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