4” logo! There’s no way anyone outside of a mad genius like Maximus could ever have forged those, amirite?
In retrospect, the final panel of the story, with Black Bolt declaring war on his “friends”, can easily be seen as reflecting Kirby’s growing antagonism towards Marvel. As we’ll see in future posts, the same spirit infuses the closing panels of other stories Kirby plotted and drew around this time, as well.
We’ll return to the Inhumans in a bit; but for now, let’s move on to the second half of Amazing Adventures #1, featuring the Black Widow:
I already had a passing familiarity with the former Soviet super-spy, who’d appeared in the very first Marvel comic I ever bought (albeit only in a single panel), and had also played a pivotal role in my first Marvel crossover storyline. But since I’d stopped buying the series in which she most frequently appeared — i.e., Avengers — back in October, 1969, I’d missed her recent break-up with her long-time romantic partner (and one-time criminal partner), the Avenger named Clint Barton (aka Hawkeye, aka Goliath), in issue #76. What was more, I’d also stopped reading The Amazing Spider-Man when my subscription ran out with issue #85 (as I’ve related in previous posts) — and thus, just missed the Widow’s guest appearance in the next issue of that series. That latter appearance, published in April, 1970, served in many ways as a preview (or, in television terms, a “back-door pilot”) for the character’s new solo series in Amazing Adventures. It did this in part by picking up and expanding on the theme of the Black Widow’s desire for a new life, as hinted at in Avengers #76; but much more importantly (at least in retrospect), it gave the character her second major visual makeover*** — one that was successful enough to last her (with occasional minor modifications) for the next fifty years (and counting).
The Widow’s new black catsuit — which seemed both more practical and also, somehow, exponentially more sexy than her previous fishnets-forward, technically more revealing outfit — is likely to put modern fans in mind of similar espionage-themed female heroes from around the same era, such as Emma Peel in the UK’s TV Avengers. However, according to artist John Romita’s 2007 introduction to Marvel Masterworks – The Amazing Spider-Man, Vol. 9, Natasha Romanoff’s new look was inspired by his childhood fondness for a pioneering newspaper comic strip from the 1940s and early ’50s: Tarpé Mills‘ Miss Fury. The adventures of the eponymous adventurer, who rocked her cat-cowled bodysuit decades before the better-known Catwoman wore anything similar (prior to the ’60s, Selina Kyle preferred dresses), had been reprinted in comic-book form by Marvel (under its earlier name of Timely) for several years during the Forties; but when Romita pitched his boss, Stan Lee, on the idea of reviving Miss Fury towards the end of the Sixties, Lee didn’t bite. Still, “he did like the costume,” Romita recalled, “so we put it on the Black Widow without the mask.”
The other notable thing that Romita did in Amazing Spider-Man #86 (or perhaps it was Lee, via directions given to the issue’s anonymous colorist) was to change the Widow’s hair color from black to red**** — perhaps not as dramatic a visual change as that made with her costume, but significant, nonetheless — and, like the catsuit, it’s a change that stuck, and remains part of the character’s visual identity a half-century later.
Stan Lee and John Romita might have handled the Black Widow’s revamp in AS-M #86, but the initial installments of her new solo series would be produced by writer Gary Friedrich and artist John Buscema, with John Verpoorten assisting on inks. Still, Friedrich and Buscema very much followed Lee and Romita’s lead as they continued the narrative thread of Natasha’s attempt to begin a new career as a solo costumed superhero, independent of either the Avengers (with whom she’d frequently associated, but had never actually joined) or S.H.I.E.L.D. (for whom she’d worked after defecting from the Soviet Union).
One aspect of Ms. Romanoff’s “new normal” that I’m pretty sure my twelve-year-old self gave nary a thought to, but which my sixty-two-year-old self finds a bit of a puzzler, is her current status as an “international jet-setter“. Obviously, “Madame Natasha” would have been financially supported by her Soviet bosses when she first came to the U.S., and her S.H.I.E.L.D. gig likely paid the bills after her defection. But she clearly isn’t working for Nick Fury any more — so how exactly is she making rent on that “luxurious penthouse”?
And, of course, it’s not just the monthly rent Natasha has to pony up for to maintain her lavish lifestyle. There’s also the regular services of her housekeeper, Maria — who, as we learn at the same time that her employer does, is currently stressed out due to problems at home:
Our heroine, who just a few panels earlier has been moping because the prospect of jetting off to Switzerland with a famous film director doesn’t thrill her nearly as much as the notion of going back into action as the Black Widow, figures this situation is tailor-made for satisfying her “appetite for danger!” She quickly changes into her new Black Widow togs, and then summons her private chauffeur, Ivan. (Longtime Marvel fans will likely remember that Ivan will soon be revealed to be much more than a mere driver; but since none of that background figures into the story at hand, we’ll postpone discussion of it until a later post.)
Natasha’s musings in the middle panel above regarding “government affairs” versus “the affairs of the common man“, without whom, of course, “there can be no government!” may have struck me as insightful in 1970; in 2020, however, I’m afraid they just come across as an overblown statement of a pretty obvious, even banal truth.
Once Ivan has dropped her off, the Widow uses her “anti-grav shoes” to help her scale the wall of Maria’s building, and then…
Telling Maria that she has twelve hours to come up with the money, or else, the two thugs haul her son away at gunpoint:
Moments after she’s subdued the bad guys, a police patrol car rolls up, and our heroine decides it’s time to split. Again she scales the building, and is soon out of sight — though not before an enterprising young photographer for the “New York Press” snaps her photo.
“Is there really a place for her in a world such as this?” Natasha’s soul-searching monologue at the end the story reads much as did her earlier ruminations about “the common man” — there’s not much there, but it’s been rhetorically dressed up to seem more dramatic and meaningful than it actually is. I mean, it’s pretty hard to swallow the idea that Natasha is suddenly worried about being outed as the Black Widow when she’s just ditched the mask that was a feature of her old costume. In any case, compared to the call to war that concluded this issue’s “Inhumans” tale, “The Deadly Decision” isn’t a very compelling hook for bringing readers back next issue.
In “Friend Against Friend!”, Black Bolt leads a strike team composed of himself, Medusa, Gorgon, Karnak, and Lockjaw (their giant, teleporting dog) in a stealth attack upon the FF’s Baxter Building headquarters.
Thanks largely to the element of surprise, the Inhumans quickly subdue Ben, Johnny, and Crystal (Reed and Sue are out shopping with baby Franklin). Meanwhile, however, the aquatic Triton has been sent off on a secret mission of his own, to Maximus’ island base. Good thing that Black Bolt is a level-headed, cautious monarch, huh?
Once Triton has Maximus in hand, the jig, of course, is up. Our green, scaly friend sends a signal directly to the antennae on Black Bolt’s cowl, which is received just as Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Girl arrive home — and thus, just in time to end hostilities before anyone can really get hurt. The Inhumans stand down, as do the FF, and there’s no hard feelings.
The story ends with our protagonists teleporting back home to the Great Refuge, and some final words from Medusa. It’s a sobering, cautionary message; one which would have been especially resonant in the era of the Cold War, but still remains worth heeding today:
But now, over to the second half of the book, where, as promised in the previous issue’s “Next” blurb, Natasha Romanoff must make “The Deadly Decision!” Or, maybe not — for the “will she or won’t she remain Black Widow?” question never even comes up in this ten page installment, which is actually titled “The Young Warriors!” Instead, we see Natasha leaping right back into action, as she gets even more involved with the problems of her housekeeper Maria’s son, Carlos. As it turns out, Carlos is a leader of an activist group (called, yes, the Young Warriors) who want “to take over a building in Spanish Harlem, which we will use as a center for underprivileged children!“***** The problem is, the building is currently occupied (and, presumably, owned) by one Anthony Scarola, a shady political candidate who may or may not be the same criminal boss who Carlos owed money to in the previous issue. (The storytelling isn’t very clear on this point.) Carlos wants the Black Widow to back the Young Warriors up when they make their move; though Natasha sees all sorts of problems with this plan (“It sounds like a noble cause, but you can’t just take a building!”), she agrees to at least show up and check things out.
At first, things go well — but, as you’d expect, Scarola soon sends some gun-toting goons to clear out the Young Warriors (and their clientele of hungry children). The Black Widow makes quick work of these mooks, but then the police show up, with a court order telling the YWs to vacate the building within 24 hours. Geez, it seems like you really can’t just take a building.
And to make things just a tad more complicated, the Widow has already become associated “with the militancy of the Young Warriors” in the public eye, thanks to that picture taken by the New York Press photographer in the previous issue — as is explained to Natasha on the story’s final page by Paul Hamilton, a columnist for that same newspaper:
This storyline ran for another couple of issues — but I didn’t buy Amazing Adventures #3 or #4, and so didn’t learn how matters were resolved until much, much later. But just so I don’t leave you hanging, let me assure you that the Warriors do eventually get their kids’ center (when the Widow acquires the lease on another building and gives it to them), Scarola’s underhanded machinations are exposed, and both the NYPD and Mayor John Lindsay express their gratitude to Natasha Romanoff for her invaluable assistance. (As for Paul Hamilton, after helping the Widow out on this caper, the tall, blond pipe-smoking newspaperman was never seen again. I rather suspect that he’d been introduced as a potential new love interest for our heroine, but Gary Friedrich left the series after AA #4, and none of his successors were interested in picking up on it.)
Looking back at these very first Black Widow solo adventures after fifty years’ time, I’m struck by how little they rely on the elements that have dominated most (if not all) of her stories, in all media, for the last several decades — namely, her Russian background and her espionage skills. Outside of a brief bit of dialogue in AA #3 where it’s suggested that New Yorkers may suspect that her support for the militant youth is inspired by her alleged Communism, Natasha’s history as a Soviet agent is barely referenced at all; and when she goes into action, she functions pretty much as your basic costumed street-level acrobatic hero (e.g., Daredevil), rather than more specifically as a “super-spy”. What’s more, these first Black Widow stories, with their focus on local politics and social problems, fall right in with the growing trend in 1970 towards “relevance” in superhero comics — which isn’t exactly the milieu where you’d expect to find an ex-Soviet secret agent. And while the “relevance” angle was dropped pretty quickly, the casting of the Widow in a straightforward superhero mode would continue to be her status quo for several years.
As I’ve already noted, I didn’t buy the next two issues of Amazing Adventures. By the time I returned in December for #5, the creative line-ups for both the “Inhumans” and “Black Widow” features had completely changed. And Jack Kirby wasn’t just gone from Amazing Adventures — he was gone from Marvel Comics, period.
Kirby’s assignment to draw and write new “Inhumans” and “Ka-Zar” stories for Marvel (two of the first, one of the second) had been virtually the only concrete result of a December, 1969 trip he’d made to New York from his new home in California in hopes of negotiating a new, better contract between himself and the publisher. The failure of those negotiations led, inevitably, to his subsequent decision to leave the “House of Ideas” for their main competition, DC Comics — and to the end of his and Stan Lee’s unbroken 102-issue tenure on Fantastic Four. But for more about that, you’ll have to check back here next month. I hope to see you then.
In addition to the references already cited (or linked to), sources for this post included Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story (Harper Perennial, 2013) and John Morrow’s Kirby & Lee: Stuf’ Said: The Complex Genesis of the Marvel Universe, in Its Creators’ Own Words (TwoMorrows, 2019).
UPDATED on May 9th to include reference to Fantastic Four #6 (first footnote) and on May 14 to include reference to the Young Lords (fifth footnote).
UPDATED on July 30 to include Strange Tales #148’s Nick Fury story among Jack Kirby’s Marvel writing credits. (Thanks to JoshuaRascal for the catch, per his comment, below)
*One possible exception to this blanket statement is Fantastic Four #6, which both Mike Breen (in The Jack Kirby Collector #61 [Summer, 2013]) and Tom Brevoort (on his blog) have made a strong case for having been fully scripted by Kirby. (Thanks to my friend Ben Herman for reminding me of this fact, allowing me to make a timely correction to the original version of this post.)
Of course, even in regards to “The Inhumans”, Kirby’s scripts would have undergone editing by Lee, and thus might have been revised somewhat in that process. Mark Lerer makes a strong case for Lee’s influence on the finished product in his analysis of Kirby’s Amazing Adventures “Inhumans” stories, “The Final Family Reunion”, published in The Jack Kirby Collector #33 (Nov., 2001).
**Later, more continuity-conscious creators (such as Doug Moench and George Pérez, in Inhumans #1 [Oct., 1975]) would, of course, establish that Centarius and Stallior were two separate characters.
***In the Widow’s debut appearance in Tales of Suspense #52 (April, 1964), she wore street clothes (more or less); her acquisition of her first costume (black mask, cape, fishnets, etc.) one year later, in ToS #64, thus constituted her first makeover. (For the record, both stories were drawn by Don Heck.)
****Natasha’s change of hair color was in fact a change back — for, as indicated by the panel at above left, she was a redhead in her very first appearance, in ToS #52. However, Marvel began coloring her hair jet-black with her very next appearance, and that’s how things remained until her 1970 makeover.
*****The Young Warriors were almost certainly based on the real-life Young Lords, a Puerto Rican activist organization that flourished in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Among their most famous public actions was the New York branch’s December, 1969 11-day occupation of the First Spanish United Methodist Church, during which they offered a free breakfast program and other services for neighborhood children.