Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Life In Four Colors (Part Thirty-Four)

While my interest in comics had begun with an emphasis on DC, Marvel moved into greater prominence throughout the early 1960s. As I've mentioned before, the fact that I could actually accumulate a collection of every Marvel Silver Age superhero comic made a big difference; the collecting bug has always had an irresistible allure, and I have a strong completist attitude. By 1965, I had accumulated a complete collection of Marvel superhero books, from Fantastic Four #1 to the present, and that meant that I had to make a point of buying every Marvel from then on. After all, what good is a complete collection if one doesn't maintain it?

In 1965, my Marvel completist mentality led me to send in $1 to join the Merry Marvel Marching Society. For all intents and purposes, this was a Marvel fan club, although the benefits to its members (beyond the initial membership kit) were pretty minimal. Even so, I felt like I had to sign up, just to get that kit. It may not have been a comic book, but it was an official Marvel publication, after all.

When the envelope came in the mail, I tore into it right away and was thrilled with its contents. In an orange illustrated folder, I found an oversized MMMS button; a membership card; a certificate; a scratch pad with border trim depicting Marvel's characters... and best of all, a flexidisc featuring the actual voices of Marvel's creators!

As I mentioned a in Part Thirty-Three, I was becoming more aware of the people behind the comics; I had learned to recognize art styles, and could even tell the differences in some writers' storytellng styles. But this flexidisc added another dimension to the creators: a voice. Suddenly I could hear Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and Don Heck and others as people, not merely names on a comic book page. I was enthralled; I must have played that record a hundred times in the first couple of months that I had it.

(What's a flexidisc, you ask? Oh, you CD-and-DVD-era music fans, you have no idea what you missed out on. A flexidisc is a vinyl record pressed in to a thin layer of flexibile, floppy plastic. The grooves are quite shallow, so the sound quality is quite mediocre--but flexidiscs were a boon for advertising and marketing, since they allowed low-cost recordings to be included as part of a marketing plan. Flexidiscs were included in magazines, in cereal boxes.... and in Merry Marvel Marching Society membership kits.)

Here's that recording, courtesy of YouTube:

The only Marvel Bullpen mainstay who doesn't speak on the recording is Steve Ditko; I thought it was just a bit of clever tomfoolery that they referenced his leaping out the window to avoid the microphone, not realizing that even then Ditko was relatively private and reclusive, preferring to let his work speak for him.

(As for my MMMS kit--I actually used very little of the scratch pad stationery; I just couldn't bring myself to waste a single sheet of it. As a result, my MMMS kit is almost complete to this day.)

A bit later, Marvel sent its MMMS members another flexidisc, this one featuring the Marvel Super Heroes theme song and a Merry Marvel Marching Society musical march. Both are hokey beyond belief, but I loved the kitschy, in-groupish feel of these records--I really did belong to the Merry Marvel Marching Society! Here's a YouTube link to that recording, accompanied by a few clips from the lowest-quality animation ever produced for television (but I watched every episode, even as I wondered how a Jack Kirby Hulk could leap into the air, while a Steve Ditko Hulk would land a moment later).

The MMMS was sheer genius on Marvel's part; the company had turned its size into an asset. Whereas DC seemed like a vast company producing a huge line of books, utilizing an army of talent and production staff, Marvel came across as your friends, a group of people who loved comics just as much as we did. There was a feeling of unity that DC never managed to cultivate (although they did have their own club, the Supermen of America, back in the 1950s and early 1960s, and I did actually join that group as well). And I suspect that every MMMS member became a Marvel completist.

Even better, Marvel found yet another way to encourage readers to join: they began printing lists of MMMS members in their comics! Send in your buck, get a membership kit, and at some point you'd see your name listed in a Marvel book.

I remain amazed at Stan Lee's promotional genius; long before the phrase "guerrilla marketing" was coined, Stan was doing that very thing, making Marvel the company you wanted not only to read, but to be a part of.

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