« Matt Fox drew comics like they were carved out of stone. » — Dan Nadel, Art in Time (2010)
As far back as I can recall, I’ve been intrigued by the tremendous latitude to be found in specific penciller-inker pairings. Depending on who’s at the helm, things can go anywhere from manna to mud.
No need to dwell on the damage a bad or lazy inker can inflict, and we’ve all witnessed the magic of inkers that elevate any pencils they’re called upon to finish.
It’s of yet greater interest, I believe, to delve into the rare and mystifying alchemy worked by two flavours you’d never dream of commingling in the same dish… like anchovies and ice cream, or perhaps Nutella and caviar.
One such audacious mixture was given a go in the transitional post-Atlas days of Marvel comics, as the publisher’s long-running anthologies were shedding their mostly-standalone short story format in favour of the resurgent superheroes.
First, though, a bit about our performers:
Recently-retired (in 2018) writer-artist Larry Lieber (born October 26, 1931, and still with us), is Stan Lee’s younger brother (who didn’t anglicise his name nor wear a toupee) and publisher Martin Goodman‘s nephew. From day one (he got his start in comics with Atlas in 1951), Larry toiled on the family farm, so to speak, his entire career (including a chaotic editorial stint with Martin and Chip Goodman’s ill-conceived Atlas-Seaboard company in 1974-75). His most notable work at Marvel was his run as writer-artist on Rawhide Kid (1964-1973); after Atlas-Seaboard, he worked for Marvel-related newspaper strips, frequently with brother Stan (first The Incredible Hulk, 1978-79, then The Amazing Spider-Man, 1986-2018). He did co-create Iron Man, Ant-Man and Thor… but hasn’t seen a dime for it beyond his measly page rate back in the 60s. Once more, that’s the American comic book industry for you, particularly if you’re a bit of a milquetoast.
The mysterious Matt Fox (1906-1988) was one of the stars in the fabled Weird Tales (“The Unique Magazine”) artistic stable, which notably comprised, let’s not forget, Virgil Finlay, Lee Brown Coye, Hannes Bok and Margaret Brundage… all singular stylists. On the evidence of his eleven WT covers, one might argue that Fox was the oddest of the bunch.
In the 1950s, he drew a handful of short stories for Atlas, as well as a single story and a trio of covers for Youthful’s Chilling Tales… upon which largely rest his reputation in comics. Peter Normanton, in The Mammoth Book of Best Horror Comics, wrote: « There is an air of disquiet to his vision, yet it charms through a surreptitious blending of the primitive with the mockingly insane. His characters border on the lunatic seemingly at home in his landscapes, concealing a darkness corruptive of the soul. »
This is Beware — the Machine!!! from Strange Tales no.111 (Aug. 1963, Marvel). Lieber, while he’d never be called (or claim to be, to his credit) a master draughtsman, did possess one irrefutable and priceless artistic quality: he could tell a story clearly, smoothly, without undue fuss.
Now, you may ask, did Lieber appreciate Fox’s stellar efforts? Short answer: nope. In this chat with Roy ‘Houseroy’ Thomas, he lets it all hang out. [ source ]
Roy Thomas: One of the strangest inkers you had was Matt Fox.
Larry Lieber: I hated that stuff! Oh, God, and years later, I learned that Matt Fox is considered one of the greats by some people, and his artwork brings a buck or two.
RT: Yeah, but not in comics.*
LL: I hated his stuff because I struggled with drawing, and I was trying to make the drawings look as real as humanly possible, and I had a tough time. I remember I once had Don Heck inking me on a five-page western, and I remember saying, “My God, he’s good at making my stuff look better than it is,” and he was. Matt Fox – if my stuff was a little stiff, he made it even stiffer; he made it look like wood cuttings!
RT: Fox had been in advertising. He’d done lithographs, pulp illustrations; evidently he did some covers for Weird Tales, the magazine that published H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, including Conan, back in the ’30s. Fox did color wood cuts; he was a real artist, but his comic inking was so strange – his line just deadened everything.
LL: One of my traits was that I was reluctant to say anything bad about anybody, because everybody has to earn a living. I wouldn’t complain, no matter who they put on. But one day I was working in the office penciling a western, and Stan walked by. He saw my pencils and he said, “This is your penciling?” And I said, “Yeah.” Stan said, “This is pretty good. I’ve been looking at the finished stuff, and that looks terrible.” And he removed that inker – it wasn’t Matt Fox – and gave me a better one. But I, of my own volition, wouldn’t say a word about it.
RT: Fox obviously had a style that just didn’t translate well into comics.
No, Roy: Fox had a style that just didn’t translate into your own, extremely limited idea of comics. This is, after all, the guy who assigned Vince Colletta to ink Frank Robbins, as well as the single individual most responsible for infecting US comics with the dread malady of “continuity“.
It must be said, however, that Fox’s meticulous line work is not particularly suited to the lousy colouring and printing found in comic books of that vintage. So… let’s look at some original art!
Here’s a chronological Lieber-Fox bibliography, comprising 17 stories:
Escape into Space (Tales of Suspense no. 42, June 1963)
The Man Who Wouldn’t Die! (Journey into Mystery no. 93, June 1963)
We Search the Stars! (Strange Tales no. 110, July 1963)
I Was a Victim of Venus! (Tales of Suspense no. 43, July 1963)
Beware — the Machine!!! (Strange Tales no. 111, August 1963)
I Come From Far Centaurus! (Tales of Suspense no. 45, September 1963)
The Smiling Gods! (Tales to Astonish no. 47, September 1963)
The Search for Shanng! (Strange Tales no. 113, October 1963)
Grayson’s Gorilla! (Tales to Astonish no. 48, October 1963)
The Purple Planet! (Journey into Mystery no. 98, November 1963)
The Secret of Sagattus! (Tales to Astonish no. 50, December 1963)
Stroom’s Strange Solution! (Journey into Mystery no. 99, December 1963)
No Place to Turn! (Tales to Astonish no. 51, January 1964)
The Unreal! (Journey into Mystery no. 100, January 1964)
The Enemies! (Journey into Mystery no. 101, February 1964)
The Menace! (Journey into Mystery no. 102, March 1964)
The Green Thing! (Tales of Suspense no. 51, March 1964)
Larry! sure! loved! his! exclamation! marks!!!
Most of these have never been reprinted until recently, and since they appeared in key early issues of Silver Age Marvel superhero titles… they’ve largely languished in obscurity. Writing-wise, they deserve it. But the artwork is what we’re interested in.
And on that point, it would be fair to feature a solo piece from Fox and Lieber, for a bit of perspective on each man’s respective strengths and peccadillos.
In closing, here’s a bittersweet excerpt from Bhob Stewart‘s vivid recollections of his meetings with Fox in the mid-60s, during Stewart’s time as editor (and just about everything else) of Castle of Frankenstein, when Fox dropped by to place an ad in the magazine.
« Fox came across as a straight-arrow, no-nonsense sort of a guy, and after a brief conversation about Weird Tales, he quickly got to the point. He was selling glow-in-the-dark posters, and he wanted to run an ad in Castle of Frankenstein. With that, he unfurled his glowing poster depicting demons and banshees dancing in the pale moonlight. We took it into a dark corner of the room, and yes, indeed, it did emit an eerie green glow.
He next produced an ad for the posters. He had made a negative photostat of his ink drawing, so the reversal of black to white simulated glowing monsters coming out of the darkness toward the reader. Clever hand-lettering effects added a subtle suggestion of glowing letters seen at night, not unlike the moment when Marion Crane first spots the Bates Motel sign through her car’s rain-covered windshield. »
« … it was the second time I saw him. I admired his tight rendering in ink and crayon on pebbleboard. Then I casually asked, “So how many orders did you get for the glow-in-the-dark posters?” He responded bitterly, “None.” After that day, I never saw him and his demonic entourage again. He became the Phantom Artist, whereabouts unknown. Fox died in 1988… » [ source ]
*utter half-baked, speculative claptrap from Rascally Roy. The fact is that very little of Fox’s original comics artwork survives. For instance, Heritage Auctions has never sold a single Matt Fox solo page. If anything still exists, it’s been in private hands for a long, long time. Furthermore, the comic books in which Fox’s work saw print do ‘bring a buck or two‘, particularly the issues of Chilling Tales featuring his covers (numbers 13, 15 and 17). Read these sinister beauties here!