Old Dotch's Marvel UK Blog

The blog for those who remember fondly the weekly comics by Marvel UK in the 1970s and 80s. I'll be looking at various interesting issues from the run and discussing what made Marvel UK comics so great. Please feel free to contribute any feedback and let me know if there are any issues or characters that you would like to see featured.


Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Captain Britain Summer Special 1980

A few months after Captain Britain’s weekly comic was cancelled, he co-starred with The Black Knight in a long running story in Hulk Comic. Shortly after this, Captain Britain Summer Special 1980 was published. An interesting issue for several reasons, firstly, the Captain Britain story it contained was a heavily condensed version of a five part story that originally appeared in Captain Britain weekly issues #28-32. Cut from 35 pages to 23, it makes a great case study on how Marvel UK would set about editing such a story. Secondly, this issue contains two text articles putting the recent Captain Britain and Black Knight stories' continuity into perspective. Thirdly, there is a reprint of a vintage Black Knight story from 1955. Fourthly, we have a nice Doctor Strange story guest starring the Black Knight with some lovely art by Gene Colan. Lastly, the back page showcases the famous Captain Britain/ Captain America Jack Kirby pin-up. Lets take a closer look.

The cover picture is a montage of previously used artwork, the main picture taken from Pablo Marcos’s excellent cover for Captain Britain #36 (In fact there is absolutely no new artwork anywhere in this entire issue. How great it must have been to be asked to produce a Summer Special comic without using any artists). The frontispiece is basically the splash page from Captain Britain #30 With the removal of some text and word balloons. Nice enough art by John Buscema!

Note the advice to the readers of Captain Britain Summer Special that we should ”Smoke Player’s", not to mention drink "Skol". It really was a different era wasn’t it? Towards the beginning of the CB story, the editors cleverly reduced the page count by simply missing out entire pages. If the story seems a little disjointed when you read it, that’s because it is. To be fair, the second half is edited with a little more thought, with panels being re-organised and sub-plots deleted. For example, they missed out on my favourite ever Captain Britain moment, a quite unbelievable sequence in which Brian Braddock’s brother, Jamie, comes to Brian’s door and Brian, in the guise of his alter ego Captain Britain, punches Jamie so hard in the face he knocks him unconscious, then proceeds to tie him to a chair. Ah, the casual violence of 1970’s comics. Here are some of the condensed pages from CB Summer Special and the original pages from CB weekly for comparison, original page from CB weekly #31, page 4 on left, the edited version on right.

If it seems that the story ended abruptly, that’s because the ending was altered drastically with the addition of stock artwork of CB returning to Brian Braddock’s identity. In the original comics, the story continued into the next issue which started with Captain Britain strapped to a gurney and experiencing the end of the tale in flashback. Here are the two last pages side by side for easy comparison, the abrupt ending from the Summer Special on left, and the original page 8 from CB weekly #32.

Just to prove I wasn't making it up, here's the missing sequence from CB weekly #31 in which our hero bravely beats his brother unconscious and ties him to a chair for having the temerity to come round and offer his help. What a load of shite I hear you cry and who can argue?

The Black Knight story, while frankly a little dull, does invoke the style of the golden age of comics. It’s difficult to see how this story would have appealed much to the modern comic reader in 1980. Interestingly, credited to Stan Lee!

Here's the great text piece detailing the development of the Black Knight/Captain Britain Hulk weekly epic. It was a feature of dez Skinn's Marvel revolution that text articles started appearing in the UK Marvel comics. I always loved these, back then, remember we didnt have the internet and it was hard to come by this stuff otherwise.

Check out a couple of pages of gene Colan's great art from the Doctor Strange story (re-titled here as a Black knight story). I love the dynamic panel layout and sense of action in these pages.

There is another great text article in this issue, "Of Mortals and Magi". This crowbars the Black Knight series from Hulk Comic into established Marvel continuity. Great stuff, and for me, worth the cover price alone.

The absolutely stunning Kack Kirby pin-up on the back page requires no further comment from me.

All in all, a good Summer Special, the relatively crap story in the lead feature notwithstanding.

Monday, 1 February 2010

The Titans #1 Oct. 25, 1975

In 1975 Marvel UK launched The Titans upon an unsuspecting comic reading public. Titans had the unique selling point of printing two US comic pages on one page, thereby doubling the amount of strips that could be printed in each issue. This was achieved by formatting the comic in a "landscape" rather than "portrait" aspect where the spine was along the short edge. This meant when you were reading it, the comic stretched about two feet in your hands. This was a unique and bold undertaking by Marvel UK that I don't think I have ever seen replicated elsewhere, before or since. Controversy rages to this day among Marvel fans* as to whether or not this was a good thing. So what was the problem? Well, in order to double the amount of comic strips on a page without increasing the size of the page, the strips were now printed half the size they were before. Shocking, I hear you think, but wait a minute. The normal Marvel UK weekly printed the strips much larger than the original US printings, and if you take a close look at the size of the strips in Titans, you will see that they are actually not much smaller than the original US printings. So, the new format was a kind of Marmite thing; you loved it or hated it. Personally, I couldn't get enough of it. This issue contained 58 pages of Marvel comics squeezed into a 36 page comic. How could you not like that value?

What about the contents of the comic itself? Well there is a lot here for Stan Lee and Jack Kirby fans. The comic kicked off with this 10 page Inhumans strip, from Amazing Adventures #1, written and drawn by Kirby:

A cracking start to the issue with fantastic Kirby artwork inked by Chic Stone. Next up was a classic Lee/Kirby Captain America story, "THE ORIGIN OF CAPTAIN AMERICA", from Tales of Suspense #63. An apt story to feature in this first issue.

This Captain America story started a run of WWII set stories drawn by Kirby which lasted for the first ten or so issues. All great stuff so far. Another Lee/Kirby collaboration next, with Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. from Strange tales #135. Kirby's art this time inked by Dick Ayers. This is the story that introduced S.H.I.E.L.D. My problem with these early Nick Fury episodes is that I can't see past Steranko's version of the character. Still, it is Jack Kirby, I suppose and we should be thankful for that.

Quality wise, things take a decided turn for the worse with the next strip, The Savage Sub-Mariner, by Stan Lee and Gene Colan, from Tales to Astonish #70. This was the start of a multi issue story that seemed to drag on and on with no end in sight, definately a low point in this comic and in my view for Stan Lee and Gene Colan, who's art is crying out for a decent inker such as Tom Palmer.

The issue is rounded off with a massive 20 page episode of Captain Marvel, from Captain Marvel #5, in a story continuing from the strip's run in Planet of the Apes weekly. Written by Arnold Drake and with art by Don Heck, I found this story and the subsequent episodes to be pretty weak. The length of the other stories in this issue are roughly nine or ten pages, however Captain Marvel got special treatment and had a complete US issue feature in every issue of The Titans. Personally, I think that this feature was never any good until Jim Starlin took over, more of which later.

There are two Marvel in-house ads for the other weeklies that were available at the time of publication;

These reveal the full line up of Marvel UK's output; a healthy dose of action across seven comics. Looking at them, we can see that at this stage, only one weekly had failed; The Savage Sword of Conan, which had been merged into The Avengers a few weeks earlier. this situation wouldn't last long though,as both Dracula Lives and The Super-Heroes were destined to be closed within a matter of weeks. As well as these ads for the other titles, there was a Bullpen Bulletin page which was basically not much more than a series of ads for other Marvel weeklies written in the style of an editorial.

Towards the back of the comic is this interesting page with an ad for Stan Lee's appearance in London with Herb Trimpe to promote the Marvel UK weeklies. Would have loved to have attended this. Also an ad for the Marvel Art Exhibition, also in London, described as "a feast of comic art", this too looked like a worthwhile event.

No comic in the 1970s would be complete without an ad for Ellisdon's jokes and The Titans #1 did not disappoint in this respect; here is the inside back page:

Also note a coupon which you could give to your newsagent asking him to reserve The Titans for you every week. Also a coupon to order that year's Marvel annuals, as advertised in a great colour ad on the back page:

Spider-Man's confusing advice to "use the coupon on page 12" actually referred to the coupon on page 35. Ah well, if this is all they got wrong, they did not bad.

So, what was good about this issue? The massive John Buscema / Joe Sinnott free colour poster was fantastic. I like it so much, I've got it framed and hanging on my wall. Plenty of Stan lee and Jack Kirby for the fans and really, 58 pages of comics for 9p? A bargain in anyone's eyes.

*Honestly, I read a post on a blog a couple of weeks ago complaining about the Titans landscape format. Move on people, this all happened 35 years ago.

Friday, 29 January 2010

Mighty World of Marvel #1 Oct 7, 1972

And what better a way to start than at the beginning, with The Mighty World of Marvel #1. Cover dated October 7th 1972, this was the first of thousands of issues that Marvel UK would publish over the next few decades. And what a start it was! With a line-up to die for, featuring arguably Marvel’s biggest strips from the US monthlies, The Hulk, The Fantastic Four and Spider-Man. The cover art for issue one was by John Buscema, one of Marvel's top artists and I believe that this lets us know how important the Marvel UK launch was to the company. The early Marvel UK issues had cheap newsprint covers as opposed to the glossy covers that adorned the American and later UK issues. The stories themselves were all in a mixture of black and white or black and white with a green shading. Whether or not this green shading added much, I’m not sure; it certainly is a little strange when reading a comic for it to jump from black and white to black and white and green from page to page. Scattered sparingly throughout the comic are, however, spectacular pages of full colour, in my view a much better standard of colour than was used in the US comics of the day. Check out the colour pages from issue #1.

A great pin-up using Kirby's famous cover art from Fantastic Four #1

The centre pages had this great Spider-Man splash announcing, with Marvel's usual modesty and understatement, "THE WORLD'S GREATEST FREE GIFT OFFER!" A pretty neat marketing scheme to encourage us to buy MWOM regularly, as there would be coupons printed in the first ten issues that had to be collected in order to qualify for the free gift. This is why it is difficult to get copies of these early Marvel issues without holes having been snipped in them. The amazing thing about this offer was that Marvel didn't even let the reader know what gift was on offer! Just a series of teaser clues, the first of which was "IT'S BIGGER THAN A BREADBOX!" Can you guess what it is yet? All will be revealed...

Also on the centrespread was a special message from none other than Stan Lee, written in the style of his US soapbox columns, ie wildly over the top self promotion. As the blurb said, we had now "ENTERED THE MIGHTY MARVEL AGE OF COMICS AND THE EXCITEMENT IS JUST BEGINNING!"

The free gift in this issue was a Hulk t shirt iron on transfer. If you look at the way this is described on the cover:

You'll see that it doesn't mention the Hulk's name at all! Not much confidence that the comic buying youth of 1972 would have any idea what the Hulk was, how times have changed.

The strips featured in this issue read like a collection of Marvel's greatest hits, check out the splash pages for the three features:

It doesn't get any better than that, and of course the comic proved to be a runaway success. These strips had all been printed in the UK before, of course, some by Alan Class in a haphazard and random form in his anthology titles such as Astounding Stories and Creepy Worlds and, with a greater degree of continuity in Odham's Power comics. But this time, Marvel was in charge and the ability to use the Marvel trade mark gave these new printings a stamp of authenticity that the previous editions lacked.

Finally, have a look at the back cover of this issue, featuring the last page of Spider-Man's origin tale. A great use of colour showing the iconic Steve Ditko image of Spider-Man apprehending Uncle Ben's killer. Wow! No wonder we all came back for more!