Monday, June 12, 2017

0023: "From The Glorious Past..."?

In the posts "The Lost Anniversary" and "The Post Anniversary" I wrote about Atlas Comics' reinvention as Marvel and the first issue of the Marvel Tales reprint series in 1964, respectively. The two aren't unrelated. Before 1960, most comics publishers (and readers) viewed reprinted stories as matters of dishonesty or ineptitude because, frankly, those were exactly the reasons behind reprints in the Golden Age. A more straightforward form of 'content recycling' was to take a few remaindered or overrun copies of comics past their cover date and bind them, three or four at a time, in a new cover and sell them for 50-75% of their original cover price. EC Comics made several of these. In fact, the first three DC annuals from 1936 to 1938 were very much like this, either rebinding existing pages or printing them from the same plates. That third one came out at about the time that the original owner went into receivership and his share was bought out by his distributors. Almost immediately, they added a fourth title, Action Comics, which introduced the character who would symbolize their company, Superman. The first two titles, already renamed More Fun Comics and New Adventure Comics, switched from a 'volume and issue' numbering system (with a new #1 each year) to a whole numbering system. The title they jointly owned with the previous publisher, Detective Comics, carried on and became the publisher name for all four series. In 1939 and 1940 they published annuals of new material, still 96 pages for 15¢ at a time when their standard format was 64 pages for 10¢. They continued every year until the mid-40's, when M.C. Gaines (editor and minority owner of the All-American imprint) left to create a new publishing company, Educational Comics. He took with him some trade dress elements and the feature he initiated, "Picture Stories From the Bible", and sold his share of the company back to DC's owners for the stake he needed. When he died a few years after that, his son took over the floundering company, renamed it Entertaining Comics (or EC) and radically overhauled its roster (imagine replacing PBS Kids or Disney, Jr. with Cartoon Network's Adult Swim). Some of the cash flow problems were addressed with the aforementioned "annuals" rebinding old comics.

By the time Gaines left, DC had
already begun publishing the quarterly "World's Finest Comics" and "Comic Cavalcade" at 96 pages, then shrunk to 80 pages. When war time paper restrictions were lifted, smaller companies put out giant issues, some over 250 pages, often rehashing past failures and in some cases stealing older stories from other publishers, gambling that no one would notice. Martin Goodman's Marvel companies didn't seem to bother with annuals. The only examples I can find are B&W 128-page reprints of "Captain America" (early 40's), Marvel Mystery Comics (mid-40's) and Kid Colt Outlaw (early 50's), all for Canada. That changed after 1957, when both their rack presence and market penetration were compromised.

On the right is my personal copy of Marvel Tales Annual #2 from 1965. The situation at the time is best summed up by the blurb, "From the glorious past, when the Incredible Hulk was featured in his own magazine...", which was a whopping three years earlier. The other headliners were only two years old. In fact, the oldest story here is a five page suspense story used as filler and originally published less than a year before the Hulk story. Let me see if I can present more of a coherent timeline.

  • The popularity of super-heroes wanes in the late 1940's. Goodman's first comic book series, "Marvel Mystery Comics", is almost ten years old when it drops super-hero features, replaces them with suspense stories and changes its name to "Marvel Tales". A year later the 'Marvel' group identity begins to change into the 'Atlas' group identity.
  • During the 1950's, the Superman television show (1952-1958) causes the already enormous readership for Superman to become almost as permanent a part of popular culture as the character himself. He, Batman and Wonder Woman are the only DC super-heroes left with eponymous series as well as each having the lead feature in an anthology (although WW's anthology, "Sensation Comics", spends its last year as "Sensation Mystery" during the Superman TV show's first season).
  • Atlas tries unsuccessfully to revive its three biggest super-heroes, Human Torch, Sub-Mariner and Captain America, in 1953-1954. Probably due to the bad publicity of the Congressional hearings on juvenile delinquency, "Young Men In Action" and their individual titles are cancelled by the end of the summer, except Sub-Mariner which lasts an additional year.
  • By the end of 1954, the Comics Code Authority is formed by a coalition of publishers to regain public trust. EC is scapegoated and when participating publishers begin using the CCA stamp starting with early 1955 cover dates, EC replaces its "New Trend" titles (1950-1954) with "New Direction" titles, futilely attempting to play by the new rules. By the end of 1955 they abandon comics and publish B&W magazines with comic art, such as "Mad".
  • To find out what kind of features will sell in the new CCA climate, DC creates "Showcase" (a 'try-out' series) in 1956. The first year is a failure except for issue #4, which introduces an updated, scientifically rational version of a Golden Age super-hero, The Flash. More such reworkings of super-hero characters follow over the next five years.
  • In 1957, after Goodman dismantles his own Atlas distribution system the distributor he intends to use for his own comics is put out of business by legal problems. Sitting on a large inventory he must move, he accepts a deal from Independent News which is controlled by DC's owners. It reduces the number of titles he publishes by 80% officially and was rumored to have prohibited super-hero titles unofficially.
  • In 1958, Jack Kirby quits DC acrimoniously and works for editor Stan Lee at Goodman's shrunken group of publishing companies. The Superman television series ends.
  • In 1959, the DC series "The Brave And The Bold", which had been a period adventure anthology (knights, vikings, musketeers, etc.) for four years suddenly adopts the "Showcase" approach of devoting each issue to a single, temporary feature. Most are super-heroes.
  • After twenty years, Superman has accumulated a large recurring cast and an increasingly byzantine backstory, mostly due to retroactive elaborations about his home planet and childhood. The most frequent questions from readers are usually dealt with by running newly scripted and drawn retellings of key points of his life. In 1960, for the company's Silver Anniversary, it is decided to run an 80 page collection reprinting the most requested Superman stories. It will cost 25¢ at a time when 32 page comics cost 10¢ [2.5 times the pages, 2.5 times the price.] Although the stories cover the span of his life, they were all originally published during the previous five years. The only new material is the cover, a 2-page map of Krypton and a modicum of editorial content. It ships in June with no cover date and DC's owners control the distribution, so they are intending to let it sit on racks until it sells. They needn't have worried; it sells out rapidly. So much so that a second "annual" is released in November.
  • In 1961 Marvel adds the letters "MC" to its cover, finally asserting a group identity and begins to try recurring adventure heroes in their suspense comics. DC, having successfully launched several new titles from "Showcase" and "Brave And The Bold", including "Justice League Of America", expands the concept of their now twice-a-year "annuals".
Page 24, following the X-Men story, Angel hosts a T-shirt ad.

In June, on three successive weeks, they released  a "Secret Origins" Annual, a third Superman Annual and their first Batman Annual, all in the format used in 1960. New covers, one or two pages of new features and reprints of 1950's stories translated to brisk sales. The Secret Origins volume had two "Showcase" alumni, Adam Strange who got the lead feature in "Mystery In Space" in 1959 and Challengers of the Unknown, who got their own title in 1958. Batman and Superman appear in their first "World's Finest" team-up. The rest of the reprints are Silver Age origins of Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern and Martian Manhunter, all of the original JLA except Aquaman. A text story gives the origin of Green Arrow, who joined a few months before the annual. By September Marvel introduced the Fantastic Four. Although they didn't wear costumes, they were essentially a super-powered version of the Challengers of the Unknown, created by Kirby the year before he quit DC. It's long been assumed to have been a reaction to DC's sales of the JLA comic, but that had only been out a year after debuting in "The Brave And The Bold" and the first issue of JLA came out between the first issues of "Green Lantern" and "Rip Hunter", which were both introduced in "Showcase". Since all three proved their commercial appeal in the try-out titles and DC wasn't going to hand Goodman their sales figures (and the title didn't include a Statement of Ownership in its first year), how did Marvel know which of the three sold best? Well, when your biggest rival only releases three giant specials for the summer and two of them tie into five titles they've been selling for 20 years and the third ties into a title they've recently introduced, they sort of ARE telling you their sales ranks, if not the actual quantities. Right after the first FF comic shipped, DC raised their standard comic price to 12¢, meaning that the 80 page Annuals should have gone from 25¢ to 30¢ to remain proportionate. However, in November, DC released a fourth Superman and second Batman Annual, still adhering to the same formula and still only a quarter. That decision to make the cover price a less malleable part of this new, second format was not lost on Marvel.

Page 35, following the Hulk story.
Marvel raised their own standard prices when DC's November annuals came out. Their problems distributing the Hulk followed in the spring of 1962. To fit the new Hulk title into the schedule they cancelled "Teen-Age Romance", which wasn't a huge seller, but it was at least allowed onto the stands. Rather than risk losing another mediocre seller from the racks in order to publish a potential hit that no one will see, Marvel decided to put their new super-hero features into their existing anthologies. The first three were on the stands in June when the next wave of DC annuals hit: "Superman's Girlfriend, Lois Lane", then Superman (#5) and Batman (#3). Lois had a four-page back-up feature in the "Superman" title in 1944-1946. When WWII ended, popular culture was filled with images of returning soldiers reentering the workplace and working women becoming homemakers. Lois remained a regular cast member in Superman stories, but the solo feature was cancelled. In 1957, two issues of "Showcase" were followed by her own series in 1958.

Page 44,  after the Doctor Strange story
At this point, "Showcase" had reached its 40th issue and except for four issues in its first year, every feature introduced either took over a former anthology title (Space Ranger and Adam Strange) or started its own title. What Marvel could have really used, apparently, was a try-out book of its own. However, since introducing new titles was off the table for the foreseeable future in the summer of 1962, what would be the point? Any new feature that sold well would just have to be shoehorned into an existing title anyway, which is what they were already doing. So, instead of launching a try-out title, Marvel produced its own annuals, beginning in 1962. What neither DC nor Marvel could have known at the time is that Showcase #41 would be the start of a dry spell that began with an attempt to turn the long-running back-up feature "Tommy Tomorrow" into full-length stories but wound up being the last new stories with the character until 1977. He would never have his own feature again. For the next five years most of their successes were features introduced elsewhere (Teen Titans, Enemy Ace, Spectre, etc.) with one exception: The Inferior Five. Marvel might have been painted into a corner with regards to increasing their cash flow using the modern annual format, but at least they didn't wind up believing that the try-out format is somehow magic or fool-proof.

The first two Marvel annuals were "THE BIG MILLIE THE MODEL ANNUAL" from Male Publishing Corp. and "THE BIG STRANGE TALES ANNUAL" from Atlas Magazines, Inc., both out in July with Marvel's second batch of September cover-dated comics. Both had 72 pages for 25¢. Unlike the typeset font used on their standard 32-page comics, these first annuals have "#1" and "1962" (no more specific date) hand lettered on the covers. Millie carries the blurb: "All-New Stories", which start with a retelling of Millie's 'origin' story. Some of the "All-New Stories" are pin-ups, a regular mainstay of the ongoing series at the time. The Strange Tales is all reprint, except the cover, so its blurb reads, "Triple Value!" Why triple? Marvel comics at that time were all 32 interior pages (plus glossy covers), but usually about 24 of them were comics art. In 1962, two more pages would be a text story in order to meet an arbitrary standard of the Post Office for a lower postage rate on subscription copies. The remaining six pages would be some combination of in-house ads (like the ones appearing throughout this post) and paid ads. However, the first Strange Tales annual had no ads and no text. Marvel wasn't selling subscriptions to titles that came out once a year, so they weren't mailing them anywhere. It was 72 pages of story, albeit in 4 to 7 page increments. That's three times 24, hence "Triple Value!" (at double price). All the reprints come from 1959-1960 and from the four titles that will eventually be converted to super-hero anthologies: "Journey Into Mystery", which had just debuted Thor, "Tales To Astonish", which had just debuted Ant-Man (in costume), "Strange Tales" itself, whose next issue to follow the annual will debut a new "Human Torch" solo feature and "Tales Of Suspense", which will debut Iron Man around Christmas.

After the Marvel annuals hit the stands, The US Postal Service experienced a massive internal sting operation in August involving narcotics going through the mail under false cover. Preventing that from happening again required closer scrutiny of any business using bulk mailing rates. While neither Marvel or DC was doing anything illegal involving the mail, executives at DC had Prohibition-era mob connections that might have been inadvertently discovered by Feds looking for something else. It might be a coincidence, but Marvel would no longer suffer from sabotaged distribution of super-hero comics as they had months earlier with the Hulk. It was too late to save the Hulk comic (it would be cancelled right after New Year's), but Marvel could now make plans to start new titles again.

Page 50, before the Avengers story
In November of 1962 DC published the last issue of "Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer" as an 80-page Annual. They had published the previous 12 issues annually, but in whatever the standard format of the time had been. Apparently, since this was the last issue, they had developed more trust in the form than the substance. They also released annuals for Batman (#4) and Superman (#6).

In December, "Linda Carter, Student Nurse" is cancelled to make way for "Amazing Spider-Man" and "Tales Of Suspense" takes on Iron Man as its  lead feature. In March of 1963, "Incredible Hulk" is cancelled to make way for "Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos". Then, both the standard line and the new annual format will expand.

Finally, I want to detail the contents of Marvel Tales Annual #2, published by Non-Pareil Publishing Corp. in July, 1965 while Marvel was shipping comics cover dated September and October.

  • Cover: (see first scan above)
  • Inside Front Cover: Ad for Famous Artists Schools Studio with Albert Dorne
  • Reprint X-MEN #1 (09/63) "X-Men", 23pp
  • Ad for T-shirts. (see second scan) It's not a coincidence that Angel is modelling a T-shirt in an ad following an X-Men story. This house ad was made specifically for this comic, as evidenced by the code "MT-2" in the corner of the coupon to the left of the word "T-SHIRTS".
  • Reprint HULK #3 (09/62) "The Ringmaster", 10pp This is the first appearance of the villain, but there's no origin story here. It's just the third story from that issue. The Hulk's origin was in the previous issue. Eventually, the whole six issue series will be reprinted in installments like this.
  • Ad for 1965 Annuals (see third scan) It says "On Sale Now!", although the Fantastic Four and Amazing Spider-Man (along with Millie the Model) probably came out a month after they were intended. Marvel published four annuals in 1963 and 1964 but eight in 1965 and had to spread them out.
  • Reprint STRANGE TALES #115 (12/63) "The Origin of Doctor Strange", 8pp
  • Ad for Stationery Set (see fourth scan) This ad is also specific to this issue; note the "MT-2" code on the right border of the coupon.
  • Reprint AMAZING ADULT FANTASY #8 (01/62) "A Monster Among Us", 5pp
  • Ad for current comics (see fifth scan)
  • Reprint AVENGERS #1 (09/63) "The Coming Of The Avengers!", 22pp
  • Inside Back Cover: Ad for Mike Marvel System (bodybuilding)
  • Back Cover: Ads for Slimline Co. (X-Ray glasses) and Best Values Co. (coins)
It's worth noting that the three companies advertising on the back and inside back covers all have the mailing address 285 Market St., Newark, NJ.

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