When we last checked in with the Fantastic Four, the team was dealing with the aftermath of the temporarily deranged Thing’s rampage through Manhattan in FF #111, and subsequent rumble with the Hulk in issue #112 — a battle which had apparently left Ben Grimm no longer among the living. As revealed in the following month’s #113, however, Ben wasn’t completely dead, and Reed Richards (aka Mister Fantastic) was ultimately able not only to resuscitate his old friend, but reverse the ill effects of Reed’s attempt to cure him back in #107, restoring Bashful Benjy to his old irascible (but not antisocial) self.
Notwithstanding that good news, the FF still had some major problems with which to contend. Public opinion had turned strongly against them over recent events, to the extent that there was a warrant out for their arrest; plus, their landlord at the Baxter Building was trying to throw them out of their headquarters. But most urgent of all was a surprise visit from an old friend, whose coming was teased throughout the first thirteen pages of the story by a bright light in the sky that drew steadily closer and closer until, at last, it entered in through the FF’s window, and revealed itself as… the Watcher!
Of course, the Watcher never comes to visit just for social reasons, and this time is no exception:
“I can say only one phrase!” Well, not really — he can say a lot more than that, but for whatever reason, the Watcher’s being parsimonious with his knowledge for the moment. (Yeah, I know — he’s taken an oath of non-interference, blah blah blah… but in for a penny, in for a pound, right?)
Once the Watcher has returned whence he came, Reed and Sue “Invisible Girl” Richards fly off in the FF’s Pogo Plane to look for their teammates, Ben Grimm and Johnny Storm (the Human Torch), who’d both wandered off right after Ben was set to rights earlier in the issue. But while in the air, they receive yet another warning — this time from Agatha Harkness, who in addition to being their son Franklin’s caretaker, is a witch (a good one, though):
And no sooner has Miss Harkness delivered her vague but urgent message to her employers, than Reed and Sue get even more bad news, via the Pogo Plane’s radio:
The couple alter course, and head directly to City Hall. Landing their conveyance on the roof, they hurry to the Mayor’s office — fortunately, the Thing and the Torch have heard the news as well, and arrive at about the same time as their teammates. All are on hand, therefore, when Reed makes his plea:
“Okay, you heard his order!” says one of the police officers standing close by. “Now don’t give us any trouble“. And outside of a bit of bluster from Ben, the FF don’t; rather, they peacefully accompany the officers to the nearest precinct. But as soon as they leave the Mayor’s office…
And continue the story does, in the pages of Fantastic Four #114, for which the regular creative team of scripter Stan Lee and penciller John Buscema are joined by inker Frank Giacoia (stepping in for the usual embellisher, Joe Sinnott, who’d handled the finishes for #113).
The issue opens with a mundane scene of the FF being released on $20K bail. “I didn’t know we had that much”, says a surprised Ben. “You been holdin’ out on us, Stretcho?” To which Reed replies: “It’s from my personal savings, Ben! It’s money I’ve been paid for some of my inventions“. (Which to this reader’s mind simply raises the question of how the FF pay for their regular everyday expenses, since I thought virtually all their collective income was derived from Mister Fantastic’s patents. Oh, well.)
Unable to return to the roof of City Hall the same way they’d come, due to the presence of a hostile crowd, Reed stretches his arms to access the Pogo Plane’s controls from the street (pretty much like it shows on the book’s cover), ultimately guiding it to the ground. Then, while the Torch holds the crowd at bay with a smokescreen, the team prepares to board their craft — only to be interrupted by a large, bearded stranger:
This is of course the Over-Mind, temporarily disguised in human garb, who’s decided that he needs to know more about the Fantastic Four and their powers — which you would figure he already had a pretty good grasp of, considering that he’s gone to the trouble of taking them out of commission via his mind control of the Mayor. But never mind all that. The Over-Mind and the FF proceed to throw down for four or so pages, which serves to demonstrate the former’s power set to readers — besides mind-control, he’s also at least as strong as the Thing, and has the ability to manipulate and release energy in the form of force-blasts, making him impervious to the Torch’s flame — but is otherwise pretty much a wash, narratively speaking, as at the end of it, the Over-Mind simply wipes the encounter from the team’s minds and strolls back to his spaceship, which he’s hidden in a scrap-metal yard (no, really).
Returning to the Baxter Building, the FF have another brief run-in with their landlord, Collins, before returning to the problem of saving the world. Reed asks Agatha Harkness, who’s arrived in answer to his summons, if she can tell them anything else in relation to her ominous but non-specific warning in the previous issue. She can’t, unfortunately — but she can attempt to get in touch with the Watcher, to see if they can dredge anything else out of him. To do so, however, she needs to draw on the combined powers of the Thing and the Torch:
So, was the Watcher willing to give the FF the complete lowdown on the Over-Mind all along, but just wanted to make them really work for it for some perverse reason? Or, did he simply have second thoughts following that “I can say only one phrase!” business in #113? Ah, not for we mere Earthlings to understand are the ways of the ancient, wondrous race of the Watchers! Or something like that. At least that sequence of Miss Harkness’ astral body (or whatever it was) spanning the infinite to reach the Watcher at home makes for a really cool visual sequence.
The Watcher’s tale is related in Fantastic Four #115, which also features the return of Joe Sinnott on inks — as well as a rather more dramatic change in the creative line-up, as Archie Goodwin comes in to handle scripting duties due to Stan Lee’s comics-writing sabbatical (though Lee is credited with the plot). As with the same month’s Amazing Spider-Man #101, this represents the first issue of the title to feature a writing credit for anyone other than Lee* (though some of the more vaguely worded credits in the later years of the Lee-Kirby FF run — e.g., “Produced by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby” — could be interpreted as implying that Kirby’s creative responsibility for the stories extended well beyond simply drawing them); probably coincidentally, this issue also represents the terminus of the Fantastic Four’s first decade.
As related by the Watcher, the Over-Mind’s backstory begins in “a galaxy ancient before the stars you know were a’borning” — a galaxy where once there spun a world that spawned a technologically advanced race called the Eternals (no, not those Eternals):
The Eternals’ propensity for warmongering generally kept them very busy — but during the rare times they weren’t actively conquering planets, enslaving their populations, and then destroying what remained, their greatest warriors competed in “the Games“. And in those Games, the greatest gladiator was a guy named Grom:
Yeah… that guy’s going to be the Over-Mind (as Ben Grimm, being “an old Star Trek fan”, guesses before the Watcher even has the chance to tell him and his teammates).
Continuing his account, the Watcher moves on to describe another world — this one so enormous that we’re told it “dwarfed whole galaxies in size”. (Which is the kind of statement that makes you think that the writer really has no clue how large even a dwarf galaxy is, or how planetary systems work; sorry, Messrs. Lee and Goodwin.) It was called — what else? — Gigantus.
Of course, Gigantus eventually attracted the attention of the Eternals, who launched an invasion. But regardless of how peace-loving the Gigantusians might have been, they possessed defensive technology comparable to that of their foes — and beyond that, a secret weapon: their planet’s sheer immensity. As an unnamed Eternal warrior put it, “It is too big — there are too many of them! Our planet would be less than a mountain here, our population but a village.” Ultimately, the Eternals decided that they had no choice but to leave…
Umm… is that “blue-green planet” in the last panel supposed to be Earth? Sure looks like it to me — but the Watcher never confirms it, and absolutely nothing is made of the idea throughout the rest of the storyline. So, maybe not.
Though their world was destroyed, the Gigantusian armada not only survived, but completed its mission of retribution against their enemies. Yet even as their own world crumbled around them, the leaders of the Eternals grasped at one last chance for survival…
The moment of awakening has finally arrived in our own era, obviously. The Watcher completes his narrative by describing how, upon regaining awareness, the being once known as Grom mentally transformed his incubator into a spacecraft, and journeyed to Earth. (Why Earth, of all the worlds in the universe? The Watcher doesn’t say, I’m afraid.) So ends the origin of the Over-Mind — a tale which, in 1971, likely reminded many veteran Marvel readers of earlier origin stories Lee had produced in collaboration with Jack Kirby, for such cosmic entities as Mangog and Galactus.
The Watcher signs off with what amounts to a “so long, it’s been nice to know you” farewell, leaving the FF to try to come up with a workable strategy for confronting such a formidable foe on their own…
To their credit, the other members of the team work out in record time not only that something’s off with Reed, but also what that something is — he’s fallen under the mental influence of the Over-Mind.
The machine that Reed has slipped into is a “mini-reactor”. To drive him out, Johnny turns on its juice. But while this gambit does force Mister Fantastic to exit the apparatus, he escapes nonetheless, traveling through an air vent…
And that, of course, brings us at last to Fantastic Four #116 — our saga’s extra-length finale, and also the tenth anniversary issue of the title:
While the still-on-sabbatical Stan Lee received a plotting credit for FF #115, fill-in scripter Archie Goodwin is evidently all on his own for the final chapter, according to the credits box.
Sue, Ben, and Johnny realize that Reed’s brief stay inside the mini-reactor, while not actually harmful, has rendered him just radioactive enough to be traceable. The Thing and the Torch proceed to go after him, while the Invisible Girl remains behind for now “as a reserve”. Meanwhile, Mister Fantastic himself — whom the Over-Mind has summoned to join him in the junkyard where he’s hidden his spaceship — is trying to resist the villain’s control, but to little avail:
Though the Over-Mind seems to have Reed on the ropes, he suspects that Mister Fantastic may still have some secret plan up his (very long) sleeve, and thus seeks to probe further into the Earthling’s mind. Reed attempts to resist by concentrating all his thoughts on his wife, Sue, and their son, Franklin:
Ben and Johnny battle valiantly — but, as in their forgotten earlier battle against the Over-Mind, they’re overmatched.
As a general rule, John Buscema didn’t make as much use of interior full-page splash panels as some of his peers. Here, however (as in Thor #193), he seems to have taken advantage of the issue’s extended page length to indulge himself a bit; speaking just for myself, I’m glad he did.
Having subdued Ben and Johnny for the time being, the Over-Mind revives Reed — and, his mind-control over the FF’s leader now seemingly absolute, directs him to kill Sue…
Sue heads straight to Avengers Mansion, hoping to find help there — unfortunately, she’s told by the team’s butler Jarvis that his employers are off on a mission, for which they departed just prior to all hell breaking loose in Manhattan. (A helpful editorial note from “Stan” points readers in the direction of Avengers #93 to learn more.) OK, then — who else can she call on?
Too bad that Jarvis didn’t tell Sue that Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor are all with the Avengers on their current mission, so she wouldn’t have wasted time trying to track them down. As for the others — well, the Hulk, Sub-Mariner, and even the Silver Surfer are all depicted as being busy outside the environs of New York in other Marvel comics on sale at the same time as FF #116. And while neither Daredevil nor Spider-Man are out of town in their current issues, Spidey will be heading to the Savage Land next month, and DD has a trip to Switzerland coming up just a couple of months after that. So, assuming one’s willing to make a few reasonable chronological allowances, the timeline actually works out pretty well (though I suspect that’s more a matter of fortuitous coincidence than careful planning on Marvel’s part).
As the Invisible Girl begins to despair, she’s contacted by Agatha Harkness (who evidently went straight back home immediately after mystically connecting the FF with the Watcher back in #114):
OK, that makes sense. But won’t Doctor Doom be clear across the ocean in Latveria? Well, it seems that he happens to be in town on diplomatic business (or some such thing). That’s narratively convenient, for sure, but it’s not unreasonable.
Marvel fans had seen Dr. Doom battle other supervillains before — just within the last year, he’d fended off an invasion of Latveria by the Red Skull in his solo feature in Astonishing Tales — but for him to actually team up with his enemies to do so was something quite new. To my fourteen-year-old self in 1971, it felt like a really big deal.
Our new foursome soon overtakes the Over-Mind, who’s continuing to terrorize the populace, using the mind-controlled Mr. Fantastic to corral anyone who tries to get away. The Torch and the Thing immediately leap to the attack — but while the Over-Mind is temporarily surprised by this new assault, he’s not particularly concerned about it. Indeed, he professes himself puzzled by the duo’s actions: “Of what use are these tactics which failed so miserably before?”
Despite the Over-Mind’s bravado, the “psionic-refractor” wielded by Dr. Doom blocks the mind-blast meant for Ben Grimm, once again turning its power back on the alien menace. But before our team can press its advantage, their foe has a eureka moment. He realizes that Reed Richards’ plan all along was to call so much of the Over-Mind’s attention onto himself that he’d fail to account for other threats — such as Doom. Turning his attention away from the Torch and the Thing, he hits Doom with a mighty mind-blast that takes the Latverian monarch off guard, knocking him off his feet. Then, as Doom struggles to bring the psionic-refractor back into play, the Invisible Girl (who has once again been held in reserve) emerges from hiding to shield Doom with her force-field:
Considering the amount of punishment we’ve seen Sue’s force-field take in the past, I find it hard to believe that the constrictions of Reed’s stretchy body would pose that much of a threat, regardless of how much “fresher” he is. (The latter idea doesn’t make much sense anyway, considering that the Invisible Girl just entered the fight,) Unfortunately, Marvel’s storytellers of this era were always ready to downplay Sue’s competency in combat at a moment’s notice, so this turn of events isn’t really all that surprising.
In the opinion of your humble blogger, this is one of the great Doctor Doom moments, at least so far as the character’s first decade is concerned — a moment that allows the character to demonstrate legitimately heroic qualities of courage and will, without disavowing any of his negative traits.
The Stranger, huh? I recognized the guy from Silver Surfer #5 (April, 1969), where he was presented as an enigmatic cosmic entity whose level of power was well beyond even the Surfer’s class. I also understood that he shouldn’t necessarily be classified as an out-and-out villain — though you wouldn’t exactly call him a friend of humankind, either (he had threatened to destroy the Earth a couple of times, after all).
Meanwhile, Reed has at last worn down Sue to the point that her force field has shattered, and the situation looks pretty dire…
“You got the power of a billion brains, huh, bub? Big deal — I got a billion billion brains!” Sure, there’s a note of playground braggadocio there, but it’s actually pretty logical. And the revelation that the Stranger is the last survivor of Gigantus contradicts nothing readers have been told about his origins before now (which, granted, isn’t much).
And that’s a wrap, folks — about as tidy and complete an ending as you could get in a Marvel comic book in 1971; and also, I think, a satisfying one.
A half century later, it’s probably hard, or even impossible, for a knowledgeable Marvel fan to look at the Over-Mind arc and not be reminded of older — and better — stories. I’ve already mentioned the echoes of the origins of Mangog and Galactus in that of the Over-Mind, and, in fact, the structure of the overall storyline hearkens back to the Fantastic Four’s first encounter with Galactus back in issues #48-50: to wit, the FF are warned by the Watcher of imminent danger from an immensely powerful alien adversary; they then proceed to wage a valiant but hopeless battle against said adversary, until an unlikely victory is at last achieved with cosmic assistance. Was Stan Lee hoping that he and John Buscema could actually replicate the success of that earlier Lee-Kirby masterpiece, or did he just figure that if he was going to repeat himself, he might as well repeat the stuff that had worked the best with Marvel readers in the past? Whatever the truth of the matter, it’s interesting to note that in less than six months, the returning Lee would tap the well of inspiration represented by “the Galactus Trilogy” yet again — this time going so far as to bring back the Big G himself in FF #120-123..
Still, taking the Over-Mind saga — or at least its concluding installment — on its own terms, it’s solid, perhaps even superior, superhero comic-book storytelling. John Buscema and Joe Sinnott are arguably at the top of their FF-illustrating game here, and Archie Goodwin provides a well-paced and exciting climax to his and Lee’s storyline, as well as a memorable portrayal of Doctor Doom. All in all, it’s not a bad note to go out on as our commemoration of Giant-Size Marvel Month winds down to its inevitable close.
But before we close the books on Marvel’s brief experiment with the 48-page format, I’d like to spend a bit of time discussing one Big Question that remains: Why did Marvel revert back to the 32-page format so quickly — so very quickly, in fact, that the first month that the new format was standard across their line wasn’t even over yet? (According to the approximate publication dates provided by “The Newsstand” at Mike’s Amazing World of Comics, Marvel released four 32-page comics in August, 1971, all at the new, higher price of 20 cents.)
In considering that question, we also need to deal with the related one of why Marvel raised its standard page count (and price point) in the first place. That’s because in one widely disseminated version of events, both decisions were made by Marvel publisher Martin Goodman in a coordinated fashion, each being part of “a devious plan to conquer [market rival] DC [Comics] once and for all” (Sean Howe, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story [Harper, 2012]).
One of the earliest accounts taking this tack (perhaps the earliest) appeared in Les Daniels’ Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World’s Greatest Comics (Abrams, 1991):
As 1971 drew to a close, publisher Martin Goodman initiated an ingenious sales strategy, a complicated series of changes in the size and price of the standard color comic book, that gave Marvel a commanding lead in overall circulation … In November 1971 the standard comic book price jumped to twenty-five cents. Rival DC made the same change simultaneously — the two industry leaders could rarely keep secrets from each other, especially since many free-lance writers and artists worked for both companies.
After only one month of the new prices, in December 1971 Marvel dropped back to thirty-six pages at the price of twenty cents. Marvel books were now considerably less expensive for young readers who had to count their nickels and dimes. Moreover, since Goodman had in effect created the appearance of a bargain while raising the price by one-third, he had increased profits sufficiently to offer a larger percentage of the retail price to his wholesale distributors. As a result of this advantageous arrangement, circulation increased, and the twenty-cent Marvel books were more widely distributed than ever before.
This basic account (which Daniels makes more confusing than necessary by using Marvel’s comics’ cover dates as his chronological reference points, rather than the months in which events actually occurred) — often embellished with the added detail of a “handshake deal” made between Goodman and someone at DC (usually Carmine Infantino, who ascended from being the company’s Editorial Director to its Publisher during this period), prior to either company actually raising their prices or page counts — has been repeated often in the last thirty years. Unfortunately, there are multiple problems with it, beginning with one major, glaring factual error: Marvel and DC didn’t make “the same change simultaneously”. Rather, as has been previously related on this blog, DC made the jump to 25 cents/48 pages in June, 1971. Marvel followed suit with a handful of titles in July (e.g., Conan the Barbarian #10), but the rest of the line didn’t follow until August.
Another consideration is that while DC and Marvel may have been the two industry leaders, they were hardly the only companies publishing color comic books in the summer of ’71. A closer look at the MAWoC Newsstand for August shows more than one price-point/format being utilized by the “Big Two”‘s competitors. Charlton, for example, raised the price of their entire line of 32-pagers that month from 15 to 20 cents — anticipating where Marvel would ultimately end up by several weeks. Meanwhile, Archie and Gold Key both resolutely remained at the old price and size; but while the former would eventually raise the price of its standard 32-page comics to 20 cents in March, 1972, the latter would hang on at the 15-cent price point until March, 1973, at which time they finally joined the rest of the industry at 32 pages for 20 cents. The only company besides Marvel and DC that ever attempted the 25 cent/48 page format was Harvey, who began transitioning from the old 15 cent/32 page standard with a few titles as early as June, with the rest of the line following suit over the next six months. Ultimately, Harvey stuck with the new, larger format even longer than DC did, through June, 1972. Of course, none of these moves prove that there was no “handshake deal” between Marvel and DC — but the facts indicate that all of the American publishers reacted to DC’s June price/size change in different ways, and that it took some time for things to settle down across the industry.
In addition to all of the above, Infantino would go on the record in 1998 with the assertion that the 1971 price hike was neither his own idea nor Martin Goodman’s, but that of DC’s sister company (and distributor), Independent News. And, finally, we’d like to note that if there had been a secret, off-the-book deal between Marvel and DC, it would have represented collusion, and most likely been illegal. Again, that doesn’t prove that it didn’t happen — but, in my humble opinion, it’s the kind of assertion that shouldn’t be thrown around casually simply because it makes for an interesting story.
Given the information we have, we may not be able to say with absolute certainty that Martin Goodman didn’t conceive the whole 15-to-25-to-20 cent business as a “gotcha” strike against DC; but it’s entirely appropriate to affirm that there’s no actual evidence to indicate that he did, either.
Which still leaves the original question — why did Marvel pull back from the 25-cent/48-page format so suddenly? One possible answer appeared in a comics fanzine dated June, 1971 — a month before any of the new “giant-size” Marvels had even been published.
That issue of Don and Maggie Thompson’s Newfangles newsletter included the following item:
“Wholesalers objected to the 25-cent books,which sell fewer copies and make the dealer only a penny more than the better-selling fifteen-cent books…” I’m not sure we need to look much, if any, further for an explanation as to why Martin Goodman pulled the plug on the 25-cent books so speedily. He may very well have simply been listening to his wholesalers.
But wouldn’t the DC brass have been paying attention — and responding — to the same wholesaler complaints? Not necessarily. Remember, according to Carmine Infantino, the jump to 25 cents had been the idea of Independent News — which was both DC’s sister company and its national distributor (the link of the newsstand comics supply chain between publisher and wholesaler). And according to an interview with Infantino that was published in 2010, when concerns were broached, the distributor chose to double down:
When Marvel went down to 20 cents, I thought we should have gone back down to 20 cents immediately. I said, “It’s not going to work. We’re going to get creamed.” [The head of Independent News, Harold] Chamberlain said, “I know more than you do about this. We’re staying at a quarter. Our readers are loyal.” Well, bull! The fans went for the cheaper books. You can’t blame them.
It’s also possible that DC was hampered in part by an anti-inflation move made by the Nixon Administration in August, 1971:
Announced on August 15, 1971, the 90-day freeze on wages and prices effectively prevented American comic book publishers from raising prices any more than they’d already done — at least, not until after November 15 (which may account for the four-month gap between Harvey’s last 15-cent/32-page issues of Casper, the Friendly Ghost and Richie Rich, which shipped in August, and the first 25-cent/48-page issues, which came out in December). However, Marvel — which certainly had printed all of its newly-25¢ books before the freeze, but hadn’t yet shipped them all — ran afoul of the federal governmental authority managing the policy. To be honest, your humble blogger isn’t sure whether it was actually the later-shipping 25-cent books (such as FF #116) that got Marvel in trouble, or if it was the 20-cent books that followed, which clearly represented an increase in price for precisely the same product (the 32-page periodical comic book) that had cost 15 cents just a couple of months before. For all I know, the whole problem might have stemmed from those few 32-page titles which went straight from 15 to 20 cents in August with no 25-cent/48-page stage in between — such as Amazing Adventures #9, to which the MAW Newsstand assigns an approximate on-sale date of August 17. One way or the other, however, Marvel did get in some hot water for their machinations — and although the situation was ultimately resolved with what amounted to a slap on the wrist (if you can even call it that),** it’s easy to imagine that word of Marvel’s troubles could have gotten around the industry, and that their competitors were eager to avoid running into similar difficulties.
Granted, all of that represents speculation on my part. But something else that DC had to deal with in the second half of 1971, and thereafter, wasn’t speculative at all. This is one element of the familiar “Martin Goodman screws over DC” legend that’s entirely supported by the available evidence. As Newfangles reported in its July issue:
Though the Thompsons used the word “retailer” when “wholesaler” would have been more accurate, this item otherwise checks out with the recollections of others, including Carmine Infantino, who said in 1998:
…Marvel switches around and goes to 20¢, giving the distributor 50% off. When we went to 25¢, we gave the distributor a 40% discount. Marvel goes in and cuts the price 20% and gives the distributor 50% off. Whoa! They were throwing our books back in our face! They were pushing Marvel’s books so it really became a slaughter.
It was a daring business move on Goodman’s part that unquestionably paid off, as Marvel would go on in 1972 to (finally) surpass DC in sales. But it wasn’t illegal, and there’s no reason to believe that Goodman somehow enticed DC into raising its prices in June, knowing all along he was going to pull this maneuver.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that the publisher wasn’t cognizant of the opportunity he had here to deal a major blow to the fortunes of his company’s biggest rival. The statement in the June Newfangles that “Marvel publisher Martin Goodman thinks DC is going to be wiped out” is consistent with the recollections of Marvel associate editor Roy Thomas, who said in 1998:
I remember that one of the few times I met with Martin Goodman was when I was there with John Verpoorten [Marvel’s production manager] and Goodman was talking about how suddenly we were going to cut all the books down in size and that DC was going to take a bath if they didn’t follow suit right away—and they did take a bath, because they kept the giant-size books for a year and Marvel just murdered them.
But, lest we forget, that same Newfangles news item from June — reported when DC’s first comics in the new 25-cent/48-page format were first hitting the stands — also tells us: “DC publisher Carmine Infantino thinks Marvel is going to be wiped out.” I think that provides us with a useful reminder that DC was just as competitive-minded as Marvel was throughout this era; and that when all of this “price war” business was starting up, none of the players could know how it would end. It could have gone the other way; and if it had, who knows? Rather than taking apart the enduring myth of Martin Goodman’s “devious plan to conquer DC”, I might be debunking a completely different comics industry legend in this space.
Marvel’s decision to abandon the new, larger format came so late in the game that there wasn’t time to make any mention of it in the text pages of September’s 20-cent comics. Rather, the official eulogy for Giant-Size Marvel Month came a whole month later, in the Marvel Bullpen Bulletins column that ran in issues shipping in October.
Under a general heading of “Apologia Pro Vita Bullpen! (Or: What Can We Say, Dear, After We Say We’re Sorry!)”, the first item read:
And that was that. If I recall correctly, my fourteen-year-old self accepted this message for what it was — perhaps I even bought that b.s. about “economic reasons far too complicated to go into” and “business details which would probably bore you as much as they do us”. It’s not like I had a lot of choice, after all; in 1971, I was still a pretty isolated young comics fan, who’d probably never even heard of Newfangles, let alone subscribed to it.
Whatever I may have made of Marvel’s “explanation” for this last, unexpected change, however, I know that I was disappointed. In early August, Thor #193 and its fellows had seemed to promise a whole new era of extra-length Marvel comics, with more story and art than ever before — something which I, at least, considered to be worth an extra dime. Even the physical appearance of the comics seemed to proclaim the dawn of a new day — take the square binding, for example (something DC’s 48-pagers never had). And then, of course, there was the brand- new trade dress.
You know what I’m talking about, I’m sure. Since 1963, Marvel’s comics had been distinguished by the left-hand corner box, which included the name of the book, price, issue number, date, and a graphic representation of the title character(s) — and, of course, the Marvel Comics brand name. The box had gone through various design permutations over the last eight years, but remained essentially, recognizably, the same. It meant Marvel.
But beginning in August, 1971, all of the company’s books abandoned the corner box as we’d known it. Instead, we had a smaller, shorter box that merged with a banner that extended across the top of the comic:
This design, with some modifications, would remain part of Marvel’s trade dress for the next twelve years, and may be considered as emblematic of the Bronze Age of Comics as the original corner box is of the Silver.
But perhaps even more drastic a change — if not, ultimately, as lasting a one — was the institution of the “picture frame”. Going forward, all of Marvel’s covers would place the central illustration within a rectangle that was bordered at the top, bottom, and left. This border, which also served as the background for the new corner box, the Marvel banner, the book’s title logo, and the all-important Comics Code seal, as well as other lettering and blurbs, was always a single solid color. While the individual issue’s cover illustration might occasionally extend beyond the border — as it does with the issues of Daredevil and Hulk shown here — the border, or frame, was always a key element of the cover’s design.
This design wouldn’t hang around nearly as long as the new box/banner element — it was more or less gone in little more than a year — but it stayed in place long enough to make a lasting impression on fans who were around at the time. And to remain divisive, fifty years later.
If your humble blogger recalls correctly, I didn’t actually care all that much one way or the other back in 1971-72. I suspect that I’m atypical in this, but for me, the “look” of a comic’s cover has always been secondary to the information conveyed by that cover; and while I’ve always preferred a great cover illustration to a poor or mediocre one, I’ve never purchased a comic book just for the cover. Even so, over the five intervening decades since the picture frame was standard on Marvel’s covers, I’ve come to see it as having been generally detrimental to the aesthetic appeal of those comics. As a general rule, I believe that the more real estate an artist has to create their image, the better.
But that’s just my opinion, you know? I’m sure there are those of you out there who take a different view. And if you’d like to express your views — whether they’re about bordered covers, 25-cent 48-page comics versus 20-cent 32-page ones, or even — heaven forbid — Fantastic Four #116 itself, I hope that you’ll share them in the comments section below.
*With what I believe to be the sole exception of FF Annual #5 (Nov., 1967), whose contents included “This Is a Plot?” — a 3-page “behind the scenes” humor feature with both art and story credited to Jack Kirby.
**Marvel’s “punishment”, such as it was, came in the form of a “free” 4-page glossy insert that was published in Fantastic Four #128 (Nov., 1972) a full year after the publication of FF #116 — which of course was also a full year after the institution of the Nixon Administration’s wage and price freeze.
A statement on the letters page gave readers the lowdown on the circumstances behind this unlooked-for bounty:
Just in case you’re curious — and because it seems as apt a way as any other to close out our tribute to the majesty and the madness that was Giant-Size Marvel Month, somehow — here are those four “pandemonious pin-ups”, just as they first appeared in FF #128, forty-nine years ago. (Hey, don’t thank me — thank Dick Nixon’s Wage and Price Control Board.)
…aaannnd that’s all, folks!