Saturday, July 1, 2017

0031: Three Shots, Four Victims

Stevie Wonder's first three singles didn't make Billboard's Hot 100 chart, but that shouldn't have reflected too badly on him; he was only 12 years old at the time. However, his fourth single, and the album it came from, were both released about a week after his 13th birthday and, oh boy, they turned out to be quite a bar mitzvah for someone who isn't even Jewish. Both went to number one, although they were released May 21, 1963 and topped the charts in August. It was a slow build, but the single ("Fingertips") stayed at #1 for three weeks leading right up to MLK's March On Washington. The next chart published after the march was topped by The Angel's "My Boyfriend's Back" and the album was displaced by Allen Sherman. Oy. Yet another shining example of the music industry being in tune with the times. There wasn't another black artist with a #1 single for the remainder of the year. Rock wasn't welcome either. The top acts were Bobby Vinton ("Blue Velvet"), The Fireballs ("Sugar Shack"), Nino Tempo & April Stevens ("Deep Purple"), Dale &Grace ("I'm Leaving It Up To You") and, for the entire month of December, "Dominique" by The Singing Nun.

So, why the he--...uhh... why the heck did the Singing Nun top the charts for an entire month? And how does it tie in to the history of Silver Age Marvel? It has to do with that handsome devil on the left. Yeah, I know he's Jewish (more so than Stevie Wonder, anyway). Just forget about the Singing Nun for now; we'll get back to her later.

This is a scan of the inside front cover of FANTASY MASTERPIECES #1 (02/66). It functions as a table of contents for the issue, although if you can enlarge the image enough to read it you'll notice that each capsule description of the stories doubles as a plug for whatever title the artist is currently working on. Always the pitchman. (Speaking of which, consider yourself No-Prized if you recognize the comic book Stan is holding in that photo. Use the comments for guesses.) As you can tell from the 12¢ cover prices below, the first two issues of FANTASY MASTERPIECES were in the standard 32-page format, unlike the annuals I've been focusing on so far in these "publishing history" posts. Both were technically published by "Zenith Books, Inc.", another one of Martin Goodman's numerous publishing companies that comprised the Marvel Comics Group. It was not Marvel's habit to print content on their inside front covers. Those had been used for paid advertising until the first issue of MARVEL COLLECTORS' ITEM CLASSICS, as seen in post 0027 last week. Except for this issue, Marvel would only put content on the inside front cover of giant, 64-page format comics and only until early 1969. So, why no ad here?

The simple answer may be that the title was originally planned to be a 64-page giant or annual. The series converted to that format as of issue #3, after all. #1 shipped the same week as PATSY WALKER'S FASHION PARADE, a 64-page one-shot that followed the cancellation of the bi-monthly PATSY WALKER title, arriving in the schedule slot that its next issue would have been in. It consisted entirely of one page pin-ups, paper dolls and other features, either reprinted or from file stock that wouldn't have found any other outlet. Rather than let that material sit around unused while starting a new double-length reprint title, the standard size PW was temporarily replaced with a standard size FM. Once the FASHION PARADE had been taken care of, FM could go back to the original plan.

Of course, that just raises the question of what the original plan was. The first two issues are very much in the mold of the STRANGE TALES ANNUAL #1. In fact, the first story in the first issue had also been reprinted in the Annual. But when the third issue adds 32 pages, 28 of them are Golden Age Captain America stories. [More about that in a future post.] Otherwise, the reprinted stories were from 1959-1962 [not "from the Golden Age of Marvel" as the banner states] and all from the four suspense series that were converted to super-hero series (except the one 1962 story from AMAZING ADULT FANTASY). Marvel's 1964 and 1965 all-reprint Annuals were published because there was an increasing audience for their super-hero titles, much larger than the audience possible for their earlier, lower distributed issues. But before introducing super-heroes, Marvel's suspense titles were the best sellers they had. When the new super-heroes became leads and the suspense stories became back-ups in 1962, that was followed by a greater demand for super-heroes which Marvel answered with super-hero back-ups and/or more pages for the leads. The suspense stories disappeared completely by the summer of 1964. Why reprint them  a year and a half later? I think the answer's on the cover, where the names of the artists are written larger than the story titles. Marvel's artists were producing 50% more comics per month than they had in 1958 and Stan Lee had been cultivating an editorial tone in letters' pages, ad copy and even credit boxes that emphasized the idea that the creators were also characters whose activities could be sold as well. By reprinting the suspense stories, Marvel could sell even more of the artists' names than they could newly produce.

Both of these 32-pagers had 25 pages of story content and 7 pages of paid ads-- no in-house ads, no letters' pages, no text stories or editorial content of any kind (except for the first scan above). All the stories were subsequently reprinted again, either in 1970's horror comics, Masterworks hardcovers or an all-Ditko trade for the 1962 story. The covers were made from excerpted panels retouched and recolored. Yet, one has to wonder what the expectations were for this title, in terms of sales. Television shows like "Twilight Zone" and "Outer Limits", which had a sort of O. Henry-ish synergy with these sort of stories, had since been cancelled. JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY changed its name to THOR between the first and second issue of FM. It was also the third new title in two years for Marvel, all three of which being reprints. It would be another year before a new title of original material would appear. This was far removed from Marvel in the 1980's or 1990's when fans looked forward to new Marvel #1's every month. And yet, Marvel's name recognition and sales were building during this period. Within a year they would be licensing images and characters to Golden Records, Lancer Books, Donruss Trading Cards and Grantray-Lawrence Animation, all involving super-heroes. The suspense stories really wouldn't be a part of that.

Back when the suspense stories were at least still in play, when Thor stories only took up 13 pages of JIM and Stevie Wonder was getting his first #1 single in August 1963, Stan and Jack introduced the 5-page back-up feature "Tales Of Asgard" in JIM #97 (10/63), leaving room for only one suspense story until the Thor lead expands to 18 pages in JIM #105 (06/64). On the week that "Tales..." debuted, Ant-Man became Giant-Man in TALES TO ASTONISH #49 (11/63). The following week the Lizard made his first appearance in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #6 (11/63), Dr. Strange returned from a two-issue absence to become a permanent feature in STRANGE TALES #114 (11/63) while the Human Torch fights an imposter Captain America and, less well known but ultimately more significant, TWO-GUN KID #66 (11/63) begins running 18-page stories plus a 5-page generic western back-up. Previously, since being revived at #60 as a masked hero series, each issue would have 13-page and 5-page Two-Gun stories plus the generic back-up, which would facilitate shuffling smaller stories among Marvel's four remaining western titles when necessary. However, since that revival the one anthology, GUNSMOKE WESTERN, was cancelled leaving three single-character series. The reason that this is significant is that longer stories, on top of the loss of the anthology, reduces the plasticity of the entire sub-group of western titles. RAWHIDE KID would follow suit with longer stories a month later in #37 (12/63) and KID COLT OUTLAW in #115 (03/64).

In mid-August DC released their first FLASH ANNUAL (Summer/1963), and their 17th 80pg Giant overall. For the character who defined DC's Silver Age, it sure took long enough. By contrast, Marvel had only released 6 of their 72pg Annuals but had already included four titles covering humor, sci-fi/fantasy and super-heroes. Of the 22 original Giant Annuals DC would release, the only ones not tied to Superman or Batman would be: Rudolph, Flash and Sgt. Rock. But the Flash Annual would have a further distinction none of them had: a story from before 1950. Promoted on the cover, it reprinted a Jay Garrick story with the first appearance of the original Star Sapphire from 1947. This was coming a month after the first JLA/JSA Crisis crossover ended. (It's no wonder Marvel teased Human Torch readers with a phony Captain America.) Stan's boss, publisher Martin Goodman, didn't seem so encouraged by the readership's interest in historic characters. There were few or no licensing options in 1963 as there would be in just a few years and Stan's talent as a  writer had to be balanced with his editorial duties, which was easier to manage when he was preparing eight formulaic genre comics for release every month in 1958. By 1963 he was the custodian and primary writer for a new mythology that was growing an audience of regular readers beyond bored 10-year-olds with ten cents left over after buying candy. But Goodman had never stopped being a magazine publisher and had just released the second edition of a fumetti style joke magazine called YOU DON'T SAY that was made extremely cheaply by recycling photos from news services instead of creating photos. News photographers need to take more photos of public figures than can be eventually selected by editors for use, so any amount of money to be had for the nearly identical unused photos is gravy. Stan and others would then write non-sequitur gags to match whatever photos were available. The humor wasn't particularly political; readers only needed to know which figures had rivalries,etc. The same jokes could probably have been used with sports figures or film stars. The rest of my notes on the topic are below:

So, three shots were fired. John F. Kennedy was killed. Governor John Connally was severely injured. Bystander James Tague was superficially wounded. YOU DON'T SAY was cancelled at the printers. Three shots, four victims. The bright side of losing the magazine is that it required keeping the comics line. One issue of the B&W magazine was priced at four times a color comic and cost a fraction to produce. It would be awfully tempting to believe that the superior profit margin could be replicated with several similar titles, but I suspect that the harsh reality is that the magazine's success was tied to there being only one of it. Putting out two such magazines a month, for instance, would only bring in more profit than the comics if they continued to sell as much as releasing one semi-annually. It's more likely that the sales would be diluted. And by the time they realized that they had made a mistake, the artists who had been making the comics would have found other positions and reassembling them would be nearly impossible. And they were making innovations all the time. In fact, the very issue of FANTASTIC FOUR quoted in the notes above (#21) introduced WWII hero Nick Fury in the present day which (spoilers) meant he survived the war. But it also shows him working for the CIA and promoted to Colonel. That became the first step towards introducing S.H.I.E.L.D. into Marvel continuity. The same week that issue came out, Dr. Strange was upgraded from a 5-page back-up to an 8-page back-up, starting with his origin in STRANGE TALES #115 (12/63). This meant the title gave up suspense back-up stories before JIM. The same week also saw the introduction of Iron Man's first slimmed down, red and yellow armor in TALES OF SUSPENSE #48 (12/63). Then, in October, TALES TO ASTONISH #51(01/64) added a regular Wasp back-up feature. Because the Giant-Man feature had irregular lengths, there were suspense stories in #51 and #54. Immediately after, TALES OF SUSPENSE #49 (01/64) added "Tales of the Watcher", a 5-page back-up that ran 10 issues. Because the Iron Man feature stayed at 13 pages for a while, issues #50-54 also carried 5-page suspense back-ups. In November, DC completed their second wave of annuals for the year with Batman (#6) and Superman (#8). After the assassination, Kirby returned to Thor and the nation mourned their first Catholic president by buying enormous quantities of a nun singing in French. Stan had been right in his hunch that the public would not be in the mood for jokes involving Kennedy, even if the jokes weren't at his expense. DC, however, published a story in ACTION COMICS #309 (02/64) a month after the assassination in which Superman fools Lois Lane and Lana Lang when they try to prove that he's Clark Kent by having Kennedy disguise himself as Clark as a favor. Of course, the story had been prepared well before his death, but one has to wonder why weeks of advance notice weren't enough to find any other way to fill 14 pages when your company's shareholders control both the printing presses and the distributor. Why they thought lining the President up with the Legion Of Super Pets for a public appearance as a practical joke would be seen as a 'fitting tribute' is still mystifying over 50 years later.

Stan Lee had a grasp for the mood of the public that DC's editors did not and heading into the 1960's the gap between them in that regard would become a chasm. Although Julius Schwartz saw the value in being attentive to that segment of fandom that cared enough to write fan letters, Stan's wider view enabled him to reach people who weren't already reading and give them an incentive to start and come back. He also knew when to sit back and give Jack Kirby room. So, when the year ended with the country anxious about its future and identity and with its leadership disrupted, Marvel was prepared with a story to run in the first week of January that would make the fourth issue of Avengers as sought after as #1. And that would be a good place to start the next Silver Age post.

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