SPOTLIGHT ON

THE FANTASTIC FOUR, SPIDER-MAN & THOR
BACK TO BACK IN A
SEPTEMBER 1975 MARVEL MULTI-MAGS

 

FANTASTIC FOUR#162

MARVEL TEAM-UP #37

MIGHTY THOR #239

 
 


 
By the mid-1970s, Marvel had fully embraced the marketing concept of selling multiple comic books packaged in a sealed plastic bag to a customer base which comic books could hardly reach otherwise: people shopping at supermarkets and large grocery stores.

It didn't really matter therefore that buying these three comic books in a comicpack for 74 (rather than from a newsagent for 75) clearly presented no real bargain - it was the opportunity and convenience to pick up a few comics at the same time parents and adults did their general shopping. Neatly packaged, it almost became an entirely different class of commodity.

The MARVEL MULTI-MAGS we are looking at here features three titles from the September 1975 cover date run (meaning they were actually on sale in June 1975): Fantastic Four #162, Marvel Team-Up #37, and Mighty Thor #239.

There is no general rule to state what shape/grade the comic books in a MARVEL MULTI-MAGS (or any other comic pack for that matter) will be in. After all, a lot of things can go wrong during their 40+ years of storage.

Some of these potential mishaps will only affect the plastic bag, others might not harm the packaging as much as the contents. As a result, almost any combination is possible: you can have a polybag displaying lots of wear but perfect comic books inside (meaning it was mostly stored in a dark and cool place but at some time took some external soiling or slight mechanical abrasion), but you can just as well have a near pristine polybag holding comic books showing substantial paper degradation (indicating the bag was stored well but exposed to light and excessive warmth for an extended period of time).

  Given its age, the polybag of this September 1975 MARVEL MULTI-MAGS is rather clean in comparison to some packagings of the same period, with only slight dulling of the plastic and a few spots of light colour ink residue (blue and red) from when the label was turned back onto the bag during some time of storage (a common defect found on many comicpack bags which usually doesn't affect the comic books inside the bag).

There is only one sign of physical wear - a fairly small tear an inch or so below the sealing line of the label.

However, this slight wear of the bag did not, fortunately, harm its contents; the three individual comic books inside proved to be in excellent overall condition: pristine covers with perfect gloss and shine, perfectly flat and tight (without any spine stress or major creases), sharp edges, and off-white pages.

No titles had permanent slots in the MARVEL MULTI-MAGS, but all three titles contained in this example - Fantastic Four, Marvel Team-Up and Thor - featured often and regularly.

 

 
But even so, given the sometimes seemingly haphazard way individual issues were selected for inclusion in MARVEL MULTI-MAGS, there was no guarantee of an uninterrupted flow of consecutive issues - and therefore a distinct possibility of missing out on a part of the storyline. On top of this, the continuity of the Marvel Universe of the 1970s was such that plots and storylines usually evolved over more than one issue.

This didn't exactly make the MULTI-MAGS an ideal way of getting your Marvel comic book fix. However, one needs to bear in mind that this was a common fate of the average comic book reader in the 1970s Bronze Age, whether his or her comic books came packaged in a plastic bag or as single issues from a display or spinner rack. Back in those days, an uninterrupted supply of specific titles simply was not guaranteed. Not worrying too much about possible gaps in storylines became something of a routine - besides, you would usually get a recap of what had happened so far on the first page.

So all in all it simply was a part of being a comic book fan in the 1970s - just as the monthly Bullpen Bulletins (which were the responsibility of the editor-in-chief) and the in-house advertising were.

The September 1975 Bullpen Bulletin ("A frantic, frenetic, fun-filled foray into the fable-fraught fortress of fandom's favorite fraternity!") featured a verbose announcement by Stan Lee in his regular SOAPBOX column of an upcoming Treasury Edition of the Wizard of Oz. What Lee failed to mention was that this somewhat unusual foray into classic children's novel material (albeit heralded by Lee as "a fairy tale written for a thinking adult, with all the fantasy, the drama, the grandeur and the thrills of a thousand superhero sagas") actually was the first time ever that Marvel and DC teamed up as publishers - although more out of sound business sense than anything else.

 
 
Frank L. Baum's book featuring Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion (first published in 1910) had been in the public domain since 1956, and since that meant a royalty-free adaptation, Marvel decided to have a go at it. Stan Lee picked Roy Thomas for the writing, John Buscema for pencils, and Tony DeZuniga for inks, but it wasn't long into the production of Wizard of Oz that Lee became aware of the fact that DC had come up with the same idea roughly at the same time - but DC had actually paid MGM for the rights to adapt the movie. It was clear that two competing adaptations would provide no publisher with much of a profit, so Stan Lee met with Carmine Infantino to see if DC was open to striking a deal. They came to an agreement to create a single 82-page oversized comic which would carry the title Marvel and DC Present MGM's Marvelous Wizard of Oz. Since Thomas and Buscema continued their work, it really was a Marvel production and DC was just taking a piece of the sales action through their movie rights, but it worked out financially for both parties involved - and in a way probably opened the door for the cross-publisher superhero titles (Faraci, 2020).

As for the actual Bullpen Bulletins, the first of the various ITEM! bullet points talked about the non-publication of some previously announced 50 Giant-Size titles.

 

  Marvel was precariously overextending itself in a continued attempt to push the competition off the newsagent racks by flooding them with its own product - but, as readers were told in the typical Marvel style:

"it seems that there just weren't enough of us to go around on all the nifty new titles we have planned and still take proper care of our four-bit blockbusters. But don't despair, True Believer (...) keep your peepers peeled in the weeks to come".

The other ITEM! bullet points were chiefly concerned with new scripting and art assignments on various titles , and a special announcement box broke the news to readers of the passing of Artie Simek (6 January 1916 - 20 February 1975), letterer supreme:

"He was one of the cornerstones in building the mighty world of Marvel and his efforts cannot be ignored".

The problem of Marvel creating a hyperinflation of titles was mirrored in a full-page in-house ad promoting subscriptions, which featured no less than an astonishing 63 colour titles plus 14 black & white magazines. In comparison, DC Comics had 38 colour titles to offer newsagents in mid-1975 (September cover date production run). Marvel was clearly winning the numbers game, but it wasn't sustainable and would continue to cause massive headaches for its editors over the next two to three years as issues could not be finished on time.

 
Also included in all three comics collected in this MARVEL MULTI-MAGS was a combined FOOM / Giant-Size Doctor Strange in-house advert, as well as a 1975 Marvel Comic-Con merchandising ad.
 

 

 

FANTASTIC FOUR #162

September 1975
(monthly)
On Sale: 24 June 1975

Editor - Roy Thomas
Cover - Rich Buckler (pencils) & Joe Sinnott (inks)

"The Shape of Things to Come!" (18 pages)
Story - Roy Thomas
Pencils - Rich Buckler
Inks (credited) - Joe Sinnott
Inks (uncredited)* - Dan Adkins (last two pages)
Lettering - Joe Rosen
Colouring - Phil Rachelson

* uncredited contribution as per this issue's creative talent information on comics.org

Synopsis
! SPOILER ALERT !

This story continues from Fantastic Four #160-161 and takes place in three parallel worlds: The world of the Fantastic Four (i.e. the planet Earth we know), an Alternate Earth ("Earth-A"), and an "Earth of the 5th Dimension".

 
Arkon, warlord and ruler of the extra-dimensional world of Polemachus, has started to orchestrate events causing three different realities to attack each other. Having previously acquired technology from all three worlds involved, Arkon has had his agents attack the 5th Dimension with Earth-A's Andrones; Earth-A is under attack from beings from other time periods (transported there by using Dr. Doom's time machine); and lastly, our Earth is starting to be turned into a frozen wasteland by using the 5th Dimension's freezing technology.
 
The events have a special twist to them as certain parallels to the Fantastic Four of our world exist on Earth-A (where Reed Richards is actually the Thing) and the Human Torch (of our earth) is helping out the 5th Dimension's Android Force..

Mr Fantastic learns of all this as he is "mind linked" by the Reed Richards of Earth-A. Combining their mental strength allows Earth-A Richards to free himself from Arkon's captivity. When the Earth-A Richards also learns that the FF-Thing is also held captive on Earth-A he breaks out his lookalike, and together the two Things face a battalion led by Earth-A's version of General Ross.

To complicate matters further, a portal to the 5th Dimension opens up with the Human Torch leading an invasion force into Earth-A's realm.

   
 
Although seeing two Things is a confusing sight to Johnny Storm, he understands what is going on after some explanations and in turn manages to convince the people of the 5th Dimension to return to their own world and await a solution to the situation. Meanwhile Arkon's plan is unravelling, as FF-Richards explains to all parties involved that the ultimate goal of leading the three worlds to go to war with one another was to trigger nuclear strikes on all three worlds. The resulting combined nuclear holocausts would create sufficient nuclear energy through a dimensional Nexus to revitalize Arkon's world. Putting a stop to these plans requires closing the dimensional rift, but only one person can enter the realm where the Nexus resides. As the FF-Thing heads towards the Nexus he finds a lone guardian in his way. To be continued...

This (in spite of its length actually somewhat compressed) synopsis clearly shows that there is a lot going on here - and it involves three different planes of reality, no less. The concept of "parallel earths" was introduced to comic books by Gardner F. Fox in his famous "Flash of Two Worlds" story (Flash #123) in September 1961, and DC has made extensive use of its "multiverse" ever since. Marvel, on the other hand, rarely explored parallel realities with characters which are the same yet different (which at face value is a strange concept anyway), so this foray is something of an exception. It is probably also no coincidence that Roy Thomas was at the helm of this storyline, given his known soft spot for DC's Golden Age history. And Thomas handles it well - a clear plot leaves little room for confusion, and just to be on the safe side, he and Rich Buckler even provide two charts to literally "sketch it out" for readers.

 
  As a nice additional touch, Buckler makes it easy for us to distinguish which Thing is which, as the "Earth-A" Thing wears brown pants (in contrast to Ben Grimm's famous blue ones) and also sports a torn shirt (which would even make the visual differentiation possible with later black and white reprints).

 
At face value, Fantastic Four #162 would seem to be a less than ideal issue to find in a MARVEL MULTI-MAGS, given that it contains part 3 of a four-part story arc, but that was the magic of Marvel Comics in the 1960s and 1970s - you could still get lucky and enjoy a fast paced and entertaining single issue without ever seeing any of what went on before or after. And Fantastic Four #162 is exactly that kind of comic book.
 

 

 

MARVEL TEAM-UP #37

September 1975
(bi-monthly)
On Sale:
24 June 1975

Editor - Marv Wolfman
Cover - Ed Hannigan (pencils) & John Romita (inks)

"Snow Death!" (18 pages)
Story - Gerry Conway
Pencils - Sal Buscema
Inks - Vince Colletta
Lettering -
Karen Mantlo
Colouring - Phil Rachelson

Synopsis
! SPOILER ALERT !

This story continues from the previous issue, Marvel Team-Up #36, in which Spider-Man is mysteriously teleported by Baron Ludwig Von Shtupf ("you may call me the Monster Maker") to his remote castle somewhere in Europe, where Spidey is held captive alongside the Frankenstein Monster and Man-Wolf. Also in the fold is a team of S.H.I.E.L.D. operatives who are out to foil Von Shtupf's evil plans.

 
After an all-out clash between Spider-Man, the Frankenstein Monster and Man-Wolf, Von Shtupf reveals his plan: breaking down Spider-Man, the Frankenstein Monster, and Man-Wolf with a "dissector device" into their base components in order to combine their individual abilities and create an army of monsters from this "essence". But in the end, Spidey and the Monster overwhelm the mad Baron, and after yet another fight between the webslinger and the Man-Wolf the latter disappears into the wild, Spidey and the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents take a helicopter back to civilization, and the Monster walks off into the remote mountains all alone.

Not a very original plot idea by any standards, it is at least in-tune with the appearance of the Frankenstein Monster and Man-Wolf and does resemble a B-movie of the genre quite a bit. There is also some humour creeping in when the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent tells Spider-Man and the Monster "This operation will require stealth. You're too much on the obvious side." Some of the Baron's rather whacky contraptions (such as how exactly he teleported everybody to his castle or just how he plans to combine the three protagonists by cutting them up with what looks like a laser) are never even given an attempt of an explanation, but Gerry Conway just about manages to keep everything from falling apart. There is also a small dose of Marvel morals when at the end, as Man-Wolf is taken into S.H.I.E.L.D. custody, Spider-Man talks about how hard it must be "for somebody to love a monster", not realizing that the Frankenstein Monster hears what he says - Spider-Man doesn't realize the damage he's done until after he and the agents notice that the Monster is not aboard the S.H.I.E.L.D. ship when it lifts off.

 
If the story is somewhat reminiscent of a B-movie, then the art definitely is below average - which is rather odd, given that the artist is Sal Buscema (whose wonderful pencils could be sampled in the Thor issue also contained in this very MARVEL MULTI-MAGS). So what happened? Actually, the answer points more in the direction of "who" rather than "what".

Vince "Vinnie" Colletta (1923-1991) is possibly the most prolific and at the same time most controversial inker the comic book industry has ever seen. He could be extremely fast with his work and was almost any editor's go-to-inker when a title was running late, and he always delivered (Bryant Jr., 2010). The downside to this was the fact that Colletta would at times cut corners by erasing details in the pencil artwork and simplifying panels. It helped to meet deadlines and avoid having to pay hefty printer's fines, but not all artists were too happy with it.

   
 

"Vince wrecked what I did (...) He would eliminate people from the strip and use silhouettes, everything to cut corners and make the work easier for himself." (Joe Sinnott in Ro, 2004)

"When he wanted to he could do very good work, but he didn't take his time with my stuff." (Gene Colan in Field, 2005)

Editors and writers often weren't too impressed either. Stan Lee dropped Colletta as inker for Tomb of Dracula after he felt that he had taken too many shortcuts on issue #9 (Field, 2005), and Len Wein famously stated (when asked in an interview what he enjoyed most about working on Luke Cage):

"Getting to work with the wonderful George Tuska, before Vinnie Colletta got his hands on the pencils and ruined them." (Contino, 2005)

But Marvel Team-Up suffered other, more systemic problems, too - as a glance at the letters page clearly shows. While the team-up formula was a novelty when the title started back in 1971, the stories quickly became highly formulaic with more misunderstandings between the good guys and therefore in-fights than one could count (and ultimately stomach). Readers seemingly also wanted more of a continuous plot rather than "done in one issue" stories (two in this case here). It would remain a problem for Marvel Team-Up, even though the title racked up a total of 150 issues before bowing out in early 1985.

 
 

 

 

MIGHTY THOR #239

September 1975
(monthly)
On Sale: 10 June 1975

Editor - Roy Thomas
Cover - Gil Kane (pencils) & Dan Adkins(inks)

"Time Quake!" (18 pages)

Story - Roy Thomas
Pencils - Sal Buscema
Inks - Joe Sinnott
Lettering - John Costanza
Colouring - Phil Rachelson

Synopsis
! SPOILER ALERT !

Having defeated Geirrodur, the rock troll king, Ulik sets his sights on the surface world. But Thor not only defeats both Ulik and his plans, he also causes the underground cave to collapse on the trolls while he and Jane Foster safely escape to the surface.

Meanwhile, in California, Odin (who goes by the name of Orrin since he can't recall who he actually is) takes part in a strike meeting with his fellow farm workers when a gigantic pyramid bursts up from the ground.

 
Transfixed by it, Orrin/Odin ascends its steps when Osiris, Isis, and Horus appear in an opening doorway - all of which is witnessed by Jane on TV as Thor has left to search for Odin. The issue ends with Orrin/Odin following the three gods of Ancient Egypt into the pyramid... to be continued.
 
Thor #239 saw Roy Thomas take over the scripting from Gerry Conway, but what had been planned as a longer assignment would be cut very short, as an opening message on the letters page pointed out.

"In this issue, it was our original intention to announce that Roy Thomas planned to pull himself away from the likes of the Fantastic Four, Conan, and the new-but-nostalgic Invaders to take up full-time scripting and editing reins of THOR. However, by the time the story called "Time-Quake" was finished, it was already apparent that the Rascally One was going to be too busy to continue as a regular writer on the mag, despite the fact that he's been waiting years for a crack at writing it. Several projects have since beckoned."

   
 
Readers were told that one of these projects was the "swiftly-upcoming Treasury Edition adaptation of MGM's classic movie "The Wizard of Oz" (and some sequels, to boot)". Marvel was clearly down to the wire, with what seemed like an endless list of projects and not really enough creative talent to go around and make it happen.
 
 

"So, to make a long story short, Roy has plotted this issue and the next (...) after that, Lively Len Wein is slated to take over as regular scriptor."

But the message didn't stop there.

"Roy'd like to thank Our Pal Sal Buscema for stepping in to pencil this ish and the next when Brother John got bogged down with a combination of Conan stories plus an extra-length epic for the first issue of THOR THE MIGHTY, a brand new $1 magazine set to debut just a few short weeks from now."

 
It was quite clear that editors were frantically shuffling around writers, pencillers and inkers in order to not fall too far behind on everything. With hindsight, comic book historians would note that this was a period when Marvel was beginning to seriously mess up its line of titles due to an almost impossible production line.
 
And the management board just kept on calling for more.

"If we even talked about an idea for a book it immediately had to go onto a schedule and be out a few months later." (Roy Thomas in Howe, 2012).

The bottom line would be that more and more titles would not reach their sales points on time.

Sal Buscema proved a worthy stand-in for his older brother and not only provided a dynamic rendition of a well-paced Roy Thomas story, he also managed to fit in several iconic scenes, such as the transformation of Don Blake into Thor and back again.

This is comic book entertainment at its best - and looking at these panels and then comparing them to Marvel Team-Up #37 is also an indication of the damning effect Vince Coletta's simplified inking could have in watering down pencil artwork.

 

 

 
No 1970's Marvel comic book was, of course, without (a lot of) third party advertising, some of which was "okay" (mostly if it featured Marvel characters) and some of which was nothing but a dismal swamp of the cheapest form of advertising you could find - such as the infamous flea market ads promising anything and everything. All three titles included in this September 1975 Multi-Mag carried exactly the same ads, some of which are illustrated here.
 

 

  Today, MARVEL MULTI-MAGS are first and foremost a time capsule; opening that plastic bag offers a nostalgic glimpse into what it was like to be a comic book reader in the 1970s. And then as now, the combination of the three titles in these sealed polybags could go either way. Sometimes it's all thrills, and sometimes there's a lemon (or two, if you're really unlucky) in there.
 
This September 1975 MARVEL MULTI-MAGS would, I am pretty certain, have thrilled my socks off back in the days. And it still leaves me with a "wow-feeling" today, although maybe a little bit less so with regard to Marvel Team-Up issue. While it isn't really bad, it is definitely very pedestrian even for a mid-1970s comic book. The Frankenstein Monster was a favourite of mine back then, so this combo with Spider-Man would have been right up my alley. Today, that spark doesn't fly quite as easily.

On the other hand, both the Fantastic Four and Thor issues are a pure delight even today. Fast plotting and a storyline with a purpose combine with artwork that just sucks you in. It's the most fun you can have reading a comic book - and in a way it also shows what is lacking in today's comic books. But that's an entirely different story for some other day...


 
FURTHER READING ON THE THOUGHT BALLOON
 
  The Frankenstein Monster's own title was cancelled after 18 issues the same month that Marvel Team-Up #37 hit the newsagent stands; you can read more about Marvel's Monster of Frankenstein title here.
 
  Back in 2010 I took a comparative look at two issues of Fantastic Four separated by no less than 33 years of real time: #186 and #580. While a lot of change has since been wrought on Marvel's first family (including cancellation of the title for a year in 2015), you can see the differences between a 1977 and 2010 comic book here.
 

 
BIBLIOGRAPHY

CONTINO Jennifer M. (2005) " Englehart, Isabella, Wein & Luke Cage: An Essential Interview", The Pulse, online at comicon.com (5 July 2005) [retrieved from web.archive.org]

FARACI Derek (2020) "How The Wizard of Oz Brought DC & Marvel Together For Their First Crossover", online at cbr.com (25 February 2020)

FIELD Tom (2005) Secrets in the Shadows: The Art & Life of Gene Colan, TwoMorrows Publishing

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

RO Ronin [Marc Flores] (2004) Tales To Astonish: Jack Kirby, Stan Lee and the American Comic Book Revolution, Bloosmbury

 

 


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uploaded to the web 11 April 2021