Talk about timing. I let my FTB reviews go for so long that Alter Ego #95, July 2010 came out, featuring an extra long Roy Thomas article detailing the inside stories behind the whole run of Not Brand Echh #1-13. You can be sure I’ll be referencing that issue here and in the upcoming Brechh reviews.
Let’s start with the name. We all know the series as “Not Brand Echh” but the indicia in this issue call it “Brand Echh.” That’s what Stan calls it, too, on the Bullpen Bulletins page in Amazing Spider-Man #51, August 1967 and in other comics of that month. In his article, Roy goes into detail about how advertisers used to refer to their competition as “Brand X,” a term Stan used in the letters page of Amazing Spider-Man #31, December 1965, changing it to “Brand Echh” in the letters page of Fantastic Four #43, October 1965, a natural enough name for a humor comic except that the characters spoofed were mostly Marvel’s own. The cover features the legend, “Who Says a Comic Book has to be Good??” and then answers the question with, “Not Brand Echh.” In other words, the title is “Brand Echh,” who doesn’t say a comic has to be good. But, looking at the logo, it’s hard to think the title is anything other than “Not Brand Echh,” especially since the title seems to be saying that this dopey comic isn’t “Brand Echh” even though it certainly looks like it is. Apparently, all of the readers thought the title was “Not Brand Echh” too and, by Not Brand Echh #4, November 1967, the indicia gives in and calls it that too.
Our next stop is the cover, which we might as well look at in depth since it is one of only three places where Spidey appears in this issue. It features a wonderful Jack Kirby illustration, lampooning some of his best-known characters. Kirby’s art is already bigger than life, tilting toward the heroic over the realistic. It isn’t much of a stretch to take that same bigger-than-life style and put a comedic spin on it. He’d done it before in the 1950s with Stuntman and Fighting American (both brilliant and worth checking out). This cover has, from left to right, Dr. Doom, the Thing, Mr. Fantastic, the Invisible Girl, the Human Torch, and the Silver Surfer recoiling in terror as a figure approaches them. (Okay, let’s do this right and give them their Brand Echh names. Dr. Bloom, the Thung, Mr. Fantastical, the Inevitable Girl, Human Scorch, and Silver Burper.) The figure has his back to us and seems to be striding purposefully and fearlessly toward the terrified group, but, although he seems to be wearing a silver helmet, gloves and boots (it isn’t until Not Brand Echh #5, December 1967 that his helmet becomes a cooking pot), his costume is a pair of red flannel BVDs complete with the trapdoor in the back. The recoiling figures each have their own posture and bit of dialogue. (My favorites are the Human Scorch biting his nails and the Silver Burper hiding behind his surfboard.) All of which comes out to say, “Marvel unleashed it at last! Wotta revoltin’ development! It’s absurd! It’s insane! It’s…Forbush Man!”
And so, a word about Irving Forbush. He first appeared as the mascot of Atlas’ satire magazine Snafu, part of a grand tradition spearheaded by Mad’s Alfred E. Neumann but also eventually including Cracked’s Sylvester P. Smythe, Sick’s Huckleberry Fink, and Marvel’s own Irving Nebbish and later Obnoxio the Clown in Crazy. Snafu only lasted three issues but still gave us The Forbush Family History and some drawings showing his face, one of which is reproduced here from the above website. Although the magazine folded early, Stan must have liked Irv’s name. He kept using it in letter pages, Bullpen Bulletins and story credits as the Atlas 1950s became the Marvel 1960s. If Marvel was going to produce a comic that was a satire on super-heroes, it was a natural to take their old satire mascot whose name had become familiar to Marvelites all over and make him a super-hero.
More on Forbush Man in later Echh reviews. There are two other figures still to mention on this cover. One is a Dr. Bloom henchman on his hands and knees behind the Silver Burper and the other is a cat on the far right, scared so much he is rising up on his haunches and his hair is standing on end. That cat is what makes the cover to me. There’s something just so out of place about him but so appropriate. Every time I see that wide-eyed ridiculous cat, I smile.
On the bottom right is a slogan, “The Comic Magazine for Non-Believers Who Hate Comic Magazines!” which is completely false, of course, because no one who hates comic magazines would have the comic knowledge needed to find any of this stuff remotely funny. And the bottom right has four purported quotes from Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Gary Friedrich and Sol Brodsky that I’m not going to bother to go into.
So, that’s the cover. But, didn’t I say that Spider-Man was on there? He is, but not in the main illustration. There is a small drawing in the small box above the price and issue number that usually features the lead character in Marvel comics of the time. This panel shows various Marvel super-heroes on strike, protesting that Marvel is publishing Brand Echh. Thor is there. The Hulk, Goliath, Quicksilver, Hawkeye, Captain Marvel. And Spider-Man. Spidey is right up in front, holding the sign that reads, “Marvelites Arise!!” So, there’s one of the three Spidey appearances. The next one is on the Contents Page.
Like everything else in Brand Echh, the Contents Page is controlled chaos… or rather order designed to resemble chaos. Using panels taken from the stories themselves, the page presents us with the four stories featured within but the page is dominated by the creator credits, which are written on a huge and apparently heavy block that Mr. Fantastic struggles to lift. Spidey is underneath the block, looking half-crushed, sweat flying off his head… a head that is, you’ll note if you look carefully, actually upside down. (The page uses page 7 panel 2 of the 1st story, page 3 panel 4 of the 2nd story, page 4 panel 2 of the 3rd story, and a revamped page 3 panel 3 of the 4th story to illustrate the contents.)
The humor of Brand Echh is heavily influenced by Mad, especially the first 23 issues when Mad was still a comic book. It features parodies of comic strips (although Stan chose to lampoon his own material rather than go after everyone else) with plenty of sight gags, overly-dramatic dialogue, and an editorial attitude of “if you want to read this junk, it’s up to you.” In fact, Stan lays it right on the line on the Contents Page when he writes, “We’ve tried to warn you! Now, if you still wanna keep reading, don’t blame us…We’ve got our own troubles!” Well, we’re going to keep reading but, since there’s only one more Spidey showing, we’re going to read sort of quickly.
The Fabulous Fantastical Four Suffer Thru the Saga of…the Silver Burper! is, like the actual Fantastic Four series of the time, by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and is a lampoon of their “Dr. Doom steals the Silver Surfer’s power” story from Fantastic Four #57-60, December 1966-March 1967, one of the highlights of their run.
In the Bodster Building, Weed Wichards, leader of the Fantastical Four puts on his molecular twangulator, and dons his cosmic beanie cap in his latest attempt to turn the Thung back into “normal Bim Grimm.” Weed shoves a bubbling test tube at the Thung. “Drink it, Bim,” he says, “or I’ll belt you with a ten-syllable word!” Shrew Storm protects Weed with her “inevitable force shield” while the Thung name drops “Wancy Street” and “my dear old Aunt Pneumonia.” As soon as Weed threatens to “explain the Negative Zone to you again,” the Thung drinks the formula. Weed then scares the interfering Human Scorch away by turning himself into “the one thing that scares you,” a fire hydrant. Scorch races off, name-dropping “Quiet Slingfoot.” Weed’s formula works as the Thung turns into the Inedible Bulk.
Meanwhile, the Silver Burper rides his board “pogo-stick style” through the mountains of Batveria. Dr. Bloom, “the ex-dentist who turned to super-villainy, for the sheer sport of it,” spots him. (Doc owns an iron maiden with “Patsy Walker” written on it. I know who Patsy is…at this time, one of Marvel’s romance comics leads…but this joke eludes me. Anybody understand it?) Deciding he must possess the surfboard, Bloom comes up with “the most sinister scheme since continued stories,” which is to “destroy him with goodness.” Wearing a halo and playing a harp, Bloom coerces the Burper into grasping a device that steals his powers. Gloating, Bloom says, “Slaves! Come and take the nitwit away!” Of course, his two henchmen try to cart Bloom away. “I meant the other nit-wit!” Bloom says.
The henchmen cart the Burper away. (Bloom’s tunic now has a slogan written on it, just for we Spidey fans: “All the way with J.J.J.!” This is a take-off on the 1964 Lyndon Johnson campaign slogan, “All the way with LBJ!”) Bloom puts the power to its first test. “Shazam!” he shouts (the original Captain Marvel’s power-summoning word, as if you didn’t know) and fires a blast at the ceiling, which collapses on him. “I always knew Lee and Kirby were finks!” he says.
The Fantastical Four arrive in Batveria (the “4” is backward on their jerseys, while the Thung has his rock body again but has a Skrull head). Dr. Bloom uses the Burper’s power to create a “gigantic growing dandelion” that the Four fly right into. (The Thung’s head now looks like the Mandarin.) “Y’know why everyone loves our stories?” says Shrew, “They’re so realistic!” The heroes sneeze themselves out of the dandelion. (Weed’s jersey now as a Roman numeral IV. The Thung now has Thor’s head. “So be it, ya creep!” he says.) (At various times, either Weed or Shrew’s jersey has a question mark, an exclamation point, a clock face pointing to four o’clock, “Fore,” “What 4?” and “4 Sale.”) Weed and Bloom end up in a shouting match where they try to top each other. “I have far more power than you!” says Bloom. “But I know more big words!” says Weed. And so on. Bloom summons the surfboard by whistling. The sound effect is “Chloe!” (Which, I assume, is a reference to the 1927 Louis Armstrong song, later lampooned by Spike Jones, that begins, “Chloe, Chloe, someone’s calling.”) The board clobbers Bloom in the back of the head. Having a temper tantrum, Bloom declares, “The only way for me to calm down is by destroying the whole world!” “It’s what mankind deserves for reading Brand Echh!” says Shrew. But before Bloom can make good on his threat he sees “that horrible face!” Crying, “You can keep your ol’ world! I don’t want it! I just wanna get away from that face!” Bloom runs away from the Thung who now have Dr. Bloom’s head. Even though the Thung declares, “this formula…just ain’t got it,” he keeps drinking it. “I’m getting’ to like it!” he says, now with Aunt May’s head. The final caption reads, “Continued next ish…(And the Next…) (And the Next…) (And the Next…) (And the Next…)”
There’s no doubt that seeing Stan and Jack making fools of themselves is lots of fun but this story is so self-referential that you not only have to be a Marvel reader to get half the jokes, you have to be a Fantastic Four reader and maybe even a Fantastic Four #57-60 reader to fully appreciate it. It helps to know that Reed Richards tried over and over to cure the Thing, that Dr. Doom actually did steal the Silver Surfer’s power, that many Marvel series were continued issue after issue, and that the various name-drops refer to Yancy Street, Aunt Petunia and Wyatt Wingfoot, all from the FF mythos. With all of that, it comes as no surprise that Stan also references Jack and himself. So, assuming you know all this stuff, is the story funny? Not really. There’s only one bit in the whole story that makes me laugh (it’s the Thung with Thor’s head saying, “So be it, ya creep,” which is funny only if you know the characters of Thor and the Thing and how incongruous it is to put them both together.) But, let’s face it, it’s kooky and different and is so very aware of the absurdities of the “World’s Greatest Comic Magazine” that I give it three webs.
Now the comic gets really strange. Not for the stories themselves but for what series are lampooned. First of all, a Western, of all things, specifically the Two-Gun Kid as “the Two-Gone Kid” in…
The Fastest Gums in the West! in which the Rawhead Kid and Kid Cold get a hold of a stagecoach’s dropped strongbox and, when they discover it is filled with gold, decide to retire to Miami Beach. Madd Hogg, “boy lawyer” and his sidekick Bum-Bum (whom Madd keeps calling Dumb-Dumb) witness this and Madd decides to stop them as the Too-Gone Kid, telling Bum-Bum to “go tell the town I’m bringin’ in the Kids.” Riding up on his horse Blunder, Too-Gone takes on the others. He thinks he is getting help from the Ghostly Rider but it turns out to be the Hey-Jacks White Knight instead. But then a posse rides up, led by Sheriff Bad Brett, and featuring Bum-Bum, an Indian, and the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland. Too-Gone assumes they are there to help him but they are really there to arrest him. “You’re the varmint we’re after,” says the Sheriff, “an’ Bum-Bum led us right to yuh!” (Why are they after Two-Gone? “How’ll we lick the traffic problem while a crazy masked man’s always riding’ through the street?” says the Sheriff.) As they drag Two-Gone away, Bum-Bum says, “Ah told ‘im he shouldn’ta called me Dumb-Dumb.”
Let’s dispense with the real names first, most of which you can probably figure out. Rawhead Kid and Kid Cold are based on Rawhide Kid and Kid Colt, of course. Madd Hogg is Matt Hawk, the secret identity of the Two-Gun Kid. Ghostly Rider is the western Ghost Rider, now called Phantom Rider. (The Johnny Blaze Ghost Rider is still five years away at this point.) Two-Gun’s actual horse is Thunder and Two-Gun’s actual partner is Boom-Boom Brown. The Hey-Jacks White Knight is a take-off on a commercial of the time for Ajax detergent. As the jingle, containing the slogan, “Stronger than dirt,” is sung, the Ajax White Knight races around the country restoring people’s dirty clothes to white. I suspect that Sheriff Bad Brett is just a take-off on “Bad Breath” If there’s more to him than that, please do let me know.
The story, written by Roy Thomas and drawn by Marie Severin, is filled with sight gags. There’s the various “Come back, Shane!” signs, culminating with “Forget the whole thing, Shane! We just rented your room!” There’s the signpost pointing to “Dylan Thomas,” “Bob Dylan,” and “Matt Dillon,” then the subsequent Bob Dylan-related “Desolation Row” signpost three panels later. There’s the “Nick Fury” cactus, wearing an eyepatch and smoking a cigar. And there’s the 1964-related campaign buttons on Bum-Bum’s hat. First, the Barry Goldwater “AuH2O in ’64” button. (An actual slogan from the time. Au=Gold, H2O=Water, get it?) Then, “A Choice Not an Echh-o!” (Another Goldwater slogan but with the “Echh” joke included.) Then, “All the Way with LBJ,” a Lyndon Johnson slogan but with a mushroom cloud included, an anti-war button of the time. In Alter Ego #95, Roy recalls that Stan called him into his office over this button. Stan was sure the button had been added after he had seen the proofs, since he wouldn’t have okayed it. Roy told him it was already there. “Stan, however, was adamant,” Roy writes, “and, under his continued insistence that the button must’ve been altered after his proofing, I’m afraid I got a bit hot under the collar myself. I informed him that if he was accusing me of lying, as he seemed to be coming dangerously close to doing, I was out of there…quit…finis.” Soon after, Stan apologized, explained his anger, and Roy did not quit after all.
My favorite laugh moment in this story is when Madd runs into a phone booth to change into his Too-Gone outfit. Bum-Bum tells him he doesn’t want to do that. Why? “Cause the phone ain’t invented yet! Yore changin’ in a mirage!” Then the phone booth disappears, leaving Too-Gone in his Union suit. I like the punchline but I particularly like the anachronism of Bum-Bum explaining that the phone isn’t invented yet. Tickles me every time. I also like the panel is which Bad Brett’s crummy-so-smelly-it-has-flies-circling-it hat says, “Bought on Carnaby Street” on it. London’s Carnaby Street was the capital of Mod Fashion at the time (or so the media told us) so imagine what that slogan on that crummy hat means to fashion, to the media and to Brett’s crummy hat.
All of this leads up to the last caption in the last panel, which reads, “Okay, Frantic One! Now, don’t miss the real thing in Two-Gun Kid #89! It’s even funnier!” This finally explains the inclusion of this story. “Echh” is not only parodying stories you’ve already read, such as FF #57-60 but is using parody to get you to read a story you probably haven’t read, in Two-Gun Kid #89, September 1967 (which features the three Kids in “Three Rode Together”.) Making the parody work both sides of the aisle. Pretty clever. But it still only gets one and a half webs.
Next up is The Human Scorch versus the Sunk-Mariner in the Battle of the Century!, a parody of a Golden Age story from Marvel Mystery Comics #9, July 1940, which seems to be an even less likely parody subject than the Western story until you realize the actual story had recently been reprinted in Fantasy Masterpieces #8, April 1967.
In this labored take-off, the Sunk-Mariner battles the Scorch around New York City. The Scorch takes a moment to visit the police commissioner who introduces him to Betty Bean, “Sunk-Mariner’s only friend.” (Based on Betty Dean, Subby’s Golden Age co-star). While flirting with Betty, the Scorch leans up against the wall while still aflame and burns right through the wall. As he falls out, Spidey, clinging to the wall in his last appearance in this issue, peeks around the corner and says, “Oops! Wrong strip!” (He ain’t kidding! It’s the wrong strip for all of us!) The Sunky-Scorch battle continues until interrupted by Chaplain America (called “Charlie America” in later Brecch parodies.) “Chap” tells them that he “can’t stand any more of these corny stories from the Golden Age. Sure I realize they’re classics and all that but they’re old hat, nowadays! That kind’a fight is old-fashioned, out-dated! That’s why Scorchy was replaced with a teen-age hot-rodder and you, Sunky, had your throne usurped by a guy who talks like a refugee from an old Errol Flynn movie!” (References to Johnny Storm and, I think, Prince Byrrah.) As Chap talks about how suspended animation made him a member of the “sons of the sizzlin’ sixties,” Sunky and Scorch age before his eyes. Chap sends them down the yellow brick road to the “reception committee of other forgotten childhood heroes,” where Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion await them in front of the Emerald City. “I just thought of something, Sunky,” says the Scorch, “I’m an android! How can I get old?” “You just sorta burned yourself out, I suppose!” says Sunky. The two end up at the Happy Haven for Hoary Halcyon Heroes, happily sitting around reading Brand Echh alongside their fellow retirees: Dick Tracy, Charlie Brown, Little Orphan Annie, Archie, the Phantom, Mickey Mouse, the Little King, Little Lulu and Batman.
Most of the humor, such as it is, in this story plays off juxtaposing Golden Age stories, techniques, styles, and mores with their “Marvel Age” counterparts. The splash and page 2 panel 1 are lettered in the early 40s style until Roy writes, “and, if you think our hard-workin’ letterer’s gonna letter any more panels in this nutty old style you’re outta your tree!!” after which the lettering immediately changes to the 60s style. Sunky says, “I’d say lots more but these old dialogue balloons never had more than 15 words!” Two panels later, he mocks the unrealistic events of the older comics after extinguishing Scorch’s flame with an air tank, saying, “Actually this kinda stunt wouldn’t work in real life! But, waddaya expect in a comic written over twenty years ago, War and Peace?” When the Scorch plunges into New York Harbor he says, “I hafta go quietly, ‘cause Marble Comics didn’t use many sound effects circa 1940!” And so on. It’s a routine that probably wore out its welcome when this story was new but seems particularly tiresome now that forty years have passed and the “sizzlin’ sixties” comic techniques are also a thing of the past.
A few more things to note. Goldwater appears again when Sunky and Scorch battle in a lab. One container is labeled, “AuH2O” while the container next to it says, “for sale cheap!” I don’t really get this obsession with Goldwater. I don’t really recall him being anyone much worth thinking about after he lost the presidential election in 1964. Meanwhile, the police commissioner wears a “Win With Wilkie” button, referring to Wendall Wilkie, FDR’s opponent in the 1940 election. When Scorch tells Betty Bean, “I really dig your old 1940s-style padded shoulders,” Betty replies, “What padded shoulders, ya creep?” hearkening back to Lois Pain’s treatment of Clark Bent in “Superduperman” from Mad #4, April-May, 1953 (“So you’re Superduperman intead of Clark Bent! Big deal! Yer still a creep!”) In Alter Ego #95, Roy notes that Stan took offense when Roy said, in his notes, “let’s treat this story as if we were doing it for Harvey Kurtzman for one of the early color issues of Mad.” He also mentions that Bill Everett was supposed to draw the story, as he did the original, but he balked after doing a rough of the splash page, “charged…into Stan’s office and…shoved my typed notes until Stan’s nose.” Which is how Stan saw the Kurtzman note. “He quickly relieved Bill of the assignment, called me in, and proceeded to rake me over the coals” about the Kurtzman comment, apparently jealous that Roy referenced Harvey rather than him. (The second such story about Stan ripping Roy over Brecch #1. Was Stan always like this with Roy or did Echh bring out the worst in him?) The story was eventually done by Ross Andru and Mike Esposito.
As one of the Head Writers for “The Official Index to the Marvel Universe,” I just finished reading and scrutinizing all of the Golden Age Captain Americas. In those stories, Cap often worked with Betty Ross, not Bruce Banner’s eventual wife but an FBI agent. In later stories, Betty Ross started to be called “Betsy Ross” (and becomes Cap’s crimefighting partner Golden Girl). In this parody, Chaplain America has, in one panel, a tag hanging off his uniform that reads, “If lost, please return to Betsy Ross!” Now, I know this is a joke about Chap’s American flag costume and the legend that Betsy Ross sewed the first American flag. But, knowing of Roy’s extensive Golden Age expertise, I wonder if he was making a double joke, playing off of Cap’s “girlfriend” of the time. Naw, probably not.
One more nitpick. Considering Subby was starring in his own Tales to Astonish feature at this time, soon to graduate to his own comic, does it really make sense for Sunk-Mariner to shrivel up in the face of the “sizzilin’ sixties” Chaplain America and wander off to the retirement home? I know it’s only a five page parody and the whole bit has to work off of the “obsolete” battle between Sunky and Scorch but…does the payoff even really work?
In Alter Ego, Roy points out that the original story was “hitting the newsstands around the time we were prepping Brand Echh #1. He thinks this made it “the perfect story to lampoon.” I have to disagree. It may have been faintly amusing to those who were Golden Age fans or who bothered to read Fantasy Masterpieces but what if you weren’t and what if you didn’t? Wouldn’t it make more sense to parody something nearly all Marvel fans would be sure to get? I’m giving it one web.
Which brings us to A Day of Blunder! starring Sgt. Furious and his Hostile Commandos, written by Gary Friedrich (who was writing Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos at the time) and drawn by John Severin. There’s not much to say about this one. Happy Slam Sawbuck sends Sgt. Furious and his Hostilers on a mission, telling them that D-Day is coming. “D-Day” turns out to be Desertion Day and all the Hostilers run off finally giving Happy Slam some peace. Ba-doom-boom.
Roy also has little to say about this story, noting that it is a parody of the D-Day story “A Day of Thunder!” from Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos Annual #2, 1966 with the splash page making fun of Gary’s first Fury effort, “Three Were A.W.O.L.!” from Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos #42, May 1967. He also notes that Stan rewrote quite a bit of this story, shutting off Gary’s objections by saying of his script, “That’s not funny!” I would like to see Gary’s original script to see if I think it’s funny since the story as published, with Stan’s changes, is certainly not.
However, I suspect Gary’s script is probably not very funny either because the problem is not the writer but the parody subject. Much as I enjoy those old Sgt. Fury issues, they aren’t worth parodying because they already are parody. Fury is already a stogie-chomping curmudgeon with a vast vocabulary of insults. Rebel is already a poker-playing sharpie with a broad southern accent. Percy is already a stereotypical Englishman complete with “bumbershoot.” Dino is already Dean Martin. What is there to parody? Or rather, what is there to parody that isn’t already parodied in the real thing? It’s like doing a parody of “Superduperman” rather than “Superman.” No webs.
A full-page “Next Issue” blurb tells us that, Spidey-Man battles Gnatman and Rotten!” among other things. We’ll be sure to look at that when the time comes. And for those of you wondering what all those “Goodnight, Stan!” “Goodnight, Roy!” “Goodnight, Flo!” blurbs are doing at the bottom of the page…well, you’ll notice that the first two are “Goodnight, Chet!” and “Goodnight, David!” which was the signoff of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley when they broadcast The Huntley-Brinkley Report, NBC’s evening news at the time. You had to be there.
So, is Brand Echh #1 a good comic? Not really. Is Brand Echh, as a concept, even a good idea? That’s hard to tell but, if we judge from the first issue, I’d have to say “no.” But, then again, we haven’t seen what it’s like when it parodies series that we actually care about. What is my rating? Let’s see. Three webs plus one and a half webs plus one web plus zero webs, divided by four equals… five webs. Yes, five webs, simply because the whole idea of Marvel deciding to make fun of itself at the height of its popularity is audacious enough to override all questions of humor, subject matter, and execution.
But Brecch only gets this pass once. Next time, the rating will reflect the contents.
“Next time” will not be next time, though. We’ve got to get back to Spidey. The poor guy’s been captured by the Kingpin for, like, 13 months! Amazing Spider-Man #52 next time.