Wednesday, May 31, 2017

0018: The Post Anniversary

[I'm starting this later than I hoped because I just checked my Blogger dashboard and found out that my Christmas music blog, which typically gets about 70 to 200 pageviews a month in the spring, despite not being updated since Christmas 2013, just got over 80 hits this morning alone, apparently from China. That blog has been set up to filter out porn spam from the comments so that I no longer have to check them three times a day. If anyone has a blog they haven't worked on in a while, use your dashboard to check the comments quickly. (That way you don't have to go to each post individually and you can see anything awaiting moderation.)]

The cover on the left is a scan of my well-worn copy of Marvel Tales Annual #1, "published by Non-Pareil Publishing Corporation". That's what it says in the indicia. Of course it says "Marvel Comics Group" in the box in the upper left corner of the cover, but what many fans never understood is that it wasn't referring to a group of comic book series, which would be the reasonable assumption. Nor was was it a group of creators, which regular readers might have guessed from the editorial tone of wacky camaraderie Stan Lee cultivated in letters' pages and even ad copy. No, it referred to a group of comic book publishing companies all owned by Martin Goodman, all at the same office address, all edited by Stan and staffed by the same personnel, written and drawn largely by the same small set of freelancers. In the late 1960's, Goodman sold his controlling interest to a company that kept the Marvel brand and style but consolidating the business end of things into a single name: Magazine Management Corporation. In 1973 they gave in to inevitability and renamed the company Marvel Comics Group, making it one of the world's most famous Rorschach tests. If the cover seems familiar, it's because in the post "The Lost Anniversary", I included a scan of the last page with an ad using all the same art, but integrated into mock-ups of the covers of the titles in which each character appears.

Last week I posted several pages from my notes on Marvel's publication schedule, comparing 1957 to 1958. The short take is that Atlas published 81 titles with 1957 cover dates, but only 16 of them continued in the last two months. After switching to a distributor controlled by the owner of a larger competitor, Martin Goodman's Atlas was only able to operate under limits to the number of titles it published each month. It's true that in the first few years following the 1954 Congressional Hearings there was a downturn in sales generally and many smaller publishers closed down for good, but Atlas was doing well enough. To illustrate the magnitude of their loss of rack presence, consider Charlton. At the end of 1953, before the hearings, Charlton had been a magazine publisher for about twenty years and published comics for about ten. Fawcett had been doing both for much longer, but after losing a lawsuit to DC (too long a story to go into here), Fawcett closed down its comics department. Charlton was publishing about a dozen titles at the time and acquired nine from Fawcett which they continued with cover dates in the first six months of 1954 and three more that they resumed in 1955 for some reason. Also during 1955 they picked up titles from Toby, Comic Media and the entire Simon & Kirby owned Mainline company. After two years their 12 titles became 60 (during that time only four were cancelled), five times where they started. Two years after that, when Atlas was experiencing its forced downsizing, Charlton had stabilized its roster at about 50 titles. In general, their titles didn't publish as frequently as Atlas (which would all be bimonthly until 1960). If they had, Charlton would be taking up three times the rack space. In practical terms, it would more likely seem like twice the space. DC, for comparison, ended 1957 with about 50 titles (not including three seasonals) averaging about 34 issues a month. Goodman's company (whatever it would be called after the end of 1957) had 16 titles shipping exactly 8 issues a month. There was no established fan network then as there is now and comics were marketed as impulse entertainment, so visibility was presumed to translate into sales. The owners of DC may have deliberately given Goodman a limit (rather than turning him down for distribution altogether) in order to to squeeze his cash flow so that he would eventually have to borrow money to pay his printer. The owners of DC, even before they became comics publishers, acquired numerous publishing businesses in this manner, that is, buying up a company's debt for less than face value from lenders who would some money now than more money later. Underworld ties made this easier. Rather than close Goodman's company down, they may have intended to buy it at a discount. Something stopped them and by most accounts, that something was Jack Kirby. Oh, and the U.S. Postal Service. But mostly Jack Kirby.

I mentioned earlier that Charlton acquired a publisher called Mainline owned by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. When that happened, they both went back to work for DC where Jack did Green Arrow back-up stories and introduced The Challengers of the Unknown. That feature, the new Barry Allen version of the Flash and a solo Lois Lane feature saved the Showcase title (which had a rockier first year) and all were rewarded with their own title. But Jack was also trying to break into the more lucrative newspaper strip syndication business with a space oriented strip. His best chance to make that possible would have required a DC editor who didn't work on the strip taking a percentage of the royalties in perpetuity. Jack stormed out, leaving behind enough uninked penciled pages that DC was still publishing comics with his art after newer comics he began drawing for Goodman's titles were already on the stands. Jack's monster, western, romance and war comics gave the new post-Atlas comics solid sales and his covers gave them an identity during those few years when they really didn't have a collective name. And if they could move more and more copies of each issue, shipping fewer issues became less of a problem. It never hurt Dell, although that's because their sales were often over half a million copies. Marvel wasn't close to that. But as DC continued creating new, science-based versions of their Golden Age heroes Goodman was getting antsy about finding something to compete with the Justice League. There was (reportedly) an unwritten condition to being distributed by Independent News that they wouldn't carry super-hero comics from Goodman's companies. Stan and Jack had been reusing some of the giant monsters in the science fiction and fantasy comics so that they might at least have a roster of recurring characters. They also considered making the human scientists and occult experts who defeat them into recurring heroes, trying a "Dr. Droom" feature in Amazing Adventures in 1961. But if Goodman wanted a team of heroes, that meant combining science fiction monsters with the Challengers of the Unknown, resulting in The Fantastic Four. The first issue was on newsstands in August 1961 (with a November cover date), but they didn't wear costumes until the third issue (out in December). At that point, DC would have a hard time explaining to retailers why they weren't getting a popular new title  they've already carried. The second time they tried to use the "Kirby monster as hero" formula was with the Hulk, whose title mysteriously failed to sell. In some districts, not at all. Stan Lee smelled a fix. To circumvent that kind of interference they wouldn't introduce a new feature in its own title for another year. As the initial sales figures for Hulk #1 came in in May 1962 (the pull-down date on the cover), Marvel was preparing August and September cover date titles to reach newsstands in June. These stories would all be running in established titles. Since they were disguised to look like the science fiction and fantasy titles (and one, Ant-Man, was actually a spin-off from them), that's where they would appear. Ant-Man would run in Tales to Astonish, Thor would run in Journey Into Mystery, Human Torch would run in Strange Tales and Spider-man would run in Amazing Fantasy. Then, as the sales figures for those titles dribbled in, a news item unnoticed by much of the country inadvertently changed comics history.

Sometime before Atlas downsized, even before the Comics Code Authority was formed, someone at the U.S. Postal Service noticed that the post-war increase in America's population would gradually and relentlessly translate into an increased volume of mail that would become unmanageable with the systems in use at the time. A Zoning Improvement Plan would need to be put in place before that happened because waiting until after it happened would make a difficult task impossible. Studies about mail traffic volume that should have been routine started revealing strange patterns. By August 1962, over 100 postal employees had either been indicted for their involvement in a massive narcotics ring, or else quit to avoid being caught. Drugs were being sent by mail under false cover, sometimes using the cheapest possible postage for printed matter on packages that clearly were not made of paper. Personnel and resources were being used to move illegal narcotics often without being paid for at all. By stepping up enforcement of the Statement of Ownership requirement on mass mailings of periodicals in 1960, they now had documentation to prosecute. Even though Independent News wasn't involved in the narcotics ring, they did have underworld ties going back to Prohibition and they did make a significant amount of money on subscriptions. They wanted to avoid scrutiny and having to answer questions about why 100,000 copies of Hulk #1 can't be accounted for during a two-month period. The irony is that the skeletons in their closet might be discovered by federal agents making a routine inspection of their legitimate business. With the hope of a new, unabashed super-hero title not being withheld from distribution, the Spider-man feature was immediately discontinued and the title it appeared in was cancelled. Amazing Fantasy started as Amazing Adventures (remember Dr. Droom?), and replaced Two-Gun Kid on Marvel's tight schedule. When it was cancelled, it was replaced by a redesigned Two-Gun Kid series, now with a mask and a secret identity. By December, the first issue of Amazing Spider-Man (with a March 1963 cover date) was ready with two short stories, the first of which has a job code V-816, contemporary to stories Marvel ran five months earlier. [Fantastic Four #6(9/62) has the job code V-835] The second issue also contains two stories, the second of which has a job code of X-171. [The same cover date as Fantastic Four #14 (5/63), with job code X-144.] Since the last issue of Amazing Fantasy had a 'Fan Page' announcing that Spider-Man will continue to appear in it, I'm guessing that the V-816 story and the two uncoded ones may have been intended to run in unpublished issues of Amazing Fantasy.

The first Marvel Tales Annual from 1964 reprints stories merely two years old because Marvel's distribution at that time meant that more people might see a second or third appearance of a character than the first. It contains the entire Spider-man story from Amazing Fantasy #15 (08/62), the first six pages of Incredible Hulk #1 (05/62), first Ant-Man story from Tales to Astonish #35 (09/62) and a two-page abridgement of a three page Giant-Man sequence from #49 (11/63). Then there's this ad:

After the ad is the first six pages of an introductory Sgt. Fury story from Sgt. Fury And His Howling Commandos #1 (05/63), then this original feature:

That's followed by the first Iron Man story from Tales Of Suspense #39 (03/63) and four pages (edited from five) about his newer armor from #48 (12/63). Finally, there's the first Thor story from Journey Into Mystery #83 (08/62) and the ad I included in last week's post. The inside front cover, inside back cover and back cover were all paid ads. The whole thing was contemporary to August 1964 cover date Marvel comics.

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