Hi again. Sorry I haven’t written in so long. Life stuff.
Not to sound like some old fogey, but seriously, fans today don’t know how great they have it. I spent last evening watching my daughter watch a fan-made video extensively deconstructing a two-part “My Little Pony” storyline. When I was her age, there was a lot less information available about your favorite novels and shows, and what you could get was often sandwiched into random articles in fanzines that covered a wide range of stuff–comics, movies, tv, pulp novels. You took what you could get back then.
Even those were often hard to come by, unless you were a dedicated fan who lived on correspondence. You were pretty much limited to what you could find locally. For instance, there was a particular convenience store we visited a few times that was the only place I ever found Castle of Frankenstein magazine on the racks. When I was a kid, I would save my spare change in a Pringles can, and then dump it out and sell it to my mom to have thirty bucks or so to take to the one convention that would roll through in the summer.
And because I wasn’t a dedicated collector, but a kid who didn’t really know what I liked yet, I would often come home with a weird assortment of fanzines I’d never heard of or what cheap “collector’s items” I could discover in the dealers’ bins, like an animation cel of Captain America from the Marvel Super Heroes TV series, or the one and only issue of Simon and Kirby’s Captain 3-D, which plummeted in value when someone discovered a crate of mint condition issues in a warehouse in the late 70’s.
And then there was Titillating Suspense Stories. I had read about the pulps’ influence on comics in Jim Steranko’s History of Comics Volume I, and wanted to get a copy of my very own. So when I went to a convention in Oklahoma City in 1975 or 1976 (called MultiCon, I think), I looked for pulps in the dealer’s room. But they were all way out of my price range, until one dealer pulled out a box from under his table that had some ragged copies of off-brand titles. The one he was willing to sell me for practically nothing didn’t even have a cover anymore, just a contents page so yellowed it was almost brown and a strong acidic smell that made your eyes water if you inhaled too deeply while holding it.
I took it home and gamely tried reading it, but it didn’t do anything for me. The first story was a novel called Desert Gambit, a plodding tale about Major Tom Kidd fighting an Arab slave ring in the Middle East. I never finished it and never read any of the other stories. And so I missed an amazing discovery.
I ran across it again a few months ago when I got some boxes of stuff out of Dad’s vault (long-time readers will remember that the Out of the Vault feature on both this site and the Frazier’s Brain blog referred to an actual vault where my dad stored my comics for several years while I was away in the Army). And having a renewed interest in pulps, I decided to give it another go.
The stories were no better than I remembered, dreadfully written. But one in particular, a mystery featuring a character called Miss Myst, was astounding. Which sounds like a total exaggeration, but stick with me.
The Case of the Naughty Nightingale, by Irv Killeen, is a pretty pedestrian mystery about a nightclub singer who gets caught up with gangsters. She’s on the run, accused of stealing a ledger which can provide evidence to put a mob boss in jail, and turns to Miss Myst for help.
Miss Myst is Susan Hellman, a female private detective with a special gimmick: a perfume atomizer containing a special formula. She spritzes herself with it and turns invisible, which comes in handy in her line of work. The formula was invented by her boyfriend, Dick Reeves, a chemist who is described as “a tall, lanky scarecrow of a man.” Killeen is really bad about repeating the physical descriptions of his characters. That “lanky scarecrow” thing gets repeated a lot, as well as constant mentions of Susan’s “icy blue eyes.” Susan is helped in her investigations by Dick and by her little brother Johnny, a freckle-faced red-headed fourteen-year-old who idolizes Dick and also studies chemistry, although his interests run more to explosives.
But then, about halfway through the book, comes the scene that changes everything. Miss Myst, chased by gangsters, decides to call on a friend for help, a mysterious ex-mobster who apparently owes her a lifetime of favors. Although I’ve never seen another Miss Myst novel, I got the idea that this was a recurring character, a large, ugly brute of surprising intelligence and compassion, at least where “Suzy” is concerned. His name? Mister Grimm.
And suddenly, everything else in the novel began to seem oddly familiar. A woman named Susan who turns invisible. Her little brother Johnny, who’s constantly playing with matches. Her tall, skinny scientist boyfriend, Richard Reeves, whom Johnny refers to as “Stretch.”
This was the Fantastic Four, twenty years before there was a Fantastic Four. And though I can’t prove that this was in any way the inspiration for the comic, we do know that Stan Lee read pulps, because he cites the Spider, Master of Men, as one of his inspirations for Spider-Man.
But the really fascinating thing here is that if this was the inspiration, even unconsciously, for the Fantastic Four, it was a Fantastic Four in which the woman was the lead character. How different would the comic have been if it had stuck to that?