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Revolution Phase Four: Marvel Summer Specials

I’ve always maintained I have made a career out of doing the obvious and have often been quite dumbfounded when starting a “new” idea that it hadn’t been done before. Thus Marvel Summer Specials…

Marvel Summer Specials 1979

A tried and tested British tradition, along with annuals. If you have a successful title or brand, milk it for all it’s worth! Specials have a great advantage over weekly or monthly titles in that in theory their shelf life can be as long as three months, thus their sell-through ratio (because these are taken by newsagents on a return-it-if-it-doesn’t-sell basis) can be considerably higher than the usual 50%.

But in this first batch of four Marvel specials, I went for a mix and match. As well as the obvious, Spider-Man, I added a new albeit equally obvious title in Marvel Superheroes. Our monthly line was building strength, with Savage Sword of Conan, Rampage and Starburst all selling well, so this was a great way to test the market for a fourth monthly.

The third title perhaps wasn’t quite so obvious, but having edited the UK edition of MAD only a couple of years earlier I was still somewhat miffed that I’d lost out on publishing rights to the production editor, see the House of Hammer #23 entry here for details. So I thought I’d test the market for Frantic – “Number Two In A Field Of One” as I cheekily referred to it on the contents page. With sledgehammer subtlety, even the cover riffed the original, with a topline proudly boasting “Marvel Comics Madly Presents…”. Rubbing it even even more, as the UK MAD had only 32 pages per issue, a further cover blurb proclaimed, “GIANT 52 PAGE never mind the quality ISSUE!” while the indicia small print included the line “concept & swiping Dez Skinn”. Hey – credit where credit’s due!

Mad and Frantic contents pages

But there was an ulterior motive here too. I was well aware that Marvel US’s back catalogue of material would only stretch so far. If I could launch a title using different material, I could fulfill my original brief by boosting the company without creating a further drain on Spider-Man, Hulk, et al. So Frantic, another inexpensive reprint title, culled material from the parent company’s humour inventory, from Pizzazz, Not Brand Ecch and both the comicbook and especially the magazine version of Crazy. Plus the wonderfully irreverent Howard the Duck, a great cult favourite until George Lucas’s abysmal film adaptation turned everybody off!

Pizzazz NBE and Crazy

Outside of the brilliance that was cartoonist Don Martin, I’d always felt MAD‘s greatest strength was its film parodies. In fact, during my tenure on the title, I’d often pushed them on to the covers, in favour of somewhat lame “gag” covers the US edition would use. So for the Frantic Summer Special, I loaded it up, with MAD-style cover typography boasting its screen spoof content… Mork & Mindy , Superman the Movie, M.A.S.H., Bionic Woman and Batman. Is there any wonder it sold well!

With the fourth Summer Special, I went for something completely different. Again not wanting to drain the supply of US material too quickly, I used Marvel’s brand name to launch a new features magazine, a companion to Starburst if it worked, in TV Heroes.

Sadly, unlike Frantic, it didn’t sell well enough to justify continuing, probably much to the relief of our overworked magazine line editor Alan McKenzie. But it was a fun experiment, employing the talents of the assembled House of Hammer and Starburst team of writers, covering then popular TV series Mork and Mindy (again!), Dick Turpin and, inevitably, The Incredible Hulk (hedging my bets that this would pull in a few diehard Marvel readers).

But in total the experiment was a success, so within a few months we did it again with the 1979 Marvel Winter Specials.

Marvel Winter Specials 1979

The lineup included another Spider-Man, of course – and with a wonderful piece of Paul Neary seasonal cover art. Frantic has sold well, so we did it again, this time with a rather naughty cover banner. The big hit film Alien features larger than the issue’s main content (Howard the Duck, The Waltons, Battlestar Galactica, Fantasy Island and The Silver Surfer – one for the old school comic fans there!). But while it appears to read “PLUS ALIEN THIS ISSUE”, on close examination there’s some minuscule type below the word PLUS, saying “we totally ignore”. Out-bloody-rageous!

Here’s an update to this page, something which I considered so unimportant that I forgot to include it when covering Frantic‘s Winter Special. Like with MAD, I wanted to include some UK origination. There was spare money in the kitty and similar to how I’d featured the like of Clive Collins, Alf Saporito and Harry North a few years earlier, I thought it would be nice to include a few home-grown cartoonists here. One recommended to me who had a two page spread in this issue was named Alan Moore (not that you’d know from the printed pages, he constantly used pseudonyms back then, Jill deRay for his Northants Post Maxwell the Magic Cat strip and, as here, Curt Vile for his Sounds magazine The Stars My Degradation work – I think it might have been a tax thing).

I’d not heard of him before (despite him apparently having subscribed to my fanzines years earlier) and wasn’t that impressed by the end-product, so I didn’t expect to hear of him again. But it was nice to give unknowns a break.

Frantic Alan Moore work p1Frantic Alan Moore work p2

This season we tried two more experiments. I remember before moving the company back to London, I’d been to a preview screening of Battlestar Galactica with Marvel UK’s then-boss Ray Wergan. While I found it incredibly derivative and simplistic, Ray raved about it. Marvel US already had the license to produce a comicbook series and Ray was convinced this would be our next big money-spinner, or “our next Star Wars Weekly” as he put it. I wasn’t convinced.

So when I finally did get around to using the material (as said earlier, Lucasfilms had strongly opposed us running it as a back-up in Star Wars Weekly), I still didn’t think it could carry its own title. So in the anthology-titled Star Heroes (I was trying to build a themed Heroes line here, with TV Heroes, Marvel Superheroes and now this), I also threw in the popular toy spin-off series The Micronauts.

The fourth title was another attempt to use non-genre reprint material, in Superhero Fun and Games. Aimed at a much younger audience, it was a 25p title, as opposed to our usual 40p specials.

It was another successful innings. With Frantic having once again proved a good seller, it continued as a monthly, as did Superhero Fun and Games, while Star Heroes morphed into a digest-sized pocket book and became one of my final line of launches for Marvel UK.

Frantic Star Heroes and Fun n Games

48 pages for 15p: Marvel Pocket Books

The reason behind launching the Pocket Books line was that it was a great value-for-money way to represent some of the classic older Marvel strips, in Spider-Man and The Fabulous Fantastic Four (I added a second adjective to the title so that the obligatory word “The” wouldn’t be stuck on its own line). With Star Heroes I felt both Micronauts and Battlestar Galactica were decidedly B-list and would only work on a continuing basis in an inexpensive (15p for 48 pages) combined format. With Chiller, I finally got a title out of my system that I’d been trying to launch since my early IPC days!

These really went down well with the readers, and why shouldn’t they? Offering 48 pages of material, usually two complete US issues, for the same price as a 24 page regular Spider-Man or Marvel Comic had to be a winner. It did us no harm either, because from a costing standpoint they were less expensive to produce! Shrinking the pages down saved the £10 per page resizing of the weeklies and we were using the same amount of paper, but folding it over to half the usual size. From a racking point of view, the format took advantage of something major publishers didn’t seem to think of until the 1990s: newsagents put small magazines at the front of larger ones, invariably giving them that special treatment of full cover display.

Being a sucker for cover design conformity, I pinched an idea I’d loved as a kid because, let’s be honest, design is all about influence. Nobody works in a vacuum, or at least anybody who does isn’t going to learn from what went before. Of all the Picture Library titles which boomed in the 1960s, Air Ace had been my favourite. Like most kids, I’d loved the idea of the RAF, but it was those covers. They were just so well designed.

Micron emulated the look in their Combat Picture Library covers. Far more rigid, they stuck to the red strip down the left for years. And that was the look I wanted, to pull the line of pocket books together visually and make them different to any of our other titles (arguably not that necessary as they were pretty different being half the usual size!). Looking back, it was fairly basic stuff, but I was happy with it at the time.

Air Ace and Combat Picture Library cover design
Pocket Book first issues

Of course one of the advantages of successful and mainly reprint titles is that it leaves sufficient money in the kitty to try something a little more extravagantly expensive, as you’ll see shortly* in the next section…

Abu Dhabi 2011 - NY Uni lecture
Austere or Blofeld, you decide. Chairing a panel on Literacy in the Middle East for the New York University, Abu Dhabi.

*Appropriately enough when dealing with tales of a Time Lord, “shortly” is a relative term. Depending on when you’re reading this, the elasticity of time could contain millions of minutes with each the equivalent of sitting in a dentist’s chair, or they could pass as quickly as what seems like fleeting seconds when wolfing down your favourite ice cream. To elaborate, until the end of April 2011, I’ve got myself somewhat caught up in a time (ah, that word again) consuming career change…

Following a talk I chaired at the New York University – see here, those wonderfully altruistic people at the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation have hired my services to be curator of a comics festival out there (see here), so I’m going to be out in sunland a lot this year. This does mean that even in my quiet moments I won’t have access to my boxloads of nostalgia so I won’t be able to enthrall you with the many tales of Tom Baker and me touring the country back in 1979 until odd weeks in the UK. Knew I should have kept a set of keys to the TARDIS!

Next section: A little something named Doctor Who Weekly