Saturday, 7 September 2013

More of a Marvelite, but now a Merry Marching one

BACK IN MID-1965, I was still in Primary school, approaching my 11th birthday and actively exploring the joys of Stan Lee's fledgling Marvel Comics line. I had started off my lifelong love-affair with comic stories at the age of about three, when my mum had bought me Micky Mouse Weekly. Somewhere among the family photos there's a picture of me in the street, in a romper suit, holding a copy of the Disney comic. It would have been around 1957 ... By the time I was seven, I was a regular reader of the DC Thompson titles - Beano, Dandy, Beezer, Topper. A couple of years later and I was an avid reader of DC Comics - Flash, Green Lantern and the Superman family titles. Then in 1964, I had found Marvel Comics and everything changed.

I had already discovered and immediately loved Captain America and the Avengers. It didn't take me long to find other Marvel product which was just as brilliant in my ten year old eyes - Fantastic Four, Spider-Man and Daredevil. But I still had a couple of Marvel characters to try out ...


OF GODS AND MONSTERS

I'd come across Marvel's take on Thor earlier. I'm pretty sure it was in an Alan Class reprint of Journey Into Mystery 84 ... but by the time I had caught up with the American originals, Thor had become a very different kind of strip.


I have no idea what else was in this black and
white reprint of
JiM84, but the peril of the cover
image stayed with me for a long time.
More than anything else, it was the title of that Thor story - "Trial of the Gods" - that had an effect on me. Even though I was familiar with the stories from Norse mythology, the idea that there could be more than one god - and then that they could be on trial - was quite unsettling to a child of ten. As it turned out, it was more of a medieval tournament type of trial rather than a courtroom trial, but then neither the cover art or the story title of Journey into Mystery 116 made that clear.


Unusually for a Marvel cover of the period, this
one is not action-oriented. The suspense comes
from Thor meekly submitting to his fate ...
The story opens with Odin banishing the brothers Thor and Loki to the dread land beyond Asgard - Skornheim - where, unarmed, they will battle their way home against menace after menace. Odin warns that even an immortal may die here, takes Thor's hammer from him and zaps the pair to a mountaintop many leagues from home.

Immediately, the God of Mischief reveals that not only does he have a forbidden weapon - a pouch full of mystic Norn Stones - but also that he's sent his brutal allies, The Enchantress and the Executioner, after Thor's one true love, the mortal Jane Foster. And with that, Loki is off, using his enchanted stones to escape from the mountain, leaving Thor to rely on just his strength and his courage. Fortunately, Thor's friend and ally Balder gets wind of what's going on back on Earth and is dispatched by Odin to prevent The Enchantress and The Executioner from harming Jane Foster. Balder also scares the Frightful Four away from the Baxter Building when they mistake his fiery arrival for the Human Torch (and Stan adds a footnote mentioning FF38). And the story continued Next Issue, so I had to track down a copy of Journey into Mystery 117 to find out if Thor managed some last-minute miracle to prevent his cheating brother winning the Trial of the Gods. Dang, that never happened with DC Comics ...

The Tales of Asgard back-up story featured more Loki villainy, this time tricking his brother into a battle with an important political ally of Asgard, the blow-hard braggart King Hymir. The story begins with an editorial reference to issue 63 of Thor, which puzzled me no end because I was holding Journey into Mystery 116 in my hands. I didn't know Thor had his own title, let alone it reaching its 63rd issue. But the Shakespearian drama of the story soon banished my confusion and I never did try to locate a copy of Thor 63 ...

That same issue also carried an ad for something called The Merry Marvel Marching Society. I had no idea what that was. But I did know I didn't have a "buck" to send Marvel for my membership kit. So that, too, would remain a mystery to me ...


What exactly was the Merry Marvel Marching
Society? I thought it might be like a brass band,
but I never did find out ...
Another very early Marvel was Tales to Astonish 66. This was Ant-Man again, though I barely recognised him as such. But at least this Giant-Man uniform was familiar to me - it was the same one that I'd seen much earlier in Avengers 15. The art on the lead story was different, a bit more like a DC comic, with none of the manic edge of Kirby or Ditko. Bob Powell had been one of the mainstays on the old, pre-Marvel Atlas books, but had also worked for Quality, ME and Harvey.  Once nice touch Powell brought to the story, was a two-panel sequence where Giant-Man shrinks down to six-foot size to greet Madame Macabre. I hadn't seen Ditko or Kirby do an effect like that, and it pre-figured Steranko, who did a lot of this "animated frame" stuff, by two or three years ...


Powell brings some animation to Giant-Man's shrinking
sequence with this clever effect.
But I could not - for the life of me - figure out what was going on with Giant-Man on the cover. You have to read the story to make any sense of the image and even then it's not very clear. I won't spoil the story for anyone who's not read it by explaining what's happening, but you sure as heck can't figure it out from Powell's cover image. Also, the difference of colour on either side of The Wasp's motion trail didn't make any sense. And why the additional typeset box covering Madam Macabre's bottom? 


So, what's happening to Giant Man here?
Falling down a well? Trapped in a lift?
The Hulk story was a different animal altogether. Drawn by Steve Ditko, in retrospect it seems like all of the artist's frustrated rage that he couldn't pour into his Spider-Man stories, he parked here. It's a pretty furious take on the Hulk, with Banner's green alter-ego taking on most of the Soviet army and doing a pretty convincing job of winning. For me, especially in my tender years, this version of the Hulk was pretty much the defining one. It also managed to form the classic Hulk personality. Much more cohesive than the five different versions of the character Lee and Kirby came up with in issues 1-5 of The Hulk's own, earlier magazine. And of course, it established the character's persona up to and including the recent blockbuster movie.


Ditko's take on the Hulk was just very, very angry ...
a characterisation that has lasted till the modern day.
For some reason, when I was growing up, X-Men 10 seemed like an especially common comic. I've owned many copies over the years. Back in 1965, it was the first issue of X-Men I came across. A few years later, when I was building a Marvel collection, it was one of the first early X-Men books I found in a second-hand shop. And when I started rebuilding my long-lost collection just ten years ago it was, again, one of the first early X-Men books I was able to get hold of. Coincidently - or maybe not - I've also never seen a UK variant price of this issue of X-Men. They've all been cents copies with the hideous, heavy ink Thorpe and Porter import stamp. If anyone has a pence copy of X-Men 10, I'd very much like to hear about it. But I have a theory ...
Every copy of this comic I've ever seen has had
an especially heavy ink pence stamp on it.

CENTS vs PENCE

At the end of 1964, Marvel comics had a hiccup in distribution. Up until September, Marvel Comics were freely available in UK newsagents. The company even changed the black plate at the end of the print run to substitute the US 12c price for a UK 9d price. They also removed the Month from the cover box because the Marvel books came over by surface as ballast in ships and thus were on sale here later. Then, some October issues failed to show up here. Some were scarcer than others. Spider-Man 18 and 19 were impossible to find and remained very scarce in the UK. FF 32 and 33 were also thin on the ground. Other difficult to find Marvels included Avengers 9 (though 8 and 10 were less common), Daredevil 4, Journey into Mystery 110 and 111, Sgt Fury 11, Strange Tales 127, Tales of Suspense 59 and 60, Tales to Astonish 62, and X-Men 8

The last 1964 pence copy of a Marvel Comic I have is Tales to Astonish 61 - which is odd, because traditionally, this has always been considered one of the "non-distrubuted" Marvels of 1964. 

So here's what I think happened: sometime around June 1964, someone - perhaps Marty Goodman at Marvel, or perhaps a manager at Thorpe and Porter - decided that selling Marvels in the UK wasn't making enough money. They needed to raise the selling price. Maybe there was a difference of opinion over how much the price should be raised by. But whatever caused it, there was a delay in deciding, because for the most part, the November and December Marvels didn't reach the UK by official channels. Tales to Astonish 61 would have been the earliest November Marvel on sale, so would have somehow scraped though with a 9d price. For the next two months, no Marvels were distributed at all. Goodman resumed exporting copies of his books to the UK with the January 1965 cover dates, but left it to T&P to ink-stamp the copies. It wasn't until the September 1965 cover date that some Marvels started showing up with a 10d price replacing the 12c, and only the Marvels that replaced the "Marvel Comics Group" with "Marvel Pop Art Productions" in the corner box.


The corner boxes from Avengers 18 and 19.
I'll have more to say about the Marvel cover corner boxes in a future post, but for the moment, let's return to your regularly scheduled programming ...


WHERE WERE WE?

X-Men 10 was inked over Kirby pencils by Chic Stone. Over the years I've seen a lot of criticism of Stone's inks, especially on Kirby pencils, and I've never agreed with it. Stone began inking for Marvel around Journey into Mystery 102. I remember seeing his work on the first Fantastic Four I can remember owning, issue 36, and really liking his clean, organic line. Later on, I decided I preferred his inking on the earlier Thor stories in Journey into Mystery to the later ones that had the scratchy inking style of Vince Colletta. 

I instantly liked X-Men because, like Spider-Man, they were only a couple of years older than me.

But the main attraction of X-Men 10 was that it introduced the bargain basement Tarzan, Ka-Zar (boy, Stan loved his hyphens, didn't he?) to the Marvel Universe. Following a news report of an Antarctic expedition party attacked by a wild man, the X-Men discover a hidden pre-historic world beneath the South Pole. Great news for me, because like any other ten year old, I was fascinated with dinosaurs. Much battling ensues. In the end, Ka-Zar (pronounced Kay-zar, Stan's footnote helpfully explains) grudging accepts the X-Men's friendship, then chucks them out of his lost world and has his pet mastodons block the entrance with tons of boulders, presumably sealing it off from the upper world forever. Didn't work out that way, in the long run. Ka-Zar would be back to menace Daredevil next. But a great story. With dinosaurs.


The X-Men's encounter with a tyrannosaurus rex was a bit
of a low-key affair - surprised Kirby didn't make more of it.
By this time I had a good grip of how Marvel was different from boring old DC, and was a confirmed Marvelite. I still looked at the occasional DC title. Who could resist the brilliant Earth 2 cross-over with The Justice Society in Justice League 21 and 22? But for the most part, I would now devote my energies to tracking down every Marvel Comic I could, starting with Tales of Suspense and The Avengers, both starring my favourite character, Captain America.

Next: Buy or barter Marvel Comics

2 comments:

  1. DAMN! All these years he was kazar to me - I missed that handy footnote! Great review and memories again Alan. I am certain it wasn't until I was in Malta (1965-8) that I saw my first US Marvel and they were mostly those reprints - (Stan was also clever at marketing his reprints, wasn't he?) - such as Fantasy Masterpieces whereas the Weisinger Supermans were available - with the spotty distribution we were used to in the UK

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    1. I must've missed that footnote as well, because growing up, I always called him ka-ZARR (as in Huzzah!). Interesting that Marvel Comics made it to Malta. I wonder if they fetched up in any other European outreaches. Gibraltar, maybe? Does anyone else know of Marvels being distributed around Europe during the 1960s?

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