Monday, August 21, 2017

The Night Gwen Stacy Died!


It's been a long time since I've opened and re-read the classic Amazing Spider-Man #121, the pivotal issue from mid-1973 which shook things up by killing off a major character who had been a part of the book for over seven years. It's certainly no spoiler at this point to reveal that the person in question was Gwen Stacy, Peter Parker's girlfriend, hurled to her death by the Green Goblin (though thanks to the way writer Gerry Conway handled the situation, the actual cause of death has been a matter of debate). And so, since we know who died, how she died, and who can be blamed as the catalyst for her death, the question in hindsight becomes how well the story is able to dramatically convey not only the impact of the climax, but how well it ramps up the tension to get us to that point. The death itself was arguably what really carried the ball here as far as what the reader would most remember from this story. There was also the issue's cover by John Romita, along with its many "OMG!" exclamations, which had buyers forking over their 20¢ in order to find out who kicked the bucket.



But how memorable were the 27 pages of story which preceded that final page? Giving the issue another read after all this time, Conway's tale sets the stage well enough for the shock of Peter's life, as well as our wide-eyed shock of Spider-Man's raised fist of vengeance that decries his loss.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Take A Number, Gentlemen--Gwen Stacy Is On The Prowl!


To this day, the character of Gwen Stacy remains a fixture in classic comics lore, while also becoming familiar to new fans of Spider-Man through the revolving door of film reboots for the web-spinner. I shook my head sadly at seeing how Gwen had fared in Marvel's current line of inexplicable comics titles; I imagine some day she'll show up as the new Thor, or the new Galactus, or the new Dr. Doom.

I've been giving Gwen some thought ever since I recently pulled out and dusted off my copy of the issue of Amazing Spider-Man where the character met her end in 1973, a story that I hadn't re-read in its entirety for decades--and it occurred to me that, after all this time, I had never looked at the story featuring Gwen's first appearance. With Gwen having undergone a steady change in character once she began competing for Peter Parker's attention with Mary Jane Watson, her beginnings are quite an eye-opener.

As originally presented by artist Steve Ditko, Gwen comes across as a more sophisticated character than the daughter of a police captain who later becomes the perfect girlfriend for Peter and began worrying about this or that while shedding her share of tears. In this earlier story, she's practically the center of attention, shoving the wide-eyed antics of Betty Brant and Liz Allen off to the side for the time being while becoming the focus of just about every scene.

But she's not the center of everyone's attention, a development that both infuriates and intrigues her. The story is a new direction for the character of Peter Parker--his first day of college, as he begins his life as a scholarship student at Empire State University; and there are other tidbits that were interesting for me to stumble across as someone reading these events for the first time. This story would also mark the first appearance of Harry Osborn, who attended high school with Gwen (Standard High, which is as generic sounding as Peter's own Midtown High)--and the two immediately meet and become friends with fellow new student Flash Thompson. It's a bit disappointing to see another trinity of annoyance for Peter in this new venue of academia. We know that Harry and Peter would later become friends and even roommates, but at this point in time Harry takes an instant dislike to Peter and proceeds to join with Flash in mutual disdain of him, pulling pranks on Peter and instigating trouble for him; while Gwen takes Liz's place as a part of their little group and goes along with their shenanigans while having a measure of sympathy and slight attraction to Peter.  "The more things change...", etc.

As for Peter, Lee has him becoming persona non grata almost overnight with the other students at ESU, since he's preoccupied with his Aunt May's failing health and is constantly (albeit unintentionally) ignorant of anyone's attempts to socialize with him. Gwen, who Lee has already made it clear enjoyed high status at her former school*, is definitely put off by Peter's apparent disinterest in her, despite her best efforts to get to know him, so it's no surprise to see her fall in with Harry and Flash. At first, though, she's clearly drawn to him.



*No doubt college demanded something of a similar adjustment for many ex-high schoolers who suddenly found that, despite their former popularity, they were now a small fish in a much bigger pond. Flash Thompson, whose ego was sustained by his new status as a college football player, may have been the exception.


Gwen may at times come off as being a little "on the prowl" in this story, though thus far that aspect of her personality has been kept in check by the challenge she sees Peter to be, as well as her willingness to give him the benefit of the doubt. But she walks a fine line in that respect as long as she keeps company with Harry and his growing circle of enablers who have misinterpreted Peter's attitude.




To Gwen's credit, she gives her first impression of Peter every chance to pan out, when others might have dropped him as a lost cause:



...but finally, her true colors are revealed in full regalia when she's shot down once again (or so it seems to her)--and the difference between the Gwen Stacy of 1965 and the young woman whose life ended in 1973 seems like night and day.



The outraged woman we see here has a reputation to protect--furious over an insult to her vanity that cannot be allowed to stand. Meet the love of Peter Parker's life, ladies and gentlemen.

COMING UP:

(Though given what we've just seen, it's probably Peter who should watch his back!)

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Mauled By The Man-Ape!


It was in the pages of The Avengers that we first met the brutal M'Baku, the Man-Ape, who at the time acted as regent of Wakanda and served as Chieftain while that country's ruler, the Black Panther, was in the States on an extended stay. But we learned tht M'Baku had a deeper agenda than just holding the fort for T'Challa--moving behind the scenes to solidify his power while also greatly enhancing his physical strength by consuming the blood of the white gorilla. Even the issue in question is unclear on how that worked, exactly--unless the gorilla was irradiated in some way, such a "transfusion" would probably accomplish nothing more than wreaking havoc with M'Baku's internal organs. Then again, the Black Panther was created from nothing more than ingesting a heart-shaped herb, so apparently Wakandans know a thing or two about biophysics.

What they don't have so much a grasp on are the principles of stress mechanics--for when M'Baku has the Panther at his mercy, he chooses to symbolize his death with the abolishment of the Panther religion itself, by toppling the sacred Panther totem onto its human embodiment. But M'Baku makes a fatal miscalculation, which probably only resulted in strengthening the formidable image of the Panther-god and its power to exact vengeance in the eyes of the Wakandans.



As far as T'Challa knew, M'Baku had died in the rubble. But, over a year later (our time), the Man-Ape returns--and not only does he invade the States, but it looks like he's moving up into the big leagues as far as setting his sights and ambitions much higher than the defeat of his rival for Wakandan rule.



Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Tony Stark: Mad Scientist!


Though Tony Stark's business focus in the 1960s was in fulfilling his lucrative contracts with the Defense Department, he did find the time to apply his inventive genius to more productive ventures that would hopefully benefit his fellow man in some way. Unfortunately, his fellow man was never comfortable when Stark had time to kill, because being killed by Stark's experiments was always foremost in the minds of the villagers everyone in the neighborhood.



It's disturbing enough that the location of Stark's factory--a busy production facility that manufactures munitions and weapons and has government trucks rumbling in and out daily--is apparently located in a district zoned for both industrial and residential use, because as a neighbor there's nothing I like better than looking out my window and knowing that napalm, mortars and missiles were rolling off those assembly lines and that I was only a stray spark away from a conflagration that would force my entire neighborhood to be evacuated and consequently send my property values plunging.

But today, thank goodness, Stark's tinkering will end up endangering someone else's home.


Monday, August 14, 2017

The Told And The Untold


Slowly but surely I've been making my way through Sean Howe's 437-page book from 2012, Marvel Comics The Untold Story, which I unwind with just before bedtime. I enjoy reading very much, but if I don't set aside time for a book, I never have the time to sit down with one; the fact that I picked up Howe's book years ago and am only now plowing through it should tell you something. Also, I'm one of those people who becomes so relaxed by rare moments of "down time" that, unfortunately, I can only read a few pages of a good book before I feel myself losing focus and inevitably nod off. (You can imagine how long it took me to get through a stack of comics for the week. Answer: a week.) With all due respect to Mr. Howe, his book is a page-turner, but not one which I could apply the phrase, "you can't put it down" (though that doesn't diminish his work in the slightest). But for what it's worth, it does occupy a place on my nightstand, an honored place for any tome as nightstands everywhere can attest.

Lately, the book has been helpful in bringing to light and exploring fascinating information from behind the scenes of Marvel's production process, such as Sal Buscema taking off the gloves on an issue of Incredible Hulk, for example--though I've found myself raising an eyebrow at times during the reading process. Howe has been diligent in documenting his sources from quoted material--yet there is an almost necessary tendency for any author of biographical or other nonfictional material to fill in the blanks in an effort to provide the complete picture, and that can often take the form of speculation or conjecture, even taking into account "the personal recollections of more than 150 individuals, and relatives of individuals, who worked at or with Marvel Comics," as Howe states in his acknowledgments. (I haven't conducted a fraction of the interviews that Howe has, and look how often I've indulged in conjecture.) There's a point, for example, in litigation where counsel will at times object to testimony and note that "the witness is drawing a conclusion," which cautions that the witness's opinion is essentially that of a lay witness, not a person qualified as an expert; in other words, they can testify to facts, but not offer opinions, inferences or conclusions. In Howe's case, I have to take what supposition he offers with a grain of salt. His interjections make for interesting reading, but what I'm reading may not necessarily be factual. Even quoted material can be suspect; for instance, a passage in the book that reads, " 'I saved Marvel's ass,' Kirby told an interviewer...", which Howe documents in his notes as originating from an "Unpublished Leonard Pitts interview with Jack Kirby." Putting aside for the moment that the key word there is "unpublished," the reference could also be interpreted as the comment possibly having been declared "off the record" at the time of the interview, which calls into question not only its authenticity but the decision to deem it repeatable in a book being prepared for publication.

The behind-the-scenes nugget that's the subject of today's post is a good example of how connecting the dots can take a zig-zag route and have one wondering if the facts are adding up correctly; yet the foundation of the actual chain of events, at least, is stable enough to recount. The situation dates back to when the decision was made to bring the character of Jean Grey back following her demise in 1980 after artists Bob Layton and Jackson Guice successfully pitched to Editor In Chief Jim Shooter the idea of reuniting the original team of X-Men for the new X-Factor title, a concept that carried the potential of a marketing juggernaut. Even Chris Claremont, who initially resisted the idea, came on board with it--and after taking the crossover frenzy of the reading list leading up to X-Men #200 off his plate, he was curious to see how FF writer/artist John Byrne was handling Jean's reintroduction in Fantastic Four. And that's where the fun begins.

"Claremont took a look at how Byrne was handling the backstory of Jean Grey in Fantastic Four and petitioned Shooter for a chance to rewrite Byrne's two-page flashback sequence, which X-Factor penciller Jackson Guice then drew in his best faux John Byrne style. This was Shooter's chance to appease his star writer, still stinging from the way Jean Grey's return had been commanded, and even John Byrne didn't have enough clout to stop it."

Friday, August 11, 2017

This Artist Unleashed!


To make way for Bill Sienkiewicz, Sal Buscema--whose unwaveringly straightforward style had offset the absurdity of Steve Gerber's The Defenders and Steve Englehart's Captain America--had been taken off New Mutants. "I knew you couldn't have an old-fashioned artist on something geared to bring in new readers," said [editor Ann] Nocenti. "Probably the hardest call I ever made at Marvel was to Sal Buscema, to say, bluntly--too bluntly--'I am taking you off this book.' He asked why, and I said, 'You're old fashioned. This needs to be new.' And he was really mad, then upset. Then he turned around, and in the next issue of The Incredible Hulk ... it was fucking magnificent. It was like Sal saying, 'You want to see what I can do?' He just pulled all the guns out."

-- Excerpt from Marvel Comics The Untold Story by Sean Howe

Buscema, the regular artist on New Mutants from its inception, stayed on the book for a little over a year before Sienkiewicz was brought aboard in the late summer of 1984. In her points on style and reaching out to new readers, Nocenti may have been onto something, at least when it came to my own tastes, since even Buscema's work, which I very much admire, wasn't enough to make me pick up a single issue of New Mutants (though the main reason for my reticence was that I just didn't care about the characters, their homework, their growing pains, or their adventures). But it was Sienkiewicz's painted covers, which Howe describes as "near abstractions ... that would push the boundaries of Marvel's visual style," which piqued my interest in picking up an issue or three--just around the time when the character of Rachel Summers had been introduced and shunted to New Mutants for further exploration. I still didn't latch onto the book as a regular reader--but in terms of sales, Nocenti's instincts were spot-on. In my case, the change to Sienkiewicz did exactly what it was meant to accomplish.

But I became curious about Nocenti's description of how the decision made Buscema cut loose on the issue of Incredible Hulk that followed getting his pink slip from New Mutants. As near as I can pin it down, that would have been the issue where Nightmare revealed himself as the one who was deliberately undermining Bruce Banner's efforts to remain in control of the Hulk--and judging by the first few pages alone, that seems to be the case. Although he's working with the same inker (Gerry Taloc), Buscema has obviously taken his work up a few notches from the pages he turned in for the prior issue; and with a good deal of the story taking place in Nightmare's realm, Buscema demonstrates that his own skills in the abstract aren't exactly chopped liver. (That said, one can't help but note that the issue's abstract cover* was assigned to another artist, Kevin Nowlan.)

*Though it's indeed Nightmare who's pulling the Hulk's strings in the issue, Nowlan's depiction almost makes you wonder if we're going to find Mastermind to be the culprit, instead.

In fact, opening to page one, it's tempting to believe that the smug character who greets us isn't Nightmare, but rather a certain artist whose satisfied expression here speaks volumes and whose work speaks for itself.



Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Now Comes The Sorcerer Supreme


Issue #11 of Marvel Premiere initially seemed intended to be a transition issue following the conclusion of a year-long storyline which pitted the Master of the Mystic Arts, Dr. Strange, against the servants of the prehistoric demon known as Shuma-Gorath, and then finally against the monster itself. Following that saga, Strange would begin a new conflict with his arch-nemesis, Baron Mordo, and a powerful mystic from the 31st century known as Sise-Neg; but before the curtain rose on that arc, issue #11 would set the stage by reprinting two stories that reacquainted readers with Mordo's long and often bitter conflict with Strange. One of those stories was Strange's origin story, where we first met Mordo--a former student of the Ancient One who coveted his master's power but was passed over in favor of Strange (and has held a grudge ever since). Yet there appeared to be more to the issue's unexpected format than giving the appearance of an interlude.

Toward the end of the Shuma-Gorath saga, noted artist Frank Brunner began what would become a distinguished stint as regular artist on the book for the remainder of Strange's stay there, co-plotting the good doctor's adventures along with the mag's new scripter, Steve Englehart. Up to that point, Premiere was being published bi-monthly, a schedule which Strange's former title had shifted to for its final three issues in 1969 presumably due to poor sales. Following the Shuma-Gorath climax, Premiere briefly assumed a monthly publication schedule, "for the summer" according to a letters page response (referring to a nonexistent Bullpen Bulletins announcement on the subject); two issues later, however, it returned to bi-monthly status for Strange's remaining two issues under the Premiere banner (and well into the following Iron Fist run). From there, Englehart and Brunner segued to Doctor Strange #1--back in his own title at last, though once again precariously see-sawing between monthly and bi-monthly scheduling, with yet another reprint appearing in only its third issue.

Brunner's run on Doctor Strange ended with issue #5, the announcement citing lack of time: "...one book, bi-monthly, is about all [Brunner] likes to handle--and lately, other projects have begun to pile up around him. So, reluctantly, he's had to put aside his pencil for [Doctor Strange] in order to get to the others." (If you noticed a glaring contradiction in that statement, join the club--those "other projects" piling up in Brunner's queue seem to add up to more pending work than a single bi-monthly book that's reportedly his preferred limit.) In hindsight, Premiere #11 turned out to be an indication that Brunner's days as Strange's penciller were vulnerable to a monthly deadline--and as we take a look at the beginning of that final ambitious Premiere story, it's clear even at this early stage that his contribution to Dr. Strange was invaluable in restoring interest in the character, and would be missed.

And so this new story represents, in a more meaningful way, the transition for Strange that extends beyond what we saw during his brief stop at the Ancient One's Himalayan temple in the prior issue. He's now truly presented to readers as the "Sorcerer Supreme"--a title surely made for a comic headlined by a character versed in mysticism, but is fraught with potential problems as far as the character having no peers in sorcery (which will become evident even as early as this particular tale). Already he must begin a dangerous new mission; but he also must tend to the details of his new station, which are fascinating in the respect that Strange is practically a new character budding before our eyes--as well as the eyes of those who have waited for his return.



Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Way It Began!


Since we've so recently taken a fresh look at Daredevil's emergence as a character in 1964, and since the Fantastic Four were included in that story as a humorous cameo (as well as a helpful sales push, no doubt), why don't we turn the tables on the FF and showcase their own updated origin from late 1972, when writer Roy Thomas steps aboard to replace Stan Lee as the book's writer and, just as was the case with Daredevil, appeals to our sense of nostalgia.



But how to break the ice on having the FF recall their origin, which they'd already revisited in great detail as well as covered the basics on several other occasions? For the hook, Thomas reached back eight years, where Reed Richards happened to be testing another one of his (what else?) fantastic inventions--in this case, a thought projector, which Reed puts through its paces in a way that makes it clear that this man's mind isn't always on his work.




The Thing gets his wish, though not exactly in the way he was hoping. On the bright side, at least he doesn't have Dr. Doom materializing in a swimsuit.



For the new story, it appears that Doom again plays a key part in its introduction--but this time, the implications are far more deadly.


Monday, August 7, 2017

Colors Of The Past


At the turn of the century, when Jeph Loeb was kicking around the idea of a new six-issue series that offered another look at the character of Daredevil in his original yellow garb, perhaps the question to ask about it all was: Why? Aside from its nostalgic appeal, why would a writer want to return to a time when Daredevil was less interesting? The quick answer would probably be, "to make it more interesting"--a conclusion easily reached after reading the series, as well as hearing Loeb's own thoughts on the subject.

"... there was a time when DD was about the JOY of being a hero. This is a period, in particular, which [artist Tim Sale] and I associate with him wearing the Yellow costume. He was not only able to do things that no blind person could do; he was doing things that NO person could do. That is what is so exciting to me as a writer. When I came to Batman, those stories about the detective working things out, being better at what he was doing as a man. In Superman For All Seasons, it is about a hero learning what the world was about and in turn what HE was about.

"Stan Lee's Daredevil took to his role like a duck to water. And I think it very much had to do with being blind. He saw being Daredevil as liberating. But, unlike Spider-Man where Peter's home life and school life was incredibly oppressive and depressing (for Peter, not the reader) and in turn, being Spider-Man was a party, Matt had it pretty good. He was with his best friend, starting a business where he was a terrific lawyer. They hired this wonderful, bright ray of sunshine named Karen Page. And together, they won in the court room and Daredevil won as a hero. New York loved him. He had none of the problems that Spider-Man had; none of the internal struggles that the F.F. had. He was an adventurer -- I see a great deal of Indiana Jones in him."

Yet the method that Loeb takes to look back to the past for this new perspective anchors Daredevil to a time in his life in the present when he experienced a profound and near-devastating loss--the death of Karen Page at the hands of Bullseye, a story that took place two years before this new series saw print. We find Daredevil having reached a point where he's prepared to put the incident behind him, and he does so by taking an approach that many therapists recommend--saying goodbye to a loved one by writing a letter to them, though in his case he shares those feelings with us through narration. It's that narrative from Daredevil throughout that Loeb uses to take us back to the time when Matt Murdock, Foggy Nelson, Karen, and, yes, Daredevil, were just starting out and finding a whole new world opening up for all of them--and by so doing, helps Daredevil come to terms with his loss, and his future.


Friday, August 4, 2017

...To Battle Magneto!


OR: "Is There A Doctor In The Sub?"


When it comes to resourcefulness, Magneto--the mutant master of (what else?) magnetism--shouldn't be underestimated. Coupled with his deadly power, Magneto is capable of prevailing over even the strongest foe, as even Phoenix discovered. But would even Magneto be resourceful enough to overcome the sheer power of the God of Thunder, Thor, in a one-on-one clash? We discovered the answer in late 1964, when these two proud and powerful figures met in pitched battle for the first time--with Magneto, believe it or not, poised to triumph!



Like many of you, if I had to make a choice, I'd have to give the edge to Thor, whose power and own resourcefulness has allowed him to walk away from battles with the Celestials, whereas Magneto would likely find himself a red and purple blot under just one of their alien heels in short order. But in this story, technically we'd have to award the first round to Magneto, even though he wasn't even aware that he had Thor at his mercy.

To find out the meaning behind that, let's go back a bit to where this story has these two meeting. Magneto, alone in his camouflaged submarine base in the waters outside of New York's harbor, has sent his Brotherhood of Evil Mutants--the Toad, Mastermind, Quicksilver, and the Scarlet Witch--to locate the X-Men, whom he suspects are somewhere in the city. While he waits for a report, he decides to flaunt his power--and a certain physician and his nurse are among those who catch a mid-day view of the incredible.




Making an excuse to slip away, Donald Blake switches to become his powerful alter-ego and begins searching for the source of the attack--and the time comes when the soon-to-become adversaries are meeting and taking each other's measure.




We don't know yet if this is a clash of titans, but it's already undoubtedly a clash of egos, with Thor and Magneto posturing in front of each other and asserting their superiority with arrogant pride and grandiose words. Neither of these individuals is intimidated by the other--but where Thor sees a possible adversary, Magneto sees what he believes is another mutant, and an opportunity to expand his Brotherhood with a new and powerful ally. Cliché as it sounds, he truly has no idea who he's dealing with.


Whoops--looks like the meet-and-greet is over! Was the wine that bad?

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Secret... The Power... The Nightmare!


With his renewed exposure in Marvel Feature from late 1971 to mid-1972 as one of the Defenders, followed almost immediately by a prominent appearance in Amazing Spider-Man, it certainly seemed that steps were being taken to test the waters of Dr. Strange returning to his own series. What sealed the deal for the character was a string of well-received (if bi-monthly) issues by Steve Englehart and Frank Brunner in the pages of Marvel Premiere, at the end of which Strange segued to the 1974 Doctor Strange #1.

But prior to that, it was the first six issues of Premiere which reintroduced Strange as a character in his own right (albeit a character who by then had received a considerable bump from his association with the Hulk and the Sub-Mariner as one-third of their informal team).



At first, however, it appeared that little thought had been given to how Strange would be handled in these new stories beyond getting him back in circulation, if the revolving door of writers and artists we were greeted with were any indication. Strange's stock-in-trade was the eerie and the mysterious; yet the month following Strange's solo debut, Englehart's The Defenders #1 would hit the stands, where Strange would be hobnobbing with Marvel's mainstream super-heroes and super-villains. Which Dr. Strange would readers expect to see? Until Englehart would take over the character in Premiere and provide a measure of coherency for Strange in these two separate worlds, it was a struggle to take an interest in the character appearing in Premiere, where Strange himself seemed to be struggling under the yoke of different writers and artists who weren't quite suited to him, as a letters page response acknowledges in so many words.



But in this first appearance, the character's original writer, Stan Lee, does an excellent job of reigniting our interest in Dr. Strange--helped in no small part by artist Barry Smith (who also plotted this story), whose work I've at times taken issue with but whose style seems suited to the realms and situations which Strange often finds himself in (a style that's at times reminiscent of Craig Russell). With Smith's work here embellished by Dan Adkins, who's no *ahem* stranger to this character by any means, the story works out to be a fine first step back into the limelight for Dr. Strange.


Tuesday, August 1, 2017

All The Donny Osmond You Could Want


Part of the fun of flipping through what my parents used to call "funny books" was the plethora of ads tucked between those pages that caught my eye, all interesting in their own way and many of them tempting to answer, if only out of curiosity. But in the '70s, when I was discovering the advantages as well as the pitfalls of mail-ordering, I found myself grabbing for handholds to extricate myself from one of the most aggressive marketing blitzes ever to grace the inside of a magazine, funny book or otherwise--the "what a deal!" approach of the mail-order record clubs, offering discounts galore to the LP buyer as long as you followed a few simple procedures during your membership, like keeping careful track of what you were being sent, agreeing to buy X number of selections, and returning response cards promptly.

Wait--keeping what? Returning what? Agreeing to what?

I remember joining a couple of these clubs (dropping one, replacing it with another), but there were a number of them in play (ha ha! get it?) in a wide spread of newspapers and publications, comic books among them. Columbia, Capitol, and RCA were affiliated with their respective record labels; there was also Citadel Record Club, Record Club of America, and various offshoots. (RCA would later change its name to the BMG Music Club, though I used to wonder if RCA and Record Club of America were one and the same.  They weren't.) The clubs came into prominence in the 1950s with stars like Peggy Lee and Andy Williams, updating through the decades and giving the turnover of recording artists ample visibility in the ads--and why not? You couldn't ask for better pitchmen/women, since their images gave the illusion that they were endorsing the clubs and the artists were in sync as far as wanting to make you happy.

The ads varied little from company to company, usually occupying two full pages and plastering a sampling of the music they offered while a hard-to-resist start-up offer in enlarged text made sure you were tempted to read a little further to see if these guys were on the up-and-up.




Given the deals they were offering, you tended to skim through the terms and conditions that were peppered with exclamation points and words like "benefits," "free," and "hundreds of selections" and convince yourself that you could manage whatever hoops you had to jump through to get your money's worth. If memory serves, Columbia snagged me first--so let's say I joined in 1972 (give or take a year) so that the pictured ad serves as an example for describing the basics of how the pricing worked. Basically, you selected 14 LPs from the choices shown in their ad and paid $2.86.  Once you sent in your form, you became obligated to purchase ten regularly-priced records within the next two years. If you wanted tapes instead of LPs, you paid the same $2.86 for eight tapes, and agreed to buy seven more tapes in the same time frame. (The ratio of LPs vs. tapes in the initial deal was obviously unequal; you also had to purchase nearly the same amount of tapes to complete your obligation. Perhaps 8-tracks and cassettes were more in demand.) I don't know about you, but in 1972 I wasn't really chomping at the bit to crank up my stereo with Mantovani, Jim Nabors, or Vikki Carr, so Columbia's introductory selections were obviously designed to avoid having the company eating any losses from quality contemporary albums being swept up by this deal.

That takes care of the front-end of this arrangement. Then, every month, you'd receive a catalog magazine from which you could make selections for purchase that would incrementally satisfy your part of the agreement. Albums in 1972 averaged around $6.00 each, so paying for ten more at "regular club prices" of $5-$6 over a two-year period was a guaranteed win for the company and not too bad for the buyer.

BUT...

There was a little more to this deal that you had to keep in mind for the next 24 months.

  • Unlike shopping at a record store, you're not only limited to choosing from the records being offered in the company's club magazine*, but you're also coughing up shipping and handling fees for the item(s) you choose to buy.
  • With the magazine, you're also sent a "response card," which you have to act on one way or another by a certain date. Either mail it back, with or without choosing any record(s)--or do nothing, which whether you realized it or not indicates that you want the company to automatically ship you its selection that's geared to the musical interest you've previously checked off, and for which you'll be billed. On the bright side, at least it's one less record you'll have to keep track of--on the other hand, you may find yourself having to explain to your cool friends why "Engelbert Humperdinck's Greatest Hits" is on your shelf.
  • On occasion--the word "occasion" having a different meaning for you than it does for the record company--you'll be offered "special" selections which fall under the same conditions for accepting or rejecting. This is where the "keeping track of" part of this arrangement comes into play. You'll probably want to stock up on postage stamps. Starting a log wouldn't be a bad idea, either.

*"Selections," as the company refers to them--i.e., you don't simply get to choose from the company's entire music catalog. Wouldn't that have sweetened the deal?

The light at the end of this tunnel is that you could cancel your membership once you'd fulfilled your obligation. But I found the company's "we want you back!" follow-up solicitations to be relentless, somehow obtaining my new address whenever I moved--dogging me for years after cancelling. All those music celebrities beckoning me... I could have started a scrapbook with all of those updated album covers.

Given such a niggling experience, where I'd spent way too much time macheting my way through the business side of music and not enough time enjoying the actual music, the terms offered by Record Club of America hit me like finding a lush oasis on Tatooine.



No cards to return... you're sent only what you order... you can defer your introductory choices and instead make them from an expanded listing... and you save a minimum of 33% with each record you order. In return, you pay a one-time membership fee of $5 (though you're still charged shipping and handling costs). I have a dim memory of signing up with this club, but I honestly don't remember much about whether or not I was pleased with their offerings or service. I do remember that they didn't pester me about renewing my membership to nowhere near the degree that Columbia buried me with such mail--more on that in a moment.

Over the years, these clubs and others would substantially cut their prices in their introductory deals as their market diminished, even after shifting over to CDs. (Columbia, for instance, would offer "8 CDs or 12 cassettes for 1¢"--would the subscriber actually have to enclose a penny with their sign-up form, I wonder?) But many of them hung on longer than you might expect, to the point that when they did fold it came as a surprise that they were still doing business. RCA/BMG closed up shop in mid-2009; four years earlier, BMG had acquired Columbia, at which time the latter shifted to a mail-order DVD club before finally filing for Chapter 11 in August of 2015, with debts of over $60 million and assets at just a fraction of that amount. At last report, Columbia's high point as a record club was reached in 1996, with profits of $1.6 billion. How the mighty had indeed fallen.

By comparison, Record Club of America had a short run--all too short, staying in business only from the late 1960s to the mid '70s. At some point they'd made deals with record companies to allow them to acquire their record inventories at wholesale prices; but whereas normally-pressed records were guaranteed returnable to the big labels if they didn't sell, the new arrangement that allowed the record club to label their stock "Manufactured by Record Club of America" stuck the club with those unsold records and tapes, with no reimbursement. In other words, "Oops." (That probably explains why I'd lost touch with them.) You might enjoy comics enthusiast John Simcoe's nostalgic visit to the club's dormant warehouse in York, PA, decades later--still standing with its sign welcoming passers-by, as if enticing you to one more great bargain.

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