Saturday, June 22, 2013

A Life in Four Colors (Part Thirty-Seven)

It's hard for comic book newcomers to understand why annuals and 80-page giants were such a big deal in 1965. What publishers call an annual nowadays is generally a comic book with 10 to 14 more pages of story than the usual issue, for two-thirds to double the price. It's frequently just another chapter in an ongoing storyline, or a tie-in story that feels more like a fill-in issue because it's frequently written and drawn by creators not normally associated with the series. No wonder today's annuals are non-events...

But in 1965, things were radically different. An annual was a story that was truly worth a year's wait. Annual were summertime events, because kids were out of school in the summer and they often had more money because of summertime jobs or extra family chores that brought in a bit more spending cash. Marvel was the first publisher to truly recognize the value of the event storyline, and their annual were a home for such stories.

1965 was just such a year: Marvel pulled out the big guns that year, offering a number of annuals that culminated in the epic Fantastic Four Annual #3, which featured the wedding of Reed Richards and Susan Storm. That's right--comic book characters actually got married! Relationships actually moved forward! And the storyline itself was an all-star event that brought together some of Marvel's best known heroes and villains, ending with a brief guest appearance by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby themselves, who were unable to gain entry to the wedding. The 72-page 25¢ annual offered almost three times the story content of the average comic, making it an entertainment bargain as well (even though only the lead story was original--the second and third stories were reprints of Fantastic Four #s 6 & 11, which were only two and a half to three years old in 1965). And no fill-in creators here: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby did the honors for this story, which was quite possibly the best Fantastic Four tale published in what was already a landmark year for the series. Of course, 

Meanwhile, the second Spider-Man Annual offered a real Steve Ditko treat: an extra-length team-up of Ditko's two signature creations for Marvel, Spider-Man and Doctor Strange. Again, this was no fill-in, but a full-length story by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko; the remainder of the book featured reprints of tales from Amazing Spider-Man #s 1, 2, & 5.  You might think that fans would object to reprints of such relatively recent material, but far from it: Marvel was attracting so many new readers that everyone was quite pleased for a chance to read these hard-to-find issues.

Other 1965 annuals included Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos Annual #1 (which presented a tale of the gang's exploits in Korea), Journey Into Mystery Annual #1 (which introduced Greek mythology into the Marvel Universe with the first appearance of Hercules), and Marvel Tales Annual #2 (an all-reprint collection that featured the first issues of Avengers and X-Men along with the origin of Doctor Strange and an early Hulk story).

When you think about it, it's amazing how much mileage Marvel was getting out of relatively recent material; some of the material they were reprinting was two years old, and the very oldest was only three-and-a-half years old. And yet Marvel had us all enthusiastically shelling out a quarter a book for a blend of new material and reprints of stories we very possibly already had.

The secret was Marvel's appeal to completism. For many of us, a complete Marvel collection (beginning with Fantastic Four #1) was a reachable goal--but in order to maintain that complete collection, we needed to add all the new Marvel titles to our collections as well. For collectors, that urge for completism is a powerful thing; I've seen it used by major record labels, book publishers, trading card manufacturers, and even mundane magazine publishers to encourage readers to buy material they might not ordinarily purchase.

Meanwhile, DC comics was taking a totally different approach with their annuals. Because DC's superhero line dated back much further than Marvel's (and some titles, such as Superman, Batman, Action, Detective, and Adventure, to name a few, had numbering that continued unbroken back to the 1930s and 1940s), a complete DC collection was a virtual impossibility. That was the drawback. However, DC had one powerful advantage: they had a much larger library of classic material they could draw from in their reprint lines. Where Marvel's reprints could go back no further than 1961's Fantastic Four #1 (well, at least until they ventured into Golden Age reprints with Fantasy Masterpieces), DC would routinely include stories from the mid-1950s onwards in their annuals.

Marvel relied on the allure of original event-focused lead stories, along with the desirability of a complete Marvel collection, to encourage readers to buy its annuals. DC offered no new material in their 80-Page Giants (yes, DC gave us eight extra pages of story for the same 25¢ cover price), so they found another way to convince us we had to have them all: they created a series called 80-Page Giant that featured different characters in each issue. 80-Page Giant #13 would feature Jimmy Olsen; #14 would spotlight Lois Lane; and #15 would feature classic Batman-Superman teamup tales. Sure, you could just buy the Batman-Superman issue if you didn't collect Jimmy Olsen or Lois Lane... but then your 80-Page Giant collection would be incomplete!

Later on, they  made it even more complex by adding two numbers to each 80-Page Giant--an 80-Page Giant issue number and an issue number for the corresponding series. For instance, 80-Page Giant #16 was also Justice League of America #39--so if you collected Justice League and wanted to keep your collection complete, you needed to buy the 80-Page Giant even if you had all the stories it reprinted. Then, of course, you had a lone issue of 80-Page Giant in your collection, crying out for 80-page companionship... and before you know it, the collector mentality had you buying all the 80-Page Giants, which might then lead to your picking up regular issues of the series it reprinted. Oh, publishers are a crafty lot!...

We didn't feel like we were being manipulated back then, though; instead, we were thrilled that the publishers were offering us a way to add all these classic stories to our growing collections. Remember, there were no comic shops in every major city back then, no back-issue collectors' market, and no internet to make it easy to find almost anything you wanted or needed. It was a very different and very exciting time for comic book readers....

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