When I was growing up in the mid-1960's Annuals (then called “King-Size Specials” although I always found the word Annual to be more substantial) were a special treat. With school out and the endless summer ahead, there was time to enjoy lazy days filled with exploring the outdoors, going to the movies, spending time with friends and - of course - reading comics. A trip to the candy store from June-August meant that Marvel would be putting out their latest yearly extravaganzas, an “extra” issue of their top monthly comics. The Bullpen Bulletins heralded their arrival, although we never knew what day they would actually show up, so anticipation was strong. Depending on their schedules, Marvel’s Specials featured either all new material or a combination of new and reprint stories.
The first “King-Size Specials” I recall my brother John buying off the stands was in the summer of 1966. I was 6 years old, and the sounds of the Beatles “Paperback Writer”, Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night”, and The Loving Spoonful’s “Summer in the City” wafted through transistor radios.
Amazing Spider-Man Special # 3, Summer 1966. Romita pencils; Esposito inks. The Avengers, Spider-Man and the Hulk. What more could a six year old ask for??
Amazing Spider-Man Special # 3 featured Spidey attempting to join the Avengers. It wasn’t the greatest story, only clocked in at 20 pages and, unlike earlier Annuals, included NO special features. More importantly It included reprints of Amazing Spider-Man #’s 11 & 12, a two-part extravaganza by Lee and Ditko with the villainous Dr. Octopus taking center stage. It was probably the first time I was able to fully enjoy that tale, as my brother only had issue # 12 in his collection. Ditko’s art and storytelling was riveting as always and Lee's dialogue equal to the task.
FF Special # 4; Kirby pencils; Sinnott inks. All this and the battle of the century reprinted!
Fantastic Four Special # 4 presented a new story that re-introduced the Original Human Torch. Again, the tale was abbreviated in length, but as interesting as that story was, the real treat was the reprint of FF #’s 25-26 which featured the classic Thing-vs Hulk battle. Despite the less than stellar inking of George Roussos (who made the Hulk look like Buddy Hackett in one panel)it was a dramatic and action-packed story.
Other specials that summer included Sgt. Fury # 2 and Journey into Mystery # 2 (featuring Thor) which followed the same format; Marvel Super Heroes # 1, reprinting a golden age Sub-Mariner-Human Torch battle, along with early Avengers and Daredevil material, and, of course, there were those specials we didn't think of buying, like Millie the Model, but what did we know?
1967 was a return to glory, as all the specials were cover billed as “All New – Not A Single Reprint!” Fans likely complained about the previous two years lack of original material and Lee complied. Along with FF, Spidey, Sgt. Fury and others, Daredevil and the Avengers were added to the mix. While some of the headline material was not up to the originals quality in story and art (the introduction of Psycho-Man and revelations of Sue’s pregnancy in Fantastic Four stand out) , the special features remained a treat: pin-up pages, “inside info” and humorous vignettes. It was a thoroughly enjoyable feast.
Stan Lee adds a dose of humor to accompany the masterful pencils of Gene Colan (inked by John Tartaglione), from Daredevil Special # 1, Summer '67
1968 featured more of the same, including the birth of Sue and Reed’s son and the mystery of Peter Parker's parents. The Avengers had an extravaganza authored by Roy Thomas, nicely drawn by Werner Roth and Don Heck (“The new Avengers vs the Old Avengers”), but Daredevil was missing from the schedule (likely due to the previous specials weak sales figures). Sgt. Fury told the story of the
of the Bulge, by Freidrich and Ayers, with John Severin’s superlative inks. It was quite a ride, but the following year would institute unfortunate changes. Battle
Lee and Kirby make a most surprising announcement in FF Special # 5, inks by Frank Giacoia.
Due either to lack of time or cost saving measures, the 1969 Specials were almost all reprints. It was a disappointment not to see extra length tales by Lee, Kirby, Thomas or Colan. Some of the material I had never seen before, particularly the first FF story and a reprint of Amazing Spider-Man # 2, both examples of Marvel's early intriguing efforts . A few pages of new material by Friedrich, Ayers and Severin surfaced in the aforementioned Sgt Fury Special, which was a welcome addition, but it was only a taste of the glorious past.
One of the few pages of new material in 1969 appeared in Sgt. Fury Special # 5. Ayers/Severin art, Freidrich likely scripting.
The institution of reprints would remain the norm for many years, and after 1971 the specials themselves were eliminated: again, a lack of time and personnel was likely the case. Marvel was growing at a hectic pace, and while it would have been wonderful to see Annuals by the likes of Gil Kane, John Buscema, Neal Adams, Jim Steranko or Barry Smith, it was not to be.
Annuals returned on a regular schedule in the mid 1970's, but with few exceptions they weren't very special anymore. Page counts were down, special features were sparse, and top talent was rarely used. Annuals became no more than over-sized issues of the regular comic book.
Steve Ditko's meticulous inking made these pin-up pages a particular treat
Lee, Ditko and Kirby understood that an Annual was a special event and they took pains to give the fans their money's worth. Although I didn't read them off the stands, FF Annual #’s 1-3 and Amazing Spider-Man Annuals # 1-2 remain benchmarks of what an Annual should be. The extra long Sub-Mariner tale and the origin of Dr. Doom were unique stories. How many times did a villain star in a story? (FF Special # 3 was marred by a lack of pages. While it was fun to see the FF tale overflowing with heroes and villains, the chance to focus on Reed and Sue's wedding was largely ignored). Spider-Man’s battle with the Sinister Six; his encounter with Dr. Strange; the special pages drawn with loving delicacy and care by Steve Ditko, all presented a degree of craft that was evident on the printed page.
There are moments in time that echo with vivid sensations. Long ago, long gone summers. Afternoons that stretched out to eternity. Occasionally, on a bright blue summer day, I can almost - though not quite - imagine what it was like...once upon a time.
For More insightful discussion on Annuals go to Barry Pearl's Blog:
And Don Alsafi's Marvel Genesis: