Friday, 7 March 2014

Visual merchandising of a brand

DURING THE 1950s, Marty Goodman's Marvel Comics were published under the Atlas trademark, though this was in reality the name of Goodman's own distribution company. During this time, he also put out a wide range of detective, movie and men's magazines, and considered the comics as no more than a mildly lucrative sideline, leaving most of the day-to-day decisions to his nephew-by-marriage and editor, Stan Lee.

It's fairly well-documented that Goodman was never a creative thinker, and mostly ordered Stan Lee to follow whatever trend seemed to be the most popular at the time. With the waning of the wartime superhero craze, Goodman wound down publication of his costumed characters, and began to look for other subjects for his line of comic books.

When his former employees Joe Simon and Jack Kirby had a massive success with Young Romance in 1947, Goodman instructed Stan Lee to come up with some romance books and was soon publishing My Romance.

The first issue of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby's ground-breaking love comic, Young Romance. Within a few months, Marty Goodman had his My Romance on the news stands - no coincidence there then ...
That My Romance lasted just three issues didn't seem to phase Goodman at all and he'd soon replaced it with Love Romances, My Own Romance, Romance Diary, Romance Tales and even Cowboy Romances. And in the interests of giving Love an equal chance, there was Best Love, Love Adventures, Love Classics, Love Drama, Love Secrets, Love Trails, Loveland, Lovers, My Love, Our Love and even Rangeland Love. And that was just the titles launched in 1948-49.

The earliest Marvel romance titles used photos for covers, maybe in an effort to distance them from
Simon & Kirby's love comics, but they very quickly reverted to using comic book style line art.
Then, with the rising success of EC Comics, Goodman saw horror as a looming trend and turned his ailing Captain America title into Captain America's Weird Tales.

As the superhero comics of the war years waned in popularity, Marvel publisher Marty Goodman
started to look for other genres to exploit. Horror was doing well over at EC, so ...
Undeterred by the cancellation of his first horror comic after two issues, he launched even more horror comics including:  Adventures into Terror, Adventures into Weird Worlds, Astonishing, Journey into Unknown Worlds, Marvel Tales (repurposed as a horror comic from the superhero title Marvel Mystery Comics), Mystic, Spellbound, Strange Tales, Suspense and Uncanny Tales.

The early fifties saw a huge boom in horror comics, so though Marvel hadn't been able to turn Captain America into a successful horror title (like that was ever going to work), it didn't mean Goodman was going to give up.
The weirdest trend-following by Marty Goodman came much later in the 1950s, when he launched a range of comics that offered tales of giant monsters. Some of his established horror titles switched to telling stories about oddly named creatures like "Taboo" and "Monstro". 

After the body blow to sales dealt by the introduction of the Comics Code Authority,
Goodman had to come up with something else that would sell comics ... 
I had always thought this had been something to do with incoming artist Jack Kirby, who had burnt all his bridges at most other comic publishers, notably DC, and really had no place else to go. I had figured that the giant monster genre was invented by Kirby as a way to get horror material published under the noses of the notoriously stringent Comics Code Authority. But after seeing a mention of "kaiju" monsters under Marty Goodman's Wikipedia entry, I began to wonder if this wasn't another of Goodman's "creative" edicts, handed down to editor Stan Lee.

Kaiju is a reference to the popular Japanese genre of giant monsters which threaten civilisation - most famously Godzilla (Gojira, in the original 1954 Japanese movie). Godzilla had been released in the United States in 1956, with expository scenes starring Raymond Burr as a heroic reporter spliced in to the US prints to give Stateside audiences someone to identify with. Remember, WWII was still a little too recent to expect audiences to warm to Japanese heroes battling the monster.

... the Godzilla movie had been pretty popular with the kids, so ...
The movie was a huge hit, so it makes sense, given the history, that Goodman would have instructed Lee to follow this new trend and insert giant monsters in as many books as possible. At this point he didn't listen to Stan Lee's opinions, so he certainly wouldn't have listened to freelancer Kirby's ideas. 

The only trouble was, not enough titles to put giant monsters in. No problem, Goodman just launched Tales to Astonish and Tales of Suspense in 1959 - he added Amazing Adventures in 1960.
Which leads us right up to 1961 and the now-familiar story of Marty Goodman playing golf with Jack Liebowitz of DC Comics - the arch-rival he was forced to do business with to get his comics distributed to the newsstands - and, upon hearing how well Liebowitz was doing with his Justice League of America title, Goodman rushing back to the office to tell Lee to start prepping a superhero team book to cash-in on DC's success.

If one superhero in a comic sold well, several heroes in a single book would sell better. Once DC had proved it with Justice League of America, Marty Goodman told Stan Lee to come up with a superhero team book starring Captain America, Sub-Mariner and The Human Torch ... only The Torch made it to the final cut.
So ... my point here is that all through the late 1940s and 1950s, Marty Goodman was very much a hands-on Publisher, instructing his editor Stan Lee to put out the types of books Goodman thought would sell, because the subject matter already had a proven track record.

But in 1961, Stan was getting fidgety. In his autobiography, Excelsior, he admits that he'd had enough of simply putting out whatever genre of comics Goodman thought was going to be the next big thing. After repeating the same cycle for 15 years, Atlas/Marvel never did strike it big. Lee points out that no matter what type of books they published, the sales stayed pretty level.

In the end, rather than quitting, Lee decided he'd give Goodman what he wanted, but Stan would write it his own way. If Goodman fired him, so what? He was itching to leave, anyway.


WHAT'S IN A BRAND MARK?

While rival companies made a point of ensuring their branding was all over their comics - DC had their distinctive roundal, Fawcett had their triangular shield - Goodman's company struggled to find an identity.

The DC Comics emblem survived right through to the 1970s with no more than minor alterations. The Fawcett logo appeared on their earliest comics but sort of fizzled out. The Fiction House trademark was small and surprisingly similar to the DC one.
The main problem was the company never really knew what to call itself. Marty Goodman had a sneaky way of publishing every comic through a shell company, so Captain America was technically published first by "Timely Comics" then later by "Complete Photo Story Corp", USA Comics was published by "USA Comic Magazine Corp" and Marvel Mystery Comics was initially credited to "Timely Comics", then later to "Marvel Comics Inc".

The other thing that DC got right was branding all their anthology comics with a distinctive cover device. That way they could feature say Hawkman on the cover of Flash Comics, but add an insert of The Flash, so the reader would know that there were other characters in the book as well. 

The very first DC comic to feature this neat idea was Action Comics 16, even though this made more sense for the other anthology titles which didn't feature their top character on every cover.
This graphic device must have worked for them, as DC stuck to this branding from 1939 all the way through to 1948, when the fortunes of all comics, DC included, began to wane.

The last DC comics to feature this identifying tag were the December 1948 issues.
Timely - as Marvel was known at the beginning of the 1940s - didn't put anything on the covers to tell the reader which company had published the comic.

There was no obvious way to tell these comics were all published by the same company. Maybe Marty Goodman wanted it that way, as each title was owned by a shell company.
Then, very late in the comics game, for a few months in 1946, Marvel made a cursory attempt to brand their comics, by including a "fold-back" device in the top right corner of the cover, but this lasted just a couple of issues. You might wonder if this wasn't Stan's idea, that Goodman squashed as soon as he saw it. As history played out, this seems a reasonable speculation.

The turn-back motif did at least identify these comics as being "A Marvel Magazine", but it only lasted for two months towards the end of 1946. Not exactly a full-on marketing campaign.
The most distinctive attempt at branding was a kind of colour version of the DC roundal, which lasted for the final eighteen months or so of Marvel's 1940's output.

The Marvel roundal device made it first appearance towards the end of the comics boom. By 1948, publishers were seeing their sales decline sharply. They needed the new ideas that would arrive with the 1950s.
Very shortly after this, Goodman took to putting the logo of his distribution company, Atlas, on the covers of his comics - though the Atlas emblem had appeared on Marvel comics as early as 1944, on the cover of Captain America Comics 36.

There may have been earlier appearances of the Atlas insignia than Captain America 36, but I couldn't find them. All Marvel comics from November 1951 to September 1956 carried the more common b&w Atlas seal.
Then came the crash of Atlas and the distribution woes that I detailed in the blogpost, "Why were Silver Age Marvels so much better than Silver Age DCs?" Overnight, the Atlas trademark disappeared, the range of titles was slashed by 70%, and the company went from being one of the largest publishers of comics to one of the smallest. This was the atmosphere when Stan Lee rightly decided he no longer had anything to lose and the media giant Marvel Comics was truly born.

MARVEL COMICS - THE MAKING OF A BRAND

After Atlas, Marvel floundered for a while. There was no clear direction for the eight titles a month Goodman was allowed to publish by DC's Jack Liebowitz. Stan Lee had an idea to build his line around the undoubted talents of artist Joe Maneely, and launched two new series featuring his art - Black Knight and Yellow Claw. But between the Atlas implosion of 1957 and his star artist's tragic and unexpected death in 1958, it wasn't to be. By the time Lee was able to regroup and start building a cohesive line of comics, it was already 1959, and his two new star talents were Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. Taking the giant monster stories as a jumping off point, Lee had another try a creating a cohesive line of comics.

When he put the continuing character Dr Droom in Amazing Adventures 1 (Aug 1960), he must have nursed the thought that ongoing characters are the way to gain and retain readers. Sneaking Dr Droom in under Marty Goodman's radar was Lee's first faltering step once again to attempt some of the ideas he'd tried out a couple of times already. At this point, the Marvel covers carried only the "IND" identification to let retailers know the books were distributed by Independent News Distributors. Then, around the middle of 1961, a small box with the letters "MC" began appearing on the covers.

The MC box started appearing on Marvel covers with no fanfare whatsoever.
Obviously, it stood for Marvel Comics, but you'd only know that in retrospect.
Readers were left to speculate about what the letters stood for, if they even noticed them at all. It would several months before Stan would reveal the answer. It's unclear whether Stan was doing this deliberately. A couple of years later he would use the same trick with the MMMS - trailing the initials for months before revealing their meaning. So it's possible this was an early form of teaser marketing.

Nothing much changed for next year or so, except that the cover price went up to 12c in February 1962. DC's prices had risen with their December 1961 cover dated issues, but Marvel's were dated two months ahead of DC's so in reality the two companies increased their cover price at the same time - given that they were both distributed by the DC-owned Independent News, it can hardly have been a coincidence.

Then finally, with the April and May 1963 cover-dated comics, Lee revealed the meaning of the "MC" insignia. Every title in his line suddenly sported a distinctive box in the top left of the cover with the company name - "Marvel Comics Group" - and the cover price. But this wasn't about showing readers the star of the comic, like the DC cover device of the 1940s. This was very consciously demonstrating to customers that they were looking at a Marvel Comic.

On its own, this wasn't an especially seismic change, but coupled with the introduction of letters pages which rapidly evolved to showcase Stan Lee's casual, friendly style, and the introduction of cool and funny catchphrases, it added up to a major, and very deliberate, re-branding exercise.

Stan Lee started branding the Marvel range in earnest when he had Steve Ditko design the distinctive
corner emblem that appeared on all Marvel Comics from the April 1963 issue onwards.
In a later Fantastic Four letter column, Lee revealed that the corner emblem was the work of artist Steve Ditko. So it's likely that Ditko originally supplied the artwork for all the corner flashes, though some were replaced before publication. I can't think of another reason why the Journey into Mystery corner box had a Ditko-drawn Thor, when Kirby was drawing the cover art for the title. The Ditko Thor stayed in the cover corner box until March 1965, when it was finally replaced with a Kirby-drawn version. 

Jack Kirby replaced the Ditko image of Thor on Journey into Mystery as soon as he reasonably could.
You can see that Strange Tales 108, the first of that title to carry the corner box, also had art by Ditko, which was replaced the following month with a Kirby-drawn Human Torch. I liked Ditko's better, and would speculate that all of Ditko's original corner emblem illustrations were close-ups, which would make way more sense than the tiny full-figure Human Torch the title ended up with. There were other changes like this along the way, but I'll get to those in a moment ...

The first Strange Tales corner emblem featured a Human Torch illo by Ditko,
but the following month a different image by Kirby I think, replaced it.
A more significant change had quite a bit more impact, and was roundly loathed by Marvelites everywhere. Stan decided, presumably with Martin Goodman's blessing, to change the name of the company to "Marvel Pop Art Productions", starting with the September 1965 comics.

Stan's rationale probably seemed sound at the time. "Pop Art" was the collective name for an immensely influential cultural movement during the 1950s and 1960s, which was having a revolutionary effect on both fine art and popular media. Art and entertainment were no longer the domain of serious-faced mature adults. Youth was a rising force in the world of creative media and Art was taking itself a little less seriously.

Lichtenstein's "Whaam!" cynically stole an Irv Novick panel from All-American Men of War 89 and passed it off as fine art. DC, nor Novick, ever saw a penny of the millions of dollars the painting sold for. Around the same time, Andy Warhol was offering Campbell's soup as art.
In this climate, with Stan finding himself the object of attention from renowned arthouse film directors, like Frederico Fellini and Alan Resnais, and university students identifying themselves as Marvel fans because it was "cool", it probably seemed like a good idea to align Marvel Comics with the Pop Art zeitgeist.

The Marvel Pop Art Productions debacle started in September 1965 and lasted just four months.
The uproar was instantaneous and deafening. I think most Marvel readers were smart enough to spot that people like Lichtenstein appeared to be opportunistic, untalented chancers who had nothing but contempt for the artform they were plundering. To align Marvel with Pop Art was a bit of an insult to the fans. So, after four issues, the corner box was changed back to "Marvel Comics Group" and a sheepish Stan apologised to the readers in the new Marvel Bullpen Page in the January 1966 issues.

The howls of outraged Marvel fans caused Stan Lee to roll back to Marvel Comics Group.
This slight misstep notwithstanding, Stan managed to keep his vision for the branding of Marvel on course. Over the years, though, from 1964 through to 1971, the various corner boxes across the Marvel range continued to evolve and change, at first just when the character's costumes changed ...

Two early costume changers were Iron Man and Daredevil ... so their corner boxes had to change, too.
Other times the corner emblems changed when lineups in the anthology books changed. Tales of Suspense, Strange Tales and especially Tales to Astonish were revolving doors of lineup changes in the mid-1960s, and by 1967, the characters were taking turns in being depicted as full-figure/head shots to update and modernise the look.

Of the anthology titles, the Tales of Suspense corner box was the one that changed least.
On Tales of Suspense, Captain America was added to the line-up in issue 59 (November 1964) then, with issue 83 (May 1967), Iron Man and Cap began rotating as full figure images. The full figure of Iron Man was an amended version of the image from the front cover of Suspense 60, by Jack Kirby. The Captain America figure was a modified version of the front cover art from Fantasy Masterpieces 5 (Oct 1966), by Jack Kirby and Frank Giacoia.

The Strange Tales corner box underwent quite a few changes in the early Sixties but was consistent for the last part of the decade.
Dr Strange had already been appearing in Strange Tales for about a year before he was added to the corner box, and with The Thing it was about six months. Swapping out The Torch for Nick Fury happened at issue 135, then just seven issues later, the image of Dr Strange was revised to a half-figure - very likely by Jack Kirby - that lasted until Dr Strange took over the title at 169.

Tales to Astonish was the most changeable of the anthology titles, with probably the most artists involved.
Tales to Astonish was a virtual merry-go-round of cast and costume changes. The Wasp joined Ant Man in the corner box with issue 48, Ant Man added "Gi" to his name with issue 49, Hulk rocked up for issue 60, Sub-Mariner came on board with Astonish 70, then the alternating full-figure and head shots began with 91. The Hulk and Subby heads were lifted from Kirby drawings and ran with no alterations until Astonish 82. But then the art started changing every couple of issues ...

The changing face(s) of the Tales to Astonish corner box.
Tales to Astonish 80 had Subby and Hulk heads that looked like they were drawn by Kirby. Then, for no good reason, the images were replaced on 82 - these looked suspiciously like John Buscema art (though it'd make more sense if it turned out to be Sub-Mariner artist Gene Colan). With 87, the Namor head was swapped out for an unmistakable Bill Everett drawing. The following issue the Colan Hulk became a Gil Kane one. Then, when the alternating full-figures started with Astonish 92, the art was supplied by Jack Kirby again. ***EDIT*** It took me a little while, but my friend Steve Cook (check out his pop-culture blog, Secret Oranges) gave me a great book for my recent birthday - The Silver Age of Comic Book Art - and in there was a Jack Kirby illustration for Esquire magazine. And that's where the Sub-Mariner figure came from ...


This montage was drawn by Jack Kirby during 1965 and was published in the January 1966 of Esquire magazine. The Sub-Mariner figure is unmistakably the same as that used in the Tales to Astonish 92 corner box, though it looks to have bee re-drawn for its later appearance, or possibly re-inked by a better inker.
By 1968 Martin Goodman had sold Marvel to Perfect Film and Chemical Corporation, leaving Stan as Publisher and Editor-in-Chief. Consequently, Stan didn't have to seek anyone's permission for the next minor tweak. Across the Marvel line, some December 1968 and all the January 1969 cover-dated Marvels sported a corner box with the price/issue number box sitting above the character image. 

Adding the comic's title to the corner box and moving the price, issue and date to the top tends to indicate that Stan was trying to reach a wider audience than he'd previously enjoyed.
Presumably, Stan thought this would make each Marvel title more readily identifiable on the spinner racks. For me, this is an indication of Marvel trying to widen its accessibility to those outside the hardcore fanbase. After all, if you don't recognise the Silver Surfer from his image alone in the corner box, you're certainly not a regular Marvel reader.

This was a bit of a shame, because it seemed to me that Stan was abandoning his core idea of making Marvel feel like a club, where insiders were in the know, privy to the in-jokes, part of a tribe. Maybe as sales rose and the company became more successful, he was just under pressure to be more of a corporation and less of a fan club. But like it or not, corporatisation was coming to Marvel.

Just a few months later, a tiny but crucial alteration marked a major change in Marvel's fortunes. The IND distributors' mark, signifying the DC-owned Independent News Distribution deal that had so constrained Marvel's output over the previous ten years, was replaced with CCC, for Curtis Circulation Company. As part of the PF&CC deal Marvel was no longer restricted to a handful of titles and could begin the expansion that would unleash a tidal wave of titles over the next couple of years and establish Marvel as the undisputed brand leader in the comics market.

And with that expansion came the inevitable dilution of the brand. Even though he was still credited in all the comics as Editor, Stan was having less and less to do with the day-to-day running of the comics. Because of this, it's hard to say how much he had to do with the plan to make all Marvel titles 52-pagers and raise the cover price from 15c to 25c across the board. That resulted in - among other things - the complete revision of the cover format and the loss of the defining Marvel Corner Box, that had been the company's unique identifier for the previous ten years. Now the star of the comic just floated in the top left of the cover looking, if truth be told, a little lost.

The corner box evolved, went and returned in the decade from 1971 to 1981.
This situation lasted for about five years, until the corner box made a stuttering re-appearance on some, but not all, April and May 1976 dated Marvels. On Fantastic Four, the box appeared on just the July 1976 issue, then disappeared again as the comic went back to floating heads of The Thing and The Torch. With other titles, like Doctor Strange, the box stuck. There followed minor tweaks in format in February 1981, when the date and issue were enclosed in a diamond, and again in October 1982, when the price and issue number were placed inside a stylised "M".

But these and other minor changes aside, the corner box survived until 2001 ... not bad for a device that began in 1963. And even today, the corner box makes infrequent guest appearances, see for example X-Men 476, 529 and 536.

It's a testament to the marketing savvy of Stan Lee that the most minor additions to the overall branding of Marvel Comics resonated so strongly with the readers that even years after he left, his legacy continues to shape the company he built from nothing.

Next: The sincerest form of flattery


5 comments:

  1. Regarding that Thor corner illustration, Al, which you say is by Ditko: I'm going by your pic as I can't be bothered digging out my comics to check a larger image, but could it have been drawn by Kirby and only inked by Ditko? The hair looks more like Jack would draw it than Steve, although it's definitely the latter's inking style.

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    1. You might be right, Kid. Your eye is probably better than mine. We could try asking Nick Caputo, he's usually pretty good with stuff like that ...

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    2. Also, the smile is almost identical to Reed Richard's in the FF corner box. You're right - Nick's bound to know for sure,

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  2. And I'm finally here! First, I loved the discussion of the genesis of the corner box, since, as you know, I obsess over such minutiae on my blog. While reading I was thinking that Kirby actually drew all the corner boxes himself, with the exception of Spidey and Dr. Strange. The Thor and other head shots look like they were both penciled and inked by Kirby, probably very quickly. Compare the Thor face with the inking on the cover of Journey into Mystery # 92, which I believe to be an instance of Kirby inking. The lines on the helmet and hair are the same style. Kirby also drew the second Dr. Strange figure, although I'm not sure if he inked it. That may be Brodsky inks. As far as the revolving Tales to Astonish faces: # 80-Colan/Kirby; # 82, Colan/Everett; # 87 both Everett; # 88, Everett/Kane; # 90, Kane/Kirby; # 92, Colan/Kirby (sheesh!).

    The addition of the title at the top didn't bother me; this was likely designed so that the comics were easy to identify for kids and dealers, particularly on spinner racks that obscured much of the cover. I never really liked the change to the MCG banner and the floating characters. The design never worked, and although it appeared the initial idea in creating a box that encased the artwork was intended to separate copy from art it was rarely followed up on, as word balloons invaded that part of the cover as well. All in all the Marvel cover design exemplified circa 1962-1970 was pleasing to the eye and caught the attention of the buying public.

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    1. Thanks for the additional info, Nick ... glad you're here. For what it's worth, I've figured out where the full-figure Sub-Mariner shot on Tales to Astonish comes from, so I'll add that to the blog when I get a moment.

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