Over the past two years or so, I’ve found myself with an unexpected hobby: reading every Marvel Silver Age comic in order. I’m not doing it quickly, but when I would tuck in my son at night or have a few minutes in a waiting room with nothing else to do, I’d fire up Marvel Unlimited and continue this trek. What I found was occasionally frustrating, frequently amazing, and all very eye-opening. So much of the current Marvel media boom started right here, in the early 1960s.
It’s a great trip through some of the most formative comic books of all time. Read on for more.
I am very far from done. As I write this, I am up to about June of 1965 having read nearly 500 stories. Since I’m still a bit obsessed with charts, I have built a “map” of Silver Age comics in a Google spreadsheet. This covers all (more or less) comics from 1961-1966. Nicely colored boxes mean that the story is available on Marvel Unlimited. Red means that it’s not. You won’t see a lot of red, in fact just two runs are missing from the first 600 stories: all of the Tales of the Watcher backup stories (Tales of Suspense, Jan-Sep 1964) and all of the Howling Commandos stories after November 1965. Everything else is there and you really can read the entire thing, if you have enough patience.
Why would you want to? It’s amazing just how much of modern Marvel comes from here, a period where they were having very few failures. Some of the comics aren’t good, but when you consider that most of the “main” Marvel characters today were essentially created in one stretch in the early-mid 60s, it says a lot. There’s no Deadpool here, Jessica Jones, or Guardians of the Galaxy, but pretty much every other recent show and movie gets its start here.
So, let me give you some context on your adventure:
At the start of 1961, Marvel is publishing a lot of anthology books. The superhero craze (for them) died a long time ago, so you have books like Tales of Suspense and Journey into Mystery which were exactly that: anthologies of one-off stories. Some of them were quite good, but they had new stories and characters every week. A very small number of these would be retroactively considered part of the main universe (Groot was introduced in a one-off in Tales to Astonish #13, Nov 1960, for one example), but I do not consider those when I am planning my read-through.
Marvel made a first attempt at a serialized super hero with “Doctor Droom”, running five stories in Amazing Adventures from June to November. They’d drop him when Fantastic Four came out; he’d pop back up in 1976 with a name change, but as far as “Silver Age” Marvel was concerned, he wasn’t a part of it.
The following year, Marvel saw the launch of Ant-Man, the Incredible Hulk, and Thor, plus a book of solo Human Torch adventures. Of these, only The Incredible Hulk was a standalone book, the other characters were given standing slots in the various anthology magazines: Ant-Man in Tales to Astonish, Thor in Journey into Mystery, and Human Torch in Strange Tales. These stories were shorter than a full comic and would be backed up by regular anthology features in the same mag. A one-off Spider-Man story also appeared in the final issue of Amazing Fantasy, but there will be a seven-month gap before the next Spider-Man adventure.
Even at this early point, Marvel poked holes in comic book tropes. I love that the Human Torch stories have this humorous touch where Johnny and Sue are living on Long Island (because she’s unmarried, she can’t live with Reed in the Baxter Building, natch). He acts like his identity is a secret, but he’s FAMOUS. Everyone in town knows that Johnny Storm is the Torch, but they play along because they figure he wants his privacy. Another example is Henry Pym: he’ll soon become famous for not being able to hold down a secret identity (he’s been Ant-Man, Giant-Man, and Goliath thus far in my reading), but that starts from the very first issue where he’s “only” a scientist. He doesn’t become Ant-Man until his second adventure.
1963 sees the first course corrections for Marvel: The Hulk was canceled. Ant-Man gets retooled twice, first by adding the a female companion in the form of the Wasp and then by giving Pym a new identity as Giant-Man. I suppose shrinking as a super power wasn’t as cool as getting very very big.
On most other ways, the Marvel snowball kept getting bigger: Spider-Man, Avengers, and X-Men all get their own books. Doctor Strange is given the second-half of the Torch books, Iron Man is given half of Tales of Suspense, and Tales of Asgard is given the back slot behind Thor.
The Asgard stories are an interesting change from the usual super-heroics so far. They will mostly consist of stories about a young Thor, although a few will highlight other characters. The writers did not have a good handle on the character yet. At this stage, too many Thor comics revolve around him dropping his hammer and having to get it again before he is forced to return to being Don Blake, but eventually Dr. Blake is almost fully forgotten and won’t appear for months at a stretch.
This year, we also got Howling Commandos and the introduction of Nick Fury. Not only is it a great racially-mixed cast of WW2 heros, but since at this point the war was only twenty years in the past, a number of villains (and eventually Mr. Fury himself) will become fixtures in the “present”. It’s another way that Marvel was fleshing out their universe, giving the place a history. One memorable story had a young Reed Richards fighting in the war; that’s the kind of connections they were forging.
The following year was less of a jump as Marvel had hit their stride and nearly all anthology books had already been replaced by superheroes. Daredevil is the only new book added that year, but they would rush through Wasp- and Watcher-based backup stories (in Astonish and Suspense respectively), before settling on the Hulk talking the second spot behind Giant-Man and Captain America taking the spot behind Iron Man.
Tales of the Wasp is worth pausing on. Her book started as a thinly-veiled anthology stand-in: the Wasp would go in costume to someplace like a veterans’ hospital and tell a generic sci-fi story to the patients. But by the end of her very brief run (eight issues), she was doing super-hero stuff on her own. That makes her the first female-solo lead on a book, but it’s a pity they didn’t have more faith in the format. Tales of the Watcher was (as best I can tell) exactly the same only with the Watcher narrating the generic sci-fi stories, although we get the backstory of why the Watchers were not permitted to interfere. (Hint: Bad things happen.) This is what I know from reading summaries only; these are the first stories not on Marvel Unlimited (yet).
The Human Torch solo-book became a Human Torch and Thing paired-book, the editors somehow believing that half of the Fantastic Four was better than a quarter of it. Captain America stories would similarly struggle to find their footing, first starting in the present day, then deciding that they should lightly edit and reprint Cap & Bucky stories from the Golden Age, before telling “present day” stories once again.
1965 was a fairly stable year. Giant-Man was finally abandoned as a concept, replaced by the Sub-Mariner. His stories are pretty generic fantasy with blue people. The Human Torch & Thing combo limped along until August before being replaced by a present-day Nick Fury, in Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Other than having Fury be directly involved in the action, the old SHIELD comics have a lot of the feel of the modern show. It’s all very “James Bond”, but Mr. Fury even has his own Lola, so it somehow makes sense. Most of Fury’s “Howling Commandos” find civilian lives as spies and direct connections are made between the modern and war-time books.
If you’ve kept along so far, 1966 is when everything starts to really gel. Spider-Man comics have a light relaunch with Peter going to university and Gwen and Harry are introduced. Fantastic Four suddenly has AMAZING stories, introducing Galactus, Inhumans, and Black Panther one after the other. I’m still only up to June, but what I’ve read so far has been great.
What I’m Skipping
Wild West comics (Rawhide Kid, etc.) – They all started before FF1 and won’t have much (if any) impact on the universe for a while. I may end up revisiting, but the point is moot because very few of them are on Unlimited.
Patsy & Hedy comics – Marvel also had teen comedy comics running during this period. These real-life comics will later be revealed to be in-universe comics as well, fictions based on the “real life” teen adventures of Patsy Walker, aka Hellcat. Most are not on Marvel Unlimited and none of them are likely to matter until the 70s.
That’s where I’m at. If there’s interest, I would be happy to update my map and experiences as I get further along. But for now, I have more comics to read.