Sunday, July 16, 2017

0035: Paar For The Course

In the early 1960's, comics got to the public almost entirely by newsstand distribution. That phrase encompassed every venue where newspapers and magazines might be sold, such as drug stores, grocers, tobacconists, etc., not just newsstands. Even second-string titles typically sold 150,000 copies this way, making mail-order subscriptions and other forms of circulation, however profitable, barely significant in comparison. But opportunistic congressional action in the 1950's had left comics with a social stigma apart from their commercial value to distributors. For instance, daily newspapers would always take precedence over comics. When there's a holiday during the week, comic deliveries get bumped. Not eliminated, since they're still profitable for both the vendors and suppliers, but delayed. If you pay some kind of premium or overtime for working on a holiday, then you make sure you have only enough men and trucks out to get the papers delivered on time. Screw the comics. Independent News, Marvel's distributor at that time, typically delivered comics on Tuesdays and Thursdays. When New Year's Day 1964 fell on a Wednesday, that shouldn't have made any difference, but according to a few sources I've found online the return of the real Captain America in the Silver Age, in AVENGERS #4 (03/64), came out on Friday, January 3rd, 1964. For Stan Lee, and especially for Jack Kirby, this was a really big deal.
(We'll get to this below, I promise)

Stan had been building up a roster of heroes who had to look as though they had walked out of Marvel's science fiction and fantasy titles (where, indeed, many of them debuted, including all of the Avengers except the Hulk). Now, with Captain America, he had an actual genuine established star, not a reinvention (Human Torch) or supporting antagonist (Sub-Mariner). Kirby, of course, co-created Cap in the 40's and left Marvel shortly afterwards in a dispute over royalties involving the character. Having more recently left DC over what amounted to extortion, the chance to outsell them with his old character at Marvel must have been intoxicating. Success is the best revenge. But there was a parallel to another pop culture phenomenon made even more coincidental by the rescheduling.

The story involves the Avengers returning from Gibraltor (where they had fought the Hulk and Sub-Mariner in #3) to New York in a submarine. En route they discover the thawing body of Captain America, who had been frozen nearly 20 years in an iceberg that had drifted south and melted. When they reach the docks in New York a large group of reporters are waiting and the Avengers emerge first to announce their discovery but are turned to stone before they can. It's left to Rick Jones and the revived Cap to find out why and restore them (spoiler: they do). What makes the shipping date curious is the scene in which they greet the reporters (scanned here from the nearest trade on hand):

In late 1963, Jack Paar (host of NBC-TV's "The Tonight Show") was in England waiting to get on a plane when he saw crowds of teenagers waiting for a different flight to arrive from Sweden. When a few young men disembarked the crowd cheered hysterically. Whatever that was, Paar wanted to show it on TV. The easiest, cheapest way would be to license footage from the BBC. The young men were a band and had performed on British television several times but had never been seen in America. Getting footage was simple enough, but a little research revealed that their label, Parlophone/EMI, had offered their records to the American label, Capitol Records, with whom they had a reciprocal "right-of-first-refusal". Capital turned them down, explaining that rock and roll was just a fad that had already come and gone and we wouldn't be seeing it again. Instead, Vee-Jay (home of The Four Seasons) released their records in the U.S. The band's manager contacted Paar, furious that the footage was sold without the band's knowledge or permission, threatening to sue because they were scheduled to appear on another American network a month later, and Paar's broadcast could cause the band legal problems over exclusivity. Instead, on January 3rd, 1964, Paar introduced the clip of the band performing on his show and afterwards sniffed sarcastically, "It's nice to know that England has finally risen to our cultural level". The irony is that, before Paar put them on television just to ridicule them, few people had heard of the band in the U.S. In fact, Vee Jay had only put out their second and third British singles and an edited version of their first album when their cash flow problems forced EMI to find a different US label (Swan) to handle the fourth single, which happened to be the song in the clip Paar aired. The two labels scrambled to manufacture more pressings, but Capitol had already (albeit reluctantly) manufactured U.S. copies of the fifth British A-side with a different flip. They had released it the day after Christmas, as if the intention was to guarantee that it wouldn't be bought as a gift. Then people watching television heard them, many for the first time. And the band whose first three American singles couldn't get into the top 100 had their first charting single go to #1 and stay there for seven weeks, followed by the reissued Swan single for two weeks and a second Capitol single for five.They held the number one spot for 14 weeks in a row, all the while competing with the Vee Jay singles and their own B-sides which charted in various positions as well. Even Canadian pressings showed up on the U.S. charts. If you haven't guessed by now, Jack Paar had been making fun of the Beatles. And the other American show they were scheduled to appear on? The Ed Sullivan Show, with live broadcasts from New York on Feb. 9th and Florida on Feb. 16th. When their plane touched down at the recently renamed JFK Airport in Queens on the 7th, they emerged much like the four Avengers to a crowd of reporters as flash bulbs went off and they were preserved like stone statues in images that are perpetually recycled even to this day. In fact, just to test a theory, I've just done a Google Image search for "Kruschev arriving at Idlewild" (an event from 1960), and the results included pictures of the Beatles at JFK. [The JFK airport was originally built on the Idlewild golf course and named after an officer who died in WWII, but residents still called it Idlewild until it was renamed after Kennedy. Hence the line, "Kruschev's due at Idlewild" in the theme song to the TV show "Car 54, Where Are You?"] The bi-monthly Avengers comic with a March cover date would have still been on the stands when the Beatles arrived, already at #1 before playing a note in the country thanks to an inadvertent boost from Paar. Within a month, six different labels would field singles of their recordings on the charts simultaneously, not including four songs by other artists which also charted that month. By the first week of April, they would have all top five spots on the singles chart (the only time that has ever happened for any artist). By the second week of April they had 14 different songs in the top 100. You can bet that Stan Lee was wracking his brain trying to figure out a way for Jack Paar to make fun of the Hulk.

Because the history of 1964 will bring this set of articles full circle to where it began with MARVEL TALES #1, I'm going to close that phase of it with a bang: a week of shorter daily posts involving other Silver Age reprints coupled with major events at Marvel, the Beatles' progress and DC's evolving 80-page format.

In the meantime, here's the inside front cover to MARVEL COLLECTORS' ITEM CLASSICS #2 (04/66), to go with the front cover scan above. As with the first issue, the IFC has production credits and a sort-of table of contents. The publisher is once again listed as "Animated Timely Features" (and will be until 1968). It still features reprints of Fantastic Four, Spider-Man and Ant-Man stories. In fact, these are the stories immediately following the ones reprinted in issue #1. And it's also still 64 pages for 25¢. What's different is that where the first issue filled the page count with a "Tales Of Asgard" reprint and an in-house ad, the second issue replaces those with paid ads. It also changes the publishing frequency from 'quarterly' to 'bi-monthly'. in the two months following this issue, MCIC will join MARVEL TALES and FANTASY MASTERPIECES as Marvel's only new titles between DAREDEVIL in 1964 and GHOST RIDER (the western) in 1967. And they were all reprints.

The contents of this issue are:

  • Reprint FANTASTIC FOUR #3 (03/62) "The Menace Of The Miracle Man", 23pp
  • Reprint TALES TO ASTONISH #37 (11/62) [Ant-Man] "Trapped By The Protector!", 13pp
  • Reprint AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #4 (09/63) "Nothing Can Stop...The Sandman!", 21pp
  • (seven pages of paid ads)
One last bit of Beatles trivia before I go? When the Spider-man story reprinted here was originally published, in June of 1963, American singer Del Shannon released a cover version of the Beatles song "From Me To You". By July it made it to #77 in the singles chart, making it the only Beatles' song to chart during that whole year.

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