Friday, May 26, 2017

As Honor Demands!

The cover to the 1982 Avengers Annual might give you the impression that the Avengers/Defenders war is kicking up all over again, nine years after the fact:

But this time, it's the star-spawned Nebulon and a mystery companion, rather than the dread Dormammu and Loki, who might be the ones manipulating the two teams for their own ends. But let's not get ahead of ourselves--because while there (again) might be some truth to that, there are other factors involved that make the situation more complex than two teams of heroes acting as pawns for those who have deceived them. In fact, as well as writer J.M. DeMatteis structures this story, it may take awhile for you to be certain of any villainous intent on the part of Nebulon and the female who will be introduced as Supernalia. DeMatteis has a habit of playing such a card close to his vest, and often giving the reader much more to think about than simply good vs. evil.

The story is also nicely rendered by penciler Al Milgrom, who often needs a strong inker to refine his work that showcases his otherwise good instincts at how a story plays out and the abilities of the various characters involved. Here, it's Jack Abel who does the lion's share of the inking, though the credit reads "Jack Abel and Crew." It would have been nice, as well as an extra perq for the Annual, if the issue had been supplemented with a listing of the additional inkers involved in the work; I found myself doing a lot of guessing as to who could have been supplying the finishes in some of the panels where Abel's touch was either missing or it appeared he was getting some assistance, and it might have been fun to go down a list of credits and see how well (or how wrong!) my guesswork panned out.

Since the cover renders moot any possibility of Nebulon being the surprise villain here, the story can safely open the curtain with him first thing, as he's being dressed down by a superior following a trial that laid bare his past transgressions on the planet Earth.

As we can see (and which has already been revealed in the prior instances depicted here), Nebulon's guise as the so-called "Celestial Man" hides his true nature as a member of the race of creatures such as the one present with him here. Stripped of half his power, Nebulon is given a choice of either being exiled to Earth in his humanoid body, or being executed--the latter option considered by his superiors to be by far the more honorable choice, yet a choice Nebulon strongly refuses. And so Nebulon's final judgment is decided.

At first, Nebulon reacts with rage, his first instinct being to take revenge against the Defenders for his fate; but almost immediately after embarking on that course of action, Nebulon realizes that he has only himself to blame, and teleports to the Himalayas to contemplate his situation in isolation. It's an important scene in the course of this story, though the reader won't yet realize it as such.

And speaking of the Himalayas, look who else has come to do a little thinking there.

(It's one of Milgrom's most majestic renderings of Thor, and easily one of my favorites.)

With Thor and Nebulon ending up in the same place and time by coincidence, it's easy to get the impression that the Himalayas absurdly cover only a small distance, instead of being a vast expanse of mountains extending roughly 1,500 miles (which Madame Medusa probably knows from experience). Regardless, Thor's curiosity gets the better of him, and he strikes up a conversation with this stranger--and by the time the tale is concluded, we learn how the Avengers are to be folded into this story. The Avengers--and one other.

Supernalia--whoever she is--doesn't look at all pleased, does she?
Care to take a guess as to which group she'll be headed to?

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

When Strikes The Scarlet Beetle!

Every once in awhile in comics, it's always fun to encounter a new antagonist for our hero(es) who's played for laughs--a list of troublemakers that's included, to name a few who have been profiled in the PPoC, the Impossible Man, Captain Ultra, the Black Fox, and of course Fabian Stankowicz, as well as the hapless Rasputin. And who could forget the utter chaos of the Defenders' membership drive from hell that saw trouble from both hero and villain? We also have writer Peter David to thank for making even more serious villains capable of evoking a chuckle or two from readers--foes who at times exchanged rant for wit, but were no less deadly.

And then... *sigh*... then there's the Scarlet Beetle, one of the most minuscule would-be conquerors ever, who dates all the way back to 1963 and was--is--obsessed with making insects the masters of Earth. Mock the Scarlet Beetle as you will, but his tenacity, arrogance, and sheer presumption have been long-standing trademarks of also-ran villains of the more human variety whose reach, like the Beetle's, exceeded their grasp. The Beetle might remind you a little of Salamar, the Sustainer, the sinister albeit mechanized oversized crab that lurked in the sunken ruins of Atlantis and turned out to be the construct of Namor's fiendish cousin, Byrrah. In the Beetle's case, it's no surprise that he was not only sentient, but intelligent, since such monsters were plentiful in not only Tales To Astonish but other "Tales" mags which were slowly transitioning to featuring super-heroes; and of course the scope of the Beetle's plans was on a far greater scale than Salamar's.

The Beetle was mainly a foe of the Ant-Man--and though he would also encounter Scott Lang in that identity, he began his reign of terror by battling Henry Pym, who was just getting his feet wet as Ant-Man and was still using gas vials on his belt to change his size. In essence, the Beetle's plan to conquer the world isn't a bad one, since the number of insects on the planet could overwhelm the human population if guided by a sinister mind like the Beetle's. And Pym learns as much when, encountering the Beetle in his lair, he inadvertently hands his foe the means to make him even more of a threat.

With Pym out of the way, the Beetle proceeds to begin his invasion, and indeed the city's population seems to have no defense against the Beetle's well-thought-out plan of attack. But Pym eventually escapes captivity and confronts the Beetle, luring him into a toy store and using the "weapons" at hand to pull victory from defeat and end the Beetle's threat, seemingly for good.

But in a 1972 story by Roy Thomas, the Scarlet Beetle returns, as malevolent as ever--and though Pym would face the creature once again, a dejected shop owner turned arsonist named Wilbur would also play a crucial part in how things play out.

It doesn't look as if the Beetle's changed his approach to conquest--nor does he really need to, providing he doesn't allow Pym the chance to upset his plans. And when Pym appears to have foiled him in one aspect of his scheme, the Beetle handily adapts and perhaps becomes even more dangerous.

Pym deserves a little credit for at least making sure that no can take advantage of his size-changing gas anymore, though it's clear he hasn't covered all the bases as far as having his abilities co-opted. His cybernetic helmet would represent a significant advantage for the Beetle, since it was Pym's control over the ants that helped him prevail against the Beetle in their prior battle.

Fortunately for Pym, Wilbur has plans of his own--which not only manage to save Pym's life, but also bring an undignified end to the Scarlet Beetle.

Wilbur's end, as it turned out, was also on the undignified side, though less, er, crushing. As for the Beetle, he went on to make several more appearances in one form or another, always seeming to come close to realizing his dreams of conquest but never quite escaping his fate as comic relief. Or, to put it another way:

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Roy Thomas Replies...

Previously, we took a look at a letter from Avengers reader Philip Jones, who in 1970 critiqued a story from issue #74 of the book which concluded a two-part tale featuring the sinister Sons of the Serpent. Jones's letter was given the entire letters page to make its points, which writer Roy Thomas would respond to personally in the letters page of the following issue. In essence, Jones was taking issue with scenes throughout the story which he felt were given racial subtext by Thomas and artist John Buscema, either in ignorance or otherwise.

To follow up, this post presents Thomas's reply in its entirety. If you haven't yet checked out the earlier post on this subject, which goes into the letter in detail, you may wish to do so before reading what Thomas had to say on the matter, in order to have a balanced picture of the entire exchange and to put Thomas's comments into proper perspective. Though before you make the assumption that you're getting into a hornet's nest here, you'll find the tone in both men to be quite civil, albeit with strong words and very pointed observations. As the preface to Thomas's column intimates, "praise and condemnation" can exist side-by-side in civil discourse; but that said, Thomas is quite blunt in his reply, and he offers a strong defense for the approach he took with the story.

Overall, it's an interesting clash of impressions during what was at the time a growing understanding of race relations emerging from the late 1960s.

Monday, May 22, 2017

It's 1970--Can You Dig It?

Avengers #74 capped a two-issue story that saw the return of the Sons of the Serpent to the book, the insidious group of zealots whose mission is to purify the nation by purging it of "the unfit... the foreign-born... the inferior," while carving out a power base for itself (or, more to the point, for its leaders). How the Sons of the Serpent ever gained credibility for the supremacist message that they were pushing is one of the all-time head-shakers in comics lore, as violent as their operations are and as transparent as the group seems to be as a hate group. Dressing and accessorizing your group members in the motif of snakes practically screams "ploy," given that the term "serpent" is often associated with someone who gains your trust only to betray it; and openly basing your name and your mission on the biblical story of Adam and Eve being driven from Eden by "the first serpent" (thus making you the sons of the serpent) seems counter-productive, since there probably aren't many of us who are cheering that serpent for driving us all from paradise.

That said, these were the late '60s/early '70s--and with racism still rearing its ugly head, incredibly, nearly fifty years later, you can imagine how rampant it was when this story was published, and how much it remained a hot-button issue for the Sons of the Serpent to exploit.

The Avengers story gets its momentum from two developments. One is in the form of the inflammatory national broadcasts of rival late-night talk show hosts Montague Hale and Dan Dunn--"rival" in the sense that both have strong but opposing views of equality and civil rights. Hale, having recently lost his sponsors and then his show after having called for an investigation of the Sons of the Serpent and subsequently fallen victim to them in a street attack, begins to appear on Dunn's show to debate the issues. Dunn, for his part, is a known bigot--and so the broadcasts are often fiery with no meeting of the minds, rife with innuendo and barely restrained hostilities.

The other development takes its leaf from the prior clash between the Sons of the Serpent, where Captain America was taken captive and a double took his place and appeared to support their cause. In this new story, it's the Black Panther who's captured while trying to infiltrate the group--and his double begins pulling criminal jobs and appears to have turned militant, forcing the Avengers to step in. Eventually, the Sons will unmask their "double" of the Panther on live television--and his well-rehearsed open support of the Sons, as well as being revealed as both black and guilty of his crimes, is designed to inflame the minds of those in the country who are riveted to these broadcasts.

There's one final similarity which this story shares with the Sons' prior appearance. In that earlier story, the so-called Supreme Serpent was revealed to be a foreign enemy named General Chen, whose goal was to turn Americans against each other; while here, the culprits are unmasked and shockingly revealed to be both Dunn and Hale, who shared the identity of the Supreme Serpent and schemed for power together. Both stories clearly offer words of warning on the dangers of being misled by those who appear to have your best interests at heart but who are only using you as a means to an end--a practice which clearly has survived to this day.

It's a fine sequel by writer Roy Thomas, though it would lead to an unusual addendum a few issues later: a single letter, set aside by Thomas and given the entire space of the letters page which would normally feature a selection of letters submitted by readers on the issue in question.  The letter contains observations on the Sons of the Serpent story by "black writer" Philip Jones (who identifies himself thus) and which you'll find appearing in this post. But in addition, the next issue's letters page was reserved for Thomas's rebuttal to the points Jones raises. To my knowledge, it's the first and only instance of such an occurrence. (Though do fact-check me on that--I seem to recall a letters column being used for a single letter once or twice, though never continued to the next issue's column, reportedly due to the late arrival of Mr. Jones's letter.)

I interject some very brief comments following the points raised by Jones and preceding those of Thomas, who can certainly address Mr. Jones's points without my 2¢ getting in the way. As for the letter itself, it seemed appropriate here to expand on a prior post on the subject and convey Jones's words in the same format that a reader in August of 1970 was presented with them, only with a little digital help from 2017 that first presents the panel(s) that Jones is referring to, with each panel followed by Jones's comments. It would probably be helpful to read the issue in its entirety first, since you'd be getting the whole story rather than carefully selected excerpts that are given their own context courtesy of Jones--but regardless, hopefully you'll find it an interesting glimpse back at this period of time where such thoughts often found their way into the national conversation.

Dear Mr. Lee and Mr. Thomas:
I am a black writer and a long-time reader of your often very sophisticated magazines. The following is a brief criticism of AVENGERS #74:

Friday, May 19, 2017

Crystal Clear Vision

Following the shocking attempted takeover of the world's computers by the Vision, whose judgment was impaired by a damaged component in his skull as well as a link-up with an advanced and alien A.I., there was understandable concern about what the repercussions might be when the government began an investigation into the matter. Normally, that investigation would include other governments of the world whose systems were also compromised by the Vision's incursion; but for an incident that would typically be dominating the news cycle for more than a few days if not weeks to come, both the Vision and his wife, the Scarlet Witch, as well as the rest of the Avengers, will find this to be the most fast-tracked and surreptitious investigation of a world event ever (not) recorded, as well as one of the least consequential, thanks to writers Roger Stern and Steve Englehart who are presumably working in tandem to make sure the Vision and Wanda are freed up (in terms of both time and, it seems, federal custody) to return to their own affairs in their upcoming 1985 limited series.

Yet, immediately following the incident, there was a great deal of concern among the Avengers for their teammate, who was taking full responsibility for his actions and pledging his full cooperation to government authorities--particularly the National Security Council, which was responsible for granting the Avengers their priority clearance and was now in the hot seat due to the security breach that was made possible by such clearance. Thus we find Raymond Sikorski, the Avengers' most recent liaison to the N.S.C., meeting with one of the military's brass, who's furious at the fact that the Avengers haven't yet been held accountable for their illegal actions here.

Sikorsky of course is speaking of Henry Gyrich, who more often than not overstepped his authority with the Avengers and tended to make judgment calls for the procedures he felt they should follow. Sikorsky, in contrast, seems to understand how the Avengers' day-to-day operations would be atypical from standard government procedure--their powers and abilities, as well as the selfless character of their members, making them suited to act autonomously during a crisis while fully keeping the government in the loop. This incident would be a serious breach of the Avengers' authority, of course, with cause for a serious response from the feds; but to his credit, Sikorsky sees the need to proceed carefully until all the facts are known, and, even then, to work closely with the Avengers in resolving the situation.

Though you could probably hear a pin drop in the meeting in the Pentagon, once Sikorsky receives a reply to his inquiry to Avengers Mansion regarding the reports he's been given from the Cheyenne Mountain installation implicating the Avengers:

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Golden Age Of... The Vision!

One of the more interesting storylines involving the Avenger known as the Vision laid a lot of groundwork before reaching its resolution, stringing the reader along for over twenty issues of The Avengers while dropping clues and subtle developments that had us all wondering: What is going on with the Vision? The short answer is that he was planning take control of the world. But it's the how and the why that would have writer Roger Stern creating an entirely new approach to the character, setting the stage for future developments for not only the Vision but also a deeper focus on his relationship with the Scarlet Witch as well as the possibility of a family life.

But we should start at the beginning--and that point arrives during a dramatic conflict between the Fantastic Four and Annihilus, the despotic spawn of the Negative Zone. In a mad bid to destroy two universes, Annihilus has established an impenetrable barrier near the Baxter Building, one that required the special talents of the Avenger whose powers were best suited to breach it. Unfortunately, no one was aware at the time that this barrier was actually a "null-field," a term which implied that anyone successful at piercing it would suffer the consequences.

Consequences which in the Vision's case meant total deactivation, or possibly even death. But despite appearances, things would get even more complicated for the Vision, though from his perspective he would likely claim that this incident gave him a new lease on life. But eventually that would mean sacrificing that life for the good of the world.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Willie Lumpkin: X-Factor!

When it comes to recycling, it looks like comic books had a head start on environmentalists, though for comics writers it was more a matter of successful concepts that were dusted off and adapted to later stories. Take the opening pages of the Fantastic Four issue which featured the team's first clash with the mad Thinker, in a sequence that can't help but take you back to issue #1 and the introduction of this famous foursome. It's a dramatic opening that still works, over a year after it was introduced.

Here, however, we have the advantage of knowing all about the characters who are responding to the alert and converging to meet--and there's also the familiar presence of the Baxter Building anchoring the scene, the official headquarters of an established team that's now riding high in comics circles and can still generate excitement and interest in being summoned by a flare gun.

There are other elements in this story that are the result of being tweaked to one degree or another and reused--such as the team leaving their headquarters and striking out on their own, as they did when they went bankrupt. This issue would also get the ball rolling on other concepts that would be retooled and used later, such as the invasion of FF headquarters by criminals or villains, or the team having their own devices and weapons used against them.

But in this classic issue, it's the Thinker that the story has us focus on, the calculating planner who makes use of his computers to deduce his next move down to the second and take into account anything or anyone who would seek to stop him. The Thinker's ability to advance his agenda is really dependent on collating the data that his computers gather and mapping out the steps he needs to take, based on certain things taking place at a certain time (or not taking place, as the case may be). Yet the whole point of uncertainty is that you cannot eliminate it or predict it, however careful and meticulous you are in your calculations--but just try telling that to the Thinker.

It's quite a claim the Thinker makes: "Nothing has been left to chance!" That's presuming that he's isolated the uncertainties involved and based his calculations only on the events and incidents that will occur without fail. Credit where credit is due: if he can pull that off, his programming skills are far ahead of his time.

Yet, all things considered, the Thinker comes off as a third-rate villain in this tale, in spite of how far his planning takes him in going up against the FF. We know in hindsight that the Thinker will go on to become a deadly threat to be reckoned with--and while it may not seem like it, his first clash with the Fantastic Four will open many doors for him in that regard.

Speaking of our foursome, we'll see in this story their first exposure to battling organized crime, a theme that Amazing Spider-Man would be more successful at integrating into its plots but which the FF would be bound to encounter in their line of work. We'll also get our first look at the Thinker's talent with androids, which would make him quite formidable against the FF as well as other super-powered beings he would later come into conflict with. But what's his immediate goal here and now? He doesn't exactly mince words with the crime bosses he's gathered to hear his plans.

I can guess what some of you are thinking: It's amazing that the Thinker could find a crown big enough to fit that head of his.

The crime bosses are naturally concerned with interference from the Fantastic Four--but to placate his new associates, the Thinker reveals he has a two-pronged approach for dealing with the team. First he plans to see that each of the FF is offered some personal career enticement that will tempt them into pursuing time away from the team, which breaks down as follows:

  • Mr. Fantastic: A new position in a New England electronics firm as part of their R&D division.
  • Invisible Girl: Starring in a Broadway production after being approached by a producer who's been on the lookout for his next star.
  • Human Torch: Becoming a circus performer, thanks to one of his cousins who's fallen on hard times and asks him as a favor to become the star attraction in his show.
  • The Thing: A new star in the wrestling ring--his first exposure to the professional wrestling circuit, which we know would later become a fallback career he would turn to in many future stories.

It so happens that all of these decisions are mulled over just as the FF have hit a lull in their activities--and so they all treat their offerings as a vacation of sorts, and off they go.

The second part of the Thinker's plan involves a meteorite that crashes into the New York bay (those are some computers--are they linked into NASA?), causing a tremor that damages the city's power grid and wreaks havoc with repair crews. While the city is in crisis, the Thinker and his men are ready to take advantage of the situation as they penetrate their foes' headquarters.

Meanwhile, checking in on the FF, none of them are exactly thrilled with the choices they've made. (For whatever reason, Sue's choice has been revised to replace Broadway with a trip to Hollywood and have her starring in a sci-fi film.) But, returning home, they're greeted with quite a site, as well as a deadly challenge.

The Thinker is true to his boast, utilizing the FF's own building defenses as well as the many devices found in their labs to halt the FF's approach to the 35th floor--but the team makes its way through, while also dealing with the crime bosses who were armed with weaponry from Reed's armory. That leaves one piece of research which Reed was just getting started on--research notes that have now been realized in a hulking android that will also go on to make future appearances.

So far, it doesn't look like the Thinker's plans are panning out, does it? Things look especially dicey for him when the FF confront him--after all, if you boast that your calculations take into account the smallest detail and leave nothing to chance, why would you need a contingency plan? For all the good it does him. It seems Mr. Fantastic isn't such a slouch in the planning department himself--and all he needs for his calculations to come off without a hitch is a fellow professional whose motto is "Neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow, nor super-villain..."

It's off to the hoosegow for the mad Thinker--who might want to give some thought to all those crime bosses who are going to insist on joining him at his table in the prison cafeteria.

Fantastic Four #15

Script: Stan Lee
Pencils: Jack Kirby
Inks: Dick Ayers
Letterer: Art Simek

Friday, May 12, 2017

This Rage Unyielding!

Compared to the prior story profiled here at the PPoC from Incredible Hulk #255 which featured the jade giant trading blows once again with Thor, the God of Thunder, its unofficial sequel in the Mighty Thor title is nothing less than a knock-down drag-out slugfest--a blockbuster battle from cover to cover, where both opponents bring their A-game and each intends to leave no doubt as to which of them is the stronger. By the time it's over, we as readers may be prepared to make that call ourselves, which in itself is something of a milestone in a string of titanic battles which has always left that in doubt.

Plotted by Jim Shooter and published in 1987 (the same issue that announced he was stepping down as Editor in Chief), with Stan Lee (at 65 years young) tapped to script, and art by Erik Larsen and Vince Colletta (reportedly Larsen's first work for Marvel, while also contributing to the plot), "Be Thou God, Or Monster!" arguably has the makings of one of the most memorable Thor vs. Hulk clashes to date. The man of the hour, however, is unquestionably Larsen, who turns in impressive work here for a first effort with the company, working out the plot with Shooter two years earlier at the Chicago Comic Con and then drawing and submitting the story, which finally saw publication as a fill-in Thor story in '87.

You might find yourself having the opinion that Larsen's fighting style for Thor is far from ideal, though perhaps that's the point. For the first time, Thor finds himself having to adapt to and counter with the type of ruthless brawling that the Hulk excels at, and at the Hulk's pace--and he comes off as ill-equipped to fight as savagely as his foe. As an Asgardian whose immortal, adult life has been filled with war, and death, and bloody, vicious battle against wave upon wave of deadly enemies and having fought his way through all of them, Thor finds himself on the receiving end for far too much of this battle. That said, Larsen is choreographing this fight with a specific ending in mind; but more on this train of thought when the time comes.

There's also Lee's rather dated scripting style to consider, which in this story resembles his style of writing as it was 15 years in the past while in the closing days of his time on Amazing Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, and Thor--sparse and lacking in any meaningful characterization or dialog beyond the basic actions and reactions expected of his characters. In addition, Thor himself is often too above-it-all here, deciding on his course of action as if he's not really in a battle for his life, as well as often acting like he's a rookie at this. Is this the God of Thunder duking it out with the Hulk, or the God of Uncertainty and Introspection? To be fair, with a mouthful of the Hulk's fist during much of this struggle, acting and reacting are perhaps all that Thor can do; but visually, it's very disconcerting to see Thor unable to seize the initiative and hold it against a foe whose fighting style he knows so well.

To give you an idea of the kind of Thunder God waiting for us as scripted by Lee, let's catch up to him just after he's captured a gang of bank robbers and receives word that there's a much more serious challenge that needs his attention.

It may read like it, but no--this story is not a flashback to 1972.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

This Battle Unending!

There have been many occasions where the mighty Thor has met the incredible Hulk in battle, either in their own respective titles or in stories taking place in other mags. The question of which character is stronger is one that's been raging forever, no doubt to the delight of their company's accountants--and it's not likely to be definitively answered, even if we were to take a crack at it here and look for a smoking gun that would put the matter to rest. Instead, it's sometimes equally interesting to look at it from a different perspective, namely: How does a writer approach the subject if devoting an entire issue to it? What new angle can be used to make it a classic battle in its own right? And how can they avoid adding fuel to the fire as far as declaring a winner?

There are a number of such battles which have these characters squaring off, only to have them interrupted by something or someone before a clear-cut winner can be declared; there are also circumstances which lead to the battle being called a draw in one way or another. As such, it's often a frustrating experience to dive into one of these stories knowing that the reset button is going to be pushed when all is said and done, whether or not one of the fighters walks away with their head held a little higher. So it's often more satisfying to see how well-written the story is--how successful it is at grabbing the reader's attention and holding it with an approach that hasn't quite been seen before, and how much the artwork is able to inspire creative dialog and narrative as well as offer a new and dynamic look at this classic matchup. We have here a Norse god steeped in nobility and a time-tested sense of invincibility vs. a savage brute who's driven by off-the-scale anger and convinced that he's more powerful than anyone, with neither one even thinking about losing, much less surrendering--surely there has to be more than enough there for any writer/artist team to craft one hell of a story, even knowing how it must ultimately end.

To get a reasonably balanced picture of the worth of these two opponents without tilting the scale too much in either direction, let's take a look at two such stories, selecting one from each character's title in the interests of fairness, with the stories published six years apart. Each story's writer will take a different approach than the other--and while many elements of both stories will ring familiar to any reader who's seen their share of Hulk vs. Thor battles, there will be one or two new twists that will serve to keep things interesting.

The earlier of the two stories comes from a 1981 issue of Incredible Hulk, written by Bill Mantlo with art by Sal Buscema--a tale that really doesn't seek to shake up the status quo between these two powerful characters, but acts as a decent placeholder until the next time they come to blows. Admittedly, that doesn't provide much motivation for flipping the pages of this issue--but the experience will depend on how Mantlo handles things and how successful he is at doing so. The first step, of course, is getting Thor and the Hulk in the same place at the same time--and in this case, that translates to Dr. Donald Blake and Bruce Banner, respectively, with one providing pro bono medical services to transients at a YMCA located at a freight yard, while the other has climbed aboard one of the freight cars at another yard in the hopes of leaving New York City behind. As you might have guessed, the former is more successful at keeping a lower profile than the latter.

Oh, sure, Thor--tease us with that old carrot on a stick, why don't you.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Marvel In Your Mailbox

It wasn't until the mid-1970s when I began spotting Marvel cranking up its own subscription service. At the time, dedicated comic book stores were still a ways off, and those of us who were getting our feet wet with comics collecting were forced to make the rounds at newsstands or the spinner racks at drug stores or mini-markets to pick up the books we wanted--locally covering as wide a radius as possible, in order to compensate for walk-in traffic that may have hit our spot(s) before us, or a particular vendor possibly not stocking a title or two on our list. Eventually, it made more sense to take advantage of some of the mail-order comics vendors who were popping up in the nested ads pages found tucked into our comics, featuring dealers who stocked in bulk and offered to pull, package and mail your monthly books to you, a method which seemed (you'll excuse the phrase) made to order for those who didn't have the time or perseverance to "hunt" for their comics, while also allowing buyers to get their books in as pristine a condition as possible.

If you went that route, you had to shop around for the most reliable company to meet your needs, and cost was definitely a factor in your decision since you had to consider shipping costs along with the sticker price of your books; there might also have been miscellaneous "handling" fees attached, since these vendors had to make sure their business made a profit. It also stood to reason these private vendors may not have been cut a deal by Marvel for buying in bulk--and like any distributor, they would have had to monitor supply and demand carefully and adjust the cost of their service accordingly. (Usually in the upwards direction.) And they weren't the only ones who had to keep an eye on things. I remember finding a vendor in Canada that provided good service, for awhile at least--and then there were unexplained delays that had me on the phone with them (on my dime, at that) more often than not, finally making it necessary to find another supplier.

When local comics dealers began popping up, a lot of that hassle became a thing of the past, since these shops also offered to maintain "pull lists" of the books you wanted. Each time you came in, your books were waiting for you, practically guaranteed; when the books arrived at the shop, those customers with lists received priority and had their books pulled and stashed immediately, assuring that even a book that was likely to sell out quickly would be in your stack whenever you made it into the store. To encourage a steady customer base, most of these stores also cut the buyer a deal and discounted the cost of your stack (usually around 10%, which wasn't bad and was pretty consistent with other such stores)--and since the stores wanted to remain competitive with each other, there were no other fees to deal with, which eventually became the kiss of death for mail-order vendors who began shifting much of their focus to back-issue sales.

Yet back in the day, when Marvel got their foot in the door and offered their own subscription service, it obviously put them in direct competition with independent mail order suppliers--though Marvel weren't necessarily the best choice simply because you were getting your books straight from the source. Clearly Marvel saw the value of advertising the fact that you were assured of getting each and every copy on your list, as opposed to taking your chances in finding them on your own; but despite the implication that shipments were timely, their mailings tended to lag behind their competitors, sometimes to the tune of weeks. (And since Marvel made no mention of shipping costs, the cause of delay was likely attributed to how efficient their operation was at collecting and packaging the books and getting them to the post office.) In addition, you had to sign up for a 12-month subscription for each book you ordered, a cost which you paid up front--which in turn forced you to keep a careful accounting of receiving the full year's shipment of every book on your list. On the bright side, the cost markup seemed reasonable; depending on the price of the comic at the time you subscribed, Marvel was making a 40-50¢ profit on each subscription, which was probably funneled into postal costs.

If you decided to wait until the '80s to become a Marvel subscriber, you were rewarded for biding your time since Marvel, like many subscription services, eventually found it necessary to offer enticements to its subscribers and forgo its profit in favor of a larger customer base. For instance, at the time that Dr. Doom was drafted into being a common sales hawker, the price of a comic was 50¢, which meant that each 12-issue subscription at $5.00 was saving you $1.00, a cost that Marvel ate (along with postal costs) in order to get your business. The good doctor's terms saved you even more if you subscribed to at least four titles, giving you one subscription at no cost.

In essence, Marvel's subscription service amounted to a method to drum up business. It was no doubt your best deal if you preferred to get your books by having them shipped to you, albeit with certain drawbacks that weren't present with independent suppliers. But with the proliferation of local comics retailers, and with those stores cutting their own deals with customers, mail order subscription services mostly went the way of the dinosaur domestically and in other parts of the world where such shops sprung up and thrived. Yet in their heydey, they certainly did their part to fuel the collecting bug that had bitten many of us, something which may also have waned with changing times.

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