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Sunday 24 November 2013

The Marvel Age of Comics

People who assume (quite rightly) that I know next to nothing about 21st century popular culture may be surprised to learn than I’m a fan of Iron Man, the Avengers, the Mighty Thor and Nick Fury Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. On the other hand, anyone enlightened enough to spend their time reading comic books rather than watching Hollywood movies will be aware that these characters originated not in the last few years but in the early 1960s... as did the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man and the Incredible Hulk.
The photograph shows a few highlights from my comic collection (or what’s left of it – I now have fewer than 500 comics from the 1960s and 70s, out of what must have been thousands at one time). The comics illustrated are all American originals, although my first introduction to Marvel superheroes came in a short-lived British black-and-white weekly called Fantastic. The first issue I bought was #54, cover-dated 24 February 1968. It contained (if I remember correctly) a complete reprint of the Doctor Strange story from Strange Tales #152, originally published in January 1967, together with partial reprints of X-Men #28 from the same month, Avengers #27 from April 1966 and Thor (Journey into Mystery) #121, from October 1965. Doctor Strange and Thor were somewhat over my 10-year old head (although I grew into them later), but I was instantly taken with both the Avengers and the X-Men.

When I first started buying Fantastic, I had no idea the stories were reprints that had originated in America. It was only several months later (summer 1968) that I belatedly discovered “real” Marvel comics. The very first issue I bought was Marvel Collector’s Item Classics #9 – the top-left comic in the photograph above. It made a huge impression on me at the time – not least because the title consisted of four words, not one of which was in my everyday vocabulary. The speech balloons on the cover also contained some intriguingly grown-up words: “mortal”, “halcyon holocaust”, “cataclysmic”... British comics just didn’t use words like that!

Like Fantastic, MCIC was made up of reprints – issue 9 included Fantastic Four #14 from May 1963, Doctor Strange from Strange Tales #119 (April 1964), Iron Man from Tales of Suspense #46 (October 1963), the Watcher from Tales of Suspense #53 (May 1964) and a partial reprint of The Incredible Hulk #2 from July 1962. The cover date on MCIC #9 was June 1967 – approximately 12 months before I bought it. This may sound weird to anyone who wasn’t a comic collector of my generation, but in those days there was no “sale or return” policy on American comics – they were just left on the racks till someone bought them or they fell apart.

It wasn’t long (by which I mean it wasn’t many days) before I was plundering the racks for all the issues of the Avengers and the X-Men I could find. The two illustrated here were (I think) the very first bang-up-to-date Marvel comics I got my hands on – X-Men #43 from April 1968 and Avengers #53 from June 1968. A few months later I discovered Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., with its sophisticated storylines and equally sophisticated artwork courtesy of Jim Steranko. For three or four years, Nick Fury #3 (August 1968) was the most returned to and reread comic in my collection – something that is pretty obvious from the comic’s poor condition!

I mentioned that shops used to leave comics on display more or less forever. This led to some exciting hunting expeditions in the 1970s, by which time Marvel comics of the previous decade were becoming very collectible. The oldest “new” comic I ever bought was Fantastic Four #48, cover-dated March 1966, which I found at a motorway service station some time in 1974! It’s not visible in the photo, but the cover has “8p” written on it in ballpoint, which is the price I paid for it. If I’d bought it on the second-hand market, I would have had to pay about 400 times as much... I know, because I looked it up when I got home (even my mother was impressed). FF #48 is particularly collectible because it features the first appearance of Galactus and the Silver Surfer.

By this time (age 16) I was already developing a sense of nostalgia. I always loved the original Avengers with Thor, Iron Man, Giant-Man and the Wasp, and no matter how they changed the line-up it never seemed to be as good. So I splurged out on a rather scruffy second-hand copy of Avengers #14 (March 1965), as well as an even scruffier Tales to Astonish featuring Giant-Man. You could get reprints of those old stories, of course, but if it didn’t smell old, and didn’t have the original advertisements, it wasn’t the same thing.

As well as American colour reprints, there were weekly British black and white reprints. Fantastic had long since fallen by the wayside, but it was replaced after a few years by similar comics that were branded as “Marvel UK”. One consequence of this was that US comics with similar titles to the UK comics were only sold in specialist comic shops, not everyday newsagents like W.H. Smith (you could tell the difference at a glance, because the specially imported comics said “Marvel Comics Group” and had the price in cents, whereas ones bought in Smiths said “Marvel All-Colour Comics” and had the price in pence).

I discovered the Andromeda Bookshop in Birmingham in December 1973, and one of the first imports I bought there was Amazing Spider-Man #129 (February 1974) – another comic that turned out to be quite collectible, since it featured the first appearance of the Punisher. Later that year I got Incredible Hulk #181 (November 1974), featuring another first appearance – Wolverine this time. I can’t say that any of these characters – Spider-Man, the Punisher, the Hulk or Wolverine – are in the top rank of my favourite superheroes, but I’m glad I hung onto them because they’re worth more than when I bought them (which is more than can be said for most things I own).

During the early seventies I must have averaged at least a dozen comic purchases per month, but by the beginning of 1976, just past my 18th birthday, my spending habits started to shift toward more (ahem) adult-oriented reading material. As far as I was concerned, the Marvel Age of Comics was at an end. And what’s the Marvel Age of Comics? Anywhere between 10 and 17!


Kid said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kid said...

Fascinating reminiscences, Andrew. Good to see you finally 'come out' as an unabashed Marvel fan. I've got a full set of Fantastic, as well as that same issue #9 of MCIC.

Interesting to read about your sense of nostalgia developing around the age of 16 - mine sprang full-blown upon me when I was 5 years old.

Make Mine Marvel!

Andrew May said...

Thanks Kid - I was aware while I was writing the post that I was very much on your home territory, so I'm glad you enjoyed the result! I'm always very impressed by your ability to recall details from the 1960s -- I remember the 70s very clearly, but memories from the 60s are few and far between. It probably helps that you've either kept or re-bought so many comics from that period -- as I said, my own collection is now pathetically small.

5 years old is exceptionally young to gain a sense of nostalgia, but I'm not really surprised because you're one of the most extreme nostalgia buffs I've ever come across! I've always meant to ask why you don't write books on the subject. Now would be a great time to do it, when the potential readership is in their 50s... I suspect that's the most lucrative age group for the nostalgia market!

Kid said...

No one's ever asked me to write such a book (and I'm too shy to suggest it), but I believe there are such books around anyway, Andrew. Besides, my sense of nostalgia for the past is mainly limited to my own experience of it, and I'm not quite sure that others would be interested in my 'take' on the subject. But thanks for the compliment in suggesting that I'm capable of such a task.

mogali said...

The Iron Man Mark 3 collectible figure was deemed a necessary object after the Iron Man movie. It has over 36 points of articulation and has a metallic paint job.