THOR, THE ETERNALS & CAPTAIN AMERICA

BACK TO BACK IN A

OCTOBER 1976 MARVEL MULTI-MAGS

 

 
 

 
MARVEL
MULTI-MAGS
  Even in the early 1960s, the comic book industry realized that in spite of the hugely successful comeback of the superhero genre (which had been clinically dead for most of the 1950s) and the subsequent streak of new creativity and enthusiasm it generated, its traditional sales points were fading away. Small stores that had carried comic books were pushed out of business by larger stores and supermarkets, and newsagents started to view the low cover prices and therefore tiny profit margins comics had to offer as a nuisance.

Many ideas on how to turn these developments around were put forward by different publishers, but the most successful concepts strived to open up new sales opportunities and markets and thus tap into a new customer base.

 
One place these potential buyers could be found was the growing number of supermarkets and chain stores. But in order to be able to sell comic books at supermarkets, the product would have to be adjusted.
 
Handling individual issues clearly was no option for these outlets, but by looking at their logistics and display characteristics, DC Comics (who came up with the Comicpac concept in 1961) found that the answer to breaking into this promising new market was to simply package several comic books together in a transparent plastic bag. This resulted in a higher price per unit on sale, which made the whole business of stocking them much more worthwhile for the seller. The simple packaging was also rather nifty because it clearly showed the items were new and untouched, while at the same time blending in with most other goods sold at supermarkets which were also conveniently packaged.  
 
Outlets were even supplied with dedicated Comicpac racks, which enhanced the product appeal even more since the bags containing the comic books could be displayed on rack hooks in an orderly and neat fashion.
 

  DC's "comicpacks" were a success - so much so that other publishers quickly started to copy it. Marvel produced a series of Marvel Multi-Mags in 1968/69 but then seems to have dropped the idea again.

However, by the mid-1970s, the House of Ideas had once again 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 say 89¢ (rather than from a newsagent for 90¢ in that case) 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 Thor #252, Eternals #4, and Captain America #202, all from the October 1976 cover date run. This meant that they were actually on sale at newsagents in July 1976, although there could be quite a delay in terms of actual availability of MARVEL MULTI-MAGS at some sales points, resulting in Multi-Mags on display that contained "semi-recent books (typically about nine months old)" (Brevoort, 2007). Considering the packaging and distribution process, this doesn't really seem too surprising.

This specific three-pack is somewhat special in that it belongs to a small number of late 1976 and early 1977 MARVEL MULTI-MAGS that came with a yellow and green on white (3 comics for 89¢) label, which display the anomaly of not having a seal-line below the label. Heat sealing the bag at this point served two purposes. Firstly, it provided a somewhat strengthened label (which of course also doubled as a hanger for most displays), but secondly - and just as importantly - it also provided a tighter fit for the comic books, by restricting their vertical movement inside the bag.

The lack of the sealing line below the label is in fact a major defect with regard to how well the packaging protects its contents, since the comic books inside a MULTI-MAGS polybag of this type are not restricted from moving about into the label part of the sealed bag - quite unlike those packaged inside a "regular" MULTI-MAGS polybag (i.e. with a sealed off label). In some cases - as the example here shows - this protective partition was achieved (to a degree) by the use of staples.

 

 
 
These could have been applied by resellers upon delivery (or even years later by third parties); it is doubtful that this took place at the original packaging facility.
 
In any case, the staples did what they were intended to do and prevented any excessive physical damage to the three comic books inside the polybag - especially noticeable when compared to issues that were allowed to "move freely" in MULTI-MAGS polybags affected by this lack of a sealing line below the label.

No titles had permanent slots in the MARVEL MULTI-MAGS, but the three titles packaged into this example could be found to make reliably regular (Thor) or frequent (Eternals, Captain America) appearances. But even with these fairly regular titles (other examples were Hulk, Avengers and Amazing Spider-Man) there was never any 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 was, quite simply, not guaranteed. Not worrying too much about possible gaps in storylines thus became something of a routine - besides, you would usually get a recap of "what 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 - as were the monthly Bullpen Bulletins (which were the responsibility of the editor-in-chief) and the in-house advertising (often with mouth watering cover reproductions).

 
 
In October 1976, the Bullpen Bulletin was still on its way through the alphabet as far as its title was concerned, arriving at the letter R - which resulted in the typically alliterative and somewhat nonsensical title "A Ragbag of Riotious Repartee for Our Resplendently Rarified Readership!".

The big news - and the headline item of Stan Lee's Soapbox column - was the promotion of Archie Goodwin to Editor-in-Chief.

Lee also mentioned the "illustrious list of former editors-in-chief, Roy Thomas, Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, and Gerry Conway" but diligently avoided pointing out that this position had quickly become a revolving door affair, with those four gents successively at the helm between 1972 and 1976 (and Conway only lasting six weeks), and all of them stepping down to be able to spend more time writing.

 

Also not mentioned by Stan Lee on this occasion was the fact that Archie Goodwin only agreed to fill the position on the assumption that it would be temporary, until a permanent replacement could be found; ultimately Goodwin would resign at the end of 1977 (Howe, 2012).

 
As for the actual Bullpen Bulletins' various ITEM! bullet points, they were - as usual - mostly concerned with new and changing assignments of various writers and artists, as well as Marvel's ever expanding line of titles - in this case the major push was given to the Super Treasury Edition of Kirby's 2001: A Space Odyssey, an adaptation of the movie. It would be followed in December 1976 by an ongoing series of the same title which, however, would find few favours with readers and be cancelled after a mere ten issues.

The final item of news was both bad and not really news at all - Marvel's need (for reasons explained in this Bullpen Bulletin in a separate box) to raise the cover price for their regular comics from 25¢ to 30¢. Following a few tests in select markets to gauge buyer reactions to the 5¢ hike, the higher price was introduced as of September 1976 (cover date), i.e. the previous month. The price for a MARVEL MULTI-MAGS rose accordingly, to 89¢ for three comics instead of the previous 74¢.

 

 

 

THOR #252

October 1976
(monthly)
On Sale:
13 July 1976

Editor - Len Wein
Cover - Jack Kirby (pencils) & John Verpoorten (inks)

"A Dragon at the Gates!"
(11 pages)
Story - Len Wein
Pencils - John Buscema
Inks - Tony DeZuniga
Lettering -
Joe Rosen, Gaspar Saladino (splashpage)
Colouring - Glynis Wein

"The Weapon and the Warrior!"
(7 pages)
Story - David Kraft
Pencils - Pablo Marcos
Inks - Pablo Marcos
Lettering -
John Costanza
Colouring - Glynis Wein


 
In Thor #252, the God of Thunder, in search of Odin gone missing, battles it out with Ulik, "the most savage troll of all!" as the cover blurb puts it (and who appeared previously in issues of Thor available in MARVEL MULTI-MAGS). However, readers only got 11 pages of this confrontation, since this issue (and the next) contained a backup feature: The famous Tales of Asgard were back.
 
As for the regular Thor stories of this period, Len Wein summed it up nicely in 2016.

"The legendary Jack 'King' Kirby had introduced the magnificent scope and majesty of fabled Asgard, but John [Buscema] added a power and grace that was uniquely his own. John had a way of understanding characters that was positively supernatural in its depth.

In John's stories, every pose was unique to the character at hand, every gesture, every expression. No two characters would ever sit the same in a John Buscema story, and nobody could put a figure in a chair like John. You could feel every ounce of that character's weight as he or she sat, feel the weighty matters that stooped their shoulders." (Wein, 2016)

   
 
Pablo Marcos, who moved from his native Peru first to Mexico and then to the US in the 1970s, was also an established artist with an accomplished background in illustration and art, but the Tales of Asgard segment seemingly didn't thrill readers enough for Marvel to continue the experiment after the conclusion of this story in Thor #253.
 
 

Incidentally, the Grand Comics Database states that Buscema only did the breakdowns for this issue of Thor and that Tony DeZuniga provided the finished art. But regardless of how much Buscema and how much DeZuniga ended up in the finished product, there are, as always with issues of Thor from this period, some truly classic vignettes to be found and admired.

The cover for Thor #252 can easily be recognized as Jack Kirby's work. However, and again according to the GCD, Thor's face was reworked by John Romita & John Verpoorten. It was understandable in the case of DC, when Kirby joined them from 1970 to 1975 and his renditions of Superman didn't conform to the "established DC visuals", but in this case Kirby did actually create and shape the classic 1960s "Thor visuals".

Maybe it was just another sign that Marvel and Kirby would never really be happy with each other ever again.

The cover would be used in 2016 for the frontispiece of the 15th volume of Thor's adventures in the Masterworks series.

 
  Regular buyers of MARVEL MULTI-MAGS would be able - with a little bit of luck - to continue reading the story of Thor and Ulik (as well as the conclusion to the Tales of Asgard backup) as Thor #253 would become available in a MARVEL MULTI-MAGS the following month.
 
 

 

 

ETERNALS #4

October 1976
(monthly)
On Sale:
13 July 1976

Editor -Jack Kirby & Archie Goodwin (consulting)
Cover - Jack Kirby (pencils) & Frank Giacoia (inks)

"The Night of the Demons" (17 pages)

Story - Jack Kirby
Pencils - Jack Kirby
Inks - John Verpoorten
Lettering - Irv Watanabe
Colouring - Glynis Wein


STORY OVERVIEW - The Deviants continue their assault of Manhattan, enacting Kro's plan to manipulate Earth's human population into becoming their willing servant soldiers through the great fear that the Deviants instil in humans who see them as Devils and Demons. In the course of this attack, Kro succeeds in rendering Ikaris unconscious, though his body is retrieved from the ocean floor by Ajak, another Eternal. Meanwhile, Arishem the Judge, leader of the Fourth Celestial Host, continues to survey the Inca ruins from which the Celestials were summoned by the Cosmic Beacon.


 
Most of the time, the Eternals were a fun read, though they could be a real mouthful too. But in order to fully understand the Eternals, one needs to understand the enormous amount of Jack Kirby's personal and professional history tied into this title.

Kirby left Marvel Comics in 1970 for DC Comics, increasingly angered by what he perceived to be an intentional and continuous denial of credit for his share in creating much of the Marvel Universe. DC promised him not only full credit but also full artistic freedom, the result of which was Kirby's "Fourth World" meta-series, a blend of classic mythology and science fiction. For some it was the ultimate comic book saga, while to others it just all seemed too convoluted and confusing, and the latter group of people seemed to be in the majority as Kirby's work didn't sell near as well as DC needed it to. As the number of cancellations of Fourth World titles grew, so did Kirby's disappointment with DC, and after his contract ended in Spring 1975 Jack Kirby once again went to work for Marvel. In return for this industry scoop, "the King" essentially just wanted to be left alone to write and edit his own stories with no co-plotters or tie-ins with other titles done by other people, keeping his work deliberately detached from Marvel continuity (Gartland & Morrow, 2013).

 
In terms of new concepts, Kirby started working on The Eternals, which was thematically similar to his DC work (especially the New Gods) but actually took its core inspiration from Swiss author Erich von Däniken's Chariots of the Gods - in which the author made the both fascinating and controversial claim that Earth had been visited by aliens in the past and that evidence of this could be found in artefacts and the mythologies of ancient civilizations.

Working on this premise, Kirby postulates such an alien visit in our prehistoric past. Through genetic experimentations these "Celestials" create three distinct species: Earth's humans, the "Deviants" (whose genes are so unstable that every one of them is grotesquely different and they all have lived on the bottom of the ocean for centuries), and the "Eternals" (undying and beautiful humanoids with superhuman mental gifts).

   
 
Kirby pitched the series to Marvel under the title of The Celestials, but

"Someone at Marvel felt the new series could piggyback off [von Däniken's] book's success and changed the title from The Celestials to Return of the Gods (...) In their enthusiasm to cash in, Marvel also created a cover with the new title presented in the same font as the logo on Däniken's celebrated work. Once someone in the legal department saw the cover (...) he told editors "Wait a minute, we're going to get our rear ends sued off here". The title changed again, to The Eternals." (Ro, 2004)

 

  It was once again a typically high-flying Kirby concept, accompanied by artwork of complex machinery, but at least to start with it seemed to work well enough. Although of course a matter of taste, a certain "looseness" seemed to plague Kirby's work since his return from DC. His plotting would sometimes go off in more directions than most readers were willing to accept let alone care for, and even his artwork at times showed signs of coming undone (compare the hands in these two panels here from Eternals #4, separated only by a single page).

Ultimately, his work came across as being too detached from what the average reader would expect. And since Marvel Comics had always been about finding "the formula that sells", this became a problem, aggravated by the fact that by that time Kirby was living and working in California and the Marvel offices were in New York.

Communication was slow, and it seems that opinions on Kirby's work started to drift to extremes - some still admired it, while others simply couldn't stand it (Gartland & Morrow, 2013).

By the time Eternals #4 hit the news stands, Kirby was still building his cast and plotting out the general theme, and the letters page was full of praise for the first issue, with readers rejoicing about his return to Marvel and expecting big things.

 
 
For some editors at Marvel, that initial enthusiasm waned rather quickly.

"In addition to disliking the dialogue (which was sometimes ludicrous but always earnest, as in the scene [from Eternals #4] when an innocent bystander ran through crowded metropolitan streets yelling "Run! Run! The Devil's come back from space with an army of Demons!"), they wanted more renowned Marvel heroes in the book." (Ro, 2004)

So Kirby tried to appease his critics by linking the Eternals to the Marvel Universe, but explaining the presence of the Hulk as an instance of an android robot (allowing him to still keep things somewhat apart) only frustrated them more. An increasing amount of corrections of dialogue made in NYC (with Kirby only finding out when he saw the printed copies) made the situation more and more difficult. When Kirby's contract came up for renewal in April 1978, Stan Lee made it clear that he only wanted Kirby's artwork and no more of his scripting (Howe, 2012). Not surprisingly, Kirby left after only three years at Marvel, went to work for the animation industry, and never returned to Marvel again.

 
It is probably fair to say that all of Kirby's 1970s work is something of an acquired taste, but the Eternals are comparatively accessible and make for entertaining reading most of the time.

 
 
 
  Copies of the Eternals appeared frequently in MARVEL MULTI-MAGS, and although the evidence available at this point in time continues to present some holes in the data, Marvel's MULTI-MAGS may even have carried a complete and full run of all 19 issues.
 
 

 

 

CAPTAIN AMERICA #202

October 1976
(monthly)
On Sale:
13 July 1976

Editor -Jack Kirby & Archie Goodwin (consulting)
Cover - Jack Kirby (pencils) & Frank Giacoia (inks)

"Mad, Mad Dimension!" (17 pages)

Story - Jack Kirby
Pencils - Jack Kirby
Inks - Frank Giacoia
Lettering - John Costanza
Colouring - George Roussos


STORY OVERVIEW - Falcon has disappeared, and oil magnate and altruistic adventurer "Texas Jack" Marshall Muldoon believes that it has to do with "Zero Street" - which has mysteriously vanished too, including its asylum and its most notorious inmate, one Dr. Abner Doolittle, a nuclear physicist, who apparently perfected his dimension machine, transporting the asylum. Muldoon is actually spot on, since this is exactly what happened to Falcon, who is now battling a monster in said dimension. Meanwhile, when a strange fireball portal appears at what once was Zero Street, Cap leaps through it, followed by Texas Jack...


 
As mentioned above, when Jack Kirby returned to Marvel in 1975, he really just wanted to be left alone to write, draw and edit "his own thing", and Captain America and the Black Panther were the only Marvel characters (which of course he had co-created) that Kirby agreed to return to, but here also, he deliberately detached them from Marvel continuity (Gartland & Morrow, 2013).
 
Kirby took over with Captain America #193 and a story arc entitled Madbomb. The cover sported a blurb reading "King Kirby is back - greater than ever!" and the promotional copy for this issue screamed

"King Kirby is back to bring you an all new action-packed issue! "Madbomb" - can it really destroy the earth? Can Cap and Falc save the world? Read to find out!"

Madbomb followed on the heels of an extended run by Steve Englehart, who had firmly linked Captain America to frequent political and social commentary. Jack Kirby's take was an entirely different one, portraying Steve Rogers as a patriot whose all-out action was his social commentary, all for the good of the nation.

   
 
Kirby conceived this plot as an eight chapter arc, leading up to the anniversary #200 issue of the title, which was quite a daring concept back in 1976. And while the artwork was your essential Kirby - square-jawed faces and two-fisted action - his plotting just seemed to run away with him as everything came and went so fast that it was hard to follow at times. Adding to this the fact that nothing of what happened in Captain America seemed to affect the Marvel Universe at all (which was exactly how Kirby wanted it to be), it all felt increasingly weird to many Marvel fans (Gartland & Morrow, 2013).

"Madbomb" was followed by the story arc "Night People", of which this issue is its second instalment.

 

  Marvel was trying to sell Kirby's Captain America as a "startling new concept" (cover blurb on Captain America #208), but more and more negative letters from readers were received (and published) which in general praised his artwork as being superb but qualified his writing as appalling (Ro, 2004).

Gartland & Morrow (2013) claim that this was to a degree fabricated by people inside Marvel wanting to bully Kirby out, while Howe (2012) quotes an unnamed Marvel staffer who snuck self-penned positive letters into Kirby's Captain America issues to try and counter-balance all the negative feedback pouring in.

     
Jim Shooter, who would become Marvel's Editor-in-Chief in January 1978, would later add dismal sales figures of the title to the commotion:

"We had single-digit sales figures for Captain America, and at a time the Marvel line average was up near fifty percent." (Ro, 2004)

When Marvel called Kirby to tell him about the low sales and that he would have to work with the New York editorial staff and a dialogue writer, Kirby (who also refused to at least have Cap fight well-known and fan-favourite villains) replied that he'd rather leave the book.

Jack Kirby's run on Cap ended with Captain America #214 (October 1977), after which Roy Thomas and George Tuska took over and practically rebooted the series with a complete retelling of Captain America's origin. It was almost painfully evident that Marvel wanted its star-spangled hero back.

 
 
 

 
 
  Today, any MARVEL MULTI-MAGS is a time capsule; opening this plastic bag right here offers a nostalgic glimpse into what it was like to be a comic book reader in October 1976.

So what else was going on back then?

 
  The US Billboard Chart saw three number 1s during October 1976: Walter Murphy and the Big Apple Band with "A Fifth of Beethoven" as well as Chicago with "If you leave me now" for one week each, while Rick Dees and His Cast of Idiots got two weeks at the top with "Disco Duck (Part 1)". In the UK, ABBA with "Dancing Queen" and Pussycat with "Mississippi" topped the charts for two weeks each - clearly not reflecting at all the fact that 1976 was the year that Punk Rock exploded onto the British music scene.
 
  The New York Times Bestseller list for October 1976 was topped by Leon Uris' "Trinity", a spot he occupied since June; by the end of October, however, the number one position would go to Agatha Christie's posthumously published last Miss Marple book, "Sleeping Murder"..
 
  In October 1976 John Schlesinger's "Marathon Man" was the most popular movie in the US. Overall, "Rocky" was the US top-grossing movie while "Jaws" (which had been released in 1975 in the States) topped the 1976 list in the UK.
 
  In the US, all of the three most popular TV shows came from ABC, with "Happy Days" taking the top spot. Numbers for the UK are sketchy, but it appears that the TV premiere of James Bond's "Goldfinger" got the most viewers to sit down in front of the telly.
 
 

 
FURTHER READING ON THE THOUGHT BALLOON
 
 
  "Comic packs" not only sold well for more than two decades, they also offer some interesting insight into the comic book industry's history from the 1960s through to the 1990s. There's more on their general history here.
 
  There's more on the background and the history of the Marvel Multi Mags here.
 
  There's more background information and discussion of the "yellow and green on white (3 comics for 89¢)" label MARVEL MULTI-MAGS here.
 
 

 
BIBLIOGRAPHY
 
 
BREVOORT Tom (2007) "Marvel Multi-Mags", Blah Blah Blog, originally published online 28 April 2007, reposted 18 April 2020

GARTLAND Mike & John Morrow (2013) "You can't go home again - Kirby's 1970s return to the "snake pit" of Marvel Comics", in Jack Kirby Collector #29

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

RO Ronin (2004) Tales to Astonish - Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, and the American Comic Book Revolution, Bloomsbury

WEIN Len (2016) "Introduction", Marvel Masterworks: Thor, Vol. 15

 
 

 

 

 



(c) 2021

uploaded to the web 11 December 2021