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 Amazing Spider-Man #162, Marvel Feature #7, and Thor #253, all from the November 1976 cover date run. This meant that they were actually on sale at newsagents in August 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.

There is no general rule as to 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. This specific example however has an exceptionally clean polybag which also kept the comic books inside in excellent condition.

No titles had permanent slots in the MARVEL MULTI-MAGS, however, both Amazing Spider-Man and Thor would show up in a reliably regular way. Marvel Feature, one of many "tryout titles", on the other hand, was only included a couple of times - which is hardly surprising given it only ran for seven issues. But even with the fairly regular titles (other examples were Hulk, Avengers and Fantastic Four) 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 November 1976, the Bullpen Bulletin was still on its way through the alphabet as far as its title was concerned, arriving at the letter S - which resulted in the typically alliterative and somewhat nonsensical title "A Scintillating Soliloquy of Stunning Stories, Sagacious Sagas, and Senses-Shattering Super-Heroes!".

The headline item of Stan Lee's Soapbox column was the kind of story that makes you wonder (these days, not back then) how much actual fact it contained. Were hoarders really buying "all the copies of a new issue as soon as it appears (...) and sell them later at a big profit", or were "True Believers everywhere (...) complaining that our mags are selling out too fast" related more to a distribution problem? Whatever it was, it certainly allowed Stan Lee to throw in a plug for Marvel's subscription offerings - which also happened to be the subject of a full-page in-house ad.


In-house ad from Thor #253

As for the actual Bullpen Bulletins' various ITEM! bullet points, they were - as usual - mostly concerned with staffers new and old, plugs for upcoming Treasury Editions, and a push for another collaboration with Simon & Schuster (albeit a slightly oddball one in the form of The Mighty Marvel Comics Strength & Fitness Book).

Marvel was selling its brand and properties left, right, and centre, and doing comparatively well (certainly in comparison to their main competitor, DC Comics). Sales of comic books were up, dipping only slightly during the second half of the year - but still in overall positive territory compared to 1975, whereas DC's numbers were only going one way, and that was down (Tolworthy, 2016). But the bottom line would be that "running a comic book company was no cake walk in 1976", as Joe Brancatelli famously put it in one of his monthly columns for Warren in 1977.

"Whatever improvements were made at Marvel [in 1976] came by virtue of the fact that they raised comic prices, made additional non-comic sales (...), cut printing costs by lowering the print runs and subsequently had less books returned unsold since less were printed in the first place. (...) The company decided to print less comics in 1976 rather than trying to sell more." (Brancatelli, 1977)

The fact that "our mags are selling out too fast" may thus have been caused more by a curbed supply rather than a surging demand (which no doubt is what readers inferred from Stan Lee's statement).





November 1976
On Sale:
10 August 1976

Editor -Len Wein
Cover - Ross Andru (pencils) & John Romita (inks)

"Let the Punisher fit the Crime!" (18 pages)

Story - Len Wein
Pencils - Ross Andru
Inks - Mike Esposito
Lettering - John Costanza
Colouring - Glynis Oliver

STORY OVERVIEW - (continued from previous issue) The Punisher tracks down Spider-Man and Nightcrawler, believing that one of the heroes framed him as the Coney Island sniper. After an all-out brawl, the Punisher and Spider-Man agree to team-up to uncover the truth behind the shootings, and they succeed in revealing the true identity of the gunman, who turns out to be the villain Jigsaw, seeking revenge for the fact that the Punisher caused his facial disfigurement.

On a side line, J. Jonah Jameson is seeking to have yet another go at a Spider-Slayer by meeting scientist Marla Madison.
As a teenage reader of Marvel comic books back in the 1970s it was fairly easy to be completely oblivious to the context that was at times driving individual issues - the only thing you had and focussed on was the comic book you were holding in your hands.

Amazing Spider-Man #162 and its previous issue were perfect examples for this.

On the surface of things, this was simply a story which involved another superhero (Nightcrawler) and an anti-hero vigilante (Punisher) which teamed up to fight a villain together - after they had started out with the usual confrontational misunderstanding regarding their motives and stances.

It felt very much like the formulaic plotting of an issue of Spider-Man's Marvel Team-Up - a title writer Len Wein had previously penned for sixteen consecutive issues (#12-27) in 1973 and 1974. And now it almost seemed as though he was revisiting that storytelling device as editor/writer of Amazing Spider-Man, a title he had been penning since issue #151 (December 1975) - but that's not what was happening here.

In spite of curtailed print runs and other attempts of cutting production costs, Marvel was still in expansion mode in 1977, and one way to do this was through spin-offs.


  Len Wein had relaunched the "all-new, all-different" X-Men in collaboration with artist Dave Cockrum in Giant-Size X-Men #1 (May 1975), and the new characters found their footing in the regular monthly title under writer Chris Claremont.

Having one of those increasingly popular new X-Men make a guest appearance in Amazing Spider-Man was thus not done on a whim - it was quite simply an effective way to heighten visibility and promote the newly-revived series (Brevoort, 2021). After having Nightcrawler around for two issues, "Love-A-Plug" Len Wein then has him disappear into thin air in order "to continue his adventures in the all-new X-Men mag on sale everywhere".

It was something Marvel's editors loved to do every now and then in the 1970s, and in this case Wein must have thought that the only thing better than a plug for one character or title was to have two of them.

The Punisher was instantly popular with readers after his debut in Amazing Spider-Man #129 (February 1974), but the restrictions imposed by the Comics Code made it very difficult to fully exploit the potential of the character. Plans to have him headline his own series in one of the black & white magazines (which weren't subject to the Comics Code) faltered after only one appearance each in Marvel Preview #2 (August 1975) and Marvel Super Action #11 (January 1976), so Marvel decided to simply put the Punisher on a tour of (repeat) guest appearances in titles such as Amazing Spider-Man, Power Man, Captain America and Daredevil, waiting for the plug to work (which it ultimately did in the mid-1980s when the Punisher really took off).

Ross Andru (born Rossolav Andruskevitch) has been called "the most under-appreciated Spider-Man artist" (Avila, 2020), which to a degree is true since he lives in the historical shadows of Steve Ditko, John Romita and Gil Kane.

To many fans, however, he is the definitive Webcrawler artist of the Bronze Age.

"Andru's crisp line art in Marvel's flagship comic was (...) iconic. His Spider-Man was lithe and muscular. His Peter Parker kept the good looks John Romita Sr. had given him after he replaced Steve Ditko. Spidey's supporting cast, the best in comics at the time, all looked great under Andru's pencil, especially Mary Jane Watson." (Avia, 2020)

Andru established himself as the go-to Spidey artist for an almost uninterrupted run on Amazing Spider-Man #125–185 (missing only five issues) as well as Giant-Size Amazing Spider-Man #1–5, spanning an incredible five year period from October 1973 to October 1978.


Ross Andru

  Spider-Man writer and editor Gerry Conway noted that Andru's greatest strength was his authentic approach to visual storytelling:

"Ross Andru could place a character anywhere he wanted. He had a terrific sense of spatial relations; he could track a battle easily across rooftops, from panel to panel. He drew some great sequences where he maintained the same stationary background, a rooftop or a street, across an entire page, but move the characters from panel to panel (...) it was extremely important to Ross. He used to go around New York City taking pictures of the buildings so he could be accurate about where he put Spider-Man." (Conway in Williams, 2010)

Amazing Spider-Man #162 features a number of "classic" Ross Andru storytelling compositions, and they provide the story with a sense of direction which the plot itself lacks a little bit too often. Reviews of this issue vary, ranging from "entertaining" to "contrived", but it seems fair to say it's not a highlight of the series - which doesn't prevent this and the previous issue demanding higher than average prices these days, simply due to the Punisher's appearance.

  There is no letters page in this issue.

The entire issue is narrated by the Punisher in his "war journal" style, and in a subplot features the first appearance of Marla Madison, scientist co-conspirator against Spider-Man and eventual love interest for J. Jonah Jameson.





November 1976
On Sale:
10 August 1976

Editor -Roy Thomas
Cover - Frank Thorne (pencils & inks)

"The Battle of the Barbarians" (17 pages)

Story - Roy Thomas
Pencils, Inks & Lettering - Frank Thorne
Colouring - Hugh Paley

Story continued from Conan the Barbarian #67
Continues in Conan the Barbarian #68


STORY OVERVIEW - Red Sonja delivers a stolen page from the Book of Skelos to Karanthes, but Conan has tracked her there and wants the page for himself.

Red Sonja, "She-Devil with a sword", was created by Roy Thomas as a response to the growing popularity of Marvel's excursion into the sword and sorcery genre.

"Conan the Barbarian was (finally) selling fairly well, after a somewhat shaky start, so I felt the time was finally right to introduce a roughly equivalent female hero into the series, with an eye toward 'expanding the franchise'." (Thomas, 2014)

As a result, Red Sonja first appeared in Conan #23 (February 1973), loosely based on a Robert E. Howard character named Red Sonya

However, since that persona featured in a story revolving around the 16th century siege of Vienna by the Turks (which meant that there were plenty of swords involved, but no sorcery), Thomas made substantial changes in order to bring the character into Marvel's sword and sorcery world of Conan the Barbarian.

Alongside of these, Thomas also made one rather subtle change - the spelling of her name.

"I decided I needed a new heroine - one I could do anything with, because there were no prose stories in the Conan paperbacks that would conflict with what I might have her do (...) I believe I felt that, if she were to be a possibly continuing character in Conan, it might be best to make her a bit more of a "new" character by changing the spelling of her name, ever so slightly." (Thomas, 2014)

Red Sonja's next appearances were in Savage Tales #3 (February 1974), Savage Sword of Conan #1 (August 1974), Conan #43-44 and 48 (October 1974, November 1974 and February 1975) and Kull And The Barbarians #2-3 (May and September 1975).

Her popularity with readers was beginning to get real traction, and she became the billed character in the first issue of a second volume of the tryout title Marvel Feature, in November 1975 (the first volume having been published between December 1971 and November 1973, covering 12 issues and serving as a launchpad for the Defenders, Ant-Man, and the Thing's Two-In-One team-up formula).


Roy Thomas


"For months Stan [Lee] and I had talked about putting out a mag exclusively about Red Sonja. We'd had literally hundreds of requests over the past couple of years, and thought she might be worth a several-issue tryout." (Thomas, 1975)

The plans for Red Sonja kept changing back and forth, from a number of tryout issues to just a single one (mostly for production capacity reasons) and then back again to several issues of Marvel Feature (Thomas, 1975). The visuals of Red Sonja, however, had been established and set in stone very early on, and are essentially defined by two character traits - her "chainmail bikini" and the eponymous colour of her hair.

"I wanted her to be a redhead, primarily to make her different in one more visual way from [black-haired pirate queen] Belit and [blonde mercenary] Valeria." (Thomas, 2014)

Red Sonja had so far had a revolving door situation concerning artists, including Barry Smith, Esteban Maroto (who had originally designed Red Sonja's skimpy "metal bikini"), Neal Adams, Ernie Chan and John Buscema, but for her start in Marvel Feature, Marvel was looking for a more stable situation.
The suggestion either by Marv Wolfman or Archie Goodwin to hire Frank Thorne for the job met with Thomas's approval (Thomas, 2014). A long time professional in the field, Thorne had never before worked for Marvel but seemed almost destined to pencil and ink Red Sonja.

"I LOVE drawing women." (Frank Thorne in Stroud, 2019)

But even though editors had all the best of intentions, the first issue of Marvel Feature with Red Sonja was drawn by Dick Giordano, and Frank Thorne only came on board as of Marvel Feature #2.

From that point on, however, Thorne took over as artist and remained Red Sonja’s artist through the remaining six issues of Marvel Feature and eleven issues of her subsequent own title Red Sonja, before John Buscema took over the artwork as of Red Sonja #12 (November 1978) up until the final issue #15 (March 1979), with his brother Sal filling in for issue #14.


Frank Thorne

During his time on the title, Thorne often did it all: pencils, inks, colours and lettering, as well as the complete cover art. While this arrangement wasn't unique, it was a highly unusual way of putting together a comic book at Marvel in the 1970s. More commonly, several individuals would contribute their distinct skills.

As a result, Frank Thorne became associated with the character of Red Sonja like only very few other artists at Marvel with other characters - and ultimately also in a very singular way outside the actual comic books.

"Thorne clearly relished Red Sonja; his association with the title went beyond a job and became part of his identity. There was also a performative aspect - Thorne would show up at conventions dressed in a wizard costume, accompanied by a model or few (calling themselves “The Hyborean Players”) wearing the famous scale-mail bikini of Red Sonja." (Robertson, 2021)


Marvel Feature #7

  To DC Comics editor and historian Paul Levitz, Thorne was "probably the first working mainstream artist to revel in cosplay" (Levitz, 2021), and it may well be that this kind of appropriation lead Stan Lee to state, albeit in his usual joking way, in late 1977 that

"... the fantastic popularity of both Sonja and Thorne is almost a cause for concern. So busy is Frank attending mushrooming "SonjaCons" throughout the country, lecturing to burgeoning Sonja fan clubs, judging Sonja beauty contests, and designing Sonja games, T-shirts and record albums, that it's hard to know where he finds the time to draw the strips." (Lee, 1977)

Today, Frank Thorne (who passed away in 2021) is the undisputed definitive Red Sonja artist, but the letterpages along with some editorial statements at the time of publication paint a more complex picture, with readers either loving or hating his artwork (Imes, 2022).

But regardless of tastes, Red Sonja would be Thorne's one and only Marvel assignment - not that much of a surprise though, since he didn't like superheroes (Stroud, 2019).

Marvel Feature #7 was, as mentioned, the last issue of this tryout title. Two months later, Red Sonja #1 would hit the newsstands, but the story presented in this last issue of Marvel Feature would not be continued in Red Sonja's own title since "The Battle of the Barbarians" was the second of three parts, the beginning and the ending of that story appearing in Conan the Barbarian #67 and #68.

Such crossovers were not uncommon at the time, often undertaken to boost a title or character, but it seems odd that Marvel Feature #7 would be chosen for this rather than Red Sonja #1.
  All things considered, Red Sonja would seem a slightly risqué choice for Marvel's Multi-Mags, but to date six issues featuring the She-Devil are known to have been included - two issues of Marvel Feature (#5 and #7) and four of Red Sonja (#3, #6, #9 and #11).



THOR #253

November 1976
On Sale:
10 August 1976

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

"Chaos in the Kingdom of Trolls" (13 pages)
Story - Len Wein
Pencils - John Buscema (breakdowns), Tony DeZuniga (finished art)
Inks - Tony DeZuniga
Lettering -
Pat Condoy, Gaspar Saladino (splashpage)
Colouring - Marie Severin

"The Weapon and the Warrior!" (5 pages)
Story - David Kraft
Pencils & Inks - Pablo Marcos
Lettering -
Irv Watanabe
Colouring - Glynis Wein

STORY OVERVIEW - Thor and Ulik join forces and banish the evil Trogg back to a dimension accidentally opened up by the Trolls. In "Tales of Asgard", Thor learns to value his own skill and strength rather than just relying on his hammer.

In 1976, the two eminent artists of Thor's first 14 years of publication history would each contribute to that year's issues: Jack Kirby would draw most of the year's run covers, and John Buscema would do most of the interior art.

"Big" John Buscema took up the artwork for the God of Thunder right after Jack Kirby left Marvel for DC in June 1970. At that time, Stan Lee was still writing the title, and Buscema became the regular artist as of Thor #182 (November 1970).

During the second part of 1976, however, Buscema - facing an excruciating workload - would only do breakdowns and leave the finishing of the artwork to whoever was inking the pencils - in the case of Thor #253 this job was left to Tony De Zuniga.

Thor #253 also features the second part of the "Tales of Asgard" segment. Following mostly negative feedback from readers, the plans for reviving this feature were dropped after this issue.


John Buscema (1927-2002)
Tony De Zuniga (1932-2012)

  There were more parallel lines between Kirby and Buscema, as Stan Lee himself pointed out.

"John Buscema was one of the greatest illustrators in comics. He brought a great sense of majesty and power to his illustrations. He also, like the great Jack Kirby, was a masterful storyteller in pictures." (Stan Lee in Walker, 2011)

Len Wein, the regular author of the Thor stories of this particular period, also had nothing but praise for Buscema (who clearly was one of Marvel's biggest assets at the time).

"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." (Wein, 2016)

Antony de Zuñiga was the first Filipino comic book artist whose work, under the name of Tony De Zuniga, found approval with American comic book publishers in the late 1960s and who subsequently opened the door for many of his countrymen to enter the business.

De Zuniga is best known for his work at DC; at Marvel he started out as an inker in the mid-1970s, where he would often embellish Buscema's work on Conan and Thor - and, as in the case of Thor #248-253, providing the finished art over breakdowns by Buscema. The latter's schedule was so busy that De Zuiniga did the complete pencils and inks for Thor #255 (January 1977).

When De Zuniga passed away in 2012, Marvel Comics praised him as "a historic figure in comics, a singular voice of his own making" (Beard, 2012).

  There is no letters page in this issue.

Regular buyers of MARVEL MULTI-MAGS at the time were, with a little bit of luck, able to continuously read the adventures of the Thundergod; both the previous (Thor #252) and the following (Thor #254) issues were packaged into MARVEL MULTI-MAGS.

Although the cover for Thor #253 can easily be recognized as Jack Kirby's work, Thor's face was reworked by John Romita & John Verpoorten according to the Grand Comics Database.



In-House ad from Thor #253



  "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.
  Joe Brancatelli was, in his own words, "the first person ever paid to write about comics in the comic books", and you can read more from him here.

AVILA Mike (2020) "Remembering Ross Andru, the most under-appreciated Spider-Man artist", Syfy Wire, published online

BEARD Jim (2012) "Marvel remembers Tony De Zuniga", Marvel.com, originally published online 18 May 2012 (accessible through the Internet Archive)

BRANCATELLI Joe (1977) "The Comic Books", in Creepy #92 (October 1977)

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

BREVOORT Tom (2021) "BHOC: Amazing Spider-Man #162", The Tom Brevoort Experience Blog, published online 3 April 2021

IMES Rob (2022) "A double-edged Sword: Roy Thomas, Frank Thorne and Red Sonja", History in the Making - Rob Imes Blogspot, published online 19 January 2022

LEE Stan (1977) "She-Devil with a Sword!", in The Superhero Women, Simon and Schuster

LEVITZ Paul (2021) "Bidding farewell to Frank Thorne...", Facebook, posted 7 March 2021

ROBERTSON Josh (2021) "Frank Thorne, ‘Red Sonja’ Artist, 1930-2021", Heavy Metal, published online 9 March 2021

STROUD Bryan (2019) "An Interview With Frank Thorne - Red Sonja Artist & Wizard at Large", Nerd Team 30, published online 20 March 2019

THOMAS Roy (1975) "Of Swords and She-Devils", in Marvel Feature #1, November 1975 (cover date)

THOMAS Roy (2014) "A fond look back at Big Red", in The Adventures of Red Sonja Volume 1, Dynamite Entertainment

TOLWORTHY Chris (2016) "Marvel and DC sales figures", published online at zak-site.com

WALKER Karen (2011) "The Old Order Changeth! Thor in the Early Bronze Age", in Back Issue #53, Twomorrows

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

WILLIAMS Scott E. (2010) "Gerry Conway interview: Everything but the Gwen Stacy Sink", in Back Issue #44, Twomorrows



(c) 2022

uploaded to the web 22 May 2022