Sunday, July 6, 2014

Marvel Collectors Item Classics #26

A Latecomer’s Overview
by Professor Matthew R. Bradley

The very first...
One of the most fondly remembered hallmarks of Marvel’s Bronze Age is the brief but spectacular heyday of the giant-size books, which lasted from May 1974 to December 1975, encompassing such landmarks as Howard the Duck’s first solo adventure and the debut of the “all-new, all-different X-Men” before devolving into reprints and dying out.  Ironically, due to distribution problems and/or my brother’s buying habits, I don’t believe I saw a single one of the first-run (i.e., non-reprint) titles until years later.  What follows is a brief introduction, which will in no way supplant the coverage of individual titles and issues that my fellow professors and I will be providing in our regular Wednesday posts.

The GS format resembles that of the double-sized (more or less) annuals, with which they share a curiously entwined history.  I and many others like the annuals best when they tie in with the monthly mags, as some GS books did, yet since the latter were quarterly, that was like getting four annuals in a year; how they turned out so much material, I’ll never know, but the fans back in the day must’ve thought they’d died and gone to heaven.  The last wave of GS titles were nominally annual reprint-fests, making them indistinguishable from the all-reprint annuals published sporadically since the first-run Silver-Age annuals went out with a bang in the summer of ’68, while the genuine article would return in ’76.

First out of the gate in May ’74 was Giant-Size Super-Stars Featuring Fantastic Four #1, with a 35¢ price tag that coincided with an increase to 25¢ for the regular books.  It was soon followed by the comparably priced inaugural issues of GS Super-Heroes Featuring Spider-Man and …Chillers Featuring the Curse of Dracula in June, and … Creatures Featuring Werewolf by Night the following month, all of whose unwieldy official titles demonstrated the original intention of revolving showcases along the lines of TV’s then-ubiquitous NBC Mystery Movie.  Yet by July the winds of change were already blowing, with two further debuts whose price (now 50¢) and page count suddenly both increased.

What had been advertised as Giant-Size Super-Teams Featuring the Defenders eventually appeared simply as Giant-Size Defenders #1, while in the months to come, effective with their sophomore issues, the titles of Giant-Size Super-Stars, …Chillers, and … Creatures were streamlined as, respectively, GS Fantastic Four (August), …Dracula (September), and …Werewolf (October).  Curiously, Spidey avoided the whole numeration game, and GS Super-Heroes Featuring Spider-Man #1 was instead succeeded in July by GS Spider-Man #1.  I should mention that the same month’s first-and-only GS Creatures features (!) the noteworthy mutation of Greer Nelson, formerly the Cat, into Tigra, the Were-Woman.

The waters thus successfully tested, Marvel predictably opened their floodgates with the premieres in August of Giant-Size Avengers and …Man-Thing, and in September of GS Conan the Barbarian and …Master of Kung Fu.  Each of these lasted for a minimum of four first-run issues, and they include some of the most notable GS books; GS Avengers was closely integrated with the Celestial Madonna epic then unfolding in their monthly mag.  GS Man-Thing #4 (May 1975) featured the return of Howard the Duck—last seen free-falling into editorially imposed oblivion in Man-Thing #1—with “Frog Death,” and #5 (August 1975) was, as far as I can determine, the very last first-run issue of a GS title.

The line finally stabilized at nine titles, alternating in three quarterly groups, with what we might call Group A consisting of GS Defenders, …Spider-Man, and …Werewolf, all published punctually between July 1974 and July ’75.  Group B comprised GS Avengers, …Fantastic Four, and …Man-Thing, published more or less quarterly from August 1974 to May ’75, although GS Avengers #4, with its historic dual wedding, aptly materialized in June.  Group C included GS Conan, …Dracula, and …Master of Kung Fu (effectively replacing, albeit not a continuation of, GS Super-Heroes), published on schedule between September ’74 and June ’75, excepting GS Conan #3, which appeared belatedly in April.

By January 1975, having already devoted GS mags to many of their heavy hitters, Marvel began broadening the franchise further, expanding into both their popular Western genre and the reprint realm with Giant-Size Kid Colt #1.  Hilariously, a mere eight months after Giant-Size Dracula had begun life—or at least undeath—as GS Chillers #1, they banked on the public’s forgiving nature and short memory with a partial reprint mag, Giant-Size Chillers Vol. 2 #1, in February, followed by GS Marvel Triple Action (a treasure trove of Avengers, Daredevil, and Dr. Strange classics) in May.  Meanwhile, in March, the next phase in the rapid evolution of the line began with Giant-Size Super-Villain Team-Up #1.

So far, Marvel had used the giant-size books primarily to expand or capitalize on existing hits, but now, with GS-mania seemingly in full swing, they decided to use the format as a platform to launch entire new series.  Yet because these trial balloons went up toward the end of the ultimately short-lived cycle, Giant-Size Invaders #1 (June 1975) lasted for only a single issue, and GSSVTU for two, before both morphed into regulation-sized comics in August.  The best-known of these, indeed Marvel’s most famous GS issue by far, was the legendary Giant-Size X-Men #1 in May, featuring the initial appearances of the ill-starred Thunderbird and three soon-to-be mutant mainstays:  Storm, Nightcrawler, and Colossus.

... and the very last.
In terms of output, the line peaked in June and July, with six titles apiece, yet the contrast between them speaks volumes—all of the June titles were first-run, but half of those July titles were reprints, including the debut of GS Thor.  Save for Man-Thing’s last hurrah in August, the remaining issues were all reprints, with which GS Fantastic Four, …Spider-Man, …Avengers, …Conan, and …X-Men finished their runs.  By year’s end, the market was at once flooded and exhausted with the first-and-only issues of GS Captain America, …Captain Marvel, …Daredevil, …Dr. Strange, …Hulk, …Iron Man, and …Power Man, but salvation, in the form of revived first-run annuals, was waiting just around the corner.

By my highly unscientific count, Marvel published 24 giant-size titles during that period; setting aside the 11 that were all-reprints, only five of the remainder reached that number of first-run issues, or six for Spidey when you include GS Super-Heroes.  The fact that of those five (Dracula, Defenders, Spider-Man, Werewolf, and Man-Thing), 60% were more or less monster titles—I never know how to classify Manny—shows how completely the CCA revisions changed the face of Marvel in the Bronze era.  To say the least, they were fun while they lasted, and even for one who first encountered them only in their reprint twilight, they will always occupy a special place in the hearts of readers of a certain age.


  1. Fabulous overview of a sub-genre that I have an immense amount of affection for. So much affection that I'm afraid to read these again. Will GS Avengers capture my imagination like it did when I was 14? Will Alfredo Alcala's delightfully goofy Kraken story in GS Chillers still be delightfully goofy? Most importantly, will GS Invaders still have me ignoring my mother's pleas to change the light bulbs in the den? I sure hope so.
    Thank you, Professor Matthew, for opening that door into 1974.

  2. Prof Matthew,

    That's a deep data dig. Nice job. I loved the Giant-Sized books...wish I knew what happened to mine!

  3. Incredibly, the original plan was to have TWO different lines of oversized Marvels -- the 52-pg. "Giant-Size" books and 100-pg. "Super-Giant" books. The "official" story is that someone thought it would be just too confusing to have all these various-length titles (which it probably would have been) so they split the difference, consolidated both ideas into the 68-pg. "Giant-Size" format. I'm sure some saner head also realised that it would simply be WAY too much work to produce that many titles with their already overloaded staff. The switch-over was so last-minute that a few pages of GIANT-SIZE SPIDER-MAN #1 actually have a typeset "Super-Giant Spider-Man" header in the top margin. Crazy.

    Anyhow, I loved the Giant-Size books. Back in the day, they seemed like an extra-special treat. Special faves: GS CONAN 1-4 (awesome "Hour of the Dragon" adaptation by Thomas, Kane and Sutton), GS SUPER-STARS 1 (terrific Hulk / Thing donnybrook) GS CHILLERS / CURSE OF DRACULA 1 (first appearance of Lilith by Wolfman and Colan). Oddly enough, GS MAN-THING was probably the most consistently excellent GS comic -- all five issues are great. GS WEREWOLF is the exact opposite -- all five issues are awful. There are a few other duds too -- GS AVENGERS 4 and GS DEFENDERS 4 and 5 are saddled with extra-sloppy Don Heck art. But overall, it was a great time to be a teenage comic fan that long-ago summer...


  4. Thank you all so much for the generous feedback. Dean Peter, you will definitely want to play it safe and go in with lowered expectations, if only because the GS books (or at least those I've read) are so uneven in quality. Anonymous and Professor Mark, I will go into much greater detail on the line's complex evolution when I comment on the specific issues, but I wanted this to be a fun and readable overview. --MRB

  5. b.t., you are 100% correct with the Giant Size Conan being an extra treat. The GS books operated entirely outside the usual Conan timeframe, taking place years down the line when the barbarian turned king. I haven't read them all yet, but I think that the "Hour of the Dragon" adaptation actually outlived the GS line, wrapping up in the Savage Sword magazine.

  6. And you, Prof. Flynn, are exactly right about "Hour of the Dragon" concluding in SAVAGE SWORD. As big a Buscema fan as I am, I'm still disappointed that Kane couldn't do the remaining chapters himself.

    Another Giant-Size fave I forgot to mention is GS MASTER OF KUNG FU. Moench and Gulacy were really starting to fire on all cylinders around that time, and issues 1-3 are spectacular. Even the Yellow Claw reprints in the back are nice.

    Interesting that most of the GS stories are stand-alone self-contained one-and-done adventures. Englehart's GS AVENGERS stories are the notable exception -- not only are they directly tied into the monthly title's continuity, major game-changing plot developments happen in every single GS issue. Must have been extremely frustrating for readers of the monthly who (like Prof. Matthew) didn't get the GS titles distributed in their area. "Waitaminnit -- Swordsman's friggin' DEAD? When did THAT happen?!!"


  7. Nothing at Marvel happened in a vacuum--DC had turned key books in its line to 100-page super-spectaculars starting with those bearing December 1973 cover dates, so it's very possible that Marvel saw the profit potential and rushed out comparable books.