The 1950s were a transitional time for comic books. Timely Comics heroes like the Human Torch, the Sub-Mariner, and even Captain America got shelved in the late ’40s. And though some were revived for a short time by Atlas Comics, Timely Comics’ updated ’50s moniker, the revivals just didn’t take. People had lost their interest in Timely/Atlas’s brand of superheroes, replaced by a hunger for new varieties of comic books.
The Monster or Horror Age of comics had its creepy hey-day but was, sadly, put in its grave before its time by the notorious Comics Code Authority. Although some horror titles found a way to survive for a while, most were unfairly targeted by the powers that were and eventually had to change their editorial bent or suffer bankruptcy.
This led writers and artists in a few different directions, some went to western comics, war comics, and adventure comics. The real-life dynamic duo, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, did a little bit of everything. Not convinced that the market was yet saturated, they created a new kind of comic book for a readership that didn’t yet know what it was missing: romance comics flew off the shelves in the ’50s, selling exceptionally well as a result of the appetite for schmaltzy teen drama.
The Rise & Fall of Space & Robot Comics – Romancing Robin
Of course, some superhero material did get cranked out. Specifically, Superman and Batman both enjoyed relatively uninterrupted publication throughout the ’50s, but even these stalwart caped crusaders’ stories couldn’t avoid the teenage trend. Superhero story-lines of the ’50s are littered with romantic intrigue and often showcase the crime-fighters’ personal lives at the expense of showing the exciting vigilante action these heroes cut their teeth on.
For me, even though Superman and Batman comics of the ’50s saw the introductions of Krypto, Ace the Bathound, Brainiac, Bizarro, and the bottle-city of Kandor, Superman and Batman just weren’t the main attractions. As a jaded comics historian looking back on the age of wonder and optimism that was the ’50s, my favourite comics are ones that feature artists and writers’ far-fetched visions of the future — robots and all — and a few of the best ones come from people you’re probably familiar with for other work they did.
The Rise & Fall of Space & Robot Comics – Building a Dream Team
Jack Kirby’s name comes up a lot when writing about the history of comic books, and he was no slouch at pumping out space & robot comics. Other familiar artist names are Steve Ditko, Carl Burgos, Don Heck, John Buscema, and Joe Sinnott.
Writers were a dime a dozen back in the ’50s, but without the ever-present Stan the Man Lee both writing plots and editing Atlas’s entire lineup it’s doubtful that Timely’s descendant brand would have published anything. And, although many comics writers of this era have long since been forgotten, a prolific one was Stan’s brother Larry Lieber who would take Stan’s plots and turn them into scripts.
The Rise & Fall of Space & Robot Comics – Oh, brother!
Originally a comic book artist, in the late ’50s Stan convinced Larry to put his pencils to better use. When Larry protested, saying he wasn’t a writer, Stan just replied, “Oh, I’ve read your letters.” With that little bit of brotherly ego-stroking, Stan garnered himself a creative partnership that lasted for years.
No wonder Stan was able to get so much done in his storied career: he had his kid brother working for him. Although this working relationship might not be many people’s first choice, in interviews Larry always described Stan as a good writer, editor, and writing teacher who would only suggest minor edits to Larry’s scripts, never suggesting that Larry needed to start over from scratch.
The Rise & Fall of Space & Robot Comics – The Twilight Zone’s Outer Limits
Space & Robot comics of the ’50s offered more than just goofy adventures, although they often offered just that. With twist endings and scary scenarios, titles like Tales to Astonish, Tales of Suspense, House of Secrets, House of Mystery, and Outer Space were some of the precursors to immensely popular shows like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits.
Much like in The Twilight Zone, stories frequently involve characters getting some kind of ironic just deserts, like in Steve Ditko’s “My Secret” from Out Of This World #3. In it a man named Mr. Prentice is transported to another dimension as a result of coming into contact with a chemical compound he accidentally invented. His lab partner, after forty years of trying, subsequently recreates the compound and accidentally spills some on himself. Sent to the same alternate dimension, this second man hunts down Prentice and blackmails him, threatening to expose him as an alien to the people Prentice now lives among comfortably.
Unfortunately for the blackmailer, when he tells his and Prentice’s story to the police, they just arrest the blackmailer: the officer on duty informs the blackmailer that he doesn’t care where Prentice is from since he long ago established himself in the community as a trustworthy man. Blackmail, however, is just as illegal in this dimension as it is where Prentice and the blackmailer are from.
Although this story suffers from taking on too big an idea in too few pages and leads to an ultimately unsatisfying conclusion, it highlights the far-out scope that these kinds of publications had and showcases their poetic irony formula.
The Rise & Fall of Space & Robot Comics – “Domo Aregato, Incognito Roboto”
Stories about fantastic mechanical men were also on offer. “A Robot in Hiding” from Tales of Suspense #2 (cover date March, 1959) shows Joe Sinnott’s interpretation of the Lee/Lieber Brothers’ Asimovian script. A robot is on the run: the global police force, acting under direct orders from the despotic ruler of Earth Roderic Zante, is out to deactivate all of robot-kind.
The story opens on the fugitive robot in Zante’s throne room. Hidden behind a curtain preparing to kill the tyrant, the robot remembers the chain of events that brought him there: Zante gave the robo-cidal order and the rounding up of robot-kind began, the fugitive robot evading capture for a month until he found Zante at home.
The robot’s programmed trip down memory lane over, he walks up to Zante and presses him gently on the back. Zante slumps over limp; he was a robot all along. The vindicated fugitive robot surmises that Zante issued the order to deactivate all robots to ensure that no robots would recognize Zante for what he is, a defective and power-mad version of the same model of robot that recognized him and hunted him down. That Zante and the assassin-robot have the exact same face is strong evidence in support of the robot’s claim.
The Rise & Fall of Space & Robot Comics – There’s Always a Marvelous Silver Lining
As the ’50s came to their end, comics about space and robots along with westerns, war stories, and romance comics provided good business, but superheroes had started popping up again and sales were surprisingly good. Over at DC, readers were gobbling up stories about the all-new Flash Barry Allen. Premiering in Showcase #4 (cover date October, 1956), the scarlet speedster was making regular appearances in his eponymous title after only a year or two.
Hal Jordan also made the scene in the late ’50s. Appearing in Showcase #22, the new Green Lantern redefined another of National/DC’s old properties. And, like I said before, since Superman and Batman never really stopped publication, it was clear to Stan Lee that it was time for Atlas to get (back) into the superhero game, so that’s exactly what they did.
With King Kirby back among the fold, he and Stan the Man created not just one brand-new superhero but a team of four. And unlike the team of daring adventurers Kirby had previously created, the Challengers of the Unknown, this team was also a family. With a November, 1961 cover date, The Fantastic Four exploded onto the scene and ushered in what we Marvel fans like to call the “Marvel Age,” which saw the introduction of several fan favourites including Spider-Man, Daredevil, the Avengers, and the Incredible Hulk.
But, that’s a story for another article. For now, we must bid adieu to the innocence of ’50s space & robot comics. But parting is such sweet sorrow, for we shall meet a web-crawling wiseacre on the morrow.