|During the 1950s, the concept of comic annuals was an interesting novelty. Where the UK comics market had had annuals for years, it took quite a few years before the American publishers caught on. |
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Then, the beginning of the 1960s, DC's dark overlord, Mort Weisinger, put a Superman Annual on the schedule. Though it had no cover date, the 80-page comic carried "1960" in the indicia, and was likely on sale in the summer of that year, probably to capitalise on the approaching school holidays. But sadly, there was no new material here. The only bone Uncle Mort threw the readers was, no ads.
|With so many stories in the back-catalogue to draw from, the Superman Annuals were more often than not themed affairs - for example "Adventures in Time, Space and on Alien Worlds" and "The Superman Family on Krypton".|
So it was that Marvel publisher Martin Goodman, ever on the look-out for a bandwagon to hitch up to, came up with the striking idea of publishing annuals himself. What was a bit of a surprise was that Marvel's first annual was all-new material, more so when you consider that Millie the Model had been running for almost 20 years at this point.
began in 1945, created by Marvel staff writer artist Ruth Atkinson, though she was quickly succeeded by Ken Bald and Mike Sekowsky. Starting as a kind of "career-girl" comedy comic, it became broader as it went along, evolving into a more straightforward slapstick comedy title - except for the middle 1960s when for about four years it was re-purposed as a straight romance book. Spawning several spin-off titles, including A Date With Millie (1956), which becomes Life with Millie (1960), which in turn becomes Modeling with Millie 1963), and Mad About Millie (1969), the series was one of Marvel's most dependable money-makers, enjoying art by Dan DeCarlo (from 1949-1960), before he went on to become one of Archie's premiere artists, and later Stan Goldberg. And if that weren't success enough, supporting characters Patsy Walker, Hedy and Chilli also got their own series.
|Marvel's first two annuals (which truly came first is now lost in the mists of time) couldn't have been more different - teen humour aimed primarily at a female market and mild horror from the Marvel fantasy titles.|
These 25c comics must have been a big success for the fledgling Marvel Comics, as the following year, Goodman put out second issues of Millie the Model Annual (all-new material, on sale July 1963) and Strange Tales Annual (new material plus reprints, on sale June 1963), and added a Fantastic Four Annual (mostly-new, on sale July 1963) for good measure.
Many pundits cite the first Fantastic Four Annual as the best Marvel ever put out, but my vote would go to the new title that debuted the following year ...
THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN ANNUAL 1By the time Marvel published their first Spider-Man Annual, the character had been running for almost a year-and-a-half in his own title. Amazing Spider-Man Annual 1 (on-sale June 1963) was cover to cover all-new (the FF Annual published the same year was padded out with a reprint of FF 5), featuring Marvel's longest single story yet, 41 pages of "The Sinister Six", along with a solid set of back-up features (and no ads, save the inside and back covers), all by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko.
The main story is one of my all-time favourites ... Dr Octopus, still smarting from his defeat at the hands of Spider-Man in ASM 11 & 12 (Apr-may 1964) just a few weeks earlier, escapes from jail and persuades five former Spidey villains - Electro, Kraven the Hunter, Mysterio, Sandman and The Vulture - to band together to help each other defeat their most hated enemy. That's pretty much a role call of every Spider-Man villain since the title began. The only ones missing are The Chameleon (in hiding), The Terrible Tinkerer (lost in space) and The Reptile (not really a villain, in the traditional sense). [Edit: Of course, I meant to type "The Lizard" - but if I changed it, then D.D.Clegg's comment below wouldn't make sense.]
In the first five pages, Stan and Steve have recapped events for newcomers, showing Spider-Man's feud with newspaper publisher Jonah Jameson, Peter Parker's relationship with his classmates (and in particular Flash Thompson) and Peter's guilt over the death of his uncle Ben. They've also managed to squeeze in brief cameo appearances by The Mighty Thor and Dr Strange. And on the sixth page, Spider-Man mysteriously loses his super-powers.
With the scene set, Dr Octopus now unveils his plan - though it's not without one flaw, which can only be an oversight of editor Stan not supervising writer Stan closely enough. The villains draw lots to decide the order in which they will fight Spidey (having already dismissed the idea of fighting him as a team). Doc Ock then tells them that he's written a location on each card that will make the best of each villain's special abilities. However, we've just seen the baddies drawn random cards, so how could Ock know which villain would be assigned which location. But it's only a minor lapse in logic, and the story quickly moves on before we've had a chance to spot Stan's mistake.
Worrying about her nephew's distracted mood, Aunt May resolves to visit Betty Brant to see whether the two are having romantic troubles. But right outside the Daily Bugle building, both Betty and Aunt May are kidnapped by Octopus, who's aware that Spider-Man fought once before to protect Jameson's secretary. The Vulture delivers the villains' demands to Jameson - Spider-Man must fight them in turn or Betty Brant will pay the price. How can Spider-Man battle such powerful villains with no power of his own? Thus was the tension cranked up to breaking point ...
With no other choice, Peter must become Spider-Man and face his foes ... so he sets off the the first location, Tony Stark's electrical plant, where Electro is waiting for him. Crawling under the fence like an ordinary teenager, Spider-Man finds his first adversary. But when Electro hurls an electric bolt at the young hero, he evades it with ease. He'd never really lost his powers, he just believed he had ... Regrouping, Spider-Man uses Peter's science know-how to formulate a plan. Using copper wires to ground himself, he's immune to Electro's power and can safely get close enough to kay-o the baddie.
It's a great moment, and we can overlook the shaky science that suggests Spidey grounding himself with wire would keep him safe from electric shock when just the opposite is true. But let's not dwell on that ... let's just pause for a brief cameo from Iron Man before moving on to the next battle - with Kraven the Hunter. Well, it's not so much a battle ...
|The battle with Kraven is far from conclusive, but it makes sense that if Spidey can just grab the card from the Hunter and make off, then that's what he should do. Great full-spage image, though.|
|The Human Torch's cameo appearance is a little more extended than those of the other Marvel characters. The X-Men in the above page isn't technically a cameo, as this isn't the real X-Men but actually just robot duplicates.|
|Lee and Ditko had already given us an X-Men cameo earlier in the story, so we should have realised that these X-Men were phonies. Check out the flames where "Cyclop's" eyebeams have struck - betcha missed that first time round, right?|
|If Ant-Man can talk to ants, why can't Spider-Man talk to spiders? You can't fault Jonah's logic. But before we can think abouut it for too long, Spidey is up to his elbows in sand ... and Ditko gives another startling splash page.|
However, Lee and Ditko never lose sight of the sub-plots and in a single page that's a masterclass in storytelling economy, we get caught up on what's going on elsewhere before we're launched into the battle with the Vulture. The aerial battle has a real sense of danger and is probably the best action sequence in the Annual, but inevitable, the Vulture is defeated and it only remains for Spidey to tackle Doc Ock and free his girlfriend and his aunt.
|Doc Ock's final deathtrap for Spider-Man is a doozy - The idea of Spider-Man fighting for his life underwater would be a peril that Lee and Ditko would revisit a couple more times, most notably in ASM 29.|
And when Spider-Man finally finds Doc Ock's captives, Betty is pleased to see him, but Aunt May reacts with, "So that's Spider-Man ... What a perfectly ghastly outfit!" I found it a hugely satisfying story when I finally tracked down a copy probably some time in 1966. But the actual story - exciting and well-told though it was - wasn't the best bit of the Annual for me. Because among the obligatory pinups (of which there were many) and few throw-away features explaining how Spider-Man's mask worked (Puh-lease! I'd figured that out by the time I was 12!), there was brilliant feature about how Stan and Steve wrote and drew an episode of Amazing Spider-Man.
This was the first time I had any kind of understanding of how comics worked. Yet here was a step-by-step instruction on how Steve Ditko drew one of my favourite characters. That three-page strip was worth the 6d (2.5p) I'd paid for that Annual in the second-hand shop where I undoubtedly found it.
|The credit for the cover of Spectacular Spider-Man 1 says, "painting by Harry Rosenbaum, pencils by Johnny Romita" - but that's not quite accurate, is it?|
All in all, despite the majesty that is the first Fantastic Four Annual, Amazing Spider-Man Annual 1 still edges just in front as my favourite Marvel Annual - both then, and now.
Next: The Human Torch solo stories