THE (ALMOST) SECRET HISTORY OF THE MARVELS COMICS GROUP

KC Carlson in his John Hodgman hat.

KC Carlson in his John Hodgman hat.


A KC Column by KC Carlson

Marvels Comics: Thor #1

Marvels Comics: Thor #1


Did you ever stop and wonder what kind of comic books were published in the Marvel Universe itself? Back in the year 2000 (cover dated July), people like Ty (The Guy) Templeton, Karl Kesel, Paul Grist, Tony Isabella, and Rick Jones (assisted by Peter David) did — and under the guidance of editor Tom Brevoort and art by lotsa people (see below), the Marvels Comics Group was born. Note that spelling — it’s different on purpose.

WHAT IS A “FIFTH-WEEK EVENT” AND A “SKIP WEEK”?

ALSO, DO I HAVE TO DO MATH?

Six “Marvels Comics Group” titles were originally published as a “Fifth-Week Event” in 2000. For those of you who don’t speak comics distribution/publishing, it worked something like this: Most comics publishers published their wares in four-week cycles. For example, Batman would be released on the second week of every month. Twelve months times four weeks equals 48 weeks, but there’s 52 weeks in each year. That left four weeks (randomly “floating” weeks, found in the months that had five Wednesdays in them) where once upon a time, no comic books were distributed. When publishers realized that they were losing money (they actually weren’t, but that’s a column I’ll never write), they decided to start filling those weeks with more new material. And because those “skip weeks” weren’t regularly recurring, most of this material had to be somewhat unique, not subject to a strict monthly release pattern.

Aside: Skip Weeks were often annoying if you didn’t have a comic book store close to your home. In late 1977/early 1978, I was in this situation. After driving almost 50 miles to my regular comic book store, I discovered that neither DC or Marvel had shipped anything that week. Luckily, the store’s owner — Bruce Ayres — realized I was close to actually exploding and suggested that I look at some new “indy” titles that had just come into the shop. I went home that day with the first six issues of Cerebus the Aardvark and the first two issues of Elfquest. And nothing from Marvel or DC. That was a good week! Changed my comic reading habits, that did…

Occasionally, Annuals of regular comic book series, or One-Shot specials, would be released during these skip weeks. In the 1990s, when DC was publishing four monthly Superman titles, it was decided to add a fifth title, Superman: Man of Tomorrow, that would be published only during skip weeks, effectively making the now-five Superman titles a “weekly” comic book. (“The Never-Ending Story” in unofficial, mostly in-office terms.)

Superman: Man of Tomorrow #1

Superman: Man of Tomorrow #1


Another Aside: Superman: Man of Tomorrow was a pain in the asteroid to produce, because of its irregular scheduling. Subsequent issues could occasionally be back-to-back monthly, but more often than not, individual issues were published four to six months apart, fitting around the ongoing Superman continuity. (This is why “triangle numbers” were invented, to tell readers which issue of which Superman series came next.) Plus, people that only read this title were “treated” to a constant serving of “middle chapters” of stories. In four years of publication, only 15 issues were published (plus a #1,000,000 issue), by four different writers, four different pencillers, five different inkers, and three different editors (one of which was me). I left Superman (and DC) before the final issue was published.

The Kingdom

The Kingdom


A number of interesting projects were developed as “fifth-week events”. DC did a lot with the idea early on with New Year’s Evil (villain origins and solo tales, late 1997), GirlFrenzy (female characters, 1998), The Kingdom (follow-up to Kingdom Come, late 1998), V2K (Vertigo characters and century change paranoia, 1999), and two waves of Amalgam Comics (DC characters “mashed up” with Marvel characters, 1996 & 1997). Marvel published several groupings of What If? tales (2005 through 2015), Marvel Mangaverse (2001), Marvel Knights 2099 (2004), and a whole bunch of genre groups: Kirby monster stories, horror heroes, Western characters, superhero romance stories, and so on.

AND: MARVELS COMICS GROUP (2000)

The History of Marvels

The History of Marvels


One of the cooler things about the Marvels Comics Group “event” was the promotional add-on. In addition to six standard comics produced for the effort (starring Captain America, Daredevil, Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Thor, and the X-Men), there was also a way-cool 16-page free “zine” entitled The History of Marvels: Six Fabulous Decades of the World’s Most Accurate Comics. This subhead was a parody of the subtitle of the first “official” Marvel history book, Les Daniels’ Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World’s Greatest Comics, first published in 1991. The covers of both “histories” also prominently spotlighted Spider-Man.

The (new) History of Marvels was written by the editor of the “event” — Tom Brevoort — and its text offers up a fascinating alt-history featuring the Marvels Universe’s versions of real-world folks like Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Flo Steinberg, and Martin Goodman. In these events, the Marvel Universe’s Daily Bugle publisher J. Jonah Jameson found himself “outraged” that he was depicted in the Spider-Man comic, leading to a lawsuit filed against Marvels Comics. After Lee met with Jameson, and they agreed to not use Jameson’s name or likeness again, the suit was dropped. “They (Jameson and Stan) were very similar in a lot of ways, and they got along famously” according to Flo Steinberg. (Nudge Nudge Wink Wink.)

THE ORIGIN OF MARVELS COMICS GROUP

According to this history, similar to what we know from our Marvel comic books, the first superheroes in the Marvels Universe (or at least the first to have their adventures documented by Marvels Comics Group) were the Human Torch and Namor, the Sub-Mariner. Their early comic book exploits were based on the actual battles the two conducted throughout New York City. Pulp magazine publisher Martin Goodman witnessed some of these epic battles first-hand.

Goodman had already run an interview with the Torch’s “creator” Professor Phineas Horton in the pages of his Marvel Science Stories pulp magazine, and later “approached Horton with a deal that would give him the rights to produce authorized, authoritative stories about Horton’s creation in comic book format.” Discredited by the scientific community, and left destitute by the rejection of his ideas, plus the actual loss of his artificial human (who apparently just flew away…), Horton took the deal — serving as a consultant for Goodman’s Human Torch comic book stories for the following decade.

These pulp comic adventures began in late 1939 in a comic book called Marvel Comics (soon to be retitled Marvel Mystery Comics). Two additional “super heroes” appeared in this new comic book — Namor the Sub-Mariner and the urban crimefighter The Angel. Goodman would obtain information for their comics stories with “under the table” payments to members of the New York City Police Department.

According to Brevoort’s text, the greatest thing to happen to Goodman’s Timely Comics began in 1941, when Captain America first appeared in comic stories of homefront exploits, as covered by newspaper accounts of the day. A childhood friend of Goodman was now working for the War Department and helped Goodman secure the rights to produce and publish the declassified adventures of the Captain. In return, Goodman promised to support the war effort with scrap drives and selling of war bonds and stamps — as well as lighting a fire of support with the youth of America. Seeing the merit in this, the War Department quickly agreed, and Captain America Comics was born. On top of this, Goodman (through Timely) donated a portion of the proceeds of every issue of Captain America Comics to underwriting the non-profit, pro-American youth organization Captain America’s Sentinels of Liberty.

Since Cap’s wartime movements and assignments were classified Top Secret for the duration of the war, Timely’s creative staff, most notably writer Joe Simon and artist Jack Kirby, initially took what little info was publicly available and turned it into exciting tales. As Brevoort points out, “the spirit of the stories was true, even if not every detail was absolutely accurate.” Brevoort also discusses the rumors “that the true Captain America doubled for his celluloid counterpart in some of the later episodes” of the 1944 12-chapter movie serial The Adventures of Captain America.

Brevoort’s “Marvels” history goes further into the Marvels Comics Group, covering the “Marvel Age” period of the 1960s where it seemed that there were either new titles or characters practically every week. According to Brevoort:

Flo Steinberg, Lee’s assistant at the time, remembers, “Oh, it was just craziness every month. People were stretching and flying all over the place, and Stan would be on top of his desk, like a big kid, acting out all the parts for everybody, the way he wanted them to be in the comic. Whenever the Human Torch would come in, Stan would have to follow him around with an ashtray, so he wouldn’t accidentally burn holes in the carpet. It was just marvelous insanity!”

The History goes on to cover in detail the FF, Iron Man, the Avengers, Spider-Man, the X-Men, and others throughout the 1960s. It’s a must-read for all serious (and “armchair”) comics historians.

BUT, WAIT

I wish I could say the same for the six 32-page one-shots that are the meat of The History of Marvels Fifth-Week Event. These individual comics (Captain America, Daredevil, Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Thor, and the X-Men) are all over the place quality-wise. After reading them all, I got the sense that not all the creative teams were on the same page for what this “event” was supposed to accomplish. The ones I found the most fun were Captain America and Fantastic Four.

Marvels Comics: Captain America #1

Marvels Comics: Captain America #1


The Captain America book is by written by “Rick Jones” (with a dialogue assist by Peter David) and drawn by “Steve Rogers” (with assistance by Ron Frenz, Joe Sinnott, Mark Bagley, and Al Vey). It’s a nice touch that Marvel remembered that Steve Rogers was established as an artist (mostly commercial, but occasionally comic books) years before in Cap’s solo book. This one-shot is a rip-roarin’ action-packed adventure that guest-stars Rick Jones as yet another “Bucky”. Frenz and Sinnott are in full Kirby/John Buscema mode here… and then something very weird happens at the “joint” in the story, where the art team changes mid-issue. The weird part is a text page “buffer” between the story sections, which “explains” the reason for the artist change, but also is some sort of thinly-veiled “meta” comment about (I’m pretty sure) Image Comics and how they were doing business at the time. The rant wraps up with this:

“…When it comes to writers versus artists, we here at Mighty Marvel always back up the writers, every time. After all, (we) wouldn’t want the writers to go off and form their own company or something.

We all know where THAT leads.”

It’s “signed” — your pals in Editorial!

Wow, where’d THAT come from? It makes me wish I knew Peter David (or “Rick Jones”) well enough to call him and ask him what that was all about.

So, worth the price of a back issue JUST for that bit of weirdness…

Marvels Comics: Fantastic Four #1

Marvels Comics: Fantastic Four #1


The Fantastic Four book is pure fun in a completely different way. The main creator here is uber-FF fan Karl Kesel, who has the book “narrated” by a different one of the FF members every few pages. Paul Smith is the sole artist credited on the splash page, but as as you get deeper into the issue, various “guest” artists begin to creep up, like Mike Wieringo, Joe Jusko, Carlos Pacheco, Jesus Merino, Tom Grummett, and Bob Wiacek — each additional artist (or team) providing one or two pages. There’s also a Fantastic Four Fan Page with faux letters, news, and fan art.

THE WRAP-UP

It’s very possible that this “event” got lost in the shuffle of other transitions going at Marvel. New Marvel President Bill Jemas took over the company during this time and immediately announced Marvel Knights co-founder Joe Quesada as Marvel’s new Editor-in-Chief. Marvel Knights projects like The Sentry and Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s relaunch of The Punisher were successful on one side of the company, while Jemas was concentrating on the initially very successful Ultimate comics line with the debut of Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley’s Ultimate Spider-Man. The core Marvel Universe at this time was not exactly healthy, and it would be slow to be rebuilt in over the next couple of years. This History of Marvels was one of many projects from this era which have yet to be collected, and perhaps never will be.

But it was just too odd not to share it a little.

________________________________

KC CARLSON: I abhor a vacuum. I also wish I could spell vacuum without looking it up.

WESTFIELD COMICS is not responsible for the stupid things that KC says. Especially that thing that really irritated you. What really irritates me? Being irritated! AHHHHHH!

Covera, except for The Kingdom, are from the Grand Comics Database.

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