Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Marvel’s Annuals and the Endless Summer

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 six 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, special features were nowhere in sight. It DID include 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 was 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 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 featuring the classic Thing vs Hulk battle. Despite the less than stellar inking of George Roussos (the Hulk actually looked like comedian Buddy Hackett in one panel! Perhaps Roussos was watching one of his many appearances on The Tonight Show when he working on that page) it was a dramatic and action-packed story.
Other specials that summer included Sgt. Fury # 2 and Journey into Mystery # 2 (featuring Thor), both of 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 boys didn't even think of buying, like Millie the Model, but what did we know?
1967 was a return to glory, with the specials cover billed as “All New – Not A Single Reprint!” Perhaps editor Stan Lee took heed of fan complaints from the previous year, or there might simply have been more room deadline wise. Whatever the case, FF, Spider-Man, Sgt. Fury and Millie the Model returned, although Journey into Mystery (Thor) was sadly missing. New entries included Daredevil and the Avengers. While some of the headline material was weaker than previous efforts (the introduction of Psycho-Man and revelations of Sue’s pregnancy in Fantastic Four were exceptions), 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 1967.
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 Battle 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.
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 intriguing early 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 remained 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 little more than over-sized issues of the regular comics.

                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 - presented a degree of craft that was evident on the printed page.
There are moments in time that echo with vivid sensations. Long ago summers and afternoons that stretched out to eternity. Occasionally, on a clear 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:



Barry Pearl said...


By mere coincidence, I too am blogging about the 80 Page Giants (Which we also called Annuals); the Yearly Marvel Tales; The Millie the Model Annual and the Strange Tales Annuals.

I'll mention your blog if you mention mine!

Barry Pearl said...

Nick wrote, "There are moments in time that can never be duplicated."

Proust would agree with you and so would Roy Thomas. Roy wrote in DC "Greatest Golden Age Stories" that the golden age was about 7.

That is, that's when comics mean the most to us, when we are seven. Or eight, or nine. Like baseball comics are always best, in the summer when we were young.

Ice cream was better then too. And TV. And the movies. They only thing that wasn't better was my typing. I was never any good.

Nick Caputo said...

Well, we didn't have Cable back then (some people STILL don't! That's an IN joke for Barry) or DVD's or PC's but a simple trip to the corner candy store entertaind us on those long, hot days.

I suppose its easy to sentimentalize about a period of youth that was fleeting, but I look at fondness on certain comics that I vividly recall buying off the comics rack, such as Amazing-Spider-Man Special # 5; FF Special # 6 and Avengers Special # 2, to name a few. that sesnse of anticipation and surprise can't be duplicated in a world of tweets and IM's.

Kid said...

And didn't all the Summers seem endless back in those glory days? As with you, whenever I look at certain comics, it takes me right back to where I was when I bought them. An experience that those who read their comics on ipads or mobile 'phones, or whatever, will never really know.

Barry Pearl said...

Kid, you are right, someone has taken a month out of our Summers.

I remember going to the local candy store and picking up my usual load of comics, but the Annuals would always surprise me, they came out randomly. I would go to a park bench that was between my house and the store and just sit and read on a wonderful summer's day. And I read everything, including the letters' page.

I remember reading Sue and Reed getting married, the old Avengers meet the new, Dr. Strange meeting Spidey and even looking at those wonderful pictures of the bullpen in Marvel Tales.

Summer's were quieter then,no one had a cell phone so the people a the park weren't shouting into something. Oh, you'd hear Bob Murphy or Phil Rizzuto on someone's transistor radio (Bsseball broadcasters)but that didn't bother me.

And no one, no list, ever asked me to prove I wasn't a robot.