Sunday, 24 September 2017

Marvel Comics: The Rise of the Cover Blurb

BACK IN THE 1960s, comic publishers didn't have marketing budgets. There was nowhere for them to advertise their comics, except for in other comics. The only method they had available to them was to print way too many copies and try to get them in front of their customers, by dumping them onto the newsstands in great numbers. "Returns" of 50% weren't unheard of and, indeed, was considered normal. 

This newsstand comics rack was what the Summer 1949 (cover-dated August) comics industry output looked like. Click on the image to expand it, and you'll see titles like Crime Does Not Pay, Superboy, Crime Patrol, Millie the Model and a whole bunch of Classics Illustrated.
These "returned" comics would have the cover title logos torn off and sent back to the wholesalers for credits against the next issue. The mutilated returned comics were then supposed to be trashed, but many newsdealers simply put them out for sale again at 5c.

Newsvendors would tear the cover logos from unsold comics and send the logos back to their wholesalers to receive credit against future issues. They were then supposed to destroy the "unsolds" but invariably would offer them to customers at half price. Many of these mutilated comics have survived to the present day, though are considered to grade at "Poor" by most collectors.
So, all a publisher could do to get kids to pick up their comics off a spinner rack was to make the cover as attention-grabbing as possible. There were as many approaches to this as there were publishers and while the up-market guys like DC Comics would often show a modicum of restraint, some of the bottom feeders were anything but subtle.

DC's approach, from the 1940s right through to the 1960s, was to come up with an interesting - sometimes misleading - cover scenario, then write a story around it. Very often, they'd include explanatory speech balloons to tell the prospective customer what was going on, even if the cover art made that abundantly clear. EC, on the other hand, almost never used speech balloons, and rarely added cover lines. Dell/Gold Key didn't have any cover lettering at all on their sumptuously painted covers. And some poverty-row publishers would put the most outrageous and grisly art possible on their covers, which ended up causing huge problems for the whole industry by 1954.

A sample of comic covers, dated the year I was born. Harvey, also publishing Casper and Little Dot in the same period, took a pretty extreme approach with their horror comic covers. DC opted for the dramatic scenario with explanatory speech balloon, while Atlas (Marvel) followed EC's lead and offered situation covers with restrained, if any, cover text boxes.
Over the course of their history, Marvel Comics would try many approaches to the way they designed their covers, as publisher Martin Goodman, a notorious trend-follower, would regularly change his mind about what made a "selling" cover.

During the Golden Age of the 1940s, comics would sell between 200,000 and 400,000. Some individual titles would do even better. Superman was selling over a million copies a month in the early 1940s, Action Comics (the original home of Superman) was selling about 1.5 million copies during the post-war years and Whiz Comics (featuring Captain Marvel) topped that with sales of 2 million. In 1939, we know that Martin Goodman printed 80,000 copies of Marvel Comics 1 (Oct 1939) then, when that sold out almost immediately, went back to press to print another 800,000 copies, at the same time overprinting the cover date with "Nov".

The DC Comics of their formative years were restrained to the point of underselling. Where the later Superman titles would be a gab-fest of unnecessasry speech ballons and Ira Schnapp (beautifully) lettered text boxes, these 1940/41 comics were clean, allowing the strong image to sell the book.
The earliest DC Comics just let the cover image do the talking, avoiding speech balloons, and shrieking text boxes telling you what was happening inside the comic. It was a remarkably restrained approach, but it did seem to be the norm for the era.

The Marvel Comics from the same period aped the DC's by not using balloons or coverlines, but instead of DC's strong single images, the Timely books were a maelstrom of lurid and chaotic action. This probably came from Martin Goodman's history as a pulp publisher, but Alex Schomberg's hyper-kinetic covers were very much a forerunner of Jack Kirby's exaggerated action style that would later define the peak years of Marvel's 1960s output.

Just like their more affluent cousins over at DC, the Golden Age Timely Comics avoided text on their covers ... but by contrast, every square-inch of the cover space was crammed to bursting with frenetic action, often with the Timely characters depicted at a larger scale than the foes they were fighting.
Though dialogue balloons on comic covers weren't unknown during the 1940s, they were uncommon. Other publishers were prone to adding more in the way of shouty cover lines to their publications. The anthology titles published by companies like Quality, Fawcett and Nedor didn't have the instantly recognisable heroes that DC and Timely had, so would tell prospective readers about the stories they could expect to find inside their books.

The other publishers sort of followed DC's and Timely's lead and didn't overload their covers with text, but did tell customer what the comic contained. These covers from Quality, Fawcett and Nedor are all from November 1942.
Then, as the Second World War drew to a close, DC's Action Comics began including speech balloons on the covers. None of the other DC titles followed that lead immediately, but inevitably, someone further up the food chain must've issued an edict, because with the April and May 1951 cover dates, just about all DC covers became speech balloon gab fests, establishing the over-explanatory style they became famous for.

Blah, blah, blah ... in the spring of 1951, DC's covers all suddenly sported expository speech balloons on every cover - describing the situation to prospective customers whether the cover image needed it or not. It would set the tone for DC Comics for almost two decades.
Strangely, at the same time, Atlas publisher Martin Goodman, was roundly ignoring DC's lead and putting out his comics with a unique and distinctive cover style.


Unlike DC Comics' heroes, the Timely characters struggled after World War II. It's true that by the end of the 1940s, DC's non-Superman/Batman titles folded or were turned into western books, but the core of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman marched right on. Captain America, Human Torch and The Sub-Mariner - positioned, as they were, very much as the nemeses of the Axis Powers - had no one to fight when the real world hostilities ended. So the core titles were either cancelled, or morphed into horror comics, following EC's New Trend line.

The Timely line of comics ground to halt in mid-1949. Captain America was a horror comic for its last two issues. The Human Torch's and Sub-Mariner's own titles were cancelled and the characters' original home, Marvel (Mystery) Comics, became Marvel Tales, another horror anthology.
It took Goodman a year or so to sort out what he wanted to do with his comic line, now that the superheroes were gone. In the end he concentrated on his girls' comics (Millie the Model and Patsy Walker), his western comics  (KId Colt and Two-Gun Kid) and his horror titles, lead by the new incarnation of Marvel Mystery Comics, Marvel Tales.

While the Western and girls' (and war) comics rolled on, Martin Goodman must have noticed the sales on his horror titles were growing, so ordered editor Stan Lee to come up with more titles. It seemed like Goodman couldn't get enough horror, and by 1951, the renamed Timely comics was pumping out horror titles under its new Atlas Comics imprint. In order of publication, these were:
  • Amazing Mysteries 32-35 (May 1949 - Jan 1950)
  • Marvel Tales 93-159 (Aug 1949 - Aug 1957), was Marvel Mystery Comics
  • Suspense 1-29 (Dec 1949 - Apr 1953)
  • Adventures into Terror 43-44 (first two issues), then 3-31 (Nov 1950 - May 1954), was Joker
  • Journey into Unknown Worlds 36-59 (Sep 1950 - Aug 1957), was Teen Comics
  • Mystic 1-61 (Mar 1951 - Aug 1957)
  • Astonishing 3-63 (Apr 1951 - Aug 1957), was Marvel Boy
  • Strange Tales 1-100 (Jun 1951 - Sep 1962)
  • Adventures into Weird Worlds 1-30 (Jan 1952 - Jun 1954)
  • Mystery Tales 1-54 (Mar 1952 - Aug 1957)
  • Spellbound 1-34 (Mar 1952 - Jun 1957)
  • Journey into Mystery 1-82 (Jun 1952 - Jul 1962)
  • Uncanny Tales 1-56 (Jun 1952 - Sep 1957)
  • Menace 1-11 (Mar 1953 - May 1954)
  • Men's Adventures 21-26 (May 1953 - Mar 1954), was war comic of same title
  • Strange Stories of Suspense 5-16 (Oct 1955 - Aug 1957), was Rugged Action
  • Strange Tales of the Unusual 1-11 (Dec 1955 - Aug 1957)
  • Adventure into Mystery 1-8 (May 1956 - Jul 1957)
  • World of Suspense 1-8 (Apr 1956 - Jul 1957)
  • World of Fantasy 1-19 (May 1956 - Aug 1959)
  • World of Mystery 1-7 (Jun 1956 - Jul 1957)
  • Strange Worlds 1-5 (Dec 1958 - Aug 1959)
  • Tales of Suspense 1-38 (Jan 1959 - Feb 1963)
  • Tales to Astonish 1-34 (Jan 1959 - Aug 1962)
  • Amazing Adventures 1-6 (Jun - Nov 1961)
  • Amazing Adult Fantasy 7-14 (Dec 1961 - Jul 1962)
Probably because these titles were the backbone of the company during the early 1950s, Stan Lee gave them a bit more attention than the other genres, quite rapidly evolving a unified cover style for the titles. This would consist of one main cover image, then smaller images down the left-hand side depicting scenes from the other stories in each (anthology) issue. It was the nearest thing to a house style Atlas had during the 1950s, which Lee was probably responsible for. 

At this point in the company's history, Lee was Art Director as well as Editor-in-Chief, and so was very hands-on when it came to designing the covers, though he would lean heavily on production man Sol Brodsky. As Lee told Marvel Age magazine in 1985, "Sol and I were the whole staff of Atlas Comics. I bought the art and scripts and Sol did all the production. My job was mainly talking to the artists and the writers and telling them I wanted the stuff done. Sol did ... the corrections, making sure everything looked right, making sure things went to the engraver and he also talked to the printer. He was really the production manager. And then little by little we built things back up again."

Later, Stan would offer Jack Kirby the post of Art Director - Kirby refused - and John Romita would step up in 1973 and be responsible for, among other things, designing all Marvel's covers.

No sign of any restraint here - the Atlas Comics covers of 1951 - 1952 were awash with  blurbs and speech balloons, in some cases so much that there was hardly enough room for the art. Click picture to enlarge.
Yet, this would only last for a couple of years before being phased out in favour of single image covers with far less text.

By 1954, the Atlas covers used far fewer words and no speech balloons at all. The cynic in me wants to say that Martin Goodman was trying to save on lettering costs, but the fact is cover lettering was done by in-house staffers, supervised by the genial Artie Simek.
The reasons for this will never be known, but it's likely that Martin Goodman - often months or years behind a trend - saw the EC Comics covers on a newsstand and ordered Stan to make the Atlas covers look like that.

This style would persist until the Great Atlas Implosion of 1957, when 60% of the Atlas titles were cancelled because of Martin Goodman's bad distribution decision. Lost in the mellee were: Adventure into Mystery, Astonishing, Journey into Unknown Worlds, Marvel Tales, Mystery Tales, Mystic, Spellbound, Strange Tales of the Unusual, Uncanny Tales, World of Mystery and World of Suspense, as well as a whole slew of western, war and humour titles.

Atlas, no longer called "Atlas" would limp along with just eight titles a month for the next few years, with no discernible changes to the cover format, starting with the below titles.

Odd Months Even Months
Gunsmoke Western Battle
Homer the Happy Ghost Navy Combat
Kid Colt Outlaw Patsy and Hedy
Love Romances Patsy Walker
Marines in Battle Strange Tales
Millie the Model Two-Gun Kid
Miss America World of Fantasy
My Own Romances Wyatt Earp

But as the next couple of years rolled by, and Stan's star artist Joe Maneely died in a tragic underground accident, Stan began to re-think his approach.

Fresh from a legal dust-up with DC senior editor Jack Schiff, Jack Kirby washed up in the former Atlas' offices in 1959, looking for work. Steve Ditko was already there, and Stan's as-yet unnamed line of comics began to take on a new shape and a new editorial direction. The horror books, emasculated by the Comics Code and pale shadows of their former (already mediocre) selves, looked to monster and sci-fi movies of the 1950s for their inspiration and were soon featuring gigantic menaces like "Monstro", "Zog" and "Rro", mostly drawn by Jack. Ditko continued to follow a gentler path, and turned in more humanistic, often sentimental, tales that would spotlight moral issues like greed and betrayal, with titles like "Revenge of the Wooden Woman" and "One Look Means Doom".

Most of the pre-hero Marvels went for a big monster image by Jack Kirby and a screaming cover blurb that featured the monster's (often nonsensical) name. Most didn't have speech balloons, but occasionally there would be some dialogue lettered on the cover. The above are from mid 1961, around the time that the cryptic "MC" started appearing on the covers.
By the beginning of the 1960s, many of the stories in these "pre-hero" Marvel Comics appeared to take a lead from the "true confessions' style slick magazines Goodman was publishing at the same time, sporting titles like "I Opened the Door to Nowhere" and "I Brought the Roc to Life".

But in August 1961, Martin Goodman introduced a game-changing comic, Fantastic Four. As I've noted elsewhere in this blog, the first Marvel superhero comics did their level best not to look like superhero comics. Marvels were being distributed by the DC-owned Independent News Distributions (indicated by the "IND" on Marvel covers of the period) and I'm pretty sure Martin didn't want to annoy DC's Jack Liebowitz by appearing to be publishing competing superhero books.

The earliest superhero efforts from Marvel looked for all the world to be no different from the monster books. The FF wore street clothes, The Hulk actually was a monster and Thor's costume was not that of a traditional superhero. Even Spider-Man was completely different in look to any of DC's characters.
But very quickly, Goodman got a lot braver, and Stan gave the FF costumes, and rapidly added more superheroes to the remaining monster books. May 1963 saw the introduction of the unique Marvel corner box, and by the end of that year, the mystery stories were all but replaced by superheroics and the Marvel Empire began its rise.

Later in 1963, Marvel took a more upfront approach to the way they presented their superheroes on their comic covers. Costumes and action were to the fore, though there was still little consistency when it came to putting dialogue on the covers or not.
Later on the same year, Stan began to talk about the "Marvel Age of Comics" on the covers. Starting with some of the August 1963 covers, Stan placed a fairly discreet box that read, "Marvel Comics Group ushers in the Marvel Age of Comics". But over the next few months, these blurbs got bigger and bolder, so that Amazing Spider-Man 6 (Nov 1963) had a bold line in bright green along the bottom of the cover that said, "The Marvel Age of Comics is Here". 

This move coincided with Stan taking over the scripting of the lead strips in the anthology titles. Except I don't think it was a coincidence. I think it was a determined effort on the part of Stan to take control of the Marvel Universe, and prevent the fledgling Marvel from descending into the kind of directionless mess that Atlas became just before the Great Implosion of 1957.

And by the end of 1963, the speech balloons on Marvel covers had largely faded away. The last balloons on covers were Journey into Mystery 99 and Amazing Spider-Man 7 (both Dec 1963), the January 1964 issues of Strange Tales (116), Tales of Suspense (49), Fantastic Four (22) and Tales to Astonish (51). After that, Stan would let his hyperbolic blurbs do the talking and that's the way things would stay until mid 1970, when the balloons began to creep back ...

In mid-1963, Stan Lee brought his Marvel hyperbole to the covers, adding claims that this was "The Marvel Age of Comics" to much of the Marvel line. These would evolve over the next few months to become a standard component of Marvel's covers.
The big challenge that faced Lee (and Kirby) in the mid-Sixties though was, How do you ensure all your superheroes get a fair shake and your customers can find them easily on the newsstands? Especially if the titles of the books didn't change from Strange Tales and Journey into Mystery. The answer was simplicity itself. Just put two covers on the front of the comics.

As each of the former mystery books began to showcase two superheroes, Stan had his artists draw two images for each cover. He had used the idea before, not only on the occasional mystery book, but also on the earliest Fantastic Four and Spider-Man comics.
For a glorious period, between March 1964 and the end of 1965, Stan would split the covers of the former mystery books and present two awesome images on each cover, trumpeting the extra-value "two stories inside" nature of the comics. This was also around the same time (February 1964) that speech balloons were finally banned from Marvel's covers, a move which certainly made the Marvel books appear a lot less juvenile than their rivals'. 

Barely 18 months later, Marvel stopped splitting the covers between the two strips inside and started to devote alternating covers to the characters inside. Whether sales or aesthetics drove this is unknown. Then, just as Marvel stopped the practice, other lesser publishers began to imitate it.
Maybe Martin Goodman or Stan didn't think the dual covers were helping sales, because as 1966 began the anthology books started alternating their stars on the covers. And that would be the status quo for the next two years when, in 1968, the anthology books literally split, like amoeba, and all the anthology characters got their own titles. Then, in 1971 Marvel introduced the "frame cover ...

The change in cover format introduced in 1971 did away with the familiar and well-loved Marvel Corner Box, and brought in solid-colour frames around the comic's cover artwork. I can see why this may have been a good idea from an editorial and marketing point of view - no consecutive covers would have the same dominant colour - but I wasn't wild about it as a teenage fan.
With the November 1971 cover-dated issues, publisher Goodman made some big changes. He upped the page count across the board to 48 and raised the price of Marvel’s comics from 15c to 25c. And in the process, the cover format was completely re-vamped. Out went the familiar Marvel corner box and in came the idea of framing the cover art with a solid colour border. This allowed the art department more control over choosing suitable background colours to set the titles’ logos against. And in addition, a top bar was added to each cover, tagging it as a Marvel Comics Group publication in bold 24pt type.

Then, in an even more astonishing turn-around, the following month the page counts of all Marvel titles dropped back to 36 pages and the price was reduced at 20c. Whether it was the intention or not, arch-rivals DC Comics were completely wrong-footed. They’d raised the page-count and cover price in line with Marvel’s. But as publishing companies bought their printing time and paper months ahead, DC had no choice but to stick with the bigger, more expensive mags, while Marvel undercut them on the newsstands.

The “frame” covers must have been a success for Marvel as they were used, with little change, for the next couple of years. It had the advantage of making the Marvel books instantly recognisable on the newsstands and allowing the art department to ensure that the individual covers were all given distinct colour schemes from month to month. 

1960s vs 1970s - The over explanatory DC covers of the sixties were replaced with a more grow-up approach in the seventies. Speech balloons didn't disappear altogether, but they were used less to explain the obvious and more for dramatic effect. It didn't help. Marvel had already overtaken them ...
Though it wasn't the defining feature of Marvel Comics, the company's approach to cover design had far-reaching effects, both for Marvel, and for the industry as a whole. Eventually, DC would follow suit and banish the childish Mort Weisinger style covers where speech balloons described what was plainly apparent from the cover art. But for them - by then - it was too late, and Marvel had leap-frogged them in sales and were the new market leaders.

Next: An unscheduled DC interlude