Sunday, 24 February 2019

Bullpen Bulletins - How it all started

ONE OF THE GREAT THINGS about the comics of Marvel's formative years is how Stan instinctively understood how to connect with his audience. Every bit as important as the exciting stories and art of the comic stories were the Marvel editorial pages, starting with the letters pages which would soon spin off the Marvel Bullpen Bulletins.

The Marvel Bullpen Bulletin pages started in some November 1965 cover-dated Marvel comics (above is the first one to appear in Amazing Spider-Man, issue 31) ... but the foundations for this were laid much earlier in the letters pages that began in early 1962. Editor Stan Lee would evolve and build on the way he talked back to his readers and finally make a feature of it, a page that many fans (including myself) would read before the story.
The first Marvel letters page was in Fantastic Four 3 (Mar 1962). When you think about it, that's pretty soon after Stan made the conscious effort to up his game and do something a bit more engaging than Godzilla rip-off comics. Quoted in Ronin Ro's Tales to Astonish Stan explained that "we had never gotten fan mail, maybe one letter a year about some stupid subject. But all of a sudden we got fan mail from readers saying 'We love this [Fantastic Four] book', 'We can't wait for the next issue'. I knew we were onto something."

Stan Lee explains what inspired him to start connecting with the Marvel readers
in that signature humorous, friendly tone. Click on image to enlarge.
So, never one to let an opportunity go to waste, Stan immediately started running a letter column in the first available Fantastic Four comic. But though he has in the past stated that the office was swamped with letters, that seems less likely when you take a closer look at that first "Fantastic 4 Fan page".

It's early days, and this letter page from Fantastic Four 3 is not hugely different from the occasional fan letters that ran in the DC Comics of the period ... but for the marked informality of the editorial responses to the letters, certainly the voice of Stan Lee. And what about those handwritten "4"s separating the letters?
While the first letter from future Marvel inker Alan Weiss seems genuine enough, the final letter on the page is from a certain "S. Brodsky" of Brooklyn, New York. Could that be Marvel production guy Sol Brodsky, writing a letter of comment to fill out a page that had fetched up a little short of material?

That trademark Stan Lee light and humorous tone is right there on the very first Marvel Comics letters page. His reply to Alan Weiss reads, "It'll [FF] become a success? What do you think it is now. Chicken liver?? Consider that our artist signs the name JACK KIRBY on everything he can get his greedy little fingers on, I think we can safely claim that that's his name!"

The next FF Fan page looked a little less rushed though no less padded. The "4"s between the letters looked to have been lifted from the FF's uniforms, which was an improvement, but the portrait of Sue Storm looked like it might have been drawn by Stan Lee - Sol Brodsky was a much better artist than that. The padding came in the form of a letter credited to "S. Goldberg" which reads like it was written by Stan himself - Stan Goldberg was the colourist on most of the Marvel titles at the time and also the artist on Millie the Model.

The third Marvel letters column (the second was in Amazing Adult Fantasy 12, on sale a week earlier than FF4) introduces Stan's idea of plugging other Marvel titles to bring cohesiveness and synergy to the line, by mentioning other Marvel product.
The page also contains Stan's first plug for other Marvel titles, as he mentions Millie the Model and Patsy Walker in the reply to the final letter on the page. The first letter - from Len Blake - also mentions Amazing Adult Fantasy (which coincidently introduced a letter column that month), so although Stan hadn't started his cross-over house ads yet, he was using the letter columns to make readers aware that "MC" comics published other titles, too.

I didn't note any later-famous names in the list of contest winners Stan published on the Fantastic Four 6 letters page ... is your name there?
The Fantastic Four Fan Page in FF6 (Sep 1962) contained the results of the contest Stan set in FF4 ... why did the stolen gem become invisible when Sue Storm did? Stan devotes a third of the page to the answer and prints the names of all the readers who got the answer right. Another interesting snippet of information tells us that Stan's working on the letters page on 14th March 1962. This gives us the most accurate picture of the lead times for Marvel Comics at that time. FF6 went on sale on 12th June 1962, which means a 13 week lead time from when Stan was working on the letters page till the issue reached the newsstands. I love trivia like that!

The letters pages continued in Fantastic Four pretty much along the same lines - without the fake letters, it should be noted - until Stan announced he was doing away with the formal "Dear Editor" salutations and started including announcements peppered throughout the page.

For me the most interesting information on FF10's letter page is the news that while eight readers favoured dropping Invisible Girl from the comic, 639 demanded that she stay. So while letters may have been thinner on the ground when FF3 was published, the very existence of letters pages had substantially increased fan mail.
Now all the letters would start with "Dear Stan and Jack" and Stan was explaining to readers how Marvel worked behind the scenes - for example, Marvel had no reserves of Fantastic Four issues 1 - 9 so wouldn't be supplying back issues any longer.

No announcements in this letter column, but some interesting facts about the FF. Did you know that both Reed Richards and Ben Grimm are in their late thirties, whereas Johnny is just 17? With some simple arithmetic, that allows me to calculate that Richards would have been around 18 when he met Nick Fury in Sgt Fury 3. By contrast, the Metropolis Mailbag in Superman 159 is a pretty dull affair. The most interesting thing on the page is the Statement of Circulation.
Fantastic Four 11 (Feb 1963) expanded the letters column to two pages. This was actually quite a big deal, because it meant that Stan had realised just how important it was to connect with the fan-base in an informal and friendly way. By contrast, the Metropolis Mailbag letter column over in the Mort Weisinger-edited Superman 159 the same month was just two-thirds of a page, with the title's Statement of Ownership taking up the remaining third.

The Fantastic 4 Fan Page in issue 12 (Mar 1963) was also a double page of just letters, but did end with the message that Amazing Spider-Man 1 would be on sale on 10th Dec 1962. From that we can calculate that the Marvel books were on sale a good 11 weeks before their cover date. Add that to the 13 week lead time from sending an issue to the printers, then the gap between the in-house deadline and the issue's cover date is almost six months.

Announced in Fantastic Four 13 (Apr 1963) - No new members for the Fantastic Four, Iron Man's appearing in Tales of Suspense and The Sub-Mariner returns in the very next issue of FF.
Fantastic Four 13's letter page contained the first dedicated Special Announcements Section, and it's this that is the earliest foreshadowing of the Marvel Bullpen pages that lay just a couple of years in the future.

A great promotion page from the April 1963 Fantastic Four comic ...
but darnit, I think I may have missed 'em!
That same FF issue also contained a House Ad to die for ... The Amazing Spider-Man 1 and Tales of Suspense 39, featuring the first appearance of Iron Man. Don't you just want to run down to the newsstand now and pick up copies?

As the Fantastic 4 Fan Page progressed, the Special Announcements Section grew longer. By FF30 (Sep 1964) it was taking up almost half the allotted two-page spread. The bulk of the Announcements were just plugging the other Marvel comics on sale the same month - which included a slew of Annuals - but another change was in the wind.

Fantastic Four 30 - would you look at the size of that Special Announcements Section. The first half is highlighting the 1964 Annuals: Amazing Spider-Man Annual 1, Marvel Tales Annual 1, Fantastic Four Annual 2, and Mille the Model Annual 3. The remainder plugs Tales to Astonish 60 - with the new Hulk solo series, Amazing Spider-Man 16, co-starring Daredevil, Avengers 5, Daredevil 3 and Thor 107 (?)
The letters column in Fantastic Four 33 (Dec 1964) included a table listing all the Marvel titles on sale the same month. With the hard-sell sectioned off in its own area, Stan was freed up to reveal what MMMS stood for, to tell readers that every Marvel mag now had a letters column and that Stan had been elected Best Writer as well as Best Editor of the Year by the Academy of Comic-Book Fans and Collectors.

As well as boxing off the Mighty Marvel Checklist into its own section, the Fantastic 4 Fan Page in FF33 also had a healthy announcements section. Click on the image to read future Marvel scripter Don McGregor's suggestion that Reed and Sue marry.
It was definitely taking shape as a Marvel Bullpen Bulletins page in all but name. But the actual Bullpen pages were still a year away, so we'll take a closer look at those next time.

Next: The Marvel Bullpen Page touches down