Friday, 30 November 2018

Collectors' Item Classics from Marvel

BACK IN 1981 I SOLD ALL MY MARVELS. It was for a good reason, though I won't go into that here. But I cannily felt that surely the worth of all this fading newsprint couldn't possibly go any higher and I divested my holdings.

My entire comics collection - I had just about every Marvel from 1959, apart from Fantastic Four 1 - was put under the figurative hammer for whatever I could get for it. For my Amazing Fantasy 15 I got £75. It's an interesting story how I acquired that comic. 

This is all I have left of my original Marvel Comics collection - a few blurry pictures taken while I was trying to figure out how to use a new camera I had. The Hulk 1 was especially tatty, as I'd picked it up in a second hand shop about twelve years earlier.
Back in 1971, I'd been fortunate enough to go on a school trip to the United States. While on a homestay in Connecticut, I chanced across a small store with a single comics spinner rack. All they had was about ten copies of Conan the Barbarian 1 (Oct 1970). Why it was still sitting on the spinner rack almost a year after its release is anyone's guess. I'd seen DC's Anthro a couple of years earlier and decided I didn't like 'caveman comics" so I bought just the one copy of Conan the Barbarian 1

For some reason, my addled teenage brain thought that Marvel's Conan the Barbarian was the same genre of comic as DC's Anthro. I didn't really like stories about cavemen and mammoths so I passed up the chance of ten copies of Conan 1 for 15 cents a piece at the time.
A few years later, just as the fanzine scene was getting underway in the UK, I placed an ad in Doug Gifford's Thing magazine, looking to plug the gaps in my Silver Age Marvel collection and offered up for trade my near-mint Conan 1, still a pretty rare comic in the UK at the time. Someone offered me a vg copy of Amazing Fantasy 15, so I took the deal.

Anyhow, during the 1990s, I was working at 2000AD - headquartered in the Bloomsbury area of central London. Not far away was GOSH Comics, so I'd wander down there in my lunch hour to pick up my copy of Comics International and to have a prowl through the inexpensive back issues on offer. I started amassing a neat collection of Charlton comics, precisely because they were cheap and had cool, neglected characters like Captain Atom and Blue Beetle, all drawn by Steve Ditko.

During my time on 2000AD, I cultivated a taste for quirky, non-corporate comics. Charltons were definitely quirky and, at that time, cheap - they could be picked up for about £3.50 each. Pretty quickly, I had complete runs of Captain Atom and Frank MacLaughlin's JudoMaster. Still love that costume.
Because I'd become interested in Martial arts during those years, I also started to pick up copies of Charlton's JudoMaster. Then it wasn't long before I acquired a set of Paul Gulacy's run on Marvel's Master of Kung Fu. I was in full-on collecting mode again. At the time, I didn't think it was feasible to go after Marvel Silver Age comics as they had increased mightily in value in the twelve years since I'd sold my original collection. So I started seeking out period reprints of those comics ... and of course, my eye first fell on Marvel Tales and Marvel Collectors' Item Classics.


In the very early 1960s, DC's Dark Overlord Mort Weisinger hit on the idea of reprinting old stories in a bumper-sized comic and selling it for more than double the price of a regular comic. With no expenditure on new material, these comics must have been a cash-cow for DC. So it wasn't long before Marvel's Publisher Martin Goodman thought of the same idea himself.

The earliest of Marvel's reprint 25c comics aped the style of the DC Annuals - composite covers featuring scenes from the stories inside. But where the DC books were 80 pages with no ads, Marvel's were 72 pages with ads. Not content with just chiselling the creative people who worked for Marvel, Goodman also chiselled his customers.
I had missed the earliest of the Marvel 25c comics, so Marvel Tales Annual 1 (1964) - with its cover-to-cover origin stories - was always one that I had coveted back in the day. I wouldn't track down a copy until around 1990.

But in 1965, it had become apparent to Goodman and his editor Stan Lee, that many Marvel fans wanted to read the earlier stories they'd missed. The steady stream of requests for back issues must have been some sort of a clue, so in 1965, Stan made more of a concerted effort to make the formative adventures of Marvel's key characters available ... and make some easy money for Marvel in the process.

The second Marvel Tales reprinted the first issues of The Avengers and The X-Men. The first issue of MCIC re-presented Fantastic Four 2 and Amazing Spider-Man 3. The Journey into Mystery Annual contained an all new Thor story and reprinted JiM 85, 93, 95 and 97.
A second Marvel Tales Annual came out, along with a Journey into Mystery Annual. And curiously, Stan added Marvel Collectors' Item Classics to the lineup - this one positioned as a "King-Size Bullpen Book" and with a decidedly different cover style. Instead of scenes from the stories inside, MCIC featured the actual covers of the interior reprints. From that point on, that would be the style for the next couple of years of Marvel's main reprint books.

I had owned most of these reprint collections first time around, but in the 1990s, they were an ideal resource for me to see many of my favourite stories, more or less exactly as they originally appeared. I've not done a side-by-side comparison, but I don't recall these early Marvel Tales and MCIC reprints as having any obvious changes from the originals ... like lettering corrections or different colour schemes.

But as I gathered more an more of these issues, I started noticing that they had slowly begun to deviate from just reprinting the original comics. At first it was the inclusion of the occasional unpublished pinup (as detailed in my last blog entry). Then, for reasons lost in the mists of time, the reprint's original cover artwork was replaced with new art.

The first issue this happened with was Marvel Tales 12 (Jan 1968). Just an issue before, the cover format of Marvel Tales had changed to focus on the original Amazing Spider-Man cover art by Steve Ditko. But for whatever reason, Stan didn't think Ditko cover for ASM17 was suitable, so had the art department (ie, John Verpoorten, according to GCD) put together an amalgam of two different covers.

I don't think there's anything wrong with the cover art on Amazing Spider-Man 17, although you might argue that the Spidey figure is a little small. Nonetheless, Stan (or possibly Roy) ordered that the art department fudge together a new cover illo for Marvel Tales 12 by enlarging the Spider-Man image and dropping in the Green Goblin from ASM39. I'm not entirely sure it works, are you?
For the next couple of years, Marvel Tales trundled along, reproducing the original Steve Ditko Spider-Man covers, although with some alterations to fit the 25c book's different cover format. Then, beginning with the May 1970 issue, Marvel Tales inexplicably ran a series of new covers.

In the middle of 1970, Marvel Tales featured a short run of new covers by Marie Severin - apart from issue 29, which had art by Sal Buscema. No one knows why this came about. With Marvel Tales 30, the covers returned to using the original Romita drawn covers from Amazing Spider-Man.
Then it was back to reprints as usual ... quite what motivated this isn't clear. There's certainly nothing wrong with the Ditko covers that go with the stories. Unless someone thought that the older Ditko art didn't reflect the then-contemporary look of the character under John Romita. In which case, it'd have been nice to have new John Romita covers for those issues. In case you might find it useful, here's a handy-dandy guide to what was reprinted in the first few issues of Marvel Tales ...

(in Journey into Mystery)
Human Torch
(in Strange Tales)
(in Astonish)
Marvel Tales 1
Marvel Tales 2
Marvel Tales 3
Marvel Tales 4
Marvel Tales 5
Marvel Tales 6
Marvel Tales 7
ASM Ann 3
11, 12
Marvel Tales 8
Marvel Tales 9
Marvel Tales 10

Marvel Collectors' Item Classics had a shorter run under that title than Marvel Tales. The four-miniature-cover covers ended with issue 11 and the title switched to reprinting the original Fantastic Four cover art as the main cover image. Except for issue 12 (Dec 1967), which had a weird hodge-podge of Kirby art drawn from various sources. Have fun trying to identify where they come from ...

This was the only issue of Marvel Collectors' Item Classics that didn't use original cover artwork from any of the reprinted comics inside - Fantastic Four 17, Iron Man from Suspense 52, Dr Strange from Strange Tales 121 and nine pages of Incredible Hulk 6.
With issue 22, Marvel Collectors' Item Classics drew to a close. It was just too much hard work to mention the comic by name, so Stan sensibly continued the numbering with the more modestly labelled Marvel's Greatest Comics, which sort of fitted with the top-line text on every Fantastic Four comic - "The World's Greatest Comics Magazine".

For the first four issues, Marvel's Greatest Comics just used the Kirby FF covers for the issues it was reprinting. Then - at around the same time that Marvel Tales briefly switched to puttting new covers on the old reprints, MGC started the same practice. Starting with Marvel's Greatest Comics 27 (Mar 1970), we got new cover art by Jack Kirby for two issues (probably some of the last work he did for Marvel before departing for DC). Marvel Greatest Comics 29 (Dec 1970) was a bit of an anomaly, as it reprinted two out-of sequence FF issues - 12 and 31 - then it was back to the in-sequence Fantastic Four reprints with FF 37 and 38 behind an all-new Sal Buscema and Marie Severin cover. And for anyone interested, here's a run-down of which early Marvel issues were reprinted in the first 11 issues of Marvel Collectors' Item Classics (the ones with the tiny cover repros on the front).

Amazing Spider-Man Dr Strange
(in Str. Tales)
(in Astonish)
Iron Man
(in Suspense)
FF Ann 1 1 (part)
MCIC 1 2 3 36
MCIC 2 3 4 37
MCIC 3 4 110 40 3
FF Annual 2 5
FF Annual 3 6
MCIC 4 7 111 41 4
MCIC 5 8 114 42 4
MCIC 6 9 116 43 5
MCIC 7 13 117 44 5
MCIC 8 10 118 45 2
FF Annual 3
MCIC 9 14 119 46 2
MCIC 10 15 Unpublished pinup 47 2
MCIC 11 16 120 51 6

I didn't collect Marvel Tales or Marvel's Greatest Comics much past the point where the cover price dropped to 20c and we got 36 pages instead of 68 ... or even 52. Even though this was the point where Roy Thomas again began commissioning new cover art for the reprint books.

The above Marvel's Greatest Comics covers are by Gil Kane (34), John Buscema (35), Sal Buscema (36) and Gil Kane (37). Not a bad artist among them. So how come their art just isn't as good as Jack Kirby's original covers?
Thinking about it now, it probably really did have something to do with bringing the look of the reprint titles in line with how the character's contemporary adventures looked under Marvels new star artists John Romita and John Buscema. Yet even those these covers were by Marvel's best and brightest 1970s artists, they just didn't compare with the original covers drawn by Jack Kirby and John Romita five or six years earlier.

This batch of Marvel's Greatest Comics covers are by Sal Buscema (38), Jim Starlin (39), Sal Buscema (40) and Jim Starlin (41). I'll grudgingly admit I really like the Starlin art, but there was no way anyone was ever going to draw a better cover than Jack Kirby's original for Fantastic Four 51. Ever.
But don't take my word for it. Take a look for yourself. I've compiled the newly-drawn reprint books' covers alongside the original issues' covers. Try telling me the earlier artworks aren't more striking and impactful.

Meanwhile, over on Marvel Tales, the new cover art was supplied by Gil Kane (34 and 35), John Romita (36) and Sal Buscema (37). Seems that not even John Romita can match John Romita's original cover art from Amazing Spider-Man 51. I wonder why Marvel Tales missed out on reprinting Amazing Spider-Man 50?
Even stranger, the Marvel Tales issues were reprinting the John Romita era Spider-Man stories by this time. So I really can't see why you wouldn't use the original covers, as Romita was also still drawing covers for the 1972 era Amazing Spider-Man comics.

This final batch of four Marvel Tales reprints has covers by Sal Buscema (38), John Buscema (39) and Gil Kane (40 and 41). So it looks like John Romita had given up trying to complete with his own earlier work and left the field clear for others to flounder in. As much as I love Big John Buscema's work, it's just not a very good cover ...
Yet despite these minor carps, Marvel Tales and Marvel's Greatest Comics - along with their other reprint-y stablemates - offered me an terrific opportunity to have reading copies of all these classic Marvel stories at exceptionally cheap prices. Really, no one wanted this stuff during the 1990s and you could pick it up for pennies.

These days we have stacks of wonderful reprints of classic comics from just about every era in every high street bookshop, all printed on lavish glossy white paper.

But it's not the same, is it? These stories were meant to be read on newsprint and for the most part, the classic 1970s Marvel reprint books are your best opportunity to experience these stories properly ... without breaking the bank.

Looks like I'm all out of room for now, so I'll have to leave my look at the remaining Marvel reprint titles - Marvel Double Action, Triple Action and Super Action - for another time.

Next: Secret agents and super spies