When I was growing up in the mid-1960s Annuals (by 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 long 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 the monthly comic of their top titles. The Bullpen Bulletins heralded their arrival, although we never knew what day they would be showing up, so anticipation was strong. Depending on their schedules, Marvel’s Specials usually 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, and only clocked in at 20 pages and, unlike earlier Annuals, included no special features. It did feature reprints of Amazing Spider-Man #’s 11 & 12, a two-parter by Lee and Ditko that featured Dr. Octopus as villain. 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 was compelling as always and the story was enjoyable.
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, but as interesting as that story was, the real treat was another story I’d never read, a reprint of FF #’s 25-26 which featured the classic Thing-vs Hulk battle. Despite the less than stellar inking of George Roussous (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, following the same format. 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 not all the headlining material was up to the original Annuals quality in story and art (the FF story that introduced Psycho-Man and revealed Sue’s pregnancy stands out) , the special features were always a treat: pin-up pages, “inside info” and short humorous tales. 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 DD Special # 1, Summer '67
1968 featured more of the same, including the birth of Sue and Reed’s son and the Parents of Peter Parker. 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 because last years special did not sell well enough). 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 Annuals 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, which was a treat in itself. There were a few pages of new material by the aforementioned Freidrich, Ayers, Severin team in Sgt. Fury, which was welcome, but it was far too little.
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 a few years passed without ANY Annuals: again, a lack of time was likely the case. Marvel was growing at a hectic pace, and although 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 1970s, but with few exceptions they didn’t seem very special anymore. Page counts were down, special features were sparse, and top talent was often rarely seen. Annuals became just an oversized issue 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 gave the fans their moneys 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 tales. 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 the wedding of Reed and Sue 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, showed a degree of craft that came through on the printed page.
There are moments in time that can never be duplicated. Those long ago summers, when afternoons stretched out to eternity are long gone. The adult world rudely intrudes far too often. Occasionally, though, 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: