Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Bullpen Bulletins and the Merry Marvel Marching Society

BACK IN LATE 1965, while my reading interests were firmly focussed on Stan Lee's burgeoning Marvel Comics line, there were other distractions for a typical eleven-year-old like myself. The prevailing cultural phenomenon on both sides of the Atlantic was the spy craze, kickstarted primarily by the movie adaptations of Ian Fleming's James Bond books, which began in 1963 with Dr No. The first Bond movie I saw was Goldfinger, released in September 1964 in the UK. This movie introduced several concepts that would go on to be genre staples - the cool sports car with in-built ordnance, the laser death-ray and the exotic murder techniques, like death by hat and execution by paint.

The iconic poster for Goldfinger. Inset: Bond discovers the body of Jill
Masterson, while Oddjob prepares for some millinery mayhem.
It really didn't matter that these plot devices were absurd, because when you're 11, you don't care about stuff like that. It turns out that covering someone in gold paint doesn't kill them at all, despite the movie's publicity machine claiming that Shirley Eaton had to leave a small area of her back open to the air so she didn't die of "skin suffocation". I also think it unlikely that Oddjob could kill anyone by flinging his hat at them, steel rim not withstanding. The air drag on the crown of the hat would slow it down in a few metres, severely limiting its effective range.

Bond's choice of an Aston Martin caused the sales of the car to leap 50% overnight.
But I don't think the production models had extending over-riders and concealed machine-
guns. Cutting Bond in half with a laser was an improvement over the novel,
where Goldfinger used a circular saw.
Anyhow, the movie was a massive hit, both in the UK and in the US, and the picture recouped its budget in a couple of weeks, spawning all kinds of imitators. Even though kids loved James Bond, the movies were pitched very much at an adult audience. So it was a bit of a surprise when UK toy manufacturer Corgi released a die-cast metal model of the Bond DB5, complete with extending machine guns, rear bulletproof shield and passenger ejector seat. Obviously, I had to have it and eventually persuaded my parents to buy me one.

Is this the coolest toy on the planet? Even though my original was long-gone, I tracked
one down on eBay, because no one should have to live without a Corgi James Bond car.
The massive success of James Bond in the cinema created a public demand for spies, so it wasn't long before television caught up. US broadcaster NBC contacted Ian Fleming and asked him to come up with a format for a spy series. The result was The Man from U.N.C.L.E. which featured the adventures of Napoleon Solo, an operative for a United Nations sponsored task force that would battle the machinations of a criminal organisation called THRUSH. With its science fiction plots and its hi-tech gadgetry, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. rapidly became my favourite tv show.

Something that U.N.C.L.E. had that Bond didn't was a really cool logo. This is one of
my all-time favourite logos and is instantly recognisable at whatever size you see it.
As U.N.C.L.E. was pitched at a younger audience than Bond, there was much more in the way of merchandising. Fans could buy U.N.C.L.E. toy guns, toy cars as well as comics and board games. But the best bit of merchandising was the membership card which you could get for free by writing off to The Daily Express. A schoolfriend of mine had something even better. His mum worked for the newspaper and managed to get him a THRUSH membership card. Boy, was I jealous ...

Here, Solo models the elegant U.N.C.L.E. gun while Illya handles the scary THRUSH rifle like he
was born to it. Inset: The U.N.C.L.E. membership card, and the car which debuted in the fourth season.
But the key thing here was that the very concept of the show, even down to the cool end-credit that read "We wish to thank the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, without whose assistance this program would not have been possible" and all the marketing, was geared towards making us think U.N.C.L.E. was real and, more importantly, that we could actually join it. That was certainly my ambition at 11.
What has all this to do with Stan Lee's Marvel Comics? Well, so far-reaching was the influence of espionage organisations with cool acronyms that Stan decided that Marvel, too, should have a team of super-spies, and drafted the now-promoted Sgt Fury (of Howling Commandos fame) to spearhead a new counter-espionage division called S.H.I.E.L.D. The hi-tech gadgetry would initially be supplied by Tony Stark, and Fury and his team would battle rogue organisations like Hydra and A.I.M.

Nick Fury first appeared in 1963, as the tough Sergeant of a team of commandos, The Howlers. Two
years later, he was seconded from the CIA to head up SHIELD. By the late 1960s Fury was in full
psychedelic mode courtesy of comics' coolest creator, Jim Steranko.
I remember my first S.H.I.E.L.D. comic as being Strange Tales 139. I was coming in in the middle of a story and so was understandably confused by the storyline. But here was a comic that bore more than a passing resemblance to my beloved U.N.C.L.E. show ... and it had even cooler gadgets. I quickly tracked down the earlier issues of Strange Tales and thrilled to the exploits of Fury as he - along with the rest of us - discovered the wonders of L.M.D.s, the jaw-dropping S.H.I.E.L.D. heli-carrier and a Porche 904 with anti-grav wheels.

From the first instalment of Nick Fury Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. - Fury learns the name of the
outfit looking to hire him and gets a taste of the equipment they have at their disposal.
But there was one more Marvel acronym in Stan Lee's lexicon, and that was one organisation we could join, if we only had one dollar ... the M.M.M.S.

The Merry Marvel Marching Society

The earliest mention of the MMMS that I could find was in the November 1964 issue of Fantastic Four. Right at the very end of the Announcements section, Stan posed the question, "While you're counting the minutes till F.F.#33, see if you can guess what M.M.M.S. stands for?" Okay, technically not actually a query, question mark notwithstanding, but an effective teaser. I wouldn't have seen this clue at the time, as FF32 wasn't distributed in UK newsagents for the reasons explained in my 7 September post. The following month, Stan revealed what the initials stood for and added, "It's a new club we're forming in answer to all you congenital joiners who've been asking for it." There was an update in FF34, when Stan included a box to the letters page that revealed more.

Then finally, in FF35, Marvel took the wraps off its grand endeavour. In retrospect, it looks like a pretty good deal. That's a lot of stuff you get for "one measly buck". I didn't know that earlier comic clubs had charged just the price of a comic to join. But at the time, I didn't really have a burning desire to be a Merry Marcher, even if I could have found a way to send Stan a dollar.

This tantalising ad appeared in FF 36 and listed all the goodies you got for your
"hard-earned buck" - badge, stickers, certificate, membership card and - intriguingly
- a record of the Bullpen welcoming you to the MMMS.
Of course, comic-based fan clubs weren't entirely a new idea. There were many clubs and other premiums available via the popular radio shows of the 1930s. For example, it was possible to send off for a Shadow ring that tied in with the Blue Coal-sponsored radio show of the legendary pulp hero. The first comic club I'm aware of is the Supermen of America. This was started in 1939 by DC to capitalise of the phenomenal success of the Superman strips in Action Comics. For 10c (the same price as a comic book) you got a certificate, a ring, a decoder and a badge. But I think that was it. I don't think DC thought to foster any kind of ongoing cameraderie, other than the coded messages in the comics ...

This is what you got for your ten cents way back in 1939. Pretty good deal,
considering that the ring alone goes for over $10,000 in mint condition.
Then, in Issue 13 of All-Star Comics (Oct-Nov 1942) DC offered readers the chance to join the Junior Justice League of America. This club also had a secret code, so again the editors took the time to put secret messages in comics so that club members felt they were part of something exclusive.

The Junior Justice Society was a bit more activity-based, urging members to collect
war stamps, and to organise "Victory Clubs" to help with the war effort.
The other major comic fan club - and the one that most resembled Stan Lee's M.M.M.S. - was the EC Fan-Addicts Club. Unlike DC, the younger, brasher EC Comics was distinguished by a hip, irreverent editorial style. Jokers Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein ran both the company and the comics with a tongue-in-cheek humour that defused even the most gruesome of the horror stories that appeared in Crypt of Terror and Vault of Horror. This house style would later be crystallised as the phenomenally successful MAD Magazine, which would allow EC to survive the horror comic purges of the mid-1950s.

The EC Fan-Addicts kit, characterised by the same (jugular) vein
of humour that ran through the comics.
So the Merry Marvel Marching Society kicked off officially in Fantastic Four 35 and the other Marvel Comics of February 1965. In addition to the Membership card, certificate and stickers you also got a floppy vinyl record of Stan and the Bullpen (minus Steve Ditko, who shunned any kind of public appearance) clowning around in a studio from a terminally corny script by Lee.

The different between this and other fan clubs was that the monthly Marvel Bullpen Bulletins Page in the comics became the club's unofficial monthly newsletter - and you didn't even have to join the club to enjoy it.

The first Bulletins pages were in the December 1965 issues and were tailored to the individual comics they appeared in, so the FF Bulletins was slightly different to the Strange Tales one.

Play "Spot the Difference" - the page on the left is from FF45 and one the left is from Strange Tales 139.
Each page has been slightly altered for its title and the
FF page doesn't list FF45 in the Checklist.
But these are minor details. The main function of the Bullpen page was to make all Marvel readers feel like part of the gang. By announcing interesting snippets about the comings and goings of the artists and giving them all backstories, Stan was making his team as much characters in a story as Spider-Man and The Hulk were. This first Bullpen page begins with the announcement that Joe Sinnott was joining the FF book as permanent inker, which was a big relief to me as I was never a fan of fill-in inker Vince Colletta. Stan also teased readers by revealing that Sub-Mariner and Iron Man penciller "Adam Austin" was really someone else (Gene Colan, in case you're wondering).

The Bullpen page is from Strange Tales again. But in FF46, Stan included a dedicated 
merchandising page for the tee-shirts, the Marvel stationery and the life-size Spidey poster.
The following month, Stan moved most of the merchandising off the Bullpen page to leave more room for announcements, the first of which was Lee's contrite apology for thinking that Marvel fans would ever want to read "Marvel Pop Art Productions" rather than Marvel Comics. It had been a step too far and Marvel readers were quick to let Lee know - and to his credit, Stan was quick to fix it. The "Didja Know Department" gave capsule backgrounds on Bullpenners who didn't normally get their names in the comics ... Sol Brodsky, Flo Steinberg and even Marty Goodman.

The third Bullpen page, published in the February 1966 Marvels, made one small change. It was no longer tailored to each individual comic title. Stan must have realised that it was way too much bother to customise each incarnation of the page. It's doubtful that most Marvelites (for that is what we were being called by this time) even realised each title's Bulletins page was different. The giveaway is that the Checklist is now the same in every title, so FF47 contained a Checklist entry for FF47, and so on.

By this time (Feb 1966) the Announcements have squeezed everything else off the page.
And the Checklist is the same whichever Marvel book the page appears in.
The page leads with the news that Marvel Collectors Item Classics is going down a storm with readers who missed the earliest Marvel books (me included). That's followed up with an introduction to Roy Thomas, newest member of the Bullpen, and Stan explaining that while he razzes on letterers Artie Simek and Stan Rosen all the time, they really are the backbone of Marvel.

And for me, the genius of Stan Lee wasn't so much in the cracking stories, the unique characterisation or the dynamic storytelling - it was the editorial package that surrounded the stories. Lee instinctively knew that success lay in making all his readers feel part of a tribe, that their voices were listened to and that affable and jokey was exactly what his customers were looking for. In fact, today's management consultants could learn a lot from how Marvel became a 1960s publishing phenomenon. Stan always insisted this wasn't cynical planning on his part. He was just giving readers what he'd want if he'd been a comics reader.

In an interview in 2000, Stan Lee explained the rationale for this approach. When asked if he was consciously trying to foster a personal involvement in the books among his readers he replied, "That's what I wanted. I realized later – I wasn't conscious of it at the time – that I had treated the whole thing like an advertising campaign. I mean, we had catchwords like 'Make Mine Marvel', 'Marvel Marches On', 'Welcome to the Marvel Age of Comics', and the club – the Merry Marvel Marching Society – 'We don't know where we're marching to, but we're on the way'. It was all done tongue-in-cheek with a little humor, and I wanted the readers to feel as though we're all sharing an in-joke together that the outside world just isn't even aware of. It was almost the same feeling as Mad magazine – we obviously weren't a group of humor books, but I think we had that same feeling."

It wasn't a difficult concept to understand. And Stan was very open about it, in the replies to the readers' letters and on the Marvel Bullpen Bulletins pages. It was all geared towards making the reader feel like a part of the gang, a tribal thing, something DC, Tower Comics or the lamentable Mighty Comics Group didn't seem able to grasp.

And for those of us who couldn't join the M.M.M.S., we still had the Bullpen pages in the comics. I enjoyed them so much that, by the late 1960s, I would actually turn to the Bullpen page first, a stark contrast to how I would approach a comic when I first started reading them.

Next: Separated at Birth - a comic covers special


  1. I think you've hit on the reason why I've never really warmed to those Essentials collections - in my Marvel-reading prime, the comic was more than just the twenty pages of story, it was also the letters pages, the Bullpen Bulletins, the half-page house ads....the whole package! Which, it seems, no-one indulges in anymore - oh well, everybody's probably too hip and postmodern to enjoy it on face value anymore anyway.

    1. You're right! How much better those Marvel Collections (and DC Archives) would be if only they included all the house ads and editorial pages. The house ads, especially, give a sense of time by showing you what other comics were on sale at the same time ...

    2. I've found if I owned any of the comics that are reprinted in these Showcase / Essential things, I'm disappointed. If I didn't I love reading them for the first time and also clearing them out afterwards as I have no attachment to them

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