Thursday, September 6, 2012

Fans Of Ol' Marvel

Hey, kids!
Remember this amazing fan club that Marvel started in late 1991?

Believe me--if you blinked, you missed it.

To the best of my knowledge, WAM was Marvel's last attempt at an official fan club. Its first club, the MMMS ("Merry Marvel Marching Society"), began in 1964 and lasted through most of the Silver Age of comics. Your membership in the MMMS basically got you a membership card that said you were a member of the club. It was more of a "card-carrying member" kind of club, the purpose of which was to make you feel like a valued part of the company (and, of course, to keep you motivated to keep buying comics). But you also got a lot of cool extras, like stickers and buttons.

That club was grandfathered into Marvelmania, the first club effort to feature a fan magazine, and lasted about two years. Marvelmania, officially, was simply a deal made with a California company to license Marvel characters for about $5000-$10,000 each and produce merchandise--with the fan magazine and some posters tossed to readers as a bone.

The first Marvelmania club catalog, with cover art by Jack Kirby

Marvelmania had an embarrassing end, with its management taking in money from subscribers but producing little in return. Creditors (and the law) eventually came knocking at the door, only to find the company's creator had skipped town after cleaning out the office. Marvel announced the club's "disbanding" without any of its usual "we're all friends here" rambling normally associated with announcements in its Bullpen Bulletins page:

Marvel itself, you'll notice, didn't have much "mania" for its own fan club, from which it oddly sought to keep its distance--even stressing in this announcement that its affiliation with the club was at arm's length.

FOOM ("Friends Of Ol' Marvel," a lame title which you certainly didn't brag to your friends about) wasn't really a fan club per se, but more of a fan magazine--yet still sought to involve Marvel readers in a fan-type structure. Begun in early 1973, its magazine was actually pretty interesting, with a lot of content from Marvel writers and artists, and a more personal and involved connection with readers.

WAM, coming on the scene almost twenty years later, seemed ill-conceived from the start. Let's start with its membership price--$13, for which you got, well, a membership kit. Considering that comics at the time sold for only $1 each, $13 was a lot of money to ask a kid to fork over for basically a lot of junk with the WAM logo on it. I don't know too many kids who would want to open their wallets for:
  • A numbered WAM membership card
  • A four-color WAM membership certificate
  • WAM envelopes
  • A WAM cloisonné pin
  • WAM 8.5 x 11 letterhead and post-it notepads
  • A WAM pen
  • The first issue of the quarterly newsletter
  • A special "welcome to WAM" letter from Stan Lee

Not when they could get 13 comic books for the same amount of money. Did anyone see a comic book in that listing above? Not even one?

From time to time, you'd also receive notices of special WAM products--for sale, that is. The first of these products was absolutely shameless--a complete replica of the original MMMS membership kit. (Nothing like coasting on the success of your old fan club to sell your new one.) Other items that would be available for sale were WAM watches, jackets, bronzed sculptures, and T-shirts.

I think that one of the reasons the MMMS succeeded was because Marvel recognized that kids--as fans--were already giving back, in the form of their enthusiasm for Marvel books. The MMMS may not have made any real money for Marvel--but what it lost in revenue, it more than made back in good word-of-mouth for the company. WAM was clearly meant as a source of revenue in sheep's clothing--attempting to generate enthusiasm to buy merchandise. And how about another carrot dangling on the end of a stick: a 900 number that lets members vote on things like which character gets a new series, what powers a character might gain or lose, or the name of a new super hero or villain. Oh, and sorry, kids, WAM doesn't pick up the tab for the call--that's out of your pocket, too.

Marvel's plans for the club depended upon comics stores to sell WAM to the public. The company apparently wanted to deal stores into WAM in a big way: "...personal appearances by our costumed characters such as Spider-Man and Wolverine... prominent creator signings... scheduled phone conference calls with Marvel editors or creators." None of which took place in any measurable sense. I don't recall seeing one display poster or promotional package set up at any store I bought comics at. There were no "wild agents of Marvel" anywhere that I could see--no readers or dealers whatsoever. Marvel itself didn't exactly promote the club in their usual splashy style--aside from its logo, the full-page ad announcing it was just a lot of small text in essay form that no comics reader was ever going to pause to read in its entirety. Even more odd was the watermark "TOP SECRET" that appeared in the middle of the page--since when do you want a revenue-generating fan club to be top secret? And who's going to believe a full-page ad announcing a fan club is implying it's going to restrict its membership to those lucky few who acted immediately?

So WAM membership kits no doubt went into storage, with the club itself falling to the floor with a sound effect much like its title. I frankly don't see any light at the end of the membership tunnel for Marvel in future attempts at fan clubs, at least the way things stand now. Comics prices are too high--and stories and characters are too dark and gritty to make a fan club the fun, all-inclusive experience it used to be. Membership ads are more likely to feature the Punisher ruthlessly opening fire on an unarmed victim than Iron Man simply striking an action pose. And appealing to a kid's bloodlust may unfortunately be all that Marvel has to offer these days.

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