Friday, May 26, 2017

0016: The Lost Anniversary

I was glad to see a year long acknowledgement of Doctor Who's 50th Anniversary in 2013, because I had long feared that the specific date of the anniversary would be drowned out by retrospectives of the Kennedy assassination. (The first episode of "Doctor Who" aired the day after the assassination in November 1963.)

This year is a bit crowded with anniversaries as well. In 1977, three successive generations of chart-toppers, Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley and Marc Bolan, all died within a few months of each other. Gary Gilmore gave Nike their slogan. Carter was inaugurated. Etc. Then of course there's "Star Wars" (both the movie and the comic series), Bakshi's "Wizards", the Spider-man and Hulk TV shows, the Cerebus comic (at 300 issues, I'm betting it was the longest running self-published comic ever) and numerous character first appearances that would be more relevant to comics fans. And that's just one year ending in "7". By the time this is posted there will be multiple editions of the Beatles' 1967 Sgt. Pepper album available. The first Oscar winning film, "Wings", was released in 1927. And for comics fans, there's an event in 1957 that many often forget and many more are not aware of: it was the year that Atlas ended and set the stage for Marvel to begin a new life.

[The page above is the final page of Marvel Tales Annual #1 (1964)]

Short bit of history: Marvel began in 1939 when pulp magazine publisher Martin Goodman expanded into publishing comics by hiring on creators from the content provider Funnies Inc. The initial issue was called "Marvel Comics" (retitled "Marvel Mystery Comics" with the second issue) and a roster slowly expanded throughout World War II despite paper shortages. For reasons never explicitly explained, Goodman published comics under a variety of publisher names. All listed him as the publisher in the indicia and all had the same office address (with a few rare exceptions), starting with Timely Publications, Inc. (or Timely Comics in some), joined by U.S.A. Publications, Inc. in 1941, then Select, Newsstand and Complete Photo Story in 1942. By 1943 the number of alternate publisher names appearing concurrently in the indicia (and rarely on the covers) ballooned to over a dozen. The two common theories for doing this were for tax purposes or to limit liability in the event of a bankruptcy. Whatever the reason, Goodman's Marvel Group evolved its trade dress somewhat throughout the 1940's and after their June 1950 cover dates it dropped the use of the wheat symbol it had been using for years. They spent over a year without much outward brand identity other than a common font for the issue number and cover date while Goodman organized his own distribution company which would share a name with his new, uniform publishing company name: Atlas.

Starting with November 1951 cover dates, Goodman's comics carried a globe symbol with the name "Atlas". Although the main purpose was to be certain that his magazines, comics and newly begun line of mass market paperbacks were given priority in distribution, such systems are only profitable if they take on a large number of clients and make their money by eliminating redundant infrastructure costs. Instead of seven small publishers sending mostly empty trucks all over the state to deliver their comics, one large distributor sends one or two large, full trucks along the same route. Even better, retailers have one set of paperwork to deal with every week, making them more likely to devote store space to comics than if they had to track product for each publisher. It worked well for a few years, but the controversy from the 1954 Congressional Hearings on Juvenile Delinquency stigmatized comic books and sales plummeted. Atlas was big enough to survive, but the smaller publishers it distributed did not. Goodman closed down his own distribution operation and signed on with American News, unaware that they were under investigation by the feds (for reasons unrelated to the newspapers or magazines they distributed). Caught without a way to circulate his product in 1957, Goodman seriously considered stopping his comics division. Instead, he signed a disadvantageous distribution deal with Independent News, whose majority owners were also majority owners of one of his two biggest rivals, DC Comics (known then as National Periodicals). It limited the number of titles shipping per month and the total number of titles. Unofficially, it purportedly also prohibited Goodman from publishing comics with super-heroes. That last part might seem surprising today, but Goodman gave up on super-heroes in 1949 and an attempt to revive them in 1954 failed. He may have been aware that DC had unexpected success with a revamped version of one of their Golden Age heroes, The Flash, but he may not have cared. Besides,  unwritten stipulations are unwritten for a reason.

For purposes of scale, this is Atlas in 1957. The dates given are cover dates, not release dates:

The last Atlas comic was "Dippy Duck" #1 (10/57), sharing a cover date with the first post-Atlas Goodman comic, "Patsy Walker" #73 (10/57). From that point on there was no outward brand identity; there were still several publisher names in the indicia but no names or symbols such as the wheat or globe on the cover, nothing to indicate that they were related to each other. This was the shipping schedule for 1958:

There were sixteen surviving titles total. All were bimonthly to start. Eight would ship one month, the other eight shipped the next. Each month shipped in two waves. I've marked the waves A,B,C and D in the chart above. To introduce a new title, an existing title would be cancelled. For instance, "Strange Worlds" took the place of "Navy Combat" on the schedule. "Journey Into Mystery" was an older title that was revived and replaced "Marines in Battle". The titles "Miss America" and "Homer the Happy Ghost" would be replaced by the new titles "Tales of Suspense" and "Tales To Astonish". There would also be two titles replaced in 1959 and two more in 1960, after which four titles became monthly and the total number shipping per month became ten. It wasn't until the spring of 1961 when "Patsy Walker" #95 (06/61) an "Journey Into Mystery" #69 (06/61) became the first comics to carry a tiny rectangular box on their covers with a capital 'M' over a capital 'C'. That easy-to-miss little mark was the first indication of a brand identity for the new Marvel Comics Group. And it only took almost four years.

Yeah, that's the short bit of history I mentioned earlier. There's a longer one coming, but that one has WAY more pictures. The first one is near the top of this post.

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