COMIC PACKS
THE STORY OF THE ORIGINAL COMIC BOOK IN A BAG
MARVEL MULTI-MAGS

 
 

1961/62
COMIC BOOKS SEALED IN A PLASTIC BAG ARE BORN

 
The story of those sealed plastic bags containing between five and two different comic books and sold as a package at a marginal discount in supermarkets and department stores began on November 30th 1961.

The reason why this can be pinpointed down in such a precise way is because it was National Periodical (i.e. National Comics, i.e. DC Comics) who came up with the idea, and being the orderly and well organized publishing company DC always was, submitted the name COMICPAC for trademarking - with the purpose to produce, market and sell "packaged comic books". A groundbreaking new concept opening up new market opportunities and planting the seeds of what would become the direct market, "comicpacs" quickly became a highly successful business for DC (cf. THOUGHT BALLON #26).

This was in sharp contrast to the increasingly difficult task of selling comic books through newsstands and the traditional but frustratingly unprofitable setup of reimbursing resellers for unsold items (a business model which of course did nothing whatsoever to encourage actual sales). It was thus only a matter of time before other publishers would try and start to copy DC's Comicpac concept. The opportunity to do so came when the well established Whitman company (a division of Western Publishing) took over the distribution of DC's packaged comics to supermarkets in 1967, inviting a quickly growing number of additional publishers to join in (cf. THOUGHT BALLON #26).

 

1968
THE COMING OF THE MARVEL MULTI MAGS

 
Successful and innovative Marvel Comics had just grabbed the market leader position from DC early that year (cf. THOUGHT BALLON #24) and the House of Ideas tuned in on the Whitman distribution deal to supermarkets and chain stores too. As DC had copyrighted its COMICPAC, Marvel Comics - just like all other publishers - had to come up with their own name for their packaging. Sticking with Stan Lee's love for alliterations Marvel labelled its comicpacks MARVEL MULTI-MAGS and used the character vignette in a box (a Steve Ditko brainchild) to help buyers who were in the know identify quickly which titles they were getting.
 
Marvel Comics Multi-Mags are introduced in 1968
 
DC was very methodological about their COMICPAC concept and issued a total of 24 sets of comicpacs per year throughout the 1960s like clockwork - two each month. Each Comicpac was coded A and B respectively and numbered 1 to 12. By 1964 the digit would refer to the month, i.e. A-1 and B-1 would both feature comic books with a January cover date, and they would always contain exactly the same titles (e.g. the 1965 B-3 Comicpac would carry the same four issues no matter where or when it was sold) - an indication of how organized and structured the comic packs business at DC was.

Initially, Marvel followed both the DC output and coding system (an A and B Multi-Mag a month) and even expanded it by adding the year, e.g. Multi-Mag 68-A10 was the first packaged set sold in October 1968.

The first known Marvel Multi-Mag dates from July 1968 and contains issue #62 of Amazing Spider-Man - a title which is well represented in the roughly a dozen known Marvel Multi-Mags from 1967/68.

 
Marvel Comics Multi-Mags are introduced in 1968Marvel Comics Multi-Mags are introduced in 1968Marvel Comics Multi-Mags are introduced in 1968
 

Marvel Multi-Mags 68-A6 with Amazing Spider-Man #62 (July 1968) [left]
Marvel Multi-Mags 68-A10 with Amazing Spider-Man #66 and Daredevil #45 both November 1968) [center and right]

 
Marvel Comics Multi-Mags are introduced in 1968
 

Marvel Multi-Mags 68-A12 with Amazing Spider-Man #68 (January 1969) [left]
Marvel Multi-Mags 69-B2 with Fantastic Four #84 (March 1969) [center]
Marvel Multi-Mags 69-A4 with Amazing Spider-Man #72 (May 1969) [right]

 

1969
MIND THE GAP

 
Marvel's Multi Mags had been around for little more than a year when all of a sudden they simply vanished in mid-1969.

The reason was twofold.

Firstly, Martin Goodman had sold Marvel Comics in July 1968 to Martin Ackerman who ran a business conglomerate called Perfect Film & Chemical Corporation (Howe, 2012).

  Secondly, Perfect Film had also acquired Curtis Publishing with its own distribution division, Curtis Circulation. Marvel had already changed printers in May 1969 (Saunders et al, 2008), and when Marvel's distribution contract with Independent News expired, Curtis Circulation took over (Howe, 2012).

The cover date production run for October 1969 - on sale in mid-July 1969 - heralded the change. Gone was the long-standing IND below the price, replaced by the rounded CC logo of Curtis.

It pointed to doing all things "in-house" in order to maximize profits (ironically at a threshold point in time when comics were starting to lose money).

 


Marvel Multi-Mags 69-B5 with
Captain Marvel #14 (June 1969)

 
Perfect Film's approach to doing business was such (Howe, 2012) that it is safe to assume that the Whitman distribution deal simply expired alongside the contract with Independent.

So in spite of the continuing success of DC's COMICPACs (which became SUPER PACs in 1970) and other publisher's packaged comicpacks (cf. THOUGHT BALLON #26), Marvel seemingly dropped out of the market quickly - and completely - for quite some time.

 

1972
THE RETURN OF THE MARVEL MULTI MAGS

 
An ongoing compilation of known Marvel Multi-Mags shows the next evidence of one on sale to be a packaged bag from October 1972 with 4 comics (Iron Man #51, Daredevil #92, Hero For Hire #3 and Adventure Into Fear #10) selling for 79.
 


October 1972

  Whether or not the comicpack formula was truly dropped at Marvel after the switch to Curtis Circulation remains an open question in the face of a complete lack of any evidence for Marvel Multi-Mags between October 1969 and October 1972. The new logo which would be used consistently up until the early 1980s is in evidence on the 1972 4-pack, but the next documented Multi-Mags dates from August 1974, leaving yet another gap of almost two years.

It is difficult to say whether the production and distribution of Marvel Multi-Mags at the time was only sporadic or simply took place in small circulation numbers, leaving only very few surviving examples for posterity. But then things in general became rather chaotic at the House of Ideas.

Perfect Film still owned Marvel but had renamed itself Cadence Industries in 1973, and what had officially been Magazine Management Company now officially became known as Marvel Comics Group (Nadel, 2009), of which Albert Landau became president that same year (Howe, 2012). Unlike Stan Lee, whom he succeeded in that function, Landau had no comic book industry background and had previously been running a photo agency which occasionally worked together with Magazine Management Company. But what counted was that Landau was the choice of Cadence CEO Sheldon Feinberg.

 
Described by Stan Lee as "a very strange guy" (Lee & Thomas, 1998), Landau - under whose reigns work culture at Marvel gradually became dysfunctional and demoralizing (Howe, 2012) - kept turning in estimated sale figures to the Cadence top brass which increasingly looked just too good to be true. Growing suspicious, the corporation sent an accountant and one Jim Galton, a circulation consultant, over to Marvel to examine the profit-loss statements whilst Landau was on vacation. What they found deeply troubled Cadence, and they made Galton replace Landau as president with immediate effect in 1975 (Howe, 2012).

The accountancy books revealed that Marvel had lost $2 million by mid-1975 (Daniels, 1991). On top of that, Galton quickly found out that Marvel published 75 comic books each month but that hardly any of them were ever distributed on time. Fans never knew if and when the next installment of their favorite stories would reach them. So Galton's first mission was to establish serious deadlines and enforce them (Foerster, 2010).

Another huge problem was the traditional distribution model with returnability - and the fraudulent practices it attracted.

"We actually found a company that was sending back more copies than we shipped them. We found out there was a printer in upstate New York that was printing copies of our covers to sell back to us (...) At the time we had something like a 70 percent return rate" (Galton in: Foerster, 2010)

Galton adressed the distribution problems and, ultimately guiding Marvel into the direct market, seemingly also rediscovered the virtues of the sealed, non-returnable comicpack bag and its special market with a customer base in supermarkets and department store chains which comic books could hardly reach otherwise. By late 1975, Marvel was back in the comicpack business (as the rising number of known Marvel Multi-Mags indicates), but their offerings would never be as structured and adhering to a corporate design such as DC's comic packs - which kept on being turned out in 4 different sets every month throughout the 1970s like clockwork (occasionally adding a fifth set outside the regular schedule)

 
Which raises the question who actually ran and distributed the Marvel Multi-Mags scheme. Given the prominent MARVEL plus Spider-Man branding (plus trademark indication) it all seems to point to Marvel itself being at the wheel.

Which may also explain why there is only anecdotal data at hand for the actual publication schedule - although there are confirmed multiple sets of Multi-Mags for a number of months from 1975 through to 1981. Given that the topic has not been the subject of much reserach in the past, more information might come to light yet which could reveal an actual systematic behind Marvel's Multi-Mags.

During the initial phase the MARVEL MULTI-MAGS logo printed onto the header of the plastic bag was used consistently, but in various colour variations: red and blue on white, yellow and green on white, green and black on yellow, and yellow and white on red were all used at times - although the visual branding used (Spider-Man over a circular vignette) only really worked with a blue background. Quite obviously, Spidey's costume was popular and known enough to withstand even the most garish colour combinations.

During this early direct market attempt the comic books sealed inside the plastic bags were simply taken from the regular newsstand print run, i.e. they differed in no way from an issue sold in the context of the old returnability scheme. This was true across the board for all publishers who now sold their comic books packaged as comic packs, but as successful as this distribution and sale scheme was, DC, Marvel and Charlton (who all used Whitman's comicpack distribution system) gradually became aware of the fact that they now faced a new problem.

 


October 1976

 


December 1976 [left], January 1977 [center and right]

 
Comic packs were distributed to and sold by a large variety of outlets, including some who also carried regular newsstand comic books. And the aforementioned crookedness of parts of the newsstand sales business found an easy way to get around the non-returnability of bagged comic books.

"A certain number of distributors and retailers simply split the packs open and returned the loose comics, making an arbitrage profit." (Paul Levitz in: Evanier, 2007)

But it wasn't just the vendors - it was the customer side too.

"We called 'em Marvel Multi-Mags, and they were three Marvel books in a plastic bag for a cent less than the full cover price. These things used to be everywhere - in grocery stores, in toy stores, and in department stores. It always took facile fingers to pry the bag apart just enough so that you could see the middle comic that was sandwiched in-between - if you were scrupulous, like me - those less pure of heart would just rip the bag apart in the store and take what they wanted." (Tom Brevoort in: Morse, 2008)

DC, Charlton and above all Marvel - where Galton was still looking to fix every hole in the bucket he could find - must have rightfully been quite annoyed by all of this, even more so as it was a tough problem to tackle. Until you took a look at how Whitman themselves handled their own comic packs, that is.

 
Whitman acquired the rights to the comic books from its parent company (Western Publishing) which they distributed in packaged form. As a result, Whitman was selling comic book packs as of 1972 containing Gold Key titles which had their logo replaced by the familiar "Whitman face". As a side effect, it was thus always possible to tell a regular newsstand Gold Key comic book from the same issue coming from a comic pack.  

 
It was the fix everybody was looking for - an easy and inexpensive way of tackling the problem of dishonest sellers ripping open the plastic bags and making a double profit by returning the contents.
 

1977
ENTER THE "WHITMAN MARVELS" (DME)

 
In February 1977, Marvel followed the principle of this procedure, but - as Whitman only distributed Marvel comics but didn't buy the rights to any of them - had to come up with its own design to differentiate comic books distributed in comic packs from regular returnable newsstand issues.
 
 
The tell-tale sign which Marvel introduced on their packaged comics was a large white diamond on a black background in the upper left-hand corner, replacing the established price plus number / month fields and dropping the Curtis CC (which made sense as the diamond marked a copy distributed by Whitman).

MARVEL MULTI-MAGS continued to be sold in parallel, unaltered, carrying newsstand edition comic books - which would seem to indicate that Marvel was now simply using two packaging and distribution channels: one was Whitman, and the other possibly the House of Ideas itself. It would not be surprising if Marvel - just like DC - did not hand Whitman a de facto monopoly on their comic packs and kept some of it to themselves.

 


April 1977

  The example here - using one of the standard Whitman bags without branding other than COMICS - contains Amazing Spider-Man #167, Incredible Hulk #210, Thor #258 from April 1977, priced at 30 each but selling for 77 (which was a much better bargain than any Multi-Mag would ever offer). All three titles would feature frequently in Marvel comic packs throughout the 1970s.

Often called "Whitman Marvels", these comic books were absolutely identical to their newsstand edition cousins apart from the white diamond - and the very first Direct Market Editions (DME) from the House of Ideas.

"Bagging comics made it affordable to painlessly introduce the first Direct Market Editions without resorting to expensive small print runs." (McClure, 2010)

The "Whitman diamond" appeared on Marvel comics cover dated from February 1977 to April 1980, with the exception of three gaps in printing: January to March 1978, July 1978, and March/April 1979 (McClure, 2010). Surprisingly, however, Marvel's Multi-Mags remained untouched by this development and continued to contain comic books not marked with the special direct market "Whitman diamond".

Those which did were distributed by Whitman / Western in a variety of bags with changing designs. Initially using their standard "3/77" bags shown left, this changed in mid-1977 to their standard "CoMic PaC" bags (and an increase of price to "3 for 89"), examples of which are shown below.

 

 
These 1977 Whitman "Comic Pacs" with diamond cover Marvels also illustrate how Western had no problem using the same bag for completely different content (or did they actually have a crystal ball and foresee the future purchase of Marvel by Disney...??). The hanger label was used in different colours and there are known cases where a change in colour meant that two seemingly identical "Comic Pacs" (i.e. with the same outside comic books) actually contained a different Marvel title in the middle.
 
The phenomenal success following Marvel's launch of their Star Wars monthly title in July 1977 (originally floated to Stan Lee by Lucasfilm and pulled through by Roy Thomas against a lot of initial opposition at Marvel) not only saved Marvel Comics (Shooter, 2011) but opened up what was simply a phenomenal sale base for a comic book.

"Star Wars the movie stayed in theaters forever, it seemed.  Not since the Beatles had I seen a cultural phenomenon of such power.  The comics sold and sold and sold.  We reprinted the adaptation in every possible format.  They all sold and sold and sold." (Shooter, 2011)

The Star Wars phenomenon fitted the comicpacks idea perfectly, and Whitman quickly jumped onto the idea of packaging bags which only carried Star Wars issues. Selling exceptionally well (even though the first batch, in the standard "3/77" bag, actually contained 30 priced issues #2, 3 and 4, making buyers miss #1) Whitman realized that sales could be maximized through branding - enter the first STAR WARS bag, containing the first three issues (priced 35) for 99.

Star Wars spearheaded a new comicpack formula as Whitman now took to selling packaged bundles of three issues with continuous numbering. This included later adaptations of third party properties by Marvel such as Battleship Galactica, Micronauts, Transformers and Shogun Warriors.

Based on the success of the dedicated Star Wars comic packs, Whitman also began to package character themed bags which typically featured three consecutives issues of one title, again using clear brandings for the characters, as well as now clearly indicating the distribution through Western (Whitman). Other than Thor (1978) and Conan (1979) (examples below) Whitman also sold Spider-Man, Captain America and Tarzan packs for Marvel, and Superman packs for DC (which then carried the Whitman face logo instead of the DC bullet).

 


Star Wars 3-Packs (1977)
(source: www.bipcomics.com)

 
 

1978 - 1979
THE MULTI-MAGS MARCH ON

 
The Whitman packaging and sales machine for bagged packs of comic books was well oiled, but both Marvel and DC did not feel like relying on just one distributor for their packaged comics. Whilst DC maintained a well organized and groomed system throughout the 1970s (first called SuperPac, then Dynamic Comics, Dynamite Comics, and finally DC Super Heroes), Marvel's Multi-Mags continued to be an unpredictable product (which, in many ways, reflected the prevalent problems inside Marvel itself) but one which would be hanging around (no pun intended) for quite some time still.

The Multi-Mags continued to contain unaltered newsstand editions - a practice which would continue even after Marvel had started to send diamond cover issues only to subscribers and comic shops (i.e. direct sales destinations) as of June 1979 - and now sold 3 comics for 99. And other than the established titles (which had a brand character recognizing force even with parents and grandparents who didn't know much about comics but who often bought the comicpacks for their children and grandchildren) such as Spider-Man (both Amazing and Spectacular), Captain America, Thor, Fantastic Four and Iron Man, the Multi-Mags would occasionally feature other interesting titles such as Marvel Team-Up, Marvel Two-in-One, Marvel Spotlight, Master of Kung Fu, Howard the Duck, Eternals - and even Machine Man #1.

 

April 1978 / November 1978 / January 1979

 
When the cover price increased to 40 as of issues coverdated for May 1979, the number of comic books in the Multi-Mags was dropped to two - in all probability to stay below the $1.00 mark. As a result, the formula now was "2 for 79".
 

1980 - 1983
TWILIGHT OF THE MULTI-MAGS

 
Distribution of comicpacks containing Marvel comics through Whitman ended in April 1980. By that time, most other comic pack programmes had fizzled out already. DC's own setup was on its last lap, as were the Gold Key (Western/Whitman) bags. The market had once again changed, and now comics were hard to distribute to supermarket venues too - besides, there was the direct market forming. Marvel saw the potential, and in 1981 catered especially to the direct market when Dazzler #1 was distributed exclusively to specialized comic shops, thus bypassing the wider circulation market - a first for the comic book industry.

In 1982/83 Marvel found another distribution outlet in the form of Parkes Run, who packaged and sold a wide selection of comic packs branded MARVEL COMICS which closely imitated the MULTI-MAGS logo for a short time.

The comic pack, which had in many ways pioneered the direct market, was now made redundant by that very same market. It was the twilight of the Marvel Multi-Mag, which had remained standing longer than all other comic packs, but the sun would soon set on them too - the last confirmed Marvel Multi-Mags proper went on sale in 1981; after that, the packaging continued up until 1985 albeit now under the simplified label MARVEL COMICS. Once again holding 3 comic books (although now at a price of $1.69), these were now handled by the new Marvel Books division which had been set up in 1982 mainly to push merchandising.

 

March 1980 (front side) / March 1980 (reverse side) / July 1983

 
Under the Marvel Books venture the plastic bag concept was - literally - stretched to its limit as the number of comic books rose to no less than 5 by 1984; at that point in time, the white circle was left blank, thus showing no suggested retail price (individual issues still sold for 60). Marvel Books mostly went for themed bags anyway and the mixed title package soon gave way completely to Marvel's movie adaptations such as Return of the Jedi or Dune along with licensed properties such as G.I. Joe. By 1985, however, the comicpack had lost all momentum and just trickled away.
 
An unexpected comeback happened in the 1990s when the speculator's market focused on comic book collecting. Several small companies packaged inventory overstock from various eras and sources in sealed plastic bags and sold them through various discount markets as well as Toys'R'Us.

The latter toystore chain sold "Marvel Comic Collector 2-Packs" for a while in the early 1990s, which essentially combined one fairly current (and most often fairly awful) title with one Bronze Age title. Some company had obviously gotten hold of a larger batch of 1970s warehouse stock in excellent condition and was putting them on the market this way in those pre-internet days.

CONCLUSION

In spite of (probably) leaving the comic pack market between 1969 and 1972, Marvel really made the concept work during the mid- and late 1970s, with their comic books available in multiple packagings and through a number of distribution channels.

 
 
Admittedly a niche in the history of Marvel Comics, but an interesting and varied one.
 
 
References

DANIELS Les (1991) Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World's Greatest Comics, Harry N. Abrams

EVANIER Mark (2007) "More on Comicpacs", published online in News From Me

FOERSTER Jonathan (2010) "Marvel Comics' miracle man set up business' success", in Naples Daily News, 30 My 2010

HOWE Sean (2012) Marvel Comics - The Untold Story, Harper Collins

LEE Stan & THOMAS Roy (1998) "Stan the man & Roy the boy: A conversation between Stan Lee and Roy Thomas", in Comic Book Artist #2

McCLURE Jon Martin (2010) "A History of Publisher Experimentation and Variant Comic Books", in Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide, 40th Edition, Gemstone Publishing

MORSE Ben (2008) "Marvel Memories", published online May 30 2008 at marvel.com

NADEL Nick (2009) "The Strange Business History of Marvel Comics", published online at Comics Alliance

SAUNDERS Catherine, Heather Scott, Julia March & Alastair Dougall (2008) Marvel Chronicle - A Year by Year History, Dorling Kindersley DK

SHOOTER Jim (2011) "Roy Thomas saved Marvel", published online at jimshooter.com

 

First published on the web 23 July 2014
updated 18 March 2015

All characters, logos, and images are the property of their current copyright holders.
They are used here for non-commercial review purposes which is considered fair use according to US Code Title 17, Sec. 107.

Text is (c) 2014-2015 Adrian Wymann