Sunday, September 9, 2012

Rock Out With Spidey

The 1970s were years of growing pains for Marvel Comics. Attempting to deal with so much change, both in its ranks and in its approach to sales, it often gave the impression that it was a ship without a rudder, despite Stan Lee's continued presence. Artist Jack Kirby's departure in 1970 served to start the ball rolling in this regard, depriving Marvel of one of its most productive talents and forcing a reshuffling of its workforce. Not long afterward, there was a major blunder involving the dramatic change of the format and pricing of its books.

To its credit, Marvel made a decent effort to stem price increases during this time. By the end of the decade, books were selling for 40¢, a rise of only 20¢ in a span of ten years. In late 1980, the price would see a 10¢ jump to 50¢--but during the '70s, that kind of sticker shock wasn't yet raising eyebrows to any noticeable degree. And that was largely due to two things. One was that the company expanded its comics titles quite a bit, creating many new titles (Man-Thing, Shang-Chi, Conan, Werewolf By Night, Dracula, Defenders, Ghost Rider) as well as spinning off its mainstays into other books (Marvel Team-Up, Jungle Action, Marvel Two-In-One, Spectacular Spider-Man). Marvel's financial situation was also noticeably helped to an extent by its diversification into other publication efforts featuring its characters, which included:
  • Calendars
  • "How To Draw Comics The Marvel Way"
  • "Origins of Marvel Comics"
  • "Son of Origins"
  • "Bring On The Bad Guys"
  • "The Silver Surfer" (drawn by Jack Kirby, who Marvel enticed back in 1975 but who would end up leaving again in three years)
  • "The Superhero Women"
  • "Superheroes' Cookbook" (obviously the product of a brainstorming session)
  • "The Mighty Marvel Fun Book"

All of which not only supplemented the company's income, but helped to widen Marvel's audience. But there were also less successful--and confusing--ventures. Pizzazz, its magazine which sought to tap into pop culture for youth. Marvelmania, a licensing deal which fizzled. And odd sales gimmicks like this one:

"Reflections of a Rock Super-Hero." ("Rock Reflections of a Super-Hero" on the actual merchandise cover, shuffling that made even the marketing confusing.) An odd sales choice for a company that publishes comic books, yes, but ambitious when you think about the effort it probably took to put it together--forming a band, writing the songs, the expense of a recording studio. The project must have looked very good on paper. Chris Sims of Comics Alliance provides an excellent detailed run-down on the album. (Even a few tracks!) I don't know how well the album sold, but there were no follow-ups to my knowledge--perhaps because rock fans may not have cared for the humorous take Lee attached to their music. But that was Lee's approach to everything he pitched to buyers, for better or worse.

Curiously, in the same issue where the ad appeared, there was also this little item tucked away on one of the other ad pages:

Though distributed in California as opposed to the album's address in New Jersey, apparently the two efforts were coordinated as a push to launch Spider-Man (and by extension, Marvel) into records, though this was obviously on a smaller scale and meant to be separate from the more serious sales effort of the musical album.

Marvel took a different approach on increasing its profits in the 1980s (its cover prices would reach $1.00 by the end of that decade), so we saw less of these novelty ads in its pages as it increased its characters and titles even more, and Stan Lee moved to California to pursue projects there. The '70s seem to have ended the company's drive to maintain the popular fandom base it enjoyed in the late '60s, with WAM in 1991 appearing to be the final nail in that particular coffin. Consequently, Marvel became much more business-oriented, focused on saturating its readership with product and backing off from its public relations efforts. Whether or not that was the best direction to take is probably still up for debate. Now Marvel is banking on its motion pictures to be not only commercial successes but catalysts to fuel increased interest in its publications. It's hard for a singin', groovin' Spidey and his reflections to compete with that.

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