Sunday, February 11, 2007
40 year Flashback: Fantastic is launched
Following the successes of Wham! (1964) and Smash! (1966) Odhams were keen to expand their line of weekly "Power Comics" in 1967. In January they launched Pow! with Spider-Man as the lead strip, and a month later saw the arrival of a comic that was almost entirely Marvel reprint: Fantastic.
Fantastic No.1, which launched on Saturday February 11th 1967, had a different format to its three predecessors. Slightly smaller in size and on better paper, it featured a whopping 40 pages and a higher cover price (9d, compared to Smash's 7d for 28 pages). This made it three times more expensive than the 3d cover price of Thomson's perennial Beano and Dandy. Could it sustain a profit in the increasingly-crowded market of sixties comics? Sadly not for long, but it did gain a faithful following and served as a good introduction to Marvel comics characters.
The contents of the first year featured a set line up of Thor, X-Men, and Iron Man reprints, starting from their first appearances. As the X-Men stories themselves ran to 20 pages or more, each story was edited to run over two weeks. The same applied to the other strips depending on space. (This format set the template for US reprints in UK comics. It was later used by the early Marvel UK weeklies throughout the 1970s. Today the closest equivalent to Fantastic would be Panini's Marvel Legends monthly, which by coincidence even uses an almost identical line up: Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America, with complete unedited stories.)
The fourth strip in Fantastic was brand-new: The Missing Link. This Hulk-like creature was discovered in the African jungle by big-game hunter "Bull" Benson, brought back to England, and subsequently went on a rampage in central London, to be calmed only by beautiful sixties dolly-bird Lita Munro. All very King Kong obviously, but Luis Bermejo's artwork made the strip something special.
Perhaps the editor of Fantastic (Alf Wallace, pictured) felt the Link had limited possibilities story-wise, or perhaps the rumour that Marvel complained about the creature's similarity to the Hulk was true, but whatever the reason a change came about with issue 8. Resting at a secret research station, The Link was evolved by radiation into apparently a normal 20th Century man. Yet he still possessed the Link's strength, albeit now coupled with above-normal intelligence and the ability to fly. After a series of misadventures with the authorities this "man of the future" adopted the identity of "John Foster" and a dual existence as superhero Johnny Future, complete with costume.
Bermejo continued as artist throughout the run of the strip, which ended with issue No.51 with an extra-length 7 page story. Overall it was a very entertaining series and one which deserves reprinting. More on the strip can be read at this link.
Fantastic had some unique free gifts. Issue one gave away a soft plastic pendant (with cut-out pictures to slide inside) whilst issue two presented free stick-on scars. (Quite a gory gift for the period, but we wore them at school anyway!) Issue 53 had a "free Apollo Space Craft" in the form of a flat cardboard kit that when assembled showed details of the Apollo space capsule under a series of tabbed layers.
Another thing Fantastic is remembered for are the weekly superhero pin-ups that appeared on the back cover. Most of these were existing Marvel images, but some were drawn by Barry Smith and Steve Parkhouse right at the start of their careers. The drawings were not much better than fan-art but (as the Balder image shown here demonstrates) Smith's potential was beginning to surface.
Eight weeks after Fantastic appeared, Odhams launched a companion comic, Terrific. This actually presented a bit of a problem for the editors. In The Avengers strip in Terrific, Iron Man was wearing his red and gold armour, but he was still wearing his original clunky gold suit in the earlier Iron Man strips running in Fantastic. Obviously editors "Alf and Bart" felt this would confuse readers so they brought the story of Iron Man's new armour forward, and in the classic stories that followed they had his gold armour redrawn to look like the newer design. Unfortunately with awkward looking results, illustrated by the scan shown here comparing an original Tales of Suspense cover to a redrawn Fantastic cover.
With the "Power Comics" now at five titles, it proved to be too many comics for most readers to afford. Terrific folded after 43 issues, and with issue 52 Fantastic and Terrific became a merged title, featuring Thor, X-Men, The Avengers and Doctor Strange. As Wham! had merged into Pow! only a couple of weeks earlier, the writing was on the wall for the Power Comics. A desperate attempt to lure football fans was attempted with a football booklet pull-out but this was an unharmonious addition to a superhero comic and must have cost them even more readers. (Me for one!)
With the publishing giant IPC looming on the horizon like Galactus waiting to eat a planet, Odhams were doomed. All of Odhams remaining comics merged into one publication, giving it the awkward title Smash! and Pow! Incorporating Fantastic.
In the final issue of Fantastic the editors were cheerfully fatalistic: "It all has to come to an end SOME time! That's life!" Although one can't help thinking they expected it to last more than 89 issues! Still, it was a good run compared to some comics, and even today Fantastic is still highly regarded by fans of sixties comics.