Sunday, 3 November 2013

Marvel Comics: Second-Hand Memories

BACK IN THE MID-1960s, when I first became interested in reading as many Marvel Comics as I could lay my hands on, there wasn't the perfect distribution network today's comic fans enjoy. I was reliant on the spotty delivery of American comics to the many independent newsagents in my local area and what I could salvage from the piles of second-hand comics in the various unlikely shops I'd stumble across. Once I realised that there were shops that would sell second-hand comics, I began to explore the area in earnest, ranging far and wide on my bicycle, stashing my new-found treasures in the saddlebag I'd acquired especially for that purpose.

In general, these second-hand shops charged 6d (that's 2.5p in today's money - though adjusting for inflation it's actually about 30p). My pocket money was 2/6, so I could afford to buy five comics for that. Or three if I was buying them new from a newsagent. Caution was often called for.

Of course, I didn't spend all my money on comics. Another favourite pastime for kids back in the 1960s was to go to Saturday Morning Pictures. My local cinema was the ABC on Wellington Street, Woolwich, and every Saturday morning we'd all troop off for three hours of entertainment - a feature film, cartoons, a serial chapter and even birthday celebrations. All for sixpence. 

Top left: An ABC Cinema of the period. Top right: The Woolwich ABC as it is today (sad).
Bottom left: An ABC Minors birthday invite. Bottom right: The classic glow-in-the-dark ABC Minors badge.
If you were feeling particularly flush, you could sit upstairs in The Circle for 9d. The advantage of this was that you wouldn't have kids above you flicking gobs of ice cream at you during the performance. But before we got to see any films, there was a bit of housekeeping. The MC would ask if there were any birthday boys or girls in the audience. Each celebrant would have to come up on the stage and get a free ice lolly. One time my friend Roger Phair pretended it was his birthday. I felt sure he'd be found out, but he returned to his seat, beaming and holding his ill-gotten prize - a Zoom lolly. Then we'd sing the ABC Minors song while the words appeared on the screen. Finally, we got to watch the movies ...

Back in the 1960s a tribal custom was to sing your tribal song at the top of your lungs.
When it got to the last line, all the kids hollered "A-B-C" as loudly as they could.
In 1965, I was excited to hear that Batman would be featured in the following week's matinee. Even though I was a confirmed Marvel fan by that time, it was still a big deal to think that a superhero would be featured on the big screen. The previous year, Batman had undergone a revamp. DC Comics had got rid of the corny old science-fiction tales and remade Batman in the same sleek style they'd used for their Silver Age versions of Green Lantern and The Flash. The character even had a costume redesign ... they put a yellow circle around the bat emblem on Batman's chest, an allusion, I figured, to the famous "Bat Signal".

Though I didn't know it at the time, Batman's early 1964 revamp was
down to Julius Schwartz and Carmine Infantino, who'd so successfully
revived The Flash and Green Lantern five years earlier.
All the way to the cinema, I kept asking my friend Steve Rainey if he thought the Batman on the screen would have the yellow circle around the bat emblem. I don't think he had the faintest idea what I was talking about. As it turned out, the Batman on screen was the 1943 serial version, starring Lewis Wilson in a wrinkly costume. Once I got over my initial disappointment, I quite enjoyed the serial. It was black and white, and obviously very old because of the suits the characters were wearing and the cars they drove. But it was one of the better serials, given a decent budget by genre standards and directed by Lambert Hillyer, who also did the eerie Dracula's Daughter (1936) and went on to have a long career directing westerns and tv segments.

The Batman chapterplay was pretty action-packed and though Batman's costume was a bit saggy,
I enjoyed the serial immensely. There would be many more superhero serials in my future.
This was also my first sight of a superhero on screen. We never did get the George Reeves Superman tv show in London until much later (if at all - can anyone say for sure?). I'd have to wait a couple of years for Adam West to put on the famous cowl, which would be my next exposure to a live-action comic character. Boy, how I hated that tv show - but that's a story for a later post.

The other product that vied for the attention of the neighbourhood kids during 1965 was bubble gum cards. I somehow managed to miss out on the Mars Attacks series. And I didn't know anyone back then who had any. It may have been that they just didn't make it into our area. But we were very aware of the Civil War News series from AB&C. These were a set of pasteboard cards, about 80mm x 55mm, depicting often gory scenes from the American Civil War, rendered in glorious, full-colour painted artwork.

The Civil War News gum card set was much-loved by my generation of kids.
Extremely gory and painted, in part, by the
Mars Attacks artist Norman Saunders,
these images were deemed quite unsuitable for children by an outraged popular press.
With each wrap of cards you also got an reproduction Confederate banknote and a wafer of bubblegum with the taste and consistency of cardboard. As it was a bit of lottery as to what cards you got in a packet, you'd end up spending way more than you expected to to acquire the full set, though it was possible to swap "doubles" with your friends. 

As noted on the wrapper, Civil War News cards cost 2d
and came with a free Confederate Dollar banknote.
But at just 2d a pack, I quickly collected a full set and  ended up with a roll of Confederate bills that could have choked a horse.

So successful was the first Beatles set of cards that card company
AB&C immediately released a second set.
Other card sets that were popular during 1965 were The Beatles and Man from UNCLEIf anything, the Man from UNCLE cards were even more popular than The Beatles set. And in the couple of years that followed, there would be other sets of gum cards that we'd all collect like crazy - Battle (a WW2 set along the same lines as Civil War News), several sets of Batman cards,(riding the wave of that tv show) and The Monkees.

The Man from UNCLE cards were in the same format
as The Beatles cards - black and white photos with a
signature overprinted in blue.
If you came up short for money back in the mid-1960s, you could scour the area for empty lemonade bottles. Back then, glass bottles like those for Tizer and R Whites lemonade would net you 3d each if you returned them to the shop. Even cider bottles and some beer bottles had a deposit. Some shop owners were a bit suspicious if you came in with an armload of sticky empty pop bottles. "Did you buy those here?" they'd sometimes enquire. But there were some shopkeepers who'd happily accept anything you could find, because they too received money for bottles they returned to the beverage companies.

Two bottles would net you a used comic. Three would get you a new one off the newsagent's spinner rack. Money was just lying around next to dustbins in those days ...

But back to the main story ... by this point I was on my way to building a pretty good run of Tales of Suspense featuring my hero Captain America, along with a good run of The Avengers, also with Cap.

Most of these I had sourced in my immediate neighbourhood, in and around Woolwich, in south-east London. It wasn't the best area for finding American comics. The nearest newsagent to my house was an old-fashioned shop at the top of Frances Street, all dark wood interior with elderly proprietors. They would have no truck with any new-fangled American nonsense, so I couldn't get my Marvel Comics there. There was the paper shop on Kingsman Parade near the south end of Frances Street that did have a single spinner rack, but carried mostly DC Comics. And there was the newsagent behind Woolwich Arsenal Station that I mentioned in an earlier post. All in all, pretty slim pickings. Luckily, I had a bike.

Casting my net wider, I travelled westwards along Woolwich Church Street, through lower Charlton which was a dead loss for likely newsagents, until I hit Greenwich and found a small print shop that had a pile of American comics in the window. Leafing through the pile, under the watchful and distrustful eye of the elderly proprietor, I pulled out a few issues of Tales of Suspense that I needed.

The little print shop was somewhere about here on
Trafalgar Road in Greenwich during the 1960s - now long gone.
Then I found something much cooler - Amazing Spider-Man 11 and 12. Excited by my discovery I put both books on my "to buy" pile. 

A two-part Spider-Man extravaganza from Stan Lee and Steve Ditko -
featuring the return of Doctor Octopus (I hadn't been aware he went away at this point).
Finally, near the end of the stack, there was a copy of Amazing Spider-Man Annual 3. Now to my ten-year old mind, this was way better. For a start, it cost 6d, so it was cheaper than the two regular Spider-Man comics. It reprinted the entire story from Spider-Man 11 and 12. And it threw in an all-new tale about Spider-Man joining the Avengers. Easiest decision in the world. I put the two Spider-Man books back and went with the Annual.

Spider-Man battles the hulk as part of the Avengers joining process.
And fights Doc Ock in the back end of the book. Brilliant!
Of course, by today's standards, that was the worst possible decision. The Overstreet Price Guide price for Spider-Man 11 and 12 is about £190 apiece in fine. The fine price for Spider-Man Annual 3 is £32 - as an investor, I clearly hadn't got the hang of it yet.

Another Marvel I uncovered on my travels around south-east London was a copy of Fantastic Four 30. This one featured an alchemist called Diablo, a villain criticised by some fans because his potions never really worked very well. Buried in a vault beneath his medieval castle somewhere in Transylvania, Diablo manages to take control of Ben Grimm and turn him against his team-mates. Even by issue 30 of "The World's Greatest Comics Magazine", the idea of Ben turning again the rest of the FF - having already been pretty testy for the first six issues then actually going rogue in issues 8 - was getting a bit overworked. Yet Stan (or Jack) would return to this one again and again, notably in Fantastic Four 41-43, 51, 68-69, 111 - and that's just the Silver Age stories ...

Another beautifully composed cover from Kirby, enhanced by Chick Stone's
classy, smooth inking style. The premise - The Thing looking more human - is
immediately engaging. We
need to know what's happening.
Like some of the Captain America stories I was enjoying so much in Tales of Suspense, this FF also featured the inks of Chic Stone over Kirby pencils. I've mentioned before how much I liked Stone's inks both then and now, and I always wondered why other fans didn't seem to like his stuff.

Stone was active with Marvel for about a year during 1964-5, inking Kirby's work pretty much exclusively until mid 1965, when he suddenly disappeared from Marvel Comics. I've not been able to find an authoritative explanation for this and can only assume Stone was offered a better rate from another company. After Marvel he continued to ink for ACG and started producing artwork for Dell (The Flying Saucers), then did a long stint for Archie Comics through the 1970s, returning to Marvel as an inker around 1978 on the Thing team-up book Marvel Two in One.

But during that one year period, Stone turned in some exemplary work on just about all the pencil work Kirby did ... the key books he inked were:
  • Avengers 9 (Oct 64) - 14 (Mar 65), 15 (cover)
  • Fantastic Four 28 (Jul 64) - 38 (May 65), FF Annual 2 (Sep 64)
  • Journey into Mystery 102 (Mar 64) - 114 (Mar 65), 115 (cover)
  • Sgt Fury 18 (May 65)
  • Tales of Suspense 59 (Nov 64) - 66 (Jun 65)
  • Tales to Astonish 57 (Jul 64), 63 (Jan 65), 67 (May 65)
  • X-Men 6 (Jul 64) - 11 (May 65)
  • Patsy Walker 115 (Jun 64) - 116 (Aug 64)
I've read elsewhere that FF30 was completed in a bit of a rush, due to scheduling problems, but in the first half of the book, Stone's inks are as good as anything he ever did. Especially good are pages 2 and 3. The detail and the quality of the inks enhances Kirby's pencils beautifully, and unlike later inkers, all the faces Stone inked still look like Kirby faces. And also unlike later inkers, Stone took the time to ink the backgrounds fully, instead of just erasing stuff he didn't want to spend time inking.

Especially well done here is the inking on Johnny's and Reed's faces on page 2
and the Burgomeister's face on page 3. The backgrounds are beautifully filled in too.
Towards the end of the issue, you can see that there was some hurry to Stone's inking - or it may have been Kirby's pencils that were rushed. But it's still fine storytelling.

By this point in the story, you can see that Kirby and Stone's artwork isn't quite as detailed
as the earlier pages, but it's still very efficient storytelling, very slickly inked.
I'd love to know why Stone suddenly quit Marvel in mid-1965. I've not been able to find out, and I suspect the lack of information may be because Chic Stone was too much of an old-school gentleman to ever discuss the matter. But if you know anything about Stone's leaving Marvel at that time, please leave a comment ...

Next: How the Bullpen Bulletins made Marvel the Market Leader