Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Road to Marvel UK - Part 1


An eagerly anticipated book by Robin Kirby tracing the history of Marvel Comics in the UK is due to be by published later this year but for now, here's my modest brief look back at the British comics that reprinted Marvel Comics material before Marvel UK was founded.

As most British comic fans probably know, Marvel Comics set up a British branch in 1972 to publish a line of comics reprinting their early American material. The first comic launched, The Mighty World of Marvel, appeared in early October 1972 and multitudes of UK Marvel titles have come and gone ever since. (The current batch being superbly packaged by Panini UK since Marvel UK were effectively amalgamated into Panini several years ago.)

However, the story of Marvel Comics being published in the UK dates back several years before 1972. In the mid-1950s a small London company called L.Miller & Son Ltd put out several British editions of the then-contemporary Marvel titles. In the USA, Marvel had revived their trio of superheroes Captain America, Human Torch, and Sub-Mariner in their own titles and L.Miller reprinted some of that material in his comics, albeit in black and white. I'm not quite sure how many British Marvel comics Miller turned out, - not many presumably, as that Marvel superhero Fifties revival didn't last long, - but here's the covers of the two issues of Human Torch Miller published:



L.Miller was also reprinting Marvel's horror and mystery comics of that period, and after the superhero comics folded he continued with those. By the early Sixties, Marvel Comics in the USA was of course setting out with another superhero revival, and this one (heralded by The Fantastic Four) proved to be far more successful than the Fifties attempt. Miller reprinted some Marvel superhero strips in his "mystery" titles, alongside the horror strips, such as this Ant-Man strip in Spellbound:


(Note the words "Adult Comic" printed on the bottom of the cover above. Presumably this was to pacify any retailers and parents who had believed the anti-horror comics tosh from a decade earlier. The original Tales to Astonish cover this artwork was reprinted from never carried such wording.)

Around the same time Alan Class had set up his line of black and white reprint comics, packaging US material from Marvel, ACG, Charlton, and Tower for a UK readership. His most popular 68 page comics were titled Suspense, Sinister Tales, Creepy Worlds, Secrets of the Unknown, Uncanny Tales and Astounding Stories.




Like Miller, he too included superhero material alongside short mystery/horror/sci-fi reprints. His selection of Marvel reprints rarely followed their original sequence, and if he sometimes reprinted the first part of a continued story without the next part to follow, he'd simply slap a caption stating "The End" on the cliffhanger panel. Strangely, this never seemed to bother the readers too much as his chunky comics (twice as thick as the standard American comic) offered good value for 1/- (5p) and there were always plenty of stories packed into each comic. Alan Class would also often reprint the same issues later in the run, just changing the number and cover price; a practice he continued for years.



Curiously, Alan Class continued reprinting Marvel superhero stories even when Odhams joined the game in 1966. Odhams, then publishers of Eagle, had launched a mostly-humour weekly called Wham! in 1964, followed by a sister title Smash! in early 1966. Presumably sales were not as strong as hoped, and some originated pages were cut back to make way for Marvel reprint. The first Marvel strip to appear in an Odhams weekly was The Incredible Hulk which premiered in Smash! No.16 dated 21st May 1966, heralded by an ominous strapline above the logo: "WARNING! THE HULK WAITS FOR YOU INSIDE!"


Interestingly, Odhams chose to begin their Hulk reprints from Incredible Hulk No.2, ignoring the first issue (until two years later when it was reprinted in Fantastic). I can only assume that this was because the opening scene of the story they chose carried far more impact: The Hulk emerging from a swamp looking truly menacing, - a powerful Jack Kirby/Steve Ditko image searing itself on every reader's imaginations. (Everyone I've spoken to who had that issue remembers it having the same impact. It hooked us all from the outset.)


Presumably Marvel only supplied Odhams with black and white images, even for covers, and mistakes often happened. The Hulk only appeared on two full Smash! covers and both had errors. On his first appearance (Smash! 17) he's given a flesh tone to his skin, and on his second cover (No.34) the skin is the right colour but his traditional purple trousers are yellow. Doh!


As mentioned on this blog before, Smash! had an exciting variety of content, mixing in UK humour and adventure strips along with Batman newspaper strip reprint and Marvel material. With the successful introduction of The Hulk to a young British readership, (and perhaps with a need to save more money) Odhams introduced more Marvel material to their other comics. The Fantastic Four arrived in Wham! later in 1966, followed by new comic Pow! presenting Spider-Man and Nick Fury in 1967, and a host of Marvel strips filling out the pages of newcomers Fantastic and Terrific, also in 1967.


Even that most stalwart of British comics, Eagle was not exempt, with Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's Tales of Asgard running for a while in its pages, and on this one cover:


One issue of Smash! during this period has always been of particular interest to fans. Issue No.38 (22nd October 1966) featured a brand new five and a half page Hulk story which even to this day has never appeared in an American Marvel comic. The Monster and the Matador continued directly after the classic Hulk and Sub-Mariner vs Avengers battle from Marvel America's Avengers No.3 (reprinted in an earlier issue of Smash!) and saw Bruce Banner finding his way to Seville. Trapped in a bullring he transforms into The Hulk and in a sequence of events ends up exposing a fraudulent matador who had been fighting doped bulls.


In many ways, The Monster and the Matador is very similar in tone to an episode of The Incredible Hulk tv series which arrived on our screens over a decade later. Why this brand new one-off strip was commissioned has never been explained. Was there simply a holdup with the reprint material from the USA so it was rushed out as a fill-in? Was it intended to be a trial run for more originated Hulk strips? The artwork shows that some panels had been modified to extend the art to fit the UK page format, just as the reprints often were. Therefore, was it originally drawn to the American page proportions? If so, why? (If anyone out there has any answers, please let me know for an update.)




The weekly frequency of the Odhams "Power Comics" (as they called themselves) meant that they soon caught up with the American monthlies they were reprinting. This unfortunately meant that popular strips such as The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man had to be rested while a backlog of material built up in the USA. Although they usually found a suitable issue to cut off the storylines the conclusion of Iron Man in Fantastic was particularly sudden, part way through a plot line where Tony Stark had just been summoned to an inquiry. The story was never resolved, as the Odhams comics began to merge at an alarming rate in 1968. By the beginning of 1969, and with IPC absorbing the Fleetway and Odhams comics, only one title remained: Smash! incorporating Fantastic. By March 1969, IPC revamped the weekly and the Marvel strips (then down to just Thor and Fantastic Four) were dropped permanently.

From the letters published in the Odhams weeklies, it was obvious that the Marvel material had always divided the readership. Many British kids thought that superheroes were simply too far fetched, but others showed a strong loyalty to the Marvel strips, and the story of Marvel in the UK was far from over....

To Be Continued

13 comments:

Gavin Burrows said...

I'd never heard of Eagle reprinting Tales From Asgard before! Of course this was a long time after the 'classic' Eagle, do you know much about what was its general tone at the time?

His selection of Marvel reprints rarely followed their original sequence, and if he sometimes reprinted the first part of a continued story without the next part to follow, he'd simply slap a caption stating "The End" on the cliffhanger panel. Strangely, this never seemed to bother the readers too much...

Too young... I don't get to say that very often any more, I think I'll say it again... too young for all this pre-Marvel UK stuff, I started there but soon graduated to the American imports. These were so haphazardly distributed you could never get consequtive issues, but that never seemed to bother me too much. Along with the ads for things you could never buy, it all added to the rich strangeness of the comics in my juvenile mind.

George said...

fascinating little overview here. Who'd have thought Kirby appeared of the cover of the venerable Eagle?

I hope you'll be touching on the World Distributors' Fantastic Four annuals as the 1970(?) volume presented the 'Prisoner' four-parter. My introduction (via a Jumble sale some years later) to superheroes and still my favourite late FF story.

George

Lew Stringer said...

Yep, I'll be covering the WD annuals in Part 2 in a few days' time.

Darren said...

I have an idea on the hulk print its probly wrong but what if Marvel where going to pilot a new hulk strip but they decided not and only one was made

Tony said...

Hi Lew, I wonder if you could clear up a mystery for me. I live in the Isle of Man, and in the sixties, when I was a young lad, went to a local jumble sale and picked up a copy of the first issue of POW. I was into Spider-man at the time buying the sporadic US imports from a local shop, which luckily I still have. Great I thought,here's a chance to fill in the gaps of the stories I was folowing. I went to the newsagent my parents used and he said he would order it for me. I went back a week or so later because none had been delivered and he said that the comic wasn't due to be on sale until another month or so. He was right, the date on the copy I had, which I hadn't checked, said so. So where did my copy come from? Is there such a thing as time travel? Unfortunately, I no longer have the copies of POW I collected, nor Fantastic or Terrific which I collected afterwards. And as for the Beano which I'd been getting since the fifties, and TV21 from No 1, all consigned to the dustbin, not by me though, Parents eh!

Cheers
Tony

Lew Stringer said...

Hi Tony,
It's possible that the issue you had was an advance copy some Odhams employee had given to his kids then resold perhaps? Or perhaps it had been sent to potential advertisers and someone gave it to a junk shop? Even so, quite strange as you say.

Nialli said...

Hi Lew. Great Blog (as always) and you've reprinted one of those fabulous Kirby/Ditko images that I've been trying to track down for years - the Hulk in the swamp! Bloody brilliant sir - many thanks!

Jon T said...

Nice article, and very much looking forward to the upcoming book on UK Marvel!

It's always been an interesting part of Marvel's history that completely original strips featuring their famous characters were made in quite a few countries, particularly in the 1970s, such as the Mexican Spider-Man comics, Japanese Hulk and Spider-Man strips and even that two-part Silver Surfer story from France.

Compare to DC where, other than the odd text story and basic animated-based stories for kids, comparatively little localised material was made in other countries.

The Hulk story in Smash is undoubtedly the first such localised Marvel comic-strip story, and it would be fascinating to hear Marvel's take on it now and then. Surely a candidate for a reprint if it's truly "legit"!

Anonymous said...

The toning-down of anti-communist propaganda was interesting - Thor's Prisoner of the Reds renamed Prisoner in Chains for example. the attmepts to un-Americanize scenes were rather feeble - for example in one picture a fire hydrant that the superheroes had parked beside was altered to a simple "no parking sign" - trouble is that they'd faield to alter a previous picture where the hydrant was visible! And I think I've mentione dthis before - why when expanding the pictures did tehy use someone who couldn;t draw to do it? One early Hulk frame was simply grotesque with the addition of a badly-drawn man at the edge of the frame! (at least that problem went away in Fantastic/Terrific!)

Lew Stringer said...

Yes some of those changes were sloppy. I imagine they just got the office bodger to extend the art as it'd be cheaper than using another artist.

Angelo said...

I agree with Jon T, I am a big Marvel fan (a real Marvel Zombie) and one of my dreams is to have a complete list of all the Marvel comics printed in UK and also to find the various new and original Marvel stories made around the world. I have found some of them, from Mexico, France and other places but I have big problems in finding the Japanese Hulk stories printed in the 1970 in the Weekly Bokura Magazine. Is there somebody interested in this here? You Jon T?
Thank you for this beautiful and very interesting blog.
Ciao from Italy
P.S. we have many new and original stories about Marvel printed in Italy, too

craig maddocks said...

I believe Luis Bermejo drew the Hulk! strip in #38 of Smash!
The driver of the waggon is twice name checked as Luis.
If you compare a photo of Mr Bermejo to the character in the strip you can plainly see the artist has caricatured himself.

Rob Kirby said...

I took the same route as Lew in the end, as the material I was slotting into the history section in From Cents to Pence began expanding beyond anything I’d ever expected to find. It felt right to provide the less knowledgeable/casual reader picking the book up with some background info on the start of Marvel in the States, and then by looking back at the comics that preceded Marvel UK proper, and I’m so glad that I did, because there are certain, very distinct ties and links to what came later – probably far more than anyone ever realised.

I’d been meaning to post some info here, and on an Australian comics blog (about Transworld) for sometime, but had problems posting anything on here, so kept putting it off. I’m glad I couldn’t, because over the past year I’ve filled in some gaps I knew about, and a whole lot more that I didn’t realise where gaps, thanks to a long and detailed conversation with Ray Wergan, who ran the London office at Transworld, and later owned it too. Yes, there were two Transworld offices – who knew?! – and it turns out that it was the U.S. one was the central licensor.

Now in Part 1 here, there’s a mention of the early reprint books by Len Miller, but these were actually predated by several Thorpe and Porter titles. And when Len Miller ceased publishing, his holdings were bought up by Alan Class, who was just setting up his own line of reprints, using material supplied by the U.S. based Transworld Feature Syndicate. And if you'd like to know a little more about Transworld... well, check out a recent posting on the Comics Down Under blog by Kevin Patrick, who kindly posted up a quick mini-history from me there to help with their reprint research.

Transworld had a worldwide deal with Marvel, and several other U.S. comics companies, to supply film to whomever wanted to license it, and as can be seen elsewhere around the world – such as Australia – there was little or no exclusivity of license. And, to be honest, I don’t think this bothered most publishers too much, as this was reprint filler and it was far cheaper than commissioning new work – sad, but true. This is how the Class comics were able to use Marvel material alongside the Odhams’s era comics, and then continued to do so even when Marvel UK exploded on to the scene.

I need to enquire about how material was sent to licensees, but I feel sure that it would have been either B&W film or stats only. And, as you say, that would explain the colouring mistakes.

The Monster and the Matador – that’s the first time I’ve seen it. But being a stop gap strip makes a lot of sense to me, but interesting it looks to have been resized. Perhaps you could send me some high res. scans of the whole story?

I hadn’t clocked, because I didn’t need to look that closely at what they were reprinting, that Odhams caught up with Marvel, just as Marvel UK later did, so i shall have to mention this… but Marvel had no excuse; they should have known better as it was their own show!

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