Welcome to the three hundredth and fourth in a series of examinations of comic book legends and whether they are true or false. Click here for an archive of the previous three hundred and three.
Comic Book Legends Revealed is part of the larger Legends Revealed series, where I look into legends about the worlds of entertainment and sports, which you can check out here, at legendsrevealed.com. I’d especially recommend you check out this installment of Music Legends Revealed for a legend that ties into the first legend of today’s column (basically how one band reacted to having a song “forced” upon them by their producer).
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COMIC LEGEND: Before becoming a hit for The Archies, Don Kirshner offered “Sugar, Sugar” to the Monkees who turned it down because it was “too bubblegum pop.”
In the opening scene of the first episode of the TV series Stella, two of the three main characters argue over what music to listen to. One character wants to listen to funk music while another character adamantly wants to listen to funk rock music. After a series of escalating arguments, a compromise is reached – instead of funk ROCK music, they’ll listen to FUNK rock music. All is well.
That’s what pops into my mind when I think about the great Don Kirshner/Monkees arguments over what kind of pop music the Monkees should play. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I completely understand that there was a lot more going on to their disagreements (as it was about who gets to control the direction of the band), but I just find it amusing to think of a band effectively saying, “We’re not going to play that stupid bubblegum stuff, we want to play stuff like ‘Pleasant Valley Sunday’ and ‘Daydream Believer’!!”
In any event, the song that many use as the example of what finally led to a split between Kirshner and the Monkees (or more specifically, what led to Kirshner getting ousted) was an argument over the song “Sugar Sugar.” A popular version of the story is that Mike Nesmith was so outraged at the idea of the band singing the song that he put his fist through a wall.
The story becomes more interesting, of course, because it would later become a smash hit for the “fake” band, the Archies (with Ron Dante singing lead).
“Sugar, Sugar” is still one of the best bubblegum pop songs ever…
But is that what really happened? Davy Jones has agreed with Kirshner’s recollections on the subject over the years (Kirshner is the one who would tell the story of Nesmith putting his hand through the wall), but it does not appear as though the story is actually true.
The Kirshner/Monkees relationship actually began AFTER the Monkees had been given a full-season pickup by NBC. The producers of the show freaked out over the idea of having to come up with so many new songs for the band to sing during the series, so they ended up cutting a deal with Kirshner giving him a great deal of power over the group.
Two of the notable aspects of his deal was that he would not allow the members of the group to play instruments on the records (just for the sake of ease, not because he thought they were bad musicians, as Mike Nesmith, in particular, was a very good musician) and he would also significantly reduce the amount of songs that the band could write themselves, instead relying heavily on the Brill Building stable of artists. The band ultimately got to choose which songs they would sing, but the pressure from Kirshner was great (and Kirshner would decide which songs were made into singles, A-side and B-side).
When the first two singles were huge hits (“Last Train to Clarksville” and “I’m a Believer”), Kirshner’s position got even more solid. However, after he released an album in early 1967 without the band even knowing about it (let alone listening to it), that was the last straw for Mike Nesmith. He called a press conference to discuss the situation and later threatened to quit the group entirely in a meeting with Kirshner and Bert Schneider (head of the TV show) (it was here that the wall punch likely happened).
Ultimately, a compromise was reached where the group was allowed to at least pick the B-side on their singles. Kirshner, though, decided to ignore this and put out a single with an A-side and a B-side of his choosing, figuring that if it hit big then how could they get mad at him? With Neil Diamond having written the Monkees’ biggest hit so far (“I’m a Believer”), Kirshner went to him again for “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You.” Only Davy Jones performed on the single. Naturally, the band freaked out and this time, Kirshner had gone too far and he was removed from his role as band manager/producer/whatever you want to call what he did.
Now as for “Sugar Sugar,” we know the following. One, Kirshner never recorded “Sugar Sugar” for the Monkees, which is how he typically pitched songs to them – having the instrumentals recorded and then shown to the group. What we DO know is that Kirshner had a bubblegum pop song called “Sugar Man” recorded in early 1967. It was right after this session that Nesmith had his big blowout with Kirshner. When you combine that with the writer of “Sugar Sugar,” Andy Kim, stating that he did not write “Sugar Sugar” until The Archies was created (which wasn’t until 1968) than I think we can pretty safely say what happened – that “Sugar Man” and “Sugar Sugar” were confused in the minds of Kirshner (and Davy Jones) leading to the mixed-up story.
Add to this the fact that Kirshner tended to tell a lot of stories where he was the smart producer and the Monkees were just dumb kids, then you could see how he would certainly prefer to recall it as being a hit song being turned down violently by Nesmith.
Thanks to commenter Tom for bringing this to my attention (Tom mentioned that Ron Dante also said that the song was written specifically for the Archies). For an extensive history of the Kirshner/Monkees squabbles, check out this great article written by Mercurie.
COMIC LEGEND: Before he hit it big as a comic book artist, Frank Miller drew Hostess fruit cake advertisements.
STATUS: Basically True
Last week, in the month-long My Back Pages feature (where I spotlight the first U.S. professional work by a notable comic book creator), I featured Frank Miller’s first comic book work from 1978.
Regular commenter Omar Karindu wrote in to note that interestingly enough, one of Frank Miller’s earliest works was actually doing a Hostess fruit pies ad!
The ad Omar referred to is the following, from 1979…
The above ad is notable in that it actually appeared in Gold Key comics, not Marvel comics. Miller, if you look at the link I gave about his first work, did work for Gold Key at the start of his career, so that would make sense.
While I agree that that is Frank Miller on art, I don’t have any specific proof of that besides, well, the art looking just like Frank Miller’s art at the time.
However, Miller did a SECOND Hostess ad that we know he did, this time featuring the Human Torch.
The “basically” I mentioned before was the fact that Miller had already begun work on Daredevil when he did these ads.
So it wasn’t like this was exactly a stepping stone in his career, which is how I’ve seen it framed in a few different places (not saying that that is what Omar was saying, just noting that’s how I’ve seen it in a few different places). In fact, doing a Hostess ad at Marvel at this time was almost a bit of an honor, as since it was done by an outside ad agency, it paid about 50% more than a normal page rate. So all the main Marvel artists of the time did them – Romita, Andru, Kane, etc.
Roger Stern has a fascinating tidbit about the Human Torch ad that he posted on the IMWAN message boards:
Frank’s Torch ad originally had him fighting a villain the agency named Iceman. Yeah, they had no idea that Marvel already had an Iceman character. Frank caught that and designed the villain we wound up called “Icemaster” (which sounds as though it should be a Ronco product).
Thanks to Omar Karindu for the reminder, thanks to Roger Stern for that extra info and thanks to the Hostess Comic Ads page for the comic scans!
COMIC LEGEND: Howard Chaykin and Rich Buckler effectively just took the characters they were doing for Atlas Comics to Marvel when they each left Atlas.
With Atlas Comics now making a comeback under completely new management (I thought Tony Isabella did a fine job on the first issue of the Grim Ghost this week), I thought it worth mentioning an odd little sequence of events with Howard Chaykin and Rich Buckler when they worked at Atlas.
Atlas/Seaboard was the comic company that Martin Goodman started in 1974 in an attempt to compete with Marvel Comics. It lasted just about two years before going out of business.
One of its very last new titles was Rich Buckler’s Demon Hunter…
The company folded soon after.
Well, in 1977, while working on the Deathlok series (which he had begun in Astonishing Tales), Buckler had Demon Hunter just come to Marvel Comics as Devil-Slayer…
The character has remained at Marvel ever since, becoming a recurring character in the Defenders…
and even getting his own MAX series recently…
Amusingly enough, Buckler then just re-used the character again for his own creator-owned one-off magazine, Galaxia (the character was now called Bloodwing)…
That’s odd, but Howard Chaykin’s The Scorpion might be an even odder story.
The first issue was really good…
The second issue was not as good (and didn’t even have a Chaykin cover)…
The third (and final) issue was done by the great Jim Craig and it just turned the character into a superhero…
Soon after its cancellation (I mean, RIGHT after its cancellation), Chaykin pretty much just brought the Scorpion to Marvel as Dominic Fortune (first in Marvel Preview #2)…
Chaykin discussed the situation with Jon B. Cooke in Comic Book Artist…
I created Dominic Fortune because the people at Atlas were f*ckheads, and after doing two issues of The Scorpion for them, the ditor of the company f*cked be behind my back. I walked over to Marvel and asked them if they’d like to do The Scorpion under a different name.
Thanks to Jon B. Cooke and Howard Chaykin for the information! And thanks to commenter Rubicon, who suggested I do this story about a year ago!
Okay, that’s it for this week!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And my Twitter feed is http://twitter.com/brian_cronin, so you can ask me legends there, as well!
Here’s my book of Comic Book Legends (130 legends – half of them are re-worked classic legends I’ve featured on the blog and half of them are legends never published on the blog!).
The cover is by artist Mickey Duzyj. He did a great job on it…(click to enlarge)…
If you’d like to order it, you can use the following code if you’d like to send me a bit of a referral fee…
See you all next week!