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Conference Calls: something to Marvel over

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The so-called Marvel Age of comics began with the 1961 publication of the first issue of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's Fantastic Four. Writer Lee and artist Kirby are widely credited with revolutionizing the superhero genre when they created a set of characters who didn't wear outlandish costumes and who'd acquired their powers in a freak accident but weren't so crazy about it.

The Fantastic Four prompted an unprecedented amount of fan mail, which inspired Lee to develop a stable of complex, humanized characters. He and Kirby designed the Incredible Hulk--another hit--and the Mighty Thor, but in 1962, when Lee pitched the idea of a skinny, geeky teenager with spiderlike powers, he was unsure whether Kirby or another Marvel artist, Steve Ditko, should be the one to illustrate the story. As Lee tells it in his Origins of Marvel Comics, initially Kirby was given the assignment and he depicted Spider-Man as he usually drew his characters: bombastic, bulging, and over-the-top. That wasn't what Lee had in mind, so the duties went to Ditko, who Lee felt more capable of adequately rendering a "superloser."

Kirby and Lee, however, went on to collaborate on a long list of characters--Ant Man, Iron Man, the X-Men, the Silver Surfer--all of which met with varying degrees of success. Over time Lee became protective of his stories, giving them soap opera twists and cliff-hanger endings, and supposedly he wasn't thrilled when his artists wanted input on the plot--by the end of his collaboration with Ditko the two weren't speaking. Further irritating the artists, Marvel's publisher, Martin Goodman, didn't allow them ownership of their characters, paying them only a onetime fee.

Kirby started trying to get his work back from Marvel in the early 60s, and he went through a bitter and very public legal battle before he saw a page of it--and that only after he waived any copyright claims. In the end, of some 10,000 pages only about 2,000 were finally returned to Kirby in 1987. He died seven years later of heart failure.

This weekend, for the first time ever, Lee is auctioning off some of his pristine file copies of Marvel comic books at the annual Wizard World comics convention. Other featured guests include Top Cow Productions founder Marc Silvestri, special effects artist Stan Winston, and actor Luke Perry. It starts at noon on Friday, July 5, and runs through Sunday, July 7, at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center, 5555 N. River Road in Rosemont. Tickets are $20 per day, $40 for a three-day pass; children under ten get in free. Call 847-622-3692 or see www.wizardconventions.com for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/courtesy Heritagecomics.com Dallas.

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