What George R. R. Martin’s Letters to Marvel Tell Us About His Writing
George R. R. Martin's musings on the Fantastic Four say a lot about his own writing.
While the young Fantastic Four challenged the mighty Molecule Man in 1963, a teenage George R. R. Martin was busy writing a letter to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the book’s legendary creators. Martin, who was destined to become the scribe of many great works of genre fiction, was just a boy from Bayonne, NJ who had fallen in love with Marvel superheroes — the boldness of their stories, their relatable origins, and the audaciousness of their colorful get-ups, courtesy of geniuses like artists Kirby and Steve Ditko. And like many other youngsters growing up in the ’60s, Martin had strong opinions about these characters.
The Game of Thrones creator’s letter to Lee and Kirby, published in Fantastic Four #20 (1963), demonstrates a precocious and loquacious eloquence that might even be a bit on the sarcastic side. You can decide. Either way, it’s quite a piece of work for his first published piece.
Here’s Martin talking about the letters himself:
The letter concerns Fantastic Four #17 (1963), in which the team defeats their archnemesis for what seems like the final time. Doctor Doom falls to his death, which must’ve been a shocking conclusion for readers of the time. Of course, Lee and Ditko would reveal two months later, in Amazing Spider-Man #5 that Doctor Doom had survived the fall from his airship via a secret jetpack.
If the letter is sincere, Martin expresses his admiration for the issue and the book in general as “the world’s best mag!!!” Or if it’s a gripe about the ridiculousness of Lee and Kirby’s creations, it at least showcases his early mastery of sarcasm and his talent for being sardonic, even back then. For more examples of Martin’s strong opinions, visit his LiveJournal.
Here’s the letter, courtesy of the Marvel archives:
Martin talked to writer John Hodgman in public radio’s The Sound of Young America about what made Lee and Kirby’s characters unique and huge influences on his later work:
The Marvel comics that I was writing letters to were really revolutionary for the time. Stan Lee was doing some amazing work. Up until then, the dominant comic book had been the DC comics, which at that time were always very circular: Superman or Batman would have an adventure, and at the end of the adventure they would wind up exactly where they were, and then the next issue would follow the same pattern. Nothing ever changed for the DC characters.
The Marvel characters were constantly changing. Important things were happening. The lineup of the Avengers was constantly changing. People would quit and they would have fights and all of that, as opposed to DC, where everybody got along and it was all very nice, and of course all the heroes liked each other. None of this was happening. So really, Stan Lee introduced the whole concept of characterization [chuckles] to comic books, and conflict, and maybe even a touch of gray in some of the characters. And boy, looking back at it now, I can see that it probably was a bigger influence on my own work than I would have dreamed.
Looking back at the Fantastic Four’s earliest adventures (and the stories of many of Lee and Kirby’s other stellar creations, such as X-Men, The Avengers, Iron Man, Thor, and Hulk), you can see the tales that influenced Martin’s work. The strange worlds of Martin’s early science fiction short stories (take a look at his stellar debut collection, A Song for Lya), his focus on the exotic scenery and supernatural threats, undoubtedly stem from the interdimensional adventures of the Fantastic Four. A good first sign of Martin’s White Walkers beyond the Wall can be found in his short story “With Morning Comes Mistfall,” (published in Analog in 1973) in which tourists eye a misty valley full of killer wraiths from the safety of a castle. You can already imagine the Night’s Watch.
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Lee and Kirby’s preoccupation with underdogs who are destined to reach their full potential, honorable men and heinous villains with human desires, made it into Martin’s pages as well. Jon Snow, Tyrion Lannister, Daenerys Targaryen, and Ramsay Bolton, for example, must all rise to the occasion of destiny. The men of very different beginnings journey to find their place in the world, much like the “freaks and mutants” that inhabited ’60s Marvel comics.
At the forefront of Lee and Kirby’s work is the family dynamic of books like Fantastic Four and The Avengers, stories in which we watch the world’s greatest superheroes unite, fight, struggle, forgive, mourn, and grow together. Reed Richards, Johnny Storm, Susan Storm, and Ben Grimm were constantly in flux, teaming up to save the world, but also facing their own personal struggles. They’re a highly dysfunctional team, petty at times, holding deeper grudges than others, and going through the stages of insult, anger, and forgiveness. But the constant was that they ultimately loved each other.
Family dominates Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, as the Seven Kingdoms are separated into houses. Even if we might consider the Starks heroes and the Lannisters villains, we feel for them on a family level. There’s little more tragic than Cersei’s love for her ill-fated children or Jon Snow’s quest to live up to the name he was never given. This dynamic continues with the villainous Greyjoys and Boltons. And don’t forget the Night’s Watch, which might be most powerful example of family in the entire series: lost, cowardly, bad, and honorable men from all over the land coming together to protect the world from a common threat. If that doesn’t scream Avengers to you, then I don’t know what.
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Perhaps more overtly, Martin learned from the work of Lee and Kirby that heroes, no matter how great, could fall. This is a lesson that the writer definitely hasn’t forgotten while working on A Song of Ice and Fire.
Several “by gumbos” later, Martin wrote another letter, this time published in the pages of The Avengers in 1965. The second letter concerned The Avengers #9 and Fantastic Four #32, issues he hoped to “have mounted in bronze and set on a pedestal in the center of his living room.”
Avengers #9 introduced a new member of the team: Wonder Man. The story, “The Coming of the…Wonder Man,” was framed around the introduction of this strange man, who’d been tricked by the evil Baron Zemo into becoming a superhuman in exchange for his services in his plot to defeat the Avengers. In order to ensure Wonder Man’s obedience, Zemo also altered his metabolism in such a way that he could die within a week unless treated regularly with an antidote (silly). But when the Avengers help Wonder Man find a cure, he turns on Zemo and sacrifices himself to save the team. The newest Avenger, gone in the same issue he arrived.
(I also have to quickly note that Wonder Man is from Paterson, NJ!)
In his interview for public radio, Martin described his deep appreciation for Wonder Man and his fate:
I liked Wonder Man. And you know why? [Laughs] Now it’s coming back to me vividly! Wonder Man dies in that story. He’s a brand new character, he’s introduced, and he dies. It was very heartwrenching. I liked the character — it was a tragic, doomed character. I guess I’ve responded to tragic, doomed characters ever since I was a high-school kid.
Of course, being comic books, Wonder Man didn’t stay dead for long. He came back a year or two later and had a long run for many, many decades. But the fact that he was introduced and joined the Avengers and died all in that one issue had a great impact on me when I was a high-school kid.
We’ve seen no shortage of “tragic, doomed characters” in Martin’s work, and even one or two that have returned in posthumous form — no doubt a little nod to comic book deaths. Fortunately for his countless powerful scenes, that has not been usually the case.
These letters allowed Martin to enjoy a sort of celebrity among comic book fandom. Other fans wrote him letters in reply, and he eventually began writing critical essays for comic fanzines, such as YMiR, Batwing, and Countdown. Martin later went on to write some stories for Star Studded Comics, a fanzine that published original fiction. One fan even offered to buy Martin a car at one point…
It’s odd to think about your idols (and he has become one of mine) as fans themselves, but that’s who Martin was and is still today, reaching the epitome of fandom by speaking to the comic book gods he worshipped and eventually putting what he’d learned to work to become a god himself. That might be the world’s greatest story of all.
John Saavedra is an associate editor at Den of Geek. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @johnsjr9.