Friday, February 01, 2008
The Road to Marvel UK - Part 3
By 1970 TV21 was a shadow of its former self, and was being packaged by a company called Martspress. The license to publish strips based on Gerry Anderson's shows had not been renewed (instead it went to Polystyle and Countdown) and tv content was minimal. The Star Trek strip was its major draw, now taking up all three full colour pages, and the rest of the comic (reduced in size from its tabloid heyday) was a mixture of a couple of other tv strips (Land of the Giants, Tarzan) and new non-tv adventure strips.
Later that year, more budget cuts were evident, dropping all tv strips except for Star Trek, and adding several reprint strips... including a handful of Marvel characters.
Putting Marvel superheroes in TV21 seemed a bizarre move, but by that time the name of the comic had become irrelevant to its content anyway. However, Spider-Man had been on British tv... well, in certain regions anyway, a few years earlier when the sixties cartoon series had aired. This seemed to be justification enough for Spider-Man, Ghost Rider (original cowboy version), The Silver Surfer, Ringo Kid, and Homer the Happy Ghost to arrive in the weekly's pages.
Ringo Kid was a western strip that Marvel had published in the 1950s. It had some nice artwork by the excellent Joe Maneely and John Severin. Unfortunately, like all the Marvel reprints in the comic, artwork was edited to fit more panels on a page to make it look more like a traditional British comic format. Odhams had also done this in the sixties, and Dez Skinn would do it again when he became editor of Marvel UK in the late seventies, but it's a technique that doesn't always work if panels are cropped or extended badly.
Homer the Happy Ghost was a Marvel humour strip from the mid-Fifties. Obviously inspired by Harvey Comics' Casper the Friendly Ghost, these strips were presumably added to give the comic a balance with humour and adventure. Although written by Stan Lee, the strip wasn't that great.
Initially Spider-Man (or The Spider-Man as TV21 called it) took up the centre pages in full colour. The strips were recoloured by Martspress staff, which didn't necessarily improve on the originals. Stories were also re-lettered because dialogue was often altered, - sometimes slightly, sometimes a lot.
The most radical changes in script came at the end of TV21's run. Issue 105, the final issue, wrapped up a condensed Silver Surfer story from Marvel's Silver Surfer No.18. In the original version the Surfer battles The Inhumans, who are as heroic and misunderstood as the Surfer himself, then flees to vent his anger at the stars. In the TV21 reprint, the story changes them to "mad creatures who were bent on self destruction" and the Surfer helps to destroy these "forces of evil", leaving them all apparently dead!
The Spider-Man strip in that final issue also changes the script, with Spidey being pardoned by the city and deciding to retire at the end of the story. By this time (September 1971) TV21 was published by IPC, and they were about to merge it into Valiant. As had been their attitude when they took over Smash!, superheroes had no place in IPC's traditional weeklies.
Just before TV21 folded, the TV21 Annual 1972 was released, published by World Distributors (presumably packaging material farmed out to them by IPC) and contained the same Marvel characters as the weekly had. Again, the strips were edited and re-formatted to fit more panels on each page. (This was the only TV21 Annual to feature Marvel material.)
However, IPC's license to publish Marvel strips in the UK hadn't expired with TV21. A year later, in Autumn 1972, they published the undated Marvel Annual. This 128 page hardback featured early stories of Spider-Man, Conan, The Fantastic Four, and The Hulk. All the strips (except Conan) had been reprinted just a few years earlier in the Odhams weeklies, but here the pages were not reformatted.
I once heard a rumour that around this time IPC were planning a Marvel weekly, and this annual (like annuals always are) had been prepared in advance to tie in with that. Whatever the truth of it, that same year Marvel Comics set up a British office and The Mighty World of Marvel No.1 was launched at the end of September. Marvel no longer needed a UK publisher to handle their strips. They were doing it themselves, - editing and designing the comics in New York and using a British office to deal with printing, advertising and distribution. Eventually of course the UK office would expand to edit and package the comics themselves. Marvel UK had arrived.
Interestingly, IPC published a second and final Marvel Annual in 1973, after which Marvel UK took on that job too. Alan Class, who had reprinted so many Marvel strips in his comics in the sixties, carried on reprinting old Marvel monster/mystery stories for years afterwards, but dropped the superhero material.
Marvel UK went on to have its highs and lows of course, all of which will be told in Robin Kirby's book on the history of the company, to be published by Quality. Hopefully this long awaited volume will be out this year as I understand the finishing touches are being put to it right now. I'm not sure if the title has been decided upon yet (although I did suggest "Wham! Bam! Thank you Stan! Marvel Comics: Over priced, Over-sexed and Over here" - but I'm not sure if they're going with that. :-)).
I've touched upon the pre-Marvel UK days on this blog the last few days but Robin's book will cover it in much more depth. This is an area of British comics history that's often dismissed as "just reprint" but there's been much more to it than that and it needs to go on record. From what I've heard, the book will certainly do that, as it interviews staff and freelancers who worked for Marvel UK. More details will be given here in due course when the book is released.