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Phase Two: the weeklies – Star Wars, Spidey and Mighty World of Marvel
It was the company’s top seller by a mile. It was keeping everything else afloat. But I still felt it was wrong! At the ripe old age of 28, I still had enough of the kid in me to know that if I saw the eye-catching Star Wars logo, I’d expect the product to have something to do with the film!
Much as I’d loved Carmine Infantino’s Adam Strange and The Flash when I was growing up, by 1979 I felt his work had somehow lost its elegance and his covers to both the US and the UK Star Wars comics – especially in the generic cliched faces – were nothing short of ugly and off-putting. We’d some inventory to use up, but here are a few prime examples of what I considered awfully-drawn covers for a comic linking in with the biggest movie of all time…
I kicked off Phase Two by making the Star Wars Weekly covers look more like the film, beginning with an across the board publicity campaign building up to the landmark issue 50! I mean, come on – look at those above and below and ask yourself, is there any comparison? As I’ve often said before, I’ve made an entire career out of doing the obvious!
As we tore into shaping up the weekly line, having experienced mixing and matching screen images with comic ones, through House of Hammer, Sinbad and Starburst, I made sure the covers were backed up by as many features and photos as possible, albeit with only publicity shots to work with and no origination budget whatsoever so it was all in-house work for the already stretched team I’d assembled. Writing a report about how to improve things is far far easier than actually having to implement such changes!
I must admit we didn’t run as many features as I’d have liked, or found as many good images for photo-covers as I wanted. As our line began rapidly expanding, we soon found ourselves stretched thin. But the experiment worked as sales increased by more than 25% on the company’s top title. A good start!
But our biggest weekly headache was how to fill each issue. With the exception of the originated Starburst, this was still a reprint house, 100% reliant on there being US material available to pad out our pages.
With the Star Wars title being a US monthly but a UK weekly, their material didn’t go a quarter of the way to filling the British pages. The grandly-named Stan Lee Presents Tales of the Galaxy was the first back-up solution, until strips from the more mature audience short-lived US magazine Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction ran out. Tales of the Watcher took its place, around five pages of self-contained SF or fantasy strips per issue, taken from the pre-superhero days of Marvel US but with The Watcher’s head slapped on to the title page, as narrator. A range of increasingly obscure SF strips helped fill the pages, Star-Lord, Seeker-3000, The UFO Connection and suchlike as US liaison Danny Fingeroth valiantly attempted to plug the gap with proofs to send over.This wasn’t healthy. Everybody knew the day would come when there would be nothing worthwhile to back up the main strip. Something had to be done.
So when I came on board, I took the plunge and introduced Star Wars fans to US material available in far greater abundance – Jim Starlin’s cosmic and mind-blowing Warlock in #45 (13/12/78) and a second licensed strip in #51 (24/1/79) The Micronauts.
I had tried to run the US’s more similar and arguably more suitable Battlestar Galactica strip, but Lucasfilms believed it way too similar to Star Wars and nixed the plan! They obviously felt the Cylons were too Darth Vader-like but failed to notice the visual similarity to The Micronauts Baron Karza.
This amused me almost as much as knowing Vader was actually a black leather clone of Marvel’s own Doctor Doom!
While the British Bullpen Bulletins page had been intermittent at best, thanks to IBM we could now produce a revamped version of this Marvel hype page in a fraction of the time. We even had our own in-house darkroom for scaling visuals to use in ads and features thanks to another bit of new technology… the PMT machine!
Off the main corridor, the first door on the left was our reception room, leading into the bustling art and editorial office. On the opposite side of the corridor was the accountant’s office and then my own sanctum sanctorum. But there was an extra room, one with blacked-out windows and odd odours emanating… the camera room. Inside was a six foot metal boxlike monster, with a black-veiled pram-like top, various mirrors, a huge lens and two rotating handles… the PMT machine, for photo-mechanical transfers. Adjacent was a desk with foul chemicals for developing prints and cursing about when they came out wrong (invariably). But, when it and the operator (whoever got stuck with a particular task) was working well, it was a dream. Instead of waiting days for prints and typesetting to be delivered, we could create our own in hours! Fab.
All of which was damn useful as our beloved long-distance leader Stan Lee, he of the Stan’s Soapbox column in the US monthlies, wanted me to adapt the same “favourite uncle” approach in a column for the UK titles. He even suggested a name for it, Sez Dez. My initial protestations over having to write four times as many as him fell on deaf ears. In his enthusiasm, he even suggested we could swap columns sometimes. That never happened, but Stan’s idea of Sez Dez has shadowed me around ever since, from Marvel UK to the 2000 AD colour Quality reprints, to Comics International, to its latest home in Future Publishing’s Comic Heroes. Thanks Stan… I think!
But it had a scarily massive audience back then. Appearing in all of the company’s weekly output (the monthly titles having a genuine page three editorial) with the launch of Hulk Comic added, the total audience for Sez Dez was as large as half a million impressionable young minds.
One odd by-product of my sudden high profile came about when I had a phone call from my father one day. He told me my old school chum Katherine “Ben” Smart wanted to see me when I next visited Goole. I dutifully did so and the by then married-with-son pal, whose family was off watching the local footie, told me a bizarre story… Apparently while she was ironing one day she’d heard her 8-year old and his schoolfriend saying who they’d like to be when they grew up. His friend said a fireman, but Ben’s son said “Dez Skinn”. Almost dropping the iron, she had asked him, “Who did you say?”. “Dez Skinn,” he’d replied and scampered off to show her some comics, to explain who he was. She’d remembered that Derek Skinn had always been interested in comics at school but couldn’t believe it could be the same person. When telling her husband, later, he was positive it must be somebody else.
Then, Ben continued telling me, a few weeks later her son Baz had gleefully presented his parents with a Marvel comic with a Galactic Trivia Quiz. “Look, mum, it MUST be the same person,” he proclaimed. “He’s mentioned Goole in Star Wars Weekly !”
Goole did, of course, lose that day’s football match. But when father and son got home to find an old school friend was visiting, Baz belted upstairs to put on a superhero costume and have his photo taken with me. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that we didn’t publish Superman!
Meanwhile back at the office, as the workload increased a new key member was added to the team, despite Stan’s warning! Out of the blue one day, artist Paul Neary (who I’d worked with from my fanzine days through to House of Hammer) booked an appointment to see me. His pitch was that I needed an art editor. I agreed, Stan didn’t. So it became unofficial.
Paul shared my office and produced enough freelance work on covers and house ads to make up a salary and I had a world-class artist in-house to cover the parts I couldn’t (but don’t tell Stan!). With everything that was about to take off, I’d say it it proved a good call.
While Star Wars Weekly had needed only minor tweaking, the other two weeklies – once flagship titles for the company – were listing badly.
Somewhere along the way, Spider-Man Comics Weekly had morphed into the confusingly titled Super Spider-Man as if it were an amalgamation of both Superman and Spider-Man!
In a country of short and snappy single word titled comics, The Mighty World of Marvel was now (deep breath) The Mighty World of Marvel featuring The Incredible Hulk and the Fantastic Four. Short? Snappy? Single word? Hello… That’s a 13 worder, folks! I mean, come on, who’s going to ask for that baby by name? And the contents? Well, they’d started out strong, reprinting the best. Then they went for the rest of the best, then the rest, and by the time I was on board they were down to the rest of the rest. Sales were plumetting, something radical needed doing.
So, to sit and sell alongside racks full of DC Thomson and IPC titles like Valiant, Victor, Hotspur, Beano, Buster, Dandy, Eagle, 2000 AD, et al, I trimmed them way down… to Spider-Man and Marvel. The KISS rule applied (Keep It Simple Stupid!).
The aforementioned traditional British comics were at the time selling 150,000+ a week, firm sale, no returns. If Marvel and Spider-Man could look British enough for some of that to rub off, everybody would be happy. Well, everybody except the diehards and there just weren’t enough of them to go around. These were newsagent weeklies, not fanzines! They were also a springboard, aiming at the 9-12 year olds, readers new to the world of super-heroes. The 13+ teenage audience who wanted their fix of spandex could afford the more expensive imported colour monthlies. That was the plan.
But fixing the covers to resemble the non-glossy generic look of weekly anthology titles was one thing. I felt that the Zippatone-grey tinted labour-intensive contents were pretty poor value for money compared with everything else on the shelves. Having “splash” pages and then five or six frames a page just didn’t stack up against Warlord, Action, Battle and the rest with their nine to 12 a page. The solution was simple, the Marvel US pages had been designed for a much smaller format and neither the lack of content nor the size of lettering took the enlargement well. And splash pages were a luxury that a five-page episode could hardly afford to include.
So instead of spending the budget on Zippatone, we set about resizing the pages. cutting up the US proofs and reformatting them to fit far more frames on a page and to look more British. Not only did it offer far more for the reader’s 10p, but the trade understood the look and ordered more copies. They weren’t confused, like they had been by glossy-covered weeklies looking like large format versions of the far poorer-selling US titles.
Our distributor Comag (a company originally formed by Conde Naste Publications and National Magazines to handle getting their titles to the trade) was so impressed with the oh-so-British look, as seen in mock-up dummy copies, that they took us on the road, to visit wholesalers at wine and sandwich meetings around the country where I could present my Marvel Revolution slide show.
That’s the trick you see. If you can get the wholesale trade behind you, they will have copies to supply the retail (newsagent) trade, so they’ll have a visible presence on the stands. If you can’t get the wholesalers to believe in you, it doesn’t matter how good your product is, nobody will see it.
Let’s take an example of how much we changed things: Sad as it sounds, I’ve just counted the number of frames (panels is a US term!) in a Super Spider-Man… 155 in 30 story pages. And in my revamped Spider-Man Comic… 322 frames in 28 pages. More than twice the reading presented in a traditional UK format, and still a couple of spare pages for paid ads and Bullpen Bulletins. Plus losing the glossy covers shaved around 20% off the print prices. Increased sales, reduced costs. Job done! Here’s how it looked, before and after fashion…
Another change was a more subtle switch in emphasis between the two. While both had competed with each other in the past, as super-hero titles, I tried to put all the longjohns into Spider-Man. So readers could find the best the company had to offer there, with The Avengers, Thor, Nova, Daredevil, Fantastic Four, Iron Man and Godzilla (‘cos kids always love monsters!) plus – in the issue to hand, nine pages of Spidey action. Seven strips for 10p, now that’s value!
But with Marvel, I’d have thrown in a football strip if the US had created any! This was the company’s boys’ adventure title, as the cover to my first issue announced: Secret Agents! Dinosaurs! Vampires! Pirates! Plus “Marvel’s TV Sensation” the Hulk taking centrestage. Here’s how he looked, again in the before and after fashion…
A relaunch nightmare on the double-whammy scale!
Proving that the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray, all our carefully considered projections were about to get knocked for a six during the first few months of the relaunches… In the “Winter of Discontent” as it became known, industrial action hit Great Britain.
A hauliers dispute broke out at the height of the various disruptions to industry, nationally crippling deliveries of even the most basic goods, let alone mere comics and magazines, and curtailing deliveries of Marvel’s UK titles throughout most of February 1979. So much so that, with only two new style issues of Marvel Comic and Spider-Man Comic going to print, the decision had to be taken to suspend publication for a month to let the dispute wind down and give the comics already in the system the necessary time to eventually get out to newsagents.
From speaking to Rob Kirby for his forthcoming From Cents to Pence book, I learned that the final old-style issue of Super Spider-Man, at least in his part of the world, actually reached newsagent shelves several weeks after the first couple of Marvel Revolution issues finally made it to the shops. Not a smart way to promote my Marvel Revolution!
Apparently issues just arrived in non-consecutive order as they were released from what must have been a nightmare backlog of stored comics and magazines at the distribution warehouses. It appears that eagle eyes and almost daily visits were required to acquire every issue that did come out during that period.
Proof of the disruption this had on the early Revolution issues can be seen very clearly on the covers of the comics themselves. While Marvel Comic #330 had a cover date of 24/1/79, #331 was completely undated. #332 resumed weekly publication, but dated 7/3/79, over a month after #331! Aaaargh – to quote a favoured comics cliche!
The same absence of dates and issue numbers happened to Spider-Man Comic after the 17/1/79 issue 310, with #313 resuming weekly publication but again over a month after #312 and also dated 7/3/79. This was NOT in my plans.
Thankfully breadwinner title Star Wars Weekly somehow managed to appear in newsagents weekly for a few issues longer although it too suffered erratic and random distribution throughout January and February 1979 – before undergoing a month’s break in publication of its own at the end of February, between #54 (14/2/79) and #55 (14/3/79).
After something like that, crippling our cashflow and continuity, you’d think the worst was over. No chance. Next up were our “Emergency” issues!
In those pre-internet days, the finished resized paste-up boards for completed issues were sent by motorbike messenger to British Rail’s Red Star offices for overnight transport to our Scottish printers (Alloa Web Offset, by name). Gang-printing two up, we’d send a fortnight’s worth of Marvel and Spider-Man in each batch, 128 pages in all.
Or at least that was the intention. It was a smooth system and meant we could all breathe a sigh of relief when the leather-clad biker took the pages away. What could possibly go wrong? Well, how about an entire batch of originals falling off the back of a motorbike in central London? Because that’s what happened to our 28/3 and 4/4 issues!
Naturally there were profuse apologies (and an insurance reimbursement if I remember rightly) but we now had only 24 hours to recreate two weeks’ work. There was no choice, we couldn’t lose a further chunk of turnover, so soon after the industrial action. So we quickly codded together the four issues (for detail-freaks, that’s Marvel Comic #335-336 and Spider-Man #316-317) using a mix of meticulously-resized and reduced inventory stories with enlarged page-for-US-page look. With the lettering size changing from small to huge at the flick of a page and artwork suddenly switching from densely crammed in to enlarged and empty-looking, readers must have been VERY confused!
Luckily, all these frustrations and disasters came to an end just before our next far higher profile launch…
Next section: Marvel UK page three: Enter The Hulk (and friends!)