Thursday, June 22, 2017

0027: It must be a collectors' item; it says so on the cover

So far, I've done three extra-wordy posts about the development of the giant/annual format at Marvel and DC in the Silver Age. If you haven't seen them, they are the only posts that have been tagged with the label "publication history" to date. You can read them by clicking on that term at the end of this post, or come back at any time and click on the same term under the list "Name Yer Poison" on the right. If you have read them, let me give you a quick recap: After the Comics Code Authority was implemented at the end of 1954, both Marvel and DC spent the rest of the decade publishing only one format of comic book, 32 pages plus covers for 10¢. In June of 1960, DC released an 80-page Superman Annual acknowledging their 25th Anniversary which reprinted recent stories answering frequently asked questions about Superman's history. Despite the higher 25¢ cover price it sold well enough to justify releasing a second "annual" five months later. The following year DC established a pattern of not releasing one company annual per year (as they had in the 30's and 40's), but three 'annuals', twice a year. One would be Superman, one would be Batman and the third would vary. The next year after that, Marvel introduced their own 72 page annuals with two titles right after DC's June wave. One of those, the first Millie the Model Annual, was filled with original material instead of reprints. The other, for Strange Tales, reprinted suspense and fantasy stories from titles which were in the process of being converted into super-hero comics.

The titles Strange Tales, Tales to Astonish, Journey Into Mystery and Tales of Suspense converted from bi-monthly to monthly status in late 1960. Even before then, the improved sales of the new Kirby/Ditko look on the Goodman titles had made selling ad space easier. The story content in these books was typically 23 pages of comic art (split among five stories), a two page text story (required for cheaper mailing rates on subscription copies) and either paid ads or in-house ads. DC had far fewer ads and Dell rarely had any. With fewer titles on the stands, the publishing group that would become Marvel again in 1961 needed revenue where they could find it. Upgrading those four books to monthly frequency brought Marvel from eight titles a month to ten titles a month. Something else that happened is that the stories lengthened. While still totalling 23 pages of comic content, they would now fall into a four story pattern: 7 pages, 6 pages and two 5 page stories. The next phenomenon was to try to cultivate recurring characters. Initially it would be the monsters or invading aliens and the scientists who defeated them. To flesh out their parts and give them something resembling a personality, those characters would occupy the 6 and 7 page sections and they would be packaged as a two-part story. Sometimes they would combine the 6 or 7 page section with a 5 page section. Conveniently, Stan Lee was editing all these titles, so if someone came up with an idea for a lead feature, free-standing stories could be shuffled into another title to make room without having to worry if they would fit elsewhere. Although it couldn't have been developed for this purpose, this system of standardized lengths made it easy to insert super-hero stories into these titles as lead features without having to totally overhaul the look and feel of the titles. The first Ant-Man, Human Torch and Thor stories were 13 pages, followed by two 5 page stories of the sort those series had always published. The first Spider-man story was broken into 6 and 5 page chapters.

The cover of my copy of Marvel Collectors' Item Classics #1

By the end of 1961, the addition of bi-monthly titles "Linda Carter" and "Fantastic Four" raised the average release schedule to 11 comics per month. When the first Marvel annuals came out in 1962, "Fantastic Four" was upgraded to monthly. The last issue of "Amazing Fantasy" (#15, with Spider-man) had the date August on the cover, but September in the indicia. Editorial content inside announces the intention to continue publishing Spider-man in that title. For all of its prior existence, the title had been monthly, but if it was falling into a bi-monthly schedule on odd-numbered months, then it would have been switching places with the "Fantastic Four". Instead, it was cancelled and that spot was taken by the return of "Two-Gun Kid", redesigned to resemble a super-hero title, complete with mask and secret identity.

1963 began on a down note, with the Hulk series cancelled and Kirby temporarily leaving the Thor feature, both in the first week of January. However, it was also the introduction of the Watcher (with The Red Ghost in FF#13). And after that the rest of the year was filled with incremental moves towards the new Marvel identity. Starting in February, the "MC" box was dropped in favor of a rectangular box in the upper left corner of all the covers, including the western and humor titles. Each box would include a a portrait of that title's main character(s), something that was now possible since every title had a lead feature with a recurring character (except "Love Romances", which used a generic couple). The box also had the words "Marvel Comics Group" and the 12¢ price, which previously appeared in a large circle almost anywhere in the upper third of the cover. Now, even when comics were fanned on a newsstand rack, readers would be able to find the characters they wanted and would connect those characters with the name of a publishing group. A week later, Iron Man fought a villain named Dr. Strange just two months before a hero named Dr. Strange debuted in April. Between those two stories, in March, Sgt. Fury makes his first appearance in his own title and the Wasp is introduced in the Ant-Man feature. Hank and Jan cross over into FF#16 in April just as Spider-man gets his first issue-length story in AS#3. Even so, he still gets no respect: Dr. Octopus calls him "Superman". In May, "Love Romances" (Marvel's only remaining romance title and only anthology without a committed lead) and "Gunsmoke Western" (which had become redundant to "Kid Colt Outlaw") were both cancelled, leaving two bi-monthly slots on the schedule. Right after that, Iron Man fought the time travelling Mad Pharoah two months before the Fantastic Four fought Rama-Tut. (Hunh. Seems Tony's got the drop on everybody back then.)

Inside front cover of MCIC #1

At this time, DC began following suit by converting more genre anthologies to recurring feature titles. They had done it before in 1959 (with Mark Merlin, Space Ranger and Adam Strange) and did it again in 1963 (with Eclipso and Doom Patrol). They also decided to spread out their annuals a bit in order to have them compete with Marvel titles rather than each other. "Batman Annual" #5 was moved up to late May, followed by a second Lois Lane and seventh Superman in June. Marvel responded by putting more comics out without increasing their total number of titles. Three titles began shipping monthly, two of them for a four-month period ("Patsy Walker" and "Modelling With Millie") and the other ("Amazing Spider-man") permanently. Also in June was MILLIE THE MODEL ANNUAL #2 and STRANGE TALES ANNUAL #2, both "72  Big Pages" for 25¢, both published by Vista Publications, Inc. Millie was more of the same, albeit with a few ads. The "Strange Tales Annual" had some significant differences, the most obvious being an 18-page new story featuring the Human Torch (who had been the lead in the monthly "Strange Tales" for a year at that point) with Spider-man. That was followed by one story reprinted from "Strange Tales", but the other nine all came from "Strange Worlds" #1-3 and "Worlds of Fantasy" #16, two titles that had already been cancelled in 1959 shortly after these stories originally appeared. [It's off topic, but from the first annual, all but two stories from "Journey Into Mystery" #55 would be subsequently reprinted, either in 1970's comics, the Monster Masterworks trade paperback or Marvel Masterworks for the various titles. From the second annual, only two stories had ever been reprinted, at least in the U.S. so far.]

In July, Marvel added two more annuals with the "72 Big Pages" banner. PATSY AND HEDY ANNUAL #1, starring Patsy Walker and Hedy Wolfe, was mostly reprints from 1958, from Male Publishing Corp. The other was a bombshell: FANTASTIC FOUR ANNUAL #1, from Canam Publisher Sales Corp., began with a new 37-page Lee and Kirby story in which the Sub-mariner finally finds the residents of Atlantis he'd been searching for since he regained his memory in FF#4, tells his origin story for the first time in the Silver Age, wages war on the surface world and promptly loses his people again. There was also two pages of FAQ's, a now famous diagram of the Baxter Building, and a 6-page retelling of the story from "Amazing Spider-man" #1 about his meeting the FF but told from the FF's perspective (by Kirby with Ditko inks). Scattered throughout are 11 pin-ups forming "A Gallery of The Fantastic Four's Most Famous Foes!" which was in fact every opponent from the first 17 issues with a capsule description and the issue number of their first appearance. It ends by reprinting the first 13 pages of FF #1, which explains why Marvel's flagship title at the time was the only major feature prior to this annual not included in the first issue of Marvel Tales. There were only two in-house ads on the interior pages, one with the cover of "Strange Tales Annual" #2 and a more generic one for "Amazing Spider-man" and a new title, "The Avengers", shipping the same week as the FF Annual along with the first "X-Men". Busy week.

The scans for this post are from the first issue of MARVEL COLLECTORS' ITEM CLASSICS, which was released in October of 1965 after the six annuals for that year. It differs from them in a few respects: the banner calls it a "Bullpen Book" instead of an annual, and the indicia claims it will be published "quarterly" (by Animated Timely Features, Inc.); it's only 64 pages; and the inside front cover has the staff credits with B&W art details to form a kind of contents page. Here's the real contents:

  • Reprint FANTASTIC FOUR #2 (01/62) "... Meet The Skrulls From Outer Space!", 24pp
  • Ad (see third scan below), also in FF#46 (01/66)
  • Reprint TALES TO ASTONISH #36 (10/62) [Ant-Man] "The Challenge of Comrade X!", 13pp
  • Reprint JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY #97 (10/63) "Tales of...Asgard!", 5 pp
  • Reprint AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #3 (07/63) "...Versus Doctor Octopus", 21pp
  • Inside back cover: ad for Famous Artists Schools Studio with Albert Dorne
  • Ad for Mike Marvel System (bodybuilding), still at 285 Market St.
From page 25 of Marvel Collectors' Item Classic #1

One of the items in those contents was the first installment of the "Tales Of Asgard" back-up feature, which began running one month after the FF Annual. Funny story? That was about the time that, despite everything I described going on at Marvel in 1963 up to that point, Goodman was seriously considering discontinuing the line of comics and just publishing magazines and paperbacks. But that story is going to have to wait.


  1. Replies
    1. Thank you. There's more coming; eventually the chronological history will catch up to the chronological surveys of the reprint titles, especially after the next few in which these giants started coming out bi-monthly.


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