Time for a history lesson, Tom Flynn-style…or, I should say, this will be ancient history for old-timers like myself, but might be news for some of you young’uns, so I hope you enjoy the enlightenment or the memories, as the case may be. And since I don’t have Tom’s facility for explicating record albums, it’s about comic books (Marvel, natch), so those of you interested only in the cinematic side of things should feel free to go out for a smoke until the next post. Disclaimer #1: I stopped buying new comics when the shockingly pervasive marketing gimmick that was Secret Wars II began to metastasize in 1985, so any observations or generalizations I make apply only to prior years.
The oldest Marvel Comics I own—meaning those that were purchased on their original publication, presumably by an older brother—date back mostly to the early ’70s. But between reprints and back issues picked up at various comic shops over the years, I now have the majority of superhero strips going back to the dawn of the Marvel Age in 1961 with Fantastic Four #1, so my frame of reference basically comprises their first quarter-century. There is no doubt in my mind that the most significant development during that time was the period dubbed Phase II by Marvel frontman and über-creator Stan Lee in one of his “Stan’s Soapbox” editorials.
I’m no expert on the business end of Marvel’s history, but if I recall Les Daniels’s excellent book correctly, they were constrained by an arrangement with their distributor (ironically, chief rival DC Comics) to publish a limited amount of titles. This led to a bizarre situation in which many of what became their most popular characters were relegated to half a book apiece, and furthermore were shoehorned into what had been SF anthology books. Captain America (a Golden Age character revived in an early issue of The Avengers) and Iron Man shared space in Tales of Suspense; the Hulk (whose original book tanked after six issues) and the Sub-Mariner (replacing a long-running strip featuring Ant-Man, later Giant-Man) divvied up Tales to Astonish; Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D (replacing the Human Torch’s solo strip) and Dr. Strange aptly appeared in Strange Tales.
A banner year for genre films, 1968 saw the release of such game-changers as Night of the Living Dead, Planet of the Apes, Rosemary’s Baby, and 2001: A Space Odyssey (there, I mentioned movies anyway; that’s like asking me not to breathe), but it was also the year in which Marvel’s success put them in a position of strength, from which they could renegotiate their distribution deal. With that, the floodgates opened and each character was granted his own title, although for some strange reason it was considered necessary or desirable for half of them to continue the numeration, if not the name, of the prior book. Disclaimer #2: the dates I’m about to start throwing around, courtesy of my handy Overstreet guide, are cover dates, which as all true believers know bear no resemblance to when the books actually appeared; as I recall, back in my day they were about three months ahead of real time.
March 1968 saw the final issues of Suspense and Astonish, which mysteriously morphed into Captain America #100 and The Incredible Hulk #102 in April, while that same month saw one of the weirder manifestations of Phase II. Apparently caught standing when the music stopped, the orphaned Iron Man and Sub-Mariner each occupied half of the first and only issue of the logically titled Iron Man & Sub-Mariner before their solo titles debuted the following month. May also saw Strange Tales end, while Dr. Strange “began” in June—as did Fury’s own book—with #169; as if that weren’t enough, Captain Marvel (introduced in Marvel Super-Heroes #12) and Fantastic Four guest-star the Silver Surfer also got their own books in May and August, respectively.
Not surprisingly, Marvel was unable to sustain such a dramatic expansion for long, especially since the industry then went into an ill-timed slump, at least partly in connection with rising cover prices. It should also be noted that spread-too-thin Stan the Man was then serving as both editor-in-chief and the writer of most of Marvel’s major books, until he was succeeded in many of those capacities by Roy Thomas and others. While I wouldn’t go as far as Tom does in arguing that Stan’s creations (albeit aided by artists such as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko) rival Shakespeare’s oeuvre, I might be so bold as to compare his Marvel Universe with William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, and coming from me, that’s saying something.
Among the first casualties was Dr. Strange, which folded with #183 in November 1969, and Doc spent a distressingly long time wandering in the wilderness before finally getting another eponymous book in 1974. The Surfer, too, was a little far outside the mainstream to last more than 18 issues (I mean, what was he going to do, fight the Ringmaster and His Circus of Crime?), while writer-artist Jim Steranko’s inability to be brilliant on a strict schedule led Fury’s book to devolve first to lesser creators and then to reprints before also ending with #18. Marvel books usually seemed either to die off very quickly or to last for hundreds of issues, but both Sub-Mariner and Captain Marvel were among their more notable middle runs, ending in 1974 and ’79 after 72 and 62 issues, respectively (the latter having soared to unprecedented heights under writer-artist Jim Starlin).
I’m not sure when Phase II officially ended, if ever, but to me, the point is not that only three of those eight new (or “new”) books—Captain America, The Incredible Hulk, and Iron Man—outlived the ’70s, but the maturity in writing that the expansion helped to engender. With their breakneck pace and inevitable cliffhangers, the half-book stories suffered from the same kinds of dramatic limitations as any other serial, and although they had their undeniable charms, they then gave way to more substantive scripting that was only possible in full issues. There followed a period of experimentation, as Marvel tried out a variety of new books and strips with varying degrees of success, that made the mid-’70s easily my favorite period in the company’s history.
Perversely, just as The Silver Surfer and Nick Fury were in their death throes, Marvel revived the split-book format in August 1970 with Astonishing Tales and Amazing Adventures, which quickly transformed into single-story try-out books, and were cancelled in 1976 after fewer than 40 issues. Astonishing began by double-featuring X-Men guest-star Ka-Zar and—in an unusual move—Fantastic Four archenemy Dr. Doom (prefiguring a BOF underdog champion, Super-Villain Team-Up), and ended by introducing the ill-fated Deathlok the Demolisher. Amazing initially starred FF pals the Inhumans (who, like Ka-Zar, graduated to their own short-lived book) and villain-turned-hero the Black Widow, later showcasing ex-X-Man the Beast’s solo strip and Killraven.
Another try-out book, Marvel Spotlight, debuted in November 1971 and had a comparable run until 1977, siring an impressive number of titles: Werewolf by Night, Ghost Rider, Son of Satan, Moon Knight, and Spider-Woman. Less successful were Marvel Feature (December 1971) and Marvel Presents (October 1975), each of which lasted only a dozen issues; Feature introduced the Defenders and briefly revived the Ant-Man strip, while Presents hosted the Guardians of the Galaxy. Perhaps the hardiest of the try-out books, Marvel Premiere (61 issues, starting in April 1972) introduced the Warlock strip—later Starlin’s other cosmic triumph in a revived Strange Tales and his own on-again, off-again book—as well as temporarily housing Dr. Strange and launching Iron Fist.
One final innovation during this period began with Marvel Team-Up (March 1972), which paired Spider-Man with other superheroes in most of its 150 issues, and was later followed by Marvel Two-in-One (January 1974). Teaming other heroes with the Thing, the latter strip actually began in Marvel Feature #11, and was supplanted by The Thing (July 1983) after a respectable 100 issues. These team-up books were inevitably a mixed bag, but at their best they offered entertaining chemistry and interesting multi-part sagas by the likes of Steve Gerber, Bill Mantlo, and Chris Claremont, often enabling Marvel to tie up the loose ends of cancelled strips, for better or worse.
So that’s an overview of Marvel As I Knew It, away from the stomping grounds of 800-pound gorillas such as Fantastic Four, The Amazing Spider-Man, Thor, The Avengers (my personal long-term fave), Daredevil, X-Men and, yes, Cap, Greenskin, and Shellhead. But we can talk about those another time. Until then, Make Mine Marvel. Excelsior!