Sunday, April 8, 2012

Marvel Collectors Item Classics #11: Cluster's Last Stand!

Marvel Collectors' Item Classic #11

All-New!  All-Anecdotal!  All-Subjective!
By Professor Matthew Bradley

I’ve been thinking—okay, obsessing—a lot lately about the unique hold the Marvel Comics of the ’70s
have on me and, if our comments and conversations are any indication, other members of the MU faculty.  And after recently unearthing a few treasures from that magic decade at our local shop, Newtown’s Cave Comics (come and meet the dogs!), I’d remarked upon the fact that they even have a distinctive look, with the immortal words “Marvel Comics Group” emblazoned in a horizontal banner across the top, rather than joining the title, price, issue number, cover date, and character logo in a rectangular box in the left-hand corner.  I’m not arguing for the aesthetic superiority of one format over the other, merely noting this one’s pulse-quickening effect on me.

Now, in addition to showing all the covers for the run of a given title, the invaluable—albeit not infallible—Marvel Comics Database (hereinafter MCDb) has a super-cool feature, whereby you can see at a glance all of the mags Marvel published in a given month…not a bad thing to be able to do when you write for a blog that is organized the same way.  So after scrolling through all the covers for the more-or-less-randomly-selected Fantastic Four to see where the banner first made its appearance on that book, I was able to go month by month in search of any overall patterns.  I quickly discovered that the addition of the banner was just one of three significant alterations to the covers of Marvel Comics dated November 1971, another of which was a rise in price to 25¢.

Those of you who, like me, grew up with a Chinese water torture of steady price increases might not consider that too noteworthy a development, but here’s the thing:  first, the price had jumped not the usual nickel but a dime, and second, with the bigger price came a bigger format, 52 pages vs. the traditional 32.  That’s right, virtually every comic Marvel put out was now a “Giant” with reprints to pad them out and/or longer stories that were, in some cases, broken up into chapters, a development that would seem like a veritable invitation for the “Dreaded Deadline Doom.”  And it’s presumably for that precise reason that this bold experiment lasted all of one month, with the December issues (again, for the most part) reverting to the standard size and expected 20¢ price.

The third and final change, more permanent than the 25¢ price but less so than the banner, had to do with the layout of the covers themselves, with the actual artwork in most cases now no longer reaching the edge of the cover, but instead constrained inside a solid-colored box.  (I believe the blognoscenti refer to this as a “frame,” but whatever they call it, it appears to piss a lot of people off, and I’m obliged to say I agree with them that it’s an artistic train-wreck.)  There isn’t as clear an endpoint for these “frame” covers as their line-in-the-sand debut, but they mercifully began to fade out early in 1973, with only the title logo boxed off on some covers throughout that year; as for the banner itself, it lasted until September 1983, not surprisingly as my Marvel tenure waned.

While scrolling through all those covers on the MCDb, I made some observations about the very earliest comics in my collection, meaning those purchased when they were first published by, at that point, one or more of my three older brothers.  It’s true that I have since acquired many other vintage Marvel Comics as either back issues or reprints, and recognize those covers as part of my collection as well, but there is nothing like the frisson I feel when I see the cover of a comic book that I know has been in the family, as it were, for almost forty years.  Perhaps nowhere is that frisson stronger than from Avengers #109’s incredibly dynamic cover of Hawkeye, one of my favorite characters, breaking his bow to symbolize the fact that he was quitting the Assemblers.

Some history is in order here (little or none of which I was aware of at the time):  that cover is by longtime Avengers artist John Buscema, whom I consider perhaps the finest penciler Marvel ever had, and if I could frame that baby and hang it on my wall, I would.  Coincidentally, though, that issue’s interior art was part of a return engagement by Big John’s predecessor, Don Heck, whose earlier efforts I had seen in our battered old copy of the 1967 annual and would soon be enjoying in Marvel Triple Action reprints, thus providing a satisfying sense of visual continuity.  And even if it was far from his finest effort, that script came early in a long run by Steve Englehart, a writer who, perhaps more than any other, epitomizes the pool of new talent that made me love the ’70s.

Moreover, I quickly realized that Avengers #109 was part of a little cluster of issues from March 1973 that I “inherited” and still have in my collection, e.g., Amazing Spider-Man #118, Fantastic Four #132, and Sub-Mariner #59, with a bold—if somewhat anatomically unlikely—Bill Everett cover depicting a clash between heavyweights Namor and Thor.  There were a total of five issues in this cluster; I distinctly remember that at one time we owned a sixth, Amazing Adventures #17 (marking the end of the Beast’s solo strip), but for some reason that did not wind up in my hands.  Just to put that number into perspective, the grand total of ’70s issues I have owned since before that cluster is…one, namely Iron Man #50 (September 1972), “Preee-senting:  Princess Python!”

That’s right, you’d have to go back at least as far as my now-coverless copy of Spider-Man #74 (July 1969) to find something earlier that I still possess.  Again, I remember vividly that we had Captain Marvel #17 (October 1969)—a momentous issue marking the debuts of both Mar-Vell’s new uniform and Gil Kane as penciler—at one time, but I now have that only reprinted in Giant-Size Captain Marvel #1.  That turned out to be one of the biggest clusters that we (or most likely my next-oldest brother, Stephen) acquired over the next two and a half years, and although I am uncertain exactly when I started buying comics for myself, or at least influencing their purchase, I can pretty well pinpoint September 1975 as the time after which I bought everything regularly.

One of the things that most strikes me about these clusters (from which, by the way, I am rather arbitrarily omitting reprint books, although their influence on my Marvel outlook was, to say the least, considerable) is how utterly random they are, with gaps of as much as five months between them, especially during the inexplicably arid annum of 1974.  The selections, too, seem virtually catch as catch can, with very little consistency in titles bought, and consecutive issues of a given book almost unheard of, but proving that good taste runs in the Bradley family, there seems to be a disproportionate number of issues of Avengers, Amazing Spider-Man, and Captain Marvel.  It goes without saying that this left many dangling plotlines, which I wouldn’t see tied up for years.

My other observation concerns the pure luck with which so many noteworthy issues fell into my hands, quite by chance, e.g., the start of the Black Panther’s solo strip in Jungle Action #5 (July 1973).  Looming large in my legend—I can’t get enough of that goofy phrase—are the first few chapters of Englehart’s Avengers/Defenders War (or, as he prefers to call it, Clash), and you can bet your bottom dollar that when I started seriously buying back issues, the concluding chapters were among my first acquisitions.  Most notably, since brother Steve had a taste for the cosmic, I got in on the ground floor with Captain Marvel #25 (March 1973), Jim Starlin’s first issue of that ill-fated title, and several episodes of his Thanos War, which for me represents Marvel at its best.

So there you have it, another little “snapshot” of Marvel as I knew it back in the day, in this case from the age of nine until about my twelfth birthday. From then on, it would be an entirely new ballgame, with me rummaging through those three-to-a-pack plastic bags hanging from a spinner rack in the convenience store (anybody else remember those?), searching for issues I had missed, and then finally making the leap to subscribing, which balanced regularity and volume discounts against the danger of lost or damaged issues. Eventually, I would compulsively buy every issue of almost every super-hero comic Marvel put out, which led to some unfortunate purchases that will be difficult for my heirs to unload, but in retrospect, I wouldn’t trade that time for anything.


Well, hrrrmmm. If you were to go through each week's post with a fine tooth comb (sadly, a tool I no longer need to utilize), you'd find that the faculty agrees with each other roughly 86.6666 per cent of the time (disagreements about the merits of Don Heck and Dick Ayers seem to make up the entire 13.3334 per cent of the arguments here in the treehouse), but I just had to stick my big nose into one point my esteemed colleague makes. I don't mind those framed covers from the early 70s. Actually, I dig 'em big time. What I like about them is that the action almost seems to spill out in a three-dimensional fashion. The God of Thunder has no problem stepping on his adventure's title on the cover of Thor #205 (November 1972), Luke Cage destroys one of his borders on Hero For Hire #3, and The Falcon flys into frame on Captain America #153. Perhaps the reason I have such a fondness for this style of cover is that Warren was "framing" their covers at the time as well. It's just an all-around cool presentation and I miss it big time. - Professor Pete


  1. Being the same age as you, Prof. Matthew, I have many of the same happy memories. My family moved from a city to a suburb in the summer of 1973 when I was ten, and from then on I could ride my bike downtown safely to buy comics. We also started attending conventions in New York City around that time, and I would come home with a stack of old comics. It's interesting to compare Marvel's experiments with price hikes to those over at DC--the Distinguished Competition appears to have been more aggressive and tried harder and longer to raise the price.

    In January 1962, DC's line of 10 cent comic books went to 12 cents. At around the same time, Gold Key, whose line consisted mostly of licensed characters, dropped their 15 cent cover price to 12 cents, along with a drop in page count. In February, Marvel followed suit, and their 10 cent books increased to 12 cents, a figure that now seemed to be the industry standard. For DC and Marvel, that's the way it stayed until June 1969, when DC raised their cover price to 15 cents. Marvel followed suit in August. The timing was no coincidence. Martin Goodman knew exactly what DC was planning to do.

    By 1971, Goodman had expanded the Marvel line, and was looking to expand further. Because of increased production and paper costs, DC and Marvel were about to raise prices, and, so the story goes, Goodman, and DC Publisher Carmine Infantino put their heads together and came up with what they agreed was the most profitable package … a 52 page comic book with a 25 cent cover price. DC planned to fill the extra pages with reprints, and arranged the extra printing time with World Color Press. Marvel decided to go with all new material. On September 1971, DC switched to the 25 cent format. Two months later, Marvel did the same, but, to quote Admiral Ackbar from Star Wars, “It's a trap!”

    Marvel's 25 cent cover price lasted for a month, then reverted to 36 pages for 20 cents. This meant News dealers could buy Marvel comic books at a cheaper rate than DC books, and readers could buy five Marvel comics for a dollar compared to four DC books for a buck. When moving to 25 cents for a 52 page book with all new material, Goodman convinced readers they were getting their money's worth. The following month, when reverting to 20 cents compared to DC's 25 cents, he convinced Marvelites that they were getting a good deal. Had he gone straight from 15 cents to 20 cents for the same page count, fans would've been outraged at the 33 1/3 percent price increase. DC persisted with the 25 cent books for twelve months, possibly because they were locked into a printing contract. By the end of 1972, Goodman's ploy had paid off, and Marvel, the little company whose predecessor, Atlas, had almost folded in 1957, and for most of the 1960s had its books distributed by DC, and was restricted to just eight titles a month, emerged as Americas number one comic book company.

    All the best,

    Glenn :)

  3. Professor Pete: You appear to have been so eager to get the last word that you omitted mine; I see no sign of my final paragraph here.

    Professor Jack: Yes, I have found it interesting to read in your bare*bones Batman series about DC's experiments.

    Glenn: Thanks! A fascinating chapter in Marvel's history. Goodman was obviously nothing if not an astute businessman.

  4. The paragraph last seen in the Ultimate Nullifier has been restored. Excelsior!

  5. I've trawled through the Bullpen Bulletins pages for the issues where Marvel raised their prices. There were no bulletins back in 1962, so the cover price rise went unannounced.

    In August 1969, Stan's Soapbox gives what I would consider an honest appraisal of the reasons to increase the cover price to 15 cents.

    The November 1971 item describes Martin Goodman's "rope a dope" move to 52 pages for 25 cents as an anniversary surprise celebrating ten years of the Fantastic Four. Two months later, there's an explanation for the about face.

    All the best,

    Glenn :)

  6. A belated comment (to a thread about comics from 40+ years ago) . . . that prince-finagling identified in earlier comics was, apparently, one of the contributing factors in the demise of Jack Kirby's "Fourth World" saga, at least according to his assistant Mark Evanier. With fewer retailers stocking DC books, Kirby's ambitious project--four interrelated comics starring (for the most part) brand-new characters without an established following--debuted at pretty much the worst possible time.